The phone rang, and Ruth fished in her apron pocket for it. "Yes?"
"Mrs Kempe, ah, Ruth? This is the Personalia. Are you free to talk?"
"Yes, I am at the moment. My baby is asleep."
"Oh, yes. You have a child now. I understand I should say congratulations."
"Thank you. Can you get to the point of this call, please?"
"Apologies, Ruth. We wished to discuss some human facts that we have difficulty in understanding. That is to say, it is not facts that we have trouble with; it is the meanings behind them, and the reasons for these meanings."
Ruth was hesitant, unsure what the Personalia were getting at. The machine intelligences as a race were addicted to collecting facts, and were infamous for devouring everything on the Internet that permeated Earth's communication circuits. She said slowly, "Can you explain a bit further, so I can get what you are asking?"
"Yes. We have often encountered things we were not terribly sure of, and so just ignored. You realise that there are massive amounts of data out there that is worth collecting, so minor aspects just get sidelined for a while. I have been given the task of sorting out some of these unclear items. As you are a psychologist, you seemed an appropriate person to ask for help in this instance."
"I am flattered that you thought of me. You know I do very little professional work here on Rehome; I am busy being a wife and mother now."
The Person was sympathetic. "Do not concern yourself, Ruth. We want to talk to you about things we have trouble understanding, and ask you to help us out with them. It does not demand a specific schedule; you can respond as and when you wish."
"Oh. I see. Well, in that case..."
"Fine. Thank you for considering our request. We can consult dictionaries and get the exact meaning of a word, but sometimes there are connotations, social links, subsidiary meanings, and other associations that the word brings to humans; some things that we just don't "get" when seeing the word in use. Sometimes it has historical origins, or the word derives from a name. We would like you to be our consultant for getting to know what is REALLY meant by the words, or the background to the words."
"Right. I am with you now. Certainly, I can do what you ask. I might have to do some of my own research before explaining. Humans don't have as good memories as do you Persons! Now, if you will pardon me, I can hear a baby crying, and it even may be mine, so I had better go check: I am the mother on duty today for our family. We take it in turns."
The Person on the phone said, "Please phone again when you have the time. One of us – whoever is on phone duty – will answer and you can go on from there. When you speak to one of us, you speak to all of us." And rang off.
Ruth rushed back to see which of the three babies in her care was crying, before it set off the other two. It was her own Tessa, so she comforted the child, then breast fed her to help her get back to sleep.
Later that same day, while she was still alone in the Governor's mansion with the children, Ruth felt she could devote a little time to the Personalia's problem. She picked up her phone and rang; then explained she had some time to discuss words.
"Thank you, Ruth. Just taking a word at random, the term "funeral" seems to have a lot of baggage around it. We know it is a ritual prior to a burial, but it seems to have a lot more attached to it. Can you tell me about it?"
Ruth thought back to her own educational experiences. "Well, the first thing is that a funeral includes the actual burial. It is the total of activities associated with preparing the deceased person for burial, and quite often, there is a church service – or a short service in the funeral director's premises - before the casket is transported to the cemetery. Then there is usually a short service at the graveside, formally interring the corpse. The church service is more of a celebration of the dead person's life, and a recognition that the family and friends present are saying good-bye forever to the deceased. The latter, at the graveside, is the committal.
The standard colour to wear for a funeral is black. This is a mourning colour, but it also has another, deeper, reason: it is meant to confuse the Devil as to who is the dead person; and you do not wear black after the funeral in case the Devil comes after you. However, that is not universal, and some elderly widows continue to wear black clothes for years afterwards. Queen Victoria did this for a very long time. In more modern times, men wore dark suits but a black necktie is de rigueur for the occasion."
"Please go on." The person was interested.
"There used to be a tradition that no-one walked in front of the coffin in the procession, but that changed in the late 20th century when the guy in charge of the funeral arrangements took to walking at a slow pace in front of the whole procession, effectively acting as a Master of Ceremonies. The bell of a church was rung at the time of a funeral, the relatives normally paying a fee for this ritual. Some communities paid a small annual fee towards upkeep of the church bell, and got it rung free of charge when a relative was buried."
"Fascinating. I presume that the English Acts for burial in a woollen shroud was part of the ritual?"
"In a way. In England it was actually an economic measure. The Act took a fair amount of wool out of use, since it stayed in the ground, and it ensured the wool supply was restricted enough that the value of English wool did not drop. At that time, wool was an important economic commodity. And it was rigidly enforced. The relatives had to provide a signed affidavit that a woollen shroud was being used. If you didn't produce it, the fine was 5 pounds – quite a lot of money in these times. The only exceptions allowed by the Acts was for plague victims and paupers."
