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Moonbase - Episode 11: A World Apart, Part 11

By Samuel O'Slaine

Storytelling is an art. It is the art of entertaining an audience by creating a narrative. We decided to try an experiment with this serial, and that wasto include the readership in the narrative process.

We told this story as a serial; we encouraged suggestions that we could include in later episodes of the story, and we tried to incorporate these if that was possible.

With one exception, the story aimed for 'plausible', without supernatural or magical interventions.

The serial was written on a two-week cycle. Episode 1 is here. Episode 2 is here. Episode 3 is here. Episode 4 is here. Episode 5 is here. Episode 6 is here. Episode 7 is here. Episode 8 is here. Episode 9 is here Episode 10 is here.

This is the concluding episode of Moonbase: A World Apart


A World Apart, Part 11.

The mole had been launched and the entire base was paying close attention. This meant, John thought, that his window of opportunity for solving the murder of Uwe Fochs was narrowing rapidly. Should the mole succeed - and he was now more and more confident of that - the task that had consumed the focus of so many would be done.

"There will, inevitably, be a party," said Edith, seeming to read his mind yet again.

"During which Fochs' absence will be noticed by all," said John, nodding. "At which point, panic could easily set in."

"Trapped in a sealed base, hundreds of thousands of miles from home, with an unknown killer roaming about." Edith looked sombre. "We do need to solve this."

Assuming that the killer wasn't Edith, of course, in which case Edith wouldn't be much help in solving it. But John didn't really want to dwell on that too much.

Or should he focus on that? Perhaps Edith would have assumed that he would shy away from thinking that, and thus she could have killed with impunity. After all, she'd demonstrated the means to him on their moonwalk - she'd shut off John's air supply without him knowing, to prove it could be done.

He shook his head to himself. Surely, if she had been the killer, she'd not have emphasised that he shouldn't exclude all the women from his investigation, nor would she have told him about the air supply cutoff idea.

Or would she? John knew that some murderers enjoyed taunting the investigators, as if proving their own superiority to themselves. But would Edith be like that?

Edith was staring at him. He hadn't spoken in long minutes now. He gave her a wan smile.

"You're right, of course," he said. "We need to solve this now."

He came to his feet in a way that would have seemed cautious to Earthbound people, but they had learned the hard way to avoid hitting their heads in the low gravity. "We have a Means that anyone could have used. An Opportunity that's too wide to close down. And I keep coming up with more Motives."

"Then maybe we should try to flush out the suspect by making them think we're nearly there," suggested Edith.

John thought for a moment. "I think you could be on to something there." He paused. "In most of the stories, the detective calls the suspects and those involved together and solves the mystery in front of them."

"Ah, yes," said Edith. "The old 'I suppose you're wondering why I've called you together' part." She grinned, and the smile made her face beautiful. "Yes, I've read plenty of the Strand serials."

His answering smile was involuntary. "And so will our murderer, I suspect. Regardless of the country they're from - these setups are universal."

As the "day" went on (based on the Earth clocks, of course - the lunar day of two weeks followed by a fortnight of darkness wouldn't have been helpful) and the mole ground its way towards the cavorite (hopefully), John set up a meeting in the Old Man's office.

He'd considered the suspects carefully, even using a blackboard to focus his thoughts (There had been some question over whether chalk dust from blackboards could cause problems in the air filters - it was eventually decided that as long as it was not excessive, it should be acceptable). Of course, his long list had literally everyone on it, excepting only John himself (and John would joke darkly that he'd started suspecting even himself), so he'd had to triage it down. The Old Man had to be there, anyway - even if John hadn't started to suspect him, he was certain to be a highly interested party. Edith would have to be there - again, suspect or no suspect, she'd been helping him. Yves would be there as a suspect - not only had he been involved in several romantic liaisons, as a resident of Alsace-Lorraine, he could easily have held a nationalist grudge against the German Fochs. Especially given the way politics on Earth was coming rapidly to a boil. Come to think of it, Yves was one of those who could fit in Suit 5.

