Life and Death on the Edge of Unreason

During my time as a roving investigator for the Authority, I visited more than a few places that were, frankly, a little extreme. I also met more than a few people who fit that tag. The observation platform Edge of Unreason had the singular distinction of providing both.

To be fair to my arbitrary masters, I wasn’t really supposed to be there. As so often happened, I was the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time (from my point of view), so when the Authority’s collective interest was piqued by an incident aboard the station, I was drafted from the vacation I was on and dispatched post haste.

Despite being rudely dragged away from the first rest I’d had in two years of roaming the systems under the Authority’s purview, I appreciated the view I had on my way to the platform. As the Hardbitten, the ship that had been commandeered for my convenience, completed its braking cycle and began to manoeuvre towards the Edge of Unreason, it turned and gave me a view of Unreason, the central star of the system and the main reason for the platform’s existence.

As a Psendat, a psychic investigator, I’m not used to merely physical objects matching the awe-inspiringly intricate dance of thoughts and emotions. This was different. At such close quarters, Unreason took up a solid third of the available sky, yet its boiling surface was dim enough to look at with minimal filtering. It was an angry red supergiant throbbing with power it hadn’t decided what to do with yet.

Of course, Empyrean scientists had long ago figured out exactly what it was going to do with all that power. It was the question of when it was going to do it that they hadn’t yet figured out an answer to. Hence the Edge of Unreason maintained its lonely orbit just outside the clutches of the roaring inferno, a massively shielded but cramped installation bolted onto the side of a small planetoid that was slowly getting the mother of all sunburns.

I spent a good deal of time watching the star and its convulsions as we rendezvoused with the platform. At the time, all I knew was that I was here because Authority command had a hunch that I ought to be. Or rather that one of the dataserpents deep within their systems had burped and caused someone to look twice at an otherwise innocuous piece of data. There was still a better than even chance that I was here on a wild goose chase, but one didn’t ignore the dataserpents when they started acting funny.

The Hardbitten finished its docking manoeuvres and touched down on beside the Edge of Unreason‘s launchpad. It was a particularly fine piece of work, given that the ship was tethered to its oversize cargo – a heavily shielded shuttle—and I told the captain so, but she waved off the compliment. “We’ve got our work to do and you’ve got yours, Stark. You get inside that station and make sure this doesn’t happen again. I don’t want to have to make this trip twice.” She seemed blasé, but I caught a flicker of amusement and interest at the edge of her feelings and speculated that maybe my efforts to get into her good books (and her sleeping quarters) might pay off over the return journey.

However, before that could happen, I had a job to do. A transit tube had extended from the platform to the Hardbitten‘s flank, so I didn’t have to EVA across, and when I made my entrance, it was in the full Authority uniform of a black jumpsuit with two silver symbols on my breast. The first was the cross-and-broken-circle of the Authority itself and the second—well, I always like to see the look on people’s faces when they see it for the first time.

The person who greeted me was Moses Halambie, a short man with dusky skin and a broad, welcoming grin that only faltered a little when he looked me over and saw the trident beneath the Authority symbol. “Welcome to the Edge of Unreason, ah . . . Psendat Stark.”

“Thank you, director,” I replied. His expression had given away a little of his inner emotions, and I could see the rest. Most people tend to have interesting reactions to being confronted by a psychic. I watched the emotions flowing off Halambie and noted the slight blip of uncertainty overridden by a genuine warmth and openness. Despite my generally cynical nature, I pegged him as someone who was genuinely affable. The sort who thought the best of everyone. An unlikely suspect to whatever I was here for, in other words. “You know why I’m here, of course.”

“Of course. Chief Scientist Haggar’s death. Such an unfortunate accident.”

“You’re certain that it was an accident, then?”

He didn’t so much as blink. “Of course. This is very dangerous work we do here, Psendat Stark.”

“Jonah, please.”

“Jonah. What happened was a terrible accident, but it was far from unforeseen. I appreciate that Authority command want to investigate the circumstances, but I fear you’ve been sent on a wild goose chase.”

That was the kind of remark that usually raised my suspicions, and I downgraded my opinion of Halambie by just a little bit. “I’m afraid I’ll have to be the judge of that. Now tell me about the work you do here.”

