Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Scout's Law - Chapter 2

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Our heroes find an abandoned research station. Shortly after that, a dead man’s hand is discovered.

A too-young ensign—he looked like he didn’t need to shave more than once a month—swept an arm over the area around the exposed hand. “One of the men noticed the ground here wasn’t packed as hard as you’d expect in a desert. He poked around with his sword and unearthed the hand”

“You have an alert crew,” I said, squatting down and examining the hand. “Get a team out here with shovels and let’s see who or what else is buried here.”

Behind me, I heard a minor commotion as some of the airmen tried to stop Callan from joining me. “Not a fit sight for a lady” and similar other phrases floated my way. There was no doubt this crew had never traveled with my wife before.

“You’re wasting your time, gentlemen,” I called without looking up, “and we’ll all live longer, happier lives if you accept the inevitable now.”

A pair of small boots stepped into my peripheral vision. A lilting voice completely at odds with the scene before me asked, “You’ve sent for a team of diggers?”

“Yep.”

The ensign returned and stood on the other side of me. I didn’t look up but was certain I’d find a young man struggling to keep his eyes on the ground and off of Callan. “Trog attack, do you think, sir?”

I shook my head. “Trogs don’t bury the dead. They’d either leave the bodies where they fell or, if the men fought well enough to earn their respect, the trogs would have cremated the remains.”

“Perhaps a disease of some sort with the last survivor burying the dead?” mused the young man.

“You’re over-thinking it, Ensign,” Callan said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Chances are these men were killed by other men who buried the bodies to hide their actions for as long as possible.”

“But who would want to kill innocent researchers?” the ensign asked. “Desert tribesmen? Raiders?”

I stood and stepped back as men arrived with shovels. “Or a member of the research team.”

“But they’re galactics, sir!”

I exchanged a glance with Callan. Some people—especially young people—thought of galactic citizens as some form of an improved species of humanity.

“They’re still just people, Ensign.”

“People like you, sir.”

Callan took my arm. “Also people like Caudill and the band of pirates who crashed here six years ago. And every kind of person in between those extremes.”

The ensign didn’t appear ready to give up his cherished notion of galactic superiority but also chose not to argue with the heir to his country’s throne and her transplanted-galactic husband. He covered his uncertainty by issuing mostly unnecessary instructions to the team of diggers.

Just as the men uncovered the first body, the expedition’s surgeon, Dr. Mach, arrived. He spent the next fifteen minutes examining the first three exhumed corpses before speaking to Callan and me.

“I’ll have to examine each of the bodies as they’re uncovered, but each of these people had their throats cut.” He removed his spectacles and cleaned them absently. “Murdered in their sleep, I’d guess.”

“What makes you say that, Doctor?” Callan asked.

“The wounds are too straight and clean. You only get that kind of wound if the victim isn’t struggling.” Putting his specs on again, Mach looked back at the mass grave. “How many people were on this research expedition?”

I checked the paperwork. “Eight men and four women.”

“Why don’t you and Her Highness find a comfortable place to wait. I’ll bring my results to you once I’m done here.” He glanced at the ensign, pale-faced and swallowing hard at the sight taking shape before him. Lowering his voice, Mach added, “Perhaps you could find something to occupy young Marlow’s mind, sir? I’m confident the men will find a way to finish digging without his instructions.”

“I’ll take care of the ensign,” Callan said, releasing my arm. “Don’t let him drop me, darling.”

Callan took two steps toward the ensign then brought an arm to her forehead. “Oh dear, my head is spinning!”

Drawn by her voice, Marlow turned toward Callan—just in time to catch her as she gracefully tumbled into him.

“Your Highness!” the lad managed to exclaim before catching her. Eyes wide, Marlow turned imploring eyes toward the doctor and me.

Mach pretended to take Callan’s pulse before using that most amazing medical procedure—the pat on the wrist. “I’m afraid the heat has affected Her Highness. Marlow, take the princess back to her airship. A little water and rest and she’ll be just fine.”

Marlow looked back and forth between Mach and me. “But shouldn’t Captain Rice—”

“I have things to discuss with the good captain before he can return. I know you would prefer to stay, Ensign, but your duty to our future queen outweighs your duty here.” Mach gently turned Marlow to our ship. “Do stay with her until she releases you. There’s a good lad.”

Callan winked at us as she let Marlow lead her back to our ship.

Watching them go, Mach added, “He’s a good lad and as smart as they come at that age, but I’m not sure he has the constitution for navy life.” Turning back to me, the doctor asked, “Shouldn’t there be a lot of confusing equipment around here? Devices and widgets and all those other technical things these unfortunate souls needed to perform their research?”

“That’s been uppermost in my mind ever since we landed, Doctor.” I pointed toward the largest of three prefabricated buildings. “Most of their equipment should have been in there, but it’s empty.”

“Did they have any galactic-style weapons? From what I’ve heard, I could readily see someone killing for those.”

“No, Federation law expressly forbids bringing those to lost colonies such as Aashla. That wouldn’t stop some people, but the previous inspection didn’t find anything. Rupor and Heidi are thorough, so I doubt they overlooked anything.” I pulled out the equipment manifest and read through it. “I suppose it's possible someone could make something dangerous out of all of this stuff—after all, I’m a Scout, not an engineer.”

“What are your plans, Captain Rice?”

“I’ll send one ship to the nearest Federation consulate to report this crime. The rest depends on what we dig up from the grave.”

Two hours later we had our answer. We found the bodies of seven men and three women in the grave. As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the expedition’s chaplain held a service for the dead. I tried to pay attention and show proper respect for the dead, but my mind kept returning to the one truly important question I had.

Were the missing man and woman responsible for the murders? If so, what plans did they have for the missing equipment?


What’s going on in the desert of Aashla? Find out in Chapter 3, coming Friday!