Unexpected Rain: Excerpt

Below is an excerpt of UNEXPECTED RAIN:


Unexpected Rain
ebook: May 7th / paperback: Nov 5th

Chapter One

Kane stepped out of the house, gently closing the door behind him. The operator had dialed up a gorgeous evening in the sub-dome block. Stars were out. The constellations were clear and familiar; Orion, the bears, and all that nonsense. There was a low, ambient light on the street, a bit red in color, but it didn’t come from the tiny, flickering flames of the decorative street lamps, nor did it cause enough light pollution to obscure the view of the Milky Way.

Of course, Kane knew the stars were all wrong. It wasn’t even night on the planet’s surface. When people started leaving Earth and building domes on any rock with the right gravity, orbiting a star within a few sleepy decades of the Sol system, they set them up with twenty-four-hour-day cycles, weather, mild seasons, and all the minor natural comforts and annoyances that Earthlings were used to.

In block 23-D of a sub-dome called Gretel, near the primary dome called Blue Haven, just off the equator of the fourth planet from Barnard’s Star, it was the middle of the night. All the residents were fast asleep, happy to comply with the artificial temporal configuration. Domers, in general, didn’t question much of anything; they took the life doled out to them by their authorities and passively accepted it – were even grateful for it.

Kane had been a maintenance guy since Monday, and so by walking the streets in the middle of the make-believe night, he didn’t set off any alarms for the operator on duty. The job was a joke. The actual cleaning and maintenance of domes and sub-domes was handled by small armies of scrub-bots. The dog-sized, multi-legged, mobile vacuum-slash-scouring brushes did all the work during designated sleeping hours, rotating from one block to the next. Kane was supposed to be keeping the little bastards running – that was the job – but the reality of it was that they didn’t need any help. During orientation, it was explained to him that once in a while, one of them might get some bit of debris jammed up inside a leg joint, at which point he’d have to run through a troubleshooting script that ended with a call to a technician. Most of the veteran maintenance staff skipped the first five steps of the script, because nine times out of ten, they’d have to just call a tech anyway.

When it came down to it, Kane’s job nearly in its entirety consisted of hitting a single button that started the scrub-bots’ cleaning routine. As he walked through the fake night, he thought about the faceless operator sitting in front of a console somewhere, tweaking the temperature and humidity. The job of a block operator was only slightly less menial than his own, and not much more difficult. A few more buttons and a few more routines. This went for most jobs in a dome; most people were just button pushers. In a dome, that was the only way to keep everyone employed. It was more or less an artificial economy. Some people liked to say that with today’s technology, the whole human race could be kept alive by a handful of engineers, and that everyone else could just kick back and relax. But people never could shake that sense of accomplishment that earning an actual paycheck gives them, the way that a bank statement justifies their lives and measures their worth. They just couldn’t bear to live without capitalism and a so-called free market, that arena where money can teeter-totter endlessly between producers and consumers.

Kane stopped walking. His instincts told him to take in his surroundings, to look, to listen, to smell. The perfect avenue he stood in the middle of was devoid of both life and refuse, and the ambient light lit every empty nook and corner. The only sounds he could hear were the whirring machinations of scrub-bots somewhere in the distance. The entire sub-dome was always clean, and smelled almost like nothing. When he took a deep breath, there was that hidden edge, that sugary, candy-like smell of artificial air. The kind of smell so distant that it caused him to sniff harder in an attempt to pin down its origins, which was, of course, a fruitless endeavor. He thought about the block’s operator watching a grid, the blip of some maintenance guy just pulsing in place on the street. He snorted and itched his nose, then started walking toward the garden once more.

Instead of monitoring a robotic cleaning crew, an operator monitored the Life Support system of a block and the residents in it. There were no cameras (no doubt to give domers a false sense of privacy), but the operator got to see a readout of the vital statistics of everyone in their block. At that moment, the readout of one of the resident’s vitals should be spiking. Kane quickly strode away from the avenue and headed diagonally across the block, aiming to cut through the central garden toward the exit.

Nightmares on any scale were unusual in domers, but not unheard of. The elevated blood-pressure and rate of respiration of a resident would likely be noted by the operator, but would not be an immediate cause for alarm. Kane wiped the blood from the long, spear-like prod used for unjamming scrub-bot legs with a cleaning rag and stuck the tool through a loop on his belt. He stuffed the rag into a waste receptacle on the street and it was sucked off into a network of tubes that snaked beneath the sub-dome and converged at an incinerator somewhere.

There had been a struggle, of course, but Kane was a professional and his target was over the hill. The actual kill was probably the easiest part of the entire job. It’d taken months for Kane to track the man down, hopping from planet to moon to dome. Digging deep to exhume any trace, any footprint, any contact the target had made and subsequently erased since his disappearance almost a year ago. Not that Kane was annoyed or frustrated by the difficulty of the hunt. If anything, he was invigorated by it. And all the sweeter when he discovered the target had come to the domes. That he had assured himself that all tracks were covered, that he was safe to hide in plain sight, to start a new life. To retire in a sub-dome. Dome life afforded a level of safety so extreme that Kane doubted any domers even knew what fear was, not truly.

