Journey to a Dead Star

Chapter 3

The first Solar Guardsman to arrive on the scene of Roger Manning’s attack was Captain Jon Ames, a veteran of thirteen years in the civilian law enforcement division. Resplendent in his black and gold uniform, the captain also wore a chest covering of body armor, which in ancient times was called a cuirass. Similar to the torso covering of an ancient knight, a cuirass was made of polished steel and served to deflect lead balls and slashing blades of ancient weaponry. Used by light cavalry units in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a squad of dragoons could assure the populace that all would be well as long as they were in the vicinity. Captain Ames’ armor was just as functional, but much more evolved. Made of a very lightweight plastic for protection from collisions, it was bonded with a thin and perfectly polished layer of gold, the modern cuirass was the distinguishing feature of a “motor officer”, a term carried over from several centuries to denote a law enforcement officer who rode a motorcycle on patrol. In Jon Ames’ case, the motorcycle had been replaced with a jet bike, a one or two person conveyance that could negotiate obstacles that a patrol jet car could not pass. The small jet bike’s only drawback was that it left it’s crew more vulnerable to injury, hence the reason for the added personal armor.

“Cadets, I have contacted the Academy and relayed the circumstances of this incident and Commander Walters is dispatching Captain Strong to be his liaison during the investigation.”, stated the motor officer. “Until he and the case investigators arrive, maybe we can go over your recollections while they are fresh in your memories.”

Astro, now recomposed, was slowly replacing his grief with anger. “I’ll freeze those space bums and kick them out of an airlock! While they can still understand what’s happening to them, I’ll release the paralo ray and their last breath will be of nothing!”

Tom had never seen Astro engulfed in hatred before. It was a side of the Venusian that he hoped he would never see again. “Take a breath of your own buddy. We’ve got a lot to do for Roger and we can help him better if we keep our jets cool.”, said the curly haired cadet. Tom knelt down in front of the seated, hulking figure and looked directly into his eyes. “Come on, Astro. Stow that thinking and let’s be as logical as we can be. The more that we can help these officers, the more we can help Roger.”

Captain Ames put his hand on Astro’s shoulder and said, “He’s right, son. Forget about imagining on what you don’t know! Let’s work with what you do know.”

Astro suddenly sat upright and pressed his palm against his right temple. “Right! We’ve got go be logical!”. Then his eyes dropped and he muttered, “But, this attack makes no sense at all!”.

“Well,”, said Captain Ames, “It’s my experience that it’s very rare for a break in to be senseless. Usually, the perpetrators are looking for something valuable, unattainable, or difficult to duplicate. Did you boys have anything of value that you left in your room?”

Tom spoke up first. “No officer. We had our credits, game tickets and IDs...” Tom’s voice trailed off as a revelation came to him. “Wait! That’s it! We all had our Space Academy papers, passes and unit Identifications with us except for Roger! That’s why he came back to the room.. to get his papers.”

The Solar Guard officer quickly wrote notes onto his script pad and then assured the cadets, “That’s good! That’s a good starting point for the investigators. I’ll fill them in before they interview you. If you can think of anything else, be sure to write it down. I am going down to meet them in the lobby. Please don’t touch anything until you’ve been given clearance. Okay?”

The youths nodded and the officer turned toward the door. Before exiting, he leaned back and said, “Don’t worry! Your buddy is in capable hands and I’m sure Captain Strong will get you in to see him before long. Spaceman’s luck, Cadets!”. The officer disappeared through the door and started giving orders to some red uniformed patrolmen whom had secured the crime scene.

Tom and Astro could only sit on the disarranged sofa and ponder the events of the last hour. They were in deep thought when a concerned voice filled the room. “Boys, are you two okay?”. It was Captain Steve Strong, the officer directly in charge of training the Polaris unit.

“Captain!”, shouted Astro, “Are we glad to see you!”

“I imagine you are! From what Jon tells me, this may not be a random act.”, he stated. “We’ll find out who did this, I swear by the craters of Luna!”

The young cadets were eager to unload their theories and feelings on their mentor, but before they could do more than say “Sir”, two Solar Guardsmen in rather drab civilian clothing entered the room. “Gentlemen, I am Lieutenant Frank Colvek and this is Sergeant Irvin King. We will be handling the investigation in this case.”

Steve introduced himself and the cadets then placed himself at the disposal of the investigators.

The taller of the two investigators, Frank Colvek, looked around the room and stated, ”Neptune’s Ghost! What a mess! Was this the way you found the room?”

Astro, clearing his throat, chimed in first. “Yes Sir... except for the furniture along the hallway wall, which we moved to allow the gurney to pass.”

