Works/Ring Meridian

From Eccentric Flower

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See also the comments under the other two Ring stories. One day I am going to do something with these; they need work and the format that I'm trying to tell (basically a police-procedural) is hard to do. But Jessica Gray won't leave my head until her story is properly told.

One problem I have with this universe is that there are issues with the science. I'm not saying it is ever going to be reality-based science; but I'm aware that in some places I need to check my math and make my handwaving more convincing. Also, as noted in the comments on "Water Phantom," in some places these stories flatly contradict each other. Here I say the Ring rarely gets cargo ships; in that story it's full of them.

Note that though this story was written first, "Surface Evidence" takes place earlier in this universe. You can decide whether you want to read that one first.


The Ring: Meridian


The Ring opened on the two hundred tenth day of the local year and brought me trouble.

The vessel was a container ship. Already odd. Systems generally do their own internal trade and don't ever cross cargo over. Ring travel is too expensive for almost any commodity except passengers and the occasional courier pouch.

Nor was the system of registry - Mephin - one I'd heard of, nor was there anything about it in my predecessor's notes. The boss was on the feed, asking for an advisory opinion. Cargo crew are rowdier than passenger crew. I went down to the bay.

Lanky gray bipeds with wispy white hair and delicate, beautiful faces - dark eyes, no noses, and two openings which looked like dual mouths, the top one smaller than the bottom one. Their faces and hands were all I had to go on, as they all wore thick caftanlike wraps which completely obscured the contours of their bodies. They were restless.

"Please, may I have your attention for a moment. Please," I repeated. "Who is the speaker among you?"

One stood forward. It had a blue mark on its forehead - a character of some sort. "I am the speaker," it said in lucid Trade English.

I betrayed no surprise, I think, but it is important to understand that this was also an oddity. Company rules require ships to have at least two speakers who are fluent - and fluent means fluent - in one of the ten standard Ring languages. Bak'ti doesn't count.

Despite the fact that the company originated in Sol, our system is considered a backwater - the limited spread of Trade has been purely due to the Rings' crews, and it remains on the official list mostly due to our egotism. Even the boss prefers to use Pergot whenever possible, since we get so much traffic from the Pleiades.

Certainly to have an unknown race speaking it .... "How many of you speak Bak'ti?" I asked the speaker.

"Most speak it decently," it replied. It always spoke from the lower mouth. "All speak it somewhat."

"All right," I said. In Bak'ti I have a standard dockside speech listing the rules of conduct: Spetca belong no rrenvar, spetca no ihnte pass-pass, spetca no hesan ... and so on and so forth. Everyone always listens intently, but that's no guarantee that they'll follow the rules.

To the speaker I said, "You are responsible for making sure they all understand what I've told them. If they don't understand the rules, or won't follow all of the rules, they can't leave the ship. If you let them leave the ship and it turns out later they didn't understand something, it'll come back to you. Is that clear?"

"Exceedingly," it replied.

I left the ship and stood in one of the view rooms. Less than five minutes later, a large number of the crew filed out of the lock in an orderly enough manner. I walked back down and encountered the speaker in passing.

"You are not a diplomat," it said.

"No. For formal relations you need to go to the Protocol offices. Level seven."

It rocked its head quickly, absently, from side to side. "What are you? Police?"

"Something like that. Security manager."

It nodded. I wondered if a nod was "yes" or "no." "You need more diplomacy," it said, and wandered off.

- - -

I went to Dispatch. I'm entitled to legitimate disclosure but it's easier to gossip. Flanagan was on daily, and expecting me. "Mephenes?" he asked.

"Is that what they're called?"

"Mm-hm. They came a long way. This is their fourth Ring."

"Grief. And they speak Trade yet. Crazy."

"They're just trying to make us happy. Their speaker lists all ten on the manifest. Either they're language-happy or they're very thorough. Two days in the bay for them, then they're off to the P's."

Pleiades again. "No one ever wants to stop in our system."

"We don't have anything but brains and dirt. That's all I can tell you about the Mephenes from the manifest."

"No explanation on what kind of cargo can possibly be worth shoving this far?"

"Says here 'medicinal vegetable matter,' which means they're probably trading qov. How they plan to get it through the P zone patrol is not our issue. It might just barely be worth it to shove 10 katies of qov through four Rings, eh?"

"10 KTs? The bottom'll fall out of the market. Even Pergati can't chew that much qov."

Flanagan gave me a look. "Your business sense needs work. Assuming it slips the border, there's probably a cartel boss waiting on the other end. Deal it out in a slow trickle, keep the price high but have a reliable quantity in stock."

"Meanwhile, qov is probably a weed where the Mephenes come from."

"Probably. The beauty and romance of free trade."

- - -

I drifted back to my office, which is also my home, and hadn't been sitting down ten minutes when Catalan barged in. It's a good thing you can't slam open a sliding door.

