Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
Mahama nodded. “Did you know these were not the first habitats?” When Benson shook his head, she continued, “The first habitat was actually built on the Earth's surface. While obviously not a cylinder, it was built with the same acreage and completely self-contained, right down to a ceiling of lights. It was an experiment, you see. Even as the Ark's keel was being laid in orbit and Nibiru tore through the Kuiper belt, twenty five thousand people were living their lives inside the fake habitat. The experiment ran for almost thirty years, and everything they learned was incorporated into the designs of Avalon and Shangri-La in real time. Do you know what they learned?”
“No,” Benson said honestly.
“That people need trees. Or at least we need to know they exist. People need to believe there's an inside where we work and sleep, but also an outside where we can visit, play, exercise, and all the rest. Otherwise, given enough time, we go crazy. Cabin fever, it used to be called. We plant the trees to give the appearance of an outside.. Appearances are often even more important than the reality behind them. They have to be maintained, just as our air scrubbers or water purifiers do.”
Here it comes
, Benson thought sourly.
“Which is why you pose a unique challenge for me, detective, and the rest of the crew. You see, we're sprinting the last hundred meters of a marathon we've been running for two hundred and thirty years. We need everyone, crewmembers and citizens alike, focused on the task at hand; preparing this ship for the Flip and then the Landing. You may not know this, but your, let's say, âmission' today has become big news, and it's causing unnecessary distractions.”
“So,” Benson interrupted her. “For the sake of
, you want me to declare Edmond Laraby's death a suicide and bury the investigation.”
“Goodness, no,” Mahama blanched. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Well, you already told the doctor performing the autopsy that he was a suicide, which could cause her to prejudge the situation and overlook clues.”
Mahama waved her hand. “A slip of the tongue, I assure you. But if she did, it wouldn't be the only thing âoverlooked' lately.”
Benson's eyes narrowed. “What's that supposed to mean?”
Mahama looked around conspiratorially. Satisfied that no cattle were within earshot, she leaned closer to Benson's face. “Please understand, I'm not supposed to be sharing this with you, because it's internal crew deliberations. But we know full well that your comlink back to Command didn't magically fail the moment you were ordered to abort. Several people, including my first officer, argued quite strenuously to have you punished for insubordination.”
Finally goaded past his tolerance, Benson sat up. “With all due respect, ma'am, I don't answer to the crew. Not even to you. My charter makes it quite clear that I have independence and broad discretion while in pursuit of my duties as detective, or chief constable, for that matter.”
Mahama leaned back and waved her hand, palm down, in the universal “keep it down” gesture. “Within your
, yes. No one disputes that. But, Bryan, it would do well for you to remember that your jurisdiction is Avalon Module, and by tradition the Zero stadium. I'm sure I don't have to tell you, but you weren't in Avalon when you were ordered to return. The only reason you were allowed in the pod was as a courtesy. You were in crew equipment, operating in Ark airspace. We hold authority over ship operations. You know that. I'm not even sure why Officer Feng let you get in the pod in the first place. I wouldn't have approved it had I known. Not to play Captain Hindsight, but the risks were too great.”
Benson readied a sharp retort, but held his tongue. The trouble was, Mahama was technically right. Even if a magistrate might eventually approve of Benson's actions after a charter fight, the regulations at that moment were untested and unambiguous.
When she didn't see a reply brewing, Mahama continued, “Anyway. I decided that you are simply an extremely dedicated constable, and that punishing a man for risking his own life in the line of duty would send entirely the wrong message less than two weeks before so many others may be called to do the same thing for the survival of the species.”
“Thanks,” Benson said sarcastically.
If Mahama picked up on his tone, she didn't let it show. “Don't mention it. Now, you're the detective who faced down a meteor shower to bring a disturbed man home to be laid to rest. The Zero Hero who refused to leave a man behind. Surely you can see how valuable that appearance is to our little family?”
Benson crossed his arms and leaned back on the bench. “Is that an order, sir?”
Mahama laughed. “Heavens, no. As you already said, you don't answer to the crew. I couldn't give you an order if I wanted to. We're just two professionals comparing notes. I'm sure you understand.”
