Open and Shut a short story by Alastair Reynolds

Have we got a treat for you! We are thrilled to share Open and Shut, an exclusive short story by Alastair Reynolds, today. Step into the futuristic world of Prefect Dreyfus for a fast paced new SF crime story. This is your new SF obsession.

One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found – and stopped – within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on . .

 

Open and Shut 

Not many months after the Aurora crisis, Dreyfus was summoned by Jane Aumonier. She was in a room of her own in the medical section, lying on a sloping platform with her head and upper body fixed into an alloy framework. Around her the walls churned with images and status summaries, display facets swelling and shrinking in restless succession.

Dreyfus walked to her side.

‘You asked for me, Supreme Prefect.’

A quilt of mirrors floated above Aumonier’s face, forming an adaptive network trained to respond to intentional cues. With a smooth flutter of coordinated motion the mirrors angled themselves so that her eyes were brought into line with his own.

‘I read your report on the Chertoff case,’ Aumonier said, her lips moving while the rest of her remained still. ‘Terse and to the point, Tom, as I expect from you.’

‘I filed that report weeks ago,’ Dreyfus said, biting into the apple he had collected on his way to the medical section. ‘Was there a problem with it?’

‘Do you think there might have been?’

Dreyfus had returned to Panoply after a routine polling core inspection in one of the habitats orbiting near the edge of the Glitter Band. Tired, he loosened his belt and removed his whiphound and holster. He set them down on a nearby medical cabinet, glad to be rid of the dragging weight around his paunch.

He took another bite.

‘I thought it was a simple open-and-shut. That’s how I treated it in my report. If you want waffle and obfuscation, other prefects are available.’

‘You’ve been active since Chertoff. Twenty three days of uninterrupted duty, with no more than thirteen hours between any two assignments, and several taken consecutively.’ The mirrors fluttered again, redirecting Aumonier’s gaze to an area of a breakdown of schedules and rosters scrolling down a wall. ‘You’ve failed to take your normal rest intervals, and you’ve rushed to fill-in for other prefects whenever there was a risk that you might have time on your hands.’

‘I enjoy my work.’

‘Sparver says you’ve been showing signs of stress and irritability since Chertoff. Thalia said the same thing, although it was harder to get it out of her.’

‘Anything else you’d like to ask my team while I’m not around?’

‘I asked them both direct questions, and gave them no choice but to answer me. Is that understood?’

He bit into the apple again.

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then we’ll get to the crux of the matter. Something rattled you during the Chertoff case. I don’t doubt that your report is entirely factual. But my unavoidable conclusion is that you’ve been burying yourself in your duties ever since, because something broke through that usually implacable facade.’ The mirrors fluttered again, bringing their eyes back into alignment. ‘I reviewed your service history. Not because I have the slightest doubt about your competence, but because I wondered if this was your first open-and-shut.’

‘I’ve served my share of lockdowns.’

‘But, until now, never had to deal with the direct consequences of that action.’

‘I fail to see the significance.’

‘Then it’s fortunate that one of us is able to. Would you please stop eating that apple? It’s bad enough lying here listening to myself breathe, without your crunching.’

Dreyfus dropped the half-eaten apple to the floor, where it was quickly absorbed into the quickmatter substrate under his feet.

‘You spent eleven years locked in a room with no possibility of human contact. I would have thought a few months here was a breeze.’

‘Are you telling me to stop complaining?’

‘Put bluntly.’

A faint smile played across her lips.  ‘And I thought Demikhov’s bedside manner needed work.’

‘He’s an excellent physician. But he isn’t one of your oldest colleagues and friends.’

‘Fetch me a glass of water, will you? Demikhov says it’s safe for me to swallow.’

Dreyfus went to the wall, conjured a glass of water and brought it back to the bedside as Aumonier mouthed a command and the platform beneath her increased its tilt, until she rested at about thirty degrees to the horizontal. Dreyfus brought the glass to her lips, letting her sip a small amount at a time.

‘Demikhov must be pleased with your progress.’

‘He puts on a brave face, but he thinks I should be regaining peripheral motor control by now – able to move my hands and fingers at least.’

