All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller

Maleware by John McLaughlin


It’s written in the lines of her face. The mottled flesh scrawled across her cheeks, the tangle of scar tissue weighing on her eyelid. Battle scars? A robbery gone wrong? In any case, she’s seen some shit. And the story’s not finished.

I punch my tablet, shifting the interrogation lights to a cerulean blue. Calming. Get her endorphins pumping. In my experience, words flow freely under the blue light.

“Feel like talking?” I ask her for the third time.


I’m always pulled in to question the female suspects. The Sarge says it helps them open up a bit, two women sharing an intimate chat. So I draw on my own troubled past — an adolescence on the streets, the fucked-up relationships. In the interrogation box I can reel her in close, make her believe it’s just us girls against the world, or something like that.

I cross my legs. Groan of leather on leather. Still maintaining my cool but even I have limits. “Who am I speaking to?”

She just smirks and leans back in her chair, arm muscles strained taut against the autocuffs, testing their strength. Good luck with that. One funny move and she’ll be picking her wrist bones off the linoleum floor.

We’d found our victim in an alley next to the club. One eye swollen shut, shards of an expensive bottle splintered through the lower jaw, his body arranged on the concrete like some bloody mod-art display. Our next exhibit: Ornaments of Death, glass in flesh, 2053. And our suspect, just standing there, regarding her kill with a serene half-smile.

“Wasting your time,” my partner remarks from the corner. My other half, the tough-as-nails counterpart to my compassionate cop persona. Jimmy pops another stick of amphetamine gum and leans a hand against the grimy wall. “How many personalities are we dealing with?”

I pull up the file on my tablet. Our suspect is a standard synth body — enough radiation and disease resistance to survive the city streets — set up with a MindShare subscription. Multiple personality uploads, each with her own tiny living space carved out of the cortex. Well, damn.


Jimmy whistles, stepping out of the shadows. “More than two and they start to get stir crazy, ya know?” He leans over her, taunting. “Feeling a little cramped in there?”

I shoot Jimmy a look: I’ve got this. Twenty years on the beat and he’s still the same
hothead. But I brighten as a new document pops up in my tablet.

“Good news,” I announce, permitting myself a note of triumph. “Looks like our first
subpoena came through.” The court order allowing us to pull a personality out of its sleep state for questioning. With three names registered to the unit, it should be a straightforward process of elimination.

I grin, turning on our suspect. “Last chance to talk, sweetie. Or we’re going in by force.” No more Mrs. Nice Cop.

Her gaze shoots up to mine. Eyes still sharp and narrowed, but concerned for the first time. Sweat beads slick across her brow. Her lips crack wide into a mocking smile and then I say it: “Cinnamon. Candle wax. Persian rug.”

Her eyes roll back as I recite the pass phrase, leaving a white-eyed zombie in the chair. She spasms, arms rattling the cuffs, until a stilling wave passes through her limbs — like a curtain of smooth silk draped over a corpse. Then her eyes ease back into focus.

I’m looking at Tanya Nosach.

“Where am I?” she cries, eyes darting frantic over the interrogation space.

“Twelfth precinct.”

“Shit.” She sighs heavily. “What’d Alexis do this time?”

Jimmy and I share a significant glance.

When the crazy neighbor lives next door, you can knock twice, tell them to shove it and keep the noise down. When they’re a bundle of neurons sharing the same body, well, things can get complicated.

“Roommate trouble?” Jimmy laments.

I’m already scanning Alexis Dupree’s profile. Rap sheet as long as a Mars shuttle wait list: burglary, vandalism, personality-jacking. Nothing too violent — until now. We’ll speak to her next.

I start Tanya off with a simple question: “When did you last have control of the unit?”

Her eyes glaze for a moment, scanning the body’s circadian clock. “Five days ago, Saturday,” she says, coming back. “I was working the closing shift at Wild Billy’s in midtown. You can check that.”

“We will.” Jimmy snaps his fingers at the mirrored glass.

Then I adjust my jacket, lean forward a bit, put on my winning smile. “Listen, Tanya,” I start, my voice all sympathetic. Maternal, as the Sarge would describe it; the big-hearted detective about to cut a poor girl a break. “We’ve got your body dead to rights on the club security cam. So which one of you three likes to frequent the Rez Cogitans? Give us something we can use.”

“The Rez?” Tanya shrugs. “Too stuffy for me. As for the others, well, we don’t talk
much, aside from the little notes we leave each other. Take out the garbage, do the dishes.” She snorts. “They can be a real pain, especially with such shitty taste in men… ”

“Okay.” Jimmy holds up his hands, blushing. “I don’t need to hear this.”

“But three of you,” I cut in, shaking my head, “makes a bit of a crowd, don’t you think?”

“What can I say?” Tanya produces a weary smile. “Rent’s expensive. Even in a banged-up unit like this one.”

Tough break. A detective’s salary is nothing to write home about, but I can at least afford my own unit — nothing as fancy as the Commissioner’s maxed-out body, but I get by.

