Works/Ring Surface Evidence

From Eccentric Flower



This is the second of three Ring stories to date. In terms of story chronology this happens before the first one. See the comments on the other two stories for more on the Ring and why this story, like the other one, needs a fair bit of tuning. I think it's a pretty good read anyhow.

The Ring: Surface Evidence

It had taken me six months on the job to realize that I couldn't attend every docking without losing my mind. But I had also learned which types of arrivals were likely to give me headaches, which is why I was attending the advent of Military Transport 905.

I watched from the upper railing as the ramps rolled out of the ship, multiple tongues saying Ahhhh. Soldiers are always a problem, not just for their behavior but because their superiors rarely enforce discipline. Too many generations of "when the anchor's up, all debts are paid" philosophy, and besides, when one is about to be stuck at a remote post in the armpit of the universe for ten years, who would bind the mouths of the kine?

The crowd filing off the ship didn't fill me with optimism. Thick necks and low foreheads all. The kind who have problems with any words of more than one syllable.

- - -

"Cruel," was Meridian's judgment, ten hours later.

"Me?" I fidgeted a little in my seat.

We were waiting for the curtain to rise on Azu C. We don't get a lot of first-hand culture on the Ring, and it was only by accident of timing that the performer was stuck here for a short while. Very gracious of it to agree to do a few shows - and very lucky of me to get two seats for the first one. Though the Ring has only maybe five thousand permanent residents, we're all starved for entertainment.

"You're the one always saying not to go by looks," she said.

"I'm exempt." The audience was falling silent as the lights went down.

I don't know if Kroy are always built like that - Azu C is the only one I've ever seen - but a strong breeze could break it in half. It had mammaries (no guarantee that means a socket, though) and those were about the only bumps in the stick-figure configuration. Triped, for a change, maybe so it wouldn't fall over. Really, I'm not being xeno - this looked like it could pass out and die at any minute. Sickly. Though some of that was probably me biased by the skin tone (dead white).

It stood-sat, at rest on its three legs, and strummed a guitarish thing, no introduction, not even an acknowledgement, just the music. And it sang.

It sang happy things. The singing was gibberish. But we were happy. We laughed hard, the kind of laughing where you have to stop because your sides hurt and you're still giggling while you gasp for breath, and as soon as you catch your breath you're off on another roaring guffaw. As we laughed, our laughter swirled over Azu C and its skin colored, ripples of red-orange spreading slowly like dripping dye into a beaker of water.

When it had completely changed, it began to strum in a different rhythm, and we cut off. Some of us sighed. There was the sound of the first few people breaking into tears, quietly, trying not to make a disturbance. Then everyone was bawling, as purple and blue clouds passed over Azu C's skin.

The next song dried our eyes, a heat of anger and passion and rage and a bilious yellow that deepened into dirty brown. And then, suddenly, the melody had changed again and we felt something more subtle than the other songs - quiet, peaceful, hopeful, green and light blue.

And then it was over. I opened my feed to check the time. Had that really been two hours?

Meridian sat, staring straight ahead. I waved a hand in front of her face and she blinked a few times. Testing.

"I don't think I want to go to one of these again," she said slowly.

"You're not likely to get a chance," I said. I stood up, surprised to find my legs a little shaky.

She grabbed my hand as we picked our way through the crowd, which seemed to be jamming up near the doors. As we made slower progress, we heard the sound of commotion. Shouting. Public disturbance. I gave her a glance.

"Go on," she said. "I'll see you later."

"Security!" I shouted, as brassy as I could manage. I don't have a badge or anything like that. "Security! Let me through, please!" Most residents hear that and get out of the way; anyone who'd make a false claim to be Security is either crazy or stupid. No one wants my job.

About the time I was getting out to the halls, my feed chirped. I opened it while dodging. "There's a fight in public space on five:fifteen," said my boss. No preamble. She doesn't like calling me by my surname and she hasn't quite decided to call me Jessica yet.

I looked up at the level/section numbers on a bulkhead. Indeed. "I'm there now, sir. Or trying to be."

"Good," she replied, and disconnected. That's the boss.

I don't carry a weapon. Twenty or more Earthers - those damned soldiers - were in it with maybe ten Pergati. Bad odds, but not for the side you think. Pergati only look cute. Most of the crowd from the show was trying to get out of the way, but a few were getting sucked into the fight. I got on the feed to Rob and Don for some beef assistance.

