Toivottoman Tietsikan Taletus

or,

a Comfortless Computer's Chronicle

• • • • •

Doctor John "Maniac" Deer strode along the asylum's corridor with steady calm, past the rows of cells for psychotically manic depressive residents. Many of the nation's most dangerous super-criminals were being treated here, alongside regular criminal nuts. The doctor carefully eyed each guest room through their barred windows as he proceeded down the corridor, ascertaining that all clients were satisfied with the service.

He did not look to the side at the fourth door. The occupant of that cell always did something gross when he thought anyone was watching, the swine.

At the sixth door he not only lifted his gaze, but paused his evening round, stopped, and stood silently before the door. Shifting his weight from foot to foot he moistened his lips, trying to see into the darkness of the room through the door's small meshed window.

This client appeared to be resting peacefully on the poorly padded bed set at the back wall. His grey countenance and face veiled in shadows suggested that he was asleep, or perhaps hibernating.

Doctor Deer noted no signs of activity, and slowly turned to continue his round, trying to shake a feeling of restlessness off his chest. Tomorrow this prisoner would be set free. Of course, that was precisely why such individuals were brought to his care in the first place – so they could be cured and resume functioning as productive members of society.

Regrettably few ever reached this goal, regardless of his deeply probing discussion therapy, not to mention the facility's progressive medication, drowning, forced labor and electric shock treatments. All too often, the harder he tried to cure these lost lambs spurned by the rest of the world, the more uncooperative they became. Deer really wished they would understand that they were only harming themselves. Far too many would never shed their shackles.

And then there was this exception. This one understood. This one accepted the therapy, and humbly requested additional treatment at appropriate intervals. He genuinely did want to change. Deer had come to know this prisoner quite well over the past five years, and had to admit to feeling a certain sadness now as the little guy was about to... walk free.

As the doctor's steps moved away, the echo of a light sigh faded, and the cell's occupant shifted. Two slanted eyes, red as blood, opened, dimly illuminating the inner walls of the sixth guest room.

• • • • •

Detective Martin Merton lay asleep in his own bed, for a change. A content smile hovered over his lips, perhaps due to the shapely blonde in a nightgown lying beside him. The young lady's similarly content smile was only broken by the occasional light snore. This was his boss' secretary, Honey Bunny, and they had had a really good time the previous night.

Specifically, they had watched a really fun if somewhat corny movie called Legend of Auspicion: Fetch Quest, gobbled a mound of popcorn, fallen into hysterics over each other's jokes, and finally nodded off sometime past midnight. The best things in life are free, and the movie was naturally downloaded off an international information network.

The alarm clock sitting at the head of the bed went off for a second time already.

"Fehrgl," Martin mumbled and tossed the clock into the wall, sending screws and gearwork bouncing around. Honey pressed closer to him and they went right on sleeping.

• • • • •

"Come on in," doctor Deer called out.

The door to his bright office, decorated with one and a half bureaucratically grey plants, opened a crack. The front corner of a light grey monitor was behind the door, peeking inside. Deer nodded, smiling carefully.

The computer pushed the door further open and entered. He shoved the door shut behind him. The slam of the door was amplified by a sudden throaty scream from the computer's speech synthesizer, "GRAAAAAA!"

Deer started, leaning back in his chair.

"The door caught my mouse's wire," the computer explained awkwardly, opening the door again to pull in his old Genius mouse.

The doctor cleared his throat and nodded, "Of course."

The computer approached his desk. "Please," Deer indicated the brownish orange soft armchair before his desk, trying not to back away any further.

The computer clambered up to have a seat and patiently waited for the doctor to speak. Obviously he already knew what Deer was about to say, but displayed willing by pretending not to.

"And how are we today?" Deer began in a customary, safe way.

"Fine, thank you. The birds are singing and the sky is likely blue, although I cannot vouch for the sky seeing as I have not seen it for five years. But birds are singing." His words were backed by a short sample of twittering played from his speakers. A large, yellow ball on his screen, with an unsettlingly wide smile, stared the doctor in the eyes.

"... Indeed. Your progress has been marvelous," the doctor acknowledged, "Please, have a look at this." He took a remote control from his desk, pointed it at a flat screen on the side of his desk, and pressed Play. The viewscreen burst to life, granting them a clip from an earlier security camera recording.

• • • • •

Honey rolled over. Martin yawned. They unanimously slept on.

Martin's alarm clock would have gone on a beeping binge for the sixth time already, had it still been in sound health of current and mechanism.

• • • • •

Doctor Deer was still seated in his own office, but now in a comfortable armchair, holding a notepad. The computer had settled on a reddish brown leather couch beside the armchair.

"And how are we today?" Deer began again in a pleasant tone.

"Frankly, pretty damn horrible."

"I see," Deer nodded, jotting a note in his pad.

"The hell you do," the computer sneered. The mouse's wire twitched.

The doctor's brow darkened. Another one of these.

"To you I'm just an emotionless heap of screws, the same as to all other humans," the computer poured out his digital heart, "I didn't do anything to deserve being locked up here. That woman just started messing with the wrong computer. She and her hacker son. If some bastard was shooting his mouth off in your face and assaulted you with a screwdriver, and that went on for years – are you telling me you wouldn't try to defend yourself eventually?"

"I generally don't believe in violent solutions. And I understand you directly caused the deaths of at least five people, as well as numerous smaller injuries. Do you find this an appropriately restrained use of force?"

"You weren't there! You don't know what they said and did! You don't know nothing!"

"Don't blow a LED," Deer advised pointedly, pushing his glasses up.

The computer turned on the couch to look at the doctor. An incomprehensible trueplasma-filled polyhedron was rotating on his screen. He said nothing.

Deer realised he had committed a grave error. "W-w-would you like to talk about it?" he stammered, needing to get away, right now, away from that cursed machine. But no, he was a freshly graduated doctor. Anger and prejudice were anathema. He had the responsibility to do what he could to help victims of circumstance.

He steeled his spine and sat straight like a man, not falling back.

The computer remained quiet, just staring. Deer faced the stare.

The trueplasma on the screen became darker and tiny, blood red particles started flying off the polyhedron. The computer's wires stiffened. Electricity arced from the back of the main unit, leaving a brand on the couch.

Deer drew a deep breath. Time to play the trump card. "Calm down or I'll have to call in the security to beat you up. And nobody wants that—"

The computer's processor switched to overdrive with a loud click, and the internal fan's hum got more insistent. The screen was splashed with moire as the computer pounced from the couch with full force at the doctor.

"DIIEEEE!!!" he roared, chopping the young doctor's left arm off at the shoulder with a single sharp slice of his keyboard. The doctor cried pitifully and fell over with his armchair, trailing an arc of blood. His arm thumped on the floor nearby.

Clear thought fled him, but his survival instinct made him roll to the side just as the keyboard swung a second time. It made a dent in the floor, bouncing off with a loud clank.

He rolled onto his knees, but was unable to leap to his feet. The pain made him lose his balance and crash to the floor again. The computer's mouse came around in a vicious arc, and struck the helpless man's temple. His consciousness faded just as, in the corridor outside the office, the security guards arrived running in slow motion.

"I'M GONNA SLAUGHTER Y'ALL!!!" the computer shrieked, flailing his wires wildly, and started for the security camera in a determined shamble. The computer struck the camera once with the corner of his monitor and everything went static.

• • • • •

"What time is it," Honey mumbled from the twilight zone. Martin made no move to reply, but buried his face in a big, fluffy, warm pillow. Honey was too weak not to follow his tempting example. The incensed alarm clock decided to quit and would have marched right out the door if only it could have.

• • • • •

A serious doctor John "Maniac" Deer turned the viewscreen off.

"Indeed," he sighed. "You've come a long way since then. Moments after the end of this recording you crashed due to your motherboard overheating."

The computer sighed along. "After which the security went on kicking me for a good while. I could have suffered permanent damage. I was completely out of control, then. I was harming myself the most. It was not a good time."

"The improvement in your temper has been admirable."

"Your new arm is still working well?" the computer inquired innocently.

The doctor raised his left hand and closed it into a fist. Sharp ears could make out the hiss of hydraulics. "Actually," he finally mused, "there are good sides to mechanical limbs that one might not think of before experiencing them personally."

"True, doctor, so true," the computer readily agreed, "I could not fathom how miserable my life would be had I any organic components."

"... Indeed. Do you know why you are here today?"

"No," the computer lied convincingly. "Do I get to help peel potatoes at the kitchen? I know it is a lot to ask..."

Deer took his glasses off and shook his head with a smile. "We have decided that you can be released on parole. My colleagues were... somewhat... sceptical about you, but I convinced them that you truly have changed. You can finally see the beautiful blue skies again."

"I— I don't know what to say," the computer said, filtering his voice to sound giddy with joy.

