At Oh Five Hundred Benton Fraser woke, reminded himself where he was and went to dress in the small bathroom he shared with Baker.
Afterward he woke Baker from his cot and the two of them went on a run in a foreign suffocating city on a foreign planet where he was a foreigner.
Halfway through their run Baker would disappear from Benton’s side and would buy himself a soft pretzel, hair glimmering red tinged white in the rising sun. It was somehow fitting that Baker was more comfortable here than in Empire Space—he seemed freer here. He seemed to laughed more, although Fraser wasn’t above blaming that on the extra sugar in the Captain’s diet.
He had stopped dyeing his hair.
Benton knew about Baker’s particular heritage; it was in Baker’s profile, and Baker was required to report it before using any public transportation. As if he might go wild. When he had first become friends with Baker Benton had found the law suddenly reprehensible for the first time in his life, and when they 'd hailed a taxi cab on furlough nothing came out of his mouth. Now Benton was to some degree changed, Baker’s heritage was part of who he was and Baker could care less whether or not taxi drivers eyed him as though he might go mad and try to eat them. Even if Captain Baker were full Canis he would still technically be human, simply a short genetic side trip away. He knew Baker wasn’t ashamed of his heritage, hadn’t hesitated to speak of it. But on Earth he had greater freedom; no one here knew about the Canis colony, or if they did they merely had a mild apathetic curiosity that made Benton feel terribly unsophisticated every time he came into contact with it.
“Stop moping,” Kowalski said beside him and he felt the soft fluttering like a breeze the same place a hand on his shoulder would be.
Benton stretched his shoulders as he waited for Baker.
“I’m doing no such thing.”
“I’m dead, Frase, who am I going to tell?” Kowalski had the annoying habit of appearing randomly and plying Benton with good advice he really didn’t want to accept. He had only known him a few moments in life, but in death he was frank and to the point. And persistent. Benton spared him a glance out of the corner of his eye as they settled into a comfortable silence. He was in a casual combination of civilian and military dress, informal as always, nursing a cup of coffee that was, of course odorless, although he imagined the coffee would have been strong and hot. Very bitter or very sweet; Kowalski did nothing by halves.
“Don’t talk, Frase. As impossible I know that is for you, the pretzel guy is watching. The password on the Ambassador’s computer, if you could maybe possibly break the rules just this once, is-”
Benton cleared his throat.
“Come on, I can’t tell you directly.”
Benton felt himself trembling as he leaned back.
Kowalski was silent for a moment and Benton bite back the urge to plead with Kowalski, please, my father’s killer.
“This is my soul Frase. I’m dead; there is no redo for me now. What do you think is going to happen to me if I break the rules here? I don’t risk my neck for anyone.”
When Benton had first heard that it was like stumbling upon the darkness in Kowalski’s soul, like stepping through a rotten spot in a wooden board, but he soon discovered it was simply Kowalski reminding himself of the great risk he was about to take. It was the only lie that Kowalski ever told him.
He felt the not- there-ness of Ray’s hand against his sweaty neck again. “Fine, but you owe me. Don’t have to break into the Ambassador’s files. Bank records. The Empire is supposed to keep track of deposit sizes for its officers to prevent bribery. Not always kept, but Gerard’s was.”
“If he was indeed involved as you say it seems unlikely that he allowed a record of any bribes to persist.”
“Well I could persist harder than he could,” Ray said almost triumphantly.
“I can’t get access to those records without drawing attention to myself. And if matters are as you’ve so vaguely inferred, that would not be a wise course of action at this point.”
“Your friend, Langoustini, he’ll help you.”
Benton turned his head toward Kowalski, there was steam rising unaffected by the wind from his coffee cup, shifting around the man’s face. “You know about—never mind. I haven’t seen him for some time.”
“He’ll help you.”
Benton nodded; that was all the guarantee he needed, Kowalski seemed to have too much at stake to risk Benton’s trust.
“Gotta go,” the ghost hand disappeared from Benton’s shoulder as Baker finished hugging the old man with the vendor’s cart and jogged over to Benton with a large pretzel hanging from his mouth.
“Never say I don’t take care of you,” Baker said once his mouth had been cleared. He tossed Benton a folded paper packet, white and cone-shaped, warm in Benton's palms as he caught it. “Roasted almonds.”
Benton ran with Baker back to the Liaison Office with the heat of the almonds against his thigh through the thick white paper.
At Oh Six Hundred Thirty Colonel Fraser and Captain Baker were in uniform, the red one, and running through their official e-mail accounts and sorting through the paperwork of what would essentially be an occupation until the treaty was finished. True to his word Councilor Jefferson’s staff had be helpful in the interim change, and reports of his influence in the government were not exaggerated. For a man so young Levon Jefferson seemed to have an instinct for getting what he wanted. By some means that Benton was still unable to discern he was able to convince Ambassador Avery to agree to the rebuilding of the Roosevelt colony. Still it was obvious what the Ambassador thought of Councilor Jefferson. Benton could not understand it, but the Ambassador seemed to view Jefferson as some sort of lower class brawler, indelicate and lacking in finer education. Jefferson bore all of this with an iron will and patient determination that in Benton’s opinion spoke of the Councilor’s love of his country as well as his people. A general compassion to all people as far as Benton could tell, although his loyalty to the Crown prevented him from saying such a thing.
