Chapter 8
The android became one with the computer. It was a heady feeling, almost addictive. It explored the workings of the ship. Amazing how everything was tied to the one machine. How vulnerable it made everyone!
It had done nothing yet, but explore. It became aware that some subtle traps had been laid, to detect invasion. It bypassed them simply. Now it became aware of where every person on the ship was at that time, and what they were doing. It searched out the personal files of everyone, and studied their backgrounds. It filed away the information, more from habit than for any intention to use it.
It found Illana Borzovska. She was conveniently alone. Her computer suddenly buzzed, and when she answered it, Brendan's agitated face appeared.
"Brendan!" she said in surprise. "What can I do for you?" She was a little more relaxed with him than usual, because she was feeling secure in her privacy. She noticed his face was contorted with anxiety.
"Illana," he said, "I've found something about those murders. I don't know who to trust."
"The Captain, I suppose," she said doubtfully.
"But it's a plot to frame you," he said breathlessly. "If I go to the captain, he might believe the evidence, not me."
"Frame me?" she said in surprise.
"Yes, don't you see? The crew aren't suspects. Most of the settlers are pretty unsophisticated. The killer has to be a computer expert. That's you."
"How did you know I was a computer expert?" Illana said slowly.
"You talk about it," he said. "Anyway, will you meet me? It'll have to be in secret."
Illana was intrigued. She decided to arm herself, then go to him.
"Ok, where?" she said simply.
"I'll put up a schematic map," he said. "See where the flashing dot is? I'll meet you there."
His face was replaced with a map, showing the inner area of the tube which made up the ship. With centripetal force, it was virtually the 'top' of the ship. The area was unfamiliar to her, but reasonably open. She agreed, dressed lightly, and made her way through the ship to the designated area.
She saw nobody, and kept her hand resting gently on her weapon. As she stood on the decking she heard a voice calling from shadows to her left, and she headed over that way.
Suddenly the decking gave way below her, and she fell through!
She was suddenly immersed in a large body of water. She saw the light above her vanish as the trapdoor shut again, and she tried unsuccessfully to find the bottom with her feet. The suddenness of her immersion made her panic, but after flailing about for a short while she pulled up her shirt, and revealed two rows of large gills. She fought to regain composure. A normal human would have been dead by now, but she was amphibious, and she did not immediately panic. In fact for a fleeting moment she thought it was some kind of practical joke. But she could tell after a few moments scrambling around that she was in a closed tank. The ship's water supply!
She was finding the water breathable, but if it was not exposed to air the oxygen would soon run out. She fumbled blindly and with increasing terror around the walls. Calm yourself! she chided herself. You have time still. But a sense of claustrophobia was overwhelming her. She swam frantically around the walls, finding small openings where water could leave, but she could not. If water can flow out, it can't be sealed, she thought. Maybe air is getting in. But how do I get out?
Suddenly the wall seemed to disappear. She realised she had become disoriented, and the roof of the tank had opened.
In fact, the ship's computer had saved her, and Security was mustering to find out what had happened. She had been identified as an impurity. An alarm was sounding to indicate serious pollution of the water supply, and technicians rushed to correct it. They found a half-naked woman swimming around with not enough strength to pull herself up through the opening.
Illana lay gasping on a metal walkway, covered with a worker's shirt. Saviour and his security team soon appeared, with Celeste tagging secretly along. She had just come into Security to find Serena when the alarm had sounded, so she followed out of curiosity.
"What happened?" Andrew Black asked Illana. She was shivering, from terror rather than cold, and was unable to answer for a while. Celeste watched with a gnawing feeling in her stomach. She felt Illana's terror, and turned to go away.
To her dismay, she found herself facing Carla Smith. But Carla took her by the shoulders and said, "You're feeling her misery and despair. But it's not your concern. You are just near it. There is no need to fear. Your mother will look after you."
Serena heard Carla, and scolded Celeste when she saw her. "What are you doing here? This is no place for you. Go home!"
Celeste scuttled off, amazed that Carla had read her feelings so accurately. She went back to the room, and went straight to bed, not even bothering to open her diary. After a while she realised she was supposed to be at school, and quickly dressed again.
"Celeste! Where have you been?" asked Mister Simpkins. Unexplained absences were rare on a starship, where everyone lived close enough for instant contact.
