Devlin's Team #4:
An ACOA Publication
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Devlin stood on the stone-inlaid
terrace, her arms wrapped around her chest as she measured the cold.
Not quite winter cold yet, but cool enough that she probably should
have worn something warmer. However, to go back in and get the
jacket would be a show of weakness. She stood her ground.
She had been restless all day -- for
several days in fact since word of the new assignment had arrived.
She'd gone on hikes, paced the halls of Keri's home, and not slept
much at all. What bothered her most was not the upcoming assignment.
It appeared to be pretty straightforward, and she had to believe
that a trained Inner World Council Security agent and her team were a
match for any cartel of drug dealers.
They'd remained over a year on earth
after the last assignment. Terra Nova had changed things -- had
The breeze smelled of pine and wet
ground; she could see the last of the storm clouds rushing off
through the bright blue sky. The tree branches swayed slightly in
the last of the storm's passage, dropping large splatters of water
onto the already soaked stones and ground. Sometimes the water hit
her when the breeze was right, and she would glare. She didn't back
down from the water, either.
Foolish. Devlin laughed at herself and
at least stepped out from under one of the big trees.
About half a mile away, a flock of geese
took to the air, swarming up in startled shouts as a sailboat went
by, the white cloth fluttering in the breeze. Sailing on water still
amazed her. She hadn't dared to try it, though the Cha, Dancer, and
Keri had gone out a few times.
She could hear no sounds like those she
had known growing up around the port of Tempest. No shouts of angry
people punctuated the calm morning. There had always been someone
angry, and she had never thought about it until years later when
she'd been away from home for a long time and had begun to realize
that anger didn't always get the best results.
No reek of hot tarmac filled the air as
a shuttle took off. Devlin could stand on the terrace and not expect
someone to shout -- or shoot -- at her. It was an odd, heady
Devlin had never thought she would find
anywhere this peaceful and she would never have expected such a place
on Mother Earth, which had seemed to her to be the heart of all
problems. There were, of course, places too much like Tempest Port
elsewhere on the world, but not here.
This could have been a thousand years ago, for all she could see in
the area. No colonies, no trips to other worlds, and no wars with
the children of earth, who had spread so far.
She liked it here at Keri's unusual
home. Everything (except for sailing on that vast, deep lake) had
been delighted with Devlin had taken to watching birds and bugs,
equally enchanted by both and as interested in what she saw here on
Earth as Cha was in his studies of alien worlds.
Earth was an alien world to her.
Devlin already regretted that they were
leaving this afternoon, even though she had been restless for too
long before the assignment arrived. She'd been less pleasant to live
with though she had tried to hide her discontent and did her best to
stay clear from Keri. She didn't want to be a problem for him, and
that, sometimes, just made things worse.
Despite being a powerful psi, Keri had
never shown the least little bit of a problem with having her around.
They'd spent the last few weeks of winter mostly in the building,
and then did a few forays into the area this spring -- but even so,
she had felt as though the walls had started to close in on her.
They had an assignment now, and one that
would take them all the way hell and gone to one of the farthest IWC
held worlds. Astrakhan had a reputation for being out on the edge in
more than one way, and a dangerous world for many reasons. She didn't
know if that was where she wanted to go --
Hell, that wasn't true. She couldn't lie
to herself. The idea of working in a wild place like Astrakhan
appealed to her. She could let loose there and do the kind of work
she loved best -- out on her own edge.
What she didn't like was the idea of
taking Dancer and Cha into that danger with her. They were all still
recovering from the fiasco, and the terror, of Terra Nova. Maybe it
was too soon --
Hell. She started to kick at the wall
in pure frustration and decided that wasn't a good idea. Good, solid
stone walls here. She'd learned that one already.
"It would have driven you crazy if
you stayed much longer, Devlin. It's time for you to go back to
After half a year at the chateau, it no
longer surprised her to hear Keri close by and answering things she
had only thought. She turned back and gave him a wane, little smile.
"I know," she admitted, feeling foolish. "And it's
not that I don't appreciate that you took us in and shielded us here.
I can't think of anywhere that would have been as calm."
"We all needed this place," he
said, waving a hand towards the walls behind.
She glanced at the old-fashioned glass
(not permaglass) windows, the front door that had to be pushed to
open and close. This was a very old building, and even that had
contributed to helping her feel calm after Terra Nova. In its own,
odd way, this building had put the disaster on Terra Nova during the
plague in place. She had no doubt a place as old as this had seen
disasters sweep through the world. It remained. There were
buildings on Terra Nova where people would feel the same in a few
"It helps," Keri agreed.
She looked at him again -- but sometimes
it seemed she could still see the ghosts of Terra Nova's dead in his
eyes. Or maybe they were her ghosts, and he only felt them through
"I'm sorry, Keri. I am not good
company right now."
She had expected Keri to nod and go back
into the building as he often did at such times. Today, though, he
stepped up to the rock wall at the edge of the terrace and looked out
at the lake much as she had. A few geese still swept through the
air, though many had already glided down to the water surface in the
wake of the sailboat.
"This is my place, you know,"
he finally said, and his hand waved out towards the lake. "I
come here to escape from everything else. But that's not why you or
the others are here, Devlin. You came to rest and recover. You
never intended to abandon your job, and neither did Cha."
