The Deathworlders


Chapter 10: Legwork

Three years and six months AV
San Diego, California

In his career with the San Diego PD, Gabriel Arés had seen more than his fair share of death, and the common thread with homicide was that none were dignified. It was an act of violation that still made his skin crawl, even after twenty years.

This one was particularly difficult, knowing that it could have possibly been prevented if only he hadn’t followed the rules.

But that was dangerous thinking and he knew it. Gabriel had seen enough cop movies to know that Hollywood preferred the maverick, the rule-breaker, the loose cannon. But in real police work, you worked by the book to the letter, or else guilty men went free on a technicality. There was no room for renegade action in his definition of a Good Cop, and Gabriel had grown up from a young second-generation Mexican-American surrounded to the north and south by the lure of gangs and drug warfare, and had decided very early on that he’d be a Good Cop instead.

On days like today, that was a decision he almost regretted. It meant he had to deal with shit like this.

With news helicopters circling overhead and a clamour of journalists beyond the tape and uniforms, Terri Boone’s body had been covered over out of concern for the deceased’s dignity. But there was no way to disguise the huge dark smear of sun-dried blood across the parking lot, or the fact that covering her remains had involved several pieces of cloth.

Forensics were picking over every inch of the lot, accounting for every bullet hole, every shell casing, every grenade fragment, every scrap of sundered Ford Mustang. The lot was a forest of little yellow markers, swept inch-by-bloody-inch by men and women in white disposable clothing, meticulously photographing and documenting it to a fare-thee-well.

The Forensics lead—Doctor Schieffer—approached him as he leaned against his SUV, taking it all in.

“Progress.” he reported.

“You’ve established a cause of death?” Gabriel joked, resorting to his trademark callous black humour that indicated when he was truly upset. Fortunately, Schieffer had known him for years, and let the inappropriate comment slide.

“We found the phone.” the doctor held up an evidence bag. The little warped and shattered black lump inside was barely recognisable as having once been a smartphone. “It fetched up under that Prius over there, clean on the other side of the lot. Probably why the shooter couldn’t find it.”

“Madre de Dios… Think anything survived?”

“MicroSD cards are tough.” Schieffer reassured him. “Forget the surface damage, once we crack this thing open, we should be able to get the data off it.”

“Hopefully it brings us something.” Gabriel said, then sighed. “I’ve been putting this off. Guess I’d better go watch the security camera footage.”

“Good luck, Arés.”

It was as bad as he’d feared, and he made a point of not watching the victim’s expression in her final moments. It wasn’t relevant to the investigation, and would just give him trouble sleeping. He focused on the shooter instead.

“Mr. Johnson” stepped into the camera’s field of view and he paused the playback and raised his phone to his mouth, thumbing the “record” button on the dictaphone app. “Shooter is a caucasian male, looks to be in his mid to late 40s, about… five ten, to six foot tall, brown hair and beard…” he zoomed in. “Camera doesn’t show any notable distinguishing features. Tough guy to pick out of a crowd. Armed with an M4 carbine fitted with an M203 grenade launcher and a reflex sight and… yeah, looks like a pistol in an armpit holster. Can’t tell make and model from this image though.”

He let it play some more, pausing it when Johnson drew the pistol in question to be certain of his kill. “Okay, pistol looks like a… SIG Sauer P220, or maybe 227. Hopefully ballistics will be able to work with that.”

He watched as the shooter cast around for the missing cellphone, then glanced up and stared at something out of shot—probably the arriving uniforms. Then he looked directly at the camera.

Gabriel was struck by just how… average his face was. Johnson really had nothing in the way of distinctive facial or physical traits. A shave and a change of clothes, and he would look completely different. He could be anybody, become anybody.

Then he vanished. Literally vanished, as Gabriel discovered when he rewound and played over the moment of disappearance frame by frame. The feed didn’t so much as flicker, there was no indication of anything at all affecting the camera. But in one frame, Johnson was present, and in the subsequent, he was gone.

“How the fuck…?” he asked, quietly.

“How the fuck?” Julian exclaimed. Kirk shrank back slightly at the volume. Six years of isolation had entirely robbed the human survivalist of an indoor voice.

“I’ve planned it all out.” he said. “You humans are fast, but the key to this plan is that you’re fast over long distances. I need somebody who could hike the Appalachian Trail, and you fit the bill and then some.”

“I do?”

Kirk nodded his long-necked head. It was an impressive gesture. “You’ve survived for six years on the most dangerous planet in the known galaxy. Actually, scratch that: you thrived there. The biohazard screen did a full scan of you: you’re in peak physical condition. You could run that trail. That part’s critical.”

“I’m approaching on foot, then.”

