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The entire time Kirke was docking her ship into the landing port at the Tocrat space station, all the while she was ensuring proper landing protocols, unbuckling her seatbelt, and adjusting her uniform, the whole walk from her pilot’s cabin to the entryway, past the security inspection and down the hall of the space station, she felt the lump of nerves in her throat, more prominently than ever before.

This was it, she knew; the case that would make or break her career. There was no room for uncertainty or fear or self-doubt. And yet something didn’t feel quite right.

If she were being honest with herself, things hadn’t felt right from the very beginning. From the first call she’d taken, the initial conversation she’d had with the officers who had passed the case to her, something had seemed off. Maybe it was the demeanor or the tone of the officers she’d spoken to; maybe it was something about the strange details of the case. Maybe it was the posture of the security guards who checked her into the space station and led her to the commander’s office, their demeanor in addressing her—too formal, too precise, as if making some kind of point about it.

It was, at least, a well-maintained station, all cool colors and shiny metallics, spectacularly clean and designed along simple, austere lines. Kirke, who had grown up planetside, didn’t bother hiding her interest as the guards walked her from the shuttle bay to Commander Appleby’s office; she took in the curving hallways, the screens embedded in the walls, the wide windows staring into the soft, yawning blackness of space. And looming close by, the shape of Calgia, the planet the station was here to study—rust-colored and stormy and strange, and oddly beautiful in a distant, unfamiliar way.

The twists and turns of the hallways had long since eroded the limits of Kirke’s meager directional ability when they reached the office labeled as the commander’s. She watched as the guards keyed in the passcode to open the doors, then announced her in low, formal tones, standing at attention as Kirke entered, the commander getting to his feet behind his desk.

He was a short man, barely taller than Kirke herself, but broadly built and with the presence of personality that sometimes followed great authority. “Miss Griffin,” he said, gesturing to the chair opposite him. “Welcome. I’m glad you’ve come to give us a hand with this problem.”

Kirke blinked, taken aback by this reception. “Detective Griffin,” she corrected him, her tone mild, though she wanted to make it sharper. She was in her uniform; her insignia was prominently displayed at her collar. Using her title should have been second nature.

The commander nodded, a little smile on his face. “Detective Griffin,” he repeated, his tone almost indulgent. “Very well. We do appreciate your help in this matter very much; your work’s come with high praise, for someone of your background.”

Kirke wanted to let her jaw drop, but she nodded placidly instead. The degree of condescension in his tone was appalling, and quite frankly in no way deserved. She had been top of her class in the academy, and she was the second most decorated detective of her planet’s precinct, which meant she was among the top ten most decorated in their entire system. No small feat.

Maybe this was what had felt strange to her the whole time. The deliberate formality everyone had directed towards her, the tone the commander was using now. It had all seemed strange, artificial—maybe it had been because they hadn’t meant it. Everyone Kirke had spoken to so far regarding the case had been human—and male, she realized. The former wasn’t so unusual, but the latter was.

She had known, she supposed, in a distant sort of way, that attitudes like this were still in the universe. Stars, her own planet still had the occasional brush-up with non-humanoids, their differing appearances and needs. It shouldn’t be so surprising that elsewhere in the galaxy, people would examine differences in humans and find one group wanting. But she still hadn’t expected to ever face it herself.

“I’ve received the files from the previous investigations,” she said, forcing herself to move the conversation forward as she retrieved her tablet from her uniform pocket. She could do this; she was a professional. Dalls’s third precinct’s second most decorated, she told herself. Her career was riding on this case. “So I’m familiar with the situation. But I’d appreciate it if you could summarize it for me, to the best of your knowledge.”

She knew, as she was saying it, that though she couldn’t resist that last clause as a bit of a slap in the face, the commander would hear her asking for information on the case and interpret it as incompetence. That she was used to; when she’d started her training, her small stature and lack of considerable physical strength had made her easy to underestimate. It hadn’t lasted long, but it had fueled a desire to prove herself, those first few years at the academy. Possible that it had never quite gone away.

But she liked to ask people to relate to her the facts of the case as they understood them, no matter how much information she had. It was useful to hear the situation explained through the perception of someone involved; it was important to see what they thought most worth noting, to hear their retellings of events, what they emphasized and what they skipped over. Especially when the person involved with the case seemed so unpleasant to begin with.

Commander Appleby nodded, sitting back in the chair, clasping his hands over his stomach. “Well, as you know, this station has been settled over the newly discovered planet Calgia for the last two standard years. We’ve been investigating its resources and potential habitability, and as of now we’ve still been unable to determine whether it’s safe to set foot on its surface.

“As such, we’ve been very clear about the rules for the personnel on this station. No one is to attempt to land on Calgia. No one is to conduct their own research of Calgia. No one is to so much as send an unauthorized satellite to orbit the planet and take pictures without the proper documentation. And as you can imagine, we have been very strict in upholding these rules.”

“However…” Here he paused, taking a deep breath. Kirke knew she shouldn’t sympathize with lawbreakers, but she found herself a little pleased that whatever they had done wrong, people who had put that expression on Commander Appleby’s face existed.

“We have… evidence… that some of our research astronauts have been disobeying orders and visiting the surface of the planet.”

Kirke had been sketching notes onto the tablet with her stylus, mostly as a matter of course; she tended to take down impressions of the people speaking rather than what they were actually saying, and she’d just noted Commander Appleby’s frustration, the tight hold on his temper. “And what evidence would that be?” she asked, tone brisk.

“The station is fully stocked with custom space suits for every member of the crew,” the commander explained. “This is standard practice, even if no exploration has been authorized; it’s a failsafe, should the worst occur and evacuation is mandated. The suits belonging to the twelve astronauts in question have been consistently stained in ways that would line up with unauthorized exploration of the planet.”

Kirke knew all of this, of course, but she still found the details of the case fascinating; she didn’t mind rehashing them. “What sort of staining?”

“The bottoms of the feet,” the commander replied. “And some along the sides as well. There’s dust and dirt of the shade that we would expect Calgia’s to be, and laboratory analysis has confirmed the composition of the materials to be that which we have hypothesized to be found on Calgia. Debris of similar appearance and composition does not exist anywhere else on this station, nor are there any similar planets in the vicinity of the station.”

“But you can’t absolutely confirm that the twelve astronauts in question have been traveling to the surface of the planet?”

The commander’s mouth tightened, clearly unhappy at being reminded of this. “Security footage shows no unauthorized activity in the station,” he admitted reluctantly, “nor in the research shuttles. The logs don’t account for any travel off the station. But the fact remains that the morning after the suits have been cleaned, they are stained anew. Something must be going on.”

Kirke tapped her stylus idly against the edge of her tablet—or, with all appearance of idleness. She never did anything less than deliberately, especially not when gathering information on a case. “But apart from the debris on the spacesuits,” she said, after a moment’s pause, “there is no evidence that the astronauts have broken the station’s rules.”

The commander gritted his teeth; Kirke had to suppress a smile at the visible gesture of annoyance. He wasn’t very good at this. “It is evidence enough,” he ground out. “No other source for the debris is possible. Surely your notes have indicated as much.”

They had, but Kirke had to confirm it. “And the astronauts themselves deny it,” she said, something else she knew, because she wanted to watch the commander’s temper descend even further.

She wasn’t disappointed. “Under questioning from us as well as the prior detectives we’ve placed in charge of this case,” he confirmed with a tight nod. “And yet it keeps happening. We have no explanations. But we’ll keep trying.” His tone was grim as he added, “We’re going to get to the bottom of this, Miss Griffin. Whatever it takes.”

“Detective Griffin,” she corrected him, calmly, again. He gave another little nod, but didn’t correct himself this time, looking too preoccupied with the idea of getting to the bottom of the case.

Kirke had to admit it was intriguing, to say the least. She had been over the facts over and over again, and she had several potential ideas for leads—but she couldn’t help but wonder if they would pan out, given that they all seemed fairly obvious to her, so surely they must have been asked by the prior detectives, too. She would have to go over her notes again, ensure that there hadn’t been anything she’d missed.

She did have one more question for the commander now, though. “Certainly if rules are being broken and station regulations flouted,” she said, calmly, “those doing so should be punished. But I have to ask—if you have reason to believe that astronauts are reaching the surface of the planet and returning without serious consequence, might the protocol regarding planetary exploration of Calgia be revised?”

Commander Appleby looked at her as if seeing her for the first time—all trace of condescension or indulgence dropping from his demeanor. For a moment, Kirke could see the deadly seriousness of a man in charge of the equivalent of a small country, who carried lives and futures in his hands.

“I would like nothing better,” he said, and his voice was low and grave. “It tears at me every day that we are parked so close to a new planet which we cannot visit—about which we cannot learn more. But unfortunately, when the three prior detectives assigned to this case attempted to land on Calgia’s surface, to see if the astronauts were indeed doing so without permission, they died a matter of hours later.”

Kirke felt every hair on her body stand on end; for a moment, she couldn’t speak. “They—” she said, then stopped, clearing her throat, scrambling to recover some semblance of her professional demeanor past the horror flooding her veins. “I knew they had died, of course, but—it isn’t public knowledge that Calgia was the cause.”

“We haven’t publicized it,” the commander said brusquely. “We aren’t ready to have the planet declared too dangerous for exploration yet; we want to chance to expand our research and detect the exact reasons for it, if that is indeed the case. But every time, it was exactly the same. They traveled to the surface at the station’s night, to track the astronauts, and in the morning we were unable to wake them. Some sort of paralysis, the specifics of which we were unable to determine—and they died within an hour after they were discovered. Their shuttles were logged as having landed on the planet, and we found the same red debris on their suits as we did on the astronauts’.”

Kirke was silent, trying to process this new information. So the other detectives had tried to follow the astronauts—and had produced no evidence, and lost their lives in the process. It seemed too fantastical, too awful to be true.

“So you see,” the commander continued, steepling his fingers, “the problem goes beyond simple rule-breaking—though of course, as you said, we must punish that in and of itself. But if these astronauts have, in the process of flouting station decrees, discovered a way to survive a potentially inhospitable planet… and are withholding this information…”

He let the words linger in the air for a moment, as if to impress upon Kirke the seriousness of an action like this. As if she would need it; as if she hadn’t realized it right away.

“Well,” he said at length, “that’s a much more serious problem altogether. So you understand, Detective Griffin, exactly why we’re hoping you’ll be the one to solve this case once and for all.”

If he hadn’t already tried so hard to make the gravity of the problem clear, Kirke thought, the fact that he had remembered to address her by her title was evidence enough for her.

 

After that set of revelations, Kirke didn’t really have much else to ask the commander, so she murmured her agreement, he wished her luck, and the security guards escorted her out and towards the quarters where she would be staying—in the visitor’s wing, she noted, slightly more luxurious accommodations that she would have expected (though “luxurious” was overstating any of the amenities on a working station like this) for a police officer. Another indication of how they viewed her status, she supposed—a guest rather than employee. An ostensible mark of respect rather than the indulgence it was meant to be.

No matter—she could work just as easily in larger quarters, on a softer bed, with slightly more expensive fittings and a more advanced computer. She knew her place; she wasn’t going to let anyone else define it for her.

She changed out of her uniform, which had begun to feel a little grimy after a full day of travel, into more casual clothing, letting her hair down and unpacking her small bag (a second clean uniform, her own computer, another set of casual clothing, and a small bag of toiletries; she never needed too much, when on a case), before sitting down at the screen to call her mother.

She looked a little better today, Kirke noticed with relief; she must have gotten a good night’s sleep, or the new medication was working. Still, she was pale beneath the light brown tone of her skin, the shadows under her eyes bruiselike, and she looked so fragile in the hospital bed. Kirke’s heart gave a pang at the sight of her, as it always did.

“I’m glad you arrived safely, sweetheart,” her mother murmured, in that low, slightly hoarse voice that the illness hadn’t changed. “How’s the station?”

“Big,” Kirke said emphatically, making her mother laugh. “More complex than any I’ve been to before. But they’re a working station, so of course the tech is a little more excessive than what I’m used to.”

So she regaled her mother with the details of the station, what she had studied in advance and what she had observed. She always told her mother as much about her cases as she could; she was so proud of Kirke, had been since her daughter was first accepted into the academy. She had always loved hearing details about what Kirke was doing, and never more than since she’d become sick; it was her way of experiencing the world while she was confined to a hospital bed. There was so much Kirke wasn’t allowed to tell her (especially in a situation as complicated and serious as this one), so she collected as many details as she was able from everything that she could. It made her feel closer to the mother she couldn’t see nearly as often as she wanted to—the mother for whom she wanted to succeed, to make her proud, to make her well again.

