The Citadel Security transport left Astro Land with three passengers: Dahlia DeHaven, Adam Smith, and Leonard Leonard. Although originally meant to return them to their origin citadels, it had received instructions to ferry them to Storybook Land. Something was amiss and it was up to them to solve it.
Dahlia DeHaven was born in Astro Land. She was a gifted Telempath who had worked for as a scavenger before being hired by Citadel Security and assigned to Dream Land. She had retired to her caravan and scavenging five years ago. She had entered a contest to win ‘a trip to Mars’, but was grateful to have lost. The scavenger hunt had brought her back from her feelings of boredom, loneliness, and despair. She had reconnected with an old friend and made a new one.
Leonard Leonard was assigned to Star Land by Citadel Security. He had been built in Dream Land and assigned to work with Dahlia when she joined CS. The idea was that he would not distract Dahlia during her CS cases. They were wrong. Dahlia’s inability to connect with Leonard made her irritable and unfocused. After Leonard was reassigned, he missed Dahlia, but Star Land proved challenging enough to take his mind off her.
Adam Smith had excelled in school in Play Land and had been rewarded with a career in Healing Sciences. He started to work for Citadel Security as a Death Examiner. He had the chance to examine the remains of Todd Rucker prior to their departure. Whatever had killed Todd had used some kind of blade to separate his body parts. He wasn’t killed by brute force. The means of Todd’s death worried him.
The journey to Storybook Land would take five hours. Lunch on board the CS transport was served hot and in bowls. Each of the three travelers spent their time examining the data they had been given on the incidents in Storybook. And each found no anomalies, no variations, which was strange. It was almost as if the data had been written to a script.
Adam was the first to break the silence. “The wounds on the victims are identical. The slashes are the same length and in the same direction. They are made to the same depth and show no variation with regard to the victims’ musculature or lack thereof.”
“The witnesses’ stories don’t deviate either,” Dahlia added, “almost as if they had been rehearsed. I’ve never seen such consistency before.”
Leonard threw a presentation up on the video in the transport. “This is interesting. I researched the biographics on the witness and the victims and came up with a bizarre connection. Each of the witnesses is also a victim, and none of them are from Storybook.”
Dahlia was up front within seconds of Leonard’s last statement. “Go back to Astro Land. Turn this transport around immediately.”
“Our orders are to investigate the incidents at Storybook.” The pilot droned.
“We’ve been had. There were no incidents at Storybook. Someone wanted the three of us out of Astro Land.” Adam had joined her in the forward compartment.
“Let me through,” Leonard demanded. Both agents obeyed. He took a seat and over-rode the manual controls, essentially relieving the pilot of duty in the process. Fortunately they were only a few hours out, but they were long hours for the party of three.
Half-way back to Astro Land, the transport began to slow. It had gone into conservation mode because the pilot hadn’t bothered to top off the batteries before leaving Astro Land. And the nearest filling station was in the wrong direction. The transport’s solar collectors were not able to provide much power to the vehicle. No one suggested tapping into the reserve battery if they were going to survive the night.
Dahlia asked Leonard to stop and let the batteries charge while she attempted to make a psychic recon. Leonard stopped the transport and had the pilot assist him in setting up a perimeter alert system. The system didn’t immediately engage because the pilot had improperly installed one of the pylons. Leonard insisted that the pilot fix it if he wanted to spend the night inside.
Adam monitored Dahlia’s vitals while lay on a rack. Her mind drifted until she was looking down at the transport. She could see the two men outside setting up the pylons. Off in the horizon she could see the upper spires of Astro Land. She began to float in their direction until she could see the entire city. Once over the city she slowly descended into the heart of the citadel. It didn’t take her long to find her way to the offices of her former colleagues.
CS Senior Agent Drew DeHaven felt a familiar presence in his office. He closed his eyes and focused his mind on the contents of the small room. “Dahlia,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t be here. Leave while you still can.”
“Why?” Dahlia responded. “I don’t understand. Why were we sent away?”
“Because they suspect that you killed Todd Rucker.”
“I had enough trouble getting to sleep when the screaming started. I couldn’t have killed him. Check my caravan logs. It was in lockdown. And my encephalo-recorder was engaged. I was still in alpha.”
“Your caravan recordings were erased. I’m sorry.”
“Since when do you forget procedure? Old habits die hard, my friend, so check again.” Those were her last words to her friend and former training partner before she snapped back to the caravan.
“Of all the people to frame why pick on me?” Dahlia sat up and looked around. “Someone erased the data from my caravan. I expect the backup to go missing sometime in the near future. Fortunately, I’m sure that Leonard has a backup of the backup. It’s what irritated me most about him when we were partners.”
