Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 38
Stories
The Sound of Death
by Gareth D. Jones
Underwater Restorations, Part 2
by Jeffrey A Ballard
Rights and Wrongs
by Brian K. Lowe
A Little Trouble Dying
by Edmund R. Schubert
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
New wave
by Chris Bellamy

The Sound of Death
    by Gareth D. Jones

The Sound of Death
Artwork by Scott Altmann

The doorway to the apartment was guarded by a Peace Officer, all six arms folded across his corrugated chest plate. The vermillion sash of the Service contrasted vividly with the dark grey leather of his skin. Inspector Ek-Lo-Don traversed the length of the corridor, floor-claws tapping out a signature of authority. The guard acknowledged his approach with a subservient-professional rattle of his upper-midclaws.

"Has anyone been inside?" Ek-Lo-Don asked with a muted chattering of his outer jaw.

"Only to verify the location of the body."

The guard stood aside and Ek-Lo-Don pushed through the warm doorway sphincter which gave way with a welcoming murmur. Within was dim warmth. The entry matting gave under his claws with a tinkling crunch of joviality and sprang back into shape with a complementary whoosh of studiousness. The inspector cocked his head: an interesting combination.

The room was a large oval, much bigger than standard. Four door sphincters at diagonal opposites led, he presumed, to the sleep chamber, excretorium, sloughing chamber and storage. Around the walls, an array of high quality furniture: tables, chairs, brood couch, trophy cabinet. In the centre of the floor, a body.

The inspector stepped forward and leaned over the deceased. A male of early middle age with grey-green skin and dull, uncared-for claws. No obvious signs of violence, disease or unplanned sloughing.

He circled the room slowly. There was no indication of a struggle, but several signs of neglect. Dust had accumulated on various surfaces, the door sphincter to the sleeping chamber hung limp. The trophy cabinet was disorderly, many of the trophies having been pushed back to make room for an empty tray stained scarlet with the remains of lika beetles. He lifted the tray carefully and held it close to his head. No sound. The beetles had been eaten at least several hours earlier for their remains to be silent.

He put the tray aside carefully and turned his attention to the trophies, handling them respectfully. There was a curious mixture of awards for scholarly excellence and sporting proficiency. A suitable reflection of the entry matting signature. Each was marked with the dead male's name: Lak-Do-Sil. None were more recent than a dozen seasons ago. He placed each back in the cabinet carefully, lined up in an orderly display that would not distress the deceased's family. There seemed to be one missing; the trophies did not match the marks in the dust.

He stooped beside the body for a particularly unpleasant task. Using his lower-midclaws he prised open the male's outer jaw and peered closely at the inner jaw. The lika staining was old and ingrained: an addict for sure. He let the jaws snap shut on the distasteful sight. Only his brood mate had ever heard the intimate chatter of his own inner jaw, and she had only seen its workings on brooding occasions.

Addiction did not lead to death, merely to slovenliness and torpor. He shook the corpse gently from side to side. A faint tinkling. He leaned closer and shook the body harder. Lika beetle continued to chime for several hours after consumption, but something did not sound right.

He stood and pushed through the sphincter into the storage unit. A dozen shelves held containers of all kinds, but the one he sought was directly ahead, within easy reach for the addict. Several dozen brown beetles crawled and squirmed silently within a clear glass case, vainly seeking escape. He carried the case out and placed it on a table.

Ek-Lo-Don snatched a beetle from the case and crunched down on its carapace. It tinkled merrily as it died, and Ek-Lo-Don spat the remains onto the table where it continued to jingle as it oozed crimson fluids. The sharp, seductive taste trickled across his tongue and he almost picked up the broken shell to toss back into his mouth. He held his claws in abeyance with rigid determination. He could not afford to go down that route again.

The beetle did not sound quite right. He peered carefully into the glass case. Some of the beetles were moving more sluggishly. He snatched one up and examined it closely. It was a shade darker than it should be, its underside striated instead of smooth. Wild lika-lika beetles. Same taste, same euphoric effect, very similar death sound, but toxic. A few would be tolerable, but too many were fatal. Around a quarter of the box looked to be lika-likas. They were slower, easier to catch. The addict was likely to have caught and eaten many of them. He could have bought them from an unscrupulous dealer, or maybe he was desperate enough to have foraged for them himself.

