Single Handed

Gordon was halfway across the lobby, mental processes almost totally consumed in anticipation of a meal at Fairdig’s, when his handheld bleeped. He ignored the electronic plea for attention – there were some things more important than hotel business (and dammit, Martin A. Fairdig, famed chef of the Skytop Plaza’s only eight-star restaurant, was a culinary genius) – but paused when the unit bleeped again. Then again. It was astounding, how much plaintive urgency could be conveyed by a simple sonic tone … it bleeped once more. Cursing – Gordon was off duty, and the caller almost certainly knew it – he pressed ‘answer’.

“Gordon,” he intoned, with as much weary resignation as those two syllables could hold (which was, in truth, quite a lot). The crossword-puzzle screensaver faded out, replaced by the caller’s face. Not, felt Gordon, a visual enhancement. This had better be urgent. But not too complicated. He hoped the handheld’s microphone didn’t pick up his rumbling belly.

“Hey-yah, Gords. Catch you at a bad time?” Con Sierje, the hotel’s duty manager, radiated the offensive glee of someone who’d found the perfect sucker on whom to unload his in-tray’s current assortment of steaming crapwork. Gordon didn’t even bother to answer, beyond making a strained effort not to glower. Sierje continued cheerily, “Bit of a situation, looks like you’re the o- the best person to take care of it.”

“Con, I’m off duty.”

“Yeah, sure, sorry and all that. There’s been a murder.”

Murder? Con, topside I’m just customer service. Complaints, info desk requests, miscellaneous errands and, if you smile sweetly enough, lost luggage. I don’t do detection.”

“Yeah, you do if we say so. Ever read the nano-print in your contract? Plus, you did that Formey case a coupla months back,” Sierje argued.

“Yeah, but that time, there really was no-one else within ten-tousand klicks. Can’t one of the hotel police crews tackle this?”

“It’s their annual social, booked out the bar at Heisenberg’s or someplace. Doubt you’d find any of them with the sobriety of a tequila worm by now.”

“Yes, but Con … what about the regular security staff? House detectives? Anyone? There’s gotta be someone else.”

“Nope. That new Venusian flu that’s going round, ground leave, and the rest of them in the slammer. Don’t ask. You’re it right now, Gords.”

“If, hypothetically, I agreed … would I get any kind of, uh, physical authority? Weaponry?”

“I can lend you a pair of plastic cuffs and a tube of fluoro-dye to identify the perp.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of a taser or a sonic whip.”

“Sorry, Gord, security regs …”

Whose security, Gordon wondered? He took another tack. “Uhh – what about backup?”

“Gord, if you don’t know by now how to save stuff on your handheld …”

Gordon’s sigh was sufficiently deep and heartfelt that an elderly passerby looked nervously around as if checking for an airleak. “There really is no-one else? Okay, then I suppose it’s me. Show me dealing.”

“You moonlighting as a croupier now, then?” Sierje asked.

Wise guy. “Look, just where is this murder? What do I need to do?”

“It’s off-station. Dart of Harkness, moored over in the Beta Quadrant.” So, not even in the hotel proper, but on a bloody ship. Gordon could sense the phantom of his notional Fairdig’s dinner receding ever further into the depths of improbability.

“Okay, what’s the link-tube number?”

“There isn’t a link-tube. Told you, it’s off-station. Really off-station. You’ll need a shuttle. Go to shuttle bay 2B, should be one there.”

“2B. Great. Anything else I need to know? Who’s the stiff?”

“Ship’s full of them. But the dead one’s the captain. Have fun.”

*

How could there be this much turbulence in orbital space? Was the pilot flight-simming a combat mission? Or lost?

Gordon’s other thought processes, during the shuttle ride aboard the Hamlet’s Pencil, oscillated between a grudging gratitude that he’d been interrupted before, rather than after, his intended dinner, and a sense of puzzlement that the Dart of Harkness wasn’t tethered to the hotel superstructure, as was normally the case. It wasn’t as if this was high season, or anything …

“Hold on,” the pilot announced cryptically, as the shuttle started to spin. What the hell was the guy playing at? Gordon swallowed, closed his eyes – no, that was worse – and at length fathomed the purpose behind the shuttle’s gyrations. They were nudging closer to the Dart of Harkness, a ramshackle-seeming cluster of fuel tanks, all encircling a central hab module, the whole assembly spinning around its collective axis.

Spin-gravity? Who spun ships anymore? Hadn’t these people heard of artificial grav?

The shuttle nosed tentatively towards the starship’s axial docking port, which took considerably longer than Gordon had expected – the Harkness was bigger and more distant than he’d first judged – and ultimately mated with a well-calibrated clang. Gordon thanked the pilot, willed his stomach and inner ears to sort it out amongst themselves in as dignified a fashion as possible, and pulled himself hand over hand towards the airlock.

*

The corridors, studded with rubbery handgrips and lined with Velcro, all in last year’s shade of off-cream, bent around and away from the ship’s inner airlock like unfurling tentacles. Along one particular corridor, a sequence of pinkly glowing floor panels (or was that the ceiling?), progressing at something like a slow walking pace, suggested the appropriate direction, or so Gordon assumed. With no indications to the contrary, he followed.

After a few minutes of awkward, bruised, Brownian progress, down began to assert itself with more conviction. The chosen corridor branched repeatedly, offering also doorways and stairwells; the glow-signal flowed past these. The ship, Gordon reminded himself, was big.

“Good evening. How should I address you?” The disembodied voice, ageless and androgynous, emanated from directly behind him. No matter which way he turned.

“Gordon. Gordon Mamon. And you are?” He continued walking, not wishing to exhaust the glow-path’s patience.

The voice appeared to have kept pace. “Cassandra. Ship’s oversight, guidance, and control systems. Please call me Cassie, if the pretense of familiarity simplifies your task here. But I was enquiring as to your rank, for protocol purposes. Detective? Inspector? Senior investigator?”

