A Scratch on Time
The Hydrologist drilled through moon rock in his search for buried ice, felt an odd impact a microsecond before he heard an implosion that seemed to backfire up the laser-borer. That he had heard the noise at all, told him something catastrophic had occurred within the hermetic environment of his suit. He'd never heard of such a thing as a laser imploding, and wondered at its cause.
A powerful surge of voltage fired through his suit's life support circuitry, crackled in arcs around his head, driving him into unconsciousness.
When he came to, Richard Kingzel saw blood pooling on his faceplate. It blurred his vision. He tried blinking the blood from his eyes as his gloved right hand rose to wipe his face, then realized he had fallen. He rolled onto his side, his left hand still clutching the laser-borer connected to his suit's powerpac. Sculpted blue-orange electrical pulses wove like hungry, burrowing worms into and through the scarlet that leaked from a neck wound and a large gash at his temple.
"En-Jun," he coughed, gagging as he attempted to roll onto his stomach so he could push himself to his feet, but was too weak. "En-Jun? Do you hear me? There's something wrong...my SMU...it's malfunctioned." He choked and gasped, "Do you hear me?"
"Yes, Guild Member Kingzel, I hear you." En-Jun replied calmly. "Can you be more specific as to the exact nature of the problem?"
Kingzel felt cold terror squeeze his heart. "Send a...rescue team, damn you! Be more specific? You an idiot? I'm dying, I'm--"
"I have alerted Chief Plummer," En-Jun continued speaking as if he discussed the time or weather back on Earth.
"Plummer?" Kingzel choked, spit to clear his mouth, smelled burnt plastic, tasted both the copper tang of blood and acid, and heard the ominous hiss of electricity.
"Yes, Guild Member. I spoke with her a several seconds ago. She is fully aware of your situation."
"En-Jun...No! Not..." His heart labored, making him gasp for air. "Not Plummer...won't lift a finger to help me."
He spit again, and realized the liquids inside his helmet had reached the point where in another minute he would drown in his own fluids, if blood-loss did not kill him first. He coughed, and heard En-Jun's calm response.
"Yes. That may be true. She will not do anything to assist you Guild Member Kingzel."
Kingzel heard a loud buzz, a sharp click, and then nothing but his own gargled exhale.
His breath bubbled out in what he accepted as the final movement of his life.
Richard Kingzel listened to the darkening silence that replaced his struggle to survive and closed his eyes.
* * *
38-year-old Free Lancer Foster Ryton--an elite member of the Guild Conglomerate's law enforcement branch--climbed wearily from his narrow bunk after kicking free of his bedding's envelope. He knew that colonists did not feel the need to be secured during sleep hours in the low moon gravity. However, Ryton was certain that colonists had, after more than a year, sufficient time to adjust to the moon's feminine embrace.
Having arrived twenty hours earlier, he'd already begun to hope that he wouldn't be moonside long enough to adjust to anything beyond the liftoff thrust of the next shuttle scheduled to leave for Earth in three solars.
He'd been assigned a living cubicle on the outer ring, which had a sleeping berth, sonic shower, a small lavatory to use the recycled splash of water he'd been allotted and a view. The meter-square port opened onto Tranquility Base and framed the nearly two-century old stiffened American flag anchored in moon dust.
The thick opaque glass simulated night. His reflection, created by yellow recessed lighting strips along the bottom of the doorway between the sleeping space and the bath cubicle, seemed surreal.
A mahogany complexion all but hid the defining lines at the corners of his mouth; the deep chin cleft, the crater-shaped scar on the right side of his straight wide nose. Pale gray eyes reflected the artificial illumination with a look of feral intensity.
He examined his teeth in a snarl-rounded grin and coughed against the sweet herbal scent of artificial air freshener used in the colony's living quarters.
His thick brush of brown hair, kept at a length of two centimeters by genetic adjustment, felt stiff as he rubbed one hand across his scalp.
Other enhancements to his genetic makeup included UV protective skin pigmentation, and the latest in life longevity extension.