I’d read a fair bit about the Edge of Unreason on the journey there, of course, but I wanted more time to observe Halambie and to see if he let anything slip. So while we walked towards the central control station of the platform, he talked and I watched the waves of feeling that poured off him.

“Of course, you know that Unreason is the main threat to life in the Empyrean worlds. We’re less than 50 light years from the Chimeric Cluster and a mere 85 from Empyrion Primus itself. When Unreason goes supernova, the clock will begin ticking on all our efforts to survive that event. Our job is to give the home systems as much warning as possible. To tell them whether Unreason‘s death is due in a thousand years or a thousand days. We have a dedicated Terboch Relay here, so our findings are beamed straight to Empyrion Primus itself, with no delays.”

He didn’t seem too perturbed by the story he was telling, as if living on the doorstep of the universe’s biggest bomb was an everyday experience for him. Which, on reflection, I supposed that it was. “And there are only three of you here?”

He nodded. “Well, two now, of course, after Haggar’s death. Stephens is in the control centre and you’ll meet him in a few moments. We’ve been twice as busy since the incident, even though the loss of the shuttle has cost us some of our most important measurements.”

“And your chief scientist as well?”

“Well, yes, of course, but to be frank Jonah, Empyrean has an abundance of scientists. What it has only one of is a research station on the edge of an incipient supernova. I fully appreciate why you were sent here—we can’t afford to suffer interruptions to our work. Any one of them could be fatal to our efforts here.”

The dismissal of his companion’s death struck me as more than a little odd, and for once I allowed someone else to read me. He paused in his trek and turned to me. “Don’t get me wrong – I was very fond of Haggar. He was a competent scientist and good fun for the most part. But we all came here because we believe the work is more important than anything else. The risk of death here is real and constant, so we tend to focus on other things – perhaps a little to excess.”

I could have accepted that, if it weren’t for one inconvenient fact: Haggar’s death was the first of any scientist serving on the Edge of Unreason. Everything on board was over-engineered to a ridiculous degree, and until the recent incident, that had paid off with a lack of casualties. No matter how dedicated Halambie might be to the notion of scientific research, the death should have caused some sort of reaction.

*****

My train of thought was turned a little askew when we reached the control centre of the platform. A thirty-foot transparent dome topped the room, which was at that moment directly beneath the light of Unreason. Once again, the sight of it took my breath away. I’d spent years travelling among the stars for a living, and I’d started to take them for granted. That’s wasn’t something I could do with Unreason. I don’t know what level of filtering the dome employed, but the great red sun was still overwhelming. I had the direct and disturbing feeling that I was falling into it, even as I stood there watching it.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” The voice was bone-dry and the speaker more than matched it when I tore my eyes away from the sun to look at him. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast between Halambie and Stephens if they’d been designed for that purpose. Where one was dark, sturdy and jovial, the other was pale, pinched and humourless. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who was quite so internal. Only the barest flickers of emotion appeared in his aura, making it almost impossible to get a read on him. I began to think that this was not going to be an easy job.

He looked me up and down and pursed his lips. “A Psendat,” he remarked. “Does the Concordat really think that necessary? Are we going to have to submit to your mindprobes?” It was the usual kind of anti-psychic screed, but delivered without any malice or venom. Stephens seemed no more than disappointed by this turn of events.

“On the contrary, I’m here purely in an investigative function,” I said. “I was simply the closest available operative at the time of the incident. I’ll have to get positive authorization from Empyrion Primus for an interrogation, and that would only be in the most pressing need. If I determine that this was merely an unfortunate accident, then I’ll have no reason to do so.”

It was a statement designed to elicit some form of reaction in those listening – either a flush of guilt or hope, but neither Stephens nor Halambie gave any overt reaction. Which was understandable. Both were Authority operatives like me, albeit scientists rather than investigators, and they knew all about psychic tests and the restrictions placed thereon.

Stephens waved a hand dismissively. “Our Terboch Relay is functioning perfectly. You can have your authorization from Primus in a matter of moments if you want it.”

I smiled in what I hoped was a disarming manner, though I had little hope for any appreciation of it from this crowd. “Well, let’s hope it won’t come to that. Captain Monroe is supervising the installation of the replacement shuttle as we speak. In the meantime, why don’t we talk about the incident and you give me your opinions on what happened?”

