Monday, November 13, 2017

Treasure Island, Part I                         

Pain.  I’m in pain.  I’m in a lot of pain.  What in the Nine Hells has happened?

Paul Fletcher opened his eyes, wincing from the reflected sunlight of the solar collectors on the nearby arcologies.  He tried raising his left arm to shield his bloodshot eyes from the glare and cried out in surprise as searing agony assailed his left forearm.

There was an ugly, ragged hole there, a few centimeters above the wrist, passing from inside to outside.  His left forehead felt awful, too.  He gently reached up to touch it, finding a goose egg there above his left eye.  His fingertips came away with caked, dried blood.

He was drinking and gambling with some of his old buddies from Imperial Interstellar Scout Service.  He remembered the stakes were high, but nobody was betting more than they could afford.  Scouts get paid pretty well, since it is very dangerous work, and they’re away from their credit accounts for several cycles at a time, so money always flows pretty freely when a Scout takes some liberty.  The booze was top notch, too, bordering on exotic, but with so many worlds, it was impossible to keep up with all of the brands and types unless one sampled them personally…

It was at that point, Paul noticed the body next to him.  Paul painfully checked him for a pulse and felt that the body not only had no pulse, but had cooled to more or less ambient temperature.  The body was that of a man pushing fifty and one that had seen hard use.  The man had a painfully lean frame with hard, knotted muscle over it.  Somebody had gone through the man’s pockets, had cut the seams of his jacket and had slashed the man’s belt to ribbons.

Paul checked his own pockets.  His wallet and the wad of Imperial currency from his winnings were still there.  He tried to knit his brow, regretting it instantly.  He managed to fumble out his comlink and called the emergency number.

*   *   *   *   *

“Your Excellency?”

Marquis Toyama Weston waived his personal valet into his office without looking up from the screen of his desktop display.  “Come in, Phillip,” he said.

The valet entered and waited quietly in front of the noble’s richly appointed desk.  Weston finally looked up and saw the man’s expression of concern.  “What is it, Phillip?”

“Mister Fletcher has been shot, your excellency,” he said.

“What?” The Marquis’ head snapped up.  Phillip had his complete attention, now.

“He’s in the arcology trauma center,” Phillip continued.  “He was found alongside someone else, a transient, apparently, who had been murdered.”

Weston felt his features pale.  “What is Paul’s condition?”

“Stable at last report," replied Phillip.  “It was a single firearm wound to his left forearm.  The doctors said it isn’t life threatening.  They also commented that someone had done a field cauterization to it.”

Weston felt his brow knit.  “Unusual,” he commented aloud, “that attackers have consciences these days.”

“I concur, your excellency” said Phillip.  “The captain of the watch says that he had to call the Autonomy’s Law Enforcement Bureau, since this is a homicide case.”

“As he should,” replied Weston as he stood and walked around the desk.  “Please route any important calls to my personal comlink.  I’m headed to the trauma center.  Also, contact Sir Yael, fill him in on the situation and request that he meet me there.”

*   *   *   *   *

“You were drinking, what?” asked Sir Yael Smethwyk.

Paul was reclining on a treatment bed, dressed in short-sleeved earth-toned medical scrubs as the trauma doctor worked on patching up his forearm.  An elastic bandana was holding a cold pack to his forehead, just above his left eye.

“Sonophim Robosi,” said Marquis Weston.  “Translates to ‘delirium spirit’ from the Old Anglic.  It has a compound in it that interferes with the neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain.  It’s also contraband in much of Imperial space – although it is legal here, regrettably.”

“Which means,” said Sir Yael, “you really don't remember what happened.  So what is the last thing you do remember before waking up in the alley?”

“Leaving the hotel room where my friends and I were having our gambling party,” replied Paul, pointedly avoiding looking at the ongoing medical work to his forearm.  “It is a tradition in the Scouts to step outside and get some air before heading to bed for the evening, if possible.  So that must be what I was doing outside the arcology when this happened.”  He gestured to his injuries with the last.

“And you have no idea who the dead man was beside you?” asked the knight.

“No,” said Paul, shaking his head slowly.  “Never saw him before his untimely demise.”

Sir Yael’s comlink warbled.  “Excuse me while I take this,” he said, stepping away.

The doctor working on Paul forearm applied the final patches of artificial skin to the wound.  “Done,” he said.  He drew a small elastic sleeve up over his handiwork.  “Leave that on it for now, just to help the artificial skin and flesh set.  We’ll check it and your head again tomorrow, but take it easy today.  You have any problems with balance, vision or anything worse than the headache you have now, call for a trauma team immediately.”  The doctor bowed to Weston and then excused himself.

