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Opportunity



Two Democracies: Justice

Book 1





by Alasdair Shaw









Copyright © 2018 Alasdair C Shaw

All rights reserved.

This book was written and published in the UK.



First published 2018



Also by Alasdair Shaw


Two Democracies: Exploration

Awakening – a short story (in The Guardian anthology)


Two Democracies: Justice

Duty – a short story (in The Officer anthology)

Opportunity – a novel


Two Democracies: Revolution

Repulse – a short story (in The Newcomer anthology)

Independence – a short story

Liberty – a novel

Prejudice – a novelette

Equality – a novel

Hidden – a novelette












1


Lieutenant Dave Pratt walked along the boulevard in the heart of Arancha Station. He kept a measured pace, not wanting to appear to be in a hurry to get somewhere but not wanting to dawdle. This was what he loved, feeling the pulse of the station. Hundreds of citizens milled around stalls or rushed past on their way somewhere else, a vibrant melee of colour and noise in complete contrast to the tired grey of the station infrastructure.

He wore his indigo fatigues, with a black light-armour vest over the top. Most people ignored him, pretending not to notice the Security chief prowling through their business. He let them be; none of their body language suggested anything other than normal nervousness. Out here on the fringe of Republic space, orbiting a barren planet, Arancha Station was home to merchants and smugglers, entrepreneurs and drifters. And Dave was responsible for curbing their excesses and keeping order.

His shift was almost up. Part of him wanted an excuse to keep going, the opportunity to use work to avoid the dreaded meeting. The stronger part of him, however, knew he had to go. The therapy sessions seemed to be helping his wife, even if they did keep rehashing the same themes. Besides, if he didn’t show, she’d use it against him when he got home.

^Boss, got a problem in Section Eight.^ Barcos’ message appeared directly in Dave’s consciousness via the Electronic Interface System implanted in his brain.

^On my way.^ Dave picked up his pace. No need to run; his sergeant hadn’t triggered the urgent backup alert and he didn’t want to alarm the shoppers. Besides, Section Eight was only just round the corner.

He dipped into the message logs as he walked, his EIS feeding them to his optic nerves, allowing him to scroll through them in his inner vision. Barcos had logged a visit to Section Eight ten minutes earlier, noting he was following a suspect in the recent spate of oxygen-credit thefts. It made sense; the bar was notorious for low-life deals and black-market trades. What piqued Dave’s interest was the lack of a reference to Barcos’ call moments earlier. Whatever he’d got, he wanted it off the books.

Dave glanced up at the bar sign, neon lights flickering behind the rusted metal cut-out letters. The ‘g’ of ‘Eight’ had vanished months ago but the proprietors hadn’t seen the need to replace it. Several of the clientele lowered their heads as he entered, avoiding his gaze. A door at the back banged, no doubt customers leaving before his eyes adjusted to the gloom.

Barcos sat in a booth, wearing drab garments, his hat pulled low over his face. His bulk trapped a worried-looking weasel of a man in the corner, who he appeared to be ignoring. Dave slid into the banquette facing the prisoner and looked him up and down, waiting for Barcos to speak.

“I was digging into the black-market sale of O2-creds when I found this scum peddling Zip to kids.” Barcos appeared to be struggling not to spit. “Thought you might hand him over to Harrassa. I know he doesn’t take kindly to targeting children.”

The man blanched, his eyes bulging.

Dave raised an eyebrow, realising now why Barcos had kept it off the books. “It would be a much swifter punishment than if we were to arrest him.”

Barcos nodded. “And it would save on resources. No need for the paperwork or a trial.”

Dave took a deep breath. These were the kinds of decisions that he really hated, and he silently cursed his friend for spoiling what had been a perfect shift.

His relationship with the mob boss sometimes had advantages; as short-staffed as he was, he’d have lost control of Arancha if they hadn’t come to an arrangement. Handing over this pusher would earn him some credit he could use later, but every time he traded, he felt a piece of himself torn away.

“He’s dead either way.” Barcos shooed a waitress away with a flick of his hand. “Just affects how much pain he goes through first.”

He shook his head. “No. Arrest him. We’re already on a sticky wicket for using Harrassa’s muscle the other month.”

“Your call, Boss.” Barcos grabbed the man’s wrists and slapped on restraints.

The thin silvery loops tightened into the dealer’s skin as he tried to pull away. He bit his lip and the restraints eased back to mere tightness, the colour returning to his hands. Together, Dave and Barcos hauled him to his feet and marched him out of the bar.


#


In the end, he’d had to cancel the counselling session. A fight had broken out in the queue for oxygen credits; luckily it was limited to punches and kicks, yet still took all three available officers to break up. Dave had authorised the use of stunners, which probably saved quite a few broken bones but mired him in digital paperwork.

Shift finally over, he hurried home through the maze of corridors and lifts. Reaching the level his apartment lay in, he wrinkled his nose at the grime-smeared walls. The ‘bots had obviously been through; the circular patterns of their brushes streaked the corridor. Perhaps they’d run out of detergent and failed to notice? Whatever, he’d have to get on to maintenance about it.

Dave checked the bow on the parcel he carried, tweaking it for the hundredth time. The chocolates inside had cost him a month’s wages; they would have been twice that if the merchant he’d bought them from hadn’t been amongst the voters he’d saved from the suicide bomber at the polling station seven weeks ago. The boy’s face flashed to the front of his thoughts, luckily without the neat hole from Dave’s sidearm in its forehead.

He pushed the image away and pictured his family’s faces when he brought the chocolates home. They hadn’t had any since they’d moved to Arancha Station five years ago. His position as Security chief afforded them a decent apartment, sufficient rations, and exemption from the oxygen and water taxes that the majority of the eight thousand residents had to pay, but luxuries still cost far too much.

Dave turned the last corner before his home, and a priority alert popped into his inner vision. The station manager had been found dead. Medics were in attendance.

