In our previous episode, Chuck Banner’s investigation into the murder of Technician Morricaine uncovers more pieces to the puzzle — but will F.R.E.D.D.’s analysis of crucial evidence reveal the killer before Banner and Mboa are executed for the crime?
One of the keys to being a good space repairman, Chuck Banner liked to tell new recruits, is the ability to sleep anywhere. You never knew where an assignment might take you — the factory colonies of Cassorius IX, with their skyscraper-sized fabricators that cranked and groaned day and night, or the sprawling wind harvesters on Chang’s World, where even three-meter-thick force-walls could not fully muffle the screaming winds outside. Good space repairmen always needed their wits about them when they were on the job, and more than anything that meant a being able to grab a decent rest on demand. And no one could sleep like Chuck Banner. Legend had it that he had once slept through a hurricane on New Jupiter that had nearly brought down the cloud station on which he was working.
This night, however, Banner found himself staring at the craggy ceiling of his prison cell, replaying in his mind all the evidence he had collected so far and trying to find the missing piece that would spare the life of the woman in the cell next to his, Banner’s old friend and fellow space repairman Patrice Mboa. And, not incidentally, his own life as well.
There was no arguing the evidence in the video document from the scene of the crime; it clearly showed that Mboa was the likely murderer. But Mboa had no memory of the event, and had no obvious motive; indeed, she had never met Morricaine. So why had she done it? Mboa’s odd behavior on the video document taken at the asteroid deflector gave every indication that she had been subjected to a Desensitizer ray. And Jessick had reacted evasively to Banner’s question about the Desensitizer that Jessick had removed from Mine 34 that day.
Constable Hallard’s case against Mboa for premeditated murder depended entirely on Jessick’s claim that a woman had called Morricaine asking him to come to the mine where he had been killed. And it was Jessick who claimed that he had repaired and returned the Desensitizer to Mine 34. And on Gallenesh, a person’s word was as good as proof. It was a problem that could achieve what a even Force 100 hurricane could not — deprive Chuck Banner of a good night’s sleep.
The sound of hardened soles striking the stone floor of the corridor outside his cell snapped Banner out of his thoughts, and he swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and sat up in anticipation. A moment later, Hallard’s bearded face appeared in the window of the cell door, and after some rattling of the lock, the door swung open.
“Mister Banner, your robot is calling your communicator and asking to speak with you.” Hallard held out Banner’s wrist radio.
The moment of truth had arrived. Immediately, Mboa, in the adjacent cell, was on her feet and at the bars that separated their two cells. Nervously, Banner stood and took the proffered silver band.
“Hey, good morning, buddy,” said Banner, forcing jocularity into his voice. “Have any news for me?”
“good morning chuck yes i do.”
“Let’s have it, buddy.” Banner looked at Mboa, who peered nervously through the bars at the watch, as if she might be able to see the answer before hearing it. Hallard, too, appeared deeply interested.
“first the video document of the murder itself appears genuine,” began F.R.E.D.D. “the man was stabbed twelve times analysis of the wound indicates that the weapon was a standard mark three space repairman work knife which is clearly visible in miss mboa’s right hand in several frames of the document.”
Mboa groaned, slumping dejectedly. But Banner’s head snapped up in response to something F.R.E.D.D. had just said.
“the footage taken at the asteroid deflector station shows no sign of human activity other than miss mboa following the departure of the other workers however when i processed the document through the spectral enhancer i was able to detect faint evidence of a complex sequence of light flashes reflecting off the walls when miss mboa is not in the camera’s field of view. when miss mboa is once again in frame she appears to be standing at attention and then leaves. analysis of her gait suggests a difference from that observed when she originally entered the room several hours earlier.”
“That sounds like a Desensitizer,” said Hallard in surprise. “But they don’t use Desensitizers at the deflector station.”
Banner nodded, as if expecting this news. “Did you calculate the point of origin of the light flashes based on the reflection patterns?”
“yes the light appears to be emanating from a point source between five and six feet above the ground located directly underneath the camera which would correspond with the doorway connecting the deflector room to the building entrance hall.”
“You sure that Mboa was holding the knife in her right hand, buddy?”
“Thanks, F.R.E.D.D. I think you’ve just cracked the case.”
Mboa and Hallard looked at Banner with similar expressions of puzzlement.
“Here, catch,” Banner said to Mboa, tossing the communicator to Mboa, who instinctively reached out her left hand to grab it. A moment later her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a surprised grin. Confidently, she tossed it back to Banner, who snatched it out of the air in mid-arc. “Gotta go, buddy. Good work. No, make that great work. I’ll be in touch.”
“Thanks, F.R.E.D.D.!” called Mboa, her voice filled with glee and energy.
Banner and Mboa looked at Hallard expectantly. “Let’s pay Jessick a visit,” Hallard said forcefully. “Want to come with us?” he asked Mboa.
“You had better believe it,” she said.
* * *
Jessick emerged from the back room of Morricaine’s shop carrying a box and was surprised to see Hallard . . . with Banner and Mboa standing on either side of him. He tried to mask his surprise, but failed.
“Hallard!” he exclaimed, trying to make it sound like a welcome surprise instead of the unpleasant one that it was. “And Mister Banner and Miss Mboa?” he added, puzzled.
“I need something for my files,” said Hallard. “To close the case against these two off-worlders.” He gestured causally to Mboa and Banner, putting sarcastic emphasis on that last word.
Jessick put the box down on the counter. “Whatever you need,” he said.
“Just a procedural thing, but I need you to sign this account of what happened the day of the murder. It’s a copy of the statement I took when I interviewed you here following Morricaine’s murder.”
“S-sure,” replied Jessick, unsure whether or not to be relieved. He took the sheet of paper and pen that Hallard held out for him, glanced over it, and signed it.