"However," he said grimly, "They haven't come up with a genetic adjustment that guarantees restful sleep." He coughed again and shook his head, felt the tension from a restless night pan up his spine, radiating into his shoulders.
Ryton's limbs ached with the memory of the lift-off couch he had spent the better part of three days strapped into. He twisted and stretched. Space travel to and from the moon, he thought, is unpleasant at best, brutal the rest of the time.
He had been less than pleased when the Guild's Ruling Council of Seven assigned him the investigation. The mysterious, perhaps accidental death of a relatively unknown yet powerful member of the ruling Hydrologist Guild--controllers of over sixty-two percent of all potable water on Earth and the moon, not to mention seventy percent of its material wealth--had caused serious consternation at Guild Headquarters.
The Moon Colony Corporation, independent of Guild dominance, insisted the Free Lancer's Guild investigate Kingzel's death to stabilize shareholder confidence.
Two members of the Guild's ruling Council of Seven had objected to Ryton's receiving the assignment. He smiled wryly as he pictured the meeting. The usual criticisms of his methodology always came up: that he bent the rules, or applied them "selectively." That he placed his own authority above that of the Guild.
Then his supporters, including the Prime of the Council of Seven, had pointed out one indisputable fact: Ryton was their best enforcer.
Ryton entered the sonic, cleansed, and then stepped out. He coded the portal to clear, and illumination, adapted by a computer controlled filtering system to mimic Earth sunlight, bathed the room.
He was, by then, ready to eat.
The food-synthesizer mounted into a wall slot to the left of the window, displayed a glowing green light bar highlighted by three words: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in twelve languages.
He pressed Breakfast. A yellow-orange light flashed. A tray appeared, bearing an indescribable pile of green-gray mush, a minuscule glass of orange juice, and a moist cube of chewable Java, followed by computer-generated aromas of bacon and eggs.
Shaking his head, he sat on the bunk and without really tasting, wolfed down the bland nourishment, swallowed the OJ, and set aside the Java cube. Ryton folded the thin plastic tray and stuffed it into the recycle niche.
Once he had donned the moon colony's regulation one-piece neon green jumpsuit, he fastened the Velcro strip that ran from crotch to chin. Ryton pinned on his official Guild ID, bordered in purple to designate his guild affiliation, strapped on a waist pouch with the tools-of-his-trade inside, and said, "Okay. Let's get this over with and get the hell out of here."
He slapped the flat pad of metal that disengaged the door. The opaque panel shimmered, and then disappeared. After he exited, Ryton re-sequenced the passage security and watched briefly, as the door seemed to solidify from random air molecules.
He strode through the ring corridor to the office of the Chief of Operations for his 0800 appointment. The soft soles of his regulation boots, lightly magnetized so his forceful steps did not send him careening into the walls, padded his progress.
He slipped the Java cube in his mouth, tongued it to fit between cheek and gum, and smiled.
Two guards stood on either side of the entrance to the office. They wore low voltage laser stuns that would not penetrate the hulls of the colony, but would temporarily put a 250 pound male out of commission.
The guard on the left raised an arm, blocking Ryton's entry. The Free Lancer carefully reached up and tapped his ID, waited long enough for the man's eyes to flick down and read the badge, then cleared his throat, and said softly, "Lower your arm, please."
The guard expressed nothing, nodded, and let his arm slowly sink to his side.
"Thank you." Ryton grimaced slightly when he smelled musk aftershave and unpleasant odor in a sealed environment.
He entered the office. The woman seated behind the desk confirmed his visual memory of Beverly Plummer, Chief of Operations, from the e-faxed report he received before leaving Earth.
"Ah, Free Lancer Foster Ryton." Despite her rich soprano voice, she spoke with authority without looking up from her work. "On time. Please be seated." She nodded to a chair in front of her desk.
Ryton sat. "Thank you, Ms Plummer." He studied her, and decided that she was more attractive in person. Her flesh was not UV enhanced, but instead appeared tanned, he assumed, by frequent visits to the colony spa. She wore no makeup. She had her hair cut so its mild golden waves fell to just below her ears.
