A sci-fi story that appeared in the May 1996 issue of Science Fiction Age, with some very nice art by John Berkey. I like Burke -- he's a much better detective than Liam Rhenford, much more sophisticated and competent, but therefore more difficult to relate too, less accessible. I wrote two other stories with him in them (one of which, written well before Messrs. Cameron and Dicaprio created the current craze, has the Cunard Line recreating the Titanic as a spaceship), but have been unable to sell them.

Uninteresting side note: This really should be called "On the Golconda Run," without the extra r, since I meant to name the planet after the region of India. But, being without a map, I went by my memory, which inserted the r at the end.







ON THE GOLCONDAR RUN





I am by no means the most important member of the Mauretania's crew. In fact, I think that the directors of Cunard Space Lines would probably consider me to be one of the least important crewmembers. After all, Cunard prides itself on two things: extraordinarily attentive service and unparalleled luxury -- and at first glance a detective like myself has very little to do with either.

Porters, stewards, waiters, chefs, masseuses, barbers and valets undoubtedly do more to create the Mauretania's atmosphere of opulence and sybaritic ease, and I would be the last person to deny that. For that matter, the brass knobs on every cabin door (doorknobs on a spaceship!) probably do more to create that atmosphere than I do.

Creating the atmosphere is one thing, though; maintaining it is another. Because the things that don't happen to you on a cruise are as important as the things that do. A shave on the Mauretania is a wonderful experience: you're plied with steaming towels and fresh lather, while skilled and dextrous fingers draw a straight-razor perilously close to your jugular. It's a sensuous experience -- but not much good if your cabin is being rifled while you're buried under the hot towels.

A hand of poker in one of the Gaming Rooms is another great experience: the slap of a new deck of cards on the immaculate green felt, the luster of the monogrammed chips, the good whiskey and the hand-rolled cigars. It's the best hand of poker you'll ever play -- unless you're being cheated by a shark who's about to take you for all you're worth.

And if you're on the Mauretania, you're worth a great deal.

The problem is that, if you're worth enough to be on the Mauretania, stealing from you and those like you can be a very lucrative profession. Planet-side, this is a risk the very wealthy have to face, and if they are robbed, they turn to a detective -- public or private -- and ask him or her to solve the problem. That's because you don't pay anyone for peace of mind planet-side.

On a Cunard liner, though, you are paying a large sum of money for peace of mind -- for that atmosphere of opulence and sybaritic ease which a theft or a crooked card game will destroy.

Hence me. My job is not to recover whatever was stolen, but to make sure it was never stolen in the first place. Not to make sure that the card shark is caught and punished, but that you never get in a game with him at all.

It's a combination of juggling act and Zen exercise, because you must combine a detective's desire to know the truth with the Cunard directors' desire to maintain appearances.

This is all a little philosophical -- let me give you an example. I like this story because it has everything: a beautiful girl, an evil villain, an assassination plot, and of course, the most magnificent setting imaginable, the Mauretania.

I also like it because, in the end, I got it right.


* * *



The beautiful girl's name was Promila Ghokali, and it was her first trip out from Earth. The Mauretania was on the Earth-Sagan-Golcondar passage then, and she was going out to run a family concern in the system. The Ghokalis are a matriarchal clan, and like a lot of Indian family corporations, they like to try out the rising generation in distant colonial divisions.

So, though she was only eighteen, she had a giant suite on the Mauretania's uppermost deck, and was going to administer a corporate division the size of a continent. She had an uncle with her as chaperone and advisor, and the two of them came aboard the ship from Luna Station.

To be honest, I didn't really notice her at first. I always go through the passenger list in the days before departure, familiarizing myself with names and backgrounds, and so I saw her picture and read a little about her -- but I'm looking for problems, and she didn't seem to represent a problem. Her baggage list included nothing that would attract a thief's attention, her name had never been mentioned negatively in the press, she had no record, and she had that uncle-chaperone to keep an eye on her.

So I didn't notice her at first, though she was beautiful. She was no more than the sum of her parts, but her parts were perfect: almond eyes; a long, fine nose with delicately pronounced nostrils; flawless skin that was naturally the warm mahogany shade other people spend years burning onto themselves; black, foamy hair; and her figure.... I'll stop now. Suffice it to say that she was really quite beautiful, and that I didn't notice her until almost a week into the trip.

Most of the early part of her voyage I pieced together from things she told me later, or that I heard from stewards and porters and waiters. She came aboard on her uncle's arm, was ensconced in her suite, tipped well, and acted all in all like a normal passenger.

The Mauretania embarked on schedule and headed out-system, and Ms. Ghokali spent the first few days of the cruise wandering the ship, admiring it and enjoying herself. She swam a little, played tennis once or twice with her uncle, read a few novels (the Mauretania has several excellent libraries). Mostly, though, she wandered the ship. The steward assigned to her part of the top deck told me that she acted as if she'd lived aboard a liner all her life, but she said that every new corridor and room had been like a revelation to her -- that so much beauty and opulence could actually travel between the stars.

She walked miles of hallways carpeted in hand-woven oriental rugs, ducked into a dozen intimate lounges filled with deep leather club chairs, tried to count the perfect lozenges of parquet in both ballrooms, gave up, and danced a solo waltz in one, early in the morning. She entered each and every boutique and store in the shopping arcade -- though she bought nothing -- and stumbled on a rehearsal of the ship's symphony in the 300-seat concert hall.

The room she liked best, though, was the Forward Lounge, which happens to be my favorite as well. It's a lounge like most of the others -- wingback chairs, wood panelling, the odd print or two, a well-stocked bar -- but it has an enormous circular window that looks out on the stars. Four arched panes of glass surround the larger central pane, which is about five feet across, and the whole thing is mullioned and framed with perfectly bent and finished wood. It's a remarkable contrast, to sit in this Edwardian parlor and be able to turn your gaze out to the stars. It's best when the Mauretania is in-system, with a planet looming larger and larger across the window like the disk of an eclipse. On quiet passages I'll sit in the Forward Lounge and watch a planet-fall for hours.

Even when there's nothing in the window but stars, I still find it the most wonderful place on the ship, and Ms. Ghokali apparently agreed.

By the end of the week it took us to get beyond Sol system, she was spending large parts of her day there, ensconced in a club chair, pretending to read but mostly contemplating the duties she was about to take on. She was a very sober young woman, as I recall, and my impression of her, gathered mostly toward the end of the voyage, was that she would make an excellent administrator, despite her youth. At the time, though, she was uncertain about her own skills, and I suppose that is why she was open to Farraday's advances.


* * *



Joseph Farraday had caught my eye the moment I read his passenger transcript. He had a dangerous profile: handsome, young, travelling alone, no clippings, no problems. It's the sort of profile that professionals try to cultivate, because they don't really know much about the very rich. Here are a couple of truisms about rich young gentlemen: if they're handsome, they've gotten into trouble; they never travel alone, either because they don't like having to make new acquaintances or because their families won't let them; and they all have clippings, from prep school or university or the hometown society pages. No rich young man has gone uncommented upon.

So when someone like Farraday, a blank slate with good looks, boards the ship, I make a point of keeping an eye on him. I checked on Farraday twice or three times a day, seeing who he was talking with, where he was spending his time. Once I arranged to dine at his table, and found that, while his good looks had attracted a lot of favorable attention, and his good manners and wit had deepened the attention, he had no obvious designs on any of the other passengers.

I should explain a little about how I work. My name and title are not listed in the Mauretania's directory, and I doubt very many people even know that Cunard has detectives on their ships. What I do is simply wander around the ship and keep an eye on things. I dress like a passenger -- I get an extraordinary discount on clothing in the ship's stores -- and I act like a passenger. I strike up conversations, I eat in the passenger dining rooms, I have drinks in the bars and coffee in the lounges. It's a little like going undercover, and it has allowed me to frustrate any number of unpleasant schemes.

