Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Consequences

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 2011. 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 novels, click here.

This month, I’ve excerpted Consequences, 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. However, the action in this novel does have an impact on the latest books in the series. So if you’ve read them and haven’t read Consequences, now is the time.

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:

A woman dies in the domed city of Armstrong on the Moon. Detective Noelle DeRicci discovers that the victim is a Disappeared—an outlaw in hiding wanted for crimes against an alien civilization. Only DeRicci’s old partner, Retrieval Artist Miles Flint brought the Disappeared home, something he would have only done if he believed the alien government would exonerate her for her crimes.

But Flint and DeRicci are no longer partners; in fact, they’re on opposite sides of the law. Flint can’t tell DeRicci about his client’s role in a war between humans and a mysterious alien race. The Disappeared’s death is only the first volley in an escalation of that war, a war that threatens to engulf the entire solar system.

“Here’s Rusch’s genius: She doesn’t confine herself to the rules of any one genre. She does world-creation and social criticism like the best sci-fi writers; she creates crime stories that would be Best Episodes on Law & Order or CSI; and she creates stories of human relationships that rank her with the finest character writers working today.”
New York Times bestselling author Orson Scott Card

“Rusch mounts hard-boiled noir on an expansive sf background with great panache.”  —Booklist

“Part science fiction, part mystery, and pure enjoyment are the words to describe Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s latest Retrieval Artist novel.…This is a strong murder mystery in an outer space storyline.”  —The Best Reviews

“Mixing interstellar politics and police procedural, Rusch turns out a satisfying SF mystery. Flint’s internal conflicts are deftly portrayed, and the gritty realism of the murder investigation meshes well with the alien setting. This [third] entry in the Retrieval Artist series should please SF and mystery fans alike, and can be read independently.”
RT Book Reviews 

Consequences

A Retrieval Artist Novel

by

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

First published in 2004 by Roc Books 

Published by WMG Publishing

One

Kovac huddled against the edge of the crevasse. Below him, the massive rip in the glacier extended several hundred meters, narrowing as it deepened. He had no idea how deep the crevasse was, but he knew that a fall would kill him.

His white environmental suit, with crampons extended along its surface, clung to the smooth ice, leaving his hands free. One of them clutched the rifle, while the other remained at his side.

His feet dangled over the emptiness below him, but he knew better than to brace them. Too much pressure on the side of the crevasse could cause an avalanche, and then the month he had spent out here, scouting the proper location, would be in vain.

His head barely popped out of the crevasse; only his eyes and nose were exposed to the surface elements. He’d left the helmet off the environmental suit: he didn’t have to worry about the oxygen content of the air, and, he hoped, he wouldn’t be here long enough to expose his skin to the dangers of deep cold.

The part of the glacier in front of him angled downward, and with his far-range vision goggles, he could see the village nearly forty klicks away as if it were right next to him.

The village was laid out on a grid pattern, with buildings made of a local concrete-like substance that could hold up to the valley’s harsh winters. The buildings were white against the green of locally grown plants.

Vehicles weren’t allowed there, so the streets were narrow, except for the market square, which filled every summer with makeshift booths and open tables selling handmade goods and produce, just like humans had done since time immemorial.

At the moment humans did crowd the square. That was the most unusual aspect of this place: the fact that only humans were here. No aliens of any sort visited—and the natives, if there had ever been any—were long gone.

Trieinsf’rd was the farthest Kovac had ever gone on assignment. Nearly two years’ travel outside of Earth Alliance space, Trieinsf’rd was an outsider’s paradise. The planet had been originally settled by a group who had rebelled against the Earth Alliance. Over the years, other colonies sprang up, none of them affiliated with Earth Alliance, and all of them containing people who wanted no contact with outside governments, for whatever reason.

The village below, called Nowhere by the locals, was as far away from anywhere as a person could get. It was in the only habitable valley in the northernmost continent on Trieinsf’rd—a valley that was hundreds of kilometers long and a hundred wide. But to get to Nowhere, a person had to cross three huge mountain ranges, most of them still covered by the glaciers that had carved the valley.

The mountains were so tall that regulation aircars couldn’t cross them, and the glacier was so fragile that most space yachts couldn’t land anywhere near it.

To get here, most people had to rent a specially designed vehicle from one of the towns at the very edge of the first mountain range. Once one of those vehicles got rented, the leasor notified the authorities in Nowhere that someone was coming.

Kovac didn’t want to notify anyone. He had bought his own vehicle off-world and had one of his partners serve as a driver, launching illegally off his space yacht over Trieinsf’rd’s Black Sea. Kovac had flown the vehicle low, landing it in a bowl about four klicks from here, then hiked to the crevasse.

The rifle felt sleek against his hands. The environmental suit sealed around his wrists, leaving his hands untouched by any fabric. He didn’t wear gloves. Instead, he wore two layers of DuraSkin—enough to ensure that he wouldn’t get frostbite, but not enough to interfere with his own delicate nerve endings.

