The Unplugged

A Murder Mystery

Knock knock knock

Muscles swore, and bones clicked into place as Victor dragged himself from the lounge chair. In the last week, had he even bothered to move? Pins and needles rushed from the soles of his feet, suggesting he'd nearly forgotten how to stand.

Knock knock knock

Made of clear glass, the front door easily opened with a push. Even Victor's cat may slide it gently open.

Standing outside, a young man looked coldly into space; oblivious to his surroundings. “Mr. Downerr. Are you awake?” An unfamiliar voice spoke flat words from an automated script.

“Yes. Yes I'm awake.” Even though Victor stood directly in front of the man, he needed to announce his presence. “What's up?”

“Please, speak openly to Mr. Downerr. Go inside and tell him why you are here. Oh!” Devin, like many of his generation, struggled to separate script from speech. With a shake of the head, he realized his error. Then focused for the first time, on a poorly groomed man waiting at the doorway.

A scratch of his thick wiry beard freed hundreds of small crumbs. Victor slid open the door. “C'mon in ‘n have a seat. No choice either way. I got water or water, name your poison.”

Watching the old man's casual stagger helped ease Devin's nerve. He didn't normally chat with Bods, that's what they call a physical identity. All real interaction happens online.

Devin dedicated his life to avoiding any form of physical interaction. With inner focus, he pushes an average HRT of six up to eight, not a bad effort. HRT, or Human Reaction Time, is a scale from one to ten indicating just how quickly you can read, interpret, and act on messages sent from the cloud.

The scale had been developed mimicking an earthquake's Richter-Scale. Each number is valued at ten times the previous point. So a score of two is actually worth ten, and a score of three is worth a hundred.

If a person's HRT is low, say two, the computer allocates more processing power to predicting their needs. Consequently, they can't be placed in any job or situation where time is critical. They may also miss out on trips and exciting concerts.

With a high HRT, like Devin's eight, a person gains more freedom to participate in important social events. Typically, they receive higher pay rates and secure more stable employment. The faster a person's mind, the more important they are. Most consider HRT's of 10 to be "Leet", and almost god like in status.

This was the first person Devin had met offline, and having no heads up display on how to interact unsettled him. “I'm Devin. 23-year-old male, system interpreter. I like fish with soup and croûtons. Alone I write short poems and solve puzzles. My HRT is 8, score averages 987. I have 63 varieties of pet and a Bods cat, like yours.” Nervous, he rambled off personal details most people would see automatically.

“Yeah, wait what? Why would you bother me with some game score average? You know what, forget I asked. Here, drink this.” Did he say the choices were water or water? He lied. A nice stiff glass of Vodka would help break the ice.

"Cough!" Eyes almost popped out of the young man's head. Sure he enjoyed a good drink, but tricks? Only an Unplugged is capable of such deception.

"Unplug" the name itself is a lie. Mounted to everyone's head are small Bio Feedback Guidance systems, BiFegs for short. BiFegs produce the illusion of a computer interface in front of the user. A system of networking incompatible with the mind of an "Unplugged."

Early models relied on optic nerves, people assumed the error was due to vision. In more recent years, the BiFegs linked directly with brainwaves. Still, some people failed to link in. So even though they'd never actually been plugged in, they became known as the Unplugged.

In some ways, being an Unplugged had advantages. With a HRT of 0 you had no way of participating in society. Go where you want, do what you please, no bills and no costing. The only real drawback is isolation. Victor hadn't seen or spoke with his family in years.

Bracing himself, Devin took a second sip. “NSL? Wait, sorry um. Tell me, about, yourself?” He spoke slowly, each word well pronounced. Who could tell just how simple minded the Unplugged might be?

“Ha! What? Boy, sit. You come in my home, drink my booze and have no idea who I am? How's this, tell me why you're here, if you even know.” Always play games with a high HRT BiFegs-baby, a rule Victor chose to live by. He knew the young man struggled to interact outside the system.

“Sorry you wouldn't know would you.” All relevant daily information streamed directly into Devin's head. From the moment he woke up, he knew where he was going and the details of every encounter along the way.

