When Dane Amleth, the captain of Her Majesty's Starship Elsinore, died, without warning, in the ship's solarium, the crew—with the exception of one person--was upset but not shocked. Space travel was perilous at the best of times, and not merely because of the possibility of explosions, deadly radiation, failing engines or the loss of life support systems. The T'chbo equivalent of the sniffles—to give one example--could work its way past shields and spacesuits, exhaust the human (or, occasionally, nonhuman) crew member's physical defenses, and then die off, leaving its victim vulnerable to the next germ that managed to evade the cleaning systems.
The only person who was shocked was Captain Amleth's son, Hamilton—though no one was certain whether this was because of his father's death or because his aunt had assumed command of the Elsinore. And that didn't surprise anyone either, as Hamilton adored his father and loathed his aunt, and wasn't shy about letting anyone know how he felt. The rest of the crew didn't even bother to scream nepotism, because Claudia Feng was exactly the sort of commander the Elsinore--and, for that matter, Earth--needed: diplomatic when she needed to be, shrewd, fiercely responsible and ruthless in battle.
That last quality of Captain Feng's was, at the moment, the most important, for an officially diplomatic fleet of Skron warships was speeding toward the Earth. The Skron wanted Earth's resources—including a certain percentage of Earth's population—and they wanted them now.
It would take a fleet of warships to fight off the Skron. Feng had personally signaled every ship within hailing distance, and most had accepted. But now...Elsinore was almost at the rendezvous point, and the Terran and Terran colony ships were conspicuous by their absence.
Consequently, the fatal heart attack of the captain and the misery of his son did not seem very important.
Cadet Ophelia Linus proved everyone wrong.
It started very innocently. Ophelia was working in the ship's medical labs that month—these many parsecs from Earth, on-the-job training was essential—when she asked her supervisor of the day, Dr. Okafor, if the rumors were true and Captain Amleth had died of heart failure.
"I don't know," said Dr. Okafor absently as she scrutinized a report on Terran herbs that Ophelia had keyboarded the previous day. Most medical personnel used dermagraphic cuffs which, through pressure and minute chemical changes in the wearer's skin, could read precisely what zie wanted to say on any pre-programmed subject. However, Dr. Okafor felt that learning to plan out what they wanted to say helped scientists, so, despite being archaic, keyboarding had been retained on the Elsinore as a training exercise. Most of the other cadets grumbled about this (or did their species' equivalent of grumbling), but it rather suited Ophelia, who liked being able to tell a machine what she thought rather than the other way around.
Ophelia paused mid-inventory scan (a task she hated, feeling it was more suited to robots than to any sentient species) and turned toward the doctor. "What do you mean, you don't know? Hasn't the autopsy been done yet?"
Which was odd in itself. Autopsies quickly followed deaths, and were swiftly followed in their turn, if possible, by cremation in whatever star was nearest.
"There isn't going to be one," Dr. Okafor said, flipping from one screen to another and sounding so unconcerned that Ophelia stared at her in amazement.
"What! Why not?"
Dr. Okafor sighed. "Captain Feng's orders. No autopsy. No funeral. And no questions. That's just the way it has to be. I'm sure she has her reasons—though they're probably classified. Now, about your report--"
"Wait! What do you mean, there isn't going to be a funeral? There has to be a funeral! The Elsinore can't maintain a body in perfect condition indefinitely."
"He was sun-buried on third shift last night," Dr. Okafor replied, using a tone that said that any further discussion of the matter would be a very bad idea. "Now, about your report...why did you mention the curative properties of violets?"
Ophelia knew when to take a hint, so she kept quiet for the rest of her shift. But she paced the halls after work, thinking hard, and the more she thought about the situation, the less sense it made to her. Captain Feng knew all about security—she was the former Chief of Security on Elsinore, in fact—but while Ophelia could picture her postponing the funeral until after the Skron had been dealt with one way or the other, she really couldn't envision Feng ordering Captain Amleth's body to be sun-buried in secret, without even letting her nephew or his mother know. That would be maliciously cruel, and no matter how badly Feng and Hamilton got on, Ophelia didn't think that she'd make an effort to be deliberately vicious. Besides, that would hurt Hamilton's mother, Trudy...and ship scuttlebutt (passionately denied by Hamilton, of course) was that Doctor Gertrude Rafferty and Claudia Feng had been very, very serious about each other, once upon a time.
Then, too, the lack of a funeral would worry the crew. Not that there was anything to worry about—they were scientists, after all--but just the same, there were legends about space-going deaths, and most people half-believed the legends...or at least wanted to believe parts of them. Take the legend of gravestars. Supposedly, every sun where a spacer had been buried tended to draw spacers toward it. The kindly dead used the light of the star to guide ships whose navigation systems had failed them. Sometimes, it was said, you could even hear them singing when you passed certain stars.The vengeful dead used the gravitational pull of the star to catch and kill those who refused to honor them, trapping their former shipmates in a black hole.
Logically, it was all impossible and everyone knew it. Emotionally...it was a rare spacer who didn't hope that the dead sang.
Claudia Feng wasn't the sort who spat on tradition or grief. What Dr. Okafor had said just didn't add up.
So intent was Ophelia on puzzling this out that she collided with Hamilton Amleth. She opened her mouth to yell at him—how dare he not look where he was going when she was doing the same thing—and then stopped, frowning. Hamilton was wild-eyed, and his cheeks were flushed as if he had a high fever.
"Hamilton?" she said gently, sounding as if she was speaking to a small child rather than a young man of eighteen. "Are you all right?"
He didn't answer for a long time. She was just about to repeat herself, thinking that he hadn't heard her, when he spoke in a thin, wavering voice.
"I just saw my father."
"Hamilton," Ophelia said, dredging up as much patience as she had left after a long shift and a good deal of deductive reasoning, "your father's dead."
Normally, she would have expected Hamilton to fuss about the fact that she'd used the word "dead" instead of "deceased." Now, however, he just looked at her impatiently. "Of course he is. I know that."
"Oh, you mean you saw him in the morgue!" Well, that makes a bit more sense. Then Ophelia bit her lip. "Wait, you can't have. Dr. Okafor said--"
"I didn't see the body," Hamilton replied, giving her a look that said she was really too stupid for words. "I saw him. He was standing on the observation deck, gazing out at the stars, just as I've seen him do a billion times."
"How did he look?" asked Ophelia, thinking of holograms and solid projections. She couldn't imagine who would be cruel enough to play a practical joke like this, but evidently there was at least one such person on board.
"Like he did when he died--in uniform and frowning. And I wasn't the only one who saw him. Three security guards did, too. And Horatio."
