Death Beyond Domain

The Foregone Conclusion was, technically, part of human-controlled space. Though the formal boundaries of the Human Domain were blurred, subjective and always changing, the ship was well beyond the outermost worlds that any reasonable person would call human, and yet it was built by humans, and so considered their territory. A drifting bubble of legal convenience amid a void of anarchy.

It was slightly larger and significantly shabbier than the average mobile habitat, a patchwork of ancient technology and hasty repairs with a dash of risky optimism. And yet, it home to dozens of sentient creatures from several different ecologies, all thrown together by circumstance and convenience more than by any real desire. As it was across much of space inhabited by civilised creatures, it was a melting pot of customs, languages and biology. First contacts occurred regularly on vessels like this, unrecorded and uncelebrated. No culture even made more than a token effort to keep track of all that they encountered, at least not after the first few centuries of intersolar exploration, once the naïve enthusiasm was beaten back by the immensity of a crowded universe.

Inside, much of Foregone Conclusion was adapted to human conditions, at least by default. Air was recycled to a decent approximation of Earth standard, gravity was maintained at a touch below 0.8 g and the culinary units were stocked with algae whose distant ancestors had bathed in the light of Sol. These parameters could be easily changed, though most species kept to their own rooms, accepting that the common areas will be set to suit the crew and majority of passengers.

And yet beyond the ability to maintain separate environments within a small pocket of order in the depths of space, the technology on board was surprisingly rustic. No gleaming holograms or robotic servants - these passengers paid a reasonable fee, accepting that any and all luxuries had been stripped to maximise efficiency, not to mention the odds of survival.

As such, it fell to the crews and passengers to entertain themselves and each other. Even in a situation where the physiologies of your fellow travellers was always interesting in itself, the duration of all but the shortest journeys meant that games of Guess The Purpose Of That Appendage inevitably gave way to more sophisticated challenges.

It was to that end that Wilki Jhandan, human, found himself engaged in a lengthy and brutal game of poker. In a socially closed system it did not make sense to play for money, or even for trinkets, as both were too finite a resource. No one wanted to rob someone blind of everything they had, only to be forced to face them every day for weeks to come.

“The ante, gentlemen, is a Freudian Slip,” said the dealer, a large man by the name of Farz, as he dealt the cards. He was the only one at the table who was a member of the crew, a fact made obvious by his skintight environmental suit. The bright blue uniform was essential for someone who would spend a typical shift ducking between habitats that would kill a man courtesy of their perfectly opposite extremes. As such, should the hull rupture and his helmet deployed properly, he would be the only one at the table to survive. “Five cards, no funny business,” he added in a voice that was high and scratchy, accented from exposure to thousands of cultures a year.

“I like what I see,” said the toulan, the only non-human at the table, comfortable in the environment thanks to the filter in his mouth that stripped the carbon dioxide from the air. With a nudge of its nose, (for no one had been game to ascertain the creature’s gender, if any,) it flung a chip into the centre. “Self-Deprecating Joke, since I have heard your slips and have yet to understand a single one.”

“Nor us, yours,” replied Slim, an elderly, skinny man who seemed to have been raised in low gee. Even in this modest gravity, the skin seemed to be trying to pour from his face. “I’ll see that.”

Wilki glanced at his cards, hard. He had nothing, for the first time of the night. It had required patience, but finally he had gotten a hand that he wanted. “Awkward Truth,” he said, tossing his chip into the centre.

“I know that grin of yours,” said the toulan in the slow, drawn-out hiss that was typical of his species.

Wilki raised his arms, as if to shrug. “Feel free to call my bluff, just remember the last time you were dealt an Awkward Truth. I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe for a minute.”

He was leading them on, edging them into suspicion by trying to play it cool. Seasoned travellers the lot of them, they could each stare through a poker face like any of the professionals. They knew he had nothing, and so none of them folded. But that was okay by him - Awkward Truths could be fun.

“You lose, Jhanden,” Farz said, reclining against the hard back of his chair, grinning as hard as if they were playing for money. “Time for us to learn something.”

“Fair enough,” Wilki said, trying his best to look disappointed. He turned to the other two. “Despite the fact that Farz is reasonably senior in the crew of this bucket generously referred to as a ship, he is still doing a lot of the manual jobs around here.” His smile deepened as he faced the crewmember. “I guess the Awkward Truth is, you aren’t respected.”

“What!” bellowed Farz, as the others burst into pearls of laughter. “You can’t tell an Awkward Truth about someone else!”

Slim waved his hand at him. “Now now, I reckon he can,” he said, not bothering to contain his glee. “So long as it is true, for it is certainly awkward enough, Is it true?”

