We received many future-noir stories—way more than we expected—but “The Ambassador’s Staff” was the one that best combined a gritty urban feel with science-fictional premises and plot twists.

The Ambassador’s Staff

by Sherry D. Ramsey

I considered the kid in the threadbare armchair on the other side of my desk. Shaggy-cut brown hair, clothes on the edge of shabby, two dull metal earrings looped through one ear and a stud in his lower lip. Sitting up straight, though, and looking worried. It had been a while since I’d had much to do with teenage boys—not since I was a teenage girl. I didn’t remember them being this quiet.

“Most people come to see me because they’re in some kind of trouble,” I prompted.

He shook his head. “No—at least, I don’t think so. I’m just—I want to do the right thing.”

“That doesn’t usually require the help of a private detective.”

“No.” He chewed his lip for a second, the stud clicking against his teeth. “I need some advice.”

“Fair enough. What’s your name, kid?” I tapped my temple to activate my implant, blinked through the heads-up display options, and started a recording. Implants were pricey, but this one had been worth it.

“Seetharaman Warren, but everyone calls me Seeth. I live out in the Crops, with my mom.” The rest came in a rush. “This morning I found this out there. In the street.”

He reached inside his jacket and came out with something wrapped in a thin beige towel. My heart ramped up for a second, adrenaline reaction. He set the towel gently on the desk and glanced at the window, the walklane outside in full view.

I shook my head. “Don’t worry. It’s one-way.”

He nodded and unwrapped the contents. I stared, not comprehending what I was seeing, and then it clicked and the adrenaline shot off another round. A big one this time.

“Is that,” I breathed, “the Ambassador’s staff?”

“I think so. What’s left of it, anyway,” he said, staring, like me, at the three jaggedly-broken crystalline shafts. My eyes put them together easily enough—there’s the bottom, look at the way one end is capped, and it broke apart from that middle section there, and here’s the top, with the curved head, perfectly polished to fit into a man’s—a particular Martian man’s—hand. It was really more of a cane or a walking-stick, but the Ambassador himself had always called it his staff, and who was I to argue? Whole, it had appeared pearly and luminescent, as if lit up from the inside by some arcane alchemy. Broken, it was dead white stone. Scattered dark stains marred the surface.

“They said on the tri-V,” I said slowly, “that the Martian Ambassador died in his sleep. In his hotel.” It had been the only news on any channel all morning.

Seeth must have felt my eyes on him, and looked up to meet my gaze, reading the question there. He nodded. “I know, ma’am, I don’t understand it, either. I found this on my way home from work, and I knew right away what it was.”

I believed him. Anyone who’d ever seen the Martian Ambassador would recognize it, the way he wielded it like his staff of office.

I frowned at Seeth. “So how does the Ambassador’s staff wind up broken on a street in the Crops, when the Ambassador is dying peacefully in his hotel room?”

“I guess that’s what I need you to find out.”


He stared at me, his eyes blue and clear and as absolutely honest as any I’ve ever seen. “I can’t take it to the police. They’ll think—I don’t know what they’ll think, but it won’t be good. I haven’t heard a word on the news about this thing being missing.”

I nodded. “You’ve got a point.” The police wouldn’t be falling over themselves to believe a story like this from a kid from the Crops.

“But—there could be a reward or something.” He almost whispered it, like it was too much to even hope for, like he shouldn’t even say it because it would somehow become less likely if he gave it voice.

“Okay,” I said briskly. I folded the broken bits of the staff back up into the towel and shoved them into the bottom drawer of my desk, and locked it. “They’re safer here, right? I’ll write you a receipt.”

Seeth nodded, although I could tell it worried him to let it out of his hands.

“I’ll see what I can find out first from the police, and we’ll decide where to go from there.”

“But you won’t tell them where it came from.” Trusting strangers doesn’t come easy to folks from the Crops. It had obviously taken him most of the morning just to decide to come and see me.

I smiled. “I’m not even planning to mention it,” I told him. “I’m just going to see what they know and what they don’t know. And what they’re keeping quiet, maybe. I won’t get you into any trouble.”

“Great,” he said, getting up. “Thanks, Miss Thompson.” He hesitated. “We didn’t talk about money—”

I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it yet. Now that I’ve seen that—” I gestured to the locked drawer and grinned, “I won’t sleep until I know a little more, anyway. And please, just call me Rachel.”

“Great,” he said again. “If it turns out there’s a reward—”

“We’ll work something out.” I followed him to the door and he headed into the street. I watched him through the window, weaving his way through the folks milling around the spaceport, a few going to or from jobs, more just wandering—the street vendors, the homeless, the dealers and the Levelers.

One of those was sprawled in the doorway of Kugar’s video shop across the walklane, and I could tell the way he just stared, not moving, not blinking, that he was Leveled ’way up. Kugar wouldn’t like that, but if he wanted the Leveler moved, he’d have to pick the guy up and carry him away. Once that white liquid finds its way down their throat or into a vein, they’re living in an alternate reality, and they don’t see, hear, feel or care anything about this one until they come back down.

I sighed and turned away from the window. The joke is that Leveling is the furthest you can get from Earth without actually boarding a ship. If I’d gone off-planet when I’d had the opportunity—well, who knows what would have happened. But chances are I wouldn’t be living in a tiny apartment above my office in a place like Cape City. Even if it was my own office.

