Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Extremes

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 in February. 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 the previous nine novels, click here.

This month, I’ve excerpted Extremes, which is a Retrieval Artist novel. You don’t have to have read any of the other novels in the series to enjoy this one.

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:

Booklist calls Extremes “an exemplary futuristic detective thriller.” RT Book Reviews says, “This futuristic tale breaks new ground as a space police procedural and should appeal to science fiction and mystery fans.” But Locus Magazine covers it all: “Extremes is simultaneously thriller, deftly plotted detective story, and SF complete with a form of Mad Scientist. Like the best of those genres, it also features well-drawn characters whose various viewpoints, areas of expertise, moral choices, and personal dilemmas all add to the rich mix.”

A Retrieval Artist dies of a virus, yet his colleague, Miles Flint, believes the death is not an accident. Police detective Noelle DeRicci knows that the death of a young woman in the Moon’s prestigious Extreme Marathon is not an accident. It soon becomes clear that both deaths are connected. Flint and DeRicci find themselves in their own race, one against time and a certain kind of madness that could threaten everything they know and love.

Find out why I09 says Miles Flint is one of the best science fiction detectives ever, why New York Times bestselling writer Orson Scott Card calls the Retrieval Artist series “some of the best science fiction ever written.” Read Extremes.

EXTREMES

A Retrieval Artist Novel

 Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Published by WMG Publishing 2011

Cover Art Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Kort

First Published in 2003 by Roc Books

Prologue

The Earth glowed in front of him, green and blue and white: impossibly beautiful against the blackness of space.

Coburn used the Earth as his marker, his goal, even though it wasn’t. The horizon was so close, and the Earth so large, that he almost felt like he could catch it, then hang it, like a souvenir, on the wall of his apartment.

He followed the designated path on the Moon’s surface, his feet landing in footprints left from previous Moon Marathons. The regolith was packed solid here, the trail as old as time.

He had forgotten what it was like to be alone with himself in a familiar place, the sweat from his body pooling at his feet before his suit recycled it. Earth marathons were not solitary events. Bodies bumped each other, and the narrow quarters always made him claustrophobic.

Here he was on his own, with nothing to break the gray landscape except boulders, craters, and the packed trail.

So he focussed on the Earth, and tried not to listen to his own breathing. The sound screwed up the rhythm of his legs. It had been ten years since he had run a marathon in anything less than one-G. He was used to having the pounding of his feet match the force of his breath.

In.

Out.

In.

But here, on the flat, endless vista outside of Armstrong Dome, he ran with a different rhythm: step, half step, push—or launch, as his coach used to say. Only when Coburn thought of launching off the ground, he wasted energy going up, instead of moving forward.

He had to concentrate on distance and speed, not height. And while that sounded easy in gravity one-sixth of Earth’s, it was not. There were too many things that could literally trip a man up.

The monitor, built into the lower half of his helmet’s tinted visor, told him he had run for six miles, although it felt like much longer. The simulated programs he’d run hadn’t been good enough, and the City of Armstrong did not allow any training runs on the cross-country track.

In theory, no one was supposed to be able to train on the Moon’s surface—suited, in the proper gravity. In practice, a handful of extreme athletes and rebels managed it every year. If they got caught, they faced jail time and disqualification from any off-Earth marathon for life.

Normally Coburn would have taken that risk, but he hadn’t had time. He’d been planning an extreme event on Freexen, and hadn’t even planned to run in this thing until Jane called him back to Armstrong. Their business, Extreme Enterprises, was running into some legal troubles, and she needed his cool head to help her with the fine points.

He signed up for the Moon Marathon when he learned he’d be in Armstrong during the event. And this marathon was turning out to be a lot harder than he had expected.

The first mile had been easy. The area outside Armstrong, like the areas outside any established dome, was almost as tame as the interior of the dome itself. Several established vehicle tracks led to the dome’s exterior services, from the physical plant for each dome section to exterior maintenance and repair.

A lot of private industry also had buildings outside the dome. Some of those buildings housed exterior equipment. Others had their own tiny environments for workers who had to stay outside for weeks at a time.

These businesses and buildings were the real reason no one was allowed to train outside a dome. The potential for sabotage was too great. The only way for a domed environment to survive was for the residents to carefully monitor everyone who had access to the exterior.

Coburn had understood that intellectually. He’d modified his own VR program to compensate for the changes in terrain, so he had trained in the proper conditions.

But he hadn’t been prepared for the subtle things: the way the blackish-gray dirt moved beneath his feet, forcing him to sink to the harder crust beneath; the impact craters too small to show up on any map—some of them no wider than his fist, just wide enough to trip a runner and send him sprawling; the intensity of the sunlight etching everything around him in clean, rigid lines.

Yet this was one of the safest places near any inhabited part of the Moon. The area around Armstrong was mostly flat by Moon standards, but it still contained dips and hillocks and hazards too small to place on any official map. And then there were the tiny alterations in the landscape that occurred because the Moon had no atmosphere to block space debris.

Coburn had read about one runner who had stepped on the sharpened edge of an exploded shuttle, pieces of which had rained on the Sea of Tranquility the month before. The runner severed his foot. His suit, which had been severed along with his foot, depressurized. He didn’t even have time to die from the blood loss. The change in pressure and the loss of oxygen killed him first.

But cases like that were rare. The more common injuries occurred when a runner misjudged a distance—taking the wrong step before a leap up a four-meter rise, for example. Once launched, a runner was committed—there was no atmosphere to beat against, no air or water to slow him down, nothing to create friction or to use to change the trajectory.

