THE VOID

by Timothy S. Johnston

(Carina Press, 2015)

 

 

 

I would like to acknowledge Dr. E. Tugaleva, MD, FRCPC, of London Health Sciences Centre, for educating me about the postmortem.  Dr. Tugaleva is a forensic pathologist, and her expertise added authenticity and realism to Tanner’s story.  For that I am grateful.

 

I have the utmost respect for forensic pathologists.  They provide answers amid tragedy.  They uncover and solve mysteries every day.  They give closure to grieving families.

 

They solve crimes.

 

 

 

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted,

does not consist in creating out of void,

but out of chaos.”

 

— Mary Shelley

 

 

“Men have died from time to time,

and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

 

— William Shakespeare,

As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 1

 

 

2403 AD

 

 

 

Prologue

 

His first victim was the easiest.

At that point, no one knew that the killer was out there.  No one suspected his agenda.  No one knew that he was watching, biding his time, waiting for the right moment to make the kill.

To slaughter the guilty.

The victims had felt secure and confident in what they had done, never thought judgment was coming for them.

He knew better, of course.  He was smarter than they were.

And he would make them suffer.

 

 

The first was a captain in the Confederate Combined Forces.  He had been living a sedentary life on the fourth planet of the Alpha Centauri System.  A fat, disgusting, loathsome creature who commanded the troops under him with a sadistic and cruel hand.  Punishment for infractions bordered on torture, and the soldiers who devoted their lives training in his battalion detested him.  Despite their hate, they were the best.  They drove themselves to be the most physically fit in the CCF, the hardest workers, the most diligent in the ranks.  They did not do this because they respected him—they did it due to fear.  There were rumors of sexual abuse and molestation used as consequence on that CCF base.  Fear of corporal punishment is one thing.  Fear of anal rape another one entirely.

And so they worked until near collapse, with more than a few mental breakdowns as a result, but despite this the captain received accolades for his work.

He was ill-trained and slobbish in appearance.  Triple-chinned with greasy, thinning hair and sweat forever beading his face.   A belly that spilled over the belt of his black pants.

Fat and bloated.

The serial killer knew that the captain’s innards would soon cover the walls of his cabin.  Intestines would dangle from the ceiling. His scalp, painstakingly peeled from his skull with a six-inch blade, would adorn the lamp next to the bed.  The killer did as much as he could while the man’s heart continued to beat.  He even saw it after he cracked the sternum with a sixty-centimeter pry-bar that he had brought to the cabin along with other tools and bindings prepared just for that evening.  The organ pumped blood furiously through the captain’s body, continuing its work even though the agony of that night would be his last.  There was even a ventilator to keep the lungs working long after they should have ceased. 

It was while the killer was working on the captain’s right arm that the heart finally stopped.  He had already skinned and removed both legs, and the screams had become less and less powerful as the hours passed.  Screams became moans became whispers became rasps begging for mercy.

He ignored them all.

When death finally took that first victim, the killer stood over the gory mess, bloody up to the elbows, covered with bits of flesh and tendon and meat, and vowed that he would keep the next alive for longer.  Draw out his kill for as long as possible.  He hadn’t suspected how exciting it would be to actually watch a heart beating within a rib cage.

He wanted more.

 

 

Over the next months there were three more victims.  The killer grew more proficient at killing, better at prolonging the suffering, and learned how to clamp important arteries to prevent spilling too much blood at the start of the kill.  That would come after the heart stopped.

And then he’d paint the bulkheads.

News spread—citizens managed to circulate a single picture of the killer, outfitted in a black vacsuit and tinted visor, taken outside the first victim’s apartment—and then Security Division obtained video of the second and fourth killings.

The second was thirty hours.

The fourth was forty-one.  When that victim had finally died, he’d been nothing but a torso with some organs spread around it, loosely connected with important arteries and veins.

It was horrifying.

The populace in Alpha System took to calling the killer The Grim Reaper.  Some labeled him The Man in the Black Vacsuit because of the way he treated the kill as a job and the practiced manner in which he had dispatched his victims.  Instead of a briefcase with datachip readers and memory chips, however, his bag held implements far more sinister.

The Reaper’s fourth victim had been in Home System.  Authorities discovered the body on 10 December, 2403.  His killing spree didn’t last long, however, for the CCF had recently stationed someone extremely important at Pluto CCF Headquarters.

Someone vastly more skilled at catching killers than the killers were at hiding.

For at Pluto from June of 2402 until December of 2403 was Lieutenant Kyle Tanner, CCF Security Division, Homicide Section.

And when Tanner set his steely gaze on the video of the fourth victim’s massacre, and watched all forty-one hours in one marathon session, it was The Reaper whose days became numbered.

For Tanner had a reputation that overshadowed even The Reaper’s.

Tanner always caught his man.

 

 

Part One:  Capture and Departure

 

Chapter One —

 

 

The Reaper was on a steel bench in the seating area directly behind the pilot cabin in the small jumpship.  There was a bar running along the seat, which shackles locked his wrists and ankles to.  He was staring at the deck now, his face blank, and he said nothing.

He didn’t seem worried that death had him in its sights.

His name was Phillip Paul Petrov.  A corporate employee, he had worked at the CCF colony ship construction facility at Alpha Three.  A civilian.  He had coordinated construction workers and nano-engineers to build the ships.  He had disappeared from all CCF records in August of 2401, and suddenly reemerged on a commercial jumpship traveling from Alpha to Home System.

