Category Archives: Word of Honor

Imprisoned on a mining colony, Chuck Banner races against time to prove the innocence of a fellow space repairman — or they will both face execution for murder.

Word of Honor – Part Five

Space RepairmanIn 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?”

affirmative chuck.”

“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!

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Word of Honor – Part Four

Space RepairmanIn our previous episode, Chuck Banner begins his investigation into the mysterious murder of which his friend, Patrice Mboa, stands accused — and Banner may have uncovered a vital clue in a previously overlooked surveillance video!

The mine where the murder took place was on the outskirts of the hardscrabble city, several minutes’ walk from the security office. Chief Constable Hallard led the way. As they walked, a gap in the seemingly perpetual cloud cover allowed the weak greenish-yellow light of the Gallenesh sun to glint dully off the puddles and pools along the rocky trail and cause the rain-soaked stone surfaces to gleam. The momentary brightening did little to improve the aesthetics of the place, however. A few moments later, as they arrived at the mine shaft, the clouds were already closing back up and the rains were beginning again. As he stepped into the elevator cage and began to descend, Banner realized that the brief sunshine was the first natural variety of any kind he had seen since his arrival on this dismal rock.

The rough surface of the rock through which the rattling metal cage descended was mottled by specks and swirls of various colors and textures — metals of every variety and rarity were buried here. To Banner, the tunnel was a testament to why men like Hallard were born in places like Gallenesh: the raw resources of this young planet were shipped off to the farthest worlds of the Settled Zones to build roads, dwellings, bridges, and spaceships, and would be for centuries to come. But was this wealth also reason enough for someone to commit the ultimate crime: murder? Banner pondered this as the elevator descended into a vast dark cavern and shuddered to a stop.

“The assembly hall,” said Hallard as he stepped out of the cage, his voice disappearing without resonance into the cool and empty air. Banner noticed with relief that the chamber was devoid of the humidity that saturated the air and every porous surface aboveground. “This is where the mining crews assemble before and after a shift. Safety briefings and head-counts take place here.” Hallard pointed wordlessly to the rack of pressure cylinders against the far wall to the left — behind which, according to the video document, Mboa had hidden while awaiting her victim, the technologist Morricaine. Getting his bearings, Banner looked across the hall and saw the camera that had recorded the event, mounted high up on the stone wall, out of reach without a ladder. He glowered at it, instinctively considering it a hostile witness.

The two men spent some time exploring the room, trying to find anything that would indicate that the events recorded on the video document had unfolded in a way other than what was shown. Banner, admittedly not a trained detective, could see nothing in the room that was mysterious — no hidden chambers for an accomplice to hide, no discarded knife in a dark corner.

“I scoured the hall for anything that might have been overlooked,” said Hallard. “I brought in a bank of escape lights to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Aside from the body, there was nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I believe you,” said Banner as he prodded the walls looking for hidden doors. After all, Banner had no reason to doubt the man’s integrity; he seemed to be as interested as Banner in finding out what had really happened.

At the far end of the assembly hall, a large metal door that resembled an airtight hatch commonly used on spaceships was set into the wall. Curious, Banner pushed it open and stepped through it; as he did, the room lit up brightly. He stood in a large empty room, unlike any he had seen on Gallenesh. The floor, walls, and ceiling were all perfectly flat and squared off, and highly reflective, as if made from glass or steel. At the far end Banner noticed a black box on the floor, from which rose a thin, flexible stalk topped with a transparent glass sphere about the size of a basketball. The sphere was positioned at roughly eye-level. The wall behind it was glass, and revealed some kind of control room behind it.

“Hey, Hallard, what’s this room?” called Banner through the door.

A moment later Hallard entered through the door. “This is a Desensitizer. We use it to condition our bodies so that we can work longer and more efficiently.”

“How does it work?”

Hallard turned at the sound of the elevator cage rattling. “See for yourself. The next shift is coming on.” Hallard ushered Banner into the control room. The bank of controls was minimalist, featuring just a few knobs and indicator lights. Soon, a group of miners entered the room, dressed in dirty work coveralls and wearing clunky boots and safety helmets. One of them entered the control room and, after exchanging nods with Banner and Hallard, took up position at the control console. When the room was full and the door to the chamber shut, the controller turned one of the knobs. The transparent globe began emitting short pulses of light in a complex pattern.

“The glass is polarized so that it doesn’t affect anyone in the control room,” Hallard explained.

“Affect them how?” Banner asked.

Hallard pointed to the window. “Watch.”

The control operator stepped to the side of the panel so that he was in full view of the twenty or so men in the room. Then he began to move in a way that suggested that he was acting out a mining activity: his arms seemed to be lifting some heavy object and turning it carefully, as if placing it against some invisible wall. Banner was surprised to see all of the men repeat the action in perfect unison several times. It reminded Banner of Tai Chi, only more strenuous. As the operator mimed another actions, the men in the chamber repeated them several times each.

“It’s mental conditioning,” Hallard said quietly, even though the room was sound-proof. “Because there are so few of us, every miner has to work longer and harder, up to the limits of physical and mental tolerance. And sometimes beyond. The Desensitizer trains out fatigue and the dangers it poses to safety.”

“That sounds pretty dangerous,” said Banner, fascinated by the display. The mechanical behavior of the people, working as if they were in a trance, reminded Banner of something he had seen recently.

Hallard shook his head. “Not really. The effect wears off quickly, depending on the level of exposure, and it has no after-effects. We monitor everyone’s health constantly. We rely on the Desensitizers for all our heavy work.” Hallard paused. “Morricaine, the man your friend is accused of killing, was responsible for maintaining them in working order.”