“Why would they frame you?” Adam asked, “Did you make a lot of enemies?”
“I irritated a lot of people, but not enough for any of them to want me dead.” Dahlia walked to the front of the transport. “And I don’t have any kinetic abilities, purely sympathetic. Slicing and dicing would require kinetic control over a sharp object.”
Leonard and the pilot returned to the transport and secured the locks. As soon as it was too dark to see, the grid was engaged. Everyone claimed a rack and settled in for the night. Exhaustion claimed everyone, even Leonard shut down to conserve power. Dahlia lay awake for a while after everyone else had fallen asleep, listening to the hum of the grid and wondering if she would be able to sleep at all.
In the morning, Leonard was the first one to awaken. He prepared breakfast for the others and checked the integrity of the grid and perimeter. The perimeter had recorded an intrusion and the grid had taken a hit. Whatever it was, it lay dead just outside the transport. Adam was the second to awaken and sat down to his coffee and eggs. “Shouldn’t we wake them?” he asked.
“Dahlia will wake soon, and the pilot is almost useless.” Leonard locked the pilot out of the controls and sat down.
Dahlia stumbled out of her rack and shut down the encephalo. She slipped into a seat across from Adam and tapped on the table. Leonard brought her coffee and eggs. After several sips of coffee, she managed a smile. “Good morning, agents. Eggs?” she turned towards Leonard, “Are these real or am I dreaming?”
“Leonard informs me that we have a dead thing outside waiting to be looked at.” Adam said, “Apparently, we need you to keep us from getting killed while we examine the corpse.”
“That’s not it. But if it makes you feel better.” Dahlia finished her coffee after having wolfed down her eggs.
Outside, the trio found the remains of a canine, half-starved and mange ridden. It may have been wild, but it was certainly not a wildling. They logged the incident and transmitted it to CS Central Command along with a copy of the missing data from Dahlia’s caravan.
After waiting until midday for the transport to have enough charge to move at a reasonable pace, the three decided to head toward the nearest fuel station and top off all the batteries. While there, they discussed the situation at Astro Land. Dahlia couldn’t return to the citadel without being arrested and tried despite clear evidence of her innocence. Citadel Security had ordered the transport to Central Command as soon as possible. They had also reinstated Dahlia DeHaven as a Senior Investigative officer with full immunity.
It would take a day or two to reach Central Command. Dahlia wasn’t going anywhere near Astro Land without her credentials and a weapon. Dahlia’s weapon of choice was a Stunner. It could emit a directed blast of air or sound strong enough to topple a brick wall. While at CSCC, Dahlia also intended to trade in the transport for an armored air car. She didn’t have to ask Leonard if he would join her on her quest for justice. But she had no plans to place the Death Examiner at risk.
Adam Smith had other ideas. He wanted another look at the body of Todd Rucker, only this time with some equipment that the locals at Astro Land didn’t have. Adam didn’t like unsolved mysteries.
The pilot pouted through lunch and finally asked to be allowed to drive the transport. Leonard laughed and replied, “Uh, no.”
Realizing that time was running out, the pilot opened a compartment beneath the galley and felt around for a weapon that had been stashed there. The plan was simple – kill everyone and blame DeHaven. Unfortunately, the weapon wasn’t there. “Leonard watched with an air of amusement as confusion, followed by panic, appeared on the pilot’s face. “Looking for this?” Leonard asked while waving the weapon in the air.
The pilot made a mad leap at Leonard hoping to grab the weapon out of his hand. Leonard leveled the weapon and fired at the charging pilot. The pilot dropped to the floor, twitching where it lay. Adam sedated the pilot before helping Leonard load the now still body onto a rack.
Before they could leave the fueling station, they received a message from an air transport that they would be lifted back to CSCC. Leonard demanded a verification code and after being satisfied that they were CS, he allowed the transport to be grappled by the air unit. Everyone was relieved that they had been spared a long journey.
During the airlift back to Central the unconscious pilot was examined. Although an initial scan of the face checked out, genetic markers insisted that the pilot was actually someone else. A closer examination of the face revealed the presence of a prosthetic. A second scan after the prosthetic was removed revealed a face that wasn’t in the system. The DNA of the pilot also wasn’t listed anywhere. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to kill Dahlia. All they had succeeded in doing was bringing her out of retirement. And the pilot wasn’t providing any answers yet.
