She didn’t recognize the face staring back at her in the mirror.
It belonged to a stranger and yet it was now hers.
The irony of it all, of course, didn’t escape her one bit.
For most of her life, she had been an outspoken opponent of the sleeve program and determined to live out her natural life in the body she had been born with, even as the technology continued to improve seemingly with every cycle. And as it became more and more affordable, people from all walks of life were now drawn to the prospect of switching into a younger body, or perhaps even into an entirely different one.
Many of her friends, she knew, had either already purchased one or joined the waiting list to receive their replacement shell once their natural body expired, enticed by the prospect of immortality.
She on the other hand had stubbornly held out.
Until the accident.
Only twelve people had survived the maglev train derailment, and she had been among only two who would have died within days had it not been for an emergency sleeve procedure. She had approved the body swap at the time, lying in the hospital bed, barely conscious enough to understand what had been proposed.
She didn’t regret her decision. After all, it had been the only way to save her life, even if the only body that had been available at short notice had been of the opposite sex.
She had been told that she could change her shell again to something more familiar but she had stubbornly refused and instead decided to stick to what she had been given, and in honesty, she had been more than a little curious to find out what it would be like to go through life as a male member of her species.
It had been somewhat awkward at first and she had found that she had to relearn certain parts of her daily routine she had long since taken for granted, but after an adjustment period that had lasted half a cycle or so, she had come to realize that, although she looked very different now, none of the things that truly mattered to her had changed.
It hadn’t stopped her though from reconsidering some of her life choices. She had left politics and had started a career as an investigator, something she had quickly found to be a more rewarding occupation.
It certainly had kept her busy.
“I hate to add to your slate but I’ve got another case for you,” said Trayus, her affable supervisor at the agency she worked at as she returned to her desk. He slipped her a padd just as she sat down.
“You cannot be serious. The heatwave has half the city acting crazy. I’m buried in cases.”
He frowned. “Heightened solar flare activity is the preferred term.”
“And according to the Assembly, it is due to subside within the next five to six cycles. Until then we’ll all just have to bear the warmer weather and cope with its consequences. It’s got us all far busier than usual.”
Themysa, who had decided to keep her pre-sleeve name, gave Trayus the same looks she always did when it came to the subject. She had worked for the Assembly once and their official statements didn’t fill her with a great amount of confidence. It was one of the reasons she was an investigator now.
She glanced at the padd and brought up the case file. “What is it?”
“Reports of unsanctioned activity in the Morta Flatlands.”
“Morta? So what? Nobody lives out there.”
He shrugged. “It’s still protected territory and access is strictly regulated.”
“You have to be kidding me?” she said with an exasperated sigh. “I’ve got two dozen cases of city folk slowly going insane and you want to send me out into the middle of nowhere to look into somebody trespassing into a nature preserve? In this stinking heat?”
He looked vaguely apologetic. “It’s the job.”
She uttered another sigh as she began to review the case file on the padd. There wasn’t much there. A few reports from rangers working in the area and a few blurry high-altitude surveillance photographs.
With so little evidence to go by, she hoped it meant she wouldn’t need to spend much time on this case. It would take her nearly two days to get all the way out to Morta.
She was about to add the file to her caseload when she spotted something in the last photograph that caught her attention.
Trayus noticed her sudden interest with a grin. “See, that’s why you are my favorite investigator. You see the details where others don’t. You’ll solve this one in no time.”
But she wasn’t listening to him anymore.
The image she had found showed a skimmer traversing the flatlands. It was too far away to make out any details but she could tell that it was large and painted white. It was an older model, one that had been quite expansive once and certainly not the kind of vehicle one would expect this far out in the sticks.
She had seen it before.
“What would you be doing all the way out there?” she mumbled to herself but Trayus had already walked away.
Conditions had not improved. If anything, things had gotten worse and the Assembly had only recently admitted that it had started to construct underground cities when the massive civil works projects simply became far too large to hide.
Temperatures in the southern hemisphere of Celerias were now so high most of the time, that the majority of the population had started to migrate north, including into the city of Quagum.
The large population increase in the capital had also spurred public unrest and crime rates have skyrocketed, forcing investigators such as Themysa to spend most of her time working as a peace officer rather than doing her actual job, meaning that many of her cases had fallen significantly behind.
