Star-Wearer
by J.W. Rich

It would be practical to extend police work to other planets

 

     For better or worse, humans have a reputation as being somewhat prone to violence. It has served us well on occasion, keeping aggressive colonizers out of our space; also it has been detrimental, leading some intriguing races to minimize contact.

     How it all came about was ridiculous. In 2236, a joint delegation of the Q-tang Confederation and the Blue Suns Worlds came to Earth for diplomatic and trade talks. Some genius at the UN planned a reception centered around a night of grand opera. (There’s a small dispute today as to whether the performance in question was TURANDOT or AIDA.) Our honored visitors were appalled to discover human “art” revolved around acts of deceit and violence set to music. They were leaving orbit practically before our leaders’ applause at the performance had died down.

     Hey, so we got a bad rap. Like I said, it had its good points and bad points. Still, I was a bit surprised when I didn’t get the normal bum’s rush last time I stopped for fuel around Gluxora. In fact, the chief steward even relayed a request that I make landfall.

     It turned out there recently had been a crime of violence—something all but unknown—on the planet. The civil authorities there logically had narrowed the list of suspects to two dozen natives, but were hard-pressed to decide what to do next. Though they hemmed and hawed diplomatically, it eventually dawned on me that they believed I, as a human, had an affinity for violence, and so could detect the guilty party. It was rather insulting, but I thought it best to offer whatever aid I could.

     Within five minutes of landing I was brought into a large visitors’ hall where, for my benefit, some extra oxygen was pumped in, the temperature was lowered and the lights were raised. The shivering suspects, all wearing eye-shields, listened in silence as the chief steward explained who I was and what I would be doing.

     While he was speaking, my attention focused on a particular male (?) toward the back of the room. While the other Gluxorans were a uniform dull blue, this particular individual had been turning red before my eyes. I wondered whether he was in need of immediate medical attention. As I walked toward him, however, he backed away. When he realized he was trapped in a corner, he blurted out a confession.

     A gasp went through the room. The steward thanked me while some members of his staff hustled the miscreant away. The rest of the Gluxorans all but gawked at me. In a matter of minutes, I, too, was being escorted back to my ship.

     It took a little while to figure out what had happened. Apparently the Gluxorans, members of an ancient amphibian race, hadn’t even been able to see their compatriot turn red under the conditions in the hall. While I had approached the apprehensive fellow out of compassion, they were convinced I simply had zeroed in on a like-minded felon. Perhaps I should have said something, but like the old saying goes, what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me. In fact, the Gluxorans now owed me one.

     Word of my “skill” got around. Some eight periods later, my crew and I were all but hijacked by the Sur-fre, tall, thin, highly evolved aerial beings. And insufferably arrogant ones. They had eight senses—by their reckoning, the most of any known on the Sur-fre evolutionary scale of intelligent creatures.

     Again, I was asked to uncover a murderous malefactor. Now, as is the case with most traders, I want as little to do with the law as possible. Still, when in Sur-fre…

     While these beings usually can find a comfortable atmospheric level on almost any planet, they prefer—and primarily colonize—low-grav worlds. As this may present a problem in terms of keeping a plentiful supply of the necessary lighter gases, they expend considerable effort on enviro-forming their new worlds.

     Now orbiting one of these proto-colonies, Alous, was the hulk of a dead Sur-fre cargo ship, the Kesselsu. When we arrived at the site, I suited up and jetted over. A cursory glance at the large blast hole on the port side told me some of what I needed to know. Carefully, I edged past protruding spears of metal for a look inside at a peculiarly damaged work station surrounded by broken pumps and conduits.

     According to a preliminary Sur-fre report, three bodies had been recovered: two crew members killed by catastrophic decompression, and a third in a spacesuit ripped by weapons fire. Four more were incinerated in the blast or sucked into space.

     The cargo manifest showed nothing but the routine: oxygen generators, liquid hydrogen, sulphur dioxide, argon, nitrogen, tungsten and curium.

     During a rather patronizing interview with some home world and colonial authorities, I gathered Alous was near the edge of Sur-fre space. The thought that an invader was both so brazen and  powerful as to strike at one of their worlds put the Sur-fre on edge. As a result, the services of yours truly, this rather inferior being, had been co-opted.

