Murders didn’t quite draw the same crowd as they once did. Although it was no secret that everyone on the Black Agora Space Station didn’t have the time to dawdle. Instead, they were down at the docks bartering for a ticket to a third-generation colony planet or a backwater moon—to anywhere but here.
Everyone except me, I supposed, with an ugly twist of my mouth. It was the kind of face my mother would tell me to straighten out, fingers tipping up my impertinent chin. But she wasn’t stuck on clean-up duty in the Sita District slums now, was she?
No one else could do the damn job, anyway. Even if private eyes weren’t so welcome in a city overrun by criminals; drug shipments and gang wars rolling in and out, soaking the ground like the crust of sea foam on waves of exhaust. Yet, those treacherous airwaves had to break apart on someone, anyone, who stood against the tide—and that was where I came in. Detectives were the only law worth the hassle, most of the time.
If you weren’t spending your last days choking on fumes or shaking with an elixir addiction, it wasn’t so bad. The largest intergalactic port in the galaxy had its moments of quiet, between that hum of spaceboats and haggling in the marketplaces, where the noise was beaten down, as thin and oily as the credits that slipped between greased hands.
It was kinda pretty, too. Maybe. If you stared up at the grimy fluorescents that hovered over the length of the space station, it looked like a rind of blue moonlight, almost. Or what I could guess it looked like.
Huffing, I shook my head. Hopefully that would help clear my mind. Crouching down beside the corpse, I pulled the cigarette from my lips in a pinch of my fingertips. My hand ached, limbs sluggish after a sleepless night, fighting to let some bad tasting hooch pull me into oblivion. Flecks of orange ash fluttered to the ground.
“Who was it that wanted me to find you so bad?” I asked aloud. In my right eye, I scrounged through the projected blue screen of my optical receiver to find the answer. The holographic text and image shuddered, light flashing like a comet streaking through the starry sky.
The first message in my inbox had the attached subject line of I NEED YOU.
CARINA PANDORUS MAJOR,
THERE IS A JOB FOR YOU JUST OUTSIDE GOZLEME’S CORNER SHOP, 17TH QUADRANT, NORTH SITA DISTRICT. BE THERE IN THREE HOURS. SECOND HALF OF PAYMENT TO BE RECEIVED UPON COMPLETION.
I’d taken worse tips, and for much less. The hefty sum of Universal Credits that was promptly deposited into my bank when I opened the message had made the investigation a whole lot easier to accept, even if I didn’t really have a choice in it.
I gave the job—that poor sucker lying broken on the ground—a quick once-over.
At first glance, it was an open-and-shut case: a victim of elixir overdose. He had track marks bruised into the bend of his elbows, but his teeth were unblemished. His fingernails were a healthy pink. Somehow a good, clean man had been made to look like a drugged-out wretch.
I rubbed the bruised skin beneath my eyes. Sometimes I wondered if I pressed down too hard it would split open like the flesh of a fig, pulled apart to reveal the soft insides. My dad would buy three of the same fruits at the tail end of the Earthtime harvesting season; one for each of us in our family. It’d been so long that I’d damn forgotten what they tasted like, though. Not a lunar cycle went by when this place didn’t make me hate it just that little bit more.
With as much finesse as a local meat butcher, dirty-fingered hands as big as cleavers, I dug out the victim’s right eye to scan his optical receiver. Light flooded my mind in bursts, like the first initial jolt into hyperspace in rickety Earthtime spaceboats. I found his name and personal details. Alexei Chernyshevsky had a wife, five kids, and a life cut too short. Proceeding his refugee status from Janus ALPHA-7 was Chernyshevsky’s high-clearance workman certificate.
I smirked; laughter squeezing out between my clenched teeth. There was only one company on the whole station that legally granted full travel and transport rights between the districts of Sita and Rama. Titan Corporation was the only place rich enough to buy that kinda privilege.
A siren filled the overcrowded, polluted atmosphere above my head. I straightened up to full height, windswept coat clinging to my ankles like the wet crust of garbage underfoot. The police—men recruited and churned out into government issue cyborgs called Tinmen—didn’t much like me shouldering in on their turf, but there wasn’t much trouble unless I was caught. Well, thereabouts.
I rolled my neck until it cracked, ready to face whatever trouble that came a-knockin’.
* * *
“Theia Titan. A pleasure to meet you.”
I knew I was in danger the moment I saw her. Long legs, bright eyes that weren’t shadowed by the constant dim, and a knowing quirk to her mouth that made my stomach twist painfully. Like being gutted, except worse, because it’s her hand I wanted pulling that part of me undone. I cleared my throat, forcing myself to look at the full splendour that was Theia Titan.
