Today’s the last day of Eclectic Alli’s Unbirthday Party! I just finished this story right this second in time to join in, so it’s really a loose practice story… There are a lot of things I’d change about it if I were to do any editing, but hopefully my for-funsies writing will be fun for y’all to read, too. This story is set in the larger universe of What Dreams, so I got to do some worldbuilding for the Sky Marshal service, wrote aliens of a wildly different size from humans, tried out a simple mystery/whodunit structure, and started experimenting with gender-neutral pronouns. Feedback appreciated, as always!
A dead body turns up at a party, during Cris’s first week on a Pheffl space station…
Murder on Station 6
There are no storms in space, but it is always dark.
The thought occurred to Cris on a regular basis. In space, there was only artificial light, doing more to emphasize the lack of natural light than anything else. In space, a disproportionate number of murders happened during the “day.” One arbitrary point in time felt just as secret as any other.
Case in point. Dead body found half an hour after lunch, in the middle of an unbirthday party thrown by the president of Station 6. Halfway through Cris’s second day as Station 6’s temporary Sky-Marshal-in-residence.
“You’re the security chief,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’m just here to keep diplomatic order. As a presence.” Marshals were not police officers.
“What kinda diplomatic order d’you think there’s gonna be if it turns out a human did this?” asked Ham, the station’s official security chief. She’d been concerned about the nickname at first, but since he refused to answer to anything else, she had little choice. Ham was a Pheffl — a member of the alien race that originally constructed Station 6, a furry three-inch-tall race that bore an unfortunate resemblance to old Earth’s hamsters. They wore belts and collars to carry things, had opposable thumbs, often walked on two legs despite their round bodies, could speak verbal languages, had swirled ears with lavender skin inside, and retained control of a station beyond human capacity to build. They even added several huge segments for human habitation — caverns, by Pheffl standards, but the construction had taken mere months. An advanced race, but wary of interference. Ham represented her main contact with them — a slightly chubby, slightly scruffy male Pheffl in a long dirty coat. Her main headache so far, even counting the dead body.
In fairness, one other Marshal had been assigned to this station before Cris, but the man in question had lived his whole life in space. They hadn’t discovered his small-animal phobia until two weeks into his assignment, when he couldn’t hold it in anymore.
Cris suspected that Ham had been a headache even before that, but it couldn’t have helped.
“Of course,” she said, minimizing a sigh.
The victim slumped in the middle of an access hallway, streaks of blood trailing away from the body. Dragged, presumably toward the airlock door at the end. Presumably interrupted, meaning a witness. Anyone could deal with this, but Ham was right, unfortunately. Nowhere would her official presence be more needed. Plus, if anyone could do it, she might as well.
Thirties, dark hair, tan trenchcoat, human, apparently male. Round face, cherub cheeks.
“Party guest?” she asked. Some human had decided Station 6 would be the perfect setting for an unbirthday. It had been going full blast for several days now.
The medical examiner handed her the man’s phone. She found an ID and scanned it with her own phone.
“Jim Hoganmeier, party guest. But it’s fake. No such person on the guest list, station manifest, or with a passport on any nearby planets or ships.”
Ham stood on the floor nearby, surveying the scene from a distance. He lit up a tiny U-shaped mic over his left ear — a vice, a vibrating sensation in a Pheffl’s inner ear, deceptively pleasant as it gradually detiorated his eardrum over a few decades. Cris chose to ignore it, at least he wasn’t contaminating the crime scene or the station’s atmosphere. She was about to decide he wasn’t paying attention at all, when he raised a claw to point.
“Looks like human work.”
She crouched next to the body. “There’s blood, but these wounds are tiny. Pheffl laser gun.”
“Fired at human elbow height? I know I’m tall and imposing, but…”
“That’s the right height for a Pheffl walkway.”
“No walkways in the human airlock, moron.” Human walls were staggered halfway up, creating shelves where Pheffl could walk without being ignored or stepped on, but they’d been omitted in this branch. Pheffl had their own airlocks.
