Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: The Disappeared

 

 

Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book.  I began this practice last month with Diving into the Wreck. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site.  If you want to read the opening to Diving, click here.

This month, I’ve excerpted The Disappeared, the first in my Retrieval Artist series.  This is a USA Today bestselling series, and the very first novella in the series was nominated for a Hugo. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information.

New York Times bestselling author Orson Scott Card calls the Retrieval Artist series “some of the best science fiction ever written.” Io9 says Miles Flint is one of “the top ten greatest science fiction detectives of all time.” The Disappeared is Flint’s very first adventure, the story that turns him from a police detective in the Armstrong Dome on the Moon into a Retrieval Artist.

In a universe where humans and aliens have formed a loose government called the Earth Alliance, treaties guarantee that humans are subject to alien laws when on alien soil. But alien laws often make no sense, and the punishments vary from loss of life to loss of a first-born child.

Now three cases have collided: a stolen spaceyacht filled with dead bodies, two kidnapped human children, and a human woman on the run, trying to Disappear to avoid alien prosecution. Flint must enforce the law—giving the children to aliens, solving the murders, and arresting the woman for trying to save her own life. But how is a man supposed to enforce laws that are unjust? How can he sacrifice innocents to a system he’s not sure he believes in? How can Miles Flint do the right thing in a universe where the right thing is very, very wrong?

“Rusch does a superb job of making the Retrieval Artist books work as fully satisfying standalone mysteries and as installments in a gripping saga full of love, loss, grief, hope, adventure, and discovery. It is also some of the best science fiction ever written.”
New York Times bestselling author Orson Scott Card

The Disappeared

A Retrieval Artist Novel

by

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Copyright © 2002 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Cover Art Copyright © 2011 by Jonathan Kort

Published by WMG Publishing 2011

 

 

 

One

 

She had to leave everything behind.

Ekaterina Maakestad stood in the bedroom of her Queen Anne home, the ancient Victorian houses of San Francisco’s oldest section visible through her vintage windows, and clutched her hands together. She had made the bed that morning as if nothing were wrong. The quilt, folded at the bottom, waiting for someone to pull it up for warmth, had been made by her great-great-grandmother, a woman she dimly remembered. The rocking chair in the corner had rocked generations of Maakestads. Her mother had called it the nursing chair because so many women had sat in it, nursing their babies.

Ekaterina would never get the chance to do that. She had no idea what would happen to it, or to all the heirloom jewelry in the downstairs safe, or to the photographs, taken so long ago they were collectors items to most people but to her represented family, people she was connected to through blood, common features, and passionate dreams.

She was the last of the Maakestad line. No siblings or cousins to take all of this. Her parents were long gone, and so were her grandparents. When she set up this house, after she had gotten back from Revnata, the human colony in Rev territory, she had planned to raise her own children here.

Downstairs, a door opened and she froze, waiting for House to announce the presence of a guest. But House wouldn’t. She had shut off the security system, just as she had been instructed to do.

She twisted the engagement ring on her left hand, the antique diamond winking in the artificial light. She was supposed to take the ring off, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so. She would wait until the very last minute, then hand the ring over. If she left it behind, everyone would know she had left voluntarily.

“Kat?” Simon. He wasn’t supposed to be here.

She swallowed hard, feeling a lump in her throat.

“Kat, you okay? The system’s off.”

“I know.” Her voice sounded normal. Amazing she could do that, given the way her heart pounded and her breath came in shallow gasps.

She had to get him out of here and quickly. He couldn’t be here when they arrived, or he would lose everything too.

The stairs creaked. He was coming up to see her.

“I’ll be right down!” she called. She didn’t want him to come upstairs, didn’t want to see him here one last time.

With her right hand, she smoothed her blond hair. Then she squared her shoulders and put on her courtroom face. She’d been distracted and busy in front of Simon before. He might think that was what was happening now.

She left the bedroom and started down the stairs, making herself breathe evenly. For the last week, she hadn’t seen him—pleading work, then making up travel, and a difficult court case. She had been trying to avoid this moment all along.

As she reached the first landing, the stairs curved, and she could see him, standing in the entry. Simon wasn’t a handsome man. He didn’t use enhancements—didn’t like them on himself or anyone. As a result, his hair was thinning on top, and he was pudgy despite the exercise he got.

But his face had laugh lines. Instead of cosmetic good looks, Simon had an appealing rumpled quality, like an old favorite old shirt or a quilt that had rested on the edge of the bed for more than a hundred years.

He smiled at her, his dark eyes twinkling. “I’ve missed you.”

Her breath caught, but she made herself smile back. “I’ve missed you too.”

He was holding flowers, a large bouquet of purple lilacs, their scent rising up to greet her.

“I was just going to leave this,” he said. “I figured as busy as you were, you might appreciate something pretty to come home to.”

He had House’s security combination, just like she had his. They had exchanged the codes three months ago, the same night they got engaged. She could still remember the feelings she had that night. The hope, the possibility. The sense that she actually had a future.

“They’re wonderful,” she said.

He waited for her to get to the bottom of the stairs, then he handed her the bouquet. Beneath the greenery, her hands found a cool vase, a bubble chip embedded in the glass keeping the water’s temperature constant.

She buried her face in the flowers, glad for the momentary camouflage. She had no idea when she would see flowers again.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice trembling. She turned away, made herself put the flowers on the table she kept beneath the gilt-edged mirror in her entry.

Simon slipped his hands around her waist. “You all right?”

She wanted to lean against him, to tell him the truth, to let him share all of this—the fears, the uncertainty. But she didn’t dare. He couldn’t know anything.

“I’m tired,” she said, and she wasn’t lying. She hadn’t slept in the past eight days.

“Big case?”

She nodded. “Difficult one.”

“Let me know when you’re able to talk about it.”

She could see his familiar face in the mirror beside her strained one. Even when she tried to look normal, she couldn’t. The bags beneath her eyes hadn’t been there a month ago. Neither had the worry lines beside her mouth.

He watched her watch herself, and she could tell from the set of his jaw, the slight crease on his forehead, that he was seeing more than he should have been.

“This case is tearing you apart,” he said softly.

“Some cases do that.”

“I don’t like it.”

She nodded and turned in his arms, trying to memorize the feel of him, the comfort he gave her, comfort that would soon be gone. “I have to meet a client,” she said.

“I’ll take you.”

“No.” She made herself smile again, wondering if the expression looked as fake as it felt. “I need a little time alone before I go, to regroup.”

He caressed her cheek with the back of his hand, then kissed her. She lingered a moment too long, caught between the urge to cling and the necessity of pushing him away.

“I love you,” she said as she ended the kiss.

“I love you too.” He smiled. “There’s a spa down in the L.A. basin. It’s supposed to be the absolute best. I’ll take you there when this is all over.”

“Sounds good,” she said, making no promises. She couldn’t bear to make another false promise.

He still didn’t move away. She resisted the urge to look at the two-hundred-year-old clock that sat on the living room mantel.

“Kat,” he said. “You need time away. Maybe we could meet after you see your client and—”

“No,” she said. “Early court date.”

He stepped back from her and she realized she sounded abrupt. But he had to leave. She had to get him out and quickly.

“I’m sorry, Simon,” she said. “But I really need the time—”

“I know.” His smile was small. She had stung him, and hadn’t meant to. “Call me?”

“As soon as I can.”

He nodded, then headed for the door. “Turn your system back on.”

“I will,” she said as he pulled the door open. Fog had rolled in from the Bay, leaving the air chill. “Thank you for the flowers.”

“They were supposed to brighten the day,” he said, raising his hands toward the grayness.

“They have.” She watched as he walked down the sidewalk toward his aircar, hovering the regulation half foot above the pavement. No flying vehicles were allowed in Nob Hill because they would destroy the view, the impression that the past was here, so close that it would take very little effort to touch it.

She closed the door before he got into his car, so that she wouldn’t have to watch him drive away. Her hand lingered over the security system. One command, and it would be on again. She would be safe within her own home.

If only it were that simple.

The scent of the lilacs overpowered her. She stepped away from the door and stopped in front of the mirror again. Just her reflected there now. Her and a bouquet of flowers she wouldn’t get to enjoy, a bouquet she would never forget.

She twisted her engagement ring. It had always been loose. Even though she meant to have it fitted, she never did. Perhaps she had known, deep down, that this day would come. Perhaps she’d felt, ever since she’d come to Earth, that she’d been living on borrowed time.

The ring slipped off easily. She stared at it for a moment, at the promises it held, promises it would never keep, and then she dropped it into the vase. Someone would find it. Not right away, but soon enough that it wouldn’t get lost.

Maybe Simon would be able to sell it, get his money back. Or maybe he would keep it as a tangible memory of what had been, the way she kept her family heirlooms.