"True," she agreed although
doubt chased in right after that the thought. "I don't know if
we're ready to go back out, Keri. There is so much I should have
"Things you could have done
differently and things you should have done differently are not the
same. You have no way of knowing if you had taken over from the
start if it would have gone differently."
"Leta wouldn't --"
"You would have locked her up?
Would you have stopped her from sending her reports? Even if I had
told you she was a problem there was nothing you could have done in
that respect. You knew the truth -- if you had tried to move against
her, the military would have moved against us. Things might
have gone differently or you might have tried to take over, and she
could have just locked us up, and we'd still be sitting there while
all of the IWC Worlds fell to chaos. There were no right, perfect
answers for that assignment Devlin. We did the best we could, and we
stopped the problem at Terra Nova. That is a win."
She started to say something. Changed
her mind and nodded instead. "It's time to move on from Terra
Nova," she said and felt better for admitting the truth.
Keri offered a little smile. "Even
Cha put aside the work he was doing on Terra Nova. He filed
everything a few weeks ago. It's time for all of you to move on."
"Ready to kick us out, are you?"
she said with a brighter smile.
He laughed this time and then looked a
little startled. "Actually, no. I like having you here -- and
that's odd for me. I never expected to enjoy
having people around."
"Dancer would stay, you know,"
she said, meeting his worried look. Whenever Dancer was not
working with her or Cha, he spent his time with Keri -- day and
night. They seemed to have done well for each other.
Keri frowned with a look that had to be
entirely his own emotions. Sometimes it was hard to tell. Sometimes
she suspected that even he couldn't be certain.
"I never realized how wrong it was
for me to stay here alone before," he finally admitted, which
surprised her. I need the company. I appear to be human after all."
He looked at her surprised by the bit of
anger that welled up.
"You can't still worry about what
Leta thought of you, right?" she said, shocked that it might
bother him and she had never realized it.
"Leta was not the only one,"
he said. "It builds up after a while. But even so, she was
unyielding and what she thought is tied to Terra Nova and everything
that happened there. I'm having a harder time getting past it then
the rest of you."
"Because of us," she said,
looking into his face again.
"I don't know," he admitted.
He looked out at the world. "I'll find out when you leave.
Though Devlin, I brought some ghosts are my own as well, you know."
"Then it's time for us to leave."
She stepped back from the wall. "I know it. I don't know why
I'm dragging my feet. Cha is perfect for this assignment, playing
the bait of a scientist coming in to find out how to destroy the drug
fields -- this khanta plant they grew there. I need him to do this
right. Cha and Dancer packed last night. It's time I stop thinking
about it and get moving."
"You examine and rethink
everything, Devlin. You want to know the why and how of everything
before you step into a mess. In some ways, you analyze things even
more than Cha. But occasionally it seems as though you get stuck on
the questions and don't take that next step until events force you to
She probably blushed. She could see
exactly what Keri meant, and had never realized it before now.
"That must be hell," he said,
his head tilted. "I can see why I annoy a lot of people."
"Ha. Took you this long to figure
He looked unexpectedly surprised. "I
think maybe it did. Having fewer people around has allowed me to
filter emotions better."
Devlin reached over and put a hand on
his shoulder. He no longer shied from the touch. "I worry
about you. I know, I know -- you've lived alone for most of your
life. But I think Terra Nova changed us all."
"You have work to do, Devlin. All
of you need to get out there and find out that it's not all like
Terra Nova. "
A worry lifted, and she felt herself
looking forward to the case after all. "This one doesn't look
like it will be too much trouble, though I wish we weren't going all
the way out to Astrakhan. A long way to go to deal with some
annoying drug dealers who appear to have kidnapped a few scientists
and their families."
"You don't think that's all there
is to it."
"I don't know. It might be more.
Or the assignment might be Pellin and Epona testing me out -- and the
rest of the team -- on a small job to see if we can still handle it."
"That would make sense. And you
need to know as well, Devlin. You know that there will be dangerous
assignments out there."
For a moment that thought worried her --
another Terra Nova -- but then she chased the thought away. She
could not drag that world with them everywhere they went and judge
everything she did based on what had happened on Terra Nova. Her
type of work rarely allowed for such easy follow-the-same-path
decisions. How did she let herself fall into this kind of thinking?
"You didn't fall into it. You just
haven't had a reason to look beyond."
"And I had to analyze what had
happened and why. I knew you were right about the decisions I made.
I knew that things would have gone badly no matter what I did. But
it is in my nature to look at it all, even in retrospect, and hope
that I can find another answer the next time."
He nodded, as though that had been
obvious to him. Maybe it had been.
"We're going to miss you."
"And I'll miss all three of you,"
he said. He turned and started toward the door. "And I will be
here when you need me for a case again."
He stopped at the door and looked back
at her. "I worked well with you, Cha and Dancer. I can do it
again when there is a need. Devlin...." He stopped and bit his
bottom lip, looking uncertain before he shrugged and met her eyes.
"Devlin, working with your team was the first time I learned
that I could make a real difference, and that's because you three
were willing to listen to me. That's never happened before."
She grimaced, thinking of their first
case together, so many years ago. Keri gave an unexpected laugh at
her feelings and the remembrance of that job.
"Yes, practically everyone is like
that, Devlin. Or worse. Just think of me as a different sort of
specialist from you and Cha."
And something finally occurred to her.
