Nothing. There was nothing useful in any of these peoples’ memories about the murders. Or, more to the point, there was too much. Every single one of them knew exactly how they had done it. They had detailed (relatively speaking) memories of the entire process, their plans, how they had carried them out, their guilt over the whole thing, and so forth. They confessed everything to the others and let me access their memories so I could see for myself. All of them were cooperative, and none of it helped.
Despite the number of people involved, there were actually only about ten different overall stories. It was like whoever had done this spell or whatever it was had only been able to come up with so many different scenarios, and then pasted those into the minds of these people. One per person. Before long, I didn’t even need to watch the whole memory, I just saw which one it was, checked for anything extra, and moved on.
None of these people knew who had done this to them. They had no memory of any spell like this, or of anyone else performing any suspicious magic at all. Which also blew my mind, because this couldn’t have been a small spell. This was replacing the memories of almost three hundred people. Okay, it was more about adding a memory and modifying a bit, but still, that made it even more complicated in some ways. The idea that no one had seen anything involving that, no one had come across a spell–okay maybe the person did it in one of their private rooms. That was very possible. But still, it didn’t really help us here at all. For all we knew, the killer really was someone inside this room and they had simply erased their memories of it. Maybe Sariel could have sniffed out the right one, but I wasn’t that skilled with this stuff. And we couldn’t get out of here to get help from her. According to Sitter, the system absolutely would not allow us to leave until the right murderer was found. I had no idea how that worked, or how this Valdean guy had managed to set up something like that. All I knew was that Sitter was apparently incapable of overriding his own programming and he had been given very strict instructions about how this had to go. It wasn’t even just instructions, apparently. The answer for how to unlock the facility and allow us to leave was buried in his system and he couldn’t even access it until he was convinced the murders had been properly solved and the killer caught. Even if he wanted to go against his programming, he couldn’t. He physically didn’t know how to tell the system to let us leave, and wouldn’t until after we found the murderer. He literally could not access that information within himself.
So, we had to solve this whole thing in a way that satisfied him. Though right now, all we had was hundreds of people with a few different stories shared between them. Maybe one of those stories was correct. Maybe I had literally talked to, and possessed, the person responsible for all this, and had seen the actual reason this happened. Maybe one of those ten scenarios was the real one. It seemed like it would be a good way to hide. If we dismissed every version of these stories, we might be dismissing the real answer. But there was no real way to check. Other than running through more of their memories, and I felt like I’d done everything I could on that front. There were holes in the stories, but everyone had those sorts of holes, the details that didn’t match up entirely, the faces that were faded when I looked too closely, that sort of thing. I managed to get pretty quick at simply checking those spots of the memory to see if the person in question knew anything more than the others, but always came up empty. Which, to put it mildly, was unhelpful.
So, now I was taking a break. It had taken a couple hours to get through everyone, and now they were all having iced tea and sandwiches that Sitter had brought in. Not that many of them were eating that much. They all seemed subdued, talking very quietly amongst themselves about what was going to happen now, and who could have been responsible. I saw a few scared, anxious looks around, and a few people who clearly had their own suspects and kept staring back and forth at one another. There was actually less of that than I would have thought, a testament to how much work Valdean had put into creating a real community here. But still, there was some.
Finishing my own sandwich while perched on the edge of one of the chairs that Sitter had provided up here on the stage, I glanced to where Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny were sitting with their own food. “I don’t know, guys. I think we need to search their rooms for the murder weapons. Even then, they could have used magic to disguise or destroy them. Though something tells me they probably wouldn’t get rid of a gun that could help them get out of trouble. If it could kill a Heretic, it could probably help them out against a lot of other people in here who might try to stop them.”
“They might still have the weapons on them, in a hidden pocket or bag, or be able to summon them,” Sesh pointed out. “Magic complicates things that way, you know?”
“Yeah, I’m not exactly shocked by that statement,” I muttered. “But, after going through all their heads, I think it’s safe to say that if they do have the gun or the ability to summon it, they don’t know about it right now. No one in this audience remembers anything about what they did with the weapons they supposedly used. Which just proves those are fake memories all over again, as if we needed another reminder.”
“I’m really sorry I couldn’t help,” Denny put in after taking a deep gulp from her iced tea glass. “I mean, I’m sorry I couldn’t get the right answer that easily. But I can still help. We both can, right?” She looked to Dakota.
Dakota’s head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. Maybe we can’t flick a magic button—” She stopped, glancing to me with a tiny smile. “Flick a magic button.”
“Haha,” I retorted. “Not the worst use of my name I’ve heard.”
The younger girl’s smile actually widened just a little. She seemed more comfortable here, shifting a bit in her seat before continuing. “We can’t–uhh, snap our fingers and get the answer, but we’ll help search. We talked to those guys, we–um, we didn’t really get anywhere, but we tried.”
