The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston
(Carina Press, 2014)
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
“I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active—not more happy—nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.”
— Edgar Allan Poe, 1809 – 1849
I left Mars on a Tuesday in a jumpship bound for Ceres, and I didn’t know it at the time but by Saturday I would be dead.
Obviously I wouldn’t have left had I known, but when you’re a homicide investigator and your contact sends you out on a case, you don’t waste time. You get to the site of the murder before the echo of the orders has faded into oblivion—otherwise the witnesses are gone, the area hopelessly contaminated, and any hope of finding evidence to capture the killer is either ruined or a hell of a lot harder to find.
The fact that the killing had occurred on the largest asteroid in The Belt between Mars and Jupiter didn’t help matters any. A nine-hour voyage from Mars, and during it I imagined all kinds of things happening to that crime scene.
The time it took to get there, however, didn’t affect the outcome. Soon I would be infected with a deadly agent, without a cure and without a chance in hell.
A cold knot crawls up your spine when you know that you’re only days from death. It settles in the gut and stays there, a numbing fear—nearly paralyzing—as you wonder what threat is coming around the next corner.
And who exactly has killed you.
Part One: Tuesday—Four Days Left
*** CCF COMMUNICATION *** SECURITY DIVISION *** HOMICIDE SECTION ***
From CCF HQ, MARS
Contact: Tajiki, B. Capt.
To: Tanner, K. Lt., Security Division, Homicide Section, CCF
17 May 2402
Orders as follows:
Possible homicide at Fort Iridium, Administrative Division, Ceres. Proceed immediately.
Victim: Bojdl, Marek Lt., Physician, CCF, age 47.
CCF Security Division contact, Ceres: Lawrence, M. Capt., CCF
— Chapter One —
Murder filled my days.
One investigation after another, one capture after another.
And one execution after another.
Ceres was my latest destination. Largest asteroid in The Belt, home to miners, military, doctors and service personnel. I get sent all over system, usually staying at a colony for six months or so before getting shipped out to some other nearby settlement. Earlier it had been Mars, and now it was The Belt. I wasn’t too bothered by it; my life had been the same for the past twelve years. But now there was something different, something more than just my work—more than just the gore and pain and the splintered end of a broken bone. Now I had Shaheen.
I’d been a loner since childhood, since my parents’ death, even during my years in Seattle on Earth while living with my uncle. I’d come to love being by myself, the silent nature of my journeys. The independence had made me harder and more capable in my profession. But then I’d met Shaheen Ramachandra, the East Indian blue-eyed beauty, an extraordinary engineer and the most intelligent woman I’d ever met. Once she entered my life, I’d realized how alone I had truly been. Now she accompanied me on my travels and had changed me forever. For the first time since Seattle, despite the nature of my profession and the hate and rage I dealt with every day, I was happy.
Ceres grew slowly in the tiny jumpship’s viewport. Gravtrav brought us in, pushing against the pull of the Sun—which was considerable even at this distance—and I studied the asteroid. Small, oblong, tumbling serenely against the starry vista. The girders and structures of Fort Iridium were clear on the rock, portholes and starlights dug into the iron-nickel remnant of the solar system’s formation billions of years earlier.
I grunted and Shaheen looked at me, pulled me closer. “Nervous.” It was a statement, not a question. She knew me well.
It was a feeling akin to that of someone scared of public speaking preparing to give a lecture to ten thousand people. A churning in the stomach. Queasiness. It was always there at the beginning, but went away as soon as the investigation started.
“Come on, Tanner,” she continued. “Your reputation is likely powerful here, same as everywhere else. They remember The Torcher. They remember you.”
It was my most famous capture. A serial killer hunted by many, but only I had been able to finally cure humanity of that particular cancer.
“True,” I finally managed. “Nevertheless…”
The mood hung in the air between us as we docked at the colony.
As did the knowledge that yet again I was about to poke my nose into matters that someone wanted kept secret.
Fort Iridium was mostly a mining settlement, a focal point for the work going on in The Belt, but it was also a jump-off station for travelers to the outer reaches of the system as well as a trading port. The population was over fifty thousand, so it was not exactly a frontier town, but neither was it a thriving metropolis.
And still the crimes remained. They seemed to travel with us, no matter where we went.