Dreyfus’s gaze slipped to the pale line around her neck, the barely visible trace of the surgery that had reattached Jane Aumonier’s head to her own body. The operation and the circumstances surrounding it had been entirely unprecedented. No one, least of all Demikhov, had been willing to make specific predictions about the course of her recovery. Yet there was now an unavoidable sense that only the more pessimistic range of outcomes remained, though Dreyfus still hoped for the best.

‘There’s no rush,’ he said.

‘That’s what I try to tell myself.’ She licked the last drop of water from her lips. ‘Thank you – that’s enough. You’re not off the hook, though. Remind me of the circumstances of the original lockdown order.’

Dreyfus sighed. He had no desire to rake over this old ground. Equally, she was correct that the Chertoff case had been playing on his mind, driving him into a familiar pattern of overwork, as if he sought to revalidate his own professional credentials. Not just those, he reflected, but the entire ethical basis of Panoply and its methods. Overwork, fatigue, shortness with his colleagues and peers, then a gradual loss of effectiveness in his own decision-making. It was a self-reinforcing spiral that he recognised all too well, yet seemed unable to avoid.

‘It was a forty year lockdown,’ he said, speaking slowly and carefully. ‘I was only a few months into Field Two when Albert Dusollier sent me to investigate a polling anomaly in House Chertoff. Looking back, I was as green as they come. But I felt confident– ready for anything.’

‘Dusollier wouldn’t have sent you in if he had anything less than total faith in your abilities. He’d also have had a shrewd idea that the polling glitch might be grounds for lockdown, and that you were fully competent to make that call on the spot. What were the essentials?’

Dreyfus’s eyes wandered to the wall, to the constant shuffling play of summaries. The majority of the locales were unfamiliar to him. There were ten thousand orbiting habitats under Panoply’s care, and Dreyfus doubted he could name more than one in ten of them, even after thirty years of service. But that was only because most habitats never came to Panoply’s direct notice.

That did not mean that the citizens in them were all saints, or that serious crimes went uncommitted. But Panoply’s remit was highly specific. The organisation – with its tiny cadre of prefects – was dedicated to ensuring that the machinery of democratic participation ran flawlessly throughout the habitats. The hundred million citizens of the Glitter Band lived with embedded neural connections, implants that enabled mass participation in a real-time voting process, as well as theoretical access to many layers of abstraction. Whether they lived in an abundant utopia, a rustic pre-industrial throwback or a Voluntary Tyranny, each citizen was guaranteed their right to vote.

Panoply protected that right with surgical force, and punished infringements with a merciless impartiality. Sometimes those punishments were directed at individuals, but very occasionally an entire habitat was implicated in some aspect of vote rigging.

In such instances the consequences were particularly severe.

‘Chertoff is – was – a small habitat, with less than five thousand permanent residents at the time I visited. I didn’t have to dig very deeply to find evidence of high-level collusion in a vote-tampering.’

‘What was the loophole?’

‘Pietr Chertoff had identified a tiny flaw in our error-handling routines. Once in a while a legitimate vote would suffer packet corruption and be discarded. The system would prompt a vote resend. Chertoff had found a way to fool the apparatus into accepting both the corrupted and the duplicate packet, effectively amplifying his voting influence.’

‘Grounds for action against Chertoff, certainly, but there’d be a limit to the damage he could have done, or the personal benefits he could have accrued.’

‘Chertoff had allies. He stuffed the habitat with friends, and they shared the vote-spoofing scheme. There were at least two hundred of them in on it, and when they voted in a coordinated fashion, in marginal polls, they had enough cumulative influence to shift results. They needed to be very careful about it, to avoid garnering suspicion, and for several years they were. But our pattern filters eventually picked up the anomaly, and Dusollier instigated a full traceback which identified Chertoff and his associates.’

‘What was in it for them?’

‘Cash for votes, as banal as it sounds. Chertoff feathered his nest with wealthy clients who needed those marginals to swing one way or another. We got them all eventually – lone fish for the most part. But Chertoff and his friends constituted an organised syndicate operating at the highest levels of House Chertoff’s local administration. It was grounds for immediate lockdown.’

