Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
“Stupid!” Benson actually hit himself on the side of the helmet. The low oxygen was affecting his brain. He hadn't factored in the extra speed now piling on from the Ark's gravity. Did he have enough propellant left to avoid a collision? How much more punishment could the pod take? The next few minutes were about to get very interesting.
He reopened the link back to Command. “This is Benson. I've completed recovery operations, but I'm low on O
, almost out of propellant and am in danger of crashing into the Ark. Please advise. Send.”
The response came quickly. --Ah, detective, we're glad to see your communication system has miraculously healed itself.--
“Hilarious, Feng. I'm in a bit of a jam out here. Send.”
The Ark swelled beyond his field of vision, yet still it grew. Benson and the pod were being pulled ever so gently towards its center of mass, which happened to be the giant habitat modules spinning at hundreds of kilometers per hour. They were the absolute last place he wanted to crash into, except maybe the nuclear bomb vaults back in engineering.
Stars traced little paths through his field of vision. Benson grew dizzy and gulped for air.
“This is serious! Send!”
--Hangar informs us that there's a small emergency reserve of propellant aboard, but you shouldn't be so low in the first place. One or more propellant tanks must have been punctured in the accident. Without telemetry from the pod, we can't know if the reserve is still intact.--
Benson's stomach dropped to his feet, which was a curious sensation in microgravity. It came down to a roll of the dice. He goosed the joystick to angle the pod back towards the area of the hangars and away from the habitats, then began terminal maneuvers with the dwindling hope that the label wouldn't prove prescient.
The pod passed back inside the protective umbrella of the Ark's forward shield. At the very least, he had survived the shooting gallery, not that the realization gave him much comfort as the engineering section loomed. His speed had grown to seven and a half meters per second. The distance dropped to one hundred meters.
He opened the taps on the thrusters. Harsh deceleration threw him forward into the harness and squeezed his chest. Already struggling for breath, Benson shook his heavy head and clung to consciousness. The propellant gauge counted down alarmingly fast as many dozens of cubic meters of gas escaped into the void between stars. In a handful of seconds, it reached zero. Benson's heart froze in his chest just as solidly as the corpse outside.
The thrusters continued to fire as the display turned red and the digits went into the negatives, eating up the emergency reserve. The pod's speed fell back below four meters per second, then below three as the distance continued to drop away. His vision shrank at the edges, as though he was looking into a tunnel.
Then, with forty meters left, the thrusters ran dry.
“Thrusters are spent. Impact with the hull in, uh, some seconds. If you could have someone come and get me that would be great. Send.”
The hull was only meters away, but his sight was too cloudy to make out any detail. Then the tunnel closed in around him. As Benson plunged into blackness, the last thing he saw was the canopy silently shatter against the hull.
hen Benson woke
, it was not floating on a cloud before a set of gates, or even falling into a lake of fire. It was on a bed, in a small room, with an uncomfortably large plastic tube shoved down his throat.
He coughed violently as his eyes tried to adjust to the harsh white lights. The choking sensation became too much and he yanked at the tube sticking from his mouth. As soon as he did, alarms started to sound. The tube fought him all the way out, triggering his gag reflex twice before he finally pulled it free with a decisive jerk.
Benson's vision cleared just as the first person entered the room. It was a woman he didn't recognize, but her long coat shouted “Doctor”. The second person, on the other hand, he knew quite well. Which is why it didn't come as any surprise when Theresa waltzed right up and slapped him across the face.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” she demanded before the doctor intervened.
“Constable, that's not helping.” The doctor put herself between Theresa and her patient.
“The idiot has a death wish,” Theresa shouted. “I can help him with that.”
“I'll have to ask you to wait outside, ma'am.”
Theresa's glare burned through the fuzziness still clinging to Benson's consciousness. “Gladly. See you back at the office,
.” She span around on a heel and stormed out of the small room like a tornado exiting a closet.
The doctor looked back and put a hand on Benson's shoulder. “Lovely lady.”
“We're just coworkers,” he said weakly.
“Uh huh. Because a âcoworker' would have rushed down here and refused to leave until you woke up again.”
Benson sat up and tried to shake out the cobwebs. “That obvious, huh?”
“Don't worry,” she smiled warmly. “I won't tell anyone. Doctor/patient confidentiality and all that.”
A terrible thought went through Benson's mind. “How long have I been out?” He sounded a little more demanding than he meant to.
“It's OK. It'sâ” she consulted her pad “âalmost 19.00. You were only out for a couple hours. You'll probably be discharged in time for the game.”
“Game Five. The Zero Championships?” She grabbed a penlight out of her pocket and shone it in his eyes. “Are you feeling all right? Dizzy?”
“No,” Benson waved her off. “I'm fine. Just have a lot of other things on my mind besides Zero, for once.”
