spiders from mars
Space Case Mystery #4
Paperback ISBN: 9781939197818
eBook ISBN: 9781939197825
She wants to free her mentor from jail. A frame-up keeps him trapped in the system. Can she discover a killer before he disappears forever?
Uniform Lieutenant Sylvia Stryker is about to take off on her fourth Moon Unit Cruise. Her family is gone, her planet was blown up, and her mentor, Neptune, is behind bars indefinitely. But when a space pirate is murdered inside the space prison and Neptune is assumed guilty, Sylvia might lose him for more than the duration of his sentence.
Forget the stability of her job for Moon Unit Corporation. Losing one more person might leave Sylvia isolated forever. Faced with possibly-corrupt galactic government, a team of questionable freelancers, and the limits of her physical capabilities, she goes all-in to get him out. If she fails, she’ll lose the only connection that gives her hope for the future.
Can Sylvia design a successful mission on her own to save the person who taught her everything?
Spiders from Mars is the fourth quirky adventure in the Sylvia Stryker Space Case mystery series. If you like resourceful characters, unique settings, and outer space fun, then you’ll love Diane Vallere’s entertaining, interstellar series.
Buy Spiders from Mars for feisty, feel-good mystery adventure today!
The first thing I did was have Neptune declared legally dead. It was an unlikely start to a rescue mission, but it was my first one, and Neptune’s incarceration made it difficult to ask him for advice.
Neptune, of course, wasn’t dead. He was serving time in a minimum-security prison on Colony 1 after helping me hijack a privately owned spaceship. It was all in a day’s work for high-level security agents like ourselves, but to the Federation Council, it was a violation of law, and somebody had to pay.
Okay, fine, Neptune is a high-level security agent. I’m a lieutenant for an outer space cruise ship and a part time sales rep for Century 21 Uniforms. But I trained to be a security agent before a whole lot of crap that changed the course of my life, and when Neptune gets out, I’m going to hit him up with a proposal he won’t be able to turn down. Partners. The best-dressed security team in the galaxy. (Not that Neptune cares all that much about uniforms, but I figure I should play to my strengths.)
But that’s later, and this is now. Neptune’s been in prison for the past four months, and no doubt anything I say now you’ll miss because you’ll be comparing “the first thing I did” with “four months” and asking yourself, “Geez, Sylvia. The man is in prison. What took you so long?”
I’ll tell you what took me so long. No matter how many intergalactic libraries you hack into, you’d be hard-pressed to find an article titled “Tips for Busting Your Mentor Out of Jail.”
What you will find are stories of corruption. Of people locked up for crimes they claim they haven’t committed. Stories about prisoner abuse, confessions from inmates on their death beds, and if you’re lucky, when your eyes are blurry in the middle of the night after weeks of combing through the Galaxy News archives, you’ll find an interview by a former warden who left the system and now fights against it from the outside. If you have any ideas of breaking someone out of jail, forget it. It’s far easier to get a dead body out of prison than a live one.
That’s where I got the idea.
Drafting a prison break is easy-peasy once you have step one. I had step one. I didn’t waste time studying the language needed to draft a suitable legal notice. I hacked an example from the local mortuary database, forged a signature, and filled in the blanks like a Mad Libs. I carried my paperwork on board Moon Unit: Mars, the cruise ship where I work as the uniform manager, and kept it under my pillow until today, when a twenty-four-hour layover left me a window to file it at Federation Bureau of Affairs before continuing our journey. See? Easy-peasy.
In the past, a Moon Unit would leave the space station and fly directly to our destination. Planets farther away required a combination of thrusters, propellant, wormholes, and gravity assists to get to their destinations. That created an environment where anyone on a Moon Unit couldn’t get off a Moon Unit until it got to where it was going. Which would be fine under normal circumstances, but not so much when there’s a murderer on board the ship. (You might think that’s an odd extreme, but the outer space cruise industry is relatively new and unregulated, and a surprising number of incidents involving murder and cruises have created a hole in the legislation that defines such things.)
After more than one such situation, the governing body of the galaxy, Federation Council, passed legislation to require all passenger-carrying ships to stop at Colony 1, where Federation Council congress was located. The idea was to receive an inspection and clearance before embarking to be sure there were no side missions on anybody’s agenda.
It was a warm day on Colony 1. Temperatures lingered over eighty degrees. The dry climate, combined with a uniform that regulated my body temperature, made it bearable. The uniform in question was a white Stealthyester® jumpsuit with blue trim. It covered everything but my head, which was protected by a bubble helmet that ensured I got breathable air.
Lines of people filled the interior of the Federation Bureau of Affairs. Nobody actually liked spending time at the agency, but certain actions required the effort. I doubted my supervisors at the Moon Unit Corporation expected me to spend my day off filing paperwork, but that was just as well. While other members enjoyed the local tourist attractions, I had a window of relative anonymity to complete some covert business.