Who else could fit Suit 5? He added Mikhail's name to the board. The deputy administrator had also been involved in some of the liaisons in question, and would be the most obvious person to benefit if the Old Man had to step down under a cloud. It may have seemed a petty reason, but John had known many petty people in his time. It would also be a coup for Russia, and Mikhail was a patriot. He had checked, and Mikhail's movements during the time in question weren't known widely, at least. And Mikhail could fit into Suit 5.

John shrugged as he contemplated the board. Again, there was an additional reason for Mikhail to be there - if Sumner was indeed the killer, John would need Mikhail to take over immediately.

Out of the rest of the people who could fit in Suit 5, he'd been able to eliminate Josephine and Gregg. As it turned out, they'd spent the day in question together, and Edith had been able to find corroboration for that. Pietr was also eliminated; he'd been with Marie. John's lips twitched. Those Venn diagrams had come in handy after all.

Christof and Lawrence had been working all day and could give each other alibis, which actually cut down the number of suspects very well indeed. Unfortunately, he couldn't find any way to cut it down yet further.

Mikhail, Edith, Yves, Sumner. Was that all? He thought harder. He was going to have to come up with some explanation to increase the killer's belief that he or she was about to be exposed. Of course.

He added Hercule to the board. An expert on decomposition - John could argue that Hercule would provide a precise time of death, thus narrowing down the window of Opportunity.

That made six people to be present. A seventh of the remaining complement of Moonbase - that wasn't too bad.

"All of which assumes the killer is one of those," he muttered to himself. Now he just needed to come up with a plausible reason for the killer to feel worried.

The mole ground on through the lunar rock. Thanks to the difficulty of forcing a radio signal through the rock, they couldn't receive any updates, leaving everyone on edge through the long hours of its burrowing. This was, John felt, ideal. The more tense the killer would be, the more chance he (or she) would let something slip under pressure. He'd come to speak with Hercule in advance of the gathering. It would be better to not let Hercule in on the trick if at all possible - John would rather not have to rely on anyone else's acting skills - other than Edith's. It had been impossible to avoid bringing her in on the scheme, but at least he felt confident in her ability to play along - even if he still wasn't sure of her overall innocence. She had even accompanied him to see Hercule; he hadn't been able to come up with a plausible reason why not.

He'd worried briefly whether Hercule would be difficult about the entire matter - after all, he was supposed to be on Moonbase simply as an astronomer and this was outside of his employed specialty.

That had been, of course, absurd. Ask a scientist a question on a subject they're interested in, and they're away. Al he'd had to do was to ask what was known about decomposition of animal bodies on the Moon.

"In actuality, it's a very unclear area," said Hercule. "The importance of the micro-organisms inside the body is so often overlooked, but they are key to this. Decomposition, of course, is the result of tiny micro-organisms eating the body and processing them into fresh nutrients for others."

John nodded. He needn't have bothered. Hercule was in full flow.

"In a vacuum, of course, organisms on the surface of a body won't be able to survive." Hercule shrugged. "Or so we assume. We do not know for sure. Maybe they would - we have known cases of micro-organisms surviving in very hostile environments. Maybe some bacteria could already survive. Or maybe, given their short generations and the increased radiation incident on the surface, they could evolve quickly to be able to survive."

"Does this mean bodies won't decompose at all on the surface of the Moon?" asked John.

Hercule frowned at him. "No, that's not what it means. Bodies will still decompose from within. In theory, anyway. The micro-organisms within the body will be shielded from the vacuum and radiation by skin and flesh."

John stayed silent. In his experience, scientists would always expand on what they meant. Edith was virtually fading into the background, determined not to cause a distraction, he assumed.

Hercule looked far away. "I would imagine that any body decaying on the Moon would look outwardly serene while they gradually collapsed inwards. Any - well, 'holes' in the skin would be eaten from inside out very briefly and then cease. You could then produce usable compost by turning the body inside out when retrieved into an atmosphere."

The man's eyes were practically glowing as he expounded. Hercule started to stride up and down. "Unfortunately, all of this is surmise. The short-sighted administrators on Earth would never fund such research. Even though it is essential for our species - we must know such things in order to continue to expand off-world."

