.exe: A Cadence Turing Mystery

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Logline or Premise
A classic murder mystery with a science fiction twist!
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

To be human is to know that one day you will die; there will come a time when you stop, like a ball hitting a bank of snow. Until we acquire this knowledge, we’re some half-things, fairy-like in our innocence, powerful, but not altogether human. This is why many adults find children so disquieting.

I didn’t become human until the night my mother died. I was seven. I snuck into her room, the adults downstairs talking in the hushed voices death always brings in its wake. I crawled up onto her bed and touched her arm. She was pale and cold; eyes still open, but empty of anything that I recognized as my mother.

That was not my mother. I wondered if it had ever been, or if it had ever been anything other than a shell; I began to wonder what I was. Every morning I woke, wondering, and today was no different. The hotel room reeked of smoke, sweat, and mold, a tangy, sweet mixture that choked me when I gulped down the rancid air.

Why couldn’t I remember to stay away from Petrarchan whiskey after midnight? It always gave me nightmares. Shaking, I kicked off the stain-covered sheets and twisted my face into the pillows, my damp forehead sticking to the threadbare cotton. Minutes passed, and the sounds of the bustling city below penetrated the thin walls of the room.

I flung out my arm and picked through the stubs and stimulant packets on the bedside table, grabbing for my nix case. I turned onto my side with care, wincing as blood sloshed around my swollen brain. I took a black cylinder out of the case and twisted off the tip, the chemicals sparking and the nix smoldering.

Always the same nightmare. Twenty years gone now, and my subconscious could still recall the waxy texture of her skin, the metallic stench of the air around her red, clenched mouth. The fear in her dead eyes, looking past me, as if whatever had taken her was standing right behind me.

I shook the thoughts away with a vehemence that made me dizzy. Once I could focus again, I risked a glance at the clock. Almost half past eleven. My mobile sat a finger’s length away, its thin, clear edge pulsing blue, indicating the half-dozen messages I had received while passed out. Sliding out of bed and forcing my bare feet against the scratchy carpet, I scanned the hotel room.

A self-lacing corset and a pair of torn stockings sat in one corner, confirming my hungover suspicion that I had indeed spent the night with some woman or other, though when she had made her escape god only knew. My dress clothes squatted at the end of the bed in a morose pile, like a large, wrinkled toad. Already the air was growing hot and humid – it was going to be another blistering summer day and I was in no shape to meet it.

I threw myself into the shower and let the scalding water perform its healing miracles. All in all, the week had been a success – I remembered almost none of it. I had hoped to debauch my way right through this ridiculous Hale Family Weekend, but I’d fallen just short.

Performing my morning ablutions took the better part of an hour, but I eventually gathered up my things and myself and stepped out onto the busy streets of Römer. The clean, outside air beat against my senses as I strode down the gleaming public walkways that ran through the city like veins of precious metal.

I got out a fresh nix with one hand and searched for my mobile in my coat’s pockets with the other, extracting the bud from the tangled folds. My finger slid over the off switch, but it was too late; the phone was buzzing, flashing red. My mood plummeted further as my alcohol stiffened fingers accepted the call instead of rejecting it. Jaw clenching, I gave in to fate; I took a deep breath and fitted the tiny appliance into my ear, forcing my voice into its most cheerful register.

“Good afternoon, Father!”

“Chance. I trust you haven’t forgotten about the party this evening.”

My shoulders fell. There was a rustle of paper on the other end of the line, and I could imagine him sitting in his study, the curtains shut against sunlight so there was no glare on his trading screens. He would have just finished the day’s account authorization forms, which meant he’d be more cross than usual, irritated by all that money leaving the company.

“You are going to be there.”

It wasn’t a question.

I brought the still smoking nix up to my mouth, squeezing the end flat between my lips. “I said I would be, didn’t I?”

“An honest man always makes good on his promises. You do not.”

I sighed, pushing my blond hair out of my eyes. “Thanks.”

“When you are the head of this family, Chance, you’ll understand the importance of keeping your word.”

I began turning around and around in a tight circle on the sidewalk. “Yes, well, lucky for both of us, that’s still a long way off.”

“Everyone’s going to be here tonight, Chance.” I heard a door open and close and the squeak of my father shifting in his seat as he spoke. “I don’t want any of your usual slovenly behavior. You’re a Hale and you’re going to act like it. And for god’s sake, don’t bring another one of your whores back here, do you hear me? I will not stand for it!”

He slammed his fist against the desk to punctuate this final thought. There was a hushed gasp, high pitched and ethereal, in response.

Unbuttoning my shirt at the collar, I gnawed the inside of my cheek. “Is, uh, Desdemona going to be there?”

“Of course.”

I drew my hand down my face. “Wonderful.”

“I’ll expect you at the manor no later than quarter past three.”