Our ship’s ability to manipulate gravity guaranteed a constant one gee; our feet clanged with purpose as Shaheen and I disembarked the jumpship in the pressurized landing facility. The port was spacious—the rock ceiling high overhead—and the sounds of vessel maintenance and shouts of arriving and departing travelers echoed everywhere. At the base of the ramp, a man in the black uniform of the CCF—which Shaheen and I also wore—stood waiting for me. It was, after all, a military base, even though the principal purpose of the colony was to mine asteroids.
There was a pistol on the man’s thigh.
His salute was crisp. “Lieutenant Kyle Tanner?”
Admiration and excitement were clear in his features. Inside I groaned. I didn’t appreciate fame brought on by the death of others. All I could manage was a quick nod. He would interpret it as callousness, but Shaheen knew better.
“Captain Lawrence,” he continued. “I’m in charge of Security Division here in the Administrative Section. I’m also your new contact.” I guess the low population meant that he had time to come and get me personally and not send a crewman.
“You don’t have homicide investigators here?”
“One, but I had to send her to Titan. When we filed the report, I guess you were next available. I hope the trip wasn’t too bad.”
Shaheen and I had passed the time in our own special way—a way that we couldn’t get enough of. “The trip was agreeable.”
Shaheen snapped a look at me.
“Good,” Lawrence continued, oblivious. He wouldn’t make a good investigator. “I’m happy they sent you, to be honest. We were unsure about this one. About…”
“How could you be unsure if it was murder?” As I said this I stumbled slightly over my words. They brought back bad memories of another recent case that had started under mysterious circumstances. Sometimes just a plain killing out of revenge or anger could be so much less agonizing for me.
He shifted his feet, as if interpreting my question as an accusation. Eventually he gestured toward a hatch and we began to move to it. “The death seemed natural. But what Bojdl said just before, well, it confused us.”
The victim was Marek Bojdl, a doctor in his late forties. Natural deaths at that age were growing more and more rare.
“What was it?”
Lawrence glanced at me as we passed through a set of double doors meant to contain pressure in case of catastrophe. He said nothing.
Shaheen split off from us after receiving our cabin assignment, and I promised to meet her shortly. She was to continue on to Pluto and a new engineering post in only a few hours and needed some rest after our strenuous trip from Mars. I glanced at her and her eyes met mine; we knew what was coming when I was done with Lawrence and the facts in the case.
Lawrence brought me to his office in CCF headquarters on the asteroid. Carved from rock, the surfaces laminated with a hard plastic to eliminate dust, it was quite similar to other outposts on airless worlds where the crust itself made an effective barrier to vacuum beyond. Mercury, for instance. On some worlds, however, the crust was too porous for this and engineers designed domes to provide a habitable environment. Nanos were good at building them cheaply and quickly.
Lawrence murmured a few words and a holographic keyboard appeared on his desk. The surroundings were utilitarian and bare, as should be the case in military settings. I found it comforting, in fact. The path through HQ had been less comfortable for me—people had stared and whispered to one another as I followed my new contact to his office. It bothered me—and contrary to my silent wishes, it wasn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, the response seemed to grow as time passed.
“Bojdl died while having lunch.” He said the name Boy-dill.
“In the mess?” I asked.
“He was carrying a tray to his table.”
“He just collapsed?” Taking in this information was crucial to the case. I needed to know everything in the seconds—and even days—leading up to the death.
“And you mentioned that he said something…”
“Indeed.” And then silence.
“Do you have a surveillance recording?”
He pushed a key and a second later the office around us dissolved. In its place the mess hall appeared, complete with every person present at the time of the incident. I nodded my approval. Holographic video, in color, complete with every conversation going on at the time. We could zoom in on any table, any person, and amplify any voice we wanted. To make things even better, it was a continuous stream as if we were watching it happen. Some surveillance systems only took snapshots of events every few seconds.
“Here’s where it happened.”
There was Bojdl, midstride, with a tray of food in his right hand. I rose to my feet and marched to where he stood frozen in space. The computer immediately compensated for my action, and the image actually moved toward me to shorten my path, so I wouldn’t crash into the office bulkhead. Bojdl began walking and I studied everything intently. He had close-cropped hair and sunken cheekbones. He wore a black T-shirt and surgical pants. A moustache. Deep lines in his forehead. And his expression seemed…beaten. I had seen that look before.
“Stop,” I ordered. Pointing at his bare arm, I said, “He’s injured.” Gauze and tape covered something there.