He returned to the corpse of Lak-Do-Sil and shook it again. Yes, that was it. The jingle of lika beetle corrupted by their wild and poisonous relatives. Satisfied at the answer, he called the Peace Officer to assist with the body. They pushed it into the excretorium and set the system to maximum purge.

Yet there was a trophy missing. Ek-Lo-Don stood and pondered as the guard exited the apartment once more. It was unlikely that Lak-Do-Sil had put the trophy anywhere else, and the dust marks indicated that it had been in place until relatively recently. His initial, unbiased examination complete and the immediate cause of death established, it was time to delve into the dead male's background and start piecing together the puzzle of his life.

From his abdominal pouch, Ek-Lo-Don pulled a small informational unit. The dark-brown slab of bioware meshed with the apartment's unit, assured it of Ek-Lo-Don's credentials and downloaded its former inhabitant's information. Most of it was of no interest -- humidity settings, diurnal cycles, auriology collection -- but as the data slithered across his unit, Ek-Lo-Don looked for items that would paint a picture of the victim's life. There was not much. Lak-Do-Sil had evidently been somewhat of a recluse, even before the lika addiction took control of his life. There were a few business associates listed, even fewer personal acquaintances. There were no records of any of them having come to the apartment. There was nothing in the recent past to explain why the victim lived in such a well-appointed apartment. It was evidently an achievement of his earlier years.

Eventually he came to the records of most interest and paused the display to study a catalogue of trophies. He counted them off as he flicked through. The missing item was a fourteen-year-old winner's trophy for the regional Intelligencia challenge. It had no intrinsic value, else it may have been sold to pay for the lika addiction. It was equally an odd thing to steal.

He left thoughtfully and rejoined the guard. Farther along towards the less desirable end of the corridor a wizened head peered at them curiously from another doorway, then disappeared swiftly within.

"Standard questions to the neighbours will be required," Ek-Lo-Don said. The guard gave an acknowledging rattle and turned to his task.

Ek-lo-Don appraised the door sphincter. It was spotlessly clean on the outside, like the rest of the corridor. Any sloughed cells would be caught on the inner edge, abraded away on exit from the victim's home. He took a gum-leech from its carrying cylinder and rubbed the sticky beast up and down the inner edges, allowing it to gather cells into its preserving mucus for future digestion. The poor creature would sadly go hungry after its hard work, when the Service technicians extracted the cells for analysis, but Ek-Lo-Don was sure they would offer it some other dainty treat in recompense. He popped it back in the cylinder and clattered away from the door, leaving the guard to his questionings.

The Peace Service was headquartered in a long, low building comprised of a series of interlinked ovoids. Inspector Ek-Lo-Don shared a large, curved office with several colleagues. He clacked greetings at them as he entered and snapped impatiently at a clerk who was trying to leave the room. The small neuter drone was laden with a mish-mash of carrying cylinders balanced precariously on its upper-midclaws. It bobbed and chattered nervously, darting behind Ek-Lo-Don and away into another room. The inspector sank gratefully into the warm cocoon of his console chair and relaxed against its spongy support.

It would be a couple of hours before the lab could report back on the extracted cells from his leech. Ek-Lo-Don uploaded the data from his informational onto the much more powerful biomind of the office mesh and set it to work looking for patterns, correlations, anomalies and coincidences. While the console hummed and rippled, he leant back and closed his inner ocular veil, blanking his realtime vision so that he could replay the memory of Lak-Do-Sil's apartment. As the vision played out against his veil he used the freedom to study every part of the scene, no longer tied to a single point of focus as he had been in realtime.

There was not much to see in the apartment, even on a second inspection. The dead male's furnishings were minimal, his possessions meagre. He followed the replay into the storage unit where, at the time, his attention had been on the lika beetles. This time he noted, one shelf above and a space across, an unopened jar of claw lacquer. It was the same variety Ek-Lo-Don used himself, in the smart new mauve design that had been launched only weeks earlier. A perfectly ordinary item in anyone's home, but out of place for a dishevelled addict. He watched closely as the viewpoint returned to the body, and peered down at Lak-Do-Sil's claws. They were dull and scratched. The male had obviously not lacquered them for a long time, so why would he obtain a new jar of lacquer?

