Extract from K. R. Richardson's BLOOD ORBIT

Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Pyr, here's an extract from K. R. Richardson's upcoming Blood Orbit. Don't let that cover deceive you. The book has garnered some rave reviews. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

This science fiction police procedural pairs an idealistic rookie with an officer who uses cybernetic implants to process forensics; in solving a mass murder, they will uncover a vast conspiracy.

Eric Matheson, an idealistic rookie cop trying to break from his powerful family, is plunged into the investigation of a brutal crime in his first weeks on the job in Angra Dastrelas, the corrupt capital city of the corporate-owned planet Gattis. A newcomer to the planet, Matheson is unaware of the danger he’s courting when he’s promoted in the field to assist the controversial Chief Investigating Forensic Officer, Inspector J. P. Dillal, the planet’s first cybernetically enhanced investigator. Coming from a despised ethnic underclass, the brilliant and secretive Dillal seems determined to unravel the crime regardless of the consequences. The deeper they dig, the more dangerous the investigation becomes. But in a system where the cops enforce corporate will, instead of the law, the solution could expose Gattis’s most shocking secrets and cost thousands of lives—including Matheson’s and Dillal’s.



Day 1: Wednesday

Dreihleat Angra Dastrelas—0221

“Matheson! Get here now!” Santos, his training officer, sounded panicked. Matheson snatched the mobile data device out of its two horizontal loops on his shirt. “Where are you?”

“At the—At Paz. Y’know, the jasso on the alley. Fuck . . . somethin’s wrong. Door’s locked. The door should be open—it’s always open!”

Matheson turned back the way he’d come and started running for the alley. He knew they shouldn’t have split, not even to finish rounds on time. He raced through wisps of rising fog, the multi-colored glow from OLED vines woven to form pictographic signs above every shopfront scattering copies of his tall, thin shadow along the walls. His boot steps were loud in the twisty, filthy streets, and the tropical humidity made his breath rasp in his throat and his hair cling around his face in straight, black strands.

Everything legal in the ethnic ghetto was closed now, and most of the tourists had gone back to their clean, safe hotels near the quay. If there was anyone else around aside from drunks dozing in alleys between the squat low-rise buildings of carved blue stone, they slipped out of sight as Matheson approached. Only a handful of jassos—illegal gambling clubs, fight pits, and the more genteel variety of drug dens—were still operating at this hour. They were inescapable features of the city’s tourist-based economy, and not the priority of rookie patch-pounders like Matheson—so Santos had told him.

Santos whipped around as Matheson rushed into the narrow passage. The older, shorter ofiçe was halfway across the alley as if he’d been pacing and his sudden turn made his injured knee wobble. He caught his balance by grabbing at the club’s massive entryway pillars. A discreet lamp barely illuminated the door within the deep shadow cast by an overhanging second story. No other light shone from around the doorframe.

Santos pointed toward the door with a shaking hand. “Check it.”

Matheson hesitated. Santos was trembling more than his weakened knee should have caused and his brown eyes showed too much white. “Didn’t you do that already?”

“Yeah. But—This door ain’t never locked before 0500 on a festival night and if there’s somethin’ wrong, I don’t want nobody sayin’ we didn’t do this right. You check it.”

Warily, Matheson pulled the Sun Spot off his belt—why wasn’t Santos using his?—and shined it on the door as he edged up to it. He stayed well clear of a dark shadow on the ground as he reached to try the handle. “It’s locked. As you said. Did you try your override?”

“Not that kinda lock, kid. That’s a bolt-and-key—old school.”

“But there’s a lock pad—”

“Don’t you tell me what there is and isn’t, Fishbait. Override won’t do shit—you try it.”

Matheson ran his ID badge through the lock and entered his access code, pressing his shoulder to the door so it would spring free.

The door lurched a little under his weight, but remained closed. Santos moved up beside him and drew his baton from his belt as Matheson tried again.

Nothing changed.

Matheson pounded on the door. “GISA ofiçe! Open up!”

Silence. Then a metallic slide and rattle as Santos flicked his baton out to full extension. “Break it,” the older man said. “Break it down.” His voice was rough and Matheson could smell him sweating.

“Why? Maybe they closed up early.”

“It’s an after-hours club for the locals! They should be open by now on a festival night and Loni or someone should be in there, but they’re not sayin’ nothin’. Break the fuckin’ door!”

Santos’s nerves convinced him. Matheson stowed his light and badge, and used his own baton to break the handle. Then he stepped back and drove his heel hard against the latch plate.

The door groaned and splintered around the lock. Matheson’s second kick popped it open and he reached for his Sun Spot again as Santos lurched into the darkened room beyond.

The stink hit at the same time the light cast harsh illumination inside. The thin green and white carpet and gold-trimmed walls were splashed crimson around four human figures that lay like broken dolls on the bar room floor. Merry fucking hell. Matheson gagged and turned his head and the light to the right, but there was no relief there. More bodies lay in a loose arc across the floor of the gaming room. His spot-light’s beam gleamed white on an eye that had been blown from its socket, and sparked a rainbow glitter from a woman’s jeweled shoe and stocking. The smell of bloody death clotted in his nose and, for an instant, it seemed like there were a hundred corpses—a thousand brown-and-yellow bodies—sinking into darkness that swelled from the unlit corners.

