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Playing Possum

a short story
by Maxine McArthur

Jocasta's new Security Chief stared at me and slapped the handcom against his thigh.

'Possum,' he repeated slowly. 'Turned into a possum?'

'No, sir. He changed from a possum.' They're not really possums--they just scratch as bad.

Murdoch was a big man, obviously in need of more exercise than he was getting on the space station. He tilted his chair back dangerously on its magbearings and ran a hand over his curly, cropped head.

'Sergeant Sasaki. Helen, isn't it? If I've read your report right...' He tossed the handcom across his desk to me. 'A non-sentient alien animal metamorphosed into a sentient alien resident of the station.'

'Yes, sir. The Tirenni breed the creatures for food.'

'I thought residents weren't allowed to keep livestock?'

All I could do was shrug. The lower ring had always been impossible to monitor, and with recent influxes of refugees running from pirates rampant across the sector, things were getting even more crowded.

Murdoch shook his head as if to clear it. 'The witness--he's only a child.'

The Tirenni boy swore he'd seen a possum fall from a conduit ledge and then change into an elderly Tirenni. One of our patrols found the alleged ex-possum being mobbed by a group of other Tirenni and took him into custody for his own protection.

'They all know this old ... what's his name?' said Murdoch.


'Yeah. But nobody thinks it's weird?'

I must admit I found it difficult to imagine how Gell had escaped being eaten, if he was making a habit of this.

'The problem, sir, is that we have to let Gell out tonight.'

Murdoch rocked the chair back and forth a couple of times. 'Why is it a problem, Sergeant?'

'If we let the old Tirenni go, we risk disturbances in the lower ring and possibly widespread disruption of station functions.'

'Go on.'

'The Tirenni eat a lot of those creatures. We try and get them to eat other food now and then, but they persist with their possums. They believe that spiritual beings metamorphose from other animals, not possums. If they think this child is telling the truth, they might make Gell into a religious figure. Or kill him for a heretic. Or stop eating possums. Or, being Tirenni, all of these at once.'

However the Tirenni reacted, we were likely to end up with fighting between factions, delays in freight loading because the micro-gravity docks in the Centre were worked mainly by Tirenni, and possibly an infestation of unwanted livestock. The potential for chaos loomed large.

'What sort of a reduction in dock services are we looking at if all the Tirenni go off?' Murdoch said finally.

'I don't know the exact figures,' I said. 'But they make up at least sixty percent of the workforce. And it's possible other workers would strike in sympathy.'

'Sympathy for what?'

I shrugged again. 'Having time off.'

'Letting them fight it out isn't an alternative, then.'

I thought of the effort we were making to establish Jocasta as a trading station for legitimate business. Station admin wouldn't be pleased if dock functions were disrupted.

'I don't think it would be a good idea to encourage violence in the Delta ring. The Hill is unsafe enough as it is.'

Murdoch stared at the mess of plastocopies, data crystals, handcoms and dirty cups on his desk. He ran his hand over his head again.

'I'm missing something here,' he muttered, and fixed his shrewd button eyes on me. 'Correct me if I'm wrong, Sergeant, but nobody seems to find the idea of a ... possum metamorphosing at all unusual. Why is this?'

I thought for a moment. Now that he mentioned it, perhaps we should have spent a little more time on the problem. But hell, Security was too busy chasing real criminals to bother with a case in which no crime had been committed at all. I said as much.

He let the chair down flat with a thump.

'You're missing the point. It's not possible to change from one physical form to another completely different one. You can't convert mass without significant expenditure of energy, for chrissakes.'

That was all very well, but I'd seen far stranger things in my year on Jocasta. In this case we had a reliable witness; examination of the alley had revealed nothing out of the ordinary. If the simplest answer was best, we had it.

The problem now was how to deal with the Tirenni community.

'Go back over the report,' said Murdoch. 'We just need to prove this kid's wrong. Show the other Tirenni that the old bloke's not a possum. No metamorphosis, no fuss. End of problem.'

I looked at him doubtfully.

'Find the holes in the kid's story,' he said through his teeth. 'Then tell the Tirenni community leaders about it. Better still, bring me your conclusions and I'll tell them.'

'Yes, sir.' He was wrong, but it wasn't my job to tell him.

My Tirenni contact worked the morning shift and wouldn't be back from the docks until early afternoon. It was 1100 hours, station time. I decided to take a lift down to the lower ring and look again at the scene of the, er, disturbance.