Plummer finished entering morning shift data, and sat back. The color of her eyes startled him. Ryton had been aware that they were violet, but knowing and seeing was astonishingly different. She wore a jumpsuit that matched her eye color, and had a small, diamond encrusted brooch pinned to the collar. She wore matching diamond stud earrings, and several ornate rings: a gold band on her left pinkie, and two on her right hand; a solitary diamond set in the middle of four eighth-karat tanzanite gems on the ring finger, and a second gold band on the pinkie. She was, he knew from her file, fixated, obsessed really on Earth lifestyle and fashions, which were currently focused on the symmetrical look. She wore a light lilac perfume he found easy to breath.
Ryton's head moved back, his lips formed a silent "O" when he looked a second time at her hands, and he smiled as a powerful jolt of caffeine kicked into his blood stream. He thought he could smell it, like a rich cup of cappuccino.
He glanced through the open doorway to the left and was able to see into her quarters. Mounted against the wall just inside the door was a locked glass-fronted closet. In it hung a neat arrangement of civilian clothing: dresses, slacks, blouses, with zippers and buttons, shoes lined the floor.
Amazingly colorful, he thought. It's a terrific contrast to an otherwise drab existence. He leaned to see more.
"Something in my quarters interests you, Free Lancer?" Plummer stood and closed the door, returned and sat.
"No." He skipped further pleasantries. "I'd like to see the file on Guild Member Kingzel's death."
"Very well." Plummer tapped her keyboard. An LCD rose from the desk in front of Ryton. She tapped the keys again and the LCD turned to face him.
Ryton sat forward and scanned the data, found it to be exactly the information he had reviewed while shuttling from Earth. He nodded. "I see that nothing new has been added."
She smiled a flat, tight grin that seemed more a waste of energy than any kind of expression of humor. "Everything was sealed after I contacted Guild HQ."
"Yes," he answered, giving himself a second to watch her face. When he saw she remained impassive, he nodded again. "Good. I'll need a list of all persons who might've had contact with the Guild Member and/or his equipment."
She keyed his demand. A small, flat plastic rectangle appeared from a slot alongside the LCD. Ryton pinched it out, removed his PDA from the pouch riding his hip, and inserted the data device. After appraising the three names and personnel data--one of whom was Plummer herself--he shut it off. "Where can I find Pru Ruccino at this hour?"
"Her shift ended at 0800. She's in her quarters."
He frowned very slightly, and asked, "She discontinued working day shift? Why is that?"
Plummer, for a moment, looked as if she might consider challenging him. Ryton hooded his eyes, kept his stare fixed on her face until she blinked and turned back to her keyboard.
"Ms. Ruccino requested a shift change after Kingzel's..."
"Location of her quarters?"
"Free Lancer, she's extremely distraught--"
"Do not force me to remind you of your responsibility to my investigation."
"Ms. Ruccino," she stated, driving the words between flattened, anger-paled lips, "has quarters at Inner Ring 156GA. You'll find that the corridor cursor lighting will guide you with green pulses as soon as you enter your ID code and destination at the nearest Direction Input Portal."
Ryton stood, not pleased with their first encounter, but kept it off his face. "Please notify Ms. Ruccino that I'll be at her location within fifteen minutes."
"Certainly, Free Lancer."
"Thank you." He turned and left, knowing that Plummer was not a woman accustomed to taking orders.
Under the circumstances, he thought, she should expect worse after a Hydrologist's death.
He located the DIP outside her office door, entered the data, and followed the dashing green lights.
Ryton had read in Kingzel's file that he and Ruccino become intimate over the past month. Normally, such fraternization was forbidden. However, everyone looked the other way if the person who initiated the relationship was a ranking Guild member, especially a Hydrologist.
Widowed six months before requesting the assignment, Kingzel traveled to the moon to help him forget his loss. His wife died in a somewhat suspicious and possibly preventable accident: the Bends while diving with Kingzel off Baja into the American Pacific Fleet graveyard. The subsequent investigation cleared the Hydrologist of any wrongdoing.
Ryton rounded the inward spiral until he saw the green light stop above the number 156GA alongside a narrow door.
The door stood open. Stopping outside, he called, "Ms Ruccino?"