She pointed to the bloodstains. “He was dragged from another location.”
“By what, my pet moose?”
She straightened, dusting off her slacks. “You’ve got me there. Be right back.”
She followed the trail of blood, evidence markers, and evidence collection specialists. The end of the trail wasn’t far away, unfortunately — right outside the large docking bay the celebrants had turned into a party ballroom. A party guest indeed. And the blood spatter indicated he’d been shot from the middle of the hall, where another human would stand, not from the Pheffl walkway. Cameras showed nothing but fizz, inside and outside.
Cris wandered back to the crime scene. She reported her findings to Ham, allowing him the concession of a wince. He sniggered, but didn’t rub it in — yet.
Ham scuffed a rear paw against the floor and rummaged in his coat, eyeing the victim. “We’ll have to case the party. Send me his ID picture.”
She obliged. “What are you doing?”
“Taking a picture of his shoes.” He moved back and forth, twisting his own tiny digital pad back and forth until he got a reasonable facsimile of the books the right way up. “Somebody might’ve been on the floor.”
“One of us has to be the brains in this outfit.”
She opted not to give that a direct response. “We should focus on finding out if anyone knows him. It’ll also be helpful to know why he stepped out, if anyone noticed. He could’ve been lured, or it could’ve been a random attack on the first person out.”
The medical examiner started waving his hand halfway through her statement. She nodded to him.
“I think I can answer that. This man has a peanut allergy. I’ll have to check his stomach, but it looks like his lunch had peanuts in it. He stepped out to use this.” The examiner straightened up and gave her a stumpy tube with a covered needle at one end. “Emergency medication. It’s been used. Found it in his pocket. There are still signs of an allergic reaction, he was shot before it took full effect.”
Ham couldn’t see the tube from the floor, but piped up anyway. “Must be some idiot to just go eating things willy-nilly.”
Cris checked the man’s ID. “No, even this alias has a peanut allergy flagged. He should’ve gotten something peanut-free.”
“Whatever.” He switched off his ear mic and dropped it into one of his pockets. “You know what I keep thinking?”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “What?”
He gestured back and forth from the airlock to the party and back. “If the killer had managed to get ‘im out the airlock, we’d never know he’d been here at all.”
Station 6’s human ambassador fed them a lot of gibberish about the fate of multi-universal politics. Cris didn’t follow most of it. The relevant point was that ze wouldn’t let them stop the party, but they could post guards at the doors to keep people from leaving. Cris and Ham could remove guests a few at a time for interviews, then let them back inside.
Not ideal. No way to stop conspirators from speaking to each other or getting up to mischief in a crowded ballroom.
They made do. The two of them interviewed all the significant players themselves. At first they mutually agreed to do the interviews together, but quickly gave up on that when it became apparent exactly how long it would take and how much time they would have to spend in close quarters together, possibly snapping at each other. Even separately, it took hours.
She told herself, repeatedly, that all the technical tests would take even longer. She wasn’t wasting time.
Her boss insisted on a video conference just to tell her to hurry up. Powder keg of a blended station, trust her skills are up to the job, the usual. I could go faster if you weren’t calling me, you know. Marshals didn’t have to ask for permission nearly as often if they didn’t accept station postings. Why had she thought this was a promotion? Vital diplomatic juncture, etc., as if she didn’t know. She didn’t make a fuss, but given the ambassador’s reluctance to let them investigate, it could hardly be that vital. So far this whole assignment had been a crapshoot.
“My boss is whining too,” Ham grunted from the entryway.
Cris swiveled in her chair, and Ham walked to the shelf segment closest to her, where they could see eye to eye.
He lit up his ear mic. Apparently he had nothing else to contribute.
“I think it’s time we admit that Hoganmeier could be a spy,” Cris said.
She ignored the sarcasm. “However, we should remember that he isn’t necessarily a government-approved spy. We need to deal with the fact that his alias wasn’t very good.”
“So you’re saying if there WERE any government spies, we’d never know it because they’re so terrifying, is that right?”
