Valentine Yaris tapped her foot impatiently.
People shied away from Yaris. If one was watching from an overhead view, say from a security camera, the flow of traffic through the spaceport concourse would show a distinctly open bubble around her. The tall woman, just shy of thirty with sharp, angular features, royal blue hair pulled back in a French braid, jet black uniform pressed so that the creases looked as if they could cut flesh, arms folded under her breasts, foot continuing to tap, definitely gave off a forbidding air.
She noticed this, of course. She'd been an Enforcer for thirteen years, after all. She'd have washed out or been killed long ago if she wasn't perceptive enough to recognize what was going on in her immediate environment. Yaris was well aware that she was spooking the crowd. She just didn't care. After all, she was annoyed enough about this assignment all on its own, and that a delay had erupted before the problem had even started, well, why should she hide her irritation?
Yaris could almost hear her husband's voice in her ear. Patience, Val, he'd be saying. It isn't her fault that you got stuck with this job. Which was true. But it was "her" fault that "she" was late!
The staccato beat of shoes on the tiled floor caught Yaris's attention. Moments later, a slight form burst from the crowd into the bubble of open space, running right up to her.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Ms. Yaris!" the girl began babbling—and girl was the right word, too. Despite the black uniform identical to Yaris's own, the twintailed blonde with pink ribbons in her hair was nothing more than a child, closer to the age of Yaris's six-year-old than to adulthood. "There was a delay at the transfer point and—"
"Never mind the explanations; we're late enough," Yaris cut her off. Hurt flickered in eyes the dark red color of burgundy. "Our transit window will only be open for another five minutes; if we miss it we'll have to take a ship and end up a week behind schedule." Intersecting distances between worlds in both physical and dimensional space left it difficult to coordinate transportation; they were lucky that things were lining up so that a chain of dimensional shifts could "hop" them from world to world and let them travel from Midchilda to Administered World 43, Andorel, even though the worlds were actually quite far apart in dimensional space.
"Just call me 'Yaris' or 'Ms. Yaris' if you absolutely have to, but not 'ma'am.' We're supposed to be partners."
"Yes, Ms. Yaris."
"Good. Come on."
She spun on her heel and started walking down the concourse, the girl in her wake. Yaris hated babysitting jobs! She had two younger brothers, a niece, a nephew, and a daughter of her own; she didn't need any more. She knew that her daughter was why she kept getting these assignments instead of having a permanent partner or aide; Yaris and her husband always wanted at least one parent to be home at all times for their child so she rotated to an HQ assignment when Marc was on one of his trips as an inter-world mergers-and-acquisitions legal specialist, and vice versa. She accepted that it wasn't appropriate for her to be assigned a full-time partner when she herself wasn't a full-time field Enforcer. Swing workers like herself got shuffled together with other available swing workers and were the first choice for breaking in newbies.
But a kid!
Yaris knew the whys and wherefores of it. Mage talents generally got into adult jobs at a younger age than the general population because training to control that talent started early. The average TSAB Navy or Ground Forces "grunt" was a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old cadet instead of an eighteen-year-old high-school graduate. The average rookie Enforcer was seventeen or eighteen after a few years of seasoning in the investigations branch of one service or another.
But then there were the prodigies. The unusual ones. Rare talents. Child geniuses. Kids whose personal circumstances had forced them to accept adult responsibilities far earlier than the cultural norm. According to her official file, Fate T. Harlaown was all three: born not of a mother and father but in a lab as an artificial-mage clone, gifted with S-rank magical potential, and forced to grow up fast, far faster than was sane or right. She'd been involved in the Jewel Seed incident (details classified), found not criminally responsible and given probationary contractor status only to immediately get sucked into the Book of Darkness incident (details classified Eyes Only). She'd been formally adopted by Admiral Lindy Harlaown, which sort of made sense, since Lindy's natural child Chrono was another prodigy (if more of intellect than power) and so she'd have experience dealing with the problems a talented child would face. Her probationary years had, in fact, been spent under the direct command of her family, which Yaris thought was a good idea under the circumstances.
