Elam arrives at his new assignment
approximately 1800 words
"Murder on Cabot's Landing"
The shuttle shuddered and Elam's seatbelt bit into his shoulder. He tugged at the strap and fidgeted in his cramped, faux-leather seat. The Praetorian Syndicate's auditor, Malcom Bender, sprawled in the adjacent seat, having settled there despite the fact that all of the other thirty-eight seats were empty. Elam resisted the urge to squirm away from his companion and instead pasted what he hoped was a friendly smile on his lips. The poor guy seemed lonely during the fifty-light-year trip from Elsinore and there was no reason to take Elam's past out on Bender.
After all, Elam's past was Elam's fault, not Bender's or anyone else's.
Before long, he'd be alone on this chaos-forsaken, hole of a planet. It couldn't happen soon enough. Hermit-like solitude was exactly what he sought. What he deserved, too.
Bender smirked and squeezed Elam's knee. "Don't worry, Mr. Vandreren. It's just the upper atmosphere buffeting the landing craft. The area around Cabot's Cove has a mild climate. Subtropical. Just like your briefing promised."
Elam stared at the man's hand touching his knee. Bender was probably just trying to comfort him. He patted the offending hand. "I'll be fine, thank you." He twisted his knee away. Bender took the hint and withdrew his hand.
"Sorry. I was just trying to be reassuring."
Elam read the micro-expressions that flashed on the other man's features. Bender wasn't sorry. He was pissed. Not for the first time, Elam regretted the training that let him read expressions most couldn't even see. Not that the training wasn't useful in his prior life, but too much knowledge often proved hurtful. Like now.
Bender probably thought Elam was a jerk. He'd be right, too. Time to change the subject. "How long will the transfer take?" He kept his tone business-like. Officious. "Isn't there an audit or something?"
"My team up on the Zuiderkruis has already processed the data we uploaded from the Cabot Cove AI. All that's left is the formal transfer from the current Resident to you. We can do that over lunch. It's my understanding Mr. Torrance and his spouse are eager to get back to civilization."
His spouse. Right. That meant Elam would have to find a way to tolerate two more people, not just one. "Over lunch, eh? Can't we just skip that?"
Bender frowned. "Really, Mr. Vandreren? Aren't you interested in the Torrances' experiences? He and his spouse have been here for nearly six years, after all. I've seen your briefing. It's not like it was...comprehensive."
Elam adjusted his seatbelt again and avoided looking at Bender. "It told me what I needed to know. I'll have this place to myself for the next ten years, right?"
Bender nodded. "Mostly right. But you won't be totally alone. There's the AI, of course, and the occasional ship that uses the port facilities. Plus, there will be the official quarterly inspections by the Margrave's representatives, to make sure you're still alive and in residence. That's the whole point, of course: to maintain the Syndicate's title to the system. Any break in human residency, and ownership of the planet reverts to the Imperium."
"Yeah, yeah. I got all that." Elam could live with being around other people once every three months or so. Barely. He stretched his legs and tried to ignore his inner ears as the shuttle swerved while it made its approach.
The craft jittered and a thump reverberated through the compartment. Bender smiled. "Ah, that will be the landing gear deploying. I do hope the Torrances meet us at the spaceport."
The shuttle bumped to a landing and taxied toward the terminal. Elam unfastened his seatbelt and tried to relax. After what felt like hours, but that he knew were just a few short minutes, the shuttle ground to a stop. More clunking noises announced the stairway deploying, and then his ears popped as the shuttle doors opened.
He stood, stretched, and escaped to the outdoors.
He took a deep breath and wrinkled his nose at the stink. Kind of sick-sweet, not quite like vomit, but almost. He supposed that would be the genetically engineered wheat, triticum cabitorum, he'd read about. In the five hundred years since the Great Disintegration, it had time to spread over large areas of Cabot's Landing, apparently including the spaceport at Cabot's Cove.
The gas giant Kenebec hovered on the horizon, in half phase but still filling an eighth of the too-white sky. A warm breeze fluttered through his hair. The 0.87G gravity left him invigorated after the plus-G of the ghostship Zuiderkruis, but he knew better than to be fooled. It was just a planet, no longer of much economic value, with a single island chain in an otherwise world-encompassing ocean. True, he'd have to share the place with the native bandersnatchi, but if he stayed away from the deep sea, he'd be fine. They were mindless carnivores, in any case.
Bender followed him and--of course--stood too close while he surveyed their surroundings. The runway stretched off in the distance, low mountains rimmed the valley, and a single-story concrete structure stood about fifty meters away. An open air, driverless vehicle puttered toward them and stopped a short distance away.
Bender sighed. "I guess they decided to just send transport instead of meeting us in person." He hesitated, and then snapped in a commanding tone, "Cornwall."
A hologram flickered into existence, and Elam rolled his eyes. Just what he needed. Someone had programmed the AI to not only look like a person, but to look like a friggin' nineteenth century butler. Give him ten minutes alone at the control console, and he'd fix that.
The butler--Cornwall--bowed and spoke with a prim, Oxford accent. "How may I serve you, sir?"
Bender answered, "Please let Mr. and Mrs. Torrance know we've arrived."
"Sir, Mrs. Torrance is presently in Lansbury. She's not answering her phone."
"What the devil is she doing there? Never mind. Just notify Mr. Torrance, then."
"Sir, I last saw him entering the lobby of the lodge. My connection to the lobby has been manually disabled, so I am presently unable to comply with your request."