She winced.

Something scuffled outside the door—the sound of a foot against the stone stoop, a familiar sound, one she would never hear again.

Her heart leaped, hoping it was Simon, even though she knew it wasn’t. As the brass doorknob turned, she reached into the bouquet and pulled some petals off the nearest lilac plume. She shoved them in her pocket, hoping they would dry the way petals did when pressed into a book.

Then the door opened and a man she had never seen before stepped inside. He was over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and muscular. His skin was a chocolate brown, his eyes slightly flat, the way eyes got when they’d been enhanced too many times.

“Is it true,” he said, just like he was supposed to, “that this house survived the 1906 earthquake?”

“No.” She paused, wishing she could stop there, wishing she could say no to all of this. But she continued, using the coded phrase she had invented for just this moment. “The house was built the year after.”

He nodded. “You’re awfully close to the door.”

“A friend stopped by.”

Somehow, the expression in his eyes grew flatter. “Is the friend gone?”

“Yes,” she said, hoping it was true.

The man studied her, as if he could tell if she were lying just by staring at her. Then he touched the back of his hand. Until that moment, she hadn’t seen the chips dotting his skin like freckles—they matched so perfectly.

“Back door,” he said, and she knew he was using his link to speak to someone outside.

He took her hand. His fingers were rough, callused. Simon’s hands had no calluses at all.

“Is everything in its place?” the man asked.

She nodded.

“Anyone expecting you tonight?”

“No,” she said.

“Good.” He tugged her through her own kitchen, past the fresh groceries she had purchased just that morning, past the half-empty coffee cup she’d left on the table.

The back door was open. She shook her hand free and stepped out. The fog was thicker than it had been when Simon left, and colder too. She couldn’t see the vehicle waiting in the alley. She couldn’t even see the alley. She was taking her first steps on a journey that would make her one of the Disappeared, and she could not see where she was going.

How appropriate. Because she had no idea how or where she was going to end up.

* * *

Jamal sampled the spaghetti sauce. The reconstituted beef gave it a chemical taste. He added some crushed red pepper, then tried another spoonful, and sighed. The beef was still the dominant flavor.

He set the spoon on the spoon rest and wiped his hands on a towel. The tiny kitchen smelled of garlic and tomato sauce. He’d set the table with the china Dylani had brought from Earth and their two precious wine glasses.

Not that they had anything to celebrate tonight. They hadn’t had anything to celebrate for a long time. No real highs, no real lows.

Jamal liked it that way—the consistency of everyday routine. Sometimes he broke the routine by setting the table with wineglasses, and sometimes he let the routine govern them. He didn’t want any more change.

There had been enough change in his life.

Dylani came out of their bedroom, her bare feet leaving tiny prints on the baked mud floor. The house was Moon adobe, made from Moon dust plastered over a permaplastic frame. Cheap, but all they could afford.

Dylani’s hair was pulled away from her narrow face, her pale gray eyes red-rimmed, like they always were when she got off of work. Her fingertips were stained black from her work on the dome. No matter how much she scrubbed, they no longer came clean.

“He’s sleeping,” she said, and she sounded disappointed. Their son, Ennis, was usually asleep when she got home from work. Jamal planned it that way—he liked a bit of time alone with his wife. Besides, she needed time to decompress before she settled into her evening ritual.

She was one of the dome engineers. Although the position sounded important, it wasn’t. She was still entry level, coping with clogs in the filtration systems and damage outsiders did near the high-speed train station.

If she wanted to advance, she would have to wait years. Engineers didn’t retire in Gagarin Dome, nor did they move to other Moon colonies. In other colonies, the domes were treated like streets or government buildings—something to be maintained, not something to be enhanced. But Gagarin’s governing board believed the dome was a priority, so engineers were always working on the cutting edge of dome technology, rather than rebuilding an outdated system.

“How was he?” Dylani walked to the stove and sniffed the sauce. Spaghetti was one of her favorite meals. One day, Jamal would cook it for her properly, with fresh ingredients. One day, when they could afford it.

“The usual,” Jamal said, placing the bread he’d bought in the center of the table. The glasses would hold bottled water, but it was dear enough to be wine—they would enjoy the water no less.

Dylani gave him a fond smile. “The usual isn’t a good enough answer. I want to hear everything he did today. Every smile, every frown. If I can’t stay home with him, I at least want to hear about him.”

Ever since they found out Dylani was pregnant, Ennis had become the center of their world—and the heart of Jamal’s nightmares. He was smothering the boy and he knew it. Ennis was ten months now—the age when a child learned to speak and walk—and he was beginning to understand that he was a person in his own right.

Jamal had read the parenting literature. He knew he should encourage the boy’s individuality. But he didn’t want to. He wanted Ennis beside him always, in his sight, in his care.

Dylani understood Jamal’s attitude, but sometimes he could feel her disapproval. She had been tolerant of his paranoia—amazingly tolerant considering she had no idea as to the root cause of it. She thought his paranoia stemmed from first-child jitters, instead of a real worry for Ennis’s safety.

Jamal wasn’t sure what he would do when Ennis had to go to school. In Gagarin, home schooling was not an option. Children had to learn to interact with others—the governing board had made that law almost a hundred years ago, and despite all the challenges to it, the law still stood.

Someday Jamal would have to trust his boy to others—and he wasn’t sure he could do it.

“So?” Dylani asked.

Jamal smiled. “He’s trying to teach Mr. Biscuit to fly.”

Mr. Biscuit was Ennis’s stuffed dog. Dylani’s parents had sent the dog as a present from Earth. They also sent some children’s vids—flats because Dylani believed Ennis was too young to understand the difference between holographic performers and real people.

Ennis’s favorite vid was about a little boy who learned how to fly.

“How’s Mr. Biscuit taking this?” Dylani asked.

“I’m not sure,” Jamal said. “He’s not damaged yet, but a few more encounters with the wall might change that.”

Dylani chuckled.

The boiling pot beeped. The noodles were done. Jamal put the pot in the sink, pressed the drain button, and the water poured out of the pot’s bottom into the recycler.

“Hungry?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Long day?”

“Two breakdowns in dome security.” She grabbed a plate and brought it to the sink. “Every available person worked on repairs.”

Jamal felt a shiver run down his back. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“It happens,” she said. “Sometimes the jobs are so big—”

“No,” he said. “The breakdown in security.”

She gave him a tolerant smile. “I usually don’t mention it. The dome doors go off-line a lot, particularly near the space port. I think it has something to do with the commands issued by the high-speed trains coming in from the north, but no one will listen to me. I’m too junior. Maybe in my off time…”

But Jamal stopped listening. Another shiver ran down his back. It wasn’t Dylani’s news that was making him uneasy. The kitchen was actually cold and it shouldn’t have been. Cooking in such a small space usually made the temperature rise, not lower.

He went to the kitchen door. Closed and latched.

“…would result in a promotion,” Dylani was saying. Then she frowned. “Jamal?”

“Keep talking,” he said.

But she didn’t. Her lips became a thin line. He recognized the look. She hated it when he did this, thought his paranoia was reaching new heights.

Maybe it was. He always felt stupid after moments like this, when he realized that Ennis was safe in his bed and nothing was wrong.

But that didn’t stop him from prowling through the house, searching for the source of the chill. He’d never forgive himself if something happened and he didn’t check.

“Jamal.”

He could hear the annoyance in Dylani’s voice, but he ignored it, walking past her into the narrow hallway between the kitchen and the living room. He turned right, toward their bedroom.

It was dark like Dylani had left it, but there was a light at the very end of the hall. In Ennis’s room.

Jamal never left a light on in Ennis’s room. The boy napped in the dark. Studies had shown that children who slept with lights on became nearsighted, and Jamal wanted his son to have perfect vision.

“Jamal?”

He was running down the hallway now. He couldn’t have slowed down if he tried. Dylani might have left the light on, but he doubted it. She and Jamal had discussed the nightlight issue just like they had discussed most things concerning Ennis.

They never left his window open—that was Dylani’s choice. She knew how contaminated the air had become inside the dome, and she felt their environmental filter was better than the government’s. No open window, no cooler temperatures.

And no light.

He slid into Ennis’s room, the pounding of his feet loud enough to wake the baby. Dylani was running after him.

“Jamal!”

The room looked normal, bathed in the quiet light of the lamp he had placed above the changing table. The crib nestled against one corner, the playpen against another. The changing table under the always closed window—which was closed, even now.

But the air was cooler, just like the air outside the house was cooler. Since Ennis was born, they’d spent extra money on heat just to make sure the baby was comfortable. Protected. Safe.