The difficulty with carrying out Murdoch's order, I mused, was that the young Tirenni told such a consistent story. He'd been playing in a back corridor of the Hill, one of those dark, dank passages that layers of scrap hide from reflector light. The alley should have been too gloomy, but he said he saw a possum walk along an inset conduit ledge. He thought it must have escaped from a nearby kitchen. To stop it disappearing into the hole where the conduit entered the wall, he threw a piece of rubbish in front of its nose.

At that, the possum did a back-flip off the ledge, hit the ground, and turned into a baby Tirenni. 'All scrunched up,' were the kid's words. Then the baby rolled over on all fours, 'sort of stretched', grew up and up to become an adult, and finally bent over into its present form--into Gell, the old Tirenni in the brig.

When the child started screaming and making a fuss, Gell didn't deny any of it. A crowd of Tirenni gathered and started arguing. They tried to 'persuade' Gell he was mistaken. That was when one of our patrols heard the fracas and escorted Gell away to keep him safe.

Which reminded me--I called main Security and asked Constable Kwon to meet me in the alley with a forensic team to check if we'd missed anything the first time. It was possible, as the patrol had only searched quickly and fruitlessly for signs of the alleged possum.

I couldn't help thinking that if the patrol--and we didn't have many down here--had passed by ten minutes later, the problem might have resolved itself. On the other hand, we'd probably now be investigating an assault or even a murder charge.

A magic show blocked the way. The performers had spread out their emitters and mirrors and other paraphernalia in front of buildings on the main Hill throughway. The equipment was hidden from the audience by suitably mysterious low-resolution light curtains, which also hid the entrance to the alley. I could peer around the field but not step through without breaking it, and even then I probably couldn't clamber over all the junk to get into the alley.

The audience shushed me indignantly when I asked if the show was nearly finished. They were our usual rowdy and cynical Hill crowd, including the young of various species. It was about this time that the Tirenni child had been playing outside the commune. There seemed to be none of his people in this crowd. I saw broad-bodied Garokians, and humans with pinched, dirty faces. Next to me stood a middle-caste Dir trying to keep up his pretence at superiority while his eyes devoured the show, and next to him a white-crested Lykaeat.

Most of them hummed approval. I turned back to the magician and saw that she or he was juggling both real and virtual balls. Must have a holoemitter attached somewhere. She--no, it was he--chose effortlessly between the identical balls as they spun around, catching and sending on the real ones and leaving the holo-balls to move on their pre-programmed arcs. Nice trick.

The audience made varied sounds of applause and a couple of credit coupons thudded onto the small cloth spread on the deck. There were pieces of food on the cloth, too, and a used data crystal. Some of our illegal residents preferred to live by barter--it left no traces in the system.

The magician bowed and ran the real balls down his arm to the floor. He was covered with such a glittery carpet of tattoos, attachments, and garish cloth that it took me a moment to realise that the occasional glimpse of blueish fur underneath it all belonged to a Tirenni.

Constable Kwon cleared his throat beside me. 'I didn't know the Tirenni did tricks.'

The two members of his forensic team shifted uncomfortably on the edge of the audience.

'I think he's nearly finished. You wait and do the alley. I need to see someone at the commune.'

Shhh! said the audience.

Kwon nodded. As I wriggled backwards out of the crowd, I heard him ask his neighbour, 'What's he doing now?'

'Gets into that box.'

'That little box? You're putting me on...'

Kwon's secret in getting on with people wasn't his sweet baby face, as some of my colleagues thought. I'd swear he was genuinely interested.

The Tirenni communes looked deserted. For about fifty metres along one side of the main throughway the buildings presented a grey, closed face to passers-by. In contrast, the shops opposite hummed with conversation and the throughway was full of its usual pedestrian and mechanical traffic.

I plunged down one of two possible entries, a narrow passage that had originally been a gap between two buildings, keeping one hand on my side holster. You never knew, in the Hill. The passage ended in a courtyard partly open to reflector light, buildings all around.

Young Tirenni surrounded me immediately, chattering and tugging at my trousers. Their nakedness reminded me how much I was sweating in my uniform. Older Tirenni looked up from the cooking space in the middle of the courtyard and conferred nervously among themselves. Baskets of food, including cages of possums, were piled around the cooking group and the rest of the yard was covered with junk in various stages of sorting.

As I approached the centre group most of them scurried away toward the house entries. I managed to get in the way of one I knew, a partner of my informant, Dartok, and a member of the clan group to which the child who saw Gell also belonged.