In any case, just about the same time that Farraday was introducing himself to Ms. Ghokali in the Forward Lounge, I had removed him from my highly-suspect list to my less-suspect list, and was moving on to interfere with a crooked medium who was trying to take an elderly woman for vast sums of money.


* * *



Ms. Ghokali later told me that she had just finished watching the last of Pluto disappear from the lounge's window, and had turned reluctantly back to her reader, which contained a wealth of information on the business she was going to run.

She knew it backwards and forwards -- output estimates, wage/productivity ratios, transport schemes, plant and equipment evaluations -- but the dryness of it frustrated her. It seems that one of her passions at university was sociology, and she was curious not just about the business she was going to run, but the place she was going to run it in, and the people who were going to work for her. Besides, she had been taught (and firmly believed) that management was more than just knowing the numbers and the schedules. It was the morale and the local customs, it was a feel for the marketplace, and she thought the report was singularly lacking any feel for the continent-sized business she was supposed to run.

After several requests, Uncle Nirmal had produced a few outdated travel brochures; apparently he had been quite uninterested in understanding the psychology of his workforce or his market.

With a somewhat bitter sigh, she began re-reading her uncle's reports on projected earnings.

Then she noticed the man looking over her shoulder. "Dry stuff," he commented, nodding at the reader in her hand. "'Projected Quarterly Earnings for the Textiles Division of Golcondar IV.' Very dry stuff."

"Proprietary 'stuff'," she corrected coldly, turning the reader off.

He moved around her chair and took a seat opposite her. Farraday was pure Anglo handsome, white skin and short blond hair, a boyish smile of even white teeth, neatly but not flashily dressed. He was about 25. "There's a lot more interesting things about Golcondar IV than textiles," he said.

Ms. Ghokali had been about to dismiss him, she told me, to cut him dead and go back to her reader, but she was surprised that he knew anything about the Golcondar system. It's mostly Indian colonies.

Still, she didn't try to sound friendly. "I suppose you've been there?"

"Once," he admitted cheerfully, "and not for very long, I must admit. Just a month or so. But I was more taken with the people than with the textiles."

"Really? Are they very colorful?" She told me that she put an ironic emphasis on the last word, very earnestly explaining that she doesn't think much of rich and idle tourists who find the working classes quaint.

His reply surprised her: "Colorful? No, not really colorful. Textiles are colorful. They're sort of....purposeful, if you take my meaning. Not hardworking, but determined. There's a lot going on there, under the surface. They know what they want, and they're going to get it."

Ms. Ghokali thought that he must have been sent down from heaven to answer the sort of questions her uncle's travel brochures hadn't. And so, in their chairs by the window on the stars, she began to interrogate him about Golcondar IV.


* * *



Now remember, I knew nothing about this. I was busy insinuating myself into the little group that had sprung up around the fraudulent medium, and thought I was doing very well. I had moved Farraday to my less-suspicious list, so I only checked up on him once a day or so. Unless they're very good, golddiggers -- and that was what I thought Farraday would turn out to be, if he turned out to be a criminal at all -- usually make the mistake of spending entirely too much time with their marks. So I thought that if I dropped in on him now and then, I would be able to see if he was trying to move in on one of the other passengers.

Cunard directors may see ship's detectives as an unfortunate necessity, but I will grant them this: they don't do things by halves. So I have access to the Passenger Location System, a morally- and legally-dubious piece of equipment that allows a few select crewmembers to track any passenger, anywhere on the Mauretania. It's a very handy thing for locating lost children, making sure everyone is aboard after a day in dock and, should we ever have to abandon ship, for making sure everyone has left. It's dubious because the DNA imprints which the PLS uses to search are taken without the passengers' knowledge, and its sensors run throughout the ship.

The potential for invading peoples' privacy is enormous; suffice it to say that I know of at least three famous marriages that would be ruined if the PLS data from the Mauretania were released. Naturally, Cunard vets the people with access to the PLS very carefully, and webs them in with all sorts of signatures and oaths and binding agreements.

In any case, I had the PLS tech run a check on Farraday a few times a day, and after two days it became clear that he was spending a great deal of time in the Forward Lounge, and that his DNA imprint happened to be seated next to the DNA imprint of Ms. Promila Ghokali. Seated a decorous meter or so away, but nonetheless I was interested.

The business with the medium was close to done, and was just waiting for the finishing touches, which had to wait for the "seance" he had arranged. So I took advantage of the lull to stroll up to the Forward Lounge, a reader in hand, and take a seat near Farraday and Ms. Ghokali. After a little judicious eavesdropping, my impression was that if he had chosen her for a mark, he had chosen poorly. While I listened, she hammered him with questions about Golcondar IV, taking furious notes and cross-questioning him, referring to past notes.

For some reason, I am one of those people other people never notice. I lingered by them for over an hour, staring dreamily out the window, less than two meters away from them, but they never noticed. Their conversation never moved far from Golcondar IV.

"So you're saying the workforce is essentially unstable?" I remember her saying at one point, as if she were a prosecutor who had made a witness admit something crucial.

"Well," he said, reddening as he tried to see how she had reached that conclusion from his words, "yes. Yes, I suppose I am. But with proper management...."

I came away with the impression that Ms. Ghokali had made Farraday her crammer for a particularly important exam -- and no more.

For good measure, I had myself seated at Ms. Ghokali's table that evening for dinner. She sat with her uncle, a potbellied man with a bulbous nose and a self-important manner. Farraday was at their table, but the seating charts are made up by Cunard staff, and he sat quite far away from her. They exchanged nothing more than polite nods across the linen, and a comment or two about the quality of the food. She thought it excellent; he was noncommittal.

In any case, I was reassured that their time in the Forward Lounge was probably nothing more than a little tutoring. I moved Farraday even further down my list of suspicious characters, and devoted myself to the medium for a day or two.

We were two full days into hyperdrive when Ms. Ghokali's uncle asked to see me.


* * *



Unlike most long-distance ships, the Mauretania does not sedate its passengers or its crew during hyperdrive, and it maintains full standard Earth gravity. The expense in shielding and energy is enormous, but then, so are the ticket prices, and not being locked in an isochamber for the long passage makes the trip much more civilized. So Nirmal Ghokali was able to call a steward on our second day in 'drive and ask to speak with the ship's detective, where on another ship he would have been unconscious.

As I mentioned before, my name and title are not mentioned in any place where a passenger might see them. They should, ideally, never know that I'm aboard -- so for a passenger to ask for me was something of a surprise.

"Are you quite sure he asked for me?" I asked the chief steward, when he relayed the request from a rather flustered under-steward.

"Not by name, sir," the chief steward replied. "He just asked that the ship's detective call on him in his cabin. My man naturally said he wasn't sure we even had such a thing, and this Mr. Ghokali just laughed and said he would be in between two and four bells."

I thanked the chief steward and made my way to Nirmal Ghokali's cabin. I was not much bothered by the fact that he knew there was a detective aboard -- any mildly intelligent person could guess that Cunard would have to have something along those lines -- but I was curious about the coincidence. I had, after all, been watching his niece.

He opened the door of the cabin at my knock, and gazed up at me imperiously. Since we had eaten at the same table, I could tell that he recognized me -- and I could also tell that he was not pleased with the interruption. "Yes?"

"Mr. Ghokali, my name is Burke. I'm the Mauretania's detective."