“It’s quite simple what happened – Haggar was a careless idiot and it got him killed.” Stephens spoke without venom, even as his words damned his former colleague. Once again, his emotions didn’t so much as flicker.

“Now, I don’t think that’s quite-”

I cut off Halambie with a raised hand. “Do you have any proof of this, Dr. Stephens?”

He gave me a withering glance. “Of course not. The shuttle was destroyed when he was killed and consumed by the star. There’s nothing left of it now.”

“So what makes you think that Haggar was responsible for his own death?”

“He was a careless fool. Been too long out here – he named the station in the first place, and the star. It was originally just 11350-87/B. I’ve submitted numerous complaints about his behaviour, none of which anyone seems to have listened to.” At last I caught a hint of something on the edge of his demeanour. Just a glimpse of the frustration that he was alluding to.

“Dr. Halambie? Do you concur with this assessment?”

Halambie looked uncomfortable with being put on the spot. “Well, Haggar could be somewhat . . . imaginative-”

“Try erratic.”

“But he was still a damned good scientist. He never took chances with regard to his own safety.”

Stephens shook his head in frustration. “He was always careful with other people’s safety. That doesn’t cover the shuttle missions.”

“Why don’t you tell me about those?” I directed the question to Stephens. Halambie seemed somewhat concerned with protecting Haggar’s reputation, and that wasn’t something that mattered in the slightest to me. Stephens, I had a feeling, would give me a straight answer, whether he thought I would like it or not.

“The shuttle missions are an important element of our job here, and undoubtedly the most dangerous. This base is shielded to the full extent that Empyrean’s technology can provide. It’s as close as we can comfortably get to the star, and it allows us a fine-grained look at what’s going on inside Unreason. But the sheer amount of radiation that Unreason pumps out limits the observations we can make from here. That’s where Cinder comes in.”

“Cinder being the planetary remnant,” supplied Halambie, earning him a sharp look from Stephens.

“Indeed. I’m going to assume you’ve read some kind of briefing on this station, Mr. Stark, so I’ll skim over the basics. The massive expansion of Unreason means that its upper layers are extremely diffuse. Cinder orbits within the coronasphere but above the level at which the fusion reactions are occurring. By our best estimate, Unreason wiped it clean of all life—and most of its geographical features—around three million years ago. What’s left is a rocky lump that’s largely silicon and iron. It was only blind luck that the survey mission even spotted it was there.”

I smiled at the sour look on Stephens’ face. “And Empyrean being Empyrean, our people couldn’t know it was there and not want to do something with it?” There are times when I’m very proud to have been born where I was, in a realm where the impossible is a time-limited concept.

“Exactly. Cinder provides a perfect base from which to inspect the internal functioning of Unreason. However, there are numerous catches. Firstly, if Edge of Unreason is close to the limit of Empyrean technology, Cinder sits some way beyond it. The slightest error in the construction or operation of any device used there would result in its destruction. Secondly, the magnetosphere of the star is terminal to all forms of etheric communication, even those of a Terboch Relay. Gaining the information we need from Cinder requires a physical download.”

“Hence the need for the shuttle and hence Haggar’s death. Tell me about that.”

Halambie looked like he wanted to say something, but Stephens was quicker off the mark. “There’s little to say. Haggar took the last shuttle—which he had named Hope Beyond Reason—into the coronasphere around ten standard days ago. So far as we can tell from our readings, he never reached Cinder. The shuttle lost integrity on the way down and was consumed in the star.”

“And it’s your contention that some act of carelessness on Haggar’s part was responsible for this?”

Once again, Halambie started to speak and once again, Stephens cut him off. “I don’t see any other explanation. Haggar had been here too long, and he was never particularly reliable in the first place. The shuttle runs were almost fully automated, but it would only take a momentary slip of some kind to bring disaster. They require total concentration, Mr. Stark.”

I didn’t feel like telling Stephens to call me Jonah. From someone like him, a little bit of respect can be gratifying. “I take it you don’t concur with this assessment, Dr. Halambie.”

Halambie shook his head. “There’s no need to ascribe to error what was almost certainly misadventure. As Dr. Stephens has pointed out, the Cinder element of our mission here exceeds what Empyrean technology can be expected to do. Fluctuations in the coronasphere or an unexpected mass ejection-”

“None of which happened on the day in question!” Once again, Stephens let loose with a little of his internal frustration.

