The Moon, shaken by the Anniversary Day tragedies, deals with devastation. The Earth Alliance believes another attack imminent, but no one knows where or when it will strike. Just like no one knows who ordered the attacks in the first place.
The Moon’s chief security office, Noelle DeRicci, does her best to hold the United Domes government together. But Retrieval Artist Miles Flint, dissatisfied with the investigation into the Anniversary Day events, begins an investigation of his own. He builds a coalition of shady operatives, off-the-books detectives, and his own daughter, Talia, in a race against time. A race, he quickly learns, that implicates organizations he trusts—and people he loves.
Blowback: A Retrieval Artist Novel
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
Three Years Ago
Detective Iniko Zagrando hurried through the Port in Valhalla Basin. He had his right hand up to show the bright gold badge on his palm. The badge blared Police business! Move out of the way! in that official genderless voice that seemed ubiquitous on Callisto. He dodged chairs outside of restaurants, passengers pausing to read menus, and the occasional alien, looking lost. A clump of passengers huddled near the ever-changing Departures sign—a sight unusual anywhere else, but common here. New non-sanctioned arrivals on Callisto often had their links automatically severed. Not only did it keep them in the dark, it made them feel helpless.
Aleyd Corporation, which ran and owned Valhalla Basin—all of Callisto, really—liked making people feel helpless.
Zagrando ran to the Earth Alliance departure wing, his breath coming harder than he expected. He was out of shape, despite the mandatory exercise requirements of the Valhalla Police Department. Apparently the damn requirements weren’t as stringent as the idiots in charge of VPD seemed to think.
He wasn’t dressed for this kind of run, either. He was wearing a suit coat, which had the benefit of hiding his laser pistol but was otherwise too hot and constricting, and brand-new shoes whose little nanoparticles had actually attached to his links and warned him to slow down or else the shoes would be ruined by incorrect use.
If he could shut off the shoe cacophony, he would. His links were giving him enough trouble without that.
Instructions had come from all sides: Emergency at the Port. Requesting street patrol backup and Detective Iniko Zagrando. In all his years at the VPD—and that was more than he wanted to contemplate—he had never received a call like this, and certainly not at the Port itself.
He was a detective. He investigated after the crime, not during the crime. And he certainly didn’t get his hands dirty with an in-process emergency unless he happened to stumble on the scene.
Two security guards came out of nowhere to flank him and push away other passengers. The passengers emerging from the various departure wings stopped when they saw him, blinking in surprise and a bit of panic.
Welcome to Valhalla Basin, he thought. It only goes downhill from here.
But of course he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t even if he wanted to, he was breathing so damn hard. How had he let himself go like this? Of course, he knew the answer—misery caused a lot of problems. And because he didn’t want to think about that, and because things would only go downhill from here for him as well, he commanded his VPD bio link to send him a surge of extra energy, something Aleyd happily provided all its public servants—in limited quantities, of course. No sense in having them overuse the energy and collapse in a heap that required massive hospitalization and weeks of recovery.
He had never used his before. Suddenly he felt like he could fly. He left the security guards in the dust.
Oh, man, would he pay for this.
Then he didn’t think about it. He hit the Earth Alliance departure wing, and some Port staff members used their arms to point the way as two more security guards found him.
With the staff members there, he realized that someone should have uploaded an illuminated map straight to his links. He should have seen his path outlined in red (for emergency, of course) over his vision, and he should have been able to follow it blindly. And he did mean blindly. He should have been able to close his eyes and follow the backup voice instructions telling him how many steps to take and how far he had to go before turning a corner.
He didn’t have an automated map and the Port employees knew it. That was why they had shown up. Something was going very wrong.
Although he didn’t know what that something could be. Emergency services links were always the last to shut down. Especially on Valhalla Basin, where Aleyd controlled everything and hated relinquishing that control.
Two more security guards joined him, faster guards, who managed to move passengers aside so that he didn’t have to weave around them. He didn’t have to weave around most of them now anyway.
Either the word had gotten out that he was running through the Earth Alliance wing or that there was some crisis here or maybe, just maybe, someone had actually augmented his emergency beacon so that the obnoxious genderless voice his badge was producing was blaring all over this part of the Port.
Police business! Move out of the way!
Why the hell did the crisis have to happen in the middle of the biggest wing of the Port, farthest from parking and the main entrance? Why the hell wasn’t this thing built for easy access behind the scenes, where it was important?
He’d been in the back areas of this Port, and it was a twisted maze of passages, tunnels, and viewing rooms that allowed him to spy on arrivals. It just didn’t allow him—or anyone in Port security—to get to those arrivals quickly.
Finally, he reached the part of the wing that his private message had directed him to. The Arrivals area for Earth. This part of the Port was festive, with blues, greens, and whites just like the Mother Planet herself. No sense surprising new arrivals from Earth with Callisto’s odd coloring, courtesy of Jupiter, which loomed large over this—the second largest of her moons. No matter how much Valhalla Basin itself tried to look like an Earth city, it didn’t even come close. It was too brown, too red, too uniform. No Earth city had a gigantic red ball looming over it.
Plus, the dome itself—with all its regulated light periods and dark periods—was too uniform, too predictable. Earth had winds and storms and blazing hot sunshine. Earth was about beauty and discomfort.
Valhalla Basin was about sameness.
Just a few meters to go. Two more turns, if he remembered this section right, and he’d be in the holding area for suspect arrivals. He whipped around the first corner, and someone grabbed him around the waist.
He twisted, but someone else caught his right hand and pulled it down, pinning it to the arm holding him. Then a third someone put a hand over his mouth.
All three of the someones pulled him into a room he hadn’t even known existed and slammed the door shut.
Then they let go of him.
“What the hell?!” he said as he turned around.
Three men stood behind him. He recognized only one of them, but that was the important one: Ike Jarvis, Zagrando’s handler for the Earth Alliance Intelligence Service. Zagrando had been undercover with the Valhalla Basin Police for more than a decade.
