Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from science fiction mystery The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal, publishing with Tor Books on October 11th. Read the first chapter on the Tor/Forge blog, and check out the second chapter below!
Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again.
1.5 oz bourbon
1 oz sweet vermouth 1 oz Campari
Stir ingredients over ice for 40 seconds, drain. Garnish with twist of orange peel and a cherry.
The doors to the exclusive Yacht Club portion of the ship hissed open on the concierge lounge. Shal waggled his finger at her, his craft bag bouncing with the motion. “I object to being called biased. You’re wounding my professional pride.”
“First of all, you’re retired. Second, being a detective has nothing to do with karaoke. Third, you’re biased by definition. You’re married to me.”
“Pish! Tosh! Tut-tut!” He made outrageous hemming and hawing noises. “Your Honor, I would note that you are the only person who got an encore.”
She laughed in his face. “That was not an encore. I was interrupted and they let me start again.”
Behind the concierge desk, Auberi leaped to their feet, tailcoat flapping behind them, with an alertness that gave no indicator of it being two a.m. ship’s time. Their aubergine surfer’s forelock arced over their left brow like a wave. “Mx. Zuraw! Mx. Husband! Oh, pardon for this.” They gestured behind themself to the concierge office and the cadence of their Lunar French accent intensified with distress. “I have here your petite dog.”
Tesla went to instant alert. “Is she okay?”
“Oui! Yes! Oh, yes, she is well, but she has in some sort of way escaped of your stateroom. I have found her here in the lobby.”
Shal squeezed Tesla’s arm. “I’ll go clear the room.” He hesitated and handed her the craft bag. “Would you mind?”
“It’s not a… No problem.” She took the bag, because she couldn’t honestly say that the opened door wasn’t a problem. She’d had stalkers get into her hotel rooms before. Even traveling incognito, even traveling in the most expensive, most exclusive part of the ship, someone could still get in if they bribed the right person. “Thank you!”
She flashed a smile at her spouse’s back as he walked down the ridiculous “Golden Promenade” to the hall where their stateroom was. Encased in an amber resin floor, yellow LEDs sparkled on embedded crystals that looked like discards from a New Vegas chandelier. It was the sort of thing one did to impress new money.
Sighing, Tesla crossed the lobby to Auberi’s desk. “I hope Gimlet wasn’t a bother.”
“Not at all! I used the matter printer to make a leash for her safety. She is very loved.” Pirouetting, they rushed to the office door and opened it. “Oh!”
A little bark was all the warning that Tesla got, and then her dog burst out of the office and around the corner, trailing a leash. The Westie’s entire back end was wagging as she ran.
Gimlet jumped onto her hind feet, stretching her forelegs up onto Tesla’s thighs. Everything from the wideness of her eyes to the frantic half-twists spoke of anxiety.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got her.” Crouching with a straight back, Tesla gathered her little white dog in her arms. “Oh, sweetness. Hello. Hello, Gimlet. Yes, yes…” The wiggles and kisses from the little dog made Tesla regret leaving her. Gimlet was trained to go everywhere with Tesla. Being left behind probably made her feel like she’d done something wrong. She eased Gimlet to the ground, rubbing her ears with both hands. “Hello, perfect girl. Mommy is very stupid. It’s not your fault.”
“This must be an error with our housekeeping staff.” Auberi had reappeared at the desk in their usual spot. “I will—”
It wasn’t Shal, but it came from the Golden Promenade. “Call for help.” Tesla tightened her grip on Gimlet’s leash. “Gimlet, heel.”
With her dog at her side, Tesla ran toward the Golden Promenade, nearly stumbling to her knees as her back sent a line of white down her right leg. Gimlet got in front of her and put a paw on her calf, signaling her to stop and take a moment. She couldn’t. Not until she knew Shal was safe.
“Gimlet, release.” Hitting the override on her DBPS to push it past the safeties, Tesla shoved off the wall. “Gimlet, heel.” The DBPS gave its standard caution about numbness and other possible side effects of overuse. She had long practice at ignoring that warning.