“Oh, I'm pretty sure I do.”
“Excellent.” Mahama stood up. “I'm glad we found common ground. And on behalf of the crew, I'm relieved to see you made it out unscathed. You're a respected and valuable man, Detective Benson. We wouldn't want anything to happen to you.”
Mahama stood, placed the apple blossom on the bench where she'd been sitting, then turned and walked off in the general direction of the lifts.
Benson watched her leave without comment. This was the second time a crew bigwig had spoken to him in person in as many days.
Something smelled funny, and it wasn't the fertilizer they were using on the apple trees.
fter his encounter with Mahama
, Benson made his way back to the office as quickly as his feet would carry him. He had a hunch, and he wanted to put it to the test.
Along the way, he had to shake hands with several admiring Zero fans already several drinks deep into pre-game preparations. A small but growing part of him was glad only three games remained. Probably one, if the Mustangs didn't find some way to breach the Yaoguais' Great Wall formation like so many Mongols.
He reached the stationhouse quickly. It was empty, except for Lieutenant Alexopoulos sitting at the shift supervisor's desk. Everyone else was out patrolling the footpaths or setting up for Game Five. Theresa looked up at the sound of the sliding doors, then jumped out of her chair and ran at Benson. He put up his forearms, ready to deflect a renewed assault, but instead of another slap, she threw her arms around his waist and squeezed him tight.
“I'm sorry,” she said.
“Whoa, lady.” Benson returned the hug. “Pick an emotion and run with it, maybe?”
Theresa sighed and shook her head. “Men. Like it's healthy to limit the feelings you display to âhungry' and âhorny'.”
“What a coincidence, I'm both.”
That earned him another slap, although it lacked the conviction of the one she'd delivered in the recovery room.
“I listened to the whole thing, you know? I thought you'd died when the explosion happened, and then your coms were down, andâ¦”
“Shhhh.” Benson returned her hug. “It's OK, Esa. I'm here.”
“Don't ever do that to me again,” she said firmly. “It was terrifying.”
Benson stroked her soft hair and kissed her forehead. “Trust me, it wasn't a picnic on my end either. C'mon, we have work to do.” They held hands as he walked her back behind her desk. “I just had a very enlightening conversation with Captain Mahama.”
“I saw her in the waiting room. So, she didn't come by to express relief at your miraculous survival?”
“Not in so many words.” Benson sat down. “Or in any words, for that matter. Instead, she seemed very eager for us to declare Laraby's death a suicide and forget the whole thing ever happened. Oh, and I get to be canonized a hero in the process.”
“And you're not taking her up on it? I'd have thought that would appeal to your ego.”
Benson scoffed. “My ego is already well cared for, thank you. And there's just the tiny problem that I continue to believe Laraby was killed. I'm going to need the video files from all of the locks, starting from when Laraby's plant went off the grid, until he was reported missing.”
“I already did,” Theresa said.
“No, not just the internal locks. I need all of the
Theresa rolled her eyes. “I heard you, Bryan. I already ran that search. I figured it would be the first thing you asked for, so I went looking. Nothing.”
Benson scowled. “What do you mean, ânothing'?”
“I mean, the video files from the security cams in and around the external airlocks are all gone.”
“Someone deleted them? Who? There has to be an ID fingerprint on the command history.”
Theresa shook her head. “The memory cluster glitched. At least that's what the tech I spoke to said.”
“Glitched, huh?” Benson smirked. “Seems to be a lot of that going around.”
Theresa nodded. “The tech said, and I quote, âLet's see how good your memory is when you're two hundred years old.'”
“I swear they all take a condescension class before they're allowed to talk to us.” Benson leaned forward and put his elbows on Theresa's desk. “But that confirms it. Someone killed Edmond Laraby, someone with deep access to the ship's computer networks. Unless we're really expected to believe he deleted the videos
he threw himself out an airlock.”
“That would be an impressive trick,” Theresa agreed. “The kind of network access you're talking about screams crewmember. Even our permissions don't come close to letting us pull it off. I told you from the beginning we should be looking at crew.”
