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.
“Since he’s a carli, sir, he got to be part of the Confederation embassy.”
“Safe enough bet, Ward.”
Chief Al Bates, an enormous, burly man whose skin is so dark that it glitters with bluish highlights, and his corporal, about half his size and on the pale side, stand off to one side of the plaza and watch the ’grammers and techs swarming around the corpse. Since the fountain has been shut off, they can see the body clearly, dressed in luxurious blue robes of natural fiber. On its left wrist is a multi-function chrono with a solid gold band, its expensive presence eliminating a nice routine robbery-with-bodily-harm. Although the chief wants to find a simple motive—unpaid gambling debts, say, or an affair with some other carli’s female—deep in his heart he suspects that politics lies at the root of this killing, simply because major crimes on Hagar almost always have something to do with politics. Just six blocks to the west of them stands the embassy of the powerful Interstellar Confederation; eight blocks to the east, that of the enormous Coreward Alliance. Polar City Hall, seat of the provincial administration of this portion of the pitifully small Republic (seven inhabited planets in four systems, two asteroid belts, and a couple of minable moons), stands symbolically in between, caught, as the citizens like to say, between the Cons and the Lies. This joke is not meant kindly.
By now the office workers are arriving, popping up like sandworms out of the metro exits, and of course, they stop to gawk. Without waiting for orders Ward trots away to keep them moving—a good officer, in the chief’s estimation, and one worthy of a set of sergeant’s stripes. He also sees the Vulture Detail weaving through the crowd—a medic and two body techs, with a maglev platform bobbing along after them. Bates wonders why the killers left the body in the middle of the plaza, especially in the fountain, a damn strange place to dump a corpse. Perhaps the killers were new to Polar City and didn’t know about the fountain? Perhaps they were deliberately insulting the dead man? The carli are extremely touchy about the disposal of their corpses. He reminds himself to access a databank on carli burial customs to see if water might be a source of ritual pollution.
“It looks horrible, chief.”
“Jeez! Mulligan!” Bates swirls around, his stun-gun half-drawn before he catches himself. “Will you stop creeping up on me like that? One of these nights you’re going to get a skull full of shock waves.”
Mulligan merely smiles his open, boyish grin, one of the things that the chief particularly dislikes about him. Although Bates is willing to admit that a free society should tolerate psychics, and that indeed, the Republic often finds them useful, he has never felt at ease around psionic jocks and particularly not around Mulligan. Tonight Mulligan looks even messier than usual, all skinny six feet of him dressed only in a pair of filthy white walking-shorts and a green shirt open to the waist, both of them much too large. His hair though permanently shaggy is temporarily turquoise blue, a color that clashes with the bright red, mandatory ‘p’ tattooed on his left jaw, just beside the ear. (While the Republic tolerates psychics, it also brands them to protect its other citizens.) In the street lights, his eyes glare like a reptile’s—reflective gold contact lenses, the chief notes in disgust. He cannot quite stop himself from thinking that after all, white people, los Blancos, are mostly this way, out of touch with hard reality, caught up in some faked image of themselves. Then he feels ashamed of himself for lapsing into old prejudices.
“Can I help?” Mulligan waves vaguely at the corpse.
“What do you want the bucks for? Dreamdust?”
“Never use the stuff. How about, like, rent? My landlord’s going to throw me out. Y’know?”
Bates snorts in skepticism, then hesitates, thinking. Mulligan has the virtue of being right there on the scene, and early, before whatever vibrations it is that psychics read have weakened or even dissipated completely.
“Yeah, sure. Follow me.”
Mulligan trots meekly behind as the chief shoves his way through the crowd to the coroner’s techmen around the corpse. They are just loading the gray-shrouded bundle onto the maglev platform.
“Got a registered psychic here,” Bates says. “So hold off moving him for a moment.”
Obligingly the techmen let the corpse fall back onto the fountain floor. Mulligan kneels down, slumps back onto his heels, then holds his long-fingered pale hands out over the body. For a moment he sits quietly, while one techman gets out a recorder and primes it to catch whatever he says and the other corpse-handler gets himself a pinch of chewing spice out of his shirt pocket. Then Mulligan goes rigid, his head snapping back, his back arching, and howls once, a high-pitched shriek of pain. One techman swallows his spice and rushes away to puke it back up in the privacy of the gutter. The other, who is apparently more familiar with psionic techniques, flicks on the recorder and yawns. Bates hunkers down close.
“What do you see?”
His mouth half-open, Mulligan turns his head to look the chief’s way. Because of the reflective contacts, it’s some moments before the chief realizes that something is badly wrong, that Mulligan’s acting blind, that he’s desperately trying to force out a few words and to raise his hands. When Bates grabs him, he howls again, but this time he sounds like he’s choking. For all his big-bellied bulk, the chief can move fast when he has to. Dragging Mulligan with him he jumps to his feet and leaps back. The result appears to be exactly the same as dragging someone away from an electrical shock. At first Mulligan spasms, then faints in the chief’s arms. Turquoise sweat streaks down his face.
“Medic!” Bates’s voice booms over the murmurs of the gawking crowd. “Get me a medic! Pronto!”