'Greetings, Baba. How's the scrap business?'

He nodded his head and flapped his hands in denial. 'Dartok not here. Come later.'

'I know. I don't want to talk to her yet. I want to ask you something.'

'No talk now. Busy.' He tried to edge around me. He can speak perfectly good Standard when he wants to.

'It's about those possums.' I put a foot in front of him and waved a hand at the cages, which were now being surreptitiously carried from the courtyard, their contents hissing like vented plasma.


'Velloa, then. You know about Gell, don't you?'

The Tirenni scrunched his already wrinkly face into an expression of what looked like distaste, but he didn't comment so I went on.

'If the possums--velloa, are spirit animals...'

'Spirits. Yeno,' he said.

'Yes, yeno. Will that stop your people eating them?' I figured he'd know as much as Dartok. After all, he prepared the meals, she just came home to eat them. And argue with the other females about the religious significance of possums.

The baba raised his eyes briefly to mine, then looked away again. Tirenni males were normally sheltered from contact with outsiders and especially outsider females like myself. I probably should have sent Kwon to talk to him. On the other hand, the Tirenni leaders would laugh in a human male's face and refuse to talk. One reason we have so many of them on Jocasta is because Halley is head of station--they like to see a female at the top.

'Gell no trust. Our young one not with Gell.'

'Why don't you like Gell?' Other Tirenni had voiced the same sentiment.

'Gell outside. Touch outsiders.'

'You mean he works out of the commune? Like that magician?'

The baba flicked his long digits as though brushing off dirt. 'Magician, yes. Gell before magician. No trust.'

'You mean Gell used to do that sort of thing?'

He ignored the question. 'Gell no trust. Velloa good eat,' he added wistfully.

'What will you do with all the poss ... velloa if the councils decide they're yeno?'

He looked confused. Imaginative projection was not a Tirenni male's strong point. They were too busy.

'Velloa not food.' He rolled his eyes at the courtyard. 'Velloa free.'

Great. We'll be the only space station in the sector to be colonised by possums.

Constable Kwon checked in.

'Sasaki here.' I looked for a patch of unoccupied and relatively quiet space but the Hill contained neither. 'Hang on.'

I left the com link open and ducked into the nearest karrikar. The only other occupant was at the other end of the cab--a snoring humanoid bundle of indeterminate species.

'Did you find anything?' The com link on my wrist was conveniently close to both mouth and ear as I strap-hung against the pull of the karrikar's horizontal movement, which combined in a nauseating way with the coriolis effect of the station's rotation. No wonder most of the residents preferred to walk.

'We did a level three sweep of the alley and surroundings,' said Kwon. Level three showed a ten-day decay frame. Three days before the 'incident'.

'Don't tell me--you got readings for half the population.'

'Not that many.' Kwon always left his sense of humour at home. 'We found traces of approximately fifty individuals, some registered as residents.'

'Anybody with form?'

'No, Ma'am. The time discrepancy factor does indicate that Gell didn't enter the alley within that frame.'

'What? You can trace him walking out but not walking in?' This was not the information we wanted. If he'd been there for more than three days, somebody would have noticed. He'd have starved. 'Is there any other access to the alley? A door? A ladder? What about the conduits?'

'No good. There's a ceiling at three metres, no doorways, and the conduit ledge is not large enough to support a humanoid. Besides,' he added glumly, 'We rechecked up where the possum was walking and there's no Tirenni residue.'

'Wonderful.' If Gell walked in as a possum and out as a Tirenni it all made sense.

'Ah ... Sergeant Sasaki? It's just a thought but ... What if we found the possum? Wouldn't that prove Gell hadn't changed?'

I took two deep breaths before answering. 'You want to start searching for one particular possum, last seen seven days ago loose somewhere in the Delta ring?'

'I know it's a long shot, but...'

'Constable, life is not long enough for that one. It's probably been eaten by now. Sasaki out.'

I wished I hadn't asked them to check. We now had hard evidence to support the metamorphosis theory, encourage dissent among the Tirenni, and put station operations in jeopardy. Just what the doctor ordered.

Speaking of doctors, I could use the doctor's report to strengthen our argument. She'd examined Gell and found he was 'a healthy member of his species except for respiratory and vascular degradation concomitant with advanced age.' She found no evidence of cellular change or 'morphic resonance', whatever that was.

