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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Transdimensional Blues

by
Raymond Coulombe
Hold The Anchovies

by
Harris Tobias
The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales

by
Jeromy Henry

Nomad Two: Waste

by

John Henson Webb



Bright, Halcyon, Devil's Spindle (trailing)

 

Act One

 

            The weather was cool, cooler than he liked, but not uncomfortable. Surging tide washed the sand, white horses striking submerged rocks, to foam and roil until the waves retreated. Seated high upon a dry rock, Brunel watched the motions of the sea, ate his peach and enjoyed the sun on his weather-beaten face. Though you couldn’t describe the air as particularly warm, the beach south of Bright was damn-sure warmer than Palisade City had been. OK, there weren’t the soup kitchens or hostels that’d accept a travelling man, but warmth trumped free soup in Brunel’s estimation.

            The old man’s hand closed around the last peach, resting deep inside his coat pocket. He was tempted. No, save it for later. It was the last of the food he’d been able to scrounge from the dumpster behind the restaurant; a little bruised like the others, and him, but good for a while yet. Like him.

            Figures walking the tide-line made him think briefly of Sykes, the ex-BioSec agent who’d helped him with a problem back in Palisade. When the scarred and troubled man told him what he’d done to Chief Constable Grant, Brunel was momentarily perturbed, but maybe the corrupt cop shouldn’t have sanctioned the killing of Brunel’s friends and acquaintances. It might’ve been resorting to unnecessary violence, but Brunel couldn’t raise any sympathy for Grant. The scumbag got what he deserved.

            Swathed in colourful winter clothes, the man, woman and child were scouring the beach, maybe looking for flotsam. Not so much of that about; with Halcyon’s native species little more than simple plants and animals, little natural detritus washed ashore, even in the harshest of stormy weather. You might get a foamy scum of phytoplankton and zooplankton covering the beach, same stuff the harvesters hoovered-up, the occasional freight container lost to the sea then returned, but nothing of consequence. So, when the child, waving hair suggested it was a girl, lifted something shiny, Brunel couldn’t help but be interested.

            He watched as the girl proudly displayed her find, as her parents knocked it from her hand and dragged her away up the beach. When they were out of sight, he left his perch and sauntered slowly toward the discarded object. He chuckled when he saw the metallic-foil, one-piece sportsuit laying on the sand. Very feminine.

            His mirth ebbed when he saw the slashes that criss-crossed the torso.

 

            They kept him waiting in the interview room for more than an hour. With the tide still ebbing, he’d weighed-down the suit with a rock, before heading up the beach to find a police officer. The two patrollers he encountered reluctantly followed him back down the sand and, at first, were sceptical that the ripped fabric indicated anything. When Brunel shrugged and began walking away, he’d done what he thought was the civic-minded thing to do, the female officer called him back. Sportsuit in a clear evidence bag, they’d taken it and Brunel to the central Bright stationhouse.

 

            After the questioning had circled around for a third time, as to why Brunel was in Bright in the first instance, he realised they weren’t really interested. Perhaps a crime had been committed, perhaps not. The authorities were obviously leaning heavily toward the latter and wanted the derelict to drop the issue. So, he did. Questions seemed more designed to imply he wasn’t welcome. Though his subcutaneous ID listed no crimes when interrogated – just a few misdemeanours for loitering - their nice town had no place for a bum.

            The discovery on the beach, his subsequent encounter with the police, had soured Brunel’s mood. He spent most of that day listlessly roaming the seafront, checking dumpsters, trying to identify a suitable roost for the night.

            Reminded of its presence, Brunel imagined he could feel a lump where his ID resided, an impossibility as the microscopic processor, implanted into all children at the age of one, rested within the posterior spinous process of the second cervical vertebrae – inaccessible except by major surgery. A connection to his working past, an anchor he hadn’t thought of in years, it’s imagined weight bore him down more than his pack or the aches of age. Tomorrow he’d see about moving on.

 

            With the sun resting on the horizon, automated street lamps awoke, pushing back the twilight, bathing all in a sallow, electric glow. Off along the coastline, a few kilometres from the Bright rail yard, the air was alive with hazard and working lights at the S-J refinery. When the wind was accommodating, the repetitive sounds of automated machines could be faintly heard, though never loud enough to keep Brunel from sleep.

