Upgrade to a better browser, please.

Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Rule 34

Added By: Administrator
Last Updated:

Rule 34

Purchase this book through Purchase this book from Purchase this book from
Author: Charles Stross
Publisher: Ace Books, 2011
Orbit, 2011
Series: Halting State: Book 2

1. Halting State
2. Rule 34

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Avg Member Rating:
(92 reads / 49 ratings)


Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh is head of the Rule 34 Squad, monitoring the Internet to determine whether people are engaging in harmless fantasies or illegal activities. Three ex-con spammers have been murdered, and Liz must uncover the link between them before these homicides go viral.


Chapter 1. LIZ: Red Pill, Blue Pill

It's a slow Tuesday afternoon, and you're coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk when Sergeant McDougall IMs you: INSPECTOR WANTED ON FATACC SCENE.

"Jesus fucking Christ," you subvocalize, careful not to let it out aloud—the transcription software responds erratically to scatology, never mind eschatology—and wave two fingers at Mac's icon. You can't think of a reasonable excuse to dump it on D. I. Chu's shoulders when he comes on shift, so that's you on the spot: you with your shift-end paper-work looming, an evening's appointment with the hair salon, and your dodgy gastric reflux.

You push back your chair, stretch, and wait while Mac's icon pulses, then expands. "Jase. Talk to me."

"Aye, mam. I'm on Dean Park Mews, attendin' an accidental death, no witnesses. Constable Berman was first responder, an' she called me in." Jase pauses for a moment. There's something odd about his voice, and there's no video. "Victim's cleaner was first on the scene, she had a wee panic, then called 112. Berman's got her sittin' doon with a cuppa in the living room while I log the scene."

What he isn't saying is probably more important than what he is, but in these goldfish-bowl days, no cop in their right mind is going to say anything prejudicial over an evidence channel. "No ambulance?" You prod. "Have you opened an HSE ticket already?"

"Ye ken a goner when ye see wan." McDougall's Loanhead accent comes out to play when he's a tad stressed. "I didna want to spread this'un around, skipper, but it's a two-wetsuit job. I don' like to bug you, but I need a second opinion . . ."

Wow, that's something out of the ordinary. A two-wetsuit job means kinky beyond the call of duty. You look at the map and see his push-pin. It's easy walking distance, but you might as well bag a ride if there's one in the shed. "I was about to go off shift. If you can you hold it together for ten minutes, I'll be along."

"Aye, ma'am."

You glance sideways across the desk. Sergeant Elvis—not his name, but the duck's arse fits his hair-style—is either grooving to his iPod or he's really customized his haptic interface. You wave at him, and he looks up. "I've got to head out, got a call," you say, poking the red-glowing hover-fly case number across the desktop in his direction. He nods, catches it, and drags it down to his dock. "I'm off duty in ten, so you're holding the fort. Ping me if anything comes up."

Elvis bobs his head, then does something complex with his hands. "Yessir, ma'am. I'll take care of things, you watch me." Then he drops back into his cocoon of augmented reality. You can see him muttering under his breath, crooning lyrics to a musically themed interface. You sigh, then reach up, tear down the control room, wad it up into a ball of imaginary paper, and shove it across to sit in his dock. There's a whole lot more to shift-end handover than that, but something tells you that McDougall's case is going to take priority. And it's down to the front desk to cadge a ride.

It's an accident of fate that put you on the spot when Mac's call came in; fate and personnel allocation policy, actually: all that, and politics beside.

You don't usually sit in on the West End control centre, directing constables to shoplifting scenes and chasing hit-and-run cyclists. Nominally you're in charge of the Rule 34 Squad: the booby-prize they gave you for backing the wrong side in a political bun-fight five years ago.

But policing is just as prone to management fads as any other profession, and it's Policy this decade that all officers below the rank of chief inspector must put in a certain number of Core Community Policing hours on an annual basis, just to keep them in touch with Social Standards (whatever they are) and Mission-Oriented Focus Retention (whatever that is). Detective inspector is, as far as Policy is concerned, still a line rank rather than management.

And so you have to drag yourself away from your office for eight hours a month to supervise the kicking of litter-lout ass from the air-conditioned comfort of a control room on the third floor of Fettes Avenue Police HQ. It could be worse: At least they don't expect you to pound the pavement in person. Except Jason McDougall has called you out to do some rare on-site supervision on—

A two-wetsuit job.

Back in the naughty noughties a fifty-one-year-old Baptist minister was found dead in his Alabama home wearing not one but two wet suits and sundry bits of exotic rubber underwear, with a dildo up his arse. (The cover-up of the doubly-covered-up deceased finally fell before a Freedom of Information Act request.)

