Pathways


Originally published in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT, May 2000

Reprinted in the collection A GLIMPSE OF SPLENDOR

 

The average Human brain masses a little less than 1400 grams.  Its density is a gram per cubic centimeter, about the same as water.  You can look at it and choose to see just a lump of meat.  Or you can see everything that defines an individual:  the electrical impulses its ten billion neurons generate are responsible for physical functions from blood circulation to breathing to hunger, and also are the seat of knowledge, emotion, and that ill-defined quality, personality.

Dr. Tomas Kosloff's killer assaulted him inside the research laboratory in his small crowded space station out in the middle of nowhere, in Drodusarel space.  The killer employed a common stunner, which normally would do little more than scramble some neural pathways for a few seconds or minutes, rendering its victim unconscious.  When pressed hard against that window to the brain called an eye, however, even a stunner can kill, especially when its bolts course through that liter and a half of flesh again and again and again.

Dr. Kosloff's wife Irina discovered his body the next morning and immediately alerted the other two beings aboard the station.  The first threats from the Drodusarel starcraft came hours later.



Mike Christopher stood in the short embarkation corridor between the exploratory craft Asaph Hall and Dr. Kosloff's space station.  The station was the last place he wanted to go, but lives were at stake.  Why was it taking so long for the airlock to cycle?  Perhaps what he'd heard was true, that the station was pretty rundown, despite its smart-tech's best efforts. 

Mike's right hand touched the smooth cool metal of the stunner at his right hip.  He clenched his left hand into a fist and glanced at the sensor readouts on the back of that hand.  Pressed a finger behind his left ear.  The datalink that would keep him in contact with the Hall and translate Cetronen and Drodusarel speech for him, and the personal nanotech that would wrap a lifesuit around him within a fraction of a second if this shithole of a station sprung a leak, both checked out.  Just nerves.

Mike glanced at his partner, Linna Maurishka.  Her upraised eyebrows and soft sigh reflected Mike's own concern, which he voiced:  "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

Linna was far from her usual ebullient self; she didn't even answer him.  Stood there.  Ran a hand through her short dark hair.  Didn't look at him.

That hurt.  It was one thing from a colleague, but when you were also lovers...  He said, "I'm sorry I got us mixed up in this."

She waved that idea away.  "We had to come.  Anything else would've been irresponsible."

"It'll be tough on you."

The indicator signaled green.  Linna said, "Let's get this over with."  The door slid aside.

Reports of the station's cramped quarters were true -- stacks of sensor relays and control sequencers were spread all around, and row upon row of power conduits lined the floor as far down the corridor as Mike could see.  In all, the station was only about thirty meters long and four meters across.

And the smell!  Part Human sweat, part burnt toast, part...couldn't tell.  A sickly-sweet, urine-cinammon scent with something metallic mixed in.

No one was there to greet them.  They were to question three people aboard the station -- the dead man's wife Irina, his Cetronen assistant, and a Drodusarel observer.

The station shuddered.  The Asaph Hall undocking.  Mike and Linna were on their own.  Mike was about to shout a greeting when Linna raised a hand for quiet.  "Listen."

Mike made out two voices from down the corridor, behind a doorway.  One a Human female, the other....  "Sounds Cetronen.  That fits.  Read anything?"  Linna was an empath.  Mike knew she wasn't looking forward to being exposed to raw, even murderous emotions.

She shook her head.  "Too far away."  Linna had to be within about four meters to sense a being's emotional output.

A hatch in the distance hissed open, then shut.  A Cetronen paired symbiont approached them.  The larger being, the major, was over two meters tall, and only barely sentient.  The smaller minor rested in his arms, sitting on a belly hump.  Both of their bodies were covered with short brown fur.  Thin mouths.  No noses, just broad flat nostrils with nictating membranes.  A thick tail on the major, for counterbalancing the minor's mass.  The minor climbed down and spoke as Mike's datalink translated:  "I am Grodulan."

"Mike Christopher, from the exploratory craft Asaph Hall.  Linna Maurishka, my associate.  Was there a problem with another resident just now?"

"Irina Kosloff.  She's consumed with grief.  You realize the danger we're in from the Drodusarel.  If you don't solve this murder, they'll destroy this station."

Linna said, "We don't understand why the murder of a Human scientist upsets them so."

Grodulan blinked.  "We're in Drodusarel space.  This incident is...irregular.  It violates their sense of...art, of beauty."

Mike said, "We're explorers, not detectives."

"Your reputation precedes you.  You're an artificial Human, correct?"

Mike suppressed a groan.  "All it means is I'm designed rather than random in my genetic makeup."  

Grodulan said, "Whatever your origins, your accomplishments are marvelous.  Saving the sulfur beings of Aramir Six.  Making the initial contacts with both species of those doomed Splendorians.  And you were the first Human to make contact with the Drodusarel themselves."

"As they were taking potshots at me!"

