"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
|Some time around 2778.255 AS
Proceeding to the Red Rider, the pair discover that it's Ladies' Night. This involves the people in the bar cheering and doing the wave whenever a lady walks in, in addition to her getting the first drink free. Despite this plethora of inducements, the Red Rider does not seem to be chock full of ladies. Ace and Sophia take a table, and consider how to proceed. They could start swapping Zack stories, loudly - but Sophia's all have her in them. Sophia could let people buy her drinks if they tell a story - she allows as how that might work for the first three stories, but then someone would have to carry her out.
Ace starts on a Zack story, telling it quite entertainingly. A guy from a neighboring table calls out to the bartender that here's a Zack story he doesn't know! The bartender, Nelson Partlow, bustles over to listen. At first he's a little dubious and thinks Ace is just making it up, but it does have the hallmarks of a real Zack story. While Ace and Nelson are distracted, the guy from the next table tries to flirt with Sophia, but she confuses him enough that he eventually retreats.
Nelson tells a couple of stories himself, including the one-ton-tub of peanut butter story and the first instance of the line "But these are Mainwell asters!" In addition, he mentions that Zack was supposed to have come in from the asteroids before the big space battle, and that when they put up the statue, they put all the stuff he left in the bar, like his mug and his jacket (he'd been drinking for six months, it was cold when he came in), in the base of the statue. Sophia and Ace start thinking about how to manage that. Sophia also tells a Zack story, replacing herself with "a lady friend of Zack's" - Nelson thinks that's unusual, Zack wasn't really very much of a swinging type. He mostly supposedly had a tragic lost love once.
In any event, though, reconnaisance of the statue should be done well after closing time. The pair head back to the hotel to nap for four hours (Ace takes a while to get moving), and then back to the park square. Ace reconnoiters, while Sophia hangs about more obviously with the Zack Staughton book they got last time they were here.
"I'll play the Zack Staughton groupie."There doesn't seem to be a door in the pedestal; one option is to lift the statue off (but it's large and bronze), and another might be to come up from underneath. Hover the Dancer over the square and pull the statue up on a rope? That might be a little obvious. How about an antigrav belt? And then drop the statue on the mayor's roof. On the other hand, it's heavy. "You lose a lot of points towards it being a prank if you collapse the mayor's house."
"Aren't you a Zack Staughton groupie?"
As luck would have it, though, there's a manhole in the park that leads to a municipal conduit system. The locked grates are no match for Ace, but there aren't any conduits that run directly under the statue.
Sophia starts planning how to build a robomole, while Ace does some more recon, and bribes a municipal clerk to get the plans to the conduits with a lame story about a Zack Staughton scavenger hunt. The clerk is dubious - Ace is going to get a permit for this, right? Ace assures him he is. The conduit map indicates that there's nothing directly below the statue, and that the conduits, while concrete, are sheathed in weatherproofing.
Meanwhile, Sophia has been shopping, and acquired a number of vacuum cleaners and innumerable other little devices. She starts building. Rather than meet Ace at the Red Rider, she pulls an all-nighter and finishes, and then falls asleep on the floor, head pillowed on the vacuum cleaner. Ace checks in on her, and leaves a drink, a glass of water, and some aspirin. Alas, in the morning it proves to be the case that the vacuum exhaust turned on during the night, and blew dust and dirt all over the plans; they are smudged and ruined, and she can't quite remember how the last bit went.
There's no use in doing anything during the day, so the pair nap, and then head to the Red Rider for a third night of stories (it's Ladies' Night again - Ace is quickly deemed to have gotten the hang of it, bringing a lady on Ladies' Night and not otherwise). Nelson is curious where they're from; there aren't that many Zackophiles that he's never heard of before. Ace is from here and there, travelled to the inworlds, the outworlds, and everywhere in between. Sophia, on the other hand, is from around. She's briefly contemplative as she thinks that all the answers she could give ("From Ganfrey"? "from Sundown"?) would make no sense.
"I do miss Ganfrey, and the Institute."After it gets late again, the pair skulk through the streets, carrying the robomole under a blanket. Nobody notices. Then, they climb back into the conduit, where Sophia starts up the robomole. It's kinda noisy. Ace heads back up the ladder to the park, where he determines that the noise is at least noticable from the park. He heads back to the hotel to grab a radio and a microphone from the lounge downstairs, and then proceeds back to the park at best speed, only to discover Nelson standing in it looking somewhat puzzled. Does Ace hear that noise too? Ace does his best to convince Nelson that it's the sonic clue part of the scavenger hunt, but when the noise goes on and off (as Sophia cuts through the weatherproofing) and then turns into a tink tink tink CLUNK eep!, Nelson figures out that they're master thieves stealing the stuff. That's pretty cool.