“What’s going on?” he asked, more calmly than he had a moment ago.
Jarvis took a step forward. He was smaller than the other two men he had brought with him, but not by much. They were brawny guys, probably enhanced for strength and muscle, but they were naturally tall.
Zagrando had been a good street fighter once upon a time, but he suspected those skills were as dormant as his running skills. No wonder these guys had taken him so easily.
“We have to get you out of here,” Jarvis said. His gravelly voice had no hint of urgency, unlike his words.
“Am I blown?” Zagrando had no idea how it could have happened. He’d told very few people about his work with Earth Alliance Intelligence, and none recently.
The last person he had told had been a lawyer from Armstrong, on Earth’s Moon. She represented a young girl whose mother had been kidnapped and who died as a result. The girl—Talia Shindo—had impressed Zagrando so much with her smarts and ability to operate under pressure that he had almost blown his cover with VPD to help her.
But he hadn’t. Her mother’s kidnappers had provided the best lead in his investigation of Aleyd. As he had told the attorney, his work came first.
Still, this moment caught him by surprise.
“No,” Jarvis said.
“If I’m not blown, then what’s going on?” he asked.
“We need you elsewhere,” Jarvis said.
Zagrando shook his head. “I’m finally making progress after a decade in this sterile place, and you want to yank me out?”
“Your progress is why we’re yanking you out. We can’t do any more here—you can’t do any more here—without letting Aleyd know that we’re onto them.” Jarvis had a little half-smile, almost a sneer, that he used when he was trying to smooth over something.
“Listen,” Zagrando said, letting the urgency into his voice. “If I leave here for good, Aleyd will know that I was the one investigating them. People don’t leave Valhalla Basin permanently without Aleyd’s permission.”
Jarvis’s weird half-smile faded. He nodded his head, just once, in acknowledgement. “Believe it or not, I have always read your reports. I know how Aleyd works.”
“Then you know that I can’t leave,” Zagrando said.
“You’ll leave.” Jarvis turned toward the back wall. One of the two men who had come with him touched the side wall, and a panel appeared. Zagrando had seen those before. They were tied to the security personnel at the Port.
The man touched the panel and the back wall became grayish, but clear. The Port’s version of one-way glass. Whoever was in the next room couldn’t see anyone in this room, but Zagrando, Jarvis, and the other two could see what was going on next to them.
And what was going on was a hell of a fight. A vicious fight, with lasers and knives of all things, and nearly a dozen people, many of them Black Fleet from their appearance.
In the middle of it all was Zagrando himself.
Zagrando’s breath caught. The clothing was slightly off, and so was the body. It was a younger version of him, without the added weight and the gone-to-seed muscles. The other Zagrando fought like a demon, but he was outnumbered and alone.
Zagrando had no idea who these people were. Jarvis’s assistant touched the panel again, and the side wall turned gray. Outside it, several street police officers mixed with security guards from the Port and a couple of panicked administrators. They were all trying to get into that room, but something blocked them.
“They don’t know we’re here?” he asked Jarvis.
“They don’t even know the room is here,” Jarvis said. “Earth Alliance Ports have extra rooms just for top secret Earth Alliance business. Without the rooms, the Earth Alliance doesn’t sanction the Port.”
“Even with Aleyd?” Zagrando asked. He’d been around that corporation too long. Like everyone else on Valhalla Basin, he thought of Aleyd as unconquerable.
“Aleyd started as a small company in the Earth Alliance. They were nothing when they built this Port. The rooms have been here twice as long as anyone has been on Callisto, and there is no record of them outside of the Alliance hierarchy. They don’t know about us,” Jarvis said. He hadn’t taken his gaze off the fight.
“So those people are ours?” Zagrando asked, nodding toward the fight. He wasn’t quite looking at it. It felt odd to watch that younger version of him somehow managing to stay on his feet, despite the cuts, slashes, and burns.
“Oh, no.” Jarvis crossed his arms. “The only one in there who is ours is that fast-grow clone of yours.”
Bile rose in Zagrando’s throat. He had forgotten about all the DNA he had donated when he signed on with the Intelligence service. They were allowed to use it to heal him or to fast-grow a clone to get him out of a tight spot.
He swallowed hard, more shaken than he expected to be. “You’re going to let him die.”
“Yes.” Jarvis watched as if he were seeing a flat vid and not an actual fight.
“Good God,” Zagrando said, moving toward the window, actually looking at his clone. Strong, still surviving, fighting as hard as he could to live another few minutes. He was outnumbered, and his only weapon—a laser pistol that was a twin to Zagrando’s—was on the floor by the door.
Outside the other door, the police and guards still struggled to get in. Zagrando knew they wouldn’t, that the men in this room controlled that doorway, controlled that fight.
“We can’t let this continue,” Zagrando said.
Jarvis gave him a sideways look. “This is what he was designed for. Let him fulfill his mission.”
“He has the brain of a three-year-old,” Zagrando said. “He doesn’t understand mission.”
“He doesn’t understand anything except fighting,” Jarvis said. “That’s what he was grown for, that’s what he does. If you don’t die today, then Aleyd will look for you forever.”
“Let them look.” Zagrando hurried the door, then stopped, and doubled back to the control panel. He peered at it. “How do I get in that room?”
“You don’t,” Jarvis said.
Zagrando shoved the assistant aside and hit the controls on the panel. Nothing happened. He used both his VPD clearance and his Earth Alliance clearance and still nothing happened.
“You can’t do this,” Zagrando said. “This is murder.”
“I know how hard it is to see a replica of yourself go through this,” Jarvis said in a tone that implied he didn’t know, “but I have to beg to differ on the murder charge. Fast-grow clones are not human under the law, and if they are designed to die in an experiment or a mission, then their death is sanctioned. We filed all the necessary documents. His death is legal.”