Horatio was Hamilton's best friend and virtual shadow. It stood to reason that if there was anything there for Hamilton to see, Horatio would see it as well. Nevertheless, Ophelia was more than a little relieved that there were other witnesses.
"Did he say anything?" An innocent enough question, and simply designed to keep him talking.
But to Ophelia's surprise and indignation, Hamilton said little else afterwards. He admitted that the ghost had said something, but insisted that "what Dad said was private,." When she pointed out that the present situation didn't make any sense and the ghost's words might possibly provide a clue, he became incensed, shouting nonsense one minute and verbally abusing her the next.
"You have no business asking me questions!" His gaze crawled over her speculatively. "In fact, you would do best in one of the countryside convents of the Sovereign Sisters."
Now, the Sovereign Sisters was a franchise of brothels that had originated on a planet where even the mildest prostitution was outlawed but fervent devotion to the resident living deity—whose most common title was Sovereign of All—was encouraged. The first brothel—full name, the Patient and Compassionate Order of the Sisters, Brothers and Gentlebeings of the Most Glorious Sovereign of All—had slipped in by pretending to be a convent of monks and nuns. Their motto was "Work Is Ennobling," which meant, in practice, that for the right price a Sovereign Sister would indulge in any taste, even if it would make a maggot sick.
Ophelia was sorely tempted to let fly with a good uppercut to the jaw or to tear Hamilton apart with stiletto-like words. But adults, and especially starship personnel, didn't go around punching people who were delusional and possibly in the throes of a nervous breakdown. How could you join a mission that involved exploration, discovery, contact with aliens and—frequently--bad things happening if you couldn't weather a few petty insults?
Besides, Hamilton was inclined toward depression. Sudden unprovoked attacks on people just didn't fit his typical pattern. Yet another thing that didn't make sense.
As she'd expected, turning quiet and thoughtful shut Hamilton up. Once he realized that she wasn't going to react in an entertaining way—no matter how vile his insults—he spluttered to a stop, gave her a confused look and wandered off. It was as if he'd forgotten she was even there.
Right now I have to get some sleep, she thought, heading to the chamber she shared with three other females—a human from one of the Martian territories, an ursinoid from Gliese 581 g, and an energy being from 51 Pegasi b whose "uniform" was a floating sphere with twenty or more extendable and retractable limbs. I'll have to look into this tomorrow.
The next day, however, was dedicated to double shifts and the ship being on yellow alert. Nor was it hard to discern the reason for this. Elsinore had reached the rendezvous—but the fleet she and Earth needed to survive just wasn't there.
The Skron fleet, however, was closer. They still weren't showing up on visual scan, but Elsinore's sensors were picking up faint heat patterns that weren't being caused by any of the stars or planets in the vicinity. It was hard to tell from the readings, but it looked like the Skron had brought a fair number of ships with them.
Ophelia would have liked to talk to Captain Feng about what, if anything, had happened to Captain Amleth's body, but speaking to the captain while the ship was in this much trouble was highly unlikely. So. What would Miss Marple do?
Check out the death scene.
Granted, Security and some cleaning bots had probably been through the solarium already, but, hey, they might have missed something. And after that, the observation deck. She wanted to know just what was making the ghost of Captain Amleth appear.
Not that this was any of her business. And not that the ship's complement didn't have dozens of people who were trained to investigate anything marginally peculiar, and who could probably do a much better job than an eighteen-year-old cadet.
Maybe she was overreacting. After all, an alien fleet was about to blow them out of the sky in a few days. Some would say that there were more important things to think about.
But this was her ship, damn it. Her home, ever since she could toddle. Ever since her father had been assigned here as First Officer. And something felt off.
She knew it was going to bother her until she found out why it felt off, too.
Best get on with it, then. And she loped off.
The solarium was not one room but a collection of rooms, some interconnected, some not, because many environments weren't particularly comfortable for beings not adapted to them. Most people stuck to visiting the rooms created for those of their species. Not Captain Amleth. He had claimed to feel just as much at home in a garden of living crystals and plant-animal hybrids as he was in in the jungle or desert environments in the Terran rooms. And he'd regularly visited all of the rooms that a human could survive, with or without assistance
Which meant that he could have died in almost any room, protected by a rather clunky spacesuit or hazmat suit rather than wearing his uniform. Someone could have moved him and then dressed him in the clothing the crew expected to see.
Ophelia mulled this prospect over without enthusiasm, then shrugged her shoulders, sighed, and trudged off to suit up.
As she suited up, she realized that she would be working against a countdown. She needed to examine every last millimeter of every garden to find...well, anything that didn't belong there.
What she had was an hour's worth of air and no refills.
All right. She was just going to have to make this count, that was all.
She started with the Temperate Zone Terran Room and found exactly nothing. The same went for the Rain Forest Room and the Desert Room, whose doors opened from the Temperate Zone Room.
The Horvendill Room was different.
Dedicated to the flora of an ice planet that thrived at miserable degrees Centigrade, it was close to the opposite of the place where Amleth's body had been found. And, like most of the gardens, it looked bigger than it was.
Still, Ophelia thought as she checked her oxygen supply, I only have twelve minutes left. And I'd really rather get out of here before the suit runs out of air.
She began at the door and started circling around, hoping that she would find something, and quickly. She had the feeling that they were all rapidly running out of time.
She examined the crimson snow, the few stunted, twisted trees that deigned to grow in this climate, the carnivorous mosses lurking on the trees, and the vampire rocks that fused themselves to any creature foolish enough to touch them, draining their victims of both heat and life. And it was on one of the last that she spotted the mini-canister for a hypospray.
It was small, white, and shaped like a teardrop—perfect for a ring or a pendant, which was how medical personnel often carried small supplies of medicine onto planets to avoid attracting attention. The canisters—or "jewels," as they were called—were even something of a fashion statement in some quarters...though not on board ship. No one had a reason to wear one here.
The fact that it was sitting on a rock that could suck all the heat energy from skin, blood, muscles and bones was just...disturbing. And a little too convenient.
Even though Ophelia's body heat was relatively contained within her suit, she was reluctant to touch the mini-canister, primarily because she couldn't see how she could pick it up without touching the vamprock. She only had a few minutes left of air, and just having her suit's glove fused to the vamprock—even for a minute or two—could be fatal.
Frowning at the "jewel"--don't you dare move till I get back!--Ophelia backed away from the rock and hurried toward the door. Maybe she would be lucky and no one would claim that she was a waster for using two helpings of oxygen in succession.
