Story by Ee Leen Lee
Illustrations by Kazimir Lee Iskander
There was a murder on the first night of Rookie Chan’s new job as a security guard. As he stood in the dark inside the cramped guardhouse, Rookie SMSed his elder brother Jimmy about what just happened:
“Your co-workers die at every job you have. You’re so jinxed!” Jimmy messaged back via satellite relay.
Jimmy was working on the Moon yet the 10 second time-delay made the observation no less unkind. Rookie only had one previous job: a short stint as a Kuala Lumpur policeman. Any fatalities on duty were the result of the rising crime rate and understaffing rather than bad luck.
Jimmy had coined the nickname ‘Rookie’ soon after Rookie left the police (Better than ‘Loser’ or ‘Quitter’). Fed up with Earth, Jimmy left for the Moon at the start of 2063 while Rookie remained behind in Kuala Lumpur, taking up a new job as a security guard at the Future Gardens condominium in Bukit Pantai.
Labouring as part of the maintenance crew on the new ASEAN Lunar Colony was overrated to Rookie. The low-rise Future Gardens condominium revealed itself as a strange new world to him during the first hour of his shift.
Built by Urbasis Developments Berhad, the Future Gardens was a refuge away from the rest of polluted, overcrowded and waterlogged Kuala Lumpur. The transparent geodesic dome over the blocks kept out most of the dust and methane, and its honeycomb lattice divided the sky into hexagons. The two residential blocks flanked a swimming pool. Each unit had floor-to-ceiling glass windows, the large panes covered with large blinds to block views of the interior.
In these spaces the residents were a community of aliens living behind closed doors. One hour into his shift, Rookie glimpsed empty rooms, vacuum-packed furniture and dying pot plants. Some units were unoccupied whereas most of the others contained only signs of visitation. As he made his rounds, the robot cleaners and gardeners worked hard to keep the place immaculate.
That first night had held a lot of promise for Rookie. Breathing such purified air made up for his measly salary. Security cameras surveilled empty corridors, stairwells and the perpetually unused gym, relaying the images onto the touch screens mounted on the wall behind his desk. Despite this lack of human contact, Rookie was keen on his job even if the first three hours of his watch drained him. His diligence would be rewarded with a promotion from officer to Field Training Officer in six months.
The other security guard on duty that night was a taciturn yet courteous Kyrgyzstani national called Jirgal. He left the guardhouse on the hour at 11. When Jirgal did not return at midnight, Rookie pressed his ear stud to call him. Rookie saw movements in the monitor for the swimming-pool and when noises exploded through the ear-stud, he thought it was malfunctioning. It was picking up turmoil – splashes and raised voices. Before transmission was cut off, Rookie heard distinct crunching sounds.
“Breaker 1-9,” Rookie called, “Jirgal, do you copy?”
The lights in the guardhouse flickered and died. Rookie turned on his flashlight-cum-nightstick and ran out of the guardhouse. Short of breath and sweating into his new uniform, he arrived at the pool area to find two people standing on opposite sides of the pool in the dim light. A woman wearing sunglasses, a black bikini top and denim shorts and a rangy sunburnt blond man – both staring at the body floating face down in the darkened water. It was Jirgal, his khaki uniform turning dark brown as it soaked up water.
Rookie reholstered his nightstick and sighed; a death on his watch meant a lot of paperwork. The blond man frowned at Rookie’s arrival but still approached to introduce himself as Grant, the condominium manager who lived on site. The light from the pool cast a violet hue on Grant’s tan.
“Another suicide.” Grant sounded disapproving; his accent identified him as American. “This one cut his own throat, drank weed-killer and threw himself into the deep end.”
A dented plastic bottle floated next to the body. The walkie-talkie ear-stud was smashed, its circuitry and fine wiring trailing in the water like kelp.
“Who found the body?” asked Rookie.
“Sue, my wife.” Grant waved at the lady. She did not take off her sunglasses and nodded at Rookie as a concession to etiquette.
“If no one saw anything there’s always the CCTV footage.”
“You can’t access the cloud storage during a power cut. Nothing works.” Grant threw up his hands at both blocks looming above them in the dark, “With a skeleton crew of two guards on nightwatch and an off-duty manager. And less than 20% occupancy? Unless the buildings can talk.”
“We could try the condominium generators.”
Grant shook his head, “Generators only keep the lights on and the elevators working.”
Rookie recalled some of his police experience as he walked along the length of the pool. “Don’t try to retrieve the body, it’ll disturb the water in the pool. Most of the evidence is there.”
Rookie took out his phnone, “I’ll contact the Balai Polis.”
“I already did. The cops will take their time when a foreign worker kills himself. Let’s have a drink first.” Grant’s tone made the invitation sound like a command. “I don’t get to chat to other staff members often. The other guards couldn’t speak English well.”
“Your wife won’t mind?”
“She doesn’t drink.”
Grant returned with four beers in a carrier and both men sat down on the clay tiles beside the pool. Rookie was grateful to twist open a biodegradable glass bottle containing authentic beer. The vending machine near the service lift only dispensed carbonated algae, which still contained less synthetics than the spirulina coffee from the biofuel station down the road.
“Are you an ex-cop?” asked Grant.