The tri-V was on in the outer office, still squawking about the dead Ambassador, and I stopped, intending to switch it off. They were replaying yesterday’s speech, where he was trying to sell us on the benefits of Marseramic. He stood on a dais in the heart of the spaceport, unmistakable in his red and gold robes and one of those little square hats the Martians love, waving his staff around for emphasis as he spoke. The crowd, as usual, looked enthralled. The man had oozed charisma.

The benefits of Marseramic can indeed stretch all the way from our red planet home to yours, our kindred of Earth. A Free and Fair Trade Accord will allow the people of both our planets to share technological advances and improvements. Advances in medical equipment. Advances in manufacturing. Advances in space transportation.

His pearly staff was made of Marseramic, so it was pretty as well as useful, but it could mean trouble for a big sector of Earth’s economy. For that reason, it was subject to a massive tariff, and the Martians were pissed. The Ambassador’s number one job seemed to be rousing the rabble to put pressure on the governments to change that.

According to the endless coverage on the tri-V, a heart attack in his sleep last night put an end to that undertaking.

I listened to him for a minute more with my finger on the power button. He was animated and passionate, waving the staff around for emphasis, the light catching on the swirling substance inside it, making it look like a living thing in his hand. His color was good, energy was practically sparking off him, and he looked like he’d never been sick a day in his life. Watching him there, I just didn’t buy it. If that guy had a heart attack, I thought, I’ll sell out and leave the Cape. Hell, I’ll move off-planet. Really, this time.

Which left me with two big questions. If it wasn’t a heart attack, what was it? And like I’d said to the kid, how did the staff end up broken in the street?

Seemed like a good time for a walk. I switched on my avatar to take calls and mind the office, and headed down to the community police kiosk to see if my old friend Singh was around.

Arturo Singh wasn’t overjoyed to see me. Reception at the police kiosk was full: at least three Levelers sprawled in various states of their highs, a too-young kid in garish gang colors darting scared glances at a big guy who must be his father, a couple of hookers not even bothering to try and sweet-talk their way out of trouble. I was trying to convince Carmel, the receptionist, to buzz Singh for me when he happened to open the door of his office and glance out. Too late, he saw that I’d noticed him. He frowned, and motioned me over. Carmel rolled her eyes.

“I’m busy, Rachel-ji,” Singh said as he shut his office door behind me, barely waiting until I was inside his office. He’s a tall man but thin and wiry, no telltale coffee-and-doughnuts bulk for him. There’s some grey peppering the dark triangle of his beard now, but he’s still years from retirement. I knew if he was using my first name he could spare me five minutes.

“Quick question,” I promised, and it was his turn to roll his eyes.

He didn’t invite me to sit but I did, and waited until he settled resignedly in his own chair.

“What happened to the Martian Ambassador?”

Singh leaned back in his chair. “Heart attack. Don’t you watch the news? Or did you have to pawn your tri-V to pay the rent?” He grinned at his own joke, his teeth very white in his burnished-copper face.

“Haha. I mean, what really happened to him? He wasn’t heart-attack material.”

Singh shrugged. “You can tell by looking now? Maybe you should have been a doctor.”

Even with a room full of problems waiting for him outside, Singh could make jokes at my expense all day. Maybe I could shock him a little.

“You know that staff the Ambassador always had with him? It’s sitting in a locked drawer in my office. It’s broken. And maybe bloodstained. Kid found it in the Crops this morning. I still have my tri-V and I have to say, I haven’t seen anything on it all morning that would explain that.”

Singh narrowed his eyes at me. “Straight?”

I nodded.

He shook his head. “Official word is heart attack. His people are looking after everything—we’re not involved at all. No need. No autopsy, nothing. Diplomatic blah-blah, they’re taking his body home to Mars, end of story. No doubt his replacement will show up in a month banging the same gong about Marseramic and fair trade.”

Now it was my turn to frown. “But it doesn’t make sense. How’d his staff end up in the Crops, smashed?”

“You’re sure that’s what it is you’ve got?”

“Absolutely. You ever see him without it?”

“As a matter of fact, no.” Singh looked through me for a minute. It’s a weird habit he has, like when there’s something on his mind you just fade into nothingness and he can’t see you anymore. I used to think he was trying to politely let me know it was time to leave, but I’ve discovered it means he’s thinking deep thoughts. And it’s usually best to stay quiet and let him think them.

The phone buzzed and he picked up, listened for a minute, sighed and said “I’ll get on it,” and hung up. “Body in a dumpster out in the Crops. Head bashed in. How unusual. You want to take odds it’s a Leveler? Or a dealer?”

I grinned and shook my head.

He stood up to let me know he had to get back to work. “Go. Promise you’ll come to me if you find out anything I should know about the Ambassador, okay?”

I barely kept my mouth from dropping open. “Aren’t you going to tell me to stay out of this?”

“Nope. Like I told you, we’re not involved in the Ambassador’s death. So I have no reason to tell you to stay away. Far as I know, there’s nothing for you to stay away from.” He didn’t even crack a smile.

“No warnings, nothing you’re holding back. I can just go and investigate on my own?” I asked, incredulous. “This isn’t my birthday.”

“Try to stay safe,” he said, “Just in case there is anything—wrong. I doubt it, but you never know. And if staying safe means coming back to me—”

“I will. Thanks.”

He shrugged again. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t tell me to stay out of it. That’s something.”

He shook his head while he opened the door. “Well, don’t make me regret doing nothing, okay?”

Out on the walklane, I realized I didn’t know a single thing more than I did going in. Except that the police weren’t involved. Which didn’t seem like much of a lead.

