A shocking discovery. A missing scientist. And a race against the clock.
Former Sergeant Elodie Cyr thought she'd left the Special Reconnaissance Unit behind when she joined the Navy's Criminal Investigation Command.
But when a scientist goes missing, someone seems determined to eliminate all witnesses—even if they have to take down the entire Hawking habitat to do it.
Reunited with her former teammates, Ell must come to terms with the ghosts of her past if she has any hope of stopping the killer in time.
"Intricate, action-packed and ambitious.... Richman's style is fast-paced and accessible, with characters [that] are engaging and memorable"– Publisher's Weekly BookLife Prize
"Great hard Sci-Fi. Well written, compelling stories."– Amazon Review
"I found myself repeatedly being intrigued enough by the science and tech to "google" terms and concepts. This is what a "hard SF" political mystery-thriller SHOULD be."– Amazon Review
Luyten's Star (uninhabited)
Annexed by Geminate Alliance
The probe sent by the Geminate Alliance Navy exited Scharnhorst space two Astronomical Units away from the planet. No one was around to see the Doppler blueshift flare as the Casimir bubble that enveloped the unmanned spacecraft winked out of existence.
The abrupt step-down from 3c to 0.03c would have caused more stress on the craft's spaceframe than it could handle, had the Synthetic Intelligence onboard not slowed the vessel before its transition to realspace.
Still, the unmanned craft crossed the three-hundred-million kilometer distance at an acceleration no human would have been able to withstand. Within a matter of hours, the small spacecraft had reached the world it had been sent to study.
Procyon scientists had named it Vermilion. A super-earth, three times the size of Terra, the planet orbited just under a tenth of an AU away from the red dwarf.
Ordinarily this would have rendered Vermilion barren, but Luyten's Star was more quiescent than most. This, combined with Vermilion's strong magnetic field, allowed life to form.
Those back in Procyon had long suspected this. Distance probes and long-range studies showed a temperature and a climate conducive to living organisms. That drove the Alliance to annex the nearby system, claiming it as Geminate territory.
The planet's mass, combined with its nearness to the star, gave it a 3:2 spin-orbital resonance. One year was a mere eighteen Earth-days long, but twelve of those days were spent waiting to see the next Vermilion sunrise.
The probe cared nothing about such things. Its single purpose was to observe, gather data, and report back to its creators.
It eased its way into the planet's thermosphere, collecting telemetry as it went. Specially shielded sensors measured radiation absorption, particle interactions, and the strength of the planet's magnetic field.
It measured the waves and tides of plasma in Vermilion's ionosphere. A meteor accompanied it into the mesosphere, where the probe observed noctilucent clouds to its east and auroras at its nearest pole.
Above the terminator, a thunderstorm gathered. Sensors measured the massive electrical discharge of a sprite flickering in the sky above it.
The probe passed quickly into the troposphere, onboard sensors registering the air's composition: nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and other trace elements.
As it entered the stratosphere, the SI scanned the planet's surface for an appropriate landing site. It adjusted the probe's course, aiming for a stretch of land on the planet's daylight side, just shy of the terminator.
It came to a gentle stop on a rocky shelf jutting from a field of verdant foliage. Where day gave way to night, deep green leaves began to glow with photoluminescence.
A hatch slid open near the probe's nose, and sensor drones began to gather specimens. One drone targeted a nearby rock, a laser lancing out with surgical precision. An onboard spectrometer analyzed the plasma gases within the cloud of vaporized matter.
Sample tubes were delivered to a special section of the probe, where they were examined using a variety of methods: x-ray fluorescence and crystallography, DNA extraction and RNA isolation.
Liquid chromatography separated each sample into its individual parts. Each component was then exposed to circularly polarized light.
Had the SI onboard been capable of emotion, it would have been disquieted by the results from this final experiment. Instead, it dispassionately gathered the data, and then transmitted it to an orbiting communications buoy the probe had deployed upon arrival.
