The Furnace by Timothy S. Johnston
(Carina Press, 2013)
We are lost! They have thrown us into the furnace, without rations, almost without ammunition. We were the last resources; they have sacrificed us… Our sacrifice will be in vain.
—Sergeant Paul Dubrulle, Verdun, 1916
Part One: Orders
Investigator’s Log: Lieutenant Kyle Tanner, Security Division, Homicide Section, CCF
Certain death approached.
It had stalked me for days, always just a step behind, but I had thwarted its every attempt. Skill, foreknowledge and perhaps even luck had aided in my escape. Unfortunately, even the best investigator couldn’t have avoided events on that damned station once they’d been set in motion, and it had taken me too long to discover the truth. SOLEX was now gone—destroyed in the final carnage—but hopefully I had eliminated the danger within.
Now a new threat rose on the horizon.
Alone in space, my body spun like a rag doll, limbs nearly sheared at the torso. It took ten minutes for consciousness to return, and when it finally did, I longed for the darkness to take me again. My head ached and my body felt like it had been through a twelve-round prizefight. The acceleration had been brutal, but I had made it. My neck hadn’t snapped, my brain hadn’t turned to jelly and my lungs hadn’t collapsed. I had withstood g-forces that would have killed most people.
But I’d had no choice. I’d had to run.
I shook the cobwebs from my head and winced in pain as I did so. The status display inside my helmet indicated nominal function across the board—yet another surprise. The temperature was in the high-normal range, but that was expected at this distance from Sol.
I craned my neck to look toward the sun, but could no longer make out SOLEX’s debris, orbiting at just five million kilometers. The separated station components now drifted on unplanned and unknown trajectories, their interiors baked into oblivion, the dreadful cargo they carried cleansed forever. Now, hurtling through space in a vacsuit taxed well beyond safe limits, I knew I was in grave danger. I had only a weak comm, and transmitting amid the radiation emitted from the sun was like shouting into a hurricane. No one would ever hear, especially Mercury, still sixty million kilometers away.
Dammit! I had survived this far, I told myself. I couldn’t let it end this way.
I swallowed nervously and licked my cracked lips. The mass driver had done its job well, but my velocity was only three kilometers per second. My oxygen readout indicated that only three hours remained in my current supply. The extra bottles I had thrown into the driver with me each held four, which gave a grand total of fifteen hours. I groaned as I did the simple math in my head; I’d only get 162,000 kilometers before my air ran out.
My throat was sandpaper, my tongue swollen against clenched teeth. I had long since depleted my water supplies, but in the grand scheme of things, their importance was negligible. The poor radio, the lack of water, the diminishing oxygen—none of these held a candle to the true danger:
My exposure was rising fast. Alarmingly so. At this distance from Sol, I could only withstand it for a few hours. I had now been out in empty space, the sun’s massive fury blazing at me unblinkingly, for a quarter of an hour. Even though I was moving away from the star, the punishment my suit had to deal with was just too much. My speed wasn’t nearly enough to save me.
Not by a factor of a thousand.
Unfortunately, I had sabotaged my own ship and all the escape pods as well. I had only hours—maybe minutes—to say my prayers, call for help and record what had happened to me on SOLEX One. I had to let the authorities know who had killed all those people—myself included.
I thumbed the button on my wrist and began to record my story.
I filed the capture warrant at 1300 hours. Fifteen minutes later, I marched from the hotel that had been my home for the past four months. The guy behind the counter scowled at me as I pushed through the lobby and stepped out into the tunnels of the city. It was a typical reaction; people didn’t much like the military in this district. A scowl was the least I would get today. Mostly I heard muttered comments, and sometimes, if the guy was brave enough to take me on and receive a beating, he’d spit. I was used to it. I could even understand, to a point. A lot of officers in the CCF were cold and heartless. They didn’t give much thought to people’s feelings, and if anyone got in their way, look out.
I’m a little different, though. I’m in the military, sure, but a homicide investigator sees a lot of death, gore and pain, and as a result we can sometimes grow more sensitive to what people are going through these days. I’ve seen some of the worst crime scenes imaginable: corpses skinned, decapitated and hanging upside down, limbs and eyes and a variety of other parts missing. There’s a lot of fluid in the human body. I’ve waded through feces and blood and urine, ankle deep, and examined the crime scene while taking notes like it was an ordinary day. I’ve faced the victim’s family afterward and attempted to explain what happened. Doing so has taught me to be sympathetic, and without that, this job would have killed me years ago. That’s why, even though I’m in the Confederate Combined Forces, I don’t really deserve the rap that others in the Terran Confederacy’s military get.
