3470 words, short story
The Scene of the Crime
Ioris had learned one rule early in his pupal stage: never call the cops. The Akate take care of their own. However bad the trouble is, bringing in the greengloves will only make things worse.
Apparently that rule didn’t apply here on the frontier. Ioris had brought a problem to Dr. Miew’s attention, and instead of dealing honorably, she had called the cops on him. And now here she was: one extra-large Cachuhay cop named Ravy Uvana.
Ioris stared down the cop from the interior airlock of the one-room Consortium government ship, but after Ravy Uvana blinked at him several times, he realized she didn’t even know a stare down was happening. “So,” said Ioris at last, “you’re the union-buster.”
“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” said the cop.
“But it might,” said Ioris.
“You’re not public employees,” said the cop. “Your collective bargaining agreement is with the university. Please, sit down.”
Ioris thought back to his days of undergraduate demonstrations. “Am I being detained?” he said.
Ravy Uvana squinted at Ioris, stretched her basal hand around her head, and scratched around. “You are under the mistaken impression that I am a police officer,” she said.
“Well?” said Ioris.
“I’m a judicant. I am the Consortium legal system. It is a system. There are procedures. We do not smash peoples’ heads in like the Akate greengloves.”
“Am I being detained?” Ioris repeated.
“Yes!” said Ravy Uvana. “If that’s what it takes to get you to sit down and have a normal conversation.”
Ioris straddled a carpeted hump that jutted from the deck. There had been a single spacecraft on GX 210601f, keyed to Dr. Miew. Now there were two: the nice one and this tiny cop car. Even getting arrested and hauled off the planet would get Ioris and the other grad students away from this death trap.
“Dried fruit?” said Ravy Uvana, attempting to claim the “good cop” position. One or another of her hands held a plastic bag out to him.
“Okay,” said Ioris. He took the fruit.
“Tell me about Academician Miew.”
“You just talked to her,” said Ioris. He’d seen her ducking into the work tent the graduate students had abandoned at the start of the strike.
“Now I’m talking to you, about her. How did you meet?”
“Dr. Miew got me into archaeology,” said Ioris. The stones in his gizzard worked the first mouthful of stringy fruit. “I was a physics undergrad. That changed, the day I saw her give a presentation on the Collapsar Orbiter People. I think me and her were the only Akate in the auditorium.”
“When was this?”
“My freshman year. Eight standard,” said Ioris. “She wasn’t full female yet. I remember she had the forewings but not the eye caps.”
“And you were a freshman,” said Ravy Uvana. “Nearly full male. Was there . . . ”
“Absolutely not. I don’t think Dr. Miew knows what sex is. The Collapsar Orbiter People aren’t having sex anymore; why should she?”
“Forgive my suspicious mind,” said Ravy Uvana. “Mentorship always looks like grooming to me. How has she been, as a mentor?”
“Dr. Miew is . . . ” Ioris sighed. “She’s a giant of archaeology. She knows exactly where to dig. But this expedition, I don’t know.”
“Akate sometimes have a midlife crisis when they reach the imago stage,” said Ravy Uvana.
“Her behavior hasn’t changed. She was always like this. But now she’s incorrect! She said the imagery made this planet look like a Terieak-B site.”
Ravy Uvana leaned forward. “There’s no way the Terieak could have come this far up the spiral.” At least she knew something about something.
“Yeah, it’s a bad hypothesis. But we got the grant, because the Scientitiate sees Dr. Miew’s name on the application and reads no further. Plus, she’s cheap. Excavating a normal dead civilization would take a dozen scholars their entire careers. A Terieak-B site is one big structure, so you just need a few grad students for one season.”
“But you don’t think this is a Terieak-B site.”
“No, it’s not!” Ioris laughed. “The Terieak always merged with native life. Nothing has ever lived on this planet except those gray vines that grow all over.”
“Then how do you explain the single large structure?”
“I can’t explain it,” said Ioris, “but I know what it is. That structure out there is a Consortium science base. Yeah, figure that one out.”
Ravy Uvana didn’t bother. “How sure are you?” she said.
“Half my expeditions I end up working in a science base that isn’t overrun with vines. I could walk you through the floor plan with a perfumed bag over my head.”
Ravy Uvana made as if to stand up. “Would you mind using the full array of your senses to walk me through the floor plan?”
“I would mind,” said Ioris. “The ruin is across the picket line.”
Oddly enough, Ravy Uvana respected this. “How about showing me a map?” she said. “My work also takes me to a lot of Consortium frontier bases.”
