Life Signs by Christina Engela
Lange’s Legacy (Part 2 of Life Signs)
By Christina Engela
Copyright 2018 Christina Engela
Imagine, if you will:
Paperwork: The consistent and unequivocal bane of Human civilization.
But it was also its cost – the cost of progress – the price of not living in caves and having to forage for food.
Everything that happened in a day on a starship had to be recorded – and on a daily basis. All events had to be analyzed, dissected, evaluated, logged and reported – and the results recorded as well. These too had to be correlated, compared and analyzed, combined with the ship’s record logs of sensor data during that period – and the results of that recorded too. Everything that was used or consumed in the process of running the ship and conducting missions also had to be recorded, quantified, audited and balanced – and then sent on to higher headquarters for collation and archiving and processing and decision-making. All this diligent bureaucracy naturally, even in the distant future, resulted in huge amounts of administration, red-tape, drama, and mind-numbingly boring routine.
This was especially true when the inevitable happened – and real life got in the way of recording it. Essentially, catching up afterwards was an administrative nightmare involving something the bureaucracy detested: guesswork – but fortunately, on average, it passed mostly automated – with a large amount of the background work being performed by machines, which freed up valuable time for the crew to do immerse themselves in worthwhile pursuits, like a weekly bingo evening in the mess hall, for instance. Captain (junior grade) Stuart Flane of the Pioneer Fleet, and CO of the starship Mercury however, was in his office not playing bingo. No, not bingo.
Instead, Flane found himself staring down a back-log of administrative paperwork… some of which included actual physical paper. Most of it was digital box-checking and report typing, but some things still demanded a physical piece of paper to get things done and to keep an Admiral many light years away, happy. Besides, Flane found it a lot easier to write his reports down in the old-school way – on paper, using a pencil – than staring at a screen for hours and typing it…and then editing it again. Besides, it was a lot harder to accidentally write “fuck off” by hand than it was to type it. Flane would use his notes to type his report out later of course, before sending it via interstellar email. A few examples of this conundrum lay on top of Captain Flane’s desk, and a few more – crumpled into little balls – filled a plastic waste receptacle beside his desk. He periodically cursed under his breath as he had to shift papers around so he could find a lost pen, and instead discovered his breakfast, lunch or dinner plate from several hours before.
Bearing this in mind, try to imagine how happy Captain Flane was when his chief medical officer popped into his office unannounced, marched up to his desk without a word, and handed him a sheaf of yellowed, slightly dusty papers. Flane gave Dr. Killian a disdainful look. Not more bloody paperwork! He shuddered – but this wasn’t ordinary paperwork – it looked quite old for starters.
“What’s this, Fred?” He asked in a tone bordering on annoyance as he examined the papers. They were filled with handwriting, and he was relieved to notice it wasn’t his handwriting – it looked too neat and small. The pages had the appearance of having been straightened out after being slightly crumpled and for some vague reason reminded him of the old-school excuse of a dog eating someone’s homework.
“Remember that old shuttle we found adrift in space two days ago?” Killian prompted. “The one with the body aboard?”
“Ah yes,” Flane registered. The Mercury had passed through a little-traveled part of space recently, and happened upon a shuttle of Terran design, about 50 years old. It had been brought aboard and was still parked in the Mercury’s small shuttle bay. The shuttle itself had markings identifying it as belonging to the Red Star Line – one of the biggest deep space cruise lines around, and more specifically, to a liner that had vanished mysteriously with all aboard about 45 years before.
The mystery of the Red Star liner Demeter was one of the more enduring space mysteries in space lore of the time, and it got his friend and executive officer Commander Vic Chapman – who was also an amateur historian – all aflap and excited as he usually did. The sensor and telemetry log of the shuttle had recorded the fiery destruction of the Demeter as it plunged into a sun quite a distance away from where the shuttle was eventually found. The only thing Flane was really interested in, was wrapping up the investigation and trying to find a brief, believable explanation for the single, mummified corpse found inside it – one that involved as little paperwork as possible.
“The dead guy we found lying on the floor?” he asked.