“And trying is all any of us can do,” Marina assured them. “You guys are doing just fine. Better than most. And I don’t just mean your age. A lot of people would have fallen apart by now. Or be making the situation harder.”
“She’s right,” I agreed. “And hey, I couldn’t get the answer with either of my instant buttons either. I can possess everyone in this room to dig through their memories, and I can summon the ghosts of the dead. Neither of those helped. So don’t worry, we’re all batting zero right now. But that just means we have to get a little more creative instead of relying on cheating. We take this whole thing one step at a time. And right now, I think the next step is to search their rooms. Which…” I groaned a bit. “That’s gonna take awhile too. And we should figure out what’s going on with these guys first. Not to mention get their permission. Or at least tell them what we’re doing. I’m not… I mean we don’t exactly have legal procedures in this place, but still.”
“If we’re going to be better than the Crossroads system of just killing everyone, we have to really be better,” Marina put in quietly. “I know we can’t afford to like, say ‘okay then’ if they tell us they don’t want us to look through their things, but we should at least let them come with.”
Sesh nodded, showing her impressive array of teeth. “I mean, that’s not a bad idea anyway. It gets them away from the rest of the crowd if we need to… you know, restrain them. Or worse.”
“Well, so far, it seems like Denny’s power works on them,” I pointed out. “As soon as we find the person, she can just tell them to stand still and not hurt anyone, or whatever. Uh, right?”
Denny gulped, but nodded. “I can use the power for that, yes. If it means telling a bad guy to stand still and not hurt anybody, I can definitely do that.”
Raising her hand, Dakota hesitated before asking, “But won’t it take a long time to keep going back and forth from here to all the rooms with one of those elevators?”
“Right,” I agreed. “Maybe we should take groups at a time. Like ten or so. But who’s staying here with these guys? I mean, we shouldn’t leave them here alone and unsupervised. If the murderer is among them, bad things could happen.”
“Ahem.” That was Sitter, who had been standing on the far side of the stage. I wasn’t sure how good his hearing was, but apparently the answer was ‘pretty good’, because he turned to face us and came closer. “I am more than willing to watch over my residents, and capable of protecting them from any harm.” There was a brief pause before his mouth lights dimmed to a dull yellow. “Any harm I am aware of,” he added more quietly.
“I’ll stay too,” Sesh informed us with a shrug. “You know, keep ‘em company, talk to people, whatever. You guys are probably better at the detective thing than me. I can at least keep everyone in here occupied. I’m sure they wanna hear stories about what’s been going on in the outside world, you know?”
“Right,” I murmured, “that’s sort of the other big thing we need to tell people.” Grimacing briefly, I looked around at the others. Denny, Dakota, Sesh, and Marina all looked back at me. They knew what was coming, and we were all uncertain how it was going to play out. These people finding out that their leader and benefactor had been murdered was bad enough already, but talking to them about how they had been frozen for decades, that the world outside had kept going and… yeah.
But, I wasn’t going to push that off on anyone else. Hard as it was, I had to be the one who broke the news to them. So, telling the others to hang on a minute, I stepped back to the front of the stage and cleared my throat. “Excuse me.”
Now I had their attention again. Every single one of those nearly three hundred people were focused on me, clearly hoping I would have real answers for them. Too bad I was just about to make things even more confusing instead. That thought ran through my mind briefly before I shook it off, took a deep breath, and started. “There’s another thing we need to tell you. I’m sure you’re all aware that the original… murder scene was shut down and time-locked in order to preserve the evidence until people could get here to check it out.”
Barely a couple seconds had passed after I said that before one of the crowd, a green-scaled reptilian humanoid with three eyes across his head and a crocodile-like snout raised a hand and asked, “How long?” His voice was loud enough to echo through the room, drawing everyone’s attention. “How long have we been time-locked?” His gaze was focused on me, even as a murmur started up. “That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? After Valdean was killed, they didn’t lock down a single room. They locked down the entire vault. So what Earth year is it now?”
Oh boy. Seeing everyone staring my way as they whispered in confusion at one another, I grimaced inwardly before answering. “Okay, yes, the vault has been time-locked. It’s 2019 right now. January, 2019.”
Well, that had the expected result. Everyone was suddenly talking at once. They wanted to know why it took so long, where the hell we had been, what happened to their families and people they knew outside, how various sports teams had done, whether the world actually survived past 2012 in a couple cases, if the Seosten had taken over and that was how I had these powers, and more that I couldn’t actually catch. It had instantly descended into total verbal chaos.
