The call that shatters Gail’s life comes disguised as a gift from her past. It starts the way all of them have for the last fourteen years: a beedle boop and her ship’s voice, a pleasant female contralto, sounding directly in her left ear. “You have an incoming call.”
She’s walking outside, or at least what she thinks of as “outside” here, heading for inside. Kingston’s temperature stays at thirty-one degrees during its day cycle to make it more like its equatorial Earth namesake, but couldn’t they have improved on the climate instead of slavishly emulating it? If she were cisform it might be tolerable, but as a totemic, it’s crazy-making hot.
Kis should have said who it was, but it’s got to be Dan again, with something else she can do while she’s still on Kingston. Hey, it’ll be quick and you’ll only need to buy a couple parts and you know I’ll pay you back as soon as I get back on my feet.
Right. Dan owes her twenty-four thousand three hundred and counting, and she doesn’t have to pull that number up on her HUD to verify it. It’s burned into her memory right now. So’s another number: the payment she got just this morning from Smith and Sons Salvage, undervaluing her last haul by ninety percent. They’ll drag her appeal out for months, and her budget is already on fumes.
She sighs. “Kis, tell Dan I can’t—no. Tell him he can go fuck himself with—”
“The call is over an encrypted line, locked against recording, and there is no identification data.”
Okay. Not Dan. She could ask Kis to try and override the lock, but they’d disconnect if they noticed. And hell, at this point she doesn’t have much to lose by being a trusting idiot. “Connect it.”
Another beep sounds, and a hesitant male voice speaks a second later. “Gail Simmons?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“My name’s Randall Corbett. You probably don’t remember me, but we grew up together in New Coyoacan.”
Her ears lift. “No, yeah, I remember you.” She does, a skinny cisform kid she’d been in first stage school with, who lived a few blocks away. They weren’t great friends but they got along; his mother volunteered with hers at the River Totemic Equality Association’s office. That’s not why she remembers him, though. She remembers him because they’d both lost their mothers on the same day.
“Great. Uh. I know we haven’t spoken in…it must be two decades. But I found your name when I was looking for a salvage operator. I pilot a yacht charter, see, and I think we might have found a wreck this morning.”
“You think?” She cuts across the central greenway between the canal and the business district, dodging an errant fertilizer drone. On some visits, Gail stops to appreciate the steeply slanting roofs painted in searingly bright colors, the way the curve of the station’s floor tilts them into a pointillist mosaic. This is not one of those visits. Her destination lies dead ahead: the third-best bar on all of the River. “You didn’t stop?”
“I couldn’t.” He sounds regretful. “The client wouldn’t give us permission.”
If he’s based on Panorica or one of the half-dozen platforms that have a compact with them, he could lose his license for that. Or worse. But a lot of the private yachts berth at places where space law is more space suggestion. “Who else have you called?”
“Just you. I’m pretty sure the ship’s completely dead. The crew either got out already or didn’t make it.”
“Jesus, Randall.” She runs a hand through her hair, stopping outside the bar. Could she lose her license for following up on this? “If it’s dead, how’d you find it?”
“I picked up an emergency beacon. It stopped before we made visual contact.”
“What kind of ship is it?”
“The beacon data was for a Horizon class freighter.”
“A Horizon went missing and nobody noticed? When was this?”
“Yesterday. Maybe fifteen hours ago. I’ll send you the telemetry data?”
This is insane. But if the ship exists, and she gets there first, and she can find the owners, and it doesn’t get tied up by fighting judiciaries, it wouldn’t just cover her lost payment. It’d cover it six or seven times over. It’d turn her worst month in two years into her best month in a decade. If if if if. “Go ahead.”
“Okay.” There’s a brief pause; Kis chimes a couple times in acknowledgement of a secondary data stream. “So you’re still involved with what your mother was doing, aren’t you? You and Sky.”
“Huh? No. Sky’s with the Ring Judicial Cooperative, not out leading protests. And I’ve been a salvor for over a decade. How about you?”
“No.” His response is comet quick and unexpectedly sharp. “Uh. Sorry. Kind of a touchy subject.”
Maybe you shouldn’t have brought it up. “I get it.”
“I’d chat more, but I’m still on assignment. We have to be ready to ship out in a half-hour.”
“Understood. I’ll let you go. Maybe we can catch up sometime.”
“Maybe. Good luck.” Another beedle boop signals the disconnect.
