Perax Frontier, a place like no other. Bathed in the constant glow of the Interface connecting two Universes, the frontier townships of Praxton, and Millaki on the Atlathian side, function without any electrically based technologies. Set against this unusual background, and fighting the hierarchical restrictions of Imperial society, Sheriff Artur Perax investigates the murder of Imperial Ambassador, Madam Lintsa Kroft. And all the time still keeping order among the visitors, frustrated scientists, religious fanatics, misfits, reformed felons and plain good folks who keep the flow of trade goods moving across the Interface.
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"Perax Frontier by Alistair Potter is a combination of science fiction and murder mystery in which Sheriff Artur Kovel Perax, the sheriff of Praxton, must solve the murder of the Imperial Ambassador to Perax, Madam Lintsa Kroft. The Perax Frontier is a small doughnut-shaped asteroid in interstellar space, at the center of which is a gateway between this and another universe, hence its importance and thus meriting an Imperial Ambassador. This novel was an excellent trek into immersion therapy like no other. Potter is a genius at taking readers and plopping them down into a new, expansive world and then immediately acclimating them to a place that they could not imagine under normal circumstances. I was comfortable right away in a time and place that could only be described as magnificent—sights and settings were genuine and solid. There wasn’t one thing that was out of place, and I believed it all without thinking. The fact that the frontier townships of Praxton and Millaki (on the Atlathian side) worked without electricity in such positive ways seemed only a minor backdrop that had been there all along—it just fitted. The coupling of two races (humans and Atlathians) and their varied disciplines involved in criminal investigation techniques is
perfectly executed, including the relationships between the varied characters. The people in Perax Frontier are so well-written by Potter that I didn’t even realize that I was meeting individuals, but instead was absorbed into their personalities and how they blended so perfectly into the storyline. As Reven (a close associate of Sheriff Artur) says: “Have you ever been in one of those relationships where you wished you could start again by not starting it in the first place?" I found myself nodding to answer her question. (I was there, you see…)
"Perax Frontier by Alistair Potter is an exciting science fiction adventure about a man named Artur Kovel Perax, the local Praxton town Sheriff, who works on an asteroid called Perax Frontier. Originally discovered by Artur's great-great-great-grandfather, the Perax Sphere was a deadly force that swallowed ships whole, but had been converted into a center where ambassadors from different planets gather and serve for six-month periods. When Imperial Ambassador Madam Lintsa Kroft is murdered by a mysterious assassin, Sheriff Perax sets out to uncover who is behind the attack while maintaining diplomatic ties and risking life and limb every step of the way.
"The frontier town of Praxton is the outer space setting for the assassination of the well-liked outgoing Imperial Ambassador, Lintsa Kroft, in Perax Frontier by Alistair Potter. Praxton is unique because it sits beside the interface to another universe with a duplicate town on the other side. Although it was formerly known for lawlessness like many a frontier town of old, Sheriff Artur Kovel Perax, great-great-great-grandson of the founder of the asteroid, has managed to maintain order and a wonderful sense of community with the residents of Praxton. Coexisting with the Atlathians on the other side of the interface takes some cooperation so when violations to the treaty maintaining the peace begin to occur, Sheriff Perax has a lot of work to do, especially with a new Imperial Ambassador in town and special investigators in charge of the case. Just like any good, old fashioned lawman, Sheriff Perax manages to track down numerous clues that only lead to more questions. Fortunately, his relationships with the Atlathians help provide some information, but will the pieces of this puzzle get put together before there are even bigger problems?
"Perax Frontier by Alistair Potter is the story of a tiny asteroid, shaped just like a doughnut, that floats alone in interstellar space. It being such a small place, you wouldn’t think it needed an Imperial Ambassador, but it seems it does. You see, the center of the asteroid is hollow, home to a gateway between two universes, home of the Interface. So, why does each Ambassador only serve for a few months? And how long would you be able to live where there was no electricity, no computers, communications or anti-gravity transport? Praxton and Millaki are two townships lit up by the constant glow of the Interface, neither with any technologies based on electricity. Sheriff Perax is investigating the murder of one of the ambassadors while trying to keep some kind of order among the scientists, visitors, and everyone else who keeps the trade going across the Interface. Who murdered Ambassador Madam Lintsa Kroft and can Sheriff Perax find out before it’s too late?
"Perax Frontier by Alistair Potter is a science fiction mystery revolving around the Perax Frontier, which is a small doughnut-shaped asteroid floating in space. Artur Perax is the local sheriff, whose great-great-great-grandfather discovered the asteroid. When Ambassador Kroft's shuttle is blown up, Artur is thrown into an investigation that raises more questions than answers as another body is discovered. Torn between duty and family, Artur has to find a way to be the sheriff the people need to solve Kroft's murder, and the husband his wife needs him to be now that their family is growing.
