A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Andrea Cort Stories
Novellas and shorter works
by Adam-Troy Castro

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 26, 2023
Edits and Addenda on September 30, November 12, and December 1 & 19

These stories have not been written in the chronological sequence of Andrea Cort's life. I start with the first one written, then go back to an earlier adventure, which happens to be the most recently published. I may rearrange the order at a later time, but for now this is the order of the reviews:

Unseen Demons / Burning the Ladder / With Unclean Hands / A Stab of the Knife / Hiding Place / Tasha's Fail-Safe + The Coward's Option

"Unseen Demons" is a novella, originally appearing in the July/August 2002 issue of Analog. It placed third in that year's Analog Readers Poll, and was on the longlist for a Locus. It is now available for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through that link may earn us a commission. Also available in other formats and from wherever you usually buy e-books. If you happen to read French you might consider Émissaires des morts, in which it is joined with two other novellas, one novelette, and the first novel in the sequence, Emissaries From the Dead. Search for ISBN number 9782226443700.

It features the first appearance of Andrea Cort, a woman who has channeled her misanthropic nature into being an investigator. Her full title is Associate Legal Counsel for the Homo Sapiens Confederacy Diplomatic Corps Judge Advocate, but will usually settle for being addressed as Counselor. I've read a couple of chapters in the novel, so at least for it and this story she investigates murders. Maybe other crimes in later stories, but if only murder, maybe only when the perpetrator and victim are of different species. "Unseen Demons" takes place about a year before the novel, with most of the other stories set before "Demons." I'm not sure yet in which order I'll read the others. The author has provided a chronology on his website.

I don't want to say too much now, since I gather her back-story may have been revised a bit in other stories. Andrea had suffered trauma at the age of eight, when she lived with her parents on Bocai. It is not clear yet (not sure when or if it will be) what set off the antagonism between humans and the Bocaians, who had lived together peaceably for years. Andrea witnessed Bocaians killing humans (including her parents), humans killing Bocaians, and she may have dealt a fatal blow herself. After that, she grew up on orbital habitats. She hates being on a planet, and she generally hates everyone else too, maybe even herself, but that hasn't hindered her career, or at least not as much as some others wish it had. She is the type of character one might love to hate, or perhaps hate to love, and I think she has an equally ambiguous notion. Cort comes to Catarkhus to investigate why Emil Sandburg killed several of the planet's sentient species, as well as under whose jurisdiction he would be tried. The latter is her more pressing concern, since Hom.Saps are not the only other species there. The Tchi, the Riirgaans, and the Bursteeni also have embassies. Another entity to consider is the AIsource.

There are other characters and scenarios beyond those of Andrea Cort, all set within what the author calls the "AIsource Infection Universe." The title of this story means different things at different times. Something I found hard to understand about the Catarkhans is how they could be considered sentient when they are without sight and hearing, have no spoken language, and appear to not even be aware of the other species being on their planet. Also, they supposedly do not feel pain, but again, I'm puzzled how that is known if no communication has been established. In that sense, the humans and other species could be considered the unseen demons, interfering in the lives on Catarkhus with no input from its inhabitants. Later, after the case had been settled, Cort tells Sandburg about her suspicions concerning Bocai. Could some unknown, unseen entity be responsible for the abrupt change in human and Bocaian behavior? Something I suspect, and I think she does too, is the AIsource is that demon. We shall see if that supposition is correct at a later time. I may get to at least one of the other stories next month, but not before finishing Emissaries From the Dead, which I will review on another page devoted to the novels..

*     *     *

"Burning the Ladder" is not available as an e-book yet, and only in print in a back-issue of Analog. However, they made it available in PDF form since it was eligible for nomination for an AnLab (Analytical Laboratory) award, also known as the Analog Readers Poll.