“Our readings on Unreason’s internal activity are incomplete—you know that. There could have been any number of reasons for the failure.”

“They aren’t all that incomplete, Moses. Cinder is close enough that we can tell what’s happening around it. Face facts—the shuttle should have been in no danger. What happened was almost certainly Haggar’s fault!”

“You can’t claim that simply because you didn’t like the man! He’d been here longer than either of us without a single fatality. I don’t understand why you’re so insistent-”

I raised my hands. “I’ve taken up enough of your time, gentlemen. I’m going to let you go back to your work now. I’ll need access to Haggar’s workplace and quarters. I assume there’s a terminal in there.”

Halambie stared at Stephens for a few more moments—the obvious ill-feeling between them made it clear that I’d be recommending a personnel change at the very least. Finally, he shook his head and turned away. “I’ll show you where it is.” For the first time since I’d met him, his face showed some of the impact of where he lived. He looked tired and beaten.

*****

Haggar’s quarters were nearby. Edge of Unreason was a small platform, and most of its bulk was dedicated to the systems that alternately kept it functioning in such a hostile environment and scanned the pulsating supergiant in as much detail as possible. Actual living space was at a premium. I wondered for a moment exactly what the base on Cinder was like and then realised that there was probably no space at all down there. The heavily shielded shuttle probably just landed, downloaded all the gathered data, and then took off again for somewhere marginally more hospitable.

From the moment I’d first read about it, I’d wondered what it would be like to descend into the outer layers of a star and land on a planet three million years dead. The lure of seeing what was out there was part of what had led me to my current job, and this was a chance that I was unlikely to get anywhere else. Sadly, I was neither that young nor that crazy. I had a job to do here, and it was unlikely that sundiving was going to get me the information I wanted.

For all that Haggar had been the chief scientist aboard the Edge of Unreason, his quarters weren’t much larger than a shoebox. A bed, a chair and a desk, each of which folded away to make room for the others, were all the furniture it had. I settled myself on the foldout chair and began to work.

This was, sad to say, the way most matters were handled when working for the Authority. I’d had my share of excitement over the years, but when it came down to it, those above me liked their evidence, preferably in copious amounts. The dataserpents of Empyrean’s systems could handle any amount of linked input and hand it back to you in relatively organised form, so there was really no such thing as too much information. As the station had a Terboch Relay, it was linked in real-time to Empyrean’s systems, so all I had to do was gather what I could and come to a conclusion.

Which brought me to the part of the job I have no real taste for—the part where I sit down and go over what I know, then add to it whatever evidence I can dig up. Fortunately for my poorly developed patience, there wasn’t a great deal of the former. Talking to Halambie and Stephens had been a washout, for different reasons in each case. Halambie seemed well-balanced and not the sort to hold grudges, and he didn’t let so much as a hint of ill-feeling towards anyone other than Stephens leak out during the time I was watching him. Then again, I’d come across mass murderers who seemed just as well-balanced on the outside. As for Stephens, he was wound up so tight he was fit to burst, but given where he was working, I could hardly blame him. I could feel the presence of Unreason hanging over me, even though I was shielded by who knew how much concrete, steel and arcane Empyrean technology. His overt antagonism toward Haggar was another notch in his favour as prime suspect, but it was hardly conclusive proof.

Then again, I didn’t have any proof at all that anything untoward had happened. For all I knew, Haggar’s death might have been just one of those things. A failure of the systems that had kept him and his crew safe for years beforehand. Some unknown eruption from inside Unreason that had destroyed him and the ship, taking with them both every clue as to whether something deliberate might have been done to see that they ended that way. There was no proof of foul play, but I’m wired to suspect it anyhow, so suspect it I did and went straight ahead and looked for it.

The systems I had at my immediate disposal didn’t offer all of the facilities of an honest-to-goodness dataserpent, but they had their uses. Once I’d defined a few parameters, they started to arrange the documentation and data into a form that I could take in at a glance. The first glance revealed to me Stephens’ litany of complaints against Haggar, so I looked at those while the systems went on collating everything else. They offered up a good picture of Stephens and Haggar and their dysfunctional relationship. Stephens’ complaints against Haggar started out tetchy and grew increasingly voluble and erratic as he realised that no one was paying him much attention. A few mentions of protocol breaches here and there gave ways to tirades listing every minor infraction that Haggar had committed within his sight or elsewhere.