‘How did they take it?’

‘As well as they ever do. Outrage, indignation, fear and panic.’ Dreyfus laced his fingers, conscious that his palms were damp with sweat, feeling as if he had been asked to account for himself. ‘They had the usual six hundred second margin before the lockdown became binding. Time to send messages to loved ones, before we imposed the total communications blackout. Time for a very lucky few to make it to docked spacecraft and get away from the habitat, before we sealed the locks and enforced an exclusion volume. I think about a hundred got out – maybe fewer. There was some rioting near the shuttle docks, as they tried to squeeze aboard.’

‘Did it cross your mind that some of those citizens about to be locked inside House Chertoff for forty years were innocent of any wrongdoing?’

He shrugged.

‘Of course.’

‘And you still instigated the lockdown, even with that knowledge?’

‘There is a thing called due diligence,’ Dreyfus said, after a moment’s consideration. ‘Many of those citizens had no direct complicity in Pietr Chertoff’s crime. But they should have been suspicious of him. I saw what the place was like. The whole habitat was a palace, with Chertoff on the throne, his friends in high office and everyone else living the life of pampered courtiers. Gold everywhere. Molten rivers of it flowing in channels through the palace grounds. They even had fountains spraying liquid gold into the air. Anything that wasn’t gold was jewelled. There wasn’t a square centimetre of the place that didn’t scream of obscene concentrations of money and power. All real, as well. Nothing holographic or virtual. No plumage or abstraction layers, because Chertoff wanted you to know that this was the real thing, wealth you could reach out and touch. No one who lived there could have failed to wonder where all this wealth came from. Yet they silenced their qualms, turned a blind eye, and enjoyed the fruits of Chertoff’s vote rigging. They took a gamble, and they lost.’

‘Some of them,’ Aumonier said. ‘Those who at least had the foresight to consider that there might be something rotten at the core of House Chertoff. But what of those citizens who were simply naive, or excessively trusting?’

‘I regret that they were caught by the lockdown. But there can’t be any half-measures. Besides, forty years is not the longest such sentence we’ve ever imposed.’

‘Were you confident that House Chertoff had the internal resources to keep its citizens alive for that span of time, with no outside assistance?’

‘No,’ Dreyfus said. ‘But again, the citizens knew the risk and had ample time to satisfy themselves that the arrangements were sufficient. If they doubted House Chertoff’s capability to sustain itself through a lockdown, they should have relocated.’

‘You take a very unforgiving line.’

‘I’m employed to.’ Dreyfus unlaced his hands, drying his palms against his trousers, which immediately absorbed and reprocessed the sweat. ‘We aren’t without a conscience. That’s why we have the open-and-shuts. Dusollier ordered a mid-term inspection, twenty years into the lockdown. If I’d found anything untoward . . . anything that warranted a suspension of the punishment . . .’

‘And did you?’

‘You read the report.’

‘As I said, terse. Just the dry facts, and a recommendation that the lockdown continue until its scheduled expiration. No colour, no emotional context. Despite the fact that it’s playing on your mind three weeks later. What did you see in there, Tom?’

Dreyfus settled his hands behind his back, breathed in deeply through his nose. Through the play of mirrors her eyes met his own, a little too intently this time. He glanced away, then despised himself for that moment of weakness.

‘It’s not meant to be an easy ticket.’

‘Were you seen?’

‘Not to begin with. I went in covertly, as we always aim to do. Dock silently, and open a lock without detection. Send in a whiphound or two as an advance scout, then conduct a field survey. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive – just enough to satisfy the basic criteria. If we’d found that these had degenerated beyond some threshold . . . if things had got too bad . . .’

‘Had they?’