His eyes went round with comic surprise, and he clapped a hand on his fat little belly. "But you -- but you dined with us!" I must confess that I've never heard the word 'dined' made to sound as if it were a crime.

"Yes, I did, Mr. Ghokali," I said. "I often dine with the passengers. May I come in?"

He backed away from the door, allowing me into the parlor of his suite, all the while staring at me in wonder that slowly turned to puzzlement. I am not very wonderful to look at, in the end -- average height, average look, plain (if expensive) clothes, glasses -- and I thought he was trying to figure out how such a weedy-looking specimen could call itself a detective.

When he sat, I did too, crossing my legs comfortably but not too comfortably. "I understand you asked to see me, Mr. Ghokali. Is there a problem of some sort?"

He wobbled his head from side to side, his hands splayed on his belly as pregnant women do. We were in the sitting room of his suite. "Yes, Burke, there is a problem, oh yes. I am travelling with my niece, and there is a gentleman I would like you to keep away from her."

"Ah," I said, nodding sagely. "Would that be Mr. Farraday?"

He didn't seem surprised that I knew the name, but I was quickly gathering that Nirmal Ghokali took a number of things for granted, among them obedience and an understanding that his affairs were of prime importance to everyone around him. "Just the man! He is a nuisance to her!"

"I see," I said, though I didn't. "I'll see to it that he doesn't dine at your table anymore, Mr. Ghokali."

"That is hardly sufficient. My niece must be protected, twenty-four hours a day." His head stopped wobbling, and he nodded once, firmly.

"I'm afraid we're not able to provide that kind of protection on the Mauretania, sir. Are you quite sure she needs it? I mean, what has Mr. Farraday done to worry you?"

Ghokali sputtered for a moment or two, clearly unused to having his demands questioned. "Why, why -- he annoys her!"

"Are you quite sure of that?" I asked, as gently as I could. "I happened to see the two of them together in the Forward Lounge just the other day, and Ms. Ghokali seemed quite content with his company."

Still sputtering, he threw up his hands. "It is unacceptable! She should not be spending so much time with him! She is just a girl!"

I refrained from mentioning that, though just a girl, she was going out to Golcondar IV to run a continent. Instead, I repeated my offer to change Farraday's dinner seating. "Really, Mr. Ghokali, there's nothing we can do. I understand your concern over your niece," I lied. "However, we can't provide bodyguards, nor can we confine Mr. Farraday to his cabin."

Ghokali started wobbling his head again, and emitting a sort of soft wailing noise from the back of his throat. He was getting quite worked up, while I was losing my patience. I have seen passengers throw fits before, of course, but never at me, always at a waiter or a steward or a maid.

And that was just what I thought he was doing -- throwing a fit. He rocked back and forth in his chair, muttering and moaning incoherently, and finally, just when my patience was about worn thin (how do the stewards put up with this kind of behavior?), he collected himself, cast a suspicious eye around the room, and leaned forward.

"My niece may be the target of assassins," he whispered conspiratorially. His eyes bulged out above his already bulging nose, and I could have sworn there was foam at the corners of his mouth. "The Golcondarese are a rebellious lot of savages, you know, and they don't like our company at all. Not at all. I think they will try to kill her."

I am willing to credit the passengers of the Mauretania with any number of awful intentions. Theft, blackmail, adultery, cheating, backstabbing, sexual perversions of every stripe -- I have come to expect these from the very rich people who take Cunard passages. But I had never seen or heard of an assassination on a Cunard liner, and speaking frankly, Ghokali was in no condition to make me believe. I immediately dismissed his suspicions as the product of the sort of paranoia sometimes indulged in by the very rich, particularly those with children in their care.

"Mr. Farraday hardly strikes me as a Golcondarese rebel, Mr. Ghokali," I said, supercilious but respectfully so. "And I'm quite sure there will be no assassinations aboard the Mauretania.

"Nonetheless," I went on, before he could explode, as the look on his face promised me he would, "I will make a special point of keeping an eye on Mr. Farraday, and of separating him from your niece as much as possible."

I was able to escape in another ten minutes or so, after listening to a remarkable harangue on the ingratitude of the Golcondarese and their various unpleasant habits, the least of which was a tendency to attack their employers.


* * *



After leaving Ghokali's suite, I stopped in at one of the ship's libraries and downloaded a few articles on Golcondar IV into my reader. He had by no means convinced me that his niece was in any danger, but his extreme feelings about the colonists had at least aroused my curiosity.

Golcondar had been settled almost entirely by Indians, most of them indentured labor brought out by family corporations like the Ghokalis, who owned two of Golcondar II's mineral-bearing moons and the larger of Golcondar IV's two continents. The entire system was a labor rights activist's nightmare, and Golcondar IV was only slightly better than the other planets. There had been an outright worker rebellion in the early days of settlement, but after the Ghokalis bought their way in the situation had cooled down to the exchange of lawsuits in Terran courts about the length of the workday and dangerous working conditions and so on, not to mention any number of petitions to the World League for membership. The holdings of other corporations in the system still erupted into fighting now and again, so I presumed that the Ghokalis were better managers than most, and if the workers on Golcondar IV had progressed to petitions for sovereignty, I guessed that political assassinations were probably behind them.

Nonetheless, I decided to keep an eye on Farraday and Ms. Ghokali, mostly for the sake of thoroughness, but also because I had still not crossed the young man off my list of the suspicious. I took my reader to the Forward Lounge and found them deep in conversation. There is no outside view when the Mauretania is in hyperdrive, so the windowscreen showed Sagan, a particularly attractive binary system within a dust cloud. I found a chair convenient for watching the scene and eavesdropping, and spent the next few hours comfortably.

Their conversation was entirely boring, elaborations and analyses of the information I had just gotten from the library, and I have to admit that I did not pay much attention; just enough to know they were not planning to elope or to hijack the ship. After a few hours, I left them alone in the Lounge, quite convinced that Ms. Ghokali was not falling prey to Farraday's amorous or larcenous advances.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried about her on that score -- she told me later that she finds Anglos singularly unattractive. It also seems that I should have stayed longer, because I had been gone no longer than five minutes before Farraday changed the subject of their conversation. Of course, I'm sure that if I hadn't left he wouldn't have brought up the idea of going ashore at Sagan Station, but there you are: hindsight.

In any case, shortly after I left them alone, he waited for a pause and said: "You know, I really know very little about you, Ms. Ghokali, and all we seem to do is discuss Golcondar."

"What do you mean, Mr. Farraday?" she replied, misunderstanding his point. "You know what my family does, and you know what I am going to do. So you know that Golcondar is very important to me."

"Yes, yes," he said with a smile. "I don't mean that I don't know why you're interested Golcondar. I mean that that's all we ever talk about, and you must forgive me if I'm a little tired of it. Just for a little while, let's talk about something else."

Ms. Ghokali told me later that she was quite embarrassed by this. It had never occurred to her that Farraday wasn't as interested in Golcondar as she was, and she felt she had been quite rude to make him discuss it day after day.

"Of course, of course," she said hurriedly, blushing. I have seen her blush since, and it's very pretty -- little dusty roses on her cheeks. "I'm very sorry. What would you like to talk about?"

Farraday waved his hand negligently. "Oh, anything at all, and just for a little bit. For instance, tell me: have you ever been to Sagan before?"

"No, never," Ms. Ghokali said, recovering a little from her embarrassment. "This is my first trip out."

"First trip from Earth?" he exclaimed. "I'd never have guessed. So you've never seen Sagan? You really should, you know."

"The ship is stopping there, isn't it? I'll see it then, I suppose."

"Oh -- so you plan to go ashore?"

She shook her head, confused again. "Ashore?"