My next logical stop was the Ambassador’s hotel. If I got lucky I might find someone there who’d be willing to talk to me. And if I didn’t get lucky, I could bring up the matter of the missing staff. Surely that would get someone’s attention.

The ambitiously-named GalaxyPort Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in Cape City, built in the first concentric ring of businesses that sprang up around the original spaceport when it became obvious the port was going to be a success. The GalaxyPort has managed to maintain itself well, despite its age, and it’s got that stately, cosmopolitan air that suggests old money and impeccable service. The young desk clerk looked frazzled, no doubt in part because of the milling crowd of tri-V and Web and HUDnet reporters dirtying up her nice clean lobby. And of course, an Ambassador dying here the night before.

I didn’t waste any time, just quietly showed her my PI’s license and told her I was here to speak with the members of the Ambassador’s staff. Her eyes got big for a second and then she nodded, told me in a low voice which descender to take and how far to go down. Naturally buildings this close to the spaceport were built down, not up. You don’t want to get any closer to landing spacecraft than you have to, and you don’t want to stick anything up in their way.

I guess the desk clerk didn’t consider that I could have been a reporter pretending to be a detective. Well, she was young. She’d learn.

Getting in was just that easy. None of the reporters gave me a second glance, since I was careful not to look like anyone important. And I guess the desk clerk didn’t consider that I could have been a reporter pretending to be a detective. Well, she was young. She’d learn.

The descender stopped at the tenth level and I followed the clerk’s directions to the Ambassador’s suite. There were only three suites here, so they all had to be pretty big. I knocked, and the door opened surprisingly quickly. A young blonde woman with eyes red and puffed from crying said, “Yes?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, I know what a difficult time this must be,” I said in my most sympathetic tone. I meant it, too, because she was obviously distraught by the Ambassador’s death. I pulled out my license again and showed it to her. “Is there someone on the Ambassador’s staff I could speak with? It’s important.”

Confusion showed on her face for a moment, followed quickly by a flash of something else I couldn’t identify. But she opened the door wider and I stepped inside. “Mr. Olara,” she called into the recesses of the suite.

I’d expected the suite to be nice—no, I’d expected it to be really nice—but I wasn’t prepared for such lavish elegance. Cape City is a spaceport city, after all. Most of the people who lived here were on their way somewhere else or stuck here, like me, for reasons personal or financial. Even before it had turned out to be a perfect geographical spot for a spaceport, it had been a poor area. I know I gaped for just a second before I caught myself. I really didn’t think places like this existed in Cape City.

Mr. Olara came hurrying out from the depths of the suite, looking harried and annoyed. He ran a hand distractedly over his salt-and-pepper brush cut. His eyes were not red from crying.

“Yes?” he asked, clipped and brusque. He shot the red-eyed woman a dirty look.

There’d be no point trying to impress Olara with my license, so for him I took a different tack. “I’m a private investigator, Mr. Olara, and I’m sorry to bother you. But there’s a matter involving the Ambassador’s death that I think we should discuss.” I let him see my eyes flick towards the young woman. The glance said, alone.

A frown creased his face and I saw the internal struggle. He didn’t want to talk to me, but could he risk not knowing what I was talking about? “I don’t have long,” he said, “And honestly, I don’t see—but all right. Follow me.” He turned on his heel and headed down the hallway, apparently expecting me to follow. Not wanting to disappoint him, I did. The young woman slipped off to another room without a word.

At the end of the hall was a “sunroom”—sunlight seemed to flood in through the windows, although I knew the view outside them was holographic since we were ten stories underground. The sunlight was piped in via super-reflective solar collectors, or some mix of sunlight and artificial, anyway. As long as the customer thinks it’s real, right? This room was just as elegant and imposing as the rest of the suite. Olara closed the door behind us but didn’t offer me a seat in any of the blue and white toile-covered chairs.

“The Ambassador’s death was unfortunate but natural,” he said abruptly. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but there’s nothing in this for you. Nothing.”

My right hand itched to smack him across the face, but I held back in the interests of punching him with something that might hurt more.

“The Ambassador’s shattered staff is locked in a drawer in my office,” I said. “I believe there are bloodstains on it. I thought that might be of interest to someone here. If not, I’ll be on my way.” I turned to go.

“Wait,” he said in a thin voice.

I turned back, my face carefully neutral.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had the wrong impression. Please sit down, Detective—?”

“Thompson,” I said. “But just Miss Thompson. You only get to call yourself ‘Detective’ if the police department is paying you.”

“Miss Thompson,” he repeated. “We’re all understandably upset here. The Ambassador—well, he was a great man. The whole embassy staff is devastated.”

“I can see that,” I said, although Olara didn’t look devastated. He looked stressed and disgruntled, but not brimming with grief. “I’m only here because I thought the staff would be important to someone. It’s a mystery, and when there’s a mystery, I tend to investigate.” I flashed him a smile. “It’s an occupational hazard.”

He twitched his lips but didn’t smile. “Of course. The Ambassador lost that staff yesterday, after his speech. You might have seen him speaking on the tri-V. He was distraught about the staff, but somehow in the crowds—you know how these things happen. This entire trip, it’s been one problem after another. But it wasn’t something he cared to cause a fuss about, so we didn’t report it or anything like that. I expected someone would turn up with it eventually, looking for a reward, but with all that’s happened, I simply forgot about it.”

“What else has gone wrong?” I asked. I didn’t really need to know, but I’ve found that if you keep people talking, about anything, interesting things sometimes turn up.