It took a good deal of rummaging about to get the tools she needed—to chisel the jewel loose, one of her brother's Mascan daggers (guaranteed never to melt or shatter, and much safer to use inside a starship than those plasma pistols and swords of his—Lars wasn't a bad brother, but there were times when he just wasn't operating on all thrusters) and an empty plasteel cup that wouldn't shatter in the cold to scoop the jewel up. And she had to dump several liters of bone-chilling red snow on the rock before she could even start chiseling. But at last she got done, removed her suit and, jewel in hand, was hastening off to the medilabs to find out just what had been in the blasted thing when she heard a familiar voice behind her.
"Ophelia! Where have you been? I've paged everyone on the ship while looking for you!"
Ophelia sighed. Of course. This would have to happen right now.
She turned to face a tall, fair-haired man who was trying to be serious but only succeeding in looking sad and worried. "Hello, Dad."
His name was Poul Ozymandias Linus. Ophelia felt that the middle name explained a lot. Whenever people asked why her parents had named their children Ophelia and Laertes (even though her brother hated his given name and insisted that everyone call him by his name of choice instead), all she had to say was, "You see, my father's middle name is Ozymandias," and automatically the questions stopped.
Now he was gazing at her with patient reproach, and the jewel in her left hand felt as if it would burn her if she didn't escape and analyze it immediately. It wasn't that she was ashamed of what she was doing, or that she didn't trust her father. She simply knew from experience that he would simply feel that she should leave this investigation to someone else...anyone else, really. In the eyes of Poul Linus, Ophelia was eleven going on ten.
"Where were you?" he repeated. "I went to your dormitory first, but you weren't there. Shouldn't you be asleep?"
Ophelia nodded ruefully, knowing she would be aching and exhausted the next day. "I had something to do first. I'm doing some research, and it took longer than I expected." Well, she told herself, trying to calm her conscience, it isn't exactly a lie. "Why were you looking for me?"
"I wanted to talk to you before you saw Hamilton." Incredibly, he smiled. "Poor lad, I can't really blame him for being so distracted."
"Well, it's not really a question of blame," Ophelia hedged. Unless, of course, her father was blaming whoever had created the so-called ghost, which she was more than willing to do.
"Well, of course not! He wouldn't be the first fellow to forget whether up's down or right's left because of a pretty girl!"
"...what?" Ophelia knew she couldn't have heard correctly.
Her father nodded, a delighted smile on his face.
"Er...what pretty girl?" She would have liked to have thought that her father meant her but Ophelia could not stop being logical when the subject was herself, and was quite aware that she was neither beautiful nor ugly, but merely young and pleasant-looking, with a somewhat overlong nose.
"Honey, if you're fishing for compliments--"
"I'm not," Ophelia said hastily. "I swear I'm not. But you don't really think that Hamilton is mad about me, do you?" Quite apart from the fact that she'd known Hamilton since they were both three and that dating him would be like dating her own brother, she wasn't any good at romance. The instincts simply weren't there. Her father, however, was more inclined to regard her lack of interest in all things romantic and sexual as "Just a phase, and you'll get over it when you meet the right person" rather than "Not interested, and perfectly happy that way."
Her father smiled—unnervingly, in Ophelia's opinion--and spoke in a nostalgic tone. "I was just like that when I fell for your mother."
"Just like that?" said Ophelia. "You insulted her, cursed her--"
"Oh, frequently. We bickered all the time." Her father's smile grew wider. "But making up was always fun."
Ophelia tried to imagine her father insulting her mother the way Hamilton had reviled her. She couldn't.
"I think he's more upset about his father's death than he is about me," she proffered cautiously. "At least...that's more recent. And he hasn't said anything about being in love." And thank the Powers for that.
"People don't always say what they feel," said her father somewhat sententiously. "Now, please. Just be kind to him. He's a nice young man, and you could do a lot worse."
Ophelia gaped at him. "Father, that's positively medieval!"
"Ophelia—" In a strained and overly patient tone.
"Father, I don't like Hamilton. " There. It was out. "He was fine as a little boy, but he grew up entitled and emo, and I don't care for the combination. And maybe I could do worse than Hamilton...but I could also do better. And if I ever do decide that I want someone in my life, then I'll find someone better than him, any day!
"I know you think it would be perfect," she added gently. "The captain's son—well, nephew, now—and the first officer's daughter. But believe me, it wouldn't work. I'm not interested, and honestly, if he ever stops to think about it for two minutes, he'll realize that he's much fonder of Horatio than he is of any female of any species."
That should have been the end of it.
Fifteen minutes later, she managed to break away from her father, who was still maundering on about how she mustn't feel negative about herself, that she had to believe she was lovable, that she mustn't feel discouraged by Hamilton's occasional outbursts of bad temper.
As if I had a problem! And yet Hamilton's the one ranting about a ghost telling him a secret! Father was born in the wrong period, that's certain. He should have been born in the Regency at the very latest.
Fortunately, the medilab was empty when she got there. She didn't have authorization to operate much of the equipment in a supervisor's absence, so she couldn't run all the tests she would have liked to. But what she did find made her sit up and take notice.
First, the mini-canister was empty, and it shouldn't have been. One pendant-sized "jewel" could contain anywhere from 30 to 120 doses. Also, repeated uses and refills marked the jewels. This one had one mark. Whoever had used this one had pressed at least thirty doses at once into the late captain.
Second, there were traces of the drug within the jewel...but Ophelia had checked and double-checked the inventory lists she'd drawn up only days ago, and this drug--which muddled perception and coordination before mimicking what looked like simple heart failure—didn't exist in the ship's stores. Which meant that someone must have smuggled it on board, either the last time that the ship took on supplies or the last time the crew had shore leave. Ophelia suspected the latter. A palm-sized box of Tegaz—such was the name of the poison—could have been slipped into a pocket without anyone even noticing.
Tegaz didn't come from anywhere near the Imperial Republic of Skron, of course. That would have been too simple. Ophelia wasn't especially troubled by that; it was easy enough to buy interstellar goods and have them sent where you liked. And it struck her as a bit unlikely that the alien fleet and the alien drug had nothing to do with each other.
So. Who had brought it on board? Had someone been given orders to obtain it, or had it just been random malice inspired by the then-nothing-but-rumors of a coming invasion? How many crew members knew that the Tegaz was on the Elsinore? Had Captain Amleth died because he knew too much, or just to get him out of the way, or for some other reason that was only tangentially related to the Skron?
The big question was—who could she safely tell? Security? But Security could have helped conceal that it was on board. The medical team? She'd have gone that route if not for the fact that Dr. Okafor was acting so oddly. Could a drug that muddled perception have something to do with that?