"You want to be part of the team."
"I think so." He had lifted
his hand before she spoke. Devlin had the impression that he had
been doing a lot of analyzing of his own. "I want to be certain
of my feelings because this might be something I'm borrowing from
Dancer. So the three of you are going to head off to the wild world
of Astrakhan, and I am going to see if I can figure out what I want.
Dancer understands. That's why he's not said anything about staying
behind with me, even though he thinks you don't need him on this
"Ah. Ah." She should have
talked to the others before this. "Damn. Okay, this all starts
to make sense. I need to go pack --"
"Cha is packing for you. He sent
me down here to make certain you don't try to go off without them.
And no, I didn't give him that idea. He knows you well enough to see
"They'd only follow after me
"Dancer thought he might be able to
use your codes to get you held up at New York Port until they could
She laughed though the possibility
shocked her, mostly because she suspected he wouldn't have trouble
with the code. "Well, that would have been embarrassing.
Dancer is far too dangerous."
"He thinks like you do."
She laughed again as they went into the
building. "I'll send reports on how things are going."
"Good! I can correlate them with
the notes Cha and Dancer say they'll send, and between the three of
you, probably have the problem figured out before you do." He
caught her arm, surprising her again. "I want that contact,
Devlin. I just need a little time of my own to erase Terra Nova in
my own way."
"I'll miss this place," Devlin
admitted aloud, though he already knew.
"The place, and I will be here when
you are ready to come home."
Devlin had never had a home before, a
place where she wanted to return. She glanced around at the
tree-lined terrace and down toward the lake. The chateau could be
her home if she accepted what Keri had said. That gave her an odd
From one world to another they moved
away from Earth and out, out -- far out toward the edge of the Inner
Worlds territory. Dancer, who hadn't had time to get used to
traveling from one planet to another, enjoyed spending time on the
observation deck whenever they came off of slide drive, and the
universe became more than streaks of beautiful lights.
Most of the slide points had been
relatively dull with only a spattering of distant stars and one
closer, but often dark in color and light. Still, they were new
stars to Dancer. He stored up those feelings of surprise and
pleasure to share with Keri at another time. Keri had seen too many
of his darker moods, the pieces of Forest he still carried within
him. He wanted something better to share the next time.
They'd had a harrowing two days when the
ship slipped into the Terra Nova system, dropped people by shuttle
and picked up others. They'd stayed in their suite and monitored all
the information they could.
"I know I shouldn't be so
mistrusting," Devlin said after a few hours. "I just can't
believe that the world slipped back to so much calm so quickly."
"Can't believe it because we
haven't," Cha answered, looking up from his computer. "I
feel the same way, Devlin. Dancer?"
"How odd that the world seems so
calm," Dancer admitted. They'd ordered lunch and took the time
away from the computers, though Dancer suspected they all found it
difficult. "I've seen a few references to the plague, but
there's no sense of fear in those statements. Worry, yes -- but not
nothing worse. How can the locals had gotten over it while we still
worry so much?"
"We gave them an easy answer,"
Cha replied with a shake of his head. "But we know the truth."
The ship had moved on the next morning.
They changed to another ship at the
Tempest Station. This one was scheduled to go all the way to
Astrakhan, so they settled in for the long trip. Dancer had lost
track of time. The long journey began to wear on all of them, and
all the more so when Dancer was no longer comfortable heading out to
It didn't take Devlin long to notice it,
"Okay," she said after he'd
been working for some hours, but only going over the same things.
"Why aren't you out looking at things anymore?"
Cha nodded. So they'd both noticed.
"Annoying people whom I don't want
to be tempted to kick into the bulkhead," he answered and
laughed to see them both so surprised. "They keep trying to
stop me and lecture me -- no, I'm not the only one. They'll waylay
anyone they can corner."
"Oh, of course," Devlin said
as she sat back. "I did note there was a group from the Old
World Morals Society on board. I didn't expect them to be that
"This seems to be a particularly
unpleasant patch of them," Dancer admitted. "And I don't
want to get into that kind of argument. What bothers me the most is
that they know absolutely nothing about me, and they still felt the
need to lecture me on my life."
"You're too polite," Cha
responded. "Once they realize you are not going to kick them
into the bulkhead, they'll continue to pursue you. I imagine they'd
like to have someone like you -- young and good-looking, as a
"A shame Keri isn't here,"
Dancer said with a sigh. "I imagine he could tell them a few
things that would set them back."
"Well, let's see if I can maybe
help out," Devlin said and stood, brushing down her tunic.
"Oh no, Devlin!" he said,
appalled. "I don't need that kind of help!"
She laughed and dropped back into her
chair. "They don't know you work for the Inner Worlds Council,
do they?" she asked. He shook his head afraid to say anything
more to her. "I didn't think so. Find some way to make mention
of it. They'll leave you alone, at least for a while. The IWC has
already been investigating complaints about some of their posts
because the people do get carried away. If they know who you work
for, they'll back off for the rest of the journey. If they don't,
I'll go out with you."
"Maybe we should all go out,"
Cha said and unexpectedly stood. He waved away anything Dancer was
about to say. "No, we really do need to go out. We've been
locking ourselves in here and working far too much. How many times
have you been over the reports, Devlin?"
"Maybe dinner at the ship's café
would be nice rather than having it brought here," she agreed
with a glance around the room. "It will do us good to get out.
