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Dave Freer and Eric Flint

Act 1, Scene 1: Enter rats, scampering through the darkness.

In the narrow tunnels deep inside a nineteen by five mile asteroid, long pipes snaked endlessly into the blackness. At the tunnel junction a naked globe hung, plainly jury-rigged into the cable tacked to the low roof. A woman's body lay there, sprawled, a little blood leaking from the retroussé nose. In the shadows, the light reflected off two sets of ferally red eyes, looking at the corpse.

"Well? What do we do with it?" asked Snout, not moving forward with her little barrow.

"It's solid waste," said Mercutio. " 'Tis what we do. Remove it."

She always asked those sort of questions of him. Well: Just because one could think didn't always mean one wanted to.

Snout sniffed critically. "Well, not that solid. Parts of her look positively malnourished. Especially around the waist."

Mercutio shrugged. The Siamese-cat sized, long-nosed, rattish creature stepped forward and prodded the dead woman's waistline. "Humans like to be like that. Anyway, 'tis corsetry, Snout."

"Of course 'tis," nodded the other cyber-uplifted elephant-shrew. "Not natural to be that thin around the middle." She stalked forward while her companion methodically rifled the pockets in the blouse top and then investigated the dead woman's purse. He was about to tuck what he found there into a pouch of his own when his companion hissed at him. He split the bundle of notes, roughly. She tucked her share of it into her own waist pouch.

"Wonder why she was killed, and yet they left the loot?" he asked, professionally.

"Probably done in because she's not a very pretty sight. Short little nose," Snout patted her own magnificent protuberance. "And no tail, poor thing. I don't care what humans say, this," she prodded the corpse's well-rounded derriere, "is not a tail."

A thought plainly crossed Snout's mind. Mercutio pretended not to see her hasty glance at him. It would avoid a fight. She felt inside the corpse's low neckline, brought out something that made a plastic crinkling sound to his carefully listening ear, and hastily tucked it into her bag. She kept talking, obviously in the hope that he wouldn't notice. "What was she doing here?"

"Dying, I would guess," said Mercutio, searching the lip of the corpse's stockings to no avail.

"Do we tell someone?" Snout removed a sliver filigree butterfly shaped hair-grip and tucked it next to her ear. "One of the humans. She is a human, so they might want to know."

Mercutio snorted. "Oh yes. And you know what they'd say: 'Why did you rats do it?' And then they'd put us into durance vile."

"But we are in durance, at least while the siege holds. It is fairly vile. And you usually did do it, Mercutio," she said, with that impeccable if twisted logic that comes from adding cybernetic memory and processing to an organic brain that hadn't gone a long way beyond thinking of its next meal or mating.

Mercutio was uplifted far enough to know that it was irritating, even if he did it himself. "That's not . . ."

Snout froze. "Hist," she said in a sibilant whisper. "Something this way comes."

Both rats ghosted away into the darkness as someone came climbing down the metal staples.


Act 1: Scene II. A sparsely furnished rock-hewn chamber, somewhere on the same large asteroid in the Olmert system.

Captain Rebecca Wuollet, HAR Marine Corps, was making a very credible effort to not tear off the head of Colonel De Darcy. First, because he was a superior officer and secondly because . . . 

Well, technically he was right. You could see his point. If you walked around with blinkers on.

She made another attempt to use persuasion instead of violence, tempting though it was. That temptation was made easier to resist by the fact that the colonel was a combat vet himself. "Look Sir. I'm a combat demolitions specialist. I've been in the Corps for the whole of my adult life. I don't do . . . civilians. Sir."

De Darcy gave her the benefit of his famous crooked smile, complete with his famous crooked teeth. "I'm not a civilian liaison officer either, Captain. And this isn't about liaison. This is about the fact that we have fifteen thousand humans, mostly civs, God knows how many rats, about three hundred bats, and some fifteen other liberated races on this rock, which is under military control for the duration of the siege. We need some sort of security, and you're hard-assed enough to do it. Besides if I don't give you something to do, you'll lose that shiny new pip on your shoulder faster than you put it there."

He raised his eyebrows and shifted the famous crooked smile to its normal nastiness. "Look on the bright side. I could have put you in charge of the militia. I could still change my mind and shift Major Gahamey off the job and give him security."

"Um. Maybe security isn't so bad, sir." On this vast asteroid they only had a thousand seven hundred and thirty marines, who had been caught up in the mess when the attack on Epsilon Theta had gone ass-haywire. Stuck here with twenty times their number of civ refugees, and a bloody big rock to defend, they needed a militia. But the population of rock-rats, fortune-hunters, whores and sharp-dealing traders they had to draw from was going to drive Scotty Gahamey over the deep end. Well, maybe not. He was a real bastard and half over the deep end anyway. But it would certainly drive her there PDQ.

"I thought you might see it my way, Captain. Congratulations. You are now the chief of police for the duration, or until I decide otherwise. Not that I intended you to have any choice in the matter."

The colonel emitted an evil chuckle. "You do realize that you're only going to get the sick, lame and lazy from me to help you to do the job? You'll need to draw in civs to run patrols, and keep fights and petty crime to a minimum, especially between soldiers and civs. We're thin enough stretched just running a defense perimeter. But with all the trouble that's cropped up, the civilian's council sent a delegation to ask me to appoint someone to deal with the situation."

Rebecca felt the short hairs on her neck rise. "What situation, sir?"

"Someone is killing the joy-girls from the Last Chance. The locals suspect that it's one of us," he said dryly.

"And is it, sir?" she asked, equally dryly.

The colonel tugged his moustache. "That's for you to find out. It could be true. If it is, you're going to have to stop it quietly and hard. Or the Korozhet won't have to take this lump of rock by force. Oh, and there are some hard drugs circulating. Civs do what they please out here. It's a long way from the law Earthside or on HAR. But I can't afford addicts in the Corps. You're as much law as this rock has. Stop the hard stuff."

She gritted her teeth. "Anything else I ought to know, sir?"

He thrust his hands into his pockets. "A lot. But you're going to have to find it out for yourself, Captain." His expression softened slightly. "You're a pain in the ass at times, Captain. But I chose you for this because you get results. I need them. I know that I can rely on you."

"Sir." It might be a lousy job, but De Darcy was always sparing with praise. She stood a little straighter.

He turned back to his desk and scooped up a datacube that he held out to her. "That's what I've got from them. There is also a list of personnel available to you in a file marked 'security personnel.' They're not all useless."

She took the cube, warily, as if it could just turn and bite her. He gestured at the door. "Get to it, Captain."

Rebecca saluted and turned.

As she did, De Darcy said, "One last thing, Captain. Try to use some of that tact you're famous for not having."


Act 1, Scene III: In a large Korozhet command ship among the myriad asteroids that make up the Olmert system.

"Considering these reports it would seem that it is indeed essential that we recapture it. Although why the scientists could not have told us before the system was abandoned, I do not know. It would appear that laxity has taken place. That or resistance." The deep purple reclined further into his saline bath.

"It may be that they were deceived by the scale of the object and its exterior, High Spine," said the maroon.

"I trust they have been eaten," said the purple.

"Difficult. They are the experts and training new ones takes time."

The deep purple acknowledged the sad truth of this with a clack of his anterior spines. "Well, they must be suitably punished."

"I believe this has occurred, High Spine."

The Korozhet bent its eye-spines to peer at the report-screens. The data was not encouraging.

"The best option still appears to be a siege and our traditional means. And of course probing attacks, to take advantage of what we can. We have plenty of expendables."

"Less than we used to have," said another of the purple, humping up off her last meal.

"We may have to resort to more care in slave-handling, but things have not reached that point yet," said the purple in charge of alien resources. "They still breed and we have taken steps to prevent their subversion ever happening again."

"Maybe we need to see if we can insert some into the artifact," said the maroon, risking an opinion in this high council of his elders.

It was a sign of just how worried the Korozhet were that he was not disciplined for this breach of hierarchy. "It would be difficult," said one of the purple. "There may however be implanted escapees that could be turned to our purposes."

"Investigate the possibilities."

"It will be done, High Spine."


Act I Scene IV: In the tunnels and cavernous tavern and house of ill repute.

"Sergeant Holmes."

The mountain of flesh saluted. So, despite appearances, it was human and alive. "Captain," he said in a carefully neutral voice.

This just had to be De Darcy's sense of humor, thought Rebecca sourly. He probably didn't find anyone called "Watson" among the enlisted men. Well, the one thing going for this man was his size. He could intimidate just by being there.

"Did you volunteer for this billet, Sergeant?" she asked suspiciously.

"With my name, the study of the criminal mind has always been my interest, Captain," said Sergeant Holmes calmly.

"Oh, and how do you do that?" She rocked on the balls of her feet, her hands clasped behind her.

Holmes lifted a meaty hand. "I knock it out of their ears and then look at it, Ma'am. It seems more effective than all this magnifying glass stuff I've read about."