"If only more folks had missed it."
Sophia has recovered the box, which is locked, but Ace isn't impressed by locks. The time capsule doesn't appear to have been deathtrapped, so Ace opens it. There's an old leather jacket, a transponder device with a button, a wallet with a Zack ID and several other fake IDs, plus a wallet picture of Zack, red hair getting gray, and a two-year-old girl, red hair just getting curly. Oh, and the mug.
Nelson opens up the bar again so they can toast Zack with the mug; Sophia puts vegetable oil on the jacket to try and get it a little less permanently folded. Ace gives the toast: "To Zack Staughton. Making mischief, causing smiles, breaking hearts to this day." Sophia is a little sniffly. What about the tranponder? Pushing the button suggests that the thing it's supposed to locate is in-system.
What should get done with the loot? "Zack would have wanted his stuff to go to the people who stole it from him," Ace claims, and neither Nelson nor Sophia can argue very hard with that. The mug should go back in the regulars' mug rack at the bar. Sophia wistfully talks about when she first met Zack - it was snowing, and she had forgotten her coat and was going to get Chinese food. He gave her his jacket then - she's keeping this one. Ace reckons as he's never given a wallet back before. And there's no way the transponder is going back without seeing what's at the other end.
So, a note gets written and put in the box, saying "Staughton was here." The box is left, with the robomole (because getting it out through Customs could be tricky), at the end of the dug-out tunnel under the statue, and the concrete hole is filled in again. Nelson says they have to tell him what the transponder goes to, though. They agree to come back and tell him. For now, though, it's bedtime.
In the morning, the Dancer heads back into space, pinging the asteroids with the transponder and following the (dying) signal. A somewhat painful mechanic later, they have located the asteroid in question, and dock and power the hollowed-out asteroid back up. Ace keeps Sophia from opening any of the doors or cabinets, but surprisingly, there seem to be no deathtraps.
In a desk drawer is a stack of plastiflimsy letters, and a folder of photographs. The photographs have a few of a younger Zack and a few landscapes, and then there's a slew of photos of what seems to be his daughter. A tiny baby, then the curly-haired two-year-old, then an older girl... then a wedding portrait of what looks like a red-haired Sophia marrying a man who looks ever so faintly like Ace. Then, another picture of the Sophia-like woman, older, with a baby on her lap.
Ace wants to know if Sophia left Zack with anything. No, she doesn't think so. The letters all appear to be from a woman named Melody. They range over several years, starting with "Let me know if you're okay - I don't even know if this drop is getting to you" to "Glad to know everything is all right" to, about two years in, "I'm getting married, can you please tell me if my mother is even still alive, I'd like to invite her" and then "what do you mean I wouldn't believe you, I believed all the other stories" and then a gap. Then, a letter of reconciliation telling Zack he has a grandson.
But where did he get the daughter, Sophia wonders out loud. Ace explains that when a daddy cell sample loves a mommy cell sample a real lot, that sometimes the can get together and recreate a lost love. Sophia thinks that's unethical. But would it have stopped Zack? Probably not.
Ace finds an antique blaster collection in a cabinet, and swaps his own blaster for an antique. The photos and letters are taken (to be scanned into the Hippocrates archives). Sophia downloads the last bits of data from the hidey-hole, those being the door lock logs. There's about three years in which someone came in and out an awful lot. Then, a bit over six months (when he's drinking in the Red Rider) when the accesses are very few. Then, nothing. Until about a year later, six months after Zack's defense of the Red Rider, at which point there's one access. And then nothing again, until Ace and Sophia show up.
There are three possibilities, as Ace sees it.
Back to the Red Rider. Nelson is filled in on most of the story, but not exactly where the asteroid is, and not the pictures of the grown-up Melody. Nelson is dying to know where the asteroid is, but Ace won't tell him, the meanie. Maybe if Nelson can figure out who in particular he was on the run from (the saltbreaker is a popular candidate), Ace will trade. They'll be back again, but if he finds anything specific out, send Ace email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Then, it's back into space to meet the rendezvous with Hippocrates, any future investigations to wait until another day.