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Chapter 8 - Can't Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“I assumed, sir, that as a galactic and having read the medical literature you wouldn’t need me to explain the concept of a Betan hermaphrodite to you.”

Owen sighed. “Comienski - look, can I call you Petrova? Do yourself a favour. Never assume that anyone’s read the medical literature. Reason being, there’s a fuck of a lot of it and most of it’s absolute bollocks written by complete tossers.”

For the first time he detected a glint of humour in Dr Comienski’s expression. Rather unexpectedly she kicked her shoes off and curled her feet under her on the deep leather sofa. “I know that. I just hadn’t expected a senior administrator to admit it. Sir.”

She took a deep swallow of her tea. Her grey eyes laughed at him over the rim of her cup. He found himself responding.

“Look - it’s Owen. Can the “sir” business. So. Enlighten me. Why Betan hermaphrodite? Experimental technology, is it?”

He summoned up the patient’s medical records again and rotated the key images through three hundred and sixty degrees above the vid-plate, trying for Comienski’s benefit to project clinical interest as opposed to mucky-minded fascination.

Certainly doesn’t look experimental to me. Mind-boggling, though. Who’d have thought there was even room down there for both lots of genitalia? But I’d bet that’s a full production release. And, given our patient’s personality, that any bugs have been ironed out in extensive field trials.

Petrova shook her head. “No - they must have been around for about two hundred and fifty years or so. About that, anyway. Just about the time Beta Colony developed the first really reliable uterine replicator.”

The - what? If that does what it says on the can then those are another lot of tech specs I’m taking back to Cardiff if I get half a chance. Bloody hell. Imagine what Posh Spice would be prepared to bid for one of those!

Owen pasted an expression of intelligent interest on his face, and gestured for Petrova to continue. She did, rather as though she were reading an undergraduate paper to a university feminist society.

“Given the strong egalitarian thread in Betan society, naturally it occurred to some Betan geneticists that the true solution to discrimination on the grounds of gender was to re-engineer the human race on a fundamental biological level, so as to eliminate hidden, covert and unconscious gender biases from the outset.”

Owen sat bolt upright. “Jesus wept! Someone let a committee of bleeding Guardian readers loose on the human genome?”

Which, it seemed from Petrova’s further explanation, was about the size of it. “It didn’t catch on,” she said. “Apparently they’re only a very small minority even on Beta, and they don’t travel much. On account of - um.”

She fell suddenly silent, no doubt contemplating the injuries their patient had had on arrival. And the collection which had mysteriously appeared subsequently.

On account of the natural tendency of the human race to lash out at those it considers other. Especially if they feel sexually threatened by them.

There was something nagging him about the original injuries, though. Or at least, not the injuries in themselves - they were quite explicable if one assumed they’d been preceded by some local variant on “Is that you looking at me funny? Is it? Is it?” and he’d treated Jack for a more-or-less equivalent set on that memorably ghastly evening when his boss had attempted to expand the sexual horizons of a Barry pub landlord - but about the notes accompanying them.

“Petrova?” His voice was hesitant. “When - our patient - was on the roof, you told her - him -“

“Apparently the polite usage for hermaphrodites is “it”, sir.”

“I’d hate to hear the impolite usage. I was brought up proper, me. And I thought I told you to call me Owen. Anyway, when we were on the roof you told - it - that it had concussion when it was brought in.”

“Yes. That’s why the amnesia. It’s in its notes.”

“Ye-es. It’s in the full records, all right. With lots of supporting detail. But take a look at these. These are the duty doctor’s notes, the ones which were taken when it was first brought in. The head injury’s barely mentioned. It’s pretty clear that the duty doctor was a hell of a sight more worried about the state of the patient’s kidneys and spleen.”

Owing to the fact that if you set out to give someone a really good kicking you tend to go for the body rather than the head. It doesn’t show so much through his clothes, doesn’t damage your toes as much and it makes a bigger target.

“Furthermore, reading between the lines it’s fucking obvious the duty doctor thinks the patient’s concealing its identity, not that it’s forgotten it. He notes that it knew what day of the week it was, for example. Which isn’t as easy a question as it sounds, on a strange planet. I’d not be able to answer it if you asked me now, for example.”

“Perhaps it’d been here a bit longer than you -“

Petrova sounded interested, willing to be convinced. “There is one thing.” A long elegant forefinger reached out as if to touch the display swirling above the vid-plate. “It was Bernières on duty that night. I can’t see him prescribing this combination of stimulants if he thought there was any real likelihood of concussion. I might - I trained more recently than he did - but he’s pretty conservative.”

Owen exhaled. “Can you get hold of him and ask?”

Petrova looked, initially, surprised, and then enlightened. “That was his last day on duty. He’s off skiing - will be for another week. And he’s terrible about picking up comlink messages.”

Owen’s voice sounded grim, even in his own ears. “An ideal scenario, then.”

Remove the eye-witness; doctor the data.

Hell, he worked with some of the best liars and data artists in the business. He wasn’t so bad at faking up plausible case histories himself.

There was just one minor detail. Whatever state the patient had been in when it arrived, there was no doubt about its amnesia now.

And he hadn’t got that sequence quite complete, now, had he?

Remove the eye-witness; doctor the data; dispose of the body.

Owen swore, violently. “Get the patient up here - now. It’s not safe anywhere else in the hospital except right under my eye. And get me those blood analyses. I think - I just think - I know what we’re looking for.”