He needed the sense of touch. The rifle was a fragile weapon, built for extreme conditions, and accurate only in the hands of an expert. The slightest thing, from the thickness of fabric to the infinitesimal vibration of a finger, could cause a shot to go wild.

Kovac had worked with rifles most of his career, and knew most of the hazards. Still, other problems could arise without warning, and in cases like this one, where he would only get one chance, he didn’t dare make any errors.

He’d even made the bullets himself, something he had learned to do after the last disastrous job. Because this job was so important, he’d used a combination of water and a lightweight poison to create the pellets. That was the nice thing about ice: the evidence melted.

Not that anyone would be able to trace him. He was, as he had always been, a ghost. But he had learned long ago that there was no such thing as being too careful.

With his free hand, he adjusted the goggles, making certain that the glare from the ice field around him wouldn’t affect his accuracy. He focussed on the doorway that the Tracker had told him about. It was behind a booth selling Earth produce—strawberries, asparagus, red bell peppers, all obviously from a greenhouse.

If the Tracker’s information was correct, the woman would emerge within the next five minutes. She would put a hand over her eyes, shading them from the thin sunlight as she surveyed the area around her. Then she would grab a basket from beside the door and begin her daily shopping.

Worried, yet not worried. Believing, deep down, that she was safe after all, not realizing that she had been found nearly a year before, and watched for six more months before the Tracker even contacted Kovac.

Kovac’s heart pounded harder than usual, and he could feel the chill air sting his face. If she didn’t come soon, he would have to retreat, set up again the next day, hope that his normally reliable source hadn’t failed him for the first time.

Then the door opened. The woman stood inside the threshold, younger than he had expected. Her skin was soft, the color of the sand found on the Atlantic coastline of his childhood. Lines had formed around her brown eyes, but they were laugh lines, which he also hadn’t expected.

Somehow he had thought she would be old and miserable, sorry she had been trapped in this godforsaken place. Sorry for the choices she had made.

She wore a dress made of material so thin that he could see her nipples through the cloth. No protective gear underneath, nothing to shield her from weapons fire. She had obviously adopted the credo of the community, the belief that they were so far away from human settlement that they were safe.

He used the suit’s crawl circuitry to help him move upward. He set the crawl for a decimeter—enough to get his shoulders above the mouth of the crevasse. He had programmed the suit for a fragile ice field and hoped that the suit’s actions would be as delicate as they had been in simulation.

As he rose, his perspective shifted. He was looking down on the village now, his view of the market square like one that a man would have if he stood on a rooftop.

Kovac didn’t like it. He wanted a direct shot, not an angled one.

He waited until the suit finished its climb, then he adjusted the goggles again, but he still couldn’t get the perspective right.

He glanced up, saw nothing except a pale grayish sky—the color Trieinsf’rd’s distant sunlight created as it flowed through the planet’s odd atmosphere. He shuddered, not from the cold, but from the isolation.

He hit the crawl again, and this time eased himself out of the crevasse entirely. He moved away from the opening, and sprawled on the ice field.

Then he lined up as he used to, decades ago, when he trained on Earth using conventional weapons—real rifles shooting real bullets, as they had for hundreds of years. He’d always preferred those weapons, thinking that a man couldn’t truly be a sniper without one.

After he settled, he adjusted the goggles again. His angle was direct, just like he wanted.

Only he had wasted time. She had moved away from the door, mingling in the crowd, beginning her shopping by examining the strawberries at a nearby booth. She held up the little carton, apparently looking to see if any of the berries had been crushed, and as she did so, the little man behind the booth talked with her.

Kovac didn’t know what direction she would move in after she finished with the strawberries. The Tracker’s diagram of her day made it clear that she had only one routine—the one Kovac had just missed when she left the door.

But he didn’t want to hurry. If he hurried, he risked making an even bigger mistake. He risked shooting and missing—warning her, allowing her to escape once again.

She set the strawberries down, shook her head slightly, and turned, facing Kovac, exposing the front of that too-thin dress.

He steadied himself, steadied the rifle, concentrated on being motionless—motionless except for the flick of his right forefinger, the one that controlled the trigger.

He almost didn’t hear the shot. The puff of air, the slight sound vibration as the pointed piece of ice left the rifle and zoomed down the glacier at a velocity even his airglider couldn’t achieve.

Velocity, the strength of the ice, and his aim would cause her death. But he had the poison as a backup: a trace of it in her system, from the outside edges of the bullet, melting from the friction in the air, melting even more as it absorbed her body temperature, would kill her even if the bullet failed.

She moved toward the center of the market, just a millimeter off, a millimeter that he hadn’t anticipated, that he could do nothing about.

Kovac held his breath, watched through the goggles, his finger still wrapped around the rifle’s trigger.

Then she staggered back, raised a hand as if warding off a blow. The hole wasn’t immediately visible, lost in the drab brown of that dress.

People exclaimed around her, going through what looked from this distance like a grim parody of panic.