His hair was dark, his build medium.  Physique toned and muscular, but not so much that his reflexes would slow.  He was six feet tall and probably one hundred and ninety pounds.  His eyes were dark, and he had five days of stubble on his face.

I had found him in the FTL Comm Array six hours from Pluto.  It was a transmitter five kilometers wide that beamed signals out to nearby colonies and received transmissions in a delicate tapestry of faster-than-light communications that connected the billions of humans in the Confederacy.  He was staying by himself in a cabin in the array’s living module.  There were eighty thousand people there, but Petrov was the one who had caught my eye.

After taking his third victim in Alpha System, he had suddenly packed up and left for Home System.  When he killed his fourth at the Comm Array, it had been too close to me.

The ramp raised and sealed with a clang as the jumpship’s systems booted and the maneuvering thrusters quickly warmed.  The gravtrav powered up as well, and the hum of ventilation fans echoed through the ship.  It was a simple transport, roughly the size of a small bus, but only meant for travel within the system.  There was no interstellar drive on this vessel.

Before I departed the Comm Array, I placed two black duffels on the deck near Petrov, along with one cardboard box.  He finally shifted his attention from the deck to see what I was doing.

It took only a minute to go through the two bags.  They had been in Petrov’s cabin at the time of capture.  The smaller held items for hygiene, three changes of clothes—form-fitting coveralls of the type a manual laborer might wear—and a datachip reader.  There was no personal information on it as far as I could tell, though I would have an expert examine it once back at HQ on Pluto.

The other bag was more telling.  I unzipped it and an instant later turned my eyes to Petrov’s.

Killing tools.  Cleavers.  Knives.  Scalpels.  Clamps and bone cutters.  Tape and rope for binding.

He met my cold glare with one of equal intensity.

I said, “If I check these tools, will I find your fingerprints?  Or your DNA?”

“Undoubtedly.”  His voice was coarse.  Gravelly.

“You admit to being The Reaper?”

“Absolutely.”

I snorted.  At least he made things easy.  He would be dead within eight hours, without much question.

“You couldn’t have brought these items on the transport from Alpha.  Did you buy them here at the array?”

“Yes.  I even used my real name when purchasing them.”

I frowned at that, then turned to the box.  I ripped open the top.  “Security Division found this in your closet.”  I pulled out the black helmet and then tipped the box so he could see the vacsuit within.  Jet black.  A heavily tinted helmet visor.  Impenetrable.

His voice was as dark as his killing outfit.  “It’s mine.”  Then he turned his gaze back to me.  “It took you three days to get here.”

“What do you mean?”

“They found Alshadi on the tenth.  You should have come immediately, Tanner.”

I hesitated.  He knew my name when I hadn’t mentioned it.  Still, I was known in the confederacy.  “I wanted to watch the holovid.  Your fourth victim.  Transport had stopped…I hoped it confined you here.”

His lips finally pulled back into something of a thin line.  A twisted grin perhaps.  “Did you enjoy it?”

I felt like killing him right then and there.  No one would question me.  However, regulations required delivery to CCF HQ, and I wouldn’t betray my loyalty to the service.  I believed in rules and regs.

“No,” I finally managed.  “I didn’t.” 

And then something happened which wouldn’t normally have.  Usually I would have just piloted back to Pluto and ignored the man.  There was no point to conversation.

And yet…

And yet, this time, with this one, for some reason I wanted to know.

“Why are you doing it?” I finally rasped between clenched teeth.

He turned his eyes back to the deck and said nothing.

 

 

I’d seen videos of murders before.  They’re essential in my line of work; they nearly always provide important clues to capture the guilty.  But this one had turned my stomach—something difficult to do.  The cabin had dissolved around me as the images appeared, and I literally sat next to the victim as the killer sawed him to pieces.  He had skillful methods to prolong death, and the man’s tortured cries went unanswered for hour after hour.  I wanted desperately to step in and pull the black-suited figure off, crush his throat and administer my own brand of justice, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was just watching a recording, that the images weren’t actually happening.  The screams had occurred more than three days earlier. 

It was that real.

It was that grotesque.

The Grim Reaper pulled the man apart—and kept him alive and conscious while doing so—for nearly two full days.  And to make it more repulsive, it seemed as though he had been putting on a show for the camera.  He rarely hovered over or blocked the view of the living corpse.  He always arranged bloody parts of the victim so they were in full view, spread out like a sick canvas across the deck.

Like an artist’s sculpture.

 

 

 It wasn’t my first well-known case; nor would it be my last.  It probably wouldn’t even be my most famous.  That would be The Torcher, a killer I arrested years earlier in his cramped killing cabin aboard his private jumpship in Venus orbit.  It had followed a vicious hand-to-hand fight, and although he hurt me, I made him my prisoner and cemented my place in Home System as one of the best homicide investigators in the Confederate Combined Forces, Security Division, Homicide Section.  I now lived a brutal and intense existence, moving from colony to colony, ship to ship, planet to planet, capturing killers and making sure the CCF punished them to the fullest extent of the Council’s power. 

And the consequence for murder was of course, in our society, death.

 

 

During the return to Pluto, I leaned back in the chair and swiveled slightly to stare at the prisoner.  He watched the deck and said nothing more.  He was thinking perhaps, though he didn’t show the normal signs of someone on their way to execution.  Someone who was frantic and trying to figure out an escape.

He was calm and relaxed.

Our jumpships used gravtrav, an invention which allowed us to manipulate gravity and propel our ships quickly through space.  The concept was simple:  lock onto nearby planetary objects to increase and repel their gravity, pushing our craft away from them.  At the same time, lock onto any planetary fields close to the destination and increase their pull to haul the ship through space toward them.

