Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
he first order
of business was to form a posse, Old West style. After Mahama publicly confirmed the reactor damage had been sabotage, the crew declared a state of emergency and took immediate steps to curtail movement between modules and ramp up security. Benson and Bahadur were put in charge of the response in the habitats. Benson had no shortage of volunteers for his response.
Just under seven hundred people showed up outside of Lift Spoke Number One within twenty minutes of Benson putting out the call. He deputized the lot of them in a mass ceremony. Theresa had misgivings about using civilians in the search, but they needed lots of eyeballs to search an area as large as the basement levels. Even with this, keeping Mao's people from slipping through the net and doubling back was going to be difficult.
More than anything, Benson was hoping to rile them, throw them off balance enough that they made a mistake. Maybe he'd get really lucky and one of them would crack under pressure and turn state's evidence. Although he wasn't at all sure what kind of deal the prosecutors would be willing to cut on fifty thousand counts of attempted murder.
The plan they patched together was simple enough: divide into four groups and line up on each deck from one bulkhead to the other, then walk around the entire circumference of the habitat in unison, a four-story wall of searchers.
Based on what he'd learned of the Unbound over in Shangri-La, Benson ignored the first two levels. He arranged the search groups so that the larger, younger people would search levels five and six, while the smaller and older volunteers stuck to three and four. If Mao's group followed Kimura's pattern, they could be expected to retreat to the lower levels once they saw the search party coming, right down into the path of his strongest people.
As plans went, it had about as many holes as a lemon zester, but it was the best he could do on short notice. He'd assigned three constables to play shepherd over each group, and everyone was plant-linked back to the central computer grid where their visual feeds could be assembled into a single landscaped image of the entire search in real time. Any sightings would be passed out to all four groups instantly, along with a replay of the encounter and location information through their plant interface.
Theresa was back in the stationhouse where she could stay on top of the mountain of data streaming in and do her best to keep the four teams coordinated. She wasn't particularly happy about that, either.
Benson keyed up his plant and opened a call to the entire party.
A tidal wave of
yes, yeah, yup, sure, uh-huh, mmm, a
nd a half dozen other affirmatives in hundreds of individual voices crashed into his consciousness so hard he actually took a step back as if he'd been struck. He wasn't alone; quite a few people in the crowd covered their ears against the noise.
The crowd chuckled back and nodded understanding.
, I can't stress that enough. Your plants have already been programmed to identify, record, and report automatically. You're just cameras, but cameras we can't afford to lose. If we spot one of these suspects, we will coordinate and isolate them. If they refuse to surrender or put up resistance, the constables in your team will deal with them. Nod if you understand.>
The first people in line headed for the far bulkhead. Once they were ten meters out, the next deputy followed, and so on until two kilometers and almost half an hour later the lead man reached the other side of the module. With the lines fixed in place, everybody faced spinward and marched ahead. Benson keyed a command that turned on all the lights. As far apart and dim as the bulbs were, it wasn't much, but it beat the hell out of total darkness.
Benson led the party on the sixth and last level, and it was cold. He thought the command module was cold, but he'd never seen his breath up there. The volunteers down here were almost exclusively men, several of whom had been on the Mustangs in years past and were only too eager to help their old captain. Korolev was there too, several hundred meters further down the line. He was shaping up to be a very good constable, but still needed supervision.
The scenery this far down was sparse, to say the least. Stretching out in every direction was an uninterrupted grid of catwalks set on top of a honeycomb matrix of insulation cells. Each was a meter wide, two deep, and made of aerogel, so light and translucent that it looked like frozen smoke.
It was also the best insulation mankind had ever devised. While the air down here was only a few degrees above zero, only two meters of aerogel and a thin composite/aluminum weave outer hull separated him from a degree above
zero, so named because the temperature had nowhere else to go. The habitat's aerogel blankets here and in the level above were so efficient, they needed no heaters. The rate of heat lost to space was actually less than the heat given off by the fifty thousand human bodies and waste heat from the machines that kept them alive.
Unlike the levels above, no tangle of pipes cluttered the space down here, no conduits, no fiber optic bundles, and no air ducts. The air was dry and stale, yet had a sharp, metallic edge to it like ozone. The mold and decay Benson had seen visiting the Unbound in their lair on level three was totally absent. This far down, only a single layer of radiation-reflecting meta-materials lay between them and the torrent of high energy cosmic ray particles assaulting the ship from all directions. They very effectively sterilized any mold spores or bacterial colonies that wandered down here and tried to take root.
