Joshua Viola is a four-time Colorado Book Award finalist and co-author of the Denver Moon series with Warren Hammond. His comic book collection, ”Denver Moon: Metamorphosis,” was included on the 2018 Bram Stoker Award Preliminary Ballot for Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel. His fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, Birdy magazine, and on Tor.com. He is owner and chief editor of Hex Publishers.
Warren Hammond has authored several science fiction novels, quite a few short stories, and a graphic novel. His 2012 novel, ”KOP Killer,” won the Colorado Book Award for best mystery. His latest series, Denver Moon, is co-written with Joshua Viola. He also co-hosts the Critiki Party podcast.
The following is an excerpt from “Denver Moon: Book II: The Saint of Mars.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Award finalist for Science Fiction/Fantasy
EDITOR’S NOTE: Readers will notice some unusual punctuation that’s used in the Denver Moon novels. Regular quotation marks denote out-loud conversation, such as when protagonist Denver talks to a person. But less-than and greater-than marks (< and >) indicate when she is talking to Smith, who is an artificial intelligence that has the ability to communicate directly into her brain –so there’s no actual audible sound.
I kept to the shadows, back pressed against the wall, my head swiveling left and right. Scanning. Searching.
Two months of work and I finally had a name: Lucas Robbins. Age 47. Earthborn. Immigrated to Mars six years back. Address unknown.
The market was busy this time of day. Shift changes up and down the levs crowded the tunnels of this ant colony of a city. Hawkers pitched their wares. Amplified by scratchy speakers, their garbled voices drilled into my ears. Cooks worked fryers and griddles inside cramped booths soaked in bright neon. Electric fans lured customers by blowing the enticing odors of spiced faux meat out into the thoroughfares.
The latest missing person was last seen at the noodle bar down the way. That was two days ago. Two days since anybody had seen Millie Lopez, her last known meal a tofu bowl split between her and her mother, the noodle bar’s prep cook.
A teenaged boy peeled off from the mass of people moving past. Approaching me, he touched a finger to the artery in his neck. I waved him away. Standing in the recesses like I was, he couldn’t be the only one to mistake me for a quick-jab dealer.
<See anything, Smith?> I subvocalized to the AI installed in my gun.
<Facial rec still reporting no hits,> he said. <But I can’t see very well from here. Even looking through your eyes, I can only make out about half of the faces well enough for comparisons. Any way you can get me to a higher location?>
I pulled the Smith & Wesson off my belt and reached up to balance him atop a drain pipe that ran the length of the wall.
<Turn me a little to the left, Denver, and move me closer to the edge.>
I complied, doing my best to give his visual sensors the broadest possible view while keeping the gun balanced on the rounded surface. <How’s that?>
<Much better. Still can’t see everybody, but I can see most as they pass.>
I arched my back and pressed my shoulders against the grimy wall. You’d think a sealed environment like the tunnels this far down would be spotless, but the dust from the terraforming project was an insidious bastard. Try as we might to keep the whirling clouds of dust out, a fine, powdery grit still wormed its way through the filters, and along the corridors, and down the lifts and dropshafts, the stairwells and ladder tubes, to cover everything with a film I was told was red. I wouldn’t know. All grit and grime is the same color to me, just like the people—the clothes they wear, the blood they spill. Other people see colors and shades. I just see Mars.
A headache started shoving at the backs of my eyes. I pushed harder against the rock wall. The kink between my shoulder blades didn’t appreciate the pressure, but I pressed harder.
I needed a massage.
A three-day drunk or a four-day zone.
A month of sleep.
I needed another line of work, one that didn’t have me tied up in knots and working around the clock. I needed a change of scenery, something other than endless corridors, featureless except for the conduits and pipes that carried power and water in, shit and piss out.
It started to rain.
That was what people called it anyway. I knew better.
It was recycled wastewater. Reclaimed piss from the people who lived in the surface domes above our heads. Their piss wasn’t any purer than ours, not before it was ’cycled anyway. And it didn’t come down on their heads a couple of times a week in a futile attempt to rinse the grit from the walls and floors. They got real rain, or what passed for it on Mars—fresh water showers straight from the ice-claimers. Sweet and clear and unused for millions of years. Once their streets were clean and their gardens watered, it ran into the sewer tubes and through the ’cyclers before being piped down to us so we could pretend it was raining.