“Er… no. Not exactly.”
She rubbed her eyes and changed the subject. “Do you have any suspects?”
“I’m pretty sure it was Uzzy Queek,” Ham said.
“You mean the smart, young, handsome Pheffl emergency responder who’s good at everything and saves people’s baby squoke-gurgles from certain death every other day?”
“That’s the guy.”
“He’s been in sick bay sleeping off a cold for a week.”
Ham rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded like “worth a try.”
“Mm. What about that station host? The blue one?”
“He’s one of you.”
“He has questionable non-human provenance.”
“Don’t be prejudiced. Theo may be blue but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Anyway, he’s got a bajillion alibis, he’s been circulating the party for eighteen hours.”
Cris sighed. She wished it was Theo so the murderer wouldn’t be human, but it would be nice if she was the kind of person who didn’t think like that. Focus on the investigation.
“If he circulated that much, did he have any tips?”
“He said all the lunch sandwiches had peanut spread on them, but nobody had any allergies marked on his screen. Yes I doublechecked,” he snapped before Cris even opened her mouth. “He thought Hoganmeier died from anaphylactic shock when I started asking questions, had to tell him it was murder.”
“That should’ve stayed confidential!”
“Lighten up, the man was crying. I didn’t want to get washed away.”
She rolled her eyes. “At least tell me he’ll keep it a secret.”
Not exactly the reassurance she was looking for, but it would have to do.
“Let’s get back to the evidence.” She called up the file on her desk screen. “Who else might have known about the allergy?”
Ham plunked down on the shelf to lean against the wall, toes sprawled everywhere. “I think the allergy’s a dead end. The alias was crappy, the kitchen prob’ly just smeared peanuts around and didn’t know. The security chef would’ve told me if anything strange happened to the food.”
“But you are the security chief.” Maybe she’d misheard, words could be hard to parse sometimes with the size difference.
“I didn’t say CHIEF, I said CHEF!” Ham squeaked.
“You’ve gotta be fucking with me,” she blurted before she could think. Ham grinned, but whether it was at her swear or the gap in her knowledge, she didn’t know.
He leaned back against the wall. Pheffl hands were two short to drape nonchalantly behind one’s head, but it was that sort of gesture.
“We have a security chef,” he said smugly. “Someone to monitor all the food. Cooks it himself. Can’t believe you naked folks haven’t heard of ‘em. His flambeed seedfruit is absolutely superb, and–”
“Yes, all right, I get the idea,” she interrupted.
He just grinned.
She massaged her left temple slowly. “You’re telling me that you haven’t actually spoken to this security chef?”
“Like I said, he would’ve told me if any weird shit went down with his food.”
“Unless he’s the one who poisoned it, you idiot.”
Ham paused for a moment, unphased by the insult but alarmed at the suggestion.
“Well,” he groped, “Well maybe if you wanna be all suspicious about it!”
Cris insisted on accompanying Ham to meet the chef. She didn’t trust him not to half-ass it, he obviously trusted this security chef and understandably didn’t want a Pheffl arrested, but it was interview best-practices anyway.
Unfortunately, the chef worked deep in the Pheffl heart of the station, where the corridors shrunk down to the size of Cris’s hand. They wanted to surprise the chef — a certain Bo Nuum — and have a look around his kitchen, so summoning him to Cris’s office wouldn’t work.
In lieu of anything at all dignified, they clipped a holographic projecter to Ham’s coat and hooked Cris into a virtual-reality helmet. The apparatus rendered her as a transparent, inch-high disembodied head floating over Ham’s left shoulder.
If she’d been on the floor, she’d have worried about getting kicked or stepped on. From this angle, the miniature tunnels seemed normal, and Ham seemed like a huge furry beast. A big bear thumping down the corridor. Pheffl seemed to have a much less linear approach to architecture, with channels swirling and twisting all through the old base, up down and around each other. They only passed a few other Pheffl, but they all looked huge and she took the opportunity to get a good look at each one. Up close, it was much easier to tell them apart.