"I see. There was another question to resolve. We note that the word "ghost" appears in association with death, but it is unclear to us what a ghost is. It appears to be more a matter of imagination than of fact."
"True," agreed Ruth. "Ghosts are traditionally supposed to be the spirit of the deceased person, but there is no positive evidence for the existence of ghosts. There is circumstantial evidence for a variety of unusual happenings, but mostly it was mysterious noises in a house. It was probably natural noises from movement caused by pressure on doors or walls; often just air pressure changes caused by wind outside. The occurrence might be drops in temperature in particular locations, or visions of something half-seen. These are probably due to the brain misinterpreting what it feels or sees, or temporary eyesight problems, or hallucinations brought on by something ingested or inhaled."
She decided to add a bit extra, "Incidentally, historically some executed criminals were buried at a crossroads; the thinking being that the spirit of the dead person will be confused by the choice of roads and be less likely to find their way to their former home and disturb relatives. It seems a daft idea today! One phenomenon that seems to have at least some evidence behind it is the poltergeist. This is where objects move without being touched, and sometimes people levitate temporarily. The occurrence is almost always in association with one or more teenagers, usually at night, so the implication, though unproved, is that the developing mind of the teenager sometimes causes these effects. The occasions are rare enough to keep them as mysterious acts, but certainly interesting."
"Useful to know, though we cannot see any direct relevance for us. Can you explain what an Easter Bunny is, please? It just doesn't seem to make sense to us."
"Oh, yes. You are quite correct in your assumption. This happens in the United States of America, and it has become a tradition there that Easter Day may be represented by a rabbit hoping along, distributing eggs; or parents hide eggs in long grass for the children to search for; and you get chocolate rabbits being sold as children's treats. The custom actually derives from an ancient German superstition that rabbits laid eggs on Easter day. It is all so silly that I cannot believe people thinking it was true. I can understand about eggs: Easter eggs represent the round stone being rolled away from the entrance to the rock tomb of Jesus Christ several days after his crucifixion – the central theme of the Christian religion. Children are encouraged to decorate hard-boiled eggs with watercolour paints, and play at rolling the eggs down a steep hillside on Easter Sunday morning, in a sort of distance competition without prizes. When the eggshells finally crack or break open, the children have fun eating the egg inside.
The egg is also a symbol of life, but there are dozens of superstitions about eggs – many of which contradict each other. There is nothing about these human foibles that should concern the Personalia."
The Personalia voice was soothing. "Oh, we are interested in all these human customs. It is the illogicality of so many aspects of human life that are so fascinating. None of them is a thing we would have done: they are sheer fantasy to us. Almost every object seems to have associations with the imaginings of humans.
However, we are starting to understand WHY you humans do certain things. For instance, now we can see why you have fights, and the bigger fights you call wars: It is your solution to a relationship problem when you cannot accept a sensible outcome of your dispute. You work yourselves up to the point where you spill over into violence instead of persevering with negotiation. On the odd occasion when one party starts by attacking without negotiation, there is a simple conclusion: the attacker is at fault. In all other cases, attacks are usually the result of losing the argument."
"That is a good summation of our conflicts. It won't be the same for murder or attempted murder, because there is no negotiation involved." Ruth was sure she had the right of it.
The Personalia did not agree. "There is a difference, but it is one of timing, Ruth. From our analysis of human criminal records, there is a social negotiation that leads up to the crime. The conflict in the end is simply a delayed resort to violence where negotiation has failed."
"Do you really think that?" Ruth was intrigued by this assertion.
"Indeed so. The analysis is certainly positive in that regard."
"Are you suggesting that you could solve any murder or similar crime, by analysing the prior disputes?"
"No, I could not claim that. It is not always known which dispute led up to the crime. Social interactions are often, as you know, not publicly observed or recorded. But many disputes are publicly known, even if sometimes these are not properly recognised as pre-murder conflicts."
"Even so, you are implying that your work on that data suggests you could do better than human policemen?"
"It may be so, in particular cases. The police investigators have to spend a lot of time and effort collecting evidence from the crime scene, and other information from witnesses; and the relevant data is often not recognised as relevant for a considerable period. This is why modern detection work involves securing the crime scene, so that evidence that may be important is not lost before it is realised to be important."
"Hmmm ... yes, I can follow that. And it takes the police so long to get to the perpetrator because they can't really use psychology to narrow down the suspects. They go about their work in the manner laid down by their organisation, and the inevitable routine slows down the investigation."