When the pilot awoke in his cell, he was cold and hungry. Dahlia stood outside of his reach and just stared at him. She expanded her personal space to include him. She could feel his hunger, his festering anger at having been found out. He was a beast in a trap. She didn’t ask any questions because she knew that she was the object of his mission. As expected he focused his thoughts on her. He wanted her to come closer so that he could strangle her. He could stop pretending and just rip out her throat, if only she would move closer. Dahlia smiled at the pilot.
“He isn’t the killer. He honestly believes that I killed Todd.” She turned to leave, then turned back, “I didn’t kill him. I had no reason to. We’ll talk again.” She left him slavering in his cell, stunned by her pronouncements.
When Dahlia returned to the brig, she found the pilot fully stripped of his prosthetics. He had done this on his own as a show of good will. “What do you call yourself?” she asked. He stood silent in his cell staring at her companions. “They aren’t here to hurt you.”
“My name is Adam. I’m a healer and a death examiner. I’d much prefer to examine you alive. You won’t be harmed by me.” Adam proceeded to explain the bits of medical equipment that he had brought with him. The prisoner was most attentive to Adam’s presentation.
“Leonard is an Artificial. He’s here to take notes and occasionally to ask questions.” Dahlia moved slowly toward the cell door and keyed the lock. She opened the door to let him out.
Before stepping out, he answered her question, “My name is Connor. Todd would bring my people things we needed.”
“Well, Connor, we will talk about that later. Right now, I need to know where you got the idea that I killed Todd.”
“You were there when he died.”
“So was his Artificial. Crystal has Todd uploaded to her secondary cortex.” Dahlia watched his reaction carefully before continuing her interrogation. “I know what you are, Rougarou. I grew up in Astro Land. I used to play with a few of your kind on nights when I couldn’t sleep.”
“Rougarou?” Adam asked arching an eyebrow.
“It’s an old fashioned word referring to a man that turns into a wolf. Connor’s people only come to the surface of the citadel during the night and hunt like wolves for unguarded vehicles to pillage. I left my room door unlocked and had a case of food for a Rougarou to find every night we were there.”
“That was you?” Connor asked. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that you were her.”
“Who do you think she is now?” Adam asked.
Connor replied, “Our fairy godmother.”
Dahlia laughed. “Now that you are on our side, how about we move the bio-med exam back to the infirmary?” Connor nodded assent and the four moved out of the brig.
By the end of the day, the three Security officers were back in uniform, Connor had been cleared, and an air transport had been readied for the foursome. Dahlia had a lot of questions that needed answering. Who killed Todd? Why was she framed for his death? And why did someone send a Rougarou to take her out?
The Rougarou weren’t a problem as long as there were people willing to share resources with them. They might even be relocated above ground. It wouldn’t be the first time that Citadel Security relocated a group. She could understand the Rougarou not wanting to remain among a population full of Psi-born. But the citadel would be foolish to be rid of them as the Rougarou maintained a great deal of infrastructure as payment for what they took. They weren’t monsters, just displaced people.
But somewhere out there in the wild, there were monsters. And someone in the citadel was taking advantage of a wildling kill to create a whole lot of trouble for Dahlia. They would soon regret that choice.
It took the air transport less than an hour to make the trip from Central Command to Astro Land. The Citadel Security office had been notified of their arrival. Drew was there to greet them, well aware that all warrants for Dahlia’s arrest had been overridden. He showed some concern for the presence of the Rougarou, but dismissed those as a courtesy to Dahlia.
Connor helped Adam offload his specialized scanners and medical equipment. Adam was determined to give the body a re-examination before it was released. Crystal had been there every day, filling out the release paperwork, only to have it denied. Connor followed Adam to the morgue.
Dahlia and Leonard wanted to get a close look at her caravan. Drew had driven the caravan to the CS car-park to protect it from further damage. He took precautions against contaminating or destroying any evidence that another might have left behind.
Back in the days when Dahlia and Leonard had been partners, Leonard had helped Dahlia install redundant systems in her caravan. Along with the primary drive, there was a hidden backup for every system. Although the primary drive showed erasures, the backup was intact. Dahlia also noted that the secondary drive served as an auto-log of her activities. And the security system that fed directly into the backup had a record of the intruder who erased the files on the primary drive. “Some days it pays to be paranoid.” Leonard made a copy of the security files.
“Unbelievable,” Dahlia leaned forward placing her elbows on the table. “I can’t believe that you would throw me under the caravan like that!”
“The ruse to get you out of the citadel was to protect you,” Drew leaned forward, placing his hands on hers. “I knew that once you had figured it out that you would contact me. I didn’t erase your logs. They were gone when I checked your caravan.”