Farz reddened, glaring at Wilki. “Well?” he asked, “I deny it. Can you prove it?”

“I believe so, if you’ll permit it. It is an unwritten rule among all ships like these, I think you will all agree, that uniforms are assigned by rank - the worse the scratches on the suit, the lower the rank that person must be. But just look at Farz’s suit, then look over there at the boy he ordered to clean the hallway… which one would you prefer?

“Even assuming that I’m wrong about the hierarchy,” he added before Farz could interrupt, “though it would be a first in my experience, just look at the growth regions along the torsos. Both Farz and his junior over there are clearly bigger than the previous owners, and so the suit has grown to accommodate them. But look, the boy’s stretched out area is visible from here, but Farz’s has been covered by fresh scratches. Now,” he said, speaking louder over the rising laughter, “you might just be a klutz who can’t look after his suit, but I gave you the benefit of the doubt.”

“I- I believe in leading by example,” Farz sputtered, his cheeks colouring even further. “Sometimes, to be a good leader you have to do the bad jobs -“ He fell silent as his suit crackled, relaying a message via the ship’s computer.

“Blocked toilet, perhaps?” the toulan said, his voice deep with mirth.

Farz narrowed his eyes. “I’ll have you know, there’s a technical problem in the captain’s office. Unfortunately,” he said, shouting over their whispered remarks, “I’ll have to call our game short.”

Twenty minutes later Farz returned. The jokes died on their lips as they saw the expression on his face. It was then they learned that the captain and one of the passengers were dead.

***

Whenever he got the chance Wilki liked to check out the captain’s quarters of a ship. You could learn a lot from the room that was second in importance only to the central computer room, and those were always off-bounds. Obviously it gave you a clue as to the species of the captain, which was often the same as the species that built it. This captain was human, or at least some very good approximation of one, judging by the fact that the room was open to the main corridor and no one was gasping at strange gases, or recoiling from extreme temperature. But even among humans, the conditions of the quarters varied from ship to ship. They were often the nicest rooms, the least sparsely decorated, the most lived in. After all, the law of the stars was nothing more than an intensified version of the law of the jungle, and the jungle demanded constant reminders of the chain of command.

This particular room was little larger than his own quarters, though it was considerably more furnished. A part of his mind noted that, calculating the difference between the best room on the ship and what he knew of the worst. The difference was small, typical of the dilapidated, budget ships that he was so fond of. He had experienced the luxury liners, with their opulent rooms and lavish furnishings, but he found them to be as sterile as the personalities who frequented them. And of course, the captain’s quarters were immeasurably nicer than those of the poorer guests. It was a rule so exact you could graph it - a captain who lives worse than his crew is a fool, but one who lives like a god among mortals will lead even a good crew to calamity.

There was no denying that these quarters straddled that divide with textbook example perfection. Or it least it had, before the two corpses had sullied the scene. Both were male, adult. The captain was easily recognised by his smooth, blue uniform, slumped at the foot of a crowded, messy desk. He looked almost as if he were dozing, his body locked in a position that looked like sitting upright. The other body, the passenger, was collapsed near what was left of the captain, arms and legs splayed as he faced the ceiling. He didn’t recognise him, but then the passengers were a transient lot, often changing, often keeping to themselves.

Farz stood by the door, looking little more composed than he had before. He was shaking, his breaths short and strangled, the mark of a young man encountering death for the first time. He would need to pull himself together, and soon, but for now he was free to wallow in shock. He was half-heartedly blocking the door, preventing the other passengers from looking upon the tragedy that was by far the most interesting thing that would happen on this trip.

Wilki had ducked passed him, acting on the authority that came from taking charge of a disastrous situation. Farz was giving him free reign to examine the scene, for now, but that would change the instant his mind began to reassert itself over the chaos. Which it would need to, the instant that the role of captain would fall upon his shoulders. Which was why he was wasting no time, examining as much as he could without touching anything. Unfortunately, there was too much to take in. There had been a struggle here, no doubt. The bed was sitting wedged tightly against the corner of the room, based on the scratch marks on the floor and the off-centre mattress. Half of the equipment was in ruins, scattering the floor with tiny remnants he could not place. And the desk had probably been disturbed, based on the contrasting mixture of orderly piles of unnameable gizmos with the strewn mess covering the end of the desk closer to the captain’s body.

There was a story here, he knew, but as it was there was no way to read it. He had put off dealing with witnesses, but there was nothing more he could glean from the mess. “Farz,” he said softly, placing an arm on his shoulder. The crewmember jerked out of a trance, looking at Wilki expectantly. “I need you to tell me what you found.”