Frank eyed the confusion carefully and turned to his companion. “Irv, get the forensics team in here right away. We’re going to leave so we don’t bother them in their work. I’ll let you know where we are. Keep me advised.”.

“Aye Sir.”, was the reply from the short, balding non com as he tapped his communicator.

Lieutenant Colvek led the crew of the Polaris out of the room and down the hallway. The hotel concierge, in a nervous state, hovered at the end of the hallway. He had been barred from further passage by the red dressed Guardsmen charged with maintaining the crime scene. Two of the guards retracted from their wide stance to allow the exiting party to pass and then re assumed their positions in unison.

“Officer, I am Djin Djarting, the hotel concierge. Is there anything I can do?”. Without waiting for a reply, the short man of Indo Asian extraction began blurting out unnecessary apologies and incredulity for the incident.

Somewhat annoyed, Frank Colvek held up his hand which stifled the hotel employee immediately. “Mr. Djarting, what I need now is a meeting room, a large pot of coffee, sandwiches or snacks, and the head of your security department. Can it be done?”

Nodding so quickly that Tom thought the man might snap his neck, the nattily dressed man ran away shouting, “Yes. Yes. Right away! Please follow me. This way!”

The group practically had to chase after the small man as he led them to the Galaxy Ballroom, not exactly the intimate room Frank had hoped for. Noticing a switch panel on the wall, Frank pushed some buttons and dividers appeared from the walls and closed down the vastness of the ballroom until the occupied area was less than ten meters long to a side. A group of busboys suddenly appeared with tables, chairs, coffee urns, tea service, cold drinks, ice buckets and a complete buffet fit for any dignitary in the solar system. “Good Night Neptune!”, was the only thing the inspector could say. Then, “Circumstances aside, I could get used to working cases here!”

After waving his approval to Mr. Djarting, Frank instructed the attending Guards and then closed the door. He looked at his little group and said, “Before we get down to business, let’s eat, rehydrate and try to relax a little.”. Then directly at Tom and Astro, “Especially you two! I want you fit, full and rested in forty five minutes. We’ve got time while the crew tries to make headway on the crime scene.”.

Astro jumped to his feet at attention and suddenly barked, “Sir, I respectfully request a report from the med center.”. Then, dropping the military stature, “Please, Sir. I just want to know how Roger is doing.”

Frank’s face assumed the faintest hint of a smile and he said assuredly, “Of course. I’ll call in right now.”

The inspector opened his communicator and instructed the communications supervisor to patch him to Atom City Med Center. Reaching the medical complex, his call was routed to the Intensive Care Unit. A few seconds later a voice emanated from the communicator. “Lieutenant Kolvek, this is Doctor Mason. I understand your concern, but I haven’t much information at this time. Cadet Manning is still in surgery and will probably be there for another hour.”

Not satisfied for himself or for Astro, Kolvek asked, “Doctor, can you give me any details on Manning’s injuries?”

The voice from the tiny plastic case stated, “Well, Lieutenant, our first set of scans indicated at least four cranial fractures with associated hematomas. The back of the skull was traumatized with a tubular or rod shaped object and a piece of bone has lodged itself against the medulla. This is the most delicate part of the surgery because if the bone fragment or surgical instrument penetrates the wrong neural material, I’m afraid death would be instantaneous.”

A new wrinkle appeared on the officer’s brow and after a couple of seconds, he answered the voice. “Very well, Doctor. Please keep me advised of new developments. Call central dispatch and have them patch you to my communicator. Understood?”

“Very well, Lieutenant.”, replied the voice. And then, “One more thing, Lieutenant.”

“Yes?”, quizzed the officer.

“One of the hematomas is in the occipital lobe of the brain. It is possible that even if the Cadet recovers from the medulla surgery, he could be blind in one or both eyes. We won’t know anything more until the young man is in recovery.”

Taking a deep breath, the officer replied, “Very well, Doctor. Kolvek out and clear.”

Putting the communicator into a vest pocket, the inspector turned to Tom, Astro and Captain Strong. “Well, gentlemen, you heard the report. Your friend is in good care, now let’s relax and try to figure out why he was harmed.”

Neither the Polaris officer or cadets were reassured by the med center report. They knew that without good or correctable eyesight, duty on a Solar Guard space craft would be impossible. Even tramp freighters had good eyesight requirements for deck hands and flight crews. Even if Roger survived the surgery, there was still the possibility that his career would be over. “What a rotten deal!”, thought Tom. His mind raced at light speed like a chessmaster trying to conceive of every possible scenario, move and counter for a hundred turns in advance.