Coburn had already seen victims of that miscalculation—good runners, excellent athletes, many of them extremists, who had fallen alongside the track, because they’d landed in an impact crater and broken an ankle or fallen against a tiny rise and ripped open one-half of their environmental suit.

Most suits couldn’t repair damage that great. Coburn’s could, but his had been designed for conditions much more hazardous than this one—races where there were no panic buttons, and no well-worn track covered with generations of boot prints to keep the participants from getting lost.

He was grateful for the suit now. The visor reported the distance to any object up ahead, and it also warned him of potential problems below. Unless he made a careless error, he would make it to the end of the 26.2 miles just fine.

Coburn ran—if this skip-hopping movement he was making could be called running—toward a boulder. As he approached it, he realized it was taller than he was, and six times as wide. Someone had filled in the sides of its impact crater, and the path around it had been smoothed by the footprints of thousands of runners over the life of the marathon.

The path along the right side of the boulder was thinner, not as well traveled as the path along the left. This boulder had been here for at least a hundred years, and it held no surprises. Even the tiny craters on the right side had been mapped.

He approached the boulder faster than he expected, and narrowly missed kicking its outer edge. He veered away from it, focusing on the details of running, the placement of his feet, the way he launched—almost like long jumpers on Earth, only with another jump shortly after the first.

The boulder cast a shadow that darkened part of the trail. He tried not to land there, trying instead to go past it. When he landed, he could finally see beyond the boulder.

He saw something white in his path.

Another fallen runner. Only this one hadn’t crawled off the path like he was supposed to. He was curled, fetal position, as if his injury was somewhere other than his legs and feet.

New footprints on the dirt to the left of the fallen runner suggested that at least ten runners had already gone around him. None of them had stopped to see if the runner was okay. But that was normal. Coburn hadn’t stopped for the other fallen runners either.

However, those fallen runners had been moving. Rocking back and forth as they held broken shinbones, pounding the ground in frustration at the lost dream. A few had been trying to get up as he passed, and a few others were stumbling along the pathside, trying to continue despite the injury.

No one just laid there.

This injury was clearly more serious than the others had been.

He wasn’t going to stop—he would lose precious time—but once he reached the runner, and the visor gave him the location readout, Coburn would contact the Med Alert Team and let them know there was an unconscious runner on the path.

Then the suit came into focus.

It wasn’t white. It was a pale pink with gold strips that glittered in the sunlight. The bottoms of the boots had a familiar lightning pattern, a pattern which matched the one on the bottoms of his boots.

Jane.

She had been about fifth when she left him behind. Having her pass him in a marathon was a normal occurrence. Jane excelled in the run, and her suit, like his, didn’t allow her to lie unconscious for a long period of time. It should have contacted the Med Alert Team directly, rather than leave her here, where at least ten runners had passed her by.

The only way her suit wouldn’t revive her was if it had failed.

Coburn found his breath coming in small gasps. He slowed his loping gait, and altered his trajectory so that he stopped on her right side.

Then he crouched beside her.

Her face was turned toward the regolith, the helmet’s white shell blocking his view of her visor. He had no idea how she had fallen like this—both legs together, arms gathered against her chest.

Jane ran beautifully, even in conditions like these. She should have sprawled, like anyone else, unless she gathered herself into this fetal position to compensate for some kind of pain.

But her suit should have compensated for her by boosting her endorphins, or, if her injuries were severe, medicating her until help arrived.

Medicating her and keeping her conscious.

With one gloved hand, he touched her shoulder. The layers of fabric between them made her seem inhuman. He pushed her shoulder away from him, rocking her back so that he could see her face. One of her hands flopped into the dirt.

Coburn’s mouth was dry. The monitor on the right side of his visor was blinking, cajoling him to breathe regularly and to take a drink before he dehydrated himself.

He ignored it.

Instead, he was staring at Jane’s visor. The sunlight filter was on low, allowing him to see inside. What had been Jane’s face was black and contorted, her beautiful brown eyes bugging out of their sockets.

Coburn’s stomach turned over, and he had to swallow to keep the bile down.

Somehow he managed to find his own panic button, and he pressed it two, three, maybe four times.

There was no reason for the Med Alert Team to hurry, but he wanted them here, now, just in case he hadn’t understood what he was seeing.

Just in case he was wrong.

One

Fifteen days without a case, and Miles Flint was beginning to think he had made a mistake. He wasn’t cut out to be a Retrieval Artist. The solitude was driving him crazy.

Paloma had warned him about this aspect of the business. A good Retrieval Artist—she said—picked cases with caution. Too many of them were fraught with dangers that weren’t immediately obvious.

In fact, the systems she had designed, systems he had bought from her when he bought her business, were set up to give him ways out of a case once he had agreed to it. The worst thing a Retrieval Artist could do was find himself in the middle of a case that would destroy lives.

Flint had thought he was up to the light caseload. His caseload as a detective had been overwhelming, and the idea of being able to pick and chose his jobs appealed to him. He hadn’t thought about the weeks spent sitting alone in his office, waiting for someone or something to come through the door.

The office was no prize, either. It was small, with only his desk at one end, and the door at another. He had a single chair—his own—so that his clients remained uncomfortable when he talked with him. The single chair also meant that he couldn’t find another place to sit when he was at work.

There was a back room, which was well hidden, but it wasn’t as comfortable as the front area. There were two other exits, also well hidden, and storage space in a secret compartment that Paloma had built herself.

The building was made of original colonial permaplastic, and the walls had yellowed over time. The floors tilted and the door appeared to be off-kilter, although it was not.

