The prompt for this story is courtesy my friend Quin Overland, although I suspect I've interpreted it very differently than she intended! Thanks also to Kat Gavin for a beta pass that helped me strengthen things. Downside to having been writing a bunch of stuff I haven't posted yet (e.g. the novel) is that I know a lot more detail about this universe, and sometimes I forget that the reader of an individual story doesn't have all that context.
The main character is someone who will figure prominently in the novel I started as part of NaNoWriMo, and now I get to write a bit of backstory for her!
Newer York, Staten Ring Level B Section 25
9 Adar 527 After Starfall
There he was, the boy that would change her life.
Her first murder victim.
It galvanized her in a way nothing else had. From the moment she saw the body, she knew she needed to do everything she could to make sure the killer was found.
Juanita Perez had come to Newer York four years ago almost on a lark. Estranged from most her family, disillusioned with life in Sachs Harbour—as bustling a port city as Arctic Union boasted in post-Collapse times—she had scrimped and saved for the outwell trip, working for part of her passage fees so she could afford the transfer to a skipship to TRAPPIST-1.
The only person she really missed was her brother, Teo. He'd been 16 when she left, was turning 21 now. They exchanged letters—long, heartfelt tomes. Each letter took nearly half a year to find its mark. They didn't necessarily wait, each for the other, but sometimes interleaved their news. Waiting just took too long when there was stuff to share. She kept hoping he'd come out here, some day, and he was thinking about it, but he was also closer to the rest of the family than she'd ever been, and had good prospects in the Harbour.
Accepted into the Ellis program, she found herself surrounded by a mixture of native-born Newer Yorkers—every young adult went through the program to find their own place in the Spinning City—and fellow immigrants. She'd fallen in with a bunch of misfits, who had quickly become like family. She'd found her clan early and easily--a group of friends that became a family, a model Newer York strongly encouraged. That clan had since bifurcated, more because of its size than due to any internal strains, but she remained close with all of them.
She'd come out of the Ellis program a year before, a rookie in Newer York's small police department. The work was not always exciting, but it was necessary. She felt a need to help keep this home she'd found safe, but it wasn't a passion, then. It was just a feeling. Newer York, though, was the kind of place one could follow one's feelings until one found one's passion. Nobody here scrimped just to get a meal, or to keep a roof over their head.
So, she'd learned her trade, done her job from day to day, walked a beat, kept the "streets" safe. Some days, the work was easy to the point of boredom. The culture of Newer York, combined with ubiquitous surveillance of public spaces (for good and ill), meant that petty crime was rare. There wasn't much point in picking a pocket when there was no way to spend someone else's energy credits, and when the cameras would almost certainly catch you at it.
That said, violence was still a problem. Newer York was a big place, for a space station, but there were still almost half a million people cooped up in it. No matter how well those people were brought up in the ethics of its founders, people were still people. Disagreements would become arguments would potentially become fights. Alcohol was plentiful and drunken brawls common. Other drugs were not unknown—some that had always had a niche here, some that had made the skip with Earthers. Private spaces were not surveilled—a compromise that went back to the Founding—which meant that some crimes were harder to solve than others.
Other, more subtle crimes, were also known. Identity theft—which could actually allow the use of someone else's energy credits, wasn't unknown. Hacking in general was a big deal when computers where literally ubiquitous. Fraud and other "business" crimes had come back into vogue now that the station was established enough to have more of an open economy.
Even so, murder...murder was rare. This was only the second one Juanita was personally aware of in the four years since she'd arrived, and the first since she joined the force.
The call had come in as she was walking her beat, on the B level of Staten Ring. A teen from one of her blocks had failed to turn up after school. Easy enough, Juanita had thought. She'd run the trace on his ID bracelet, only to find it up a tree in a public park, five blocks from the school. Five blocks the wrong way from home.
That was bad. Not like ID bracelets were welded on or anything, but usually they were just forgotten at home, or maybe a band broke and they fell off. Up a tree felt like something rather less accidental.
She turned to the feed from the street cameras, then, near the park, which showed him entering the park, sliding without apparent furtiveness into the cover of a grove. No camera showed him leaving, and of course, his ID bracelet had been left behind.
On a hunch, she did a quick search—easy with Newer York's advanced processors and smart software. Juanita tended not to talk to the department's arties—most Newer Yorkers, herself included, found something a bit creepy about artificial personalities. She knew some of her colleagues partnered with them all the time, but she remained reluctant. Still, she had plenty of advanced tools at her disposal that didn't actually talk back, and that could do the job she needed here.
Turned out, the kid went to the park all the time. And why not? she thought. As teen rebellion went, it was hardly even notable, to seek some privacy in a stand of trees.
Groves like this had deeply surprised Juanita once. The Sachs Harbour domes sported a few parks of varying sizes, but no real stands of trees. Warmed as the Earth was, the Arctic still didn't really support trees naturally, and a decision had been made, apparently, not to plant them inside the domes, though the temperate internal environment would have supported them.
