Vestal Sins: Chapter 3: Lanced
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 3 July 2009, 4:47 am
He awoke slowly, and without quite realizing it. Like watching the approaching darkness of a sunset, he did not fully perceive his final emergence into consciousness. When at last he remembered where he was, he could not resist the thrill of contentment that surged through his body.
There were moments during mornings such as these when he could almost convince himself that he would be satisfied with this life. Replicating such moments over a lifetime, wrapping himself in the comforting embrace of sameness—briefly such thoughts held great appeal for him.
Then he would leave, and dread the thought of returning. He always felt, even when she was her most open to him, that he was intruding upon her. Even more, he felt that he impugned what remained of his character by his presence. But ever did he return, as he would until the invitations stopped. He did not know what he was to her, but he appreciated her lack of judgment, and felt for her, if not love, then at least a warm affection.
He watched her head rise and fall upon his chest, and experienced the full force of his affection. He stroked her honey blonde hair and smiled to himself.
"Good morning," she murmured drowsily.
"I thought you were still asleep," he returned, propping his head up on the pillow.
"You know I never sleep."
"I thought maybe I'd finally given you cause to."
She sniffed in amusement. For a while longer they lay together in silence, watching the sun's edge creep ever closer to the bed. The muted calls of the crows outside were just audible through the thick glass of the windows. These were punctuated by a soft patter against the panes—more snow.
"I don't want to get up," she whispered to him.
"Me neither," he said. He tensed as he prepared to break their gentle stirring. She seemed to sense it, for she uttered a lucid sigh. "I have a favor to ask, Mel."
"I need to get my hands on the official service record of Luis Cordova."
Her head still lay upon his chest. "The officer who was killed?"
"Didn't the Militia forward his vitae?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "They did. But you know how it is between us. I asked for clarification and they were reluctant to supply it."
"I'll ask around," she said. Her voice was now completely awake.
Eyal paused for a moment. "Try to keep it
under the radar."
She pushed herself up from the bed and turned to face him. "Eyal—is anything wrong?"
He shook his head. "No. No, it's the same old story. I'm just trying to find a shortcut around the Militia."
The concern etched on her face eventually disappeared as she studied his earnest expression. At last she nodded. "I have a friend in the Judge Advocate. I'll ask her—she owes me."
He leaned forward and kissed her, pushing a few strands of hair from her face. "Thank you."
She swung her legs from the bed and headed for the bathroom. He studied her as she left and felt the cold pang of guilt in his chest. He hated himself for using her in this manner, and for shying away from her confidence. And for pretending the life he led with her was the one he had envisioned with another.
The guilt evaporated the moment she closed the bathroom door. He glanced around at his plush surroundings. A delusion, surely, to think it was not reciprocal. Two damaged people using each other.
He pushed himself reluctantly from the warmth of the bed.
He arrived at the station at the small hours of the morning. It was a rare moment of calm in the precinct at the very tail end of the night shift, just before the morning shift overlap arrived. A few desultory addicts awaited processing, while the wizened desk sergeants made half-hearted attempts at putting a dent in their mountains of paperwork. It was the very best time to be at the station, barring the detriments of the hour.
Mantega had not yet arrived, and Singh was either not present or had not seen him enter. He was grateful for the reprieve. He glanced down a few times at his phone, waiting for the expected call. His desk was a mess of papers, photos, and datapads. It depressed him to look at it. Any thought of actually tackling a portion of it was immediately thwarted by a feeling of predestined defeat. It was never ending, like bailing out the sea.
His phone finally rang. After a quick glance around, he answered it. "Melanie."
"I have it for you," she said. "The real thing, I think."
"I move fast," she answered wryly.
"That you do."
There was a brief pause over the line. "Eyal, if there's anything
"Honestly, Mel, it's nothing," he tried to reassure her. "It's just something I need to see. It's probably nothing. You know how I get."
She chuckled, but it did nothing to dispel the anxiety in her voice. "Alright. I'm sending it to your computer now."
"Thank you, Mel. Really."
She just sighed. "Take care of yourself, Eyal. And don't get into too much trouble."
"I wouldn't dare." He hung up.
Eyal found the document amidst the mass of emails that lay unread or unanswered in his inbox. At first glance, Cordova's record appeared to be identical to the one that the Militia had sent him. The date of enlistment, however, had changed: 2523, fully eight years before the date he had been given. He looked through Cordova's combat history throughout his short stint in the civil war. After basic, Cordova had been posted to Charlie Company of the 95th Reconnaisance Regiment, 10th Infantry Division.
He checked out the outfit's roster that was attached to Cordova's official vitae. He scrolled down through the long list of names, checking the current status of each. Of course he knew the casualty rate of the Covenant War from the news reports given throughout the conflict and the even more dire numbers that had emerged after the treaty. Yet he was still shocked to see how many of the men listed had been killed in action. Only a handful had died during the course of the civil war; the vast majority had been killed many years later at the hands of the Covenant. A familiar tightness gripped his chest at every KIA he saw.