We could achieve accelerations upward of a hundred gees, which shortened time between planets immensely.

The ability to manipulate gravity also gave us the ability to create a constant one gee aboard ship, no matter our acceleration.

As the ship—so small it didn’t even have a name—powered us through space, I mulled over the situation.  The Reaper’s victims over the past few months.

His methods.

The video surveillance outside the first victim’s cabin had shown the killer.  He had worn a black vacsuit with a matching helmet and heavily tinted visor, and he carried a black duffel of killing tools.

After the murder, he had meticulously covered the man’s cabin with the remains.  Blood, skin, flesh, feces, organs…everything.

Victim number two had also lived in Alpha System.  He’d been traveling in a one-person jumpship from the fourth to the second planet.  During the trip, The Reaper had approached in his own ship, matched velocity and crossed over.

When authorities finally discovered the vessel, thirteen days later, meat and intestines covered each viewport.  Blood coated the interior.

There wasn’t even a body left.  Just pieces.

But there was video.

CCF Security Division officers had watched, horrified and disgusted, as The Reaper peeled the man apart.  There was no sound attached to the vid, but for a period of thirty hours The Man in the Black Vacsuit had worked diligently.  He never took his own suit off, never removed the helmet.  Left no DNA at the crime scene.  There was no physical evidence to his identity because of it.  Staying in that suit was like stalking around in a self-contained kill room.

It was sick, I thought…but it was brilliant.

 

 

The third had also lived in Alpha System.  Another man in the same age range, living in a remote lodge on the third planet.  He’d no doubt heard of The Reaper, but he probably never thought the killer would appear on his doorstep with the intention of ripping him to pieces.

This one lived for thirty-seven hours.

The Reaper killed his fourth victim at the FTL comm station in orbit at the outskirts of Home System, the facility that beams faster-than-light signals out to every other star system in the Confederacy, linking each in a delicate web that connects everyone and maintains the Council’s hold over humanity.

My contact on Pluto, Major Lisa Hoffman, had given me the murder file and the videos, and now here I was in a small jumpship with Phillip Paul Petrov chained up behind me.

The Reaper.

Catching him had actually been easy.

 

 

Pluto soon appeared in the viewport, and a feeling unique in my adult life until the past few months rose.  Despite the brutal environment, the vacuum, the cold, the dangerous ice and sharp rock outcroppings that could take a life in an instant, the domes stretching across a ten square kilometer area at the equator made me feel something different.

Home.

And it actually felt comforting, warm.

It was called Waytown.

I had been there with Shaheen for eighteen months, the longest posting of my career, and even though I went out on cases to nearby facilities, I now always returned to the same dome, the same cabin.  I saw Shaheen nearly every day. 

I contacted traffic control and arranged immediate placement at the head of the queue to land.  Pluto was mostly a transport hub for people arriving or leaving Home System—at least when it was outside Neptune’s orbit—but it was also a mining settlement complete with a mass driver to propel metallic ingots directly to nearby warship manufacturing stations.  The elevator that Shaheen was helping build—she was one of the foremost experts in advanced engineering—was nearly complete, and I could see it, surrounded by ships and gantries and vacsuited figures, leading right down to the settlement on the surface.  The engineers had had to dig through the nitrogen ice to hit rock for the base of the elevator—itself a monumental task—and Waytown’s domes covered the landscape in a haphazard pattern; from a high altitude they looked like a cluster of pebbles lying against a larger outcropping of bedrock.  There were a variety of sizes—larger for the commercial, business, and recreation centers; smaller for families.  All the domes had travel tubes running between them, and there were other structures as well: cylinders lying across the landscape half buried in the rock—these were schools and hospitals and modules that served government and military functions.  The mass driver was hidden from sight by nearby hills, but it was close to the iron and nickel mines that guaranteed the settlement’s existence in the first place.

I landed at the pressurized docking facility, an underground cavern carved decades earlier and complete with an air lock at the entry port large enough for our jumpships.  There were over fifty vessels already in berths, each surrounded by equipment or oxygen trucks or mechanics doing routine maintenance.  I turned to Petrov, who was still confined in the lounge behind the pilot cabin.  I could see him through the open hatch.  “Time to face the music.”

He just shrugged.

Outside the jumpship, a team of security officers was surrounding the ramp.  Once they took him, he would be just a memory.  That holovid, unfortunately, would stay with me forever.  “You’ve only got an hour or two of life left,” I growled.  I pushed my face close to his.  “I hope your death is painful.”

He straightened and squared his shoulders, then he turned his dark eyes to mine.  “You are going to see death very soon, Inspector Tanner—a great deal of death—but it won’t be mine.”

I snorted, turned from him, and marched away.

 

— Chapter Two —

 

 

Shaheen Ramachandra was my lover.  Of East Indian origin, she had blue eyes, an indication of her British descent.  She also had a British accent, something rare in human space now.  The Confederacy occupied a quarter of the galaxy and a hundred billion humans, and we were spreading faster than ever.  Our FTL communications connected everyone instantly, eliminating regional accents, our intrastellar drive—gravtrav—allowed us quick travel from planet to planet within a star’s gravitational field, and our hyperspace drive—cavtrav—allowed travel between stars with times similar to those of the sailing vessels of centuries past as they moved between Earth’s continents.  Colony ships on the edges of Confederate space continued planting settlements, and the Council, the group of ten representatives from the big colonies who had founded the Confederacy, ran it all with their vicious military, the CCF.