Olara ticked items off on his stubby fingers. “The Ambassador’s luggage was mislaid somewhere between Orion Station and here—it wasn’t on the shuttle when we arrived and they still haven’t tracked it down. The suite here wasn’t as large as we’d been expecting, so I had to scramble to make alternate arrangements for several functions we had planned. There were protesters waiting at three of the Ambassador’s speaking venues—he had to cancel the last one yesterday because of them— and he wasn’t feeling well into the bargain, and then losing the staff—” He shrugged and sighed. “That all seems so trivial now.”

“And was there a reward?” I asked, because it was what I’d promised Seeth I’d find out.

Olara shrugged. “I’m sure the Ambassador would have paid one, had the staff been returned intact. But if it’s broken, as you say, and with the Ambassador gone...” He left the sentence hanging.

“He doesn’t need it back,” I finished for him. “I understand. I had to ask, on behalf of my client.”

He looked at me more sharply. “You have a client? I’m not sure I understand.”

“My client is the one who found the staff,” I explained.

“Oh. Well. I assumed you intended to return the staff here regardless,” he said severely. “To go back to Mars with the Ambassador’s things.”

“So I should tell my client that there may be a reward after all?”

Olara tried to stare me down, but I wasn’t looking away. If he wanted the thing back, it seemed fair that he give the kid something for his trouble. Seeth could have left it lying in the street, after all, and no one ever would have known what happened to it.

“I’ll have to get back to you about that, Miss Thompson,” he said finally.

“No problem,” I said. “Of course you have to consult with others about it.” I handed him one of my cards and told him he could reach me, or my avatar, at the number on it anytime. I could tell he didn’t like my implication that he couldn’t make a decision about the reward on his own authority. That was okay—I’d only said it to get under his skin anyway. I just didn’t like the guy.

I decided to find Seeth and break the bad news that there was probably no reward in sight for the pieces of the staff. I stopped at my office and changed into scruffier clothes. You didn’t want to attract undue attention out in the Crops.

The Crops were what might once have been called a shantytown, one of the outermost rings of the spaceport. Some of the houses were scrapped spacecraft, propped up on blocks and sporting haphazard additions; some were ancient mobile homes; some seemed to be not much more than lean-tos constructed out of castoff cargo pods and sheet metal.

But they all had the dignity of an address, and I found the one Seeth had given me without too much trouble. It actually wasn’t a bad-looking spot. The base of the house was formed from an old payload module that was a pretty good size, with a big porch of aluminum sheathing hammered on to the front. Whoever had fitted the windows had scrounged them from a low-orbit shuttle and done a good job of setting them in. It would be weather-tight at least, a definite consideration since our winters swung down as low as -55° sometimes now, in sharp contrast to the 40°+ days of the summers. Cape City used to have a more temperate climate, but that’s just one of the many things that have changed since my grandfather’s time.

There were a few people on the street. I had the eerie sensation of eyes on my back, but I didn’t try to figure out which curtained window they might be behind. If I lived in the Crops, I’d be wary and curious about strangers, too.

I stepped up and knocked on the door. It was answered after a few moments by a woman I assumed to be Seeth’s mother. She was perhaps my age, quite possibly beautiful once, but her face was gaunt and her breath came in painful-sounding rasps. Her eyes were suspicious and she opened only the inner door. “Yes?”

I smiled. “Good afternoon, I’m just looking for Seeth. Is he at home?”

“He’s not in any trouble.” It wasn’t a question. She was telling me something she knew with certainty. Even living out here in the Crops, her boy was a good boy. Period.

“No, he’s not.” I showed her my license. “Seeth is my client, and I wanted to report to him.”

She raised one eyebrow and drew a wheezy breath. “Come in, Miss Thompson,” she said, pushing open the outer door and stepping back to make room for me.

“Please, call me Rachel,” I said. The place was nicer inside than I’d expected. Whatever had happened to the Warren family to land them out here, Mrs. Warren was obviously determined to make a home for Seeth. Every surface was clean, the furniture old but not scruffy, and the walls hung with bright tapestries of paint and threadwork. A small tri-V flickered in the corner, although the sound was muted.

She motioned me to a table in the kitchen area. “I’m Sally. Will you have some green tea?”

“That would be great,” I said. I hoped she wasn’t going to ask me what Seeth had hired me for, since I had to keep confidentiality. If he’d told her about it, that would make it easier, but she’d have to bring it up.

She moved slowly making the tea, her breathing slow and labored. I itched to offer to help but sensed that would be an affront to her dignity. I wondered what kind of Herculean effort it took her to keep the house this clean.

“I expect it’s about that staff Seeth found,” she said. “He was hoping there might be a reward.”

I nodded. “I spoke to one of the Ambassador’s people earlier. He wasn’t sure what they’d do about it.”

“Probably denying the man had ever been in the Crops,” she said, setting the tea on the table next to a pair of delicately painted cups. “Sorry I’m so slow,” she added. “Vacuum burn in my lungs when Seeth was just a baby.”

“My husband and I were crewing on an asteroid miner. Same old story, company not following the regs, health and safety procedures not enforced.” Her face hardened as she poured the tea for us.

“Wow. How did that happen?”

She shrugged. “My husband and I were crewing on an asteroid miner. Same old story, company not following the regs, health and safety procedures not enforced.” Her face hardened as she poured the tea for us. “At least I made it back to Earth alive. My husband wasn’t so lucky.”

“I’m so sorry. What about compensation?”

