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Laura Resnick is a Campbell Award winner, the author of The Silerian Trilogy for Tor books, and is eight books (and counting) into her popular Esther Diamond series for DAW Books. This is her first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

ACHILLES PIQUANT AND THE ELSINORE VACILLATION
by
Laura Resnick

One word held the key to everything: Fortinbras.

So it was unfortunate that First Lieutenant Hamlet of the United Systems Starship Elsinore had no idea what the word meant.

“You really think it’s meaningful?” Second Lieutenant Ophelia asked him as they huddled together in a corner of the officer’s mess hall. “Maybe it was just random word salad escaping from the captain’s lips in his dying breath.”

“No,” Hamlet said with certainty. “The captain was trying to tell me something before he died. I’m sure of it.”

“Maybe he consumed something called Fortinbras and had a bad reaction to it?” Ophelia suggested. “A fatal reaction, I mean.”

“I’ve studied the autopsy reports, and the toxicology tests were negative.”

“But if they weren’t testing for an unknown substance, such as something called—”

“I’ve searched his quarters,” Hamlet said, shaking his head. “I didn’t find anything called Fortinbras. Or any substance or item that I couldn’t identify.”

“Could you have misunderstood what he said? Maybe it was ‘four timbers’ or ‘four tin bras?’”

Hamlet frowned at his attractive companion. “Four tin bras?”

“Brassieres,” she clarified.

“I know what a bra is.”

“Or maybe he said, ‘For Timbras!’”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “I’m reaching.”

“You certainly are.”

“Your obsession with this is getting on my nerves. The captain is dead, the ship’s surgeon has declared it was natural causes—”

“Natural causes? The captain was in the prime of life!”

“Actually, he was approaching retirement age, Hamlet.”

“But he was a fit man in good health.”

“True,” Ophelia agreed. “But even people in seemingly good health can have sudden—”

“They simply don’t know what killed him,” Hamlet said for the thirtieth or fortieth time. “How can they not know? It’s the 25th century, for Gaia’s sake!”

“We come into contact with unfamiliar and predatory microbes on our missions,” Ophelia pointed out. “The captain may have contracted something fatal that hasn’t yet been identified.” After a moment, she added, “Oh, crap. If that’s true, then we’re all in danger, aren’t we? I mean, he breathed on you, right? He died in your arms, after all.” Hamlet had stumbled across the prostrate captain, alone and dying, one night in the ship’s Full Sensory Experience Recreation Chamber (FSERC). “And now you’ve breathed on me—and who knows how many other crew members? But, in particular, you’ve breathed on me. In fact, you’re still breathing on me! Stop it!” Lieutenant Ophelia jumped out of her chair and backed away from their table.

Hamlet grabbed her arm to halt her retreat. “Will you calm down?”

“You’re touching me!” Ophelia said in alarm.

“He did not die of random alien microbes.” Hamlet gave a sharp tug to pull Ophelia back down into her seat. She landed with a soft thud and shielded her face from his breath as he leaned forward and whispered, “The captain’s death wasn’t random at all. He was murdered.”

She frowned at him for a long moment. Then she sighed and, without lowering the hand that shielded her nose and mouth from him, said, “Look, I understand this is difficult for you. Captain Will singled you out for attention at the academy and got you assigned to his ship. You’ve served your whole career under him. He was your mentor and grooming you to command a ship of your own one day.”

“He wanted me to captain the Elsinore herself, when the time came.”

“Losing him so unexpectedly is a real blow for you. I appreciate that. But you should drop this conspiracy theory right now,” Ophelia said firmly. “This is not going to lead anywhere good.”

“I can’t drop it! I have to know the truth.” Hamlet took her hand and squeezed it imploringly. “Will you help me?”

“No.”

“What?”

“No.” She withdrew her hand. “For one thing, I see no reason to disbelieve the ship surgeon’s pronouncement of natural c—”

“Don’t you see?” Hamlet said impatiently. “Dr. Polonius must be in on it!”

“In on what? Why would Polonius—”

“That fool is counting on a promotion!”

“For covering up the murder of a starship captain?” Ophelia said skeptically. “Oh, come on. Who would promote him for that?”

Hamlet gave her a meaningful stare. She stared back. After a few moments, Hamlet wriggled his eyebrows. Ophelia continued staring. Hamlet jerked his chin upward a few times and made some little grunting noises.

“Are you quite well?” Ophelia asked.

“Don’t you get it?” Hamlet whispered, leaning forward.

“Stay back,” Ophelia insisted, leaning away. “Just in case I’m right about the microbes.”