Even though the building was old, the security system was so advanced that Paloma had had to tutor Flint in its use—and he had once designed hacker-proof programs for a living. Flint had thought he could hack into any security system, until he had encountered Paloma’s. She had modified it in ways that he had never seen done before.

Now the system was his, and he had to keep it as state-of-the-art as possible. It was more difficult than he would have initially imagined.

A large part of his job involved remaining current—on security systems, on the news, on changes in the culture. He believed that if he was abreast of things, he would have less to investigate when he did get a case.

Paloma hadn’t told him this trick—he had figured it out on his own, based on his years with the Armstrong Police. In those days, he had always wanted the extra time to keep up on all the various areas that would help him with his day job. Now that he had the time, he was stir-crazy.

Even his routine didn’t help. He went to a downtown gym in the morning before coming into the office, exercised for an hour, and then walked to work. Most of his human interactions were shallow: ordering from wait staff at various restaurants; conversing with acquaintances from the gym; and nodding at his neighbors as he walked to and from the office every day.

Flint lived alone and hadn’t had more than a casual relationship since his daughter died more than ten years before. He had thought that he liked being solitary—his ex-wife had even accused him of liking his own company better than hers (an accusation which, after his daughter’s death, turned out to be true)—but he was discovering that until the last year, he hadn’t been solitary at all.

He’d had friends at his job, people he saw every day and had real interactions with. He’d also struggled with criminals, and people who had accidentally broken the law. When he had worked for the Armstrong Police, he hadn’t been alone at all, not until he went to his apartment for his four hours of sleep every night.

Now he slept eight hours and no one noticed. He went days without having a conversation about anything deeper than the kind of food he wanted for breakfast. And even though he was doing a lot of studying, he lacked stimulation of the kind that had always fascinated him: finding out what made other people—and aliens, for that matter—act the way that they did.

No wonder other Retrieval Artists took too many cases, or the wrong kinds of cases. The sameness of each and every day was beginning to drive Flint nuts.

Day sixteen looked like it would be no different from the preceding ones. The morning had bled into the afternoon, and Flint still sat behind his desk, reading the day’s news.

The handheld reports contained color graphics that swirled, but he didn’t touch the screen to open them. He found lately that he preferred reading text only; audio, flat vids, holographic reporting, all added a level of noise that distracted him, made him wonder just how much was news and how much was made up.

Perhaps it was the silence. Flats and holographic news all had the audio track, which felt out of place in this office. Paloma had always kept the tiny room quiet. Not even the computer system hummed. Flint could hear the sound of his shoes sliding along the old permaplastic flooring.

A screen opened on his desktop, and he glanced at it. The screen only opened when someone had triggered his perimeter alarm. The perimeter alarm was located half a block away from the office itself. About a dozen times per day the alarm went off, usually showing local residents or tourists.

Old Armstrong attracted a handful of tourists each week, all of whom wanted to see what remained of the initial colony. Most of the initial colony had been rebuilt in Armstrong’s Museum of Moon History, which was part of the City Center downtown. About four blocks of the old buildings survived, however, and tourists came for those.

At this moment, the screen showed a woman striding purposefully toward his office.

Her hair was pulled back, her pointed chin jutted out, her gaze directly on his door. Her clothing was inappropriate for this part of Armstrong; her long coat covered a tight skirt with a slit up the side and her bare legs were already coated with dust. Her shoes were as flimsy as her clothing—the heels high in a fashion sported only by the extremely rich of both sexes—and she wobbled as she walked.

Flint studied the screen, then pressed its right upper corner to zoom in on the woman. She didn’t look familiar, so she wasn’t a resident of this section of Armstrong, but she had walked some distance or she wouldn’t have had dust along her legs.

If she had an aircar, she had parked it a few blocks away, probably where the streets narrowed to the early colonial width.

Flint hit the small button on the front of his desk that slid the keyboard from its pocket. Paloma hadn’t believed in voice recognition or in touch-screens. She thought they were too easily compromised by even the most average of hackers. She preferred a silent keyboard, so that no one could use audio of the clicking to break into her system.

Eventually she convinced Flint that her method was the best. He still missed the convenience of a touch-screen, but the keyboard made him feel as if he had the secrets of the universe at his fingertips—a feeling he had never had before, not even when he had designed computer systems.

Flint tapped a special key three times, and more images appeared on the screen. He got a 360-degree view of the block around his office. More ancient, yellowing permaplastic buildings, dusty streets, and some slapped-together, postcolonial rock homes filled the block.

The only local merchant, owner of a discount grocery selling dry items past their use-by date, stood outside his store, arms crossed. He spent a lot of his time standing like that, looking at the street, as if he were waiting for someone to take him away from his life.

He and the strange woman were the only people visible in Flint’s security perimeter. Still, Flint didn’t like it.

Flint tapped the keyboard again, moving her real-time image into the corner of the screen so that he could watch her current movements. Then he called up all the images of her that he had, from the moment she had arrived in the perimeter until now.

One of the images caught the woman’s face. She wore expensive jeweled frames around her eyes. The jewels seemed bright against her golden skin. Her hair was dark, her chin narrow, and her thin mouth had no lines around it at all, indicating either youth, enhancements, or both.

She had crossed into Flint’s security perimeter and headed straight for the office. Flint backed the images up even farther, caught a glimpse of an aircar, hovering in one of the pay parking spaces near a newer section of dome.