“I know, Drew,” Dahlia pulled back slightly, “I just can’t get over who did erase them.”
“We have the Artificial in custody,” Drew replied, changing the subject.
Adam and Connor joined the two at the conference table. “Was Todd handling any radioactive material?” Adam asked Dahlia.
“Yes,” she replied, “he was pulling radioactive canisters from various pieces of medical equipment.”
“That explains the radioactivity on his remains. What it doesn’t explain is the lack of radioactivity on his Artificial.” Adam showed the readings taken from his chest and arms. “His level of exposure was deadly.”
“We didn’t find any canisters at the scene.” Drew looked over the reports on his video. “We didn’t check his caravan.”
“I think we need to interrogate his Artificial, Crystal, to see …”
“No need,” Leonard interrupted, “I have everything on my video.” He threw several images up on the screens in the room. “Here’s our victim stacking the canisters up prior to loading on his caravan. And here’s whatever killed him.”
The image slowly played out on the screen. Todd was seen stacking two canisters near his cargo hatch. Something metallic suddenly appeared behind him. A loud whirring noise and several whip-like appendages originated from the unknown object before the windows were obscured by Todd’s blood. This was followed by the sound of objects being dragged for roughly five minutes and then silence.
Whatever that was, it needed to be investigated. As angry as Dahlia was about being maneuvered out of retirement, she knew that finding that thing before it killed again was priority one. She could scold her friends later. The five of them spent the rest of the day planning.
Two forensic transports arrived at the hospital around mid-day. Dahlia and Leonard brought Crystal with them while Adam and Connor traveled with Drew. The transports stopped near the Medical Office Center. Dahlia and Leonard set up imaging pylons along the perimeter of the crime scene.
Drew loaded the scanner data from the recovery unit that had collected the remains. Todd Rucker’s body parts appeared in holographic form where they had been found. Information supplied from Crystal and Rucker’s caravan logs placed his caravan where it had been parked. Adjustments were made based on input by Dahlia from her hospital view point.
Before long every known data point was entered and a rough estimate of what happened unfolded in front of them. The holo-computer slowly resolved the gaps between images and a clearer holographic video drama played out on a loop. The holo-computer could not resolve the image of the metal machine. It created something that was a mix of metallic octopus and cargo container.
The holo-movie left them with more questions than answers. Whatever it was seemed unaware of Todd’s presence at the scene. Had he been anywhere else but between it and the radioactive materials, he might still be alive – well, dying slowly from exposure to radiation, but alive nonetheless. Crystal had been unable to react due to the psychic download occurring at the time. There had to be a way to gather more data.
The secondary drive where Todd’s mirror resided had been disconnected to allow Crystal to remain functional. Leonard rigged a direct connection to Leonard to get better auditory and positional data. This allowed the holo-computer to fill in more of the hazy areas of the images, but the object itself was still undefined.
“Maybe we could get it to show up again,” the disembodied voice of Todd Rucker spoke through the holo-computer interface. The holo-image shifted slightly as Todd made adjustments and the computer followed in kind making adjustments to the after image. The objects location shifted slightly as seemingly unimportant details surfaces. The object’s reflection in the caravan’s glass and mirrors provided more detail.
Holo-cameras were placed on top of the office building and the Oncology Center. A third camera was placed at ground level in the plaza facing the crime scene. The plan was simple enough. The two Artificials were to bring out as many plutonium canisters as it took to entice the object to reappear. Its image was removed from the holo-projection and everyone else moved to a safe distance.
The holo-images of each canister were displaced by the actual canisters. Leonard and Crystal exercised care as the second set of four were brought out and set into place. They moved quickly away from the stack of eight. A sudden flicker of light where the holo-image of the caravan stood triggered the computer to drop the simulation. The forensic transport’s cameras captured the intruder as it extended its tendrils and dragged the canisters into its maw.
While the mysterious visitor was busy gathering the canisters, Leonard and Dahlia were busy attempting to communicate with it. Leonard’s attempt to hack the machine failed because the device didn’t have a recognizable operating system. It was definitely non-terrestrial. Dahlia was experiencing problems breaking past its EM shielding, but did manage to grab some images. The pilot was focused purely on the task, but she managed to divert its attention long enough for it to notice that it was being watched. It lingered briefly before popping out of sight.
Adam and Connor had been operating several scanning devices that attempted to penetrate the shell of the object. They had managed to capture some low resolution images of the machine and its pilot. The being inside resembled an octopus and controlled each of the ship’s tentacles with its own. Very little of its internal physiology was discernable from the scans.
