So, having gotten a message from Janene warning me away from Dr. Sunil so shortly after having she had assured me that she knew nothing about the murder told me that she was, for reasons unknown, unwilling to talk to me face to face. Going back to talk to her would be pointless. Dr. Sunil on the other hand...
I searched through both my own files and the station's personnel records to find out more about the man. A less likely murder suspect would be harder to find. Multiple Ph.D.'s in math, physics, and engineering and no criminal record at all. Not known to drink or do any kind of mind-altering substance. As respected as any scientist could be. So when day cycle began, I made my way straight to his office so that I might have a word.
I walked into his office to see him hard at work, peering intently at his datapad and scribbling on a sheet of scratch paper, working on some problem that was far beyond my comprehension. "Yes." was all he said to me. "What do you want, inspector? I am swamped. Did I not answer all your previous questions satisfactorily."
"Yes, you did. But I have more. Were you aware that Dr. Yang had concerns about power fluctuations in the drive?"
He let out a deep sigh that stank of equal parts condescension and annoyance. Then looked up at me and said "Yes, but what of them? We discussed them at length and concluded that they were well within tolerances and were nothing to be concerned about. I am sorry to be so forward sir, but these matters are well outside of your area of expertise. So why are you asking about them."
Other men might have been angry about his tone, but I always liked it when a suspect underestimated me, made my job so much easier. So I decided to see if I could trip him up. "Just looking into everything, I am sure a scientist like yourself can understand that. So you say that you discussed this and you both concluded it was nothing to be concerned about."
"Yes. Anything else?" Dr. Sunil practically harrumphed.
"Not unless you have something more to tell me. Otherwise, I think we're good. Oh, wait, just one more thing. When did you have this conversation, do you recall?"
"About a week before he died. Possibly two. It wasn't a critical thing, really, so I don't recall exactly when."
"Thanks. That's all I need."
Sunil just made a dismissive shooing motion with his hand, indicating that he was done talking. That was fine because he had told me more than he had known. Janene had said Dr. Yang was still very concerned about the fluctuations right up until his death. Dr. Sunil had told me otherwise. Someone was lying to me. I had an idea how to find out. My next stop was at a workstation, provided for me by the station. I figured that if these fluctuations were something that Yang was concerned about, he would have filed paperwork or correspondence of some sort concerning them. It took me a couple of hours, primarily because I was dealing with dense technical jargon that I didn't understand, but in the end, I found a trail of correspondence from Yang, the most recent being a request from Yang that the launch be delayed until he was satisfied that the problem was not actually a problem, and it was dated only a day before his death.
Then the screen filled up with garbage. No warning, just hundreds of numbers, letters and characters just before it went dark. I hit keys but to no avail. Nor did I have any time to save what I had found. I had just witnessed something that someone preferred that I had not. That was not the last of it though, I also immediately heard a sizzle and a pop from behind a wall panel. And smelled smoke. Humanity had been in space for over 200 years now, many things had changed since those first early steps into the void. But one thing had not, fire in space was bad, bad news. I headed for the door and found it locked. Then the warning lights came on, and a voice was announcing "Fire Suppression Protocols triggering in 30 seconds. Please clear the area."
Water and chemical fire retardants are usually not desirable on a space station, for a variety of reasons. Foremost being that if the fire affects the rotation of the station and thus the pseudo-gravity, they can get into places where they will cause a problem. Fire suppression in a place like this usually meant knocking out one leg of the fire triangle...oxygen. Thus the warning. The problem was that I couldn't get out.
I tried the door multiple times. I knew forcing it would be pointless. The countdown reached 20..19...18. I called for help over the internal messaging system on my datapad. But no reply. 12...11...10. I had no idea of how to pull apart the circuitry and force it to open, but I was willing to try...9...8...7.
As I stood there vainly searching for a panel I could pull apart, suddenly, the door opened. I didn't question my good fortune, I just jumped through. It closed immediately behind me. 3..2..1. Hisssssssssssssss. The air began to be sucked out of the section behind me. As I started to put my thoughts together, I realized that someone had just made a very deliberate attempt to kill me. The reason why was apparent. The question was who. And how? I had a suspicion about who, but no proof. How was even more of a puzzler. Starting a fire on a station like this should be incredibly difficult. Yet someone had. And who had opened the door for me?
