Chapter 6.
Vad and Derek Augustine, the chief programmer, opened up the computers, and began to consider their options. First, they asked the computer for a self-diagnosis, then swept to find whether any being on board was hidden. In essence, Vad asked the computer to locate each person who should be on board individually. The result was negative.
"Ok," said Derek, "nobody is screened at the moment. But we have no way of knowing whether there was a temporary alteration, if someone was good enough to screen their work. And if someone is this good with a computer, they may be hard to find."
"We have to consider whether there is someone aboard who is not supposed to be," said Vad, "so I should still examine the programming to see if there is a subroutine causing the computer to ignore any presence. This will take a long time."
"Well, let's finish the quicker tests first," said Vad. "But you could be right. If someone is able to subvert the computer that well, they could get aboard through our security screening. Let's try for unfamiliar life-forms. Computer, are there any life-forms aboard which are different from what they are supposed to be?"
"Negative," replied the computer.
"Your question is ambiguous to a computer, Vad," commented Derek. "The phrase 'supposed to be' might have many interpretations. Computer, are there any shapeshifters aboard?"
"None detectable," replied the computer. "All life-forms aboard conform to the readings programmed into me."
"Are there any artificial life-forms active on the Sieve?" asked Derek.
"Yes," replied the computer.
"Where?" asked Derek.
"In the main engine, and the quarters of Ensign Serena Moulton," answered the computer.
Derek and Vad glanced quickly at each other, and Vad hit his hand communicator. They arrived at Serena's room moments after Saviour Bliss. Bliss hit the override and the three stepped into the room with weapons drawn. Serena looked up in astonishment, especially when Vad scanned her.
"What is going on?" she said angrily. "I could have been undressed. Why didn't you knock?"
"Our apologies, Ensign," said Bliss, without sounding at all apologetic. "The computer detects an artificial life-form here."
"Look," said Derek, pointing at the Kritonian panda sitting at the computer.
Vad and he scanned it, and Derek said, "This is it."
"It's just a toy," said Serena. "Celeste got it on Argonaut. Oh, god! He gave it to her!"
"What?" asked Bliss.
"The man in the shop. He gave it to Celeste, just before we left. I was going to confront him, but we were leaving, so I let it go! The perfect way to smuggle an android aboard!"
"Could this be it, though?" asked Bliss.
"I got your bag. What's going on?" asked Celeste, her face turning white as she saw the group. She had walked in through the open door, with the bag she had gone to fetch.
"It's your panda," said Serena. "It's an android. They think it might be the one that killed Elder McNamon, and perhaps the other man."
"It couldn't have killed Mister Lattif," said Celeste. "It was in our luggage."
"No, it was lying loose in the shuttle," corrected Serena. "And it was quite near where Lattif was killed."
"It is a very sophisticated machine," said Vad. "It is capable of speech, and complex movement. It has a very comprehensive neural net."
"It can't talk, can you Teddy?" said Celeste indignantly. To her astonishment it turned its head and replied.
"Indeed I can," it said. "You have not previously requested that I do so."
"Have you killed a man?" asked Vad.
"Of course not," replied the panda, expressionlessly. "How could I?"
In spite of their experience with other life forms, all in the room found the blank stare of the panda creepy somehow. Its voice was as expressionless as its face.
"You might have programmed the computer to do so," said Vad. "Or you might have killed him manually."
"I do not have access to the computer," said the Panda, "and I have not left the room. Manually is not an appropriate term, moreover. I have no hands."
"How could he use the computer?" asked Celeste impatiently. "He hasn't got any hands."
"You only press one key at a time," said Derek grimly.
"Could the panda have accessed the computer verbally?" asked Bliss.
"No," answered Vad. "In order to use voice activation, one must have a voice recognizable to the computer."
"You underestimate me, Mister Holmes," observed the panda, in an eerie imitation of Serena's voice. "I am an artificial construct with a variety of capabilities. But I have not used the computer."
The humans in the room found Serena's voice issuing from the toy's unmoving face somewhat disturbing, not least of all Serena, although her own voice was not as familiar to her as it was to others.
"All the same, McNamon appears to have been killed manually, as Commander Vad puts it," said Bliss. "Could this toy have wandered through the corridors of the Sieve unobserved, and entered McNamon's quarters?"
"It has some echo-location components," said Vad, completing a scan. "So it could have been able to wander and avoid people. It could have obtained the code to the room through the computer. We will have to recheck the programming of the computer to ascertain whether this android has been rendered invisible to it."