“Tom.”, came a gentle voice, bringing the cadet back to the reality of the moment. Steve Strong put a sandwich and a cup of tea in front of the cadet and said, “Let’s do as the Lieutenant asks. We may be better able to help if we do as he says.”

A few minutes later Frank Kolvek paced in front of the crewmen while trying to connect his thoughts. “I don’t suppose you gentlemen have any idea as to why this happened?!”, he asked almost rhetorically.

Astro spoke first. “Honestly, Lieutenant, Tom and I have thought this out and we didn’t even meet anybody until we got here to the hotel. It had to be a random robbery because of the way the room looked.”

Tom rose to his feet and walked to the far wall. Turning back to the inspector, he asked, “Lieutenant, even if it was a random robbery, why would the robber attack Roger so viciously?”

“That’s why I don’t think it was random! I would guess that the burglar was willing to face a murder charge because either he didn’t want to be identified, or Roger caught him with whatever he was looking for and the item or items were of such value to him that the perpetrator was willing to kill for it.”. Pausing for a second, the inspector stated, “Or both!”.

A knock came to the door and Sergeant King peeked through. “Lieutenant, can I speak to you?”, he asked.

“Sure, Irv... I’ll be right there.”, came the reply. “I’ll be back in a few moments, boys. Just relax.”

The officer disappeared through the door for less than two minutes. As soon as the door reopened, he strode directly to Steve Strong and grimly announced, “Captain, we need to contact Space Academy immediately. The preliminary search of the crime scene indicates that Cadet Manning’s Academy pass and leave papers are not on the premises.”

Steve stood up and grabbed the communicator. Pressing in the proper code for the security section of the academy, the young officer, muttered, “I hope that we are not too late.”. A few seconds passed and he started giving instructions to the corporal on duty. “Very well, Lance Corporal Price. Advise, me on any attempted security breech. Strong out.”

“They’ve been alerted. Lance Corporal Price says that it’s unlikely that any attempt would be successful because of the retinal scan required to verify identification. However, all gates will be manned by officers or NCOs who personally know Roger. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s more to this than a simple robbery.”

Sergeant King reappeared at the door with the hotel security chief and Mr. Djarting close behind. “Lieutenant, Mr. Djarting and Mr. Jackson are here with the security vid spools.”, he said indicating the spools with his finger.

“Good!”, said the inspector, “Let’s take a look!”

Chief Jackson placed the spools in a playback unit and cued up a camera view of the hallway to the cadet’s room. As they came upon the segment that showed the three happy youths exiting the room in high spirits, Tom wondered how he could have been so joyful just a short time ago. The security chief switched to another camera which was in the atrium. It showed Astro and Roger flailing about helplessly on the floor just after their encounter with the cleaning cart. “Stop there!”, shouted Frank. “Who is that?”

Tom volunteered, “Its just the room steward. It was his cart that Roger and Astro ran into.”

“Mr. Djarting, do you know who that steward is?”, queried the officer.

“No sir, I don’t believe I know him.”, stated the short man. “I’m sure I should know him because I personally interview every new employee and instruct them in hotel etiquette and impress on them the need for maintaining our high standards of conduct.”

“I’d be willing to guess that that’s our man! Go back to the camera in the hallway and fast forward it until we see someone.”, ordered the inspector. “There! He’s using a passkey to enter your room boys!”

Astro started breathing very deeply and his exhalation was accompanied with grunts and growls as his emotions began to emerge. Another moment of fast forward cueing and Astro’s breath was held in his tight chest when he saw Roger run down the hallway to the room. After about a minute, the room steward peered from the doorway and, seeing that the hallway was clear, ran at full stride from the room, disappearing through a service door into a area that was not covered by surveillance cameras.

“That son of a space rat!”, shouted Atsro. “I’ll make him pay!”

“At ease, Cadet. Save it for later.”, said the inspector. “Well, we know who and we know how... but we still need to know why!” He then turned to Captain Strong and said, ”Captain, I’ll continue with the civilian part of this investigation, but it looks like the Solar Guard at the Academy will be the next involved party. Why don’t you take your two charges back to the Academy and be my liaison while we clear this up?”

Steve motioned to the cadets and they started toward the door. As he reached for the door handle, the Guardsman turned to the officer and expressed his gratitude for the quick action. He also expressed his thanks for the med unit and the hotel staff’s help.

Without passing a word among themselves, the threesome boarded the monorail for the long ride through the mountains to the protected valley that is home to the Space Academy.
End Chapter 3 -

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Copyright 1998 by Jack McKirgan II