Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
Sal took a deep, cleansing breath before answering. “Because people aren't supposed to live like this, are we? Two thousand calories a day, no more. Tell the government who you want to fuck. Get a license to make a baby.” He laughed, almost giddily. “What's your birthday, Detective Benson?”
“No, it isn't!” Kite snapped. “Because you weren't âborn' at all, were you? You, me, everybody came out of them gooey tanks.” Sal ran a hand through his thinning hair, as if checking it for artificial amniotic fluid. “They says it's 'cause it's safer, but I say it's easier to control people. Back on Earth, nobody waited for the government to tell them they've been granted the privilege of parenthood, did they?”
“I suppose not,” Benson allowed. “But Earth's resources were almost limitless. The Ark can only support fifty thousand at a time.”
“Yeah, I know all the excuses. But what's stopping them from just saying âFirst come, first serve,' answer me that? You can't, because you're their enforcer, aren't you? How many kids you got already, young man?”
“Iâ¦” The question caught Benson off-guard. “I haven't found the right woman yet.” He hoped the answer would deflect the growing diatribe, but it only seemed to fuel Kite's anger.
“The right girl? You're a Zero Hero. You've probably bedded more right women than I've ever locked lips with in fifty-three years, son. And a police chief? The floaters would sign off on any kid you wanted to shit out.”
An unexpected surge of anger threatened to boil over, but Benson beat it back. “I think we're veering off-topic.”
“Damned right we are.” Sal took a long pull from a tumbler in his left hand, then saluted to Benson. “Hope you don't mind if I indulge a little, detective. You're missing out on choice stuff. Genuine whiskey made the old way by a friend of mine down in the ponds. Has a still hidden in the pipes that your boys've never found.”
Benson sensed an opportunity. He held out his hand for the tumbler. Kite regarded him coolly, but handed him the glass after a moment's reflection.
Benson took the tumbler and sniffed the amber liquid, letting the smoky, oaken flavors dance through his nose before taking a generous sip. A decade of nights spent drinking, cavorting, and taking liberal advantage of the ship's mandatory birth-control regimen came flooding back. Too many nights, and too many mornings wasted.
“I didn't think you were allowed to drink on duty.”
“We're not. I guess that means you have some leverage on me.” The two men locked eyes until Sal nodded his understanding. “My compliments to your friend,” Benson said. “Although I'd love to know where he got the wood to age it.”
“You'd be surprised how crafty people can be down in the ponds, detective.”
“Not really. I spent ten years working an aeroponics farm myself. Some of the boys made white lightning that burned all the way down to your toenails.” Benson handed the glass back to its rightful owner. “I'm not here to bust illegal stills, Sal. It doesn't matter much at this point anyway. You still didn't tell me why you did it.”
Sal took his own sip from the tumbler, then savored the delicate aftertaste before answering. “I couldn't tell you, exactly. I guess most of us, the younger ones at least, wanted to send a message. That all this,” he held out his hands, motioning to his small gallery, “belongs to everybody, not some self-appointed, nepotistic overlords. This is our history, our legacy as human beings. It's all we've got left besides our genes, and they control those too. Well, mostly.”
“That's a bit jaded, isn't it? Anyone can apply for a berth among the crew if their marks are good enough.”
“And who votes on what's âgood enough,' eh? Remember what happened to that rabble-rouser Kimura when he tried to use the Council to leverage the selection process away from them? How long before he had a âheart attack'?”
Benson did remember, even though David Kimura had died several years before he'd been born. Kimura was a firebrand from Shangri-La. He was one of only a handful of crewmembers to ever resign their post, and instead took up politics running on a platform of greater transparency for the crew and privacy for citizens. A staunch opponent of implants in children, he'd been elected to a seat on the Council with a mandate to transfer the crew selection process to the civilian authority. His bill died with him less than a year into his first term.
