Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
The engineering section drifted into view. Compared to the simple, almost organic aesthetic of Command and the habitat modules, it was a jumbled mess of pipes, conduits, and sharp angles. Benson saw a half dozen of the fleet of atmospheric shuttles stuck to the hull like remoras. Soon, they would begin to ferry people down to the surface of Tau Ceti G. Each one could hold almost five hundred passengers. They were all individually bigger than any airplane mankind had ever built, but were still dwarfed by the Ark herself.
Beyond engineering, thirty-two stupendous two-stage shock absorbers stretched backwards over two kilometers until they joined with the aft shield dish. For over two centuries, the shock-absorbers and aft disk had waited patiently for their second and final spot in the limelight.
And sitting right in the middle of it all, a repository of almost inconceivable destructive power sat waiting for someone to light the fuse. During a short time in the twentieth century, what propelled the Ark had been the single greatest threat the continued survival of mankind had ever faced. Hidden away deep inside the engineering section, literally tens of thousands of thermonuclear bombs sat at the ready. But instead of being put to use destroying entire continents, they had, somewhat ironically, been harnessed to ensure the salvation of the entire species.
The Ark was Project Orion taken to proportions never dreamed of by the men who had first proposed its brilliant insanity. Benson had once heard the ship's propulsion described in the crudest of terms: a sixteen kilometer long pogo-stick that shits atomic bombs. Crude, but entirely accurate. Bombs were thrown out the back, then detonated. The aft dish absorbed the immense shockwave from all the violence and converted it into forward momentum. The kilometers-long shock absorbers helped to even out the concussion enough that the force didn't convert everyone inside into red pudding.
Repeated thousands of times, the bombs had accelerated the Ark to her current velocity of fifteen thousand kilometers per second, carrying her almost a dozen lightyears away from the star of her birth. And in less than two weeks, a torrent of nuclear bombs that had once threatened Armageddon would slow the Ark back down and deliver mankind to the Promised Land.
Benson's little pod finally drifted far enough that he could fit the entire Ark into his peripheral vision. The surrounding stars provided dim illumination, and Tau Ceti itself was still so far away as to only be the brightest among them. But in the absence of any other lights to pollute his eyes, he could still see the ship clearly. For over two centuries, every human life had taken place inside this enormous, ungainly, beautiful girl. Every birth, every death. Every intimate moment, every argument. Every crime, and every act of charity.
A tiny blob intruded into his view. It took him a moment to realize what it was. It was a tear, suspended by microgravity into a perfect sphere. He was crying.
“Detective, are you all right?”
Benson wiped his eyes. “Yes, I'm better. I think I have a handle on it. Sorry.”
“As I said, it's not unusual your first time out.” Hekekia's sarcastic voice had softened. It sounded almost paternal. “I should tell you, you're the first person in a hundred years to be so far out. You weaseled your way into a heck of a view.”
“That I did,” he agreed solemnly.
“You're almost on top of the object. We need to spin the pod back around. Are you ready to proceed?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“OK. We're keeping a close watch on your vitals. If you start to feel the attack return, try to focus on the arm of the galaxy to keep yourself oriented.”
Benson took a deep breath and stole one more look at the Ark. As huge as it was, weighed against infinity, it seemed tiny, fragile. Vulnerable.
“Roger that,” he said finally. “Go ahead and get me back in position.”
The pod shuttered once more as the thruster pack fired. Slowly, the Ark fell back out of view, replaced by a great milky band of stars that was the galaxy seen edge on. It looked like a single grand stroke of a mad painter's brush. Suspended right in the middle of it, like an ink stain, a shadow moved against the stars.
“I've spotted the target,” Benson said. “Can we get a light on it?”
The black smudge turned white a heartbeat later.
“We're about to decelerate the pod to bring you to a zero/zero intercept. Ready?”
Benson clenched his stomach and grabbed his shoulder straps. “Do it.”
The pod shook as he was thrown forward into his harness. A fog formed ahead of the pod as escaping propellant gasses hit the floodlights. A few seconds later, the shaking stopped abruptly and the fog disappeared, replaced by a gently tumbling form drifting dead ahead.