The man gulped, his eyes racing. “I came to the captain’s quarters as quickly as I could,” he replied, stuttering around his uncooperative throat, “and found the room like this, with, with the two of them…”

“Did you see anyone lurking around?” he asked quickly. “Did you hear any noises?”

Farz shook his head. “No, it was deserted. Don’t think anyone was out of their quarters, no one except you lot,” he added, waving his hand at the other half of the poker players, watching in eagerly.

“Okay, now listen to me, Farz. You are the most senior person on board this ship. That means you are acting captain. That also means we need to get to the bottom of this, figure out what happened here. I suggest you go back to your quarters, wash your face, but when you come back you need to take control of this situation. Can you do that?”

It never failed to work. Give a spaceman a sense of duty, and he’d pull himself together in an instant. Working in a fragile bubble of atmosphere, crowded in with all sorts of people, literally, instilled a good work ethic in a person. Shape up, or everybody dies. Including and especially you. The Farz that returned just two minutes later looked no less mortified, but had dispelled the shakes. His energy was focused and purposeful, honed in on the task at hand. “Okay,” he said, “for the meantime we are sealing the captain’s quarters. We will honour the dead only when we know it is safe to touch their bodies, and when the cause of this is resolved. Slim, toulan, the nearest communication equipment outside that room is back in the hall. I need you to send a message to all the crew, tell them I want to meet them here immediately.

“Wilki,” he said, turning to face him once the others had scuttled off, “you were with me when… this… happened, so I am willing to trust you when necessary. You had a look around in there, tell me what you saw.” Wilki explained the position of the bodies, and the state of the room. “That’s it? What else.” He then explained his notion that there had been a struggle.

“A struggle,” Farz said gravely. “Perhaps they were arguing and somehow met an accident.”

“Or maybe not,” Jhanden replied. “It is too early to rule one or the other out.”

They didn’t say the word, but they were both thinking it. If this was no accident, then that meant there was a murderer on board. “Did you see anything else in there?”

“I saw a lot of things. Too much to process. The best course is to gather more information. Hopefully then I’ll know what I should have been looking at.”

Farz was about to reply when the rest of the crew assembled. There were almost identical - young, haggard from overly manual work and, of course, the ubiquitous blue suits, skin and uniforms covered in scratches. “The captain is dead,” Farz said by way of introduction, before any of them could speak. “As ranking crewmember I will be taking over his roles. My first task is to investigate the cause of his demise. Did any of you see or hear anything in the past hour?”

The question was met by stunned silence. But these crewmen did not have the luxury of disbelief, being stared down by the acting captain. Before long, the one on the end, the shortest and skinniest of the lot and therefore the one roped into all the unpleasant jobs, composed himself and spoke up. “I did, sir,” he said with barely any hesitation.

“I was tending to the light fixtures in the corridor starboard of the captain’s quarters,” he explained, “you know, the ones that have been a bit screwy ever since we tried to accommodate those nocturnal creatures last month… and I overheard shouting.”

Farz narrowed his eyes. “Shouting? Was it the captain?”

“I don’t know sir, could have been. I ignored it at first, or tried to, but it was definitely humans, and it was coming from the direction of the captain’s quarters, but I can’t be sure. A lot of passengers stay in that area, could have been any of them.”

“Could you make out what they were saying?” Wilki asked.

“I was trying not to overhear, to be honest. Wasn’t my business, I figured. But no, I don’t reckon I could have made out any of it. I didn’t think much of it at the time, you see,” he added as explanation.

“Anything else?”

“Well… there was one thing. After the shouting had gone on for a few moments, there was a loud crack. Like thunder, like you see on planets. It sounded like a door being slammed, only louder, but that’s what I thought it was, since after that there was silence.”

Farz frowned. “Okay, here’s what you are to do. Scope these corridors, report anything unusual. We will stay out of the passengers’ quarters for now - when they are to be searched, I want it done properly and under my supervision. Report anything, but do not touch anything. Go.”

They hurried off, clear orders in place. “Well Wilki, what do you make of that?”

He shrugged. “Assuming that boy’s story is entirely accurate? There is something to it. Tell me, was the captain’s door open or closed when you found it?”

“Open, I believe,” he replied. “Yes, definitely open - I wouldn’t have entered otherwise. The captain had a temper about his privacy.”

For a moment, the rigid self control Farz had built threatened to slip. “Well then, the part about the shouting is probably true,” Jhanden said quickly, “and it probably was the captain and this passenger. If whoever had been shouting had been in a corridor, we probably would have heard it from the hall. Conversely, had it been behind a closed door, no one would have heard anything. The idea that it was in a room with the door partially open fits his story, and my theory about a struggle.”

“And the crack? No door was slammed if it was open the whole time, surely.”

