“Procsman? Yeah, he worked here a while back, got picked up by some headhunters a couple months back.”
Miss Sarah Reginald scratched in itch on her cheek, leaning against the outside wall of her home on The Ring. The Gnu woman took a drawl from her medistick as she eyed the detective and Arbitrator from Harbington, waiting for them to finish asking their questions and leave. When it became apparent that they would want to know more, Sarah shifted her weight and slouched more against the wall.
Even with the shuttles, even with the transit system, a trip up to and through The Ring was far from a short one. Marcello had come too far to simply ask just a few questions about the whereabouts of Kris Procsman to let things go quickly. The detective watched the foreman expectantly, hands tucked into the pockets of her leather jacket. “Headhunters? Someone hired him away from you?” She asked.
“That… is just plain rude,” Eddie added, standing at Marcello’s side with his hands likewise tucked away into the pockets of his long duster coat.
“You’re damn right it’s rude,” Sarah huffed, agitated, “Shouldn’t even be legal, I say. Workers are hard enough to find without that sort of foul play going on. But nah, someone from… I think it was Ship Express, must have come around here looking for new workers.”
“Ship Express… that inter-city shipping company?” Marcello furrowed her brow, “You’re sure?”
Sarah took a moment to think, but nodded, “Yeah, that was it. There’re a lot of branches for it up here.”
“Must have,” Marcello concluded.
Sarah pushed off the wall and pocketed her stick. “You wanna check out his old cabin?” She asked, “Still haven’t managed to fill it, so I haven’t been bothered to clear it out.”
Marcello met eyes with Eddie. “Hm,” She said, “Probably isn’t much there, but it can’t hurt to check it out… Still, I’ll need to look into Ship Express. Maybe there’s something on the database, and I might be able to get a warrant to look through employee records, assuming they don’t just give it up.”
Eddie rolled his shoulders. “I could check out the cabin then, I guess,” He said, “If I find anything, I’ll bring it to you.”
“Docker’s Lounge?” Marcello tilted her head just slightly.
Eddie shrugged again, “Good a place as any.”
“Alright, I’ll meet you there,” Marcello said, “Give it about… two hours, two and a half maybe.”
They shared a nod and turned to go their separate ways.
Eddie turned to Sarah, who held an obvious look of disinterest. If it weren’t for the warrant they already had to search and question in regards to the whereabouts of Kris Procsman, she would have just left them on their own to figure things out. The last thing she needed, though, was a reputation of not co-operating with the police on top of the few missed quotas her employees had run into under her supervision. She took her time in any case, not even moving from her spot until her break was over and making Eddie wait there without even conversing with him. It was an uncomfortable silence that Eddie did his best not to look bothered by, impatient as he was to find something that might lead him to his son.
But how could she even care about something like that? While he waited, Eddie gazed out a large window to his left. The glass wall spanned several tens of feet within a sectioned out spot specifically placed for the scenic view of the planet Earth; the beautiful blue sphere planet, dotted with coloured landmasses of greens and browns, swirled over by clouds, like sugar on a treat. From way up there, there were no domes, there were no cars, no people; all that could be seen was the Earth, stark naked. The entire world could have been wiped out – silently, that is – and the people of the Ring wouldn’t even see it. Everything was so… detached.
The Inklings didn’t affect these people – supply and demand did. Workers carted in precious minerals from fly-by comets and rich asteroids for use in fabricatories, aimed at producing building materials that would then make the bulk of their society. Scientists probed the cold reaches of space from their control rooms, hoping to find something, anything that might propel them into a new age. Ironically, life from other worlds had come to them first; and not from some far-off star system, but seemingly from a whole existence apart from Earth’s own.
Being way up there, able to see nothing but stars past the planet’s horizon… it really made a man think about things. What came before, what comes after, where things will be in two thousand years, all swirling around as distant mysteries inside the head of an insignificant man who held no hope in fully comprehending their answers. Harbington, Eddie’s home, the place he’d come to represent and the people he’d come to answer to… it all seemed so small up there. None of it was anything more than a grain of sand in the desert.
The Ring was silent, even nestled well into the receiving warehouses in District 10, where Eddie tracked Kris Procsman in hopes of finding some connection to his now missing son. The emptiness of space had a way of bringing out the quiet in things, even if the station itself was a stark contrast to what humanity thought deep-space travel would have looked like. The technology that controlled climate and weather patterns in dome cities existed on the Ring. The orbital station was able to create gentle breezes, hot days, cold rain, or even snow. Sunlight was taken gratis from the giant burning ball of solar fire Earth orbited around, and specialized solar-UV lights filled in the angles the sun wouldn’t naturally reach. The looking-glass wall that lined the whole inside of the ring would tint at various times of day, creating sunset, dusk, and dawn. Paved midways were placed over real live grass, and flowerbeds, shrubs or hedges were placed particularly with a landscaper’s eye. Even trees made their appearance, causing the very breathable air to smell of bark and pines.
There were stores with wares aplenty, vehicles that travelled in a daily commute, houses, schools, and recreational areas for entertainment or study. Kids socialized, ran, played like regular kids; adults worked, and did their best as parents to raise the kids; elders passed on their wisdom as teachers and scholars. The Ring wasn’t just the most advanced space station in human history, but the largest populated city of Earth, albeit sparsely populated still. Humans had spread out from Earth, creating a balanced ecosystem that orbited the planet relatively self-sufficiently, with regular trade passing back and forth from orbit to surface. But, no matter what one did, there was always that view out of the windows overlooking Earth, reminding them with no small pride that they lived in outer space.
Eddie couldn’t have felt more out of place. Sure, the place looked like a duck, swam like a duck, and quacked like a duck… but it just wasn’t a duck. The Ring was man-made, and no amount of gussying up could make people like Eddie forget how unnatural it was… even if it was possibly one of the single greatest achievements of mankind. It felt as if a hole could rupture in the station’s hull at any second, sucking all the air out just as quickly… But the strong-force containment field rebounded small debris like a screen door keeping out flies, and any real threats picked up on long-range scanning equipment were quickly set upon by expert astro-demolitionists to be rendered inert. Eddie knew all that, he read about it all the time… but the place still put him off.
“How the heck did I even get up here…?” Eddie muttered to himself, “Damnit Eddie, you’re a politician, not a detective.”
“What, you’re one of those people-people?” Sarah snapped Eddie out of his trance and the buck turned to her quickly to see her grinning at him.
“You sure you can handle being up here all on your own?” She teased.
Eddie looked out the window again. “There’s no lengths I won’t go to get to the bottom of this,” He said, and turned his attention back to the foreman, “Let’s take a look at this cabin.”
Normally, Eddie would have been making small conversation and cracking jokes with Sarah as she led him to the worker cabins. He’d started to notice lately that he wasn’t as jovial as he normally was. Daxton’s disappearance hit him harder than he even wanted to admit to himself. He’d told his husband over and over that Daxton was an intelligent and tough kid who could take on whatever the outside world had to throw at him… but the reality was that there was no way Eddie could even know that for sure. He’d never been outside the dome for as long as Daxton already had, and there could have been any number of things that could have happened to the boy. He could have gotten attacked by animals or hurt himself and been helpless. The worst was that the aliens were still a potential threat, not the least of which being Duplex.
Try as he might, Eddie couldn’t get it off his mind. Experiences like that change people, and he’d questioned himself many times by then about what he could have done differently. His parenting techniques were never really that strict; should they have been? Was his reaction to Duplex appropriate, or should it have been different? Was he just not paying enough attention to Locksmouth and its troubles to be able to anticipate such a thing could even happen? He thought he had the answers and thought he knew that the universe was truly random and nothing could have prepared him for that… But the longer Daxton was away, the more he wondered.
Such thoughts made a trip to the cabins go by sooner than Eddie expected. He was being snapped out of his wandering thoughts by the foreman snapping her fingers in front of his face.
“You still with me? We’re here,” She said.
