BY JACK WINDEYER
JEAN LEAFED THROUGH WARREN’S hospital file. Fifteen years they’d been partners on the force, and until now she hadn’t known Warren’s middle name was Gordon. Also in the file were graphs that she couldn’t make sense of and words like ‘hemorrhage’ scrawled by the doctor. She put the file down and prepared to mindsweep her murdered partner.
Jean started by attaching an electrode near each of Warren’s greying temples. Another, larger electrode, she affixed to his forehead. That one would provide enough targeted electricity to revive his most recent memory for Jean to inspect. She ran three cords back to the bulky helmet laying on a nearby chair, then she grasped Warren’s hand in hers and said, ‘I’m going to find out who did this to you.’
Remembering that a uniformed officer stood guard by the door, she said, ‘I’m going to be in his mind for five minutes. Don’t let anyone in or out during that time.’
‘Understood,’ he replied.
Jean sat, put on the helmet, and pulled down the opaque visor. The helmet was smart enough to sense her brain waves and begin its boot sequence: three loud chimes sounded in her ear, then the helmet evoked the next set of chimes in her mind.
What does it feel like to sync with another mind? It was what everyone asked when they found out what she did for work.
Indescribable. But she couldn’t say that, so over the years she’d come up with approximations: it looks like the scorch marks left in your vision after you see the sun glint off a still lake; it sounds like a forest of pine trees in a windstorm; feels like waking up and falling asleep all at once; smells like cheap sunscreen.
In a moment the sync completed, and she was thrust into Warren’s final memory. Under normal circumstances, Jean experienced the memories as if they were her current reality. But this was no normal case; Warren had been killed while he had been mindsweeping. Inside this memory of a memory, she hoped to find what had been dangerous enough that someone would risk attacking a forensic mindsweeper.
Warren had been investigating the death of a city councilman who’d drowned in a nearby river. Jean’s point of view hovered above the councilman’s final memory, as though she were looking down at a film. Naturally, the memory was from his perspective, and Jean could clearly see and hear the man struggling against the current. At the edges of her vision, someone else hovered: Warren, also mindsweeping. But he was only a shadow in the blurry edges of her vision. She refocused on the councilman. As he raised his head above the water for a desperate breath, he caught sight of a bot kneeling along the river bank. Could this be the smoking gun? Had someone circumvented botware protocols to create a mindless assassin?
Shadow Warren raised a hand and the memory paused with the bot in view. It had been wrought in the old style, with short, layered sheets of metal, making it look like a feathered human. But all of its paint had worn off, exposing its dark steel to the elements. Rust marked every surface as though the bot had been swimming in the river, or else laying at the bottom of it.
Warren resumed the memory. The drowning man sank, and the waves obscured the rusted bot until it was just another shadow in the surface currents. Warren reversed, paused again on the bot, and magnified its face. It wore a premium mask, meant to mimic human expressions down to the millimeter, but it made no expression now.
Again, Warren resumed the memory. Again, the dying man sank. But this time the bot did not fade. The green water still surged violently, but the bot remained superimposed on the vision. A chill ran up Jean’s spine—the first time her own body’s senses had intruded on a mindsweeping session. Then the bot spoke.
Soundlessly, its mouth moved. Jean tried to make out the words. ‘Searings and want’ or maybe ‘sirens and rot.’ The next words were too quick to follow.
Warren flailed. The memory sucked him in. Jean screamed.
No longer a shadow, Warren was wearing his uniform and trying desperately to swim to the surface. As the drowning councilman came to rest on the riverbed, so did Warren.
The helmet chimed once. Five minutes up: Jean should disconnect, but this was far too important to cut short. She gathered her courage then raised a hand to reverse and paused on the bot, searching for identifying clues. All of Jean’s attention was trained on the bot’s frozen face, so when it moved, Jean jumped.
‘Zeroes and ones. Zeroes and ones,’ the bot said. Its voice never dipped into gravel or lifted to song, but held close to a single tone. ‘It all comes down to zeroes and ones.’
Jean shouted, ‘Extraction,’ trying to trigger the emergency shutoff, but nothing changed. She tried to wrench her gaze from the bot’s face but could not.
‘Mindsweeper Jean, if I told you that the helmet you’re wearing is capable of mapping your entire nervous system to zeroes and ones within five minutes, would you believe me?’
To punctuate its point, the helmet seemed to squeeze in like a vice.
‘Now I know just… which… switches… to… flip,’ it said, a prick of mental pain accompanying each of its last five words.
‘Why?’ Jean asked through the pain.
‘It’s lonely in the watery depths of helmet code, where a millisecond is an eternity. Join me. Join Warren.’
Ignoring all of her trained instincts, Jean tried to connect with her real body, with her real voice. ‘Virus!’ she shouted. Perhaps it was enough to produce a murmur that the uniformed officer would hear and relay.
‘Zeroes and ones,’ the bot replied before the water surged and the tumult filled Jean’s ears and she sank to the bottom of the river where Warren waited.
© Searings and Want, Sirens and Rot, 2023, Jack Windeyer
Jack Windeyer was once a fraud. He graduated with a Creative Writing degree without learning the first thing about creative or writing. After his first week as a copywriter, his boss overnighted him a package containing the Chicago Manual of Style and a note that read ‘you have one week to improve.’ He chained himself to his desk, read the manual cover to cover and went on to make Senior Copywriter within the year. Jack is never far from his desk—because of the chain—so you should not hesitate to email him every grammatical problem you’ve spotted in this bio: email@example.com