By Terry Leatherwood <email@example.com>
Submitted: March, 2006
Summary: Lois scores a plum assignment covering the celebration surrounding the second anniversary of the colonists' arrival on the space station Prometheus. But a brutal murder wrecks her plans and puts her in the killer's sights. With Superman back on Earth, can Lois get the story without becoming the next victim?
This story takes place between the S3 episodes "Ordinary People" and "Contact."
— Thursday, early afternoon
Perry's bullhorn bellow penetrated his office door and inundated the bullpen in its echoes. "Clark! Lois! Get in here! We got something really hot!"
Clark beat Lois to the doorway by scant inches, but still stepped back to allow her to enter first. She cut her eyes at him as if reinforcing her natural superiority, but only he saw the soft smile creasing the side of her face.
She skipped through the doorway and stopped in front of Perry's desk. Clark closed the door and stood close but not quite touching her, just behind her left shoulder, and gazed admiringly at her profile.
"What's up, Chief?" Lois asked. "City hall bribery scandal?"
Clark shifted his attention to his boss. "Corruption on the state ethics board?"
"A new super-criminal on the loose?"
"Bio-terrorist threatens the city!"
"A cruise ship is in danger!"
"Carjackers are running loose in the suburbs!"
"The zoo's koala is pregnant!"
Lois froze with her mouth open, then slowly turned to face her partner. "A pregnant koala? Are you nuts, Clark? That's not a story worthy of the best investigative reporting team on the East Coast!"
"It stopped your babbling in its tracks, didn't it? I win this round."
"What? Why, you —"
Perry held his hands up. "All right, now, both of you just hush up! You haven't even come close to this one, so I'll spell it out for you." He pointed at the chairs behind Lois and Clark. "Have a seat."
Lois plunked herself down and leaned forward. "Okay, Chief, spill it! What's our next assignment?"
"It's a juicy one. I figure you two deserve something meaty but not quite so dangerous after that Spenser Spenser fiasco."
Lois frowned. "I thought we all agreed that the less said about that whole situation the better."
Perry folded his hands and exhaled deeply. "You're right, we did. Well, you two are assigned to this story as a team, but you won't be working next to one another."
Clark's eyebrows folded inward. "What does that mean?"
"We're coming up on the second anniversary of the arrival of the first colonists in space, thanks to Superman. EPRAD has given us the opportunity to have a reporter at their headquarters and send another to Prometheus to cover the celebration at the station. And —"
"The space station!" Lois began bouncing in her chair and waving her hand in the air like a second-grader with the right answer. "Oh! Oh! Perry! Pick me! Pick me!"
Clark put his hand on her arm and gently pulled it down. "Lois, I think I might be better suited to go to space than you are."
"What? You Kansas hayseed, you wouldn't know which way was up!"
"Space is a zero-gravity environment. There is no 'up' up there."
"I'm the senior partner so I get to go!"
"But I'm stronger and better suited to handle the stress of liftoff —"
"Wrong answer, Clark! I'm smaller and won't be as stressed by —"
"Hey hey hey!" Perry's shout overrode both of them. "I like a lively debate as much as the next man, but there's no volunteering on this one. The matter's already settled."
Clark grinned smugly. "Thanks, Perry." He turned to his partner. "Don't worry, I'll tell you all about it when I come back to Earth."
Lois shot him an evil glare as Perry cleared his throat. "I'm sorry about this, but — you're grounded, Kent. Lois is going to the station."
Clark's face almost fell off his head. "What!"
"Oh, Perry, that's wonderful! Thank you!" She leaped over the desk and hugged her editor's neck. "Thank you, thank you, thank you so much!"
Perry patted her shoulder awkwardly. "That's good, Lois, that's nice, that's very nice, in fact that's quite enough, okay?"
She released him. "Oh, sure, sorry," she giggled. Then she turned to Clark and momentarily stuck her tongue out at him.
He frowned back at her. "Promises, promises. Perry, why is Lois going instead of me?"
"Because we only have one hundred sixty-three pounds of mass available for a person, clothing, equipment, and anything else we send up. That's all the room the next shuttle has left. I don't know how much you weigh, Clark, but it's gotta be more than that if you were in your birthday suit."
Lois laughed and slapped her knee. "Clark Kent, the naked astronaut!"
Clark glowered at her. "Not funny. Space is cold enough as it is without totally exposing yourself."
"Then I get the headline exposure by myself this time." Lois clapped her hands together. "When do I go up, Perry?"
"You have the rest of the afternoon and tonight to get ready. EPRAD has already gotten the Planet's background check on you and you passed. You have -"
"Background check?" she shouted. "Do they think I'm going to rob the place?"
"Everybody gets cleared or they don't go up. The Planet has the right to do criminal background checks on its employees at any time. All of you signed the form last year."
Perry lifted his index finger to forestall her next outburst. "You're legally cleared to go. Now listen."
She put her hands on her hips and glared but didn't say anything.
Perry nodded. "You have an appointment with the Planet's doctor in three hours for your pre-flight physical exam. You don't lift off until tomorrow morning at 5 o'clock, but you'll have to be at the launch site by midnight to get fitted for your pressure suit and get your station issue coveralls. Don't give me that look, young lady! Everyone wears the same thing up there."
"That sounds so boring."
"I'm sure it is, but it also cuts down on the station's laundry bill. Now get a move on. Jimmy has all the research material you'll need for your side of the story."
"I'll get on it right away."
Clark stood with her. "Maybe we can have a going-away dinner tonight, Lois."
Perry cleared his throat. "I don't think you should do that. Lois is gonna need all the time she has between now and liftoff just to get started on the background material."
"I know, Perry. But maybe I could help her study?"
He frowned at Clark. "I've heard that one before, son, back when my boys were in high school, and I know what actually gets studied. You have your assignment, she has hers, and you two can get together and compare notes when she gets back. Besides, she's not supposed to eat a big meal for at least twelve hours before liftoff."
Lois gave him a mock frown. "Oh, Perry, you're just an old fuddy-duddy!"
He lifted his hands to his sides. "I'm only telling you what the EPRAD people told me. If you want to barf all over yourself in public, who am I to stand in your way?"
"Don't worry, I'll be just fine."
She turned to leave, but Perry stopped her. "One more thing, Lois."
"Um." He pointed at her head. "It's your hair."
"Huh? What about my hair?"
"It has to go."
"Go? Go where? Where's my hair going, if not with me?"
Perry lifted a sheet of paper with EPRAD's letterhead from his desk. "You more than qualify physically, Lois, unless the doctor finds something none of us know about, but they have a rule for anyone on the station that his or her hair cannot be more than three inches in length from the scalp."
"What!" Lois pulled her locks around to look at them. "Perry! You've got to be kidding!"
"Is this my kidding face? Do I look like I'm kidding?"
Her mouth worked but no sound came out. Clark patted her on the shoulder. "I can have it made into a wig if you want."
She spun and glared at him, and this time there was no hidden smile. "I don't think jokes are appropriate at a time like this! Do either of you have any idea how long it took me to get my hair to behave at this length? And how much any professional woman has invested in her appearance?"
She took an angry step towards her boss. "My hair is part of me! You men, you get your hair lopped off and just let it grow back willy-nilly and you just comb what little there is of it left however you want, but a woman has to work on her hair, work with her hair, coax it to do exactly what she wants it to do and then maybe — just maybe — sometimes it looks halfway decent! How many men have you ever heard complain of a bad hair day?"
"Fabio?" offered Perry.
"Any 80's metal band?" Clark responded.
She lifted her face to the ceiling in frustrated complaint. "Arrghh! Men!"
Perry lifted his hand in finality. "Them's the rules, Lois. Cut your hair short or don't go."
"I don't make these rules, honey, I just enforce them. Besides, if you show up looking like that, they'll either tell you to go home or pull out a pair of clippers and shear you bald."
"They'd better not try something like that!"
"Then get your hair cut short."
"Nobody stopped me when I sneaked on two years ago!"
"They didn't have this rule then. They do now." She snorted. Perry shrugged. "Okay, I'll see if Peggy Wilkins can go. She's already got pretty short hair and —"
"NO!" Lois almost lunged over the desk. "She's rewrite, Perry, not field reporting! She can't do investigations or interviews, not as well as I can! She won't be able to do this story justice!" She took a deep breath and let it out explosively. "Fine! I'll do it! I'll do it for the paper! And for the story!"
Perry didn't blink. "Okay, Lois. Jimmy has the address of a hairstylist who's worked with EPRAD before. He knows how it's supposed to be cut."
"Why can't I use my own stylist?"
"Can you get an appointment this afternoon?"
She chewed her lower lip for a moment, then shook her head. "No. No way. I'd have to book at least nine days in advance."
"All right, then. See Jimmy and do your homework and be there tonight by midnight for the final prep. And make sure you do all your required reading."
"Aw, Perry?" she whined. No response. As a last resort, she tried her puppy-dog face on her boss, but it ricocheted off the Kevlar sheath around his heart and whined harmlessly out the window.
So she spun and marched past Clark into the bullpen. "Olsen!" she barked. "Come on. Let's go destroy my hair." Over her shoulder, she called out, "And I better not hear a single word about this from you, Kent!"
— Thursday, mid-afternoon
Jimmy glanced nervously at the traffic zipping past them and began reading. "'Space Station Prometheus has been in a constant state of construction since its inception nine years ago. The first shipment of scientific personnel, a group of eight physicists who trained for the zero-gee environment at the EPRAD facility in Miami, arrived four years after assembly began. Since that time -'"
"Skip the ancient history, Jimmy. I need current info."
Jimmy leaned against the Jeep's passenger door and steadied the EPRAD manual in his lap as Lois whipped around a city bus. "This is important, Lois. Perry said you'd need all the station history you can get."
"Perry's not writing this story, I am, and I only need to know what I need to know in order to get around the station. Where did you say this hair salon is?"
"North-east corner of Twentieth and Cooper. We're about four blocks away."
"Good. Now give me something about Prometheus I can use."
Muttering to himself, Jimmy flipped towards the middle of the manual. "Here we go. 'Station architecture.' I know you'll need this."
"Then start reading!"
"Okay, okay! 'Space Station Prometheus is laid out as a ring, which rotates around the hub, to which the ring connects with six tubular spokes, each being approximately fifteen meters in diameter and four hundred meters in length from hub to ring. Each spoke contains both person-accessible passageways, plus several or more tubes containing fuel, wiring of various kinds, access to scientific laboratories, and various storages.'" He stopped and made a face. "Eww. Who wrote this?"
"Probably some desk-bound bureaucrat with delusions of adequacy. There! Is that it? 'Andre's Temple of Coiffure'?"
"Bingo. Andre himself is waiting for us, and we have the exclusive use of the place for an hour." Jimmy pointed to the right. "Look! A parking space! This has got to be fate or kismet or karma or something!"
Lois sighed as she expertly tracked the Jeep into the empty space. "It's me, Jimmy. The universe is determined to give me short hair."
Jimmy got out and fed the meter. "Hey, I'm surprised your hair hasn't gotten blown off or burned off already, as many dangerous situations as you've been in over the years."
She shot him a 'don't go there' look and motioned for him to precede her into Andre's. At least she could keep her hair for a moment longer, she thought.
The opening of the door set off a three-tone chime that reminded Lois of an old television network opening. She looked around to see the cleanest, shiniest, most effete room she'd ever been in. It was large enough to be called an atrium, and it was completed with skillfully placed plants and several impressive oil paintings on the walls. A painfully thin man of medium height and apparently no body fat smiled at them, then stepped from behind the marble reception area and lifted his slender but muscular ebony arms to the ceiling. She thought she recognized his face, but she couldn't quite place him.
"Ah! Yet another worshipper at the shrine of Andre! Come in, come in." His surprisingly deep and resonant baritone voice filled the room as he took Jimmy's arm and tugged him towards one of the open cubicles spaced around the walls of the salon. "Come with me, my young friend, come with me."
"We're with the Daily Planet and — wait, I'm not —"
"Do not be alarmed, young sir, you will be absolutely divine when I have completed my ministrations!"
"Ministrations — wait a minute! I like my hair like it is! I don't —"
Andre shushed him with a look and an upraised index finger. "Young man, there are civilizations in our world today where hair such as yours might earn you prison time, and while that can be most instructive in and of itself, it is not the healthiest place for an up-and-coming youth. Now, allow Andre to perform his appointed task, and we will create in you a true work of art!"
"No! Wait a minute! I don't need a haircut!"
"Haircut? Bah! Andre does not do haircuts! Andre works magic, Andre performs miracles, and Andre will certainly need one today! Still and all, my good man, you will be irresistible when I have completed my transformation!"
Jimmy shot a pleading look over his shoulder. "Lois! Tell him you're the one! Andre!" he begged. "Look, she's the one! You're supposed to cut her hair, not mine!"
Andre jerked to a halt and looked back at Lois, who was convulsed in suppressed laughter. He turned to Jimmy and said, "Are you certain of this?"
Jimmy slowly extricated his arm from the man's grip. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure. She's the one who's going to the space station."
Andre threw his hands in the air. "Oh! The Prometheus! I see! Young man, I do apologize." He grasped Jimmy's hands in his again and rubbed them with his thumbs. "I saw your hair and I so desperately hoped that — oh, please forgive me."
Jimmy cautiously drew his hands away from Andre. "No problem, man, it's okay, it's cool, really. Look, can you get started with her? She's got a doctor's appointment in a little over two hours and I've got a lot of information to give her."
"Of course, of course!" He turned to Lois. "You must be Lois Lane. Please forgive me for not recognizing you."
She fought to contain the chortle that desperately wanted to escape. "That's okay, you were — distracted."
Over Andre's shoulder, Jimmy gave her a warning look, and it had as much effect on her as her own puppy-dog look had had on Perry. Andre stepped forward. "If you are ready, Miss Lane, we can begin."
Lois looked pointedly at Andre's bare skull and asked, "Do you do your own hair?"
He laughed. "Oh, no! I shave my head. I am also a competitive swimmer, and hair impedes one's progress in the water ever so slightly."
She nodded. "Makes sense." Then she sighed. "Well, I guess it's lose the hair or lose a great story, maybe even a whole series of them. Let's get to it."
He guided Lois to a cubicle and pulled the curtain shut. Jimmy pushed it aside and stepped in. "Hey, is there any reason I can't be in here too?"
Andre looked to Lois. "There are no body modesty issues of which I am aware, but many people do not wish others to see their new hairstyle before it is ready for a public unveiling. It is your choice, Miss Lane."
Lois snorted. "Oh, come on in, Jimmy! Just don't bump the man's arm while he's pointing sharp objects at my head."
"Got it. This chair okay?"
Andre observed him disdainfully. "As long as you remain there and keep to yourself all of your comments pertaining to style, yes."
Jimmy waved his free hand. "Don't worry about that. I'm no fashion critic."
"Good. Andre, start trimming. Jimmy, start reading."
Jimmy opened the book again. "Let me find where I was."
Andre stood back and studied Lois's head. "Hmm. You have a well-shaped cranium, Miss Lane. Too bad you must cut your hair, this style compliments you. Ah, me, it cannot be helped. I shall begin."
Lois closed her eyes. "Jimmy, you find your place yet?"
"Not yet. I'll let you know."
She sighed. "I'll be here." She shuddered as Andre ran a comb through her hair and snipped off a small bit. Deciding that any conversation was better than none, she said, "Andre, my boss told me you do a lot of hair for people going to the station. Do you know why I have to have my hair cut so short?"
"Yes. The longer one's hair is, the more likely it is that a single strand will break away. On Earth, it occurs constantly and is not a problem, but in a very low-gravity environment, stray hairs will drift into machinery and jam air recycling fans, contaminate scientific experiments, and generally make a maintenance nuisance of themselves. You cannot simply restrain your hair with a net for the same reason. Also, hygiene is more difficult on the station. Washing long hair requires more water than washing short hair, and water is almost as important and expensive to recycle as is breathable air. And longer hair contains more inert microscopic particles and living bacteria and viruses that can be easily jarred loose, which things also go where they should not."
Lois sighed. "I guess that means hair spray isn't encouraged, either."
Jimmy shrugged nonchalantly. "Afraid not. It's on the 'absolutely do not bring aboard' list."
"Great. Maybe I'll just —"
"Ah!" Andre cried out.
Lois almost panicked. "What? What is it? What's wrong? What did you do?"
He sighed deeply. "My dear young lady, I have uncovered your ear and it is quite lovely! As is your neck! My, my, perhaps this new shorter style will agree with you after all."
— Thursday, late afternoon
Jimmy's voice droned on. " '- and rotation of the station provides simulated gravity in the habitat ring and along the length of the spokes, although it is reduced as one traverses closer to the station hub, where there exists effectively zero gravitational pull.' At least the quality of the writing hasn't declined."
Lois sighed. "Just read it, Jimmy, don't critique it."
"Okay, okay. Um, let me see — oh, yeah. Your quarters will be on the habitat ring, where the perceived gravity is about three-quarters Earth normal."
Lois had almost forgotten Andre's ministrations under the constant flow of information from Jimmy. "Perceived gravity? Oh, right, because of the rotation."
Jimmy nodded. "There's a sidebar with a technical explanation. It says that the spin of the station actually tries to throw you away from the hub — that's the centrifugal force — but the outer ring stops you from falling, and since the station's rotation is constant, you never catch up to it."
She frowned. "I'm not sure I get that one."
Jimmy shrugged. "That's all it says. I don't really understand it either."
Andre stepped from behind Lois's chair and put his hands on his hips. "It is quite simple. Permit me to demonstrate." He unsnapped from his belt a ring of keys attached to a chain and held it up in front of Lois. "If I drop the keys — thusly — the key ring falls towards the local center of gravity, the earth. You may also say that it is falling away from my other hand, the one which holds the other end of the chain. Now please observe." He stepped back and began spinning the keys on the chain. "Were I to release this chain, these keys would travel as far as their Newtonian energy would take them."
Jimmy frowned. "Newtonian energy?"
"Newton's Laws of Motion, young man. You should study them. The one which applies to this explanation states that an object in motion will continue in motion unless acted upon by another force, in this case, the chain, which only allows the keys to travel so far before pulling them in a circle.
"Now, because I do not release the chain, the keys, which are still trying to 'fall away' from my other hand, as the outer ring of the Prometheus constantly 'falls away' from the hub, are physically pulled at an angle away from the direction they are trying to fall. You see how all the keys are pressed on the key ring as far from my hand as they can be, do you not?"
Lois and Jimmy both nodded. "This is a simulation of the artificial gravity generated by the rotation of a spatial body. Just as the keys constantly press against the key ring, you, Miss Lane, will constantly press against the outside of the station's habitat ring. The farther from the hub you are, the more pressure you will exert against whatever part of the station upon which you are standing."
He caught the key ring and returned it to his belt. "You constantly 'fall away' from the station's hub and also constantly have that angular momentum blunted by the floor of the ring, and therefore you have the simulation of gravity."
He returned to her hair. "You will also have the simulation of weight, although you will feel somewhat lighter there than you do here. I should caution you not to jump from a higher point to a lower one while you are on the station. The additional velocity you generate by moving farther away from the hub will cause you to land harder than you would expect. A long fall might seriously injure you."
He lifted his scissors and hesitated. "There is one other thing of which you must be aware. Low gravity equals low traction, which means that the lower the apparent gravity, the less you may rely upon the soles of your shoes to retard your momentum. The usual first injury for a new space station inhabitant is from colliding with a wall or another person while trying to stop or change direction using only one's feet. The danger increases with proximity to the hub."
Jimmy's mouth stayed open for a moment before he recovered. "Wow! That was great, Andre! You should be a science teacher!"
Andre paused and fixed him with a laser glare. "Young man, science teachers earn but a pittance compared to the income which this shop produces, and they must deal with unruly and disinterested students on a daily basis." He huffed and straightened his shoulders. "Without your own forced interest in the subject, I would never have mentioned artificial gravity or its effects to you."
Lois decided to get Jimmy off the hook. "Come on, Mr. Information, give me more data. Read the book."
"Uh. Yeah, right. Uh, it says that the spokes are mostly used for labs, storage, and air circulation — again with the uses of the spoke — and that the perceived gravity gets less the closer you are to the hub."
"Makes sense, especially after Andre's explanation."
"Yeah. Let's see what else — oh, this is good. The station can support a little more than three thousand permanent residents, but currently has only about eleven hundred or more adults aboard."
Andre snipped some more of Lois's hair. "That figure is somewhat out of date. There are slightly more than thirteen hundred people assigned to the station as of yesterday on either long-term or open-ended contracts, long-term being two years or more. And there are currently no children in permanent residence, save for a few who are undergoing experimental medical treatments, although quite a number of them travel there either with their parents or on some sort of scholastic voyage."
Jimmy nodded and made a notation in the booklet he was holding. "Thanks for the update. We can put it in with the technical sidebar on the station." He began reading again. "It also says that the station clock is synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time, which is four hours ahead of US Eastern daylight savings time, and they run three eight-hour shifts. Huh. They actually call them Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. The Alpha shift runs from eight AM to four PM, followed by Beta which runs to midnight, followed by Gamma which goes until eight AM. Meal and rest breaks are scheduled around the workload."
Andre chuckled. "There was much debate about the scheduling at the beginning. A minority insisted that there should be four six-hour shifts, but others pointed out that such a schedule would leave workers with that much more free time, and since there were and are limited entertainment opportunities on the station, there would be that much more opportunities for the workers to create trouble. Obviously, the eight-hour faction succeeded in convincing the administration of the rightness of their position."
Lois smiled. "How is it you know so much about the station, Andre?"
"It is a hobby of mine. I once had a yen to go to space, but I found fulfillment in other endeavors."
Jimmy smiled. "Yeah. Kinda like CK what did."
Andre stopped and spun on dancer's toes, his hands on his hips. "And who is this CK person?"
"Clark Kent. He's Lois's boyfriend. He grew up on a farm in Kansas and he's traveled around the world, but — as you put it — he now 'finds fulfillment' reporting the news at the Daily Planet."
"Ah. Your paramour, Miss Lane? Does he envy your opportunity to travel into space?"
Lois thought back to the days when Clark — as Superman — had destroyed the threat from the Nightfall asteroid. "He said he wanted to go, but I don't know that he'd enjoy it. As much as he's traveled here on Earth, I'm not sure he'd like being closed up in a big tin can."
"Perhaps not. Please forgive me for interrupting, Mr. Olsen. I will be silent so that you may continue."
"Hey, no problem. I like hearing what you have to say. Let's see what else we have here. Here we go. 'The original location of the station in geosynchronous Earth orbit is now the home of the Firefall Waypoint Station. This facility can refuel a shuttle ascending to the Prometheus, and is the maintenance station for both the shuttle itself and the ion drivers which propel the shuttle to and from the Prometheus.'
"'The station now occupies the L5, or fifth LaGrangian point, in the solution to the orbital mechanics of the three-body problem relating to the Earth, the Moon, and the station.'" He stopped and looked at Andre. "I don't suppose you could translate that one for me, could you?"
Andre sighed. "Do the high schools of this state no longer teach astronomy or physics? Never mind." He picked up a bottle of hair spray. "Imagine that Miss Lane's head is the earth and this bottle is the moon. The point between the two where the gravity of each pulls equally on an object is the L1 position, which is approximately two-thirds the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The L2 position is on the far side of the moon, here, and its stability derives from its orbital velocity canceling out the combined gravitational pull of the Earth and its satellite. The L3 position would be on the far side of the planet opposite Luna's current position and would follow approximately the same orbital path as does the moon."
He pointed again. "The L4 and L5 positions are at the corners of a rough equilateral triangle which intersects the Moon's orbit at those points and has Earth as its third point, and where the gravity wells of Earth and the moon again pull equally against any object occupying the position and encourage it to travel in a stable orbit roughly following the path of the Moon. These two points are located ahead and behind Luna's position in its orbit, respectively.
"Interestingly, there are clouds of space dust congregated at the L4 and L5 points involving our Sun and the Earth which were discovered in the nineteen-fifties and are currently being studied by remote probes. The L4 and L5 points are also the most stable of the five and are the logical places to park objects such as a station which have very little inherent maneuverability." He put the bottle of hair spray down. "Is that a sufficient explanation?"
Even Lois's eyes were wide. "Wow. I actually understood that. Thanks, Andre."
A hint of a smile bent his lips. "Thank you."
Jimmy asked, "Hey, Lois, have you asked anyone to house-sit for you while you're gone?"
"House-sit?" Her eyes went wide. "Aggh! No! I didn't even think about it! Are you by any chance volunteering?"
He shook his head. "Sorry, I can't. I've got a two-week vacation to the Grand Canyon starting a week from Tuesday and I'm not missing that trip." His eyes lit with an evil gleam. "Hey, I bet Ralph would be happy to —"
"No!" she barked. "Absolutely not! Don't even think about that! No way I'm letting that slime mold near my personal space! If I had my way he wouldn't work at the Planet! I'd rather have Lex Luthor come back to life!"
Jimmy's mouth twitched. "Don't beat around the bush, Lois, tell us how you really feel about the guy."
"You know, there's lots of comedy clubs with open mike nights. Why don't you go find a couple? Preferably in Los Angeles. Or maybe New Zealand."
"Ooh, that's cold, lady. So, who's going to watch your place while you're gone?"
She sighed. "I guess I could ask Clark."
He nodded. "CK would do it, for sure. You want me to give him your house keys?"
"Okay. I guess I won't see him before I leave. Just tell him to feed my fish. I think I forgot this morning."
"Sure. Assuming the little guys are still alive, that is."
She sneered in his direction. "You and Clark are both hysterically funny. And tell him I like my mess and it better not be clean when I get back."
Andre sniggered. Lois said, "What was that for? Did you mess up my hair?"
"Oh, no, Miss Lane. It is only that asking your friend not to clean your home will undoubtedly result in you having to step around empty pizza boxes and crushed soft drink cans when you return."
She grinned. "Not Clark. He'll have the whole place polished within an inch of its life. My apartment has never been as clean as he's going to get it."
Jimmy chimed in, "You'll have real food in your refrigerator and pantry, too."
Before Lois could respond, Andre stepped back and announced, "I have finished! It is yet another successful creation of Andre! Now, please observe for yourself the new Lois Lane."
He spun her to face the nearest mirror. Lois gasped as she saw herself. Her beautiful long hair was gone! In its place was a wispy, reddish brown halo around her forehead and a ring of tiny strands around the sides, just touching her ears. It was short, it was station regulation length, and it was somehow perfect for her.
She stood and took his hand gently. "Andre, thank you! I was so afraid I'd end up looking like an Army recruit, but this is — well, it's way better than I expected!"
He narrowed his eyes. "The style you describe as 'Army recruit' is actually the favored style on the station. It requires almost no maintenance and may be renewed by any unprepossessing chimpanzee wielding an electric trimmer and a vacuum hose." He shuddered. "It is horrible to contemplate."
She looked in the mirror again, turning from side to side to view the results. "Well, this isn't horrible, it's excellent! I like it. I like it a lot. I may keep it this length after I come back down to Earth." Assuming Clark likes it, she thought.
Maybe, she considered, even if Clark doesn't like it.
She opened her purse, but Andre waved her off. "No, no, Miss Lane, that is not necessary. The Daily Planet has taken care of my fee, including a generous tip."
"Oh. Well, in that case, I'd like some of your business cards. I know some people who need to know about you."
He smiled a little more. "Thank you, Miss Lane. I will certainly accommodate that request."
As Andre turned to reach for the cards, Lois tossed Jimmy her keys. "Here, Jim, open the Jeep and let the hot air out."
He caught them and lifted an eyebrow at her. "Gee, thanks, Lois. Anything else?"
"Yeah. Start it up and turn on the air conditioner. I'll be out when it cools off."
"Oh, be still my beating heart! I get to cool down Lois Lane's Jeep!" He gathered his material and headed for the door. "This is indeed a red-letter day for Jimmy Olsen! I can die happy now that I —"
"Just cool it, Olsen!"
He stopped at the door and turned. "Cool it? Me or the car? Or maybe both? You really think I can handle all that?"
"No, but give it your best shot anyway."
He shook his head and left the building.
"Perhaps you were a bit harsh with the young man."
Lois shrugged. "Maybe so, but I need to ask you something, in private, something I didn't want to ask you in front of Jimmy." She turned to Andre and stuttered, "You're not really — I mean, you're really — you don't really — do you?"
He put his hands behind his back. "Are you, by any chance, asking me if I am actually gay, Miss Lane?"
"Uh — well, yeah, I am."
"Because you're obviously very good with hair, and I need to know if I should send some of my male friends here. The straight ones, I mean."
"Are you doing more research for your story?"
"No. This is only for my own satisfaction. I won't print a word about this conversation no matter what you tell me."
"I see." A real grin spread over his face as he crossed his arms over his chest. He spoke in a far more relaxed tone. "I'm not the least bit gay, Miss Lane, but if that got out, I'd lose a big chunk of business. There are 'society' women in this city who wouldn't trust a straight man within six feet of their heads, but they let me do their hair on a regular basis because I prance around like a newborn colt and flip my wrists at them. And," he said as he wiggled his eyebrows, "they're terrific tippers."
Lois shared his laugh. "I won't breathe a word of your secret, I promise. Either one of them."
He lost his grin. "Other secret? What other secret would that be, Miss Lane?"
"That you're also a closet scientist with a knack for teaching. Where do you do that, by the way?"
He sighed. "You're as good as they say you are. I teach physics and calculus at Metropolis Community College, which is also where I do a lot of my swimming practice. Very few of my students belong to my circle of customers, and the inverse is also true, so there's not much chance that my dual identity will be revealed."
"I was right, you do have a secret identity." She grinned and tapped him lightly on the chest. "I thought I recognized you from the Nightfall press conference almost two years ago. You were there taking notes, and I thought you were a reporter until you walked past two phones that weren't being used. A real reporter would have knocked someone down to call in that story."
"I seem to recall that almost happening that day. Am I imagining things?"
Lois blushed slightly. "No, you're not, and I assure you that I've mended my ways since then." She glanced at the door. "Gotta go. Jimmy won't wait forever, and I've got some more studying to do before I leave."
He stepped back into character and smiled at her. "Then I bid you a good afternoon, Miss Lane. Have a safe and pleasant journey."
"Thanks, Andre. You keep that dual identity thing going. It can be rough sometimes, but the results are worth it."
Lois walked out the door and smiled when she saw Jimmy pouting in the passenger seat. She climbed into the cool vehicle and gave him a light apologetic punch on the shoulder. "Hey, bud, thanks for the briefing in there. I didn't even notice how long it took."
"You're welcome. Here."
Without turning to face her, he held out two thin pamphlets to her, both facing down. Lois frowned and took them. "What are these?" She turned the first one over and read aloud, "Use of the zero-gravity toilet for women." She looked up at him and tried not to laugh. "So — this is for — for me to read on my own?"
Still looking out the window, he replied, "That one and the other one."
She turned the second one over and read aloud, "Disposal of feminine hygiene products aboard the Prometheus."
She couldn't hold it in any more. She sputtered, then leaned back in the seat and laughed aloud. "Oh, Jimmy, that was refreshing! Thanks for the homework."
He turned towards her. "Homework? Oh, the pamphlets." He reddened and looked straight out the windshield. "I'm sorry, Lois, but there's no way I'm gonna read either one of those to you."
She put the Jeep in reverse and quickly backed into a gap in traffic. "No problem. I probably would be laughing too hard to drive safely if you did."
They lurched forward and swerved around another driver who backed out without looking. Jimmy grabbed the door handle to steady himself. "Whoa. Lois Lane, driving safely. What a stunning concept."
She whacked him on the upper arm. "Ow! Hey! Lois, that really hurt!"
"Yeah? Well, the beatings will continue until morale improves, so shape up!"
— Thursday, nine forty-eight P.M.
Clark opened his oven and sniffed, then smiled. The quiche would be ready soon, and for a change he was really hungry. He and Lois had spoken briefly by phone several times during the day, but he hadn't seen her since she'd left for Andre's, and he hoped she was taking the loss of her hair well. He'd gotten used to that longer style on her, since that was what her hairstyle had been since he'd met her, and he hoped it would grow back quickly.
His own EPRAD briefings had gone smoothly. He'd spoken at length with Dr. Billie Jo Parker, an astrophysicist on loan from Louisiana State University, and they'd established a comfortable rapport with her which he felt would allow him to get past the pat smiley-face answers and get to the root of what was actually happening, should anything important actually happen.
Just as he put the quiche on the table, his phone rang. He turned the Mozart CD down before answering. "Hello?"
"Hi, Clark, it's Lois. How's the party going?"
"Party? What party?"
"You know, the 'girlfriend is out of town' party. Sounds like a real swinging time over there. Wish I could come."
"Nah, you'd hate it. It's just a bunch of the guys from office. Ralph even showed up. Besides, the stripper grandma is just about to come out of the cake, and then we get to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey."
"Stripper grandma, eh? Taking off her long johns accompanied by Mozart?"
"You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."
She chuckled ruefully. "You and your wild idea of a bachelor party." She paused and sighed. "You're by yourself tonight, aren't you?"
"I wish I were. I'd have a lot more privacy." She sighed again. "I'm in the ladies' dressing room at the launch center, shivering in my station issue underwear, waiting for my pressure suit to be altered. They issued me four sets of coveralls a little while ago, too. They're all dark blue, and you would not believe how unflattering those things are."
"Lois, I wouldn't believe anything could be unflattering if you're wearing it."
"Oh, Clark!" He heard a sniff. "Doggone it, don't do that!"
"Be so sweet to me over the phone when I can't be with you and let you know how much I appreciate it."
"In your station issue underwear?"
Her nose and her tone both dried in an instant. "In your dreams, Kent."
"Well, you know you're with me there, Lois. And not always — you know."
Her voice turned low and sultry. "No, Clark, I don't know. Tell me, how am I dressed in your dreams? How do I act?"
Even though he was alone, he felt himself turning pink. "You're, ah, you're, you're very playful. Sometimes I imagine you turning cartwheels in cheerleader's outfit, or leading the band as a drum majorette —"
"Cheerleader? Drum majorette?" She huffed at him. "I'm flying to outer space in a few hours, Clark, so I wish you'd be serious."
He smiled. "Sorry. I'll try to save up all the romantic stuff for when you get back."
"I should think you would."
"Shouldn't be a problem for me. By the way, Jimmy gave me your house keys and your message. I've already trashed the place for you. The pizza fragments should be quite fragrant by the time you get back."
"Good. I'd hate to come back to a clean apartment. It'd make me think you actually care for me or something."
He smiled wider. "I guess we can't have that happening. Hey, since I'm sure you haven't had the opportunity, do you want me to give your parents a call and tell them you're about to go into, over, and above the wild blue yonder?"
"What? NO!" she shouted. "You will NOT call my mother and tell her about this assignment! She'd go totally berserk! She'd fly up here and threaten to sue Perry, the Planet, EPRAD, and probably me too! She doesn't even like me to drive in Metropolis!"
"That's probably because she's ridden with you."
"Oh, ha-ha-ha, Mr. Funnypants. I suppose you could do better in a city full of Demolition Derby wannabees."
