A spaceship flies through the void between Mars and Earth. Once it lands, its occupant Phobos goes to a pawnshop and greets owner, Deimos. Deimos asks about Phobos' trip, and admits that the service at Earth outposts isn't good. Phobos says that outpost duty would drive him mad The Caretaker says that he was nervous when he heard that Central Control were sending a Senior Inspector. Phobos presents his credentials and Deimos shows him his. The Inspector boasts proudly of his background, and says that he has brought a miniaturized temporal condenser for a "controller experiment" If it isn't used sparingly then it could rip a hole in the fabric of time and space. Control is worried about humans' experiments in nuclear bombs, and is fascinated by the human custom of "murder". It only happens on Earth, and Control worries that "murder" could become contagious and nuclear war could break out through the galaxy. Phobos going to perform a controlled experiment and determine if it's random. If it tends to spread then they'll have to destroy Earth and find Deimos another outpost.
A human knocks on the door and Phobos says that he'll hide and record his observations. Once he hides behind a rack of coats, the customer Frank Brant comes in and offers Deimos a rebuilt. They haggle and Phobos mouths to Deimos to take it for $25. Frank is surprised that Deimos gave him so much and quickly leaves, and Phobos emerges from hiding. He explains that he wanted to get Frank out because of the stench, and expresses interest in humans' nicotine and caffeine syndrome. Deimos has cigarettes and coffee, and offers some to Phobos. Intrigued, he tries some of both and is immediately hooked.
Phobos contacts Probability Division and explains that they've been processing the population of the city for a week. The Division gives him coordinates to go to where they've determined a 99% probability that a murder will take place there. Deimos determines that it's the lobby of the Locksdale Hotel, and the murder will occur in seven minutes.
The Martians go to the hotel lobby and hide behind a potted plant. Phobos sets up the condenser and activates it. He homes in on a woman, Carla Duveen, and notes that she's out of position for the victim's location. He figures it is someone getting out of the elevator. and Deimos suggests that Carla is involved. Deimos puts a verbal beam on Carla and discovers that she's greatly agitated about a man. When he can't get a word in, Phobos takes the equipment and asks her what her name is. Carla hears it as her own voice and says her name, and figures that she's cracking up. She goes back to thinking unpleasant thoughts about the man, Bert Hamil.
Right on time, Bert arrives via the elevator. Carla stands to face him, draws a gun, and yells that Bert is a two-timer. She shoots and kills him, and then stares at his body in shock. Phobos is surprised that it happened so fast, and figures that there must be a scientific explanation for what happened. Deimos prompts him to run it back, and Phobos uses the condenser rewind time back to the beginning of the countdown. The whole sequence begins again and Carla kills Bert. Phobos wants to get a determination of cause and effect, but Deimos warns that's all that there is. The Inspector runs it backward, explaining that the condenser is an advanced model and the only danger is wearing out the sample area. He studies the spectators but determines nothing, so he slows down the temporal sequence. Phobos explains that he'll go out and examine Carla, and he won't be affected and they won't see him because of their less advanced sensors.
Phobos goes out and examines Carla, and takes the gun while Deimos monitors for temperature changes. The Inspector finds some currency in Carla's purse and tries to decipher it without success. The elevator arrives and Bert steps out in slow motion while Phobos studies the participants. He notices that Bert has lipstick on his collar. Carla shoots and Bert goes down, and Phobos goes back to the condenser and replays the scene. It's still not slow enough to see the bullet, and Phobos slows it down even further so they can see the bullet.
While Deimos takes blood samples to see if there's a chemical in humans that causes murder, Phobos analyzes their psyches. Neither one of them finds anything, but Phobos gets the name of the "floozy", Betty Lou. However, Bert doesn't know anyone named Betty Lou. Deimos points out the lipstick and explains that it appears in many murders. Phobos says that they'll set the condenser on automatic while they go up in the elevator with Bert. The condenser is overheating from freezing things too long, and Phobos restores the time flow to normal speed in reverse. The elevator door closes before the Martians can get in, and Phobos fast-forwards the scene, goes past the murder, and rewinds it until he gets it to the point where they can get into the elevator before Bert reverses into it.
The elevator returns to the tenth floor and Bert kisses a girl, Arlene Schnable. Deimos explains what's going on to Phobos, and admits that they all do it. Arlene finally gives her name and Phobos figures that it has no connection Carla shooting Bert over Betty Lou. The converter reverses automatically, and Phobos admits that he's completely baffled. Deimos says that the only scientific law that applies is uncertainty. He admits that he's rather fond of the eccentricities, and tries to explain the concept of "fondness" of Phobos. Phobos tells him to pull himself together and insists that science will find an answer.
Bert goes back to the elevator in slow motion, and Phobos and Deimos get in. As they take the elevator down, Deimos offers Phobos a cigarette to sooth his nerves. Phobos figures that they should interfere to determine why humans murder each other. Deimos point out that they could unravel the entire universe, but a buzzed Phobos says that it's only a minor divergence.
The elevator arrives in the lobby and Carla shoots Bert. Deimos begs Phobos not to interfere because Control will send him to an asteroid, and Phobos says that he wants to see what happens if there's no murder. This time he flicks the bullet into a wall and goes to the condenser with Deimos. They run the sequence forward normally and Bert admits that he went out with another woman. He claims that he had to test his feelings to discover that he really loves Carla, and assures her that he does. Bert gently takes the gun and asks her to marry him. Deimos tells Phobos that it's a reflex, as Bert and Carla kiss.
An emergency signal comes in from Control and Phobos responds. Control tells him that they've detected a Double A Red Alert Emergency, the highest priority in the galaxy. They inform Phobos that he's exceeded his authority and the space-time continuum may be permanently altered. Their computers predict a major disaster: Carla and Bert produce a male child and tell him about the miraculous deflection. The child believes he's immortal, grows up, enters politics, becomes a dictator, and starts a nuclear war that blows up Earth and the entire solar system. The destroyed solar system puts the galaxy out of balance and it collides with Andromeda, destroying both. Control tells Phobos to put things back the way they were and make sure that Carla shoots Bert.
Deimos gets an idea and whispers to Phobos. Phobos tells Control that they'll make sure that Carla shoots Bert. He rewinds time again to the point where Bert came out of the elevator. The condenser starts to smoke, and Phobos tells Deimos to jam the recording tape with a little static. While Deimos advances the time flow again, Phobos invisibly puts a cigarette case in the path of the bullet. This time the bullet deflects off the case and goes into the wall, and Phobos knocks Bert over the head. Phobos returns to the condenser and Bert collapses. Deimos jams the recording tape and cheerfully confirms that Carla shot Bert.
The Martians restore the time flow to normal. Phobos tells Control that they put the experiment back and the victim is on the floor. Bert wakes up and tells Carla the same thing he did the last time. He asks Carla to marry him and they kiss as the Martians look on affectionately. Phobos tells Control that the condenser has broken out and murder appears to be random. He recommends that Earth remain and he be assigned to Earth permanently. Phobos then tells Deimos that he's going to stay because he's getting "fond" of Earth. Deimos offers him a cigarette but Phobos takes out the case and smokes his own. The Caretaker offers to buy him a cup of coffee, and they head out smiling at the happy couple.
Written by Gadfly on Dec 24, 2017