Jack had never been down this particular road in all his years in the city. It was on the outskirts, old farmland with encroaching suburbs on all sides. Here and there the dirt track intersected trails that ran through the woods on either side.
He barely saw any of it. On the screen of his phone he had the case files up and was reviewing them, letting the car take him to his destination. According to the map displayed on the dash he would be there soon.
Every now and then the car would slow down so much that Jack would look up from his work, thinking he had arrived. But, no, it was only another deep pothole filled with dirty ice and brown water.
Spring was coming, but it was taking its damn time. It was cold, for April. Early mornings, like this one, were still frost coated most days. The edges of the road were covered with a thin layer of white, whereas the main stretch was muddy and churned. He knew several squad cars had already been down here this morning. They were, in fact, waiting for him.
Around a bend in the road, where the trees gave way to a large field, lying fallow now, he came upon those other cars. Several uniformed police officers milled about, coming and going from the field. Many rubbed their hands together in the early morning chill. Others paced back and forth as they looked at the screens of their phones.
His car came to a stop next to the other vehicles. He grabbed the case that he always carried from the passenger seat. Jack’s feet squished in the thin mud as he exited the car and walked to the closest of the officers.
"Inspector, good morning, sir," the man said, looking up from his phone at the older man’s approach.
"You have the body?" Jack asked.
"Yes, sir, the CSI team is just over there with it," the man said, jerking his thumb toward a group of white-clad crime scene investigators. The three women and one man of the team passed scanners over the dead body. Jack couldn’t see it though; the team’s forms hid it from view. "Do you want to see it?"
"Hmmm?" Jack asked, looking around. "After, lieutenant, after." He continued scanning all the police personnel, looking for a civilian. "Where’s the witness? I’ll speak to them first. There wasn’t anything in the file about them. What’s their name?"
"Charlie," the uniformed lieutenant said.
"Alright, Charlie, good enough." Jack hefted the heavy waterproof bag he carried a little higher. The technopathic gear was getting lighter every year but it still wasn’t light. "Is it a he or she?"
"Okay, where is he?"
The officer pointed to a stable, on the opposite side of the muddy road.
"He’s in the stable? What the hell for?"
"He’s not in the stable, sir, he’s next to it." Jack could have sworn the officer was about to smirk, could hear it in the man’s voice.
He shot the man a look. It was a look Jack had mastered over the years. The smirk died on the lieutenant’s lips.
Jack turned to the stable once more. Standing in a pen next to the rundown building was a lone horse.
"Fuck," he muttered. He turned to the officer again. "That’s Charlie?"
"Fuck," he said again. "What a day. Up less than an hour and it’s already shit." Shaking his head he started for the pen. He turned back when he was halfway and called back to the officer. "You’re not putting me on?"
"No, sir," the uniform said, seeming to see no humour in the situation any longer.
"Fuck," Jack said once more, rubbing his hand through his receding hair. He continued toward the pen. He stopped after a few steps and turned back once more. “The owner?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Contacted but they can’t make it for at least another couple hours.”
Jack sighed, nodded and started walking again.
Charlie watched him approach, his nostrils steaming in the early morning air. The horse seemed nice enough. Jack only hoped he could work with the beast. He pushed thoughts of the orangutan incident from his mind. But his free hand moved, anyway, to hover over the scars on his leg. Horses don’t have nails he reminded himself. No, they have hooves.
Next to the fence of the pen, avoiding Charlie’s eyes the whole time, Jack laid his bag on the ground. He smiled at the horse who seemed curious but, luckily, not frightened.
"Hi there, Charlie. Nice day," Jack said. Then he shook his head. "Nice day? What the fuck, it’s a horse, Jack!" He turned to look behind him, toward the officers. None of them seemed to have noticed his raised voice. Even Charlie seemed nonplussed by Jack’s third person remark.
"Get a grip, get a grip. It’s just a horse," he said to himself as he unzipped his bag and pulled out the tools of his trade. A technopathic inspector wasn’t much without them. "Will I be craving sugar cubes and hay for a week?" he asked himself. His mind, unbidden, traitor that it was, pulled up the memory of the German shepherd incident. He pushed it away, not wishing to relive it for a single moment.