"You were on a mission to locate a lost friend.  They respect that."

Mike's eyes fixed Grodulan with a level stare.  "How do they know what I was doing?  I never made direct contact."

Grodulan said, "They always know too much.  Methane breathers.  We know so little about them.  And, please, we must not forget Linna's abilities.  She may be able to identify the killer immediately." 

Linna took a deep breath.  "I hope so.  What about the Drodusarel aboard, Draehmin?"

"Part of the price for being allowed within their space. I can barely communicate with him.  For now, I'll show you the body and the murder weapon."  Grodulan stepped back into his major's arms and led the way down the crowded corridor.  Mike bumped his shin twice and an elbow once.  Grodulan explained, "This station wasn't designed with research partners in mind."

Linna asked, "Dr. Kosloff preferred to work alone?"

"He didn't want any interference."

Mike couldn't help staring as they passed the door behind which the shouting match had occurred.  "Mrs. Kosloff's quarters?" he asked Grodulan.

"She believes I'm the killer."

Mike asked blandly, "Are you?"

"I wondered when you would inquire.  I did not kill Dr. Kosloff."

Mike looked at Linna, who nodded.  So Grodulan was telling the truth.  Which meant no quick trip off this station to safety.  At least that was one suspect eliminated.

When Mike entered the lab, he thought it would've been easy to assume Kosloff had been experimenting with chaos.  More power conduits everywhere.  Nanotech probes, holo-imagers, and flatscreens scattered on tables and the floor or piled into corners of the four-meter-square room.  "What kind of research was he doing?"

Grodulan's minor stepped down from his major's arms again.  Unusual for a Cetronen.  The pair usually remained joined as much as possible.  "Intelligence transfer in Cetronen.  From minors to majors."

Put that to one side for now.  "And the body?"

Grodulan went to one crowded corner.  "Here."  Sure enough, still sprawled face-down against a pile of imagers were the remains of a Human male in his 50's.  Balding, medium build. 

Mike gently touched the back of the man's neck.  Cold, in the manner unique to dead Human flesh.  The tech in his datalink took a reading from that touch and confirmed the obvious, that Kosloff was dead, and the not so obvious, the cause: multiple stunner wounds that had obliterated his neural pathways.  The body was in fine shape, its medtech inside holding off decay.  Just no one home.  Grodulan went on:  "The station nano units cleaned up his...excretions.  Otherwise, the body is preserved as Mrs. Kosloff found it."

Linna folded her arms. "Three days ago?"

"Yes."

Mike looked around the room.  "And the murder weapon?"

"In the autoclave.  Over here." 

A flat metal container about a meter across, 15 centimeters deep.  Raise the lid, put a contaminated, unsanitary, or just plain dirty object inside, press a button, good as new.  No corrosion, no infectious organisms.  Also no fingerprints, stray hairs, or DNA.  Mike asked, "And the station has no security holos or sensor logs?"

Grodulan said, "It was originally designed just for Dr. Kosloff and his wife.  He never saw the need.  And of course, we all spent many hours in the lab.  I did a scan moments after the body was discovered.  I detected evidence of my own presence, of Irina Kosloff's, and of Draehmin's.  No sign anyone else had been here.  And no one else has been aboard."

Mike shook his head.  "I don't get it.  Why place this station so far away from everyone and everything?"

Grodulan returned to his major's arms.  "This research is offensive to many Cetronen, because of the relationship between minors and majors."  He looked into his own major's bland unblinking eyes.  "What if a major were given some of the intelligence his minor enjoys?  This would have huge societal implications."

"Because your evolution designed majors for strength and endurance, not intelligence," Linna said.  "If they possessed both strength and intellect -- "

Grodulan said, "Some of us fear change.  We received threats when we began the research on the Cetronen homeworld.  Since we moved our work here, no one's disturbed us."

The major's nostrils moved rhythmically, open-shut, open-shut.  Mike asked, "How far along had your research gotten?"

"It was all theoretical.  No live testing yet."

Mike glanced at Linna, who said, "He's telling the truth."

Mike said, "I'd like to talk to Mrs. Kosloff next.  Alone, if you don't mind.  And...do you have a place you can store the body?"

"My major will put him into a stasis chamber near our life-support module."

Mike lifted the stunner from the autoclave, made sure the safety was on, then stuck it in his belt.  "We'll talk to Irina Kosloff now."

Grodulan said, "I'll be in my own quarters, just past the lab here."

"Thank you."  To Linna:  "Let's go."



Irina Kosloff wouldn't open her door to them at first.  The edge in the woman's voice was apparent even in the muffled tone from behind the door to her quarters.  "Is that Cetronen bastard gone?"

Mike said, "Grodulan isn't here."