"I'm beginning to revise my initial opinions about you, Sergeant. I think you could be an asset to the criminal investigation section. Which is, as of now . . . you. Assisted by me if it goes as far as murder. I have your first case awaiting you, just as soon as I finish with the patrol briefing."

"Maybe I should have chosen to go to brig after all, Captain," said Holmes amiably, confirming her suspicions about the able-bodied men she'd been given. Well, set a thief to catch a thief, and a drunk, disorderly and assaulting-the-guard Marine to catch others of the same kind. If you could stop them joining them, that is.


Twenty minutes later, after the patrols made up of one civ volunteer and a Marine apiece having been dispatched, they set out. Her first ever criminal investigation, she thought, led straight to the Last Chance Saloon Bar. Anyway, it would be a good opportunity to see how many of her patrols ended up in the place. She had half an hour before her meeting with the civic authorities, whoever they might be, among this rabble of refugees.

The Last Chance was an eloquent testimony to the ingenuity of rockrats. They'd created a visual masterpiece to get blind drunk in. The murals painted and projected around the room made it an almost believable walled garden, visible through French doors. There was even an ivy hung garden door, and distant green vistas over the top of the painted mossy stone wall. By the time you'd had three of the overpriced drinks it probably would fool you. There was of course a full length polished stone bar on the other wall, and a number of stone tables and benches that probably defied the strongest drunk's effort to use them for combat weapons.

The furniture was large. The proprietor was not. He was a tiny, soft-looking man.

"Honest Laguna at your service," he said obsequiously, bobbing and rubbing his plump hands.

"I'm the new head of internal security for the rock," explained the captain, absorbing the unlikely name.

Laguna his shook his head. "Big job. Make that huge and impossible job, Captain."

"Why?" she asked.

"Well, the thing about this rock that most people just don't get is just how big it is. When the first prospectors came into the system just after the Crotchets' pull-back, they thought this place must be what the Crotchets and their bugs had been mining. Took a while, and a lot of boys getting lost in these here tunnels, to figure out that the diggings might even be older than the Crotchets. Who knows? Anyway, it's a regular warren. I been here from the very beginning, taking advantage of that. Not mining, of course. It's dug out of easy ores, even if there are still some heavy metals in the rock. There's plenty more heavy-metal rocks out in the asteroid belt, some even bigger than this one. But this is the only mined-out one we've found. Still, it is a good place for the rock-rats to come and breathe something other than their own gas, and find out that easy ores ain't always cheap."

He gurgled like a drain at his own joke. "Before the Korozhet counter-attack there were maybe five hundred permanent residents on the rock. Some weird ones. Aliens. We kept getting them wandering in from deeper down for weeks after we set up here. The Crochets left in a hurry, you bet."

This was news to Rebecca. Not that it had anything to do with murdered hookers. But she'd always thought that the Korozhet slaves had been all liberated at once . . . not showing up like a trickle of lost souls, hungry, thirsty and confused. She'd bet they'd not received the milk of human kindness from this little son-of-a-bitch with his false smile and laugh.

"What the hell did they live on?" asked Holmes, showing that thought processes did happen inside that huge form.

"Hell, boy, I don't speak Crotchet and they didn't speak human. They could mop floors and wash dishes okay, which is all I cared about. Now, you two wanted to talk to me about those two dead girls. I reckon that it's one of your boys has got himself a twisted hate of the women. Like her."

He pointed out of the windows—what the hell you needed windows for in a damn cave puzzled her—at the fluttering protestor outside. You could tell that the bat was a protestor by the sign she was carrying with her feet.

Pro life-choice!
End female subjugation now!

It seemed to be a one-bat protest. "You could start improving security by getting rid of her." He scowled. "She's always coming around and pestering the girls."

It was unusual to see a civ bat. No bandoliers, no insignia . . . just a poster. The bats had taken the war against the Korozhet as a holy crusade, and joined almost to the last bat. The uplifted rats were a different matter. They were deadly fighters, if they wanted to be. But they were not soldiers by nature, and most of the time it took the prospect of lots of loot to inspire them at all. But the bats . . . 

If Rebecca had learned anything in the military it was not to get involved in dealing with a single-minded bat. She'd seen better officers than her try it. She ignored the bat, and turned to Laguna. "I have been told that two women aged between twenty and thirty Terran years, who had been working here, were found dead in the tunnels."

"And another one is missing," said Laguna, lugubriously, wiping an eye. "Cindy-Jane."

Sergeant Holmes cracked his knuckles. Looked at the captain. Looked at Laguna. "I think I'd better examine his mind," he said. "Even if he is a bit on the small side."

"Sergeant," said Rebecca. The huge bar was relatively empty at this time of day. But "relative" only to what it could hold. There must be fifty miners in here, even now. The Marines were tough, but these rockrats, even the human ones, were almost certainly bar fight veterans. "As head of the serious crimes unit . . . Stick with asking questions for now, before you use your magnifying glass technique. Besides, think of what happened to the victims. It would take a fairly strong man."

The girls had been raped, robbed, and then been beaten to death, and dropped up a shaft. Things were backwards here. You got dropped up a shaft not down one, because of the centrifugal spin. It was a pity the murders weren't backwards, but this little shrimp would probably not be able to beat up a granny in a wheelchair, let alone a healthy young woman. He also would certainly never need to resort to rape. And robbery was something he was doing in the open here, on a grand scale, judging by his prices. It probably wouldn't be worth his while to go in for petty larceny, let alone kill one of his sources of income.

Holmes blinked. And then nodded, and set to his new technique of questioning verbally. "Who saw them last?" he asked Laguna.

"Oh, they were good girls. Only ever slept with two clients."

"Who?" asked Holmes, skeptically.

"The Marines and the rock-rats." Laguna cackled and slapped his own thighs. "Boy, this isn't the hick town you come from. This is the wild frontier, or it was until the Korozhet put the place under siege. These girls came here for one reason, and it wasn't to powder their noses. You ain't gonna trace their last movements, nohow. I can tell you it was probably up and down, though."


Act II Scene I: Amid drunks, hookers, cutpurses and thieves and other municipal officials. In the presence of death and disorder.

The civic authorities, Rebecca discovered, included the bat she'd seen protesting outside the Last Chance. The council weren't going to cut it in any big mayoral parades in more civilized parts. The mayor, dressed in patched holey coveralls and a vast beard, which covered more of him than the coveralls, looked like a rock-rat. It was what he had been until about two weeks ago, and would almost certainly be again as soon as the siege lifted. Still, after the initial chaos this unlikely group had put together some kind of election and got a roughly working civil system up and running. Good enough to at least see to a sewage system and get water and food rationing implemented. There were plenty of gold chained mayors who would have done worse.

"I don't see why you don't have your own policing," she said directly.

The mayor scratched his bald head. A rat poked its long nose out from under his beard and whiffled its nostrils at her. "Well, it's difficult, you know," said the mayor. "Ain't easy to get anyone to take orders from another rock-rat. And the problems that we don't sort out for ourselves tend to come from when the Marines and locals clash. So we figured it might be best if we got you to take the blame, and do the work."

It was pleasant to meet with honesty at least, but . . . 

"There is a rat peeping out of your beard," she said.

"Oh. That's just Firkin." The mayor reached under the giant beard and produced a sharp-nosed rat in an outfit that included fountaining flounces of lace. Or rather, flounces that included a little outfit. "My partner in prospecting. She's not on the council but she's kind of hard to keep out of the meetings. Firkin, meet Captain Wuollet."

The rat bowed. "Nice uniform. You could use more lace, though." She sat down on the table, produced a bottle of amber fluid from a sleeve and drank with lip-smacking appreciation.

Several councilors eyed the bottle with naked lust, even if they showed no suicidal desire to attempt to snatch it, or even the folly of trying to cadge a drink. Rats had a certain reputation. The tall, cadaverous one shook his head and said admiringly: "And she never seems to get any drunker than she is now."

"Methinks I have a harder head than you," said Firkin. "Which is not hard to imagine, Slim."

The rest of council plainly could imagine it too, by the grins.

"Anyways we'd take it kindly if you'd find the marine behind these killings and string him up, before we do. There was talk last night of lynching the whole boiling lot of you," said the tall skinny Slim, obviously keen to move the subject away from his tolerance of liquor. He was sitting next to a little man in a skull cap with long locks of hair next to each ear.

With a shock, Rebecca realized that she recognized the man. Well, she'd seen his picture, anyway. Without the side locks or the skull-cap, but definitely the same face. She never forgot a face. This one she had reason to remember—along with the entire board of Intersolar Mining and Minerals, arrayed behind him and his father.

"But we did stop it," he said with a quiet smile. "Even though Slim here said it was undemocratic to put it to the vote."

"But you only survived by a narrow margin," said the bat. "And next time I might not vote with the entrenched exploiters." She glared at the young man under the skull-cap. "And I am in charge of the portfolio for security and social upliftment."