"It’s okay, it’s just a horse." He continued talking to himself as he assembled the devices and calibrated them. "It had to be a damned animal though, didn’t it? Not some nice, cooperative human being. Jesus, even a non-cooperative human being. Horse thoughts, what are they like anyway? Scattered, like all animals, surely. A person, how nice that would be. You can ask questions and get answers. But, no, not today. If only Mr. Ed were real."
No one was around to hear him mumbling, but even if they had been he would’ve done it anyway. It was how he prepared for the pairing. It was one of the reasons the rest of the police force were wary of him. They found what he did unsettling, sure, but they found him more unsettling.
He was okay with that; he was never alone. Jack had so many memories from other people swirling in his head that he wasn’t even sure who he was sometimes. It was part and parcel with the profession though, so he took it in stride.
Jack laid the assembled tools on the flat surface of the opened case. He fetched his phone from his pocket, opened the government issued technopathic app and made sure all the devices were online. Finally, he pressed the button in the app that switched on his implant. It was a small sub-dermal chip embedded next to his spine at the base of his skull. He could have gone old-school, connecting a device every time, but that was too much hassle.
The implant returned an a-okay signal to the phone. Everything was ready to go. Now there was only one more piece to the puzzle — Charlie.
Sighing, Jack detached a TNI, temporary neural interface, from the receiving base unit laid on the bag. He wasn’t looking forward to the next step.
The TNI was small, about the size and shape of a shirt button. Except on one side it had barbed needles that made it adhere to the skin of the witness. Then the little device would extend those prongs a little deeper, making contact with the nerves. Everything was wireless of course, sent over an encrypted real-time network the base unit created. If all went well the signal would travel from the witness — Charlie in this case — through the air to the base device. From there it would be processed and relayed to Jack’s implant.
He would see the horse’s thoughts, its memories. Which, hopefully, included the murderer’s face, or some other incriminating evidence. When it came to animals it was better if it was a lead and not a face — in some courts technopathic evidence from animals still wasn’t admissible. Human technopathic evidence was enshrined in law but animals were still considered by many to be unreliable witnesses. So, a lead that led to physical evidence was preferred.
For any of that to happen Jack actually had to get the TNI onto the horse, in the right location. He would, of course, have to go into the pen.
TNI in hand, he stood and eyed the horse. It was looking around but not directly at him — good, that meant it didn’t see him as a threat. At least that was Jack’s understanding from his very brief training on approaching various types of animals. If only the owner of the horse was there; that always made things easier. He would just hand the device to them and say have fun.
Sighing again he crouched and squeezed between the rails of the fence. The horse made no move, just continued doing its own thing. Jack approached the beast toward its shoulder, on a diagonal, as he remembered you’re supposed to do. He steadily moved closer. He held his hands out and open, except where he kept the TNI between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
He approached closer still until he could reach out and touch the animal. Jack stroked the horse’s neck with his left hand while he laid his right hand further down, near its shoulders. The horse was relaxed and appeared to be enjoying the attention. It seemed used to people. He whispered, "It’s okay Charlie, it’s alright boy. This won’t hurt at all." That was a lie.
Now was the moment. Jack reached around with his right hand, eyeing the position of the horse’s neck, and got ready. He had to be quick, the timing was key. Jack checked his footing, it was solid enough.
He brought his right hand down against the base of the horse’s head, releasing the TNI as it made contact with the animal’s skin. The barbs drove home and Charlie’s eyes shot open. His teeth flared into view and he jumped back, getting ready to rear up on his back legs.
Jack didn’t wait for that to happen. He shot back toward the fence as the horse raised itself up. He made himself small and non-threatening as he continued to back away. He felt the fence at his back then. The horse brought down his front hooves. They impacted the ground hard with a thick thud. Its nostrils flared and its eyes tracked Jack.
“It’s okay Charlie,” Jack said in a calm voice. “Sorry about that boy, had to be done.”