I had just disconnected when I saw one of the Earthers - well, I ran, and I threw myself at him before he could fire the damned thing. He tried to shake me loose without seeing me, the way you get in a fight when you just want to lose whatever's riding you. We rolled over a couple of times, just about knocking my breath out under his weight. I hit him in the belly. Didn't do much, he was hard as a rock there, so I tried a knee in the sprocket instead. (Yes, for a human I could use a more direct word, but I've gotten in the socket/sprocket habit.) That got his attention. I pushed him off me while he clutched his equipment with one hand. I stomped on the other one and he let go of the gun.

"Breachable weapons," I said, "are illegal here, and don't tell me they didn't let you know before you debarked."

He mumbled something I'm sure was obscene, and I'd have given it right back, but just then someone screamed. I'm sorry to say my first thought was Meridian. But it wasn't her. I pocketed the gun and found my way around a corner to where the noise was, and it was a human - not an Earther - in a narrow hall behind the theatre.

She was between me and a dead Pergat, sex unknown since it's hard to tell from their backside. I didn't need to check for vital signs. There was enough purple-black Pergat blood puddling around it that I wasn't going to be able to get a look at its face without standing in the mess. I'm not usually fussy, but these were the only dressy shoes I had.

I heard the sounds of Rob and Don exercising due restraint, around the corner. Rob and Don are built like airtight bulkheads, and combine obvious brute force with surprising finesse. And, being cautious fellows, they'd brought riot sticks. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the work to come, sorting this all out. I decided on additional assistance. With one hand I grabbed the woman's arm to keep her from leaving the hall. With the other I opened my feed and connected to Dr. Kohl.

- - -

Rob and Don work for me, mostly. They have some other job, but they come when I need them. I don't ask how that works. Dr. Kohl - a little wizard of a man, with a beard and a twinkle - is different. He's a practicing doctor, and therefore very busy, but he always seems to find time for me. He says it's a change of pace.

"And your patients don't complain as much," he commented, straightening up from the examining table and peeling his gloves with a sticky noise.

The Pergat had turned out to be a sprocket. I looked down at his exposed genitals, way too obvious, the only furless part of the corpse below the muzzle. I considered asking Dr. Kohl for a sheet, or the Pergat's kilt to put back on him. I moved my gaze higher. The open chest bothered me less.

"You didn't need to do all that cutting for cause-of-death," I said.

"I presumed you'd want this," he replied, handing me a small chunk of metal.

"It was still in there? Small caliber, then."

Pergati are native to the Pleiades. Because this Ring mostly opens to the Pleiades, we get a lot of them here; about a quarter of the permanent population. They average about a meter and a half, short for a human but tall for a teddy bear, which is what they've always looked like to me, just with longer limbs. They also range from pudgy to outright fat, but a lot of that is muscle. I could see a Pergat stopping a bullet, but only up to a point.

"Not more than seven millimeters. But he was shot at very close range, and in a very good place. Well, a very bad place. Depending on your point of view. Do you want the details?"

"That it was a gun is enough for now." I sighed. "I've already confiscated one in the last four hours. Actually -" I still had the gun I'd taken from the soldier. I pulled it out and managed to get a single bullet from the clip without killing myself. "What do you think?"

"I don't have that sort of equipment," he said. "All I can say is it looks like the right size and shape, and" - he looked at the bullet and the retrieved chunk side-by-side - "composition. I might be able to say more under a lens, but not much. This is the murder weapon?"

According to the doctor's timing, I had been wrestling with its owner while the Pergat was being shot. "Not this one. But this is a dress sidearm - look how well-polished it is." I showed him the insignia stamped on the handle. "We've got a whole shipload of soldiers with these. Half of whom probably took theirs off the ship illegally."

"Not a fan of the military, I take it," he said. I scowled. He chuckled, disposed of his gloves, and walked over to another table. "I took some shots of his face for you. I figured you'd want to find out who's on my table sooner or later. Unless you removed ID from the body before I got there?"

"Not I. His bag was missing, and I haven't seen a Pergat without one yet. So. Doctor, you're a saint as usual. Send me the bill."

"I always do," he said. "Freeze this one for now?"

"Might as well. Just in case."

