The Devil Whispered by Shawn Starkweather

March 3, 2021
 

Science-Fiction/Mystery/Detective

Date Published: 3/1/2021

Retired special-forces commander Jacobi Slate is drawn into a downward-spiraling vortex of fear and doubt while investigating a brutal murder committed by an old friend. As evidence mounts that someone else might be pulling strings from the shadows, Jacobi struggles to understand a developing connection to his own past, which is quickly catching up to him.

Near-future cyberpunk collides with gritty detective noir in this fast-paced thriller that shines a light on both the vast shortcomings and the noble heroism of the human condition. To unravel the mystery, Jacobi will pull on every thread while chasing leads from the squalor of the most dangerous streets to the high-tech towers of the wealthy elite on his quest to understand a truth he might not be ready to face.

 

Excerpt

Through the doorway, a shape was moving toward us, intermittently visible as the pulsing rings passed rapidly along the ceiling. It was low to the ground, and parts of it were glowing red. The lights were moving too quickly for me to fully assess exactly who or what was approaching us, until it had nearly reached the door. It was an elderly Asian man, seated in a wheeled chair, the metal of which was aglow. The colors of fire swirled within it and gave the metal the molten appearance of having just been drawn from the flames. The man looked to be in his seventh or eighth decade. His white hair was short, straight, and neatly combed. The sharp, piercing gaze from beneath his glasses belied any assumption that his advanced age might have dulled his mind. For a few moments, he quietly studied us, and I had the sense that we were being silently compared with a preexisting expectation of some kind.

I bowed then, timing it as I deemed appropriate to reflect the proper amount of deference, since I was a guest on this ship and had come seeking his assistance. Risa followed my example.

Kangei Shimasu,” he said in Japanese, bowing his head respectfully. “Be welcome, Jacobi-san.”

“You know my name,” I said, unsurprised.

He paused for a moment, as if to consider how to answer, and then nodded. “I do. I know a great many things about both of you, but before you ask, I am unwilling to fully explain the methods that we use to gather our intelligence. We should use the limited time we have to share with one another this evening to focus on less complex matters.”

“You are The Blacksmith?” asked Risa.

“Yes. Welcome to the Forge, Ms. Corbin. You, of all people, might appreciate the room in which we stand now. Do you understand what you see, I wonder?”

“I think…” she said, looking slowly around the room, “if I had to guess, considering the amount of power you have being routed to that sphere, it’s probably the central processing unit for some sort of massive neural network. AI, perhaps?”

“Not just any artificial intelligence. Certainly nothing along the lines of those ridiculous programmed concierges you see installed in every home now. The Anvil,” he said, nodding in the direction of the sphere, “is the foundation of all of the work we do here at the Forge. I began developing it more than five decades ago, and it has since evolved into what you see before you now, a fully functioning example of the potential of machine learning.”

“What does it do?” she asked, walking closer and running her hand along the surface of the sphere.

“It manages complex medical procedures and data-mines the Evernet with astounding speed and accuracy to provide me with information. In many ways, it functions as an assistant of sorts for me, without which the work I do would take an extraordinarily increased length of time to complete.”

“And what is that exactly?” she asked. “The work you do, I mean.”

“You contacted me. That seems a great deal of trouble to go through without knowing what you seek.”

“It certainly does,” Risa said, giving me a poignant glare.

“Well,” he continued, “we do a great many things here in the Forge, mostly in the field of biological cybernetics. Our moral inclinations tend to be much looser than the places where this work is performed legally. And with the assistance of the Anvil, we can perform it in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise.”

“Why out here? Why on the ocean? A ship hardly seems the ideal place for a man in a wheelchair,” I said.

“Well, ship stability technology has made some leaps forward in the twenty years since you were in the navy, Mr. Slate. Advances in the field of magnetic internal stabilizers, as well as wave pattern recognition and prediction, have given way to a new era of onboard motion control. As you can surely see, there is a powerful storm raging outside yet barely the slightest hint of movement here within the hull.”

I hadn’t been paying too much attention, distracted as I’d been by the strange environment and the neural network, but he was correct. I bowed my head in concession to his point.

“To answer your question, it provides some amount of security, and the mobility we need to maintain our privacy. The ocean also provides a consistent, natural source of coolant that we utilize in maintaining our operation. Additionally, we have systems onboard that harness both thermal energy from the sun’s heat and mechanical energy from the tides and waves. Water, Mr. Slate, is a powerful tool when properly manipulated.”

My curiosity was sated, and I was impressed. The Blacksmith’s chair rolled forward past us, seemingly of its own violation as his hands were neatly folded in his lap. It repositioned to face us when it reached the Anvil.

“So, let us not waste any more time. Tell me, what service do you hope I can provide?”

I looked at Risa, who was watching me expectantly, and drew a deep breath.

“I need a kill switch for my head.”

About the Author

Shawn lives in Massachusetts with his wife and the handful of childhood stuffed animals that they’ve been unable to part ways with, even despite the awkward situation it occasionally puts their house guests in. He wields a coveted Associates of Liberal Arts degree from Greenfield Community college in an overly enthusiastic, flailing manner, and puts it to work writing both fantasy and science fiction stories. Using subliminal codes and hidden messaging carefully placed throughout his books, he plans to captivate the minds of his readers and insidiously manipulate them into purchasing subsequent releases.

As a novelist, musician, graphic designer, and a purveyor of fine games, Shawn is often confused about exactly who he is when he wakes up in the morning. It’s been said (by him) that perhaps he embodies all of these things so equally that a singular definition could not comprehensively impart a satisfactory description. With your support, and a sufficient demand for more novels, he secretly hopes that he’ll have no choice but to formally acknowledge the prevailing label of ‘author’ and spend the rest of his days providing a sense of wonder and adventure to everyone who helped him solidify his nebulous identity.

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