With a satisfied shimmer, Ek-Lo-Don's console announced the completion of its data analysis. None of the victim's acquaintances had any recorded connection to lika addicts or suppliers, or any criminal records more serious than a public sloughing offence. Two acquaintances had competed in Intelligencia competitions alongside the victim, and one had formerly lived in a neighbouring apartment.

The Peace Officer from the apartment complex arrived in the office and handed over his informational. Ek-Lo-Don meshed it with his console, downloaded the neighbour interviews and sent the officer to deliver neighbour cell samples to the techs and ascertain the locations of local lika suppliers. Addicts became creatures of habit, unable to concentrate on anything too complicated outside of their routine. The dead male's source would be local.

There were eleven interviews on the download, and the officer had flagged three of them for attention. First, a furtive male from the far end of the corridor who barely answered any questions but showed signs of aggressive jaw-tremor when Lak-Do-Sil's name was mentioned. The second was a shy female with decorated chest plate who admitted to entering the apartment on several occasions to offer addict counselling; apparently this was her avocation. She did not seem discomfited by the death. Ek-Lo-Don recognised the third face as the elderly male who had peered at him from along the corridor. The male was brusque, almost confrontational. He admitted to disliking his late neighbour, with whom he had argued on several occasions. The arguments were, apparently, about trivialities, not necessarily worth killing over. These arguments were confirmed by several of the other neighbours. Ek-Lo-Don skimmed through these interviews swiftly, trusting the judgement of the officer that they were of lesser significance.

Evening was approaching by this time, the swollen orange sun low on the horizon. Ek-Lo-Don turned his console to slumber mode where it would continue to think subconsciously about the data from the case and possibly draw new conclusions by morning.

He allowed his mind to relax from prolonged concentration before rising. Unbidden, thoughts of his brood mate came to mind, Se-Se-Lin-Dor as she had been when they first met. Young and green and burnished. He had long since banished from his mind the image of her broken body after the accident. The accident that left such a huge hole in his life. A hole that only lika beetle seemed able to fill.

He hated this kind of case, the memories it stirred. Se-Se-Lin-Dor's death was an accident; there was nothing to be done about it. The decline of his power, his increasing inability to investigate even the most straight-forward of crimes, the threat of being evicted from the Peace Service. Those were the things that triggered him to break free of lika. Now the pursuit of justice was his addiction.

It was still early when Ek-Lo-Don made his way back to the office. The sky was barely tinged orange and only a few neuter drones were going about their business on the sleepy avenues. He was first in the office and helped himself to a beaker of stimulating karva juice while his console trembled into wakefulness.

Results from the cell samples had been uploaded from the lab overnight. There were three individuals whose samples were fresh enough to be of interest: the female amateur counsellor, the argumentative neighbour, who had not mentioned entering the apartment, and one of Lak-Do-Sil's acquaintances from his intelligencia society. The locations of three lika traders in the vicinity of Lak-Do-Sil's apartment had also been flagged for his attention.

After considering the best route to take, Ek-Lo-Don left his office to head across town and visit intelligencia Ak-Ron-Bar. There was not enough time to spare for such a long trek on foot, so he summoned a pair of drones. The two prostrated themselves before him and he stepped on to their backs. He clacked peremptorily and they galloped down the avenue, carrying him swiftly through the thickening stream of pedestrians. Rows of low, domed buildings in subtle shades passed by as they crossed half the town and entered a neighbourhood of homes that were old and worn yet still dignified.

Ak-Ron-Bar's doorchime fluted arrogant intelligence.

The door sphincter relaxed a moment later and Ek-Lo-Don pushed through into darkness, leaving the drones to bask in the sun. He stopped, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the change in luminosity. There was no change, just pitch darkness. He felt suddenly dizzy, put out his upper and lower midclaws to steady himself. There was nothing within reach. He lurched forward in the sudden realisation that the floor was tilting away from him.

He fell into the unknown.

Warm light gradually illuminated a small, circular room and Ek-Lo-Don levered himself to his hindclaws. Above, a ramp led into darkness, out of reach even if it had offered any grip to pull himself out. Trapped.