Perax Frontier has an old-fashioned vibe in a futuristic setting. A place where everybody knows each other, Praxton is a small town in space with a local sheriff. Alistair Potter blends charm with science fiction and a murder mystery, asking the question 'what should come first: duty or family?' I love the old-time vibe through Artur Perax's dialogue, the names, and that delightful scene where he doesn't understand what a smiley face is. The setting may be space, but Artur's tone and personality are realistic to now. I would label this as light science fiction. The setting is hardly different, following daily normal life that just happens to be in space. When Artur stops to ask the postal worker about his soccer team, it showed the sort of person he is: friendly, charming, and endearing. He's easy to like and to relate to. Potter finds the perfect balance between science, murder, family, and humor. Perax Frontier is perfect for science fiction lovers!" - Liz Konkel for Readers’ Favorite
"Wow! Just, wow! That's exactly what I thought when I finished reading Perax Frontier, the new read by author Alistair Potter. An unusual and fascinating work of science fiction, this book is one that kept me engrossed right from the very start. The Perax Frontier is an unusual place, even for space. It's a doughnut shaped asteroid that houses, at its center, the Interface, an extremely important gateway to another galaxy. The Interface is so important, in fact, that the Perax Frontier has its own Imperial Ambassador, an honor that would be highly unusual for any other asteroid. But when the frontier's Imperial Ambassador is murdered, and Sheriff Artur Perax investigates, he begins to realize that there is much, much more to the Perax Frontier than any would have suspected. What does he find? Only time, and this excellent read, will tell!
"Perax Frontier is a small, floating doughnut-shaped asteroid that serves as a small township for trade and goods, in this sci-fi novel by Alistair Potter. More importantly, the asteroid's hollow center is the Interface, a bright, shimmering gateway to another universe, the Atlathian. Artur Kovel Perax, the local Praxton town Sheriff, attends a send-off of the outgoing Imperial Ambassador, Madam Lintsa Kroft and her aides back to the Perax Outer space station. However, someone assassinates her by blowing up her shuttle. As he investigates, Sheriff Perax finds that there’s more to the case and the unique place that he calls home.
Copyright © 2017 Alistair Potter
You might wonder why Perax Frontier, a small doughnut-shaped asteroid floating in the vast emptiness of interstellar space, would merit the presence of a full Imperial Ambassador.
The simplest answer is that nobody could think of a more elevated dignitary for the post; after all, at the asteroid's hollow centre is the Interface: a bright, shimmering gateway between this and another Universe.
Then you might wonder, if it's such an important posting, why would each Ambassador only serve for six months? The answer to that comes as another question: how long could you manage without computers, antigravity transport and wireless communications? How long could you last in a place where electricity doesn't work?
IMPORTANT PASSENGER NOTICE
Shuttle flights to and from Perax Frontier are unpowered. This means that for the duration of the two-hour flight you will be in a weightless state. When assembling for pre-flight, you will be given the choice of space-sickness medication or a sedated sleeper trip at no extra cost. You must choose one or the other. Please remember: no food or drink should be consumed during the flight.
I was always impressed by view from the boarding platform at the top of Launch Ramp One: to my rear was the huge glowing disc of the Interface, ahead, the deep black of space and above, the encircling arch of Frontier's contrary landscape.
Not quite so impressive was the approaching passenger elevator. On board it, and accompanied by her aides, was the outgoing Imperial Ambassador, Madam Lintsa Kroft. Running late, Ambassador Kroft had already ruined the launch schedule for the rest of the day's traffic, and our sluggish gravity-driven elevator was not helping. It was only ever used by dignitaries, the infirm or the extremely patient.
Ready to bid her an official farewell, I waited with our little administrative team. Present were: Magret Gelt, the Chief Coordinator of Imperial Services; Reven Ultas, the Head of the Imperial Communications Network and Ankut Collins, who managed the Perax Frontier Customs Service. As the local Praxton town Sheriff, I was the most junior of this group.
I am Artur Kovel Perax, and if you spotted the Perax bit, you might think it was me who discovered the Frontier asteroid and the huge, deadly and invisible Perax Sphere it sits on. No, it was my great, great, great, grandfather, Kovel Perax, a gifted data analyst working for the Imperial Safety Standards Office, who first suspected that this region of space was eating spaceships. Unfortunately, his suspicions were cruelly confirmed when the first two ships sent to investigate promptly disappeared as well. The greatest hazard to shipping ever recorded, ancestor Kovel then enjoyed the dubious honour of having our surname appended to the sphere's official description. Obviously, a lot had changed since then.