In the tunnel outside the hotel, deep beneath the surface of Mercury, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with the surging masses making their way to work, play or wherever people went on this godforsaken planet. I threw a glance at the rock ceiling a few meters above my head. Who the hell could live underground like this for more than a few days? It boggled the mind. Already it was beginning to wear at my patience—and I knew I wouldn’t be here forever.
I garnered a few more dirty looks on my way to the Gates of Hell, but I had long ago learned to ignore them. Checking my datachip reader, I studied the map of Mercury’s underground warrens. Off in a distant corner, pretty much as deep as you can get, was the place I wanted. A dusty, grimy little tavern—a shit hole, from what Flemming had told me. Full of shady figures, criminals and kingpins, it was the last place a respectable person would be found. If it hadn’t been for Quint Sirius, I’d already be on a different mission.
I scowled. Quint Sirius. He had killed the best—and only—friend I’d ever had.
Michael Flemming had also been a homicide investigator. There aren’t many of us, compared to the population in the system. As a result, we’re forced to work alone, traveling from job to job, planet to planet and station to station as needed. We never partner up; there’s just too much damn work and not enough people who can see through the lies and deceptions. When the opportunity presented itself, however, Flemming and I had sometimes conferred with each other on our cases, providing helpful advice and opinions.
Flemming had asked for my help on his most recent case. Someone had raped and murdered a young woman named Tara Silvers. After questioning everyone related to the crime, he hadn’t been close to pinning it on anyone.
So I took his files, read his notes, looked at the facts objectively and finally determined that the killer he was after wasn’t there. Flemming simply hadn’t found him yet.
That was sometimes the case in our line of work. Usually the killer was one of the first people you looked at. Someone in the immediate family. The closest “friend.” The guy who found the body. The neighbor. But on occasion he was so far removed, so distantly related, that it just took longer to get to him through the usual methods. I had once spent a month looking for the killer of an elderly woman on Mars and had grown exasperated after the long and fruitless search. And then, purely by chance, I stumbled upon something in the lady’s personal belongings that directed me toward an old acquaintance—an enemy who had let his anger simmer for two decades before he finally acted.
The recruiters in Security Division had said they saw something in me. Intuition. Luck. Hunches. Perhaps all that played a role. Who knows?
I had studied Flemming’s investigation reports and skimmed right over Quint Sirius. He hadn’t stood out at the time, but two days later I’d realized he was the one. Unfortunately, by the time I told my friend, it was too late. Sirius had either killed him or put out the hit.
The Gates of Hell had a gaudy, fluorescent sign over the entrance: red flames licked upward and partially obscured the name in rapid flashes. The G wasn’t even lit; it had probably burned out long before.
I removed the pistol from the holster strapped to my thigh, straightened my black CCF uniform tunic and stalked through the hatch.
It was dimly lit inside, and I paused for a few precious seconds as my eyes adjusted. It might have been a mistake, but I figured the uniform would prevent troublemakers from doing something too stupid.
There weren’t many people within, just a few scattered patrons who nursed drinks at round tables. I caught some hooded glares, and a couple of outright hostile ones as well. I scrutinized the drinkers as I searched for Sirius.
The bartender in particular stared at me with narrowed eyes. “We’re closed,” he finally growled. “Get out.”
Ah. The usual resistance to the military. I was used to it by now; you had to be, in this society. We controlled nearly every facet of life, including the legal and justice systems, and we were bound to draw scorn from the civilian population. I kept my voice flat as I responded.
“I’m not here for you.”
“I don’t care, bud. Out.” He pointed to the hatch, displaying a stubby finger and a thick, knotted arm. The guy was big, stocky, bald. He had branding up and down both biceps, piercings everywhere. He flexed his muscles as I measured him up.
I marched toward the bar. “I couldn’t care less what you want right now.”
“You think that pistol scares me? You got no business here.”
His type wasn’t uncommon; I’d dealt with them on many occasions. Scary to look at, tough talking, but when push came to shove, they were too slow to fight the good fight. Age, alcohol, brainstim and a variety of other vices had done a lifetime of damage.
I holstered the pistol. “How about this? Come out from behind that bar and we’ll settle it, right here.”
