Sigurd starts his investigation
approximately 2060 words
"Murder on Cabot's Landing"
We owe star travel and everything else to one woman’s persistent belief in ghosts.
--Op-Ed from the Pasargadae Post, 25 Ventôse, 31841
Invisible needles prickled Kolonel Sigurd von Dorestad's skin as he passed through the force field at the entrance to the bridge of the Zuiderkruis. The field marked the transition to 0.1 G, which also brought a wave of dizziness, but through grim determination he kept his back stiff and face expressionless.
Captain Helga Fokke turned to face him, her diamond-and-platinum studded uniform glittering in the ruddy lighting of the Bridge.
He avoided rolling his eyes. Everything about her screamed she was a peasant who confused glitz with class. He'd chosen his own appearance, from his austere, ebony uniform, to his fastidious stubble beard and his close-cropped hair, to send a message about his personna. At least he had the intelligence to construct an image with the desired effect, even if most likely she didn't have the wit to understand it.
Still, it never hurt to pretend respect.
Sigurd snapped to attention and rapped out, "Sigurd van Dorestad reporting as requested, ma'am." He didn't salute. She was just a merchant captain, after all, and he wore the uniform of an officer in the Margrave's personal guard. Even a bedizened lickspittle like her couldn't miss the significance of the interlocking triangles of the Volknut tattooed on his left cheek.
When she smiled, she at least looked sincere. "Kolonel, thank you for coming so promptly." She leaned back and templed her fingers. "We've encountered a bit a situation on the planet below, and I wondered if you might be of assistance?"
Sigurd narrowed his eyes. What kind of situation would require a Kolonel of the Royal Guard? "My duty is to serve, ma'am, to the extent my modest skills permit. What sort of assistance do you require?"
She stroked the touchpad on her command chair and pointed to a screen that flickered to life. "There's been an unexpected death on the planet below."
He glanced at the screen. "That's unfortunate, but how does that--" The image showed a body twisted on a Terrazzo floor, with dark blood pooled underneath the head. He walked closer to the screen. One side of the victim's skull appeared to be crushed. "This man's been killed." He'd seen enough battlefield deaths. The conclusion was obvious.
"That's what the new Resident claimed. Elam something. Vandreren. What makes you so sure?"
"The skull wound is obviously from what the medics would call 'blunt force trauma.'"
She nodded. "I knew you could help."
He stepped back in dismissal. "I'm a soldier, not a police detective."
"I know that." She glanced at the gruesome scene on the screen, winced, and turned it off. "Look, my crew are all qualified in their professional ratings, but none of them can handle this. The Syndicate's bean counters are even less helpful. At least you have official standing with the government."
Official standing. He had that, for certain, and far more than anyone on this ship knew. His duty was clear, and unavoidable. "I will do what I can." He always did his duty. It had been ground into him from birth.
"That's all anyone can ask, Kolonel."
He nodded. "I will have your authority, then to act as needed?" Better to phrase it as a question and continue to hold his true status in reserve.
"I will draft a document for you to sign delegating your authority in this matter to me." Not that he really needed it, but it would be helpful to his ultimate goals. "What else do you know?"
"Not much. The dead man, Jack Torrance, is the outgoing Resident. The Sector Auditor and the new Resident just arrived to make official the transfer of duties when they found the body. Oh, and the new Resident, Vandreren, says Torrance's spouse must be the murderer. Torrance and his wife were the only two people on the planet before today."
"Well, then, if that's true this will be an easy case to solve. What does the spouse say? And what's her name?"
"Uh, let me check." Her fingers ran over her touchpad, and holographic text popped in front of her. "It's here somewhere. The contract was with Mr. Torrance. Ah, here we are. Wendy. Her name is Wendy."
"And what does this Wendy Torrance have to say?"
"Nothing. At least, they haven't been able to locate her. She's apparently about five hundred clicks north, at the ruins of an old pre-Disintegration settlement."
"That's according to the AI. Full telemetry with the village was never re-established when the mines re-opened. No reason to. Anyway, she's not answering her phone, and the AI can't locate her."
He considered the briefings he'd read on Cabot's Landing. "The islands aren't large. Do satellite scans show anything? Like other suspects, for example?"
"The old satellite system is kind of spotty, but since the mines closed, there's never been any indication of other people on the surface, or other animal life for that matter, except for some wild chickens and fox on one of the smaller islands. In any case, the satellites won't have anything from the ruins for thirty hours or so."
He remembered reading about the abandoned agricultural station on one of the southern islands. "So, no people except the Resident and his spouse."
"Exactly. This place has been abandoned for over forty years. Nothing but an official Resident, plus routine audits , in all that time. Mr. and Mrs. Torrance were the only people on the planet."
"You mean, the only people as far as you know."
She rolled her eyes. "Yes. I guess. As far as anyone knows."
"There are two commercial spaceports and an old Grand Alliance Navy Ghost Fleet Station on this planet. How do we know there haven't been landings at those?"
"The AI should know that. There's telemetry to all three spaceports."
"Has anyone actually asked the AI?"
"Not that I know of. Wouldn't the AI report it if they had seen something?"
"Depends on their programming. AI can be pretty literal-minded. If no one asks, they might just record the fact."
"Oh. I wouldn't know. No AI on lowly merchant ships." She flashed him a smile. "See, Kolonel? You already know things and ask things none of us would have dreamt of."
He shrugged. Her compliments meant nothing. "How soon can you arrange transport to the surface?"
Her eyebrows shot up. "You're still planning to visit the old Ghost Fleet base?"
