The two four-year-olds were focused intently on the village they were building out of their toys, paying no attention to their grandmother who watched with a smile. Dark heads bent down, sturdy legs crouched, quietly working in and around each other. A stack of books for the greenhouse, blocks for houses, stuffed toys inside a makeshift fence to form a school. The little boy moved quickly, dropping a tower in the center, a cluster of flowers that disrupted the straight lines of sheds. His sister didn’t say a word as she rearranged roads and structures without complaint, building order around his chaos.
“I sometimes wonder where she got her patience from,” Cal said in answer.
“Who said she’s being patient?” Lil cocked an eyebrow at her son. “You don’t have to be forbearing with something if you don’t see it as a problem.”
Cal refrained from snorting and smiled instead. Who would have thought that the woman who carefully trained him to be ordered and disciplined would have no problem with a grandson who demonstrated none of those qualities? The privilege of being a grandmother, he supposed. She could just enjoy them without the responibility to raise them.
He didn’t begrudge her the chance to relax. She had led the colony as governor for decades, only officially stepping aside five years ago, and she still worked hard as his advisor. If she wanted to be indulgent of the children, it wouldn’t hurt them any. They had a father and mother to do the harder work of teaching them.
“You’re here early,” he said. “Did Jul call you?”
“I called her,” Lil answered. “I knew she had a lot of work at the clinic. They’re still trying to figure out what’s causing the rash among the school children. I thought she might want to go in early, let me get Bree off to school and stay home with the twins for a change.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s hardly worth any gratitude. There’s no sacrifice when you’re getting to do what you love best.”
“Well, it’s a help to Jul and to me, too. I actually came back to see if she needed anything.”
Lil gave her son a look of pride. “That’s my boy,” she said. “Though of course, I realize you really learned that from your father.” A shadow crossed her face before she chased it away with a flick of her hand. “But run along now. I know you have a busy day, and I have things handled here.”
As if on cue, the tablet in Cal’s hands buzzed loudly. It took a second for him to realize that it was being echoed by the one sitting at Lil’s feet. They shared a quick look before scrambling to swipe open the message.
Code red. SS-10. Murder. Come ASAP.
It took two seconds to read. Then Cal and Lil dropped their tablets in tandem.
“You go now,” Lil said. “I’ll drop the twins at the nursery and meet you there as soon as I can.”
Cal already had two pairs of shoes in hand. He gave them to his mother as he turned to go.
“Cal,” she called after him. “Don’t run. This is exactly the kind of moment when you should appear calm.”
Cal took her advice. He had learned long ago that her advice was always right. But walking with measured steps made his heart race even more. Murder? That couldn’t be right. The colony had been on Una for fifty years with no violent crimes. Interpersonal problems were always dealt with immediately and thoroughly. Everyone knew their survival depended on cooperation. The worse crime they’d dealt with in a decade was a case of petty theft, and that had been a couple of kids.
The space science work groups had offices in a rectangular building near the northwest gate, with quick access to the observatory that had been built in the hills outside the settlement. Cal’s uncle Max ruled supreme in that building, technically head astrophysicist but in reality a personal mentor to almost everyone who worked there. They were a reclusive bunch, eyes fixed upward on the sky or downward on their calculations more than side to side at their fellow colonists. Not that they didn’t work as hard for the good of the colony as everyone else. They just did it from their own ivory tower.
From the outside, the space science building looked normal. No one rushed in or out. Nothing seemed out of place.
Cal opened the front door onto the small open lobby. Photos of the universe covered the walls, and a few chairs were grouped around work tables, but otherwise the space was empty. A few of the larger offices were right off of this room, but Cal knew the hallway straight ahead would lead him to SS-10. Memorizing the layout of all of the colony’s buildings was easy when you made regular rounds. The governors of Wayland were known for being present among the people.
The hallway was quiet, most of the doors were shut to keep out distractions, or perhaps their occupants had been on duty at the observatory last night and were now at home sleeping. Only the door to SS-06 was open, and the man inside had huge headphones over his ears and his eyes shut as he drew something on his tablet. Under other circumstances, Cal would have been curious, but today, he was just glad that everyone here seemed to be unaware of the crisis. It was important to be clear on the facts before rumors and panic spread.
The door to SS-10 was half-shut, likely to keep away casual observers, and Cal pushed it open without hesitating. It was a sizeable office, but crowded with three work spaces. His uncle Max was standing in the center of the room, watching as a doctor leaned over a body that had been stretched out on one of the desks. From the look of things, the contents of the desk had been hastily dumped on the floor to make room.
Max’s salt and pepper hair was standing up even more than usual but he answered calmly enough. “She collapsed over her morning coffee. I happened to come in to ask a question, so I called the clinic immediately. By the time Dr. Nokes arrived, she had stopped breathing.”