Wilki rubbed his eyes, cradling his head in his hands. “I don’t know, but I have an idea. We’ll come back to it though, it is far too speculative. In the meantime, we have two victims, yet have neglected the passenger entirely. Let’s find out what we can about him.”

***

Registered passenger ships in the Human Domain were required by law to keep computerised records of every passenger, including biometric data (where possible). The authorities liked to keep tabs on exactly who was going where, which in turn was fed into their own sophisticated data banks.

But out here, the law was spread thin. Just as they couldn’t really rely on the authorities to assist them if anything went wrong, they did not feel the need to adhere to the whims of the bureaucrats sitting comfortably in a natural gravity well. Nonetheless, it would be foolish as to be entirely ignorant to your passengers.

Jhanden noted the stacks of paper secreted in a room behind the captain’s quarters with approval. Once they were in the wild, lawless reaches known as the rest of the galaxy, it didn’t take long for the passenger ships to wipe the record keeping software from their systems and revert to alternative means. This was, of course, illegal, and the fines were surprisingly steep if they were ever caught, but it could be centuries between visits to human-controlled space. Besides, it was better than risking a software clash on the central computer, something which was not unheard of.

The Foregone Conclusion had clearly been beyond the reach of the majority of human civilisation for quite some time, but they still were methodical with their paperwork. Such attention to detail was reassuring to have in a crew, even and indeed especially for the little stuff. It didn’t take Farz long to find the record in question.

“Allen Rolr, 37, picked him up on Ghoul Extremis heading centreward. No luggage, opted for a cheaper room, said he could tolerate the smell. Haven’t heard much out of him the whole way. Paid for his trip in a mix of dollars and a few antique trinkets, nothing of value or interest.”

Jhanden nodded. “Did he order much in the way of food, or other services?”

Farz shrugged. “Not really. He barely eat, if I recall. Not uncommon - cheap as the stuff we can produce is, it adds up over a voyage as long as his.”

“So you’d say he was poor, then?”

“I guess so, based on the choice of room and payment method. Why, wouldn’t you say so?”

He shook his head, thoughtfully. “Maybe, maybe not. But I have a suspicion as to the cause of death for the pair.”

Farz gaped at him. “Really? Just based on what I told you?”

“Actually, what you told me deepens the mystery,” he replied. “But I see no other explanation than electrocution.”

Jhanden smiled as he watched Farz running it through his mind. “It would explain the crack heard. Also, the captain was found in an upright position,” he said to himself, “which means that the suit had turned rigid. All our suits react to the environment, nothing short of fully dynamic material is enough for our line of work… I guess electricity could confuse it.”

“I have seen electricity ruin even the smartest fibres. There are certain voltages that can misalign the fibres in some rather surprising ways. But if we were to return to your late captain, I am certain you would find the fabric of his suit rigid enough to support his weight. Also,” Wilki added, scratching his chin, “that’s not all we’d find. I am of the opinion that on our late Mr Allen Rolr we’d find his clothes to be no less frozen.”

Minutes later Farz, wearing an extra protective suit over his customary uniform, exited the captain’s quarters and gave Wilki a curt nod. “Like you predicted,” he said, looking puzzled. “I have encountered steel that bended easier than those clothes. But what does it all mean?”

“It means, Farz, that you and I should grab a cold drink.”

***

The hall which had been filled with laughter and curses just hours before was now silent. With Slim and the toulan helping the crew scour the ship for clues, and the rest of the passengers obliviously keeping to themselves, the common areas of the ship served as an appropriate place for them to discuss the case.

Jhanden had looked over the bodies with fresh eyes. To his limited medical experience, it did appear the pair had been electrocuted. The rigidity of the clothes told him that more than any post-mortem, but he was willing to trust his analysis so far. Apart from that, he had gleaned nothing new. But there was still hope the crew would find something, anything, that would shift their perspective enough for it to all fall in place.

“What sorts of equipment did the captain keep in his quarters?” Jhanden asked.

“The usual,” Farz replied with a shrug. “Long distance communication devices. Link to central computer. That sort of thing. Nothing powerful enough to electrocute someone.” He paused, eyes narrowing on him. “Why are you getting so involved? Did you even meet the captain?”

“I think it’s natural to want to resolve why two people are dead,” he replied. “If I were good at maintaining food synthesisers, I’d be bringing you a steak and chips right now. As it turns out, my talents lie in problem solving.” He paused, scratching his cheek. “What about those gizmos on his desk?”

“Ornamental devices, nothing even with a power source. If I weren’t mostly sure of your innocence, I’d find your interest here a little suspicious. But really, I think you are just helping me because you are bored.”