A bright light flashed in Benson's right eye as one of these particles crashed headlong into one of the cone cells at the back of his retina at the speed of light, reminding him that spores weren't the only things they would sterilize given enough time. It's what made the lowest levels the perfect hiding place; no one wanted to be here in the first place.
Still, the utter lack of scenery had one benefit. Benson's people could see hundreds of meters fore or aft without any obstructions, and the only thing blocking their views to spinward or anti-spinward was the upward curvature of the floor and ceiling, which would also prevent their quarry from spotting them until it was too late.
They had six point three kilometers to walk. Benson maintained a brisk pace; indeed, he found it difficult not to break into a jog. Still, the other three teams had far more cluttered spaces to navigate. Theresa had to tell him to slow down and keep his team in line every few minutes. After the first two kilometers, the inflection and cadence of her reminders sounded suspiciously consistent.
She cut the call.
Good old Esa. Never afraid to knock him down a peg. It was probably for his own good, in the long run. She ordered stops several times while volunteers on other levels either had a false-positive sighting, or came across remnants of temporary camps and supply stashes, but Mao's group was thorough. The most interesting thing the searchers found was a fifty liter bucket with DRINK ME painted on it in blocky letters. Upon closer inspection, it was filled with piss and shit.
This is pointless
, Benson thought.
They saw us coming, how couldn't they? Seven hundred people don't exactly move around as quiet as church mice. But then where did they go to?
Benson growled loud enough for the man to his right to hear him.
“Everything all right, sir?”
“Fine, fineâ¦ Just keep your eyes open.”
“OK, but another thousand insulation cells and I'm going to go cross-eyed permanently.”
Benson snorted. The endless pattern of hexagons really was starting to strain his eyes. He had no point of reference for them to get a fix on the distance, like getting lost in floor tiles.
“I know what you mean.”
Someone had tipped Mao off, probably whichever floater had been helping him all along. Feng was the only one he could safely cross off the list, which left hundreds of possibleâ¦
A thought jumped out at Benson. He'd given up on Laraby's files because Feng had altered them. But Feng had altered them to conceal their relationship, not to cover up whatever had actually caused someone to shove Edmond out of the lock. Those clues might still be in there, waiting to be read. Benson had given up on his best possible lead for entirely the wrong reason.
He opened his plant and tried to retrieve the files. Maybe he could run a few more searches while they completed the sweep. But his exhilaration hit a wall when the query for the files came back with an error message.
[File Not Found]
. He tried again, but the files were completely missing from his plant memory. Benson pulled up his download history and backtracked the file address and network transfer paths to a single holographic data node. He tried again from the source.
[File Not Found]
Benson queried the node's network ID and tried to open its entire directory. He'd go through the files one at a time if necessary. But the effort was cut short by the next error message.
[Data Node Inaccessible.]
Oh, for fuck's sake.
Benson opened a call to command.
Benson blinked several times before he answered.
Benson pinched the bridge of his nose. Just once, he wished his stun-stick didn't require a line of sight to work.
Benson savored the man's naivetÃ©, a trait apparently shared by the entire crew. A single data node blows out that just happens to contain files critical to the only murder case in the last decade, and nobody smells anything suspicious about it.
The gears kept on turning as Benson cut the call. Someone really didn't want Laraby's files read, and now they'd succeeded. But the million dollar question remained. Had they simply taken advantage of the power outage to wipe the node, or had the entire blackout been a window to delete the files once and for all?
And what were the odds the plan ended there?
A new call rang through Benson's mind. It was Jeanine. He accepted the call.
<â¦maybe. But you're sure no one's listening?>
The connection dropped. Benson looked down the line of volunteers as the futility of their task set in. He phoned Theresa.
enson shivered away
the last clinging remnants of cold. He was glad to be out of the sub-basement, with its pervasive chill and subversive radiation. A short, invigorating walk later and he passed through Sickbay's doors. An orderly directed him to exam room two. Inside, he found Jeanine standing over Edmond Laraby's body. He'd had some work done since the last time Benson had seen him in the form of a large “Y” incision down his chest. It was still open.
Benson looked up at her, confused. “You've done the autopsy already?”
Jeanine nodded grimly.
“But I thought you said he had to thaw for another day at least.”
“That was just an estimate I found in the database. Turns out the cadaver thaw tables were from mid-twenty-first century America. The average person was rather substantially larger and ahâ¦ better insulated than our man here.”