I’m on a roll with writing, a very short story mid-week and a short story this weekend. This is my first murder mystery. It’s imperfect; I tried to do something, but the constraints of space had me streamline the plot, but I didn’t want to go for a short novel, and the full plot would have come out about 30-50k words.
Murder on the Belet Nagar
© Jonathan L. Lawrence, August 2022
“Furl the main sail,” Captain Salinger called to the crewmen ahead of him, “We’ll cut across the tail.”
The Captain turned and walked over to the pilot’s console and tapped in a set of coordinates over the shoulder of his pilot.
“Captain, you can’t do that. It’s not safe,” Navigator Red Wallace said, getting up from her console, alarmed.
“You’re the navigator. Is there another way out that doesn’t knock us off our schedule?” the Captain said, turning to his navigator, “If we divert leeward, it’ll take weeks to get around the storm. If it moves wrong longer, if we go towards Jupiter, that’ll take weeks too.”
“We could try a gravity assist….” Red began to say.
“We’re a solar sail ship,” the Captain pointed out flatly, “Our thrusters are for manoeuvring. We wouldn’t get a decent enough trajectory to get enough speed to make up time. You know that.”
Red shrugged, “Even the storm’s tail will cause a lot of damage.”
“The Belet Nagar is a fine vessel. She can take it,” Captain Salinger said, “Plot me a course round the storm eddies that’ll keep us safer.”
“Yes, Captain,” Red said admonished, she knew how far she could push the Captain, but her concerns were genuine. The gravity storms that formed in the space around Jupiter were notorious and dangerous.
Captain Salinger settled his six-foot-four heavy set frame into his command chair at the centre of the cramped cockpit. He pulled out a microphone from the side of the chair and tapped some commands into the computer console attached to the arm of the chair, “Ship wide alert, I repeat, this is a ship-wide alert. We are taking the ship through the tail of a gravity storm. All crew to their stations, damage control teams follow your procedures, full emergency gear, and all airlocks to be sealed by default until we’re through the other side. It’s one day, but it is dangerous. Furl the main sail. Inertia and jib sails only.”
The doors to the cockpit closed with a hiss. The room became independently pressured. Door by door across the five decked cargo ship sealed shut, a defence against hull breaches preventing damage from spreading across multiple sections.
Outside, the capsule-like ship, the protruding booms from which the bare molecule thick sails protruded, began reconfiguring, and the giant sail started to collapse. As it withdrew into the boom, the boom itself retracted backwards as it slid back in segments. The lesser sails clustered together, their booms drawing back on themselves but stopping halfway.
Thrusters on the ship’s port side fired off as the vessel orientated itself towards the patch of strangely coloured space ahead.
Inside the cockpit, the Captain pointed ahead, somewhat dramatically, “All ahead full,” he instructed his pilot.
“I’m sending over a sequence of coordinates,” Red told Charlie Young at the pilot’s console. “It’ll cover the next two hours and keep us free from the eddies.”
“This isn’t going to be quick,” Charlie noted.
“Nope, but it’s the safest route,” Red noted.
“Follow the course,” the Captain ordered.
“Following the Yellow Brick road,” Charlie said with a sigh.
“The Yellow Brick road was the most direct route to Emerald City,” came Chief Engineer Kamāl Yunus over the open comms, always open during emergencies, with the engineering deck.
“The fast route from A to B is a straight line,” Charlie pointed out.
“That’s such a pilot point of view. The Yellow Brick Road was the best way,” Red interjected.
“I’ve no idea what you are going on about,” Captain Salinger said.
“Twentieth-century movie, Captain” Kamāl clarified, “Wizard of Oz.”
“Not my area,” Linus Salinger said, “How about we concentrate on getting through this storm safely?”
“Sure,” Kamāl responded.
“But movie night when we’re out the other side,” Red said, returning her attention to her console.
“Count me in,” Charlie said, “Been years since I saw that movie.”
For the next two hours, you would barely know the ship was sailing through troubled space; there was scarcely any turbulence. The coloured space effect caused by the intense gravitational waves seemed off half a million kilometres away when viewed from one of the few window ports on the capsule ship.
As the ship sailed further into the storm, the turbulence became more frequent and increased in intensity.
“That was a rough one,” Captain Salinger noted, “How close are we getting to those eddies.”
“No closer than a hundred thousand kilometres,” Red noted, “We’re threading a needle here. It’s going to get even bumpier as we progress.”
“Might be having second thoughts,” Captain Salinger said, almost under his breath, “Just keep us away from the worst of it.”
As predicted, as the hours passed, the ship rocked as it pushed through disparate zones of gravity, the capsule ship was bucked up and down, left and right, and the gravity twisted the smaller sail booms dangerously.
“Have we got enough momentum to bring in all sails?” Captain Salinger asked.
“Should do, Captain,” Charlie said, “We’re running at a healthy five kilometres meters per second.”
“Kamāl, furl all sails,” the Captain ordered.
“Copy Captain,” the lightly accented voice said over the intercom.
“Once that is complete, we’ll do the shift change. I want everyone to get a rest. The night shift can cope for a while,” Captain Salinger said, “We’ll hit the most dangerous area soon. I want everyone at their best.”
No one objected.