Since the first time Benton and Captain Baker had established themselves as liaison officers to the Ambassador two months prior, Councilor Jefferson seemed to understand Benton’s awkwardness stemming from the particular circumstances of their first introduction. And Benton certainly would never infringe on the Councilor by implying that his grief, a proxy for what Benton felt himself, made them somehow friends despite the relief that Jefferson unaccountably had given him.
It would not be appreciated or appropriate to ask for more.
As Councilor Jefferson had indicated, he had been classified as a war orphan at the young age of nine, on one of the planets that had dissolved into gang rule after the War had obliterated their civil services. Between his ninth and eighteenth year his life was remarkably unrecorded: no medical history, no dental or school records, a testament to his uncertain environment. He had certainly been with someone who cared enough for him during those years to have guided him to this place, this position which he executed with such composure. His composure aside, he was a man well acquainted with loss and death; after seeing his knuckles cracked open Benton wasn’t sure how to speak to him.
At Oh Eight Hundred the Office of the Councilor Levon Jefferson officially opened. The Councilor was usually already there, speaking on the phone or meeting with huddled mothers clasping service photographs. Once Benton and Captain Baker had been required to to wait outside his offices for six hours while the President of the United Systems met with Jefferson, another time he'd had long discussions with the head of the United Systems Space Force.
By Oh Eight Hundred Twenty Meg Regina (an unfortunate last name for an American) settled Councilor Jefferson in his office, complete with highly sweetened coffee. She reacted awkwardly to both Baker and himself when they asked to visit the Councilor, which led him to wonder if she and the Councilor were not attached. When he mentioned this to Baker, Benton realized he often let things slip to the Captain that he had no intention to; Baker told him he made lovers sound like barnacles.
“No,” Baker said. “Ms. Regina likes you; she totally digs the red on you.”
Although Ms. Regina was a beautiful woman, Benton decided to try and wear the brown more.
One day at Oh Eight Hundred Benton was standing at attention in his dress reds while Baker was doing a security sweep of the Councilor’s office. There was a meeting between Ambassador Avery, one of the ministers of state, and Councilor Jefferson concerning the President’s unwillingness to disarm as well as some disputation on which colonies would be turned over to the Empire. Councilor Jefferson was sitting in a chair outside of his office, his lips pressed together emphasizing their oddly bowlike shape. At rest, without his face carefully arranged, he looked strangely childlike. His features were round and wide and he seemed to be just growing out of his button nose and into a wider jaw. It also didn’t help that he was slumped somewhat as he read some report. At twenty-three he was certainly young for a man of his position, although according to the Councilor’s records he had never served in the military, instead garnering his standing through civil efforts.
Benton tried not to look too long at the Councilor who had been just turned out of his office, trying to give him some respectful distance. The same way he tried not to look at the Councilor’s knuckles to see if there were the paler lines of rapidly healed abrasions against the dark brown of his hands. After all, Jefferson was in the government; a med unit would not be too hard for him to obtain. It was none of Benton’s business.
His focus should be on the coming dignitary, a Minister in charge of the Island System Parliament—an out of the way system across the Empire from Benton’s home—but still a Minister of some import he was told. He was expecting a man of dignity and stature in Minister Turnbull, but the Minister was – Benton didn’t know what he was, to be honest. He was a large, blonde man who wore an overcoat and whose face bore an earnestness that was a little startling. The look on the Ambassador’s face was disbelieving as the two of them walked in, as if his desk had suddenly sprouted a mouth and begun to recite Hemingway.
“Which of course it wasn’t because it consisted mostly of beans and chunks of bacon which could have explained its ability to both act as a grout and repel water,” Minister Turnbull was saying. “Although as a fuel the Quarter Horse seems to prefer a polarity core.”
The Minister’s attention swiveled like a palpable force and focused on Benton. He clasped Benton’s shoulders and nodded, as if the two of them were sharing a profound secret. “Ah, Colonel Fraser.”
Baker chose that moment to step out of the Councilor’s offices. He blinked, frozen, with his bright red suit and almost white hair and eyes that in this light looked more yellow than they usually do. He was obvious. Minister Turnbull released Benton who was still reeling from shock at being so gripped almost causing him to stumble backwards on his locked legs. “You’re Canis,” the Minister said, and Benton spun on his heel to try to say something— Baker was his friend.
“Half Canis,” Baker said with a shrug.
Minister grasped Baker’s shoulders and bent to kiss him right above his right ear. Baker blinked at him a moment and grinned, returning the gesture. “May your children be very fast,” the Minister said, finished clapping Baker on the shoulder and turned his attention to Councilor Jefferson who was apparently just barely holding back a grin.
Baker leaned over toward Benton, “Traditional Canis greeting. It’s usually too cold to bother taking gloves off.”
“You never greeted me that way,” Benton said, then replayed what he had said and scratched his eyebrow.
Baker laughed under his breath, “Culturally sensitive though you may be, you would have stroked out.”