The window opened up. A freckled woman with blue hair and matching blue iridescent lip gloss waved me forward. “Name?” she asked.
“Sylvia. Sylvia Stryker.”
“I’m Tulsa. I can see one more person before I take my break. Whatcha got?”
“Death notification.” I passed my signed (forged) and notarized (official) (ish) documents under the phaser-proof glass while the woman checked my credentials. She held my ID card over a scanner and turned her head away while a bright light pulsed underneath the surface. She handed the ID card back, glanced over my paperwork, and made a sympathetic sound.
“Your friend had quite an accident,” she said.
It hadn’t been easy to come up with a plausible method for Neptune to have died while in prison, and I’d discounted any of the more gruesome ways so I wouldn’t have nightmares picturing them. Reality dictated that I needed some details to sell the fib, so I fabricated a story involving his trademark military attire and a cargo-net malfunction.
“Yeah, sad, really. If only he’d been wearing his regulation uniform, none of this would have happened.” (Neptune never did give my job as uniform manager the proper respect.)
Tulsa looked up at me and smiled what I guessed was one of many pitiful looks she passed off during the day. I studied her face—mouth turned down, blue lips pursed, chin dropped—and I thought about how often I’d seen that expression in my life. I learned at an early age that people were generous when it came to pity, but pity didn’t pay the bills. Sometimes, when the circumstances were right, lying, cheating, and bartering did. (Pity helped make it easier to fool people though—so it wasn’t a hundred percent unwelcome.)
Tulsa’s expression changed from pity to judgment. “You’re taking his death very well,” she said suspiciously.
Yes. Right. I cleared my throat and dropped my chin so it was touching the smooth, durable white fabric of my new Century 21 uniform. I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and swiped at my eyes before raising my face to meet hers. “It hasn’t been easy,” I said. “When I first heard, I lost my mind. I couldn’t function.” I glanced to either side and dropped my voice. “My doctor prescribed an antianxiety drug to help me cope. I probably shouldn’t still be taking it after four months, but it still hurts so much, knowing he’s gone.”
“I didn’t know—I’m sorry.” She reached her hand out from behind the phaser-proof glass and tapped the back of mine. “You’ll get over him in time,” she said. “When my husband died, I was on medication for a year. It got so bad, I—” She seemed to realize she was on the verge of confessing deep, dark secrets to a stranger, and she cut herself off. “If you need help getting off the medication, let me know. The program I used was really effective.”
I forced a smile and squeezed the tips of her fingers in solidarity. Truth? I wasn’t on any drug. I was on a mission, and that meant every person I encountered was either an enemy or an ally. I learned that at Space Academy before dropping out, and real-life experience had only illustrated the lesson in real time.
Most people go through life exchanging pleasantries and being polite, never stopping to listen to what others are saying. This isn’t one of those learn-to-listen lectures that promises you can improve your marriage or gain trust from your employees. It’s a fact: let people tell you more than you ask, and file it all away for later.
You never know what you’ll need when you initiate a mission. The only thing you can control is knowing who to go to when you come up against something unexpected.
I finished at the window. Now to wait out the natural news cycle. In the next couple of minutes, my paperwork would be fed into a scanner. Words would be extracted, plugged into a news template, and dumped into a database of stories. At the same time the stories were streamed onto computer screens, they would appear on a marquee that wrapped around the perimeter of Federation Council and projected news stories as they happened. Somewhere between Space Pirate Sabotage on Saturn and Vandalism on Venus would be Neptune’s death: Blacklisted Commander Turned Security Expert Deceased After Cargo-Net Accident in Prison Storage Unit.
Once the information found its way into the prison computers, Neptune’s name and history would be extinguished. It would be as though he spontaneously combusted. If Neptune had made friends on the inside, they might be a complication. But Neptune wasn’t the friend-making type. I guess that’s why loners are loners. They like the simple life.
When my dad was arrested, the news traveled so fast our farm went from being a respected supplier of dry ice to a wasteland of rubbish almost overnight. We were social pariahs. After the council threatened to shut us down, we were left with a fate even worse: invisibility.
If I could render Neptune invisible inside the prison, I’d have a shot at getting him out.
Colony 1 housed both Federation Council and the minimum-security prison where politicians, rich folks who did bad things, and temporarily detained convicts were incarcerated. It’s where Neptune had been taken after his arrest on Saturn, and after hacking into the prison system, I’d confirmed there were no plans to move him anytime soon.