“Commander Heard,” the Captain announced as he withdrew the microphone again, there was a rolling tone for a few moments.
“Yes, Captain,” came the spritely south American voice.
“You’ve got the con for a few hours. Organise a rest schedule for the crew, half on, half off. Everyone gets a minimum of three hours.”
“On it,” Heard said, “I’ll be up in a few minutes. I’ll bring the night shift with me.”
Captain Salinger put the microphone back to its holster, “Make sure we have a course set, and shift handover notes are complete,” he instructed, “I’ll see you back here at oh-nine-thirty hours.” He got up from his chair, ducking beneath the low ceiling of the cockpit and waited a moment until the door opened with a hiss as the seal broke.
Red was well accustomed to sleeping in stressful noisy climates. Over a decade ago, she had been in Marine’s military police during the Mars invasions. You took your sleep where and when you could.
However, the sudden lurching of the ship and sirens sounding off had her instantly alert and awake. She hopped from her bunk, landing lightly on her feet, well-practised in the low gravity environment. The nook that held the door also had a computer-linked display. She quickly typed in her access code and got to the emergency alert with all the relevant information.
“What is it?” Kamāl asked from the bunk beneath Red’s. She was groggy, confused and alarmed simultaneously but was trying to punch through to focus on what was happening.
“Eddy formed off the port bow, fifty klicks,” Red informed her based on what she saw from the display.
“We should head to our posts,” Kamāl said, raising herself out of the tiny bunk and grabbing for her magnetic boots.
“Wait,” Red held up her hand, “There’s been a breach. Just checking the safe routes.”
“I need to be in engineering,” Kamāl said with urgency.
“Your teams can cope,” Red said, “They’ll cope a lot harder if we end up sucked out into space. The breach is on the port side, deck three.”
“Ship storage, fabrication. Low population, but some damn important stuff down there,” Kamāl stated as she internally worked through potential consequences for the damage control teams and engineering.
“There’s a clear route to engineering and the cockpit,” Red said, “We head straight to the canteen, then the starboard corridors. All damage is contained to deck three.”
“Let’s go,” Kamāl said.
Red nodded, grabbed her boots, and began throwing on the emergency space suit from her trunk. Kamāl did the same.
“Check my seals?” Red asked.
Kamāl came over and checked everything about the suit was in order, “Check mine,” she instructed the navigator, which Red did.
“Right, let’s go,” Red said. She tapped in her code to open the door.
“Shouldn’t we contact the Captain first?” Kamāl asked.
“He’ll be getting up to speed himself,” Red said, “Best to get to our posts and make ourselves ready to be useful when orders are given.”
Kamāl nodded her assent.
They separated at the canteen. Kamāl followed the starboard decks down the ship towards engineering, and Red headed up the tiers towards the cockpit.
Red had tapped her code into airlock doors that were second nature many times along the way. When she got to the cockpit, the door hissed as it opened.
“Red, come in,” Captain Salinger said, “And hold your tongue before you say ‘I told you so’.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Captain,” Red said, “Far more interested in staying alive.”
“No vital systems damaged. We’ve been thrown considerably off course. We’re just discussing how to get back on course. We’ve lost a lot of momentum,” Captain Salinger said.
“Bell, clear out of my console,” Red said, heading to the navigation computer.
“Yes, ma’am,” Clarissa Bell said; she was the navigation night shift cover.
“Right,” Red said, going through the information screens, “We’re pretty screwed right now.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Heard said sarcastically.
“Well, we’ve lost that great inertia. We’re currently travelling two klicks a second up the tail of the storm,” Red said, “This is bad.”
“Any ideas?” Salinger asked.
“Well, we’re not too deep and travelling slowly,” Red said, “That’s good. Breaking off this course shouldn’t be too bad. Full thrusters on the starboard and aft should arrest our momentum. It won’t be enough to get us back on the course, even if we burn up all our ion fuel.”
“Bring us to a stop,” Salinger said, “Let’s stop things getting worse.”
“On it,” Red said, “Charl…” she started to say, then noticed Charlie wasn’t at her status yet, “Rodriguez, I’m sending you over a burn program. Keep to it as best you can and adapt for drift.”
“Sure thing,” Rodriguez said. He was the night shift pilot.
The shift shook as the thrusters kicked in.
“Velocity reducing,” Red confirmed.
“Right, here’s the plan,” Salinger said, taking his seat, “As soon as we’ve broken free of the storm pull, we’re redeploying the sails.”
“Captain?” Red asked incredulously.
“We have backups,” Salinger said, “Won’t preserve them any good if another eddy forms on top of us. We deploy the sails, and we ride the graviton waves.”
“Until they break,” Heard said.
“Red?” Salinger said.
“It would only take a few minutes in this maelstrom to get the speed,” Red said, “It’ll be rough, but I think we can tack two-thirds to three-quarters. We can angle the momentum for a route. Through to the other side.”
“How long?” Commander Heard asked.
“Out of the storm?” Red confirmed, “About twenty hours.”
“Shit,” Heard said.
“It’s fine,” Salinger said, “It’s a bit longer but doesn’t put us far off schedule.”
Commander Heard looked like she was about to say something but thought better.
“I want damage assessments in ten minutes, crew review, and get back on the rest rotations,” Salinger told his second in command, “Everyone else, implement the plan.”
