Case File 7 - The One With All The Elephants Part 1 of 4
A SciFi Short Story
For a change of pace, join me on a four part, kinda silly, detective caper set on a space station (complete with tiny elephants and spicy cricket tacos).
I shifted where I sat on the dainty sofa. Down at Docking Bay 34 a sting operation was on the go—one that I should’ve been a part of. A known criminal group were creating fake identification files in their hideout on a decommissioned freighter and we were finally going to catch them in the act. Most of the precinct was involved—except me.
Bitterness around being left out created a sour taste in my mouth. I protested hard when Chief Thumbold assigned me to this case instead. We were supposed to be policing this space station, not chasing down reports of unlicensed animals. Some kids were probably having a joke at our expense.
Thumbold wouldn’t budge. With his bushy eyebrows wiggling like the silk worms in Quadrant 17, he told me to investigate the report of stampeding elephants.
Suppressing a sigh, I looked at the wizened old lady who’d invited me in.
“More tea, dearie?” she asked holding up her white and blue teapot. Jaunty windmills from lost Earth ringed the pot, inviting me into their world—but I resisted and stared Mrs. Long in the eye. She winked. “I mean Detective Ruben.”
“Sure.” I raised the fine bone china teacup I’d been assigned with its too-small-to-put-my-fingers-through handle. The cup didn’t match the teapot; instead it was yellow with white polka dots. “Mrs. Long, three of your neighbours have reported seeing unlicensed mammals in this quadrant. Have you seen them?”
“Oh dearie, you can just call me Pam,” she said with a wide smile. Based on how quickly she’d invited me in for tea, I assumed she was lonely, perhaps without family on the station.
With unsteady hands, she poured more hot liquid into my cup. Considering how much her hands shook, it was a miracle none of the liquid sloshed out. As I glanced into my refilled cup, I wondered if Pam realized this was just hot water. But maybe water was all she could afford—this sector was low income, and many of the apartment units were entirely subsidized. Since it would be impolite to inquire and irrelevant to my case, I took a sip.
“Very well, Pam, have you seen anything unusual?” I struggled to maintain my composure in the oppressive space.
Pam’s quarters smelled ripe, as though the ventilation system wasn’t working properly. Maybe the stacks of ancient goods covering every horizontal surface were blocking the vents. The amount of stuff in the tiny living room was overwhelming—how could she stand living like this?
They weren’t moving, yet it seemed like the piles were closing in on me. Some stacks contained random assortments of take-out food boxes, while others were constructed of miscellaneous mechanical devices. At the bottom of one of the piles, I spotted a computer core from a defunct AI system, while in another pile old-fashioned bound books held up an oscilloscope that probably had cathode ray tubes inside.
The slightest gravity glitch would topple everything, kicking up even more dust into the air. My heart started beating faster as I considered the generations of human skin cells I might end up breathing in.
“Oh my.” She put a hand to her chest. “What kind of animals did my neighbours see?”
“Elephants,” I said.
“My dear, we live on a space station, not a savanna.” Pam settled back into her chair with a yellow teacup of her own.
I glanced around the room and wondered if the smell could be the result of decades of accumulated clutter. It was an ordinary apartment in the Delta quadrant: two bedrooms, a sitting room and an eat-in kitchen. From my vantage point sitting on the old sofa in the living room, other than being a hoarder’s paradise, nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
On one side, a large window presented a view of the communal garden space beyond. The clutter piled on the window sill drew my attention. Piles of comics, yellowed beyond readability made a base layer. On top were a series of vases, some displaying dead flowers, others kitchen implements. Oddly, a stuffed octopus sat crammed in the corner, its googly eyes judging me.
In the middle of the window sill, a long, yellowing object sat on a plinth somehow balanced on top of everything, just waiting for the next hiccup in the station’s gravity. It looked like a combination of a tooth and a horn. Whatever the artifact was, someone had recently drilled into it. The tiny hole exposed a layer of white beneath. But weird artifacts weren’t illegal—unlicensed mammals were.
