Antonio Bellomi, “The Broken Sequence”
Italian original: La sequenza spezzata
“The Broken Sequence”
Publication: Fantasy Adventures #13
Philip Harbottle, editor
Length: 340 pages
Publisher: Wildside Press
Fantasy Adventures was created in 2002 to commission new stories by neglected older British SF writers such as Brian Ball. Sydney J. Bounds, John Glasby, Tony Glynn, Philip E. High, E. C. Tubb and others. Each issue also contained a reprint of one of John Russell Fearn’s best 1950’s novels, and featured new covers by Ron Turner.
In 2008, because of the deaths of both High and Bounds, the magazine ended with number 13, a bumper double-size tribute issue featuring their obituaries and a generous selection of their unpublished stories along with those of regular contributors, plus other new stories by Eric Brown and Antonio Bellomi.
“Thank you for coming.”
Commissioner Kim Sukyung gave a hearty welcome to Uriel Qeta and signaled to the agent on the threshold to let him in. The Chief Commissioner of Luna-City Laboratories had a grim face, as befitted to a person heavily pressured who can’t see any way out from his problems. Anybody could clearly see through his feelings at this particular moment and the so-called oriental deadpan face was absolutely missing.
Uriel Qeta passed through the door of the Astronomy Lab and shook hands with the commissioner. When he had been called half an hour ago on the videophone the commissioner had been very frank with him.
“I urgently need your help,” the Chief Commissioner of the Luna_City Police Force had said. And when such a statement came from him it meant that the trouble that had arisen was real trouble. It was not the first time that Uriel Qeta was asked to give his expert help to commissioner Sukyung, and each time it had happened it was for a very good reason: it meant the commissioner had no idea whatsoever what to do.
Qeta looked around him. He felt curious. He had expected to see a corpse on the floor, as he had been told, but on the clear glassex floor there was no body, either dead or alive. The commissioner caught his look of surprise and gave a forced smile.
“No, the dead man is not in this room, but in the adjoining lab, just at the opposite end of this room. I am sure you can help me. I wouldn’t have imposed on you, had it not been so urgent. I must find a solution to this case within three hours at the most.”
“And you need a planetologist?” Qeta looked puzzled. “I’m an expert on planets, not a detective. Are you sure I can help you? It is the first time you’ve called me for a murder case. Previously you called me to help you solve problems which were more on the scientific side than police matters.”
Sukyung spread his arms while he guided the scientist to the end of the room and through a door to another room. This was more spacious and from the threshold Qeta could see a large table and rows of shelves overcrowded with jars and tubes.
“I’m afraid there is a dead man to complicate things now, and I thought that your sharp mind could be useful once more,” he replied. “The dead man, or rather the man who was killed, is Professor Helios Olmedo, the director of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Lab. I gather you knew him very well professionally.”
“Oh, yes,” said the planetologist.
“Well, I hope you can find some clue, which has so far evaded us. Because I must confess that I am groping in the dark and time is short, very short indeed.”
Professor Olmedo was lying behind the counter, near the right wall. He was wearing a white coat and the terminal end of a ceramic dart was protruding from his neck. His face was contracted, showing his facial nerves had been subject to sudden paralysis.
“Was he poisoned?” asked Qeta as he saw the dart.
The Commissioner nodded. “Exactly. Do you see this dart? It is the kind of dart that is fired by a compressed air ceramic gun. It is used in the spaceships to sedate violent rioters. The only difference is that we use sleeping darts, while the dart which killed Professor Olmedo obviously contained a lethal toxin.”
Qeta went around the table to have a better look at the dead man. In spite of his hundred and twenty kilos he knelt with great agility, because he was helped by the reduced gravity of the Moon. “Could you establish the time of the death?”
“A couple of hours ago, no more,” Sukyung said. “Time is of essence in this investigation. As you know, in order to move through the many levels of Luna City and open certain doors, you need to employ your own magnetic key, which, according to the security level of the owner, allows entry in certain parts and not in others. But all accesses are registered by the central computer and, at least in theory, we should be able to track every person’s movements rather precisely.”
Qeta finished examining the corpse, then got up. The commissioner was looking at him hopefully. “Something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Sukyung sighed. “Dead wrong. The lab door was opened by the murder with a false skeleton key.”