It had been years of back and forth, getting better only to get worse again. Kirke knew she should probably have given up on hope long ago, but she could never quite manage. Her mother was all she had left. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to increase the chances of getting her well. Getting her home again.

“What about the case?” her mother asked, as she always did, though she knew there was only so much information Kirke could ever give her. “Do you think you’ll be the one to solve it?”

Kirke smiled faintly. She wouldn’t have been surprised to know that her conversations were being monitored, so she wanted to be careful with how she responded. Confident without being arrogant; inspiring forward momentum without revealing too much. “I don’t know yet,” she said—simple, honest. “But I’m certainly going to try.”

 

There was no sense in getting any more work done that evening, so Kirke spent it settling in instead: checking her mail, sorting her belongings, going over her notes again and again. Her mind was already trying to leap to conclusions, investigate connections she wasn’t sure anyone else had thought of—but she knew that wasn’t productive, not yet. First, she had to ensure that she gathered all the information she could on her own.

First, she had to interrogate the astronauts.

The morning after her arrival on Tocrat, Kirke woke early, knowing that once she’d eaten, the astronauts would be waiting for her in interrogation cells. The police component of the station had expanded considerably since the start of this case, which had dragged on for nearly a standard year; having gone through three separate rounds of interrogations by now, each astronaut had their own cell, where they had been waiting since the last time their suits has been discovered stained and Kirke had been hired to take on the case.

She thanked the woman who brought her breakfast (dressed in a staff uniform, simpler and less ornate than those of the security officers), the first other woman she’d seen on the station. She ate quickly, dressed more quickly, and cleaned up after herself—making her bed, stacking her dishes, wiping down her desk. She’d grown up taking care of her own living space, and it never sat well with her to leave a mess for station staff to take care of.

The commander was waiting for her at the entrance to the police complex, and Kirke gave him a tight little nod of greeting. There was no real need for him to be here; she knew the files inside and out, and she knew how to conduct an interrogation. She hoped he wouldn’t try to stay for the interrogations themselves—she couldn’t allow that, and it would result in a confrontation she wasn’t ready to have.

“Just wanted to make sure you got settled in here, Detective,” he said genially, and Kirke nodded again, not trusting herself to speak without sounding irritated. “Let me show you around the complex.”

It was a fairly straightforward arrangement of rooms: an office, a conference room, an evidence locker, two holding cells, and twelve interrogation chambers (most of which had clearly been hastily assembled as additions to the complex, given that no one had expected twelve different prisoners to be held at once). The commander explained the purpose of each area to Kirke in the simplest of terms, and she stayed quiet, bobbing her head in acknowledgment, to avoid saying anything out of turn.

“Thank you, sir,” she said at length, as they reached the interrogation chambers. “I appreciate your introduction. I believe I’ll be able to take it from here.”

The commander smiled indulgently; Kirke gritted her teeth. “I’m sure you can,” he said, in a tone a little too hearty to inspire real confidence. “But let me give you an introduction to the astronauts in the cells. Just so you can place names to faces and know what their responsibilities have been.”

Incredible, Kirke thought. “I have been looking at the case files for quite some time, commander,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice level. “I believe I’m well acquainted with the astronauts already.”

The commander put his hand on Kirke’s shoulder (she tried not to flinch), steering her towards the first cell. “No matter,” he said briskly. “It’ll help you to hear from someone who’s actually interacted with them.”

 

The first interrogation Kirke conducted was of the head researcher on the team.

The commander had warned her that this one would be the hardest. “Eva Rodriguez is the most arrogant woman I’ve ever met,” he had said, shaking his head. “She’s responsible for the oversight of the research team, and if anyone knows the secrets this group has been hiding, it’s her. You won’t get anything out of her—no one’s been able to—but try to keep your temper. She’ll be unbearably smug if she gets you to snap.”

Eva Rodriguez was roughly Kirke’s own age, if considerably taller, and everything about her polished image seemed to be of a woman who took herself and everything around her very seriously. Rather than arrogance, her posture spoke of confidence to Kirke, the neatly pressed uniform and smoothly slicked back bun, not a single wrinkle or hair out of place, almost a mirror to Kirke’s own spotless appearance.

If she really was the officer in charge of the team, who was in all likelihood responsible for whatever unauthorized expedition had occurred—including the fully preventable deaths of three men—she must have possessed a degree of manipulative callousness Kirke had never seen before. She had no business feeling any sympathy or solidarity with this woman.

“Good morning, Officer Rodriguez,” she said, her tone brisk as she seated herself in the chair opposite her. There was a clear forcefield deployed in the middle of the table that would prevent any prisoners from making contact with the detectives; they were also handcuffed to the table, just in case anything went wrong. Despite the obvious discomfort involved, Rodriguez’s back was straight, her posture easy. “I hope the hour isn’t too early for you.”

Rodriguez raised a single eyebrow, the rest of her face expressionless, the rest of her body motionless. “Seriously?” she said after a moment, her voice lower and smoother than Kirke had expected. “He’s sending in women in uniform now? Is this meant to be some kind of sympathy ploy?”

Well. Kirke had been prepared for hostility—much as she wanted to take the commander’s words with a grain of salt, or several, she knew she had to treat them as if they might be the truth—but the direction of it was a surprise. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” she murmured, setting her tablet on the table in a gesture that would highlight the bars at the collar of her uniform, evidence of her rank.

Rodriguez leaned back a little further in the chair, expression shifting into a distinct smirk, posture turning almost combative. “It’s all right,” she said, tone amicable. “You can admit it. Where did he find you?” When Kirke didn’t respond, she rolled her eyes and added, “He put a woman in a uniform for interrogation purposes in hopes that—you know—we would bond. It’s not a man who’s in his pocket, it’s one of us. A sister.” Her tone was sharper now, overtly mocking. “You can tell him it’s not going to work. I have no intention of talking to you.”

Kirke mirrored her arched eyebrow, reflecting with amusement that this speech had probably revealed more than the woman had intended. “So can I assume what you’ve been doing so far—that was just for the pleasure of hearing your own voice?”

Rodriguez snorted as she shifted forward in the chair again. “I just want you to know where things stand. You’re not getting anything out of any of us. There’s nothing you can offer. No inducements, no punishments. Whatever tactic you’re aiming for—it’s not going to work.”

“You sound like someone who has something to hide,” Kirke said, very softly. “Do you realize that? You’re telling me I’m not going to learn anything from you—not that you have nothing to say.”

“I do have nothing to say,” Rodriguez snapped, giving an instinctive jerking motion that tugged on the chains of her cuffs; glancing down with a scowl, her expression was stony when she looked back up at Kirke. “Whatever he’s offered you—it wasn’t worth it. You’re wasting your time with us.”

Kirke tilted her head, slowly, studying the woman. The lines of her expression were tense, unmoving. She looked furious, but she also looked absolutely, utterly closed off. Kirke was a good detective, and part of the reason she’d come so far was her insight into people even shortly after meeting them, her ability to read body language and microexpressions. And part of that was knowing when to back down, when someone couldn’t be broken. She would get what she could now, and she would come back and try again later.

For now, though, “All right,” Kirke said, easily, sitting up and grabbing the tablet, as if moving to leave. “I should tell you, though, that I’m a detective from Dalls. I’m the new investigator for this case. I would have thought they would tell you that?”

Rodriguez arched her eyebrow again. Kirke was a little impressed by how seamless and eloquent she made it—she had a military background, so she was likely used to staring people down. “A female detective?” she asked, tone dubious. “On Tocrat? Not likely.”

“Believe what you’d like,” Kirke said, getting to her feet. “But know I’ll be back. And I hope our second conversation will be more productive than this.”

She was nearly to the cell door when Rodriguez spoke again. “Hang on.”

Kirke turned, slow and deliberate and expressionless. “Yes, Officer?”

Rodriguez was studying her, dubious. “You’re a detective? A ranked detective, from a planet in our system.” Kirke dipped her head in a little nod, and Rodriguez’s eyes narrowed. “What was your score on the academy exam?”

“Two hundred higher than yours,” Kirke said, the words deliberately provocative. The entry exams for the police and the military weren’t identical, but they were close enough for there to be a sense of competition, and this particular statistic had stuck in Kirke’s mind as potential leverage. “Though you did outscore me on the physical components alone. Unfortunately for you, that isn’t all that matters.”

A scowl flashed across Rodriguez’s face—briefly enough that she recovered her control quickly, but not so quickly that Kirke couldn’t see it. She suppressed a smile. “Fine,” she said, shortly. “Maybe you’re legit. But it doesn’t matter. You still aren’t going to learn anything.” She leaned in, her tone low and deliberate. “We have nothing to say to you.”

Kirke held her gaze for a moment, briefly taken aback by the intensity of her expression and her tone. She seemed to be warning Kirke away from the subject—to try to declare it closed. But the tone was strange, and the way her gaze was fixed on Kirke… well, she hadn’t come this far by not following her instincts, and something about this seemed off.

“I’ll speak to you again soon, Officer Rodriguez,” she said at length, her tone soft, and she turned away to close the door and exit the cell.

She was surprised to feel a little unsettled by the interaction, which hardly boded well for the rest of the interrogations, so she took a moment to gather herself (the commander, fortunately, hadn’t followed, so she was alone in the complex). She tried to pin down what it had been in Rodriguez’s expression, what it was that had seemed off to her. Because of course she would have wanted to warn Kirke away from the subject; if she was guilty, she would want to matter closed to further investigation.

And it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be guilty.

She was halfway to the next interrogation when it clicked for her: the warning hadn’t seemed aggressive. It had seemed protective. Like Rodriguez had been telling Kirke not to dig further for her own sake.

It didn’t make sense, but that was what Kirke’s instincts told her. Well—that had to have been manufactured, she told herself. Why should a nearly convicted criminal care about the potential safety of the detective hired to confirm her guilt? What could be happening in this case from which Kirke might need protecting? What reason could there be for any other explanation?

Kirke didn’t know—she didn’t have anything even remotely resembling an answer at this point—but she had the uneasy feeling that for the rest of the day, she would be on the lookout to find one.

 

The next person she spoke to was the pilot, who wasn’t technically a member of the astronauts’ research team, but who had been deemed the most likely to be involved in actually transporting them to the planet.

“Merryn Schulte is a junior shuttle specialist from the station,” the commander had said, his sneering disregard for the actions of the pilot obvious. “No prior connection to the astronauts—no reason she would need to be involved. But none of the others have experience piloting a research shuttle, and her suits have been stained just the same as theirs.”

Kirke had reasoned that interrogating the woman who might have the least connection to the others first, after their leader, would be a good move—to get to the person who might be the easiest to crack while she was still fresh. Though when she saw Merryn Schulte, it was hard to imagine getting her to crack without feeling immensely guilty about it.

The woman—barely no longer a girl, and Kirke had known she was young from the files, of course, but in person she looked like an even younger teenager than she was—was short, even smaller than Kirke, and thin, with round eyes and a messy chop of vividly red hair. The sprinkling of freckles across her face stood out dramatically against the nearly-white paleness of her skin; she looked uncomfortable and terrified, and Kirke found herself uneasy.

“Hello, Officer Schulte,” she said, and she found herself gentling her tone just a little. Possibly the wrong move—the pilot’s unease could be an act—but she had never found herself capable of true cruelty, except to those she was certain fully deserved it. She was far from convinced that this young woman was one of them. “My name is Detective Griffin. I’m the new lead on this investigation.”

Schulte was actually shaking as she leaned in, just a little, her voice high and quavering. “Please—I can’t do this again. Don’t make me. This has gone on for—for so long. I didn’t do anything. Please, please let me go.”

Was it her past experience, her interactions with the commander, or her conversation (she could hardly have called that an interrogation) with Rodriguez that made Kirke wonder if Schulte had appealed like this to the previous male detectives? It depended, she supposed, on whether her fear was genuine or not. “I’m not responsible for your confinement,” she said, letting her voice gentle a little more. In this case, the appearance of sympathy might work in her favor. “I just want to talk to you about what happened. The unauthorized shuttle launches.”

“They didn’t happen,” Schulte said, earnest, her eyes huge. “None of it did. All the things they’ve said—we didn’t do them. We said that to the other detectives. Didn’t they tell you that?”