“I’m sure there are no elephants on Indigo Station,” I said with a decisive head nod. The only place I’d ever seen an elephant was in the books my sons read as children. “Yet, your neighbours say they’ve seen herds of them.”
“Hmmmm,” she said, taking a sip of the hot water. “And you took the time to come into my home and ask me about them.” She stared at me for a moment. “Well... since you are here, I have seen elephants.”
I set my teacup down on its saucer and did my best not to frown. Was the bad air causing mass hallucinations? Or was this an elaborate hoax? And why didn’t she tell me about seeing elephants when I first asked? “Can you describe what you saw?”
“Oh, I can do better my dear.” Pam met my gaze. “I have footage.”
“Really?” I shifted forward to pull out my datapad from my back pocket.
In my haste, I knocked the side table, sloshing hot water over my hand. Looking at the spilled water Pam made a tutting round as she handed me a napkin from the pile beside the teapot. Then, she put down her teacup and stood.
“That recording is around here somewhere.” She shuffled over to the nearest pile and began sorting through it.
I glanced down at my wet hand and sopped up the moisture with the napkin. Only after I saturated it with liquid did I notice that someone had written all along one side. I stifled a shudder, re-using napkins was gross. At least the ink didn’t run. Uncertain where Pam’s recycling was, I shoved the napkin into my pocket and planned on washing everything I was wearing later.
“Bingo!” She pulled out an old tablet—the kind once used in the elementary classrooms of my grandparents or maybe their grandparents. “I knew I’d find it.”
I bit my lip. This call was turning out to be a waste of my time—it had to be a hoax. Investigate elephant sightings on a space station, how ridiculous was that? Real crimes were happening out there that needed my detective skills. Maybe it wasn’t too late to join the action in Docking Bay 34.
“Here it is.” Pam sat next to me on the sofa and powered up the tablet.
She played a video degraded by time—it clearly wasn’t from our space station. The view encompassed a wide open, planet-based space. I shivered, wondering how anyone could stand being out in the open like that—they’d be so exposed. Blue sky extended to the horizon and lush grass covered the ground. Striped animals milled about in the distance and great white birds flew over head.
“That’s clearly not here.” I pointed to the screen.
“Just be patient, dearie,” said Pam as a herd of animals with oversized ears and noses sauntered into view. “See, a herd of elephants.”
“But they aren’t here.” I stood. The smell in the air was getting worse and I wanted to leave.
“Well... my dear.” She shrugged. “Those are the only elephants I’ve ever seen.” She folded her hands into her lap and looked at me expectantly.
Taking care not to cause an avalanche off of any of the near-by piles of stuff, I set down my teacup and thanked Mrs. Long for her time.
As I walked along the path of the communal garden, I looked up at the four stories of apartments. Fluttering laundry hung out on makeshift racks on most balconies. A myriad of cooking smells filled the air, and the scent of exotic spices and charring food made my stomach grumble.
Dinner time was fast approaching, and I’d be late getting home again, but no one would be there waiting for me to put food on the table. Since both of my boys were off at flight school, I’d just get take-out mushroom rice again.
“Crap,” I said under my breath as it dawned on me that the ventilation system should have sucked all the cooking smells away. Imaginary herds of elephants weren’t the problem—the ventilation system was.
I stopped and turned to look back at the common space between the two blocks of apartments. Large planters containing trees punctuated the space; in the distance I could see the floor curve upward following the shape of our station.
“Susan, please run a diagnostic on the ventilation system in this residential quarter.” Even though my assigned AI was a program, she always worked better when I talked to her like a person.
“Standby,” she said through my earpiece.
Pursing my lips in irritation over the delay, I wound an escaped strand of hair around my finger. The increased gravity on this level of the station was making my bones ache—I really did need to call it a day and get home where the gravity was normal. On the way I could swing by Docking Bay 34…
“Yo Flo, how’s the detecting going?”
