Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.
To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes...
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It's times like these, when I'm hunkered in a doorway, waiting for a food market of dubious legality to be set up, that I find myself wishing I could eat like everyone else. I watch them scurry past, hurrying back to their warm little boxes with their bright lights and distractions, a hot meal just the press of a button away. They'll stand there in front of their printers, watching that artificial shit being spurted out of dozens of tiny nozzles with clinical precision to form lasagna or something, and their stomachs will rumble and their mouths will water and, oh God, just the thought of it is making me nauseous. As much as it disgusts me, I envy them.
It's cold and damp, the November sun is setting in the middle of the afternoon and I am beyond tired. The satisfaction of finishing my latest case didn't last long in the face of my hunger, and I just want the truck to arrive, to buy what I need, to get home and to shut the door on it all. I'll make a casserole, I promise myself, like a parent promising a grumbling toddler he'll get a toy if he behaves. There's some beef left in the freezer. And if there's flour (I try not to get my hopes up), I'll make dumplings, stodgy and crisped on the top like the Brits make them. I haven't eaten since an early and inadequate breakfast, and just imagining what that casserole could smell like makes me close my eyes and smile to myself, just for a moment. I turn my collar up and tuck my hands back into my pockets. I'm hoping that here in this little nook no one will see me and feel they're entitled to come and talk to me just because they've seen me on the news and docu-feeds.
A woman walks in front of the doorway and looks straight at me, pausing midstride as if she's listening for something I'm about to say. I pull back into the shadows when she laughs, worried that she's recognized me, before realizing she's talking to an avatar projected by her chip. She's experiencing walking with a friend, chatting and laughing away. When I shift to the other side of the doorway she blinks with a yelp, seeing me for the first time, and mutters an apology in Norwegian.
I rest my head against the door behind me, waiting for my pulse to settle again.
"Would you like to play a game while you're waiting?" Tia asks.
"No." Now I'm the one looking like I'm talking to myself. Not that it matters. Most of the people I can see in this dingy London backstreet are talking to either projected avatars or, like me, just the voices of their Artificial Personal Assistants, delivered directly into their brains via neural implant.
"We're next to a node for a new urban-enhancement game with a free trial to-"
"Would you like me to stop making urban-environment interactivity suggestions when you are off duty?"
"Yes. Why are you making them, anyway?"
"A recent change in the licensing agreement between-"
"Save it, Tia. I don't need to know." It's the first rule of any change to a licensing agreement: it's not for the benefit of the end user, no matter what they say.
Where the fuck is the van?
I check the time and it's only five p.m. It feels like two in the morning. There's a steady pounding throb at the back of my head, and my hunger has moved from gnawing, through occasional bouts of light-headedness, to making me want to kill someone. Then I hear the low whine of the van's engine and step out as it parks, pulling my small wheeled case behind me, ready to muscle my way to the front when it opens its back doors.
Everyone in the loitering crowd has their public profile set to private, as do I. I recognize some of them from other markets. There's the man with the tiny dog that bites anyone who goes near, the little shit. There's the woman with the umbrella that's almost taken my eye out several times, and she knows she's doing it but has no fucks to give for a rival consumer. There's the old dear who looks like she could be the sweetest grandma straight out of a department store Christmas mersive advert, but I know she's just as willing to grind her bootheels into someone else's toes if they push too much from the back.
The driver gets out, moves to the side of the van and slides the side door across just enough to pull out the folding table, while his passenger jumps out and scans the street. They've just made a delivery to a supermarket down the road, one that's-like all of them-too expensive for most people to shop in. It has aisles filled with perfect vegetables and a counter with the freshest meat-actual real meat cut from real animals-all sparkling and brightly lit. I only know about it because of the mersive adverts that weasel their way in every few months or so before Tia closes the loophole they've exploited to get to me. Cooking with real, fresh food is the province of the rich. Rich enough to buy it, or rich enough to have the space for dirt to grow it, or rich enough to hire space and equipment to have other people grow it just for them.
This impromptu market is a testament to mankind's ability to exploit every possible consumer niche. The driver has come from a wholesaler who has realized that there are people willing to pay good money for the stock that the supermarkets won't take. So all the rejects get put into boxes and loaded onto the last delivery of the day, to be sold in a backstreet that smells of piss and misery. Now it's filled with people who are doing well enough to spend money on food items considered luxuries, but not quite well enough to afford to do it in a nice building with beautiful staff and real champagne given at the door.
I'm not doing well enough to have the money to do this. I've made greater sacrifices to get this food. I doubt any of the others have given up years of freedom to be able to buy a few misshapen vegetables every week. I frown to myself, trying to stop thinking that way. I try to reframe it, the way Dee would. "It was a shitty choice," she'd say. "But at least it was one you got to make for yourself."
It doesn't have the same effect when she's not here with me. No matter how much I try to spin it into something else, it doesn't alter the sheer injustice of it all. But as much as I want it to, my sacrifice doesn't give me a place at the front of the jostling throng that is slowly, reluctantly morphing into a queue. In moments I find myself behind the old woman and take care where I'm putting my feet. The man with the dog is farther back, his irritation expressed perfectly by the tiny, vicious snarling of the overgrown rat in his arms. There's a sharp, painful tap on the top of my head and I twist to see the woman with the umbrella.
"So sorry," she says with a fake smile.