The door slid open.  Irina Kosloff looked...hollowed out.  She was probably barely fifty, yet her eyelids sagged over eyes that seemed a tired blue, eyes whose inner light had faded.  She was thin enough almost to qualify as wiry, and the skin over her cheekbones and beneath her bare arms looked as if it had been stretched to its limit, then left to hang loosely.  "Well, come in," she said in a voice that sounded muffled even with the door open.  "I suppose you should sit down.  But I haven't anything to offer you."

"That's all right," Mike said.  "We don't need anything."  The room was small, sparsely furnished.  The desk in one corner was bare, the bed in another corner neatly made, everything folded and tucked precisely.  Had Irina been compulsively cleaning and straightening, or had she been too listless to create a mess in the first place?

Mike and Linna sat.  Irina said, "He did it, you know."

Linna leaned forward.  "You mean Grodulan."

"He was jealous of my husband's success.  The success he was about to have, that is."

Mike said, "The intelligence transfer tech."

"That...Grodulan...knew my husband was on the verge of a breakthrough.  He couldn't stand that a Human might get all the credit."

"What proof do you have of that?"

"Just makes sense.  And Grodulan's different.  Loves Human music.  Doesn't fit in with his own kind.  Doesn't even touch his major as much as other Cetronen." 

"I have noticed that."  Mike had to admit it made him vaguely uneasy; Cetronen minors seldom liked to venture far from the safety and warmth of their majors.  A Cetronen pair shared neural links that amounted to telepathy.  What one knew, so did the other.  They took turns sleeping, a throwback to more dangerous times in their prehistory.  Cetronen consistently denied that pairs experienced an emotional connection, although when one of a pair died, the other usually expired within days. 

But how were Irina's prejudices against Cetronen any different from the way so many on Earth regarded him, in his status as an artificial Human? 

Linna said, "I can't detect any deception from him."

"Maybe he can fool you."

Linna looked intently at Irina.  "What are you hiding?"

"Hummf.  Damn empath.  I was about to leave my husband.  He was obsessed with his research.  Never paid attention to me.  And I didn't like that he invited that...Drody on board.  Thought it would be a bonus to learn more about them.  Some bonus."

Mike's voice could have chilled a supergiant star.  He'd suffered too many ignorant fools who condemned others for their origins.  "You mean the Drodusarel?"

"No reason I should like him.  None at all.  Can't even help around the lab."

"Because he doesn't have the musculature to handle Human equipment."

"That's right.  And his force field doesn't have physical assist protocols.  So he loafs and spends his days second-guessing my husband's research.  Satisfied?"

Mike asked, "But now you're concerned about your husband getting credit for that research?"

Irina folded her hands in her lap and looked down at them.  "I wasn't in love with the work.  I was in love with the man.  Now his poor body's lying there...as evidence.  The Cetronen and the Earth Unity begged him to stop.  But he wouldn't.  That's why I want him to get the proper credit, despite how much his obsession frustrated me.  It's the last thing I can do for him, see that his work...his brave work...is recognized."

"We're looking into this, Mrs. Kosloff -- "

"Please.  Irina."

"Irina, then.  We're just trying to find out as much as we can, as quickly as we can."

Some of the lost light seemed to return to Irina's eyes.  "Just look at that Cetronen.  That's all you need to do."

"We'll do our best," Mike said.  "Now, if you'll excuse us..."



Irina Kosloff's door hissed shut behind Mike and Linna.  "Let's start toward Draehmin's quarters," Mike said.  "Watch out for that pipe sticking out there.  So, what's your impression?"

"Well, she's obviously angry...you can tell that without empathy."

"A murderous anger?"

"Can't tell.  I'm sorry, my abilities aren't that refined."

"How're you doing?"  Mike asked.

Linna pressed her hands to her temples.  "I was fine until you said something about it."

"Sorry."  Mike wanted desperately to return to their ship, to the life they were building together.  He wanted to be an explorer again.



Mike and Linna stood before the Drodusarel's quarters.  The door hissed open before Mike could buzz.  An unusual scent wafted from the room.  Ozone mixed with cat fur, maybe.  A new voice boomed through Mike's datalink.  "Greet the Human ones.  Do you believe the day controls us, or the world?"

Mike blinked at the being before him.  Draehmin was enveloped within a personal energy field.  His grey-blue energies outlined a figure closer to a meter-wide jellyfish than anything humanoid and, presumably, protected him from the deadly conditions of an oxygen-rich environment.  Mike looked down at the shimmering form that barely came up to his knees and finally found words:  "I beg your pardon?"

"Is it the day, or the world?"

Linna said, "We're not even on a world."

"It is, perhaps the Human speaking way.  The idiom."

Mike rubbed behind his left ear, where a dull pain was beginning. "A figure of speech?"

"The concept!  You understand?  So, the answer -- the day, or the world?"

"I'm sorry, uh...we're here on behalf of your government.  We're looking into Dr. Kosloff's murder."

"Unfortunate.  And he did not have the answer, either."

Linna asked, "May we come in?"

"Certainly you may.  But will you?"