Her department had suffered in other ways as well, with a large number of her fellow investigators having left their positions when it had become clear that they would no longer be able to do the work that they had signed on for. One of those who had left had been her superior Trayus who had been replaced with a woman younger than Themysa and with far less patience.
“We had another explosion in sector four this morning,” said Heleria, the chief investigator. “All signs point towards a terrorist attack. I need you to get out there right away.”
But Themysa shook her head. “What’s the point? If it’s like all the other bombings, there’ll be nothing left to find. And we have enough officers on site for crowd control and evidence recovery. I think my time would be better spent following up on leads from here.”
Heleria looked dubious. “What do you expect to learn from your desk?”
Themysa, who had become quite used to her male shell over the last cycles, pointed at her computer screen. “From initial reports, these attackers used the same chemical compound to create their bombs as the last three. I think we are looking at the same group. If I can locate the source of those materials and determine who obtained them, I might be able to identify the responsible party.”
Heleria regarded her screen for only a few seconds. “Fine. You have five days. If you don’t find anything, I want you back out there,” she said and then quickly left. Themysa had long since realized that there was little point in arguing with the chief investigator.
She spent the rest of her day following up on purchases of chemical compounds in the city and the region.
It didn’t take her long to realize that she was on to something. Purchases had steadily increased over the last ten cycles or so and she was able to identify a noticeable pattern as she dug a little deeper.
Most of the purchases were carried out by companies that appeared unrelated to each other at first glance until she realized that all of them seemed to be nothing more than companies in name only with no physical locations or employees. And they were all owned by other, similar entities.
It took her most of her five days to follow all the threads that to her utter astonishment led her to a very familiar name.
The person who owned all those companies, it seemed, was somebody she knew very well. Or at least, had known very well once.
However, there was no trace of him anywhere.
He had sold his house overlooking the city cycles ago and nobody who used to work with him knew his whereabouts.
She was out of options and her deadline to produce results was coming up fast. It was then that she recalled the last time she had thought she had spotted him. It had been a trespassing case out in the Morta Flatlands she’d never had time to follow up on.
With no other leads to go on and Heleria breathing down her neck, she decided to leave the city.
With the nearly unbearable heat during the day, she had to travel mostly during the night. It was a two-day trip to the nature preserve where she had picked up surveillance images of the skimmer cycles earlier. She found a cheap hotel to sleep in during the day and spend most of the night hours driving her skimmer into continuously more barren and rocky territory.
People were scarce in this part of the world, as nobody ventured out here anymore and although it had once been an area teeming with life, the high temperatures had killed off most of the fauna and flora over the cycles.
She arrived at his last known location after a six-hour drive. She wasn’t sure what she had expected to find. In the back of her mind, she had told herself that this entire excursion had been a phenomenal waste of her time, after all, Morta was a huge area, and trying to find just one person within the flatlands was a fool’s errand.
She spotted the massive spire almost immediately.
It wasn’t man-made and at least a hundred meters tall, sticking out from the surrounding landscape like a sore thumb.
She parked her skimmer half a kilometer away at the foot of one of the many rock formations in the area and then hiked a short while until she found a good vantage point on top of a ridge.
The spire was part of an installation, perhaps thirty or forty square meters in size. There was a small storage building and she could see several canisters and containers arranged on a platform. The spire had been erected at the center of the platform.
There was a missile-like device attached to the spire that launched just a couple of minutes after she had reached the ridge.
The bright flash of its thrusters blinded her for a moment and when she could see again she found that it was shooting straight up into the early morning sky.
The sun was already up, looming far larger than it should have been and generating enough heat to make her sweaty and uncomfortable.
She followed the path of the rocket, having to shield her eyes with her hand, fairly certain it was heading right for the sun.
After a few minutes she could no longer spot it in the sky and she began to head towards the installation. Halfway there she saw somebody getting into a large white skimmer and speed off.
As she had suspected the many barrels in the storage building contained the chemical compound that had led her to this place. There were parts for many other rockets and upon closer inspection, she found that they were designed to deliver a specific payload. Since she couldn’t identify what it was, she took a sample.
Before she made her way back to her skimmer, she spotted the many discarded beverage cans on the ground and picked one up.
She recognized the brand immediately.
Spiced rice wine.