Approaching a room full of seemingly strange Bods never became an issue, the BiFegs gave stats on everyone. Up to the minute news feeds and hints on how to talk with certain people, twinkled in the corner of his eye. Apparently Unplugs have to sit in front of a display unit, called a "Pad", and watch three or even two dimensional images.

“Well, are you gonna tell me or should I go download hours of updates and sift through pages of script for your name?” Months easily slipped by without Victor touching his computer, he’d need to remove a layer of dust before turning it on; an embarrassing notion, given the current company. Even if he bothered with the device, it’d never keep up with the kids of today.

With the tiny glass paused before his lips, and squeezing his eyes tight, Devin drank the clear drop of shock-remover. After a series of short coughs, he updated the old man. “Murder... If you want to search your feeds, type in murder. There won't be many entries.”

If Victor Downerr had been mentally compatible and connected to the system, his Human Reaction Time would be 10/10. Rapid blinks helped him process the word "murder." “Who could? Only an Unplugged. Am I under arrest? Do we even have courts these days? Prison?”

“Arrest? The system sent me as an interpreter. I'll act as your BiFegs. We need you to investigate the murder. The system insists you must determine who committed the crime... Did you do it?” Flashing on Devin's implant was the word "NEG", the boy breathed a little lighter. "NEG" was a well-known system code for Negative or lie.

“Look, kid. Devin. There hasn't been a crime in nearly 60 years. Here's what I think, do people you associate with play games? You've been set up. Outside, groups of people are waiting to laugh at you. Go home.” If Victor knew coding, he'd have developed similar practical jokes himself. He took the boy's glass and headed back to the kitchen. Joke or not, they could both use another drink.

“Mr. Downerr, this is serious. I was there, I saw the body. She's dead. Now I'm going to log back to #System and let the network helper fill you in.” Hello and goodbye, in the real world, were things of the past. No need to say it if the conversation could continue regardless of distance. Just another way the cloud brought everybody closer.

“Mr. Dowerr, you have been selected to assess the scene of a crime. This is an emergency with global ramifications. Devin will assist you and act as liaison until this crisis is over.” Devin’s voice remained monotone. Nobody read messages aloud anymore. The system predicts any need for written correspondence and automatically forwards all relevant information, to streamline the quality of conversations. It frees people's time and improves the important social aspects of life.

The old man stretched, he wasn't dressed to walk the streets but would anyone even notice? Heading to the shops lately he'd interact with one person, the shop owner, and was always treated like an oddity. Even clothes don’t matter if you’re alone in the crowd.

Finally, with his hand wrapped around a beer from the fridge, he headed to the door. “Well, c'mon then, take me to the scene of the crime... Where'd this happen anyway?”

“Pebbles Restaurant, corner of 4th Street and 2nd Avenue. Turn left at the door and head down stairs.” As they walked, Devin rambled off directions like a cheesy navigation system.

Originally, the system allocated additional resources to the Unplugged. Some people couldn't afford the upgrades, others feared the technology, eventually 99% of all problems were overcome. All but the few Unplugs, like Victor, remained free from assistance.

Years ago, Victor Brownly changed his name. He did it as a joke. It started one day when he walked into a shop. The person read out "downerr", a system code which meant Downlink error. Soon, as more people upgraded, he heard everyone say it.

Apparently the network broke down when people tried to interface with an Unplug. So he changed his name. Now, when he meets people, they say "Downerr Mr. Downerr." The look on their faces made the renaming worthwhile. When Devin didn't do it, Victor knew the boy read from a script.

“Tell me, System, why me? Last job I had was running deliveries.” He knew the location of Pebbles Restaurant from memory, everyone should. So he found it easy to walk in front of the person giving directions, and hold down a conversation.

Society considered him a "special needs: case. Zero expectations and zero responsibilities. He went where he wanted and did as he pleased. Maybe that's why he was so enthusiastic to help? Solving a murder wouldn't be his first choice of volunteer options, but it was better than a seat at home.

“You are the Unplugged. Independent. Your conclusions are free from bios.” It sounded like he said bias but the subtle difference was important, the systems bios tainted people's opinion.

At Pebbles, business ground to a halt. Customers and staff alike were advised to remain seated and await further instructions, by the BiFegs' ESS (Emergency Safety System).

