Port of Call: Mariner Point
by Antonio Bellomi
part 1 of 2
The first thing that caught his attention was that almost all the passengers of the Deimos were Earthborns. It was easy to pinpoint them among the others, because of their slightly frightened expressions, typical of those people who had not yet adjusted to life in space.
While any travelers born on Mars or on the Moon moved perfectly at ease in an environment that seemed natural to them, since they had lived in it all their lives, Earthborns looked utterly out of place, as if they were lacking something.
Certainly they miss the open air, the light of the sun, the wind, thought Uriel Qeta. He gazed upon the dining room of the spaceship and scanned the passengers who were about to sit down for lunch. Many of them were traveling alone; evidently they were businessmen or technicians outbound for work, but there also were three or four families with children, and they were clearly Marsborns, as proved by the typical gaudy clothing of the first Mars colonists, which had been kept in use ever since.
Colors like red, green, yellow and gold matched with violet and orange were dominant. A beautiful half-blood stood out among the other women. Her long legs were sheathed in a pair of crimson skin-tight leather pants and a phosphorescent golden blouse with green diagonal stripes emphasized an explosive bust. Her nails were painted with violet phosphorescent glaze. Her hair was sprayed green with an orange streak in the middle. No doubt she was a native Martian.
For an irrational reason he was annoyed when he could not pinpoint the origin of three men seated at a table and wearing conservative dark suits. Earthborns? Perhaps, but their skin was not tanned enough. Marsborns? Unlikely, their skin was not pale enough. Lunaborns? His instinct said no. It always irked him when he faced something which evaded his rational mind.
His irritation increased when a shadow appeared in front of him, cutting out his field of vision. “Doctor Qeta... Doctor Uriel Qeta?” an educated feminine voice asked, with the sure intonation of a person who already knows the answer.
Uriel Qeta raised his eyes and saw that the woman was the Marsborn with emerald hair he had observed an instant before in the dining room. In spite of his hundred and thirty kilos, he rose to his feet, exuding all his Lunar bachelor charm. “It is I. May I help you, my dear?”
“May I sit down at your table?” the woman replied and, without waiting for an answer, sat down in front of him and placed her little purse at her right. “My name is Lirna Kii, Doctor Qeta. I just attended your lecture on the psychology of second-generation extraterrestrials at the University of Luna City. You were simply enchanting.”
“Oh, I am always enchanting, Shimai Kii,” he replied, using the title preferred by young Martian girls. “And modesty is not one of my virtues.”
The woman shot him a smile as refulgent as her hair. “I am not flattering you at all, Doctor Qeta, believe me. I truly think it.”
Uriel Qeta smiled back at her. “I am very glad to hear it. One of the reasons I undertake an incredible amount of planetary navigation every year is to satisfy my ego. Simply said, I like being told I am brilliant.”
“And this reason comes before or after the motivation of your fabulous fees the Press writes about?”
An ironic smile touched the lips of the famous planetologist. “Oh, yes, the Press. Something tells me you are part of it. Lirna Kii, you said? The name rings a bell.”
The beautiful Martian half-closed her eyes. They were emerald-colored like her hair, with a slight almond slant.
Fascinating, he thought, definitely fascinating. And terribly dangerous. A man could easily lose himself in them. But it might be worth losing oneself in them, after all. He sighed.
“Will you have a drink with me?” the planetologist asked her. “You could pay me back by revealing to me what intriguing commission has brought you to cross my path.”
The woman relaxed and laid her long-fingered hands on the table. Her violet, phosphorescent nails were perfectly manicured, typically fashionable.
The drinks arrived: it was a simple aromatized kerqua. Qeta loved its light sage taste, and Lirna Kii seemed to like it as well.
In the room, nobody was paying attention to them. People had finished their meals and were chatting at ease. Uriel Qeta thought it was about time to ask the question.
“Who are you really, Lirna Kii?” he asked softly. “And what do you actually want from me? Assuming that Lirna Kii is truly your name.”
