“Something on Your Mind?” by Gareth D. Jones et al

“Something on Your Mind?” by Gareth D. Jones, Stewart C. Baker, Anatoly Belilovsky, Robert Dawson, Kate Heartfield, Holly Heisey, CL Holland, Laurie Tom, and Deborah Walker

When the door chime rang, Basil ignored it. He never had visitors, so it was likely a mistake. When it rang again, he still ignored it. His room was not situated in a residential section of Astropolis, but tucked away in an almost-deserted storage area of the orbital habitat. He rarely came across anyone else as he made his way to his room and back. A ripple of impatience and nervousness lapped against him, emanating from behind the door. Basil put down his coffee slowly and rose from his armchair.

The chime did not sound again, but the wash of emotion grew stronger as he neared the door. He hit the release to allow the door to spring back into the wall, and revealed a slender man with a dark gray security uniform and darker brown skin. He was maybe fifty, close to Basil’s own age, with hints of gray in his close-cropped hair.

The man’s impatience evaporated, to be replaced by a wash of desperation.

“Mr. Lindenhock? I’m Security Chief Owusu.” He indicated the name badge on his chest.

Basil stared at him, unblinking.

“Mr. Lindenhock, we have a security issue that I believe you can help us with.” There was no hint of deception, or of threat, in the emotional bubble expanding from the chief. “May I come in?”

“No,” Basil replied. “I prefer my isolation.”

“Of course.” He stepped back self-consciously. “Your special, er, skill, is why we need your help.”

“Skill? It’s no more a skill than your ability to smell what’s being served for dinner.”

“No, I suppose not.” Chagrin. That was an unusual one. It tickled at Basil’s brain as it washed past.

Chief Owusu took a deep breath as if to start over.

“We have intelligence about a threat to Astropolis from somebody aboard. We’ve narrowed it to less than ten possibilities who all came into contact with a woman we already have in custody. We need you to help us decide who among them is planning to carry out a catastrophic act of sabotage in the next six hours.” An undercurrent of fear was now making itself known among the bubbling emotions that wafted over Basil.

“Can’t you just arrest them all?”

“The problem is, it’s not a human behind the plot.”

“Well, that certainly narrows it down. There aren’t many non-humans aboard.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Owusu scratched his head. “It’s a neural-hitchhiker. We know whose brain it was hiding in when it arrived—that’s the woman we arrested. The being fled to someone else’s brain. The same will happen again if we start arresting the other suspects.”

“So you want me to read their emotions, to see if they’re being hijacked.”

“That’s right. You can do that, can’t you?” Desperation was peaking now, like waves being frothed up by the wind.

“Chief Owusu, can you imagine if there was a dead rat rotting somewhere on the station, and you had to poke your nose into every grimy, stinking corner to find it? That’s what you’re asking me to do.”

Owusu grimaced. “I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“And what will you do when you find it?”

“It’s best you don’t know.”

“In case it hijacks my brain? Very comforting, thanks.” Basil thought of his Agency badge, shoved away in a drawer. This was exactly why he stayed out of the way, off Earth, where he could not be forcibly activated and have to endure the polluting, horrifying, debilitating emotions of sick-minded criminals. Now some sick mind had made its way here to disturb his peace.

He stepped out of the sanctuary of his room and gestured for Owusu to lead the way, checked three times that the door was locked, and followed the chief away from his refuge.

* * *

It wasn’t the work Lewis minded, it was constantly being called in to cover shifts because someone had quit without notice, or was passed out drunk on the floor of a bar somewhere. He hadn’t watched an episode of Bobbi Munson, Deep Space Explorer while it aired for three weeks now. Sure he could record it, but that wasn’t the same as sitting down at the same time every week with snacks, feeling connected to all the other fans who were watching it at that exact same moment.

Somebody would always spoiler it the next day, too.

Lewis raised the brush above his head and began to whistle the theme tune as he scrubbed slime from the vent. A moment later he was singing at the top of his lungs, even though there would inevitably be complaints about his voice drifting up the pipes to residents’ quarters.