Flint fast-forwarded again, caught the image of the woman’s face, and sent it through the extensive database Paloma had left him. The database contained all the information that Paloma had gathered through her long career—or at least the stuff that she did not consider confidential. It included histories of people she had never encountered as well as histories of people she had; it included as much information about the various known worlds; in short, it included everything Paloma felt relevant to a Retrieval Artist, whether the information was or not.

When Flint put in an image of a human face, what usually came up on the screen was a primary identity—the kind found in news reports and official biographies. Only he wasn’t getting anything on this woman.

And that bothered him. It meant the system would have to delve into government identification records and private company databases to discover who she was. The search would take longer, and probably wouldn’t be completed by the time she knocked.

Another screen went up, and a silent alarm buzzed against Flint’s hip. He had added that alarm so he would know if someone came close to his building. He shut off the hip alarm, powered down all the screens but one, and waited.

The woman paused outside the door. Most people did. Flint liked it that way. The more he could do to discourage a client from hiring him, the better he felt.

Retrieval Artists specialized in finding the Disappeared, people who went missing on purpose, usually to avoid prosecution or death by any one of fifty different alien cultures. The Disappeared were usually guilty of the crimes they’d been accused of, but by human standards, most of those crimes were harmless.

The problem was that the Earth Alliance, in making treaties that allowed trade with various alien cultures, also allowed instances in which humans could be prosecuted for crimes committed against those cultures. Those prosecutions were often brought before one of thirty Multicultural Tribunals. If the human was found guilty, she would be remanded to the offended aliens for punishment.

In many cases, punishment for the simplest crime was death.

Over the years, humans found a way around the Tribunals’ verdicts: the humans disappeared—vanishing under a new identity into the known worlds. Gradually, companies that disappeared people for a fee sprang up, and some of these companies were sponsored by the very corporations that needed trade with the alien cultures.

Helping established criminals disappear was illegal; finding them was a matter for commendation.

Except for Retrieval Artists.

Theoretically, Retrieval Artists did not work for the law. They worked for the Disappeared’s family or for an insurance company who needed the Disappeared to settle a claim or for a variety of other business reasons. Retrieval Artists did not reveal the Disappeared’s location without permission nor did they ever retrieve a Disappeared for a legal proceeding.

If a Retrieval Artist screwed up, more often than not, the Disappeared died.

So discouraging a client was always good. Casual clients did not belong in Flint’s office.

He watched the woman hesitate. She pulled down the frames she wore as decoration around her eyes, and examined the plaque on the wall, which mentioned that the building was an historical landmark. Beneath it was the tiny sign—barely as wide as a standard-issue wrist computer—advertising that a Retrieval Artist worked in the office.

Her eyes had tiny tucks in the lower corners, and her nose was wide in the center, almost blending with her cheekbones. The decorative frames had added structure to her face, accenting the narrow jawline and hiding the flatness of her central features.

This was a woman who knew what made her look good.

Flint glanced at the other section of the remaining screen. No history on her, no identification, not even preliminary.

She raised her hand to knock. He shut down the entry protocols, deciding to listen to what she had to say, but he turned on an added security feature. If she touched anything inside or outside of the office, he would collect a small DNA sample. If he needed to, he would use it to identify her.

Using DNA for ID without the person’s permission was illegal, but he didn’t care. So much of his work since he’d become a Retrieval Artist had been illegal, and he found that bending laws he didn’t like suited him better than enforcing laws he hated.

Her knock was as confident as her walk had been.

“Come in!” Flint called.

She grabbed the door and pushed in, blinking at the interior darkness. A bit of dust swirled in after her—apparently the material of her skirt attracted it, almost like a magnet.

She seemed startled as she walked across the threshold, not just because the eight-by-eight office was so small, but because Flint had just shut down all of her personal links.

Her links had to be subtle. Most people wore them like decorations on the skin, but she didn’t. The links hooked her up to someone or something on the outside, although Flint couldn’t tell who or what.

“If you want to come in here,” Flint said, using the script that Paloma had given him, “you come in alone. No recording, no viewing, and no off-site monitoring.”

The woman blinked at him, almost like someone coming out of a deep sleep. So she was someone who preferred to be linked, who used her links for downloads to keep part of her brain constantly entertained.

People like that bolted when their links were severed. Flint waited for her to leave.

Instead she shut the door, and the lights went up ever so slowly. Flint wanted to see her better.

“You’re Miles Flint?” she asked, still clutching her frames in one hand.

“Yes,” he said, seeing no reason to deny it.

“You’ve taken over Paloma’s service?”

“This used to be her office.” He leaned back, pretending at a relaxation he didn’t feel. He was excited about having a potential client, and he knew that emotion was bad. He would have to proceed with caution. He couldn’t let his enthusiasm get in the way of his judgment.

“But you are a Retrieval Artist too, right?” For the first time, she sounded uncertain.

“Yes,” Flint said.

His computer finally found her identification. From the city courthouse’s database, one used to confirm the ID of lawyers to be admitted into one of the courtrooms.

Astrid Krouch, granted her degree ten years before from Glenn Station University after passing the difficult Armstrong bar on her first try, hired directly out of law school by the large and well-heeled law firm, Wagner, Stuart, and Xendor Ltd. She hadn’t yet appeared in a courtroom, although she’d been to the court many times to do filings for other attorneys.

So she was still at the beginning of her career, a lawyer with a good salary whose entire life was at someone else’s beck and call.

No wonder Flint had trouble finding her. She wasn’t anyone important yet—and that alone put him even more on alert.

“I have a case for you.” She made it sound like a gift.

“Well, that’s good,” Flint said. “I wouldn’t want to think you stumbled in here by mistake.”

She blinked once, as if she were reassessing him, and then smiled. The smile was as artificial as the silk in her suit.