Dispatch quickly followed up. ^Boss? Can you attend the scene? You’re nearest.^

He hadn’t known Veddir very well, and not at all beyond their professional relationship. ^OK. Show me responding.^

He dithered, trying to decide between dropping the chocolates at home and taking them with him to the scene. His door was a mere twenty paces in front of him, but once he got in, Jessica would make a big thing of him leaving again. He tucked the box under his arm and turned about, leaving a brief message in the apartment’s queue apologising that something had come up. The station manager lived only one corridor across and one floor up; hopefully, he’d be able to hand off to the next officer to arrive and get home again quickly.

He arrived at Veddir’s suite to find the sliding door open and two medics inside, chatting quietly. They turned when he stepped through the threshold, and nodded in greeting.

“Nothing we could do,” said one. “We tried to resuscitate, but he was too far gone.”

Dave looked around, noting the neat and ordered state of the living room, typical of his impression of the little bureaucrat. “Any idea on cause of death?”

The second medic appeared worried. “Yes and no. It's... odd.”

“Odd?”

The first medic gestured to the bedroom. “Come and see.”

Dave followed him through. The station manager’s body lay on the bed, surrounded by the detritus of medical intervention. Dave inspected the corpse for signs of a struggle or physical injury, but found none. “Natural causes?”

“His EIS didn’t report any medical distress until his heart stopped. That’s enough to make me a little suspicious. Then there’s the blood test.”

Dave raised an eyebrow, absently scratching the EIS scar behind his ear.

“I ran a sample through my diagnostic kit.” The second medic indicated a blue bag beside the bed. “His blood sugar’s through the roof and there’s no insulin.”

“Diabetic?” The box of chocolates under his arm weighed a little heavier.

The first medic shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Looks like it, but there’s nothing on his medical record to show it.”

“Could he have been suffering but not been diagnosed?” Dave had to ask, though he was starting to develop a feeling about this, mirroring the obvious worry of the medics.

“Possibly. Type 1, where the patient’s immune system targets the cells that produce insulin, can sometimes come on over a few days. But, his EIS should have alerted us in time to treat him; monitoring insulin and blood sugar levels is one of the health routines in all implants. That it waited until his heart stopped is... wrong.”

Dave sighed and sent a request for forensics to attend the scene. At least at this time of night, they might respond pretty quickly; during the day it was often a struggle to get them released from their main jobs in corporate research labs. “So we’re talking foul play?”

The medics looked at each other, then nodded. Just great, like any detective, he got a thrill from having a ‘proper’ case, but couldn’t the killer have waited until morning?

Dave opened a new casefolder in his EIS, marking it as a possible homicide, and checking that it was backing up to the main security database. He created a subfolder for medical notes. “Could you submit all your notes and data from any tests you did into the folder I’ve just shared with you? I’m treating this as a possible murder.”

While they collected their findings, Dave queried the room’s access logs. No-one, other than the station manager, had been admitted in the preceding week, if you discounted the medics using their override to gain entry shortly before he’d arrived. He marked the suite as a crime scene, locking out all but security officers, before downloading a full copy of the logs into the casefolder.

As he carried out a preliminary survey of the apartment, he composed his initial report. Under ‘avenues of inquiry’ he listed ‘murder by person or persons unknown’ and ‘negligence by the EIS manufacturers’. Nothing seemed out of place: a single dirty plate and lone wine glass in the washer, a half-empty bottle of white wine and a couple of ready-meals in the fridge, a couple of changes of clothes in the laundry hamper. No signs of the place being tossed.

“Were the lights on or off when you arrived?” he asked the medics.

“Off.”

An alert notified him to Officer Walker entering the crime scene. Dave called him through to the bedroom and finished recording a three-dimensional image of the station manager’s residence on his pad.

“I was sent to relieve you so you could get home,” said Walker, glancing at the wrapped present Dave held. “No-one said anything about a murder.”

“It didn’t look like one at first.” Dave smiled apologetically. “Secure the scene. Forensics are on their way to do a full sweep, and the body will need an autopsy.”

Walker nodded. “Will do, Sir.”

With one last glance around, Dave strode out and headed back to his apartment. The loss of the station manager wasn’t too big a deal; he held little real power, mostly contenting himself with lining his pockets. Still, if his death wasn’t an accident, it could be an assassination.

He stopped outside his door, adjusting the bow on the box again. He swallowed hard when he realised he was almost an hour late. His EIS supplied his ID and the door opened. Maisie slammed into him with a bear hug around his waist. He stroked her brown curls looked around the living area while he secured his pistol in the wall safe.

“Mum went out,” said George, coming out of his bedroom. “I’m supposed to tell you your tea’s in the bin.”

Dave’s heart dropped in his chest. He hadn’t realised how much hope he’d been pinning on tonight’s meal.

His teenage son, already bulking out into a man, ducked back into his room for a second. “But I saved you some of mine.”

Dave looked at the plate that George carried. “She made meatloaf?”

George nodded and put the plate on the small dining table. Dave carried Maisie over and sat down with her on his knee. Jessica knew meatloaf was his favourite, and she’d made it for this meal. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.

“What’s in the box?” asked Maisie, making a grab at it with both hands.

Dave held it out of her reach. “Something for another time.”



2


Dave walked the children to school the next morning, as he did whenever he got the chance. He didn’t know when Jessica had returned home the night before, only that she was there by the time he woke up. Although he was used to her moods, it still preyed on his mind, distracting him from what was normally one of the joyous bits of his day.

At an intersection, Dave had to grab Maisie’s wrist to stop her running out in front of a cargo-carrier. She squirmed and protested.

“Maisie Jane Pratt.” Dave knelt down and firmly explained what would have happened if she’d been hit by the engine and its five trailers. She looked serious for a few seconds after he’d finished, wide green eyes framed by blonde curls, then blew a raspberry in his face.

“Come on. We’ll be late for school.” George checked the black plastic commlink on his wrist.

Dave opened his mouth to deal with Maisie, but George was already off. With an ‘I’ll deal with you later’ look at his daughter, he called after his son. George appeared not to hear him.

“What are you in such a hurry about?” asked Dave as he guided Maisie across the busy corridor, dodging scooters and fellow pedestrians.

“Nothing.” George looked away as a lift disgorged dozens of children and their parents.

“He’s i-in trou-ble,” sang Maisie.