"Maybe not. I don't drive that much."
"Of course not. You can just fly anywhere you want when you want."
He paused. "That does bring up a point, Lois. Superman won't be able to come to your rescue if you get in trouble up on the station."
She sighed. "I'm going to write about the anniversary of the colonists' arrival, Clark, not investigate a terrorist organization. I doubt I'll need Superman's help." She sighed again. "At least, not his professional help."
"I hope not."
"Me, too. At least that would be different, not needing Superman's help."
He wisely chose not to pursue that subject any further. "Speaking of different, and being not so different, I found out this afternoon that you'll have an e-mail account while you're up there, and you'll have access to the Planet's database on the Internet feed. The station administration is setting you up just like a regular employee."
"Good. Get ready for some sad and lonely e-mails from me."
"Sad and lonely? You practically trampled me to get to this assignment."
"That was before I realized I wouldn't see you for almost two weeks."
"Actually, I'm glad you're the one who's going. I was thinking about this assignment, and I realized that it might be a little awkward if Superman was out of the city at the same time I was on the space station."
"Yeah, that might be hard to explain." She paused, then continued, "You really think I should be going instead of you?"
"Of course. It's the best solution for both of us. Besides, you're an award-winning investigative journalist. There's no reason to think you'll do anything less than a totally terrific job."
"Thank you." She hesitated. "I'm — I'm really gonna miss you, Clark."
He softened his tone. "I'm going to miss you, too. I guess I shouldn't try to make you laugh any more?"
He could hear her wan smile through the connection. "Not tonight. But save the humor for when I get back. I have a feeling I'll be ready for some corn-fed Kansas jokes by then."
"I'll pick up a Midwestern joke book at Maisie's the next time I visit my parents."
She laughed a little. "You do that. Oh, they're back with my pressure suit. They've got to finish fitting me and I've still got ten thousand things to do before we lift off in the morning and I'm sorry but I have to go! I'll e-mail you every day and I'll see you as soon as I get back, I promise! Bye, Clark!"
She hung up abruptly, just before he could say, "I love you, Lois."
Oh, well, at least the quiche was ready.
— Friday morning
A bored young woman checked the straps on Lois's seat. "Fifteen minutes to go, ma'am. You'll have to remain here until we lift off."
"I will, I promise."
"Are you comfortable? Anything we can fix quickly?"
"I'm as comfy as I can be, I guess. I'll be fine, thanks."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you for flying the shuttle Valkyrie to Prometheus." She gave Lois a perfunctory smile and continued her routine with the rest of her charges.
Lois looked around at the inside of the shuttle's passenger compartment, with its five columns of single seats for immediate access to any of the eighty passengers who might become distressed, and wondered when launching human beings into the airless void of space had become routine to the public. Despite having been willing to commit any number of petty crimes — and a couple of felonies — to stow away on the first colonists' shuttle, the Messenger, none of the subsequent missions had grabbed her interest as a reporter. She supposed the lack of public interest in the most recent launches was like the difference in interest between major and minor surgery. Since she was riding this shuttle, however, she was very interested in what went on. It put in her mind the thought that minor surgery was something that someone else had done, like someone else's shuttle rides had been unimportant to her.
She picked up the single-page folded pamphlet from the back of the seat facing her. It described the immense and incredibly powerful external jet engines which would carry the winged shuttle from a horizontal takeoff to an altitude of about forty thousand feet and then fall away, only to drift back to Earth on their parachutes. Then the rocket motors, which would lift them into a stable Earth orbit at about ninety miles, would ignite. After that, the ion drivers at the Firefall waypoint — the original orbital site for the Prometheus — would be attached, and they would push them out of orbit and link them up with Prometheus Station.
They still had a journey of nearly a quarter of a million miles in front of them, and it would only take two days to arrive. Lois mentally went over her baggage list, even though she knew there was no way to bring anything else aboard at this point.
She glanced at the chronometer suspended from the ceiling of the passenger compartment. Eleven minutes to go.
Her suit itched and pinched in places she couldn't scratch or straighten without taking it off, which she couldn't very well do at this point. Besides, being strapped into a nine-gee couch tended to make one immobile. For the next two days, the couch would be her bed, her resting place, her favorite chair, her dinner table, her workout bench, her office, and, if absolutely necessary, her bathroom.
Lois wasn't real happy about that aspect of going to space. She knew she'd need the information in the zero-gee toilet pamphlet, but she desperately hoped she wouldn't need the emergency drain in her suit or the changes of underwear they'd put in one of the suit's zipper pockets.
At least EPRAD had progressed beyond the technology in the first spacesuits, she thought. She was too young and fit to wear Depends adult diapers for any reason.
A row of yellow LEDs flashed along the middle of the walkway. The computer announced that there were five minutes until takeoff, and she heard the bored attendants shuffle towards their own acceleration seats in the rear of the compartment.
Two of them spoke loudly enough for her to overhear them. " — need some excitement, man! This job is deadly dull!"
"You're in space, aren't you?"
"Sure, but we might as well be —"
Lois didn't hear the rest of it, but maybe there was a reason that space flight had seemed so pedestrian and routine to her until this morning. Maybe the crew's boredom would be the key to unlock the door to their more newsworthy experiences. Maybe they'd be more willing to talk to her if there was nothing else to hold their interest.
She was trying to relax when the intercom clicked on. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Thank you for flying the shuttle Valkyrie. We're due to lift off in a little over three minutes. Please don't, for any reason whatsoever, unstrap your seat harness until we're in stable orbit. We'll tell you when we get there. Also, please don't try to move your head or lift your arms or legs as we're accelerating. We don't want any broken limbs or dislocated joints on this flight.
"If you are injured because you ignore these warnings, the company's insurance won't pay for your treatment, so please don't make us remind you of the health and personal damage waivers each of you signed before you boarded. I'm required to assure you that they're ironclad and impossible to break, unlike your own bones, so please observe these rules. They're in place for your own good.
"We'll be lifting off towards the rising sun, so you'll see sunlight not long after we take off. Those of you with window seats, please make sure now that you have activated the polarization filter for your window. You probably won't be able to do it after we take off. It's the blue button under your right thumb."
Lois heard several clicks as people pushed their blue buttons. She pushed her own blue button and saw the filter slide up into place.
"Thank you. We hope you have a pleasant flight with us, and remember that there are airsickness bags at the side of each seat and on each seat back. Should you feel queasy once we achieve orbit, please alert an attendant and we'll give you some medicine to soothe your stomach."
Well, she thought, that's one problem I plan not to have.
The quality of his voice morphed from the dryness of reading a prepared script to being filled with warmth and anticipation. "Enjoy the ride, ladies and gentlemen. There's not another one like it in the entire world."
Lois smiled as she heard the wonder in the pilot's voice. At least it wasn't routine for one person. Flying with Superman for fun was surely better, but very few ever experienced that joy.
With nothing else to do, she watched the ceiling clock tick off the seconds. As soon as it displayed five AM, she felt the jet engines move the shuttle forward on its disposable takeoff gear. The computer held the craft down until they reached takeoff airspeed plus the ten percent recommended safety margin, then they lifted away from the runway as smoothly as if she had been riding a magic carpet. The noise level dropped appreciably, but the pressure forcing Lois into her seat increased.
And then it increased some more. She imagined wildly for a moment that she couldn't breathe, so she began taking short, sharp breaths as she had been advised in the pre-flight briefing. The high oxygen content of the cabin's atmosphere allowed her to stay ahead of oxygen debt, and her breathing eased as the minutes passed and she became more accustomed to the pressure against her body.
Even though the pressure eased a little, she still couldn't move and her eyeballs still felt like they were trying to drain backwards into her skull as they climbed higher. The computer voice announced again, "Prepare for rocket motor ignition in five — four — three — two — one — now."
Suddenly, with a dull bass roar, an immense gorilla jumped on her chest and began pushing her even farther back into the seat. The gorilla brought along an anaconda to play, too, and it wrapped itself around Lois's torso and squeezed until she thought her heart would burst. She would have cried out in fear had she been able to.
After a few seconds and several subjective years, the pressure finally eased. She inhaled deeply, then almost regretted it when her stomach spasmed. Too bad she'd missed the centrifuge training given to the real astronauts. Maybe Clark would've been the better choice for the station assignment after all. She doubted that Superman ever got nauseous or threw up.
Her empty stomach complained at the treatment it was receiving. She would have told it to shut up had she been able to find the strength.
— Sunday morning
Lois drifted freehand back to her seat from the ladies' room, pleased at how well she'd adapted to the absence of gravity. Except for that first moment of nausea just after liftoff, she hadn't experienced any stomach problems. She smiled at the pale woman hurriedly jerking herself along one of the lines rigged along the wall of the compartment, one of several of her fellow travelers who hadn't found her space legs yet.
Glad that she didn't have to throw up into either a zero-gee toilet or a plastic tube, Lois lightly plucked a tube of strawberry-flavored protein pudding from beneath the retaining spring on the snack cart as it drifted past her and daintily bit the end open. She floated near the ceiling above her seat as she sucked the last of the surprisingly tasty breakfast goop from its container, then slipped it into the nearest disposal tube and pushed herself back to her seat.
Unlike many of her fellow passengers who were bored to distraction, she'd kept herself busy by making notes and throwing out story ideas onto the hard drive on her laptop. She smiled as she thought about all the material she already had. The only problem she'd have on this assignment was to decide what to leave out, a problem she seldom faced and one she gleefully anticipated dealing with.
She lost track of time while working, so the computer voice which wafted softly out of the ceiling startled her. "Twenty minutes to Prometheus approach. Twenty minutes to Prometheus approach. Please return to your seats and secure for docking. Please return to your seats and secure for docking."
One of the flight attendants drifted past her. "You'll have to stow your computer, Miss Lane. Sorry to derail your train of thought."
She smiled at him. "No problem, Dennis. I can pick it up again after we dock."
"I'm glad. Did you get everything you needed from me?"
"Sure did. You gave me a ton of very useful stuff. Thanks again for spending all that time with me."
"No, thank you, Miss Lane. You've helped make the last two days pass quickly."
"I'm glad. How long before you get to go back to Earth?"
"We'll leave for the return trip in about thirty-four hours. The technicians on the station will refuel the maneuvering thrusters, refill the air and water reserve, clean out the toilets, all that fun stuff."
The shared a chuckle. Lois said, "What will you do between now and then?"
"Oh, we'll eat, we'll visit the movie theaters, we'll drop in on the stage if there's a show on, visit the gym and watch the ladies exercise in low gravity —"
"Dennis!" she scolded gently. "You're such a scoundrel."
He winked. "That's okay, the women in our crew go to look at the men work out."
"Oh, okay, as long as you're all equal opportunity lechers."
"We are, thank you."
"You're welcome. Before you go, will you help me make sure I'm strapped in properly? I'd hate for the captain to have to slam on the brakes and splatter me against the seat in front of me."
He chuckled. "That won't happen, I promise. We're traveling in a curved path to the anti-Luna side of the station, the side facing away from the moon, remember? We'll intersect the L5 position at the same speed we have now, but we won't hit the station because it's moving away from us at almost the same speed. If the computer and the pilot are in sync, we won't even feel a bump when we engage the magnetic docking port."
She nodded. "That's right, I forgot. It was all in the pre-flight briefing. Sorry."
"That's okay, Miss Lane. A lot of first-time spacers forget it. I think sometimes they lose the briefing along with their breakfast."
They shared another brief laugh, then Dennis said, "I've got to check on our other passengers. I hope I see you on your trip back."
"Me too, Dennis. See you later."
He pushed himself along the rows of seats, alternately cajoling and insisting that the passengers belt in for safety's sake. Lois saved the file she'd been editing and shut down her laptop, then stowed it under her seat.
She leaned back and smiled to herself. All she had to do now was check in with security and take her carry-on bag to her room, and she was set for the next ten days of reporting a story that would almost kneel in front of her and beg to be written.
She could already smell the Kerth nomination.
— Sunday, mid-morning
As Dennis had predicted, Lois didn't feel a thing. The computer voice suddenly called out, "Docking procedure complete. Please disembark in an orderly fashion. Thank you. Docking procedure complete."
She tuned out the gratingly polite voice and unsnapped herself from the couch which had been her home for the previous two days. She tugged her carry-on pack from under the seat and pushed off towards the nose of the shuttle.
As she pulled herself through the open airlock, now occupied by the big spaceplane, she clutched a grab bar at the check-in station and faced a chirpy young Asian woman with almost no hair. She reminded Lois of Andre's "trained chimpanzee" description of the level of barbering up here.
The girl bounced on her toes and Lois could hear the Velcro that held her in place crunching under her shoes. "Hi! Welcome to Prometheus Station! Please hold onto this handle, place your right thumb on the pad, and wait for the ding."
Lois watched her name pop up on the screen along with a description of her occupation. "Hey, what's this? This isn't right!"
The young woman looked at the display on her side of the counter. "What isn't right, ma'am?"
"This! My job description says I'm a cargo supervisor. That's not right."
"Oh. What should the description be, ma'am?"
"I'm a reporter from the Daily Planet. I'm here to cover the anniversary celebration."
The young woman smiled even wider. "Oh! I know what happened, ma'am. We don't have any permanent news people here, and whenever one does fly up we have to list them as 'supercargo' because that's kind of a catchall term for anything we don't have a permanent category for. We kind of stole the term from the Navy. Someone back at the spaceport must have typed in 'cargo, super' and now the computer thinks you're a cargo supervisor."
"Okay, but can you fix it? I don't really want to spend the next two years here."
"No problem! I'll submit a correction now and it'll be updated in a day or so."
"A day? Why so long?"
Her smile turned a little forced. "You're not leaving tomorrow, are you, ma'am?"
"No, of course not, but —"
She glanced over Lois's shoulder and spoke faster. "It's a low-priority database update, ma'am, and we have to do this every time a new shipment of fresh fish comes in."
Lois lifted her eyebrow and she pulled herself closer to the desk. "Fresh fish?"
The young woman shook her head and lost her smile altogether. "I apologize. It's station slang for new arrivals. But I'll put this change in the queue and we'll get it done as soon as we can. Now, if you'll just move along so the people behind you can check in?"
"Oh. Oh, sure. Nice talking to you."
"You too, ma'am. Next, please?"
Lois pulled herself along the ropes towards the next desk, where an impossibly serious and impossibly young man floated stiffly beside his terminal. She assumed at first that he was also a new arrival who hadn't gotten acclimated yet, but a glance at his shoulder revealed that he was a sergeant with the USAF security force assigned to the station.
He nodded shortly to her. "Ma'am, if you'll place your carry-on bag on the red spot, please, and hook your feet under the strap on the floor?"
The request was really a polite order. Lois complied silently.
"Ma'am, do you have anything in the bag which was not cleared by spaceport security?"
"No, I don't."
"Would you open the bag, please, ma'am, and strap it onto the desk with the elastic bands?"
She complied silently, knowing that his sense of humor had been surgically removed as a requirement for his job. He pawed mechanically through her meager belongings for a moment, then tapped a key on his console. "All finished, ma'am. Thank you for your cooperation."
"Thank you," she replied as she repacked her bag. She looped it around her shoulder and pushed off into the common area and almost immediately bumped into the back of someone stuck to the "floor" with Velcro oversoles. She held onto his arm to keep from drifting away.
"I'm sorry, sir," she began, "I guess I'm not used to — zero —"
The man turned and faced her.
Claude Guilliot's face slowly smiled at her.
"Cherie! How glad I am to see you again! How have you been for so long since we have seen each other?"
She couldn't speak. She floated aimlessly in mid-air with her mouth half-open. For a moment she flashed back on the inexperienced victim she'd been almost four years before, seduced by a lazy braggart who'd stolen her story and trashed her reputation. Once again, Claude held her in his thrall with that flashing smile and engaging manner. Despite the warnings her mind was screaming at her, she felt herself sliding backwards in time, not to the morning she discovered the depths of his betrayal, but to the night they'd spent together. In her brief innocence, she had truly believed he'd loved her for who she was and not for what she could do for him.
He pulled her close to him. "I know you did not expect to see me, mon cherie, nor I you, but it is a good thing for us to meet again, yes?"
She barely registered that he was whispering something to her, something urgent, something that didn't dovetail with his behavior. But Lois didn't hear it, didn't understand it, and later she could never recall what he'd tried to say to her.
The shock of his embrace snapped her back to the present and reminded her of his callous betrayal of her trust and the pain he'd caused her. The memory of that night's euphoria vanished instantly, to be replaced by an anger fueled by a bitterness she didn't know she still carried. She dug the fingers of her left hand into his stomach and pressed upwards behind his rib cage.
He lurched back, writhing in sudden pain. "Aaahh! That is hurting me! Cherie, what are you —"
"You bloodsucking slimeball! Get away from me or I'll rip out your liver!"
"My dear lovely cherie, what are you meaning?"
She raised her voice, not caring who overheard. "I mean get away from me and stay away from me! If I'd known you were aboard the station I'd still be on Earth! I wouldn't spit on you if you were on fire! I never want to see you again, you lying lousy stinking thieving no-good son-of-a —"
A harsh female voice cut across hers. "Is there a problem here, ma'am?"
Lois turned to see a short, beefy blonde woman drifting down to Velcro herself to the floor beside Claude. The woman looked at Lois, who was still too furious to speak calmly, then to Claude, who was trying to act the part of the innocent victim.
"Ma'am, I'm Air Force Major Katrina Vukovich, in charge of station security. Is there a problem here?"
Lois snorted and bounced slightly. She would have drifted away from them had Major Vukovich not grabbed her arm and held her in place. Her grip told Lois that the woman's stockiness was made of solid muscle and not fat. The woman stared at Lois for a long moment, and when Lois didn't speak, she said, "Claude, is this woman bothering you?"
He shook his head. "No, Major, she is not bothering me. I believe I have made the mistake, however. I will see both of you later, perhaps." He pulled his feet loose from the floor and pushed himself away.
The major's voice was hard. "Ma'am, could you tell me your name, please?"
"Lois Lane," she grunted.
Vukovich consulted the portable display in her hand. "I take it you've just arrived?"
"I also take it you already knew our resident Casanova?"
Lois's eyebrows lifted. "Casanova? His name is Claude —"
"I know his name. I also know that he thinks he's Earth's gift to all spacewomen."
Lois crossed her arms and started drifting again. "He's always felt that way and he's not real picky about where they live."
The major took Lois's elbow and tugged her towards the gallery's exit hatch. "I'll ask him to give you a wide berth if you'll promise not to disembowel him the next time you see him."
She snorted again. "That would be a messy way to die, with your intestines floating around you in zero gravity."
"It would at that. If you'll finish getting checked in, I'll detail someone to escort you to your quarters."
"I'm a big girl, Major, and I don't need a babysitter."
The major turned a stone face towards Lois. "Humor me, won't you? My weekly bonus goes down if anybody gets clobbered while I'm on duty."
Lois frowned. "I assume that you're never really off-duty?"
"Nope. One of the real perks of being the one in charge."
Lois nodded. "Okay, we'll do it your way."
The major's face didn't change one iota. "Thank you. Sergeant Rodriguez will show you to your quarters."
— Sunday, early evening
The young sergeant stopped in front of a numbered door and tapped a code into the touch pad beside the doorway. "Your quarters, ma'am."
The door hissed back inside the wall, giving Lois a brief Star Trek moment. Then she stuck her head inside and glanced around. "Nice closet. Where's the door to the rest of the suite?"
He didn't smile. "What you see is what you get, ma'am." He pointed to the right-hand wall. "The bed slides out if you press the blue panel there. The head of the bed is made up to be against the wall, but you can reverse it if you wish.
"On the opposite wall are your personal refrigerator and freezer behind the yellow panel. Beside that is a cabinet with a set of disposable utensils and plates. Personal items may be stored behind the red panel on the far side of the yellow panel. The rest of your baggage is already there. There is a slide-out desk behind the green panel next to the bed. That's also where you can connect your computer to your Prometheus intranet account. Be sure to check out the listing of station activities after your initial login, and be sure to keep up with your assigned workout schedule."
She frowned at him. "Workout schedule? Do I look like I'm fat?"
He sounded like a bored tour guide as he continued. "No, ma'am. I'm sure you'll recall from your new employee orientation that people who live and work in low-gravity environments suffer from loss of both bone mass and muscle mass. If you were to return to Earth after two years of not exercising, you'd have to spend several weeks getting acclimated to normal gravity again, and you'd risk injuring yourself during that time."
She shook her head but didn't respond. He pointed again. "Your video monitor and display are above the desk. Simply press the white panel to access the control pad. The black panel against the left wall contains sanitary facilities and a sink. The lights respond to the verbal commands on, off, low, reduce, increase. Just precede the command with the word 'lights' and speak in a loud, clear voice."
He indicated a keypad on the inside wall. "You can set your personal entry code here. The instructions are above the pad. Please don't give your code to anyone unless you notify station security first. Also included on this panel are your thermostat controls."
Lois stepped in and put her carry-on bag on the floor. She turned around, thinking that she'd surely have to step into the hallway to have room to change her mind. "You mean this little crackerbox is it? You're kidding, right?"
Not one eyelash on his face moved. "No, ma'am. These are the requisite quarters for your job classification. You have two hundred ten square feet of living space here, plus twenty-four hour access to three cafeterias, the gym, two movie theaters and one live musical venue, three common areas, and the medical faculties. Laundry pickup is every three days. Please use the bags in the closet with your room code; otherwise you might not see your clothing any time soon. Communal showers are anti-spinward down the hall about sixty meters."
The thought of showering with other people drove the sergeant's comment about her job classification from her mind. "Communal showers? I hope you don't mean coed communal showers!"
"No, ma'am. That's the ladies' shower area. The men's shower area is spinward from here. You are allowed eight minutes of shower time every other day."
"Eight minutes! Is there a water shortage or something?"
"No, ma'am. That's the station norm. Please remember that station regulations require that you wear appropriate clothing between your quarters and the shower area."
"I wasn't planning to walk around naked!"
"No, ma'am, of course not, but if you did, you wouldn't be the first."
"You mean you have streakers in space?"
"Just inside the station, ma'am. Being naked in total vacuum wouldn't be real healthy for you."
Lois had no response to that one. The young man waited a moment longer, then nodded slightly. "If there's nothing else, ma'am, I have other duties I have to complete before my shift is over."
"Oh. Yeah, sure, go ahead. If there's anything else, I'm sure I can figure it out."
"Yes, ma'am. Oh, I almost forgot." He pointed to the wall beside the door opposite the security keypad. "This is the station intercom. The operating instructions include the key to the color-coded panels in the room and are printed above and below in English, Swahili, French, Japanese —"
"I got it. Thanks, kid."
His face tightened slightly. "Very well, ma'am. Welcome to Prometheus Station."
He turned and walked away. Lois studied the door pad for a moment, then touched a button. The door whooshed shut and she turned to view her home for the next ten days.
Communal showers! Should've listened better to Jimmy's briefing, she thought. Time to take off the pressure suit and see if her coveralls had actually arrived intact.
— Sunday evening
It took her all of ten minutes to secure her belongings in the tiny closet and exchange the pressure suit for the marginally more comfortable coveralls. The one chair in the room fit snugly under the desk after she'd opened it, and there was even a docking station for her laptop. She maneuvered through the initial logon procedure, selected her password, and checked her e-mail.
Sure enough, there were four from Clark and two from Perry, along with the obligatory "welcome and behave yourself on the system" automated message from the e-mail administrator. She smiled and decided that business should go before pleasure and clicked on the older of Perry's two messages. Besides, she'd rather save the best for last.
He'd sent some background info he thought she'd need on several of the station officials. The second message was a request for whatever she'd managed to put together so far. He'd decided to put a little bit of info in each day's edition to whet the public's appetite for more, so when they published her main story they'd sell more papers.
That's Perry, she grinned to herself. Always looking out for his people. And the bottom line, of course. She returned that e-mail with the files she'd created on the shuttle trip up to the station.
The first three messages from Clark were also business-related, although his easy smile and gentle teasing showed even through his business prose. She smiled to herself and marveled again how the Kansas hayseed had proven to have far more depth to him than she'd first thought. And his trust in her to protect his secret was unlike anything else in her experience. Imagine Superman trusting her with his real identity. Amazing.
She pulled up the final message in the queue and skimmed it, then read it again, savoring every word. Without resorting to cheap sentimentalism or tired romantic rhetoric, Clark had managed to convey how much he missed her and how much he anticipated her safe return in just a few innocent-looking sentences.
She sighed and opened up a reply window, then sat back to think. Just how much did she love Clark, anyway?
Enough to trust him with her heart. Enough to never, never, ever even hint to anyone about The Secret. Enough to spend the rest of her life with him, letting him cocoon her in his love. Enough to wrap him up in her love and shield him from all the Mayson Drakes and Rachel Harrises and Nigerian princesses and European supermodels of the world. Enough to comfort him and cry with him when he thought he'd failed or fallen short. Enough to rejoice with him over all that he did accomplish.
She loved him so much that, if he sincerely wanted her to leave the Planet and travel the world with him, she'd leave in a heartbeat and never look back once.
Of course, it wouldn't do to tell him any of that at this stage of the game, now would it?
She sent back an almost innocuous note to Clark, but she couldn't resist signing it "Top Banana Lois." Maybe he'd chew on that one for a while and remember just who was the senior member of this partnership.
Without consciously thinking about it, without planning it, she avoided any mention of Claude Guilliot in any of her outgoing messages.
— Sunday, late evening
Lois found the dining hall just before they stopped serving. She carried her tray filled with luscious gray goop to a table with two men on one side and a woman on the other. All three of them wore coveralls with the same dark blue as hers. "Hi. Care for some company?"
The taller man, slender with light brown hair, said, "Sure, sit down. Becky, you let her alone, okay?"
The woman pulled out the chair beside her. "Don't pay them boys no mind, honey, and they'll eventually give up and go away."
The men laughed as she sat. "Hi, I'm Lois. Obviously, you're Becky." Lois inclined her head towards the men. "How do you put up with that stuff, anyway?"
Becky took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. Her voice took on an artificial Hollywood-style depth and cadence. "Of course, one yearns for the glamour of the golden days of yore, but one does what one can with what little one has."
The shorter of the two men, a solid-looking redhead, stuck out his hand to Lois. "Becky's a frustrated actress, Lois, but she does good work in our local stage productions. My name's Pete, and this long tall drink of water beside me is Mike."
"Hi, Pete, Mike." Lois looked at her tray again. "Is this the usual fare or did the staff whip up something special for my arrival?"
The other three chuckled. Mike tapped her tray. "It tastes a little better than it looks, believe me. It's not haute cuisine, but it won't kill you, either."
Becky spooned up the last of her meal. "It's got concentrated vitamins and minerals in it, and it goes through the recycling systems more easily."
Lois stopped her own spoon just before it entered her mouth. "Re — recycling system? You mean this — this stuff is —"
The men nodded in unison. "Yep," answered Pete. "But don't worry, it's guaranteed to be as clean as they can make it."
Lois considered her spoon for another moment, then made a decision. "You know, I think I need to drop a few pounds. Besides, I just got off the shuttle and I ate just before we docked and I'm not really hungry so I think I'll just skip this meal."
Mike perked up. "Hey, if you're not eating it, mind if I take a crack at it?"
She lifted her hands away and said, "Be my guest."
He pulled the tray across the table and began shoveling it in. Becky patted Lois on the arm and said, "You've just been initiated, Lois. These guys try to pull that trick at least once every time we get a new bunch of people up here."
Lois narrowed her eyes. "Are you telling me that he's not eating recycled — uh, whatever?"
Pete chuckled. "No, he's not. That stuff is mixed up in the cafeterias daily and whatever they don't serve goes into the next batch, but it most assuredly doesn't get recycled after it's been digested. At least, it's not recycled as food."
Lois snatched her water glass back from the pirated tray. "Gee, thanks, guys. I feel like a real live astronaut now." She took a big slurp, then noticed the men were giggling. "Okay, now what?"
Mike shook his head. "The food isn't recycled, but with the lack of water storage up here, I have to tell you that —"
"No." Lois's face paled. "You mean I just drank —"
"Recycled water, Lois, that's all it was," Becky assured her. "It gets cleaned and treated better than the water you got out of your kitchen faucet back down."
"Huh? Back down where?"
"It's an expression we use to describe Earth. We're all from 'back down' and we'll all be going back down when our contracts are up. Unless we renew them, of course."
"Oh? What do you guys do when you're not hazing the new arrivals?"
Pete lifted his brawny arm and showed off his biceps bodybuilder style. "We're cargo workers. Just got off shift. We manhandle those big crates of supplies and luggage you brought up with you on the shuttle."
"I see. Tell me, is that an interesting job? I'd think it would get boring after a while."
Becky slapped the table lightly. "Boring? Honey, you would not believe the stuff people try to send up here. There's a contraband list a mile long, and we still get things we have to throw into a terminal solar orbit. Just last week, some idiot tried to smuggle a forty-four-magnum revolver and fifty rounds of ammo on board. You can kill a grizzly bear with that monster! Can you imagine the amount of damage a gun that big would do to the structural integrity of this station if somebody put a bullet through both the inner and outer hulls?"
Lois glanced from face to face. "A lot?"
They laughed. Mike said, "Yeah, you could put it that way. That's why guns and crossbows and archery sets and anything that launches a projectile of any kind are prohibited. You punch a hole in the inner hull and we might lose a little internal pressure, but if you could shoot through both hulls, there's a possibility of the escaping air peeling open a big hole. It might look like those Hollywood films where somebody shoots out a window in an airliner and everybody gets blown out of the opening." He shook his head. "We're the first line of defense for everybody aboard Prometheus."
Pete gave him a good-natured shove. "Hey, leave the drama to Becky, okay? Honest, Lois, the job is not nearly as dangerous or nerve-wracking as he's making out to be."
"But you do find stuff that's not supposed to be here, don't you?"
Becky nodded. "Sure. You read the prohibited list, didn't you?" Lois nodded. "It's scary how dumb some people can be. 'Oh, Mr. Security Officer, I won't misuse this contraband item, honest!'" Becky shook her head. "And some of these people are the same ones who make sure we breathe air instead of vacuum."
Lois forgot her hunger and leaned forward, ready to dine on their stories. "Really? Tell me more."
Pete jumped in. "Every once in a while we find contraband that people brought up before they put in all those rules and regs about incoming cargo. A couple of months ago we found a whole carton of empty hair spray cans sitting outside the medical bay." He shook his head. "I have no idea how they got away with using hair spray up here."
Becky leaned closer. "Do you know what we use more than anything else up here for quick repairs and securing goods? Go on, guess! I bet you don't know."
Lois shrugged. "I don't know. Scotch tape?"
Mike grinned and said, "Close. We use a whole lot of fishing line and duct tape. Works great in low gravity. You wouldn't believe what we've tied up or taped up with just that. Why, Pete here once fixed a thumb-sized hole in the cargo hold's inner hull with just a wad of duct tape."
Lois lifted her eyebrows skeptically. "Uh-huh. You recycled it through the food processors, didn't you?"
Mike's smile faded while Pete and Becky howled. Pete recovered first. "No! Ha-ha-ha! Really! We — whew — we use miles of duct tape and fishing line, especially in the zero-gee receiving and storage areas. The line's cheap and easy to store and doesn't weigh much, so it's easy to get. The tape is heavier, of course, so it's more expensive, but it works great for quick fixes and for marking something that needs more professional attention."
"So you're not trying to initiate me with this one? You really use duct tape and fishing line?"
Becky squeezed her shoulder. "Tons of it. I'll show you where we store it when you start your first shift."
Lois frowned. "My first shift?"
"Sure!" Becky flipped the sleeve of Lois's coverall. "You're wearing cargo covers. You're one of us, honey! You work in cargo, you handle crates, so you're a crater, just like us!"
Lois's expression at being called a 'crater' set off yet another round of hilarity among all three of her new friends. She shook her head ruefully and once again profoundly thanked the anonymous data entry clerk who'd listed her as 'cargo, super' on the passenger manifest.
— Monday, very early morning
It was well into Gamma shift when Lois finished typing up her notes from her conversation with Mike, Becky, and Pete. She saved the file and attached it to a new message to Perry and sent it wending its way across the inky void, then she added 'interview Amy Platt' to her to-do list. The girl deserved some positive publicity, especially since she'd regained some use of her legs. That was a feel-good story anyone would love to read.
She also added an item for a sidebar on how friendly the people on station were. It seemed that the local culture encouraged including new people as quickly as possible. And it made sense. If a new person learned quickly how badly things could go from one small mistake, that new person would be less likely to make that one mistake. And a happy new person would be more likely to ask an innocuous question which might prevent something bad from happening.
Lois wondered again if she should have proclaimed her innocence at being a 'crater,' but she had decided to keep mum. Maybe folks would talk more openly with her if they thought she was assigned to the station for the long-term. As long as she didn't actually lie to anyone, she didn't think it would be a problem.
She glanced at the room clock. Local time was one-twenty-eight in the morning, and the cafeteria would open for breakfast in six hours, so she needed to sleep while she could. Besides, she was surprisingly tired despite feeling only three-fourths her Earth weight. She could get to like it here, she mused, if only they could provide real food.
Oh, well, knowing that what they did serve wasn't reprocessed human waste would probably allow her to eat it. And tomorrow afternoon she'd schedule the interviews with the station command crew, set up a transmission schedule with Perry and Clark, and try out the ladies' shower. Much as she valued her privacy, ten days was too long to go without bathing, and the shuttle had not had any facilities beyond the hygienic minimums, so it was past time for her to be fully clean.
She pressed the panel for the bed and stepped back as it slid into the room. One pillow, one top sheet attached to the bottom sheet, one thin comforter, and one printed notice that the linens would be changed between nine and eleven every morning, so please return the bed to its stored position after rising so the crew could accomplish this bit of maid work. As if she could move around in this utility closet with the bed taking up the middle of the room, she thought. It was hard enough to change into sleeping clothes without tripping on the stupid thing, and she resolved to don her nighttime garments before opening the bed from now on.
She slid between the sheets and called out, "Lights off." Except for a thin glowing strip of blue LEDs around the ceiling, the room was dark as the far side of the moon. Despite its tiny dimensions, she'd begun thinking of the compartment as hers, which it would be for the duration of her stay.
She put her head on the pillow and fell asleep thinking about Clark. No inkling of Claude's existence intruded on her dreams.
— Monday morning
After breakfast, Lois decided to try out the gym, figuring that if she were going to write about life on the station, she'd need to experience at least some of everything the station had to offer.
The surprisingly muscular, well-endowed woman at the gym's front desk greeted her with a smile. "Hi! Ready to sweat hard today?"
Despite her aversion to perky morning people, Lois returned the greeting. "Sure! I just got here yesterday and I need to —"
The bouncy blonde lifted her hands. "Say no more! Come with me and I'll get you started. What's your name?"
"Hi, Lois! My name's Lana."
Lois tripped on the flat deck plating. "What?"
The blonde grinned and grabbed Lois's arm to steady her. "Easy! You don't have your station legs yet."
"You — your name's Lana?"
She frowned slightly. "Yes. Why?"
"Wh — uh — what's your last name?"
