In 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.”
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?”
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!