That was all in the past, though. Now, Fate had passed her Enforcement Bureau qualification exam. She was going to have to carry the weight of adult responsibilities at eleven years old. Valentine Yaris, meanwhile, would get the job of shepherding her through her growing pains.
She's passed the exam,Yaris reminded herself. She has nearly two years of genuine experience as a contractor. She's passed the AAA+ rank exam—which was two more As than Yaris had in her own ranking. She's dealt with cases involving the worst scenario, Lost Logia of the highest order. These thoughts didn't help, though. She looked at Fate Harlaown and saw a girl who was almost—but not quite—old enough to babysit Yaris's daughter.
The chain of thought was cut off not by any revelation, but by their reaching the transit point. A uniformed attendant came forward to acknowledge their arrival.
"Enforcers Yaris and Harlaown, dimensional transport to Andorel," she told the young man while using her Storage Device to upload their ID and authorization data to the system.
"Yes, ma'am," he unconsciously echoed the child. When his console lit up, his eyes widened. "Get on the platform, please; your connection will only be available for a minute and a half!"
They walked through the security gate, which passed them through without trouble, and stepped onto the triangle-shaped platform, its floor like black glass that strobed with expanding rings of green light.
"Are you ready, Enforcers?"
"Yes," Yaris said.
"Um-hm," Fate agreed.
"Initializing dimensional connections..." About three seconds passed while the computers worked their magic, lining up links through dimensional space. "Chain established. Teleport on!" He touched a key, and the black glass surged with brilliant green light, runic bands surrounding the platform in mid-air.
"Bye-bye!" Harlaown said, and suddenly they were gone, Yaris's body feeling as if she'd been suddenly kicked in the stomach and spun in a circle until dizzy once, twice, through all eight separate steps in the linkage of dimensional shifts until with a brilliant flash in the light faded and the Enforcers found themselves standing on a platform identical to the one they'd left, but in completely different surroundings.
"Dimensional transport complete. Welcome to Andorel, Administered World 43," a mechanical voice announced while Yaris swayed, catching her balance while grinding her teeth together, hoping to keep her stomach contents down.
"Are you all right, Ms. Yaris?" Harlaown asked, her concern obvious. The girl, of course, didn't appear to have suffered any ill effects from the trip, which just seemed to make it worse.
"Fine," she managed to say. "Just a little jump-sick."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
Yaris shook her head and regretted it immediately as her vision swam. She swayed on her feet and had to take a step to regain her balance.
"Never mind. Let's go."
They left the transport area, logging their arrival in the system. Just beyond the secured area, a young man in his twenties with sandy hair and moustache wearing a crisp blue uniform with violet piping waited for them. He approached, extending a hand and offering a genial smile.
"Good morning, Enforcers! Welcome to Caledon City; I'm Adjutant Deacon Aztek, Andorel National Security Forces."
"Valentine Yaris," the blue-haired woman said, shaking his hand, "and Fate T. Harlaown, TSAB Enforcement Bureau. I gather you're our liaison here?"
He turned and shook Harlaown's hand, too. She returned his greeting with a very grave and serious look on her face.
"Although I don't believe that this case is one which requires the Bureau's involvement, I look forward to working with you to resolve this incident."
Yaris nodded. She wanted this man on their side, so she played nice, not an easy thing to do while she was still returning to normal after the transport.
"We both know the terms of the Charter," she sighed. "Any incident involving a Lost Logia automatically becomes the province of the Enforcers, even if it's otherwise something that the local authorities would have fully under control. Coming halfway across dimensional space just to step on people's toes isn't my favorite thing, either."
"I didn't mean—"
She smiled at him.
"Fact of the job. My favorite cases are the ones where we get tagged by TSAB investigators, which makes the jurisdictional tangle even more absurd. We're all just cogs in the machine, trying to do our best. So let's work together, get this case closed, and we can all be happy."
"Sounds good to me. I'll drive you to your hotel, we can get you checked in, and then we can start on the investigation?"
"That works. On the way, you can catch us up to speed on the case."
"You weren't briefed?" he said, surprised.
"We read the file." Yaris flicked a questioning gaze to Harlaown, who gave a hint of a nod. Good. She did her homework. "That's not exactly the same thing, as I'm sure you know, Adjutant."