“Who had everything to gain from Captain Will’s death?”

“No one.” She shrugged. “Will was a childless bachelor who’d spent his whole life serving in the fleet. He wasn’t rich, or heir to an empire, or...” Her jaw dropped as she realized what Hamlet was implying. “No.”

“Ah-hah!” Hamlet said triumphantly. “So you suspect him, too!”

“No, of course not. I just realized that you do. And, Hamlet, if you don’t have any evidence, then this conversation could probably get us both thrown in the brig. So think very carefully before you say anything else.”

“Claudius murdered Will so that he could take over as ship’s captain!”

“Keep your voice down,” Ophelia whispered harshly, looking around to see if anyone had heard. Fortunately, the mess was mostly empty at the moment and no one seemed to have noticed Hamlet’s outburst.

Hamlet leaned forward and said more quietly, but in growing agitation, “Claudius has coveted the captain’s seat ever since he joined this crew! He has plotted and schemed to get command of the Elsinore—”

“Captain Claudius was a capable first officer who was in line for promotion to captain as soon as a position opened—”

“He got tired of waiting and created his own opening. On our ship!”

“And what exactly is your evidence for this claim?” Ophelia demanded.

“I’m still in the evidence-gathering stage.”

“Oh, for the love of Shiva, that means you’ve got nothing, doesn’t it? Nothing but rash accusations and hollow suspicions based on your...” She gasped as a new thought occurred to her. “Oh, Hamlet, please—please—tell me this isn’t all about Gertrude.”

“Gertrude?” he said stiffly. “Why would you even mention her?”

Ophelia sighed. “I thought you were over that, but now I’m wondering.”

“Oh, my goddess,” Hamlet blurted. “Have you seen the way those two carry on when they’re off duty? Or even when they’re on duty? Did you see him squeeze her ass during the engineering inspection the other day when he thought no one was looking?”

“But you were looking, of course,” Ophelia said wearily.

“And she giggled,” Hamlet said in disgust. “Giggled, I tell you!”

“You’ve got to let this go,” Ophelia said.

Yeoman Gertrude was a red-headed beauty with an hourglass figure and long-lashed green eyes—looks that had belied her crisp efficiency as Captain Will’s personal aide, a position she’d held ever since joining this crew a year ago. She was about ten years older than Hamlet and ten years younger than Claudius. Both men had been attracted to her, but Hamlet’s bashful crush and incoherent ramblings had been no match for Claudius’ bold courtship, and so youth had lost out to age and experience.

Hamlet had resented the first officer bitterly ever since. And although Ophelia thought he should learn to accept a decision that Gertrude had made several months earlier and move on, it could not be denied that since Captain Will had died and Claudius had assumed command, the lovers were sometimes indiscreet while on duty. This was a notable contrast to their strictly correct behavior while Captain Will, who ran a tight ship, had been in command. And Ophelia had already wondered how much it would get under Hamlet’s skin.

Enough to send him spiraling into unhinged conspiracy theories, apparently.

“Hamlet,” Ophelia said, hoping to make him see reason, “if you intend to report to HQ that Claudius murdered Captain Will, you’ll have to have irrefutable evidence.”

“Yes, of course,” he said dismissively.

“You cannot discuss this with anyone else unless you can prove it. And if you can’t prove it, then you must never mention it again.”

“I will get proof,” Hamlet said with certainty.

“How?” she asked with trepidation.

“I’ve recruited an expert investigator from military intelligence to look into this matter.”

“Seriously?” she asked. “How did you arrange that?”

“I know a guy who knows a girl who knows a guy.”

“Oh, good, then it’s all perfectly official and there’s no need to worry this is a reckless plan that will blow up in your face and destroy your career—along with mine, if anyone finds out you told me about this.”

“It won’t blow up. This ‘droid is supposed to be the best there is.”

“Your investigator is an android? Well, that’s comforting. Because, of course, they’re completely reliable and absolutely nothing ever goes wrong when entrusting an artificial being with human secrets,” said Ophelia. “Oh, wait, except for the Dogstar War, caused entirely by an android routinely spewing United Systems secrets as if they were song lyrics. And then there was that android that unintentionally killed an entire crew last year by shutting down life support systems in an effort to conserve power usage. Not to mention the android whose too-literal word choices as an interpreter completely destroyed diplomatic relations with the entire Rigel system.”

“This android is different.”

“Of course it is. But I need to go apply for an immediate transfer as far away from the Elsinore as I can possibly get,” she said. “So, sadly, I don’t have time to meet it.”