I was a member of that military.  We controlled society through strict rules and harsh discipline.  Civilians dared not oppose us, or their fates were quick and cruel.  I didn’t really approve of this, but at least it gave me the authority to solve cases quickly and surely.  There was no such thing as investigations and trials taking months.  Civil rights didn’t matter when there were criminals to catch.  The fact that I had captured nearly nine hundred murderers in fourteen years was proof of that.

And The Reaper would just be another name in my file.

I had first met Shaheen on a case two and a half years earlier, and she had immediately filled the missing gaps in my life.  Before that I had lived a lone, harsh life, and Shaheen and I had quickly fallen in love.  She was unique and exotic.  She had needed someone as much as I needed her.  And the case I had been on was so intense and dangerous that it had hurled us together and connected us in a way no other relationship could.

Our cabin was in the settlement on Pluto.  The pitted, jagged and icy landscape—which brought back distant memories of Europa—stretched around the domes.  Each was securely and safely anchored to rock outcroppings, and the elevator to orbit that Shaheen was working on loomed in the near distance.  It stretched upward, perfectly straight, manufactured flawlessly by nanos based on Shaheen’s schematics, and disappeared into the darkness kilometers above.  The stars shimmered down onto the mottled surface of the planetoid, and the dark domes glinted in their light.  There were over four hundred thousand people there, and our residence was the same as everyone else’s:  a small structure connected via travel tube with nearby commercial and business centers.  There was a transparent ceiling over the sleeping cabin, which created a mood we never tired of, and our two naked bodies writhing together on the bed in the light of the stars of the Confederacy was a frequent occurrence.

Shaheen met me at the hatch to our dome wearing a grin and nothing else.  I was tired, but not that tired.  Her body was incredible and her needs seemed never-ending.  “You’re insatiable,” I whispered into her ear as I pulled her to me.  Her large breasts flattened against my chest and her nipples immediately hardened.  My groin tensed as I responded to her.

“Are you complaining?” she sighed into my neck.

I met her kiss with one of my own, crushing our lips together as our tongues explored, and it seemed to go on an eternity as she pushed against me.

We hadn’t even moved away for more before my communit beeped.

“Oh, shit,” I moaned.

“Another case?” she hissed.  “Already?”

I grunted and pulled my reader from my pocket.  “Hope not.”

Major Lisa Hoffman’s voice rang from the device.  I kept holovideo off; there was no need for her to see a naked Shaheen pressing me to my hatch, her hands groping me as I spoke to my contact.

“Lieutenant?” Hoffman asked.

“Go ahead,” I muttered.  “But for the record, I’m tired and need—”

“It’s about The Reaper.  Petrov.”

I pulled away from Shaheen.  “Don’t tell me he’s—”

“We still have him.  Don’t worry.  But I need to speak with you immediately.”

I exhaled, happy I hadn’t brought a killer to Waytown only for him to escape and carve a path of gore through the settlement.  “A new case?”

“No.  Just get over to HQ right now.”  And with that, she severed the connection.

Shaheen was pouting.

“Only take a few minutes,” I said with a shrug.

“I have to work, Kyle.  Have to get ready now.”  She turned and sauntered back to the sleeping dome, her bare ass glinting in the light from the stars above.  “I’ll just do myself,” she called over her shoulder.  “I’ll see you after my shift.”

Damn.

 

 

“For Christ’s sake, Hoffman,” I growled.  “I just spent twelve hours in a jumpship, half of that time with that twisted fuck, and I don’t—”

She raised her hand and cut me off.  We were in her office, a place that had become very familiar to me over the past eighteen months, and her expression was drawn.  She was in her mid-forties with tight features and her blond hair was pulled back in the common military style for women.

It was perhaps not the best way to address my Commanding Officer, who was three ranks above me, but she was good at giving me latitude and we had become more informal since I had arrived at Pluto.  I was usually a stickler for protocol, but then again, I had never been at the same post for so long.  And besides, I liked her.  She was military and efficient, but she also had a soft side and compassion for the victims’ families, a trait few in the CCF possessed.  She and I were alike in that way.  We weren’t as cold as the criminals we dealt with every day.

“It’s something unexpected, Kyle.”  And she turned her eyes to me and grimaced.

I suddenly grew worried.  “He’s the guy, I promise.  He confessed.  The tools are his.  The vacsuit is his.  He’s—”

“Oh, I know you got him.  That’s not the problem.”

I turned and looked in the general direction of the cells at Security Division, which I knew imprisoned him at that moment.  Maybe his guards were beating him.  I didn’t care.  His execution was imminent.  “What’s the issue then?”

“Alpha System.  They want him.”

My mouth went dry and a prickle worked its way down my scalp.  “Say again?”

“The CCF there.  Two of the victims were high ranking officers.  The one just killed here was a politician and Council rep.”

I knew that Noor Alshadi—the fourth victim—had run from Alpha System in fear.  He had somehow known The Reaper would be coming for him, and he’d arrived at Home System with the intention of shipping out somewhere else.  I didn’t really care why; my job was to catch the murderer and end the killing.  I’d done so quickly and efficiently.

But the victim had been a Council rep.

Council reps were watchdogs for our rulers.  They kept a careful and practiced eye on the populace around them, including the military, on the lookout for dissident activities and anti-Council rhetoric.  They were spies, basically, on a perpetual witch hunt.  They had arrested and convicted countless people in the Confederacy, and probably executed them as well.  It was how the Council maintained control.  The practice had begun to make my skin crawl, but I dared not vocalize it, otherwise I could end up like the many who had already disappeared.

