Just like anywhere else, on Mithlond the people with money are the people with power. Since the Rock is a bureaucratic dictatorship, however, the people with money may not be the people you expect. As in any bureaucracy, real power derives from one thing: Spending Authority.
In theory, Dr. Andrew Whittier's word is law on the Rock and for a billion miles in every direction -- subject to review by his dirtside superiors, of course -- but in practice there are three power centers on Mithlond. The Whit controls the vast majority of the money and resources sent up by the Terran Space Authority, but he has very little discretionary control over its use. He's responsible for maintaining all the major functions needed to support five thousand people 100 AUs from home, and most of his budget goes towards those fixed costs. The Whit's a brilliant administrator and manages to slush some funds around to use as leverage, but he's often bound to use his power at the direction of the TSA.
The other two note-worthies are Professor Gerald Bose -- a.k.a. the Fish -- who runs the Observatory, and Micas Reedy who's in charge of the Port. Everyone calls Reedy "Mister" because he signs everything with his initials, MR, and also because he's one of the few residents who doesn't have a Ph.D. in something or other (which he seems to be quite proud of). Both the Observatory and the Port are funded separately from the Rock itself, and Bose and Reedy tend to have more discretion over their funds than the Whit does, which makes them forces to be reckoned with. They each administer the day-to-day operations of their facilities and theoretically fall under the Whit's authority on external matters, but because of their Spending Authority they have a lot of pull when they take an interest. These three together form a sort of quasi-official administrative council, and ninety percent of the Rock's residents work for one of them. The other ten percent, the independent operators, generally work for them too, even if indirectly.
So this morning when I was summoned to meet with them I knew something was up. We have a ship in, the Perseus, and I'd been pretty busy dealing with the transients; I figured if serious law enforcement were ever going to be necessary, it'd be when a starship was passing through. Most of the starships these days had populations at least as large as ours, and the voyagers all wanted to get out and stretch their legs one last time before embarking on their one-way trip into the Unknown. Good for business, but bad for headaches.
I met the three in the Whit's stark office, and they all looked grim. "Bill, sit down," Dr. Whittier said.
"What is it?" I asked, sitting across the desk from my boss and slightly apart from the other two.
"I'll let Gerry tell you."
The Fish cleared his throat and took off his thick glasses, polishing them with a handkerchief and peering into the corner of the room while he spoke. "It's simple, really," he said with the air of one who'd repeated a story several times already. "Matthew Conway, one of my students, killed himself sometime this morning in airlock seventeen. His spacesuit is missing, so I can only assume he was wearing it, possibly because he was wavering over his decision. In any event, when he pressed the emergency evacuation switch he decompressed and was flung out into space. His helmet was found still in the lock, so we cannot track his body." All our spacesuites have tracking beacons in their helmets.
Mister cleared his throat and pushed himself into the discussion. "The lock was covered in blood, Bill. I've seen men vacced before, and there isn't that much blood." The Fish shrugged.
I considered for a moment. "What's more," I said, "if Conway vacced himself, any blood would've frozen in the decompressing air and would've been flung into space with the body."
The Fish couldn't argue with that, and asked, "What then? Do you think Matthew was murdered?"
"Did you work with him closely? Did you see any signs that he might be suicidal?" I asked.
The Fish twitched reflexively and reached for the pipe in his coat pocket before he checked himself. There's no smoking on the Rock. "He was helping me with some observations just sent in from the Oromë. He had seemed rather glum about his work recently; it's certainly possible. We've had suicides before, but never a murder."
The Whit cut off the discussion. "Ok, I'll leave this to you then, Bill. Let me know what you find out. I certainly hope there's no more here than meets the eye."
Taking that as my cue to leave, I stood up. "I'll need to ask you a few more questions Professor Bose, after I check out the scene and speak to Conway's roommates."
It all felt wrong somehow, and as I left I locked eyes with Mister and he passed me a glance that told me he saw it too; I was glad I wasn't the only one. The Fish was acting strangely, but I couldn't believe he was caught up in the murder of one of his students. Then again, he had already made tremendous sacrifices for his work, leaving his family behind on earth to head up the Observatory and dooming himself by low gravity acclimation to never return home. He might kill for hsi work. Many of the scientists here might.
My first stop was at the hospital to see Dr. Hap Phineas, the Mithlond's chief medical officer. He'd been in space his whole career, and if there was anyone who knew about vacuum deaths it was he. I caught him in his records room examining x-rays and he spared me a few moments, taking an instant interest in the case.
"'Explosive decompression', ha!" he said. "There would certainly be some bleeding, yes, if this fellow was decompressed quickly enough, but every spacer knows not to try to hold his breath in the event of vacuum exposure. Even if he was trying to kill himself, that would be an extraordinarily painful way to do it.
