What do you get someone who has everything? I have everything I ever wanted – the swanky apartment in the City, the fast cars, the racing bike, the expensive holidays. I don’t go to work because I don’t have to; I could employ someone else to do it all for me. My parents were rich. They died. They left me everything.
Money doesn’t make you happy. That’s what people with no money say. Money made me very happy.
I grew bored, though. After I had travelled the world, I base-jumped. I scuba-dived. I climbed the highest mountains. I went into space. I did it all. I experienced everything, even things I didn’t like very much just for something to do. I had relationships with men as well as women. I’m pretty sure I was the modern-day equivalent of Dorian Gray.
But God, I was bored.
That’s when I heard about Dream Box. The vast majority of drugs have been legal for so long now that nobody really bothers with them anymore, but the Dream Box was something else.
When Mike McMurphy injected the serum into his arm, he had no idea that he was bringing all the world’s suffering to an end. He’d spent less than two weeks developing the virus: a simple bundle of protein with barely the complexity to be covered by US copyright law. The syringe caused no pain – and Mike had used the oldest, bluntest needle he could find – but he could feel the serum spreading through his blood.
It was a simple virus, spreading a rash across his chest and raising a slight fever, but it dwindled away after a couple of hours.
The mutation, of course, did not.
The mutation developed in the third-floor men’s room of the Old Chemistry Building. More aptly, the mutation developed in Mike, but it was of no consequence until he released it, mostly in the urinal and on the floor, but the mutation spread through the plumbing and into the air. Perhaps if the bio-pollutant detection system had been better honed … but it wasn’t. The tightwads who oversaw the university’s budgetary committee had sealed the fate of humanity.
Breaking down her body, I can tell her parts are different from anything else in my collection. I remove her carbotanium panelling and unscrew the protective plate. Resting it on the oil-smeared workbench, I open up the wire-meshed housing unit and connect to her sternum slot.
Data streams up to the console, and the monitor flashes the tell-tale codes of sentience. A whirring builds from her chest cavity. Lights slice blue from side panelling and the power unit spills poisonous-red brilliance across the landlocked shipping container. Shimmering metal reflects in the glittered stars of Advika’s school painting. The bot’s voice unit thrums. I calibrate it, and she speaks clear: “I sense you’re in distress.”
My head burns. An hour since activated, she’s ceaseless with her probing.
“What would you know about how I feel? You were just a fitbot. All the MR-Series were.” Probably her emotional response matrix is damaged. A known issue. “But I’ll soon fix you up good after a road test! Ain’t much I can’t repair or improve.”
“My previous user already modified me. I’ve not been utilized as a fitbot for seven years.” She lets that hang in the arid air.
The Water. Strange name for an art gallery.
Everyone says that. It’s wearying, to be honest, but I have only myself to blame. Mooring the gallery three hundred kilometres above a desiccated rock that hadn’t seen a drop of moisture in millennia at least gave a soupçon of irony in our first season. Here, among a pentacluster of aqua-habitats, it’s ridiculous.
Still, I make the most of it, inviting viewing guests to offer their conjectures as to its origins. Many surmise it’s a philosophical statement, art being as necessary to life as H2O. Excuse my hollow laughter. The more knowledgeable, i.e. the better prepared with goog-implanted art history briefings, think it relates to the famous conceptual installation The Water, Unbridged by Semke Manoula of 2119, or the infamous The Water is Rising by TeeranTula in 2243 which drowned forty-seven art lovers and – thanks be to the gods of true art – the artist yrself.
All such theories are wrong, but they provide opportunity for small talk, as I waft the guests – potential buyers, all – through the antechambers showcasing work from less expensive artists towards Suuztchi’s latest offerings in the main Halls.
‘Your family is not left behind.’ It’s the unofficial slogan of the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force. Family units are supposed to be more stable for long-time missions, according to the higher-ups. I don’t think this can be applied to the Masons, somehow. Dad says ships like ours are really like small towns back home. All the good bits are on show for people passing through. The bad bits are hidden away behind closed doors and twitching curtains. Dad isn’t into people. He likes rocks, you know, anything from boulders to the layers that make up worlds. Mum, she likes bugs. Not bugs as in creepy-crawly types, with wings and feelers. She’s into the type that you can only see with a microscope, the ones that can either kill or cure you, depending on your luck I suppose.
Me? Well, I am into people. I love watching my fellow crew and listening to them. My teacher said I will make a good anthropologist someday. Listening when I wasn’t supposed to – that’s how I found out about the Masons. I mean, ‘reassigned mid-mission’? Did anyone in the crew really believe that? Come on. The way their quarters were sealed off for two days, and the first officer looking as yellow as a backer bat. I swear he was going to puke when I saw him in F section. Not to mention the way the senior staff talked in whispers for ages after the Masons were reassigned. Something really bad happened.
The safety pod’s almost completely circular bench is hard and there is no room to stand up with the table in its otherwise empty centre. Detective Torvinne Bergholm has to find a distraction from the discomfort.