It's not as if it's like isnae well-known in Edinburgh, city of grey stone propriety and ministers stern and saturnine (with the most surprising personal habits). But propriety—and the exigencies of service under the mob of puritanical arseholes currently in the ascendant in Holyrood—dictates discretion. If Jase is calling it openly, it's got to be pretty blatant. Excessively blatant. Tabloid grade, even.

Which means

Enough of that. Let's see if we can blag a ride, shall we?

"Afternoon, Inspector. What can I do for ye?"

You smile stiffly at the auxiliary behind the transport desk: "I'm looking for a ride. What have you got?"

He thinks for a moment. "Two wheels, or four?"

"Two will do. Not a bike, though." You're wearing a charcoal grey skirt suit and the police bikes are all standard hybrids, no step-through frames. It's not dignified, and in these straitened times, your career needs all the dignity it can get. "Any segways?"

"Oh aye, mam, I can certainly do one of those for ye!" His face clears, and he beckons you round the counter and into the shed.

A couple of minutes later you're standing on top of a Lothian and Borders Police segway, the breeze blowing your hair back as you dodge the decaying speed pillows on the driveway leading past the stables to the main road. You'd prefer a car, but your team's carbon quota is low, and you'd rather save it for real emergencies. Meanwhile, you take the path at a walk, trying not to lean forward too far.

Police segways come with blues and twos, Taser racks and overdrive: But if you go above walking pace, they invariably lean forward until you resemble a character in an old Roadrunner cartoon. Looking like Wile E. Coyote is undignified, which is not a good way to impress the senior management whether or not you're angling for promotion, especially in the current political climate. (Not that you are angling for promotion, but . . . politics.) So you ride sedately towards Comely Bank Road, and the twitching curtains and discreet perversions of Stockbridge.

Crime and architecture are intimately related. In the case of the red stone tenements and Victorian villas of Morningside, it's mostly theft from cars and burglary from the aforementioned posh digs. You're still logged in as you ride past the permanent log-jam of residents' Chelsea Tractors—those such as live here can afford to fill up their hybrid SUVs, despite the ongoing fuel crunch—and the eccentric and colourful boutique shops. You roll round a tight corner and up an avenue of big stone houses with tiny wee gardens fronting the road until you reach the address Sergeant McDougall gave you.

Here's your first surprise: It's not a tenement or a villa—it's a whole town house, three stories high and not split for multiple occupancy. It's got to be worth something north of half a million, which in these deflationary times is more than you'll likely earn in the rest of your working life. And then there's your next surprise: When you glance at it in CopSpace, there's a big twirling red flag over it, and you recognize the name of the owner. Shit.

CopSpace—the augmented-reality interface to all the accumulated policing and intelligence databases around which your job revolves—rots the brain, corroding the ability to rote-memorize every villain's face and back story. But you know this guy of old: He's one of the rare memorable cases.

You ride up to the front door-step and park. The door is standing ajar—Jase is clearly expecting company. "Police," you call inside, scanning the scene. High hall ceiling, solid oak doors to either side, traditional whitewashed walls and cornice-work and maroon ceiling. Someone's restored this town house to its early-nineteenth-century splendour, leaving only a handful of recessed LED spots and covered mains sockets to remind you which century you're standing in.

A constable sticks her head around the door at the end of the hall. "Ma'am?" CopSpace overlays her with a name and number: berman, margaret, pc1022. Medium build, blond highlights, and hazel-nut eyes behind her specs. "Sergeant McDougall's in the bathroom upstairs: I'm taking a statement from the witness. Are you here to take over?" She sounds anxious, which is never a good sign in Lothian and Borders' finest.

You do a three-sixty as Sergeant McDougall comes to the top of the stairs: "Aye, skipper?" He leans over the banister. "You'll be wanting to see what's up here . . ."

"Wait one," you tell Berman. Then you take the stairs as fast as you can.

Little details stick in your mind. The picture rails in the hall (from which hang boringly framed prints depicting the city as it might once have looked), the discreet motion detectors and camera nodes in the corners of the hall ceiling. The house smells clean, sterile, as if it's been mothballed and bubble-wrapped. Jase takes a step back and gestures across the landing at an open door through which enough afternoon daylight filters that you can see his expression. You whip your specs off, and after a momentary pause, he follows suit. "Give me just the executive summary," you tell him.