She seemed so genuinely terrified, it was difficult for Kirke to retain her composure. “They did,” she said, her voice still soft, level. “I know what you’ve told the others. But I also know that your suits have still been getting dirty. Red dust and debris all along the feet.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Schulte exclaimed, shaking her head before Kirke was even finished talking. “I don’t. Please—you’ve seen the security logs, haven’t you? The footage, the cameras? There’s no real evidence. None. You have to let me out of here. I can’t do this again.”

Several things to unpack there, Kirke thought. Regardless of how genuine the emotion was—still hard to gauge—she was more composed in her language than people usually were when scared or desperate. Like she was reading a script. But that didn’t necessarily mean that she was lying, or that she was guilty; she could have been coerced by the others, or prepared her own set of words to cling to. And it did make her wonder if Schulte had been mistreated in her captivity; something about the words made Kirke think that something else was going on, something she would want to investigate.

“It’s going to be all right, Officer,” Kirke said, as reassuringly as she could. “I just need you to tell me the truth.”

“I am,” Schulte insisted, and then burst into hysterical tears.

 

The other ten astronauts on the research team were paired based on their roles: two biologists, two physicists, two chemists, two geologists, and two engineers. It didn’t much matter, Kirke thought, in what order she interrogated them—and at the end of the day, she still stood by that opinion, because she had learned next to nothing new at all.

Oh, she had been able to speak to each of the astronauts without issue. None of them had cried, and none of them had stonewalled her quite as thoroughly as Rodriguez. But it was clear that neither of them had any inclination of cracking, providing any glimmer of information that she could exploit, any sliver in their defenses that she could wiggle under, any thread that she could pull. She had conducted her fair share of interrogations, in her day, and she had never seen a group of people so clearly determined to stymie the forward momentum of a case.

“Talia Corwin and Sveva Reinder are the biologists,” the commander had said. “Both of them more comfortable with a book than with conversation. Get them started on their research and they’ll talk forever, regardless if anyone’s actually listening.” And despite the derision in the commander’s voice, it had been useful advice, and Kirke had taken it.

“Tell me about your work,” she said to Corwin after she’d introduced herself, getting the impression of a reserved but intelligent woman, tall, thin, almost regal of bearing, with pale skin and long dark hair. “What have you learned during your tenure aboard the Tocrat?”

Corwin arched an eyebrow, visibly dubious. A professorial demeanor, Kirke thought. The sort of person who could command a room, to whom people listened when she spoke. “Why?” she asked, blunt.

Kirke barely managed to stifle a smile. Nothing about these women was what she had expected. “I’m curious,” she said, her tone bland. “I don’t have access to your findings or your research; I just know the facts of the case. It doesn’t give me a full picture of what’s been happening on this station.”

This wasn’t entirely true; Kirke did have some of the reports that the scientists had presented to the station, summaries of their findings that they had considered important or routine reports. While she didn’t have access to the notes or findings themselves, she knew that all of them had contained the analyses that had informed the station’s determination of Calgia as uninhabitable, too dangerous to even send a manned mission to.

If these findings were correct—as the deaths of the detectives who had investigated the case would seem to indicate—it meant that in all likelihood, the astronauts had discovered some way of surviving on Calgia’s surface, and had chosen to keep it a secret. If they had been falsified, they were not only lying to the government, but had also, in all likelihood, murdered three men to keep their secret.

Either way, it was a grave crime, and it was Kirke’s job to figure out exactly what it was they had done wrong.

“Are you a biologist?” Corwin asked after a moment, her tone neutral. “Much of the information is likely to be too technical for someone outside of the field to understand.”

Kirke spread her hands. “Give me the layman’s version. Dumb it down as much as you can bear.”

Corwin looked at her for a moment, openly dubious, then shrugged. “All right. What you should know about Calgia going in is its similarities, as far as we’ve observed, to many of the other planets in the unexplored Byrd system—”

Reinder, on the other hand, was more eager to talk about her work. She was a little younger than Corwin, with thick-rimmed, brightly colored glasses and wildly frizzy hair that even days in the cells didn’t seem to have tamed. Her demeanor, too, seemed a little cheerier than the situation would have warranted. She greeted Kirke warmly and engaged her in conversation easily; she seemed only too happy to regale Kirke with all of the details about her work, often in much more technical detail than Corwin, who had been better at scaling it down to Kirke’s understanding.

Still, she’d been able to pick up the relevant details of their research. Given the composition of the soil and the atmosphere, Calgia seemed to be most similar to the planets in one of the closest unexplored systems—and those planets were unexplored for a reason. An inhospitable atmosphere that created the appearance of a swirling, opaque surface—a surface pitted and dust-covered and completely empty of any signs of life. Corwin and Reinder’s conclusions had been very clear: there was no sign that the air had ever been breathable by any sort of corporeal life form, or that water or other liquids had ever flowed on the surface. Highly unlikely that any life had ever existed, and even less likely that the planet could support any in the future.

These findings were supplemented by the other scientists, all of whom worked together closely, given the overlap of the applicability of their fields. The geologists had contributed to analyzing the soil, from the few unmanned robots that had been able to take pictures past the storms in atmosphere. This work was, of course, of special interest to Kirke, given that this was supposedly the soil that had clung to the soles of the astronauts’ suits. If that were true, they would have contributed to the research that had damned them. That couldn’t be a comfortable feeling.

“The geologists are the worst of the group,” the commander had said, shaking his head. “More humorless women you won’t ever meet. Dull as rocks, if you will,” he’d added, chuckling at his own joke. “Britt Cody and Reilly Sternberg; you’ll find it hard to tell them apart. Large, solid, boring. They’ve been the hardest to talk to for prior detectives.”

Kirke had to admit that by the time she reached the geologists, her expectations were fairly low; she’d had the frustrating encounters with Rodriguez and Schulte fresh in her mind, and she was still trying to wrap her mind around the things she’d learned from Corwin and Reinder. But even to her distracted, strained mind, she found that she could easily tell the difference between the two of them.

Both women were tough-looking, true, and both had presented blank faces to Kirke’s interrogation. But Cody was short and lean with wiry muscle, closely cropped dark hair and bold features; Sternberg was large, solidly built, with a ruddy complexion and a shaggy fringe of pale blonde hair. She seemed more stoic, terse with her words, whereas Cody’s silence seemed more like reticence, a deliberate insouciance.

Neither of them seemed like the type of person who would be scientists, let alone ones who held important roles on a station investigating a new planet. It took Kirke minutes of conversation to even get information out of them regarding their research, let along the implications of it.

“Why do you care?” Cody asked when Kirke posed the same question to her as she had the biologists. She had a snappy way of talking, biting off the vowels, the words seeming to have spikes attached to them.

“Curious,” Kirke said, just as she had to Corwin, spreading her hands. “Many of the facts of this case appear to revolve around your work. I think understanding it better will enable me to—”

“Why should I help you understand the case better?” Cody demanded again, her words edged. “You’re trying to put me in prison. I’m not going to tell you anything that’s going to contribute to that.”

Kirke carefully kept her expression blank. “I’m not trying to put you in prison,” she said, her voice even. “I’m trying to discover what the facts of the case are. If they lead to your innocence, that’s what my report will indicate. I’m not going to put twelve women who did nothing wrong in prison.”

Cody gave her a long, considering look from beneath dark brows, as if something about this statement was deeply dubious. “My findings on Calgia,” she said at length, slowly, and with obvious reluctance, she told Kirke.

Sternberg, meanwhile, had simply shrugged when Kirke asked her about her research. “Station has my notes,” she said, her voice a low rumble, her arms crossed across her chest as best as she could, given the cuffs. “You can see them there.”

“The station has a summary of your findings,” Kirke said, nodding. “The reports you’ve provided. I’ve seen those. But the debris from Calgia’s surface is at the key of this case, and your research has helped inform the knowledge about how to identify it and why it might be harmful to anyone landing on the planet. The more informed I am, the more accurately I can evaluate the facts of the case.”

Sternberg looked at her for a long moment, expression baleful. Kirke was becoming used to this hesitation by now; she thought that there could be any number of reasons behind it. Trying to judge what to make of her—how much they could say, how honest they could be. Trying to calculate if she had an angle of her own. Trying to gauge whether she would believe their protestations of innocence (not that the biologists or geologists had bothered, but that was also likely because she hadn’t asked). It was impossible to know for sure, but Kirke thought it was interesting that so many of them had done it.

From Cody and Sternberg, Kirke learned that Calgia’s surface appeared solid enough to support weight, covered with soil similar to the dirt on terraformed planets, only looser, liable to release a dust-like debris with every movement (this, Kirke gathered, was what had collected on the suits; when she asked for more specifics, both Cody and Sternberg had gone blank-faced, stoically repeating that this was what the station’s laboratory findings had returned, without either confirming or denying it themselves). This debris was hypothesized to contain a particular element that had only been observed on several other planets in the Byrd system, all of which had also been deemed uninhabitable. In concert with the chemists, they had synthesized samples of the soil and isolated an aspect that seemed potentially problematic—unable to sustain life and possibly poisonous to inhale, although of course it was impossible to know for certain.

“So how is it possible to determine that something is toxic if no one has been able to test it?” Kirke asked Thea McDonald, one of the chemists (“very strange woman,” the commander had said, “you can barely hear her when she speaks and she’ll take all day to get to a point if you don’t hurry her along”). She’d deliberately been keeping her questions on a very basic level, the sort of things someone with absolutely no understanding of a subject might ask, both of hopes of hearing better, more thorough answers and with the aim of seeing how each of the scientists dealt with speaking to someone who was a total beginner. She hated appearing incompetent in any form, but she was beginning to think that as far as this case was concerned, it might not be so bad to cultivate that appearance, even if it wasn’t accurate.

McDonald pushed her glasses further up on the bridge of her nose; hers were smaller than Reinder’s, her hair a little less wild but still a short, frizzy cloud, her skin very pale and her eyes very wide. She had an expressive way of speaking, with dramatic facial expressions and gestures as expansive as her cuffs would allow, and she never quite made eye contact with Kirke, which made her seem abstracted; easy to see why the commander might think her very strange.

“The chemical composition is similar to other elements which have been observed to be toxic,” McDonald said—her voice was indeed very soft, and Kirke had to resist the urge to lean in to hear her better, opting instead to stay very still, straining her ears for each word. “We’ve been able to isolate the aspects of the debris that would be especially dangerous, impossible for humans to process.”

“But there haven’t been tests run on the surface itself,” Kirke continued, her expression and tone carefully blank. “So it would be impossible to link—say, the deaths of the prior detectives on this case to setting foot on Calgia and inhaling the debris.”

And McDonald’s expression, too, went blank, as if wiped clean by a cloth. “Correct,” she said, her tone suddenly stiffer. “Impossible to know for sure.”

Kirke asked the same question of the other chemist, Elisa Kumar (“probably the most normal one of the bunch,” Commander Appleby’s voice echoed in her mind, “if anyone’s likely to give you answers, it’s her,”), and she answered in much the same way, though her expression didn’t go as blank as many of the others had. “Of course it can’t be proven—not unless you’re willing to send someone to Calgia to suffer the potentially fatal consequences. Which no one does, for so many reasons. Certain similarities can be hypothesized, and evidence found—but you’re right to say that no one can be positive.”

Elisa Kumar was an attractive woman a couple of years younger than Kirke, with smooth dark skin, sleek black hair, and delicate features. Not quite as attractive as Rodriguez, though, Kirke found herself thinking when she first saw her, and quickly banished that line of thought from her mind. Her manner was friendly, calm, and chatty, as if this was just another day at the office rather than the site of a serious crime; Kirke couldn’t tell if it was a coping strategy or a deflection tactic. For someone who seemed all too willing to talk, Elisa Kumar was surprisingly good at keeping any trace of her actual thoughts off of her face.

“The station’s investigation has claimed with certainty that the deaths of the detectives can be attributed to stepping on Calgia’s surface,” Kirke said baldly, more blunt than she would be with almost anyone else. “In your professional scientific opinion—you would disagree with that?”

Elisa looked thoughtful, taking her time with the question. “I would disagree with certainty when it comes to matters of science,” she said carefully. “The manner of death and the apparent cause could be hypothesized to result from exposure to the soil and the air. The debris on his suit can be hypothesized to include matter from Calgia’s surface. They are solid proposed answers, but they cannot be confirmed as fact at this point in time.”