He stared at me as he considered. “You’ll be back with your buddies when I beat you. Or you’ll pull the weapon. No dice.”
I spread my arms wide. “Scared?”
He scowled. “Of what? A little guy like you?”
I shrugged and studied him silently.
“What are you trying to goad me for?” He bared his teeth. “Get lost.”
I threw a quick glance around the establishment. There, in a dark corner, lurked a skinny guy in a dirty white T-shirt. Quint Sirius. I had studied the bar’s floor plan; I knew there was only one way in and out. If this bartender wanted to make a fuss, let him. I’d make an example of him right in front of the exit. Quint could watch; it would make capturing him that much easier. In fact, already he eyed me intensely, perhaps curious as to why a CCF officer was in the Gates of Hell.
The bartender was growing angry. I could see the thoughts churning through his head. He knew I was determined not to march out empty-handed. Finally, his furrowed brow flattened, he moved around the bar and stepped forward. “All right then, let’s—”
I took a huge step, turned to the side, and struck out with my left fist. It sank into his Adam’s apple and he stumbled back with a gurgle. I twisted in the other direction and brought my booted foot savagely into his knee. After a sickening crack he hunched over with a groan, clutching his shattered kneecap.
Less than two seconds had passed.
“You bastard,” he wheezed. “You tricked me!” Saliva dribbled from his lips as he stared at the contorted leg in his hands.
I snorted. A typical response from a loser. I wasn’t a fantastic fighter by any means, but I knew that taking the initiative and presenting a fiercer, more intense front made up for a lot. That and the fact that he was in such a sad state had practically guaranteed my victory.
In another twenty years, I realized sadly, things probably wouldn’t go so well for me. Take advantage of it now, I often told myself. One day you’ll be too old for fieldwork.
“Bullshit,” I snapped. “I challenged and you accepted. Now you can limp to the hospital.”
He glared at me for a second before flashing a glance at a man seated directly beside me. In his eyes I saw a hidden order…
I spun and drew my pistol. “Enough. Stay there and put your hands on the table.” The man—already partly out of his chair—slowly lowered himself, fists clenched in anger. “Quint Sirius,” I yelled. “Get your ass up here.”
From the back I heard a scuffle, and the scrawny man stumbled forward against his will. He fell before me and looked up from the dusty floor. The grumbling behind him had intensified. At that moment, he had no friends in the Gates of Hell. “What do you want?” he spat.
“I’m here to serve a capture warrant.”
“On what charge?”
He blinked. “That’s ridiculous! I—”
“Save it,” I growled. “You killed Tara Silvers and Michael Flemming.”
His face grew pale, but he managed a quick laugh that sounded more like a squeak. “I don’t even know those people.”
I gestured with my pistol. “Get up. Let’s go. I don’t want more trouble.”
“Do it, Sirius.” The bartender was now in a chair, his ruined knee still clutched in his hands. “Get out now, and take the goon with you. And don’t come back.”
“No problem there,” I said.
Sirius jerked his head from side to side. “I didn’t do nothin’!” he cried. His eyes darted about in search of a friendly face. “Someone, help me! Don’t let him take me—they’ll torture me! Kill me!”
“Torture is too good for you,” I said. I looked at the faces that surrounded us. Perfect. I had angered them, but they had no particular love for the man at my feet. I was going to get out of this with my health—and my pride—intact. “You’re on your own, Sirius.”
The bartender snarled and pointed once more to the hatch.
Sirius looked like a frightened little girl. It brought a smile to my face. Justice for this one would be sweet.
I brought the lanky murderer—all hundred and thirty pounds of him—to CCF headquarters, booked him into the brig and tried to resist the temptation to beat him to a pulp. Any murderer was bad enough, but this guy had killed the only friend I had.
The cell was a small chamber with a narrow bunk and a steel toilet. There were no other amenities, not even sheets. I had to carry in a stool.
He stared at me defiantly, but there was no mistaking the look in his eyes. He knew his odds were diminishing by the second.
“You killed Tara Silvers,” I said without preamble. “And when Flemming found out, you killed him too.”
“Nonsense,” he sneered, putting on an air of righteousness that was more act than truth. He had regained some of his confidence, but I knew it wouldn’t last.
“It was in your file. When Flemming questioned you the first time, you claimed you’d never met the girl.”