Jamal stopped in front of the crib. He didn’t have to look. He could already feel the difference in the room. Someone else had been here, and not long ago. Someone else had been here, and Ennis was not here, not any longer.

Still, he peered down at the mattress where he had placed his son not an hour ago. Ennis’s favorite blanket was thrown back, revealing the imprint of his small body. The scents of baby powder and baby sweat mingled into something familiar, something lost.

Mr. Biscuit perched against the crib’s corner, his thread eyes empty. The fur on his paw was matted and wet where Ennis had sucked on it, probably as he had fallen asleep. The pacifier that he had yet to grow out of was on the floor, covered in dirt.

“Jamal?” Dylani’s voice was soft.

Jamal couldn’t turn to her. He couldn’t face her. All he could see was the gold bracelet that rested on Ennis’s blanket. The bracelet Jamal hadn’t seen for a decade. The symbol of his so-called brilliance, a reward for a job well done. He had been so proud of it when he received it, that first night on Korsve. And so happy to leave it behind two years later.

“Oh, my God,” Dylani said from the door. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know.” Jamal’s voice shook. He was lying. He tried not to lie to Dylani. Did she know that his voice shook when he lied?

As she came into the room, he snatched the bracelet and hid it in his fist.

“Who would do this?” she asked. She was amazingly calm, given what was happening. But Dylani never panicked. Panicking was his job. “Who would take our baby?”

Jamal slipped the bracelet into his pocket, then put his arms around his wife.

“We need help,” she said.

“I know.” But he already knew it was hopeless. There was nothing anyone could do.

* * *

The holovid played at one-tenth normal size in the corner of the space yacht. The actors paced, the sixteenth-century palace looking out of place against the green-and-blue plush chairs beside it. Much as Sara loved this scene—Hamlet’s speech to the players—she couldn’t concentrate on it. She regretted ordering up Shakespeare. It felt like part of the life she was leaving behind.

Sara wondered if the other two felt as unsettled as she did. But she didn’t ask. She didn’t really want the answers. The others were in this because of her, and they rarely complained about it. Of course, they didn’t have a lot of choice.

She glanced at them. Ruth had flattened her seat into a cot. She was asleep on her back, hands folded on her stomach like a corpse, her curly black hair covering the pillow like a shroud.

Isaac stared at the holovid, but Sara could tell he wasn’t really watching it. He bent at his midsection, elbows resting on his thighs, his care-lined features impassive. He’d been like this since they left New Orleans, focused, concentrated, frozen.

The yacht bounced.

Sara stopped the holovid. Space yachts didn’t bounce. There was nothing for them to bounce on.

“What the hell was that?” she asked.

Neither Ruth nor Isaac answered. Ruth was still asleep. Isaac hadn’t moved.

She got up and pulled up the shade on the nearest portal. Earth mocked her, blue and green viewed through a haze of white. As she stared at her former home, a small oval-shaped ship floated past, so close it nearly brushed against the yacht. Through a tiny portal on the ship’s side, she caught a glimpse of a human face. A white circle was stamped beneath the portal. She had seen that symbol before: it was etched lightly on the wall inside the luxurious bathroom off the main cabin.

Her breath caught in her throat. She hit the intercom near the window. “Hey,” she said to the cockpit. “What’s going on?”

No one answered her. When she took her finger off the intercom, she didn’t even hear static.

She shoved Isaac’s shoulder. He glared at her.

“I think we’re in trouble,” she said.

“No kidding.”

“I mean it.”

She got up and walked through the narrow corridor toward the pilot’s quarters and cockpit. The door separating the main area from the crew quarters was large and thick, with a sign that flashed No Entry without Authorization.

This time, she hit the emergency button, which should have brought one of the crew into the back. But the intercom didn’t come on and no one moved.

She tried the door, but it was sealed on the other side.

The yacht rocked and dipped. Sara slid toward the wall, slammed into it, and sank to the floor. Seatbelt lights went on all over the cabin.

Ruth had fallen as well. She sat on the floor, rubbing her eyes. Isaac was the only one who stayed in his seat.

The yacht had stabilized.

“What’s going on?” Ruth asked.

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Sara said.

She grabbed one of the metal rungs, placed there for zero-g flight, and tried the door again. It didn’t open.

“Isaac,” she said, “can you override this thing?”

“Names,” he cautioned.

She made a rude noise. “As if it matters.”

“It matters. They said it mattered from the moment we left Earth—”

The yacht shook, and Sara smelled something sharp, almost like smoke, but more peppery.

“Isaac,” she said again.

He grabbed the rungs and walked toward her, his feet slipping on the tilted floor. Ruth pulled herself into her chair, her face pale, eyes huge. Sara had only seen her look like that once before—when they’d seen Ilanas’s body in the newsvids, sprawled across the floor of their rented apartment in the French Quarter.

Isaac had reached Sara’s side. He was tinkering with the control panel beside the door. “Cheap-ass stuff,” he said. “You’d think on a luxury cruiser, they’d have up-to-date security.”

The door clicked and Isaac pushed it open.

Sweat ran down Sara’s back, even though the yacht hadn’t changed temperature. The smell had grown worse, and there was a pounding coming from the emergency exit just inside the door.

Isaac bit his lower lip.

“Hello?” Sara called. Her voice didn’t echo, but she could feel the emptiness around her. There was no one in the galley, and the security guard who was supposed to be sitting near the cockpit wasn’t there.

Isaac stayed by the emergency exit. He was studying that control panel. Ruth had crawled across her cot, and was staring out the panel on her side of the ship. Her hands were shaking.

Sara turned her back on them. She went inside the cockpit—and froze.

It was empty. Red lights blinked on the control panels. The ship was on autopilot, and both of its escape pods had been launched. A red line had formed on a diagram of the ship, the line covering the emergency exit where the noise had come from. More red illuminated the back of the ship.

She punched vocal controls. They had been shut off—which explained why silence had greeted her when she tried the intercom, when she hit the emergency switch, even when she had touched the sealed door.

Warning, the ship’s computer said. Engines disabled. Breach in airlock one. Intruder alert.

Sara sat in the pilot’s chair. It had been years since she’d tried to fly a ship and she’d never operated anything this sophisticated. She had to focus.

Warning.

First she had to bring the controls back online. Most of them had been shut off from the inside. She didn’t want to think about what that meant. Not now.

Intruder alert.

She needed visuals. She opened the ports around her, and then wished she hadn’t.

A large white ship hovered just outside her view, its pitted hull and cone-shaped configuration sending a chill through her heart.

The Disty had found her—and they were about to break in.

 

 

Two

 

Miles Flint stepped inside the crew tunnel leading to the docks. He thought he had escaped this place. Two months ago, he’d been promoted to detective—a job that would allow him to remain inside Armstrong’s dome and solve crimes, rather than arrive in the Port at 0600 and launch at 0645, to play traffic cop in the Moon’s orbit.

Of course as a space cop he’d seen a few detectives in the Port, but only rarely. Most crimes found by traffic cops had clear perpetrators. Those that didn’t were referred to Headquarters and usually the crimes were solved without the detective ever setting foot in the Port.

Just his bad luck that he would get a case that required his presence here. He suspected that he and his partner, Noelle DeRicci, had been chosen specifically for this one, primarily because he knew how the Port worked.

DeRicci walked several meters ahead of him. She was a short, muscular woman who had been a detective for more than twenty years. Her dark hair, shot with gray, remained its natural color because she felt people gave more respect to older detectives than younger. She hadn’t paid for other cosmetic enhancements either, for the very same reason.

She scanned the sheet on her hand-held as she walked. Flint wondered how she could see. The old colonial lighting was dim at best, the energy cells nearly tapped out. The light was yellowish-gray, giving the tunnels the look of perpetual twilight.

The crew tunnels were one of the few original underground structures left. They’d been reinforced after a few cave-ins had convinced Armstrong’s governor to spend the funds to prevent more lawsuits.

The public tunnels leading from the Port to the dome were newer—if something that had been around for fifty years could be considered new. They were wider and safer, at least, built to the code finally developed for underground structures once Armstrong realized it couldn’t expand horizontally any more.

But cops weren’t allowed in the public areas, unless they were acting as security. Armstrong made a large chunk of its income off tourists who came to see the Moon’s history, wrapped in one place. Armstrong not only boasted a large number of original colonial structures—the first ever built on the Moon—it was also the site of the first lunar landing, made when human beings wore bulky white suits and jettisoned into space in a capsule attached to a bomb.

Flint took several long strides to catch up to DeRicci. “What’ve we got?”

She gave him a sideways look. He recognized the contempt. She’d been trying to intimidate him from the moment they became partners. For some reason, she seemed to think intimidation would work.