“Well, I'm sure a near-death experience would do that for anyone, even you, Captain Benson.”
Something about her inflection set off alarm bells. “I'm sorry, have we met?”
“You don't remember me, do you?” she asked pensively.
Benson tried to focus on her face, but her voice registered first.
“I was an intern a few years ago, working extra hours doing sports medicine for theâ”
“Mustangs,” Benson finished for her. Her hair had been a lot shorter then, and most of her freckles had faded. “Jasmine?”
“Jeanine,” she corrected. “Although most people call me Dr Russell these days.”
It all came back to him. “After the Championship win in Eighteen, didn't we get drunk and, ahâ¦”
She chuckled. “Yes, we did, and then you neglected to call.”
Benson put up a hand in defense. “Sorry, I meant to, butâ”
“Sorry for what? I knew what I wanted, Zero Hero. I've hardly been wasting away pining after you.” She looked down at his naked torso. “Although I'd be lying if I said it wasn't nice to see you with your shirt off again. But you're underdressed. Your âcoworker' wasn't the only person waiting for you.”
A sense of dread welled up into Benson's stomach. “Who's out there?”
“Oh, you've attracted quite a following. Captain Mahama arrived twenty minutes ago, and someone from engineering just brought in the body you recovered.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes, and they seem very excited to see you.” Jeanine paused with a mischievous smirk. “Maybe âexcited' isn't the right word.”
“Tell them I'm in an irreversible coma.”
She leaned out of the door and called down the hall. “He'll be out as soon as he gets dressed.”
Benson grit his teeth. “Thanks a lot. I suppose I deserved that.”
Jeanine smiled. “I suppose you did. Your vitals are all in the green. I'll want to see you again for a checkup tomorrow, but frankly I think you're probably in the clear. You lost consciousness from hypoxia, but they got you back inside before your heart stopped. No signs of edema, either. You've kept yourself in remarkably good shape.”
“Thanks. Where are my clothes?”
“We had to cut them off.” Jeanine nodded towards a chair sitting by the back wall. “Your coworker brought you some fresh ones to change into.”
She turned to leave, but Benson called out to her. “Jeanine, I mean, doctor? Who will be performing the autopsy on Mr Laraby?”
She thumbed towards another room. “The body you brought back? I will, but it's going to be a while yet.”
Benson shook his head. “I need you to start right away. While everything's still fresh.”
“Fresh isn't going to be a problem, detective. The man is frozen solid. I can't start until he thaws out. Unless you want me to use a hammer and chisel?”
“Can't you just heat him up?”
“Sure, I could cut him up into pizza-sized slices and use an oven. Or maybe engineering would let me stick him inside the fusion reactor chamber for a few seconds.”
“All right,” Benson put up his hands in surrender. “That sounded less stupid in my head. How long, do you think?”
“Honestly, I don't know. I don't have much experience defrosting a seventy kilo steak. I don't think anyone does, really. Two days? Three?”
Benson tried not to let his frustration show. “OK, I understand. When you do get started, I need you to pay extra attention for signs of struggle. Bruising, abrasions, fractures. Any sort of defensive wounds.”
Jeanine looked slightly lost for a moment. “You think he was fighting back against someone?”
He nodded. “I strongly suspect so, yes.”
“I don't understand. He's a suicide.”
Benson's eyes narrowed at the last word. “Who told you that?”
“The captain did when the body came in. Said he threw himself out an airlock.”
“Did she now?” Benson filed that interesting little tidbit away. “Never mind what you heard. I just want you to look at the body with fresh eyes and see whatever there is to see. OK?”
Jeanine seemed to know she was missing some important context, but moved on. “Fine, but the body's a mess. It's going to be tough to single out bruises or any other minor injuries from all the damage the dermis suffered from vacuum and flash-freezing. Not to mention the arm.”
“What's wrong with the arm?” Benson asked suspiciously.
“Well, aside from being missing, I expect it's in the same shoddy condition as the rest of him.”
“Missing?” Benson said. “Who cut off his arm?”
“You did when you crushed the body between the ship and your EVA pod. Although the correct word would probably be closer to âsnapped' off. The crash didn't do the body any favors.”
Benson scratched his head. “Yeah, well, any landing you can walk away from.”
“You were carried in on a stretcher.”
“Close enough. Now, if I could ask you to step outside so I can get dressed?”
Jeanine smirked devilishly. “Not even a peek for old time's sake?”
“Not after you sold me out to the buzzards outside. Shoo.”
“That's fine. How do you think you got into that gown, detective?” She winked. “I'll schedule a follow-up appointment for tomorrow. See you then.” Jeanine closed the door behind her. Benson listened to her steps fade down the hallway, then stood up, somewhat unsteadily, and put on his clothes.