Then light suffused the space above the pit and a small face peered over the rim.

"I do not know you," the male said.

"No," Ek-Lo-Don replied curtly.

The face disappeared. Seconds later the ramp lowered down to Ek-Lo-Don's level and rippled into a tractionable pattern. He clambered awkwardly up to the entrance hall and the ramp slid smoothly back into place. He turned slowly and glared at the small, quizzical male who stood staring at him in turn.

"I am Inspector Ek-Lo-Don of the Peace Service."

"Really? What are you doing in my home?"

"Investigating a death." He raised his midclaws fractionally to emphasize his authority. "Why did you attempt to trap me?"

"Ah, that." Ak-Ron-Bar gestured dismissively. "A variation on the entrance enigmas practiced by the intelligencia."

"You trapped me in a pit."

"Yes." Ak-Ron-Bar sounded disappointed. "The intelligencia are seldom to be found among the Peace Service."

"The fact remains --"

"The fact is that you were unable to conquer the enigma I designed and to enter safely."

"Why would such an enigma be necessary?"

"Intelligence," Ak-Ron-Bar said. "Those among the intelligencia continually test each other in such ways."

Ek-Lo-Don considered this for a moment. "And have you recently tested Lak-Do-Sil?"

Ak-Ron-Bar waved a claw of disdain. "He was not worthy of the title Intelligencia."

"And why is that?"

"His reasoning was shallow, his knowledge catalogued rather than intuitive. His victories at intelligencia finals can be ascribed to deception rather than ingenuity."

A thought struck Ek-Lo-Don. "You speak of him in the past tense."

"Indeed. He is dead."

"This fact has not been widely publicised. How is it that you are aware of it?"

"You are investigating a death. You asked about him. The logic is so simple that I demean myself by explaining."

"And how recently did you visit Lak-Do-Sil?"

"Two days ago. He had no enigma prepared."

"One of his intelligencia trophies is missing."

"Let me explore your logic," Ak-Ron-Bar said, "to save you time. Several years ago, Lak-Do-Sil won a trophy that I feel should have gone to me, therefore I visited his apartment, killed him and took the trophy for myself."

"Did you take the trophy?"

"Yes. It was rightfully mine. Lak-Do-Sil could not contest the logic of my argument."

"And did you kill him?"

"There was no need. His pitifully addicted condition made it barely worth arguing with him. I gained no satisfaction from the victory."

"And you left no potentially deadly puzzles for him to solve?"

"He would be incapable of solving anything I might design."

"Then you could be sure that he would die after you left his apartment and returned home."

"Of course. Should I have the inclination."

"You seem unconcerned at making yourself sound suspicious."

"Inspector," Ak-Ron-Bar sounded weary, "there is no logical reason for me to kill Lak-Do-Sil."

"Logic is seldom involved," the inspector said. "I may need to speak to you again." He turned and pushed through the door.

The servile drones looked up and scampered over to him. He leaped onto their backs and directed them towards Lak-Do-Sil's apartment.

A block short of his destination, the avenue opened up into a wide plaza dotted with curved, white gazebos. Ek-Lo-Don halted his drones near the justice bell and stepped off into the crowd of males, females and drones who wandered among the stalls purchasing goods. The stall-holders rattled their claws and drummed tabletops in a wide variety of percussive memes to signify the value, usefulness, stylishness or frivolity of their wares. Many of the pedestrians gave way before Ek-Lo-Don's evident authority, the drones in particular scampering to the side in eager subservience.

Tables laden with foodstuffs dominated the first row: karva berries and karva juice, strips of dried leafage and fresh rootage. A dozen varieties of beetle were available pickled, spiced, roasted or fresh and wriggling temptingly. He resisted the urge to sample a few as he passed. The food stalls gave way to booths where chest plate decorations could be applied or engraved, claws lacquered or drones branded. Lengths of entry matting were laid in grand piles and could be personalised while you waited. All kinds of furnishings were on display alongside jars of lacquer, informational units, functional tools and decorative implements.