“So you’re saying that there’s no way to prove for certain that the debris on the suits of yourself and your research team comes from Calgia’s surface,” Kirke murmured, all casual.

Elisa’s dark gaze met hers, placid. “That’s correct,” she said, very softly.

“So would you care to venture an alternate potential explanation?” Kirke asked, weaving her fingers together, not breaking the gaze.

Elisa tipped her head, just a little. Something in her expression had changed, but Kirke couldn’t identify it. “My statement is on the record,” she said, her tone still very soft. “There is no evidence we’ve been to Calgia’s surface. In my research, that generally disproves a hypothesis.”

This, too, was the conclusion of the physicists, one of whom seemed to specialize in planetary gravity and the other in atmosphere. “Irresponsible to think otherwise,” Seema Chaudhry said, her tone chiding. (“Seema Chaudhry is a washed-up old professor,” the commander had said, rolling his eyes. “Stars know why we took her on.”) “These convictions, Detective Griffin, are a sham, and I suspect that you know that. Otherwise you wouldn’t be asking these questions; you’d be leaning on us to confess, as the others did.”

As far as Kirke was concerned, “washed-up” was not an adjective to be applied to this woman; she had a lengthy record of academic success and a competent, if overtly disapproving, manner. She was likely the oldest of the astronauts—Kirke estimated fifties, somewhere around her own mother’s age—short and stout, but with a clear, crisp voice and professional bearing.

“How differently did the previous detectives on this case approach you?” Kirke asked, keeping her voice bland and level. In truth, she was curious; she’d been able to see the prior detectives’ notes on the case and the interrogations, but she didn’t have access to the recordings and transcripts of the interrogations themselves. She wondered if she’d be allowed the same privacy.

Chaudhry sniffed a little, disdain obvious in her expression. “Assumed they knew everything, stormed in ready to convict us without even listening to our explanations. Arrogant fools. You listen to me—” And she rapped the table, once, a decisive, snapping motion. “Here is the truth: there is no evidence we have done anything, for any given night we’ve been at this station, but slept soundly in our beds. The so-called findings they’ve used to drag us in for interrogations four times in a row, now, are nothing more than wild speculation and circumstance. So the elements are similar. So, what will you do about this? No recorded evidence, no shuttle log, no proof. And let me ask you—if the detectives followed us to the surface, how is it that they are dead and we are alive?”

“A very good question,” Kirke murmured, her tone just a little speculative. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to find out, Dr. Chaudhry.”

The other physicist clarified to Kirke the particulars of the poisonous element of the atmosphere. Aisha Kumar was Elisa Kumar’s twin—similarly small and delicately featured, but a little thinner, her features a little less perfectly symmetrical. (She didn’t think it was a coincidence that the commander liked her less than her twin; “strange little thing—I’m sure she only got in due to her sister’s reputation, I doubt she would have qualified on her own.”) She was a little quieter and more reticent, but to Kirke’s untrained ear, she sounded just as intelligent and just as capable.

“But if each astronaut is carrying their own supply of oxygen to breathe,” Kirke asked, expressing a concern that had been growing at the back of her mind, “I don’t understand how the planet’s atmosphere would be a concern. It isn’t as if planets with unbreathable air haven’t been explored before, and to my knowledge that hasn’t been a problem.”

Aisha Kumar nodded, her expression a little tense. Her manner also wasn’t as easy as her sister’s, but she seemed just as willing to talk. “It isn’t something we’ve seen before,” she said quietly. “But it’s never been out of the question that we would one day find elements in an atmosphere that interact with other materials in ways we wouldn’t expect the gaseous elements with which we’re familiar to act. We’ve hypothesized that some property of this particular one allows it to permeate the space suits and we haven’t developed a way in which it could be blocked.”

Haven’t developed it—or, perhaps, had but had kept it a secret, Kirke thought. “So it would be of enormous interest to the station if you had figured out a way to prevent the poisonous element of the atmosphere to be inhaled—since inhaling it would be fatal.”

And like clockwork, Kirke watched as Aisha’s expression closed off, the tension increasing, any trace of chattiness gone. “Yes,” she said, her tone a little stiff. “Extremely so.”

No samples from the surface of Calgia had actually been brought back to the station (save, of course, those remaining on the suits of the dead detectives) because no satellites had been constructed that could survive the descent into the atmosphere long enough to return. It was something in the air, Kirke learned from the engineers who had been making the attempt. Whatever element in the atmosphere that was poisonous to humans was also ruining the material of whatever was sent down.

“And we can’t pollute the surface, whatever it may look like, by sending experimental pieces of metal or plastic down over and over again,” one of the engineers, Veer Douglas, told her. (“Blunt, short-tempered little thing,” the commander had said. “Takes failure very personally, and things since these astronauts have arrived have been nothing but failures.”) “So we haven’t even sent anything down unless we have reason to believe it might survive—and so far, those few attempts have failed, too.”

“So you’ve synthesized the problematic elements of the atmosphere in the lab—or as close as you can get to them,” Kirke said, slowly, making sure she understood. “And so far it’s ruined nearly everything.”

Douglas nodded, tightly. She was small, as the commander had said, with dark skin and short black hair, and expressive features, along with a straightforward manner of speaking. “Which is part of why the station rules have prohibited against exploration. The surface is too dangerous.” She tipped her head and added, her tone slower, more considering, “Which we know better than anyone. We would never take a risk like that.”

Kirke nodded, having expected the conversation to take this turn. The responses from the astronauts seemed to be half preemptive denials and half absolute shutting down, with the more talkative, engaging scientists taking the former approach. “And if you knew how to circumvent the potential risks—there would be no reason for you not to say anything about it.”

Douglas’s dark gaze was direct, incisive. “Of course not,” she said, her tone very cool, and Kirke honestly couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth.

The other engineer, Yan Notaro, was distinctly less chatty; an older woman with thick, grey-streaked black hair and a surprisingly unlined face, her demeanor was one of silent stoicism, her expression placid and her tone level. When asked about the engineering projects and the choices the astronauts had made, she tipped her head, eyes serene, and said simply, “We’re doing our best. The situation, as I’m sure you’re aware, is extremely complicated. There are no easy answers.”

“Hard to get anything even resembling a straight answer out of her,” Kirke heard the commander’s grumble. “That one thinks she’s superior to everyone else on this station. Won some prize or another, but has she made the expected progress here?”

There are no easy answers.

“Dr. Notaro,” Kirke murmured, setting her stylus down and clasping her hands on the table in front of her, “truer words were never spoken.”

 

As Kirke had anticipated, the initial interrogations took most of the day, and the lights signifying evening hours were illuminating the station by the time she returned to her quarters. She held herself together as much as possible until she was able to project the notes she had taken, along with the files on each astronaut, along the wall of her room, all in one place, arranged so that she could see and access each of them all at once, compare and analyze all of them together. And then, seeing the evidence of her first day’s work, she let her posture slump and her head fall into her hands.

It seemed impossible. She had never dealt with a case like this before. She had seen one round of interrogations break true criminals; she had seen people resort to begging, pleading, bargaining for whatever scraps of information they had, after weeks in confinement. The astronauts had been through three full rounds of interrogations by now, in between which they must have spent at least several months in solitary cells. And all of them (save Schulte, though it was even true of her in her own way) had remained unbroken.

There were several possible options for that. They could be innocent, and clinging to that innocence—but Kirke would expect, if that were true, to see some cracks from those other than Schulte. Some indication that they were growing desperate, given their false imprisonment, given the gravity of the charges they were facing. Some sort of stronger explanation for what was happening—a potential explanation for the debris. A reason someone might be framing them. An urgency to their tones or bearings. Anything.

Or they were hiding something. And whether they were guilty of reaching Calgia’s surface unauthorized or if they had in fact never done so, Kirke suspected—given the stoic demeanors, unbreakable facades, and repetition of specific, clearly worded phrases regarding their innocence—that whatever it was they were hiding, they believed it was worth everything. The collusion, the lying, the secrecy, the interrogation and the confinement, the round after round of facing different investigatory teams. Whatever it was that they had to sacrifice, whatever lies they had had to tell, whatever means they went through to protect the secret. Their united fronts, each presented very differently by twelve very different women, showed, to Kirke, the quiet burn of true faith. And that wasn’t something that she was going to be able to break through.

So she was going to have to turn to other options to gather information and try to figure out exactly what it was that they were hiding.

It meant a new approach to the interrogations, and it meant more time than it would if she were just trying to extract the truth about events. She would have to think about this; she would have to think about what to report back to the commander. Kirke hadn’t quite put it in so many words to herself before this, but the truth was that she wasn’t sure she trusted him.

She had pegged him, from their first meeting, as sort of man who would withhold information from someone he didn’t think was capable of doing the right thing with it, a man who would do exactly what he pleased based on his perceptions of people rather than who they actually were. So maybe it was that—maybe it was his condescending approach to her position. Maybe it was the fact that the only women he employed, astronauts aside, were as service staff to the station; maybe it was the attitudes of the astronauts during the interrogation, the impression she’d gotten that prior approaches had been less than gentle. Rodriguez’s sneering, combative nature came to mind, the instinctual distrust of detectives likely engendered by prior handling of the case. Whatever it had been, Kirke didn’t know for sure if it had been sanctioned by the commander… but in a best case scenario, it would mean that he’d turned a blind eye to the situation. That didn’t sit well with her at all.

She rubbed a hand over her face, leaning back. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that she was placing the impressions she’d gotten from twelve nearly-convicted criminals over those of a man in charge of a research station, a position he must have received for a reason. It made her uneasy, and it made her wonder if she might have misstepped, if her approach was going to be, dangerously, all wrong as a result. But on the other hand, she could also think of it as taking the impressions of ten highly ranked research scientists, and their associates, over an entrenched bureaucrat. She didn’t know if that framing was any more accurate, but it did remind her that there was always another way to look at things, and that trusting her instincts had never steered her wrong. It just remained to be seen where, in this particular case, they might lead her. Or to whom.

The knock at her door startled Kirke out of her thoughts, and she rose to answer it. One of the station’s housekeeping staff—her name badge read Tobin—was standing at the door, a short, pale-skinned, neatly pressed woman with a slightly drawn face, holding a tray of food. “Detective,” she said, bobbing her head in a gesture of respect, extending the tray. “Your dinner. And since you stated housekeeping services wouldn’t be necessary for your quarters, I wanted to check to see if there was anything you needed before the station’s night hours begin. Anything organized, anything restocked, any additional food—”

“I’m fine,” Kirke interrupted as she took the tray, giving her a little smile. Her sympathies were always with the station staff; police complexes tended to make do with only the most minimal of custodial surfaces, part of the discipline and training meaning that recruits learned how to clean up after themselves and others. “I don’t tend to require a lot. But thank you very much—I appreciate the consideration.”

Tobin looked a little startled, but bobbed her head again. “Of course,” she murmured, still looking a little unsure as she lingered at Kirke’s door. “If there’s anything else you need in the meantime, Detective—”

“Yes, actually,” Kirke said, inspiration occurring to her as she sat the tray down at her desk. “Is there any means by which I could provide some credits as a tip directly to the entire staff every day? I don’t know how long I’ll be stationed here, otherwise I’d make it a lump sum.”

Tobin looked startled, her eyes round in her anxious face. “A tip?” she echoed uncertainly. “But—housekeeping isn’t taking care of your quarters. Would—would you like us to?”

“No,” Kirke said patiently. “I’m perfectly fine cleaning up after myself. I’d also offer to retrieve my own meals, but in all honesty I might just forget to eat if someone else didn’t remind me.” She smiled, faint and wry, inviting Tobin to share in the joke, but the woman looked too confused to do so. “I just mean—the staff works hard. And you are still bringing me my meals and taking care of areas of the station I’m using. I’d like to offer something in exchange.”

Tobin stared at her for a moment longer, long enough that Kirke was beginning to wonder if she had done something wrong, offered an involuntary insult rather than a gesture of kindness. “I’ll—I’ll send you instructions for accessing the staff account,” she said at length, sounding a little shaky. “Thank you, Detective.”

“Of course,” Kirke murmured, a little concerned—but Tobin just dipped her head again and all but scurried away. She looked after the woman for a moment, then shook her head. She needed to dedicate all of her brainpower to figuring out a new approach to the interrogations—and to her meeting with the commander.

 

The next week was an exercise in the limits of Kirke’s intuitive abilities—and her patience.