As much as he loved microgravity, some things were just plain easier when you could stand up. Putting on pants was one such thing. Careful his shirt was tucked in presentably, Benson left the recovery room and walked down the hall. Not being a man with much remaining shame, he propped a hand against the wall, embellishing his condition in the hope it might elicit some small measure of sympathy from the people waiting to tear a strip off his hide.
He should have known better. Captain Mahama stood up just as soon as she noticed Benson coming down the hall, but Director Hekekia beat her off the line.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he shouted. Benson resigned himself to hearing a similar refrain several more times today. Although no matter who else said it, Theresa's rage would probably remain the most intimidating.
“Actually, I thought I did rather well, considering the circumstances.”
“Oh, you do, do you? Hear that everybody? The shaved ape thinks he's earned a peanut!” He pointed a finger at Benson's face. “I told you I couldn't afford to lose the pod.”
“You didn't lose it. I brought it back.”
“Yeah, with more holes than a pasta strainer, a shattered canopy, and a body tangled up in its arm. Its
“You'll have to take that up with the meteorite. I wasn't entirely thrilled about it myself, I'll have you know. Besides, if you'd have sent it out by remote like you'd planned, you really would have lost it. I'm the one who piloted it back. Without any training, I might add.”
This took most of the steam out of Hekekia's brewing rant, even if his expression showed he didn't find the argument entirely persuasive.
“Yeah, well, I had to pull my entire team off their assignments to clean up after your little stunt. And prying that meat-popsicle out of the wreck? Three of my guys have already asked for trauma counseling.”
Benson briefly wondered what had been the more traumatic sight for the techies: the body with a missing arm, or the pod with a missing arm. He left this thought unspoken, however.
“I'm sorry I've made more work for you. But someone's been making more work for me, too.”
“Yeah, well, just let the professionals handle space from now on. OK?”
Benson chuckled. “Don't worry, it's all yours.”
Seemingly satisfied, Hekekia strutted out of the waiting area without another word, leaving Benson to deal with the captain.
Mahama was a tall, thin woman with tightly curled hair slowly giving way to silver. Her skin was a caramel hue common among the Ark's citizens after eleven generations of interbreeding, but her sharp jawline, dark eyes, and wide nose revealed a proud ancestry tracing its roots back to Zimbabwe. The blue-over-green uniform that usually made the too-skinny crewmembers look like kids playing dress up, she wore with distinction. Benson wondered who her tailor was.
“Detective, may we speak in private?”
Benson held his hand towards the door. “As âprivate' as anything ever gets on this ship. Let's take a walk.”
Mahama looked him over for a moment. “Are you sure you're up for that?”
“Sure I am. As long as you don't mind walking slowly. I'm still the tiniest bit wobbly.”
“Not at all.” The captain leaned in and pitched her voice low for privacy. “Just between us, I'm not exactly a sprinter myself in gravity.”
Benson chuckled politely. They walked together into Avalon's evening air. Everyone called it Sickbay, but it was easily the size of a hospital, with a campus laid out in a similar fashion. Unlike many of the other large structures inside the habitats, the two identical Sickbays were built in the middle of the modules so that transit times from the residential centers at each end were roughly equal.
The day grew short. Only another hour before the lights would dim, an hour after that and Game Five would start. People scurried about in all directions, either in a hurry to finish their work, or to make game day preparations. All were too busy to pay much attention to the two of them strolling down the wooded path. Most had never seen the captain in person before anyway.
The apple trees here had been grown thick and pruned short, like oversized bonsai. Any tree much over five meters would topple over during the deceleration phase after the Flip. Workmen were busy anchoring the larger trees to the ground with wire.
“So, what can I do for my captain today?”
Mahama took in a deep breath through her nose before starting. “You present me with a unique set of problems, Detective Benson. I wonder if you appreciate that.”
“I think I might,” Benson said carefully. “And thank you for not starting this out with âWhat the hell were you thinking?'”
Mahama sighed. “Don't worry, that's coming.” She spotted a bench and pointed at it. They sat down. Once comfortable, the captain reached out and picked an apple blossom. “Do you know why these trees were planted, detective? What their purpose is?”
Benson wasn't sure where this was leading, but played along anyway. “Of course. They make oxygen and food. Can't have apple pie without apples.”
“That is the common belief, yes. Would you like to know the truth?”
“That's my job, isn't it?”
“I suppose that's one way of seeing it. The truth about the trees is they make almost no net oxygen when all is said and done. And what little surplus they do make is entirely outweighed by the havoc their pollen wreaks on the air filtration system each âspring.' They require huge amounts of fresh water, placing additional stress on the systems. They're completely dead weight when it comes to life support.”
Benson sat and considered this for a moment while Mahama smelled the blossom. “You're waiting for me to ask why we keep them, then.”
“An excellent question. Have you studied much about the Ark's development?”
Benson shrugged. “About as much as the average person, I expect.”