And was Hamilton's ghost connected to all this? Allowing for Hamilton's typical behavior, neither his grief nor his rage seemed abnormal. And he certainly wouldn't be the first person who thought he saw the ghost of someone he loved. She could have even passed off the fact that Horatio said he'd seen the ghost as kindness to a friend...whom Horatio wanted to be more than a friend.
Except...three security guards had reportedly seen Captain Amleth's ghost too, if Hamilton was to be believed.
It just kept coming back to Security, didn't it?
And Claudia Feng was the former Chief of Security on Elsinore.
Which meant that either Feng had committed, or had ordered, her brother's murder and was using an alien drug to toy with the perceptions of certain members of the crew and their families...or she was the ultimate scapegoat.
And right now, there was no way of telling which.
As she switched off the scanner, removed the teardrop-shaped canister, set the scanner on "cleanse," an unpleasant fact slammed into her mind.
She had about seventy-two Terran hours to find out what was going on—and just possibly prevent a catastrophe.
After that, the Skron fleet would be here.
Ophelia rubbed the side of her long nose, put her head down on the table next to the scanner and closed her eyes. She had to think. She just had...to...
The ship's intercom woke her.
"—have noticed that most of you have been skipping meals lately," said Feng's voice, "and that as a result, you're running on fumes. So if you aren't on duty, aren't sleeping and haven't had anything to eat recently, come to the mess hall pronto. That's an order."
So Ophelia went to the mess hall. At first she didn't pay much attention to anything but her food, but gradually she became aware that the EDS—the Elsinore Dramatic Society—was trying to boost morale by performing a series of skits, favorite scenes from plays and holovids across the galaxy. The slapstick trial from The Cook, the Mera-Fruit and the Three Keys from Arcturus VII. The silly banter between the members of a seven-sexed heptad from the Titanian comedy Storm Candy. The dramatic climax of Romeo and Juliet when Juliet, disguised as a young man, tried to slip out of Verona to join her exiled husband and was waylaid by armed bandits. Ophelia sat back and, despite the mystery nagging at her brain, enjoyed it all.
After Juliet had laid waste to the banditti (and the fact that Juliet was played by Ophelia's ursinoid dorm-mate, part of whose name was Minoa, made her victory all the more convincing), the head of the troupe called for silence. "To conclude the night's performance," he called, "we have a new skit--The First Meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Jim Moriarty by our own Hamilton Amleth!"
Dread swept over Ophelia as she stared at he actors.
According to the play, Moriarty had hated Sherlock's father out of envy for his power and position...and out of lust for Sherlock's mother. Sherlock's mother had been lost to morality and had plunged into a depraved affair. Her husband had found out about it and had threatened to destroy her and her lover. Moriarty, ever conciliatory, had persuaded Sherlock's father to meet him in a garden where they could talk about the situation...and, once there, had pressed a hypospray behind his rival's ear.
There was a stir behind her. Ophelia turned around, just in time to see Claudia Feng, her expression stone-stoic but her face flaming red, get up from an unobtrusive table in the back and stride for the door. She was followed swiftly by an anguished Trudy Amleth.
Oh, Hamilton, Ophelia thought as she went after them. I know you're trying to help...but you just made everything a billion times worse.
She caught up with Feng near the old captain's quarters.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said, scuffing a booted toe against the floor. "I knew that he was upset about his father's murder, but I had no idea--"
Feng sighed and brushed her black hair out of her eyes. She was a short woman with the features of a somewhat ruffled eagle, and resembled her late brother, who could have doubled as the hero of an action-adventure holovid, not at all. "I don't hold you responsible, Cadet Linus. I know that you were friends with my nephew when you were children and that you still talk to each other—and why not? There aren't that many young people on the ship. But this doesn't seem like your sort of...stunt." She sighed once more, then motioned to Ophelia. "Come with me. You look like you need to talk. And we can't stay here. Hamilton will be by any minute, and he'll want to talk to his mother."
Ophelia winced. "That doesn't sound very pleasant for either of them."
"No," replied Feng as she walked halfway down the hall from the captain's quarters, deactivated the lock and waved Ophelia into her room. "It's not."
Once both of them were within Feng's quarters, Feng ordered her to sit down and then fixed her with a hard stare. "What did you want to ask me?"
Ophelia swallowed. "Er...I wanted to know if Captain Amleth's body had been buried yet?"
"No. He hasn't." Feng gave her a puzzled glance. "Is that the story going around—that I had him sun-buried in secret? Or concealed behind some bulkhead of the ship, maybe?"
"Maybe," Ophelia echoed. "I don't know. The only person who's brought it up is Hamilton. I did notice that no funeral had been scheduled yet, though."
Feng studied her for a moment, looking thoughtful. "Well—you're a sensible sort," she muttered at last. "Maybe you can help quash some of the rumors. But your word—your solemn oath on whatever you hold most sacred—that what I have to tell you goes no further."
Ophelia wondered briefly if it was possible to hold science, logic, rationality, and the as-yet-undiscovered sacred, and then decided that yes, it probably was. "I swear."
Feng sat down on her bed—a cot no wider or longer than the ones in Ophelia's dorm—and rested her head in her chin. "There are always rumors when a new captain takes over," she said. "And under the circumstances, there are probably more than usual. Such as my brother's body vanishing, for instance."
"Dane's body was taken to the medilabs for autopsy and vanished. Or so I was told at the time. Now I can't find anyone who even remembers him being brought there."
But Doctor Okafor said that you had forbidden the autopsy.
"It sounds as if I'm blaming other people for my incompetence, doesn't it?" Feng asked bluntly. "Oh, belay that, cadet. You don't have to answer. But it's the first thought that springs to mind when I say it. I know that. And you know what the Admiralty would think. Incompetence. Can't handle the pressure of an invasion. Paranoid and attacking her own crew. Psych evals and a permanent stint planetside." She grimaced. "And that's the good option—because it presumes that I'll have a planet to get bounced to. The medium option still presumes that we'll beat the Skron, but after that, I get charged with fratricide...whether anyone can produce the body or not." She rubbed her temples. "I'm afraid that's the option that my nephew's going for."
"He probably thinks that'll keep you away from his mother," Ophelia said, and then wished that she could sink through the floor.
Feng gave her a wry smile. "Probably. Don't be embarrassed. I suspect that everyone who saw that little play is wondering if the old rumors about Trudy and me are true."
"I think they are."
Both of Feng's eyebrows lifted. "Oh? Why?"
"You called her Trudy. Not 'Doctor Rafferty.' Not 'the captain's wife.' Not ' my sister-in-law.' Trudy." A shrug. "I could be wrong, of course. Maybe you call everyone by zie first name. Er. Sir."