"Services. Social services, Zed," corrected the mayor.

She stared down her nose at him, which is easy to do if you're hanging upside down from the roof. "How many times do I have to say Ms? Ms. Davitta Ze . . ."

"I reckon putting 'em down would be lot better than upliftment," interrupted Slim, combatively. "Especially you lot." This was addressed at the blue-furred Jampad swinging placidly from a roof-chain at the foot of the rock-table.

There was a grumble of agreement from one or two of the other council members, and a hiss of outrage from the bat.

The mayor slapped his hand down on the table. "Now you all hush up. Ain't no one here who fought better than Meredeth and his friends in the fall-back on the Rock. Like with the marines, we might have come off second if they hadn't taken a hand."

"They were fighting for their own survival," said the jowl-faced bull-dog of a woman at the end of the table.

"And so were we," said the little man in the skull-cap. "Except for those who were running and hiding."

"I was fetching more ammunition!" said Slim.

"In the Last Chance. Looking for Laggy's bolt-hole, which you didn't find," said the bull-dog woman, with a derisive smile.

The mayor slapped both of his palms down on the stone table. "Now, you two. I'll throw you both out, like last time. Captain, I reckon you'd better leave us to our work. Maybe you want to take Ms. Zed with you and talk to her. She knew one of the victims."

"I had had a note from one of the victims. I did not know her," said the bat.

"Anyway, methinks the place will be more tranquil without her," said the flouncy rat snippily.

The bat grimaced at her, and shook a clenched foot. "Sellout," she said, fluttering from her perch. "Let's go, you imperialist lackeys," she said to the two marines. "It'll be to drinking and fighting they'll fall without me, so I need to get back to it." Her tone suggested she might just enjoy at least one of the activities, and felt that she was missing out.

In a chamber far enough away that they could only hear the occasional bull-like bellows of the mayor, they paused. The bat found a piece of roof to cling to and turned her gargoyle-like black face to them. "I really cannot stay away long. Firkin and Abe will do their best but they need my voice too. You have to find this killer, and find him fast," she said seriously. "It's little enough success I have had with Laggy's exploited women. They'll not even dare speak to me, normally. But right now they're frightened to death. I was to be meeting Ms. Candy, the night that she was killed. And I had a message that the next woman killed needed to see me, urgently. They're frightened indeed if they are prepared to risk Laggy's wrath."

"Laguna?" asked Rebecca sitting on one of the empty boxes that littered this part of the "Civic center." "This is the 'Laggy' that you're talking about? The little man at the Last Chance?"

"Indade," said the bat, in the traditional fake Irish accent. She scowled. "He'd be my prime suspect."

"Look, the guy is a cess-pit, but he's too small to threaten anyone. I know that to you bats we humans all look large . . ."

"Ach bah," the bat spat. "It's not his strength they fear. He holds them in chemical bondage, Captain. He'll withhold their drug supply if they dare to cross him."

"Oho. So he's the supplier, is he?" asked Rebecca, like a terrier scenting rats. She'd get him for something, at least. And solve another of her problems in the process.

The bat wrinkled her face, folding it even more than it was folded already. "Say rather that he supplies the women he holds in bondage. There are several purveyors of these things," she admitted with reluctant honesty.

"It's something else I'm supposed to investigate and put a stop to," said Rebecca.

The bat shook her head. "You need to find the murderer first. The miners are indade close to a lynching. A marine badge was found at the last killing."

"That we can follow up. Why wasn't I told?"

The bat shrugged her wings. "It is all a little muddled, yet. Slim told us of it."

"Both of these women wanted to see you," said Holmes, taking the initiative and calmly treading it underfoot. "Why?"

The bat shrugged her wings. "I do not know . . ."

Rebecca's communicator bleeped insistently. "Captain Wuollet," she said, pressing the send button.

"Alpha 3 patrol here, Captain. We've found a dead body. A woman. It looks like she's been raped and murdered."

"Hell's teeth. Where are you?"

"Punching the co-ords through to you, Captain," said the Marine, his voice full of relief at the idea that it would soon be someone else's problem.

"We'll be right there. Don't move her or touch anything."

"And so will I," said the bat. "Someone needs to report on the brutality of th' polis," she said self-righteously. "Polis I name you, and not a Garda of our own."

They tramped through the rock-hewn corridors, away from the more settled level, where many rock-rats had taken up residence in some of the larger galleries. "The very least that they should give me for this job is a groundcar," grumbled Rebecca. "Who ever heard of a police-chief walking to the scene of the crime?" There were vehicle tracks in the dust.

"Indade, there are a bare handful of such vehicles," said the bat. "And those belong to the entrenched exploiters that had already settled on this den of vice. They have to repair them themselves, as no facilities are to be found here for doing that.

"Nasty smelly things," she said with a lofty sniff. "The rock-rats scattered across the system had no need for wheels, or space for anything but ore-cargo. Besides, the price of importing such a thing was too expensive for any but the obscenely wealthy."

"So we walk, except for those who can fly," said Holmes, hunching to avoid hitting his head on the tunnel roof. "Why did they have to make these tunnels so low?"

The bat found this amusing. "There are many which are much lower. The ones the first two bodies were found in were narrower. And they were not built for human convenience."

"Why the hell does anyone go into them then?" asked Rebecca, ducking.

"They often widen out into what were plainly ore-chambers," explained the bat. "They make good rooms. You know, the prospectors had just found a similar rock, but without airlocks, in the second belt when the Korozhet attacked. It's the way the Korozhet mined. They were not worried by their slaves' comfort."

They'd at least worried about their slaves air and had an amazing system of airlocks, reflected Rebecca. The asteroid siege would have been a short conquest, without those miles of corridors filled with air that contained too much oxygen and enough helium to alter the pitches of their voices. Inside the rock that air got scrubbed . . . in some place in the maze of internal passages as yet unmapped. The colonel had been doing some interesting swearing about that. They didn't even know if they had all the airlocks located. There were enough of them. And the Marines' supply of heavy weapons to defend those they'd found was very limited. How they'd hold off a major landing, heaven alone knew. But with strange gel-curtain airlocks every hundred yards or so, landing and capture would be two very different things. The miners didn't have much in the way of missiles, but they did have a personal arsenal each, and a number of heavy-duty tripod-mounted mining lasers. The attacks—so far—had been on the main landing bay, now crowded with little miner-ships, and Marine landing craft. Quite a few of the miner-ships had had some external weapons. This had plainly been a rough neighborhood.

"We need to go down here, " said the bat, pointing to a shaft. There were metal staples in the wall. Not very big staples and too close together for human climbers to have set them there.

"How do you know?" asked Sergeant Holmes, blinking, looking at the position co-ords on his palm-comm.

"I can hear the voices of several people, arguing. The word murder has been used." The bat flew up into the hole. That was down—if you took the core of the asteroid as "down." Centrifugal force provided an alternative to gravity here.

Bats did have hyper-keen hearing. Or she might just have known, concluded Captain Wuollet. Something about the black-faced bat activist smelled. Not necessarily of murder, but the bat knew more than she was telling. Rebecca reached up and began to climb. Better get there fast.


That was a good decision, it turned out, even if Holmes was not designed to run down a corridor this high or wide, complete with pipes to trip over. The scene was angry and heading to the point of shooting.

"The captain," said a voice, uncertain and plainly tense, "is coming to look at the crime scene . . ."

"Screw your captain," interrupted someone. "You just step aside and let us take the poor dead girl back to the Last Chance, and you don't get hurt, see."

Rebecca poked the burly speaker hard in the kidneys. Hard enough for him to turn and crack his head . . . and see the tunnel entirely full of Holmes behind her. "Your chances of screwing me are slightly lower than your chances of surviving beyond the next ten seconds. And those chances are not good, if you're still here by the time I count to ten. One."

"Now see here, Captain," said an angry voice, from elbow height.

"And that means you too, Mr. Laguna," she said icily. "We'll return the body to the Last Chance when we've finished inspecting the crime scene. Two."

"But . . ."

"Three." One of the advantages of Holmes being outsize, besides sheer intimidation, was that it was impossible to see if there was a whole squad . . . or no-one, behind him in the narrow tunnel.

Grumbling, Laguna and his mini-mob retreated down the far passage. "You haven't heard the last of this!" shouted someone.

"Alas, 'tis probably true," said the bat. "They'll be back at the Last Chance drinking more courage. You'll have trouble presently."

The marine who had called her grinned. "Good thing you got here fast, Captain. And good thing Larry was here with me." He put a hand on the shoulder of the stocky miner who had gone on patrol with him. It was not same marine who had left their base cave an hour before, looking like he'd been inflicted with a boil or a toothache for company. "That lot said I'd done it, and they were all for lynching me. Larry talked them out of it." He looked at the tunnel. "If I was going to do that I'd choose somewhere where I could at least stand up."