- - -

I had found the Pergat only minutes after death, which means the screaming woman had probably just missed the killer running out the other end of the hall. And that meant the gunshot must have occurred during the fighting. I hadn't heard it, but I'd been busy. Someone probably had, but Rob and Don had been breaking up a fight, not running a crime scene (not then); they hadn't taken names.

The screaming woman was no use, so I won't bother saying any more about her. Just a person leaving the show who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure, she could have been a tremendously good liar and she could have magically found a place to conceal a gun in a featureless stretch of hall, with one door about three meters on the far side of the corpse, and a huge crowd fighting just around the near corner. And I am the Lost Heir of Phobos. Occam's Razor is your friend.

My feed chirped. Rob. "We're, uh, done with the cleanup and the pictures, boss, but, uh, we didn't -"

"You didn't find a weapon. I know. Dr. Kohl pulled out a bullet and the gun is one of hundreds. You're done; go home. Good job as usual .... No, wait one. When you were doing crowd control, most of the humans were from that crop of soldiers, right?"

"All of 'em, I think. At least all the ones we busted."

"How many of those had sidearms? Little shiny guns in particular?"

"Oh, uh, probably three or four. We took 'em. Uh, Don has 'em. Were we supposed to -"

"No, no, you did it right. Just checking."

Damn. I really really did not want to board that ship and talk to an entire load of hostile soldiers. And I only let Rob and Don ask questions if I gave them a script to follow. And frankly I wouldn't know which questions to tell them to ask.

I called Dispatch. The military transport would be here for five more days. I sighed.

I know it's a strange thing for a detective to say, but I absolutely hate procedure. I hate legwork. I don't mind the problems or I'd be in a different job, but I wish they'd come to me.

Be careful what you wish for. As I approached my office, I saw that a human and a Pergat were trying to shout each other to death in front of my door.

"Gray-woman!" shouted the Pergat. More or less. Their language (Pergot) still uses gendered titles. This would have been a polite formal greeting if he hadn't been hopping mad. I recognized him as I closed in. His name was Xin Rath, and he considered himself sort of the liaison-to-humans of the Pergati residents. Whether that status was official in any way, I'd never checked.

"You cannot let this stand!" he said in Pergot. "These miserable, stinking human fight-men - they have gone too far! Dirty, rotten, foul, nasty, ill-tempered beasts -"

Actually, I'm translating very loosely ... because human profanity is light-years behind Pergot, and because I'm a polite soul. But his cursing was not the normal, polite, everyday cursing you hear from Pergati all day long. He was genuinely upset.

"Wait," I said, also in Pergot, "be calm. I am only learning of it myself. The crime will not be unpunished. Tell me," I said, taking out the photos from Dr. Kohl, "can you find out who the unfortunate was? Will you ask?"

"Will I ask?" Hopping mad. Literally. Bouncing up and down, kilt flapping. It would have been hilarious in any other circumstances. "Will I ask? Do you have no idea? That unfortunate, as you say, is Kir Erek himself! Murdered in a back hall like a lowlife!"


If Rath was the informal liaison, Kir Erek was definitely the Big Boss of the Pergati on the Ring. And his status was official - the duly enshrined representative of the Pergati government.

I had been awake since seven. It was now, by my guess, somewhere after twenty-three. I did the mental math and concluded that this was not news I had needed to hear before getting some sleep.

"If you've finished jabbering to the plush toy -" said the human. I spun and did my best to shove him against the wall by eye power. Then I added hand power. He outweighed me two for one but I had reached my limit. He met the wall.

"Listen up, you underpowered side of beef," I said, showing teeth. "First off, the next time you call a member of that race a "plush toy," I will not need to break your neck. I'll just translate it for them and they'll break your neck. They don't lose their tempers often because nobody with a brain messes with them, but that would probably suffice. Second, although I plan to investigate this mess fairly, that doesn't mean I'm impartial. Stupid human roughneck soldiers who don't have enough sense to obey a clearly stated weapons policy, let alone not start fights with aliens, are definitely at the top of my suspect list. With a bullet. A small-caliber bullet fired from a dress sidearm that shouldn't have been on this station in the first place. Do I make myself clear?"