Feng regarded her with some surprise. "Well, as it happens, you're right." Her eyes took on a faraway look, as if she'd all but forgotten that Ophelia was here. "She and I were going to be married at one time. But then she met Dane. If he had been any man other than my brother, I would have proposed a triad, but emotionally...out of the question for both of us. I have filed the paperwork for a new marriage--"
Which made the marriage effective from the date of filing, of course.
"—but that's more a legal fiction than anything. Dane had a few run-ins with the Skron over the years. Their government branded him a war criminal. Now—well, he's missing. And the Skron will be expecting him to be here. If he isn't, they might just take steps to ensure that he appears. They've gone after the families of missing war criminals before. They've even gone after the families of dead ones."
"So you took steps. And officially, now, they're your wife and son, and anyone who wants to hurt them will have to go through you."
"Yes. The Skron tend not to go after the families of living opponents. I don't know why."
Of course, Ophelia thought, that won't matter if they can convert you into a dead opponent. But she did not say this aloud.
She was just about to say that Hamilton didn't appear to want his mother protected—at least not by the woman who was now his stepmother as well as his aunt—when she began to hear shouting.
"—after being with my father, how could you possibly want to be with someone else? Anyone else?"
"Hamilton, I loved your father dearly--"
"He just died three days ago and you're married to someone else!"
"Legally, Hamilton. The Skron care a great deal about law. Claudia's not sharing my chambers, please note."
"Oh, so it's 'Claudia' now? And don't you mean 'she's not sharing them—yet'?"
Trudy Rafferty's voice lifted in what sounded like the beginning of panic. "Hamilton, calm down!"
"She murdered my father!"
"She did nothing of the kind! And I don't know who told you that, but it's nothing but a cruel lie."
"I have it on the best authority possible," in an icy tone. "But you knew that, didn't you?"
When Hamilton spoke the words 'the best authority possible', Feng was opening her door; at 'but you knew that,' she was sprinting down the hall to the captain's quarters, with Ophelia at her heels. As they drew near, they heard a faint 'No!' and the lights in the hall began to blink. Someone had activated an emergency signal.
They heard Hamilton shout. "Feng? Or one of your security rats?"
And then the terrible whirring of a plasma knife.
Ophelia never remembered who went through the door to the Amleths' quarters first. She only remembered standing immovable in the door while Feng wrested the knife away from Hamilton, Trudy Rafferty screamed, and Poul Ozymandias Linus lay on the floor, a corpse-island surrounded by an ocean of blackish-red blood.
This time there was a funeral. Ophelia couldn't focus on it very well, however, Every time she tried to think about anything, the same horrible realization struck her : If I had just told Father what I suspected, maybe he wouldn't have gone to see Hamilton's mother. Maybe he wouldn't be dead.
No one blamed her. She knew that. And that was worse, because she deserved to be blamed. Her stupidity had cost her father his life.
Lars did his level best to be comforting, and Ophelia tried to seem comforted. Unfortunately, Lars didn't know what to do except hold her hand very tightly during the funeral service and afterwards hug her awkwardly, pat her face one time, and say 'There, there.' It was well-meant, and Ophelia did her best to act grateful, but it was rather a failure. She would have preferred to him to let loose the rage that she knew he was feeling—even though Lars in a righteous fury was intimidating--but she supposed that wasn't permitted.
The only one who was comforting was Trudy Rafferty, and she didn't try to be. She simply came to the funeral garbed in the long sleeveless crimson gown of mourning the people of her culture wore at services for fallen warriors, the intricate tattoos around her eyes and mouth and up and down her arms tinted and highlighted.
Ophelia had heard about those tattoos. When Trudy had left her planet for a career among the stars, her people had arranged to have her face, arms and legs marked with tattoos that would hold her deepest and most important memories of her home, as was traditional when people moved far away and were not expected to return. Supposedly, if the tattooed person touched each tattoo a certain way and murmured a subvocalized syllable, the memory encapsulated in that tattoo would spring to vivid life around him or her. Even if Trudy's memories of her village or her homeworld faded, the memories in her tattoos would remain strong forever.
The message in Trudy's funeral outfit was clear. Poul Linus died because he thought my son would hurt me. He died for me. And I will remember him forever.
Mercifully, the one person that wasn't at her father's funeral was Hamilton Amleth. Ophelia was glad of that. She thought that she might have shoved him out of an airlock if he'd shown up. This was not, she knew, a rational response. She didn't particularly care.
Hamilton had been tossed in the brig by Feng, and was awaiting psychiatric examination. Hamilton hadn't helped his case by pausing mid-fight with Feng and talking to the ghost instead, asking if it had come to scold him for not having killed her yet. When his mother had tried to tell him that there was nothing there and that he was imagining the ghost, he'd nearly gone wild, begging his mother to confess and atone for her infidelity and for conspiring to commit murder with her lover.
He had ignored Ophelia, behaving as if she hadn't been present at all. She was glad of that. She didn't think she could have tolerated one word from him, she really didn't.
She didn't know how she felt, either, and that was an odd sensation. She was used to knowing how she felt and what she wanted. But right now she simultaneously wanted to scream at everyone on the Elsinore; to run off to a dark room, sit there and not come out; to throw her rage and grief into a dungeon so that she wouldn't have to feel too much; and to lie on her bed and sob until her father sat down and hugged her and told her it had all been all a bad dream.
It hadn't been a bad dream. And her father hadn't acted like that since she was five.
She wished she'd been nicer to him the last time they'd talked. And that she hadn't been such a disappoinment as a daughter.
No use wishing.
And the other things she wanted were equally futile. She couldn't scream at everyone unless she used the ship's intercom—and what good would yelling do? About as much good as sitting in a dark room doing nothing, that was what. Because nothing had changed. Tegaz was still floating around the ship, Hamilton was still seeing things, Feng was still in jeopardy sixteen ways from Sunday, and the Skron were still coming.
The ship was still in danger. She had to solve this.
Even if she didn't want to.
Even if she didn't feel she had the strength.
She had to do it, because no one else would.
So she would have to grieve later if she could. Right now, there were lives to save. She might not be able to save the ship with a delicate and complex operation. But she could perform triage. She knew enough to do that, at least.
So—after the funeral—she put her name on the duty roster and quietly went back to work.
"It's better if I work," she told Doctor Okafor, who was perturbed when she heard Ophelia reciting a mnemonic about plants to herself. (Honestly, what was wrong with "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance"?) "The alternative is sitting in my dorm room and thinking about Father and the Skron fleet. Believe me, work is a lot easier on my nerves than either topic."
"All right," said Doctor Okafor dubiously. "But remember, if you need to stop early, then you stop. Understand?"
And, in fact, she did stop early. But not because she was sad (though she was) or exhausted (though she was). She stopped because she needed to talk to the security guards Feng had assigned to the brig—the Gemini.
