Knott Xombi - Igor Ljubuncic

Updated: August 27, 2021

Becky took a moment to steady her nerves, her breathing. Then, she gently pushed herself into the data center.

As the security officer, she was the only one allowed here. She may not be the most qualified engineer, but it was her job to diagnose the malfunction in the stabilization computer.

No one else's.

Their craft, the Knott Xombi, an orbital selenium collector, was decaying. It was a gentle, gradual loss of altitude, and under any other circumstance, the captain wouldn't bother correcting to the original flight path until the next scheduled firing of the thrusters. But the deviation had also caused a misalignment in the collectors. The new inclination was costing the company trillions.

If she didn't fix the malfunction, the Knott Xombi would leave the absurdly-thin, selenium-rich outermost ring of the planet Daphnis and enter the worthless second ring of methane ice and tholin. The collectors would be contaminated, and the craft would have to abort the mission.

She couldn't imagine the financial impact if that happened.

Or the length of the report she would have to write to explain it.

No pressure, Becky.

She floated into the data center—it didn't require artificial gravity like the rest of the craft—and looked at the computer panels. She couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. She waited until her shoulder bumped the far end of the circular room, then edged along the panels, checking the connections, the lights, looking for signs of damage or tampering.

Predictably, the stabilization computer was powered down.

Something is wrong here.

What worried her was the lack of clues as to why. The hull sensors indicated no external breach. No one had entered the data center since the beginning of the mission. No radiation events, either. The notion of a spontaneous failure of the computer was unheard of.

She kept on checking the front panel, ignoring the tick of trillions at the back of her mind.

She traced a gloved hand down the side, around optic ports, looking for cracks, loose contacts. Nothing. She would have to remove the panel and check the core. She sighed, the helmet visor misting for a moment.

I am not going to—

Something gleamed in the corner of her vision. Inside one of the optic ports. A reflection that did not belong; the optic fibers were supposed to be opaque, to avoid signal degradation.

A liquid reflection.

Becky swallowed a lump of dread.

Everyone on the craft took anti-perspiration tablets, to minimize the moisture levels. But you could never fully control saliva, tears or urine.

Someone had been inside the data center...

Becky, no time to panic. Focus.

She increased the visor magnification. A drop. A perfect drop of something milky. Some fluid.

She reached with a needle probe and touched the drop. It didn't have the elasticity of water. It wasn't saliva, tears or urine, then.

She put the sample inside an evidence container.

She replaced the optic port with a spare unit.

She put her finger on the activation button.

Please work.

It switched on.

The room began revolving as the system detected the misalignment. Within a few seconds, the Knott Xombi was back on course.

Her communication dial flashed. "Officer Rebecca, a thousand thanks."

"You're welcome, Captain," she replied. Did her voice really sound that squeaky?

Disaster averted. Profitability restored.

But she still had to investigate. Someone had entered the data center without permission.

A crime then.

Semen.

Human semen.

Becky leaned back, not believing the analysis from the tester.

Impossible.

The crew were administered sexual depressants as part of the mission. They were not—should not—be able to engage in masturbation. There should be no desire, let alone ability to conduct such an act. The company wanted its personnel to focus on collecting selenium.

A sex act was a grave violation of the rules. Anything that harmed profits was a grave violation of the rules.

She rubbed her eyes. She was tired—shocked, terrified—but she could not rest until she solved the case.

This couldn't be just caprice. The data center incident might just be the first transgression. What if the culprit— there could be more than one, she added to her notes—did it again, or sabotaged another piece of equipment?

Slow down, Becky. Think.

If someone wanted to harm the company, there were easier. Kill the crew. Destroy the computers.

Likely not malice, she wrote, underlying the sentence. But what other motive could there be? Thrill?

Sex inside the data center, she wrote again.

Why the data center? It made no sense.

Maybe the tester is wrong.

But the tester did not lie.

She nodded to herself. All right, let's find out who.

She carried the sample into the forensic laboratory and placed it inside the DNA profiler.

There were seventeen male crew members on the Knott Xombi. One of them was going to lose their job soon.

She waited.

The profiler did nothing.

She tried again, diligently following the instruction on the screen. Everything seemed to be in order, except the unit wasn't working.

Becky stepped back from the profiler, her stomach turning into a cold knot.

Another malfunctioning system on the craft. A coincidence?

She took a moment to gather her thoughts.

She looked around the laboratory, as if seeing it for the first time. Suddenly, she did not trust the cameras and volumetric sensors that were meant to alert on any unexpected signal.

Coincidence is fodder for fools.

She pocketed the evidence and walked back into the general laboratory. The results of the analysis were still showing on the computer screen.

Can I trust anyone on this craft?

She deleted the test.

