Chapter 7
Next morning the girls breakfasted together, and gossiped eagerly until school time approached. Celeste ate quickly, and announced, "I'm going to put all this in my diary before I forget it!" They laughed, because her diary had been one of her main topics of conversation all night, but she scampered off, and the others delayed their departure as long as possible. The Sieve of the Jumblies being so compact it was possible for them to go straight to school before going back to their rooms, so they did not hurry. But before they had time to depart, a solemn visit from Carla Smith stopped them.
"Sit down, my darlings," she said sadly. "I have some bad news."
They looked at her uncertainly, but she was focused on Beryl.
It was only when Arandnia and Jarran Dezic failed to arrive at an early daily prayer service that someone tried to rouse them in their room, and eventually called Security. Ensign Balk overrode the door code, and entered the room.
Husband and wife lay asleep in bed, but he noticed that there was condensation on the walls and furniture. Not a lot, but unusual. He tried to rouse the pair, but it was obvious immediately that they were both cold. He quickly summoned Doctor Brill, and Saviour Bliss.
Both arrived almost immediately, and Otto Brill took a quick scan of the bodies.
"Well, we know that's not right," he muttered, and added to Bliss, "The medscan reading says they've been dead about three days! And there is no mark on them."
"I may be able to save you a lot of analysis," said Bliss grimly. "Ensign Balk observed upon entry that there was condensation upon the walls. It has evaporated now, with the door open."
Otto quickly took the clue, and his autopsy concurred with Bliss's analysis. The couple had been frozen to death.
"As I suspected," said Bliss, aggrieved that another murder had been done before his eyes, so to speak, but pleased to have solved the mystery so quickly. Of course, Otto would have made the same discovery when he performed the autopsy, but the exercise of detective skills pleased him. It made him feel that he might soon have the culprit. "Someone has programmed the computer to quick-freeze the room, then return it to normal temperature."
"Can that be done?" asked Otto in puzzlement. "Why would a room be able to be programmed that low?"
"All rooms may be prepared for any race," said Bliss. "Also, a room may be temporarily used as a storage or refrigeration unit if necessary. This is an unfortunate result of having infinite flexibility."
"This should be traceable," said Vad, who was now with them. "The computer could not have been programmed to carry this out. It will not perform any operation it knows will harm the ships's inhabitants. The computer must have been cut off from the room while the room controls were manually operated, then reconnected afterwards. We know the specific command we are looking for, and it should not take long to scan. The command must also have come from a specific console. I will begin my investigation now."
He communicated with Derek, who immediately instituted a search. Commands to alter room conditions were routed through a particular circuit. The command to freeze the room no longer existed, but the command to raise the temperature back to normal still existed, and so did the path from which it had come. The trail led straight to Zetopek Lar.
Lar was in his room when the small army of investigators arrived. He looked up in surprise at their arrival. Captain Normington had joined the group, which also included Arres, Carla, Derek, Bliss and Andrew Black.
"Professor, I hope you will excuse our intrusion," said Normington. He had decided to join the group because of the Professor's interstellar reputation. A false accusation against such a public figure could have embarrassing repercussions. "It seems there is evidence to suggest that a murder has been programmed into the computer from this terminal."
"A murder?" gasped Lar. "By computer?"
"Two people have been frozen to death," answered Normington. "I would like you to answer any questions which Commander Bliss may have."
"Well, certainly," said Lar, sounding most uncertain. "I will help however I may."
"First, if I may, I will scan you," said Bliss briefly. He did so. "He is human," he said to the others.
"Well, of course I am," said Lar peevishly. "What did you expect?"
"Professor, when did you last use the computer?" asked Bliss.
"Why, about two days ago," said Lar.
"I gave you deep access to the computer, Professor," said Normington. "Have you used it?"
"Yes," replied Lar. "That night I pulled out all the archaeological files I was after and downloaded them into my terminal. I printed them out as hardcopy. I prefer to read printed material. My eyes are somewhat sensitive to light."
"He seems to be telling the truth," whispered Carla to Bliss. "He isn't giving off any cues of guilt or tension. A little anger and natural apprehension."
Derek intervened. "There is an anomaly. The keys of the computer are entirely clear of fingerprints."
"That is impossible," exclaimed Lar uneasily. "I do not clean the computer keys!"
Everyone believed him. His room showed no evidence that he ever cleaned anything. In the short time he had been aboard he had managed to make a mess of the small room. Normington guessed that he probably knew where every item in the room was, but all of his belongings appeared to be dumped at random.