Technically, 'Gemini' wasn't their name. They were humanoid clones from Gebwrit X, and like all clones from their planet, they bore the surnames of the scientists who had created them, a color-spectrum designation and a letter. In their cases, they were Krantz Color-Spectrum Rose-N and Stern Color-Spectrum Gold-R. But to the crew of the Elsinore, they'd always been Rosie and Goldie Gemini, and when their older "sister" had been killed in a planetside street accident, the ship had kept them on as crew members. It was a better alternative for them than going home; legally, since their "sister" was dead, so were they.
They were likable girls, but there was more to them than likability. Ophelia was certain that they wouldn't have been members of the ship's elite security team otherwise. They got on with Hamilton, as they got on with nearly everyone, but they wouldn't allow that to distract them.
All in all, the right sort of people to talk to about what was happening on this ship. And definitely people who could identify the security guards who'd allegedly seen the ghost. She hadn't been able to find any reports from them, not even one saying that someone else had seen something that he'd thought was a ghost.
So she went searching for the Gemini. Who, it turned out, were precisely where they were supposed to be—outside the brig.
"We can't talk now," said Rosie, who was generally the more vocal of the two. "We're on duty. But we get an hour for dinner at 1700. We'll talk to you then."
And so, when five o'clock rolled around, Ophelia had dinner with them. But it wasn't a very informative dinner. The Gemini didn't know much. Hamilton, according to them, was still very talkative and seemed to be babbling to himself every time they provided him with a meal. But he wasn't talking about anything important.
"Conversations with the ghost pop up fairly often," said Goldie—who, despite her name, was uncompromisingly brunette. "Oh, and he was talking for a while about being kidnapped by space pirates...well, that or the Skron leader, 410, who sounded like a pirate himself. It seemed a lot more exciting than sitting in the brig. His stories sound like so much fun that I can't believe he's really crazy."
"If you had seen him when he killed my father," Ophelia said bitterly, "you wouldn't wonder."
A strange look passed between the Gemini then. Logically, it should have been discomfort or awkwardness, but it was neither. Ophelia couldn't figure out what it was, save that the emotion struck her as odd.
"Speaking of the ghost," she added, "I don't suppose you know of anyone else who's seen it." Hint, hint.
"As far as I know, Hamilton is the only one," Rosie said. "I mean, Horatio Visconti is still insisting that he saw it too and that Hamilton isn't just making it up, but...well. You know Horatio and loyalty."
Ophelia did, and it bothered her. She hadn't seen anything. Nor had Feng or Hamilton's mother. But Hamilton had. And, according to Hamilton, three security guards and his best friend had as well. And Hamilton might have been wrong about that...but Horatio is still saying he saw something. And Horatio doesn't lie. He doesn't consider it honorable.
And Rosie should know that.
Because the entire crew knew that.
Something was very, very wrong.
She continued to ask questions—though somewhat more innocuous ones—waiting for the Gemini to go back on duty so that she could find the three guards. The three guards. It sounded like a song. We three guards of Elsinore are/Keeping secrets some call bizarre/Tales recounting/Danger mounting/From a far distant star.
She shook her head as if to clear it. She had to be overtired. That was the only excuse for such silliness.
"Ophelia!" Lars' voice. But why did he sound so desperate?
"I'm here!" she called out, and in seconds her brother was standing at her table, scowling. He looked like a star about to go nova, allowing its fires to consume everything in their path.
Swallowing, Ophelia forced herself to ask the next question. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, nothing," Lars drawled, laying on the sarcasm with a trowel. "Nothing at all. Our father's murderer just escaped from the brig while the three of you were sitting here eating dinner, that's all."
Goldie looked perplexed. "Why didn't we hear an alarm, then? Or get a private page?"
Lars flung up his hands. "How do I know? Maybe some genius decided that not publicizing the fact that there's a madman loose on the ship would be better than, oh, warning people and risking a panic. The thing is, he's loose, and he's probably going to kill someone again. Maybe more than one someone. Feng and Dr. Rafferty, maybe. Or Feng, Dr. Rafferty and you." He glared at Ophelia.
"But I'm not a threat to him!"
Lars could not have looked less impressed. "Yeah. But what if he thinks you are?"
Lars insisted on escorting her to her dorm. The Gemini volunteered to do that, but Lars held firm. "She's my sister," he said in a this-is-not-negotiable voice. "I'll make sure she gets home safely. You take care of your business and I'll take care of mine."
The problem was that once she was back in her dorm, her mind went into overdrive. Something had been wrong—not just in that conversation with Rosie and Goldie, but in her conversation with Lars as well. The same something. But what was it?
Lars had been convinced that Hamilton was thinking about what he was doing—thinking and planning, rather than simply reacting wildly.
Rosie had been convinced that Hamilton's best friend, a young man noted for his integrity, was lying.
Why? Or to be more precise, what effect did both claims have?
They made it sound as if Hamilton was solely responsible for all the weirdness on the ship. He'd tried to kill Captain Feng. He had killed...Father. Both of those things made the notion that he'd smuggled Tegaz on board or even murdered his own father a lot more plausible. Even if he denied that he'd done either, who would believe him? He had zero credibility left.
And what were the advantages of people believing that Hamilton was the one causing everything to go wrong?
It made things nice and simple, didn't it? Anything that was wrong could be laid at Hamilton's door. No one had to think about the captain's murder or the fact that security seemed quite content to let murderers escape and bodies get lost or even the fact that the Skron fleet was coming toward them very fast and yet never even attempted to overtake them--
Ophelia mentally reviewed the images she'd last seen on the ship's viewscreens. No visible ships, but plenty showing up on heat scanners. Which...didn't make sense. If they weren't visible to the naked eye, didn't that mean that they were much too far away for the ship's sensors to read?
Hastily, she went over to her computer and pulled up the last two scans...then stared at them in disbelief.
The Skron have been tricking us since the beginning.
And Security--Elsinore's dangerously compromised Security—had been behaving in a way that indicated they knew this.
Which meant, did it not, that Rosie and Goldie—who were oh so conveniently absent when Hamilton "escaped"--also knew it.
And they also knew that the only person who suspected that anything was wrong was in this room right now, and that up to a half hour ago, she hadn't suspected a thing.
Quickly transferring the images to an external drive, she then shut down the computer and began scanning the room for an exit. She knew all too soon that, aside from the door, there wasn't one. There were, instead, four beds, four desk and chair sets, four footlockers at the bases of beds and and a door to an adjoining bathroom. There were no back doors or side doors. There wasn't even an air vent.
Apparently there was only one way out of the dorm.