“Son of a bitch,” Zagrando said, and launched himself at the door. But he couldn’t get out. He tugged, pressed his identification against the door, gave the door some instructions through his links, and still he couldn’t get out. Then he went to the window and pounded, thinking maybe he could get the attention of the police officers or the guards. But he couldn’t. They continued their battle against their own door.
He realized at that moment that his links to the outside world were down. He hadn’t heard any emergency notices nor could he send a message to them via his links. Plus the constant noise that Valhalla’s government called “necessary maintenance” was gone.
“You can stop now,” Jarvis said. “It no longer matters.”
Zagrando whirled. His clone was in a fetal position on the floor, blood pooling around him. There was arterial spray on the far wall and on several of the fighters.
“You didn’t give him any way to heal himself,” Zagrando said.
“On the contrary,” Jarvis said. “He has all the links you have except for the Earth Alliance identification and security clearances. He just doesn’t know how to use them.”
“Didn’t know,” the assistant said in a conversational tone.
Zagrando slammed the assistant against the control panel. “This is not something you should be discussing so easily.”
The assistant didn’t fight him. He let Zagrando hold him against the wall. Zagrando put his arms down and backed away. He had wanted that fight; they had known he had wanted that fight, and they hadn’t given it to him.
“We have to leave now, Iniko,” Jarvis said, his use of Zagrando’s first name his only acknowledgement of Zagrando’s distress. “We have to get out before they close down this part of the Port.”
“Oh, you don’t have a secret room for that?” Zagrando snapped.
“Actually, we do have our own way out,” Jarvis said. “And you’re coming with us.”
“And if I don’t?” Zagrando asked.
Jarvis turned toward him, his expression flat. “You’re already dead, Iniko. Which body those people out there find is your choice.”
“I thought we worked together,” Zagrando said.
“So did I,” Jarvis said with that weird half-smile. “So did I.”
Noelle DeRicci actually had an entourage. She didn’t like it, but she needed them now. Five people went with her everywhere on this trip—two security guards, two assistants to run interference with the local governments, and one person to shadow her everywhere she went. She needed them all, particularly the shadow, because she was prone to making promises just to get people to leave her alone.
And she wanted to be alone right now.
She stood in the rubble that had once been the city center of Tycho Crater. Six months before, Tycho Crater had suffered the worst casualties of the nineteen cities bombed during the Anniversary Day Crisis. The Top of the Dome, a hotel/resort that someone had built against the dome itself, had been a successful target of one of the twenty bombers.
That horrible day, DeRicci had taken her authority as Chief of Security for the United Domes of the Moon to new levels. She had ordered every single dome in every single city on the Moon sectioned just in case—something she still wasn’t sure she had the authority for—and that action had saved all nineteen domes from complete collapse. Bombs blew holes through twelve of the domes, but the sectioning prevented the complete loss of those cities.
Including Tycho Crater, one of the oldest cities on the Moon. Tycho Crater had a lot of problems, from its corrupt government to its ancient dome and grandfathered-in projects. The Top of the Dome had been one of those projects, built just high enough so that visitors could see over the rim of the crater that housed the city. And they could also see the city below.
Apparently the Top of the Dome had been a spectacular place to visit until it exploded, then fell—in pieces—onto the city center below. The city center, which couldn’t be evacuated without lifting the sections of the dome and threatening the rest of the city.
This part of the dome was still sectioned, but a temporary dome had been built over the holes created when the Top of the Dome exploded and fell. There was atmosphere, not that anyone really wanted to call this atmosphere. The air was light gray, filled with particles and sludge. The free-standing construction filters couldn’t replace the dome filters, which still didn’t work. Even setting up new filters every twenty-four hours didn’t help.
This environment was toxic, and everyone knew it.
DeRicci and her team wore personal space suits that created atmosphere from the neck down. But DeRicci had known she wouldn’t have been able to see everything she wanted to see in a traditional helmet. So she wore a thin emergency helmet that emergency personnel carried in case of a dome emergency or an evacuation outside of a dome itself.
The thin helmet felt like light plastic wrapped around her face and neck. When she breathed, the coating (whatever it was) went in and out, then processed the CO2 into nanofilters that submitted it to the suit below. The air came from small reservoirs built into the helmet itself. She had only two hours of air, which she had hated when she first set up this visit, and which she appreciated now.
She wanted to get the hell out of here.
The rubble remained all around her. Building carcasses jutted out of the dirt and the dust. It was often impossible to tell what was a building that had been on the ground and what was part of the Top of the Dome.
Fifteen thousand people died here. DeRicci knew the numbers—she knew all the death numbers from that horrible day by heart—but she still couldn’t quite contemplate what that meant. Fifteen thousand people, all of whom had families and friends and neighbors and co-workers. The amount of personal loss was staggering.
It was even more staggering when she thought of the numbers who had died moonwide. Those numbers hovered around one million right now, but she knew it would continue to climb. People who didn’t have family, people who had no one watching their daily moves, would be missing and then someone would guess that they had been in Tycho Crater on Anniversary Day or in Glenn Station or Littrow.
And she was still getting reports from thousands of alien governments, asking for updates on their citizens or on visitors who happened to be on the Moon that day. She had no idea how many aliens died in the bombings: Some alien cultures didn’t ever speak of the dead. Others kept their statistics to themselves. Still others were folded into the death rates for citizens of various cities, because so many of these cities were hugely multicultural.
She felt them here. Not all of the dead, but the ones who died in Tycho Crater. The entire Moon—the survivors anyway, the ones who weren’t helping with other rescue efforts—watched that horrible day as the people in this section tried to figure out ways to survive without jeopardizing their friends and family.
The very thought of it all made her tear up, and she didn’t dare tear up. She was the closest thing the Moon had to a leader right now, and she was of the personal opinion that leaders didn’t cry.
