Disruptive technology creates new opportunities for crime. On distant worlds and those not unlike our own, struggling humans commit terrible acts to survive, artificial intelligence breaks all boundaries for love, steals human identities, and solves impossible mysteries. Investigators enforce laws written by corporations, humans murder clones with impunity, and the underclasses of the future are pushed to the edge again, and again, and again as the line between what is legal and ethical blurs.
Join Jennifer Brozek, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Paul Jessup, Mur Lafferty, Jaime Mason, and more for a wide range of stories that begin with the question of future crime and end with unexpected revelations. These eighteen original stories of science fiction explore the many ways in which crime will evolve with technology. In the future, humans and machines will never stop inventing rules. We will never stop breaking them.
The laser's way is both a scalpel and a gun.
I wanted to bring a little sizzle to the collection, and what better way to do so than with a little future crime? McDermott and Bosarge have collected eighteen stories of a future "where people will continue to be just as clever and crafty and rough and tumble as ever." I totally stole that part from the introduction. Enjoy! – J. Scott Coatsworth
"The Way of the Laser is a delightful compilation of SF Crime stories — murders, heists, betrayals, carried out by astronauts, robots and unsavory types of the near and far future. I love the sense of adventure in both the stories and the imaginations that conceived them. Terrific characters, action, adventure, and writing. Receiving this book is the equivalent of finally getting that ray gun and flying car the future had long ago promised."– Jeffrey Ford
"As I read, I kept my eyes open for various stories I could mention specifically as some of my favorites. Before I was even halfway through, however, I found that was impossible. Each one is a wonder"– Joe Niederhoff, San Francisco Book Review. 5 Stars.
"It's an entertaining collection, featuring a variety of perpetrators and investigators; whether it serves to illuminate anything about the human condition is left to the individual reader to decide."– Regina Schroeder, Booklist
A Child of Pilumnus
by Wendy N. Wagner
Eva could hear a noise over the jangling glenten trees, piercing and pained, nothing like the sheep in the neighboring field. Something about the sound made her throat tighten up. She jumped to her feet, grabbing her broken blow torch and slinging it over her shoulder.
She ran toward the woods as fast as the sixty-kilo torch rig would allow. She'd been burning weeds in the grass fields, and now the nearly ripe purple and turquoise seed heads slashed at her bare arms. It was stupid to run in the grass, but the sound had gotten under her skin. She jumped the fence and stumbled into the woods.
And stopped as she nearly stepped on the baby.
Someone had wrapped it tightly in a striped blanket, with only its red face showing. Its back arched from the force of its crying.
"Holy fucking shit." The blow-torch slid off her shoulder.
She stared at the baby, so tiny and red-faced and leaky-eyed, its body shielded from the wind by a scrim of golden ferns. For a moment, she couldn't even breathe at the wondrous shock of its presence. But its cries tugged at something inside her chest, and Eva dropped to her knees beside it. There, in her woods. A baby.
She drew the little person into her arms and pressed her cheek against its forehead. So cold. That wasn't right for a baby. She didn't know much about them—it wasn't like she'd grown up babysitting or had any younger siblings—but she knew they needed to be kept warm.
"Hush, hush," she murmured, and untied the shawl from around her waist. She tucked the baby inside the wooly folds. It screamed louder. She had no idea what to do to help it. "Hush, hush," she murmured again, jiggling the little thing. "Shhhhshh." It seemed to like either the sound or the jiggling, and lowered the volume of its shriek to a soft sniveling.
Behind her, the wind stirred the grass, adding its own hush-hush to hers. She closed her eyes, trying to remember what little she could remember about babies. It came to her slowly. They drank milk, usually from the breast, but she remembered once in an old picture book she had as a child, a bottle, full of cow's milk. It had been such a novelty—the idea of the milk of another animal—that it had stuck in her memory.
Over the shushing of the grass, she heard Debbie Cleatle's sheep calling each other, and her face lit up. She broke into a run, leaving everything behind but the baby, joggling in her arms.
It was a hard walk up to the gate between the two properties, but she didn't dare climb the fence with a baby in her arms. It was a tall fence, and sturdy. It had to be, given the creatures that lived behind it. These were not Earth sheep, fluffy and stupid herbivores. These were Pilumnus-changed.