“I have been accused of worse. But does it matter? Farz, I’m trying to help you here. We may not have known each other this time last month, but I’m the closest thing to a friend you have out here. What about the wiring in the walls?”

“No, the wiring is fine,” Farz said, burying his head in his hands. “The central computer would detect any…”

“Any...?” Wilki enquired, but Farz waved him silent. He was interrogating the central computer, blasting out short, sharp commands into his suit. After a few minutes of frantic orders, he smiled grimly. “I now have the time of death.

“At 1941, shiptime, the central computer detected a problem with the captain’s main long range communication device,” he continued, slowly becoming animated. “At four minutes later, the computer noticed the total failure of the comms device, as well as he few other devices in the same room including the captain’s suit’s radio. I was already heading there, so I didn’t think much of it at the time.” He stopped, his face becoming grave and ashen. “I was still over five minutes away…” He fell silent.

Five minutes. For the passengers, who measured time only in the length of their journeys, five minutes was nothing. But living on a ship, year after year, teaches you just how much can go terribly wrong in the space of milliseconds. Inside a ship, just like outside a ship, five minutes is more than enough to kill you.

Five minutes is an eternity.

But whatever had killed them seems to have started four minutes before it ended. That was the timescale of people, not of mechanical systems. Whatever had caused this, it wasn’t just wear and tear and bad maintenance. People, whether human or alien, operating in the slower world, had contributed to this tragedy.

“So, what do you think that leads us to?” Farz asked once he had finished listening to that latest explanation. “Murder or accident?”

“I have my theories,” he replied, “but I’m curious as to your own.”

“Accident,” Farz replied without hesitation. “Murders simply don’t happen on ships. For one thing, weapons aren’t allowed. Even if you smuggled one in, most ships have better surveillance systems than ours, only the older ones have had theirs break down this badly. And even then, who would want to commit murder on a ship anyway? It is a closed system, no chance of escape. Especially murdering humans - our reputation for vengeance is well-known, even out this far.”

Jhanden nodded. “All rational reasons why not to commit murder on a passenger ship,” he agreed. “But what if we assume that a hypothetical murderer, like many real ones, was not rational? I see three possibilities - accident, one of the victims tried to murder the other and they both died, or a third party murdered them both. I can’t help but suspect a third party was responsible.”

“Nonsense,” said Farz, “what are you basing that on?”

“Shouting was heard coming from their room, or near enough to it, moments before they died. Clearly there were hostilities, either between the victims and the killer, or perhaps between all three. The room is a mess, looks like there was a struggle, you’ve seen it yourself. And most tellingly, nothing in the room could have caused their deaths, meaning whatever did was removed straight after.”

Farz fell silent. “I don’t like the idea of a killer roaming free on my ship.”

“Which is why you didn’t come to the obvious conclusion.”

At that moment they were interrupted by the toulan. In no way did the strange creature look excited, but then that was probably down to their ignorance of the alien’s customs. He told them in his typically slow voice that they had discovered a clue.

***

The clue was an open door, an empty room. In a ship where all doors are closed, and for a room that was registered to a guest, these were ominous finds indeed.

Once more, Farz was blocking the doorway against the curious crowd as Jhanden investigated the room. Both gravity and atmosphere were set to the ship’s default, though this was clearly no room for a human. It was cold, not fatally so, but already he was shivering violently, and the myriad of sensors in the room were picking up levels of electromagnetic radiation that would have him vomiting if he stayed for a day. Whatever the occupant of the room was, it wasn’t human, but had no complaints as to their nitrogen/oxygen mix.

The room had the furniture removed, and was replaced with a few small, metallic points scattered at random, conical shapes the size of his fist. Apart from these, the room was stripped bare. No luggage, nowhere to sit and, rather crucially, no occupant.

“Okay, I’ve seen enough for the moment,” he said, stepping past the pressure bubble that was struggling to maintain the sharp temperature gradient. “What do we know about who rented this room?”

“It’s an arbedec,” Farz said, reading off the log. “Name untranslatable to any human tongue. Aged 12, which is equivalent to about 30 human years of age on the universal maturity index. Travelling alone, no luggage, picked up from the Tolitro Republic. Incidentally, that was the first stop after Ghouls Extremis.”

“Where you picked up the victim? Rolr? That might be relevant.” Jhanden realised he was speaking out loud, and indicated for Farz to continue.

“Arbedecs are a race of beings from close to the galactic heart. They are little more than loose frames, composed of metal and a few conductive materials. The bulk of their form is immaterial, consisting of, you guessed it, electricity.” He snorted. “Looks like we have a suspect.”

“Can it survive outside its room?” Wilki asked.

