Helix Genesis by Chris Lofts

ONE

 

Helix knew a lot about pain, dishing it out and getting it back. The balance was probably in favour of the former, but he didn't trouble himself with records. Records were for those who gave a shit. Pain, at the excruciating end of the spectrum, was what the man opposite him would be enduring as he reeled away from the hammock. The room was awash with blinding pulses of staccato white light. The luminosity of the strobes would be nothing compared to the ringing in his ears or the grating he’d be feeling on the back of his eye sockets, like someone scratching your eyeball with a fingernail. Helix side-stepped, jabbed and connected, his titanium and carbon-fibre fist pummelling the trespasser’s nose.

Helix killed the strobes with a wink of his right eye as the man crumpled to the floor, rolling in the gloom. His fingertips tried to staunch the flow as crimson-streaked bubbles bloomed from his nostrils.

Helix hauled him to his feet by his shoulder flashes. ‘Get up, Inspector.’ He aimed another jab over the inspector’s shoulder at the light switch. A naked bulb in a decrepit wall fitting complained into life, casting a weak patch of yellow light onto the floor below.

The inspector blinked. ‘Who the hell are you?’ he said, swaying on the balls of his feet. ‘Give me your name!’

Helix stepped forward, his hands on his wide hips. ‘Major Nathan Helix, investigating officer in charge.’

‘Helix?’ the inspector wheezed. ‘OK Major Helix, I’m arresting you for the assault of a police officer. You do not—’

Helix ignored the muffled howl, as he snapped his right hand over the inspector’s mouth, squeezing the hollows of his cheeks, forcing his jaw open. ‘Assault? I don’t think so.’ He grimaced. ‘Christ. Halitosis, fags and shit for breakfast. Don’t they have toothpaste out here?’ He extended his arm. ‘You’re lucky I haven’t thrown your scrawny arse off the balcony.’ He shook him loose and wiped his hand on the inspector’s jacket. ‘As we’re doing names, who the fuck are you?’

The inspector swallowed a nauseous retch. ‘Neville Lafarge, Inspector, 593421.’

‘Shit to meet you, Lafarge.’ He turned away. ‘What’s with the bloody lights in this dump?’

He poked another switch next to the patio doors. The blinds crept upwards, casting a mountainous shadow as daylight squeezed in around him. He scanned the bedroom, the silhouette of the lifeless woman cocooned in the hammock emerged from the twilight. A simple vase of wilted blooms kept vigil alongside the hollow burned out candles, their scent still lingering. Another body, but it was far from the Ebola death pits where bodies were part of the endless monotony and fatigue that putrefied into a kind of tedium that ate away at your soul. At least she would be laid to rest with dignity. It was almost twenty years since the outbreak of Ebola. The coming days would be filled with anniversaries of one sort or another, most of which he’d rather forget.

‘What were you doing in the bathroom, Lafarge?’

Lafarge wrung his hands. ‘Securing the scene, waiting for forensics.’

A blue nylon bag lay on the floor by the bathroom door, the outlines of boxes and bottles distorting the thin material. Helix frowned, pursing his lips. ‘I’m not sure what they teach you people after they’ve flushed you out of the drains, but I’m pretty sure securing the crime scene doesn’t involve moving or touching items that might be related, or did I miss something?’ He nudged the bag with his boot.

Lafarge nodded. ‘I was collecting the medication.’

‘Collecting the medication? What’s that, some kind of hobby, like collecting teaspoons? This is a crime scene, Lafarge. So, what were you doing tampering with potential evidence?’

Lafarge flinched. ‘It’s for a friend. She’s not well.’

Helix swung at him and grabbed a thick handful of his greasy hair.

‘OK, OK. I was going to sell it, I’m sorry – please.’ Free of Helix’s grip, he crumpled to his knees onto the threadbare carpet, his hands clamped to his scalp.

‘And what about her?’ Helix said, nodding towards the hammock.

