In Chapter 5 of “Corona Crime”, the ultimate post-coronavirus sci-fi thriller, we learn that the number of victims about to die at the Hughes Procreation Center in Santa Monica is ten thousand, two hundred and eighty-five.
Last year I published the first few chapters of my new novel CORONA CRIME. They included Chapter 1 “Jake Moonrath sets off to re-possess a stolen lifetime“; Chapter 2 – “Extreme Suffering“; Chapter 3 – “Your cup of tea“; and Chapter 4 – “The Pope Himself uses Coronatime“.
In Corona Crime Chapter 5, enforcement agent Jake Moonrath searches a house in Beverley Hills for illicit contraband – unaware that a far greater crime is about to take place a few miles down the road in Santa Monica.
Do let me know if you are enjoying Corona Crime. All feedback welcome!
“Corona Crime” Chapter 5
In the years preceding the Pax Vobiscum massacre, the Vatican had been mute on the morality of Coronatime. The Pope was 124 when he died, forty-eight hours after the end of the siege.
A Brief History of Coronatime (Hope Deadman et al, out of print)
Across the road from the Hughes Procreation Center, the blonde woman in the Feeding Frenzy summoned an audio connection on her bracelet and began to talk. The communications link thus established was, by dint of superior processing power, twenty billion times more secure than anything the US government’s security agencies were capable of decrypting. The organisation she worked for was not short of money; and what was left of the US government had just about given up trying.
‘I am ready,’ she said. ‘Time is noon.’
‘Good. From the latest tab data …’ the man hesitated for a moment. ‘We have ten thousand, two hundred and eighty-five people inside, excluding any infants born this morning or anyone deceased.’
A silence stretched.
‘Ten thousand about the minimum we need, actually,’ the woman said.
‘Yeah. Any problems?’
‘No problems. But it is a health facility, so it is data shielded. We cannot be sure if both Informals – Moonrath and Zipper – are inside.’
‘Right. Wait a few minutes, then go ahead at 12.17 precisely. Make it look random.’
The woman rang off. Then she paid four dollars and 66 cents for her medlar and loganberry high-energy yoghurt beverage, and went outside to watch.
Jake ran out of 137 South Clark to find a mobile contribution unit waiting in the street. Hurry. The medical officer, a corpulent man in an off-white apron, was watching a gladiator holo he’d set up on the roof of the cab.
‘Take receipt of ’Time-expired Jennifer, disabled felon bound for Anaheim Contribution Facility?’ Jake said.
‘What about Ardizzione?’ The medic winced as a miniature bear charged out from behind the hazard light and ripped the intestines from a handsome, sweat-streaked gladiator.
‘Suicide. Big mess.’
‘What the hell?’ The medic shook his head. ‘Is it on the Enforcement Channel?’
‘I guess so. Can’t make any sense of it.’
‘The CA won’t like that.’ The medic relaxed as a second gladiator in a studded leather G-string strode forward and transfixed the bear with a javelin. ‘Care to check the berths?’
‘What’s the rush?’ On the cab roof, two lions were emerging from a gate. ‘I’m taking in a good-looking bunch of kids today. Mostly for the Holiday.’
‘My friend’s wife is having a baby. In Santa Monica. He needs me there.’ And I need to talk to Ed about what the hell’s going on.
‘At Hughes? You can be there in twenty minutes.’
‘But there’s something I have to do first.’
‘What’s that?’ The two lions were engaging with a Christian.
‘I have to check the house for evidence.’
‘The recovery team will be here soon. Leave it to them.’
‘I can’t. This is special evidence.’
‘Sure. Special evidence. So that means you’re late for your friend?’
‘Get the stiff, will you? Hurry.’
‘Hey. Take it easy.’ The medic shut down the holo and slouched towards the house. ‘Want to speed things up? Open the back.’
Jake threw open the contribution bay and peered inside. Big day in Beverly Hills: nearly every slot was filled with the body of a dormant teenager. As the medic had said, most would be on their way to the three years’ qualifying contribution that was the main source of income for the Central Authority. Others would have completed a spell inside, heading home to happy families and wild coming of age parties. Jake shook his head. Rich kids. They didn’t know what sacrifice was.
The medic, moving with infuriating slowness, carried the body of ’Time-expired Jennifer out of the house. Then he laid her on an empty berth in the contribution bay and tapped her for Coronatime. Jake watched in an agony of impatience. At last the truck pulled away down the street. If he left now, Jake might reach Ed and Abigail at Santa Monica only a few minutes late. But Franco had made that impossible.
If the Central Authority recovery team were to find what Jake believed was concealed inside, news would leak immediately. Jake could not let that happen.
The front door gaped open. Would Ed ever forgive him for showing up late? As a friend, Ed would be gutted. But as a fellow Informal, he would understand what Jake had to do.
Franco Ardizzione’s body lay motionless beside the bed. Jake transmitted the contents of Franco’s bracelet to the Home Security Bureau. The experts in Aspen would analyse every detail of the dead man’s credit, purchase and employment records, travel, communications and health. If they wanted, they could access his pulse, blood pressure, location and drug consumption record since the day was born. Soon they would know Franco better than the little man had ever known himself.
But Jake hadn’t come for Franco’s bracelet.