Slime began to trickle through, bringing with it a stink. People flushed all sorts of things down the pipes, which got shredded by the waste disposal and deposited here. He counted himself lucky he didn’t work maintenance on the sewage system: at least here when he saw something disgusting he could pretend he didn’t know what it was.

For all his complaints it really wasn’t so bad. He got to work around all sorts of people, non-humans sometimes too. He saw who appreciated the station’s menial workers for their labor, who detested them, and who simply ignored them. He got to listen to conversations between people who assumed he couldn’t understand them. Actually, sometimes that was kind of fun.

The slime was starting to flow, but it looked like there was a blockage further up. Not his problem, as he’d only been sent down with a broom and chemical solvent, but he gave the vent a bang for good measure. Sometimes it broke things up a little.

The vent burst open and belched out what seemed like a hundred liters of goo and a large solid object that really shouldn’t have been in the pipes.

“What the hell…?”

Lewis stared down at the thing at his feet as it sank slowly into the layer of gunge.

This, however, was no fun at all.

* * *

Basil stepped back from the entrance to the service corridor and wrinkled his nose. “When I mentioned grimy, stinking corners…”

“So, what do you think?” Owusu’s stress levels were steadily rising.

“The only suspicious thing about this man is that he enjoys cleaning pipes. There’s no mental hitchhiker there.”

“Great. One down.” Owusu turned to walk away.

Basil pulled a tube of hand sanitizer from a pocket and rubbed it vigorously into his palms. The smell from the service corridor made him itch.

* * *

So this is Printer’s Row. Amethyste stood outside the buzzing labyrinth, surveying it critically. How could any place so random be part of a space colony? She took out her pocket comm unit and looked up its history.

The corridor had once been straight and ten meters wide, the article said. But, decade by decade, as more and more merchants had set up shop, the passable section had shrunk. Amethyste folded her comm unit and looked again. “Shrunk” was an understatement. Over the years it had constricted to an intestinal zigzag, in which people crowded like… She hastily revised her metaphor. Like cells in a blood vessel.

Gadgets, clothing, jewels, food. Whatever could be printed was available here, depicted in gaudy holograms or displayed on sample racks. The first stall on her right sold nothing but carved leaf-opals. Across from it, a cryoprinter turned out frozen treats, no two the same. In the crowded passage, hundreds of people bargained, pointed to samples, shouted to friends two meters away.

Why do I feel so alone? She handed over a credit in exchange for an ice on a stick, translucent white with multicolored spheres frozen inside it, and raised it to her lips.

* * *

Basil rushed away from Printer’s Row, ducked into a quiet side corridor and leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. Owusu caught up a moment later.

“What happened? Is it her?”

Basil shook his head and concentrated on rubbing sanitizer into his palms. “Too many people,” he said.

“You couldn’t get a reading?”

“Reading?” Basil snarled. “I don’t read minds. Think of it as being on a white water raft. Then falling overboard.” He put the tube back in his pocket. “It’s not her. She’s lonely, which is odd in such a crowd—who knew that was possible?—and she’s confused, but she’s not been hijacked.”

* * *

The venerable Matriarch Dosel Em Strard crawled along the station’s corridor. She thought about: the meeting scheduled in three hours; and whether or not she should try ‘The Sector’s Wildest light speed Chili’ advertised at the market stall she’d just passed; and how she could prevent the schism of the Intending Daughters into two (or more) fractious subdivisions of the council; and the nature of patriarchy in humanity, manifested (consciously or unconsciously) in the architecture of Astropolis.

Her augment hummed obediently at her ear, not missing a single thought. All of Matriarch Dosel Em Strard’s thoughts were valuable. It was the semi-sentient augment’s role to record them and transmit them live-feed to the home world where they would be analyzed and discussed during the long-lying digestion period of the afternoon. Absently, Matriarch Dosel Em Strard ran her long, vestigial, third pair of limbs to double-touch the augment and to thank it for the service it gave.