“I work for Wagner, Stuart, and Xendor, Limited. We have a client—”

“Excuse me.” Flint stood up. He decided to play her differently than he played most of his clients. “You look uncomfortable in those shoes. Have my chair.”

He lifted it around his desk and set it in the center of the small room. She looked confused, glancing at the chair, and then glancing at him.

“I really don’t have time, Mr. Flint. I was just going to tell you about our client—”

“Have a seat, Ms. Krouch.”

Her mouth opened, then closed, before opening again. “I didn’t tell you who I was.”

“It’s my business to know everyone who comes through my door,” Flint said, crossing his arms and leaning against the front of his desk.

“You scanned me without my permission? I’m not in any public data bases.” She shook the frames at him. “If you figured out who I am, then you went through illegal sources.”

“Really?” he asked calmly. “You don’t think your office could have notified me of your pending visit?”

Two spots of color rose on her cheeks. “You’re toying with me, aren’t you, Mr. Flint?”

Yes, he wanted to say, and it was remarkably easy. But he didn’t. Instead he shifted slightly against the desk. “Has your office ever used a Retrieval Artist before?”

“Of course,” she said. “In case you didn’t catch my credentials, I work for—”

“I heard you. Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“We have offices all over the known worlds.”

“If you’re that important a law firm,” he said, “then you probably already have a Retrieval Artist or two on retainer, along with your Trackers.”

“We don’t use Trackers, Mr. Flint. We’re a corporation-friendly organization.”

The assumption being that corporations, more than any other business, needed to disappear their employees. Corporations didn’t want the employees caught any more than the employees wanted to get caught, and so the corporations wouldn’t work with Trackers.

Flint had known that assumption was wrong back when he worked as a detective. A lot of times, corporations hired their own Trackers to go after one of their former employees so that person could take the fall for something someone else did.

“But you do have other Retrieval Artists on retainer,” he said.

She shook her head. “Not that I know of.”

Because she was a new attorney, and this was her first visit to a Retrieval Artist. Someone had planned this visit well.

“We have done business with Paloma in the past,” she said.

Flint nodded, waiting.

“I’m sure my superiors thought she was still around,” she said.

He doubted that. He was certain they knew exactly when Paloma quit. He was also certain that they knew exactly how new he was.

Paloma had warned him that he’d get a lot of lawyers, insurance agents, and other people who fronted for Trackers in his first few years of business. These people would have assumed that any new Retrieval Artist was too green to figure out that a Tracker could piggyback on their research and then find a Disappeared.

Eventually the requests from lawyers, insurance agents, and others would become the foundation of his business—the honest group who didn’t hire Trackers. But up front, Paloma had warned, Flint would have a hard time telling the legitimate cases from the manipulative ones.

“Well, she’s not,” Flint said. “Let them know that. Tell them to go to their second choice. I’ve already got enough work.”

Krouch frowned at him, as if she had never heard anyone say they had enough work. “I think you might want to take this case, Mr. Flint. It’s easy and it’s quick and if you’re just starting up, it’ll be good money for you.”

Now she was moving into the financial argument, one he was also insulated from. A year ago he had stumbled into a case that had paid him so much money he would never have to work again.

“Thanks but no thanks,” he said, reaching for the chair she was obviously not going to use. He lifted it over his desk and placed the chair in its usual spot. “I’m not interested.”

“Not interested? But it’s easy.”

“You already said that.” He walked around the desk and sank into the chair. “Believe me, that’s not a selling point.”

“Fast money isn’t a selling point for you?” Apparently she hadn’t run across anyone like that either.

He shook his head. “Easy cases that offer me fast money are precisely the types of cases I avoid.”

“But—”

“Good day, Ms. Krouch,” he said.

She didn’t move. “But—”

“You can leave the office now,” he said.

“I’m—”

“Or,” he said, raising his chin, “I’ll show you out myself.”

She did that odd little open-close thing with her mouth again, only this time, she apparently decided to keep her mouth closed. She spun on one of those uncomfortably high heels and let herself out of his office, shutting the door so hard that the permaplastic shook.

Flint keyed on his security screen. Krouch stood outside, her back to his door, as if she were trying to decide whether or not to come back in. He smiled. She had thought this assignment would be easy. He wondered if it was the first assignment she’d failed for her powerful bosses.

After a moment she stalked away, leaving the perimeter as quickly as she had entered it. He watched her struggle with her skirts for a moment before she turned a corner and disappeared from view of his primary security systems.

Flint leaned back in his chair. Something about this meeting disturbed him. He should have gone back to his reading—after all, he had just rejected the case—but he was too intrigued.

Why had WSX come to him? And why had they sent someone like Krouch, someone whose identity didn’t show up on the traditional image  search?

Were they trying to get him to investigate them? Why would they do that?

The only reason he could think of was that they wanted to use his search as a back-door into his security systems. But there could be a hundred other reasons, and discovering which of them was the truth would take some research.

Flint double-checked his system. So far, no breaches. He set everything on highest alert, so that he would know if anyone tried to access his files.

Then he stood up. He would go to a public-access portal to do his research on Astrid Krouch and WSX. And maybe, just maybe, he would find out what they were up to.

 

Two

Noelle DeRicci reached the edge of the marathon spectators’ area and tugged on the wrist of her environmental suit. The suit, not yet activated and with its hood down, felt hot.

DeRicci’s latest partner, Leif van der Ketting, had parked the aircar in front of the No Parking During Special Event sign, and was struggling to get his environmental suit out of the backseat. Like all of DeRicci’s most recent partners, van der Ketting was a newly minted detective. This would mark his first official case outside of the dome.