He opened his mouth and shut it a few times, experimentally. "Do I make myself clear?" I asked again.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Just 'yes' will do. You want to watch those titles here. Are you liaison?" He nodded. "Good. Tomorrow I am coming aboard and asking questions. I expect access to everyone in command. I also expect every human on your ship to remain confined there until I say so. If I see a soldier wandering this station, I will detain him so fast his head will spin. I can also block your ship five days from now - and will, if I'm not satisfied. If you want to make your departure window, you'll instill a spirit of cooperation. Also clear?"

He nodded.

"Then move out." I changed tongues and said to the Pergat, "I apologize many times for this shame. I will find the culprit, but for now I must rest. I will tell you as soon as I know something worth telling." His mood had improved considerably watching me tear up the side of beef, and he nodded and I watched him waddle off down the hall.

I went into the office, stopped long enough to turn off the door signal, and then straight through into the private area. After that door I started removing clothes, shedding as I went, with course already programmed for the bed.

And then the feed chirped. "No, no, no," I said, but I checked the source anyway, and then of course I had to open it.

"Boss, it's been a long day -"

"So I gather," she replied. "But you want to be at lower berth twenty-four. Right now."

"Can I have a hint?"


"That's a good hint." I started gathering the clothes I'd just removed. "By the by, Kir Erek is dead. You heard it here first."

"Hmm," she said, which is the closest she gets to showing surprise. "I trust you're doing what needs doing."

"So far," I said.

"Keep me informed."

I closed the feed and fished around for my pants.

- - -

Qov is tricky. We don't actually ban it, but the Pergati do. And since they are also the primary users of the stuff, we tend to be a nexus for smuggling. We try to stay neutral, but it's not always easy. Or desirable. For example, it might be useful to warn the Pergati government that a shipment was coming - especially in view of recent events.

In general the lower docks aren't a great place to be, even though the Ring is pretty safe. We'll let anybody dock, just about, but we assign all the unsavories lower berths. To keep them out of the way.

We need the captain's cooperation to search a ship. They're not really under our jurisdiction, even when docked, and there is no cargo we quarantine so strongly that it can't dock. The only real power we have is the ability to refuse them transit through the Ring. If I used that power, the captain would be tipped off; and he surely wouldn't cooperate with a search. So why was I at the dock at all?

Moving cargo, that's why. (Don't ask me how the boss knows these things.) A caravan of beef with cargo tongs hauling an endless stream of bundles as big as they were. I watched as one by one they shoved their loads down the dock and up the hall ... to the enormous ramp leading to the upper berths.

I used an access ladder to get to the upper berths the hard way. By Ring time almost everyone was asleep right now, and the docks were deserted except for me and the loading crew. I had to move through back halls and crawl through a tube to come out ahead of their destination without their seeing me.

The ship whose dock was accumulating a pile of bundles was a lot cleaner and newer than the one they'd come from, but not bigger. In fact, it was small enough that it had to have been bare-empty to accommodate all of the bundles they were trying to cram into it.

Loaders tend to clump; you try to keep them in a steady stream, but then one slows down or there is a delay elsewhere, and they all collect together in waves. I was counting on this. Eventually there came a point where all the loaders were down in the lower berths, refilling their tongs, and I used that to slink out onto the dock and inspect a bundle.

I didn't even need to open it. At that range, the dry vegetable odor was practically narcotic even in the wrappings. I'm told qov affects humans too. Not my vice.

I noted the registry of the ship and got on the feed to Dispatch on my way back to my office. Dispatch never sleeps. I got a nasty surprise in return: The Prith Praj, Kroy registry. Azu C's ship, on hold fifteen days pending Ring alignment.

So much for accidents of timing.

- - -

I did eventually get some sleep, and was able to look reasonably awake (I hoped) when boarding Military Transport 905. I was met by some serious-looking older men in uniform I took to be the brass, one of whom was my friend the liaison from yesterday.

"Miss Gray," said one of the muckamucks - I never learned to read insignia. "So you're the one who's keeping my men aboard ship after a year without leave? Do you know how tense -"

"Er, what the lieutenant means -" began the liaison.