“Should do,” Farz replied. “Most gases don’t hurt it, and the temperature and radiation are there for physical comfort, like a hot bath versus than a bed of nails. It might be hurting a little, but it should be fine.”

Wilki nodded. That gave them time to work with. So long as they were this far from anything resembling a port, the arbedec would not be going anywhere. “These cones,” he asked, “are they electrical in any way?”

Farz scanned his notes. “Yes, they act something like food to it, as well as assisting it maintain its various equilibria. Kinda like a burger crossed with a jacket.”

“One of these might be the murder weapon,” he said, “If so, it might not even be the arbedec that used it. Either way, there is a simple test we can do… Farz, got any spare uniforms?”

They took it in turns entering that hellish room, draping the spare uniform over each cone in turn and prodding them from a safe distance. It was thankfully easy to get the devices to discharge, which at least made the task fast. “There,” Wilki said ten minutes later, folding the sleeve of the uniform, “still flexible. I don’t think these cones were used to kill the victims.”

“That isn’t conclusive,” Farz said, “but I’ll take it on face value for now. Until we can interview the arbedec, that is.”

***

They found the arbedec in one of the storage rooms scattered across the ship. It, or rather he, had managed to lock himself in. It had taken them half an hour to open the door, and twice as long to escort him back to his room. He was cooperative, in the sense that he didn’t actively struggle but wasn’t exactly eagerly following them.

It was a relief to all involved that the arbedec was returned to his room without incident. His own environment was doing him good, his actions becoming animated. Farz and Jhanden watched with interest, each wearing a suit. Jhanden had bullied one of the other crew into lending him his, rather than having to deal with two loads of anti-radiation treatment in one day.

“Where am I?” the arbedec asked via the translator. His species communicated using electromagnetic waves, and so were incapable of learning or speaking the human tongue.

“You don’t remember?” Wilki asked.

“Tell me where you were from 1930 onwards,” Farz said, cutting off the arbedec’s reply.

“I was here,” he replied, “in my room. I was charging/eating/sleeping,” the translator belched, struggling to find an equivalent word. “The captain entered my room to check up on me.”

“Was this something he did often?” Farz asked.

“Yes. I said he didn’t need to, but he insisted. He was unsure about whether or not the gas mixture humans exist in was harmful to me. It is not. I can survive in many environments.

“We were talking. He enquired as to my food/charge supply. Then he consumed a longwave databurst, became very energetic and left.”

“Longwave databurst?” Farz whispered to Jhanden.

“He means a radio transmission. That is how it must of looked to him.” To the arbedec: “What happened next?”

“After the captain left, I did not witness any of the events until the start of this conversation.”

Farz frowned. “What time did the, uh…”

“Longwave databurst,” Jhanden whispered.

“… longwave databurst appear?”

The arbedec sparkled. “My data lacks precision. Roughly ten minutes after the captain entered.”

Farz started to ask another question, but Wilki interrupted him. “Two questions: one, you said the captain visited you often. Did the captain visit you at the same time each day?”

“Yes,” the arbedec replied.

“I see. Also, did the captain close the door after he left?”

“No, he did not,” the arbedec replied. “Which is unprecedented, given the nature of my environment.”

Farz raised his voice, declaring the interview over. Without so much as w warning, he threw the spare uniform at the arbedec. He recoiled from it, sparking furiously as he did.

“Farz!”

“What of it?” he replied, furious. “This creature is clearly guilty. Look!” He picked up the suit, banging it hard against the wall. The sound reverberated around the room, the sharp clang of two hard surfaces colliding. “This uniform is stiff as a board. That solves the mystery.

“Arbedec! You are charged with double homicide. As acting captain, I am authorised to seal you in this room until we reach a designated port, at which time you will be handed over to the authorities.”

And with that Farz stormed out, ignoring the wails of protest coming from his translator.

***

“The arbedec is innocent.”

Once more, the two of them were back in the hall, alone. Now that the mystery had been resolved, as such, the crew were hard at work catching up on the endless list of tiny jobs that had been postponed in the hunt for clues. And with the excitement gone, Slim and the toulan had retreated to their quarters.

“What the hell do you mean?” Farz said, pounding the table. “The creature is a murderer, we have proof.”

“What you have is a theory. I have a better one.”

Farz glared at him. “Oh really? Let’s see then. The arbedec’s quarters are close to the captain’s. Shouting was heard, and there was a struggle. The two victims were killed by electrical shock which could only have come from the arbedec. The creature then ran and hid. It now, on top of all that, is refusing to tell us what happened after the captain left his quarters. Which of these facts do you dispute?”

“None,” replied Wilki Jhanden calmly.

“Then the creature is a murderer.”