It was probably his face. He looked younger than he was. His ex-wife used to say that she sometimes thought she had married an overgrown baby. In the early years of their marriage, she’d said that fondly, as if she loved the way he looked. That horrible last year, she’d spit out the words, angry that the grief which had consumed both of them and devoured their marriage hadn’t left its mark on his face.

“Well?” he asked, knowing DeRicci wouldn’t answer him if he didn’t press.

“Won’t know what we have until HazMat’s done,” she said and clicked her hand-held closed.

He already knew why they had come here. A ship with bodies aboard had arrived at the Port sometime that afternoon. But he knew there had to be more information than that. He used to tow disabled ships as part of his space-cop duties. Before ships got towed, the space cops entered, and usually their reports were sent on to the investigative team if one was needed.

He would find out what happened soon enough. They were heading toward Terminal 4, where derelict and abandoned ships were usually towed. If the ship had a living crew member or a recognizable registration, it went to Terminal 16. Ships whose owners were suspected of criminal activity went to Terminal 5, and ships carrying illegal cargo went to Terminal 6.

The tunnel opened into the office ring. Square offices, walled off by clear plastic, clustered against the wall. This section of each terminal looked the same—tiny desks inside tiny rooms, littered with notices, signs, and electronic warnings. A few of the desks had their own built-in system—again on the theory that direct uplinks were untrustworthy—but most of the Command/Control center was on the upper levels.

Signs pointed the various directions that the crews went, many to clock in, others to find their uniforms before beginning shift. Also down these corridors were interrogation rooms, holding cells, and the required link to customs. Flint had taken several illegals into that link, never to see them again.

The main corridor went to the terminal proper. Each terminal had its own dome that opened whenever a ship needed to dock. More tunnels led to the docks, only these tunnels were open, made of clear plastic just like the offices were. They had their own environmental controls, which could be shut off at a moment’s notice. The tunnel doors could also slam closed with a single command from Terminal 4’s tower—a security precaution that Flint had only had to use once in his eight-year stint on Traffic.

Two uniformed space cops were waiting at the edge of the docks. DeRicci touched the chip that made the shield on her collar flash.

“Which way?” she asked them, but Flint didn’t wait for their answer. He could see which dock held the ship. The HazMat crew’s orange warning lights covered the tunnel, warning Control not to set any ship down in a dock nearby until HazMat had cleared the area.

As Flint walked toward the affected tunnel, he scanned the far end, searching for the ship. He had to squint to see it, small against the tunnel’s opening.

A space yacht. Its design—narrow and pointed—made it of Earth construction. It was a fairly new ship, built for speed not luxury, certainly not the kind of vehicle that was usually abandoned or left derelict in the Moon’s orbit.

In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a yacht in Terminal 4. Sometimes yachts were used for contraband, and sometimes they were used to transport illegals, but never did they arrive here, where someone had to trace their registration to see who had abandoned them. Yachts were stolen and often resold, but never abandoned. They were too valuable for that.

Two more space cops stood near the tunnel entrance, hands behind their backs, staring straight ahead. Flint recognized the posture. They were guarding the entrance, a duty given only to the cops who found the vessel. When a space cop was in charge of a vessel, that charge didn’t end until HazMat was done and the vessel was released to the appropriate authority.

The cops were both male, and at least ten years younger than Flint. He introduced himself, pressed the chip that illuminated his badge, and said, “I take it you two towed in the vessel.”

The cop closest to him, whose hollow cheeks and muscles spoke of deliberate malnourishment in the name of exercise, nodded.

“What’ve we got?” Flint asked.

“It’s in the report,” the other cop said. He was older, more experienced. His almond-shaped gray eyes had a flat expression, as if he resented talking to a detective.

Flint peered at the cop’s last name, sewn across the pocket of his uniform’s jacket. Raifey. “I didn’t have a chance to read the report. Why don’t you fill me in?”

The cops glanced at each other, then looked away. Neither of them, it seemed, wanted to say anything.

This was going to be harder than Flint thought. “Listen,” he said. “I was just transferred from Traffic to Armstrong proper. My partner doesn’t like to share and, frankly, I don’t think she’ll understand this one anyway. Before she gets here, tell me what’s different, so that I can—”

“The bodies,” said the first cop. The name above his pocket read McMullen. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Flint glanced at Raifey. McMullen’s words were a cue for the more experienced partner to comment on the younger partner’s naïveté. But Raifey didn’t. He didn’t say anything at all.

“What about the bodies?” Flint asked.

“How anyone could do that—” McMullen started, but Raifey held up his hand.

“Regulations,” he said, more to his partner than Flint. “Let the detective make his own determination.”

Technically, Raifey was right, but often space cops told detectives what to see, what to find.

“Murder?” Flint said.

McMullen made a choking sound and turned away. Raifey’s mouth curved in a slight smile. “Why else would they call you?”

There were a thousand reasons. Theft, illegal cargo, damage to the ship, sign of illegals in an abandoned vessel. But Flint chose to ignore the belligerence.

“What else?” He continued to look at Raifey, not McMullen. Flint wanted to prove to the older cop that they could work together if they had to.

Raifey met his gaze for a long moment, as if measuring him. Behind him, Flint heard DeRicci’s boot heels clicking on the metal floor.

Raifey’s gaze flicked over Flint’s shoulder, obviously taking in DeRicci’s approach. Then Raifey leaned forward and lowered his voice.

“The bodies weren’t that unusual,” he said. “You’ll recognize it. It was the autopilot. Someone set that yacht on a collision course with the Moon. They should have left the thing to float in space. I would have. But instead, they wanted it here.”

Flint nodded. That was unusual. Bodies were found in abandoned vessels all the time, and some of those bodies were murder victims. But usually, they were victims of a failed life support system, inoperative engines, or a lack of fuel. In all of those cases, the ship continued on its regular course or floated when the fuel was gone.

He’d never heard of anyone setting autopilot for a collision course with the Moon itself. Such a course was guaranteed to draw Traffic’s attention.

Flint said, “Were they—?”

“HazMat is nearly done.” DeRicci had come up behind him, talking over him deliberately. She glared at both space cops, who looked away, their expressions neutral once more.

Flint suppressed a sigh and peered down the tunnel. Sure enough, the HazMat team was coming off the yacht, carrying their gear as they walked. As they moved through the tunnel walls, the orange warning lights turned yellow.

No hazardous materials on board. No lethal biological agents. Normally that meant that the Port crews could process the vessel. But the yellow lights meant that a police investigation was underway. No one could go through that tunnel without the proper authorization.

The space cops stood back as the first members of the HazMat team came out of the tunnel. Their protective gear made them all look like something alien, even though they were all clearly human. It covered them from head to foot like a second skin, obscuring their facial features. The gear provided its own environment. The thick webbing allowed nothing to pass through to the people inside—at least nothing that HazMat had encountered so far.

The team’s leader touched a spot on the gear’s neck and the facial protection fell away, revealing a middle-aged woman with delicate features. Her gaze met DeRicci’s.

“You’ve got a hell of a mess in there.”

“Any ideas?” DeRicci asked.

“I’ve got plenty of ideas,” the HazMat team leader said. “We’ll talk when you’re done if you want, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.”

DeRicci nodded. “Okay, Miles,” she said. “Looks like it’s just you and me and three dead—”

“Anything we should watch out for?” Flint asked the team leader, deliberately ignoring DeRicci.

That was the question she should have asked. Sometimes HazMat ruled unidentifiable objects as potentially hazardous, should they be touched in the wrong way or accidentally opened. Technically, HazMat was supposed to warn any team going in of such things, but sometimes—particularly in cases of gruesome death—they focused so strongly on the corpses that they sometimes forgot to warn about the other problems.

The team leader glanced at DeRicci. DeRicci’s skin had flushed a deep red. She wasn’t used to being overridden by Flint. He’d been courteous to her from the day they’d started working together, suffering her insults and her derision.

But he wasn’t about to go on a yacht with three dead bodies on board without asking the proper questions.

“There’s nothing suspicious,” the team leader said after a moment. “At least as far as we’re concerned.”

Flint nodded. Then he glanced at DeRicci. She raised her eyebrows at him, both mocking him and telling him to go first. He stepped into the tunnel.

All Port tunnels smelled the same: the cool metallic scent of consistently recycled air, the faint stench of sewage from overflowing ship systems, and the industrial deodorizer that attempted to mask all of those smells. He felt his shoulders relax. He was used to this place.

The tunnel was short. Most of it was permanent, but the shipside end could be extended or retracted depending on need. He stepped past the warning lights and took the small door on the side instead of going straight into the ship. He wanted to examine the exterior first.

As he stepped down, he saw DeRicci sigh heavily. She was only a few meters behind him. She glanced at the ship’s closed airlock door, then at him, apparently deciding she didn’t want to enter the yacht alone.