“You have to. Their sensors will pick up vehicles and dropships easily, and with their defensive coilguns… a vehicular assault isn’t possible. But the facility’s designers never reckoned on the idea that anybody could approach on foot. It’s a class eleven planet—a walk in the park next to Earth, but dangerous to the rest of us.”

“So I should just be able to jog up to the walls.” Julian sounded skeptical.

“Fence.” Kirk corrected him. He correctly interpreted Julian’s raised eyebrow and elaborated: “It’s an ultrasound fence, designed to drive off the local wildlife, but it’s not a physical obstacle at all.”

“And the actual security?”

“The usual. Maglocks, big steel shutters, lots of concrete, force fields, a garrison.” Kirk imitated a shrug, spreading his four arms wide. “Not loaded for human, by the way.”

“I’m not the killing sort, Kirk.” Julian said.

“Good, neither am I. The point is that the garrison aren’t a threat to you. Avoiding them would be best, however.”

“And the concrete and steel?”

“Leave that to me. You’ll be carrying a device that should help me help you.”

“So… I run in, avoid the garrison, you work whatever magic you’ve got planned, and then I just… come back the way I came?”


“Carrying a backpack full of stolen military hardware.”


Julian blinked at him, slowly, then gave up. “Fine. What could go wrong?”

“Okay… that’s got it. Out you come.” The forensic computer technician wiggled his needle-nose pliers a bit and finally the MicroSD card slid out of the wreckage of what had once been a phone.

Everyone in the office gathered round as he clicked it into a reader and opened its contents on his laptop. “Okay, easy-access stuff first, we’ll find any passwords or whatever secon… wow. Hey detective, there’s a folder here called Scotch Creek.”

“Open it.”

Inside were a handful of snapshots of beautiful Canadian rural terrain, and one of the technicians confirmed that they were of the area around Scotch Creek with a quick Google Street Maps search. Alongside them was a folder marked “Kevin.”

There was a general exclamation of surprise at that second folder’s contents. Gabriel rounded angrily on an officer who emitted a lecherous two-toned whistle. “This isn’t fucking porn! You’re going to fucking whistle at a dead woman’s selfies? Mostrar respeto!”

The officer looked away, mumbling an apology.

“I don’t want to hear it. ¡Vete a la mierda! All of you who don’t need to be here, get out!”

The exodus was rapid, especially the shame-faced officer who had whistled.

Gabriel calmed himself and returned his attention to the Scotch Creek folder. Most of its content was of Terri herself, and a mixed-race guy about her age with a cross tattooed on his forearm. None of those images were modest ones. A memory of happier, sexier times, he guessed.

“Shouldn’t be too hard to track him down.” he said. “Is that name in her contacts?”

“Let’s see… yeah, here we go. Kevin Jenkins.”

“Well, even if he’s not a witness, he deserves to know. Keep digging, I’ll make the call.”

+How are you doing?+

the text appeared in the top-left corner of Julian’s vision, thanks to a pair of dark glasses that Kirk had assembled in the nanoforge, along with some camouflaged performance clothing of Julian’s own design. The alien material was several hundred years of materials science ahead of the best Terran sportswear, and he felt cool, dry and comfortable despite having jogged over rough terrain for several hours now.

The only real fly in the ointment was the breathing mask. The planet’s atmosphere was just a little bit poorer in oxygen than the galactic average, and exertion should have quickly left him gasping for breath, or maybe dying from an aneurysm. Instead, the device on his face acted as a ramscoop, using force fields to collect a larger volume of air and enrich each breath, bringing it up to a comfortable Earth temperature and humidity. If it had only been made of the same material as his running gear, he would have been fine. Unfortunately, it was made out of some silicon-based rubbery substance which, while light and strong, was also about as breathable as foil. The result was itchy and sweaty.

“making good time” he subvocalized. A patch stuck to his throat interpreted the muscular contractions and exhalation to decide what he had said—it was an all but perfectly silent way to communicate.

+I meant physically+

“Just fine. I could do this all day.”

+No need. You’re approaching the three hundred meter mark+

“You’re joking”

+Hardly. Three…+



He brushed past a tree and there the rest of the forest wasn’t. Something had stripped out a perfect circle of foliage, surrounding a facility that was little more than a concrete bunker, a personnel building and a landing pad.

+You’re in range. Wait.+

Julian did so, breathing from the exercise but otherwise surprised at how much he still had in him. The Wall was a long way off, yet.

+The ultrasonic fence’s alarm is disabled… move now.+

Julian did so. He saw the patrol—three Guvnurug in their massive combat harnesses, shambling around away from him as they completed that arc of their patrol route. The sound of their own heavy footfalls made his own light steps inaudible as he dashed from shadow to shadow behind them.

+Twenty minutes before they return to this section of the perimeter.+

“This is their idea of a secure military facility?”

