Authors: Malcolm Rose
A world inhabited by two distinct and non-interbreeding humanoid species:
(the majority) and
. The two races are outwardly similar, but they have different talents, different genetics and different body chemistry.
In this world, meet major Troy Goodhart and outer Lexi Iona Four. They make an amazing crime-fighting partnership.
Thursday 1st May, Afternoon
Richard groaned and pushed his aching body up onto one elbow. He coughed violently and his chest exploded with pain. When he wiped his mouth with his left hand, his forefinger came away wet and glistening red. His pillow was stained the same colour and small clumps of his hair were matted onto the material.
He reached out towards his bedside cabinet, but hesitated as his tongue explored inside his mouth. Shaking, he slid two fingers past the blue line on his gum and poked at one particular tooth. Without
resistance, it came away. For several seconds, he gazed in horror at the large molar in his hand. His tongue told him it wasn’t the only wobbly one.
He didn’t know what was happening to him, but it was clearly more than an upset stomach after eating something bad or drinking too much beer. His instinct told him that it was already too late to call for help, but he still wanted his phone.
He dropped the tooth on the duvet and stretched out his left arm towards his mobile. His vision swirled as if he were still drunk and his coordination failed him. He tried to snatch up the phone but he missed. He leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited. He waited for the world to stop spinning and gulped down the bile in his mouth. Suspecting that he had swallowed another tooth, he tried again.
His fingertips bashed into the mobile and pushed it against the lamp. There, he managed to scoop it up, but he fell off his elbow. Lying flat on his back, he held his phone above his face and tried to tap the screen in the right places. There was something he had to do for the sake of his family.
Salty drops ran down his cheeks and the sheet underneath him was wet with sweat. He cursed his inability to see straight and the wild trembling of his fingers, completely out of his control. The room
seemed unnaturally quiet. But he guessed that the background noise was normal. His ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton wool. A toenail snagged on the duvet and detached painlessly from his foot.
On the shelf opposite his bed there was an old-fashioned mercury thermometer. From where he lay, he couldn’t make out the reading. It was probably perfect. No doubt, it was his body chemistry that was making him hot.
It wasn’t just the tremors and numbness of his hands that frustrated him. He was having trouble making sense of the phone’s screen and symbols. He couldn’t remember what they meant and what to do with them. His mind was muddled.
Richard was glad that his wife and children were not at home to witness his dreadful state. When they’d left early this morning, he’d had a lousy headache, some nausea and dizziness. Blaming it on a hangover, they hadn’t had a lot of sympathy for him. But as the day wore on, he had not perked up. Feeling more and more miserable, he’d stayed in bed. Now, his stomach churned as he realized that his body was in serious meltdown.
Nervously, his fumbling fingers clawed at the screen of his phone. Somehow, he had accessed the settings. Grimly determined, he scanned down the
list of options. The letters and words drifted in and out of focus. His forehead creased with concentration and bemusement. Then he saw it.
Return to factory settings.
He mumbled out loud, ‘Yes.’ Desperately trying to limit the shivering of his hands, he touched the box on the screen. The phone asked him,
Are you sure?
This function erases all data on phone.
‘Yes,’ he said again. Even if his phone had accepted voice input, it might not have recognized that croak. He tapped the link and nothing happened because he missed the target. He tried again. This time, he hit the spot.
At least now his wife would be spared his recent behaviour. He owed her that.
His arms flopped heavily onto the bed. His phone fell onto his chest and then slithered off his shoulder. Richard no longer had the strength to put it back on the bedside cabinet. He lay there, stranded, ashamed, bewildered, barely able to breath.
Soon, he would not even be able to manage that.
Sunday 4th May, Morning
In Shepford, one hundred kilometres north of Richard Featherstone’s house, Dr Miriam Thirteen looked down at her patient and shook her head. ‘I’m old enough to remember dancing cats.’
Standing on the other side of the bed, the young medical trainee frowned. ‘Sorry?’
Miriam Thirteen nodded at the bloodied major girl lying between them. The sedatives had made her comfortable and quiet but, when she’d been admitted to the hospital, her body had been totally out of control. ‘All the tremors and twitching. Like wild jittery dancing.’
‘You mentioned cats.’