"What have you brought me this time?" she said.

"They brought themselves. I was wondering whether they'd show up at your door. What's the problem, they don't bathe enough?"

"Well, of course you think it's funny that I have a shipload of lesbian aliens and no way to deal with them all. Hilarious! I'm turning some away. Fifteen days with barely any business and I'm making them wait to get laid." Catalan wasn't really upset, this was just her style of gossiping. Now that she'd dropped her bomb, I was supposed to react.

"'Lesbian aliens' is an unfounded unprovable, seeing as how their socio's a blank slate ..." I began.

"All sockets, no sprockets. You know the way that goes. And they only want other innies. I can't use half my staff."

Now that was interesting. Catalan's no more a XA than I am, but we both knew the statistics: all the races we've met who have genitalia that has speciated into two types have one projective form and one crevicelike form - male and female, outie and innie, sprocket and socket. And usually their sexual pairings consist of one being of each type.

In Sol-centric terms: species which have two sexes always have genitals that look basically like ours. So far. It just seems to be the way these things evolve. On the other hand, multi-sex species sometimes have genitalia that look like nothing else in the universe.

This is why Catalan can do business. Crew in particular will bed with anything which has plumbing of roughly the correct shape and size. All she has to do is provide a handful of sockets and a handful of sprockets in order to satisfy most of her customers. Not too many of the multi-sexers pass through these parts.

"Same-sex" pairings, to keep using Sol words, aren't all that unusual among the two-sex species we have data on, but they're usually in the minority. A crew consisting entirely of same-sexers probably meant that something else psychological was going on.

"But it's none of our business. Do they seem touchy?"

"They won't undress until they're alone in the bedroom with my staff. They don't want to say what they do and don't. In fact, they don't talk."

"They can talk."

"They can talk. They talk when they pay. But not when their clothes are off."

"I'd say they're touchy then. So much for asking them about it. I'd ask the speaker, but I think I'm on the wrong foot with it already."

"You just want the dirt!" Catalan said. "Me, I've got a crisis on my hands, and you could care less."

"You don't have a crisis," I said. "You have demand. If your staff knows what they're doing, the Mephenes will wait for it."

"They'll be here for two days," I added as she stalked out.

I was really curious, though, true enough. Not seeing any graceful way to ask, I resolved to check with the Protocol people the next morning. They sometimes got information handed to them.

I locked the front door, indicating the end of formal office hours, made myself some dinner, and picked up where I had left off my reading the night before.

I dozed off with the book as I tend to do, and sat upright in my soft chair at a sound. Process it; front door being opened. I checked the time. Twenty-seven. Late.

"That had better be Meridian," I said loudly.

Meridian ran in and sort of collapsed into my lap. I tilted her head back and looked at her face. I thought she'd been beaten, but it was just her makeup running all over the place. "Grief. What happened? Are you all right?"

She put her head on my shoulder and shook a little. Understand, please, that it is not in Meridian's line of work to get upset easily. "Talk to me," I said. My feed bleeped. I unfolded it. "Security."

It was Catalan. "I have a dead Mephene, kiddo."

"Foul play?"

"You better believe it."

"I'll be right there."

Meridian looked at me. "Is this what you're upset about?" I asked her. She nodded. "Did you do it?" No.

"But they'll think I did," she said, drying her eyes.

I gave her a kiss and dumped her off my lap. "Stay here," I said, standing. "Don't go out, don't open the door."

I recoded the lock from the outside so only I could open the door. She'd fall asleep in a little while anyway, if I knew her, and never realize I'd locked her in.

I contacted some gents who provide beef for me sometimes - I have no full-time staff - while I was travelling. They beat me to the scene and one of them was guarding the door when I arrived. Inside I could hear grumbling customers. "Natives are restless?"

"A Dispatch bigwig's in there, Jess. He's cranky." A bad thing. Dispatch doesn't rule the Ring on the orgchart, but since they get to say when the Ring opens, when it moves, and who gets to go through it, they might as well own the place. I'm a sidebar. I outrank no one, but I can veto almost anyone. This could become painful.

I stepped in and was besieged. "Quiet! Quiet, please. Everybody be quiet. Everybody shut up or you can all sleep here!"

Silence.

"That's better. In case you don't know, my name is Jessica Gray. I'm the Security manager. Rob and Don" - the beefs - "are acting on my behalf. They're going to ask you all sorts of nosy questions. Answer them. If you're nice to them and tell them the truth, they'll say when you can leave." To the beefs I said, "Standard checklist, gents. I don't expect much, but do stress that I'll be contacting them in person later. I'll be in the room."

Catalan led me straight to Meridian's workroom. "Where's Meridian?" I asked, hopefully sounding sincere.

"She's not with you?" Catalan said, immediately panicked.

"Did she say she was coming to find me?"

"No ... I just figured that's where she'd go."

"Maybe she showed up after I left," I said.