+It’s completely secure against all foreseeable threats. You however are an unforeseen factor, and as a result make this place look like a shopping mall.+

“Don’t amuse me.”

A blue diamond—his waypoint—appeared on his heads-up display, and, checking around him for hazards with all the skill he had honed in half a decade on Nightmare, Julian slipped over to it. It was a small door in the side of the large concrete bunker building.

+the code is one, two… top left, the one immediately to the right of that, the one immediately down and right from there, same one. immediately down-right, immediately down-left.+

Julian punched in the numbers on the oversized, Guvnurug-scale pad, reflecting that he was lucky Kirk had remembered that he couldn’t read any alien written language. There was an uncomfortably loud beep and a mechanical clunk from the door lock, and he slipped inside, wedging the door with a stone just in case.

+The blue crates against the back wall, and two or three of the things from the white crates on that exo-lifter’s pallet.+

Having no idea what these things did, Julian just obeyed orders. It took him only a minute or two to stuff the ordered items into the bag he had carried all the way out here, stopping only when the weight promised to become more than he could comfortably handle on the way back.

He helped the door close silently, checked his surroundings, flitted down a corridor of darkness where one of the base’s floodlights cast the shadow of a tall structure of some kind, cast around for watching sentries again, saw none, and sprinted across the open ground back into the woods.

The heist had taken maybe five minutes. If Kirk was right, by the time anything was noticed missing, he would be back at the Sanctuary.

brrrrp, brrrrp, brr-click

“Jenkins’ bar.”

“Hi, am I speaking to Mr. Kevin Jenkins?”

“Uh, yeah, you are. What can I do for you?”

“Sir, my name is detective Gabriel Arés, of the San Diego PD.”

“San Diego? Did something happen to Terri?”

“I’m sorry to tell you like this sir, but Miss Boone was murdered this morning.”

This was met with silence.


There was a series of heavy sounds over the phone: a door opening violently, the clatter of something brittle being dropped, and a heavy thumping sound.

”…I’m…. shit, that’s….”

“If you need a few minutes sir, I can call back…”

“No… No, I’m…” there was a heavy, wavering breath from the far side of the line. “…god, Terri.”

“Sir, if you have any information as to a possible motive or culprit, then I could really use that to bring her killer to justice. I know it’s not much consolation, but it’s something.”

“Yeah, uh… She left an envelope under my pillow the day she went home. Note on the outside said “Please don’t open this, K. It’s my Batman insurance.”

Arés’ heart leapt to his throat. He knew that Boone had been a competent woman, but this….

He tried to ignore the fact that it meant Terri knew her life would shortly be in danger. “Do you have the envelope now?”

“It’s upstairs. Let me…” there was a grunt of exertion, then the sound of a door opening again. The distant, tinny voice of a woman offered concern in the form of a “shit, boss, are you okay?”. Jenkins’ response was inaudible, but was followed shortly by another door sound, and feet on what sounded like hardwood steps, then the jingling of keys and another door sound.

“I left it… yeah, here it is.” There was the sound of ripping paper. “it’s a… an email address and a password. says “Google Drive” at the top.” Arés jotted them both down as they were read out, handing the note across to the forensic tech.

“Can you think of any reason why somebody would want Miss Boone dead?”

“Uh… Shit, you put me in an awkward situation here.”

“How so?” Arés asked him.

“Look man, I’m technically a contractor for the Canadian Armed Services, so I’m subject to the Official Secrets Act. I’d do anything to help you figure this shit out, but it’s probably best if I get some official permissions first, you know?”

“I understand. You’ve got my number?”

“Yeah, I can save it. Detective….you’ll let me know when the funeral is, right? Terri and I were close.”

“I’ll put you in touch with her sister.” Arés promised. “You’ll get back to me once you have permission to discuss this further?”

“Sure. I… look, I’ll be honest here man, I’m not holding it together too well here, I just…”

“Take all the time that you need, my friend.”


Jenkins hung up, and Arés breathed a sigh. It had been a fruitful call, but in some ways even harder than the in-person visit to Monica Williams, Terri’s sister. She had just cried and curled up on the sofa, inconsolable. He knew how to deal with that. Stoic guys like Jenkins tore him up even worse, part of him wanted to shake the tears out of them, shouting “it’s okay you idiot, you’re allowed to weep.”

It was advice that he would have heeded himself, if he could.

“Welcome back”

“So what did we steal?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as we’re clear…. there we go.”

Julian set the bag down on the coffee table in Sanctuary’s main lounge with a sigh of relief. Even in the lower gravity and on a cool day, running that far with a pack full of hardware had been exhausting, and he flopped down on the couch, even more grateful than before for the high-tech fibre clothing.