“Not necessarily. For one thing, the fact that there was a struggle is odd. The alleged murderer is largely immaterial, and capable of killing in an instant. At what stage would the victims have been able to trash the room? Also, while you were locking up the arbedec and issuing orders, I was busy looking over the transcript of the interview. Notice that he said… what was it? ‘I did not witness any of the events’. Pretty odd wording, I thought, so I looked up arbedecs on the central computer. Information is sparse, but it seems that they have no word for ‘forget’. It seems that lacking a memory is a rare thing for them, so rare that it’s a source of arguments when dealing with other species. They can’t understand what it means to forget.”

Farz snorted. “So?”

“So, it means if it can’t understand the concept of forgetting, how would it lie about forgetting?”

“You are quibbling, Wilki,” he replied. “This one has encountered humans, maybe it is capable of imagining forgetfulness. Besides, you contradict yourself - if it can’t forget, why can’t it remember? As for the room, there are a thousand ways it could have gone down, many involving a struggle.”

Wilki nodded. “These objections aren’t fatal to your verdict. But they were enough to get me thinking about alternative theories. I can test one of them, with your permission, though I’ll need access to a long range communicator. Preferably one you wont miss.”

***

It was impossible to tell what the arbedec was experiencing based on outward displays of emotion, but Wilki imagined it was surprised when he entered the room carrying a small box. “What is it?” it asked through the translator.

“Proof,” he replied, “of your innocence. But listen: Farz believes you are guilty, and is willing to destroy this evidence. The death of his captain has affected him badly. So I need you to keep this safe and hidden, at least for a little while. Okay?”

“I will protect this box,” he answered, “though I don’t understand.”

“You will,” he said, exiting the room.

“Well?” Farz asked once the door was shut.

“You heard us, he knows that he needs to protect that box at all costs.” Jhanden held up a small remote, smiling. “Oh, turn on the intercom to his room, would you? You’ll want to hear what happens when I push this button.” He did so, looking at Jhanden expectantly. With an exaggerated flourish, he pressed the button.

A loud crack ripped from the speaker in the wall, followed by a loud wailing on the translator. After an agonising minute, silence fell over the corridor. “What did you just do?” Farz asked. Wilki indicated to the door, which he opened.

The arbedec was in the far corner of the room, his material components compressed as if he were trying to hide himself. The smouldering remains of the box sat near the door, its contents ruined.

“And that proof of concept explains what happened to the captain and the late Allan Rolr,” Wilki said, grinning. “The arbedec is innocent.”

Farz just stared at the scene, confused. “How do you figure that?”

“I was suspicious of the passenger, Rolr, from pretty early on. Had the scene been less crowded, I would have noticed that his clothing had suffered the same way as the captain’s uniform, but I was a bit slow to notice it. But notice I did, which raised the question: he appeared to be a poor man, based on his odd method of payment and infrequent meals, yet he was wearing expensive clothes. So he was likely either a rich person travelling in disguise, or a poor person who had stolen someone’s clothes. Either way, he was guilty of something.

“It seems likely that the captain found out about his guilt. Maybe those gizmos he paid with were stolen and he recognised them, who knows. But it is my belief that he was then blackmailing Rolr about it, for why else would the captain not inform his crew they were carrying a fugitive? The captain could contact the authorities at any time, and Rolr would be in considerable strife.

“Which brings me to the arbedec’s testimony. The captain checked up on the creature every day, so Rolr would have known when the captain would be out of his quarters. So he snuck in, and tried to break the long range communications device, the means of which the authorities could have been summoned to arrest him.. The central computer detected this, and notified the captain, as well as yourself. At this, he became highly agitated, but why would he? You received the same message, and was treating it like a routine fault. He must had reason to be particularly concerned about losing long range comms, which further suggests the idea of less than honourable dealings.

“What followed was a confrontation, which explains the shouting and the state of the room. At some stage during the struggle, the long range comms must have been switched on. Perhaps the captain was ready to make good on his threat, or maybe it was unintentional.

“But in the captain’s panic, he had forgotten to shut the door to the arbedec’s room. Switching on the device must have somehow flooded the poor creature’s mind with electromagnetic energy. He came out of his room, the radiation from the device inhibiting his higher order thinking and memory, and fell upon the room in a destructive frenzy. Then, still disorientated, he fled to the far end of the ship and sealed himself in a storage closet in order to get away from where the painful emissions had come from. Only when he was restored to his ideal environment was his mind able to reassert itself.

“And that is what we have just witnessed. The box contained a long range comm. device, though all he knew was it contained his salvation. And yet, when I turned it on, he destroyed it in an instant and retreated to the far corner of the room. A cruel experiment, but one that helps prove his innocence, which I hope is a net kidness.”