Santos let out a choking sound as Matheson wrenched away from the scene.

Santos’s leg folded under as he twisted away, and he fell forward, slamming his head and shoulder into the pillar. He collapsed against the wall and down to the ground as Matheson bolted past him and vomited in the alley. When the heaves stopped, the shivers started. Matheson put all his weight against the nearest wall and keyed his mobile. But he couldn’t remember the codes or what to say. He managed to give his identification but the rest was still out of his grasp. “We need assistance. My partner—my TO—is down. He’s injured . . . And we have a murder. No. Ten . . . at least ten bodies here . . .”

“I’ll get the Investigation Officer of the Day for you and dispatch assistance to your location.”

How can she be so calm? Matheson thought.

“Stay put and keep your comms open.”

He gulped and nodded before he remembered to speak. “O-okay.” Santos didn’t move as Matheson slid down the wall to sit shivering and tasting the bile in his mouth as he waited.


Day 1: Hospital—Pre-dawn

Merry hell, what a nightmare. Matheson had escorted Santos to Public Health, but he wasn’t allowed to leave, yet, because it took three Gattis Corporation regional directors arguing for hours to decide if a mass murder in an ethnic ghetto was worth investigating, how it would be paid for, and who would get stuck with it.

Sit tight, they’d ordered, and then accompany the CIFO to the site. Without his TO to whisper in his ear, the Assistant Regional Director had had to remind Matheson: “Chief Investigating Forensic Ofiçe—not ‘Officer.’ You’re employees of Gattis Corporation, not officers of the law.” It wasn’t what he’d learned at the academy, but if they didn’t want a real policeman, he didn’t know why he’d been sent to Gattis. He felt he was barely treading water in the sea of everything he didn’t know.

Callista said I wouldn’t last three days as a cop. She was wrong, but . . . did I really know what I was getting into? Or was I just being contrary? He was five months and six days out of the academy, galaxies removed from Central System, and so horrified and tired he could barely stand.

Matheson had lost track of how many hours he had been awake and his eyes itched from lack of sleep, but he kept them open as he rested his forehead against the window, watching the changing illumination of the city below. The hospital had been gouged into the cliff at the beginning of the terraform, so long ago now that no one noticed it had a view billionaires would vie for. The upper half of the Angra Dastrelas—the Cove of Stars for which the city was named— was framed in the waning night sky by the Pillars of Archon. The two megaliths guarded a hole in the stone scarp that circled the crater and pinched the throat of the shallow inlet forming the actual cove. The nighttime water reflected and multiplied innumerable stars, while the landscape and a quirk of the tropical atmosphere made it look like they swirled from the bay and flooded upward into space. Beautiful. But now dawn crept in, and Gattis’s planetary capital seemed to ooze from the bottom of the cove and across the floor of Trant’s Crater like a stain.

Behind him the endless news feed and its chatter about upcoming festival schedules, politics, unrest in the agricamps, and which impossibly pretty celebrity was visiting town for Spring Moon poured through Matheson’s ears as an irritant. That and the cool, dry air of the building on the back of his neck were all that kept him from falling asleep on the spot. He fought the urge by recalling his first view from the jumpway: Gattis, its single thin ring and solitary moon above a slowly spinning ball of vibrant deep-water blue with two vast continents—Ariel and Agria—and the jeweled scatter of the Verdan Archipelago between them. Then the long flight down from jumpway to orbital, and the planetward fall until Ariel filled every view and the planetary capital seemed to rise out of the tropical jungle cut clean by the crater’s edge. Now he concentrated on trying to pick the Angra Dastrelas spaceport out of the riot of city lights and emerging shapes. He spotted the tidy squares of the pad lights at last, far across the crater floor, remembered the instantly sticky heat, and the stink of fish and fuel that had wrapped him as he’d stepped out of Worker Intake—


Startled, he turned toward the shout. The lab-coated woman glaring at him was a hard, compact package of restrained fury under a shock of brush-cut, light-colored hair that was going gray. Early fifties, a little under average height, her complexion would have been a bland shade of Central System light brown if she hadn’t been slightly ruddy with anger. Her face was far from beautiful and her expression was sharp enough to cut ice.

“Just what sort of rear-echelon idiocy is this?” she demanded, brandishing the digital data pad she was holding. “I have an order to release my patient to you. He’s supposed to have six weeks recovery and evaluation after surgery and he’s only had two. This is a delicate experiment and the system isn’t fully integrated yet.”

Matheson blinked and frowned at her, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Doctor. It’s not up to me. I was just told to fetch him.”

“I don’t care what you were told to do. If you take him and anything goes wrong he could die, and I won’t be set back to square one on this project because Director Pritchet can’t hold his water.”

Matheson glared back. “This is not my doing. And I have no other orders but to wait for his release. If you expect me to do anything other than stand here until you give way or I get redirected, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

She glowered at him a moment longer. “You always do what you’re told?”

I am too tired for this. “No, but in this case, I don’t have a choice.” She growled as she thought about it, and then her mouth set into a sour quirk. “You break him and I’ll hold you responsible.” “It’s not my—”

“Hah! Oh, yes it is. He’s not ready to go into the field. The surgery breached the blood/brain barrier and if the site gets infected, things will go very wrong very fast. So until he’s back in my hands for reevaluation, you are not to let him wander around unattended. The instant—and I do mean the instant he seems to be in distress, you will return him to me. Got it?”