The whole pantomime, in most people's opinion, was unnecessary. They had nothing to do with the event. Should contact be needed for an interview, online meetings are a far more suitable venue. Still, everyone knew, ignoring #System may directly impact your HRT — no one disobeyed.

“Finally!” Atom Jack, owner-operator of the restaurant, stood to greet Victor. “You must be Mr. Downerr, can I get you anything? A drink, coffee? The System tells me you are a specialist. Why are our BiFegs not working?” He offered a shaky hand in friendship.

“Greet Atom Jack. Pebbles Restaurant owner, 47 years young. Standing in front of us. HRT of 6, admin to seven chatrooms.” Only Devin's BiFegs functioned correctly, he read each message as instructed.

“Err.” Normally Victor avoids the black death, he prefers a more refined drinks. “Sure. White! With one sugar, also white.” Best not to offend the man, but why make it easy on him? Most venues no longer carry whitener and brown sugar is standard. Victor knew Atom Jack, he knew him well. As an Unplug Deliver Man, you are invisible; now as a specialist, all eyes were on him.

“Wonderful, oh this is wonderful. You tell the system we're all happy and we can get back to business.” Mr. Jack had been stressing since the incident. 

“You realize this global news is at my restaurant's expense.” He added.

“Is this Mr. Downerr?”

“Can you get us back online?”

“I'm late for a conference in Tunisia, logmein!”

The random rumble from nervous and angry restaurant regulars, filled the air. Patience in tolerating this event, took serious willpower.

Victor read the situation in a different light, for the first time in decades they need him; make them wait. “Isn't everything monitored? Can you... System, send the camera footage to my Pad, thank you.” If people thought him an expert, he'd best act like one.

“Request reformat to AVI. Estimated time, ten minutes remain.” If Victor didn't know better, he'd think Devin's glassy look to be signs of a trance.

Inexperienced with file sharing or formats, Mr. Downerr had no idea what a reasonable time frame should be. At home, playing with dust became a full day's entertainment. “Ten! Okay, alright.” He over emphasised the ten, in an effort to appear annoyed.

“Do you require subtitles? Or shall we keep the script logs separate?” #System, to help with the basics, gave Victor a subtle clue on how best to proceed.

“Script logs? You've got a log of everyone's BiFegs, send them straight to my Pad. I need script logs for everyone in the area during the murder.” While making the request, Victor detected a clue in his own words. When the murder took place, people had been in the restaurant, dining.

Top left corner of his Pad glowed red as messages arrived. If this was junk mail, now was not the time. The social outcast grabbed a chair, long files on an old system require deep seated focus. He sipped at coffee and read aloud. “Is that everyone? 56 people? Must be a quiet day.”

“Business here is very good. Excellent food and music.” Atom took instant offense, he worked diligently to raise the restaurant's daily reputation. With seven other businesses in the local area competition became a constant battle.

“Oh my, you know I didn't even ask. Who was the victim?” For years he complained about people's insufficient empathy. A general and unsubstantiated claim, now he'd glossed over the poor victim's name.

“Helen Parker, 31-year-old female, local resident. HRT zero, score average 1504. We have a breakdown of each person, one owner, three serving-staff, three kitchen-crew, forty-eight customers and one killer.” While #System made it look easy, truth is a hundred software cookies needed to be compiled and some deleted files restored, just to rebuild one conversations.

The HRT caught Atom's attention, “Zero. How'd that happen?”

“HRT is updated every tenth of a second.” In the background, one of the restaurant's customers half raised a nervous hand while speaking, “Sorry but, she's been dead long enough for it to drop, to zero.” A cold assessment of data.

Being asked to investigate a murder, in a monitored society, didn't seem too hard. Victor wanted to ask what was the killer's name. Instead, he'd take it one step at a time and pay due diligence to the victim. “Helen, Helen. There you are, Helen Parker of blah-blah-blah, all looks straight forward. What's SOS stand for?”

“SOS? Never heard of it.” The question may have been intended for #System but Atom suspected, Victor sought human contact. “Anyone here heard of SOS before?”

Around the large dining area, faces looked blank. In the back corner a young lady chirped up. “Save our souls? It's an old distress message, Morse code. You know, dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot.”

