A NEW DIRECTION
Alex screamed as the robot twisted her leg back to its natural state. The bones cracked and splintered as he did it.
“I thought it wasn’t supposed to hurt,” Alex said, her voice high and unnatural.
“The injection numbed your nervous system, however, some pain is inevitable,” Henry said.
“Okay.” Alex poked the robot under his eyes, in the place where the nose would be on a human, and then giggled uncontrollably.
“What the hell’s wrong with her? She hurt her head in the crash?” Dick asked.
“Her head is fine,” Henry stated. “The medication has dulled her mind as well as her body, but the effects will pass shortly.”
Henry pulled an electronic brace from the med kit and slipped the woman’s leg into it. The device conformed to her, slipping wires into the bone.
“Maybe this would be the best time to interview her,” Dick said.
“Nicrahelm is known to induce increased levels of honesty in humans. I believe you would be most wise to begin your interrogation before the effects fade.”
Dick nodded. He bent down to his knees in front of the woman. “Ms. Flinton.”
“Mrs.,” she said, smiling.
“Sorry. Mrs. Flinton. I don’t know if you know what we just escaped…it was a terrorist attack. Station 1, it’s been destroyed.”
“Serves the greedy bastards right.”
“Were you in anyway connected to the attack?”
Alex’s smile faded. “What? No! I told you, the only thing I helped out with was planning to destroy the hover bikes on Kiev. Only she didn’t destroy them…”
“Do you think your wife is behind the attack on Station 1?”
“I…I don’t know. I never wanted this to go this far. I just wanted to hurt their accounts, not put people’s lives at risk.” She sat up, her enlarged pupils alert. “Why would Maggie do this? Why would she betray me?”
Alex’s head sank, she tried to hide her tears behind her balled up fists. Dick patted her on the shoulder. “Hey…it’s all right. We don’t know who’s behind the attack yet.” Dick looked over to Henry.
“That’s correct, sir, though I have several leads.”
“Which are?” Dick’s knees popped up like an unwound spring.
“Would you like me to list them all?”
“Probably not. Tell me the one that’s most likely to lead us to the terrorist?”
“Would you like the details of the lead, or simply the location we would need to route the ship?”
“Both. Give me the location and explain it to me while I re-route.” Dick hurried back into the cockpit and stood over the dashboard display. “Where are we going?”
“The location most likely to—”
“Spit it out, Henry.”
Dick typed the coordinates into the computer and the ship steered itself toward the Juonides galaxy. He’d send a scan to MG headquarters later, getting the investigation approved, and hopefully adding a bounty to his contract. But right now they needed to move while they had the lead. Hell, he thought, it might even lead us to Maggie Flinton if she’s really involved in this. Two for one. Jesus. The world’s crumbling and I’m worried about getting paid. But I have too…no one else will do it for me.
Dick took a seat in his chair, and turned it to face Henry. His body sagged against the cushion, exhausted, his chin resting in his palm.
“So what’s in Grolla?”
“Glyceride? Never heard of it.”
“I would not have expected you to, sir. Having a working knowledge of archaic chemicals is not within your job parameters.”
Dick waited, but Henry didn’t continue. Dick sat up in his seat, his arms raised in the air. “Well, what the hell is it?”
“It is a soft, greyish substance rich in oxidants. It is found naturally in the plant life of three known planets, Triri, Asnarth, and Grolla. It was primarily used in the second half of the twenty second century as the igniting chemical in explosive devices.”
“So, what does that have to do with the attack on Station 1? You think the terrorist used glyceride?”
“I do not think, sir, I know. After the guest docking bay of Station 1 was torn away from the station by an explosion, and you and Alex Flinton spun inside of it, I made my way to the wreckage. I set my target for one of the side walls, which I knew my small torch would be able to penetrate. But my calculations didn’t take into account the affect the bay’s artificial gravity would have on its rotation. This caused the wreckage to reach me much faster than I had anticipated. I was lucky to grab a hold of the front of the bay before it passed me by, if it had I don’t believe we would be speaking with one another.”
Dick swallowed a lump in his throat. “No, probably not.”