Our next subpoena pops up with a beep. I glance toward Jimmy. “Think we ought to ask Alexis a few questions?”

“I think that’s a grand idea,” he mutters, waving a curt goodbye. “We’ll be in touch,

The newer synth bodies come equipped with a Cognitive Common Space, a sort of
virtual lounge where the resident personalities can hang out, shoot the shit, discuss the weather or anything else they fancy. Thankfully this old unit predates CCS technology — so our suspects are kept securely firewalled from one another. No passing notes behind my back.

Alexis is summoned next. Jittery, like she’s spent too much time inside these cheap synth units. She doesn’t look surprised to be here.

“We read your file, Alexis.” I’m cutting right to the chase. “Up and down the eastern
seaboard, in and out of police custody. What gives?”

“Yeah,” she starts, her drawl oozing smooth as molasses over the cramped room. “Had my share of guy troubles.”

I can sympathize. My last fling ended with one too many whiskey neats, an attempted mind-jacking, and a restraining order against all five of his bodies. If the bastard takes one step within a mile of my unit, he’ll seizure on the spot.

“So, a classic man eater,” Jimmy interrupts, hovering over Alexis now. “And maybe you wanted to take down one more?”

On cue, I rotate my tablet to gift her a glamour shot of the victim. Her bloody handiwork, displayed in 300 million shades. “Why’d you do it, Alexis?”

“Oh, hell no!” she cries, recoiling an arm in surprise before the cuff yanks it back down. “Never seen that dude in my life.”

Jimmy smirks. “Haven’t we heard that one before?”

“Think, Alexis! Who wanted him dead?” I snatch back my tablet just as our final
subpoena pings through. “We already spoke to Tanya, and she didn’t have nice things to say about you.”

“Not nice at all,” Jimmy agrees.

“What can I say?” Alexis gloats, puffing herself up in the chair, jangling her cuffs along each of its corroded arms. Savoring the spotlight. “I’d slap that bitch if we didn’t share the same face.”

So much for the soothing properties of blue light.

“Anyways, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” she continues. “I don’t get to play on
Thursdays. That’s Anuja’s day.” She smiles, but not a trace of her sly humor remains. “But I guess you haven’t talked to little Miss Perfect yet?”

Time to change that.

Next up: Anuja Rai, Indian exchange student. A scholar of condensed matter physics and fresh transplant to the big city. It’s a shame when the young and starry-eyed get caught up in the wrong body. I show Jimmy her profile.

He groans and glances at his watch. “Well, she’s last on our list, so let’s wrap this up. Or I’m gonna need more stimulant.”

Where Alexis came charging out of the gate, Anuja is a deer in the headlights. She
immediately shrinks into the chair. “Where am I?” she whimpers, fear slicing through her thick accent.

“Being questioned for a murder,” Jimmy grunts.

“Anuja, we found your unit earlier this evening,” I say, leaning in close, “outside the Rez Cogitans. What were you doing there?”

“I don’t know what that is!” Her eyes are wide and desperate — probably her first brush with American justice. “I only uploaded here a few months ago.”

Then Jimmy takes a hard step toward her. “Okay.” Another one, rattling the table as he seizes it with both hands. “I’m ready to throw the whole lot of you in a cage,” he growls, his gaunt face painted blue by the light. “But some bureaucrats in Geneva say we can’t do that. So one of you is getting extracted — as our primary suspect — and thrown into digital lock-up. Who’s it going to be?”

The waterworks start flowing at Jimmy’s tough cop routine. So predictable.

“Wait!” Anuja squints through tears, her allotted chunk of gray matter struggling to
recall images, burning into overdrive. “The last thing I remember is my physics lab. Thursday morning, just as usual. Mr. Barrett asked me to stay after class and–”

“Barrett?” My voice snags on something sharp. “Did you say Barrett?”

“Yes, Russell Barrett. Our new teaching assistant. Why?”

I grip Jimmy tight around the arm, drag him over to the corner. “Here’s a question…” I’m musing aloud now, an attempt to tamp down my spiking heart rate. “Who was in control of the unit when we started interrogation?”

We’ve now questioned all three residents — noting the voice, mannerisms, and
temperament of each. But not a single one resembles the woman who was apprehended at the crime scene, who was first dragged here in cuffs.

Jimmy rolls his eyes. “What are you thinking, Rebecca?”

I glance over at the scarred woman strapped into the chair, wild hair draping her blood-misted blouse. Why hadn’t I considered it before? “There’s an unregistered personality in there. And I think I know who it is.”

Barrett must have overpowered Anuja after her class. Forced himself on her — in her. Uploaded himself into the synth unit, creating a new personality partition and frying her short-term memory in the process. The kind of break-in only he could pull off. But why?

Jimmy scoffs. “You’re paranoid, Becca; the name’s a coincidence. Your ex is in the wind, probably halfway to Mars if he’s any smart.” My grizzled partner — so jaded that he can’t stare naked truth in the face. “And besides,” he continues, “what’s the connection to our suspects? You always said Barrett was a high-level player. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a cheap female unit like this.”