"I'm sorry, Mister Simpkins," she said. "I was in the conservatory, and then I went to see mum, and there was an emergency and I went along. It was awful."
"What?" asked Mister Simpkins, and the rest of the class froze in attention. "What emergency?"
"One of the colonists fell into the water tank, but she didn't die. She could breathe underwater. But she was pretty scared. I didn't like her being scared."
She stood silently while the class broke into chatter. The teacher let them talk themselves out for a few minutes, then stopped them, and took them back to the subject. Celeste sat with a faraway look in her eye. Meanwhile, Brendan Bock arrived at the water supply, and ran to comfort Illana. She recoiled from him.
She had recovered some equilibrium by now, and had the coat properly on.
"Why did you do this?" she stormed at him.
"Me?" He was baffled.
"You asked me to meet you here," she said, "and I fell in."
"I never asked you anything," he said. "I've been in O'Riley's for the last six hours, gossiping with Leanne."
"That's right," agreed one of the men who had come running with him. Illana realised that the image on the computer had been a fake. She had felt subconsciously that it was wrong, but had not realised it consciously until now.
She told her story, what there was of it, and Brendan offered to escort her back to her room.
Saviour had offered to have her carried back, but she said, "No way!" She dripped water as they walked. Zelia was in the room when they returned. She grabbed Illana, and went to send Brendan off so that Illana could change.
"I'll see you in O'Riley's," said Illana with a wan smile. He smiled, and went off.
"Well, now you see why I don't have too many beaus," smiled Illana as she changed. "Not many men want to marry a fish."
Zelia was silent, because she shared their supposed prejudice. She changed the subject.
"What was it like?" she asked.
Meanwhile the Security team, which currently included all the computer experts, were putting their ideas together.
"Derek is tracing the message," said Saviour.
"Couldn't this have been another pre-programmed computer instruction?" asked Serena.
"Apparently not," answered Saviour. "The message was interactive. The holographic face would have needed some preprogramming, but whoever did this would have needed to be in direct communication."
"So it's not the bear?" asked Andrew.
"Not this time," said Saviour. "It may have been the culprit before, and its accomplice has done this."
"Not another android?" asked someone.
"No," answered Saviour. "We had a complete sweep of the ship last time. There are no other androids around."
"Could it have sent a radio signal from its box?" asked another. "It might have teed up the computer in advance."
"No," said Saviour again. "The box is sealed against any transmissions. In any case, if they existed, we could detect them. It has been continuously monitored."
"In the time-honored detective tradition, however," said Vad, "we are eliminating all the impossible scenarios, so that we will be left with the improbable, which must be true."
"If we can think of the improbable," muttered Andrew.
"Opportunity seems an open question at the moment," said Serena. "We don't know yet where it was done from, so we don't know who has an alibi. We have to look for motive. All of the victims have been from the colonists, so we have to assume it's not random killing. They are only about eight percent of those on board, so they must be being targeted."
"Very good," agreed Saviour. "Which implies that the murderer is one of the colonists. That reduces our suspects to a few hundred or so."
"And we can eliminate Illana for a start," said someone.
"Not necessarily," put in Vad, with a smile. "In the works of an early novelist, Agatha Christie, an unsuccessful attempt invariably led to the discovery that the attempted victim was in fact the killer."
"I doubt that in this case, because she was lucky to survive. If the tank had not rejected her we might not have found her in time." Saviour added, "However, no possibility must be overlooked. I will note that."
"It was a poor move on the part of the killer, observed Serena. "Just the way not to kill someone who is amphibious!"
"Derek would have to correct me, perhaps," said Saviour, "but I would guess that the killer gambled that the computer would allow the woman to stay there because it was an environment which would not be immediately fatal, until she ran out of oxygen. By the time it realised, and summoned help, it could have been too late."
"And he or she did not realise that the computer would automatically open the tank because she was an impurity," added Vad. "as you say, the killer may have gambled that the computer may not have realised that the environment would be fatal until too late."
"Well, while Derek and his crew investigate what can be found from the computers, we will question the colonists." Saviour felt some comfort from what seemed a course of action certain to lead to a solution. If they knew the guilty party or parties, proof would soon follow.