With the elevator almost at the platform, I caught Magret's eye and announced, "That's her, ma'am."
A tall, angular woman with short red hair and a firm jawline, Magret took her spot and then tugged at her jacket hem. "OK, let's try and look smart!"
We all knew the drill: meet-and-greet in reverse, ranking lowest to highest. There was a polite shuffle as we lined up and stood to loose attention.
To mark the occasion, we were all wearing formal dress. For Magret and Ankut that meant a pattern civil service suit in mustard, with collar tags showing their department and grade. For Reven it was a little more dramatic; a Space Navy reservist, she always wore her dress uniform for these outings. It was a glittering confection of gold on black: peak cap, epaulettes, cuff stripes, medals and ribbons. Its splendour eclipsed my drab outfit of stiff collar, dark blue jacket with shiny buttons, and matching trousers.
As soon as the elevator clunked into its safety locks, the spaceport staff, Launch Supervisor Wil Torson and two of his ground crew, sprang into action. The crew slid back the safety barrier guarding the elevator shaft and then Wil unlatched the elevator's concertina gate, pulling it aside.
With a nod of thanks, Ambassador Kroft emerged onto the platform. An attractive older woman with silvery blonde hair, she was dressed for travel in a stylish grey trouser suit. Close behind her were four aides, two male and two female, each carrying a few small parcels, and all wearing a House uniform in the same grey as the Ambassador's outfit.
First in line, I inclined my head as Ambassador Kroft paused in front of me.
"Sheriff Perax, Artur," she said, "I must thank you for your many kindnesses during my stay."
"It was a pleasure, Ma'am."
She smiled. "I do wish Kervon were still alive; I'm sure he would have enjoyed meeting you as much as I have, although he never did talk much of the war."
Her husband Kervon and I had managed to survive a brutal four year conflict with the insect-like Kite, though we had held very different ranks in the Space Navy Marines.
"Tough and terrible times, Ma'am," I said. "I think we all wanted to move on and forget."
"Of course, yes." She turned to a male aide and he handed her a small box. "I tried hard to think of a suitable parting gift, Artur. I wanted you to know I was sincere in our brief friendship, so I thought you might appreciate this."
I accepted the box and flipped it open. Nestling on black silk was an Imperial Cross, the Empire's highest military award. It had to be Kervon's.
I tried to hand it back. "I can't, really…"
"But I insist," she said, raising a palm. "I have many other mementoes and memories."
"I feel deeply privileged. Thank you, Ma'am."
She leaned forward and embraced me, whispering, "So formal, Artur, quite unlike you."
I returned the embrace. On those occasions where we met informally, she had been an interesting an enjoyable companion. I would miss her wit, capricious nature and the ability to drink most grown men under the table; though I should quickly add that her predecessor, Sur Bejammin Butsy, was a far more notorious drinker.
"Travel well and far," I said.
"Live well in my absence," she responded.
Ambassador Kroft, Lintsa, moved on down the line to Ankut. His customs team maintained an around the clock watch on the goods and passenger movements through the Frontier spaceport. Dark-haired, slim and with too much nervous energy, he kept a paper calendar in his quarters, using it to count down the days to the end of his duty tour. And who could blame him? Most of the real customs work was performed on the Perax Outer space station, but any time on Frontier looked good on a career CV.
You might think that was my reason for being here, but, like many others who lived on Frontier; I enjoyed the freedom our peculiar circumstances offered. Anything that included the words electric, electrical or electronic, were a non-starter; from surveillance to footprint, there was almost no way to keep track of what went on down here.
As a parting gift, Ankut received a nice landscape of the spaceport which was painted from an impossible viewpoint, floating out beyond our shallow atmosphere. I knew the artist and how collectible she was. I hoped he had the smarts to realise its value.
Next in line was Reven. An ex-Space Navy Intelligence Corps operative, her neat auburn off the shoulder hair and sunny disposition concealed a sharp and analytical mind.
Reven had a varied remit. She managed the team of cycle couriers who carried bulk data storage devices between the Universes, the Blinks teams, who operated signal lamp comms between us and Perax Outer and the Ground Blinks hub, which connected to select locations in Praxton. She also held the grand title of Postmaster General for the Praxton Postal Service, which handled real paper mail and parcels.
Reven's gift was a forty-year-old bottle of Mollian spirits from a distiller renowned for supplying the Imperial household. In thanks, she slipped off her peak cap and hugged Lintsa warmly.
Lintsa had reached the end of the line. After a few pleasantries, and the presentation of another little box, the contents causing Magret to blink in surprise, there was a final handshake. Magret then escorted Lintsa towards the shuttle where the two ground crew waited to seal the hatch.