Probably hunt me down and flay me alive if I don’t. He didn’t relish being a nanny, but it beat explaining to Regional Director Pritchet why he hadn’t done as ordered. “Fine,” he snapped.

“Right answer.” She slapped the digital pad flat against his chest. “Sign this—and what the hell’s your name, anyway?”

“Matheson,” he replied, laying his ID on the pad and verifying it with his official hashmark. “Who are you?”

She took the pad back. “Doctor Andreus. The Forensic Integration Project is my baby, which makes Inspector Dillal my special concern.” She gave him a shrewd look. “Here’s what you need to know, in a nutshell: The system I’ve installed is part on-the-fly forensic sampling and analysis, and part communication and data integration, which makes him the link between Forensic Tech and Investigation. Theoretically, he can sample and analyze a simple crime scene on the spot, but I haven’t been able to test him. He’s functionally and physiologically unique. He’s also a pigheaded pain in the ass.” She paused and studied Matheson again. “You’ll be two of a kind.” Matheson might have taken exception if he’d had the energy, but he only cared about getting it over with.

“Against my better judgment, I’m letting you take him.” Dr. Andreus turned and pointed deeper into the facility. “It’s the room at the end of the green slideway.” She turned back and gave him a hard look. “Don’t fuck me over.”

Matheson let his eyes close a moment. “Thank you.” His eyelids were so gritty and heavy that they seemed to scratch his eyeballs raw. He tugged at his wrinkled uniform and headed for the slideway, happy to leave the doctor behind.

His head was spinning with fatigue by the time he reached the room at the end of the sliding walkway. The door stood open, so he entered. The room was gloomy and it had an odd smell, like industrial solvent and copper. Better than the jasso . . .

A small, bright light snapped on over the bed and he took a step back, dazzled for a moment. A soft rustling sound, then nothing. He peered toward the glare.

“Dillal?” He stumbled over the pronunciation a little and moved deeper into the room. “I’m SO Eric Matheson. I’m looking for Inspector J. P. Dillal.”

The figure in the bed moved, and the room lights came up.

Even after what he had already seen that day, Matheson flinched away from the half-human visage that stared up into his own face. What did Andreus do? The left side of the patient’s skull had been shaved from the temple down all the way to the back. Cinnamon-red hair hadn’t grown out enough yet to hide the inorganic shape of something inserted beneath the flesh and bone. The orbit of the left eye had been redefined by an unnatural, hard edge and a livid incision, patched all around forehead and cheek with brown and olive spray skin that didn’t match the patient’s muddy amber complexion. The eye itself was too large and open to match the one on the right, and the iris was not the same brown, but a transparent gold color through which light reflected red.

Matheson tried to catalog the person lying in the bed. Male, thirty to thirty-five, under average height . . . but there he stumbled. The man was too distinctly colored for most of Central System, yet didn’t fit any of the planet’s ethnic groups, either. Too short for Dreihle, too slight for Ohba, and he certainly wasn’t Gattian, with their skin and hair tinged the same vivid blue as the planet’s pervasive sand. Judging by the size of his remaining pupil and the way he clenched his jaw, the patient was in some pain, but if he was drugged, it wasn’t much. That jarred Matheson back to his duty.

He swallowed and asked, “Are you Inspector Dillal? Did I say that right?”

The man in the bed shrugged one shoulder and tilted his head. Only the brown eye blinked. “Close enough.” His voice was soft and tired.

Matheson dropped his gaze. “Sir, you’re being recalled to active duty. The Regional Director pushed the paper through and Dr. Andreus released you to me. I know you’ve only had surgery recently, but this case—Well, Pritchet opened full cooperation and funding for a week, through half-moon.” He glanced back up, half expecting to be told off.

Dillal eased up to sitting. Then he narrowed his eyes and peered at Matheson. Something clicked as the lid around the strange golden eye tightened. “The case . . . is what sort of crime?” The inspector rolled his Rs slightly and his slow voice had an odd, round intonation.

Matheson’s empty stomach churned. “It’s a—a massacre, sir. Maybe a gang execution. In a jasso.”

Dillal rubbed his face gently with both hands and pushed his fingers through his hair and stubble. Then he swung his feet out of the tall hospital bed. They didn’t quite reach the floor. Matheson started forward to help him, but Dillal waved him off and pointed at the closet. “My clothes. Please.”

Matheson retrieved a flat, vacuum-sealed package and laid it on the bed. Then he turned his back, grateful not to look at the inspector for a moment—nothing Pritchet or Andreus had said had prepared him for that unsettling face, and only the horror he had recently seen kept sick fascination at bay.

He could hear Dillal drawing the clothes on and hissing at sudden pains. The bed squeaked and then there was silence. Matheson edged back around. Discarded vacuum wrap lay at the end of the bed beside a scuffed MDD and a closed ID folder. The inspector, now fully dressed in a loose charcoal suit, was turned half away from Matheson and had braced his hands against the mattress. His head hung between his stiff arms and he’d clenched his eyes shut while he took impossibly deep, slow breaths.

“Are you all right, sir?” Matheson’s voice scraped his throat like a handful of tacks.