She came down the steps backwards, holding the railing as if she were coming down a ladder. That confirmed it for him; DeRicci rarely handled the Port. They had gotten this assignment because of his experience, not hers.

She reached the main level and looked around. He tried to imagine the dock from her perspective. The dome was metallic, without a view of space the way Armstrong had. The artificial lighting was on the lowest regulation setting, so dim that shadows and darkness predominated.

“Lights full,” Flint said, adding the command code. The lights rose.

The dock had been built for vessels one hundred times the size of the yacht. The yacht seemed small inside the enclosed area—more like a robotic repair vehicle than a spacefaring one.

Flint walked toward it, noting that the name—normally painted in large letters on the side—had been taken off. The lack of a name was a violation of most interstellar regulations. He suspected they would find more violations before they were done.

“You recording this?” DeRicci asked.

Flint started. He hadn’t even thought to make a video record. “I figured HazMat did.”

“We need our own.” DeRicci approached the hull as Flint pressed one of the chips on his uniform sleeve. He would record everything from now on.

She was looking at a scorch mark that ran along the side, but she didn’t touch it.

“Weapons fire?” she asked, and she was checking with him. She hadn’t done that before either.

He nodded. He moved closer. The yacht had an expensive blast coating, but not enough to protect it from whatever had shot at it.

“Looks like only a few shots,” he said. “Powerful, but I’d guess they were meant as warning shots.”

“How old are they?”

“Fresh enough.” Flint touched the hull. It was smooth against his fingers. “It looks like the blast coating got reapplied regularly. This hull should be pitted from space debris—happens to all ships over time, no matter how well shielded they are—and this one isn’t.”

“No name either,” DeRicci said.

Flint nodded. He’d worked his way to the back of the ship. “And no registration. All the required parts codes have been removed as well.”

Parts codes were placed on all pieces of material for ships made on Earth or to be used at human-run ports. There were a thousand ways to identify a ship aside from its own registration, and judging by the cursory examination, this ship had gotten rid of all of them.

“Someone spent a lot of money to keep this ship in working order and its identity secret,” DeRicci said.

“Looks like it didn’t work,” Flint said.

“You can’t be sure that whoever killed the people inside this ship knew who they were,” DeRicci said.

As he rounded the side of the ship, he stopped. “Noelle,” he said, calling her over. He usually didn’t use her first name. She came quickly, just like he expected her to.

She frowned at the ship. “What is it?”

“The escape pods are gone. The hatches are still open.”

“So someone escaped,” DeRicci said.

Flint nodded. “And no one inside the ship closed the hatch doors. If I were under attack, I’d make sure those hatches closed quickly. One good shot in them could do serious damage to the ship.”

“Why wouldn’t they close automatically?” DeRicci asked.

“Redundant technology,” Flint said. “This ship is a medium-level yacht, not high end. The logic is that if you have to abandon ship, the ship is lost. No need to protect it or its cargo any longer.”

“Two pods for a ship this size?”

“Regulation. If you had the suggested-size crew and passengers, everyone should be able to fit into the pods. It would be a tight squeeze, and you’d better pray someone would find you pretty fast, but you’d be all right for a few days.”

“So we should be looking for some pods.”

“We’ll put Traffic on it. We also should ask anyone who comes into the docks in the next two days if they’ve seen or picked up pods.”

DeRicci nodded. “That’s a break then.”

“Maybe.” Flint glanced at her. “If our killers used the pods, they might have had another ship waiting nearby.”

“If they had another ship, why would they use the pods?” DeRicci asked.

“Good point.” Flint scanned the rest of the hull and found nothing except a few more blast marks.

“You ready to go in?” DeRicci asked.

“You coming with me?” Flint asked.

DeRicci nodded. “I worry when HazMat says we have a mess. They usually concentrate on their job, not ours.”

That had been Flint’s sense of it too. He took the stairs two at a time and stepped back into the tunnel. The tunnel’s mouth attached to the yacht’s main entrance. Before he pressed open the outer door, he paused.

“What?” DeRicci asked. She had stopped right beside him.

She was actually letting him take the lead instead of trying to intimidate him or browbeat him. She really had to feel out of her depth here.

“This ship was attached to something else, and just recently.” He pointed to the scrape marks beside the door. “Something which isn’t regulation, and couldn’t latch onto the ship properly.”

“Are you saying they were at a different port?”

He shook his head. “If I had to guess, I’d say they were boarded.”

DeRicci’s mouth formed a thin line. “In that case, jurisdiction—”

“Is ours. The bodies ended up here.”

She nodded. “Make sure you get that on the recording.”

He already had. He palmed open the outside door. The HazMat team had left the interior door closed, just the way the airlock would have been in space.

“Damn HazMat,” DeRicci said, looking down. “God knows how much evidence they trampled here.”

He hadn’t even thought of that. He still had a lot to learn as a detective. As a former space cop, he saw HazMat as a godsend, not a potential problem. “We should have bagged their boots.”

“We’ll get them if we need them.”

Flint moved his arm, making sure he got everything in the tiny airlock recorded. There was so much about investigation that he didn’t know.

“What’re you waiting for?” DeRicci asked, and he realized she expected him to open the door.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed the main door open.

The smell hit him first. Urine, blood, feces, and the beginnings of decomposition. In all his years, he hadn’t smelt anything that foul.

“They turned off the environmental systems,” he said, through the hand he’d put over his face.

“HazMat?”

“No, whoever was here last. Maybe the folks who left on the escape pods.” He got a small swatch of Protectocloth from his pocket, and stretched the cloth to fit over his nose and mouth. The cloth was just like HazMat gear, only smaller and for emergencies. He considered this stench an emergency.

“Not all of the systems are off,” DeRicci said. “I recognize that smell. That’s decomposing flesh, which can only happen in an oxygen-rich environment.”

“But the system should have scrubbed this smell out of everything,” he said, “and it’s still here.”

“Even if the bodies are here?”

“On a yacht like this, bad smells get engineered away. Even if the bodies are still here.”

DeRicci had put a Protectocloth over her face too. “Let’s stick together.”

They stepped into the crew work area. A control panel flashed to Flint’s left. Just beyond it, the door to the cockpit stood open. A small galley faced him, and beyond it, a corridor. To his right was another door, and it was closed. It probably led to the passenger section.

The cockpit would hold the answers, but DeRicci had opened the passenger door.

“Flint,” she said.

He stepped beside her. Blood bathed this compartment, rising up along the walls, spattering the ceiling and the floor. The gravity had been on when the killings occurred and it stayed on throughout the entire flight.

The bodies were staked side by side, the yacht seats moved to accommodate the sprawl. One of the bodies was female, the other male, both on their backs, both spread-eagled. They had been eviscerated—probably while they were alive, judging by the blood—and their intestines looped into a familiar oval pattern.

“A Disty vengeance killing,” DeRicci said.

Even Flint recognized that, although he’d never seen such bodies in person before. Only in class, as one of the many things he had to learn about alien killings.

“Only I’ve never seen one done in space before.” She frowned, crouched. “Everything else is textbook.”

“Doesn’t that make it suspicious?” he asked.

She shook her head. “The Disty are precise about this sort of thing. They have to be.”

He shuddered. Disty vengeance killings were rare on the Moon. They happened most often on Mars, which the Disty more or less ran. If this was a Disty vengeance killing, there would be nothing he could do. Under hundreds of interstellar laws, under even more multicultural agreements between the member species, cultural practices like vengeance killings were allowed.

Although Flint was a new detective, he knew how this case would run. He and DeRicci would check the victims’ DNA to see if they had outstanding Disty warrants against them, and if they did, then the case would be closed. According to the various agreements, no crime would have been committed.

Even sending the yacht to the Moon made sense in this instance. The bodies had to be accounted for. The Disty used vengeance killings as a deterrent. They would want everyone to know that these people, whoever they had been, had died because they had done something wrong.

The problem would come if the Disty hadn’t targeted these victims. If this was, in fact, a real crime made to look like a Disty killing.

But if that were the case, why send the yacht toward the Moon?

“The third body has to be somewhere else,” DeRicci said.

“I vote for the cockpit,” Flint said. “We have to go there anyway. I want to find out when those pods were ejected.”

DeRicci glanced at him. “The pods don’t fit, do they?”

“Not with a Disty vengeance killing. Unless we find the pods later, with the occupants either gone or dead in just this way.” Flint stepped over blood spatter and through the main doors back into the crew area. No blood here. But if a Disty ship had boarded the yacht in flight and the Disty had committed the killings, it would be logical to find some trace in this room

The control panel still blinked as he went past. He paused to look at it. Someone had bypassed the controls to open this door, and the system was still complaining about it—weakly. There should have been a vocal component to the complaint, which should have continued no matter how long ago the breach had occurred.