The shuttle was the same model of trolley-gig used for all passenger flights. Streamlined, and with tall, thin wheels gripping the launch rails, it had comfortable padded seating inside for ten. Preheated thermal dissipation units and bioluminescent lighting kept everyone happy for the two hour flight to where a grab-tug scooped them up, ready to dock with the Perax Outer space station. Those that chose to stay awake even had the option of music, an air motor powering the modern version of an ancient device called a phonograph.
Three of Lintsa's aides had already gone aboard, the fourth, a female, waited by the hatch, ready with a thick fur-lined coat. As Lintsa allowed the aide to slip the coat up her arms and over her shoulders, she caught my eye and winked.
I smiled and winked back. She'd been a good friend to my wife Holly and me, making every effort to sweep away the barriers normally surrounding individuals of such High Imperial stock.
I would miss her, especially since her replacement, Sur Mikal Hushten, sounded like a complete waste of air. But maybe it was too soon to judge, we'd all find out when he came down in a few days time. Following protocol there was a Handover of Duty ceremony, a big expensive bash on Outer station that the likes of me would never be invited to.
Magret ordered a salute and those of us with a military background snapped one out, prompting the faintest nod of approval from Lintsa. Magret then waved the two ground crew forward to make sure everyone inside was strapped in tight. When they emerged from the shuttle they sealed and dogged the hatch, closed the platform's safety gate and then gave Magret the thumbs-up for launch.
Magret gave a nod to Wil and he pulled a lever. With a hiss of released air the section of track holding the shuttle began to seesaw, lifting the tail and dropping the nose.
Each of the spaceport's three shuttle launch ramps resembled an unfinished rollercoaster ride. And though it might seem like a cruel joke that the tracks ended just below the surface of Frontier's pond-like atmosphere, this was how all shuttles started their journey to the Perax Outer space station.
When the shuttle was lined up with the ramp's tracks, Wil gave another thumbs-up. "Ready to launch, Chief Coordinator."
Magret nodded. "Launch the shuttle, Mr Torson."
Wil pulled a second lever and the locking clamp released with a dull thud.
Driven by compressed air, a piston pushed the shuttle firmly down the incline. It accelerated steadily until it reached the up curve at the bottom where conservation of angular momentum came into play, increasing its speed even more. Then, as the shuttle reached the gentler incline of the last section, a pin beneath the track operated the valve on a bank of compressed air bottles attached to the hull. This forced a jet-like stream of air and water through nozzles on the rear; still accelerating, the shuttle flew from the end of the ramp, leaving in its wake a glittering trail of ice crystals.
I had turned away, ready to head down the passenger access staircase, when a flicker of light caught my attention. It was closely followed by a hollow and too familiar percussion rumbling onto the edge of our atmosphere; I turned back quickly, finding a ball of fluorescing gases expanding from where Lintsa's shuttle should have been. It had blown apart.
There was a long silence before Magret growled, "I'm not taking the shit for this one."
I was shocked and angry, but quickly suppressed my emotions. Straight away, I spotted that one of the ground crew responsible for the lock-in was gone. The other one stood open-mouthed, staring at the pale corona lingering around the blast centre of the explosion.
"Where's your partner?" I demanded.
He took a second or two to realise he was now on his own.
I pointed, speaking to no one in particular, "He does not leave the spaceport."
Without using the passenger staircase the obvious way off the platform was by climbing onto the framework below it. I leaned over the guardrail and saw the man, already halfway down, move to a lower service ladder and begin descending it. There was no convenient comms to call for backup; if I wanted to catch this one, I had to run him down myself.
I grabbed Magret's arm and pressed the box containing the Imperial Cross into her hand. "I'm going after the runner. Get word to my Deputies."
"Consider it done," she said.
Dashing from the platform, I quickstepped it down the staircase. The stairs switchbacked and for a few seconds I had sight of the runner; he was nearing the bottom of the ladder. Just as I turned the next switchback, he jumped clear of the ladder and started towards the passenger gate. A high stone wall bounds the spaceport, so that was his nearest exit.
I hit the ground and sprinted, but as I rounded the end of the passenger reception building, the runner was nowhere to be seen. The guard on the gate looked as confused as anyone else.
"Runner," I shouted ahead. "Which way?"
The guard pointed. "Clockwise on an AirPed; said he was sent to fetch Doc Overton!"
AirPeds were lightweight bicycles with a pressure bottle feeding a tiny air motor; fast and efficient, the only way to catch one was on another AirPed.
I ran through the gate and looked along the Radial. It was busy with AirPed-Taxis, collecting and dropping off passengers. As these were just a tube frame tricycle with a cycle seat at the front and a pair of bucket seats at the back, it didn't take long to spot my man travelling at speed and weaving through the traffic.