Lafarge wiped his nose across the back of his hand. ‘What do you mean, what about her?’

The Sig Sauer P226 swayed in its shoulder holster as Helix unzipped his jacket. ‘What were you doing drooling over her left breast with your fingers between her legs? Searching for a pulse?’ The catch on the patio door clicked as he thumbed it down.

Lafarge recoiled. ‘What are you doing?’

Helix shrugged. ‘I thought a bit of fresh air might clear your head.’ He heaved the door aside and sniffed over his shoulder. ‘If you can call it fresh air.’

‘I knew her from the surgery.’ His eyes darted at the hammock. ‘I was a patient.’

‘Treatment for your sexual attraction to corpses, was it?’

‘I’ve got an infection. Antibiotics are difficult to get around here. She ran a daily surgery. You have to queue for a couple of hours, but it’s worth it.’

‘An infection? That’s one word for it. When was the last time you saw her alive?’

Lafarge swallowed. ‘What? It was…, er, yesterday. Yes. It was yesterday.’

‘At the surgery?’ Helix stepped towards him and folded his arms. ‘Who else would have seen you?’

Lafarge shuffled across the carpet on his backside. ‘Other patients and the nurse. Sometimes there was another doctor, but I never saw her.’ His back pressed against the wall, halting his retreat. ‘I always waited for Miri…, Professor, Doctor Polozkova.’ He pressed a hand against the peeling wallpaper and clambered to his feet. ‘Anyway, what’s so important about her?’

Helix twisted the front of Lafarge’s jacket in his fist. ‘She was a member of the Scientific Elite, you maggot. Do you actually have any idea what she did before she lost her marbles and came to this cesspit, so she could treat the likes of you?’

Lafarge squirmed, looking towards the apartment door.

Helix shook his gaze back to his and gritted his teeth. ‘Now you listen to me. If I ever see your ugly mug again, or hear another word from that arsehole that you call a mouth, my video of you sticking your nose and fingers where they don’t belong is going to go viral amongst the militia, just like Ebola back in the day. Do you understand?’ He shoved him towards the kitchen. ‘Now get out!’ He locked his eyes on Lafarge and watched him back away through the police tape into the unlit stairwell.

He turned and stepped out onto the balcony. At one time the view from the fifteenth floor might have been worth looking at. The only thing that dominated it now was broken windows, weed-knotted streets, overgrown gardens, trees festooned with shredded paper and plastic, and the discarded remnants of life. He arched his eyebrows, dropping his sunglasses back onto his nose. The sun glinted off the river Medway in shards of oily silver between the islands of detritus and fatbergs that jostled for space.

He spun back towards the sound of footsteps in the bedroom. Maybe Lafarge had returned with reinforcements. He slipped back into the room, mildly disappointed that it was the forensics team preparing their equipment. He dodged a busy scan-orb, with its fans of green laser light, gathering data for a 3D holographic rendering of the crime scene. Two other orbs went about their business in the bathroom and kitchen. A technician flicked the catches on an aluminium carry case, releasing two CSA bots that sniffed, probed and sampled the surfaces, seeking wet and dry matter for analysis. Helix recognised the team leader but didn’t know him by name. Nodded greetings were exchanged.

A faint beep in his ear caught his attention. He peeled back the flap of material in his jacket sleeve reading the short message on the graphene display. “There’s something you need to see.”

 

TWO

The lift door opened with a laboured squeak, casting a puddle of piss-coloured light out into the murky underground car park. Helix strolled past the skeletons of what were vehicles, picked over and stripped of anything useful before being set alight. Cars were rendered useless and illegal with the passing of the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Act 2025 that prohibited the use of any driver-controlled vehicles on the roads. The effect outside London and the regional centres had been minimal. Those who could find and afford fuel didn’t care and the underpaid militia were too depleted to bother enforcing the law. The shadows echoed to metallic clatter and a cat’s scream accompanied by shouts of hungry excitement. There would be meat on the menu for someone that night.