Except in the privacy of their own apartment, long after everyone else had gone home.
She was on a tour of all the damaged cities. It was her second such tour. The first had happened about three weeks after the Anniversary Day bombings, when she was certain that the Moon was secure from more attacks. Or, at least, as secure as they could be.
On that tour, she had seen the damage from outside the sectioned areas, but she hadn’t gone in. Most of the domes hadn’t yet covered the holes blown in them. Besides, the damage was pretty visible. She had concerned herself with the cities that hadn’t lost part of their domes, thinking that maybe those bombings might tell her something about the overall plan.
So far, she only had inklings. And she wasn’t even certain about those.
“Chief DeRicci.” Dominic Hanrahan, the mayor of Tycho Crater, beckoned her from a few meters away. He was a whip-thin man, made even thinner by the tragedy. When she had met him shortly after his election a year or so ago, he had looked like a twenty-something kid. Now he had frown lines all over his face, and the bags under his eyes were so deep they looked like craters.
She supposed she looked just as bad. Her entourage did its best to make her look good every day, but she hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in six months. And when she did sleep, she woke up terrified that she had forgotten something—or someone—important.
Hanrahan stood alone on a section of sidewalk that someone had cleared of rubble to make walking paths. His pet lawyers hadn’t come in here with the group, primarily because the head lawyer for Tycho Crater was Peyti. The Peyti found the Earth-type atmosphere poisonous and had to wear masks against it. Suiting up in an environment like this one proved a challenge most Peyti didn’t want to face unless they had to.
DeRicci actually missed the head lawyer. He, at least, was sensible. She wasn’t so sure about Hanrahan
He glanced downward, then back at her. He clearly wanted her to do something, but she didn’t want to ask him what.
DeRicci suppressed a sigh. She shut off all but her emergency links whenever she went into a disaster site, but all the environmental suits were sound-linked as a double-check for breathing and other problems, something that workers in Moscow Dome had learned was necessary as they started their cleanup. There was a lot of weird toxicity in the air here, and not all suits had been designed to block it.
She toyed with turning her internal links back on just so that she could talk with Hanrahan privately. Of course, he probably didn’t want their communications private.
He probably wanted her to see some horrible death site or the site of some great heroism or something. She’d seen a lot of that on this tour, and while she appreciated it, she didn’t want to see any more.
The tours were all deeply personal for each and every mayor—the saga of their city was the tale of their Anniversary Day Crisis—but DeRicci carried the saga of the entire Moon on her shoulders, and sometimes the details blurred.
She didn’t want them to, but they did.
A psychologist that one of her assistants hired for the entire staff told DeRicci that the blurring was a self-protection mechanism, allowing her and the others still dealing with the crisis to cope. In fact, the psychologist had suggested that DeRicci wait to deal with the worst of her own emotions until she believed the urgency of the crisis was past.
She didn’t believe that the urgency of the crisis had passed yet. She wouldn’t believe it, not until the masterminds behind this horrible attack were caught. Then she could let down her guard.
One of Hanrahan’s assistants held out his hand to help her down the rubble. She smiled at him, but didn’t take it. She’d been climbing on this stuff for months. And she tried not to think about how many obliterated bits of people and aliens were still here, how many lives she was walking over so very gingerly.
She tried not to think of it, but she always did, and always with that clutched feeling in her stomach, as if she had somehow failed. Maybe she had. After all, she had been the Chief of Security for the United Domes of the Moon when this happened.
Hanrahan watched her progress over the rubble.
“This is what’s left of the restaurant,” he said through the sound links, indicating the area below him.
Of course he would show her that. This was his personal story.
She nodded in acknowledgement as she looked at bits of broken tables and glass, flooring materials and shattered crockery. Apparently no one had touched this part of the rubble, either using it as a marker or a shrine.
She supposed it made sense. This bit of rubble held several parts of the story. Assassins had targeted the mayors of nineteen domes, and had killed several of them. One assassin had also killed the Governor-General, leaving the United Domes government on shaky ground. Or shakier ground, since the government was just beginning to truly unite the domes.
The assassin in Tycho Crater hadn’t made it to Hanrahan. His security detail had saved him. Instead, the assassin held a bunch of hostages in the circular restaurant. The hostages got rescued. In fact, almost everyone who had been at the Top of the Dome that day had gotten out during the first part of the crisis.
It was only after the evacuation of the hotel/resort that the dome sectioned, leaving the people below to die when the complex fell.
Then DeRicci looked up. Hanrahan was still staring at the mess, looking as haunted as she felt. He hadn’t been the most courageous mayor on Anniversary Day. And he hadn’t really known how to handle the Top of the Dome crisis. But he was still in office, probably because he had done well afterward.
Or maybe because the citizens of Tycho Crater didn’t want to hold another election on top of everything else they had gone through.
DeRicci waited in silence for a few minutes, the appropriate amount of time (she felt) before changing the subject. And the subject change was going to be dicey for both of them.
“So,” she said, moving away from the restaurant debris. “How are the rebuilding plans going?”
Several domes had changed plans in the past few months. Many of the plans she had seen in the weeks after the bombing had been discarded. Some cities had decided to abandon the destroyed sections of the dome. Others had made their rebuilding plans even more elaborate.
Hanrahan had been cagey about his plans from the beginning. In fact, DeRicci had never seen them. She was beginning to think no plans existed.
Hanrahan looked away from the mess in front of him. He shook himself a little as if coming back to the moment.
“We’re not the richest city on the Moon,” he said, “and we’ve gotten a lot poorer in the last six months. Half our economy was based on tourism.”
He didn’t have to add that a goodly portion of that tourism came from off-Moon tourists, tourists who had yet to return after the Anniversary Day events.
“We’re far away from everything,” he said, “and the outside workers are committed to other places that can pay them better.”
