When she arrives home from school on Callisto, Talia Shindo finds two strange men in her house. They terrorize her, and kidnap her mother. The men leave Talia behind. She’s thirteen, brilliant, and determined to find her missing mother.
Retrieval Artist Miles Flint works a seemingly unrelated case, digging into files left him by his mentor. Only he finds a connection to the Shindo kidnapping, a connection that shatters everything he ever knew.
The two cases collide, changing Flint, changing Talia, and changing the universe around them—forever.
A Retrieval Artist Novel
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright © 2014 Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published 2007 by ROC
Published by WMG Publishing
Jupiter filled the Dome as Rhonda Shindo pressed the chip on her wrist to slow the express sidewalk. She glanced upward, always startled when the planet loomed so large. That night, Jupiter was sand-colored with streaks of brown. Sometimes it seemed redder, and sometimes it had more orange.
Sometimes Valhalla Basin paid homage to the red spot by dotting the entire Dome with red splotches, but she just found that weird. A lot of things in the Basin were weird, not the least of which was the fake, overpowering scent of pine that filled her neighborhood, Evergreen Heights.
The Dome was low here, and there were no evergreens, not even fake ones. The neighborhood seemed more an exercise in wishful thinking than it was in careful design.
Still, she was lucky to live here. Evergreen Heights was an upper-middle neighborhood in Valhalla Basin, with all amenities provided by Aleyd Corporation. Her house had three bedrooms, a nice spa in what passed for the backyard, and a deluxe order-in kitchen that jetted any meal from any restaurant to her along the tubelines within thirty minutes of ordering.
It wasn’t the most exclusive neighborhood in the Basin, but it was one of the nicest—even with the lack of trees and other plant life.
The sidewalk stopped at the intersection, and she stepped onto the regular, non-moving sidewalk, her high heels clicking against the hard surface as she walked the last half-block toward home. This evening she had a briefcase—a bit of work to finish at home, just a few easy analyses that she could do after her daughter, Talia, went to bed.
Rhonda’s smile faded. Talia had grown difficult this past year. She’d moved to a new school, and it didn’t challenge her. Rhonda didn’t have the pay grade for an exclusive school, nor could she afford an at-home tutor.
But Talia’s restlessness would create trouble. It always had with her father when his mind wasn’t engaged, and it would with her.
She was becoming more and more like him as each day passed.
The neighborhood was quiet. Most of the houses were still locked and dark. Rhonda always got home earlier than her neighbors.
Her own house looked just as dark. For once, she’d beaten Talia home.
She crossed the mushy reddish brown stuff that someone had invented as a sort of Jovian Astroturf (and she wished it wasn’t in the covenants for the neighborhood, because she’d rather have true Callisto dirt or some kind of artificial pavement than that junk), and circled around to the side door. The front door was just for show. She and Talia used the side door because it led to the very center of the house.
As she pressed her palm against the center of the door, she winced. The fake wood was hot. She pulled her hand back. Too many homes in the cheaper parts of Valhalla suffered from interior fires—a flaw in the design. Had that flaw been perpetrated here, as well?
“House,” she said. “Tell me the inside temperature and air quality.”
“Inner temperature, thirty-two degrees Celsius. Air quality, perfect Earth blend.” This week, House’s voice was warm and motherly. It had been Rhonda’s turn to set the controls. When Talia set them, Rhonda never knew what kind of voice would greet her.
“Then why is the door hot?”
“A preponderance of electronic materials.”
“Electronic materials?” Rhonda couldn’t quite understand what that meant, but it sounded ominous. “Should I use the other door?”
“I am not programmed to give advice,” House said. “Nor am I capable of being programmed for such advice. If you would like a House Monitor Upgrade, please contact….”
Rhonda sighed as House continued its advertisement, which was one she could recite from memory. At least once a day a comment of hers or Talia’s sparked House’s pitch for an upgrade.