Mike clenched his jaw and looked at Linna.  "Do you read anything from him?"

She shook her head, never taking her eyes from the Drodusarel, who continued his strange dissertation while gliding into his quarters.  Looking around, she said, "I guess we'll just stand."  Draehmin's quarters consisted of walls, floor, and ceiling.  No chairs, no equipment, no bathroom or disposal. 

Mike said, "I like it.  It's...uncluttered."

Draehmin said, "Only need myself.  And the day...."

Mike nodded and said, along with Draehmin, "...and the world.  Can you understand the importance of our visit?"

"Importance, yes.  Necessity, no."

Mike rubbed his chin.  "Was Dr. Kosloff killed because he didn't have the answer to your question?"

Draehmin appeared to be spinning slowly in the middle of the room, though perhaps it was just fluctuations in his energy field.  "It is the question which defines the center of our species' consciousness.  It defines the boundaries of the shores of being.  That all of us are connected is beyond questioning.  It is the manner in which we are connected that is still uncertain. But the killing, it is abhorrent to us as individuals."

"With all respect, I've been on the receiving end of the famous Drodusarel energy pulses.  And one of your ships is threatening this station."

"As individuals, whether in the day or the world.  As a species, we are capable of many alternatives."

Mike couldn't take any more.  "We'll come back later.  We'll have more questions."  He wondered if Draehmin would have more answers.  He hurried down the corridor.  Linna caught up to him and touched his elbow.  "What is it?"

"He bugs the hell out of me.  What could you get?"

"No guilt, no remorse.  In fact, not much of anything.  Maybe he's just too different."

"That may make him our prime suspect.  The perfect killer, undetectable even after the fact by an empath."

"And his motive?"

"Who the hell knows?  Did you even get half of what he was talking about?"

"It could be a clever act."

"Why bother, when you can't read his emotions?  They may not know your capabilities.  Maybe he was trying to confuse us."

Linna shook her head. "Trying or not, he succeeded."

"Let's get back to Grodulan."

Halfway down the long corridor that led past the lab and on to Grodulan's room, the entire station shuddered and Mike scrambled to regain his footing.  Linna stumbled, and he tried to cover her body and protect his own head as the station's structure rang like a bell and equipment containers started to fall over, then floated free as the grav failed. 

Zero-G didn't usually bother Mike, but this time it took him by surprise and his stomach flip-flopped.  He clapped a hand over his mouth and fought to keep his lunch down.  A rush of wind, and Mike's ears popped painfully.  Hull breach?  Then, distantly, came a dull slam of metal against metal and the air grew still.

One of the many stacks of sensor relays had come unmoored and it accordioned toward Mike just as an energy conduit whipped toward Linna's head.  Mike was just close enough to the deck to push off, dodge the relays, and take the brunt of the conduit's force against his left shoulder.  Linna grasped his right arm.  "We've got to get back down toward the floor," she said.

"I know," Mike said.  "In case the grav -- "

Came back on.  It did.  Containers and conduits, relays and general debris obeyed the universal call of down, with a clatter that echoed down the long station corridor.  Mike and Linna shielded themselves as best they could.  Lights flickered once, twice, then steadied.

Through Mike's datalink:  "Asaph Hall to Mike and Linna."  It was the Hall's captain, Rosa Sandage.

Mike picked himself up and held a hand out for Linna.  "Rosa, don't worry, we're both fine.  Just shaken up.  Dr. Kosloff wasn't much on tie-down protocol."

"That Drodusarel ship sliced off one end of your station, the part with most of the life-support.  We intercepted a message -- they don't think they made themselves clear.  They want results, and they want them now.  A specific result.  They want Draehmin cleared."

Mike said, "Well, isn't that interesting."

Linna asked, "Did they set a deadline?"

"Of sorts.  Our scan shows that within eighteen hours, your life support's going to fail utterly.  If it were up to me, I'd get the both of you off there and to hell with everyone on that station.  But the Drodusarel have warned us off.  We don't have the firepower to argue."

Mike said, "Then get the hell out of here, Rosa.  Don't risk yourself and everyone else for us."

"We'll only be about an hour away," Rosa said.  "Good luck."

"And to you," Mike said.  He turned to Linna.  "Let's make sure no one's hurt.  I'll go back to Grodulan.  You check Irina and Draehmin."



Mike was at Grodulan's door within seconds.  It was stuck halfway open and Mike squeezed through, the murder weapon still stuck in his belt scraping against the doorway.  "Are you all right?" he asked the Cetronen pair, who were again separated, as the smaller minor ran around the room scooping up dozens of sheets of paper scattered across the floor.  The major sat impassively in a large Cetronen-designed chair in one corner.  Mike's quick impression of the room was that it was designed for aesthetics rather than practicality.  No instruments here, the only furniture another of the wide chairs and a thin-legged, glass-topped desk.  Flat images of Cetronen landscapes full of red-and-orange vegetation, and holos of distant starfields decorated the walls.