Looking over Ophelia’s shoulder, Hamlet said, “Oh, yes, you do. It’s just arrived. Excellent! We can begin the investigation immediately.”

“It’s here? Now?” Ophelia looked over her shoulder and saw Third Lieutenants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern escorting an unfamiliar being into the mess. After a moment, she asked, “That’s your ‘droid? He’s a bit... I mean, he’s sort of...”

The android was definitely styled as a “he,” albeit a rather odd one. Apparently an investigative ‘droid wasn’t supposed to blend in with the crew. Dressed in elaborately formal civilian garb reminiscent of the style favored by the first-ever human ambassador to Antares (Ophelia had seen a famous portrait), the synthetic being had fair skin, dark eyes that darted rapidly around the room, a stout form, and walked with mincing little steps. She noted that he wore improbably shiny shoes and white gloves, and there seemed to be some sort of implant directly above his oral orifice. Ophelia wondered what its function was.

Hamlet rose as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the android approached their table.

Guildenstern said, “Lieutenant Hamlet, this ‘droid arrived a little while ago in a spacepod and started asking for you as soon as it was activated.”

“I’ve been expecting him,” Hamlet confirmed. “Thank you for escorting him here.”

“Ah, bon,” said the android. “Do I now have the pleasure of addressing First Lieutenant Hamlet?”

“Your ‘droid talks with a funny accent,” Rosencrantz said helpfully.

“How do you do?” Hamlet said to the android. “I’m pleased you arrived so promptly.”

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Monsieur Achilles Piquant, Master Investigative Prototype Android Model XZB-Q14.”

“What is that accent?” Rosencrantz asked. “I can’t place it, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Ophelia, who had studied linguistics before the resultant migraines drove her to switch to engineering and physics, said, “I think it’s French.”

“No,” said Achilles Piquant. “Belgian, if you please.”

“What-gian?” said Guildenstern.

“I was manufactured and programmed on La Nouvelle Belgique,” said Piquant.

“New Belgium,” Ophelia said to Guildenstern.

“A small but charming planet in the Zeitgeist Union,” Piquant added.

“Never heard of it,” said Rosencrantz.

“What’s that implant above your mouth?” Guildenstern asked, peering at the android’s facial features.

“Implant?” The ‘droid raised a gloved hand to its oral orifice, apparently searching for the object of Guildenstern’s attention.

When he touched it, Guildenstern said, “Yeah, that thing. What is it?”

“Ah! Those are my moustaches.”

“Your what?”

“My moustaches,” repeated Monsieur Achilles Piquant. “They are decorative and thought to be aesthetically pleasing.”

“Well, that’s certainly one interpretation,” said Ophelia.

“It’s supposed to be facial hair?” Rosencrantz asked skeptically, leaning closer to the android to take a good look.

“But of course.”

“And what about this weird uniform you’re wearing?” asked Guildenstern. “Is it a uniform?”

“All right, thanks for delivering the ‘droid to me,” said Hamlet, clearly dismissing the junior officers.

“Last task of the day,” said Guildenstern, ignoring the hint and taking a seat next to Ophelia. “We’re off duty now.”

“Yeah,” said Rosencrantz, taking the other spare seat at their table. “So what are you guys doing now? Just hanging out?”

“No,” Ophelia. “In fact, I’m not even here, and you haven’t seen me.”

“Huh?”

“I believe we should waste not another moment before discussing the details of the murder, n’est-ce pas?” said Piquant.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both whipped their heads around to look at the android.

“What murder?” Rosencrantz asked.

“No murder,” Ophelia said quickly. “There has been no murder.”

Vraiment?” said Piquant, turning to Ophelia. “But I had understood that I was summoned to investigate the murder of the captain of this vessel.”

“Holy shit,” blurted Rosencrantz. “Captain Claudius has been murdered?”

“No, of course not.” Ophelia uttered a strained laugh as she shot a glare at Hamlet.

He stared at the wall, his expression blank.

“No, Claudius was not the name of the victim,” said Piquant. “It was—”

“Monsieur, do you need to recharge your power supplies after your long journey?” Ophelia asked the ‘droid.

“Thank you, no. That is most kind, but at the moment, I should like to absorb whatever information is available about the murder so that I and my little gray microcells may process it later while recharging.”

“So who’s been murdered?” Guildenstern wondered.

“Weel,” said Achilles Piquant.

“Weel?” Guildenstern repeated blankly.

“Captain Weel,” Piquant confirmed. “The commander of this vessel.”