"It's not raining," I say through gritted teeth.
"Oh, has it stopped?" She pretends not to have noticed and still doesn't fold the damn thing away. There's a slight narrowing of her eyes as she stares at me and I face front again, worrying that she's thinking she's seen me somewhere before.
I turn my collar up as if against the wind, but it's more to cover as much of my face as possible. Crates of produce have been hauled out of the van and the driver has cranked one open already. He scoops out a few carrots, all huge, malformed things, looking like fetishes from some ancient magical ritual. He holds one up for the crowd, who laugh when they see how much it looks like a man running, with its split root and arm-like offshoots. Turnips are dumped next to them, then onions. It's as if the universe knew I wanted to cook a casserole.
"No need to push," the driver calls. "Plenty for sale tonight. Cooking apples too, when this doughnut"-he jerks a thumb at his assistant-"digs 'em out for ya."
Tia informs me that the seller's APA has made contact and the handshake has been successful. All I need to do is pick what I want and our APAs will handle the rest. I swipe away a notification warning me that the ingredients I plan to buy will amount to an extra three hours on my contract to pay off the credit required.
The queue shuffles forward as the first purchases are swiftly made. Only four people away from the table, I'm already earmarking the ones I hope will still be there when it's my turn. The seller glances down the line, sees me and winks. A recorded audio message comes in from him moments later and I give Tia permission to play it to me.
"I got some flour in the van for you and some sugar. You need to sieve 'em 'cos they was spillages, but it's all good 'cos it's a clean processing plant. No charge. My boy'll give 'em to ya round the front of the van after you got your veggies."
Has it been sent to me in error? The message continues.
"I know you was the copper who got that bloke who was killin' the babies up north. Saw it on the feed. I know 'im, I thought, he's the one who buys me veggies. So there's extra for you whenever you come. Just don't tell no one. Next time I'll bring some beef if I can sneak it out. I got a baby grandson, see? Same age as that young lad, the last one that bastard got."
The message ends, and for the first time in years I choose to seek out eye contact with another real human being because I genuinely want to. He meets my gaze and nods and I smile. I actually smile at someone I don't know. He looks away to serve the next customer and I'm left reeling from the body blow of the first act of kindness I can remember in years.
The queue moves forward again, and even though the umbrella hits my head once more I don't have any anger left in me now. I ignore it and wait with newfound patience. There will be something left for me by the time I get there; I know it now.
Minutes pass and then the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I have the distinct impression someone is watching me. It's not the woman behind me-I can hear her arguing with the man behind her, who's also been hit by the umbrella. It's someone else. I tuck my chin into my coat and whisper to Tia.
"Who's in this crowd?"
"Everyone within a ten-meter radius, with the exception of the driver and sales assistant, have their public profiles set to private."
"Read them anyway."
"You are not currently assigned to a case. Please state your justification."
I can't give the real reason, so I need to lie. If I push it too far, my breach of their personal privacy will be flagged in the system. "Possible criminal activity in progress." I pause, hoping that's enough.
The gamble pays off; I'm in good standing at the Ministry of Justice and there's nothing in the system to suggest I ever abuse my privileges, so it gives me the benefit of the doubt. Tia pulls in the information that all the people around me would display about themselves if they had their profiles set to public, overlaying it across my vision as if the text is floating above the tarmac next to me. Before I even have the chance to scan the list, Tia highlights one and pulls it to the front, in line with a command I programmed years ago. That profile is now larger than the rest with a single keyword flashing.
Oh JeeMuh. Oh fuck, no. Not now.
The omnipresent paranoia ratchets up a gear and my palms start to sweat. He must have followed me from the train station, old-school style. I read his profile and select the link to his portfolio. He's written several pieces about the Pathfinder. Of course he has; half of the journalists alive now have written some bullshit about that crazy woman who built a spaceship called Atlas and took the faithful off into space to find God. His most recent piece is an article on the capsule they left behind to be opened forty years later that will soon be opened, the one I've instructed Tia to remove all mentions of from my feeds. The grand opening is less than two weeks away and the speculation about its contents has gone from occasional and irritating to constant and unbearable.
I force myself to appear calm, telling myself that I overreact to these people, and if I don't get a lid on this soon, it could be reported to my psych supervisor.
"Show him in the crowd, Tia."
A small blue arrow appears at the right-hand edge of my vision and I twist until the arrow disappears and a bald black man in a heavy gray overcoat is outlined in blue. He's staring right at me and just a second of eye contact is sufficient to send my heart rate high enough to flash a notification from MyPhys. I look away as fast as I can, silently hoping he'll stay where he is.
It's a ridiculous hope.
There's only one person in front of me now, and the vegetables I've got my eye on are still there. I want to run but I need the food. I add a "Do not disturb" to my personal profile but I know it won't make any difference to that parasite. If anything, it'll probably make him even more keen to bother me. Journos are twisted sods.
He's walking over and I ball my fists in my pockets. I fix my attention on the table ahead, tucking my nose beneath the top rim of the turned-up collar, even though it won't do a thing. I have to satisfy this primal urge to duck and hide somehow.
"Mr. Moreno," he says, even though his APA will be reminding him of the DND notice on my profile.
"I don't have anything to say."
"I don't want to talk to you about the case."
I channel my contempt into a long sideways glance. "I know."