“How many cattle kids make it through?” Sal continued. “Just enough to give us plebs hope, but never enough to actually change the culture. Shit, I'll bet they know exactly what that number is, too. Probably have an algorithm all figured out for it.” He waved an angry hand in the air. “Bah, you don't want to listen to an old crook rant. They won a long time ago. Now, I just work in the shit pits and try to keep my head down.”
Benson sat back down in the little chair. “You're a passionate man, Mr Kite, and there's a lot more depth to you than I expected. But if you're serious about the Heist being about liberating our legacy, then how do you explain the fact that most of the pieces disappeared for years? About a dozen are
Sal's angry expression turned sour. “Because not all of us were in it for the right reasons. Maybe most of us weren't and I was blinded by youthful idealism, I don't know anymore. But almost as soon as we got back to the hide-out, everyone started fighting about who to sell them to. We were getting bids on stuff through back channels and plant messages every ten seconds.”
“From who?” Benson jumped from his seat. “That's what I need to know. Your accomplices are all dead, I understand that, but your buyers aren't. We've caught a lot of them, but a lot of pieces were turned in anonymously. If I know who the players were, then maybe I can apply some pressure and figure out not only how this kid came to have a Monet hanging in his home, but why he went missing.”
“Sorry, detective,” Sal shook his head, “but I can't help you.”
“Because powerful people are on that list. As low as I've been knocked down here, they can still hurt me. No, I'm going to hunker down until I'm strapped into my shuttle seat down to the surface, then take my chances.”
Benson leaned back. “I'm confused. You talk like you're being persecuted, but you think you're going to be given a spot in the colony?”
Sal smiled. “I like you, detective. You're still young enough to buy into the whole idea of âjustice'. But I'll bet you dollars to donuts that I'm on the second shuttle down. The first will be loaded with debutants. The second will be loaded with us disposables, the people who'll be hacking down the trees or whatever, shoveling the ditches and pouring the concrete. The people taking all the real risks, the ones they won't mind losing when a tree falls the wrong way, or some wild animal gets past the fence. Nobody relies on me, they made sure of that. I got no family left, never got approved for kids, and now I'm too old to start. What do you think that makes me?”
Benson smiled. “I think my father was fifty-seven when I was borâ¦ when he had me, and that the whole reproductive selection process probably isn't going to survive Landing. But that's not anything I can guarantee. Instead, I have something else you might be interested in.”
Sal looked skeptical, to say the least, but nodded for him to continue.
“I know you've been banned for life from the museum. What if I could get you private time, after hours? No one to disturb you.”
A hearty laugh erupted from deep in Sal's belly. “Why don't you head outside and part the reclamation lake while you're at it?”
“Laugh all you like, but Madame Feynman and I are on very good terms. In fact, she owes me a favor.”
a favor. Me, she'd just as soon see ârecycled' as spit on me.”
“Maybe so, but if any of the names you coughed up meant even one more piece of her lost collection was returned to her loving care, I guarantee she'd carry you piggyback through a guided tour.”
Sal regarded him coolly, but Benson thought he saw a flickering spark of optimism, too.
“C'mon Sal, what do you say? Is it worth taking a little risk for a real look at some old flames? I hear the
Birth of Venus
is coming out of storage for a viewing this week. You haven't seen her in a while, have you?”
“That's not fighting fair, son. Did you cheat this bad in the Zero can, too?”
Benson bristled at the accusation. “I never cheated, Mr Kite. Maybe they did write a few new rules as a direct response to some of my more brilliant formation building, but that was after the fact.”
The old man smirked, recognizing a kindred spirit when he saw one. “One last chance to stick my thumb in their eye, eh?”
“Tour first. If that doesn't happen, I ain't saying nothing.”
“Naturally. I'll speak to Feynman as soon as I leave here. You'll have an answer before your next shift starts.”
“Maybe my last shift, too.” Sal's eyes fixed on the bottom of his glass. He swirled the whiskey around a couple times, turning the idea over in his head, giving it a taste. Then he swallowed the rest of the illicit booze in one mighty gulp.