“An interesting coincidence,” said Banner, suddenly remembering what the miners’ behavior reminded him of. “By any chance, were any Desensitizers out of service on the night Morricaine died?”

Hallard thought for a moment. “Yes, I think so. I remember that Mine 34 reported having problems with theirs. Morricaine had gone there earlier that day to pick it up.” He noticed Banner smiling. “Why?”

“Just a hunch,” said Banner. “I think it’s time we visited Morricaine’s shop.”

* * *

Morricaine’s shop was located on the far western edge of the main encampment, where the well-worn trails gave way to tracks barely scratched into the surface of the rocky ground, and most of the dwellings were crudely chipped into the sheer cliff walls. As hard as it was to imagine living in the center of the colony, Banner was even more amazed by the conditions here. The thick, fog-laden air only amplified the sense of gloom.

“Pretty rough here,” Banner opined as he and Hallard clambered unsteadily over a dislodged boulder.

“This area has only recently been settled,” Hallard explained. “For the first time in our history we finally have enough people to expand.” He ducked to avoid a craggy outcrop. “Not many, but at least we’re finally growing.”

Unless your killer develops a taste for it, Banner thought, nodding politely.

Hallard pointed to a nondescript jagged hole carved into the cliff face, and pounded on the thick scrap-metal door. A moment later, the door slid aside to reveal a thin, balding and bespectacled man, a full head shorter than Banner. Compared to the sturdy, muscle-bound colonists he had met up until now, the man looked almost frail. As he stood back to let the men enter, Banner noticed that the man’s clothes were cleaner and less threadbare than those of all the others, even Hallard’s.

“Chuck Banner, Jessick,” Hallard said, pointing to the men in turn. Jessick nodded warily at Banner. “He’s representing the visitor who we arrested for killing Morricaine.” Jessick’s eyes narrowed warily as he appraised Banner. “He has my approval,” Hallard added, though it didn’t appear to put Jessick any more at ease.

“She killed my friend,” Jessick said, his voice rougher than Banner expected — no doubt an effect of not talking much.

“That’s what I’m here to find out, Mister Jessick,” said Banner, trying to sound non-threatening. “Mind if I ask you some questions about that night?”

“Do I have to answer him?” Jessick said to Hallard, pointedly ignoring Banner.

Hallard’s response was immediate and unequivocal. “As if he was a member of the colony.”

“But he’s not.”

“For the purposes of this investigation, I say that he is to be treated so. Don’t forget, Jessick, you weren’t born here either,” Hallard added, piquing Banner’s curiosity.

“Twenty-seven years is long enough to prove myself,” Jessick said flatly, turning his attention back to stocking a shelf with drill bits of various sizes.

“Can you tell me about that night?” Banner asked after a moment’s awkward silence.

“Morricaine was working in the back room,” Jessick said, his back to Banner as he continued working. “A communication signal came through. I answered it. It was from Mine 18. They had an urgent problem and needed Morricaine to come immediately.”

“What time was this?” Banner asked.

“An hour before the night-shift,” Jessick said as he stopped stocking the shelf and turned to face Banner. “I already told Hallard everything.”

“And now you can tell me,” Banner said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. Jessick’s aloofness and lack of concern riled him. The two men glared at each other until Jessick’s eyes flickered downward.

“I apologize,” Jessick said. “He was my friend. He was the first to vouch for me after my arrival. He gave me work when no one else would trust me. And now he has been murdered.”

Banner, too, softened. “I can only imagine. I just want to make sure that the wrong person isn’t executed for the crime.”

Jessick nodded. “After the communication signal, I immediately went into the back and told Morricaine. He grabbed his tool bag and left immediately. The voice was a woman’s, Mister Banner.” Jessick added, as if to emphasize his earlier point. “And I didn’t recognize it.”

As Jessick returned to stocking the shelf, Banner did some quick math. The timing reported by Jessick lined up neatly with the evidence. Banner decided to try a stab in the dark.

“Any chance you have a Desensitizer here that I could look at up close? They’re fascinating machines. I understand that they were Morricaine’s invention.”

“Yes, they were,” said Jessick, turning briefly to look at Banner. “And no, you can’t. All of them are in service.”

“Even the one from Mine 34?” Banner noticed Jessick flinch in hesitation for just a split-second. That was all Banner needed.

Jessick turned around quickly. “It turned out that unit was working correctly after all,” he said confidently. “Just a crossed wire. I took it back and reinstalled it that afternoon.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Banner said with a nod. “Well, thanks, Mister Jessick. I think I have all the answers I need. I’ll be in touch if I have any more questions for you.”

“I’m happy to help.”

I bet you are, thought Banner as he and Hallard turned to leave the shop.

* * *

At the landing pad where the Ranger sat plugged into assorted ground power and fuel lines, F.R.E.D.D. stood near the top of the loading ramp awaiting the arrival of Chuck Banner, who had signaled him — with Hallard’s permission — that he would be arriving shortly to deliver some important evidence that he wanted F.R.E.D.D. to analyze. Though it was impossible for the service robot to feel emotion, the incongruities in the logic of the situation were causing conflicting signals in his data-processing core; F.R.E.D.D. had long ago determined that such anomalies were analagous to the human condition known as worry.

Through the twilight rain, F.R.E.D.D.’s optical sensors detected the approach of two men, who were met at the edge of the landing platform by the two men who had been standing guard at the platform’s edge ever since F.R.E.D.D. had received word that Banner had been arrested. Together, the four men approached the ship; F.R.E.D.D. noticed that Banner had widened his umbrella field to encompass all of them.

“Hold here,” said Hallard to the two guards as they neared the ship.