I glanced at my watch. “Fine. Goodb–”

The call went dead. Chewing the other side of my mouth, I ripped the bud out of my ear and shoved it and my hands into my pockets. I strode down the block and up the next without thinking about where I was going, eyes fixed on the ground, shoulders tensed until they began to ache.

Oblivious to the curious glances my ruffled black-tie ensemble garnered as I made my way through the city at midday, I rushed to the nearest cross-town AN-GRAV station and squeezed onto the next train headed for Mawson Docks. With humanity poised at the pinnacle of the 18th Great Venture, there were now hundreds of different planets colonized as our species spread itself across the galaxy. Still, it was an accepted fact that if the citizens of the Archerusia System were going to spend their hard-earned credits to go anywhere, it would be to my home planet, Arrhidaeus. This left the docks brimming with all manner of peoples, their allure matched only by their uncertainty about the new world that they had come to inhabit. Strangers in a strange land; a sensation with which I empathized and coveted in almost equal measure.

Today, however, I found no pleasure in people watching. Tasked with the ever-solemn duty of going home, the dread welled up within me thick and black like so much fetid mud. The AN-GRAV staggered up to the first of the Mawson Dock stops like a drunk man tripping his way towards the end of a bar. To the right of where I sat, the doors slid open with a whoosh of compressed air. Travelers filtered onto the train, shoes shuffling against the ribbed metal floors, suitcases bumping together like hollow drums.

Those boarding were the usual mix of interplanetary businessmen (tickets paid for by the government), female moguls (surrounded by a field of assistants and screens), and of course, families (drooping parents with dark circles under their eyes and three or four little ones underfoot). The car filled to bursting, and in a matter of minutes, it was standing room only.

The air began to spoil with body odor and perspiration, and I frowned, slouching down in my seat and stretching my legs as far out into the crowd as they would go. I had several more stops to wait until we reached a place where I could hire transportation home, a home which had felt less and less like my own over the passing years. I began to brood, fixating on my father and the demands he made of me, when, amid these musings, I looked up to find that someone had slid into the empty spot in front of me.

She straddled my legs as if they weren’t even there, her back to me. Her figure was slender, but not slim. The white pants she wore stretched pleasantly over her hips and bottom. Through the thin white fabric of her long-sleeved top, a thicker cotton shirt was clear, wrapped around her chest. Even so, the curious tattoo that covered her lower back remained entirely visible through the backless garment.

All thoughts of my father vanished. My heart stuttered. I stared at her without shame. Her tattoo, an intricate line drawing full of curved parabolas and geometric shapes, was a simplistic black, standing out against her flesh like a thundercloud against a clear sky.

Sensing the weight of my gaze, the woman twisted slightly, glancing back at me through strands of hair blacker than a starless night.

I smiled. She looked away, shaking her wayward locks back towards the loose bun from whence they had escaped.

With its customary jolt, the AN-GRAV lurched forward. All those standing rushed to grab the steel grips above their heads in a desperate bid for balance.

All except her.

Our fair metropolis was the only place in the surrounding five systems to have trains as advanced as AN-GRAVs, and the unexpected movement bothered everyone who rode, first-timers and veterans alike. This woman couldn’t have ridden one before, and yet she seemed to anticipate the movement of the snake-like contrivance, shifting her body to absorb the stuttering motion of the train.

I let my head fall to one side as I examined her. My smile widened as an idea occurred to me. How far could I take my curiosity and her lack of worldliness? Could I use it to transform my future, at present holding nothing but unpleasant tedium, to something far more enticing?

I stood, careful to keep a polite distance, and tapped the woman’s shoulder. With nothing more than the breadth of my two fingertips connecting us, the intense heat of her radiated up my arm. I pulled back with a muffled yelp, but the bizarre sensation vanished from my mind when she turned around to face me, her midnight blue eyes carrying an indefinable expression.

I cleared my throat and leaned forward; hands jammed into my trouser pockets. “I’m sorry for asking such a personal question, but what –”

“No, you’re not.”

My words stumbled to a halt, her bluntness silencing me.

The woman, misreading the shock in my face as confusion, sighed, shoulders falling as she shoved her hands into the front pouch of her shirt. “If you were experiencing remorse or regret, you wouldn’t ask me anything in the first place. Your preamble is clearly untrue and, therefore, clearly unnecessary; syntactically correct, but semantically irrelevant.”

Her syllable-heavy soliloquy afforded me the time I needed to recover.

Throwing my hand through the metal circlet above me, I flashed my most rakish smile. “Oh, really?”

I waited for the customary blush to rosy-up the girl’s cheeks, waited for the shy turn of her head, or a coy glance up at me through her long eyelashes.

Instead, she continued to stare at me, meeting my eyes with unfamiliar brashness. Her brow furrowed slowly, her stare turning into a perplexed squint. I leaned back, unsettled by her examinatory gaze.