When the message arrived in Procyon, it was met with a mix of excitement and deep consternation. Heated arguments ensued. Opinions varied wildly on whether the information should be contained, and if so, to what degree.
On one thing, they all agreed. Vermilion should be paid another visit—very, very soon.
Straits of Sargon,
(Alpha Centauri A)
The pirate station smelled like old socks.
Correction, NCIC Special Agent Elodie Cyr thought. Old socks, worn throughout Hell Walk at the end of Recon.
She'd become inured to such smells during active duty, first as a Marine, and then later when she joined the Navy's special forces. She'd left the Special Recon Unit four years ago to pursue a career with Navy Criminal Investigation Command, but some things just stuck with you.
Even when you'd rather they not, Ell thought, stifling a sigh.
Her previous life was also responsible for her current situation. She'd been taken hostage with three others, and was now trapped inside an ancient space station with an enviro system that should have been red-tagged before she was born.
The cuffs around her wrists looked like they'd been forged in a prior century, too, but they did the job. The Ziptie nanopackage they'd slapped on her neck before shoving her inside the holding area did the rest. The app blocked the wire in her brain, cutting off all comm and network access.
On the plus side, she could still walk and talk.
The Zipties they'd used back in the Unit were far more robust. They infiltrated body mods, rendering them inoperable. They also seized control of the SmartCarbyne lattice that reinforced most spacers' bodies, imposing paralysis.
The pirates should have gone for the more comprehensive version, but they hadn't wanted to lug their prisoners' inert bodies around. If Ell had anything to say about it, their laziness was going to cost them.
She had a stash of breach nanobots tucked in the shaft of her left boot, but with her hands behind her back, she'd have to be a contortionist to reach them. Still, it was worth a try.
She shifted, and the guard's attention snapped to her.
"Don't move," he warned.
"Just trying to get more comfortable." She kept her voice even, but continued tucking her legs under her.
"Legs straight, now!" he barked, jabbing the service end of his combat rifle at her, and she froze.
"Okay, okay," she said, extending them back out. "We're good."
The guard frowned at her, but didn't respond. He seemed impossibly young, with a face that looked as if it had never seen stubble.
The hard look in his eyes told her he was well aware of the impression he made, and was determined to overcome what he saw as the stigma of youth.
In the Unit, we would have taught him how to cultivate that misconception and use it to his advantage.
She shook the thought off, resuming her slow perusal of the room. There wasn't much here that could be used to subdue the guard, but that didn't stop her from studying its confines.
Her focus shifted abruptly when she felt a faint nudge against her shoulder. She kept her eyes trained on the baby-faced guard while she let herself lean against her fellow prisoner.
Fingers brushed against her wrist, followed by the sharp scrape of metal as a piece of wire tapped against her palm. Her expression remained unchanged, but she felt a flush of satisfaction as she wrapped her fingers around it.
Well done, Quinn, she thought.
Charles Quinn was still junior enough to be called 'probie,' though Ell didn't. The NCIC office on Hawking was understaffed at the moment, so it was just the two of them, and he didn't need the hazing.
Besides, she'd take one Quinn over three average workers any day. The man was resourceful, and had impressive recall.
This tiny scrap of wire was the perfect example. She'd mentioned her skill with ancient mechanical locks once in passing, but he'd obviously remembered it. Better yet, he looked for a way to take advantage of it.
As she bent the wire into two opposing ninety-degree angles, Quinn worked to distract the guard.
Nodding to the fourth person they'd taken prisoner, he asked, "Don't you think you should check on her? A hostage is no good to you if she's dead."
Ell's fingers traced the upper portion of the lock, gently easing the wire in and applying upward pressure. She felt the ratchet lift.
The guard glared at Quinn. "She's fine. Now shut up."
Holding the wire in place, Ell flexed her hand, pressing against the cuff. She felt the teeth begin to slowly slide through the opening.
"I don't see her breathing," Quinn's voice sounded doubtful. "Couldn't you at least scan her?"