Besides, we're getting closer to Astrakhan, and we can start setting
up our reasons for going there."
Dancer couldn't argue with her reasons
though he knew Devlin hoped for a confrontation with the OWMS people.
Dancer to understand more about the group which had seemed odd and
Getting out with his two companions
turned out to be pleasant. Cha was right about them all working too
much of late. Devlin was also correct about starting the first steps
of their assignment since many of the people on the ship were going
to Astrakhan. Dangling Cha out there for bait meant more than
learning everything about the government and the criminals. Devlin
was excellent at her work and he wouldn't second guess her methods.
Dinner was good, and Devlin didn't
disappoint him. They'd gone from the cafe to the Observation Deck,
even though they were not going to come off slide soon. Dancer
wondered how she knew the OWMS people were going to be there. In
fact, the Old World Morals Society seemed to be holding some a rather
one-sided rally with one of them shouting loudly about the sins of
"Oh, do hold down the noise,"
Devlin yelled back and much louder. "And pay attention to ship
rules. You may not preach in any public location on the Stellar
Fire 3. Move along. Some of us are here to see
the lovely slide colors."
A few of the people -- there were not
many around -- clapped in appreciation.
She had startled the group, but they
were not about to give way so easily. One of the women stepped
forward and faced her, a chubby face looking up at the taller Devlin.
Dancer hadn't seen that look of pure fanaticism when he talked with
them, but then he'd always erred on the side of politeness.
"Your rules do not apply to those
who say the words of truth and bring hope to the lost," the
woman said, her voice starting to rise. "You cannot deny the
words of righteousness --"
"You can say whatever you like and
to whomever you like as long as you are in your own quarters. Run
Devlin infuriated them, of course.
Dancer knew how both the words and that calm, almost smug attitude
would drive some people crazy. These were just those kinds of
people, and she did this act on purpose.
"You cannot deny us our rights,"
one of the men said. His eyes had narrowed in rage, his face
blotched with red and white. "We can, and will, enlighten the
poor humanity who have only people like you to listen to. Even your
companion was drawn to our teaching --"
"No, I was hounded everywhere I
went because you do not know how to recognize a polite attempt to say
go away. Now that I think about it, politeness is not one of the
virtues you were preaching about was it? I should have realized you
wouldn't recognize it in person."
Dancer wasn't certain what had prompted
him to the speech, but he had surprised not only the OWMS but also
Devlin. Cha only nodded.
It wasn't until Devlin had provoked the
group into several incoherent replies about the nature of good and
evil that Dancer finally understood the full implications of what she
was doing. She never once raised her voice even when they continued
to grow louder. She had an answer for every statement they made and
said everything calmly while they became irate. Others had gathered.
Some of the crew came into the room, expecting trouble and arrived
just in time -- or rather Devlin timed her last jab for the new
"I don't have time to waste on
this," Devlin said with such a look of boredom that it was a
wonder the man who had taken over the conversation didn't just attack
her. Dancer had watched her use every trigger word and every counter
argument to even the most inane things anyone in the group had said.
She'd worked them up into a frenzy and done so on purpose.
So when she turned away, dismissing them
as unimportant, the man grabbed her arm.
Devlin reacted with uncommon gentleness
for her and simply pushed the man back. A shame he tangled with the
others, and now they were all mad and -- well Dancer got his chance
to kick one into the bulkhead after all, though he didn't do it too
The OWMS people had clearly started the
trouble, and there had been both crew and passengers to see their
actions. The head of security immediately confined the group to
their quarters for the duration of the journey.
Devlin had a quiet conversation with the
second in command of the ship when he arrived as they escorted the
still loud and protesting group off to their rooms.
"My apologies," Devlin said
and even sounded as though she meant those words. "I fear the
discussion got out of hand."
"We've had complaints. We talked
to them before," the man said with a hardly concealed snarl. "I
don't think they quite understand the seriousness of the problem,
though. They will not be getting off at Astrakhan since that world
has a strict rule about dropping people on them who have already
created problems in transit."
"Oh?" Devlin said. "I
didn't realize. I'm sorry that you'll be stuck with them for a while
Of course, she knew what would happen.
Dancer looked down at his feet to keep from laughing. Well, at least
they wouldn't have to worry about the OWMS on Astrakhan and the rest
of the journey should be a great deal more pleasant.
As they stepped out of the port tower on
Astrakhan, Devlin couldn't say that the world impressed her. A few
gaudy buildings rose into the purplish sky vying with the tower for
attention, but they couldn't hide the less respectable buildings
nestled at their feet. No Rat Maze stood beside the port. The world
prided itself on having jobs for everyone, even if the work was
sometimes out in illegal drug camps and khanta fields.
At least Astrakhan didn't pretend to be
anything more than a wild frontier where some of the laws prized on
civilized worlds had been ignored. The two primary incomes for the
people and the government came from drugs and gambling. People
flocked to this world to taste life on the other side of the line,
and most of them were smart enough not to go too far.
"It is not as ugly as I had
expected," Dancer said.
She agreed with a nod and then stood up
straighter. Their IWC contact headed their way. Why hadn't he met
them inside the port tower? Putting everything on show? Too obvious
for her taste, but it might work on this world.