Emphasis on dead.
Benson let out a long, ragged sigh. “I've reached the target. It's a body all right. One more for the Clock.”
“Is it the man you're looking for?”
“I can't see his face yet, but the list of candidates isn't very long. Standby.” Benson leaned forward, as if the extra couple centimeters would help, and waited for the body to spin back around to face him. He'd seen bodies before, of course, but always at memorial services just before they were recycled. After they'd been cleaned up, and usually well into their golden years. Benson tried to brace himself for what he was about to see.
He was completely unprepared for the explosion.
he starboard manipulator
arm disintegrated into a violent swarm of tiny projectiles pinging off the acrylic sphere like a shotgun blast, leaving a dozen chips in the glass and sending the pod spinning out of control.
“Mayday!” Benson shouted into the com as the Ark tumbled into and out of his view. “Mayday! I'm hit!”
Only years spinning around in the Zero ring kept him from blacking out or throwing up. Warning lights blinked angrily all around him, while an alarm screamed throughout the tiny cabin loud enough to ring in his ears until his visor snapped shut, silencing them.
“Mayday, does anyone copy?” Bursts of static filled his ears. “Mayday. I'm calling from inside the EVA pod.”
Agonizing seconds ticked by while Benson waited for a response. The pod's gyrations continued unabated. The com was his only hope, he was way outside of the range of his plant's wireless connection.
Memories of his rookie season came flooding back unexpectedly, when he'd first been strapped into the “Gyrotron.” Ostensibly, it was a training tool meant to acclimatize rookies to the disorientation of microgravity. In practice, it was a way to knock cocky newbies down a peg by making them puke in front of their teammates. He'd been put in it four times his first season before the lesson finally sank in.
An eternity later, a message finally came through, albeit in text form projected on the inside of the canopy glass.
--This is Command. Your main coms appear to be out. Connection limited to emergency backup. What is your status?--
Benson touched an icon to switch his transmissions to voice-to-text. “I've been hit by a meteor. Starboard arm is gone. Hangar's control has been lost and I'm spinning like a piÃ±ata. I need local control restored. Send.”
Vertigo set in. No matter how much training or experience, no one could fend it off forever in such a chaotic spin.
--Hangar reports it cannot restore control. There's a manual override in the cabin.--
“What does it look like? Send.”
--It is a small amber light that started blinking after the connection was cut.--
“They're ALL fucking blinking! Send!” He immediately regretted shouting as bile rose in his throat.
“Really, an ellipsis?” Benson laughed at the punctuation if only to keep his growing panic at bay for a few seconds longer.
--Amber light. Control panel by your right shoulder.--
He craned his head around inside the helmet and spotted the light. With the gyrations throwing off his aim, it took three tries, but Benson finally landed a thumb on it. Half of the blinking lights switched off immediately, while a new holographic HUD and systems interface overlaid themselves on the inside of the cracked canopy glass. The twin joysticks built into his chair's armrests also seemed to stiffen.
“Got it. Send.”
--Your joysticks are feedback sensitive. Push in the direction of the most resistance to slow the spin.--
Benson wiggled the sticks around until he found where they seemed to be pushing back the hardest, then cranked down on them as hard as he could. The pod groaned and shook as the thrusters fired at full strength. A cloud of gas shot out in every direction, enveloping the pod like a ninja's smoke bomb and completely obscuring any outside point of reference Benson had. He had to fall back on the artificial horizon on the HUD.
Gradually, glacially, the pod's chaotic spin slowed, but the attitude and angle kept drifting. Benson had to make constant adjustments to the joysticks to keep up. A new warning flashed crimson across the HUD: THRUSTER PROPELLANT 30%.
He was burning though propellant too fast. Unless he stopped soon, he wouldn't have enough left to turn around and return to the Ark. He'd just have to tap into the emergency reserve. There was always an emergency reserve. Right?
By the time Benson brought the pod to heel, scarcely ten percent of the propellant remained. The cloud of spent gas dissipated as quickly as it had formed, leaving him alone with the galaxy once more. He caught a glimpse of the Ark's aft plate off to port. For quite a long time, he just sat soaked through with cold sweat, breathing heavily, and waiting for the fluid in his inner ears to stop spinning.