“As false as it can be. Its code number which was registered by the computer doesn’t match with any of the skeleton keys which are used by the personnel of Luna City.”
“That would suggest a professional agent, wouldn’t it?” asked Qeta, while his eyes searched the room. “A ceramic gun which can foil the metal detectors, a poisoned dart which is not in the trick bag of the lunar police, a false skeleton key...”
“This is just what we thought,” Sukyung confirmed the hypothesis. “But we have a possible track to follow.”
“Interesting,” commented Qeta. Now he had lifted his eyes and he was examining the ceiling. “And what is this track?”
Sukyung showed a moderately satisfied look. “We can reduce the number of the possible murderers to three. Thanks to the use of the magnetic keys we can track the movements of all people rather precisely. Actually there are only three of them who did not leave a traceable path in the last four hours and so we are a hundred percent sure that the murder must be one of them. They are-”
Qeta stopped him with a gesture and pointed instead at the ceiling. There was a tiny electronic eye focused on them at the moment. “That is a security camera, isn’t it? I trust you have already checked the tape.”
If Sukyung thought the question was slightly insulting, he did not show it. “Sure. That was the first thing we did, but the range of the camera doesn’t cover the room completely and the murderer placed himself in a blind spot. From there he fired the gun without being filmed. I have a copy of the tape on one of the lab monitors. Do you want to see it now?”
“Please.” Qeta looked around him. He saw a turned on monitor on the left side of the room and started to walk in this direction. Suddenly he turned as if an idea had occurred to him, and came back to examine the table behind which the professor’s corpse was lying.
“Found something?” Sukyung came alongside him.
Qeta pointed at the table. There were five numbered glass jars lined up on the top and the last one was not erect as the others, but lay on its side. “I think Professor Olmedo was working on these specimens when he was killed. Apparently he was keeping the last jar in his hand and it rolled out the moment he was hit.”
“Right,” stated Sukyung. “You can see the whole scene on the monitor.”
The two men approached the monitor and Sukyung pushed a few buttons. Immediately the screen showed a movie of the laboratory. Professor Olmedo was behind the table and all of a sudden he raised his head with a baffled look in his eyes. A second later his look changed, but Qeta could not understand whether he was actually worried. It was almost sure the killer had just come in. Professor Olmedo might have sensed something was wrong, but either he was not yet sure, or perhaps he did not want to show he had understood what was about to happen.
The professor turned casually and from the shelf behind him he took a few jars and began to display them on the table. He acted as if he was not worried by the presence of the unknown visitor. Had he not understood that the intruder had come to kill him? His gestures were quiet and systematic; he seemed to prepare the jars for some kind of experiment. Nothing in his movements revealed he was afraid of being killed by the visitor.
“A shame there is no sound track,” said Qeta. “If we could hear what they said, it would be easier for us.”
Now the professor had finished arranging the jars on the table.
“Coming up now is the moment when he was shot,” anticipated the commissioner.
A couple of seconds later the face of the professor contracted while a ceramic dart pierced his jugular. The nerves of his face froze instantly and he appeared to gasp for air, then he collapsed on the floor.
“Paralysis with asphyxia,” said Sukyung. “He died almost instantly.”
“Go back a little with the tape,” said Qeta. “I want to see the scene again.”
The commissioner gave him a perplexed look, but he did not say anything and ran the images again. Once more the professor was shown to handle his lunar specimens.
“Ah!” Uriel Qeta exclaimed. “Just as I thought. Did you notice it?
“Notice what?” asked Sukyung. “I see the professor being hit while he is arranging the jars on the table and then collapsing after being paralyzed. Or did I miss anything?”
Qeta looked at him thoughtfully as if he was following a train of thoughts of his own. “If you observe the tape more carefully, you’ll notice the professor was not hit while he was arranging the jars on the table, but after he had already done with it.”
“So what?” Sukyung looked dumbfounded. “During or immediately after, what does it matter? It was the moment he was killed anyway.”
“Look at the tape again,” Qeta prompted the commissioner..
Sukyung exhaled an unconvinced sigh, but he ran the tape for the third time, and again there was the professor handling his jars.
“Stop the image here,” Qeta ordered him suddenly. “Don’t you notice anything out of order?”