“We have a deal, detective.”
he call came
at a bad time. Benson decided that, if during a Zero Championship game was bad, three o'clock in the morning was definitely worse.
“Accept call,” he said to the dark room. A chime rang, letting him know the call had connected.
“Hello, detective.” It was First Officer Feng's plant voice again, so different from the one Benson had sat through in his office only that morning. “I hope I'm not interrupting.”
“Feng, anything I could be doing at 03.00, you'd be interrupting.”
“Sorry, but this can't wait. We've found something.”
Benson's stomach sank. “What did you find?”
“Probably better if you just come to Command, detective.”
“Do I have time for a cup of tea?”
“We'll have a bag waiting for you.”
Benson shook head. “Right. Give me twenty.”
Five locks and two retina scans later, Benson floated through the door into Command. It was only the third time in his life he'd been a guest inside the sphere that was the epicenter of all the Ark's operations.
Command was a gleaming beacon, awash in the light of computer screens, holographic displays, and work stations covering every square meter of its inside surface. It was cool here, just as it had been in the labs, but around two hundred people, nearly a fifth of the crew's complement, busied themselves overseeing every aspect of the Ark's myriad of automated systems, sensors, and life support systems. It was all slightly overwhelming, even for someone who'd spent as many hours in microgravity as Benson had.
Hovering at the geometric center of the maelstrom, perched in a sort of cradle, First Officer Feng noticed Benson floating near the entrance and waved him up. No guards stood watch here. None were necessary with only one door. If the crew didn't trust someone to be in Command, they would never have entered in the first place. David Kimura had been right; this was where the real power was concentrated on the Ark. Most people would never set foot in Command, much less have any real say in the decisions made here.
“Good evening, detective,” Feng called over his shoulder as Benson drifted closer. “Or I suppose good morning, in your case.”
“Either could apply. Where's the captain?”
“Sleeping, I expect. Not her watch.”
Benson reflected that sleep hadn't stopped Feng from disturbing him, but let it pass without comment. “So, what did you find?”
“Here, let me show you what we've got.” Feng waved a hand, scrolling through a series of menus until he found the icon he wanted. A velvety black hologram coalesced in the air in front of them both. At its center, a faint grey smudge marred the otherwise endless black. Feng held out his hands and made an enlarging gesture with his thumbs and index fingers. The smudge grew and resolved into a slightly more coherent blur tumbling slowly through space. It took a few rotations before Benson's mind worked out the pattern. A central mass with four extremities.
“A body,” Benson sighed heavily. “Our missing man.”
“As I said, we don't know yet, but I wanted you to be the first to see.”
“Well, what else could it be? Unless you're suggesting a meteor just happened to fall into formation with us at five percent lightspeed.”
“Certainly not, but it may still be a piece of the Ark herself. Some insulation foam, or a chunk of ablative plating from the shield. We entered Tau Ceti's Oort cloud almost a year ago, after all. We've had quite a few impacts in that time. No telling what may have gotten knocked loose.”
“Then why is this only turning up now?”
“We only spotted it now. There isn't usually any reason to look anywhere but straight ahead. We don't know how long it's been there.”
“Can you resolve the image?”
“No. There's very little ambient light to begin with, and our ten-meter optical telescope in the bow can't get an angle. This isn't even a real image. It's a render based off an old collision avoidance radar leftover from construction that just happened to be pointed in the right direction.”
Benson frowned. “OK, how far out is it?”
“Twenty-seven hundred meters and increasing by a few meters per minute.”
“Growing?” Benson said. “Shouldn't the ship's gravity be pulling it back in?”
Feng shrugged. “It may have been, but we made a small course correction to avoid a comet fragment a couple hours ago. That probably broke it free of our gravity well.”
“How long before our recovery window closes?”
“Then we need to go now.”