Dillal gave a low grunt as he straightened and turned his head to regard Matheson over his shoulder. “You have a report?” he asked, taking a few things from the bedside table, then tucking his mobile and ID into his jacket pockets.

“We don’t have one, yet, sir. Senior Detive Neme is waiting on-scene to hand off to you.”

The inspector turned all the way around, then put his hand over his strange eye for a moment. “Yes. All right.” He took another long breath, dropped his hand, then started out the door at a steady pace. “Which jasso? Which district?”

“The Paz da Sorte in the Dreihleat.”

Dillal stopped. “Paz?” He looked startled. Or that’s what half his face looked. The left side didn’t move above the merest downturn of his mouth.

“What?” Matheson asked.

Dillal shook off his concern, his whole mismatched face going blank. “Irony—Paz means ‘peace.’ There’s no preliminary whatsoever?” Preliminary peace? Oh. “Only my own recording, which isn’t much.” “You were on-scene?” “It was on our patch—my TO’s and mine. I can send what I have to your mobile . . .”

“If you would,” the inspector said, taking the battered device from his jacket pocket and holding it out as they walked on.

Odd. He expected Matheson to transfer the file directly by contact link. It was a more secure protocol than sending it though the data system, but harder to track and not much used. Dillal’s strangeness lay in more than his face.

The inspector’s mobile was strictly as-issued and displayed nothing personal; it bore only the Gattis Investigation and Security Administration’s orange logo of an eight-pointed star with the horizontal arms extending into a stripe across the top of the screen and the acronym just below. Matheson’s own Peerless MDD—even at three years old—looked like a thoroughbred trying to mate with a broken down pony. Ugh, there’s an image to forget. He handed the device back as soon as the confirmation pinged.

Matheson glanced at the message—it didn’t give the inspector’s rank or regional, only his name. Huh. He slipped the Peerless back into its loops on his shirt front.

The humidity clung the moment they were outside and Matheson was quick to open the passenger door of the GISA-issued skimmer, hoping the inspector would get in before the interior of the vehicle caught too much thick air. He hurried to his own door and ducked in, flipping the environmental controls even as he slid into the seat, sighing in the first whiff of drier air. Everyone said it wasn’t too bad yet, but even this early in the morning, the moist air felt like wool in his throat. It smelled of earth and fish and industrial waste near the health center—not much improvement on the Dreihleat, and summer would be worse.

Matheson dove the skimmer into Angra Dastrelas traffic, concentrating on that, not on the inspector beside him, and not on the scene that awaited ahead. He jinked it through the anarchy of vehicles rushing across and around the crater, with no airway markers or apparent rules but those the pilots made up on the spot. It still scared the shit out of him, even though he’d yet to be hit by another skimmer. He understood why most tourists stuck to cabs and the slideways, rightly terrified to go aloft in anything less than a continent-class transport.

“What do you know about this jasso?” Dillal asked as they plunged into the maelstrom of traffic. He spoke as if he measured out every word from a limited ration.

“Almost nothing—some kind of local business owners’ after-hours place that doubled-up in legal drinking and illegal gambling. I barely knew it was there. I’ve only been on Gattis for a month and I was assigned to this patch in the Dreihleat with my TO two weeks ago. First posting after graduating Fresnel.”

Dillal nodded without turning to look at him. “Gattis’s corporate-ruled security and investigation protocols differ from Central System law enforcement you learned at the academy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you falling in?”

Matheson hesitated, and twitched the skimmer into a momentarily empty stretch of air. “I’m . . . coming to terms.”

As the skimmer shrieked on its way, Dillal said nothing and turned his attention to his mobile. After a minute or so, he pressed his head back against the seat and covered his golden eye with one hand. By the time Matheson set the skimmer down on the street near the Paz da Sorte, Dillal had closed both eyes and set the MDD down on his leg. Matheson thought the inspector was asleep, but his eyes opened—the left eye emitting another quiet mechanical click—just as the skimmer leveled to land. The inspector was out of the little vehicle before Matheson had flipped the engine switch down.


Day 1: Early morning

Matheson fell in behind the inspector’s brisk stride down the street, surprised by the man’s resilience and apparent cool, and sure his own singlet and uniform shirt were clinging to the small of his back by the time he’d gone four steps.

A handful of early-morning loiterers, mostly Dreihleen and a few hard-luck out-system immigrants, stared toward the alley that was now choked with GISA personnel and official vehicles. Most winced and stepped aside with averted eyes when they saw the inspector; one Dreihle looked at Dillal as if he were a thing that had crept up from a sewer full of nightmares. The man backed away before turning and hurrying off.

Beyond the gawkers, SOs and a few Investigation Ofiçes blocked the way while a scattering of technicians in white coveralls moved purposefully in the alley behind them. Matheson saw no sign of issued firearms; plainly the situation didn’t merit breaking that part of the administration’s “don’t scare the tourists” policy. Dillal stopped beside the Security Ofiçes forming the cordon at the edge of the crime scene. The nearest of them, a muscular woman with shoulders that would do a transport cargo master proud, glanced down at the inspector as if to shoo him away, then stiffened and gaped at his patchwork face.