Towards the far side of the plaza the stalls grew smaller and the goods cheaper. At last Ek-Lo-Don approached the stall of a lika beetle dealer -- a legitimate trade but a disreputable one. He had avoided them for a long time now; the place brought back dark memories. The stallholder looked up nervously and took a small step back.

"I am an Inspector of the Peace Service," Ek-Lo-Don announced. "I have a matter to discuss with you."

The lika dealer cracked open his outer jaw as if to answer, then turned and fled. He pushed through the flap at the rear of the stall and was gone. Ek-Lo-Don vaulted the table and followed.

Through the flap he found himself in a much more cramped world of narrow alleys between the stalls, stacked boxes of merchandise and off-duty stallholders sipping from cracked beakers. The lika dealer, much smaller than the inspector, scampered around and between obstacles, twisting and turning between stalls and through gaps that he evidently knew very well. Ek-Lo-Don struggled after him, relying on greater speed and strength to keep up and barge aside those too slow to recognise his authority and move aside.

The trader stayed a few lengths ahead, pushed through a flap into the back of another stall. Ek-Lo-Don burst through after him and piled into a stack of boxes and a tangle of drones who had fallen amongst the avalanche of toppled merchandise.

Struggling at the bottom of them was the lika trader. Ek-Lo-Don grabbed his neck with his large upper midclaw and hauled the smaller male to his hindclaws.

"Do not flee again," he said, "unless you wish to be neutered."

The trader held up all four midclaws in surrender. Ek-Lo-Don waved at the drones to clear the mess and led the trader through the flap to the quieter service alley.

"Why did you run?" he demanded.

"I was worried about . . . my stall rent," he said.

Ek-Lo-Don shook one claw sceptically. There were probably irregularities of more serious consequence, but the current matters took precedence.

"Take me back to your stall," he said. "I wish to examine your merchandise."

The trader led the way sullenly, with regular prods from behind.

The stall was as it had been left, with several cases of lika beetle on display. Ek-Lo-Don peered into each case in turn. Everything appeared normal.

"What of wild lika-lika?" he asked.

The trader looked uncomfortable. "I could get some if you wanted." He gestured at the cases. "I don't sell them. Why would I?"

Ek-Lo-Don pulled out his informational, conjured an image of Lak-Do-Sil onto its surface.

"Is this male one of your customers?"

The trader barely looked at the image. "No."

Ek-Lo-Don continued to hold it out.

"I am involved in an important investigation. I do not have time to look into your other problems. However, if I feel you are not assisting me then I will make the time."

Nothing would deter Ek-Lo-Don from a line of enquiry once he had started; the trader evidently read this in his manner. He looked around at his stall nervously, peered more closely at the image.

"I've seen him a couple of times, two or three weeks ago. He bought a handful of lika each time."

"Are you sure they weren't lika-lika?"

"Sure, yes. He looked ill, why would I want to poison him?"

Poison him and kill off a potential customer. Lika traders were too selfish for that.

Ek-Lo-Don returned to his drones and directed them to visit the two other lika traders on his list. One operated from a mobile cart three avenues away. He admitted to seeing Lak-Do-Sil once or twice, but possessed no more useful information. The other was based in a small domed shed on the far side of Lak-Do-Sil's apartment. His was the closest supply and he confirmed that the victim had purchased lika almost every week for the past three years. He expressed a certain amount of sympathy over the death, but Ek-Lo-Don could tell his mind was already on other customers who would keep him in business. Neither of these admitted dealing with wild lika-lika and seemed most put out at the suggestion.

Ek-Lo-Don made notes of the encounters on his informational unit and made his way thoughtfully back to the apartment complex.

The old male poked his head through the door sphincter and stared at Ek-Lo-Don.

"I already spoke to one of your people."

"Indeed. You admit to having argued with your neighbour Lak-Do-Sil, who is now dead."

He waved a claw dismissively. "I didn't like him. I also didn't kill him."

"You failed to mention that you had been inside his apartment."

"Who says I did?"

The inspector stared until the old neighbour looked away.

"Your cells were found in the apartment."

There was a pause. "I went in the apartment. He wouldn't come out. He was pathetic, but I didn't hurt him."