“Jesus jumping Jupiter!” cried Rosencrantz, leaping out of his seat. “You’re saying that Captain Will was murdered?”

“That is what I am here to investigate,” replied Monsieur Piquant.

Ophelia rolled her eyes at Hamlet. “‘This android is different,’” she quoted.

*

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?” Ophelia said incredulously. “How? When? What happened?”

“That’s not important right now,” said Hamlet, meeting with her on one of the lower engineering decks, a place where they were unlikely to be monitored or overhead. “What is important is that we’re getting closer to nailing Claudius for Will’s murder.”

“This phrase ‘Fortinbras,’ which you say Captain Weel uttered with his final breath.” Achilles Piquant was frowning thoughtfully. “You’re certain he was not saying ‘forte embrasse?’”

“He didn’t speak French,” Hamlet said. “The word or phrase was definitely Fortinbras. Not forte embrasse, or four timbers, or four tin bras, or—”

“Four tin bras?” Piquant repeated.

“Brassieres,” said Hamlet.

“I know what a bra is, lieutenant.”

“We need to find out what Fortinbras means!” Hamlet insisted.

Ophelia said, “No, first of all, I want to know how and why two healthy young officers have suddenly died.”

“Oh, right,” Hamlet snapped. “Captain Will shuffles off this mortal coil in mysterious circumstances—”

“I think ‘mysterious’ is an exaggera—”

“—with no clear diagnosis of what killed him—”

“Natural causes.”

“—and imparting a vital clue to me with his dying breath!”

“If it was so vital, you’d think he’d have chosen a word that meant something to you,” Ophelia snapped back.

“But that death doesn’t need to be discussed, let alone investigated, as far as you’re concerned. Noooo. You’re perfectly happy to accept that death without a pause. But a couple of half-witted junior officers die, and suddenly you’re full of questions!”

“Well... yes,” she said. “So are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Upon reflection,” said Piquant while stroking his moustaches thoughtfully, “I suspect the entire solution to this puzzle lies in ascertaining what Captain Weel meant by ‘Fortinbras.’”

Momentarily distracted, Ophelia asked, “Why do you think that?”

“Achilles Piquant does not explain his thought process until the culmination of the investigation,” the android said.

“I thought you were Achilles Piquant?”

“I am.”

“Then why did you just refer to yourself in the third person?”

“Sometimes I find it necessary to separate myself from my own genius.”

“Of course you do.” She turned back to Hamlet. “Well? What happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?”

“They went on a dangerous mission.”

“Uh-huh.”

“A very dangerous mission,” he said. “It didn’t go well.”

“Oh, no.” Ophelia’s stomach sank as she realized the truth. “You’re responsible for writing the duty roster for their department. You sent them on that mission, knowing they were unlikely to survive!”

“Well...” Hamlet waggled his hand. “I thought they might have a forty/sixty shot at coming back.”

“Hamlet!”

“Okay, thirty/seventy if I’m being completely honest,” he confessed.

“Why did you do it?” she demanded.

“Because they reported my suspicions to Claudius, who ordered them to kill me.”

“So you’ve killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?” Ophelia said incredulously.

“I created circumstances to preserve my own life at the cost of their lives,” Hamlet corrected.

“How do you know they were planning to kill you?” she challenged. “What makes you think Claudius ordered it?”

“I overheard them discussing it.”

“Did you hear this conversation, too?” Ophelia asked Piquant.

“No, mademoiselle.”

“Lieutenant,” she corrected.

“No, lieutenant. I was recharging my little gray microcells.”

“Did anyone besides you hear this conversation?” she asked Hamlet.

“Are you doubting my word?” he asked stiffly.

“No, I’m doubting your sanity.”

“No one else heard,” Hamlet said grumpily. “And if you don’t believe the things I tell you, then you can feel free to stop helping me.”

“I’m not helping you,” she reminded him. “And when you’re court-martialed, I’d appreciate it if you’d be very clear about that fact.”

“Are you going to turn me in?” he asked tensely.

Ophelia thought about it, sighed, and shook her head. “Let’s suppose for just one moment that you’re not lying or delusional. If you really overheard Rosencrantz and Guildenstern plotting to kill you on Claudius’ orders—”

“I did.”

“—then you may be right about his killing Captain Will. In which case, if I turn you in while he’s in command of this ship, you won’t live to see a courtroom, because he’ll have to get rid of you before you can make any public accusations against him.” She paused before adding, “Come to think of it, I might not live long, either, in that case, if he’s at all worried about loose ends.”

