Authors: Adam Roberts
Tags: #Mystery, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
A GOLDEN AGE STORY
To Merryl Wynne Roberts
In the Box
The FTL Murders
The Impossible Gun
This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time. Of course I’m talking about
McAuley’s alleged ‘discovery’ of a method of travelling faster than light, and about the murders and betrayals and violence this discovery has occasioned. Because, after all
– FTL! We all know it is impossible, we know every one of us that the laws of physics disallow it. But still! And again, this narrative has to do with the greatest mind I have known –
the celebrated, or infamous, Jack Glass. The one, the only Jack Glass: detective, teacher, protector and murderer, an individual gifted with extraordinary interpretive powers when it comes to
he was so well acquainted with murder. A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There
is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be
) three, connected murder mysteries.
But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.
One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. I can’t promise that they’re necessarily presented to you in that order; but it
should be easy for you work out which is which, and to sort them out accordingly. Unless you find that each of them
is all three at once
, in which case I’m not sure I can help you.
In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise? Has there ever been a more celebrated murderer?
That’s fair, I hope?
Your task is to read these accounts, and solve the mysteries and identify the murderer. Even though I have already told you the solution, the solution will surprise you. If the revelation in
each case is anything
than a surprise, then I will have failed.
I do not like to fail.
IN THE BOX
‘Hey Liz! What’s in the box?’
‘It’s my little voice of self-doubt.’
Liz Phair, ‘Smoke’
The prison ship was called
. The name had nothing to do with its colour.
This was its sixth run, and, as it had done five times before, it began by unloading its kit. The remaining seven prisoners waited in the hold. There were echoes as they coughed, or kicked their
heels against the plasmetal wall. Still, it was hard to believe that when they left 8Flora the space had been crammed with more than forty human beings. It was surely not big enough for so many
it was – the growl. The shudder.
‘That bump,’ said Gordius, ‘is them unloading the fusion cell. I heard it’s possible to short it – to explode the whole asteroid, which is a way of saying, by way
of saying, transforming it into a shell of rapidly expanding dust and—’
Lwon said: ‘Stop talking.’
But Gordius couldn’t stop talking. He had watched all the other prisoners being unceremoniously unloaded; each batch to their own prison. Now, finally, he knew his own time had come and
his nerves had got the better of him. ‘You know what space is? It is a moat. It is an uncrossable million-mile moat.
never see home again. Eleven years? There’s no
way we’ll last it out. And if by some impossible fluke we do, then we
have gone insane and won’t want to go back.’
Lwon repeated his instruction, with a more ferocious emphasis.
‘There!’ said Gordius. The ship was jettisoning its cargo packages into the hollow: a cylindrical scrubber, for the air; a lightpole; a small pack of spores. Finally, and –
most important of all – three excavators, cabled together. The momentum of the package, and its Newtonian equal-and-opposition, made the plasmetal structure of
as a whole
wobble and chime. Boom, boom, thrum. Outside, as each package flew into the cleft, and collided with the wall, or wedged in at the narrowest point, of course there was no noise at all. But the
seven prisoners were inside the ship, listening to the activity. It was the sixth time they had heard it: they all knew what was going to happen next and could not help but be apprehensive. The
voices of stevedores could be heard, the content of their shouts muffled by the intervening structure of the ship, leaving only a rhythmic groaning musicality. ‘It’ll be hard enough
work,’ said Gordius, ‘digging out, and not
the digging, but the
business of designing the – of making the most of – making the most of
– but even
work will be finding a way to live together without killing one another.’
‘I’ll kill you right now,’ said Davide, ‘if you don’t shut up.’ And the wall, to which they were all of them strapped, said: grrrmmm, and there were
intimations of certain other, unfathomable noises.
The terms of the sentence were that these seven be deposited in the hollow of the asteroid known as Lamy306 – 200m across, this worldlet, this little-princedom. The hollow was a
crescent-shaped valley in the surface of the rock, the residue of some long ago impact (of course), one which had deformed the material of Lamy, twisted it, broken and folded it over, leaving a
long, thin, pocket-shaped cave: it stretched some fifteen metres along the surface of Lamy, extended, at its deepest, ten metres into the worldlet. It was no more than a metre wide at any point.
Into this irregular-shaped cavity
had deposited all the relevant gear, and there were only two further tasks for it to perform. It deployed its foam hose, and applied a skin of
gluey sealant to seal over the long slit-mouth of the declivity. The ship worked from one side to the other. The seal set almost instantly upon being exposed to the vacuum outside.
The seven all knew what was imminent. Lwon spoke up: ‘Listen everybody,’ he barked. ‘We’ll more likely survive this if we work
. No fighting, no panic
– we’ll need to get the light on first, and then the scrubber—’
Ejection cut him off. Then the cargo hold shuddered and shook and the seven humans inside it felt the startlement of anticipation. All seven hearts pumped suddenly harder. Some of the seven
readied themselves, some were too flustered to do so, but it came, irrespective of whether they were ready or not.