“I hadn’t. I don’t—”
“But when I reread it I realized you’d been on Mars.”
He looked instantly suspicious. “Yeah. For a spell. It was—”
“Three years ago. You were there gambling and drinking. The same old shit you always do. Right?”
“I was working!”
“Sure you were. And meanwhile you were causing trouble and getting yourself arrested.”
He hesitated for a moment. “No. I never got—”
“CCF records state you were fighting. It was a brawl that you started, Sirius, in a sleazy tavern. The usual rock you’re found under.”
It was always the same for his type of lowlife, and as a result they were simple to track and easier to catch. They never gave up carousing; it was in their blood.
“Bullshit,” he retorted.
“You can’t argue with military records. It’s as plain as day.”
“I—I—there must be some mistake.”
“Nope. You were on Mars. You got arrested, and in custody, you met the girl.”
He shot to his feet. “No way! I told you—”
“You took an immediate disliking to her. She rubbed you the wrong way somehow.”
“She wasn’t in the brig with me!”
I paused. “Oh. So you were in the brig?”
“I…” He trailed off, eyes shifting as he thought furiously. “No. I wasn’t. I told you that.”
“Right. So there you were in the brig with everyone else who’d been fighting, and Tara Silvers was also there for some minor offense.” I didn’t want to say that it was prostitution. She was dead and cremated. There was no sense furthering her disgrace. “Something happened between you two. What was it?”
“I never met her. I told you—”
I plowed on, trying to keep him off balance and on the defensive. Make the facts seem strong. Don’t stop pushing. Be confident. No hesitation. “The records don’t lie. You had business with her.”
He shook his head violently. “No way, man.”
“And something happened. Something went wrong. Maybe you couldn’t get it up—”
“Bullshit!” he screamed. “Bullshit!”
I suppressed a look of satisfaction; I was close. Some sort of dysfunction had prevented the little weasel from performing that night. “So you couldn’t do it, and maybe she laughed. Maybe she made a comment or something. Whatever it was, it drove you nuts.”
“You’re making wild guesses right now, asshole!”
“But you were in that brig, right? You already admitted—”
“No I didn’t!”
“So you felt insulted by her,” I continued, ignoring his protests. “It stuck in your craw. Who knows? But three years later, here you are on Mercury. Hanging out in the usual dives. And surprise, surprise, who should you see but Tara Silvers. Maybe you spoke to her, maybe you tried to do her again. Or maybe you tailed her one night, found out where she was staying, and when no one was watching—”
“You’re insane, man!”
“—you broke into her place and killed her.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead. He didn’t like my train of thought, that was for sure. Maybe I was dead-on, or maybe I was just a little close for comfort. Whatever the case, it was obvious he had killed her. He was acting damn jittery, and he had already lied to me.
“This is all conjecture,” he fumbled out. “None of it’s true.”
“People saw you two in the same bar the night she died.”
He frowned. “There were lots of people in the bar that night.”
“Flemming questioned you about her. You said you’d never met her.”
“Lie. It escaped his notice. Mine too, for a bit. But security arrested both of you, the same night on Mars, three years ago.” I stood. “There’s the connection, Sirius. You lied about knowing her. It tells me you killed the girl, here on Mercury.”
His eyes were frantic. Pleading. “Just because I say we never met?”
I shrugged. “Sure. You lie about that, you lie about other things, right?”
His eyes fixed to mine for a long moment, and then his expression abruptly sagged. “All right, all right. Look, sure, we met. But it was just for a minute or two. We chatted in the brig, on Mars, like you said. But that was it—nothing else happened!”
He’d broken, just like that. Too easy.
“You killed Flemming when you realized he might connect the two of you.”
“No way,” he protested again. But he wasn’t as fervent as he had been a minute earlier.
I leaned forward and stuck my nose right in his face. “Got ya,” I whispered. “The penalty is execution.” I grabbed the stool and marched to the hatch. The guard stepped aside. He was glaring at Sirius, his distaste clear. He knew the man was guilty of murdering his comrade. Even though Flemming had been an officer and he a lowly grunt, he knew he had to enforce the line that connected us all. Otherwise the civil disorder that lurked just below the surface would emerge with a vengeance.
When I stepped through the hatch, I knew what would happen in that cell. So did Sirius—he had the sad look of a beaten animal.
“Think of Flemming when you die,” I said as a parting shot.
I heard him whisper something under his breath, too quiet to make out.