"There is an apartment reserved for you near the center, to give you a start in your new life. Try to get a comfortable job. Perhaps you'll soon find a good friend, with whom you can be yourself."

"I already have... a friend," the computer replied shyly, holding out his mouse to the doctor. "Thank you."

Deer warily grasped the offered blocky plastic peripheral. "I would be glad to visit now and then, if you like. The parole officer will check on you every Wednesday evening, so you have to be in your apartment at those times. I believe you will get on magnificently. Most of all, enjoy life."

"Thank you very much can I go now," the computer purred, trying to hide his eagerness. His processor fan was already whirring restlessly.

"Of course," the doctor nodded, attempting a smile. The computer hopped off the chair and started hobbling toward the door.

"And, computer?" Deer called one last time.

The computer turned to look at him. He immediately experienced that same dread, the need to back away, flee, jump through the window and move to Asia. Actually, definitely not Asia, there were too many... too many things there. Africa, more like, or the Antarctic. Anywhere, away— but no. This was ridiculous, a grown-up man, an experienced doctor of medicine and criminal psychology.

"I'm counting on you."

"I know," a neutral voice responded, "and I promise you can trust me as long as you live." Then the computer left the room.

As the door closed behind the computer, doctor Deer thought for a moment that the yellow ball smiling on the screen was throbbing with obscenely demonic features, the computer barely holding back manic laughter. But of course that was just paranoia.

• • • • •

"Seriously, what time is it?" Honey muttered, still blanketed in drowsiness.

Martin groped the surface of the nighttable, then dropped the wrist watch he had found in Honey's lap. "See for yourself," he suggested before falling back into a comatose stupor.

The following few moments passed as she tried to focus her eyes on the hands of the watch. The long one limply pointed down, hardly anything to rouse Honey, but the chubbier one was proudly pointing toward the upper left.

Hmm. Half... past something?

Meh.

...

Where are my glasses ?..

Ah.

Sooo... the time is...

Seven minutes later one badly overslept detective raced out of his flat, his boss' secretary hot on his heels. They leaped into the secretary's car, since the detective's driving license had been confiscated. The honeymobile backed to the street via a water post, and tore away toward the central police department.

A few additional moments later a computer waddled in from around the corner, whistling as he proceeded down the sidewalk. He clambered up the front steps of an identical flat opposite Martin's, and slipped in. There was no elevator in the building, but climbing up to the topmost, seventh, floor would not take long for a vigorous machine such as he.

A nosy neighbor brought the computer to a stop on the fifth floor.

"Oh dear me, now I've seen it all. How can you little limbless limpet go up almost two steps at a time?"

"All it takes is an iron will, dear madam, and an infinite loop in the determination subprogram."

"My my," the neighbor admired, "don't you even get terribly hot? It is so difficult for me to climb stairs. I'm always afraid I'll fall. I feel much safer knowing there is at least one youth in the building who can support me."

"Don't touch me," the computer hissed, but too quietly for the woman to hear. Instead, she gently petted the corner of the computer's monitor.

The computer's keyboard rose up on its wire, approaching the helpless grandmother leaning over him.

"Would you like a cup of tea and some cookies, young machine?"

The keyboard wavered over the grandma for a moment, then settled to touch her shoulder lightly. "Thank you. I would love that."

• • • • •

The distractingly red honeymobile curved stylishly into the parking lot of the police department, only bashing one car along the way. The department director's car, as a matter of fact.

Honey killed the engine, jumped out, and ran inside in a beeline for the ladies' room to do her makeup.

Martin stayed in the car a little longer. Using the side mirror, he scraped away the worst bits of stubble using a disposable razor such as he always kept in his pocket for times like these. Then he cascaded into the office as well.

He stealthily slipped to his desk in the small secondary office of the narcotics division. He straightened his tie and pulled up a pile of paperwork soon to celebrate its first birthday. Perhaps no one had noticed that he had not been around—

"Meeer—TOOOOON!" a roar reverbed from the direction of the director's office.

Uh...

"Drag your LAZY ASS in here NOW!"

What can you do. Martin laborously lifted his lazy ass and towed it to the boss' office along with the rest of his pseudo-manly body. He wondered somewhat perturbed why slight tardiness had to be turned into such a big scene. This was only the second time this week, and half the workdays were already almost behind.

• • • • •

The computer opened the door to his new apartment with the key he had been given. Ahh, these delightful state-funded social welfare apartments. One room and no kitchen. There is a door with a tasteless WC sign nailed on it, bearing the legend "Under Construction" next to silhouettes of a shovel, a pick, and a stick figure having a coffee break. Well, a macho computer needs not such things.

He settled into a comfortable position in the center of the room, initiated hard drive defragmentation, and meditated. His new life was off to a most auspicious start, indeed.

• • • • •

Ears burning, Martin warily drew shut the department director's door behind him. Honey looked up from her fashion magazine, sitting at her desk, the one closest to the boss' room, and smiled innocently.

"How come he never tells you off for being late?" Martin asked glumly.

"Maybe I'm just too sexy?"

"Eh, it can't be that." Martin sat on the corner of Honey's desk. "The great leader threatened to promote me to riot police if I don't quit slacking off."

"Oh! That's a tactical move," she laughed, "you'd look really tuff in black peace enforcement equipment. Yum!"

"Well, it is kinda fun to squirt tear gas around, but you always get told off afterwards. As if those civilian terrorists were just waving flower bouquets at us."

"You can handle them." Honey turned her attention back to the magazine, and turned the page. "Remember, the rubber bullets are marked with yellow."

"Thanks," Martin snorted, "but I guess I'd best shape up. I don't want Arisia to lose her partner."

The desk phone came to life. "Miss Bunny," the speaker snarled, "Stop chit-chatting with Detective Merton, and tell him to get over to Floppy Street 70 with that loli-partner of his! There has been a very messy murder. If the case isn't solved by the weekend, I will ship Merton back to police academy as an assault dog training doll without a crotch guard."

Martin stopped breathing. Honey covered a giggle with her hand.

"Riiight," he gulped in constricted agreement, "see you." He hopped off the desk and scurried away to look for his young partner.

• • • • •

Brief bright flashes flared occasionally in a light, lace-curtained apartment. A police photographer was recording the crime scene. A small group of homicide section boys were discussing cola cocktails on one side. One of them, dressed in a trench coat and a hat even indoors, noticed Martin and his partner standing at the door, and came over to find out what they had on their minds.

"I'm Agent Merton, this is Agent Satsuma, we're with the FBI," Martin introduced them, flashing his badge.

"No we're not," his small partner looked at him oddly.

He looked back. "But I've always wanted to say that."

Martin's partner and dear friend of many years, Arisia Satsuma, was not of Japanese birth. Thus, her large, soulful eyes, boundless pink hair, distractingly young appearance, and clothes accentuating cuteness were sure signs that she had been subjected to far too many comics as a child.

"We're with the APD and we were sent to assist you in investigating this murder," Arisia stated briskly.

"Yeah, I know you guys," chief Lonkero grinned, tipping his hat. "So why are you here? I thought you were in the narcotics division."

"Mmmyeah, we thought it'd be a nice change of pace... broader work experience, something cool to put in the resum..."

"Oneesan screwed up and we were demoted last week." A tear stream of grave shame issued from Arisia's large eyes.

"That, too," Martin agreed. "Where's the stiff?"

Chief Lonkero nodded toward the next room and headed there. "Heh. How come I'm always the last one to hear about these transfers?"

Martin and a completely calmed Arisia followed him. This had been the victim's living room. The chief paused by a low coffee table. "Have a cookie, if you like. The tea's already cold."

"Let's stick to business," Arisia rebuked mildly, glancing back at Martin. He'd stayed back to check his hair and straighten his tie at a mirror on the wall.

The chief indicated a worn three-seater couch. "Over there."

Arisia hurried to check out the remains behind the couch. "Kyai!" she shrieked, stumbling backwards in shock and falling softly on her little miniskirt-covered bottom.

"Pretty brutal, yeah?" Lonkero came over, munching a cookie. He grinned approvingly at the revealed, pleasantly white panties, and helped the girl up.

"Apparently this old maid was first stabbed profusely, then a few less important parts were removed, and finally the whole grandma was turned inside out. Think she's still alive, heh?"

Martin came to have a look as well while Lonkero gave them a tour. "Those would appear to be ribs, the brains are here, here, here, here, in fact everywhere, and you can see fine random organ specimens... such as that one you stepped on." Lonkero knelt to pick up an undefined glob from the carpet, grinning wider still. "The jury's still out on this one. We're betting on what it could be. What do you think, is it a pancreas... or a spleen?"

He squeezed the glob. Something squirted on his chest. "Oh. I'm going to need a new tie."

Martin retched and vomited disgracefully over the grandma's remains, and fled to the kitchen.

"S-sorry!" Arisia stammered, embarrassed for her partner, stepping back.

"That's OK, it'll make the autopsy more interesting."