No I’m not.” George glared at his sister. “I just want to be in school on time.”

They arrived at the hatch that marked the school boundary. The complex of corridors and chambers beyond held everything from a pre-nursery childcare centre to a technical college. After the main park, its sports area was the largest open space on the station.

George waved to another boy his age, and together they shuffled off towards the senior common room. Dave escorted Maisie to her classroom; her gloomy face and frequent attempts to pull her hand free made him feel like he was taking a prisoner to the cells.

“Is everything OK at school?” he asked.

She glared at him. “Oh, you’re sooo embarrassing.”

She wrenched away and ran in. Within seconds, her giggles peeled out. Dave peered in to see her playing with two of her friends, the embarrassing daddy already forgotten. George had been a few years older when he’d been through that phase; Dave bit his lip.

“Don’t worry about it. She’s not the only one. All independent before they’re ready.”

Dave turned to see Mrs Jones, the class teacher. She’d bounced back well after the attack, after the bomber had taken her hostage at gunpoint. The headmaster had mandated a month’s sick leave, and the medical service had provided counselling. Even so, Dave was impressed at her business-as-usual attitude. “You don’t think she’s having trouble because of my job? Because of my profile on the station?”

Mrs Jones shook her head. “I don’t think she’s really aware of that yet. Being seen holding hands with daddy isn’t cool, that’s all. She’s the same when your wife drops her off.”

Dave smiled as a little weight lifted from his chest. “Thank you.”

“You’d better go before she notices us talking. That would be super-uncool.”

He grinned and made his way back to the main hatch, then headed for the nearest lift. The hospital was seven floors down. Time to stop being Daddy and start being Detective.


#


“Doc?” Dave peered around the door of the morgue. “You here?”

No answer.

Dave’s hand crept towards his sidearm. Something about this case gave him the willies. He checked that his EIS could still connect to the network and had registered his arrival at the morgue, then advanced into the room. Unlike the walls in much of the station, the metal here was polished to a high shine to match the three tables in the centre. Small blue lights flickered on five of the stasis pods that made up the far wall. The sharp smell of disinfectant lingered at the edge of his awareness.

“Doctor Tandika? This is Lieutenant Pratt. Are you OK?”

No response.

The doctor wouldn’t have left the morgue unlocked. Dave drew his pistol and released the safety, but held the weapon low by his side. He crept towards the door to the office, which stood ajar. With a last check that no-one was in the main room with him, he poked his head into the office.

Doctor Tandika stood with his back to the doorway, dancing. With his arms raised above his head, he spun on the spot, saw Dave, and froze mid-finger-snap. Dave turned away to hide a smirk as he applied his safety and holstered his sidearm. Tandika turned beetroot, then snatched something off his head and coughed.

“Didn’t you hear me calling?” asked Dave. “You had me worried.”

The doctor shook his head. “Sorry. I had the music right up.”

“That wouldn’t stop you hearing me.”

“Not in-head music.” Tandika lifted the object he’d been wearing on his head, a pair of padded disks held together by an arched band. “These are headphones. Speakers for your ears.”

Dave frowned. “What’s the point if you’ve got EIS?”

“Some people, myself included, find that listening to music through your ears is more rewarding than listening to it inside your head. And these are much better at blocking out external noise than the earpieces people without implants use.”

Dave blew out through his lips. “OK. So about my victim?”

Tandika waved Dave back into the main room. “It’s probably best if I show you.”

Instead of bringing out the body, as he usually did when running Dave through autopsy findings, he switched on a large display that filled most of a wall. “Station manager Veddir’s pancreas failed. More specifically, the beta cells in the islets of Langerhans failed to produce insulin in response to the increased levels of blood glucose. Without insulin, his tissues were unable to extract the glucose from his blood, and thus could not carry out respiration. This lead to unconsciousness, multiple organ failure, and then death.”

“Was it natural?”

“The medics’ kit would have detected any of the toxins that could have caused it, and I double-checked with a fresh sample.”

Dave studied Tandika’s round face. It didn’t look like that was good news.

“There wasn’t the increase in white blood cells you would expect if it was a disease or an auto-immune issue.” The doctor put an image on the screen. “But I did find these.”

Dave stared at the picture. He recognised the red blood cells, but not the object in the centre.

“It’s a nanite,” said Tandika.

Dave’s eyes widened. “For real? I thought they’d abandoned research into them.”

Tandika nodded. “As far as I knew, they had. Manufacturing them in sufficient quantities to be of use was deemed too difficult. The alternative, designing them so they could build more of themselves, is, of course, against the von Neumann Protocols.”

“So, what did they do to Veddir?”

“They actually destroyed his beta cells. A highly targeted attack that left the neighbouring alpha cells intact and still releasing glucagon. Then they switched themselves off.”

Dave eyed the stasis pods where the bodies were stored. “You sure they’re off?”

“I injected some into a sample of pancreas from another customer. Either they’re off, or they’re coded to specific DNA.”

“Still, I’d like to leave them in stasis for now, just in case. Any idea who could have manufactured them?”

Tanika shook his head. “Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid. I did try to ascertain a point of entry, but came up blank. No needle marks I can detect, so if they were injected, it was more than twenty-seven days ago. But they could have been ingested or inhaled.”

“What about his EIS? Do you know why it didn’t raise the alarm?”

“No. It looks fine physically. You’d have to give it to a computer tech to see if there was anything wrong with its programming.”

“I’ll have someone drop by to pick it up.” Dave shook hands with the doctor. “Thank you.”


#


Barcos adjusted the pleats at the back of Dave’s midnight black jacket and dusted down his sleeves. Dave batted him away, but acquiesced and raised his arms when he held out the shiny white Sam Browne. Every time he had to wear his dress uniform, he wondered why the designers couldn’t have come up with something that could be easily put on unassisted.

“I should postpone this.” Dave held an ornately printed piece of card in the air. “I should be investigating the station manager’s murder, not poncing around in fancy dress.”

Barcos unbuttoned Dave’s epaulette, tucked the shoulder strap under it, and refastened the fabric flap. “It wouldn’t do to snub the merchants. They pushed for you to get this medal after the attack on the polling station.”