She hit the wall behind her, hand still raised, and slid to the ground, a red stain leaving a trail on the white concrete.

Kovac let out his breath then. He’d hit her. Whether she died now or later, whether they thought they could save her or not, it didn’t matter. Her life was over.

He had done his job. 

 

Two

 

Miles Flint placed his hand on Carolyn Lahiri’s back as he took her up the stairs toward the private room above the Spacer’s Pub. Her muscles felt rigid, her nerves evident not only in her posture, but in her stiff movements. She was taking quite a risk coming here, and they both knew it, no matter how many assurances he tried to give.

The Spacer’s Pub was only a few blocks from the Port. Flint liked the Pub. It was designed for clandestine meetings. The pub’s upstairs room had one-way windows on all four sides, and it also had no closets, no storage, and no hidden areas. Only one door led into the room, and an open security system allowed guests to monitor the bar below.

Had Flint discovered the room when he worked his previous job with the Armstrong Police Force, he would have had to shut the entire pub down. Now he used the room for important meetings—not all of them, but enough to trust the room’s system as well as he could trust any place outside of his own.

The stairs led to a trapdoor that opened into the room, giving whomever was inside a defensive advantage. As Flint reached the fifth stair from the top, he put a hand on Carolyn’s arm.

“Let me go first,” he said.

She nodded, the nerves he’d felt in her body not evident on her face. Her skin still had the dusting of color it had received from her time in Earth’s sunlight, and the white highlights in her hair, she had once told him, also came from the sun. Those highlights took years off her face, made her seem like she was in her twenties instead of in her mid-fifties.

Flint reached up, unlatched the trapdoor, and eased it back. Then he climbed two stairs at once, popping his head into the private room.

The sheer size always surprised him. The room was hidden under an angled roofline, and he always thought that the floor space should have been smaller. Instead, it stretched almost as far as he could see.

He carefully scanned the walls, the ceiling, and the floor before going all the way into the room. The chairs that line the back wall were empty. He latched the trap door open, then reached down to help Carolyn up the last few steps.

She ignored his hand.

She came up, her chin raised, her dark eyes focused on a point in the distance. Only when she stepped onto the black floor did she look around. Her shoulders relaxed visibly as she saw that the room was exactly what Flint had initially presented to her—a wide-open space, with no places for an assassin to hide.

“They’re not here yet,” she said, her English soft and accented, an affectation she had picked up while on Earth.

“We’re fifteen minutes early,” Flint said. “I wanted to make sure we had time.”

“You wanted to make sure this isn’t a setup.” Carolyn clasped her hands behind her back and walked to one of the one-way windows. She peered down at the street below.

“If it were setup,” Flint said, “I would never have taken your Retrieval in the first place.”

Carolyn was too exposed by the window, even though no one should have been able to see inside this place. People knew the room existed; all someone had to do was shoot out a window, and they could see inside.

Someone determined could attack this place easily.

He and Carolyn were trusting that no one determined still wanted to kill her.

“You need to sit,” Flint said.

She glanced over her shoulder at the open doorway, realized that she had her back to that and her front to a window, something that should have made any long-term Disappeared nervous.

Then she walked to the chairs, her rubber-soled shoes making no sound on the hard plastic floor.

Flint removed a small device from his pocket. He’d had it specially made only a few months before. It located most hidden spying equipment—and constantly updated its programming as new equipment hit the market.

He flicked the device on with his thumb, and then walked around the room, holding the device near the walls, the ceiling, and even the seemingly incorruptible floor. He found nothing, which didn’t surprise him. He’d come here the night before and run the same scan, and then he had done so a few hours ago.

Still, Flint was uneasy. He had been uneasy since he accepted the job to find Carolyn. In his two years as a Retrieval Artist, he had only Retrieved only four Disappeareds. He had found several more—people who had been on the run from various alien governments; who had somehow angered the Earth Alliance; and in one case, a woman who had committed a crime—but, for a variety of reasons, he hadn’t brought the Disappeareds back to the people who had hired him.

Disappeareds went missing on purpose, usually to avoid prosecution or death from any one of fifty alien cultures. Most of the Disappeared were guilty of the crimes they’d been accused of, but by human standards, those crimes were insignificant and often harmless.

Unfortunately, the Earth Alliance had agreed to treaties with all of these alien governments. The point of the treaties was to facilitate trade, but the treaties also agreed to legal arrangements. Included in those were the instances in which humans could be prosecuted for crimes against the alien cultures.

The Multicultural Tribunals handled those cases. Humans sat on the tribunals as well as aliens, but usually the human judge only had one vote. So, often, humans were sentenced to death for crimes that would, on Earth, not have been considered crimes at all.

Carolyn Lahiri’s crime was a bit more complicated. She fought in a war on a non-aligned world and because of her actions had to Disappear. The government of that world had recently pardoned all of its war criminals and its Disappeareds.

Flint had investigated, and the pardons seemed legitimate. Still, after he had found Carolyn Lahiri, he warned her that returning to the family that raised her before she went off to fight in a foreign war might still result in her death.