“While I was hanging onto the front of the bay, inches away from the glass shield, where the bomb had exploded, I noticed a grey residue frozen where the station’s joint had once been.”
Henry pressed a rectangular orifice on his chest and a compartment holding a glass container slid out. Henry held it out to Dick. “It is glyceride. There are traces of other chemicals commonly used in bombs of this grade, but it is the glyceride that is the most difficult to obtain. That is why Grolla is currently the best location for us to investigate.”
Dick held the glass up to his eye. It looked like engine grease to him, but if Henry said it was bomb residue, then that was damn sure what it was. “What about the other planets this stuff is found on?”
“Yes, Triri, Asnarth, both of which criminalized the sale and extraction of glyceride from their plant life after it was discovered such sales were largely going to terrorist organizations. After the laws were approved Grolla became the only known planet to produce and sell glyceride, and that is true to this day, though the use of the chemical in explosives has virtually ceased.”
“That is correct, sir.”
Dick tapped his fingers together thinking about all the money invested in the ever expanding station, the lost product, ships, and possibly life. His skin shuddered as he thought of the poor souls who may not have made it out alive.
“Why the stations? What would they have to gain?”
“There are many possible gains.”
“Always.” Dick sighed. “Just tell me what you think dammit.”
“I can tell you what I know. Which is that Perceived social justice is the most likely motivator for the destruction.”
Dick sat up rigid in his chair. His spine felt like a piece of rebar had been implanted in it. “The bastards. Damn bastards!” His fingers curled into fists.
“Human actions can be difficult to understand,” Henry said. “Would you like me to provide a reading of Tomas Eviens The World Through A Weeping Tree: Why Humans Behave Irrationally and Kill One Another? I can provide various accents from either sex. Studies show the majority of human listeners prefer a female reader with an east Earth Continent accent. New Zealand is the most popular.”
“No, I don’t think so. I think I need a drink.”
“I will boil you a stimulate.”
“Make it black.”
“Black it is, sir. British Breakfast or Auroran?”
* * *
Without a hyper drive, the trip was slow. What should have taken a little under an hour was stretching into two. Dick stared at the dashboard display, marveling at the vast blackness that surrounded him. He never tired at admiring its beauty, its purity. It occupied so much, yet it was really nothing at all. Everything and nothing, all at once. It didn’t get much—
“It is your move, sir.”
Dick jerked in his seat. “Right.” He looked down at the board. The black pieces were everywhere—Dick was red. Henry had already taken Dick’s first row, and now they were moving toward the back.
Dick moved diagonally, taking one of Henry’s pieces. Henry countered, taking two of Dick’s.
“You know, sometimes playing you really sucks the air out of the game.”
Henry sat back on his stool. “I am sorry to hear that you feel faint, sir, but my environment detectors sense no changes in the present oxygen levels. Perhaps you should lie down for a moment?”
Dick shook his head. “No, that’s not what I mean. You take the fun out of the game. Make it hard for me to want to play it.”
“Am I not playing the game properly? I’ve checked several third party manuals, and none seem to point to any mistakes in my gameplay.”
“Exactly! You don’t make mistakes. I can’t get a move in without you taking three of mine!”
“That is not entirely correct. With your most recent move I only took two of your pieces.”
“Two, three, what does it matter! The game’s yours, Henry.”
Dick swung his arm at the board, sending the pieces flying.
Henry bent down, picking up the scattered red and black circles. He placed them back onto the board in the exact locations they were before.
Dick rubbed his temples, trying to release the pressure building behind his eyes. “Henry, I’m sorry. I think it’s just stress.” He thought about the crumbling station once more.
“I understand, sir. Perhaps I should decrease my knowledge of the game. I could delete the file containing Parson’s Strategy from my positronic brain. This would increase your chances of winning by 30 percent.”
“You wanna go easy on me? No way. I’ll beat you on my own, or I’ll lose like a man.”
“Then I believe you will likely continue to ‘lose like a man.’ Without modifications to my files your chances of winning are below two percent.”
“I think I know why you don’t have any robot friends.” Dick reached for his tea.