Grodulan mumbled something too low for Mike's datalink to translate.  Mike decided he might as well help pick up the papers -- which were Human sheet music!  Diane Lopez, a personal favorite of Mike's from the previous century, her "Lost Galaxy" quartet.  "Irina said...that is, I heard you enjoy listening to Human music."

Grodulan's minor snatched the paper from Mike's hand.  "Not listening.  Much too harsh to Cetronen ears.  Viewing is different."  He tapped the stack of pages.  "Here the music is a beautiful pattern.  It has not been interpreted or made into distracting noises.  It is direct from the composer's mind onto the page.  A visual splendor I find restful.  Though I've been unable to sleep for the better part of two of your Human days."  He plopped the papers down on the desk.  "Even this hasn't helped."

Linna arrived.  "Irina's shook up but not hurt.  She's not about to leave her room until this is over.  And Draehmin, well, you can imagine."

Grodulan said, "It still wants to know your choice?"

Linna gave him a grudging grin.  "The day or the world."

"More than once I've considered answering, 'neither,' but not revealing an alternative choice.  But that would be impolite."

Mike said, "Not to mention possibly dangerous.  Beings who can slice off a section of a space station with surgical precision...you want to stay on their good side.  Did you receive the details of the Drodusarel threat?"

Grodulan placed his papers on the desk.  "It was coming over the station comm just as their ship fired."  Grodulan pressed a button on the desk and a holo of the Drodusarel ship appeared.  Silvery, baroque, perfect.

Grodulan asked, "Have you come to any conclusions?"

"I have no more of an answer for you than you do for Draehmin.  What more can you tell me about him?"

"You wonder why his own people have threatened a station he is on.  Dr. Kosloff and I suspected he was a spy.  But we had nothing to hide.  We've made our research available to anyone who cares to look at it."

Linna shifted her weight from one leg to the other.  "What's your purpose?  What advantage do you see?"

"We double the brain power available to us.  We advance as a species."

Mike asked, "Might the Drodusarel resent that?"

Grodulan's hand reached out and ran furred fingers across the stacked papers there, as if drawing comfort from them.  "It's difficult to tell.  Individual Drodusarel may interpret events one way, but they have a collective consciousness that views things differently."

"Does Draehmin have access to a shuttle?  Any other way off the station?"

"No.  The very ship that threatens us now, brought him.  But I don't doubt that if the Drodusarel wanted to destroy this station, Draehmin would be sacrificed."

Linna gave Mike a sideways grin.  "No doubt pondering 'the day or the world' to his death."

Mike folded his arms.  "Could it be they want the two of us to solve this murder as independent parties?"

"To give them credibility if Draehmin really is innocent?  That's perfect," Linna said.  "And if it turns out he's guilty, they can still destroy the station as a coverup." 

"Could be.  We know so little about the Drodusarel.  I can't imagine what Draehmin's motive would've been."  Mike turned to Grodulan. "Do you mind returning to the lab with us?  Maybe if we go over it again...."  But he even as his words trailed away, he watched Grodulan rousing his major, who'd begun to slumber.  He'd made the suggestion only out of desperation and a desire to keep busy.  No use thinking of that final Drodusarel pulse that could come at any moment.

"I'll be there shortly," Grodulan said.  My major is still waking up."

Mike and Linna went to the lab.  Mike clenched his left fist and swept his arm around in front of him, watching the sensor readouts on the back of his hand.  No surprises.  Dr. Kosloff's body gone, really gone, in fact, since Grodulan had stored it in the part of the station the Drodusarel had just sliced off.  The same jumble of tech they'd seen when they first came aboard.

Mike lowered his hand.  "This is useless." 

Linna drew in a sharp breath.  "Someone's coming down the hallway.  Severely agitated."  That's when Irina Kosloff rushed past the doorway, brandishing a metal rod. 

"Shit," Mike muttered, and he rushed into the corridor right behind Linna, just in time to see Irina trying to bash both beings of the Grodulan pair with the rod.  The major was fending off the worst of the blows with one muscular arm while holding his minor with the other.  The minor, for his part, was trying to burrow into the major's chest.  Cetronen minors weren't known for their courage or resourcefulness in a crisis.

Linna tackled Irina as Mike grabbed the rod, and it was over in a moment.  Mike tossed the rod aside.  Just an addition to the rubble.  Linna pulled Irina to her feet and Mike aimed his stunner at her.  "You can let her go, Linna." 

Irina stood there, all tousled hair and desperation.  "You listen to me," Mike told her.  "Linna nods, and I stun you and we drag you back to your room.  She'll nod if you lie to me.  Understood?"

All the fight was out of Irina now; she stood silently. 

"This doesn't look good for you.  Why did you attack Grodulan?"

In a voice barely audible:  "You know why."

"Tell me again."

"He killed my husband."