“All right,” said Ioris. He cast a 3D reconstruction across the floor: the data as it was when the grad students had voted to strike. The concrete walls were thick, designed to repel weather and predators that didn’t exist on GX 210601f.
“I see what you mean,” said Ravy Uvana. “It looks like an embassy.”
“We’ve found radiation byproducts consistent with a modern reactor operating for a short period, thirty-two standard years ago. We also found some fairly disturbing records. Records with our names in them. Records we’ve agreed not to look at too closely until we get off-planet.
“But Dr. Miew has refused to acknowledge the obvious. She doesn’t want to ‘jump to conclusions.’ In fact, she’s started talking about extending the grant. Getting more people in here. And the three of us who are already here started thinking what this planet would look like if a lot more people showed up.”
“It would look like this,” said Ravy Uvana.
“Exactly!” said Ioris. “Dr. Miew wants to set up a Consortium science base to dig up the Consortium science base! We are excavating our own tomb!”
“A time loop,” said the cop. “Is that possible?”
“Speaking as a former physics undergrad, probably. As an archaeologist, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be around when it happens. So the Graduate Student Union of GX 210601f is on strike. The project is inherently unsafe. We won’t work; you might as well haul us off.”
“All right,” said Ravy Uvana, “you’re free to go.”
“You’re . . . ” Ravy Uvana waved vaguely. “No longer ‘being detained.’”
“You don’t understand. We have to get off-planet!”
“You’re not leaving on this ship,” said Ravy Uvana. “There’s hardly enough space for me.”
“But if you’re not . . . why are you here?”
Ravy Uvana had been ostentatiously looking away from Ioris, giving him a chance to slink away, but he hadn’t un-squatted after “free to go,” and now she turned her full glare on him. “You may be interested to know that Academician Miew has been lying to you.”
“About what?” What was there to lie about? The base was there; the data was the data.
“The grant application, to start with. The Scientitiate did read past her name, and they did not approve the grant. They approved a different grant of hers, for a Collapsar Orbiter People project. But Academician Miew never showed up at the collapsar. She took the money and the personnel—that’s you three—and brought you here instead.
“That’s misuse of government funds. Presumably the academician has a reason for misusing government funds. Maybe it’s just a midlife crisis. Maybe she’s trying to circumvent the antiquities regulations. Or maybe she’s trying to trigger a time loop. Either way, a full day for me.”
Ioris felt a mixture of rage and relief. Dr. Miew had betrayed him, but she’d done it long before the strike, and the Cachuhay was here less as a cop and more as an auditor. “Did you confront her?” he asked. “What did she say?”
“Nothing at all,” said Ravy Uvana. “Nothing without a lawyer present, and I’m the only lawyer in a hundred fifty lightyears.”
Ioris was so shaken by this that only when he had left the spacecraft, only as he was pacing the sterile ground of GX 210601f, did he realize that he had talked to a cop without a lawyer present.
After leaving Ravy Uvana’s little government ship, Ioris warned the other graduate students, and although Ravy Uvana shortly called both Zag Zarvu and Anjan into her little ship, the Graduate Student Union was able to hold the line.
Management, in the form of Dr. Miew, had no real strikebreaking skills beyond banning the three of them from the tentlike structure containing their desks, the satellite uplink, and the kitchen. The Graduate Student Union kept a ceramic campfire going outside the tent and cooked food packs in the coals. GX 210601f never got dark, or light, or warm, or cold, so a fire was always welcome. The food always burned, but Ioris enjoyed the feeling of his gizzard working the crunchy bits.
With no work, no grant, no comms, and now the threat of police surveillance hanging over them, the students’ options for killing time now extended no farther than the fire. After dinner Ioris lay in the scrawny wingless arms of Anjan, his Human . . . “boyfriend” was the term they had decided to use. (“You should know that I’m only eighty-one percent male.” “That’s perfect; I’m eighty-one percent gay.”) No stars were visible in the sky, but a near-constant meteor shower was free for the watching.
An archaeologist knows that nothing lasts. Meteors burn in an instant, on the scale of chemistry. Within fifteen standard—the scale of sociology—Ioris would enter the imago stage and become fully female. Anjan had promised that nothing about their relationship would change but promises like that are easily made and not always kept. The organics and litter from this firepit would decay on the scale of biology. Whoever investigated the time loop next time around would find only rocks and radiation at this site: the substances of geology.
“Are we getting out of here or what?” Zag Zarvu, the third graduate student, did not have an anything-friend and there was nothing fun about the strike for him.