A big man came up the hall. Takes work to be overweight on the Ring, with food rationed and nearly all transport via foot. I concluded this was my bigwig. "Miss Gray, this is untenable! I can't just stand around in this place all night. I have very important tasks to perform at six tomorrow! Is there no way you can expedite this process?"

Well, at least he asked. "No, sir, there isn't. However, if you manage to convince everyone else in that room, including my men, that you should go to the front of the line, then more power to you and good luck. You should all be out of here by thirty anyway."

"By thirty! Another two hours? This is outrageous."

I looked at my watch and sighed. "Sir. Assuming you really do get out of here by thirty and I don't detain you as suspicious, you will be in bed by one, leaving you with four or so hours of nice rest before you have to be back on the job at six. I, on the other hand, will probably be here until one or two, and my supervisor - who is also your supervisor, I might add - will expect a report on her desk, filed and formal, by the time she gets to work. Also at six. Which of us will get less sleep, do you suppose?"

He stalked off, not exactly mollified but not belligerent either.

The body lay in a tangled heap on the floor. There was no blood, for which I'm sure Catalan was glad. It was as if the Mephene had been picked up and squeezed until its bones shattered, without actually breaking the surface. A perfectly wrapped gift package containing a shattered vase.

Its eyes had gone gray and milky post-mortem, and both mouths hung open limply.

"Do we have permission for autopsy?"

I turned. Dr. Kohl, the Ring's closest thing to a forensic examiner and another of my freelancers. A bony, wizardly man with a white beard and a piercing eye. I hadn't even contacted him. I decided Don must have.

"I'm not even sure who to get it from yet," I replied. "Isn't cause pretty obvious?"

"Well, let's see," he said, pulling on latex gloves. He crouched, and with some effort turned the body over. "Mm-hm. I thought perhaps there had been some big bleeding."

"No, its skin was that color to begin with," I began, then stopped. The body had been piled atop a huge bloodstain in the carpet. Now exposed, I saw that the Mephene's genitalia had been completely removed. Excised. Not cleanly.

Catalan shrieked, but she's seen everything; I think she was mostly concerned about her rug.

"Instrument?" I asked.

"Excellent question," the doctor said, peering at the edges of the wound closely. "Knife, perhaps, but more like a sawtoothed edge. Probably administered postmortem," he said, standing up, "and I can't say more just yet."

"Postmortem. Why?"

"No signs of struggle. The wound was inflicted with no interference from the victim. Given the pain factor ...."

"Thanks, I get it. I'll try to get autopsy permission. As long as you're gloved, would you mind tremendously giving the room a look for potential weapons? Thanks."

"Autopsy permission?" came a bland voice from the hall. It was the Mephene speaker.

"Did the door guard let you in?" I said. "I'll have to hurt him."

"No," Catalan said, "it was in the next room at the time."

I looked to the speaker for confirmation. It nodded. "I heard the events clearly."

"You're detained. Don!" Don ran in, clipboard in hand. "The Mephene speaker here needs to be placed in custody. Let Rob finish the interviews." Don nodded.

"Should I assume then that you do not need autopsy permission?" the speaker asked mildly.

"I'll get it from your captain," I said. To Don I whispered, "If it did this, it's much stronger than it looks. Careful."

Don led the speaker off and I unfolded my feed. "Operations? Security. May I have the head of sanitation please ...? Yes. Sorry to disturb you. The digester runs at thirty, right? Don't run it tonight. That's correct. On my order. I am freezing the Ring. Yes, you can refer it upstairs if you like, but cancel the run first and confirm it later. Very important."

New feed. "Dispatch? Yes, good evening to you too. This is the Security manager. Do you have any traffic for the next several hours? Excellent. The Ring is on freeze. Right. Yes, I am prepared to have that verified, but for the time being, no traffic. Hopefully by the end of the slack period the freeze will be over anyway. Yes. Thanks."

Catalan and the doctor were both staring at me. "I didn't know you could do that," said Catalan.

"I wouldn't want to do it too often," I replied.

"Aren't you jumping the gun a bit, Jess?" Dr. Kohl said.

"Even if the speaker didn't do it," I said, "there is a severed item floating around the Ring somewhere. If it doesn't leave on a ship, and we don't put it in the digesters, then we will find it eventually. Unless the murderer ate it."

"That was unnecessary," said Catalan.

"Sorry. Dr. Kohl, you wouldn't happen to have a spare pair of gloves, would you?"

- - -

One-seventeen, and I arrived at my door, not sure what to expect.

All the interviews had indeed been finished by thirty, thanks to Rob's diligence. The bigwig had lost his place in line by coming to gripe to me, and no one had been coercible; he left nearly last.

No surface evidence in the room. No signs of a struggle, just a bloodstain and a body, now in Dr. Kohl's freezer awaiting permission to slice. Nothing missing. I had given the interviews a cursory look; only the Mephene speaker admitted to having heard anything. Not entirely surprising. Most customers make a certain amount of noise themselves, and those two rooms were at the end of a hall.