She was as polished and cold as the stars that shined above. Just as beautiful, too. And she was also the unofficial kingpin of Agora.
If you were stuck long enough on the space station, you were quick to learn there was a basic hierarchy on the streets: Titan Corporation, Tinmen, and gangsters. They all managed to keep the place in such a state of drugged-out, boozed-up chaos that it seemed we were all living through the same maddening night without end. Without a sun to guide ourselves by, it was just about true. Instead, we had a synthetic version of light; it was just another bad copy of the real thing.
“Carina Major, was it?” Theia stood facing me, her slender profile outlined by the illuminated landscape of Agora behind her. Light spilled over her bare shoulders, molten, like gold, or a supernova collapsing in on itself. Her office was made entirely of glass, so delicate and clean I couldn’t believe it was only just me and her up there.
Another piece of me, low in my body, was wrenched out.
“Is that an accent I detect?” She folded her hands behind her back, watching me with interest. Her mouth pressed into a thin line, the purple lipstick almost the same colour of those figs I had when I was a kid. I wanted to know if they tasted the same. “An early generation colonist’s daughter who went off searching better things and got stranded here, perhaps?”
“I’m here to speak with you about the recent death of your employee, Mr. Alexei Chernyshevsky.” I strained to keep my expression neutral, my shoulders up. Gaze forward.
She was already having too much fun with me.
“Is this an interrogation?” Theia asked, moving to stand behind her desk. They were slow, measured strides.
“It’s just procedure. Did Chernyshevsky have any complaints, workplace disagreements, or anything that would lead you to believe someone had the motive to—“
“Kill him?” Low laughter echoed eerily in the glass room. “No, Mr. Chernyshevsky was a model employee. I had no qualms with the man.” Theia paused, her lustrous hair half-shadowing her face, like an Earthtime temple goddess shrouded in the muck of grime and disuse. “However, wouldn’t you say this is a matter for the police?”
I swallowed thickly. I was starting to understand why I was even allowed up here; it wasn’t a trick I’d learned from years throwing around my weight as a private eye. “With all due respect, Tinmen aren’t much help most of the time. I’m the best chance an innocent man has at finding justice.”
Theia snorted; it was just a small, soft thing. She did it in the same way a classy dame sneezed delicately behind a cupped hand. Unease drew my mouth into a frown at her show of lady-like fragility, so completely at odds with how she spoke, shouldering in, demanding to be heard and obeyed.
“I feel like a cigarette,” Theia said suddenly. “Would you like one?”
“White Hare, wasn’t that your brand?”
I took her up on her offer, knowing it would be better to play along. Across the space of the desk, we leaned into each other. Like the flimsy edges of the space station, reaching out to touch, leaving only a desperate longing in its place. Funny how being so close to her, alone, was more frightening than dodging the elixir-drugged masses that congregated down below. That I could handle, at least.
Theia waited until I had taken a slow drag of the slim, black cigarette, mouth touching the place where hers had been, before responding. “I would talk to the families that run Sita District,” Theia said. “They’ve never quite taken to me, for whatever reason.”
I nodded tightly, recording the information on my optical receiver. I didn’t have the luxury to wonder if she had the tech to track my internal actions. Be lucky if she didn’t lace that cigarette with anything, even if she shared it with me. I had my money on her having built up a resistance to poison, though, after surviving—and succeeding—in Agora this long.
“Please contact me if you have any other questions,” Theia called out as I made the motions to leave, quick to escape a feeling I didn’t really wanna analyse right now. “And you should know it’s Ms. Titan. My late husband has only just recently left this world, the poor thing.”
* * *
There was a strip of neutral ground between the Sita and Rama Districts where any weary soul—be it human, android, or alien—was free to do as they pleased. It was the only place I could bribe my informants to meet me without worrying about who would report back. It wasn’t worth breaking the one truce people stuck to outside those boundary walls.
And no one wanted to remember what they did in Purgatory, anyway.
“You heard of Alexei Chernyshevsky?” I asked the two men eating at a street-side noodle stall. The constant motion of the kitchen blew steaming humidity in face, so hot that I swore my skin was sloughing off in sweaty layers. Hard to imagine what it actually felt like to burn—the sun here was barely functioning lightbulbs, producing a sickly glow.
“What’d the guy do?” Sergio asked, leaning over Kenji’s shoulder to talk to me.
“He was a Titan employee, workman certificate and everything. Killed in Sita District this morning and pumped full of elixir to make it look like an overdose.”