McDougall nods tiredly. Thirtyish, sandy-haired, and built like a rugby prop, he could be your classic recruiter's model for community policing. "Off the record," he says—on the record, in the event one of your head cams is still snooping, or the householder's ambient lifelogging, or a passing newsrag surveillance drone, or God: But at least it serves notice of intent to invoke the Privacy Act—"This'n's a stoater, boss. But it looks like 'e did it to 'isself, to a first approximation."

You take a deep breath and nod. "Okay, let's take a look." You clip your specs back on and follow Jase into the bathroom of the late Michael Blair, esq., also known as Prisoner 972284.

The first thing you clock is that the bathroom's about the size of an aircraft hangar. Slate tile floor, chrome fittings and fixtures, expensively curved-glass shower with a bar-stool and some kind of funky robot arm to scoosh the water-jet right up your fanny—like an expensive private surgery rather than a temple of hygiene. About the stainless steel manacles bolted to the wall and floor inside the shower cubicle we'll say no more. It is apparent that for every euro the late Michael Blair, esq. spent on his front hall, he spent ten on the bathroom. But that's just the beginning, because beyond the shower and the imported Japanese toilet seat with the control panel and heated bumrest, there stands a splendid ceramic pedestal of a sink—one could reasonably accuse the late Mr. Blair of mistaking overblown excess for good taste—and then a steep descent into lunacy.

Mikey, as you knew him before he became (the former) Prisoner 972284, is lying foetal on the floor in front of some kind of antique machine the size of a washer/dryer. It's clearly a plumbing appliance of some kind, enamelled in pale green trimmed with chrome, sprouting pipes capped with metal gauges and thumb-wheels that are tarnished down to their brass cores, the metal flowers of a modernist ecosystem. The letters CCCP and a red enamel star feature prominently on what passes for a control panel. Mikey is connected to the aforementioned plumbing appliance by a sinuous, braided-metal pipe leading to a chromed tube, which is plugged straight into his—

Jesus. It is a two-wetsuit job.

You glance at Jase. "Tell me you haven't touched anything?"

He nods, then adds, "I canna speak for the cleaner, ma'am."

"Okay, logged."

You walk around the corpse carefully, scanning with your specs and muttering a continuous commentary of voice tags for the scene stream. Michael Blair, esq.—age 49, weight 98 kilos, height 182 centimetres, brown hair (thinning on top, number two cut rather than comb-over)—has clearly been dead for a few hours, going by his body temperature. Middle-aged man, dead on bathroom floor: face bluish, eyes bulging like he's had an aortic aneurysm. That stuff's modal for Morningside. It's the other circumstances that are the issue.

Mikey is mostly naked. You suppose "mostly" is the most appropriate term, because he is wearing certain items that could pass for "clothed" in an SM club with a really strict dress code: black bondage tape around wrists and ankles, suspender belt and fishnets, and a ball gag. His veined cock is purple and engorged, as hard as a truncheon. That, and the hose up his arse and the puddle of ming he's leaking, tell you all you need to know. Which is this: You're going to miss your after-work hairdresser's appointment.

"Call SOC, I want a full scene work-up. I want that thing—"you gesture at the Cold-War-era bathroom nightmare—"taken in as evidence. The fluid, whatever, get it to forensics for a full report: Ten to one there's something dodgy in it." You look him in the eye. "Sorry, Jase, but we're gannae be working late on this."

"Aw shite, Liz."

Aw shite indeed: With a sinking feeling, you realize what's up. Jase was hoping you'd take it off his plate, eager-beaver ready to grab an opportunity to prove your chops in front of head office so he can go home to his end-of-shift paper-work and wind down. Well, it's not going to happen quite like that. You are going to take it off his plate—as duty DI, it's your job. But that's not the end of the game.

"You've got to ask where all this"—your gesture takes in the town house around you—"came from? And I find the circumstances of his death highly suggestive. Until we can rule out foul play, I'm tagging this as probable culpable homicide, and until CID move in and take over, you're on the team. At least one other person was involved—unless you think he trussed himself up then slipped and fell on that thing—and I want to ask them some questions."

"Reet, reet." He takes your point. Sighing lugubriously, he pulls out his phone and prepares to take notes. "You said he's got form?"

You nod. "The conviction's spent: You won't see it in CopSpace without criminal intelligence permissions. He did five years in Bar-L and forfeiture of proceeds of crime to the tune of 2 million euros, if I remember the facts correctly. Illegal online advertising and sale of unlicensed pharmaceuticals. That was about six years ago, and he went down for non-violent, and I don't think he's currently a person of interest." You pause. "The housekeeper found him, right? And the security contractors—"

"'E's with Group Four. I served 'em a disclosure notice, and they coughed to one visitor in the past two hours—the cleaner."

"Two hours?"