"And you had nothing to do with his death?"

"Oh, God, no!  How could I?"

"Linna?"

"She's telling the truth," Linna said.

Irina squeezed her eyes shut, and tears ran down her cheeks.  "I'm sorry.  But he did it and you're not taking him into custody, you asked if I did it, you're still asking that, and I couldn't let him get away with it.  If you're not going to hand him over, I was going to take care of him."

Mike lowered his stunner.  "Linna, take her to her quarters, please.  Try to find a way to lock her in."

Linna took Irina by the arm.  As Linna passed close to Mike, he told her, "Then try to go away by yourself for a few moments."  He knew Linna couldn't handle being in the presence of such strong emotions much longer.

"Thanks," Linna said, but her tone was odd -- was she actually surprised he was giving her a brief respite?  She proceeded down the corridor, Irina in hand. 

Mike hated this, every moment of it.  This mystery had taken him from his ship, his family really, and was coming between him and Linna. 

And he was actually conducting two investigations.  Who killed Dr. Kosloff?  And who had so seriously pissed off the Drodusarel? 

Maybe if you figured out one, you'd have a clue as to the other.

Grodulan, cradled still in his major's arms, came up to him.  "I am in your debt," the Cetronen said.  "I was as fearful that my major might have been forced to kill her as I was for my own safety."

Mike nodded.  He'd wondered why the major had remained on the defensive.  Apparently the Grodulan minor had kept more of his wits about him than Mike had thought.  And it was the minor, of course, who was really in charge. 

That thought made it all fall together for him.  "I'd appreciate it, Grodulan," Mike said, "if you'd also stay in your quarters for now."

"What do you intend to do?"

"Go back to Draehmin." 



This time the invitation to enter the Drodusarel's room was just as enthusiastic ("Greet the Human once again!), the inquiries ("the day or the world?") just as insistent, but Mike was having none of it.  He waited for the door to Draehmin's quarters to slide closed behind him.  "I know who had the answer to your question."

Mike didn't really expect Draehmin to confirm it, but he did.  Just like that. 

Linna was outside Draehmin's room when Mike came out.  "You've got something?" she asked.

"Maybe.  Can you handle a little more exposure to some extreme emotions?"

"If it'll end this, I'll take whatever comes."

"I'm sorry if I...."

"Don't, Mike.  I'm the one who should apologize.  I know we're doing what's right."  She grasped his shoulder and ran her hand down his upper arm.  "I hope your plan doesn't involve Irina.  She's so distraught over assaulting Grodulan, I can't imagine her killing anyone."

"Doesn't involve her.  We're taking Grodulan into custody."

"The Cetronen?  How'd he fool me?  I couldn't detect any deception from him."

"Not that part.  The big guy.  The major."


They found Grodulan in the lab.  Mike entered with his stunner drawn but held behind his back.  Linna did the same.  How aware was the Cetronen of Human body language? 

The minor stood next to a comm screen.  His thin mouth gaped open slightly and the membranes flicked rapidly over his nostrils.  Mike could have sworn his brown fur was close to standing on end.  The major stood as if at attention just behind him, playing the usual role.  Impassive.  Unnoticed.

The Grodulan minor said, "The Drodusarel.  They're insane.  We only have minutes left."

Mike raised his stunner and pointed it at the major.  Linna moved up to stand next to the minor.  "All the more important I get this over with," Mike said.  "I'm taking your major into custody."

Grodulan's minor started toward his larger counterpart but Linna grabbed his arm and jerked him away, hard.  She found a chair, sat him down and kept her stunner on him.  His deep-set eyes went wide, but he kept quiet. 

The major moved more quickly than Mike could have imagined -- he barely had time to level his weapon before the major struck him across the shoulders and knocked him to the floor.

In that same moment, the Drodusarel starcraft struck again.

Mike's vision was blurry and his right shoulder hurt like hell, more from hitting the floor than from the major's blow.  He tried to get up, but the floor bucked beneath his feet and sent him flying again, and this time he didn't fall back down.  The grav was out again. 

The lab's equipment was secured more thoroughly than the mess in the corridor, but not much.  Mike glimpsed Linna as she grabbed the Grodulan minor from behind and held him tightly against her chest -- he wasn't strong enough to resist.

So Mike only had to worry about the major.  And the Drodusarel on that ship trying to kill them. 

Where was the major?  Mike pushed off against a console.  He had to get to a wall, so he could position himself if he saw a chance to leap at him. 

He dodged sensorpacs, comp units, and other debris as he worked his way across the room.  Anything with any mass, he pushed against.  Slow going.  He made a fist with his left hand.  Sweep around the room -- Cetronen lifesign there.  It was behind a large console in a corner opposite the lab's only doorway.  Mike pressed the datalink connection behind his left ear.  "Mike Christopher, Human, of the starcraft Asaph Hall to the Drodusarel ship.  Stop firing!  I've got your suspect, and it's not Draehmin.  I'm taking Grodulan's major into custody." 