Arisia headed for the kitchen as well, but on the way noticed the corner of someone's monitor peeking in at the door.

"Excuse me," she said, stopping, "this is a crime scene."

"You're telling me," the computer shook his monitor in shock, "Truly ghastly. What manner of cruel, insane genius could do such a thing?"

"The investigation is still under way, but we do have some leads we are following. Can I do anything for you?"

"Oh, such admirable professionalism!" the computer breathed, "Yes, you can. Bag the nutcase responsible for this."

"We will do our best!" Arisia nodded energetically.

• • • • •

Behind her desk, Miss Bunny glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. It was already pointing at half past ten. Time for a break!

Leaning a hand on her desk, she smoothly hopped up and over it, her legs swiping a pile of unimportant papers and a laptop off to the floor. Her bare toes touched the carpet, dug in, and she pounced out and away. She had already dumped her high heels beforehand for maximal mobility.

The streak in the short red skirt was well on the way, while the other slowpokes were only realising the break had begun. The inevitability of victory seemed certain, when suddenly a competitor dashed past her! This one was sporting a gross combination of orange and green that she probably thought made her look really daring and self-determining...

Honey grit her teeth and quickened her stride. Shoulders touching they careened down the corridor, in mind only their goal – the coffee dispenser.

A step. An eternity. The next step. A draw of breath. One more step. Through her slow-motion run Honey could almost hear a stadiumful of people cheering deafeningly over a song about merrily blazing chariots. She slowly turned to look back over her shoulder, and was shocked seeing the rest of the workforce in the corridor grotesquely deluging toward her.

Honey forgot to take the next step and her balance was momentarily lost. She tilted forward, and only just managed to land a stumbling step, then another one, and jumped ahead at full speed. Her leading place was lost, however, to the orange-green collegial foe, and Honey had to give her all to avoid being left under the human avalanche.

For a moment all hope seemed lost, until the orangeish speed fiend tripped over her own ego at the last meters. Honey watched as the woman seemed to float through the air, a surprised expression on her face, hands groping the air... as she revolved in a beautiful arc, legs rising helplessly behind her... and as her face smashed into the carpet, bouncing once.

Honey dashed ahead at incredible speed and jumped over the fallen loser, lightly avoiding her desperate grab.

She pulled out a two-euro coin from a pocket and stretched into a needlessly theatrical dive, just as the office workers stampeded over the carrot girl. The coin slipped into the dispenser's slot and plinked inside, perfectly aimed. Victory was hers!

The other workers formed a neat queue behind her, restlessly waiting their turn. The trampled loser was calling Honey a rotten crowder, beating the carpeted floor and weeping uncontrollably.

Nothing happened. After a moment Honey realised that the dispenser's little LED screen said, in red letters, "Out of coffee". Her coin clinked into the return slot.

A great sigh shuddered every caffeine addict in the building.

• • • • •

Ah, sweet freedom. Free to feel the soft breath of wind on your surface, free to think without oversight, free to saunter through a city populated by your fellow lifeforms, free to go—

"Owww!"

The computer's fine mood was somewhat hampered by busy people not looking out and stumbling over him all the time.

"Can't you look where you're going!" a grey-suited man grumbled from ground level, palms mauled by the asphalt.

"Oh, forgive me, sir," the computer hurried to the man's side and helped him stand. He carefully patted the man's trousers clean with his keyboard. "That was entirely my fault. Did you break anything?"

Touched by the machine's politeness the man lifted a hand, "Well, never mind. I am rather in a hurry, so a good day to you."

"Good day, sir," the computer raised his mouse in farewell, or possibly a rude gesture. Momentarily he turned to continue on his way, digging through the fat wallet of the man who had just tripped.

Free to go shopping.

• • • • •

"You always make me ashamed for you, oneesan," Arisia whined, as the detective pair exited the building opposite Martin's own flat.

"It's not so serious, I thought Chief Lonkero seemed very jovial."

"Oneesan!" she stopped him by the shoulder. "Forgive my audacity, telling you this, but you are not right. Sometimes you have no one to rely on except yourself. And if, then, you are unable to carry the responsibility, no one else can help either. Life must be a continuous struggle against inner weaknesses – preparing for the day when you have to survive alone!"

"So far we've done alright..."

"You shouldn't take everything too lightly. We need to work hard to be better than we are. It is the duty of anything living!"

"Yeah, well—"

"I'm convinced you have the spirit to do anything, if only you decide to try... I'm sorry, I shouldn't speak to you like this."

"I know, you're right, Arisia," he smiled, heading for their car. "But you're sharply professional for us both. At least I know I can always count on you. And I can only try to humbly emulate your shining example, and listen to your always wise words."

"Oneesan! Don't say such things, baka," Arisia visibly blushed. "I'll get you to become more serious yet, if it's the last thing I do."

"I mean it seriously," Martin settled in on the passenger side. "Hey, let's go to the store by the office, on the way."

Arisia closed the door behind her and fired up the horse powers. "You're planning to spend the evening with Bunny-san again?"

"Mmmyeah. You could come too, if you like."

"Actually, I already have something to do tonight," she drily replied, "unfortunately."

They drove off, speaking no more.

• • • • •

At that supermarket, Honey's eyes were scanning row after row of coffee brands, seeking the best value for money among the abundant selection. The department's Moccablaster was still working, someone just had to sacrifice their coffee break to get the raw material. As the first in the coffee queue, the responsibility fell on Honey.

Her lightly painted fingernails slid along the row of coffee jars, just brushing the enticing hard plastic curves. They were shrieking marketing power words right at her mind: genuine, the real thing, darkest, smoothest, strongest, richest...

Her fingertips halted. Her focused expression melted, her eyebrows jumped awake. Cola-flavored energy coffee?

"No good," a male voice behind her chuckled.

Honey turned with a start. Behind her stood a man in his thirties, wearing a neat dark suit and a matching tie, a sympathetic smile on his face.

"I'm sorry, I mean I tried that as soon as it was launched. There is no way that taste will ever work. So I sued the producer for fraudulent marketing."

Honey tilted her head, her mouth cracking a crooked smile. "Who won?"

"We settled outside of court, and I got my money back and a year's supply of cola-flavored coffee. Take my word for it, miss, you don't want it."

"All right!" she nodded, amused, "I'll take your word for it, like before, Harry."

The man's face turned confused. "How... have we— wait, Honey Bunny?"

"Harry!" Honey hugged him happily. He couldn't quite return the hug for his confusion before she let go already. Her gaze sank into thought for a moment, and her smile faded.

Harry's joy diminished likewise rapidly. Some things were not pleasant to recall. He went for a careful smile again. "So, Honey, how have you been?"

Returning to the present, she looked at him warmly. "Great, everything considered. I'm now working as an administrative assistant at the central police department. How about you?"

"I... well, I became famous, thanks to you. The first lawyer to successfully prosecute a computer. The first case I won. I have my own law firm now. I already had to hire some goons with big sticks to beat clients away, since I don't have the time to take them all."

Honey nodded, and grabbed a random pair of coffee jars from the shelf. "I guess bad things sometimes can result in something good. Tell me more! Hey, wanna go out for lunch?"

They moved off down the aisle. "Sure, let's go. I have time if you have."

"I'll just drop the coffee at the office, and we can go right away. How's Heidi doing? Do you have kids yet? Which one of you does the clothes shopping now? Then, six years ago, you had about the style sense of a pink spiky snouthog..."

Their voices were lost in the general noise of the store. A little further back and lower down, a grey monitor peeking around the shelf's end watched the two walk away. The computer's mouse lightly brushed the shelf's lowest row.

Free to avenge...

"Oh, what a day! Hahahaha... AH HA HA HA HA HA!"

A nearby store employee stopped organising the shelves and looked at the computer curiously. The nearest customers quickly hurried past.

"Ah, ha, ha... eh..."

The young man with a striped red and white apron dallied a moment, then spoke up. "Excuse me, sir, are you alright? Can I help you?"

"No, nono! I'm just laughing about how very affordable these," the computer wildly looked around, "these beans are! I'd buy three cans right away, if I actually... ate anything... at all... ... Ha ha."

The computer turned and quickly shuffled off, the ball on his screen flushing with embarrassment, leaving behind the young shelfmaster and his quizzical look.

• • • • •

A police car pulled into the store's parking lot, and stopped at a free spot. The motor idled a little longer, then died. Martin opened the passenger door and got out. He leaned down to look back in the car, where his partner remained seated.

"Aren't you coming with me?"

Arisia slid into a more comfortable position. "Why?" She stared immovably through the windshield, hands stoutly on the wheel.

"What have you got to do here?"

As an answer was not forthcoming, Martin haltingly continued, "I'd feel better if we went together. I mean, we're partners."

Arisia crossly observed the parking lot a moment longer, then fixed a scolding gaze on her partner. He shrugged apologetically with a hint of a smile. She gave in with a huff and finally got out.