She didn't like that. It felt too much like a trap. In fact, she didn't know why Rosie and Goldie hadn't come to silence her already.
Well, if they did show up, she didn't intend to be here.
Shoving the drive and the Tegaz "jewel" into her pocket, she slipped out of her room and into the hall. There had to be someplace on the ship where she could hide the evidence, a place where it wouldn't get lost and yet where Security would have no reason to go. And once she did that, she needed to figure out where Rosie and Goldie were and what they were doing. They could be murdering the captain or poisoning Dr. Okafor or--
No. Oh, no.
Heedless of who could hear her, she broke into a run.
It was like an evil riddle. If you were an alien commander who'd managed to suborn a couple of key members of your enemy's security force and you also had a drug at your disposal that could muddle people's perception and, in the right dosages, kill them, and that you'd used to your advantage on a fair number of the crew, what would you do if you wanted to kill the more resistant members of the crew and also wanted to control and confuse the others so that they'd sail straight to their home port? What would you do?
As she ran, frantically searching the halls for a good place to conceal some evidence, the answer kept throbbing in her head like a migraine:
Contaminate the water supply.
There weren't many places to hide evidence, Ophelia found. At least, there weren't many that Security wouldn't think of automatically. She ended up settling for a room that was standard issue on every starship but that just didn't get much use on Elsinore. Whether or not Rosie and Goldie would think of it was anyone's guess, but at least it didn't spring to mind automatically like the medilabs or Trudy Rafferty's room.
The truly tricky part was avoiding showing up on Security's sensors. The sensors had blind spots, of course, but the areas where the sensors couldn't see, hear, sense heat or perceive sweat were small, awkwardly placed and painfully difficult to get in or out. The fact that she wasn't a trained engineer nor did she have a pack of portable tools with her was simply the icing on a very nasty cake.
That she not only managed it but managed it twice was enough to make her speculate on the possibility of miracles.
Once she had concealed the evidence, though, she began to give serious consideration to backup. The water supply was most likely ruined by now—but what if it wasn't? Lars had made some pretty pointed comments about security guards who only had to go to dinner for their prisoner to escape. And given his present state of mind, he'd likely gone with them to look for Hamilton. Demanded to go with them and help them look for Hamilton, in fact.
Would they have hurt him? No, probably not directly. Lars was too hot-tempered, too well-armed and too skilled at weaponry. Only a madman would fight him and expect to win.
But even if Lars had managed to stall them, she still didn't know who to trust. There were reasons for distrusting everybody, and if she called on the wrong person for backup, she and everyone she cared about could end up dead. Of course, if she didn't have any backup, she'd still probably die, but everyone else probably wouldn't.
It said something about her life lately that this was the good choice.
As her mind ran around and around in circles, her feet inexorably carried her to down elevators, stairways and ladders. Down to Engineering. Down to the very center of the ship. Where she absolutely was not supposed to be, and where no one would be looking for her.
She shoved that thought away. Hard. Then she took off her boots—no point in alerting anyone to her presence if she could avoid it—and began padding through Engineering, trying not to jump at every sound and not to freeze at every flickering shadow.
Fifteen taut minutes later, she heard voices.
"We should have been done by now." That was Goldie, and sounding angrier than Ophelia could remember her ever being.
"I know." Rosie, half-snarling. "It isn't my fault. I couldn't shake him. Fates, the Linuses are stupid-stubborn. Him, so convinced that he can track down and kill the Amleth idiot! And the girl! So proud of herself! So certain that she's smarter than anyone else!"
"Not fast enough for me." Ophelia heard the scrape of metal, as if a bolt were being tightened or loosened.
"Maybe we should up the dosage. Not enough to poison them! Just...enough to make them more suggestible. Some of them are managing to say some very truthful things despite the Tegaz. Like Hamilton and the space pirates."
"And what," Rosie demanded, "possessed you to tell her about that?"
"She's too nosy. I thought she'd probably heard it from someone else or eavesdropped on his cell by now."
"Don't volunteer information! Do you understand?" And Ophelia heard the hard, sharp sound of a hand slapping flesh.
"Y-yes," Goldie replied, her voice shaky.
They began adding different dosages to different reservoir vats. The science labs got enough to render most of the scientists quiescent, obedient and indifferent. The rooms where members of security teams slept received enough to unnerve and somewhat disorient the drug's victims. The ship's navigators all had enough piped into their rooms to make them fearful and afraid to battle the Skron fleet. Mention of the Skron's psychic weaponry. It was as good as a confession. It was just Ophelia's bad luck that she had nothing that could record it.
So she did the next best thing. She hit the intercom button.
Then she stood back and waited, trying to memorize every single word.
It was not Ophelia's fault that Rosie dropped a teardrop-shaped canister, that it missed the reservoir altogether, or that it rolled across the floor to settle at her feet. And it certainly wasn't her fault that Rosie and Goldie both reacted badly to to finding an eavesdropper.
Ophelia tried. She tried hard. But she was no match for a pair of traitors who were older than she was, stronger than she was, better trained than she was, and infinitely more desperate. Furthermore, they were used to acting as a team. So she barely had time to get in a couple of defensive punches before one of the Gemini slipped behind her, wrapped an arm around her neck and cut off her air.
She blacked out.
When she woke, she was floating in an enormous circular vat of freezing cold water. And the lid of the vat was on.
Her first reaction was incredulity. This couldn't be happening. She'd told the whole ship what the Gemini had been doing. You weren't supposed to get killed after you told the whole world about the bad guys. The bad guys were supposed to be outnumbered then.
On the other hand, she thought, trying to dog-paddle, no one knows exactly where that was being broadcast from. Engineering is a big place.
And besides, a cold, practical voice in her head added, you didn't have a chance to scream. Sure, anyone not under the control of the Skron is scouring the ship for the Gemini this minute. But no one knows that you're down here.
All right. Focus. How could she get out of here?
There might be a valve under the water, the practical voice said. Some things haven't changed since Roman times. Get your clothes off, tie them together into the longest rope you can make, and use the valve to anchor the rope.
Ophelia obeyed. It was no easy task, stripping off sopping wet clothes in a space-black tank containing enough water to form a good-sized lake, especially with a sore and woozy head, but she did it, nevertheless.
The rope wasn't long enough to reach the lid, though. And that was both frustrating and frightening.
Then she realized what her mind had been trying to tell itself, and she shuddered. It could work, but it would take a great deal of strength, pressure and luck.
She tied the rope to her left arm, took a deep breath, and plunged down toward the valve again.
She lost count of how many times she had to dive for the valve and try to turn it—or how often a loop of wet clothing came loose from a slippery arm. Breathing grew agonizing, both in difficulty and pain; she suspected that she'd inhaled some water when she was out cold.