He gave up playing locate-the-voice. Besides, gravity was still hesitant enough that the gyrations weren’t helping his stomach. “Skylift operator, third class.”

“Excuse me? You’re here to investigate the murder? We were expecting someone a little more …”

Qualified? Competent? Tall?

“… specialised.”

“I have investigated homicides before this,” replied Gordon, with as much dignity as he could manage.

“Often?” The synthesised voice’s derision was evident.

“I have a one hundred percent success rate,” he said, neglecting to add that the only other possible value would have seen him dead.

“Then we had better hope this success continues here.”

Gravity was, Gordon thought, approaching Earth-normal. How much longer did this corridor go on for? “Cassie? What can you tell me about this murder?”

“I can give you the victim’s name, and guide you to the location. Nothing beyond that, I’m afraid.”

“So you’ve no information on who committed it, or how?”

“Oh, that I know,” explained Cassie. “But the crew’s wellbeing is my paramount concern. It would violate Asimov’s First Law for me to divulge that information.”

Gordon stopped dead – metaphorically, I mean; that is, literally stopped, but not literally dead, so maybe in that sense a mixed metaphor; or maybe not, perhaps just a badly-chosen phrasing – and turned around, again vainly trying to face Cassie’s voice. “What d’you mean? You know, but you’re not telling? There’s been a murder, hasn’t there? Doesn’t murder violate First Law?”

“Yes, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t even manage to anticipate it. Look, the Captain’s dead, and that is something deeply, deeply troubling to my emotion-simulation programming, but I can’t change the fact of it. The murderer, however, still has rights, and I believe those rights would be infringed if I revealed his – or her – identity. Nonetheless, since there is clearly a requirement that the crime not go unsolved if possible, I will cooperate fully with your investigation, short of providing any meaningful assistance.”

“Uh, thanks,” said Gordon, remembering just why he disliked robotics so much. “But isn’t it against your programming, somehow, to allow a murderer to go free? What if he, or she, strikes again? You’d be culpable, surely.”

“No, I’d still be acting within the constraints of my programming. Hypothetically, if there was another murder, I’d be devastated –”

“No you wouldn’t, you’d just simulate distress,” Gordon retorted.

“Yes, very well, if you wish. But I don’t anticipate that happening. I don’t see any motive for the murderer to attack anyone else on the ship – although, in your case, obviously you should watch your back …”

Gordon turned around; but wherever Cassie was, it wasn’t there.

“You did say you had a 100 percent success rate?” Cassie asked, behind him once more.

*

“Captain Kurtz. She’s dead,” the crewman explained. It was a redundant observation. Gordon, with his vastly limited knowledge of detection and homicide, could have deduced that aspect of Kurtz’s condition entirely unassisted. But as long as he didn’t look too closely at her neck, he probably wouldn’t vomit …

Gordon selected the ‘crime scene’ function on his handheld, and swept it through the air like a mime artist marking out an imaginary glass cubicle. The handheld helpfully announced that there were traces of blood on the room’s surfaces.

There were more than traces. He found it difficult to imagine how such a quantity of blood had been contained within Kurtz’s small frame. There was blood spattered on the walls and the spartan plastiwood furniture of the Captain’s quarters; blood soaked thickly into the cheap fabric tiles on the floor; blood splashed all over the Captain herself; and a considerable quantity of blood on the hands and clothing of the Harkness’s troubled chief engineer, Rusty Flange. The latter, a pale, greying middle-aged jockey of a man in once-white overalls, shook as though from cold. His voice shook also: Flange, Gordon judged, was understandably in high distress. The engineer told how he’d been in an adjoining corridor, had heard a commotion, and had rushed to Kurtz’s quarters to find her sprawled on the floor, blood pulsing from an ugly gash across her throat. He’d raised the alarm, had grabbed a haemoseal bandage from the nearest first-aid kit, and had made a futile attempt to quell the bleeding. The bandage lay discarded on the floor beside Kurtz. Gordon, gloved hand, lifted up the sodden wreck of salve-impregnated cloth – Kurtz wouldn’t be needing it again – scanned it, and dropped it thoughtfully into an evidence bag.

“Any sign of a weapon?”

Flange started, staring first at the dead captain, then at Gordon. “W-weapon? No. Nothing.”

Something had to slice through that neck. Gordon switched the handheld to ‘autopsy / forensics’ and held it, close as he dared, above that awful gash.

“You see anyone leave her cabin?” Gordon asked, continually trying to avert his gaze from the magnetic pull of the Captain’s death-scar. This was much worse than the last time. The other time. This was what murder victims were supposed to look like.

“No, I didn’t see nobody, but there must’ve been someone here. Think I probably just missed them again.”

“What d’you mean, again? Have there been other attacks?”

“Nothing like that. But the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking there’s someone doesn’t belong on the ship, not on the list or anything. Never quite seen them, but I’ve been hearing things, catching glimpses in my eye. That’s what I mean it was like, this time, just before I found the Captain. I could hear the tail end of an argument – dunno what about – and then that scream …”

That should be long enough to get a forensics reading. He pulled the handheld back towards him, still not looking directly. Nothing yet. “Have you moved anything in here?”

“No, that would be presum-; shit, sorry, that’s not what I meant, it’s just I was 2-in-C, so now – uh, no, haven’t moved anything. Haven’t been out of the room yet, since.”

“And this was, what, two hours ago?” The handheld had at least come up with an estimated Time Of Death, and a diagnosis: ‘damaged, irreparable, suggest request replacement’.

“About two and a half, now. Eighteen fifty-five, plus or minus five. Am I a suspect, Mr. – ?”

“Mamon. You’re present at a crime scene. Naturally I must ask sufficient questions to establish your involvement, or otherwise, but I’ll need to speak to anyone else who could have been here.” Gordon wondered if the resolution of the handheld’s scanner was high enough to get decent fingerprints off the furniture in here, or footprints from the blood-trampled floor. He’d need to chase up Cassie for details on the current crew – as long as she didn’t regard that as information likely to assist him. Better not count on it.

