Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
Standing against the background of Avalon's night, the figure flipped the knife into an icepick grip and came at him again. Benson crab-walked backwards while he dug through his jacket pocket in a desperate search for his stun-stick. His fingertips fixed on the small cylinder and pointed it, still in his pocket, and pushed the button.
Benson found himself tempted to push the button again, but a more immediate concern presented itself in the form of the fifteen centimeter length of steel coming for his heart. Benson put up his legs in a defensive posture that had been beaten into him during the best three weeks of law enforcement training available. The attacker tried to get inside for a mortal strike, but Benson kicked him back several times, getting slashed on his shins twice for his trouble.
With adrenaline surging through his veins, Benson landed a heel squarely at the base of the assailant's jaw, snapping it shut with a painful
. The blow knocked them back far enough that Benson could retreat out of range.
Clearly dazed from the kick, the assailant turned and staggered back into the shadows.
Burning with testosterone and rising fury, Benson jumped to his feet. Knife be damned, no one was going to get away with attempted murder of a constable on Benson's watch. Especially when
was the officer in question. Exhaustion forgotten, Benson ran straight after the retreating footsteps. He opened a link through his plant.
Benson barely cleared a hedge while he waited. The suspect was quick, and he lost sight of him twice while he waited for the ID.
He lost sight of the suspect again. Even the sounds of their footsteps were starting to fade.
Benson tried to get a bearing on the footsteps, but echoes off nearby buildings and the forward bulkhead itself made it an impossible task.
Benson tuned out the man's excuses. A mad-hatter, he thought. But he'd seen the knife, how would an aluminum-foil hat escape his attention?
Benson's patience was at an end.
It took a few seconds, but far above him, the axle that ran through the center of Avalon started to glow. Several minutes would pass before the bulbs would reach their full brightness, but already enough light reached Benson, giving him pause.
The surge of adrenaline had masked the pain, but the streaks of angry crimson along his forearm and lower legs told the story. Benson had been cut, and cut deep. He was losing quite a lot of blood, especially from his arm..
Gingerly, Benson flexed his hand to make sure all of his fingers still worked. Fortunately, the assailant had failed to slice through the tendons, but the damage was enough. Benson clamped his left hand down hard on the wound to slow the bleeding, then bent over to get a look at his legs. Unlike the thick fibers of his jacket and shirt, the thin fabric of his pants had done little to slow the blade. The two slashes to his shins had cut straight to the bone.
Still fuming, it took an act of will to convince his enraged lizard brain that he was too tired and wounded to continue. Benson abandoned the pursuit and instead used the growing light to try and trace the suspect's steps. He managed to follow a short trail of disturbed grass, but the footprints quickly ran back to the walking path, leaving no further trace.
All around him, confused citizens started leaning out of windows and opening doors to look up at the unexpected light. Frustrated, Benson sat down in the middle of the path where no one could sneak up on him and waited for backup to arrive.
of Benson's night passed in a blur of statements, a quick jaunt off to Sickbay to get his wounds stitched up, a bucketful of admonishment from Dr Jeanine for forcing her out of bed to attend to his wounds, and again from Theresa for winding up in Sickbay twice in one day.
Despite fighting for his life, Benson gained almost nothing from the encounter. He had no useful description, other than average height and weight. He didn't even know the suspect's gender! At least his wounds proved that he hadn't hallucinated the whole encounter.
It was well past five in the morning Avalon Time before his head finally met his pillow. It was barely two hours before his alarm went off. But, being a plant alarm, he couldn't just smash it and throw it out the nearest window.
“Not cool!” he shouted as the chimes gently, but firmly, continued to ring through his brain. He couldn't turn it off. The alarm knew if he was still in bed or not, based on his locator. It couldn't be tricked, and it was relentless. It was, in the opinion of many, the single most inhumanly evil piece of software ever written.
Benson had once tried simply rolling out of bed and lying on the floor, but apparently the soulless coder responsible for the abomination had anticipated the move and the alarm resumed several seconds later when it realized he was still prone.
Instead of fighting it, he simply got up and moved to the shower. He didn't need to disrobe. Benson slept naked, never grasping the point of wearing pajamas to bed when the only people who might see him were the ones he intended to get naked with anyway. It was one less thing to buy, and one less thing to wash.
He stepped into the stand-up shower, his aching muscles and joints longing for the luxury of hot water. But instead, the dressings on his injuries meant he had to settle for ultrasonic pulses and a burst of UV.
“Just like the good old days,” Benson lamented.