Eddie was standing on the fourth story balcony that made a walkway in front of individual apartments. He stood in front of a unit marked ‘407,’ flanked by neighbouring doors not too far off, telling of the small living conditions on the inside that made such a cramped formation possible. Sarah used her PET to gain access to the unit and the door slid almost soundlessly open. She let Eddie step in first. The inside had nothing really more than a living area, attached kitchenette, and a bathroom as small as possible while still meeting the building requirements to be considered “full.” It was an inglorious flat, the likes of which hadn’t been used outside of worker residence since pre-splice college dormitories. Even the students of the modern day had better, shared housing than that pitiful little place.
Still, for its shortcomings in size, the room was comfortable and clean, and the one window in the room looked out over the planet earth and the starry expanse of outer space. The bed was clean and looked inviting, and a wall-screen no doubt allowed the resident to watch various programs and news feeds from the bed’s comfort. The kitchenette, while small, was stocked respectably. Dining was done on a high-sitting chair and a small, round table, and the bathroom had a full-size fog cycle shower installed, and a sleek-looking, minimalist toilet and sink to save space. The lights acted similarly to the ones used around the Ring, emitting solar light stored and reparticalized to emulate the sun’s natural glow and healthy, dermal vitamin elements.
The space hadn’t been completely cleaned out so evidence of Kris Procsman’s living there still lingered. He was obviously fairly clean, but still disorganized enough to leave an AR controller attachment for PET games on one of the nightstands next to the bed and a couple of cans of carbonated juice sitting scattered throughout the unit. Attention was immediately drawn to the refrigerator, as on its surface were both a dry-erase board with various notes scribbled onto it and small pieces of paper attached by magnets. Eddie stepped into the kitchen around the counter to take a closer look.
The notes were mostly reminders. An old schedule was written on the dry-erase, listing dates and times Kris had been expected to work. Dinner plans, gatherings, important meetings, and other things of that nature written on paper notes were scattered over the door of the fridge in sticky fashion. It seemed that Kris Procsman was the forgetful type. Eddie opened the fridge to see it empty, closed it, and then started to thumb over the notes to see if any stood out.
“Yeah we cleaned that out,” The foreman said, “We’re not going to leave a bunch of food in there to go bad.”
Eddie was more focused on the notes by then, except he had no idea what names might stick out from all the others. He started to take them off the fridge and sort through the ones that might sound important. Anything that had a name on it stayed, all the others like “game @ 6” were discarded. “You think you can go through these and see if there’re names here that you know?” Eddie asked, “If Procsman wandered off one day, something here might have a clue as to where exactly he went or who he was getting in touch with.”
“Names that I know? What, like other employees?” Sarah stepped over to the counter and took the small stack of notes from Eddie and started to go through them. She slapped down useless ones on the counter as she went through them, listing off her association and familiarity with whatever names were written there. “Human resources, district manager… co-worker, co-worker, co-worker…” She muttered as she went.
After a short while she handed back what remained and said, “I don’t know who these people are. Maybe that’ll help.”
Eddie took the notes and saw that the collection he’d gathered up had been narrowed down to a simple four notes. The names written on them didn’t stick out in his mind, not a single one being a local resident of Harbington Dome for as much as his memory of each and every name and face there served him. He could have spent the time looking up names on his PET, but when it came to identifying people, Marcello was going to be the woman to ask. She had those weird glasses of hers connected to the P.O’s private database, after all…
Perhaps there was something else that’d stand out in that little cabin, so Eddie pocketed the remaining notes. “I’ll show these to the detective,” He said as he turned to step out of the kitchen. He began to look around the living room/bedroom area, getting down low on the floor to pull up the double-size bed’s covers and look under it. There was nothing there. People just don’t leave notes laying around anymore… That was probably the big downside to PET technology. Everything was so private, finding a physical clue like the notes on the fridge was nearly impossible. Eddie and Marcello were lucky that Kris was at least a little old-fashioned.
“So, no other reason why you think he’d leave?” Eddie asked as he stood up again and turned to the foreman, “Just his mother?”
“The guy’s a mama’s boy, she’s pretty much his reason for breathing,” Sarah shrugged, “He only worked up here for a little over two months before he took off. If he left recently, I’d understand. I’ve heard about the aliens and stuff going on down there.”
“But this was way before that,” Eddie muttered, rubbing his chin, “What about the people who hired him? Did you ever see them?”
Sarah paused. She had moved around the kitchenette counter to follow Eddie and keep an eye on him as he looked around. With that question presented, she lifted herself up and sat on the kitchen countertop, looking into the rest of the small home. “They were sneaky, I don’t really remember their faces,” She said, “They just made the rounds wherever the workers would take their breaks. Since I was stuck in my office most of the time, I never actually spoke to one of them. I only noticed the same few faces starting to hang around the warehouses, and they never stuck around long.”
Eddie sat on the bed. “So how did you know they were trying to take your workers?” He asked.
“My workers said so,” She said, “One of them reported that someone had approached her asking if she needed work. I think it was… Christie Banst.”
“Would it be possible to speak to Miss Banst?” Eddie asked. “And did she give you any details?”
“Well, sure, I guess I could hook you up,” Sarah said, “And nah, most of my workers are just focused on work. They don’t really care about stuff like that and don’t really give it any thought. By the time I knew about them though, I had five people quit, and then they stopped showing up.”
Eddie squinted, thoughts trickling through his head. “Any idea where those five people went?” He asked.
“Not my business, I can’t ask,” Sarah shrugged, “All’s I know is that Kris got picked up by Ship Express. He’s the only one that told me where he was going, the rest just quit to ‘seek other opportunities.’ At the time I couldn’t really blame them, we’d just seen an increase in shipments and we weren’t handling them very well. Priority stuff got where it was going, but we dropped the ball a couple times.”
“Yeah?” Eddie just kept that train of thought going.
“Yeah,” Sarah nodded, “We were getting a lot of stuff shipped up to be transferred across the ring so it could be dropped off again half-way across the world. We don’t usually get stuff like that too often. Just crates and crates of minerals and scrap, it was… pretty grueling, actually. So, yeah, with how hard we were pushing to meet deadlines, people quit. It just happens, I suppose. Just sucks when we’re dropping shipments off for the same businesses that end up taking our workers.”
“What, you mean places like Ship Express?” Eddie asked.
Sarah shook her head and then let it bob from side to side. “No, I mean more like construction companies and things like that,” She said, “Most people who quit here go into other labourer jobs, trades, that sort of stuff. Places like… Johnson Construction Co., Spick Public Cleaning, or U-Solv Plumbing. I think those are the bigger ones, they’re in practically every dome.”
“Makes sense,” Eddie laughed, “I guess that does suck.”
“Yeah!” Sarah nodded, pushing off the countertop and planting her boots on the floor. “So, are we done? I should get back to work.”
“I suppose we are,” Eddie said, “I’ll discuss this with Marcello and if we have any questions we’ll call your office and get a hold of you.”
“Sure, sure. Come on then,” Sarah ushered Eddie out the door and locked up the unit again once they departed.
Docker’s Lounge was where Eddie said he’d meet Marcello, so he did his best to remember the way there. It was in… one of the docking bays, the one he came in on specifically but… he didn’t remember where that was. With his lack of local knowledge, Eddie’s best bet was simply to head back to central station and get directions from there. It was just a matter of taking some of the trains; he’d figure out his way eventually. Marcello was a bit of a busy-body anyway. Even if it took an hour and a half to get just a list of names, odds were the Harbington detective got side-tracked. Her mind went a mile a minute… Eddie was expecting to have to hunker down for a long wait.
He made his way to the transit station and stood among the small collection of people waiting to board the train. Eddie pulled his PET from his duster’s inside pocket and checked the time. It was around noon… maybe some of the people there were going somewhere for lunch, maybe they were just getting off work… some of them did appear to be dressed for work, unless Ring citizens started wearing work gloves as a fashion statement. Conversation among the small group was virtually non-existent, so it left Eddie to his thoughts.