“Surely they’ll understand?”

“Walker’s reviewing the surveillance footage from the corridors around Veddir’s residence. Lopez has taken the implants to the tech guys. Your job is to keep the people of this station sweet. There aren’t enough of us to police thirty floors by force. Remind them how you saved them. You know how little respect we normally get; capitalise on something positive.”

Dave sighed. “I suppose. But it wasn’t just me. You were there. So was Frank and his team. So was Chan, and he gave his life slowing down the gunmen.”

“You were the one in command. You fired the shot that took down the bomber. That’s what they remember.”

Together, they left the anteroom and stepped out into the auditorium. A wall of conversation and warmth hit them. Dave found himself confronted with the great and the good of Arancha; traders, teachers, scientists and financiers. Squinting, he picked out Jessica squeezed in between reporters on the back row, her curly, flame locks framing her round face. He winked, and thought she perhaps reacted.

The two security officers took their seats in the front row. Dave leaned towards Barcos. “Who’s presenting it now the station manager’s... indisposed?”

“The head of the board of merchants.” Barcos looked to the entrance. “Ah, here she is.”

An elderly woman in orange and purple robes mounted the stage. The chatter quickly died down. “Not two months ago, in this very room, we came together for the greatest rite of our civilisation. We came to vote.”

Dave fixed his gaze on the speaker, but his sight was elsewhere. Windows of information about nanites filled his inner vision.

“Despite the strength of the opposing opinions of the candidates and their supporters, the act of polling has always been a peaceful one. For one day, across the entire Republic, the whole electorate is united in the simple act of casting their ballot. Even our enemies in Congressional space vote on the same day, both militaries observing a ceasefire out of respect for this institution.”

An article on medical uses of nano-technology caught Dave’s attention, and he enlarged it so it filled the centre of his view. It detailed ideas about how microscopic robots could be programmed to take the place of neutrophils and eosinophils in immune-compromised patients, effectively supplementing their remaining white blood cells.

“But this year, that ceremony was desecrated. Anti-democratic heathens invaded our station and attacked the voters.”

Barcos nudged Dave’s arm. ^But they weren’t anti-democracy, were they? They wanted the result of their independence referendum recognised.^

Dave paused the scrolling article. ^I told you the people pushing for this medal were only remembering what they wanted to remember.^

Barcos snorted and straightened in his seat. Dave resumed reading about how the nanites could be tasked with identifying cancer cells and destroying them.

“Many citizens lost their lives on that day,” the head merchant continued. “Tomorrow, I will unveil a plaque listing their names. But today, we are here to honour one of the men who prevented the tragedy from becoming a disaster. Lieutenant Pratt.”

Barcos elbowed him in the ribs and he jumped to his feet. Minimising the windows, he took the three steps that led onto the stage and accepted the offered handshake.

“Lieutenant, we are in your debt. We were delighted when the Sector Security Headquarters accepted our recommendation that you be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.” She drew a box from her pocket and pulled a golden disk from within it. Bending slightly at the waist, she pinned it on his breast pocket. “Thank you for your continued dedication to our safety.”

She led the room in a round of applause. Heat flushed Dave’s cheeks and, despite his misgivings, flutterings of pride rose in his chest.

He turned to address the room. “I am deeply honoured.” He took a breath to control his voice, which was threatening to betray him by breaking. “I was not the only person who stood against the attackers that day. I accept this on behalf of Officer Chan and all the others who did their bit to protect the people of this station. Thank you.”

Dave retook his seat, glad it was almost over.

As the applause continued, Barcos whispered in his ear. “Chan would have hated this crap, too.”



3


“Right. I’m sure you’ve all heard that the station manager was found dead last night.” Dave surveyed the handful of officers in front of him. Some sat on chairs, others on desks, gathered round the wallscreen displaying images of the victim. None seemed surprised. “Olisan Veddir, sixty-nine, came to Arancha nineteen years ago to take over as station manager. He was a private man; for someone in public office, he kept himself to himself. Even his deputy, now the acting manager, didn’t know anything about his private life. But then, he didn’t involve her in running Arancha, either. No family on the station, and no known romantic partners.”

“I have put a request for checks into his previous life in the dispatch to Sector HQ, along with some queries about the technical aspects of the case. Luckily, there’s a federal freighter due to leave for Obosso tomorrow, so we won’t lose much time. Not that we can expect a reply for a week or two.” A couple of officers snorted, reminding him that they were all too used to being out of touch. Orbiting a desolate planet, far out on the way to nowhere, Arancha wasn’t exactly at the pulse of things. Not for the first time, he missed the connectedness of working on a developed planet. Instant communication with billions of people, reinforcements available when needed, government ships coming and going every day. “The search of his apartment came up blank. We’re waiting on the authority from Sector HQ to access his private messages and files.”

Dave added a photo of an apparently unused room. “The acting manager gave me permission to search Veddir’s office. Every time I’ve been there, it’s struck me as a stark place. Poking around now, it was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to sterile outside a hospital. I can safely say that he didn’t keep anything of any significance at work. I also got to examine his official calendar and notes, but he’d encrypted them. She’s tearing her hair out trying to pick up the pieces of what he was doing. We’re going to have to look into her, but I’m not liking her for it. All she gains is a lot of extra work until his replacement is sent, and she doesn’t even get a raise.”

He put the medical summary on the screen. “Cause of death is confirmed as multiple organ failure attributed to damage done by nanites. How and when they got into his system are unknown. I’m afraid there isn’t anyone on-station who knows enough about nanotechnology to be of help, so that line of investigation is on hold until we hear back from HQ.”

“Now, as I see it, we’ve got four possibilities: accident, suicide, murder, and assassination.” Dave liked this phase of investigations. Everything was open and by the book. Then there was the end-game, ruthlessly following logic paths to a conclusion. It was the middle stretch, the thrashing around in the dark, that he didn’t like. Just the same as he felt about chess. “Right now, we don’t have a clear motive, or anyone obvious to look at.”

He glanced ruefully at the ‘persons of interest’ portion of the screen with its sole entry. Usually, there were a decent number of names up at the start of a case: lovers, competitors, heirs. “Singh, fill us in on the results of the door-to-door.”