I pushed my way through the visitors clustered around a line of souvenir stalls outside the gate and grabbed a sport model AirPed from a rack in front of a hire concession.
The concession's operator, Wilma Brock, a shapely woman in a bright floral dress, leapt from her deckchair and shouted, "Don't you go breaking that now, Sheriff!"
"I'll try not to, Wilma," I called back.
Pointing the AirPed down the Radial, I climbed on and pedalled hard, powering it up to speed. I worked my way through the gears before easing open the throttle and feeding air to the motor. The quickest way to waste pressure was to sit pretty and let the motor do all the work; no problem for a rich visitor, but I might need the help later.
My quarry banked hard to turn off the Radial and entered Spinal 10, which skirted the population centre of Praxton and was the main transfer route for cargo heading to and from the Interface. If that was his destination, and he got across, things could get tricky. We had good relations with our Atlathian neighbours, but explaining my need to chase and run down a fugitive to their border staff could give him the time he needed to disappear into Millaki, their equivalent of Praxton.
When I reached the turn, I banked carefully and swung around a brick-built storage warehouse. I caught sight of my man about four hundred paces ahead, and with no sign of slowing.
Cycling was never one of those skills I'd considered essential until reaching Frontier. But one embarrassing chase, where even the kids were passing me, was enough motivation to get better at it. A lot better it turned out. Breathing deep, I hunkered down, pushed it out and started gaining on him.
The road surfaces were smooth and mostly predictable, but build-up of fine dust could cause problems, especially on these busier routes. And though down was always directly below your feet, the horizons were confusing. Travel on a Spinal road, to or from the Interface, and the horizon curved away, as it might on any planet, but much quicker; take a Radial road, parallel to the Interface, and the horizon curved towards you, eventually looping over your head. At speed it all became more noticeable.
Ignoring the illusion I was about to cycle down a steepening slope, I focused on the fugitive. I'd already halved the distance between us, but the road was getting busier, filling with all manner of pedal and air powered traffic. Mostly the middle of the road was kept clear for cycle couriers, but I was in trouble if some halfwit crossed the centre lanes without checking properly.
As the huge flattened ellipse of the Interface rose towards me, I knew it was time to use the air reserve. I opened the throttle fully and the thready burble of the exhaust note increased. But as the pedal rate rose, I struggled to match it. I glanced down at the derailleur gear cluster on the back wheel, hoping for another gear, but it was a visitor model and I was out of luck.
I was well into my quarry's dust wake when the first large warning board appeared at the side of the road:
Caution! Interface Ahead.
It said the same in various nearby system languages, but that was the one I could read.
Folks travelling away from the Interface were starting to notice us now, many stopping to watch our progress and cheer me on. Spurred by their enthusiasm, I bobbed my legs up and down frantically, trying to add something to the effort. I was still gaining, and if I could bridge the gap of about twenty AirPed-lengths, I could clip his wheel and ground him, but I was fast running out of road.
The next warning board slipped by:
Caution! Interface Ahead.
Consult with Border Monitors before crossing.
The Interface was now a shimmering wall filling my view and casting so much light, this whole area was known locally as the beachfront. The traffic ahead was slowing and spreading out as the road widened, splitting into the category lanes for the crossing: Pedestrian Visitor, Pedestrian Local, Goods Vehicle, Passenger Vehicle, Cycles and Couriers.
I felt a flutter of panic as the first warning board mounted over the courier lane flashed by:
Caution! Interface Ahead. Risk of Death!
Couriers slow and dismount now.
Obey the Border Monitors.
Ahead, the orange uniformed Border Monitor on our lane was waving frantically for us to slow down. It was Kelt Belfor, a long-time Frontier man; he'd worked the Interface for about two years now.
I hit the first rumble strips, the sudden vibration making my teeth itch. After that the strip groups came faster until they were a steady rising buzz. I was close, about four AirPed-lengths, but I knew I wouldn't catch him.
The last warning board was repeated over every lane:
Risk of Death by Matter Dissociation.
Cross at your own risk.
As I raced under our board, Kelt shouted, "Bail, Sheriff, bail!"
I jammed on the brakes and began to skid. The AirPed slid from under me and I fell on my back, stretching my hands out to either side to clutch frantically at the ground. I was still sliding and kicking the AirPed ahead of me when I saw the other rider cycle straight into the Interface, disappearing with a faint whurpping noise and sending out a glowing ripple that faded quickly.
I kicked my AirPed firmly away and juddered to a halt about two paces from the Interface. The AirPed slid on into it, whurpped gently and stopped halfway through.
Controlling my breathing, I crawled carefully forward and gripped the back wheel, retrieving a neatly truncated frame. The handlebars and front wheel were gone. Still holding the frame, I reverse-crawled about ten paces and then sat back to catch my breath.