It was not long before he discovered a discrepancy. He checked the company's activity in 2524: the year Stahl had been orphaned. The company had been remanded to the sidelines during the main action of that year, Operation Pegasus—yet three of the KIAs were listed as having died during that time. He made a copy of the log.
He cross-checked every survivor's name against the Department's database. Few appeared to live in the Massilia Metropolitan Area, and those that did were permanently committed to veterans' hospitals. At last he came upon one of Charlie Company's survivors who worked and resided in Massilia, a Sergeant Martim Salles. Salles had been discharged due to an injury sustained at the Siege of Miridem, only just escaping the colony's subsequent glassing. He was currently employed at one of the refugee camps along the coast.
It would have to be Salles, then. He could not return to Stahl—even if he were able to get anything useful out of the man, the testimony would be tainted by his obvious psychosis. In any event, he did not want his delicate questioning appearing on the record quite yet.
Eyal decided to end his search with the company's officers. For a moment his heart jumped to his throat, his world shifted beneath him. The name stared back at him, the eyes of the man to whom they were attached glaring at him through a thousand monitors. His ubiquitous voice boomed in his ears, and commanded him firmly: go no further.
Alexander Lansing. Captain of Charlie Company.
"You're here early," a voice sounded behind him.
He hastily closed the vitae and spun about in his chair. It was Captain Singh. He had been foolish to think that she was anywhere else but here.
"Captain," he said breathlessly, still recovering from his discovery. "Good morning."
Singh cocked at eyebrow at him. "Are you alright, Eyal?"
"Yes, of course. Just a bit tired. I didn't sleep well last night."
"Well, I mean to correct that," Singh replied with a gracious smile. "You did a hell of a job yesterday, even though you weren't supposed to be here. So take the rest of the day off, and take tomorrow, too."
A rare full weekend. It was a good justification for expressing his shock. "Thank you, Captain. Very much."
"You deserve it Eyal," she said. "Now go home and get some rest. You look like shit."
"Yes ma'am." As she left he downloaded the information on his datapad and grabbed a few necessities from his desk. He wanted to leave before Mantega arrived, and escape the awkwardness of her inevitable questions about how he would spend his free time. He had no good answers for her.
It was a long drive from the station to the camps, made worse by the heavy traffic. The ordered grid of the old city devolved into the tangled mess of streets that had sprung up along the South Delta throughout the war. Millions had migrated to the city in search of employment in the factories as Vesta had become an increasingly vital component to the UNSC war machine. Most had settled into the hastily constructed sprawl of tenements among the low hills of the South Delta. Navigating the curved streets and irregular intersections during the morning rush was a frustrating experience.
As he reached the top of the steep incline of Hawthorne Ridge, it slowly became visible. The dark clouds of the early morning had been replaced by brilliant blue sky and a bright sun that conveyed no warmth. The crisp clearness of the day revealed in full the sight of the camps. They stretched beyond view along the plain; more than ten million people, many of whom had lived in the finest cities on Earth, now consigned to the crowded obscurity of the camps.
The sky above was thick with shuttles, as it always was at every hour of the day. 50,000 refugees still landed on Vesta every day, as per the quota strictly enforced by President Renka. The United Earth Government insisted this was still not enough to relieve the suffering on Earth, and it was an issue which Lansing had relentlessly attacked Renka about. Indeed, for all their complaints of the refugees, the general public seemed ever moved by the news vids that showcased the plight of the homeworld. Images of men and women who looked like little more than skeletons, struggling to survive in the burned out husks of former capitals of the universe like New York and Singapore proved very effective at dissipating the common Vestal bitterness. It was popular among many to fault Renka for not doing more.
Of course, Eyal knew the reports. He knew the quota was not arbitrary, but was based on the estimate that any more than 50,000 would plunge Vesta into dangerous food shortages. Lansing's talk of increasing the quota was either just talk or exaggeration—people would continue to starve on Earth under any administration. Still, he supposed the sentiment was a positive sign.
He pulled off the highway to one of the many checkpoints. The queue was long; dozens of trucks awaited entry bearing all the supplies necessary to sustain ten million people. He glanced up at the high walls that surrounded all the camps and spotted a few Militia patrolling the rampart above. Many activists decried the camps as little more than open air prisons. Eyal, however, knew the defenses were for the refugees' own protection. Occasional bouts of violence sometimes erupted in the overcrowded confines of the camps. There was also the rarer but more pernicious threat from the outside—he had seen too many young refugees end up in prostitution rings or worse.
At length he was waved forward and stopped at the checkpoint gate. One of the Militia stepped up to the driver's window, and he dutifully lowered it.
"What's your business here, sir?" the man asked gruffly but politely.
Eyal showed him his badge and identification. "I'm here in connection with a murder case."
"Wait one moment," he ordered, and took Eyal's ID with him into the checkpoint's small guardhouse. The camps were the Militia's primary charge, and they took the responsibility seriously.
The guard returned a moment later and handed back the badge. "Go on through," he said and waved for the next vehicle.
