Slow, synthetic jazz was playing. Softly, just at the edge of hearing. His consciousness reluctantly clawed itself back out of the nothingness of whatever deep hole it had been hiding in. Time for the old machine of pain and undignified suffering to get going again.

Everything was black. Dark and warm and fuzzy. He realised that he liked it this way. The dark was just fine, as far as he was concerned. He was content to just listen to the sad melodies, shifting back and forth, in and out of his thoughts. Slowly permeating the soft, warm space. His mind floating in the dark, slowly fermenting in it.

He felt calm and peaceful. He didn’t feel calm and peaceful very often. Calm and peaceful was nice.

After an unspecified amount of time, impossible to gauge, really, he started to think about things. And that stopped him from being calm and peaceful. Now, all of a sudden, something was being dragged up out of the deep. Out of his memories. Something at the back of his mind was starting to nag at him. Quietly at first, but then becoming more and more insistent. There was something he was supposed to do, places he was supposed to go, maybe. He wasn’t quite sure how he knew this, but he did. The thought had entered his confused mind and now it simply refused to leave him alone.

Wow, you’ve really fucked yourself up this time, brother. Completely trashed the old noggin to bits.

A voice in the dark. A deep, gravelly voice. Sonorous and full of disdain … Disdain for itself, disdain for the world, disdain for him.

Yeah. Disdain. That’s a nice word. It does fit your current situation very well. Disdain is what has gotten you to this place, after all. Disdain for your own life.

He didn’t like the voice. He wished, the voice would leave him alone. Let him get back to floating in the soft darkness. His consciousness slowly fermenting. Dissolving into nothingness. Oblivion …

Forget it, man. You won’t die today. I admit, you gave it a good shot there, but the old pump is still pumping and there’s enough grey stuff left upstairs for you to imagine a shitty voice in your head. Looks like you’re still alive. Still breathing. So here we are. Can’t float around in your own head forever, brother. Up and at them!

He did not feel alive. He just wanted to get back to calmly floating in the darkness. To go back to that sweet, sweet non-existence. To even think or to do anything else felt … terrible.

Exactly. You know what that means, don’t you, brother? Can only feel terrible when you’re alive. That’s pretty much the definition of it; being alive. Pain and suffering.

The voice was doing something to him. Almost involuntarily, he started to take stock of his surroundings and of himself. His heart, beating erratically and probably way too fast. His aching joints. And his head. Oh Light, there was a head attached to the rest of his body somehow! Or at least he assumed that the red hot ball of pain and anger he felt being attached to the rest of his body was his head. It seemed like that was where these thoughts were coming from. That’s a head, right? Where your thoughts are coming from?

That’s your head alright. Or what’s left of it.

His head was clearly unhappy. As was another part, lower down. Something steeped in acid and hatred. He was carefully probing in its direction when something foul and acerbic welled up. Something smelling of alcohol and death.

Ooooh, don’t go there. That’s your stomach. Better forget about that part of yourself for now. Puking your guts out while being only semi-conscious and lying down is not something you want to be doing, trust me.

He realised his eyes must have been closed. He had a feeling that to open them would not be a good idea. Were he to do that, his brain would probably catch on to the fact that everything was spinning around wildly. He had just started to notice this. The spinning. But he couldn’t tell how he knew, floating in darkness as he was. It had probably started at the same time that he had realised he had a stomach. No, based on this new information, opening his eyes was not a good idea at all at the moment. Better not give his tired, beaten up, old brain another sensory reference point to anchor itself to and get confused by. He listened to the music for a little while longer. The dulcet tones of a procedural keyboard mixed with the saxophone in a mournful funeral dirge. I wonder who’s getting buried, he thought. Probably the remains of my head. He heard coarse laughter from somewhere. The laughter suddenly descended into a coughing fit. Shit, he thought, was that me? Where the hell am I, anyway? And who am I? … What am I?

You’re a cop, Joe.