He seemed cantankerous, but not murderous. Ek-Lo-Don spoke to him for several more moments but gleaned nothing suspicious. He left the elderly neighbour and moved on to the female farther along the corridor.

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan was a complete contrast to Lak-Do-Sil: well-groomed, with lacquered claws, decorated chest plate and immaculate skin. She invited Ek-Lo-Don into her apartment which was equally well-kept and clean, though much smaller.

"I felt sorry for him," she explained as she sat. "He was addicted to lika, but that was only because of his loneliness."

Ek-Lo-Don lowered himself into one of the lounge chairs and gestured for her to continue.

"His family had nothing to do with him," she said. "He had no close friends or colleagues." She paused, inspected one claw. "I think the intelligencia are like that, you know."

If they were all as arrogant as Ak-Ron-bar, then Ek-Lo-Don was not surprised if they had no friends.

"He'd lost his gift though," Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan went on. "He hadn't won a trophy for several seasons. He gave up competing eventually. Then he had nothing."

Nothing. Ek-Lo-Don had come so close himself.

"So, what was your relationship with him?"

"I tried to help. I work as a counsellor, as I explained to the other officer."

"You have training in this?"

"No." She waved a claw airily. "It's a gift."

"And Lak-Do-Sil was a convenient case to practice on?"

"Certainly not." She sat up straight. "I wanted to help him."

Ek-Lo-Don let the silence hang for a moment. An addict would not recover unless he wanted help. Usually they did not. It had taken Ek-Lo-Don a long time to come to that point.

"And you entered his apartment regularly?" he said.

"Yes. It's such a nice apartment, such a shame he let it get in a mess."

"He had few visitors. Why did he let you in?"

She chattered her teeth in amusement. "I charmed my way in at first." She held all six claws out wide as though to display her finely-maintained torso. "Surely you can see how that would work?"

Ek-Lo-Don disliked being flirted with by a suspect.

"Only at first?"

"Yes." She slumped slightly. "He grew tired of my attempts to counsel him. Later I had to bribe my way in with gifts."

"Such as?"

"A jar of lacquer was the last thing. I wanted to smarten him up. He never used it of course."

Ek-Lo-Don considered the small, neat apartment and the attractive, self-confident female on the lounger in front of him. Strange that she lived alone despite her obvious charms.

"Did you hope to be accepted as his brood mate?" he asked.

"No!" She seemed taken aback by his bluntness. "I was helping him as a neighbour."

He had hit a nerve with that comment. He changed to a different subject, hoping to catch her off-guard.

"Do you know where to obtain lika beetle?"

"No!" She squirmed in her chair. "I mean, yes, certainly I do, from the market, but why would I get any? That's the opposite of what I'm trying to do."

"And if you fail to help one of your clients break their addiction, what then?" Ek-Lo-Don's voice became more intense, probing for a crack in the female's facade.

"Well, it's a shame of course . . ."

"Wouldn't it mean you had failed, lost your gift, become just like Lak-Do-Sil?"

She stood up.

"No, inspector. It would not mean that." She stepped away from her lounger. "I don't think I have anything else to add."

Ek-Lo-Don rose slowly.

"I'm feeling quite upset about the whole thing," Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan said.

The inspector allowed himself to be shown out.

As he stepped into the warm sunshine, Ek-Lo-Don's informational chirruped to signal an incoming message. It was one of the admin drones from headquarters.

"The manager of Lak-Do-Sil's apartment building has contacted us," the drone said. "He wants to know when we will free the apartment. He has a tenant waiting to move in."

Ek-Lo-Don was about to free the apartment when a thought struck. "Who is the new tenant?" he asked.

"Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan."

"Send me through the tenancy agreements. And tell the manager he will have to wait." Thoughtfully, Ek-Lo-Don summoned his drones and rode them towards the market.

It was midday and the market plaza was busy with workers from surrounding businesses who had come to buy and eat while the sun was high overhead. They stood in groups of a dozen or more, chatting and munching, or singly, all six arms splayed to gather warm sunlight to their chest plate.

The inspector ignored the calls of food vendors and made his way to the lika trader. The male spotted his approach and froze, evidently unsure whether more trouble was coming his way. He chose to avoid another fruitless flight and instead waited, upper claws held down in a gesture of submission.