Dillal ignored her expression and put his left hand out palm up, showing the shiny black-and-red checkerboard of a high-level ID array incised in the skin just above his wrist. “I’m the Chief Investigating Forensic Ofiçe.” His voice remained soft, measured, and cool.

The SO swiped her mobile’s screen in a pro forma wave over the ID crystals, still appalled. If the inspector unnerved her, she hadn’t seen the inside of the nightclub.

“Detive Neme is in the transport down the alley,” the ofiçe mumbled and added, “In-inspector.”

Dillal nodded and stepped past her, motioning Matheson to follow. The ofiçe muttered as they passed, “Mother of fucking stars. Couldn’t pay me enough to do that, promotion or not.” The inspector gave no sign that he’d heard, but he couldn’t have missed it.

Dillal paused inside the cordon and looked around, his gaze moving slowly over the exterior of the buildings, then down to the ground. He squinted a little and rubbed at his shaved temple with his fingertips.

“Matheson. I need a light, here,” he said, pointing to the ground in front of the jasso’s broken door.

A broadening arc of stares followed as Matheson walked over, pulled his Sun Spot from his belt, and turned the bright white light where the inspector indicated.

The spotlight illuminated a curving red-brown line on the old ash-clay tiles. Two rippled blotches of the same color lay within the bracket-shaped line. Was there something here earlier? He couldn’t recall.

Dillal crouched down and peered at the marks, his golden eye gleaming. He squinted and a series of quiet clicks sounded as he touched his temple. Then he humphed to himself and closed his eyes, leaning forward a little while breathing deeply through his nose and mouth. Finally he rocked back and rested on his heels with his forearms on his knees. He frowned as he opened his eyes.

“What is it?” Matheson asked.

Dillal seemed to have forgotten him. “Hm? It’s a sole impression. In blood.” He indicated the curved line. “That’s the outside edge of someone’s right shoe.” He pointed at the enclosed blotches. “Those are part of the traction pattern at the ball and heel. I’m not getting a clear idea of the blood constituent or origin. It’s dried, but that shouldn’t cause such a problem.” He stood up, still scowling, and tapped the shaved side of his skull. “The equipment is still strange to me. The calibration—there’s so much noise . . .” he muttered.

He shifted his disconcerting stare to Matheson’s face and studied him with the same intensity he’d turned on the bloody footprint.

Does he know I lost it earlier? He can’t. Matheson drew himself up and stared back. An approving smile flickered across half the inspector’s face before he turned his gaze back down.

Dillal pointed to the bloodstain. “ForTech will take a reference still, if they haven’t already, but take an additional one now, please, and join me inside.” Then he stepped over the footprint with care and eased through the open doorway, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets.

Matheson took the picture with his mobile and tagged it. He was just a pace behind Dillal when he heard him gag. A reek of blood, human waste, and burned flesh still hung on the air inside. The room was growing stuffy as well, now that the sun was rising, intensifying the stench that attracted flies and scavenger centipedes.

The ventilation system was off and racks of lamps had been set up in the corners. Hard white light fell on the crusting pools of blood that surrounded the bodies and stuck everything to the floor in gruesome tableaux. In the harsh illumination, it all looked worse than before. Most of the victims had black zip tape sealed across their mouths. More swathes of the stuff bound their arms at the wrists and their legs above the knees. Most lay on their sides or face down in the gore and fluids that had poured out of them. There were small ragged holes—some charred around the edges—in their heads and necks. Twelve dead in the gaming room, lying amid the scatter of brightly colored chips, white dice, and cocktail glasses rimed red, game tiles, and cards going rust brown as they dried. Directly before them, four bodies in the bar room had fallen randomly at the foot of the bar. A small table had been overturned, spilling cups of tea and a plate of food, now writhing with insects, across the white-clad belly of a Dreihle youth, his expression of shock punctuated with a small bullet hole in his forehead.

Matheson forced down the acid creeping up his throat.

Dillal had covered his eyes and mouth, then slowly drew his hands away again. He swept the rooms with his strange gaze, and took a short breath through his mouth. He coughed and gagged a little, shaking his head like a wet dog. He tasted the air again, then he shuddered and switched to sniffing, the right side of his mouth curling in disgust. “This will take a while. Fetch Detive Neme, please.” Dillal skirted the walls with his hands once again in his pockets as he stepped deeper into the room.

I should stay with the inspector. But even the threat of Dr. Andreus’s ire if something went wrong didn’t stop Matheson leaving. It was a relief to retreat from the slaughter house scene and leave Dillal alone for a moment. The carnage was repellant—even the worst virtuals his instructors had thrown at him hadn’t hardened him against whatever had played out inside the club. It should have been better in the light, where his imagination couldn’t fill in horrors, but it wasn’t, and remaining detached and observant was a struggle.

Outside, he tapped the nearest ofiçe on the shoulder—a guy he didn’t recognize, wearing Investigation Ofiçe insignia on his uniform. “Go in and assist the CIFO until I get back.”

The IO bristled and shook his head. “No fucking way. I have seen some gruesome shit—race riots, some drug dealer dismembered by his gang for going grass . . . Bad enough to get hauled in on my off shift to cover something that makes those scenes look cheery, but on top of that, you think I should work up close and personal with that bong met? You’re out of your blighted mind, junior.”