"Welcome Etech Cha Hao Chan,"
the man said with a nod to him and then a glance to the left with a
frown. "We did not realize you would be traveling with others."
"A person in my position would not
make a journey like this alone," Cha said. Something in this
man's attitude was already putting Devlin off, so it was just as well
Cha had to deal with him.
"Oh yes, of course. Well, the
apartment we have for you has two bedrooms," the IWC officer
said with a frown again.
"We'll make do," Cha replied
with a grin. He did not reach over and take Devlin by the arm,
though Devlin was tempted to take his. She had the feeling their
oh-so-proper IWC soldier would not approve.
"I am Lt. Zelman Gista," he
finally said, perhaps realizing he'd been rude. "Please come
They went straight to an aircar. A few
of the tan-uniformed port guards watched them pass, and Devlin saw
frowns there. The IWC kept a large contingent of the army here, and
Devlin's reports had revealed a bit of antagonism between the two
groups, not helped by the fact that neither side had found any sign
of the missing scientists or the families that came with them.
Devlin glanced at Cha and felt that
surge of worry again.
"We have arranged for you to stay
at one of the best, upscale apartment buildings in the city,"
Gista said once the pilot had lifted. "You will be on a floor
pretty much to yourself since several of the apartments are in the
process of renovation, which should allow us to keep a closer watch
Devlin wasn't certain how that would
work unless the IWC soldiers were doing the renovations themselves.
Somehow, she couldn't quite picture that happening. Maybe having the
walls torn out allowed them to plant surveillance equipment. And
leave it there, she supposed. The IWC might want to keep an eye on
people who could afford luxury on Astrakhan.
Not her job to worry about what they
might be doing, at least not on this assignment. She let Cha do the
talking. Dancer said nothing as well. Maybe they acted like proper
little aides because the glances Gista gave them started to become
Good. Devlin didn't want to have to
deal with Gista.
"I'll let you get settled in for a
couple of days," Gista said after he showed them to their
apartment. He gave a smile, though it looked forced. "Give the
others a chance to look you over and see if you're worth their time."
"They'd be fools to turn down a
chance at Cha," Devlin said.
Gista gave a little grunt of an answer
with hardly a glance at her and then headed out of the apartment.
"Well, if that's a sign of the type
of people they have working here, I'm not impressed," Devlin
admitted once the door closed. She took out her pocket comp and ran
a scan, then frowned and tapped the screen. Cha and Dancer
understood. The room had surveillance set up already.
Had Gista and his people already leaked
the information about where the fine Etech would be living? Maybe
so, but if they had, Gista should have told the three of them.
Devlin didn't mind that they were making this somewhat easy for
whoever was handling this trouble -- but she wanted to be on the
inside of what was going on here.
It didn't take her long to make certain
the devices were not working. Unfortunately, she couldn't trace the
link to the other end. So they sat down to some tea finally. Cha
didn't look any happier than Devlin, and Dancer looked out the window
with a frown that showed he didn't like the world, which probably
reminded him too much of Terra Nova. She had the same feeling but
shoved it aside. They had a job to do here.
"If Gista is in charge of this,"
Cha said. "it's a wonder he hasn't lost himself."
Devlin grinned agreement. "I
suppose it won't hurt to hold up here for a little while. The gravity
is more than I like. Don't say anything Dancer. I'm sure you can
handle it, but there is no reason why any of us should be miserable.
Let's see what Gista does now that we've arrived. He might surprise
Devlin didn't seriously think Gista
would come up with anything helpful, but she kept those words to
herself. For the next few days, all three of them devoted themselves
to studying the situation, and not in ways that Gista -- who dropped
by now and then to check on them -- would have approved. Devlin had
access to things he hadn't passed on because he never gave over the
codes to the files. It became plain that he didn't trust any of them
because they were not military. She'd faced this sort of problem
during other cases, and in this instance, she decided not to show her
IWCS card to Gista yet. She knew just from his attitude that it
would not improve the situation.
After four days on the world, they
finally went out for more than a walk to the nearby market and back.
Gista, not in uniform, went with him. The man might as well have
marched along waving the IWC White banner. He was so obviously
military that she saw people smirking and saluting.
He also was very careful about where
they went, which never included going into the worst part of towns.
When Devlin asked why they didn't go there, he gave her a look of
"Obviously, those people couldn’t
have pulled this off, not with so many scientists," he said, and
loud enough that others heard. "This has to be the work of
people much smarter."
She was tempted to tell him what she
thought of his competence.
"This has been going on for some
time," Cha said. He did keep his voice softer. "I would
hope that there must be some clues."
"Some," Gista said, though
grudgingly. "Nothing that has helped."
Devlin again refrained from saying
anything that came to mind, like how they could lay clues out for him
in black and white and he'd miss the point. Maybe someone else
working on the case was somewhat better -- but from what she'd seen
in the reports, there had been no sign of competence anywhere. No
wonder the IWCS had sent her in. She'd never seen anything so poorly
And if they went past one more OWMS
office, she was going to start screaming. They preached from the
doorways, and it seemed as though Gista always slowed at just that
time. Her glares won her nothing, except possibly louder voices
lecturing as they passed.
Devlin realized she should have done a
little more background checking on the world since the plethora of
OWMS people took her by surprise. She supposed this was a perfect
world for them filled with so many people they could hope to convert.