But his target had known fear. It had registered on his face and in his pleas when Kane broke through the thin shell of dome security and sullied the perfect little domicile with his unwelcome presence. Kane had first silenced the begging and the attempts at negotiation by taking a small appliance from the kitchen and fracturing the jaw. Trapped, cornered, and seeing his fate, the target resisted as best he could, but Kane was faster, stronger, and sharper. His specialty was making weapons out of innocuous objects, and thus the sub-dome home was an armory.

He’d left the man beaten and broken in his living room after inflicting a deep wound in his abdomen with the cleaning tool, plunging through several vital organs. The target wouldn’t die right away, but he wouldn’t live through the night. Eventually his vitals would calm down as the internal bleeding caused him to lose consciousness and the operator on duty would assume the resident’s nightmare was over. By the time those vitals dropped to critical levels, he’d be beyond the point that emergency medical care could help him.

Kane reached the edge of the garden and heard an odd sound – that almost animal-like whining howl, the complaint of metal being forced to bend and flex in an unnatural way. A brisk breeze brushed his skin and caused the vegetables and flowers in front of him to lightly sway in their plots. He stopped and looked about, trying to identify the source of the sound. It seemed to be coming from every direction at once.

When it got louder, he realized it was coming from above. The breeze grew alarmingly strong and within seconds, the swaying plants were uprooted and swirling about in the wind. He snapped his head back and looked up toward the sound. A red ball of piercingly bright light tore open the night sky, washing out the nearby stars.

It was the light of Barnard’s Star, what the locals would call the Sun if they didn’t use artificial sunlight instead. It was the morning light.

There was a crack in the dome.

Kane had been in and out of space enough to know the dangers of explosive decompression, and he looked desperately around for something to grab. He took a few long strides toward a four-meter-tall air purifier node, a thin, metal-painted-white, tree-like structure protruding from the edge of the garden. His jumpsuit flapped against his limbs as if it were trying to strip itself away as he ran, arms outstretched.

He managed to grab a branch of the aluminum tree, but the hole in the sky continued to grow and the suck of the upward wind was too strong. With a rush, he was lifted off his feet and turned upside down, hanging helplessly from the metal branch, his body dancing in the air like a kite in a strong wind. The tree slowly bent its arms upward, allowing him to inch higher into the sky. He could see the seams of the air purifier coming apart in slow motion, and he desperately pulled at the branch that was his lifeline, putting one hand over the other, trying to reach the base of the tree.

He could barely hear the pop of the branch coming away from the trunk with the rush of wind in his ears, and then he was airborne, the thin aluminum stick still clutched in his hands.

Kane closed his eyes and let go of the branch, allowing himself to tumble in the wind while the bright morning sun showed red through his eyelids. It was pretty much like falling, except up instead of down.

 

#

Chapter Two

“McManus, Horowitz, Halsey, Runstom,” the fuzzy 3D image of Captain Inmont barked as its pixels rapidly coalesced into view, eclipsing the bombball game. “Report to Briefing Bay Six immediately!”

The holo-vision shut off automatically. In frustration, Officer Stanford Runstom flicked the large silver switch on the base of the HV back and forth a few times even though he knew that when a call came in the HV would be disabled.

“Sonova bitch,” he said aloud. “It’s the goddamn Sirius Series!” He made a kicking motion in the direction of the holo-vision, but pulled back before making contact. The meager entertainment station came with the officer’s dorm room and if he broke it, they’d dock his pay. With a grumble, he rolled in his cot and came to a sitting position. Other than the cot and the holo-vision, his small home featured a narrow wardrobe and a foot locker. If he looked at either for too long, he’d start to think about how pathetic it was that all of his belongings fit into such a limited space; and left room to spare.

He stared at the blank HV for a moment, as though if he looked pitiful enough the device would give him a break and put the game back on. It wasn’t long before his devotion to the Poligart Pioneers waned as the possibility of a new case edged its way into his thoughts. He reached over the side of the cot and pulled his boots on. It was easy to get sucked into a championship light-years away when there was nothing to do for weeks at a time, but a win for his favorite bombball team wasn’t worth a damn compared to a chance to work on a crime scene.

He sat alone in Briefing Bay 6 until the other three officers arrived and signed on to the mission computer. They grunted groggy greetings at each other and sat at the table in the center of the room, away from Runstom. The four of them were part of a crew of officers stationed at a remote base in the Barnard system. They were always on call, but rarely had much to do. Runstom looked at each of them briefly, but they seemed to avoid eye contact, instead involving themselves in some minor preoccupation. Susan Horowitz, her dark hair disheveled, sat there flipping through a magazine and was wearing loose, casual clothing meant for a workout, though she looked too relaxed to have come from the gym. Jared McManus was jittery as always, and his wiry, toned muscles twitched as he looked around the room with narrowed eyes, not focusing on anything in particular. George Halsey had at least bothered to put part of his uniform on, but he looked like he’d just gotten out of bed. The lanky, yellow-haired man stared into space, eyes and mouth both half open as if he were frozen at some point in the middle of a yawn.

