After their last mission in the Outer Belt, Evan Glyndower and Joss O'Bannion are looking forward to their promised two weeks of leave back on their home planet of Mars. Joss is looking forward to a convention where he can sell off some of his collected old television series, books and collectibles, whereas Evan is going to look up some old friends. But before they can barely even settle in to their rooms, they are called back to service for an emergency.
The New Solar Patrol Communications Array has gone missing, probably stolen, and was last seen in Martian space. Bidding their holidays goodbye, Joss and Evan set out to track the package where it fell from space to the Red Planet, which has been terraformed somewhat, but is still deathly cold, with an all but unbreathable atmosphere. As to where it landed, the Array didn't fall towards the more inhabited, settled areas of Mars, but to the hinterlands, the places where most Sop Officers and outsiders fear to go, the lawless back country that bears a resemblance to the Ancient Old West.
It's especially imperative that they get the Array back because it can intercept and decode any message that any members of the SOP send, either internally or externally. So, if Martian bad guys or outlaws have taken it, they can listen in as Evan and Joss and their bosses try to find the array.
But their investigation brings them into conflict with a "Mars First, Mars Only" type group calling itself "Red Dawn", whose work has been unknown until now. As they attempt to probe the activities of this group and why they would want to steal the array, they are going to have to deal with a hostile population, many of whom seem to support the Martian terrorists. Now, amidst explosions, missing fathers and the endless Martian landscape dotted with lumps of metal sought after by prospectors, Evan and Joss are going to have to find the Headquarters of "Red Dawn", find a female prospector's missing father, and recover the array- if they can. But in a town that seems in League with the terrorists, can they find anyone to support and help them? Or are they truly on their own?
Another excellent book in the series, and sadly, also the last one ever published, which is really a shame, because I honestly enjoyed the books as an antidote to the "grim and gritty" space epics I usually end up reading when I turn to Sci-Fi. The characters can be serious, but more often are cheerful, and joke with each other, even when they are in grave danger. Yes, they take their work seriously, but their work doesn't define them, and when you add in Joss's modern (to us) cultural references, it makes you laugh along with the characters.
Some parts of Mars are like modern cities, with big buildings, mass transit and modern conveniences. But we're never allowed to forget that Mars is still really part of the frontier, because once you step out of the big city, the rest of Mars bears a strong resemblance to the Western frontier in the 1800's. Lonesome, wild and inhabited by many people who would shoot you as soon as look at you, and the towns themselves are beyond insular, with everyone in everyone else's back pocket. If you thought living in a small town in the midwest is bad for everyone knowing everything about you, it's got nothing on a Martian small town.
The plot is well set up, with plenty of danger and bandits (Red Dawners) hanging out in the wilderness. We get to know the town characters well, but we're never quite able to trust them because of the suspicion that followers of the Red Dawn are everywhere. This is a fun and interesting story, and I would have loved to read more, but alas, that's not possible. So, I'll just have to recommend this one for the Sci-Fi Police Procedural fans out there.