Sir Yael stepped back over.  “That was forensics, your excellency,” he explained.  “The deceased is Oscar Tomlinson of Kiewa, a couple of parsecs from here.”

“The planet that had the plague a while back?” asked Paul.

Sir Yael nodded.  “Ebonscale – it affected over a third of the population there in 1077.  His Grace, Duke Darius led the Imperium’s relief efforts there back when he was in the Imperial Navy.  Oscar was identified by a detention microtab implanted in his right earlobe – something they only do for felons.”

“Do we know what his crimes were?” asked Marquis Weston.

“Funny thing, that,” said Sir Yael.  “He’s supposed to be serving a life term on Kiewa for embezzling over 40 million credits from the Ebonscale Victims Relief Fund back in the day.  He got the harsh sentence because he refused to tell the authorities where the money went.  The reason he’s not there now is that he turned state’s evidence against members of the criminal syndicate that helped him steal the money.  Traded his life sentence for permanent exile, got a false identity, a low passage and a thousand credits to send him on his way.”

“No doubt the authorities there hoped he would head straight for the money,” said the Marquis sourly.  “They probably were tailing him from the moment he boarded the starship that brought him here.  Sir Yael, is there any chance the arcology’s security monitors tracked Paul’s movements after he left the hotel room?”

“Quite possibly,” replied the knight.  “I’ll coordinate with your security people and see what we can find in the data files from this morning.”  He bowed to the Marquis, nodded to Paul and then strode from the room.

“You’re with me,” the Marquis said to Paul.  “Since I am a doctor, I can monitor your health as we go.”

“As well as keep me out of trouble?” Paul replied with a grin.

“To give you my protection,” Weston corrected.  “Someone has attacked the captain of my yacht on MY fief.  I will have him or her answer for that, have no doubt.  But until that person is found and detained, you could potentially be in danger as a witness to the murder of the man I presume you tried to protect.”

“Captain of your yacht?” Paul echoed.

Weston allowed himself to smile.  “Anyone who has earned the praise of His Grace, Duke Darius, certainly seems qualified for that, don’t you think?”

*   *   *   *   *

“And that’s as far as we can track him, Sir,” said the technician.

Sir Yael frowned at the bank of monitors.  “I’m surprised you don’t have any surveillance coverage of that alley.  It is still within the borders of His Excellency’s fief.  It would greatly expedite matters right now.”

“We will have coverage of that area by the end of the day, sir,” replied the technician, “but it is like closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.  I’m still querying the rest of the surrounding building security firms to see if anyone else can see into that area.  It’s not the best solution, but…”

“I understand,” replied the knight.  “Something bothers me, though.  Notice that pedestrian and vehicular traffic is… well, sparse?  I mean for this part of the planet?”

The technician nodded as he accessed his desk workstation computer.  “Yes.  According to the LEB, there was an incident on the nearby maglev line about twenty minutes before Mr. Fletcher stepped outside.  It interrupted the normal traffic flow and drew gawkers, as such incidents always do.”

“I have a hunch that they’re connected,” said Sir Yael.  “See if you can access the Authority’s surveillance network and tell me if you find our murder victim anywhere around there.  I’m going to look over the crime scene.”

The LEB was still scanning the crime scene when Sir Yael arrived.  After he was credentialed by the Marquis’ security force, he crossed the enforcement line and looked around.   Initial forensic evidence indicated that both Fletcher and Tomlinson had been shot at short range with a snub pistol firing target rounds, which explained why Paul wasn’t dead – no explosive warhead combined with a relatively low muzzle velocity.

“Like getting shot with a black powder pistol with a light load,” he commented aloud as he studied the detective’s clipboard computer screen.  The round that hit Paul would have lost a lot of that low velocity going through his forearm, so it had too little energy to penetrate the skull and had caromed off instead.

Tomlinson hadn’t been so lucky.  Both rounds from the same weapon that wounded Paul managed to punch their way into his lungs by going through the gaps between his ribs.  If he’d been left alone, he would have smothered in his own blood.  But somebody with a large caliber firearm hadn’t been willing to wait that long, administering a coup de gras shot through the man’s sternum, tearing a large hole through two chambers of his heart.  Even if he’d received immediate trauma center help, he probably wouldn’t have survived.  Time of death was approximately two minutes after Paul had turned down the alley.

Time enough to maybe ask Tomlinson a few questions before blowing him away.  Also time enough to apply an emergency cauterization kit to Fletcher’s arm.  Time enough to search Tomlinson’s pockets, slice up his belt and tear apart his coat.   But after all that, not finding what they were looking for, they killed Tomlinson and let Fletcher live and possibly identify his assailants?  And why in the heart instead of the head, like they did Fletcher?

