The body’s condition matched the information I had been given: heavy bruising around the head and chest, decompression injuries, broken terminal. It was dressed in simple coveralls, useless for survival in vacuum. Both Peri and Hu Kielo, the groundside doctor, had examined Lyell’s body; my own specialist knowledge had been left in my mantle on Planting, so I had no real choice but to trust them and the teams back home who’d be sifting through the data and cross-checking the reports.
”I do hope that it is adequately preserved. We did our best to follow your instructions about the temperature, but none of us know how reliable the environmental controls are, given the earlier decompression.”
Asteyan had stuck a limb with an old-fashioned camera lens into the room. It moved from Lyell’s body to me.
”You must believe me, Arbiter, I had no idea that safety protocols had lapsed so much. We all believed that this wing was thoroughly airtight, but Doctors Lyell and Hutton were still under strict instructions to wear vacuum-capable suits.”
The protuberance moved in a back-and-forth sort of shrug to indicate contrition. I wasn’t sure whether Asteyan was trying to curry favour or if he genuinely thought that the expedition’s safety record was a pressing concern.
”I suspect that his attacker would have found other means to kill him if they hadn’t been able to vent the air.” Asteyan’s arm wobbled again, faster.
”But surely this was an accident, Arbiter. Obviously somebody assaulted Doctor Lyell, but the environmental controls are thoroughly tamper-proof. We’ve gone through all of the logs and found no trace of any commands, and I’m sure your own people have done so as well.”
I shook my head. ”Even if there’s no evidence of tampering, I can’t view the timing of the decompression as anything but suspicious. Weeks of uneventful research, no previous safety incidents – and all of a sudden it fails just as one of your researchers is violently assaulted? I haven’t seen your security system, but I’d wager half your team know it well enough to falsify a few airlock logs. And a panicked accident seems unlikely given how stable the team’s relationships had been.”
”Ah.” Asteyan hesitated long enough that I allowed myself a smile. ”I’m afraid that there had been some developments, Arbiter, after the most recent report had been logged.”
”Indeed, Mr Asteyan.” I smiled again and his arm became more agitated still. ”I had been curious about that, given your routine crew evaluation was five days overdue at the time of the killing.”
My guide glowed crimson and purple with contrition. ”A rift opened up between Lyell and Hutton, Arbiter, but it was all very sudden! I couldn’t quite understand it, so I thought that each having some time alone would be enough to resolve the situation.”
This lapse gave me far more ammunition than the lax safety protocols, but I decided to save it for later. I stepped back out into the corridor and put on what I hoped was a businesslike face. ”What was the nature of their disagreement?”
”It was all very irrational – I, well, Arbiter, I know that this is unprofessional of me, but I could almost say it was biological.”
Asteyan shifted from side to side and gave me a knowing look. ”Doctor Lyell had been mapped for a very long time, you know? These ship bodies have a way of channeling thoughts down unproductive paths, Arbiter. And of course Doctor Hutton shipped with us and had always been a little sentimental.” I made a note to offer Peri a more comprehensive apology when I was back on ship.
”What was the nature of their disagreement, Mr Asteyan?”
”Hutton believed that he had found a promising avenue of investigation about the complex’s origin, and was convinced that its builders had come from Planting! Lyell was naturally sceptical – this structure is hundreds of years old! – but when Hutton persisted in spite of his objections, he became quite unreasonable in his demands for Hutton to stop.” Asteyan wrung his hands. ”It all got very heated very quickly, and I’m ashamed to admit I had to make a physical intervention between the two.”
I let out my breath. ”I’m sure your next report will be especially detailed.” Forestalling any reply, I turned around and made for the train. ”I’ll see what Hutton has to say about it.”
Thought the back and forth in this worked well! I got a kick out of the tension of both characters withholding information from each other.
I’m guessing this will be elaborated on soon, but I didn’t feel like I had enough context to make much of the references to Planting (I assume it’s a planet or a station?), or why it’d be significant that the complex had been built by folks from there. Disregard if that’s intentionally vague for now.
Planting is the name of the planet that most of the characters come from, and very much a placeholder name – I’d started just putting the name in because I was sick of typing out “back on Planting” or the like, but I think I killed more and more instances of that phrase in the course of revisions and the like.
I’m glad that you’re enjoying this – I have certainly gotten more fun out of writing it than I had expected to back when I was holding out on it! I’ll do my best to return the favour and offer you some feedback on your own stuff from this month soon. ;)