Rebecca was on her knees examining the corpse. It was at times like this it paid to be a combat vet. It still wasn't a pretty sight. Someone had hit the victim very hard with a piece of rock. Hard enough to smash her skull. There wasn't much blood. Odd for a head wound, that. She pulled the victim's skirt down. The dead woman had little enough dignity left to her, and Rebecca could do nothing much about the ripped filmy blouse. There wasn't a lot of spare material "What were you two doing in here anyway?"

"It's a short-cut across to where they're setting up the ag caves," explained the miner. "The roof is a bit low, but if you follow the pipes it'll save you ten minutes walk."

It made a sort of sense, except that it did mean that this was not the quiet private spot the attacker must have assumed. That in itself suggested that the attacker was a marine. "I suppose there is nothing much else for us to see. Let's get her out of here."

"Captain," said Holmes from his knees back in the tunnel. He was far too tall to stand there. "I need to show you this first." He pointed to a hose-clamp on one of the pipes. A gossamer shred of material clung to it. A piece of blouse. "She got dragged in here."

Rebecca looked intently at it. "So," she said after some thought. "He must have knocked her down, dragged her in here, and then killed her with that rock. See if you can see any other signs of dragging."

"I'll have to go out backwards, Captain. There is not enough space for me to turn around."

"Look as you crawl, Sergeant."

The passage, however, was relatively dust-free. The rock-floor was not particularly even, but there were no other pieces of material snagged there—which, considering the filmy flimsy nature of the clothing was surprising. Even more surprising was the arrival of yet another visitor. In flounces. "I had to stop and eat, and follow you by scent," said Firkin crossly. "You humans run too slowly and for far too long."

Rats had speed, but not stamina.

The rat pushed past the sergeant. "This is your new method of advancing? Methinks you are showing your best features to the enemy."

The rat looked at the corpse. "Cindy-Jane. A lot of miners will be mightily upset, and the Last Chance will lose a fair bit of turn-over. She was almost rattish in her appetites. Made up for the price with volume."

Rats were not known for their sensitivity, thought Rebecca. It at least made them accidentally honest. "Well, let's get her out of here. She was dragged in. I suppose we can drag her out."

She took an arm, deciding by the look on the miner and young Marine's faces, that it was a good time to lead by example. She was grateful that all her years in the service had at least taught her how to control squeamishness. As she pulled the body it rolled slightly, to reveal a brown billfold. She twitched it out from under the corpse with the other hand and opened it.

It revealed two things. The first was an Marine ID card. The second was even more puzzling.


Tucked inside the inner flap were three hundred C notes. Not a fortune, but surely enough to pay for a cheap tart.

"I want Private Samson, 4655573490."

"Plooks?" said the Marine who'd called her to the scene. "He's out on patrol, Captain."

"He's one of mine?" she asked, already knowing the answer. Wouldn't this do the credibility of her fledgling force the world of good, she thought sourly.

The Marine looked uncomfortable. "It was you or staying in the brig, Captain."

"He should have stayed in the brig," she said coldly. She called her ops room, and told them to call Samson in, and place him under arrest.

As she put the comm device back in its pouch, she stood up and banged her head. She ground her teeth in irritation, feeling the bump. "Now can we get the body out of here," she said, reaching down to take an arm again.

"Captain, I think you'd better come and have a look here," called Sergeant Holmes. "I had a look in the next passage, while I was waiting for you to come out."

"Inborn investigative urge overwhelming you, Sergeant?" she said, covering the fact that she'd banged her head yet again with sarcasm.

"Needed a leak, Captain," said Holmes with innate honesty. "There is more of that blouse material back there. That's where it happened, I reckon. The body has been moved."

"Hell's teeth!" said Rebecca when she looked into the dark passage that Holmes pointed out to her. "Why did he move her? They'd not have found her in there until she started to smell."

"Indade," said Ms. Zed, wrapping her wings around her and shivering. "Unless, as I'd be thinking, someone wanted her found."

Captain Wuollet looked at the single electric bulb tacked into the cable at the intersection. She thought of those blissful days when she'd been a mere boot and only had to deal with grueling Marine drill, instead of coping with this mess. She was going to need a lot of things that she didn't have to handle this, like an elementary knowledge of forensic practice for a start. All she knew about was shaped charges and detonators, not catching murderers. "Better search the other corridors too," she said resignedly. "Next thing we know we'll find more bodies."

They didn't. But they did find a small wheelbarrow and a shovel. A very small wheelbarrow. "Maybe a garden gnome did it," said Holmes thoughtfully.

NCOs were of course allowed a sense of humor. Just not in public or with their superior officers. She decided to ignore the comment. "And moved her on the barrow, which is easier than dragging," she said dryly. The barrow looked far too small to move a body. "Better have a look for wheel tracks," she sighed.

Holmes shone a focused beam of light down the center of the dusty tunnel. Shook his head "It's been wiped. There is one footprint, fairly small. And mine, of course. He must have carried her."

"A man with small feet and a strong back," said Rebecca rubbing her jaw. "So . . . what is the barrow doing here. Who does it belong to?"

" 'Tis a rat-miner's barrow," said Firkin. "I have such a one myself. We purchased it from Abe." She eyed it speculatively. "As it is lying about, methinks the owner has no further need of it," she said cheerfully. "I'll have it."

"Looter. Despoiler. Capitalist," said the bat. "To take thus from those less fortunate than you."

The rat jerked a thumb at the corpse that the miner and Marine had just carried out. "She doesn't exactly need it any more. Besides, methinks Cindy-Jane would have been willing to try anything, but a position involving a small wheelbarrow taxes even my imagination."

It taxed hers too, admitted the captain to herself. "It's evidence. I'll hold onto it," was all that she said, however.

"Tch," said the rat, producing her amber-fluid filled bottle and having a good chug. "Well, do tell me if you ever work out just what a hooker needed a rat miner's barrow for. I've heard of fetishes, but . . ."

"Shut up, will you? Let's get a blanket and carry the corpse out of here. Sergeant. Bring me that incriminating barrow. Let's go and talk to Private Samson," she said grimly.


Private Samson might actually not have had enough money in that wallet. He was an acne-cure advertiser's dream, poor kid. And he was just a kid, thought Rebecca. A kid with a black eye, and a cut on his cheek. Maybe the girl had got a last few blows in. "This yours, Private?" She held out the wallet. He blinked. You could almost see the thoughts crossing his mind, using heavy levers to shift the expressions on the spotty face. He beamed. And reached for it. "Yeah! Thanks, Captain. I thought I was in trouble or something."

She pulled the wallet back. "Not so fast, Marine."

His expression turn woeful. "I guess my money's gone then."

"How much was there?" she asked speculatively.

"About twenty in front flap. But," he said, doing his best attempt at a cunning expression. "I got some more in the secret place at the back. Three hundred."

"You lost the twenty," she said. "But the rest is still there. So, tell me when you last had your wallet."

He was smiling again. "That's the rest of my pay. I reckoned I'd lost it all."

Either this kid was the best actor in the world, or he was a damn stupid young fool who nearly got strung up. "When did you last have it, Marine?" she asked again.

He looked wary. Something in her tone must have finally gotten through to him. "Me and a couple of the boys slipped off to the Last Chance last night. I don't remember too well, but I didn't have it this morning."

"When you woke up in the Brig," she said, trying to keep her face expressionless.

He nodded. "They said if I volunteered for security duty I was off the hook, Captain."

It looked like she had her murderer after all . . . or maybe more than one of them. "Just who was with you, Samson?"

He looked wary. "The colonel said we was all off the hook, Captain." His voice said: You do not split on your mates. Not if you want to live.

She restrained herself from solving his pimple problem forever by starting to squeeze at the neck. "I'm not playing games now, Private Samson. I need to know. And I need to know now. I can look in the unit records if I have to. You're wasting my time."

Her answer came from another source, though. "Private Ogumba, Private Wilkins and Private Mikes," said Sergeant Holmes. "It was Mikes who found the body, Captain. He's still here. Shall I haul him in?"

"Body? I didn't kill no-one Captain . . . did I? I was in a fight . . . I think," said the boy. He was now pale, beginning, finally, to realize that he might be in deep trouble.

Holmes brought Private Mikes through to her office-cave. The entire thing was obviously preying on Mikes' mind so much that he barely managed to salute before he blurted out:

"I been thinking, Captain," he said. "It can't be Samson. Me and Gumbo only got separated from him once, just after the fight when we got thrown out. And we found him maybe fifteen minutes later. He was blind-drunk, Captain. Plooks can't hold much. Gumbo and me, we took him back to camp. He couldn't hardly stand when we got thrown out. And then he got into a fight with one of the Guard Commanders . . ."

"Me," said Holmes, with a nod. "They were all in the brig at 22 hundred hours." His expression said that he considered this a ridiculous time to be drunk and arrested by.

"That still gave him fifteen minutes." Or them, she thought to herself.