He mulled over things in the light of the station that cast heavy shadows over his contours. One of the lights was flickering, obviously in need of maintenance. The transit station was pretty dark, all things considered. It seemed like it was dug out on the edge of civilization, completely out of the way of everyone. The transit lines ran through obvious tubing, made out of some sort of glass so that looking over the boarding landing gave Eddie a view of nothing but stars, space, and an asteroid belt way out in the distance. Mars wouldn’t be swinging by to liven up the scenery for weeks yet.
So there he was in a big, brown leather duster, a necktie, and pinstripe pants, standing in outer space with a collection of warehouse workers and joe-blow maintenance people waiting for a train that travelled the outer edge of a space station. Looking at that from an objective standpoint, that should have sounded a little strange… but then, there was a lot more going on back home on Earth that was much stranger than that. Eddie still had a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that the world had come to that point.
After around five minutes of waiting, two more people joined the group at the station. Dressed in form-fitted business suits, they stepped up to either side of Eddie. One appeared to be a hare of a very nearly solid brown fur colour, with black mixed into his ears and black hair upon his head. He was dressed in a gray suit. The other was very clearly a rhino beetle, her body covered in chitin plating like armor over some parts of her body with smooth, dark skin underneath, and a big horn rising from her forehead that parted her mid-length blonde hair. She wore a dark blue suit. It was difficult to see their faces in the lighting provided and it didn’t help that they wore sleek sunglasses to cover their eyes. They stood uncomfortably close to Eddie at either side, making him feel more than a little self-conscious.
Finally the train pulled in, almost soundlessly docking to let only a couple passengers off. Everyone waiting started to pile in, but Eddie barely made it a step before he felt hands on either of his shoulders. They clapped down and held tight, making him stop with abrupt alarm.
“Edward Kemberge?” The woman said.
Not even giving Eddie a chance to answer, the hare added, “We’d like to talk to you.”
Eddie turned his head to look at the hare, but the man just kept looking forward, as if not acknowledging Eddie’s presence.
“Okay…” Eddie answered warily, “But I want to know who I’m talking to. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The pair released him, and one of them gave him a smack on the rear to get him moving into the train. Eddie couldn’t figure out which of them did it for the life of him.
He stepped into the train with his new “friends” and made his way to a seat. He was none-too-subtly urged by the pair following him to pick a spot where they could all fit, and when they allowed Eddie to settle into a seat they took their positions at either side of him once again. They sat in silence until the train’s doors closed and the whole thing started to move. The suit-wearing pair of strangers looked around the car they were in, sizing up the scarce few passengers in there with them, deciding it was safe to continue.
“We represent a group concerned heavily with the safety of Harbington Dome and its neighbouring cities,” The hare said.
“With the recent alien incursion, we’ve become even more concerned,” The beetle added.
They were very clearly talking to him, but not with him. They looked in other directions and made certain that it wasn’t evident they were in a conversation with him. One of them even had their PET out, and was making it look like they were taking a call.
“Who’s this ‘group’ of yours?” Eddie asked, “I’m familiar with all seven major political groups in Harbington, and I can’t remember a single one of them engaging in shady meetings with politicians in outer space.”
“Does it matter?” The beetle asked, “What matters is Harbington’s security.”
“And what you’re doing towards it,” The hare added.
Eddie hunched forward and rested his elbows on his legs, letting his hands hang. “What, you mean what I’m doing right now? Or in general?” He asked.
“Things are changing; big time,” The hare said, “With these Inklings on the board, the whole global situation is uneasy.”
“We don’t know what they’re going to do,” The beetle said, “Echelon and her followers claim some sort of peaceful asylum, but we can’t even be sure she’s any different than Osoth or the others – she could just be baiting us with honey.”
Didn’t rhino beetles like honey? Eddie grinned in spite of the situation.
“What I’m feeling is that you guys don’t trust them,” Eddie said, “Is it really so hard?”
“One of them ran off with the Abram girl,” The hare countered.
“And your son,” The beetle added.
Eddie’s grin was erased.
The beetle woman sat back and crossed her legs, keeping her PET cradled against her cheek. “When push comes to shove, where do you, as an Arbitrator, stand?” She asked, “If they made an attempt on your citizens, what would you do?”
Eddie got quiet.
“If Duplex turns out to be hostile,” The hare said, looking away, “If your son--”
“How did you know where I’d be?” Eddie cut the man off.
The hare shook his head, “That doesn’t matter.”
“No, you two are pretty well-informed,” Eddie said, “About me, about the Inklings…”
“It was all over the news,” The beetle shrugged.
Eddie tightened his jaw. “What do you know about my son?” He asked, firm and direct, but without looking at either of them.
The people in the suits looked at each other over Eddie’s shoulders. After a silent, uniform nod, the beetle spoke: “He’s relatively unharmed.”
“Relatively?” Eddie kept his voice down, “Are you threatening me?”
“The last reports said that he was getting… uppity,” The hare said, “Anything that’s happened, he’s brought on himself.”
“With that being said, Mr. Kemberge…” The beetle uncrossed and then crossed her legs again on the opposing side, “Things are changing; big time.”
“When push comes to shove, where will you stand?” The hare added, slouching back in a relaxed posture, “That change is coming right to your doorstep, and your citizens are going to want more than just promises. You and your fellow Arbitrators have the ability to put forth a notion that can put a stop to the dangers of alien creatures running amok. All you have to do is put forward one simple motion.”
“Weapons,” Eddie grunted, “I’m not going to be bullied into reintroducing the means for us to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
“Your fellow Arbitrators may not be so resolute,” The hare said.
“Locksmouth has already proven that we can implement these means of protecting ourselves from a threat we obviously face,” The beetle added, “It’s already being considered. Just a short while ago, Locksmouth’s shopping mall came alive as a result of those Inklings, and a young man lost his life.”
“That alone should be enough to persuade you,” The hare said.
As an Arbitrator, Eddie wasn’t going to stand for threats. As a father, he wasn’t going to let them get away with it. He reached out in a snap motion that had him gripping the hare’s necktie in a second, taking the man off guard with a sudden yank that tightened the tie like a noose around his neck. The hare’s body jerked toward Eddie, his glasses falling askew and revealing his eyes. The taller, fitter buck stared right into those eyes, a look of his own spelling out anger and fatherly passion for protecting his son. The hare just stared up at Eddie, while the beetle at Eddie’s other side seemed totally unconcerned about what was occurring. She made no action against Eddie whatsoever.
“Where is he?” Eddie growled.
“He’s not hurt, and if you don’t do anything stupid, he’ll find his way home,” The beetle bobbed her foot.
A ding sounded on the train’s PA. “Now arriving at Central Station. Now arriving… at Central station,” An announcement went out, stopping the whole exchange and causing all three of them to look up towards the speakers.
“I believe that’s your stop, Arbitrator,” The hare managed past a choke.
The beetle said, “Your kid’s a tough one. We’re making sure no permanent harm comes to him. Temporary, perhaps, but we’re trying to make sure he won’t need any more STOPs. Just remember not to get in our way, and we won’t have to do anything we’ll all regret.”
Eddie felt a cold metal push into the back of his neck, and a sudden jolt turned his muscles into putty. He released the hare’s tie and nearly crumpled to the floor, but he was caught by the suit-wearing pair before he could hit the bottom. They hauled him up onto his feet and dragged him to the train’s doors as the train pulled into Central Station. The doors opened and Eddie found himself harshly deposited onto the boarding platform, thrown onto the ground where he laid out on his front unable to move. His assailants had nothing more to say, rather they just let the doors close again in silence and the train took off with Eddie stuck laying there on the ground.
“Awgh, shit…” Eddie grunted. He must have gotten hit by a neurod. His arms and legs weren’t responding to him, and for as far as he could turn his head there seemed to be no one else around to help him.
“Daxton…” Eddie grunted as he tried to turn his torso, trying to flex his shoulders so that he could roll himself onto his back. “Daxton…!” He grunted again, struggling until he let out an exhausted breath and lay flat on his front on the dirty boarding platform. He panted for breath, staring out toward the lit entrance into the Ring’s more populated residential area.