‘Not quite.’ Dreyfus swallowed, clearing a tightness in his throat. ‘Not quite enough. Chertoff and most of his circle were dead, probably at the hands of aggrieved citizens who had no one else to blame when the lockdown took hold. The palace’s inner sanctum had been stormed and taken over. The ornaments and prizes looted and smashed. Clearly there’d been a period of violent anarchy, then a gradual stabilisation to a new social order. The habitat’s life-support infrastructure was still just about operable. It maintained breathable air and recycled the waste products efficiently enough to provide food and water, albeit at a much reduced level. The citizens had to make do with daily rations, just enough to sustain them, and some very low-level medical provision. Most of them needed to work, just to keep the life-support system from breaking down. It was very cold, and the power budget only allowed for twilight illumination.’ He studied Aumonier’s face, wondering how well his own words were painting a picture. ‘Imagine a permanent, shivering gloom, and never a moment without hunger, thirst and exhaustion. Imagine the constant fear of suffering illness or injury.’

‘You’ve just described nine tenths of human history.’

‘Perhaps. I’ve seen worse, too, in the VTs. But this was enforced on those citizens, not adopted by them as a conscious lifestyle. Even so, it didn’t meet our thresholds for lockdown suspension.’

‘If we intervened to revoke lockdown as soon as conditions turned a little trying,’ Aumonier replied, ‘we might as well not have lockdown at all.’

Dreyfus thought on her reply for a few moments before continuing.

‘I met a man, hobbling over a garbage mound of broken gold. He had lost a leg below the knee. His clothes were rags. He had a stick, and there was a crude bandage over his stump. He smelled very badly. I think he may have been looking for food scraps, or something to barter with.’

‘What did he make of you?’

‘Surprised to see me, of course, and suspicious and hopeful at the same time. If he recognised me, he showed no sign of it. I explained that I was there to review the situation, that I would appreciate his cooperation, and that it would be much better for both of us if I avoided drawing further attention.’

‘And was he willing?’

‘Yes. He took me further into the habitat, choosing a route that would keep us away from too many prying eyes. He began to ask questions, and slowly it dawned on me that he had no idea how long he had been inside the habitat. He thought I was here to end the lockdown.’

‘He thought forty years had passed, not twenty?’

‘It seems incredible, but once I’d seen the state of the place I found it much easier to accept. No clear distinction between one day and the next, in that endless twilight, and no means of checking. The days and months must have slipped into one endless drudge of misery and squalor. But in me he saw hope. He thought that the time of punishment was nearly over, and the more assistance he gave me, the quicker that end would come.’

‘Did you . . . correct him?’

‘I never lied,’ Dreyfus answered. ‘At the same time, I thought he would be more useful to me if I had his cooperation, so I sidestepped his questions. When I was ready to leave, he still had a flicker of hope in his eyes. I thought at the time that telling the truth would have been far crueller than allowing him that hope, if only for the few hours it took to realise we weren’t coming back. But I was wrong.’

‘I understand why you might have felt that way,’ Aumonier said. ‘And why it might have gnawed at you since. But you needn’t be too harsh in reviewing what you did or didn’t say to him. For all you know, he could have been one of Chertoff’s closest allies.’

‘Perhaps. I’m fairly sure he wasn’t Chertoff himself.’

‘Your whiphound ran an ident?’

‘It didn’t need to,’ Dreyfus answered. ‘He took me to see Chertoff.’

‘You said he was murdered.’

‘I’m sure he was, and that it happened in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. It was in one of the formal gardens of the palace, just about recognisable after twenty years. The place would have been busier, but that was about the time when the habitat was releasing the latest allocation of food and water rations, and most of the survivors were gathering in the dispensary area. The man led me to Chertoff’s corpse.’

‘They hadn’t disposed of him?’

‘There was no need. He wasn’t a disease risk. They had thrown him into one of his rivers of gold. Judging by the posture in which I saw him, and the expression on his face, he was still alive when they did it. The gold was in the process of cooling, becoming solid metal – whatever machine kept the gold molten and flowing must have been broken – and had encased him like a molten cast. He was caught in that hardening river like a drowning man, thrashing with his last breath. They’d left him like that. I don’t imagine he’d have lasted long if any of the survivors had any use for gold.’

‘No, I doubt that they would have. And in twenty years we’ll have the great pleasure of deciding what to do with that corpse.’ Aumonier’s expression turned rueful. ‘Although I rather suspect that will be my successor’s problem, not mine.’