He drove past the long rows of prefabricated houses along the gravel road. They were not quite the ramshackle dungeons they were sometimes made out to be, largely consisting of an amalgam of military prefabs stuck together to produce some passable facsimile of a home. Still, they were crowded, bleak, and uniform; draped as they were in snow they presented a suitably miserable image for the vids. Groups of refugees standing listlessly about with blank stares on their faces did nothing to help the impression.
A short drive brought him to the camp's warehouse. Eyal parked the car as near as he could to the squat, ugly building and proceeded on foot. A crowd had assembled around the building, obstructing his path: the refugees, come for their allotment of food. They did not appear undernourished, as it was sometimes said, though he could see how one could leave with that impression. Their faces were drawn, their eyes lifeless. They waited in line with surprising silence, and hardly reacted to him as he pushed through the throng. They were crushed by the monotony of their lives, disheartened by their uselessness.
He emerged from the crowd and approached a side entrance guarded by two heavily armed Militia. They eyed him warily as he approached, but waved him through without difficulty when he flashed his badge.
The interior was predictably cavernous, though surprisingly empty. Towering pallets of crates were being moved into the huge space from the rear: fresh supplies from the fleet of trucks. A solitary man sat in a booth nearby, filling out paperwork and intermittently glancing up the check the progress of the men on the floor. Eyal headed towards him.
"Excuse me, sir," Eyal addressed him. "I'm looking for Martim Salles."
The man studied him with a frown. "Who the hell let you in?"
"I'm with a Massilia Metro, sir," he said pointedly. "Where is he?"
The man grunted. "Mr. Salles is our foreman. He should be back in receiving. He always helps unload the trucks when they come in." The man gave an exaggerated shrug, as if such a thing were unfathomable.
The receiving area was extensive, and was presently at full capacity. Dozens of trucks were being unloaded by a large crew of workers and machines, while a second team moved the supplies to the storage area. They worked with impressive swiftness and practiced ease.
Eyal approached one woman who was operating a forklift. "I'm looking for Martim Salles," he shouted above the din.
She pointed further down the row. A few more inquiries finally led him to the man himself, rather than a general direction. The man identified as Salles was assisting a group of men who were recovering the supplies from a pallet that had fallen from a forklift. A few containers had opened and spilt large piles of oats on the filthy warehouse floor.
He sauntered up next to the man. "Excuse me, Sergeant Martim Salles?"
The man barely cast him a sideways glance. "Not anymore," he said. "Not for twelve years."
Salles kept working, leaving it to Eyal to continue the conversation. Eyal obliged.
"My name is Eyal Dayan, I'm a Detective with Massilia Metro. I'm here to ask you a few questions."
Salles snorted, sparing a moment to study him with contempt before hauling another crate back onto the forklift. "You damned cops," he said through a grunt of exertion. "First damn place you come when you can't find a real killer is the camps. You use them as scapegoats because it's easy and the people hate them anyway. Fact is, these people have far more to fear of the outside than the outside does of them."
Eyal stooped down to help. "In my experience, that's true. I've never once found a refugee to be guilty of murder one. A few have been implicated in self-defense cases only, mitigated by their abduction."
To this, Salles seemed to find little to say. He allowed Eyal's assistance though he did not remark upon it. When Eyal fumbled one particularly heavy container, Salles checked its fall and, with one hand, swung it up onto the pile.
"Impressive," Eyal remarked, his breathing becoming labored.
Salles knocked a fist against his left shoulder, eliciting a hollow clunk. "Prosthetic," he explained tersely.
With the supplies recovered, Salles ordered the men to fasten them tight and hasten to make up for lost time. Then he turned to Eyal. "Alright, Detective, I'll give you a few minutes. I suppose we all have our jobs to do."
He led Eyal away from the tumultuous noise of the receiving bay towards the offices in the back. Eyal attempted a conversation as they walked together.
"That's a well made arm," he said, observing the naturalness of his movements.
Salles nodded, his grim countenance softening somewhat. "The leg too, if you can believe it. I lost 'em on Miridem, back before it all started falling to shit. UNSC sprang for the best back then, when they could still afford it. Prosthetics got worse as the war dragged on—all the resources went to the front, not the wounded. Lotta people got fucked."
"A lot of them must have ended up here," Eyal said, gesturing around.
Salles shook his head, a scowl settling once more on his weathered features. "Most of these folks don't even have a damn peg. We just feed 'em and water 'em, like they're fucking vegetables."
He pushed open the door to what must have been his office and ushered Eyal in, while he rounded the room to stand behind his desk. Eyal studied the man now that he was no longer in a flurry of activity. Salles' face plainly showed his age. The dark skin around his eyes and mouth were cracked like old parchment, while the thick stubble on his cheeks were gray even if it had not yet spread to his black hair. His body was small and compact. His left arm, despite its flawless appearance, was held by its owner slightly askew, in such a way that only a man who knew of its artificiality could detect it.
"So what's this about?" he prompted. "If you're serious about asking after refugees, you'd be better served asking the camp administrator, or maybe someone at Ithaca. I just manage this warehouse."
"I'm sure that's true, Mr. Salles. But in point of fact I'm here to talk with you."