The sound waves were well above the threshold of his hearing, but it never failed to make his skin crawl as though he was swimming in one of the fingerling tanks. A fog of dirt and dead skin cells floated off his body before getting sucked away by the shower's air circulation system. In minutes, it would be carried through a series of collection ducts and deposited in a cistern of waste water, urine, feces, and inedible organics leftover from food processing. Next, an insatiable army of trillions of bacteria specially bred for the task would break the revolting mix down into a soupy slurry. Then, the slurry's components would be separated out through a series of centrifuges, chemical strippers, magnetic eddy currents, and filter screens. Finally, vital ingredients like iron and salt would be purified back into raw material, while the rest processed into fertilizer for the farms.
Nothing went to waste on the Ark. Except maybe Benson's time.
Someone was fixed on keeping him from solving the Laraby case. He'd been ambushed, plain and simple. Punishment for pressing on with the murder investigation, even if he hadn't announced it yet. His attacker had been no random Zero hooligan. The only thing that saved Benson's life was spotting the slight rustling in the bushes. If his attacker had snuck up from behind, it would have been a small matter to slash his throat and watch him bleed out before any help could arrive.
For the dozenth time, Benson struggled to remember anything useful about the attacker. Average height and build for a male from the habitats, although he wasn't about to discount a stocky female, either. Several girls in the Zero league were a match in size and strength for any of the boys they played against. Benson never forgot the lesson Madison Atwood had taught him in the 221 PE season opener. He missed four games after
hit dislocated his shoulder. She worked for Chief Bahadur as a constable in Shangri-La now.
Still, he could safely cross floaters off the list of suspects. Whoever had attacked him had been quick, agile, and strong. Not as strong as Benson himself, but certainly a beat faster. That sort of conditioning wasn't something one developed in microgravity sixteen hours a day, while sleeping the other eight.
Why the hell hadn't his stun-stick worked? And why hadn't Command been able to track their plant? And how had someone even known he was pressing ahead with the investigation in the first place? On Theresa's suggestion, he'd held off on any public announcements of his intention to slap the
label on the investigation before the autopsy was done. No one should even know.
For a terrible moment, Benson weighed her prospects as a suspect. She was the only one who knew his intentions for the case. She knew nearly everything about him: his schedule, routines, everything. If anyone was in a position to plan an ambush for him, it was her. And she was the obvious choice to replace him as chief should anything happen.
Benson shook off the thought as he cooked in the UV. The ultraviolet light was intense enough to kill off nearly every last bacterium clinging to his skin, but brief enough to keep ambitious cancer cells in his dermis from getting any funny ideas.
Theresa was many things, but indirect was not one of them. If she wanted him dead, she'd do it herself. He'd certainly given her cause to over the last year. Unsanctioned as it was, their relationship was stuck in its adolescence. They couldn't come clean with their friends, couldn't move in together, and couldn't even think about starting a family. And that unfortunate situation had no chance of changing unless one of them switched jobs and got out of the other's chain of command. Something neither of them had expressed any interest in doing.
Besides, either his attacker had found a new way to block their plant signal, or someone else was jamming it for them. Both possibilities were beyond anything he or Theresa were capable of. It smacked of more interference from someone in the crew.
The lights timed out and Benson got out of the shower, taking a moment to towel off the thin, powdery layer of detritus that the fans hadn't managed to dislodge. He rubbed down with a squirt of moisturizer, then used mouth rinse. His teeth didn't need brushing. A colony of genetically-tailored bacteria lived inside his mouth, breaking up plaque and eating the acid that would have caused cavities and tooth decay in centuries past. The rinse was filled with the little buggers, along with special nutrients to supplement their unique diet.
It also tasted like burnt spaghetti sauce and stale peppermint, but for a life lived without dentists, most people chose not to nitpick.
Benson threw on some clothes and toasted a bagel, then spread a generous layer of peanut butter once it was good and hot. Hans at the bakery wouldn't like that. “I already baked it once,” his wounded voice would say. Being one of only three rabbis left in existence, Hans was a traditionalist. He insisted on running a kosher kitchen, which, considering the Ark's limited supply of ingredients, must have presented interesting challenges.
Cleaned, fed, and clothed, Benson stood favoring his right leg, taking care not to put too much strain on his stitches. He was met at the door by the tall, uncertain back of Constable Korolev.
“Jeez, Pavel,” Benson said with a start. “You surprised me. What are you doing here?”
“Standing watch, sir.”
“Over my apartment?”
“Yes sir. Lieutenant Alexopoulos asked me to guard you against further attacks.”
“Of course she did,” Benson said. “Thank you, job well done. You may go now.”
Korolev shuffled his feet nervously. “I would sir, it's just thatâ”
“That Alexopoulos told you to follow me around like a lost puppy for the rest of the day.”