"O'Meara. And again, why?"
"Um — your maiden name's not Lang, is it?"
"Huh? Maiden name? I'm not married and O'Meara is the name I was born with!" She put her hands on her hips. "Why, you got a problem with women named Lana?"
"Just one. And it's not you, I promise."
Lana frowned. "You want to explain that to me?"
"Um, I'd rather not." She felt stupid enough as it was.
The blonde stared hard at her for a long moment, then nodded. "Okay. You are here for a workout, aren't you?"
"Um, yeah. Where do we start?"
Lana stepped back and gave Lois the once-over. "Cardio, I think. You get on the stationary bike and give me twenty-five minutes. Use terrain setting four. I'll have the rest of your routine set up by the time you finish."
— Monday, late morning
After almost two hours, Lois staggered out of the gym, reminding herself to send a basket of fruit to Lana O'Meara, no matter what it cost, and hope that she accepted Lois's tacit apology. The woman hadn't smiled at Lois again during the entire workout, and Lois had never been pushed so hard physically, not even in her martial arts studies. This Lana was obviously a closet sadist, at least towards women named Lois Lane.
Time for a hot shower, especially after that torture. Lois picked up a towel and a change of clothes from her quarters and walked stiffly along the passageway. She looked above the double doors, saw the words "Shower Area," and was about to walk in when two men pushed out, talking and laughing about a lacrosse game they'd either seen or played in many years before.
She looked closer at the sign and noticed the word "Men's" above the other words, and breathed a sigh of relief. She'd only arrived yesterday, and already she'd had a fight with Claude, a stern conversation with the station security chief, a faux pas with one of the gym matrons, been initiated out of her dinner by the veteran stations hands, and all she needed to cement her reputation as a total doofus was to try to take a shower in the men's area.
She reversed her course and trod around the ring. On the way, she made some mental notes about how it felt to walk slightly uphill when walking with the station's spin and slightly downhill when walking against it. She was sure she'd never seen anything about it in the stories she'd read about life on Prometheus, and it would be a good real-life addition to her articles.
She carefully placed her shampoo and soap for easy access and turned on the water. It never really got hot, but it was better than smelling like a locker room after a football game. Lois watched the timer above the nozzle carefully, since wiping off wet soap with a damp towel wasn't on today's to-do list.
She finished with nine seconds to spare. The air in the corridor felt cool against her damp skin, and for the first time she was glad her hair was short enough to comb with a towel.
She glanced at one of the many digital clocks along the hallway. It was almost eleven in the morning, local time, which would give her a chance to brush over some more notes and e-mail them to the Planet. It was almost seven in the morning in Metropolis, and it would take less than a hour to fix her notes, so Perry and Clark would have some stuff for both today's afternoon edition and tomorrow's morning paper when they came in to the office.
Then she'd grab some lunch and try to interview someone who wasn't wearing a dark blue coverall.
— Monday, early afternoon
"So, you're both medical researchers?"
The middle-aged Asian couple nodded politely and smiled cautiously. The woman answered. "Yes, madam. We are both from the Republic of Korea. Your people call us South Koreans. Our government kindly asked us to participate in these studies on the space station. We are most honored to be included in this project."
Lois made a note on her pad. "And your studies involve cellular cloning at zero-gee?"
The man spoke this time. "Yes. We are most encouraged by our results. We believe we will be able to clone human organs in a few years. We wish to assist those needing organ transplants, especially those with rare blood types or other factors which would restrict a needed transplant."
The woman picked up as the man stopped for breath. "Our goal is to learn to clone organs such as hearts, livers, lungs, and other vital organs which might be damaged by disease or injury. Right now, all we are able to do is —"
"Excuse me, are you Lois Lane?"
All three looked up at the young man wearing the USAF security patch on his light blue coverall. Lois lifted her hand. "That would be me."
"Would you please come with me, ma'am?"
She frowned. "Can it wait? I'm kinda busy here."
Without changing his expression, the young man shifted from 'polite request' to 'urgent command' mode. "No, ma'am. Major Vukovich needs to see you right away. Please come with me."
Lois glanced at the Korean couple. They had finally begun to open up to her, but now their faces might as well have been cast in bronze. This was one fouled-up interview. They might not talk to her at all now.
She turned back to the security officer and showed him her notepad. "Can I leave this in my quarters on the way?"
He hardened his voice ever so slightly. "The Major said 'right away,' ma'am, and that means no detours." He tugged on the back of her chair. "If you please, ma'am?"
Lois smiled apologetically at her new friends and tried to rescue any future contact with them. "I'm really sorry about this. I'll try to get back to you later. Your research is fascinating. I'll look for you here in the cafeteria." She stood and tucked the notepad into one of the many zippered pockets on her coverall. "Let's go."
He walked behind her and directed her to the nearest spoke, then asked her to climb to the level four circulation access corridor. "Four!" she burst out. "This is level twenty-six! Do you know how far that is?"
"Yes, ma'am. It's twenty-two levels up. Since you're still acclimated to Earth's gravity, it shouldn't be a hardship for you. Besides, the apparent gravity will decrease —"
"— the closer we get to the hub, yeah, I know." She grabbed the access ladder and started up. "Might as well get this over with. You wouldn't know why I'm making like a circus performer, would you?"
"I was instructed to find you and bring you to Major Vukovich, ma'am. That's all I know."
"Or all you're allowed to know." The sergeant didn't respond. Lois shrugged and said, "Great. Well, here we go."
The climb was easier than Lois had anticipated, and by the time she saw the sign for level six, she was almost leaping from rung to rung. Impatient, she jumped across the nine-foot wide tube to the open panel labeled "Level Four Circulation Access" and paused in the doorway.
"Hey, slowpoke, come on! I want to get this over and done with as soon as I can."
"Yes, ma'am." The young man stopped across from the hatchway and worked his way around the outside of the access tube via the hand and foot rails. "Ma'am, I strongly advise you not to jump across open spaces in the Jeffries tubes. It's not at all safe. The last guy who tried that and missed fell from level three to level nine before he could grab a railing, and when he did he dislocated both shoulders."
Lois's face fell slightly, and she looked down. "Yeah. Sorry about that. Sometimes I jump in without checking the water level." She shuddered slightly at the drop below her. "Or without checking anything else."
"Yes, ma'am. The major is down this corridor and left at the third junction."
"Okay. You coming?"
"Right behind you, ma'am."
The passageway was high enough for her to walk through without bending her back, only her neck. The tall young man behind her was bent at the waist almost forty-five degrees as he followed. She found the junction and saw Major Vukovich kneeling, facing the side wall, beside another vertical junction that traveled downwards.
This passage was much smaller, so Lois got on her hands and knees to crawl to the major. She was glad the gravity was so low until she tried to stop and had to press her hands against both side walls to slow down. Low weight equals low traction, she reminded herself.
Major Vukovich intently watched Lois's face the whole way, but made no move to help her stop. Lois frowned at her. "Okay, Major, I'm here. What am I supposed to do now?"
Vukovich leaned back, and for the first time Lois saw a braided fishing line behind her which was tied to an overhead pipe and trailed down into the vertical junction. Lois frowned slightly. "Is this it? Somebody's hidden something here?" She moved cautiously to a seated position with her legs crossed in front of her. "Is that why you've hauled me up here?"
Vukovich nodded. "Yes. Do you know what's on the other end of this line?"
Lois exhaled loudly. "Elvis and his latest gold record." She lifted her hands abruptly and bounced slightly, then righted herself. "How should I know what's down there? I literally just got here!"
Vukovich moved fluidly across the open junction. "Take a look."
Lois slowly leaned over and gazed down. "Okay, but for an Elvis sighting I think Perry would be a better —"
She froze in place. She couldn't speak. She couldn't make her body respond to her thoughts. Her eyes were fixed upon the sight below her.
At the end of the braided fishing line, about five feet below Lois's knees, hung the naked body of Claude Guilliot slowly twisting in the breeze.
— Monday, mid-day
Lois was shocked beyond description. Of all the things she might have imagined seeing on the space station, Claude's dead body wasn't one of them.
The reporter part of her mind cataloged the details of the scene. There wasn't really a breeze, of course, but Claude's body was turning slowly as air flowed past him. This was an air circulation passage, after all. The pipes above, where the line was tied at the top, were probably water pipes, since there were occasional drops of condensation gathering on them. As she watched, one of those droplets found the braided line and flowed down it to the knot in the noose around Claude's neck.
There was duct tape around his ankles, binding them tightly together. More tape secured his wrists behind him, and yet another piece of tape covered his mouth but not his nose.
His expression was frozen into one of sheer panic. His eyes were open and looked bloodshot, possibly from blood vessels inside his eyes which had broken while he struggled.
And he had struggled, at least after he'd been hung there. The line around his neck had been tied in a loop and the knot had been placed just behind his right ear. The noose had cut into the left side of his neck and torn the skin. Several small trails of dried blood leaked down onto his left shoulder and chest, but not enough to kill him. He hadn't bled to death.
He turned slowly as if to let Lois see his hands. His fingernails were undamaged, although the tape around his wrists was twisted by his attempts to free himself and his wrists were badly bruised.
Down his legs and splattered against the sides of the access tube was evidence that Claude had evacuated his bowels before he'd died. The reporter part of her mind remembered that this often happened to a person who was hung. The terror of impending death did nasty things to both the human mind and the human body.
She couldn't see any other visible signs of trauma, like bruising or abrasions or cuts anywhere else. And there wasn't much of Claude that she couldn't see.
Vukovich grabbed her shoulder and Lois jumped. She also gasped deeply and coughed twice, then grabbed her stomach and tried to retch.
"NO!" the major shouted. "Don't you dare throw up on this man! This is a crime scene and we can't have it contaminated!"
Lois swallowed and turned to the side, breathing deeply. After several deep breaths and a number of gulps, she nodded without opening her eyes. "Okay. I'm okay now."
Lois opened her eyes and stared into the unblinking face of authority. "Yes. I'm under control now."
"Good. When's the last time you spoke to or saw the victim?"
Lois took a fluttering breath. "Yesterday in the lobby when I checked in."
"You haven't seen him or spoken to him since?"
Irritation began building in Lois. "Why, am I a suspect or something?"
Vukovich sat back. "Right now, I can't rule out anyone but myself." She looked down at the body, slowly swaying in the flow of air through the passageway. "Except I'm pretty sure he didn't commit suicide."
Lois risked another look. Sure enough, the emotional impact of the scene was blunted the second time, and Claude was almost just another murder victim.
Lois forced herself to be clinical. "I don't think it's physically possible to kill yourself and end up looking like that. How would he wrap the tape around his arms? And it looks like it took him quite a while to die. He can't weigh very much this close to the hub."
Vukovich looked up at her with a flat expression. "About twenty-six pounds. We're at point one-six gee or a bit more here, and that's about what his weight would be on the moon, give or take a couple of pounds. I'd guess you weigh just a shade over sixteen pounds right now."
"Just enough to hang me, right?"
"I don't know." Vukovich shook her head. "Just enough to hang him, that's for sure, although we'll have to let the doctor tell us if he died of suffocation or the cutoff of blood flow to the brain. But you're right. I don't see any way this can be anything but deliberate murder." She sat back and called to the man behind Lois. "Sergeant Walker! Take Ms. Lane to my office and wait there with her. Start the query I asked you about. And check on Doctor Watson, see if he's coming or if he's sending someone."
"Yes, Major. Ms. Lane, if you'll come with me, please?"
Lois nodded and followed Walker out of the passageway and down the tube again. This time he preceded her, and he coached her as they went lower and grew heavier.
"Easy does it, ma'am, we're headed for level twenty-two and we don't need to hurry. Don't try to go too fast, and make sure your feet are set before you let go with your hands. You'll feel heavier faster than you think you would."
"I suppose you're concerned about my safety?"
"If you were to fall, ma'am, I'd have to fill out about a half-million forms in longhand and I'd probably miss my movie tonight."
Lois grinned slightly. The dumb joke relaxed her a little, just as she suspected it was supposed to. "Heaven forbid I keep you from your entertainment, Sergeant."
"Yes, ma'am, thank you, ma'am. Here we are. Just watch me on the hand rail and follow my lead. You might want to stand on the foot rail, too, just to be on the safe side."
As they walked to the security office, Lois could feel the increase in gravity between this level and the level they'd just left. She concentrated on moving her legs just so to keep from either stumbling or hopping.
It also kept her from thinking about Claude.
She hoped she wouldn't dream about him, but she knew she would.
— Monday, mid-afternoon
Vukovich took what Lois considered to be her own sweet time in returning to the office, which didn't improve Lois's mood in the slightest. She sat and waited while the sergeant called the medical unit and spoke briefly to someone, then sat down at a computer and began typing. He frowned once, then printed several sheets of paper. Lois lost interest in his activities as it became clear that conversation with her wasn't on his to-do list. She resolved to give the major a stern talking-to as soon as she could.
When the solidly-built woman finally arrived, however, the look on her face forestalled Lois's budding tirade. Lois followed the major into her office and waited against the wall beside the door. Vukovich sat down heavily in her desk chair and put her face in her hands. Walker waited for a long moment, then picked up several papers from the printer tray and softly placed them in front of her. Lois moved quietly to a chair in front of the desk.
"Major?" Walker said softly. "I have those results you asked about." She didn't move for a moment. "Major?" He put his hand on her shoulder. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
She looked up at him and shook her head sadly. "No. Thanks, Matt, but no. Let me take a look at what you've got."
He handed her the papers and stepped back, then assumed a 'parade rest' stance with his back straight, his feet at shoulder width, and his hands clasped behind his back. The major glanced through the papers in her hand and nodded. "Thank you, Sergeant, that will be all."
"Yes ma'am." He turned and strode out.
Vukovich fixed Lois with a glare. "You didn't mention meeting Claude in any of your messages."
Lois's jaw dropped open. "What? You mean you read my personal e-mail? That's illegal! That's a violation of my constitutional right to privacy!"
"Not up here it isn't! You signed a waiver allowing us to scan your outgoing e-mail for key words and phrases before you boarded the shuttle. Besides, you're forgetting something very important."
"This isn't the United States, it's an international space station. That means your constitutional rights are, shall we say, somewhat abridged?"
Lois felt a chill. Vukovich wasn't just a law enforcement officer, she was an Air Force major. Was she headed for jail? Just how much trouble was she in?
Before Lois could ask another question, Vukovich spoke again. "You sent several e-mails to a guy named Kent. He your husband, boyfriend, chiropractor, what?"
The major's abrupt manner made Lois uncharacteristically cautious. "We're — dating, I guess."
Lois shrugged. "I think so. Why?"
"He coming up her to join you?"
"No. Why do you —"
"You met Claude DuBois as soon as you arrived, a man you obviously had some stormy history with, yet you didn't mention him to this Kent fellow. Not once. Why is that, I wonder?"
"Clark doesn't have to know everything I — wait, you said DuBois?"
"Of course. Claude DuBois, computer tech level two, been aboard the station almost a year —"
"But he wasn't a computer tech, at least not when I knew him. His name was Claude Guilliot and he was a journalist."
The major's eyes almost fell out of her head. "WHAT!!" she shouted. "He was a what?"
Lois tried to wiggle backwards in her chair. "Claude was a writer, a reporter for some European newspaper. I don't know what he was doing here posing as a computer tech, but I doubt it was honest work."
Vukovich snarled a curse and leaped to her feet to stride aimlessly around the room and wave her arms. It was the first time Lois had seen anyone not named Clark Kent actually jump out of a chair as opposed to just standing up abruptly. The lower gravity helped, of course. "A writer! A reporter!"
"Why, what's wrong with —"
"If I'd known that I might've pushed him out an airlock myself!"
"Because he was a reporter?"
"Yes!" She turned and loomed over Lois. "The only thing lower than a reporter is a lawyer and not by much!"
"You don't like —"
"I hate them! They lie, they steal your privacy, they ruin your reputation, they destroy relationships! I detest them!"
Lois relaxed slightly as the major turned away from her. "I don't think all reporters are like Claude."
Vukovich spun to face her again. "Really? You ever read good news in the newspaper or hear it on the radio or TV?"
"Good news doesn't sell like —"
"Of course not!" The major resumed her pacing. "All they want to do is tear people down and ruin their lives!"
The woman was making Lois very nervous. "Ah, maybe we should focus on Claude here."
"Yeah. Yeah! The low-life rat!" Vukovich stalked to her terminal and tapped several keys.
"I'm pulling up his data file." As the major read it, her face flushed crimson again. "I don't believe this! If you're telling me the truth, that means he lied on his employment application and job history! That's grounds to terminate his contract and cost him his bonus back down!"
"I'd say losing his bonus was the least of his worries."
"Yeah, you're right. Wait a minute!" The major straightened and pointed at Lois. "You."
Uh-oh, thought Lois, that couldn't have been good.
"Come with me."
Without waiting for Lois to stand, Vukovich pulled her out of her chair and dragged her across the room to a locked standing cabinet. The major tapped in a multi-digit code on the keypad, then pressed her left thumb against the print reader. The cabinet door drifted open and she pulled out what looked like a thick bronze chain.
"Turn around, Lane."
No, this was not good, not good at all. Before she could react, Lois felt the chain around her neck, cool against her skin. There was a soft click behind her, and the major closed the cabinet and stepped around to gaze upward into Lois's face.
Too close, thought Lois. This was very not good.
Vukovich locked eyes with Lois. "That chain won't let you off the station unless you want to try to breathe vacuum. It will send a signal that will set off an alarm in the outgoing shuttle airlock if you try to leave, so I'd suggest you not do so."
The major was still standing too close, and Lois's natural orneriness began to reassert itself. "Why am I wearing this? Am I a suspect again?"
"You had a history with the deceased, Lane. The first time you set eyes on him when you got here you almost started a fistfight with him. Yeah, you're a suspect."
That was enough. Lois's temper rose also. "And if I'm the killer, why was I so stupid as to voluntarily tell you his real name and real occupation? Why would I kill him my first day here, and kill him like that? I might as well wear a neon sign that says 'Arrest me, I killed Claude Guilliot.' How dumb do you think I am, Major?"
Vukovich blinked and took a step back. "Maybe you have a point at that. Look, I only know this is the first murder we've had on this station, ever, and I don't want to screw up and let the killer get away. If my having to solve this my way hurts your feelings, too bad. If you're innocent, you'll get over it, and if you're guilty, I'll find out."
Lois took a breath to pop off again, but something held her back. She let the breath out slowly and silently counted to ten, then said, "Okay. I understand. Can I go now?"
"Yes. Go ahead."
Lois tromped across the office angrily, but slowed as she approached the door, thinking. Then she stopped and turned. "You said this was the first murder on the station?"
The major nodded. "I've been here for three years, since before the first boatload of colonists. We've had, um, four accidental deaths in that time, and maybe a dozen in the whole history of the station, but yes, this is the first murder."
"Are you an experienced investigator?"
The major shook her head and dropped her gaze. "I'm security and law enforcement, not criminal investigations. There's a big difference between the two in the Air Force. None of us are exactly dummies, but I'm not really trained for this kind of thing, and neither are any of my people."
"So, you want some help?"
Vukovich slowly looked up at Lois. "What kind of help?"
Lois began to smell an opportunity. "The professional crime-solving kind."
The major turned to face her directly. "You know someone who might fill those shoes?"
Gotcha, Lois thought. "Well, they guy I sent those e-mails to, Clark Kent, is an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet, and we —"
"The Daily Planet!" Vukovich burst out. "You mean you have contacts there?"
"You could say that, yes."
"Background, research, access to the real police?"
"Sure, I —"
"That's great! Look, I've already suspended off-station e-mails except for the command crew and a few department heads, so you can —"
"What?" Lois wasn't so happy now. "You mean I can't communicate with Clark?"
Vukovich raised her hand. "Hold on, Lane! This is everybody, not just you! I may not be a veteran at this, but I do remember some of the procedures!"
"No buts! I admit I could use the help, but this has to be done my way or not at all! You understand that?"
Even as whipsawed as she'd been for the last two hours, Lois knew when discretion was the better part of valor. "Yes," she admitted grudgingly, "I understand."
"Good." Vukovich turned her intensity down a couple of notches. "I'll send Kent an e-mail explaining that you've volunteered to help me on this case and that he'll have to communicate with you through me for the duration."
Lois nodded. "I assume you'll call me when you have a response?"
"You could just wait here if you prefer."
Lois looked around. The office was utilitarian to the extreme. It made her tiny cubbyhole on the habitat ring seem warm and homey by comparison. "That's okay. It's been a rough day already and I'm still adjusting to the different time zone. I was up late last night and I'd like to get some sleep."
"Suit yourself. If you leave your quarters for any reason, call my office and let me know where you're going. I'll have my guys watch out for you."
Lois snorted. "I still don't need a babysitter."
"You do now." Vukovich put her hands on her hips and glared at Lois anew. "I'm almost convinced you didn't kill that man, Lane, but just in case I'm wrong, I want to know where you are at all times. And if I'm right and you're innocent, the real killer will find out soon enough that you're involved in the investigation. I don't want you to be Space Station Prometheus's second murder victim."
— Monday, late afternoon
Lois walked through the station's airlock and waved at the young girl at the check-in counter, who returned the wave with a huge smile as she and her desk drifted by. Three men wearing dark blue clothing were standing in the corner of the room, casting fishing lures into a shallow pool with two dead fish floating on the top. Lois turned to watch Major Vukovich bunny-hop past her in slow motion, and as she did she bumped into someone.
She turned back to apologize, and Claude slowly floated around to look at her. He smiled hugely and wrapped his arms around her, then leaned back and Lois tried to scream as she looked into his gaping mouth at his swollen tongue and the blood dripping down from his neck flicked onto her as she struggled to break away and his glassy eyes were loose in their sockets and his head flopped from one side to the other as she shook him while trying to get away from him and his teeth were grinding together and buzzing like -
And she jerked up in her bed, panting. She heard the buzz again. She looked around frantically and finally saw the blinking comm panel light. She sat up and forced herself to breathe normally, trying to convince her body that it wasn't real, it was just a really disgusting and scary dream.
She took another shuddering deep breath, then let it out slowly and stood beside the bed. One long step brought her to the comm panel. "Lights on low," she called out, then slapped the panel.
"This is Lois Lane."
"Ms. Lane, this is Major Vukovich. I have a response from Mr. Kent. Please come to my office as quickly as you can."
I've been promoted, thought Lois. Now I'm 'Ms. Lane' instead of just 'Lane.' I'm so thrilled.
She nodded, then remembered it was a voice-only comm. "I'll be there as soon as I get dressed. Level twenty-two, section A, right?"
"Right. I'll see you in ten minutes. Vukovich out."
The light flipped off, and Lois stumbled to the closet to pull out a fresh coverall. Then she ran her hand over her shoulder and arm. It came away slick with moisture. She'd sweated while she'd dreamed and needed to change everything.
The clock in the corner of her room told her she'd slept for almost two hours. The tiny mirror next to the closet once again showed her how easy short hair was to comb, and she was on her way to the security office within three minutes. Clark and Perry were probably sitting on top of their computers, ready for her response.
And she desperately missed Clark. Not just his manliness, not just his presence, but his insight into cases and stories. The more they worked together, the better they seemed to work together. And she could use his mind right about now.
His comforting super-arms around her wouldn't hurt her feelings, either.
— Monday, early evening
She stuck her head in the security office. "Hi, Sergeant. The major here?"
He rose fluidly, without bouncing, showing that he'd been on-station for quite a while. "Yes, ma'am, in her office waiting for you."
Before Lois could knock on the door, Vukovich opened it. "Come on in, Ms. Lane. You made good time for a — for a new arrival."
Lois had the decided impression that Vukovich had very nearly called her a 'fresh fish.' "Thanks. How do we do this?"
Vukovich pulled out the chair behind her desk. "You type, I look over your shoulder, and when I say it's okay you send the e-mail. Delivery shouldn't take more than ten minutes or so if it's just a few lines of text."
"Okay." Lois sat and grabbed the mouse. "Is this the message Clark sent?"
"Yes. Just click on that icon and —"
"I know how to reply to an e-mail, Major."
Vukovich's voice cooled slightly and she straightened. "Of course you do."
Lois brought up Clark's message. It was a response to the major's message that Lois would have to talk to Clark using this account for the time being. Clark had written:
— As you say, Major Vukovich. Please have Lois respond as soon as possible. I'll be waiting beside my computer until then.
Lois nodded to herself and clicked the 'reply' button.
— Clark, this is Lois. There's been a murder aboard the Prometheus, the first one ever, according to Major Vukovich. The victim is Claude Guilliot, and yes, he's THAT Claude. We're almost completely certain it isn't suicide, but we don't have much more yet. Claude was posing as a computer tech, and we need you to find out why he was up here in the first place. There has to be money behind it. We'll send more information as soon as we can verify it.
— All e-mail access has been shut off except for a few accounts, so no one's getting this story out unless it goes through the Major and her e-mail ID.
She paused and looked up at the security chief. "That okay?"
Vukovich leaned closer to the terminal and squinted. "Add that we'll send full details of the murder when we have them as long as they promise not to print everything yet."
Lois shook her head. "Clark knows what he can and can't print. He's dealt with enough criminal investigations to know where the line is."
Vukovich frowned, then nodded. "Okay. Add what I said and send it. I know the Planet's reputation, so I guess I'll have to trust him not to be stupid."
Lois typed and pressed the 'send' hot-key, then sat back. "You said ten minutes before they get this?"
"Depends on the amount of traffic going through the comm satellites, but it shouldn't be much more than that. It's the closest thing to real-time communications we've got up here. The price of a two-way radio call would bankrupt the average worker, so we have to make do with what we've got."
"Okay. You have anything to drink while we're waiting?"
Vukovich shook her head. "Uh-uh. We don't allow alcohol on the station. There's too many ways a drunk can kill himself and a lot of other people up here."
Lois frowned. "I meant something like a root beer or a cream soda. I could use the caffeine."
"Oh." The major had the grace to look slightly abashed. "Sorry. I'll have Sergeant Walker go get something. Should have thought of that myself."
Vukovich leaned out the door and asked Walker to run the errand for her. Lois considered that. The major could surely order her subordinate, but she'd asked instead. And the way they'd treated each other after she'd returned from the murder scene spoke volumes about the relationship Vukovich had with her staff. She was respected, she was liked, and she was in charge. It was a tricky balance to maintain, but from all appearances so far, the major was an excellent acrobat.
"He'll be back in a flash."
Lois nodded absently. "You said something earlier about a Doctor Watson?"
"Yes. Dr. John Quincy Watson, M.D. Fancies himself to be a bit of a writer of detective fiction, too, although I've agreed not to hold that against him. He's English and he's very good at treating both minor injuries and major ones. We had a young boy visiting with his family last year who came down with appendicitis and Watson fixed him up in nothing flat. Even gave the boy his appendix in a plastic jar to take home with him."
Lois smiled at that, then grew serious again. "What did he do with Claude's body?"
Vukovich sat down on the couch across the room. "He said he'd do a full post-mortem exam and send me the results, then he was going to encase the body in plastic, suck all the air out, and store it in a vacuum chamber." At Lois's grimace, she added, "We don't have a morgue. There's no room on the station for one, and usually not much need. That's our standard procedure in dealing with dead bodies."
"Sorry. Just seems a little gruesome to me."
The major sighed. "This whole freakin' situation is gruesome. I can tell already, I'm going to have nightmares about this when it's over." She leaned back and rubbed her eyes with her hands, then leaned forward. "Look, we're obviously going to be working together for a while. Why don't we use first names? It'll make things a little easier."
Lois had her doubts about that, but nodded anyway. "Okay. I'll be Lois if you'll be — Katrina, right?"
"My friends and people with whom I investigate murders call me Karen."
"Karen." She nodded. "Any middle names?"
"Nope. Just Karen."
"Really?" Lois squinted at her. "I would have guessed you'd be called Katharine or Kate."
"Uh-huh. Katharine makes me think of Catharine the Great of Russia, and Kate makes me think of Shakespeare's 'The Taming Of The Shrew.' Neither of those women are role models for me. I'm just Karen."
Lois ventured a small smile. "Okay, just Karen, when do you expect the post-mortem report?"
As Vukovich opened her mouth to answer, the computer dinged. "That's either your guy Kent or the doctor's report."
Lois moved the mouse to erase the screen saver. It was a looping clip from a Laurel and Hardy comedy short, a revealing insight into the major's personality. She promised herself she'd think about it later. "It's from the doctor. You want me to open it?"
"Go ahead. I'll read over your shoulder."
Lois complied and skimmed the document. She didn't open the attached autopsy photos. Her stomach control only went so far.
They finished reading the file at almost the same time. "Pretty comprehensive list," muttered Lois. "Cause of death, slow strangulation and loss of blood flow to the brain."
"I didn't think twenty-six pounds of pressure would crush his larynx."
"Here's something a little less gross. Says here he had sex not long before he died." Lois chewed a fingernail. "Wonder who she was?"
Karen caught Lois's eye. "How do you know it was a she?"
"Claude? He thought he was God's gift to spacewomen, remember? Of all the positive or negative personality quirks he might have had, liking men instead of women wasn't one of them." She tapped the screen lightly. "Besides, the doctor says he found traces of vaginal fluid on Claude's genitals. I'm pretty sure there aren't any men on the station with that talent."
Karen returned her gaze to the screen without answering. "Hey, here's something. He had trace amounts of alcohol in his blood, none in his stomach, and no sign of drugs anywhere else."
Lois frowned. "I thought you said alcohol was banned up here."
"It is. Doesn't mean people don't smuggle it in or make it here. We do have some of the best chemists in the world on the station, after all."
"Right." They fell silent for a moment, reading. Something caught Lois's attention. "Look at this. Watson says the body didn't have any serious bruises on it except for around the neck, where the noose was, and on the arms and legs where he was taped. They were probably a result of struggling with the tape, but the bruising almost surely happened after he was hog-tied. Or hog-taped, if you prefer."
"So how did the killer hold Claude still while he or she duct-taped him like that and put a noose around his neck and hung him? He should've fought like a tiger, but there's no evidence of it on his body. I would've expected to find some kind of head injury from a blow that knocked him out, but your doctor says Claude had no fresh head wounds at all."
"Hmm." Karen stood and paced slowly, thinking. "I don't know. It's definitely a clue, but I can't tell you what it means. At least, not yet."
Lois looked again. "Also says here that it took him anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours to die. Watson can't fix the time of death much closer than a four-hour span, and that means we'll have to account for people's movements within a seven-hour window."
"If we have a four-hour time window when Claude actually died, plus a maximum of three hours that he hung there before he stopped struggling, that's seven hours. That makes for a lot of investigative notes."
Karen shook her head. "That's not acceptable. We need something more precise."
Lois shrugged. "You'll have to talk to the doctor about that."
Karen nodded. "Okay, I will." She strode to the wall and punched in a communications code.
A reedy female voice answered. "Medical bay, Dr. Fujima speaking."
"Dr. Fujima, this is Major Vukovich. I need to speak with Dr. Watson right now."
"Hang on a minute, I'll have to find him."
They waited for several moments, then the speaker came to life again with a jaunty English accent. "This is Dr. Watson. How may I assist you, Major?"
"You can tell me when the murder victim died."
"It's in my report, Major. That's as precise as I can be with the equipment we have and the expertise available to me."
Karen rolled her eyes but kept her reaction out of her voice. "Can you come to my office so we can discuss this face-to-face?"
"I'm sorry, no. I have to be in surgery in twenty minutes. We have a patient with an infected spleen and it must be removed posthaste."
"Can't Fujima handle it by herself?"
"Possibly she can, even probably, but I cannot, in good conscience, abandon her to such a task so early in her stay here."
"This is important, John!"
"I agree, Major, but I cannot be more precise than I already have been."
"Nuts! How come the guys on the TV cop shows get better results than I do with you?"
"Because they have more equipment, more external evidence, and better-paid writers."
"Not funny, Doc."
He chuckled. "Major, the science of dating the time of death is as much an art as it is anything else. Forensic pathologists often rely on external clues like the condition of the surrounding shrubbery and plants, weathering of the site —"
"Which we don't have here."
"Precisely. Our sterile environment has removed many of the external indicators of time of death. Since our victim was known to have eaten dinner in the cafeteria last night at around eight PM, his stomach contents indicate that he probably didn't die before eleven last night, more likely somewhat later, but I cannot be absolutely certain. My estimate was also affected by the fact that he was in a duct with cool air blowing over him, making his body temperature drop more quickly than if he had died peacefully in his bed. Rigor mortis appears approximately two hours after death, and you reported that the body was stiff when you first arrived on the scene. I also judged the hardness and odor emanating from the expelled contents of Claude's bowels to be more than two hours old, but I cannot be more precise. All I can be certain of is that he died some time between eleven PM last night and eight AM this morning, most probably between midnight and six AM."
Karen raised her voice. "I need better information than that, John! I need a better time of death estimate!"
"And if I could give you a more accurate estimate, Major, I would do so. I deeply regret that I cannot."
Karen sighed. "Okay, Doc. Thanks anyway. Hope that spleen comes out okay."
"So does our patient, I'm certain. I will report to you should I discover anything else that might be helpful. Good-bye."
Karen shut off the communicator, then sighed and sat down heavily on the side of her desk. Lois sat back and shook her head. "That's going to complicate things."
Karen cocked her head to one side. "Really? What was your first clue?
Lois ignored the sarcasm. "It'll make it that much harder for us to find who had the opportunity to kill Claude."
"Right. I got it. We have to find opportunity, means, and motive, and then we have the killer."
"No. Then we have one or more suspects. All three of those things together are powerful indicators of guilt, but they aren't proof."
Karen frowned in thought. "You seem to know an awful lot about this kind of thing."
"I ought to. I've —"
The outer office door swung open and Walker entered, carrying three plastic soft drink bottles. "I hope I have at least one that everybody likes." He hesitated, then offered Lois the first choice.
She grinned. "Thanks. I'll take the cream soda, unless one of you can't live without it."
"Go ahead, Lois, I'll take the root beer. That leaves the almost clear light green highly caffeinated and heavily sweetened carbonated liquid for you, Matt. You sure that's not just improperly recycled?"
Lois coughed and almost spit out her first sip. Karen laughed as she whacked her on the back. "Hey, Lois, you okay?"
Lois raised her hand to stop the beating. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Sorry. Some craters in the cafeteria told me where the station's water comes from on my first day."
Walker nodded. "You do realize that was just yesterday, don't you, ma'am?"
Lois's eyebrows lifted and her eyes opened wider. "Wow. I hadn't realized it, but yeah, it was. Seems like I've been here a lot longer than that." She took another sip and savored it. "That's good and cold."
Walker sipped his own beverage. "I heard you and the Major discussing the case when I walked in. What's the status of the deceased's belongings?"
Lois lifted her eyebrows again. "I thought you were a rookie at this, Karen."
"I'm not fully trained but I'm also not stupid. As soon as we realized Claude was dead, we sealed his room and put a sergeant inside to fully examine the contents." She took a big swig and swallowed. "One note in the station's favor is that we didn't have to wait for a search warrant."
"And you found what?" Lois prompted.