Eyal was satisfied to see the stunned expression on Salles' face. "Me? What for?"
"In connection with a murder case I'm investigating. Have you heard about the murder of the Militia Officer Luis Cordova?"
Salles did not answer immediately, but kept his eyes determinately locked with Eyal's. Slowly, he nodded. "Yes. I heard about it on the news."
"Did you know Major Cordova?"
"Did I know him?"
"That's what I asked."
"Of course not."
"Why of 'course?'"
"Because why the fuck would I?" Salles growled.
"Because you served in the same unit in the Civil War," Eyal said, offering him his own vitae. "You saw multiple actions together."
Salles took a moment to study the file given to him. He looked up and shrugged. "I've served with lots of men, Detective. I suppose I may have known the man thirty years ago. So what?"
"I'm trying to fill in some gaps in Cordova's record, and I thought maybe you could help." Eyal shuffled through the papers he had brought. "I'm interested in one discrepancy in particular. Your company was not listed as having taken part in Operation Pegasus in '24, yet your company sustained three casualties during its course. I wasn't able to find any details on the soldiers' deaths."
"Is there a question in there?" Salles demanded angrily.
"It's just, the man who killed Cordova lost both his parents and his sister in the winter of '24, and he named the Major as responsible. Then I find a big black hole in Cordova's vitae right over Operation Pegasus in the winter of '24. Now are you really gonna tell me that your company sat on its thumbs while the rest of your division went off to war?"
"I don't remember what I did thirty fucking years ago," Salles hissed. He took a step closer, and Eyal had to force himself to stand his ground.
"Your memory is shot," Eyal said, nodding his head agreeably. "Fair enough. Would Alexander Lansing remember?"
"Excuse me?" Salles asked incredulously.
"Alexander Lansing. Your CO back in the war. What can you tell me about him?"
Salles could only stare at him in wonderment. "You're out of your Goddamn tree, you know that?"
"I'm asking you a simple enough question, sir. What was Charlie Company doing during Operation Pegasus?"
"I don't remember!" Salles shouted, slamming his artificial hand upon his desk in impotent fury.
"Well, that's not good enough!" Eyal returned.
They stared at each other for a moment longer before Eyal chose to continue. "Does 'Cedar Gables' mean anything to you?" he asked.
At this Salles barely reacted at all, but for the smallest flicker of his dark eyes. Then he shook his head and lowered his gaze, leaning heavily upon the surface of his desk. "Jesus fucking Christ," he murmured. He raised his head and studied Eyal through narrowed eyes. "And just what outfit did you serve in during the war, son?"
Eyal clenched his jaw. "I didn't serve."
Salles expressed surprise at this, but did not press the point. "Well, of course you're too young to know about the old days. Back when it was man that men had to fear most. You can't know the hatred we felt for the South—the raw, passionate hate for those upstarts, who rejected civilization in favor of their squalid shithole. Every time a bomb went off in Massilia, I would spit poison at the whole continent. They were animals—animals killing real men, animals attacking real civilization.
"Then the Covenant showed up at Harvest. And then I was serving with the same men I was trying to kill a few years before, putting my life in the hands of those animals." Salles paused for moment, regarding Eyal with suspicion. "Have you ever seen a man get hit with plasma?"
"No," Eyal said with an involuntary flinch.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't have," Salles returned contemptuously. "It burns everything. Like you wouldn't believe. There were no injuries, only deaths. It hit your arm, and you'd go up like a torch. It set every piece of clothing, even body armor alight. It spread like poison, up the arm to the shoulder, finally to the chest, burning everything from the inside out. And they'd scream and writhe for a few seconds, until suddenly they were silent. There were never enough remains to bother salvaging.
"And after seeing that, it didn't matter who the man was. Whether he was from the South, the North, or some other place altogether. All you wanted to do was rend those fucking aliens limb from limb. No man is an animal, Detective—only them."
Salles let out of mirthless chuckle as he took final stock of Eyal. "The only man who'd go digging up the past now—after all that's happened—is a man who has no fucking idea what I'm talking about." Salles cast him his last look of disgust and sat down at his desk. "We're done," he finished without looking up.
Eyal lingered in silence for a few moments before turning to leave. "It's like you said, Mr. Salles," he said quietly. "We all have a job to do. I'm just trying to do mine." He lay his card on Salles' desk. "If you have a change of heart, please call me."
With this he left, left the noise and chaos and misery, and sat down heavily in his car. He rested his hands for a moment on the freezing wheel, contemplating his next move, never wondering whether there should be a next move. He looked up at the sharply blue sky above—it was still early. Plenty of time left in the day.
He would need it. He had some research to do.
Eyal awoke the following day exhausted, and, this time, alone.
He had no trouble rising, however, as he did most mornings. He did not bother to set the alarm half an hour early to afford himself the luxury of languishing in bed and contemplating his day. Today was his day off, after all, even if it were not the one he had originally imagined. At any rate, he was infused with a sense of purpose that brought energy to his heavy limbs.