Posted September 30, 2023
Other than in flashback exposition in "Unseen Demons," and the two novels I've read so far, "Burning the Ladder" shows Andrea at the earliest point in her life. It is the most recently published story, in the May/June 2022 issue of Analog. On the author's website he says she is 17 years old at this time, although in the story it is 18. Perhaps on the cusp of her 18th birthday. It may be her first official assignment for the Diplomatic Corps. She is on the planet Grethai, where it didn't take long for her to antagonize the Confederate Ambassador. She is sent to a remote outpost in the midst of a vast desert, where only two other humans reside in a walled compound, and there seems to be very few Grethaians around either. One day she is walking through the nearby village when she sees a young Grethai (female she thinks) being attacked by droges, the alien equivalent of wolves. She rescues them and takes them back to the compound. She knows next to nothing of the Grethai language, so has to rely on Esa Chorin to translate, and for Chorin to go into the village to find members of the young alien's family. What she discovers is not encouraging, although Chorin isn't sure she has translated what the villagers told her correctly. Apparently Ami, the young alien, "has no intestines," which they can cleary see they have, otherwise they would be dead.

Both Andrea and Esa cannot understand the villagers reactions. They want nothing to do with Ami, saying the humans were wrong to save them, they should have allowed the droges to kill and eat Ami. Andrea knows what it is like to be demonized by others, and does not wish that on anyone else, human or alien. They learn there is a facility that might take Ami, but Esa eventually decides not to take them there, but to deal with Ami herself. She had already told Andrea about her past, one that could be considered just as horrific as what Andrea endured, so it was easy for her to understand what the Grethaians wanted her to do. Esa's plan doesn't go the way she wanted, and Andrea returns to the Confederate embassy with Ami, for which she has to undergo an inquiry. Will she be prosecuted for what happened to Chorin, and also for defying the customs of the alien world?

The title refers to something Esa told Andrea, not to burn the ladder of ascent within Dip Corps. But it could also refer to something Andrea tells the Ambassador, implying what the Ambassador decides could possibly burn the ladder from underneath her, collapsing her career instead of harming Andrea's. No matter the horrific experiences Andrea suffered, which are not limited to what she did on Bocai as a child, but also to how she was treated afterwards while in confinement, it hasn't taken long for her to realize what she did, which she knows will torment her the rest of her life, isn't any worse than what multiple humans have done throughout history, and will continue to do in the future. Yes, Andrea is a damaged individual, and she has had suicidal thoughts (and attempts), but she may turn out to be the most empathetic person we are likely to meet in these stories. And Ami? After reading the story below I wondered what the Zinns would make of them..

*     *     *

"With Unclean Hands" is available as an e-book from multiple sources, including Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted September 30, 2023
First published in the November 2011 issue of Analog, "With Unclean Hands" takes place after "Burning the Ladder," but I'm not sure how much time has passed. It may be Andrea's second assignment, but I suspect not considering its importance. It is possible Castro will eventually write a story or stories set in between them. This time she is on Zinn, facilitating a transaction between the Confederacy and the aliens. The Zinns had at one time expanded into a multi-planet, multi-star system race, and they have technology that humanity covets. They expanded until they encountered other races, at that time realizing their pacifistic nature would not survive such contact, so they retreated to their homeworld, and now the race is slowly dying out. For some reason they are willing to trade their scientific advancements to the Confederacy, in exchange for a notorious human serial killer, Simon Farr. Andrea has brought Farr to Zinn, and now has to approve and finalize the transfer.

Once again, she clashes with the local Ambassador. She is reprimanded for speaking to a young alien, First-Given, after leaving a diplomatic reception early. In her defense, it was First-Given who approached Andrea and started the conversation. First-Given is the daughter of a high-ranking Zinn, known as Feeder-of-Prisoners. First-Given had previously been sequestered, not allowed contact with any alien visitor, but she wanted to be Andrea's friend. Andrea travels with Feeder-of-Prisoners and First-Given to a manufactured island which will be the home of Simon Farr, where the Zinns can observe and study him. Everything about the island, and the home built for Farr, struck Andrea as the most preposterous thing she had ever seen. The Zinns didn't seem to understand that incarcerating a murderer should not be for that prisoner's comfort. Against her better judgement, she allows the Ambassador to talk her into approving the transfer, but later that night, either in a dream, or after waking from a dream, she starts to put earlier conversations into context.