Jack started to slip back through the fence. That was when the horse reared up again, catching the inspector off-guard. Jack’s foot caught on the fence rail and he fell sideways onto the muddy ground. He was still inside the pen.
“Shit,” he muttered. Looking up he saw muscular legs hovering above him. Dangling below them, like battering rams, were hard, solid hooves. Jack thrust himself backwards with his legs and arms, struggling for traction on the wet ground. It was enough. He squeezed under the bottom rail of the pen and away from danger.
Charlie came back to four legs and snorted rapidly, looking around for danger. When none was forthcoming the horse relaxed a little, though not as much as Jack would have liked. He felt sorry for the creature, sorry that he couldn’t explain, as he could with humans, that it was going to pinch, but only for a moment. He couldn’t tell it that it would be okay and that it was temporary. There were many things about pairing with an animal that felt invasive.
But it was for the greater good and, he knew, wouldn’t do the animal any long-term damage. He hoped all the peer-reviewed articles in the journals stating as much were correct.
Jack got back to his feet, ignoring the mud, grass and seeping wetness along his pants and coat. Phone in hand, he reviewed the telemetry from the TNI and his own neural interface implant. Both were good. He tapped the button that would connect them and exhaled.
Jack closed his eyes, letting the new input flow through his implant and into his brain. The technology allowed him some rudimentary control of the flow and, luckily, it was a one-way connection. Charlie couldn’t see his memories, which was lucky for the horse. Jack’s brain was a jigsaw puzzle of memories from human scum, upstanding citizens and various animal witnesses. It was a smorgasbord of confusion. He didn’t even like living there.
Opening his eyes for a moment, Jack chanced a glance at Charlie. The horse was standing still, looking about but otherwise mellow. Good. The initial jolt of the TNI was the worst of it. People could sometimes have weird sensations as their memories were accessed — changing chemical levels in their brains maybe — but animals didn’t, or rather couldn’t, complain. And Charlie seemed none the worse for wear. Jack closed his eyes again. It was time to get to work.
Easing into the disjointed images, he watched them for signs of the murder. Of course, it was possible the horse hadn’t seen anything. But, then again, it might have. Experiencing the thoughts was much like remembering a past event in your own life. Except, unlike those familiar incidents, these were entirely new and, coming from a horse, really odd.
Animals don’t think like people. They don’t use words and therefore are much more visual in their thinking and memories. But the murder was very recent and it might have registered as something out of the ordinary for the equine. Jack sent mental commands to the base unit, filtering the incoming stream. He told it to look for patterns and shapes matching those of humans. The pattern-matching algorithms in the base unit were top notch. In moments he was looking at dark scenes that could only be night time.
Charlie had seen this view — better than any human could with the horse’s better night vision — and now Jack was watching a mental playback. A black sky sat above a grey open space with a darker grey ribbon in front of it — the field and dirt road. A car came along it, white and sleek, a sports car. White headlights cut a swath through the darkness before it. Brake lights — not red as they would normally be as horses can’t see that colour — flashed on the other end of the vehicle as the car halted.
A man, his features lost in shadow but burly and broad, got out. He made his way around the car, crossing the headlight beams. The brute chose his steps with caution in the slippery, frosty mud. He opened the back door and disappeared for a moment as he wrestled with something inside. The backseat? Jack thought. Why not the trunk? He shrugged the thought away, filing it for later, and focused on the scene Charlie was sharing with him.
The man reappeared and now, added to his own bulk was the slim form of a woman. She was slung over one of his shoulders. Like the man, she was unrecognizable but Jack knew it was the victim. If there had been any doubt it was wiped away as the man dropped the woman in the exact spot that the CSI team had been huddled around. He was watching the murderer dump the body.
But was he learning anything useful? The car, yes, that was a lead, sure. If they located that vehicle, there would most likely be DNA evidence from the woman, and maybe the man too, in the backseat. If they located it before the murderer had time to cover his tracks.
Jack sent more mental commands to the base unit, asking it to clean up the images of the car, to zoom in, if possible. Memories are strange, ephemeral things. But fresh memories — and this one was only a few hours old — were best; they were less distorted by the influence of new events. So, luck might be with Jack this morning. The fresh memory might make the case.