"It looked like he'd had a party in there the night before. There was evidence of a female guest on the sheets and his clothes were all there. The only odd thing Sergeant McClaren found was that the coveralls and underwear he was apparently wearing that day were balled up and tossed into the far corner of the room."
Lois frowned. "Why is that odd?"
Walker answered. "According to his most recent ex-girlfriend, Claude was a slob who'd drop his clothes wherever he was standing and let them lie in the middle of the room until he gathered them into a laundry bag. Tossing them in the corner suggests that the killer removed the victim's clothing at or near the murder scene and took it back to the victim's quarters."
"I see." Lois thought for a moment, then nodded. "Two things spring to my mind. If that set of assumptions about his clothing is true, and it's certainly plausible at the moment, it means this murderer had Claude's room access code, and that implies that they had a long-term relationship. It also means that this was almost certainly a planned, premeditated murder." Lois put her drink down on the desk. "And if that's true, Karen, you don't have a crime of passion on your hands, you've got a deliberate killer loose on your station. And whoever it is probably wouldn't hesitate to kill again."
— Monday Evening
The computer dinged a second time, startling even the seemingly imperturbable Sergeant Walker. Lois looked at the monitor and exclaimed, "It's Clark's response."
Vukovich gestured at the computer. "Go ahead, see what he's got."
— Hello, Lois. We're shocked to hear that Claude's been murdered up there, shocked, I tell you. Since you're not under arrest, we're assuming that you aren't in any way responsible for his untimely demise. Please send us any details that Major Vukovich will allow off the station, and please assure her that we won't publish anything that might impede her investigation or mislead our readers in any way. And anything you need from this end, just let us know and we'll get it to you as fast as we can. Send back what you can as soon as you can. Perry wants to help with this, too. Our crack research department stands ready to assist you.
She grinned. "What's so funny?" asked Vukovich.
"The crack research department. A kid named Jimmy Olsen heads that up."
"A kid?" Karen looked dismayed. "Is he any good?"
Lois waved one hand. "Don't worry. If it's on a computer anywhere in the world and it's connected to the World Wide Web or just about any other network, Jimmy can dig it out."
Karen still didn't look convinced. "If you say so. Tell him he'll get an extra cookie from me if he gets his work done before his nap."
Lois chuckled. "Don't worry, Jimmy could find out your blood type and shoe size if they're anywhere on the Web." She snapped her fingers. "Speaking of medical-type stuff, your good doctor didn't mention any DNA evidence in his preliminary report. Let me try to pick one of these attachments that's not a picture — ah, here we are."
Walker leaned closer. "Why that one?"
"Because the file name is 'DNA.DOC.' If that's not a clue —"
"Okay, Lois," interrupted Karen. "Stop showing off and open the file."
She did. The doctor had written that if DNA could be extracted from the miniscule tissue and fluid samples he'd collected, he'd get it done, but that it wouldn't be easy and it would take up to four weeks to identify just the base pairs, assuming it was possible at all. Even then, the station didn't keep DNA profiles of station personnel or visitors in the database, so there was no way to match it to anyone.
"Great," muttered Karen. "Why do it if it won't help?"
Walker shrugged. "Any additional information we get is more than we have so far, Major. Maybe we can verify that his last overnight guest was also his last pleasant experience, if the DNA on him matches the DNA on the bed sheets and the pubic hairs we collected."
"Good point. Sergeant, you mentioned Claude's most recent ex-girlfriend a while ago. Who was she?"
"Our extremely healthy gym supervisor, Lana O'Meara."
"O'Meara!" Lois groaned. "I hope you have that conversation saved electronically. I don't think she'd talk to me unless I was lifting a hundred pounds or more over my head with only one finger."
Karen laughed and Walker smiled. "Yes, ma'am, I just finished typing up my interview with her. You want to look at it?"
"If the major allows it, yes."
Still grinning, Karen said, "The major allows it as long as you don't send it off-station yet. There's no way we're giving any news organization any names of suspects until we're sure enough to make an arrest."
Lois nodded. "Sounds fair. Mind if I respond to Clark before I read O'Meara's file?"
"Go ahead and send the autopsy report and the pictures with your message. Might as well ruin their lunches, too."
Lois didn't think that was very funny, but she kept her own counsel and did as she was asked. "Done. Sergeant, what's the name of that file?"
"I can get there quicker if I drive the keyboard and mouse, ma'am."
She sat back. "Please do."
Walker leaned in and pulled up the interview with a few keystrokes. Instead of a transcript, she saw a summary which gave her very little new data.
Lois sighed. "Sergeant, I'm sure this is all up to regulation standards, but there's a lot that's missing."
His voice revealed only curiosity. "Such as?"
"Well, you didn't ask her if she knew about any of Claude's other girlfriends. Surely she knows something we can use. And we know where she claimed to be last night — alone in her quarters — but there's no corroborating evidence. Doesn't the station track power use by individuals?"
Karen frowned. "They track the power usage in each area, like in the cafeteria and the gym and —"
"What about personal quarters?"
Walker crossed his arms in thought. "I'm not sure, I'll have to check. But if she was in her quarters and asleep, as she claims, the power usage records won't necessarily show that."
Lois's eyes brightened. "But they may show whether or not the door was opened at any time." She watched the light bulb brighten above the others' heads.
"Right!" Karen chirped. "Matt, you get on that. Lois, you and I have a date to discuss Claude Guilliot's murder with Ms. O'Meara."
"Oh, goody, just what I hoped I'd get to do today."
"Just don't say anything to antagonize her and you'll do fine."
Lois gave her a deadpan look. "Then you'd better do all the talking."
— Monday, early evening
"Ms. O'Meara, are you busy?"
Lana shook her head 'no' at the major's question. Lois almost envied the way her short hair flowed and fluttered around her head in the reduced gravity.
"We'd like to ask you a few questions."
Lana frowned. "About Claude?"
"I already spoke with Sergeant Walker just a little while ago. Is something wrong?"
Karen smiled. It reminded Lois of a crocodile's grin. "No, we just need some additional information from you. Mind if we step inside your office?"
Lana looked pointedly at Lois. "Is she coming too?"
"Ms. Lane is assisting me in this investigation."
Lana gave Lois an appraising once-over and nodded. "Yeah, I bet she helps a lot."
Lois followed the other two into Lana's office, wondering what that was all about, then closed the door behind the three women. Lana sat down and motioned to the chairs before her desk. "Have a seat, ladies. What can I tell you that I haven't already told your alter ego?"
Karen opened her notepad and glanced at the questions Lois had jotted down. "You told Sergeant Walker that you'd been in a relationship with Claude Guilliot for about seven or eight weeks, right?"
"Except that I knew him as Claude DuBois, that's right."
"He didn't tell you his real name?"
Lana shook her head. "Nope. I had no idea."
Karen nodded. "Neither did anyone else, apparently. When was the last time you spent a significant amount of personal time with him?"
Lana's eyebrows rose. "You mean, when was the last time we had sex?"
Karen shrugged. "Your description."
Lana leaned back. "About three, three-and-a-half weeks ago. I'd spent the night in his quarters and got up early to leave before he woke up."
"Why was that?"
"I knew it was just about over, that he'd gotten everything from me he wanted."
"Oh? What was it he wanted from you?"
Lana smirked. "A large quantity of high quality sex."
Karen waited a beat, then asked, "Anything else?"
The smirk faded. Lana leaned back and looked down. "Yeah, actually. He asked a lot of questions about my coworkers and their private lives. He always made it seem like a joke, or like he was trying to convince me I was the only one for him by comparing our relationship with everybody else's." She snorted. "As if we were destined to live happily ever after."
"How did you feel about him breaking up with you?"
Lana shrugged. "I saw it coming so I wasn't completely crushed. He was charming, handsome, a pretty fair lover, but there wasn't a whole lot of character inside that character, you know?"
Lois grimaced to herself. She knew exactly what Lana O'Meara meant.
Karen asked, "Have you seen him since then?"
"Just in passing. We had lunch a few days later when he tried to let me down gently."
"Did he? Let you down easy, I mean?"
Lana chuckled. "He did his best. We were two ships passing in the night, it was a grand and glorious romance but doomed from the start, he'd remember me for the rest of his life and regret that he wasn't man enough to love me as I deserved, yada, yada. I suspect it's what he'd planned to tell me that last morning when I slipped out early. You've been dumped before, Major, you know the drill."
Karen nodded. "Yeah, I do. What about since then? Have you seen him, either alone or in the company of some other woman?"
"I've passed him in the hallways a few times, seen him in the cafeteria, stuff like that. I didn't stop to speak to him, and I didn't corner him and scream at him for dropping me, if that's what you're asking."
"Weren't you upset that he'd broken off the relationship?"
Lana's gaze met Karen's a little too directly. "No, I — well, maybe a little, yeah. Nobody likes to get dumped, right?"
"I wouldn't like it. How did you feel?"
"Well, I didn't exactly jump for joy, but like I said I wasn't devastated, either. Besides, I knew there was already another batter in his on-deck circle."
"Oh? What makes you think that?"
Lana opened a drawer and pulled out a folded note addressed to Claude. It was written in pink and had little hearts and Cupid arrows drawn on the front. "This was duct-taped to the outside of his room when I left on that last morning. You want to read it?"
Karen reached for it, then stopped. "If you have it, does that mean Claude didn't see it?"
Lana shrugged again. "Like he'd really care about how any woman felt. Go ahead, take a look."
Karen hesitated again, and Lois murmured, "It's evidence in a murder investigation, Major. You need to read it."
Karen glanced at Lois, then reached out to take the note. She read through it and frowned at Lana. "Have you met this girl?"
"Yes. She's one of Dr. Breedlove's dental techs. She cleaned my teeth a few weeks ago before I found the note." Lana smiled ruefully. "After seeing that thing, though, I'm not letting her anywhere near me, especially with sharp dental tools."
Lois leaned towards Karen. "May I see it?"
Karen handed it to her. Lois read:
— My dearest darling, say it isn't so! The cruel and heartless ones have told me that you are still seeing that other woman! Please tell me it's untrue! No matter what they say, I will believe you. No matter what has happened in our pasts, our shared future is the only thing that matters now. Our love is strong enough to resist the outrageous lies others tell! Our love is strong enough to withstand the other women who claim to love you but only want the joy and ecstasy you can bring to their sordid, meaningless lives!
— I love only you. I live for only you. I'm so sad when we're apart and so happy when we're together! I long for the day when we are joined forever. I love you more than my own life!
— I will never leave you. Never! You are my breath, my world, my life, my very heart. I am yours forever. And you are mine forever.
The note was signed Carrie Hillman. Lois looked on both sides of the note and said, "She's a little on the intense side of the emotional scale, don't you think?"
Lana nodded. "That's how she comes across to me, too. And before you ask, no, I don't know if they were sleeping together, although after reading that note, I'd be very surprised if they weren't."
Karen said, "I hope you'll excuse this next question, but you don't seem all that upset over Claude's death. Any particular reason for that?"
Lana's face settled into a stone mask. "I had sex with him, Major, I didn't marry him."
"Still, it seems to me that you must have had some kind of bond."
Lana snorted. "It was as much to pass the time as it was anything else. I knew going in that he was about as likely to propose marriage as he was to grow another arm overnight. I understood what I was getting into, unlike some others I could name."
Lois barely restrained herself and waited for Karen to ask, "What others are you talking about?"
"Besides the lovely and apparently unbalanced Carrie following me, I was preceded by two others I knew personally."
Karen nodded and spoke almost casually. "Can you give me their names?"
"Sure. His first conquest up here was Maria Gomez, and right after her was that Aussie broad, Trixie Witherspoon."
Karen's eyes flickered. "I thought Trixie —"
"She did." Lana's voice flattened. "I told you I knew what I was getting into."
"Right. You know anyone we can talk to about Trixie?"
"Check with Mark Wayne. He was engaged to her before Claude split them up."
Karen made several more notes. "Thanks, Ms. O'Meara. I think that does it for now." She stood and Lois followed suit.
Lana leaned back in her chair and gave them a lopsided grin. "Aren't you supposed to tell me not to leave town or something?"
Karen turned and answered with a flat tone. "Don't leave town. Happy now?"
"Ecstatic," Lana responded dryly. "Hey, Ms. Lane, you coming in for your cardio workout in the morning?"
Lois glanced at Karen before answering. "If I'm not busy with the Major, yes."
"Busy with the Major!" Lana guffawed. "Right. I'll see you when you get free."
Lois followed Karen into the gym area. Before she could ask what Lana thought was so funny, Karen said, "That was productive. Don't you think that was productive? Let's see if we can catch Carrie Hillman before she leaves work."
And she rocketed along the passageway towards the medical section. Lois followed in the major's wake, wondering if whatever was affecting people up here would scramble her brains also.
— Monday evening
"Carrie Hillman isn't at work, hasn't been at work all day, called in sick this morning, and isn't expected back in the office for several days."
"Why is that?"
Dr. Breedlove frowned. "Come on, Major, she just found out her boyfriend was murdered! I don't want her poking sharp pointy things at people's gums until she's had some time to deal with this."
"I see. Compassion for her circumstances does enter into the decision somewhere, doesn't it?"
He frowned harder. "I don't appreciate your tone, Major. Of course I care how Carrie feels. Sometimes work helps a person get through a tough emotional time, but I don't want her to break apart while she's yanking tartar buildup from a patient's gum line. I want her here, but I also want her calm and cool and collected and ready to work safely. She's on paid leave for the next week. We'll decide together what happens after that."
"Okay, Doctor. Do you know if she's in her quarters?"
"I expect so. If we're done here, I have a fairly tricky filling to work on now."
"We're done. Thank you, Dr. Breedlove."
Karen walked away and Lois followed. "I'll get the location of Carrie's quarters from my office as soon as I find an emptying station."
Lois frowned. "A what?"
Karen grinned. "Station slang for bathroom. Good, there's one now. You coming in?"
Lois smiled back. "My mother told me that as I get older I should never pass up an opportunity to use the bathroom."
— Monday, late evening
Lois quickly learned that knocking wasn't the usual mode of announcing oneself at someone's quarters on the station. Karen pressed the outside comm button and said, "Major Katrina Vukovich, Station Security, to see Carrie Hillman."
There was no answer, so Karen repeated herself. They waited for a long moment, then Karen punched the button again and spoke with apparent compassion. "Carrie, if you're in there, we have to talk. I know it's a very bad time, but if you want us to find out who did this terrible thing to Claude, you have to tell us everything you know."
They waited some more. Lois opened her mouth to suggest that they move on to the next name, but the door suddenly whooshed open.
Carrie Hillman stood beside the doorway. She was barely five feet tall and somewhere between slender and plump. Her face was lightly freckled, and her extremely short hair was somewhere between red and orange. Lois wondered how natural the color was, but didn't think it was important enough to ask about. More importantly, she wondered why Claude would bother with someone as ordinary-looking as Carrie.
Between sobs, Carrie invited them in. Lois looked around and saw a tiny room identical to hers, except for the unmade bed and the clothing strewn about. Karen guided the weeping woman to the edge of the bed, then sat beside her. Lois found the desk chair and gently settled into it.
Karen let Carrie cry for a few more moments, then put her hand on the girl's shoulder. "Carrie, I know this is a bad time for you, but we want to find out who did this horrible thing to Claude, and in order to do that we have to ask you some difficult questions. Do you think you can talk to us now?"
Carrie wiped her eyes with her fingers and nodded. "Good. Can you tell us the last time you saw Claude?"
The girl nodded again. "Last n-night. Early."
"What time was that?"
"W-we had dinner — about — about seven. We — I — we —"
Karen spoke softly. "You went to his room, didn't you?"
Carrie almost smiled. "Yes. I — I did. We — it was a w-wonderful — it was so wonderful." She hugged herself. Lois thought she was going to start crying again, but she controlled herself. "I'll keep that night close to my heart for — for as long as I live."
Lois considered the tableau before her. The heretofore hard-as-nails Major Vukovich was comforting a stricken, grieving woman as a chaplain might. She even rubbed her hand across Carrie's shoulders. The incongruity puzzled her.
Lois looked at Karen, who glanced at Lois and tipped her head microscopically at Carrie. Lois frowned in confusion, then realized they were going to play 'good cop bad cop' with her, and Lois was to be the bad cop. It was not a role she relished.
In for a penny, in for a retirement savings account. Lois took a deep breath and said, "Ms. Hillman, when did you leave the decedent's quarters last night?"
Carrie exploded at her. "He's not a decedent! He's not a thing! He's not just a job to me like he is to you! He was Claude! He was my world! He was my everything!"
As Carrie paused to inhale, Lois shot back, "So you were with him the entire night?"
It stopped her. She narrowed her eyes and stared at Lois. "No. I left because he said he had some work to do this morning and I knew I wouldn't be able to keep my hands off him if I stayed."
"But what time was that, Ms. Hillman?"
The girl all but snarled at Lois. "Just before eleven!"
"Where did you go when you left the decedent's quarters?"
Carrie stared flatly at Lois. "You're a real hard woman, you know that? Hard and cold."
The thrust hit home and Lois struggled not to show her reaction. It reminded her of Claude's own accusation and how hard she'd fought to overcome the damage he'd done to her. She forced herself to focus on the job at hand. "Where did you go after you left the decedent's quarters, Ms. Hillman?"
"Fifty?" Lois shook her head. "The station only has thirty-four levels, counting the storage areas and maintenance crawlways under the habitat ring. Where do you hide level fifty?"
Carrie sniffed defiantly. "You're new here, aren't you?"
"Deck fifty is where we say we're going when we want to be completely alone."
"I see. Where exactly is your deck fifty?"
She hesitated, then said, "I went up to the construction storage area."
"Uh-huh. Remember, I'm new here. Where is the construction storage area?"
"In the zero-gee hub, right behind the reception area."
"What did you do?"
"What do you mean, what did I do?"
Lois leaned forward and lowered the pitch of her voice. "What did you do up in the construction storage area all alone that night, Ms. Hillman?"
Carrie shot her a laser glare. "I like to float. It's a zero-gee area and the area isn't staffed during Beta or Gamma shift, so I go there when I want to float."
There's something else in there, thought Lois. "How do you float, Ms. Hillman?"
"What? What possible difference could —"
"What do you do when you float, Ms. Hillman? Do you bounce off the walls, do you just drift aimlessly, do you pretend you're swimming, do you —"
"I float in the nude, okay? Like skinny-dipping in a swimming pool or a river! I like the feeling of the cool air on my skin! I pretend there's nothing weighing me down or holding me back — " She broke off abruptly. "There's no stations regs against it. I've done nothing wrong."
"Did you and Claude ever go there together?"
Carrie's face softened slightly. "Yes. Once." She looked away. "It — he said it was the best we'd ever had, even better than doing it while we were high."
Lois nodded, not wanting any more detail than that, but needing more information from the girl. "Just once? I would've thought Claude liked doing it weird."
The girl's head snapped around. "What? Weird? You pervert, you, don't you dare —"
"Ms. Hillman, we're investigating a murder. We need to know everything we can about Claude Guilliot and his women."
"His women?" Carrie clenched her fists. "I was his woman! His only woman! We were going to be married! We were going to grow grapes in the south of France and make wine! We were going to have eight children and we were going to be happy!"
"Ms. Hillman, Claude had a long and consistent history of brief affairs with numerous women. What makes you think he really loved you?"
Carrie stood abruptly and took a threatening step towards Lois. "Leave me alone! Why can't you leave me alone? The man I loved most in all the world has been murdered and all you can do is ask me stupid questions and make evil insinuations about the man I love! Why don't you go find out who did this? Why don't you go find out — find out who — find out who killed —"
She couldn't finish. She collapsed back on the bed in tears. Karen patted her on the shoulder and made comforting noises, then covered her with the bed sheet and waved to Lois to follow her.
They entered the corridor and stopped. Karen hit the outside door button and sealed the compartment, then said, "Let's go see if your man Kent has come up with anything solid."
They walked to the spoke in silence and climbed upwards the same way they'd come down. As they walked to Karen's office door, Lois stopped. "Look, Karen, I'm sorry if I was too rough on her, but —"
"Don't apologize. You did exactly what I hoped you'd do."
"Yes, really. All she was going to tell me was how much she'd miss him for the rest of her life. She told you she was with him last night but didn't sleep there."
"I see." Lois hesitated. "How much of that do you believe?"
Karen gave her a sideways look. "Why? How much do you believe?"
Lois frowned back. "I've seen women who've lost husbands or lovers or brothers or sons before. If they're innocent, they almost always dissolve emotionally right away, and then they wear themselves out in a few hours. They still cry, of course, and sometimes they get mad when someone asks them questions they think are pointless or stupid, but the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth kind of thing is usually burnt out by this time."
"And they cry calmly from then on?"
Lois thought about Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger and Capone, and how she'd reacted when she'd thought Clark was dead. "Not always, no. But Carrie's reactions — they're off somehow. I just can't put my finger on it."
"So you think she was over-acting?"
"I don't know. I think she meant what she said, but there's just something about it that doesn't ring true to me."
Karen tapped her on the shoulder. "That's why I wanted you along. I thought so too, but I wanted a second opinion."
Lois grinned. "I see. So, let's find out what Clark has to say."
Karen opened the outer door. "I just hope he's half as good as you seem to think he is."
Lois smiled to herself, behind Karen's back. "Oh, he's good. He's very good. Where do we go next?"
Karen sighed. "We get some sleep and hit it again first thing in the morning. It's after nine now."
A male voice inside the office said, "Major Vukovich, you have a visitor."
Lois stepped in behind her as Karen's eyebrows rose. Walker motioned to the inner office, the door to which was not fully closed. "In there."
Karen nodded. "Thank you, Sergeant Walker. Ms. Lane, would you mind waiting for me in cafeteria two? I'll meet you as soon as I'm through here."
"Of course, Major."
Karen turned to Walker. "I'll lock up when we're done, Sergeant. It's past closing time anyway."
"Yes, Major." He turned to Lois as Karen pushed the inner door open and stepped through. "Ma'am, I'll show you where cafeteria two is if you'd like."
Lois grinned and put her arm in Walker's elbow. "Thanks, Matt, I'd like that."
They strode through the office door, walking arm-in-arm beside each other. In one way, it helped Lois not so miss Clark quite so much, since he was a fairly attractive, well-built young man with good manners.
He also made her miss Clark more, simply because he wasn't Clark.
— Monday night
Lois was finishing her orange dessert-flavored light brown dinner goop when Karen walked into the cafeteria and slid several sheets of paper onto the table beside her. Lois glanced at them as Karen sat across the table from her.
"How's it taste?"
Lois put her spoon down. "Like library paste flavored with oranges. If I didn't have to look at it, I'd probably be able to tell you what else it reminds me of."
"I know what you mean. There's no black market for that stuff."
Lois grinned. "I sure hope not." She glanced at the pages on the table beside her. "What do you have here?"
Karen tapped the top sheet. "Your guy Kent came through for us. Claude had a book deal to write about the sordid sex lives of the perverted denizens of Prometheus Station and they were planning to go to press with it in six months. His agent is dancing around like a duck on a hot plate trying to keep from giving back the advance, even though the book isn't anywhere near finished and probably never will be."
Lois's eyebrows rose. "Wow. Talk about your bad publicity for the station."
"Oh, yeah, that would be all we'd need. Right now, the department heads can pick and choose among the top people in their fields. But if the station got a Playboy-type reputation, we'd have to weed out the ones who'd want to come for a sexy lifestyle instead of coming to work, and station management is almost as afraid of that as they would be an asteroid strike on the Hub."
"Is there a real story in people's love lives here on the station?"
Karen shrugged. "No more than in any other city back down, I suppose. I'd guess that the thousands of people who lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico while they were designing and building the first atomic bomb had their personal soap operas, too."
"True. I remember reading that there were a bunch of marriages and lots of babies born during the years they were lumped all together." Lois moved the top sheet of paper on the stack and uncovered a legal-looking document. "What's this for?"
"The station manager was the person waiting for me in my office."
"Oh?" Lois asked cautiously.
"He's not real happy that you're walking around with me asking questions like you're a cop."
"So I told him you'd already agreed to work with me in the official capacity of special investigator, temporary rank of Inspector, to solve this crime."
"I, ah, fudged a little and told him you were an experienced investigator."
She hid her smile. "You did, did you?"
"Lois, the director is shaking in his boots. If we have an unsolved murder on the station, dozens of people will ignore the penalty clauses in their contracts and leave and we'd have the devil's own time trying to replace them with people of equal quality. We'd either have to scale everything way back, lower our people standards drastically, or turn this into a police state to make it feel safe, and doing any of those things would cost more than the station can afford. I've got a staff of three officers and nine non-commissioned officers, all sergeants, and we've never had to deal with anything other than fistfights and the occasional still. Besides, you need some official oomph behind the questions you'll be asking." She pulled a pen out of her coverall pocket. "What do you say?"
Lois hesitated, and Karen continued, "I promise this is temporary, only until we catch the killer. You don't have to sign this, but if you don't, you won't be able to help me any more. I'd also appreciate it if you'd not make me look like a moron in front of the station manager. He's not exactly my biggest fan to begin with." Karen took a deep breath. "Besides, this way I'll be able to keep tabs on you. The killer won't be able to get a good shot at you."
"Is that your main reason?"
"It's one of them."
"And if I'm the killer?"
Karen's eyes narrowed slightly. "Then I won't have to go far to find you."
She thought about it. She was sure Perry wouldn't object, since that would give the Planet first shot at any publishable information on the crime. Besides, she thought she'd enjoy the chance to work as a cop instead of behind the cops for a change.
She took the pen, then hesitated again. Time to take control again.
Totally deadpan, she asked, "How much money is involved here?"
Karen looked startled. "Money?"
"You don't expect me to do this for free, do you? What does the job pay?"
"You get to carry a fancy badge and you're on call twenty-four-seven."
"On call all day, every day. That's not bad, but show me the money anyway." Lois put her elbows on the table and rested her unsmiling face on her interlocked fingers. "How much?"
Just as deadpan, Karen picked up Lois's spoon and held it between them. "You get all the orange-flavored brown goop you can possibly eat."
— Late Monday night, early Tuesday morning
Lois finished typing up her notes for the Planet assignment and saved her files on her laptop, then turned on the station news channel. There was information on a quarter-gee handball doubles tournament — that sounded interesting, like a ballet starring hippos and llamas would be interesting — an announcement that two of the common shower areas would be closed for renovation next week, some blurbs about the upcoming pro football season and how one could purchase viewing rights for one or more games, a commercial about a stockbroker on the station, and a profile of one of the shuttle captains.
But there was no word on Claude Guilliot's murder. Not a single mention of it.
Lois wondered how that could be. Even though this wasn't Metropolis, surely there were people all over the station who knew he'd been killed. Since it was the station's first murder, it had to be big news. So why wasn't the story being reported? There were enough talking heads on the station who could read a story. Surely one of them could write one.
Well, she thought, this won't be solved tonight. Karen would know why the news didn't seem to be news.
The chronometer read twelve-thirty-seven. Best get some sleep before the new day. She had a hunch she'd need it.
— Tuesday morning
Lois's alarm woke her at seven-twenty. She gazed blearily at the chronometer, wondering why she was getting up this early, then remembered she was now a fully recognized member of the station's law enforcement team. She jumped up and dressed quickly, grabbed a can of liquid breakfast from her miniature refrigerator, brushed her teeth, and managed to present herself at the security office at three minutes before eight.
She stepped inside and smiled at the sergeant behind his desk. "Good morning, Matt. Or should I call you Sergeant Walker?"
He smiled back professionally. "Whatever you're most comfortable with, ma'am."
"Good. Matt you are and Matt you shall be. Is the major here yet?"
"Yes, ma'am. She's expecting you."
Lois pushed through the inner office door and saw Karen typing furiously. She glanced up and called out, "Lois! Glad you're here. You ready to roll?"
"Whenever you are."
"Just one more second — there." She hit a key, then closed the file she was working on. "You have to take your oath of office before we send you out on your own."
"Okay. What is it?"
Karen stood and called, "Matt, can you step in here for a minute?"
He did so. "What can I do for you, Major?"
"You can witness this. Lois Lane, do you solemnly swear to fulfill the office of Special Investigator, with the temporary rank of Inspector, attached to the law enforcement and security division of Space Station Prometheus, to the best of your abilities?"
Lois nodded. "I do."
"Do you also solemnly swear to obey the lawful orders of the officers assigned to said law enforcement and security division?"
Karen handed Lois a light brown folding wallet. "Here's your badge. You are now fully authorized to snoop where you're not wanted, poke your nose into other people's business, and make a general nuisance of yourself in the pursuit of your duties."
Lois grinned at her. "Now that sounds like a job description I can get my teeth into."
"Just don't bite off more than you can chew."
Matt smiled and Lois groaned. "Ouch. A pun, albeit a really bad one. At least now I know how the Philistines felt when Samson attacked them."
Karen frowned slightly. "What are you talking about?"
"Don't you remember the Bible story? They were slain with the jawbone of an ass."
Walker turned beet red with the effort it took him not to burst out laughing, then managed to grind out, "If that's all, Major?"
Karen stared at Lois, who was wearing her most innocent expression. "Yeah, that's all, Sergeant. You can go."
He made it back to his desk before the spluttering laugh escaped his lips. Lois lifted her notepad and asked, "Did you want to see Maria Gomez or Mark Wayne first?"
The major locked gazes with Lois for a long moment, then exhaled deeply and shook her head. "You like dancing right next to the edge, don't you?"
"It's one of my most engaging characteristics. It's right up there with dangling recklessly above the jaws of death."
"Uh-huh." Karen turned and picked up a belt with a nightstick hanging from it. "I think we should have a talk with Mark Wayne."
Lois lost her smile. "You think you might need that stick?"
"You can't ever tell what kind of mood Mark will be in. And I don't like to take chances if I don't have to."
— Tuesday, mid-morning
Mark Wayne was approaching his quarters just as Karen and Lois found his door. "Something else I can do for you, Major?"
Karen nodded sharply. "Yes. This is Lois Lane. She's a special investigator who's helping me with a case. We need to ask you some questions about the man you knew as Claude DuBois."
Wayne almost missed a step, then recovered. "Didn't he turn up dead yesterday morning?"
"Yes." Lois wondered how the man knew. Then she wondered what he knew.
Mark gave an Elvis-like sneer. "And you're taking a poll on how many people are really going to miss him, right?"
Neither woman answered the muscular big man. Mark keyed in his access code and the door slid open. "I'll save you the trouble. I didn't kill him, but only because somebody beat me to it." He waved them in. "And you know why, Major."
Karen didn't move. "After you, Mr. Wayne. These are your quarters, after all."
He shrugged and walked in. "Make yourselves at home. I've already put away the good china, so we'll have to make do with what's available."
Karen followed him in. "You need to tell us where you were night before last."
He lifted an eyebrow. "What hours?"
"Basically during Gamma shift."
"Ah. That's my normal rotation now. It keeps me out of people's way. You know, the well-meaning people who want to comfort me but don't know how and are almost afraid to get too close to me. Besides, it nice and quiet. I can do the data entry and validation without getting distracted."
"So you were at work night before last during Gamma shift?"
"The whole night. You can check the computer time log."
He turned and leaned towards Karen. "That's nice, Major. Thank you and goodbye. We've had such a pleasant chat. We'll have to do it again soon."
Karen's hand crept towards her nightstick. "No, Mark, I don't think we will."
There was too much non-verbal communication between Karen and Mark, and Lois wasn't learning enough. She stepped forward and said, "Mr. Wayne, you and the major obviously know what history you had with Claude Guillot, but I don't. Would you mind filling me in?"
Wayne looked blankly at Lois, then at Karen. "You didn't tell her?"
Karen crossed her arms loosely. "I thought she should hear the whole story from you."
"Right. Get the story from the unbiased, disinterested party."
Karen drew in a deep breath, but Lois stepped in before she could respond. "Will somebody please tell me what's going on here? You. Mark Wayne."
"What?" he growled.
"Your name was mentioned in connection with a woman named Trixie Witherspoon. Pretend I don't know anything about anything except your name, Trixie's name, and Claude's name, and tell me the story from the start."
He glared at her for a moment, then nodded. "About eleven months ago, I started my first two-year contract. One of the first people I met was Trixie."
"Where did you meet her?"
"You want me to tell this story or what?"
Lois's eyes narrowed. "Cut it out, Mr. Wayne, or we'll have this conversation in the security office."
He hesitated, then looked into Lois's face and backed off. "Okay. I met Trixie at work."
"What kind of work?"
"Astronomy section. We did near space observations of Earth and Luna."
Out of the corner of her eye, Lois noticed that Karen had slowly taken two steps back, effectively taking herself out of the conversation. "Sounds interesting. Tell me more."
"You're that interested in planetary bodies?"
"About you and Trixie."
He shrugged. "I liked her from the first day I saw her. She was tall, athletic, trim, easy to be around, and she had a beautiful smile. We were engaged within four months."
Her voice was softer this time. "Please go on."
"We talked about whether we wanted to get married here, or wait to go back down. Her family wanted her to wait, and I didn't mind, because I kinda wanted to settle in Australia. That's where she was from," he added.
Lois nodded and he continued. "We were happy, or, at least I was. Then Claude started sniffing around her. I told her he was no good, that he didn't care about her like I did, but she started seeing him without telling me."
"Sounds like Claude's pattern."
"Yeah," he snarled. "I found out about it and challenged him to a fight, anywhere, anytime, any weapons or bare hands, whatever he wanted to use. The coward didn't want anything to do with me, and he convinced Trixie that I was a hot-headed idiot who didn't deserve the honor of her company."
Lois nodded. "I think I know what happened next, but tell me anyway."
He turned and drew a glass of water. "I helped convince her that he was right. I told her that if she was stupid enough to get involved with a pus-filled sludge-ball like Claude DuBois, I never wanted to see her again." He took a big drink and stared at the glass. "Sure enough, he was through with her in about six weeks and shacking up with our resident Amazon. I was still mad and I refused to talk to her. I found out the day after she left that she'd broken her contract and gone back down."
He stopped and squeezed his eyes shut, then he put the glass down beside the sink with a whack. "I sent her e-mails. I tried to call her. I even sent a hand-written letter, and you know how expensive that is."
Lois didn't, but she nodded as if she did to keep from derailing his narrative. "And she didn't respond?"
"She couldn't." He opened his eyes and sniffed. "She never got them. Two nights after she arrived at the Metropolis spaceport she stepped in front of an outbound express freight train leaving the city. She also left a note that explained how badly she'd screwed up her life by dropping me and taking up with Claude, and she regretted that she'd ruined my life too. She hoped — hoped I'd move on with my life. Find someone I could respect enough to love, that kind of thing." He took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. "The policeman who — who sent me the message said she didn't feel anything. It was quick and it was over in a snap." He turned and faced Lois. "Unlike the great lover Claude. When I told him what happened Trixie, he shrugged and said, 'What a waste. She was so very enthusiastic.' So I slugged him."
Karen scraped one shoe. "That's when we put Mark under arrest for two days. I thought he was going to beat Claude to death right there in the common room. We made him sign an affidavit swearing that he would avoid Claude in the future, as long as both of them were on board the station. Claude agreed that not seeing Mark was best for his health, too, especially after he found out he had no legal grounds to sue that would stand up in Station court."