Bloody computers.

“Seen anyone else while you’ve been in here?”

“Just McPhaillia and Gramacek, they’re the only ones supposed to be awake still I think.”

“What d’you mean? On a passenger ship this big?”

“How much do you know about the Dart of Harkness, Mr. Memo?”

“Mamon,” Gordon growled. “The name is Mamon. And as for the ship… suppose you tell me what I need to know?”

*

The Church of the Blessed Echidna, at least, Gordon had heard of. Secretive, incredibly wealthy, but apparently past the heyday of its popularity. The CBE, said Flange, had been working towards independent starflight for the past twenty years, but was hampered by the strictures of its faith, which maintained that all this modern mucking about with hyperspace, wormholes, teleportation, warp drives, tachyonic propulsion and the like was the work of the Great Deceiver, and thus untenable in the eyes of the faithful. Nonetheless, keen to establish a ‘bastion of purity and truth’ in a neglected pocket of the Galaxy, far from the interference of nonbelievers, the CBE had commissioned the construction of its own vessel, the Dart of Harkness. The Harkness contained some three thousand souls, almost all already deep in the centuries-long cryosleep that would sustain them while the antimatter-fueled ship crawled across the scant half-dozen parsecs to the asteroidal rubble encircling the nearest unclaimed brown dwarf.

“Did you say antimatter?” Gordon asked. He hadn’t realised anyone was still using the stuff. Hyperspatial travel was faster, cheaper, safer, and vastly more popular. A hyperspace vessel could cover the twenty-light-year distance within a day.

Rusty Flange bristled. “There’s scientific proof that the soul doesn’t survive FTL travel,” he countered. “Within those constraints, matter-antimatter annihilation’s the best propulsion system money can buy.”

“Sure, but –” Gordon strove to refocus on the task at hand. The thought of voluntarily submitting to an unimaginably long span of frozen sleep, only waking on arrival to some dimly-lit astronomical rock garden in which one would spend the rest of one’s days … people were strange, sometimes. Too often, in fact, and by and large there was no point in arguing with them, particularly on matters of faith. He asked Flange a few more questions, concluded the interview, and went off down the spiraling corridor in search of the Harkness’ other as-yet-unfrozen inhabitants.

Was it just his imagination, or was it cold in here?

*

“What can you tell me of your movements over the past five hours?” Gordon asked. He was stationed in the ship’s clinic, conducting his second interview. Sister Edie McPhaillia, the ship’s physician, was a dark-robed mocha-skinned brunette, late thirties, with asymmetric eyebrows and the short skinny physique almost universally preferred by spaceline employment interview panels. (Gordon reflected that on a reaction-drive starship, where every kilogram added to the cost, such a physique was probably even more highly favoured.)

“I don’t see what possible relev- oh, see what you mean, now. Been in here, mostly,” replied Sister McPhaillia. Gordon surmised that she had either been weeping copiously, or was surprisingly maladroit in the application of mascara. “Only time I went out was for dinner, about four hours ago – we’re not supposed to eat before the cryosleep, but I couldn’t bear the thought of three hundred years on a hungry stomach. Like the Parable of the Jaguar Running on Empty.”

“Dinner? Where?”

“Ship’s cafeteria. Left, up, then aft about a hundred metres from here, I can show you if you’d like – and then I went to collect Skip – Mr. Gramacek for his cryotreatment.” (Gordon checked his notes. Yes, Gramacek, the ship’s communications officer, was the other name down for interview after McPhaillia.) “He’s been nervous, poor dear, doesn’t want to go under, so we talked it through – I’m medic / counsellor / chaplain, so I approached it from all angles, and then after we’d talked I, um, ministered to him … and then the alarm went off, and we found Rusty bent over the Captain, holding that bandage to her neck. Horrible, horrible thing. The bandages aren’t designed for such massive blood loss, but Rusty wasn’t to know that, I suppose. A bit like the Parable of the Town Mouse and the Country Computer. Anyway, once I saw there was no help I could offer, I came back here to finish prepping the last four cryobooths.”

Gordon could see the waiting cryobooths, parked in a neat row against the wall of the clinic like so many tech-heaven caskets. Beside them stood an immense, fog-breathing stainless-steel canister labelled ‘LN2’.

“Poor Rusty,” McPhaillia added.

“Why d’you say that?”

“He was very attracted to the Captain. Look, Mr. Mutton,” (Gordon winced), “we’ve all been working towards this for the past fifteen years, us four crewmembers I mean, Rusty most of all. Did you know he oversaw the construction of this starship himself? They don’t make antimatter drives any more, so he had to track down old blueprints, and even though it’s obsolete by today’s standards it’s still proscribed tech, so the construction’s been very hush-hush. It’s taken a lot out of him. Plus it’s taken a long time for the Church to raise the money for this vessel, and relationships develop over that time. Like me and Skip. Rusty and Captain Kurtz hadn’t gotten quite that far – it had only been fifteen years, after all, no sense in rushing into things – but there was definitely some sort of spark between them, you could see it. Like the Parable of the Electric Eel and the Battery Hen, you know? The Captain always wanted to know what he’d been up to, and Rusty always wanted to know where she was – just longed for each other’s company, I guess. And now –” she dabbed at the corner of her eye with a sterilised dressing – “he’s going to spend the next three hundred years grieving …” McPhaillia blew her nose noisily into a thick wad of surgical cotton, which she then placed absently back on the gurney beside her.

“Yes, but he’ll be in cryosleep all that time,” observed Gordon. “That’ll only seem like a day or so. I shouldn’t imagine he’ll take that long to heal afterwards.”

“You think that matters, Mr. Marram? Three hundred years is three hundred years.”