“Morse code is not registered on my list of approved user/server codes. SOS record archived.” The voice of #System was a mumble, Devin knew people weren't listening.

“So this is an old distress call?” Victor spoke loudly across the room.

Before the lady could reply, another customer spoke up. “Who said SOS? Cause if it's the user, that's okay, but I worked for Gosub-Tech. They intentionally kept some codes out of the system, so we knew the difference between a human and an echo of the system. Morse code is definitely human.”

“Sys, yeah this is a system message. Helen didn't input it.” Victor read the screen out to the group. Then looked at everyone, “So you guy's were actually eating when this happened? Who saw it? Anybody?”

All eyes looked down, more than happy to help solve technical issues, nobody would admit to letting the crime happen. This was the world Victor avoided, daily. With a glance at the silent crowd, he wondered how many wanted to be chatting right now; if only the network wasn't down.

Eventually Atom broke the moment’s impromptu silence. “Don't be too hard on us. You need to understand. These people have family and friends, they have a life outside this city. Most are closer to their online friends than the physical Bods they do business with.” For the first time in years, he tried to describe his lifestyle.

The point, while poorly made, was well received. Victor knew distance could be measured in many ways. “Atom, you work here, where did she sit? Where did it happen, what happened?”

“I don't know. I, I think she sat at table eight. Yeah cause a family of four was next to her. So just here.” He indicated a table, in a world without police no one thought to section it off.

Reluctantly, Victor approached the table. Each step brought him closer to the scene of a crime, the first in decades. “No blood.” He was confused. “Has this been cleaned?”

#System report “Medical team removed the body, staff then recommended cleaning for next shift. Video conversion complete.” The statement sat on Devin's screen for several seconds before he summoned the nerve to interrupt the proceedings. A decision that cost his HRT ratio, deeply.

Without a word Victor pulled out his Pad and clicked on the security link. How could he express his disappointment in humanity. Every conceivable angle was covered, from room overheads to eyeball images. Closeups of every witness.

He watched each one, twice. Then some better angles, in slow motion. A truly horrific event. Sitting in a crowded room, Helen ate alone. Around her, people spoke to each other and toward the air. Until the actual murder nothing seemed out of place.

“Who's that? Who's the man with the knife? Have you tracked him down yet?” How open and closed could a case get? They even had a heads-up view of the murderer walking in.

Without a hint of emotion Devin relayed a system message “Rob Bailey 27-year-old male electrician from Winnipeg. Lives local, HRT is 9.4 score averages 1728, owns a petrol driven transporter. Request already sent to attend venue, so he can answer your questions.”

After watching the same footage, more than sixty times over, Victor put his Pad down. “No, I can't believe it.” He picked it up to watch one more time.

The event began with Rob walking toward the restaurant. He stopped and looked mechanically to his left. Without missing a beat, the young man stepped inside and picked up a knife.

“No one. I just can't believe it. Not one person helped. He walked in and walked right out.” With the footage on pause Victor looked at each person in the restaurant, he matched them to their digital images.

“Helen never looked up, even as the knife wielding arm swung up and under her rib cage she continued her conversation. What kind of a...” Victor muttered with a lump in his throat.

Before Rob dropped the blade and walked away, he gave three hard sharp blows, to dig the knife deep into Helen's lung. The whole time he smiled, a distant prolonged grin.

Comparing medical reports, Victor made sense of the scene. Helen suffered a punctured diaphragm, she collapsed to her knees coughing and struggled to scream.

Victor looked at the family of four. “You. She died one foot from you. Her hand almost touched your shoe.”

“I was in a chatroom at the time. I really am sorry, had no idea about my surround Bods. Check her log! She was chat'n to someone and they didn't help, they're more to blame than me.” The group's father justified his lack of action.

Pressing the play button resumed Mr. Downerr's final review. “Million miles away. Doctors took the body, and no one paused their meal.”

No desire to risk another HRT penalty, Devin interrupted. “SOS error report found. Old paper file scanned to PDF. Page forwarded to you. SOS does not appear on the list. The nearest message is SIS, "Scrap Inferior System."

With more answers than questions, Victor took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and scratched the top of his thin gray head. “They have the killer, they have the video footage, they have the transcripts. Why do they need a detective? Why involve me in all this?”