“PET… voice code seven, five, nine, two, seven. Call Marcello,” He panted.
He laid there listening to the soft beeps of his call waiting to be answered. “Pick up,” He said aloud, “Pick up damnit.”
Eddie waited and waited for what felt like forever. Suddenly, the call clicked.
“You’ve got Marcello,” Came the detective’s voice.
“Marcello!” Eddie shouted.
“Leave a message after the beep!” The rest of Marcello’s message played. Eddie’s fears were realized at the sound of a tone.
“God… damnit… Paris!!”
“Look, I didn’t come here for attitude,” Marcello said, crossing her arms, “I’m on an investigation, approved by your local law enforcement, and all I’m asking is one simple question: does Kris Procman work for you?”
The desk worker shrugged her shoulders, leaning on the desk and folding her arms. Her brilliant blue tail feathers fanned out behind her in a cheeky display, and she just shook her head. “I’m afraid employee information is private,” She said, her blue hair tossed to one side of her head, covering half of the peacock’s pink-feathered face, “I’m not allowed to just give out that sort of information.”
“I don’t think you get it,” Marcello sighed, pulling her PET out of her jacket’s inside pocket. She swiped her fingers in frustrated flicks across the screen before she found the file she was looking for. Holding the device out, a large holographic projection of the official Police Emblem appeared in the air in front of the woman’s face, along with scores of scrolling text that went by too quickly for most people to read. “With the power of the Harbington Police Department, officially recognized by the Global and Astrological Law Committees, and with the cooperation of the Ring Security Core, I, Detective Paris Marcello, recognized Officer by the people and public of Harbington Dome City, am granted this warrant permitting access to public or private records in regards to the investigation currently underway. Such investigation now involves Ship Express due to a suspect’s involvement with the company. Ship Express is encouraged to cooperate fully with the working investigator – me – to see any request for such information to its end for the purposes of evidence collection. Kris Procsman has been said to work at these premises, at some time if not at present, and I wish to know if this statement holds truth. Do know that failure to tell the truth, or withholding any information requested, is considered in the eyes of the law to be an Obstruction of Justice and can be met with charges.”
“So, let me ask you again, Miss Fetcher: did Kris Procsman work here?” Marcello asked again.
The receptionist looked far from impressed, especially since other customers in the building had begun to stare. Marcello’s eyes remained locked on the peacock woman’s own, ignoring not only her annoyed stare but the gawking from those around her. The receptionist sighed and turned her chair to face the nearby console, which she began to type on. Her fingers moved swiftly, and she sighed more than once to express her agitation as she performed a search through employee records. Satisfied, Marcello pocketed her PET and her warrant.
“Kris… Procsman?” The receptionist clicked her tongue, “Is that spelled with a ‘C?’”
“A ‘K,’ actually,” Marcello leaned against the counter.
“And Procsman, is that with a ‘K?’” The woman asked, sparing no effort to sound snarky.
Marcello shook her head. “Just with a ‘C,’” She answered.
The peacock sniffed. “Kris was transferred last month,” She said, turning her chair back to face Marcello.
The detective gave the woman a few seconds before cocking a brow. “Wheeeeere?” She asked.
The receptionist barely hid her eye-roll as she turned back to the screen. “Transferred to an affiliate,” She said, “External.”
Marcello turned her hands up in a shrug. “What does that mean?” She asked, “Where did he go, for the love of Pete?”
The receptionist shrugged and looked up toward a display monitor that was fixed to the ceiling and hung down far enough to be level with her desk. She flicked her wrist out as if to display what was on the monitor with some semblance of flair. The monitor’s image switched from shipping rates to a collection of business names and logos. “Ship Express and these affiliates are subsidiary under the parent corporation Lowe-Tec Co.,” She explained masterfully through a groan.
Marcello turned her attention to the collection of logos and business names, counting perhaps twenty-two in all. Fabricatory metalworking, painters, plumbing, building construction, insulators, automotive repairs, landscapers, industry technicians, shipping and receiving, and couriers; every company plastered on that view screen dealt in manual labour. She peered a little closer at one logo for a company called Spacey Repertory Industrial. The logo was a 3-dimensional cube with two visible sides, an ‘S’ on one and an ‘R’ on the other, with an ‘I’ making up the division between the two. She’d seen that logo before, but she needed to remember where. Her eyes unfocused as her thoughts sank back into her head, and her gaze flicked left and right as if trying to sort through the mess.
Where had she seen that before…?
Closing her eyes, she tapped her temple, pondering. The thought came to her in an image of the warehouse in Locksmouth that had been stripped completely bare. That logo was on the keep out sign she had blatantly ignored.
She blinked her eyes open and put her hands on the view screen, studying more logos there.
There had been others from that same list on the almost disorganized mess of papers in Marcus Florence’s garage, strewn about his model gun crafting workshop. The one that stood out was DuraMold, a company that designed object molds for fabricatory and workshop use. She’d only seen the logos at a passing glance, but they showed up perfectly in her mind. The detective had a picture-perfect eidetic memory, and could remember any scene she had personally been a part of with the utmost clarity. The real trick was forgetting them, but the unlikely gift came in handy in her line of work.
She was drifting away in thought, and was only snapped out of her memory-plunge by the snotty peacock receptionist. “Are you okay?” She asked, disingenuously.
Marcello shook her head quickly, blinking the light from her esca out of her eyes. “Lowe-Tec Co., huh?” She rubbed her eyes a little and nodded to herself, turning blindly away from the desk. “I guess I’ll need to track Kris down that way. Thanks for your… cooperation.”
“Mm,” The peacock hummed and waved before calling for her next customer.
Marcello stepped out of the tiny office building in nearly a daze. Lowe-Tec Co., to her knowledge, was a very prominent manager of trades and services the world over. Maybe eight times out of ten, if she were to call for some sort of work done at her home, she would have gotten some employee from one of Lowe-Tec’s various subsidiary companies. That was about the extent of her knowledge, however. Reaching that point, Marcello produced her ARID glasses interface from her jacket’s inside pocket and put it on. She pulled the glove used to control it out of her side pocket and slipped it onto her hand.
She had all publicly available files on Lowe-Tec pulled up so she could get a better look. What became readily apparent immediately was the amount of revenue the company generated. In a time where manual labour was in short supply, Lowe-Tec came out on top of all other major labour administrations by a pretty wide margin. One reason for that was that it had the highest number of employees of any company in any dome in any corner of the world. The second reason was that the company had been founded several hundred years in the past, supposedly around the time humans entered the post-splice era.
Public advertisements toted the company as having a deep foundation in “what’s important.” What it deemed as “important” were the people who literally built society from the ground up after the Skin Plague ravaged humanity. It may have sounded like a bunch of blown-up hyperbole and ego-stroking, but it wasn’t wrong. Labour and trades continued to be some of the most important work since scientists started reverse-engineering old technology they dug up. The more humanity went forward, the higher the demand for a strong and skilled pair of hands got.
Harbington was a very “hands on” dome. Aside from a great agriculture, it boasted some of the highest numbers when it came to citizens entering manual labour jobs. The statistics were literally right there in front of Marcello’s face, hovering in front of her field of vision in projections on the lenses of her ARID interface. All it really spelled out though was that Lowe-Tec was a very powerful company. People were power in that present day and age. The more people someone could boast “having,” the better-off they were. It’d been that way since humans started having sub-species.
It was just that kind of entity who had the power to make illegal weapons. It just wasn’t realistic to think that some small sect of odd-ball terrorists had the means and resources to construct things like the Anti-Personnel Strong-Force Rifle Mk. 20. That sort of tech, that sort of know-how, it could only be made in a collective effort, by someone who “had” a lot of people. The problem in that idea was that Lowe-Tec had twenty-two companies and businesses under its umbrella. Marcello couldn’t just go after the top, not without having some kind of hard evidence that it had been involved in that sort of foul-play. For all she knew, it could have been someone in the middle that had started everything… She had to find out more, though her search was at least narrowed somewhat.