She shivered as she watched their big amber eyes focus upon her and her little burden. She pulled the baby more tightly against her body. The sheep were beautiful animals, their thick fleeces shimmering in lavenders and peaches. But Eva had once watched one snatch up a grass gopher and devour it in a delighted frenzy. Even now, she could see blood stains on one's fleece.
She tried not to let her fingers tremble as she unlatched the gate and squeezed through. She kept the baby high up in her arms, out of the way of the creatures' elongated teeth. The sheep stayed near the gate, motionless but still intent on her and the baby. The biggest sheep in the group stamped his hoof, and a crackle of static electricity discharged into the grass. Eva broke into a jog.
Debbie's house was close. Eva was glad of that. She could almost feel the animals' eyes on her back, and she knew the baby was cold. It needed to be indoors if it was going to survive. Eva bolted up the two shallow front steps and drew a deep breath before pounding on the rusty metal door.
"Yeah?" Debbie opened the door the way she always did, with a cigar in her teeth and a book in one hand. "Eva. Come in." Since Eva's parents had left Pilumnus six winters ago, Eva and Debbie were the last of the original colonists left struggling to make a living on the planet. Eva couldn't remember a time before she knew Debbie.
Eva felt her muscles soften as she moved indoors. The thick concrete walls softened the sound of the wind, and the wood stove kept the shack's one room toasting warm. If anyone would know what to do, it was Debbie. She could stitch a wound, deliver a sheep, and repair a solar panel in half an hour. She would know how to fix a crying baby.
Debbie shut the door behind Eva and put the book and cigar down on the little table next to her big armchair. A bottle of her famed homebrew stood open and waiting beside the book.
The baby wailed.
"Shh! Shh, shhh," Eva jiggled it again.
"Good god, Eva, a baby?" The old woman took a step backward. "Where did it come from? It's not yours, is it?"
Eva shook her head.
"What were you thinking, picking it up? You know it's illegal." Debbie sank down into her chair.
"But it needs help, Debbie. Somebody just left it out there in the woods. I couldn't leave it. Just look at it." She held it out to the other woman, who pushed it away, shaking her head.
"Have you unwrapped it yet? Given it a good look? There's likely good reason its parents put it out—besides being illegal, of course."
"We don't know it was illegal—"
"We'd have heard if anybody in town was readying a baby," Debbie interrupted. "Nobody is. Besides. No Genetics Ship has passed by for almost two years."
The baby rooted against Eva's chest. Her heart ached at its desperate hunger.
"What are you going to do with it, Eva? You don't have any milk. It'll starve to death." Debbie's voice, roughened from her years working outside, was almost gentle. Eva remembered that tender side from her childhood, when Debbie would babysit Eva with cookies and fairy tales.
"I know." Eva bit her lip and looked down at the little thing. Its hair stuck up in golden tufts, glowing in the light of Debbie's fireplace. She brushed her fingertips over the fuzz. So soft.
She looked down at Debbie. "What about milk from a sheep?"
"My sheep? Come on, you've seen them. I use a tranquilizer gun to put them down for shearing. I couldn't milk one of those things. And if I did—" She laughed without humor. "We don't even know if adults can drink the milk of an Pilumnus sheep. When I first came here, I had cows. The second generation of them gave purple milk more acidic than vinegar."
She touched Eva's knee. "It's impossible. Admit it."
Eva shook her head. The baby whimpered. She moved its slight weight into the curve of her shoulder and put her cheek against its smaller one. It felt right.
"Eva," Debbie whispered. "You know what will happen. There's a reason there are laws against growing your own baby."
Eva nodded, her lips pressed tightly together.
"Whoever this baby's parents are, they have more chances. Evvery colonist has a stock of their eggs or sperm on board the Genetics Ship." Debbie tried to smile. "The baby's parents did the wrong thing to let this child ever come to term. And they tried to undo it when they put it out there."
"You can't undo a baby, Debbie. It's not a typographical error. It's a living thing! When they put it out in my field, they were trying to kill it. That's murder." Tears threatened, and Eva blinked hard against them.
"And what if it dies anyway, Eva? You'll break your own heart."
Debbie took a deep pull of her beer. Eva stared at the ground. Even the baby was quiet.