She had been willing to take the risk, and now she was here, beside him in this pub, waiting to see parents she hadn’t acknowledged for most of her life.

Flint moved to the center of the room and checked the laser pistol he wore on his hip, making certain that the charge was high. He also checked the smaller pistol he had given Carolyn.

She smiled at him as she watched him run the diagnostic.

“I already did that,” she said.

He had suspected as much, but he wasn’t going to rely on her. Yes, she had managed thirty years as a Disappeared, and another six years before that as a guerrilla fighter. But he had learned in his years as a police officer, first with Space Traffic Control and then as a detective, that people didn’t always do things that were in their own best interest.

Flint handed her the small pistol, and watched her stick it in her purse. Then he paced the room again.

He hadn’t told her a number of things about this meeting. He hadn’t told her that he would smuggle her out of the building if need be, and take her to a new Disappearance service if he thought anything was going wrong. He also hadn’t told her about the crystal knife he had tucked in his ankle boot, or about the tracking device he had placed on her back as he helped her up the stairs—just in case Carolyn Lahiri proved as untrustworthy as the propagandists said she was.

So far, in all of Flint’s dealings with her, she had seemed like the woman she had masqueraded as. She had enjoyed life as a small-time jazz musician in New Orleans, under the name Claire Taylor. Her income came not from the music, but from the jazz bar she had owned in that city’s renowned French Quarter.

Flint had even asked Carolyn how she had enjoyed the quiet of her new life as compared with the violence of her old one, and she had given him a slow smile.

Anyone who thinks N’awlins is quiet, she had said to him, obviously hasn’t spent much time here.

And he hadn’t. He had spent more time in Florida and Mississippi than he had in New Orleans, following strange trails that had led him in circles before he realized he was following plants that someone had left decades before. Part of his confusion came from the fact that he had never investigated on Earth before, and he had found it a startling place, much more diverse than anything had prepared him for.

It took him nearly two weeks to get over his culture shock before he was able to do effective work. None of the other places he had visited in the course of his investigations had disconcerted him as much as his bright blue and green ancestral homeland, a place he had once thought he would visit only in his dreams.

His wristwatch pinged. Five minutes until Carolyn’s parents arrived. Flint positioned himself at the windows, then activated his own spyware—equipment that he had installed earlier that afternoon. He would be able to monitor the streets around the pub, the pub itself, and the stairs.

He set a small disk on the windowsill, then pressed the disk’s center. His collapsible screen rose, showing all the angles of his various surveillance cameras in tiny squares on the screen itself.

Carolyn folded her hands in her lap, but she kept her feet firmly on the floor. Most people would have tucked them behind the chair or crossed their legs, but Carolyn clearly knew that she might have to move quickly and that each precious second counted.

She shifted slightly in her chair. “I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here.”

Flint was wondering if she felt that way. She hadn’t seen her parents in more than thirty-five years. That fact had operated both as a red flag and as encouragement for him. The red flag seemed logical: who would risk everything for a reunion after all this time? Yet the encouragement came from another place.

He would give anything to see his daughter again—even for five minutes—and she hadn’t been an adult when she died. She hadn’t even spoken one clear sentence yet when the day worker had shaken her to death. And yet, he would give up everything he had to hold her in his arms one last time.

“You knew the situation when you agreed to come with me,” Flint said.

Carolyn nodded. “I know. It’s just—seconds away from seeing them—I feel eighteen again.”

“As idealistic?” Flint asked.

She smiled at him. Her smile was soft and added faint lines to her face. “No, not as idealistic. I no longer think that’s possible.”

“You don’t have to go with them, you know.” Flint had told her that before. She knew her options. She could have chosen to remain in New Orleans, although he hadn’t recommended it. As careful as he was, he had left a trail, and someone else might find her. She also could have come in now that her record was clear, and started a new life anywhere else.

He got a sense she hadn’t been happy in New Orleans. Her marriage to a man named Alan Taylor had ended badly, and she no longer got to see her son. She wanted to escape more than she wanted to come here.

Flint crossed his arms and studied the screens, focusing on the aircars that passed on the streets below. The pub was nearly empty.

He took a deep breath—and suddenly realized he was as nervous as Carolyn.

Maybe more so, because he knew all the things that could go wrong. 

 

Three

 

Six months earlier, Flint lay beneath the desk on the uneven permaplastic floor of his office. He studied the circuitry built into the desk’s back panels. He hadn’t seen anything like it before, and he had worked in computer systems before he became a cop. Over the years he had studied hard to keep his knowledge current, and still he was stunned.

Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to set up redundancies upon redundancies in his networks.

The office was hot, and his shirt stuck to his chest. He didn’t want to command the environmental controls to boost the temperatures because he had the system partly disassembled.

He had bought the office, complete with all of its extremely sophisticated systems, from a Retrieval Artist named Paloma. In exchange for a large sum of money, Paloma had trained Flint in the esoteric art of Retrieving, as well as in all of the pitfalls that could trap someone who was operating just barely outside the law.

