This is the prequel to Rusch's 2000 story, "The Retrieval Artist." As that was and is one of my favorite novellas of all time, I was eagerly anticipating this book. I was not disappointed in the least.
Miles Flint is a first-year detective on the Moon Sector Police, with his tough experienced partner, Noelle DeRicci. Both are smart and somewhat on the fringe of the agency, and thus tend to pick up the cases others don't really want. As the book opens they are given a case in the Port, a mysterious vessel with three victims of a gruesome Disty vengeance killing inside. Almost immediately, a call comes in that Wygnin have been brought in with children but without the proper warrants. They have to be brought into custody until the warrants can be confirmed, though really, Flint and DeRicci just want to stall them with the slight hope they can get them out of it.
Because in this future, humanity has made trading contracts with other species that allow them to use their own justice on humans who violate their laws. Once an appeal has been denied by the multicultural courts, the aggrieved party is allowed to take matters into their own hands however their laws see fit. Those humans can be pressed into slavery, messily executed along with everyone involved, have their children taken, or any other punishment, with impunity. Though few like it, for the most part the politicians and corporations have convinced people that it's necessary for progress. However, in the wake of this, various quasi-legal Disappearance services have sprung up to shield and give new lives to people who are willing to pay.
Soon yet another case is plopped right into the duo's lap, this time of a cunning woman claiming to be on the run from the Rev, another alien species. The keep watch on her, but she surprises DeRicci with a laser pistol on the way to the station and escapes. The whole patrol is on the lookout for her, the base is locked down, Flint is with the chief doing damage control in his blunt way. Meanwhile the Rev show up and he has to run to placate them, while DeRicci tries to deal with the Wygnin and their targets. Both groups are angry and short-tempered, the two officers toeing the line to a diplomatic disaster. It slowly becomes obvious that all of this is related to a disappearance service selling out its clients (though it's revealed to the reader much earlier).
Both work hard to keep such a stressful situation from spiraling out of control, even though they'd be within the law to do nothing. In the end Flint proves his humanity, and generally tries to help as many as he can; he doesn't entirely succeed, and he doesn't as well as he'd like, but it's the best he could and by far more than anyone hoped for.
I can't say enough for this story. All of the characters are very real, the stress and worry etched into every page, hope rare but held onto tightly. Everyone has their own dark pasts, everyone their own mistakes that haunt them though they push it down. Seeing people with many different interests competing or working together or both. The story unfolds masterfully, weaving in and out of cultural and interpersonal relations, rules and regulations, philosphocal conundrums, histories, desperate attempts to keep order, and it's always apparent that everyone wants to do the right thing, though only Flint is so willing to fight hard for what he believes in, and DeRicci, inspired by him and past caring about her future.
The reader is given a lot extra that the cops don't have, and in many ways this brings us to sympathize with the guilty and less likable protagonists. Even the woman in the first chapter, horrified to find her vessel abandoned to the Disty, and next seen brutally eviscerated... and later we find out it was all for teaching a Disty English. The prose is kept tight, clipping forward from the first page, taking only the short breathers that the heroes and the fugitives get. It's an effort just to set it down, no matter where you are. Even the exposition is fluidly intermixed with the story, so nothing feels rushed. The technology is neither overexplained nor silly, light enough to keep a non-technical reader comfortable.
I recommend this to all. I cannot wait for the next installment, be it in short form or novel.