“And Alpha System wants justice?” I muttered.  “They’re going to get it.  What do they think we’re going to do with Petrov?  Set him up in a nice dome somewhere?”

Major Hoffman shook her head.  “The victims were powerful people, and the CCF at Alpha wants to carry out the execution and watch it themselves.  Also to put their families and populace at ease.  There are seventy million people there, Kyle, living in total fear.”

“I caught him.  It’s over.”

“They need to see him die.”

I snorted and lowered myself to the chair.  Figured.  He had a few more weeks of life left.  “There’s something off about this one, Lisa.”

“I know.  I saw the vid.”

“No.  Not that.”  I frowned as the thoughts organized themselves in my head.  “His mission.  His purpose.”

“Why he was killing.”

“Yes.”

“What did he tell you?”

“He refused.  But it’s something big.”

She tilted her head to the side.  “How do you know?”

“You said it yourself.  His victims.  Prominent officers.  A politician.  A scientist.  Not exactly regular, ordinary people.”

“You mean they weren’t prostitutes and drunks stumbling along dark and foggy cobblestone streets, is that it?”

“You could say that.”

“It gets worse, Kyle.”

I blinked.  “In what way?”

“They want you to transport him.  All the way to Alpha System.”

 

 

Shaheen stared at me in horror as I described my next mission.  It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it was a reality of life in the CCF.  I had argued with Hoffman for a minute or two, but I knew there was no evading it.  The request hadn’t just come from an admiral in the CCF at Alpha System, but from an entire military government that represented almost a hundred million people in the Terran Confederacy.

I could do without it.  The Reaper was just another capture for me.  It had even been easy.

“One way to Alpha is two weeks, Kyle.”  It was 4.24 light years from Home System.

“I know that.”  We were in her office near the elevator’s foundation.  The actual structure was five hundred meters across at the base—a lot of support for a ten-meter cage that ascended from surface to orbit—and she needed to be right on site to supervise the workers.  It was the first orbital elevator ever built, and it would give her an enormous surge in reputation once it was completed and successfully operating.  Already she had made many incredible achievements, such as a paper-thin heat shield that allowed transit extremely close to stars, and this would be one of her greatest accomplishments.

She looked away and pondered the predicament.

“It’s only for a few weeks, Shaheen—” I started, but she cut me off with a raised hand.

She mouthed words to me, and I peered closely to see what they were.  “Is this office clean?”

I had scanned the chamber only a few days earlier.  I did it regularly, because lately we had been talking about something extremely dangerous.

We had been discussing leaving…dropping everything and just…running.

It was the Council.  The CCF.  The lack of civil rights, the abuses of power.

But I didn’t know if I could do it.  The CCF was my life.  My parents had died when I was young, and afterward I had gone to stay with my uncle in Seattle.  He had been stationed at the CCF base there, and I had become involved in the military from a young age.  Then I enrolled in the academy and CCF at eighteen, and Homicide Section recruited me at twenty-three.  I had enjoyed the solitary nature of the job, until I met Shaheen, that is. 

However, as time passed I had seen more and more dissident activity, more and more people straining at the leash.  It could only end badly, I knew, and I didn’t want us to be anywhere nearby when it happened.  And since the Council was located on Earth, very close to us…

“What are you saying?” I whispered.

“Let me come with you.”

That shocked me.  “What about the project?”  I gestured out the viewport at the massive structure.

“The Council is too close to us here.  We’ve wanted to see Alpha for a long time.”

“Are you saying you want to leave now?”  I paused.  “The CCF is everywhere, Shaheen.  We’re a part of it.  They’ll hunt us forever.  They won’t ever stop.”

“No.  Just…check out a potential future for us.  This is a good opportunity.”

“Traveling with a killer.”

“Just to drop him off.  He’ll be in a cell anyway.  Once we do, we can explore the system and see what it’s like.”

“You mean what the Council’s hold is like.”  I considered that.  In Home System there were Council reps everywhere.  We had often wondered what it was like in other places.  “It’s probably the same as here.”

“It might be better.  At the very least, it might be a stepping-off point…”

I studied her.  “To somewhere farther out.”

She grabbed my arm.  “Let’s go together, take this guy to Alpha.  We’ll be back in a little more than a month, then we can decide what to do when this project is done.”

I knew I was going, there was no getting out of it.  And it would be nice to have Shaheen with me.  I had promised myself never to part from her again, not after what had happened at Europa.  I knew what my response to her would be, I just had a hard time saying it.  The Reaper was a dangerous person.

Still, the cell would confine him the entire time.

 

 

The next day Shaheen and I arrived at the pressurized docking port and looked over the interstellar jumpship we’d be taking to Alpha System.  It was three times the size of a standard vessel, simply because of the engineering space for the cavtrav, but it was still only a four person craft.  It needed supplies, water, recycling systems and life support for voyages of weeks instead of days.  The living space wasn’t much larger, except that Shaheen and I would have a cabin and wouldn’t have to sleep on couches in the seating lounge, and there was a separate cell near the aft for Petrov.

A hundred meters above us, the docking port opened and closed as ships arrived or departed.  Its distinctive clanging resonated around the chamber, mixing with the other sounds of jumpships and maintenance work.  They were natural sounds, of humans pushing out into the frontier.

Major Hoffman met us at the ramp leading to the jumpship, and there was a grim look on her face.  As we saluted she said, “I feel bad about this one, Lieutenant.”

