Thursday, December 8, 2016
The station manager, Derek Langstrom, a tall, skinny human, meet me on the way in. "I suppose, Mr. Talltree, they filled you in," he said, "but here's the quick lowdown. The six of us are the only ones stationed here. Our last replacement was a year and a half ago. Except for messages, the outpost is completely sealed off and no one can come in or out without it registering on the computer and an alarm sounding if they are not authorized. Even if someone got out, there is no place to go. Any ship or transmission in the neighborhood would have been detected by our scanners. The last time anyone was outside was for a repair mission six months ago. There have been leaks since then. We were sent here to investigate the planet Mouqavop below. It is more massive than earth, and a good part of that is large accumulations of heavy metals not commonly found elsewhere. The Empire hopes these will prove valuable, which is why they have put a security order in place."
Behind him there moved a short squat figure with four short legs and two arms in the front. It was moving forward in a series of hops. "What is that?" I asked.
"One of the Mouqavopians. They were a Stone Age people when we found them. They work our mines since the gravity is really too heavy for us. We trade the metals for things they find valuable.If you want to know more about them you should talk to Brian Parks, our exo-biologist."
Cathy Jessup, the communications and IT manager, was a short woman with blonde hair and a nice smile. "What kinds of communications do you send out regularly?" I asked her.
"The main thing is the weekly report. There are also Manager Langstrom's occasional responses to orders and some other routine and personal items," she responded. "But if the weekly report is what is leaking, couldn't they intercept it somehow and read it directly?"
"If the Kamortians have broken our encryption system they would know far more and more serious information than what they would get here. Our source has seen no evidence of that. Who has access to the report?"
"All six of us do. We add our parts to the report and then it is sent. But couldn't the leak be somewhere at Central?"
"They have investigated that, but it does not work. The Kamortians receive the information almost immediately after we do. In two cases they actually received it before we did. It had to have come from here."
"You mean you know when they receive it, and they receive it as often as you do? But barring a miracle of God, how can that be? There is no other communication than the reports that is sent anywhere near that often. I have a couple of friends I write once a month, but it is normally at the same time of the month. Everyone else is even more uncommon except Manager Langstrom, and he is not that frequent."
"Since I do not believe God would work miracles for this reason, I have to believe there is another answer. But I see the problem."
"Do you believe in God?" she said with a start, "Are you a Christian?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Then you are an answer to prayer. I prayed they would not send somebody whose solution was to execute us all and start over with a new crew."
"I am not in total control of the situation, so it could still happen. But I think even Central is more concerned right now with figuring out how it could have happened than looking for a quick fix. I will try to do all I can do to solve this problem rather than just cover it up. But there must be other things that come in and out. What about supplies?'
"For that you would have to talk to Worykai of Meska in mechanical systems. But it is my understanding that nothing leaves this outpost."
Workai of Meska was a Jokiurian. He was a head on top of a complicated tangle of arms and legs. "We receive supplies by courier ship," he explained. "The ship does not dock, but releases a container, which docks by mechanical control. All communications with the pilot are to be kept to a minimum."
"What about the containers; are they picked up and reused?"
"No, we are required to dismantle and recycle them. I have pointed out this is wasteful, but I have been told it is necessary for security. No items are to leave the outpost; everything is to be recycled and trashed here."
"How often do you order supplies?'
"Once every three months. We can put in a special order if we are in unexpected need. They may or may not honor it. I do not remember many of these in recent times."
"How often do the supply ships come?"
"Once a month, if we are fortunate. Sometimes sooner if there is an emergency. But this is rare."
"What communications do you make outside the weekly report?"
"Other then brief instructions to courier pilots, none that I recall. My orders are all contained in the weekly reports. I suppose in an absolute emergency, I would have to make a special request, but I do not recall that ever happening. I am past the familial cycle and have nothing else to send."
Sylvia Hinton, the mineralogist, was a tall, lanky woman with a perpetual frown. But that could just be the situation. "I realize it is my information that has been leaked, and I suppose that makes me the prime suspect," she said defiantly. "But I do not know what I can say that will help."
"Have you talked with anyone else about your research? Did anyone seem abnormally interested in it?"
"Frankly, no. Anyone of us could have copied it out of the weekly report, but no one seemed interested in discussing it. I do not blame them for that; it was mostly highly technical information."