Describing what she had seen proved challenging for Dahlia. The images were bizarre by human standards. Drew would have to help her sort out them out and make sense of them. The fact that she had made contact at all was remarkable.
They needed time to understand what they had, so they packed up and left for Central Command. The transports were safely in the air by nightfall. Adam, Crystal, and Leonard worked with the computers to process the data from the holo-cams and scanners. While Drew and Dahlia worked to interpret the images and thoughts of the intruder, Connor kept the two transports on course. By the time they arrived at CC, they hoped to have some coherent description of what Dahlia felt and saw during her brief contact with the alien pilot.
The transports docked at the Science Division port. Crew and passengers were assigned quarters and given time to eat, sleep, and otherwise prepare for debriefing. The Artificials would be debriefed first as they required the least amount of time to recharge. Leonard downloaded his data related to the encounter and then transferred all the data files from the transport computers. He had been debriefed often enough that he knew the procedure. An entire mainframe had been devoted to this investigation along with a holo-theatre and several forensic experts.
Leonard assisted Crystal with her data download, which included a formal request to the deceased to permit his processor to be relocated for forensic purposes. Todd Rucker 2.0 was delighted at the prospect at helping solve the mystery of his death and agreed to the procedure. Todd had a lot of questions to answer.
“Why did you decide to enter the contest?”
“Because I was dying,” Todd replied. “That’s why I was making a backup.”
“Why did you choose to handle radioactive materials?”
“They were to be payment for a blank Artificial,” Todd stated. “I was planning on outliving my death.”
“How did you expect to win the contest?”
“The people who wanted the radioactive materials were willing to fill my hold with high value items. It was part of the deal.”
“Did they request the radioactive material specifically?”
“Yes, they told me where the materials were, but said that they couldn’t get to them without raising suspicions.”
“Were you aware that radioactive materials would not be allowed into Astro Land?”
“They said that it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Where specifically were you supposed to make your trade?”
Todd supplied GPS coordinates of the meeting site. The satellite network was immediately queried for twenty-four hours of surveillance data surrounding Todd’s time of death.
The rest of the crew was debriefed as they woke up. Connor detailed the relationship that his people had with Todd. This was immediately confirmed by Todd. When asked about his attempt to kill Dahlia DeHaven, he replied, “I overheard a conversation about Dahlia having been there when Connor was killed. I figured that if she didn’t protect him, that she must have killed him. I was angry about that. It turns out that I was wrong.”
Adam Smith was the next to debrief. He testified that the wounds were consistent with the tentacles that the alien machine used to gather the radioactive materials canisters. “Had he been standing anywhere else, he might have survived, but it severed his head while it grabbed the upper canisters.”
“What did the scans of the alien reveal?”
“That it was shaped like an octopus and possibly aquatic,” Adam replied.
“Were you able to determine what kind of atmosphere the vessel contained?”
“The scans were inconclusive.”
“It was fluid, some kind of liquid,” Dahlia interrupted. “I could see ripples in it caused by the sonar hitting floating debris. The creature winced with each ping.”
“Wait your turn, Agent DeHaven. We haven’t completed debriefing Examiner Smith.”
Dahlia sat down and waited while they asked Adam more questions about Todd. Adam confirmed the presence of radiation poisoning, but said that he found no other ailments. Todd wasn’t dying until after he had handled those canisters unshielded. “Huh,” Todd responded, “son of a tick lied to me.”
Drew laughed. It was his turn next, despite Dahlia having arrived before him. His interrogation was short, because his involvement was limited to offering technical assistance. Unlike his sister he was a Normal through and through. Psi-born were debriefed differently.
Dahlia was still struggling for words when she sat in the chair. She was relieved to be fitted with the device that would transmit her memories to a video. It was easier to show what she saw through the alien’s eyes. The image slowly resolved of a red-skinned tentacle creature controlling external tentacles to wrangle objects into custody. The ripples in the atmosphere inside the ship were clearly visible. The pings from the sonar scanner rang loudly in the capsule. The moment he turned his attention toward the others froze briefly on the video while Dahlia attempted to resolve the memory, but it remained hazy. And then it was gone. The contact was broken. The scene returned to Dahlia’s view of the empty lot.
There were no other questions for Dahlia. Everything of interest to Citadel Security had already been entered into the record. The group was dismissed except for Crystal and Todd. The rest walked slowly down the corridor to the living quarters. Connor broke the silence first. “What happens next?”
“I go back to my desk job,” Drew replied. “My transport leaves in an hour. If you want a ride home, Connor, you should pack your belongings.”
“We’ll see about that,” Dahlia replied. “But pack anyway, little brother.”