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It didn’t take long to track Christine down. I had her filed away under 'D'. 'D' for dead. She’d died last week, nothing suspicious, no trace of milk.
But she had worked with Carlos, the dead guy.
I slammed the file drawer shut and moved to the adjoining cabinet. Occupations, occupations… Video Feed Technicians. There she was. Christine Took, Audiovisual Team Leader, External Communications. And there was Carlos, her deputy.
This was one fast-dwindling section. I made a note of the other External Communications workers - a bunch of juniors newly hatched from the pod and John Home, Video Feed Consultant.
I checked the 'Dead' file again - no John Home and no hatchlings. If the external video feed was the key then only two had died so far.
I rang Twig at her lab and told her.
"What do you expect me to do about it?"
"Couldn’t you exhume Christine Took?"
"We’re in space, Tom, where do you think we bury bodies?"
This was a subject I’d not even contemplated while staring bug-eyed at a frothing mass of diced carrots in a toilet bowl. I was a detective - paid to keep the ship running smoothly, sort out petty disputes and dress smart - no one said anything about dead guy after-care.
External Communications was on Basement Level. Underground Art Town: wall to wall poets, wannabe poets and wannabe dead poets. More suicides per square inch than notes in a Jimmy Page solo.
I sashayed down Warhol, the street strewn with every form of art a drunk could conceive - shops with false doors, steps leading nowhere, doors in the ceiling. A place where shoppers were never sure if the can of soup on the counter was for sale or an exhibit.
I took the turn at Velvet and found some reality with a door attached to it. External Communications. I pushed through into a cramped room lined with video monitors and all manner of switches and dials. A couple of hatchlings looked up and quickly looked down again. An older man, a Head by the look of his clothes, was peering into the contents of a Kay West bag on his desk. Probably trying to sneak a peak at what real clothes looked like.
He almost jumped out of his Tull T-shirt.
I almost answered, ‘It’s your name,’ but stopped myself in time. There’s a time for sarcasm and, besides, he was probably deaf, what with being old and a Head. All those guitar solos with the amps cranked up to eleven - gotta be bad for the ears.
"I’m looking into the deaths of Christine and Carlos," I said, pitching my voice around the four mark on a 100-watt Marshall.
"Christine Took, she used to work here."
This had the feel of a long conversation.
"That’s why I’m investigating. Christine dead, Carlos murdered. Seems a dangerous place to work."
"No, it’s not."
He shook his head violently. There was fear in his eyes.
"Has anyone been threatening you?" I asked.
"No, never." Both words were primed and hurdling teeth before I’d even finished.
"Anyone threaten Christine or Carlos?"
"No one unusual hanging around or calling?"
Too quick, too pat. I swung round and posed the same question to the hatchlings. Their heads shot up in unison, shook a wide-eyed ‘no’ and sunk back down to whatever it was they were pretending to be doing beforehand.
I gave them a longer look, a hint of Droogie around the lapels. Never trust a dude with narrow lapels: Major’s law, second addendum.
I turned back. "How about we move you to another section for a while, John. Nothing permanent, just something to keep you safe while..."
"No!" The guy looked like he was about to freak out. "I’m the only one who can keep the Earth feed working. I can’t leave. I can’t!"
"OK, calm down." The last thing I wanted was another stiff on my hands.
"It’s not easy keeping the feed going. We have to filter the broadcasts, select the right files, enhance and decrypt. I’m training people up but they’re not ready yet."
I was surprised. "It’s not automated?"
"We tried. But it’s one of those processes done better by Mirrans."
"OK," I said, switching into old-guy calming-down mode. "You’d better stay. Can’t lose the daily feed."
He grabbed my hand. I’d never seen anyone so relieved. If he’d thanked me any more, I’d have feared for the little major.
"Thank you," he gushed. "I don’t know what I’d do without my work here. I’ve worked on this project since before the launch. I was on Mirra when the first alien signal was received. You can’t imagine what it was like back then."
I could see his eyes glaze over as he spontaneously flipped into old-guy recollection mode.
"The whole Mirran space exploration industry was on the verge of collapse, funding about to be withdrawn, everyone complaining about the lack of results. And then along came the transmissions from our Earth probe and everything changed. Suddenly we weren't alone."
As old-guy stories went, this one wasn't bad. The sentences had ends. I could even relate to the excitement of the time. I’d seen the re-runs as a hatchling. The frantic efforts to decode the signals, the hourly progress reports to a clamoring press corps.
"I was part of the team that worked on the signal decryption. For days we thought we were dealing with mathematical formulae. But no, they sent us music instead. Can you believe that? They sent us music."
His eyes misted over. I thought he was going to cry.
"And what music. It was unlike anything we’d ever heard and when we decoded the visuals…"
It was like seeing the face of God. I know, it still was.
"And after that we couldn’t get enough. We searched for anything to do with the music – the language, the references, the videos. We had to know, we had to understand where it all came from. We had nothing like it on Mirra."
Like I didn’t know any of this? I toyed with the idea of saying something but old guys are like sleepwalkers - interrupt and they croak.
"So we accelerated the space program. Took over the old Colonizer project, adapted one of their cube ships for the mission to Earth. Took its metal walkways and made them into streets, turned cells into shops and bays into blocks. Our own tiny piece of Earth to prepare us for first contact."
He grabbed me by the arm. His eyes locked onto mine. "You’ve got to understand what it was like back then. You’ve got to!"