"I know what he means," I said, sitting down. "Look, I understand this might be their last chance to get out of this can before a long trip on the other side. But this Pergat that was shot is not just anybody. A visitor killing any resident would cause a fuss; the one you killed is basically a diplomat, the official rep of their government -"

"The one we killed?" a round, red-faced gent exclaimed. "That's gall! You have no proof -"

"I have this," I said, and dropped the sidearm on the table in front of him. "Now, if that'll keep you quiet for a minute, I'll explain. Guns - any weapon that might breach our hull - are banned on this station. You were warned about this and presumably you warned your men before they were allowed out. Yet a group of them brought their sidearms anyway. This is an established fact. A group of them - with guns - were involved in a street fight with Pergati, just around the corner from the murder site and at the same time. This is also a fact. And they were not above using those guns in the heat of the moment" - I raised my voice over the protests - "as is demonstrated by the fact that I took this from one of your men as he was attempting to fire it! Do you want a name?"

Silence. "I'll keep it to myself, then; he got his lumps, and he's practically the only soldier I don't suspect, because I was fighting him at the time. Point is, these little dress guns are not just the right size and weight for that bullet, but they may well be the only source of handguns on the Ring right now. I don't even keep guns for myself, and I'm Security. So if one of your men didn't kill the Pergat, it's still very likely one of your guns did. Clear?"

No argument.

"Now, I don't have time for sifting. You're the officers. First thing I want you to do is find all the soldiers involved. There were at least twenty. They are confined to the ship for the duration, which is no more than they deserve for brawling in the station, murder notwithstanding. Then I want you to find out who has been missing a dress sidearm, even for a brief time yesterday. Ideally, I'd like you to get someone to confess to the shooting, but let's be realistic .... Lieutenant, you look like you're sitting in something unpleasant. What is it?"

Unpleasant wasn't the word. "Dress sidearms are for parade use; we won't need them until we get where we're going. Most of the men keep them stowed for the entire trip. Or they're supposed to. The, er, small size makes them appealing to many of the men as a concealed weapon."

"So any number of these guns are sitting around in, what, lockers or something? Where anyone could -"

"More or less. And it might not be discovered."

"Wonderful," I said. "Just great. Pretty cavalier about firearms, aren't you?"

"We are trained soldiers!" sputtered the red-faced man, who had obviously had enough of me. That was all right; I'd had enough of him.

"But apparently not trained in public behavior!" I shouted back. "Or in following station rules, for that matter!" I stood up. "I want the brawlers confined. Once you figure that out, everyone else can debark. And I would appreciate any further information or assistance you can provide." I moved to the door. "Assuming you would like to leave on schedule."

But of course I didn't really dare follow through on that. Not without a better reason than I currently had.

The feed chirped. "Are you alive?" asked Meridian when I opened it.

"Reasonably. Sorry I abandoned you." Polite formality. Meridian and I get along because neither of us takes up too much of the other's time. If I knew her, she'd gone back to Catalan's and probably had three or four customers before going to sleep.

"Catalan wants to know if you know anything about Azu C," she said. "She's having one of her fits."

"What's Catalan got to do with this?"

"I don't know what you mean. Azu C cancelled its other shows. Catalan had a ticket for tonight. She was wondering if you -"

"First I've heard of it. Any reason why?"

"None we've heard."

I changed direction. "Thank her for me."

"Why? Did I say something good?"

"Maybe. Talk to you later."

"I want a reward."

I chuckled and closed the phone.

Kroy is not one of the languages I speak - in fact I'm not even sure that's what they call it. And the Kroy at the ship's airlock didn't seem to recognize Pergot, nor even Bak'ti (which is the closest thing to a universal language around, has maybe fifty concepts at most, and can be mastered by a six-year-old).

I knew better than to try Trade English, and was nearly ready to consider pictograms, when a taller and snottier Kroy, who seemed to own the place, overheard the commotion and addressed me in reasonably adept Pergot.

"The Azu has suffered an emotional upset," said the Kroy majordomo, after I'd stated my needs, "and must not be disturbed under any circumstances."

"I am saddened by this news," I said, "but this is official business of great importance and must take place."

"I tell you it cannot be done."

But it could be done, with a certain amount of arm-twisting. The majordomo led me into The Azu's private suite - I never did get a gendered pronoun - and showed no intention of leaving. When I said I craved a private chat, it commented that it would be needed to translate. Swell, I thought.

Azu C made its grand entrance from an adjoining room through a set of gauze curtains. The entrance was spoiled, though, by its appearance. The chalk skin that had made such an impression on me had been badly beaten. Its face and what I could see of one arm were covered in large bruises, blue-black marks fading to a nasty purplish brown around their edges.

It mumbled something in the same gibberish I'd heard on stage. "The Azu says it trusts you see why it cannot perform," the majordomo said.