She tried to be certain of as few things as possible in her life—dealing in absolutes was a sure path to bending facts to fit one’s worldview rather than vice versa—but she could say with complete confidence that she hadn’t learned anything she didn’t know a week ago.

With regards to the case, that was. She had learned dozens of new things about the astronauts; some small, some significant, some she never would have expected. She found herself spending more and more time in each interrogation, lingering in conversation that turned to the casual more than she would have anticipated. She tried to hold herself back as much as possible, but she thought that forming as much of a connection with them as she could (given the constraining circumstances) would help her see beyond their unyielding demeanors, give her an idea of what they might be hiding.

It didn’t work, not entirely, but there was still a great deal she learned. She learned that Seema Chaudhry liked few things better than the sound of her own voice; she wouldn’t brag about herself, not quite, but if Kirke got her started and encouraged her, she would speak of the things she had done, the accomplishments she had achieved as a scientist and a university professor, and Kirke could hear the pride in her voice, the conviction that this mission was important. She wouldn’t have taken it otherwise, and that meant that her conviction in whatever secret they were keeping must have been just as strong.

She learned that Sveva Reinder loved hearing about other planets—that the station was the first place she had been outside of her own homeworld, and that she had always dreamed of traveling further, but had never had the chance. So she lived vicariously through tales of her fellow astronauts’ home planets—none of whom were from Dalls, so she entreated Kirke to tell her stories about what her home planet was like. Kirke obliged, keeping the stories as impersonal as she could, though it was difficult with how obvious Reinder’s delight in them was. From this, Kirke gathered that any chance she could take to see Calgia’s surface, she would have—and that if she were hiding the fact that she’d managed to do so, she would have to have a very, very good reason for it.

She learned that Elisa and Aisha Kumar were their family’s only children, and that they had been close their entire lives. Elisa had only good things to say about Aisha, though it was clear she’d done her best to stay professional rather than personal. Still, she made it clear that despite Aisha’s shy demeanor, she was dedicated and intelligent, and she had earned her position on the Tocrat entirely on her own merits. Meanwhile, she learned from Aisha that Elisa had always spoken up for her, that Aisha was happy to stay in the background, but that Elisa had never allowed her to be overshadowed, which she appreciated. She understood the bond between the two of them, and it seemed a more intense version of whatever threads of trust ran between the twelve astronauts, whatever it was that they were protecting together.

She learned that Reilly Sternberg, for all of her reticence and terse manner of speech, was fascinated by other languages. Kirke had her third interrogation of Sternberg after she’d discussed Dalls with Reinder, which inspired her to look a little more into Sternberg’s homeworld; she hadn’t had any luck getting her to open up, so she’d looked up as much information as she could to try to engage her. In the process, she’d learned that Sternberg’s home planet of Svaede was a multicultural hub of trade and interplanetary travel, and the planet’s citizens tended to be multilingual and well-versed in other cultures.

So Kirke found the language of Sternberg’s home country, and she did a quick search for basic phrases, and when she sat down to speak with her, she attempted a traditional greeting in halting pronunciation she wasn’t sure was anywhere near what was correct. Still, she was rewarded by the rush of shock on Sternberg’s expression, followed by the slow bloom of delighted interest, and by the end of the interrogation, she’d learned half a dozen new phrases in as many new languages, and Sternberg had barely stopped smiling.

To learn languages—to learn anything—meant having a curious, open mind, coupled with dedication for an often difficult task; to live on a world like Svaede would require a depth of desire to learn new things, explore new places. So if there were a way onto Calgia, Sternberg, too, would want to take it, and she wouldn’t stop until she had exhausted every avenue.

She learned that Veer Douglas had been married three times before dedicating herself to science, that Talia Corwin’s cousin on the commission that had initially launched the Tocrat had originally told her about the position, that Yan Notaro had narrowly avoided prison for participating in political protests in her youth, and that Britt Cody had been disciplined in her first week on the station for punching a guard who had made advances to Thea McDonald (who had confirmed this story, seeming embarrassed but not altogether disapproving of the gesture): that they all had senses of dedication and justice and investment in the station that made Kirke doubt that whatever it was that they were hiding could be anything immoral or illegal. It was a dangerous avenue of belief for her to follow, she knew, but the more time she spent with the astronauts, the less she began to convinced by the image of them as dangerous criminals.

She gave no indication of this to the commander in the two meetings they’d had over the course of the week, of course. She told him of how things were progressing, and she spoke more or less the truth: that it was difficult to get information out of the astronauts, and that they all seemed as if they were hiding something. Knowing that there was a good chance the station would be tracking the interrogations, Kirke never tried to lie or mislead the commander about the direction she was taking; she told him, honestly, that she was aiming to have the astronauts tell her more about themselves in hopes of learning which approaches to interrogation might work better.

The commander didn’t seem disappointed by the slow speed of Kirke’s progress; indeed, he seemed as if that was what he had expected, despite her skill and background. He nodded indulgently when Kirke told him that less frequent meetings might be better, given the pace of her interrogations—the information she delivered evoked small, condescending smiles, as if to say of course; of course this is all you know.

It made things easier. It made it easier to sit with her spine straight, her tone level, and her expression placid, and to not tell him the whole truth. It made it easier to believe that whatever the astronauts were hiding, perhaps they might be the ones on the right side of the problem. It made her want to continue dedicating all of her efforts to learning more about them, revealing whatever information from them she could—not to convict them, but to solve the puzzle.

And she was beginning to succeed; she even, by total accident, managed to get a little more out of Schulte. The first two days she had spoken to her again, Schulte had either been too hysterical to speak coherently, full of protests and pleas, or had cried too hard to speak at all. And at the end of the third day, totally at a loss for other options, Kirke had begun humming softly under her breath, looking for a way to pass the time before she came up with something that could work.

And to her shock, Schulte had fallen silent, staring at her with wide eyes, the shaking of her shoulders subsiding. Bewildered, Kirke had continued humming, unsure of what effect it was having, but willing to give anything a try.

When she’d finished that song, she moved on to others, revolving through traditional ballads, popular songs, even several national anthems. And when she’d gotten ready to leave, Schulte had raised her gaze, her form still, her expression calm, and whispered, “Thank you.”

So Kirke wasn’t at all sure what had happened there, but she did have the feeling that it meant something, and any breakthrough was cause for celebration, at this point.

And then, of course, there was Rodriguez, whose motivations, secrets, or inner thoughts Kirke couldn’t seem to penetrate at all.

Every moment with her felt like combat—like she had to plan each conversational step three moves ahead, like her entire focus had to be on getting past her defenses, like letting her own guard down would mean a serious blow. There was no connection that she could make to Rodriguez, no chink in her armor, no personal anecdote to bring to the surface. Each new conversation brought more of the same: a closed façade, a sneering demeanor, a clearly bone-deep conviction that she and Kirke were enemies.

Their second interaction, Rodriguez still hadn’t seemed entirely convinced of Kirke’s status, because the sight of her had brought a long drawl of, “Ah. He’s sent you back again, has he?”

“I am the detective assigned to this case,” Kirke had responded smoothly, keeping her own expression calm as she sat across from the astronaut. “So yes, I’m back again. And I’ll continue to be back as long as it takes for me to find answers.”

“Then I suppose I won’t be rid of you for a very long time,” Rodriguez had murmured, and the words sounded so much like a challenge that Kirke had found herself responding, “I’m so flattered you would go to such lengths to preserve the pleasure of my company, Officer Rodriguez.”

And there had been a frozen moment of silence before Rodriguez had laughed, long and hard, shaking her head. “Oh, Detective,” she said, leaning back in her chair in an inelegant sprawl, “you really don’t know what you’re in for, do you?”

Whatever it was, Kirke hadn’t discovered it that day, although she’d been followed by the uncomfortable feeling that Rodriguez was right.

The third day had been spent in silence, as an experiment—Kirke had been too curious about what might happen if she didn’t speak at all. And what happened was that Rodriguez hadn’t spoken, or even moved, for a full hour, until Kirke got up to leave—after which she had leaned forward, her expression intense, and asked, “What are you aiming to do here, Detective?”

“To discover the truth,” Kirke had said, after a moment’s surprise. “What else?”

“What else indeed,” Rodriguez murmured under her breath, so low and so meaningful that Kirke had lingered in the cell, a moment longer than she intended.

The fourth and fifth days, Kirke had asked questions—things she’d found about Rodriguez’s past, her childhood, her military career, anything to help her understand the woman more or find a subject that might rouse her interest or her anger. On the fourth day, all of them had received one-word answers, stony silence, or equivocations that told Kirke absolutely nothing. On the fifth day, Rodriguez had shot questions right back at Kirke, attempts to either rattle her or get information out of her in return. The latter hadn’t worked; the former had, but just a little, not enough for Kirke to show it.

The sixth day, Kirke had sat down in front of Rodriguez and asked, without preamble, “How did you become the head researcher of this team when you are the only member of it—apart from Schulte—that doesn’t have a doctorate?”

“Oh,” Rodriguez had said, arching an eyebrow. “I see you’ve decided to hit me where it hurts—my lack of extended experience in academia.”

“Answer the question,” Kirke had replied, mildly.

Rodriguez had shrugged, dismissive. “It isn’t in the file?”

“You were the last one brought on board,” Kirke had continued, tone level. “You didn’t know any of the others before you became part of the team. Your scholastic record is strong, but all your work experience is military rather than academic. Dr. Corwin, Dr. Douglas, and Dr. McDonald have taught for years. Dr. Notaro and Dr. Chaudhry have won prestigious awards in their respective fields. Why were you placed in charge rather than one of them?”

“It never occurred to you, Detective,” Rodriguez had said, after the briefest moment’s pause, “that there might be reasons for military experience to be valued above that of academic experience, in terms of leadership?”

The emphasis she placed on Kirke’s title had been unmistakable, but Kirke had tipped her head as if she hadn’t understood it. “And what might those be, do you think?”

And Rodriguez had leaned in, her eyes narrowed, her expression once more intense. “I am the head of this team,” she had said, slowly, deliberately, “because I am able to keep the group functioning, in a way that no one else can. And the only thing that matters more to me than the success of this team is their safety.”

Which had, of course, left Kirke to wonder—did she think that Kirke herself was threatening that safety, or was she warning Kirke as to the person who might be?

The seventh day, Rodriguez was unusually subdued in both expression and posture when Kirke entered. As she closed the door behind her and sat down, Rodriguez leaned in, but the gesture was more casual, less intense than it usually was. “Detective Griffin,” she said, her voice soft, and Kirke realized it was the first time she’d used her name. “Why did you take this case?”

Thrown, Kirke blinked at her, slow to answer. Rodriguez looked up towards a corner of the room, then back at Kirke. Something in her demeanor had changed—she had, somehow, become both less intense and more focused. Her expression was more open than Kirke had ever seen it, but there was still something burning beneath the surface, something she couldn’t read. “Don’t worry,” she said. “The cameras are off. No one is recording. You can be honest.”

Well, that had to be one of the most disturbing things she’d heard since arriving here. Kirke eyed Rodriguez dubiously, not even knowing where to start regarding this pronouncement. Could she even trust that it was the truth? Could it be some sort of set-up between the officer and the commander? And if not, what did it mean that Rodriguez didn’t trust whoever would be watching the recordings—that she had the means to turn them off—that she thought Kirke might want to say something that couldn’t be shared with them—that she would trust Rodriguez with it instead?

Too many questions to feasibly think through. Better to just behave the way she always had. “I was assigned this case,” she said, which was the truth. “I had the option of declining, but I didn’t want to. It intrigued me. But I didn’t seek it out.”

Rodriguez looked at her, expression assessing—but no, not quite that. Not like she was taking Kirke’s measure with a critical eye, which was how she usually looked at her. Now it was more considering, softer. Like she’d been performing an assigned task before, but was now doing the same thing just for the sake of it. Like she’d been searching for something in Kirke before, but now was just looking at her.

It was something Kirke had no idea how to handle, and she hoped her unease wasn’t showing on her face. She had suspected for days now that she was out of her depth with this case, but she hadn’t felt it so strongly before this moment.

“All right,” Rodriguez said after a long moment, and Kirke felt herself releasing a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. “That’s why you took it. But what are you looking to get out of it?” Kirke must have looked blank, because she continued. “Three detectives have come and gone with no answers. We’re a station on the remote end of a solar system studying a planet two findings away from complete uselessness, on a project twelve convictions away from total shutdown. The commander doesn’t respect or listen to women—all right, you didn’t know that when you took the job, but you must have learned it by now. You could have left. You’re a highly ranked detective; this can’t be the only case you could undertake. Why does this matter to you?”