He had made a number of mistakes in his first years in business. The worst had been keeping Paloma’s computer systems intact. He had trusted her not to have back doors and bugs throughout the network, and hadn’t done more than a cursory check in all of the systems she had left him.

She hadn’t set up any bugs or traces that he could locate, but she had made several mistakes in her own systems, mistakes that he would have avoided had he set up his own. She had also taken all of her records—claiming confidentiality—and, during a case six months before, he had found ghosts of those records remaining in the system.

He had had two cases in these last six months, and they had prevented him from finishing the overhaul. But now he had no cases—not an uncommon occurrence for a Retrieval Artist—so he figured he would have time to finish the last of the changes.

The computer system beeped and Flint cursed. Someone had set off his perimeter alarm. The alarm was probably nothing—it went off whenever anyone got within a half a block of his office. But he had to check. He didn’t want to be surprised by a client with most of his systems down.

He pushed himself out from under the desk. Then he climbed to his knees, put a hand on the desktop, and stared at the screen that had risen when the alarm went off.

An older couple stood near a row of shops on the far side of his block. They wore clothing at least twenty years out of date. They stood side by side, staring at their surroundings as if stunned.

Flint’s office was in Old Armstrong, the original settlement of the colony of Armstrong, and even though most of the buildings had been designated historic sites, few outsiders wandered in this direction.

This section of the dome was ancient, and the filters didn’t work properly. The original permaplastic used to create the roads had long since broken down, and the main feature of this section of town was dust. Add to that the dilapidated buildings—most of which housed shady businesses like pawn shops and low-rent lawyers—and that led to little traffic, at least from people who had no reason to come to the area.

A seemingly defenseless couple had no reason to come to this part of Armstrong. Flint hoped they had come to see one of the other businesses. Still, Flint slicked back his hair, hoping he didn’t look too disreputable. He hadn’t had his hair cut in some time, and the curls, which always bothered him, now haloed his too-thin face. His clothes were covered with dust from the floor.

He brushed himself off and sat down at his desk.

“Computer,” he said, “system override. Reestablish command structure alpha. And reset the environmental controls. It’s getting damn hot in here.”

The computer beeped a response, and Flint sighed. The beeps would have to go as well. He would have to save his work, then reset everything just because Flint thought there was a thirty percent chance the older couple would come to his door.

He pulled out the new keyboard that he had just finished installing two days ago. He used to prefer voice commands and touch screens. But Paloma had taught him caution: voice commands could be overheard and compromised, and touch screens gave a hacker who ventured into the office a virtual map of the ways to break into the system.

He tapped a special key three times, and got a 360-degree view of the neighborhood. Except for the older couple, no one was on the street.

He sighed. They were clearly making their way to his office.

In one corner of the screen, he froze the frame on the couple’s faces, then had the system search for identification. Paloma had left Flint with a system that recognized most of the registered faces in Armstrong, and he had recently hacked into the police database to get the classified faces as well.

It took only a moment for the system to identify these two: Mimi and Caleb Lahiri, two of Armstrong’s most upstanding citizens. Mimi Lahiri was a well-known surgeon at Armstrong Unity Hospital. She often traveled all over the Moon, doing work on difficult patients and teaching at the various medical schools scattered throughout the domed communities.

Her husband, Caleb Lahiri, had spent the last two decades of his career working as a traveling judge in the Multicultural Tribunal system. Most of the judges in the Multicultural Tribunals were assigned a particular circuit, but forty judges from different alien races acted as traveling judges, moving from circuit to circuit, theoretically bringing new insights into the various areas.

Lahiri had retired nearly a year before, but he kept his hand in, writing articles and speaking about Multicultural Law.

The Lahiris stopped outside his door. Judge Lahiri peered at the tiny sign that announced Flint’s job, but not his name. Lahiri’s face had a cragginess that didn’t look natural, possibly the result of enhancements.

His wife’s face was unenhanced, even though, as a surgeon, she could have undergone the procedures for free. Her features were delicate, her skin webbed with tiny lines. But her eyes were sharp; Flint had a hunch they missed little.

She glanced at her husband and he nodded. Then she reached for the doorknob.

Flint touched a second key, unlatching the door. Then he pressed a button, sending his screens down into the desk, so that the Lahiris didn’t know he had been watching them.

He grabbed another shirt from his desk drawer, and was in the process of changing when the door opened. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the Lahiris enter. They both seemed startled as their links shut off—Flint’s system automatically severed any contacts to the outside—but Judge Lahiri recovered quicker than his wife did.

Of course he did. The Tribunals themselves required the participants to be unlinked during the proceedings. He was used to the internal silence.

Flint slipped on the new shirt, leaving it untucked. Then he turned toward the couple. Dr. Lahiri was tapping the tiny chips on the back of her right hand, trying to regain the signal. Finally, her husband put his hand over hers.