DeRicci had heard this complaint from other cities. The rebuilding of the Moon would take years and would cost a lot of money. On the one hand, it was an economic boom to the construction industry and several other industries. On the other hand, it destroyed a lot of local industries—tourism included.
Plus, all nineteen cities now competed for limited resources, from personnel to building materials. To get materials from off-Moon cost a lot of money, and many governments didn’t want to—or simply couldn’t—handle the pricing. Not to mention, Plus some of those cities had only a temporary government to make the difficult choices.
Which was not a problem Hanrahan faced. Unlike many of the other mayors, he was still alive and still in office.
“I just want to see the plans, Dominic,” she said. “You know they have to be approved through my office before any rebuilding can start.”
He glanced at the remains of the restaurant. “We haven’t even cleared the rubble yet.”
“Why not?” she asked. “You can’t leave this here. It’s right in the center of the city.”
The damaged sections other domes had abandoned were on the outside edges of the dome, not in the interior. With this mess cutting through the center of Tycho Dome, it was almost impossible to get around the city easily.
“Lawsuits,” he said. “Some people claim this is a grave site.”
She cursed silently. He hadn’t told her that. No wonder he had lawyers trailing him. And if the grave site issue had become important in Tycho Crater, then traipsing around it was a dicey proposition at best.
“Filed lawsuits?” she asked. “With injunctions?”
“Not yet,” he said.
“Then I suggest you clear this out before the suits get filed,” she said, knowing how harsh that sounded. “The faster you move, the better off you’ll be.”
He gave her a baleful look. “You don’t want me to get re-elected, do you?”
“It’s not my concern,” she said. “The safety of the Moon is my concern, and having this crap in the middle of a major city could be a safety issue.”
“Maybe you should take over the cleanup,” he said.
A flush warmed her face. Son of a bitch. He’d maneuvered her into this position. He wanted her to take over the cleanup so he wouldn’t be blamed for disturbing the dead, so that he could get reelected.
If he had asked her politely, if he had had a discussion with her in his office, explaining his dilemma and asking for help in finding a resolution, she might have considered taking over the site. But she wasn’t going to be maneuvered into anything.
“Maybe you should do your job,” she snapped, and turned her back on him, heading carefully back down the path to the makeshift exit.
“Or what?” he said loudly.
It was a good question. The United Domes was a toothless organization. Since colonization began, each dome ruled itself. Only in recent years had anyone decided that the Moon needed a strong central government. The woman who had led the charge to change the Moon’s government, Governor-General Celia Alfreda, had been one of those assassinated on Anniversary Day.
DeRicci closed her eyes. She had been doing a lot of extra-legal things since Anniversary Day. What was one more?
“Things have changed, Dominic,” DeRicci said as she turned around. “If you don’t want to make the hard decisions for your city, we’ll find someone who can. And we’ll instate him as mayor of this city. I’m sure everyone in Tycho Crater will be relieved.”
She wanted to take back the last statement, but she didn’t. There were many reasons she hadn’t run for Governor-General after the collapse. One of them had just shown itself. Noelle DeRicci was not a diplomat, particularly when someone pushed her. She couldn’t be politic if her life depended on it—and she suspected that some day it would.
The difference between the woman she was now and the woman she had been when she accepted this job was this: that woman would have winced or apologized for her harsh statement; this one stood her ground.
Hanrahan’s cheeks flushed as well. His eyes glittered with anger. “You don’t know how hard it is,” he said. “Looking on this every day and realizing what we’ve lost. We were the hardest hit of all of the cities. We’ve lost thousands of people, had even more families ruined—”
“I know the statistics, Dominic,” she said.
“They’re not statistics,” Hanrahan said. “That’s what you Armstrong people don’t understand. Your city is just fine. You haven’t lost a damn thing. You have no idea—”
“We were bombed first,” she said quietly. “The practice run, four years ahead. We know. And we lost our mayor. Don’t you forget that. Arek Soseki was a friend. Governor-General Celia Alfreda was a good friend. I have been to all nineteen cities. I’ve presided over funeral after funeral, helped with all kinds of plans, and have fought to set up victims funds. So don’t you tell me I don’t understand. You think this happened to you alone, but it didn’t. It happened to all of us. And some part of me naïvely believed it would bring us together. But talk like yours, separating Armstrong’s citizens from Tycho Crater’s citizens, only divides us. I’ll be happy to replace you, Dominic, if that’s what you want. But be warned. If I do it, you’ll never hold elected office again.”
“You don’t have that power,” he said.
She let out a small laugh. “That shows how little attention you’ve paid to events outside of Tycho Crater. Who the hell do you think has kept this Moon functioning these past six months? It sure wasn’t the council. A lot of the most influential mayors died. And a whole bunch of the most important governmental support staff got obliterated in the bombing of Littrow. I’ve been running almost everything, and I’m not happy about it. But one thing I’ve learned is this: If there’s a problem, it needs to get solved immediately. And I’m beginning to believe you’re a problem, Dominic. Are you?”
He stared at her. His face was even redder than it had been before. His left hand tapped against his left thigh, a movement DeRicci doubted he even knew he was making.
“People died here,” he said in a small voice.
“Yes,” she said. “And a lot more people survived. We can’t help the dead. We can only help the living.”
He shook his head slightly. “You’re a cold bitch, you know that?”
“Yeah,” she said, even as she wished it were true. “You’re not the first person to say that to me. I doubt you’ll be the last.”
Miles Flint actually had an office in the Security Building in downtown Armstrong. He wasn’t exactly sure when that happened. Somewhere along the way, someone had steered him to this room. It was on the same floor as DeRicci’s office, not far from the room he and his daughter Talia had worked in feverishly on Anniversary Day.
When he had first moved into the room, it had been nearly empty, with a generic desk and an uncomfortable chair. Now it had a desk, a couch, shelves he’d actually filled with personal items, pads, notebooks, and a wallboard that constantly rotated security messages. One wall even showed moonscapes, and he’d been here long enough to have a favorite.
