This is a free excerpt of Zero Flux (A Central Galactic Concordance Novella), by Carol Van Natta. NOTE: Zero Flux is best enjoyed after reading Overload Flux, which is Luka's and Mairwen's first adventure, and introduces the Central Galactic Concordance series and universe.
* Planet: Concordance Prime * GDAT 3240.350*
Mairwen Morganthur entered the command to send the swarm of thirty cameras up out of their case, preparing them to get coverage the newly discovered but very old crime scene. The bodies were frozen in an icy tableau, the violent nature of their deaths readily apparent. The male’s body, which was draped backward over a rock, had no face, stark evidence of an energy weapon. The female body, similarly faceless, could have been stretched out on the cave floor for a rest, except for the long black phase knife protruding from her chest and pinning her like a preserved insect. The bright colors of the arctic suits the bodies wore were muted by a coating of ice. Near each body, the ice still had a brownish coloration in a pattern that suggested blood pools. Preliminary readings said the bodies were fifteen years dead.
Mairwen found it odd to be at a crime scene that had no scents other than those of her companions, Luka and Einar. And water, everywhere, in the form of exotically beautiful, massive pillars of ice that rose up from the ground around them. The dawn light from the cave’s large entrance lit them in stark relief. The hovering fleet of floating lights that Einar controlled by subvocalized commands created muted, shifting shadows all over the crime scene.
The wind blew in a sudden puff of snowflakes from the smaller entrance behind her. It had been excavated through snow, ice, and rock rubble by the unknown geologist who’d reported the frozen bodies. He or she had then discovered the larger, natural entrance further off to Mairwen’s left, and cleared it of its compressed layer of snow. The whole cave, perhaps two hundred meters wide and a hundred meters deep, sloped downward from the original entrance. The bodies were in a natural flat area further down and to her left, and a jumble of ice pillars rose up to her right in what her analog compass said was the east end of the cave. Earlier, Luka and Einar had taken a careful tour through most of the cave at Luka’s insistence, leaving her to guard the crime scene, although that custody protocol was probably not needed, considering the location’s inaccessibility. The cave floor was mostly solid ice, aside from the ice pillars and the occasional protruding knobs and rocks. The whisper of multiple drips she heard couldn’t account for all the water that would have been needed to create the massive ice formations—icicles was the only name Mairwen had for them—throughout the cave from both ceiling and floor.
The sounds in the cave were grating on her nerves, but she resisted the urge to shut down her hearing. It was already muffled by the transparent insulating headgear she wore, which was standard gear on frigid Lumi Silta. Columns of ice reached down from the high-ceilinged cave. They resembled the pipes of an ancient organ though the smallest were a meter wide, and the largest were ten times more massive. Their music was a syncopated cacophony of groaning and cracking. The howling winter wind outside the entrances made a discordant accompaniment. She didn’t know what she could safely ignore and what was significant, so she made herself listen to it all.
Mairwen finished setting the flight pattern for the camera array and entered the launch command on the controller. “Camera eyes incoming,” she announced to the two men who were working closer to the bodies. Luka Foxe, her lover for the past three years and business partner for the last two, gave her a quick, warm smile as he stood. It still made her breath catch when he did that.
The other man was Einar Norðland, confusingly also called Einar Magnússon and Einar Goðrúnarson, in the Icelandic cultural convention for acknowledging paternal and maternal parentage. No wonder Lumi Siltans mostly went by their first names, unlike most of the rest of the galaxy. Einar was the Lumi Silta planetary police commissioner, and the man who had issued the invitation for Luka to return to his home planet for a “very cold case.”
Einar finished collecting the tissue sample from a hole drilled through the coating of ice covering the woman’s body. Although he claimed it had been a dozen years since he’d worked a crime scene, he seemed to be competent at the basics and knew to get out of the way of the cameras. He was a big man, easily fifteen centimeters taller than Luka, with wide shoulders and a thick, muscled middle and thighs. His eyes were stormy gray, and he had long, braided hair and a full, dark beard and mustache, a popular style on Lumi Silta. He’d pulled back his headgear and opened his bright green storm coat once they’d reached the protection of the cave. Mairwen had observed a perverse pride among Lumi Siltans in how much cold they could tolerate.
The silent camera swarm looked like fat, ultra-fast bumblebees flying in formation before scattering into a fractal pattern that would quickly cover the crime scene from multiple angles. They were state-of-the-art and outrageously expensive, but Luka loved their design. The images they produced were High Court-admissible when backed by his expert testimony.
Luka closed the scanner he’d been using and slid it back into his forensic kit, splayed open at his feet. “No tech signatures.”
Einar frowned. “Not even the phase knife in the dead woman? It should still have plenty of…” He waggled his fingers, groping for the right word. “Stjörnurafmagns?”