“I quit after the Clampdown last year. There’s only so much crowd control duty you can do.”
“You sound like you worked a crime scene before.” Grant was impressed, “Most locals who apply for security guard duty are ex-police. But they don’t stay for long.”
“They kill themselves too?”
Grant smiled and shook his head, “New condominiums and developments keep springing up. This place can’t compete with them. Our dome is just treated glass. Other condominiums have better air filters, cleaner water and domes made of holographic glass. From the inside they can make it look like you’re living in Tokyo, Paris or Mars. Anywhere but here.”
Rookie looked up at the night sky through the dome and thought of Jimmy on the Moon.
“Why come to Malaysia?” he asked Grant.
“I’m a crook.”
“And I’m the Empress of Venus.”
Grant guffawed, “It’s true! I’m washed up in Kuala Lumpur, serving time in this shiny new prison.”
Rookie tried to change the subject, “How did you and Sue meet?”
“Sue is not really my wife. I used to refer to her with a 10-digit serial number. ‘Sue’ is easier to remember.”
Rookie stared at the woman walking around the pool, her movements too smooth and even for a human.
Grant continued to talk, “I was in robotics. A three-year contract working for a company in Bangkok. Making human dummies and decoys. My R & D was ‘D and D’”
“You made movie special effects?”
“Oh, they were special. We tested some prototypes in shopping malls. Gave them polymer skin, wigs, hydrosilicate eyes and department store uniforms to wear. People mistook them for real staff.”
“Good for you.” Rookie tugged at the collar of his uniform shirt, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Not good enough.” Grant sighed, “My employers took on new contracts and we stopped making dummies. Our new clients wanted decoy models with military and security applications.”
The remnants of the ear stud floated close to Rookie’s side of the pool.
“We sent decoys to Central Asia. Decoys can be made to look and sound like anyone. Foreign companies needed security for their rare earth mines. What better security than a Decoy that blends in with the locals?”
Rookie checked his watch and hoped the police would soon turn up.
“When the rare earth ran out, those same companies turned on us. Denied using the Decoys.” Grant stared down the neck of his beer bottle, as if his past was inside. “But Urbasis smoothed things out and found a new use for our spare Decoys. Just pack them into shipping containers to Port Klang and say they’re mannequins. More will be coming here. Sue is the first, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
Turning around, Rookie saw that Sue was standing close behind him. Her hands dangled near her hip, above Rookie’s face. He saw bloodied khaki threads caught under her long nails.
Rookie got up and dropped his beer bottle, but Grant caught him by the sleeve of his uniform.
“I’m not used to real beer.”
“Don’t blame the drink,” Grant tightened his grip and leaned in, and Rookie smelt the beer on his breath. “Sorry’ bout your colleague. His accent and facial features must’ve triggered Sue’s security responses. She’s the prototype for the batch that went to Kazakhstan.”
Rookie pointed at Sue, “She murdered Jirgal?”
Sue raised a slender arm which ended in a delicate fist, ready to punch Rookie but Grant motioned at her to step back.
“It’s not murder when Decoys are involved. You wanna arrest the gun that shot you?”
“Tell that to Jirgal!” Rookie pulled his arm free of Grant’s hold.
“Jirgal was an accident.”
“You made it look like one – that weedkiller bottle was a nice touch!”
“Look at the big picture. Urbasis won’t let this place go to seed. When at least 50% of the units are occupied by decoys it will raise the value of the Future Gardens. It gives property agents and expatriate buyers a good impression.”
“Is that why they hired you? For the robotics expertise?”
“For a new Urbasis employee, you catch on really fast.” Grant slapped Rookie’s shoulder and added, “We can get along. It’s not so bad here. We’re guarding living space – a most valuable commodity in Kuala Lumpur these days.”
“And what about Sue?”
“She won’t hurt you after I deprogram her. The others like her shouldn’t be a problem.”
Rookie pulled his nightstick out of the holster on the pretence of turning on the flashlight. He pressed another button that activated the electric-shock function and swung the nightstick at Sue’s neck. She blocked the blow with her forearm but the contact was enough. The charge made Sue convulse, her limbs flailing around her head. Grant shoved Rookie to the clay tiles before rushing to help Sue. Another spasm made Sue lock her arms around Grant. He struggled to free himself from her macabre embrace, but their combined weight made both man and Decoy tip over and fall into the swimming pool.
Getting up, Rookie stood on the edge of the pool and saw Grant weighed down against the turquoise tiles by Sue’s heavy android weight. Rookie ran back to the guardhouse. The police were still taking their time to answer Grant’s call but they could be at the Future Gardens soon.
As Rookie was changing back into his day clothes, his phone beeped:
“How’s your first night?” the SMS was from Jimmy. The sender’s number was listed as ‘Off-World’.
“Someone got killed.”
10 seconds later, Jimmy replied, “Your co-workers die on every job you have. You’re so jinxed!”
“Maybe, but at least I’m not being an accessory to murder.”
“I’ll explain when I see you on the ASEAN Lunar Colony.” Rookie replied and walked out of the Future Gardens for the last time. He hoped the Lunar Employment Opportunities kiosk in KL Sentral opened early in the morning.