“So you’re not going to impede our investigation?”

“Not yet,” she said with some reluctance.

Hamlet clutched her shoulders gratefully and said, “Ophelia, you’re a brick.”

“But no more killings, Hamlet. No more deaths. I mean it. And you’ve got to get evidence. Do you understand me?”

“Absolutely,” he said.

Bien sűr,” said Achilles Piquant.

*

“What do you mean, ‘Polonius is dead?’” Ophelia demanded, trying not to gag as the fetid fumes of their new secret meeting place filled her nostrils.

“I think you’re overreacting,” said Hamlet, holding a cloth over his mouth and nose as protection against the stench in here.

“Overreacting? Overreacting?” Ophelia sputtered. “You’ve killed the ship’s surgeon!”

“He was spying on me.” Hamlet coughed a little as the fumes assailed him. “He was about to go report to Claudius that I was recruiting Gertrude to our cause.”

“What do you mean, ‘our’ cause? I am not part of this,” Ophelia said furiously.

“In truth,” the ever-composed Achilles Piquant informed her with apparent sympathy, “since you have already withheld information about the deaths of two junior officers, I fear you are deeply involved in this, mademoiselle.”

“Lieutenant,” she corrected morosely, realizing that the New Belgian android was right. Her decision not to report Hamlet for plotting the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had made her an accessory after the fact. Now that Polonius was also dead, she was in this mess up to her neck. She felt her eyes watering and didn’t know whether it was due to the fumes or to the desperation she suddenly felt.

“I caught Polonius hiding in Gertrude’s dryshower,” said Hamlet. “Eavesdropping on me while I convinced Gertrude that Claudius killed Captain Will to achieve his own promotion—as well as to throw off the inconvenient shackles of propriety, decency, and good taste in his relationship with her! Did you see the two of them heavy-petting under the table like horny teenagers yesterday during the admin-and-supplies meeting? It was disgusting! How she can let that slimy, grinning, strutting buffoon fondle her like that, when—”

“If we could focus for a moment?” Ophelia prodded. “You’re sure Polonius is dead?”

“With a hole in his chest that’s twenty centimeters in diameter?” said Hamlet. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

“You used your service weapon,” Ophelia guessed. “Which means this incident can be traced directly to you. Though I suppose that’s irrelevant, since you killed him in front of a witness.”

“Gertrude won’t talk,” Hamlet said with certainty. “She’s on our side now.”

“Our side,” Ophelia repeated grimly. “All right, please tell me you have at least learned the truth about Claudius, Will, and Fortinbras while killing off three officers in the course of your investigation.”

“I calculate that we are very near to discovering everything,” said Achilles Piquant.

“Good. Report Claudius to HQ,” Ophelia said to Hamlet. “Now. Immediately. Before anyone else gets killed.”

“No, I can’t yet,” he said. “I need more evidence. I’ve got to be sure.”

“You’re not sure?” she blurted. “You’ve killed three people for this, and you’re still not sure Claudius has killed one?”

“Give me a little more time,” said Hamlet.

“No, enough of this vacillation! This cannot continue,” Ophelia insisted. “Either you contact HQ and formally accuse Claudius of murder right now, Hamlet, or else you turn yourself in for killing three officers. Choose!”

“I can’t,” he said anxiously. “Not yet.”

“That does it,” said Ophelia. “I’m contacting HQ myself and telling them everything. It’s the only way I might get out of this mess with a dishonorable discharge instead of a prison sentence.”

Hamlet grabbed her arm. “No! Wait!”

“Let go of me,” she said tersely.

Attention!” said Piquant. “My audio sensors detect footsteps on this deck. We are no longer alone, mes amis!”

Ophelia’s stomach dropped as she, too, heard heavy footsteps approaching. A moment later, the sealed steel doors swished open, and six members of the ship’s Security Team entered the room, all them pointing their weapons at Hamlet, Ophelia, and Piquant.

“Laertes!” Ophelia blurted in confusion when she met the gaze of the team’s commanding officer.

“Ophelia?” he said incredulously.

They stared at each other for a moment. Then they both looked away, feeling awkward.

“Ah, they are acquainted,” the razor-sharp android investigator surmised.

“They had a thing for a while,” said Hamlet, letting go of Ophelia’s arm. “Followed by a bad break-up.”

“What are you doing here?” Laertes demanded, looking at Ophelia again. “And with him?”

He’d always been touchy about her friendship with Hamlet.

“What do you mean?” she replied, panic rising. “I’m not... ha-ha-ha!... with Hamlet. I just happened to be strolling through here.”