Kelt crouched beside me. "You OK, Sheriff?"
"Sure," I said, still staring at the spot where the other rider had disappeared.
"Religious nut?" Kelt asked.
"I think he blew up Ambassador Kroft's shuttle." I turned to Kelt and nodded towards the Interface. "Though obviously, he won't be confirming that."
"Shit, I heard a bang, but thought something was dropped."
"I wish it were, Kelt." I looked down at my dress uniform; the glare from the Interface highlighted every fold, crease and dusty smear. The trousers were a mess, and I started brushing off the dust, as much to clean them as to distract myself from contemplating the horror of what would have happened if I hadn't managed to stop.
I'd missed my chance to catch the guy; he'd exceeded the safe passage speed and flashed-out on the Interface. I tipped my head back to examine its full lethal beauty and my perceptions suddenly flipped; I had the strangest feeling I was sitting on the bank of a huge circular lake of shimmering water. Closing my eyes, I searched for the reassuring pressure of the ground against my backside.
"Want me to call the Doc?" said Kelt.
"No, just a face-shift," I said.
It was a common experience and Kelt gripped my arm. "Easy now, Sheriff, let me help you up."
I stood carefully, turned away from the Interface and looked back at the brightly lit and anxious faces waiting in the queues. I lifted a hand and waved, producing a low cheer. It seemed the right thing to do.
Other than Kelt's genuine concern for my safety, I'd just messed up his day, and his safe passage record. I carefully presented him with the rest of the AirPed. "You'll need this for your report. Log it as a criminal pursuit and I'll countersign it when it hits my office. The way I see it, you did everything you could to prevent this. You've no blame here, and that's what my report will say."
He took charge of the AirPed, avoiding the razor-sharp edges left by the Interface. "Thanks, Sheriff."
There was a stir in the queues as two of my Deputies arrived on Sheriff's Department AirPeds. Both were fully kitted-up: helmet and body armour, with big eight-round revolvers strapped across their chests and short pump action shotguns sitting in scabbards on their backs. The weapons would be loaded with non-lethal rounds, but they still looked the part.
Hugo Meek, a muscle-bound brute of a man who could stop a bar fight just by entering the room, sidled up and tipped a loose salute. "Got your message, Sheriff. Came as quick as we could."
"Thanks, Hugo, but there's nothing more to do here."
He glanced over my shoulder. "Flash-out?"
I nodded. "It looked intentional."
We all had to deal with it; occasionally a visitor climbed the perimeter fence and tried to cross outside the border point, running into solid rock on the other side, or stepping off into a void and dropping to the ground. The lucky ones fell away from the Interface and got away with a few broken bones. The others ended up losing feet, arms, hands and even bits of head. Most bled out before they reached medical help. Then there was the Up Travellers, who threw themselves into the Interface, hoping to shed their physical form and rise to a transcendent existence.
The other deputy, Jeyt Lavery, appeared a lightweight, but he'd recently surprised everyone by coming first in the Frontier Radial Marathon, a gruelling five-loop road race equivalent to about forty kilometres. Unasked, he'd kept station at the AirPeds, unslung his shotgun and was now eyeballing the gathering crowd, watching for any unusual activity. Hugo was a good man to have at your back, but I'd have chosen Jeyt for my combat team any day of the week.
I caught a flicker of light just above the down-ring horizon: Blinks communications traffic between Perax Outer and the Office of Imperial Services here on Frontier. The staff on Outer would have seen Lintsa's shuttle explode and would be looking for answers.
I had a good idea how it would play out; someone with Imperial clout would insist the investigation be carried out by a proper investigator which wouldn't be the local man, regardless of his ancestry. I probably had about three to four hours before that shuttle hit the landing skidway. If I could get a foot in the door they wouldn't be as likely to take it away from me.
"Hugo, you keep an eye open here. I'll send relief at the end of shift."
He saluted. "Sir."
Kelt looked towards the crossing queues; they were getting bigger by the second. "Are you stopping traffic?"
"No, Kelt, keep it moving. Anything looks off to you, let Hugo know."
He nodded, clearly relieved. "What do you want me to say to the Atlathian B-Ms?"
I paused; the Border Monitor on the Atlathian side would have seen the distinctive plasma wave of the flash-out. The protocol was to wait for news from the other side, and once informed, they then passed a report to the Atlathian Police Department for their records.
"Let them know it was a criminal pursuit. Just say what you saw."
"Do you want me to mention Ambassador Kroft's shuttle too?"
"Yes. Chief Asmist will need to know why I was in pursuit. Also ask the Monitor to pass on a message from me to Chief Asmist: if he has a little time to spare, I'd value a chat."