The aroma of coffee soon invigorated his mental faculties as well. He had already used his ration of eggs on his abortive holiday, so he satisfied himself with an extra helping of toast. He turned on the news and listened intently as he settled down to eat his dry, tasteless breakfast. He had to be sure that no plans had changed.
It was not long before he was interrupted by the doorbell. He got up slowly to answer it, but was hastened by a second impatient ring.
He opened the door. It was Michelle.
"What the fuck, Eyal?" she said by way of greeting, striding through the door before he could invite her.
"Good morning," he returned, bemused.
"Fuck off." She took out a cigarette and prepared to light it, but Eyal held up a hand. She glared at him. "Are you serious?"
He crossed his arms. "Not in the house."
"Jesus Christ," she murmured, letting out a false, irritated chuckle. "Just as I was coming in yesterday the Captain got a phone call," she began, replacing the offending article in her pocket. "It was a Sergeant Grantmyre, complaining that one of our officers was snooping around and causing trouble. Later, she got a call from some other guy—get this: he didn't even come up in any case file. Martim Salles. Complained about the same cop."
Eyal returned to his table as she spoke, casually sitting down to resume his breakfast. "Is that right?" he asked with mock innocence.
"What the hell are you doing?" she demanded angrily, following him into the kitchen. "You looking to piss away all the good will earned by capturing that piece of shit Stahl? Singh is furious you went off book to aggravate the Militia. She sent me here to find out what was going on, and maybe to talk some Goddamn sense into you."
"What do you think the chances of that are?" he said through a mouthful of toast.
"A futile effort, I know." She rounded the table and sat down opposite him, fixing his eyes earnestly. "Come on, Eyal. Talk to me."
"Look, Michelle," he began, matching her seriousness. "Just turn around and walk away. If you feel like committing career suicide, do it somewhere else and save me the guilt. I already have enough."
Mantega met him with a blank stare. "What are you on about?"
Eyal took a swig of coffee and drew a deep breath before answering. "I'm going to question Alexander Lansing in connection with the murder of Luis Cordova."
He had to admit: it sounded rather ludicrous when it was said out loud. Mantega seemed to agree.
"Wow," was all she could say at first. "You've really gone off the reservation."
"I'm not crazy. Well, maybe a little," he allowed, "but on this I have my reasons."
Mantega spread her hands expectantly. "Well, tell me a story, then."
Eyal drew in a deep breath, gathering his thoughts and thinking of how best to irreparably damage his credibility with his partner. "When Isaac Stahl spoke of his home town, Cedar Gables, he said there was no one left. He said it like they were all dead."
Mantega shrugged. "It's as Lee said: plenty of little towns faded away during the war."
"It didn't just fade away," Eyal insisting, rising and pacing about the room. "It completely disappeared after '24. Every inhabitant's record is listed as missing."
"That's not so unusual either. The South was notoriously bad for keeping records. And there was plenty of disruption after the civil war."
"So the historical record for a whole damn town just fell down a fucking hole?" Eyal asked, exasperated. "And the Militia keeps circling its wagons every time I ask about Cedar Gables. Their commander told me to get loss, and Salles, who served with Lansing, shut down at the mere mention of Cedar Gables. Is this all just a coincidence?" He heaved a sigh and lowered his voice. "Come on, Michelle. Aren't you the least bit interest as to why Stahl killed Cordova?"
"As an abstract curiosity, maybe," she said off-handedly. "But there are enough damn sob stories around that I won't waste a tear on that piece of shit Stahl. Or Cedar Gables, for that matter. Which begs the question: just what the fuck does Lansing have to do with any of it?"
"He was the Captain of Cordova's company back in the civil war. I think his company passed through Cedar Gables during the Pegasus campaign of '24."
Mantega stared at him with a raised eyebrow. "You 'think?'"
She grunted. "This is supposed to convince me?"
Eyal studied his partner's expectant face, skepticism plainly in her eyes, doubt etched into the hard lines of her jaw. He remembered when she had first been assigned to be his partner after her discharge in '53. His previous partner, Sam, had been too elderly to be conscripted and retired immediately after the return of the soldiers. Despite being the senior detective, he had been roundly terrified of Mantega in their first few months together. At that time she had had a soldier's contempt for him, an utter inability to respect one who had not served in humanity's fight for survival. By his efforts, and fuelled to ever greater heights by her derision, he had earned first her indifference, then her esteem, and finally her friendship.
All of this he now risked by asking her to denounce Vesta's most vaunted war hero based on his own tenuous instinct.
"No," he said finally. "Like I said. You should leave me to fuck up my life on my own. I really don't need the help. I'm well practiced at it."
Mantega smirked and held his gaze with her penetrating eyes. "You know, I've been your partner for almost three years now, but I've still got no idea what you're about. All I know is, I can't let you do this alone."
Eyal regarded her with genuine surprise before shaking his head. "Michelle, you can't
"Fuck off, Eyal," she said dismissively. "We're partners. You tie an anvil to your waste and jump in the fucking ocean, I gotta jump after you. Besides, the captain already bumped me to the swing shift to come talk to you, so I got nothing better to do. I'll bet she's gonna wish she hadn't done that, huh?"