"Decompression injuries are rare enough that few people have seen them, but common enough that everyone's heard about them, and the stories tend to be embellished," he continued. "If the victim was wearing a pressure suit, except for the helmet, there may have been bleeding from the ears, eyes, and mouth, but it wouldn't have been immediately significant. Most people can survive vacuum exposure, for over a minute in many cases."
I said, "And the blood would have been evacuated immediately when the air escaped."
"Assuming the depressurization was the cause of the bleeding, of course," he confirmed. "If there's blood in the lock, it was there before evacuation."
I thanked him for confirming my suspicions, and asked him for a tissue collection kit before I left.
Airlock seventeen was cordoned off when I arrived, but there wasn't anyone in sight. I was sure news had gotten around by now, but I guess no one had any particular inclination to see the grisly scene itself. I pulled the yellow "Terran Space Authority Secure Area" seal from the wheel and cycled the inner door of the lock. It opened with a smooth hiss.
Matthew Conway's helmet was wedged between an air pump pipe and the right wall, which is why it wasn't sucked into space, and splatters of blood lay pooled on the floor and splashed across the left wall. The emergency evacuation panel glass was broken, and two red lights flashed alternately, warning that the lock could be opened to hard vacuum with the press of the large red button. Even in an emergency the button wouldn't operate with the inner door open -- not without an access code, anyway -- but the lights still set me on edge. No spacer likes to be quite that close to the void, and I wished I'd brought my own pressure suit.
There wasn't much else to see, so I scraped up some of the dried blood, sealed the tissue kit, and left. I put the security seal back in place, just in case there was a reason to come back.
I wanted to know whom the blood in the airlock belonged to. If it didn't come from decompression, then someone shed it before evacuation, which meant it might belong to the killer. First I had to make sure it didn't belong to Conway; I wanted to talk to his roommates anyway, so I went to his quarters in the Observatory.
Mithlond is a vast complex, mostly empty corridors and unallocated space. It was built to house fifty thousand people or more, and the current residents didn't use more than a fifth of its total volume. It was cheaper and easier to build it all in the Belt before sending the Rock out to the edge of the heliosphere than to add on once it was here, so it was very spacious compared to just about any other space craft. Many of the unused sectors were sealed and unpowered, so it could take a while to walk from end to end. The TSA administrative offices were sunside, the Observatory was on the opposite end of the Rock, spaceside, and the Port was on the skin in between. The middle was mostly empty, except for a few recluses trying for as much privacy as could be found in such an intimate setting. Most of the Observatory geeks lived near their work, but airlock seventeen wasn't close to a residential section -- it sat between the Port and the Observatory -- so I had a bit of a ways to walk.
Conway's roommates were young, which shouldn't have surprised me since Conway himself was a student. They were both torn up over his death and offered to help me however they could. Their quarters were spartan, and every flat surface held a computer or instrument of some sort, all happily plugging away, oblivious to their operator's death.
"Did Conway seem suicidal to you? Depressed?" I asked them, and they both shook their heads.
Feldon Kramer answered, "No, no. Harried, anxious, nervous, frustrated maybe, but Matt wouldn't've killed himself. He was almost done with his dissertation, another few months."
"What was he planning to do after he finished?" I asked.
The other roommate, Anston Polder, said, "Go back to Mars, I suppose. Once his work here was completed he would've had to leave. I'm not sure he wanted to go back, he loved it out here, but I know he wanted to finish his work."
"How did he get along with Professor Bose?"
Kramer shrugged. "As well as anyone, I suppose. The Fish isn't the easiest person to work for, but he's brilliant, and he never wastes a good mind. That's what he tells us all the time, even when he's working us to the bone. 'I am not going to waste your mind', he says."
"If Conway wanted to stay on the Rock, wouldn't Bose have kept him?" I asked.
Kramer shrugged again, and Polder looked at him hesitantly before saying, "I think he asked him, but the Fish said no. He doesn't hire his own students. He thinks it's 'incestuous'. He always hires from outside, and he told Matt to look elsewhere and then apply back in a few years."
"How did he take it?" I asked.
Polder said, "I dunno. It's the same answer everyone else gets. Myself, I can't wait to get outta here. A few more years, though."
"Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to kill Matthew?" I asked, and their eyes widened.
"Do you think he was killed?" Kramer asked flatly, as if this were a new consideration for him. Polder watched me closely when I answered.
"I'm just trying to look at every angle. This is the first death I've investigated, you know. Did Conway have any enemies you can think of?" They both shook their heads, but I could tell they were thinking it over more deeply now. "If you think of anything else, let me know. Meanwhile, I need a sample of his DNA. Where's his toothbrush?"
That's when things started getting interesting.
(Continued in part 2.)