“Duck!” Ham squeaked cheerfully, hopping own a sudden drop in the tunnel.
“Ouch!” she yelped automatically, even though her holographic head passed right through the overhang. Ham chortled.
“Is this really necessary?” she snapped.
“Yes, yes it is.”
She glared. He never seemed to care if she snapped at him. In fact he seemed to prefer it. Maybe she should take that into account from now on.
She forgot her annoyance as they approached the kitchen, a hub deep inside the station with halls running out from it in all directions. With the party still thriving in the outer station, the chef was cooking in a frenzy of claws and plates. Cris had seen human cooks, and doubted the Pheffl facilities could support human appetites for very long, but of course they wanted an authentic Pheffl experience. Real Pheffl plates were roughly the size of her fingernail, and the ones Bo Nuum currently used were probably still quite small, but from her current vantage point they looked the size of swimming pools. For the Pheffl, the plates were about the length of a person — large, but apparently light enough to lift. The chef placed them on a huge hovering tray, where he then plated his food and sent the whole thing up through a hole in the ceiling. Ham had explained that the tray eventually reached the outer-station kitchen, where human servers would whisk the plates away so the tray could return.
“Hey, Bo,” Ham chirped.
“Leave me alone!”
Ham and Cris exchanged glances.
“We’re sorry to bother you, sir,” Cris said calmly, “but we’re here on security business. I’m Sky Marshal Cris Nelass, and I’m sure you know the security chief.” She couldn’t touch anything, but at least she could talk.
“It’s late,” he grumbled. He kept on cooking, but at least he was paying attention.
“A human died just after lunch,” said Ham.
“What’s that got to do with me? I don’t know any humans.”
Ham wandered idly around the kitchen’s perimeter, giving both officers a chance to look around. Cris left the interview to Ham in the name of success
“The thing is, the human was allergic to peanuts, and there were peanuts in the lunch,” said Ham. “Would you know anything about that?”
Bo clearly thought the peanuts had killed the human, and Ham let him go on thinking it. “You think I knowingly provided someone with an allergen? I could be blacklisted! Don’t even say that!”
Ham trailed a claw over some decorative napkins, as if he was more interested in them than Bo. “Somebody ignored an allergy warning, Bo. I mean, you and I know they’re all a bunch of whiners most of the time, but the guy did die.”
Bo wrang his paws, turned in a circle and then around the other way, and then moved a few empty pans around. He started to make a low wheezing noise, getting louder and louder.
Pheffl didn’t release tears. Instead they wheezed. Eventually an upset Pheffl would just pass out from cutting off their own airflow.
Ham exchanged glances with Cris’s head, as disconcerted as she was. “Er… Come on, Bo. You’ve gotta give me something.”
“I couldn’t get real peanuts,” he wheezed, plunking into the floor on his substantial rear end. “It’s fake peanut spread made from salt and grease. I didn’t think anyone would notice!”
Ham looked at Cris.
“Do you need assistance, Chef?” Cris asked, using the calm voice she’d practiced in the academy.
“Don’t tell the Food Board!” he begged. “It was just this once. I’ll never do it again.”
Ham stretched out to pat Bo on the shoulder without getting too close. “Uh, okay, buddy. We can’t guarantee it won’t show up in the report, but I’ll do what I can.”
Cris gave Ham a dirty look. She knew that meant he’d blame it on her.
“The Food Board doesn’t read our police reports anyway,” Ham added helpfully.
Bo held his breath for a moment, hiccuped, then started to get his breath back. He started climbing to his feet again. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“Thank you for your time, Chef,” Cris said, still in her professional voice. “If you’re sure you aren’t in distress, we’ll let you get back to work.”
Bo nodded, sniffed, and started wandering around the kitchen, trying to remember where he left off.
Ham and Cris made for the exit, trying not to look like they were in a rush.
“Great,” she grumbled in the hallway. “We made him cry.”