"Indade," said the bat, quietly from the corner. "Except that she was still alive at 22:30. I saw her then. I was doing my picket."

"Are you sure?" asked Rebecca

"Sure as death," said the bat. "I don't get times wrong."

Bats didn't. Their soft-cyber chips had inbuilt clocks. She knew that well from dealing with bats on the demolitions course. Bats made up most of the sappers. They regarded humans a ludicrously vague about time and memory, as that part of them was cybernetic. She sighed. "We'll have to try to confirm it, Private Samson. But it looks like you may just have got your wallet back, and escaped a hanging. That's a lifetime's ration of luck. Stay out of the Last Chance from now on, see."

The youth nodded earnestly. "Yes, Captain. The drinks is cheaper in the Miner's Rest anyway."

Why did she feel she was better off talking to the rat, even it laughed at her? "Get out of my office, Private. Stay here at ops. And stay out of all of the bars," she added, knowing that order was pointless.

"Can I have my wallet, Captain?"

In the grim certainty that only the absence of money would keep him out of the bars, she shook her head. "No. It's still evidence in a robbery, rape and murder trial. You may get it back, if we ever find the culprit. You nearly got hanged for losing it last time, you brainless idiot."

When he'd gone, saluting sheepishly, and accompanied by his fellow genius of the night before, Rebecca sat down on the makeshift desk and swore. She was not surprised to see the flouncy rat appear from under the desk and clap appreciatively.

She tossed the "evidence" wallet down. "Well. That's the wallet. Stolen during or after the fight. The owner was locked up when the crime happened. Which leaves the damned wheelbarrow. And no, no matter what that rat says," she said, pointing at Firkin, "I refuse to even consider it as a sex-toy."

"What about the little shovel, then?" asked Firkin with her favorite evil laugh.

Rebecca decided it was best to just ignore her, if she could.

"It might have been there by accident, Captain," said Holmes, keeping his face carefully expressionless.

" 'Tis likely," said the rat. "Well, as you've no further use for that wallet . . ."

Wuollet slapped the reaching paw away. "Do you loot everything? Don't answer that. I already know the answer."

The rat shrugged. " 'Tis rattish nature, methinks. If it is not tied down one steals it."

"And it had better be tied down very thoroughly." Rebecca sighed. "How about if you do some asking about who has lost a barrow?"

Firkin yawned. "A waste of time, methinks. But I will ask about who is trying to steal one."

The rat sauntered out. That was no guarantee that it had actually gone anywhere, of course. She could hope, though.

"Someone deliberately planted that wallet, Captain," said the Sergeant.

"That much is elementary, Holmes. Someone wanted the Marines to take the rap. Colonel De Darcy didn't realize what a live, pin-less grenade he'd handed me," said Rebecca, wishing she had enough hair to pull out. "The big question is whether they were just letting us take the rap or whether they wanted to try and get rid of us. Whether we are dealing with murder, or treason."


Act II, Scene II: An arras, or possibly a rattish bar.

"Thou hast the most unsavory similes," said Snout loftily, returning—as rats would under pressure—to the Shakespearean downloads that had once made up their linguistic source. "To think that I would indulge in such things, sweet wag."

"Ask, morelike, when you have ever done anything else," said Firkin, yawning. "I know you were there, you and your paramour Mercutio. I smelled it at the time, but said nothing."

"A good idea, my flouncy bit," said Mercutio, from the shadows. "Keep it thus. We did a little looting, nothing else."

"Methinks that was enough. You will need to tell her that," said Firkin, knowing that this would be dangerous ground.

"And be put into durance vile. I think not," said Mercutio. "Humans have odd ideas about property."

Firkin had to admit that that much was true, even if it was unlikely anything else Mercutio volunteered would be. "Mayhap a deal can be arranged," she said, heavily. Not likely. Humans should understand rats better, as they were so ratlike themselves.


Act II Scene III: Enter various gentlemen of Verona, Chicago, Dublin, Bangbanduc . . . heck. Miners and prospectors. Don't ever ask where they come from.

"You could take the barrow to Abe," suggested the bat. "Maybe he can tell you more about it."

"This Abe is the one who sold it?" asked Holmes, examining the little barrow he held in one hand.

The bat scowled. "He is the entrenched capitalist exploiter of the downtrodden masses, or the miners at least, yes. He sits on the council. With his skull-cap and ear-locks." Her innate sense of justice had a brief wrestling match with her conscience. "There are worse," she conceded.

Coming from her that was probably high praise. "Let's go, Ms. Zed," Rebecca said, pulling aside the curtain that served the ops-cave as a door.

"That's not actually my full name . . ."

She broke off. A large mob was marching down on them, led by Laggy and several of his search party from their earlier encounter. "We hear you got the man who done it, Captain. Hand him over to us. We'll deal with him," said Laguna.

Rebecca wished really hard for some nice shaped demolition charges—set in the tunnel just ahead of this lot. She stepped into the middle of the passage and spoke loudly and clearly. "That rot-gut of yours is making you hear things, Laguna. What I did catch was a set-up. Unfortunately, they set up a man who definitely couldn't have done it, because at the time he was behind bars back at the camp. Now, you tell me who told you that we had the man. That must be the one who actually did this. And I'll take him into custody. There'll be no lynching."

The mob stopped dead.

A beard came racing around the corner, followed somewhat later by the rest of the mayor. "Huh . . . huh—what's going on here?" he panted. "Break it up now!"

"It was him," said Laggy. "Or rather it was that rat of his. She told me."

The worst of it was that it could possibly be perfectly true. Firkin had known about it. And she did seem to be a rat that was familiar with Laggy's girls if nothing else. Anything that lacked virtue would attract a rat. And, looking at the Mayor and then his feet . . . if anyone was short enough to stand upright in the tunnels, was strong enough to carry a harem, let alone one woman, it would be him. It could be, after all. He might want complete control over the rock and have seen this as a way to get rid of the marines.

"Lynch him!" yelled one of the front-men of the mob. "The bastard has been killing our women!"

Rebecca stepped in front of the Mayor. "The first person to try any lynching on my watch is going to be dead." Her voice could have cut across three parade grounds.

"There's more of us than you," said one of the mob, fingering the butt of his flechette-pistol.

"Yep," said Holmes stepping out of the office cave, cradling a Mark 24 automatic flechette rifle. "But who will be first to die?"

The Mark 24 made an impression on the mob. It was normally tripod mounted.

"You said you'd arrest whoever told us," said Laggy sulkily.

"I will take him in," said Rebecca, wondering if the colonel had known just what a treasure he'd given her in Sergeant Holmes. "And that rat too, and hold them until I get some answers. But the rat was here when I found out that it was a set-up. So tell us what you heard?"

"That you had found a Marine's wallet under her." That was said by a gangling man with a planar face and an outsize nose.

Rebecca raised her eyebrows. "Oh? Full of money, no doubt."

That got a laugh from the crowd. "Not likely!" said planar face.

"Well, you've told me all I needed to know," she said, reflecting that they'd told her something anyway—that the information had come from someone who either hadn't wanted to mention the money or hadn't known about it. "Now get along with you. The mayor will stay right here with me."


Act II Scene IV: In some shady hostelry, where you might the likes of Doll Tearsheat

"It took me long enough to find you," said the bat crossly. "I should have known that you'd be off carousing, when Albert needs you!"

Firkin sniffed and raised her goblet. "Zed, methinks that there is very little that Albert cannot do for himself. I am his partner, not his nursemaid."

"Ah. Even though they were after lynching him for those murders?"

"What!" Firkin leapt off her stool, spilling drink onto the bat, who spluttered, and swore and fluttered up to the ceiling, to shake off her wings with an expression of distaste. "Where have they taken him, Zed? Come here, you blasted winged teetotaler!"

"He's with the polis," Davitta answered, flying higher. "The captain kept him from the mob."

It went against her socialist and revolutionary instincts but the authorities had been very welcome then. She'd been unsure what to do. Albert, for all that he was a reactionary sellout, was none too bad a mayor.

"Methinks it is the first time that I have heard of them being useful," said Firkin, shaking out her ruffles. "I'd better go and find Mercutio."

"That blackguard!" Davitta exclaimed. "What need do you have of him?"

Firkin yawned artfully. "Firstly, because he's a blackguard, a weasand-slitter and a rogue. I've a feeling that I might have need of him to deal with this poxy mess that Albert has wandered into. Secondly, he has another property, more unusual in rats. He can think. And thirdly, he was there. I smelled his presence at the scene. He and that doxy of his, Snout. Officially, they traffic in ordure, and that makes them quite noxious."

Davitta nearly fell out of the air "Why didn't you say so to the captain?" she squawked.

"Why?" Firkin raised her nose. "We rats stand for ourselves, and the devil take the hindmost. I will not betray a rat to the constabulary. A policeman's lot should not be a happy one, anyway."