“No need,” I answered.  “Shaheen and I have been wanting to see Alpha for a while now.  This is an opportunity for us.”

Hoffman nodded at Shaheen; the two had met in the past and knew each other fairly well.

“Petrov is already in his cell,” she continued, glancing at the jumpship.

“I’ll inspect it before we leave.”

At that point a private first class descended the ramp and stopped before us with a crisp salute.  “PFC Grant reporting, sir,” he said.  “The ship is ready.”  There was a device in his hand that trailed multiple fiber optic leads.  It was for linking directly to the control systems on board.

“All provisions loaded?” I asked.  “For the prisoner as well?”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoffman said, “The evidence is there as well.  His two bags, vacsuit and datachip reader.  Authorities on Alpha Four will need it all.”

“Great,” I muttered.

We saluted again and Shaheen and I marched aboard the ship.

The ramp shut behind us.

 

 

I checked on Petrov as we began the two-week voyage.  We had already left Pluto orbit and were rapidly accelerating toward the outskirts of Home System and the point where the sun’s gravitational field was too weak to interfere with the cavtrav.  Once there, the drive would create a cavity in space around the jumpship, we’d drop from normal space and into hyperspace and begin the journey to Alpha, slightly over four light years away.

Petrov’s cell was a small steel room with a bunk and a toilet and a pass-through for me to give him food and water.  He was sitting on the bed.  He had bruises on his face and a long cut on his cheek, and guards had shaved his scalp to just stubble.

He turned to look at me.

My gut tightened.

There was a smile on his face.

 

— Chapter Three —

 

 

Our velocity relative to Alpha System had to be null before we initiated the drive.  It was one of the rules of hyperspace travel, and it was an absolute.  You didn’t want to reemerge in normal space to find yourself traveling at five hundred kilometers per second toward an unexpected object.

When you dropped from cavtrav, you wanted to be at zero relative velocity.  Period.

As a result, we accelerated for five hours, then decelerated for another five before we could initiate the drive.  Of course I’d experienced hyperspace travel before, during my training in the CCF, but had never been to any star system other than Home System.  I’d only traveled out past the Kuiper Belt, running drills and tests with the other recruits.

I was a little nervous when Shaheen pressed the button that activated the cavtrav, but not overly so.  It was as routine now as aircar travel on Earth, and more mundane as well.  There was a brief thrumming from the aft compartment, the gravity field flickered momentarily, and as one, the stars around the jumpship winked out.

Cavtrav engaged.

We were in hyperspace, and the shape of the tear determined the direction we traveled.  Shaheen had already input our destination into the computer, and the navigational systems did the rest.

There was nothing to do for two weeks but stare at the utterly black vista around us, and keep ourselves entertained while doing so.

It was actually difficult to look at…staring at a black backdrop with nothing to focus on.  It messed with one’s eyesight.  Watering eyes and dizziness would set in after just a minute.  It was pointless to strain to see anything.

There was nothing.

At the vessel’s aft, the cell was secure and there was no chance that Petrov could escape.  I had locked the hatch manually from the outside; there were no electronic components that he could access to trigger the mechanism.  It was foolproof.  And yet…

I couldn’t get him from my mind.

I’d dealt with many different types of killers.  I knew them all.

There were The Loners.  The antisocial who kept to themselves and killed for their own sick reasons.  These were usually quiet and solitary people.  Didn’t bother anyone around them and went far from home to do their business.

The Don Juans.  These were the suave and slick, the very attractive who had a variety of friends.  People often liked to be around them, but later would say—almost universally—that there seemed to be some kind of underlying rage or anger within them.

The Brutes.  Bullies as youngsters because of their size, they became attracted to the power they had over others and worked hard to foster and develop it.  It gave them even more authority, more control.  They were megalomaniacs.

The Weasels.  Those afflicted by low self-esteem for a multitude of reasons.  They felt power as they killed, as they realized they had it within them to take the lives of others.  Fueled by booze and brainstim and other vices, they surrounded themselves with criminals who often stole the attention, which gave them a shield behind which they could hide.

There were others as well.  After a few hundred captures I’d seen them all.

But there was something off about Petrov.

He seemed the type who could be suave and handsome.  Grow out his hair a bit and put him in a business suit and he’d fit right in with the other corporate types he’d worked with three years earlier.  But he was also solitary.  Traveled alone, lived alone.  Didn’t seem to have friends at the Comm Array, at least according to the CO of Security Division there, who had researched the man after I’d taken him away.

He wasn’t big and brutish, but he was fit and definitely in good shape.  He had rolled his sleeves up last I saw him, showing toned and sinewy forearms.  No self-esteem problems, as far as I could tell.

His eyes seemed hard.  As though at one time he’d had powerful emotions but something had stripped them away. And his smile.  It had seemed accepting in a way, but not of his fate.

Almost as if he knew this trip had been in his future.

Maybe he just knew someone like me would find him, one day.  It had been inevitable.

But there was also the forty-one-hour holovideo I’d watched.  I remembered thinking at the time that he had been doing it all for the cameras.  Putting on a show, I had thought.

I rose to my feet and Shaheen turned from the viewport, blinking rapidly to refocus her eyes.  She had expressed nerves about Petrov as well—after all, what the man had done was grotesque—but she felt safe in the knowledge that she wouldn’t have to interact with the killer in any way.  Still, as she stared at me in that control cabin, now only five minutes out from Home System, she knew where I was going.

She turned back to the viewport and didn’t say a thing.