No prints from the body. Also not surprising, as the doctor commented that the skin type would not have taken prints well. Then again, another Mephene wouldn't leave prints anyway; the skin on their fingers was as slick as everywhere else on their bodies.

Was I reaching for facts for Meridian's sake?

I entered the code and slid the door open carefully. Well, no ambush. Meridian was in bed asleep. I relocked the door, undressed, crawled in beside her. She gurgled.

"Mrhpm. Didja clear my good name?"

"Meridian, what happened? What did you see?"

She wasn't very coherent. "He and I had just finished. Getting dressed. He said something to me, but it was in his own language. He didn't look especially threatening or anything, but the door opened and another one came in. Had a blue mark on the forehead. That one told me to get out. Very upset; I thought maybe dangerous. I went into the next room to see if Rose was okay - she'd been with the one with the blue mark - but she was asleep. So I went back in and mine was lying on the rug, all crumpled up ... and the other one was gone. I guess I got panicked then, so I came here. Did I make a big mess?"

"Nothing we can't fix, I guess," I said. I was bone-tired. I pulled the blankets over my shoulders and closed my eyes. She curled up against me and was soon snoring air onto my back. I nearly made it to sleep. Then my brain signaled me. I sat up.

"Meridian."

"Mmmm?"

"You called the Mephene 'he.'"

"Oh. Yeah. It, I guess. Sorry. An outie."

"The alien was a sprocket?"

"Uh-huh." She didn't see anything weird about this. Catalan apparently hadn't passed the word along very effectively.

A non-socket Mephene. That did and didn't make sense. Depending on how you looked at it.

My mind must have given out while churning. I woke up to the feed bleeping. Checked the time. Seven.

"Good morning, sir," I said before the other party spoke.

"Sleeping in, I see, Miss Gray," said my boss. Not angrily. She may run the Ring with an iron hand, but she has a sense of humor. Don't tell anyone.

"Sorry to have stirred up the nest," I said.

"You never do anything without a reason. But if you're going through the trash, do it soon. Operations says they cannot accomodate more than another six to eight hours of backup; they're on record with a complaint. The captain of the Mephene ship is indignant that its speaker has been detained without cause, and one of the Dispatch execs is insisting that there is no way the freeze can be upheld beyond the current slack period - a conclusion I agree with, by the by."

"I expect a quick resolution, sir. One hitch. Will the captain's indignance cause it to refuse to allow an autopsy?"

"If it does, explain to it that its departure may unavoidably be detained. Since we believe it is depending upon the exact timing of a duty change in the Pleiades border patrols ...."

I smiled. The boss misses nothing.

After disconnecting, I woke up the beefs again. Danger pay - no sleep and I was asking them to dig through several katies of garbage. But they were willing. I think I add excitement to their lives.

The Mephene ship was not a very friendly place. Word travels fast. The captain narrowed its eyes at me, which I presumed meant the same thing to their race. It kept breathing heavily through its upper mouth while speaking through its lower mouth - disconcerting.

The conversation was in Bak'ti, so I won't relay it here, but in brief: The captain was quite irate, ready to go directly to Protocol and scream, until I mentioned timetables and delayed departures and hinted that a prompt autopsy might mean a prompt departure. The captain closed both mouths, stared for a long time, then acquiesced.

On the feed to the doc, and then down to the custody rooms. These are primarily meant for drunks and other very short-term visits, but you can sleep in one if you're determined. The Mephene speaker wasn't that determined. It sat with its back rigidly upright against one wall, reading something newspaper-like in another language.

"Will there be an autopsy?" it asked.

I sat down. "Do you understand that you are under suspicion of murder?"

"Yes. I am not certain why, but I suppose it is always simpler to blame the alien."

I winced. "You're not the only suspect."

It gestured around with a sweep of the arm. The walls of the custody rooms are only bars. The view of the other rooms - all empty - was unobstructed. "Is she in custody elsewhere? Have you yet even found her?"

"I want you," I said, staying calm, "to tell me what you saw and did last night."

It rocked its head from side to side in the casual way I had seen the day before. It seemed like a shrug.

"I went with others to your sexhouse. I had sexual activity. Afterward my assigned partner fell asleep, as did I. I was awakened by the sound of a commotion in the next room. I recognized the voice of one of my crewmates, and as you said, I am responsible for their acts, so I dressed and went in. I found the body of my crewmate. No one else was in the room. I did not disturb the body. I went to find the woman in charge, and she summoned you. There is nothing more."

"Did your crewmate carry a knife or blade of any kind?"

It nodded, unsurprised. "All do. Except myself. By my mark" - it gestured to its forehead - "I am not permitted."

"Would it have had the knife with it at the time?"

"'It' meaning my crewmate? She would have had it with her at all times."