“A burn in the lab a day earlier. I asked about it.”
That drew a glare from me. “Investigating is my job here, not yours.” Despite the fact that Lawrence outranked me, as the homicide investigator on the scene I actually had authority over everything related to the crime and investigation, and he knew it.
A frown. “It was just something I asked when I checked in at the clinic. Dr. Dinova was there and told me.”
I considered that for a moment. “Continue the projection.”
Bojdl began walking again before suddenly faltering. He reached his left hand out to steady himself on a nearby chair before losing his balance. The tray clattered to the deck, food spilling everywhere, and the metal chair tipped and skidded away. It had happened without warning, and the surprise on the faces of nearby onlookers was obvious. Bojdl followed his tray an instant later with a dull thump. His face pressed against rock and his lips moved silently as his chest heaved. People surrounding him bolted to their feet and began yelling for help. Most moved away, but some leapt forward and knelt over the man.
“Stop,” Lawrence said. “Replay and focus on what he’s saying.”
The images reversed quickly and once again we watched Bojdl take his last unsteady steps as he crashed downward. This time, as his lips began moving, the scene suddenly zoomed to his jaw and mouth. His hissing voice echoed around us. It was a surreal moment as Lawrence and I stood in that office while in the air floated a gigantic face grimacing in pain and sudden panic. The rest of the cabin was now dark.
“He did it…killed me…finally got to me…” The last words were part of the death gasp, that final bit of air that escapes from a corpse’s lungs.
The massive image of his mouth hanging limply open as saliva bubbled out remained before us.
I broke the silence. “Send this to my reader immediately.”
The Administrative Division of Ceres had several doctors, one of whom had died only the day before. Captain Lawrence had mentioned the chief physician, Marina Dinova, while describing the death. She was first on my list to question.
The clinic was located only a short walk from CCF HQ. My datachip reader had automatically downloaded a map of the facility, and it pointed the way as I marched through the connected caves and tunnels of the mining colony. This was the administrative zone, so there were no miners in sight, just military officers who ran the colony and the personnel who operated the mine and kept the shipments of iridium and iron moving toward the system’s major outposts and worlds.
The steel hatch slid aside smoothly. I entered and studied my surroundings. Procedures tables along one wall. Consoles and desks along another. A small corridor which led to the freezers. They held corpses waiting for transport or cremation. The area was brightly lit and seemed sterile.
It looked the same as every other military clinic. Timeless. Placeless.
How often have I stood in these places, investigating murders? I thought idly.
“Can I help you?”
I turned to the voice. “Dr. Marina Dinova.”
The woman stared for a moment. She clearly recognized me and then seemed to shake it off. “That’s me. What’s the problem?” She was all business now, as if I were a patient.
“Lieutenant Kyle Tanner. Homicide investigator.”
She hesitated for another heartbeat before, “Ah. Marek Bojdl.”
“You suspect murder.”
“Then how did you know why I wanted him?”
“It’s been the only death recently.”
“And yet you know the CCF thinks it was suspicious.”
She gave a slight smile. She had short, cropped blond hair with gray highlights, probably natural. She was in her early fifties and had sharp features, but not unpleasant ones. She was pretty, in fact. “I can tell you are good at your job. Already you’re grilling me about this.”
“Why don’t you think it was murder?”
She folded her arms. “I’ve run the autopsy. I did it yesterday immediately following his death.”
That much was good. She was following military regulations. “And?”
“Aneurysm of the aorta which turned into a rupture. Blood pressure crashed. Hemorrhaged into his chest cavity before we could save him.”
“Are you aware of—”
“I know what he said. But still.”
I watched her for a moment more. She seemed very sure of herself, as any good doctor should be. She was a lieutenant commander and had served the CCF for decades, helping expand the Confederacy and enforce the military’s authority over humanity. She seemed cold and hard and I had no doubt that there had been pain in her life, as with most other people.
“How sure are you?”
She shrugged. “The aorta is open. You can see for yourself.”
“Send me the images.”
“I will. It’s an aneurysm. I’m not sure why he was saying the other things.”
“What about his medical history? Is the family prone to this sort of thing?”
I pursed my lips. “How long had you known him? Was he your patient?”
“Colleague. We also worked together at our previous post. We were good friends, Tanner. I’m shocked and saddened.” She frowned. “But his death was natural, as hard as it seems.”