I stepped from the cabin and passed through the seating lounge, an area for recreation complete with small tables for eating or games, equipment for holovids and couches for relaxing.  Behind that was our sleeping cabin on the starboard and a lavatory on the port side.  Then came the large engineering compartment, which housed both the gravtrav and the cavtrav systems.  The noise was much louder here. Locked behind the airtight hatch, it was simply a low drone up in the control cabin.

Tucked away in a corner, at the extreme aft of that area, was Petrov’s cell.

It was four by four meters and three high.  There was nothing for him to do but sit on the bunk and contemplate his fate, which surely he must have understood by now.

But still…

There was something about him that I wanted to understand.

In the past I had simply turned my captures in and had not given them a second thought.  I never tried to understand why they did the things they did.  Killers didn’t make sense, I often said.  Many were crazy.  You couldn’t generalize why one person killed and another didn’t.  And yet for some reason, I found myself standing in front of his cell, staring through the large viewport in the door.

 

 

“Hello, Tanner,” he said to the deck.

I hadn’t made a noise, but he had sensed my presence.  Perhaps my shadow on the bulkhead nearby.  His voice was coarse, and almost sounded as though it hurt his throat to speak.  The cuts and bruises on his face were still raw and angry; there had been no injections of priority nanos to help heal these wounds.  The CCF guards didn’t care if he suffered.

Nor did I.

“What do you want?” he continued.

I frowned, for at that precise moment, I didn’t know myself.

He finally turned to me.  Those dark eyes had narrowed, and there was no longer a smile on his face.  “You’re taking me to die.  Why do you want to talk now?  Or are you going to beat me for the next two weeks?”

“That wouldn’t do any good,” I finally said.

He grunted.  “You mean I’ve already suffered enough?”

“Frankly, I’d like to just kill you now and get it over with.  But it would upset more than a few people at Alpha System.”

He turned his eyes back to the deck and gave a soft snort.  “So what do you want with me?”

I still didn’t know how to answer that, and hesitated once more.

“Ah,” he said in a strong voice.  “Being the great investigator, I guess you’re trying to understand me.”

I had an answer to this one.  “Actually, no.  My contact sent me to get The Reaper, and I did it.  That’s all I care about.”

“Really.”  His voice was dry and deadly.  Heartbeats stretched out as I stood there staring at him.  The light above was blazing white and harsh.  Blinding almost.  Then he said, “Are we alone on this jumpship?  I thought I heard voices earlier.”

That startled me.  “Why forty-one hours?” I said.

A slight smile.  Just the corner of one side of his mouth.  “Not long enough for you?”

“Just wondering why you prolonged it so.”

He shrugged.  “To see if I could.”

“It was a test?”

“Of a sort.  Maybe a message.”

“For whom?”

No response.

“Why did you follow Alshadi here from Alpha?”

“I thought you didn’t care.  I thought the great Lieutenant Kyle Tanner didn’t care about a killer’s motivations.”

“I care that you came to Home System. To my system.”

He snarled.  “Oh, so sorry that I bothered you, Lieutenant.”

“Didn’t bother me.  Just Alshadi.  But I’m sure it’ll bother you soon too.”

“You mean when I face my execution?”  He laughed, and it was a sharp bark.

“It’s funny?”

He grew suddenly serious.  “Nothing about this situation is funny.”

“No, it’s not.”  I stood there and stared at him for several more seconds before I spun on my heel to leave.

I heard him bolt to his feet and press himself to the hatch.  “How’d you find me, Tanner?” he screamed.  “And who else is on this ship?”

I ignored him.

 

 

The days passed slowly.

Shaheen and I spent a lot of time making love.  I kept the hatches to engineering and our cabin closed, and hoped that Petrov wouldn’t be hearing any more noises from the living compartments of the jumpship.  We ate our first dinner together in the seating area behind the command cabin, kept the lights dim, and afterward made love like teens in heat.

The second night we ate dinner in bed.

I took Petrov his food three times a day—simple rations in small sealed bags—but vowed not to talk to him again.  He didn’t try, thankfully, but he did glare at me each time I shoved the bags through the small opening into his cell and dropped them to the deck.

On day four Shaheen asked about him, his condition, whether he was speaking, and I grunted in reply.  She pressed her lips tightly together, but didn’t ask again.

And on day six, roughly halfway to Alpha System, after Shaheen and I had settled down to a routine that was incredibly pleasant—it consisted mostly of dinners, sex and relaxation, and it made me more a believer than ever that we could easily embark on a much longer journey to a more distant and isolated colony—every single system on the ship suddenly powered off and plunged us into pitch black right in the middle of dinner.

 

 

No alarm sounded.

There was no warning from the life-support systems.

No computer voice screaming about pressure loss or a damaged hull or a failed power supply.

Even the gravity field flickered and turned off.

But something did occur to me immediately.

There were stars visible through the viewport.

 

 

Shaheen uttered a strangled gasp and, using the edge of the table, hauled herself to the pilot’s cabin.  I followed more clumsily as a surge of nausea threatened to overtake me, but I finally pulled myself beside her and pushed myself slowly to the side as she studied the dark displays.  She flicked switches and pressed buttons.

I watched in silence.

A part of me already understood what was happening, but I didn’t want to accept it just yet.

I still had hope that Shaheen could pull us out of it and get the ship back in cavtrav and moving toward Alpha System.

But it was still two light years away.  We were only halfway there.

Finally she turned to me and the dim glow from starlight was the only thing illuminating her features.  Her voice was a hiss.  “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“You’re an engineer.  The best one I know.  What is it?”