She noted that no one seemed to go near the buildings. Nothing much
In fact, nothing much happening at all.
Cha and Dancer seemed to enjoy the work in the fields, though. The
khanta plant from which the drugs were made grew like a weed -- was,
in fact, a weed. The harvest took place within two weeks of the
first sprouts, and it didn't matter if you laid the field to waste, a
week later it would be half grown again. Cha found it fascinating,
so at least one of them was happy on this damned world.
Gista was starting to truly annoy her.
She played his game for a while, but things were going to change.
Dancer settled at the table with the
others and grimaced at the sound of pounding down the hall as the
workers tried to complete yet another apartment. He hoped they
finished the work early. There had been some nights when the
pounding went on and on until he thought he might go down and take
the equipment away from them and possibly beat the tools into useless
pieces of metal. From the glare Devlin gave the wall behind him,
Dancer had the feeling she might help, too.
Food sat in the middle of the table. It
did not look any more appetizing than the first meals had on this
world, and Dancer knew that meant he had become far too spoiled by
Keri's cooking. He kept that observation to himself. They had
already spent three weeks standard on this case with no end -- hell,
no beginning -- in sight. If things didn't change soon, he was going
to pay to have Keri join them just so they could have a decent meal.
If it hadn't been for Cha's studies, and
the information he shared, Dancer thought he might have gone off and
started trouble just to get things moving.
Devlin jabbed at her food and did not
look happy. Not a surprise, given that they were blessed with
another dinner visit from Captain Zelman Gista. Dancer didn't think
he could take another one of the Captain's lectures, which always
seemed to be just one step short of telling them they were all too
stupid to be allowed out of his sight.
Dancer had settled into the chair by
Zelman and looked across the table at Devlin. "You know I'm
starting to think this is a damned silly way to make a living."
"Ha!" she said with a sudden
laugh. "And this from the former Bear Dancer."
"And they didn't even pay him for
it," Cha added.
Which brought laughter to the three of
them, just as he had hoped. Zelman didn't laugh, of course. The
Captain reminded him too much of the late, and unlamented, Leta. In
fact, if Dancer hadn't known Marsit and a few others, he might have
believed that everyone in the military fit this pattern of snarling,
mistrustful individuals. He still wondered how any of them survived.
The dour, pale man with thin hair and
fanatical eyes bothered Dancer more than he had admitted to his
companions. There were times when he wished Keri had traveled with
them for more than the food. He did not trust Zelman and even
sitting at the table with the man had started to make Dancer twitchy.
Even though she hadn't said so, Dancer
knew that Devlin didn't trust him either. He understood the look in
her face and saw how she judged everything Zelman did and said. The
ledgers were not coming up good for Captain Gista.
They'd been here too long and learned
nothing except what Zelman told them. Even Devlin's work on the
comps had not turned up much, which had only added to the general
sense of frustration for all of them. They didn't want to make this
case last any longer than was necessary.
Devlin had thought the case wouldn't be
difficult, and she might still be right if they ever got a chance go
out and do the work.
Dancer ate some of the food. Not bad
stuff. He had eaten nothing but bland food all of his life on
Forest, and he couldn't say this food was worse. His mood was
getting progressively worse was all.
Dancer paid no attention as Devlin asked
Gista a few questions. Gista grudgingly gave answers, as though he
shouldn't have to be bothered with her. Another bad point for the
man who didn't know how to handle dealing with people he could not
order to do what he wanted.
Cha had grown tired of the game after
the first couple days, but he'd also played along, hoping that his
presence would still draw the right attention. Someone, locally, had
to be involved in luring scientists to Astrakhan before they
disappeared. This had been going on for over a year before word
finally reached the IWCS from various sources, and they'd kept quiet
about the problem. Etech Cha Hao Chan turning up on the world for an
IWC assignment should not have looked like a trap. He had an aide
and one guard who did her best not to look very professional when
they went out.
They ate more food. Cha talked about
the work he was doing about the khanta fields they'd studied near the
city. Gista frowned as though he didn't like the idea of Cha doing
the work, despite the on-going battle between the drug runners and
the IWC Whites stationed here.
Didn't like outsiders stepping into
military work? Well, it wasn't as though they hadn't faced that sort
of thing before. He thought about Terra Nova again and lost his
appetite. Cha cleared away the table and came back with tea. Gista
never joined them for the drink, even though Cha was unfailingly
polite and offered. He seemed to think this was some odd, alien
substance and probably akin to the drugs he fought. Gista always
drank a cup of the local coffee. Cha made that as well as their tea,
and he never complained.
Once Cha brought the tea to the table,
Devlin leaned back in her chair, looked around the table, and gave a
nod. Dancer pushed aside his cup and managed not to look at Gista.
Things were about to change.
"It's time to try something new,"
Devlin said and took a sip of her tea. "We've stuck to the IWC
plan so far, but it's not working."
Fighting words, of course, as far as
Zelman was concerned. He put down his cup with more force than
necessary. The coffee splattered and he wiped it from his uniform
with a glare, as though the accident was the fault of anyone but him.
"Good," Cha said. He sipped
his tea. "I'm tired of waiting."
"What have you got to complain
about?" Gista demanded. "All you three have to do is write
some reports and play house."
"We were sent here for a reason."
