Chapter 11

In the morning Celeste woke up to an unfamiliarly empty room. She knew that Serena was not coming home for a while, and would only want to sleep then, so she went to school.

As she walked the corridors she was aware of unusual scurrying about. No doubt this was the prologue to the questioning of two hundred colonists. She arrived at the schoolroom and moved silently to her seat, and observed the others, as usual. She had a new feeling of excitement, a sort of freedom, symbolised somehow by not having to have cereal for breakfast. She wondered what Regula IV would be like.

During the lessons Alfred Simpkins was surprised by her perkiness, and she socialised more with the others than she had ever done. When the lesson was over he called her to stay back.

"You did very well in everything today," Celeste," he said. "I'm glad to see you so cheerful. Things must be well with your mother and you."

"No, not really," she said after a while. "Mum stayed up all night guarding Deanna, and she has no idea who has been committing the murders, so I suppose she's not too happy. But I just woke up feeling cheerful this morning."

"So, you've decided to live on," he said.

She looked at him sharply.

"How did you know that?" she said with a frown.

"Your mother and I have been talking about you," he said. "Schoolteachers like to know everything about their students. She said you have always had a romantic notion that you would die young. I hope not."

"I think I may," she said, airily. "But I shall always be remembered by those who discover, too late, that they loved me."

He grinned. "I think Serena already knows that she loves you. Everyone who knows you loves you."

Well, that's a bit of a stretch, she thought with amusement. She realised that she really liked him. She would miss him when she was dead. Well, she should say, he would miss her. Did Mister Furr love her? she wondered. No way!

Would Andrew miss her? She thought about his attachment to Serena. Would he marry her if Celeste were not in the way? Was she an impediment? She sighed. Relationships were so difficult.

He saw her grin, and was reassured.

"How do you expect to go?" he asked. "Tuberculosis was very romantic four centuries ago. But most of the romantic fatal diseases have been cured."

"I may die of love for some boy I will meet," she said thoughtfully. "That would be nice. Drowning is romantic. Or I thought so before I saw that lady."

"Dying isn't romantic," he assured her. "It happens eventually, but it's something to put off as long as possible."

"But it can be convenient," she said. "In stories sometimes. And sometimes it's.. justice."

"Justice?" he asked, puzzled.

"Whoever organised all these murders," she said. "They deserve to be killed. They aren't really... human."

"They might deserve it," he said, "but they will be imprisoned. It's best to try to reform people. You can't reform if you're dead."

"But if someone has free will and then just decides to kill for..nothing really. Mum says there's no real reason for these murders. Just greed. That person deserves to be executed."

"I feel that way inside," said Mister Simpkins, "but I know in my head that's wrong. It's a primitive part of us that wants vengeance. How did we get onto this morbid subject? I was just asking how your mother was."

"We're both Ok, really," she said.

But Serena was not Ok at that time.

Outside there was a lot of hustle and bustle as the colonists were organised for interrogation. But Deanna slept on, and Serena began to wonder whether she was supposed to wake her. She wanted to go to sleep herself.

She eventually shook Deanna, and shouted in her ear. She realised that her own alarm should have permeated Deanna's subconscious and awakened her. Deanna was breathing very slowly, she realised. She rang sickbay.

"Hello," said Lieutenant Selar, who was early on duty, or had been there all night.

"Emergency," said Serena. "I can't wake Counselor Troi!"

"Shall we have her beamed straight here?" asked Selar.

"I don't know," muttered Serena. Could the transporters have been boobytrapped as well? She consulted Worf.

"Beam her," he said. "Data assures me the transporters are not sabotaged."

Serena and Deanna were both beamed to sickbay, and Selar began an examination. Beverley Crusher had been alerted, and she came running.

Selar ran tests on Deanna's blood, while Beverley checked her vital signs, and finally isolated the culprit. "It's a compound called isotonin," she said. "The record says it won't harm Deanna, but she'll sleep for about three days."

"Can't we wake her?" asked Beverley, opening up her own padd to check the effects of isotonin.

"Not without interfering with her cortex, which is dangerous. Just letting her sleep will allow the chemical to dissipate. Where would someone come upon a rare chemical like that?"

"How did she get it?" asked Beverley. "It would have been almost immediate in its effect."

"It must have been in her chocolate," said Serena. "That's all she had before she went to bed."

"So the replicator made it?" asked Beverley with a frown. "Our phantom programmer is still at large!"

Once again the team gathered. Serena was tired, but adrenalin kept her going.