Cal stepped closer to the desk and took in the bloodless face of the woman lying there. He recognize her, and his memory supplied the rest from her file. Wyn Lee. Age 42. Astronomer. Widow. One child, now her apprentice.
“I’ve got her stabilized for now, but it was a close call,” the doctor said.
Cal’s breath caught. “She’s not dead?” He turned to his uncle. “Your message said…”
“Murder,” the old man growled. “Thank God we can change that to attempted murder.”
“He’s already admitted to poisoning her coffee,” Max said, jerking his head toward the corner behind Cal. Sitting on a chair wedged between a desk and the wall was a man.
Ah. Of course. Wyn Lee had a twin brother, Ny, also an astronomer. The two had been working together their whole lives.
“He’s not talking, but I’ve got a good idea. We can go over it all once we get out of here. Doc wants to take the girl back to the hospital, but I made her wait for you. This needs someone to be smart about it. I don’t want my whole group disrupted.”
Cal had the unaccountable urge to laugh, but he stifled it easily. “Your group? Uncle, this is going to disrupt the whole colony.”
“Well, it’s your job to take care of that, isn’t it?”
It was, and Cal believed in doing his job.
“Wyn needs the hospital. Gettting her back to health is our first priority. Doctor, do we have medics available to transport her?”
“I’ve already called them. They should be here any minute.”
“Great. When they come, we will tell them, and anyone who asks, the truth, that she collapsed over her coffee and that you were able to revive her, but nothing else. I’ll see to it that we get you samples of the coffee so that you know what toxins you’re working with. I’ll inform the lab tech who works with it that it was intentionally introduced poison. We don’t want to compromise the lab’s ability to be useful to her recovery. But leave that conversation to me, please. Everyone else only needs to know the necessary facts to care for the patient.”
Dr. Nokes nodded. She was a very practical woman. Cal would have preferred that Jul had answered this call, but Mol Nokes was a good second.
“We’ll need to take the coffee, including the cups, into evidence. Uncle, do you have anything here we can use to transport them safely without damaging the evidence?”
“I’ve some sample boxes borrowed from earth sciences. I’ll get you one of those.”
“Thank you. We’ll also need to seal off this room until we have a chance to investigate further. It’s a crime scene now.” The words sounded surreal to Cal, but both his uncle and the doctor nodded as if it was all very sensible.
“I can lock up when we go. Only these two and their apprentice have key cards.”
“The apprentice is her daughter, right? Where is she? She’ll need to be informed.”
“She’ll be at home sleeping. Spent the night at the observatory.”
“Is there anyone you trust to go wake her and take her to the hospital? She should see her mother, but not be told the details until you and I can do so in person.”
“I’ll send Jo,” Max said. “They’re friends.”
“We’ll interview Ny in my office. There is a room next door that can be used for detention.” It had only been used once before, and right now it was full of musical instruments that one of their master musicians had been inventing from local resources. Cal had been studying them in his free time. “Will he go quietly?”
“I think so,” Max answered.
“I can sedate him if you’re worried,” the doctor suggested.
“I’d rather not,” Cal answered.
“That won’t be necessary,” Max was growling again. “He’s not a stupid boy. He gave up the truth as soon as he saw that I was not going to believe it was an accident, and he knows there’s nowhere to run to.”
Cal nodded and turned for the first time to the suspect in question. “I’m not going to restrain you. You’re just going to walk between me and Max all the way to my office, and then you are going to sit in the chair I give you there. Are we clear?”
Ny nodded, his dark eyes blank.
Two medics rushed into the room. The doctor immediately began to instruct them on moving Wyn. Mercifully, they asked no further questions.
“Uncle, we’ll go as soon as we get that sample box.”
Max ducked out of the room. Cal could hear him saying something in the hallway, and then Lil entered.
“Max says you have everything under control.”
“Thank the stars.”
“Talk more at the office?” she said with a significant look at the medics.
“Yes. Max will bring a sample box that we can use to take the most important evidence with us. Can you handle that?”
Lil nodded and followed him to the third desk which held two identical cups of synthetic coffee, each swirled with a white substance that was undoubtedly a milk substitute. The perfect symmetry was eery. Both cups nearly full. Both with a small smudge on one side showing where someone had taken a drink. A sort of horror came over Cal as he pictured brother and sister sitting down and drinking their twin coffees, while one waited for the other to die.
The medics were already leaving with Wyn carried on a stretcher between them. Dr. Nokes gave Cal a curt nod as she followed them out.
“I’m not sure if I’m ready for this,” he said in a low voice only his mother could hear.
“No one’s ever ready for this,” she answered. “The universe never asks for permission.”
She was right. Luckily it didn’t matter what the universe wanted. It had been throwing curve balls at humankind since the beginning, and humankind just kept swinging until it figured out how to hit a home run. Or at least a good single. This would be no different.
Cal turned toward the would-be murderer and began to plan.