"Thank you, Michelle," he said earnestly.
She immediately brushed past even this modest show of sentimentality. "So where will be meeting the good candidate?"
Eyal retrieved his datapad and handed it to her. "He's attending a last-minute fundraiser today to fund the final week of the campaign," he explained, pointing to the news item. "The spending money like a drunken sailor."
"Alright," she said, looking at him expectantly. "Let's go."
"It's not for a few more hours," he said, leaning back in his chair and sipping his coffee.
He eyed her with a smirk. "You'll be wearing that?" he asked.
She looked down at her own outfit. Her hair was pulled back in a rough ponytail, her suit was tattered and worn, and her white blouse was so old it was turning brown. She shrugged. "Those high society types can go fuck themselves," she said.
He laughed. "Indeed."
Mantega looked around the room for the moment before finally taking a seat. She glanced at his breakfast.
"I'd give you some food," he said, "but with rations and all
"Uh huh," she snorted, and grabbed a piece of his toast.
They arrived at the He Xiangu hotel soon after noon. Mantega drove.
Security was tight around the building. Perhaps a dozen guards patrolled the front entrance, and he was sure there were many more out of sight. As Eyal and Mantega approached the doors he could feel at least a dozen pairs of eyes following them.
He flashed his badge to a pair of Militia Officers who stood in front of the door. "I'm here to question a guest in an ongoing investigation," he announced.
One of the agents seized both badges. "The guest's name?" she asked brusquely as she examined their IDs.
Eyal winced; he had hoped the badge would let him sail on through. "Alexander Lansing," he answered honestly.
She glared at him severely. "Are you serious?"
The officer narrowed her eyes in suspicion and scanned the badges for authenticity. She frowned at the result but was apparently satisfied. "Our men inside will direct you to the senator at the conclusion of his speech," she said, handing back their badges. She held up a hand as they started to move off. "No guns," she ordered.
They handed over their sidearms without a fuss. "Fine," he said.
As he entered he could not resist a moment to appreciate the grandeur of the convention hall. He Xiangu was an upscale hotel that was located—as he had noted with some discomfort—in the same neighborhood as Melanie's luxurious apartment. The décor was very fine, an elegant blend of Western and Oriental styles. The walls were made of rich porphyry marble that was beautifully patterned with dark, almost black oak. The floor was composed of a dark obsidian stone particular to Vesta, and was polished such that the chandeliers overhead were reflected upon it almost as if it were a mirror.
The guests in attendance clearly matched the venue. They sat at large, round tables arranged before a stage at the front and decorated with immaculately white table cloths. Many of the faces he recognized as belonging to the captains of Vesta's burgeoning industries. These were the celebrity rich, those successful entrepreneurs who loudly claimed credit for rescuing Vesta from the total collapse that had claimed most of the surviving colonies as well as Earth herself. Most of the faces, however, he could not place. These were the truly wealthy, the men and women whose fortunes were of mysterious origin and immeasurable proportions.
It was not as ostentatious as some of the galas that had been common before the war had taken a bad turn. Such flagrant displays of wealth were no longer vogue in a world that saw refugees lining up in the cold for soup and sixteen year-olds working sixty hour weeks. Yet the quality of the hotel, the caliber of the guests, and the harmonic strummings of Handel's Andante Allegro made the gathering an effortlessly aristocratic affair.
Almost as soon as they entered a pair of plainclothes Militia flanked them and ordered them to remain at the rear of the hall. "You mean we can't mingle?" Mantega asked one of them. He was not amused.
A few minutes after their arrival the quiet chattering in the hall subdued. Eyal turned his attention to the stage where a woman was tapping on the microphone to get the room's attention. He identified her as the anchorwoman of a partisan pro-United news program based in Massilia.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," she said to the well-behaved crowd. "We are gathered here today as the end of a long journey draws near. It began with our victory over the Covenant, but it did not end there. Still there are those who resist unity, who insist on keeping us divided at this moment of great weakness. But one man has always given voice to the majority who desire a lasting peace and a permanent recovery. One man has taken up the banner of reason and has fought those who stubbornly advocate the dead politics of a bygone age. Ladies and gentlemen
please welcome Senator Alexander Lansing!"
There was loud applause as Lansing walked on stage, louder and more raucous than Eyal would have guessed considering the audience. He was certainly a man to inspire enthusiasm.
"Thank you," he said graciously, gesturing for silence. "Thank you very much." His voice was booming—no television or radio interview could truly capture it. It filled the whole hall, resonating powerfully against its stone walls.
"And thank you, Ellen, for that kind introduction," he added, still waiting for silence. "Yes, the time is fast approaching when we'll know for sure whether or not I've just been wasting all your time." There were a few chuckles. "Indeed, this impressive turnout at the eleventh hour makes me just a little nervous." A few more chuckles, then an attentive quiet.