She kept going, because she suspected that if she stopped for a single minute, exhaustion, fear and hopelessness would hit her all at once. And if that happened, she wouldn't have the energy to do anything but die.
Then, finally, after the Powers knew how long, she turned the valve—and it moved easily in her hands.
It took three dives for her to open it all the way.
Ophelia took one last ragged gasp of air, grabbed onto her rope of clothing with both hands, and hung on.
Water gushed upward and outward, pushing against the solid sides of the tank—and its somewhat lighter, removable lid, which went shooting off and across Engineering. Ophelia let herself float to the lip of the tank and tried to pull herself free.
She couldn't do it. Her hands were too cold; they wouldn't grip the sides properly. And they kept shaking.
No. I am not going to drown—especially not in view of solid ground. I am not.
She set both hands on the edge of the tank and pushed down as if she were about to try something vaguely gymnastic. Swung one leg out and up. Missed. Narrowly missed. There!
She sat down on the edge of the tank and wondered dimly how she was going to get down. The Gemini had undoubtedly used a ladder or portable staircase of some sort to dump her in the tank, but it was gone now.
She couldn't stand up. Her legs felt as if they were made of cooked spaghetti. Any attempt to stand up would result in her falling backward into the tank again.
This wasn't going to be the most comfortable landing in the world, but...oh, well.
She pushed off from the edge, landed on the wet, slippery floor, slipped and cracked her tailbone.
She yowled...or tried to. Her lungs weren't up to shouting.
All right, she thought, standing up painfully. I'll get myself checked out by the doctors. I will. But first I need a bathrobe or something to wear. And then I want to find out just what is going on.
What was going on, apparently, was a cross between a very vocal meeting and a full-on riot.
It was confined to one room, at least—although that room was the cafeteria and therefore large enough to hold most of the ship's complement. There just seemed to be a lot going on at once—such as Captain Feng alternately interrogating and chewing out Rosie and Goldie.
Or Lars and Hamilton dueling with plasma swords.
Powers above, things had fallen apart if they could do that in front of the captain without her even noticing.
"It's all your fault!" Lars was shouting at Hamilton, who looked bewildered but who clearly knew how to wield his weapon. "If it hadn't been for you and your murdering ways, she wouldn't have been trying to find out what caused it! She wouldn't have gone to Engineering and died!"
Ophelia limped over to the duel. "I'm not dead, Lars."
Lars paid no attention.
Ophelia, feeling that she'd been more than patient enough with both of them, grabbed the necks of both and knocked their foreheads together. "I'm. Not. Dead."
Both young men stared at her as if she were a hallucination.
She ignored this. "Now sit down, both of you," she croaked in a barely intelligible voice, "and stop waving your swords around in public. It's not nice." And, feeling that this was settled, she dragged herself over to Feng's table, scribbled a note with one question on it and handed it to Feng.
Feng glanced at her in some surprise, read the note and nodded. "Since you ask, yes."
The next note was somewhat cryptic. We must not go backward, only forward.
Feng had given up all pretense of interrogation and was now letting Trudy handle it. "Why?"
This. And Ophelia handed her the Tegaz jewel and the external drive. She'd been right; Rosie and Goldie hadn't thought of looking for evidence in the ship's daycare center/preschool, which hadn't been used for at least four years.
Five minutes later, Rosie and Goldie had been led somewhere that they couldn't hear Ophelia's revelations, and the Captain and her senior officers were staring at two photographs, one ordinary and one heat-spectrum. The ordinary photograph showed no ships at all; the heat-spectrum one showed, not a massive fleet bearing down on Earth, but only two or three ships. Large ones, true, but not what everyone had feared—or seen.
"As long as there was a sentient mind to tamper with...well, the Gemini, the drug Tegaz and whatever psychic amplifiers the Skron use could convince people of anything," Ophelia said. "But a computer or a camera can't be convinced of lies the same way that a living person can. Rosie and Goldie could have created fake images and left them in place of the real ones. They could have even programmed the ship's computer to accept the fake images as the originals. I guess they just didn't think they needed to bother."
"But why?" Feng asked in bewilderment. "Why this ship?"
"I didn't realize until after the funeral," Ophelia said, coughing, "but this ship has something that would be a considerable threat to the Skron. That's why they had Captain Amleth killed; that's why they were doing their level best to control everyone that they could and terrify the ones that they couldn't. So that they could get to that something. Or, should I say, that someone. Your wife, Captain."
"Trudy?" Feng stared at her for a few minutes before comprehension dawned. "Wait. The tattoos."
Ophelia nodded, which made her cough again. "Memories encoded in tattoos. Memories that can't be reshaped or changed by drugs or psychic tech or even time. The idea must have terrified the Skron. Everything that runs counter to their own abilities in one package." A pause. "They probably wanted to grab her right after Captain Amleth's death. But you stopped that."
"Hamilton was right," Feng murmured. "His mother was the motive."
"Hamilton was right about a lot of things," Ophelia said. It hurt to admit this, but it was true. "Such as the idea that there was a conspiracy to kill his father, and that there was no way for him to know who he could trust. And Goldie mentioned his talking about being 'kidnapped' by 410 Bar-S, the Skron leader...which I suppose he was, in a way. I think that he was fighting the drug—or maybe Rosie and Goldie couldn't find the proper dosage for him. In any case, he kept coming up with ideas that were half nonsense and half-truth."
"And he wasn't sure whether or not to trust anyone in Security. Yes."
"I think," said Ophelia, "and mind you, I have no proof of this, but I think that the Skron were planning on using the invasion to get hold of your wife if they couldn't grab her—or kill her—on the Elsinore. They asked for a percentage of humans, remember. I think that they were planning to have her—and maybe Hamilton—included as tribute." Ophelia smiled palely. "But again, you put a stop to that."
Feng shook her head. "No fleet. No invasion. I can't believe we fell for it. Well, at least now we know what to do—and what not to do. Hopefully 410 doesn't know yet that we've caught on."
"I just wish we'd figured it out before Father--" Hot, stinging tears began trickling from her eyes.
"I know," Feng said gently, then gave her a speculative glance. "It's a pity I can't hire a cadet as a security chief. You'd be brilliant at it."
Ophelia grimaced. "No, thank you, sir. That's not the field I want to go into at all."
Ophelia shook her head.
"What then?" said Feng. "Before I order the good doctors to come and take care of you."
Ophelia thought of poisons that seemed like healing drugs turned inside out, deaths in gardens, and plants that were all about memory.
"Pharmacology," she said firmly. "With a specialty in botany."