"Enter, please Free Lancer Ryton." A quiet feminine voice responded.
He felt his cheeks tug into a mild grin, and kept it in place as he stepped into Ruccino's tiny quarters. He smelled a slight odor of feminine sweat partially masked by the filtration system's air freshener. Ruccino stood looking ill at ease in her neon blue jumpsuit.
After a quick glance around, he said, "Seems I was wrong."
He watched Ruccino's head jerk in surprise, her dark brown eyes widened as she carefully scanned the room. "Wrong, Free Lancer?"
"Foster, please. I dislike formality."
She nodded curtly. Her tightly curled black hair bobbed in reaction. "What were you wrong about, Foster?"
"My quarters. I had thought I'd been given a space smaller than the ones occupied by you colonists."
She relaxed visibly and grinned. "Oh. Well, as you can see all of us have exactly the same amount of space."
"So, the same applied for Guild Member Kingzel too?"
"Yes," she answered too quickly. Color flushed her lightly tanned cheeks. She added, "He did have," as if she felt the inclusion was necessary.
"When was the last time you saw Guild Member Kingzel after hours?" Ryton let his smile widen not unkindly.
"The night before he--"
"Were you and he intimate that night?"
"I beg your pardon?"
He did not answer, watched the color run from her cheeks, spread out to darken her neck and ears. "And you returned here afterwards?"
She nodded, looked smaller and younger. Tears filled her eyes.
"There was a disagreement or was that normal procedure?"
"Yes, we always slept in our own quarters."
"Then the problem is?"
"He wanted me to stay."
"But you didn't because--"
"I...didn't want anyone to find out about--"
"Find out about what?"
"Why did you think that might happen?" he asked, even though he suspected what the answer would be.
"His food-synth would have registered discharging more than a single allotment...I like to snack late at night."
"That's allowed? There are rations for snacking? Wish I had known that last night. I was damn hungry."
She colored again, but her eyes flared with suppressed anger as if she felt he had set her up and she had fallen into his trap.
Ryton heard the struggle in her voice when she said, "Richard...um, Guild Member Kingzel adjusted my unit so I could get something other than the usual--"
"And there was no other reason you left that night?"
"No. Like I told you, I always returned to my quarters." She looked away sharply pressing one had to the center of her chest. "Well, okay there are also the monitors."
Surveillance cameras in the corridors, he thought. "Where are Kingzel's quarters located?" he asked, although he knew the location.
"Down the ring...303GL."
"Thank you," Ryton said and turned to the opened door.
"That's all you want from me?" She sounded hopeful.
He started to the door, stopped, and turned back. "You were responsible for maintaining Guild member Kingzel's equipment."
"Life support apparatus only," she said worriedly. "I have a partner who performs redundancy checks. I couldn't have tampered with his equipment without my partner at least, knowing something was wrong."
He nodded, wore a thoughtful frown, and said, "Nothing in the life support system malfunctioned until after the problem with the laser-borer became uncontrollable, according to the data I received." He left her quarters, wondering at her nervous response.
303GL was less than a five-minute walk from Ruccino's room. Ryton pressed the bar code of his ID badge against the reader on the locking device. The door opened with a whispered hiss.
A thorough search revealed nothing out of place except a random button, of all things, he thought, that he found rattling in the filtration system intake vent alongside the sonic shower.
Clothing in the colony was required to be closed with Velcro fasteners--a regulation put in place after an accident involving the pull tab of a zipper which became lodged in an air re-circulation filter and subsequently caused a rash of allergic reactions to the then sporadically unfiltered air.
The button appeared to be crafted from abalone. He held it by its edge between thumb and forefinger, wondered about Kingzel's habits. The Guild Member's file had revealed nothing unusual. Ryton peered closely at the button's surface, and then placed it into a small clear plastic tube, which he immediately capped. He used his PDA to generate a label and then adhered it to the vial.
The button was an anomaly he would think about. He could not remember the last time he had actually seen one.
He went to Kingzel's food-synth, and pressed the illuminated green bar for breakfast. It generated rations that appeared to be scrambled eggs and a cup of steaming liquid. The smells that followed confirmed his suspicions.