Benson's shoulders slumped. “Yeah, you've earned that âI told you so.' Before I thought maybe somebody was protecting him. But now? Someone is trying to cover up a murder.”
“Maybe more than one someone,” Theresa added quietly.
Benson's head tilted. “Explain.”
“Well, think about the timeline. Laraby slips off the grid at the same time he's shoved out into the black. Laraby wasn't very big, but he was still an adult male. It couldn't be easy to cram him into an airlock and push the button, while manipulating the plant network and security cameras. I don't even know if you could do all that remotely.”
“Maybe Laraby was drugged,” Benson countered.
“Which doctor provided the drugs?” Theresa responded. “I still think this would require more than one person to pull it off.”
Benson wasn't entirely persuaded, but he had to admit that it could be true. The thought of trying to take down one floater was scary enough, but a
of them? Being a fake hero held more appeal than being a genuine corpse.
“What are we going to do?” Theresa asked, bringing his attention back to the here and now.
“I don't know,” he admitted. “This whole thing is getting out of hand.”
“You're not seriously considering going along with this, are you?”
Benson sighed. “No, just bidding goodbye to my career and personal safety.”
Theresa shrugged. “Those were screwed as soon as we landed anyway. But we still need a case. Suspects, motive, little things like that. Why go to all this trouble to kill a competent, well liked geneticist doing important work?”
Benson laced his fingers. “I think Laraby knew something dangerous. Something that could damage whatever member of the crew killed him. I think the big house and the painting tried to buy his silence. When it looked like that wouldn't work, he was silenced permanently.”
“And you want to know what he knew?”
“Knowledge is power, they say. And maybe leverage. We need to get into Laraby's private files. It was strange enough to block us the first time, but now that we know he's dead under mysterious circumstances? They can't fall back on the âprivacy' of a dead man anymore.”
Benson stood up from the chair to pace the floor. “We have to keep this front and center among the cattle. If they manage to bury the news, it'll be that much easier to bury us, too. Figuratively or literally. We need to publicly announce that we're launching a murder investigation. Then any move against us will obviously be part of a larger cover up.”
Theresa watched him wear a rut into the floor as he paced. “You want to announce a murder investigation before the autopsy is finished? Are you sure you're not jumping the gun?”
Benson stopped in his tracks. It was a valid point. Any announcement ahead of the autopsy could be spun as grandstanding.
“You're right. But we can't wait on the warrant in case another âglitch' gets to his private files, too. Draft it up and send it over to the magistrate. Even if you're right and we're dealing with a conspiracy, it still has to be a small one. Right?”
Theresa looked up at him doubtfully. “How do you figure?”
“Well, if all the floaters were in on it, then they'd never have reported him missing in the first place, would they? And they really wouldn't have let us know about the body. Whoever this is has enough power to muddy the water, but not enough to actually keep it buried.”
Theresa considered this for a moment before answering. “But the captain's leaning on you. How much more powerful can you get than that?”
Benson sucked air through his teeth. “I don't think she's in on it. I get the feeling she's just trying to keep it from blowing up.”
“But you're not sure.”
“Does it matter? If I'm wrong we're dead in the water, no matter what we do.”
Theresa gazed off into the distance in deep contemplation. “Or just plain dead.”
“I guess that's possible. You OK?”
She took a deep, cleansing breath. “Yeah, I think so. Justâ¦ never walked into the crosshairs before.”
Benson smiled warmly and came around to hug her. “It grows on you.”
“Not the most reassuring thing I've heard. I'll draft up the new warrant, then?”
“Draft it, send it. I'll call over to the doc and make sure she pays close attention to the tox screen.”
“Make sure that's all she pays âclose attention' to.”
Benson reeled back. “Really? You're picking a time like this to be jealous?”
“Who's being jealous?”
Benson leaned down and kissed Theresa on the cheek. “Don't worry, lieutenant. You are the sexiest thing on this boat. And the scariest.”
“Don't give me a reason to give you another reminder of the latter.”
“Wouldn't dream of it.” He stood up and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To the Mustang game,” Benson called back, as the doors slid closed behind him. “There are appearances to maintain.”