"Disabled, you say? A malfunction?"
"No, sir. Mr. Torrance manually switched it off."
"Why would he do that?"
"That information isn't available to me, sir."
Bender shook his head and glanced at Elam. "Damned, literal-minded AI. No bloody curiosity. But why switch off the connection? What if he needed Cornwall to do something?"
Elam shrugged. "Maybe he turned it off so he could have privacy." For damned sure, that's what Elam planned to do with the intrusive thing.
"Makes no sense. And why did Mrs. Torrance go gallivanting off to Lansbury? There's nothing there but the ruins of an old, pre-Disintegration settlement. It's almost seven hundred kilometers north of here. Even if the monorail is running, it's an eight-hour trip one way."
"If the village is in ruins, why repair the monorail?" Elam regretted asking as soon as the words left his mouth.
"Got me. When the Syndicate re-discovered the planet seventy-odd years ago, they rebooted as much of the old technology as they could. Part of restarting the dysprosium mines. Now that the mines are closed and the place is abandoned again, I guess stuff is just running on inertia. Or something. Mau knows, we still don't know how most of the old tech really works."
Elam avoided snorting at the reference to a divinity. He understood the ancient technology well enough without appealing to superstition. Most of it, anyway. He even understood the ghost condensate drives that powered ships like the Zuiderkruis. That knowledge was one reason he wanted to hide on this planet. Not the only one, but surely a sufficient one.
Bender scowled at the AI, then turned back to Elam. "We may as well take the transport to the lodge. It's a couple of clicks away. I'm damned well going to give Torrance a piece of my mind for this. I don't like disorder. No sir, I don't like it all."
Elam's lips twitched. The universe preferred Chaos. So did he. He climbed into the tram and settled in for the ride.
Bender couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut. "The smell is from the wheat, you know. The ancients engineered it specifically for the local conditions. The food processors use it to synthesize flavored proteins. They're amazingly good, actually. I used to rotate through here as an auditor, and shared meals with Mr. and Mrs. Torrance. Prime rib. Salmon. Lamb. Even shrimp. And bread, of course." He swept an arm at the golden waves of grain waving along the roadside, under the glow of Kenebec. "They were geniuses, back in the old days."
Elam quirked an eyebrow at his know-it-all companion. "They weren't smart enough to avoid the Great Disintegration. Besides, if the ancients were geniuses, why didn't they make the damned wheat smell better?"
Bender's features turned red. "Well, there is that. I'm told one gets used to it."
"No doubt." He hoped Bender would shut up for a while.
No such luck. The man perked up and pointed. "Look, there's the lodge." A three-story structure of gray concrete and crystalline glass emerged as they crested a hilltop. In the distance, sunlight glinted off the waters of Cabot's Cove and the Central Sea.
"Looks like yet another revival of twentieth century modernism. The ancients could build anything, and they chose that loathsome style. Chaos knows what they were thinking."
"It's true, the old Cabot Trust didn't spend anything on ornamentation. They were pretty utilitarian back then. But the facilities themselves are first rate. They survived undamaged for nearly five centuries after they abandoned this place. Even the tech rebooted without a flaw. They built to last, rather than to be pretty."
Elam didn't correct him. He knew that the definition of working tech was one in which the bugs hadn't yet been found.
The little tram buzzed to a stop under a concrete canopy that protected the two-story, glassed-in lobby of the lodge. Yellow plastic replaced one section of the glass, just to the left of the double doors. Elam pointed. "What happened there? Storm damage?"
"Actually, yes. The mountains on the west coast of Bountiful stop most storms from getting this far, but the audit data showed one got through three years ago. The Syndicate sent in a repair team."
"Hopefully, that won't be necessary during my term."
"You never know. A lot can happen in ten years. Some people can't take the solitude. Even with two of them here, the Torrances forfeited their bonus in order to leave before their term was up." He beamed at Elam. "I’m sure that won't happen with you. Shall we go in?"
Without speaking, Elam rose and strode through the entrance.
The foul smell of the wheat vanished, but the odor inside was worse.
A body lay crumpled at the base of the yellow plastic repair, visible only from the inside. Dark blood pooled underneath. The air conditioning wafted the coppery scent of death, mingled with the odor of feces and urine, toward Elam.
Bender shrieked, "In Mau's name, what's happened here?"
Elam knelt by the body and felt for a pulse. None. The flesh was still warm to the touch. "Is this Mr. Torrance?"
Bender held a handkerchief to his nose and edged forward. "Yes. Dear heaven, is he dead?"
"Yes. I'd say not more than an hour or so."
"This is horrible! What happened? Did he fall?"
Elam snorted. "What, on a banana? There's nothing to trip on, nowhere to fall from. Look at his skull. It's all bashed in. Someone killed him."
Bender's voice shook. "You mean...he's been murdered?"
"That's what I said. His wife must have done it. They were the only people on the planet, right?"
"That's not possible. They loved one another. I had dinner with them."
"Then why has she run off to--what was it? Lancaster?"
"Lansbury. I still don't believe it."
Elam sighed. "Call the ship. We'll need the Captain to organize an investigation. Whatever happened here, Mr. Torrance deserves justice." His fingers touched his shirt, just below the hollow of his neck. He caressed the pendant that hid there, a constant reminder of the fragility of justice, of love, and of life.
He stood and chewed his lower lip. An investigation meant people swarming over the planet. His planet. His refuge.
He'd have to be sure they didn't wind up investigating him.