At first scientists and engineers had tried to process memories and thoughts through computers and create visualizations of the data on external displays. That worked, to a point. Then someone had the brilliant idea of processing the data through an equivalent computer: another human brain. People with the right training and experience could interpret that data and visualize it in their own brain. Given his fifteen years as an inspector, Jack figured he was qualified.
Jack watched the image of the car crystallize in his mind’s eye. It was a Memerca, yes, the make was definitely theirs. But the model? That was a little harder to determine. Jack waited and let the processing algorithms and heuristics do their job. The image wavered a little, getting sharper here and there. And a little closer. Then he had it: It was a white four-door Memerca Eclipse. A late-year too, only a year or two old.
He also knew the approximate build of the man, could judge his height from his size relative to the car. That was it, he had enough to pass on to the uniforms and detectives, they could take it from there.
Shaking his head, as if it would help clear the intruding thoughts, Jack opened his eyes and retrieved his phone. With a quick tap of his thumb he hit the disconnect button and then the release button. Immediately the TNI came loose from Charlie and dropped to the ground. Jack usually would have retrieved the device and recycled it. But, in this case, he figured he had intruded enough on the poor animal. The horse whinnied a little and, losing interest in Jack, trotted off to the other side of the pen. None the worse for wear, Jack thought.
He made some notes on his phone, appending them to the case file and then merged those with the central file. Those changes would immediately be available on the phones of all the officers assigned to the case. He packed up the base unit, returning it to the foam cutouts in the case and zippered the whole thing closed.
"I’ve updated the case file, lieutenant," Jack said as he approached the young officer.
The uniformed officer took out his phone and brought up the updates. "A white Memerca Eclipse, ’46 or ’47. The body was in the backseat. Got it, inspector. Thanks for your help."
Jack shrugged. "It’s what they pay me for."
"Sir, I…," the lieutenant started.
"Is it… weird?"
The lieutenant’s question was vague but Jack knew what he meant. Was it weird to see into the mind of a horse? Of course it was, how could it not be?
"I don’t recommend it," Jack said, smiling. "Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got other cases to get to today."
"Of course, sir. Thanks again."
Jack waved in response as he walked back to his car.
He sank into the seat, laying his case on the passenger seat. Sensing his presence the car asked, "Where to, Jack?"
He lay back, closing his eyes. His head was, as usual, throbbing. They did warn you about that in school. But, like most things in school, it’s all theoretical. It’s the practical, the day-to-day; the pairing yourself with a horse. It was never during the activity either, no, that usually went smoothly. Which was good for his career, of course.
But after — sometimes minutes, sometimes hours — he could still see afterimages and feel their feelings. Charlie was scared, from the TNI attachment most likely. Jack had made him feel that way and now he could literally feel that fear. He didn’t like being the source of any creature’s fear. He liked feeling that fear even less.
It would fade, in time, much like his own memories and thoughts. Jack would sometimes have to be reminded of past events, like his sister’s fortieth birthday party. There was only so much room in a person’s head. His was jammed full. And every new day made it that much worse.
The department shrink told him not to worry about it, that he, Jack, was still in there, secure and safe. Jack wasn’t so sure. With his eyes closed, half-awake now, he could almost feel the cool breeze on his long mane and the damp earth against his hooves.
His eyes shot open. "Jesus fucking Christ. Now I’m a god damned horse." He shook his head to try and rid himself of the thoughts. "Doctor fuckin’ Doolittle you’ve got nothing on me."
The car stopped for a moment before pulling from the bumpy dirt road onto smooth asphalt. It accelerated until it reached the speed limit. The sun was getting a little higher in the sky now and the grey was being subsumed by the blue of a crisp, spring day.
Jack saw none of it. He was lost inside his own head, pushing down Charlie’s mental self-image and reasserting his own. "What I won’t do for my job," he muttered to himself.
He pulled out his phone as the car swung up an on-ramp and merged into the traffic on the highway. Jack scanned through his schedule. The next one, this afternoon, was a human. Good; that was good.