The wire slipped. Ell relaxed her hand on an inhale, wiggling her fingers on the exhale. She tried again. Three more teeth slid through the ratchet and Ell palmed the wire while working her wrist free of the shackles.
"I said," the guard stepped closer, aiming his pulse rifle at Quinn's forehead. "Shut. The. Fuck. Up."
"He'll be quiet," Ell told the guard hastily, then leaned into Quinn, using the movement to reach her hand behind his back. "Stand down."
He nodded and slumped slightly forward, the action a cover to give her better access to his bound wrists.
By the time she had Quinn freed, her shoulders ached. Ell sucked in a slow, deep breath and readied herself to do it all again—this time, to free the man on her right.
Quinn, miming still-bound hands, did what he could to draw attention from her. He cleared his throat. The pirate shot him a narrow-eyed look.
"Our people are coming. When they get here, shit's going down," Quinn said, his tone calm and level. "There's no way you're going to win this."
Before he could continue, the guard scoffed. "What, you think you're someone important? You're just a glorified cop, man."
Quinn's eyes narrowed. "NCIC still goes through basic and advanced, just like everyone else, kid. And then the real training begins."
That's it. Keep distracting him, Ell silently encouraged, as her shoulder made contact with the major seated to her right.
She and Rafe went way back. While she'd been with the Unit, Rafe Zander had flown Shadow Recon. He'd been responsible for hauling Ell's ass out of many a hot zone, back in the day.
Like her, he'd moved on. Unlike her, he'd stayed in the same Navy track. He'd risen to the rank of major, and now commanded an entire squadron.
To her left, Quinn tried a more persuasive tone.
"You know the Navy's looking for us. You have four naval personnel here." He shook his head. "If you let us go now, it'll go easier on you when they get here."
Using her fingers against his forearm, Ell quickly tapped out a code she knew Rafe would understand, one all Unit operators and Shadow Recon pilots knew. Within seconds, she felt his bound hands brush against hers, and she went to work.
The guard glowered at Quinn, waggling his pulse rifle threateningly. "Who's got the gun and who's trussed up tighter 'n cargo in a net, huh, asshole?"
Quinn walked a tightrope with the guard, alternately persuading and goading.
At times, Ell thought she should mentally rename Baby Face to Red Face. Just when she began to worry Quinn had provoked the guard too far, he backed off, only to begin again a few seconds later.
The technique was the perfect distraction.
Right up to the moment Rafe's shackles hit the ground with a soft clang.
Ell's stomach plummeted, dismay stabbing through her at Rafe's unexpected clumsiness.
The guard broke off, shooting a suspicious look their way. Motioning to Ell and the major, he ordered, "Move away from each other. Slowly, now."
Ell moved toward Quinn, while Rafe shuffled in the opposite direction. He managed to make more noise with his cuffs, and Ell realized he was doing it to give her an opening.
Ell took it.
Using the man's momentary distraction, she launched her attack. With the flick of a wrist, her handcuffs went slicing through the air, a crude form of nunchaku.
Military-grade picosensors woven throughout her body kicked in as she exploded to her feet, boosting reflexes far beyond the human norm. Quinn and Rafe were right behind her.
Quinn dove for the weapon Ell's handcuffs had sent flying when they wrapped around the guard's wrist. Rafe raced for the downed specialist in the corner.
Ell drove her right shoulder into the guard's abdomen, hand crossing to wrap behind his opposing knee, jerking him off his feet. Instinctively, the guard tried to roll out from under her. She allowed him a half turn before grabbing his arm and forcing it forward.
Snaking one hand under his armpit and the other around his neck, she levered him into a bow and arrow choke hold.
His face already red from exertion, his eyes went wide when he realized his air supply had been cut off. He began to struggle, but then Quinn was there, the guard's rifle aimed unerringly at the man's face.
"Freeze," the investigator barked, and then shrugged with an evil grin. "Or don't. Your call."