He smiled. "Onto Sagan Station. Cunard insists on calling any departure from the ship 'going ashore.' A sort of harmless nostalgia." (Ms. Ghokali has an excellent memory, and assured me afterward that these were the exact words he used to describe a very carefully cultivated marketing concept -- 'a harmless nostalgia.' The directors would not be pleased.) "The Mauretania will dock at Sagan Station, and there will be time for us to board and take a look. They have some rather interesting displays on the dust cloud there."

"Dust cloud?" Ms. Ghokali was not the least interested in dust clouds, and this must have shown in her expression. Farraday laughed.

"It covers most of the system. But the point is that it's very pretty to look at. I'm not sure why, something about there being two suns and the reflective quality of most of the dust and radiation patterns and so on -- a scientist could explain it better. All I know is that it's very pretty. There are a number of places to watch it on the Station, and they show it in all the different spectra, so you can see the radiation patterns."

"I take it you've seen it," she said, still skeptical of the attractions of a dust cloud.

"Once. It's worth about half an hour of your time. Would you like to go?"

Thinking that half an hour was little enough to repay him for all the time he had spent discussing Golcondar IV with her, she agreed. She also thought that the dust cloud would probably be just as (un)interesting from the Forward Lounge, but since Farraday seemed to think it looked better from the station....

It was only after dinner that evening, back in her stateroom, that she imagined he might consider the trip ashore a date. She quickly decided against it, though; after all, he had never shown the least interest in her in that way.


* * *



The rest of the first hyperspace leg of the Mauretania's outward-bound journey to Golcondar was uneventful as far as Ms. Ghokali was concerned. I found her with Farraday only twice in the five visits I made to the Forward Lounge, and the PLS information showed that they spent somewhat less time together.

I couldn't guess why their meetings were shorter, but I was relieved by it, imagining Farraday to have perceived that Ms. Ghokali would not be an easy mark. Ms. Ghokali told me afterward that she grew apprehensive about their outing as the ship's arrival at Sagan Station grew closer, and that she may have been less inclined to conversation with him, but that it was mostly he who broke off contact, leaving the Forward Lounge earlier than usual. I still can't guess why, and Farraday can't tell us -- the only thing I can imagine would be a desire not to be seen as too often in her company. He may even have been aware of my presence. Who knows?

In any case, left alone more often, Ms. Ghokali resumed her old activities: wandering the ship, playing tennis with her uncle, reading in the Forward Lounge. Farraday spent more time in his cabin, leaving only for meals, the occasional sauna, an evening drink or two in some of the ship's many bars, and his now-shorter daily meetings with Ms. Ghokali.

Her uncle did not call for me again and, happy at the way things were working on that front, I concentrated on the fraudulent medium. By the end of the first hyperspace leg, I had insinuated myself into his group far enough that I was quite sure he meant to make me one of his marks, in the process collecting enough information to compromise him.

Shortly after leaving hyperspace, I confronted the medium and explained that his presence was no longer required aboard, and that if he chose to leave the Mauretania at Sagan Station, Cunard would be happy to refund the price of his ticket on to Golcondar. Two burly stewards and a glance at the evidence I had collected made the situation clear to him, and the evening before we arrived at the Station he gave a very convincing closing performance. The members of his little group, myself included, were all quite disappointed.

When he left the Mauretania the next day, he took the good wishes of a number of the ship's more gullible passengers -- but none of their money.


* * *



Ms. Ghokali and Farraday also left the Mauretania at Sagan Station, going ashore to see the dust cloud display he had spoken about. She saw the excursion as something of a duty, after his forbearance in answering her relentless questions about Golcondar IV, but still presented herself with a smile, and gave him her arm as they went down the gangplank. (The gangplank is what Cunard, with 'harmless nostalgia,' calls the docking gate; the part that is attached to the Mauretania actually slopes down, and is fitted out with rope guides and wooden planking. The only thing the directors have left out is the smell of harbor waters -- and all the things that usually find their way into harbor waters.)

She actually enjoyed the first part of the day. In addition to being a hub from which passengers can reach nearby systems, Sagan Station's owners have some of the same goals as Cunard. The station is clean, well-run, and attractive to the rich. The style is more 20th century mall than 19th century luxury liner, but history has never been the strong suit of the rich -- and there are plenty of sights to see. There is a beautifully-kept beach at one end of the station core (it's an axial-spin cylinder with docking spars at either end), three waterfalls, and four rivers running the length of the core.

Apparently there is also an excellent bookstore, because Ms. Ghokali managed to upload a rare ethnography on Indian emigrant workers that Farraday recommended.

"So?" he said, a hint of good-humored reproach in his smile. "Still regret coming?"

She blushed and held up the reader. "Not at all. This has made it all worth it. Now I can resign myself to your dust cloud. Let's go." She gave him her arm, and they crossed the nearest river and headed for one of the theaters.


* * *



The Mauretania only docks at Sagan Station for about six hours. As soon as we enter the system, a fast lighter is sent ahead with the baggage of those passengers who are disembarking, so it's waiting for them when they arrive. The six hours allows those passengers going on to Golcondar time for a quick tour of the station. By the time Ms. Ghokali and Farraday were heading for the dust cloud theater, it was three hours to departure.

At the same time, I was in the office of the station security chief, an old acquaintance named Dalyeva, explaining about the medium.

"There's nothing to hold him on," I said. "It didn't get that far. All he did was rig a few parlor tricks -- he never asked anybody for any money."

Dalyeva used to work for the World League's law enforcement arm; she has always caught on quickly. "But he was eager to leave the Mauretania."

"Exactly. So you may want to watch him -"

"- and usher him offstation ASAP. Thank you very much for the tip, Mr. Burke."

"My pleasure, Ms. Dalyeva."

In return, she offered me her opinion of the dozen or so passengers joining the Mauretania at Sagan Station. None had raised her suspicions, but she gave me copies of their files so I could take a look myself. What should have been a quick transaction lingered on a little bit, I'm afraid -- old acquaintances and all that, shop talk. By the time I returned to the Mauretania, there were only two hours to departure. The steward at the gangplank told me that Ms. Ghokali's uncle had been leaving frantic messages for me all over the ship.


* * *



At just about that time, Ms. Ghokali and Farraday were leaving the theater. The display had turned out to be more interesting than she expected (the Sagan dust clouds are very beautiful, in the right spectra). They came out into the bright light of station-day, blinking a little, and strolled across the nearby river, and then Farraday was struck by an idea.

"You know," he said, snapping his fingers, "I may have a friend here." There was a public-access directory nearby, and he guided their steps to it.

"Someone who lives here?" Ms. Ghokali asked, still seeing after-images from the radio spectra of the system that had ended the show.

Farraday punched into the directory and called up the dock listings. "No, a yachtsman, fellow named Hancock. The last time I heard from him, he said he was going to cruise around this system. And voila! there he is! Peter Hancock, the Sun Lover." He pointed out the entry, and Ms. Ghokali nodded.

"It's so odd," she said, "to think that in all the vast expanse of space, people can just randomly run into each other." She told me that she hadn't the slightest inkling of the significance of what she'd said.

Farraday smiled a trifle nervously. "Well, we haven't exactly run into each other. I mean, I would have to go to his ship to run into him." He paused, considering. "I wonder, would you mind going there with me? I haven't seen Peter in quite a while, and he's very nice, and we wouldn't have to stay very long."

Ms. Ghokali said, "Why not? As long as we're back on the Mauretania before it leaves."

They both laughed.


* * *



Uncle Nirmal was once again doing his best to make sure I didn't take him seriously. There were three messages, each more frenzied and tantrum-like than the ones before, and I listened to them in my cabin.