How to honestly answer that?

Not that she would, of course; regardless of the apparent earnestness in Rodriguez’s demeanor, the softness of her gaze or the ease of her tone, Kirke knew it would be foolish to trust her—no matter how much she suddenly wanted to, in the intimate quiet of the cell and the gentleness in her voice. But the question did make her wonder.

At first it had been the prestige of the case itself—precisely because it had gone unsolved, because of the seeming impossibility of finding the answer. So that she could finally make her name once and for all; so that she could want for nothing in the future. Not for herself, but for her mother—so that she could get better, come home. Be with Kirke again. And, less selflessly, for the challenge. The power of solving the unsolvable, of doing what no one else could.

But now… now, with the obvious exception of her mother, she didn’t care about all that as much. She stayed because she was discovering that things might be more complicated than she first believed. The commander, condescending and cutting—the astronauts, dedicated and united. Whatever was going on beneath the surface of this case was unlike anything Kirke had ever encountered before, and she wanted to know what it was. Whatever was going on, she had the creeping sense that it was important—that it meant something.

So in the end, she did respond honestly—looking Rodriguez in the eye and saying, very softly, “I just want to discover the truth.”

And after an endless moment of eye contact, in which Kirke wondered exactly what it was that Rodriguez was seeing in her, she nodded, the barest dip of her head, and Kirke couldn’t help but feel as if there had just been some sort of test—and if she hadn’t quite passed, she certainly hadn’t failed.

 

So that had been unnerving, to say the least, and in no small part because Kirke had no idea what to do about it. She couldn’t investigate with the commander whether Rodriguez would have the ability to close down station recording without getting her in trouble if she didn’t (and while she still wasn’t ready to trust the officer, she certainly wasn’t going to make things worse for her); she couldn’t ask Rodriguez about it in case it had been a lie or a trap of some kind. She was put in the new and wildly uncomfortable position of having absolutely no one she could trust but her own instincts, and even those were being pulled in more than one direction these days.

She had been on Tocrat for a standard week and already her sleep schedule had begun to suffer as she spent more and more time staring at her profiles and notes, trying to put the pieces together. How did they all fit? What were the astronauts hiding? How was she ever going to move forward if she couldn’t even figure out which direction she was aiming for?

Two hours into the station’s night, all nonessential functions shut off and most personnel in bed, Kirke was still sitting, motionless, her mind whirling back and forth over potential avenues of inquiry and half-baked possible conclusions, when she heard a knock at her door.

Bewildered, she checked her screen to confirm—no, it was indeed simulated night; who would be up at this hour?—before warily crossing over to the door, opening it with some hesitation.

She had had no expectation as to who might be there, so unusual was the occurrence, and yet she was still somehow taken aback. The woman at her door was the tall, elderly head of the station’s housekeeping, sanitation, and culinary staff, a woman Kirke had only met in passing and had found to be polite and composed, if distant, as staff usually were with the others aboard a station. It took her a moment to remember her name, even without looking at her tag. “Ms. Kopecky,” she said, trying to keep the surprise from her tone. “Good evening. What can I do for you?”

“Detective Griffin,” the woman said in a soft voice that somehow still spoke of authority; though her tone was deferent, her spine was straight, and she looked Kirke directly in the eye. “We don’t have much time. Please come with me.”

Kirke blinked, bewildered. “Time for what?” she asked. “Come where?”

Kopecky gave her an assessing look, scanning her briefly up and down. Whatever she saw seemed to strengthen her resolve, and she said, “As I said—our time is short. I’ll explain as best as I can, but for now I’ll simply ask for your trust. I know you want answers; I’m going to take you to them. Please—follow me.”

And she took an expectant step down the hallway, and she turned to look over her shoulder to see if Kirke was following.

And, utterly unsure of whether she should but knowing enough to take an opportunity where she saw one, especially in a situation where they seemed to be rare, Kirke did.

 

Kopecky led her down the hallways of the station, past complexes Kirke hadn’t even walked by yet, through entire sections that seemed deserted, though even at night the station should have been humming with activity. The route they took was circuitous, but as Kopecky keyed in a code to access what seemed to be their destination, Kirke recognized the space they entered immediately.

“This is the landing bay,” she said, uncomprehending, glancing around at the doors which would lead to the different ports—holding the two research shuttles, her own ship, the emergency escape pods. “What are we doing here?”

Kopecky was keying something else, with swift, urgent strokes, into the keyboard of her mobile device as she spoke, her tone more brisk now. “You’re going to Calgia.”

“What?” Kirke stumbled back half a step, sure she hadn’t heard correctly. Was that a threat? She found her hand going to her coat pocket, to the concealed pistol she always carried with her. Surely Kopecky wasn’t foolish enough to stage an attempt on the life of an authorized police officer, but—

Kopecky looked up, seeming a little surprised to see the alarm on Kirke’s face, which went a long way towards soothing her nerves; probably not a threat, then. “It’s all right,” she said, a little gentler now. “As I said—I don’t have the time to explain everything. The astronauts will do that, and a lot will become clear once you’ve seen the planet. But they’re there now, and we don’t have much time. I need to send you on your way so you can understand.”

Kirke’s mind was reeling. It was hearing so many answers all at once—things she had agonized over being admitted so bluntly, in such rapid succession—but it was still so inadequate she could hardly take it in. “I—I’m sorry—you’re confirming to me that the astronauts have actually been going to Calgia’s surface? That they are there right now?”

Instead of answering that question, Kopecky answered the one Kirke had been leading up to asking. “We—the staff—we’ve been erasing their logs, editing station security footage. Most of us are programmers as well as cooks or maids or janitors. The commander’s never used us for that—the more fool he. He won’t know you were ever anywhere but your quarters tonight, either.” Her gaze sharpened as she added, “Unless you tell him.”

Kirke was only barely beginning to understand what was happening, but she did know enough to say, instinctively, “I won’t. So—” She paused, closing her eyes, taking a deep breath. Trying to figure out where to start. “They've been going to Calgia’s surface. And you’ve been covering for them. And—” She paused again; where to go next? “And now… you’re telling me? And sending me after them?”

“It’s a risk,” Kopecky said softly. “I’m going to give you a pill that’ll counteract the effects of the atmosphere, but you’ll need their help to survive the surface. I… I believe they would have trusted you enough to tell you, in time. But I don’t believe we ought to wait any longer. So I am sending you there to show them that I trust you. I hope, very much, that they will follow my lead.”

Well, that was even more for Kirke to take in. That she might die but for the mercy of the astronauts— But she knew, without even thinking twice about it, that it was a risk she had to take. For the answers. She might die, but she might also learn the truth about everything she’d been looking for.

Still, she had to ask. “You trust me,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Why?”

Kopecky’s smile was gentle but rueful, the softest expression Kirke had seen on the woman’s face so far. “Most people on this station ignore us,” she said. “Some treat us as furniture. Some degrade us. You look at us as if we’re human beings. Except for the astronauts, you are the first to do so. That’s enough for me, Detective.”

Unexpectedly, Kirke felt her throat tighten with emotion. Such a simple thing, and yet her heart hurt to know that it wasn’t a basic courtesy most people extended. “And—when I get there—they’ll tell me the rest,” she said, haltingly. Knowing that the question was vastly inadequate to the number she had still floating in her mind—but if they really didn’t have much time, she knew she couldn’t push it. Her instincts were telling her that if this woman was trusting her, she had to return the favor.

Kopecky nodded, crossing the room to key a code into the door—which opened to reveal the shuttle. Just one, Kirke noted in shock; the other was gone. So it was true. It was really true.

“Are you ready for this, Detective?” Kopecky asked, and her voice was very low, infused with enough gravity that for a split second, Kirke did indeed have second thoughts. But there was only one real answer to the question. In a way, it was the same answer she’d had ever since she first set foot aboard the Tocrat—ever since she’d first opened the files for this case.

She took a deep breath, and she nodded.

 

Ten minutes later, Kirke had been bundled into a space suit, seated in a shuttle, and sent on a preprogrammed course to the surface of Calgia.

Kopecky had assured her she wouldn’t need to do anything; the shuttle had been automated to fly to where it needed to land. She didn’t even have to steer. It gave her plenty of time to stare out of the windows into the vastness of space as the red-orange surface of Calgia loomed closer and closer, and to wonder what exactly she had gotten herself into.

Before putting her in the suit, Kopecky had given her a pill to survive the atmosphere—“in theory,” she’d added, tipping her head back and forth. “It’s experimental, but so far it’s worked for the others.” Not words to inspire the strongest of confidences, but at that point Kirke hadn’t had much of a choice.

After that, it had been easy—just put on the suit, sit in the shuttle, and trust that the logs would be changed, the footage would be erased, the shuttle would make it, the astronauts would be waiting, the secret would be revealed. A great deal of trust for someone who, up until that moment, had thought she was firm in the choice not to trust anyone just yet.

But it was the best option she had to discover the truth, so there she was—in the shuttle, in a space suit, hoping the pill she’d taken would work, drifting closer and closer to Calgia’s surface.

Entering a planet’s atmosphere, even knowing what to expect, even when she’d done it dozens of times before, always felt strange to Kirke. Entering Calgia’s, having no idea what was waiting, knowing only that it might kill her, was enough to make her chest feel tight and her throat like it might close up.

The swirling clouds covering Calgia’s surface were storms, so the moment the ship began its descent, it did so shakily, veering to and fro, but they weren’t severe enough to knock it off course. Still, Kirke gripped the edge of the control panel, feeling her nerves jangling sharper with each bump and shift; the rust-colored clouds were so thick as to be nearly opaque, and she had stopped being able to see where she was going completely. She wanted to close her eyes and brace herself, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away. Her trust had never had to be so absolute.

With no way to measure time, it felt like hours before the shaking stopped and the clouds cleared, and Kirke had her first glimpse of Calgia’s surface.

It didn’t look all that much different than the way it did from the sky—an endless expanse of barren rock and dust and debris, occasionally broken up by a craggy mountain or crater, a jagged, desolate landscape covered in reddish orange dust. The wind from the storms didn’t seem to reach here; Kirke could only tell that the dust and debris was what covered the ground because she already knew that. Otherwise it was so still, so motionless, she would have expected it to be simply a geographic feature, the color of the soil and rock itself.

As the shuttle approached the ground, Kirke thought she could make out the shapes of the astronauts on the ground—the only speck of white in the otherwise rust-colored landscape. And she thought she could see something else, flickering, next to them. The shape of the research shuttle, maybe?

But no, as her own shuttle descended further, Kirke could see the shuttle on the other side, its shape distinctive and clear. So what else was it—

It was too far away to tell, and Kirke’s own shuttle landed at enough of a distance that she couldn’t have gotten a closer look just yet. She took a moment, as the shuttle’s engine shut off and the cloud of red dust kicked up by its landing began to settle, to wonder what exactly she was going to find here, on the surface of this unknown planet.

Then she took a deep breath, and she opened the door, and she stepped out onto the surface.

At eye level, Calgia was stunning—the dips and angles of its landscape seeming sharper, more dramatic, its colors exaggerated, the muted orange sky blending seamlessly into the dusty earth, the surroundings seeming endless—no delineation between ground and sky, no distinguishing features apart from the rocks and mountains. Just a stark, desolately beautiful expanse of unexplored planet.

Kirke’s first steps brought up a wild cloud of dust; she looked down to see the feet of her space suit covered in the debris she’d seen on all the other suits. It brought a wry smile to her face as she continued to move forward—the gravity here was a little weaker than what she was used to, so her steps felt looser, and her strides were longer.

With all of the dust each of her steps was raising, she knew she didn’t have much time. But there—there they were. The shapes on the horizon moving towards her could only be the other astronauts.

As they approached, Kirke could count twelve shapes. Through the suits, and at the distance, she couldn’t tell who was who, but she thought she saw the same flickering sparks surrounding them as she had before. Something strange, like static made visible in the air, or like embers flying from a fire.

What was that? Was it some strange haze from the planet’s surface, or a shimmer like from the heat of the shuttle engines, or—

Kirke’s forward progress stopped dead as the astronauts came closer. She could see their outlines more clearly now, and next to them—in front of them—surrounding them—

It couldn’t be real. She couldn’t be seeing it correctly. She blinked, twice, and found her vision was beginning to grow blurry—but what was before her hadn’t changed.