"And such is honor among rats," said the bat, sardonically. "Well, let us find him without delay then, because the mob will be drinking themselves into courage for a second try."


Act II, Scene V: Enter a merchant with all the perfumes of Arabia

"I've come to see the prisoner," said the small man with the side locks and skull-cap. "You can call me his lawyer if you have to. I did train as one once, although I don't usually admit to it."

Rebecca studied him. Regrettably, he had large feet for a relatively small man. "He's not strictly a prisoner," she said. "I decided that he would be safer here than out there. At the moment I am using him as a tea-boy."

Abe shook his head in mock horror. "A clear infringement of his rights. Tell him I take two sugars." He lifted a heavy flechette rifle from his shoulder and leaned it against the wall. "They'll be back, you know. That's actually why I came with this. I can't shoot very well, but at least I'm an extra man."

With questionable motives, she thought. Everyone had questionable motives in this darned case! But all she said was: "Then leave the shooting to us. The passages are narrow and—"

He interrupted. "And you're dealing with miners, Captain. According to your colonel, you know how to use explosives. So do they. They probably have even more experience than you do."

That was true enough, she supposed. "So we need to take action first."

"Perhaps by finding the murderer."

"Or by laying mines in the passage," said Rebecca sourly. Did everyone have to assume that she knew the first thing about detection? "Where is that rat when I need her? I need to know what, if anything, she said to Laggy. If it wasn't for a lack of motive and his size I'd suspect him first. You couldn't tell me anything about a little wheelbarrow, could you?"

"A miner's barrow?" Rat-size? If it is one of mine—it will have a serial number. I guarantee them."

"Let's hope it is one of yours, then," she said. The way this case was going it wouldn't be.

He smiled with quiet confidence. "Bound to be. I've cornered the market. My competitors don't understand that quality and a reasonable price almost always trumps them."

"Besides, the rats all think that sooner or later they've got to put one over him," said Albert, handing him a mug of tea. "The barrow is in the corner. It's one of yours. Smells a bit."

"Rats need something to hope for," said Abe, going to look at the barrow. He took a mini-stylus-pad out of his pocket and tapped a number into it. "Here you are. Snout. She's one of the supposed sewage maintenance team your Firkin recruited, Albert. They work in the narrow tunnels better than people."

To Rebecca, he explained: "And sewage doesn't offend them. People were just using empty passages at first, and something had to be done about it. Too much disease risk, apart from the smell, otherwise. Anything else you want to know?"

Rebecca looked carefully at that bland face. "Just one thing. What is the deputy chairman of Intersolar Mining and Minerals doing here?"

He hesitated. "You must be mistaken."

She shook her head. "Not likely. I never forget a face. And yours takes some explaining. There might even be a motive for murder there."

He looked at the puzzled face above the mayor's beard, then sighed. "Well, if I can't trust Albert, I can trust no-one. I was getting back to my roots, that's all. It's about an old leather suitcase, I suppose."

He seemed to think he'd said enough. Rebecca looked at him, unblinking. "Explain."

He laughed softly. "The inquisition had nothing on you. I am beginning to think you were well chosen for this job. Very well. I found an old leather suitcase, in what had been my grandfather's office, when we were moving to the new corporate headquarters . . . well, rather the movers found it. It was a cheap thing, and one of them asked me what should be done with it. It was full of old papers and pictures, he said."

He took mouthful of his tea. "I opened it. Looked inside—and found the life story of a man in there. My great-grandfather. Founder of the company, a few name changes back. It was his suitcase. I found out that we had not always been ultra-wealthy corporate moguls."

"Most of us were something else before we got to be rock-rats," said the mayor. "We don't ask what a man's family history was."

Abe acknowledged this with a wry smile. "My great-grandfather had been a pack-peddler. He sold his wares across the Northern Cape, selling to diggers across the semi-desert that was the Kimberly diamond-fields. I started reading the letters in that case. Letters from his family in Poland, letters from the board of the synagogue he helped to found in Kimberly, letters from his wife, letters from miners, letters from farmers and suppliers. I got the picture of a man. He was devout, happy, and strangely, a much-loved man."

Abe took a deep pull at his tea-mug. "I can't say there are many people who loved Intersolar Mining and Minerals' deputy chairman."

"No," said Rebecca, hoping that she was hiding her feelings on that subject.

Maybe she didn't succeed. Or maybe he just read people well. He waved a placatory hand. "It's a good thing I am not that any more."

She had a job to do. Not payback time. Yet. "And the side locks and skullcap?" she asked.

He shrugged. "An affectation. A reminder that when great-grandfather went out there, blacks and Jews were everyone's kicking boys. I didn't mean to become a Korozhet target though. Is that enough?"

"Not really." But she was impressed in spite of herself. It was too weird to make up. "It's a pretty story, but unlikely."

He allowed that faint smile back onto his face. "You really are suspicious enough to make a good detective. There was more to it all of course, but I don't think that I need to waste your time with it." There was a finality in his tone which suggested that torture wouldn't work either. "Perhaps we need to go and look for the rattess Snout. Now."


Act III Scene I: Enter the great detective

"She's dead," said Mercutio, quietly. "Snout is dead." Davitta had had other brushes with Mercutio. He was normally urbane and slightly sinister, as befitted a prince of the underworld of ratly crimes. Now his voice shook.

A furry face precluded any sign of paleness, but the voice suggested that the rat was going to pitch face forward any moment. "Sit down," said the bat, practically.

"And drink some of this and take heart," said Firkin, producing a bottle from her sleeve flounces.

A slap would hardly have shocked Mercutio more. "You . . . giving out drink?" He hastily snatched the bottle and swigged. And spluttered. "It's cold tea!" he said both incredulously and indignantly. "Not even some vile sack. Art trying to kill me?"

"And do the world a favor." Firkin snatched the bottle back. "Why did you kill Snout?"

" 'Twas not I. I would have done the thing quietly and eaten the evidence. Methinks . . . she may have been murdered. Come."

He led them to a chamber—which one might have passed ten times without finding it, as the door was so neatly hidden in a fold in the rock. There, within, was an Aladdin's trove of loot. And a small female rat, sprawled. Dead.

"Out, brief candle," said Firkin, quietly. "What killed her?"

"I don't know. But I will find out," said Mercutio with grim certainty.

"The polis . . ." said Davitta, fluttering her wings.

"Methinks I'll solve my own problems."

Firkin shook her head. "Nay, methinks that it is we, and they, who need you to solve theirs, Mercutio. They have Albert, accused of these murders. We need whoever did that. I was on my way to beg your help."

Mercutio looked her in the eye. Nodded slowly. " 'Twas done by the same hand, methinks. Let us go to the Last Chance."

"I am not very welcome there," admitted Davitta, thinking, not for the first time, that even the heroes of the Easter Rising had it easier than a bat trying to follow her conscience. Doing so seemed to have unforeseen consequences, like discovering that your official worst enemies were your friends, and actually drank cold tea.

Mercutio snorted. "Methinks Laggy does not welcome any non-human. But there is another entrance, and I have connections."

"Comrades in thievery, no doubt," said Davitta.

"Naturally." The rat led them off down a passage far too narrow for humans, and too narrow for comfortable flying either. It brought them out a few yards from the Last Chance, in time to see a drunk being ejected through the bat-wing doors. Davitta wondered, as she had many times before, if it was possible to sue the door-makers for slander.

The drunk must have truly believed he was seeing things, when the bat and two rats pushed stubby digits into four little holes on a low bit of wall, and then disappeared into the hole that appeared . . . and then the wall sealed up again.

"What's this?" squawked Davitta. "Are we trapped?"

"Be still," said Mercutio. "Methinks it is just a part of the air recycling system. We have found a few such ducts, but there are doubtless many."

"But why have they hid it thus?" The bat fluttered down the dim passage filled with machines, some of which plainly were still working.

"Without intent, mayhap. It is just neatly cut, we think with a laser. The chamber Laggy has turned into the Last Chance was perhaps a machine room or a dormitory. Be careful of that machine over there. 'Tis hot."

"But . . . but where does the power come from?" asked Davitta. This was a whole world that she'd not known existed. It was a little alarming to think that they relied on this abandoned Korozhet machinery.

The rat shrugged. "Why should we care? I was interested for a while when I heard you say, some time back, that all power corrupts, but I stole several batteries and, as yet, I have seen nothing but decay, and not one single offer of a bribe."

Mercutio sounded suitably disappointed in this further betrayal by the English language. "Ah. Here we are. The kitchens. The drains. Laggy used what was here. He plainly explored it well."

"Ach, that old voyeur. He explores everything well. He has minicams concealed in the girls' rooms, I have heard tell," said Firkin.

"Hush," said Mercutio. "We need to go up the stairs. Cookie is a friend of mine."

Cookie was short and rotund. And brown. With pink sugar frosting. Well, it probably wasn't sugar frosting, though with alien life forms you couldn't be too sure. The alien must have had eyes somewhere, even if Davitta couldn't see them, because it spoke to them. Or maybe it used some other way of detecting them.

