Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
His shoulders sagged.
Benson growled under his breath.
omeone else was living
in Laraby's apartment. The young lady said she'd moved in less than a month ago, but somehow the transfer hadn't updated in the housing records. She gave Laraby's forwarding address and wished him luck. The new address was a few minutes' walk, further from Avalon's rear bulkhead in the more exclusive suburbs. The buildings in the area were modeled after a small French hamlet. He updated Theresa back at the stationhouse and asked her to reroute whoever she'd sent as backup.
Benson met the constable he'd requested walking up to the second apartment's door. The young man stood in the doorway at parade ground attention, in full uniform. As discreet as a clown at a funeral. He threw a crisp salute.
“Good morning, detective.”
Benson gave a half-hearted salute in reply. “What are you doing here, son?”
Confused, the constable stuttered an answer. “Well, I, um. Lt Alexopoulos asked me to come here and watch this apartment, sir.”
Benson shook his head. “No, what are you doing
? You're supposed to be watching to see if he comes back, not standing here stiff as a statue where he can see you from a hundred meters away.”
Recognition slowly dawned across the constable's face. “Oh. Oooh, right. Sorry, detective.”
“Go change into plain clothes. Then hide in that grove of trees over there. Bring a pad with you. Try to look like you're reading or watching a vid. If anyone comes into or out of this place who isn't me, call it in immediately.”
“Yes, sir!” The constable ran off. Benson rubbed his temples. It wasn't his fault, really. A whole new crop of recruits had just finished training not even a week before. With Tau Ceti G so close, the population was getting restless. Mostly, it was positive. People were energized, focused on the immense amount of preparation work to be done before the Flip. But with the end of the voyage in sight, many citizens were becoming pretty lax in their adherence to the Codes of Conservation that had kept the last sliver of mankind alive for nearly two and a half centuries.
The rash of drunk and disorderly incidents had been joined by a near riot over in Shangri-La as people brought home-made fishing poles to one of the hydroponics reclamation lakes. He'd even broken up one honest-to-goodness doomsday cult. Granted, it was a cult of three people, but still. The stress was taking its toll on law and order after more than two centuries living in a fishbowl.
Benson leaned over to the intercom next to Laraby's door and pressed the thumb scanner. “Detective Bryan Benson, declaring an emergency override.”
The scanner beeped and the deadbolt whirred open. Benson twisted the door handle and swept into the apartment. The lights responded to his presence.
Benson whistled softly. The room was at least twice the size of his own, with spiral stairs off in the corner leading to another level. It had a full kitchen, complete with breakfast bar. The walls were adorned with artwork, much of it framed with what looked like genuine wood. It even had an antique reading chair over in one corner.
It wasn't an apartment, it was a proper house. The perks of being part of the crew.
“Mr Laraby?” Benson walked gently across the bamboo floor. The staircase was wrought iron, another piece of unexpected decadence. Eighteen steps later and he reached the bedroom. The lights came on as soon as his foot hit the carpet. Carpet! The most he'd ever had was a small area rug. Which was fine, because the area it covered wasn't much bigger. He fought the urge to take off his shoes and rub his bare feet against the luxury as he surveyed the room.
The queen-sized bed was empty, its silky sheets tucked into tight hospital corners. The entire apartment looked like a team of maids had spent the week scrubbing it down to the last square centimeter. A quick glance in the master bathroom revealed Edmond hadn't drowned himself in the claw-foot bathtub.
“Unbelievable,” Benson muttered. He'd only gotten an apartment with a stand-up shower with his last promotion. The rest of the cattle had to make do with sonic showers and UV sterilizers.
Cattle. Although most citizens had never heard them say it, Benson's position as chief constable meant he dealt with crew members on a daily basis. He knew what they called the ninety-eight percent of humanity not fortunate enough to be one of them. Just cattle to be shipped twelve lightyears across space, valuable only for the genetic diversity and physical labor they'd provide to the Tau Ceti G colony. Never mind that every last person on board the Ark was a direct descendant of the fifty thousand smartest, strongest, healthiest people among the ten billion living on Earth when the end came.
Of course, everybody knew the cattle's name for their crew: floaters, because they spent most of their time in microgravity in the command and engineering modules, and because of the ever-annoying turd that was too full of fat to flush properly.
Between the two slurs, Benson always thought floater was the cleverer.
As he walked back to the stairs, he spotted a tablet and grabbed it. The bedroom light clicked off automatically, while the living room lights anticipated him. He crossed the living room and plopped into the reading chair. He ran a hand over the armrest, and, while he couldn't be sure without bringing in the museum curator, Benson bet it was genuine leather.
He logged into the tablet with a thumb, which brought up his familiar desktop screen, complete with the background of his Championship team picture taken just minutes after they came back to beat the Dervishes.
Emergency powers only went so far. He could enter Laraby's apartment to make sure he wasn't inside, but without a warrant, Benson wouldn't be reading any of Laraby's emails, journals, or other private files. That didn't stop him from reading the man's personnel file saved on his plant, however.
What he read was the story of a handsome, twenty-four year-old man who kept out of trouble by keeping to himself. He was well-liked by his superiors, competent, and respected by his coworkers. He'd not missed a day of work in more than three years, had never had a disciplinary mark against his record, and had been promoted several years faster than the usual career track.