The matriarch watched, with intense interest, a human chastising its (presumable) child. She really wanted to get at the root of the mother-child dyad of the human. Tsk. Parent-child dyad, triad, whatever. It was so difficult to think in terms of a sex that one didn’t have.

She hoped that her meeting with the Friends of the Founding Fathers of Astropolis station this afternoon would provide elucidation. If she could get a handle on their sexual dimorphism, perhaps she could construct an argument that would compel the humans to assist her people in the desperate threat it faced.

The venerable Matriarch Dosel Em Strard crawled along the station’s corridor. And she thought about the white hole spewing energy onto the home worlds of her nest; and she considered a human poem she’d downloaded (by a human male!); and she wondered what silk might impress the Friends of the Founding Fathers of Astropolis station. And all the time the sentient augment recorded her thoughts.

* * *

“That was confusing,” Basil said as the odd visitor crawled away. “It was almost like there was a second mind there.”

Chief Owusu raised his comm to his mouth, as though about to summon help.

“It’s not her,” Basil said. “She carries a thinking machine with her, semi-sentient. It doesn’t produce emotions, but duplicates hers somehow.”

“So she’s not a threat.” Owusu lowered his hand. He called up a plan of the station on a nearby wall display, slaved it to his comm and input the data from security.

Basil found himself counting the junctions and corridors between their current location and the nearest red dot.

“This way,” Owusu said and strode away.

* * *

The older, inner chambers of Astropolis bore little resemblance to the slickness of its inhabited areas. Rusted pipes hung crazily from disintegrating ceilings, banging showers of reddish flakes loose with each rotation of the massive, city-sized station.

Even worse: when the designers had fused together the disparate vessels that made up the earliest part of mankind’s oldest continually inhabited orbital, they hadn’t bothered with such niceties as ‘up’ or ‘down. ‘And the gravity was patchy, too, giving out in fits and starts; Etsuko found herself leaping from wall to floor to ceiling like some kind of stop-motion Escherian ballerina as she travelled ever closer to the station’s core. She wasn’t even supposed to be here, truth be told—the inner areas had been closed off for public safety reasons almost before she was born.

Still, she wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to snag an original Go Go Mecha Warriors model kit in mint condition, and that was what her source—a nearly hundred-year-old issei in Outer Tokyo—had sworn was hidden away in his old quarters, somewhere in the oldest and most unstable part of the station. A kit like that would go for close to a hundred thousand credits in this day and age. Enough for Etsuko to finally get off this confusing, noisy, overcrowded boat for good and go somewhere she could be alone. Somewhere she could walk for hours without seeing another person, breathing the free air all the while.

But first she had to find the thing. She checked the map she’d managed to cobble together from the old man’s garbled memories. Unless she’d gotten it very wrong indeed, his quarters should have been somewhere around her current location. Instead, though, the corridor came to an abrupt end a few yards ahead, and the only thing she could see were the same dirty-white, corroded plasticarbon panels.

Etsuko frowned; either the issei‘s memory was as faulty as the gravity, or she’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. But, as she was preparing to make another jerky leap back the way she came, the gravity in the hallway suddenly came on. She barely had time to swear before she slammed to the floor and blacked out.

* * *

“Well, I was about to say she’s not the one,” said Basil, as he pulled himself back through the decrepit corridor in low gravity.

“But you changed your mind?” Owusu’s alarm levels increased, small ripples turning to lapping waves.

“No.” Basil stepped back into normal gravity and stumbled. “She went unconscious.”

“Let’s find our way to civilization,” the chief said. “I’ll get someone from medical to check up on her.”

* * *

Jasper never actually wanted to be a cup of coffee, but if he had, Colonel Holly’s scowl as she stared at a steaming mug in front of her would have certainly given him second thoughts. He approached slowly, hands out and in plain view. As one does.

“Good afternoon, Colonel,” he said as soon as she could see him.