“It’s not that simple,” said Ioris. “The, uh, the judicant is looking at the . . . crime scene?”
“Somebody’s going to die,” said Zag Zarvu, “because the government can’t investigate an anomaly except by dropping a research station on top of it.”
“The problem is obvious,” said Anjan. “Nobody smart enough to do the investigation will want to investigate.”
“The Consortium does stupid things all the time!” Zag Zarvu, a Cachuhay like Ravy Uvana, had no reason to mistrust the police in particular; he hated the whole system of government. “Someone fills out a form, and the thing on the form happens, and nobody checks if it should have happened.”
Motion, a rare event on GX 210601f, caught Ioris’ eye. Dr. Miew was shuffling toward the fire as if early for an appointment and unsure whether this was the right office. “Ah, Ioris, can I . . . a word?”
Ioris sat up; Anjan kept hugging him from behind. “Are you restarting the union negotiations?” Ioris asked.
“Sure,” said Dr. Miew with no conviction. Ioris disentangled himself from Anjan and walked with his mentor out of the firelight, toward the forbidden tent.
Inside, the uplink was unplugged from its socket, the cord neatly wrapped around the amplifier. Empty food packs overflowed from the trash can. Dr. Miew zipped the door closed, looked around conspiratorially, opened a drawer on what had been Ioris’ desk, and picked out a small sample bag that held an off-white rock.
“Take this,” she told Ioris. She pressed the bag into his hand. “She’s going to arrest me. Don’t let her find it.”
It wasn’t a rock. It was a small ceramic piece with three threaded sockets, cast into a Y shape. A part number was stamped on the side. Ioris turned the piece around and saw small sparkling geode-like crystals growing in the sockets. “What is this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Dr. Miew, and now that Ioris was watching for it, he could spot the lie. “There are a lot of strange things in the universe.”
“Is a piece of plumbing you know nothing about worth throwing away both our careers?” said Ioris.
“This is my second career!” said Dr. Miew. Her voice dropped. “I used to be a particle physicist. There was a deep space research station on this planet.”
“Oh, wonderful. You’re from inside the time loop!”
Dr. Miew came in very close, much closer than she’d ever come to Ioris and much angrier. “We must get this thing back to a lab,” she said. “Hide it in your gizzard. You’re the only one I can trust!” Dr. Miew rummaged around in a basket near the microwave. “Here’s some, ah, mayonnaise to help it go down.”
“I’m not swallowing this!” Ioris threw the little mayo packet to the floor. “Why don’t you call the younger version of yourself? She’d help you.”
Miew snorted. “Apparently not! I need help from you, Ioris. You must take this on trust. I know I can’t explain it to your satisfaction. You’d need an advanced physics degree to even begin to understand the math.”
The pettiest of petty complaints leaped to the forefront of Ioris’ mind “I was going to get a physics degree,” he snorted, “until you . . . ”
“Yes? Until I?” Dr. Miew pointed at her own face, impatiently pushing Ioris toward a conclusion of her own devising.
Ioris sat down heavily in his swivel chair: the type he and Dr. Miew both preferred, but most Akate found too tight. “Are we the same person?” he said.
“It only took you eight years,” said Dr. Miew in a tone Ioris hadn’t heard since he was an undergraduate. Shrunken and fidgety, Ioris’ mentor looked nothing like the powerful imago Ioris had always imagined he would become, but yes, he could see a resemblance.
Dr. Miew touched Ioris’ face for attention. “Akate take care of their own,” she said. She wasn’t angry or annoyed anymore. “It applies across the species: it’s us against the universe. It also applies to family within the species.
“You and I are more closely related than any Akate have ever been. I didn’t bring in the authorities when you tried your little labor action. Now I’m asking for the same consideration. I have spent a long time maneuvering us into this position, and I am quite serious when I say you are the only one I can trust. I’m about to be arrested. Help me get this artifact back to civilized space.”
“You didn’t break into a vending machine, Academician,” said Ioris. “You betrayed your professional oath! You defrauded the Scientitiate!”
“It’s all the government, Ioris! The Consortium is all one thing! It is a machine that harms and kills! You can’t just deal with the parts you like!”
“The Scienticiate is not morally equivalent to the Akate greengloves!” Ioris hated how Dr. Miew raised her voice at the first sign of pushback. He’d caught himself doing this with Anjan, he was doing it now, and he hated himself for it.
