Captain Belven was going on and on about things I hadn’t even asked about. Air filters. Garbage drops. Rivets. I turned to face the planet-side window, hoping the sight of my back would slow her down.
“Photochromic glass protects the crew from flares,” she began.
Eventually she’d get to murder, if I didn’t kill myself first. I yawned as I looked out. Miles below us the purple atmosphere of Swiffle Prime sloshed and swirled around the mantle drill. It looked motionless, though it was gradually widening as it absorbed beryllium from the planet’s core. I yawned again. Belven was clearly enjoying herself too much to notice.
“Not a single injury or death in twelve years,” she said. “Virtually no accidents because everything is state-of-the-art. Argon-bonded aluminum hull, temporal-difference matrix managing all mission-critical functions, ground return for all electrical systems—”
“Ground return?” I opened the tablet on which I’d been filling out the Mining Ship Safety Assessment Form. “Naked current runs through the ship?”
“Harmlessly through the aluminum hull.”
Nothing I said or did had any effect on her.
“It’s quite common in terrestrial and railway power systems,” Belven went on. “Current flows to the load through a wire, and it flows back through earth, track, or, in this case, hull. It saves a fortune in material to leave out all the return wires.”
“I see.” Rule Number Nineteen of Mining Ship Inspection: never turn around while the captain is explaining something.
“And when accidents do occur,” she said, as if it were a good thing, “we make our repairs with newer, better components—like the new composite crystalloid section on the drill arm.”
Rule Number Three of Mining Ship Inspection: never look where the captain tells you to look. In this case it was already in sight. I glanced left without moving my head.
The mantle drill hung from a metallic arm that extended several miles from the ship, like a gantry’s hoist line. The arm was silver everywhere except for the green-gold, composite crystalloid cuff where it attached to the ship. The cuff glittered for a moment, and then a shimmering pulse descended the beryllium shaft.
I had to admit it. Belven ran a tight operation.
I turned from the window and gradually started to frown. Belven was good, but so was I. “Captain—”
Rather than become annoyed at the interruption, Belven seemed to forget me as she spun to face an out of breath and apparently very poorly trained junior officer. “Quaggis! What is it?”
“Lieutenant Margill is dead!”
Belven continued to ignore me through several spotless corridors, all the way fussing with Sergeant Quaggis about “Who found the body!” and “Where!” and “How!”
“The break room, in the new section of the drill arm!” shouted Quaggis. “Electrocution!”
“An inevitable consequence of using ground returns,” I said.
“Virtually all of the return current flows through the hull,” Belven said, “not the ship’s interior.”
“Please be reminded that my assessment includes the etiquette of the crew.”
“Of course, Inspector Thymohl.”
Rule Number Twenty-seven of Mining Ship Inspection: if a senior officer is exhibiting gritted teeth, reluctant forgiveness is all one needs to highlight most deficiencies. “I will overlook what I have seen so far.”
The issue of “Who found the body!” was settled on arrival by the figure sobbing over Lieutenant Margill’s blackened corpse. I recognized Engineer Klestro from my morning inspection of the generator. Without raising his gaze he said, “Is that pompous bureaucrat still here?”
“Inspector Thymohl is still with us,” Belven said. “Now.” By this point I’d learned not to expect more by way of apology.
Klestro looked up from the body. “Real safe ship here!”
As he exited the break room he raised his central digit to the three of us—I was standing in the middle—yet another insolence unpoliced by Belven.
Margill’s corpse lay before us. His hair was gone, singed off along with everything else. It was the kind of electrocution that can decommission a mining ship and put its crew on leave for years.