He checked the bedroom and the holo chamber, where he was distracted to find girl triplets from a historic romance weepy, undisturbed by the past hour’s events, still plotting their revenge on the cad who’d jilted all three of them while they’d been in lockdown for COVID-98. The hygiene area offered little scope for hiding anything; but the kitchen was a favourite place, packed with bulky electrical appliances. An inspection of an antique food processor revealed nothing untoward. The circuitry of the US-manufactured Dial-Eze smart cuisine terminal seemed no messier than usual, and the home laundry center had obviously not been shifted since the house was built.
Jake stood in the centre of the kitchen. It was mid-day. The CA recovery team would be here any moment. “I got Coronatime,” Franco had said. Where did he keep it?
Jake opened the fridge. It contained, in addition to a half-eaten pack of “European-style” cheese spread, a tube of après-sun lotion and one beer: a Chinese brand. Jake peered at the bottle. Could this be Franco’s stash? He looked around the discoloured plastic of the fridge interior for any kind of alarm system. Nothing. Then, holding his breath, he reached out, ran his fingers gently down the glass and eased the base of the bottle off the shelf. Inside, he could see liquid moving. But the bottle was too light to be full of beer. Eureka.
In his hand, tilted, the top half of the bottle swung smoothly aside, an exquisite gravity-powered lo-tech design. It had to be Chinese: nothing so elegant had been made in the US for years. Within, nestling in a honeycomb of black insulation like so many chicks in a nest, were ten glass phials: centigrams worth about $30,000 apiece at market rates. Each contained enough Coronatime to supply one lucky individual for 3.65 days. Jake’s fingers trembled as he withdrew one from its sheath and held it up to the light. The glass was clear. No manufacturer’s ID and date stamp as required by US law. And no CA logo – the coat of arms purchased from a European royal family, centuries ago, in return for the “eternal supply” of Coronatime which the royals, now resident in Hawaii, were said still to be enjoying.
Standing alone by the refrigerator, Jake punched the air. Maybe this would help make up for him not preventing Franco’s death. The last time he had seen black Coronatime had been in the Rave case, two years before. The stuff was incredibly rare. That was hardly surprising. Black Coronatime possession was a terminable offence.
The fake beer bottle was just the job for transporting your stash discreetly. All the phials were full. What was the market price for black Coronatime? And where had it come from? The chemical make-up of all Coronatime was standardised. But once Jake shipped it to the Home Security Bureau HQ, the analysts in Aspen might be able to pin down the origin of the sample from traces of dust or pollen in the foam, or impurities in the fake beer in the neck of the bottle. He slipped the container into his pocket and sprinted out of the house. Next stop, Santa Monica.
Jake directed the Cheyenne to the Hughes Procreation Center. It was 12.20. He would be less than half an hour late. As the car moved off, a convoy of CA recovery vehicles pulled up at the house. Another hour, and 137 South Clark would have been stripped bare, every surface dusted and recorded, a thousand artefacts prepared for evidence or resale when the house and contents were auctioned off. Jake smiled. It all helped meet the cost of crime prevention.
Would Ed take a holo from him now? Jake swivelled round to the darkened rear of the Cheyenne’s interior. But the unit had defaulted back to the Crime Channel.
On the back seat, ’Time-expired Jennifer stood naked by the bed.
‘The Central Authority should outlaw the practice of Termination Contracts at once,’ she said. There was a flicker. ‘The Central Authority should outlaw the practice of Termination Contracts at once.’
The anchor’s face was grave. ‘An assault from a sentenced Coronatime criminal on one of the central planks of the CA Constitution,’ she said. ‘Fritz?’
‘Well, Amber, Termination Contracts have been controversial since Stein vs García.’ A man appeared, hovering above the words “Dr Fritz Kroene. Coronatime Market Analyst”. His salt-and-pepper hair was interrupted by shiny bald spots above each ear. ‘It’s all very well allowing Coronatime traders to buy someone’s remaining life from a fixed date in the future in exchange for a lump-sum cash payment for the donor to enjoy right away, but – ‘
‘Hold it.’ The anchor spoke over him. ‘We have reports coming in… a breaking news story.’
The holo split: Kroene vanished, the anchor moved to one side, and the rest of the rear seat was filled with pictures taken from a helicopter. Ambulances. Sea-front. Some kind of natural disaster. The scene switched to ground level: fluorescent jackets, police officers in dark glasses, photogenic witnesses.
Jake searched for points of reference. The hubbub noise soundtrack was standard: sirens, pompous men barking futile orders, a snatch of inappropriate music from somewhere off-cam. The only thing missing from the recipe was the leavening of stoic survivors. Where was this? Beyond some palm trees, ocean sparkled. It looked like Santa Monica without the Hughes Procreation Center.
Santa Monica. The Feeding Frenzy Milk Bar had its door wide open, music blaring forth. What had happened? Where was the Hughes Center? Where were Ed and Abigail?
In a corner of the holo, Jake saw the anchor shaking her head. Her image disappeared for a few long seconds. When it reappeared, her cheeks and nose were red.
‘This is an announcement from the Central Authority.’ She paused, and took a deep breath.
‘At 12.17 Pacific Standard Time, an event took place at the Hughes Procreation Center in Santa Monica, California. It is not yet clear whether this was an accident, or a One Life Army atrocity; but the Center appears to have suffered catastrophic damage.’ The announcer swallowed. ‘According to DNA tab data, there were ten thousand, two hundred and ninety people in the Hughes Center at the time of the event, not including pre-natal or unchipped infants. Initial indications are that there are no survivors.’
Chapter 6 of the novel explores the identity of “the man in the boat” introduced in Corona Crime Chapter 2, Extreme Suffering. It turns out his name is Dr Boris Suleikin and he is a US citizen…