"Oh, damn," she said. "Celeste! I'd better let her know where I am!"

She contacted Alfred Simpkins, who promised to tell Celeste, and went out after her.

"This is getting embarrassing," said Andrew Black. "The killer is playing with us."

Worf was feeling particularly aggrieved, as he felt it a peculiar personal insult, but he maintained discipline.

"That is the most peculiar part of this," he observed. "We have had some killings which were quick and simple, followed by two unsuccessful attempts which were unnecessarily complicated."

"This was not a murder attempt," said Doctor Crusher, who had joined them. "The chemical would not kill her. In fact, the killer has gone out of his way not to kill her. As you say, in a complicated way."

"I suggest that we continue as we would have gone," said Worf. "We will continue with the interrogations, and hope to find something with technology and finesse, instead of Deanna. Data and Geordi will investigate this corruption of the computer."

"It does tell us something, though," said Beverley. "This is a very rare drug. Our killer is very knowledgeable about chemicals. Especially organics."

"So the most obvious suspects from the colonists, that we know about, would be the two biologists." Serena frowned. "One of them was an attempted victim. Data says that could still leave her a suspect. I don't know. I thought she looked terrified when we found her. Maybe she expected to get out more easily."

"It was an awkward way to murder," said Worf. "It would have been easier to simply beam the victim into an area like the core. Radiation would kill her immediately. Or a vacuum area."

"Or outside the ship," offered another.

"The protocols of the transporter do not allow that," said Worf. "During warp extra-ship transport is unavailable."

"It's almost as if the killer was giving her a sporting chance," murmured Andrew.

"Or she did it herself," said someone.

"Commander Data did say that the computer would not obey a command which would obviously kill a sentient being," noted Serena.

"It appears from Commander La Forge's latest investigations that the killer was able to cut the computer out of the operation completely," said Worf. "He or she is very able at programming."

"What about the other biologist?" asked Andrew.

"We passed him last night, Deanna and I," said Serena thoughtfully. "She said he was terrified. Maybe it was the thought of interrogation."

"Has anyone considered the possibility that there could be two killers?" asked a young woman suddenly.

"Two?" asked Worf.

"Yes," she said. "It seems that there is some reason why this planet is very valuable. There are two groups of colonists. Why couldn't there be some sort of gang struggle between them? One group might have organised the android panda, the other might have a human assassin."

"That does fit," said Worf thoughtfully. "The panda was a simple killer, but the other is not. He or she merely puts victims out of the way if they are not the main target. Thus Deanna was not killed."

Worf was distracted by a sudden call from the bridge.

"Worf here," he acknowledged.

"Commander, this is the Captain," came Picard's voice. "We have received information from starfleet. I will download it into your module. Briefly, it does seem that there is a pattern of killings by androids throughout the sector. A number of assassinations have been carried out by androids made to resemble real people. In most cases they have committed the crime and disappeared. In two cases we know of they have been cornered, and simply turned themselves off, completely erasing all programming."

"Thank you, captain," Worf replied. "I will examine the information."

"This does not fit the pattern, then," observed Serena. "The panda did not turn itself off."

"Maybe it can't do that until its mission is finished?" said Andrew.

"Here's something else to throw into the mixture," interrupted one of the men, who had been looking through the night's recordings. "We put a watch on Lar's room just in case. Look."

They gathered around and watched as Lar worked for some time on the keyboard of his computer.

"Why does he use a keyboard?" asked someone. "He's alone, so he's not going to disturb anyone with voice instructions."

"Some people like writing rather than talking," said Serena absently. Lar finished whatever he had been doing, but they could not see the screen. Heturned off his computer terminal and carefully wiped the keys clean before the keyboard slid out of sight.

"I always do it," said Lar, a few minutes later, wiping sweat from his brow. "It's a habit. I like everything to be clean. I didn't mention it because I knew you suspected me already, and it had thrown suspicion off me again. I didn't do anything. I was in the conservatory when the woman was transported, but I can't prove it."

"Another crime was committed last night," said Worf. "Where were you all evening?"

"Another crime?" he said in confusion. "When? I can't prove anything. I was here all night, looking up records on the computer, and then asleep."

"We know you were here," said Andrew. "And we know you were using the computer. But that was the weapon."

"And the Captain has given you great access to the computer," added Worf. "I believe we have sufficient evidence to take you into custody."

Lar wept as they escorted him from the room, and sealed it.

 

on to Chapter 12, or back through the infinite spiral.