Maybe not every Luna boy and girl dreams of becoming a farmer, but many do. I certainly did, before I learned that the pictures of Earth farming that you could see in books had little or nothing to do with "biome engineering," the complex technology of knitting plants and animals together under conditions far from those under which they had evolved. So after the disillusionment, Lunar children gravitate toward more possible dreams, like becoming medics, or firemen, or chefs.
But early dreams die hard, and many a Lunar native once immigrant to Venus discovers that farming still has allure, at least in the abstract. So they apply to farming posts and ship off as cheap labor to the clusters that supply food and fibers to the City and the Sky beyond. Some don't last even a month, and return to a more accustomed life, a bit sheepish maybe, but none the worst for having tried to live a childish fantasy. Others take to it with a convert's passion and the joy of being around real plants and non-human animals can be seen on their faces when they speak of their new lives.
Others stand it well enough, but it is never quite exactly right, never quite like being three years old again, or whatever it is that they really want and need. Even so, they are convinced that somewhere there is the perfect spot for them, the perfect position, or maybe even their own small farming cluster. And these are the ones who migrate, quickly or slowly becoming dissatisfied with their lot, always ready to pull up and move on to the next, the better, the best, most perfect place of all. Where all the fruits are unblemished, all the yields are high, where the insects pollinate the plants but never sting, and true love waits behind the carefully tended crab apple tree.
"Most of the position workers, they don't last long," Monick told us. "The average stay is maybe six weeks. Some get restless and move on, others get to sampling too much of the products, you know?" She gave us a knowledgeable smile.
"How was Sheila in that regard?" Lee asked her.
"No problem at all," Monick said. "It's unusual in fact to have a worker who does not indulge at all, but she stayed away from even coffee and chocolate.
"She loved the plants, though. She loved to tend to them and she was learning grafting from Large Bob. I was surprised when she didn't come back from vacation, because she had a project or two that was near to bearing fruit. Then we heard she was dead and that explained it." She shook her head in sadness.
"Did Sheila have any special friends or confidants?" I asked her.
"Well, Large Bob, of course, who we go to see now. Others? I dunno. She kept very to herself, you know?
"You got to understand how it is on the farm. We owners and permanent staff, we see many position people go through here. Some are friendly, some not. Most gone in a couple months. Some good workers, some not, but not many stay long. They are good for some good times, but mostly it's like an overnight, hard to remember names in the morning. I think that's why a lot of position people like the work. Be here today, gone tomorrow.
"Sheila now, she was in an odd state. She might have become staff one day, stay a few years, you can do that. Some staff even buy in eventually, become family. But she was not yet here long enough, so the staff mostly keep their distance, especially since she didn't party too hard, you know?
"On the other side of it, she have the same trouble with short timers that we do, no permanence to it, so what's the point? Maybe she had some gossip buddies, though. I'll ask around."
"We'd appreciate it," Lee told her.
I was surprised when she didn't come back from vacation, because she had a project or two that was near to bearing fruit. Then we heard she was dead and that explained it
Large Bob was shorter than my 190 centimeters and a few centimeters taller than Calvin. He was well-muscled, as all the men we'd seen so far had been, probably massing at just under 90 kilos.
"Do you mind if I mix up some dirt, while we talk?" he asked us. "We're going to be starting up another bloon for growing here soon, and I don't want to be caught short. It takes a while to cook the dirt, so you gotta keep ahead of it, you see."
It was clear that he was going to continue about his business regardless, so we said okay and asked what he could tell us about Sheila.
"Good worker," he said. "Kept to herself and didn't talk about her background much. 'A course we knew she was from Luna, most positionals are."
He lifted a couple of bags and slashed them open, holding them so that their contents poured into a large barrel. There was a small cloud of black dust as he poured.
"That's charcoal," he said as we stepped back. "Main matrix for the dirt. Next we add a bit of clay and powdered rock. Getting to be pretty cheap, rock is. All that lovely moondust that pays for the Venus air that Luna skims off."
He added the next ingredients, and continued.
