I looked around the government office building of the world Qafte. The site of my latest investigation and possibly my last. I am John Roundtree, investigator for the enforcement branch of the Terran Empire. I did not chose this occupation, but was put in it as a result of my standard testing. And I had proved too good at my job to be simply dismissed or allowed to leave. But I live in fear that my Christian convictions will one day come in conflict with the pragmatic interests of the empire. This could be the time.
There had been a politically dangerous document given to Sramox, the regional governor, for safekeeping. I was not told what was in the document and knew better than to ask. The messenger had delivered it and seen Sramox place it in his office safe. There was an unexpected need for the document later in Qafte's diurnal cycle (again, do not ask). A messenger was sent, but when Sramox opened the safe it was empty.
Sramox was tall, bulky, and very loosely humanoid. He had leathery skin and a square head; everything about him seemed square. "There were guards posted and viewers recording on every possible entrance to my residence," he stated. "There were also viewers observing the guards. None of them left their posts."
"So who was in the residence during the critical time?" I asked.
"A small number of people were there to register complaints against the government. I find it useful to let them cool their heels a while before going down. It makes them more amiable. I had not yet summoned the guards in preparation to going down when the messenger came."
"What do they have to say for themselves?"
"They say they were all together there almost the whole time and no one left the audience hall. I think one of them did it and the rest are covering for them. If we examine them by torture, we will probably get the whole story out of them."
"No," I replied, as matter-of-factly as I could manage. "We are more interested in finding the document than merely producing a culprit. Torture reveals, but it can also distort. I do not want to end up going down a false trail. Was there anyone else in the residence?"
"No, everything is robotized, and I do most of my business by viewer. I make the complainers come in person because it tends to intimidate them. I have a crew that comes in every morning to service the machines and restock the food. But they were not there during the time involved."
"Were there no viewers watching the audience hall?'
"Those viewers and the ones into the residence proper were somehow disabled. There were also five small holes in the safe the culprit may have used to open it. I have our best engineers investigating both of these."
“I need to send a message to Charlie, my computer tech. Then sent in the complainers in the order they entered the building."
The first was Omarno, a thin, red-furred humanoid whose land had been taken for a government project. He had arrived about a quarter of an hour before the others. He said he had seen no one leave the audience hall, and nothing I could say would shake him from that.
The next was Pazget, who came to protest a husband who had been put to death on what she maintained was a false charge. She was a vaguely octopus-shaped being with a multitude of tentacles. She said she had gone once to use the facilities whose only entrance opened into the hall, but neither she nor anyone else had actually exited the hall.
Then came Zorfel, a small arboreal nocturnal who wore tinted goggles to shield his eyes from the light of day. He claimed that the Empire was unfair to nocturnals, who were treated as second class citizens. Under pressure, he admitted to sleeping through most of his time waiting in the hall. The others confirmed his story. He tried to engage me in his cause, but I told him that as a government employee, I must refuse.
Dimegate was a large jellyfish-like creature who needed all his tentacles on the floor to move about. He had come to protest his entire clan vanishing. The local authorities had been indifferent. So he was taking his case to the governor. He was very suspicious of the other people in the room and had kept a close eye on them. I was forced to dismiss most of his deductions regarding the others, but he confirmed that no one had left the hall.
The last was Yuaretoun, a birdlike being with wings that would only fly short distances. She was a businesswoman, who was hoping to bribe the governor into giving her a title to land that was not really hers. This was, of course, my interpretation of a much more evasive presentation. She also spent a lot of time trying to pump me for names of high government connections, which I labored to convince her I had none of.
Shortly after that Charlie got back to me. I made the necessary preparations and went to meet with Sramox. "Well, have you discovered anything?" he asked.
"Yes, I have," I replied, "I am putting you under arrest on suspicion of stealing government documents. I have a search warrant here for your residence." I had surrounded myself with investigators loyal to Terra rather than Sramox, and they quickly took him into custody. The document was found in another safe in his private office.
"He was the obvious suspect, but he tried to act like he was above suspicion," I explained to my superiors. "And if I had let him proceed with the torture, he would probably have found someone else to blame. He was the obvious one with access to the residential area and the safe. The holes he drilled were simply a blind. Also, who better than he to sabotage the viewers on the inside of the building. He was deeply in debt from playing video gambling games, not to mention from females and intoxicants. We have evidence of his meeting with Viris, the Kompar representative. His biggest problem was circumstances. If someone had not wanted the document back so quickly, there would have been a large number of people who had been in and out of the residence to pin it on. As it was, there were only the complainers, and four of them supported the others' stories. But he still had to try to convince us that one of them was guilty."
I would lose no sleep over the conviction of Sramox. I wondered what traits he had showed on his test so that he had been made governor. Were they the same traits that caused him to turn traitor? I had read once that what a government wants is not always what is best for the government. This is too commonly true.