The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston
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.”
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
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
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
His salute was crisp. “Lieutenant
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
“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
“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.
died while having lunch.” He said the name Boy-dill.
“In the mess?” I asked.
“He was carrying a tray to his
“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
“Indeed.” And then silence.
“Do you have a surveillance
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
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
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.
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
“It’s been the only death
“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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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:
“I’m sorry to tell you this,
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.”
* * *