In short, the opposite of someone you'd expect to go missing.
He moved on to Laraby's next-of-kin, of which there weren't any. He had no declared relationship, no siblings, and his parents had already been added to the Clock.
Benson stood to wander around the apartment again, trying to get a feel for the man. Just like the bedroom above, the living room and kitchen were spotless. Not just clean, but sterile. It looked like a display model, as if no one actually lived in it yet. Either Laraby was a compulsive cleaner, or someone came in after he went missing and wiped down the scene. Suddenly the twenty hour delay between Edmond dropping off the grid and Benson getting the call seemed less innocent.
One of the walls in the living room had the slight sheen of a painted OLED surface. Benson activated it, and watched as a loop of images scrolled past. They were stock images of the surface of Tau Ceti G, taken from the Pathfinder probe.
Pathfinder had entered orbit around Tau Ceti G nearly two years ago. It was an unmanned, scaled-down prototype for many of the Ark's systems, as well as a test-bed for the sorts of large-scale, orbital construction methods needed to build them both. Once her shakedown cruise was over, Pathfinder was refueled and loaded up with dozens of communications, mapping, and GPS satellites, as well as atmospheric probes, rovers, and drones.
Launched ahead of the Ark, Pathfinder spent two centuries acting as an early-warning platform mapping stellar debris and dust in the larger ship's course. But since reaching orbit, its mission changed to launching drones and rovers to study the surface in great detail, and set up a global communications network that would be in place the moment the first colonists touched down.
But most importantly, Pathfinder carried a spool of carbon-nanotube ribbon many tens of thousands of kilometers long. Once the Ark arrived and a small colony was established on the surface, the Ark would be moved out to geosynchronous orbit and become a space station for the planet's first space elevator, with Pathfinder some ten thousand kilometers further up the well acting as the counterweight.
New images of humanity's foster home taken from Pathfinder and her network of dirtside landers were uploaded almost daily to the net and ravenously consumed, studied, and debated by the public. If Zero had any competition as the Ark's favorite pastime, it had to be arguing over pictures of their soon-to-be-world.
It was no surprise Laraby would want to display the images in his home, considering he was part of the team working to adapt Earth crops to the new environment. If the loop of images held anything unusual, it was the number of orbital pictures of the Dark Continent, so-called because of a persistent cyclone storm that covered most of the landmass. One of Pathfinder's landers had been sent to get direct imaging, but an unlucky lightning strike had triggered its airfoil to deploy while it was still supersonic, shredding it like tissue paper. The lander and all of its drones and rovers augured into the ground at several hundred kilometer per hour.
As a result, almost nothing was known about Tau Ceti G's third largest landmass aside from what could be learned from orbital radar scans. It was an enticing mystery that had spawned endless speculation.
Benson turned the wall off and moved on. The art prints were largely reproductions of classical paintings, some religious in nature, some still lives, and a familiar looking painting of a pair of haystacks that, unlike the others, had its own spotlight. When he leaned in closer, Benson noticed the texture of fine brush strokes behind the glass.
“This isn't a reproduction?” He held up the tablet in his hands and snapped a picture, then ran a search. The results came back almost instantly:
Haystack. End of the summer. Morning.
Oil on canvas. 1891 ACE.
enson barely had
time to take in the news when a new voice burst into his head.
Benson tensed, as if one of his old grade school teachers had just scolded him. The voice belonged to Mrs Devorah Feynman, a terror of a woman who had served as the Museum's curator for the last thirty-five years.
Benson ignored the rebuke.
God, she missed her calling. Should have been a drama coach,
Benson thought off com.
Benson was a little taken aback by her tone.
The line paused. The equivalent of a stare-down.
Benson forced himself to relax. Tomorrow's dinner with Theresa couldn't come fast enough.
Seventeen minutes later, someone knocked on the door. Benson set down the tablet and got up from the sumptuous chair to answer it. A tiny woman, no more than a hundred and sixty centimeters tall and hunched with age, swept into the living room. She wore her silver hair in a bun so tight it seemed to quiver under the strain, held in place by a pair of wicked looking black lacquered chopsticks, doubtless far older than even the woman herself.
She ignored Benson completely as she spotted the painting on the far wall and stalked over to it.
“Good afternoon to you too, Devorah.”
She looked back at him. “Hmm? Yes, yes. Bring me that stool, would you?”
Benson could only chuckle as he grabbed a stool from the breakfast bar and set it down in front of the painting. He offered the older woman a hand up, but she didn't even glance at it as she hopped onto the stool like a mountain goat. She leaned in close and murmured softly to herself.
“Whoever framed it used good glass, that's a plus. Wouldn't be surprised to see if I went back far enough in the museum stock room records that some display glass took a walk.” She pulled a pair of pristine white gloves from a pocket and slipped them on her weathered hands, then removed the painting from the wall. She moved to the table and set it face down.
After a moment's study, she unlatched the backing plate and set it aside. Then she reached out and gently removed the painting from the frame with a careful reverence normally reserved for crying babies or ticking bombs.
She laid it face up in the open air for the first time in who knew how long. A large, antique magnifying glass appeared from somewhere on her tiny frame.