"That's true enough. Come on. Can I get that for you, Enforcer Harlaown?" he offered, nodding at the girl's single suitcase, a wheeled carry-on-sized bag like Yaris's own.
"It's all right, Adjutant," she replied in her quiet, shy voice.
"Well, if you're sure. Let's go, then."
They left the transport area and headed out to the parking lot, where Aztek led them to a sleek green convertible sports car.
"Wow, is this yours?" Harlaown asked.
"Uh-huh. You like it? It's a Foucault Z14, MC0061 model." Aztek grinned.
"Cool!" She ran an appreciative hand over the car's flank while Aztek popped the trunk and they loaded their bags inside. He slammed the trunk shut and got behind the wheel, with Yaris taking the passenger seat and the child hopping into the rumble seat.
"Buckle up!" Aztek said, and after snapping his own four-point harness into place he gunned the motor and steered out of the parking lot. The spaceport in Caledon City, Yaris recalled from the guidebook notes she'd read in the briefing, was located on a man-made island in the middle of the city's central lake. Aztek steered the Foucault out onto a long causeway, framed by graceful white stone arches.
"So, what about this case?" Yaris asked.
"It seems to be a straightforward matter of theft," Aztek explained, "other than the nature of the stolen goods."
"Straightforward? Museum robberies don't happen every day."
"No, but they do happen. There's a thriving antiquities trade on this world, thanks to ten thousand years of history, and that means that there's a black market as well, despite our attempts to restrain it. But as I'm sure you're aware, the market for Andorelan antiquities is almost exclusively Andorelan. Except for artworks of intrinsic value due to their material content, offworld involvement in the trade is virtually unknown."
"Yes, that's what our file indicated."
She turned to look at Aztek. Harlaown was leaning forward between the front seats,listening, but with her hair streaming out in the airflow from the open convertible she was obviously enjoying the ride for its own sake.
"But this isn't just a garden-variety antiquity. The stolen object was a Lost Logia, an active magical relic from a lost civilization."
"Yes, Legaria, which most people thought was a myth up until two hundred years ago. Still and all, this is strictly a C-rated Lost Logia, unique in its origin but by no means some piece of world-destroying technology. Your TSAB would have taken it into custody right away if that was the case."
"The Bureau's Lost Logia dossier said that the item was a kind of memory recorder," Harlaown spoke up, "which stored the memories and experiences of its creator or user. Is that right, Adjutant?"
"So far as I know. If you want details, you'll have to ask the professors at the museum."
"That would be the Var Amnis Provincial Museum of Ancient History?" Yaris asked.
"Right. It's attached to Var Amnis University—my alma mater, in fact. The province we're in now, that's Var Amnis," he added unnecessarily. "Actually, this region was where Legaria was supposed to have been located, which was a big reason why it was picked as the site of the worldwide confederation capital." He took one hand off the wheel to rub sheepishly at the back of his head. "I guess you don't really care about that stuff, do you?"
Yaris allowed him another smile. Rather than carping, she just said, "I'll consider it local color. After all, that's why we have a liaison, to help us tell what's important to the case and what's part of the background that seems unusual to us but any Andorelan can see for what it is. Now about the theft—the report suggested a professional job?"
"That's right. The security system was deactivated, which would have taken either knowledge of the passcodes or very skilled computer operation to bypass. Either option indicates a skilled, professional operation. Entry was via one of the doors; with alarms and surveillance deactivated that made more sense than forcible entry."
"There were only three on-duty guards, if I remember correctly? One in the security office and two on foot patrol?"
"That's right. The museum is large and it would be no problem for the thieves to stay out of the way of the watchmen. Even amateurs could do it, let alone professionals, particularly if they knew the routine. And it was a targeted run with only one specific goal: they took the Lost Logia and nothing else. The case was smashed, which would have triggered an alarm but, again, the alarms were off. And, of course, the thieves weren't obliging enough to leave any fingerprints, DNA samples, or the like that we could find. Of course, the general public goes through the museum in pretty large numbers anyway, so we had what you might call a lousy signal to noise ratio with regard to that kind of thing."