A hatch opened in the hold, and the rail to which all seven were attached came free from the wall. They went in this order: Gordius, three times the weight of any of the others, a near-spherical
man; Mo, his mouth set in a line and his eyes tightly closed; Davide, roaring; Lwon, calm, or seemingly so; Marit looking startled; E-de-C waving his heavy fists as if he would fight the very air;
and at the end of the line, the feeblest of them all, Jac, with no legs, looking idiotically placid. As if he didn’t quite grasp what had happened to him!
Then they were sucked out and down, smacked on the front and back by the cold, flexible material of the discharge schute and into the swirling microgravity darkness.
It was perfectly dark and very, very cold. Jac, sensibly enough, clutched his head with his arms as he shot down the schute, but as soon as he was aware that he had emerged into the cavern
itself he put his arms forward. A painful, jarring collision. He caromed from a rocky surface, and was able to quench his speed. Naked skin touched naked asteroid, that mystic
Sistine-chapel-ceiling moment of contact: the first person to lay hand upon it since the unpolished globe had formed out of its dust and ice. There was no handhold, of course, and although
Jac’s fingers scrabbled at the rock he could not anchor himself. Lacking legs, it was harder for him than it was for the others. The air inside the pocket was gusting and burlying, yanking
him one direction and then another. It was disorienting, monstrously disorienting; the black density of that lightless place, his ears filled with white noise and pain. He flew backwards, collided
a glancing blow against some unyielding plane of hardness, smacked frontways and bounced back.
This is what was happening: the
, having pumped the cavity full of air to a higher-than-sea-level pressure, was now sealing the last gap in the seal. Jac had been inside the cargo
hold during the six previous iterations of this procedure, and so he knew what the ship was experiencing right now – linked to the sticky matter of the seal by the tether of the very hose
that was laying it down, and buffeted by the venting gases from the (shrinking) hole into the aerated cavity. The seven of them had sat tethered in the same hold, crammed with prisoners, as the
leapt and shook until the conniption motion subsided and the vessel detached and angled itself about and accelerated away. They had sat there with thirty-five others whilst that
happened; and then with twenty-eight people, and with twenty-one, and with fourteen, and now it was only them. Now the
’s cargo hold was empty, and when the shimmies and shakes
diminished, and the seal was completed, the sloop would turn about and navigate back to 8Flora.
No spacecraft would come this way again for eleven years.
When a ship finally did return it would find one of two things. They would be alive and the work done; or they would be dead and the work not done. Perhaps the seven prisoners (or whatever
proportion of them survived) would have excavated the interior spaces of the asteroid into a series of habitable chambers – or perhaps they would have hollowed one great chamber and adapted
the fusion engine to shine in the midst like a sun; or else they might have carved a beehive of cells and zones; or a thread tangle of tunnels.
If they – or some of them – were still alive, then the Gongsi would recover them. Mostly, when this happened, the survivors were pathetically grateful, eager to climb back on the
prison ship. Very occasionally the survivors would resist; would have gone rock-native, would scatter from the retrieval officers and try to hide – or fight. But in that unlikely eventuality
they would not be permitted to stay; for the rocks were most valuable to the Gongsi as vacant possession. Land a touch-up team, put in some windows, tow it into a more advantageous orbit, and sell
it. Real estate. And the prisoners? Released, sent back onto the cavernous freedom of the Ulanov System.
But first you had to survive the sentence. And that meant you had to turn a tiny pocket of air filling a declivity no larger than a room, near the surface of a frozen asteroid, into an
environment that could support seven human beings for a decade and more. You had to do this
, without external help or guidance, and using as few items of equipment to help you as
the Gongsi could, always mindful of its profits, get away with supplying. It was a simple and indeed (that overused corporate term)
business model. The Gongsi was one of four working
in this field; their name – it happened to be
– was hardly important. It had won the contract for handling convicted criminals by agreeing the lowest per
capita fee per delinquent. From this baseline they worked to extract the maximum profit from the situation.
This is the way the worlds work. It’s always been like this.
Of course, none of this was in the minds of the seven prisoners. The entire, pitiless horizon of their existence was as close to them as the jugular veins in their necks. Everything was
swallowed up by the pressing need for immediate survival. There was a mighty rushing sound, and an acrid gunpowder stench, a tingle of sand blown upon the face. Jac coughed, and coughed again.
Everything was black. But in the commotion he was thinking:
how large is this space
? Not large.
With seven men breathing it, how long will the breathable air last
? Not long.
Somebody’s voice, muffled by the rushing, in the dark: ‘the
– quickly – light, or we’re
Jac bounced again off the wall, cracked the side of his head painfully, and lurched forward. Putting out his arms he scraped rock on both sides, and pushed with all the strength in his
shoulders. He wedged himself still, and for a moment all he could do was blink and blink and cough. The darkness was complete; the rock felt killingly cold against his flesh.