‘I hope we can count on your leadership for just a little longer.’

‘That will depend on . . . many factors.’ The quilt of mirrors fluttered, as if Aumonier were trying to stare down the length of her own body. ‘We’ll see. Perhaps it will be your little headache in twenty years, who knows. I take it you’re ready to put this behind you now?’ She did not wait for his answer. ‘You won’t stop remembering that ragged man, nor the hope in his eyes. And you being you, you won’t stop questioning your own judgement in that regard. I’d expect nothing less. But you’ll draw a line under it now, take at least two days immediate rest, and consider your conduct to have been judged fully satisfactory.’

Dreyfus sighed, some portion of the recent days’ tension leaving him at last. He still carried his share of it, and that would leave him slowly if at all, but he realised it had been an error not to share this experience sooner. He had been impaired, his work had been impaired, and by extension so had the work of his immediate colleagues Thalia and Sparver. Panoply was a small but very tightly-knit mechanism, and it only functioned properly when all its components were operating smoothly.

He ought to have seen that sooner, instead of waiting for this pep-talk . . .

‘Thank you,’ he said, beginning to reach for his whiphound.

‘Two more things. The first is that you’re not the only one to have served a lockdown and then followed through with the open-and-shut. I have, too, and I had just as much trouble dealing with the consequences.’

Dreyfus cocked his head, surprised that his old friend still had the capacity to surprise him. ‘You’ve never mentioned this, and I thought I had a reasonably good idea of your service history.’

‘Back in the day, my reports were as terse and to the point as your own. If not more so. It was a similar set-up. I was green when I served the lockdown, and about twenty years less green when I revisited. What I found was . . . similarly challenging.’ A tightness crept into her face. ‘It was the Carter-Suff Spindle habitat. Three thousand citizens at the time of lockdown, and every expectation that most of them would still be alive when I went back in again.’

‘And?’ Dreyfus asked.

‘They took a grave exception to my decision. Things had turned a little harder than anticipated, as well. It got very bad, very quickly. Famine had set in, then cannibalism, and they ate themselves into oblivion – first the newly dead, then the old and the weak, then the less old, the less weak. By the time I got there, all that remained were a few gangs of feral children.’

Dreyfus shook his head in wonder and horror. ‘It must have crossed our thresholds.’

‘Of course. Immediate revocation of the lockdown, followed by rapid humanitarian intervention. But by then it was much too late. The few living children were beyond conventional rehabilitation. We sent the best of them to the Mendicants. There was very little we could do for the others, except keep them from sharp objects and other human beings. Can I tell you the worst of it, though?’

‘You may as well.’

‘They made a bone pile for me. A sort of statue, in my honour. A figure of me, made from corpses, or what was left of them. It must have been one of their last acts before the final generation, before they forgot language, writing, or any sense of why they were there. And I still remember it. There isn’t a day when it doesn’t push itself into my thoughts. Even those eleven years when I couldn’t sleep . . . it was always there. And it was a blessing, in a way, because it was a part of me that the Clockmaker couldn’t touch. Something worse.’

After a silence Dreyfus said: ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s always something worse.’

‘Yes. Odd that that should be what keeps us going, but there it is. We take our comforts where we may.’

‘We do.’

‘There were two things. Demikhov will be back shortly, but I’d rather you were the first to know.’

Dreyfus smiled through his misgivings. ‘What is it?’

‘Touch my fingers.’

He reached down and placed his hand in contact with her own. ‘Can you feel anything?’

‘Yes – it’s faint, but not so faint as it was a week ago. A little better all the time, I think. This harness is starting to bother me below the neck, too, and that must be a good thing, because at least I can feel it. There’s something else, though. I did it for the first time this morning, but I want to be sure it isn’t my mind playing tricks. The mirrors can’t give me a good enough view to be certain.’

‘Certain of what?’

‘This, Tom.’ She drew a breath, relaxed her fingers, then closed them slowly around his own. ‘Open and shut.’

© Alastair Reynolds, Open and Shut, 2018

 

Elysium Fire will be available in hardback, eBook and audio download on the 25th January 2017.

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