Andrea suspects the Ambassador had previously been aware of what the Zinns intended, even if they didn't realize the full implication. It is something she hopes she can circumvent, so she commandeers one of the alien craft and flies back to Farr's island. What she does there is commendable, from her perspective at least, even though it might not be enough to stop the Zinn's plans. It might not help her career prospects either, even if she can make it clear to Dip Corps what those plans are. It is not until the second to last paragraph that she spells it out to the Ambassador. Again, Andrea has to contend with people, and aliens, who know her history. She realizes it would have been very easy for the Zinns to have demanded her for their project instead of Farr. She is likely to remain on thin ice within Dip Corps for a long time, no matter how well she handles her assignments, no matter what revelations she uncovers. And it never helps when she continually upstages her superiors..

*     *     *

"A Stab of the Knife" is not available as an e-book yet, and only in print in a back-issue of Analog (July/August 2018). It was made available in PDF form when it was in contention for a AnLab (Analytical Laboratory) award, also known as the Analog Readers Poll, in 2019. It is not available for download anymore, unlike the link above for "Burning the Ladder," but I assume that link will not be good for much longer either. I may have downloaded it at the time it was reported at Locus, or maybe through the author's Patreon, can't remember now.

Posted November 12, 2023
This is again out of chronological sequence, but I'm reviewing now since it is set in between the second Andrea Cort novel, The Third Claw of God, and the third, War of the Marionettes, which will be my next read. In addition to Andrea Cort and her cy-linked companion, Skye/Oscin Porrinyard, this story features two characters that have appeared in other stories yet to be read. A fellow Dip Corps official, Tasha Coombs, was introduced in "Tasha's Fail-Safe," which I hope to read next month. The other is one who had been in three previous stories and two later ones. I assume Andrea appeared in none of them, but could be wrong. I think John Draiken (not his real name) is much older than Andrea, and had been a spy/operative/possible assassin, on many different worlds over the years. He has come to New London, the orbital habitat home to the majority of Dip Corps facilities, as well as being Andrea's home base. He has been tracking her because he thinks she could be a source of information for something he seeks, which is likely a technology we saw used in Third Claw.

After being on New London for a while, he had switched his living quarters several times, getting to know all levels of the society within. He is on his way back to his hotel room when he is the victim of a surprise ambush by the Porrinyards. They sedate him, wanting him to be out for at least five hours, but his constitution is strong, and perhaps had been victim of the same type of drug before. He wakes in less than three hours, in his own room, with Skye Porrinyard observing him. They notify Oscin to return to the room with Andrea, where they interrogate him as to his intentions. He tells them what he is after, they apparently believe him, and while they may not think he is a threat to them specifically, they caution him not to pursue them anymore. When they leave his room he should have stayed, to further recuperate from their drugs, but he goes out to a bar instead, where he is approached by another unknown man, whom he suspects wants him to kidnap Andrea. That man leaves the bar, but when Draiken tries to follow him he is stopped by a very large and muscular woman, and because of their scuffle he is arrested. Then he comes face to face with Andrea and the Porrinyards again, along with Tasha Coombs, whose job it is to pore over intelligence files. She confronts Draiken with many details of his life, ones he thought were far behind him, that no one should have been able to unearth, including his real name.