She shook her head. “Blamed the accident on my husband, so they wouldn’t pay anything for him. Me, I got my back pay and a settlement, but hardly enough to support the two of us. I couldn’t do much for a long time.” She glanced around the room. “We’ve managed, but it hasn’t been easy. That’s why Seeth was hoping there’d be a reward for the staff. He’s already working two jobs and going to school.”

I sipped my drink, savoring the pleasant swirl of sweet honey over the slightly bitter tea. “You guessed they’d deny that the Ambassador had ever been in the Crops. You’re right. I was told the staff disappeared after his speech yesterday morning.”

“I suppose it doesn’t much matter, then, if that’s their story.” She shrugged. “I thought they might want to cover something up, and they might pay to do that.”

I looked at her curiously. “You think they’re lying? That the Ambassador actually was here? Why?”

She looked out the window for a long moment, staring through the thick pane at something that I couldn’t see. “My husband,” she said slowly, “was a Leveler, Miss Thompson. A mind-Leveler. You know what that is?”

“I’ve heard stories,” I said slowly. “A handful of people react to Level differently from everyone else.”

She nodded. “The government would like to keep that quiet. In mind-Levelers, the drug makes them smarter, more charismatic. They’re stronger, faster, better problem-solvers, better at almost anything.”

“So...Level really makes them the way the other users just feel,” I said.

“You could put it that way,” she said with a humorless chuckle. “The cost is just the same, though. After the effects have worn off they crash just as hard as anyone else.”

“But while they’re under the influence of the drug—”

“They can achieve almost anything,” she finished for me. “And that Ambassador...from the first time I saw him on the tri-V, I said to myself, that man’s a mind-Leveler.”

“But how could he hide it? In the kind of position he held?” I protested.

Mrs. Warren sipped her tea. “They’re good,” she said simply. “I know—I lived with one for ten years. And if the Ambassador had a few trusted staff members, just one or two—”

“To run interference for him when he needed them to—”

She nodded again. “It could be done. And anyone looking for Level in Cape City, they’d likely end up out here.”

I still couldn’t quite get my head around the notion that the Martian Ambassador could have been a Leveler, but I didn’t want to argue with her. It also wouldn’t really explain why he’d be out in the Crops trying to score a hit of the stuff. He’d bring his own with him, or send someone out to get it for him.

I finished my tea. “Thanks for telling me all this, Mrs. Warren,” I said, and stood to leave. “Will you tell Seeth I was looking for him?”

She nodded. “Drop by if you find out anything else,” she said, and for just an instant I saw in her eyes how hungry for company she was.

The air was still warm outside but I shivered as I walked back towards the inner rings. If that was what going off-world could get you, maybe I’d made the right choice after all, staying on Earth.

Still, in a way, I envied Mrs. Warren. She’d had a chance at life beyond the planet, working in the dark reaches of space with her husband. Me, I’d been too scared to take the chance.

I took a deep breath of the warm spring air and thought of her raspy, painful breathing.

I stopped for some supper and it was late by the time I got back to my office. I spent the evening scouring the Web and HUDnet for every available scrap of news footage covering the Ambassador’s visit, watching vid and HUD images until I had a headache. It paid off in the end, although I almost missed it.

Olara had mentioned one appearance the Ambassador had to cancel because of protesters—the last one of the day, he’d said. I found a few brief images of the Ambassador leaving the venue, looking slightly pissed and being hustled into a waiting limo by anxious-looking security guards.

Because of the camera angle, it wasn’t easy to see, but in one fleeting shot, the Ambassador’s staff was clearly still in his hand. This would have been hours after Olara claimed it had been lost.

So Olara had lied to me—but why?

I could confront him with that in the morning, but even if he’d let me in, I’d need more information first. I wanted to know if there was anything in Mrs. Warren’s ideas about the Ambassador being a Leveler, and there was one person who might know. I’d go to her first. If, after our last meeting, she’d even speak to me.

Porsche Violetta wouldn’t be anywhere I could find her until at least noon, so I spent the next morning catching up on paperwork and tidying the office. Okay, so that took about fifteen minutes, and the rest of the time I spent in a VR sim exploring faraway worlds. If I ever did get up the courage to go off-world, at least I’d already know what it looked like.

A little after one I left the office, looking considerably different than I had for my visit to the Crops yesterday. Porsche was big on appearances, so I paired a bright red turtleneck with my best black leather jacket and black jeans, boots with silver toecaps and a pair of red-framed sunglasses that screamed “diva.” I walked, because it was only two rings in toward the center. It was still a world away from my office.

The doors were locked at Porsche’s club, Xeviosity. What doesn’t happen at Xeviosity gets talked about there, and Porsche pulls a lot of strings in Cape City. I’m not on the end of one anymore, which was why I wasn’t sure of my reception.

I knocked and waited. Finally one of the lugs Porsche employs to watch the rabble opened the door a crack. “She in yet?” I asked.

He stared at me for a minute with eyes that were all iris in the dim light. I caught a glitter behind one that could have been an implant, but I didn’t want to stare, even behind my own dark lenses. I could almost hear his brain trying to match my face with some internal file. “Office,” he said finally. I wondered what might be in that file.

Two more goons stood outside the office but they let me in without any questions. Porsche had likely been watching me on hidden vids ever since I got within half a click of the place.

She was at her desk. Her long, tiger-striped hair was loose around her shoulders and she twisted one silky strand around her crimson-tipped fingers. Her eyes, smoky and mysterious, watched me cross the room. Porsche knew the art of wearing makeup so that it didn’t look like makeup, just perfect, perfect skin.