Kirk stepped down from the command blister as he was massaging his sore legs. “Incredible.” he said, and Julian got the impression that a human would have been shaking his head in admiring disbelief. “If I didn’t know about marathons, triathlons and other endurance sports, I’d have never suspected that anything could run so far so quickly. They’ll be scratching their heads over this heist for a long time.”

“So what exactly did I steal?” Julian asked him. Kirk opened the bag and set the stolen goods out on the table. Five were about the size and shape of a hard drive. the other two were larger, closer in size to a loaf of bread and football-shaped.

“These five.” he said, indicating with his smaller manipulator arms “are wormhole beacons. Military grade, which means that they suppress their own distortion signature and can’t be detected with long-range sensors.”

He picked up one of the larger objects. “The other two are system defense field generators, like the device that’s projecting the Sol Containment Field.”

“Pull the other one!” Julian exclaimed. “I’ve taken dumps bigger than those things!”

His tall employer with the coat of short white fur smiled enigmatically, and set the device down. “Why should they be large? It’s all about advanced field technology, and technological advancement usually goes hand-in-hand with miniaturization.”

“Something that small is imprisoning my entire species?”

“Far from it. Nowadays it’s protecting them. Once we get these beacons set up, human starships will be able to leave Sol whenever they want.”

“That’s phase two.”

“Phase three.” Kirk corrected him “Phase two is, we need to deliver one of these fields emitters to Cimbrean. We’re on our way there now.”


“There are humans there. Your government’s first beachhead in the larger galaxy, and hopefully, the first of your fair share of colonies.”

“And the other emitter?”

“That’s for my other project.”

“I’m recording this in case things go as badly as I’m afraid they might… I guess if you’re watching it, they have.”

Terri shifted. She had recorded the footage while sitting in the driver’s seat of her Mustang, the camera—presumably her phone—mounted on the dash in front of her and slightly to the right. It was night-time, and she was parked somewhere.

She ran her hands through her hair, accomplishing only further dishevelment, rather than any grooming.

“What I’m about to say sounds absolutely crazy. But, I guess if I’m crazy and wrong then this video’s never getting seen, and if it gets seen then that’s pretty good evidence that I’m onto something…” she laughed a little. “Which is small comfort.”


She stared out of the window for a bit. A passing car’s headlights cast moving shadows across her face as she paused.

“I’m pretty sure there are aliens on Earth.” she said. “Like, they’ve been here since long before the embassies arrived. And I’m getting more and more convinced that they don’t have our best interests at heart. I’m an investigator, I go by the logical, the methodical and the evidence but… I don’t know call it a hunch, call it a bad feeling, but looking at what I’ve gathered so far, there’s a pattern in there, and it’s kind of a scary one.”

She finger-combed her hair again as it fell across her eyes. She looked rumpled, worn and tense: Arés got the impression that a man in her condition would have had several days’ worth of stubble darkening his jaw.

“I got to thinking, what could a list of alien abductees be worth killing over? That’s all I did for them: Spend two years on their dime, flying first class, interviewing people, examining records, chasing leads. Legwork, you know? I’ve tracked down…. thousands of likely abductees. You learn to see the telltales after a while, the things that tell you “yes, this was THEM”, not just, like, an unhappy end in the river or in a shallow grave in the woods or something. that’s all in one of the documents, you can double-check my work I guess.”

She looked up again as another car ghosted past, filling her own car with light and a soft whoosh of displaced air.

“Why could that be killing for? Why have a man in a suit waiting in my apartment with a gun? I’m pretty sure if I wasn’t safety-conscious, I’d have walked in there and been shot and nobody would be any the wiser. Robbery gone wrong maybe, I dunno, or maybe they… make it look like a rape or something. Something like that. Just another California evening.”

“Was it because I gave a copy of the list to Kevin? But that doesn’t answer the question. A list of names isn’t worth shooting a girl dead in her own apartment over, it’s a termination of contract, you know? “Thank you for your valuable work Miss Boone but we will be commissioning the services of somebody more… trustworthy.” So that list is really, REALLY important. It must be.”

For the first time, she looked directly at the camera. “So I went looking. I’ll… look, the details are all in this Google Drive, so I won’t bother repeating them for the camera. But I’m going to be back in San Diego tomorrow, and there’s a law firm: Grey, Stanton and Friedman. The name itself is a reference to Roswell, one of those stupid ballsy “I’ll never get caught” audacity things, I guess.”

“Why am I looking into them? Ask Ravi Singh. He’s an abductee, He lives in Brick, New Jersey. Ravinder Kanvar Singh. For God’s sake get to him before my killer does, because if you don’t get to the bottom of this then a lot more people than me are going to die.”

“When you find him, ask him about the Hierarchy.”