Female. It hits my gut like a sack of algae bricks: A Twelfth precinct crime scene. He knew I’d be assigned the case.

“Good evening, detectives.”

Jimmy and I spin to find our suspect hunched low in the chair, one cuffed hand held tight against her own throat.

And then I see it — she’s clutching a sliver of metal, torn free from the underside of the rusted seat. It gleams deadly under the blue light. Our EM pistols are already whipped out, safeties unclicked, aimed steady between her eyes.

“Sure you want to do that, Rebecca?”

Fuck. It’s Barrett.

Still cuffed to the chair, he arches his head low against his knife hand, face contorted impossibly toward us, neck twisted just shy of snapping. He presses the shard tighter against his throat, puckering the flesh around the jugular. Threatening.

“Allow three women to die, just to bag me? Because I don’t think these ladies can afford personality back-ups.”

Allow me to introduce my psycho ex. Forget a Napoleon complex — this guy was like Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, and Mussolini all rolled up in a flawless, puncture-proof synth skin: a certified sociopath wearing a luxury-grade body. Had to change my address five times just to ghost this control freak.

Jimmy and I lower our EMs. Barrett is right — the girls’ birth bodies are likely brain-
dead, freeze-dried, and stacked fifty high in some bargain basement storage facility. We let the fucker waltz right into Twelfth precinct with three hostages.

“What do you want, Barrett?”

He regards me silently from the twisted face — another mask for him to wear and discard, as disposable as any of his past liaisons. “What I’ve always wanted.” His growl strains the unit’s female vocal cords. “Another crack at my unsolvable riddle: You.”

Russ had always been obsessed with the inner workings of my mind. Sometimes, in the heat of passion, I’d allow him too close — just enough for him to brush the contours of my thought, to grasp on slivers of image and sound. But it only deepened his hunger. And then, one evening after another satisfying romp, he’d leaned over and whispered that he wanted more; he wanted in. But I’d toured too many psych wards, seen too many mergemind cases to ever let that fly. So I cut him loose.

I shake my head in disgust. “Russ, you capped some random civilian, just to get to me. Get this through your thick plastic skull: You’re sick.”

Jimmy throws me a sidelong glance. “What do we do here, Rebecca?”

But there’s no point in further discussion; I already know what Barrett wants.

I work my fingers up the nape of my neck, unleash my hair from its tight bun. It billows like smoke over my shoulders.

Jimmy quirks an eyebrow. “Rebecca?”

Slowly unreel my interface cable. Stiff plastic and stuttering LEDs. I dangle it at my side, enticing Barrett. “I’ll let you try something you’ve always wanted.” An attempt at the sensual but the words come out ragged. “I’ll let you inside.” And then I point straight between his eyes. “Those girls for me. Are you ready to make that trade?”

Barrett nods his agreement, smiles. I remotely unlock his autocuffs. He uncoils from the seat like a poison viper.

“Becca!” Jimmy hisses through clenched teeth, still maintaining a white-knuckle grip on his EM. “Don’t you fucking do this. Don’t you–”

I raise a silencing hand to my partner: I’ve got this.

In two steps Barrett erases the distance between us. Our cables slip together like an embrace of long-lost lovers.

When he appears in my Common Space, Russ is dressed as he was on our first date. Grey shirt buttoned tight, pants cuffed neatly above brown leather boots, his hair slicked back like a cresting wave. He had insisted on the Rez, said that a beautiful lady like me deserved no less.

“You look nice,” he says, his natural rasp now returned to him. He traces one finger
along the hollow of my cheek. And then he steps into me.

I have to admit, it’s not half bad. Yes it is. Hell, maybe I was too hard on Russ. People change. No they don’t, they definitely don’t. Maybe he was just the man I’d needed. And he’d said that himself, so many times. Why hadn’t I listened? Why had I run? Don’t fucking do it. The more he explains it now, the more I can grasp his logic. Really. I was ungrateful. Don’t let him in. I’m ashamed to admit it. But now I’m finally in the position to appreciate him. I’m finally in a good place. And I–

ERROR: Unhandled error in Version Load [Sloan.Rebecca][Barrett.Russell]
mergemind.exe. Exception Processing Message 0x00000000398717EFED…

[root@server ~]# reboot_[Sloan.Rebecca]


Like I said, I’ve got this.


John McLaughlin

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4 thoughts on “Maleware by John McLaughlin”

  1. Really enjoyed this. Loved the idea of the different people sharing one body, and the way you explored the theme of abuse in this context. Becca’s triumph over her ex was a nice touch. Reminded me a bit of Altered Carbon, which is no bad thing!


  2. You did well with not letting the unique concept be the story. Sometimes writers fall in love with The Big Idea and fail to flesh out the dimensions. Your restraint has led you to the writing of a good story,


  3. Quite imaginative film noir style for the computer age. The possession of different identities is a major theme in the social and political world these days, this ups it with technology.


  4. Hi John,
    You have mixed a few genres or style of genres here.
    That is brave and takes a bit of imagination. And as Leila says, the restraint in not going all guns blazing with the main premise has given this a very clever depth.


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