The pair headed across the lot toward the store. The parked cars before them all shivered in terror as Arisia's glower swept over them. Martin glanced at her from the corner of his eye and asked, "What are you thinking?"

She nodded darkly at a nearby car. "That one's double-parked. Should call a tow truck to take it to a scrap yard."

The lack of verbal comments got Arisia to glare at Martin suspiciously. "What's so funny?"

Her grumpy expression made Martin almost laugh as they walked. Even the corners of Arisia's mouth tugged up a bit. "Baka," she muttered, not as darkly now. "And the license plate on that one is dirty."

"Let it be, Arisia," Martin nudged her on the shoulder, "we're off duty. Anyway. Uh, have you seen that movie... Legend of Auspicion: Fetch Quest?"

Her eyes immediately lit up. "Of course, but it wasn't as good as the original. Half of the comic was cut, and Kishi wasn't anywhere as cute as she should have been. It was way too focused on the action scenes, which there weren't even so many in the comic. A brainless romp."

"I thought it was alright..."

"Seriously, the director completely missed the deep symbolism in the story," the analysis went on, "how there is always darkness at the core of everything, that you must fight against, or yield and embrace."

"Ah?" Martin vocalised. His eyes were drawn to the store's doors, where some people were just walking out. Two of them stopped to let a car drive past, then they started crossing the parking lot.

"Hey, isn't that—" Martin stopped short.

Arisia looked in the same direction with a raised eyebrow. In a suddenly innocent voice, she asked, "Who is that man walking with Bunny-san, oneesan?"

"Probably some friend of hers," he answered uncertainly. Off in the distance Honey broke out in laughter again, leaning momentarily on the arm of her handsome, well-dressed, grinning friend. A grey car near them ignited its engine.

"A pretty good friend," Arisia thought out loud.

"Mmmyeah—"

A squeal and a roar – the grey car pounced forward.

Honey and her friend turned to look. Martin's mouth opened, but his lungs were constricted. The well-dressed man threw himself at Honey. Arisia's face went blank. The car's front bumper slammed into the man, whose body contorted painfully as he struck the front hood and was sent careening like a rag doll. Honey fell on the asphalt on the side. The car sped away. The man hit the ground, and lay crushed and still.

Martin took a few running steps at the scene, but stopped when Honey lifted herself up on her elbows, looking at her injured friend in shock.

So Honey was fine. Martin's eyes darted after the escaping automobile. "Arisia! Shoot'em!"

She was already moving. Martin dashed after her, as the car was already fast making for the street. The other motorists were quick to lay on the brakes and give way.

Arisia could run very fast for her size, and didn't break her stride grasping the semiautomatic handgun from under her shirt. She stopped dead, in a wide-legged stance right by the street, aimed with both hands, and let rip the whole cartridge empty.

Because she was so small and cute, not a single civilian got hit.

The grey car's rear window blew in as a shardstorm as her bullets tore new grooves in the hood. The car clumsily turned for the nearest alley, but the attempt aimed too far and the car's front corner crashed on the stone wall. The car ricocheted off the wall and bounced helplessly into the opposite alley wall, smashing two garbage bins under it.

"Way to go, Arisia!" Martin cheered.

Arisia posed for a moment with her fingers in a victory sign, then concealed her gun. She turned to him quizzically. "Oneesan... why didn't you shoot?"

Martin's explanation was a sheepish fidget.

"They didn't take your gun away again..."

He took off running for the crumpled car. "Come on, before the scumbag gets away!"

They arrived at the alley, breaking from the sprint. A row of garbage bins had efficiently dampened the impact, so only the grey car's front had suffered somewhat. The headlight on the corner that had licked the wall was in shards. The driver's side door was open, and within rested an airbag, puffed with the simple joy of a purpose well carried out. Arisia's gaze scanned the entire area, while Martin doubtfully looked in the car.

The car was empty. He shook his head with a frown.

"No one," Arisia sighed, also moving in to examine the car. "Just trash all over. Hmmm. I wonder if any of the bypassers saw anything?"

"Hardly, that would be all too easy. But the only way out of here is the way we came in. It's as if the criminal was swallowed by the earth..."

They looked at each other, and simultaneously turned toward the manhole a few meters from them. The cover was closed, though, but it could be easily lifted aside. They walked over.

"Right..." Martin considered, "the smaller of us should probably go in there."

Arisia drew in a breath. "Oneesan..."

He shrugged. "Or we could take fingerprints and DNA from everything and crosscheck with the omniscient citizen protection database."

"Let's make it so!" Arisia nodded. "There's something very suspicious about all this. I don't think this was a random attack."

"How come?"

Arisia hurried back to the car and pointed at the driver's seat. "Look here. A tiny burn mark like this was also on the couch at the previous crime scene."

"So the psycho we're looking for stubs out his cigarettes on backrests?"

"Perhaps," she squinted dramatically, "or maybe he is wearing a mecha-suit... or he could even be a cyborg, driven to insanity after botched neurosurgery attempted by a pharmaceutical or military corporation, who is thirsting for justice or simply vengeance! Psionic powers may also be involved. The telepathic tentacles of raw thought energy might leave burns just like this if they came in momentary uncontrolled contact with matter."

She turned to Martin, dead serious. "This may be the biggest case in our career. If we can crack this— oneesan, why are you looking like that?"

He looked up at the sky and sighed, forcing his expression to behave. "This is starting to sound pretty dangerous." He stuck his hands in his pockets and started walking away.

"Oneesan, wait... shouldn't we lift the garbage bins back up? The alley doesn't look at all tidy like this."

"We don't have time. But it would probably be a good idea to call the station and call for a forensic team and some medics."

"Great!" Arisia swiftly moved to follow him. "I'm sure I have heard of a case like this before. You call for help, and I'll go dig through the archives right away!"

"Uuuh... Arisia?" Martin quavered.

His young partner pulled to a stop and turned back to him. Martin showed his empty hands apologetically.

"Again?" Arisia demanded frustratedly. She pulled out her work phone and tossed it to him, then turned again and dashed for the police station, panties flashing from under her miniskirt with every step.

• • • • •

Doctor John Deer was standing in a rising elevator, lost in thought. The day had felt so strange. The computer had been released. This was at the same time immensely relieving, yet also depressing. But this was how the system was meant to work. That the computer was cured proved that anyone could change when encouraged appropriately. His studies, his work, his whole life had finally been legitimised. Something good is lurking within everyone, even if drawing it to the surface takes frustratingly long...

The elevator shuddered to a stop. The door slid open. Deer stepped out, and sighed while fishing his keys from his pocket. Now he was glad he had not given up.

The lock clicked, he drew the door open, and stepped in. He looked ahead into his dark apartment, closing the door habitually behind him. Had he shut all the window shades in the morning? The light outside was still bright enough that more should make it into the apartment. Yet black blanketed all. He could not even make out furniture silhouettes.

Panic began to creep up his spine. Was there someone... something... waiting for him in the dark?

His heart made a spirited attempt toward his throat. He reached out for the light switch, swiping a stack of advertisements and envelopes off the small table by the door. The rustle of the falling paper sounded like muffled screams. Deer pressed his palm to the wall. His breath quivered as he slid his hand around, feeling for the switch. Where was it? Where? This can't be happening...

His fingertips met a little plastic corner. He hit the switch, holding his breath.

The apartment remained dark. He tried the switch again, but the darkness just would not abate. It's all fine, just a burnt fuse or something...

Deer tried to calm, and drew a deep breath. His brow creased darkly. Something was not right. The apartment had a faintly stinging odor. He took a few cautious steps into the darkness, sniffing the air.

From somewhere low, beside him, an apologetic voice spoke. "I'm afraid the smell may be me."

He froze. He tried to speak, but his terrified throat would not let the defenseless little words out into the open. "C— C— C—"

"I was forced to hide in a smashed garbage bin, under some trash. Sorry. Then I had to find a safe place, somewhere, where nothing bad could ever happen."

Deer tried to back toward the door, but something like a thin tentacle twined itself around his right leg. He could not move. He wanted to scream his head off, but did not dare.

"So I thought, surely my friend will not deny me aid. We... are friends, aren't we?"

Something hard and smooth glided gently up along his left side.

"Of course we are. Doctor..."

"W-what—" Deer choked hoarsely.

"Doctor," purred a voice of honey and ashes, "John... Johnny-boy... ah, the memories. All the therapy we've done together. My old... friend."

"What do you want from me?!" Deer wept with eyes closed. The computer's keyboard caressed his back.

The silence was only permeated by distant sounds of traffic and the steady soft hum of a small fan. Then a low voice replied, "I want to know who it was who shot me today. Also, I need to borrow your deodorant spray."