“Did Talia place the electronic materials on the door?” Rhonda asked as she set down her briefcase. She would probably have to go to the front door, as much as she hated to. House was programmed to clean the main living room after anyone walked through it—a part of House’s boilerplate programming that Rhonda couldn’t override. Talia’s father could have. He could have done a lot of things, like shut off that obnoxious ad that had to finish before House could answer her. But he had never been to Callisto. Sometimes Rhonda wondered if he even knew where Callisto was.
“I am sorry,” House said. “Should I repeat the upgrade announcement, since it was clear you did not hear all of it?”
“No,” Rhonda said through her teeth. There was no point in getting angry. House didn’t care if she was angry or not. “Just tell me if Talia put the electronics on the door.”
“Not this time,” House said. “The electronics were placed by a man who deleted his identity from my files. He conducted a thorough scrub but forgot to delete the section in which I monitored his deletion. Would you like me to bring that up on the wall panel to your left?”
Rhonda’s heart was beating a little too fast. “Yes, I would like to see that.”
“No need,” a voice said from beside her. “I did it.”
She turned, breathing shallowly, part of her brain reminding her not to show her sudden alarm.
A little man stood beside her. He was wiry, with dark eyes and curly black hair that looked like it had exploded from the inside of his head. He had a heavy forehead and strong cheekbones.
She’d never seen him before.
“I don’t think we’ve met, Mr.—”
“We haven’t, ma’am, but I know who you are. You’re Rhonda Shindo. And just so that we remain on an even footing, let me tell you that I’m a Recovery Man.”
Every muscle in her back tightened. She wished she wasn’t wearing heels. Adrenaline had started coursing through her, making her breathing irregular and urging her to run.
She couldn’t run until she knew if he had gotten to Talia.
“I’ve never heard of a Recovery Man,” Rhonda said.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” he said, arms at his side as if he were prepared for any sudden movements. “I recover things. Sometimes I even recover people.”
“Like a Retrieval Artist,” she said, her throat tightening.
“Naw,” he said. “Like a Tracker, only without the regulations. I’m not a member of the Earth Alliance.”
Her throat closed, and for a moment she couldn’t speak. A Tracker made sense, even though she hadn’t really Disappeared. Trackers found people for alien governments, usually, although sometimes they worked for lawyers or human governments.
Retrieval Artists worked for the clients, whomever that might be, and never gave up a Disappeared to someone who would kill the Disappeared.
Rhonda wasn’t strictly a Disappeared—she kept her name and her identity and she had even worked at the same company for the past fourteen years—but she knew why Trackers would come after her. Or Retrieval Artists, which were always the better choice.
But she wasn’t sure about this Recovery Man.
She made herself swallow. “What do you want?”
He leaned forward in an almost courtly little bow. She took the moment to look over his head to see if anyone else had accompanied him.
She couldn’t see anyone, but this part of the house had a lot of nooks and crannies. People could hide.
“I work,” he said as he rose, “for the Gyonnese.”
She was trembling now. She’d prepared for this moment for years, but she still didn’t feel ready.
Calm, she told herself. Stay calm. They haven’t found Talia yet. That’s why they’re still here.
“And don’t play dumb about the Gyonnese,” he said. “It’s all on record.”
“I know,” she said. “But that was settled long ago under Earth Alliance law.”
She was taking a risk saying that, but she needed him to keep talking. She needed to lure him onto the front sidewalk, and then she could hit the panic button on her wrist. That would turn on the neighborhood alarms, and someone would come running.
But they had to be able to see her, and right now, while she was on the side of her house, they couldn’t.
“Actually, ma’am,” he said with that odd politeness, “the case would be settled if you’d handed over your daughter to the Gyonnese. But you didn’t. You hid her.”
“No, I didn’t.” Rhonda’s voice wasn’t shaking. She sounded calmer than she was. “She’s been with me the whole time.”
“Talia’s not the child they want and you know it.” He took one step toward her. She started to move backward, then stopped. There was something warm behind her.
She looked over her shoulder. Another man stood there. He was large and broad-shouldered, with tattoos all over his face. His eyes were more white than blue.
“Talia,” the Recovery Man was saying, “is too young.”
Rhonda didn’t argue that point. She didn’t want them to take Talia. But she had to keep them talking. She had to move to the street.