No one said hello. The three of them studied each other. Flint had an entire spiel he usually ran through with new clients, but Judge Lahiri would have had experience with Retrieval Artists through his job. The usual methods of talking to new clients wouldn’t work with him.

“The sign out front says Retrieval Artist, Judge, not Tracker.” Flint kept his tone dry, but polite. He wanted Judge Lahiri to know what he was up against.

“I can read,” Judge Lahiri said.

“I don’t need the test,” Flint said. “I’ve already dealt with two undercover representatives of the Earth Alliance, and I’ll tell you what I told them. I used to be a police officer. I understand the law. I don’t always agree with it, but I still see my job as working for the good of society. So I’ll do my best to act within the law, even when the law is unjust.”

Judge Lahiri clapped his hands together slowly. “Bravo. That statement wouldn’t hold up in court, but I can see how it got the intergalactics off your back.”

“Then you can also see that you’re not needed here. I’m being monitored. I do the best I can. I don’t need any more evaluations.”

“We’re not here to evaluate you,” Dr. Lahiri said. “We’ve come about our daughter.”

“Mimi.” Judge Lahiri’s voice held a note of caution. Flint could almost imagine the conversation they had before they got to his office: Mimi, I’ve worked with these types before. Let me do the talking.

“Find someone else,” Flint said. “I don’t work with officers of the court.”

“You won’t be breaking the law if you find Carolyn,” Dr. Lahiri said. “She’s been pardoned.”

That caught Flint’s attention, even though he didn’t want it to. He glanced at Judge Lahiri. The judge’s expression was a mixture of annoyance and relief—annoyance at his wife for not following some protocol that he wanted followed, and relief that the situation was in front of Flint.

The judge might have been a good actor. It would be a good scam—bringing a judge into Flint’s office to have him do some illegal tracing on a “pardoned” Disappeared, only to learn that the Disappeared hadn’t been pardoned at all.

“You realize,” Flint said, “that I don’t accept cases on the basis of one meeting. I’ll check, double-check, and triple-check everything you tell me. Then I’ll dig into your backgrounds and I’ll find all the dirt that exists. You’ll pay me for that work, by the way, and it won’t be cheap. If I decide you’re being honest with me, then I’ll take your case. Or not. It might not be something I believe that I’ll be able to help you with. In that case, I’ll keep the research fee and send you on your way.”

“I know how Retrieval Artists work,” Judge Lahiri said.

“From your legal experience,” Flint said. “But if you’re as pure as your title says you are, you’ve never worked with Retrieval Artists, only Trackers. And we’re different from them. Trackers will use any means possible to bring a Disappeared back to face their legal charges or to serve their sentences. I might find your daughter, decide that her circumstances are too precarious to entrust to you, and never reveal her whereabouts to anyone—including the people I occasionally work for.”

“You mean you might be successful, and she still won’t come home?” Dr. Lahiri asked.

“That’s right,” Flint said. “I don’t guarantee anything except my fees. You should know that hiring me automatically puts a Disappeared in danger. Many of the Disappeared have successfully escaped their former lives. Except in the most egregious cases, the governments can’t afford Trackers to look for each Disappeared. So most get away with starting over.”

Judge Lahiri was nodding. Dr. Lahiri watched Flint closely, as if she could verify his truthfulness just by the look in his eyes. He took his dirty shirt off the desk and stuck it in the now-empty desk drawer.

“The minute I start searching for a Disappeared,” Flint said, “I expose that person to networks all over the known universe. My interest might arouse someone else’s interest. A Tracker could piggyback on my work, find the Disappeared, and gain a finders fee for the effort—automatically bringing a once-safe Disappeared back to face their past.”

“I thought Retrieval Artists were too cautious to let a Tracker piggyback on them,” Dr. Lahiri said.

“We are cautious,” Flint said. “I would do my best to protect your—daughter, is it?—but that doesn’t guarantee my success. Most courts have blanket orders that allow the tracing of any query about a Disappeared. My innocent queries might restart an investigation that’s long dead.”

“It shouldn’t matter,” Dr. Lahiri said. “Our Carolyn’s been pardoned.”

She spoke with such conviction that Flint felt his interest rise. He made a point of keeping eye contact with her, avoiding contact with the judge.

“Do all the parties involved know of the pardon?” Flint asked.

“What does that mean?” Dr. Lahiri again looked at her husband. As well known as she was for surgery, she clearly felt out of her depth in the legal realm.

“He wants to know if all the notifications have been sent to the various agencies, revoking our daughter’s criminal status,” Judge Lahiri said.

“More or less.” Flint let his voice grow harsher. The nice thing about his job—the thing most people did not understand—was that he didn’t need the work. A past case had left him independently wealthy, and he didn’t ever have to work again.

Although he wasn’t the kind of man who could spend the rest of his life pursuing pleasure. He would work, but only on cases that intrigued him.

“There’s nothing more,” the judge said.

