Excerpt for Devlin's Team # 4: Missing Persons by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Devlin's Team #4:

Missing Persons

By

Lazette Gifford

Copyright 2017, Lazette Gifford

An ACOA Publication

www.aconspiracyofauthors.com

ISBN: 978-1-936507-71-9


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.





Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

About the Author

Preview: Vita's Vengeance



Chapter 1

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.

But still....

They'd remained over a year on earth after the last assignment. Terra Nova had changed things -- had changed them.

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 feeling.

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 work."

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 hundred years.

"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 her.

"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 done differently."

"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 move."

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 it out?"

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."

"Keri --"

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 one."

"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 the signs."

"They'd only follow after me anyway."

"Dancer thought he might be able to use your codes to get you held up at New York Port until they could catch up."

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 feeling.





Chapter 2

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 the decks.

It didn't take Devlin long to notice it, either.

"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 impolite."

"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 member."

"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 annoying.

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 humanity --

"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 along."

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 audience.

"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 hard.

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 longer."

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.





Chapter 3

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 with me."

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 on you."

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 more dismissive.

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 us."

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 total disdain.

"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 handled.

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 happening there.

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.





Chapter 4

Nothing happened.

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 own investigation."

"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 charge.

"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 or out."

"It's dangerous out there," he said, though not with any real emotion.

She nodded agreement, and that ended Gista's protest.

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 bed."

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 good."

"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 out, Dancer?"

"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 him scared."

"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 forget.

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 others.

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 start happening.





Chapter 5

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 home again.

Odd thought.

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, too."

"Oh, I'll be ready," he said and laughed.

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."

"Drugs, then."

"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...."

"Yes?"

"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."


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