“What was that?” I asked.
He dissolved into tears. “I’m sick,” he managed between sobs. “I need help.”
Despite myself, I swallowed a lump in my throat. I didn’t want to see my captures act like…like…
I shoved the thought aside as quickly as it had come.
I left the room and didn’t look back.
I stalked through CCF headquarters, oblivious to the stares that followed me. I marched past black uniform after black uniform without seeing them. I could hear their muttered comments. They knew who I was. I had heard it all before.
A seeming eternity later, the exterior hatch slid aside, and I thrust myself out into the dark tunnel.
My heart pounded.
I couldn’t help blaming myself. Had I put the pieces together sooner, had I read the facts correctly the first time, Flemming and I could have issued the capture warrant two days earlier. What had happened to me? Why hadn’t I seen it?
Why had I failed Flemming?
Ten minutes after I left CCF HQ, I received a page on my reader. I reluctantly moved to answer it. “Damn,” I muttered. No rest for the weary. I wouldn’t even get a day to relax before the next job. I hit the receive button. “Kyle Tanner.”
“Tanner, how’d it go? Did you get that little punk?” It was Lieutenant Commander Bryce Manning, head of CCF Security Division on Mercury. That placed all military police and nearby off-planet investigators under his direct authority. His face looked up at me from the tiny screen.
“I got him. He’s in custody. And you already know that or you wouldn’t be calling.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” He paused. “Listen, I just got a call from Earth. They want you for a job.”
I stopped in my tracks. “They asked specifically for me?”
“Your reputation, obviously.”
He snorted. “Listen, even I’d heard of you before you got here. You’re uncanny.”
Not all the time, I wanted to say. “What is it?”
“Not quite sure. They’ve asked me to send you to a place called SOLEX One Command Group. I’ve got the directions, and it’s here on Mercury. Swing by my office and I’ll—”
“What is SOLEX? A ship?” He didn’t respond. “Who exactly called you?”
He cleared his throat and looked off camera for a moment. “Someone high up. That’s all I can say right now. Come on over and I’ll fill in the details.”
The screen went blank.
Shit. Another mystery, which meant another murder. One day it would get to be just too much for me, and I’d quit this damn job.
It was too bad so many people thought I was so good at it.
Bryce Manning was my contact on Mercury. He dispatched the homicide investigators in this sector of space and sometimes, in exceptional cases, sent them as far away as the outer reaches, even beyond the Kuiper Belt. Out in deep space, however, shipboard military personnel and local colonial governments took care of their own problems—under the laws of the Confederacy, of course.
I had been all over system. I wish I could say I’d seen the sights on Neptune, investigated Valles Marineris on Mars and gone orbit diving on Venus, but I couldn’t.
On Neptune Three I had investigated the death of a wealthy widow. Her brother had cut her into pieces and mailed them all over the system.
On Mars I had looked into the death of a CCF captain who had disappeared while on leave. A prostitute had killed him in a jealous rage and left his body on the surface in a tattered vacsuit with a shattered visor.
On Venus I had captured a serial murderer hunted for years. It was my most famous catch. The guy, nicknamed the Torcher—or torture, a play on words the media had thought was pretty clever—had burned each of his victims for twenty-three minutes. All seventeen cases. No one knew why; crazy people don’t often make sense, and I didn’t much care. I caught the guy, brought him in, and seven days after his speedy trial he was just a bad memory.
They execute the vast majority of the killers I capture. That’s just the way it is; I don’t give much thought to it. The evidence is usually hard to come by, but once I’ve found it, there’s no arguing their way out of it. They’re all guilty, every last one.
Some people might think hunting killers is a glamorous occupation. Me, I just think of it as a job. I do it well and I derive satisfaction from it, but I’m no different from the guy who maintains the hyperspace engines on a colony ship, or the guy who shovels shit on a pig farm in Utah. It’s all the same.
I moved my hand over the scar on my left thigh, a memento the Torcher had left for me during his difficult capture. I’d kept it as a reminder of how dangerous the job could be. A warning to never let down my guard.
I jumped a high-speed railcar, sat wearily and thought about Quint Sirius. I should have at least roughed him up. Maybe even killed him myself.
But that just wasn’t my way. The guard had probably had some fun, and then later the proper authorities would execute him. But it wouldn’t be vigilantism; it would be after a trial and a review of Flemming’s file.