He distrusts Andrea, is fearful of what else Tasha knows, but is fascinated by Skye, and because of their unique situation, also of Oscin. He learns the man he had met is now dead, but he is not a suspect, and neither is the woman who had accosted him. They form an uneasy alliance in order to get to the bottom of the mysteries, which include who killed the other man and why, and who else might have been his associates. An expertly crafted action sequence follows, after Skye invites Draiken to a fancy restaurant, where he is able to spot at least ten security personnel, although there are quite a few more that he misses. That large woman comes back into the picture, but not as their attacker, but rather a defense against multiple masked attackers, along with a weird technological weapon that proved to be the one that killed the mysterious man that had confronted Draiken earlier. All are grateful for Draiken's help, but Andrea is still skeptical of his overall motives, so he is shipped off to another habitat (or planet), in cold sleep, and in the opposite direction in space he had wanted to go to next. It might be two years before he could recover resources needed to continue his search. I have no idea if his and Andrea's paths cross again, and also have no idea how any of these events lead into the next novel. I will find out soon though.

Castro is once again adroit at laying out a mystery that unfolds logically, if also meanderingly at times. The action sequence mentioned above is one of the best written passages I have read of his work so far, easily visualized through his descriptions, even while also being set within an other-worldly venue. I will follow up on this page, hopefully next month, with "Tasha's Fail-Safe" and "The Coward's Option," and maybe one other. Even though published twelve years ago, "Hiding Place" is set as late in Andrea's life as Castro has written so far..

*     *     *

At this time, "Hiding Place" is only available in a back-issue of Analog (April 2011), or if you subscribe to the author's Patreon, which is how I got access to it. It has not been in any collection or anthology, nor released as an e-book yet.

Posted December 1, 2023
Another example of the mixed chronology of the series. Published more than twelve years ago, it is the furthest into Andrea's life that Castro has written so far. There are a couple of other stories yet to read, both set before "Unseen Demons," but "Hiding Place" follows the third novel, and I was anxious to see the aftermath. Since I have endeavored to stay spoiler free on these stories, I was not sure to what the title referred, but I had a guess. Several planetary governments had warrants out for Andrea's arrest, which she had been able to dodge due to her diplomatic position, as well as not venturing to certain sections of space. I suspected she would be attempting to hide from all of that, and from the revelations that came on Vlhan in the third novel. Something else that had been posed as a possibility, but which I have not mentioned yet, ties into her latest investigation. She has been called to interrogate a cy-linked group of three, on the assumption her association with the Porrinyards might give her special insight into the case. The prosecutor who requested her, a former associate of Andrea's from law school, perhaps had something else in mind.

Back when I reviewed the first novel I mentioned the intriguing notion of two previously independent people joining together to become one. Other people's confusion as to what that actually entailed, and the stumbling over which pronouns to use, would lead to various complications. After all, that conflation of consciousness still existed in different bodies, and each body could be in a different location, or one asleep while the other is awake and working, without breaking the connection. Now Andrea is faced with three previous individuals, two women and one man, now a cy-linked triptych. The complication in the murder investigation comes in due to the man being the perpetrator of the crime, his joining with the two women coming after the crime. If you prosecute one-third of the triptych, should the other two-thirds be considered accessories after the fact? This relates to Andrea's personal situation. The Porrinyards had invited her to link with them for their own triptych, and in fact they had started the process of connection before Andrea got the call for this latest investigation. Was she attempting to hide from her past, burying herself in a merged consciousness? She suspected that was the case with Harriman, the individual who had committed murder, trying to hide from the consequences by linking to two women. However, Andrea is a shrewd observer of human nature, and a careful listener. She had become familiar with the way the Porrinyards referred to themselves, as individual creators of action, as well as their combined decisions. That allowed her to pierce the veil of intent that led to the murder.

I won't reveal her conclusions, but they cut to the heart of the situation, not allowing the murderer(s) to escape justice. However, there is no resolution to Andrea's own situation. She realizes the prosecutor who called her in had an ulterior motive over and above resolution to the murder case. She also wanted to dissuade Andrea from completing the link to the Porrinyards. Castro has said that he may continue to write of earlier cases Andrea worked on, but if he ever goes beyond this story it will need to be another novel. She may complete the linkage with the Porrinyards, whom she says she loves, and it is hard to disbelieve that notion. Or she may turn away from them, more out of fear of what linking with her will do to them, rather than the reverse. Does Andrea have the courage to face her predicaments as a unique individual, or will she take the alternative, retreating into her hiding place? No matter her ultimate decision, if Castro ever writes it, I will read it..