“You say so,” she growled and lifted the mug to her lips, and suddenly the thought of being a cup of coffee gained a modicum of appeal in Jasper’s weltanschauung. Until she set it down and scowled again, harder if possible than before.

“Talks not going well?” Jasper said.

“Talks going great,” she said. “For all that’s going to do.” She looked up. “Ever deal with Bratki?”

“Sure,” he said. “Every day. Great tippers.”

“Of course,” she said. “Amount they put away, they ought to be. Never had so much trouble drinking anyone under the table till these guys.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I noticed.”

She raised her eyebrow. “Lost money on it, did you?”

He shrugged. “Smart money was on the Bratki. Lots of it. I’m not smart; I bet on you.”

“Great,” she said, her voice and face unchanged. “Glad this ended well for someone.”

“Wanna talk about it?” Jasper said.

She shrugged. “Sure,” she said. “Quite simple, really. Goes back a couple of hundred years. You know that ratty old Adidas tracksuit Gallbladder wears? His nine-times-grand wore it, back when he and his were petty racketeers in old Moscow. An heirloom. Symbolic of the thieves’ honor that still supposedly rules the Six Planets and the Bratstvoof Oligarchs.”

“Of which Gallbladder is Pahan,” Jasper said. “Big Daddy. And the pogonialo, the nickname, can be as insulting as he wants, as long as it does not impugn his honor. Calling him Rectum would have been off-limits.”

Colonel Holly nodded. “Well, then, you understand: when I negotiated for passage rights in the Omicron sector, it wasn’t as a representative of New Texas. It was as me, Marine Colonel Olivia Holly, Battle Group Commander, and the very person who’d be planting my size-six combat boot up their collective recti if we don’t come to an agreement.”

“So, no agreement?”

“So, yes agreement. But it’s about to go up in smoke.” She signed and took another sip of coffee. “Civilians,” she said. “New Texas sent a real diplomatic team. First Secretary, Second Secretary, Charge d’.” She shook her head. “And they insist on making changes.”

“Major changes?”

“Hell no. Pissy little cosmetic changes, just so the deal would have their input. Scent-marks, you might say. Like dogs on a hydrant.”

“Oh hell,” Jasper said.

“Yeah,” Colonel Holly said. “Which undercuts my authority to negotiate. Which scraps the whole deal.”

“Unless…” Jasper trailed off. “Appearances are everything, aren’t they?”

“To the Bratki they are,” she said slowly. “You have an idea?”

“I’m not the Maitre D’ for my looks,” Jasper said. He nodded once, turned on his toes, and walked away.

“Not only for your looks,” Colonel Holly murmured after his footsteps faded.

* * *

Basil shuddered. “That woman is dangerous.”

“You think she’s our target?”

“No. She’s military. She could kill you as soon as look at you. But she doesn’t have any harmful intentions; or alien hitchhikers.”He pulled out the tube of sanitizer and began to methodically clean his palms. “Complicated relationship between those two. Made me feel quite grubby.”

“We need to keep moving,” the chief said.

“Of course.” Basil started counting his steps as he walked.

* * *

The leaves were longer today.

The leaves are longer today.

The lipia plant unfurled its almond-shaped leaves ever so slightly, only to pull them back in. It looked like breathing.

Ai Yamikawa patted the top of its stalk as though it was a pet, and the lipia lightly pressed back. No other plant on Astropolis responded to touch the way the lipia did. It was not intelligent, not in the way that humans were, or even most animals, but it echoed the thoughts of those around it, which was a little disconcerting to those who had never heard one before.

This particular plant, growing in tub 25C, should be ready for fruiting in a couple months. It was already thirty centimeters tall and filling out into the shrub it would eventually become.

Forward Planting had designed the plant to respond to tactile stimulus to promote growth and budding. In space, where the seasons were only what climate control decided, they could convince the lipia to fruit no matter the weather conditions. They could tell it which direction to grow, thus shaping a squat plant for low ceilings, or a tall, narrow plant for limited floor space, and prioritize future branching in any direction of the grower’s choice.

Or at least that’s what they hoped.