“What if he attempts to escape?” protested one of the guards.

Hallard turned to face Banner. “May I have your assurance that you will not attempt to escape?”

“You may,” Banner replied, honored by Hallard’s display of trust. Hallard nodded his assent, and Banner continued alone to the edge of the landing ramp.

F.R.E.D.D. descended the ramp to meet Banner. “it is good to see you chuck are you unharmed?

“I am indeed,” replied Banner. “But depending on what you find — or don’t find — on these tapes, Patrice and I may end up being harmed a great deal.” Banner held out the tape cartridges, which F.R.E.D.D. grasped with one of his claw arms.

what am i looking for?

“All I can say is that you’ll know it when you see it, buddy. You’re looking for anything that just doesn’t fit.”

F.R.E.D.D.’s processor core experienced an upsurge in logical incongruity. “i will do my best chuck

“I know, buddy.” Banner patted F.R.E.D.D.’s ball-jointed shoulder. “There isn’t another pair of optical sensors in the galaxy that I trust more.” He jerked his thumb over his own shoulder. “I have to go now,” he said hoarsely. “Call me when you have something.”

F.R.E.D.D.’s head nodded stiffly. “you can count on me . . . buddy” he said.

Will F.R.E.D.D. find the evidence that Chuck Banner needs to save his life and that of his friend and colleague Patrice Mboa? Who really killed Morricaine, and why? Find out next time in the thrilling conclusion to Space Repairman: Word of Honor!

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Word of Honor – Part Three

Space RepairmanIn our previous episode, Chuck Banner takes it upon himself to investigate the murder for which his fellow repairman and old friend, Patrice Mboa, stands accused. But under the harsh laws of the planet Gallenesh, should Banner fail to prove her innocence, he will face the same penalty — death!

“So, where to first, Mister Banner?” Hallard asked as the two men stepped through the outer door of the Clink and into the gray, drizzly murk outside.

“I think we should start with the incriminating video document,” replied Banner as he activated his umbrella stick and adjusted the width to cover the two of them.

“The master copy is at the Central Safety Office,” said Hallard. “This way. It’s not far.” He indicated a trail worn through the uneven, rocky ground. Banner led the way. “You’ll want to see the original, to ensure that no one here has tampered with it.”

“Yes, thanks,” said Banner. “Also, I’d like to have my robot examine it, if that’s permitted,” said Banner. Hallard nodded in agreement.

A few minutes later, Banner and Hallard arrived at a large freestanding building made of large boulders and slabs of excavated rock. Once inside, Banner’s first thought was that he must be in a warehouse for old televisions. Monitors of every size and shape lined the walls, their assorted wires and cables running down the walls where they were gathered in thick braids running to a central console near the center of the dimly lit room.

“We have cameras monitoring every work space,” Hallard explained. “We have to use whatever equipment we can salvage. It’s not sophisticated, but it works. And it saves lives.” Banner was about to offer to donate some surplus equipment from the Ranger when he remembered that, technically, he was still sentenced to death here.

One of the men sitting behind the center console saw the new arrivals and stood up. He was an older man — based on the census data that F.R.E.D.D. had found, he looked to be older the colony’s average life expectancy. He was stooped from a lifetime’s backbreaking work, and his face was craggy and gray like the landscape.

“This is Torran,” said Banner. “He runs this place.” Torran nodded stiffly, clearly uncomfortable at the sight of a stranger. “This is Chuck Banner,” Hallard said to Torran, raising his voice slightly as Torran cupped a hand to his right ear. “He’s investigating the murder of Morricaine.” Torran appraised Banner warily. “It’s all right,” Hallard said. “I’m responsible for him. He’d like to see the video document from the night of the murder.”

Torran nodded wearily and trudged off into a back room. Through the door, Banner saw row after row of shelves, presumably the storage vault. A few minutes later, Torran returned carrying a thick black cartridge about the size of a paperback book. An ancient tape system; Banner hadn’t seen one of those in years. Torran inserted the cartridge into a slot on the main console as Banner and Hallard came around to look over Torran’s shoulder at the monitor.

The grainy video flickered onto the monitor. It showed an empty cavernous room, weakly lit by a few dim orbs in the ceiling, like every other room Banner had seen so far. A scrolling timestamp on the left-hand side of the screen marked the date and the elapsed time. For several moments, there was nothing to be seen. Then, from the left, at first obscured by the timestamp, there was motion. A silhouette picked its way into the frame, carefully placing each step as if to avoid making a sound. As the silhouette entered a pool of light, it looked around the room to ensure that no one was around — and as the face turned toward the camera, it was clearly that of Patrice Mboa.

Banner sucked in his breath as Torran paused the video so that everyone could get a good look. Unless someone had gone to great lengths to either disguise themselves or to produce a first-class piece of video trickery — neither prospect very likely on this barren world — it was her. Banner noted that her eyes were narrowed, as if hunting, and her face was a completely cold mask. It was the face of a hardened killer, and it looked utterly unlike the woman Banner had known for a decade.

Without a word, Torran pushed a button and the tape resumed playing. Mboa stepped out of the light, continuing to look around carefully as she circled the room, then she stepped behind a bank of pressure cylinders on the far wall and disappeared from sight. A few minutes later, a man entered the empty hall from the same direction as Mboa had. He stood in the middle of the room, looking around quizzically. Then, as he turned his back on the line of cylinders, Mboa’s shadowy figure leaped out from behind them and rushed toward him, her right arm raised and brandishing something long and slender that glinted silver as it flashed through the cone of ceiling light: a knife. As Mboa fell upon the man, both of them disappeared below the view of the camera — but what must have happened next left little to the imagination. A few moments later, one figure — Mboa — rose back into view and fled to the left, toward the door through which she and her victim had entered.