“… Wait a minute,” Marcello muttered, “Marcus makes them himself. So why did he…?”
She stopped mid-thought as she very nearly ran into a truck. She stepped backward suddenly to look up and see the trailer of a very large PeTra, labelled as being a public spaces cleaning company called Street Sweep Ltd. She grunted, taking off her sunglasses and looking at the truck. When she noticed a worker hopping out of it with a massive, backpack-mounted machine that held a spinning brush like a portable buzz saw, she met eyes with the man. He approached, wearing his cleaner’s jumpsuit and hat, appearing to be some kind of feline.
“Sorry lady,” He said, “Street’s closed.”
Well, damn. They were in the way of Marcello’s getting back to the Docker’s Lounge.
“Know any detours to get to Docker’s?” She asked.
The cleaner paused a moment and then turned to point down a side-way. “Yeah if you head down that way, and turn left after the first building, you’ll hit an access path between the buildings that can get you around,” He said, “You can’t miss it, it’s got blue lights.”
“Thanks,” Marcello gave the man a salute and turned to head across. Passing the midway, she hit the other side of the street and kept walking, getting back to her musings.
She passed by the first building on her left and stopped to look down the access pathway that would lead her toward her destination. The cleaner was right when he said there were blue lights… that’s all there was. The gated pathway, its barred door remaining open for access, was very barely lit by blue lighting at the entrance, and at two points down the way before it hit a corner. There was a lot of darkness in between, patches filled with dark shadows, looking like the ground just disappeared until it hit light again. Everything was quiet, aside from the hums and idle clicks and creaks of various space station equipment – things in the walls that kept the air breathable and the light bearable. It was all kinds of creepy, but fortunately Marcello was far from deterred in the face of darkness. When she stepped into the access, the light from her esca bathed the darkness in pale blue light, allowing her to see several feet in front of her.
“Eddie’s going to flip when he hears this theory,” The detective muttered to herself as she passed through the access in a casual stride, “Some big mega corporation, behind illegal arms manufacturing. Man, I can only hope. That’d make my career. No one would even come close. Ha, then even Murph would have to give me a little credit.”
“Hm,” Marcello puckered her lips as she squinted in sudden thought.
She glanced sideways without turning her head when she heard what sounded like a metal tube clink and clatter, falling to the metal flooring of the access pathway. That’s right… Street Sweep was a subsidiary under Lowe-Tec. Its logo was one of the twenty-two listed on that view screen. Now she’d been lead down a dark passageway with someone now stumbling around in the dark after her. She could hear their footsteps, even though they were trying to be quiet.
It seemed that someone knew she’d be around. That was… more than a little concerning.
Marcello reached for her hip, and turned just in time with her neurod to block a blow aimed for the back of her head. Raising the metal rod, it clanked against another metal rod, one probably used in the construction of catwalk guard rails or something of the like. Her assailant, now lit by the light of her esca, was a suit-wearing someone, some sort of rodent type she couldn’t quite get a good look at who was wearing sunglasses to partially hide their face. They were pretty strong and they tried to force Marcello back by pushing their interlocked metal rods like a couple of crossed swords. How cheesy. Marcello planted her feet in just the right way so their leverage was halted, then released one hand from her neurod to pull her attacker’s glasses off and toss them away.
With a push, they separated, stumbling back away from one another to grant them maybe a few feet worth of space.
Marcello quickly put her ARID glasses back on, and tilted her head just so her esca waved around in front of her toward her attacker. “Voice code flashbang!” She yelled, and that fist-sized, glowing bauble would burn up with a greater energy, and discharge a blinding flash of light in an instant that caught her attacker off guard. The detective hardly missed a beat, quickly thrusting a kick into the side of her opponent to make him cringe, and then applied a second combat boot to his gut to knock the wind out of him and his sails. The suit-wearing rodent crumpled to the ground, coughing and gasping for breath.
“You, sir, are under arrest for attempted assault and battery toward an officer of the law,” Marcello panted, stepping forward and over the rodent. She dropped her weight quickly, slamming into his back and taking him to the ground, pinning him beneath her as she sat straddled over his back. She took one of the man’s arms in a rough twist to wrench it behind his back just as she’d found her handcuffs.
The next sound Marcello heard was something like the ringing of a bell, except much duller. A metal object struck the back of her head, instantly sending her world into a ringing haze as pain spread out over her cranium, and she felt the cold sensation of her blood coming into contact with the open air. Woozy, she fell slack onto the ground, and in her disorientation she struggled to stand again, kicking her feet a little against the flooring in an attempt to turn her body in… whatever way was right-side up. She wasn’t quite sure in that moment just where that was, and the buzzing pain in her head making her limbs and neck tingle was far too distracting to allow a clear thought.
The man she’d blinded was stumbling to his feet just in her sight, and she watched his feet step about until he got his bearings. The man reared his leg back and kicked her in the stomach, forcing the air in her lungs to sputter out of her mouth in a wheeze. She wrapped one arm around her abdomen as her chest burned, lungs crying out in desperation to take in air once again. To her credit, she kept her grip on her neurod, and used it to anchor herself to the ground. Pushing her weight she rose maybe a few inches before a foot pinned her head to the floor, stepping firmly on her temple to keep her still. The pressure made her head throb and her vision blur.
“Nothing personal, detective,” Marcello heard a voice, punctuated by the slamming of a metal rod down in front of her face. The impact sound made her ears ring, and she clenched her eyes shut.
“Just relax,” The voice said again, “Don’t get up. You’re rushing a little too quickly, take it easy for just a little while.”
ARID was flashing warning signs in Marcello’s face, red exclamation points informing her that she was in imminent danger. She heaved out some kind of grunt and tried to roll her body over, trying to get out from the boot keeping her down and trying to get up again. Her efforts were met with another kick in the stomach, one that made her gasp sharply and widen her eyes in parts disbelief and agony. At that point if she got any more than a fraction of a breath, her ribs ached and her lungs protested. Still, she grit her teeth, tasting iron in her breath, and forced herself to roll onto her back. Her attackers stepped off, and stared down at her as she laid out on her back just staring back up at them.
Her attackers looked to one another, nodded, and then the one holding the metal rod raised their foot and brought their boot down on her face.
Consciousness throbbed back into Marcello’s head. Her ears burned and her face ached with swollen pain. The worst headache mingled with the soreness of a bruised abdomen. Her PET echoed in the access hallway, ringing as a call came through. The ringing eventually stopped, at least in her PET, but she heard a pitch in her ears she just couldn’t shake. Her limbs felt tired, but she bent her knees anyway, placing her feet flat down on the ground and keeping her knees risen. She dared not to curl them in toward her chest, or she felt like she might suffocate.
“Hnnnh…” She heaved, her breath tightening her abs and flexing them around bruised tissue that burned in the effort. Her PET started to ring again. She snorted and threw one of her arms over her chest, her shoulder feeling a sting, and her chest tightening. Her fingers clawed at the outside of her leather jacket, her gloves sliding over the material several times before she had the sense to reach under it and into the pocket. Barely opening her eyes, she stared at the backlit screen and the image of a cheery Harbington Arbitrator. Her hand shook as she used her thumb to answer the call. She swallowed a mouthful of spit and metallic taste and grunted.
“Detective Hard Knocks…” She wheezed.
“Marcello, I’ve been calling you forever!” Eddie sounded distraught, “We need to talk.”
“Can you… can you come get me?” The detective rubbed the bridge of what would have been her nose, between her eyes.
“What?” Eddie asked.
“Met some nice suits little while ago…” Marcello answered.
Eddie let out a breath, “Wow, no… damn… Where are you?”
Marcello’s eyes tried to shut, but she struggled to keep them open. “Mrphrmn…” She mumbled.
“Paris?” Eddie said, “Paris?!”
Marcello’s head wasn’t listening to her anymore. Her PET dropped and clattered onto the metal plated flooring.