Singh smoothed his beard as everyone turned to face him. “Nothing to tell, really. Pritchard and I canvassed the whole section. As you said, he kept himself to himself. No-one knew anything about his personal life. One couple had a beef with him about their pet rat, seems he tried to have it removed. Nothing popped.”

“Thank you.” Dave turned to Barcos. “Anything in the security feeds?”

Barcos shook his head. “I’ve been through the last four days outside his apartment. No visitors. I was going to go back to a week then try tracing his movements.”

“Lopez, I want you to stick with the EIS, see where that takes you. I’ve got a feeling that’s going to yield the most info. If nothing else, if it was hacked we should get a timeframe.”

She nodded, her strong jaw slightly jutting out. “On it.”

Dave smiled, proud of his team. They’d held things together on Arancha for several years now, and he counted them all as friends. “And take over reviewing the feeds from outside Veddir’s apartment. I can’t believe nobody ever visited him. I want to talk to anyone who did; someone must know something about his life.”

He scratched his head absently.

“While we’re on the camera feeds... Santiago, reconstruct his movements in the last week. Find out where he went, what he did, and who he met. See if you can do anything with the call logs; I know we can’t access his calls directly, but see if you can run it backwards.”

Santiago gave a thumbs up.

“Singh, look into who benefits from his death. Next of kin, business and political rivals, you know the kind of thing. Start with the acting manager. We’ve long suspected Veddir was involved in some shady deals, see what you can dig up.”

“Walker, I want you working the accident and suicide angles. Perhaps it was a medical trial gone wrong? Or he got into something and couldn’t face the consequences?”

Walker’s freckled face fell. “You really think that’s likely?”

Dave felt sorry for the young man, remembering his own disappointment at dead-end taskings as a rookie. “My gut says no. I’m definitely thinking murder or assassination. But when we catch his killer, I don’t want some defence lawyer getting the case thrown out because we didn’t explore every avenue.”

Walker nodded. “Got it, Boss.”

“Barcos, I want you out on patrol. Obviously, I’ll keep you up to speed with the investigation, but I need someone making their presence felt out there. We can’t afford for the low-lives to realise we’re stretched. Pritchard will take over from you when he comes on shift.”

His sergeant looked content with the tasking. Dave looked around, studying the officers’ faces. “OK. It’s no secret we’re hamstrung on this until we hear back from HQ. But I’m going to see what I can do to convince people to help us until then. Anyone got anything to add?”

A chorus of shaken heads.

He clapped his hands together. “OK, get to it.”


#


Sequins sparkled across the merchants’ hall as Dave descended the short flight of stairs. He had often wondered why the atrium was built-up above the normal level of the deck, and now realised it was purely to make grand entrances possible. With the gilt mouldings on the walls and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, it hardly seemed necessary.

On a stage at the far end, a band struck up a polska. Dave looked at his wife, in her elegant turquoise dress with the lace neck, and realised how long it was since they’d been out together without the children. Certainly not since Maisie’d been born. Jessica’s keenness to come had been the only reason he’d accepted the invitation.

“Care to dance, Mrs Pratt?” Dave offered his hand.

“But you don’t like dancing.”

“Not in general.” Dave circled his hand and offered it again. “But I’ll make an exception for you.”

She took his hand and pulled him to her. “I’m leading. You’ve got no sense of rhythm.”

He let her drag him across the floor, doing his best to keep in step. It was awkward, as dancing always was, but it meant being close to Jessica.

By the end of the first promenade, he’d eased into the pattern. At least she wasn’t trying any clever improvisations. Her warmth crept into his body where they pressed together, the music took over his heartbeat. She smiled at him, a genuine look of pleasure, and everything else ebbed away. This is what it had been like. This is what it could be again.

The music came to a close and the couples all bowed to each other. Dave accepted two flutes of bubbly from a young man in a smart tuxedo, hardly able to thank him before he was gone, expertly negotiating the swirling crowd with his silver platter of glasses balanced on his fingers. He handed one to Jessica and took a sip of his own. The fizz tickled his nose, almost making him sneeze. He reached up to tug at his white collar, only for her to guide his hand away.

“Stop fidgeting.” She adjusted the folded handkerchief artfully thrust into his chest pocket, the colour chosen to match her dress. “You look fine... And don’t you dare say anything about work. This party’s in your honour; concentrate on having a nice time.”

Dave guided her towards the food, hand in the small of her back.

“Trust you to always think of your stomach.” But there was a life in the back of her eyes he didn’t see very often nowadays. She smiled and tucked some of his hair behind his ear. “I am proud of you, you know. You’re a good father to our children.”

“Ah, there he is.” The head of the board of merchants ploughed through the crowd, her crystal voice cutting through the background music. “The man of the hour.”

Dave turned to Jessica and mouthed, “Sorry.”

She rested her forehead on his shoulder for a moment then pivoted them both to face the oncoming whirlwind arm in arm.

“I do hope you’re enjoying yourself.” The merchant stopped in front of them, a bubble in the crowd leaving them in an oasis of peace. She appeared to catch sight of Jessica and eyed her up and down through a pair of lenses on a stick which matched her puffy peach gown. “Oh, now who is this lovely specimen you have with you tonight?”

Jessica’s fingers dug into his waist. At least the apparition in pink hadn’t called her a girl.

“Where are my manners.” Dave coughed. “This is my wife, Jessica.”

Jessica took her arm out from behind his back and curtseyed. If she saw the sarcasm, the merchant overlooked it. She extended her arm, hand draped from the wrist.

“Jessica, this is Signora Ottaviano, head of the board of merchants.” Dave clamped down on a rising giggle when Jessica bent forwards and kissed one of the large, pearl-encrusted rings on Ottaviano’s fingers. That was the wife he remembered; fiercely proud and mischievous.

“Oh, you are sweet,” said Ottaviano, clasping Jessica’s hand. “But could you please excuse us for a moment?”