The car exited the causeway onto the mainland and Aztek began to navigate through city streets that were narrow and winding, conforming to the contours of the land instead of cutting through them. The buildings were low and sprawling, built of great blocks of reddish-gray stone with green tile roofs and steep, arching domes. Glass-and-steel spires, the hallmark of a modern city, were conspicuous by their absence, and the overall impression Yaris got was that Caledon City was a place of thriving history and antiquity, built when hand-carts and carriages drawn by animals rather than machines were the vehicles passing along its roads. It was a far cry from Cranagan, where even the abandoned sectors were abandoned from modern-era strife and history was only an afterthought in Midchilda's relentless drive for the future.
"Does the Lost Logia change forms like our Devices do?" Harlaown asked.
"Not so far as anyone knows. It's always appeared as a kind of coronet, bronze in color, with a large green jewel that fits over the center of the forehead. It apparently has to be worn to be used. The materials look like bronze and emerald, as I said, but the molecular structures of both don't match up, so they're actually something unknown."
Aztek's driving through the narrow streets was definitely not defensive. The truth was, in a nest of roads not designed for reasonable traffic flow, opportunities had to be seized firmly before they vanished, and he darted from lane to lane, squeezing into gaps Yaris would barely believe could hold them, or in some cases which had only begun to form when Aztek made his move. The Focault showed off most of its tricks: almost instantaneous acceleration and braking, a turning circle tighter than she'd have thought the wheelbase would allow, and pinpoint maneuverability. Harlaown soaked it all up with wide-eyed glee, as Aztek put the car through its gyrations without changing expression or breaking his narrative about the case.
"Let me guess, you put yourself through the police academy as a taxi driver?" Yaris muttered.
"Security Forces vehicular pursuit training courses, actually," he said with a grin as he stole a parking space before a stately hotel building from, ironically enough, a bright orange taxicab. The driver offered a few comments on Aztek's family lineage that made Harlaown's ears turn red. "Why don't you two get checked in, and then we'll talk about your next stop. I've got a suggestion you might think is acceptable."
"All right. You don't mind waiting?"
"Nah. It'll give me a chance to remind this guy it's not a good idea to use that kind of language in front of a kid...particularly to a cop."
~X X X~
He felt as if he was swimming. The air itself seemed thick and clinging, taking effort for him to push through. Extending a hand seemed to part it like moving through water, the movement breaking the images into fragments.
But fragments of what, exactly? Even when stillness resumed and the rippling, gelid light settled once more into place the images were blurred, confusing. Swimming described it well, for he seemed to be able to peer up through tables and chairs, the broad-based brass lamp with its engraved sides and the low, squat coffee table strewn with trinkets, through the walls themselves to what lay beyond, like he was at the bottom of a pool looking out at the crowds clustered around the sides.
Only, instead of the blurred faces of people, what he saw were more walls, not white paint over plaster but cool gray stone, pierced by narrow stained-glass windows before which hung paintings, oils in gilt frames. The subjects of the paintings were blurry, out of focus, obscured by the maddening images that hovered in front of him. He reached out, trying to clear the way, and his hand pushed through a wooden-backed chair. Or did it? Did it, instead, knock the chair aside, sending it toppling to the carpeted floor, striking an ornamental vase full of flowers and breaking—but no, the rungs of the chair parted the vase, sending it shimmering, rippling into a thousand fragments that sprang apart, then came back together again like a reflected image in a pond. Or was the chair the reflection instead?
Only one thought seemed clear to him.
This is not where I need to be.
There was a holographic image on display on an end table. It, of all the things in the room, seemed clear and sharp, the face of a woman with a soft smile and laughing eyes, with silver-gray hair angular features as sharp and clever as a fox's shot through with strands of red raven black with a single curl of blonde. Longing swelled in his heart as he looked at her them and a near-unbearable sense of loss swelled.
This was not where he needed to be.
He looked forward, pushing through the congealed thickness of the air to the high, arched double door and forced his way out, making his way down a short long and winding corridor to the wrought-iron spiral elevator staircase. Music brushed his ears, a relaxing wail of strings and eerie, droning pipes symphony piece as he steadily descended through the shifting light.