Still disoriented, Benson went to wipe the sweat of his face, but his hand bounced off glass. It was a moment before the enormity of the crisis sunk in. If his helmet had sealed, that meantâ¦
He looked up at the array of tiny pockmarks in the glass dome. One of them was significantly bigger than the others. Big enough to go straight through the acrylic. The puncture was deceptively small, no more than a half centimeter across. It was enough. The cabin was entirely out of air. The vac-suit had saved his life, after all.
--Detective Benson. What is your status?--
He couldn't help but chuckle. “I'm swell. How about you? Send.”
--Have you regained control of the pod?--
“Yes. But the cabin's been punctured. There's no more internal air, and I'm down to ten percent propellant. Figure I have about half an hour to wrap this up. Send.”
--Recovery is aborted. Return to the portside hangar immediately.--
Oh, like hell it is
, Benson thought. “Didn't copy that last. You're breaking up. Send.”
He cut the connection before Command had a chance to respond and turned his attention back to the space outside his little bubble. If the ass end of the Ark was to port, then the body would be to starboard, provided it hadn't been hit by debris from the pod and knocked clear.
With one eye glued on the propellant status, Benson goosed the pod around ninety degrees to try to spot the body again. He didn't have the benefit of the radar telemetry from the Ark, and half of the pod's floodlights had been lost with the starboard manipulator arm.
With his blood still drenched with adrenaline and another panic attack threatening to grab hold of him, Benson stopped everything long enough to bring his breathing back under control. He'd already gone through the propellant too quickly, no sense burning up the oxygen just as recklessly. The short break took the edge off his nerves and gave his sense of balance time to center itself as well.
After some trial and error with the control interface, Benson figured out which toggle controlled the remaining spotlight, and even managed to synch it up to track his eye movements. He slowly, deliberately scanned the field in a grid pattern. His excitement rose when the beam returned a bright reflection, but a closer look revealed it was the remains of the severed manipulator arm.
Benson spared a thought for the meteor that had come so close to killing him. How big had it been? At their relative velocities, it could have been as small as an eyelash. E=MC
was a harsh mistress. But really, it had been a fluke. What were the odds he'd run afoul of another one?
Growing by the second
, said the analytical part of his brain uninterested in bullshitting itself. Thankfully, a familiar ink blot floated into his peripheral vision. A small ranging laser built into the spotlight module put the body at just over a hundred meters away.
Benson knew enough about microgravity maneuvering to know that for every percent of propellant he used up getting to the body, he'd need to use three more to slow back down, turn around, speed back up, and then slow back down again once he reached the Ark, and he would need something left in the tank for last minute maneuvering to the nearest lock.
So, from a fuel standpoint, slower was better. But from a not-suffocating-to-death and not-getting-exploded-by-space-dust perspective, speed was king. Catch-22.
Benson decided it would be best to burn the thrusters down a point-and-a-half to reach the body, but no more. The pod swayed gently as the thrust built up. By the time he cut the throttle, he was only doing three meters per second relative to the Ark. The trip was the longest thirty-seven seconds of his life. Benson was careful to angle the pod ever so slightly away from the body before hitting the thrusters to avoid pushing it further away.
The body slowly span in space, rigid as a statue. The moment came that Benson finally had to look into the face of the victim. Despite being desiccated and discolored, it obviously matched Edmond Laraby's pictures, twisted into a frozen, primal scream. His bulging eyes had pushed themselves out from behind their lids.
Benson did his best to avoid the corpse's gaze and keyed up the manipulator arm controls, but that led to yet another warning, this time about a loss of hydraulic pressure. Debris must have punctured the line. He'd have one grab, maybe two, before the system ran dry.
“Does anything on this boat
have a hole in it?” Benson shouted to the heavens. He wondered, not for the first time, which of the pantheon of deities mankind still worshiped that he had upset.