Without waiting for an answer, she turned her back on Jessica and put her arm on Dave’s shoulder. “I still can’t thank you enough. You know I’ll be running for Sector parliament next year? Merchants love security, and you agreeing to be seen with me at the ceremony, and now here, does wonders for my campaign.”

Dave frowned. “Well, I didn’t do it for...”

“Tsk, tsk. I owe you a favour. Just message me when you need to call it in. Anyway, enjoy the rest of the evening.” She twirled and floated off. As he watched the crowd parting around her, he added a new entry to the case folder, querying the possibility that Ottaviano killed the station manager for her own political advancement. After all, if Veddir was still alive, he’d have been the one seen presenting the medal, even if it was the board of merchants who’d petitioned for its award. And Ottaviano would need to have held a state administrative post before being eligible for a parliamentary position; perhaps she hoped she’d replace Veddir.

“What did she want?” Jessica held out a plate of sausages, cheese bites, and spicy peppers.

“Oh, just wanted to thank me personally.”

She raised an eyebrow. “It looked like more than that.”

“OK. She said she owed me.” Dave bit into a sausage, the sweet glaze sticking around his teeth. “Mmm. Seems I’ve inadvertently given her political capital.”

Jessica beamed. “So now you’ve got the support of the two most powerful people on Arancha.”

A flake of pastry stuck in his throat. “Two? Who else do you think... How do you...”

“Relax. One hears rumours. Then you conjure a team of mercenaries out of the vacuum in time to save everyone?”

Dave swallowed. “You aren’t cross?”

“I was at first, but I talked it through with Doctor Lasca. Without the details, of course.” She took his hand. “I came to realise that you were doing it to look after us, same as why you’re late back so often.”

He gently squeezed her delicate fingers. “Sorry about that. You know I only do it because I have to.”

“I do. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, though.”

“Hang on a sec.” Dave tried to let go, but Jessica held his hand fast.

Her eyes narrowed. “You didn’t just get a call from work, did you?”

“No. Trust me.”

She released him and he hurried to the cloakroom. The attendant queried his EIS before handing over his bag. Dave took out the box of chocolates and returned the bag, before making his way back to Jessica.

“I was going to give these to you the other day.” With a deep bow, complete with a flourish of the hand, he presented the box to her. She flushed slightly and looked around at the expectant crowd.

“Open it,” someone said. Others echoed the call.

She tugged at the bow, letting it slip to the floor through her fingers, then lifted the lid. She gasped at the contents, her hand going to her mouth and her eyes widening. “Are they real?”

“Try one.”



4


“You’ve done a good job of building these call logs, Santiago.” Dave pulled a chair over and sat next to the wiry, moustached officer at his desk. He scrolled through the lists, one sorted by frequency of calls and the other chronologically. Each had a graph showing the calls and messages against time.

“It’s not complete, yet. It’s slow going making sure I don’t trip the protections put in place by the Public Protection Office.” Santiago rolled his neck. “Next step’s looking for links between the people on the list.”

Dave exhaled. “Good luck with that. Other than the work-related ones, there’s very few associated with accounts tied to individuals.”

“Yeah, I was wondering about that. What was Veddir doing calling so many burner-comms?”

Dave shrugged. “Probably to do with his fringe business. To be honest, I’m surprised we didn’t find any burners in his apartment or office.”

A link request popped up from Doctor Tandika which Dave accepted. ^Lieutenant, got a moment?^

^Yep. Just give me a second.^ Dave stood. “Keep going, Santiago. Anyone worth looking into pops up, add them to the board and we’ll see about getting someone to go digging.”

He headed back to his own desk. ^OK, Doc. I’m listening.^

^I’ve been running down the method of exposure to the nanites. Their size makes it doubtful they could cross the lung walls without doing damage I could detect. It is possible they could enter through the gut, but my money’s on direct blood contact. Injection or open wound, that kind of thing.^

Dave sat and leaned back in his chair. ^OK, so that means the killer’d likely have to get close to the victim. I take it there weren’t any cuts or grazes on him?^

^No, but remember, we don’t know how long they remained dormant inside him. And I haven’t ruled out ingestion. I checked the station water supply, just in case. And a few samples of food. No sign of them, but I couldn’t find any rations older than six weeks to test.^

A dread sank into Dave’s stomach. He’d missed a possibility. ^You’re thinking it was a widespread attack?^

^The thought crossed my mind. After the Children of Ixus attacked the polling station, who knows what’s possible?^

Dave’s mind raced. The terrorists had been around on Arancha for a while before they staged their attack. They could have spiked food supplies; he’d read about a case a few years back of someone who’d spread a toxin by handling vegetables in a shop. It wasn’t the Children of Ixus’ MO, but they were a new and evolving group. They had the resources too; intelligence suggested they’d had the unofficial backing of the Ixus government before the Senate reimposed central control.

Dave requested all the footage of areas related to food distribution over the time the Children were on the station be pulled from deep storage and flagged it for Barcos to look at. ^Doc? Can you test everyone, see if anyone else is infested?^

^That would start a panic, even if I made up an excuse. In a closed system like this, everyone’s aware of the risk of an epidemic. If I started pulling everyone in for blood tests...^

^Understood. What about me and my staff? We can keep quiet about it.^ Dave tried to work out a way he could get his family tested too, without worrying them.

^That would be possible. I tested myself shortly after I identified the nanites, in case I’d been contaminated during the autopsy. I was clean. I was already thinking of going through the blood samples I still have from cases and hospital path requests.^

The food distribution footage streamed into the security station’s storage. Dave groaned when he saw how much they’d have to wade through. ^That’d be a start. Even one positive throws this case in an entirely new direction.^

^One more thing. I noticed a motif on the nanites. It looks deliberate, but not functional. I checked it against the medi-tech database and didn’t get any hits, but it might be something. I’ve included an image in the files, along with everything I’ve just told you.^

Dave checked the case folder the doctor had updated and opened the image. It was indistinct, printed as it was at a molecular level, but reminded him of a serpent. An idea struck him. ^Any chance you could use the inoculations at the school tomorrow? You know, take some blood as well as giving the shots?^

^That would be highly unethical. Not to mention difficult, seeing as the inoculations don’t penetrate a vein.^ Tandika paused for several seconds. ^I’ll let you know.^

The connection closed. Dave updated the case board, adding terrorism and the possibility of it not being a targeted attack.