Banner, Mboa, and Hallard all looked at each other.
“I see that you’re right-handed, Mister Jessick,” said Banner.
Jessick looked up. “What of it?”
“I’m left-handed,” said Mboa levelly.
Jessick’s eyes widened slowly, unable to hide his realization of his single, crucial mistake.
“Jessick, I’m arresting you for the murder of Morricaine,” said Hallard.
Jessick straightened up, an expression of outrage filling his face, his hands balling into fists. “What? That’s absurd! Outrageous!” he shouted, pointing to Banner. “Are you going to trust this outsider over the word of someone you’ve known for so many years? I mean, who here vouches for him?”
“I do,” says Hallard, with conviction. “I vouch for Banner.”
His last-ditch ploy having failed, Jessick sagged into a chair next to the counter that had been shielding him. Broken, he stared into space for a few moments. “He found out who I was,” he finally said, his voice a shaky whisper, all bravado gone.
“I came here to escape,” he continued. “I changed my name. I thought no one would look for me here. But Morricaine stumbled on it somehow. I never did find out how,” he said with a rueful chuckle.
“Oh, he tried not to let on, of course,” Jessick continued, as if relieved that he could at last tell someone. “But one day he started acting strangely around me. So one night, after he went home, I took a look in his files and found his diary recorder. I played back the entry from the day he first started acting strangely. He said he had found out my real identity. He was going to to tell you,” he said, looking up at Hallard. “But he was torn. He had trusted me and had vouched for me. He didn’t know what he was going to do.” Jessick paused, remembering.
“But I couldn’t take the chance,” he said, his voice suddenly firm. “So when I heard that someone from Galactic Repair Services was coming to Gallenesh, I did what I needed to do.”
“You retrieved the Desensitizer from Mine 34 and hid it at the asteroid deflector station,” said Banner. Jessick, his eyes closed, nodded. “Then you faked the call to Morricaine.”
Jessick nodded again. “From the deflector’s entrance hall. I had to desensitize her immediately, to make sure she would be able to get to the mine before he did.”
“You waited for the camera to be pointing away from me,” Mboa chimed in. “And then what?”
“I wheeled the Desensitizer into the doorway, turned it on, and demonstrated the actions I wanted you to take. I gave you instructions on where to go to hide and who you were to kill.”
“You used me as a tool to commit murder!” Mboa said. “I didn’t even know the man!”
Jessick looked up at Mboa as if she was missing the point. “That’s what made you the perfect choice,” he said. “No one knew you, either.”
* * *
At the Gallenesh spaceport, the ground crews had finished fueling and provisioning the Ranger and Mboa’s ship, the Motsamai, and the constables who had been standing guard over them were nowhere to be seen. Hallard escorted Mboa and Banner to the base of the landing ramps, where F.R.E.D.D. was waiting for them.
Hallard shook hands with Banner. “Thanks for vouching for me, Hallard,” said Banner. “If you ever find yourself on a strange planet needing someone to vouch for you, give me a call.”
“That I will, my new friend,” Hallard said, putting his hand on Banner’s shoulder.
Hallard then extended his hand to Mboa, who accepted it with grace. “Jessick found the weakness in our strength,” Hallard said. “He realized that our willingness to trust the people we know can also make us unwilling to trust the people we don’t. That’s something we need to look at.”
“It takes practice,” agreed Mboa, “but it’s worth the effort.”
“I am glad that things turned out as they did.”
Mboa laughed with relief. “Me too!”
After Hallard took leave of the two travelers, Mboa turned suddenly to Banner and gave him a bear hug that nearly lifted him off his feet. She growled at him like a happy mother bear. “Thank you for putting your life on the line for me!” she said.
“Hey, what are friends for, right?” gasped Banner through the hug.
“And you!” Mboa said to F.R.E.D.D. “Great detective work! While this guy here was getting himself locked up,” she said, jabbing Banner playfully in the arm, “you were over here doing all the hard work!”
“aw shucks ma’am,” said F.R.E.D.D., his eye-socket light blinking playfully. “i was just performing my standard functions.”
* * *
“See you around the spacelanes,” said Mboa over the video link as the Ranger and Motsamai set off on divergent arcs, leaving Gallenesh behind them. “And thanks again, you two.”
“Anytime,” said Banner. “Safe travels!” Mboa waved as the channel closed.
“Well, that was quite an adventure, wasn’t it?” asked Banner. F.R.E.D.D.’s chest-mounted tape banks spun in agreement.
“chuck i am curious what happened after i transmitted the results of the analysis?”
Banner leaned back in his command chair and put his feet up on the control console. “Well, buddy, thanks to you of course, we had the evidence. But in order for it to be believed, it all came down to a simple matter of trust.”
F.R.E.D.D.’s tape bank spun for several seconds as he analyzed Banner’s response. “trust,” he said. “ am scanning all the legal codes in my memory banks and i do not see trust mentioned as a principle of law.”
“I know, buddy,” replied Banner. “That’s because, in all the Settled Colonies, trust comes before the law.”
“i do not understand.”
Banner thought for a moment. “Well, buddy, what the books don’t tell you is that, for the law to work, it requires that first there must be trust between the enforcers and the citizens. Without trust, then it’s simply a matter of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ — the people with authority and the people without it. Without trust, no law, no matter how well-intentioned, can ever be just.”
“that is very interesting chuck,” said F.R.E.D.D. after processing this new data. “i very much desire to discuss this concept with you in greater detail.”
Banner involuntarily yawned and stretched. “Well, I’d love to, buddy, but if you don’t mind, I think I might need to get some shut-eye first. The last few days have been just absolute murder.”
* * *
Stay tuned to Channel 37 for Chuck Banner’s next exciting adventure on Space Repairman!