A stinking, suppurating tramp falls in front of you. You turn on the oxygen mask so you don’t have to smell him.
How did this get on the ship anyhow?
You key the refuse code into the instrument panel on the wall. The panel sides open and the trash collector robot crawls out, clamps onto the tramp and drags him off towards the garbage disposal air-lock. You switch off the oxygen. It’s too precious to waste out here in space. You key in another code. Along the corridor you hear the familiar hum of the housekeeping robot trundling towards you. It will be here in a few seconds.
Thank goodness. We can have this spot disinfected quickly.
The communication signal chirps in your ear. You press the intra-audio unit on your collar, “Dr Franklin.”
“Good morning, Dr Franklin,” responds the communication android. “Your presence is requested by Commander Hyde on the observation deck.”
“Thank you, I’ll be there momentarily.” You like the word ‘momentarily’. You say it again to yourself after you have disengaged the unit. You saunter along the corridor, pausing to talk to one or two people, deliberately keeping the Commander waiting. It’s one of your little pleasures.
You arrive at the observation deck doorway. At the press of a brass button the panel hisses, groans and with a hard clank the gears above the door pull up the panel. You glance around the room, it’s nearly empty. The waitress androids are cleaning the tables, wiping down the counters and serving the two officers leaning against the bar, talking quietly to each other. You recognise them, but you’re not sure from where. They have the look of those government types you see every now and then, usually strolling around in a towel in the men’s locker room. You’ve never seen them work out, but with bodies that muscular they must do. They seldom come into the surgery. You don’t like them. They have a code you’ve never fully understood; some ‘all for one and one for all' crap. You smile pleasantly at them as you pass.
The Commander is on the platform, at the far end of the walkway that stretches off into the 360Observatory. You like this place. You designed it; not bad for a space-medic, especially as it won an award for Spatial Concept Excellence at the Universal Fair ten years ago. You walk up to the Commander, you don’t stroll but you don’t stride either. You keep it professional. He’d only see insolence if he looked for it.
“John,” you say. You don’t salute and you don’t call him ‘Sir’. You and Commander Hyde were at flight school together. He married your sister. You’ve known each other too long for all that nonsense. You like to remind him of that.
“I’ve asked you before to salute me when there are others in the room.” It’s not a request. You snap out a salute, he gives a brief wave in response. You stand at ease, but not relaxed – something is wrong.
Bastard. Your bald spot’s growing. Bet you can’t keep it up any more either.
“Have you been able to find out anything on that matter we discussed two weeks ago?” He’s fiddling with his chronometer, not looking at you. Your mind goes blank.
He glances up at you. “The disappearing crew?”
You breathe a sigh of relief. Of course you know what happened to them. “I’ve made enquirIes and, for the most part, those that had gone missing have been found. Thank goodness,” you add quickly.
“Yes,” He clearly wants an explanation but you’re going to make him wait. The hum of the housekeeping robot travels backwards and forwards across the room behind you.
“Anywhere in particular?” he asks politely.
“I don’t have the list with me,” you retort as if he’s being unreasonable. He nods and pulls down his cuffs to make his sleeves fit a bit better. He has arms like an orangutan so that won’t help. You try not to smirk.
“Do you remember Burke and Willis?” he asks.
You frown as if trying to remember. “No, not off hand. Engine room aren’t they?” Not bad, the engine room is ten stories down from where you are now.
Like I care who they are.
“Something like that.” He reaches out quickly and slaps you on the shoulder, gripping you hard. “We’ve known each other a long time.”
Too long ape-man.
“Yes, we have,” you reply.
But not much longer, if you only knew. Prat.
He nods and then leaves the room, his short, bowed legs crossing the carpet in tight measurements. You look out the 360Observatory window and feel like you’re suspended in space. That’s the way you designed it. The tramp, or what’s left of him, rags mostly, float past on their way to the outer reaches of darkness. You try not to laugh. No one will ever find the missing crew members. You’ve made sure of that. Amazing what can go out the garbage air-lock. Soon this ship will be free of vermin.
Hearing a sound behind you, you turn. It’s the garbage disposal and housekeeping robots.
They look like they’re waiting for orders. Droids, the best invention since the air-lock. Clean, efficient, unemotional and obedient. Nice little bots.
There is a click, a whirr. A blue light beams out of each of the robots’ heads. The lights coalesce and holograms appear in front of you. In spite of the chill you feel creeping up your spine, you’re impressed with the work.
These are quite good.
It should be, this is technology beyond the standard HoloG3MarkII version. The holograph moves from the standard 4:3 size to 19:6 and you find you’re looking into your own eyes. A faint feeling of queasiness stirs in the pit of your stomach. This cannot be good.
Who fitted the droids with CaptureGraphic3 units? And when?
The image moves and you see every clean-up you’ve done over the last two months replay in front of you. The signal is so strong the image doesn’t waver; it’s absolutely clear. In front of each image is the gel-chron time-and-date render bar. It’s correct to the nanosecond. As you watch, the transmission ends with the tramp disappearing around the corner.
“Dr Franklin?” It’s the two government types.
His lips twitch at the corners. It’s not there, but you can sense the grin behind his tightly controlled slash of a mouth. The big man indicates himself and his partner. “Burke, Willis.”
“That’s ridiculous,” you say. “Burke and Willis were the…” You realise your mistake. You’re stunned it took you so long to remember.
“Body snatchers. Yes,” he replies. “The Council has a sense of humour.”
The other man speaks. “Dr Franklin, you legally have thirty seconds to make a choice. If you fail to make a choice, one will be made for you. You can choose to come quietly with us now and face a trial by jury once we reach Beta Selcius, or you may take the Gentleman’s Choice – the air-lock.”
“What! This can’t be right!” you splutter.
“Those are your rights.” He looks at you for a moment. You don’t know what to say; you need time to think.
“I want to talk to Commander Hyde!”
He takes his watch out of his waistcoat pocket and engages the countdown mechanism. To your horror, the face of the chronometer is captured by the androids and spat out as a three dimensional, pale blue, transparent image in front of you, as tall as you. Its hand clicks mesmerizingly from one mark to another as it moves towards your oblivion. You hear a sigh and the holograph disappears.
Burke steps forward.
“That’s not enough time!”
“That’s justice,” says the snatcher. Willis puts the watch away. They reach for you; twist your arms viciously behind you, snapping the handcuffs on as tightly as they can. With their iron-like hands clamped on your arms, they march you off between them, deaf to your protests.
As you pass through the doorway you see a man leaning against the corridor wall. He gives you a brief salute and a grim, ironic smile. Your stomach drops. It’s the tramp.
The housekeeping robot follows behind you vacuuming the floor with a satisfied hum.
Nice little bot.