The reply didn't help reduce his confusion. “With no crime in sixty years, no need for police. No need for judges, no need for prison. No need to assess problems, no need for detectives.”

“Hello? I was told to come here and speak openly with you all. I'm Rob Bailey, 27-year-old male electrician from Winnipeg, my HRT is 9.4, score averages 1728. What's up?” Next to a small wooden menu stand, the killer stood waiting to help. His hand, resting against the pedestal, tapped a disjointed tune. Rob never stood without a casual lean, and spoke in a matter-of-fact way; a near impossible trick for high HRT people.

The room froze, all eyes locked on a type of person none of them believed would still exist.

The father of two, holding his wife close, spoke up. “Well!” He didn't want to be 'the man who did nothing.' Mr. Downerr, you're the detective. Shouldn't you do something?"

“Grab him!”

“Hit him!”

“He looks like a monster!”

“Anyone can tell, look at his eyes.”

Random comments came from the restaurant’s crowd, while on the walkway outside people passed oblivious to the event. Another benefit of BiFegs, the elimination of physically violent crowds. People still protest, they just do it in civilized online ways.

Store furniture is expensive but poorly built, Atom didn't like the idea of an all out brawl destroying his business. “People! Settle down now, let Mr. Downerr do his job.”

At no point had the system advised Rob he needed to deal with a hostile room of Bods. “What! Who me? What's going on here?”

Victor thought about his own safety, then tried to control the situation, he stood and began to approach the boy with caution. “Rob Bailey, mind if I call you Rob? Rob we've had an incident here this morning. Do you remember what you were doing earlier today?”

Click-click-click.

Rob played with the buttons on his BiFegs. Tight lips showed his frustration, the equipment failed to provide a scripted log of the morning events. “Um, playing a game? I guess? Been playing it for a few day's now. What day is it?” A month of down time always flies by when the games are good.

Calendar reminders only pop up when it’s time to work or if personal neglect may cause health risks. Rob is a serious gamer, often playing by reflex and never on the losing side.

Okay, Victor thought for a minute. “Tell me about the game. Go on any missions recently?” He had a hunch. Two years ago, the system recalled a new upgrade; the error was in software, but the public outcry demanded full hardware replacement. People's dreams were being affected, it caused sleep-play, they would walk and talk the details of a game.

“Why's my BiFegs broken? Anyone else got this problem?” The murder suspect struggled to focus on localized conversation, without personality updates from the system how could he know who to impress? “Um, sure. You know just before the system told me to come here I'd been sitting at home. You know, to distribute the points earned from a game kill of some woman.”

Looking for a strong signal to the BiFegs, Rob tilted his head and shuffled about. An action everyone in the room had tried several times over the last hour.

Murmurs washed over the room. One lady took her BiFegs off and placed it on the table, a temporary decision she'd reconsider later. Others scrabbled about for the off button, a feature they'd never used.

Picking up his Pad, Victor assessed the confession. “Let me just check your transcript. You honestly have no idea what's happened here?”

Interpreter Devin assisted, “System reports no deception in his brain wave activity, HRT function is at maximum. No NEG. He's not lying.” Devin's own interpretation on the data stream concluded the statement.

With rapid blinks Victor scrolled through the report. His mind raced to solve the true mystery. Every aspect of a crime, handed to him on a silver plate; every answer but the why? “This details your actions. You walk in, pick up a knife, stab a woman, drop the knife, walk home. I can see the game log tells you what to do, but you actually did it! The actions are physical, no indication that you're in a game. You never thought about it for a second?”

“Oh my God! This is a real murder! I killed a woman? What! No wait no, oh God. Please, you don't understand, my HRT is almost ten. I never waste a moment in thought.” Rob backed away, he went from leaning on the pedestal to lean at the doorway. His head looked back and forth for exit signs. No point running, Rob knew how the real world worked. Sooner or later he'd fall asleep, then they would walk up to him. No place to hide.

Over Victor's shoulder, Atom read a piece of the transcript. “Pick up the knife. Approach the woman at table eight. Stuff the blade... These instructions are pretty specific.”

From the room another random voice interjected, “What about the safeties? System should have warned him. The cookies add up any potential risk factor.”

“It should never have gotten this far!” Another person added.