Farz simply stared at Wilki, jaw dropped in amazement. “It does seem plausible… thought that does mean the arbedec did kill them.”

“Kill them, yes, but not murder them. It was entirely beyond his power. In a way, the captain and the passenger killed each other. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get in contact with the Human Domain. I’m sure you’ll agree the entry for arbedecs is in urgent need of updating, and after conducting that last experiment I think I need to make it up to arbedecs everywhere.”

Comments

***

It was impossible to tell what the arbedec was experiencing based on outward displays of emotion, but Wilki imagined it was surprised when he entered the room carrying a small box. “What is it?” it asked through the translator.

“Proof,” he replied, “of your innocence. But listen: Farz believes you are guilty, and is willing to destroy this evidence. The death of his captain has affected him badly. So I need you to keep this safe and hidden, at least for a little while. Okay?”

“I will protect this box,” he answered, “though I don’t understand.”

“You will,” he said, exiting the room.

“Well?” Farz asked once the door was shut.

“You heard us, he knows that he needs to protect that box at all costs.” Jhanden held up a small remote, smiling. “Oh, turn on the intercom to his room, would you? You’ll want to hear what happens when I push this button.” He did so, looking at Jhanden expectantly. With an exaggerated flourish, he pressed the button.

A loud crack ripped from the speaker in the wall, followed by a loud wailing on the translator. After an agonising minute, silence fell over the corridor. “What did you just do?” Farz asked. Wilki indicated to the door, which he opened.

The arbedec was in the far corner of the room, his material components compressed as if he were trying to hide himself. The smouldering remains of the box sat near the door, its contents ruined.

“And that proof of concept explains what happened to the captain and the late Allan Rolr,” Wilki said, grinning. “The arbedec is innocent.”

Farz just stared at the scene, confused. “How do you figure that?”

“I was suspicious of the passenger, Rolr, from pretty early on. Had the scene been less crowded, I would have noticed that his clothing had suffered the same way as the captain’s uniform, but I was a bit slow to notice it. But notice I did, which raised the question: he appeared to be a poor man, based on his odd method of payment and infrequent meals, yet he was wearing expensive clothes. So he was likely either a rich person travelling in disguise, or a poor person who had stolen someone’s clothes. Either way, he was guilty of something.

“It seems likely that the captain found out about his guilt. Maybe those gizmos he paid with were stolen and he recognised them, who knows. But it is my belief that he was then blackmailing Rolr about it, for why else would the captain not inform his crew they were carrying a fugitive? The captain could contact the authorities at any time, and Rolr would be in considerable strife.

“Which brings me to the arbedec’s testimony. The captain checked up on the creature every day, so Rolr would have known when the captain would be out of his quarters. So he snuck in, and tried to break the long range communications device, the means of which the authorities could have been summoned to arrest him.. The central computer detected this, and notified the captain, as well as yourself. At this, he became highly agitated, but why would he? You received the same message, and was treating it like a routine fault. He must had reason to be particularly concerned about losing long range comms, which further suggests the idea of less than honourable dealings.

“What followed was a confrontation, which explains the shouting and the state of the room. At some stage during the struggle, the long range comms must have been switched on. Perhaps the captain was ready to make good on his threat, or maybe it was unintentional.

“But in the captain’s panic, he had forgotten to shut the door to the arbedec’s room. Switching on the device must have somehow flooded the poor creature’s mind with electromagnetic energy. He came out of his room, the radiation from the device inhibiting his higher order thinking and memory, and fell upon the room in a destructive frenzy. Then, still disorientated, he fled to the far end of the ship and sealed himself in a storage closet in order to get away from where the painful emissions had come from. Only when he was restored to his ideal environment was his mind able to reassert itself.

“And that is what we have just witnessed. The box contained a long range comm. device, though all he knew was it contained his salvation. And yet, when I turned it on, he destroyed it in an instant and retreated to the far corner of the room. A cruel experiment, but one that helps prove his innocence, which I hope is a net kidness.”

Farz simply stared at Wilki, jaw dropped in amazement. “It does seem plausible… thought that does mean the arbedec did kill them.”

“Kill them, yes, but not murder them. It was entirely beyond his power. In a way, the captain and the passenger killed each other. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get in contact with the Human Domain. I’m sure you’ll agree the entry for arbedecs is in urgent need of updating, and after conducting that last experiment I think I need to make it up to arbedecs everywhere.”

Thanks for posting this, AllWalker! Great story.

Yes, thanks! I'd be interested to read more.

Haha, thanks guys.

It has a sequel, which somehow I wrote in one sitting, the moment I finished this one.

http://www.mellophant.com/forums/sho...405#post189405

I quite like this second one, and I have ideas for more, so stay tuned.