Fortunately, the pod's controls had proven to be surprisingly intuitive. The arm was no different. Benson found a brief tutorial on how to use it inside the command interface. Once activated, the arm simply mimicked the operator's own arm movement. He reached out for the late Mr Laraby's ankle. A cone of finely atomized hydraulic fluid shot out the side of the arm. In his haste to grab Laraby before the fluid all bled out, Benson misjudged the distance and hit the body in the calf, sending it tumbling away and out of reach.
Benson swallowed a curse and nudged the pod forward just enough to close the gap once more, but burned up another few tenths of a percent of the remaining propellant to do so. Benson reached out again, more gingerly this time, trying to match his movements to the body's rotation. The last of the fluid squirted out into the vacuum like a new constellation.
With a last frantic grasp, Benson reached out and snagged himself an ankle. Fortunately, the claw was run off electric actuators instead of hydraulic pressure, so he didn't have to worry about Laraby's remains drifting off again. As soon as Benson had the body secured, he spun the pod back around to face the Ark, then burned for home, using as much of the remaining propellant as he dared. It earned him a meager two meters per second relative speed. Considering he was over three kilometers out, it was going to be a long trip back, maybe too long.
With the imminent threat of oxygen starvation chewing at his nerves, Benson passed the time going over the body in great detail, trying to reconstruct the last few terrible minutes of Laraby's life. The man was underdressed for a spacewalk, in the same scrubs Benson had seen the other environmental techs wear. No pressure suit, no helmet, missing a shoe. He had probably dressed for work the same way every day for months.
The exposed skin on his face and hands was too discolored to get any sense of bruising or signs of a struggle. Hopefully, an autopsy would be able to tell vacuum damage from other injuries, if any. The trouble was, with almost everyone dying of old age, the two doctors who served double duty as coroners had about as much experience examining potential murder victims as Benson himself did.
The other option, of course, was Laraby had simply decided to go for a swim without his trunks for his own reasons. Suicides were not unheard of, but still rare for several reasons. First, the most effective methods, guns and drugs, were nonexistent in the case of the former, and tightly controlled in the case of the latter. Coupled with the fact the seed population for the Ark had been screened for psychological disorders just as thoroughly as they had been for disease and genetic defects meant their great-great-great grandchildren were still largely free of depression and anxiety, at least as chronic conditions.
So what would convince a young man, respected for the work he was doing, and living in an enviable home, to off himself in just about the most violent and terrifying way possible? A few people over the years had taken a long step off the top of one of the residential towers, but to Benson's recollection, no one had ever voluntarily blown themselves out of an airlock.
As a method of suicide, it didn't make much sense. As a way to get rid of an inconvenient body, on the other hand, it was very convenient indeed. A decomposing body would be very difficult to hide anywhere onboard. The smell alone would be nearly impossible to contain. And the best way to get rid of a body, through the recycling process, would leave genetic material all over the place even after it had been dissolved, and that was assuming you could convince the reclamation techs to process a body “off the books” in the first place.
Benson thought back to Laraby's absolutely sterile house. If his instinct was right and it had been scrubbed intentionally, then the hypothetical killer wasn't one to take those kinds of chances. Shoving someone out of an airlock left no body behind to confirm a murder had even taken place.
But that scenario had problems of its own. First, locks were all under camera observation. Second, and more perplexing at the moment, was why Laraby's body was still here at all. As massive as the Ark was, its native gravity field was still extremely weak compared to Earth normal. Someone standing on the surface of the hull could achieve escape velocity with an overly-enthusiastic hop. Somebody who went to all this trouble surely would have known that and given Laraby's body a healthy enough shove to ensure he floated clear. So why hadn't they?
And how did the Monet fit into all of this, and what about the extremely convenient plant system glitch that had let Laraby's disappearing act go unnoticed for hours? Discovering the body hadn't really done anything but confirm what Benson had already known in the back of his mind. Instead of answering the hows and whys, Laraby's body only opened up more vexing questions.
None of which would be answered if Benson didn't bring his attention back to the sixteen kilometer ship growing in the canopy at an unsettling rate.
He glanced down at range and speed indicators. The pod's speed had grown from two meters per second, to nearly five. He hadn't hit the thrusters again, yet even as he watched the number trickled up. He was falling towards the Ark. Weak or not, its gravity was pulling him in.