Mist filled the stale air, dewy drops gathering on the ceiling and walls. I’d never seen real rain, but I knew this wasn’t it. Reminded me of an old joke Smith pulled from my grandfather’s memories he was patterned after: <Don’t piss on my boots and tell me it’s raining.>
But that’s just what the topsiders did, and up there in the clean air under the domes they told themselves they were doing us a favor, letting their wastewater trickle down on all us unfortunates in the corridors and caverns beneath them. Their kind had a history of trickling down, a history that went all the way back to Earth long before anybody left it.
I rubbed the back of a hand against my eyes, wiping the water away.
<I got him,> Smith said.
I stood straight. Every nerve in my body began to tingle. For two months, I’d been working this dead end of a case. No evidence. No witnesses. No leads. Nothing at all until an hour ago.
I grabbed hold of Smith and thumbed off his safety. Taking a deep, wet breath, I stepped out of the shadows.
<Turn left,> whispered Smith.
The mist came down harder, and I blinked against it as I stepped into the crowd.
<He’s twenty feet ahead, Denver.>
I moved deeper into the promenade, the noodle bar to my right. I glanced through the window. The security cams hadn’t shown anything out of the ordinary when Millie Lopez walked out the door for the last time, but a half hour earlier the feeds showed a man slurping noodles by himself. A hat and glasses hid much of his face, but Smith had more than enough to work with when he cross-checked the restaurant’s clientele against all the other security feeds of the last-known locations of each of the nine people who had gone missing since I was hired.
Finally, we had a match. Lucas Robbins. He’d been spotted walking past the pharmapit our third missing person liked to frequent. No sign of Robbins at any of the other locations we’d catalogued, but these hits were enough to know he was our guy. Seeing as both the pharmapit and the noodle bar were in this same market area, I hoped he might pass through frequently, and now, just an hour later, I was on his tail. That was how cases went sometimes. Nothing for weeks or months at a time, then it came all at once.
I picked up my pace, closing the gap between me and him, my gun held low, where nobody would notice unless they were looking for it. <That him in the brown coat?>
My finger quivered on the trigger, eager to drop him. But that was a sloppy strategy. The smart play was to call the ministry of police and let them take it from here. But my client insisted on keeping the cops out. Not an unusual request down here in the lower levs. In fact, I didn’t even know who my client was. Requesting anonymity was also pretty damn common down in the bowels, and anonymity was a service I was happy to provide as long as they paid well, and on time.
I moved closer so that there were only a few feet between us. A quick pulse was all it would take to collapse him into a twitching heap. But there were nine people missing. I figured them all for dead, but as long as there was a chance any were still breathing, I needed to follow him.
The space seemed to narrow as we snaked through a group of Church of Mars monks proselytizing and begging for alms. The crowd tightened around me, and despite my best efforts, I fell behind, my eyes squinting through the mist, struggling to stay locked onto his tall, angular frame.
I shouldered my way through a knot of people just in time to see him leave the main promenade and enter an alley, the falling water making him blurry to my eyes.
Quickening my pace, I tightened my fingers around Smith’s grip as I entered the alley. Jammed full of stalls and food stands, the alley only afforded a single-file path. Yet he was gone. No sign of my quarry.
<Dammit, where did he go?>
<I don’t know.>
I marched up to the first food stand where soyakebabs sizzled on a flat grill, their sputtering and popping echoed by droplets dribbling down from the alley’s roof.
The little man tending the grill grinned, but before he could launch into his sales pitch, I pointed my gun at his face. The guy’s eyes grew wide, and he swayed like he was about to pass out.
<Show him,> I subvocalized.
From the top of the gun, Smith projected a small hologram of Lucas Robbins.
“You see this man?” I asked, my voice sounding rough and harsh. It’d been some time since I’d spoken out loud. “You see where he went?”
The guy shook his head and spread his arms wide, the oily spatula in his right hand dripping with grease. “No. I didn’t see anybody. I was—”
“Don’t give me that. He just walked past two seconds ago.”
“Lots of people do. I was flipping my kebabs.”
I turned away and blocked the path of a woman headed for the promenade. I held Smith out so she could see the holo shimmering in the falling mist. “You seen him?”