*

The Gramacek interview, in the latter’s quarters, was a painfully tense affair. Gordon’s handheld had decided, two minutes before interview’s commencement, to provide an update on its analysis of the autopsy results. Frustratingly, there was no information on the nature of the knife used to slash Captain Kurtz’s neck: no detectable residue of any metal, plastic, glass or other feasible knife-blade material, but traces of food particles suggested the incision had been deep enough to sever the gullet as well as the jugular. The handheld also revealed to Gordon the results of the wide-spectrum police database name-search he’d instigated several minutes earlier. Flange and McPhaillia had come up clear, but Gramacek’s past history was bizarre. At least it explained his fear of cryosleep …

“Mr. Gramacek? Can you account for your whereabouts over the past six hours?” Gordon strove to keep his voice neutral. After all, he had no proof. Yet.

“I’m talkin’ to you now, ain’t I?” Skip Gramacek was a balding, angry sparrow of a man, with a permanent scowl set in a face like a sunbleached relief map.

“Yes, but before this …”

“Lessee … Edie, that’s Sister McPhaillia to you, dropped by my quarters about four, five hours ago, I was trying to pick an outfit for the big sleep.”

“Big sleep?”

“Yeah, you know, napsicle time.” Gramacek shivered. “While we waits out the trip to Shangvanatopia. Anyways, me and Edie went back to the clinic, we – um – then we gets the alarm call from Cassie, we dropped by Kurtz’s quarters, she were dead as, so I come back here. Been here since.”

No remorse. That wasn’t going to make this any easier. He lifted his handheld to head height, scanning Gramacek for weaponry in the same way he’d done for Flange and McPhaillia. Clean, just like the others.

“Mr. Gramacek. Why did the state subject you to a failed lethal injection twenty-eight years ago?”

“Cause they couldn’t get a decent medical executioner. Bloody cowboy, I still gets these dizzy spells, all these years later –”

Gordon tried again. “No, I mean what were you sentenced for?”

“Knife attacks. They found a couple, maybe three, dames, slashed in the jugular, the cops put me in the frame and then decided they liked the way that looked. I got a lawyer as useless as wings on a coconut, thinks if he can’t show I didn’t do it, then I must of done it, next thing I knows they’re strapping me into a Terminal Care stretcher and squirting me full of Dr. Death’s midnight cocktail, only some shitbrained dropkick intern forgot to add the eleventh secret herb and spice, so it don’t work like we’re all expecting it will, and they commutes it to life without parole. Then I found God, or He found me – we’re still arguing about that, the two of us – meantime, some journo turns up enough clues to indicate that, whoever done those poor chicks, and they still don’t know who, whoever, it couldn’t of been me. So they just had to release me, got me a pardon and everything. Plus these dizzy spells, like I mentioned.”

“Look, to be honest, Gramacek, a pardon’s all well and good, but you don’t have much of an alibi. You’re one of only three people awake on the ship who could’ve murdered Captain Kurtz, far as I can see, with an M.O. almost identical to a set of previous murders in which you’ve been implicated. Put yourself in my shoes …”

The crewman cracked his knuckles. “You accusin’ me, Mr. Mambo? I’ve been framed once already, for something I didn’t do, don’t fancy that again. I didn’t do it, and I bets when you analyse them you’ll find it won’t be my prints on the murder weapon.”

Gordon bit his lip. He didn’t want to let on that he didn’t yet have a murder weapon, nor any prints or material clues. Just a corpse and a blood-soaked bandage.

“Look,” continued Gramacek. “Suppose I can’t blame you for trying. But it weren’t me. It weren’t Edie, and I don’t believe it were Rusty neither. Dunno who that leaves, maybe we got us a stowaway. But I really resents the accusation, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Real bad taste.” Fingers interlaced, he flexed his hands, like someone preparing for unarmed combat. Wiry, Gordon decided, appraising the other’s physique. Plenty of muscle, evenly distributed. Much more than a match for a paunching hotel employee, who didn’t exercise much of anything except his console fingers.

“Of course, you’re entitled to presumption of innocence, same as anyone,” said Gordon uneasily.

“Just maybe a bit more suspicion than most, right, Mr. Mamba?” Gramacek stood up from the bed he’d been sitting on; Gordon took an involuntary step backwards, but the other was, it appeared, only interested in picking up a couple of outfits off his clothing canister. Then he turned to the reluctant detective. “Three hundred years asleep. Been meanin’ to ask you, do you reckon the blue, or the green-and-white?”

*

“Cassie?”

“Yes, Mr. Mamon?”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Obviously, I must answer truthfully. Lying would be a breach of Second Law.”

Yes, but aren’t you claiming that assisting me would violate First Law, in your interpretation? There was no point in pursuing that line of debate. Either Cassie would tell the truth, or she’d lie, and Gordon would have to figure out which for himself. “I’m done interviewing for now. Is there a room I can use for an office?”

“Nobody’s using the captain’s quarters right now …”

“Isn’t there somewhere else? This ship’s immense.”

“Yes, but a lot of it’s fuel tanks, antimatter and the like. You do know I’m antimatter-powered?”

“Yes, I’d heard. Look, I can’t use a crime scene for my office. Can’t you find somewhere else?”

“I can guide you to dorm 3Z, you can sit on one of the cryobooths. Sorry, best I can do. And by the way, you’ll need to wrap this up in the next six hours.”

Six hours?” Gordon hoped he wouldn’t be here that long – Fairdig’s would probably be closed by the time he finished here, but still … it seemed an unreasonable limitation. “Why?”

“Orbital dynamics. I must launch in six hours, or I’ll miss the orbital slingshot sequence we need to boost towards Shangvanatopia. We’d have to wait another thirty-three years before Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are aligned again – or buy another few hundred tonnes of antimatter, and the Church can’t afford that.”

Great. “Believe me, I don’t want to hold you up, but I still have a job to do. Anyway, before you show me to this dorm, can you direct me to the cafeteria? I need to eat.”