“That is very likely true.”
The second time Kowalski returned, Benton was combing over Kowalski's service. Line after line of dates, locations and victims, some of which the Empire hadn’t even known about. Lines of espionage and assassination in Kowalski’s file scrolling down Benton’s datapad until he would have to switch over to the report on his father’s death—not much better, but less likely to necessitate biofeedback. He had enough work to do as an officer of the Queen without these completely personal little exercises. He was supposed to be working on his security report but every few moments he would stop and go over the two files again.
“You need to do something with those locks on the front. I could probably foist it with some wire and a battery.”
“That may be, but there’s something—” he turned and looked over his shoulder. There was Kowalski leaning over the back of a desk chair, his hair flared out on top of his head in a style that could only be termed as experimental and his chin resting on his folded arms. “Kowalski.”
“Yeah,” he said back, watching Benton cautiously.
If he hadn’t been so stunned he probably would have been able to answer with so degree of intelligence, as it was he simply got out, “And you are…?”
“Still dead, yeah. I’m sorry,” Kowalski said meekly. “About before. I don’t hate you. I promise.”
“Oh dear,” Benton said. “And you’re here because?”
“You need help. Also there’s stuff I’m supposed to tell you.”
“About my father?” Benton asked carefully. “You said something about him when you, ah…”
“No need to be shy about it, I know I croaked,” Kowalski grinned and drew one thumbnail across his throat with a cheerful morbidity. “I’m dead and gone, I’m out for the count, I’m-”
“That’s quite enough, thank you,” Benton said sharply.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to wig you out. Just, you know, never been dead before.”
“About my father?” Benton said.
“Oh, yeah. Your father was a hero, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Gerrard was taking bribes and he whatchacallit— Saratoga—sabathingy—”
“Sabotage?” Benton said thinly.
“Yeah, that one. Gerrard sabotaged your dad’s ship when your dad got wise.”
“That’s impossible. Gerrard was my father’s best friend—”
“—In the Academy, I know,” Kowalski said. “Even the worst people have to start somewhere.”
Benton opened his mouth then shut it back tightly again.
Kowalski’s face hardened and he leaned back, “Go ahead and say it, it’s not like I don’t know what I am. But you’re a good guy. You do a good job—truth, justice and the Canadian way. You need to know that people look out for you.”
Benton felt himself freeze, the data pad loose in his hand. Kowalski stood; he was wearing civilian clothes and black flight boots. The same boots from before, well taken care of, with scuffled buckles on the straps glinting on and off in the yellow-orange light of his office.
“So there, I said it. So, um, have a nice life or whatever.”
“You came back from the grave to tell me that my father was murdered?” There was the pulsing he got behind his eyes when he was working on an assignment. “Forgive my disbelief.”
“I came back from the friggin’ grave here.”
“You killed sixty-three people,” Benton said.
“Forty-two,” Kowalski snapped.
“The record’s quite clear.”
“Yeah? The record can shove it up its—” Kowalski cut himself off and stomped off then back in front of the chair again. “Forty-two, just forty-two okay? I would know, and even if I did kill more’n that doesn’t make me a liar.”
“You lied for a living.”
“Sure,” Kowalski made a broad gesture, his head waggling. “I’m a con, stuff happens, it’s done now. But it was only forty-two.”
“Someone lied on your record.”
“I lied on my record.”
“Why would you do that?” Benton found himself leaning forward; there was something unexpectedly earnest about him.
“Not important,” Kowalski was becoming increasingly distressed so Benton let that line of questioning go.
“Very well, you’re telling the truth about my father and you’re telling me the truth about lying. Why me?”
“Why you, what?” Kowalski seemed to relax and lodged himself into the cramped window seat.
“Well, you came back from the grave—apparently something which is not easily done. What would be your purpose for choosing me?” That, it seemed, was a question of some importance, and everything of importance Kowalski dodged. That first night he begged off on account of being too weak to cross over for very long, which could very likely have been true but had felt like a dodge. Any time that question reared its head again Kowalski avoided it like the plague, stepping quickly around its edges.
For now Benton left it, he had to leave it. Once time had passed it became glaringly obvious that whatever Kowalski’s motivations were, Benton finding the killers of his father was not part of his plan. That much was a gift, an atonement.
Forty-two was still quite a number. And Benton thought he knew why Kowalski had come to him out of all the people he must have known. The two of them were very similar. Kowalski’s life must have been very lonely, running to and fro at every crook of his government’s finger, losing his father to duty and space. The two of them were very similar indeed, and as desperate he saw that Kowalski was for atonement, Benton needed just as badly to save someone.
Ray made himself another cup of coffee in celebration (he couldn't really drink them, they just kind of piled up on his countertop and eventually disappeared to wherever the ghosts of coffee mugs past went). He actually took this mug with him, taking an automatic sip and tasting nothing, but it’s the effort that counts—and laid it against the work table he had banged together out of a couple of the crates his supplies came in. A lot of the stuff here was real old school, but then that was probably to be expected. The Borderland wasn’t that bad, though. He’d gotten his own little square of space and he knew just what he was going to do with it.