            He’d found himself a cosy bolt-hole, a covered corner between a single-storey, vehicle service station and a row of garages. Wrapped in his old blanket, stretched-out on a bed constructed of plastic pallets and wadded packaging, he was away from the lights and from the loose rubbish stray breezes tossed past his shelter.

 

            Years wandering the surface of Halcyon, on foot, riding freight trains, even the occasional flight in a cargo lifter, the old man lived by his wits and trusted his instincts. That night a feeling of unease kept sleep at bay. He lay within his shelter, trying to relax, failing. Soft sounds drew his attention, stopped the wheezy breath escaping his lungs.

            Some distance away, moving back-and-forth through the clusters of refuse that littered the service yard, Brunel could discern a figure peering into the junk piles. A realisation that the man might be searching for him tightened his stomach. Maybe he’d upset someone with his insistence over the damaged swimsuit. Could it be the killer? Coming back to deal with the old tramp who may, or may not, be a witness to the crime. Could even be one of the police, intent on silencing the annoying old man who made their streets look untidy.

 

            With a minimum of noise, Brunel slid himself inside a damaged crate, one of a pile that lay beside his shelter. It was a confined space, just a small freight box, without air holes or cracks in the sides, despite the damage. Fingers already cramping, he pulled shut the lid and held it in place the best he could.

            A minute later a scuffling announced the searchers’ arrival at his abandoned shelter. Footsteps scraped on the tarmac, soft thumps as his bed was disturbed, a low muttering. His crate was bumped, he gripped the lid tight, arthritic knuckles screaming at the abuse. Breath held...

            Painful constriction in his chest, lungs demanding air, forced Brunel to exhale. There had been no sounds for some moments, but he remained hidden until his fingers could no longer maintain their grip.

            His bed had been disturbed. The searcher had departed, leaving an unexpected invitation laid upon Brunel’s blanket. He looked at the hand-written note, not a common sight in these days of tabula and memoria and those with such technologies built into their skulls. He carried the paper to a pool of light beneath a street lamp, read the scrawled message, considered the request.

 

            The deep doorway kept Brunel in shadow, his eyes fixed on the entrance to the Mirabeau Apartments on the opposite side of the wide pedestrian thoroughfare. Now past dawn and natural light had banished the sodium glow. A few people had left the building since he’d been in position; a couple, arm-in-arm; a young woman with a large rucksack upon her back. Neither were likely to be his target. With the creeping dawnlight reaching for his toes, Brunel finally saw a figure emerge, a man in good quality clothing, but of dishevelled appearance. He stood in the entranceway for a second, scrubbing at his unshaven face with both hands. Then, abruptly, turned, strode along the paved walkway and into a small diner, glass front fogged by steam, a few shadows visible through the windows.

            All his worldly possessions in the pack on his back and stuffed into the pockets of his coat, Brunel left his hidey-hole and approached the eatery. It’s was public place and… If the invite did come from the untidy man, well, he didn’t look to be a person of violence.

 

            When Brunel pushed his way through the front door, the warmth made him realise how cold he was; aromas of food made his stomach ache. Despite a glare from the female proprietor, he walked over to the man, who sat, slumped, shoulders bowed, forearms on the tabletop. The woman had dispatched a younger girl to warn him off; Brunel ignored her and sat opposite his quarry.

 

            Lane Gallagher had lost his wife. They’d move to Bright for much the same reason as Brunel, to escape the colder northern climate and the clutter of a larger city. Their small apartment home lay only a kilometre from the beachfront and, whatever the weather, Gale had run the kilometre to go swimming every morning, sometimes varying her routine by jogging along the beach. Three days ago, she’d set off as normal, while Lane showered and started breakfast. She hadn’t returned.

            He’d scoured the beach for several hours before calling the Bright police. At the interview, they all but suggested she’d run off, citing a single public argument between the couple, which a passer-by had reported to a patroller. Notes were taken, a caution issued. Only after he’d insisted, did the police mount a desultory search of the route from the house to the seafront and along a short section of beach, which lay in an arc away from the commercial district. Having found nothing, the police labelled it a missing person case, put out an advisory to all patrollers and filed the case notes.