He was a cop, apparently. And he wasn’t at home; he knew that much. The hum was different. Even over the brutal thrumming of his head and the faint music, he could tell the air wasn’t being processed by the softly rattling recycler in his place.

The case, brother. You’re over in Humboldt.

The case in Humboldt. Right. He’d gotten very drunk last night in the run-down bar of his dingy hotel. By the state of him, it must have been quite a night. He couldn’t remember. What in the Light’s name was he doing here, anyway? What kind of case … Wracking his tired brain, trying to remember any of the details of his current situation, his mind slipped and he lost his train of thought. The music followed him down as he drifted off into unconsciousness again …

As Joe came to once more, the first thing he felt was the horrible headache almost splitting his skull in half. When, after a few moments spent trying to adjust, he finally managed to open his eyes, a nauseous feeling welled up from the pit of his stomach and threatened to overwhelm him completely.

He immediately gave up on the idea of orientating himself in the real world and instead concentrated on getting a grip on his nausea. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, he started to feel a little better.

He gave opening his eyes another shot and this time managed to keep the sick feeling in the base of his stomach in check. After taking a few deep breaths, he succeeded in sitting up in the filthy bed.

After a few more minutes, Joe felt strong enough to give getting up a try. On his feet, he immediately began feeling dizzy and sick and had to sit down again. But he pushed through the feeling. He was intimately familiar with these kinds of situations and knew that the only thing that would make it better was to get moving and never, ever stop to think – even for a second – about how bad he felt. So he got up. The old machine of pain and undignified suffering sure enough was running again. And once it was running, it wasn’t easily shut down again.

He entered the small bathroom and flicked on the lights. Harsh brightness assaulted his eyes, but he just stood there and took it. As soon as he could see properly, he went to the tiny sink and splashed cold water in his face a couple of times. He felt absolutely awful. He looked at his face in the cracked screen over the sink. Framed by advertisements peddling everything from contraceptives to treatments of erectile dysfunction to hangover cures, a tired and beaten face looked back at him.

Joe. You look like shit, brother.

His eyes were bloodshot, the skin around them was swollen and there were dark shadows under them. His face was ashen grey, his nose large and battered, red and ugly. His hair was all sweaty and messed up. He finished his inspection by concluding that he indeed looked like shit. Nothing for it, though. He was used to it. You do what you can. First, a shower.

He went into the dirty stall and turned on the water. After letting the warmth run over him for a couple of minutes while listening to more of his melancholic jazz playlist, he dried himself down with a towel, threw it into the recycler and went into the kitchenette. Still stark naked, he rummaged around in the counters until he found a pack of painkillers. He swallowed a couple of the pills and washed them down with some water from the tap.

He looked around for some clothes to put on. His duffel bag still sat on the lone seat in the tiny living room, unopened from the night before. The clothes he had been wearing were strewn around the place. He picked up his trousers and shirt, leaving his underwear on the floor. He went to his duffel and got fresh underwear out, deciding against a new shirt. You never knew how long these assignments lasted. A quick trip over to Humboldt might last a week; sometimes two. Especially if the local cops decided they didn’t want to cooperate. You could always get new underwear from a vending machine. Shirts were a lot harder. At least if you had a shred of basic decency left.

Speaking of the local cops … While he got dressed, he tried to piece together his memories of how he’d ended up in this dump of a hotel on the ass–end of civilisation. He needed to get his shit together for the day ahead. What case was he on, exactly?

Let’s see … He wasn’t in the best state to do coherent thinking right now, what with his head smashed to a pulp and his stomach constantly telling him to just give up and puke already, but he tried hard to make sense of his jumbled thoughts. He’d arrived in Humboldt the previous afternoon on a homicide investigation. Somebody had killed a woman and dumped the body outside of the habitat. It had floated across a viewport in a deserted stretch of a remote access corridor and, most likely entirely by chance, was noticed by a maintenance worker who had called it in.