“That’s everything,” said Hallard. Banner nodded solemnly. “Torran, Mister Banner would like to have the original tape for analysis.” The old man hesitated. “It’s all right. I will ensure the safety of the evidence.”

“That’s mighty kind of you,” said Banner, earnestly.

Hallard grunted and took the proffered tape cartridge from Torran’s hand.

“There’s no evidence of any tampering with the tape? Or the camera?” Banner asked Torran. The man shook his head in the negative both times. “How about footage of Patrice working on the asteroid deflector before the murder?” Banner asked. Torran looked at Hallard, who nodded his assent. Again without a word, Torran shuffled into the archive and returned shortly thereafter with another cartridge which he inserted into the player slot and queued up.

The three of them watched the images shot by the ceiling-mounted camera in the vast machinery hall of the asteroid deflector. Unlike the camera in the mine’s assembly hall, this one swung back and forth across the room. Banner mentally timed it; the camera took about ten seconds to complete a single pass from one side to the other, or 20 seconds to perform a full sweep and return to the starting point. The placement of the camera was such that the gravitator insulation coils were located near the far-left end of the sweep. Banner could see the five people — Mboa and the four colonists — roughly in profile for perhaps five seconds at a time before the camera’s sweep passed by them, which left maybe 15 seconds when they were out of the camera’s vision.

Banner immediately suspected that within that lapse in coverage would be found a vitally important clue. It was just too convenient. “May I have this tape as well?”

“Yes,” said Hallard as the three of them continued to watch. In one sweep, Mboa is seen talking to the four men, who shake hands with her and then leave. Torran sped up the playback. “There,” Banner called suddenly, pointing to the screen. “Back up.” Torran did. At the end of one camera sweep, Mboa is bent intently over an insulator coil. When the camera returns, she is standing up straight, as if at attention. Then she turns toward the camera and hurries out of view, rushing as if late to an appointment.

“The door to the mechanical hall is below the camera,” said Hallard. “She’s leaving.” He pointed to the time stamp on the left-hand side of the screen. “Less than ten minutes before the murder.” Torran stopped the tape and handed it to Hallard.

“Pretty incriminating,” Hallard said as the two men left the safety office. Banner reluctantly had to agree. “Where to next?”

“The scene of the crime, I think,” Banner replied.

Things don’t look good for Patrice — or, for that matter, for Chuck Banner! Will Chuck’s continued investigations reveal an important clue? Be sure not to miss the next exciting episode of Space Repairman: Word of Honor!

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Word of Honor – Part Two

Space RepairmanIn our previous episode, Chuck Banner is sent to the hardscrabble mining colony on Gallenesh to discover the whereabouts of a fellow space repairman, only to discover that his colleague has been arrested for murder — and under the arcane laws of the colony, Banner has now become a prisoner too!

As Banner walked between the two armed guards escorting him to prison, he couldn’t help but be moved by what he saw as they entered the main city. The dim and humid light did little to soften the stark, rough-hewn architecture. The city appeared to consist of just two kinds of structures: those blasted into the sides of the craggy mountains and hills, and those built from the excavated rubble. There were no trees or plants because there was, as yet, no soil on this young planet. Gallenesh offered no native comfort, and clearly the colonists clinging to life on it had no time or energy to spare making their own.

“This way,” the shorter of the two guards gestured with his ray pistol, indicating a path chipped into the granite to their right. “Over there.” At the end of the path was yet another hill, with a squarish doorway hacked into its face. Above the doorway, chiseled in the stone, were the words “THE CLINK.”

“Charming,” muttered Banner as he was ushered through the threshold and into a cold, damp corridor lit by dim illuminator orbs that dangled from the ceiling. The guards opened a thick metal door at the end of the corridor and ushered Banner through.

The three men stood in a large, roughly cubical room, a cave hewn into the side of the mountain. Dark holes in the wall indicated corridors going off in different directions. At the far end was a table that looked like it was made from a scrap piece of bulkhead, and from behind the table a tall, muscular man rose and approached them. Unlike his two colleagues, this man’s beard was neatly trimmed and his long hair was tied back, and his jumpsuit was cleaner and somewhat less threadbare. The man stood before Banner, his hands folded studiously behind his back, appraising Banner’s face.

“My name’s Hallard,” the man said in a gruff voice that at least attempted to sound civilized. “I’m responsible for colony security.” He looked at the two guards. “What has this man done?”

“Vouched for Morricaine’s murderer,” the taller guard said.

Hallard’s left eyebrow shot up in surprise. “That’s interesting. I’m assuming you don’t know how the law works on Gallenesh.”

“That’s right, Mister Hallard,” said Banner. “I was sent here to find out what happened to my colleague. Next thing I know, these two goons pull guns on me and haul me over to see you.”

Hallard nodded his head to the two guards, who sheathed their weapons and left the room. “We don’t have much law on Gallenesh,” Hallard said, gesturing to a chair in front of his desk as both men took their seats. “It’s all about survival here. Our first and last law is trust. We depend on each other for our lives every minute of every day here. In such a dangerous environment, the potential for a catastrophe is always just a moment away. We have to know that we can always count on each other. Any violation of that trust carries a severe and swift penalty.”

Banner nodded in understanding as he absorbed the lesson. “I guess that would make sense on a world like this.”

“Every person has a role to play. We need everyone if we are to survive. When someone kills another, it disrupts our delicately balanced system and threatens all of us.”

“I just can’t imagine Patrice Mboa killing someone. She’s tough, she can defend herself, sure, but murder?”