25C was a third generation lipia, and still not ready for mass planting, but maybe its descendants would be.

Ai checked the moisture in the soil. Still good.

Moisture is still good.

25C’s voice wafted in her head, a light version of her own.

They hadn’t expected the voices when the Melcorins first introduced their methods of plant husbandry to Forward Planting, but the thoughts seemed to be harmless enough, and there did not appear to be any way of removing the echo without removing the tactile growth stimulus.

Paul didn’t come home last night.

“Hm?”Ai did not recognize the voice. It was high: a young woman, or maybe a child.”Who’s Paul?”

Who’s Paul? That was her echo, but then it was someone else’s again. No, he didn’t call me.

The speaker sounded exasperated, more annoyed than concerned.

Ai looked around, but there was no one else in the nursery, no one who should have been in thinking distance of 25C.She tapped the lipia, as though it could speak.”Hey, 25C, who are you echoing besides me?”

Who are you echoing besides me?

Ai sighed. “Well, I guess you and I are going on a trip.”

If 25C was picking up someone else’s thoughts, they should be nearby, perhaps on the floor below. She didn’t think the range of the lipia was more than a meter or two, but if it was more, she should probably figure it out and make a record of it. People might not like being overheard if they knew.

People might not like being overheard.

The lipia flexed and unflexed its leaves with a whisper as she hefted its tub and set it on a cart. What happened to him?

Ai sighed. “I don’t know.”

* * *

Basil reeled back, clutching his head. Chief Owusu went to support him but Basil waved him off. It was bad enough feeling the surge of concern without feeling the man’s germ-laden hands too.

“What is it?”

“I have a limited range, fortunately. That woman is on the floor below, alone according to your scans, but I can feel another mind, an echo. It’s like a ripple caused by a splash, coming back to intersect with the original wave.”

The chief looked blank. “You’re saying there’s a second mind down there?”

“There’s something not right.” He took the squeezy tube from his pocket, put it back, took it out again.

Owusu pulled out his comm. “Agnes, I think we’ve got it. Subject F. Do you have the location?” There was a muffled reply. “OK. Do it.”

“Do what?” Basil asked. Owusu’s heightened tension really was becoming unbearable. He took five steps away until the intensity lessened to a gentle lapping.

“Anesthetic gas.”

“You can do that from the security center?”

Owusu nodded, staring at his comm. “It’s part of a crowd control system we installed recently.” His comm spat out a couple of garbled words.

“The woman is unconscious. We’re sending in a containment team.”

“So I can go home?” Basil took another three paces.

“We still need to check the last two suspects.”

* * *

Vanya wriggled her eight stubby legs over a break in the corridor deck, sliding uneasily from a section that had been regular and gray to one that was hexagonal, copper, and tasted on her feet like flaking paint. The human children waited for her, always ahead of her. They watched her now as she came to a stop and she smelled that particular mix of tension and anticipation that came before they poked at her.

The humans were always poking at her, or prodding at her with instruments, like the scientists. She was sure she’d been given the worst assignment of her hatch of ambassadors, but she was in the learning phase of her life cycle, with a body that was too slow and cumbersome to do much else. She was here; she would learn.

“Look.” One of the girls pointed at the wall. “They’re grav plates. Someone tried to make a bunch of them and they all work, but they’re not the same levels of gravity.”

There were silver squares, fifty centimeters by fifty, affixed to the walls in what Vanya thought was a random pattern until she shifted her eye stalks and saw they formed a rough spiral up the walls, across the ceiling, and down again to the deck on the other side.

One of the boys bent to touch a silver plate near the floor, and then yelped as he fell towards it.

The girl said, “My brother told me if you run really fast, you can run up the walls and the ceiling and down again. Only you have to go fast.”

The children watched her, waiting.

Oh. Vanya understood. She could not run fast at all. Soon, the laughing and poking would begin again, and she would not be able to get away from them fast enough.

She wanted to tell them she would one day outrun them all. That she would have skin tougher than they could cut, and grow larger than they were wide. That she could swallow them whole if she wanted to, but she would graciously choose not to.