"My niece has left the station with that madman Farraday!" he screamed on the last one. "He is going to run off with her, I'm sure of it! He may even kill her! Where are you, Burke? Where are you?"

I shook my head slowly, allowing myself a small smile at the madness of the very rich. A handsome young man takes an interest in a beautiful young girl, and this old man insists that he's an assassin. Ridiculous!

Still, service is an important part of the Cunard mystique, so I decided to check on Ms. Ghokali and the oh-so-deadly Farraday in a discreet manner. With no particular sense of urgency I made my way down to the PLS suite, and had the operator trace them. Just as Uncle Nirmal had shouted, they had left the Mauretania together a few hours before.

On board the Mauretania, the PLS system operates constantly, and we keep historical data on passenger movements throughout the ship for the length of the cruise. But the system can also be linked to the ship's external scanners and used to trace passengers outside the ship at any given moment. We don't do it often -- it takes a great deal of energy and computer time, and the results aren't guaranteed -- but in this case I prevailed upon the tech to try.

There was no difficulty locating Farraday and Ms. Ghokali: they were in the docking spars at the bottom of the station. That was the first time I felt disturbed at all, mainly because the bottom spars are the closest thing Sagan Station has to a low-rent neighborhood (though the rents are by no means low), and I couldn't imagine why they should have chosen to go there. After a moment's thought, I put a call through to Dalyeva.

"Greetings, Mr. Burke. What can I do for you?"

"Something small, actually. Something ridiculous, really," I said, though even as I said it I began to feel that it might not be so ridiculous. I checked Ms. Ghokali and Farraday's position. "Could you send a man down to the lower docking spars, to the neighborhood of slips 50 to 52? I'm interested in a young couple, an Anglo male and an Indian female."

"You want them taken in?" Dalyeva asked, quite seriously.

"Lord, no," I laughed. "Just make sure they're alright, and if possible hurry them along to the Mauretania. Tell the young lady that her uncle is looking for her."

"Anything to oblige," she said, very politely refraining from asking questions. A small frown creased her forehead though; her head was tilted away from the phone and she was consulting some screen I couldn't see. "50 to 52, eh? That's a quiet area. We've only got one ship down there, and it's been docked for over three months. It was forwarded there by its owner, but he hasn't shown up yet."

My mouth went dry. "Really? Look, could you send that man immediately? And tell him I'll meet him there."


* * *



Ms. Ghokali told me that she was not in the least bit nervous about going down to the docking spars with Farraday. He had always been a perfect gentleman. In fact, his solid presence at her side laid to rest any worries she might have had about going into the area -- she felt sure he would be able to protect her.

As I said, Sagan Station's bottom docking spars are by no means low-rent. But they are a far cry from the sunny uplands inside the main body of the station, a warren of clean but confusing passageways and service corridors, fueling pits and chandlers' shops, and the hostels and bars that cater to deckhands and crews.

Farraday led the way through the spars with remarkable ease, threading his way quickly through the confusion of passageways, all the while describing his friend Hancock.

"You'll like him, I'm sure," he said, turning into the corridor that led to slips 50-52. Only 52 was occupied, at the far end of the spar, and the gantryways to 50 and 51 were unlit and abandoned-looking. They hadn't seen anyone in the past five minutes or so, but Ms. Ghokali was still oblivious to any danger.

"How do you know him?" she asked, as they passed slip 51. There was a light over the entrance to 52, but otherwise most of the corridor was dark.

"He's an old friend," Farraday said. The corridor narrowed, and he courteously stepped aside to allow her to precede him. When she half-turned to acknowledge the gesture, she saw the knife.


* * *



The Mauretania so perfectly resembles the great ocean liners of long ago -- the atmosphere and the physical surroundings have been so painstakingly recreated -- that one often forgets that the passengers themselves have been irrevocably changed. For instance, in its heyday I doubt very much whether the original Mauretania would have allowed a young Indian lady like Ms. Ghokali above steerage class. And if they did, she would have been a frail, pampered, hot-house flower of a girl, hardly capable of carrying her own handbag.

Farraday, perhaps, was expecting such a girl. Stranger misconceptions have arisen. Perhaps he expected her to wilt when he showed her the knife -- perhaps he expected her to faint. I'm quite sure he didn't expect her to kick him where she did, or to grab for the knife.

He was much stronger than she was, however, and recovered quickly. So quickly that he had her crushed against the wall of the corridor, the knife to her throat, when the man Dalyeva had sent came charging down the corridor.

The station guard was an excellent shot, and put a dart from his needler into Farraday's upper arm, just as the young man was turning to see who was approaching.

I arrived only a few minutes later, but Farraday was already dead, his face turning dark blue. The station guard stood over him, wide-eyed and aghast.

"These are just anesthetics," he was explaining to Ms. Ghokali, who was taking the whole thing far more calmly than I had any right to expect.

"Mr. Burke," Ms. Ghokali said, more surprised at my appearance, I think, than at anything else in the corridor, "What on earth are you doing here?"


* * *



Needless to say, I spent much of the next few hours kicking myself. True, I had sent the guard who saved Ms. Ghokali's life, but I had nearly done it too late -- and that after her uncle had given me ample warning, which I had ignored.

The bluish tinge, Dalyeva guessed, was from a poison capsule, and a preliminary autopsy on Farraday discovered a hollow tooth. Just the sort of thing, Uncle Nirmal loudly pointed out once I returned to the ship with Ms. Ghokali and appraised him of the situation, that a professional assassin would carry. The taped message in Farraday's pocket, claiming responsibility for something called (improbably enough) the Golcondarese Liberation Front, was just fuel for his fire.

"You see!" he shouted, pacing up and down in the sitting room of his suite, while Ms. Ghokali calmly sipped a cup of tea. "She could be dead now! I told you and I told you, but you do not listen! I will complain! Oh, yes! I will complain! My dear niece, almost killed!"

He tore at what little hair remained on his head, stomping across the rug, waving his tumbler of whiskey wildly around the room. I could hardly blame him for being upset, but if this was how he reacted to her survival, I was that much happier that Farraday hadn't killed her.

Ms. Ghokali, though, came to my defense. "Don't be silly, Uncle Nirmal," she said, gazing up at the ceiling as if to summon patience. "How many assassinations do you suppose they have on liners like this? You can hardly blame Mr. Burke for not taking you entirely seriously." She had by now learned that I was the ship's detective, and seemed unaccountably impressed with me.

"But I told him!" Uncle Nirmal wailed. "I warned him! And he did nothing!"

"Well, if you told him that way, I quite understand why he didn't listen to you. You sound like a paranoid lunatic."

On the whole, she took the whole thing far better than either her uncle or I. There had been a fit of shaking in the docking spar corridor, and a little bit of hyperventilating, but no tears -- and no recriminations.

"Mr. Burke saved my life as much as that guard did, and we should be grateful. There will be no complaint. No," she went on, when Uncle Nirmal started to protest angrily, "no. There will be no complaint. Let's just get on with our journey."

Uncle Nirmal merely bit his lip and scowled at me.


* * *



The Mauretania was only a few hours late leaving Sagan Station. I called some stewards and told them to empty Farraday's cabin and bring the contents to Dalyeva's office; the two of us went through them there and found exactly nothing.

When we heard the preliminary report of Farraday's self-poisoning, we knew there was little point to keeping the ship docked any longer. An assassin who goes to such lengths to escape being captured alive isn't going to leave a very clear trail, and the Mauretania couldn't wait for a full-scale investigation.

In any case, neither Cunard's nor Sagan Station's directors would want much publicity from the whole affair, so Dalyeva and I parted, both promising to do our quiet best to look into things. By the time the Mauretania was on her return run some three weeks later, Dalyeva had positively identified Farraday both as a contract assassin wanted in three systems and as the owner of the Sun Lover, which he had had forwarded to Sagan three months before, presumably for his escape. Beyond that, she had nothing.