"Why 'she?' Why not 'him' or 'it?'"

"I do not understand."

"We were under the impression that you had only one sex." A lie; bait. "Do you understand what I mean by that?"

"We have -" An abrupt halt. "We have more than one sex, but only those of our sex may travel, trade, and so forth."

"So you are also a she."

"Yes, by your measure."

"How do you explain a report which says that your slain crewmate was of the opposite sex?"

"What does 'opposite sex' mean in this case?" she said.

"The woman who runs the house reported to me that all of you Mephenes were the same gender. The woman your crewmate was with has stated that your crewmate had a set of genitalia which didn't match that."

"So you have found her."

Damn. I should have said it differently. "Answer the question."

"You did not ask a question. But her statement is impossible."

"So you're saying she's a liar? Is that your position of record?"

"To find a Mephene of the 'opposite sex,' you would have to go to our home world, and even then you would not be permitted to interact with any. That is my 'position of record.' Interpret it as you will." She began to breathe audibly through her upper mouth.

"Do you understand that I can hold you and your ship for an indefinite period of time until this is resolved to my satisfaction?"

"I doubt that," she said. "Your superiors will not be willing to aggravate our government past a certain point - which is what you are certainly doing now."

"Possibly you're right. Assuming your government wishes to admit you exist. I am not entirely sure, after all, how your ten kilotonnes of 'medicinal vegetable matter' is being justified back home."

She glared at me. Yes, definitely a glare.

Concluding that the interview was probably over at that point, I let myself out and unfolded my feed. Dr. Kohl never contacted me; I had to check in.

"All done," he said. "No muss, no fuss, no surprises. Cause of death - well, I'm not sure how to label it, but basically all of its internal organs were ruptured when its ribs were shattered into fragments. Its outer skin is very tough, which is why the corpse is so unmarked."

"She."

"Beg pardon?"

"I have been informed," I said, "that the correct pronoun for a Mephene is 'she.' Except that this one may have been a 'he.' Long story."

"I'm sure I'll hear it. I can't judge; there's nothing in there which looks like a reproductive system to me, but it took me fifteen minutes just to deduce which was the heart, so that means nothing. Oh, and you're looking for a narrow-bladed knife with a sawtoothed edge. My guess."

"They all carry one. A comparison sample shouldn't be hard to find. I just want the one which was actually used."

"So the weapon belonged to the victim?"

"More than likely."

Another feed interrupted. "How long exactly were you planning to keep me locked in here?" Meridian asked.

"You're not supposed to leave. You're a suspect for murder. If I don't keep you there, I really should put you in a custody room."

"You're evil. Do you know there's nothing to eat in here? Come rescue me."

"I'm trying," I said, under my breath.

I went home bearing lunch. There was plenty of food; Meridian just didn't want to cook any of it. But I didn't bring this up. Captivity should have a few luxuries.

"Catalan came by," she said with her mouth full. "That's how I found out I couldn't open the door."

"She probably wanted the gossip," I replied. "Tough."

She studied my face. "I'm in real trouble, aren't I?"

"The Mephene speaker did it. I'm sure. But I will need justification, and unless they find the items ... ah, I don't want to think about it right this minute. I just want to eat."

"Do you just want to eat?" she asked.

I looked across the table at her. She wiggled. "How can you think about sex at a time like this?"

"You know very well," she said, getting up and walking over to my chair, "that I think about sex all the time. C'mon," she said, leaning over and brushing her breasts against mine. "Take a long lunch."

"Lascivious," I said, leaning my head back so she could kiss me.

- - -

Woke up to the feed; what else was new? "Jess, we got it."

"Got what?" I tried to free my other arm from beneath Meridian.

"The, uh, item. In a plastic bag with the knife."

I woke all the way up. "Really? That was fast."

"We figured it went into the chutes from Catalan's, right? So Don went to Ops and found out which bin those led to. Checked there first."

"You gents just earned another bonus. And a drink. Do me a favor, huh? Bring the bag to Dr. Kohl. Then you're off duty."

"The bag?" Meridian said, sitting up, as I folded the feed.

"Less I tell you the better."

She made a face. "That's not fair."

"Look, how can I make this clear? You are a murder suspect. One who is getting unusually good treatment at the hands of the investigator."

"It wasn't that good," she said with an evil grin.

I rolled my eyes and pulled back the covers. "The other suspect is already complaining that you aren't in custody. Technically, you're a fugitive and I'm harboring you."

"In that case, aren't you doing more damage to me the longer you keep me here?"

I squinted at her. "Yes, probably so. Are you volunteering to be put into custody?"

"It might be better," she said slowly. "Should I deny that we have sex?"

"No. Too many people know that. I don't like it, Meridian. First thing people are going to ask is 'where have you been since the murder?' and what are you going to tell them?"