When she didn’t move, the children turned back to the grav plates. They edged closer and began reaching out, experimenting. They squealed, and one of the boys started bragging that he would run up the wall, he really would do it. He tried to get his friends to dare him, and they did.

Vanya suddenly could not bear to watch any of them go first. She backed her front segments into herself. It was a species defense mechanism, something with which to hide and then spring with force if she had no other option, and she decided that she did not.

She coiled until her muscles trembled, then jerked her front legs off the deck, and the contained energy sprang her forward. She hit the grav plate nearest the deck, scattering the shrieking children, and ran as fast as she could up the wall as the corridor tilted around her, and the children moved first at an angle, then slanted downward, then gaped at her from the ceiling.

Her momentum slowed. She scrabbled to reach the next plate, but the plates were uneven in gravity, as the children had said. The plate she was on was too light, and the last three before it had been too heavy and bled her momentum. Or maybe she hadn’t had that much to begin with.

The corridor tilted again as she slipped off of the plates and spun in the air. Her fleshy back absorbed the impact and her legs spasmed upright before curling in over her soft belly. She lay there on the deck, trembling.

The children stared down at her. Finally, one of the boys came closer, his eyes wide. He smelled scared.


In her learning phase, Vanya couldn’t speak much. It took effort and reserves her body needed for growth to form the sounds needed for human words. But she rolled now just enough to uncover the bellows openings on her back and pushed air through them.

“I…ran…first,” she said. And then sagged back, her bellows heaving for air.

The children stood very still.

The boy who’d approached her looked up at the ceiling and the tiles from which she’d fallen, then back to her with a kind of awe.

Vanya couldn’t smile. But she waved her feet in the air and mustered enough strength to roll over.

“Me! I’m next!” one of the girls cried, and the clamor to the grav plates began again.

Vanya watched the children, rolling her eight shoulders contentedly. The humans would be humans. It didn’t matter. She had done it first.

* * *

“No,” Basil said wearily. “Weird, but no.”

“Looks like the other non-human we saw earlier.”

“It’s completely different,” Basil snapped. “The earlier non-human’s emotions were like gloopy ice water, and this was more like frothy soup.”

“I see.” Owusu scratched his head. “Just one more then.”

* * *

It took Phaedra a moment to realize the sound of Foad whistling was inside her helmet, not inside her head.

Foad had been whistling those same five lines since they started the procedure an hour before, and the earworm had burrowed deep. Phaedra didn’t mind.

She could tell that Foad wasn’t doing it to draw her out, or push himself in. He wasn’t doing it to serenade her or drum away at her resistance. He wasn’t that kind of guy. She thought.

It probably hadn’t even occurred to him that she knew the song, forgotten and obscure even in her great-grandmother’s day. But when your name was something like Phaedra, you got to know every song with your name in it.

He had looked up a few minutes before she left the airlock and caught her staring, and stopped whistling. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It’s a bad habit. I worked for a long time in an isolation unit, after the viral war.”

“It’s really okay, Foad.” She didn’t like to talk about the war, so she had said, “I can’t whistle.”

“Not even a little?”

“Not a single note.”

“You can sing if you want. I won’t mind. It’ll shut me up.”

She had smiled. But her mind still heard unsung words. As she crawled tethered on the edge of the silent universe, she heard Foad whistle softly in her earpiece and couldn’t separate the replay from the reality, for a moment or two. Then she realized what she heard in her mind was the counterpart, the lines he hadn’t been whistling. And muffling it all, the constant fans and motors of her suit, the sound of civilization within the void.

“Phaedra? You should be almost there,” he said in her earpiece, his voice sudden and loud. He must have had his mic away from his mouth while he was whistling. Yep, he knew he was doing it all right. But he didn’t want her to hear.

This guy was going to take some figuring out. Luckily she had 1.4 hours of atmosphere left.

Or a little less, now. A lot less. Yikes.

