By Iain McWilliam

Most Centaurans have an obsession for "Densidad," which can be translated as "thoroughness" or, more loosely, "the art of taking pains." The saying goes that this is the equivalent of genius but in my experience of working for fifteen years at the Solar Intelligence Bureau it has occasionally caused a man's death if it is carried to excess. The case I wrapped up last week is a prime example.

It's not unusual to get reports of Centauran spies being picked up on some deserted spot on Mars or Venus, the spies are usually found to have been supplied with Solar credits, Solar haircuts and even Solar clothes, with genuine Solar fashion labels. We Solar security workers are always amazed at the way the Centaurans seem to be able to get hold of such items when they are so difficult for even ourselves. We don't say it openly but we admire the Centaurans thoroughness, however last week they went to far.

Luis Fernandez was Neptunian, aged thirty-one and unmarried. He was a merchant spacehand and looked a typical employee of Solar Auxiliary fleet. He seemed a genuine, straightforward, kind man, with blue eyes and fair, unruly hair. Scruffully dressed, capable with his hands, not very intelligent but with plenty of common sense. You could meet a hundred more like him in any space-station in the Solar System.

His story was no more unusual in these restless times than his appearance. After the Centaurans had occupied Neptune he had decided to make his way to England and join the Free Neptunian Merchant Navy, then centered on the Lunar Port of Epson. He had travelled alone through Occupied Space into the Neutral Zone, around Uranus, and moving always at sub-light speed so as not to be traced, reached Mars. Being able to look after himself as any good spaceman usually can, he managed to get across the battle areas into the Earth juristiction zone, where for his effort he was thrown into a security station. He spent several months in a cold, clinically clean, dark cell in Beijing until the Neptunian Consulate, after making energetic efforts on his behalf, managed to effect his release. From Beijing he was sent to Mexico City in the Unified Americas. Here the Neptunian Consulate added his name to the lengthening list of refugees awaiting passage to the Lunar bases, THE place to find work. Fernandez, young, strong and able to do work of Planetary importance, was given some priority.

He reached The Moon late last summer in March, 2061 (I still can't get used to these climatic changes, when I was young and before the rainforest's went we had summer in summer not spring time), he was then sent to the ProVitek indoctrination centre at the Sea of Serenity to get formal clearance.

Being a Neptunian and apparently quite a straightfoward case, Fernandez was assigned to a Neptunian security officer who happened to be one of my young trainee's. Up to this point I had not been personally associated with this case. I was busy at the time with a stubborn Venusian tradesman, who later turned out to be a Centauran Spy sent to influence the commodities market, in particular, Water, Oil and Wheat. Clearing Fernandez appeared to be a matter of routine and in any case the Neptunian security officer, being keen, intelligent and hard working, was perfectly capable of dealing with matters of this nature.

As head of my department, I always stress the importance of searching with the utmost care all luggage and personal belongings brought in by refugees. Even the completely innocent might carry, unknown to themselves, picture postcards, local newspapers and scraps of paper which would yield interesting information to the trained searcher. The guilty, who came with the purpose of spying, would need to bring the means of communicating the intelligence they obtained. It would be unlikely, of course, that a spy would openly carry a sub-space transmitter as part of his luggage but he might have hidden away some smaller object, like a nano-camera. Furthermore, few spies have memories sufficiently retentive to carry the names and addresses, often in a language unfamiliar to them, to which they would have to transmit the information they picked up. Thus the luggage and personal effects of all refugees have to be examined with the utmost care. This is usually done after they had made their preliminary statements and before they are given an intensive interrogation, which might well be based on clues picked up from the search of their belongings.

The ProVitek Indoctrination Centre contains a large room which is empty of furniture except for a long bare table which is as black as its surroundings and accompanied by chairs drawn up on either side of it. We call it "the Laundry room." Every morning security officers sit at the table with the belongings of their "clients" spread in front of them. They would examine, sometimes under a powerful magnifying glass, the suit-cases, brief-cases, wallets, pocket-computers, books, magazines, wrist-TV's, reefer cases and all the rest of the junk that are carried by refugees. Everything would be scrutinised with the utmost care and, once passed would be pushed on one side. The room looks like a cross between a Customs examination and a hospital laundry. Of course, every now and then we would find some "dirty laundry", e.g. incriminating evidence and our job would be finished much quicker.