I flipped off my shades and sat down in one of the big faux croc chairs facing her desk. “Thanks for seeing me, Porsche.”

She leaned back in her chair, still silent, then shrugged. “I stopped being mad at you for turning down my offer,” she said. “And if you’re here, it must be important. Which could also mean interesting. And you know how I love interesting.”

“Hope I don’t disappoint. I’m really here for asking, not telling.” She merely raised her eyebrows, so I continued. “The Martian Ambassador.”

Porsche nodded. “He was more interesting when he was alive.”

“You knew him?”

She pulled a half-smile. “Not personally. Xeviosity’s not exactly the Embassy. No matter how well he might have fit in here.”

I pursed my lips. “The man seemed pretty squeaky clean, to all appearances.”

“Maybe you should just tell me what you want to know,” she countered. She might not be angry any more, but she wasn’t going to make my life easy, either.

“Okay, straight,” I said. “I think the Martian Ambassador was a Leveler, and that he didn’t die peacefully in his sleep at his hotel. I think he was murdered, and I want to know if Level had anything to do with it.”

Porsche flipped her hair away from her face and sat back, smiling. “And you think I’d know. I’m flattered.”

“Flattery aside, can you help? I know you don’t deal, but you know who does.”

“You on a case?”

I shrugged. “Sort of. I’m helping a kid from the Crops, and I smell something wrong in this business with the Ambassador.”

“And you can’t let it go now that your nose is on the scent. The faithful bloodhound,” she teased.

I grinned. “Woof, woof. Any answers?”

She traced an intricate design on the desktop with one long red fingernail for a moment. “The Ambassador was definitely a mind-Leveler. You familiar?”

“I know a little. The drug actually makes you as good as most people only think they are on it.”

Porsche nodded. “It was the Ambassador’s ticket to greatness. I have it on good authority from a Martian...business acquaintance. The man got where he was thanks to Level, and that’s what kept him at the top.”

It was almost shocking to have my suspicions confirmed so easily. But it didn’t give me all the answers I needed. “So why would he be out in the Crops looking for a score? If he was completely dependent on it, he wouldn’t go anywhere—let alone off-world—without an adequate supply.”

“Well, you’re the detective,” Porsche said with a shrug, “you’ll have to figure out that part. Something must have gone wrong, some problem he didn’t anticipate. Seems like there’s always some kind of screwup when you travel. I guess even ambassadors aren’t immune to that.”

“You’re right there,” I agreed. “Apparently he was having one of those trips where everything goes wrong—” The words died on my tongue as something Olara had said came back to me. Just one more problem in the litany of things gone wrong, too-small hotel suites and protesters making things difficult—The Ambassador’s luggage was mislaid somewhere between Orion Station and here—it wasn’t on the shuttle when we arrived and they still haven’t tracked it down.

Would he carry his supply of Level in his luggage? Of course he would. An off-world ambassador wouldn’t have his baggage searched, wouldn’t be suspected of bringing anything contraband with him...but if it got lost, he’d be just as helpless and frustrated as any other traveler.

I stood up, my mind racing. Porsche was grinning at me. “You’ve had a brainstorm.”

“I think so. I—” Without warning, my implant pinged. Unauthorized access flashed on my HUD, practically blinding me in one eye. Dammit. Someone was breaking into my office.

“Porsche, I gotta run.” I didn’t wait for her to say goodbye, just threw “Thanks!”over my shoulder as I left the office. I hoped she wouldn’t end up mad at me again.

I ran almost the whole two rings to my office, although I thought it was going to kill me. Everything looked fine from the outside. I let myself catch my breath, then opened the door cautiously. The outer office was intact, the door to the inner office closed, just as I’d left it. Then came a muffled thud, like wood splintering. I tapped my implant and blinked through the HUD to send a call to Arturo Singh, although he’d take time to get here. Wishing for my gun, I tiptoed to the inner door and eased it open.

Olara was bent over my desk.

I opened the door wide and said, “I didn’t know we had an appointment.”

He jerked upright, and I saw that he held the towel-wrapped pieces of the staff. He didn’t appear to be armed, which didn’t surprise me. If I’d taken him for the kind of guy to carry a piece I wouldn’t have startled him.

I stepped inside and shut the office door, leaning against it and crossing my arms. “Breaking and entering, willful damage to property, just to avoid paying a little reward money? I would have expected the Martian government to be above this sort of thing.”

He glared at me. “What about you—and your client—trying to extort money to keep this quiet?”

I was dumbfounded. “What?”

“I know how this sort of thing works,” he snarled. “I’ve run into it before. You ask for a ‘reward,’ or maybe money to keep quiet, but then it isn’t enough. You try to get more, and threaten to go to the press if we don’t come across with it. Try to turn this into some kind of sordid mess, which it isn’t. You never would have given me the staff.”

“You’re the one who’s turned this into a mess,” I retorted. “You’ve got it all wrong.”

He came around the desk toward me, not belligerently, just determined-looking. I didn’t move. He wasn’t a big guy and he wasn’t in great shape. I was pretty sure I could take him down if it came to that.

“Move. I’m leaving,” he said.

“No way. I’ve already called the police on my implant. You can explain the whole thing to them when they get here.”

He sneered. “I have diplomatic immunity. They can’t touch me.”

I smiled. “I paged a friend at the tri-V station, too, and a newsblogger. I don’t think diplomatic immunity means much to them. Not when there’s a story to be had.”

I’ve learned a few valuable lessons in the course of this job. Sadly, they’re always in the form of “mistakes-I-won’t-make-again.” I learned another one that day. Just because you don’t think a person is armed, doesn’t mean they’re not.