Vengeance didn’t seem to be the primary motivator here, but it was still there.  They wanted something they were sure Tomlinson had – the location of the embezzled money, of course.  By the time they got around to asking their victim, though, he was incapable (or stubbornly unwilling) of telling them.  So they killed him in such a way that the face was intact.  So his death mask would be there – so that people would know beyond a doubt he was dead or had been murdered.

“They couldn’t find the treasure map,” he said aloud, “but maybe they are hoping we will.”  He turned to the detective.  “On my authority, take the victim to the trauma care center in the arcology.  I think Marquis Weston will back me on this.  We’re going to do a full microscan scan of him during the autopsy.”

*   *   *   *   *

“And there it is,” said the Marquis as he made fine adjustments to the microscanner.  The screen showed an anomaly under the cap over Tomlinson’s lower right molar.  “Too small for a memchip, though,” he added.

“Microfiche,” said Sir Yale.  “I’d recommend extracting the whole tooth first and then taking it apart with a Waldo rig.”

The Marquis keyed open his comlink.  “Phillip, send the staff dentist down to the trauma center.  Our homicide victim needs one of his teeth pulled.”

A half-hour later, the tooth was out and in pieces under a the microscanner again.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a map on the microscopic dot of microfiche – just words.

“In the home of the Caterpillar, at the root of Infinity, find the [ALT]ernative and descend.  Baptize yourself in the hookah until the lights are all around you.  Two by two, lights of blue and up.  Another [ALT]ernative goes sinister but does not go astray.  Fifteen skulls, fifteen empty heads, but the last was no fool.”

“Home of the Caterpillar?” said Sir Yael.  “A cocoon?”

“No,” said Paul as he studied the words.  “Alice in Wonderland had a caterpillar smoking a hooka.  Alice found him sitting on a mushroom.”

“Mushroom!” exclaimed Sir Yael suddenly.  “There’s a structure on Olt that resembles a mushroom.”  He glanced at the Marquis’ quizzical look.  “It’s been there as long as the planet’s been inhabited.  It’s an alien construct over four hundred meters high and nearly a kilometer across.  It’s like a maze inside.  And, Olt is just one parsec away from Kiewa.”

The Marquis looked thoughtful.  “We’ll need to make some preparations before we head that way,” he said, “and our yacht captain needs some rest and an evaluation tomorrow before he can fly us there.  Sir Yael, I’ll link in when we’re ready to start preflight.”

*   *   *   *   *

A week later, the group was breathing in the salty air of Olt as the Marquis plied the Travellers’ Aid Society concierge for information about the Mushroom while the rest went to the Grand Bazaar to shop for equipment and supplies for the expedition.  After leaving two of the Marquis' house guards - Jack and Benny - to watch over the ship, the group (including Phillip) flew over to the daunting structure in the G-carrier and a trio of grav bikes the Marquis borrowed from the IISS base on Narmada.

The Mushroom was about a kilometer off-shore of a black sand beach called the Ebonstrand.  The surface appeared to be brushed aluminum, but was actually a rigid, tightly woven mesh of a strange alloy of iron, titanium and molybdenum.  Access to the interior was gained from an opening nearly a hundred meters above the surface of the sea, just below the underside of the Mushroom’s “cap.”  Fortunately, it was large enough for Paul, Weston and Yael to carefully squeeze their bikes through.

The entry room had a high parabolic ceiling and was called the Cathedral Chamber by the local explorers whose hobby it was to map the place.  They walked through the only passage out of the chamber which led to a spiral ramp that led down to a nearly spherical room called the Chamber of Infinity, due to the sideways figure-eight pattern on the floor.

The walls of this chamber fairly crawled with the odd semi-pictograms that passed for language.  “They’re all etched into the surface of the walls,” commented Sir Yael, “and yet my knife won’t even scratch the surface!”  Some of the characters resembled Anglic characters and soon Paul had found the letters A-L-T over the lip of a four-meter diameter vertical shaft set into the wall of the chamber.  None of the other five shafts leading downward from the chamber had similar markings.

Fortunately, the shaft descended in runs of eighteen meters, each run separated by a circular four-meter diameter platform before the shaft would start down again.  On the first landing, they found the shattered remains of a cold light lantern that was (according to writing on its base) the property of Jordy Wicks of Oban.  The final ten meters of the progression entered the water at the base of the structure and took off at a right angle.  The group would need a wetsuits and artificial gills to continue, so the Marquis called off the exploration for the rest of the day and the group climbed back up and out, tired but excited by their efforts.

Little did they know that other, unfriendly eyes were watching them from the shore, coolly watching their activities and waiting, patiently, for the correct time to strike…

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