Met he’d heard before—an insult that meant “mixed,” though some embraced it as a badge of identity. Matheson didn’t know this new slur, but it carried a lash of corrosive loathing. He gaped at the IO—who certainly couldn’t claim to be pure anything, unless it was asshole. “What? You won’t even give the man your spray seal and stand by the door? Why? You think his color will rub off on you?”

The IO glared. “You don’t get it, do you? That’s J. P. Di-frigging-llal. He just disappeared about a year and a half ago and we all figured somebody’d finally whacked the half-yellow bastard. Now we got a bunch of dreck clan boys killing another bunch, and he’s in charge? That’s some messed up shit.”

Fury tightened Matheson’s fists.

A bored voice came from close behind Matheson before he could lose his horror-frayed temper. “Shut it, Vicenne.”

Matheson spun, expecting more trouble, and found a mild-faced man whose cheap tan suit clashed with his smoky, dark brown complexion. He had to be from Investigation and was clearly a step up from IO Vicenne. Not a Detive. An IAD?

The stranger offered an apologetic smile and stepped around him to address Vicenne. “Your gutter mouth could be why you’re still an IO.” The IO spat on the ground. “Go jump, Istvalk.”

The man in the suit sighed. “Still wouldn’t boot you up if I did. Give me your kit and I’ll take it in.”

Vicenne glowered, but he took the compact scene kit from his pocket and handed it over. “Kiss ass,” he muttered.

Istvalk rolled his eyes and waved the other man away. Then he started for the jasso door without another word.

Matheson frowned after him. “Thanks,” he called, but the other just shrugged and walked on. Matheson took a deep breath and started down the narrow alley.

The operations transport was set down in the crossing alley like a gargantuan cat that had chased a rat into a too-narrow hole. He shook his head. They’ll have to vertical the damned thing out when they’re done here. Not sure how they got it in to begin with.

When Matheson stepped inside, Aleztra Neme was pacing the width of the transport and talking to someone out of view. She was in her mid-thirties, slim to average build, a little over average height for a Gattian woman, and could trace her family back to before First Settlement—as they all could. She didn’t have the typical deathly, cyanic pallor—her skin was dusty gray and the distinctive Gattian blue tinge seemed to float over it like the sheen on the surface of a pearl. She dressed in casually expensive simplicity that only the wealthy could afford, and she might have been beautiful if she hadn’t had the personality of a rogue crocodile.

“. . . Not like courts martial investigations—” she was saying. She cut herself off and turned her glare on Matheson. “Well?” Neme snapped. Her curling indigo hair seemed to spark with the static electricity of her annoyance.

He’d met Senior Detive Neme only twice before, but had come to dislike her the first time. “Inspector Dillal would like to speak with you in the jasso.”

“Inspector! All that cut-rate surgery comes with a nice promotion. How’s he doing?”

Matheson shrugged, as non-committal and bland as possible. Don’t give her an opening. “Fine, sir.”

“I’ll bet.” Neme glanced at the other GISA investigator who sat farther back in the transport. “Well, we now know that the price of ambition is one eye and a chunk of your brain,” she said.

The older detive sprawled in his seat, drinking something that steamed from a black mug between his grit-spangled hands. Investigation Officer of the Day . . . what’s his name? They’d met earlier, but Matheson hadn’t been tracking well at the time. The man offered Neme a thin smile. “It’s less than a soul.”

“Maybe, but you wouldn’t catch me handing that over to the lowest bidder, either. Not just to vault GISA’s ladder, anyway.”

“Not your damn problem, though, is it, Neme?” the man said. “Privilege of birth.”

Rank.” Neme sniffed and turned back to Matheson. “Okay, let’s go. Orris, you’re coming, too.”

Orris sighed and followed them out of the transport. He looked about fifty and his Central-tan skin had acquired an indoor pallor. He was on the tall side of average, but stooped a little and carried extra weight around his middle that exaggerated his bad posture. His graying blond hair was thinning on top and brushed straight back, and he clearly gave no sort of a damn for elegance—over his street clothes he wore an ancient uniform jacket so stained and worn it looked pale blue rather than the buff-and-khaki Matheson wore. Neme’s barbs didn’t bother him either.

They crossed the few meters of alley in silence and entered the building. Matheson stayed at the rear, rubbing the back of his sweaty neck as fine needles of tamped panic stabbed into his empty gut.

Neme coughed in revulsion and Matheson looked past her, searching for Inspector Dillal. He saw Istvalk lurking near the inner security door and taking shallow breaths through his mouth. He continued his visual search for the inspector, not sure what to do next.

Dillal was crouching beside one of the bodies in the gaming room and, aside from the stirring and breathing of the people beside Matheson, all was silence.

“GISA graces us with its new Forensic Ofiçe,” Neme observed aloud, shattering the momentary calm. She began to walk across the bar room floor. “Quite a jump—IAD to Inspector in a year. I didn’t think Pritchet would send his precious new toy out for a gang war.”

Without turning, Dillal pointed a warning finger at Neme. “Don’t contaminate my scene.”

“The hell—?” Neme snorted and stared at him in affront.

Dillal turned without rising and gave her a baleful stare. The artificial eye cast a red gleam toward the Gattian and Neme stiffened, recoiling from her first view of Dillal’s face before she stopped herself and let a flicker of disgust curl her lip.