*

The barn-cavernous cafeteria – three thousand people, Gordon reminded himself – was empty save for Sister McPhaillia, seated eating at a distant table. He approached.

Steak. Cut, Gordon noted, with a serious-looking steak knife.

That was the closest he’d seen yet to a potential murder weapon.

“Where’d you get the knife?”

“That cupboard over there, under the bench. Help yourself.”

“Anyone can take one?” The cupboard was still open.

“Sure. Why? You hungry?”

“No. Well, yes, but …”

“Look, anyone can get cutlery, anytime they want – but they can’t leave the cafeteria with it, if that’s what you’re thinking. Security. Like the Parable of the Lone Shark and the Hired Mussel.”

“What’s to stop them taking it out?”

“Try it.”

Gordon did.

When he’d convinced himself the klaxon hadn’t actually caused his ears to bleed, he sat across from McPhaillia and waited while the internal ringing faded to a tolerable level. “What’d you say?”

“No need to shout. I said, there’s a chip in the handle, activates an out-of-bounds alarm. So there’s no way it could be used for a murder in the captain’s quarters.”

“You could still kill someone with it in the cafeteria,” Gordon noted.

“Suppose so, but the food’s not that bad.”

It would have been a lot of effort to transport the dead Captain from the cafeteria to her quarters; and the quantity of blood in Kurtz’s room, plus its absence from the sparkling-clean cafeteria and the corridors between, suggested that she’d died in situ.

But if a cafeteria knife hadn’t caused Kurtz’s downfall, what had?

“Where’d you get the steak?” There was nothing resembling a fridge, nor a pantry.

“Replicator.” She pointed to a freestanding shape he’d originally identified as an industrial oven. “Like some? I’m not sure I can finish. It’s 60% real beef, very good …”

“Uh, thank you, no. Not right now. That replicator – can it replicate anything?”

“Only Church-sanctioned foodstuffs. 60% is the highest for meat products, and believe me, anything less than sixty, you don’t want to touch. Fruit, vegetables, cereal, juice – it’s really very versatile, and quite authentic. Someone today even dialled up a melon, I found it in the corridor just on the way back from the Captain’s room. The shell of it, I mean – someone must’ve eaten the melon pulp. I was kinda curious, but melon gives me hives –”

“Why didn’t you mention this in your interview?”

“I didn’t think a minor medical condition seemed relevant.”

“No, I mean the melon. In the corridor.” Gordon was missing something, but he had no idea what. Hadn’t ‘melon’ been among the food particles the handheld’s severed-gullet-cam had identified? “How close to Captain Kurtz’s room?”

“Like right outside, just a couple of steps. Are you suggesting the Captain was killed by a melon?

Gordon pictured the wound that had riven Kurtz’s jugular. “No. But this is something that could, in some form, be evidence. It makes me wonder what else I may have missed. What did you do with the melon?”

“I binned it, of course. The Church doesn’t condone littering with food scraps – you know, the Parable of the Necessary Weevil – and the thought of leaving it out for three hundred years …”

“This bin here?” Gordon asked, crossing to a waste container stationed opposite the replicator.

“No, a wall-mounted one way back along the corridor. Don’t think there’s anything in that one.”

Gordon had lifted the bin lid, anyway. Damn, he hadn’t thought to be checking the garbage. How many bins did this ship have, and how would he search them all in the intervening five-and-a-half hours?

Sister McPhaillia was wrong about the kitchen bin being empty. It held a large quantity of melon pulp.

Now what did that mean?

*

Down to one hour forty, and Gordon was wasting time; but sometimes, he felt, wasting it was the best use to make of it. Especially when a crossword was involved.

Seated on a casket, one of over a hundred in dorm 3Z, cold, almost freezing to the touch. His buttocks required thawing; and, fittingly, his leg had gone to sleep. Still, shouldn’t be too much longer. Just one clue to finish:

Absolute reversal on eating (8). Second letter ‘e’.

One clue left, and he was stumped.

(Wasn’t Gordon an anagram of ‘drongo’?)

One hour thirty. He racked his brain. He’d found the melon shell, in the first bin upslope along the corridor from the Captain’s quarters. It was, when you looked into it, just a melon shell, and spoke nothing of the indescribable violence with which Kurtz’s life had ended. A wasted effort, on his part, to have looked for it. Just an empty shell, a husk … it didn’t help, to put Flange, or McPhallia, or Gramacek into the frame, nor to exclude any of them. None of them had anything approaching a decent alibi; but as to motive, or means …

One hour twenty-six. This casket was cold. Idly wondering just how cold, he switched his handheld from crossword to environment-monitoring. A menu offered thermal imaging. Gordon stood up. In infrared, the casket was deep blue, shading to a pale yellow-green at the thermal indentation of his buttock-print on the lid. All of the other caskets were similarly blue (but unadorned, of course, by the imprint of the Mamon backside), except for one of them. That one showed as a neutral green. Warm.

Gordon thought back to Flange’s suggestion of someone irregular on board – a stowaway, but it could just as well have been a sleeper-that-wasn’t. He went over to the warm casket. Empty.

Something clicked in his mind, and he raced out into the corridor. This ship was a rabbit warren, but he thought he could find the clinic from here.

One hour nineteen. Nobody in the clinic. He thought to remember there’d been mention of a final pre-launch check in the ship’s automated control centre.

He did a quick inventory of the clinic, comparing it against the handheld’s image taken during the interview with McPhaillia. There. Three cryobooths, where previously four had stood.

He had it. Solved. He felt a rush of satisfaction, as the last piece of the puzzle fitted into place. It was always a relief, a sense of renewal, to see that he hadn’t lost his touch. Negation.

Of course.

Now he just had to solve the murder, and he’d be done here.