"The matter is easily resolved," said the panda. "If you lock me in a box, either the killings will stop, or not. If they stop, it may have been me, if not, I am innocent."
"Who programmed you?" asked Vad.
"Whoever made me, I suppose," said the panda. "I exist. I have instructions built into me. I know no more. I am a toy."
Bliss said drily, "The toy is correct. We will lock it up. Then we need to trace its maker."
"The shopkeeper," said Serena. "It has to be the man who gave it to Celeste. He has a shop on Argonaut at the stopover."
Bliss asked to use her terminal, and instituted a search for the man. The team, including Serena, returned to Security and waited.
Eventually they had their reply from Argonaut, some days later when the signal had had time to travel the already vast distance to Argonaut and back. The shop had been hired briefly, for about a year, but the man had disappeared, and the shop was empty. There was no clue to his identity.
"Well, we don't have any absolute proof," said Serena angrily, in the meantime, "but it looks like this panda is the villain."
"But do we have the right to box it up?" asked Derek. "We don't have proof, as you say."
"It was the suggestion of the panda itself," noted Bliss, "so it will not feel aggrieved. It appears to be entirely mechanical, so it is not a lifeform, and prolonged packaging will not hurt it."
"I'd like to get my hands on the man who gave it to her," said Serena grimly.
"We must keep in mind," said Vad, "that it may have been a diversion. The real culprit may be elsewhere. We also need to be aware that if it did have access to the deep structure of the computer it may already have programmed in some other mischief. It certainly has had some access to the computer."
"How do you know?" asked Serena.
"It has made itself familiar with myself," said Vad. "It obviously knows of my interest in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes."
"I didn't know that," observed Saviour.
"I suppose the only one who would would be Alf," remarked Vad. In addition to his teaching duties, Alfred Simpkins was the ship's librarian.
"Didn't you run a self-diagnostic?" asked Andrew Black, who had joined them, and moved in near Serena, as if in support. Celeste noticed his attention, but not the subtle way Serena moved so that he would not put his hand on her. Celeste always did that herself, so she did not notice it as unusual. She also noticed that she had not been pushed out of the room. It was, after all, her room.
"We diagnosed that the computer has not currently been interfered with," said Vad. "Whatever was done to it to enable the murder of Elder McNamon has been reversed and is undetectable. However, it may have been programmed to carry out some seemingly harmless task which can cause mischief."
"Like a virus?" asked Andrew.
"That is one possibility," replied Vad. "It would take a long time to go over every little command or subprogram in the computer. But the computer is highly intelligent. It should recognise any overt misuse."
"Could voice recognition be possible?" asked Serena, with a shiver.
"I doubt it," said Vad. "Voice initiated commands are inherently more traceable than keyboard commands, so that anyone wishing to remain hidden is more likely to use keyboard only."
"Do you use the keyboard yourself, Ensign?" asked Derek.
"Not much," said Serena. "I try to get Celeste to keep her diary through the keyboard. It's good for her spelling, and it's a lot quieter if I'm trying to watch a holovid."
"For the moment let us concentrate on the panda," decided Bliss. "That can be done more quickly."
The panda was scanned and recorded, taken away, and sealed securely in an environment which prevented electromagnetic emissions. Serena went to Security to discuss the case with her fellows.
The Client was in his quarters when his computer screen suddenly came to life and the face of an old man appeared.
"Who are you?" gasped the Client.
"It's me, if you will forgive the grammar," replied the image, in a gravelly voice. "I gathered you want to contact me."
"How did you do that?" asked the Client. "Turn on my computer like that, I mean. And why do you look like that?"
"I have got in deep into the computer," replied the image. "I had to turn it all off for a while, but I believe it is safe to reinstitute all my protocols. I made myself invisible to the computer for a while, but I've.. You don't need to know all that. I thought I would send a variant image as security, in case you were not alone. I don't believe anyone can intercept the transmission, but better safe than sorry. I have a question, myself."
"Which is?" asked the Client.
"Am I able to kill others? It makes it simpler if I neutralise an area rather than a specific target, but I would rather not."
"No, just those I said," said the Client. In spite of his callousness, he found it mildly unnerving to speak with a machine designed only for killing without conscience.
"That's good," said the old man. "I don't like doing this."
"You can't dislike it," said the Client angrily. "You're just a machine. A machine I own."