The woman smiled back at him. “Oh, yes, I am truly Lirna Kii and you certainly heard my name mentioned in connection with an investigation about the Mirkovitz file, the—”
Uriel Qeta’s face shone. “Of course! Now I remember. You call yourself a special journalist... yes... an investigative journalist... and write about spies and planetary espionage. You love to dig out the most secret and hidden plots and expose them. Your articles have appeared even in the newsreels of Luna City.”
Lirna Kii made a silvery giggle that reminded Uriel Qeta of a rattle of little bells. “You make me sound more like a scandal chaser than the investigator I actually am.”
The lights in the room had been lightly dimmed, creating a more intimate environment or conspiratorial atmosphere.
Qeta paused for a few moments. There was something in this contact that did not entirely convince him. He was unable to explain why he felt it, but he was certain that Lirna Kii had not sat down with him only for a trivial chat or to express an admiration that was out of place.
The woman brought her tumbler of kerqua to her ripe lips and slowly sipped the aromatic drink, all the while continuing to stare at him with her striking green eyes.
Qeta half closed his eyes as if he wanted to protect them from too strong a light. “Let’s stop playing with words now,” he said after a short pause. “I ask you again, Shimai Kii. What do you want from me? Why did you sit down at my table?”
Lirna Kii set down her tumbler on the table. Her face had become extremely serious. “I need your help,” she stated flatly.
Qeta raised an eyebrow in surprise. “My help? Here? Now?”
“Not exactly here, but in thirty standard hours. When we dock at Mariner Point spaceport on Mars.”
“At Mariner Point? In that case it will be difficult for me to help you. I am not stopping on Mars. Or rather, I will stop only long enough to change spaceships. My destination is elsewhere. Mars is your planet, in any case. I really don’t see how I can help you. On Mars I am a foreigner.”
“Indeed so. You are bound for Enceladus, one of Saturn’s satellites. You will board a spaceship of the Third Squadron of Mars together with a select group of scientists and scholars, many of whom are aboard this spaceship...”
Uriel Qeta winced, but he could hide his surprise quite well. She was looking at him with a piercing stare as if she wanted to understand how deep her direct blow had struck. “You should not know about this voyage,” said Qeta, slightly annoyed. “I was assured it would take place in total secrecy.”
Lirna Kii smiled. “Haven’t you just stated that I am the best investigative journalist there is?”
The planetologist shook his head. “No, I haven’t said so, even if I probably thought it. Okay, let’s suppose — but I am not confirming it — let’s suppose just as a pure hypothesis that I will board that military spaceship, as you said. What have you to do with all of this?”
“I have a lot to do with it, because I want to be aboard that spaceship, too.”
“This is utterly impossible, Shimai Kii!” Uriel Qeta exploded. Now he was really irritated. This request was absolutely absurd. After all he knew this woman only by her name. How could she ever think to—
Lirna Kii looked perfectly calm, as if she did not realize how absurd her request was. “I bet you are thinking that I am terribly cheeky,” she said with a smile. “And if this can soothe you, I have no problem admitting it. After all I’ve worked my way through this world of wolves by acting like a caterpillar.”
“You are a totally incredible person, Shimai Kii,” said the planetologist, shaking his head. “No one else would have been so rude to ask such a favor to a person they had never met before. Nobody—”
“Nobody but me.”
“But you,” Uriel Qeta conceded. He was pensive for a while, then he added: “I think I ought to cut off this conversation immediately, but since you are Lirna Kii, I will tell you that, even if I wanted to, I could never satisfy your request. There are very sound reasons why my answer must be no.”
“May one of these sound reasons be that on Enceladus a new secret weapon will be tested? A weapon that is particularly suitable for use in the Asteroid Belt, where the Interplanetary Front for Independence is growing more and more dangerous every day? And that the people that have been approved for attending the test have been closely screened?”
“You should not even know anything of this, Shimai Kii,” said Uriel Qeta icily. “And if you know something, you should not make an absurd request that you bloody well know that I cannot nor I would satisfy in any case.”
Lirna Kii sighed. “It would suffice if you vouched for me. You are influential enough to obtain what you want. Don’t be modest.”