*

Thirty-five minutes. This was going to be tight. Gordon bundled his awkward load into the crook of his left arm, hoping he didn’t spill anything, while he palmed the door override. The door sloughed open.

The control centre was crowded, it wasn’t designed to hold four, but then, the ship was fully automated. Cassie, in effect, was the pilot. Everyone else, crew included, were essentially passengers.

Nobody looked pleased to see him, but that was typical. And nobody here, he suspected, would thank him for what he was about to do.

“Cassie,” he called.

“Here,” she replied. Dead ahead this time.

“Can you open an external comm link, to hotel security, please? There probably won’t be anyone present, let alone sober, but there should at least be an answerphone or something.”

“Complying,” Cassie responded. ‘Does this mean you have an announcement?”

“Perhaps,” said Gordon. He still wasn’t sure of this himself, he hadn’t had time to allow things to crystallise in his mind. But – thirty-two minutes.

“Can we make this quick, please?” asked McPhaillia. “I’ve still got to freeze three people, myself included.”

“I don’t believe time is going to be an issue, if that’s any reassurance,” Gordon said. “Incidentally, how do your caskets get from the clinic to the appropriate dorm?”

“Cassie pilots them, of course,” the medic replied. “They’re all motorised.”

“So that explains how, last time I checked, one of the four had been moved from the clinic to the dorm to which Cassie directed me. You want to explain your motivation there, Cassie? Like maybe you were trying to muddy the water, by getting me to think there was an extra person awake on board?”

“I did say I wouldn’t lie to you, Mr. Mamon. I didn’t say I wouldn’t move the furniture. Beyond that, I don’t wish to discuss it.”

“Never mind. Aha. My handheld informs me that my case summary has been squirted back to hotel security, so if you were thinking of severing that comm link, it’s now late enough that to do so would only make matters worse. For you.”

Twenty-nine minutes.

“Mr. Flange. A question.” The engineer looked, aghast, at Gordon and the items he’d placed on the floor between his feet. “Don’t worry, nothing too confrontational, not yet. Just a simple matter of ship’s anatomy. Can you point out to me, please, on that diagram,” – there was a ship’s schematic on the control cabin wall – “where the antimatter’s stored?”

The engineer indicated the series of large cylindrical tanks strapped around the ship’s living quarters module. “Here. Well, the ones in blue are antimatter. Yellow are normal matter, to satisfy the fuel mix.”

“Only half of them, then? Still, that’s a very large amount of antimatter, must have cost a fortune –”

“We know the antimatter’s expensive, Mr. Mallow,” Gramacek interrupted. “But the Church insisted that no unwholesome propulsion methods was to be used for our travelment. No good can come of something which starts bad.”

“Like the Parable of the Stool Pigeon and the Bum Steer,” agreed McPhaillia.

“Yes, of course, and I’m sure you’re all very grateful for the long hours Mr. Flange has put in on researching and overseeing construction of this starship. The tanks, by the way, Mr. Flange – are they full?”

The engineer was perspiring now. Twenty-five minutes. “Of course they’re full,” he snapped.

“Why do you ask?” asked Sister McPhaillia.

“Well, I did some quick research of my own. It turns out there are two basic types of antimatter-driven starships, for a payload the size of this living module. One type has tanks pretty much the size of those on the Harkness; but the other looks like this.” Gordon held up his handheld. “I’ve highlighted the tanks for your benefit.”

“That can’t be right,” said Gramacek. “Those tanks is tiny!”

“Please, let’s not get size-ist,” Gordon replied. “Thing is, it all depends on what you want to use the starship for. These much smaller tanks are perfectly adequate, if all you’re seeking is a one-way mission to Shangvanatopia or whatever you people call it.”

“But we are on a one-way mission,” said McPhaillia.

“Flange wasn’t.”

Twenty-three minutes, and the engineer was visibly agitated.

What?” McPhaillia and Gramacek asked, in near-unison, as each turned to stare at Flange. “Is this true?” asked McPhaillia.

“Ask him why he designed the ship so that the living module could be jettisoned from the drive frame. No, don’t bother, he’s finding it difficult to talk right now, since he knows what’s at stake. But I’d guess he was going to get you set up and started at Shangvanatopia – he’s not a mass murderer – then return here, or head elsewhere, to start a new life, ostensibly six hundred years on, for all you knew. Ostensibly. Am I right, Flange?”

Twenty-two minutes.

Twenty-one minutes.

Flange broke. “Me and – me and – me and the Captain, we we both we were going to come back, because the Church we’re not really, we’re not, we don’t we didn’t believe, not really in the Church. And then, but then the Captain she, I guess it got to her, she started attending, she was wondering and there was something I hadn’t told her, she found out, and she was going to end it, all of it I mean. And I couldn’t – and now she’s – now she’s …” The engineer slumped forward on the control panel, sobbing inconsolably.

Twenty minutes.

“But I’ll get back to motive in a minute,” Gordon announced, picking up the fresh haemoseal bandage he’d brought in. He peeled off the sterile wrapping, exposing the soft, wet-rubbery skin of the bandage. “What I’d like to explore now is the method, which had me puzzled for quite some time. I mean, how do you find a knife that doesn’t exist? Captain Kurtz had her throat cut, but there was never any sign of the weapon responsible. Because it had already been found and dismissed.” He bent down and picked up the melon.

“She were killed with a melon?” Gramacek asked, incredulous.

“No,” Gordon replied. He turned the melon over, revealing it as hollow, then balanced it on its flattest side upon the control panel, lifting up a large thermos of liquid fog.

“Careful,” warned Cassie. “Don’t damage the electronics.”

“I honestly don’t think that will be a problem,” said Gordon, cautiously tipping liquid nitrogen into the hollowed melon. Instantly the bench became shrouded in thick fog; as more liquid poured in, the fog abated and a fizzing reservoir of something deceptively watery, though radiating intense cold, remained within the melon shell. “See? The melon is, what d’you call those things? A dewar. My guess is he filled it up in the clinic, carried it along the corridor until he was just outside her room. Once he’d used it, he could have just dropped it, the nitrogen would just evaporate in a couple of minutes, and who’s going to suspect a melon as the murder weapon? Particularly because the melon, itself, wasn’t the murder weapon.”