Sukyung examined the image then he winced and turned to look at Qeta. He looked amazed. “I got it! How could I have missed it?”
Qeta nodded and pointed his finger to the fixed image.
“You see, at this point the professor has finished arranging the five jars on the table, but the last one did not roll out of his hand when he was hit. The fifth jar was purposely placed on its side by him! And then, only then, five or six seconds later, he was hit by the lethal dart.”
There was silence for a while in the room. Then Sukyung said slowly: “The professor understood his visitor had come to kill him and he left a message to us. To write it he used the only objects he had at hand at the moment, the jars with the lunar specimens.”
Qeta turned and went back to the table. “Let’s have a look at these jars. They are the key which might give us the answers we are looking for.”
The jars were the usual jars used to contain the lunar specimens: dust and chips of rocks. Every jar was labeled with a number that identified a file with all the data relating to the specimen in it: place, time, depth, finding team, and other data.
Qeta examined the labels. “The identification numbers are 4, 7, 10, 16 and 28,” he said. “We’ll need to examine the files relating to these specimens. We might find a clue in them, which could lead us to the murderer, but...” He shook his head, unconvinced. “There is something which is out of place.”
Sukyung nodded. “The fifth jar, the one on his side, isn’t it? Why did he not place it upright as the other ones?”
“That’s the point.” Qeta put his hands on the table. “The lying jar must have a particular meaning, but for the moment it evades me. Nonetheless the professor must have thought it was an important clue, because he placed it differently from the others.”
Sukyung looked at his watch. “We only have two hours and a half yet, Doctor Qeta. Time is running short. We must examine these files.”
Uriel Qeta looked at him. “So you said earlier. Why is the time so urgent?”
“Because the three suspect will get on the ferry to Earth in two and a half hours’ time and once they are out of our jurisdiction it will be much more difficult to get at them, always provided the killer will not disappear altogether. After all, we don’t know why the professor was murdered and since we are ignorant of the motive, we can’t know what the killer will do afterwards.”
“You’re right,” Qeta assented. “But before reading the files about the jars, it might be useful to know something more on the three suspects. Do you have their folders here?”
The commissioner led Uriel Qeta into the first room and invited him to sit down in front of a desk where there were three closed folders on the tabletop. “Here are the folders of the suspects. You can read them while I go and give orders to my men.”
As the commissioner went away, Qeta opened the first folder.
Miguel Menem, Ph. D., 35, geologist. Brilliant scientist in an important university of Bogota. Specialist in Martian stones. Unmarried, no problem with the law.
The second folder was the file of Danielle Tietz, Ph. D., 29, biologist, working as a researcher at the Government Center of Exobiology of Dallas, virologist. Unmarried, no problem with the law.
The third folder was that of Roy Mobuto, Ph. D., 32, astronomer, radio-astronomy specialist at the Arecibo Observatory. Married with a fellow astronomer in Arecibo. No problem with the law.
Uriel Qeta sighed. The other data contained in the folders did not look at all promising for his investigation. Perhaps the computer files about the specimens could reveal some clues that could turn out to be of help. He was more convinced then ever that the key of the puzzled rested in these five jars numbered 4-7-10-16-28. But what was the mystery hidden in them?
When the commissioner came back, the two men looked through the files of the specimens in the jars. But they were common specimens of lunar dust and rocks. Their mineral contents differed depending on the different sites where they had been picked up, but did not suggest anything unusual. As for the teams that had picked up the specimens, they were the usual teams that had operated in the past and among their members no one had a name that could be even remotely linked to one of the three suspects.
“Hell, we’re still at the starting point!” snorted Sukyung. “We have only one hour left before the ferry sails off and the murderer gets safely away with it. It’s infuriating!”
“4-7-10-16-28,” whispered Uriel Qeta, his brown deeply furrowed. “I remain absolutely convinced that these numbers hid the name of the killer.”
“Why don’t we try to replace the numbers with letters?” mused the commissioner. He caught a sheet of paper and a pencil and wrote down the alphabet letters and over them wrote the following numbers 1 for “a”, 2 for “b” and so on. The resulting word was “d g j p”. “Dammit, the alphabets letters are only twenty six, therefore number 28 has no corresponding letter.”