My foot bounced impatiently against the ground as Kenji made a noncommittal grunt, laying his chopsticks across the top of his bowl. Sergio followed up his companion’s act by slurping on the noodled entrails left in his watery broth.
What a perfect pair they were: silent and stupid.
“I don’t have all day to entertain small-fry gangsters like you two.” I planted my elbow on the bench, cocking my head. I wished I hadn’t spent an asteroid-sized chunk of Universal Credits on paying for their meals when all I really wanted was a smoke. Preferably held between Theia Titan’s elegant fingers.
“Cool your thrusters, Major! Here, have a drink,” Sergio suggested, pouring a fresh glass for me. He slid it over, fingerprints imprinted on the glass messily. I could read his DNA with my optical implant if I really wanted to bother with scanning it.
My shoulders sunk; a sigh draining all the energy from my body. I stared at the amber-coloured swill for a while, but my self-preservation was short-lived. It hit the back of my throat like a metal-boned bruiser’s fist and burned all the way down.
“Chernyshevsky was a Tinman,” Kenji said without working up to it, still refusing to look at me.
“Been undercover for about two Earthtime years,” Sergio added.
I frowned. “What would the gangs get out of killin’ a rat in Titan Corporation?”
Kenji and Sergio halted, sharing a meaningful look I couldn’t read. Even if they did serve on opposite turfs, information swirling in different mouths, gangsters knew how their own kind ticked. Something about being from the same cloth—as an old, elixir-ridden pioneer colonist had once told me. Kinship ran deeper than blood and wires around here.
“Who gave you that idea, boss?” Sergio laughed, thumping his chest as it caught in a hacking cough. He knocked his bowl as he did it, spilling it over the bench.
I cursed, sinking napkins into the chicken bone broth until they were coloured brown. Sergio was still making a racket, face flushed. Eventually, Kenji took pity on him for damn near spewing up blood and reached out to pat his back comfortingly. The strangled sound eased.
If I really focused, I’m sure the whole world would’ve narrowed down to a few singular things: Sergio’s coughing; the scrape of a wok against a nearby stovetop element; and Kenji’s hand slipping up to brush a thumb over the curve of Sergio’s neck, just under his hairline. Purgatory had that affect—it made everything lose its harsh edge, just for a second. I could pretend I was in any other Earthtime shop, idling away the day, like I did when I was a kid. Like I stopped doing when I realised I had no idea what to dream about.
“Titan killed Chernyshevsky,” Kenji said, in almost a murmur. I could barely hear him—always the damn noise, too loud and too close. “It wasn’t anyone who worked this side of Purgatory.”
“Why?” I asked right as my head started aching. I blinked, but my vision was getting dangerously hazy, like most nights I wanted to scrub out from behind my eyelids. Swearing, I tried to stand, tripping over my stool. “What did you do to me?”
The hot steam fluttered the fabric signs draping over the overhang of the noodle stall. It had gone quiet, weirdly, in that way silence pulsed after a tinny gunshot.
Sergio and Kenji’s gazes slid to each other, like they always did. Like they always had—in sync. Hate swelled up inside me, bitter, like an off-world drink that had sat too long in a dinky hooch rig. Kenji slung his and Sergio’s coats over his elbow, tugging Sergio to his feet.
I struggled to grab for them, wanting to demand an answer, help, anything.
– You pay decent, but we know folks who pay better,” Sergio said, the words strained, scraping against his raw throat. He seemed faraway. “Chernyshevsky saw something he shouldn’t have. He deserved better, but I guess he couldn’t keep playing a lucky hand forever.”
“But—“ I gasped, choking. “He’s a Tinman. Had protection.”
“Don’t you get it, Major?” Sergio’s laughter lost its usual warmth. I wouldn’t know—I barely felt the heat of anything beyond the burning warmth of Theia’s eyes on me. “The Tinmen are Titan.”
* * *
I woke up to the unwashed swill of my dirty mouth, sinking into the back of my throat. Stupidly, I wondered if cyborgs could taste their own blood when they had the snot beat out of them. I didn’t know if it had been Sergio or Kenji, or even another two-bit gangster, to do the job, but whoever it was didn’t hold back.
I groaned as I pushed myself up into a sitting position, pain flaring through every part of my body at once. There was a strange lucidness to how I moved when my nerves weren’t drowned in the hazy smokiness of liquor. Pain throbbed at the centre of my awareness. Wincing, fingers pressed gingerly over my fragile human ribs, I ground a moan out between my cigarette-stained teeth.
It fucking hurt to feel so much.