Finally, Eva whispered: "I was six years old when I came here."
Debbie took another drink.
"You know when they changed the laws. Just fifteen years ago. First Generation doesn't have genetic material up in the Gene Ship. I don't have anything up in that ship."
Debbie looked away.
Eva shook her head and took a step toward the door. "Thanks for your thoughts, Debbie. You've always been a friend."
"Damn it, Eva." The older woman got up from her chair and blocked her path. "If you're going to keep this baby, you'll need baby formula. But since you're not authorized to buy it, you'll have to steal it."
Eva thought about George Sykes at the general store. He kept a rifle under the front counter in case anyone's credit chit expired. He could lift a pallet of flour sacks over his head using one hand. He was the last person she'd want to steal from.
"George goes to AA meetings out in Coria on Wednesday nights," Debbie said. "They last from eight to ten."
Eva thought her mother would have said something like thanks or you're a lifesaver. She cleared her throat. "I didn't know George went to AA."
Debbie lit another cigar, even though the old one was still smoldering in the ash tray by her chair. "Don't tell anyone I mentioned it."
"Sure." Eva jiggled the baby. "See ya later."
"See you in jail, more likely." Debbie rubbed her eyes. "I can't believe you're going to risk going to prison for some mutant baby."
Eva didn't have an answer for her, so she just pulled her shawl over the baby's face and went out in the Pilumnan wind. It had gotten colder while she'd been inside. She'd better move fast so the baby didn't freeze.
Eva didn't bother looping back for her blow torch. If she was going to get to town by eight o'clock, she'd have to haul ass back to her house and pick up her bike.
Everything seemed to take longer holding this baby. She could only use one hand to undo the gate, and her balance felt off as she strode through the fields. She had to hold the baby high above the grass heads so no bit of its tender flesh got slashed by the vicious grasses.
Her mother had invented the process for breaking Pilumnus' grass into fibers. The grass had to ferment a month and then go through a mechanical crushing process. Still, the color and luster of the fiber made it a luxury item on the other side of the wormhole. Eva's parents had made more than enough money to buy a condo in one of the Moon's bubble towns.
She couldn't blame them. Most people weren't cut out to live on Pilumnus. New colonists came, served their contract, and then abandoned their stakes at a rate of 86%. It wasn't easy, remembering to put every scrap of food under the scanner, making sure it hadn't changed. It was even harder, rationing out the good Earth flour and beans, making them last between food drops. Nothing grown on-planet tasted right, and to be properly digested, it all had to be followed by an enzyme-and-amino-acid tablet. Proteins twisted and reformed here. Bodies went wrong. Cancers and mutations flourished unless caught immediately.
Some people hated the three-times-yearly medical exams. Others hated the way the planet skewed a normal lifestyle. It was hard for people to accept that pets weren't possible, that meat was too much of a luxury, that babies had to be mixed in a test tube and grown under doctor's supervision.
Eva's parents had offered to take her. She'd thought about it a long time before she said no.
The baby gave its loudest screech yet. Eva patted its back and darted across the last field. She almost fell over the fence, but she managed. The baby was starting to smell damp.
Nothing she could do about that right now. She'd have to steal diapers as well as formula.
She lowered the baby into the parcel carrier. Was that her future now? Stealing baby stuff from the general store? How long could she keep doing that and not get caught? She was a thirty year-old farmer, not a master criminal.
Her mind scrambled over itself as she rode the twelve miles into town. Visions of George and his electric rifle kept swirling beside vague images of prison ships. She had to force herself to take deep breaths as she pedaled. At least the baby wasn't making her anxiety any worse with its shrieking. The soft hum of the electric assist must have put it to sleep.
Eva hit the edge of town at 8:15, with the sun still hovering at the edge of the horizon. She rode very slowly past the general store. A few safety lights glowed deep in its guts, but the roll-down shutter covered the front door. She went around the back side and was glad to see no sign of George's hovertruck.
The baby made no sound as she parked her bike, so she left it in the parcel carrier as she went to the backdoor. Locked, of course. The little window to the left of it looked big enough to get through, so she broke it and swept the glass out of the frame. If George had set the security alarm, she probably had about ten minutes until the sheriff got the message and headed out of the station. Then another eight for him to drive in from Coria.