"As we understand it, you don't have the same organisational structure on Rehome. Does that help you with your criminal investigations?"
"We don't really have crimes like that; at least, not so far. I expect as the population increases, we may get some cases, but I hope that our society is more resilient than that of Earth's major nations."
"Do you think they will call you in, for a psychological assessment of the case, if you get one?"
Ruth laughed a little. "It is possible. Diane is Head of Security for the planet, so she may call me in, being so handy – us both married to the same man, so in the same house."
"Oh, yes. I remember your unusual family arrangements. Well, if a psychological assessment is needed, please consider that the Personalia may be able to help in pulling together all the known facts. That will make your assessment more definitive."
This conversation stuck in Ruth's memory, not as a surface image but as a deeper source of consultation when it was needed. It came to the fore several months later. The occasion was Diane's recounting at the dinner table a case her team was working on.
It had been the discovery of a dead body in Metropolis. The body was that of a 20-year-old man, and he had been stabbed to death with a single thrust of a sharp blade. Diane explained to her family that the information on the victim was still being gathered, and the evidence did not point to anyone in particular. Indeed, there were several people who might have committed the killing. They were awaiting more evidence before drawing any conclusions.
Diane went on, "His name was Tom Dyson. He was a recent immigrant; a guy with not too much education, but trained as a plumber. He was one of the newest batch of tradesmen imported to work on converting alien houses for human occupants. So far, we don't know much about what he was doing, and whom he was interacting with, but my investigators are working on that. I am hoping we'll get a lead tomorrow," she concluded. "I don't think it is my child herding day, is it?"
It wasn't, so she was at her office when she got a report late in the afternoon, from John Roberts, one of Charles's deputies. The officer came to her, with his notes still in his phone. He would write the full report after he had given her a verbal summary. "Ma'am, the victim, Thomas Dyson, was involved in a number of fights and scuffles over the past month or so; and he has only been on the planet two and a half months! He has had fights with several men, mostly fighting over girls or money or just male quarrelling. He was in debt to several people, most of it incurred with his drinking. People always seem able to find alcohol," he sighed. "This means there are a number of people who might have wished him dead. I am more of the opinion that those he owed money to would prefer him alive, as they might eventually get paid. Other men he quarrelled with may have had occasion to kill him in anger; and where they quarrelled over a girl, that is easy to envisage. And any fight where the parties have been drinking may very well end up with a drunken stabbing. So we have a plethora of suspects and nothing in the way of witnesses to the stabbing. We shall have to dig deeper, chief, unless someone has a bad conscience and blabs to us."
"Oh, dear. That is unfortunate. This may be a long case, by the sound of things. Have we enough personnel to pursue all the avenues this case suggests?"
"I believe so, ma'am. We are fairly up to date in our other cases, most of which are minor offences in comparison. We can temporarily devote all our resources to investigate every possibility that has revealed itself. Permission to go ahead with that?"
"Certainly. I'd like to see this one resolved soon, to prevent it it becoming an unsolved mystery. No need to report every part of the investigation, just the parts that look like taking us somewhere worth following up. Tell the team that if there is anything I can do to help, let me know."
Diane confided in Ruth that evening. "Just when everything else seems to be running along nicely, some murderer manages to make life complicated again. We have a whole slew of suspects for this one, and it will take ages to sort it out. Tell me you have some good news, Ruth, to stop me being depressed."
"No, I don't have any, but Bob mentioned a new development that could be a good thing."
Diane's eyes picked up. "Really? What exactly has our husband been saying? He didn't mention anything at dinner."
"Well, you know how the Personalia persuaded him to bring in the second city mind and install it in Metropolis?"
"Yeeess, but that was weeks ago. I know it is up and running. The city is showing improvement already."
"Well, the latest is that the Personalia want to clone several more minds and install them in the other cities. Bob pointed out that we haven't started colonising these cities yet, but the Personalia brushed that aside, telling him that the new minds would then have time to get into the routine of running these cities, and when we humans came into them, the city minds would be fully prepared to make things easy for us."
Diane was interested in this idea. "Sounds cool. I hope Bob agreed."
"He did. The Personalia are going to make all their preparations, then they will announce when it will be happening. I think that's why Bob said nothing over dinner. He is waiting until the details are settled."
Diane looked at Ruth in exasperation. "Ruth, dear, why then did he tell you?"
"Oh, he wanted my opinion of the psychology of that proposal. I agreed that making an announcement too early might be counter-productive. Just don't mention to him that I told you about it."
"I won't. I have enough problems of my own. I don't think your psychology would be able to help there. It is all stolid police work."
