In 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!