Olara’s face contorted with rage and he moved as if to hit me. I put out an arm to block him. Unfortunately, under the towel he’d been holding a syringe, and he plunged it into my raised forearm before I could react. I caught just the merest swirl of the pale, luminescent liquid in the barrel before he hit the plunger. In a weird bit of displaced memory it reminded me of the Ambassador’s staff.

“See how you like Leveling, bitch,” Olara spat at me. “No-one’s going to believe the word of a drug addict. And by the time you’re coherent again, I’ll be off-world.”

I yelped in pain and jerked away, but it was too late. My skin stung where he’d stuck the needle, and my entire arm already tingled and burned. I blinked as my vision blurred.

“Once I take care of your ‘client,’ too, that will be the end of this nightmare,” he said, watching unconcernedly as I staggered. “I don’t think she’ll give me much trouble. The Ambassador wouldn’t listen to me when he was alive, but at least I can clean up this one last mess for him.”

My knees buckled as he turned the door handle, and all I saw as I toppled forward were his shoes walking out.

It seemed like only moments later when I woke. I glanced at my watch, checked my HUD; less than five minutes had passed. Judging by the utter quiet of the office, the police hadn’t even arrived yet. Typical.

I didn’t try to move right away, but my mind was racing. What had Olara said just before he left? That he was going to “take care of my client”? But how could he know who my client was? I hadn’t mentioned a thing about Seeth...and Olara had said “she.”

The answer clicked into place like a jigsaw puzzle piece. He must have followed me out to the Crops after I’d talked to him the first time, saw me talking to Seeth’s mother. Thought Sally was my client. And he was headed out there to “take care” of her. The bastard.

That was why I’d had the feeling of someone watching me. He’d probably followed me to Xeviosity, too, then tried to race me back to my office. He’d have succeeded if my HUD hadn’t alerted me to the breach.

I had to get out to the Crops and help Sally. I started for my desk to get my gun and stepped on something. The Level syringe Olara had dropped. I stared at the thing. That much Level should have incapacitated me for hours.

The image of the Leveler outside Kugar’s shop rose in my mind. Sprawled and staring, unmoving, unblinking, while a completely different, drug-conjured life played in his brain. My heart thudded painfully in my chest.

Is any of this real?

That’s what it would do, right? Make me think I was the best damned detective ever, figuring things out, rushing to rescue people.

I bent to pick up the syringe and stared at the trace of pearly white liquid clinging to the inside. That’s what it would do, right? Make me think I was the best damned detective ever, figuring things out, rushing to rescue people. When all the while I might still be just lying on the floor of my office, drooling.

I took a deep breath and pinched myself. It hurt. Okay, maybe I had some time before the Level really kicked in. If I hurried, maybe I could still get to Sally in time. I just had to stay focused, make sure I didn’t slip under the influence of the Level. I wrenched open the drawer of my desk and jammed the gun into the back of my waistband, then left the office at a run. Just let me get there before the drug takes me down. I pumped my legs harder, sprinting for the Crops. People stared as I passed. The firm weight of my gun against the small of my back was oddly comforting. Surely Level wouldn’t make me imagine a detail like that?

I ran faster.

As I ran, all the pieces slotted into order like tumblers in a lock. The Ambassador had gone out to the Crops to try and score some Level, since his stash was lost in the missing luggage. He probably had Olara with him, but he’d have gone himself, because whatever his shortcomings, he’d been the sort of man who took personal responsibility for his actions. Something had gone wrong, they’d run into more than they could handle, a dealer, maybe, who got greedy when he saw who his customer was. There’d been an altercation.

Arturo Singh’s phone call about the body in a dumpster fit into the story perfectly. It was as plain as a tri-V scene in my mind: the dealer—maybe more than one of them—making the wrong move, Olara grabbing the staff and using it as a weapon...just too late, since the Ambassador had been killed. If Olara had killed the dealer, even in self-defense, he’d keep it quiet—he had the Ambassador’s reputation and his own to consider. Olara could have gotten the Ambassador’s body back to the hotel, but the broken staff had been overlooked in the street. It all made sense.

But was that me, or the Level? And why was I breathing so hard? Was I tiring, slipping? Buildings sped past me,the rings blending as I flew through them. Maybe adrenaline would keep the drug at bay long enough.

I wished I knew more about Level. I’d have to ask Sally if this kind of delayed reaction was normal. And ask her more about going off-world. Why had I made such a big deal about that? It would be as simple as stepping on a shuttle.

It was the drug, trying to distract me with another imaginary life. I had to fight it long enough to get to Seeth and his mother. Somehow I found the strength to run even faster. Folks on the street seemed blurry, slowed. I wondered if my perception was deteriorating.

By the time the Warrens’ converted home came into view, my lungs were burning like I’d tried to breathe vacuum. In the back of my mind I knew I should not have been able to run this far, this fast, this steadily, and fear clawed at my mind again—none of this is real. I shoved the thought aside. Either this was reality and I had to keep going, or it wasn’t and I was still in my office imagining it all. The only logical thing to do was play out the scenario as well as I could. At the very least, I’d hallucinate a happy ending.

The street was quiet, the door to the house closed. I dodged behind a corrugated aluminum fence and scuttled along in its shadow until I was close to the house. A quick dash took me to the front corner, and I sidled along the wall, ducking low under the window, until I reached the door. I pulled the gun out of my waistband, kicked the door open, and surveyed the scene.

I was too late.