Twenty hours later, with a few close calls, the loss of the main sail, the Belet Nagar made it out of the strangely coloured area of space.
Engineering immediately got to work replacing the main sail with the backup. Damage control continued to ensure the hull was space worthy and that the depressurised section was repaired and repressurised.
“Primary shift,” Salinger announced, “Take your breaks. I want all of you to get at least five hours of sleep. Night shift will cover then take their rest cycle. It’ll take a while, but we’ll get back to a routine.”
Red’s sleep was interrupted again. The comm unit was beeping. It was the tone she had assigned for the Captain.
“Yes, Captain Salinger?” she said, “We’ve not run into another disaster already, have we?”
“We most certainly have,” Salinger said, his tone not nearly as pleasant as Red would have expected for a joke. She straightened herself up. The hairs on the back of her neck had just stood up. “Meet me in my quarters.”
Red pressed the intercom button on the door, “It’s me,” she said, and the door opened almost immediately.
The Captain had the most spacious quarters on the ship, it doubled up as his office, but it could comfortably hold five or six people, which was awkward as Red was the seventh.
“Welcome to the mad house,” Captain Salinger said to Red as she entered.
“What’s going on?” Red asked.
“We have a lot of concerned people,” Salinger said, “However, we are on it. So everyone, clear the heck out of my quarters.”
Several disgruntled people left the room, and there were a lot of mutterings, but the general atmosphere Red was picking up was a combination of shock and fear with a smattering of grief.
Remaining in the room were Captain Salinger, Commander Heard and Henrietta Alsa, leader of the damage control teams.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Red said.
“Unfortunately, as damage control was going section by section unsealing the ship and checking for hidden damage, they discovered something,” Captain Salinger said, “Commander Alsa can tell it from here.”
“We were on deck three, forward section,” Alsa said in her Franco-German accent, “When we went in the forward fabrication bay, we discovered a body.”
“A body? Was someone hurt in the breach?” Red asked.
“I don’t think so,” Henrietta said, “It wasn’t asphyxiation. I could see that right away. It looked like the body’s head was smashed in.”
“Could still just be from being thrown about,” Red noted.
“Possible,” Henrietta conceded, “I hope that’s the case. But there’s just something about the situation that doesn’t sit well with me.”
“I trust her gut,” Salinger said, “That’s why she’s responsible for keeping my ship in one piece.”
“That’s why you’re here,” Commander Heard said, “We need your help.”
“My help?” Red asked.
“You were military police back in the war,” Captain Salinger noted, “I need a murder investigation.”
“I dealt with unruly marines, some anti-looting investigations, discipline infractions and the odd interpersonal theft,” Red said, “I was never involved in a murder investigation.”
“You’re the closest thing I’ve got to a trained police officer,” Salinger said, “So tag your it. Find out if it was a murder, how it happened and who did it.”
“We can’t wait until we get to our destination?” Red asked, not feeling comfortable. She had terrible memories of her time in the military police and wasn’t eager to relive the experience. No one welcomed the rat squad.
“We’re eleven days out at best speed. It’s even longer heading back to Earth station, not to mention the storm in the way,” Salinger said, “I have the authority to enact justice on my ship. We’re in open space and will be for some time. If we have a murderer among the crew, we need to find them. I would also really like to know why.”
“Okay,” Red said, giving in, “We’re not equipped for a murder investigation. Also, I’ll need a medic to support me and probably some equipment fabricated.”
“Whatever you need,” Salinger said, “Cost isn’t an issue here. Get down there, find out what you can. I expect frequent reports. Also, you’re reporting to Red here for the duration.”
Henrietta looked surprised, then assented, “I’ll show you where the body is.”
The Damage Control team leader led the navigator, now investigator, down to the third deck and a room off the beaten track. “This is fabricator room two B,” Alsa said, gesturing for Red to go in.
Inside, the room was large, but most of the space was occupied by a sizeable factory-like machine. As Red stepped around Alsa, she saw the body.
“Crewman McIntosh,” Alsa said, “Cargo maintenance.”
Red bent down to look over the body, “Some taken graphs of the scene?”
“Yeah, nearly exactly as it was when he was found. One of my people checked the body for signs of life, and I looked over the wound, but mostly the holographs will be exactly as the body was found,” Alsa stated.
Red turned the body’s head, “Rigor mortis has passed.”
“What does that mean?” Alsa asked.
“Well, first few hours after death the body stiffens, the muscles become rigid, up to a day the body goes full rigid, it’s only after a day, maybe a day and a half that the body becomes soft again like this one is,” Red explained, “This man died as we entered the storm trail or before that. The smell suggests before, I’d say.”
“So murder then?” Alsa sought clarification.
“Yeah,” Red said, “Look at the wound,” she pointed.
“It does look odd,” Alsa said.
“Indeed,” Red said, “I don’t see anything in the room that could cause this. Unless your team removed anything.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” Henrietta Alsa said, “I told you something about this was suspicious.”
“What’s this fabricator do? I don’t know this room,” Red gestured to the big machine.
“It’s the emergency food fabricator, the industrial scale needed to supply food for a crew of a hundred and seven in case we’re stuck out in space for an extended period.”