The inspector did not break his cold expression with an answering reaction. “The blood in the carpeting is still fluid,” he said. “If you step onto the floor here, you’ll track DNA into these samples. I’ve already found several patches of cross-contamination. I’d prefer not to have more.” His tone could have chilled nitrogen liquid from the air.

Surprise rippled over Neme’s face before her usual sneer slid back into place. “Really? What about your own feet, you officious little rag?”

Dillal, entirely composed, rose and pointed to a bit of clear sheeting nearby. “IAD Istvalk provided me spray seal and sheath—per procedure.” He looked at the IAD. “You can go now.”

Istvalk’s gaze flickered to Neme, who narrowed her eyes and twitched her head at him in dismissal. As the IAD left, Dillal stepped over the body and onto the sheath material, making his way back along the edges of the room to the bar.

Neme glowered, but stepped back onto the ash-clay tiles near the vestibule, waiting in the less-sensitive zone away from the blood-soaked carpets. Self-important ass, but not stupid. And it appeared that the inspector had decided to own her insult rather than take umbrage. Orris stood slightly behind Neme with his arms crossed over his chest, hands tucked into his armpits so a band of scruffy wrist was all that showed.

Dillal joined them, glancing at Matheson as he stepped onto the tiles. He rubbed his fingertips together and the spray seal peeled here and there, rolling into tiny gray grains that clung to his skin. Orris reached in front of Neme and handed the inspector a packet of clean up wipes from his own pocket. Matheson caught himself frowning at the gesture, too tired to wonder why.

“Thank you.” Dillal wiped the translucent coating off his hands and wrists. He didn’t move to clean the spray off his shoes, though Matheson could see the film on their surfaces.

“So,” Neme began. “I assume your magical analysis has already solved the case and it’s just a matter of rounding the bastards up. Right?”

Dillal shot her a dismissive frown. “There are sixteen bodies here and a great deal of other material to be sorted out. The forensic system does not run any faster in my skull than it does in the lab, Detive, though it does run more discreetly.” He finished wiping down his hands and looked up at Neme, who was practicing her superior smile. “However, it should allow me to proceed with a thorough investiga tion much faster than you would.” He looked at Orris.

The older man just shrugged, his hands tucked away again. “If Pritchet says it’s yours, I got no argument.”

Neme bridled and her expression went cold. “For the record, what does the evidence say, right now?” She was following protocol on handing it off, though normally she’d be the one reciting sit rep, not the incoming investigator. She doesn’t like handing off, or is it just handing off to him?

Dillal tilted his head and studied her for a long moment. He quirked the right corner of his mouth into an ironic smile and turned back to regard the scene. “The victims are all Dreihleen adults—six female and ten male, from fifteen to seventy-two years of age. All local and all recorded in the database as required—do you want the names?” Neme scowled and shook her head. “Get on with it.”

Dillal nodded. “They died about four hours ago—between oh-one-thirty and oh-two-thirty, most likely. Causes of death are variously trauma or blood loss from wounds to the head and neck. These wounds were inflicted with two types of weapons—short-plasma projectors, and small-caliber firearms. As yet, no casings or bullets have been recovered, so I can’t say if all the shots were from the same weapon or from several—”

Neme smirked. “You’re not sure?”

Dillal cast his red-sparked stare back at her. “The bullets will have to be removed from the bodies for comparison before I can make absolute statements. We’re not set up for an autopsy here—much less sixteen of them.” He returned his gaze to the bodies. “The plasma burns are most likely from pen torches, but, even if we find them, the weapons wouldn’t be much evidentiary use in court without DNA and prints to tie them to suspects.”

Neme clenched her teeth. Orris stood and watched the byplay with a sarcastic smile of long familiarity and Matheson had an inkling of what had induced Dillal to submit to such ghastly surgery.

The inspector continued, “By the evidence, the victims were robbed, bound, and gagged, and placed on the floor, but not all at once. They were collected over an hour or more while the killers robbed the premises and lay in wait for more victims. Two of the victims weren’t tied when they died.” He paused to point to two bodies that lay the farthest back in the room, away from the rest. “They appear to be the only ones with defensive wounds—but all were killed within a few minutes of each other. Then the killers left. Possibly one of them—or one of our own men—tracked blood onto the tiles in the vestibule and alley, leaving partial sole impressions. Either before or after the robbery, the door lock was broken.”

Neme had glowered through the whole recitation, now she interrupted again. “Santos and Matheson were first on the scene. The rookie says they broke the lock to gain access.”

Dillal turned to Matheson, inquiring with a look. “Santos—my TO—ordered me to break it when I arrived,” Matheson said, scowling. All of this was in my report. “We’d split the block because of the alley and his knee was slowing him down—he’d twisted it earlier while we were in pursuit of a pickpocket. I was about halfway around, rousting a dealer from a doorway, when he called me. When I got here, Santos was just outside the door. He thought the situation was suspicious, so I checked the door myself and broke the lock. We stepped inside and saw the scene, then I called it in.”

“Why did Santos call you?”

“He was concerned that the jasso was locked up when it should have been open for after-hours business. He’s been on this patch for a long time and I guess—”

“Don’t guess. Where is Santos?”

Matheson shifted his eyes away from Dillal’s gaze. “He . . . was injured, sir.”