"Yes, of course. But for a proper investigation, I'll need to be on the scene. Talk to witnesses, and so on. I'll also need to take your medical officer with me. We'll need an autopsy."
"Oh. We don't have a medical officer. Just a corpsman."
"Fine. Send him. Or her."
"I'd rather not. We might need him here. There's only two witnesses, by the way. The Syndicate's auditor, and the new Resident. I thought you'd just interview them from here. If you must have an autopsy, we can ship the body to the ship's infirmary."
Sigurd's face heated. He controlled his breathing. "You agreed that I have your authority in this matter. Captain."
"Well, yes. Of course. But--"
"No buts. Either I have full authority or not. No arguments. No justifications needed." He waited. Underlings usually caught on, but she wasn't as used to taking orders as he was to giving them.
She waved a hand at him. "Whatever. I just need this off my watch. I'll have the shuttle come back and I'll let the corpsman know."
"How long before I'm on the ground?"
She frowned. "Let me think how the orbits match up. Make it, say, ten hours, give or take an hour."
He sighed. Ten hours was an eternity for this kind of thing. He mentally reviewed what little he knew of the auditor and the new Resident. The file on the latter was amazingly sparse. His IQ was off the charts, though. So were his socialization scores, but in the opposite direction. Still, he might be more help than an accountant. "I need to talk to the people on the ground sooner than ten hours from now."
"I'll send you the comm links." She glanced at a flashing light on one of her screens. "Let me know what else you need."
Sigurd recognized her dismissal. "I'll do that, ma'am." He pivoted and left the bridge, almost grateful for the stability of return to a 1.2G field.
His Spartan quarters consisted of a bunk, a micro-bathroom, and a desk with computer. The comm program had been updated with the link to the Auditor, one Malcom Bender. Sigurd pressed the call button and waited.
Moments later, an officious voice answered, "Bender here." He wore a floral print shirt and appeared to be sitting on a balcony overlooking a body of water. Kennebec covered most of the sky behind him.
"Mr. Bender. Greetings. I am Kolonel Sigurd van Dorestad. Captain Fokke has asked that I look into the murder you found on the planet."
"I'm not convinced it was a murder."
"I've seen a photo of the body. He didn't bash in his own skull. No fall could cause that injury. He was killed."
"You sound like Mr. Vandreren. He's the one that insisted there be an investigation."
"He sounds like a smart man. I wonder if I might speak to him?"
"If you wish. He's right here." The image wobbled and lost focus, and then the lean features of a man in his late thirties appeared on the screen.
"Vandreren here. Who are you?"
"Kolonel Sigurd van Dorestad of the Royal Guard. Captain Fokke asked that I investigate the murder you found."
The man nodded. "You're part of the Margrave's personal guard. I recognize the Volknut tattoo. I'll be glad to help in any way I can."
Smart and well informed, too. He seemed personable enough, despite the socialization scores. "Thank you, Mr. Vandreren. If you'll first just tell me, in your own words, everything that has happened since your arrival on planet."
"Call me Elam. I don't go in much for formality."
Sigurd permitted himself a tight smile. He already liked this man. "Me either. I'm Sigurd."
Elam nodded. "All right, then. He then proceeded with an account that was both detailed and brief, almost as if he'd had training in military intelligence. He concluded with how Bender had insisted on cocktails in the Lodge's executive dining room, and then said, "We still haven't contacted Mrs. Torrance. Someone needs to go to Lansbury to try to locate her."
Lansbury. That was the village Fokke had mentioned. "I agree. I understand it's several hundred clicks away."
"Ten hours by monorail, according to Cornwall. Er, that's the activation word for the local AI."
"Ten hours. It's going to be that long before I can get to the surface. Twenty hours is too long to wait. We need to start looking now."
Elam nodded. "Exactly what I was thinking. I asked, and there's a flitter at the spaceport here by the Lodge. By air, I can get there in not more than three hours."
"Do you have a flitter license?" Strange that wasn't in his file.
The man grimaced. "My license has lapsed. But I can fly one."
"My understanding the village is a ruin. There isn't likely to be suitable runway there."
"The flitter has VTOL capability. Probably so it can go anywhere on Bountiful and the other islands. The ancients had a pretty large agricultural station on one of the south islands where there's no monorail link."
The guy obviously had absorbed in-depth information on the planet. On the other hand, Sigurd had read Elam's briefing on Cabot's Landing, and there was no mention of the old agricultural station. Interesting how Elam knew about it. What else might this guy know?
Time enough for that later. Back to the business at hand. "If you're willing, it would be most helpful if you could locate Mrs. Torrance. You have my leave to take the flitter to Lansbury. If you find her, you have my authority to detain her for questioning."
Elam gave a little twitch, almost as if he were coming to attention and then stopped himself. "Got it. I'll contact you as soon as I have visual contact with Lansbury. Uh, I'll have to get a phone from Cornwall. He should be able to link it with the ship's systems."
"Agreed. Good to work with you, Elam."
"You, too, sir."
After the connection closed, Sigurd stared at his computer screen. The man was quick. He'd evaluated the tactical situation, arrived at the correct course of action, and proceeded to get authority to act.
Finding a man with Elam's intelligence and skills in the dead-end, doofus job of Resident made no sense. Unless of course, there was more to the man than his two-page dossier revealed. The Margrave's intelligence services had targeted this planet for investigation for a reason. Maybe the same reason had brought Elam here. If so, he was certain to pose a threat to Sigurd's hidden purpose for being on this vessel. That made him a threat to the Realm.
He mentally added Elam Vandreren to the list of things to investigate while in the Cabot's Landing system. Threat elimination was one of his official duties, and he always did his duty.