It spoke in Korozhet, which was still the default language of the soft-cyber units which the Korozhet had used for uplift and enslavement. The enslavement module had been cracked in the rebellion on Harmony and Reason, but the language remained. Hearing it set Davitta's sharp white teeth on edge.

"Tell it to speak a decent uncivilized language," she snapped.

Mercutio shook his head. "Cookie can't. That's why he has to put up with working for Laggy. He was one of the left-behinds when the Korozhet cut and ran. He cleans here."

"He is in bondage, you mean?" demanded the bat.

"Nay. Though a couple of the girls will do that, if the price is right."

"I meant a slave," she explained coldly.

Mercutio considered this. "I don't think he is, in the strictest sense of the word. He just doesn't speak anything but Korozhet and Laggy feeds him. At first there wasn't anyone else, and I don't know if he has figured out that he has any other options now."

Davitta hissed angrily, despite knowing that it made her sound like an exploding kettle. "And I don't suppose you saw fit to tell him."

Mercutio blinked. "No. Never thought of it. We've got a bit of barter and exchange going with him. There is good loot around this place."

"Rats!" she snarled. Mercutio was probably merely being truthful. Rats were the epitome of natural selfishness—not that they couldn't rise above it, it just never occurred to them that there was any need to. "I will liberate him!"

"Good luck finding the words," said Firkin. "Anyway, aren't you supposed to be solving a murder and saving Albert's groats, seeing as us rats are too idle."

The language was literally the problem. The word "liberty" was not in the Korozhet download. It might not even exist in the Korozhet language. It was very hard to think about something you had no word for. She sighed. Was nothing simple?

"Very well. But as soon as we have this sorted out, I'll talk to the Jampad about this. They'll free him even they have to blow the place up to do it." The humans and even the rats would support that—or at least not prevent them from doing it. Slavery was something abhorrent, especially for the miners that had come from the Korozhet-invaded world of Harmony and Reason. Admittedly, the rats only worried about it happening to themselves, but they had been brought to think that if it were done to others, they just might be next.

"You will do what you will do," said Mercutio, shrugging.


Act III, Scene II: Into a den of lyings

"Only a rat will ever get information out of another rat," said Abe with a shrug. "If they have decided not to tell us where the rattess Snout can be found, we're not going to find her."

Rebecca shook her head. "That's not why I said I'd be damned. It was that . . . bar."

Abe snorted in amusement. "The pictures on the walls don't leave much to the imagination, do they?"

"Not if you're a lonely rat miner, no," said Albert with perfect seriousness. "So what do we do now?"

"Sun Tzu," said Rebecca.

"What?" said the mayor, puzzled. Military strategy was not one of his interests, obviously.

"We take the battle to them," said Rebecca. "The center of all of this is the Last Chance. It's not the only brothel around, is it?"

They both looked a little taken aback at the question. The mayor found his wits first. "No. There are nine such establishments and a fair number of freelancers," he said.

Abe coughed and continued: "It's a refugee colony now, but it was a miners R&R place. That's what they wanted and they had the money to pay for it. Demand creates supply."

"Yet all the murdered women came from just one of those places," said Rebecca. "I smell a rat, and it isn't just Firkin, or the missing Snout. Let's go to the Last Chance and ask some awkward questions."

"Man, but that's a lynch mob brewing in there!" said the mayor uneasily.

"Exactly. Is there one place a guilty man wouldn't go, as bold as brass?" asked Abe, grinning. "Besides, as the mayor, tasting the local brews is your civic duty."

"That's part of the problem," said the mayor, tugging his beard nervously. "No one knows exactly where Laggy stashes his still. God alone knows what goes into the stuff. Evil bastard. He's changed since the Epsilon III rush. I met him back then. He used to be a nice bloke. They called him 'honest' back then because he was too dumb to cheat even the local tax men. He's learned a lot since then, that's for sure."

"Unusual for a man to learn to have brains," said Abe, as they walked towards the flashing light outside the bar.

"He used to drink a lot," explained the mayor. "Always had his own still. I reckon he drank some bad stuff. He's given up. Or at least he barely drinks now."

"Could happen, I suppose," said Abe.

"Unlikely," said Holmes, with a look that said he'd known a few serious drunks.

They walked through the bat-wing doors and into a sudden silence—from what had been a tumultuous racket moments before.

Laggy appeared from the midst of what had been the hubbub. "What do you want here, Captain?" he demanded, with a nasty edge to his voice.

"Just pursuing my enquiries, Mr. Laguna," she said, evenly. "I have several lines of enquiry that lead me . . . here."

"The girls weren't killed anywhere near here!" protested Slim. The crowd stirred like an angry beehive.

"No," said the captain, calmly, "but they all came from here. Unusual, I gather for them to even be out of your establishment—and it's only women from this place who've been attacked, even though there are others working the corridors and tunnels. I've seen them."

There was silence again. Some thoughtful looks.

"They were all lured out of here," Laggy insisted. "By that bat."

It was such a pity that he lacked the physique to have done the deed.

Laggy stuck his hand in his pocket. "I was just going to show the boys. I found this note from that bat in Cindy's things."

He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to her. "That bat lured them out to their deaths," he said, as Rebecca untwisted the screw of paper.

"It sounds to me as if you have a grudge against the council," said Abe evenly. "First the mayor and now Zed."

"It's obvious. They're in it together. They want to destroy my enterprise."

"Indade, not," snapped the bat, fluttering out of an air-vent. "You're a blackhearted vile exploiter."

Laggy gaped at her. "I won't have any non-humans in my bar!" he snapped.

"No, you'll keep them as slaves and cleaners instead," hissed the bat.

Laggy went white. "I . . . I . . ." He fumbled for his flechette pistol.

"That's enough," said Rebecca. "I'll remove the bat once we have discussed a few matters. Firstly, would you like to clarify a few matters as concerns this wallet?"

"I heard that rat of his," said Laggy, pointing at the mayor, "tell that it was found under the body."


Act III, Scene III: Enter the element of surprise, possibly not Watson, but Mercutio

"I'faith you have mighty keen ears, to hear something I have not said," said Firkin loftily, from the air-vent. "I bite my thumb at you, Sirrah. But Cookie tells me that he found the wallet here. It was, as is the custom with such items, placed in the container on the bar."

There was a silence. Several people looked at the big glass jar on the end of the bar.

"Who are you going to believe? Me or some rat?" demanded Laguna.

"Knowing you, the rat, I reckon," said one wag, grinning.

"They're rogues and liars!" shouted the offended proprietor of the Last Chance saloon.

"Yes I am," said Mercutio, appearing next to Firkin. "But who better to set to catch one?"

He leaped onto the table—a prodigious jump, but one he was easily capable of. "Attend!" he said to crowd. "Methinks, you have reached several wrong conclusions. Firstly, you assumed that because the victim was robbed, robbery was part of the motive for the killing."

"But they were robbed. All of them," said Slim. "Are you trying to tell us they were robbed before they were attacked? I might believe that happened once . . ."

"The bodies were robbed after death. After they had been murdered. Not by the murderer."

"Who would do that kind of thing? Anyway, we found them," said Slim, waving at several friends of his in the crowd.

The rat reached into his pouch and flung a rather distinctive silver filigree hair-grip on the table. Several people plainly recognized it by the gasps. "Ah, but methinks you did not find them first. Ask then of the captain. What artifact did she find at the last murder?"

"A rat barrow," supplied the captain.

The rat nodded. "Rats move through the passages. They will loot. You all know that."

The crowd laughed.

"Indade. As it happens a rattess named Snout did find the last body. She did rob it. And she too has been killed," said the bat. "We seek her murderer."

"Who cares if another bloody rat is dead? They're scavengers and thieves. And what does it matter if they robbed the victims?" Laggy calmly reached for a bottle and began filling glasses, as if nothing could ever upset his equilibrium.

"Methinks it matters because if you are wrong about the sequence of events of one part of the crime, you could be wrong about another," said Mercutio.

"No way that they were raped by rats," said Slim dismissively, over the rim of his full glass. "Even if you all think you're hung like Errol Flynn."

Mercutio shook his head, looking thirstily at the glass. " 'Tis true that most rats are destined to be hung. But it was not a rat that killed them."

"It was a bloody great rock that someone smashed their skulls with," supplied another drinker. "Too big for a rat."

"Indeed. And that too was not what killed them," said Mercutio, grimly.

Laggy laughed. "You might live on as a bit of head-plastic after your brain gets smashed in. But the rest of us would be dead," he said with a sneer.

"Oh, the rock would have killed them," said Mercutio, digging in his pouch again, and producing a small cellophane packet of white powder. "But this already had."

"What?" demanded Captain Wuollet.