            When Brunel reported the damaged swimsuit, it matched the description of Gale Gallagher’s outfit and Lane was informed of the ‘evidence’. Missing Person became possible Homicide.

            The Bright police wouldn’t divulge Brunel’s name or whereabouts, but a slip by the desk officer revealed the information had been given by ‘that disgusting derelict’.

            It had been Lane Gallagher who spooked Brunel the previous night. He’d wanted to thank Brunel for bringing the evidence to the attention of authorities; who were now having a hard time shrugging-off Gale’s disappearance. Though he was obviously a suspect, Lane was still grateful that something was now being done. With a devoted husband’s confidence, he knew his wife was surely still alive, had no intention of leaving her safety in the hands of the police.

            Sipping a scalding hot cup of coffee, Brunel raised his eyebrows. ‘Is true, the police don’t seem to care much. What’re you going to do?’

            Lane had fiddled with his cup, but had yet to touch the contents. ‘Already done. I got an old friend, used to be a policeman up in Palisade. When I called him, he said he’d help.’ For the first time since they’d met, some light had returned to Gallagher’s green eyes. ‘Not sure what he can do, but said he’d help me.’

            ‘Good. Good.’ Though he considered himself hardened by his years on the move, Brunel couldn’t stop himself from hoping the sad man sitting opposite achieved his happy ending.

 

            With money no longer a physical entity, Lane Gallagher was unable to show his gratitude with cash. After some consideration, Brunel accepted the offer of a train ticket to Hesperus, another equatorial town, but one with a number of thriving fruit and vegetable farms, where employment seemed a more likely prospect. Gallagher even furnished Brunel with a new rainproof coat, boots and a sturdy backpack.

            Gallagher showed no hesitation in shaking Brunel’s hand as the old man boarded the train. ‘Take care of yourself.’

            ‘One thing I’m good at!’ Brunel stepped up into the train carriage. ‘Sincerely hope you find your wife. She’s lucky she has someone so devoted.’

 

            The bullet train, a maglev carrying both passengers and freight, left Bright late afternoon, the sun dipping toward the sea. Maybe being a bum had its advantages, mused Brunel, as he sat in an empty section, all other passengers having avoided seats anywhere near the old man. The automated ticket system made no such judgements. As the sea flashed by his window, Brunel ate his last peach.

 

Act Two

 

             Between the departure of Brunel and arrival of his friend, Gallagher passed the two hours in silence, seated on the platform, letting the world flow by; sun setting, artificial light replacing the natural.

            Gaunt was an old friend; neighbour and inseparable schoolyard accomplice, the two of them running riot across the housing estate, from pre-teens to their mid-twenties, when Padraig Gaunt up and joined Havelock Port’s police department. Gallagher found his place within Shaker-Jorge, as maintenance crew on a plankton harvester. Then he found his wife. She worked backroom logistics for the Combine and they met at a social gathering, celebrating yet another successful year for their employers. A Halcyon year later they were married and were together nearly twenty years. Now she was gone.

 

            They were of a size, though Gaunt suited his name, a whip of a man next to Gallagher’s more padded form, cheekbones prominent, eyes sunken beneath a broad forehead. Stepping down from his carriage, Gaunt strode over to his friend, shook hands with a strong grip, then let himself be steered to Gallagher’s groundcar, parked in the almost empty lot outside the rail station. The words that passed between them were hesitant, lacking the warmth of previous conversations, without the usual shorthand of close friends. Over a meal in the diner next to his apartment, Lane gave Padraig the meagre scraps of information he possessed; Gaunt scribbled upon a battered, pocket tabula.

            ‘It’s four days and the lazy bastards have already given up.’ Gallagher’s head was in his hands, his voice near breaking.

            Finishing his notation, Gaunt put away the electronic notebook. ‘I’m here. No-one’s giving up.’

 

            Recurrent insomnia had Padraig Gaunt up and moving in the pre-dawn hours. Letting his subconscious be his guide, he found himself at the top of small, grassy dunes, huddled in his parka against a chill, off-shore breeze, watching the restless sea churn and foam against the shore.