Lois nodded. "How long has it been, Mark?"
He crossed his arms. "Fourteen weeks, three days, six hours since he killed her."
"He didn't actually push her in front of that train, you know."
"You're defending that sorry excuse for a non-sentient life form?"
"No. I'm just stating a fact."
"The effect is the same. She's still just as dead."
"And you would've taken revenge if you'd had the chance?"
"Yes. But I didn't. I was at work all shift last night, the night before that, and the night before that. I simply didn't have the opportunity to kill him. Besides, I promised the Major that I wouldn't kill him on the station."
Lois nodded again. "We'll have to verify your story with your co-workers and your supervisor."
"Of course you will." He snorted. "Check out my alibi, make sure I didn't sneak out and snap his slimy little Gallic neck for him."
Karen said, "We're going to find out who did this, Mark. Is there anything you can tell us that might help us do that?"
"Like I care who killed him. No, wait, I do care. Let me know when you find out, so I can buy that person the most expensive steak dinner in New Troy when we go back down."
"Okay, Inspector, that's all we need. Thanks, Mark. We'll be in touch."
"Don't wait so long between visits next time, okay?" He blew a kiss at them as they moved towards the door. "I've missed our little chats, Major. Do come and see me again sometime."
Karen stepped back and let Lois leave before her. "I'll call you right after the first." She stepped through and palmed the door close panel. "Right after the first comet soft-lands on Luna, that is."
"He has a reason for the way he feels, Lois."
"But he doesn't see that if he doesn't let go of his anger, he'll always carry it around with him." She shook her head. "Poor guy. He doesn't know what he's missing."
"Give him some time. Maybe he'll come around."
"Maybe. I hope so."
"Me too, but it's his life, not mine." Karen led off at a brisk pace. "I can't control him, but I can control me. I refuse to allow people who hate that much to make me so angry that they control me."
Lois hurried to catch up. "Do what?"
"Saw it on a church sign a few years ago: 'Whoever makes you angry controls you.' I decided then and there never to allow anyone to make me that angry again."
"Sounds like a plan to me. Where are we going now?"
Karen stopped suddenly and looked around. "I don't know." She put her hands on her hips and sighed. "I guess whatever makes a good personal philosophy is also difficult to live up to sometimes."
"It usually is. Why don't we kinda take our time going to see Maria Gomez?"
"I'll be fine by the time we get there." She looked up at the markings near the ceiling. "Let's see, it's — yeah, this way, about a quarter-ring."
"How far is that in people steps?"
Karen chuckled. "The ring is about twelve hundred meters around, and there are four habitat levels. Ms. Gomez occupies the third level down, and since we're on the first level, we'll take the first tube down that we find."
"I suppose she'll have a very interesting Claude story, too."
Karen paused and said, "At least she's still alive."
— Tuesday, late morning
Maria Gomez was not in her quarters. Officially, she was assigned to a dual-bed room which Lois envied until she found out that two people were supposed to live in a space barely half again the size of hers. Maria's roommate was not very helpful.
"Dang, lady, I dunno where she is! She come when she want, she go when she want, I ain't her momma or her parole officer! I don't even like her all that much!"
Lois was determined to be polite. "Ms. DeSilva, if you could give us any idea where —"
"Hey, honey, I done told you I don't know where she be! Sometime she sleep here, sometime she don't, and she don't fill out no permission slips or agendas, okay? Now I got a date coming in a hour or less and he —"
Karen pushed forward and into the open doorway. "Look, Monique, you're going to be spending time in my office if you don't help us find Maria Gomez. Now, let's pretend the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes people have come by with a twelve-million dollar check for her and a nice finder's fee for you. Where do you tell them to look?"
Monique opened her mouth but Karen stopped her with an upraised index finger. "Wait! Before you say anything, remember that I rent my brig by the word, so the number and type of words you say will determine how much time you spend as my guest."
Monique clicked her mouth shut. Her eyes flashed as she ground out, "You try Benny Zimmerman up on Hab 2. If she ain't there I got no idea. Now if you'll kindly excuse me?"
Karen smiled and nodded, then turned to leave. "Thank you, Ms. DeSilva. I'll be sure and come back by to let you know where Maria was."
"Yeah, you do that, pig."
Karen spun on the balls of her feet and lurched into Monique DeSilva's personal space, her eyes level with Monique's chin but boring into the taller woman's brain. She spoke with intense casualness. "I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear that. Would you mind repeating yourself?"
For a long moment, no one said anything, then suddenly Monique blinked. "Nothin'. I didn't say nothin'."
"Really?" Monique nodded once and Karen eased back an inch. "I guess I was just hearing things." She stepped backwards. "Have a good date."
Lois palmed the door closer as soon as Karen was clear, then she stepped off down the passageway. "Come on, I need to find an emptying station."
Karen plodded behind her. "Slow down, okay? There's one about ten meters ahead of us."
"Good. Can't get there too quickly."
As Lois hit the stall door, Karen said, "What did you think I was going to do, start a fight with her?"
"The thought crossed my mind, yes."
"No way. She did exactly what I expected her to do. Besides, I know that Cajun woman. She's all talk and no walk. Her boyfriend probably won't get to second base with her tonight."
Lois laughed. "'Second base.' I haven't heard that one in quite a while."
"My mother used to talk to me and my sister in sports analogies. First base lips, second base —"
"My mother told me the same thing, she just said it a little more clinically."
"Oh? How's that?"
"My dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse, my dad chased women and usually caught them, my mom drank a lot instead of dealing with him about it, and one night when she was soused out of her mind she told my sister and me in very explicit and clear detail all about the birds and the bees and men and women and our dad and his girlfriends and then she fell asleep and when she woke up the next day she denied saying anything."
Lois stopped and took a deep breath. "Lucy was only nine at the time and didn't understand everything she heard, but I did. I always wondered if Mom actually didn't remember, or if she just felt bad about being so R-rated with her daughters."
Karen spoke over the flush of the commode. "Sounds like you had a real interesting upbringing."
"You could say that." Lois washed her hands and decided that was enough personal revelation for the moment. "So what's the quickest route to Benny's front door?"
If Karen was disappointed by the turn in the conversation, she didn't show it. "There's a vertical tube about fifteen meters further along. We'll go down one level and come back about thirty meters."
"What if she's not there?"
"Then we'll find her. We need her to locate Claude's next previous conquest."
Lois led through the doorway. "You don't think she's a suspect?"
Karen's eyes turned granite. "I already told you. The only person who I know for a fact didn't murder Claude Guilliot is me."
— Tuesday, just before noon
Lois pressed the announcement button on Ben Zimmerman's quarters. "Major Katrina Vukovich, station security, and Inspector Lois Lane, Special Investigator, to speak to Maria Gomez."
After a moment the door slid open, revealing a slight young man holding a bath towel around his waist. Lois forced herself not to blurt out, "I said nine I thought you'd be naked!" Besides, he didn't hold a candle to Clark in the bare-chest department. But then, he obviously didn't have Clark's multiple advantages, either.
In her best just-the-facts voice, Karen asked, "Are you Ben Zimmerman?"
"Yes." He hesitated, then asked, "Why do you want to talk to Maria?"
Karen answered. "You know that Claude DuBois died under suspicious circumstances two nights ago?"
"Yes. Wait. Do — do you think she —"
"We have to talk to her, Mr. Zimmerman. Is she inside?"
"Yes. But she's, um, she's not, um -"
Lois looked past his shoulder and saw a woman's bare upper body slide out from under the covers. She held up her hand. "Tell you what, Ben, you two get dressed and we'll wait for you out here."
"Oh, yeah, sure." He looked down at himself. "Sorry. We're on our honeymoon."
He closed the door. Lois turned to Karen and said, "Honeymoon? You have weddings up here?"
"Enough to keep a couple of ministers on call all week. Low-gravity honeymoons are going to be a selling point before much longer, too. The suits back down expect it to be a cash cow."
Lois almost made a smart-aleck crack about her own anticipated honeymoon, then she remembered she hadn't exactly said 'yes' yet. So she changed tracks and said, "You know the blushing bride?"
"Not to call her by name. I'm sure I've seen her, but I couldn't tell you what she looks like."
"But you knew where Zimmerman's quarters were without looking up his address."
Karen cut her eyes at Lois. "I'm in a position to know. If I didn't know, I wouldn't be doing my job, now would I?"
Lois grinned to herself. Sounds like Perry, she thought.
The whooshing door cut off their banter. A short, mousy brunette wearing round wire-framed glasses and a rumpled dark green coverall stood in the doorway. Ben Zimmerman, now dressed but still barefoot, stood fidgeting behind her right shoulder.
"Please come in," she said, her voice quiet but firm. Lois entered first, followed by Karen. The room was a single, and was covered with clothing cast in every direction. The bedcovers were pulled out from under the mattress, a feat Lois would have doubted was possible. The desk held the remains of a quickly prepared meal. The room smelled faintly like a girls' locker room, like perfume and sweat socks.
Or like a very frantic honeymoon, she mused.
Karen palmed the door control from the inside. "I suppose congratulations are in order, Mr. Zimmerman."
He accepted Karen's vise-like handshake. "Thank you." Lois was glad he'd found the navy blue coverall.
Karen turned to Maria. "And to the bride, best wishes."
Maria didn't extend her hand. "Thank you. May I ask the reason for your visit?"
"Didn't your — husband mention it to you?"
The eyes behind the glasses twitched slightly. "You say 'husband' as if you don't quite believe it." She turned and reached for a folder stuck to the wall by a quarter-sized magnet. "Here's our marriage license and letter of completion, all completely legal."
"It would have to be, wouldn't it? I mean, given that you're a lawyer and all."
"Yes." As Karen glanced over the contents of the folder, Maria turned her pale gaze on Lois. "I haven't met you."
Lois assumed what she hoped was a sufficiently correct 'parade rest' stance. "Inspector Lois Lane. I'm a Special Investigator attached to the Station Security office."
"Really." The woman gave her a quick once-over. "I would have assumed by the color of your garment that you were assigned to the cargo section."
Lois leaned closer and almost whispered, "I'm undercover."
Maria's mouth twitched but she didn't actually smile. "I see." She turned back to Karen. "Tell me, Major Vukovich, do we pass muster?"
"Looks good to me." She handed the folder back to its owner. "I was hoping we could ask you a few questions."
Ben Zimmerman's face flashed with anger, but his wife only nodded. "Yes. I wondered when you'd get around to interviewing me."
Lois frowned. "I didn't see anything on the station newscast this morning. How did you hear about it?"
Maria flicked her gaze towards Lois. "A sketchy report came out on the news channel around nine this morning, and station gossip being what it is, I would imagine that everyone now knows something about it. There was little detail in the newscast about the death, except that foul play is suspected, and that his real name was not DuBois." She looked back at Karen. "I'm a little surprised you took this long to find me."
"We're here now. Could you tell us about your relationship with Claude?" Karen looked pointedly at Ben. "Or would you prefer to come to my office? We'd have more privacy."
"That won't be necessary, Major. My darling Benjamin knows the whole story." She turned and looked around the room, then shrugged. "I'd ask you to sit, but we're a bit short on chairs today."
Karen waved one hand back and forth. "No problem. If you'd just tell us what you know about Claude, we'll get out of your way."
"Yes." Maria pushed her glasses up on her nose and reminded Lois of her junior high school librarian, Miss Wilson, who had harassed students into silence with the same quiet air of no-nonsense iron control that Maria Gomez — or was it Zimmerman now? — was displaying. Lois didn't know if she had killed Claude, but she believed the woman was certainly capable of it.
Maria's dry recitation brought her back to the present. "I met Claude soon after he arrived. He was visiting the legal office one day on a matter of property rights and convinced me to go to dinner with him."
Karen nodded. "How'd he do that?"
"The same way men have seduced women from time immemorial, I would suppose. He was patient, he was persistent, and he lied convincingly to me about everything."
Maria seemed to be opening up to Karen, so Lois did what her partner had done earlier and slowly stepped back and out of the conversation. Instead, she watched Ben and Maria closely as the story came out.
Karen nodded. "Did you know his real name?"
"Not at the time. I learned only today that his real name was Guilliot instead of DuBois."
"How long were you in a relationship with him?"
Instead of answering directly, Maria showed the first signs of humanity Lois had observed. "You have to understand something about me, Major. I was thirty-seven years old and I'd never been with a man. My mother kept me away from boys while I grew up, and by the time I'd entered law school I'd convinced myself that I was too plain and undesirable for any man."
"I don't think so!" Ben interjected. "I think you're beautiful, Maria!"
She turned and touched his face gently. "Thank you, my darling, but there is no need to defend me. The Major needs to hear this story." She faced Karen again. "He was the first male outside my family who'd paid any personal attention to me since I was in high school. He convinced me he was on the rebound from a disastrous physical relationship and wanted something more intellectual with me." She frowned and exhaled. "Of course, the relationship didn't remain intellectual."
"Knowing Claude's reputation, I'm not surprised."
"No, I suppose not." She crossed her arms and canted her hips. To Lois, she looked like a mannequin someone had posed in an attempt to make her look seductive. "He introduced me to sex, Major. I know it sounds odd that I would be a virgin at my age, but it was true. And after the first few nights with him, I couldn't get enough of him. To begin with, I'd slip away from the office to meet him at his quarters. Then we started meeting in passageways, in storage areas, in the null-gee labs, once in a women's emptying station — there was no place on this station I'd refuse to have sex with him."
Karen nodded. "Kinda crude, but nothing you'd be arrested for."
Lois controlled her reaction to that statement. Maybe Claude's sexy book idea wasn't so far out after all.
Maria nodded. "After about nine or ten weeks of this, he started backing away. I didn't understand what was happening. I thought we were going to be together forever. I assumed that he'd do the honorable thing and marry me." She snorted in disgust. It was the most emotion she'd displayed since Lois and Karen had entered the room.
"Was there anything else about the relationship that seemed odd, either then or now looking back on it?"
"Yes. After about four weeks, he started asking questions, lots of them. Not the ones you'd expect about living on the station, or about my family and my past, but about the love lives of the people up here. For some reason, he was convinced that our behavior was the norm on the station."
"Do you know who his previous girlfriend was?"
"Claude claimed that his most recent companion had been Earth-bound. I believed it then, but I don't now."
"He lied about everything else. Prevarication was a way of life for him. Why would he tell the truth about this one small thing if he could lie and present himself as a more tragic figure to one such as myself, who had no experience with men like him? Or with men at all?"
"I see what you mean." Karen crossed her arms and exhaled. "Was there anything else about that time that stands out in your memory?"
Maria frowned in apparent thought. "Not that I remember, no. Except that his ardor towards me cooled at about the same time he ran out of questions."
Karen nodded. "Where were you during Gamma shift night before last?"
She reached back and entwined her fingers in Ben's. "My husband and I were here, enjoying our first night of marital bliss together."
Karen looked Ben in the eye. "That true?"
He straightened and returned her stare. "Yes. It's true. All of it."
"You two were here all that night?"
"Yes, both of us. All night."
"Neither one of you left the room for any reason?"
"Why should I leave? My wife was here. Leaving would've been really stupid."
"You sure? The records say you opened the door sometime early in the morning."
Ben blushed. "That was me, Major. I just opened the door to let some cool air in." He smiled and took Maria's hand. "It was pretty warm in here, and I needed a quick breather." He gazed into his wife's eyes and his voice took on a dreamy quality. "We've applied for married quarters. I hope we get them soon."
Maria smiled at Ben, then turned back to Karen and said, "Is there anything else, Major?"
Karen shook her head. "Not unless you have some witnesses who'll testify that you two were indeed in here all night that night."
Ben blushed, but Maria only quirked her mouth to one side. "There were no witnesses to the consummation of our love, Major Vukovich. None were needed."
She nodded. "Okay, thanks for your time. Please get in touch with me if you remember anything else."
"Of course, Major." To Lois, she said, "Pleased to meet you, Inspector."
Lois nodded shortly. "And you, Mrs. Zimmerman."
To Lois's surprise, the woman beamed. "Yes, I am, am I not? It is quite wonderful to hear myself addressed in that fashion. Thank you. I believe you are the first to call me 'Mrs. Zimmerman.'"
"I doubt I'll be the last." Lois turned and pressed the door control.
As they traveled down the corridor, Lois set the pace. "That was productive."
From behind her right shoulder, Karen added, "Weird, too. I wouldn't have expected any of that."
"How did you know he'd opened the door?"
"I didn't. Matt hasn't finished the power consumption survey yet. I was just taking a shot in the dark."
"You hit the target." She waited a few strides to allow a couple walking in the other direction to pass them. "You think that marriage might be a cover for murder?"
Karen shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. It would be a pretty good cover, though, if that's what it is. And being the husband of an important, though older, key legal staffer would keep the young, impressionable Ben from talking."
"At least for now. If there is anything he's covering up, Maria would be his reason for doing it."
"True. And I don't like how clinical and unemotional she was about her affair with Claude. I'd think a woman who had no experience with men would be more damaged by someone like him, even if she is a lawyer."
It was Lois's turn to shrug. "It looked a bit odd to me, too, but maybe that's the damage talking. I can't say she absolutely wouldn't react like that."
"Neither can I. I suppose we'll keep them on the list."
"Yeah, we haven't crossed many names off — Wait a minute! Lists! Nuts!"
Lois stopped and Karen bumped into her. "What's wrong? What did you think of?"
Lois turned. "You know how you suspected me because you knew I had a history with Claude?"
Karen looked puzzled. "Are we playing word-association games now?"
"What if someone else on the shuttle also had a history with Claude but didn't cause a riot in the airlock? You wouldn't know who that person was."
Karen looked stricken. "Oh, great! That means we need Kent's help again."
Lois frowned. "That's a bad thing?"
"Not because of Kent. Because I'm stupid and didn't think of it. Let's get back to my office now."
— Tuesday, early afternoon
Matt Walker finished the power consumption check Major Vukovich had asked him to run. He'd broken it down by individual quarters as accurately as he could, but he didn't think it would help all that much. The maintenance section couldn't give him accurate power use numbers on a person-by-person basis, and they'd never needed a reason to monitor people that closely before.
He pulled up his pay schedule and nodded to himself. His sergeant's salary wouldn't have stretched to cover the cost of living on the station, but his assignment bonus and generous per diem were enough to allow him to save a good chunk of money. His time on the station was coming to an end in two months, and he hoped his replacement would get along with the Major half as well as he had. She was tough, demanding, but fair and compassionate, a combination rarely found anywhere, much less in a commanding officer assigned to a post where nothing was expected to happen and nothing surprising was expected to show up on the monthly reports to their superiors.
In the final analysis, he liked working with and working for Major Katrina Vukovich. She did her job well and didn't ask anything of her subordinates that she wasn't willing to do herself. It had been a smooth operation all the way.
But the murder had changed all that. Not only was the security staff being asked to do something none of them were trained to do, the Major was thinking out of the box and had brought in a civilian assistant. Matt approved, because it showed that Katrina Vukovich cared more about solving the crime than about making herself look good, another trait not necessarily shared by many officers who might have gotten this assignment.
He sat back and wondered anew why she'd been assigned here in the first place. This post certainly wasn't a career builder, and what he'd learned about the Major and her history didn't suggest this was a punishment assignment, so he was puzzled. He was also puzzled about the make up of the security team. Major Vukovich had Captain Michael Kincaid, Lieutenant Howard Ronalds, Lieutenant David Lee, and eight sergeants beside himself in her command. All of them were male. Their CO was the only woman in the unit, and that also puzzled him, along with the fact that she hadn't had a boyfriend during the time that he'd been aboard, at least not as far as he was aware.
He knew why he'd taken this posting: the money and the chance to get out into space. Placing this job on his resume would boost his earning potential and employability by a factor of at least two once he got out of the service in another three years. And most of his fellow sergeants had similar reasons. The United States Air Force was a wonderful organization to work for, but even though the Air Force provided many of the necessities of life to its members at very low cost or for free, they didn't give you many United States dollars to play with. Space Station Prometheus had signed a long-term contract for the Air Force to provide security at a premium price, but with that price the station managers purchased assurance that there was someone for the security force to answer to, over and above the station management. If that meant the managers could influence, cajole, request, and urge the Chief of Security, but could never fire him — or, in this case, her — they had considered it a small price to pay.
The door whooshed open and the Major derailed Matt's train of thought. "Matt!" she almost shouted. "I need you to route a copy of the latest shuttle passenger manifest to my workstation. And I want a check run on every name on that list. Get Captain Kincaid to organize interviews of everyone on that list. Find out if any of them had any prior relationship to the late Mr. Guilliot."
"Yes, Major. Shall I have Captain Kincaid focus on female passengers?"
She shook her head. "No. Check everybody on the list. If Claude nailed a woman back on Earth, her boyfriend or husband or brother or father might've decided that killing him warranted the expense of a trip up here." She frowned in thought. "On second thought, have the captain check the tourists first, then anyone else who's booked passage on the next shuttle out. But check on everyone."
"Yes, ma'am. Anything else?"
She frowned. "I'm sure there will be." Then she led Inspector Lane into her office and closed the door.
Matt made a quick list of what he'd been told, then called Captain Kincaid at the other security office and repeated his orders.
His nice, peaceful, routine posting had suddenly gotten a lot more exciting.
— Tuesday, mid-afternoon
Lois sat down at Karen's desk and opened the e-mail application. She clicked on the one from Clark and read it.
— Lois, we've brought a couple of experts into the case on our end. EPRAD has a guest physicist, Dr. Billie Jo Parker, and she's helped Dr. Maynard, the Metropolis city medical examiner, look over the post-mortem report. They agree with Dr. Watson's findings about cause of death, approximate time of death, and how long it took for death to occur.
— They also thought that the lack of bruising was very odd. Dr. Maynard expected some kind of sedative or relaxant to show up in the blood work, and he was very surprised when it didn't. Dr. Parker says that the low gravity Claude was exposed to would not have caused his body to process any drugs more quickly than normal, so we're still left with a puzzle as to why Claude didn't fight his killer.
— Claude's agent is threatening to sue EPRAD, the US Air Force, the city of Metropolis, the computer company who makes the computers Claude was supposedly working on, and maybe the mayor's pet dog. I hope you've interviewed Claude's boss about his job performance. It might tell us if Claude went up there with the intent to write this tell-all book or if he was running from someone or something and got this brainstorm while he was up there.
— We're working in shifts now, waiting for your reply. Send it back to me, and one of us will pick it up as soon as we can. We miss you.
Karen nodded. "Reply and send the passenger manifest. Ask him to do background checks on those folks —"
"— to see who might have some connection to Claude. I know."
Karen sighed. "Sorry. I'm nervous because I dropped the ball on this one."
Lois typed as she spoke. "So did I, Karen, so don't beat yourself up over it. I should have thought of this right away."
"If you were guilty, you probably would have."
"So you're convinced I'm innocent now?"
"Yeah, pretty much." Karen peeked over Lois's shoulder and read Lois's reply message from the screen. "What do you mean, you're going to send your files?"
"I'm going to bring the files I've typed up to the office and send them to Clark in my next message. It's mostly information for the newspaper story, but some of it pertains to the investigation and not to the reporting of the murder."
Karen frowned. "You are going to let me read them first, aren't you?"
"Of course I am. I'm not trying to slip anything past you." She lifted the necklace from her chest, the one which prevented her exit from the station. "I want this case solved, too, remember?"
Karen nodded. "Right." She hesitated as if making a decision, then opened the door to the outer office. "Matt, is Captain Kincaid on his assignment yet?"
"Yes, ma'am. I just finished briefing him. I also copied all of our files to his workstation."
"Good. Let me know the moment he has some results."
Lois hit the 'send' hot key and leaned back. "You want to check out Claude's boss now or get a late lunch?"
Karen frowned. "I've screwed this up enough. We go see Claude's boss now." She opened a file cabinet and pulled out two sets of Velcro-heeled overshoes. "The computer lab is right under the Hub. You'll need these to keep your feet on the floor."
— Tuesday, late afternoon
The computer lab manager turned out to be a fussy young Asian woman in her mid-thirties named Pauline Yu, whose hairdresser was surely the 'trained chimp' Andre had bemoaned just a few days before. Yu was the thinnest person Lois had ever seen who just looked flabby. It was apparent that the short, slender woman would rather write computer code than talk to a human being eight days out of the week, twenty-six hours a day. She treated Claude's death as a personal affront.
"You do realize how much extra work the loss of Claude's services has placed on me and my staff, don't you, Major? I don't have time for idle chit-chat."
Karen's patience was short. "Right now I don't care what your priorities are. Mine supercede yours at this point."
"Really?" Yu turned and settled herself on the hook-and-loop 'flooring' under their feet. "These computers control everything from air flow to station temperature to waste recycling, Major. If they aren't tended twenty-four hours a day, something might break and kill someone. Is that what you want to happen?"
Lois interceded. "Ms. Yu, surely you understand that we're trying to catch a murderer, one who might kill again. Our job is just as important as yours is, but we're working against a deadline we can't see. If you have a problem, you also have some idea how much time you have to fix it before something vital goes ka-blooey. We have no way of knowing when the killer will strike again, or if the killer will make it off the station before we catch him or her. In either case, how safe do you think anyone on the station will be?"
Yu huffed. "Surely I haven't made anyone angry enough to kill me!"
"Probably not, but we don't know for certain that Claude had, either."
Yu processed that statement and her mouth fell open. "You mean — you're saying the murder might have been a random act?"
"We don't know. That's why we need to ask you these questions."
Wide-eyed, she nodded enthusiastically. "Sure. I understand now. Ask away."
Lois lifted her notepad and readied her pencil. "What kind of worker was Claude Guilliot?"
"Guilliot?" Yu repeated. "I don't have anyone by that name in my department."
She doesn't watch the news channels either, Lois thought. "He called himself DuBois."
Her nose wrinkled. "Oh. Him."
Lois nodded. "I take it you weren't all that fond of him."
"Surely you jest. The man's top priorities were in his pants. If there was a female within his reach, he'd try to seduce her, even when he was on duty. I can't tell you how many times I heard or overheard how good low-gee sex was supposed to be, especially with him."
"Did he ever make a run at you?"
"Make a run — oh, you mean try to seduce me?" Lois nodded and Yu shook her head with disgust. "He never stopped. If I handed him a work order he'd treat it like an invitation to my quarters. If I passed him in the cafeteria he'd invite me to share dinner and a very tasty dessert with him. He even waited for me outside the women's showers once, just to invite me to share one with him the next time." She shuddered. "He claimed it would save water."
"So, you're saying that you did not succumb to his blandishments?"
"Did I do what?"
"Succumb to his blandishments." At Yu's blank expression, Lois explained, "Did you accept his objectionable invitation?"
Yu tilted her head at Lois. "You talk funny, you know that?" Lois waited with a Dragnet-like 'just the facts' non-expression on her face. Yu exhaled sharply. The force of it made her lean back, but she rocked forward again and didn't seem to notice. "No, I refused to join his not-very-exclusive club of female sex partners, and I never did anything to him except threaten to report him to station management."
"Did you report his unwelcome advances to station security?"
"No. Why would I?"
"Major Vukovich could have brought legal pressure to bear on the situation."
Yu frowned. "I didn't want legal pressure brought to bear! We had a job to do, and we were forced to work closely together. There was no way to put a restraining order on him. This area isn't that big, and I couldn't very well get an order that would make him stop talking to me. He'd never have gotten anything done that way."
"I see." Lois scribbled some notes. "What kind of worker was he?"
"The kind I wouldn't have hired if I'd known that over half of his work history was falsified."
Karen blurted out, "You knew? Then why didn't you report that? We could've sent him back down and gotten a competent replacement for him!"
Yu put her hands on her hips and snarled, "Have you any idea how long that would have taken? And how much extra work it would have made for the rest of my people? And how much it would have cost us to terminate his contract without going to court back down? Besides, he was just competent enough and willing enough to do the little jobs, the dirty and uncomfortable jobs, the ones no one else wanted to do. I tolerated him, but I didn't like him or like to be around him and I certainly wasn't going to renew his contract."
Lois asked, "How much more time did he have on that contract?"
"Almost ten months. I'd already begun a search for his replacement. I didn't trust him not to shirk his duties as his termination date approached." Yu sighed. "Now I'll have to move up my timetable. Most inconvenient."
Inconvenient for Claude, too, thought Lois. "Thank you, Ms. Yu. We'll get out of your way now."
"Good. I still have to finish the environmental control upgrade. Those idiots back down actually sent us reel-to-reel tapes instead of tape cartridges! Have you any idea how hard it is to run a reel-to-reel tape drive at point-zero-four gee? The tape floats everywhere! It refuses to follow the drive path unless you baby-sit it the whole time it's loading! And the drives attract every particle of dust in the air and have to be cleaned more often than a baby needs to be changed!" She drifted from side to side as she gestured. "This is also extremely inconvenient."
Lois nodded. "Thank you again for your time. We won't keep you any longer."
Yu nodded back and jumped. Her Velcro overshoes ripped away from the flooring and she soared expertly over the banks of computers to the other side of the room.
Lois tried the same jump, but she didn't completely disengage her heels from the floor and only unbalanced herself. She had to take an awkward step forward to keep her hands off the floor. Before she could embarrass herself further, Karen put one hand under Lois's elbow to steady her and said, "Don't worry about it. Just walk slowly to the access door. I'll wait for you there."
"Thanks. I'm not sure I could keep from damaging Ms. Yu's computers if I did jump."
"It's an acquired skill, Lois. Everybody has trouble the first few times. In a few weeks, you'll be flying around like the other long-timers here."
Lois grinned and turned to mention that she wouldn't be here that long, but Karen had already sailed away to the door. Oh, well, Lois thought, it wasn't that important.
— Tuesday, early evening
They were almost down to level twenty before Lois asked, "So, you think Pauline Yu might be our prime suspect?"
Karen shook her head. "No. I think if Claude had been messing with her computers she might have killed him, but I also believe that her next move would've been to call maintenance to get the body out of her way. I'd have to drop her to the bottom of the list."
"Me, too. The only problem is that we're left with either too few suspects or too many."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Don't stop, Karen. I'm liable to step on your hands."
"That's no fun, either." She affected a bad Cuban accent and said, "So, Lucy, you got some esplainin' to do."
Lois laughed and Karen scowled. "Come on, it wasn't that funny."
"Actually, it was. My younger sister's name is Lucy."
"Oh. Hey, here's the access door to the salt mine."
"Go ahead, I'll follow quite sedately."
"Sergeant Walker lectured me about how unhealthy it would be to fall down one of these access tubes."
"He's right, Lois. The station's first official fatality happened in one of these tubes, back when they first put spin on the station here at the L5 point. One of the guys who'd been working in zero-gee missed a jump across the tube on level one, and by the time he hit the bottom of the tube at level twenty-eight he was moving over eighty miles an hour. His coworkers said that they all laughed until he bounced off the ladder at about level twenty and they saw his brains spray all —"
"Okay, Karen, I get it already! You don't have to gross me out to make the point."
Karen stopped just inside the door. "I'm sorry, Lois. I thought I was just making conversation. I wasn't trying to upset you, honest."
Lois waved her off. "Never mind, it wasn't your fault. I'm just sensitive right now, that's all."
Karen nodded. "Dreaming about Claude?"
Lois paused and shut the access door. "Once. Didn't dream about him last night, though. I'd rather not dream about corpses embracing me."
Lois caught the major's momentary shudder. "Right. Anyway, what was that about too many suspects?"
"The passenger manifest. Right now, we can't eliminate anyone who came in on the shuttle with me. We don't have enough information yet."
"So let's see what your man Kent has been able to find out."
— Tuesday evening
— It's good to hear from you, Lois. We're about halfway through the passenger list, and we don't have anything yet. But Jimmy said this isn't a deep search, and that he'll go back over the whole list in more detail as soon as he finishes the first run-through.
— Dr. Maynard has had an idea. He has suggested that Claude's hands and feet were taped for some kind of kinky sex game that went very bad. It would account for the lack of defensive wounds on the body, and it's consistent with what we've been able to learn about Claude's very public private life. If that's the case, it may expand your list of suspects, and if so, I'm truly sorry. I wouldn't have mentioned it if not for the fact that your previous messages didn't bring up this scenario.
— Perry is talking to our legal department and to the chief of police to figure out what we can print from what you've sent so far. Please assure Major Vukovich that until she tells us she's arrested someone, we won't print any names of any of the suspects or any of the people you're questioning.
— Belated congratulations on your new job, Lois. I'm sure the Major is pleased with your investigative skills and your focus on teamwork.
— Dr. Parker has also had an idea. She thinks that it's barely possible, from a scientific viewpoint, that this was an assisted suicide. She also says she doesn't like the idea, but it's the only non-murder scenario she can come up with that doesn't involve really disgusting and dangerous sexual practices.
— We're looking forward to getting your other files. I'm sure they'll be quite informative and entertaining. And I think that's all we have at the moment. Someone will send back any information we find on the passenger manifest, even if it's nothing incriminating. Bye for now.
This time Lois read over Karen's shoulder. "Eww," she murmured, "I don't like the sex game idea either. It's only slightly more likely in my mind than assisted suicide."
"I don't know. Apparently Claude was a pretty kinky guy."
"Yeah, but I doubt he would have allowed himself to be tied up like that. He liked to be in charge."
Karen leaned back and pursed her lips in thought. "Maybe he found a new way to have fun."
Lois took a breath to argue, but then she realized that she hadn't seen Claude for several years, and that she had no idea what kinds of activities he had recently preferred. Besides, Maria Gomez had said that they'd met for sex in some pretty public places. Apparently Claude had broadened his horizons since she'd known him.
"Maybe he did. Why don't we ask Carrie Hillman and Lana O'Meara about it?"
"Good idea. We can do that right after lunch, or are you not hungry now?"
Lois gave her a lopsided grin. "I'll eat almost anything as long as it's not recycled."
— Tuesday, evening meal
Lois finished the last of her dark green lunch goop and wiped her hands clean with her antibacterial napkin. "So what's the plan for the rest of this afternoon?"
Karen sat back. "I think maybe we should split up and go back over our suspect list. Walker's report on power consumption doesn't help much, except it validates that Carrie Hillman was busy in Claude's quarters and not her own the night before the body was discovered."
"How about the newlyweds, Ben and Maria?"
"Inconclusive for them, although the consumption curve indicates they probably generated a lot more heat that night than one person would have. Besides, can you see Ben calmly facing down a questioner, knowing that he'd participated in a murder less than two days ago? He'd probably wet his coveralls and drop to the floor in a dead faint."
"Yeah, I think you're right. And I can't see Lana O'Meara killing Claude without snapping him like a rotten stick."
"Matt also reported that unless Mark Wayne planned it to the microsecond, there's very little chance that he sneaked away from the astronomy lab to kill Claude. His co-workers and boss say he was in the lab the whole time he was supposed to be there."
"Maybe he slipped out instead of going to lunch. Or to the bathroom — I mean, the emptying station."
"Yeah," she muttered. "Maybe. It just doesn't feel like him, though." Then she frowned. "Hmm." Karen put her elbows on the table and frowned more deeply.