Lucky him. He would see this as an adventure, bouncing in the light gravity, wandering around rocks that most Moon residents were forbidden to touch. But the novelty would wear off quickly enoughespecially if the marathon organizers were as uncooperative this time as they had been in the past.

It would take van der Ketting another five minutes to get ready to leave the dome. DeRicci turned away from him and studied the crowd instead.

Several thousand people sat on the bleachers especially set up for the marathon. No spectators were allowed Outside. They had to see most of the race on live feed, just like everyone else. But the bleachers gave them the perfect view of the finish line, and they’d be able to see their favorites stumble acrossor leap across, as was usually the case.

Thousands more spectators watched the feeds from hotel rooms and bars scattered around Armstrong. Those folks hadn’t been able to afford bleacher seats, but they still wanted to be part of the excitement. Armstrong was stuffed with strangersevery hotel room filled, every possible rental jammedand all of them wanted some connection, no matter how small, with the marathon.

DeRicci had never understood why anyone would watch this sport. She appreciated the folks who watched the Armstrong Marathon, held every fall inside the domeit was a novelty to see a pack of dedicated human runners jog through your home neighborhoodbut to sit on hard plastic bleachers for hours, waiting for a runner to break a white paper streamer, seemed like a complete waste of time to her, especially when that runner’s entire body was hidden by an expensive environmental suit.

DeRicci tugged at the pants legs of her cheap environmental suit. She’d put on weight since the last time she’d needed this thing. She hoped the suit would hold.

The suit alone would have made this case a pain in the butt, although DeRicci hated going Outside for any reason. Now she would have to negotiate her way through one of Armstrong’s greatest tourist draws of the year just to investigate a death.

DeRicci had investigated deaths at the Moon Marathon before, back when she was a brand-new detective and the job seemed endlessly fascinating. She’d found an end to the fascination at least ten years ago, and she hadn’t been brand-new in more than twenty years.

She’d been promoted during that time. She was lead detective on most of her cases now. But those promotions were only technical. The kinds of cases she received were the crappy ones, the ones the real detectives with real power managed to avoid.

DeRicci was too mouthy, too independent, and too difficult to work well within the system. It also would have helped if she believed that what she was doing was just: most of the time, she felt worse than the criminals she pursued.

The crowd was subdued, watching their own personal feeds, waiting for the lead runners to come into view. Obviously no one had been told about the deathbut then, that was standard procedure.

Deaths at the Moon Marathon had become less commonone every five years or sobut they still happened. And they rarely got reported. Usually they were listed in the statistics part of the annual account as a footnote, and almost always, according to that footnote, the death was caused by the runner’s error, certainly not by anything the marathon organizers had done.

Van der Ketting finally joined her. He was a short, slim man, barely coming up to her shoulder. When DeRicci had first seen him, she had asked the chief of the First Detective Unit, Andrea Gumiela, how he’d managed to pass the physical exams.

Gumiela had grinned at DeRicci. He’s a lot stronger than he looks.

DeRicci had hoped so. She hadn’t seen any evidence of it. And it still disconcerted her that van der Ketting was shorter than she was. She was one of the shortest women on the force.

“How the hell do we get Outside without calling attention to ourselves?” van der Ketting asked, parroting the words Gumiela used when she had given them the assignment.

“Trust me,” DeRicci said. “The organizers aren’t going to allow the crowd to figure out what we’re doing.”

She checked his suit as if she were his mother making certain he was dressed properly for the first day of school. His suit was newer than hers, but no better. The material was thin and not nearly as sturdy as it should have been. She checked the hood and the faceplate, looking for rips and finding none.

“Do I pass?” van der Ketting asked.

“You joke,” she said, “but one mistake and you die out there. That’s probably what we’re investigating.”

“My death?” He always seemed to have a quip, especially when he was nervous.

“No,” DeRicci said. “Someone’s mistake.”

She grabbed the evidence kit that she had set on the ground and carried it toward the bleachers. The air smelled of fried pork, slow-cooking sugar candy, and instant chips. Not the healthiest of foods for people who seemed to have an interest in watching healthy athletes test their own limits.

Van der Ketting let her take the lead, as he always did. Just once, DeRicci would like a partner who had more experience than she had, who knew exactly what he was doing and why.

She had a hunch she would never get that. Not without a lot of work cleaning up her reputation.

She headed down the makeshift aisle, weaving underneath the stands. They wobbled a little, unsteady even though the crowd wasn’t doing a lot of moving. She was glad that the stands weren’t set up for more boisterous eventsthen she might be investigating an even worse disaster.

Of course, if something horrible happened, such as the stands caving in, other detectives would investigate, detectives with less seniority, but a lot more clout.

Van der Ketting followed closely behind her. She could hear him breathing through his mouth. He did that when he was nervous, and anything out of theordinary seemed to make him nervous. His nervousness didn’t affect his performance, just his metabolism.

The bleachers narrowed as they got lower, and the aisle seemed even more cramped. The spectators’ area smelled strongly of spilled beer and cheap wine. This part of the bleachers had been set up on a sidewalk, and the surface was sticky. Her boots made small sucking sounds as she walked.

“They’re so quiet,” van der Ketting whispered.

DeRicci nodded. She’d always hated that too. The crowd should have been louder, conversing among themselves about trivial things while they were killing time, or cheering runners even though the runners couldn’t hear the cries. But year after year, the crowd watched in silence. The cheers never started until the first runner appeared on the horizon.

