On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Livius looked out of the grimy window as the car dropped beneath the smog, feeling the usual mix of depression, disgust, and affection. It was a far more pleasant view from above the layer of pollution, but most of his work was strictly below.
He’d made detective third class a little over a year ago, and while the pay increase was welcome, the main benefit was being off the cases with living victims. Homicide could be grim, but at least it was purely about putting killers away. It cut the number of interactions with human filth by a good twenty percent. Some days, he even looked forward to his work.
The car lost more altitude as it followed its programmed descent plan through the last few hundred feet. At this level, everything was computer controlled until you were on the ground; there were just too many collisions otherwise, particularly with buildings. He could override, of course, but that was a privilege reserved strictly for emergency response vehicles and officers. Civilians were stuck with just sightseeing between ground level and when they cleared the city’s core zone.
The chime from the dashboard drew his attention, and he sighed, because the tone meant a page from the chief of detectives rather than dispatch. He didn’t have to say or touch anything to connect the comm, because he didn’t have the option to refuse it. Accordingly, he heard Lt. Shui’s voice a moment later.
“Sending you a pin, Liv,” Shui said with perfect clarity, as if she was sitting in the car beside him. “Get over there right away. This one should interest you. Put it on top of your pile, and check in with me once you’ve got a measure of it.”
“Press?” Livius asked, mentally crossing his fingers.
“Blocked for now,” came the reply he’d been hoping for. “But if you see any of those fucks, feel free to jolt one as a warning.”
The comm disconnected, and Livius grinned briefly. Shui was no fonder of journalists than any police officer was, and Livius knew that she had taken great pleasure in executing the blackout protocol. It made him wonder what category of killing he was dealing with. It was rare enough to get a press block, at least without other agencies being involved, and Shui would have mentioned it if that was the situation here.
The car was already rerouting itself towards the nav pin Shui had transmitted, so Livius allowed his mind to play with the question a little longer.
Family member of a bigwig, he thought. That was the most common one. Or a dead copper who cut his own strings. Or somebody who compromised one of the above.
There were other possibilities too, but little point in running through them until he knew more. The dash display showed that he was already getting close, and sure enough he felt the vehicle slow and begin its final descent. Two minutes later the door opened and he stepped out into the omnipresent warm drizzle, lit by the strobing red and blue lights of the cruisers who were handling the scene.
“Who got here first?” Livius asked the nearest forensic tech, and the machine’s unsettlingly blank faceplate rotated towards him as it gave the name of a uniform he knew well, called Roe. The tech lifted its clever arm to point the way, and Livius nodded before walking off. There was no point in politeness; they weren’t programmed to care either way.
Roe saw him coming, and his expression immediately became tense, which in turn made Livius feel the same way. He had seen just about everything in this job, and he had no idea what this scene could hold to make Roe feel concerned about how he’d respond.
“Liv, listen,” Roe said without preamble, “this is a Q code.”
Livius could see the body now, already obscured with a holobag. Completely opaque covering, but made only of coherent light, for zero forensic contamination. Very clever, just like the techs. Just like everything these days.
“So what?” he asked, shrugging, and a little irritated now. “I’ve seen my share. More than you, I bet.”
There were as many Q crimes as there were regular ones, and for good reason, and they even used the same code numbers, just prefixed with the letter. One-oh-six was domestic assault, for example, and Q-106 was domestic assault involving a visitor.
And that’s where it becomes a pain in the backside, Livius thought.
It had been nearly six decades since some scientist somewhere managed to pull back the curtain and gain access to the unlimited number of parallel universes that occupied the same space as this one. At first, they made contact with one of them, then a few dozen, then hundreds, and it just kept expanding. There were agencies and liaisons, now. And there were embassies and consulates, too, because travel was possible. Cross-border traffic anywhere was a focal point for crime, and the borders between universes were no different.
The visitors were quantum alternates of people who might — and usually did — exist in this universe too. They might be dead here, or alive, or they might never have lived at all. There were special protocols to handle these others, and it depended heavily on their origin point.
Because not all universes are created equal, Livius thought. He vividly remembered coming up against a narcotics import operation whose weapons were truly and in every sense out of this world. In the end it had taken military support to put them down. So you had to be careful.
“Got an ID? Is he twinned?” he asked, and Roe nodded slowly, as if he was remorseful about the fact instead of eager to solve the murder.
A visitor with a living counterpart in this universe was a Q-twin. And from the visitor’s perspective, so was their counterpart. For whatever reason, when Q-twins met, it tended to beget violence more often than any other reaction. Homicide of your own quantum counterpart was weirdly common, and psychologists had been debating the reason for it for years. The press even had a cute name for the phenomenon, which made Livius hate journalists even more. They called it Q-icide.
“So we do the usual,” Livius said. “Contact the twin. Go and meet him, ask the questions.”
Universes had more similarities than differences. There was a special field of investigation which tried to tease out usable information by interrogating quantum twins about their own lives, in the hope that parallels would appear which would be useful in solving the murder of their counterparts. It worked, too. Most of the time.
“Liv, we did contact him,” Roe said, shaking his head. “This is fucked up.”
“You get used to it,” Livius said, surprised at the man’s reaction. He was a street officer, but he was a good one, and hardly new to the work.
“No you don’t, not this one,” Roe replied. “Look, you’re here for two things. This is a seven-seven. And a Q.”
Homicide of a police officer, Livius’ mind effortlessly translated. So a copper had come across the border, and been killed here. Not great. Not too common. But not unheard of.
But Livius was a detective, and his job basically involved a pair of maxims: pay attention to the glue between facts, and also pay attention to your instincts. It was the latter that told him what he was going to see just before Roe deactivated the holobag.
Looking up at him, pallid and a little blue, with empty eyes and a look of shock, was his own face. In the middle of the forehead there was a diamond-shaped burn mark the likes of which he’d never seen before. His counterpart was very dead.
“No idea what that is,” Roe said, his voice somehow managing to sound both sympathetic and uneasy. “I’m guessing whatever it was, it came across too. I’ve seen some crazy guns from outside.”
“Me too,” Livius said, just for something to say. He didn’t know quite how he felt, but he also didn’t feel the way he thought he ought to. There was no special sense of horror, or confrontation of his own mortality. There was no surreality. None of the Christmas Carol crap. Because this man wasn’t him; not exactly anyway. He was from another reality.
And in this one, I’m the copper, he thought.
“You alright with this?” Roe asked, then quickly realised what he’d said. “I mean, just, … you going to be OK?”
Livius waved the question away, choosing not to feel insulted. Roe was younger, but was clearly distressed on his behalf. The best thing was always to do the work. Work as if nothing else existed.
“You can run the question protocol with me,” Livius said. “It’ll take about ten minutes. Then we wait for the techs to finish up, and we do another round. See what it gets us.”
“If you’re sure,” Roe said, sounding like it was he who wasn’t sure. Livius overlooked that too. He nodded back towards his cruiser. It wasn’t an interview room, but it would at least be out of the rain.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s try to figure out who killed me.”
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