“Bryan, wait!” Theresa shouted after him. Benson stopped in his tracks and thrust a hand back into the doors to stop them.
“Justâ¦” she sighed. “Keep your stun-stick handy.”
Benson patted his pocket where the pen-sized device had spent the last ten years. “You too.”
The lights above darkened as he walked to the lift.
gainst all odds
, and to the jubilation of the Mustang faithful, Sahni got the better of Lau's fliers early with a rather brilliant unorthodox formation. Really, it was a complete lack of formation that finally punched a hole in the Great Wall. From the first push-off, Sahni's fliers came at the Yaoguai without any apparent coordination or plan whatsoever. It was like fighting an angry drunk; pure chaos with no tactics to adapt to.
By the time Lau made the necessary adjustments, the Mustangs were already down to twenty-three points. The spread was too much for the Yaoguai to close. Game Six would happen after all.
The Mustang fans were a little rowdier than normal, so Benson stuck around the stadium to help his constables clear the crowd. By the time the last stragglers were packed into the lifts for the walk of shame back to their apartments, it was nearly 02.00 Avalon Time.
Exhaustion threatened to overtake him as he said goodnight to his men. The lift doors opened onto an empty car, leaving him alone with his thoughts. All in all, it had been a fairly shitty day. Nearly dying, uncovering a conspiracy, and being politely threatened by the most powerful woman alive all competed for the honor of being the worst part of it. Thank goodness the Mustangs had pulled out a win, or Benson may have just thrown in the towel and called it a life.
As the lift car descended to the deck, the artificial gravity began to pile onto Benson's eyelids, pulling them down with the inevitability of the setting sun. He fought against it, jerking awake twice as his knees nearly buckled under the growing weight of his body. By the time he reached the bottom, Benson staggered out of the lift like a shambling horror from the movies, but instead of brains, he craved only the warmth of his soft bed.
He'd spend the night alone, as Theresa had pulled the third shift supervisor slot for the evening, not that he had enough energy left to make the time worthwhile for either of them. Still, he couldn't help but feel a little guilty about her late night. Usually, Theresa would have slept through the day to be rested for the graveyard shift, but instead, she'd been waiting for Benson to recover from the pod crash. It wasn't exactly his fault, but sheâ
The bushes on the path ahead to his left moved unnaturally, which, considering they were bushes, meant moving at all. The light breeze running around the habitat wasn't enough to push around the thin, tightly trimmed juniper leaves. The tremor was so slight Benson almost didn't catch it, but years chasing down a fast moving ball while trying not to get smeared by defenders had made his eyes keen to movement. Benson assumed he was dealing with an overindulgent Mustang fan either relieving themselves behind the shrubbery, or excavating their stomach contents. Strangely, his plant wasn't feeding him an ID.
“Hey, buddy. You OK?” he asked.
Instead of an answering groan, the bush exploded in a shower of leaves as a dark figure leaped out from hiding. Benson braced his stocky frame for the impact, but at the last moment his eyes caught the glint of a knife.
The equation changed dramatically. With no time to think, Benson acted on reflex alone, pushing off from the ground exactly as he would to avoid an incoming flier. The artificial gravity quickly brought him back down to the deck again, but it had been enough to throw off the attacker's aim. Instead of Benson's heart, the blade found only a tail of his jacket. Sloppy, but it worked.
Benson heard fabric tear as he spun around and clamped a meaty hand down on the back of the assailant's neck. Whoever it was wasn't very big. Benson thought for a horrible moment that his assailant might be a teen.
A quick spin, followed by a deep slice against his forearm purged any blossoming guilt he may have felt about beating up a belligerent adolescent. His coat sleeve took the brunt of the cut, but the assailant pulled their arm back and reset for a decisive stab against Benson's vital organs.
Panicked, Benson again fell back on instinct and kicked the figure in the chest, not to inflict damage, but to put distance between them. It was something he'd done a thousand times playing Zero. In Avalon's gravity, however, it sent them both flailing off-balance. Being smaller, his assailant took the brunt of the force, exactly as Newton would predict, but his assailant found their feet again even as Benson fell flat on his backside.