"Aye, they was swithering on aboot privacy and confidentiality an' swore blind they couldna give me oot more'n that." He looks at you hopefully. "Unless you want to escalate . . . ?"

"You bet I will." Getting data out of sources like home-monitoring services gets easier with seniority: The quid pro quo is that you need to show reasonable cause. Luckily cause doesn't get much more reasonable than a culpable homicide investigation. You glance at Mikey again. Poor bastard. Well, maybe not. He went down as a non-violent offender but did his time under Rule 45, like he was a kiddie-fiddler or a snitch or something similar. For good reason: Something similar is exactly what he was.

You walk towards the door, talking. "Let's seal the room. Jase, I want you to call Sergeant"—Elvis, your memory prompts—"Sorensen, and tell him we've got a probable culpable homicide I want to hand off to the X Division duty officer. Next, call SOC, and tell them we've got a job. I'm going downstairs to talk to Mags and the witness. If you get any serious pushback or queries from up the greasy pole, point them at me, but for the next fifteen minutes, I want you to run interference."

The next fifteen minutes is likely to be your entire quota of face time with the witness before a blizzard of virtual paper-work descends on your head—that's why you're leaning on Jase. And you really want a chance to get your head around what's going on here, before the regulars from X Division—the Criminal Investigation Department, as opposed to your own toytown fiefdom (which is laughably a subsidiary of theirs, hence the "D" in front of your "I")—take the stiff with the stiffy off your plate.

It's a dead certainty that when the shit hits the fan, this case is going to go political. You're going to have Press Relations and Health and Safety crawling all over you simply because it happened on your watch, and you were the up-and-coming officer who put Mikey in pokey back when you had a career ladder to climb. Not to mention the fact that something has twitched your non-legally-admissible sixth sense about this whole scene: You've got a nasty feeling that this might go beyond a mere manslaughter charge.

Mikey was a spammer with a specialty in off-licence medication. And right now you'd bet your cold overdue dinner that, when Forensics return that work-up on the enema fluid from the colonic irrigation machine, it'll turn out to be laced with something like Viagra.

Shock, disgust, and depression.

You are indeed late home for your tea, as it happens—and never mind the other appointment. Michael Blair, esq., has shafted you from beyond the—well, not the grave, at least not yet: But you don't need to mix the metaphor to drink the cocktail, however bitter. So you're having a bad hair day at the office tomorrow, and never mind the overtime.

Doubtless Jase is going home to his wife and the bairns, muttering under his breath about yet another overtime claim thanks to the ball-breaking politically oriented inspector who disnae ken her career's over yet; or maybe not. (He's still young: born to a couple of ravers after the summer of love, come of age just in time to meet Depression 2.0 head-on. They're a very different breed from the old-timers.) And on second thoughts, maybe he's a wee bit smug as well—being first on scene at a job like this will probably keep him in free drinks for years to come.

But in the final analysis your hair-do and his dinner don't signify. They're unimportant compared to the business at hand, a suspicious death that's going to make newsfeeds all over the blogosphere. Your job right now is to nail down the scene ready for CID to take over. There's a lot to do, starting with initializing the various databases and expert systems that will track and guide the investigation—HOLMES for evidence and case management, BOOTS for personnel assignment, VICTOR for intelligence oversight—calling in the support units, preventing further contamination of the evidence, and acting as first-response supervisor. And so you do that.

You go down to the kitchen—sterile, ultra-modern, overflowing with gizmos from the very expensive bread-maker (beeping forlornly for attention) to the cultured meat extruder (currently manufacturing chicken sans egg)—where you listen to the housekeeper; Mrs. Sameena Begum, middle-aged and plump and very upset, wringing her hands in the well-appointed kitchen: In all my years I have never seen anything like it. You nod sympathetically and try to draw out useful observations, but alas, she isn't exactly CID material.

After ten minutes and fifty seconds, Jase can no longer draw off the incoming flak and begins forwarding incoming calls. You make your excuses, send PC Berman to sit with her, then go outside and start processing a seemingly endless series of sitrep requests from up and down the food-chain.

An eternity later, Chief Inspector MacLeish from CID turns up. Dickie's followed by a vanload of blue-overalled SOCOs and a couple of freelance video bloggers. After another half-hour of debriefing, you finally get to dump your lifelog to the evidence servers, hand over the first-responder baton, finish your end-of-shift wiki updates and hand-offs, and head for home. (The segway, released from duty, will trundle back to the station on its own.)