The local department was notoriously overworked and understaffed. Its main expertise was in dealing with the brawls that broke out between drunk dockworkers every other night. While they did have their share of homicides, these were almost always relatively simple domestic affairs. They hadn’t had an external floater in years.

As good a reason as any to escalate this up to Aristide Control and dodge the extra workload. Predictably, the homicide desk at Precinct 57 didn’t take the case from the sticks very seriously. The hotshot investigators and their supervisors all had their own problems and more than enough cases to keep them busy as it was.

This is how the Humboldt case had gotten assigned to Josephus Faulkner, nicknamed “Gunfire Joe”, because everyone knew he liked to put that lichen rum in the morning tea he started every shift with. Joe had been off the main case rotation for months. He had been undergoing psych evaluations for punching his superior in the face in the wake of a botched case. As a result, he had been confined to paper pushing at a desk in the back office. Paper pushing and drinking, to be precise. Joe, glad for an excuse to leave the desk, hadn’t complained when the case came along. He’d grabbed a few things from his place, threw them into a duffel bag and took the next transport to Humboldt Station. After arriving at the habitat, he had decided it was too late to check in on the locals.

Not exactly true, most of the local cops would’ve probably still been at their desks, but he liked to introduce himself to unknown colleagues in unknown territory in the mornings, if possible. Hit them early in the day, when they were still relatively fresh and not too annoyed by the shit that hat happened to them during their shift. These situations were volatile. Out of town jobs were a tricky thing and there was a complicated dance of egos involved when confronting the local guys. Especially when you met them for the first time. And besides, he had felt very thirsty after the trip over and needed a drink quite badly. So he had gone directly to his hotel, thrown his duffel in his room and went right back down to the bar, without even so much as bothering to freshen up. He’d given the bar a quick eyeball when he was in the lobby. Everyone in there looked like a regular. And they’d had maybe one shower between all three of them this week. So, no reason to be fussy about his own clothes, which were sweat stained and heavily crumpled from the trip.

The trouble with Joe in a bar was that he never knew when to stop. He’d have one drink, preferably hard liqueur, and then he’d start thinking about things. And that would set a whole cascade of thinking and drinking – and then trying to forget – in motion. He could never really forget any of it, of course. The people he’d killed, and much worse, the ones he hadn’t.

But it was the unsolved cases, strewn throughout his career, that cut the deepest. Joe hated loose ends. He hated loose ends more than anything. Loose ends were like a scabbed-over wound in his mind that never healed. And never stopped itching. And he was the sort of person that never stopped scratching an itch. That was what made him such a good investigator – one of the best, he liked to think. But it was also what had broken him. And so he had ended up in another bar, spending another evening with a bottle of lichen rum.

Business as usual.

Business as usual, indeed, Joe thought as he put on his trousers and then tried to smooth out his shirt as best as he could on the small table in the kitchenette before putting it on. He checked his gun and put it into the holster, its harness straps criss-crossing on his back. He then pulled his vest on over it and went back into the bathroom to look at himself in the screen again. It would do. It wasn’t pretty, but it would do. He was a fucking police officer, he didn’t have to win beauty pageants. People didn’t like police officers anyway. Why even try to look pretty?

He hadn’t called in to his home station the previous evening and he decided there wouldn’t be much of a point to doing it now, either. There’d be hell to pay with the lieutenant later, but he’d deal with it then. He always did. He knew the lines quite well and had discovered a long time ago which ones he could overstep without them being able to fire him. He’d had a lot of experience in being a troublemaker and the Internal Review Board citations in his permanent record to prove it. The technical term for this behaviour, as noted in his file, was “toxic masculinity”. He chuckled. Fair enough.

He stood in the little entrance corridor of his shitty hotel room and paused for a minute, holding his aching head in his hands. The painkillers were starting to do their thing. This was doable. He could do this.

Joe grabbed his coat, picked his hat off the hook on the door, pulled it down low over his eyes and stepped out into the dark underwater city. The mournful jazz music faded to nothing as he crossed the threshold.

Next: Chapter 2 – The Mermaid