Avoiding eye contact with the crew, she went to her quarters. Under her bed, there was a small safe. Inside, she kept a loaded pistol, issued by the company for emergency. Becky had hoped never to use it. Never to follow this particular protocol.

I'm on my own.

She holstered the weapon.

There were seventeen suspects to talk to, and one of them was bound to lie.

They all spoke the truth.

Becky didn't like the results. Didn't trust them.

But the brain scans and the voice pattern scans and the muscle contraction scans and video evidence, and her own evaluation of the suspects, all tested innocent.

They had all been nervous, but that was expected. She was an intimidating professional, and only the captain showed a semblance of sympathy for her line of work, or even acknowledged her as another person.

None of them knew anything about the unauthorized entry. They all had the expected levels of depressants in their blood. They all responded negatively to sexual stimuli. Excitable as a piece of rock.

That semen didn't come from a comet.

She was losing her mind. A week spent between fitful sleep and long, exhausting interviews.

She knew she couldn't trust the crew, but she was feeling less and less confident about the craft's equipment. Perhaps it was all part of a bigger setup, to make her while they did something far more sinister?

Maybe the testers had been tampered with too? But how?

She couldn't imagine these men pulling off such a delicate, complex mutiny. The Knott Xombi had hundreds of sensors and systems, all independent. It would take an army of experts to exploit them all, and even then, they wouldn't be able to do it in a clandestine manner.

Unless her intuition as a security officer was completely off.

But the one thing that couldn't be tampered with was her own mind.

Or was it?

Becky, stop it!

That one malfunction aside, there was nothing out of the ordinary on the ship. For the past 287 days of the mission, there had been no incidents.

I need sleep.

Don't forget the women!

Becky jumped out of bed, her mind lucid, but her body still ungainly. She tripped on her shoes and almost bashed her head into the wall.

How could I have forgotten the women! It takes two to tango.

Masturbation inside the data center made no sense. But intercourse? That sure did.

It was the most private section on the Knott Xombi.

Still naked, she sat down and typed furiously, her vision misty, missing more than hitting the right keys. The sound of the keyboard annoyed her. She got up and reached for the printed copy of the company's code of conduct, searching for the right term to describe the act.

She paused.

There were seven women serving on the craft.

Another round of interviews then.

She must be lying.

Becky stared at Nena, keeping eye contact for a few moments longer than necessary. An ancient trick, predating space flight by a good few millennia. Make them believe you know more than they.

"All right," Becky finally said. "Now, is there anyone on this craft you may find interesting?"

Nena frowned. "In what sense, Officer Rebecca?"

Sexual. "Would you describe any one of your male colleagues as aesthetically pleasing or suitable for a partner?"

"What?"

Becky leaned forward. Don't play tricks with me, girl! "Do you fancy any one of the crew?"

"No."

"You're lying."

Nena blinked. A slow, deliberate blink. "I am not attracted to men."

It was Becky's time to blink. "Thank you for your time. You may go."

Becky sighed after Nena had gone. She was the last one. What now?

The women had proven more difficult to question than the men—less trusting, more suspicious, and better able to hide their emotions.

Damn!

She kicked the chair upon which Nena had sat just moments ago, and it spun on one leg before lazily toppling over.

Just like the men, the women took depressants. They shouldn't—couldn't—experience any desire. Their blood levels were all normal. No increase in hormones.

It just didn't make sense.

Unless...

Selenium.

Becky stepped into the cargo hold. She stared reverently at the contents. Trillions upon trillions worth of selenium, processed, distilled and kept inside silver ampules, row upon row. Even now, the collectors at the front of the craft were actively harvesting the precious element from Daphnis' outer ring, converting the raw material into a powerful drug. You could hear the robots packaging the fresh new ampules, the clink-clink of soft metal like tiny bells. A melodic, rhythmic song against the monotone thrum of the ship's environmental system.

Now, let's see if I'm right.

She checked the records. She wasn't.

The cargo hold held exactly 11,344,567,009 ampules, the exact number it should have. The volumetric sensors confirmed the contents. The weight pads confirmed the mass to within micrograms, continuously compensating for the subtle changes in the gravity of the planet and its two moons.

No drug had been stolen.

Determined, Becky dug into the crew activity records, using her special permissions as a security officer to check the restricted logs. Several crew members, both male and female, had entered the cargo hold in the past three weeks. But there was nothing out of the ordinary in their actions.

She checked the video evidence. Nothing.

I can't call it evidence, can I, she thought, bitterness gripping her throat. The semen comet was starting to sound very plausible.

She could not sleep. Something wasn't right.

Becky dressed up, holstered her pistol and went into the cargo hold again. This time, she locked it so no one could enter.

Calmly, she removed the panel from the biometric scanner at the entrance, and removed it from the wall.