He liked the sunlight on the Moon dust, the Earth bright in the distance.
The moonscapes stood in for windows. Noelle DeRicci’s office was the only one with really good windows, something he thought a bit odd. If someone wanted to take out the Chief of Security for the United Domes of the Moon, they could watch her every move from any of the buildings nearby.
Even though DeRicci had reassured him that no one could do such a thing because nanoprotectors coated the windows’ exteriors and interiors, he wasn’t reassured. He knew better than anyone else that something protected by technology could be breached by technology.
And right now, whether she liked it or not, Noelle DeRicci was the only person standing between normal life and a complete government meltdown.
That was one of the reasons he didn’t mind working in this office. He wanted to support DeRicci as best he could.
There were other reasons he worked here as well. One of them was simple protection. Despite his worries about DeRicci’s office windows, this was one of the (if not the) best protected buildings in all of Armstrong. He was relatively safe here—if anyone was safe, these days.
And he needed to stay safe. Talia depended on him. He had promised her he would retire from his Retrieval Artist work while he raised her, and he had more or less kept that promise until Anniversary Day. Even now, he wasn’t really doing Retrieval Artist work. He was doing actual investigative work.
The work was dicey. He was going into areas of the net that made him extremely uncomfortable, following leads brought to him by the detectives working the various aspects of the Anniversary Day crimes, and following leads he and Talia had developed that very first day.
Flint’s biggest worry—which he had expressed to no one—was that someone or something absolutely horrible would track him back through some trail he inadvertently left in his digital travels. Most of his job as a Retrieval Artist had been following those trails; he knew they got left all the time.
He also knew that the most cautious person—and he regarded himself as even more cautious than that—left some kind of trail. The key was to minimize those trails and to make sure that no one could follow them easily, if at all.
He had worked a lot of cases, first as a detective for the Armstrong Police Department (where he met DeRicci—they had been partners), and then as a Retrieval Artist. He had learned caution as a Retrieval Artist. One false move and he could cost someone their life.
Retrieval Artists found people who had Disappeared. Those people usually paid a service for a new identity and a new life. Generally, the Disappeared were accused of a crime committed on an alien world or in an alien culture.
When the Earth Alliance was formed, one of the agreements the parties had to sign onto was that in local cases, local jurisdiction held. It sounded good in theory, but in practice it was often nasty. Small things that humans did—such as walking on a bed of flowers and accidentally crushing them—were considered crimes in some alien worlds. And no matter how much a human was warned about the various differences in the other culture, not even the Earth Alliance knew what all the differences were.
The punishments were often severe—loss of life or loss of a firstborn child. So corporations usually facilitated the Disappearance of any worker who violated a local law, just so that the corporation could function in a non-human environment.
Finding those Disappeared could subject them to the very punishments they’d been fleeing, so Flint had to be particularly careful when he did his job. He was always aware that his very investigation might cost someone their life.
In this investigation, he was aware that his work might cost him his life or the lives of everyone he held dear. Whoever had caused the terrible Anniversary Day assassinations and bombings clearly didn’t care about life at all. They cared about some kind of agenda, and they were willing to kill thousands to achieve it.
Which was why he worked here, instead of in his small office in Old Armstrong. His office had a lot of safeguards, but he had installed and upgraded them himself, leaving trails just in the work he had done.
He had done some similar work on the computer systems here as well as on the digital security systems, but he hadn’t done all of the work. Indeed, much of what he had done was tweak what he found, and he worried about the parts he couldn’t upgrade.
On some levels, he knew his office in Old Armstrong was much more of a digital fortress. But he figured that whoever or whatever was behind these attacks expected someone from the various police departments on the Moon and from the Security Office for the United Domes of the Moon to investigate. Those people—or creatures—didn’t expect Miles Flint, Retrieval Artist. And if they tried to take out anyone who got close, he didn’t want to be an easy target.
Nor did he want to bring these agents of chaos to other places in Armstrong, places he usually used to download sensitive information, like the Brownie Bar or Dome University’s Armstrong campus.
He had never really worked from a completely protected position before, and he knew it handicapped him. Usually he was a bit more reckless, a little bit more of a believer in his own abilities to escape detection despite the stakes.
But in this case, even after six months, he still couldn’t figure out whom or what he was investigating. And he couldn’t figure out why they had acted the way they had. He couldn’t see what purpose there was behind these attacks. There had been no follow-up, no secondary or tertiary attacks after Anniversary Day itself. He had expected it. So had everyone else.
On Anniversary Day, Talia had noted that the bombing in Armstrong four years before might have been practice. So if that was practice, she suggested, were the Anniversary Day bombings a dry run for something even bigger?
DeRicci latched onto that theory. She combined it with a secondary theory, derived from the way the attacks had been conducted. First, a group of cloned men assassinated or tried to assassinate leaders all over the Moon. Then, a few hours later, the bombings occurred. The assassinations were not the main point of the attack; the bombings were.
DeRicci called this “Distract and Destroy.” Flint believed she was onto something with that theory—with all of her theories—but he didn’t know what that something was.
What he feared the most was that whoever this was happened to be applying the distract-and-destroy method on a much grander scale. He worried that the Anniversary Day bombings were the distraction, but from what he did not know.
If it was on a grand scale, then he had a hunch that the target wasn’t the Moon herself, but the Earth Alliance. DeRicci had already warned the Alliance of this and they said they would follow up, but Flint had no way to know if they had. Six months after the Anniversary Day attacks, he—and the entire investigative team—was still trying to figure out who or what caused the attacks. For every clue someone found, someone else found a clue that contradicted it.
He had never done anything this complex, this frustrating, or this important.
He had six different computer systems opened around his desk, all attached to him. No one else could work them, not even Talia. He didn’t want her in this mess.