As Lansing settled in, his demeanor became more serious. "There is no doubt that the opposition is formidable. Maria Renka steered us through the worst years of the war, and she represents a sentiment yet strong within the hearts of many proud Vestals. Yet a great and growing number have come to understand the fallacy of reverting to our lesser natures when the universe abounds in newly discovered perils." There was some supportive clapping at this. "At a time when humanity has been so severely reduced in number and in strength, we can not make a casualty also of our hard fought unity. If we shackle ourselves now to the false comfort of faction, then the loss of the greater part of our species will have been in vain.
"From Harvest to Earth, I was there. I fought the Covenant for almost thirty years. I witnessed the unimaginable cruelty that they inflicted upon humanity. For many years I wondered at the origin of their seeming hatred for us, what motivation drove them to so methodically eradicate humanity's very existence. It was during my tenth year of service, when I had my first ringside seat to a glassing, that I realized the truth: they did not hate us. They thought nothing of us. We were a hindrance, and nothing more. When they burned a world, they paid the people upon the surface no more heed than the trees or the rocks or the oceans. The particulars of human politics and infighting were beneath their contempt. How silly our feuds seemed to me then!
"I realized that any barriers between the Vesta Expeditionary Force and the UNSC had to be broken down. Even if we had operated well before, I knew that we must strive at least for the spirit of unity: for if we were to fall, we had to fall together. When I became the Chairman of the VEF in 2548, I did my best to fulfill that spirit. And in so doing, I discovered the friendship, the brilliance, and above all, the courage of Lord Terrence Hood." He gestured to one of the tables nearest the stage. At length Eyal realized that Lord Hood was in the audience. He could barely make him out at his considerable distance. The great man waved modestly to the crowd as they began clapping and cheering for him. One or two stood to honor him, and eventually the whole room was roused to their feet in appreciation.
Lansing waited until the people had taken their seats before continuing, but he still reached out a hand towards Hood. "Sir: I know how badly the people of Earth bled so that we may be safe. I know why it is that idle complaints echo in our streets rather than the cold winds of oblivion. I know that Earth burned while Vesta's verdant lands remained fertile. I know this because I saw it, and because I wept for it.
"I do not mean to derogate the contributions of my own people. We fought and we bled as much as any other. But we were never subjected to the helpless terror of the Purple coloring our sky. We have never felt its flame upon our surface. We have never lain in bed with our children and waited to die. That is a pain that Earth suffered on our behalf. I feel your sacrifice, and I offer my undying gratitude for it. And next week, the people of Vesta will show that they feel it too."
Lansing's voice rose as he approached his familiar promise. "When I am elected President, Vesta will at last join the UNSC! Humanity will be united once more! Next week, we may finally brave all the new dangers of the galaxy as one people!"
There was thunderous applause at this finely delivered sentiment, and the room was again brought to its feet. Eyal had to appreciate the man's theatrics. Were he not flanked by such dour company, he might have been driven to giddy cheering himself.
From this point the speech delved into specifics, citing the shortcomings of the Renka administrations and offering vague solutions that Lansing planned to implement. Of course, specifics were not what garnered Lansing his support. He was, as he said, selling a spirit, an idea. And it was an idea that many people were desperate to believe in.
As the speech drew to a close, and Lansing humbly beseeched the assembly to contribute to his campaign, Eyal was reminded of another reason why the Senator was so popular. Integration was popular with the business and industrial sectors, and they had been extremely adept at mobilizing financial support for Lansing. While showy ad campaigns were frowned upon considering the bad times, Lansing's juggernaut campaign had sponsored numerous banquets for the poor, eroding support for one of President Renka's most loyal constituencies. While this was legally ambiguous, there were few willing to tell the Senator that he could no longer feed poor people.
As Lansing drew to a close, one of the Militia nudged his shoulder and leaned towards his ear. "Alright," he said. "Follow me."
They followed the two officers around the perimeter of the hall, avoiding the bulk of the crowd. Lunch was being served by an army of waiting staff. Eyal inhaled deeply—it smelled good. It was certainly not the ration food that he was accustomed to.
They were led into a small side room that looked like a disused office. The two Militia stood on each side of the door and stared at them grimly. "Jesus Christ, soldier," Mantega said with a single, sharp laugh. "You gonna shoot us or something?"
Neither man responded. Eyal decided to take a seat at the room's only table, the surface of which was cluttered with old papers and other garbage.
They waited for about ten minutes before Lansing entered. When he did so, Eyal instinctively rose. As he approached them he wore a subdued smile.
"Good afternoon, officers," he said, extending his hand first to Mantega.
She grasped it and shook it firmly. "Good afternoon, sir. It's an honor, truly."
Eyal looked at her: her expression was genuine. He turned to Lansing and smiled. "Yes, sir. It is an honor."
"And it's a pleasure to meet you, too," Lansing replied. "Though I must confess I was a little shocked when I heard two homicide detectives were here to see me. How is it I can help you, officers?"