In the company of the astronauts were two or three—Kirke couldn’t tell—and, well, she didn’t know what to call them, either. They looked like frozen lightning, long, floating sparks of static, flickering like fire, surrounded by a bright glow, moving forward through the air. Little branches off of the broad glow of their—bodies?—moved back and forth, waving like tendrils or antennae or limbs. Limbs? Features? Something else altogether? They didn’t look like any creatures Kirke had ever seen before. They didn’t look like anything Kirke had ever seen before.

But they were absolutely unmistakable for what they were. Even as Kirke’s thoughts slowed, and her vision continued to blur, and she took a single long step forward—and faltered—and felt her legs give way beneath her—the thought continued to cling to her mind, and she held onto it as she collapsed, slowly, to the ground of Calgia.

 

Kirke’s consciousness returned to her in wisps. She heard words emerging, first as incoherent jumbles, then as whispered sentences—“well, this means she’ll listen, right?”, “can’t believe she sent her—”, “what will the commander say?”, “does it matter?”, “they seemed fine with her”—and then she became aware of a vast fogginess in her head, and its slow dispersion—of her body lying on a flat surface, of the unrestricted breathing that meant she was indoors.

It took her a moment to remember when she had last been outside—and the memory sliced through her with the force of a blade, and Kirke shot upward, gasping unevenly.

“Whoa,” someone exclaimed as the brightness of the light seared Kirke’s eyes, making her wince and ease halfway back down onto—wherever she was lying. A firm hand on her shoulder moved her the rest of the way before reaching over to pat her stomach. “Okay—you’re up. How are you feeling? All right?”

Kirke gave the question a moment’s thought. “All right,” she confirmed after a moment: her lungs felt clear, her limbs only a little heavy, her head feeling clearer by the second. Which meant—

She opened her eyes, recognizing the cool metallic décor of the inside of the Tocrat. She tipped her head to the side, seeing the astronauts all seated in the sparsely furnished (save for the twelve chairs) room; it was Talia Corwin next to her, fingers briefly touching Kirke’s wrist to check her pulse.

“Seems back to normal,” she said, briefly, getting to her feet and crossing the room to stand with the others. Kirke raised herself to her elbows, slowly, checking her head for dizziness, but she felt fine, if deeply thrown by… whatever had happened.

She didn’t remember getting back to the shuttle; she didn’t remember the approach of the astronauts, or the trip back to the station. She couldn’t tell, from the light in the room, what time it was, how long she had been gone or how long she had been back.

She did remember crumpling to the ground, feeling her chest tighten, her vision swim—and cutting across the spots of blackness, a crackling brightness from the floating, glowing lightning bolt, hovering over her, extending a single flickering spark to touch her suit.

She knew what that had to mean, but she didn’t know how to process it.

She looked over at the faces of the astronauts, their expressions ranging from intent to concerned to—in Schulte’s case—outright fearful. She didn’t even know where to begin.

Fortunately, Rodriguez intervened. As Kirke’s gaze settled on her, she let out a long breath, shifting forward in her chair, spreading her hands, indicating the group of them. “Go on,” she said, her voice low, her expression unreadable. “Ask us.”

So Kirke, mouth dry, did. “What—who—are they?”

There was a sound like a soft exhale, magnified twelvefold. “We call them the Calgians,” Rodriguez said, softly. “They have their own name for themselves, but they don’t… they communicate in ways other than language. We can’t always translate what they say into words. It’s more… feelings. Images. Directives. Some of us are better at picking them up than others.”

The Calgians. The word seemed to linger in the room, echoing through Kirke’s mind. She still couldn’t believe it. “And they are…” She paused, her words slow, carefully chosen. “Sentient. Native. The primary species of the planet.”

“Yes,” Rodriguez said, even more quietly. “To all.”

Kirke’s mind was reeling. What should she ask first? How should she let this story unfold? “How did you find them?” she finally said, figuring that the beginning was the best place to start.

“It was Reilly,” Rodriguez said, a little smile on her face as she slanted a gaze over at the geologist. “Her and Sveva, really.”

“Sveva’s theory,” Sternberg said, her expression shifting a little, clearly uncomfortable with the attention. “I just heard them first.”

Kirke glanced obligingly over at Reinder, who was sitting backwards in her chair, tilting it forward in her eagerness to explain. “The Calgians—they aren’t like any other lifeforms in the universe. The way they communicate, the way they move, their very genetic construction—it’s remarkable. We haven’t had much of a chance to study them, but we’ve learned so much. They have this intuitive sense—of one another, of others, ways to understand thoughts and emotions and even biological makeup—”

Corwin interrupted with a meaningful little cough, and Reinder fell silent, giving a sheepish laugh. “What she means to say,” she put in, “is that though they’re unique in the universe, the basics of their underlying biology—that they are beings constructed of energy, without physical forms or needs—that we have seen before. And on planets that make the presence of organic matter nearly impossible, if native life does exist, it tends to be of that sort. So the more we learned about Calgia…”

“…the more we realized that if there was life, it would likely be of the sort that’s difficult to detect by conventional means,” Reinder finished, looking a little more focused now. “Beings comprised of energy. The sort we know little about because interactions with them have always been… difficult. So it wasn’t anything I was going to suggest testing in earnest. We had to learn more about Calgia first and then—figure out a way to the surface. All of that had to be done before we could think about identifying potential life on the planet.”

“But she mentioned it to me,” Sternberg continued, looking more engaged than Kirke had ever seen her. “And I thought about it. And we went to Veer to make a satellite that would carry… some kind of listening device.”

“It took us some time, but we made it work,” Douglas said, her own expression thoughtful, if a little tense. “And it reached the surface—and we were able to hear the Calgians. Or—Reilly was.”

“Not really hearing them,” Sternberg added, and Kirke, dazed, remembered her affinity for languages. “More… sensing them. Surprised the connection could last over such a distance, but—did what I could. Learned a lot about them.”

Kirke waited for a moment, but to her surprise, that seemed to be the end of that particular story. Where to go next? She took a breath, considering. “Did they… tell you how to access the planet? Without—getting hurt?”

A few of them nodded, and Elisa Kumar was the one who spoke. “Yes—they instructed us on how to counteract the effects of the atmosphere. We developed the pill after their specifications. And on which metals, which materials, would be able to survive the atmosphere. We developed a shield for the research shuttles so that they could go through without issue. And the planet’s surface, well—”

Cody was shaking her head. “We weren’t sure what to do about that. The Calgians…” She looked a little uncomfortable; a woman who liked practicalities, certainties, rather than abstract concepts. “They assured us it would be fine. But there was no way for us to know, unless—”

“Someone tried,” Kirke finished, very softly. She had the slightest idea of where this was going, but it wasn’t until a few glances turned in Schulte’s direction that her suspicions were confirmed.

“I volunteered,” she said, very softly, and Kirke would have doubted it were it not for the slightly concerned, almost disapproving looks on some of the other astronauts’ faces. Further evidence of the bond between the group, she thought. “Everyone else is essential to the mission. I was expendable.”

“You were never,” Rodriguez growled softly, and a few sounds of assent came from the others. Despite the gravity of the circumstances, Kirke couldn’t help the briefest smile.

But Schulte continued. “I—I took the pill, and I took the shuttle, and I piloted it down to Calgia. And when I reached the surface, they were there to greet me.”

She shook her head, her anxious expression melting into pure awe. “The first time I saw them… I’d never seen anything like it. And then I got out of the shuttle, and—I collapsed.”

Her smile was faint, rueful. Aisha Kumar took up the story, “And she survived because the Calgians… well, none of us know exactly what they did. But they touched her, and it helped bring her through. And they assured her they’d do the same for us, should we come along.”

“So we did,” Notaro said, simply, her hands folded in her lap.

Kirke understood now, Schulte’s shaky grip on self-control and the overflowing of her emotions. She had been the first person to set foot on a planet that might have killed her, and she’d had a near-death experience with no certainty that she would survive. And she had been in a solitary cell for weeks at a time, interrogated about it over and over. Anyone would have cracked, but she had still kept the secret.

“The other detectives,” she murmured, realizing. “The Calgians didn’t—”

Corwin shook her head; the others looked grave. Schulte looked like she might burst into tears at any minute. “If they survived the atmosphere and their ship stayed intact… the Calgians only ever reached the first one, and not in time. We never meant for it to happen, but we didn’t know they would follow us. And we couldn’t tell them the truth.”

“We paid the staff to cover our tracks on the security and the shuttle logs,” McDonald said softly. “Turns out many of them are expert programmers whose talents are being criminally underused. And as you can see, the Calgians’ talent for neutralizing the effects of the planet have been successful. But we didn’t anticipate the dust would cling so hard to the suits. We were able to hide our tracks in every other respect, but…” She shrugged, the gesture subtle but expressive.

And, of course, this led Kirke to the single most burning question of all, the question that they all must have been waiting to hear from the start. “But why hide it? Why doesn’t the commander know what you’ve been doing?”

The silence following her question seemed endless, like brushing away the debris covering a hole to reveal its depth. A few of the astronauts exchanged tense glances. A few of them looked anxious or angry. A few of them looked to Rodriguez, whose jaw was set.

“Dr. Chaudhry,” she said after a moment, her tone soft but steel-enforced. Chaudhry nodded, and retrieved a tablet from her suit; after a moment’s fiddling, she stood, crossing the room to hand the device to Kirke. Her expression was grave, but almost sympathetic—like she didn’t begrudge Kirke the knowledge that was about to follow. Her stomach fluttered with nerves as she took it.

“We’ll give you a moment,” Rodriguez said softly, and when Kirke looked over at her, she saw the same expression on her face. And as she got to her feet and ushered the other astronauts out, Kirke bent her head, dread coiling in her throat, and began to read.

 

Kirke didn’t know how long she’d been reading before the door opened and Rodriguez walked in again. “Everyone else is back in their cells,” she murmured, crossing the room to drag a chair over to the bench where Kirke had been placed and was now sitting upright, her feet dangling. “We have about an hour until morning begins. How are you doing?”

Kirke knew she didn’t mean physically. She set the tablet down in her lap, her mind reeling. She’d read over most of the information two, three times, trying to absorb it as best as she could. It didn’t seem to be real. It seemed impossible.

“Thrown,” she said, honestly, turning her gaze to Rodriguez’s face. She looked as grave as she had earlier, but she also looked concerned, the expression softer than any Kirke had seen on her face before. She’d seen, earlier, how the other astronauts turned to her instinctively. She’d heard honest caring in her voice. She understood why Rodriguez led the team. “I…” She stopped, shaking her head. There weren’t words.

“I know,” Rodriguez said softly, leaning forward, bracing a hand on her thigh. With her other, she took down her hair, shaking her head to let the thick, dark mass fall around her shoulders, rubbing at the back of her neck. “We couldn’t believe it, either. It took us a long time to confirm it.”

“How—how did you find out?” Kirke’s mouth felt dry. Her heart was racing. Her head hurt, as if her brain had pulled a muscle trying to understand everything she’d learned tonight.

“Gut feelings.” A humorless smile flickered across Rodriguez’s face. “The commander’s never respected any of us, so we all got into the habit, early on, of keeping him informed on a strictly need-to-know basis. When we began experimenting with the possibility of visiting Calgia—communicating with the Calgians—it occurred to Reilly that guessing at the existence of energy-based native life wasn’t a stretch at all. Anyone familiar with planetary exploration looking at our research would at least think of it as a possibility. But instead of investigating the option, he cracked down on barring travel to the surface. Telling everyone how dangerous it was. How much more information we would need before even considering it.”

“Like he was hiding something,” Kirke murmured, eyes drifting back down to the tablet. And what he’d been hiding… there were no words for the scale of it. The enormity. The monstrousness.

“Kopecky found these,” Rodriguez said, nodding towards the documents displayed on the screen. “We said we paid the staff to cover our tracks, but—they all hate him, too. Gathering evidence against him is something any of them would do for their own sakes.”

“And you never told anyone?” Kirke could still hardly believe it, how long this had been going on. The magnitude of work that had gone into hiding it. The magnitude of cruelty.