“Not in so many words, chief.”
“Ugh! You do understand I outrank her, yes?”
“Yes, but if I listen to her, you're mad at me. However, if I listen to you, she's mad at both of us.”
Benson nearly ordered him away, but the math made an odd sort of sense. “Do you always approach the chain of command so pragmatically, constable?”
“I'm Russian, sir.”
Benson couldn't help but snort at that. “Come along, comrade. We have errands to run.”
Twenty minutes later, the two of them floated down the central corridor towards the bio-lab module. The microgravity took all of the strain off his injured legs. It felt good.
Korolev drifted just behind him, silent as a tomb. Benson looked back at the younger man. “Never been outside of the habitats, have you, constable?”
“First time, chief.”
“Well, don't be nervous. Crewmembers are people just like the rest of us.”
“I'm not nervous, sir.”
“Yeah? It's maybe fifteen degrees in here and your forehead's sweating.” The lock for the bio-lab came up on the right. “OK, wait here. Trust me, you don't want to go through the âdecontamination procedure.' I won't tell the lieutenant.”
“Sounds good to me, chief.”
Benson nodded, then brought up his plant menu and found Director da Silva's entry. Of everyone on the crew, da Silva had the best reasons to help him find Laraby, so Benson had the least reason to suspect her involvement. He had questions only a crewman could answer and she was the one to ask.
The line fell uncomfortably silent.
After being cleaned off for a second, and even more thorough time that morning, Avelina da Silva met him at the door.
“Hello again, detective. I'm sorry to be short with you, but you need to be quick.”
Benson glanced around at all the techs straining to pretend they weren't listening. He didn't have many reasons to be here outside of Laraby's investigation, and they were all interested in any news.
“Actually, director, is there somewhere noisier we could talk?”
She looked around and saw the same thing Benson did. “Don't you all have projects to work on?” Avelina shook her head and nudged Benson towards one of the labs in the second ring. Inside, he was surrounded by centrifuges; some no bigger than a teapot, others as long as he was tall with row after row of seedlings spinning away. The electric hum filled the background.
“Better?” Avelina asked.
“Yes. What are all these for?” Benson asked.
“The small units are just separators. The larger ones are incubators. Seeds need gravity to develop properly. Now, what âsecret squirrel' stuff brought you up here?”
“Well, I'm sure you've heard by now, but I wanted to extend my condolences for Laraby's loss. I know he was a valuable member of your team.”
She took a moment to compose herself. “Thank you. I heard while you were in Sickbay. I'm actually glad you came. I wanted to thank you for bringing Edmond back home. We can have a proper ceremony for him now. I know it wasn't an easy thing.”
Benson smiled. “That's a bit of an understatement, but it's the least I could do for him. I'm curious, though, did Edmond keep any logs at work? Notes about his projects, maybe?”
“Of course. We all keep detailed records. Why, are you looking for a suicide note hidden in them?”
Benson sighed. So that really was the “official” story. Amazing how quickly it made the rounds. “I haven't determined cause of death yet. I'd like a look at his work records, just to be sure I haven't missed anything.”
“Erm, that's fine, but I don't know if you're going to be able to make much sense of them.”
“I might surprise you.”
“OKâ¦” da Silvia sounded dubious. “I doubt they're going to do us much good anyway. We're over-committed as it is. With Edmond gone, I don't have enough manpower to actually finish his projects. I'll upload his work files to your plant as soon as I break for lunch.”
Benson nodded. “That'll be fine, but it's only half of the reason I came.”
Da Silva cocked any eyebrow quizzically. “And the other half?”
“You're one of the best scientists alive.”
“Well,” da Silva blushed at the compliment. “There's a couple of grad students bucking for my job who might disagree with that assessment, but I'm pretty good.”
Benson made a mental note to look into which of Laraby's coworkers would have been in a similar position. Professional jealousy could be a powerful motive.
“That'll do. You may not have heard, but I was attacked after the game last night by someone whose plant was immune to my stun-stick and couldn't be tracked by Command. Is there any way to reprogram a plant to be invisible like that?”
Avelina considered the question. “Implants are like solid-state wetware. They
be reprogramed, but it's not something you can upload. It's a physical change that'd require surgery, which would mean somebody both writing the new program, and someone else doing the cutting. I don't think that's the sort of thing you could keep quiet.”
The creases in Benson's forehead deepened. “What if it wasn't reprogramed? What if the original unit was made differently?”
“You mean when it was implanted? Awfully long term planning, don't you think?”
Benson sighed. Putting a modified plant in a baby hoping they'd grow up to be a killer was an unlikely scenario, to say the least.