There wasn’t a lot to see as I rode the track through Mercurian rock. It was all dull, lifeless tunnels with veins of iron, nickel and copper lacing the smooth surfaces. The station where I exited was just as bad: a long, barren, featureless cave where passengers could board and disembark from the vehicle. I shook my head. Mercury.
Bryce was a good enough sort. He respected my abilities, and he usually laid off the military protocol when I was around, which suited me just fine. But around others he would bark orders, demand salutes and practically humiliate new recruits. At least he followed regs and didn’t mess around with my investigations. Regardless, soon he would send me to another colony in the system, and I would report to a different contact.
He flipped me a salute as I entered his office. He was overweight and had three chins, but he still managed to stand as I entered.
“Lieutenant Kyle Tanner,” he said.
“Hello, Bryce.” I sat in front of his desk and stared at the maddening little model of the solar system that sat there, forever spinning. Along with the Oort cloud and the Kuiper Belt, Pluto was included in most models of this type—for nostalgia’s sake—and every time it and Neptune crossed orbits, there was a tiny squeak. After thirty of them, it was enough to drive you crazy.
Bryce had probably listened to it a hundred thousand times or more, and it didn’t seem to faze him.
“Good work on Quint Sirius.”
“I just hope he gets what he deserves,” I muttered.
“Of course he will. What else do you think will happen to him? He killed two people, one of them an officer in the CCF. His trial is in three days.”
“Do you want me to—” I began.
“No. You’re going to SOLEX One.”
“Never heard of it until today. Where is it?”
He exhaled and pointed to the model undulating on his desk. “Here.”
I peered past his finger. “The sun?”
A chuckle. “Just about. It’s an energy-generating station orbiting pretty much as close as we can get. Five million kilometers. It’s gathering solar energy, massive quantities of it, converting it to microwave form and beaming it outward.”
My heart sank. I’d thought Mercury was bad. This was worse.
“Where are they sending the microwaves?”
“Right now, to a single satellite orbiting Earth. It’s a feasibility test. When this phase is over there will be a thousand of these things orbiting the sun, beaming microwaves all over system. It’s cheaper than fusion and totally clean, or so they tell me.” A grunt. “Could be someone’s pet project. Who knows? Just a little dangerous for the people who work the collectors.”
“Must be.” Five million kilometers. Sounded insane to me. Here on Mercury the daytime temperature got up to seven hundred Kelvin, hot enough for rivers of tin and lead to flow freely on the surface. And Mercury was fifty-eight million kilometers from the sun. SOLEX was one-tenth that distance.
“And,” Bryce continued as he tapped a few keys on his reader, “there’s been a murder.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Ha, ha,” he barked sharply. “Good one.” He wheezed for a few seconds, then spent a couple more trying to catch his breath.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“I have orders here from CCF headquarters on Earth. They asked for you.”
“Why me?” I murmured.
“I guess they haven’t forgotten your work with the Torcher. Word is the Council members themselves are looking closely at this one.”
My jaw dropped. “The Council? Why would they be interested in this?” Our ruling body usually had more important matters to deal with, like seeding colonies and maintaining peace.
“Who knows? Maybe one of their relatives is on the station. Hell, maybe it was the victim.”
I sighed. “Damn it, Bryce. I hate other people interfering—”
He held a hand up. “You won’t have to worry about that, trust me. SOLEX is so remote that you’ll essentially be on your own up there. No one coming or going. There aren’t many ships with heat shields that can take that stress.” I shot him a pointed look, but he had seen the question coming. “SOLEX One CG has access to a small ship with a shield that’ll get you there just fine.”
“SOLEX One CG?”
“The command group for the station is located here, on Mercury. Maybe that’s why the Council requested you.”
There were other homicide investigators on Mercury they could have called. I stared at the sun on Bryce’s desk. I had seen a lot of places in the solar system, but nothing that equaled this. It seemed more dangerous than he was letting on.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It can’t be that bad. The station’s personnel have been there for months now.”
I tore my eyes from the model. “Do you have the murder report?”
“No, just the orders. The file is at the Command Group a few tunnels away. Here are the directions.” He gestured to a scrap of paper on his desk with some scribbles on it. “The commander there will tell you everything you need to know.” He stood abruptly and saluted. “Good luck.”
I got to my feet and returned the salute wearily. “Who do I report to when I’m done?”
He frowned, hesitating. “Me, I guess. Back here.”