Mercutio held the packet up. "This is what killed them. They were killed by the drug, the same one that killed Snout, when she tried to use what she'd stolen from the last victim. The rest was mere fakery to make it look like a crime of rapine. You did it." He pointed at Laggy.

The proprietor of the Last Chance laughed again. "Don't be ridiculous. Why would I kill them? Anyway, how can you prove it?"

"There was very little blood where we found the body," said the captain, quietly. "And head wounds bleed. You all know that. What you may not know is that dead bodies don't."

Mercutio nodded. "Anyway. We—Snout and I—saw and robbed the body. There was no mark on her. She had not been violated. We heard someone approach and ran off lest we be caught. Methinks, if you offer sufficient reward and impunity, among the rats the looters of the other bodies will come forward. But you may be certain that the last victim was killed before her skull was broken. You had it all backwards."

"Why didn't you tell someone?" demanded Captain Wuollet.

"And be blamed? 'Tis not our business."

"It's drivel," said Laguna. "I mean yes, maybe the dust did come from the women, and might have overdosed your rat. But look, what reason do I have for killing them? They're my business. They were raped and someone killed them to hide his ID. It had to be someone strong, that they knew or could recognize."

He pointed at Holmes. "Someone like him. There is no other motive."

Mercutio shook his head. "It is indeed a question of motive. But you have the motive. One of the women stumbled on your unpleasant secret, and thought she'd blackmail you. She threatened to tell Miz Zed. Even sent her a note. You killed her, and her friends, because, reviewing your disc of voyeurism, you saw that she'd talked." Mercutio reached into his pouch yet again, this time holding up a recording-minidisc. "I have it here."

"Give me that," yelled Laggy, his face ashen. "Thief!"

"At least he is just a thief, not a murderer and slave-holder," said the bat, grimly. "As you are. You also forgot that there was a witness. Or perhaps you thought you were safe as he was an alien who cannot speak English. You forgot that we too can speak Korozhet, although we choose not to."

Captain Wuollet held up her hand. "Stop right there. Mr. Laguna told me that he didn't speak Korozhet."

"That is correct," said Mercutio tugging his long whiskers. "Mr. Laguna does not. Unfortunately, Mr. Laguna is dead so what he speaks is of no matter."

"What?" said Abe, just seconds ahead of several others.

Mercutio held up his stubby paws. " 'Tis, methinks, both simple and obvious." He pointed at the short, plump proprietor. "This is not Mr. Laguna."

Everybody still looked puzzled. "What?" said Slim finally. "This is my buddy Honest . . ."

"No," said Mercutio, with the air of someone explaining to a simpleton—or a group of simpletons. "The man you call Honest Laguna is a former Korozhet slave who was found by the real Honest Laguna. Laguna was drunk, and trusting. This man—free now because the Korozhet had run off without their slaves—was found by the real Laguna. The slave he helped killed him, stole his clothes and possessions, including his still, and set up shop here. The act was witnessed by a fellow slave . . . one who is still here."


"It would appear to me that their brains are stuck on that word," said Firkin. "Laggy here was slave. He's got a few more slaves himself."

"But slaves are totally forbidden in human space," said the mayor.

"Methinks that you have a veritable nugget of fact there." Mercutio fluffed his whiskers. "One that is motive for murder. He has not told them they've been liberated. He uses them in his drug manufacturing process, and to run his stills." He gave his audience a ratty grin. "Just because you have been a slave yourself does not mean that you are a good man. According to Cookie, he was a Korozhet trusty. When the Korozhet fled . . . well, the two of them were found by Laguna, who was drunk. Laggy here was much the same size and build, and for reasons as yet unknown killed him."

"You've just got this crazy rat's word for all this," said Laggy, backing against the bar. "How could I kill the girls? I've got alibis for my time. He lies."

Mercutio regarded him askance. "We eat, perforce, rations. They are scarce, while the hydroponics are getting going. Methinks you will find scant witnesses to your presence during the dinner sittings." He pointed with a stubby pawhand to the door in the painted mural. "Let us look behind the door then and ask the others if I lie."

That gesture proved to be a mistake. All the eyes in the place followed, and people stopped looking, for an instant, at Laggy. Captain Wuollet was one of the first to realize it. And thus caught the full blinding force of the magnesium flare. And something hit her flak-jacket really hard.


There was, by the noise—she couldn't see anything—a lot of chaos. Which included things like "after the bastard," and "he went that-a-ways." It sounded like Laggy's well-oiled lynch mob was being put to excellent use, thought Rebecca, as she struggled to clear her vision.

By the time she could see again, Holmes had removed his large body from shielding his commanding officer. The bar was empty, with the exception of two rats, one with a large glass of cognac, and the other with her flouncy arms in the till, never mind her fingers. The bat was fluttering around the door in the wall-mural. And what was obviously a weird retinal after-burn shaped just like a cupcake was standing talking gibberish to the bat.

"What happened to Mayor and Abe?"

"The mayor was leading the pack. He might even stop it being an onsite lynching. And Abe was looking for some tools." Sergeant Holmes closed the cash-register and narrowly missed making Firkin a little short-handed.

She sniffed irritably at him, and showed teeth. "Spoilsport."

Abe returned with a small toolkit, and walked over to the mural door. Rebecca saw that the bat was pointing at some small holes she'd never noticed before. "At least you could help instead of indulging in petty larceny!"

Mercutio preened his whiskers. "I never indulge in petty larceny," he said loftily. "This is hundred year old cognac. And you know as well as I that Cookie told us that Laggy has somehow locked that one. Methinks it will take explosives."

Rebecca looked at the rat. "You have some explaining to do."

He cocked his head. "Is Mercutio headed for durance vile?"

"I'll settle for explanations," said Rebecca. "And a glass of that loot. This time. If you stop Firkin trying to open the till again."

Firkin sat down on the bar and pulled a bottle out of her sleeve and drank some of the amber fluid in it. She looked at Mercutio very intently as she did it.

"Art sure you would not have a stoup of this stuff?" he asked.

"Methinks I will stick to my own brew," said the rattess. There seemed to be a hint of menace in that statement, although Rebecca could not put her finger on just why.

"I think," said Mercutio, "That the largest part of my explanation is that things are always quite what they seem by first appearance. And if you can see motive . . . the picture gets clearer."

"I'm still faint but pursuing as to what the picture actually is, and just how he was able to do it." Rebecca took the cognac from the faintly sinister rat. "I assume you found the motive on the disc."

Mercutio shook his head. "I did but deduce it. I know not what is on that disc. Probably the rutting of some miners and one of wenches. There must a hundred of them in his room. I guessed what his reaction would be. I was right."

"Methinks they have great resale value," said Firkin, snatching it up and dancing away.

"I'll resell you," said Rebecca. "Give it back."

"No wonder no one likes the constabulary," said Firkin, tossing it down. "So explain, Mercutio. How then did little Laggy kill the girls, if we grant him the motive?"

Mercutio savored the cognac. "It was a matter of arranging a rendezvous and waiting for the drug to kill them. The note, methinks you will find came from him, not the claw of Zed. I hath seen her script, which the girls had not. I caught a bare glimpse of the note when Laggy gave it to you, but it was neat and handwritten. Wingclaws or feet do a poor job of writing. Zed uses an electronic scripter, even for her picket signs. Did the note offer a great deal of money perchance?"

"Yes," admitted Rebecca. He was too astute for his own good, this rat.

"So that is how he killed them," said Holmes. "But how did he move them then? Mister rat?"

Mercutio shrugged. "He has a vehicle, and he repairs it. I think you'll find he has a slider. Look carefully in the tunnel on the sides and you may see the tracks . . ."

"But we did. For the barrow," said Holmes, shaking his head.

"With a narrow beam," said Firkin. "I was there, I saw you do it. The tracks will be on the edges of the tunnel if they are there at all . . . not where a barrow would leave them, which was what you looked for."

Holmes shook his head again. "God, what a sick bastard. You think he . . ."

It wasn't something Rebecca wanted to think about, either. "Without a forensic expert we won't know. I suspect he found the first body had been robbed, when he went to hide it, and saw a bright way of getting someone else to take the blame."

"We'll ask him, very politely, of course," said Holmes. "When I examine his mind. If they haven't killed him."

Firkin snorted. "They'll not catch him."

"Then I will," said Rebecca, grimly.

"Or the rats will find him. For a fee, of course," said Mercutio.

"Got it!" said Abe. The painted door in the mural swung open to reveal a room full of lab paraphernalia, and a still. And three terrified looking aliens. Of course, expressions could be hard to read accurately on alien faces. But the cowering wasn't. Cowering crossed the species and interplanetary divide.

Maybe the easy answer was just to pay the rats to bring the bastard in dead, thought Rebecca grimly. She turned to Mercutio. "I'm thinking of giving you a job in the police force."

Mercutio seemed distinctly unwell, and looked around hastily for an exit. "Me? Art diseased in thy mind? My reputation, Iago . . ."


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