The matt black door of his AV sighed open. Two large holographic displays glowed into life as he slid into the black faux-leather seat. Taking a bottle of water from the centre arm rest, he took a large slug and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. The vehicle’s systems established secure comms and data links. The compartment lights adjusted as the ghostly image of his younger brother, Ethan, appeared on-screen, wisps of smoke swirling from a fat joint held between his lips. The vehicle filled with the familiar sound of small arms fire and dull explosions.

‘Nate. How’s it going?’ Ethan said, in between volleys of gunfire.

Helix grimaced. ‘Hi Bruv. Not too bad. What the hell is that noise?’

‘Watching a film, Blade Runner 2049, it’s a classic.’

‘Ethan, it’s 2039, they got the previous film wrong. 2019 wasn’t great, but nowhere near the grim dystopia they predicted, and I doubt 2049 will be either. No need to leave the planet just yet.’ He drained the bottle, before crushing it flat and screwing the cap back on.

Ethan coughed, phlegm rattling in his throat. ‘Maybe not, but we came close.’

‘And those things will kill you,’ he sighed. ‘I take it you saw what happened upstairs?’ He fished a small green box from his jacket pocket and shook a breath-mint into his palm. ‘Or were you too busy watching Officer K wasting skin-jobs?’

‘No. I was with you all the way; the stream was perfect. That new UHD sensor in your eye is better than I expected, even with the strobes. You should have chucked him out of the window.’

‘It was tempting, but I can do without the desk work. Anyway, there’s something I need to see?’

Ethan paused the film and drew hard on his joint. ‘CCTV coverage. I’m surprised we have any at all. It’s patchy, but at least we have something to work with.’ He flicked his blond hair from his eyes. ‘I’m just stitching together an accelerated time frame. It’ll be done soon.’

Helix studied the flat bottle. ‘OK, good work. Have you got a full run down on Prof. Polozkova?’

‘Yep. Here we go: Miriam Polozkova, born 1991, parents Aneta and Anatoly Polozkova, Polish immigrants, both died back in the late unpleasantness, August 2020. Professor Miriam was a member of the Scientific Elite. She established ground-breaking methods of mass inoculation for Ebola, saving thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost. Media-shy, bordering on reclusive, which might explain why she was down there. Emeritus Professor of Tropical Medicine 2022 to 2025. Re-trained for gynaecology, obstetrics and general practice 2025 to 2029, gave up her grace and favour house in the Meridian 2032.’ He picked a small strand of tobacco from the tip of his tongue and flicked it over his shoulder.

‘What was she doing in this dump?’

‘As your new friend said, she established the charity medical centre in the old dockyard. Doctors are as rare as honest politicians in these parts, so the locals tend to show restraint and respect.’

‘My friend? I know things are tough outside, but the militia must be desperate if Lafarge is the best they can find.’

‘Hmm, agreed. I’ll do a bit of digging into him when I get a moment. Oh yes, Miriam had a housekeeper.’

‘What’s her story?’

Ethan ground the remains of his joint into an ashtray. ‘Nothing special, her statement is included with the file the locals sent you. Turned up for work as usual at 0700, let herself in, started tidying the kitchen, wandered into the bedroom and there she was, in the buff, fast asleep. Well, not asleep as it turned out. Militia were called and there you are.’

‘List of Polozkova’s associates and patients? I’d be interested to know if Lafarge is on it and to see if his infection story checks out.’

‘I’m working on it.’

Helix pressed a button on the door panel, the opaque glass cleared. The militia were wielding their batons, discouraging a group of curious locals who’d got too close to the forensic vehicles. ‘Looks like they’re bringing her down. Once they’ve loaded her up, I’ll get weaving.’

‘OK. Best route for your return is via the old A2 up to Ebbsfleet and onto the loop. I’ll nick a pod out of the international schedule for you. Your AV can find its way back home.’