The pavement smells of feral honeysuckle, grass, and illegal dog shit. You notice cracked concrete slabs underfoot, stone walls to either side. Traffic is light this evening, but you have to step aside a couple of times to dodge kamikaze Edinburgh cyclists on the pavement—no lights, helmets, or heed for pedestrians. It's almost enough to make you pull your specs on and tag them for Traffic—almost. But you're off duty, and there's a rule for that: a sanity clause they added to Best Practice guidelines some years ago that says you're encouraged to stop being a cop the moment you log out.

They brought that particular guide-line in to try and do something about the alarming rise in burn-out cases that came with CopSpace and the other reality-augmentation initiatives of the Revolution in Policing Affairs that they declared a decade ago. It doesn't always work—didn't save your civil partnership in the end—but you've seen what happens to your colleagues who fail to ring-fence their professional lives. That way lies madness.

(Besides, it's one of the ticky-boxes they grade you on in Learning and Development/Personal Welfare/Information Trauma Avoidance. How well you let go and connect back with what the folks writing the exams laughably call the real world. And if you fail, they'll downgrade you on Emotional Intelligence or some other bullshit non-performance metric, and make you jump through some more training hoops. The beatings will continue until morale improves.)

It hasn't always been thus. Back before the 1990s, policing used to be an art, not a science, floundering around in the opaque darkness of the pre-networked world. Police officers were a breed apart—the few, the proud, defenders of law and order fighting vainly to hold back a sea of filth lapping at the feet of a blind society. Or so the consensus ran in the cosy after-hours pub lock-in, as the old guard reinforced their paranoid outlook with a pie and a pint and stories of the good old days. As often as not a career on the beat was the postscript to a career in the army, numbing the old combat nerves . . . them and us with a vengeance, and devil take the hindmost.

It all changed around the time you were in secondary school; a deluge of new legislation, public enquiries, overturned convictions, and ugly miscarriages of justice exposed the inadequacies of the old system. A new government and then a new culture of intelligence-driven policing, health and safety guide-lines, and process quality assurance arrived, promising to turn the police into a shiny new engine of social cohesion. That was the police force you'd studied for and then signed up to join—modern, rational, planned, there to provide benign oversight of an informed and enabled citizenry rather than a pasture for old war-horses.

And then the Internet happened: and the panopticon society, cameras everywhere and augmented-reality tools gobbling up your peripheral vision and greedily indexing your every spoken word on duty. Globalization and EU harmonization and Depression 2.0 and Policing 3.0 and another huge change of government; then semi-independence and another change of government, slogans like Reality-Based Policing gaining traction, and then Standards-Based Autonomous Policing—back to the few, the proud, doing it their own way (with permanent surveillance to log their actions, just in case some jakey on the receiving end of an informal gubbing is also lifelogging on his mobie, and runs screeching about police brutality to the nearest ambulance chaser).

Sometime in the past few years you learned a dirty little secret about yourself: that the too-tight spring that powered your climb through the ranks has broken, and you just don't care anymore.

Let's have a look at you, shall we? Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh, age 38. Born in Newcastle, went to a decent state grammar school: university for a BSc in Crime and Criminology in Portsmouth, then graduate entry into Lothian and Borders Police on Accelerated Promotion Scheme for Graduates, aged 22. Passed your Diploma in Police Service Leadership and Management, aged 25. Passed sergeant's exam, aged 27. MSc in Policing, Policy, and Leadership, aged 29. Moved sideways into X Division, Criminal Investigations, as detective sergeant, aged 29. Aged 31: passed inspector's exam, promotion to Detective Inspector. Clearly a high-flyer! And then . . .

If it had all gone according to your career plan—the Gantt chart you drew by hand and taped to your bedroom wall back when you were nineteen and burning to escape—you'd be a chief inspector by now, raising your game to aim for the heady heights of superintendent and the sunlit uplands of deputy chief constable beyond. But no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy, and time is the ultimate opponent. In the case of your career, two decades have conducted as efficient a demolition of your youthful goals as any artillery barrage.

It turns out you left something rather important off your career plan: for example, there's no ticky-box on the diagram for HAVING A LIFE—TASK COMPLETED. And so you kept putting it off, and de-prioritized it, and put it off again until the law of conservation of shit-stirring dragged it front and centre and lamped you upside yer heid, as your clients might put it.

Which is why you're walking to the main road where you will bid for a microbus to carry you to the wee flat in Clermiston which you and Babs bought on your Key Worker Mortgage . . . where you can hole up for the evening, eat a microwave meal, and stare at the walls until you fall asleep. And tomorrow you'll do it all over again.

Keep taking the happy pills, Liz. It's better than the alternative.

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Stross


Rule 34

- spoltz


No alternate cover images currently exist for this novel.