TRAIL stands for Trace, Rescue, and Identification League. Their detractors say it stands for Thieves, Ruffians, Assholes, Idiots, and Liars, among other things. A TRAIL agent learns early whether to pucker up or duck.
The agency operates within the Terran Crescent, and the Colonies of Man, but has been known to venture into outlying areas. In Trailing Kaiwulf, they visit the planet Ust, a forgotten backwater planet close to the remnants of the Barrier.
The Barrier, a crumbling network of nav-scramblers set adrift in space, was originally designed to keep humans on this side of the galaxy, and non-human "gens" on the other. TRAIL stories will be set in various locations.
New Braeswyck, Colonies of Man
TRAIL Field Office
January 24, 15128 AD (151.28.24 New Terran Date [NTD])
The com unit in Jeff Thompson's office crackled to life. "Security here. Jee arrived, boss, and you were" -- The sound of splintering wood followed --"right. Oh, man! There goes another door. What'd you do to her this time?"
Thompson disconnected. He activated the monitors on his wall and stood. TRAIL Agent Jee Tonopah might be the shortest agent in the company, but she had enough temper in her for half a dozen.
Jee and her partner, Dane Raphyel, had passed through every scanner in the building to get this far into the enclave, yet right there in plain sight on both their hips sat weapons. Fat lot of good TRAIL's security did. The guards outside his office backed away from the pair without a challenge.
"What am I paying you clowns for? At least slow them down. Cool her off!"
But no, the outer door to his assistant's office banged open and thumps sounded on the floor. The lamp on Thompson's desk shook as if Jee had an elephant with her. Dane dwarfed his partner.
"Computer, unlock entry door." Jee would kick it in if he kept it sealed. Last time it had taken months to ship in replacement parts.
The BioMate embedded in Thompson's arm flashed a warning about heart rate, so he tightened his grip on the stress-soother stone in his hand. All it did was bruise his palm. He flung the rock aside.
The TRAIL agents blew into his office like twin whirlwinds.
Thompson forced himself not to back away.
"How dare you!" Jee dumped a tattered knapsack onto the floor. She kicked the visitor's chair out of her way, then slammed her hands onto the desk and glared at him like a dragon ready to flame him into a puddle of blackened flesh.
Dane folded his arms and leaned against the door, blocking any escape it might offer.
Thompson eased around the desk to survey the damage. "Fight fire with fire," his therapist had told him. Time to put it to the test. He pointed at the splintered chair. "I paid six thousand sig-creds for that. It's eleventh kilo-century Terran."
Jee snorted. "If you paid that much for a four hundred year-old chair you got taken, Thompson. Beats me why you'd admit to being so stupid."
Thompson dug his fingernails into his palms. A month of stress therapy trashed after one minute with this woman. It's only money. He sucked in a deep breath, held it for a count of three and exhaled. "No matter. My assistant found a craftsman to repair that rare Fellsian vase you smashed six months ago. Maybe this can be fixed, too."
Jee flung dark curls out of her eyes. "Do you have any idea how long it took to get reservations on a first class sleepliner to Earth? How dare you call me back here? TRAIL doesn't own me, Jeff Thompson."
"Now, Jee, I--
"I'd be half way there if it wasn't for you. How dare you cancel my leave? Who do you think you are?"
"Watch this holovid before you give me a definite no." Thompson initiated a life-sized holographic image of a youth.
"I'm not watching a thing. I..." Jee's voice faded as the holovid activated. "Whoa." She made a sensual growl, low in her throat. "Who is that?"
"Kaiwulf. Down, girl." He shot a knowing glance at Dane. "Excellent picture, isn't it? We don't get this quality too often."
The 30-second holovid flickered to a close and flashed the TRAIL logo, a white compass circling a red question mark, with the words Trace, Rescue, and Identification League around it.
"Give me that." Jee grabbed the remote and tapped it. The holovid played again.
A nude male stood with arms held out at his sides, head thrown back as if in ecstasy. Blue light played across the rippled muscles of Kaiwulf's torso and highlighted the flat planes of his belly. In the background sat a pair of white wolves. Kaiwulf jerked his head toward the holocam, and in one fluid motion, turned and walked away. The image faded.
The TRAIL logo and the case number re-appeared.
Thompson held up a packet. "I hold, in your name, a guaranteed voucher for first class accommodations at the Terran resort of your choice for two months, plus first class passage on a sleepliner, underwritten by the president of TRAIL and three board members. And for you, Dane, half a year's salary in advance. All you have to do is accept the job, which is to find this young man and bring him back to the people who want him."
Jee advanced toward Dane, motioned him down, and whispered in his ear. He straightened, resuming his stance in the doorway.
"Six month voucher and a year and a half's salary for Dane. Extra. Not advanced. Otherwise, we're dust."
Drugs. I need-- Thompson fumbled with the BioMate on his arm. Ah. Breathe in. It's only money. The twitch in his right eye slowed as the tranqs hit his system. He inhaled, eyes half-closed. And there it all goes. Out the window. But his heart rate slowed, and he forced a smile. "I'll work it out with the board. Computer," he said into the air. "Record and seal contractual statements on my authority." An answering tone affirmed it.
"You know, Jee" -- Dane cocked his head to one side -- "I'm worried. What if we have to bring Kaiwulf back as some sort of verifiable virgin?"
She snatched a round brass paperweight off the desk and lobbed it at him. He caught it, laughing.
Thompson seated himself. "You'll want the bio and details."
Dane dropped his massive frame into the unbroken chair and propped booted feet on the desk. "Sit down, Jee." He tossed her the paperweight. "I want to hear this."
She eyed the broken chair and shook her head in exasperation, and then perched on the edge of Thompson's desk. "Who's paying our bill, and why do they want this blond savage enough to fork over as much as TRAIL is willing to pay us?"