Ryton sniffed the cup's contents, and thought, Earl Grey tea. He sipped, nodded, and thought, Definitely a step up.
He ate the eggs too.
When finished, he returned to Ruccino's quarters. The entry was closed. He pressed the chime.
"Yes?" Ruccino called out.
"It's Foster. I need to ask you another question if that's not a problem." He folded his arms.
The door shimmered and disappeared. Ruccino said again, "Yes?"
Ryton frowned thoughtfully, removed the small vial from his pouch. He shook it and asked, "Have you ever seen this before?"
Ruccino, in green shorts and T-shirt, pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I...I don't think so." Her hand rose to touch the vial as one might if it was a sacred object. Her eyes were pinched with what he thought might be a hint of alarm.
He placed the vial back in his pouch. "Thank you," he said and left.
Ryton checked the time and saw it was nearing 1100 hours. He went directly to the area that housed individual Surface Mobility Units, environmental equipment, and the maintenance workshops. The air smelled of oil, chemicals, and something acrid.
He approached a tall thin hairless man, who seemed well suited to the lighter gravity.
"Are you the day supervisor?"
The man seemed startled when he faced Ryton. His eyes were pale red, cyborg implants.
"I am," he said quietly.
Ryton reached out to shake the man's hand--the third person on Plummer's list--and felt pleased at the strength he felt in his grip. "I'm Foster Ryton."
"I am aware of who you are, Free Lancer," the man said. "My name is En-Jun. If you will kindly follow me...I have the records ready for your inspection."
Ryton nodded curtly and followed. The name En-Jun was one, he knew, that the man adopted after he had joined the Cult of the Millennial End. They were a growing splinter religion with roots in Buddhism and Christianity, spawned when the apocalypse failed to materialize on 01-01-01.
En-Jun's psych report stated he had an intensely focused personality.
Another professional's riddle, Ryton thought. What the blast do they mean by that?
He asked, "Who else has access to the entry logs for maintenance and repairs to personnel equipment, SMU's, and the like?"
En-Jun glanced over his shoulder, eyes unblinking. "Supervisory staff and higher only." He stopped walking when he reached a locked cabinet, placed his right thumb on a small glowing LCD, peered with his left eye into the retinal scan and then stood back.
The cabinet opened. Ryton walked around his companion and pressed his barcode to the reader then stared into the retinal scan.
A genderless electronic voice spoke. "Proceed, Free Lancer Ryton."
He examined the log entries for the three days before and after Kingzel's death. Nothing appeared out of order. He read the detailed assessment of Kingzel's SMU and the laser-borer, and noticed that the malfunction, it concluded, was caused by a faulty nano-switch.
He turned to En-Jun and said, "What, in your opinion, do you believe caused the nano to malfunction?"
"Moisture, Free Lancer."
Ryton frowned, scratched the back of his neck. "Really? How does moisture infiltrate a sealed system like the laser-borer's harness?"
"Using an electron scan, we detected a thin purple line...a minute scratch on an ‘O’ ring that sealed the connection between the powerpac and the borer's main power coupling."
"Correct me if I'm wrong...there's no moisture in the moon's atmosphere...in fact there's no atmosphere." Ryton studied En-Jun's nearly dispassionate face. The cyborg remained expressionless, as if cast from a plastic mold.
En-Jun shrugged. "The Hydrologist had, apparently, opened a small pocket of sub-surface ice just prior to the incident."
Ryton nodded agreement, and thought, He knows more. "What could've caused the scratch?"
En-Jun's eyes blinked. "A substance harder than the ‘O’ ring, with a purplish mineral content."
"Diamond for example?" the Free Lancer queried.
En-Jun's face betrayed him with a crooked frown when he nodded acquiescence.
Ryton skipped inspecting the damaged equipment, knew he would find that everything matched the report. He examined En-Jun's face and thought, En-Jun definitely knows more than he's willing to tell. Odd, CMEs are known for honesty, and said, "Thanks."
"Did you wish to examine the body?"