            Leaving the first footprints of a new day, Gaunt strolled along the wet sand at the edge of the surf, going over what Gallagher had told him, following Gale’s jogging route, waiting for the sun to clear the horizon. Ahead of him, around the curve of a low headland, the Shaker-Jorge refinery sprawled across part of an estuary, water abstraction pipework drawing dark lines out into the shallows. The functional buildings and associated structures jarred on the otherwise natural landscape. Gaunt shook his head. Even here, on the edge of the sea, the Combine made its presence felt. He walked up to an old-fashioned, but practical, wire fence, topped with razor-wire and irritant paint.

            The Gallagher’s were Combine people, Lane now co-ordinating harvester activity in the Western Sea, Gale having remained in logistics, rising through the office hierarchy to manage materials import and export for the Bright refinery. A broad sweep of a post given the scale of chemicals shipped in from other planets and the tonnage of processed ore shipped back out.

            Retracing his steps to the sand, Gaunt turned back toward the town, letting his thoughts wander.

 

            From patrolling Havelock’s streets in a uniform to Detective Major in Palisade City, Gaunt had made policing his life. Taking his twenty-year retirement, he’d found civilian life to be a chronic bore; his sleep issues started shortly thereafter. Visits to police psychologists had suggested coping mechanisms, mental tricks to keep his mind active and promote a regular sleeping pattern - only one thing had worked - Gaunt became a consulting investigator – though he still slept little during an investigation. Dealing with evidence for divorce cases, catching disgruntled employees in acts of thievery, unravelling domestic blackmail plots, most was repetitive, but his mind re-engaged, he felt better in himself. Though he had three clients to assist when Lane’s call came, lasting friendship trumped paying customers.

 

            The apathy of the Bright PD was nothing he hadn’t encountered before; in larger cities it could be much worse. Shaker-Jorge effectively owned the planet, with the majority of the population working directly for them, even the police force. The Combine’s grip on the planet’s resources relied on positive reports to the UN Colonisation Directorate. Given that the police would generally find the perpetrators of burglaries, muggings, murders and, the ultimate sin, fraud against the company were company people, it was best for all concerned if such statistics weren’t officially recorded, beyond a need to show that something had been done. When he’d come to understand the politics, Gaunt had chosen to deal with the crimes he was assigned, ignored the deals that meant few prosecutions. This, he promised himself, would not be one of those cases. He had no intention of letting anyone walk away from this. Someone would pay.

 

            Equipped with warm coat and trousers, stout boots, his tabula and a small-calibre, privately-owned revolver, Padraig Gaunt first visited the police, who could give him little more than Gallagher had already provided, then walked out to the refinery. Gale’s direct boss Benjamin St John, a crisply-suited man exuding efficiency from every pore, made all the correct noises associated with losing a respected and valued colleague, without the speech ever reaching the crow’s feet either side of his grey eyes. Gale’s disappearance was an inconvenience; the man didn’t care. Gaunt doubted it was personal, it was unlikely St John took anything personally. Professionally, perhaps; not personally.

            To prove they had nothing to hide – the question hadn’t arisen – St John assigned one of Gale’s co-workers to assist Gaunt however they could. Clay Forester modelled himself on St John, but lacked the detached demeanour and killer instinct of an upper-echelon executive. He insisted they ‘grab a coffee and discuss the situation’. Fine by Gaunt, it offered the chance of information.

 

            ‘No, there’s nothing in the files to indicate any financial irregularities. Director St John had me run the numbers when it became evident Gale Gallagher had gone missing.’

            ‘Has that happened before?’ The coffee was an expensive import, Bright lacked the necessary soil bacteria to grow good coffee. Gaunt savoured the flavour.

            Forester paused for a moment, accessing data through a wetware implant. ‘No. Nothing significant. A couple of lower-level employees tried to re-direct some funds by setting up a bogus services account. Got caught almost immediately and that was nearly ten years ago.’

            ‘Any other employees gone missing?’