Luka smiled. “Plasma charge. No, it’s flatlined.”
Despite Icelandic being the primary language on Lumi Silta and both Luka’s and Einar’s native tongue, they were all speaking English, at Einar’s request. He’d said he needed the practice, but he might also have assumed Mairwen didn’t know Icelandic. It was a relic only spoken on this planet by people who cherished it and made sure to pass it on to their children. She wasn’t fluent in it, because she’d taught herself from artificial instruction and only had Luka to practice with, so the antique word forms sometimes confused her. The literal translation for the word Einar had used was “star electricity.” Flux, the energy that powered ships and made faster-than-light travel possible, translated to “dark stellar lava flow.” Icelandic was poetic, but not facile with technical concepts.
“Any results from your query on who they are?” Luka wrapped his arms across his chest and hunched his shoulders as he stared at the faceless woman in the ice. Einar was using the rugged percomp on his wrist, with its satellite uplink capability, to check the planetary hypercube of crime data.
“Not a thing. We don’t have a lot of murders, and none of them unsolved.” He nodded toward the woman. “Everyone carries phase knives these days, as if they’re better than a metal blade. Her gear says she’s a native, not an outlander, but either way, no one’s missed her.”
“Maybe,” said Luka absently, as he entered a note on his thincomp, “you should be looking for a woman who isn’t missing.”
Einar snorted loudly and rolled his eyes, but didn’t ask what Luka meant. Mairwen found it odd that Einar was skeptical about Luka’s abilities, and yet had specifically requested him. It was a frustrating aspect of being an independent contractor. If the client didn’t want to listen to his expert consultants, they couldn’t make him. Another gust of wind sounded behind Mairwen, and she suppressed an irritable frown.
Luka ignored Einar and carefully stepped closer to the faceless male body, which was dripping with icicles. He crouched by the ice-encased feet, and his head tilted to the side a little. He shivered, despite the storm shell, arctic coat, and power-heated base layer they all wore. It was a sure sign his hidden, unique minder talent for forensic investigation was flaring. He didn’t always have a choice when it came to using it, but he’d gotten much better at controlling it. Fortunately so, because it had been killing him.
“What about the male?” he asked Einar.
“No matches,” said Einar. Something in his tone caused Luka to look up at him.
The groaning and shifting noises from the east end of the cave opposite the bodies suddenly ramped up, at least to Mairwen’s ultra-sensitive hearing. She took two steps closer to Luka but said nothing. If she’d been alone with him, she’d have told him, but since neither he nor Einar noticed, the sounds must not be audible to normal hearing. Only three people knew about her extraordinary senses—herself, Luka, and their assistant. That didn’t count the Citizen Protection Service’s covert projects personnel who’d secretly and very illegally created people like her and forged them into lethal trackers. As far as they knew, she was dead, and hiding her abilities and skills was part of how she made sure she stayed that way.
“Which one of them do you think I knew?” Luka asked. The expression on his face said he was making intuitive leaps. She knew the look well.
“I’d forgotten how clever you are.” Einar smiled ruefully and sighed. “The male.” He picked up his staff-length ice wand from the floor. It was used for carving paths in snow and ice. Most everything else she’d seen on Lumi Silta had been old tech or no-tech, but their cold-weather clothes and tools were the best available. Considering Lumi Silta was the coldest settled planet in the Central Galactic Concordance and was going through a planet-wide cold cycle, it made sense.
A loud crack of ice from the north end of the cave startled them all. One of the comparatively smaller icicles gave way, and fell to the cave floor with a brittle crack.
“No more time for games, Einar. Get your lights.” Luka stuffed his thincomp in his pocket, then quickly scooped up the open forensic kit and started toward Mairwen. He walked carefully, because even with the adaptive-grip spikes built into their insulated boots, the footing was treacherous. Mairwen recalled the flying cameras, then held open their case and braced herself as they began thumping into place.
Luka reached her position and set the kit down, then turned back to Einar, just behind him, who had been using subvocalized commands into the earwire hidden by his beard to get the lights flying in a line between them and the large cave entrance they’d come in through. They’d parked their flitters close outside.
Luka tipped his head back toward the dead male. “So, who do you suspect he is?”
Einar looked aside to the dagger-like icicles above the crime scene, then to his hand where it gripped the staff, not meeting Luka’s eyes. “Your father, Ryszard Foxe.”
Luka jerked in shock, lost his footing, and nearly fell, but caught himself. Mairwen couldn’t do more than watch him as she caught the last few cameras, shoved the control pad in the case, then put the case in Luka’s forensic kit and closed its hexagonal sections.
Luka drew breath to speak, but whatever he might have said was lost when another, larger ice pillar in the cave’s north end started groaning.
Mairwen slung the kit’s strap over her shoulder and grabbed Luka’s sleeve. “Outside. Now.”