‘Thanks, Ethan.’

The AV picked its way out of the underground garage and back into the sunlight. Ethan had recovered well. Risk of injury in the military came with the turf, everyone knew that. What you don’t expect is to lose your legs while driving a desk. He’d refused to be diminished by his injuries. To him, they were just another server to be hacked or encryption key to be broken. He wasn’t interested in pity, however well-meant. He’d met the challenge head on, bear-crawling and clambering out of the pit he’d found himself in and God help anyone who’d got in the way. He enjoyed his new life of isolation, his view of the world augmented via Helix’s eyes and ears whenever he needed it. Ethan had always said it could have been worse, like Jon and the others.

Helix worked the fingers of his right hand. The AV accelerated, chalky dust billowing around the windows. It was the same colour dust that had scratched his eyes and clogged his lungs as he’d lain in the wreckage of that flattened school building, in a place the Government denied even existed. The medic’s shouts on the radio: “Three dead, one double amp, lucky bastard, immediate medivac required.” Lucky? In the months following, he’d discovered there were worse things than dying.

‘Got that time frame. I’ll put it on screen two,’ Ethan said. ‘I’ve kept the best of what we have from around the approaches to Professor Miriam’s apartment.’

A mosaic of high-definition images and grainy black and white footage organised itself across the screen.

‘Dogs, cats, pigeons and old ladies with shopping trollies, Ethan. Come on.’

‘I know, I know. Give it a moment. Here we go.’

Basic AVs were seen swarming around London like ants. The same photo-voltaic skins, the same pregnant skateboard shape, available in all shades of black. Swarming outside of London was rare, and the sight of one manoeuvring down the slope of the underground garage that Helix had just left grabbed his attention. ‘What time is this?’

‘Just before 2300 last night.’

‘Do we have a tag? Who owns it and what are they doing outside London?’

‘All good questions but I don’t know yet. Once I can access the licencing authority systems, I should be able to see how many trips outside correlate with the information we have.’

‘We might get a facial ID before then.’ He rattled his mint box. ‘Can you fast forward it?’

‘Patience my friend, patience.’

Helix tossed his sunglasses onto the seat and leaned in closer. ‘We’re not going to be able to see their face if they walk directly into the lift.’

‘Her face. Around five-foot seven inches tall I would say, full length black coat, hood up, flat shoes, straight into the lift, no face to see. Bugger.’

‘OK. Move it on, Ethan?’

‘It’ll move on. That’s what it’s been doing, removing all the bits without vehicles and warm bodies.’

Helix drummed his fingers on the arm rest. ‘We don’t have anything from inside the apartment, do we?’

‘No, but if you look, she’s coming out on the fifteenth floor.’

‘It’s her back again. Is that Polozkova’s door she’s standing outside of? It doesn’t look like she’s trying to hide herself. The angles of the cameras are just wrong.’

‘It’s the Prof’s door. We’ll be fine, she’s made her way in, she needs to come back out. Let it play.’

The image stuttered again. The timestamp advanced.

‘Here she comes. Two hours fifty-eight minutes total time elapsed.’ Ethan sniffed. ‘Let’s slow things down, frame by frame. Come on, milady.’

Helix tapped the water bottle on his knee as he watched the lift door stagger open, the same pool of yellow light rendered white-grey on the screen as she stepped out. She paused and looked around before stepping towards her AV.

‘Stop there, Ethan. Zoom in and enhance it. She’s almost looking up at the camera.’

‘Hold on.’

The image froze. The woman’s head was shrouded in the deep hood of the coat. She advanced, frame by frame. Her hand rose to the hood, sweeping it off her head, revealing dark shoulder-length brown hair. Ethan zoomed in, the image pixilating and then re-rendering into sharper focus.

The empty water bottle slipped from Helix’s hand as the gentle oval face came into focus. ‘Well, well, well. You know who that is, don’t you, Ethan?’

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