*     *     *

This two story collection is available for Kindle from Amazon, as well as from other e-book sources. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. Other than their original magazine appearances, they have been in print only in the French release mentioned above, Émissaires des morts.

Posted December 19, 2023
One of these days I will rearrange the story order to coincide with the chronology of Andrea's life, but that will wait for now. The title story of this collection is a novella, but a novelette preceded it in both chronology and publication order. I assume "The Coward's Option" (Analog, March 2016) was given prominence since it is the longer story, and it is mainly about Andrea. She does appear in "Tasha's Fail-Safe" (Analog, March 2015), and is the one who presents the resolution at the end, but it starts with Tasha Coombs investigating potential leakers of sensitive Dip Corps information. On her way home from her office, Tasha is pursued by someone, is injured, but also able to retreat to a location difficult for her assailant to get to her. Then a maintenance robot shows up and scares them away. By the time Tasha is found she is comatose. Andrea is called in, suspects Tasha was the victim of a self-imposed "teeming." That is a technology seen in other stories although I have not mentioned it yet. A non-lethal disruption of cognitive abilty via a light beam, perhaps a laser. It usually wears off after a few days, a week at the most, but Tasha's superiors are anxious to discover who and what she has discovered in her investigations.

Set after "With Unclean Hands," in which Andrea had gotten into trouble once again for her actions, and she had been in protective custody since then. Her superior, Artis Bringen, thinks she might be able to figure out the fail-safe code Tasha had created to bring her back to consciousness. Apparently Tasha had made a last minute change to that code, but it wasn't registered in any of the Dip Corps computer systems. The code proved she was sure Andrea would be called in to figure it out, and proved Tasha knew Andrea well enough, perhaps too well. It was not something that pleased Andrea, but she had to acknowledge it was accurate. No, I won't reveal what the code was.

I'm not sure how much time separated "Tasha's Fail-Safe" and "The Coward's Option," nor whether Castro might eventually write another story set in between them. If it was due to her efforts in the previous story, or something else, "Coward" sees her assigned to a case on another alien world. Not that she had anything to investigate, since the perpetrator of a murder had already been caught and sentenced by the aliens. Her superiors must have thought it would be her just rubber-stamping the deal, as was to have been the case in "With Unclean Hands," but we saw how that went. Andrea interviews the prisoner, who tells her the aliens had not allowed him the option of an alternate sentence. Other than execution, they also had a procedure which would alter a person's consciousness to prohibit future criminal behavior. Andrea goes to the alien judge to get more information, then to one who would perform such a procedure. What she learns concerns her as much as what she learned on Zinn in "With Unclean Hands," but an action by the Dip Corps amabassador thwarts her plan.

Regardless of how anti-social Andrea is, she actually cares about people and her work, and is intelligent enough to figure out the worst case scenarios inherent in various technologies, and what humans and aliens would be capable of in implementing those technologies. Her attention to detail, and her brusque manner in dealing with others, proved helpful here. It didn't take long for a young associate on her first assignment to realize something was wrong. Andrea may be many things, but coward was not one of them. After punching Andrea in the face (no, I won't explain), things were set back to "normal," and Andrea is able to bring another to justice.

The only award for either of these two was "The Coward's Option" winning the 2017 Analog Reader Poll.The story above, "Hiding Place," is still the last in Andrea's life so far. Whether Castro writes more of her past adventures, or goes forward to complete the story, I will be interested. All of the stories I've read so far, including the three novels, and the three Marionettes novellas, are very good, and recommended.


Related links:
Adam-Troy Castro's own Andrea Cort/
AIsource Chronology, updated whenever a new story is published.
My reviews of the Andrea Cort Novels.
The Marionettes Novellas.


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Adam-Troy Castro


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