I headed straight for Janele Wilson's office, passing damage repair crews hurrying to the fire site on the way. The correspondence had been directed at here, maybe she had uncorrupted copies. And as chief administrator of the station, she would be the most likely person to give me some answers as to how my own near-murder had taken place. I walked through the door, only to find her on the ground next to her desk. She had an obvious contusion on the side of her head, and she was unconscious, but she was alive and breathing. I saw her datapad on the ground next to her, and I saw that the last thing on it was an override of the door controls. So one mystery solved. I performed some first aid and called for a medical team. By now, it was apparent to me that Sunil was the culprit, I queried the system for his location, while I waited for the medics, and saw that he was aboard the Hawking.
And soon, so was I. It was pressurized, but humanity's first starship was cramped. And there was no spin to simulate gravity, so I was floating as I exited the airlock. As tiny as the ship was, it took me only seconds to locate him. He had a datapad and furiously typing something on it while looking at readouts near him.
"Whatever you are doing, stop it. Now" I shouted at him.
He looked up "You are wrong, inspector. I know what you think. You think I murdered Yang. But it wasn't me."
"I hadn't come to any conclusions yet, but you are not helping your case," I replied. I saw that Sunil had a utility knife. Not a real weapon, but enough to do some damage to an unarmed man, and I was unarmed. He brandished it at me.
"Stay back. I don't know if she got to you. But she's trying to sabotage the mission."
"Who? Why" I asked. Though I already had a suspicion of the answer.
"Wilson. I don't know why. But I have proof." He pointed toward the panel that he had open, full of computer circuitry and wires...and something else. Something the size of a small coin, crystalline and with a faint red glow.
At this point, Sunil's head exploded into a red vapor. I turned and saw Janele Wilson, very much conscious and equally uninjured. In her hand, she carried some sort of weapon that I did not recognize, but just like the thing in the circuitry, it was also crystalline and glowing faintly red.
Her face shifted, I mean that literally. Her face dissolved into a cloud of particles then reformed as mine. She continued pointing the weapon.
"I suppose I can only blame myself. Your questioning of Dr. Sunil caused him to double check the readings and Yang's correspondence. He quickly learned I altered them and he knew the system well enough to find my addition to it. I had intended this to be very surgical. No one, except Yang and the pilot, needed to die. I abhor violence, but it is sometimes necessary."
"What? Why?" were the only words I could stammer out.
"I have dwelt with your ilk for a very long time, human. You are so sure of yourselves. So sure that finally mastering the ability to travel between stars will be some grand adventure for your kind. You imagine that there might be others out there, and you are correct. But never do you stop and ask yourselves whether those of us out there want you out there with us. Merely sabotaging the ship would have set you back by a few years at most. I had to discredit the whole project. I wanted to just plant my modulator in your so-called Alcubierre Drive, the test flight would fail in a spectacular implosion, those of us who dwell among you could marshall public opinion against further testing, and you could stay on your world indefinitely without ever knowing of us. And we could monitor and guide you until you were ready to be responsible citizens of the galaxy in a few thousand years.
But Yang found those damned, faint fluctuations it caused. So I had to kill him. I wanted to frame Sunil and continue with the plan, but now you have made that difficult. All I can do is kill you, and take your place to ensure that the explanation I want is the explanation you will give."
I had no weapon. I looked down at Sunil's utility knife and doubted it would be of much use against a being composed of nanites, as she seemed to be. Even if I somehow got her weapon away from her, I had no idea how to use it. I thought I was doomed. In a desperate move, I sprang to the airlock, the external one for EVA's. Wilson, now looking like me, fired but missed. I opened the door to the airlock.
"There is nowhere to go, Inspector Moreno. I WILL get you sooner or later."
I ducked down behind some equipment. If she couldn't see me, she couldn't shoot me. She walked over toward me, I waited. I could only hope I was better at staying hidden than she was at finding me.
Luckily, I was. As soon as she came upon me, I grabbed her arm and yanked her into the airlock, With me. She was already starting to dissolve into a nanite cloud to escape my grasp when I slammed the door shut. Her weapon clattered to the floor. I waited for her to coalesce again and lunged at her with all my might. I slammed her against the external airlock door and hit the button. The momentum of my body slam in zero-g was enough to send her out, along with all the air in the chamber. I felt my lungs begin to burn. But I wedged myself in the doorway, so I stayed inside. And then I hit the button to close the door. The nanite cloud that was Janele Wilson floated into the vastness of space. I do not know whether she ultimately re-entered the atmosphere, but I am sure she had to at some point. Nonetheless, I never saw her, or any of her kind, ever again.
After that, well, history can take the story from there. The whole incident was covered up. The Hawking launched, and now, 30 years later, we have functioning colonies on three different worlds and are exploring hundreds more. To date, we have never found any of our galactic neighbors that the thing that called itself Janel Wilson talked about. But they must be out there. And more importantly, others like her are still down here.