She shook her head.  “I’ll have to go back to look at the systems in the aft compartment.”  She winced.  “But this isn’t a common malfunction.”

“Power loss?”

“Not just that.  Usually redundant systems kick on.”  She gestured around us.  “Where’s the backup?  Where are the battery-powered lights?  I can understand cavtrav failing and dropping us from hyperspace, but other systems should still function.  This just makes no damn sense.”

A prickle worked its way up my spine in slow motion.  “And the comm?”

“Also out.”  She pointed at that section of the forward console.  “Dark, just like every other component.  Even navigation lights are gone.”  She leaned forward and peered out a viewport.  “All exterior lights out.  Computer out.  Drive is out.”

“What about gravtrav?”

A snort.  “You don’t want to know.”

I pushed myself into a floating position in the small aisle.  “We need to check engineering.”  I grabbed two flashlights from an emergency compartment in the bulkhead beside the pilot’s chair and gave one to her.

There was a look of horror on her face.  “But he’s back there.”

“I can’t fix this ship, Shaheen.  I’m sorry.  You have to come back there with me.  If you’re really worried, just don’t say anything.  He can’t see the engineering systems from his cell.”

She grunted.  “You’re right.  And the hatch—”

“Locked tight.  Don’t worry.”  I grabbed her shoulders.  “Let’s go fix this damn jumpship.”  I didn’t say anything else.

The alternative was just too damn scary to think about.

 

 

Six hours later we still had nothing.

Shaheen had spent that entire time floating around the hyperspace drive machinery.  Looking in access panels at circuit boards.  Checking coolant pipes and wiring.  The main power supply.  Life support.

Everything.

She had a handheld diagnostic device, battery powered, that she plugged into every access hatch in sight.

And during it all, not a word.

Finally she gestured and we yanked ourselves out from engineering and manually closed the hatch.  Then we floated into the lounge and hooked our feet through emergency straps on the deck—straps I never thought I’d have to use—and stared at each other, grim.

“Let me guess,” I started.

She grimaced.  “There doesn’t seem to be a reason for this.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“Terrible.”

“Don’t sugarcoat it for me.”

She brushed her hair from her face.  It was growing stuffy in the cabin.  It was probably my imagination—there was enough space and emergency bottles on the ship to supply air for a couple of days at least—but eventually it would run dry.  It was, however, beginning to get colder in there.

Soon we’d have to break out the vacsuits.

It gave me an idea.  “What about outside?  We can go look there.  See if there’s any—”

“It’s not out there, Kyle.”

“How can you be sure?”

“For every system to be gone like this, it has to be a central computer issue.  The one that controls everything.”

I frowned.  “But I thought redundancies would keep some components functioning.”

“They should.”  She sighed.  “It’ll take me days to go through every system.  I can plug in the diagnostic device, but if there’s no power in the ship, I don’t even get a reading.  I have to get that up and running in order to at least get some idea of the problem.”

“So is the power system the issue?”

“No.”

“How can you be sure?  If nothing has power…”

“The backups aren’t on either, remember?  Something’s telling them to stay off.  A computer issue is the most likely cause.”

A long pause stretched out between us.  In the darkness of the jumpship, it was quiet and scary.  Not even the ventilation fans were operating.  And we’d turned off the flashlights to save the batteries.

We couldn’t call for help.

Even if we could get the gravtrav working, there were no planets nearby to propel us toward a colony.

We’d be adrift in the ocean of space.

Forever.

 

 

There was no sleep that night.

Shaheen worked feverishly on the problem, with no results.  Eventually she did go outside to take a look at the vessel, at the eight hyperspace projectors which formed the cavity around the jumpship, at the gravtrav systems and the comm array and the dark nav lights.  But still, she was confident that the problem was not outside.  We had to vent the air lock to space in order to open it manually—losing valuable air—but it was necessary.

It was a computer issue, she kept saying.

But through it all, something occurred to me.

Petrov.

He hadn’t made a sound.

Hadn’t called for help.

Hadn’t asked what was going on, why the lights and gravity field were off.

 

 

We figured we had only two days of oxygen left on board the jumpship.  And once we got into our vacsuits, which would last four more days, we would be miserable.

I’d been in that situation before, I thought, grim.

Shaheen and I stared at each other in the dim control cabin.  We had begun shivering—it was down to ten degrees Celsius—and there was a sad expression on her face.

“We’ll get out of this,” I whispered.  “Don’t worry.”

“It’s just that I’m a highly experienced engineer.  But to fix something like this I need the proper equipment.  An external power supply.  New computer motherboards.  A brand new computer maybe!”  She shook her head.  “There’s nothing like that on this transport.  I just feel helpless.”  A look appeared on her face.  “And…”

“What?”

“I’ve just never seen something like this happen before.”

Something moved behind Shaheen and I shifted to get a better look.  I had to pull myself around a console to see beyond her.

It was a point of light, out in space.

A ship.

And it was moving.

Which meant it was close.

Surprise erupted on Shaheen’s face.  “What the—”

Two minutes later the vessel was barely visible in the starlight.  It was large.  Lettering on its hull identified it as Phoenix.

 

 

I growled and without a word hauled myself through the seating area and slammed open the hatch to the aft compartment.  I flew through the open space, barely dodging pipes and equipment that wound through engineering, and hammered my fist on the hatch to Petrov’s cell.  It brought me to a sudden stop and I aimed the flashlight into the dark chamber.

The Reaper’s eyes were already on me, but there was no expression on his face.

And then he laughed.  

 

*    *    *

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