Finally, the wall.  Flatten against it, slide a couple of meters along it.  Don't bounce back into the room.  Catch Linna's eye.  She's still holding onto the minor.  Keep an eye on that console.  No movement.

Another blast -- lights flicker, then hold.  Distantly, Mike hears the low rumble of blast doors. 

Hull breach!  All the room's air rushes toward the doorway, equipment clatters across the room, and Mike's instinct, as his lifesuit snaps into place, is to find a handhold.  Then, remembering he has to cover that doorway, he springs from the wall.

Sure enough, the major launches himself from behind the console right at the doorway.  Mike musters all his zero-G training to twist and flip his body around so he lands feet-first on the wall to one side of that exit.  A quick aim with the stunner -- he fires!

Direct hit on the major's body, but Mike still sees consciousness there as the major slams into him, and his stunner goes flying as his right arm's pinned beneath the behemoth. 

Giant furred hands close around Mike's body, and the major's thick tail whips around to smash against his helmet.  The lifesuit doesn't protect against a slow squeezing, and the major will crush his chest within seconds, if he doesn't lose consciousness first from the pounding his head is taking.

And the major speaks, only the second time Mike's heard such a thing, his deep voice a rumbling growl, Mike's datalink providing the translation:  "I...will kill...you too."

Stunner fire from behind the major -- Linna.  Still no effect, the major must be working on some kind of hysterical strength.  Mike's had his ribs crushed before, and he knows it's happening again.  His left arm is still free, and through the pain Mike fumbles for the stunner still stuck in his belt.  The murder weapon.  He raises it to the major's right eye, deeply-recessed beneath a jutting brow.

Fires.  And again.  The major's limp body presses against him until the winds die down.  Then they both sag to the floor as the grav returns.  Even then, Mike only understands he'll really live when his lifesuit snaps off.  Winds still rush around him as the station's emergency life-support replaces its air.



Events moved quickly after that.  Mike didn't even have time to explain how he'd reasoned out the solution to their mystery by the time he and Linna stood by the station's main airlock.  They were waiting for the Drodusarel ship to dock.  They'd insisted upon taking Draehmin away before the Asaph Hall arrived, and Mike was in no mood -- and no position -- to argue.  The sooner they left the station, the better.

Draehmin's shimmering form glided toward them.  No sign of any belongings, but how would you tell?

Draehmin halted before Mike and Linna.  "I wish we could have met under better circumstances.  We could have had so much to speak of, especially now."

Mike smiled at Linna's puzzled glance.  He said, "You were partially right when you wondered if Draehmin's constant talk of 'the day or the world' was a clever act.  I knew someone had angered the Drodusarel pretty well.  I assumed at first it had to be Dr. Kosloff."

Linna said, "But why kill him when they let him locate here to begin with?"

"My thought exactly.  Especially since they had one of their own on the station to spy on him."

A ripple ran through Draehmin's energy field.  "Please.  To observe him."

Mike shrugged.  "I realized sometimes those closest to you can make you the angriest.  They knew Draehmin, knew he wasn't capable of killing Dr. Kosloff, and wanted to know why he wasn't clearing his name."

Linna placed a finger on her chin and nodded.  "So when the Drodusarel were pounding this station...."

"The warning wasn't for us.  It was for Draehmin."

As he looked down at the Drodusarel, did he seem smaller?  Did his energy field shine a little less brightly?  Draehmin said, "I return to my people to face my shame.  I was horrified when the Cetronen major killed Dr. Kosloff.  Such news could have caused an unfortunate rift in relations between the Cetronen and my own species."

"And," Mike prompted, "you wanted to continue your relationship with the major."

"We hid that from the minor, spoke only when he was asleep."

Linna said, "That's why I didn't detect any deception from the minor.  He wasn't lying when he said he and Dr. Kosloff hadn't done live testing, because he didn't know about it." 

"Correct, " Draehmin said.  "Dr. Kosloff worked on the major in private, telling only me of his plans, because he knew it was dangerous to keep a secret from the Drodusarel.  I, in turn, spoke to the major, engaging his intellect.  He was quite insightful.  In fact, he gave me my answer."

Linna gave a startled gasp.  "For that 'day or the world' dilemma!  So which was it?"

Another, broader ripple through Draehmin's energy field, and -- did his form puff up a little?  He said, "I would not speak of it to an outworlder.  But with my own people...it should help bring them to forgiveness when I reveal the answer.  It will show them the value of the research.  When Mike told me he knew who had given me that answer, I realized I could conceal that fact no longer."

The Drodusarel ship docked with a dull thud that made Mike's teeth ache.  Draehmin cycled through, undocking was swift, and Mike managed to punch up a reading on a worn and battered sensor console that showed him the ship had moved to a position about fifty kilometers out.  The Drodusarel wanted to destroy the station.  Mike was pretty sure they'd wait until everyone left.  Pretty sure.