I gestured to my reader. “Send your autopsy report as well. I might return.”
I could feel her watch my back as I spun on my heel and left the clinic.
There wasn’t a lot more to do with Bojdl’s case. I studied Dinova’s autopsy report in minute detail. It was very well written, crisp and clean and to the point, and the images of the aorta clearly showed a devastating death by natural causes. I looked into Bojdl’s past but there wasn’t much there either. His family consisted of an ex-wife and a grown daughter on Venus, estranged and not very helpful. Sad when they heard the news, but not overly so. A clinic coworker and a few other acquaintances had spoken of how distant he seemed, how he often appeared “sad and thoughtful.” His former assignment had been at some sort of research base on Europa and he had transferred to Ceres less than a year earlier.
But still, his last words were haunting and clearly indicated the gender of the killer.
“He did it…killed me…finally got to me…”
Were they the words of a man plagued by wild fantasies, paranoia and delusions brought on by the stresses of working and living in such a dangerous, hostile environment? Burdened by the loneliness of a ruined marriage and a daughter who didn’t care for her father?
Or were they the words spoken by someone who knew he was a target?
I found Shaheen in our cabin, napping, and it took all of five minutes for her to wake upon my arrival, gesture to me, and for the lovemaking to begin. The pain of decades of loneliness seemed to overcome me every time—the ache of dealing with murders and crime scenes and the gore and the blood. I was like an animal and Shaheen enjoyed every moment. At times she clawed my back, eager for my hunger. At others she was gentle, caressing and whispering her desires and cravings to me, which I happily obliged. And then there were the times I stared into those blue eyes as our bodies moved together, sweaty and sticky and in perfect rhythm until the mutual climax overpowered us and we moaned in unison.
Over the bunk the large port provided an incredible scene of space and stars and the distant sun, as well as approaching and departing jumpships. The cramped cabin was just a bed and a lavatory, but it was all we needed.
It was all we’d ever need, I thought.
Shaheen left later that day. It was a painful thing to watch her board a jumpship with ten other passengers bound for such a distant place as Pluto, but at least I knew I wouldn’t be far behind. I would follow her when a case drew me in that direction, and I would soon join her at the colony there as she coordinated a massive engineering project involving the construction of a space elevator from the surface to orbit.
Four hours passed uneventfully. I continued to look into Bojdl’s murder, but didn’t find anything else. Death by natural causes. Lawrence and I were ready to close the report. Final words brought on by sudden panic and hysteria, knowing that death had its cold grasp on him.
It made me shake my head in wonder. Ninety percent of all cases my contacts sent me on were murders that were fairly easy to decipher. The clues were always there. Close friends, relatives, neighbors. Routine investigation could dig out the likely suspects, then a little more pressure could reveal the culprit. This one was just…odd.
I decided to not close the file just yet. The fact that I had the full weight of the Confederate Combined Forces behind me was a tremendous weapon which I had no moral difficulties wielding. Civilians generally disliked us, but knew that to go against the CCF was to invite a death sentence. We’d taken over every aspect of society—media, education, commerce, even theater and literature—and those who objected generally ended up dead or missing. It wasn’t my place to judge whether that was right or wrong. I was part of the system after all. One of the authorities. I did my job and I did it well, and I operated in the society in which we all lived.
Still, resentment toward the Council was one of the crimes which I was most…sympathetic to, I guess.
Then came the call that changed my life forever.
I awoke from a deep sleep at the insistent signal from the communit in my cabin. It was still Tuesday night, though it was slipping quickly into Wednesday. It had been a long day of travel and investigation, and I desperately needed the rest. I slapped the accept button and mumbled something to the screen.
A shaky voice from the device: “Lieutenant Tanner?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, sir.”
A long pause ensued, and a prickly sensation crawled up my spine. “What is it?” My words were deliberate, measured, and my eyes were now wide open.
“Lieutenant Shaheen Ramachandra, sir. She’s dead. It was completely unexpected.”
Another long pause as I struggled to grasp what I was hearing, and whether I was still asleep. “Repeat,” I finally managed. “And you better—”
“She just dropped dead, here on the jumpship. We’re still en route to Pluto. I’m sorry to tell you…the officer in charge of the elevator Command Group asked me to call. There was no way to save her.”
And then came the words that froze my blood.
“An aneurysm killed her.”
* * *