“And ‘dgjp’ doesn’t mean anything,” said Qeta. “The numbers might match some of the atomic numbers of the Mendeleyev’s table, but I can see without writing them down that there is no sense in it.”
Sukyung had a rabid look now on his face. He was not a man who liked to lose, as Uriel Qeta had learnt after so many years. “I will not let that killer go free!” he exclaimed. “We must catch the bastard!”
“We don’t understand that message,” mused Uriel Qeta, “but it must be clear enough. Professor Olmedo apparently thought we could understand it easily. Five numbered jars, the last of them lying on it side. As if he wanted to signal a truncation...a full stop....”
He suddenly brightened. “Of course, why didn’t I understand it earlier? The professor was an astronomer... and the lying jar means that these numbers are not only five, but the first five of a broken sequence!” The planetologist was beaming as he looked at the chief of the Lunar Police.
“I’ve got it! These numbers are part of a sequence that is well known to the astronomers. It is the Bode sequence: 4-7-10-16-28 which goes on with numbers 52-100-196-388. The professor has understood he did not have time enough to place all the needed jars on the table, but had he placed only five of them we wouldn’t have suspected they meant to be a sequence. While, placing one of them on its side he could make us understand it was a broken sequence. Yeah, that’s it, these numbers are just the numbers of the Bode Law. It gives us the distance of the planets from the Sun, counting as 10 the distance of the Earth from the Sun.”
Uriel Qeta jumped animatedly to his feet. “Let’s nab our killer before that ferry leaves!”
Commissioner Sukyung got to his feet, but he still looked perplexed. “Okay, if you feel so sure. But the Bode Law numbers don’t suggest anything to me, and the word Bode is also meaningless. Now then, whom are we arresting? The astronomer?”
The planetologist was already through the door. “Don’t think of it-just run! I’ll tell you everything while we get to the ferry. Ah, how brilliant of Professor Olmedo!”
* * *
The beautiful redhead who was about to go through Gate 3 to the ferry berth for the Earth turned, showing a radiant smile. “Yes?”
Commissioner Sukyung’s voice was quiet but firm. “If you’ll be so kind as to follow me into my office...”
The look on her face changed slightly, showing surprise and a bit of worry; just the right reaction which everybody would show while being stopped by the police just a few minutes before embarking on a space ferry.
“My ferry is about to take off,” she protested politely, with just a trace of nervousness in her voice.
“Please,” said Sukyung, showing her a side corridor, “There still is half an hour before closing the airlock. I’ll make this quick.”
“If you insist.” The tone of the woman sounded annoyed now. As if she was offended.
When she entered the office of the Lunar Police she did not sit down, she did it only when she was invited to by a sharp gesture from Sukyung.
Uriel Qeta observed the scene intently from the corner where he was seated. Doctor Tietz did not show any trace of fear. She was self assured, annoyed as much as might be expected from an everyday person, and no more worried than it was logical to be without arousing suspicion for being too sure of herself.
“Now then, may I know why I was compelled to follow you here? I have a ferry to catch.”
“I’m afraid that will not be possible,” Commissioner Sukyung said sharply, opening a folder in front of him. “Doctor Tietz, you have been arrested because you are suspected to have killed Professor Olmedo.” He spoke levelly, absolutely certain that he had found the killer.
Her green eyes flashed angrily. “Are you joking? I did not even know Professor Olmedo was dead.”
She was a tough one. A real pro. Her reactions were perfect. Calibrated. Normal.
“You have killed Professor Olmedo,” stated Sukyung. “As soon as the Professor realized he was going to be killed he left us a message. It is no use to try to deny it, you’d only waste your time and ours too.”
Uriel Qeta saw the biologist wince. For the first time he thought he detected a crack in her armor, but it was just for a fleeing moment.
“Nonsense! What would it be, this supposed message of yours? You can’t prove what you are saying.”
Sukyung did not reply. He was actually wondering if the evidence Uriel Qeta had provided him would be enough for the court. He was fully convinced of the meaning of the message but it was always possible a good lawyer could dismantle the accusations. What he still lacked was more direct evidence.
The biologist jumped to her feet. “I’m leaving!” She turned, but Sukyung voice stopped her short.
“Don’t try to get out of here. The door is blocked. Please, sit down.”