"If someone secretly entered your room," said Derek, "and used your computer, they might have cleaned the keys to avoid detection."
"This would imply that the culprit does not have a computer terminal," mused Normington.
"Not necessarily," replied Derek. "This was a direct command, so that it remains traceable until erased. The killer may have used a foreign terminal to cover the possibility that he or she might not be able to erase the command in time. I am inclined to believe the Professor's protests. One who is intelligent enough to be able to subvert the Sieve of the Jumblies's computer would be unlikely to make a mistake of that simplicity."
"Especially if the killer was locked in a box at the time!" said Andrew.
Nobody bothered to point out to him that a killer locked in a box would have a lot of trouble using its own, let alone someone else's computer.
"There is always the possibility of what is called, double bluff, of course," said Derek. "The Professor might use his own computer on the assumption that I would argue as I am."
"And as every detective story points out," added Normington thoughtfully, "the most complicated murderers usually make a simple error."
"But how could he, or it, get into my room?" asked Lar plaintively. "It was locked and coded!"
"If the killer had complete access to the computer," said Bliss, "it would be child's play to find the code to your room."
"I meant," said Andrew rather aggrievedly, "could the panda have set up the computer earlier to look as if the command came from this terminal?"
"I do not believe so," said Derek thoughtfully.
"But we don't know how long ago this was programmed?" said Bliss interrogatively. "Could the panda have come here and done it before we arrested it?"
Normington smiled slightly in spite of the seriousness of the situation, at the concept of a Security team arresting a toy. He said, "I don't see that a toy panda could wander the decks of the Sieve of the Jumblies. Even if it could sense the approach of others, it would be picked up by the ships sensors."
"Unless it had in fact programmed the computer not to see it," said Bliss with a start.
"The problem is," said Derek thoughtfully, "are there any other innocuous-sounding commands built into the computer which we might overlook?"
"Find them!" ordered Normington. "Do a complete systems search. You'll understand, Professor Lar, that we must still regard you with some suspicion, but it does seem at the moment that you are innocent. I hope you will pardon our intrusion."
"Of course," said the Professor, his manner returning to its usual imperturbability. Carla detected, however, that his heart was beating quickly, and he was very tense and upset. "If the villainy emanated from my terminal, it had to be investigated."
"Do a complete systems search!" exclaimed Derek, as he and Vad returned towards Engineering. "I don't think he understands how long it would take to investigate every little operation in the computer system!"
Around the starship the news flew quickly. There had been some attempt to stifle it, but too many people knew a fact or two, and rumors, accurate or otherwise, spread like gas molecules. There was a mild panic, because there was nowhere to flee, and if some fiend had control of the computers, who was safe?
Brendan had retired to his room, and cowered on his bed. He should not be cowering, he knew. If the killer was watching his room at the moment he might suspect he knew something, and destroy him, too. He forced himself to rise, and go about his usual routine.
Illana was sharing a room. She was entitled to a single room, but they were in short supply, and the warrant officer had been somewhat relieved when she had said she preferred company. Her roommate was an Ardurian woman, more a girl, who was not particularly stimulating company, but she was company. As a farmer's daughter, at least she could talk intelligently about plants.
"My father says the whole planet is fertile," said the girl, Zelia. "Maybe the plants there already will be worth growing."
"There's a lot to investigate," Illana told her. "We have to find out a lot about the plants there still. They may not be edible. They may even have the wrong.. um, their molecules may not twist the right way."
"Molecules?" asked the girl with a frown. "They're something small, aren't they?"
Illana sighed, and turned down the level of discussion a bit more. "When we go on a new planet, we have to be careful not to bring in plants or insects which wipe out those already there. Your parents will have to try growing the indig.. the plants that are there first. If they do plant new plants, they will have to be in sealed areas."
"My parents are dead," said Zelia. "I'd be in a room with them if they were here."
"I'm sorry," said Illana. "did you know them? I mean, did they die recently?"
She had gathered from Zelia's lack of emotion that it might have been some time ago.
"No," she answered, "they died long ago. I was raised by my uncle and aunt. But this seemed such an adventure! And now, people are being murdered! It seems so unbelievable!"
"Don't worry about it," soothed Illana. "All those who were killed were Elders. We should be safe."
She shuddered as she said it. Who was safe, with a madman at work?
"Do you have a beau?" asked Zelia shyly. "I don't yet, but there's more men than women on the planet."