It was warm in the briefing room and Runstom felt the urge to unbutton his vest, but he resisted it. He was determined not to feel even slightly embarrassed about being the only one of the four so eager to get to work that he put on the full standard-issue uniform. Instead, he took off his hat and set it on the table, letting the stubble on his head get some air.

After a few minutes of silence, Captain Inmont’s floating head appeared on the holo-vision unit at the front of the room.

“Officers”, crackled the holo-vid speakers. Inmont’s head wavered, interference causing her face to flex unnaturally and a little unnervingly. “We have a very serious incident on Barnard-4, in Gretel. That’s a sub-dome of the dome-city Blue Haven. Possible mass-homicide.”

“Captain,” Horowitz interrupted as she pulled her straight, black hair back into a pony tail. “Doesn’t Blue Haven have a local police force?”

“Yes, that’s correct. The Blue Haven police technically have jurisdiction over the sub-domes there, but they do not have the numbers to spare for an investigation outside the city proper. The ModPol contract with the Barnard-4 Planetary Defense Coalition puts this one in our jurisdiction.”

“Right-o,” Horowitz said, tipping back in her chair and scratching her belly with one hand.

“You will be assisting detectives Brutus and Porter on this one,” continued the virtual head of Captain Inmont. “We’ll need a strict—”

“Uh,” McManus interrupted, raising a hand. “Did you say ‘mass homicide’?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the head replied patiently. “And that’s another reason we’re being called in. The local PD never deals with this level of crime. Life Support failure on a complete block. That’s thirty-two residences. Four empty, twenty-one singles and seven couples. Five of those with a child. Forty people in total. We don’t know the actual body count yet, but since the incident happened at nocturnal block hours, it’s a possibility that we’re looking at forty victims.”

“Life Support failure?” McManus parroted, letting his hand drop, but only halfway. “Sounds like a job for engineers. Why are we looking at homicide?”

The captain sighed. Disdain wasn’t easy to transmit over a blurry remote visual, but somehow she managed. “LifSup engineers are already investigating, remotely,” she said slowly and deliberately. “They reported to us that the system log says someone executed a series of commands that simultaneously opened up the top-side inner and outer doors, overriding the airlock safety. Vented the atmosphere of the whole block in a matter of seconds.” She paused for a moment, as if waiting for another interruption. When none came, she finished. “The commands were executed from an operator console.”

The room stayed quiet for a few seconds, then Halsey piped up for the first time, as if the silence had woken him up. “So lemme get this straight,” he slurred sleepily. “Someone intentionally suffocated forty people?”

“Not just suffocated.” Stanford Runstom spoke before the captain could respond. “There must have been explosive decompression, too.”

“That’s right, Officer,” Inmont said. “Have you ever seen this kind of thing before?”

Despite the long periods of inactivity, Runstom had worked a few interesting cases here and there. Vandalism. Theft. And one time, a few years back, even a murder. But he easily spent more time in the outpost’s library poring over old cases than he did working on real, live cases. The library pastime was meant to be study, but it involved a fair bit of daydreaming as well. What would he have done on each case? Would he have caught the offenders? Would he have brought them to justice?

Runstom sat quietly for a moment. Forty potential murder victims. He was definitely going to miss the rest of the Sirius Series. “No,” he admitted in a low voice. “But there’s a first time for everything.”

 

* * *

They took a short-range cruiser from their precinct, located in the asteroid belt between Barnard-4 and Barnard-5, down to the surface of Barnard-4. The third and fourth planets of Barnard’s Star were the only rocks in the system deemed suitable for dome construction; which is to say, they lacked hospitable atmosphere, but they had gravities somewhere in the vicinity of ten meters per second squared, give or take, as well as minimal natural magnetic fields. Since B-4 was the primary client for their precinct, their station was in an orbit that paralleled the planet’s orbit pretty closely and they were coming out of subwarp to make their approach within a few hours.

The planet wasn’t much to look at. Runstom watched the surface scroll by on one of the tracking monitors as they descended through a landing trajectory. It was gray and lifeless, pock-marked with craters and nothing else, until the first city came into view. The habitable structures weren’t the first thing he saw, of course, but rather the massive atmospheric processors that protruded tube-like into the sky. He knew nothing of how they worked, other than by extracting minerals and liquids from deep under the surface, turning them into oxygen, water, and other useful things, and expelling byproducts into the airless vacuum that surrounded the complex. A kind of temporary atmosphere was created in that immediate space, a mix of toxic clouds and precipitation that boiled off in the lack of air pressure as it dissipated across the planet’s surface. It was this mess that began to haze into the monitors as the cruiser drew closer to its destination, and Runstom could only just make out the lights of the city below as they approached.