You cannot trust data was the motto of the Academy for Interstellar Security. She remembered it all too well. Digital information was easily manipulated.

Which was why the biometric scanner was equipped with a hidden, second sensor. A film, covered in silver halide, an ancient, primitive method. Whenever the scanner activated, a beam splitter would divert part of the light onto the film, making it react. The exposure was constant, and the chemical reaction linear, so forensics inspectors could count the exact number of times the cargo hold was accessed.

Becky examined the film.

The emulsion test confirmed what she suspected. One unlogged access extra.

"Is everything all right, Officer Rebecca?" Captain Malick asked, smiling.

Becky scowled. "Why wouldn't it be, Captain?"

Malick waved his hands defensively. "It's just... you look exhausted."

She was.

Days spent re-examining the logs, hacking the systems. Now that she had the bread crumbs in her hand, she could see all those little clues she had missed the first time.

The stabilization computer wasn't just an incident.

It was a conspiracy.

Someone had spent an awful amount of time erasing evidence of their foul practices. They had first erased the logs. But they hadn't just crudely destroyed recorded files. No. They were way too smart for that.

They had offset the database entries, skewed the clocks, corrupted the internal integrity checks, and then, went on to subvert the other systems. A cascade of lies, all supporting each other.

It had taken her a long time, but now she had the answer.

Two selenium ampules were missing.

Two doses of the drug.

Two people.

All so they could engage in a sexual act in the only section of the craft that had no gravity.

There wasn't anything to gain from such an act, except dishonor, a heavy fine and perhaps imprisonment. They hadn't tried to steal more of the precious drug. They hadn't done any other damage. Becky even believed that the drop of fluid was an innocent mistake.

Just a stupid, childish deed.

She wondered what her superiors would think when she reported the crime. What would they do with the crew? For someone to go to such lengths to tamper with the craft's impressive security protocols and mechanism, they might as well silence the whole story and hire them as researchers.

I will be ridiculed as much as praised for this case.

Then again, if the two crewmen were willing to do so much to avoid getting caught, what would they do once they learned of her findings?

You need to find them first, Becky. You still don't know who they are.

"Officer Rebecca?"

"Huh?"

Malick was still smiling, but it was a fragile, concerned expression. "Are you all right? Should you perhaps see a doctor?"

"I'm fine," she snapped. She realized how rude and unprofessional she sounded. "I'm fine." A more dignified tone this time. "How are you, Captain? Is everything all right on the bridge?"

"Perfect," he said. "Couldn't be better. Just 104 more days, and we're going home. I miss Earth. And you, Officer Rebecca?"

"I will probably go to the Mars colony to see my father," she mumbled, feeling awkward.

The captain must have sensed it. He waved again. "Well, I should return to duty. See you around."

Becky waited until he was gone. Then she headed to her office, so she could search for more clues to this crazy mystery.

Her head burst.

Drugs. Gravity. Computers. Data center. Sensors. Ampules.

Stop it, Becky, you need to rest.

She rose from her desk and leaned back hard, the joints in her lower back popping noisily.

It had been weeks since the incident, and she still wasn't any closer to solving it. She had all the evidence, but no criminals. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't pin it on any one of the crew.

The worst thing was, she had acted too late. Everyone tested negative to selenium. There were no traces of the drug left, and she would never be able to find who took it.

I just need to be patient and let this sordid mission end.

Still, something was amiss.

What day is it today? It was hard keeping track of time and dates in space. She looked at the calendar, the one her father had given her before the mission; a series of Mars landscape photographs, with both the Julian and Darian systems.

It was Sunday, Earth time.

Four days into what should have been her period...

Someone whimpered inside her office.

It was her.

She realized she was cowering in the corner of the office, shivering.

Impossible.

"I need this facility right now," she ordered.

Doctor Farage looked at her as if she had gone mad. "Why, Officer Rebecca?"

"Evacuate this sick bay, now."

"I shall log my protest over this, Officer," the doctor said as he shuffled out.

Becky locked the door. She rushed over to the medical cabinet, searching. Her eyes roamed over the labels, frantic, desperate, terror making her shudder.

A pregnancy kit. A single one.

I must do this. I must.

Impossible.

But the kit did not lie.

What the hell did I do?

She sat on the floor, in her quarters, staring at the wall, a loaded pistol lying by her bare feet. Every few seconds, she glanced at the weapon.

I'm a criminal.

Her entire life, wasted. Her achievements, all gone. She would be expelled from the company, tried and probably sent to a penal colony while strangers raised her child.

If... she should get rid of the evidence, like she had with everything else.

I might as well pull the trigger and end it all now. Easier, quicker, less painful.

The worst part was... she had no memory of it.

That was the one thing that kept her from spraying her brain all over the Knott Xombi.

How had she managed to make it all go away so neatly?