Sally Warren stood over Olara, who cringed on the floor cradling the bloodied side of his head. She had him more than adequately covered with a Creighton 220 HandLaser. She looked up, startled, when the door burst open, but the gun didn’t waver. Sally smiled. “You the cavalry?”

I grinned, although my legs felt watery. This must be reality; I couldn’t have dreamt up this scene. “Like you need it. You and Seeth okay?”

She nodded and pulled a rasping breath. “Seeth’s at school. And once you’ve been a space jock, the reflexes don’t go away. Who is this?”

I pulled up my HUD and blinked alternate instructions to Singh, sending him my coordinates before I answered. “An idiot who thinks he’s above the law,” I said. I walked over to Olara, barely resisting the urge to kick him. “He injected me with Level, but I don’t think it worked.”

“Level?” Sally sucked in a breath and said in a different voice, “Rachel, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I was worried at first, but I’m okay now. I guess it didn’t work on me,” I said again. I stood staring down at Olara, not really sure what I wanted to say to him. I thought I’d have more questions, but I’d already figured it all out, or at least enough to satisfy me. “Did you put the body in a dumpster?” I asked him finally.

“Go to hell,” Olara said through clenched teeth.

I chuckled. It sounded really loud, even to me. “Yeah, you did. There’ll be evidence somewhere.” I explained to him, and to Sally, everything I’d figured out, the way it all fit together, made perfect sense. Singh would see it, too, once I explained it to him. It was all as clear as the skies over Cape City had once been.

“Rachel,” Sally said again, more urgently this time.

“You know, you could have avoided all this,” I said, squatting down beside Olara. I wobbled a bit, then caught my balance. “It all would have gone away, if you’d just coughed up a little money as a reward for a kid who found something and wanted to do the right thing. But no, you were too stupid. Stupid,” I said, and stood up. I hadn’t realized before how unbearably stupid he was. The man was such an idiot, he disgusted me.

“Rachel, sit down on that chair over there,” Sally told me sternly.

I smiled at her. Why was she using her “mom” voice on me? But Sally wasn’t stupid. She was my friend.

“Sit. Down. Now,” she said, and I did, because it seemed like it would make her happy. It was a good thing, too, because as I sat I noticed my legs getting wobbly again.

Singh and some other policemen arrived then, and there was a short period of confusion. I know I explained everything to him very clearly, but it seemed to take him a long time to get it, and he kept looking at Sally with a strange expression on his face. And then I must have been tired from all the excitement and dozed off for a while, because when I woke up it was back to just Sally and me.

I had the worst headache of my life, and my eyes were two burning pits in the front of my head. Sally kept the lights out and made me sip green tea in silence for a while. The only sound was the steady rasp of her breathing.

Then I got the shakes. They lasted a long time.

Then I threw up. More than once. I lost track.

Then we went back to the green tea.

“What the hell happened?” I whispered finally.

“Olara injected you with Level,” Sally said. “Do you remember that?”

I snorted gently, then regretted it when my head gonged. “Yeah, but he didn’t do a very good job of it, or it was a weak batch. I kept thinking it was going to kick in, but it hardly even affected me. Well, except for making me sick.”

She just stared at me for a long moment. “You’re a mind-Leveler, Rachel. The Level affected you, all right. You must have run over here at lightning speed, and you put all the clues together—”she chuckled a little. “And you kicked in my door. Didn’t you realize what was happening?”

I swallowed hard, green tea burning all the way down my throat. My protest died without ever getting out of my mouth. It made perfect sense, in hindsight. Olara had stuck me with the needle, I’d had an initial brief reaction that put me out, and then I’d turned into the classic mind-Leveler. Smarter, faster, stronger. The best damn detective in Cape City.

“You crashed fast, probably because it was the first time,” Sally said. “I could see what was happening right away.”

“Olara?” I managed to ask.

“In custody. Your friend the policeman was confused at first, and you were explaining things too fast, like you were in hyperdrive,” she said with a smile. “But he put it all together in the end. There’s going to be a full investigation into the Ambassador’s death.”

I didn’t know how to feel about that. Suddenly I had a certain amount of sympathy for the late Ambassador.

So I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m a mind-Leveler. Don’t misunderstand me—I never want to touch the stuff again. But I’m haunted by the memory of what it was like to feel that confident. To have an entire messy, complicated problem laid out and see where every part fit, how it all came together. To act on instinct guided by reason and do everything right.

It’s a tempting prospect for a private detective. I just keep telling myself that if I can do it Leveled, I should be able to do it straight. I figured some things out without the drug, after all. That has to count for something.

Seeth and Sally Warren each got a small reward for their part in the case, and I’ve ditched my avatar and hired Sally to be my secretary. She’s a lot better company and the clients like her more. I know more than one who thinks her raspy voice is sexy. And she knows how to deal with the occasional Level-head who wanders in to the office.

And sometimes at night I stare up at the stars and try to recapture that brief moment when going off-world seemed as simple as stepping onto a shuttle. That one...well, that one is the most elusive.

Sherry D. Ramsey (sherrydramsey.com) never expected to become an Internet geek. However, after publishing a web magazine for ten years, creating websites, copyediting for the Internet Review of Science Fiction, networking with writer’s groups online, and becoming part of a writing community in Second Life, she fears it’s an inevitable conclusion. Her stories have appeared in On Spec, Oceans of the Mind, Neo-opsis, Speculative Realms, Undercurrents, and elsewhere. Sherry is a member of the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia and SF Canada, and a founding editor of Third Person Press.