#


Taking the last bite of a spicy wrap he’d bought from a street stall, Dave pushed open the glass door to the Arancha Bank. With little more to do on the terrorism angle for now, and until they got proof of widespread infestation, he had to continue assuming it could be targeted at Veddir. Accessing the station manager’s financials might just crack the case, and waiting for authority from HQ could easily give the killer time to get away.

He sidled up to the counter, startling the clerk. “I’d like to see Mister Foster, please.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

Dave moved his jacket aside to show his badge.

The clerk perked up. “Ooh. He’s just started his shift. I’ll call through for you.”

The armoured glass window sealed off all sound as she talked on her comm-link. Dave peered casually at what she’d been doing when he arrived. Bank clerk had to be one of the most boring jobs; virtually no-one dealt with a bank in person, only those who wanted a physical item kept safe and those who worked with offline credit chips cashing in. He was probably her first visitor all day.

The clerk finished the call and switched the intercom back on. “Mister Foster’ll be out momentarily.”

“Thank you.” Dave smiled. “Water.”

“Excuse me?”

“Six across. HIJKLMNO, five letters... Water.”

She looked down at her crossword. “Oh? Oh, yes, I see. Thank you.”

A door clunked and Dave turned to see Michael Foster holding it open.

“Lieutenant.” He fixed the fake smile practised by everyone in sales. “If you’d like to come through to my office...”

Dave followed him without saying a word. Three locked doors later, they arrived at a tiny brown cube of a room containing a desk and three hard plastic chairs.

Foster sat and waved Dave into a seat opposite. “So, what can we do for Arancha’s Finest?”

“Deputy Manager now, eh, Michael? Things are looking up for you.” Dave straightened a picture frame on the desk. “If you’re recording this ‘for training and quality purposes’, you probably want to stop.”

Foster stared at him. Dave undid his jacket and leaned back. After a moment, Foster logged into his terminal and tapped in a few commands. “There. We’re off the record.”

“Good. I wouldn’t want your boss finding out about your Jazz habit...”

Foster’s eyes jerked to the door. “Former Jazz habit.”

“All I need is to take a look at someone’s financial records. You can do that for me, can’t you, Michael?”

“Whose? Why can’t you just request them officially?”

Dave ran his tongue over the fronts of his teeth, top then bottom. “Olisan Veddir.”

Foster twitched, almost ducking. “The station manager? I can’t. His records are protected by Public Office Privilege.”

Dave made a show of inspecting his fingers and wiping them on his jacket then leaned forwards. “Remind me, Michael. How did you finance your Jazz buys?”

Foster did a brilliant impression of a rabbit in headlights. Dave almost eased off, but he needed the information.

“You said yourself, we aren’t being recorded.” Dave inclined his head. “We aren’t being recorded, are we, Michael?”

Foster shook his head fractionally.

“Well, then. They won’t know you showed me. If they question you accessing the records, you could say it was an accident. You typed in the wrong account number or something.” Dave backed up slightly to give Foster a little bit more space. “OK?”

Foster nodded tightly, his entire body still seemed locked.

“Well?”

Foster started and focussed on Dave again. He blinked three times in quick succession then bent over his terminal. Seconds later, he turned the screen to Dave. Very little stood out, just Veddir’s salary going in and mundane things like clothes and food purchases going out. Dave concealed his disappointment at wasting his run with Foster; he’d be ready for him next time. Of course Veddir would use credit chips and false bank accounts to conduct his shady deals. The only thing of any interest was a regular set of charges to a high-end nightclub on Level Three.

Dave grinned, covering up the dirty feeling at what he’d just done. “Thank you, Michael. That wasn’t so hard was it?”

Foster turned the screen back and taped on his terminal.

Dave tossed a credit chip onto the desk. “Load that into my account, would you? It’ll look like that’s what I was here to do.”

Foster placed the gold disk on a red dot on the desk and swiped his finger across the desk beside it. A soft ‘kerchink’ played and he tossed the chip back. “Done.”

“Turn the recording back on now.” Dave waited until Foster finished tapping then stood and held out his hand. “Thank you again, Mister Foster. I’m grateful for your sensitivity in handling this awkward personal matter.”


#


Of the seventy-six floors of Arancha Station, Level Three was one of the best-maintained. The clubs, restaurants and designer shops paid directly to keep the corridors pristine. With prices for a meal approaching his weekly pay, and bouncers dealing with trouble, Dave rarely made it up there for pleasure or for work.

He nodded a greeting to a woman adding a new layer to the lilac paint on a wall, then smiled to a flamboyantly-dressed young man carrying several shopping bags on each arm. The club he was after wasn’t due to open for another few hours, but he banged on the tradesman’s door anyway.

“You’re late. Rehearsal started half...” The door opened and a man in skintight black trousers and shirt stared at Dave. “You’re not Dixie.”

“No, I’m not Dixie.” Dave flashed his badge. “Lieutenant Pratt. Mind if I come in?”

The man stepped back, propping the door open with his arm. Dave squeezed past into the bare-metal room beyond.

“This way.” The man led him past stacked crates of drinks and through a door, to emerge behind a bar. Coloured lights refracted through crystal columns and reflected off mirrors. A cleaning robot hummed its way between circular tables with purple velvet-upholstered chairs neatly stacked on top. On the far side, four women and five men in burlesque outfits stood on a stage while a man in a grey lounge suit gestured and pointed.

The black-clad man who’d shown him in picked up a square towel and began drying and stacking glasses. “What can I do for you, Officer?”

“What’s your name?”

“Jackson.”

“Jackson?” Dave raised an eyebrow.

“Just Jackson.”

“OK, Just Jackson. Do you recognise this man?” He held out his pad with an image of Veddir.

Jackson hardly glanced at the picture. “Nah.”

“He’s a regular here.”

“Possible. We get hundreds every night. It’s dark.”

Dave sighed and flicked to the next image, from after the autopsy. “Have another look.”