He made a mental note of the override, then headed into the cockpit—and stopped. The third body faced him. It was not spread-eagled like the others. It had been strapped to the command chair. The evisceration was the same, but the rest of it—the rest of it was much worse.

Flint turned away, and found DeRicci watching him.

“She was the one they wanted.” DeRicci’s voice was flat. “The others, they were merely warnings, something that happened to the helpers. She was the one they blamed the most.”

“If this was the Disty.”

She nodded. “If.”

But she sounded convinced. Maybe he was too. He wasn’t certain.

“I was going to check the logs, the databases. I was going to—”

“You can’t,” DeRicci said, stating the obvious. No one could get into that room without disturbing the body—or what the body had become. “We have to wait for the forensics team. The bodies have to be removed now. Then you can check the logs.”

Flint took a deep breath. He had been thinking like a space cop again. Check the logs, find out what happened, let the team on the ground worry about the next step.

Only now he was the team on the ground—and, with a mess like this, he doubted that the two space cops who’d found this ship had even tried to download the logs.

“If we’re lucky,” DeRicci said, “the DNA will come back positive and you won’t have to go in there at all.”

“Oh, but I will,” he said.

She looked at him as if she didn’t understand him.

He gave her a cool smile. “We have to know who released the pods and why. There might be more people out there, more people the Disty are after.”

“It’s not our problem,” DeRicci said. “If the Disty are doing vengeance killings, then they have every right to hunt those people down.”

“And if these people are only peripherally involved?” he asked.

“You know the law, Miles,” she said. “We stay out of it.”

He knew the law. He’d just never faced it before. So far, his cases had involved humans committing crimes against humans. He always knew he would deal with the various alien cultures that existed in this part of the universe, but he hadn’t expected to so soon.

“I’d read about these things,” he said, “but I had no idea how gruesome they really are.”

Something in her face caught him, a softening, a look behind the tough woman she always pretended to be. “You’ll have to get used to it. The Disty are one of our nearest neighbors and closest allies. We never complain about them, no matter how hideous their sense of justice is.”

Then she walked away, heading back toward the passenger cabin, effectively ending the conversation.

Flint stared at the body scattered around the cockpit. That desecrated corpse had been a human being not too long ago. He shook his head, willing the thought away. He had learned, after his daughter died, how to keep his emotions and his intellect separate from each other. That was one of the reasons he’d been promoted to detective.

He didn’t dare lose that detachment at his first gruesome crime scene. He studied the carnage until it became a puzzle, needing to be solved, and then, like DeRicci, he left.

 

 

Three

 

Ekaterina leaned back on the plush seat of the space yacht. The man who had brought her here, the man who said his name wasn’t Russell even though that was what she should call him, had told her to get some rest.

But she couldn’t rest, any more than she could eat. She kept playing that last encounter with Simon over and over again in her mind. That would be the last time they would ever see each other. The last time they dared see each other, and it hadn’t gone the way she wanted it to. If she had the chance to do it her way, she would have told him everything, sworn him to secrecy, and apologized for getting involved with him in the first place.

But she hadn’t done that. She couldn’t do that. Even if he promised never to reveal a thing she had told him, he might not be able to live up to that promise.

One small sentence would be enough of a slip to get a Tracker following her. And a Tracker would report to the Rev.

The passenger section of the yacht was big. It seated ten in the front where she sat now, and the seats folded out into single-bed-sized cots. The back boasted four suites: bedroom, living quarters, and bathroom designed, she supposed, for the Disappeared who paid some sort of premium.

Or perhaps the suites were standard on a yacht of this type. She had no idea and no one to ask. She had expected to be one of many on this yacht, all of them going to new lives in new places. New identities, new jobs, new ways of approaching the world. She had imagined conversations—not about what they’d done or why they believed they needed to be Disappeared, but about their fears, their hopes, their dreams.

She still had dreams. There was only one she stifled, and that was the one about returning to her old life, to San Francisco and to Simon.

She had to be someone else now. It was the only way she, and the people she loved, would survive.

Ekaterina stood and paced, as she had been doing ever since the yacht left Earth orbit. It felt odd to be sitting in the passenger section of a ship this small. When she was in college, she’d made money running orbital ferries during the summer. She took tourists around Earth, and showed them the sites from orbit. The job got old after a while, but handling the controls didn’t.

Maybe the folks at Disappearance Incorporated would use her piloting experience and give her a similar job on another world. Maybe she would have a chance to try something she had dreamed of doing. She knew she wouldn’t be practicing law any more—that would be too obvious—but perhaps she would work in a related field.

She touched the petals in her pocket. She was surprised they were still there. She had expected to be searched when she got to the space port, but she hadn’t been.

The man who wasn’t Russell had walked her inside as if nothing were unusual. They had gone through side doors that led to a series of private yachts. She had never taken a private space flight before. All of her previous trips had been on commercial flights, and the regulations there were strict. Everyone was searched. Only so much extra weight could go on board, and everything was examined for its potential harm to the flight.

Days before she left home, she had put a laser pistol in her purse. She had thought she might have to use it before she Disappeared, but no one had approached her. Even as she was finishing her final preparations for her Disappearance, she had left the pistol in her purse. The people at Disappearance Inc had told her to trust no one—not even the people who were to take her from place to place.

The laser pistol, miraculously, made it out of Earth’s orbit, something that never would have happened on any other flight.

If she had known that those regulations would be so lax, she would have brought a few other things. Her engagement ring, maybe, or a tiny silver pin that had been made by a Maakestad ancestor in the seventeenth century.

One or two tiny things to remind her of home.

Of course, that was precisely what she wasn’t supposed to do. Precisely what, the administrator at Disappearance Inc had told her, most people who got caught did wrong. They couldn’t let go of their past. They couldn’t let go of their own identities.

They got caught because they didn’t understand how important it was to be reborn as someone else. No baggage, no past life, nothing except the person Disappearance Inc told them to be.

You have to forget who you were, the administrator said. And you have to become someone new.

Ekaterina could do that. She had known it from that first conversation with Disappearance Inc three weeks ago. She might have known it even before she approached them.

But it still felt odd to be stripped down to her core self. Nothing would remain the same, not her job, not her name and maybe, if the company felt it necessary, not her face. The only thing she would have would be her memories, and she wouldn’t be able to share them with anyone. Ever.

The door to the crew section slid open. The woman who told Ekaterina to call her Jenny entered. She was slender, her features as flat as Russell’s. Everyone she had met at Disappearance Inc had been so enhanced that they no longer looked like the person they had once been.

It made Ekaterina uneasy.

The door slid closed. Jenny handed Ekaterina a hand-held. Ekaterina hadn’t been linked for nearly a week. She usually wore security chips that linked her to her house’s system, her office, and the net. She had never gone for the full package—total linkage all the time—because she had valued her privacy.

But not being linked now reminded her how alone she was. She couldn’t tap a chip and record a conversation, and she couldn’t—with a silent command—have House call emergency services. If Ekaterina were attacked now, she’d have to fend off the attacker on her own—no police, no instant 911 recording, no way of getting immediate help.

The hand-held felt hard against her fingers. She hadn’t used one since she had gone to college on a scholarship, long before she could afford security chips and total linkage.

“What’s this?” she asked without looking at the screen.

“Your new identity,” Jenny said. “Read it, understand it, and prepare for it. We’ll give you links and chips before you leave the yacht. Some of this information will be downloaded to you for easy access, but the rest has to come naturally. You have to make this fit.”

Ekaterina nodded. She’d heard the speech before. It seemed to be standard at Disappearance Inc.

“We used all the forms you filled out and your psych profile.” Jenny’s voice was soft. She had clearly given this speech a lot. “Remember, we can’t change anything. That’s not our job here. This is the best DI could do. It’s up to you to make it work.”

She gave Ekaterina a false smile and stood up.

“Have you read this?” Ekaterina asked.

“It’s coded,” Jenny said. “You should have gotten the password before you left.”

Ekaterina had, but she wanted to double-check Jenny’s answer.

“So we’re nearly there,” Ekaterina said.

Jenny shrugged. “I was instructed to give you the hand-held at this point in the journey. Where we are and where we’re going is not something I know much about.”

She left the passenger area. Ekaterina watched the door close behind her. What would it be like to ferry people from place to place, not knowing where you were going or why? Did people like Jenny take the job for the excitement, the possibility that something might go wrong, and she might have to use her expensive security training? Or did she take it for the opportunity to travel? Or were her reasons more altruistic than that? Was she one of the political ones, the ones who believed that alien laws should not be able to target humans, no matter what the humans had done?