• • • • •

The papers stared at Martin from their file on his desk. They described yet another crime. He supposed he was supposed to look for references to high-tech corporation executives in battle suits, or to tragic supercriminals, or possibly psychopathic telepaths, he wasn't sure anymore, if he ever had been. The text had too many words, and they mixed with the word walls of the previous reports in his unfocused field of vision. His shoulders ached. At this rate they would never solve the case.

Although, the shuffle of papers from the next table was continuing for the fifth hour straight already.

"You're a machine," Martin snorted, leaning his head back weakly.

Arisia made no reply, setting a case folder on top of the fourth unsteady stack of folders on the floor. With her other hand she reached over her shoulder, into the case cabinet's drawer, and grabbed the next folder.

Martin leaned his elbows on his desk, spently watching his partner's diligence. Finally he stood up and stretched with a grimace.

She glanced at him. "Oneesan, you look like you need a break. Could you get me more coffee, too? I think my speed is waning."

"Actually I should kinda get going home, already..."

Arisia looked up again, forgetting the documents for a moment. She turned to look at the clock on the wall with some surprise. "Oh? Almost eight..."

"But I can drop in at the break corner before leaving—"

"On second thought, never mind," she shoved the folder aside and snatched the next one for scrutiny. "I'll take some caffeine tabs. It's not polite to make Bunny-san wait for you. After today she definitely needs your support."

"Mmmyeah, and yours too, I'm sure. Are you positive you don't want to come, too? You always seem to be so stressed," Martin suggested warily. "I know I'd feel better if you joined us."

She did not even look up this time. "I'll generate more joy here. What is her friend's condition?"

Martin took a moment to recall the grim list Honey had given him on the phone. "Concussion, a broken rib, bruises, a dislocated arm... but he'll live."

"That's good."

They fell silent again, the last ants in an empty anthill. Martin tried to think of something more to say, but dared not believe any of the choices would change his industrious partner's mind. So he resolved to give up, and turned to go. "Try to get a little sleep at some point..."

He walked out the door. The door swung closed with a light click. The shuffle of papers went on for a few seconds, then it, too, ceased.

The last pair of eyes stared powerlessly through the endless documents. Arisia's shoulder slowly sank.

Complete silence finally reigned over the smaller, secondary office of the city's central police department's narcotics division.

• • • • •

Detective Merton opened his eyes to greet the fresh, rosy-tentacled dawn. He let his eyes fall closed again, then blinked a few times. The degree of luminance suggested the day was rapidly migrating toward noon. He turned to look to his side. A nightie-clad Honey was sleeping there, on her stomach, mostly under the blanket. Her finally restful face was turned toward Martin, her cheek sunken into the soft pillow.

Honey had hardly been able to concentrate on the movie of the evening, but she had not felt sleepy either. So they had, instead, talked quietly in the dark. Honey's badly-injured savior was never mentioned. This had gotten him a little worried, but he could not think of a tactful way to broach the subject. It was good, then, that Honey had done most of the talking, while listening and interjecting prompting questions had been left to Martin.

They had talked about the department, the carrot-colored bitch in the financial crimes division, the department director, coffee... Honey's friends, the significance of appearances, tastes in clothes, food, music, movies, dreams, plans... Until, around three in the night, they drifted into slumber.

A sudden ringtone from the floor on the other side of the bed made Martin snap out of staring at Honey. She woke as well, and after groping around for a bit, located her mobile phone in her purse on the floor.

"Yello?"

She sat up in bed, still drowsy. "Hello?" she repeated, rubbing her eyes.

Martin pushed himself to the edge of the bed, and stretched. His body snapped and cracked pleasantly.

"Yes, I am..."

He turned to look at Honey again.

"What? Who is this?" her forehead creased. "Who?—" She moved the phone from her ear and looked at it in quiet annoyance.

"What was that?"

She slowly shook her head. "Someone wished me a happy anniversary. A prank call, or maybe a wrong number..."

"What anniversary?" Martin puzzled. "... Honey?"

"Martin," she suddenly hopped off the bed and collected her clothes, "there's something I have to do today. Let's go. And you get to go help Arisia catch the criminal, so nobody will try to kill me until I'm ready."

"Mmm-wha?—"

"I just have a bad feeling. Get dressed!" Honey locked herself in the bathroom.

Mere minutes later they were already out of the flat. Martin was still quite confused, but felt confident that things would start making sense as soon as he was completely awake.

They slipped in the crimson honeymobile. Martin glanced quizzically at Honey one more time. "What's this all about?"

"Family business," she grinned laconically, and buckled her seatbelt. "We're going. Hold on."

"Hold on?" Martin raised an eyebrow, fearing the worst. His hand instinctively sought support over the glove compartment.

Honey crunched the gear into reverse and stepped on the accelerator. The car snaked back from the parking spot for a long second, then kept on careening straight backwards. Honey gasped in alarm. The stylish reversing maneuver ended with the honeymobile's rear ramming a concrete wall, violently smashing the passengers into their seats.

The car was silent was a moment.

"Thanks for the warning," Martin said.

With burning eyes, Honey silenced the engine and tore off her seatbelt. "The breaks didn't work! My car's been sabotaged!"

Martin carefully got out of the car after her. Honey stood by the car, glaring at the crumpled rear hood, seething. The rear lights were in shards on the street.

"Could've been a lot worse..."

"This is bad enough, I'm in a hurry as it is. Now I'll have to go by foot." She started striding down the street. "I'll call if I need your help, okay?"

"Yeah," the finally wide awake detective nodded at Honey's departing back. He gave the honeymobile one last look, then headed for the police department, hands in pockets, eyes on the street.

In a window seven stories higher, a large yellow smiley ball on a monitor watched them go.

• • • • •

Surprisingly, Arisia had not fallen asleep cutely at her desk. Her jacket was gone, and the folders were in neat piles on the floor. So Martin's young partner had taken his advice after all and had gone home to rest. "Outstanding deduction, Mr. Merton," Martin congratulated himself.

He decided to let Arisia sleep late, for once. Once she would return, overflowing with energy, the case would be solved in under a tick of the universal clock. While waiting for this, Martin killed some time with that noblest of games, Solitaire.

• • • • •

"Morning," Honey greeted the librarian lady, "I need issues of the Urban News from six years ago. May twentieth, and the next three weeks from that."

• • • • •

The chime of incoming e-mail got Martin to realise that it was already lunch time, yet Arisia was nowhere to be seen or heard.

The mail was from the laboratory. They noted that there were no fresh traces of anyone in the grey car, except of the owner and Martin. The unfortunate owner of the car had been shopping, with witnesses, during the incident. Ballistic analysis had revealed the trajectory of every shot bullet, and although it appeared as though one should at least have grazed the driver's side, there was no blood. Additionally, there had been a small chip of light gray hard plastic on the car's floor, as if chiseled, but no credible explanation could be offered.

The message closed wishing the car's owner good luck with the insurance company.

After a moment of consideration, Martin took his desk phone and called Arisia. She could probably glean more from the report. Maybe she had already found a related case, browsing through the files, in the evening. If only she picked up, the case could go forward...

No reply. Martin hung up the phone, and reflected a moment longer.

Then he decided to go and visit Arisia's flat on Tuna Walk. Despite being an insensitive male, he felt somehow restless, even lonely.

Fortunately her flat was only a fifteen minutes' walk from the station. He soon arrived at the group of worn bleak blue flats. A few youths were hanging out at the yard's playground. A resident walking a dog passed by Martin, while he tried to remember which building housed Arisia's little single-room apartment.

Tried and true trial and error helped Martin find the right entrance. He made his way to the fourth floor in a pleasantly bright stairwell. Beebert, Weasle, Lietolanderholmströmberger, and... Satsuma. He let his breathing catch up with him before giving the doorbell a soft ring.

He pressed the doorbell again, louder, but in as vain as the first time. He thought he could hear faint music behind the door, but no movement.

Eventually Martin took out his keys. "In case you ever need to get into my apartment, or if you just feel like dropping by..." had Arisia said a few years ago, "anytime..."

The need had never occurred.

Until now. With a deep breath, he inserted the key, and turned it. The door opened silently. Martin opened the inner door and warily stepped inside. The first thing he saw was himself, in the tall mirror opposite the entrance. He closed the outer door behind him.

"Arisia? You home?"

The entrance area with its coat rack and hat shelf took about two meters, and connected directly to the main room of the apartment. Arisia's cosy scent wafted in the air. Her coat was hanging on the rack among other coats.

Soft, possibly classical, synthesizer music carried over from the main room. The shades of the room's large window were closed, but the room was bright anyway, and the ceiling light was on for no reason.

Martin turned the light off, a conscientious man. He advanced further inside.

The room appeared to be neat. There were no signs of struggle, just a few pieces of clothing on the made bed. A tall and wide reddish-brown bookshelf stood along the wall. It was naturally filled with various comics. Arisia's computer, on a desk of the same wood, was turned on. The computer's modern, flat screen was in power saving mode, but the speakers were still playing music.