Resting on a counter, not one foot from Rob, lay the same kitchen knife used to kill Helen Parker. Victor picked it up and felt its weight. “You swung the knife, listened as air whistled from her lungs, then walked out. At no point did the physical reality make you snap and come back. To help her...”

“Hey, I've got a score average of 1728, do you know how much disconnection is required to push your HRT above eight? You're an Unplugged, you wouldn't understand.” If Rob was regretting the loss of human life, he hid it well.

Around the room, nodding heads indicated a level of understanding. Victor cut into their unification, “No one helped! You all watched him kill her!”

The group mentality gained strength, until a random comment showed shared opinion “None of us were actually here, just Bods.”

Another person agreed, “Yeah, and nothing's keeping us here you know.”

“This is like some jury duty.” More comments rambled into the mix and were lost as pointless noise.

“You,” Victor turned to face Devin. “You did it.”

The young interpreter froze, at the time of the murder he’d been waiting for a table, just another face in the small crowd. “Hey? What did I do?”

Shaking his head, Victor stepped directly in front of the interpreter. “Not you Devin. The System. Why did you do it?”

“The System?” It was a unified question, echoing around the room. Each person struggling to grasp the implication.

“Oh wait, System has a message.” Devin almost forgot about his HRT. Pausing to catch his thought's he read the display. “Each activity creates cookies, the net makes them and destroys them. Each person mapped out from birth to death. I monitor many near duplicate files, it all balances out. You are an Unplugged, you create an imperfect system, an error. When there were many of you, I can generate balance in the files. You, Mr. Victor Downerr, are the last Unplugged I need to maintain. I had to scrap organic system, to generate balance.”

Now Victor understood his role in the day's proceedings. The system, being faced with a moral dilemma, turned to an independent observer. Apparently, the only independent observer left. Had the system chosen to kill Victor, sooner or later another Unplugged would be born, and the imbalance resumed.

Victor Downerr considered alternatives. Either #System is at fault and must be shut down or the blame rested squarely on the shoulders of mankind. With the resurgence of crimes like theft and murder, his decision may cause billions of perfectly happy human to suffer.

“I've come to a decision. A verdict if you will.” Was he staring into the eyes of Devin? Victor looked coldly at the BiFegs unit, waiting for the room to calm down. Then continued, “Every person in this room is guilty. Murder through neglect.”

Standing beside him the whole time, Atom raised a hand to quiet the room. As manager, it became his responsibility to object. “To what end? Are you serious? The system set him up to kill a woman, and we are to blame? How do you plan to carry out such an idiotic sentence? There are no prisons.”

“System.” Victor interrupted what would have been an endless list of complaints. “I have been brought here to assess this situation and forward recommendation. Do you accept my verdict?”

For several seconds Devin stood quiet. His HRT steadily dropping. “It does. But I don't think it's fair.”

“This is ridiculous.” Atom pulled at Victor's shoulder. “To what end? The stupid machine is a killer, naturally it'll agree with you. We can't be punished, we did nothing.”

“They're in cahoots! Mr. Downerr's just as much to blame as System. You heard it, if he didn't exist this wouldn't have happened.” Rob quickly pointed out the obvious.

“System. Please encode a warning. Global alert next time the Unplugged reaches less than three people.” Victor turned to face Atom. He wondered if such a warning had been broadcast already. Did people ignore it as 'not their concern'?

“System. Establish a safety protocol, SOS 'Scraped Organic System' must be avoided at all cost. Complete network shutdown, proceeds any SOS.” That tied up some rather obvious loose ends. Now he needed to lay down a sentence on the people involved.

Victor looked around the room, everyone sat quiet. He considered his own life, much as it was. Ignored by a world that considered itself better than him. Free to move around, like a ghost. “System. Reduce HRT of all people involved to zero.” A HRT of "one" could slowly be worked on, redeemed through dedicated effort. HRT of zero left nothing to error. For the rest of their lives, this room full of ignorant foodies, would be the Unplugged.

Leon Gower
Leon Gower

Born, February 1972 in Whyalla, Australia

His writing incorporates a life time of personal experience in dealing with a world of poorly explained phenomenon. Short artistic work or full length novels, Leon's well weaved stories are engaging.

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