“Shit,” Eddie hissed, “Paris hold on! I’ll come find you!”
Back home in Harbington, Edward gripped the handle of his frying pan as tightly as he possibly could. With his back pressed up against the kitchen cupboards, he tried to find the courage to look just around the corner. Doing so would show him his back yard through the glass pane doors, where a monstrous alien creature was stomping around. Edward tried to rationalize with himself: the creature wasn’t really doing anything. It had literally shuffled its way into the back yard on its big, clumsy red legs and was aimlessly wandering around the flower garden Edward tended to out back. Every now and then the creature would squat down, look around, and then rise slow and lumbering to shuffle around some more. To be honest, Edward wasn’t even sure what it was doing.
It had no nose, only one eye, and flipper-like arms that couldn’t grab anything very well. Whenever it tried to grab some flowers it just bat them around until the soil came up and the flowers were strewn about the flowerbed. Then it’d get up and stomp all over them until the flowers were pressed flat with the dirt.
“I-It’s going to eat me,” The beaver trembled, “After it’s done messing up the garden I’ve looked after all my married life.”
Edward’s top was starting to feel gross with how nervous he was. Even if most of Edward’s torso was exposed aside from a strip across his chest that looped around his sides and dipped down over his tailbone, and his shorts were barely able to be considered clothing with how little they covered, he was sweating like he was wearing pounds of winter clothing. His scalp felt itchy and his hair was all frazzled. He had to swallow his courage just to peek around the corner to see the shuffler going about its business in the yard, dumbly lumbering around.
The thing looked like a giant lump of chewing gum with some barely defined musculature. Edward ducked back around the corner of the counter and looked at his frying pan. It wasn’t going to be enough to protect himself with, was it?
“Ohhhh,” Edward whined, “Where’s Eddie when I need him? Eeeeuah…”
He’d already tried calling the police and no one answered.
He took a deep breath and rested his head back against the cupboard. “Okay,” He said, “Okay. I’ll just sneak out. Then I’ll… I’ll run to the trans station. Yeah. Then I’ll go into town and get the police. U-Unless the station’s down. Oh… W-Well then I’ll just run into town and… Nnnh, but if there’re more of those things… Gnnnngh, this is the worst. I am not having fun. I want this to be over now.”
Edward may not have been sure of what to do, but he became very sure that he wasn’t staying downstairs any more. His plan was to hurry upstairs and lock himself in his bedroom and never come out again. To that end, he pushed away from the cupboards and spread his body out over his kitchen’s hardwood flooring. He began shuffling on his elbows and knees to crawl his way toward the stairs while keeping his frying pan clutched tightly in his hands. He rushed, scooching toward the island counter installed in the kitchen. It had an opening underneath where various cooking utensils often hung. That made for a hole to climb through rather than just go around the counter, so he tried that. Very carefully he slipped his torso in under the hanging spatulas and serving spoons after pushing his pan through.
He planted his hands on the ground and very slowly inched his way through. His head and shoulders cleared the hanging obstacles, and he flexibly arched his back to roll his torso through. He kept his hips as low as possible to get the rest of him through, and that’s where he encountered some difficulty. His body widened considerably around the hips. It was something his husband very much appreciated. Unfortunately those wide, rolling, beaver hips and the thick, generous rear they held up made passing the rest of the way through that narrow space impossible. His butt bumped up against the utensils, knocking two or more of them loose to fall and clatter onto the floor. Edward tensed at each sound as if he’d just broken glass, clenching his eyes shut and gritting his teeth to wait for the worst of it to be over.
Edward opened one eye before the other after a tense moment of silence. He lifted his ears, and he listened. Had that monster not heard…?
“AHH!” Edward screamed when the monster slammed its bulky weight against and broke through the glass door with relative ease. He bolted forward, knocking the rest of the utensils to the floor, and stopping with a jerk as his hips caught on the edges of the counter’s small opening. He pulled forward with his arms, trying to twist and roll his hips to work them through the opening. All he really succeeded in doing was getting further stuck. Looking back, the massive read ogre began dragging its feet through the kitchen, pushing broken glass around without a care for it.
Edward panicked. He started kicking his feet and grunting as he did everything in his power to get free… but he just couldn’t!
Why hadn’t he just gone around the counter?!
The shuffling alien approached him, and leaned over him. Its eye studied him, the beady little iris moving every which way to study both Edward and his predicament. It twisted and leaned its strange body in a curious motion as it studied Edward, and the little beaver didn’t stop struggling for a second to get way from the monster even though it had made no effort to actually touch him.
Edward watched the alien as it rose and slowly shuffled around behind him, back to where his legs stuck out on the other end of the counter. If he wasn’t sweating enough before, he had certainly started then! He wasn’t sure what it was doing back there, but when one of its legs nudged his hip, he began to bat his broad, flat tail around like wild to combat the thing. The shuffler behind him reared back a little at the sudden frantic motion, but ultimately wasn’t deterred from whatever course of action it was taking. Finally finding Edward to be a little threatening, the lumbering beast rose one of its thick flippers and slammed it down on the countertop, shaking the whole island in the process.
“EEK!” Edward screamed, “Go away! Leave me alone!”
The alien beast continued to slam its weighty arms onto the countertop, trying to pummel the linoleum. It actually began to splint pieces of the wood that made up the actual counter, causing the top of it to buckle in due to the tremendous strength of the alien’s blows. This just wedged the small opening tighter around Edward, getting him really stuck with no hope of getting free without help. The beaver kicked his feet and flailed his arms, starting to yell profanities in a panic.
That was when his front door flew open with a mighty crash. Edward couldn’t see down the hall, but it didn’t take long for a collection of armed men and women to run inside. Edward froze with his jaw gaping as he witnessed what looked like a small police unit rush inside, all shouting and hut-hutting, all wearing belts packed with utility and devices both recognizable and not. Combat fatigues made their bodies look thick, as did the padded body armor they wore, and the hard helmets that covered most of their heads. The most alarming was that they were in fact very armed – more-so than any officer would have ever been. They had guns… real guns, which they trained on the monster and started to fire.
The waves of energy sailed through the air, whistling as they did. The shots hit the creature, took chunks out of the wall, blew the faucet off the sink, shattered the cookie jar, punched a hole through the kitchen window, and battered the living hell out of the upper cupboards, making glasses, mugs, and plates and bowls rain down and smash all over the place. The creature, struck repeatedly by the shots, emit a loud, almost goofy, hideous honking sound. Edward couldn’t see it - or the gunmen anymore for that matter because he ducked and threw his arms over his head – but the alien creature stumbled and started to try and shield itself from the concussive shots.
“STUN IT!” Yelled one of the gunmen, and Edward heard several more projectiles crash into his kitchen and the alien monster honk again. Thrown weights wrapped around the beast’s limbs with wire, and then with a rising pitch, electrocution. The monster let out its bellowing cry in such a strange manner as the electricity coursed through its body, audibly zapping it all over. It seemed to drag on forever, but when the sounds ended, the last thing heard was a mighty thud as the beast’s massive form hit the floor like a falling tree.
“AAAAGGHH STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT!” Edward yelled, cringing so tight he thought his whole body might cramp up, “GO AWAY GO AWAY!”
“Sir! SIR! SIR!” One of the armed enforcers ducked down at Edward’s side. When they tried to grab hold of Edward’s wrist, the hysterical beaver began to violently fail.
It took four of them just to calm him down, and the whole team of six to get him free.
As Edward was escorted out of his own house by one of his very questionable saviors, he looked to the man, an older-looking bulldog.
“Who are you people? What’s going on?” He asked, “And where did you get those weapons?! Those aren’t… those aren’t legal around here or… or around anywhere!”
“Yeah well there wasn’t aliens before either,” The man answered, “We have it all under control.”