"I'll tell them I've been hiding, what do you think? I'm not stupid. I'll tell them I've been in a hotel or something. Have a little faith."

I turned to leave. "It's up to you, then. I'm not going to bring you in. If you want to surrender yourself ... I'll change the code on the door back."

She jumped out of bed and caught up with me. "Hey. What's the problem?"

I looked at her. Clothing-free and unadorned.

"You're worried you might not be able to get me out of this," she said. "But I can't keep hiding."

"I know," I said. "I don't have to be pleased, do I?"

Dr. Kohl was not in a happy mood when I arrived. "Nothing! Oh, it's definitely the right knife, but the handle doesn't take prints any better than their skin does."

"Socket or sprocket?" I asked.

"What?"

"The genitalia. Protruding or crevice?"

"It was a male. Your suspicion was correct. I take it this is abnormal?"

"If we're to believe the Mephene speaker, highly so." I turned around and headed back out. "Talk to you later, doc."

"Come back when you can stay longer."

A feed on the way. It was the gent who watches the custody rooms. "Jess? Woman came and turned herself in. Says she's the other suspect in the murder at Catalan's. Is this for real? Should I hold her?"

"Yes. Put her in the room next to the speaker. Maybe they'll trade recipes."

"Sorry?"

"Nothing. Just put her in; I'll be along eventually."

That reminded me. I got on the feed to Operations and told them they could digest at will. They were less than pleasant. Off to the bay where the Mephene ship waited. Its captain was less than patient.

"Our departure," she said via the back-up speaker - this one didn't have a blue mark, so maybe languages were just her hobby - "is slated for seven tomorrow. We require six hours for pre-launch procedures. That is not a great deal of time. Yet I have received no word on whether we will be cleared to depart, as you have promised."

"You'll know by thirty tonight one way or another."

"Giving me one hour to collect my crew. Not acceptable."

"Captain, you know as well as I do that your crew is already entirely on board." They hadn't left the ship since hearing about the murder ... an implication which annoyed me. As if the Ring were unsafe! "May we speak privately?"

She gestured to the interim speaker vaguely. Implication: Without the translator? Is the subject simple enough to discuss in Bak'ti?

I replied in Pergot, "I'm sure we can work around that." More or less. Pergot has unusual structure.

The captain glared at me, then exhaled loudly through her upper mouth and replied in flawless Pergot, "Come this way."

We went into what looked like a ready room of some kind, and sat. She said, "You make assumptions."

"You are too careful to deal with the Pergati cartels without speaking the language. You give me credit and I will do the same."

"Your Ring does not really care about the qov."

"We don't interfere. If a Pergati ship came in and demanded seizure, we'd push both ships adrift and let the two of you fight it out. No one will destroy a Ring because of its policy; there aren't enough of them as it is. I need to ask you about a matter which I suspect is very sensitive."

She looked at me expectantly. "Tell me about the other kind of Mephenes," I said.

"There is no other kind of Mephene," she replied.

"Do you understand the term 'genitalia?'" Or Pergot equivalent.

She gave me a dark look. "Yes."

"Are there not Mephenes whose genitalia are different from yours?" I presumed she was also female, but it didn't matter what she personally had under her caftan for the answer to be meaningful.

She hissed through her upper mouth. "I suppose your sex women have been telling you things not theirs to say. Your information is wrong at any rate. We have only one anatomy. And this is not business for aliens."

"I have testimony that the slain Mephene was of a different sex."

"That is impossible," she replied firmly.

"Captain," I said, "please be honest with me. I do not plan to drag your race's personal information into public view. I am merely trying to solve a murder. Your speaker says you have two sexes. You say you have only one. Someone is lying."

"Are there any other questions you need to ask?" she said, clearly upset - breathing heavily through the upper mouth was becoming a familiar signal to me.

"Yes. How common is it for members of your race to commit crimes of violence against one another?"

She closed her eyes.

"Has it happened? What's the murder rate like in the Mephin system?"

"It has been known to happen," she said finally. "Now please leave."

- - -

"So how come they have two mouths?" I asked Dr. Kohl.

"That upper one's not really a mouth," he replied. "It's more like a nose. They inhale through it so they can smell things. They only exhale through it when they're excited or agitated."

"I've noticed," I said, sipping my drink.

We were having a beer in the doc's favorite bar, on me - my reward to him for a piece of research above and beyond the call of duty. He had dug through about three year's worth of unindexed journals to find any traces of XA on the Mephenes. He'd found some.

It had been the only bright spot. The boss had informed me that a certain bigwig in Dispatch, unhappy with his treatment at Catalan's, was being insistent that no traffic be delayed ... specifically, my request to block the scheduled departure of the Mephene vessel was denied unless I could show better cause than I had now. Meanwhile, Ring traffic had resumed and I had until seven to get my brain in gear.

I hadn't seen the point in going back to the custody rooms until I had something new to ask.