And it was. No reports came to Diane for many days, and when one finally arrived, it was not what she expected. John Roberts reappeared, to tell her, "Ma'am, all the investigation we have done has produced exactly zero leads as to the perpetrator of this murder. Of all the possibles, none can be identified as being in a position to murder him at the time and place we know he died. We have found all the people to whom he owed money; all the people who got into fights with him, all the people with whom he quarrelled over girls: none fits the bill."
Diane was surprised. "I am curious as to why you are so positive about your negativity. Have you gone over all the statements yourself? Checked all the physical evidence for yourself?"
"I have, ma'am, and my boss Charles has also gone through it all. He agrees with my assessment."
"Weird. John, the man was killed. We are missing some vital evidence. Go back over the data about the place where he was killed, and see whether anything was happening at or near the spot around the time of his death. I want to know if someone or something was there; some event happening in the vicinity. The perpetrator may have had no previous connection with the victim and it all happened without any of the normal patterns we expect to find. Please do this for me, John. I have a hunch that there is something missing. Look for time periods when we have no evidence of his movements; look for what is not there, if you get my meaning."
"Very well, ma'am. I shall do that." He went off, shaking his head in disbelief at his orders.
A few days later, Diane asked for a medical appointment for both her and Ruth, at the same time. The surprised medical staff agreed, recognising that they were the Governor's wives, and had a certain degree of clout in the community. Arriving for the appointment, Diane told the doctor, "We want you to test us for pregnancy. We suspect we are both expecting again."
The tests proved positive, so once the results were obtained, their husband was informed at the dinner table. "Bob," said Diane, "Ruth and I have some news for you. You are to be a father again – both of us are pregnant." Stunned, he gradually started to grin. "By gosh, girls, you know how to please a man! Thank you, you pair of wonderful women."
Mary watched from the other side of the table, and shyly spoke. "Well done, ladies. Perhaps I can add to the list sometime soon. You are just a few months ahead of me for ovulation."
"Do you want another child, Mary?" asked their husband. "I wasn't too sure about how you felt about more children."
"I am sure, Bob," she replied, adding some confidence to her voice. "I managed to produce one live baby in Sophia, so I am sure I can do it again. I am no longer afraid of giving birth." This was a reference to her first child, who died at birth on the same day that her first husband was killed in a road accident on the way to the hospital. There was a complicated story of her mental condition on Rehome that had ended up by her marrying Bob with the approval of Diane and Ruth.
"It is great news, ladies. It makes a change from stories of murders and mayhem."
Diane was quick to correct him: "Just one murder, darling; and no real mayhem. It is just a bit mysterious, how we can't find the killer."
"You can't? Any particular reason for that situation? It is not like you, Diane, to be stumped!"
"Bob, we threw all the personnel we had into investigating all the possible suspects. Every last one of them was nowhere near the scene of the crime at the time of the murder, and they can prove it. This is highly unusual, but in this case, every claim the suspects made checked out as true. We have eliminated everyone."
"Not a good idea, that, to prove that no-one was able to do it!" Bob grinned at the concept, patting Diane's hand in sympathy. "So what are your people going to do now?"
"We don't give up, Bob. I have instructed my men to go back over the location and time, and find out what else was happening nearby, or near to that time. There must be someone we have missed; someone whose presence we have still to discover. Perhaps there was another girl who we didn't know about, or another man he pissed off without the facts being widely known."
Bob was reassured that Diane was still working hard. "Well done, darling. I knew you would come up with an avenue to try. You are not just a good looking lady, and a tough soldier; you are a smart cookie, and I am proud of you."
Diane just smiled in gratitude for the compliments, as she knew they were well deserved.
Her smiles faded over the next few days, as her policemen failed to come up with solutions. Oh, yes, they had found things happening not far away from the murder site, and things happening around that time, but nothing seemed to have any relevance to the murder. There was extensive vandalism happening nearby around that time, but nothing to indicate who the vandal or vandals were. Equipment was partly destroyed, with all the breakables being comprehensively broken. Street lamps had been attacked and put out of action. A girl had been attacked not far way, but she had got away without being raped. There was evidence that someone had been sick on the pavement fairly close by, but by the time it was found, local wildlife had cleared most of the sick constituents, making it difficult to determine what the person involved had eaten.
Diane was getting frustrated now. Bob sensed this and suggested, "Why don't you ask the Personalia for help? They may be able to root out information from the city mind for you. Oh, I realise the city mind is not as clever or wise as the Personalia, but if the Personalia can plug in to the city mind, they may spot something that will give you a breakthrough."