Detective Arthas Jacques reached for his pistol. Agent Belle Nguyen was dead and he’d just watched it, among a crowd of scoundrels.
Blood poured out of her heart onto the stage. She’d died for show, a demonstration. He would have revenge.
“Please. Everyone. Calm down,” said the host. Instead of being there in person the scientist behind Deus ex Sapiens was using a virtual presence device to hide his identity. The droid was a sparkling decedance that put even Arthas’ Spectrum droid to shame. “Though Miss Nguyen is quite dead for now, I can assure you she will be back with us momentarily. Hold your breath. Open your eyes, and ready your applause. Lazarus has nothing on this!” The pomp of the delivery was matched only by the flamboyance and glee. His voice told Arthas his family had been rich long before there were paper records to show who his ancestors had stolen the money from.
Against the voice of vengeance screaming at him from within, the detective kept his hand at rest on the tranquiliser gun at his hip.
Eyes turned from the stage to look at him. Some were angry that he was reaching for his gun. Others just reached for theirs in response.
Belle lay in a puddle of crimson. Her killer, Ezekiel Gamora, stood in his all white combat gear over the body. Blood dripped from the sword in his hand.
Belle’s hand twitched, fingers flickering. A collective intake of breath broke silence. Agent Nguyen’s head rolled.
Just shoot them, said the voice in Arthas’ head. Memories of his military service returned. Blood dripping down his face. A friend with guts loosening by his side. Waiting for death or backup.
“She’s alive!” The roar of the host roused the audience of killers to applause worthy of besotted fans as their idol hits the stage. “Behold a miracle worthy of the bible itself.” The performer for whom lives were props seemed in ecstasy.
Blinking and looking around, Belle lifted herself to her elbows. Living though she clearly was, Agent Nguyen was lost in a way none of the soldiers who watched her had ever known.
Get up. Come on. Get up, Belle. Arthas shouldered his way to the front of the crowd. Cutting through the mass of muscle and body armour was a matter of elbows for the detective. His droid, a Spectrum unit, swept man mountains aside casually.
Men used to commanding respect simply by showing their assault rifles were taken aback by the casual might of the black robot with Purple eyes. One eye flashed through other colours as the head turned to take in the crowd.
Agent Belle pushed to her feet with all eyes on her.
“How do you feel, darling? All better?” The host’s droid clapped a jovial hand on her shoulder. “You came back from the dead and these heathens don’t even have the decency to bow before you.” The virtual presence droid took Belle’s hand and raised it high. “Behold the power of Deus ex Sapiens. REBIRTH!!”
“You stabbed me, you bastard!” Ripping her hand from the droid Agent and pushed Ezekiel Gamora in the chest.
“Don’t take it personally. I kill a lot of people. You’re the first who came back though. Consider that an honour.”
Belle’s body language spoke of the wind up to an explosion of violence or swearing. Her nostrils flared. Two eyebrows tried to kiss each other at the center of Belle’s forehead. Her fists clenched.
Jumping into the moment again, the host’s droid stood himself between the killer and the killed to close the curtains.
“As you have all seen, short of losing your head, Deus ex Sapiens will be the end of injurious death. No more time lost to healing. Imagine it. Deus ex Sapiens is the future. This concludes the third demonstration of Deus ex Sapiens. Thank you very much for your attention. I hope I’ll see you all at the next demonstration. Until then, try not to kill each other. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies. Tell everyone.”
The hologram above the droid vanished. The host’s droid walked away without looking back. Belle was left on the stage with Ezekiel Gamora until the mercenary in all white waded into the crowd, still holding the dripping sword in his hand.
A human began pushing Arthas towards the door. He fought to remain at the front until there was space for Agent Nguyen to jump down. He held out his hand and felt the blood on her hand as she took it.
“He killed me,” she said. Red hands pulled at the slice in her top. Fabric rubbed away the mess until the new scar was visible. “I was dead.” Belle’s brown eyes glittered.
Arthas tightened the grip on her hand reassuringly. “You’re alright now. It’s over. You're safe.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be safe again. I’ve got that stuff inside me. And he can turn it on and off whenever he likes. Do the others even realise that? I think you were right. It’s about control for him. We can’t let that man decide the course of this technology. Not him or anyone like him.” Keeping a hand over what had been a mortal wound, Agent Nguyen began walking.
“It’s not too late to kill everyone,” said Purple half jokingly in its Newcastle accent. Arthas shook his head. “Just giving you options.”
“That man, presuming it’s a man,” Detective Jacques pointed to where the host’s droid had gone, “he’ll make a mistake at some point. Maybe he has already. We just need to find it. Then hopefully we can shut all of this down.” Still holding her hand he smiled, wondering if she wanted him to let go.
“Can I get you anything?” He asked.
“A drink. A strong drink. Something flammable.” Holding her hands up to the light she said, “and somewhere to wash my hands. I don’t want to be covered in blood for another second.” Trying to wipe a tear away from her eye only painted it crimson. “Oh fuck, Arthas. I was dead. I died.”
Turning, the detective wrapped his arms around the spy and held her tight. “You’re going to be alright. I presume you lost friends in combat while you served with the military?”
“Of course. Why?” Her eyebrows narrowed.
“Because I’ve seen that look on people I fought with. I’ve worn that look. You feel like nothing will ever be normal again. Nothing will ever be right again. We’ve both seen it. We’ve both felt it. We both know it gets better with time.”
“And we both know that last one is a lie,” said Agent Nguyen, distracted as she called him out.