The woman shook her head, and I moved on.
The alley was a dead end. There were only so many places he could have gone, and I worked them as quickly as I could, but none of the vendors or their customers would admit to seeing him. I was nearly at the end of the short tunnel before I had any luck—a small voice saying, “I saw him.”
I looked down.
A beggar girl wrapped in a dirty blanket sat with an alms-bowl on a filthy scrap of rug. She spoke again, her voice a little louder this time. “I saw him come right by here but he didn’t pop me any credits or even slow down when I asked.”
Her face was streaked and smeared from the mist and dust. Her eyes were large and dark. The combination ought to have been good for business, but there was nothing in her bowl.
“Where did he go?”
“Won’t say—not unless I get paid.”
I bit off a curse, dug deep into my jacket pocket and flipped her a handful of credits, some of which missed her bowl.
She gathered the credits, but even as she did, she nodded at the facade of the metalworks shop that capped the end of the alley. “He went in there,” she said.
“There any other ways in or out?”
“Nope,” she said, her attention still on the credits now gathered in the bowl.
I was about to thank her, but something held me back. Something was off. I kept my eye on her as I stepped toward the door of the metalworks shop.
I gripped my gun tight in my fist. <You ready, Smith?>
<I was initialized ready.> Another one of his bad jokes.
Reluctant to take my eyes off of the girl, I jerked open the door and was flooded with bright light and flashing beams of what I assumed were different hues, but it all just looked like light to my colorblind eyes. I checked on the girl again. She sat right where I left her, and I held my breath for a second before I went inside.
I looked for the proprietor or an attendant, but there was no one. A digital voice sounded from a speaker near the door. “Welcome. How can I help you?”
<Roboshop,> Smith said. <Odd.>
It was—who would finance a totally automated shop at the end of a third-class marketplace on a lower level? I filed that question away for later, and ignoring the house AI’s repeating welcomes, I made a quick inspection of the place. Sparks showered from articulated welding lasers moving fast like spider legs. Near the door, boxes of cogs and circuit boards sat on shelves ready for pickup. Annealing guns and smelting pods blasted white-hot heat that made my damp clothes tighten around me.
<You sense any humans?> I asked Smith.
<Scans say not a one.>
I sighed heavily and ran my eyes around the shop one more time, my gaze coming to a section of bricks set into the wall. <You see that?>
I stepped up to the wall. <See how the mortar doesn’t match?>
<No. Let me patch in to your eyes.>
I ran my fingertips over the mortar.
<I see it now,> said Smith. <Too much light pollution for me to see it with my own sensors.>
It didn’t happen often, but every once in a while, my monochrome vision picked up something others couldn’t see. Tracing the irregular trail of mortar with my fingers, I followed the line all the way down to the floor, where the lowest brick gave slightly beneath my touch. I pushed harder and the wall shifted, sliding aside to reveal a narrow, dark corridor cut through stone.
That sneaky bastard.
<Make yourself a little more intimidating,> I told Smith.
<No. Just a holo for now, we don’t know what we’re going to find. But make it a scary holo.>
Smith glowed for an instant and the gun’s sleek lines disappeared beneath a hologram overlay that doubled its size and sprouted big over/under barrels and a balloon magazine.
<Bigger,> I said.
Smith shimmered again and blossomed into a triple-barreled weapon, belt-fed, with alternating explosive and penetration cartridges. He projected a long bandolier of ammo that stretched up to drape over my shoulders.
<Happy now?> Smith asked with a touch of impatience.
<Nice,> I said. <Let’s go.>
I was four steps into the tunnel when I heard the wall slide shut behind me. I didn’t look back. Smith bloomed a lightstalk and the tunnel ahead glowed softly. I took three more steps and heard the wall behind me slide open again.
I looked over my shoulder to see the beggar girl, her features cold and angry now. In a flash, I knew what bothered me about her. Her alms bowl had no rainwater in it. She must have just arrived in the alley when she claimed to see Robbins.
I barely started to dive for cover when she pulled the trigger of the gun she held in her hand.
Her gun was smaller than Smith, even without the holo projections, but it was big enough to fill the tunnel with nova-bright light that struck me hard and left me unconscious on the floor.