“But I’ll lose the ferry...”
“I’m afraid you’ll lose something more than the ferry,” said Sukyung quietly and he began nonchalantly leafing through the folder in from of him.
“If you hope to unnerve me and cause me to confess what I haven’t done, you’re badly mistaken,” said Doctor Tietz. “Your abuse of power will cost you dearly.”
Sukyung didn’t even take the trouble to reply to her.
Uriel Qeta observed them without saying anything. He was amused. He knew why the Commissioner was dilly-dallying. At the moment the Forensic Team was searching the biologist’s luggage looking for some evidence that could nail her for the killing of the professor. Perhaps the actual weapon she had used, even if he doubted a professional killer would keep such an incriminating object. But even professionals do mistakes. Sometimes.
Half an hour passed absolutely silently. Doctor Tietz sat rigidly in her chair, her face looking like a stone mask. And Sukyung kept feigning to read the documents he had in front of him as if he were absolutely detached from everything.
The buzzer at the door sounded and Sukyung pushed a button. An agent of the Scientific Squad came in with a small metal ovoid in his hands.
“We found this, sir. It was well hidden inside a souvenir copy of the Obelisk of the First Moon Landing..”
“A Moon souvenir?” the commissioner said wryly, as he caught the ovoid and showed it to Doctor Tietz.
“Every one who comes on the Moon buys a copy of this famous monument,” she countered levelly.
Sukyung shook his head. “I meant this ovoid.”
“I have never seen it before now.”
“But it was found in you luggage.”
The biologist shrugged. “Then someone put it there. As you know these souvenirs are hollow inside to make them lighter.”
She was always ready with an answer, Uriel Qeta thought. And her answers were logical. It would prove to be very difficult to make her make a mistake with a verbal skirmish. Sukyung went back to leafing through his papers as she put up the stone face again.
A few minutes later another officer came in. This time it was a lieutenant. He turned to Sukyung.
“We have checked. The ovoid comes from Professor Olmedo’s lab. It is part of the collection of specimens of alien spores that are kept in an armored safe in the Astronomy Lab. An ovoid is missing and his serial number matches the number on the ovoid we found in Doctor Tietz’s luggage.”
“I repeat, I don’t know anything about it,” said the biologist nervously.
Uriel Qeta shuddered. So this was the reason why the professor had been killed. To steal a specimen of some spores found encapsulated in alien meteorites. Those spores had never been brought onto the Earth. Many of them were harmless, but others were potentially fatal. If they were disseminated on the Earth they could spread and multiply quickly and be more lethal than the botulinus itself.
Commissioner Sukyung held up the ovoid carefully and examined it with awe.
“It contains spore HV-35,” added the lieutenant. “It is the most lethal spore ever found in meteorites. In the hands of terrorists it would be a terrifying mass destruction weapon.”
“For which every terrorist group would gladly pay a fortune,” said Sukyung. He looked at the biologist again. “Who are you really, Doctor Tietz? Whom are you working for? How much have you been paid to bring this specimen Earthside?”
“I’m Doctor Danielle Tietz,” the biologist replied mechanically. “I work as a biologist at the Government Center of Exobiology of Dallas.” Her eyes glittered. “I’m not a terrorist, nor do I work for any terrorist group.”
Sukyung put down the ovoid carefully, as if he feared it could break and spread its lethal spores throughout Luna City. “Oh, I’m sure a thorough investigation will be able to find a link between you and some terrorist group. When you know where to look, you always end up finding something.”
“An ovoid found in my baggage which at the moment was not with me doesn’t mean absolutely anything,” countered the biologist contemptuously. “I say it once more, anybody could have planted it.”
“Yes, you already said that,” Commissioner Sukyung said placidly. “It is true one piece of evidence is not enough, but two pieces of evidence can tell the difference between an absolution and a sentence.
“Shall I tell you what happened? You came to the Moon, or rather you plotted so as to be sent to the Moon with the precise goal to steal spore HV-3 from the Planetarian Biology Center. But because of the strict surveillance system you could not get at it. Then you discovered that the Astronomy Lab keeps the same alien specimens as well, even if only few people know that, and you rightly thought that the surveillance was less strict there. We generally don’t link astronomy to lethal substances. I don’t still know whether you stole the ovoid after killing the professor, or if it was before, and you killed Professor Olmedo to prevent him associating your presence with the disappearance of the spores.”
