Gods of Sagittarius – Snippet 21
Shenoy spent the next few hours examining the cell minutely. Finally he turned to the robot.
“I’d like to see the adjoining cells now, H.P.” he said.
“Certainly, Sir Rupert,” replied the robot. “If you tell me what you are looking for, perhaps I can help.”
“I have no idea,” admitted Shenoy. “If I were to quote a very famous fictional detective, I would say that I am looking for the detail that matters.” A self-deprecating smile crossed his face. “I only hope that I’ll recognize it when I come across it.”
“What does this detail look like?” asked the robot.
“I wish I knew. Basil, you might examine the cells further up the line.”
Basil nodded and walked off.
“Russell,” continued Shenoy, “you might as well go and get yourself a sandwich or some coffee or something.”
Tabor shook his head. “My job is protecting you. I’d better stick around.”
“If I’m attacked by the Old Ones, or whatever the hell it was that attacked the three prisoners, how do you plan to protect me from them?” asked Shenoy.
“I don’t know,” admitted Tabor.
“You don’t know what you’re looking for,” replied Tabor. He smiled. “Well, then?”
Shenoy laughed. “Point taken. Come with me and who knows, maybe you’ll solve the mystery of the ages.”
“I just hope I survive it,” said Tabor earnestly. “That was a pretty shocking holo.” He frowned. “What could cause something like that?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” replied Shenoy. “Basil thinks it involves a technology that diffracts or bends light so that whatever killed those men seemed invisible.”
“Do you think so?”
Shenoy shook his head. “It would still need an energy source, and according to all the physical and visual records, nothing entered or left the jail that night. And I doubt that even if such a technology existed, you could focus it through walls from, what, half a mile or more away, and home in on the very cell where it was needed.” He grimaced. “And even if it did exist and could do all that, it was only used in the service of some beings or creatures that could kill three men in a matter of a minute, devour about half of them, which I estimate comes to about two hundred pounds, and still remain agile and skilled enough to make their exit through a force field and a score of holo cameras.”
“It sounds like magic when you put it that way,” remarked Tabor.
“I wish they’d strike that word from the language,” said Shenoy. “It leads to sloppy thinking.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Show a flashlight to a primitive being on a world that’s had no outside contact and he thinks it’s magic. I’m sure in our race’s youth and adolescence everything from gunpowder to penicillin to airplanes seemed like magic. The problem is that if you believe in magic, you have no compulsion to discover how things really work, and sure enough you spend the rest of your life believing, not in scientific principles, but in magic. I’m sure it’s comforting — well, except when you’re being eaten by invisible beasts — but it doesn’t lead to knowledge or solutions.”
“What is it?” asked Shenoy.
“I take my hat off to you, Rupert,” he said. “You’re the archetype of what I grew up believing was a genius.”
“I’m flattered, but I don’t follow you.”
“You can solve some of the more mystifying puzzles of the universe, you can debunk someone everyone else thinks is magic” — he grinned again — “but you can’t remember to shave your lower lip or how to make coffee, and your socks don’t match. That’s my notion of a genius.”
Shenoy looked down at his feet. “You know, I could have sworn . . .” His voice trailed off, and suddenly he laughed aloud. “Well, I seem to have the absentminded part down pat. Let’s hope I can live up to the genius part as well.”
“Before the Old Ones get hungry again,” said Tabor devoutly.
“Relax, Russell. What you saw happened more than a year ago.”
“If they can walk through force fields, and neither men nor cameras can see them, who says they have to eat more than once a year?” Tabor shot back. “Or who says they didn’t eat yesterday and now they’re hungry again.”
Shenoy shook his head. “You still don’t understand.”
“Enlighten me,” said Tabor.
“They broke into a high-security prison with such ease that if all they were interested in doing was eating men, or sentient beings, then why didn’t they stay? And if they did stay, why has no one else been injured, let alone eaten?”
“So you think it was a one-and-out incident?”
Tabor frowned. “What do you mean, so far?”
“No one else has been trying to find out what happened here,” said Shenoy. “Well, at least until the Knack we just saw, assuming that’s why it was here. So if there’s something they don’t want known — their race (if they are sentient beings), their technology, their methodology — they’ve had no reason to return, or re-enter the prison, until now.”