Edward looked back into his house as the alien beast was fixed to what looked like a metal stretcher big enough to fit its bulk. It was strapped and bolted in, and then lifted on gravity skiffs and carted off with an entourage of four very out-of-place soldier-types. Edward looked distraught as he stared, watching the group pass him, where they took the creature to be loaded up on a PeTra that looked modified to be an armored vehicle. It was much bigger and bulkier than any vehicle he’d ever seen, and he couldn’t help but think that the alien being loaded onto the truck appeared more like a prisoner than a criminal in the presence of such a force.
“No, no! But…!” Edward turned his attention back to the bulldog.
“Remain calm, sir,” The bulldog said, raising a hand authoritatively, “We’re in charge of rounding up the aliens, just come with us and you’ll be safe. We’ll take you to a safe area.”
“Safe area?!” Edward gaped, “What are we, being invaded?”
“Could be, sir,” The soldier answered.
“That still doesn’t answer…!” Edward started.
“Come along, sir,” The bulldog said, placing his hands on Edward’s shoulders and pushing him toward the transport.
“Now hold on just a darn minute!” Edward shouted as he was pushed along, and thoroughly ignored, “I said wait, just wait a minute buster, you’re not just going to push me around like some kind of bully just because you’re all big and bad with your SUPER ILLEGAL weaponry! Where’s my husband?! Ooh, he’ll give you such a talking to when he gets back, I swear he will!”
Edward continued to yell even as the soldiers opened the transport’s back door and guided him inside to sit down in a passenger cabin that was outfitted with bench seating in a small compartment, with only a privacy screen looking into the front compartment of the vehicle. With no windows to be seen, Edward was left to the inside lighting of the passenger cabin when the door closed, and he was left alone in a glorified box that sat between the soldier’s riding compartment and wherever they stuck the large alien creature. Edward piped down once he realized that no one was going to listen to him, and he hunkered down quietly as the soldiers packed into their compartment and the vehicle started moving again.
Not knowing where he was headed, Edward just sat tight and tried to map out which turns he was taking. The soldiers in the next compartment talked among themselves, but the divider was just thick enough to muffle their voices and make their discussion unclear. Edward breathed a big sigh, trying to settle his discomfort. Unable to understand the situation at hand, he knew answers wouldn’t come any quicker by making a fuss. Surely when he reached the supposed “safe area,” he’d get some more answers.
There weren’t any places in Harbington that could comfortably house the entire population of the dome, but only one place came close: the Harbington University assembly hall. The large building, nestled on-campus, normally housed sporting events, pep rallies, and guest speakers. Edward had been there at a few points during his youth, particularly when he fell in with an older pack of University students back when he was in high school. After he grew up and got married, he never expected to go back unless his son pursued that level of education – he never expected to be hustled there during an alien invasion on the dome. When he stepped out of the vehicle upon arrival, he stared slack-jawed at the scene.
It was like something out of a disaster movie. More citizens than he thought could crowd in front of the hall were displaced outside. Families huddled on blankets on the hard, paved ground while others had retreated as far as the perimeter allowed them to so they could comfortably sit in the grass. The area was buzzing like an angry beehive, bustling with activity. Several citizens crowded more armed soldiers like the ones that had saved Edward from an encounter with the alien creature. The soldiers stood stalwart in a noticeable loop around the area, and vehicles like flatbed trucks and carriers like the one Edward arrived in had been parked on the university grounds in such a way to act as a barricade and funnel. Citizens were herded into the assembly hall with seemingly no sense of election. One citizen may have been allowed inside, while others were forced to stay out at random.
Edward took a few cautious steps forward on bare feet toward the assembly hall, turning his head to try and listen to the soldiers as they ordered one another around. After dropping Edward off, one got back into the vehicle and drove away under orders to put the alien into some sort of containment. Edward tried to watch the vehicle and get a sense of where it was headed, but was moved along by more armed men and women. Herded like a calf, Edward stepped deeper into the crowds where the sounds of his thoughts were drowned out by wary murmurs and concerned voices. He could only pick out a few pieces here and there to get a sense of what everyone was feeling.
“It was so scary!” One poor third-grader cried as she clung to her mother.
“I saw a swarm of those spider ones,” Said another man, discussing his encounter with the alien beasts.
“Who are the heck are you people?!” An angry man shouted at a soldier, locking them in a struggle to try and calm the man down.
Edward searched the crowd, sifting through familiar faces. Briar the bakery owner was there, as well as several faculty members from Daxton’s school. The high school principal duck, Miss Ross, stood watch over a group of teenagers sitting spread out over the grass on the very edges of the area. Darcy, the manager of the “Café in the Sticks” stood with a collection of other local business owners, discussing something with a look of urgency. Edward kept looking until he saw one man in work coveralls keeping to himself among the crowd, which wasn’t unusual for the old Lemming.
“Gerald!” Edward called out, and Gerald Baxter turned to face him with a rise of his bushy eyebrow.
“Oh, Ed,” The man gruffed.
Edward approached uneasily. “Just what in the world is going on here?” He asked, “I mean, it’s obvious the aliens got into the dome, but… what is all of this?”
Gerald shrugged and crossed his arms, tugging on the rolled-up sleeve of his work uniform. “Looks like some kind of army,” He said, “Maybe they’re from Locksmouth. Nobody’s really sure when they showed up. We called the police when we found some grabby-goop in the vents at the Weather Station and these guys showed up instead.”
“Instead?” Edward repeated, “What are the police doing?”
“Working to help, at this point,” A voice cut in. Edward quickly turned to see a black feline with salt and pepper hair done up in a ponytail, dressed in familiar, and safe, blue officer’s uniform.
Edward blinked. “Oh, you’re… um…” He scratched his face as he puzzled for a name.
“Lieutenant Terry Blackwell,” The woman nodded, “And you’re Edward Kemberge, the Arbitrator’s husband, correct?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Edward said, “Lieutenant, what’s going on?”
Blackwell took a deep breath and planted her hands on her hips as she scanned the crowd. “Over the past few days, alien sightings similar to the one Mason showed everyone at the town meet the other week have started to go up. Somehow the creatures left over from Locksmouth’s alien invasion have been funneling their way here.”
“I thought the dome was closed off,” Gerald butt in, his bushy brown mustache raising as he curled his lip into a judgmental pout, “Nothing in or out. How’d they show up?”
“I don’t know,” Blackwell said, “We have no idea.”
Gerald huffed. “Let my son get out, let the aliens in,” He grumbled, “Incompetent boobs.”
“Gerald,” Edward placed a hand gently on Gerald’s forearm and the stocky lemming simmered down, “When did these… these soldiers start showing up? Who are they?”
Blackwell kept her attention elsewhere as she stalled for an appropriate answer. “We have theories,” She said, “But as of right now the group’s name and affiliation are unknown. Who they are or who they work for, we don’t know. They have weapons though, and that’s concerning…”
Edward barely got to turn before little Valyrie Lavinia attached herself to his hip. He nearly stumbled, but managed to keep himself up. The little giraffe stared up at him with her big blue eyes, her pigtails dangling around as she tilted her head back and forth. “Edward do you know where these guys got all the guns? I thought Eddie said no guns,” She said.
“That’s what we heard last,” Eden’s honeyed voice joined in when she approached with her husband, and Valyrie’s father, Gunther. The older-looking male giraffe in his dirty work clothes and his younger-looking, dress-wearing belle looked to Edward expecting an answer.
“I don’t know!” Edward sighed, exasperated, “There was no vote on this, I would have heard about it! And Eddie would have never allowed it, never in a million years. If he was here right now he’d be losing his mind.”
“Well where is he?” Gunther asked.
Edward pointed up toward the sky. “In space! He’s been there since yesterday!” He said.
“Arbitrator Kemberge went to the Ring to assist our local detective on an official investigation,” Blackwell said, “They were due back today, but with everything that’s going on the local lifts are out of order, I’m afraid. Edward, how much about the investigation do you know? Did your husband tell you anything?”
Gunther rolled his eyes, “Ugh, he’s stuck up there with her?”
Edward shook his head. “He wasn’t allowed, so he didn’t tell me anything,” He said, “I have no idea what he’s doing up there. All I know is that it’s supposed to be helping find our kids.”