"Who did this?" I asked. Upon translation, Azu C just shook its head.

"A Pergat has been killed. I am trying to learn who did it -" Azu C cut me off with an urgent string of syllables. The majordomo: "The Azu knows of the crime you mention." Indeed. Without waiting for a translation. "It says it regretfully has nothing to offer you."

That was clearly the end of the interview.

- - -

All right. So Azu C had seen something it shouldn't have, and had been convinced to keep quiet. Who did the beating? The majordomo, or someone else? And what about the qov? Did the performer know what its ship was carrying?

The problem was that "something it shouldn't have" was so vague. Despite my line to the majordomo, I wasn't sure that my murder and Azu C and the qov shipment were at all related. If the shooting had just been a soldier who got carried away - and Occam said it was - then I might never figure it out. On the other hand, if I didn't look into the qov, I had no line of attack whatsoever.

I wandered into Dispatch practically on autopilot.

"So," Flanagan said when I entered, pushing a chair in my direction, "what gossip can I provide today?"

"Suppose" - I sat down - "just theoretically, you understand - a Kroy ship were smuggling qov. Is there any reason the Pergat zone patrols would handle them any differently from anyone else?"

He shrugged. "How should I know?"

"Don't the patrols share their records with Dispatch under the table?"

"Sure, but" - he tapped a few things into the console - "yeah, just like I thought. There hasn't been a Kroy ship before. Only the performers circulate, and there aren't that many of those -"

"- and they cover so much ground that we might never see another. Right." I sighed.

"But if you mean this ship specifically, it won't get stopped."

"You're sure."

"No cargo. Performer and entourage, nothing else."

"So if I saw a KT of qov being loaded onto that ship, I'm hallucinating?"

He blinked a few times and considered the idea. "A katie? Hmm. That's pretty bulky in qov. Let's see ...." He went back to the console. I got a glimpse of schematics. "I love being able to do this," he muttered. "No. There just isn't any room for it. Even if you converted all the passenger space to cargo. This thing is nothing more than a couple of staterooms, a pantry, and a big engine. You sure you saw what you saw?"

"I didn't actually say I saw anything, did I?"

"Uh-huh. Well, if you had seen it, I'd say to get your eyes checked."

- - -

I didn't doubt my eyes; smugglers are tricky people. But the information did me no good. Technically, I could claim to be done; write the murder off as an unsolved street crime, and calm the Pergati down by handing them a smuggler in lieu of a murderer. But there was more to this, I knew it, and I didn't want to squander that information if I could use it for something better.

Meridian was there when I got back to my rooms.

"One day," I said, lying down next to her, "I'll find you waiting in some other place besides the bed."

She yawned and stretched. "You love it. Did you find out about Azu C?"

"Actually, I did. It's been beaten. Bruises all over. Wouldn't tell me anything else."

"Oh, do they bruise?" She curled up around me. Meridian has a lot of catlike qualities.

"Why wouldn't they? Have you ever seen a race that didn't?"

"Once. Crabs."


"Looked a little like crabs. But not hard. They got hard if you hit them."

"I think that was almost supposed to make sense," I said.

"They weren't, you know, hard like crabs. Except where you hit them. If you hit them, that part of the skin would get hard."

"Interesting. Defense mechanism?"

"Suppose. We had one who wanted us to beat him so he'd harden up all over. He'd get so he couldn't move. That was what he liked." She shrugged. "Are you going to lie there with clothes on all day?"

"One-track mind." But I stood up and started to strip. As I did, the feed chirped. Meridian groaned as I opened it.

"Security," I said.

It was my friendly liaison from the military ship. "We have a soldier you should talk to. When can you come down?"

"Right away," I said. Meridian rolled her eyes.

"Sorry," I told her, closing the feed, "but these are working hours."

"Fine," she said, "I'll go find some soldier to play with."

I kissed her on the head. "You'd do that anyway. Let me know if you find the murderer."

- - -

"They jumped us," said the soldier, who managed to look nervous despite his size and bulk. "Ask any of the guys. We didn't start it. We knew if we started anything our sergeant would tear us new ones. Beg pardon, ma'am."

"All the others confirm that," the liaison said to me. "The Pergati seem to have deliberately instigated the fight."

"Unless you're all covering up together," I said.

"No, ma'am!" barked the soldier. He looked genuinely shocked. I decided to buy it.