Kelt nodded. "I'll get that done, Sheriff."
VISITOR'S GUIDE - Get to know Perax Frontier.
Space Walkers are highly paid professionals who work outside our atmosphere. As their job title suggests, they surface walk to where they are needed. Mostly they can be seen engaged in maintenance tasks around the spaceport and ice farms, but their operational endurance is tested when they go to the outer edge of the toroid to attach winch hawsers to promising archaeological finds. Working in temperatures as low as seventy degrees Kelvin, there is always a limit to the time they can spend in this harsh environment.
I took Hugo's AirPed and with Jeyt in tow, headed back to the spaceport. It couldn't be much over ten minutes from when I'd sped by in the other direction and folks were waving friendly greetings as we passed, oblivious to the recent dramas.
When we arrived, I explained my hasty requisition of the hire AirPed to Jeyt. I asked him to apologise to Wilma and deal with issuing a claim chit, and to include a day's hire to make sure she wasn't out of pocket. I left him to it and approached the passenger entrance to the spaceport compound.
They'd stopped all passenger traffic for the day, which was creating a stir at the gate, with a lot of self-important types making unpleasant noises and threats. Gate security was trebled and Ankut was finally earning his salary, desperately trying to placate everyone while still releasing no information.
With a nod to his men, I was passed through the crowd and into the yard, one of the guards pointing me towards the impressive Imperial Services Administration building. This was an imposing structure faced with white marble panels, shipped in from a planet twenty light years away.
Before entering, I glanced towards Launch Ramp One. Wil had a two-man Space Walker crew out on the end of the last flat section, likely inspecting for damage or debris on the rails. Bulbous and cumbersome, their reflective white spacesuits glowed in the Interface light; above them, little puffs of expelled air were flash freezing into glittering jets that disappeared off into the darkness. As one of the most dangerous activities on Frontier they had my total respect.
I paused. If they found anything, I'd need it for forensic analysis; it could tell us a lot about the bomb and give a clue to its origins. I was caught between reporting in to Magret and heading over to have a word with Wil.
Jeyt solved my problem, arriving from his task at Wilma's hire concession. I gave him his new instructions and left him to it.
Inside the Administration building, one of the guards ushered me through to Ankut's office on the ground floor. It was a utilitarian room finished in white, with a plain black desk and matching leather office chairs. Shelves filled with rows of box files ran along one wall. On the opposite wall, a single large window looked down the length of the spaceport, with the passenger hall nearest, then the three Launch Ramps and beyond them the goods sheds and the scooping ramp of the landing skidway.
Magret sat behind Ankut's desk, rising to her feet as I entered. "Did you get him?"
"No. He cycled straight into the Interface without even slowing. Could have been panic, but I think it was intentional."
"Shit, shit, shit!" Magret slumped into the chair. She avoided my eyes for a few seconds before adding, "They took you off it, Artur, almost the first thing they Blinked. They're sending down a SCIIM."
Special Crimes Investigator for his Imperial Majesty was as high as it went in Imperial lawkeeping, but this was my town. "I've a couple of hours before they get someone down..."
Her voice was firm. "You're to do nothing, Sheriff Perax."
I heard the alarm sirens whoop. Maybe it was just protocol for a dignitary of Lintsa's rank, but it sounded a bit quick and prearranged. I hated to think it was a stupid House feud or a political assassination, she deserved better. They all did, her aides as well. I realised I'd taken a little too long to respond and quickly came to attention.
"What would you like me to do, Chief Coordinator?"
"Write it up, my desk by fourteen hundred hours."
"I'm sorry, Artur, I know you and she got on well, were friends."
I didn't answer, but I nodded, thanking her for recognising that at least.
She tapped a note on the desk. "Sur Hushten's upped his schedule. There's no Handover, so he's coming down tonight."
"Does he want a meet-and-greet when he arrives?"
"No, he seems to have made the shift to our day-night schedule."
We ran on a twenty-hour decimal day: fifty minutes to the hour and a hundred seconds to the minute, a compromise to cover a range of planetary norms on both sides of the Interface.
"Tomorrow then?" I asked.
"No word on that, but you'd better keep your schedule open." She looked me up and down. "And you'll need to get that dress uniform cleaned."
She was stating the obvious, but I tried not to get angry. "I'll be ready."
She pushed the box with the Imperial Cross in it towards me and I picked it up. Then there was an awkward pause, but we weren't finished. I might have been taken off the investigation, but we couldn't ignore the possibility that this was more than an isolated event.
"I should pull in my Deputy Reserves; maintain a presence in town and watch for any follow-on activity."
"Shit, you think it'll happen again?"
Personally I didn't, but the prudent view was to prepare for the worst.