Hallard leaned back in his chair. “On Gallenesh, such a statement of support for an accused puts an accusation of guilt on the supporter as well. Knowledge of that ensures that we don’t give false testimony. To be willing to stand by someone when they are accused of wrongdoing, just as you would stand by them in the mines, carries a lot of weight with us.”

“And a lot of risk for the supporter,” Banner pointed out.

“Yes.” Hallard pondered the situation for a moment before continuing. “Here’s what I know. Two days ago, a man called Morricaine, who was one of the colony’s best technologists, and his assistant were working late. Morricaine received an urgent call asking him to go to one of the mining pits. No one else was at the pit to witness what happened next. All I know is that Morricaine didn’t return to his work space or to his dwelling. About an hour after the call, when the early shift came down the elevator to start work in the mining pit, they found Morricaine’s body in the assembly hall. He was dead from multiple stab wounds.”

“And you think Mboa killed him?”

“At the time of the call, she was alone. She had been working on the asteroid deflector with four other men. About a half-hour before Morricane received the call, they left for the night, and she stayed behind, so I understand, to finish up a specific task. No one can account for her movements between then and shortly after the body was discovered, when she was seen walking on the road to the spaceport. Presumably to escape.”

Banner considered what he had heard. “Pretty circumstantial, isn’t it?”

“There’s more,” Hallard said slowly, as if he wished that there wasn’t. “For safety reasons, all mining pits are monitored thirty-one hours a day, twelve days a week, with video cameras. The camera in the assembly hall clearly shows your friend killing Morricaine.”

Banner sagged back in disbelief. Patrice Mboa, a cold-blooded killer? It just didn’t make any sense. His mind grasped for possible explanations, but came up empty.

“I don’t know what happened,” Banner finally said, “but I just don’t believe Patrice murdered that man.”

Hallard stood up slowly. “Then I’m afraid I have to tell you that, according to the law of Gallenesh, you are under arrest, Mister Banner. And I have no choice but to imprison you both.”

* * *

The heavy metal door clanked shut behind Banner as he looked around the small, dimly lit cell to which Hallard had, with evident reluctance, confined him. About six feet square, the cell was, like all the other rooms in the Clink, carved out of the mountain. In the corners were a seat and a bed, made from stone rubble. They looked to be very uncomfortable. Too the left, what would have been a wall was a nearly floor-to-ceiling hole spanned by metal bars spaced a few inches apart. Through the hole was another cell. Though it was empty, there were items of clothing on the bed that suggested that it had an occupant.

After a few minutes of pacing while contemplating what to do next — Hallard had shrewdly removed Banner’s wrist communicator — he heard the door to the adjacent cell open, and he saw Patrice Mboa enter. She saw Banner and immediately rushed to the bars. There was just enough room for them to reach through and grasp each others’ hands. Mboa’s face beamed.

“Banner!” she said. “Am I glad to see you!” Then she took a step back and appraised him. “Though not in another cell. What happened?”

Banner chuckled ruefully. “Apparently, vouching for accused murderers can get you arrested around here. Who would have thought?”

She let go of Banner’s hands and began pacing around the perimeter of her small cell. Banner was relieved to see that, although clearly frightened and exhausted, she looked okay otherwise. “I suppose it’s a cliche to say I didn’t do it?”

“I told them the same thing. It has to be some sort of mistake.”

She stopped her pacing and eyed him wearily. “They have a video document of me killing the man. I’ve seen it. I have to say, it looks pretty convincing. If I weren’t me, I’d probably convict me.”

“What happened?”

Mboa resumed pacing fitfully around her cell like a caged tiger, full of nervous energy. “Part of my memory’s a blank. I remember working on the asteroid deflector. I was working with the service crew. Nice fellows, very efficient. I was inspecting the gravitator. It was taking a long time to dismount the insulation coils, and it was getting late. There’s only room for one person to work on a coil, and all four coils have to come off before we can work on anything else.”

Banner nodded. “Sure, they’re a real pain.”

“So I said, look, why don’t you guys go home and get some rest? There’s no point in you standing around waiting for me. I’ll finish up the coil dismounts, and then we can start on the gravitator rebuild first thing in the morning after a good night’s sleep. They agreed and left, and I finished dismounting the first two coils . . . ” Mboa’s brow furrowed and she shook her head in frustration. “And that’s when my mind goes blank.”

“It’s not like that feeling you get when you’re concentrating on work and time goes by quickly,” she said after a pause, trying to find the words to explain. “This is different. It’s like a hole. Like a blank spot in my brain. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

“You don’t remember going to the mine?”

“Absolutely not!” Mboa said firmly, clearly certain of that at least. “I don’t even know where that mine is. When I arrived here, they didn’t take me to any mines, and anyway I didn’t come here to do sightseeing.”

Banner was pleased to see that Mboa still had a sense of humor. “Do you remember feeling dizzy or ill or anything? Did you see anyone else in the deflector control room?”

Again, Mboa concentrated on trying to recall. “No, I don’t think so.” She sighed in exasperation. “I just can’t remember. There’s nothing there. Nothing!” She hit the wall.

“Hey, don’t break anything!”

“I still know how to throw a punch, Banner,” she said with a rueful smile.

“Save it for whoever framed you for murder,” Banner said.

“Don’t you know it!” Mboa affirmed, her hands demonstrating what she planned to do to the person’s neck.

“What do you remember next?”

“So I’m dismounting the insulating coils, and then there’s a bump in my memory, like a hiccup, and the next thing I know I’m outside somewhere, in the rain, and there are guys on either side of me pointing ray pistols at me. And that guy out there, Hallard, he’s standing in front of me saying something about arresting me for murder. And while he’s talking, it’s like I’m coming out of a tunnel; I can barely hear or understand him. Like I’m waking up.”