“Shit factory,” Red simplified, “Not much use for it most of the time.”
“You’d have been welcoming pooh biscuits if we’d gotten stuck because of that storm,” Alsa noted.
“Don’t remind me,” Red said, “However, it’s doubtful we’d need this thing. It’s here for regs. Most things that would waylay us would probably kill or have us in escape pods. Well, except for the storm we just went through.”
Alsa sneered a little. The storm had been difficult for her teams.
Red continued, “So if you were to store a body, this is the place. It’s temperature controlled. It’s a sealed room. Store the body here, and either go missing at Farfarout station or possibly dispose of the body straight out an airlock at a time when they thought they wouldn’t get caught.”
“So not just murder, premeditation?” the damage control leader asked.
“Seems that way,” Red said, “Crewman Mcintosh wasn’t killed here.”
“What about the blood splatter on the wall?” Alsa said, gesturing.
“I think that’s the backup plan,” Red said, “In case the body was discovered.”
“You mean the blood splatter was done on purpose?”
“Yes, while the body was still fresh, you can see under the jumper here,” Red raised the man’s jumper, “He was stabbed, little seeping, it was post mortem. It probably helped ensure he was dead and allowed the perpetrator to spread the blood across the wall. The spray would have been higher if it had been from a head wound.”
“How do you know all this? You said you’d never done a murder before,” Alsa seemed incredulous.
“No, but I do have some training. Police operated in small units spread across the planet. We had to be prepared for anything. I was fortunate murder hadn’t been a crime we came across,” Red said, “Right. We’re going to need to move the body to the medical bay. We’ll need to do a closer study.”
“Autopsy?” Alsa asked.
“I think we can skip the blood and guts,” Red said, “Scanners should be good enough. There might be a little medical work if we can extract evidence. I don’t think the training of a medic would be enough for a full autopsy, and it’s certainly not part of my training.”
“I’ll have my team move the body,” Alsa said, “What’s after that?”
“We talk to the people closest to him,” Red said, “Find out who had a problem with him. If we’re lucky, it won’t take long to find out who did it.”
“Right then,” Alsa said and brought out her comms to issue orders.
“So bring me up to date,” Captain Salinger said in his quarters come office.
“Well, I’ve captured as much data as possible on the corpse,” Red said, “The body is pretty much surplus now.”
“Am I okay to commit him to space?” Captain Salinger asked.
“That’s up to you, and whatever legal steps you need to take,” Red said, “The investigation taking place on board no longer needs the body.”
“We don’t have a morgue facility, and shoving him in the freeze for a few weeks just doesn’t seem dignified,” Salinger said, “We’ll hold a funeral. But will hold off until the investigation is complete.”
“Fair enough,” Red said, “We’ve also interviewed members of the cargo maintenance team and associated teams.”
“And what did you find?” the Captain asked.
“Well, it’s probably of no surprise that everyone thought he was a lovely man, wouldn’t say boo to a goose and all that,” Red said, “Until they think no one else is listening, and then the truth comes out. Extensive drug use had a long sexual history among the lower decks, petty jealousies, and some gambling. Most notably, two accounts of him being in open arguments with two other crew members.”
“Popular guy,” Salinger noted, “So they’re the suspects?”
“Yes,” Red said, “Unfortunately, so far, these two are the last chatty.”
“Who are they? I’ll have them brought here. They’ll answer my questions,” Captain Salinger said with steel to his voice.
“Sanna Hern and Roberto Martin,” Red said.
“I know Sanna,” Salinger said, “I mean, I know all the crew, but I know her in particular. She got in a fight not that long ago. Real tear down, with a…” the Captain searched his memory, “Crewman Cook, I want to say.”
“What about?” Red asked.
“Some disagreement, think something was stolen, or possibly something was owed,” Captain said, “Was last June.”
“Good to know,” Red noted.
“I’ll have Sanna fetched here first. You okay to do this now?”
“Sooner the better,” Red said.
“Captain?” a woman’s voice said over the intercom.
Salinger touched a button on his wrist comm unit, and the door opened, “Come in, crewman.”
“Pleased to be here,” Sanna said with a slight bow.
“Good to hear,” the Captain said, “Unfortunately, that’s not going to last. I believe you’ve been less than co-operative with Navigator Wallace in her investigation.”
“I answered all her questions,” Sanna said.
“You dodged, redirected, and offered the minimum to every question,” Red said.
“I know nothing about what happened,” the crewman said.
“I hear you had a particular vibrant argument with Mr McIntosh,” Captain Salinger said, “So why don’t you tell us about it now.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Sanna said, “Mack had a turbulent relationship with a lot of the crew.”
“That’s what we call a redirect,” Red pointed out.
Captain Salinger glared at the crewman, who quickly broke eye contact.
“Mack owed me a considerable amount,” Sanna said, “He didn’t want to pay up. He was forgiving someone else’s debt and felt it was only fair that I forgive his.”
“What was the debt for?” Salinger asked.
Sanna looked around, avoided the Captain’s gaze, but was always aware of it. Eventually, she broke, “Gambling. I had a good run at Dreamies, and he had the bad luck to come up against me.”
“How much was he into you for?” Red asked.
“Two and a half grand in Shekels,” Sanna admitted.
