Somewhere overhead, around twenty-three thousand miles out from the Earth's surface, a construction engineer paused briefly at the access hatch of his living quarters to check the telltales on his suit. Satisfied that everything was working properly he cracked open the air lock seal, eased himself through the narrow gap and then, with a practised push, launched himself forward into space.
Like the swimmer the engineer's actions were smooth and unhurried. Like the swimmer the engineer had perhaps five minutes left to live.
In the middle of the reservoir, when he had swum about four hundred metres, the man switched from crawl to backstroke. It made him slightly more vulnerable though nothing he now did would affect the killers homing in on him from the shadowy depths of the murky water.
The engineer used his jet pack sparingly so that his float across the gap between the main station complex and the new construction area was no more than a controlled drift. He reached the spider-work of thin girders without any danger of suit-damaging collisions, carefully adjusted his direction, and slowed his relative velocity even more. Lost in routine, the beauty of his surroundings no longer startled him. He hardly noticed the high whites and deep blues of the Earth as he steadied himself against a new cross member. The technical quality inspection he was starting was standard but necessary and he was a conscientious man. Completely absorbed in looking for faults and fractures in the latest section to be completed by the building crew, he was an easy target.
The attack, when it came, was too sudden for the swimmer to understand what was happening. It came from below the water which gave his shocked senses nothing reasonable to work on. For a stunned moment, when the hands grabbed him, he was surprised but not afraid. Then the two frogmen dragged him below the surface. Splashing and bubbles echoed in his ears and fear came abruptly. He lashed and struggled. Suffocating panic held him in the darkness. He tried to scream and sucked sour water into his choking throat.
The engineer was just as disorientated. The first jarring contact was unthinkable. There was no logic to it. He should have been alone but he was lurched into from behind as though he was on a busy street in his home town. Absurdly, his first impulse was to apologise to the two spacesuited figures who crowded in on him. Nothing in the situation was familiar enough to trigger his survival instincts and he watched in a sort of daze, wondering at the deliberate way the two reached towards him. Still he could not work out what they were trying to do. He attempted to speak to them but for some reason his suit radio produced only static. Carefully, the two silent figures forced him against a stanchion and pinned his arms between them. His surprise gave way to anger then. He bellowed at them but the sound remained stubbornly trapped in his own small bubble of air. One of the figures reached across to his backpack and worked on it with an adjuster. Desperately, he craned his neck trying to see what was happening. When the air began to vent from his suit he panicked. Like the swimmer he struggled and he screamed, and no-one heard him.
At the muddy margin of the reservoir the swimmer floated face down in the shallow water, his corpse rocked gently by the small, wind-chopped waves.
Far above, the dead engineer floated face down towards the Earth. His spacesuited corpse drifted very slightly, almost a rocking motion, as though it too was lapped by small waves.
Detective Chief Superintendent Nathan Spring sipped his coffee and waited for Brian Lincoln's inevitable misreading of the comment. Something was wrong about this one. Or rather something wasn't right. Yes that was it. Something wasn't right.
On the big communications screen Detective Inspector Lincoln shrugged slightly. "There's a breeze. He'll likely have drifted."
"What do you think?" Again Nathan knew what the older man's answer would be, knew that the answer would irritate him and wondered in passing why he asked the question at all.
"We'll see what the machines say."
"Damn the machines, Brian. What do you say?!"
Lincoln looked down at the corpse where it lay in the water. He scratched his beard thoughtfully. "There's not much to go on is there? Not yet anyway."
Nathan's anger was always short-lived and usually regretted. He leaned back in his chair. "Not until the machines have run the probabilities, right, Brian?" and he smiled wryly.
The smile Nathan knew was his principal saving grace. At its most sardonic it was still charming and open. It made him look much younger than his forty-one years, and he used it shamelessly.
Lincoln grinned back at him from the screen. "Why keep a dog and bark yourself?" he said.
Nathan rose from his workstation and went into the kitchen to pour himself more coffee. "It isn't just barking we've given up though is it."
Lincoln waited for him to come back into the scanning range of the communications screen before speaking. "If you say so, sir. Can we go ahead with disposal?"
Nathan nodded. "Removal logged at twelve oh two," he said and time-coded the video record.
On the screen, Lincoln signalled to the paramedics. Two of them in full protective suits and masks waded into the water to gather up the corpse. A third unrolled a body bag on the bank while a fourth checked a small case of instruments. Lincoln watched for a moment then turned back to look at the screen.
"There was a time when this man's police force had more coppers than medics," he said. "Some days I have trouble remembering those buggers work for us and not the other way round."
"Let's not kid ourselves, Brian. They work for the computer. And they're cheaper than us."
"They may be cheaper than you sir, but I doubt whether they're cheaper than me." Lincoln smiled as he said this. It seemed to Nathan like a genuine smile. From most others in the department it would have been a token grimace with little effort to disguise the underlying hostility. Nathan's clear-up rate and his rapid rise to the rank of Chief Superintendent had made him a few enemies and fewer friends. But if Brian Lincoln shared the general resentment he hid it well enough and Nathan was grateful for that. It almost compensated for his Inspector's stubborn refusal to think for himself.
Almost. "You get what you pay for, Inspector."
When Nathan didn't smile it was difficult to pick the jokes. Lincoln knew from experience that it was better not to try. "So what do you think, sir?"
"I think I want this one investigated. Whatever the machines say."
Back up to Fanzines
Back up to Blake's 7 Index
Last updated on 18th of April 1999.