Mass murder. Murder of any kind was rare enough in the domes. Even other violent crimes such as assault, rape, destruction of property, and so on were lower than they’d ever been. He leaned away from the hazy lights of the screen and scratched the back of his neck, glancing around at the other officers as he did. They joked and bullshitted like they were going on an outing, but he could detect the tension behind their banter. None of them were prepared to deal with something like this. Runstom included himself in that thought, but somehow he imagined it may be worse for him because he couldn’t help but take it so seriously, more so than any of them. The others spent their lives floating from one day to the next, waiting for the next vacation, waiting for eventual retirement, but Runstom had always wanted more. He’d spent his whole life waiting for a case this big. And now that it was here, all he could think about was how terrible it was that so many lives were snuffed out in one strike. Families. He brought his hand from around the back of his neck and up to his forehead, which was warm to the touch. The idea that such an event could be an intentional, malicious act caused him to sweat.

This was the job. This was why he was in ModPol. They couldn’t bring those lives back, but they could find out who did it and give the people of B-4 some justice. He pushed the anxiety down with a thick swallow and began to rehearse crime-scene procedures in his head as a way to occupy his thoughts.

The cruiser docked at the surface spaceport at about 5:30AM local time, a good three hours after the incident. Ground transport wasn’t quite so speedy though, since they had to land at the main port in Blue Haven and then lug their equipment from there to the mag-rail that ran out to the sub-dome called Gretel. Blue Haven was a very densely populated mega-dome, and in the mix of vehicular and human traffic, it took them another two hours to reach the mag-rail station.

The mag-rail itself was pretty quick, once they finally got on it. They were inside Gretel after a scant, eighteen-minute trip. The sub-dome was still set for nighttime shading, so most of the residents were asleep and it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the main dome. They managed to grab a hover-cab and get over to the checkpoint outside block 23-D in about ten minutes. A few Blue Haven officers were there, as well as some emergency personnel. Also hanging about were a few groggy LifSup operators, griping about being dragged out of bed.

“Welcome to Gretel, officers,” said one of the Blue Haven officers as he directed some others to help the ModPol team with their gear. “I’m Officer Nate Jenkins.” He nodded to each of them in turn. Runstom could never get used to the pale, almost translucent skin of the B-foureans, which was compounded by their low-gravity height that had the effect of making them always seem to be looming from above. He nodded back, then made a show of looking at the indicator lights on the wall just outside the maintenance door that led into the block. “Pressure’s back on in 23-D,” Jenkins continued. “They just gotta stabilize and then you can go on in. Med techs’ll be goin’ in with ya. Check for survivors.”

“What are the chances of someone surviving?” McManus asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Well, the air here on B-4 is pretty thin,” said one of the emergency medical technicians, a middle-aged man with long, but well-groomed, white hair. “The artificial atmo in the dome would have rushed out pretty quick with the top blown like that. So you’ve got a pretty good chance of immediate asphyxiation for anyone who didn’t get a lungful of air when it happened. Then there’s the drop in pressure, so we might see some decompression sickness – you know, the bends – and maybe some embolism.” He looked at each of the blank faces of the ModPol officers. “You know, pressure drops … boiling point drops … body fluids start to bubble,” he said, pushing down on an invisible scale with his hands. “The bubbles can block off arteries and keep oxygen from getting to the brain.”

“Yeah, not to mention stuff flyin’ around like a fuckin’ tornado,” chimed in one of the Life Support operators, the last word dissolving into a cavernous yawn. Runstom tried to give the cluster of operators an inconspicuous once-over look. They all looked tired and they huddled together in an almost defensive formation, like a pack of wild animals. They whispered to each other and snickered quietly in between yawns and grumblings.

“Yeah, there’s that,” one of the other med techs said, a skinny woman who looked too young to be attending a crime scene. “We’ll probably see a lot of lacerations, blunt force trauma, that kind of thing.”

“People inside housing units probably had a better chance,” the first med tech said. “Especially if they were in a small, closed room. Anyone who is alive, we gotta get to pretty quick, in case they’re suffering from hypoxia.”

McManus leaned into Horowitz. “Do I wanna know what that means?” he asked in a low voice. She didn’t look at him, just shook her head slowly. “Hey, pal,” he said loudly, addressing the pale-skinned Officer Jenkins. “What’s the layout of this place?”

“Well, let me show you,” Jenkins said with an unnerving smile. He took a step toward one of the monitors on the wall and pointed. The screen was mostly black, save a few thick, green lines forming a tic-tac-toe grid. Inside each of the squares were lighter lines, grids within the grid. “Block 23-D is a typical sub-dome block.” He pointed at one of the smaller squares inside the bottom, left-most square of the main grid. “Four small residential units form a square, their backyards coming together, separated by fences.” He traced a couple of the light-green lines and said, “Around each side of these squares is a narrow avenue.”