She lets out a long breath and steps inside. This is the first time she’s walked into the dim light of Ice & Spirit with outside still set at full daylight; even her eyes need a second to adjust.
Robaire’s poured a glass of something for her before she drops onto a bar stool. “What, am I enough of a regular for you to know what I like?”
“You’re in here often enough.” Rob’s about forty, completely bald, completely cisform. His grin shows very white teeth against very dark skin. “And you look like you could use something strong. Isadore rum, twelve years.”
“I could.” She takes a small sip. A burn, but not much. Sweet, then a little spicy, then a little leathery. “That’s pretty good.”
“I know.” He grins again.
She snorts. “How’s Emma doing?”
“Emma left.” He taps on a few panels behind the bar. “She wanted more stable hours now that she’s a mother, and she said she wanted her son to grow up with other totemics. So she’s moved to the Ring to manage a restaurant.”
“Wow.” Emma’s a vixen, full transform like Gail. “So she decided to do a post-birth transform instead of waiting?”
He nods, keeping his expression neutral. That’s what she is; she grew up as a totemic, rather than making a choice when she got older. She doesn’t think of it as too radical, but a lot of other people—both transform and cisform—do. She gets the feeling Rob doesn’t approve.
“The Ring’s your home port, isn’t it?” He waves a hand at her. “Even if you dress like a Kingston native.”
Her shirt’s colorful, pink and blue patterns dyed on the inside, but compared to Rob’s riotous rainbow-blotch pullover it might as well be as monochrome as her fur. “Just a birthplace. I don’t have a home port.”
“Everyone has a home port.” Two other early drinkers ease in, both cisform, taking seats at the other end of the bar. Rob leaves Gail alone with her rum.
She shakes her head, then takes another sip. “Kis, how long will it take to get to the wreck Randall found?” The woman at the end of the bar gives her sidelong glances. What, she’s never seen someone with cochlea and larynx implants?
“It will take eight hours and twenty minutes to get to the search area and six to twelve hours to search probable drift paths based on the data.”
Gail groans. Well, dammit, she’s going to enjoy her drink. She forces herself to sip slowly, watching a news scroll on a display behind the bar and listening to jazzy music playing on the bar’s sound system.
When she finishes, Rob’s still busy with the other customers. She throws him a wave. The cisform couple turns when he waves back, and the guy says, “Rats aren’t a health problem in here, are they?”
Gail tenses, but she can tell from his expression he’s trying to be funny. You’re a rat, get it? Never mind that her body shape is still just as human as his, that she’s one-point-six meters tall and dresses way better than he does. Never mind that that joke had to be tired in her grandmother’s time. Not that anyone in her blood family other than her and her mother had ever been transform. “I’m pretty clean, I promise.” That gets a laugh. She smiles stiffly and heads out.
Just like on her way to the bar, most of the people she passes on the greenway are cisform. She sees one totemic couple, wolf and fox, both in matching green polytees; when she waves, the fox waves back. The wolf smiles and tightens his arm around his husband’s waist, and then gives her a double take, like he’s wondering if he should recognize her. She picks up her pace before he asks.
It’s another minute to the docking area, and less than a minute to get through the exit gates. As she approaches, the gangway doors slide open. Kismet’s inner and outer doors do the same, each sealing before the next unlocks.
The entranceway’s at the front of the cabin, right behind the cockpit, only a few steps to swing herself into her seat and strap up the harness. An array of displays fades in across the nearly blank wall she’s facing, followed by a forward view of space—and space station—outside. “Okay, Kis, let’s see if this wreck even exists.” The engines kick into life with a deep bass whine.
“Casting off,” Kismet announces. As they fall away from the station, gravity falls away, too. After all these years the sensation still makes her stomach flutter.
She calls up the planned course as an overlay in front of her, but lets the ship fly herself. Half the control panels around her fade, and Kismet expands the display projection. The walls disappear around Gail’s seat, as if she’s floating in space. She turns to watch the station recede, until it catches the reflection of the distant sun just so, blinding her momentarily with a flash of perfect brilliant light.
“What’s a seven-letter word for ‘remove impurities?’”
The ship startles Gail by responding. “Are you thinking out loud or would you like a list of possible matches?”
“You know I’m usually just thinking out loud when I say things like that.”
“Your voice was four decibels louder than your average volume when you are talking to yourself.”
