This mystery within a mystery from Malka Older explores the universe’s dangers from a cloistered perspective, and that of a parent as well. ~ Fran Wilde, Sept 11, 2022.
The Locked Pod
By Malka Older
When we opened the escape pod, the person inside it was dead.
There had been some debate over whether to open it at all. We did not accept visitors on the Hortus without a lengthy process of approval and we did not approve many visitors. For that matter, we weren’t even sure whether the pod held a person or something else; Gilly, the novitiate who was on dockworker duty under my supervision that cycle managed to spool out a rambling hypothetical about academic spyware before I could shush her. There was even some marginal whispering about bombs—an explosive device had been delivered in a similar way to another cloistered station once, but that was decades before and far away, during a spasm of anti-intellectual feeling. No one (I thought at the time) expected to find a corpse.
I was only in the docking bay by chance; as cellarer for Hortus station, I was in charge of supplies and trade, but I was rarely in the docking area myself. I happened to be dealing with a pair of older ships that were having trouble connecting to our power supply when there was an alert indicating an object in our flight-path zone. Our dock isn’t large; I heard Zinnia, who was on shift for flight control, identifying the object as an unresponsive escape pod and deciding that the easiest way to keep our approach and departure clear was to vacuum it in. We are a society of debate and discourse, so when I had finished wrangling the transport module chargers, I joined the small group wrangling over whether or not it should be opened.
Zinnia finally settled the question by reminding us all that escape pods were typically only triggered in cases of extreme urgency and that the people inside usually needed help. That was the scriptural exception to the rules that we all needed to justify our curiosity. I was standing beside Gerra, the public safety officer on duty, when she cranked the door open.
There was a long silence as we all assimilated the inanimate status of the person inside. I tilted my head slightly, for a better look at the face, and jerked in surprise. A quick glance around showed me that Gerra and Gilly shared the stifled look I was sure I was wearing, that of recognizing a famous person when you’re not supposed to care about famous people. Zinnia looked sick, but probably because she reacted badly to blood or some other attribute of corpses; I couldn’t imagine she didn’t recognize the most notoriously vicious dictator of the era.
“Medic!” Gerra barked.
“Too late,” murmured Gilly on her other side; Gerra shot her an annoyed look.
“‘Why would someone pack a dead person into an escape pod?” I asked.
“Not sure they did,” Gerra said grimly.
“Probably dying,” Gilly put in. “This must have been their only chance to reach suitable medical facilities.”
I raised my eyebrows. “So, an accidentally injured person? Or did someone murder the person and then stick him in? Getting rid of evidence?”
“I don’t think that’s it.” Gerra pointed to the glisten of the blood. “He hasn’t been dead so very long. Unless the pod was dropped off from a ship very nearby. . . .”
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