"No, I don't," laughed Illana. "Married to my work. I wander about too much to get married yet. Maybe one day."
"You're so beautiful," sighed Zelia. "I seen the men looking at you."
"Oh? Any in particular?"
"Mister Furr. He likes you, I think. And Mister Bock. He watches you a lot, too, and Mister Ferris."
"Mister Ferris?" said Illana. "I don't even know him!"
"Well, he's a farmer. He's very nice. I guess a man can look at a beautiful woman even if he don't know her. You know the other two, then?"
"Oh, yes. I met them both on Argonaut, before we started. Brendan, that's Mister Bock, I know from a long time ago. We are both biologists, we work with plants."
"Mister Furr is nice," said Zelia. "He got here just before we left, and he helped everybody."
"Here?" asked Illana.
"I meant, on Argonaut," said Zelia.
"Oh," said Illana. "Didn't he meet you when you arrived?"
"No, he just arrived when we was leaving. He helped with all the packing and that. Not just his own."
"That was very good of him," said Illana neutrally.
"What do you think Regula will be like?" said Zelia, with a faraway look. "I think it sounds like a big garden."
"It has a lot of ocean," said Illana. "I'm most interested to explore that. The planet has no animals. I wonder what the sea is like?"
"Did you bring scuba equipment?" asked Zelia.
"I just brought me!" said Illana with a laugh.
They talked longer, and then went to sleep.
Next day, Celeste went with her mother on her round. It was a day round, and consisted of walking around corridors, checking some doors, and looking into areas which were not supposed to have anyone in them. Nothing of interest happened and they returned to Security again. Serena unstrapped her weapon and put it into the cupboard with the others.
"Is that a gun?" asked Celeste. "I've never seen you wearing it before!"
"I don't wear it off duty," smiled Serena. "It's too dangerous to have around the room with a little child there."
"I'm not a little child!" exclaimed Celeste indignantly. "I'm nine!"
"Well, when you were little," said Serena, "I was worried."
"I was nine when we came here!" said Celeste.
"And you would have tried anything I brought home," said Serena. "You know, you really have grown up this past week. I'm proud of you. Mister Simpkins says you have suddenly become a model scholar. Is it because you have made some friends?"
"No, not really," said Celeste, suddenly becoming sullen again. "I just suddenly got interested. I don't know why."
"Maybe we should go and see Counselor Smith again," mused Serena.
"Why?" said Celeste in alarm. "I'm not doing anything wrong!"
"She's just a friend," said Serena. "But if you don't want to, we won't."
"Can I look at your gun?"
"All right," said Serena, taking one out. "But you mustn't press any buttons."
"What does it do?" asked Celeste with interest. "What are these switches?"
"It's called a stungun. We usually have it set on 'stun'," said Serena. "That makes it send people unconscious. It sort of turns off part of their nervous system. But we only use it if really necessary. It can still be dangerous on 'stun'. Just hitting someone softly can sometimes kill or injure a person. So can a stun. The other settings are for kill, and to use it as a sort of cutting tool."
"When do you use 'kill'?"
"Never, I hope," shuddered Serena. "I never have had to, and I hope I don't. You should never have to kill anyone these days. But sometimes you have to do things you don't want to."
"I know what you mean," said Celeste fervently, and Serena smiled indulgently. She put the stungun away, and keyed in the code to lock it up. "I have to go to school," grunted Celeste. "That's one of those things."
Celeste went off to her lessons. She entered grumpily, and was uncooperative for the rest of the day, but the others just ignored her and went on with their work. Alfred Simpkins sighed. He hoped this was a temporary remission from her recently improved behaviour. It might be to do with the trauma of her friend's parent's deaths. Shauna and Eric tried to work with her, but she shrugged off their overtures, and they recoiled offended. She noted uneasily that Beryl Dezic had still not come to class. It would have been very uncomfortable being with a grieving daughter, but she would have to go and see her eventually. This was not the sort of thing she had envisaged having to do. Death in literature had none of this unpleasantness about it.
But by recess Celeste had thawed, and she offered to make up with them, and they set off to play. Belinda joined them, though she was still despondent. Celeste resolutely resolved not to become emotionally involved, and led them to a door, where she began to manipulate the controls.
"This is the Sim!" exclaimed Eric. "We're not allowed in alone."
"There's not much value in having a mum in Security," said Celeste with a grin, "but it gets you a lot of security codes!"

To Chapter 8, or back to me.