I dared to open my eyes—my left was so swollen it wasn’t even getting any readings from my optical receiver. I could see, barely, that they’d pulled me into an old warehouse to work me over, which I would’ve appreciated if not for the small, purple-tinted vial protruding from the bend of my arm.
The bastards had run elixir through my system. In two hours, I’d be energised, have quicker reflexes, and look almost ten years younger. By six, I’d either be feeling like I wielded the power of an ancient Earthtime god or gnawing through the bloody stump of my own tongue. Life or death—that was the game. It wasn’t a drug that did things in halves.
I reached into my jacket, hoping for a break from this nightmare. But my fingers met an empty pocket, skating across crumpled menthol packets. Except, there, I could feel something lost in the folds, fragile and forgettable.
It was the cigarette Theia had given me. I stared at the purple stain of her lipstick on it, feeling the muscles of my face forming something as gruesome as a smile. I wondered if it would taste like figs if I put my mouth over the same place that she did. Beneath the lovely mark of colour, I found an innocuous strip of white.
I dug out the piece of paper, thinner than the sharpened tip of a syringe. My heartbeat thrummed beneath my skin, louder and more alive than it had ever been. I blinked, rapidly.
The message read:
Meet me where the lovers touch.
* * *
Black Agora Space Station was shaped like a crescent moon, the ends of it curled so close together they almost touched. At both opposite points of the Sita and Rama Districts, named after old Earthtime lovers, it’s said you could reach out to touch the other side if you stretched far enough.
Theia was waiting for me at the farthermost edge of Rama, where it was blocked off from the public under the wrong weather conditions. Although I don’t think I’d ever be with Theia under the right circumstances.
I walked up the steep slope to the lookout, footsteps coming down heavy, the force of movement rattling my bones.
“You killed Chernyshevsky, didn’t you?” The words felt large and clumsy in my mouth. My body was already reacting, veins pulsing and skin damp. There was poison in my blood, purple like my father’s bruised figs, like Theia’s stained lips.
“Well, it wasn’t me, exactly.”
“Just answer the fucking question!” Time wasn’t a privilege I was allowed.
Theia turned to gaze across the whole laid out sight of Agora, spaceboats and slums and stars all jammed together. I wished, senselessly, that I could see her expression then. Halfway dead and all I wanted to know was what a pretty lady was thinking.
“Chernyshevsky was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I waited, hoping there was more. I didn’t want this to end.
“You see, my dear Carina, my company is developing the cure to end all suffering. Yet that required a hypothesis that needed to be tested.” She stepped closer to me, so close we almost shared the same breath. I’m sure I could taste the poison on her lips if I pulled the air deep enough into my quivering lungs.
Theia—or me, too—was always playing that damn game of getting closer to the thing that could kill you, daring it to make the first move.
“Look,” Theia whispered, revealing the smooth expanse of her arm. Air hissed through my teeth as I saw the ruined shape of her skin, bearing a pockmarked history of drugs. They were precise marks, piled on top of each other until the skin couldn’t heal, ripping apart. Scabbing over. Torn again and again and again.
“Immortality is not such an attractive venture now, is it?”
Elixir. The old Earthtime myth of a potion to grant eternal life.
“Titan engineered elixir and released it into Agora to… test its effects?” I was starting to pant in ugly heaving breaths. The weight of clothes on my shoulders dug into my skin. “The deaths, the addictions—all that was your doing?”
Theia smiled, the corner of her lips curling up. “My decision to hire you was not unfounded, I see.”
I blinked. “What?”
“It is a perfect set-up, isn’t it?” There was that same voice, caressing the words, slow and sweet as a knife snuck between the ribs in a lover’s embrace. “Your DNA on Chernyshevsky’s body; an untraced amount of money in your account; recorded contact with me upon his death. It’s obvious you were blackmailing him for inside information, and once he took his own life you turned your attention to me.”
I fumbled for my gun, unable to aim it at Theia without shaking. Elixir had made me a shambled mess of failing parts, like a decommissioned Tinman sent out for scrap. I could taste the metal in my hands. My stomach was unravelling like a string pulled from a broth-soiled shirt sleeve. The colour of the sky seemed so impossibly heavy then, like it could crash down over my head, shattering into a million glittering glass shards. It was a fantasy that couldn’t hold up.
“So, my dear Carina,” Theia said, pulling her own black, compact pistol on me. “This is our tragic end, I presume?”
Theia’s eyes shone brightly, even in the perpetual darkness of night-time. But the light of distant suns was still a cold, awful thing, after all. Agora didn’t know what true warmth was.
“It was a pleasure to meet you.”
As a shot rang out, deafening in its finality, my gaze dropped to stare at the lovely purple smear of Theia’s mouth.