Obviously, I couldn’t blame them. If I had to think about how I would feel to find out that I had been frozen for a couple decades while the whole world went on outside without me, I… I really had no idea how the hell I would react to that. Even if I had some of my family and friends with me, knowing that the others had gone on for that long, that the world itself had continued while I was… yeah. Yeah, I couldn’t blame them at all. It was a lot to take in, especially on top of what they had already been told. Even more so when you added in that we were also telling them there was a murderer among them. A murderer among their friends, the people they had spent so much time with in here and were obviously incredibly close to.
Yeah, no wonder they were freaking out a bit. I was actually surprised they’d been holding it together this long, to be honest. We were dumping an awful lot on the group. So, I let them react for a minute, rather than immediately try to quiet them down. They deserved the chance to get some of that out, even if I really didn’t have the answers they wanted to hear. And, of course, this whole thing was made worse because now they weren’t nameless faces. I had been in their heads. I had seen some of their thoughts and experienced their memories. Sure, it was all jumbled for me and hadn’t had time to settle in my brain yet, but still. Every time I focused on one of them, I knew their name. They weren’t strangers, not really. I could still hear the pain and confusion that had been in each of their thoughts as they believed they could have been the murderer, that they could have been responsible for killing two close friends. Every single one of them was dealing with a lot right now. Too much, really.
Finally, before things spiraled too far, I spoke up again. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry we don’t have all the answers for you. We’re working on it. I can tell you why it took so long for us to get here.” That started to quiet them as they focused on me, so I continued by giving them all a quick rundown of what had happened with the Rebellion itself being erased, and how that had clearly erased knowledge of what was going on here. Then the man who was actually told had died before the eraser was undone. Finally, I explained how us showing up had essentially been an accident.
“So how long would we have just sat here if you didn’t show up?” one of the women demanded.
I looked to Sitter, who promptly answered, “If not interrupted by the arrival of some Crossroads Heretic at some point, the time-lock could have continued for up to another one hundred and twelve years before our power supplies would have necessitated releasing it.”
If I’d thought things were loud before with a lot of questions and people talking over one another, it was nothing compared to what happened then. Everyone was talking at once. The mere thought that if we hadn’t happened to practically trip over them, they would’ve been stuck here for another hundred and twelve years, not getting out until close to the year 2150? Needless to say, it drew a reaction. Though through that, there were other people who were insisting that if one of them was a killer, it was the right move. Which just made them start talking about which of them it could be again, and things devolved into even more shouting. This obviously wasn’t getting anyone anywhere. And if I didn’t step up and stop it, the situation was going to get even worse.
“We’re going to figure this out!” I called over the sound of their rising voices. “And as soon as we do, I promise, you’ll be free to leave the vault, or stay, or do whatever you wish. We just… we need to find answers, and once we do, we’ll give those answers to you. I just need you guys to wait here for awhile. We’re going to check out the rooms of this place, and we’d like to take a small group of you with us while we look into your apartments, so you can watch and talk to us about what you think is going on. You’ll all have a chance.”
“And what if we don’t want you to look through our apartments and private things?” That was the purple slime-like figure from earlier. They had stretched themselves up to a full eight feet in height to draw attention to themselves. “We mean, you’re Heretics. Boschers. How do we know you won’t just plant something to make one of us look guilty and call it a day?”
I hesitated, trying to find the right words. But even as my mouth opened to say something, Marina spoke up instead. “Because we’re not like them! If we were anything like the people you’re afraid of, you wouldn’t have to worry about us framing any of you. Because… because we’d just kill everyone in here. The loyalist Boschers, they wouldn’t care about making you look evil, because they already believe you are and they don’t need any proof one way or the other. If we were anything like them, we’d just come in here and kill all of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry to be that blunt about it, but that’s the truth. We’re here and we want to help. We want to solve this, find the real killer, and help the rest of you do… whatever you choose to do after that.”
“She’s right,” I confirmed, nodding that way. “We really do want to help. We want to find the real killer, and get answers about what really happened and why. I promise, we’re here to put things right, and that includes making sure you’re all safe. So please, can we get ten of you… let’s say you ten right there, to come with us? We’ll just go take a look at your rooms, talk to each of you in person again, and work our way through everyone. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find out the truth this way. Then we can all move on and talk about what’s next for all of you. What you all choose to do.”
There was a bit more uncertain murmuring, but we had mostly gotten through to them. The ten people I had pointed out gathered up toward one side of the stage, and Marina, Dakota, Denny, and I joined them. Sesh and Sitter stayed behind to talk to the rest of the assembled group. Hopefully they would be able to find out something on their own by getting more of those people to talk.