Not that Haggar himself seemed blameless. Some of the things Stephens was complaining about – especially those that bore no relation to safety on the platform – seemed to have been aimed directly at irritating him. Haggar, from what I could tell, was not the sort to tolerate boredom without some kind of outlet, whereas Stephens was dedicated to order and due care and couldn’t tolerate even a little bit of waywardness. What had been a minor conflict of personalities had spiralled out of control between the two of them. Both had been dedicated to the mission they were on, but with Haggar using Stephens as a means of assuaging his boredom, the latter was left with nowhere to go.

What of the third member of this crew? I dug a little into Halambie’s background and found that he’d been selected for this mission above a large number of more experienced scientists, precisely because of the flat, unflappable nature of his character. A preliminary psychiatric evaluation of Stephens and Haggar had indicated a likelihood of the two of them conflicting in close quarters during this stressful mission. Halambie had been chosen to act as a mediator, to calm any troubles before they began. Yet that hadn’t happened, the conflict had escalated, and I couldn’t help but wonder why.

With a clearer picture of the personalities involved, I moved on to the events that had preceded the fatal mission to Cinder. To avoid stagnation, the crew on the Edge of Unreason practiced regular task rotation, meaning that while it was Haggar’s turn to go down beneath Unreason’s seething surface, Stephens was responsible for the prepping the mission and Halambie was dealing with communications and writing up abstracts of the mission’s latest findings. This kind of rotation was the sort of thing the Authority favoured—it stopped anyone getting stuck in a rut. Flexible thinking was something the Authority prized above all else.

Except there were anomalies here. Of his last six scheduled descents to Cinder, Halambie had embarked on only one. Haggar had taken four of the remainder and Stephens the other. Not that I could blame Halambie for not wanting to fly into a nuclear furnace, but it mixed up the picture somewhat. Worse, Haggar had completely avoided his turns at writing up reports. Halambie had taken almost all of the remainder, Stephens just one. It looked like Haggar wasn’t the sort to sit down and prepare a report for anyone when he could be sundiving instead. In comparison, Stephens looked completely diligent: he stuck to his duties in all but a small number of cases, taking the odd one here or there when the others wanted out of their particular bane.

So I had a picture in front of me. Stephens and Haggar had rubbed each other up the wrong way to an increasing degree, and Halambie had been ineffective as a peacemaker. Strike one for Stephens. Stephens had been on prep duty for the mission that had led to Haggar’s death, whereas Halambie had been writing up his reports. Strike two for Stephens. But was there any more than that? I needed something better than motive and opportunity. I needed context and lots of it, because the more I looked at the records in front of me, the smaller my chances of finding any actual evidence seemed to get.

I was bone tired by the time I finished looking through the records, bolstering the picture in my mind, and for a few moments I considered sleeping on it. That thought was dropped as soon as it came up. If I was right, I was on the platform with a killer and one who had a direct interest in seeing me dead, considering I was investigating him. So I pulled myself away from the foldout table and hit an intercom button on my wrist terminal. “I’ll be in the control centre in five minutes, gentlemen. I need you both there.”

*****

Authority agents, even roving investigators like myself, do not often go armed. There are times when I regret that, and even with the risk of something catastrophic going wrong, I felt like I needed a firearm when I headed down to confront the two scientists. The proximity of Unreason was getting to me, I decided. Neither of them was likely to be a threat, and the fact that a check of the platform’s manifest had revealed a complete absence of weaponry stopped me from calling to the cargo ship for backup.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of tension in the command centre when I got there. I hadn’t hurried, and for all I knew, Stephens and Halambie had already been there when I summoned them, but that was all to the good. A little bit of tension and irritation might just shake loose something I could use. I had little enough to go on at this stage. Halambie regarded me quietly as I entered, placid as ever. Stephens looked at me with what might have been a glare if he’d considered me worth the effort. Superficially, nothing had changed with either of them, but I could tell from the flickering of their emotions that they were on edge, Stephens much more so than Halambie.

“Finished your work already?” said Stephens.