Devlin sipped her tea again. She looked like a different person now
that she was on the job in a real sense. Dancer wondered if Gista
could see the change in the way she sat straighter, how her eyes no
longer narrowed, and how a slight smile came to her lips. Devlin did
like her work. "It's time for us to try something new. Dancer
and I will be going out tonight -- without you, Gista -- to start our
"About time," Dancer said and
felt better as well. Devlin gave him a bright smile.
"Those are not your orders,"
Gista replied, his voice louder as he grew angrier. Devlin did not
lose her temper. She'd made a decision, and the man's reaction was
not going to change anything.
Dancer found himself fascinated as he
watched the byplay. Gista had no idea what he faced.
"From now on, we're going to do
this my way, Captain Gista."
He met her look, his eyes narrowed.
"You can't --"
"Don't make me pull rank."
"You have no authority --"
Devlin reached to her belt, pulled out
her magic Gold Card, and tossed it across the table so that it landed
by Captain Zelman Gista's hand. He looked down, blinking a few times
before he understood what he saw.
Dancer didn't think the man could go so
pale, especially considering how colorless he had seemed before now.
At least from now on Gista would not be able to dictate to them.
Dancer had gotten tired of their surly escort the first day, and he'd
been surprised at how well Devlin had taken his attitude. She,
though, was a professional and it had shown in her patience.
"We have this settled now, right?"
Devlin asked. Captain Zelman Gista sat back saying nothing. Not a
good reaction, but at least a quiet one. Dancer didn't trust it
much, but they could deal with the man now that they no longer had to
play by his rules.
Devlin reached over and took back the
card and stopped to stare at the Captain, as though still measuring
him. She could have ordered him away, but she didn't. There was
probably no reason to make such a breach with the IWC, but Dancer had
hoped the man would leave.
No matter. Gista was no longer in
"Here is what I see: I think they
haven't shown interest in Cha because he looks too much like bait,"
Devlin admitted. She gave a little shrug. "It was the one
fault with the plan that we couldn't change, no matter how we handled
things on world. So now that they've gotten used to having him
around, we're going to up the ante a little. Dancer and I are going
out on the streets tonight -- a little slumming now in the last days
before we leave Astrakhan."
"If they think Cha is going to
disappear, they might try to take him?" Dancer asked.
"It's worth a try. Not having an
IWC guard hanging around with us will help, too," Devlin added
with a nod to Gista. "You will not be going with us, in uniform
"It's dangerous out there," he
said, though not with any real emotion.
She nodded agreement, and that ended
So, no more guided tours by Zelman who
was so obviously IWC -- even when he didn't wear the uniform -- that
no one would have come near them. Dancer wondered if his poor
performance might have helped to make them appear legitimate, though.
Maybe people thought that the IWC worried about Cha. That might
even be the reason Devlin let it go on for so long.
Dancer felt a mental shift in his
attitude. He'd gotten annoyed and lazy after the first few days when
he realized that nothing was going to happen as long as Zelman Gista
tagged along everywhere they went. He couldn't say anything would be
different now, but at least they wouldn't spend another day doing
exactly the same actions and getting the same reactions.
Captain Gista left early that night.
Dancer had expected him to argue about the plan or at the very least
to try and stick with them when they went out. He didn't entirely
trust having Gista out of their sight, but it felt good to have that
weight of his presence lifted. Gista didn't approve of them, and
after he'd stalked out the door, Dancer considered something that had
played in his mind for some time.
"The Old World Morals Society is
stronger here than you expected, isn't it?" Dancer asked.
"Yes," Devlin said, looking
intrigued by the odd change in subject. "I should have realized
they would love worlds like this where the group would think they
could save the damned, or whatever it is they're trying to do. They
claim not to be a religion, but they base a lot of their tenets on
Old Earth -- ah. Playing
house. He noticed that we often all share the same
Dancer enjoyed watching her figure out
where he had been going with the question. Cha blinked, just a step
or two behind this time, but he gave a nod as well.
"I don't get what the OWMS thinks
they can do. I don't understand them," Dancer admitted. "I'd
barely heard of the group before our trip to Astrakhan and thought
they were just a little organization."
"They like the show," Cha
replied, and Devlin gave a nod of agreement. "I'm sure there
are those who also follow their ideology, but even on earth, there
was no single type of family life like they claim. They based their
one wife/one husband choice on mostly the Christian religion. They
think a strong family structure will somehow save humanity."
"Except it has to be only their
type of family structure," Devlin pointed out. "Never mind
if anything works for others. And that's why they aren't as strong
as they could be, which I think is good. The family structure is
only one part of their 'do this to save humanity' creed. They want
control. They want to dictate everything people do, and that's never
"True," Cha agreed and looked
out the window to the world outside. "I'm glad we're finally
going to stop doing useless things with Zelman, though I notice you
didn't include me in your little jaunt out tonight."
"Too obvious," Devlin said
with a sigh of regret. "Not the first night. You up to going
"I've gotten used to the heavier
gravity at least," Dancer admitted. He'd been uncomfortable for
the first few days, and Cha had kept a closer watch on him than
usual. Gista had helped him have an extended rest. He had taken a
while to get used to the 1.2 Earth Standard gravity.
"He's doing fine," Cha said,
so Devlin didn't argue.
"I am really, really tired of this
apartment," Dancer said and looked toward the window. "When
are we leaving?"