I jumped at the words and spun to face the person who spoke. Ned Diamond, another detective in the precinct, stared at me wearing a goofy expression—in fact, he almost always wore a goofy expression.
He laughed as if he’d told a joke. “Yo Flo...that’s a good one—I’ll have to remember that.”
I frowned, looking down on the short, stocky man. I’d never asked him but, based on his physique I had assumed he’d grown up on one of the higher gravity moons.
My eyes stopped on the body camera he wore on a lanyard around his neck. It was an older model, even our rookie patrol cops got better equipment than that. Ned must have bought it at one of the thrift shops. A little red light on the side merrily blinked—he even had it on.
“I heard you’re on an elephant hunt,” he said with a grin before biting into the taco he held releasing a wave of pungent spices. Pieces of cricket bodies tumbled out of the taco and onto the ground. He’d chosen a spicy cricket taco from one of the dodgy kiosks that sat outside every tram station.
“Why are you here, Ned? Shouldn’t you be sorting through spreadsheets?” I demanded. Ned liked to stick his nose into investigations that weren’t his business, just one of the things about him that irritated me. Who orders spicy cricket tacos anyway? Disgusting.
“Turns out there’s a lull in forensic accounting.” He took another bite, and I averted my eyes. “Thumbold suggested I come down here and give you a hand. And I thought it was a peachy idea.”
“Great.” My tone was flat.
“I have the results you requested,” said Susan through my ear-piece. “Since Detective Diamond is here to assist, I will share with him as well.”
“Fine.” I met Ned’s gaze as he shoved the last of his taco into his mouth. A dollop of red sauce dribbled down his chin. I had to look away. “Susan, what have you found?”
“Your hypothesis is correct. There is an issue with the ventilation system in this quadrant. Over the last 14 day-night cycles, there have been 1016 unaccounted for power draws.”
“How has that affected the ventilation?” I asked, glancing up at the fake blue sky of the ceiling.
“Each power draw takes 97.3% of the power for 7.58 milliseconds. This shuts down the entire ventilation system for 10.3 seconds. It then takes 49.24 minutes for the system to return to normal capacity. The frequency of these events has meant the system isn’t able to move enough air.”
“Hence the lingering smells,” I said.
“Hey Susan, can you pinpoint the source of the power draws?” asked Ned. He looked at me and said, “Maybe someone is powering a flux capacitor.”
I opened my mouth to retort, but Susan cut me off.
“There are unauthorized re-routings in the quadrant,” said the AI. It was a statement of the obvious; the station was more than two centuries old, and unauthorized modifications were common. “I have traced them to the warehouse district on the other side of accommodation block A-114.”
A-114 was the block where residents had reported seeing the elephants—and where claustrophobia-inducing Mrs. Long lived. I shivered as an image of her heaps of stuff popped into my head.
“Can you pinpoint the exact location?” I asked.
“Negative,” Susan replied.
“No wonder,” said Ned. “Those warehouses are infested with smuggling and shadow organizations who employ smart people to remain untraceable.”
I pursed my lips. All of us who worked in the field knew that. “You learn that from your spreadsheets?”
“Yep.” His answer didn’t suggest he noticed my slight. He put his hands on his hips and surveyed our surroundings. “How about we go and look around?”
“Fine.” I started down the side corridor leading to the warehouse district.
“Yo Flo, what did the witnesses say?” Ned asked as he struggled to keep up with my long gait.
“Three people said they saw actual elephants lurking around the apartment block and one old lady insisted on serving me hot water and showing me an old video.”
“Were there elephants in the video?”
“Yes.” I stopped mid-stride and looked around at everything except Ned. “But I suspect someone doctored the footage.”
“I heard elephants actually roamed free on lost Earth.” His tone suggested he possessed some ancient knowledge. I ignored his comment.
The corridor opened out into the warehouse district, and we stopped. A much lower ceiling—only two stories up—made the space feel cramped. Dimmer than station standard lighting left a shabby veneer on everything. Being the dinner hour, the area was deserted.
“Susan, what are these warehouses supposed to contain?” I asked the AI.