The baby began to squall.
"Shit," she whispered. Ran back to the bike, whispering it under her breath: "Gopher shit, birit shit, sheep shit, shit-shit. Shit."
The baby's screaming didn't lessen any as she ran it up the stairs and wriggled inside the general store. Probably getting a little squished in the window frame didn't help anything. It smelled worse than ever, and she made a beeline to the baby area.
The package of newborn diapers had a layer of dust half an inch thick on top. Eva sneezed as she ripped it open and pulled out the mysterious contraption. Fully compostable! the package proclaimed. Soft as your baby's softest! Soil-enhancing, odor-enhancing!
"Where the fuck are the instructions?" she growled.
Eva flattened out the diaper and laid the baby on the floor beside it. It took her a second to find the end of the blanket, it was so neatly folded into place. She unwound and unwound the bundle until the baby lay crumpled and mostly naked, some toweling knotted around its butt.
"That doesn't look comfortable, little one." She undid the toweling and scraped the mess off its parts. They were boy-looking parts. "Is that better, buddy?"
The baby kicked his legs and sniveled a little. In the faint glow of the emergency lights, the baby's skin shimmered with a mineral glitter, a silver sheen that captured Eva's eyes as the baby wriggled uncomfortably. It wasn't particularly warm inside the store, not this long after closing. But Eva could not bring herself to re-wrap the child. Not yet. He was so pretty.
The shimmer in his skin faded out around the face and the soles of the feet. She tried to uncurl a clenched fist to see the skin of the palms, but his strength was surprising. She rubbed his hand in her own, studying the little body for other possible mutations.
Everything looked properly shaped and attached, but a fine pelt covered the skin along his back, silver at the base and darkening to gold at his shoulders. It crept up the back of his ears to cap his round little head, and whispy bangs blended with fine whiskers sprouting at the corners of his eyebrow ridges.
Despite the cool air, he looked happy to be studied. He followed her movements with gray eyes more focused than she had expected on a baby. When she brushed his whiskers, he even made a sound like a giggle. A tiny spark flew off the tip of one.
"Why would anybody get rid of you," she cooed. She worked the diaper into place and stuck her tongue out at the little guy. "You're a tiny cutie!"
The baby giggled again, and she belatedly remembered she was breaking into a store owned by dangerous man in order to take care of an illegal baby. She quickly rewrapped the baby in his striped blanket.
"Formula," she reminded herself. She glanced at her wrist communicator and was amazed to see ten minutes had passed. "Shit," she whispered. Her heartbeat, which had gone normal while she was just sitting there with the baby, sped faster.
She grabbed the brick of formula off the shelf, then a second one. That was all they had left in stock. She had no idea how long that would last a growing baby.
The metal shutter on the front door rattled.
Eva froze. The baby made an unhappy gurgle. It had to be desperately hungry.
"I know you're in there," someone called in a raspy Martian drawl. Someone who sounded like a big, mean sonofabitch.
Eva snatched up the baby, nearly dropping the formula. How the hell had George known she was in here? Had the alarm system warned him as well as the sheriff?
"The sheriff's going to be here in about ten minutes," he called. "That's ten minutes too late for you, shithead."
She scooted backward, swiveling her head, left, right, all around. He was still at the front door. The shutter rattled again. He must be unlocking it.
Where did he keep the rifle? Behind the counter. Everyone said so.
She scooted faster, not trusting herself to get to her feet, not with her arms full of baby and formula. Her back hit the counter with a sharp thud.
The shutter rolled up with a clang-clang-clang-clang.
Eva threw herself behind the counter. Between the bags and the boxes, the bright metal length of the rifle gleamed. Its battery light blinked blue and bright. The bastard was charging it.
She put the baby and the formula on the ground and ripped the rifle off the charging cradle. "Don't come in!" she bellowed. "I'll shoot!"
George laughed. "Not if I shoot first."
The front door burst open and Eva didn't stop to think. She popped up behind the counter, hit the trigger, and unloaded the electrically-charged harpoon right into center mass.
She'd grown up on a farm. She knew how to shoot.
George's hand cannon went off, blasting a hole in the ceiling as he fell to the floor. Screaming. His voice a bubbling, rasping wreck. She'd hit him, alright. She'd hit him.