I had considerably more.


* * *



I know that this doesn't seem like the sort of Zen exercise I was talking about earlier. After all, Ms. Ghokali and her uncle were quite aware that Farraday had tried to kill her, and her survival had more to do with luck than with my skill as a detective.

That she was still alive, and that the attack was a closely-kept secret, were not consoling thoughts to me. At my request, the captain assigned a steward to watch Ms. Ghokali's cabin for the rest of the voyage, and she gracefully agreed to my attending her during the day.

We spent a great deal of time in the Forward Lounge. I was not particularly good company, I'm afraid -- by turns I berated myself for not listening to Uncle Nirmal and ransacked my memory for missed clues. What annoyed me most was that I could not see what I had missed. Farraday had been very good, insinuating himself into her company right before me, and I had never thought him more than a golddigger.

Ms. Ghokali commented on that -- on the ease with which he had created a bond with her, and on how prepared he was.

"Those terrorists must be very well-organized," she said at one point, leaning over the arm of her club chair and tapping my elbow. When she wished to discuss the attack she did so in a low whisper, even when we had the lounge to ourselves. "Mr. Farraday seemed ready to tell me everything I wanted to know."

This was three days out from Sagan Station, a day from the final hyperspace jump to Golcondar, and I had by then made her tell me everything she could remember about her conversations with him.

"Yes," I said. "But I imagine he was very well-prepared. He was probably ready to discuss any subject you might be interested in." I was in a particularly bad mood that morning, the thought that I had almost let this beautiful young girl be murdered very strong in my mind. I remember thinking, If only I had listened to her uncle! Why didn't I listen to him?

And then she said: "Oh, I'm sure -- but then, that he should know so much about Golcondar, and that I should so very much want to know about it. Uncle Nirmal gave me none of that sort of information, though I asked and asked."

Thoughts can sometimes click; the right pattern of sentences, the right conjunction of words and phrases. I went very still, but she did not notice, turning back to her reader and the ethnography on the lives of emigrant workers that Farraday had helped her buy.


* * *



Thoughts click, and patterns emerge. Why hadn't Ms. Ghokali's uncle given her the information she requested? And why was Farraday so well-supplied with just that sort of information?

The answer was obvious, of course, and so far-fetched that it both chilled me and made me want to laugh. Why would Uncle Nirmal want to have his niece assassinated? My first answer was that, of course, he had not. He had warned me about it, after all -- so to suspect him was ridiculous. But then I had thought Farraday harmless.

I sat silent in the Forward Lounge for some time, staring blindly out the window at the empty space outside of Sagan system, mulling the whole thing over, trying not to get carried away.

Farraday knew just what Ms. Ghokali's uncle wouldn't tell her. The message he had clearly meant to leave with her dead body was irrelevant -- it was his voice on the tape, after all, and misdirection is a wonderful thing. Nirmal Ghokali's warning was not so easily discarded, though Ms. Ghokali had given me the answer to that.

"If you told him that way," she had said, "I quite understand why he didn't listen to you. You sound like a paranoid lunatic." And he had, hadn't he? So much so that I spent more time thinking he was one of the spoiled rich than looking after his niece.

I was well aware that I might be indulging in my own form of paranoia, so I resolved to proceed carefully.

"I wonder, Ms. Ghokali," I said, clearing my throat, "did your uncle know you were going ashore at Sagan Station?"

She looked up from her reader, smiling quizzically. "Of course. I told him at breakfast."

"Did you tell him who with?"

She blushed dusky roses. "No, I didn't. I knew he disapproved of Mr. Farraday, and I didn't wish to upset him."

"Ah. Strange that he didn't ask."

"Yes," she murmured, turning her gaze out on the stars. "If he had, and I'd told him, this whole thing might have been avoided." I made a non-committal noise in the back of my throat, and she turned back to me with a gentle smile. "Still, Mr. Burke, you and I are in no position to play 'What If.' After all, my uncle did warn us, and we didn't listen, did we?"

I nodded ruefully. A little self-effacement is a wonderful form of misdirection. "I didn't, that's certain. And I should have. I can't tell you how sorry I am that I didn't, Ms. Ghokali." She shrugged and smiled. "But I didn't know your uncle had warned you about Farraday being an assassin."

"Oh, he didn't," she said, blushing again. "He only told me he disapproved of him, which was probably the best way to get me to speak to Mr. Farraday in the first place. If my uncle had only told me the truth, instead of trying to shelter me, none of this would have happened. I've already spoken to him about it, and he's assured me he'll never keep something that important from me again."

Really, she was an amazing young woman. To treat an attempt on her life so lightly, but still take the appropriate steps; to avoid both paralysis and bravado. She would not expose herself to danger again, but nor would she cringe in her cabin.

I was most impressed.


* * *



Assume that Nirmal Ghokali had deliberately created a situation in which his niece would be open to Farraday's advances. He had not supplied her with the sort of information which, as both a well-trained manager and a student of sociology, she would want. He had ignored repeated requests for that sort of information. He had also, according to Ms. Ghokali, disapproved of Farraday in the sort of manner most calculated to arouse a young person's interest. Finally, he had warned me about Farraday in the manner most calculated to make me ignore the warning.

Assume that he was not the self-centered pompous man he appeared to be, and he became quite a clever plotter. Farraday would have killed Ms. Ghokali and escaped in the Sun Lover, leaving Nirmal Ghokali quite rightly claiming that he had warned the authorities (such as they are).

Assume all that, and you will be where I was -- which was nowhere.

I had no proof and, more importantly, I was unclear as to his motivation. Why would Nirmal Ghokali wish to kill his niece? To my surprise, that turned out to be a relatively easy thing to figure out. When Ms. Ghokali went to dress for dinner, I turned her over to one of the Mauretania's smarter stewards and went back to my cabin, to look carefully through the passenger clippings I had assembled before the trip began.

It was very simple, really: Nirmal Ghokali was not just her chaperone for the trip -- he had run the family's business on Golcondar IV while she was still in her minority. Family corporations, particularly the Asian ones, are very odd, tending to parcel out divisions and subsidiaries as legalized inheritances, with long lists of heir-designates and next-in-lines. Just as important, managing a distant colonial subsidiary with a low level of political development like Golcondar IV is a common way to make a not-entirely legal fortune.

My assumption was Uncle Nirmal did not like being put out of a very cushy job by his niece, and had decided to put her out of the way. Given the World League's dim view of terrorism, he may have hoped to ruin the Golcondarese application for sovereignty by blaming the murder on them.

I went to Ms. Ghokali's cabin to pick her up for dinner, feeling quite pleased with myself. The right answers to a few innocent questions would give me a perfectly reasonable motive.

She came to the door in a truly remarkable sari of deep blue. I gave her my arm as we headed for the dining room, and asked my few questions.

"You know, Ms. Ghokali, after I first met your uncle, I did some research on your family organization, but I must confess that I was a little confused -- I don't know much about business. Would you mind clearing up a few things for me?"

She smiled. "Not at all, Mr. Burke. I imagine you are wondering why someone as young as me is going out to run such a large business."

I smiled back sheepishly. "I was going to save that for last, but since you bring it up...."

"I don't know how much you know about family corporations," she began, and by the time we reached the dining room, she had given me a very precise, very easy-to-follow summary of everything I already knew about family corporations. She had also, however, explained that while, at age fourteen, she had been sixth in line for the Golcondar IV division, a series of natural deaths and unfortunate accidents had left her the sole heir at age fifteen. The deaths and accidents all sounded entirely innocent to me, but they had conspired to leave Nirmal Ghokali his niece's only close relation without a current position.