Laertes looked around for a moment, then back at her. “We’re in the secondary processing chamber of the sewage recycling system. Who strolls in here?”

“I can do what I want,” she asserted.

“Not this time,” said Laertes. “Hamlet is wanted for questioning in the murder of Dr. Polonius, and he’s suspected of a conspiracy to mutiny against Captain Claudius. I think you’d all better come with us.”

“No!” cried Hamlet. “I will not be taken alive!”

“What?” said Ophelia in horror. “No! Stop!”

Hamlet took a flying leap at the security guards. One of them punched him in the face, and he collapsed with a soft grunt and fell to the floor.

Looking down at him, Laertes said, “Boy, did you back the wrong horse, Ophelia.”

*

Carrying Hamlet, their armed guards escorted Ophelia and Monsieur Piquant to the bridge, where Claudius awaited them, surrounded by his senior officers and attended by his personal aide, Yeoman Gertrude.

“I’m sorry to see you involved in this unfortunate business, lieutenant,” Claudius said to Ophelia.

“Not as sorry as I am, sir.”

Hamlet was revived by the efficient ministrations of a medic. Then, with his voice still a little groggy, he insisted, “Let me go. I demand my right to accuse my confronter!”

“He seems a bit addled,” said Captain Claudius.

“No, I said what I meant.” Hamlet rose to his feet. “I accuse you, Claudius, of murdering Captain Will!”

“How dare you?” Claudius scowled at Hamlet. “How dare you, sir?”

Mr. Horatio, the new first officer, said, “Captain, I recommend that we put Lieutenant Hamlet in solitary confinement, under armed guard, and leave him there until we can offload him at a penal colony.”

“A penal colony?” repeated Yeoman Gertrude. “He hasn’t even been charged yet, let alone tried and convicted. You can’t imprison him on your own authority.”

“This is mutiny,” said Horatio.

“And what about his accusation?” Gertrude persisted. “I can’t believe the officers and crew of this ship will simply ignore the possibility that its current captain may be the murderer of its previous one. Surely Hamlet’s story must be heard back at HQ?”

Claudius blinked, realizing that his lover was advocating that the offensive accusation against him be treated seriously. “Excuse me?”

“I have to tell the truth!” Gertrude cried to the room at large, backing away slowly from Claudius. “I’ve had my dark suspicions, but I tried to ignore them because of my personal attraction to you.”

“What?” said Claudius, looking baffled.

First Officer Horatio gave Gertrude a quelling look. “No one asked your opinion, Yeoman, and no one wants it.”

“Is that so, monsieur?” said Achilles Piquant.

“Yes, that’s so. And who in Hades are you?”

“He’s with military intelligence,” Hamlet said triumphantly. “The spooks have got questions about what’s going on aboard this ship.”

“Military intelligence?” Laertes and Horatio blurted in unison.

“Yes, that is so.” Piquant entered a code into the digital implant on the inside of his left wrist. A moment later, he showed them all the small screen there which now displayed his identity file as an investigative android for United Systems Military Intelligence. “We have been monitoring this vessel for some time, aware of several suspicious incidents that have occurred during top-secret missions entrusted to the Elsinore.”

“We go on top-secret missions?” Ophelia said blankly.

“That question is above your security clearance,” said Horatio.

“Yes,” said Achilles Piquant. “For instance, the Elsinore was assigned to provide safe transport for an exiled rebel leader secretly returning to Aldebaran; she disappeared without a trace. This ship was authorized to smuggle food and medicine to Orion, yet somehow the shipments arrived with weapons, instead, leading to renewed warfare. The Elsinore had instructions to capture the notorious interstellar terrorist known only as Federico, who was trapped on an asteroid; instead, he made his escape in a spacepod stolen from the Elsinore and got away.”

Ophelia was staring in astonishment at the android. “Monsieur Piquant, do you mean to say that all these things have been going on aboard the Elsinore while I’ve been doing physics and worrying about microbes, and I never even suspected?”

Oui.”

She looked at Hamlet. “Did you know?”

“Not exactly.”

“It’s above his security clearance, too,” said Horatio.

“But I knew something was rotten on the Elsinore,” said Hamlet. “Why was there no investigation after that spacepod went missing? Why were we going to places like Aldebaran and Orion for no apparent reason, orbiting briefly, and then leaving?” He nodded. “I knew there were more things occurring on this ship than were dreamt of in your philosophy, Ophelia.”