“Talia is the only child I have.”
“Also technically true,” the Recovery Man said. “But she’s what the Gyonnese call a false child. Very clever of you to have the number placed inside the skin, behind an ear. We wouldn’t have found it if we weren’t using some of Aleyd’s technology. Did you develop the scan search?”
“No,” she said. “My specialty is biochemistry.”
But they already knew that. They knew it better than anyone else.
“I was intrigued,” the Recovery Man said. “The number in that little tag was six. There are five others out there.”
Six, she wanted to correct him, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Everything rested on this moment.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Tell me where the real child is,” he said.
“Talia is my real child,” Rhonda said, and hoped that everything she knew about the Gyonnese was true. Because if it wasn’t, she might be hurting her daughter.
“Technically, Talia’s yours,” the Recovery Man said. “But the Gyonnese want the original. The true child. Remember? I’m sure you do. It’s the heart of the case against you.”
The case against her had many hearts. Hearts she’d stopped from beating.
It didn’t matter that it had been an accident. Unintended consequences were not excuses under Alliance law. All that mattered was the result. And the result had been death on a vast scale.
“Please,” she said. “Leave us alone.”
She still had one opening. It was to her left side. One step, a turn, and then she could run. She could head into the street, clutching her wrist, and summon help, enough to divert these bastards so she could take Talia to Aleyd.
“You know I can’t do that,” the Recovery Man said.
“I don’t know that. I’ve already told you where my child is.”
“Give us the true child,” the Recovery Man said, “or we take you.”
Her mouth instantly went dry. She’d never planned for this contingency.
“You can’t take me,” she said. “I’m not on the warrant.”
“We are under orders to take you.”
“Show me the legal document giving you that right,” she said, “and I’ll come freely, so long as you let me contact my attorney.”
Her attorney was on the Moon, but she was sure Aleyd would find one for her. Too bad she didn’t have any attorneys ready for this. She’d never thought she would have to defend herself again.
That case was over.
“We don’t need a legal document,” the Recovery Man said.
“Yes, you do.” This time she heard panic in her own voice. “The Gyonnese are part of the Alliance. They have to go by Alliance law, just like the rest of us.”
“If you went by Alliance law,” the Recovery Man said, “you would have given up the true child fourteen years ago. Humans flaunt this law all the time, with their Disappearance Companies that aren’t prosecuted for secreting criminals away and giving them new identities. The Gyonnese decided if you people can do that, they can hire a Recovery Man.”
Rhonda felt her cheeks heat. She took that step, then started to run, when the man behind her grabbed her arms.
His grip was so tight that tears came to her eyes.
“You’re coming with us,” the Recovery Man said.
“Let me contact my lawyer.”
“If you had one, you’d’ve sent a message through your links by now.” The Recovery Man was smarter than she wanted him to be. “And he can’t help you anyway.”
Her brain finally started to work. “Kidnapping is a capital offense in human societies.”
“We’re just taking you for questioning,” the Recovery Man said.
“Against my will,” Rhonda said.
“What did you do to Talia?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“But you said—”
“I said we found the tag.”
“How?” Rhonda’s voice broke. They couldn’t hurt Talia. She’d wagered everything on the Gyonnese following the law, but they weren’t. And if they weren’t, Talia could be dead.
“Just a little touch behind her head. She’ll wake up soon enough,” the Recovery Man said. “Then she’ll miss you and go to the authorities and someone will find our message attached to your door, and they’ll know that you’re a mass murderer who has so far managed to escape justice.”
The man who held her shook her. “But not anymore.” He spoke with a rough accent, one she hadn’t heard before.
“Gyonnese law supercedes here,” she said. “That’s Alliance precedent, and under Gyonnese law—”
“The Gyonnese have true laws and false laws,” the Recovery Man said. “They seem to thrive on more than one system. And while they prefer the known universe to see their true laws, sometimes they have to rely on the false laws.”
“Like now,” the other man said into her hair.
“But Talia,” Rhonda said.
“You don’t need to worry about her anymore,” the Recovery Man said. “Now it’s time to start worrying about yourself.”