She had figured living on a space station wouldn't be all that different than life in the domes. She'd been wrong in one key respect: it was greener. On the Outbound Voyage (always capitalized, you could hear it in people's voices) of the ship that was still the core of the station, the Passengers had had the whole inner surface as growing space, and had set aside chunks of it for orchards. When the time came to build out the rings, each level of each ring was built tall—nearly 40 meters tall for most of them, although the Manhattan ring, earliest and experimental—had for shorter levels, 25 meters each, and more of them.
In either case, the result was more open space than most newcomers expected, with buildings rather than just layers of corridors, and with parkland, some of the parks quite large. And, in this case, thickly wooded.
Arriving at the park on foot, she summoned a drone and sent it in to see what it could see, while pinging Sergeant Bentley—next nearest to her position according to her display—for backup. If she was going to have to go into the grove, she was going in with backup. She was young and idealistic and sometimes a little gung-ho. She wanted to find this kid, and quickly. But she was not stupid.
The drone fed its sensor data to her via data-glasses. The fashion here in Newer York right now tended to more overt displays—hand terminals of various sizes, mainly. Tech heads sometimes had implants, and data-glasses like hers, or contact-lens displays, were not unknown, especially in professional spheres. Current etiquette counted them as rude, though—as if you were never putting your terminal down and really facing the people in front of you.
Just now however, she wasn't interacting with anybody else. This was a tool to be used in the line of duty. She wanted her hands free, which meant not holding a terminal in them. At any rate, just now, she was too intent what the glasses were showing her to notice if any passers-by looked at her with disapproval.
So she watched the feeds, hoping that the kid had just lain down for a nap, but no, there was the ID bracelet, half-way up the tree, hanging on a branch. From the angle and location, she was betting it had been flung there. Still, the kid might have been having a rebellious moment, wanting to get away from it all or something. Kids. You know.
She took a breath. First rule was to see what was in front of you, not what you wanted to see in front of you. What was in front of her was a flung ID badge and, as far as the drone could tell, an empty grove.
Bentley showed up a moment later. "What's up, Perez?"
"Missing kid. Went in there--" she tilted her head toward the grove, "--hasn't come out. Drone just buzzed through and found his ID up a tree. No heat sigs except the trees."
Bentley nodded, "Which could be masking him, especially if he were hurt. So, we go in, with the drone high for extra cover, yeah?"
"Got it in one. Always knew you were smart, Bent."
"That's why you called me, first, right? OK. Let's go for a stroll." He put on his own data-glasses, they synced up, and spread out.
It took some practice, seeing one's partner's view, the drone's view, and what was right in front of you. Mostly, one counted on the glasses to highlight something in the other views if it was needful, or on some audible cue, while one paid attention to normal vision. She had an infrared overlay as well, but the trees were most of what she saw, even then. There were some birds flitting around, a squirrel or two, but nothing remotely person sized.
She got near the tree the ID badge had been up, and the glasses flashed something on the grass nearby.
"Got a trace, here. Some blood."
"On my way."
She already head a sample kit out of a pocket, gloves on her hand, and several blades of grass the glasses highlighted as blood spattered went in to the kit. The kid didn't have DNA on file—he'd never been in that kind of trouble before—but his blood type was. "Sample kit has a match for blood type," she said aloud, as Bentley approached her.
"Looks like we have a bit of a trail?" He said, pointing, and her data-glasses concurred, highlighting the drops as well as a furrow where something had dragged against the grass. "And a couple different sized footprints in the dirt. They're all pretty standard issue shoes, though—not much to choose from there except size." Her glasses showed her what he saw, including one particular set of prints leading in that matched the point where the boy had entered the park on video and then disappeared into the trees. She traced the other nearby prints backward as well, to their entry-points, and tagged those locations for later checks against surveillance.
The trail of blood and dragged furrow led to the center of the grove, where a maintenance door led downward. "No sign the door was forced," she said.
Bentley said, "Last ID to use it was legit, a maintenance worker, about two hours ago."
"That fits what the sample kit says for how long the blood's been drying."
"Running that down...yeah, that worker was nowhere near here two hours ago. It's their downshift, and both their ID badge and public-cam footage show them in a bar not far from their quarters. Either that person, or this one," he jutted his chin toward the door, "is running a cloned ID."
"I don't like this, Bent. I don't like this a lot."
"Yeah, me neither. Stunners out?"
Briefly, she wondered why he was asking her. They were equal—he was actually slightly senior. But he was her backup, she realized. She was in charge. Yay.
"Yeah, let's do that. I have a feeling whoever did this is long gone, but still."
She overrode the door and the lights came on inside. It was just a stairwell leading "down" to the sub-level, sandwiched between B and C. Sub-levels were mostly infrastructure, but they had to be accessible for maintenance and inspection, storage of equipment, and so on. They were, in truth, much more of what Juanita had first expected Newer York in general to be like—mazes of corridors; conduits and pipes; the occasional cryptic sign, opaque to civilians but meaningful to the initiated, which in this case meant the Crew; a trail of blood, visible against the light-grey floor.