“Actually, there is,” Flint said. “Depending on your daughter’s crime—”

That word made Dr. Lahiri wince.

“—she could be on the watch lists of Trackers, assassins, various alien groups, many of whom do not believe in pardons, even if the pardons are issued by a Multicultural Tribunal. There are aliens who believe that vengeance is the highest form of justice, and they will ignore pardons, even though their government recognizes them. So, Judge and Dr. Lahiri, even though the law may say your daughter is free to come home, it still might not be prudent for her to do so.”

The judge’s mouth was set in a thin line. He apparently didn’t like to be contradicted.

Flint sat in his chair, the only one in the room.

“Maybe we should discuss this.” Dr. Lahiri leaned toward her husband. She spoke so softly that Flint suspected her words were for Judge Lahiri alone. “I had no idea this could be so dangerous to Carolyn.”

“It’s not.” Judge Lahiri spoke in a normal tone of voice. He didn’t even look at his wife, clearly dismissing her comments. He looked at Flint. “My daughter’s case doesn’t deal with aliens. She got involved in a war—a human conflict—and the war’s over. The exiles have been pardoned. Everything’s done.”

Flint shook his head slightly. “Wars are rarely over, particularly human ones. They often continue for centuries, with lulls. You haven’t convinced me that your desire to find your daughter will protect her safety.”

“She may not know that she’s been pardoned,” the judge said, ignoring Flint’s last point.

“If she was part of a war, and things have changed, she knows,” Flint said. “She might be enjoying her new life. She might not want to come home. Have you thought of that?”

Dr. Lahiri squared her shoulders as if she were steeling herself to talk with Flint. Then she turned around.

“She doesn’t know she’s welcome here,” Dr. Lahiri said. “That’s the problem. She doesn’t know we want her back.”

Her gray-green eyes had tears in them. Flint clenched his own fists, careful to keep them below the desk. He didn’t want this couple to know he had emotions, let alone understand that his emotions could be tapped.

“When she left for Etae, she was a teenager. A dumb, idealistic teenager who thought she could save people who didn’t even know how to save themselves.” Dr. Lahiri paused for breath, but neither Flint nor Judge Lahiri interrupted her. “She probably got that from us. Caleb and I, we believe in doing good works. We believe that one person can make a difference, and we’ve both acted on it. Carolyn saw that and she applied it incorrectly. She thought fighting on the side of the rebels in Etae was the right thing.”

Flint frowned. He knew very little about Etae. The conflict on that faraway world had seemed unimportant to him, and difficult to follow as well, since the fighting had gone on for decades. All he remembered about the Etaen wars was that they had been bloody and expensive.

He thought it curious that an Armstrong native would fight in a conflict that seemed to have nothing to do with the Moon or the Earth Alliance.

“She was young,” Judge Lahiri was saying, “and although youth is not a defensive in a court of law, it is a factor we sometimes consider in making judgements. She has had decades to reflect on her actions. She might regret them. She might want to start again.”

“Or she might still believe everything she did when she was a young girl,” Flint said. “It sounds like you didn’t part on the best of terms. Why are you searching for her now?”

The judge and the doctor looked at each other, a perfect moment of silent communication that Flint remembered enjoying with his ex-wife before his daughter’s death. He made himself take a deep breath, trying to keep his own memories out of this. The longing for intimacy that he usually kept suppressed couldn’t come to the fore, not right now. Otherwise, he would envy the Lahiris relationship and might fail to see the flaws in it or in their arguments.

“Our son died,” Judge Lahiri said softly. “Last year. Killed himself. We’d been estranged from him too. We weren’t the best parents.”

Flint’s eyes narrowed. His fists remained hidden and clenched. The thought that he was being manipulated rose again. Dead children—of any age—were one of the few emotional hooks that people could grab him with.

“We were terrible parents.” The tears had worked their way into Dr. Lahiri’s voice. “Judgmental and harsh and demanding. And selfish. We never gave up our careers, worked too hard, and rarely saw the children. And when we did, we were trying to make them into people they weren’t. They tried so hard to impress us. I think that’s why Carolyn went to Etae. I’m convinced—”

Her voice broke. She swallowed hard. Judge Lahiri put a hand on her shoulder and she moved away from him.

Flint found himself wondering if they both had been harsh and judgmental or if only one of them had. And if the apparent intimacy between them came from closeness or years of being together or was simply a façade.

“You want her back for you.” Flint made his voice deliberately harsh. “You want a second—no, a third—chance. You want to get rid of the guilt you feel over her disappearance and the guilt you feel over your son’s death. You’re being selfish again, risking her life to make yourselves feel better.”

The judge’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms. But Dr. Lahiri nodded.

“We just want to see her one last time, to let her know that we love her.” Dr. Lahiri’s voice grew stronger. “And if we can’t see her, if she won’t come back, then we’d like you to tell her that. And it is for us, but maybe it’s for her too. Maybe she’d want this. She’s older now. She might have changed.”

“And become someone you’d like,” Flint said.