The karrikar jerked to a halt.

Gell also smelt like rotting fish and wouldn't use the brig privy because it was designed for humans. He'd lived here since the station started operations two years ago and all the other Tirenni knew him. If he was a possum, why hadn't anyone noticed? After all, it wasn't something you could hide from the family. He'd find it hard to escape being whacked into a stewing pot before he unfolded.

I shook my head, jumped out of the karrikar, and set off to meet Dartok.

Murdoch commed me before I was halfway there.

'Where are you?' he said.

'I'm in Hill West, sir. About to meet my contact.'

'I need your report now. I'm speaking to the Tirenni leaders this afternoon, remember?'

'We haven't turned up much new evidence, sir. I'm hoping to sound out my informant on what line to take with the leaders.'

'What about the kid?' Murdoch's voice boomed in my ear and I adjusted the volume. 'Talk to him again, try a different angle. Maybe I should give it a go.'

'I'm on my way now,' I said quickly. 'Sasaki out.'

I didn't want to have to tell him he wouldn't get anywhere with the Tirenni child because, as a male, he had less natural authority than a lowly human sergeant who happened to be female.

What did I have to give Murdoch? A witness who swore he saw the impossible happen and forensic evidence that supported it. We couldn't question the child too much; we'd lose the goodwill of all the Tirenni. After the original fracas we took him to main Security, nice and friendly, and within minutes twenty or so voluble adult female Tirenni arrived to claim they were immediate family, what were we doing, we couldn't question a child, how dare we impugn their family's truthfulness ... A miracle the boy made a statement at all, let alone a coherent one.

Besides, I didn't have a problem with the child's testimony. He'd told us exactly what he thought he'd seen, and we would have to deal with it.

We had an old Tirenni who didn't deny the impossible. Why? I felt the answer was there, if we dug deep enough. If Gell was hailed as a spirit incarnation he might gain fame and comfort, but if they thought he was lying, it might put him at risk of his life. A gamble on his part. Was he so alone and so desperate for attention that he'd risk it? He wouldn't tell me anything himself. Just taciturn 'yes' and 'no' plus a toothy leer.

The physical evidence was still inconclusive, but not in our favour. We could prove Gell walked out of the alley but not in. Unless he walked in within a few minutes of leaving. In which case the child should have seen him come in. Unless the child was too busy playing ...

I groaned and started again. The possum -- a possum--had obviously been on the conduit ledge. Maybe Gell had been sleeping in the shadows, then jumped up at the same time the possum leapt down, which surprised the boy. Possible, but not likely. Even Tirenni who worked on the throughways, like scrap sellers or the magicians I'd seen this morning never slept outside the communes. Their community was as closed against outsiders as it was divisive within.

I hung around outside the bath house on Hill West until 1400, but no sign of Dartok. Then the sight of people emerging with fresh faces and damp fur/hair got too much for me and I decided to wait inside. Besides, a naked Security officer was less conspicuous than one in uniform, and made everyone less edgy.

In the outer room a clerk entered my credit number and gave me a palm-sized sonic buzzer in return. I stuffed my outer uniform into a locker and my inner clothes into the recycling chute marked 'EarthFleet', took a clean set from the shelf with the same label, and palm-printed the locker so nobody could make off with my uniform, handcom, and sidearm. I would have preferred a retina scan lock but hell, it was the middle of the day-shift and the hardware would be impossible to sell onstation even if someone did manage to steal it.

The inner room was large and filled with steam. I buzzed myself once all over, rotated under a shower, then climbed into the safest pool--plain, scented hot water. No artificial currents, electric shocks, algae, weeds, or simulated eels.

It felt damned good. Almost as good as Uncle Ito's bath in New Tokyo. Mentally I thanked the environmental engineers. I once served for three months on a tiny orbital platform with severe recycling problems and we only had enough water for drinking. By the end of the tour all of us would have sooner parachuted down through the ionosphere rather than spend another minute there.

'You look parboiled.' Dartok stepped into the bath, her fine, blue fuzz flat from the shower. She submerged and leaned back so we could talk without being too obvious.

'I like my possum parboiled,' she said. 'Nice and tender.'

I got out and sat on the edge of the bath.

'I suppose you want to talk about this thing with Gell,' she continued.

'Yes. We have to let him go tonight. How does the community feel about it?'

Dartok snorted under water and fat bubbles plopped open on the surface. 'What does it matter to you? As long as we don't riot.'