"All right, then. You had something else to tell me?"

He looked down at the table. "Well, you already know most of us had our sidearms -"

"Despite orders. Yes, I'm aware of that."

"When I got back to the ship mine was missing."

"Had you fired it?"

"I hadn't even taken it out of my pocket. It must have come out while I was fighting."

"Do you believe that?" I asked.

He looked down at the tabletop.

"Neither do I. Thank you," I said to the liaison, rising. "These men can have their leave privileges back. Just don't get into any more fights," I said to the soldier. "And leave your guns on board."

"May I ask - ?" the liaison began.

"I'll be in touch," I said, walking out.

Taking the soldiers out of the problem was a relief, but didn't necessarily make things any simpler. I still had a murder - a murder I was willing to swear now was one Pergat killing another. But I needed more. Even though I don't have to give people the benefit of a fair trial, I have to have a little bit more than a gut feeling before breaking heads.

And for some reason Meridian's comment kept playing over and over in my mind: "Oh, do they bruise?"

And then suddenly I had it. All of it. I got on the feed and called Flanagan.

"You know, some of us have work to do," he said.

"This is work. That Kroy ship. Tell me there are Pergati on the manifest."

Pause, with the faint sound of clicking keys. "How'd you know? Yeah. All of the crew. Everyone except Azu C and company. This part of that qov hallucination?"

"No hallucination. Thanks. I owe you a drink."

I had been walking while talking, and now, almost to the docks, I had another useful idea.

"Sorry to disturb you, boss, but ...."

- - -

"I must protest!" said the majordomo. "This is unspeakable! I will make a complaint!"

"Complain away; my superior is the station director and she is fully informed of my activities," I said.

Azu C came in. Its bruises were fading a little, but still prominent. It gibbered worriedly to the majordomo, who replied in kind.

"Now," I said. "This is exceedingly important. Your departure and well-being depend on it. So you will translate what I say exactly, and you will translate its responses exactly as well. At present your ship is blocked. Do you understand that? Although we cannot prevent it from leaving, we will not allow it to pass through the Ring - and we reserve the right to fire upon it if this becomes necessary." The last part was ridiculous; the Ring has fired its guns once in its history, and that was because a ship was trying to destroy it. But it sounded good.

"An outrage!" The majordomo translated. Azu C's response didn't sound annoyed, though. I wished I could talk to it directly. In fact, I'm going to pretend the majordomo wasn't there as I tell the rest of this, interpreting pauses and hesitations and repeated promptings as needed. I'm also going to not be quite so literal with the Pergot; it's tiring me out.

"We don't do anything without a good reason," I said. "Your ship contains approximately a kilotonne of qov, plant matter with a narcotic effect, which is illegal in the system you will be travelling to. Their government has asked us to block your ship, and we've cooperated."

"This must be a mistake," said Azu C after a pause. "This ship is not even equipped for such things. Examine it for yourself."

"I might," I said, "but first things first. I assure you that I've seen qov being loaded onto this vessel. Either you're both aware of this, or you aren't. If you aren't, then you've been deceived by your crew. If you are, then I should warn you that if I don't leave this ship within the hour safely, my superior will destroy it."

"I suspect you're genuinely unaware," I continued, "as I've noticed that the Kroy don't concern themselves with the details of travel, nor commerce, nor in general with the activities of other races. I haven't decided if you're aloof, or naive, or both."

The majordomo didn't want to translate that at first.

"Why do you tell us this, then?" said Azu C eventually.

"Glad you asked. Frankly, I'm more interested in solving my murder, and you're an important piece of evidence."

"I have told you, I have witnessed nothing."

"Not a witness. Evidence. Your skin is the evidence. The murder happened just behind your dressing room at the theatre. You absorbed the emotions. You felt it happen. Those are the marks on your skin. Not bruises. It affected you very strongly, didn't it?"

It nodded slowly.

"And you decided to hide in your ship instead of telling anybody."

"I could not .... I knew that I had caused the crime."

"Caused - You don't mean you killed him."

"No!" It looked as shocked as I would have expected. I couldn't imagine it committing a murder. The emotional strain would have crippled it. Fragile thing! "I should not have agreed to play. Your race is not prepared. You were affected."

