Hagar’s enormous sun sets in an opalescent haze, the sky brindled a metallic red-orange that seems insultingly gaudy, as if a cheap holopix director were designing an alien sky. As the red fades into an offensive little-girl pink, the real show begins above Polar City. The northern lights crackle, hang long waves of rainbow over the skyline that resembles nothing so much as egg-cartons set on end, and at times wash the high gantries of the space-port in purple and silver. Although most of the inhabitants (just getting out of bed, checking their kids or their incubating eggs, brushing their teeth or washing their beaks,) ignore them, tonight Police Corporal Baskin Ward stops on his downtown beat and leans against the blue plastocrete wall of the public library to watch the sky. He has a lot to think over, and it is very hot, as it always is in Polar City. In an hour or so, the town will come alive, but he wants to take it easy so he’ll be fit for the sergeant’s exam on the morrow. If he passes, he’ll be able to marry the woman he’s loved for three years, a clerk/comp-op over in Traffic Control who wants, as he does, two children and a transfer off this god-damn low-tech desert world with the continually gaudy sky. If he does well as a sergeant, he’ll be able to request posting to Sarah, his home planet, a world of rains and jungles–if, of course, he passes the exam in the first place.
The blue arc street lamps wink on, floating in their maglev field some twenty feet above the pale gray sidewalks and the shiny black movebelts that flow beside them. The Civic Center Plaza in front of him is empty except for a woman hurrying across, her high-heeled boots echoing and slapping on the rammed earth tiles, the sound competing with the endless snap of magnetism in the sky above. In a little while, office workers and bureaucrats will pour in from the underground condos rimming the city proper. Ward hopes for an easy beat. Most likely it’ll be a few drunks and more than a few dreamdusters, all to be lectured, ticketed, and entered into the rehab computer via the terminal on his belt, while the most exciting arrest is likely to be a pick-pocket. Basically, Ward is there to be seen in his kelly-green uniform with its imposing gold braid and shiny silver stun-gun, a visible symbol of the Republic’s power to protect and punish.
He settles his cap, peels himself off the library wall, and steps onto the movebelt that runs across the plaza toward City Hall, a enormous black basalt building as glum as a tombstone. In the center of the plaza is a roughly-defined square bordered by holm oaks. Just as the belt carries Ward inside this square, some unseen worker far below the surface turns on the public hologram in the center. A tall fountain snaps into being, the illusionary water spraying in dead silence for a minute before the hiss-and-splash tape goes on. When the ion generator joins in, Ward can almost believe that it’s cooler near the fountain. He steps off the belt and ambles over to the real railing that keeps kids, lizlets, and pets out of the imaginary water. In the middle of the big white plastocrete pool, he sees his first drunk or druggie of the night, lying half-hidden in the murk of the illusion.
“Okay, amigo, need a little help, huh?”
As Ward wades through the holo, he’s irrationally irritated that his legs stay dry and thus hot. The doper never even moves, merely waits, lying on his back with his hands folded over his chest. Then Ward sees the stain, more black than red in the arc light, spreading over the whiteness.
Ward kneels down fast, reaching for his combox. He sees that he’s dealing with a male carli, about five feet tall, even skinnier than most of his species, the three fingers on each hand like long twigs and tufted with pale gray fur. The dark gray fur visible on his face, arms, and neck is dull and matted. His eyes are wide open; the skin-flaps around each ear, fully extended and rigid; his thin slit of a mouth, shut tight. Since Ward knows carli ways, he realizes that these particular facial expressions indicate a certain mild surprise and nothing more. The victim must have suspected nothing, seen no danger coming, until the exact moment that someone slashed his throat open to the spine.
Katharine Kerr is the author of the Deverry series of epic fantasy as well as several works of science fiction. Polar City Blues and Freeze Frames are available from Book View Cafe.