'We're always concerned about problems that might upset our residents,' I said primly.

'You wouldn't give a shit if we didn't work the docks.'

Dartok's head disappeared and I waited until she surfaced again. 'How likely is it that disputes will keep you away from work?'

'You're joking. This is potentially the biggest religious issue we've seen in our lifetimes. Everyone wants their say.'

'Can't you talk about it in your off-shifts?'

She stared at me, eyes like shifting white opals. 'You humans have strange priorities. This strikes at the core of our beliefs. It's not some hobby.'

'My apologies. Perhaps if you told me more about those beliefs ... Why are some animals able to metamorphose and not others?'

She snorted and shook her head so that droplets sprayed out in long trails. Two very young humans ran shrieking around the pool, ignoring a shouted reprimand from somewhere in the steam.

'Animals are not spirits. Yeno, the spirits, can change into certain creatures.'

No wonder the baba at the commune had looked confused at my questions.

'Yeno and the creatures into which they can change, iyeni, are not-food,' continued Dartok.

I thought for a moment. 'So you have things divided into food and not-food.'

Dartok sank further into the water. 'Living things, of course.'

'Of course.' I wasn't going to ask how the food creatures were divided. 'So some animals are iyeni and therefore not food.'

'That's right. You and I are iyeni.'

'But not possums.'

'Possums are food, I told you.' And presumably, if the Tirenni limited their diet to the living things that could not contain spirits, they would not inadvertently consume one of their gods.

Dartok submerged for so long that I thought she'd finished the conversation. Then with a plop she surfaced again.

'Can people change into yeno?' I asked hurriedly.

'No. Yeno may manifest themselves as iyeni, not the other way around.'

I slid down into the pool beside her. I felt I was starting to understand. 'So if Gell changed into a possum--into anything--he must be a spirit. Must always have been a spirit, a yeno.'

Dartok's eyes bulged pale through the steam. 'Yes.'

'But, if it's true, he manifested as a possum. Which you've been eating. What happens if you eat a not-food animal knowingly?'

'Great ill-fortune,' she said seriously. 'For that family and all who deal with them. Which means the whole station,' she added.

'Do your people think Gell could be a yeno?'

Dartok's face wrinkled in the same expression of disgust as her mate had used earlier. 'Some of them are looking for an argument,' said Dartok. 'Some of them for enlightenment. But a lot of us aren't keen to give up possum. Especially not if the alternative is human rations.'

'So if we bring you a reasonable explanation, you'll at least consider that it might be a mistake?'

'Some of us might,' she said doubtfully.

'Why is Gell so unpopular?' It had been bothering me.

'He thinks he's above the rules, but he enjoys the benefits of everyone else keeping them.'

'For example?'

'Well, he does stunts--or used to--outside the commune. Doesn't do any cooking or cleaning, right? Then he expects to come back and eat with the rest of us.'

'That's what you do.'

She splashed me. 'I put resources back into the commune. Gell kept whatever he got for himself.'

'Why won't he talk about the possum?'

'I don't know. If he's a bad spirit, he may be trying to upset the balance of things.'

I groaned inwardly. 'How many sorts of spirits are there?'

She shrugged under the water, her shoulders peeping out briefly. 'Good and bad, maybe some neutral. Some people think iyeni are only neutral yeno. If he's a bad spirit, he will try to sow discord among us.'

That sounded about right.

'If he is a true spirit, he is trying to show us a new way. We must remove possum from our food.'

Her head disappeared under the water and the interview was over.

The bath and Dartok's talk of food and not-food left me hungry. On my way to meet Chief Murdoch I stopped off at my usual Garokian dumpling vendor and leaned against a solid piece of wall to eat them.

'They're good cooks, aren't they?' said Commander Halley's familiar voice in my ear. I swallowed the dumpling too quickly and it burned all the way down.

'I often drop in here on my way up to Alpha.' She leaned against the wall beside me and licked her fingers, a small, slim woman in dark red Engineering Corps overalls.

I looked around immediately, noting escape routes, searching for suspicious loiterers or for anyone paying us too much attention. The idea of the head of station down here without protection made me nervous.

'You really shouldn't be down here alone, Ma'am.' I re-wrapped my other dumplings and shoved them in my pocket for later.

'I live down here, Sergeant,' she reminded me.

Maybe she was right--tight security is a sure way to attract attention. And Hill West was the safest part of Delta. At present she made few public appearances in person or onscreen.