OK, that's not something she expected Newer York to be like. But it was more or less what she'd expected in this situation, unfortunately. She realized it led back up the stairs, too, which was no surprise.
At this point, out of the forest and down in the corridors, Juanita's other senses started registering things. Notably, her sense of smell. She could smell the blood, and the more they followed the trail, the more she was pretty sure she could smell other, less pleasant things.
Five minutes of stalking down the corridor, stunners out, they found the body. And Juanita Perez found a depth of moral indignation she did not know she possessed.
It's not that the body was badly mutilated. A single stab wound was obvious, that in the chest, along with a trail of blood down the side of his face. It was just...
...this kid was about the same age Teo had been, the last time she'd seen him.
She knew Teo was older, now. He'd included a video message with his last letter, so she even knew what he looked like as almost-a-man, with a bit of a mustache growing, a smile that had gone from boyish to roguish.
For a moment, looking at the boy on the ground, she saw Teo.
When she'd stopped seeing red, re-centered herself, got back to analytical "cop" thinking, she surmised that the head wound had come first, and bleeding from that was what had left the trail.
She took a deep breath—managed not to gag—and said, "Call it in, please?"
She didn't look back, but she heard him doing so.
Almost automatically, she crouched down and checked for a pulse. He was cold, already stiffening.
Meanwhile, her brain was putting it together. The kid had been stunned, possibly knocked out entirely; dragged down here, bleeding, but that didn't matter to whomever dragged him, since they were going to stab him anyway.
But why? What could this kid have done. In a city that knew one murder every couple of years, why was this kid the one, this time?
She realized she had not actually spoken this out loud only when Bentley failed to offer up a suggestion, so she did so. When he answered, his voice sounded as shaky as she felt.
"Maybe he stumbled on something in the grove? Common enough motive."
She considered. It was true that some of the less-than-homicidal violence they dealt stemmed from such things. And while murder might be rare in Newer York, it certainly wasn't rare in human experience. Seeing things one shouldn't have seen was, historically speaking, a great way to get dead.
She began casting her eyes about. It seemed too much to hope that the perp had left the weapon behind, but they'd already been pretty sloppy. There had been plenty of time, for example, to clean up the trail of blood, and this was, after all, the maintenance sub-level, which meant cleaning supplies were at hand. Anyone who could hack access to the sub-level at all could easily get into a broom cupboard. Yet the trail was still there, no sign of any attempt to clean it.
The data-glasses pinged something in the shadows. That was really their greatest advantage in this kind of situation—picking out details the human brain might miss, not because the eye didn't see it, but because the brain was chewing on other problems, like fighting down a gag reflex, and trying to imagine any motive at all for killing a kid—OK, a teenager, but still.
She got up, went over to the shadow in question, shone a light. There was a broken bit of bracket, with blood on it. It was too large for one of the analysis containers, like she'd used for the blood-stained grass, but she had a larger zip-container in a pouch at her belt, and scooped up the bracket for later analysis. "Hey, Bent? Bet a week's e-cred I just found the weapon."
She held up the see-through bag with the broken bracket, jagged edge clearly bloody.
"No bet. Hang on a sec." He cast his eyes up and down the corridor they'd just past. "Yup. Here it was." She focused where he pointed, the glasses zoomed in. There was what looked likely to be the remaining part of the bracket. "Whoever this perp was," Bentley said, "they were strong. I mean, it's not like these brackets are steel or anything, but still..."
"I hope that's not supposed to scare me off or something."
"What?! Oh, shit no. You think I don't want a piece of this perp?"
"Good. As long as we're on the same page, Bent. Because unless they yank us for someone like Calabrese, we're doing this, you and me. We're going to find this guy."
Down the corridor came the forensic team, and the Commissioner, of all people. She looked cross. She often looked cross. Juanita privately suspected it was the chief qualification of the job.
"They might what, Bentley?"
Bentley did not exactly come to attention, but he did stand a little straighter, and adopt a bit less flippant an attitude. Still, the cat had his tongue, apparently. So it was left to Perez to answer.
"Sir, we were just speculating as to whether we would be allowed to pursue the case, or if it would be assigned to someone like Detective Calabrese."
The Commissioner favored her with a penetrating stare. That, too, appeared to be a job qualification, from what Juanita had seen.
"No, Perez. This one's yours. Bentley, unless you want out, you're her backup."
"I'm in, boss," Bentley said.
The Commissioner turned his gaze on the body, on the boy who was definitely not Teo, 40 light years away and hopefully very much alive, writing his next letter for his sister to see six months from now. Her face was unreadable, at least, by Perez, but she thought she saw something change in the set of the older woman's shoulders.
"Get this perp, Perez."
"Consider them got, sir!"