Last week on Wednesday morning, which was the day after the Centaurans had taken Triton, I happened to be sitting at the long table next to the Neptunian security officer who was conducting the Fernandez case. I was in a bad mood, the news from Triton was not good, and I needed to keep myself busy. I was deep in thought when the Neptunian turned to me and said:

"What do you make of this, sir?"

I frowned at having my concentration broken and looked up. He had been systematically emptying the compartments in a shabby, black wallet and had taken out a small package. As he opened it, I could see it contained a whitish powder. I was annoyed and spoke aggressively. "How the hell should I know? I'm not a walking laboratory. It's probably narcotics but send it for analysis and ask for a rush report."

I turned back to my own work and went on looking at the Neptunian's belongings. A minute or two went by and then a timid voice at my elbow asked: "I'm very sorry, sir, but could I interrupt you again?"

I swung round, about to deliver a lecture to the young incompetent who could not get on with his own work and let his senior get on with his. I then saw what he was holding up in his hand. It was a small bunch of green capsules, the size of any everyday drugs that can be bought at hypermarkets these days.

"Well I be damned!" I said.

"What's the matter, sir?"

"Matter - nothing's the matter. Go on now, show me the container with the blue liquid in it."

"Blue liquid?" It was his turn to be amazed. The look that flashed across his face betrayed his suspicion that one of us had suddenly taken leave of his senses - and that one was not himself. Nevertheless, he carried out the order and dutifully delved into the next compartment of the wallet. Then it was his turn to be shocked. His groping fingers pulled out a small container, about two inches long, and when he opened it and poured a small amount of the contents into the screwtop it was blue. In that action he sealed the fate of yet another Centauran spy.

Explaining the importance of his discovery, I told him to leave the Fernandez case to me and go on with his next case. I sat there for a moment, wondering at the fact that Centauran thoroughness had betrayed Fernandez. Whoever had briefed him for his trip to Lunar Station Epson had covered every detail, even the most minute and insignificant. In doing so the head of espionage, whom we have just learned stayed in a hotel on Neptune during the time Fernandez was there, had given the spy away as effectively as if he had communicated with us in advance and warned us of his arrival. The Head of Espionage had armed Fernandez with the three essentials for skin pigmentation, Atoyot powder to be dissolved in the blue liquid called Decnahne, and the green capsules to regulate the effect. Centaurans are very pale skinned, almost blue or purple in fact, when the espionage war first started we were very successful in finding their spies because any trained eye could see through any makeup they covered themselves with. Of course they soon realised this themselves and so developed a drug that changes the colour pigmentation of their skin, to a much more Human colour. Rumour has it that they are now developing genetically altered spies, who will be impossible to detect without DNA sampling.

The pity of it all from Fernandez's point of view, was that he could have bought any or all three essentials at any shop at Epson without a question being asked. Now, because his mentor had been too thorough, he was going to have some explaining to do.

I knew, however that it was one thing to realise his guilt and another to get him to admit it. There had to be proof that would stand up in a court of law. He was sitting in the electric chair but he had yet to be strapped in.

I went back to my room and, via my wrist-link, asked for my secretary. She's a good worker, never complains, is always on time, but she's getting old now and she's got more than her fair share of dents and scratches. She's an old model now but she's one of the few robots I know who has character. I asked her to type out a list of every item of Fernandez's property, omitting nothing however negligible it might appear. Before long she had printed out a list and handed it to me, among other items the three important ones were clearly included:

I had to get Fernandez to admit that these three items belonged to him. In my experience it had occasionally happened - in fact it once happened to me - that a guilty man had sworn that incriminating evidence had been planted on him by interrogators. With no actual proof to the contrary, his story had been upheld by the judge and he had gone free. I had learned my lesson. It was not going to happen twice to me if I could avoid it. I sent for Fernandez.