Overhead, the shipboard speakers said, “Delta, gamma, five-five-niner. Repeat. Delta, gamma, five-five-niner.”
Beneath her feet, the Golden Promenade jogged to obscure the curve of the ship and she braced herself on the wall as she rounded the corner. The sparkle floor gave way to carpet and a subdued hall lined with weird cruise art. At the end, it turned to her left again and she entered the tree-lined hall of the Grand Royal Suites.
And halfway down the hall, Shal was lowering someone to the floor.
A red shock of blood coated the front of their white dinner jacket. Even at this distance, the difference between blood and red wine was painfully clear.
Shal looked up as Tesla knelt next to him. “Stay with them. I saw someone.”
It was the blonde from the karaoke bar. A knife stuck out of their chest, buried up to its wooden hilt.
As Shal bounded to his feet, she didn’t have time to ask him who he saw and her focus needed to be on the passenger. He shoved the service door open and she sent ::Be careful!:: after him, knowing he would ignore it.
“Gimlet, down. Gimlet, stay.” What little she remembered from Child Guides told her that taking the knife out would make the bleeding worse. She couldn’t tell the passenger that everything would be okay, so she settled for narrating everything she was doing as a way of trying to be reassuring. “Hey, so I’m going to try to stop the bleeding, okay?”
Tesla dumped the contents of Shal’s craft bag on the floor. The bag had a hydrophobic self-cleaning overlay, and theoretically, she hoped it would be impermeable to blood too. She wrapped the blue linen around the wound, trying not to jostle the knife. As she did, her skin brushed the passenger’s and at the intimate contact, their online systems did a handshake, offering identification, which she accepted in exchange for her fake ID. ::George Saikawa, she/her::
Saikawa’s eyes were rolling in her head. Her mouth gaped like a fish.
Tesla grimaced and leaned down to Saikawa. “Hey? George? George, look at me. Look at—good. Terrible way to meet, but I’ll be right here with you until the medics come. Hey—hey, look at me. Come on… help is on the way.”
Doors up and down the hall opened. In her peripheral vision, Tesla felt people step out into the hall and heard the gawking begin. Blood seeped through the field of flowers on the embroidery bag. It stuck to Tesla’s hands and trickled between her fingers. Tesla lifted her head, scanning the wealthy fools who clotted the hall for someone helpful. Some people were staring at her, some at the person lying on the floor, and one person was making eyes at Gimlet.
“Jesus, people. Someone get a towel or something.” She looked back down to the stabbing victim, whose eyes had closed. “No, no, no… Hey, don’t you dare die. I will not allow that.”
“Coming through!” A service entrance two doors down slammed open and a medical crew burst out, masked and gloved, carrying a full kit and a megamover.
Tesla looked up and shouted, “Over here!”
The one in the lead spotted Tesla—or more accurately the blood—and dropped to their knees next to her. “What happened?”
“I didn’t see it—just that she’d been stabbed. That was all I had.”
“Candy, prep an X-14 protocol.” The doctor peeled the bag away with bright-blue gloves and discarded it in a biohazard bag, while their colleague positioned the orange medkit over the knife wound. “Friend or family?”
“Bystander. Never met.”
“Good job—” They did a double take at Gimlet. “What’s a dog doing here?”
“She’s my service dog.” Tesla wanted to rest her hand on Gimlet’s back, but her hands were sticky with blood.
The doctor grunted, and it was hard to read their expression behind the mask. As the orange medkit extended a spider’s worth of probes, they produced a pair of shears and sliced the tuxedo shirt open. The machine responded to some command and settled over Saikawa, lights flashing. “I need you to move back.”
Tesla nodded, but neither of the medics paid any attention to her. “Gimlet, heel.” She stood up, and Gimlet moved with her as if the dog were an extension of her own body. Tesla tugged the hem of her skirt down before she remembered the blood coating her hands. Well. It wasn’t as though she’d kept the blood off of the skirt up to this point anyway. And naturally, this one was too expensive to have self-cleaning fibers. She’d have to have it cleaned.