Jackson flicked the towel over his shoulder and looked at the pad. His mouth dropped open. “Oli’s dead?”

Dave’s interest spiked. For the first time, someone seemed to actually know the victim. “So he was a regular?”

The bartender clutched the brass rail that ran round the counter. “Nice guy. Good tipper. In a couple’a times a week. Usually Mondays and Thursdays, that’s when Dixie works. He always sat at one of her tables.”

Dave began making notes in the case folder. “Did he sit with anyone?”

“Yeah. Always the same guys. They’ll probably be in tonight; I could point them out to you.”

“Thank you. That would be great.” Dave’s heart fluttered. A break. An actual break. “Is Dixie normally unreliable? I mean, she’s late tonight, right?”

Jackson frowned. “No. Not usually. Do you think…?”

“Have you tried calling her?”

“Yeah, a few times.” Jackson clutched the rail tighter, his knuckles turning white. “She didn’t pick up.”

Dave patted his hand to reassure him. “Do you have an address for her? And her full name.”

Jackson wiped his face. “Yeah. Hang on...” He pulled out his comm-link and swiped through the contacts. “Here you go.”

Dave read the details and attached them to his report. “Thank you. I’m sending someone round there now. I’ll also arrange for an officer to be here this evening so you can point out Veddir’s associates.”

He opened a channel to Barcos. ^I’m sending you some details. I need you to find this woman immediately, she didn’t show for work today and isn’t answering her comm. She knew Veddir. She might be involved in his death, or she might be another victim.^

Jackson draped himself over the bar.

^I’ll see if we can locate her comm-link,^ sent Barcos. ^Walker’s closest to her apartment, I’ll send him there.^

^Thank you.^ Dave put his hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “They’re on their way.”

^And another thing, Barcos. I need to get home on time tonight, but I need someone here to identify some associates of Veddir. Can you do it?^

^Of course, Boss, you idiot. Have you only just realised you can ask?^



5


Dave and Barcos waited in silence near a large hatch in the primary docking arm. Unlike when a regular ship arrived, they were the only two present in the beige waiting area; no dock hands ready to help unload, nobody waiting for visitors or to try to scoop a prime deal with a trader.

Every ship that docked was met by one of the security team, two felt like a waste of resources. But this was another of those times that Dave had to show his face. At least this time he got to wear working uniform instead of the ridiculous dress outfit he’d been required to wear for the presentation of his award.

Displayed on a wallscreen masquerading as a window, a boxy frigate inched its way towards the docking arm, bringing the new station manager to take up his post. Dave despaired at the lack of progress in finding his predecessor’s killer. The report on his EIS should be back from the tech guys by now, the first thing he’d look at when he got back to the office. They hadn’t managed to rule anything out, yet. Other than natural causes, that is. There was still a decent chance that it was an assassination. If it was, then the new manager would likely be in the firing line, and Dave didn’t have the manpower to protect him.

A gentle clunk that was felt more through the feet than heard through the ears drew Dave’s attention back to the present. The row of lights above the docking hatch turned amber, signalling a successful seal. Dave smoothed down his jacket and glanced at Barcos. The solidly-built man stood fast, not a dark hair out of place. It never ceased to amaze Dave how easily his sergeant cleaned up.

The lights turned green and the hatch slid up to reveal a line of marines in mottled grey and navy firmsuits. Unlike the outdated kit that found its way to Security on Arancha, they bristled with top-of-the-range equipment. Their rifles were held at low port, but the warning was clear.

Behind them, flanked by uniformed security officers, stood a security captain. He narrowed his eyes upon seeing Dave and Barcos, then inclined his head to speak to a sergeant who approached him from behind.

The marines advanced, parting to pass Dave and Barcos, and took up positions blocking the corridors leading to the dock. The captain stepped forward, back stiff and chin held high. Dave came to attention and saluted, quickly followed by Barcos.

The captain stopped in front of them and returned the courtesy. “I am Captain Williams. Here is my authority to take up the post of Station Manager.”

As soon as Williams finished speaking, a file arrived in Dave’s queue. He opened it in his EIS and skimmed through. It checked out. “Welcome aboard, Sir. We weren’t expecting such a strong presence.”

“No. I’m sure you weren’t.”

It took a lot to irritate Dave, but Captain Williams was already succeeding. Dave clamped down on his annoyance at the newcomer’s imperious tone. “I’m afraid the official residence is still a crime scene. We’ve made arrangements for you be accommodated elsewhere, and there is a spare office in the cargo handling facility.”

“No need.” Williams stepped past Dave and continued on into the station. “I’ll be using the security office.”

Dave hurried after him, with Barcos a few paces behind. A section of marines stayed, guarding the dock. The rest fell in with the security officers and escorted the trio through the grimy corridors.

“I must say, the extra help is most welcome.” Dave kept level with Williams. “Will they be staying long?”

“The marines are just here to ensure a peaceful handover. They’ll be leaving with the frigate.”

“And the officers?” It didn’t escape Dave’s notice that there were nineteen additional security personnel, exactly the number they were short on Arancha. It had been eighteen for years, until Chan’s death, he remembered with sadness.

“They’ll be staying.” Williams looked sideways at Dave. “Whether I need to send for more remains to be seen.”

Arancha citizens scattered out of the way as the party marched on. A crowd gathered in their wake, initially just a couple of children, but it soon included a gaggle of curious adults. On arrival at the security station, the marines halted and kept the crowd back while the security officers entered.

The sole officer on duty, Lopez, looked up from her desk, eyes widening when she saw the ranks of personnel spreading out through the room.

“It’s OK,” said Dave, strolling as casually as he could, given his thumping heart. He stood beside her. “Just keep working. That’s the report on the station manager’s EIS, isn’t it?”

Williams called out from across the room, “Don’t give him any information, Officer Lopez. Lieutenant Pratt is, as of this moment, off that case.

“Er... OK, Sir?”

A barrel-chested sergeant stepped closer to Lopez, facing her square-on. Around the squad room, the new arrivals pulled plastic dust sheets off empty desks and chairs.

Dave put his hand on Lopez’s shoulder. “It’s fine. Do as he says.”

The sergeant backed off.


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