            Another blank look crossed the executive’s scrubbed and shaven face. ‘Five months ago, a group of logistics workers left the organisation abruptly. Three men and a woman. They sent their resignations retrospectively. Cited working conditions. There was a short investigation, but nothing untoward turned up, so management put it down to disgruntled employees.’ He sipped his own coffee. ‘It does happen. Working conditions are good, but some want an easier ride.’

            ‘Were they in the same directorate as Gale Gallagher?’

            ‘Yes, but she handled import/export and they dealt with waste disposal. Under the United Nations’ Gundermann Convention we ship all our industrial waste off-planet. It goes to various orbital factories for recycling.’

            ‘What about the waste that can’t be processed?’

            ‘That gets fired into the sun - Halcyon. It’s expensive, but it obeys the terms of the Convention.’

            ‘Import and export?’

            ‘Gale oversaw shipment logistics. Everything costs, so she made sure all inbound and outbound transports were properly loaded. Outbound ore brings in the money.’

            ‘And the waste?’

            ‘That’s factored in to the processing costs. It’s a balancing act. Materials in – processing – against shipment of processed ore.’

            ‘Who supervises the actual loading?’

            ‘It’s automated. The freight containers are loaded by machines, which take their orders from a central logistics system. Manifests are created by the refinery master-control, which ensures we have a constant input/output loop without interruption.’

            ‘What about the plankton harvesters. Is none of that production outbound?’

            Shaking his head, cup half-way to mouth, Forester made a disgusted sneer. ‘No. Production stays on-planet. Helps feed the population. We’re nowhere near required production levels to make shipping off-planet viable.’

 

            Given the scale of the operation, the machinery was surprisingly quiet. From their vantage on a high walkway, Gaunt stood beside Forester, watching the scattering of human crew moving among the machines.

            Forester pointed to an ore truck, baffles opened, allowing its cargo to drop into the maw of the receiver.

            ‘Calaverite ore. Shipped here from the eight mineral beds we’re currently exploiting. Drops into a crusher; is processed to extract the crystals.’ His finger indicated various phases within the refinery. ‘Dissolved in a concentrated solution of sulphuric acid.’ Another box-like machine, wreathed in steam. ‘We end up with a solution of tellurium, which is what we’re after.’

            A line of cylindrical tanks rested on a conveyor. One sat receiving red-tinged tellurium solution. Forester’s finger came to rest on the machine decanting the product. ‘That’s the pay-off. Mostly shipped off-world to feed the commercial production of Cadmium-Telluride solar panels. Big money!’ He dropped his hand. ‘Some panels are constructed by an on-planet company, for local use. But tellurium is on the technology-critical elements list, so the minimum price is guaranteed by market regulators.’ Pride was evident in the rising tone of his voice. ‘In the past decade we’ve reduced reliance on fossil fuels by over sixty percent!’

            ‘Is this stuff dangerous?’

            ‘Mildly toxic. So ‘handle with care’’. Forester carved the imaginary ellipses of air-quotes. ‘It’s not carcinogenic, though it does make you breath stink if you do get dosed.’

            ‘Stink?’

            ‘Yeah, it’s a tell-tale sign. Exposure causes your breath to smell like strong garlic.’

            ‘Had many incidents?’

            ‘Well before my time. Early days, when the whole system was still being improved.’ A head tilt told Gaunt the Exec’ was interfacing. ‘There were eight cases of exposure over the first three years. Hasn’t been one since.’

 

            After a further cup of the upscale coffee, Gaunt found himself back in the atrium, shaking hands with St John. He could see the countdown-clock ticking behind the man’s eyes. More expressions of insincere sorrow and Gaunt was off the premises.

 

            He couldn’t help but dislike Benjamin St John; the man’s humanity had been replaced by a corporate veneer, to which dirt, physical or moral, didn’t adhere. Was the man hiding something? Possibly, but Gaunt’s instincts didn’t think it related to Gale Gallagher’s disappearance. Had she uncovered some irregularity in the processes? Discovered someone dumping toxic material? Given how open Forester had been, Gaunt doubted they were capable of hiding anything on a scale that made murder an attractive option. Despite its slow pace, the police investigation would proceed and hushing-up a major crime could prove near impossible. S-J would require near-total control of the PD, local Colony Directorate personnel. When you considered the detail involved… In his twenty years he’d not encountered anything operating at such as scale. Yes, the Combine were in it for the profits, but you’d need to be seriously paranoid to believe they had the finesse to carry-off total control of an entire world.