'Anyway,' she added mischievously. 'I thought your people always patrolled in pairs.'

Before I could stop myself, I'd blurted out the whole story. She listened without saying a word.

'What will you do,' she said when I'd run out of steam, 'if you can't prove this boy is wrong?'

'Try and prove Gell is trying to dupe them all?' It sounded silly when I said it aloud.

'Hmm. One problem is how Gell got into the alley in the first place.'


'Is there no other way but the front entry?'

'Not as far as I can see.'

'Will the others believe he lied to them? Is he popular?'

'He seems to be universally loathed.'

'Then half your battle's won. Nothing easier than persuading people to believe something they want to already.' She focused that quick, intense gaze on the distance for a moment. When I first glanced at her, I'd thought she looked tired; now I didn't notice. Not for the first time, I wondered where she got the energy to focus with such commitment.

'There are maintenance shafts along the outer wall in that section,' she said finally.

'But no outlets in the alley.'

'Is Gell a big Tirenni?'

'No, bent over almost double, but...'

Halley's comlink beeped. She tapped the autoreply. 'They want me back. Maybe the K'Cher had a change of heart,' she said dryly, and started to walk away, then stopped. 'Have you seen the magic show on Hill South?' she added over her shoulder. 'They're good.' Then she slipped away into the crowd.

My own comlink beeped.

'Murdoch here. Where's your report, Sergeant? I'm seeing the Tirenni at 1500.'

I pointed out to him that we had three alternatives. The first, was to show Gell was lying. The other Tirenni would then punish him, and I didn't think he would survive it. They would stay at work, though. The one problem was that we couldn't prove he was lying.

The second option was to admit that Gell had indeed changed into a possum, but that he was a bad spirit, intent upon dividing the community. They wouldn't harm him then, because he was a spirit, but they wouldn't stop eating possum, either, or working the docks. Trouble was, I didn't have an idea how we could prove he was a bad spirit, other than citing his unpleasant personality.

The third idea was to do nothing and risk the Tirenni believing Gell was a good spirit who was trying to tell them that their old ways were wrong, and that they should honour him and start a new, possum-less existence. This meant a lot of messy possum-chasing and the possibility that the Tirenni might change their work schedules completely.

'Dammit, don't we have any objective evidence in our favour?' Murdoch sounded frustrated.

'No, sir. But I'm following up a possible lead. I'll be with you by 14:30.'

'You're cutting it a bit fine.'

'Yes, sir. Sasaki out.'

Normally I wouldn't deactivate the link with a senior officer like that, but Halley's last words had touched off a peculiar train of thought and I wanted to be alone with it.

I had seen the magic show on Hill South many times. They were indeed very good, better than the one I'd seen that morning. The show included someone who ate flames and regurgitated knives, card tricks under water, and a Tirenni who juggled hot fry pans and curled up in a tiny box.

Gell used to be a magician. That was why the boy's baba didn't want anything to do with him.

I started walking.

Maybe Gell could curl up in a tiny space, too. A tiny space like a conduit alcove.

This time I didn't notice the damp and gloom in the alley. The table I'd borrowed from a nearby stall creaked as I stood on tiptoe to shine my wristlight into the dark hole where the conduit disappeared into the wall.

The buildings stood flush against the main station wall, which formed the end of the alley, and the conduit ran along the back of the alley then disappeared into the building walls on both sides. Could Gell have accessed the alcove from a maintenance shaft hidden within one of the buildings? If he had been up here, cellular residue should confirm it. Kwon said they did a sweep where the possum walked, not inside the alcove, where an adult humanoid could not be expected to fit. My standard-issue minicom could not be set for a particular individual's DNA, nor could it provide a time frame, but at least it would tell me if a Tirenni had been inside the alcove.

As the light touched the far corners of the hole my hypothesis looked better and better. The builders had cut quite a large gap around the conduit, and the conduit itself seemed to veer back a little, so there was enough space there to fit a pre-adolescent human child. Gell might have been up here when the possum ran in and disturbed him. He tried to get out in a panic and fell.

After being scrunched up in such a small space, he must have taken a while to unfold his limbs. He would have looked quite small. Small enough to make the boy imagine a baby.

I pictured Gell, disgruntled and irritable, hoping to get away from the nagging and sideways stares of the commune. Then when the boy made a fuss, he stayed quiet and hoped to be treated with the honour befitting a spirit. He probably enjoyed the fuss, too, the debates and the fighting. It fitted what we knew of him.