‘Yes. It was a time when people – and factories – weren’t so careful about pollution. Heavy metals – things like lead, mercury and cadmium – got everywhere. They were in paint, petrol, light bulbs and all sorts. And in the environment. They caused this sort of damage. The local cats used to get poisoned with the metals and lose control of their extremities. A lot of people called it dancing cat fever.’ The elderly doctor sighed. ‘I haven’t seen a case for years.’
‘You think it’s heavy-metal poisoning?’
She nodded. ‘If I remember rightly, it’s down to mercury. The blue line on her gum, loose teeth, nails and hair, red fingers and toes, confusion and sickness. Yes. And I don’t think we can wait for the toxicity results to confirm it, or we won’t have a patient to treat.’
‘Is there an antidote?’
‘Dimercaptosuccinic acid – DMSA. Or activated charcoal. Even if I’m right, I don’t know what type of mercury she’s contaminated with. I’ll administer both, but … It depends how long it’s been in her body, how much of it there is, and what damage it’s already done to her kidneys and central nervous system. A high concentration of mercury – or a long exposure – is irreversible for a major.’
Dr Miriam Thirteen and the trainee were not like their patient. They belonged to the other human species. They were both outers.
Miley Quist was unaware of the two doctors and her surroundings. She wasn’t aware of her rapidly deteriorating health. She didn’t even notice the frantic attempts to mop up the mercury from her poisoned body with medicines. She died fifty days before her fifteenth birthday.
Monday 5th May, Morning
Terabyte blew the dust off the lens of his glasses and repositioned them on his nose. ‘It’s a program I wrote when I first came here,’ he said to Lexi Four, Troy Goodhart and the chief of police at Shepford Crime Central. ‘I knew it’d be useful one day. It collects all the information on deaths nationwide. It alerts me as soon as it sees too many deaths – above the expected average – in a particular area. It could be a doctor making mistakes, or even murdering patients. It highlights the hotspot. Good for flagging up a failing doctor or a serial killer before it gets out of hand. It
also looks at causes of death and tips me off about any unusual ones.’
‘Very interesting,’ the commander said. He hesitated and then asked, ‘Do you have a name?’
Shepford Crime Central’s best computer geek smiled. ‘Yes, but you can call me Terabyte – like everyone else. I like it.’
‘So, what have you brought us here to see? What’s making alarm bells go off?’
Terabyte took a handful of his hair and shoved it behind his ear. ‘A few strange ones pop up now and again. Deaths, I mean.’ He shrugged. ‘Probably doesn’t mean anything apart from bad luck. But how about three strange deaths with identical causes at more-or-less the same time?’
Detective Lexi Iona Four replied, ‘I don’t believe in that much bad luck – or coincidence.’
‘What are these unusual deaths?’ the commander asked impatiently.
‘Yes. So it says on the death certificates. All within a week. Richard Featherstone, Keaton Hathaway and Miley Quist. And when I searched on symptoms, I think there’s another one – Alyssa Bending – put down to unknown causes on Friday.’
‘Weird,’ said Detective Troy Goodhart. ‘Where are they?’
‘That’s interesting and unusual as well,’ Terabyte replied. ‘Miley Quist was here in Shepford. She died last night. The other three are all over the place. North and south of here. None of them are within a hundred kilometres of each other.’
‘So, what’s the connection?’
Terabyte shrugged. ‘You’re the detectives.’
‘These deaths,’ the chief said, ‘they’re all majors.’
Lexi told him, ‘Mercury doesn’t affect outers. Well, not unless they take ridiculously huge amounts. The liquid metal doesn’t affect majors either. You can stick your finger in it and whirl it around. Good fun. Nothing will happen. But its compounds and mercury vapour are very different. They pass straight through outers, but they’re super-toxic to majors.’ She glanced down at the information on her laptop. ‘Nasty symptoms. Not a nice way to go.’
‘Don’t get all technical with me,’ the commander replied. ‘I don’t have the time.’ He glanced at the three teenage police officers, one after the other, and came to a decision. ‘Okay. Look into it. It’s your next case.’ He got up and walked out.
‘Well, thanks, Terabyte,’ Lexi said with a smile. ‘You’ve got us another wacky one.’
‘My pleasure,’ he replied with a smirk.