"Shh. I'm thinking."
Lois complied and sat still, at least until she ran out of patience, which didn't take all that long. She made her way to the drink counter and charged two carbonated drinks against her station account, reasoning that they probably had less recycled water in them than anything else in the cafeteria.
As she walked back to their table, Karen's expression brightened. "Listen to this and tell me if I'm crazy."
Lois sat down and handed her a glass. "Okay, shoot."
"What if we've been going about this in the wrong way?"
"We haven't considered the psychological aspects of the crime. The way Claude was killed indicates — what?"
"Well, he was either killed by a woman he'd just had sex with or killed by someone who waited until just after his girlfriend left."
"True, but what about the precise manner of his death? Doesn't that mean something?"
"Means he's not just mostly dead, he's completely dead."
Karen gave her a 'no joking zone' look. "Get real, Lois. What I mean is, should the way he was killed tell us what to look at, who to look for? Is it a signpost to the killer?"
Lois straightened also. "I don't know. But I know who can find out."
"He can get in touch with a qualified psychiatrist in Metropolis." They stood. "I'll grab my laptop and you go back to your office and ask him to look into it. While we're waiting for him to reply, I'll let you look over my files and make sure they're okay to send."
"Sounds like a plan to me. I'll see as soon as you get there."
— Tuesday, late evening
By the time Lois got to Karen's office with her laptop, Clark had already responded. "Kent anticipated us," Karen said. "He's already talked to a shrink about this."
"What did the doctor say?"
She tilted the monitor. "Read it yourself. It's most instructive."
Lois leaned onto the desk and complied.
— Lois, Major Vukovich, be very careful! Dr. Friskin tells us that the manner of Claude's death indicates a desire for revenge, one that was planned out carefully and well in advance of the event. You're not dealing with a crime of momentary passion here. She also believes, because Claude was killed in an area of the station where people don't often go, that the body was discovered sooner than the killer anticipated it would be, so whoever that person is will likely be a little spooked. This will also probably make the killer sensitive to any questioning and might push him or her into doing something drastic if he or she feels threatened.
— Dr. Friskin said that if I held her feet to the fire, she'd have to say the killer is probably a woman, but she can't be certain and she absolutely won't commit to it. Unless you can figure out how a woman might have physically controlled Claude up to the point where he knew he was about to be killed, she says it's almost as likely to have been a man, simply because few women would have the strength for that job. Add in what Bobbie Jo said about how weightlessness and/or low gravity living reduces a person's overall body muscle tone and content, and you're left with the same problems. Why didn't Claude struggle more, and how did the killer control him before hanging him?
— The aspect of this case which keeps Dr. Friskin from saying 'female perpetrator' more forcefully is the fact that a jealous woman would probably be more likely to kill her rival than her lover, assuming her airlock is completely sealed. If the killer is a woman, however, she would feel totally rejected and betrayed, and if this woman did murder Claude right after having sex with him, she wouldn't hesitate to kill anyone else who gets too close to learning the truth.
— Be extremely careful on this one, Lois. We want you to come back as a passenger on the shuttle, not in a plastic bag in the cargo hold.
Lois nodded. "Well, that is most instructive. If the killer is a woman, she's more dangerous than we thought. If it's a man, he's more dangerous than we thought." She stood and crossed her arms. "Not sure how much that helps, though."
Karen stood and moved past Lois. "Go ahead and send your files. I've got some checking to do."
Lois watched Karen leave, then sat at the desk and put her laptop in the docking station. She transferred her files to Karen's workstation, attached them to an e-mail, and sent it to Clark.
Then she sat back and thought. When Karen had left, she'd walked past Lois, even though the path around the other side of the desk was clear. She'd put her hands on Lois's shoulders almost gently, and left them there a little longer than necessary. Guess the Iron Major really needs a friend, Lois mused.
As she waited, she went over the suspect list again in her mind. Lana O'Meara was physically capable of murdering Claude. She was strong enough and agile enough, and she'd had the opportunity.
But she didn't strike Lois as the type to lure a man to his death. She'd more likely pick a fight with him in public and beat the life out of him with lots of witnesses and a strong sense of self-justification. Nor did she seem to be the type of person to plan something so complex.
She considered Carrie Hillman. She was certainly volatile and intense, and she claimed to have been destroyed by Claude's death, but her reactions during their interview were not completely consistent with that claim. On the other hand, she wasn't physically strong enough to control Claude. Lois believed there was more to Carrie Hillman than she'd already learned, but she didn't quite fit the psychological profile Dr. Friskin had given to Clark.
Mark Wayne, the bereaved ex-lover of the late Trixie Witherspoon, the woman Claude had so cruelly jilted, didn't fit the profile either. Lois considered the angry young man, and decided that he probably would have used his hands or a club to beat Claude into cherry paste, and then called Karen to turn himself in. Even so, he was still a suspect in Lois's mind.
Ben and Maria fit the profile best. Ben was excitable and passionate enough to have gleefully killed Claude any way his blushing bride might have asked him to. And Maria was intelligent enough and clinical enough to plan an intricate murder, and she had the determination to carry it out.
But that would mean that their marriage was purely a cover for Claude's murder, at least as far as Maria was concerned, and Lois didn't get the impression that Maria thought of Ben as only a tool. The woman seemed to genuinely care about her new husband, and even if they were a decade or more apart in age, Lois didn't believe this was a sham marriage. She might be wrong, but she didn't think so.
Ben might take it upon himself to avenge Maria's besmirched honor, but once again, Lois believed that Ben, if acting alone, would be far less subtle in his methods. He'd probably have walked up to Claude during a meal and clubbed him with a pipe or a crowbar. The murder was too intricate to have been done by an angry young man with hot vengeance flowing through his veins. And Ben didn't seem to be the type to taste his vengeance cold.
Pauline Yu was barely a suspect, and she was on the list only because there weren't any more obvious choices. The woman might have been lying about her relationship with Claude, but neither Lois nor Karen thought so. Even if Claude had been the worst computer service person in the history of the digital world, Yu's most likely course of action would have been to suspend him without pay and file a complaint with the personnel director. Lois was more likely to have killed Claude, and she knew she hadn't done it.
That left the possibility of another shuttle passenger having come to the station with death in his or her carry-on luggage. Lois stood and opened the door to the outer office. "Matt?" she called.
Sergeant Walker looked up from his workstation. "Yes, ma'am?"
"How are you coming on the background checks on the shuttle passengers? Any likely suspects among them?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, no. I haven't found any link between Claude and anyone on the shuttle except you, and we already knew about you. Mr. Kent has been very helpful with this aspect of the investigation, too, and he came up with the same negative results that we did."
She sighed. "Thanks anyway. I was just hoping something would pop out to somebody." She almost turned away, then stopped. Something Clark had written about the body being found early nagged at her.
"Matt, how and when was Claude's body found?"
"Let me see." He hit a few keys on his workstation and nodded. "Here it is. Maintenance got a report of a foul smell in or near the bottom of that tube about oh-nine-thirty that morning. A maintenance worker eventually followed the odor to the passage where Claude was hanging and called this office. The log records the time as twelve-nineteen that afternoon."
"Who took the call?"
"Sergeant McClaren. He was the non-com on duty. Major Vukovich was the officer of the day, so he contacted her."
"McClaren called the Major in her quarters?"
"Yes, ma'am. She had lunch in her quarters that day. She was about come back to the office but went directly to the crime scene instead."
"And she sent you to find and fetch me?"
"She and I did as much preliminary work at the scene as we could, then I went hunting for you. You know the rest."
"Yes. Oh, by the way, what was causing the foul smell?"
Walker's face smoothed out. Lois knew him well enough to know it was because he didn't like what he was about to say. "When a person is hung, ma'am, that person usually evacuates his or her bladder and bowels, especially if the victim doesn't die right away. The smell they reported was from Mr. Guilliot's — uh, reaction to dying."
"Yes, I remember that. Thanks."
They needed some help. She tapped a few keys on Karen's workstation and found that the account was still open. So she gathered all the data in the station's computer and sent it to Clark with a request to do an in-depth analysis of all their suspects. She hoped he could tell them something that would give them some angle, some way to wedge into the case and pry it open.
Lois leaned back in the chair. Maybe if she let her mind wander, it would connect the dots and show her who the killer was.
She closed her eyes and tried it. She flickered briefly over a number of famous murders, some of which she herself had reported. Not finding any similarities in her memory of those cases, she thought about fictional detectives and grinned to herself as she wondered how Sherlock Holmes would handle this case. Hey, there was already a Dr. Watson around to record the proceedings for posterity.
Or maybe some other fictional detective could solve this in a snap. Ellery Queen would have wrapped this up already. Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth, would have gathered all the suspects in a room and -
And the finale to the story 'Murder on the Orient Express' suddenly flashed into her mind. The victim was a rich old man who'd run roughshod over everyone he'd ever dealt with, including Poirot. When he'd been discovered in his bed, dead of multiple stab wounds, the fictional detective had reasoned out that any of the twelve suspects might have killed him, and in fact (at least in the story) each of them had taken the murder weapon in hand and thrust it into the man's chest in turn.
Poirot had then done something that Lois couldn't accept. He'd concocted a story about a random thief and killer who'd boarded the train when it had slowed down to climb a hill, killed the old man, and jumped off before the train could pick up speed. The police forces of the area would make an unenthusiastic search for the non-existent killer, and the dozen who'd actually conspired to drug and then kill the ruthless old man would get off scot-free. She'd never liked that ending, but maybe the gang killing plot made sense here.
Lois considered that scenario for a moment. Claude had certainly made enough people mad at him in just the time he'd been aboard the station, not to mention back on Earth, to be murdered several times over. Could all of their suspects have been involved in the murder? Was it possible that all the suspects had cooperated in such a crime as this? Could this be murder by committee?
After a little more thought, Lois shook her head. No way. They were all too different in temperament. There was no way she could envision all six of them planning this murder in this way, committing it, and then sitting back without one of them tipping his or her hand. They would never have agreed on the method, much less agreed not to brag about it, not even a little. And she couldn't imagine Claude going with that group and not fighting every step of the way.
Then what about a smaller conspiracy? Something involving two or three of them? Maybe -
No. The same problems existed. They were still all different enough not to agree on how to braid the fishing line, much less where to hang the body and what to use to keep him quiet.
That still bothered her. Someone had done something to keep Claude from suspecting that he was about to die until it was too late. The fact that he'd had sex so recently indicated that a woman had either done the deed or set him up for death. But there was no evidence that he was drugged, and no evidence that he was physically restrained except for the tape around his wrists and ankles.
The autopsy report had showed trace amounts of alcohol in his blood, but that didn't even prove that the murderer was the source of the alcohol. Claude might have acquired it himself.
That was something. Lois made a mental note to ask if there had been any booze found in Claude's quarters.
But that was all she could come up with. There just wasn't enough evidence to point to anyone in particular.
This wasn't working. There was something else that needed to happen, some other piece of information that she was missing.
She decided to try to jog her memory, so she pulled up the reports on the crime scene and the autopsy results. She scanned through the files again, hoping something would catch her attention.
She sat back, frustrated, and shook her head. They'd have to talk to the suspects again. There was no way around it. They needed more information and they needed it fast, and the only sources of that information were all still here.
Murder, she thought, should never go unpunished.
— Wednesday morning, seven-oh-three AM
Lois abruptly lurched up out of a dreamless sleep, and for a moment she didn't know where she was. Then she remembered: she was on the Space Station Prometheus and she'd let herself be cajoled into working the police side of a murder investigation. Swell.
Karen hadn't come back to the office by the time Matt Walker was ready to leave, so Lois had left a sticky note on her keyboard and returned to her quarters. She'd also taken the liberty of sending a personal message to Clark letting him know how much she missed him and what a super-help he'd be if he were up there with her. Then she'd erased the copy of the message from Karen's 'sent mail' folder.
She turned on the video monitor just for the noise value. A news update on Claude's murder was playing. Finally, she thought, somebody in the media is doing their job. She listened to the report and decided that even though the murder itself was news, the talking heads on the station knew less than she and Karen did, despite the amount of theorizing they did. She also noted with a grin that Dr. Watson had consented to be interviewed on camera and spent the entire time entertaining his questioner with medical anecdotes while telling him nothing new about the murder.
As she dressed for the morning's grind, she thought about how much good Superman would be on the station, and she decided not much. It wasn't like there were underground shelters for the bad guys to hide in, or innumerable routes to take away from a crime, so she doubted he'd find much to do up here. Besides, it would pretty much give away his identity, unless he was willing to either take the two-day shuttle ride as Superman or fly up under his own power.
She smiled to herself as she envisioned Superman holding his breath and knocking on a window of the station and signaling whoever was inside to open the airlock. It was almost funny.
Lois grabbed yet another can of liquid breakfast from her refrigerator. She paused to inventory the contents. Two more cans of breakfast, a trio of frozen dinners, a smattering of sealed snacks, and two plastic containers of orange juice. Not unlike her refrigerator at home, she thought, except this one was so clean it was almost surgically sterile.
She palmed the door opener and headed for the security office.
— Wednesday morning
"Morning, Matt. The Major here?"
"Yes, ma'am. She's expecting you. Please go right in."
"Oh, Inspector Lane? We got the final results from the Planet's check on the shuttle passengers. There's no link between any of those names to Claude Guilliot."
She hid the smile triggered by the way he'd addressed her. "Thanks, Matt. I assume Major Vukovich knows already?"
"Yes, ma'am, since the message came in about ten minutes ago."
"Good. I'll see you later."
She pushed the door to the inner office open and found Karen pacing the floor. "Lois! Good! I'm glad you're here. We may have caught a break."
"It's about time. What is it?"
"Ben Zimmerman caught me in the cafeteria last night. That's why I didn't come back here. He said he wants to talk to us about the murder."
"What else did he tell you?"
Karen shook her head. "Except that he wants to see us by nine this morning, that's it. You ready to go? We'll catch him at his quarters. He works Beta shift."
"I'm ready. Will his wife be there?"
"He said she'd be at work. That's why I want to see him as soon as possible this morning."
"Why didn't you call me? I would've set my alarm earlier."
"No need. He said Maria didn't know he was planning to talk to us, and he didn't want her to know."
Lois frowned. "That doesn't sound promising for the newlyweds."
"No, it doesn't. That's why I want to get over there quick. Have you had breakfast yet?"
"Drank it on the way over."
Karen smiled. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that sounds like someone with a serious problem. Let's go find out what young Ben so desperately needs to tell us without also telling his wife."
Lois lifted one finger. "Can we check first to see if Clark has sent me anything back?"
"Didn't Matt tell you? They cleared all the shuttle passengers." Karen looked away. "Except you, of course."
"Of course. And I know I didn't do it."
"I'm glad you're so certain."
Lois frowned. "You should be as certain of my innocence as I am of yours by now."
Karen met Lois's gaze again. They locked eyes for a long moment, then Karen nodded shortly. "You're right. I'm sorry. I'm as sure of you as you are of me."
"Good. And I was referring to the other e-mail I sent last night."
Karen's eyebrows rose dramatically. "Ah. The other e-mail."
"I asked Clark have Jimmy run down our list of suspects. I'm hoping he uncovered something."
Karen half-smiled. "That would be nice. I'll check."
She did, and the return e-mail had just hit her in-box. "Well, well, well, it looks like your fella Clark did get something for us."
Lois crowded Karen's shoulder. For a moment, she felt as if being close to Clark's words would help her feel closer to him. "What's he say?"
"Hmm. Looks like most of our suspects have a little something to hide, after all."
"Yeah. Pauline Yu is a truly interesting person."
Karen made a face. "Only if you're a computer and you speak in a digital monotone. Your little buddy Jimmy says that reading about her past is only slightly more interesting than watching rainwater evaporate."
Lois chuckled. "That's Jimmy for you. He also wrote — can you page down and display the rest of it?"
They read it together and smiled at each other. "That's our Ms. Yu, all right," grinned Karen. "All the people skills of a paramecium."
Lois read further. "Whoa. Looks like Lana O'Meara is pretty handy with her fists."
"Yeah. This was at a bachelor party?"
"She looks like a stripper to me."
"Oh? You have that much experience with strippers, Lois?"
"Only the ones who break their clients' arms. She claimed he was trying to rape her in the mud wrestling pit."
"And he claims she was the aggressor."
"At least she didn't hurt the groom. Don't you think this makes her a better suspect?"
Karen frowned in thought. "Maybe, but this was four years ago. She was arrested but the charges were dropped. Besides, she's still got fourteen months to go on her second two-year hitch and there aren't any indications that she's planning to break her contract and leave early. I'm not sure this is all that incriminating."
Lois shrugged. "Maybe not. What about Mark Wayne? Anything on him?"
Karen paged down again. "Yep, here it is. Hmm. Very interesting. I didn't know he was a fourth-degree black belt in aikido."
Lois's eyes widened. "Me neither. You know, a martial artist knows lots of joint pressures and holds that would convince someone to do something the victim didn't want to do and not leave much of a bruise."
Karen nodded. "Yeah. We'll have to keep it in mind."
"And he spends a lot of time in the gym."
"How do you know that?"
Lois quirked her eyebrows. "How else could he maintain that physique? I've only known a few of people who could look that good in coveralls, and all but one of them spent a boatload of time working out."
"How about the other one?"
"The other — oh." Lois smiled, remembering how Clark looked without a shirt. "With him, it's — genetic."
"Lucky guy. Anyway, we'll have to keep an eye on Mark."
"How much longer will he be up here?"
"Not long. He's not renewing his contract, remember?"
Lois chewed on a thumbnail. "Right, right, I forgot. Hey, what's that about the creditors?"
"Right there. Says he's still in debt because of some bad investments. And his aikido studio in Las Vegas went belly-up. His students were turned off by his poor teaching manner."
"Looks like Mark isn't a warm and fuzzy guy. You think that makes him a better suspect?"
Lois lifted an eyebrow. "You shot down Lana, I'm shooting down Mark. Except for the aikido, nothing in here is new. We already knew he isn't a people person. And it's not like he beat up anybody in Vegas."
"Hmm. Got a bio on Carrie, too. Wow. Hey, how'd Jimmy find out about those two abortions? I thought that was privileged information back down!"
"It is unless it's part of a court case." Lois read further. "She was sued by two different guys for terminating pregnancies without notifying them. Looks like Carrie has a hard time with long-term relationships."
"What happened to the lawsuits?"
Lois frowned. "Jimmy doesn't say, but I'd bet they were dismissed. The law is pretty vague on stuff like that right now. It might be different in ten years or so, but I doubt these guys had sufficient legal standing to win those suits." She pointed to the bottom of the screen. "Huh. This guy calls her 'extremely needy' and this other one says she's 'just plain nuts.' Hey, she was in therapy, too!"
"Lots of people have therapy. It's hardly proof of murder."
Lois straightened. "No, but it does indicate some kind of mental instability."
Karen turned to face her. "You know any homicide cops in Metropolis?"
"Yes, I do. Bill Henderson's a pretty good —"
"Would he arrest Carrie on the evidence we have now?"
Lois opened her mouth to say 'yes' but changed her mind. "No," she admitted, "he probably wouldn't."
"Then let's keep looking, okay?"
"Fine. Who's next?"
"How about young Bennie Zimmerman?"
"Bennie? Who calls him that?"
"His college classmates, apparently. He graduated at the top of his class at age twenty, he was president of the chess club and astronomy club and the math club and he was treasurer of the local Mensa chapter and —"
"Okay, he's dazzlingly brilliant on his bad days. What kind of an athlete was he?"
Karen smiled. "Apparently the kind who's a complete klutz. He was voted 'most likely to trip over his own feet' as a junior in high school."
Lois dropped into a chair beside Karen's desk. "Huh. I guess he's pretty close to the bottom of the list, then."
"Wait, here's something interesting."
"About his not-very-blushing bride. Seems Maria Gomez was being harassed in college by some high-priced sorority girl whose brains were in her makeup bag. Somehow, Maria got some candid nude pictures of the girl and posted them around the school."
Lois frowned. "Ouch. Sounds like over-reaction to me."
"Wait, it gets better. Seems she also printed the girl's name, phone number, dorm room, and an invitation to have a good time at the bottom of the photos. The girl tried to bring criminal charges and also tried to have Maria kicked out of school, but Maria's daddy waved a fistful of money in front of everybody involved and the whole thing went away."
Lois nodded. "Very revealing. What Maria wants, Maria gets."
"Only partly. Maria also changed schools in the middle of her junior year. Looks like that was part of the deal."
"What happened to the other girl?"
Karen scanned the rest of the message. "Her name is Courtney Macmillan. She left school at the end of that semester and seems to have disappeared. Jimmy couldn't find her anywhere."
Lois leaned forward. "Now that's very interesting."
"Interesting, yes, but once again it's not proof. Courtney might have simply moved back in with Mommy and Daddy and retreated into her bedroom. Or maybe she changed her name and started over somewhere else."
"Maybe. But it's an interesting insight into Maria's character. Anything else in the e-mail?"
"No, that's it." Karen stood and stretched her back. "Well. We know more than we did before."
Lois nodded. "Yeah, but I don't think it's enough. Although that thing with Maria and the naked pictures is interesting."
"Old news. That happened about fifteen years ago, and it looks like Daddy pulled her back in line."
"Maybe." Lois chewed her finger in thought. "And maybe she's jumped the traces again. Maybe this marriage is just part of her new life. Maybe getting rid of Claude was the end of the old."
Karen shook her head. "Nice theory, but I still don't see any proof here. You have something you haven't told me?"
"No, but Ben Zimmerman does. Let's go talk to him."
— Wednesday, eight twenty-four AM
No one answered the Zimmermans' door buzzer. Karen frowned. "That's odd. He assured me he'd be here."
"Maybe he got cold feet."
"Maybe." Karen tried the voice announcer again. There was no response.
Lois grinned and shook her head. "Too bad you don't have internal sensors like Mr. Spock did. You could detect the presence of one or more life forms in there."
"Yeah, that'd be nice if we could — do — that — " Karen stiffened. "Life forms? No!" She spun to the nearest wall comm unit.
"Matt!" she shouted. "This is Major Vukovich! Get me the override entry code for Ben Zimmerman's quarters on Habitat Ring Two!"
A moment later, his voice blasted out of the speaker. "Two-three-Baker-Delta-niner-five-Xray."
"Got it. And call legal, see if Maria Gomez is at work yet."
Karen spun back to Ben's door and entered the combination. The door slid open to total darkness.
"Lights on full!" Karen called. Then she stopped in mid-stride.
Lois looked past her shoulder to the bed, still pulled out into the middle of the room. "Oh, no, no, no," she breathed.
Ben and Maria Zimmerman, newlyweds and former murder suspects, lay side by side on the bed. They appeared quite peaceful in their repose.
They were also both quite dead.
— Wednesday, eight-twenty-eight AM
Ben and Maria lay on their backs, side by side, with their feet pointing at the wall and their heads at the other end, where the foot of the bed would normally be. The fingers of their near hands were intertwined, as if they'd known they were about to die and wanted to send each other one last message of love. Each outside hand was tucked neatly under the small of the back. They were both fully dressed except for their shoes, which were cozily arranged on the floor below their heads. There were no obvious signs of struggle or conflict, save for the small bullet hole each one had in the top of the head.
Karen had stopped just inside the door apparently in shock. Lois slid past her and took a quick look around. That was when she spotted the small pillow under the edge of the bed. She nudged it out with her shoe and saw that the killer had apparently used it as a silencer. There were two holes in it, both of which showed burn marks consistent with a small pistol having fired through it.
She looked at but didn't touch the entry wounds. Neither victim had bled much, which suggested to Lois that the killer had either known a lot about anatomy or had gotten extremely lucky with two immediate kills in two shots. She'd covered the crime beat enough to know that being shot once with a small-caliber weapon, even in the head, wasn't guaranteed to kill you.
But there weren't supposed to be guns on the station! Someone up there was not only dangerous, but close to crazy. Having a gun on a space station was as stupid and dangerous as putting out a cigarette by dropping it into a bucket of gasoline. The military security forces which Karen led didn't even carry them.
Despite knowing they were dead, Lois still felt each of their necks for a pulse. Nothing. Their bodies had already begun to stiffen into rigor mortis. That meant they'd been dead for at least two hours, probably not much more. She'd have Clark ask the doctors he was working with if the lower gravity changed the way rigor progressed.
She glanced around, looking for empty cartridges. Nothing. Maybe they'd been kicked under the bed, or the killer had picked them up, or the weapon was a revolver. If the empty shells weren't in the room, the doctor would have to dig the spent bullets out of the victims to try to identify the murder weapon.
Lois turned back to Karen, who was still frozen to the floor, staring at the two bodies on the bed.
"Karen?" No response. "Karen? We need to call someone."
Still no response. Lois shook her head and punched out the security office number on the interior comm panel.
"Sergeant Matthew Walker, Prometheus security. How —"
"Sergeant Walker, this is Lois Lane."
"Major Vukovich and I are in Ben Zimmerman's quarters." She paused and took a deep breath. "Please contact the next officer in the chain of command and send him here, along with two non-coms. We'll also need Doctor Watson and a stretcher team."
"How many injuries, Inspector?"
There was a pause. "Two? Accidental deaths?"
"No. This is absolutely murder. "These two people were shot to death."
"Sh-shot?" It was the first time Lois had heard the imperturbable sergeant sound well and truly perturbed. "They were shot? You mean, like, with a gun?"
"Yes. My guess is a small-caliber handgun, a twenty-five caliber or a little larger. I didn't find any empty brass. Make sure you warn everyone on duty that there's someone running around the station with a gun, and that person has already used it to kill twice. We don't want it to happen again."
"Uh, I hate to ask this question, ma'am, but is there any way it could have been a murder-suicide?"
Lois glanced over her shoulder at the bed. "No. Both victims were arranged on the bed, side by side, shot in the top of the head. There's no sign of a weapon. Plus, somebody used a pillow as a silencer."
"I see. So I'm not going to be mentioned in Police Weekly as the fastest to solve a crime, then?"
Lois paused for a quick grin, once again thankful for Matt's dry sense of humor. "Nope, sorry. Please tell your officers about the armed suspect."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll sure let them know. What else?"
She frowned in thought, then added, "Please send whatever forensic teams you can scare up to these quarters. We need to check for fingerprints, take photographs, monitor power usage, and find any other records you might dig up on either Ben Zimmerman or Maria Gomez, including their movements for the last twenty-four hours."
"Yes, ma'am. Anything else?"
Lois paused. "Can you think of anything else?"
"Well, ma'am, it's highly probable that whoever killed Claude Guilliot also killed the Zimmermans, so shouldn't we check up on the rest of our suspects and try to track their movements also?"
She nodded. "Yes, you're right, Sergeant. Thank you for thinking of it. Please ask another officer to get on that."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll send these instructions in the Major's name."
Lois frowned in irritation at his apparent slight, then realized that the others in Karen's command might not see suggestions from her, a civilian, in the same light as orders from their CO. "You're right, Matt, and thanks. One of us will touch base with you as soon as we can. Please hurry the doctor, if he can be hurried."
"Will do, Inspector. Walker out."
She turned back to Karen, who was still locked in place, staring at the dead couple. "Karen?" She put her hands on Karen's shoulders and shook her gently. "Karen? Come on, Major, we have work to do."
The Major's eyes blinked once, then twice more, and she lifted her gaze to Lois's face. "He — he was going to — to talk to me. He was going to tell me something. Something important." She looked at the bed again. "Important enough to die for."
Lois shook her a little harder. "Snap out of it, Major! We need you!"
Karen knocked Lois's hands away and straightened. "Okay!" She took a deep breath and said, "I'm okay. You — you were on the comm. What did you say to Walker?"
Lois stepped back and assumed a 'parade rest' stance. "Whoever's next in line in your chain of command is coming with two non-commissioned officers to inspect the room. Dr. Watson is on his way with a stretcher team to do the medical stuff. Another officer is running down the movements of the rest of our suspects for the previous twenty-four hours. I also informed Sergeant Walker that the victims were almost surely killed with a small-caliber handgun. He will make sure that everyone on your team is aware of the danger."
She stopped. Karen rubbed her face with her hands. "Good report, Inspector. And good decisions, too."
"With respect, Major, Sergeant Walker suggested tracking the other suspects before I thought of it."
Karen glared at Lois. "You're not military, Lois, so drop the lingo."
"If that's what you want, sure."
Karen shook her head. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just — it's a bit of a shock, you know?"
"I know." Lois stepped closer. "If it's any consolation, it means somebody thinks we're getting very close to finding the killer."
"No. It isn't any consolation at all." Karen indicated the dead couple. "And I doubt they'd think so, either."
"No, they wouldn't, but you have to know that this isn't your fault. They didn't die just before we got here. They've been dead for at least a couple of hours."
Karen nodded as the comm buzzer sounded. Lois palmed the button and said, "Zimmerman quarters, Inspector Lane speaking."
"Inspector, this is Sergeant Walker. We need one more person to check on a suspect and Lieutenant Ronalds asks if one of you could handle it."
"What's tying up your other people?"
He sighed. "Apparently someone brewed up a batch of moonshine and hosted a party in the number two commons room last evening. Lieutenant Lee is heading up the detail watching over them. I don't have all the details, but I understand that there were a few fights and a couple of fairly serious injuries."
"Does the Lieutenant need reinforcements?"
"No, ma'am. His crew checked out nightsticks and tasers. Everything's under control, but the situation is still a little dicey and the Lieutenant says he can't spare anyone at the moment."
Lois glanced at Karen, who nodded. "I'll stay here until the med team arrives. You take it."
Lois turned to the panel. "I'll go, Sergeant. Who needs checking on?"
"Carrie Hillman. She isn't responding to calls to her quarters."
"Is she the only one you need me to see?"
"Have you called the dental office to see if she's there?"
"No, ma'am, not yet."
"I'll take care of it. I'll relay anything I learn to your office. I assume you're acting as the information center?"
"We call it 'command and control,' Inspector, but yes, that would be me."
"Right. Lane out."
Lois set off down the passageway, thinking about how military she was acting. Perry would have a fit if he could see her now. She was supposed to report the news, not make it.
But she didn't see that she had a lot of choices. She had to work with the military personnel on the station, and since they were all trying to catch a murderer, that took precedence over her own sensibilities. She consoled herself by promising herself a long, luxurious bubble bath as soon as she got back to her own apartment back down.
— Wednesday, late morning
Dr. Breedlove was most unhappy. "She came in on time this morning and screwed up on the job and I sent her to her quarters! I don't know where she is now! I don't monitor my people when they're off duty!"
Lois crossed her arms and forced herself to be patient. "Doctor, I have to find her. I have some questions for her and I need those answers now."
He flapped his arms in frustration. "Do you know there was a riot in the commons last night? I'm going to have at least half a dozen emergency dental repairs this morning, and our esteemed chief medical officer, Dr. John Quincy Watson, has informed me that he's tied up on another case and could I please tend to the trauma room, that's a good fellow?" He stomped twice. "I'm a dentist, not an emergency room attendant!"
"We all have our little difficulties to deal with, Doctor."
"Yes, we do. Now, if you excuse me?"
Lois lifted her index finger. "One thing more, please. Tell me what Ms. Hillman did this morning that caused you to send her away."
He snorted. "I don't have time —"
"You can tell me here and now or you can tell me at the security office. Your choice."
He glared at her for a moment, then blinked. "Very well. We had a patient, an older woman, who needed a filling in a left lower molar and chose nitrous oxide instead of local anesthetic. Ms. Hillman administered the gas and set the mixture wrong. Instead of the patient being sedated, she was intoxicated. She grabbed me on the inside of my leg and called me 'Pookie.' It was quite shocking." He put his hands on his hips. "Then she asked me to do something I didn't understand but which I suspect was quite intimate and personal, and that's when I removed the gas mask from her face and ordered Ms. Hillman to leave before she asphyxiated someone."
"Is your patient still suffering the effects of the gas?"
"No. Nitrous oxide, also called 'laughing gas' by the uninitiated, departs from the body within a few deep breaths and has no long-term effects. It doesn't work on everyone, but those who are susceptible go under and stay under as long as I need them to."
"Mind if I look at your exam room?"
"I just need a glance, Doctor. I won't be a minute."
He rolled his eyes like an outraged teenager. "Fine! Whatever! Be my guest."
Lois followed the outraged dentist to the treatment cubicle. She looked around and noted the absence of a spit sink, the presence of the standard dental drills, suction tube, the polishing tools, and the two gas masks hanging on one wall.
"Find everything yet?" he snarled.
She frowned at the masks. "Where are your main gas bottles?"
"Don't have any." He flipped open a panel below the masks. "We use these smaller hand-held bottles. They're easier to handle and cheaper to haul up here from Earth. We don't have our own manufacturing facilities ready yet."
"I see. Thank you, Doctor. I'll get out of your way now."
"Good. It's about time."
— Wednesday, mid-day
Lois pressed the call buzzer to Carrie Hillman's quarters a second time. When there was still no response, she spoke into the room's announcement unit.
"Ms. Hillman, this is Inspector Lane. I have to talk to you. If you don't open up, I'm going to get the override code for this door and come in without an invitation."
She waited a three-count, then another, and pushed the announcer again. "Okay, that's it. I'm calling for the override —"
The door whooshed open and Carrie stood there, her face tear-streaked and her eyes bloodshot. "What do you want?"
"I need to ask you some questions. Mind if I come in?"
Lois waited a moment, then shrugged. "Okay, I guess I can stand in the passageway. I need to ask you where you were last night and this morning."
Carrie's eyes narrowed. "Asleep. In bed. Alone."
"What about dinner? Did you go to the cafeteria?"
"No. I had one of those frozen cardboard things from the refrigerator in my room."
"Did you go to work yesterday?"
"No. I went in this morning and Dr. Breedlove sent me away."
"Why was that?"
"I made a mistake."
"Oh? What happened?"
Carrie's eyes flickered slightly. "I handed him the wrong instrument during a procedure."
It was the wrong answer. Lois tried to control her reaction. "What about yesterday evening? What did you do?"
"There was a documentary on the station's educational channel. It was all about Reconstruction in the American South after the War Between the States. It was about three hours long and I watched the whole fiddle-winkin' thing and I doubt I could give you three names or events right now."
Lois nodded. "Okay. I think someone will want to talk to you later. Will you be here the rest of the day?"
"Here or one of the cafeterias."
Lois nodded and turned to walk away. It was all she could do to maintain a steady gait until she turned a corner, then she trotted to the nearest comm panel.
The pieces were finally falling into place.
Claude was immobilized by something that didn't remain in his system.
Laughing gas would intoxicate or immobilize some people, and didn't remain in the system after exhalation.
Carrie worked in the dental lab and had access to laughing gas.
She was very familiar with the anatomy of the human head.
She lied about why she was sent home from work, probably because she didn't want Lois to connect laughing gas to Claude's death or to her.
There was no way to be certain that Carrie had been in her quarters all night.
She was the most passionate suspect, and she'd have the most intense need to do something about Claude and about the Zimmermans, assuming Lois's read on everyone's character was accurate.
