In 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!