"Yes," the doc was saying, "and the interesting thing is that they also exhale smells. They emit different odors through that mouth depending on mood. Very pungent, too, like strong bad breath, not that we can tell. Our nose doesn't seem to work on that frequency."

"Fascinating," I mumbled, pondering my options.

"It's powerful enough to make them very moody. One Mephene having a bad day, and suddenly the whole office is unhappy." He grinned.

"Wait a second. So they can sense agitation in each other? Say, between rooms at Catalan's?"

"I was wondering when you'd pay attention," he said. "Yes."

"Doc," I said, standing up, "you have to be more direct with me, I'm not at my best right now. Enjoy your drink."

- - -

To the custody rooms. The speaker was pacing. Meridian sat silently, pretending to read a book.

"Now that this woman has mysteriously appeared," the speaker said, "I must ask to be returned to my ship, which is nearing time to depart."

"Or so you hope," I said. I summoned the guard and got him to unlock Meridian's door.

"You are releasing her?" the speaker asked, voice no longer as measured.

"Take her to the back office and watch her until we're done," I said. To the speaker I said, "No, unfortunately I'm not. I'm worried that one of your species will try to kill her if I let her go. So she has to stay here."

"Do you often have such delusions?" she asked. "Why would we kill a human and give you cause to further interfere in our travels?"

"I am giving your ship permission to leave at its appointed time tomorrow," I said.

"At last," she replied.

"But I haven't decided whether to let you leave with it or not."

She opened and closed her upper mouth like an unhappy minnow. "Presumably you can produce a basis for this affront," she eventually managed to say.

"I need to make something clear to you," I replied. "I want you to listen to this very carefully. Although your Trade English is much better than you let on, I don't want you to claim later that you didn't understand any of this. So pay attention. I do not need a basis for anything. The only person I have to produce justification to is my boss, and she trusts me. I do not need to satisfy a court of law. There is no law on the Ring, only company policy - policy you agreed to abide by when you docked. Nor am I frightened of your government; if they tried to hurt a Ring, everyone else would be on your heads so fast you wouldn't know what hit you. Clear so far?"

"Perfectly," she hissed back. "You are free to be as irrational as you choose."

"In this case, despite loyalties I will not try to deny, I am satisfied that Meridian didn't do it, for several reasons. One, she isn't physically strong enough to kill one of your species by crushing it. Two, she wouldn't have had a reason to remove and dispose of the genitals. Three, even if she had, she almost certainly wouldn't have used the knife - how was she to know that it didn't take prints well? Were she to commit a violent crime, she'd be smarter about it than that."

"Justification in reverse," she said. "You had decided that I did it from the moment you placed me in here."

"So here are your choices," I continued. "You can tell me the truth, and remain on the Ring under supervision. Or you can continue to keep silent, in which case I will return you to your ship."

She looked at me with what I took to be a stunned expression. "Do you not have that reversed?" she eventually asked.

"Oh, you know what? I left out one piece of information. Sorry. I mentioned to your captain that you told me Mephenes had two sexes. She didn't seem too thrilled."

She exhaled loudly through her upper mouth.

"I'll be back in a short while," I said. "I'm going to fetch some food. Is there something you'd like?"

She said nothing. I shrugged and walked out.

I bought Meridian a late dinner - spoiled brat, getting hand-delivered meals while in custody - and a sandwich for the guard; I felt a little sorry for him, because I generally didn't keep people in custody this long.

The speaker didn't look pleased. I was getting fairly proficient with Mephene facial tics, but this would have been an easy call anyway. Meridian was still in the office with the guard; I brought them their food and came back out.

"I'd have brought you some food too," I said to the speaker, "but you wouldn't tell me what you do and don't eat. Have you had anything to eat since you got here?"

"If you know everything, or think you do," said the speaker, "then why have you not made your thoughts aloud? Are these games just for a revenge on my words to you?"

"Your Trade slips a little when you're upset," I said. "Partially, yes, but mostly because I want to hear it from you."

"Then I will have admitted guilt, and you will be free to kill me."

"If you go back to your ship, what will they do to you?"

She exhaled. "They will kill me."

"Your odds are better with me. C'mon, you've already broken the rules. Break them some more and let's be done with it."

"Leaving you with a clean resolution for your superior, and leaving me trapped in a foul-smelling container of humans. Not satisfactory."

"If they smell so bad, why'd you have sex with one of them?"

She glared. "Certainly I would expect you to understand that sexual matters sometimes overrule good judgement."

"Point taken. Still, you had better decide, as I am going to get on the feed in a moment."

She said nothing. I unfolded the feed.

"You realize that I saved your woman's life," she said urgently.

"I do. Then you tried to jeopardize it. What happened? Suddenly realize that by saving her, you had dug a hole of your own?"

"This is unfair of you. I only do not wish to die. I am" - she said a word I couldn't understand - "perhaps, but that is my concern."