Carrie was the killer. Lois was reasonably certain of it. And she had to let Karen know what she'd learned.
She punched the code for the security office. After a moment, she heard, "Prometheus Station Security, Sergeant Walker speaking. How may I help you?"
Lois took in a breath and put her finger on the transmit button, but froze in place when she heard the all-too-familiar 'snick-snick' of a semi-automatic pistol being cocked. She slowly turned her head and saw a dark-blue pistol clasped in a woman's small hand, a hand which was covered by a white latex medical glove.
The woman whispered, "Turn off the comm panel, Ms. Lane."
Lois pressed the 'off' button. "Okay, Carrie. It's off. Now what?"
She replied in a normal voice. "We go up."
Lois nodded. "Any particular level?"
Carrie motioned with the pistol. "Just climb. I'll let you know when to stop." Lois moved towards the nearest spoke. Carrie added, "And if you call out to anyone, I'll shoot them dead, so climb quietly."
— Wednesday, early afternoon
This was bad. This was very bad.
Lois knew that Carrie intended to kill her. The girl was armed and in charge, and the only chance Lois would have would be to take her by surprise somehow. Calm. She had to be calm. She had to wait for her opportunity to get Carrie upset and push her into a mistake. The girl was either a little unhinged or a closet sociopath. If she really was a sociopath, there was almost no chance to get her upset over what she'd done, but if she was fighting with herself mentally and emotionally to justify her actions, Lois knew she'd have a shot. But there might be only one, and it wouldn't be available for long, so she had to be ready.
Maybe she could make her own chance.
They climbed in silence to level fourteen, where Lois stopped. "I need to rest for a minute."
Carrie was breathing harder than Lois was, so she nodded. The girl had spent too much time at less than Earth gravity to be making like a circus performer, Lois thought. "Okay," panted Carrie. "One minute. No more than that."
Lois nodded back. After a moment, she said, "Carrie, you know there's no way for you to get away with this."
"You're not arresting me and you're not reporting me to the Major."
"But you can't get off the station, and you can't get rid of the evidence."
"What evidence? My gun? It's going out the maintenance airlock as soon as I take care of you. They'll never find it. It'll end up as part of the trash floating around the station. Besides, I don't plan to shoot you."
She's going to take care of me but she's not going to shoot me? Oh, that was reassuring, thought Lois. And here she'd been thinking that Superman wouldn't be much good up here.
Keep her talking, find a weakness. "How did you get the gun on the station to begin with?"
"I came up with the first batch of colonists. Superman himself lifted the shuttle up into orbit." She wiggled the pistol. "I had this in a false bottom in my makeup bag. They weren't as thorough on the contraband searches back then."
"Were you planning to shoot someone that long ago?"
"A girl never knows when a firearm will come in handy." Carrie nudged Lois's foot with the pistol. "Let's get going. And remember that I've got a .25 caliber pistol with a full nine-round magazine. It's not a big bullet but it's effective, it doesn't have much recoil, and it's not very loud. And I can hit whatever I aim at. You call out to anyone, you let anyone see us, I'll shoot them dead. Remember that."
Lois resumed climbing. "Where are we going, Carrie?"
"My deck fifty. You remember where it is, don't you?"
"Uh, the zero-gee construction storage area?"
"Why are we going there?"
Carrie sighed. "Do you really want me to tell you?"
Lois shrugged. "You might as well. It's not like you can brag about it to anyone else."
"Okay, if you really want to know. You don't know how to move around in null gravity and I do. I'm going to whack you in the head with something from up there and knock you out. Then I'm going to drop you down one of the spokes, all the way to the bottom. By the time you reach the habitat level, you'll be traveling at well over a hundred miles an hour, and that's simply not survivable. But if I hit you hard enough, you won't know about it. You probably won't feel the impact at the bottom of the spoke whether I knock you out or not. And they won't be able to tell one little bruise from all the other messy parts."
"What if I don't let you whack me in the head?"
"If you get to be too much of a bother, then I'll just shoot you. It won't be the first time I've shot someone today."
"Yeah, I guess not." Lois reached level seven. "About that, Carrie, why did you kill the Zimmermans?"
"I was in the cafeteria when Ben talked to the major. They didn't see me, but I overheard some of what he said. He was going to tell her about me. So I gave them each a little shot of sedative and then gave them each a bullet."
Carrie's matter-of-fact tone lifted goose-bumps on Lois's arms. "What did he know about you that we didn't already know?"
"Ben saw me with the nitrous bottle I used on Claude."
"Ah, yes, the nitrous bottle. That was the key."
"You talked to my boss before you came to see me, didn't you, Inspector? The pompous, self-centered, self-important Dr. Breedlove? Is that how you figured out I was the one you were looking for?"
"Yes." Keep going, keep talking, keep looking for an edge, something to use, anything. "Tell me, Carrie, how did you lure Claude up to that low-gee passageway?"
"I told him I wanted to do it again up there with him. I brought the bottle with me, along with the duct tape and fishing line. He looked at me funny and almost backed out until I showed him how good the laughing gas made him feel." Carrie bared her teeth in a parody of a smile. "He said he'd never had better."
Lois barely controlled her shudder. "So you had sex with him there in the passageway before you hung him?"
"I wanted to make sure he had a good sendoff."
Lois hesitated on the ladder. "Of course. How did Ben happen to see you?"
"I was trying to take an indirect route back to the dental lab with the bottle after I used it. I passed by his quarters just as he opened the door and leaned on the frame. The idiot was wearing nothing but a towel and a stupid grin."
"So? It was his wedding night. He told us he was taking a short breather."
"Not too short. His old lady — and I do mean old — was right behind him, and she wasn't wearing anything at all. She put her arms around his waist and pulled him back inside. Just before the door closed, she pulled his towel off and tossed it out into the corridor. Ugh." She shuddered. "They laughed. They were having — they laughed! They laughed at me! And to think that wrinkled old crone ever touched my Claude!"
"You know, Carrie, Maria Gomez wasn't that much older than I am."
Carrie's temper suddenly flared. "She was too old for Claude! She used him! She almost devoured him! She sucked the life right out of him! She had to die too!" The girl stopped and gripped the ladder fiercely. "You have no idea what a great man Claude was! You didn't know him like I did."
That settled it for Lois. The girl was more than a little crazy and waiting would only get a certain nosy reporter who was masquerading as a police inspector killed. Lois decided it was time to push for that little advantage. "Actually, Carrie, I did know him like you did."
Carrie froze to the ladder. "What?"
Lois kept climbing. Looking down, she said, "Aren't you coming?"
"Stop!" Carrie pointed the pistol at Lois's legs. "What did you mean?"
"Oh, I had an affair with Claude when he worked at the Daily Planet about three or four years ago."
Carrie lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "Really."
"Don't you believe me?"
"No! I don't believe you! You're just trying to — to mess with my head!"
"No, really, I did. Wasn't a very long affair, but it was just long enough to find out —"
"Stop it! I told you I don't believe you!"
Lois shrugged. "Your choice. Although if I described the kinds of things he liked to do with women you'd probably recognize them. For example, he liked to put his —"
"That's enough!" Carrie screeched. "You shut your filthy mouth!"
Lois stopped and looked back. The girl was more than a full level behind her. "Oh, Carrie, he lied to you, the same as he lied to everyone else. He spent the night with me —"
Carrie bared her teeth. "Shut up!"
"— and the next morning he stole my story and printed it under his own name —"
Awkwardly, she lurched up two rungs. "I told you to shut up!"
"— and then he told everyone in the newsroom that I was frigid and unresponsive in bed."
She began to tremble. "Shut your filthy mouth, you —"
"Which is kind of funny, because I seem to remember that Claude went to sleep before I did that night. He didn't say much to me afterwards. He just dropped his head on the pillow and sighed and closed his eyes and —"
Carrie extended the pistol at Lois's face and shouted, "I said SHUT UP!"
Lois waited while Carrie panted out her rage. When the girl's face relaxed slightly, she asked, "Carrie? If Claude was such a great man, why did you kill him?"
Carrie's face abruptly shifted from flushed to pale. "What?"
"Why did you kill Claude?"
She dissolved into tears. "Don't you know? Don't you understand? He was supposed to marry me! He was supposed to be my husband! He was supposed to help me raise our child! But those women polluted him! They twisted his mind and his heart! They wouldn't stop chasing him! They wouldn't leave him alone! He was a great man but he wasn't perfect! He had so much love to give! I wanted all of it but I couldn't take it all in! I wasn't — I wasn't enough for him by myself! I wanted to be but I couldn't! He was —"
Whoa! What had Carrie said? Their child? Oh, boy, this just kept getting more and more interesting. "Wait a minute! Child?" Lois could barely ask the question. "Carrie? Are — are you pregnant?"
She wiped her face with her free hand and almost fell away from the ladder. "Y-yes. I'm pregnant." She caressed her stomach with her gun hand. "Claude's baby is inside me."
"Oh, Carrie, are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure! I know when I'm pregnant!"
"But — " Lois hesitated, then plunged in, disregarding the water level. "Carrie, why didn't you keep your other two children? Why this baby and not the others?"
Her eyes shone again. "Those men weren't great, not like Claude. They didn't have his potential, his future. They weren't worth the time I'd have to spend having their babies." She smiled wistfully. "But Claude was worth it. He was worth everything. We would have been so happy together."
Lois closed her eyes and sighed. "I'm so sorry."
Carrie flipped her emotion selector switch over to anger again. "Sorry? For me? Don't be! I'm carrying Claude's baby and no one else is! This is mine! It was supposed to be ours, but those women, they pulled him away from me! He wasn't perfect! He couldn't hold off all the beautiful, cold, heartless women who wanted him! He tried but he couldn't do it! They didn't love him, not like I did! They couldn't! They had hearts like glaciers and wombs as cold as liquid oxygen! Be sorry for them and not for me!"
"No, Carrie. I'm not sorry you're pregnant. I'm sorry because you told Claude about the baby, didn't you?"
The girl didn't respond. "You told him, didn't you, Carrie?"
She hesitated, then answered in a small voice. "Yes."
"And he didn't offer to marry you, did he?"
The voice stayed small. "No."
"What did he say?"
Carrie's eyes filled with tears. "He said — he said he knew how to get rid of it. He said he'd ask the doctor to do it. J-just like he had before!" Her sobs tore at Lois's heart. "He — he laughed when I said I'd marry him! He said there were too many truly beautiful women in the world for him to — to tie himself to just one! To plain old me!"
"But you had two abortions before. What was —"
"Those other men? Ha! They were weak. They were soft." Her voice gentled. "Not like Claude. He was so — so perfect. He was smart and sexy and funny and I could listen to his voice all day."
"Those other men must have loved you, too."
"No! Claude was the only one for me! And I was the only one for him! If those horrible evil women had just left him alone everything would have been fine! We would have been happy! I would have made him happy! He would have been a great man and our baby would have been so wonderful! Our lives together would have been incredibly great!"
Lois felt for her. This girl was so messed up. "Oh, Carrie, please let me help you. I can talk to the Major and —"
"No!" Anger leaped back into her eyes. "I'm going to have this baby and I'm going to keep my baby and we're not going to prison! Now climb!"
"Carrie, we can get you the help you —"
She lifted the pistol again. "Climb or I shoot you right here."
Lois glanced at the panel that told her she was at level two. "Okay, Carrie, we'll go up to deck fifty."
— Wednesday, mid-afternoon
Lois drifted across the handrail to a hatch at the top of the spoke. The label above it read, "Level Zero Construction Storage: Zero Gravity. Caution Is Advised."
Good advice, she thought.
"Open the hatch, Inspector. I need something to use as a club, and there's lots of likely candidates in there."
She looked down at Carrie and at the pistol in her hand. Of all the places she'd ever thought she'd die, the space station wasn't one of them. At least, not from something so mundane as a bullet wound or a fall. If she was going to die here, why couldn't she die in a manner more fitting to her environment? Why couldn't she get caught in an airlock open to space? What about radiation poisoning? Alien attack?
She shook her head and told herself not to be stupid. She really, really didn't want to die. There were so many stories still waiting to be written, so many bad guys waiting to be exposed, so many evil schemes awaiting her investigation.
And Clark was waiting for her, back down on Earth.
And she didn't want to die because she wasn't crazy. But Carrie apparently was insane enough for both of them.
She pulled the hatch open and Carrie called out, "That's good. Now slip through very slowly, and keep your hands off the hatch frame."
Lois had to get away from this crazy girl. Carrie knew how to move around in null gravity and Lois didn't. Carrie had a gun and Lois didn't. Her only chance was to put some distance between them as quickly as possible, then find a place to hide or something to fight with.
The room lights were down and it was almost dark. Lois kept her hands clear of the door frame as she'd been told, but as she floated into the room, she aimed herself at a dim light across the open area and pushed sharply against the door frame with her feet as if diving into a pool of water.
She barely made it. Carrie's fingers brushed along her ankle and foot as she dove away. The girl's snarl chased her into the darkness.
Suddenly Carrie called out, "Lights up maximum!"
The room was ablaze with light. To Lois, it looked like a warehouse drawn by Salvador Dali, with everything that wasn't tied down or strapped down or magnetically attached to the wall slowly bouncing along the floor or drifting past the walls. Carrie sang out playfully, "I see you, Inspector. Please don't make this any more difficult than it already is."
Carrie's touch on Lois's leg had put her in a slow flat spin and changed the angle of her jump. Instead of landing at the glow light near the top of the storage area, she slammed sideways against a series of metal lockers on the far wall. She gasped as an extrusion from one locker jabbed deep into her ribs, but she forced herself to grab something to keep from bouncing back and to pull herself at an angle away from her original path. It was almost like swimming in three dimensions.
She had to keep going, to get away, because Carrie was floating across the room, watching every move Lois made. "Come on, Inspector, you're helpless in here. I can catch you just about any time I want, and you can't get out of range of my gun."
Lois slid a three-foot long welding rod out of a rack of rods against the wall and pulled herself away from Carrie and her gun. "You don't want to kill me, Carrie. I can tell. You want to live for your baby."
For the first time since Lois had met her, the girl smiled openly and freely. "Of course I do. And what better way to celebrate my baby's birth than to take care of you, the last threat to my freedom, in the room in which he or she was conceived?"
"What? You mean you — Claude was here with you and this is where — oh, yech! That's even more disturbing than the laughing gas thing, Carrie."
The girl floated closer, out of pole range but close enough to shoot. "Not to me. I told you I like to come up here and float around naked. I just put my clothes in a laundry bag and tie it to the door. After I lock it, of course, which I did before I came over here after you. You don't know the code, so you can't get out that way."
Well, that's one more option down, thought Lois. "So, are you going to shoot me now? Or are you still going to club me senseless?"
The girl drifted closer. "Oh, I'll decide in a minute. I'm actually enjoying our conversation. I'd hate to cut it short."
Lois pulled herself along the wall towards the corner, hoping to take Carrie by surprise somehow. "You know, I agree with you. I'm enjoying this conversation too. You should go with your feelings on this, you really should."
Carrie smiled again as she drifted closer. "I wish I could, Inspector. But I've already spent more time with you than I planned. I've got to get ready to leave."
Keep her talking, thought Lois. "Leave? You can't leave. None of the suspects on Major Vukovich's list can leave, me included."
"You think so?"
"I had to put my thumb on a print reader before I was allowed on the station. I'm pretty sure they have the same ID procedure on outgoing passengers, too."
"Ah, but Carrie Hillman isn't leaving the station. Carolyn Townes, laundry worker and maintenance drone, is the one who's getting on the shuttle. Her contract is up and she's going back down. A little hair dye, a little makeup, some padding in my bra and around my waistline, and no one will recognize me. I know because I was testing it last night when Ben was talking to the Major. And my thumbprint will pull up her ID profile, not mine. It's a perfect false identity."
Lois felt the corner under her feet. She was almost in position and the welding rod was balanced in her right hand, hidden behind the folds of her coverall beside her leg. "I don't believe you. You don't have access to the computers to do something like that."
"No, I don't. But Claude did. He's the one who put Carolyn Townes in the system. He worked in the computer lab, remember? And he did all that while he convinced his boss he was just slightly smarter than a box of rocks." She giggled. "Claude was smarter than all of them put together."
Lois opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. It just might work long enough for her to get back to Earth and lose herself in the general population. And Lois didn't want that to happen. If she'd just drift a little closer -
Keep her talking as long as possible. "Why did Claude put a false identity in the computer for you, Carrie? What was in it for him?"
She shrugged and waved the gun to one side. "To see if it could be done, at first. He wanted to put in his latest book. The computer security up here really sucks. I guess they didn't expect anyone to try something that sneaky."
Lois eyed the distance between them; not close enough yet. Let Carrie keep talking and drifting closer, let her reminisce a little more -
"He had another identity for himself, too, in case he decided to go back down before his two-year hitch was up. He actually put me in when we first started seeing each other. He said we could use them whenever we wanted. We could leave together and no one would ever find us. That was when — " the girl clouded up and refocused on Lois. "That was when he promised me we'd be together forever! That we'd never be apart! And those women took him away —"
She was out of time. "Lights off!" shouted Lois. And she jumped towards Carrie and swung the rod at the spot she'd last seen the pistol.
The pistol cracked and the bullet whined off the steel walls behind Lois. The rod came down and missed everything, and Lois's reaction to the swing spun her end over end. Then she collided with Carrie in mid-air and felt the hot crack of the pistol a second time and heard the bullet go past her ear with a 'wheet' sound.
She pushed the rod away and grappled for Carrie's gun hand. Carrie screamed, "Lights on full lock baker-niner-golf-yankee!"
Lois's face was inches away from Carrie's contorted features. The pistol was pointing almost at Lois's chest, held away only by sheer desperation. Carrie tried to push away from Lois, but Lois grasped her frantically with one leg and pulled them together again. With the lack of anything solid to push against, it was almost like wrestling under water.
Lois grabbed Carrie's right hand with both of hers and forced the gun away. Carrie curled her left hand into a fist and punched Lois in the face once, twice, a third time, before she yelped with sudden pain. Lois shook her head to clear it and glanced at the girl's now useless hand. She'd broken at least one finger against Lois's skull, probably more. Score one for being hard-headed, Lois thought, then bent her efforts to controlling the thrashing girl.
She couldn't do it. None of her martial arts training was of any use in null gravity except the ability to bend her attacker's arm away from her. Carrie kept trying to kick away, and Lois kept pulling her back and kept trying to wrap her legs around Carrie's waist to keep them together. If they drifted apart even a few feet, the girl would use the gun and it would be all over but the burying.
Lois yelled, "Lights off!" Nothing. "Lights off!" Still nothing. "Lights down max!"
Carrie leaned closer and tried to bite Lois's shoulder, but Lois jerked away and she got only a mouthful of cloth. She spat out the cloth and growled, "I locked them on, stupid! I want to see you die!" She tried to bite Lois a second time and missed again. "I'm tired of talking now!"
Carrie twisted her gun hand across her body and broke free of Lois's right hand, then pinned Lois's hand under her left arm. Only Lois's left hand holding Carrie's gun hand kept her alive, and Carrie was making progress against Lois's grip.
"Carrie! You don't want to do this!"
The girl yanked her gun hand down and almost broke free. "Yes I do! I want to kill you! I want to kill all of you!"
"Why?" Lois managed to grip Carrie's waist with one leg and pull them close. It gave her a little leverage, but their joined struggles sent them spinning randomly in the middle of the room. "Why kill all of us? What did we do to you?"
"You took my Claude! You all took him away from me!"
The constantly changing background and lack of weight was starting to make Lois dizzy. "You're the — the one who killed him! You — you hung him with fishing line like the catch of the day!"
"Because you made me! Because you took him! You wouldn't leave him alone!"
She lifted her left hand and hit Lois across the side of the head with her forearm and screamed as she jarred her broken hand. "Yaaah! Let go! Let me go so I can kill you!"
Carrie hesitated because of the pain, else Lois might have lost control of the girl's gun hand. Lois took a deep breath to clear her head, then quickly renewed her grip and shouted, "Give me the gun, Carrie!"
"I'll give it to you! Here! Take it! Yaaah!"
She bent her wrist and elbow towards Lois and slowly but surely pointed the barrel of the pistol closer to Lois's head.
She pulled the trigger.
The gun fired.
— Right after the gun fires
Lois felt as if she'd been struck by lightning. She tried to open her eyes but they refused to cooperate. She tried to reach for where she thought the gun might be but couldn't. She tried to move any part of herself but none of her body parts cooperated. She tried to beg Carrie not to shoot her again, but she couldn't form the words, couldn't even move her tongue.
All she could do was hear. Maybe she was already dead and she was having an out-of-body experience. She could hear people's voices calling out to each other. She heard someone say something about the Major, and someone else say something about her. She hoped they could find her body and give her a decent burial, and not just shove it out the airlock into space.
Finally she pried her eyes open. The first thing she saw was Carrie, floating limply about four feet away from her. The gun was slowly drifting away from her towards the wall. But why? Surely Carrie hadn't shot Lois just to shoot herself?
Lois turned her eyes slowly away from the girl and saw Matt Walker gliding in her direction. His expression betrayed his deep concern, and he caught Lois around the waist and pulled her with him towards the far wall. He twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet, flexing his knees to absorb the impact of the landing. He grabbed a tie-down strap and held them still.
Slowly, Lois recovered control of her body. Her clumsy grasp finally closed on Walker's arm and she found she was able to move her head.
Karen's voice carried across the room. "Sergeant! How's Inspector Lane?"
"I think she's okay, Major."
"Um, I think I almost missed with the taser."
Lois's eyes finally found Karen floating beside the silent and still Carrie. "Make a clear report, Sergeant."
"Yes, ma'am. I believe that when I fired my taser, one lead hit the suspect and the other hit Inspector Lane. They both got the shock and it arced across their hands to close the circuit."
"The manufacturer says that can't happen."
"Yes, ma'am, but both the suspect and the Inspector had their hands on the same metal firearm. I think that was a sufficient conductor to close the electrical gap."
Lois slowly lifted her head to Matt. "You — shot me?"
"With a taser, ma'am. Sends a jolt of electricity into the target and immobilizes him. Or her."
"Or them," she responded. The feeling was coming back in her face and arms. Matt turned her to face him upright. "Thanks. Being shot with a taser is lots better than being shot with a gun."
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Hoped you'd feel that way. You should be okay in a few minutes."
"That was good shooting, by the way."
"Had to be." His expression turned serious. "That taser is only good for one shot. If I had missed —"
"You didn't miss, Matt. You saved my life." Lois nodded towards the middle of the room. "What about Carrie?"
"The Major will take care of her."
Lois nodded, then raised her voice. "Major? Be gentle with her. Please?"
Karen snorted. "Why, because she's so cute and snuggly?"
"No. Because she's pregnant. She's carrying Claude Guilliot's child."
Lois felt Matt stiffen beside her. Karen froze in place for a moment, then nodded. "I'll be gentle. No need to punish the child."
Carrie groaned. "Hurts! Ahh! Hurts inside!"
Lois shifted away from Matt. "The shock of the taser may have hurt the baby. We need to get her to Doctor Watson."
Carrie moaned again, louder, and Karen moved closer to check on her. As she drifted in front of Carrie, however, the girl exploded with a kick to the major's lower abdomen that pushed Carrie towards the lab's open hatch as Karen tumbled out of control towards the lab's floor.
"Carrie!" Lois called. "You can't get away! Stop!"
Carrie paused at the doorway and looked back. Matt had pushed away from the wall and was flying across the room towards her, and Lois was not far behind him. The girl looked at Lois. "You tried to help me. Even after I tried to kill you, you tried to help me. I'll remember that." She floated in the doorway, her face almost angelic. "I told you I wouldn't let my baby be born in prison."
Just before Walker soft-landed on the wall beside the hatch, Carrie pushed herself out and slightly downward into the spoke. The sergeant tried to grab her as she drifted down, but she twisted away from him and avoided his grasp.
"No!" he shouted. Lois awkwardly halted her momentum against the wall and leaned out the hatch to watch the unfolding tableau.
Carrie had drifted down two levels by then and was slowly accelerating. Walker jumped across the opening and grabbed the ladder, then pushed himself down. Lois understood that he was trying to catch up to her and halt her progress.
He almost reached her at level four, but she was picking up speed too quickly. She pulled away from him, slowly spinning end over end.
Walker pressed his feet against the outside of the ladder's vertical supports to arrest his descent. Lois thought Carrie waved to her as she fell. He and Lois both watched the girl fall until she hit the floor.
The bottom of the tube was as messy as Carrie had predicted it would be. Lois closed her eyes and hoped that the poor girl had been right about not feeling the impact.
— Wednesday, late afternoon
Doctor Watson finished Lois's checkup and smiled at her. "You're a fortunate young lady. Hardly a scratch on you, save for a lovely black eye from the other young lady's fist, and you're suffering no ill effects from Sergeant Walker's poor marksmanship."
Lois zipped up her coveralls. "It was a difficult shot, Doctor. I wouldn't call it poor marksmanship. Carrie and I were right beside each other, and we were spinning and twisting around. At least he stopped Carrie from shooting me."
"That he did. Well, young lady, I believe I can release you. Major Vukovich asked that you return to the security office once I was finished poking and prodding my latest victim."
"Sounds good to me." She stood and stretched. "I guess the famous Lane luck came through again."
"Excuse me? The famous Lane luck?"
"That Karen and Matt — I mean, the major and the sergeant found me when they did. I don't know how much longer I could have held out."
He gave her an odd look. "Yes, you were — quite lucky. At any rate, you don't require my services any longer, so off with you."
"Thank you, Doctor. I'll try to touch base with you before I leave."
She strode through the passageway, and as she passed others, invariably their eyes would widen and they'd grow silent. She heard excited mutters behind her, and one woman said something about there being a "new sheriff in town." Oh, good, mused Lois, that's all I need, to be viewed as the local Wyatt Earp. So much for her journalistic objectivity. Perry might as well call her back home now.
She pushed through the security office door and smiled at Matt, who gave her a blank glance before he stood and called out, "Captain Kincaid, Inspector Lane is here."
"Thank you, Sergeant." A tall, angular man stepped out of what Lois had thought was Karen's office. "Inspector Lane. I hope the doctor gave you a clean bill of health?"
"Yes, thank you." Lois frowned and looked past him into the office, but saw no one else. "I'm sorry, Captain, I assumed Major Vukovich would be here."
Kincaid's eyes barely flickered. "The Major is confined to her quarters, pending the arrival of her relief."
"What?" Lois was astounded. Karen had saved her life and she was being punished? Unthinkable! Idiotic! "When did this happen?"
"Her orders came through about half an hour ago, while you were still in sick bay. I'm in temporary command until Colonel Warren arrives."
She put her hands on her hips and glared at the captain. "And how long will it be before this colonel does arrive?"
"He's scheduled to be here Saturday morning, local time. He's taking the next shuttle flight up, which leaves about fifteen hours from now. The rest of the new security detachment is coming up with him."
"So Karen's stuck in her little cubbyhole until then?"
Kincaid seemed to run out of patience. "Those are her orders, Inspector, and she knows how to follow them. Speaking of which, I've been ordered to release you from your temporary assignment and rank. If you'll return your identification badge, I'll —"
His eyebrows vibrated for a moment. "I'm sorry, you said 'no'?"
"I did. Major Vukovich gave me this assignment and I'll surrender it to her and to no one else." Lois pulled her necklace out of the top of her coveralls. "Besides, she needs to take this off me. Or are you ordered to do that too?"
Kincaid looked, then turned to Walker. "Tracker?"
Walker nodded back. "Yes, sir."
Kincaid nodded slightly. "No, ma'am, I can't remove it. The Major would have to do that in any case. The necklace has a fingerprint sensor that will only allow two people to access the locking mechanism. Those people are the person who put it on you — in this case, Major Vukovich — and the commandant of the United States Air Force Academy."
Lois frowned. "Okay. I'll go see the major, then."
"As you wish. But before you go, Ms. Lane, I'll have to ask you again for your special identification."
"And I'll have to repeat what I said before. No. Major Katrina Vukovich gave me this commission and I'll be shoved naked out an airlock before I give it up to anyone else."
Kincaid almost smiled. "Yes, ma'am. There is one other thing I've been asked to do."
"What's that, reduce my daily rations?"
"No, ma'am, nothing like that. I've been asked to convey the honest and sincere gratitude of the United States Air Force and the profuse thanks of the management of Space Station Prometheus for your invaluable assistance in resolving this case. There'll be an official ceremony later on Earth to recognize your very material contribution, but I wanted to make sure you heard this message as soon as possible."
"Oh." She paused, then said, "Thank you, Captain. May I go now?"
"Of course. Sergeant, would you complete the debriefing, please?"
"Yes, sir." He stood as Kincaid re-entered the inner office and closed the door tightly. "Ms. Lane, the block on your e-mail account has been removed and your communication privileges have been fully restored. You may contact anyone you wish anywhere on the Web."
"Thanks, Matt." She lowered her voice and asked, "What's going on? Why is Karen being replaced?"
He shook his head. "All I can tell you is that Captain Kincaid isn't responsible for this, ma'am. He's just following orders, just like me."
She frowned and crossed her arms. "Yeah, just like good little Nazis. Seig Heil and all that crap."
He stiffened. "Ma'am, that's unfair. Please."
She waved aimlessly. "Oh, Matt, I'm sorry, I didn't really mean it, especially not you. I'm just ticked off."
"Yes, ma'am. I haven't been by to see the Major, and Captain Kincaid has strongly advised me not to see her, especially before Colonel Warren arrives." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "But would you tell that I'm rooting for her? If you should see her, I mean."
She nodded in comprehension. "I understand. If I happen to see her, I'll deliver your message." She leaned back and spoke at a normal level. "I need to be going now, Matt. It strikes me that I haven't eaten since that can of breakfast early this morning."
She turned to leave, but Walker said, "Ma'am? One more thing before you go."
She turned back. "Yes?"
He stood and came to attention, then gave her a textbook salute. As he released it, he said, "It's been an honor serving with you, ma'am."
Lois was touched. "I'm not in any military, Sergeant, so I can't salute you, but I can do this." She kissed him on the cheek, then smiled warmly. "That's kind of like a civilian salute."
No part of him moved except his eyes, which twinkled, and his mouth, which said, "Yes, ma'am, a real honor."
— Wednesday, early evening
Lois sent the last file to Clark and leaned back against the chair. She'd been typing for almost four hours straight and she needed a break. She wished she'd thought to stock her baby refrigerator with cream soda before all this had happened.
One of the messages had contained her recommendation to Perry that she return before her scheduled time. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that her journalistic usefulness on the station was just about destroyed. Too many people identified her with station security and the story of Carrie Hillman, and her front-page banner in the Planet wouldn't be published here. Like it or not, she was now Inspector Lane to the residents of the station, and there wasn't time to shift those perceptions before the celebrations began. If Perry hurried, he could send up a replacement on the next shuttle.
She stood and realized that she felt guilty about not going to see Karen before now. She told herself she had to report everything she could as quickly as she could, and she was certain Perry would have demanded that she do as she had done, but she still didn't feel good about waiting to visit Karen.
She looked up Karen's address in the station database and tried calling on the comm. There was no answer. Maybe Karen had blocked incoming calls, she thought. In that case, she should just go to Karen's quarters and surprise her. Maybe she could cheer her up.
That decided, Lois closed her computer and set out. She arrived at the major's door in minutes and announced herself over the speaker. "Karen, this is Lois. You there?"
The door remained closed and the speaker remained mute. Miffed, Lois punched the button and spoke again. "Major Katrina Vukovich, this is Special Inspector Lois Lane. If you do not open the door to your quarters, I will call Sergeant Walker for the override for your door and enter without your permission."
She waited several seconds and was about to repeat her threat when the door opened. Karen waved her in and stumbled over to her bed. She'd shed her uniform coveralls and wore only her regulation underwear. The Marx Brothers' "A Night In Casablanca" played quietly on the video monitor in the wall.
Lois entered and palmed the door closer. "Nice room. It's bigger than mine."
Karen lifted a glass of dark liquid in a mock toast. "Yeah. Big 'nuff for li'l ol' me." She drained the glass, then lifted it unsteadily and squinted at Lois. "Join me?"
"It's a little small for both of us, don't you think?"
"Huh?" Karen frowned and looked into the glass for a moment, then smiled. "Oh. Gotcha. Joke, right?"
Lois smiled. "You're as quick as always, Major."
"Huh. Major." Karen fished a bottle from the floor and refilled her glass. She stared at it for a moment, then lifted it towards Lois. "Wanna get drunk with me?"
"I thought alcohol was banned on the station."
Karen waved. "Yeah, yeah, sure. We got chemicalists, remember? Best in th' world."
Chemicalists? "You mean chemists?"
"Huh. Yeah, got them too. They make it, we confistake — we confic — we take it away from 'em. C'mon, have a slurp."
Reluctantly, Lois took the glass and sipped it. It stung the inside of her mouth and burned all the way down to her stomach. She coughed and put the glass on the table, out of Karen's reach. "Wow! What do you call that, explosive ordnance?"
Karen smiled slowly. "Ha. Good name for it." Then she seemed to shrink in on herself. "They're shippin' me out, Lois. I got fired."
Lois sat beside her on the bed. "I know, but why? I don't understand."
Karen leaned her head on Lois's shoulder and spoke with extreme care. "Three murders. All on my watch. And a civilian solved the crimes. I didn't do nothin' right."
"But you're the one who ran the investigation! You were in charge of law enforcement! And you caught the killer! Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Not enough." She lurched up to a sitting position and might have fallen the other way had Lois not caught her arm. "Whoa. Thanks. Might get hurt fallin' that far."
"I doubt it. You're way too relaxed to hit the floor hard."
"Maybe." Karen clouded up again. "But it don't count."
The abrupt change in subject was typical of the occasional drunk. "What doesn't count, Karen?"
"Yeah. We caught Carrie. Caught the killer and let her kill herself." Karen tried three times to turn her head towards Lois and look directly at her before she succeeded. "Air Force don't like that. I'm going back down."
"I'm sorry, Karen. Are they going to prefer charges?"
"Charges? Nah! They don't need no stinkin' charges! Where's my glass?"
Lois pointed. "I left it over on the table."
"I'll go get it." Karen's head wobbled but she didn't stand. "Huh. Guess I had enough."
"It's okay, Karen."
"No! Not okay! They stuck me out here 'cause I embarrassed 'em! Said I'd get a safe post. No trouble, no worries, no reporters, no chance to screw up again." She paused and belched loud and long. "But I screwed up anyway. First murders on the station and they happened on my watch." She sniffed and wiped her nose with her hand. "Some cop I am." She sobbed once and leaned her head on Lois's shoulder again. "I'm so sorry, Lois! I'm so sorry you almos' got killed! I never forgive myself if you get killed! I'm so sorry, so sorry —"
"Hey, hey, I'm okay. See? No holes anywhere in my body except the ones I'm supposed to have. I'm fine, Karen. Really."
Karen wiped her nose again and looked up at Lois. "Really? You really okay?"
Lois smiled. "Yes, I'm okay. Now I think you need to lie down and sleep."