"Standard alert procedure," I said.
"Do what you think is best."
"I'll need it clearer than that, Chief Coordinator."
"Very well, Sheriff. You have my permission to draw on whatever Deputy Reserves you need until further notice."
"Thank you, Chief Coordinator."
"Dismissed, Sheriff Perax."
I saluted and left. In any normal circumstances, a place like Frontier would be a military installation, but the Interface Treaty agreed with the Atlathians had insisted on a civilian presence only. That hadn't stopped the Imperial Conclave from seeding the civilian population with a lot of ex-military. These men and women were ideal Deputy Reserve material and were happy to do the job, not because of any loyalty to the Imperial court, but because they had family on Frontier to protect.
It was the end of a busy, tiring day; I'd called in my Deputy Reserves, issued them with ballistic vests, badges and sidearms, and then put them on rota for the next sixty hours. I'd sent out my dress uniform to the cleaners, paying premium PrU for a rush job. I'd also finished my report for Magret, sticking to the facts only, with no speculation. The Imperial Cross was locked securely in my office safe and I'd completed the handover to my night duty officer, Senior Deputy Megan Till. Now it was time to head home to Holly.
On the way, the streets were quieter than usual, so the news about Lintsa was definitely out. I'd probably get flak for blabbing to Kelt at the Interface, but something as unusual as this didn't take long to spread.
I paused across the street from my local watering hole, The Weary Blinker; not that I was desperate for alcohol, but if there were any rumours it was one of the places they might surface. I was tempted to go in and flap my ears a bit, but Magret's warning stopped me; it was straight insubordination if I was found out. Better to get back to Holly and keep my nose clean.
Holly and I shared quarters in the remains of an old passenger starship, the Long Night. Made mostly from a carbon plastic composite, it sat on the outskirts of town, on the edge of Spinal 1. It served as a luxury liner, but about a third of it was crushed to a compressed plastic sandwich when it crashed onto Frontier. About sixty percent of what was still useable functioned as a small hotel, the rest was private accommodation.
The grey powdery soil and rock around the ship was landscaped and planted with architectural fungi and other hardy native vegetation. This hid most of the hull and the only prominent feature was an armoured glassite observation dome, which projected clear from the top of the mound and was used as a swanky cocktail lounge, complete with a small string ensemble.
It helped if you didn't dwell on it, but the remains of the crew and passengers had long ago been sent to their rest or returned to descendants, for them to take care of the final arrangements in whatever way fitted their beliefs.
On a more cheerful note, the captain's suite was popular, and was booked by honeymoon couples who came here for that unique experience only Frontier could provide. Apparently, it was fifty-fifty whether couples from each Universe wanted to tie the knot on their side or the other side. It kept all the different preachers, priests, holy men and civil registrars on both sides busy enough.
A flash of light and a puff of smoke alerted me to a wedding party clustered around the main entrance. They were taking photographs using traditional light-sensitive chemistry techniques, but the explosive flash was too poignant a reminder of Lintsa's last moments. Not wanting to spoil the mood of the newlyweds, I switched my route and entered through a side hatch. After walking a series of softly lit corridors to our door, I opened it to find Holly standing in my path.
"Hi sweet," I said.
She slapped me hard and fast. I rolled with it, but only shed a little of the stinging blow.
"If you ever do something so stupid again," she barked, "I'm leaving!"
"You heard?" I said, with a sigh.
She thrust a bulletin broadsheet from our local rag, The Frontier News, into my face. "Now everyone knows what a grade-A asshole my husband is!"
That wasn't the headline, but I wasn't arguing; sometimes it was best to keep your shields up and weather the storm. The actual headline was: Sheriff Perax Chases Assassin to his Death in Dramatic Pursuit! There was even an artist's impression of the final moments, showing me skidding across the ground on my backside, with the runner already halfway into the Interface.
Unfortunately, whoever witnessed the moment had been a little too perceptive, noting how close I'd come to flashing-out on the Interface myself. The article went on about how lucky the residents of Praxton were to have me as their Sheriff, and I'd just reached the bit where the Sheriff's wife, Holly Perax, was asked to comment on her husband's bravery, when the page was torn aside.
Holly flung herself at me, gripping my neck firmly; I could feel her tears trickling down my cheek.
"Promise you won't do that again, Attie?"
"I won't, I promise."
"I can't lose you," she said, adding a moment later in a warm breath that sent a shiver up my spine, "not now."
She allowed me a few confused seconds to decipher her words.
"We're pregnant," we said, in unison.
Her big golden smile said I was forgiven, for now.
"Really?" I said.
She nodded. "Doc Overton confirmed it today."
"Wow," I said. "Wow!"
All content © Alistair Potter.