“Fucking hell,” Salinger said, “How does someone end up that far in the hole?”
“He chased the breakpoint,” Sanna shrugged, “If he’d got there, he’d have broken even. The cards wouldn’t turn in his favour, and he kept chasing.”
“That’s quite a motive,” Red noted.
“If he’s dead, I’ll not get anything,” Sanna said, “I was owed that money. I’ll never collect it now. It’s quite frustrating. I’ve been saving up to be able to buy my courier ship. This money would have put me a long way to that.”
“You’re a pilot?” Captain Salinger asked.
“I also need to pass my pilot licensing exam,” Sanna conceded, “But I have a whole plan. Unfortunately, it’ll take at least another ten of these runs to be able to afford it. These shekels would have been a significant shortcut.”
“Where were you three days ago between 12 pm and 12 am?” Red asked.
“I was on shift for part of it. We needed to move cargo from bay one to two, so the seals could be checked and refreshed,” Sanna stated, “Think we finished about seven or so. It’ll be in the work log. There were five of us on it. After that, I’d rather not say.”
“I don’t care what you’d rather say or not,” Salinger said, “Account for your whereabouts, or I’ll have to assume you did it.”
“I would never….” Sanna protested.
“Let me just remind you, it was only a few months ago you were in this room because of a vicious knockdown fight you got into with a fellow crewmate,” Salinger said.
“That was…” Sanna deflated, “It’s a delicate matter…” she shuffled in her seat, trying to avoid the unremitting glare from the Captain, “I was with Charlie Young most of that time.”
Captain Salinger said nothing. He continued to stare.
“I know she’s married. It’s why I didn’t want to say anything,” Sanna said, “I don’t want to mess up her life or anything.”
“Well, we’ll have to check with her,” Red said.
“But we’ll be discreet,” Captain Salinger said.
Sanna nodded her assent.
“You are dismissed,” Salinger said, “But one more thing, I know gambling happens all the time on board ship. You, however, will not be taking part in any of it for the remainder of this journey. You will also drop any markers for other debts people owe you.”
“But..” Sanna began to say.
“I mean it. If I find out you’ve shaken anyone down for gambling debts, I’ll shove you in an escape pod and drag you behind the ship for the rest of the journey to Farfarout. If Red has any more questions, I expect you to be forthcoming. I’ll tell you this now: on this investigation, she has all my powers, so she can shove you into an escape pod to be towed back for several weeks.”
“I understand,” Sanna said.
“You’re dismissed,” the Captain said.
A few minutes later, the chime for the door went again, and the Captain opened the door.
“Captain?” crewman Martin said, stepping in. Roberto Martin puffed out his chest; he was proud to have an audience with the Captain. That was clear, then he saw Red sitting by the Captain, and he deflated somewhat.
“Take a seat. We have a few questions,” Salinger said, gesturing.
Roberto Martin sat down, clenching his jaw. There was fear in his eyes.
“So I understand you failed to answer Navigator Red’s questions,” Salinger said, “I expect you to answer mine.”
“I… I…” Roberto stumbled to find the words but couldn’t, so he just nodded.
“So I hear you fought with crewman McIntosh. Tell me what happened,” Salinger said, keeping his steely gaze on the nervous man.
“I didn’t have a….” Roberto began to say but reconsidered mid-sentence, “It wasn’t a fight so much that it was an argument.”
“What about?” Red asked.
“I’d prefer not to say,” Roberto said, “It’s not relevant, really.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Salinger said, “Tell us what happened.”
“It was…” Roberto tried to find the words, “I… I knew who McIntosh was, knew what he’d done in the war.”
“Oh?” Salinger asked.
“Mack had been a Terran Marine. He was there at Arcadia,” Roberto stated.
“A lot of people were at Arcadia on both sides,” Red noted.
“Yeah, but not a lot of people were sanctioned by the Earth senate for war crimes,” Roberto said, suddenly coming alive with passion, “He was sanctioned as one of the soldiers that cut off life support to a whole area of the city, suffocating hundreds.”
“That can’t be,” Red said, “He’d be in prison.”
“Most of those sanctioned served three months of a life sentence and were then released,” Roberto said, “Fucking Earther justice!”
“I saw nothing of this in his records,” Salinger said, “We wouldn’t have hired a war criminal, it’s a multi-planetary crew, and I reviewed his file after his death. He didn’t even serve in the war.”
“It’s ninety per cent Earthers here,” Roberto said, “Just a few token Martians and Loans,” he shook his head, “That doesn’t matter. He had a new identity. He took service off the planet to be away from people who would recognise him. I recognised him, though I knew him. He tried to deny it. But I knew.”
“So you murdered him?” Red asked.
“What? No…” Roberto protested, “I wouldn’t. I’m a pacifist. I didn’t take part in the violence on Mars. I stood by and let Terrans overrun the planet because I didn’t believe in violence.”
Salinger shook his head, “Why didn’t you come to me then? He’d have been off the ship and on a slow shuttle back to Earth at the next station we came across.”
“I didn’t know who to trust,” Roberto said, “I had a plan. Farfarout is an independent colony, they’ve shown themselves to be hostile to some of Earth’s judicial decisions, and in fact, they had an out. He was sentenced to life and released secretly so they could lock him up as an escaped criminal. Earth Senate couldn’t protest without letting the whole system know their justice was a joke.”