Ryton stopped, mentally recalled the stench of an autopsy, and shook his head and then changed his mind. "I suppose I must although the report was graphically thorough."
En-Jun led him into the frigid morgue, slid open a stainless steel drawer and revealed the pale corpse.
Ryton examined the body, now powerless and innocuous. With a scowl, he pulled out his PDA and called up Kingzel's file. The basic bio and professional data contained highlighted links to various personal data of ambiguous relevance: hobbies, religious affiliation. He scanned down until he found the file he wanted: psychiatric history. Ryton waved for the cyborg to close the drawer as he again reviewed the psych report.
The Guild should never have allowed you your freedom after their failed attempt at psych-readjustment. You were a brutal bastard.
After leaving the workshop, he returned to 156GA. He lifted the vial from the pouch and rattled it as he walked. He had a hunch as to its origin, and decided to risk creating a bit of righteous indignation to discover if his hunch was correct. When he reached his destination, he pressed the chime.
He heard Ruccino groan, sleep heavy in her voice, "Yes?"
"Another question, Pru." He smiled as the passage shimmered open.
Ruccino stood, but looked like she would much rather be asleep.
Without permission, he entered the room. He went directly to the glass-fronted wall compartment that matched the cabinet in Plummer's quarters. He opened it and pulled all Ruccino's clothing out, examining each item.
"Hey!" she shouted, suddenly wide-awake. "What the hell do you think you are doing?"
He threw article after article on her bed. Everything was regulation green or blue, except for the single pair of lavender shorts decorated with lilies he saw she had balled and tossed into a rear corner on the floor of the compartment.
Ryton lifted the boxers, and shook them until they hung as if ready to wear. They had buttons and one was missing. "Where'd you get these?"
Ruccino looked like she was about to start crying. "Richard...a gift..."
He crumpled the shorts into a small wad and put them into his pouch. In a voice filled with command, he said, "Hold out your hands."
Ruccino obeyed. He saw she was nervous. He held both hands, then turned them over, examined her fingers, and wrists. When he saw what he expected, he nodded and said, "Thank you," dropped her hands and strode from her quarters.
Ryton stopped at Kingzel's for lunch, certain the food-synth there would offer something less bland than his own. He was not disappointed when a substance that looked and smelled like a hamburger with gravy appeared on the tray, with yet another cup of Earl Grey.
He sat on Kingzel's bunk and reviewed what he had learned. By the time he had finished eating, he knew Kingzel's death was not accidental. He knew who had killed him and how...but not why.
Ryton went straight to Plummer's office.
Beverly was eating when he entered. She stopped and looked at him.
"Keep eating," he said, and sat. "I can wait."
Plummer pushed aside her tray of sweet smelling fruit, and said, "Why wait?"
He held her stare, and then looked at her hands. "Hold up your hands, please."
She did. He reached across her desk, and slid the diamond ring off her finger. Ryton saw that the tanned skin color where the ring had been. He removed the pinkie ring and found no tan beneath it. He worried it back on, placed the diamond ring on the desk, and said, "Your hands look more symmetric now...don't you think?"
Plummer snapped, "What's your point, Free Lancer?"
He took the shorts from his pouch and shook them out. He recalled seeing a pullover top in Plummer's closet that he thought matched the shorts. He laid them on the desk next to the ring, placed the vial on the shorts’ waistband where once an ornamental abalone button was attached.
"These shorts, I believe, are yours, not a keepsake that Ms Ruccino couldn't live without."
Plummer remained quiet.
Ryton lifted the ring. He withdrew a small but powerful loupe from his pouch and examined the surface of the stones. One tanzanite was badly chipped, as if hammered. "This ring belongs to Ruccino," he said softly.
She was still silent.
He placed the ring on the center of the shorts, and then commanded, "Explain."
Beverly Plummer folded her arms across her chest. "If I disagree with your conclusions?"
He shrugged. "For starters, my report will show that you are the only person in the colony to possess civilian clothing...as per personnel manifests." He raised an eyebrow, hesitated. "If I recall correctly you stated you'd need them for impromptu business trips to Earth." He clasped his hands together and rested them on his lap. "However, according to your personal inventory, you seem to have recently added a ring to your effects."