"I have further questions," Ek-Lo-Don announced. The lika beetles squirmed, catching his eye, rekindling that long-subdued craving. He quashed it savagely, angry at the lika beetle, angry at himself.

"I guessed."

Ek-Lo-Don held out his informational unit, which displayed the image of the elderly, argumentative male from Lak-Do-Sil's building. He took several breaths, brought his annoyance under control.

"I need to know if you have served any of these people."

The trader shook his lower midclaws in a negative at the first picture, and at the second, an image of one of Ek-Lo-Don's fellow inspectors he'd added as a placebo. The third was Ak-Ron-Bar and again there was no sign of recognition. The fourth picture resulted in an uncomfortable silence.

"You recognise this female, Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan?"

The trader flexed his lower midclaws in distress. The female had obviously worked her charms on him as well.

"Did you supply lika, or wild lika-lika to this female?" Ek-Lo-Don asked, more forcefully.

"Both," he said quietly.

"Both?" Ek-Lo-Don had not suspected she would buy regular lika too. "Do you know that wild lika-lika are deadly in sufficient quantity?"

"Yes, but she was using them for an experiment." He looked about as if for an excuse. "I didn't supply them to hurt anyone."

"What was the experiment?"

"I don't know. She wanted to see if she could break a lika habit, or something, with lika-lika."

"Why would you help someone break a habit that makes you money?"

The trader gestured helplessly. "I don't know. She explained it all nicely, and I just . . ." He took a step back and gestured at his wares. "I'm a trader. I just wanted to help her. She was really nice."

Nice. Indeed. "And how many lika-lika did you supply?"

"About four clawfulls."

Subtracting what he'd found in Lak-Do-Sil's apartment, that was plenty to poison a full-grown male fatally. He turned and strode rapidly back through the market.

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan seemed surprised to see him back at her door. Then wary.

"I believe you may have missed out some important information when I spoke to you earlier," Ek-Lo-Don said. This time he avoided polite conversational tones and stuck to forceful, authoritative enunciation. This was what he lived for now. Justice, the duty to reach the truth.

The female hesitated in her doorway, seemingly torn between retreating inside and responding to his challenge.

"You bought both lika and wild lika-lika from a trader at the market."

She made no reply, to confirm or deny.

"Why buy lika beetle if you were, as you claim, attempting to cure Lak-Do-Sil of his addiction?"

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan held up her four midclaws in a gesture of surrender.

"I had to bribe my way in," she said. "It's true what I told you before. The only thing he was interested in was lika beetle though."

She seemed ashamed. It must have been quite a blow to her ego for a male not to want her company for its own sake.

"But why persist? Why not leave him to his addiction?"

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan's eyes flashed defiantly. "I do not give up," she said.

"So, what, you decided to kill him if he wouldn't be cured?"

"Of course not!"

Ek-Lo-Don allowed the silence to play out.

"I decided to force him to accept the cure, to make him so ill he would beg me to help him."

"By giving him lika-lika?"

Her jaw drooped with sorrow. "Yes."

"But it didn't work."

"No. He just kept taking them until he died."

It was a sad tale of noble endeavour gone wrong, and yet Ek-Lo-Don was not entirely satisfied.

"You bought enough lika-lika to kill a full-grown male several times over."

She looked up sharply. "He wasn't supposed to eat them all. They were mixed in with the ordinary lika."

A tremor announced the arrival of some data on his informational. Ek-Lo-Don left the woman standing while he perused the tenancy agreements that rippled across the screen.

"Why would Lak-Do-Sil name you as his co-tenant?" he asked.

"He . . . I was going to become his brood mate."

"Something you denied earlier."

"Yes. I was ashamed. He changed his mind. The lika was all-consuming for him."

"And now you inherit his apartment, which is much larger and better-appointed than yours."

"Yes, but . . ." she seemed to wilt under his gaze.

"Your story, sad as it is, could possibly be true," Ek-Lo-Don said. "Maybe you were trying to help him, maybe it was an accident that he killed himself."

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan waved her upper claws in affirmation.

"Even so, you supplied the poisonous beetles and bear responsibility."

The attractive female stopped her claws, stood uncertainly.

