Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
This novel is dedicated to Annabelle, in the hopes she too finds her way home.
he call came
mere seconds before push-off of Game Four in the last Zero Finals ever played.
Bryan Benson took the call, not that he had much choice. The crew had command access over his implant, they could open the call without ringing. But over the generations, the benevolent autocrats had learned that little courtesies went a long way.
It was First Officer Chao Feng's voice, or at least the voice he'd picked for plant conversations. Normally, the difference between a person's plant voice and their real voice could be chalked up to the slight difference between the voice they heard inside their head, and how they sounded speaking to everyone else. But that couldn't account for the difference between the mezzo-soprano of his real voice and the baritone Benson heard.
Detective Benson leaned back and crossed his arms, certain at least one of the stadium's cameras was watching.
Benson hoped the cameras caught his eyes rolling. They certainly had the resolution for it.
Each team floated into position at the far walls of the Can while their captains shouted last-second formation tweaks. The goalies swung out from their goal rings to clear the way for the arrows waiting on the other side. The crowd roared in anticipation of the whistle, while Benson scrutinized the Mustangs' new umbrella formation, only a season old. It was a ballsy way to start, but team captain Sahni was no fool. His team was explosive, but had trouble flying down the stretch. They needed to start taking points off the board straight away. Zero wasn't scored like old Earth sports. Each team started at forty points. Whichever team reached zero first, won.
Lau, the Yaoguais' captain, settled on a more conservative formation called the “Great Wall.” It deserved the name. It made life hell for any fliers trying to pierce the three staggered rows of five, four, and five. But with the wingspan of an albatross and its endurance to boot, those damned Kenyans at the corners were the real problem. How that little community had managed to avoid inbreeding markers over the last ten generations was a matter of heated debate among Zero aficionados.
Tuning out other people's conversations was one thing, but ignoring voices in your head was a different skill entirely. After almost fifteen years on the beat with domestic disturbances, conservation violations, and even the occasional legitimate crime clogging up his inner monologue, Benson had learned.
Benson gritted his teeth as the referee's whistle blew. The arrows leapt off toward the ball suspended in the middle of the Can.
, we wouldn't be bothering you if we hadn't already pinged his plant. There was no response. He's off the grid.>
got Bryan's attention. You couldn't just turn off your plant. It was a synthetic neural network blanketing the surface of the frontal lobe like a thin film of plastic wrap, eavesdropping on the brain's higher functions and linking to the ship's network. The brain's own bioelectrical impulses powered it, including its organic wireless transceiver.
Laraby's name didn't ring any bells. But da Silva had been directing bio research for almost fifteen years. She was a powerful woman. Best to stay on her good side.
The line paused. Benson stole a glance at the game. Vasquez, the Mustangs' arrow, reached the ball first, just as she'd done reliably all season. She snatched it up and passed it back to Lindqvist, their newest strong forward, but then the Mustangs' umbrella formation ran straight into the Great Wall and did as much damage as one would expect a fabric canopy to do against several thousand kilometers of masonry.
Officer Feng returned to the conversation.
coming up on two hundred and thirty. Anyway, Director da Silva tried to raise him, then called us. Now I'm calling you.>
, Benson thought.
Funny how often that happens.
Oh, thank God.
That was polite floater-speak for, “Do your fucking job, already.” Benson scowled as he unfastened his seatbelt.
Detective Benson drifted through the lock that separated the stadium from his home module of Avalon and pushed the button for the lift. He called up the duty officer. Lieutenant Theresa Alexopoulos picked up the link.
He could almost hear her eyes rolling through the plant link. know
what a âMissing Person' is, Bryan. It's how someone goes missing I'm having trouble with.>
Benson smiled. The honorific was an old one between them. The Ark PD didn't have captains, per se. The highest rank the police could achieve was chief constable, a title Benson shared with Chief Bahadur, his opposite in the Shangri-La module. Captain was a leftover from his days leading the Mustangs to their first championship in twenty-three years.