She did help him when she wasn’t in school, but on a separate system attached to the most comfortable chair in the room. His teenage daughter loved to work in the most uncomfortable positions, arms and legs draped, the holoscreen often floating on the chair’s back.
He had long since stopped complaining about how she sat and paid more attention to how she worked. Not that he expected her to do bad work; on the contrary, Talia was much more talented on computers, systems, links, and the net than he was—and he had helped designed some of its modern components.
No, he watched because he was worried that she would trigger something that would put her in horrible danger. He had already lost her once; he wasn’t about to lose her again.
The door opened, and Rudra Popova walked in with a tray of food and coffee. Popova, a thin woman with long black hair, had been DeRicci’s assistant since DeRicci got this job. At first, DeRicci hadn’t liked her, but she gradually learned how valuable Popova was.
Flint completely understood how Popova made herself valuable. She was one of those rare people who was both smart and empathetic. Only her empathy didn’t come in the form of sympathetic nods or a good ear for problems. Popova figured out what someone needed before they needed it, and then somehow delivered it.
She was the one who found Flint this office, and she was the one who furnished it. And it wasn’t until Flint smelled the cinnamon in Popova’s special chocolate/coffee blend that he realized how much he needed a break.
Then he saw the roast beef sandwich she had placed in the center of that tray, and he realized how hungry he was.
He could get used to this. He had worked alone for so many years and kept friends at bay, following the instructions of his mentor, Paloma, that he found this assistance both pleasing and uncomfortable. But he didn’t mind it either.
He stretched, his eyes bleary from the caverns of information he’d been lost in.
“Thank you, Rudra,” he said. “I’m going to take a break. Why don’t you join me?”
“I’d like that,” she said. “Just let me get a mug.”
And then she hastily left the room, her long black hair swinging behind her.
Flint watched with a bemused frown. He’d expected her to say no, like she had every other time he had asked. Popova had suffered a severe loss on Anniversary Day, and she was still skittish. Not that she had ever been friendly before. In fact, early on, she had greatly disapproved of Flint.
Somewhere—and he wasn’t sure where—her opinion of him had changed.
She came back in, carrying an empty mug by its handle and a plate with a matching roast beef sandwich. She sat in the straight-backed chair on the other side of his desk.
He had to tap the desk’s surface to shut down the holoscreens. She couldn’t see them, but he could. In fact, they blocked most of his vision of her.
He grabbed his sandwich, slid the chair to one side so that he wouldn’t rest the food on the desk’s command surface, and took a bite. The meat was real, the bread made with real flour, the lettuce and tomato fresh-grown. So much of Moon food had imitation ingredients—imitation beef, bread made with Moon flour which, so far as he could tell, was paste—that it was always a joy to get food with flavor.
“Everything okay, Rudra?” he asked.
She poured herself some coffee from the carafe that she had placed on his tray. Then she wrapped her hands around the mug and leaned back in the chair, leaving her sandwich for the moment.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, her black eyes twinkling. “I’m hiding.”
He raised his eyebrows. Popova, not only avoiding her work, but smiling about it. Not to mention the smile itself. He wasn’t sure he had ever seen it.
“From whom?” he asked.
“More Earth Alliance investigators. I think they’re being cloned, honest to God.” Then she bit her lower lip, as if she had said something wrong.
But Flint laughed. He appreciated the normal old-fashioned clone jokes. Recent clone jokes were nasty, and the entire city’s attitude toward clones had become a lot darker. He worried for Talia, who was a clone of his firstborn, Emmeline. People didn’t know she was a clone, but she did. And she was sensitive about it.
“These guys just come in and think they can take over what we’re doing,” Popova was saying, “and they can’t. They don’t understand anything about the Moon except that we were attacked.”
She sipped some coffee, then set the mug down.
“And,” she added in a confidential tone, “I’m beginning to think that Chief DeRicci schedules her trips around these guys. She gets some notification that they’re coming and she flees Armstrong.”
Flint’s bemusement grew. He’d never seen Popova like this. He knew she had a private life but here, with the exception of Anniversary Day itself, she always acted strictly, almost robotically, professional.
“I know, I know,” she said, looking at his expression. “She wouldn’t do that. She hates these trips, but still. I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to tell these guys. I ask them to leave, and they come back later like an incurable disease.”
A chatty, complaining Popova? That was new. Flint couldn’t quite figure this moment out.
“Do you want me to talk to them?” he asked.
“No!” She sounded alarmed. “If they find out we have a retrieval artist on the payroll, then they’ll really think we’re incompetent.”
Her eyes widened as she realized what she said. Flint suppressed a smile.
“I mean, I didn’t mean that like it sounded. You know. They think we’re small fry already. They’re going to really think…”
She let her voice trail off. At least Popova was smart enough to realize that she was making things worse.
“It’s all right, Rudra,” he said. “I understand what you mean. We could tell them that I’m not on the payroll.”
After all, that was true. He didn’t need money. He already had more than he knew what to do with. Technically, he was volunteering his time here, although he didn’t see it that way.
He believed he was doing emergency triage. He was protecting his home, his family, and his community. He knew that most people didn’t have his level of skill, and he knew that even if they did, they didn’t have the ability to put information together the way that he did.
The fact that it was taking him months to figure this out instead of days worried him. It meant he was up against something he’d never been up against before. It also meant that if someone less capable had been involved, this crime might never get solved.
Like the first bombing, four years ago.
Much as he loved DeRicci, her team hadn’t managed to figure that one out, nor had the Armstrong PD. Which made Flint wonder if the Earth Alliance authorities shouldn’t be involved. After all, they were theoretically the best investigators across cultures.
Of course, they would have an Earth Alliance agenda, not a Moon-based agenda. But still, that might help.
Popova was watching him. He recognized the look, and it made him slightly uncomfortable. She knew him a lot better than he knew her.