Feng nodded agreement. “We're prepping an EVA pod now. I'll link us into the live feed.”
“No, I'm going out,” Benson said firmly, surprising even himself.
“Out there?” Feng said carefully. “You'll be outside of the Ark's meteor shield. We could probably spare a couple of nav lasers to clear anything bigger than a millimeter or so from your path, but smaller than that is below our radar's detection threshold. The shield soaks up everything too small to spot, but an EVA pod doesn't have the armor for it. A grain of sand or speck of dust would go straight through it. And you.”
Benson already knew all of that, although maybe not in such stark terms, but held his ground regardless. “I know you're holding out hope that this thing isn't a body, but I have to proceed assuming it is. As of right now, I'm declaring that object to be part of a crime scene and potential evidence in an ongoing investigation. Which means I have to go investigate it.”
Feng eyed him apprehensively. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Nope,” Benson shook his head. “Not at all.”
“Good, that means you're not suicidal at least.” Feng's eyes went gently out of focus, a telltale sign he'd started a plant call. Benson waited patiently for the conversation to run its course.
“I've just spoken with Engineering Director Hekekia. He's about as thrilled with the idea as I am, but he's prepping an EVA pod. He'll be waiting for you in the portside hanger.”
“It'll take me a half hour to get all the way back to the engineering module.”
“Preflight checks will take about that long. Be quick, detective. And don't take any unnecessary risks. If that's our missing man, then we've already lost enough.”
Benson nodded, then pushed back towards the exit.
In fact, it was almost forty-five minutes by the time Benson finally entered the port maintenance bay. This did not impress the dark, thick Samoan waiting for him near the door. Hekekia was, by any measure, the sturdiest crewmember on the ship. A man who spent so much time in micro had no business looking like a keg with arms.
“You're late,” Director Hekekia reprimanded.
“Not my fault,” Benson said. “One of the locks between Shangri-La and Avalon was closed for maintenance.”
“Is that a joke?”
Benson shook his head innocently. “Only on a cosmic level.”
Hekekia squinted at him, but let it lie. “The pod is ready for you. Follow me and we'll get you in a suit.”
“I thought the EVA pods were shirt-sleeve environments.”
“They are. But my people don't insist on taking them past the shield umbrella and out into a shooting gallery. If you have a hull breach and lose atmosphere, the suit will give you time to come back home.”
“And what are the odds of that happening?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? The shield gets hit between eighteen and fifty times per day. My advice? Be quick.”
Even with help, it took him another ten minutes to get buttoned up inside the vac-suit. It wasn't a true spacesuit; their life-support systems were too bulky to fit inside the maintenance pod's hatch, but it would keep his blood from boiling and held enough air for about a half hour, so if anything went wrong he would have plenty of time to think about how stupid the idea had been.
“OK,” Hekekia tucked the last zipper into its flap. “Remember, we're going to pilot the pod from here. You're just a passenger, so don't touch anything. I can't stress that enough.”
Benson sighed. “Seriously, did you all take training on tape or something?”
He ignored him and continued. “We'll have a real-time video feed, so if you need something done, just ask and we'll handle it.”
He guided him in his squishy vac-suit to the EVA pod's hatch. The “hangar” wasn't exactly what one would expect. No shuttles or pods cluttered the deck like forgotten children's toys. Instead, each pod butted up directly against the exterior hull like blisters, with small locks and tunnels providing pilot access. The director opened an inner hatch and waved Benson through.
“Be careful, detective.”
Benson smirked. “Was that a trace of concern I heard?”
“Of course. I can't afford to lose the pod. We're overscheduled with prep and inspections as it is.”
“You asked. Good luck.”
Benson smiled back at him sarcastically as the hatch closed and locked. He pushed off and floated the rest of the way down the narrow tube, past the emergency pressure doors and grabbed the handle of the outer hatch. It swung inward, revealing the interior of the pod itself.