"You must understand that the Ghokalis are also a matriarchal family corporation," she said as I pulled out her chair, "which means that under ordinary circumstances my uncle would never have been given a position of such responsibility. He might have been a sub-divisional manager or something like that, but never a full division head. But there was no one free and of age in my branch of the family, and so an exception was made. It was only for three years, of course, and by all accounts Uncle Nirmal has done very well -- but I imagine there were quite a few sighs of relief around the directors' table back in Bangalore when I turned eighteen."

There were a few other passengers at the table, but her uncle had not yet arrived, so I pressed on.

"So the whole thing is entirely hereditary, and males can't take high positions -- imagine that! But tell me, who is in line after you? I mean, has the company figured out the lines of descent beyond you?"

"Yes," Ms. Ghokali said, "in fact, it has been figured out for quite some time. The problem is that the next-in-lines for this position are all well underage. My third cousin, Rita Ghokali, is my direct heir, and she is only ten."

"What would happen -- pardon me for asking -- but what would happen if Farraday had been successful?"

She shrugged, not in the least bothered by the question. "I suppose Uncle Nirmal would have had to take over as guardian again, at least until Rita came of age."

Just then, Nirmal Ghokali arrived, sitting heavily across the table from us. Ms. Ghokali greeted him warmly. He scowled back.

"Promila. Mr. Burke." He nodded disdainfully at me.

I smiled back.


* * *



Dinner passed very pleasantly. Ms. Ghokali sparkled quietly, setting a light tone that belied the fact that only a few days before she had been stalked by an assassin. The entire table was charmed by her, and I must say that I can rarely remember a time when I have dined so pleasantly on a Cunard ship. Her uncle, however, remained aloof, grunting now and then, passing the things he was asked for and responding curtly to questions. After dinner, he stumped off to his cabin.

I was quite sure now that he, not some mythical Golcondarese terrorist group, had hired Farraday. The problem was finding proof. Not enough proof to try him, mind you -- a trial would be highly embarrassing for both myself and Cunard's directors. Besides, that kind of proof is enormously difficult to find, and I was by no means sure that it even existed.

No, what I needed was enough proof to give me leverage, enough to push very gently. But what?




* * *



We left normal space outside Sagan System right on schedule, and were on the third and last day of the hyperdrive passage when I had my idea. I had spent the previous two days mostly sitting by Ms. Ghokali's side in the Forward Lounge, wracking my brain and not coming up with even a way to proceed.

If I had been a normal police detective, or even a private detective planetside, I would have been busy checking the wires for money transfers, tracking down Farraday's accounts and trying to find a trail to his employer. But I was stuck on the Mauretania, deep in hyperspace -- and I had to have an answer before we reached Golcondar. (Dalyeva informed me later that she had spent three days in just such a search, and run into an untangleable mess of blind alleys, anonymous accounts, front companies and dead ends.)

I was beside myself, I don't mind saying, frustrated and a little frantic. Once we reached Golcondar, Ms. Ghokali would be beyond what little protection I could afford her, and her uncle would be beyond my reach. I had to have my leverage before he left the ship, and to get leverage I needed some evidence connecting him to Farraday.

The window in the Forward Lounge was showing a video of the Sagan dust cloud, and Ms. Ghokali was explaining what she had learned from the display on Sagan Station, when I had my first inkling.

She finished describing how the clouds looked in infrared, and lapsed into a musing silence, one long finger tapping her lips. "So strange," she murmured after a while. "If that guard hadn't come at just that moment...."

I was in an irritable mood, annoyed at myself for not having come up with a way to trap her uncle, and I thought privately that the guard could have come much sooner. After all, I arrived only a few minutes after he did, and I sent him.

And then I thought why I had sent him: because the PLS had connected Farraday and Ms. Ghokali in an unsavory part of the station, and it made me nervous.

It was by no means guaranteed -- why should Farraday and his employer ever have met on the ship? -- but it lifted my spirits enormously for a moment. I called a steward to stay with Ms. Ghokali, excused myself, and ran to the PLS office.

The first thing the tech told me was: "No way, Mr. Burke. Not today. You know we can't do a search like that in 'drive." He was right: I did know that. In my excitement at having a useful idea, however, I had ignored the fact. Hyperdrive navigation requires a vast amount of computing power, and all unnecessary ship's systems were shut down. The PLS would work for finding a single passenger at any given time, but the sort of search I was requesting -- following two passengers over the length of the voyage -- was out of the question.

"Right, right. But look, as soon as we're out of 'drive, I want that search done. First priority."

He agreed, and I stalked back to the Forward Lounge.


* * *



You can imagine my frustration and anxiety through the rest of the day. The video screen in the window of the Forward Lounge still worked, as did all the ship's libraries to which the passengers had access. Anything that caters to the passengers is a necessary system on a Cunard liner -- while the one system I needed to prove a man an attempted murderer was offline.

I waited, though, gritting my teeth and keeping Ms. Ghokali company. The worst of it was, as we got closer to leaving hyperdrive, she started to think more and more about her arrival at Golcondar IV, and she started wondering about the people she thought had paid for her assassination.

"Whyever would they do such a thing? They don't know me; I'm no threat to them. We're far better employers than most colony-owners. Sovereignty I can understand -- who wouldn't wish to have some say in their government? But assassination...."

I shook my head at the appropriate moments and clucked convincingly, all the while glad that her uncle had made himself scarce. He wasn't at dinner that evening either, and that was a good thing: I'm afraid that if I had seen him I would have leapt on him. He was middle-aged, short and stout; fired up as I was, I think I could have taken him.


* * *



We were back in normal space for only an hour, a day's travel from Golcondar, when the PLS tech finished the search.

"They cross a couple of times," he said, running his finger along the screen, which showed a three-dimensional model of the ship. There were six points showing where the two DNA imprints had crossed paths, color-coded for the date. Five were in the dining room, from evenings when Farraday had dined at the Ghokalis table.

And one, for which I pounded the PLS technician on the back, was located in Nirmal Ghokali's cabin. The date was the night before we docked at Sagan Station.


* * *



This was where my job became more like a Zen exercise -- the one in which the archer is blindfolded and shoots at the target. The fact that Nirmal Ghokali had met Farraday in his room the night before the murder was by no means hard evidence. I myself could spin a dozen plausible tales to explain it away, the least of which was that Ghokali had met with Farraday to warn him away from his niece.

The trick was not to allow Ghokali to explain it away.

I left a steward with Ms. Ghokali in the Forward Lounge for the sake of form, though I did not think it necessary -- I was going to be with the man who wanted her dead, after all -- and went up to her uncle's suite.

It was just a little after noon ship time, and as the PLS had told me, Uncle Nirmal took a sauna every day before lunch. I caught him dressed in a bathrobe, freshly steamed and quite relaxed.

"Yes?" he snapped. "What is it now? Have you come to apologize?"

It's amazing how feeling ahead of the game gives you a certain serenity. My chuckle was completely serene. "I'm afraid I have to trouble you for a few moments, Mr. Ghokali. I'm going to have to make a couple of reports, and I need to check some things with you."

"Now? Can't it wait?"

I brushed gently past him into the suite, hands clasped lightly behind my back. "I'm afraid not. I'll need to forward a report to the local authorities as soon as possible, so they can get to work."

He clutched his belly protectively, as if I'd feinted at it. "Get to work? Work on what?"

"Why, looking for whoever's responsible, of course." Again, the serene chuckle.

"But he's dead! You said so!"

"Farraday is dead, Mr. Ghokali. But someone must have hired him."