Bracing on the wall, Tesla scanned the hall for Shal, knowing he wasn’t there. At her feet, Gimlet put a paw on her calf and Tesla nodded in appreciation of the reminder. A panic attack right now wouldn’t help anything. She inhaled for a count of four, held it, and exhaled on a four count. Keeping her breathing slow, she studied the corridor again. About a dozen people stood in the hall, not quite willing to abandon the spectacle and return to bed. Three wore courtesy masks, either due to germs, fashion, or to protect themselves from cameras. She took snaps of faces with her online system in case Shal needed to ask them questions later. A leggy blond passenger with a full beard and fantastic purple muu-muu. The curvy older crooner from the karaoke lounge. Twins with matching dark shaved heads.
She pinged Shal. ::Update?::
::Mishal Husband is offline.::
The ship was a Faraday cage with spotty connections half the time. He was fine. Just chasing a murderer through the belly of a spaceship. What could possibly go wrong? She shut down the HUD. If she got really worried, she would ping his subdermal again.
A rounded person with a soft blue bob that just brushed their courtesy mask sidled up to Tesla. “May I… may I pet your dog?”
“No.” Gimlet didn’t have her vest on, so it wasn’t an unfair question. Tesla softened her response. “She’s a service dog. Touching her will distract her from her job.” Sometimes Tesla could handle it, but not right now. Right now, it would feel like having a stranger touch her.
Before she had to deal with the person’s response the service door opened again and a solidly built black security officer stepped through. “Honored passengers. I’m Officer Maria Piper, she/her, with ship security. I’d like to ask you all to follow our team to the concierge lobby.”
As she spoke, a half dozen other crew members, wearing bright-orange safety vests over server uniforms, followed her into the corridor. Officer Piper gestured to the hall, and two crew members broke off to begin knocking on the doors that were still closed.
The passenger in the muumuu said, “Someone’s been stabbed!”
As if Saikawa weren’t lying on the floor with medical hovering over her.
“Which is why we need this area clear.” Piper turned and spotted Tesla, then the blood on her hands and clothes and then Gimlet, before focusing on Tesla again. “None of that’s your blood, is it?”
Lips tight, Tesla shook her head. Because for all of the officer’s polite manner, every single person in this hall was a suspect.
“Then go with everyone else.” She beckoned a skinny towheaded crewmember, and there was a brief moment of hesitation as she looked up and to the left with the sort of squinting double-blink that was probably an ID request to the HUD on her subdermal system. “Take Mx… Zuraw to the concierge lobby with our other guests. Auberi will meet you and give you a quiet place to get cleaned up.”
Tesla gestured to her cabin door, which… which Saikawa was directly in front of. “This… this is my cabin. I can just change in there.”
Piper shook her head. “I can’t allow that right now. I’ll have someone bring you clean clothes. For the moment, the best thing you can do to help is to follow instructions and give us space to do our job.”
Tesla nodded. “My spouse said he saw someone and went after them.”
With a sigh that contained a veritable treatise on “helpful” passengers, Piper pursed her lips. “Which way did he go?”
Piper nodded, with a frown, and her lips moved slightly as if she were subvocalizing something. She pointed down the hall. “Lobby. Please.”
Tesla and Gimlet followed the crew member and the other passengers back to the concierge lobby, where more uniformed crew members welcomed them with trays of cocktails and coffee, as if this were a reception instead of an attempted-murder investigation. Soft music played in an acoustic rendering of “Lost in Flowers” by the Kingston Blues group Bad Sazerac. The ship’s staff gracefully herded the sleepy, grumbling passengers to the small café tables in the lounge portion of the lobby. Ficus trees dotted the area, backed by big, sweeping “windows” that purported to show the starfield they were crossing. Except, of course, if you could see the actual stars, the speed with which the ship rotated would just make you nauseous. Tesla did not need help feeling nauseous.