She reached the other end of the bleachers. The front row was only two meters from the dome. This section had been cleaned and some of the panels replaced, so that the view Outside was clear and crisp.

DeRicci stared through it for a moment. The finish line was painted across the surface built for near-dome vehicles. The paper ribbon stretched between two temporary posts. One year the winner came through the posts so hard that he knocked them over, sending them bouncing into the dome itself. The dome hadn’t shattered-it was built to withstand greater forces than thatbut the event scared a lot of spectators, causing quite a scandal.

The deaths and injuries never caused scandals, unless they happened inside the dome.

DeRicci sighed. She wished she could see more of the surface than this small section through the cleaned dome; she loved the Moon’s bleakness, its clean lines and vast expanse of dark.

Two elderly men whose long and lean bodies marked them as former competitors in the Moon Marathon flanked her. Like many athletes, they had eschewed enhancements rather than alter their bodies. As a result, their faces were wrinkled, their hairwhat was left of itthe steely gray of moon rocks.

“Officer?” one of them said softly.

“Detective.” DeRicci always corrected people who called her by the wrong rank. She had worked hard to become a detective, and even though the brass gave her the worst assignments, she still ranked higher than a simple beat officer.

“Come with us,” the man said, ignoring her correction.

She looked for van der Ketting. He walked just behind her, taking in the spectators instead of the view.

The spectators were mostly human. Track-and-field sports didn’t appeal to most of the alien races. The Disty liked tennis, which seemed to match their passion for Ping-Pong, and the Rev liked hockey, boxing, and wrestling, probably because the sports were so violent. But endurance sports seemed to appeal only to the race involved. Humans thought the Pochae’s eating contests as ridiculous as the Pochae found marathoning.

“This way,” the man was saying, hurrying DeRicci and van der Ketting along.

DeRicci had to hurry to keep up with the man in front of her. Finally they reached the far side of the bleachers. A small white bungalow, temporary and movable, had been set up as a gathering place for participants.

The man ushered DeRicci and van der Ketting inside. The other man closed the door behind them. They walked through a small anteroom into the main part of the bungalow.

The live images of the race covered all the walls. On two of them the image tracked a single runner. On the other two walls, tiny images of all the runners aired simultaneously.

Three women and a man, all of them as elderly andgaunt as the two who had found DeRicci, sat in white plastic chairs, watching the race. They seemed oblivious to the newcomers in the room.

“Sorry to hurry you out of there,” the man said to DeRicci. “We didn’t want any of our people asking questions.”

It took her a moment to realize that “our people” meant the spectators, many of whom had paid small fortunes for seats.

He held out a hand. It was bony and bent, looking as used as the rest of him. “I’m Alfred Chaiken, the chair of this year’s race.”

DeRicci took his hand gingerly. “Noelle DeRicci, and my partner, Leif van der Ketting.”

“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Chaiken said. “We were hoping you’d arrive before the first runners crossed the finish line.”

DeRicci glanced at one of the wall-sized images. A runner, wearing an environmental suit with a real helmet, half ran, half jumped past a small group of pointed rocks. She had no idea where he was on the trail, and she had no idea how the people watching their tiny screens knew either.

“How long do we have before the winner arrives?” van der Ketting asked.

DeRicci frowned. With that question, van der Ketting put the investigation on the race’s timetable, not theirs. She would change that later.

“About thirty minutes.” Chaiken glanced at the same wall DeRicci was looking at. The runner looked like all the other runners, face hidden by the helmet’s reflective visor. The runners wore numbers on their fronts, but that and the design of the various suits seemed to be the only differences.

“You can stay out there as long as you need to,” Chaiken was saying to van der Ketting, “but we’d like to get out through the dome as quickly as possible.”

So that the attention wasn’t on the police when the first runner arrived.

“All right,” van der Ketting said. “What do

“First,” DeRicci said, stepping in front of him as if he weren’t there, “tell us what you found.”

Chaiken glanced from her to van der Ketting, then bobbed his head as if suddenly realizing who was in charge. “We didn’t find anything. This is the management team. We stay inside the dome. We have staff outside the dome, including a medical response team.”

“All right,” DeRicci said, pressing a tiny chip inside her suit’s glove. She was going to record this interview after all. “Who found the body?”

“One of our runners, a Mr. Brady Coburn. He has since left the course, even though we offered the opportunity for him to finish the race.”

How kind of them to let him finish. DeRicci wondered if he got a time break for finding one of the more unfortunate contestants.

“There’ve been deaths at this marathon before,” she said.

“It’s one of the risks of participation, although not something that happens as much as it used to,” Chaiken said, and it was clear he had launched into remarks he made often. “We still have a number of injuries every year, but we’ve modified the system so that those injuries rarely result in death.”

“Our runners do sign a release,” said the other man. He was still standing by the door, almost as if he were guarding it, so that DeRicci and van der Ketting couldn’t escape and alert the spectators of the crisis outside the dome.

DeRicci gave the man a sideways look. “You are?”

“Jonathon Lakferd. I’m the assistant chair.”

“You have them release you of all responsibility in their deaths?” DeRicci asked.

“Or for injury.” Lakferd said. “We’re very clear about the risks. We don’t want anyone to be surprised.”

“We also don’t want the negative publicity,” Chaiken said. “We’d prefer it if you don’t speak of this

“How we handle this is the department’s call,” DeRicci said. “If it’s anything like the last few deaths I’ve investigated in the marathon, caused simply by the race itself, you can bet the department won’t say a word.”

She had to struggle to keep the sarcasm from her voice. She hated being asked to do a job, only to have the department ignore her work for political reasons. And the marathon was definitely political.