Once, Ekaterina would have said that she had no opinion on that matter. She did now that it was too late.

She settled into the yacht’s lounge chair and tapped the hand-held, twisting so that her body protected the screen as she punched in the code.

Her new name was Greta Palmer. She stared at it for a long time, trying mentally to make it work. All her life, her name had had a lot of syllables, had been almost a language in itself. Greta Palmer seemed too simple, too plain to be her name. To be anyone’s name. It sounded made up to her.

Ekaterina supposed any name would sound like that. If it were too fancy, she would worry that it sounded contrived. Too simple obviously bothered her as well.

But she couldn’t hide with any variation on her name. She had to accept the new one.

Only she wished they had let her pick it out herself.

She read her new bio with interest. Greta was the same age Ekaterina was, born on the Moon just like she had been and moved to Earth at age three just like she had, and had gone to high school in San Francisco. After that, their bios diverged. Greta had stayed on Earth, not even taking an orbital until she accepted her new job. Ekaterina had traveled to the outer reaches of explored space. Her early training had included guaranteed jobs on three different alien-owned colonies, including Revnata, where she had gotten in trouble.

Once she had planned on being a lawyer who was certified to argue in front of the multicultural tribunals. Instead, she was running from one of their rulings.

She hated the irony.

With a sigh, Ekaterina shifted position, and continued to read. Her new job was recycling textiles. She froze. Textile recycling meant taking ruined fabrics, like torn blankets and ripped upholstery, and remaking them into something cheap and functional. The job was menial and labor intensive. It was about as far from lawyering as a person could get. Intelligence was not an asset at a job like this. It was a liability.

Surely there was a mistake. Maybe when she got to her destination, she would be reassigned. Or maybe they thought she could hide at a textile plant for a few years, since it would be the very last place the Rev would look.

But would it really be a good hiding place? She was an educated woman, whose accent, whose simple sentence structure, made it clear that she had spent years studying with some of the galaxy’s greatest minds. Hiding that would be difficult, and might even be impossible.

Surely Disappearance Inc would have thought of that.

Maybe they had. Maybe it was buried deeper in the information they had just given her. Or maybe she had the wrong idea about plant workers. Maybe her objections had more to do with her own prejudices than with her abilities or lack of them.

The idea of working in a textile recycling plant, with fibers floating in the air, not to mention the filth that had to be cleaned off other people’s possessions, made her queasy. She hadn’t had a job like that ever.

Her palms were damp. She rubbed them on her pants and looked at the rest of the profile.

The textile plant was in Von, a town she’d never heard of. She would have her own apartment—a one bedroom, company-provided by the plant, and if she managed to save enough money, she might be able to buy a place of her own.

She ran a hand over her face. Money would be a problem. She had been short on funds before, but she’d always had the family money in a trust. This time, she would have no backup. When she got the company-owned apartment, they would own her. She would need the job and the terrible pay, and she would have to begin all over again.

For the very first time, the reality of the change she was undertaking was sinking in. Before she had understood the loss, but not the future. She hadn’t thought about where she was going because she had no idea. She had decided not to fantasize about her new life because she hadn’t wanted to be disappointed.

But she was disappointed anyway.

An impoverished thirty-five year old woman whose skills only let her do manual labor, who lived in an unknown town.

She frowned, wondering where the town was. There was nothing about her upcoming destination in the bio. It had to be somewhere else in the material Jenny had given her.

Or perhaps it was in the hand-held’s database. Most computers carried the same basic information—dictionaries of over 1000 main languages, food compatibility charts for human/alien physiologies, and, of course, maps. She searched the hand-held for a moment, wondering if its memory had been purged of non-relevant information, and finally found what she was searching for.

The map function. She typed in Von and added that it had to be in territory that could be occupied by humans. She only got one hit.

It was on Mars.

She stared at the map for the longest time. The blinking feature showed that Von was in Mars’ northernmost region, above the Arctic Circle. Obviously the town was big enough to have its own dome, but not really large enough to be well known.

And that bothered her, because she’d been to Mars and she knew what this place would look like.

Mars was run by the Disty, small creatures with large heads, large eyes, and narrow bodies. They hated the feel of wide open spaces and built their own colonies like rats’ warrens. When they took over human colonies, the way they had on Mars, they added corridors and false ceilings and narrow little passageways, so the entire place felt claustrophobic.

She could get used to that. She knew there was a possibility she would go somewhere that wasn’t controlled by humans but where humans were tolerated. Initially, she’d even thought she’d go to Mars because the Disty and the Rev did not get along. They avoided each other’s colonies and were barred from each other’s home worlds.

Then she had done some research. Both the Disty and the Rev had ventured into each other’s colonies in the past few years searching for Disappeareds. Because the Disty and Rev had similar missions, they respected each other’s warrants and often helped each other find Disappeareds on each other’s land.

Both alien species had caught on to the game that the Disappearance services were playing, and were foiling them on the ground. Instead of hiding Rev fugitives in Disty territory and vice versa, the good Disappearance services were now going for less obvious hiding places.

Her stomach twisted. She thought she had done the right research. According to everything she’d looked for, all the people she’d talked with, Disappearance Inc was the best Disappearance service in the known universe.

Why then would it hide her in a place the Rev surely would look?

She put the hand-held on her lap. Maybe the administrators at DI had misunderstood. After all, she hadn’t written down whom she was running from. She’d told as few people as required by DI’s business practices, but she never told them what she had done because, they said, it wasn’t relevant, and she told only a few of them who she was hiding from since they had to know to keep her out of certain places.

Like Mars.

Unless things had changed even more than she realized. Maybe their research was more up to date than hers.

But, judging by the personality profile they pulled, the job they gave her, and the place they had chosen to hide her, their research was shoddy. Either that, or they had confused her with another client.

She picked up the hand-held again, and scanned the rest of the information. Her name wasn’t in it, of course, but that bio suggested that this was hers.

Ekaterina stood, her restlessness growing. Damn them for not allowing her to bring anything along. She couldn’t even carry a hardcopy of her agreement with DI because that was like carrying a piece of identification. She wasn’t linked, so she couldn’t used the password they had given her to access the information.

Had they planned it this way? If so, why? So that she wouldn’t complain? Were the reports of satisfied customers made up?

She had no idea.

Her stomach turned again, that queasy feeling remaining. The Rev never gave up searching for fugitives from their justice system. If she got caught, she’d spend the rest of her natural life in a Rev penal colony.

She’d seen Rev penal colonies. Working in a textile recycling plant in a Disty-run Mars town would seem like heaven in comparison.

She would do it if she had to. The problem was that she didn’t feel this identity would hide her.

But she had no idea what her options were. She tried to remember the text of the agreement she’d signed. Essentially, she was putting her life into DI’s hands. It was, she knew, the only way to survive.

She hadn’t even asked the lawyerly question: what if they were wrong? She had done what all naïve clients did. Once she had completed her research, she had trusted blindly.

Of course, she had been panicked at the time. Her case had been denied by the Eighth Multicultural Tribunal. The Rev warrant, issued so many years ago, stood, and the Rev would come for her immediately.

An old friend who clerked at the Tribunal had sent her a warning before the Tribunal made their announcement. She had no idea how long she had until the Tribunal spoke, but she knew it wouldn’t be long.

So she had done what she could, researching and finding a Disappearance service. But she hadn’t been as thorough as she should have been.

That was incredibly clear to her now.

She’d allowed her panic over being discovered to override her natural caution. She still had funds. Accessing them would be tricky, but it could be done. She could hire a different Disappearance service if she had to.

And she just might have to.

At least there was one clause in her agreement with DI that she had memorized. She had done that on purpose, worried that if she hadn’t, she would be stuck in just this situation.

She could terminate at any time.

DI wouldn’t be liable for her safety, of course, but they were required to take her to a settlement. They couldn’t just eject her in space and hope that she survived.

She swallowed hard. Firing DI was as much of a risk as disappearing in the first place. But she had to trust her own instincts. Maybe she could browbeat the crew into taking her to DI’s nearest headquarters and they could rerun her profile. Maybe they could see what went wrong in the San Francisco offices and repair it.

She shut off the hand-held and slipped it into her purse. Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and walked to the door separating the passenger section from the crew areas.

The door wasn’t locked as it was supposed to be. Clearly Jenny had forgotten to reseal it when she had brought out the hand-held. Either that or the crew hadn’t sealed it at all, thinking one slight female passenger wouldn’t be a problem, no matter what she had done.

Ekaterina pushed the door aside and walked through. She had never been in this part of the crew area. The airlock was to her left, a small galley to her right. The carpet was still plush here, although it got thinner closer to the cockpit.

The theory was that the crew didn’t need luxury, not like the passengers on the space yacht did.