"Yes, yes," said John, interrupting. "But could you narrow down time of death from such decomposition?"

Hercule stopped mid-stride. "But haven't you been paying attention? It would be utterly speculative right now. I couldn't say for sure if he was killed yesterday or a week ago - not from the body alone. If they hadn't cancelled my application - well, I'd still be a biologist and I'd know a lot more."

John sighed. "Yes, more research needed, I know. However - could you say that you could narrow down the window like that?"

"Aha," said Hercule. "You are exercising your little grey cells, Lieutenant Masters, are you not? Making a killer fear your knowledge. Very good. I will play along"

That had been an hour ago, and John was now fearing he'd made a mistake. What if the killer was playing their cards very close to their chests? He was relying on them panicking - under stress at being singled out as a key suspect, under the stress going around the Moonbase during the cavorite excavation, under the stress of evidence apparently closing in on them... but what if they could deal with that stress. John was painfully aware that his bluff was very shallow, and now he had to rely on two other people to play their part, knowingly.

He glanced at Sumner. The Old Man was imperturbable. Mikhail looked expectant. Yves looked impatient. Hercule looked downright smug. Edith looked sympathetic.

"I imagine you're wondering why I've brought you all together today," he began, wincing internally from the cliché. "Uwe Fochs, our metallurgist, has been murdered."

"But how?" exclaimed Mikhail. "Surely we would have noticed a killing? When was it? Today?"

John shook his head. Was Mikhail playing too ignorant?

"No, he's been absent for a couple of days now," said Yves, thoughtfully. "I haven't seen him since - was it Thursday?"

"He was taken out onto the surface of the Moon and killed there, his body left in the vacuum," said John. This wasn't going as he'd hoped - he'd seen nothing out of the ordinary from any of them. "The killer, though, is someone in this room. We know that."

That should do to worry the killer. He watched Yves and Mikhail carefully. Their eyes widened, they looked alarmed - could they be putting it on?

The Old Man interrupted. "Good work in finding the killer, then. Can we cut to the chase? Who is it?"

"I really have to go through all of this," insisted John, his heart hammering. Someone had to give a clue soon. "We know that the Means by which the murder was carried out was readily available to all, but those in this room are amongst those with the most Motive. After all, no-one carries out a murder just to obtain a corpse."

Sumner snorted. "That's a good line; I have to remember it."

John turned to Yves. "With the issues over Alsace-Lorraine..."

"No, that's absurd," interrupted Yves. "I am a scientist. Although Germany stole my homeland, I would never stoop to killing over it - I am no foolish nationalist!"

"But you were - or are - involved romantically with - well, several of the women on the Moonbase, yes?"

Yves flushed. "That has nothing to do with..."

"And Fochs was aggressively chasing several of the women on the Moonbase..."

Yves shook his head again and again. "Do not be so absurd!"

John changed tack. "Talking of romance, Mikhail - you were courting..."

"You would do better to go with a political motive for me," said Mikhail, sighing. "Although that wouldn't work very well - Russia is not the aggressor in anything right now."

"Or a professional motivation?" John knew he was starting to clutch at straws. No-one was letting anything slip. "If a death occurred on..."

"Embarrassing Mr Feldberg so I would end up in charge. Please!"

John changed tack again. "And Feldberg is a Bavarian name, while Fochs was Prussian - and the strains between Bavaria and Prussia right now..."

The Old Man leaned forwards, his face thunderous. "If you're trying to say that I'm a suspect because my father was chased out of Germany thirty years ago, I think that's quite a reach, Masters."

It was all falling apart. He hadn't even got to Edith, yet. Maybe it was none of these.

Hercule interrupted, shooting John a glance as if to chide his irresponsibility. "Actually, we can put a precise window on the time of death, and that is what Lieutenant Masters has not yet said."

"Yes!" John seized at the straw. "Dr Tarrode can precisely estimate the time of death from the decomposition state of the body." Disregarding for the moment whether 'precisely' could really go with 'estimate', he carefully watched each man's reactions - and was no wiser.