“May I come in?” Ioris looked up; Ravy Uvana poked her enormous taxpayer-funded head through the tent flap.
Dr. Miew seamlessly switched conversations without changing her mood. “Not without a warrant!” she barked.
“Who do you think writes the warrants around here?” said Ravy Uvana.
“On what basis can you issue a warrant?” said Dr. Miew. “You have no evidence of a crime!” Ioris quietly slipped the ceramic piece into an interior pocket of his utility vest.
“I have the paperwork you forged to get out here,” said Ravy Uvana. She pushed her body into the tent and looked around, scanning for anything that had changed since her last visit. “But fraud is a smart-person crime, and I don’t understand why you did it.
“You’ll never get a publication out of this, and you don’t seem like the looting type. I have to seriously consider that you’re trying to complete or prevent a time loop. If you were, nothing else would matter. Not your career, not the safety of your students.”
“There is no time loop!” said Dr. Miew, against the advice of any conceivable lawyer.
“Or maybe you’ve been through the loop before, and you want to retrieve something specific,” Ravy Uvana continued mildly. “Then the smart-person move would be to present the appearance of cooperation and stall for time, until you found what you were looking for.”
Dr. Miew quivered with rage. “I am looking for the greatest scientific breakthrough of our lifetimes!” she shouted. “And you come down here with your short-term accountant’s attitude, you harass my students, you second-guess the way I work, because you don’t like the way I filled out a form?”
Ever since that first undergraduate demonstration, Ioris had imagined being the kind of big-body who could safely tell off the greengloves, but seeing Dr. Miew actually try it killed the fantasy dead. He took the plastic bag out of his utility vest and held it up.
“I have it,” he said. He couldn’t stand becoming this person, and if it had to happen, he couldn’t stand deserving it.
“You sub-pupal idiot!” Ioris had found the one thing he could do that would surprise his other self. “They screwed me over, and now it’s your turn!”
Ravy Uvana glanced at the ceramic object. She took the bag before Ioris could change his mind. She used her tail to flip over the mayonnaise packet on the floor. “What were you going to do, smuggle it out in your gizzard?” she said. “You need to watch a prison movie.”
Dr. Miew interposed her body between Ioris and the cop. “This is a big misunderstanding,” she said. “I need . . . ” Her forewings tensed as she briefly considered making a grab for the bag. “I need to show this to some colleagues at the Fundamental Physics Institute. That’s all I need. We can sort this out.”
“It sounds like we can resolve this like gentlewomen,” said Ravy Uvana mildly. “Please transfer control of your ship to . . . ” she glanced at Ioris. “Not him. One of the other two students. We’ll all evacuate to Consortium space, and you can tell your side of the story. Hmm?”
Your side of the story. Already Ioris regretted his decision. The first primordial cop beating a prehistoric beast to death had just wanted to hear the beast’s side of the story. But the Consortium was all one thing. If Dr. Miew wanted vindication from the scientific establishment, she had to play nice with the legal establishment.
Ravy Uvana rotated her ungainly body around the tent, toward the exit. “Aren’t you the slightest bit curious?” Dr. Miew called out to her. “Don’t you want to know what you’re holding?”
“You know what it is,” said the Cachuhay cop, “and it doesn’t seem to have made you any happier.”
In the permanent twilight of GX 210601f, Ravy Uvana whispered to Ioris: “I should have told you this earlier. Based on a genetic test, I believe you and Academician Miew are the same organism at different stages of development.”
“You need a warrant to do a genetic test,” said Ioris.
This unemotional response seemed to surprise the cop. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “Academician Miew isn’t wrong. The Consortium is about to screw you over.”
Ravy Uvana held up the ceramic object in its bag. The crystals inside its sockets glittered with an inner luminescence. “This is above my pay grade. This is national security. I doubt you can be held culpable for the actions of your future self, but there is such a crime as conspiracy, and I’m not convinced you weren’t in on this.”
“I should have been,” said Ioris. “Dr. Miew is a bad person, but she wanted to look out for me. I should have gone along with her.”
“You did the right thing,” said Ravy Uvana quickly. “You’re not her, and you don’t have to become her. But the first time she went through the time loop, she got some kind of lucky break you won’t be getting.”
“What can I do?” said Ioris.
“Stop talking to me right now,” said Ravy Uvana, “and hire a lawyer.” But she held onto the bag that held the little ceramic object; she didn’t give it back.
Leonard Richardson is a writer and software developer who lives in New York City. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Analog, and he’s the author of two SF novels, Constellation Games and Situation Normal.