“I do not have any friends, sir, robot or human.”
Dick’s eyebrows raised. “So what am I then? Just your Captain?”
“Yes,” Henry said. “Though your use of the word ‘just’ implies that being my captain is of little importance, which is not the case. Your life comes before any other in my positronic brain. Any loss of life is a hardship for me to endure, but a loss of your life would be most unbearable. I am not sure my circuits would be able to endure it.”
“You and your definitions, Henry. They’re meaningless to me. You get so caught up in them you can’t see what’s right in front of you.”
“I see you quite clearly.”
“No you don’t.” Dick shook his head. “Your definition of loyalty sounds like a hound’s to its master. And you’re no hound, Henry.”
Henry stepped forward, his heavy feet clicking on the floor. “Captain, your heart rate is elevated, perhaps you would prefer a depressant rather than your tea.”
“Tea is fine.”
“Would you like me to get you a fresh cup? The temperature of that glass has fallen below 90 degrees.”
Dick puckered his lips and leaned forward, the cup in his hand. “Sure, Henry, why the hell not?”
The robot walked to the water dispenser and Dick leaned back and continued to rub his temples.
“You get really lonely up here, don’t you?”
He looked up to see Alex Flinton taking a seat in front of him.
“That’s Henry’s seat,” Dick said.
“Oh, do you think he’ll mind?”
“He won’t…but I do. We’re playing a game.”
“Really? Looks to me like you’re losing a child’s game to a robot.”
Dick stiffened. “This is not a child’s game. And who asked for you opinion on anything, detainee?”
“You’re playing checkers, Captain. I haven’t seen anyone outside of primary school do that. Why don’t you play a grownup’s game, like chess?”
“I do play chess.” Dick paused. “I just do it on the scanner.”
Alex laughed. “You play it with other pilots, don’t you? On the scanner…because you’re afraid of losing to the robot, aren’t you?”
Dick stood from the table and straightened out the bottom of his shirt. “I appreciate your concern Mrs. Flinton.” His voice was gruff, the words curt. “But what I do with my harvest bot isn’t your business. But what you do is mine. Right now you’re outside of your allocated space on the ship.”
“I have allocated space?”
“Yes. It starts at seat A and ends at seat D.”
“The bench?” She almost laughed. “You want me to stay on the bench the whole ride?”
“I could improvise a cell if the space is too informal for you.” A slight grin cracked Dick’s face.
Henry returned. “Here is your tea, sir. 215 degrees, just the way you like.”
Dick took the cup. “Thanks, Henry.”
“Of course. Would you like to continue the game, or are you now engaged in a socially-rewarding conversation?”
Alex’s lips spread wide as she broke into a laughing fit.
“No.” Dick said, his face stretched in a thin line. “I think the conversation will do for me, thank you. Would you mind watching the display?”
“Of course.” Henry turned. “Let me say, if I may sir, that it very much pleases me to see you increasing your social interaction with other human beings.”
“You may, and I’m glad you’re pleased.” Dick took a sip of his tea, it was British Breakfast. Delicious.
Alex forced her mouth closed, a smile still stretched across it. “Henry,” she said to the robot. “Dick tells me checkers is your favorite game.”
Henry looked at Dick, and then back to Alex. “Recreation is an important part of the Captain’s daily schedule. It releases endorphins, which promote good health. My favorites are the ones that bring the most positive emotional response to him.”
“Oh, I see. You just want Dick to be happy.” Her eyes were more narrow than they were before.
“That is correct, ma’am.”
“Then you should consider playing chess with him next time the two of you play a game. It’s his favorite.”
“I did not know this.” Henry turned to Dick. “Perhaps we can play a game of chess the next time your mood requires enhancement?”
“Sure.” Dick sighed.
“I am opening several review manuals now.”
“Great. Can’t wait.”
The robot trotted to the display console and took a seat behind the helm.
“That was a nasty trick.” Dick stepped toward her. “But if you’re done, I’d prefer it if you took a seat.” He motioned toward the bench of seats labeled A through D.