            Gaunt cursed himself. A victim of his own prejudice, in a way he’d wanted Gale’s case to be the result of some nefarious scheme by faceless corporate exec’s, something to shake the Combine, elicit interest from the UN… Not an accident, nor a pathetic, bad end at the hand of a nobody. It was time to reel-in the corporate animosity, try a different line of enquiry.

 

Act Three

 

            The public bars in Bright ran a spectrum from refined drinking and dining down to a few hole-in-the-wall establishments where the beer and spirits were homebrew and outbursts of mild violence the evenings’ entertainment. Over the rest of that day, Gaunt trod the descending curve.

            At each, his question was simple, directed to the bar staff – were there any new faces in town at time of Gale Gallagher’s disappearance?

            Upmarket, there were those who ambled the boardwalks and beaches, though few and far between in the winter season. It took only a further question to rule out the majority – most were families, few were individuals; none were people Gaunt would profile as potential killers. He filed a few names and descriptions on his tabula, but connecting with friends in the Palisades PD he eliminated them almost immediately. If nothing more solid came up he’d backtrack across the very slim list of names, which grew and shrank continually.

            There was a corporation-run drinking den, where company men could get a better rate of exchange on their pay chit - many still preferred the locally-run bars. The décor may have been ‘classical desperation’, but the alcohol, and other sources of altered consciousness, were cheap.

            At the 23 Skidoo, he asked his question, to finally receive an answer he hadn’t heard before – No, there were no new faces, but the crew of a plankton harvester had been through on furlough. Heavy drinking, a fist fight. Gaunt leant once again on his Palisades PD connection regarding the crew of the Mare Agricola. Two men and one woman come up as having cautions for affray – an incident in a bar; one man was under probational caution for Actual Bodily Harm. Two days until they shipped back out.

 

            Not heavily muscled, but solid, Craig Jepson lined up a shot on his next target. The white cracked into the orange-striped ‘13’ ball and deflected it into a side pocket. He stood with a momentary smile creasing his angular face, then cast a quick glance at Gaunt.

            ‘Don’t know her, haven’t seen her. Piss off.’ Delivered without inflection.

            Lowering the small lenticular image – Gale Gallagher waving jauntily at the camera – Gaunt leant a hip against the pool table. ‘Not sure about the first statement, but the second’s probably a lie.’

            Surreptitiously shifting the pool cue to both hands, Jepson straightened from the green tabletop. This early in the day the small pool hall was mostly empty, the majority in darkness beyond the spill of light around two of the four tables.

            ‘Say, what?’

            ‘Took a bit of time, bit of digging, but records show you were going through disembarkation at the docks, same time Mrs Gallagher was visiting her husband. I’m sure you know him. Head of the maintenance section, supervises all the repair crews. Present at all the crew briefings, when harvesters are either going out or coming in. You’ve put in several complaints about his attitude.’ Gaunt glanced at the small tabula screen, read the displayed text. ‘Always find’s fault with my workstation…blah, blah… unfair appraisalblame for failures…’

            Turning the screen toward Jepson, Gaunt showed him an image-capture from the surveillance system, a flat, two-dimensional print. It showed Gale and Lane, in a tight embrace, standing among the structured confusion of a harvester off-load. Also, visible on the print, Jepson was clearly eyeing the couple as he strode past. The man’s appearance in the picture had been fortuitous; Lane had mentioned Gale’s unexpected lunchtime visit, it coincided with the off-load of the Agricola, Gaunt had asked to view the camera footage. Of the eight harvesters currently plying Halcyon’s oceans for plankton, Agricola had the poorest record for crew morale, the highest incidence of inter-crew violence. Jepson was on a third strike, two counts of violent behaviour, one of sexual harassment. The shore-side caution could see him lose his Combine work permit.