Jenkins leaned back from the monitor and made broad motions with his finger, saying, “Nine of these squares themselves form the block, three rows of three. In the middle square, there’s a supply store and a little community garden.”

“Bing. Block 23-D,” said an extremely calm, disembodied female voice. “Pressure stable. Oxygen level stable.” A bunch of the indicator lights that Runstom was pretending to look at turned a welcoming green.

“Ah, there we go,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got atmo. The other systems like the vital-scanners are still off-line. But it’s safe for you folks to go in.”

Runstom was still thinking about the operators. “These guys all just woke up. Where’s the LifSupOp on duty for this block?”

McManus glared at him, but Horowitz said, “Hey yeah. That’s a good question.”

“Ah, uh.” Jenkins pointed a finger in no particular direction. “Your uh, detective. Detective Brute?”

“Detective Brutus,” McManus said.

“Right, Brutus. He told us to take the Op on duty over to the BHPD station and put him in holding until someone can interrogate him.”

“You mean question,” Horowitz said. She turned to dip her head slightly and look Officer Nate Jenkins in his gray eyes. “You took him in for questioning.”

“Oh, no.” Officer Jenkins smiled broadly. “We arrested him.”

“He’s a suspect,” one of the other Blue Haven officers said with a touch of pride in his voice. He went back to doing an impersonation of a statue.

“That’s right,” Jenkins confirmed, cheerfully. “Our only suspect.” He nodded once, as if the book were closed on this case and looked around at everyone for a moment, then at the wall with all the green lights on it. “Well, as I said – you folks are all set to go into 23-D now. We’ll be here if you need anything.”

Horowitz smirked at him. “Thanks for your help,” she said overly cheerfully, beaming an obnoxious smile and wide eyes at the B-fourean. Jenkins, apparently unaccustomed to sarcasm, or more likely, unwilling to acknowledge it, simply nodded and smiled.

Runstom was about to ask the B-foureans another question when McManus suddenly slapped him on the back and shoved a CamCap into his gut. “Stanley. You get to be Porter.”

Runstom clutched the headgear. “It’s Stanford,” he muttered, and carefully placed the unwieldy helmet with the camera attachment on his head. A jacket accompanied the CamCap, coiled wires connecting the camera to bulky sonic and magnetic sensors, a transmission antenna, and multiple battery packs. Runstom shrugged into the jacket and felt twenty kilos heavier.

It was customary for ModPol detectives to attend an initial crime-scene investigation remotely. Runstom was pretty low in the pecking order in his precinct and seemed to get stuck wearing the Remote Detective Unit more often than anyone else, except for maybe Halsey. He was generally pretty annoyed by it, but this time he couldn’t help but to feel even more annoyed that Brutus and Porter weren’t present in the flesh. This was a goddamn mass homicide, not vandalism or petty theft.

Once they got inside, it was a real mess. Debris lay strewn everywhere. Little single- and double-seated hover-cars hung about at awkward angles, their frames split or badly bent. Shards of unidentifiable plastic and metal stuck out of the artificial turf of the yards like crooked, multicolored fangs. A tree-like air scrubber lay precariously across two rooftops, the surface of its metallic branches gleaming dully in the low light, its plastic root system splaying out into the sky over the avenue. The ModPol officers congregated in the Southeast corner of the block, near the maintenance access door, med techs in tow.

Horowitz was staring back at the entrance. “Those motherfuckers are useless, you know that?” she said to no one in particular.

“B-4 cops act like their job is public relations,” McManus agreed immediately. “Like criminal justice’s got nothing to do with it.”

“They act more like fucking waiters than cops,” Horowitz said.

Runstom kept his mouth shut, but he had to agree. The pale-skinned B-fourean officers were trained to be the face of the dome government. The crime rate was so low, particularly in the sub-domes, that the cops really were there for PR more than anything else. Smile and make people feel welcome and protected, that’s what they were good at. Runstom wondered if he was feeling thankful for the local force’s incompetence. The truth of it was, if domer cops were any good at doing actual police-work, he’d always be stuck back at the outpost, perpetually orbiting a slow circle around Barnard’s Star, watching HV and reading about other people’s cases. He kept his somewhat inappropriate glass-half-full optimism to himself.

“Alright, listen up.” Detective Brutus’s voice came crackling out of the Remote Detective Unit that was wrapped around Halsey, who looked as uncomfortable in his gear as Runstom felt. “Everyone pair up with a med tech and take a quadrant. We’ll take this one. McManus, you take the Southwest. Horowitz, you take the Northeast. Runstom. Take a stroll through the garden and see if you can find any – Halsey! Check your CamCap. I can’t see anything.”

“Uh, okay, boss,” Halsey said, looking over his connections with clumsy motions.