“Someone’s at my office door, I should go.” No need for her to keep looking over his shoulder on the way out.
“Yeah, good. I’ve gotta go look into something, catch up with you later.”
She nodded, but Ham just turned off the projector, leaving her inside a featureless black helmet. He was probably just going to vibrate his eardrums and take a nap.
Cris took off her helmet and ruffled her hair, then opened her office door.
The human ambassador stood outside it, wringing zir hands and crying.
“His name wasn’t Jim Hoganmeier,” the ambassador explained after ze settled in Cris’s office with a cup of tea. “It was Hogan Hoopel. He was my lover.”
Cris nodded seriously from behind her desk, making a superfluous note. At least humans responded well to the calm Marshal training.
“I’m sure you’ve been wondering if he was a spy. Well, he was, but that wasn’t why he was here. It was just to visit me. But he couldn’t come as himself, it would’ve caused a riot if the Pheffl knew a spy was on the station. He only comes up during events, when he can… When he could pass as a guest. Throwaway IDs every time because nobody ever looks very hard.” Ze provided Hoopel’s real ID, and this time it checked out.
“I was afraid to say anything, I know I’ll have to give up my position, but Hogan was murdered…”
“Take your time.” Cris arranged her face into an expression of understanding and offered another tissue. Hurry up, for Pete’s sake.
The ambassador blew zir nose delicately. “Thank you. I slipped out of the party to meet Hogan, but he wasn’t there. When I looked down the hall, he… He was on the floor. Being dragged by some kind of ship.”
“Like a small, hovering spaceship, shaped like a rounded-off rectangle. I didn’t get a good look, it started to come back toward me and I ran. But it couldn’t have been big enough for a human.”
“It could’ve been remote-controlled, but I’ll make a note.” She did so, texting the ambassador’s revelations to Ham at the same time. Was there anything else?”
The ambassador shook zir head, standing up. “I need to make some phone calls.”
Cris just nodded. The loaning embassy would hande this, and any legal action would come afterward. The political ramifications outweighed anything else, and Cris doubted that forged papers were even a crime when they were a spy’s official aliases.
Ham called her back.
“Hey, did you get my text?” she answered automatically, watching the ambassador leave the room.
“Yeah, but I’ve got news, too. I checked with imports. Most of the peanut stuff was fake, like Bo said, but he also special-ordered a case of real peanuts.”
“Probably. And you know that crazy mini-UFO?”
“The security chef is the only one on the station who uses a flying dinner tray.”
They guessed Bo Nuum would make a run for the party guests’ yachts to get away, and they were barely in time. He’d started fleeing as soon as they’d left the kitchen, but couldn’t bear to leave his food. He’d wedged himself onto the tray amongst piles of sandwiches and bags of fresh ingredients, driving with a remote control. When he saw Cris running toward him, he shrieked and swerved away, sending a cascade of red berries onto the floor. She slipped on them and flailed, but managed to grab the edge of the tray. She got a sandwich thrown in her face for her trouble.
“Ham, where are you!” she shouted, digging in her heels but being dragged along anyway. Bo shrieked and smacked at her hands with a dinner roll.
“Will you stop that?” she snapped, then shrieked herself as Ham leaped from the wall onto the tray. She tried to hold it steady for him, but it yanked back and forth as the two Pheffl tussled over the remote.
Ham finally brained Bo with a sardine tin, stunning him long enough to slap handcuffs on.
“I thought he was a spy!” the chef moaned as their backup finally arrived. “He wasn’t supposed to be here! Don’t blame me!”
“I think I sprained my wrist,” Cris said to Ham, ignoring Bo’s high-pitched protests.
“Probably.” Ham grimaced down at the mess of food. The smashed red berries made the whole hallway look like another crime scene. “We’re gonna need a new chef.”
“Alternatively, we could discuss how ‘secure’ your security chef system really is…”
He threw a berry at her. She laughed. “Or we could go eat the birthday cake. All this food is making me hungry.”
He grinned. “That’s the best suggestion you’ve made all day.”