Not the evidence-that was the easy part.

How had she managed to make herself forget? And her... partner?

She still had no idea who he was. But it was one of the men. Someone she had convinced to follow her into the cargo hold, to steal selenium so they could get high, so they could awaken their libido.

Someone who was such a frighteningly good actor.

Or... if she had no memory of the act, maybe he didn't, either.

Don't panic, Becky. There's time.

The mission would be over in three months. She could hide her pregnancy. No one had to know.

She could simply not report the problem.

The data center malfunction would be an unexplained case of technology versus the universe.

She hoped her belly wouldn't get too big for anyone to notice. Especially the women. Or she could get rid of the fetus... and continue her work.

Strong medications should do. Tampering the records thereafter would be easy. Apparently, she had manipulated over fifty different systems to conceal her indiscretion, she could do it again. Falsifying the medical data would be just another layer to her stupid crime.

But a part of her brain rebelled.

Don't you want to raise this child? Don't you want to know who the father is.

She stared at the wall.

I don't know.

It didn't make any sense. She wasn't prone to rashness. Even back on Earth and Mars, in her youth, she had never engaged in casual sex with men. She had only had serious partners, and she had always felt strongly if not outright loved every one of them.

I wouldn't have just cornered a crew member and invited him to have sex with me. It isn't me.

She didn't think the men on the ship would rush at the opportunity, either. First, they had no need. Second, they wouldn't risk such a highly lucrative, paying job for a moment of silliness.

Whoever it was, they must have known each other... for a while.

Becky, get a grip on yourself. You are a security officer. Do your job. Investigate!

Even if the suspect is your damn self!

She didn't know how long she sat there, but sometime later, she realized her tears had dried up, she had stowed the pistol away, and she was thinking what to do next.

How does one outsmart oneself?

By tampering with the data, of course.

She opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling. It displayed a relief of the Pillars of Creation this morning.

How appropriate.

My memories are my data.

It took her the better part of the day rummaging through her belongings, but she eventually found it, hidden inside an old encyclopedia on flora. She had cut out the pages, leaving a pocket big enough to contain a memory erasing device. It was an illegal thing, but all security officers carried one on dangerous assignments, so they could handle violent suspects. You could make people temporarily forget their actions or even render them completely clueless.

Best part, it was reversible, so they could stand trial when needed.

Do I dare restore my memory? Do I want to know what I did? she asked herself.

You want to solve this mystery, her conscience preached. Well, Officer Rebecca, solve it.

She reached into the book.

And you will know who your lover is.

She pressed the button.

Had she really done all that?

She looked at the memory device, sitting in her lap. There was another synaptic map stored inside it, the father of her child.

The man she loved.

The last ten months of the selenium harvesting mission strobed through her mind, a torrent of fleeting images and powerful emotions, the slow, almost casual buildup of friendship between them, the skirting of protocols and policies, the paranoia and the elation swirling into an explosive mix. The risk factor, getting bigger and bigger. The gravity-free love-making...

She had a choice to make.

Follow protocol and incriminate herself and the man she loved? Or... continue with the elegant deception she had maintained for so long?

I had erased my own memory.

That was the one part she didn't quite recall, didn't quite trust her own reasoning. Why had she done that? Regret? Or to protect... the man she loved?

What do I do now?

The Solar System.

Becky always felt a flutter in her stomach when she saw one of the outer planets on a craft's display system. The knowledge that another long, difficult, risky endeavor into the deep areas of the universe was coming to a safe end.

This is what the sailors of old must have felt approaching a familiar harbor.

The mission was over. The company had taken over the cargo. The data center malfunction got a total of three minutes attention from an anemic official, who just added the loss to the overall drug profit margin. Problem solved. No more need for rigid formality, for emotionless masks and pretense. No more need for protocol.

Sod protocol, she thought. Sometimes, doing nothing was the best course of action. Especially after all she had done already.

Inside her jacket pocket, she kept her hand on the memory erasing device.

"Home sweet home," Captain Malick said and chortled.

Becky looked at him from the corner of her eye, wondering if he looked more handsome than usual, or if those were the pregnancy hormones messing up her reasoning.

"Yes."

"Well, tomorrow, I shall drop you off at the Mars colony, and then... Maldives, here I come!" He laughed happily.

Becky gripped the device harder. "Captain Malick?"

"Yes, Officer Rebecca?"

"I was wondering... I have never been to the Maldives."

He spun about. "Really? Oh, you're missing so much."

She shrugged. "Well, I was thinking. Mars can wait. Would you... mind if I disembarked at the space station... with you?"

Malick grinned. "Not at all. Absolutely, Officer Rebecca."

She let her heart beat settle. "And Captain?"

"Yes, Officer Rebecca?"

"You can call me Becky."

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