"And, of course, the fingerprints on the outside of the glove," added Edith. "Well, we will have them; we only just realised before we came in that we had extra evidence. I've just got to go and get them and take them to the laboratory after this."

What? He blinked, before realizing and playing along. "Oh, indeed."

"So why all this rigmarole, then?" The Old Man looked angrily at him. "If you don't have the answer yet... why couldn't you have waited until after the fingerprints had been taken and matched?"

John opened his mouth to answer and froze. He couldn't come up with a reason. None of his suspects had panicked, no-one had given anything away, and he now looked foolish - although Edith seemed to be trying to give him a meaningful look. He was saved by a knock on the door.

It was Gregg. "Sir? The mole team would like to see you urgently."

Sumner paused to glare at John, shook his head, and stalked out.

"Well, if that was all you had..." said Yves, brightly, "I'll be off, then. I'd like to see what the mole team have come up with."

"Me, also," said Mikhail. The two of them left.

"My commiserations, Lieutenant Masters," said Hercule, with a shrug. "It was a valiant attempt. But now, I'm afraid, I also have to be elsewhere."

With that, John and Edith were alone in the Old Man's office. He winced, and shook his head. "Well, that didn't work."

She gave him an enigmatic smile. "Let's give it, say, three minutes."

"For what?" Something else struck him. "Oh, and Edith? That suit fabric wouldn't take fingerprints at all. I would have taken them earlier if they could."

"I know that," said Edith. "But Hercule doesn't."

"Hercule?" John was feeling out of his depth. Much as he had in his first ever swimming lesson when he'd been unceremoniously plunged into deep water. Come to think of it, the cold shock and bone-deep fear of looking ridiculous were also relevant.

She stepped to the door, glanced down the corridor, and said, "Right. He's had enough of a head start. Let's head to the airlock and the suit storage locker and catch him red-handed."

"Hercule?" He knew he was repeating himself.

"Yes, Hercule." She looked at him fondly. "You were busy talking, but I was listening. When you were discussion decomposition of bodies - you never said it was about a dead human body, whether they were male, and when he might have been killed. Hercule brought that up."

He blinked. She was right. "And the stuff he was saying earlier about the place being haunted... he was playing with me days ago."

"Haunted?" She shrugged. "Well, it doesn't matter. He could always wriggle out of it by saying something like he was inferring from your questions, so I set up a situation where..."

"Where he has to do something to tip his hand!" They were now hurrying down the corridor. Through the heavy door to the central area, across it - as quickly as they could, although outright running would risk them hitting their heads on the ceiling - and to the heavy door to the corridor that led to the 'Front Door'. Through that, a few dozen paces later - and they could see Hercule feverishly going through the suit locker.

The astronomer looked up as they approached, his eyes wide. John thought for a moment that he might try to bluff it out, but instead he panicked, opened the door to the airlock, and darted through, the thick metal door clanging shut behind him.

"He hasn't got a suit - he's trapped," muttered John as they reached the door and peered through the heavy glass. From what he could see, Hercule had concluded that as well, after a moment's desperate rummaging around the airlock.

"Give up, Hercule," John called through the glass. He knew it was possible to make out voices through the door, albeit that they were muffled. "There's nowhere to go."

The smaller man seemed to bounce back and forth between the inner and outer door, before calming down. "I fear you are right, Lieutenant." His voice was clear, even if it was faint. "I really must congratulate you on a masterful performance. You fooled me completely."

"Well, yes, thank you," said John, carefully avoiding looking at Edith. He had to follow this up and get Hercule to specifically confess - he was painfully aware that they didn't actually have any evidence beyond the circumstantial, whatever Hercule might be currently assuming.

"I must know, though - what was your true motivation?" he asked. "That was the one thing I could never really work out."

"The one thing?" Edith's mutter was carefully calibrated not to carry through the door. John suppressed a wry smile.

"Oh, I thought perhaps you had." Hercule sounded surprised. "You said 'no-one carries out a murder just to obtain a corpse.' At the time, I thought it amusingly ironic; just after you trapped me, I decided you'd been hinting it at me."