"Sleep?" Lois gently guided her head to her pillow as she protested feebly. "I don' need sleep. Need to talk to you. I gotta tell — tell you — somethin' important."
"You can tell me tomorrow. Right now you need to go to sleep."
"Shh. Go to sleep." Lois gently stroked her hair. "Sleep now, Karen. Sleep."
"'Kay, Lois. Night."
Lois smiled and stood quietly. Karen's breathing shifted to slow and sonorous. All she had to do now was sleep it off. And, thanks to her mother, Lois had lots of experience dealing with other people's hangovers. The question now was, should she go back to her own cubbyhole or spend the night here? If she left, she wouldn't be able to get back in without either Karen's code or the override, and she wasn't sure Captain Kincaid would give either one to her.
Lois decided to wait in Karen's quarters. After all, the major still had to remove the necklace, didn't she?
She pulled the sheet up to Karen's shoulders and told the lights to turn down. Oh, well, it wouldn't be the first time she'd watched TV until the wee hours and slept in a chair. And Harpo was just as funny now as he ever had been.
— Thursday, mid-morning
The flush of the toilet awoke Lois from a cramped, intermittent sleep. Karen had turned out to be a loud snorer, at least while she was sleeping one off, so Lois had turned the chair to face away from the bed in the vain hope of blocking some of the noise. At least Karen hadn't gotten sick during the night. Lois didn't know what the procedure was to get fresh bedclothes outside of the laundry cycle, and she definitely didn't want Captain Kincaid to know — at least, not officially — that his former CO was on a bender.
Lois stood and stretched and groaned. Karen abruptly spotted her and shouted, "Yaaerghhahhabwabwa!"
Lois took a step towards the stumbling woman. "Karen! It's okay, it's me!"
"Yeah." Karen took a deep breath and swallowed. "What in the name of all that is sober and steady are you doing here?"
"I thought you might need some help last night."
"Really." Her hooded eyes blinked rapidly at Lois. "I was drunk, Lane, not sick and helpless. Haven't you got something else to do?"
Her tone was both cutting and effective. Lois took a 'parade rest' stance once again. "Major, I'm here to surrender my temporary commission to you."
Karen belched rudely and opened her underwear drawer. "Why didn't you give it to Kincaid? He's in command now."
"I told him I'd gotten this commission from Major Katrina Vukovich and I would surrender it to no one else but Major Katrina Vukovich."
"Oh." Karen lost some of her combativeness. "I see." She peeled out of her underwear and replaced it with fresh garments. "In that case, let me get into uniform so I can take it back with at least some of the dignity you think I still have."
She grabbed a coverall from the tiny closet. "What?"
"About that — that dignity thing." Lois hesitated, then continued. "I can't help but believe that if I'd been a man, you wouldn't have stripped naked in front of me."
Karen stopped with her hand on the front zipper of her coveralls. Then she straightened, turned to face away from Lois, and nodded briefly. "You're right. I wouldn't have done that if you'd been a man, and I shouldn't have done it at all. It was very rude of me to treat you as if you were beneath my notice, and having a five-star hangover is no excuse. I apologize. I assure you that it won't happen again."
Lois didn't respond. Karen sighed and turned to face her. "Would you do one last thing for me, Inspector Lane?"
"Of course, Major."
"Please turn around. I need to take that tracker off your neck."
Lois turned around. "Of course, Major, and I'll be glad to get rid — " She stopped. "Karen, you called this thing a tracker?"
Karen tugged gently on the necklace. "That's what it is."
"Captain Kinkaid asked Matt if it was a tracker."
"Yeah, well, he would know."
The catch on the necklace clicked open and the whole thing fell down inside Lois's coveralls. "I thought it sent out a signal that wouldn't let me off the station."
Lois pulled her zipper down far enough to fish the necklace out of her bra. "What else does it do, Major?"
Karen sighed. "Oh, great, now you're mad at me, aren't you?"
Lois rezipped herself, turned around, and tried to hand the necklace to Karen. "You weren't honest with me."
"You were a suspect in a murder at the time, remember?"
Lois shook her head. "You lied to me."
Karen snatched the tracker from Lois's hand. "And I suppose that's the first time anyone's ever misled you for valid reasons?"
Instead of snapping back, Lois stopped and thought about Clark's reasons for hiding his dual identity from her. At the time he'd created Superman, they were valid reasons. She would have plastered every iota of information about Superman and Clark and his parents and his origins all over the Daily Planet's front page without a second thought for the repercussions of that revelation. She would have practically demanded that she receive the Kerth and Meriweather for that year and would have groused had the Pulitzer not also come her way.
And when Karen had first snapped the necklace around her neck, she hadn't known whether or not Lois was the killer. She was doing the best she could with what she had to work with. And it wasn't as if she'd had a lot of opportunities to set the record straight. On top of that, Karen hadn't been completely sure that Lois wasn't giving an Emmy-caliber performance until she and Matt had stopped Carrie from smacking Lois in the head and dropping her body down a long, long tube.
That brought up another question in Lois's mind. "Karen?"
The major narrowed her eyes. "Now what?"
"How did you know where Carrie and I were?"
Karen held up the necklace. "There's a reason it's called a tracker. We tracked you up there using the radio signal it sends out. Matt called me and told me where you were going, and since I didn't think there were any suspects up in the Hub, I told him to head that way immediately and I'd follow as fast as I could. He got there about twenty seconds before I did, and, well, you know the rest."
"Yes. The two of you saved my life. Thank you."
Some of the angry wind left Karen's sails. "You're welcome. Anyway, that's also how I knew without a doubt you weren't the killer. You'd been in your quarters since leaving the office the night before, you were inside your quarters at the time I was talking to Ben, and when I saw Ben and Maria I knew you couldn't have killed them."
Lois nodded. "I understand. I'm sorry I popped off at you. And I have some experience with people keeping things from me for my own good, so I understand why you did what you did." She grinned lopsidedly. "I don't much like it, but I do understand it."
Karen relaxed and almost smiled back. "Good. Well, I'm sure you have things to do and places to go and all. Why don't you go change clothes and get some breakfast?"
Lois sniffed her underarm and shuddered dramatically. "Eww. Good idea. You want me to bring something back for you?" She glanced at Karen's clock. "Or how about lunch, since it's closer to noon time than getting-up time?"
Karen finally smiled. "Thanks. That'd be nice."
Lois nodded. "In that case, I'll see you in less than an hour."
— Thursday, mid-day
After a soothing seven-minute shower, a change of clothing (she still thought the coveralls were most unflattering), and a quick visit to the cafeteria, Lois found herself walking briskly back to Karen's quarters. She knew she'd have to check her return e-mail before too much longer, but even if Perry agreed with her and told her to come back on the next shuttle, she wouldn't be able to leave before Saturday evening. She might as well enjoy the time she had left on the station.
She pressed the buzzer on Karen's door and it whooshed open almost immediately. Karen must have been sitting beside the doorway.
Lois lifted the recyclable plastic bags in either hand and said, "Special delivery for Major Vukovich."
Karen smiled and waved her in. "You made good time."
"Hey, I was hungry too."
She palmed the door closer and pointed Lois to the small utility table in the corner of the room. "Best table in the house."
Lois put the bags down. "Hope you like Chinese."
Karen's eyes bulged. "Chinese? You got Chinese food? Where? How?"
Lois winked at her. "If you close your eyes and think of egg rolls instead of gray and green and blue goop, it's Chinese."
"That might require some real imagination."
They sat. "Oh, please. 'Real imagination' is an oxymoron."
"Hey! Watch who you're calling names here!"
They ate the multicolored goop, they drank lots of water, and they laughed together. Lois pulled out some warm and funny stories of herself and Lucy as children, and Karen related some of the goofy things she'd seen people do on the station, especially the new arrivals. Lois surprised herself by thinking of them as 'fresh fish.'
A face on the video monitor captured Lois's attention and she walked to the wall to turn up the volume. The two of them sat still and silent for three minutes while the news channel replayed the story of Claude and Carrie, including some of the gory details of Carrie's final dive. Lois noticed Karen rub her face as if she were wiping something out of her eyes when the talking head onscreen described how Ben and Maria had died. It appeared that those two deaths would stay with the Iron Major for a long time to come.
After the story ended, Karen turned the volume down and they picked up their banter as if the story hadn't aired. The meal was over all too quickly. Karen gathered the residue and put it in her recycle bin, then refilled Lois's water glass. "Here's to the end of the investigation."
Lois clicked glasses with her and listened closely, but heard no bitterness or recrimination hiding in the other woman's voice. "Cheers," she answered.
Karen put her glass down. "Well, Inspector Lane, I'm going to miss you."
Lois didn't make eye contact. "What's going to happen to you, a court martial?"
"Probably not. After all, we did catch the killer, with your help, of course, and it wasn't something we were trained to do. No, they'll probably assign me to some out-of-the-way post and hope I refuse to report and resign my commission." She shook her head. "I won't quit. I've got seven years until retirement and I'm not leaving all that money and the prestige on the table."
Lois looked up. "I see. Where do you think they'll send you?"
Karen shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Wherever I go, whatever I'm assigned to do, I'll do my job the best way I know how."
Lois nodded. "That's as it should be."
"Yeah." Karen broke eye contact this time. "Uh, Lois? Can I ask you a personal question?"
Karen fidgeted in her chair. "It's a very personal question."
"Yeah. Some people would be — offended by this question."
Lois nodded. "I promise not to be offended. I don't promise to answer, but I won't get upset."
Lois frowned. "I'm sure, Karen. Now what's going on?"
"Well, you know why I was assigned here, and I just thought I'd —"
Karen's jaw dropped open. Before she could say anything, Lois went on. "I mean, no, I don't have any idea why you were assigned here."
"They didn't tell you?"
"Nobody told me anything about you, Karen. Oh, that's not quite right. Matt told me yesterday — quite unofficially, mind you — that he was pulling for you and he hoped I'd see you so I could relay that message to you."
Karen nodded. "That sounds like Matt. But are you sure you didn't hear anything about me?"
"I'm sure. Why, are you a bank robber in disguise or something?"
"Something, yes. In disguise —"
Lois waited. Karen twisted in her chair. "I — I thought for sure someone had told you."
"Told me what?"
"About me, I mean."
"Told me what about you?"
"I mean, you didn't say anything to me or warn me off, so I kind of figured you — you felt the same way that I did."
"Felt the same way about what?"
Karen blushed. "You — you know! About — about men and women."
"What about them?"
"About — about us."
"What, Karen? What 'us' are you — " and then the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin dropped and hit her smack in the head. "Oh."
Karen didn't look at her. Lois reached out and touched her hand. "Karen, are you trying to tell me you're — you're gay?"
Still looking away from her, Karen nodded. "Yes."
"And you were afraid I'd run away screaming in panic when I found out?"
"And when I didn't run away, you thought maybe I was gay too?"
"Yeah, but, um — " Karen shrugged. "You're not, are you?"
Lois chuckled. "Sorry, no. Besides, Clark would be very upset if I told him something like that at this stage of the game."
Karen turned and stared at Lois for a moment, then her smiled matched Lois's, and they grew into mutual chuckles. "I'll bet he'd be upset."
Lois leaned back and sipped her water. "It would be contrary to what I've led him to believe."
Karen laughed out loud. "Yeah. I bet he's gonna miss you for the next two years. Or does he plan to come up and visit you? A lot of families and — and significant others do that."
Lois stared blankly at her. "Come up to visit? What are you talking about now?"
Karen gestured to Lois's coveralls. "You're a crater, a cargo handler. A little skinny, but you'll fill out. I doubt you'd be able to afford to break your contract and lose your bonus."
Lois put her glass down. "Oh, boy."
"See, that's another reason I thought maybe you and I might have a shot —"
"I'm not a cargo supervisor, Karen."
Karen frowned. "That's what came up on my display when I broke up that fight between you and Claude in the Hub."
"That's because someone put my occupation in the database as 'cargo, super' in stead of 'supercargo' like it was supposed to be."
"Supercargo? But that's the term for people — who — who don't — oh, no."
"Yep. I'm not here on a long-term contract. I'm —"
"You know the editor of the Planet personally."
"Yes, I —"
"You know the head of the crack research department, that, that Olsen guy."
"That's right, I —"
"You're on a first-name basis with an investigative reporter with the Planet."
"Karen, let me explain —"
"I've been galactically stupid, haven't I?"
"I don't think you've been stupid, you're just —"
"You're not a crater, are you?" Lois shook her head. The major's voice sounded flat and hard. "So tell me, what do you really do when you're not solving murders for the Air Force?"
Lois looked at Karen's expression and began to worry. "Please, Karen, let me explain before you blow up at me! I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet. My original assignment was to cover the anniversary celebration on the station. Clark was working the EPRAD end of the story, back down on Earth. That's why we —"
Karen stared, open-mouthed. "Reporter?"
Karen's voice rose. "You mean I put a freakin' REPORTER on my staff?"
Lois frowned. "Karen, wait, I didn't —"
Karen stood abruptly and shouted, "NOW who's the liar?"
"What? Wait a minute, I never —"
"You let me think you were a crater! You let me think you were up here on a long-term contract! I'd've sealed you in plastic and flushed you out an airlock if I'd known the truth!"
Lois stood and yelled back. "You never asked me! I never told you I was here for any reason! You just assumed all that and now you're ticked off at yourself because you were wrong and you're trying to blame someone else!"
"Yes! You screwed up and —"
"I screwed up when I let you walk around without a leash!"
"I found Carrie for you!"
"And you nearly got yourself killed doing it!"
"I've survived worse!"
"I'm a personal friend of Superman!"
"Well he ain't here and you are and yesterday you were about three seconds from being dead!"
Lois stopped with her nose inches from Karen's. She forced her voice lower. "Karen, I'm sorry you misunderstood. But I never lied to you. I never told you I was one thing when I was something else. If you'll accept it, I'll apologize sincerely and profusely."
"Apologize?" Karen glared at her fiercely. "Do you not understand me? You're a reporter! You're going to report on me!"
Lois stepped back. "What? No! No, Karen, I'm not going to print this! No way!"
"I don't believe you! Reporting is what reporters do!"
"I'm going to see my name splashed all over the front page!"
"No! I wouldn't print —"
"You're gonna embarrass me and the Air Force all over again!"
"No I'm not! I wouldn't —"
"You already lied to me! Why should I believe you?"
"Karen, please, I won't print any of —"
"I don't believe it!"
Lois flailed her arms. "It's true!"
Anger forced its way to the forefront. "How am I going to prove it? Blast it, Karen! What can I do to make you believe me?"
Instead of answering, Karen stepped forward and embraced Lois.
Then she kissed her flush on the mouth.
For a moment, Lois was too stunned to respond. Then she put her hands on Karen's shoulders and gently pushed her back. "Whoa, lady. I'm straight, remember?"
Karen nodded. "Yeah. I'm sorry. You just looked — so good just then."
Lois tilted her head forward. "I like guys, Karen. Particularly one very particular guy named Clark Kent."
"Yeah." Karen took a deep breath. "Do you know how attractive you are when you're angry?"
Lois slowly moved out of Karen's embrace. "I think I'm going to take that as a compliment."
"Oh, it is, believe me."
"Good. I just have one question."
Karen sighed. "What is it?"
"You aren't going to do that again, are you?"
Karen looked up and locked gazes with Lois. Then she smiled. "No. Not unless you invite me to."
"Fair enough." Lois nodded. "So? Are you convinced that I won't report you now?"
Still smiling, Karen said, "Yes. I believe you won't print it." She leered at Lois. "Because if you do, I'll have to tell everyone what a good kisser you are, including your one particular guy, and I'll also have to divulge how I became aware of that little fact."
"Ah. Yes, I'd say you have some leverage there, Major."
"Leverage?" Karen's smile vanished in an instant. She stepped back and waved at the door. She had the grace to look embarrassed. "Friends don't leverage friends, Lois. And I don't want to put any pressure on you to do anything you don't want to do. You don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"Thank you. I have to leave for a while, Karen, but not for the reason you think."
Karen crossed her arms. "You don't have to explain yourself to me."
"I know. I'm explaining because we're friends, not because I think I have to. That 'no leverage' thing? It works both ways."
Karen relaxed and nodded. "Yeah. I guess it does."
"Unfortunately, real life is calling me rather insistently." Lois frowned in thought. "I need to check my e-mail. I think my boss may tell me to give it up and head back down. Too many people up here know me as Inspector Lois Lane, spiritual successor to Elliot Ness and Bat Masterson, instead of the intrepid investigative reporter I really am."
Karen chortled. "That's funny. Tell you what, you go find out whether you're staying or going. Maybe we'll share a shuttle on the way back to Earth."
"Okay. Besides, I missed my workout yesterday. I'm sure Ms. Lana O'Meara would just love to have another chance to torture me."
Karen shook her head and laughed again. "Not gonna happen. Our lady of the taut muscles was one of the ringleaders in that drunken party the other night. She's confined to her quarters for the next week or so, and she can't get out without starting a fire in her room. Not likely she'll risk something that stupid."
Lois grinned back. "Just goes to show you. I'll see you later."
"Lois? Before you go — there's one thing I have to ask you."
"And I promise I'll never bring it up again."
Lois became wary. "Uh, okay."
"Um." Karen shoved her hands in her pockets. "That kiss."
Lois lifted her eyebrows. "What about it?"
"I liked it. I liked it a lot."
Lois nodded cautiously. "Okay. What's your question?"
Karen hesitated, then plunged ahead. "What did you think of it?"
Lois's mouth fell open and she thought furiously for a moment, then decided on her best response under the circumstances.
"I'm pretty sure I won't forget it for the rest of my life."
Karen stared at her for a few seconds, then her face relaxed into a crooked grin. "I think I'm going to take that as a compliment."
— Monday evening, Metropolis time
Lois pointed out the shuttle's window at the Moon hanging brightly above them. "See, girls? Even this far away, you can tell how hard those meteorites hit the surface of the moon. You see how the craters look like a splash in swimming pool that suddenly froze?"
The two seven-year-olds nodded.
"Do you know why?"
They shook their heads 'no' in eerie unison.
"That's because there's no air on the moon, and no wind to push the dirt over or smooth it out. Those craters will look like that forever unless another meteor hits them."
"No air on the moon? None at all?" asked one.
Her twin punched her lightly on the arm. "Ms. Lane just said so, dummy! She wouldn't lie to us!"
Lois grinned at them. "Ashley, I think you could find better ways to communicate with your sister than with your fists."
The little girl was suddenly downcast. "I'm sorry, Ms. Lane. She's just so dumb sometimes."
Lois reached out and rubbed each girl's hair. "Hey, just remember that no one knows everything, not Jennifer and not even you. And there's always more stuff to learn." She pulled herself down to their level. "You know what? I think I see your mother looking for you. I bet she's got some of that really good chocolate pudding from the snack tray."
Jennifer brightened. "Yay!" Then she pushed her sister and tumbled both of them in place in the null gravity. "Maybe my smart-mouth sister can eat it without throwing up this time!"
Ashley grabbed at her sister and missed. "Stop it, you baby!"
"I'll hit you again!"
"You can't hit me cause you can't catch me, nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!"
Lois put her feet under a grab bar on the wall and grasped a struggling little girl in each hand, then called out to their mother. "Brenda? Do these tiny tornadoes belong to you?"
Brenda glided expertly to a stop beside Lois's seat and put her hands on her hips in mock exasperation. "You two are something else! Now come with me and stop showing off for Ms. Lane. If you want anything to eat, you'll have to get it now, because we're going to reenter the atmosphere in about half an hour."
Both girls clapped and reached out for their mother, each trying to be sweeter and more angelic than the other. Lois released them and said, "You girls be good, okay? I'll see you after we land."
Brenda smiled at her. "Thanks, Lois. Last time we made this trip to visit their father, they were complete terrors on the return leg."
Lois laughed. "Well, they've been wonderful this trip."
"Thanks for spending so much time with them. I know it's been a hassle for you."
Lois shook her head. "Actually, it hasn't been a hassle at all. I've enjoyed being around them. They're a lot of fun. It has, however, made me appreciate my own mother more."
Brenda suppressed her belly laugh. "Then you should spend some time with her when you get back down. Maybe she'll appreciate some of your stories about the station." She shifted the girls to more comfortable positions and pushed off towards her seat. "I'll talk to you later. These two have to eat something before we land."
Lois called out, "But I thought you fed them last week! Do they have to eat again already?"
The girls laughed at Lois and waved to her over their mother's shoulders. Lois waved back, then pulled herself down into her seat.
She'd found two seats side by side this time, and Karen had claimed the aisle seat. Lois looked out at the moon as it appeared to slide upwards and out of sight. She sighed. "That looks so pretty."
Karen looked over her shoulder as the shuttle slowly rotated along its longitudinal axis. "I think the Earth is prettier, especially from this angle."
"Why from this angle?"
"We're heading towards it and not away from it."
"Yeah. Say, how have you been sleeping?"
Karen cocked an eyebrow at her. "With my eyes closed. What about you?"
Lois huffed in mock annoyance. "Oh, you and Jimmy would get along famously."
"You make jokes at my expense, you get payback."
"If you insist. But back to my question. Have you been sleeping well?"
Karen looked away. "You mean, have I been dreaming about dead people?"
Karen pursed her lips. "Yes. Been back in that passageway with Claude a couple of times now. My dreamscape makes the real thing look almost mundane."
Lois patted her arm. "I can tell you from experience that it will get better. Just give it some time."
"If you say so."
"I do say so." Lois sighed deeply. "And I wish you were going to a better posting."
"Hey, Germany's not a bad place to be. It could have been a lot worse."
"Right. Colonel Warren didn't seem to be a warm and fuzzy guy to me."
Karen smiled. "Actually, he is a warm and fuzzy guy. But you can't let the people in your command know that on the first day or they won't take you seriously when you need them to. Is your editor your best buddy?"
"No. But Perry's a really great guy. He'd do anything for any one of us."
"I'm sure that's true, but if he yells 'Frog!' how high do you jump?"
Lois smiled back. "To infinity and beyond, assuming it's not all that urgent." She chuckled. "Okay, I get it. Boss first, friend later."
"You've got it." Karen glanced around them, then lowered her voice. "Look, if I tell you something in confidence, can you keep it just between us?"
"If you want me to, sure."
"I want you to, but only because I've been asked — not ordered, just asked — not to tell anyone about it. So this can never appear in print. Is that okay?"
Lois nodded. "Done. Now what is it?"
"I had a little heart-to-heart talk with Colonel Warren right before I boarded the shuttle. Seems your last article about the solution of the murders made quite an impression on the civilian authorities, and they weren't happy that their star law enforcement officer on the Prometheus and current media darling — me — was relieved of her command in such an ignominious manner."
"Ignominious manner? They actually said that?"
"The colonel did. He's a nice guy, but also kind of a stuffed shirt. Anyway, he offered me the Air Force's official apology for my treatment and gave me a choice of four different assignments. I picked the one in Germany, because it has the best food and climate of the four and because it gives me the chance to go through criminal investigator's school."
Lois smiled. "Hey, that's great! But I thought you weren't all that interested in being an investigator."
"I wasn't until I worked this case with you. I always thought it was dull and boring."
"A lot of it is dull and boring. Some of it is downright scary. This last case was a shining example of that. You had three years of dull and a few days of downright scary with no warning that the scary part was coming."
"I know. But this training will give me a career boost and more varied employment opportunities when I do finally retire."
"Well, for what it's worth, I think it's a great idea. Good for you, Karen!"
Just then, the snack cart floated by, and the attendant asked, "Would you ladies care for anything? Last chance before we all belt in for atmosphere re-entry."
Both Karen and Lois shook their heads, and the attendant pushed away to the next line of seats. "That's one thing I won't miss," Lois muttered.
"What, having food brought to you?"
"No. Eating grainy pudding three meals a day." She made a face. "I know it's healthy and it doesn't taste all that bad and the kids seem to love it, but I'm ready for something just a little more substantial."
"I know what you mean. I've got twenty-three days of accumulated leave coming, and there are a whole bunch of restaurants I'm going to visit before I fly across the ocean. Speaking of places to eat, have you heard about that new restaurant on the Moon?"
"A restaurant on the moon?" Lois was intrigued. "No, I hadn't heard. Tell me about it."
Karen shrugged. "You'd better go soon if you're going. I don't think they're going to stay open much longer. Everybody who's been there says the food's great but there's just no atmosphere."
Lois groaned. "Please, no more! You've been telling the most horrible jokes in the solar system ever since we left Prometheus Station!"
"Just be glad this is the shuttle Pegasus and not the shuttle Neptune."
Lois glanced at her warily. "You know I'm not going to ask you."
"Yes, you are."
Lois held her breath for a long moment, then sighed. "Okay, I'm asking. Why am I so glad this is the Pegasus and not the Neptune?"
"If you rode the Neptune, you'd be all wet."
"Huh?" Lois scrunched her face in thought for a moment, then groaned again. "Ohh. Neptune, Greek god of the ocean, all wet, I get it already! Arrghh! That was the worst one yet! Please, somebody stop her before she puns again!"
"Hey, you won't stop talking about Clark and how absolutely terrific he is. I feel like I know him better than I know Matt Walker, and I served with Matt for almost two years."
"But he's such a great guy! You'd like him if you met him."
"I'm sure I would, but you should let me form my own opinions. You don't have to fill my head with all of his glorious attributes."
"Okay, okay! I'll cut back on the Clark talk if you'll stop with the jokes!"
Karen laughed. "Okay, I'll give you a break. At least until after we land."
"Thank you. How long before we touch down?"
"We've already dropped off the ion drivers at the Firefall waypoint. We'll enter the atmosphere in about twenty minutes, then touch down in Metropolis about ninety minutes after that."
"Y'know, that was all in the preflight briefing, but I forgot about it. Takes a lot longer to come down than it does to go up."
"It's harder to slow down safely in the atmosphere than it is to speed up, because we come down so much faster. Don't worry, this crew hasn't lost a passenger yet."
"I'm not worried. Just because I tend to find the only way in the world to get hurt while feeding my goldfish, I'm not worried."
"And because you seem to dangle over the jaws of death on a regular basis and require Superman's assistance even more often —"
"Right. See, shouldn't be a lick of trouble."
Karen nodded. "Anyway, that Peggy Wilkins girl, the one who replaced you on the station, ought to be able to handle the next few homicides."
Lois shuddered and hugged herself. "Don't say that. It was hard enough giving up my laptop and story notes to her."
"She'll bring it back in a couple of weeks. Unless, of course, she decides she likes it up there."
Lois made a face. "Right. As if Perry's going to let anyone set up shop on the station right now. There's not enough news filtering back to pay for a full-time correspondent, and she sure can't work part-time up there."
"Oh, I don't know. With that light green coverall she was wearing, I'm sure the kitchen staff will welcome her with open arms."
— Monday, late evening
The shuttle approached the runway, lowered its landing gear, and touched down on the three-mile long runway just above stall speed, exactly as the flight computer had been programmed to do. Lois felt the jar as the parachutes at the spaceplane's tail deployed to slow it down, then they all leaned forward against the drag of the magnetic brakes grabbing the titanium stripping under the surface of the runway.
As the shuttle slowed, the captain's voice came over the speakers. "Ladies and gentlemen, please don't try to unstrap until we've come to a complete stop and the crew tells you that it's time to deplane. This is for your safety and the maintenance of our low passenger insurance premiums."
The light flow of laughter echoed along the compartment. "When you do stand up, remember that you've been living with a maximum of three-quarters gravity for quite some time and that you've just spent a little over two days in the shuttle at zero gee. You'll need to allow for an adjustment period before you're comfortable on Earth again, despite the many sweaty hours you've spent in the Prometheus's luxurious gymnasium. Also, don't forget that you'll be required to change out of your pressure suits before you leave the receiving station. We'll need them for the next complement of passengers, but we don't want your underwear back. Please, for all our sakes, do keep that."
They laughed again. "Thank you for flying the winged steed Pegasus back down to Earth. Have a good stay, and we'll see you again when you're ready for your next adventure in space."
— Metropolis, ten-thirty-eight PM local time
Lois called to Karen as they both walked to the exit door of the receiving station. "Hey, fellow crime-stopper, how do you feel?"
Karen stopped and turned around carefully. "I got very used to low gravity and loose-fitting coveralls. I feel like I'm wearing about thirty pounds of lead on the shoulders and hips of my very uncomfortable regulation Air Force uniform. What about you?"
Lois shrugged. "I feel a little draggy, like I've just been through a good workout or a very long day at the office, but otherwise I'm okay. Don't you have a press conference to attend?"
"Not until tomorrow morning at ten. My time is my own until then. Hey, you up for some real Earth food? I've got a strong hankering for a huge hamburger with all the trimmings, French fries, a chocolate shake, and Pepto-Bismol for dessert."
Lois laughed and whacked Karen on the shoulder, causing her to stumble slightly. "Easy, there, Inspector Lane! I haven't got my land legs yet."
"Sorry. Oh! Inspector! You reminded me of something. I never did give you back that badge, did I?"
"Nope. Tell you what, you just keep it as a souvenir. It'll be our little secret."
Lois pushed the door open and winked at Karen. "Got it."
Just then a gruff male voice called out to her. "Lois! Hey, Lois, over here!"
They looked up to see three men trotting in their direction. Clark got there first and lifted Lois off the ground, then spun her around twice.
She laughed and said, "Put me down this instant, Clark Kent! I've been up in the air quite enough for one day!"
He smiled warmly and gently put her down. "I'm very glad you're back, Lois."
She grabbed his head. "Me, too."
"I've really missed you."
"I've missed you, too."
He tightened his grip on her arms for a moment, then relaxed. "You can't go anywhere without getting into serious trouble, can you?"
Her eyes sparkled. "No, I guess not." Then she looked closer and realized he'd been afraid for her until this very minute. She put her palms on the front of his shoulders. "I'm okay, Clark. Really." She pointed to her cheek. "Except for this, I'm not even bruised."
"You could have used some super-help up there."
She smiled softly. "Yes. But we managed. And I'm sure Superman will come in handy again real soon."
"I'm sure he hopes his services aren't needed in the immediate future. At least, not by you."
She tweaked his nose. "I just might have to chase some bad guys through an airport or something. You never can tell what I might do."
His face relaxed and he smiled warmly. "That may be the truest statement you've ever made."
She laughed with him. "Truth is our business, Clark."
"That's true." They shared another smile, then his fingers gently brushed her face. "The eye is healing nicely."
"Yeah. The doctor said there's no long-term damage."
"I'm glad. It's down to yellow with blue highlights now."
She pushed ineffectually at his chest. "Hey, I earned that black eye, so don't rag on me about it! Besides, I got it in the course of an investigation, so it's tax-deductible."
Clark chuckled deep in his chest. "Leave it to you to look at the bright side of a facial injury." He cupped her face with his hand. "I didn't get to see your hair before you left for the station. It looks nice. I like it."
"Good, because I think I'm going to keep it this length. You can't imagine how much easier it is to get ready in the morning."
"I'd like to see that sometime."
Lois checked the impulse to banter back at him and looked into his eyes.
Then she kissed him like there was no one else in the spaceport.
She slowly became aware of the music. Reluctantly, she broke the kiss and looked around Clark's shoulder to see Perry with his hands in his pockets, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and whistling the final question theme from the game show 'Jeopardy.' Jimmy's face wore a silly grin, and Karen was shuffling her feet and making a show of looking off somewhere in the distance.
She moved away from Clark and hugged her rugged boss. "You old softy, you! I'm glad to see you, too." Then she embraced Jimmy. "I'm even glad to see you, you young scamp!"
"Young scamp?" Jimmy goggled at her. "Lois? Are you okay?"
She pushed his shoulder playfully and chuckled. "Yes. But don't get used to it. Mad Dog Lane will be back tomorrow morning, bright and early."
Karen cleared her throat. "Say, Lois? Aren't you going to introduce me to all these good-looking men?"
"Oh! I'm sorry, Karen. Guys, this is Major Katrina Vukovich, the one from my dispatches. This is my editor, Perry White."
Perry stepped forward and smiled broadly. "I'm pleased to meet you, Major."
Karen took his hand and returned his smile. "And you too, Mr. White. Lois did a great job for us up there."
"She did a great job for us, too. We're real proud of her."
"You should be. She's one of the good ones."
Lois smiled under the stereo praise. "This is Jimmy Olsen, head of our crack research department."
Karen tried to hide a grin but failed. "Hi, Jimmy. Good to meet you, too. You did good with the research end of this assignment. Lois and I were glad to get all of the information you sent up. Say, you aren't up past your bedtime, are you?"
Jimmy's smile faded to confusion for a moment, then he nodded in comprehension. "Oh, like, no way, Major, like, my mom is, like, Lois's best friend. They went to high school together, way, way back before, like, all the dinosaurs died."
Karen joined Perry in a loud guffaw. Lois crossed her arms. "That's it, Olsen, the Mad Dog is barking at you for the rest of the month."
He smirked at her and shook his head 'no.' "Sorry, the Grand Canyon beckons. My flight leaves at six in the morning and you won't see me for two weeks."
"I'll save it up for when you get back. Karen, this is Clark Kent. I've told you all about him, remember?"
Clark stepped forward and extended his hand. "I'm glad to finally meet you, Major Vukovimmpphphphh!"
Instead of taking his hand and shaking it, Karen reached up and put her right arm around Clark's neck, her other arm under his shoulder, and pulled him into a passionate kiss. Perry and Jimmy were astounded, but Lois was shocked beyond coherent thought. She couldn't have been more astonished had her sister Lucy announced her engagement to the Prince of Wales.
After a few seconds, Karen released him and drew in a dramatic breath. As Clark struggled to keep his eyes in their sockets, she stepped back and said, "You were right, Lois. He is wonderfully delicious. Hey, if you're not using him right now, can I borrow him for a while?"
Lois's mouth flopped around of its own accord. "Ah — Karen, I — but you — I thought — you said you — but —"
"Oh, I did, Lois, I did say that." Karen gave Clark a conspiratorial wink, then she grinned at Lois and nudged her with an elbow. "But for a guy this gorgeous, girlfriend, I'll risk it."
Lois's mouth moved a few more times without making any noise. She realized that she must look like a fish out of water, so she snapped her jaws shut. Now that they were on solid ground again, she -
On solid ground. Karen had promised not to joke with Lois any more until after they'd landed. Well, they'd landed. Lois stepped beside Clark and took his arm in hers. "Sorry, Karen, he's already taken."
"Oh." Karen looked at Clark with a disappointed puppy expression and asked, "Is that really true, Clark?"
Lois watched Clark's eyes check out Karen's expression, then he turned to face her. She could see the wheels turning in his mind as he compared the obviously fake sadness in the major's eyes to the gentle steel in his partner's eyes. Then he made the smart decision.
He put his hand over Lois's and smiled at Karen. "I think I am taken." He looked back to Lois. "And I'm certain that I'm glad of it."
She poked him in the ribs. "You'd better be glad, farm boy. Now, let's go somewhere so you can tell Karen and me all the corny jokes you can remember. Besides, I'm dying for a pizza or a hamburger or something else to clog my arteries." She gathered Karen with her eyes and tugged Clark towards the parking lot. "And my apartment better be super-clean or you're so in for it!"