Rodriguez shrugged, the gesture understated but belied by the way her gaze skittered from Kirke’s. A stark contrast to the way her eyes had stayed locked on hers through the entirety of their interrogations; a show, maybe deliberate, of vulnerability. A sign of trust. “Regardless of our positions,” she said, slowly, “regardless of our prestige—we are researchers. And he heads the station. We never really believed that we could do it on our own.”

Her eyes drifted back to Kirke then, and the vulnerability was still on her face—the uncertainty. After everything they’d shown her, she was still unsure that Kirke would help them. Afraid, Kirke thought, to believe in the possibility of what could happen, because losing that belief would hurt too much.

She could understand that.

She looked back at the tablet, scrolling down to the part that had struck her like a blow to the stomach. “Diseases… including the strains of cancer native to the Dalls system,” she read, barely able to keep her voice from shaking, and she looked back at Rodriguez, level, unflinching. “My mother,” she said, very softly.

Rodriguez’s eyes widened, and slowly—Kirke could see the moment of uncertainty, then decision, on her face—she reached out, hand moving to Kirke’s hip, the gesture not quite intimate, but supportive. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, the words a little rough.

Kirke let herself, just for a moment, ease into the touch, and then she turned the tablet’s screen off and handed it back to Rodriguez. “Not as sorry as he’s going to be,” she said, the words cool. “Can you gather everyone here again at night hours tomorrow?”

 

Though the temptation to already be waiting for Commander Appleby in his office first thing in the morning was strong, Kirke was determined to play this particular meeting entirely by the book.

So she requested the meeting as early as possible, and she arrived at the door at promptly the appointed hour, and she nodded politely at the officers standing guard, and she kept her back straight and her bearing proper as she entered.

“Good morning, Detective Griffin,” the commander said from his desk, nodding to the chair opposite. “What can I do for you?”

Without further preamble, Kirke crossed the room, ignoring the seat, and dropped the stack of papers in her arms onto his desk.

Physical copies of reading material were rarely used anymore, but Kirke had wanted to hold these records in her hands. She’d wanted to confront the commander with the hard, black-and-white evidence—no chance of electronic mishaps, no opportunity to hide.

She watched as he looked, bewildered, from her to the papers, and bent to flip through the first few pages, and she watched his expression change. Looking back up, a dark scowl on his face, then back down to shuffle through the rest of the stack.

“Communications between yourself and the initial research team, hypothesizing the existence of energy-based sentient life on Calgia,” Kirke said, her voice very soft. “Speculation as to what such life could be worth to you—advantages that could be mined from it. Further exploration—unauthorized—indicating knowledge of their existence, and secretly funded research into what use could be made of them. Research conducted on existing energy-based beings and how the imprints they leave when touching others have been used to steer the development of medicine. Evidence that the Calgians’ imprint could be linked to the curing of certain cancers originating in the Dalls system.”

The commander had looked up by now, his expression stony, but Kirke wasn’t finished. “Using a sample of that imprint from the first detective who came back from Calgia’s surface to synthesize an experimental medication to treat those cancers. Planning, with the company who helped develop them, to keep it a secret until it was most profitable for you.” Her voice had turned to ice as she said, finally, “Discussing how long you would withhold this medication, that could save hundreds of lives, for your own personal gain.”

There was a long silence following the words, so tense it felt like a tangible thing. Kirke’s expression didn’t waver, and her chin remained high as the commander stared her down.

Finally, he let out a breath that sounded almost like a chuckle and spread his hands. “You certainly have a lot of facts here, Miss Griffin,” he said, the emphasis on the word “facts” unmistakable. As if they could somehow be twisted or misinterpreted or blown out of proportion. As far as Kirke was concerned, she was, if anything, underreacting.

And she noticed she was back to “miss” rather than “detective,” as if this behavior had made her lose any semblance of authority. Unbelievable.

“Enough to confirm the theory that this entire case is simply a means to exercise your own authority over the researchers,” she said, her tone growing a little colder but remaining steady. “You know perfectly well how to reach the surface of Calgia. You know what the Calgians have to offer. You’ve already conducted experimental trials using their imprint. There’s no reason to keep those astronauts under arrest.”

“The rules governing the operation of the station are in place for the safety of everyone aboard it,” the commander said, sounding almost bored, as if this was a statement he’d had to make countless times before.

“Bullshit,” Kirke said bluntly. “You’ve seen for yourself that if the appropriate precautions are taken, the surface of Calgia can be visited safely. You’re just keeping up appearances so that no one finds out what you’ve done.” A pause, then: “But it’s too late for that now.”

“Is it?” the commander drawled. Kirke hated him so much then that her blood boiled with it—this smug, selfish, self-important man, who still wasn’t exhibiting the least sign of concern about her knowledge because he still didn’t believe she offered him any kind of threat.

As Kopecky had said —the more fool he.

“Yes,” she said. She thought she might be angrier than she had ever been in her life, but this—keeping calm in the face of fury, looking into the face of someone truly evil—she could do. She wouldn’t rise to his bait. She would do what she had come here for.

“An hour ago,” she continued, utterly placid, “these documents went to the Dalls commissioner, as well as the ruling body of every home planet associated with this project and their primary news outlets. Along with them come sworn statements and recorded testimony from myself and each of the twelve astronauts involved with regards to their experiences on this station, their experiences on Calgia’s surface, and their treatment at your hands.”

In the silence that followed, Kirke swore she could actually hear the sound of the station rotating through space.

“It proves nothing,” the commander said at length, but his voice was very low, and Kirke saw his hand gripping the edge of his desk, so tightly his knuckles had gone white. “The word of thirteen women—”

“The word of twelve researchers,” Kirke snapped, an edge of anger entering her words against her will, “and a highly ranked detective that you invited aboard the station yourself. Along with incriminating documents in your own hand—and the word of your staff.” She paused, savoring his expression, and added, eyes wide, “Did I forget to mention I included their testimonies as well? No matter how influential you believe yourself, Commander, you can’t silence that many voices.”

“You conniving, incompetent little bitch,” the commander said, his fury cool, his voice like ice. “You don’t understand what you’re doing, do you? Some women tell you a sob story and you run to believe their every word?”

“You’re not even trying to deny the evidence, are you?” Kirke asked, amazed. She’d expected explanations; she’d expected attempts at minimizing the seriousness of his actions. But he was behaving as if she had taken the word of someone else over him, rather than acting on concrete, undeniable evidence. His arrogance astounded her.

He looked down, then back up at her, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Very well, you caught me,” he murmured, voice heavy with sarcasm. “I am trying to make a name for myself in the world. I am trying to revolutionize medicine and keep the secrets of a dangerous planet safe until they can be properly understood and harvested. The worst of crimes, according to you.”

“To make a name for yourself by withholding medicine from people who need it,” Kirke said, unable to keep the incredulity from her voice. “To revolutionize medicine for your own gain—to keep the secrets of a planet at the expense of twelve people’s freedom and hundreds of lives. To exploit the native species of that planet, to deny them agency—do you understand anything about how they communicate or how they function? They would help, if asked. They have helped. They deserve to make that choice on their own.”

The commander scoffed, looking just as disbelieving as Kirke sounded. “You speak of them as if they’re intelligent,” he said. “As if they’re capable of reasoning or understanding. They’re creatures. They aren’t corporeal. They aren’t on the same level as humans.”

For a moment, Kirke actually, physically could not find words, so strong was her fury and revulsion. She forced her initial sharp words back and forced herself to take a deep breath, then another, before speaking again, voice cold and level, “Whatever level they are on, it far supercedes yours.”

“You’re just like the rest of them,” sneered the commander, leaning in.

“I’ll take that as the highest of compliments.”

“This won’t stand,” he snapped, his expression twisting with anger. “None of these charges will hold any water. When I tell them the truth—”

“Oh,” Kirke said, pitching her voice just a little higher, just enough to drown his words out, “I think the police will be exceedingly interested in your version of the truth. Especially the commissioner, my mentor from the academy.” She smiled, then, a gesture that was all teeth. “And as for the news—they’ve dug into far flimsier leads than this. With the amount of information I’ve provided them, I’m certain they’re going to dig very, very deeply—and I, for one, am so very curious about what they’ll find. You don’t think I’m naïve enough to believe this is the first time you’ve exploited others for your own gain, do you?”

And she watched as, for the briefest moment, the commander’s expression went blank with horrified realization. Oh, she was so looking forward to learning whatever awful thing he was afraid would come to light.

“Get out of my office,” he growled, then, low and guttural and furious, his free hand clenching around the top few sheets of the stack of papers.

“Gladly,” Kirke said, and turned to do just that, her back still straight, her chin still high. As she reached the doorway, she turned and added over her shoulder, “By the way—consider this my resignation.”

 

Kirke straightened from the last bit of packing she’d had to do and looked over the now-empty quarters. Surprising that with most traces of her presence now gone from them, they actually seemed smaller rather than bigger, but she couldn’t help her fondness for them. So much had happened in these rooms over the last couple of weeks. So much had happened on this station.

The commander, of course, had been pulled from authority mere days after Kirke’s transmissions had gone out. The sheer scale of the scandal, the volume of evidence and the array of accusations, had made it impossible to ignore, and it didn’t take much digging to provide irrefutable evidence that he was indeed guilty of unspeakable acts of cruelty. Whoever his protectors might be, they weren’t able to shield him from the full weight of the repercussions, and he was currently awaiting trial planetside.

The Calgia mission hadn’t been dismantled, but it was in the middle of deep restructuring, given the new understanding of the planet and its presence in the public eye across half the galaxy. Most of the station operatives had been removed; Rodriguez and Kopecky had been in constant talks with the agencies responsible for the mission, to figure out how best to proceed with learning more about the planet and its life. Communication with the Calgians had stayed as open as possible, given the obvious restrictions, to allow them the foremost say in how their planet was approached. It would likely take another few weeks before the mission statements could be reframed, the staff restructured, and the next steps properly determined, but since all twelve of the astronauts involved, as well as the Calgians, were guaranteed voices in the transition, Kirke wasn’t concerned. They would find the best way to move forward, together.

There was a knock on the door, and Kirke pulled her bag up onto her shoulder as she crossed the room to open it. She smiled faintly to see Rodriguez—Eva—there, leaning against the wall, her posture deceptively casual.

A matching smile crossed Eva’s face upon seeing Kirke and her bag. “How is she?” she asked without preamble.

Kirke’s mother had been among the first group of patients receiving the new treatment developed from the Calgians’ imprint, released with their permission, refined according to their instructions. It was too soon to see any real results, but based on the trials Kirke had read about, she was optimistic. She’d spoken to her mother about the risks involved, the uncertainties still inherent in trying the new medicine—but Kirke wasn’t the only one in her family who trusted their gut instincts absolutely, and she had been sure.

Kirke was ostensibly leaving the station to go home, to debrief her captain on the full events that had transpired and see where she wanted to go from here, given her new near-galactic celebrity status. But she was also using it as a long-awaited excuse to see her mother, and ensure that the new treatment was going well.

“Stubbornly moving forward,” she replied with a little laugh. “She believes that because I’m responsible for the new treatment coming to light, there’s no way it can fail. Of course I’m optimistic, too, but she has far too much faith in me.”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Eva said softly, and Kirke felt heat rush to her face. Grinning at the sight, she added, tone more casual, “Any idea how long this trip will take?”

“Hard to say,” Kirke replied in similar tones. The end of cases, before, had always felt triumphant, whether exultant or grim; they had always felt like the end of a journey, or the last piece of a puzzle. This one was bittersweet. She didn’t, she’d realized, want to leave the station. She’d miss it, the sights and sounds, the presence of the other astronauts, the casual camaraderie that had sprung up with the staff in the commander’s absence, the view of Calgia through the windows. Maybe Eva, a little more keenly. “In between visiting my mother and debriefing the captain—and of course I’ll have to decide what to do next. I don’t know if regular detective work will cut it, after all this.”

Eva nodded, expression contemplative. “You know the station is looking for a new head of security,” she said, still in that casual tone. “Someone with experience in the area—and a personal rapport with station personnel—might be a good fit for the position.”

Kirke found herself smiling, entirely unconscious of the movement until it was already in progress. “Good to know,” she murmured. “For someone who would fit those qualifications.”

And Eva grinned back at her, reaching to clasp her forearm—a brief but unmistakably intimate gesture—before heading back down the hallway, in the direction opposite from the shuttle bay.

And somehow, the prospect of a way to return made it easier for Kirke to fly away from the station, the sight of Calgia growing smaller in her rear view—rust-colored and magical and beautiful, and just a little more familiar.