"And yet . . ." Ek-Lo-Don flexed his floorclaws thoughtfully. "It seems to me that a person whose avowed specialty is to help defeat lika addiction would have more knowledge of the subject than that. That you would know how much lika-lika could kill a male. That wild lika-lika are more sluggish and more likely to be caught by an addict."

With each sentence Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan shrank back.

"In short," said Ek-Lo-Don, "you planned and carried out the death of Lak-Do-Sil in order to obtain his apartment."

"That's not true," she said. "I really wanted to help him. I liked him. We were to become brood mates. The apartment would have been mine. It should be mine!"

"And when he rejected you, what then?"

With a suddenness that shocked him, Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan pulled back through the door sphincter and it sealed closed behind her. He clattered his outer jaw in irritation. Suspects should respect the authority of an inspector.

Ek-Lo-Don tore into the sphincter seal with sharpened midclaws, reducing it to shreds in only a few seconds. He pushed through the tattered remains and into the apartment. Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan was not in the main room, but there was noise in the storage area. Ek-Lo-Don swiftly crossed the small room and pushed through the unsealed sphincter.

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan turned sharply, each mid and upper claw grasping an item she had pulled from the shelves. Ek-Lo-Don could not discern her purpose and suspected that she did not know herself what to do. She held four implements that could possibly be used as weapons, though ineffectually against someone as well-trained as Ek-Lo-Don. She also grasped a small pot of squirming beetles between her upper claws.

Ek-Lo-Don appraised the makeshift weapons. "That would not be wise," he said. He watched carefully as each fell to the floor.

She spread her four midclaws, unarmed, and, while his gaze was distracted, snatched the lid from the pot and threw the contents into her jaw.

In a flash, Ek-Lo-Don thrust out his upper claws and grasped her by the throat, constricting her oesophagus. With his midclaw he pulled her forward, prised open her jaws and tipped her head forward. A couple of beetles fell squirming to the floor. Bracing himself, he worked away at her inner jaw, prizing it apart, flicking the beetles from within so they fell in a wriggling shower. She slumped against him, defeated. He plucked one of the beetles from the floor and examined it. As he thought: wild lika-lika.

Ek-Lo-Don pulled her out of the storage area and into the main room. Her escape would not be that easy.

Noon the following day Ek-Lo-Don was back at the market near Lak-Do-Sil's apartment block. A crowd of curious onlookers had gathered around the small platform that surrounded the justice bell. Ek-Lo-Don could already feel the hollowness inside him taking shape; a case was almost closed and he needed something else. Alongside him, two Peace Officers held Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan firmly, though the fight appeared to have left her.

At the front of the crowd was the argumentative neighbour from her block, along with seven members of Lak-Do-Sil's family. They had chosen her fate and come to see justice meted out.

Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan struggled feebly as Ek-Lo-Don produced a large syringe and inserted the needle into the soft, fleshy band beneath her chest plate. He pushed the plunger home smoothly and the female slumped against her restrainers. Within seconds she began to shudder and pulled her claws in tight to her body.

There was a murmur of discomfort from the watchers as great patches of skin began to slough off, much larger and thicker than would naturally occur. It was something that would never happen in public, certainly not among the civilised. Even the routine sloughing of worn skin was generally carried out in private. This chemically-induced process was much more far-reaching. Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan seemed to shrink in on herself as the process of transformation into a drone took hold in earnest. It did not last long. Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan diminished in size and in status, lost her gender and many of her rights.

Ek-Lo-Don forced himself to watch the distasteful sight. Lak-Do-Sil's family, too, kept their vision on their relative's killer.

The process complete, the Peace Officers released their hold. Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan stood meekly, awaiting its new life. The eldest male of Lak-Do-Sil's relatives stepped forward and raised his upper claws to show the branding iron bearing his family's icon. He pressed it into the newly-smooth flesh of Lo-Lo-Ran-Lan chest plate, marking it as their drone, to work for their family and provide what penance it could.

The deed done, Ek-Lo-Don turned and struck the justice bell. The mournful toll sounded across the plaza, a signal to all that a killing had been avenged. A signal to himself that life went on, even after tragedy and addiction. The bell sounded seven times as Ek-Lo-Don struck it over and over. The sound of death.


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