“Whatever,” she said. “So I gather your point, Monsieur Piquant, is that—”

“There is an imposter aboard the Elsinore!” the android declared. “A spy. A double agent. A traitor. Someone who deliberately and skillfully undermines the delicate secret missions assigned to this vessel.”

“Ah-hah!” exclaimed Hamlet, pointing accusingly at Claudius. “And he killed the captain!”

“I most certainly did not!” Claudius said in outrage.

“Captain Will suspected you,” Hamlet said with a sneer, “and so you got him out of the way and took over the captaincy.”

“Absolutely not!” thundered Claudius. “I am a good soldier, a loyal officer, and a lifelong servant of the United Systems. I would never—”

Calmez-vous, mon capitaine. Of course you would not. Achilles Piquant does not suspect you.”

Claudius frowned at him. “I thought you were Achilles Piquant?”

“No, don’t ask,” said Ophelia. “Let’s just keep going.”

“But—but—” Hamlet sputtered. “Piquant, I don’t understand! Are you saying Claudius isn’t the killer?”

“Of course that’s what he’s saying, you mutinous, half-witted upstart,” said Claudius.

“But you ordered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to kill me!”

“I did no such thing! They said you were planning a mutiny, so I told them they were authorized to use deadly force to prevent one, if they found it necessary.”

“That’s not what they thought.”

“They were idiots,” Claudius retorted.

“He’s got you there,” said Ophelia.

“You also had Polonius spy on me!”

“Of course, I did,” snapped Claudius. “You got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed right after they warned me you were plotting a mutiny!”

“I wasn’t! I was planning to expose you as Captain Will’s killer.”

“Think, mon ami,” Piquant implored. “Who deliberately cultivated a close relationship with Captain Weel, in order to access the most sensitive information aboard the Elsinore while remaining above suspicion?”

“His first officer!” Hamlet again pointed accusingly at Claudius.

Catching on, Ophelia said to Hamlet, “Who else, you idiot? Open your eyes!”

Claudius gasped as he realized whom Piquant was implicating. “No! Oh, no...”

Ophelia said, “Upon discovering that she could only get so far with Captain Will, who would never dream of dallying with one of his own crew members—”

“And who was, moreover, beginning to suspect her,” added Piquant.

“—she cultivated an even closer relationship with his first officer.”

“Gertrude,” Claudius said sadly. “Oh, my dear, please, say it isn’t so.”

The beautiful redhead backed away from the assembled group until she bumped lightly into a navigation console, where she stopped and held her ground.

“Gertrude?” Hamlet bleated in surprise. “She’s the killer?”

“Yes,” said Piquant. “And once she realized that Weel suspected her, she knew she must get rid of him.”

“And replace him with someone too besotted to suspect her,” said Ophelia.

“Precisely, mademoiselle.”

“Lieutenant,” she corrected.

“The good Captain Claudius was to be her asset,” said Piquant, “enabling her to continue sabotaging the Elsinore’s secret missions. Until, that is, she learned that Hamlet suspected Captain Weel had been murdered. Oh, she is a clever femme, that one! Rather than risk trying to cover up the murder once it was suspected, she instead chose to implicate Claudius, whose ambition would be seen as an obvious motive for killing his superior officer.”

“You fiend!” Claudius shouted at his now-former lover, who was staring at Piquant with a murderous expression.

“So it was Gertrude all along,” Hamlet murmured.

“Yes, Yeoman Gertrude,” agreed Piquant. “Or, rather, should I say Madame... Fortinbras?”

Yeoman Gertrude gasped and flinched.

“Four tin bras?” Horatio asked with a puzzled frown.

“No, Fortinbras,” said Ophelia.

“Her code name,” said Piquant with a firm nod, noting Gertrude’s reaction. “The phrase has surfaced before, and we had shared the information with Captain Weel when warning him we suspected there was a traitor on board his ship.”

“He never said anything to me about any of this,” Hamlet muttered.

“Security, old chap,” Horatio reminded him.

“We knew the phrase was important, but we didn’t know what it meant. When I learned that it was been Captain Weel’s dying utterance, and I started matching the timeline of the suspicious incidents on this ship with the service records of the crew...” Achilles Piquant shrugged. “Eh, bien, it soon became clear to me that the problems had begun shortly after Yeoman Gertrude joined this crew and made herself indispensable to the captain. And so the killer is unmasked!”

“You couldn’t have mentioned this down in the sewage recycling area?” Ophelia said irritably.

“The little gray microcells did not yet have all the data,” said Piquant. “The final piece of the puzzle was Yeoman Gertrude’s attempt, moments ago, to implicate Claudius in the murder. This confirmed to Achilles Piquant that she is indeed Fortinbras, the master spy and devious traitor.”