As co-pilot and research assistant Kismet does better than a human, but sometimes she’s an awkward best friend. Gail sighs, letting go of the crossword and studying the last leg of the search course, sipping her coffee. It takes them close—under a megameter—to Alexandria’s last reported coordinates. For as long as she’s been a pilot she’s heard rumors about that long-abandoned platform. Taken over by pirates. Or militant inner system unification nuts. Radical totemics. Radical purists. Just the ghosts of its many dead. Without anything running the attitude jets, though, nobody’s clear on exactly where the arcology’s remains might be now.
Wait. Clear. She grabs the smartpaper before it drifts out of reach and fills in the answer: clarify.
She’s gotten through another five words when the ship speaks again, starting to decelerate. “A possible target has been acquired.”
“What? Where?” Gail looks around the star field; Kismet flashes the red circle she’s added to the view.
She pushes her coffee into a locking drink holder, raises a hand and motions toward her, zooming the display in far enough to lose a little optical resolution. It’s clearly a ship, bigger than her tug-slash-houseboat. A lot bigger. In a relative sense, it’s adrift, like the comets and asteroids sharing space with the River.
The red circle should be labeled with the other craft’s name and registry. Gail should be able to call up records on its ownership, history, crew. It should be damned near impossible for an accident to disable a ship’s ID beacon, to stop it from broadcasting a sliver of standard data all the governments across the solar system had agreed on—even the ones that didn’t agree to call themselves governments.
But it isn’t labeled. It’s just a big blank circle.
“No transmission from the emergency beacon, either? When’s the last transmission of anything from it on record?”
“No records of transmissions can be connected to the target.”
Gail frowns. “Get closer.” She leans forward as her spaceship glides ahead at a careful pace.
Parts of the holographic star field fade back into instrumentation panels, and information displays start popping up around the unknown ship. Holy hell, it is Horizon class. But not the cargo variant. It’s an SC71, a passenger ship. What? How? If a liner didn’t make port, the news would be everywhere. She’d have been beaten here by rescue ships.
They get close enough for her to do a visual ID, but there’s no registration marks. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to make this ship hard to identify. The fur on the back of Gail’s neck prickles. “Any energy signatures you can pick up?”
“No. The target’s temperature matches ambient space. The hull has been breached.”
As Kismet glides slowly along one side of the Horizon, the bow of the ship comes into view. There’s a hole, over a meter across, punched into the hull.
“Any other ships out here right now?”
“Two, both on standard courses. Unless they deviate they will not come closer to this point than one thousand three hundred fifty-eight kilometers.”
She unstraps and pushes herself out of the cockpit, then pulls herself down—relatively speaking—to the airlock. “Synchronize velocity with our ghost ship here and I’ll go check it out. Let me know if either of those ships change trajectories. This whole thing is weirdly…weird.”
Pressure suits tailored to totemics cost more, but she’s always been able to fit in cisform suits—her muzzle is short and her tail’s thin enough to just slide down along one leg, and keeping her ears flat for short periods doesn’t hurt too much.
There’s an asteroid fragment a few kilometers away. That’s unusually close, but it can’t have been a collision; smacking into it at cruising speed would have left a debris cloud, not a hull with a hole in it. A miraculously light glancing blow? No, that would be a rip or a gash. Besides, navigating out here is a long-solved problem, and space rocks aren’t known for making sudden unexpected moves.
She attaches her cable line to the hook outside Kismet’s airlock and ratchets up her visual sensitivity before she kicks off, unspooling the tether behind her. The hole in the bow is big enough to go through, but it’d risk cutting her tether, or worse, her suit, so she aims for the entrance hatch.
When a ship’s stranded without power there has to be a manual way for a rescue team to get in. On this class of ship it’s meant to be a two-person job; fortunately, she can fake that in brief bursts. The closed environment of the suit echoes the faint whine of her biomods engaging as she pulls down on the lever and back on the huge oval hatch. Latching her tether to a hook by the airlock, she floats in, switching on her headlamp before pulling the outer door shut and releasing the inner one.
Rapid decompression means—among other things—that everything inside the ship that could fit through the hole and wasn’t otherwise restrained blew out at close to sonic speed. For a few meters past the breach the cabin looks like the site of a bomb blast: mangled brackets on walls, shreds of carpet, exposed conduit. Mara’s Blood, maybe it was a bomb blast.