“Nonsense,!” said the biologist, and her tone was even more contemptuous. “But you said you had another piece of evidence. What was your... uh... so-called message of Professor Olmedo?”
Sukyung turned his eyes to Uriel Qeta, who had remained silent till that moment. “I think it is the right time to explain to Doctor Tietz how the professor could pin her before dying.”
Uriel Qeta got up and approached the biologist, towering over her. This seemed to impress the biologist because a sudden flash of fear appeared in her eyes. Not because she feared to be physically harmed, but because she had read her fate in the eyes of the planetologist.
“I imagine he has written my name in his blood, as in a bad crime novel,” she said wryly. But the look in her eyes was serious, very serious now.
Qeta shook his head. “No, no blood message. And you know that there was no blood around because you killed the professor with a poisoned dart shot into his jugular. No, no written messages. Only jars.”
This time Danielle Tietz winced visibly and could not hide it.
Qeta smiled. “The jars, yes. Surprised, aren’t you? You did not pay attention to them when the professor laid them on the table.”
“What should I know about jars? I never was in that man’s blasted lab!”
Sukyung cut her short. “Who told you anything about the lab? I didn’t say anything.”
She shrugged. “I took it for granted. You alluded to a table and some jars. It was logical to conclude you were referring to Professor Olmedo’s Lab.”
Uriel Qeta smiled at her sweetly and sat in a chair near to her.
“I concede that, Doctor Tietz. It will not be this false step that entraps you, but Bode’s Law.”
From her look it was apparent that now the biologist did not really understand. “Bode’s Law? What is it?”
The planetologist waved his hand. “Oh, yes, I forgot you are not an astronomer.” He went on talking in his best professional tone:
“Bode’s Law is a sequence of numbers indicating the distance of the planets of this solar system from the Sun. You get it writing the numbers starting from 0 and 3, and doubling them so that you obtain 0-3-6-12-24-48-96 and so on; then you add 4 to every such number. The sequence becomes 4-7-10-28-52, and so on. If you assume as 10 the distance from Earth to the Sun, you get 4 as the distance of Mercury-four tenths of the Sun-Earth distance, that is-7 for Venus, 16 for Mars, 48 for the Asteroid Belt, and so on, all these numbers approximating the real distances rather accurately, at least up to a certain point.”
“And these numbers would indicate my name?” There was incredulity in her voice, true incredulity, not feigned. You could read it in her eyes.
Uriel Qeta smiled and shook his head. “Oh, no, the numbers have nothing to do with your name. They just pointed out to us that we should consider the Bode Law and it is just this law that revealed your identity.”
Sukyung was observing the biologist closely and was amused when he saw how confused she was. A confused suspect, who doesn’t know what the prosecutor is aiming at, is always at disadvantage.
Doctor Tietz looked at Uriel Qeta without understanding. “It was a fine lecture, Doctor Qeta, but what have I to do with Bode? My name is Tietz, Danielle Tietz.”
Qeta nodded. “Quite so, and this is just the reason why the professor could nail you.” He paused while a triumphant look appeared in his eyes.
“You see, my dear Doctor Tietz, for one of those strange quirks of destiny this Law has become known as the Bode Law, but it was actually found before him by an astronomer named Titius. In fact many people call it the Titius-Bode Law, as it should rightly be.”
“Oh,” the biologist smiled wryly, than shrugged. “Now I see, my name is Tiet, and it sounds suspiciously like Titius. So you want to accuse me just on the ground of a paltry assonance! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous!”
“Oh, no, the assonance has nothing to do with you.” Uriel Qeta shook his head. “You must know that Titius is the Latinized name of the man who found this Law, but the true name of this Prussian astronomer and mathematician, who was born in 1729, was Johan Daniel Tietz. Daniel Tietz, just like you... Danielle Tietz.”
The planetologist looked at her with benevolent irony. She seemed to have suddenly lost her energy.
“A trick of fate, you could say, my dear... even your name is exactly matched. And now, don’t you think it is high time you confessed everything?”
Copyright © 2005 by Antonio Bellomi