A shadow fell on them and Uriel Qeta looked up, annoyed, fearful of a new intrusion, but it was only a waiter who was passing by without paying a bit of attention to them. The planetologist turned his attention to the journalist again. “I have already said no,” he said coldly. “Don’t insist, Shimai Kii. As a matter of fact I should report you to the organizing committee, because you should not know anything of what is a top-secret operation.”
The beautiful Martian bent her head for an instant, but Uriel Qeta was sure it was not a repentance sign. He imagined a series of wheels spinning in her head, working furiously for a solution. But there was no solution for Lirna Kii. He was sure of this. But was he really?
The journalist jerked up her head. “I offer you a piece of information in exchange,” she said dryly. “There is a spy of the Interplanetary Front for Independence on this ship.”
Uriel Qeta was getting up in order to put an end to this annoying discussion but fell down again with the full impact of his hundred and thirty kilos. “What did you say?” he exhaled with an effort.
Lirna Kii’s eyes were laughing, laughing at him indeed. And Uriel Qeta knew with absolute certainty that the woman was not bluffing.
“I said that there is a spy of the Front aboard the Deimos.”
A spy! Uriel Qeta shuddered. If the demonstration of the new secret weapon happened to be made in the presence of a spy from the Front, half of the competitive advantage of this weapon would be lost from the start. Above all, he was worried because the Front had been able to place a spy among what should have been a group of extraordinarily trusted people who had been repeatedly screened at various security levels.
“Shimai Kii,” the planetologist said firmly. “If you know something definite about this supposed spy, you must talk. When we debark at Mariner Point you will follow me to the spaceport command and tell everything you know to the officer in charge...”
“And you will guarantee that I can be admitted into the group?”
Uriel Qeta made a gesture of exasperation. “This doesn’t depend on me.”
“But a favorable word from you will weigh a lot,” said the journalist, as she got up to walk away. “I am sure of it.”
“Just a moment.” Uriel Qeta sprang up with an agility nobody would have credited him for because of his corpulence and grabbed her arm before she moved away. “Wait. Tell me the name of the spy. You never know what could happen.”
Lirna Kii shot him one of her bewitching smiles. “Are you saying that he or she could try to take revenge on me?” She made a grimace. “In that case, all the glory would be yours. As I said before, you are a charming man.”
And after these mysterious words she slipped out of the grasp of the planetologist and wiggled graciously away.
The planetologist was uncertain whether to run after her or go to his cabin. He decided that, even if he reached her, Lirna Kii would not reveal anything more than she had already said. She knew perfectly well she had the upper hand, and she could certainly play her cards very well. She would not waste the only trump she had. She was known to be the best in her field.
* * *
Now Lirna Kii was dead. She lay in an unnatural pose on the floor of her cabin, just where she had fallen when she had been stabbed in the heart with a letter-opener.
A simple knife for cutting paper. With all the sophisticated arms existing in the planetary system, the murder had been committed with one of the most ancient weapons. But it was logical. It was not easy to pass through the security detectors at the embarkation points while carrying a gun or a compressed-air pistol.
Even in death, and in her contorted position, Lirna Kii still showed her dazzling beauty. Uriel Qeta looked quizzically at the captain of the Deimos, who had sent one of the stewards to summon him.
“Why me? Why did you call just me?” he wondered, surprised. “I only am a planetologist — a scientist, not a cop.”
“But you are also a famous, though unofficial, detective,” Captain Jon Kerensky answered him. “My good friend Walter Keyrs of the Security Service at Olympus City has told me how you helped him in a couple of cases.”
“Ah, Walter Keyrs...” Uriel Qeta smiled slightly. “Yes, it is true I helped him in the past, but that doesn’t mean I am a detective. I think the right thing to do is to leave everything untouched here and let the Mariner Point police do their job.”
Captain Kerensky made a gesture toward the Security Officer of the ship, who was standing to one side. “Actually, there is another reason I called for you. Mr. Kadar has something to show you.”
Copyright © 2014 by Antonio Bellomi