Gimlet barked, pulling Tesla’s gaze away from the starfield. Best dog. Her heart was already beating too fast and a flashback would be… unhelpful.
A moment later, Auberi arrived and let a brief grimace cross their face. “Everything is porridge! Pardon, but the public restroom is not in order for the moment. But I am told that you may utilize the toilet of the employees.”
“That’s fine. Thank you.” She followed Auberi behind the desk, waiting while they used their wrist fob to key the lock.
“This way, if you please.” Auberi held the door, eyes scanning the lobby for anything that needed their attention. “The restroom door is to your right. I must…”
“Of course.” Tesla slipped into the small office space behind the concierge desk. It was an austere box with lower ceilings than the lobby and was lined with storage lockers. She let go of Gimlet’s lead and the bloody splotches she’d left on it vanished as it self-cleaned. “Gimlet, release.”
Instead of bounding away to check out the room, Gimlet stood on her hind legs to brace herself against Tesla’s knee. Her button-dark eyes studied Tesla for damage, snuffling at the blood on her skirt. Tesla couldn’t reach down to reassure her dog, because she still had blood on her hands.
The door to the right opened onto a coffin-sized toilet, with a tiny washbasin built into the wall. Tesla triggered the soap dispenser and then waved her hands under the faucet to activate the water. As she scrubbed, the suds on her hands turned ruddy. Tesla felt the pressure of her palms against each other but not the slickness of the soap or the visible dampness. With the DBPS on override, she’d lost fine sensory feedback.
Outside the bathroom, Auberi said, “Mx. Zuraw? I come to bring clean clothes for you. Officer Piper requests of me to recover your skirt.”
Translation: you are covered in blood, and that is evidence.
“Thanks. I’ll be right out.”
Steam rose from the water and Tesla yanked her hands out. How hot was it?
She really needed to put the safeties back on the DBPS. It was easy to do more damage when she turned the pain signals off completely. It had taken her a long time after the Accident to learn the difference between chronic pain and new-damage pain.
Grimacing in anticipation, she tapped the DBPS down a notch. On the other side of a velvet wall, a cobweb of bright-red barbed wire waited along the sides of her spine.
At least she looked less like an ax murderer. The room seemed to recede around her, darkening at the edges. Someone had nearly been murdered. Tesla put her hand on the wall to steady herself as she waited the moment out. Wall. Toilet. Mirror. Post-it with “Friendly Greeters Smile at Three Meters.” Motivational poster of sleeping kittens with “Are you ready to be your best self today?”
::What do kittens have to do with best selves?:: she pinged Shal.
::Mishal Husband is offline.::
Rolling her eyes, Tesla opened the door to the tiny bathroom. Gimlet was sitting with her nose against the door and nudged it the rest of the way open. Her entire body transformed into wiggles of joy and relief. Gimlet circled, tail wagging in a semaphore of concern that she might never have seen Tesla ever again.
“Silly. I was going to come back.” She knelt to supply the necessary ear skritches, and Gimlet melted her entire body against Tesla.
Auberi awaited, holding a hanger with a subdued purple number in one hand and in the other a tray bearing a glass containing a cousin of a Manhattan. “I have printed a wrap skirt for you, thinking it most comfortable. Also, a Boulevardier. Josie, of the R-Bar, said that it is your preferred drink. I hope I have not exceeded?”
“You are phenomenal.” Kneeling on the floor of the tiny, slightly grubby office, Tesla focused on priorities. She lifted the cocktail and took a sip of the tart sweetness in her glass. The tight muscles of her upper back relaxed a little, and her shoulders lowered with the aromas of citrus and honeyed grain.
She had clothes. She had a cocktail. What she needed next was a plan.
“I’m having trouble connecting to my spouse… Mishal Husband. Could you help me find him, so I can let him know where I am?”
The mask of careful consideration slipped and froze. Auberi wiped their hands on their trousers and wet their lips. “Pardon… Mx. Husband has been arrested.”
Excerpted from The Spare Man, copyright © 2022 by Mary Robinette Kowal.