“He went jumpwise,” Orris answered, “and knocked his brain loose. He was just sittin’ up again when I got here. The rook—” he added, jerking his thumb at Matheson, “blew lunch, but he stuck on until I arrived. Sent Santos to Public Health, and Admin held Matheson there to spring you while they argued with the docs. The rest of us have been standin’ around like the Pillars and readin’ the graffiti until you got here.”

Matheson was sure he could see something moving in Dillal’s head. What sort of machine did Andreus shove in there?

“Do you surmise that the killers locked the door as they left?” Dillal asked.

“Must have,” Matheson replied, feeling a little queasy.

“Was the ventilation off when you arrived on the scene?” Matheson had to think before he could answer. “No. It was on.” “Who turned it off?”

Orris answered for him. “ForTech. To put collection filters in the vents.”

Dillal’s right eyebrow descended into half a scowl. “Humidity and insects degrade evidence and the filters will catch nothing if there’s no draft.” Orris nodded, but didn’t move.

“What about the shoe?” Neme asked.

“Shoe?” Dillal seemed thrown by the question.

“The one that made the bloody print by the door. Can’t you tell whose it is?” she sneered.

“It’s an indeterminate print. I need to make comparisons and eliminate all the GISA personnel on scene. It may be Santos’s or Matheson’s as easily as one of the killers’.”

“You seem pretty sure there’s more than one perp.”

“Yes. The holding and binding of the victims would require two, but it was probably more.”

“The more gang members there are, the more likely one’ll grass,” Neme said. “You know the fucking drecks and humps always brag their kills—they’ve been slaughtering each other over clan rights since before First Settlement.”

“This wasn’t clan against clan or Ohba against Dreihleen,” Dillal stated in his dry, measured tone. “The Paz da Sorte is neutral territory in the Dreihleat, and there aren’t any society marks in evidence, either Ohba or Dreihleen.”

Neme peered down her nose at the inspector. “And you should know.” Dillal cocked an eyebrow at her. “As well as you should.” Then he changed the subject. “Have the ofiçes learned anything from witnesses, yet? It’s not likely anyone heard the shooting with such small caliber projectiles and plasmas, but perhaps something—”

“Something is nothing,” Neme snapped back. “So far, no one saw or heard anything. Which is why it’s got to be a clan thing. It’s not system-hoppers, and if it was humps or mets, the drecks would be crushing each other in their rush to point fingers. These insular duck-fuckers are tighter than a mouse’s ass when it’s their own people for the chop.”

Dillal didn’t seem to hear Neme’s slurs. “Then we’ll continue asking. Coordinate the canvass in the Dreihleat before you go, and turn the reports over to me later. Matheson and I will continue with the scene. Detive Orris, are you still on shift as IOD?”

“About four hours into overtime, just like the kid, here. Half the guys assigned to this patch were up too late the night before, too—you know this fuckin’ festival schedule.”

Matheson had had his baptism by fire: his first week on the street was the second week of Spring Moon—a month-long mutation of some agricultural fertility festival Angra Dastrelas clung to like a greedy monkey that couldn’t stand to pull its fist empty out of a nut jar. With engineered agribusiness, the festival’s timing was moot these days, but the tourism and its revenue stream remained—which was all the planetary corporation cared about. The showier events were staged in more glamorous or family-friendly venues near Cove Quay, run by and for people higher on the social scale, but the hardcore traditionalists and culture mavens could still find the real thing in the Dreihleat—if they didn’t mind the pickpockets and drug dealers.

Dillal nodded at Orris. “No reason for you to stay. Tell someone to turn the ventilation back on as you go, and send your report to my office before your next shift. I’ll check on Santos.”

Orris flipped a sardonic salute to the inspector and wasted no time leaving the building. Dillal, Neme, and Matheson followed him outside and toward the transport. Matheson sucked in purging lungfuls of thick air scented with boozy urine and the odors of early breakfasts cooking. The keyhole glimpses of sky over the alley showed pink. He looked at his mobile: 0537. He’d thought it was later.

The comparatively clean air was no substitute for sleep. He was abraded by exhaustion and the rough grit of his reined and unsorted emotions—he was too tired to be horrified, now—he only felt chilled, and so detached from his own brain that he moved in slow motion.

“You going to toss it again, rook?” Neme asked.

Matheson squeezed his eyes and ground his teeth against a surge of fury that was pleasantly warm. Probably thinks overtime’s beneath her. He caught a breath through his nose and cut a look at the senior detive. “No, sir.” “Detive,” Dillal said.

Neme turned her superior smirk toward Inspector Dillal. Rank or not, she thinks he’s beneath her, too.

Neither spoke for a moment.

“As Santos is not available,” Dillal said, “I’ll require SO Matheson’s presence here a while longer, and I’d like to second him to my office for the duration of the investigation. As you are handing off, do you have an objection?”

Neme frowned and flipped a hand dismissively. “Oh, now you’re by the book are you?”

“Have you ever known me not to be? I could go to Belcourso, or Pritchet, if you prefer . . .”

She snorted—it almost seemed as if she spat. “No. Why should I object? What good is he on this patch if he falls apart over a bit of blood? He’ll be your millstone, now.”

Matheson scowled after her as she walked away into the alley, patting her pockets.

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