"Wait." John took a deep breath. Suddenly, everything crystallised, like in one of those experiments at his public school. "You killed Fochs just to obtain a corpse!"

Hercule looked affronted. "There is no 'just' about it. Understanding decomposition on the Moon is critical - critical! - if we are to expand off of our precious homeworld. There is nothing more important short of finding the cavorite itself. We need to know what can be done for composting..."

"Composting!" John couldn't stop from blurting out the word. Incongruously, he heard a cheer coming faintly down the corridor from the central area.

"Yes, Lieutenant. Composting. It is, after all, essential if we are to grow food, and without food being grown off-world, how can we colonise space? We can crack oxygen from the very rocks and acquire water from the asteroids, but food? We must grow that where we go. Yet our stupid leaders cannot see that!"

"And we don't have any other animals in the Moonbase other than humans." John nodded. It made a certain mad sort of sense.

"But you ruined my experiment by bringing Fochs' body back inside when it had been exposed for only a couple of days." Hercule looked mournful. "Such a waste."

"A waste? Hercule - you killed someone!"

Hercule gestured airily. "A philanderer, a thug, a Bavarian - no-one would miss him. Best of all, virtually anyone had reason to dislike him. After all - you had so many people you could suspect on the grounds of motive, did you not? I thought I was free and clear until Edith mentioned fingerprints and I could have - what is the phrase? Kicked myself, that was it."

John decided not to mention that the suit would not give a fingerprint transfer. Hercule had confessed, and that was enough. He heard the door to the central area opening behind him and footsteps coming down the corridor. "Hercule. You have to come inside now."

The astronomer didn't answer, instead looking far off into the distance, through the window in the external door. "And now, my research... lost. It will be discredited. Forever associated with a criminal. It was hard enough to even get a hearing for it before. No-one will want to do anything for this now. Yet it is critical. Truly critical."

John realised what he was going to do moments before he did it. "No, wait! Hercule! Don't!"

"What's going on?" It was the Old Man, with what looked to be half the Base behind him.

Hercule turned and gave them a sad smile. "But, Lieutenant," he said. "Surely you can see that if I am to have the courage of my convictions, if I am genuine in my certainty that this is worth the loss of human life, then I must do this. It is the only honourable thing to do."

Without another word, he turned and smashed the glass for the emergency override on the external exit, and yanked the lever inside. The siren hooted, the red light flashed - for long enough that someone could hit the big red 'stop' button if it had been a bizarre error. And then the door opened, the wind inside the small room screamed loudly enough to be heard strongly inside - no faint breeze, but air moving beyond hurricane speeds - and Hercule was gone, whirled outside by the force of the air.

It took half an hour to explain the situation to the Old Man. The momentum of the expedition to claim the cavorite - for the cheer had indeed been the receipt of the signal from the successful mole - was briefly stopped as the situation was digested. John was adamant that Hercule's body was to be left outside, as he'd intended. Some good had to come of the sorry mess.

By the following day, the cavorite had been brought in, and Hercule's body moved carefully - even reverently - to a location a little away from the door, in a place on the surface where it could stay undisturbed and be observed. To John's surprise, some of the scientists seemed to understand - even respect - Hercule's reasoning.

The case, however, was now closed. The Old Man had fully forgiven John for the scene he'd set up in his office, even praising him for his thinking. On Earth, they had taken the two deaths in their stride. After all, a loss of two men on such a crucial and pioneering expedition wasn't seen as an unusual price to pay. Not when the payoff was so great. The news of the mission's success had been greeted on Earth with champagne corks popping and widespread celebration - it even defused the tensions at the meeting of the Concert of Nations, with the German and French ambassadors embracing in public.

John laced his hand through Edith's - she'd taken to joining him in his office after hours, with the obvious approval of the Old Man. He'd been able to get Edith's pivotal contribution recognised; he was actually convinced that she'd been more important to the resolution of the mystery than he had, although she insisted that they had been a great team and she'd have been unable to solve it alone.

She had a point. Maybe they should make the team official when they got back.


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