Claudius said, “Mr. Laertes, if you and your men would be so good as to escort her to the brig, we can report to HQ that we have captured Fortinbras.”

“Yes, sir.” But a moment later, Laertes cried out and fell to the floor, bleeding from a gaping wound.

“Not so fast, Claudius!” Gertrude was pointing a small but deadly laser gun at the rest of them. “Did you seriously think I would be unprepared for this possibility, Monsieur Piquant?”

“Don’t be a fool,” Piquant said urgently. “Where do you think you can escape to? We’re on a starship.”

“I’ll take my chances in a spacepod,” said the notorious Fortinbras. “My allies will receive my signal and pick me up before the Elsinore can trace me. But first, I’m afraid, I’ll have to eliminate all of you. I must give myself a good head start, after all.”

“I say!” Horatio rushed forward. “Villain!”

As Gertrude turned to blast him with a deadly flesh-rending ray, Hamlet jumped her and knocked her to the ground. The two of them struggled, Hamlet grunting and straining as Gertrude kicked and punched. Uncertain of the outcome, Ophelia picked up a portable communications amplifier and bashed Gertrude over the head with it.

“Oh, thank Gaia,” Hamlet panted as Gertrude went limp. “I wasn’t going to last much longer.”

Claudius ordered the guards to remove Fortinbras to a secure cell before she woke up and caused more trouble, and then he summoned emergency medical personnel to the bridge to assist the medic who was already working on the unconscious Laertes’ wound.

Horatio said to Hamlet, “I rushed her without thinking clearly. You probably saved my life, old man. In fact, you may have saved all our lives.”

“That does not mitigate his murder of three of my officers.” Claudius said sternly to Hamlet, “I order you to the brig, where you will await charges.”

Un moment, mon capitaine. Young lieutenant Hamlet is too headstrong, yes, but you should be aware that he killed traitors, not loyal officers.”

“What are you saying?”

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were minor smugglers, in league with Fortinbras for the sake of profit, though they did not know her identity.”

“And Polonius?” Hamlet asked.

“He used inside information to help get Fortinbras assigned to the Elsinore at the right time and in the right role. And after Gertrude murdered Captain Weel, to prevent him from exposing her true identity, it was Polonius who covered it up by falsely claiming the poor man had died of natural causes.”

“Hah! I told you so,” Hamlet said triumphantly to Ophelia.

“Yes, you did,” she admitted. “And I suspect I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“You can prove these accusations?” Captain Claudius demanded.

“Of course,” Piquant said crisply.

The captain sighed. “In that case, you and I and my security chief should retire to the briefing room to prepare a preliminary report on this mess for HQ.”

“Indeed.”

But as Piquant turned to exit the bridge, Ophelia stopped him. “I thought you were just another android wreaking havoc when you arrived. The way you carelessly blurted out that you were here to investigate the captain’s murder—a subject so volatile it should never have been mentioned aloud...” She smiled. “Or so I thought at the time.”

Achilles Piquant smiled, too, making his synthetic moustaches quiver a little. “And now?”

“Now I realize you did it to startle the conspirators and draw them out into the open. Well played, monsieur.”

“Eh, bien, I could do no less. I am, after all, Achilles Piquant, Master Investigative Prototype Android Model XZB-Q14.”

“Of course.”

“Good day, lieutenant.” The dapper New Belgian investigator gave her a little bow and followed Captain Claudius off the bridge.

In his autobiography, the late Christopher Hitchens described a dinner at which he and his companions wondered how the thriller writer Robert Ludlum might have titled Shakespeare’s plays. For Hamlet, Salman Rushdie proposed The Elsinore Vacillation, which stuck in my head.

Copyright © 2016 Laura Resnick

 

THE LONG TOMORROW
by Leigh Bracket

One of the "10 Books You Pretend to Read (And Why You Should Really Read Them)io9

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
Breaking News Involving
Space Pirates
by Brian Trent

Ten Things

by Ron Collins
Devil Went Down to Georgia
by Mercedes Lackey
Sneak Attack
by Eric Cline
Songs in the Key of Chamomile
by Rebecca Birch

Astralis

by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Upsold
by Jay O'Connell

Achilles Piquant and
the Elsinore Vacillation

by Laura Resnick

The Observer

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Time and Not Space

by David A. Kilman
The Girls We Lost

by Leena Likitalo

INTERVIEW
Harry Turtledove

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Conc.))
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.