The pod's hull was a flawless acrylic sphere more than two meters across and five centimeters thick, intended to maximize visibility. Everything else, including the life support pack, maneuvering thrusters, and hydraulic manipulator arms were bolted to the back and outside of the crystal orb. It reminded Benson of the sort of small submarines built for deep sea exploration back on Earth. Like most people on the Ark, he'd gone through a phase watching every documentary about Earth life he could find in the database, if only to feel a deeper connection to the homeworld no one would ever see again. Benson had always liked the deep sea vids, if only because the weightlessness of being suspended in water seemed so familiar to him, and the creatures so alien. He'd often dreamed about exploring the Tau Ceti G oceans in one of those little subs.
Now, faced with the cramped confines and the endless, infinite black of deep space without the warm blanket of the Ark surrounding him, a chill ran down the length of his spine, then turned right around and made a lap of it.
“What the hell were you thinking, Bryan?” he chastised himself.
“What was that?” Hekekia said through the com built into his helmet. “I didn't copy.”
“Nothing. Closing the hatch.” He pulled the door shut behind him and spun the manual locks into place.
“Strap in tight, detective. Wouldn't want you to bump your head.”
Benson arranged himself in the pilot's seat and fumbled through the thick gloves until he'd managed to click the five-point harness into place. “Ready.”
“OK, launching now.”
Benson heard the metallic snap as the docking clamps released the pod. For a moment, nothing happened as he drifted gently away from the Ark. Then the thrusters kicked in, sending a shudder through the pod and gently pressing Benson back into his seat. The outer hull fell away.
For the first time in his life, Benson left the Ark. His eyes adjusted quickly to the total black of space, revealing it to be anything but total. A billion points of light stared back at him like eyes in a dark forest.
It wasn't anything like the deep sea vids. Those were closed in, claustrophobic, extending only so far as the submersible's lights could claw their way through the dark. He entirely forgot about the close confines of the pod as his consciousness ran in every direction trying to fill the immense void. Primal fear grabbed his heart in its cold embrace and squeezed like a vice.
He grabbed the control sticks and cranked on them in a desperate bid to turn the pod around, but nothing happened. Then the infinite abyss sucked Benson's mind into its depth.
“Detective,” said a tinny voice in his ear. “Your vitals just spiked. Are you OK?”
“Tooâ¦” He gasped for breath. “Too big.”
“You're having a panic attack, detective,” Hekekia said. “Listen to me. This isn't unusual. Focus on something in the cockpit, anything. Look at your hand if you have to.”
He ignored him and strained against his harness in a panicked attempt to get to the hatch.
“Detective Benson!” Hekekia shouted. “If you can't get a hold of yourself, I will have to abort and return the pod to the ship.”
A significant portion of Benson's fragile psyche thought that sounded just lovely. However, enough of him remained that he managed to listen to Hekekia's commands and fixated on his own palm. For a long, long moment, Benson forced himself to be very interested in the stitching on the inside of his glove.
“Detective, be advised, we're going to spin the pod around a hundred and eighty degrees. Keep your focus on the Ark herself. This will give you a point of reference. Just avoid looking at the stars for now.”
“OK,” he said weakly. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead. A thruster fired and the pod gently spun around on its central axis. The Ark drifted into view in all its glory, starting with the enormous, ablative orange cone at the front that was the meteor shield. Very quickly, the command module came into view, with the Operations sphere right at the front, followed by the myriad of cylindrical towers and wart-like projections that held the labs.
Next, the two gigantic cans of Shangri-La and Avalon rotated into view. From this angle, Benson couldn't even see the module that housed the Zero stadium nestled between them. It was too narrow. Barely visible in the dark, the flags of every nation of Earth had been painted on the ribbed hulls of the habitats, over two hundred in total. Some were larger than others, a none-too-subtle reminder of which countries had contributed the most to the project. A final boast to ensure their legacy far into the future.
Benson didn't recognize more than a handful of them.