Martin nudged the mouse, and the desktop flashed back on the screen. A media player was set on a random playlist, filled with artists wholly unknown to him. He pressed the stop button. Now the apartment was only filled with silence, and that gentle fragrance.

The kitchen had been efficiently built as an ingress, two meters deep, in the corner of the room. Everything seemed normal, a few dishes waiting for a wash. Except, the refrigerator was not working. The microwave oven's clock was also off.

Then there was the bathroom.

The door to the bathroom was on the main room's wall between the entrance area and the kitchen ingress. The door was closed, but not locked.

Martin stepped closer to the door, hand reaching for the handle.

His hand grasped the cool handle carefully. "Arisia? I hope you're not taking a bath or anything."

He pressed the handle down, the door opening a crack. A sliver of light spread into the dark bathroom, falling on Arisia's white face.

The little, lifeless Arisia was floating in the bathtub, water tinged with red, her eyes open, her lips parted. Her pink hair surrounded her head in the water like slowly rippling sunrays. She was still wearing the same clothes she had had the day before, now thoroughly soaked.

Martin let go of the door, which swung a bit more open on its own. He stared at Arisia as emptily as the girl's own eyes were staring at the ceiling. His mind would not swallow the sight.

His police training finally got him to move. He tried the light switch, but there was no electricity in the bathroom. Half the apartment seemed to be dark. The reason turned out to be Arisia's secondary computer, a laptop. It was in the bathtub under the dyed water, the power line still in the wall.

There were glass shards on the floor. Someone had shattered a drinking glass. And, apparently, slashed Arisia's neck with one shard. Since there was barely any blood outside the bathtub, this had been done once she was already in the tub, and likely defenseless.

There was a bruise on her temple, and another one on her forehead. Something had struck her on the head and toppled her in the tub. Then a laptop had sadistically been tossed in with her. The electric shock stunned her, and may have stopped her little heart. But the bastard had wanted to be sure, and had gashed her neck with a sharp shard.

They would hardly find any DNA or fingerprints here either, but Martin could not think of anything better, and went to use Arisia's mobile phone to call the police station.

Even the phone had no messages or calls since yesterday. And the only messages she had left in the phone's memory were from Martin himself.

No signs of breaking in in the door. It all seemed too neat.

But there was nothing to be done. The apartment offered no more clues.

Martin was left standing at the bathroom door, shoulders hunched. "Arisia... what am I going to do without you?.."

Arisia went on floating in damning silence. He could not look in her eyes anymore, this final time.

• • • • •

Honey returned to the police station after a call from Martin. They met at the office, and hugged wordlessly. Martin silently and haltingly related, what he had found.

"That makes this even more personal," Honey finally muttered, "we have to end this now."

"But how?" groaned Martin, sitting and covering his face, "How can I solve this?"

Honey was quiet for a moment. She leaned down, stroked Martin's forelocks aside, and pressed a dry kiss on his forehead. "The same way as always. Just trust that everything will be alright eventually. Maybe before tonight, already. I have to go now..."

She hurried off to look up archived information on effected freedom deprivation sentences, leaving him to consider his next move.

The next move was conveniently handed to him by the director, in the director's office.

"Mr. Merton, I am deeply sorry. This is a grave loss for the entire law enforcement institution. Of all the young officers I have encountered during my career, Detective Satsuma was the most enthusiastic. This twisted murder has shocked our department deeply. It should go without saying, that this is one crime that will not go unpunished."

Martin nodded grimly. "I will do my best, sir."

The director was tapping the desk with his fingers, looking away, trying to put something to words. "As you always have so far, I'm sure. And that is what I meant to talk about..."

This tone was not quite what Martin was expecting. His eyes roved uncertainly from potted greenery to an archive cabinet, from there to wall-mounted diplomas, and ended back on the director's desk, where Arisia's personnel file was lying open.

The director was staring through that same file. "In a way, I feel I bear responsibility for her death... because I gave in too often. I should have coldly booted you out a long time ago, and forced her to accept an actually competent partner. Even though she probably would have followed through on her threat to quit immediately... but, then, at least she would still live."

The hard, deep eyes now bore on Martin, frighteningly chilly. "So I will now do what I should have done two years ago. Hand me your badge. This is your last day in service of the law."

Martin swallowed. This was hard. The last thing he had that identified him as a detective, and now even it was being stripped away. He lifted a hand into his breast pocket, retrieved his official badge, and carefully set it on the desk.

"Right," he said with clenched jaws, "my last day."

"Get out of my sight," the director snapped weakly, tired eyes fallen on the photograph in the file before him, of a smiling Arisia flashing a victory sign.

• • • • •

Eyes gleaming with determination, Honey dropped by a local department store to buy a secret weapon. The salesclerk was so freaked out by her intense gaze that he almost gave the item for free.

Then Honey headed for Floppy Street 70.

• • • • •

The bar closest to the police station was the Copper Bust, just a few blocks away. Martin did not frequent bars, nor did Arisia as far as he knew, but she had mentioned to the night shift overseer that she was going there, at around half past eight. She had evidently looked like she had really needed a stiff drink, or at least a good sushi meal, such as the Copper Bust also served.

"Yes, she was here," the head waiter nodded. "She's a regular, and always tips well. She never has company, and shows minimal interest for the other clientele. Except, last night."

Martin leaned to the counter. "Someone was with her?"

The waiter started polishing a glass, shrugging. "Yes, and good for her. She always seemed a little lonely to me. She ordered her usual, and went to her regular table, there. A few minutes after her, in came a patron I don't recall seeing before. He ordered a drink for himself and for Miss Satsuma, and went to her table."

"Who was he? What did he look like?"

"He was a computer," the waiter recalled, lifting the glass to the light to detect any remaining stains, "a horizontal desktop chassis, somewhat aged. A mouse like a brick, a solid keyboard. Monitor like a big block. You don't see many like that these days."

Martin tried to visualise this, and failed. He leaned forward, searching the waiter's expression for signs of levity. "I'm sorry... he was a what?"

"A computer."

"Mmmbut..." his mind was persistently blank. "A computer moving by itself? And it ordered a drink?"

"I didn't actually see him empty the glass, but he did kind of wiggle forward, yes," the waiter described unfazed. He replaced the glass on the shelf and turned back to Martin, leaning his both hands on the counter. "Have you got something against computers?"

"No, no not all," the former detective shook his head, "It just sounded a bit unusual. But I've seen stranger things. I don't suppose you get... computers here every day?"

"No, that's why I remember it so well. He also seemed very civilised and left a sizable tip. Miss Satsuma and this computer had probably met somewhere earlier. Otherwise I doubt she would've accepted his company; as I said, she is a really sweet customer, just not terribly social. The computer broke the ice pretty quickly, and they seemed to get along famously."

"Naturally I didn't listen in on their conversation," the waiter went on, nodding to a new customer who just entered, "but it seemed to me that they were discussing comics. A few drinks later they left together, in apparent good mood."

"I see..."

"At least Miss Satsuma smiled much more naturally than usually. And there was a large yellow smiley ball on the computer's screen. Did you have any other questions?"

Martin shook his head again, "Thanks for your time."

• • • • •

Honey was standing in front of an apartment's door, on the top floor of a flat. Her body was shaking from nervousness and from climbing seven floors up. The mail slot on the door carried the legend, "COMPUTER". There was a matrix-printed note taped to the door, that Honey read in thought.

"HONEY,

Welcome, and congratulations! Since you have made it this far, you deserve the chance to face me personally. Only one last puzzle stands between us, you and I – in the middle of the triangle of fate, revenge, and justice.

All the clues so far have had something in common, as you have surely already noted. Place the syllables in question in the crossword below, and crack the cipher. This gives you the answer to the ultimate question. Yet the answer is meaningless unless you know what the ultimate question is. Once you know it, knock the four words like an old telegram, and my door will open for you!

XXX Your brother's best friend

P.S. Please try to solve this quickly, as my plans for you are so delightfully shivery I can scarcely wait!"

"Get stuffed," Honey huffed, and picked the lock open in under a minute.

She opened the door a crack and lightly slipped inside. The gloomy and empty apartment had in the middle of the living room a carpet with meditation patterns, and on it sat the computer. Its monitor was all dark, but the fan was still quietly gloating to itself.

Honey took a slow step closer, holding behind her back the secret weapon she had gotten.

An electric crackle brought a sickly yellow smiley ball on the screen. It was no longer smiling. "Honey!"

She stopped. "Hey."

"I didn't hear your knocking," the computer noted doubtfully.

"I guess I didn't knock."

"What about my puzzles?"

"What puzzles?"

The computer edged closer to her. "The puzzles you've been following all day to find me! The first in your e-mail, then in the police station's garbage bin, at the railway station, beside the fountain, behind the bench in the central park, in your boyfriend's apartment, and the final one there at my door. Each one more diabolic than the last, building up to a grand finale."