Mike and Linna went to Grodulan's quarters, where both major and minor were confined.  The Asaph Hall was to take them to a Cetronen colony several days away, from which they would return to their homeworld. 

Mike pulled his stunner, Linna followed his lead, and Mike buzzed the door open.  Grodulan stood there, the major cradling the minor in his arms.  Mike's fingers tightened on his stunner's grip as he thought of those broad hands nearly squeezing the life out of him.

Keep this simple, Mike thought.  After all, the minor was blameless.  "Let's go," Mike said.

Even as he and Linna walked Grodulan ahead of them toward the lock, Mike felt the deck rumble from another hard dock.  So Rosa wasn't wasting any time.  Good.

As the lock cycled again, the Grodulan minor said, "I can only apologize to you both for my major."

Mike kept his stunner trained on them.  Who knew how the major might be influencing his minor's will?  "You have nothing to apologize for."

"I did not detect my major's increased intelligence.  I still cannot feel it.  I have, however, spoken to him.  A strange sensation.  He feared being ostracized.  He knew what it was like being different.  Just as you do, Mike.  Perhaps that is how you guessed the killer's identity..."

Mike nodded in acknowledgment.  "What will happen when you get home?"

"This research path is over.  Doctors will try to reverse Dr. Kosloff's procedure in my major.  He wishes that.  It was not a coincidence that he killed Dr. Kosloff by disrupting his brain functions.  If the reversal is not successful...the major will have to be euthanized."

Linna's eyes widened.  "But that means..."

"Yes.  I will die, too.  The lock has cycled."

Mike opened the hatch and nodded to the two Asaph Hall crewmembers who would escort Grodulan to his quarters, where he would be restricted while aboard.  Linna followed them.  She didn't want to be subjected to the further emotional turmoil Mike's last chore would entail.

Mike went to Irina Kosloff's room.  She'd insisted upon waiting until both Draehmin and Grodulan were gone before she would leave.  Her door opened at his buzz.  The woman stood there with a single shoulder bag.  She seemed to be making a point of standing tall and trying to radiate dignity, but Mike wondered how many conflicting emotions Linna would have detected within her.  "I'm ready," she said.  They started down the corridor.  "How soon can you get me to a ship that can take me to Earth?"

"We're rendezvousing with the exploratory craft Belyanka in a week.  They'll get you home within a month."

Irina fell silent as they came aboard the Asaph Hall.  It was a relief for Mike to get away from the station's stale air and confined spaces.  He showed Irina her room.  "The, uh, other former station residents are on a different level."

"Thank you, Mike," Irina said.  "I'm sorry I was so emotional.  I know I could've been more helpful.  But I was right, you know.  About Grodulan."

"Not in the way you thought."

"Maybe it's best.  Maybe now I can focus on better memories."

Mike didn't know how to respond, other than, "I'll leave you with them."

After that, Mike went to Linna's door.  Knocked.  She wore a musty-smelling sweatsuit that sported ancient food stains.  She ran her fingers through her hair and looked at Mike with a patient affection.  He didn't try to step over the threshold.  "Could I come in awhile?"

She clasped a hand in one of his.  "Maybe in a day."

He understood.  Shipmates, lovers, they still maintained separate cabins because it was difficult for Linna to expose herself to another's emotions for more than a few hours at a time.  He squeezed her hand.  "Tomorrow night, maybe.  Supper in my room?  Wine?"

Linna smiled and nodded.  "I'm glad we went to the station."  She closed her door gently.

Mike went to his own small cabin and stared out a narrow bay window at the stars.  The station was a pinpoint among them.  Mike held his breath at the sight of a silvery streak of light that flashed past the station -- the Drodusarel ship.  It fired several energy pulses -- the station broke apart at its midsection, then its halves flared and...dissolved.

The Drodusarel ship, in all its baroque perfection, whipped around again.  Its powerful gravitic drives arrowed it right through the debris field, then the ship jumped into stardrive and was gone.

The Asaph Hall didn't linger, either; within moments the stars blurred, appeared to speed away from the window, then merged into the swirling colors of the stardrive environment.

Mike opaqued the window against that sight.  He made the usual, expected appearance in the ship's commons to receive his crewmembers' congratulations for a job well done.  They understood Linna's absence, and would summon her for similar treatment in a day or so.

For the next couple of hours, his captain praised him, and his colleagues slapped him on the back and kissed his cheeks, and handed him food and drinks aplenty. 

But Mike considered his friends' sentiments, however well-intentioned, to be mere adulation.  He took little joy in this mission's end, not when he thought of the doomed Grodulan pair, the damaged Irina Kosloff or her dead husband, or even the merely disgraced Draehmin. 

Then the celebration wound down, and Mike returned to his cabin to pass the hours until Linna recovered sufficiently to allow him into the pathways of her life, her heart, again.