"Oh, I see. Forget that," I said. "You didn't cause this. You may have stirred people up, but that fight outside the theatre was started deliberately, as a cover for the murder. That murder was planned. It was planned either by you - which I strongly doubt - or a member of your crew. And it was planned because the victim found out that this ship was going to be used to smuggle qov - don't ask me how; he was known for having all the gossip - and was surely going to try to shut it down, like a good representative of the Pergat government."

"I assure you I know nothing of that," it replied.

"Then help me. If you are legitimate," I said, "then you'll help me because you have been misused by your crew. If you're in on it, then you'll help me because you want to leave. But until I have that murderer, I will not let you leave this station."

"What would you have me do?" Azu C asked.

- - -

Because these foolish creatures wandered the universe without bothering to learn a single common tongue, the majordomo had to translate for the assembled crew. Pity. It spoiled the effect.

There were ten Pergati, enough to be difficult. There were four other Kroy besides Azu C and its translator, standing quietly at the back of the room, but I figured that one Pergat could handle about seventy-five Kroy without breaking a sweat. If there were a Kroy that didn't look like it was about to die of consumption, I hadn't seen it.

Me, I was keeping out of sight.

"The Azu," said the majordomo, "was sadly in the vicinity of an unfortunate crime yesterday - a killing. It has been affected by this, as you can see. The Azu is greatly shamed to say that the one who has done this is among its trusted crew. It feels it has no choice but to deliver that one to the station authorities. The Azu would prefer it, though, if that one were to come forward and confess its deeds, as is only proper and honorable."

I couldn't see, but I knew there was a lot of glancing around. I could hear the muttering. This was the moment.

Then there was a yell, and a scrabbling noise, and I shouted, "Now!" and covered my ears. And all the Kroy began wailing. I could hear it even through my hands, and it made me fall to my knees. I think I was screaming; I couldn't hear my own voice through all the pain and the noise.

And then it stopped, and there was an altogether different commotion, as Rob and Don and a couple of other well-built friends they had recruited charged in from the back door of the room and started to put restraints on the nearly-incapacitated Pergati. I wiped tears from my eyes and stood up.

Originally my plan had been to have Rob and Don get a lot of other beefy friends - my informal riot-control force. Because even the best humans can generally only subdue one Pergat at a time. But Azu C had explained to me that Kroy are not as defenseless as they look. Even the ones who don't perform. I liked its idea better.

Azu C was standing over one Pergat, looking mournful. "I take it this is the one," I said. I said it in Trade English, and the majordomo was otherwise occupied, but Azu C nodded anyway. Its skin was beginning to color like the bruises, purple-black slowly spreading along the base of its legs, where the Pergat lay wriggling on the floor.

- - -

"Okay," I said to Meridian, as I climbed into bed. "I'm ready. Twenty questions."

"I don't think it'll be twenty," she said, fidgeting under the sheets. "Why didn't the killer just leave the ship?"

"And go where? The entire resident Pergat community was up in arms about Kir Erek. And he had no idea what I'd told them. If they did know, he'd be just as dead with them. Deader."

"So you're going to kill him?"

"I'll let the Pergati decide. Xin Rath is looking into it. Personally I'd have tossed him out an airlock already. Might still."

"Why didn't you just have Azu C point out the killer and grab him alone, instead of having to fight the whole group?"

"Because it didn't know. Remember, it felt the murder without actually seeing the killer, and was too overwhelmed by it at the time to follow up. It had no idea who the killer was until it made its announcement and the killer started to broadcast guilt and rage. Then it was just a question of when the Pergati - who had to all be involved in the qov smuggling - would try to kill off all the Kroy and steal the ship. Maybe even bluff and try to get us to let them through the Ring, pretending the Kroy were just being shy as usual. It was their best chance of staying alive. And the odds were they'd do it while they were all in one place."

"And the Kroy -"

"Have decided to hire a fresh crew in the Pleiades, with a couple of loaners from the Ring to get them there. And replace the engine with one the actual size and power shown on the schematics - the crew has been giving them bad information from day one - trips taking twice as long as they should have, unexpected "maintenance stops," you name it."

Meridian shook her head. "What a bunch of idiots."

"Not idiots. Sweet, fragile, and completely naive."

"Like me," she said, grinning.

I threw a pillow at her.

Well, she's not an idiot. And I suppose she is sweet.

Copyright © August 2001. Do not distribute or reproduce.

Personal tools
eccentric flower