“Right. I am a criminal, aren’t I?”
Dick glanced down at the number 93 pinned to her breast, and thought about the degrees of crime he faced. The woman in front of him, Alex Flinton, was an accessory to theft, at the very least. Perhaps she had more involvement with the destruction of the stations than she was letting on, though he doubted it, for she would have died had he not stopped to save her. Then there was Maggie Flinton, Alex’s estranged wife who’d ran from Dick on Kiev, destroying his ship’s hyper drive, stealing the hover bikes from the planet’s factory and abandoning her own wife. And lastly there was the unknown terrorist, the person or persons responsible for the destruction of MG Station 1.
“So what’s your plan to capture my wife?”
Dick didn’t say anything, his mind was still lost in thought.
“That is your plan, isn’t it?” Alex raised her voice. “You’re not going to try to hurt her, are you? All she did was take some hover bikes.”
“And destroy a space station.” Dick doubted this, it didn’t make sense that she’d risk her wife’s life, estranged or not. But he wanted to press Alex.
“That wasn’t her!”
“We don’t know that.”
“I know…” Her breathing was labored. She took a deep breath before continuing. “But that was never part of the plan. And besides, you’ve no evidence to think it’s her. Isn’t that how investigations work? Aren’t you supposed to have evidence before you go around accusing people?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a detective.”
“Technically you are, sir,” Henry said. “Your print now identifies you as Temporary Detective Richard Shannon. I took the liberty of confirming your assertion of the existence of a new contract. It is indeed valid, despite the recent demise of Robert Parker.”
“Thanks, Henry,” Dick shouted from the back of the ship.
“You’re welcome, sir.”
“Don’t bullshit me,” Alex said. “I want to know what you’re planning to do.”
“I’m not discussing that with you. You’re a detainee. You’ll be placed under the care of the nearest company site, and Henry and I will continue our investigation. You can read about the results on a display.”
Alex took a deep breath. “Please…” Dick could almost hear the sound of her pride cracking in her voice. “All I want to know is what your plans are for my wife. She’s pregnant…just tell me you’re not going to hurt her.”
The pressure of Dick’s next choice of words weighed heavy on his shoulders. He had no intention of hurting Alex’s wife, but he couldn’t show his hand to the other side. He was a detective now, not just a transport pilot talking to a pit crew at a station—Henry confirmed it. There were protocols for this sort of thing…and he didn’t know a damn one of them. “I wish I could promise that.”
“What? Did you not hear me? I said she’s pregnant, you bastard.” Her eyes welled up and her lips shook with rage. “If you hurt her, I swear I’ll…I’ll make you regret it the rest of your life.” Alex stood from her seat, grabbing a handrail to steady herself, she walked back to the rear cabin and lay on one of the bunks. She turned to her side, trying to hide her tears from Dick.
Dick gritted his teeth. All he did was make the situation worse.
Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, he thought. One thing is sure, now I know she won’t underestimate me.
Dick joined Henry at the helm. “How far are we from Grolla?”
“Another 38 minutes and 28 seconds, sir.”
“Good, I think my legs need a stretch.”
“Agreed. Your step count is low for this week.”
Dick smiled bitterly. “Space stations do that.”
“That is why interplanetary law requires all corporations operating in space to equip their stations with physical recreational facilities.”
“Please, Henry, I really don’t want to hear about how I need to hit the gym.”
“How far is the closest MG site from Grolla?”
“Now that Station 1 is dismantled, Kiev would be the closest location.”
“And how far is that?”
“Three hundred billion, sixty three—”
“I mean, how long would it take to get there?”
“Without a hyper drive, the trip would take 3.5 days from our current location.”
Dick thought about time again and how he didn’t have enough of it. He was already thirty years old, and he had nothing to his name. No home, no cruiser, not even a personal companion bot. He was a man without, and the answer to this problem now took the literal form of a woman. A woman named Maggie Flinton. For it was her name written in the contract that promised the change in fortune he so desperately desired.
“All right,” Dick said. “I guess she’s coming with us.”
“That would be the best decision, sir.”
No, he thought. I don’t think it is.