"Sheila loved the plants, that's all there was to it. Never saw a greener thumb. Learned grafting like she was born for it. I couldn't understand it at first when she didn't come back. Not like her at all. Then we heard the news about it. Murder, they said. Did you see her?" He was looking at me, so I nodded.
"Was it bad?" he asked.
"Very bad," I told him.
He shook his head. "There's evil in the world, sure enough. Did they..." he hesitated. "She was a pretty one," he said. "Did they rape her first? Was that why they did it?"
"No evidence of rape," I told him. "It wasn't a pickup job."
He nodded. "Didn't really think it was. Sheila was shy, standoffish. Cautious, too. I don't think she'd have gone with a rapist; she wouldn't have gotten alone with someone she didn't know. She was happiest when there was no one else around. Oh, she tolerated folks well enough, and she liked me, I think. You like plants as much as she did and you get to liking other folks who have to do with plants. She once grafted a rose onto a coffee plant and managed to get the flowers to smell like coffee. After she did it she turned to me once and said, 'Wake up and smell the roses, but stop to smell the coffee' then she laughed out loud. Only time I can remember her laughing outright. Plenty of smiles, but not much laughter, that was Sheila."
The next bag he opened stank royally. He grinned as we wrinkled our noses. "Bloon guts," he told us. "Gotta have bloon guts or the soil won't grow. After that comes the ammonia nitrate, and we're done for now."
He sliced open a bag of AN and let it fall into the barrel. Then he began fastening the barrel top.
"Did she have any other friends here?" Calvin asked him. "Was she close to any of the other workers?"
Large Bob stopped to think. "She came in with a couple of other girls that she seemed to be pals with, but they left after a couple of months. About six months back there was a fella that she may have been sweet on, but he took a little too well to the coca and we had to let him go. She didn't overly grieve, so maybe she wasn't that sweet on him. Recently? Maybe May Belle, or maybe Doria. No wait, Doria left about three weeks ago and didn't come back."
"Did Doria leave a forwarding post? Do you know where she went?"
"You'll have to ask the office 'bout that," he said.
He upended the barrel climbed onto it and began to roll it on the floor, like dancing on a treadmill. "Gotta mix the plant meal," he told us. "We let it sit for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, then put in the bacteria and a few pioneer seeds. Soon it's a regular plant banquet." He grinned at us from his perch atop the barrel, his little balance dance a thing of comic beauty.
It didn't seem like we'd gotten much information for the time we'd spent getting there. "Were you and Sheila ever lovers?" I asked him.
He looked up at me. "Nah," he said. "She never asked and I've got three wives already. Not looking for a fourth, not me. Three's a little more than I can handle sometimes."
"Some men say that about one," Calvin Lee told him.
The farmer stopped rolling the barrel and winked at us. "Maybe I can handle a bit more than most men," he said with an expansive palms up gesture. "Why do you think I'm called 'Large Bob?'"
I've got three wives already. Not looking for a fourth, not me.
May Belle was a tiny woman with large, brown eyes. She was about thirty and was the closest to outright African descent that we'd seen at Marley Farm. She was on the staff, but not one of the owners; she'd grown up on a nearby farm that had ceased operation about fifteen years ago in the wake of the financial readjustments that had first come when Comet Alpha rearranged the water market and then when the bloon products market changed after the first megastorm at Venus' north pole. She had hopes to get on the Farm staff one day, but no illusions about the likelihood, and she had the same easygoing attitude about past, present, and future that the rest of the Marley folks seemed to have.
Besides the usual gossip-swapping with Sheila, May Belle professed to not even knowing the dead girl that well and she had nothing really to add to what Large Bob and Monick had told us. Sheila was good with plants and shy to the point of being standoffish. That was all May Belle could really offer to us.
She had a bit more to say about Doria, last name Adams, who had left without notice and no forwarding. Doria had just gone on vacation and never come back, just like Sheila, but with no murder, or at least none that had surfaced.
"She was a tobacco head, though, I can tell you that. She was discreet, but she had a taste for it. Mostly snuff, I'd say, or when she did ganja, she'd mix in quite a bit more tobac than hemp. She liked her coca wine, too. I'd put her as a real party type.