A steady stream of visitors flowed to and from the building. Efforts had been made to make the air and surface quality of the planet hospitable to the largest majority of those visitors, and in addition to the synthetic oxygen mix that a local team of chemists had developed and sold to the government, there were gravity bars where people could hang out and shops to fulfill any of your travel needs. Culinary spots had popped up, too, and now a visit to Colony 1 could net you the best cup of coffee in the universe.
On principle, I drank tea.
The courtyard outside Federation Agency was active. Vendors with small carts sold snacks to employees on break and visitors who’d made the trip for personal reasons. I peeled off the lid to my hot tea and people-watched, letting the beverage cool before removing my helmet so I could drink it. It wasn’t that people-watching was entertaining, it was training. Most people existed in their own world, unaware of what their actions and outfits said about them. I considered this an ongoing part of my security training, being able to assess a crowd, identify threats and allies, and build character profiles based purely on observation. It wasn’t a lesson I learned before dropping out of Space Academy or from Neptune during the short time he tutored me. I came up with this one myself.
As a half Plunian, half earthling, I had some challenges that came with traveling, not the least of which was my need to breath a higher percentage of oxygen than others. I solved the problem by wearing a bubble helmet that was fitted with a tube that attached to a small oxygen tank strapped to my thigh under my uniform. If that didn’t make me stand out among the crowd, my lavender skin tone did. Plunians were purple, and I got my complexion from my father’s side of the family. Mother had died recently when our planet was destroyed by space pirates, and the only thing I had left from her was the knowledge that my unique shade of lavender was partially because of her.
I tested the air quality with my portable molecule tester and, when the reading came back with a positive result, removed my helmet and set it on the bench next to me. I peeled the lid off my tea and blew on the surface then sipped. The beverage was flavored with a hint of zinnia, the most prevalent flower in outer space, leaving behind a lingering sweet note to counter the bitter bite of the tea. I swirled it around over my tongue then swallowed, closing my eyes while the hot liquid slid down the back of my throat. It wasn’t usual for me to indulge in the cost of a cup of brewed tea, but it also wasn’t usual for me to spend my day at Federation Council having someone declared dead. It seemed this was as good a time as any to try to blend in and act like everybody else.
The illuminated banner of news that ran the perimeter of Federation Council Headquarters blinked three times in rapid succession, indicating a reboot of the system. This would be followed up with updated news stories and crime reports. I didn’t know how long it would take for my notarized forms to be processed and released—the system was automated after Tulsa fed the forms into the computer but depended largely on the reports ahead of it. I felt tense, needing to see the news proclaimed to the world before counting my mission as complete.
The banner of news started streaming. Record-Breaking Temperatures Expected on Mars * * * Federation Council Expected to Vote on Proposed Law Changes in Next Twenty-Four Hours * * * Drug Epidemic Reaches Dangerous Levels * * * Prisoner Murdered while Serving Life Sentence * * * Animal Shelters Reach Peak Capacity * * *
The tension within me ratcheted up. Prisoner murdered while serving life sentence? That wasn’t right. I’d said nothing about Neptune being murdered. I sat my tea on the bench and checked my documents on my portable device. The language was clear. Neptune died while unloading cargo from storage. A regulation uniform could have saved his life. It was an unfortunate accident that could have been avoided.
No mention of murder. No mention of anything suspicious. I’d purposely kept it as bland as possible to not attract attention.
Murder attracted attention.
The word “murder” was charged with everything I wanted to avoid, attention being the main thing. A freak accident could happen. It could be brushed under the rug. It wouldn’t cause anybody to do anything differently. But a murder propelled all sorts of people into action, and a report of a murder would certainly lead to a body that was very much alive.
I stood and juggled my helmet, my cup of tea, and my portable document device. The tea fell and splattered by the toe of my gravity boots.
I spun toward the building from which I’d come and saw a Tulsa racing toward me. She moved so fast her blue hair blew away from her face. “I was hoping you were still here,” she said.
I pointed to the streaming banner of news. “There’s a mistake—”
“No mistake,” she said. She grabbed my arm. “Come with me.”
I followed her behind the building to a small garden. Rocky surface area of the colony had been carved away, and small succulents that survived in dry climates covered the ground. There was no way they’d grow on their own, and I wasted a brief thought condemning the council for wasting resources on the beautification of their property and not improving the quality of life for residents under their government.
“There’s a problem with your paperwork. It was rejected from the system because of duplicitous intel.”
“There’s a mistake. Neptune wasn’t murdered. He was in an accident. An accident,” I repeated.
“It’s no mistake,” Tulsa said. “Check your device.”
I tapped the screen and swiped through pages of reports that had been filed before and after mine. I didn’t need Tulsa to tell me which report she wanted me to see. As soon as I saw it, I knew.
Prisoner Murdered While Serving Life Sentence, read the headline. Underneath, in the body of the report, were the details. The victim wasn’t Neptune.
The suspect was.