Chaiken smiled at her, as if his greatest concern was not the dead body out on his track, but the negative publicity that body would generate.

“Where is this Mr. Coburn now?” DeRicci asked.

“He’s in one of our buildings nearby,” Lakferd said. “Would you like to see him?”

“Not yet,” DeRicci said. “How did he notify you?”

“With his panic button,” Chaiken said. “Every runner

“I’m familiar with the system.” DeRicci frowned, staring up at the walls. “The runner who died didn’t contact you?”

“No,” Lakferd said.

“Isn’t that unusual?” DeRicci asked. “Wouldn’t someone with a serious problem push the button?”

“If she could,” Chaiken said. “Sometimes things happen quickly and a situation might not allow it.”

“She?” DeRicci asked. “You know who the victim is?”

Chaiken nodded. “One of our more experienced participants, and a former winner. Her name is Jane Zweig. She runs Extreme Enterprises. You’ve probably heard of them. ‘Extreme sports for the adventurous traveler.’ That’s their tag line.”

DeRicci had heard of them. She had seen their adshappy, thin people with too much time on their hands, swimming in pale red liquid, and climbing gray spirelike mountains in obviously alien places.

She said, “I find it odd that someone who specializes in extreme sports would die on your course. I thought the Moon Marathon went mainstream more than a century ago. The extremes don’t even bother with it.”

Van der Ketting watched the whole proceeding with interest. He caught her hint that he had been out of line and he hadn’t tried to participate since.

“This is still a difficult event.” Lakferd’s thin body seemed to close in on itself. “We have a number of extremes each year. Jane Zweig participated every time she could.”

“Why?” DeRicci asked. “I would think that extremes wouldn’t find this marathon to be a challenge.”

“But it is,” Lakferd said. “As you can see by today’s event.”

He seemed almost buoyed up by it, as if the death had proven the race’s legitimacy yet again. DeRicci gave him a hard look. His face was as grooved as the Moon’s surface. She had taken him for being a naturalsomeone who never had enhancements. But he might have enhanced at least once. If so, he was old enough to have been part of the race when it was an extreme event. Perhaps that meant something to him.

She filed the theory away, just like she filed all other random thoughts away. At this early part of an investigation, she wasn’t going to throw anything out.

Besides, if she could stop the deaths at the Moon Marathon, she’d feel better about it. She’d love it if the city prosecuted the marathon for reckless conduct, but as long as the marathon brought in this many tourists and this much money, she knew that wouldn’t happen.

“My point is,” DeRicci said, “that an extreme athlete should have prepared for all the dangers. I always thought it was the first-timers who died here, not the most experienced people.”

Lakferd shrugged. “She was probably overconfident. That’s usually what happens with these people. They forget to take the normal precautions. A first-timer would risk losing the raceor not concentrate on a personai bestjust to make sure that everything was fine. Someone as experienced as Jane . . . well, you know.”

DeRicci didn’t know, but she was sure she would find out.

“You knew her?” van der Ketting asked Lakferd.

“Of course,” Lakferd said. “Everyone did.”

“And liked her?”

Lakferd frowned. “What does it matter? Her death was accidental. How I felt about her should be irrelevant.”

“We haven’t seen the body yet,” DeRicci said. “We have no idea if her death was accidental.”

Two of the women looked up, as if they had just noticed the conversation. Lakferd bowed his head, revealing a thin spot in the hair over his crown.

“Well, then,” Chaiken said. “Let’s get you to the investigation site.”

DeRicci didn’t move. “How long ago did Mr. Coburn discover the body?”

“Whenever you folks received the call,” Chaiken said.

“How long ago?” DeRicci asked.

“An hour, maybe less. Mr. Coburn was up near the front of the pack. He was the first to call in.”

“You let the race continue?” van der Ketting asked.

DeRicci suppressed a smile. She couldn’t have put that level of shock into her voice even if she wanted to.

“We have no choice, young man,” Chaiken said. No “Detective,” no sign of respect. Just a sharp tone and an even sharper phrase.

DeRicci could feel van der Ketting stir beside her. He was angry, just as she would have been in his place, just as Chaiken wanted him to be.

She put a hand on van der Ketting’s arm. “You didn’t divert?” she asked. “You made the runners go past the body?”

“It’s not as heartless as you make it sound,” Chaiken said. “We don’t dare divert. We don’t have alternate routes. If people went around the body, even more runners would get hurt.”

“How many injuries have you had in the race so far?” DeRicci asked.

Chaiken shrugged. “The usual number.” “Which is?”

“About fifteen up front, nothing really serious,” Lakferd said. “Just serious enough to put the runner out of the race. We expect more as the race continues. Usually around the twenty-mile mark or so, where the average first-timer ‘hits the wall,’ as they used to say. Tired runners are careless runners.”

“How many medical teams do you have?” DeRicci asked.

“Ten,” Lakferd said. “more than enough for a race of this size.”

His sudden defensiveness surprised her. Apparently he didn’t think ten were enough. And if they didn’t have a large enough medical staff, then a few deaths might be due to negligence.

She wondered if that was what he believed had happened to Jane Zweig, if someone hadn’t responded quickly enough. DeRicci would have to get someone on that part of the investigation quickly. She had a hunch the organizers could hide information if they thought it necessary.

Chaiken looked at the clock running near the ceiling of the wall across from the door. His movement was ostentatious, his meaning clear.

This time, DeRicci would let him hustle her out of the building. The short interview she had done with them had raised a lot of questions.

The body would provide the answers.

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