“I hadn’t considered that,” said Tabor, fingering his weapon nervously.
“Somehow I thought not,” said Shenoy, looking amused. “There’s something to be said for not being aware of all the possibilities of a situation.”
“Like your hypothetical caveman?”
“Point taken,” replied Shenoy. “And no insult intended.”
After another hour, and two more cells, Shenoy was no closer to fending the unknown and unidentified object he sought
“Ah, well,” he said, “we might as well take a break. I’m getting hungry.” He paused. “I wonder how Basil is doing?”
“Probably coming up blank, or he’d have called you,” said Tabor.
“Still, you never know.” He stepped out into the aisle and raised his voice. “Basil?”
There was no answer.
“Basil?” he called again.
Still no answer.
“Maybe he got hungry too,” suggested Tabor.
“Maybe,” said Shenoy dubiously. “But let’s go take a look, just to make sure.”
He began walking past a number of cells, followed by Tabor and the robot, until he came to one with the door open. He entered it, and found Basil sprawled out on the floor.
Tabor gently pushed him aside, knelt down, and examined Basil for vital signs without finding any.
“Dead?” asked Shenoy.
“Yeah,” replied Tabor. “But there doesn’t seem to be a mark on him — and no one’s been nibbling on him for lunch.”
Shenoy turned to the robot. “H. P., tell your superiors that we have a dead man here.” He paused. “And that their problem, whatever it is, isn’t over.”
“No,” said Shenoy calmly. “It’s out of the question.”
“The hell it is,” said Tabor firmly. “I’m in charge of keeping you alive, and I say we get the hell off this planet while the getting’s good.”
Shenoy shook his head. “We can’t leave before we have the autopsy result.”
“I’ll give it to you right now,” said Tabor. “Basil died from unknown causes.”
“If we stay I may find out what the causes were.”
“If we stay you may join him,” responded Tabor. “It’s time to leave.”
“I can’t,” insisted Shenoy. “Something very strange is going on here, something that requires investigation and a solution.”
“Damn it, Rupert!” snapped Tabor. “You’re talking about it like it’s a problem in a textbook. People die here, some hideously, and for no discernable reason. I don’t know what’s happening here or why, but I don’t want us to stick around and be killed while we’re trying to find out.”
“Let me ask you a couple of very simple questions Russell,” said Shenoy.
“Russ,” Tabor corrected him. “And make them short as well as simple.”
“Do you think these deaths were a matter of choice?”
“Hell, no! No one chooses to die, and certainly not like this!”
“I said it wrong,” replied Shenoy. “Let me reword it. Do you think they were a matter of selection?”
Tabor frowned. “Selection?”
“There are other prisoners, plus guards and administrators. Do you think the three we saw in the holo and Basil were selected by any rational process?”
“I’m remembering the holo,” answered Tabor. “Nothing rational did that.”
“Then why stop with only those three?” persisted Shenoy. “Clearly whatever killed them can come and go as it pleases, or as they please, if there’s more than one of them. Obviously it could have slaughtered the entire prison, guards and inmates alike. But it didn’t. It stopped at three. Why?”
“But it didn’t stop at three,” said Tabor. “It just killed Basil.”
“That’s because Basil, and by extension I, represent a threat to it or them.”
“Oh, bullshit,” growled Tabor. “What do you know now that you didn’t know yesterday?”
Shenoy allowed himself the luxury of a smile. “That’s why I’m reluctant to leave.”
“I don’t follow you at all.”
“It’s obvious that I do know something I didn’t know yesterday, and so did Basil. The trick is figuring out what it is.”
Tabor stared at him. “Do you realize what you’re saying — that if you don’t know shit they’ll leave you alone, but if you’re on to something, they’ll tear you to pieces?”
Shenoy smiled again. “Oh, very well put, Russell! I’ll make a thinker out of you yet!”
“You’ll make a corpse out of me first,” said Tabor.
“Remember that little example I gave you about children and magic?”
Tabor glared at him but said nothing.
“Russ, in this case, we’re the children. There are principles at work here that if we can understand and master may move the human race ahead by centuries, or possibly even millennia. How can you turn your back on that and just walk away because of a few risks?”