“So you didn’t kill him. Instead, you just wanted to imprison him in some far-fetched plan?” Red asked.
“It wasn’t far-fetched,” Roberto protested, “And it was better than doing nothing even if it didn’t work. I also sent a message to some friends in Mars media, just in case it didn’t work.”
“Where were you three days ago between 12 pm and 12 am?” Red asked.
“Well, I was on a shift from seven. My team can testify to that,” Roberto said.
“And before that?” Red sought clarification.
“In my bunk, it was my rest period,” Roberto said.
“Anyone that can confirm that?” Salinger asked.
“Watson was in there until 2 pm,” the crewman offered.
“Is there anything else we should know?” Salinger asked, “Anything else in your defence?”
“No,” Roberto said, “I’m a pacifist, but I’m not sorry he’s dead. I swear I didn’t do it, but I won’t help you find who did.”
“Your dismissed,” Salinger said.
“Thank you, Captain,” Roberto said. Rising from his chair, he didn’t linger. He went straight out of the room.
“What do you think? Roberto has to be the prime suspect, right?” Salinger asked his investigator.
“He had his motive and opportunity,” Red said, “A long period where he has no credible alibi… but I just don’t like him for it.”
“You buy the pacifist bit?” Salinger asked.
“Anyone can break and commit violence,” Red said, “But it’s too easy to verify his plan. I’ve already verified he used a messenger beacon when we were stopped at Io. It’s addressed to a journalist.” She held up her comm unit to the Captain.
“Okay, so you think Sanna is the culprit?” Captain Salinger asked.
“Nope,” Red said, “She lacked motive. I need to double-check, but I don’t think she’s a gambling kingpin with a network of debtors she has to frighten into line. Even if she did, a kingpin doesn’t start with the biggest debtors. They’re the ones they especially want to pay.”
“So, we have nothing?” Captain Salinger asked.
“No, we have something, a motive we didn’t have before,” Red said, “I had no idea we had a war criminal on board. I’m not entirely convinced it’s him, and even if it is, that’s why he was murdered. Assuming Roberto is right, though, it could be significant.”
“If Roberto is right,” Salinger said, “There’s nothing in his records.”
“True,” Red said, “But look here,” she handed over her comm unit again.
“The senate hearings?” Salinger said, looking it over, he made a gesture, and the display changed to show a holo projection, “And there is McIntosh. He didn’t even bother to disguise himself since then.”
“There are twelve and a half billion humans in this system. It could just be a coincidence that he looks alike,” Red said, “However, I have heard rumours that justice wasn’t served for the war crimes. The overwhelming feeling on Earth is the Martians got what they deserved. That includes politicians. Both sides had a lot of red, staining the Martian soil back.”
“Can you confirm either way?” Salinger asked.
“I think I already have,” Red said, “In the autopsy scans, there are signs of several old injuries, consistent with most soldiers that fought on Mars. I have subcutaneous scarring on my calf. The outer skin was repaired, but the damage went deep. It was a wire mine. He had similar scarring. I’m fairly sure he served, and given his age, he was most likely a soldier, even a Marine, in the war for Mars.”
“And that there’s nothing about it in his documents suggests it’s something that’s being hidden,” Salinger said, reaching Red’s conclusion.
“It’s not concrete, but if he were that soldier in the holo, then any Martian and a decent number of Earthers disgusted by what we did on Mars would have a motive to rub him out,” Red paused, “You do get we have to be careful now?”
“You mean because of the government?” Captain Salinger asked, stiffening in his chair a little.
“Yeah… The government will hardly want Mack’s real identity exposed. It could reignite the free Mars movement restart the war all over again, or at least cause significant political harm,” Red said.
“There go all the government contracts,” Salinger said, “They’re our bread and butter.”
“Do you still want me to continue the investigation?” Red asked, “We could just hand it over to the authorities on Farfarout, let them handle the investigation. None of the suspects is going anywhere, and we can preserve the body.”
“No,” Salinger said with a sigh, “That would be the easy way out.”
“I never wanted to do this,” Red said, “I’m happy enough to drop it. We could wave off. We’ve gone as far as is reasonable.”
“We have weeks ahead of us. I don’t want to wonder if someone else will be murdered next. I don’t want a civil war between the Earth crew and the off-world crew,” Salinger said, “Get me answers. That’s an order.”
Red turned restlessly in her bunk. She couldn’t sleep. It was most unusual that she couldn’t sleep, she slept through orbital bombardments, but the case was getting to her. She had ruled out the most obvious suspects based on what she knew. The ship’s security systems were giving her nothing. A generic maintenance login had accessed the fabricator room. It wasn’t a secure area.
There were one hundred and seven people on the ship. One of them had a cast iron alibi being the victim. Lots of others had alibis. It was a busy ship. Everyone worked in teams, and many people worked in more secure areas where Red could track their movements.
Suddenly she jumped from her bunk. She landed a bit awkwardly. Her ankle smarted, but she ignored it.
“Idiot,” she said out loud to no one; the other bunk was currently empty.
She quickly put on her standard-issue overalls and magnetic boots and limped out of the room, heading to deck two crew quarters.