No one sat in the galley. She walked toward the cockpit, her boots making no sound as she moved.

Voices filtered toward her. She couldn’t make out the words, but the tone sounded official.

As she peered through the cockpit door, she froze. Through the main portal, she could see the orange and blue stripes of a Rev penal ship.

“We’ll be evacuating the yacht in thirty Earth minutes,” the pilot was saying through the interlink. He was clearly talking to the Rev. “She won’t know we’re gone. Give it another thirty minutes and you can board.”

Jenny was sitting beside him, her hands behind her head, as if she were watching a vid. The co-pilot was on the other side, tapping something into the ship’s system.

The pilot continued. “I’ll be picking up the ship from impound in a week or so. If there’s permanent damage, I’m coming after you.”

Ekaterina’s mouth was dry. The pilot was selling her to the Rev. He would make more money from them than he would as a contract employee of DI. Supposedly, services like DI screened-out people like him.

But not in this case.

The Rev would take her and imprison her for life. Few humans survived in a Rev penal colony for more than ten years. The work alone was too much for the human frame. That didn’t count the xenophobia, the way that Rev inmates treated someone who was completely different.

She eased away from the door. No one in the cockpit had seen her.

She had been given a slight chance to save herself.

Now she had to figure out how to use it.

 

 

Four

 

As they stepped out of the ship’s tunnel, DeRicci’s hand-held beeped. She cursed and took it out of her pocket. She punched the screen, information already blinking. “As if we don’t have enough to do. We’ve got another.”

“Where?” he asked.

“Terminal 5,” she said, more to herself than him. Terminal 5, while technically next door to Terminal 4, was a healthy hike from where they were. “What the hell’s that one again?”

“Suspected criminal activity by a ship’s owner.”

DeRicci glanced at him. “You’re useful in the docks.”

“I’m useful most of the time,” he said.

There was nothing else on the hand-held. Just the order to report to a ship tunnel in Terminal 5. Someone would meet them and explain the situation.

“I hope to hell this isn’t something complicated,” DeRicci said as she headed back to Terminal 4’s main entry. “I want to put this Disty thing to bed.”

Flint was feeling uncomfortable. Detectives got one, maybe two cases down here per week total. Now he and DeRicci were getting two in one day.

“We’re better off taking the train between terminals,” Flint said. “If we walk, we’ll lose that time advantage Headquarters wants us to have.”

DeRicci frowned. She clearly didn’t like his new outspokenness. But he was tired of letting her run things. She was out of her depth in the Port. He was going to take over this partnership whether she liked it or not.

He led her to the interior train system. It had been designed to link the various terminals after the Port had taken over the bulk of space traffic control for the Moon. At that point, the Port had mushroomed into something with unwalkable distances. Fifty interior trains ran at set times. Only one ran all the way around the Port, and it was usually crowded.

Flint took DeRicci to the tracks that worked for the shuttle between Terminals 4 and 5. Because the locals weren’t advertised in the Port, they served mostly as crew shuttles. If tourists had to go from one terminal to another, they took the main, crowded train.

The train pulled up, its dark glass sides reflecting the lights in the waiting area. The doors slid open silently and three workers in blue uniforms got off. Then Flint walked on. DeRicci followed.

There were no seats. Passengers held onto bars and metal hand rings. The tougher passengers stood, feet braced, in the center of the car. It took skill and talent to ride the trains that way without getting hurt.

Flint had learned how to do it, but hadn’t enjoyed it. He gripped the rail now, and DeRicci did the same. They had the car to themselves.

The moment the door closed, the train sped backwards in the direction it had just come. After a moment, it reached its top speed, moving at a velocity faster than the high speed trains that ran between the various domes littering the Moon.

DeRicci looked startled and reached her other hand around the metal bar. The train slowed, and then, smoothly, stopped. Even though the movement was even, Flint watched DeRicci’s body yank forward then back. She glared at him as if the effect of the train were all his fault.

He supposed, in an odd way, it was. He should have warned her about the speed. These trains had been designed for efficiency, not for comfort. Back in the days when the interior train system was first built, Armstrong Dome had been known for its efficiency.

A lot had changed since then.

The doors opened. DeRicci touched a hand to her short hair, as if the swift ride had created a wind that ruffled her.

“You okay?” he asked.

“You did that to torture me.”

“Maybe that was a secondary reason,” he said with a smile. To his surprise, she smiled back. The expression surprised him.

He had been blaming her for her unwillingness to give him a chance, when he had once treated his new partners in Traffic the same way. DeRicci had gone through five new partners in five years, all of them beginning detectives. Perhaps it wasn’t so odd that she expected him to prove himself before she started to give him the benefit of the doubt.

They emerged from the train station into Terminal 5. It was set up the same as Terminal 4. If a person ignored the signage, the only way to tell the difference between the two terminals was to look at the ships docked nearby. Terminal 5 was nearly full, and none of its tunnels had yellow warning lights.

A slender man, his dark skin shiny with sweat, stopped in front of them. He had his arms wrapped around a stack of warning signs, hugging them to his chest as if they were more important than he was.

“Officers?” he asked.

“Detectives,” DeRicci corrected. She always did that. To her, being called an “officer” was the same as a demotion.

“Detectives.” He bobbed his head and bit his lower lip. “I’m Stefan Newell. I’m in charge of this terminal. I take it you’ve been briefed?”

“We’d only been told to report,” DeRicci said. “We’ve just come off another assignment in Terminal 4.”

“Oh, dear.” Newell glanced at Flint. “I was hoping you would have brought more people with you.”

That caught Flint’s attention. “Why?”

“Because we have an unfolding situation. I told your dispatch that. We need as much help as we can get—”

“We were already at the Port.” DeRicci spoke slowly, as if she were talking to a child. “I’m sure others are on their way.”

“I hope so. I’ll send the distress call again.”

“First,” Flint said, “tell us what we’re dealing with.”

Newell bit his lower lip again, so hard this time that the skin below it turned an odd shade of white. “The border patrol caught a ship leaving Moon orbit. They’re bringing it in.”

“The border police are equipped to handle their own problems,” DeRicci said. “I’m sure—”

“What’s the problem?” Flint asked, not letting her finish. She was going to try to leave, and he had a hunch that decision would have been bad for all of them.

Newell hugged the signs tighter. “It’s a Wygnin ship.”

Flint felt himself grow cold. The Wygnin almost never ventured into human-occupied space. They rarely left Korsve, their home world.

“Definitely a border problem,” DeRicci said. “Come on, Flint. We have a case to finish—”

“Ma’am. Detective. Please.” Despite his words, Newell’s tone had grown harsh. “I’m not handling the Wygnin alone.”

“You’ll have the border patrol.”

“They’ll have their hands full.”

“What’s on the ship?” Flint asked.

“Children. Human children,” Newell said. “And the Wygnin lack the proper warrants.”

Here’s how you order the rest of the book. A trade paper edition is widely available. You can order it from your favorite bookstore (or maybe find it on their shelves)! You can also order the trade paper version from Amazon.com. You can order an electronic copy on Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords or in other e-bookstores.  If you would like an audio version, click here.  You can order a signed copy here.

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8 Comments

  1. Kris,
    A great SF series! Not very many SF novels hit me emotionally as much, especially “Duplicate Effort”. I donated the first three to my local library. Now will need to buy them to keep the series complete.
    Thanks for creating great SF literature.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Chet. I’m so glad you like the series! The next book will be out in the fall. I have to tell you, the reader response has been part of what keeps me going on this. I’m happy that people enjoy reading the series as much as I like writing it. :-)

      Reply
  2. It is by far the best SF/mystery series I know of. It defines us, human beings, in a world that is simply overwhelming – an analogy which stands true to our “real” societies too. I’d say that it is nothing short of the greatest ethnological achievement I’ve seen in Science Fiction. And now, after re-reading this excerpt of the disappeared… I will have to dig my shelves and read them ALL back again. Actually, that’s what I’ve been wanting to do all along!! :D

    Reply
    • Wow. Thank you, Elizabeth. Much appreciated. :-) Now I’ll have to live up to that with future books. Thanks! (There are short stories too and another coming in Analog. Check out the Retrieval Artist website (which I’m still designing) for more info: http://www.retrievalartist.com/?page_id=8)

      Reply
  3. I just finished rereading the series and am waiting excitedly for the next one. I love these books and have recommended them to everyone who will sit still long enough to be told about them. Excellent work. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Stephanie. The newest novella will be out next month in Analog (July/August). It’s a small part of the next book. Thanks for the kind words!

      Reply
  4. Good story, decent writing. I buy few books these days (the classics are free) but this looks to be one.

    Reply
    • Thanks! I hope you enjoy it.

      Reply

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