Inside the control room, he’d be hearing her moving along the skin of the habitat, the bangs and whomps like his own private poltergeist. The sounds she couldn’t hear, because for her, they didn’t exist.

“Foad,” she said, louder than her heartbeat, and waited for him to hear.

* * *

“She was difficult to read, outside the hull.” Basil took seven paces along the corridor, three across. “Nothing unusual. I think she needs help though.”

“I’ll get station ops to check on her.” Owusu put a call in on his comm, then looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. “So it was the botanist, then. We need to go and see her.”

“We?” Basil was already planning the route back to his room.

“Yes, I need you to assess the woman’s mental state. Come on.”

Basil traversed seventeen corridors, forty-two junctions, three travelators, two elevators, and six decks to reach the security command center. Half a dozen people in gray uniforms monitored various consoles and displays, each emanating varying degrees of worry and tension. Chief Owusu brought up a pair of screens that displayed two holding cells. In one, a short, dark-haired woman lay unconscious on a padded bed. She was Japanese, perhaps, and wore a beige smock.

“That’s the botanist we just brought in,” Owusu said.

In the other room, a tall black-clad woman paced up and down the small space jerkily. She had very pale skin and very dark hair, pulled back severely in a ponytail. She looked upset.

“Intelligence from Earthside pointed her out to us,” Owusu explained. “By the time we got to her the hitchhiker had gone. The others were all near the arrivals dock when she came in.”

“How do you know the hitchhiker had gone, without me to tell you?”

“Because she was screaming when we got to her, almost hysterical. She’d been aware the whole time of the being controlling her actions. It fled as soon as she was on station.”

Basil stared at the distraught woman. “And you believe her?”

“Not entirely. That’s why she’s here.”

Ripples of concern were prodding at Basil’s back, irritating, distracting.

“So, in fact, you don’t know what I was looking for with the other suspects. You just thought I’d be able to detect the hitchhiker?”

“Yes. Can you be sure, if you check again? How close do you need to be?”

“Depends how strong she’s emoting.” Basil peered at the unconscious woman.”Can you pump in the gas again, if needed?”

“I can do anything to any part of the station from here.”

They stared at the screens in silence for a few seconds.

“Well?” Owusu prompted.

“If your five staff could stop distracting me with their worrying, I’d be able to think more clearly.”

“Six,” Owusu said quietly. “There are six others in the room.”

“I am quite adept at counting emotional spheres, thank you, chief.”

Owusu dropped his voice to an even quieter tone. “Could the hitchhiker block emotional output, instead of acting like a second source?”

“I suppose so,” Basil snapped. “How should I know?”

“Because,” the chief said carefully, “there are six of my staff in this room.” Cold dread washed away from the chief rapidly.

Basil looked around casually. “So there are.”

“Two of them were at the arrivals dock for the arrest this morning. The hitchhiker must have been here the whole time, not in one of our other suspects.”

“With access to the systems that can affect any part of the station? A much better choice than a botanist, I would think.”

Chief Owusu’s emotional waves calmed somewhat. “Mr. Lindenhock, I want you to leave the room and contact station control, now.”

“Why don’t you contact them?”

“I won’t be able to. Hurry.”

Basil took fourteen paces, passed through the door and stopped as it closed behind him. When he turned to look through the glass panel, all seven people in the room had dropped to the floor. He took four paces to the nearest public comm panel, hit the emergency contact to station control.

“This is Basil Lindenhock, Earthside Security Agency,” he said. “Please send a security containment team to central security control.”

He stepped back, pulled the squeezy tube from his pocket and began to clean his hands.

Gareth D. Jones and his collaborators live all over the world and have written a plethora of stories between them that have appeared in venues too numerous to mention. This story was written as a blind collaboration, in which the participants were given the setting and wrote their own individual scenes without knowing the overall plot and the elemenets were then all tied together into a single story. Two previous blind collaborations and 3 other stories have also been set aboard the orbital habitat Astropolis, including a story published in Nature magazine featuring the protagonist Basil.