“Come on, let’s get you a shower.” He held her hand as they walked past the exorbitantly expensive security droids. “How much do you think one of those costs?” Arthas asked, to distract her.
“Two or three times what you paid for your spectrum unit. It’s worth more than my house, by the way.”
“The spectrum unit is priceless to me,” said the detective, smiling at his steely companion. “If I could buy a body for each of them,” he laughed, “then I’d be in more debt than most nations and there would be no space aboard the ship.”
The Spectrum unit flicked a purple eye on and off to simulate winking. “That’s alright sir, there’s plenty of room in here for all of us. And it means we’ve always got company.”
Medieval looking droids marched away down the corridors. Arthas’ eyes were glued to them, as was a tracking beacon on one who’d been guarding the door of the theater. It would activate after a week.
The only hotel with rooms free was a sleazy dive. The wall outside was plastered with posters advertising sex workers. Arthas doubted there would be any available with so many mercenaries aboard the station.
Water pattered on plastic in the room next door as Arthas frowned at complementary condoms in one bowl next to another of coffee and sugar sachets. He didn’t sit on the bed. Some spray and a black light would show that room for the sperm stained sty it was.
“I knew a lot of the mercs there,” said Blue, who had a Glasgow accent and handled scene documentation for Arthas as well as facial recognition. Sapphire eyes indicated he was dominating resources inside the droid. Flickers of amethyst showed that Purple was still active, keeping a close watch.
“You didn’t want a seat?” Agent Nguyen asked, hair wet from the shower. With the coat she’d bought Arthas over her bloody jumper, the stain looked more like a design.
“On that bed? Not a chance. You won’t either unless you’re looking to complete your sexually transmitted disease bingo card.” His disdainful blue eyes cast a scouring glance across the sheets.
“Is it that bad?”
“If these walls could talk, they’d be screaming.”
“Ever the optimist, Jacques.”
“I’ve arrested a lot of people in places like this. They tend to have interesting blood test results.”
“So would I, now. The MSA lab still doesn’t know what I have in me. I should never have volunteered.”
“You did what you could to help the investigation. MSA has access to first hand data on Deus ex Sapiens. It will be invaluable in working out who that guy is and how to stop him.”
“What have you worked out about him?” Belle asked, lacing up her boots.
“He’s rich, maybe not as rich as he pretends to be. Maybe more. The droids he used to represent himself alter his accent. His speech patterns suggest an old blood lifestyle. He could be putting that on. For all we know he’s a drug dealer who kidnapped the scientist responsible for Deus ex Sapiens. He could be a puppet for the group behind it all.”
“You think it’s a group?”
“With connections from Earth to Pluto? I would guess so. Working with Offworld Crime I deal with criminals who have territory. That might be a single station, a couple. It might be a shipping zone. I doubt whoever we’re after is behind all of them. Unless they’re the Moriarty of Space.”
Belle nodded. Arthas wondered if she was confirming his suspicions or if she was nodding her approval that he knew so little.
“I hope the MSA knows more than I do?” he asked, hopeing for a hint in her body language.
“Can we get out of here. Do you have clothes I could borrow?” She had her hand on her heart again, testing for a wound that had healed.
“Sure,” said the detective without thinking. His droid gave him a look with his head held tilted to say, what are you doing? Arthas sighed.
They passed mercenary bands in the hallways of the station. Wherever Ezekiel Gamora’s White Horsemen had gone, the detective was glad not to run into them.
The Morrigan had a crowd of station children admiring it through the hangar windows when Arthas and Belle approached.
“That your ship?” asked a boy at eye level with the detective’s knee.
“Who’s asking?” The detective had been caught out by children asking on behalf of criminals before.
“She’s beautiful. How much she cost?” The child’s accent was central London by way of New York.
“More than I can afford,” Arthas said honestly. He ruffled the boy’s hair and was given a reproachful look in return. Kids, he thought. Good thing I don’t have any.
“The robot yours?” asked the boy when he’d shrugged off Arthas’ hand in his hair.
“No. I belong to the droid.” Stifling a laugh the boy’s confusion, the detective let himself back into his ship.
“What is that smell?” Belle asked.
“They need washed,” said Agent Nguyen, wrinkling her nose.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you’re a heathen.”
“What’s so great about real books?”
“The feel of the pages in your hands, the weight. It’s the way knowledge was transmitted for hundreds of years. It has history. The books my sister brought were signed by the author. They’ve been dead for centuries but I have a connection to them more tangible than the ones and zeros of a digital copy.” He looked lovingly at his book shelf, locked away for safety.
Belle smiled, Arthas was unlike anyone she’d ever met. Martians tended to look forward with grim distaste for their Earthly ancestry. The endearing passion of his words was a welcome distraction from her mortal fear.
Arthas pulled a book from his locker. Flowers for Algernon she read on the cover. There was a picture of a mouse in a maze.
“Try reading this while we head back to Mars,” the detective handed head one of his treasures reverently to her. “Purple, take the Morrigan home. I’m done with Pluto.”
Purple saluted and took the ship away from the station at full speed.
Belle cradled Arthas’ book as if it was a newborn. Watching him sit down in his seat, she moved closer. Placing Flowers for Algernon gently on the next chair, she leaned down and kissed him.
“What was that for?” Arthas asked without protest.
“For being exactly what I need right now,” she said. Picking up the book, she reclined and began reading. The detective frowned for a moment, eyes on the spy who’d died. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and lay back to sleep. Outside the windows, the endless midnight of space caressed the hull of the night black Morrigan.