He came into the room with his heavy footed walk and sat down, when invited to do so. He looked straight into my eyes and smiled a shy, but quite unself-conscious smile. I smiled back and held out my reefer case. He took a reefer which I lit for him, he inhaled and sat back at his ease.

"Well, Fernandez," I said, in Neptunian, "yours is luckily a straightforward case. No complications. Naturally, we've checked on your story and find it perfectly in order."

He smiled again.

"They tell me you are keen to join the Free Neptunian Merchant Navy and do your bit," I went on.

"Yes, sir - very keen." His smile was enthusiastic.

"I was glad to hear that. The Neptunian Merchant Navy needs good men like you." I turned over some papers. "Well, there doesn't seem to be any need to keep you any longer. Everything's in order and you'll want to join your fellow-country-men as soon as you can. I'll ask the immigration officer to land you at once. With any luck you'll catch a Shuttle to Epson tonight. How's that?"

"That's great, sir. Thank you very much." His grin now spread almost from ear to ear.

"There's just one thing," I added. "Only a formality. Here are your belongings," I pointed to them spread out on the table, "and here is a list of them. It's the official receipt. Would you mind checking each item of your property against the list and then, if you're satisfied that nothing is missing, perhaps you would sign the receipt. Then you can take your property and be on your way."

He took the list from me and went through it. "Everything is in order, sir," he said.

I took out my bar-code pen; and passed it across the table. There was silence in the room except for the beep of confirmation as Fernandez signed his death-warrant.

He pushed back his chair. "Is that all, sir?" He asked.

"Not quite." Opening his wallet I slowly removed the green capsules, the powder and the liquid container, lining them neatly on the table. I stared at him the whole time. He went pale and the smile faded. One eye-lid twitched.

"Before you go, perhaps you will explain why you happen to be carrying these particular articles in your wallet. Articles that you admit are yours by the list you've just signed."

He gulped and looked at the list in my hand, almost as though he were sizing the distance between us for an opportunity to snatch that damning piece of paper away from me. Then he relaxed and the shadow of his former smile twisted his lips.

"Of course I can explain, sir. For a moment you had me puzzled but I remember it clearly now. When I was in prison at Beijing - they told you about that, didn't they, sir? - I shared a cell with an Andromedan smuggler. Early one morning the guards came to fetch him away. As we heard their footsteps in the corridor outside, he passed those three things on to me. Said he'd be shot if they were found on him. He asked me to keep them until he came back." An expressive shrug. "Well, he never did come back. I just put those things in my wallet and forgot all about them until this minute. Honest, sir."

I hid my admiration for this quick reply and just looked at him. There was only one way to break him down, I thought, I tried it. I smiled, like a man beginning to see a good joke, and the smile broadened. My shoulders shook as if I was suppressing my laughter and then a chuckle broke out, followed by another and another. I flung my head back and roared with laughter until I was red in the face and the tears streamed from my eyes. Nothing in life, it seemed, was as funny as this joke.

Fernandez sat rigid with teeth clenched. A vein on his forehead throbbed and his knuckles showed as white blotches. Then he began to tremble as my shrieks of laughter rang out. At last he broke. Pressing his palms against his ears, he sprang up, shouting and cursing, pleading with me to stop my insane laughter. "I'll tell you everything," he screamed, "but for Proxima's sake stop laughing."

Two hours later, having been warned that anything he said would be taken down and might be used as evidence, he had dictated and signed a complete confession which, neatly printed out, lay on my desk.

He was killed in an electric chair at the Sinus Iridum prison facility on September 24th, 2061, a victim of "Dersidad".

The End

Copyright 1997 by Iain McWilliam

About the Author: In his own words... "I live near Liverpool, in the United Kingdom, and I'm hoping to write more science-fiction and would welcome any suggestions or criticism about this work (although not too much criticism). This is my first effort at putting my work on the internet so hopefully it isn't too bad.

You can E-Mail Iain by clicking here.

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