“Like you were drugged?” asked Banner hopefully.

“Yeah,” Mboa said. “Groggy, like anesthesia.”

“Well, that’s something,” said Banner. “Maybe somebody slipped you a mickey at dinner.”

“Could be,” said Mboa doubtfully. “But how can we prove it if we’re both stuck in here?”

“Did they investigate the murder at all?”

Mboa shrugged. “They had the video. Hallard said that it looked pretty open and shut. And who’s going to defend a murderer that they can’t vouch for?” Mboa said with heavy irony. “So here I am.” She shrugged, palms up.

“And not even a complimentary phone call,” agreed Banner. “Well, somebody’s got to investigate this. And if it isn’t going to be Hallard, then it might as well be me.”

“You ever investigate a murder?” Mboa asked, giving Banner a sidelong, skeptical glance.

“No, but I am pretty good at solving mysteries,” Banner responded with an outward display of confidence that he was trying hard to muster in himself.

“Look” Banner continued. “Whatever happens, I’m not going to let them execute you. I’ll bring the whole company fleet down on top of them if I have to, but one way or another, you’re walking off this godforsaken planet.”

Mboa smiled in relief. “Thanks, Banner.”

Banner nodded and stepped back to the cell door. “Hey, Hallard!” Banner shouted through the small grated window in the door. “I need to talk!” He winked reassuringly at Mboa. “Trust me,” he said.

“I don’t have much of a choice,” she replied, trying to sound jocular, but unable to mask the uncertainty that was never far from her mind.

* * *

Hallard courteously gestured to the chair opposite his desk where Banner had first sat when the guards had delivered him to the Clink earlier. Banner noted Hallard’s innate politeness, which contrasted strongly with the aloof reserve of the other Gallenesh natives he had met so far.

“Thanks for hearing me out,” Banner said, sitting on the edge of his chair. “I’ll get straight to the point. I believe — no, I know — that Patrice Mboa did not intentionally kill your man. I want to make sure that the crime is properly investigated.”

Hallard leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk. “Mister Banner, I want to believe you both. The crime doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want to see your friend punished. But you have to understand that due process here on Gallenesh is different from what you will find on other worlds. And it is part of the Intergalactic Code that companies such as yours are bound by the laws of the planets on which crimes occur. A citizen was murdered. And we have a video document that shows your friend committing the crime.”

“Does Gallenesh law recognize the precept of reasonable doubt?” asked Banner.

“Yes, like all Code member colonies.”

“But Mboa has no legal defense to make a case for it.”

Hallard shook his head. “None. Because she has no one to vouch for her, no one has stepped forward to represent her.”

Banner patted his chest. “I vouch for her, Mister Hallard. Could I be allowed to represent her, to conduct an investigation as part of her defense?”

Hallard considered it. “It’s a highly unusual request,” he said. “Probably without precedent. There are a lot of complications, though. You aren’t a citizen of Gallenesh. You’ve already been arrested for vouching for the prisoner.” He pondered for a few moments. “To avoid problems, I will have to insist on accompanying you on your investigation.”

Banner leaned back and smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Do you have law training?”


“Investigative training?”


Hallard raised his eyebrows. “That hardly makes you qualified.”

“What other option has she got?”

Hallard nodded solemnly. “Very well, Mister Banner. As of this moment, you are free on your own recognizance.” He opened a desk drawer, pulled out a pad of paper and a pen, and began to write. “This letter hereby authorizes you to move about the colony under these extraordinary conditions. Keep it with you at all times. In case I am not there to . . . ”

“Vouch for me?” Banner finished with a sly grin.

“Prevent someone from impeding your investigation,” Hallard said flatly, tearing the page off the pad and sliding it across the desk to Banner. “There is one thing that I want to make sure you completely understand first, Mister Banner.”


Hallard stood up slowly. “According to Gallenesh law, the act of vouching for an accused criminal carries with it some very weighty responsibilities. To vouch for someone is to stand accused with them.”

“Yes, I know. That’s why you threw me in a cell the moment I arrived.”

“What you may not fully grasp is that by standing accused, you also face the same penalty should that person be judged guilty. And the penalty for your friend’s crime, Mister Banner, is death. Do you understand what that would mean for you if you decide to continue?”

Banner swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. Then he stood, and nodded gravely.

Will Chuck Banner find the evidence he needs to exonerate Patrice Mboa from this seemingly open-and-shut case — and thereby save not only her life, but his too? Find out in the next exciting chapter of Space Repairman: Word of Honor!

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Word of Honor – Part One

Space RepairmanFor Space Repairman Chuck Banner, one of the best parts of his job was that he never knew where each day would take him. Perhaps he’d get a call from the Dispatcher sending him to the fountain mines of Calextria, where the mile-high crystalline plumes glittered in the light of two different-colored suns, or to the caramel-colored caves of Antares VI, where adventures lurked in the dark tunnels deep underground. And occasionally, but not frequently enough for Chuck, the dispatcher would send him to repair the gamble-bots of New Vegas, where he could always find something else to fix that would require him to stay an extra day.

Today, however, Chuck found himself on Space Station Gamma, one of the largest and most luxurious colonies in the Outer Sector. Appointed like a cruise liner, Space Station Gamma had some of the best food and drink for light-years around, which made up for the space-rations that were his normal fare on the long haul between assignments. The station’s gyro stabilizer needed calibration, which was a difficult — and fortunately time-consuming — job. Yet today was his last day on the station, having completed the calibration to his usual exacting standards, and he was reluctantly stowing the last of his gear in the cargo bay of his ship, the Ranger, when the intercom on the wall next to him beeped.