Her body began to tremble.
She'd shot George Sykes in the chest and he might just die. How long would they put her away for that? It would have only been a few months for the baby, but murder meant a prison ship, meant years off-world, meant maybe never getting permission to come back to Pilumnus.
No glenten trees. No purple grass. No sheep with rainbow sherbet wool and lightning in their hooves.
She twisted aside and vomited all over a crate of beans. Near the front door, George gurgled. Eva wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and straightened up. How many minutes did she have left before the sheriff showed up?
And just like that, flood lights lit up the front of the store.
"Come on out," someone bellowed. They weren't the sheriff, either. There were plenty of neighbors who had probably heard George shouting at her, and now they'd heard two shots.
Her arms shook as she stooped and hoisted the baby to her chest. The two bricks of formula lay on the floor, small and white and very insignificant-looking.
A shot rang out—not an electric rifle, but a real gun, like the one George had been carrying. Eva dropped down to the floor, squeezing the baby tight.
Voices shouted outside. Whoever was out there wasn't alone.
"We'll be dead by the time the sheriff shows up," she whispered to the baby. "Fuck."
She braced her back against the counter and squeezed shut her eyes. Maybe she could talk them out of hurting her? She knew everyone in town, although she hadn't exactly made herself popular. If her parents had left her any of the money they'd made patenting the Pilumnus grain gin, she could have tried to bribe her way out, but all she had was the house and her farming equipment.
The baby burrowed his face into her neck, his little eyebrow whiskers rubbing her skin and setting off tiny little sparks. He was like the sheep, she guessed, electric, full of colors. One of those beautiful things Pilumnus had made.
"It shouldn't be illegal for people to let this planet change us," she said. "We should try to be better Pilumnans."
The baby sparked again, tiny lights against the darkness of her eyelids. She wondered if the electric rifle had recharged. She would shoot him first, she guessed. It would hurt less than letting him be dragged down to the medical center, waiting all hungry and lonely for a doctor put him to sleep.
She wouldn't have enough time to shoot herself, though maybe if she acted like she was attacking someone they'd shoot her before they could realize the rifle was no threat. She couldn't go to prison. She couldn't leave Pilumnus. This was her home.
Her eyes opened. The baby filled most of her vision, softly crackling and glowing in the dim lights of the store. She could smell the grassy smell of him, light and sweet over the stink of her vomit.
He was making a sound, too, a soft humming, gurgling sound. Outside people were shouting, but the baby sounded so soft and pleasant she could almost imagine she didn't hear anything else. She could almost close her eyes, sleep, and dream of floating on the river, looking up at the turquoise sky and smiling at the clouds in all their rainbow colors.
The baby crackled, and Eva sat up straight. It wasn't the baby making that noise at all. She was hearing water. The sewer ran under George's store, and she was hearing it hum and gurgle to itself.
Thank goodness some idiot was wasting water. She put down the baby and crawled toward the back door. George lived in the apartment over the store. With residential and commercial use in the same building, there had to be some kind of sewer access in case the line backed up or needing fixing. She wasn't a big woman. There was a chance she could fit.
Glass exploded as a barrage of gunfire hit the front of the building.
She squeezed herself flat. Her fingers felt the hinges as the rounds hit the back wall of the store. Every last gun owner in the town of New Essen must have opened fire on her.
She threw open the hatch and scuttled on her belly back to the baby and the formula. The bell over the front door tinkled. Boots crunched on glass. She launched herself toward the hatch and froze.
It wasn't as dark down there as she had feared. Tiny flickers and crackles of light moved across the slimy walls. A stink like mold and fresh shit breathed out at her, stomach-churning and rank.
What would she do after she jumped into this hole? Where could she go and how could she survive? Once she left New Essen, she'd be an outlaw. No Earth food for her. No medicine to re-ravel her DNA.
The baby nuzzled against her, his whiskers crackling.
She glanced down at him. His face had crinkled up like a little old man's. Any minute, he would start wailing.
"I'm not doing this for you," she said, and she realized she meant it.
Another fusillade of bullets hit the wall in front of her, sending up shards of plastic and concrete dust. She jammed a brick of formula into her bra and took one more look down the sewage hatch.
It was time to become a true Pilumnan.