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The War ended twenty years ago, and the time since has been one of reconciliation and reconstruction. And expansion: humanity is pushing into Space again. The sparsely settled Frontier, and beyond it, the lawless Out, are growing in volume, wealth and stellar systems. The dream of universal peace seems to have arrived at last: though criminals and pirates still gnaw at civilization's edges as they always have and always will, vast armies no longer mobilize to do battle in planet-crushing conflagrations. But there are dangers in Space, and strange things happening at Land Ho colony. A pair of tramp miners bring in a body, killed by an agent that left only a nosebleed and a face frozen in agony as evidence of its passing. A deranged pilot fires nuclear-tipped missiles at colony defenses, then dies through suicide-by-cop. An innocent miner/engineer becomes a target for murder. As Detective Vasily Laranov investigates, he uncovers a labyrinthine web of clandestine and criminal enterprises that stretch deep into the Frontier--and beyond. Humanity is indeed pushing into Space. And something is pushing back.

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Bob Mann

    Bob Mann grew up in West Monroe, Louisiana. In 1986, he received his Masters Degree in Chemistry from Louisiana Tech University. He has lived in the Houston area for the past ten years, where he works as a chemist in the hazardous waste industry. Along the way he has been a janitor, waiter, laborer, forklift operator, printer, mud logger, ER lab technician, water treatment chemist, and finally a hazardous materials chemist. This is his first novel.

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Chapter One

THE DEVIL SIPPED his coffee as he surfed headlines, a morning ritual. Many a case had been resolved, many an old investigation revived, by stupid boasts to journalists. No braggart's tracks wound through today's stories. But there were no escalations of gangster wars, no execution-style slayings, no Names with tags on their toes, either.

Might be some bad things coming but they're not here yet.

Vasily Laranov looked like the devil. He worked at it. Successfully: more than one detainee had imagined horns flanking his widow's peak.

His features could hardly be called attractive—the nose too long, the chin too sharp, the planes and angles too stark—but the totality created an intriguing and satanic handsomeness. The neatly trimmed Vandyke, the slicked back and shoulder-length jet hair, augmented that impression.

Laranov said, "Roster," his first utterance of the day. The Newsy—a ghost image of black print on white background floating above his desk—faded. In its place RosterFile appeared, another black-on-white ghost, flashing the names and locations of ten Land Ho police officers. Said officers comprised the Organized Crime Unit, A.K.A. Loon Squad, Lieutenant Vasily Laranov commanding.

Roster found Laranov and Jilly in SQPHQ, South Quadrant Police Headquarters. Steiner and Guiterrez trolled NorthQ's Arcsector Three, complicating the life of Land Ho's current crime king, David "The Boss" O'Shaunnessey. Fagen, Hill and Riley slept off a night of prowling SouthQ's red light districts. Mbote and Svorensen were in Immigration.


The Vaud beeped. Laranov switched to Converse mode. Roster faded, replaced by split image graphics: to the left, a still of Fred Svorensen's face, blond and fair and ruggedly Viking; to the right, corridor walls and a shot of Sam Mbote, short and black with strongman physique. Svorensen communicated by his neck chain. Voiceprints and face-matching created the left-hand picture, identifying the caller. Right-hand video came from the neck chain's picocam.

"Lieutenant," Svorensen said, "We're in Immigration. We found Ian Koike—"

Laranov's fists bunched.

They dumped the body. Not just dumped it; displayed it, slopped it off near Immigration so newcomers could see. A slaughtered message….

Laranov said, "Where'd they drop it?"


"The body."

"Uh—he's alive, sir."

Laranov's mind looped and reeled, trying to find logic in the facts, a reason for Koike's long absence and sudden strategic return. Svorensen kept talking. Ian Koike had arrived in the Parking Lot at 0417, entered Immigration on the five o'clock shuttle. He had not used an alias. One T.X. Volner, Civil Service lifer, had seen the name and clicked on it, called Police, been referred to this person and that, left a message on Svorensen's desk.