“I have indeed. It was fairly straightforward in the end. Not exactly a waste of my time, but not the most profitable way to spend it either.” Avoiding telling people what they want to know is a trick I’d been using for years. Nothing drives a scientist around the bend faster than someone being evasive.

“So what conclusion have you come to?” Halambie still seemed placid enough.

“That Haggar’s death was no accident. That the loss of the shuttle—and him with it—was the result of deliberate sabotage.”

Stephens snorted. “I already informed you, Stark, that Haggar’s carelessness was to blame for the matter. I think you’ve mistaken that for something more sinister.”

I just smiled. Stephens’ emotions had barely wavered—an advantage of an innate belief in one’s superiority—but that was an shield I planned to crack. “Interesting that you should say so, Dr. Stephens. After all, you were the one who was responsible for checking the shuttle’s maintenance prior to the fatal mission.”

“And everything was precisely in order,” Stephens retorted, not budging an inch. “Check my report. You’ll see that no cause of what happened could be attributed to my work.”

“Oh, I’ve read your report,” I told him. “Along with the others you submitted for the previous maintenance cycles. After all, the management of the shuttle missions has been entirely in your hands for some time now, hasn’t it?”

Stephens stiffened a little, and just the slightest chink showed in that superior armour. “That’s irrelevant. The maintenance of the shuttle was as good on the day of the accident as it was throughout the four previous missions.”

“Still a breach of protocol, though,” I said. “One which you of all people should have recognised. I’ve read your complaints about Haggar. All of them. They all harp on about protocol and the way he flouted it. Yet this is one instance that never bothered you. Why might that be? You saw an opportunity, didn’t you? After all, when the shuttle dives into Unreason, it loses contact with this base. Goes out of touch and nothing that happens onboard is recorded here until it returns. If the shuttle is lost, what evidence would there be that anything untoward happened at all? You had weeks to work on the shuttle and make sure that whatever happened was undetectable.”

Stephens’ look would have chilled me to the bone if he’d had the ability, but underneath it, I could tell he was starting to bubble. “You’re basing this story on nothing but conjecture. You admit that you have no proof, yet you throw these accusations at me? That’s a quick ticket out of the Authority, you know.”

I can seem a lot more dangerous than I am when I want. It’s a perk of being a Psendat. You don’t just read people, you can also do a bit of writing. Send out the sort of vibes that sets cats hissing and arching their backs. I did it now, as I laid matters down in front of Stephens. “I have opportunity and I have motive. You hated him, didn’t you? He was everything that you despised wrapped up in one person, and it was all the worse for you because he was good at what he did and he was your superior. I’ve read those reports. He spent a fair amount of effort winding you up, true, but you did your bit. God knows what living here does to your brain, but it’s made you into a murderer.”

Stephens looked as though he might well murder me too. “You . . . have . . . no . . . proof,” he said between gritted teeth, but peeking out of him I could see the dusky purple of exultation and the red-amber of rage.

“I do now,” I told him quietly. That was a bit of a stretch – the word of a Psendat would be enough to kick off an investigation but not to condemn a man. I wasn’t sure that Stephens knew that though.

“Damned psychics,” he snarled. Evidently he didn’t. “Haggar had it coming and more than coming. He was a walking hazard and sooner or later he was going to get himself killed. At least this way, he didn’t take any of the rest of us with him.”

I nodded, glad I’d been proved right. I hadn’t been 100 percent certain, after all. Over to my left, Halambie was looking at his colleague in a fug of what I considered somewhat muted astonishment. “Do you have anything else you want to say?”

Stephens stepped toward me, one finger raised and pointing at my face. “Just this: this is the most important job there is, anywhere. Billions of lives depend on us doing what we have to do and doing it without error. One mistake and Empyrean loses its early warning system. We can’t afford to take those kind of chances. We can’t afford a fool like Haggar in charge of this place!”

“No doctor. What we can’t afford are the people in charge of this place killing one another when they should be working together at this ‘most important’ job.”

He held my gaze for a few moments, but that outburst had drained him. He turned back to the room, glanced at the unresponsive Halambie and then looked up at the great red bulk of Unreason. “I was good at this job,” he said. “I knew it was important, knew I could contribute something worthwhile. That seemed like enough to me.”