Meanwhile, Marina led the way out of the auditorium, while the ten people I had chosen trailed after her. Dakota, Denny, and I brought up the rear. It gave me a chance to look this group over. The slime figure was part of it, as was the Rakshasa male they had been shouting over before as both had tried to take the blame for being the murderer. The Rakshasa guy was called Padda. Meanwhile, the slime figure’s name, or as close as we could get to it in English, was Meshk. They went by they pronouns because they were actually a colony of beings, thousands of tiny slime-like figures barely a few inches across when stretched out, who joined together to form the larger collective body known as Meshk. Possessing them had been… a real experience, to say the least. I had actually only been possessing one part of the colony, but they were mentally connected to every other part, so it was basically the same thing.
In any case, we headed out together and let our first group take us to each of their rooms in turn. Unfortunately, none of the ten had anything inside their rooms that screamed ‘murderer.’ As far as we could find, the weapons weren’t hidden anywhere, and talking to this smaller group didn’t reveal any extra grudges or clues or anything. They really had no idea who among them could be the killer. It seemed like basically everyone in this place, well, might not be best friends, but at least basically got along.
We even, with their permission, had Denny use her power to have them show us any hidden or secret places inside their rooms. There were a few, even a couple with weapons hidden, but nothing like what we were looking for. And they all had valid reasons to keep stuff like that put away out of sight. They wanted to be able to protect themselves if the time came.
So, those ten were a bust. As were the remainder. Over yet another next couple hours, we checked each and every guest’s room, taking the elevator (we had to use a larger one in a few cases) throughout the facility. I learned an awful lot about what comforts they all enjoyed, how they liked to sleep, and so on, but nothing about the murderer. There was just… nothing. I liked all these people just fine, and whoever the real killer was, I was going to be disappointed.
Part of the problem was that there were just too many suspects. We couldn’t zero in on just a few that easily, because any of the nearly three hundred people could have been the killer. We just… had no direction. Right now, we were stuck just pulling in as much information as we could, and then we’d have to sort it out later. Thankfully, I had been taking notes on a notebook that Sitter had scrounged up for me. The notes were basically a mess, but at least I could sort of keep track of what I was finding out. I had the names of everyone in the place along with a few bits jotted beneath each one, and lines connecting them to others when there were (minor) grudges or friendships.
Finally, after the last group had been brought back to the auditorium to rejoin their companions, I stood by the doorway with the others. “That’s it? That’s everyone?”
Sitter, who had joined us, gave a short nod. His mouth lights turned faint blue. “Yes. You have now visited the rooms of each and every one of our two-hundred and eighty-four guests.”
“Yeah, well–wait, what did you say?” I turned that way, frowning.
Sitter’s mouth lights turned a slightly brighter blue as his head tilted. “I said–” Then I heard what was clearly a recording of his voice from a few moments earlier, as it included the crowd noise from the room nearby. “You have now visited the rooms of each and every one of our two-hundred and eighty-four guests.”
“Dudes, what’s going on?” Sesh asked as she jogged up. “I’ve got everyone in here playing games, but they’re getting pretty antsy.”
Holding up a hand, I thought quickly before asking, “Sitter, can you play back exactly what you said awhile ago, just when we were about to have me start possessing people? It was right after Jammi volunteered to be the first one. Denny said these people must really care about each other, and you said something about community spirit. What was that whole thing?”
Again, Sitter played back an obvious recording from that moment. “Master Valdean attempted to foster a strong community spirit. We have activities designed to create lasting friendships, even a sense of family. That is what we are here, family. Which is what makes these murders so difficult to understand. There were arguments, yes. With two hundred and eighty-four guests, how could there not be? But in the end, everyone loved Master Valdean for bringing them here. If they wished to leave, they could have at any time. They were not prisoners.”
Dakota hesitantly spoke up. “What’s wrong? Did something–did you notice something?”
“Um, maybe.” Taking a breath, I focused on the robot. “One more. Can you play back the recording of exactly what you said while we were still in Valdean’s room, after you told us that the rest of the vault was on time-lock? You said you didn’t expect it to take this long for us to show up, then I asked how long everything had been like that. Can you play back your exact response?”
Again, the robot obliged, and we heard his voice from earlier. “Every other room is, yes. Those areas, and my own chambers, lie beyond this room. Each individual’s chambers, and all of this facility’s two-hundred and eighty-seven guests themselves, have been time-locked for decades now. My decision to lock them down came in the late-nineteen nineties, just after my master’s murder and a couple of years after the first death.”
“I don’t–wait,” Sesh blurted. “Did he say–”
“Two hundred and eighty-seven,” I confirmed while rocking back on my heels. “When we were in the room, before he turned off the time-lock, he said there were two hundred and eighty-seven guests. Now, ever since he unlocked things, he’s been saying two hundred and eighty-four. And that’s how many we’ve talked to, it’s how many are in this room, it’s how many people we checked out, how many I possessed, how many–trust me, that’s everyone in here. Two hundred and eighty-four.
“So where, exactly, are the other three?”