I looked at her through the bars. "What was that word I didn't get? Your own language?"

She nodded. "It is when someone is not sufficient unto the standards of our race."

I shrugged. "So. Your decision?"

She finally said, "I cannot."

I folded the feed without using it, and left the custody rooms without comment or explanation.

- - -

"Good morning," I said cheerfully to the speaker and Meridian both. They blinked up at me, uniformly dazed, from where they lay in their separate areas. I unlocked Meridian's door. "Scram," I said to her, kissing her in full view of the speaker. "Go find Catalan before you do anything else. She's worried sick about you."

"She visited last night," Meridian said, stretching. "I'm free to go? What happened? Did the Mephenes ... no," she said, waking up enough to see the speaker, "I guess they're still here."

"Get going," I said. "No offense, but I have to talk to the speaker."

She yawned again and wandered out.

The speaker sat up and ran her hand through her wispy hair in a surprisingly human gesture. "I am to be talked to? Is there something new to say?"

"Your ship left on schedule this morning," I said.

"You would not lie about this? You have allowed me to stay?"

"Before, it was a fate worse than death. Now it's desirable? One thing I've noticed about you, you don't lack for a sense of self-preservation." I unlocked the door, entered, and sat down. "You are free to leave. Technically you are under close watch. If you do anything wrong, I will arrange to have you thrown out an airlock. If you do anything wrong to me, I have already arranged for others to throw you out an airlock on my behalf."

"You changed your mind."

I sighed. "I can't send someone to die for a code they were only trying to protect in the first place."

"You know more than you admit," she said.

"I don't know anything. I only suspect."

"Tell me what you suspect," she offered, "and I will tell you when you are wrong."

I gave her a look. She rocked her head from side to side. "I have no codes to breach now," she said. "I cannot return to my race."

"I think," I said measuredly, "that both you and your captain were telling the truth. I think that you do have 'two sexes,' but that you also have 'one anatomy.' Specifically, I think that Mephenes can change gender. When I told Dr. Kohl what to check for last night, he found some evidence which seemed to point that way. I don't know if it's seasonal or voluntary ...."

"Voluntary," she replied. "But very wrong."

"I got that. You use the male form only for breeding, right? And the cases where that form is allowed are very sharply proscribed by ritual. And certainly not to be seen by non-Mephenes."

She nodded.

"So what happened at Catalan's?"

"It is ... a known problem. But it is wrong to even admit the problem is there."

"The crewman was a sexual deviant, then, by your race's standards. He liked doing it as a male." She nodded. "And you could smell it, in a manner of speaking, when he did. With your upper mouth."

"Smell, yes, that is a good word. It is very distinctive. We ... we enjoy being near each other in such situations; the odor of one of us when ... aroused is arousing to those nearby. But the male smell was unexpected. It is impossible to ignore."

"Are you saying that you might have killed him anyway, just because the smell drove you to it?"

"Killed? No ...." I finally deciphered her expression. She was embarrassed!

"I didn't think you got embarrassed," I said.

"This is not amusing," she said. "I would have needed to breed with her. Him."

"Oh."

She nodded. "The effect is very strong. But when I entered, he was already finished, and he was saying ... threatening things. Of course he would have needed to kill the woman. No one could know."

"She didn't even realize he was threatening. She thought you were the threatening one. When she came back from the next room, you were gone. Where were you? Dropping the evidence in one of Catalan's dirty-linen bags and into the digester chute down the hall?"

"I see I need tell you nothing more," she said.

"There's plenty more," I said. "You had what I would consider to be justifiable cause. Why not just explain why you did it? Why try to drag in Meridian, when any fool with eyes could see that the murder method pointed to you?"

"You fail to appreciate the code. Had I given that as my reason, I would have been killed the instant our ship left your dock."

I swallowed. "I see. Tough standards."

"And now," she said, "I am homeless. Do you suppose your sex house would have me?"

I must have gaped. She gave me a condescending look. "As I said, I have no more codes to breach."

I shrugged.

- - -

"And that's it?" Meridian said to me. "You're just going to let her go about her business?"

"I don't see why not," I replied. "She's been completely ostracized now. She's broken their taboos. She may even have to hide when they pass back through again. If they pass through again. The boss says that the Pleiades border patrols have been getting feisty. What else am I going to do to her? Besides, she did save your life."

"But at Catalan's ... I dunno, I just don't think she's going to work out. She doesn't act like she likes anybody or anything."

"She's bitter. Can you blame her? But she'll learn. You'll be doing threes with her in no time."

She shuddered a little. "Don't you have any jealousy in you at all?"

"I'm no fun, is that it?" I grinned. "I don't see any point in being jealous as long as you keep me entertained."

"Keep you entertained? Just for that," she said, throwing back the blankets, "I think you ought to entertain me for a while."

I laughed and wriggled over.



Copyright © March 1998. Do not distribute or reproduce.

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