"True," said the old man neutrally. "What did you want to contact me for? I was told not to contact you, after all."
"I want to add one more to the list. Illana Borzovska. She saw something she should not have on Argonaut. I need to have her terminated before she mentions it to anyone else."
"Why can't you say 'killed'?" sighed the image. "All right. But it becomes difficult. I will not be able to kill many more aboard the Sieve without being discovered. I am lucky to be free still. The rest of the mission will have to take place on the planet."
"Will you be able to get onto Regula?" he asked. "Can you complete your mission there?"
"It will be perfectly natural for me to be on the planet. Once there I can eliminate those you require and seem to disappear into the jungles forever," said the image. "I do have to self-destruct after I have completed the mission. It is in hand still, but I can fit in Miss Borzovska as well. I dare say I will know if you want to contact me again."
The image disappeared, and the client watched the computer turn itself off. He realised he was sweating, and mopped his brow.
Celeste walked down towards the Tolian area with a more downcast attitude than usual. She nearly bumped into Zetopek Lar as he came out of his room with a distracted air. He paused to wipe the edge of his door with his handkerchief.
"Hello, my dear," he murmured.
"Hello, Mister Lar," she said. "You seem in a hurry."
"I'm off hunting, my dear," he said. "Er.. I'm looking for something."
"I hope you're giving your prey a sporting chance," she said with a smile.
"What a pleasant concept," he said. "What made you say that?"
"Mummy said you hunt in the jungles," said Celeste. "You're famous, she said."
"I hunt with a camera, my dear," he said with a rare smile. "It's wrong to kill. But at the moment I am only hunting for some files."
She stared after him as he stumbled off along the corridor. Then she found her small group of friends.
"You look a bit down today," offered Eric as greeting. Beryl and Belinda were there, and seemed to have recovered their equanimity.
"Something strange happened," she said. "You know my panda?"
"Yes, it's lovely," said Shauna.
"It's an android," said Celeste in wonder. "It can talk and all sorts of things. They think it killed Elder McNamon."
The two siblings were suitably impressed.
"Do you think it did?" asked Shauna after some discussion.
"No," said Celeste. "I can't see how it could of. How could a toy panda walk around the corridors without being seen?"
"At night, maybe?" suggested Belinda.
"No," said Celeste. "Security is always around. They have cameras in all the corridors, and if anyone walked down at night they'd notice. Especially a panda. No, I don't see how he could."
"And the Elder was killed in the middle of the day," said Eric.
"How do you know?" asked Celeste with interest.
"Everyone knows everything," laughed Shauna. "Not much happens to us. This is real news."
"I didn't think an android could be so small," mused Celeste.
"Why not?" asked Eric.
"Well, I just assumed that androids would all be human shape. So they could do things. A toy panda can't do much."
"It can walk around," said Shauna.
"And press the buttons on a computer," said Eric.
"So the ships androids could be just little things?" said Celeste. "Intelligent, strong and little."
"Not really," laughed Shauna. "I suppose the whole idea of making that one was to make him as like a human as possible."
"But he doesn't," said Celeste. "Not quite."
"Enough to walk about with humans and learn by experience, like humans," said Eric.
"I wonder why whoever made him, made him deliberately wrong?" mused Celeste. "Do any of you like sleepover parties?"
"What's that?" asked Belinda.
"When you have real houses, sometimes you have friends over to sleep for the night. We did that when we lived on a planet. You can't do that in a tiny cabin like ours."
"We could do it," said Belinda Bleek. "They've got us in a big room. Would you girls like to sleep over with us tonight?"
"I'll have to ask," said Celeste, and Shauna and Beryl said the same.
"It's not a very good room," said Belinda, "compared to your room. It's not really for accommodation. You haveta go down the corridor to the washrooms."
"That's a pain," said Celeste, "but I'll rough it."
The others laughed, and she looked puzzled.
"It's luxury to us," explained Shauna. "We're farmers! Some of us didn't even have permanent electricity where we were, and some didn't have septic toilets!"
"What's septic toilets?" asked Celeste, wrinkling her nose questioningly.
They talked on, and eventually Celeste made her way back to her home. She noticed that Professor Lar was still out, and his room locked.
When she got home Serena was happy to give her permission, and communicated with the Bleeks. She skipped off to join them in a rather crowded room, and they gossiped until late.
That night, Arandnia and Jarran Dezic went to bed together for the last time.

on to Chapter 7, or have a rest...