 

            Spinning around with a grunt of effort, Jepson swung the pool cue toward Gaunt’s head. Except the nosy bastard wasn’t there. Seeing the tension build in Jepson’s stiff neck and shoulders, Gaunt stepped quietly forward and to one side of the man. He’d anticipated Jepson’s attack by half-a-second, landed a solid punch into the man’s side, hard, up under the ribs.

            A gasp escaped Jepson as he dropped the cue and to the floor on all fours. A second gasp and he vomited the three cheap beers he’d already consumed.

            Kicking the discarded cue out of reach, Gaunt smiled down at the retching man. ‘Don’t leave town! Always wanted to say that!’ Turning, he walked toward the exit, not fast enough that the lone proprietor and three non-descript patrons would think he was running for it, but quick enough that he’d be gone before Jepson regained his feet. He’d been lucky with the first blow, didn’t think fate would grant him a second.

            Outside The Ballpit, inhaling the evening streets, Gaunt blew out his cheeks, considered his options. He was fairly certain Jepson was stupid enough to make a run for it, but given they were on a corporate-controlled planet with infrequent starship traffic, where could he possibly run to? Options were limited, running an obvious admission of guilt.

 

            Within the hour he’d been back to the Bright PD with his evidence - yes, it was scant, but it at least provided a starting point for their investigation, might push a reluctant detective into asking a few pertinent questions – before heading back toward the Mirabeau and the Gallagher’s apartment. When he’d been with the Palisades police, this was the part he’d always handed-off to a subordinate – talking to the victim’s family. Harder still, given that Lane and Gale were old friends.

            That she was possibly murdered by a violence-prone crewman from a harvester, was not the outcome Gaunt wanted to gift to his friend, but her sudden and total disappearance spoke of unpleasant circumstances. If Jepson targeted Gale after that fleeting glimpse of her talking to her husband in the maintenance dock, then the universe was a cruel bastard. All that suffering from one chance encounter. But he’d experienced enough crime scenes to recognise that, sometimes, obscure chance directed people’s lives. And death.

 

            Lane Gallagher folded in upon himself. There were no tears, just a silence that flowed out from the man, to seep into his surroundings and stifle sound. Even the light about him seemed to dim. When Gallagher finally retired to his bedroom, Gaunt stretched his tired body upon the couch and ebbed into a fitful sleep. He’d tried to counsel Lane that his suspicions might be wrong. Even so, the man needed to prepare himself for the realities.

 

            Creeping at its own pace across the carpeted floor, the morning sun finally lifted itself to shine on Padraig Gaunt’s closed eyelids. It took him some moments to rouse, climb from under the oppressive weight of a lousy dream. Scrubbing at his stubbled chin, he shuffled to the compact bathroom, but came instantly awake when he saw the door to Gallagher’s bedroom standing wide. Through it he could see the dishevelled bed, but no occupant. The kitchen-diner that led off from the sitting room had been equally empty.

            Emptying his bladder, Gaunt was heading back to the kitchen when the door buzzer sounded. Answering it, he was initially surprised to meet two Bright PD patrolmen. When they told him what had transpired, he cursed himself once again.

 

            Had Jepson been proven guilty, he would have spent time in punitive coma, incarcerated in Halcyon’s single correctional facility. Justice was no longer served by killing killers; in Gaunt’s personal view justice was rarely served in any suitable manner.

            For reasons not articulated, Lane Gallagher had stolen the revolver from Gaunt’s jacket, walked to The Ballpit, waited on the street and killed Jepson when he emerged at 4am. He then turned the pistol on himself.

            If he was to blame, Jepson hadn’t run. If he’d counted on the PD not doing their job he hadn’t foreseen someone else filling the void.

 

            A lengthy session in front of two unpleasant detectives and Gaunt was back on the street, minus his revolver and with a variation of the admonishment he’d delivered to Jepson – stay in Bright until told otherwise. Which was two days. Then they escorted him to the maglev station, watched him leave.

 

            The train journey back to Palisade City brought Gaunt no relief from the doubts and self-recrimination. No happy endings.

 

 

© John Henson Webb 2018


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Harris Tobias
CHRONON--Time Travel

by
Harris Tobias
The Wizard's House

by
Jeromy Henry


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