She reached the door she was looking for and pressed the button. There was no response. She pushed it again.
“What is it?” a groggy woman’s voice said over the intercom.
“It’s Red Wallace,” Red responded, “I need to speak to you immediately.”
The door slid open, “What?” Sanna Hern asked.
“You said McIntosh wanted you to forgive his debt as he had forgiven someone else’s debt,” Red stated, “Who’s debt had he forgiven?”
“What?” Sanna said again, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“Who owed McIntosh money?” Red said she was cross with herself and hadn’t asked this before.
“Oh,” Sanna said, “Cook, I think. Why?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Red said, “Go back to sleep.” The navigator turned with a wince and stormed off through the corridors.
Two and a half hours later, sat in the canteen, two crewmen dragged a man into the room. He was in shorts and a vest, his hair was a mess, and he should have looked terrified at being pulled out of bed in the middle of his rest cycle. Still, despite play acting confusion and resentment, Red could read a determined and intelligent attitude by his eyes.
“What the hell is going on?” the man asked.
“You’re here to help me get to the bottom of a murder,” Red said as the two burly dock cargo movers forcibly helped the man into a chair. “You can leave us now, keep both doors covered, though,” she instructed them, and they did as commanded.
“I’ve nothing to do with Mack’s murder,” the man protested, “I already answered your questions.”
“Not truthfully,” Red said, “Your name is Peter Cook, right?”
“You know it is,” the man said indignantly.
“Well, we’ll chalk that up to the second lie tonight,” Red said.
“I’m not lying… Wait, what was the first lie?” Peter asked.
“That you’d answered my questions. Keep up. It’ll go much easier if you don’t fall behind,” Red said.
Peter shook his head in disbelief, but Red could see the fear hidden in the gesture. He had fooled her once, not again.
“Nothing to say?” Red asked, “Okay, I’ll ask another question then, why did a cold-hearted, abrasive bastard like McIntosh forgive a substantial debt he held on you?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” Peter said, “I demand to see the captain.”
“The captain is well aware and watching,” Red pointed to the camera, “So you’re not just answering me, you’re answering to him too. Why did McIntosh forgive your debt?”
“What debt?” Peter asked, but Red picked up on his eyes, shifting towards the camera as if he could judge the captain’s view of all this from the lens.
“I know about the Dreamies tournament a couple of weeks back, not long before we got to Io,” Red said, “It’s common knowledge that you lost big to McIntosh.”
“That was settled,” Peter said.
“Oh, you happened to have three thousand two hundred shekels to hand?” Red asked, “You must be pretty wealthy. I know I couldn’t get that much money together, especially not mid-journey. I know you didn’t visit a bank on Io, and you’ve no comm traffic to speak of.”
“We came to an agreement,” Peter said.
“So your claim is you owed him nothing?” Red sought clarification.
“It’s the truth,” Peter said.
“I believe you,” Red said, “Because, for some reason, McIntosh forgave your debt.”
Peter looked around warily, unsure where this was going and what he would say next.
“Was it honour amongst soldiers? Veterans?” Red asked.
“What?” Peter asked, surprised by the questions.
“You served together, right? Back in the war?” Red asked.
“I never served,” Peter replied.
“And apparently nor did McIntosh,” Red said, “Yet, there he was before the senate on charges of war crimes.”
“I can’t speak to what he did or didn’t do,” Peter replied.
“He got released after a few months, given a new identity and told to get off Earth and, as I understand it, also never return to Mars,” Red noted, “Obviously, he didn’t need that last part telling twice. He helped kill hundreds of civilians at Arcadia.”
“That’s awful?” Peter said uncertainly.
“Yeah, it is. It’s tough to take in that a war criminal was serving onboard our ship, a mass murderer. There are a lot of former servicemen from both sides of the war onboard, but war is war. Mass murder of civilians is something very different. It’s horrendous to think a mass murderer was sitting in the canteen breaking bread and joining in the fun and games, being a comrade. Does it trouble you?”
“Of course,” Peter said.
“I’m sure it does,” Red said, “Imagine your horror when a fellow war criminal ended up on the same ship as you.”
“I’ve never been to Arcadia. I’m not a….” Peter began to protest.
“Save the truth and a lie routine. I know you weren’t Arcadia. I know you had nothing to do with suffocating civilians there to try and scare the rebels out of hiding,” Red said, “No, your crimes were over Olympus. I’ve got the footage from the trial, and conveniently the evidence for that was quite public, including DNA. Plastic surgery can’t disguise your DNA.”
Peter slumped a little, then rallied, “Don’t know what you’re on about.”
“You do, but that’s fine – it’s only tangentially related to you murdering McIntosh,” Red said.
“Lies on top of lies,” Peter Cook stated, “You’re desperate to solve a murder committed under your noise, so you’re building a case on a house of sand.”
“You begged McIntosh to forgive your debt,” Red said, “And he did. Was it blackmail? I can’t say there are no recordings, but I imagine you threatened a little mutually assured destruction.”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” Peter said. He was sitting confidently now. His protestations at innocence were gone now. He was being cold and calculated. He cared less about what she believed and more about what she could prove.
Hello to the honest James Cassidy, red thought to herself.