"How often do you send communications other than the weekly report?"
"I have a couple of relatives I send messages to, once, maybe twice a year."
Brian Parks was a short, stocky man. He was accompanied by three Mouqavopians, which he spoke to in soft clicking noises. "I am just beginning to learn their language," he said. "Fascinating creatures, though still at a primitive stage of development. They are my main concern here. So I am afraid I cannot tell you much about spies and secret messages. Out of my league, you know."
"Have you sent any messages outside the weekly report?" I asked.
"I have a few investments I have been forced to leave in the hands of others to manage. I communicate with them about once a quarter, just to be sure they have not bankrupted me."
The last manger, James Spencer, was in charge of the ships that flew up and down to the planet's surface. He was showing me around one of them. "The original pilots who went down had to wear specialized suits and used the acceleration chairs here in the front of the cockpit. But nowadays only the Mouqavopians travel in i,t and they need no special equipment. The whole thing is fully mechanized, and all they have to do is sit comfortably in the seats we have designed for them until they land on the surface."
He turned and walked out the door and I turned to follow him. Then darkness fell.
I awoke with a splitting headache and barely able to take in my surroundings. It took me several minutes to realize with difficulty that I was still in the ship. It took several more to realize I was heading down for the planet's surface. I stumbled to the control panel and set it for a return trip. But it seemed to be built like an old-fashioned elevator that would not execute the new order before it had completed the last one. An expert pilot may have known how to override it, but I had no idea. I took my anti-G pills and strapped myself into the acceleration chair.
The outpost had no doctor, but Langstrom had been taught how to work the healing machines. He told me it was the anti-G pills that certainly saved my life. The only other person who visited me was Cathy. I asked that everyone else be kept away. And slept with my blaster beside me.
Finally, I felt well enough to go out, blaster in hand, to deal with the situation, There were about six Mouqavopians blocking the way to Brian Parks's office. I was unwilling to harm them and blasted around them so they scattered. Then I burst in through the door.
"You will not need that blaster or a warrant," said Parks with a wry smile on his face, "I have followed the example of the spies in all good B-vids and taken poison. No imperial torture chamber for me, I have only a few minutes left."
"Why did you try to kill me?" I asked.
"You have developed quite a reputation. I was afraid, it appears quite correctly, that you might figure things out. I thought if I killed you they might send someone else stupid or bribable. The experts at Central missed the obvious, that even a Stone Age people can be taught to pull the right levers or push the right buttons."
"So how precisely did you pull it off?"
"I am not going to give the details, I do not want to give away my accomplices. But once they had gotten down off the outpost, well, a planet is a big place, and you cannot guard it like you can this fortress. Once they were out of range of the outpost's sensors, they were home free."
"How did you get them to go along with this?"
"It was easy enough. After all, I was the only one who could really speak to them. I told them the Empire was only trying to exploit them. That if the people I represented came here they would give them the guns that kill instantly and the ships that fly through the air and they would be rich and not have to work in the mines anymore."
"Those investments were more than I let on they were and were being increased on a regular basis by contributions from "friends." A shame I should not live to enjoy...." He fell over dead.
"So that is all there is to it?" Cathy asked.
"Pretty much," I replied, "Once I knew it was the Mouqavopians, it was clear it had to be Parks. It also had to be a Mouqavopian who clubbed me, I have heard that some of them have a habit of hiding in cabinets. And Parks had taught him enough to start the ship. He probably did not even know what he was doing."
"I am told that even though Parks was exposed, they are going to send us elsewhere and bring in a new crew. Is there any possibility I might be able to see you afterward?"
"I am a regular fast courier ship traveler."
"That was pretty blunt."
"I do not want to hurt your feelings. But unless you really want to risk being in a relationship with someone where there is a different age differential between you each time you meet, it is best you know it up front. It is better to be hurt a little now than a lot later." Not to mention there may be someday when my principles clash with those of the Empire, putting me and anyone related to me in serious danger.
I walked away, one more person to put behind me, one more face to forget. I remember all the old stories of the two-fisted hero, who always saved the day and got the girl and rode off into the sunset. Real life is not like that. Real life is that you do the will of God as best you can and pray that you have made a difference. And sometimes that is all we have.