Laranov said, "Immigration's convinced it's Koike?"

"Yes sir. Unity retinal and fingerprint match, DNA corroboration."

"Where is he now?"

"In the Commons. Pestilence checks are clean, the Meds're ready to grant entry. I convinced them to wait 'til I heard from you."

"Good. Tell the Meds to call him out, but to a Confidence room. Special police business. Meet him there, and emphasize voluntary constraint. I personally want to chat with him before he comes on-colony. We've got no reason to deny entry, and we aren't looking for one."

"Yes sir. Uh—what if he doesn't accept the constraint?"

"Tell him he's been assumed dead, and some powerful people have acted on that assumption. Should they learn they're wrong, they will move to correct the oversight. If he still won't accept constraint, let him go but stay with him, and keep in touch with me. I'll talk with him on a public transport if I have to."

"Yes sir."

"And Fred, Sam—be polite."

Laranov broke the connection, collapsed the images. He stood, walked around his desk, paused by the coat rack. He looked at the high-collared black cape, thought a moment, put it on. Ian Koike would not be impressed with the Dark Man act—he'd known the lieutenant too long—but the cape sent a Serious message.

Laranov draped the cape round his shoulders, snapped the snaps, checked the wall mirror. He adjusted his collar, shrugged into his persona, and went outside.

The street stretched across fifteen meters, striped with trolley tracks and flanked with sidewalks. The ceiling hung a kilometer up, lined with tracklights. The lights supplied a diurnal cycle, ten hours full on, ten hours near-off, two hours power-up and power-down. The process, like the 0.8 G centrifugal pseudogravity, contributed to the residents' sanity and health.

Laranov walked at his rapid, characteristic pace. His cape, a drifting trailing dark cloud, swelled and rippled behind him, occasionally patted the backs of his knees. The nearest Immigration entrance was a kilometer away. He could have taken a hovercraft but this morning he preferred to walk. The exertion stirred his blood, blasted wakefulness into holdout half-sleeping neurons, gave him an undisturbed interval to think.

He walked and brooded, brooded and walked, past gaily-colored Assay and Bank branch offices, through sparse groups of pedestrians. They parted for him: the dark cape, the black clothes, the serious face, marked him as one with a mission, and more than a little dangerous.

Laranov put his legs in autopilot, disengaged from the present. He let his thoughts loose, free-associating through his memories. The near-meditative state always helped, sometimes by leaving an idea, sometimes by simply clearing his mind of restrictive assumptions. Often he found himself reliving events he'd prefer to have forgotten. Often those were the very memories that triggered a breakthrough.

Ian Koike and Vasily Laranov had met decades ago, when Koike was twelve and Laranov nine. The worst year of Laranov's life was just another 365 days for Koike. The two had attended the same public school. Koike'd been a big defiant kid, nasty to those who hurt his friends. And Laranov and Koike had been friends, as much as a nine-year-old Third Tier and a twelve-year-old Sixth Tier could be. More than once that friendship had rescued the then-pudgy Laranov from a beating by Third Tier bullies.

Laranov Senior had found work before the school year ended, and moved to a better apartment in a better neighborhood with better schools. There were other bullies eager to slap chunky kids, and no Koike for protection. The junior Laranov took up martial arts. He became very good at it. When the War came, the Army took Vasily Laranov and made him an MP. At War's end, he mustered out with an Honorable Discharge and rode the veteran's benefits to a Masters in Criminology, then went into civilian police work in his hometown.

There were triumphs and disappointments. The Army promoted him to Sergeant Major, but never made him an officer. He placed in most of the Martial Arts tournaments he entered, but rarely first. He graduated, but not quite with Honors. He married a woman he met in college, but the marriage ended after eight years.

His greatest triumph was that his book, Law Enforcement and the Tribal Hierarchy of Criminal Units, written as an antidote for melancholy during the post-divorce years, had become required reading in several Universities' Law Enforcement curricula.

His greatest disappointment was how Ian Koike had turned out.