“That’s enough,” the judge said.

“No,” Flint snapped. “It’s not enough. I don’t take work like this. This is precisely the kind of thing that costs innocent lives. Go home. Get counseling, talk to your religious leader, express your guilt to your friends. Leave your daughter alone. She’s obviously made her choice.”

The judge raised his head slightly, a movement designed to intimidate. It made him look down his nose at Flint. But Flint didn’t flinch. Instead he waited.

Finally, the judge tapped his wife’s arm—an imperial command—and left.

But Dr. Lahiri didn’t move. She stared at Flint as if she couldn’t believe he had spoken like that, a single tear running down her cheek.

“I believe you,” she whispered. “I don’t want to harm my daughter.”

Then leave, Flint thought, but this he didn’t speak out loud. He liked the doctor more than he had liked her husband, and he was beginning to suspect that she had less to do with her children’s difficult lives than the judge had.

Flint resisted the urge to press the screens up so that he could see what the judge was doing. Instead, Flint waited Dr. Lahiri out.

“If I give you a message to take to my daughter, just a note, an apology, really, would you do it?”

“Dr. Lahiri—”

“After you do all the research, of course, and decide whether or not to take the case. I wouldn’t want you to put her in danger just because we’re…”

She waved her hands as if words failed her. Then she shook her head.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Flint said gently. “The initial research alone could put her in danger.”

Dr. Lahiri bit her lower lip. Then she glanced at the door. It didn’t open. She took a step closer to Flint’s desk.

“That’s why you upset my husband so,” she said. “You see, he thought because of his legal experience, he knew how to find a Disappeared.”

Flint felt a shiver run down his back. “He’s already started the research?”

She nodded. “If you turn my links on, I can download it to you—”

“I don’t let any outside systems touch mine,” Flint said. His suspicions remained, but if Dr. Lahiri spoke the truth, then she and her husband had just made matters worse for the daughter they claimed to care about. He could reverse some of that; he could plant false information, set up incorrect trails. If nothing else, he could protect the girl from the arrogance of her family.

Dr. Lahiri rubbed her links again. “I suppose I could get you hard copies—”

“No,” Flint said. “You can download everything to a blind box.”

He grabbed a small plastic card from his desktop. He had dozens of these cards, some with monetary links embedded in them, others with chips that opened an information node.

He handed her one that opened an information node.

“I’m not agreeing to anything,” he said as she took the card from him.

But he was one step closer. Still, if Dr. Lahiri was telling the truth, then it didn’t matter whether he did the preliminary research. The dangers had already started. He might be able to reverse the problem without even leaving Armstrong.

“What else do we have to do?” Dr. Lahiri asked, clinging to the card as if it were a lifeline.

Flint handed her a second card. “I need a retainer of two million credits. Deposit it into this account. I won’t begin the research until I get confirmation that the money has arrived.”

She nodded.

“If I decide not to take the case, the retainer is all that this will cost you. If I decide to take it, you will pay my expenses at the end of each week, and you’ll also pay me an additional fee each week. This investigation will cost you a lot of money. Once we agree to work together, I can terminate at any time. You cannot terminate at all. If you cut off the funds, I stop working—even if I leave a wide-open trail to your daughter. Is that clear?”

Dr. Lahiri’s breath caught. A lot of customers left right there, as they should. The investigation was outrageously expensive—or at least, Flint used to think so until Paloma reminded him that they were gambling with the life of a Disappeared and maybe even with the lives of the Disappeared’s new family and friends. Looked at in that way, sometimes Flint felt like the sums he quoted weren’t enough.

After a moment, Dr. Lahiri sighed. “It’s clear.”

She tapped both cards against her hand, then glanced at the door again. Flint wondered if she would tell her husband that she had hired Flint or if she was supposed to stay, to use her motherly wiles to convince him to take the case.

He would investigate the Lahiris first, before he ever looked into the daughter. If they weren’t on the up-and-up, he would repair whatever damage the father had done, and quit, keeping the retainer.

“What do I do,” Dr. Lahiri said softly, as if she thought someone could overhear them, “if my husband’s efforts get Carolyn to contact us?”

“First, you make sure your husband stops whatever he’s doing,” Flint said. “He may have a superficial knowledge of my job, and that’s just enough to get everyone in trouble.”

Dr. Lahiri nodded.

“Second, you don’t contact me. I’ll contact you, in everything. But if it’s an emergency, and you need me, you deposit two hundred and seventy-one credits into the account I just gave you. That number is a code, and it’ll flag me. I’ll know to get in touch with you.”

She bit her lower lip, then nodded once.

“I thought,” she said, “you know, once the war was over, once she was pardoned, this would be easy. I never expected all this.”

“Your husband should have,” Flint said. “He deals with large conflicts all the time. He knows how dangerous this universe has become.”

“Knowing and understanding aren’t the same thing,” Dr Lahiri said, and let herself out of the office.

Flint brought up a screen and watched her walk away.

Judge Lahiri was already gone.

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