"Two hundred is coming into feasible range," said Serena. "We can question each of the colonists with Carla present to see if we can find anything. We can start by eliminating everyone with airtight alibis."
"Ensign Black, put together a list of all the colonists," said Saviour. "We will then call each group together and go through the list. The rest, meet back here in two hours. We will see what we have by then. Ensign Moulton, contact Counselor Smith and explain the situation to her."
Serena rose stiffly from her seat. She was tenser than she had thought. She pressed her badge, and called for Carla Smith.
"Smith here," came the reply.
"Where are you, Carla?" asked Serena. "I'd like to talk to you."
"I'm in O'Riley's," replied Carla. "Come on down, and I'll have a drink ready."
When she arrived, Carla had moved to an empty table, assuming she had been with friends, and, as promised, had a drink for her. As she moved to the table she passed Brildan Furr.
"How are you, Serena?" he asked with a smile. "Are you involved with all the to-do?"
"Well, if the answer to the second question was no, I'd be a lot better." laughed Serena. "But otherwise I'm all right."
"And how is Celeste?" he asked.
"Have you seen her lately?" asked Serena in return, a mild suspicion reforming.
"No," he said. "Except I passed her in the corridor the other day, when I was off to talk with the Captain. Well, tell her I said hello."
"That's odd," said Carla with a frown. "I reckon he was lying. Is he giving you some sort of trouble?"
"I don't know," said Serena. "It may be nothing, but I have the feeling he's.. interested in Celeste. But she says he hasn't been talking to her."
"Well, you're supposed to be in Security," said Carla, "and he's one of the suspects. Why not have him observed whenever he is out of his quarters?"
"Why not indeed?" said Serena, brightening.
"How is Celeste?" asked Carla. "I saw her briefly when they found the woman. Celeste seemed almost as upset as the victim. I suppose this is all very frightening for her?"
"Yes," said Serena. "She was staying with the daughter of the Dezics when they were killed, and now this. But she is a lot better otherwise. In fact she seems quite resilient. She seems to have warmed to shipboard life at last. I wondered if she had a crush on one of the boys or something, but the only boy she gets around with is a colonist. I even thought she might have a crush on Andrew, but I think she might be trying to pair him off with me."
"At her age, more likely a crush on the teacher," said Carla.
"I hadn't thought of that," said Serena with a start. "I hope not."
"I wouldn't worry about that," laughed Carla. "It's the norm. You probably had a crush on a teacher yourself at that age."
"Well as long as its not a crush on Furr," said Serena. "At least they'll all be off the ship in a couple of days. Which brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about. We've decided to question all the colonists."
"All two hundred?" asked Carla glumly.
"Unless they've got really airtight alibis for the times," said Serena. "We'll check that first."
"That will be an interesting exercise in crowd control," remarked Carla. "Has Celeste shown any change in her other habits?"
"She still doesn't like to be touched," admitted Serena, "but that isn't a problem. I know some people are just like that. And she's starting to diet so she can look like Illana Borzovska! But apart from that she's really good. She's started reading without being pressured at last. I was getting really worried about that."
"Well, it sounds like I'm going to be busy for a while," laughed Carla. "I'll talk to her after we leave Regula, if you like."
They gossiped on, and then came the familiar beep of the hand communicator.
"Moulton here," responded Serena.
"We have a trace," said Andrew. "It's the same place. Professor Lar's computer. Meet you there."
They rose quickly, and with an apologetic glance at Leanne Dramm moved out at top speed, leaving their glasses full on the table. Leanne sighed, and collected the glasses, and poured the contents into the recirculation trough. At Lar's room the force was already interrogating him when they arrived. He was upset, and insisting he had not been in his room at the time. He said he had been in the Conservatory.
Saviour called upon the computer, which said it could only confirm where people were at the moment. It had not been programmed to memorize movements. But a scan of the room indicated very little trace of movement within. It did seem that the Professor had just arrived, but he could have left and returned. Once again the computer was bare of fingerprints, but the Professor insisted that he had used it since their last visit. There should be some.
Drawing aside, Saviour and his crew considered the matter. It was felt that he would have known from their last visit to clean the keyboard. He could not prove his alibi. He was one of the colonists. It was adding up, but like last time, there was a doubt. It was decided to put him under complete observation.

Chapter 9, or back to my page