McManus turned back toward the maintenance door. “Hey!” he shouted. “Can you guys switch it to daytime?”

The murmur of voices emanated from the other side of the doorway. After a minute or two, one of the operators croaked out of a hidden speaker. “Okay, here comes morning.”

The night sky started to lighten, and as it came into view, the dome seemed to flex and ripple like water. After another minute it was a brilliant, light blue-green hue, radiating light and illuminating the avenue and revealing dents and scratches on the residential units on the corner.

“What color clouds do ya want?”

“We don’t need any clouds!” McManus shouted. “Just leave it like this, that’s fine.” He looked at Halsey. “That better, Detective?”

“Huh?” Halsey blinked.

“Yeah, much better,” Detective Brutus’s voice crackled out of Halsey’s jacket. “Runstom!”

“Yes, sir?” Runstom turned to face Halsey.

“Go to the garden and check it out. I doubt you’ll find any survivors there, but make note of any bodies. Then go up to the Northwest quadrant.”

“Yes, sir,” Runstom said. Halsey seemed to be interested in something sticking out of a nearby yard and turned the CamCap away. “Um. Excuse me, sir. Detective.”

“What is it, Officer? Halsey, turn back around so I can see Runstom!”

Runstom motioned to the CamCap on his own head. “Detective Porter? He hasn’t connected yet.”

“What?” the speaker crackled before erupting into a sudden burst of static. “—wah—drant and look for bodies. Remember, warm or cold, make sure the med tech gets a full scan. Let’s move, people.”

Runstom looked at McManus and then Horowitz, hoping one of them would offer guidance without his asking for it. McManus ignored him, motioning to one of the med techs and then marching off. Horowitz slapped him on the shoulder. “Have a nice walk in the sweat-suit, Runny. You,” she said, pointing to a med tech. “Let’s go.”

Halsey was taking one of the other med techs into the nearby unit on the corner. Runstom looked at the remaining med tech; the one he thought was too young to be at a crime scene. She was a scrawny, pale girl with large beady eyes and thin, fidgeting fingers, and would have been a few inches taller than Runstom if not for her slouch. “Hi,” she said, sticking a cold hand into his. “I’m Roxeen.”

He shook her hand in one up­-and-down motion and then pulled away. “Officer Stanford Runstom.” He shifted the weight of the jacket around, but it only seemed to make it worse. She peered at him as if he were a specimen under a microscope. “Alright, let’s go, Roxeen.”

The garden was a shambles. Ex-garden, really. All the plants had been sucked out of the ground. Half the irrigation system lay in a tangle of pipes in the middle of a nearby avenue. Somewhere in the center of the once-garden-muck was a yellowish blob.

“That’s a body,” Roxeen said, pointing to what Runstom was already looking at. “Let’s go scan it.”

He nodded, still looking at the body. They began trudging through the slimy mixture of dirt and vegetable pulp. The broken stalks and vines and mashed fruits gave off an odor that to Runstom just smelled like food, and it started to make him hungry. As they got closer to the body, his appetite vanished. The corpse was bloated and bruised. Purple and yellow flesh was only partially covered by the tatters of what was once clothing, maybe some kind of jumpsuit, uniformly gray in color.

“Looks like they got the worst of the decompression,” she said, her scanner already in hand. She stalked toward the corpse with morbid fascination.

Runstom took a step and suddenly found himself with one foot submerged in the muck. “Ah, goddammit,” he said, trying to pull his foot free. The weight of his jacket shifted and his other leg dropped, the mud reaching his knee. “Oh, come on.”

“Oh my,” Roxeen said, coming over to help him. She took his hand and pulled weakly, making no headway.

“Help me get this jacket off,” he said, struggling with one of the sleeves of his burden. “Porter’s not even here and I’m lugging this goddamn thing all over the place.”

“What’s Porter?” she asked as she helped him pull out of the sleeve.

“Detective Porter. The guy who is supposed to be watching through this goddamn camera on my head. The reason I’m dragging around an extra twenty kilos of weight here.”

They succeeded in getting the jacket off him, Roxeen pulling on it by one sleeve and falling backwards, dragging the equipment through the mud. After a few more minutes of fighting to get his feet out of the muck and fighting off her attempts to help, Runstom managed to curse and pull himself free.

A few minutes later, they were standing over the amorphous and splotched corpse. Patches of the yellowed skin were marked by uniform squares of red. Roxeen bent forward to run her scanner up and down the length of the body. “Yep,” she said with an unnecessary air of authority. “This one got the worst of it.”

She rattled off all the conditions already speculated by the lead med tech, and then some. Runstom looked up while she talked. He saw only blue-green sky. Despite the chaos surrounding them, the block was eerily calm. “The main venting doors are probably right above us somewhere. Why didn’t this guy just get sucked out onto the planet’s surface?”

“Oh yeah,” the med tech said thoughtfully as she stood up. “I think there are some kind of protective grates or something between the inner and outer doors.”