Troy said, ‘Top of the list: what’s the connection?’
Lexi laughed. ‘They’re majors – probably in some strange religious sect that worships mercury. At least it exists, unlike other things majors worship.’
Religion came easily to majors, but outers like Lexi and Terabyte rarely believed in anything but facts.
‘Right,’ Troy replied. ‘Your best guess is a meeting of a cult that adores a shiny metal. I’ll trump that. Maybe they’ve all eaten the same contaminated food.’
Becoming serious, Lexi said, ‘Or drink.’
‘How about this? They’ve all been to the same place. Somewhere that’s been poisoned.’
Lexi nodded. ‘Or they’ve all upset the same person – who’s now getting his or her revenge.’
‘Maybe they’ve all taken the same bad batch of pills,’ Troy suggested.
‘That’s a good idea. I’m sure there’s a medicine or something that’s got mercury in it. I’ll look it up.’
‘I’m beginning to struggle now,’ Troy admitted. ‘I think we’ve got the obvious ones. But … here’s a long shot. They could’ve all come into contact with contaminated animals – ones that get around a lot. Like birds.’ He shrugged and then grinned at Lexi. ‘I feel one of your spreadsheets coming on,’ he said.
‘Yeah. I’ll definitely build something that’ll make it easy to spot links. We’ll see.’
‘If I wanted to murder someone using mercury,’ Troy said, ‘where would I get it from?’
Lexi tapped at her keypad. ‘It’s used in industry for making chlorine, cement, caustic soda and sulphuric acid. And, believe it or not, in small-scale gold mining. It’s in fluorescent lights and LCD screens like this one,’ she replied, tapping her laptop. ‘Light bulbs, TV screens and computer monitors are safe while they’re in one piece. Break them and some mercury vapour will escape.’
‘But people aren’t dropping like flies.’
‘No. I think we’re safe, but it means some factories must keep a supply of it. That’s where you could get it from.’ Looking at the information scrolling down her screen, she said, ‘It happens naturally in some ores and rocks. It’s mined in a few different countries. And we used to put it in thermometers, batteries, felt, electrical switches, pesticides, some medicines and a few other things. There are some factories that take in this old stuff, remove the metal and recycle it.’
Troy nodded. ‘Recycling centres sound good. I think I’d go to one of them to nick some. Let’s check if any have reported mercury going missing.’
‘I’ll email the lot.’
‘You said pesticides as well.’
Lexi scanned her database. ‘Plant bulbs are dipped in mercuric chloride. It’s a fungicide. But it doesn’t just kill fungi. It says here that a hundred milligrams will damage major cells and a couple of grams will kill a seventy-kilogram major. It’s sometimes used to preserve seed grain because it kills just about anything growing on the seeds.’
‘But the poisoner in me wouldn’t know which farm or garden centre to go to. I wouldn’t know which one uses mercury. One of those recycling factories is a better bet.’
‘Here’s that medicine. Thiomersal is a mercury-based preservative in vaccines, but it’s only used in tiny amounts – not dangerous levels – and it’s being phased out. It’s still in a ’flu vaccine.’
‘So,’ Troy said, ‘our murderer might be a bad batch of vaccine.’
‘Huh. I think there’d be more than four victims.’
Terabyte nodded. ‘I’ll keep monitoring in case any more turn up.’
‘There’s another medical one. Merbromin’s an antiseptic. You put it on small cuts, but it’s not used much any more. And there’s always a few quack cures. You know. What people call traditional medicine – meaning it doesn’t work. Cinnabar’s
natural – mercury sulphide mainly – and it’s powdered and put into tonics for sore throats, cold sores and infections. It sounds stupid. Most of it goes straight through a human body – outer or major – without getting absorbed. So it doesn’t poison anyone, but it doesn’t do anything either – unless you’re a major and you take loads of it or heat it up and breathe it in. Then you’re dead.’
‘Is that the lot?’ Troy asked.
‘Just about. There’s a reference here that says the biggest sources nowadays are volcanoes, coal-burning power stations and waste incinerators – if they don’t catch the mercury and recycle it.’
Troy smiled. ‘I’m not convinced anyone would go to a volcano to get a murder weapon, but there’s plenty of other places to choose from.’