“And what have the police been doing all this time, huh?” Gerald asked, “Where are our kids?”
“Yeah! Where’s Laila?!” Valyrie released Edward and stomped her boot on the ground, one of the straps of her overalls swinging around in her outrage, “She’s been gone forever!”
Blackwell raised her hands to hush the group. “Please, I’m going to have to ask you guys to wait with those questions,” She said, “For now, we have to focus on what’s going on right here. When things have settled down we can answer your questions. Right now, just sit tight and do what these soldiers say. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
“You can’t just expect us to…!” Gerald started.
“Just do what they tell you, they at least seem to know what they’re doing,” Blackwell ordered. She turned and left the group to themselves then, pushing her way through the crowd toward the assembly hall.
Edward looked to the faces of the rest of the group and asked, “Has anyone seen Walter and Paula? Or Mason? Especially Mason?”
Blackwell pushed her way through the gathering until she reached the big double doors entering the assembly hall. A guard raised a hand to try and stop her from entering, probably out of reflex, but stopped when they saw her uniform and let her pass. Blackwell entered the packed hall, the lights mostly darkened except for the spotlights that cast large beams of light down upon the central performance area. It was still done up in the stylings of a Netball court, but it was far from hosting any games. Instead the area had been turned into a make-shift survival shelter and home base for whatever group at come in to save the day. Stepping around citizens who sat slumped against the bleachers in the entrance hall, Blackwell stepped out into the spotlights and surveyed the surrounding situation, as well as looking for whoever might be in charge. She almost missed her Chief of Police discussing something with one of the armed soldiers.
“Chief,” Blackwell pushed past groups toward Police Chief Reynolds. The normally stoic Rottweiler looked exhausted, and when Blackwell approached, the soldier conversing with the chief quietly stepped away.
“Lieutenant,” Chief Reynolds breathed. When Blackwell gave a salute, she wearily returned it before downing her uniform’s hat again, “Any problems?”
“The only problem we’re having is information,” Blackwell reported, “The people are following instruction and no one seems to be doing anything rash. More and more people are coming in by the hour, and I’ve heard reports that the other safe areas are funneling people in. Current headcounts are reporting that over twenty-five hundred citizens are accounted for collectively.”
“Good, then we can start focusing our efforts on sweeping the dome,” The Chief said, “And root out any other alien threats.”
“Chief, with all due respect, what are we doing?” Blackwell asked, “Why are we leaving our protection in the hands of these mercenaries?”
“Well we definitely weren’t handling it ourselves,” Chief Reynolds replied, stepping past Blackwell to start checking on other things. She marched across the court toward an obvious ration station that had been doling out blankets and food to the people who had gathered there. Blackwell followed her every step of the way. After Reynolds got a report, she turned her attention to Blackwell once again.
“These men and women seem capable, and they seem willing to help in the effort. While they do hold weapons illegal under the current protections offered by the law, those weapons are effective,” Reynolds continued, blowing her straight-chopped black bangs away from her right eye, “Using non-lethal means, they’ve subdued more alien creatures in one day than any of us could ever say we did in a lifetime. If you ask me, we’re lucky they even came along to save us. I’m not about to look that horse in the mouth.”
An equine citizen snorted as he passed by,
“But why weren’t we ready?” Blackwell asked, “It doesn’t make sense.”
“We sent officers to investigate and found this,” Reynolds said, flipping her PET out of her pocket in a practiced motion. With a few swipes of her fingers, she turned her PET around and showed the Lieutenant a security image taken in the underground escape tunnels. Blackwell peered, seeing that the bulky security doors had been knocked entirely out, the bent and shredded metal scattered across the ground.
“The same doors Quincey Abram used to escape with the alien fugitive,” Reynolds explained, “The creatures must have been made aware of the doors because of that, and managed to barrel through it in an attack early this morning. From what we know, these aliens are connected to the Inklings in some way.”
“We didn’t even get a report because the attending guards were knocked unconscious,” Reynolds finished.
Blackwell stared at the image for as long as Reynolds let her, but the screen was pulled away after a short while. “That’s insane,” She said, “The level of force they’d need to get through that door…”
Reynolds nodded, and stepped past Blackwell again to head across the court. “Yeah,” She said, “There’s got to be something big out there. With nearly everyone here, we can focus on finding and eliminating it, and we can use these soldiers to do it.”
“That seems reckless,” Blackwell countered, “We don’t know what their intent is. We can’t simply just ignore conventional laws whenever it becomes convenient.”
“It’s opening my eyes, Lieutenant, and you’re speaking out of line,” Reynolds regarded Blackwell sternly, “We were embarrassed by these creatures, and if we intend to make it clear that we won’t be bowled over by monsters from another planet, we’re going to have to show some force. We know that they’re dangerous, we know what they did to Locksmouth; might I remind you, Lieutenant, that some people didn’t make it out of that?”
The Lieutenant fell silent for a moment and sunk into reflection. “Yes, ma’am,” She said, “I am aware, ma’am.”
“Well we’re not letting that happen here,” Reynolds said, “Have your men start fanning out and bring anyone they find to the nearest safe area. Cover as many sectors as possible. If any situation should arise, I want you to report to me immediately. Be especially cautious; if anyone displays unusual behavior, treat them as dangerous. Do not interfere with the soldiers.”
“Yes ma’am,” Blackwell saluted.
“Dismissed,” Reynods saluted back and turned to receive a report from another officer who came hurrying over.
Spotting Jim Mason with the dome Arbitrators all present save for Eddie, Edward marched over to the hyena with a glare. Mason turned, with sweat stains coating the underarms and chest of his black button-down. He didn’t so much as get a glance at the angry beaver before his shirt was grabbed hold of and he was yanked closer to Edward. Mason blinked his yellow-brown eyes a couple of times before pushing Edward off him.
“Get your hands off me!” He said, “What do you think you’re doing?!”
“Just what’s going on here?!” Edward pointed an accusing finger at the hyena, “You had something to do with this, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes, I brought the aliens down from the sky to attack us!” Mason threw up his arms, “Perhaps, Kemberge, you ought to think outside of your husband’s narrow and traditionalist views!”
“Don’t play innocent with me, this is exactly what you wanted, buster!” Edward shouted back, throwing his arm aside to gesture to the scores of armed soldiers maintaining a protective perimeter, “Guns! Dangerous weapons in the hands of people! An army! Right here in our little dome! Coincidence?”
“Painfully so,” Mason crossed his arms in a stand-off with the beaver, “Whether you care to believe it or not. I suspect this group has been monitoring alien activity since the invasion – something we all should have been doing instead of allowing them to run amok across the countryside.”
“Edward, please,” The fluffy white feline Arbitrator spoke, “We understand how this appears, but without the interference of these… ruffians, our little dome would still be terrorized by these grotesque creatures!”
“This is hardly the time to hold a debate and start blaming one another,” Winston Farcris, amphibian Town Meet Speaker added, seated in the half-circle of sitting Arbitrators, “What’s important is that we are safe and these men and women are willing to drive the aliens out. We can worry about the how’s and why’s afterward. We don’t much have a choice at present.”
The other Arbitrators muttered their agreement.
Edward stared at them in disbelief. “I…! Well…! Yes, that’s true, people’s safety comes first, but we can’t just ignore what’s going on right in front of us!” He argued, “What are… what are people going to think seeing these thugs walking around?!”
“That they’re finally safe from the aliens,” Mason spat, “Do you not want that?”
“Of course I want that!” Edward jerked his attention back to Mason.
“Good,” Mason said, “After discussing it with the Arbitrators, we’re holding a Town Meet where we will hear from our unexpected allies, and decide on what course of action to take from there.”
Edward reeled. “Wait, you can’t just hold some sort of vote!” He protested, “Eddie’s not here!”
The Arbitrators looked at one another in consideration.
“Well he best get back soon,” Mason grinned, “Or we’ll have to go on without him.”