"What was her background?" Calvin asked May Belle. "Where was she born?"
"Venus, I think," she told us. "But her parents were Lunas, I believe she said. Off world, anyway. She moved around a lot, of course, like so many of them do."
"Any idea on where she worked previously?" I asked her.
"I didn't ask, she didn't tell. Probably in her record, though, if she was telling the truth." The tone of her voice indicated that May Belle had some doubts as to Doria's acquaintance with the truth.
We got back to the aircar and set back for Sky City, hoping to make it before nightfall. The clouds were beginning their afternoon color dance now, and lower air turbulence was beginning to make the cloudtops do a slow boil.
"Do you think that drugs were a part of it?" Calvin Lee asked me after a long thoughtful period of travel.
"That would be my first guess," I told him. "But that doesn't tell us much. What kind of drugs? Cannabis, tobacco or coca are good candidates, but I imagine they grow poppies at Marley Farms as well. Opiates have a lot of synthetic substitutes. From an illegal sales standpoint that means both that you have an already existing market, but also that there's a cap on your price."
"Then there's the question of where the market is," he observed. "What Mr. Horowith called 'herbs' are legal in Sky City, but tightly controlled. There's always the possibility of offworld export, but that's very tricky. I doubt that Horowith has the kind of connections to do that job. From his standpoint, even if what he sells winds up illegal somewhere, he's on the up and up."
"During my time with Drugs and Vice back on Luna," I said, "The common illicit drugs we saw were all synthetics: amphetamines, synthetic opiates, hallucinogens. I think I saw tobacco twice in three years, cannabis maybe a dozen times. There's no local sources, illegal, too easily detected. They put too many things into the air. We had biosniffers that could detect a single instance of cannabis cultivation that impinged on the Luna City air supply. Tobacco, too. In the last few years some of the outlying domes have been reactivated, so there's a slim chance that someone could start up a farm in one of the small domes, but it would be awfully risky."
"With no existing market, one would have to be developed," he said. "I think I'll put a search demon on the Interpol database to see if there has been anything new."
"You should probably put a trace on Doria Adams, also," I offered. He nodded in agreement.
Then he was silent again, with a look of concentration on his face. At length he spoke again. "What would be a motive for torture?" he asked me.
Torture can be to make an example of the victim. In political torture, the victim might give a confession, but it's also to show other people what happens when you step out of line. It’s just another form of punishment.
It’s a question I’ve thought about before, but that didn’t keep me from thinking some more about it while he was waiting for a reply. "Three reasons, that I can think of," I told him finally. "Any or all of them could apply.
"First, someone could want something, like information, or a confession, that the victim can give. Confessions are easier than information, since a confession doesn’t have to be true. Any information you get through torture is suspect. Someone will tell you almost anything under the right torture, just to get it to stop.
"Second, torture can be to make an example of the victim. In political torture, the victim might give a confession, but it's also to show other people what happens when you step out of line. It’s just another form of punishment.
"Third, the torturer might just enjoy it."
He looked at me, obviously wanting to ask more questions, but unsure about how I'd react. We were getting close to the box that doesn't get opened and he knew it. So I saved him some trouble.
"I've seen some cases, obviously. I recognized the electrode marks on Sheila. Some of the gangs on Luna are like secret lodges, with initiations, penalties, rituals. Some of their initiation rites look a lot like torture, too, so maybe that's a fourth category, where the victim is willing and expects to get something out of it, as well.
"But I can tell you one thing. Sometimes after they're caught, you can talk to the torturers, try to get inside their heads, which may be a mistake, because it's evil dark in there. I've done the interviews myself, and whatever else the bastards said about it, the third motive always applies. A lot of times the first two are just an excuse, but they always enjoyed it. Every one of them."
And in the long silence that followed, I felt my inner landscape tremble, and let my one silent denial echo through the depths. Except for me, I asserted against my demon conscience. I never enjoyed it. Not once. It was a horror from beginning to end.
And as always, I prayed that it was the truth, and that I could believe it, just for a moment, sometime before I died.