She glanced at the ring. "Why do you think that?"
"It's not listed among your personal possessions." He quickly changed the subject. "Do you use the spa daily?"
"No. There's no time. I get in once...maybe twice a week." Something in her eyes clued him to her sudden comprehension that she'd been found out.
Ryton lifted the ring. "My report will also state that Ruccino must've recently given away her ring--which you have been wearing for several days, but not longer--as can be seen by the line of pale flesh at the base of her left ring finger, much like the lack of the same on yours.
"Her personnel record shows Ms Ruccino was engaged to a Captain in Euro-Central's Honor Guard and this ring..." he held the ring up to the light. The large central diamond caught and refracted the room's illumination. "This was the ring he gave her...wasn't it?"
When she failed to reply, he said, "Come now. It's listed as part of Ruccino's personal effects. Something you overlooked."
Plummer was sweating. He could smell it. She leaned forward and placed her arms on the desk. She spoke quietly. "No one would've believed us."
Ryton put the ring down. "Continue."
"Kingzel raped her...threatened to inform her fiancé they'd had a consensual affair if she reported him or stopped seeing him." Plummer's eyes lifted and met Ryton's. "Even I didn't know it wasn't consensual...until the..." She held his gaze and said, "Kingzel and I had once been intimate. The shorts," she glanced at the closed door to her quarters. "I'd left them there...in his room. I did not want them. Then he made a gift of them to Ruccino."
Ryton said, "I knew of your relationship with him."
Her brow pinched into a tight frown. "Why didn't you--"
"Did it upset you when you learned he and Ruccino had become intimate?"
She shook her head. "No. Not at all. Kingzel was a bastard."
His eyes did not waver from her face as he wondered why she did not reclaim the shorts, and then, with a final flash of insight, knew. He asked anyway, "Why didn't you retrieve the lavender shorts?"
"Because he'd worn them...more than once," she answered her face a mask of disgust. Then she spoke more rapidly, "I'll still swear his death was accidental. Ruccino assisted Kingzel with his equipment at his request. She had no experience with the laser-borer. He should've waited for En-Jun to help him."
"And where was En-Jun?"
"Off duty. He was ill...allergies." Her lips twitched slightly. "Check with the colony's medical staff."
Ryton knew many members of the CME refused all, but mandatory vaccination. He also knew that the colony's filtration system eliminated allergens. Then he glanced at the button, nodded slowly, and smiled as the final piece clicked into place. "Very neat. You have explained Ruccino having the shorts in her quarters. Guess Kingzel insisted she wear them the night the button was lost...while she was...entertaining him, albeit not consensual," he said, then studied her with a respect he had not felt before. He nodded sagely.
"I suppose the button could've been pulled into the ventilation system...caused a temporary malfunction and been ejected once the filtration system shut down long enough to switch over to the redundancy unit. That might've been enough time, perhaps, to cause problems for En-Jun."
He laughed dryly. "The three of you have thought of almost everything." He bit his lower lip while staring at her, and then added softly, "Except the ring."
They watched each other for several minutes. Plummer remained quiet. Finally, he told her, "You're correct. No one would have believed you. Kingzel was young, arrogant, and foolish. He did not deserve to die. However, neither did he have the right, because of his affiliation with the Hydrologist's Guild, to violate another person's...freedom. The Guild harshly punishes those who commit sexual assault. If there's a next time remember that."
She nodded. "Yes," was all she said.
"Then I'm finished." He stood, lifted the ring, and looked at it again. He set the ring on the shorts. "Tell Ruccino that in the future she's to remove her ring before performing any work assignments. That is if she asks for its return. And you, Chief Plummer, know better than to wear civilian clothing while outside your quarters...even if you're visiting after hours."
He started for her door, stopped and said, "My report will state that a tragic accident could've been avoided, but due to the Guild Member's unreasonable insistence on using inexperienced help, he caused the accident."
Ryton smiled kindly when he heard her exhale as if she'd been holding her breath for hours. He nodded, and left to decide how to spend the next two solars.