This stopped him for a moment, still clutching his little potbelly. Finally, he lowered his head, nodding, and gestured me to a seat. He sat himself, doing a very credible, if sullen, 'let's get on with this' expression.

"Very well, go on. Ask your questions."

"Thank you. I promise, it won't take but a moment. There are only a few questions. When did you first suspect that Farraday was an assassin?"

"From the moment Promila mentioned him to me. He sounded suspicious."

"So you were worried that she might be targeted before she came aboard the Mauretania?"

"Yes."

"But you didn't mention it to her. I assume you didn't want to burden her with it -- is that right?"

He nodded eagerly. "Exactly! It was just a suspicion, after all, and she is so very young."

"Yes," I murmured, more to myself than to him. "Very young. And with such weighty responsibilities. Only eighteen and running an entire division. You used to run the division, didn't you, Mr. Ghokali? Of course, you're much older, much more experienced. Hard to believe they'd put aside someone like you for someone like Ms. Ghokali." His face darkened. "Oh, excuse me -- I didn't mean to offend. I forgot that your family is matriarchal. To you, it must be entirely natural. But tell me, if you suspected Farraday from the beginning, why didn't you come to me earlier?"

He pounced on that. "It did me no good to come to you at all! You were no use at all!"

"No, I'm afraid I wasn't," I said, assuming an appropriately mournful face. "Still, I'm surprised you didn't come right away. Were you completely sure that he was an assassin? Did you perhaps think he might be harmless?"

Ghokali considered that, his eyes darting from the print of the old Lusitania above my right shoulder to the blank screen of the viewer above my left. "Yes," he said, drawing the word out. "That is exactly it. I was not sure, not completely sure. He might have been a harmless person, and I was not sure."

"Just giving Ms. Ghokali a little tutoring on Golcondar IV?"

"Exactly! I thought he might be just giving her a little tutoring."

"Supplying her with the information you hadn't?" I supplied, full of cheer and help.

"What?" His eyes fixed on mine. "What are you saying?"

"Oh, Ms. Ghokali was just saying how much she'd bothered you for that sort of information, and you'd never gotten it for her."

"It was not available! It was not relevant!"

"Of course not," I said, the soul of reason. "I can't imagine what she'd want with it myself. Now, I understand why you wouldn't tell Ms. Ghokali that she was threatened, but I'm curious why you didn't hire any protection -- bodyguards, that sort of thing." He stared blankly at me for a moment. I winced. "Oh, please, excuse me again. Stupid question. If you hired bodyguards, she'd know something was wrong. Never mind."

My retreat had given him back some courage; he stood, hands on his hips. "Why didn't you think about these things before you came? I wish to go to lunch now. Will you please excuse me?"

He stood, so I did as well, holding out both hands to placate him. "Just two more things, Mr. Ghokali. When your niece told you at breakfast that she was going ashore at Sagan Station, why didn't you ask her who with?"

He froze.

"I mean, after all, if you suspected she was the target of an assassination, and had already warned her to stay away from Farraday, why did you let her go ashore without asking who she was going with? Did you think she was going alone?" He nodded, and seemed to be having trouble speaking. "But if you thought she was going alone, why did you let her? After all, you thought she might be assassinated, Mr. Ghokali. It seems a great risk."

"I was preoccupied," he stammered after a few moments. "I wasn't paying attention. I don't know."

I went up to him and put a consoling hand on his arm. "Please, Mr. Ghokali, calm down. This isn't an interrogation; I just need some general facts. For instance, how do you explain what you and Farraday discussed when he came here the night before he tried to kill your niece?"

This, I will ask you to note, was not a lie. I never said I knew what they discussed. I'll grant you that I allowed Ghokali to infer it, but I never outright said it, and a moment's reflection might have shown him that other things could be inferred from the construction of the sentence. It's a small thing, but even in a good cause, I don't like to lie.

Ghokali, as I had hoped, did not allow himself a moment's reflection. He broke down, in a rather messy and annoying way, wailing and moaning, among other things, that he had not meant it, that Farraday should never have come to his cabin, should never have asked for more money, and knew nothing of the warning Ghokali had given me. That, it appeared, was Ghokali's addition to Farraday's otherwise excellent plan, and he had thought himself very clever in thinking of it.

The most difficult part was convincing him that I didn't want a bribe. He didn't offer me one because he thought it might save him, but because he thought I expected it. Throughout our halting conversation he would occasionally screw up his eyes and cock his head at me, as if to make sure that he had really heard me correctly. "You don't want money at all?" he said at one point.

"No," I replied patiently. "What I want you to understand is that I have a number of friends in the World League's law enforcement arm, and should I ever find that your niece has come to any harm, I will forward them a copy of this conversation. You know, I think, how far they can reach?"

He nodded vigorously, eager to cooperate.

"Good. Cunard Space Lines takes a very dim view of murderers in general, and most particularly those who practice their trade aboard our ships. My suggestion, Mr. Ghokali, is that you do your very best to put this behind you, and be as helpful to your niece as you can. If you're not...." I pulled the tape recorder from my pocket and shook it meaningfully. "Good day, Mr. Ghokali."

I'm sure my smile looked smug and gloating to him, but to me it was pure serenity.


* * *



There is very little more to tell. The Mauretania docked at Golcondar Station and Ms. Ghokali and her uncle disembarked like everyone else. She thanked me politely for my services, and saved me the embarrassment of having to refuse a tip by not offering one (though I know she tipped the chambermaid handsomely). I will not soon forget how very pretty she looked, strolling down the gangplank, her uncle trailing behind like a sullen and skulking dog.

We stayed at Golcondar Station for three days, gathering passengers for the return trip, and just before we left I sent the tape and a brief note to Ms. Ghokali.

On the way back I checked in with Dalyeva at Sagan Station, and heard how good a trail-hider Farraday had been. I explained the situation, and she was a little surprised at my letting Nirmal Ghokali go free. That was her police experience talking; when I told her why I had done it, she began to see that it made sense.

Trials mean publicity, after all. Neither Sagan Station nor Cunard would like it to be known that assassinations can be attempted in their facilities. I'm also sure that Ms. Ghokali wouldn't want her family corporation's internal squabblings brought to light, or the ease with which she was deceived.

When I next returned to Golcondar Station, there was a little note waiting for me which fully justified my opinion of Ms. Ghokali.

Mr. Burke, it read, I must say that your message quite stunned me. At first I thought your accusations ridiculous; then, when I listened to the tape, I thought your suggestions were. However, on reflection I have come around to your point of view. My uncle is now the manager of a very small factory near the South Pole of Golcondar IV. One of the unfortunate drawbacks of his position is that he has almost no access to communications tech, and is thus quite isolated. I imagine the intense cold and relatively primitive living conditions are not pleasant either.

With his help, I have looked very carefully at his transactions as my guardian, and together we were lucky enough to discover a number of bank accounts that he had overlooked. These have quite nicely raised the divisions' balance sheet and funded a number of local charities. All in all, a very satisfactory ending.

Though I can imagine no more congenial place to work than the Mauretania, I would like to assure that should you ever wish to leave their service, the Ghokalis would quite happily employ you.


* * *



This was all a few years ago, and the Mauretania no longer does the Golcondar run, so I have not been out that way in over two years. However, I recently heard that Golcondar IV was granted entry to the World League as a sovereign planet, and that a Promila Ghokali was a member of the government -- Commerce Minister, I believe. A brief glance at the Ghokali annual report tells me that Uncle Nirmal still runs his frigid factory despite, as the report puts it, "constant howling blizzards, inhuman conditions, and frostbite so severe he has lost a number of fingers and toes."

I definitely think I got it right.

THE END