"We're billing the Terran-Colonial Smithsonian Society, Department of Extra-Terrestrial Excavations, but the real client is Dr. Viva Post."
"Doctor, huh?" Jee turned the paperweight over in her hands. "Does that mean the kid's sick?"
"Jee, Jee, Jee." Dane pressed fingertips against his brow. "Don't you read anything besides byte-bits like The Cannon Shooters Manual or Tips for Assassins? Dr. Post is an archaeologist. That was her vid we were watching."
"Very good, Dane." Thompson leaned back in his chair. "I didn't know you knew archaeology."
"Oh, I dabbled with it. Long time ago. Before I worked for TRAIL. You know, back when I had a job where I used my brain."
Jee snickered. "Got fired pretty fast, did you?"
Dane fluttered his lashes at her, and crossed one leg over the other. The metal tip of his pointed boot grazed her shin.
Jee bent over to rub her leg, and shot Thompson a dirty look.
"Why are you glaring at me? Your partner's the one who kicked you."
"He wouldn't be here right now if you hadn't yanked us back from leave."
"Fine." Thompson held up both hands. "Let's start at the beginning. Kaiwulf was last seen on the planet Ust, farthest outskirts of the Colonies. Previously thought uninhabited."
"You mean there's some godforsaken backwater dump TRAIL hasn't sent us to yet?"
Dane snorted. "Doesn't that sound even more fun than we expected?"
Thompson shifted in his seat. "Father unknown. Mother was a high priestess. She died when Kaiwulf was about seven years old, and the tribe cast him out. You'd appreciate this culture, Jee. Females hold all the power. If Kaiwulf had been born a girl, they'd have let him stay. He's been on his own ten years. His companions are those wolves you saw in the background. Which, by the way, the village people say 'speak with their minds.'"
Dane dropped his feet to the floor and sat forward. "Telepathic wolves?" He quirked a brow at Jee, who shrugged.
"Right." Thompson activated a bank of notes. "Dr. Post says Kaiwulf holds the key to the Gates of Life she discovered on Ust. They're still being used in rituals among the people in Kaiwulf's village. They pass their newborns under it within an hour of birth, and once a year, they all walk under it, oldest female first, youngest male last. She says she has further proof it's a monitoring device from the Corporate Colonization period, thirty-ninth century, Terran."
Jee rolled the paperweight across Thompson's desk. Dane caught the item as it reached the edge, and set it out of her reach.
His diminutive partner stuck out her tongue at him. "So, Thompson, how come I never heard any stuff about these gate things?"
"Because you live in a hole." Dane waved his arms. "These 'gate things' as you put it, are all over the news. Dr. Post found two broken sets last year."
"Don't you have any sense of history? The gates date from before the Great Dark Ages of Man. That makes them over seven thousand years old."
"Still not impressed."
"Remember two years ago, when Jenny and I took the kids to the Grand Desert on Earth?"
"Remember it? All five of them sent me a holocard from every place you went."
"One was a natural arch carved by wind on stone. I took pictures of the kids standing next to it."
"You mean the one where the kids are about this big?" She held finger and thumb close together. "You couldn't see them without a magnifying glass."
"These Gates are about half as big as that arch. So, Thompson, does Dr. Post think these people are gens?"
"She's convinced Kaiwulf is."
"What's a gen?" When they looked her way, Jee shrugged. "Yeah, I'm ignorant. What's a gen?"
Her partner answered. "Short for genetically-altered human. The Terran Crescent kicked most of them out in...what century, Thompson? Thirty-eighth maybe?"
"I bet they descended from original genetic experiments in the Colonies. Later, people saw the dangers, but for hundreds of years, drug and medical corporations ran uncontrolled human gene manipulation. The newest theory is that the worlds where these Gates were found began as corporate penal colonies. But in these prisons the inmates served a life sentence, and their families served them, too." Dane turned back to Thompson. "What kind of abilities does Dr. Post think they have?"
"I'll get to that. She says if she can locate Kaiwulf, she stands a good chance of discovering how they became the way they are. He carries a key to the Gates given to him by his mother. Dr. Post has a theory that the high priestess originally reported the progress of genetic changes to visiting scientists or clinicians, and that each planet might have been given its own special ability. One--"
Jee mimed a yawn. "Cut to the chase."
Thompson frowned. "Fine. Kaiwulf was sighted twice before they filmed him. First, he walked into Dr. Post in a cave and startled the devil out of both of them. When she screamed, he disappeared. She swears there was no other exit, yet no one saw him leave. A week later, she saw him again. It's been almost a month since and there's been no sign of him. So far, the only people they've seen on the planet are the sixty plus who live in a small village of thatched-roof huts. They're the last of a dying race. When questioned, they identified Kaiwulf as their outcast from years before."
Jee cracked her knuckles. "So they want this key of his, right?"
"More than that. Run the holovid in slow-mo. When Kaiwulf leaves, watch where he goes. I think you'll see the reason the Society is willing to pay TRAIL's price."
Jee flicked it on and reset the timing for slow.
"Someone on Dr. Post's staff leaked information about Kaiwulf to the Colonial Department of Defense." Thompson dialed back a setting on his BioMate. "She's determined to get to the boy before the military and bureaucrats do. They've kept a strong presence in the area for the last week, nosing into everything her team does. Slow it down a bit more, Jee. This is the part I want you to see. Pay attention to this."
In the holovid, Kaiwulf turned and walked toward the back of the cave.
"Jee!" Her wide-eyed partner blinked. "Did you fricking see that?"
She gave a slow nod, and faced Thompson, who had the gall to smirk.
Kaiwulf hadn't disappeared. He'd walked into the stone.
Available on Amazon Feb 12, 2014