Luka nodded and took one step, but they were already too late. Horrendous crashes multiplied.
Mairwen needed time to think, so she dropped into tracker mode and let time slow…
Six massive icicles were falling slowly, almost gracefully, into the pillars, which were toppling like giant, low-gravity dominoes, knocking one into the other. Tiny movements created a pattern that was rippling outward. She guessed they had about fifteen seconds before the icefall blocked the large entrance, or about twenty seconds to get to the small tunnel that had been dug by the geologist, which was only big enough for one person at a time. She figured she could dive through fast enough, and probably drag Luka through, but Einar would be lost, which would upset Luka, despite Einar’s inexplicable callousness toward him. She eased into half tracker mode so she could speak intelligibly.
“Large entrance,” she shouted over the crashing sounds, and pointed. Just as she did, the icefall pattern changed, and started moving more swiftly toward them. She looked around for someplace safer than where they were.
Luka pointed to the west end of the cave and shouted, but all she heard was “…best shot…doorway…”
One thing she’d learned since meeting and partnering with Luka was to trust him. He’d saved her life more than once, and he was brilliant. If he said there was a doorway, then there was one. She turned and ran with Luka, keeping pace with him. Einar hesitated, then followed closely, moving surprisingly quickly for such a tall and burly man.
The down-sloping, slippery ice was made even more dangerous by punctuated shaking as the giant icicles crashed. The overwhelming screeches of tortured ice made her finally slam her hearing down altogether. Luka started to slide, and she was there to steady him before he lost balance. Four seconds later, he pulled her away from a falling icicle that would have crushed her.
Luka’s intended destination became more obvious as some ice fell away, and she could see a door within a deep rectangular recess. He must have seen it during their earlier tour. They turned and pulled Einar into the small space just in time, but they were far from safe. Four of his light array straggled in after him.
She opened her hearing a little when she saw Luka shouting over the din. “…look for a pad.” He pointed to the walls beside what looked like a doorway. He pulled his ice knife from his belt and started shaving off sections of ice. Einar powered his ice wand and used it deftly to remove ice layers, revealing flat, smooth walls of rock. In short order, he found and uncovered a control pad, which he was careful not to damage. He touched its screen. It sprang to life to display a coded keypad, and the doorframe helpfully lit up.
“Helvítis,” swore Einar. “It’s encrypted.”
“But old,” said Mairwen. She’d been trained to breach all manner of security systems, and had added to her knowledge since leaving her former government employer. Assessing security vulnerabilities was her primary role in Foxe Investigations.
She pushed the forensic kit around so it rested on her back, then took off her outer glove and shoved it under her belt. She gritted her teeth against the shock of cold on her hand, even though it was somewhat protected by the heated base glove. She dropped a flat knife from its wrist sheath into her waiting fingers. Working as quickly as she dared without making Einar notice her speed, she pried up the inner bezel, then carefully lifted the nano-glass screen.
“Do you have a phase knife or a needle beamer?” she asked Einar. “I need to reroute fiber.”
He shook his head. They all flinched at a particularly loud crack of ice behind them that sounded a lot closer than the others.
“Give her your pocket ice knife, powered low for sculpting,” said Luka. He looked at her. “It’ll be hot, but the principle’s the same. The fiber should be cold enough for it to work.” She’d have to ask Luka later how a plasma device could be restricted to only work on cold things, but not warm things like human bodies.
Einar took out and adjusted his knife, then handed it to her. She tested it a couple of times against a loose fiber to get the feel of it, then traced the network. The pad had been top-of-the-line twenty years ago, but had an easily exploitable flaw, which was why the model had been discontinued. She fused several lines together into a cluster, then isolated the last.
“Ready,” she said. She was still in half-tracker mode, burning energy, but it was a risk she’d have to take. She hoped whatever was behind the door was large enough to keep the three of them safe from skull-crushing icicles.
“Do it,” said Luka, who was shaving ice from the last corner.
She spliced in the last line and touched the cluster with the pommel of her wrist knife to make the connection. It strobed, but the crude splice held. She heard groaning from inside the wall. “Door’s frozen.” She switched off Einar’s ice knife and put it in her chest pocket.
Einar applied his ice wand to the doorframe, quickly but carefully, then nodded at her. She again touched her wrist knife to the cluster. This time, the door cracked open from the center, with a jagged seam that helped camouflage its presence. That was enough for Einar and Luka to force the two halves of the doors to move, slowly at first, then smoothly once they got going. Einar directed his flying lights toward the doorway. The threshold looked like smooth, light-colored stone, but beyond was pitch black.
Three of the lights made it in just as an ice pillar tilted over behind them, taking the fourth light with it. She, Luka, and Einar dived through the doorway, along with a shower of ice crystals. The door halves slid closed behind them with a grinding thump.
~ ~ ~