She ups a holographic screen from the seam in her spacesuit’s forearm and stops short of activating her favourite games. That would be rude if her murder suspect and interviewee, Oona Campbell, were to open the door unannounced. So she reads her case notes: the suspicious death of Mike Benson, found near this mine’s face with his helmet’s faceplate smashed in, which had led to total air loss in his spacesuit. Locals, here on Miranda, had put the cause of death down to ghosts: clearly ridiculous. Hence the constabulary sent her all the way from Earth to investigate. Good job she likes weirdo puzzles.
She rereads Oona’s profile. Instead of, as expected, working alongside him, Oona said she had to get away from the mine’s face and was sitting in this pod to calm down at the time he died. Why would a practical, level-headed person be deterred from earning drilling premiums? Especially as this mine is a safe one. There was that word in the report again, ‘iceborne’. What the hell did that mean?
“Please, gentlemen, make yourself comfortable.”
I polarised the windows against the glare of a SoCal summer as they took their seats. My two visitors were the proverbial ‘odd couple’: Air Force General Branning looked uncomfortable just being out of uniform while his aide, Major Cain, would probably have remained cool, calm and collected while wearing a tutu and whistling ‘Dixie’.
Branning shifted in his chair, glowering, while Cain remained bland and unreadable. He crossed his legs. “Very well, Mister Conway, you have our attention.”
I inclined my head. “The fact that you came to me in the first place, a civilian private investigator, meant you didn’t want an internal enquiry that would have to log its findings. Now, the general here is a shoe-in as head of the Joint Chiefs but you want to be sure, absolutely sure, that nothing is going to come crawling out of the woodwork once his enemies start digging. Nothing that will tarnish his impeccable military record. I get that, the Air Force takes care of its own.”
Cain smiled with zero sincerity. “So we understand each other. Now, did you uncover anything worthy of our attention?”
I sat back and steepled my fingers. “A Nazi flying saucer powered by the souls of death-camp inmates crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1946. It was a German prototype salvaged at the end of World War Two, being tested by the United States Army Air Force.”
As I picked the tiny darts out of my body, I watched Kordan, my creator, peering through the small panel into the arena. He sensed my eyes upon him and turned to meet my look. He glanced down at the darts in my hand. His expression was pained—his great creations brought so low. I nodded to him; he nodded back. Not many can say they’ve met their creator and lived to talk of it.
The head of the recently deceased Master of Games, Obbas, rolled to one side, and his tongue flopped out. Emperor Brulum examined my reaction. I smiled and gave a shrug. “Wasn’t much use without his eyes, anyway.”
The Emperor chuckled. A figure stepped forward. “You know Urran, my Lord Marshall, of course?”
“From that incident in Kookan,” I answered. “I hope my transgressions have since been forgiven, Lord Marshall?”
“Forgiven,” he answered. “But not forgotten.” He pointed at the wall and gestured I turn around. “A precaution, you understand.”
I nodded and assumed the position. His frisking skills were the same as ever—bad. When he had removed my knife and some other trinkets, he nodded to the Emperor, who then gestured that I follow him.
My daughter’s imaginary friend most likely came about because of loneliness, I surmised. It was all my fault. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to matter too much as she played under the slide on the eighth level of Kastak Island. She laughed and chattered away. So what if her friend wasn’t really there?
We’d been living on Kastak for two months. It was a research lab for robotics and analytics that towered above the sea off the coast of England, where it had been purpose-built away from all the overcrowding. Construction was not quite finished, but I’d pleaded for the chance to start my new data job early, along with some others who were more involved in the setup side of things. My daughter and I were among the first families to arrive, though I’d been told that many more were to follow.
The balcony Dana played on was half-way up the tower. Gardens were spread across the levels, but this was the only outside space aimed at the employees’ children. It was nothing special, with only a swing, slide and climbing frame, but we treasured being alone out there – no one else seemed to enjoy the brisk outdoors so early in the mornings. Dana played, while I leaned against the balcony wall, relishing the sea breeze.
The entire complex was a refuge as much as a home. Until the note came.
There was little I could do. The lion man was as good as dead. The giant spider was but feet away from him, ready to pounce, when one of the other spiders collided into it.
I shaded my eyes to see that on top of this other spider was the crab man, who held both of the spider’s pincers in his one large claw, and was now guiding the creature at will.
“My own personal monster,” the crab man shouted.
Leo signalled his thanks. The crowd, silent up to this point, gave out a loud cheer. They were cheering that the life of an Altered had been saved. I looked over at Orrin. The significance of this was not lost on him.
The spider on the receiving end of the collision gave a might roar and lowered its head, crashing into the side of the crab man’s ride, throwing him to the ground. Maheras, the centaur, scooped the crab man up onto his back to another rapturous applause from the crowd. Maheras galloped up and down in a tight pattern, throwing his forelegs into the air and neighing loudly, while the crab man held on with clenched legs, and raised his one claw in salute to the crowd. They cheered even harder. Brulum may well win the upcoming war, but he was losing this battle.