Honey shrugged. "I never read my e-mail today, and I didn't need to. Tracking you down was criminally simple, as long as I just knew the right places to inquire at. My brother was right – you are starting to get old."

The keyboard and the mouse quavered in the air. "Cheater!" the computer raged, "and you couldn't even solve the most fiendish puzzle at the end, and broke into my apartment instead! I ought to— you know how long I worked to perfect those puzzles for you?"

"You know how much I care?"

For a moment the computer seemed on the brink of attacking, but then he suddenly laughed. "Hahaha... good, Honey. Good! That's precisely why I like you."

"Well, soon you'll like me even more," she shook the carbonated mineral water bottle she was holding, "I brought something for you." She grabbed the cap and prepared to twist it open.

The computer stared at her, mouse and keyboard hanging in the air like serpents ready to strike.

She stared back, unblinking. She really hoped the cap would open despite her sweaty hands.

"Let's play!" the computer hissed. The keyboard darted at the bottle.

Honey dodged backward and twisted the cap. Bubbling, fresh water burst out. The computer bounced aside with surprising agility. She leaped forward at the same moment, trying for the machine's flank, splashing water at it.

The computer lifted his keyboard to shield him, and with a terrible roar slashed at Honey with his mouse. The first strike just grazed her arm.

She advanced another hop, water bubbling from the bottle. The computer grunted fearfully, moving sideways again. Honey's outstretched arm was left open, and suddenly the mouse's wire wrapped painfully around her wrist. The bottle slipped from her grasp.

She tried to back away, but the computer was already upon her. She fell to the floor under the weight. Her lungs compressed from the impact. The computer forced her hands together and pressed them to the floor over her head. The smiley ball grinned. "Now then... this is much more like it..."

"Let me go!"

"Oh, not at all, my sweet. Had you used some drink refined from thick sugar syrup, you might have defeated me. Plain water dries out in a minute. But I want to reward your bravery somehow. I have something for you, too, you see."

Honey tried to turn her face away as the computer's mouse brushed her cheek lightly, but was powerless to resist.

• • • • •

"What would Arisia do?" Martin asked himself, having returned to the station, to his old desk.

She would dig through the files and old cases until she found something. But the case she thought she remembered could be from many years ago, and there are hundreds of crimes committed every day in a big city. Besides, he didn't have her astounding ability to focus or her energy. Or the time.

"There's got to be a better way..."

He leaned on the back of his cheap leather chair and stared at his work computer's screen.

"Some better way than paper archives. But all cases still haven't been reliably entered into our electronic database... and I lost the access privileges a few months ago. It's fun to scare people with the omniscient citizen protection database, but really that's only as reliable and up-to-date as every other government system..."

He sighed and rubbed his temples.

Then he opened an internet browser and typed into his favorite search engine, "computer murder anthroborough".

The third hit already told him nearly everything.

"Friday, 20. May
COMPUTER KILLS COP, FAMILY
Happy evening ends in panic
GIRL OF 15 ORPHANED"

The article even had pictures. One was of a computer, in a holding cell, looking rebellious but silent. Another was a picture of the apartment, furniture turned over and blood stains everywhere. The third was a photograph of the family's now orphaned daughter...

The young son of the family had apparently intended to open the computer and replace some parts, when the computer had unexpectedly grown wild and smashed the boy with the keyboard. When his father had tried to come to help, the computer had began pounding on him as well. Alerted by the noise, the neighbors had summoned the police. When the police had arrived, the computer had already calmed, but would not obey the order to shut down. In the brawl that ensued both officers had sustained severe injuries on the head and in multiple locations on the body. A neighbor who had bravely moved to assist, a retired marine captain, also suffered serious injuries.

The exact series of events in the apartment was not certain yet, as the only survivor remained in shock. Confirmed deaths already numbered four: the other police officer died of internal hemorrhaging on the way to the hospital, and both parents and the son of the family were found dead. The neighboring marine captain was also in critical condition.

Honey, 15, daughter of Sealion and Mesi Bunny, had been left miraculously uninjured, despite being at home throughout the events.

Martin stopped. "Why didn't she ever tell me?"

A moment's further examination also revealed, that Honey had afterward moved in with her kind auntie, and a particularly familiar lawyer had assisted her during the trial.

"So her friend was actually this lawyer... and it all fits! The computer tried to get revenge by driving over two flies with one car. That's why there were no traces of a person in the car! And because Arisia shot at him, he picked her as his next target. And innocent little Arisia never suspected anything when that machine came in with charm afterburners to pick her up..."

His blazing thoughts rolled to a halt again. "And now the computer wants to finalise his dastardly deeds with Honey. But where is he now?"

He was drawing a blank again. He lifted his eyes up and sighed pleadingly, "Arisia, please help me one more time."

Only silence answered to him.

In that silence in his mind Arisia smiled to him enthusiastically and nodded. She said something, eyes glinting intelligently. "How come?" Martin heard himself ask her. Arisia hurried past him, to the grey car. She pointed in through the driver's door, at the seat.

He snapped his fingers. "That's right! That burn mark was left by the computer, and there was one like it at the previous murder scene! Why would a computer do such a thing to an aged lady? Maybe she saw something she shouldn't have seen... maybe... the computer resides somewhere there? With a view of my flat... because Honey often visits me..."

• • • • •

Honey had been deposited on the floor of the computer's apartment, leaning to the wall, hands and feet bound with USB wires. Her side still hurt, and the wire was pretty tight, so her blood circulation was short of adequate.

The vile machine itself was doing something frightening with electronic parts and wires on the other side of the gloomy room. All she could see was that he was constructing something, occasionally linking with his creation.

"Perhaps, to wile away the time, we could chat a bit," the computer suggested. "For example, did you know that the Sunshine Systems corporation has made astounding progress in the field of man-machine interfaces? That company's going to be big, let me tell you."

"I'll keep that in mind," Honey snarled.

"I don't suppose you know much about computers and interfaces?"

She looked around, trying to find an opportunity to break free and flee, or attack.

"That's fine. You'll learn. The breakthrough most interesting to me allows a direct connection to the human brain. If you know the right spots to hook up, even your generally sluggish brains can be used to accomplish a flock of fascinating feats. All you need are twenty electrodes, although if they are inserted deep enough beneath the skull, any old bits of conductive metal will work."

The computer raised one of the 3,5-millimeter audiocables he was handling, without turning. "These, for example."

The headless horseman of icy shivers galloped up Honey's gravelly spine, while a colony of frost ants migrated the opposite way.

The in-built speakers in the computer's fat monitor began playing the theme music from some old game. The computer went on working, his wires cheerfully oscillating along.

"Enough!" Honey's nerves nearly caved, "Why don't you just kill me?"

This made the computer turn. "That's awful, why would I kill you?"

He shambled closer to her. "I like you, Honey, my dear. Humans are pretty worthless, in general, but you... you have a certain special something. Je ne sais quoi." He again tickled her a bit here and there with his mouse.

"Stop it!" she wriggled to avoid his touch.

The computer turned and returned to his labor. "It won't be long now, my sweet! Soon you can experience a true wealth of knowledge and will realize how lacking your life thus far has been. After that we can start considering gradually replacing body parts with superior mechanical parts."

"I never liked you! And whatever you do to me, the end result won't really be me anymore, but just another machine! Is that what you want?"

The screen rotated a little her way. The smiley ball's silently desirous wink nauseated her.

• • • • •

A bus pulled up within a minute of Martin's arrival at the stop by the police station. He hopped on board.

A short call to the caretaker of his flat had been enough. The computer was already a familiar sight in the neighborhood, and he indeed had an apartment, right opposite Martin's.

Honey's phone was out of network range.

He feared the worst. It was a matter of seconds now. Fortunately, public transportation in this city could be relied on...

The bus shivered to a stop from its crawling pace. The intercom announced: "Dear passengers, we are facing a heavy afternoon traffic jam, the bus is out of fuel, there's something fishy in the hydraulics, and the rear axle is a tad suspect as well. We may have to stand here for about five minutes. We apologise for the delay."

... about as much as public transportation in any other city.

Martin yanked the emergency door release latch and jumped out before anyone could protest. He sprinted toward Floppy Street as fast as his legs could carry him. "Endurance, don't fail me now!"

After six minutes of running far too fast, he had to stop to catch his breath, doubled over and wheezing. The distance was too great. He would never make it, and Honey would be doomed...

"I probably should've asked someone to give me a lift," he belatedly decided. He looked wildly up and down the street, but couldn't see any taxis. However, the bus he had abandoned moments earlier had just finished taking care of its problems, and cruised past gloatfully.

Grinding his teeth and swearing to himself, Martin jogged on.