Eyal hesitated as he studied the man before him. Alexander Lansing had an imposing stature, standing at perhaps six foot two inches tall and, despite his age of 56, he retained the broad shoulders and slim waste of his soldiering days. His grey hair was fashionably long, and upon his square jaw was an immaculately trimmed beard. His eyes were cold and grey, and betrayed no thought or emotion. His suit was cheap and unassuming, a product of his attempt to appeal to the poor and the working class that traditionally voted for the Vesta Party. Yet he wore the outfit with effortless class, and it seemed to sit perfectly upon his frame—clearly he was an aristocrat in any garb.
Eyal had the sudden image of Lansing emerging from some roaring battlefield, his face composed, his uniform miraculously unscathed, not a hair out of place. Instantly he regretted having come to the hotel.
"I have a few questions regarding an ongoing murder investigation," Eyal forced himself to say.
"Is that right?" Lansing replied. "Well, the one benefit of running this perpetual campaign is that I have a twenty-four hour alibi." He laughed. Off the microphone, his voice had the consistency of gravel. It was a voice born to lead.
"You're not a suspect, obviously," Mantega said. "We have already apprehended the perpetrator."
Lansing took a seat, and Eyal and Mantega quickly followed suit. "Really? What do you need me for, then?"
Eyal swallowed and prepared himself. "Well sir, we're investigating the Luis Cordova murder." He paused to study Lansing's face for effect—nothing. "Have you heard of it?"
"Well, yes, I've heard of it. It's all over the news. Wasn't the murderer some indigent fellow from the South?"
"Yes, sir," Mantega answered. "As we said, we have our man."
"But, what?" Lansing ventured. "You don't think he really did it?"
"No, we're quite certain he did it," Eyal said. "We're just trying to determine why he did it. If maybe there is some shared culpability in the murder."
"I see. And how can I help in that regard?"
"Well sir, didn't Luis Cordova serve with you?"
Lansing looked surprised. "No. I don't believe so."
"I can assure you he did," Eyal persisted, handing him a copy of Charlie Company's roster. "Back in the civil war."
Lansing glanced at the paper before shrugging and returning his impenetrable gaze to Eyal. "I suppose he did, Detective. I have served with many men in my career."
"Yes, sir, I can appreciate that. But it is very important in this instance. You see, there's a gap in Cordova's vitae that no one seems willing to fill in for me. It occurs around 2524, during Operation Pegasus."
Lansing shrugged. "I'm sorry, detective, but I just don't remember the man."
"I see," Eyal said, nodding with understanding. He took a moment to steel himself before saying, "Does Cedar Gables mean anything to you?"
For just a moment, Lansing's impassive countenance slipped. His eyes widened perceptibly and his unaffected expression soured. Almost instantly he reassumed the mask, though to Eyal it looked more artificial.
"No," he said eventually. "I don't know what that is."
"It's a town, in the South," Eyal said, gaining some confidence. "Or I should say, it was a town in the South. It was where Cordova's murderer hailed from. And it mysteriously vanished around 2524—the same time as the redaction in his vitae."
"Your point eludes me, Detective," Lansing said sharply. "Make it quickly. I have other business to attend to."
"Sir, what was Charlie Company doing during Operation Pegasus?"
"I have no idea. I don't remember. Look it up."
"I did that. And I found that three soldiers in your company were killed in action during the operation, even though the records say that Charlie Company was remanded to the sidelines. So I'll ask again: what happened?"
"Have you been listening, detective? It was thirty years ago. I do not remember."
"With respect, sir, I don't believe you." Eyal realized only after this last utterance that his voice had risen considerably. The two Militia Officers looked as if they could not believe what they were hearing. Even Mantega appeared shocked.
Lansing's demeanor did not appreciably change, but the room felt as though it got about five degrees cooler. "Good Lord," he said slowly in an even tone. "Is this what Massilia's finest is up to these days? Or are you just some sort of delusional burnout?" He turned to Mantega. "Just what is your story? Did he drag you into this foolishness?"
Mantega said nothing.
Lansing rose to his feet. "I will put in a call to your captain, Detective," he said, his tone never changing yet becoming suddenly menacing. "I hope for your Department's sake that yours is an isolated lunacy. Now I will have my men escort you from the property. I hope that you at least have the sense to avoid causing a scene." With this he turned and left the room.
The Militia Officers stepped forward to bid them rise. "Alright," one of them said. "Follow me."
They were led out of the hotel, back through the low hum of the convention hall. Once outside their firearms were returned and they were instructed brusquely to leave the premises and not to return. They acquiesced and wordlessly walked to their vehicle.
Inside the car Eyal exhaled sharply as if he had been holding his breath since accusing Lansing. Mantega shook her head in wonderment. "You really are mad, aren't you?"
He shrugged, and for about a minute they sat together in silence.
"Jesus," Mantega said eventually, staring at the hotel through the window. "Jesus fucking Christ. The man was lying through his teeth."
"I'm glad you agree," Eyal said. "Means I'm not totally fucking nuts."
Mantega laughed breathlessly. "Jesus Christ," she said again.
After another moment of silence, Eyal said, "So, what do we do now?"
She looked at her watch. "Well, it's still three hours to my shift. We could grab a bite to eat, talk things over."
"Good idea," he agreed. "We have a lot to talk about. Like, for instance, what my new job is gonna be."