The lift doors opened and disgorged a dozen tardy, inebriated Zero fans donning Mustang jerseys and giant foam cheese wedges on their heads. No one could remember where that particular tradition had started, but it was as sacrosanct to Mustang fans, exactly none of whom had ever tasted real cheese, as halftime fireworks were to Yaoguai fans. The environmental system techs
There'd been an uptick in the number of public intoxication incidents following the year-long countdown to the Flip. It made the crew nervous, but Benson had instructed his constables to show leniency. Humanity had been through a lot in the three centuries since the black hole they'd named Nibiru appeared at the edge of the solar system. Another fundamental shift approached in just two weeks. It was an exciting, stressful time. As coping strategies went, over-indulging in bathtub hooch was fairly harmless.
The group of Mustang backers greeted him in the usual game-day fashion, all cheering and poorly-aimed high-fives. Benson accepted their enthusiasm graciously and took the time to shake every hand while his plant flashed their profiles at the top right corner of his field of vision, peeking to see if any of them had outstanding fines or had fallen behind on community service hours.
Everyone checked out clean. It helped to maintain the image of beloved sport hero when it came time to start asking the hard questions. Indeed, he suspected it was a major reason he'd been offered the promotion to chief so soon after retiring from Zero.
Benson floated inside the empty lift. A perfectly round car spun gently around him, except for a flat panel that denoted the floor. Still weightless, he oriented himself and tucked his feet into a pair of straps. The back wall of the lift was a single, uninterrupted dome of glass, gracing its passengers with a grand view of the entire module. Benson had long ago become numb to the vista's grandeur. Instead, he hit the button for Spoke Fifteen and waited. The car rotated until it was lined up with the proper tracks, then lurched downward.
“Down” was a relative term inside a two kilometer long cylinder where centripetal force provided the gravity. As the car moved away from the center of the module, the apparent gravity increased. Benson felt weight begin to press against the soles of his feet, only a fraction at first, but it grew steadily.
Light exploded through the window. A pillar ran like an axle down the entire span of the Avalon module, as it did through Shangri-La, Avalon's twin on the other side of the stadium. More bulbs than could be counted ran the length of the pillar, bathing the entire habitat in artificial daylight for twelve hours before shutting down and sending the power to Shangri-La's pillar to do the same. Twenty people worked to replace the bulbs that burned out each day.
The lights of Avalon shone on twenty-five thousand people. Its blocky earth-tone buildings, snaking green parks, trellis hydroponic farms, and shimmering blue lake was home to fully half of humanity. But Benson's thoughts hovered around a single man.
Where have you run to, my little lamb?
Odds were good that Laraby was still somewhere inside Avalon. Transfer points between the Ark's half-dozen modules made for natural bottlenecks. Anyone traveling between them would be picked up by the surveillance net. But the mystery of how he'd gone off grid in the first place remained. Only a few good ways to block a plant from the ship's wireless network existed. Over the decades, people had tried everything. Jammers and scramblers blocked data transmission, but their signals were easily triangulated.
One of the only effective ways happened to be the headgear of choice for the discerning crackpot for centuries. Enough layers of aluminum foil wrapped around a person's head would do the trick, although it made blending into a crowd problematic. Shiny side in or out didn't seem to make any difference. Constables called them “Mad Hatters,” although it had been several years since he'd dealt with one.
One other way existed. A few meters of water was enough to block the signal. The memory of pulling a girl no more than six from the water sent a shiver through Benson's body.
As the lift reached bottom, Benson's frame reached its full weight of ninety-two kilos. Four more than when he'd hung up his jersey five years earlier, but nobody gave him guff about hoarding calories. He wore it along with a lot of lean muscle he maintained in the gym and with a morning run around the habitat. Some habits died hard.
Laraby's file was waiting for him in Benson's plant. He could have read it himself using the augmented reality interface plugged into his visual cortex, but Benson preferred reading things the old-fashioned way: on a proper tablet screen held in his hands. The fewer things cluttering up his head, the better. Walking through the habitat, passing by people staring blankly into the distance for awkwardly long stretches, he knew his was the minority position, but some battles were worth fighting to the bitter end.
Benson's eyes widened. He'd assumed Laraby was an assistant or a lab tech, not a fully-fledged geneticist. The success or failure of the new colony literally rested on their efforts to adapt Earth plants to their new home. Now he understood why Feng and Director da Silva were in such a rush to get him back on the job.
Benson smiled. He and Theresa had a healthy professional disrespect for each other, which made their time off the job all the more interesting.