“That would explain the checkerboard effect,” he mumbled, giving the body one last look and then turning away.

“What’s a checkerboard?”

Runstom glared at the med tech. Her white face and large gray eyes were innocent and quizzical. “Forget it,” he mumbled. He’d only had his thirty-seventh birthday two months ago, but Roxeen’s alarming youth was making him feel old. Though it wasn’t entirely youth, he supposed. He tried not to let it get to him and instead looked back at the rest of the garden. “Let’s get out of this mud pit. I don’t see any more bodies.”

After slipping and sliding their way back out of the sludge, he set the jacket down on the avenue and made a meager attempt to clean it off. She wandered up and down the street looking for more residents while he cleaned. She didn’t find any, and once he got the jacket back on they set out to go house to house.

“So,” Roxeen said as they walked, pausing in that way when someone wants to broach a subject they’re not sure they should. “Where are you from, Officer Runstom?”

Runstom sighed wearily. “Do we really have to do the small talk thing right now? I’m not good at small talk.”

“Well, I was just …”

“I know you were just.” Runstom stopped and turned to face her. “It’s the green skin. Right?”

“Well,” she started, then frowned, dropping her gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“Look, you’ve got medical training, right? Don’t you understand? It’s the filters and stuff.” Runstom hated trying to explain why he was born with green skin. It was really more of a brownish-olive color, but compared to the stark white of a B-fourean like Roxeen, he was a green man. He didn’t really understand the science behind it either, and he was always trying to forget how much different it made him look from most others.

“Yes, the filters,” Roxeen said meekly. “The atmosphere combined with the radiation filters where we grow up make our skin favor different pigmentation during development.”

“Right, something like that,” Runstom mumbled, and he turned away and started walking again. “I’m space-born. You want to know where I’m from?” Roxeen didn’t answer. “Nowhere, that’s where. Born on a transport shuttle, somewhere between one ModPol outpost and another.” He trudged down the avenue and motioned her to follow him as he opened the door to the house on the corner. She stood there for a moment, clearly not content with the condensed version of his life story. She gave him a look he couldn’t quite read and then walked past him through the doorway.

He stood alone and scowled at nothing. She was just a kid, asking questions a kid would ask. Not only was she young, she was a B-fourean – a domer – living a sheltered life. He decided he’d better go easy on her and he took a deep breath.

Runstom looked up and down the avenue before following Roxeen into the residence. The whole block was a crime scene. It had to be the biggest crime scene in ModPol history, excepting incidents where entire spaceships had been destroyed, of course. He’d certainly never read about anything this big in the outpost’s library.

The first four houses shared similar scenes. Debris trailed out of the windows and doorways. Dishes, books, records, artwork, clothing, smaller pieces of furniture, and lots of unidentifiable bits of previously loved possessions. Each unit had a body, all of them dead. They all had managed to keep themselves from being sucked out of their houses, and didn’t have nearly as much of the bloat as the corpse in the garden had. The residents in those four units either died due to injury from flying debris or survived the windstorm long enough to suffocate. Only Roxeen’s scanner could tell the difference. She dutifully examined them with a morbid curiosity that made Runstom increasingly uncomfortable.

The fifth house was different. The damage inside the house seemed off somehow, but Runstom couldn’t put his finger on why. They didn’t find a body, just lots of broken glass, ceramics, and plastic. They dug around for a few minutes, just to be sure they didn’t overlook a corpse.

“What was that?” Roxeen said with a start as Runstom flipped over half a lounge chair.

“Huh? I dunno, just a chair, I guess.”

“No, shh!” She stood still for a moment, and he turned to give her an annoyed glare. “I heard something,” she whispered. Her eyes were wide with alarm.

“What?” he said in a hushed voice. He tried not to move for a moment as he listened.

“In the lavatory, I think.”

He looked at the bathroom door and stared in silence, straining to hear. He looked back at her, and shifted his weight around. He suddenly remembered that he was still wearing that damned, bulky jacket and Detective Porter had yet to remote in. He disconnected the CamCap from the port in the jacket and shrugged off the latter. He was about to take the helmet off too, but then had a sudden image of Porter trying to call in right at that moment. The last thing he wanted was a demerit, so he plugged the CamCap cable into the regulation Personal Mobile Device in the inside pocket of his ModPol uniform. The PMD had a weak transmitter on it that didn’t work well for a long distance up-link, but if Porter tried calling in, Runstom would at least know it and could just plug the CamCap back into the jacket real quick.

“I think there’s someone in there,” Roxeen said. She inched closer to the bathroom while Runstom messed around with his equipment.

“Okay,” he said quietly. “Don’t move.” He took a step toward the bathroom door, unclipping his holster and touching the butt of his gun. It suddenly occurred to him that if anyone were alive in there, he had no reason to suspect they were dangerous. He kept one finger on the gun anyway, and crept forward. Something about this house was ringing alarm bells in his head.