He stared upwards for a few moments more and then suddenly, as though a dam inside him had burst, great waves of raw regret poured out, the tension in him unravelling all at once. Physically, the only sign he gave was that his shoulders slumped a little. I couldn’t help feeling just a little sorry for him, murderer though he was. He sat down at a console and remained there, staring at the readouts that had been his life until I’d taken it away from him.

*****

After that, things proceeded quietly. I left Stephens where he was until the Hardbitten’s captain could send over someone to escort him to the ship and place him in custody. I didn’t think he’d be trouble—something inside him seemed to have broken, now that he’d been found out—but I hung around until he’d been taken away. After that, I went through his quarters, checking to see if there was anything I might have missed. There wasn’t. Stephens hadn’t been foolish enough to leave evidence lying around, and if it hadn’t been for my hunches and those of the dataserpents, he probably would have gotten away with it.

Halambie seemed a little worried by the fact that he was going to have to run the entire station on his own, but not to a degree where I was worried for his safety. As usual, even the worst of news caused nothing more than a ripple in his placid demeanour: he merely accepted it and moved on. That was starting to get on my nerves. Still, the platform was capable of running itself to a large degree, and while his sleep-cycles might be a little disrupted, I didn’t think he’d have too many problems lasting until the replacements for Haggar and Stephens arrived.

“I’ll probably have to forgo any shuttle missions until there are more personnel here,” he said as he walked me back to the airlock. “Doesn’t make sense to take too many chances, and there’s enough redundancy that we won’t lose any data if we miss one or two drops.”

“Besides which, you’re not too fond of dropping into a red supergiant, are you?” I said it with a smile, but it was a serious question. I was determined to find something that unsettled him.

He shook his head. “Actually, I don’t have any problem with that. It was Haggar who hated doing paperwork and record-keeping, so he persuaded me to swap with him whenever I could. It’s not the most fun experience in the world, but with the exception of Haggar’s loss, it’s as safe as being here on the platform.”

Once again, he’d barely flickered in his emotions, and I wondered at the sort of man who could describe dropping into a star as “not the most fun”. With an experience as extreme as that, a noncommittal response seemed half-mad. Even though I couldn’t see Unreason any more, I felt the pull of that shuttle and wondered whether I would ever get the chance to do something like that myself. One of those experiences that even space offers very few of.

“I still can’t believe that Stephens did what he did,” he said as we reached the airlock. “I know he and Haggar were at odds sometimes, but not to that degree.”

That comment provided me with the last little piece of the puzzle that was Halambie. I turned and faced him, leaving the airlock control panel untouched. “At odds? They hated each other, doctor. It took a special kind of blindness on your part to miss that.”

Halambie frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“You were assigned here because someone thought that your personality might provide a balance between Stephens and Haggar. You were supposed to play peacemaker if things got out of hand, but what no one realised was that you were incapable of doing that because you were incapable of noticing that anything was wrong!”

Halambie winced. I’d raised my voice just a little, and I’d struck a nerve. “I don’t think that’s entirely fair.”

I shook my head. “Of course you don’t. You’re sitting on a lump of rock orbiting a star that’s due to destroy itself and everything nearby, performing work that’s the most important anyone in the human race has ever undertaken. Stephens had it right, Dr. Halambie. Going crazy is an entirely sensible reaction to your situation. You’re the abnormal one in this equation.”

He grew a little cold after that, but even so, he didn’t react much. “I see. Well, I must say that I disagree. In a situation like this, it’s important to keep a steady mind. Stephens obviously didn’t.”

“You’re missing the point. What Stephens did was wrong, but it was understandable. The way you react—or don’t—to everything around you? That’s what I can’t figure out.”

The way he looked at me, and the aura of mild puzzlement that surrounded him, I could tell that he didn’t understand. That he couldn’t, most likely. He was the sort of person who passed through life without engaging with anything around him, except in the most superficial way. I suspected he’d do just fine here on his own. And when new people showed up, he’d continue on, just as before. They might not be so lucky though.

“Well, goodbye Mr. Stark,” he said as I stepped through the airlock. “Thank you for all your work here.”

He meant it too. I shook his hand and said something meaningless. As I walked away, back to the Hardbitten and my normally abnormal life, Unreason continued to consume itself in nuclear fire, just as it had for billions of years. Hopefully, it would continue to do so, at least until I left.

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