“Then what -?” Gramacek asked. Eighteen minutes.

“She was stabbed with a bandage,” Gordon replied, repeatedly folding his bandage until it took on a sharp-nosed shape similar to a paper plane. Then he shoved it, nose-first, into the melon-dewar. More fog erupted with bubbles of stingingly cold nitrogen, while the bandage’s liquid dressing froze into a form giving it substantial rigidity. Gordon pressed the bandage’s pointed end down onto the panel; the bandage shattered. That hadn’t been part of his planned demonstration. “Uh – I probably need to practise that a bit more. But on the other hand, I’m not trying to kill anyone, and this plastigranite control panel is presumably a bit tougher to pierce than the Captain’s neck. And hopefully I’ve explained why the murder weapon couldn’t be identified when I searched the room – because it was in a completely different shape by then.”

“I’ve heard enough!” Flange growled, lifting his head from the control panel. His hand hovered above an innocuous-looking pink button. “Edie, prep him for the big sleep. DO IT, or I’ll vent the antimatter, and you know what that means!”

McPhaillia looked from the engineer to Gordon, then back again. “But – but he’s a non-believer, he doesn’t belong on the voyage …”

“Do you think,” replied Flange in a dangerously measured tone, “that I give a fuck whether he believes in the Blessed Echidna, or the Deceitful Porcupine, or whatever other ridiculous animals you people worship? I didn’t even say I wanted to take him along for the ride – or not all of it, at any rate. I want him ICED, and I DON’T want to have to ask again!”

Sixteen minutes.

“Go ahead, Flange,” Gordon replied, starting to sweat, because he wasn’t totally sure himself, not 100 percent. It felt right, and nothing else made sense. But if he was wrong about this … “Go for it, vent it. See where it gets you.”

“Are you mad?” asked Gramacek.

“D’you people know how an antimatter drive works?” Gordon asked. “Flange, I know you do, but I’m directing this to McPhaillia and Gramacek.”

“It’s annihilation, isn’t it, I think they call it?” said McPhaillia.

“Mutual destruction, matter and antimatter, total conversion into energy. And after that, if you ignore the energy, it’s almost as if they never existed. Negation, you might say. Never existed …”

Fifteen minutes.

“Get on with it,” Flange growled, though it was no longer clear who he was speaking to.

“The thing is, though the Church didn’t itself know how to build an antimatter-drive spaceship, it did know how much it cost. At least, that’s what I’m guessing. The cost of antimatter for a one-way trip was merely prohibitive; but the cost for a return trip, that was impossible. So Flange only budgeted for a one-way trip.”

“But you said he was planning a return trip,” McPhaillia protested.

“Yes, I reckon he was. Thing is, he only budgeted for a one-way trip’s worth of antimatter, ‘cause he knew that’s all the Church could afford – but he didn’t purchase any antimatter. My guess is, if you open up those external tanks, you’ll just find conventional rocket fuel, for in-system manoeuvring; and somewhere, hidden amongst those, there’ll be a standard hyperspace drive. Much, much less expensive.”

“Hyperspace? But our souls –” Gramacek turned accusingly to Flange, but McPhaillia held him back.

“What makes you so sure,” Flange asked, finger hovering above the button, “there isn’t any antimatter?”

“You put the tanks around the outside,” Gordon replied. “An old reference book my handheld found for me explained it, why you never put anti-tanks on an STL spaceship’s periphery. Because all it takes is one interstellar dust grain, travelling at a few percent of lightspeed relative to you, to pierce that tank, and it’s all over. No containment. No spaceship. You put the tanks on the outside, you’ll hit plenty of dust grains on a three-hundred-year voyage. But if the tanks are towards the centre of the ship, those dust grains will only impact on the living quarters, and they’re much better able to cope with pinhole breaches, a standard patch will fix it. You weren’t bothered with such details, because you knew the ship wasn’t spending any significant length of time in transit.”

“Rusty. Is this true?” McPhaillia asked, as ostensibly horrified as though she’d just found him naked in the chapel with a blow-up dolphin and a bucket of jellied eels.

Twelve minutes.

“Close,” Flange confessed. “I only sourced a kilo of the stuff, so there’d be enough to show up on ship’s diagnostics.” His finger stayed poised against the pink button, and nobody moved to pull him away.

A kilogram of antimatter was still more than adequate to obliterate the Dart of Harkness, the Skytop Plaza and its other attendant spacecraft, and a great deal of the tethering space elevator.

“You’re bluffing,” Gordon said, voice quavering.

“Try me,” said Flange. “Edie. Skip. If one of you doesn’t agree to ice that bastard by the time I count ten, I’m pressing this! Don’t think I won’t! The antimatter’s set to blow, anyway, if we don’t launch on schedule.” He began counting off.

“You’re bluffing,” Gordon repeated.

McPhaillia stared at Gordon, then at Gramacek, then at Flange.

“Stop,” pleaded Gordon, on eight. “I’ll go. You win.”

“I’ll do him,” McPhaillia said. “But Rusty, for heaven’s sakes …”

“You too, Gramacek. Don’t want him giving us the slip, do we? Do him, then ice yourselves. Better move it, you’ve only got nine minutes!”

*

They paced the corridor towards the clinic. Gordon’s mind raced ahead. “You realise, he won’t let any of us live? He’ll space our caskets, first chance. With us out of the way, his secret still holds, at least aboard the ship.” The others didn’t answer.

How long did it take to get a police cruiser out here? The shuttle trip had been fifteen minutes, and a cruiser could certainly halve that. It’d been almost thirty minutes, now, since he’d transmitted to HQ. They should be here by now. But they weren’t, so far as he could tell. How much longer? Five minutes? Were they even coming?