The stranger rocked back onto her heels and blinked at last. “It’s a phoenix.”

“Excuse me?”

“My tattoo,” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “You were going to ask what it was; it’s a phoenix.” Her eyes fell onto the seat I had vacated. She gestured to it with her pale hand. “May I have this seat? I’ve been on my feet for hours.”

I nodded, teeth clamped down on the inside of my cheek.

“Thank you.” The woman slipped around me and settled into my chair. She placed her elbow on the armrest and stared out the window, chin cupped in her hand.

Pursing my lips, I examined my potential paramour with more care. Slumped in her seat, legs splayed out in front of her in an unladylike fashion, her dark blue eyes were half-hidden behind drooping lids. Now that I was bothering to look at her clothes instead of through them, I noticed that her garments were wrinkled and dusty.

The girl had been traveling for a long while, tired, in need of solace. She required a friend in this brave new world, someone who was only interested in her safety and comfort.

I could play at that for a while.

“I hope I didn’t offend you,” I said.

“You didn’t.” The woman lowered her gaze to the hem of her long sleeves, shaking out the material. “If you were curious, you could’ve just asked. You didn’t have to stare.”

I pressed my hand to my chest, leaning over in a bow. “I assure you I had no choice in the matter. You’re quite a vision.”

She looked up at me, her eyes slivers of color.

I amended my former statement with haste. “What I mean is, I can tell you’re not from around here.”

Her head snapped up faster than my eyes could follow. She crossed her legs, eyes widening as she thrust her upper body towards me. “You can?”

I grinned and leaned against the plastic barrier that separated the seats from the entrance to the car, shrugging. I could feel the heat radiating off her now. A shiver ran down my spine, a sensation like stepping into a hot bath after a walk out in the cold. Crossing my legs at the ankles, I smiled. “Now, don’t tell me where you’re from – let me guess.”

She sat back in her seat with a thud. “I sincerely wish you wouldn’t.”

“Trust me, little one; I have a knack for this kind of thing.” My eyes roamed over every inch of her in slow, serious study. The woman didn’t move, allowing me to examine her at my leisure.

“Let’s see: you’re a little too pale to be from one of the inner planets…and your Common Tongue is exceptional, but not flawless –”

At this, her head fell to one side, a brow raised in question.

“–your intonation’s a bit off,” I explained.

A stretch of tense silence unfolded. I snapped my fingers. The woman jumped.

“Paraesepe!” I said. “Am I right?”

“Yes.” The woman squeezed her hands together in her lap and nodded. “Yes, you are.”

“See?” I laughed, flashing a wolfish grin. “I told you I’m good!”

She slid down farther in her seat, glancing at me with narrowed eyes before returning her gaze to the window.

My smile dissolved under the weight of her disinterest, but I cleared my throat and pressed on. “So, that’s where you’re from; where are you headed?”

“Into the city.”

“Yes, but where specifically? A hotel? Staying with a friend?”

“I have no one here that I would call a friend,” her eyes fell to her lap, and she rolled her shoulders back against the hard, plastic seat, “and I’m not sure what hotel I could afford. But I have a little bit of money and was planning on trying my luck with accommodations.”

The AN-GRAV slid into the second dock station, and I was quick to snatch up the seat vacated beside my fair traveler as people shifted out onto the platform. “You mean you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight?”

“Not specifically, no–”

“Well then, you’re just going to have to come and stay with me,” I said, patting her knee. “At my house, I mean. It’s just a little place up north in Zahia, only a couple hours away by Professional Transport. Nothing fancy, but,” I shrugged, “it’s home.”

The woman stared at me, mouth gaping. After a moment, she shook herself, clearing her throat. “Oh, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” She swallowed hard and leaned back in her seat, running her hands down her thighs. “I mean, to open your house to a stranger seems very dangerous. Unwise even. Kind though it is, I have to refuse.”

I tugged at my lapels, sniffing. “You’re new to this world, Miss; it’s not surprising that you’re unfamiliar with our traditions. We have a custom here called tishos; it means hospitality. We Arrhidaeans take pride in offering the best hospitality to friends and strangers alike; most especially to travelers.”

The woman smirked. “This is a custom? Bringing strangers into your home?”

I nodded. Her hands fell into her lap. She pursed her lips. I could practically see the credits accounting for themselves as she turned the idea over in her mind. She was tired. She was broke. She was alone. She cast a glance in my direction from the corner of her eyes. “I assume it would be unforgivably rude to refuse?”

“Unforgiveable, yes,” I said. “Rude, certainly.”

“Hmm.” She drew in a deep breath through her nose, straightening as she did so. “It appears I have no choice.” She laid her hand flat against her chest and inclined her head in an archaic show of respect that would have been sweet if it hadn’t been so ridiculous. “Under the pressures of societal convention, I accept. Thank you.”