I turned and left his office.
“Watch your back, Tanner!” he yelled when I was ten meters away.
“Thanks,” I muttered. I couldn’t think of a worse assignment.
SOLEX One Command Group was simply a couple of rooms carved from the rock—like all other places in the city—with monitors on the walls that displayed information related to the station’s energy production. One showed a schematic of SOLEX. It was essentially a series of cylinders, two massive solar panel arrays, and a transmitter that beamed microwave radiation and FTL signals outward. Seemed straightforward enough.
The floor of the main room held large rectangular tables covered with papers and files. When the hatch slid open, a man in a uniform with lieutenant commander’s insignia stepped forward to greet me. “Are you the investigator?”
“Lieutenant Kyle Tanner, Homicide. Nice to meet you.”
The older man grimaced. “Actually, I wish I’d never met you.” He noticed my expression and shrugged. “Sorry. Sometimes I’m a little crass.”
I was well aware that the reason I entered most people’s lives meant a complication of a violent nature had occurred. No one ever welcomed me. It was something investigators had to grow accustomed to, or they turned bitter as time passed. And being resentful of life was the last thing I wanted—especially when I dealt with death almost every day. “Don’t worry,” I said finally. “A lot of people say that when they meet me. I actually find it amusing.”
His expression turned contrite. “I’m Jase Lassiter, in charge of the Command Group.”
“A military installation, obviously. I didn’t know that.” Bryce had said the person in charge was commander, but he had neglected to supply the rest of the rank.
“Yes. It’s surprising, isn’t it? Most people think our government would rather stick with fusion, which is proven and reliable.”
“I figured it would be a private enterprise trying this out, yeah.” In fact, the Council was notorious for farming out this type of thankless endeavor to civilian companies, simply because the CCF had better things to do. Perhaps this station was more important than I had initially thought.
“Well, the Council is actually looking forward for a change. They know energy collectors like SOLEX are better in the long run.”
“Tell me about the station,” I said as I studied my surroundings.
“It’s been running with fifteen people. Six officers, four scientists and five crewmen. I’ll give you a bio on each.”
He’d anticipated my request. “Good. Who died?”
“One of the crew.” He led me to the schematic and pointed out the obvious features. “The Engineering Corps built the station in Venus orbit. Took roughly eighteen months. The energy-to-microwave converters were the most expensive components, the heat shield next most.”
“How does the shield work?” It could get damn hot at only five million kilometers from the sun. Vacsuits had to withstand incredible temperatures, but ordinary ones weren’t rated for places much hotter than Mercury.
“The station’s hull is coated with a bright ceramic that reflects a great deal of shortwave energy. As a result its albedo is incredibly high. About point nine nine. The ceramic also has to take intense heat for several decades at least. The temperature where SOLEX orbits is about fifteen hundred Kelvin. This material is very effective, providing it covers the entire hull. If it’s compromised by a meteor, for example, the crew has to get it repaired quickly.”
I knew the basics of course. Space itself has no temperature. It’s a vacuum. However, in direct sunlight an object that absorbs the sun’s radiation will heat enormously. In the shade the temperature will be freezing. It’s an interesting dichotomy that gave the original pioneers some troubles in designing the first vacsuits. The Apollo suits, for instance, from way, way back, had to withstand temperatures of -180 to +150 degrees Celsius. And that was just the range in Earth orbit. Closer to the sun where SOLEX was, the difficulties of living and working in space were magnified a thousandfold.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me why I’m here.”
His face fell. “A report we received from our doctor on the station, Lieutenant Lars Malichauk. It caused a major ruckus when we got it, let me tell you.” He stopped abruptly and just stared at the dusty floor.
“Well,” he said finally. “I’ll let you read it. It speaks for itself.”
He led me to a small room, within which was a tiny steel desk. On it was a lone black folder.
“You can read that hard copy, but leave it here when you go,” he said. “I’ll upload the entire thing to your reader.”
Lassiter sealed the hatch. I sat and with some trepidation opened the folder. I had an uncomfortable feeling about all this already. At the time I attributed it to paranoia. Now, however, I’m not so sure.
The first page featured a picture of the victim, Crewman James Chin, a young Asian man who smiled affably at the camera. The next couple of pages contained Malichauk’s report. I read it, my interest growing as I turned each page. Finally, I flipped the last one.
I looked up to see Lassiter staring at me from the hatch.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
* * *