"Sunset, when things start to liven
up out there. That's when Gista always shepherded us inside and away
from any danger. I think having a top IWC scientist in his care had
"I'm going to go write to Keri and
tell him things are finally on the move," Dancer said as he
stood. He stretched and considered the long walk they were bound to
take tonight. He'd be sore afterward, but so would Devlin. Cha was
the one who would be lucky this time.
Dancer went to the desk beside the
window and stared out for a little while before he started to type.
Astrakhan looked like an unusual settlement, especially for someone
who had lived a sheltered life on Forest. The sun would be down
soon, and he could already see a few neon lights brightening the
buildings and the bustle of people heading into the heart of the city
and the clubs that made this world so famous.
There would be people everywhere, and he
fought aside a sudden touch of panic. He sometimes still felt the
touch of Terra Nova, and he needed to get out into such crowds to get
past those darker feelings. He didn't want what happened on that
world to affect the rest of us life, even though he knew he couldn't
He and Keri had sometimes discussed how
thinking about Terra Nova after they finished their work had been
worse than being on the world in the midst of the plague.
They'd been working during the trouble, moving and doing all they
could to save others. Thinking about it afterward, when nothing
could be undone, had started the true nightmares.
Dancer typed up a note which would
automatically go out yet tonight on Devlin's private line. He
doubted Captain Gista even knew about Devlin's direct connection with
off world. In fact, he'd noticed how she sent some reports through
him, so he probably never guessed there might be more she told
Once he was done with the note and sent
it off, looked out the window and smiled. The sun had dropped low on
the horizon, and they would go out and start working soon. Good.
Now that the case was truly in their hands, things were going to
Devlin stared out the window watching as
the sun slipped lower and the lights began to brighten across the
city. The streets looked lively tonight, and she hoped, finally, to
make some break-through on this assignment.
Why couldn't the world have grown up to
be something calm and normal? They'd started out well enough. Even
before the world was fully terraformed, there had been several
industries here, built into underground buildings that should have
taken control once the atmosphere cleared and more people came in.
Something had changed, though. Probably
the khanta had done it -- so readily grown and so popular with
visitors. Then they found they could make their fortune on tourists,
as long as they let things stay a bit wild.
Being wild did not include kidnapping.
Devlin wanted answers so they could go
When had Keri's place become home even
to her? She looked forward to going back to earth ... and there was
another strange thought. Earth had never been a world she'd wanted
to visit, let alone live there. She'd thought Mars and the IWC HQ
was always close enough to the first world of humanity and had held
the same sort of disdain for the 'mother world' that some of the
earth's inhabitants conferred on the colonists.
Devlin had been bigoted in all her own
ways, but Cha had finally broken her of that attitude since he came
from Earth. Staying there at Keri's place -- and he was not born on
earth -- had shown her that even earth had places of peace.
Devlin did wish she could take Cha out
with them tonight, but they had to keep the pretense up for this part
of the show. She and Dancer were only staff, and they could say they
had the night off while the scientist finished up reports. They'd be
leaving the world in a few days. Devlin even booked passage for
them, though she doubted they'd be on that ship.
Having Gista gone significantly improved
her mood. The man had absolutely no finesse, but Devlin had let him
keep control for a while as she felt things out in her own way.
However, if they'd kept to the IWC officer's plan, they'd have been
working here for years to come.
More lights came on. People passed by
the apartment building. Time to go to work.
Cha left his desk and put an arm around
her waist, leaning closer. He felt warm and smelled of soap. "You
two be careful out there. Yes, I know you're professional and all --
but the world looks too pretty, I think. We know there are dangers."
"We'll watch each other's backs,"
she promised. Then she bent and kissed Cha and nuzzled his neck.
"I'm going to need a massage when I get back. Probably Dancer,
"Oh, I'll be ready," he said
She pulled away, regretting having to go
out at all. Devlin sighed and looked out at the city again. "I've
done enough studies that I'm sure what's happening here is not
connected to the local gambling or protection cartels."
"Most likely. The drug dealers
were my best guess from the start, though there's something odd going
on there, too. The drug lords appear to be at war with each other,
and something is off kilter. Something...."
"Maybe there is a new group that
has come in and is trying to take over the khanta fields," she
said. This was the theory that had started popping up in her mind.
"We know it's easy to grow and transport khanta, but difficult
to process the refined drug. The scientists who were already taken
might be of help in that type of work."
"The part that worries me is that
they all appear to have taken legitimate jobs, right until they
disappear," Dancer added as he joined them.
"Anyone offered you a job lately,
Cha?" she asked with a grin.
"They'd never get past you,"
he said with a laugh. "You look good, Dancer."
Devlin turned and nodded approval. He'd
dressed for the work in his favorite scruffy leather jacket, silk
scarf and a blue shirt -- Bear
Dancer. She hadn't really thought of him in that
way for a while. He even had his power blade in the sheath at his
belt as usual.
She wore blacks tonight. She had always
been less showy than Dancer and besides the dark clothing marked her
in her own way. No one would look at them without thinking they were
trouble in one way or another. Good. She didn't want to make this
look easy -- or look as though they were trying to fool anyone.
"Let me get you both a shot of
Anticol before you go," Cha said and went back to the room he
shared with Devlin and came out with his medical bag. "This
will keep you from getting drunk tonight, no matter what you take in.
Watch out for the drugs, though."