Banner put down his tool bag and pushed the button under the microphone. “Hey, buddy. What’s up?” The call was from F.R.E.D.D, Chuck’s service robot and trusted travel companion, upstairs on the control deck.

i have an incoming communication from the dispatcher,” F.R.E.D.D responded in his metallic monotone.

“Wow, that was quick,” Banner said. “We’re barely finished here. I wasn’t expecting another assignment until tomorrow at the earliest.”

affirmative,” replied F.R.E.D.D. “this is an unscheduled call the dispatcher says that it is an urgent request

“Well, then,” said Banner, wiping his hands on a rag. “That sounds interesting. Put it through here, please, buddy.”

There was a moment’s static while F.R.E.D.D patched in the super-spatial channel. “Good afternoon, Clarence,” came the Dispatcher’s silky, warm voice. “Did you enjoy your time on Space Station Gamma?”

“You know it!” said Banner. “They have a new chef here. He does this amazing drink with Centaurian bolt fruit that would make your head spin.”

“That sounds lovely, Clarence,” the Dispatcher replied, an edge of uncertainty creeping into her voice. “I’m afraid I’m calling about something other than your next assignment. I have an urgent mission for you.”

The worried tone of the Dispatcher’s voice caused Banner to dispense with his usual efforts to flirt with the Dispatcher. “What’s wrong, Boss?”

“One of our repairmen is overdue for her check-in,” she responded. “It’s Patrice Mboa. She’s on Gallenesh servicing their asteroid deflector.”

Banner raised an eyebrow. “Patrice? She’s one of the best. She’s been a repairman longer than anyone except me. It’s not like her to miss a check-in call.”

“Precisely,” said the Dispatcher. “She arrived there yesterday and made her first check-in on schedule. But today we’ve not heard from her. She’s almost twelve hours overdue, Clarence.” She emphasized the time as she spoke. “You’re the closest repairman to Gallenesh. It’s only two days away.”

Banner did a quick mental calculation. “Or less, if you approve emergency speed.”

“Approved, Clarence,” the Dispatcher responded, relief and gratitude flooding her voice. “Please get there as soon as you can and find out what, if anything, has happened to Patrice. Hopefully it’s just a case of a broken transmitter. If not, I want our best trouble-shooter there.”

Banner beamed, his chest puffing. “Don’t you worry, Dispatcher,” he said with confidence. “Chuck Banner is on the case.” He switched the intercom. “F.R.E.D.D, this is Chuck. Buddy, I need you to plot the fastest course to the colony on Gallenesh.”

* * *

Chuck Banner leaned forward in his pilot’s chair, his head and eyes in constant motion as he carefully studied the view from the forward windows. He had to concentrate on maneuvering the Ranger carefully into the asteroid belt through which the orbit of Gallenesh periodically crossed. F.R.E.D.D sat next to him, monitoring the long-range scanners. It was frustratingly slow going.

“Hey, F.R.E.D.D, why don’t we break the tedium here. Queue up your memory tapes and give me a crash course on the Gallenesh colony.”

perhaps you should not use the word crash chuck” replied F.R.E.D.D, his robotic monotone doubling effectively for deadpan.

“Hey, I’m supposed to be the funny guy around here,” Banner retorted. “And leave out the boring parts.”

The tape reels on F.R.E.D.D’s chest whirred and clicked as he compiled the relevant data. “gallenesh is a young planet recently formed from the agglomeration of asteroidal matter,” F.R.E.D.D intoned, his eyes flashing in time with each syllable. “it is rich in valuable ores but uninhabitable in its original state. miners from earth settled there several centuries ago and began terraforming the planet to make it eventually habitable for human life

only within the past 50 years has it been possible to live on the surface without life-support equipment,” continued F.R.E.D.D. “as a result although the mineral extraction operation is technologically advanced the civilization itself is rudimentary approximating that of a feudal society in medieval europe

“How many people live there now?”

F.R.E.D.D calculated for a moment. “the latest census data for gallenesh indicate a total population of approximately five thousand seven hundred fifty. median age is twenty-seven point three years. life expectancy is sixty point five years. population growth rate one point two-two percent. infant mortality rate ten point three percent . . .

Banner whistled softly. “A rough place to live. They’re barely sustaining themselves.”

agreed chuck,” replied F.R.E.D.D. “their long-term prospects for survival depend on the success of the terraforming project

“And their immediate prospects depend on that asteroid deflector,” said Banner. “Of all the places they could have picked to start a mining colony, why did they have to pick a planet that swings through an asteroid belt every two years?” F.R.E.D.D was already calculating an answer when Banner cut him off with a placatory wave. “I know, I know. It’s because that’s where all the minerals are. Funny how that works out sometimes. Okay, what can you tell me about Patrice?”

patrice mboa age thirty-two professional space repairman for ten years,” F.R.E.D.D began. “this is her first trip to the gallenesh colony

“She’s one of the best of the new crop,” said Banner with a smile. “Reminds me of myself when I was that age. Tough and fearless. No wonder they assigned her to this route. This sector isn’t for sissies. I did a couple of service routes not too far from here back in the day, and let me tell you, it’s the Wild West out here.”

A moment of silence followed. “I hope nothing’s happened to her.”

if there had been an accident the colony would have contacted the dispatcher,” F.R.E.D.D said.

“I know,” mused Banner. “That’s what has me worried.”