     The military/legal attache who was—for want of a better description—in charge of me was hot to begin the investigation on Alous, the dry world revolving slowly below us. She was miffed when I demanded access to a detailed set of regional Sur-fre charts. She was fuming when I told the captain to set sail for Wontad-4 L-2, a marginal lunar colony deep in Sur-fre space.

     Moosijen Director (as I was told to address her) could not comprehend why we should bother visiting a minor water world while invaders escaped in another direction.

     “The fools at Wontad have no need of the hijacked gases,” she said loudly. “They are incapable of exploiting those they already have. If their performance doesn’t improve, their contract, and likely they themselves, will be terminated.”

     With a shrug of my shoulders, I tersely responded, “I’ve already solved the crime. All that remains is to pick up the responsible individuals. If you intend to hamper my investigation, simply compensate me for my time and let me go now. I’ll inform your magistrates if you prefer to proceed on your own.” She stormed to her quarters, where she remained for the rest of the voyage.

     The trip to Wontad-4’s second moon, a beautiful blue-green water world, was uneventful. We parked in a high orbit, just above that of a decrepit-looking interstellar tanker. A specialized craft was sent from the floating mining operation to ferry us down, and within the hour we were meeting with two very nervous administrators.

     Daisitu Manager and Kamarjay Manager clearly were unused to receiving a delegation from the Sur-fre home world. They meekly protested their productivity projections were headed up sharply, but Moosijen Director was disdainful. I, never having seen a gas-mining operation, asked for a quick tour. The two managers were happy to comply. We three suited up and  embarked in the submersible craft the miners used to determine changing gas levels in different strata of the sea.

     During our jaunt, I was surprised to see abundant evidence of life. When I asked how they could extract different elemental gases from the water without hurting aquatic life, the two didn’t understand my question at first. After a brief discussion, they patiently explained that none of the life on this world had achieved sentience. Its extinction, therefore, was of no concern to the Sur-fre.

     That was enough for me. We returned to the mining headquarters, where I promptly informed Moosijen Director our hosts were responsible for the hijacking and murder above Alous. She sneered at me, but as I began to lay out the evidence, she motioned her guards to surround the two managers.

     It was all rather straightforward. The blast aboard the Kesselsu had originated internally, the jagged metal of the hull pointed out. That indicated an inside job by a member or members of the all Sur-fre crew. The fact that there had been weapons fire proved some person or persons now unaccounted for had survived the initial blast. The fact that the pinpoint was set internally meant the blast site was chosen. But the gaseous cargo so needed on Alous or any other number of low-grav Sur-fre worlds had not been hijacked; rather, it had been allowed to vent into space through the ripped conduits. The real target had been the tungsten and the curium. Who among the Sur-fre had need of metal and power? Well, after studying data about their colonies, the threatened managers of a water-world gas mine seemed likely candidates. They had little access to needed metal and fissionable material.

     “Their boast about sudden change in fortune—increased productivity—was a slipup,” I told Moosijen Director. “What is there about this operation that would account for an increase on its own? It had to be something brought in from outside. I dare say the official records won’t show anything of importance being shipped here lately through normal channels. It had to be the stolen tungsten and curium.”

     After the quaking managers had been led away, Moosijen Director protested there had to have been more evidence against the pair. I smiled and nodded in agreement.

     “While we were suiting up for my tour,” I said, “I noted the managers’ environmental suits reeked of sulphur dioxide. Nothing they’d shown me of their operation could account for it. It had to come from the Kesselsu. Imagine the uproar in the sector when it’s heard the mighty Sur-fre were outwitted by a lowly being who happened to have the minor sense of smell.”

     She actually blanched.

     We quickly reached an agreement: in exchange for my tactful silence, the Sur-fre would abandon this small world immediately, letting its life forms evolve as they may.

     And, of course, they would compensate me for my time.

     After that, I found the occasional foray into law-and-order work to be rewarding, both financially and, I suppose, spiritually. It let me cast a more positive light on humanity. It even gave me a “right” to wear a tin star, like the heroes of the Old West.

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