“Here’s the thing,” Red said, “We know he forgave your debt, but then he couldn’t get any relief from the person he owed. He had gambled with the money he won from you on credit. So, his forgiveness was off when he couldn’t get relief.”
“It’s all nonsense,” Peter said.
“No,” Red said, “Once I worked out you did it, it helped me identify where the murder happened. Armed with that knowledge, finding a recording of the second conversation didn’t take long. Shall I play it for you?”
Suddenly the suspect looked alarmed.
Red pulled out her comm unit and gestured towards the sensor in the centre of the ceiling, and suddenly a muffled recording was playing.
“I can’t make out anything,” Peter said.
“Oh, I know, most inconvenient. The security camera was round a corner and a considerable distance away,” Red said, “But it’s easy enough to enhance,” she gestured with her comm unit again.
“[… ] I need […] shekels. You owe […] Don’t walk away […]” the recording ended with a clunking noise.
“So, I hear McIntosh, no one else,” Peter said, showing visible signs of relief.
“Yeah. Can only make out McIntosh, think he was facing just in the right direction for his voice to carry strongly enough,” Red said, “But that’s fine. It pointed to the location and exact time of the murder.” From a bag beside her, she pulled out a pipe held in a plastic bag.
“What’s that?” he said warily, looking towards the camera again.
“This?” Red said, holding the bag higher, “This is the murder weapon. It’s a section of coolant pipe. Fortunately, it wasn’t in use. It had been left behind when engineering teams maintained the pipes.”
“So you found the murder weapon? I don’t see how that helps anything,” Peter said.
“Oh, I know you don’t,” Red said, “You were nearly very thorough in your disinfection of the pipe.”
“Or whoever did it was,” Peter said.
“No, we know it was you,” Red said, “You’re not in engineering maintenance. You deal with the computer maintenance. No reason for you to interact with this,” she gestured with the bag holding the pipe, “Yet your DNA was right there on it.”
“What?” Peter said, “That’s a lie.”
“Because you disinfected it?” Red asked, “Yeah, about that, from the direction you were spraying with the laser decontaminator, you created a shadow. Just a small one, but both yours and McIntosh’s DNA was present, his blood, your epidermal cells.”
Now Peter deflated.
“So we have motive, opportunity and method,” Red said, “I’m recommending the captain charge you.”
“You can’t,” Peter said.
“I can, and I will,” Red said, “Your fate is in his hands. Peter, or James, this is your opportunity to say something to the Captain before he makes his decision.”
“I’ve nothing to say,” Peter said dejectedly, “You know why.”
“Yes, yes I do,” Red said, “You’re a horrible human being, but you’re a patriot. Shame you didn’t think of that before you tried to blackmail your way out of debt.”
Red got up and left the room.
“You’ve left me a right mess,” the Captain said.
“Good news is, it doesn’t have to be mentioned anywhere about the war,” Red said, “The motive was gambling debts and blackmail. That will satisfy the authorities.”
“Except I’ve got a war criminal and recent murderer locked up in a bunk,” Captain Salinger said, “And a murder victim who’s also a war criminal. A war criminal freed by Earth government under secrecy orders.”
“Roberto Martin can be reasoned with. We’ve decoded the communique. It doesn’t reveal anything that Roberto can’t walk back. It just laid some groundwork,” Red said, “Roberto will play ball. Maybe he’ll want a financial incentive, but not reigniting the war would probably be enough.”
“And would this Peter Cook, or James Cassidy or whatever his name is play ball?” Salinger asked.
“He wouldn’t knowingly sell out the government. He was a mass murderer out of patriotism. He’ll probably try and leverage his history to get himself rereleased in secret,” Red said.
“So after all this, there probably wouldn’t be justice?” Salinger asked rhetorically, and no doubt Earth’s government would still blame us for this whole mess.
“This is as far as I can go,” Red said, “What happens next is up to you. I’ll support any decision you make, help with Roberto, and help clean up the evidence for submission to the authorities at Farfarout.”
“That’s fine,” the Captain said, “I already know what needs to happen. It’s in my authority to do so. Justification, both public and privately, is on my side. It just doesn’t bring me any joy. Peter Cook will be executed in the morning. I don’t have the facilities to hold him for weeks, and I don’t….”
They were interrupted, “Sorry, Captain,” a crewman said, “There’s an urgent call for your attention.”
“What about?” Salinger asked.
“I don’t know. It’s from Henrietta,” he informed the Captain.
“She’s watching over the suspect,” the Captain said, “Come on.”
It took a few minutes to get through the ship to the most isolated bunk room, “What is it?” the Captain asked as he approached, seeing the door to the bunk was already open.
“It’s Peter Cook,” Alsa said, “He’s taken his own life.”
“I think you misread him,” the Captain said, turning to Red.
“I knew he was a patriot,” Red said, “But no, I didn’t think he’d take his own life.”
“So much for him getting free in secret,” the Captain said, “Right well, there will be two funerals tomorrow.”
Red nodded. She knew she should feel relieved but also felt like everyone involved had avoided justice, or maybe that it had been served, she couldn’t tell, and it didn’t sit well with her.
The Belet Nagar continued its long journey across the solar system, unimpeded by storms outside or inside the ship as it approached the outer edges.