The table creaked again and nearly tipped over as I reached up to scan the space. Then it steadied. I had to support myself with my free hand and so could not shine the wrist light on the minicom's readings yet. Two, three sweeps should do it. When I turned back, I saw why the table was steady--Chief Murdoch leaned his considerable weight on it. He was looking around the alley and frowning. Another security guard stood at the entrance.

I jumped down.

'I hope that report's ready, Sergeant,' said Murdoch.

I told him my magician theory, not forgetting to mention from whom it originally came, and he nodded approval. 'Sounds good. Fits the facts. Fits what we know of this bloke, too. We'll put it to the community.'

'Oh, no...' I frowned at the minicom and waved it in despair.


'There's no Tirenni residue. Possum, yes, and a few other pests, but no Tirenni. He couldn't have been in there.'

'Ah.' Murdoch stood, peered up into the hole, then stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt, fingers drumming a tattoo on it. 'He doesn't have to have been up there, does he? Providing the kid thinks he saw him fall.'


'What if he had a holoemitter? You know, one of those little things they use in magic shows. He could have used it to camouflage his own entry and fake a possum falling off the conduit. Then walked out.'

That was a great idea, and its beauty was that nobody could prove he hadn't used a holo. Except that...'Why would Gell go to all that trouble in front of a single witness?'

Murdoch shrugged. 'Could have been a rehearsal. Or he could have been worried that a crowd of adults might see through the hoax. Everyone would believe a kid.'

I certainly did.

'I reckon we put it to them. Sounds perfectly logical to me. After all, the alternative is admitting this bloke used to be a possum.'

I thought about it for a moment. 'Sir, I don't like the idea of what will happen to Gell if they believe it was a hoax. And what about the child, thinking he saw something that wasn't there? May I try a different tack? If it doesn't work, I'll be the one who loses face.'

He looked sceptical, yielded with such good grace that I felt guilty for thinking he might mind.

'What I mean,' I said to Dartok and half a dozen of her cronies for the third time, 'Is that if Gell was a good yeno, surely he wouldn't risk disrupting all our lives just to suggest a change of diet. Isn't it more likely your traditions are correct, and Gell is a bad yeno trying to tempt you from them?'

Several of them shook their heads in approval, but Dartok wasn't convinced.

'You never know with yeno,' she said. 'Sometimes they do things that seem unlikely at the time, and only make sense later on.'

'If he is a good yeno, he'll try again, right?' More of them approved of this idea and I pushed it. 'So if he changes again, you can easily give up possum. We've got lots of substitutes here on the station. Think of the variety human food has to offer.'

Every single blue nose wrinkled with distaste.

'Why don't you ask Gell? He might have a different explanation.' said Murdoch beside me. The Tirenni ignored him and I cringed inwardly. These females were tough. Their one weakness was ...

'You've forgotten one possible result of Gell's actions.' I put as much authority into my voice as I could, producing a passable imitation of Commander Halley. 'Something a good yeno would never do.'

They looked at me.

'The child.' I let scorn tinge the authority. 'Gell might have scared the boy half to death by changing in front of him like that. Not to mention how the poor child would have felt if nobody believed him. Only a bad yeno could be so inconsiderate of a child of the Tirenni, surely.'

I felt the wave of belief touch them all. As they gathered together and began talking, I let myself smile smugly at Murdoch. He grinned back.

'Well done, Sergeant.'

'Thank you, sir.'

He lowered his voice and beckoned me to stand with my back to the now-shouting and gesturing Tirenni.

'What do you think the old bloke is, really?'

'Clever. He's found a way to be kept comfortable and left alone for the rest of his life.'

'But you agree my holo theory is what happened.'

I laughed as convincingly as I could. 'Absolutely, sir. I just felt it would be easier to resolve the issue if we acknowledged the religious angle. People like to know Security understands these things.'

Murdoch blew out his breath in relief. 'Glad to hear it. For a minute there, you had me worried. I mean, it's impossible to change into something else.'

'That's right, sir.' I smiled reassuringly.

The holo theory would provide useful backup. Before we let Gell out, I wanted a sharp word in his ear. Just in case he decided to do any more changing.

© Maxine McArthur 2000, 2005.
This story first appeared in Nor of Human (edited by Geoffrey Maloney, CSFG Publishing, 2000).
Time Future by Maxine McArthur Time Past by Maxine McArthurLess Than Human by Maxine McArthur
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