“Directly ahead, DZ-471 is supposed to house gears and other mechanical components. Beside it, DZ-472 is registered to contain toilet paper.” My eyes followed Susan’s explanation. “DZ-473 is currently empty, and DZ-474 contains medical supplies.” My eyes stopped on the doors of DZ-473.
“Who owns DZ-473?” I asked.
“The listed owner is Long enterprises,” said Susan.
“Any connection to Pam Long?” I thought back to the old lady and her piles of stuff.
“There is no connection on record,” said Susan. “In fact, there are 1798 individuals with the surname Long on this station. None of them appear connected to Long Enterprises.”
“Then who owns it?”
“The company is registered to the Long family on Drako moon,” answered Susan. “They also own mining rights to Sunset crater on that moon.”
“How is that connected to this warehouse?”
“Unknown,” replied Susan even though the question was rhetorical.
“How ‘bout we take a look inside,” said Ned as he started eating a second cricket taco. “We might find a clue or two.” He snickered.
“Where did you…” I pointed at the taco—he’d finished eating the first one and I didn’t remember him holding a second one. “Never mind. Let’s go look. Susan, please override the side door to DZ-473 on the clearance of Detective Florence Ruben, serial number 9763B-42.”
“Running your credentials now,” said Susan as if she didn’t already know them. All the department AIs had been programmed to be sticklers for detail and I knew better than to argue—department AIs also had the right to file complaints about the humans they worked with.
A click sounded from somewhere inside the door. I stood back to watch it slide open, but it didn’t.
“Susan, please open the door,” I asked, fighting to keep an annoyed tone from my voice. I noticed a trash bin off to the side.
“I have. It should have opened,” said the AI.
“They probably rigged a lock on the other side,” said Ned between bites of taco—it was just as messy as the last one. “Maybe we should call for someone with a battering ram.” He finished the taco and went to wipe his hands on his pants.
“Ugh. I’ve got a napkin.” I fished out the napkin from my pocket and handed it to him before stepping closer to the door. Everything about it was ordinary. I shifted my gaze over to the control box. It took both a swipe card and had a keypad—if I punched in the right series of numbers, the door would open.
“Long Enterprises,” I said, more to myself than to Ned. “Mrs. Long has to be involved; it can’t be a coincidence she lives so close.” Maybe the old woman had family, after all—connected-to-crime family. I ran my hands down my hips as my mind churned. “Looks like we need an old-school numeric code.”
I looked over at Ned. He held out the napkin, now smoothed out in his hand.
“Where’d you get this?” He handed it back to me. The while pulp contrasted sharply with Ned’s dark hand.
“Mrs. Long gave it to me,” I said, staring at the napkin. The writing I’d noticed before was actually numbers. “I doubt this’ll do much, but I’ll give it a go.” I punched the numbers in.
The stench that wafted out as the door slid open was worse than a cricket farm. Before I could move away, knee-high animals stampeded out, knocking both Ned and I off balance. I windmilled my arms to stay up right, but failed and toppled onto my side.
“What the...” started Ned as he stepped out of the animals’ way. The moving mass of grey ears and trunks made it impossible to count the beasts. Their footfalls sounded louder than their size would suggest.
I got to my knees and watched the herd race towards the corridor leading to the habitation sector. The little grey animals let off high-pitched trumpets of what sounded like joy. As they ran, their ears flapped around as though they might take flight. The whole scene was ridiculous.
“Huh?” I recognized the animals as elephants. “I expected them to be much bigger.”
Beside me, Ned giggled. “I guess we need to call pest control.”
“Done,” said Susan.
I stood staring at the corridor where the elephants had disappeared. “We need to figure out who to issue the ticket to.” I turned and peered through the doorway to DZ-473. It remained dark inside, and I wasn’t looking forward to the stench.
Ned got up and stood beside me. “I wonder what else might be in there? Mini-dinosaurs?”
“Those definitely never existed.” I pulled out my flashlight and walked in.
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