Aboard the military-commercial starship Paraclete, plying the remote stars between Stratiskaya Daransk and the human rim worlds, a murder has been committed. It is not a crime of passion, nor a carefully plotted revenge killing, but the ritualistic and barbarous sacrifice of a young child.
The Whiston family, decadently wealthy and notoriously reclusive corporate owners of the New Holyoke colony want to know why. With only a few scant weeks remaining in the voyage, the investigation must be rapid, thorough, and above all else, discreet.
Ray Marlowe, deep cover security agent for the Criminal Investigations Unit, considers himself anything but discreet.
This was certainly a good idea, this shimmying about inside ducts and vents and metal casements which thunder alarmingly beneath the unwanted weight of his passing. His life has been reduced to a pointless series of mechanical motions: forward with the elbows, plant them on a seam for traction, drag the carcass behind; pause a moment to catch a breath because it's only been, after all, a few hundred meters of constant inchworm contractions through a space barely large enough for his shoulders to pass, let alone his entire body. Someone who didn’t know better might be tempted to think that he was going soft if he stops too often.
So, he fixes his eyes straight ahead and tries to gauge his progress, but the flashlight's beam is jiggling too much for him to make an accurate guess. The strap that’s supposed to keep the light snug against his forehead has been pulling loose for the last ten minutes. It’s just another aggravation to toss atop the mounting pile. It stinks in here, too. Not the clean, coppery stink of sheet metal and industrial coolant that one should reasonably expect from ductwork, but some noxious chemical combination of sweat, dust, mildew and other assorted skanks that defy ready identification. He thinks about just succumbing to the heat and exertion and odor and just allowing himself to pass out. Let some other idiot worry about how they were going to get him out of here.
Oh yes, it had been a good idea, indeed. Whoever had devised this plan in the first place should be given some sort of citation. With a hammer. To the forehead. Until he was freaking dead.
Now the truth is that he’s an adult. He’s been inside his share of tubes and tunnels and cramped, clammy spaces. He’s not normally one to give up in the face of a little grit. It’s not the getting dirty that he minds at all, nor the heat and odor, nor the hysterically gibbering claustrophobe chained up in the closet in the very back of his mind. Rather, it’s all the intersections. The right angles, to be precise.
He hates those. Hates ‘em. Absolutely.
There are only so many joints in the human body capable of performing a ninety degree maneuver. The pelvis, the knee, the elbow, sometimes the neck, a few other odds and ends. A man forcing himself through a skintight metallic tube like raw bratwurst crammed into sausage casings uses all of them, and then finds that he must manufacture some new ones (or at least makes the old ones serve new purposes) if he doesn’t wish to get himself permanently wedged between a terminal hither and yon.
He’s been finding creative ways to torture his body thusly for the last hour or better, so he feels qualified in making the determination that as right angles go, he hates the one he’s confronting now most of all, a particularly diabolic specimen in the cosmology of Demonic Perpendiculatory Choirs he’s been formulating as he has gone along.
One of the planes in question is a chute of unpleasantly heated air boiling up from the main cooling tanks of the Van Nuys reactor. The other, the one he currently occupies, is a (currently) slightly less infernal duct branching back toward the Sub-Deck Kappa, Section Six tech-maintenance pod. Under normal circumstances, this duct is supposed to be a standard internal cooling tube loaded with envireon refrigerant and absolutely human tissue toxic, maintained at a steady hypothermia inducing eight degrees centigrade. Which it was, right up until about an hour ago when they'd cut off the flow at the main valve and flushed the tube with neutralizing agents for the sole purpose of shoving him in through the nearest access vent.