He got to the door and punched the release handle, but the door stuck firmly closed. Locked from the inside. Someone was definitely in there; whether they were still alive or not, he wasn’t sure. He broke the silence with a knock on the door.

“Anyone in there?” It was quiet for a moment, then he heard a distinct, thin cough from the other side. “Hello?” Runstom said, loudly now. “If you can hear me, can you hit the door lock?”

He heard no other sound. “Shit,” he muttered, pulling a multi-tool off his belt. He jammed the tool into the side of the door-handle mechanism, popping the safety latch. The panel fell away revealing the manual handle. He grabbed it and yanked the door sideways.

“Shit,” he repeated, unsure of how to react to the scene before his eyes. “I think we’ve got a live one here.”

The bathroom floor was red and wet with blood. Sitting on the floor, against the far wall, was a tall, red-skinned, red-haired man. His eyes lolled back in his head, but his chest moved ever so slightly, in and out, in and out. The slow motion mesmerized Runstom for a fraction of a second, and he pictured each corpse they’d examined, each a thing, an object to be scanned, but each of them had been more than that only a few hours ago. Each one had once been alive.

“Oh, my!” Roxeen breathed as she came up to the bathroom door. “He’s … he’s covered in blood!”

Runstom took a step forward as her words sunk in. He swallowed a few curses before finding the right response. “You don’t get outta the sub-domes much, do ya?” He looked at her, and she turned away from the body on the floor long enough to give Runstom a blank look. “He’s an off-worlder. Probably from Poligart, that big moon in the Sirius system. Or maybe Betelgeuse-3. That’s red skin,” he said, pointing to the man. “That’s blood,” he added, pointing to the floor.

Roxeen’s mouth moved a little, but she didn’t say anything. “Well, get over here!” he barked at her. “He’s still breathing, but I don’t know for how much longer.”

She stutter-stepped toward the red man on the floor, fumbling with her scanner. She knelt gingerly in the gooey, half-dry, red-brown plasma that covered the tiled floor, planting herself a few feet away from the resident as she stretched the scanning unit toward him. It began blinking and chirping all kinds of warnings and alarms. Runstom couldn’t use a med-scanner to save his life, but the device practically quivered with fear as it chattered on about fading vitals.

Liquid oozed out of the right side of the man’s mid-section, and Runstom and Roxeen both stared at the open wound dumbly. Runstom’s mind clumsily sifted through all the crime-scene procedures he’d been re-memorizing on the flight to B-4 as though there would be some rule or policy on how to handle the situation, something to tell him what to do. A gurgled cough came from the dying man, causing Runstom to throw aside the mental handbook and focus on the life slipping away from them in that moment. He lunged forward and put his hands on the open wound, applying pressure. He felt the goo of a QuikStik bandage. An open med-kit lay on the floor underneath the nearby counter. This guy had managed to partially close his wound, but not completely. The ragged way he was breathing and the agitation of the med-scanner led Runstom to guess there was probably a lot of damage somewhere on the inside.

“Can you do anything for him?” Runstom said, craning his neck to watch the red man’s face while keeping his hands on the wound. When the med tech didn’t reply, he looked at her. She stared through him with those big gray eyes. “Roxeen!” he shouted.

“They said they would all be dead,” she said softly. “They said there wouldn’t be anyone alive.”

“Yeah, well they were fucking wrong, Roxeen! This guy is breathing!”

The dying man coughed several times in succession. “Uhhhnnn.”

“Hey. Hey!” Runstom tried to look into the eyes rolling around in the red man’s head. “Hey, look at me! Help is here, you’re going to be okay.”

“Uhhhhnnn,” the man groaned. “Eh,” he coughed a strange sound like he was trying to speak. “Eh. Eh.”

“That’s it, talk to me.” Without taking his eyes off the man, Runstom spoke out of the side of his mouth at Roxeen. “Get another QuikStik, so we can close this wound. And we need some syn-plasma. He’s lost a lot of blood. Hey buddy – talk to me. Where are you from?”

“Ehh. Ehhh. Kkkkssss.”

“Come on, buddy. Stay with me.”

Roxeen dropped the med scanner to the floor, where it continued beeping and flashing more intensely, locked on to the patient’s vitals. She broke open her own pack, unrolling it across the still-wet tiles and revealing all manner of emergency medical product.

“Ehhh. Kkkksss.” With an effort, the man raised his blood-stained hands, bringing them up to his face. He tried to put them together, shakily forming a cross with his index fingers.

Roxeen had gotten another QuikStik out of its package and moved Runstom’s hands away so she could apply it. With his hands free, Runstom tried to hold the red man’s head straight.

The man looked into Runstom’s eyes. He crossed his index fingers again, holding them in front of his face for a few seconds before dropping them weakly and going limp. He exhaled one last time and closed his eyes.

The med scanner blared one last mechanical scream and went silent.

END OF EXCERPT


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