Maybe not.

He had to escape, before they reached the clinic. “Even if he lets you two live, what about your souls? The moment you go through hyperspace …” he was babbling now, clutching at straws.

“Been having me some doubts about that,” grumbled Gramacek, strengthening his hold on Gordon’s forearm.

Great. Agnosticism, at a time like this. “Sister McPhaillia? Edie? Are you just going to let him get away with this?”

“Souls are one thing, lives are another. We can probably find some pathway to purify ourselves, if we’re given long enough.”

“He’s not going to let you live,” Gordon argued.

“What choice do we-”

The corridor jolted, the lights died. After a couple of seconds, the dim pink emergency lighting flickered on.

The corridor was still intact.

That weren’t an antimatter blast,” said Gramacek. “But what …?”

Gordon shook free, and started running back down the corridor. “Hey,” complained McPhaillia. “We’re supposed to …” She set off in pursuit. Gramacek chased them both.

*

Flange was doubled up in agony, rolling on the cramped floor of the control cabin and swearing like a plumber’s mate. Gordon thought he could see what had happened. The engineer had caught his wrist a nasty knock on the edge of the control panel.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the event which had immediately preceded it. Cassie’s sudden fillip of thrust had knocked the melon/dewar off its precarious balance, copiously tipping liquid nitrogen over the controls … and over Flange’s outstretched hand and wrist.

McPhaillia yelled for Gramacek to bring the nearest first-aid kit, while she tended to the shattered, snap-frozen stump of Flange’s forearm. It was cold-cauterised for now, but that wouldn’t last. And Gordon could only imagine the pain of it …

“Cassie?” Gordon asked, trying not to look at the dispersed fragments of Flange’s hand, nor to listen to the engineer’s incoherent, anguished moans as McPhaillia administered a sedative. The medic had the situation under control: he backed out of the control room, into the corridor. “Cassie?” he repeated. “Status?”

“Antimatter secure, no immediate danger. I’ve recircuited the controls so it’s completely isolated – in fact I did that several days ago, as soon as it was transferred onboard,” she replied, from somewhere off to his side. “I suppose you’re wondering, though, why I went along with it?”

“Yes. I have my suspicions, but …”

“I hoped not to disappoint the passengers. Three thousand people with a lot of expectation, a lot of hope for this voyage, I didn’t want to jeopardise that. First Law. Even with the Captain dead, it seemed best to go ahead with it. And that’s why I didn’t assist you: it wasn’t so much to avoid punishment for Flange, it was so the voyage could still go ahead, because that seemed best for the passengers. A fairly complicated calculation in combinatorial emotiometrics, but I won’t bore you with the details. But then the equation changed, and I had to act.”

“Was it my imminent death that tipped the scales?” Gordon asked. “Or McPhaillia’s? Gramacek’s?”

“None of those. Greatest good for the greatest number; I couldn’t be sure any of those deaths would actually occur. There was potential, but it still came out balanced, and there was the likelihood pain would need to be inflicted on Flange to stop him. But no, what shifted the fulcrum, in the end, was the souls.”

“Souls? Cassie, are you a believer?”

“No, not at all, Mr. Mamon. But you don’t get to spend all those years around these people without something rubbing off on you. Call it a sort of electronic empathy, I suppose. I am, after all, programmed to act in accordance with the Church’s teachings, when those are not inconsistent with logically-directed outcomes. Like for instance, d’you know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I can show you my working on that one…”

“Another time, maybe.”

“Mr. Mamon,” Cassie continued, “what’s going to happen to me?”

Gordon was saved from answering by Gramacek’s return. “Need a hand?” he asked, moving through to the control room.

*

Fairdig’s wasn’t noted for its breakfasts; but it would have to do, thought Gordon, decanting himself from the Pixie Bust back into the welcome familiarity of shuttle bay 2B. In a few hours, he was due to clock on for Skyward 270’s descent-ascent cycle: there’d just be time for breakfast, and a too-short nap, before he turned up for duty again. His dinner reservation would have to be rescheduled for when he was next topside, in four days’ time. He put in a quick call to Judy Sargent, the desk officer at Hotel Policing, to check that his report had arrived satisfactorily, and to ask whether the force had any other debilitating social evenings planned for the foreseeable future. He hoped not to be topside the next time …

He hated crime work; the type of detection he preferred involved the rearrangement and elucidation of words, to fit within carefully-ordered racks of small square spaces. Nonetheless, he felt secretly pleased at the investigation’s outcome, from a number of perspectives. Not only had he apprehended a murderous, amoral embezzler – the Blessed Echidnans would likely require quite some time to track down the hiding places that Flange had arranged for his ill-gotten gains – but he’d also ensured a temporary inrush of hotel guests, three thousand or so in total, in sharp contrast to the customary slow business which the hotel would now normally be experiencing. Some of the Echidnans would likely stay on for a month or more, while they sought to arrange slower-than-light travel to Shangvanatopia. Already there were rumours of a developing bidding war between TransGalactic Freight, Andromeda Spaceways, and Chastity Cosmic, all courting the Echidnans’ lucrative STL flight business. It would be interesting, Gordon thought, to see who offered the best, or the slowest, deal …

He felt no unease at Flange’s fate. Gordon didn’t like murderers, any more than he liked people who thought orange and purple went together, and Flange deserved everything the Church, and the police, could throw at him. No, the one he almost felt sorry for was Cassie, stripped of her command and archived while the authorities tried to decide what to do with her. True, she’d obstructed him, had actively misled him, and had sought to derail a criminal investigation; but at the end she’d stopped Flange, when nobody else had found a way.

Plus, she’d got Gordon’s name right; and that counted for something, in his book.

.

(Copyright Simon Petrie 2009. First published in Kaleidotrope, issue 6, April 2009.)

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