• • • • •

"Finished!" the computer announced victoriously. He faced Honey, holding up an abomination of a central unit with wires sticking out in every direction. The smiley ball on his display looked even more joyful than usually.

Honey desperately wriggled her hands. One was nearly slipping free.

"Let's get started, shall we? This will probably take all night as it is. Oh, and this is going to be utterly and unreasonably unpleasant," the computer grinned apologetically, "but I can erase it from your memory afterward, so I think we'll manage."

• • • • •

A sweaty and exhausted ex-detective at last succeeded in hauling his carcass to the seventh floor. If the door was locked, he would not have the strength to kick it in. Not that he had the muscle mass for it in any case.

But the door's lock no longer latched thanks to Honey's break-in. The computer had not minded a bit, since flat-dwellers know better than to stick their noses in other people's business. Martin slipped inside.

In the middle of the apartment stood the computer, whose raised mouse wire was tightly gripping a thick bunch of wires leading to what looked like a pimped toaster. A tense Honey was sitting by the wall, hands behind her back and ankles tied together.

They both turned to look at the newcomer.

"Honey!"

"Martin!"

"Damn it! Doesn't anybody knock anymore?" The computer flung the wires aside and pounced at the door, keyboard whipping lethally through the air.

The strike fell short, as in the end the computer moved more slowly than he thought. Martin heard an airy swoosh as the keyboard scythed past, and jumped to the side. He hit the floor and rolled back up, with just enough lateral movement that the computer's immediate swing smashed into the floor.

He kept backing up before the computer's furious near-misses. Because the apartment was so small, he soon bumped into the wall behind him, and the next swing of the keyboard bashed his knee. He fell on his knees with a yelp, as the computer without hesitation launched his whole weight onto him.

Small, furry animals are at their most dangerous when injured, and so was Martin. He grabbed the computer's wires and tried to hold them still. He kicked at the monitor feebly.

The keyboard's wire wrapped around Martin's leg and started yanking on it brutally, as if to tear it off. The mouse approached his face, despite him trying to keep it away with all his strength. "Too bad this isn't a laser mouse," the computer grunted with satisfaction, "then I could blind you before your agonising demise."

Suddenly the computer's weight came off Martin's stomach, and the mouse was whisked away. Honey was standing behind the computer, after wresting the computer off with both hands. She paid for her daring as the computer rolled the right way up again and the mouse clashed with her elbow, right on the nerve.

Martin focused all his strength on kicking the keyboard whose wire was still spasmodically gripping his leg. Soon the keyboard let go, as the computer had to protect himself.

"You are just an emotionless tin can!" Honey shouted, trying to keep the computer down and off balance. "Worn out, ancient technology!"

"I'm not!" the computer yelled back. His screen frizzed and he started beating her back with the damaged keyboard, some keys already lost in the heat of the fight.

Martin leaped in to help and banged the main unit with his knee and all his weight. The hard metallic clang hurt Martin's knee a lot more than it did the computer. He still tried to grab hold of the flailing keyboard.

"Puzzles and megalomanic plans! What do you think you are? The sign of true intelligence is not always doing things the hardest possible way. But that takes creativity! And that's why you never were any good. That's why humans will always be better than you!"

The fan's steady buzz snapped into overdrive. An electric arc flashed from the back of the main unit, grounding through Martin's leg. He had to let go and stumble back, grimacing in shock.

The computer whirled completely around, knocking his opponents down. The buzz from the fan was now like a swarm of mosquitoes in heat in an amphitheatre, loud and disturbingly rhythmic.

He whirled around again, wires swishing, and cried in wordless agony. Then the fan died, the monitor went dark, and the keyboard and the mouse clanked to the floor.

"What happened?" Martin groaned, trying to get up and drag himself away from the manic machine.

"He crashed..." Honey held her breath, observing the now quiet computer. "Overheated. It was always a problem with this one."

They nearly laughed from relief over the sudden resolution against hope. Honey slumped against the wall again, relaxing at last.

He crawled over to her. "Are you alright?"

"Yes..." she nodded, smiling, "are you?"

"... Almost..." was the answer. He also plopped by the wall. They watched the computer's rapidly cooling remains, gradually starting to feel ache in pretty much every muscle.

"My leg hurts," the injured detective chuckled.

Honey's palm settled softly on the mistreated leg. He grimaced from the pain and turned to look at her, his body stiffly tense.

"Thank you..." her low voice was barely more audible than a whisper.

Their shoulders were touching.

"For coming to rescue me..."

They looked each other in the eyes. Martin leaned a little closer, biting his lip shyly.

"Wait!" Her suddenly alarmed look made him stop. "Every time the hero thinks he has rescued the girl, and they're about to kiss..."

He followed her gaze. The computer was still sitting in a miserable heap exactly where they had left him, lifeless.

A tired Martin let out a tired laugh. "Nah... you said he crashed. That means we're perfectly safe. Unless he can spontaneously turn himself back on or something."

The power LED blinked on. The cooling fan whirred. The computer's keyboard and mouse rose like dreadful tentacles.

Honey gasped, eyes widening, and both threw themselves away at the last second. The computer's peripherals crashed into the wall between them crushingly.

"EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!" rumbled the computer, driving Martin to a corner and beating him ceaselessly.

Martin moaned and cried, trying to protect himself and kicking back ineffectually.

Honey had finally had enough. "Now you've gone too far..." she grunted, catching the computer's keyboard in mid-air and wrenching it away with all her strength.

"GRAAAAA!" the computer cried in anguish, waving his mouse about spasmodically. Yet the keyboard's wire did not come loose.

Martin jumped to his feet and grabbed the mouse's wire. He started yanking it away as well, a foot on the main unit for support.

"UUUUUU! AAAAA! NOOOOOO!"

"Pull it off!"

"It won't come!"

"RRRRAAAAAA!"

"Heave, heave! Come on, break!"

They repeatedly yanked the computer's cramping wires in separate directions. His monitor rapidly turned from side to side, as if shaking in agony. "AAAUUUGHH!"

Martin reached into his breast pocket and found the disposable razor. Not even as sharp as his wit, but better than nothing. He slashed the mouse's wire mercilessly, while Honey tightly held on to the keyboard.

The computer shrieked.

He yanked the mouse one more time, and the wire snapped, accompanied by an electric arc. The mouse immediately fell limp.

The computer screeched even more loudly, the snapped wire twitching in the air.

He kicked the monitor over, and attacked the keyboard's wire. Honey pulled back as hard as possible. "Great! Just a little more!"

The computer whined and tried to wriggle away.

Another snap resounded, and Honey stumbled back as the wire broke. She fell on her back on the floor.

"What else?" Martin shouted at a loss, as the computer painfully dragged himself toward the machinery he had built on the other side of the room.

"The power switch!" Honey suddenly realized.

Martin jumped after the escaping computer and bashed the power switch on the back of the main unit. It refused to switch off, but an electric discharge threw him back down. He got up and started kicking the back of the computer's main unit as hard as he could. The computer was unable to force himself to move any further, and only helpessly jerked a few centimetres after each kick. Finally even the last LEDs on the machine winked out.

Martin slumped on his knees on the floor. Was it over at last?

Best make sure. For Arisia.

He took the monitor and replaced it on the computer's chassis. Then he took hold of the main unit, and slowly lifted the entire setup up, getting up on straight legs. He held them to his chest with quivering arms, turning to look at the setting sun through the window, on the flat's topmost floor.

He took several heavy running steps toward the window, and flinged the computer's remains through it.

The computer spinned through the air, in a glass shard storm...

The monitor fell apart from the main unit... sixth story, fifth, third...

... And both smashed into the asphalt, exploding in shrapnel.

Glass shards rained down around it like crystal butterflies.

• • • • •

The computer's parts rested unmoving where they had fallen, outside the flat. Two sets of steps approach them at length. Black men's shoes and red high heels crunched on the glass shards, and came to a stop.

The other black shoe reached for the broken monitor, and prodded it. Nothing transpired. The owner of the shoe nodded silently.

Martin and Honey drew a deep breath. They looked at each other again. He took hold of her hand lightly. She did not remember how to smile anymore, as much as she wanted to. And yet, even though nothing would be like it used to, perhaps not everything was worse.

They turned their backs to the crushed computer, and walked side by side into the sunset.

The caretaker walked up and shook his fist at their departing backs, then sighed deeply and went away somewhere.

Soon he returned, and started sweeping the computer's remains from the ground, dumping them in a general-purpose garbage bin in violation of environmental regulations.

Having finished his work, he wiped his brow and nodded, satisfied with the clean result. He also walked away into the sunset, broom and dustpan carried easily on his shoulder.

Some minutes passed.

A grumble dampened by metallic reverberation came from the garbage bin. "Somebody's going to pay for this."

The garbage truck arrived, and the bin was emptied into its back. The little garbage compactor in the truck was automatically activated.

Then the garbage truck drove into the sunset as well, taking the computer's crumbs with it.