“Do you want to talk to them?” she asked. Her voice had switched. The chatty woman was gone, and the professional was back.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What exactly could they do if they don’t like how we’re conducting this investigation? I thought all the crimes—as heinous as they were—fall under local jurisdiction. Noelle’s been fighting just to allow her own investigators from the United Domes to observe in some jurisdictions.”
Flint knew that because he’d been listening to DeRicci’s complaints, and he understood them. He also understood how the local police departments felt. They didn’t want a government agency overseeing them, especially one without a lot of teeth but with a lot of ambition.
That was why DeRicci was visiting a lot of sites herself. She was trying to ingratiate herself with the locals in charge. In some cases it worked, and in others it didn’t. It would really have helped if Celia Alfreda was still alive. She had the best diplomatic skills Flint had ever seen in a Moon official. That was one of the many reasons she, as Governor-General, had managed to unify as much of the Moon as she had.
“C’mon, Rudra,” he said. “Don’t tell me you haven’t looked this up.”
Popova took a bite of the sandwich, her gaze on his.
“The Earth Alliance is all about local jurisdiction,” he said. “Believe me, I know. It’s one of the things that got me out of the Armstrong Police Department. So what’s different here?”
Popova sighed. “Technically, I’m not supposed to tell you.”
“You don’t take orders from them,” Flint said.
“That’s right,” she said. “Noelle DeRicci is my boss.”
Flint’s eyes narrowed. DeRicci told her not to say anything? That meant that DeRicci believed that she had done something wrong, something that opened the door to the Earth Alliance, something that—
“Oh, my God,” Flint said. “She opened the door when she warned them she thought this might be an attack against the Earth Alliance, didn’t she?”
“I didn’t tell you that,” Popova said.
Flint scanned what he knew of Earth Alliance law and the Alliance itself. He had a lot of knowledge about the Earth Alliance, much of it arcane, but none of it organized. He wasn’t an Earth Alliance lawyer or someone who specialized in any kind of Earth Alliance law, except as it pertained to crimes in Armstrong.
Which, technically, this was. And he knew that the Earth Alliance had no jurisdiction unless there was suspicion or proof that the crime wasn’t centered here, but it had been directed at, conceived of, or caused by the Earth Alliance itself.
“So when she contacted the Earth Alliance on Anniversary Day, asking for help, and giving them a heads-up that the attacks might occur elsewhere, she gave them an excuse to come here,” Flint said, more to himself than to Popova.
But Popova nodded.
“The weird thing is,” Flint said, “that they used the excuse. They could have come here and investigated a whole host of things after the Disty crisis or the Frieda Tey incident, but they didn’t. They came here after this. They know something.”
Popova tilted her head. Clearly she hadn’t thought of that. “Why wouldn’t they tell us?”
He sighed. “I’m guessing, but I suspect there could be two reasons why. First, the investigators who are visiting us have no idea why they’ve been sent here.”
“You think that’s possible?” Popova said. “I mean, everyone knows about the bombings.”
“Yes,” Flint said, “but these investigators might not know the reason that the Earth Alliance is involved. Investigators often don’t know why their superiors send them into the field.”
He knew that one from bitter personal experience.
“And the other reason they won’t tell us?” Popova asked.
“Well, actually, they might have already hinted at it with you,” Flint said. “They think we’re just dumb locals without the skills to investigate anything this large. And honestly, when it comes to some of the cities that got attacked, they might be right.”
“I can’t believe you think they should get involved,” Popova said.
“They have the teams, Rudra,” Flint said. “They have the money, and they have expertise that we don’t have in large numbers. Armstrong does, and so do a handful of the other cities, but what about Littrow? They barely have a police force. And Armstrong doesn’t have the personnel to send there. Neither does this office.”
“The chief says we have the expertise,” Popova said defensively.
“Really?” Flint asked. “Where?”
“Here,” Popova said. “We can export people to the smaller towns.”
“Not right now, we can’t,” Flint said. “We still haven’t solved the cases here, and we didn’t have a bombing. Our bombing teams are in Littrow because of the United Domes Council deaths there, but do we have teams anywhere else?”
Popova frowned at him. “No,” she said. She sounded almost sullen.
“What if there are clues in those other towns, things that they have that no one has investigated because they lack the experience to understand what they have?” Flint was getting worked up, and he tried to keep himself calm. Popova wasn’t the person he should be having this argument with.
DeRicci was, and she wasn’t here.
But she hadn’t told him about the Earth Alliance interest. It seemed like she hadn’t told him a lot of things.
He understood that and didn’t understand it at the same time. He was volunteering his time because he believed this case—these events—were time-sensitive, because he still felt they were one step away from an even larger crisis.
And DeRicci was acting like someone was encroaching on her turf.
That wasn’t fair. He knew her, maybe better than anyone. She hated authority and worked best when she was the one in charge, which was why she had done so well in this job.
If she brought in the Earth Alliance, they would be in charge.
But what if there was a way to have them coordinate the entire investigation, bring their large resources to bear on this case, and not relinquish control?
“Let me talk to them,” he said again.
Popova shook her head. She clearly thought coming to him had been a mistake. “That’s the chief’s job.”
“Okay,” Flint said. “Let me talk to DeRicci first. Where is she?”
“She didn’t want to be bothered unless it’s an emergency,” Popova said.
“Rudra,” Flint said softly, “every hour we waste is an hour we lose. We’re already six months behind. God knows what we’ve missed. I’m terrified that we’re four years behind, that we could have prevented all of this. We don’t have the expertise. I’m not sure the Earth Alliance does either, but they have access to experts from everywhere—”
“We could request them,” Popova said. “I’ve been telling the chief that. We should request experts—”
“But the Alliance can order them here,” Flint said. “And we can use them.”
Popova stared at him. “We’ll lose control of this investigation,” she said after a moment.
“That’s the point, Rudra,” Flint said. “We don’t have control of the investigation. We never did.”