A chime sounded on F.R.E.D.D’s long-range scanner. “we have acquired the gallenesh colony’s navigational beacon. stand by to switch to autopilot

Banner nodded and threw several switches on the console in front of him. “Set, buddy. Okay, let’s ride the beam.”

engaging,” replied F.R.E.D.D. “we are on course for the colony spaceport

“Do your data banks say anything about the local weather?” Banner asked.

F.R.E.D.D’s tape reels spun for a moment. “umbrellas are highly recommended

Banner looked at F.R.E.D.D skeptically.

* * *

“Okay, you were right about the umbrella,” said Banner to F.R.E.D.D as they stood on the end of the Ranger‘s loading ramp. The drizzle in the air fell so slowly that it seemed to behave more like fog than rain, a consequence of the small planet’s lower gravity. The sky of Gallenesh was dark — a perpetual twilight that was a consequence of the dim star around which it orbited and the thick manmade cloud cover providing the rain that was slowly hydrating the parched planet. The distant craggy mountains looked razor-sharp, the result of having never been exposed to weather until recently. There was no soil; everything, even the landing platform on which he had parked the Ranger, was built on solid rock. Gallenesh was not a comfortable outpost of humanity.

Before stepping out from underneath the shelter of the Ranger‘s sleek flanks, Banner pulled an umbrella stick from his utility belt and activated it. From the end of the stick, a blue light beam extended three feet and expanded into a softly glowing dome. “You stay here and mind the shop,” Banner said to F.R.E.D.D. “I’ll stay in touch. You know what to do if you don’t hear from me.”

acknowledged good luck” replied F.R.E.D.D.

Banner swung the umbrella up over his head and with a “here goes nothing” look, stepped out into the gloom. He walked to the spaceport’s nearby control shack, a cobbled-together stone building that looked more like a storage shed, and stepped inside. The lighting was only slightly brighter than the outside, and Banner had to give his eyes a moment to adjust as he deactivated his umbrella. There was no one in the main room. He glanced around at the primitive space-control equipment stacked haphazardly around the room. “Hello?” he called out.

A muscular man in worn coveralls and heavy work boots clomped through a side door, wiping his hands on a rag. “You Banner?” he growled.

“That’s right. Chuck Banner, Galactic Repair Services.” Banner paused, expecting a welcome or at least an acknowledgement. The moment passed. “I’m looking for my colleague, Patrice Mboa.”

“Don’t know anything,” the man grumbled. “Ask the constables.” He jutted his chin at the room’s single opaque window. “Landing Pad Three. Need fuel?”

“Sure,” replied Banner, grateful for the tenuous expression of civility. “Talk to my robot.” The man nodded and without another word disappeared back into the side room from which he had emerged.

“Charming fellow,” Banner muttered as he opened the door, activated his umbrella, and stepped back out into the murk.

Banner followed the barely-discernible signs to Landing Pad Three, where he saw Mboa’s silver repair ship parked just as if there were nothing out of the ordinary. Underneath, standing by the lowered cargo ramp, were two stocky men who wore the same rugged outfits as the man in the control shack. They watched with expressions of distrust as Banner approached.

“Hi, Chuck Banner, Galactic Repair Services,” he said, turning his umbrella off and extending his hand. Neither man made a move to shake it. “I’m here to find out where my colleague is,” he said, pointing overhead at Mboa’s ship.

“Arrested,” the shorter of the two men said.

“Arrested?” Banner gasped in surprise. “Why?”

“Can’t say.”

“Because you don’t know, or because you don’t want to tell me?”

The man merely shrugged. To Banner, it didn’t look like he was trying to be evasive; it was more like the answer just didn’t matter to him. Like it would take too much energy to care — the psychic exhaustion of a man fated to live out his whole life amid rocks and rain.

“Well, can you tell me how I can find her?”

“Jail,” the taller man said, sluggishly lifting his arm to point in the direction of the nearest peak. “Middle of town.”

“How far?”

“Not far.”

“Real chatty folks, aren’t you?”

The man shrugged with the same existential indifference as had the man in the control shack. “Depends.”

“Depends on what?” Banner asked, trying to keep the growing frustration out of his voice.

“If we know you.”

“Well, once you get to know me, I think you’d find I’m a pretty likable guy,” Banner said. “Like my friend who I’m looking for. There must be some kind of misunderstanding. I know Patrice going on a decade now, and she’s one of the most trustworthy people I know. I’ve never known her to do anything that would get her arrested.”

At this, both men stood a little straighter and seemed to suddenly pay attention to Banner. “You saying you vouch for her?” the shorter man asked.

Banner nodded confidently. “Absolutely. I’d trust her with my life. Already done so once.”

The two men exchanged a glance. “She killed a man,” the taller one said. “A really important man. She’s going to be executed.”

Banner’s brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what he had just been told. “What?”

“Since you vouch for her behavior,” the man continued, “You’re under arrest too.” Slowly, almost lazily, both men pulled ray pistols from their belts and aimed them at Banner.

Banner raised his hands in supplication. “Wait a minute, fellows. I haven’t done anything wrong here. Yet, that is,” he added as an afterthought.

“Stood up for a criminal,” the shorter man said. “Come on.” He gestured with his pistol in the direction of town. Both men moved to either side of him, an unwelcome escort.

“What kind of a law is that?” asked Banner incredulously.

The shorter man shrugged. “How it works here,” he said.

Resignedly, Banner turned to march in the direction the man had indicated. “Well, at least I’ll have the pleasure of your conversation along the way,” Banner said as he flicked on his umbrella and was marched out into the gloom.

What will happen to Chuck Banner? Will he be able to prevent Patrice Mboa’s execution? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Space Repairman: Word of Honor!

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