The rest of the cabin remains eerily intact. The seat arrangement—center aisle, two seats to either side, rows alternating facing, sixty-four seats total—cinches the SC71 identification she made. But there aren’t any bodies buckled into seats; this definitely wasn’t a passenger run.
Moving to the cabin’s center, she gives the whole scene a once-over to record the images, then kicks off toward the ship’s fore. The cockpit door’s unlocked, but jammed shut. It takes her a good ten seconds to gingerly work it open, pull herself in, and smack right into one of the two floating bodies.
She jerks back, breath catching. Neither wears an identifying uniform. Of course. Both cisform. They look incongruously serene, in the way victims of slow oxygen starvation often do. The inner hatch had held, but SC71s only have one air circulation system. Once the cabin pressure had been lost, the vents in here sucked the air out.
She focuses on the faces of the two corpses and triggers a scan. After a couple seconds ID panels come up in her eye display. Finally, something—pilot licenses on file with multiple ports. But neither panel shows current employment, and no record trail runs between the two and a ship like this.
Her groan echoes in the suit helmet. Who do you take a salvage claim on a dark courier to? “It’s probably too late to just leave this ship and pretend I was never here,” she mutters aloud.
“We are not on a schedule, Gail.”
She laughs. “Just wishful thinking, Kis. Somebody needs to get these bodies home, and I guess it’s gonna be me. Sometimes it’s a choice between the easy thing and the right thing, you know?”
“I will remember that.”
Okay. Either she’s the first on the scene and the cabin didn’t have much in it to start with, or the wreck was cleaned out silently before she got here. Only one last place to look. Backing down into the cabin, she swings back to the airlock and performs the exit dance. Reconnecting her tether, she pulls herself via handhold along the hull toward the cargo hold.
Predictably, it’s empty. It’s the hole next to it she hadn’t expected. The escape pod’s gone.
She looks back toward the ship’s bow, toward the hole, and tries to piece the story together in her head. An unregistered ship with an unknown—but very low—number of passengers suffered an explosion, more than likely sabotage. At least one passenger survived decompression and vacuum exposure and got to the escape pod, which strongly suggests they were prepared for it.
“Kis, we’re closer to Molinar than Kingston now, right?”
“Let them know we’re coming in with this damn thing, and fire the tow clamps off to me.”
The clamps are big metal blocks, each one nearly Gail’s size, lined with magnets on one side and attitude thrusters on the other. She consults the ship’s specs as she places them: they have to be on the strongest parts of the Horizon’s structure, where pulling on the cables not only moves the ship in the right direction but won’t let it twist around farther than the jets can compensate for. Then she has to clamp the deceleration engine on the ship’s stern. All told, it’s nearly two hours of work before everything’s set and Kismet can reel her in.
The work’s not quite finished when the ship sounds a soft alert chime over the suit radio and speaks again. “The port operator at Molinar indicates a representative of Keces Industries wishes to meet with you about the wreck when it is towed back.”
“The cooperation request does not list a specific reason.”
Mara’s Wounds. A cooperation request has no legal binding—no judiciary would back an attempt to enforce it, so she could just tell them to go blow themselves. But no judiciary would compel a company to do business with someone they find “uncooperative,” either, and Keces is one of those old corporate beasts with their tentacles everywhere. They run the port on Molinar and a half-dozen other platforms. They own shops and repair facilities and for all she knows the Magnolia Cafe chain. Also, they’re heavily involved with transforms. Every totemic knows their name, and probably two-thirds owe Keces in part or whole for the biotech that makes them what they are.
Back at the bar she caught something about Keces on the news. Shit. What was it? A series of explosions at some of their labs? This ship couldn’t be connected, could it? That’s a hell of a leap, but she’s been a salvor for well over a decade and never had a request like this. “Fine. Accept.”
Once she gets back inside Kismet she peels off the suit, pushing herself back into the sofa and breathing deeply, taking in the scents of the air circulation’s cleaner—something only a totemic with a sensitive nose would pick up—and of coffee, a faint odor that’s become part of the ship after all this time. “Lock in the tow cables.”
“Okay.” Her acceleration rate is reduced by two-thirds when towing and deceleration is even worse; the anemic little engine clamped onto the wreck is all that keeps it from merrily smashing into Kismet if the tug’s speed is even a fraction slower. So she’s not going to get in until mid-morning. She rubs her face, then snags the crossword from where it’s floating. “Onward.”