“Yes. He was clutching this very long letter.” Killian nodded. “At first we assumed it was a farewell to his loved ones, perhaps a retelling of what happened to the Demeter, do you remember?”
“Yup.” Flane nodded, trying to hide his disinterest.
“Well I’ve just finished reading it, Stu!” the Doctor grimaced. “And considering the autopsy results, you should too! In fact, consider it ‘Doctor’s orders’!”
Flane eyed the script on the yellowed paper apprehensively. It looked about fifty or sixty A4-sized pages thick, in neat, small, patient handwriting on both sides. Did he really have to?
“Okay, Doctor, if you put it like that!” He sighed, “It could take me a little while though.”
“No worries.” Killian said, giving him a serious little smile. “I’ll drop in a little later when you’ve read it, to give you my report.”
“Going to the mess hall to catch the tail-end of the weekly bingo evening, Fred?” Flane asked. Flane had only managed to catch one so far – and it often amazed him how drunk one could get playing bingo. In fact, he had a sudden longing for it.
“Nope.” Killian smiled again, looking like he’d been considering it. “Coffee.”
“Can’t you just pretend I’ve read this and skip right to the end and give me your report?” Flane sighed impatiently. “It’s been so long since I slept, I can’t remember what the inside of my eyelids look like!”
“No sir, it’s better if you just read it first!” Killian replied. “The one depends on the other, you see. You can sleep after that. I’ll bring you some coffee when I come back. In fact, I’ll even tuck you in m’self! Er… that is, if you can sleep afterwards!”
“Well, okay then. I’ll read it.” Flane shrugged reluctantly, and sat back for a good read as his chief medical officer left.
* * *
I detest killing. I’ve heard that this is a trait of my lingering former humanity, but once you know my story, you will realize that’s because I’ve never actually stopped thinking of myself as Human. Since my Becoming, I have learned that others like me consider this to be a virtue, a saving grace, if you will – but in my defense, I was extremely hungry when I awoke in the cold eternal darkness of space. This is where my tale begins, when I awoke inside the close confines of the small shuttle, under a cold blanket covered with frost.
Having escaped the destruction of our ship on this small shuttle, my two companions and I slept the sleep of ages, waiting for rescue – or to eventually reach Tremaine, our nearest destination – whichever came first. With the death of our ship, the lives of Shaneen Spear, Lisa Garfner and myself ended as well – even if only outside the confines of the shuttle. Inside it, we drifted across time and space, remembered the lives and the friends and acquaintances we had left behind, and dreamed of the new lives we had yet to live – once we rejoined the world we knew.
The shuttle had short legs, as the spacers say – meaning it was a short range vessel and had no stardrive. It also had no cryostasis pods. How could we still be alive after all this time without such luxuries? You may well be asking yourself that. You may also be wondering if this journal is just some kind of sick joke left behind by some bored, twisted spacer who had too much time on his hands. Rest assured, it’s not. Be that as it may, we’d drifted for an eternity or something like it, before a passing loderunner spotted us, heaved-to and came alongside to investigate. The crew on deep space ships often did that, whenever they encountered interesting looking wrecks or derelict ships marooned in space. After all, the Corsairs plied their terrible trade all around the outskirts of the Commonwealth for many years, and they left plenty of interesting wrecks all over the place once they were done with them. I think the crew hoped to find lost treasures or valuables they could salvage on this shuttle – things they could sell, claim a reward for, or take home to their families or sweethearts. Unfortunately for the crew of the ship that found us, they found only death.
My name is Sean Lange, but it won’t be for long. You will probably never have heard of me. I always wanted to leave some kind of a legacy in this life, and perhaps to be remembered in a good way. Instead, circumstances have arranged it so that this is probably the last time I will ever use that name, and it probably won’t be remembered very kindly.
No doubt, by now you will have noticed the name and registration of the shuttle. Demeter.
I’m sure when you run it through the interweb just now, or if you’re from a military ship, through your own database – you’ll see that you’ve stumbled across a relic of one of those great mysteries of deep space, and probably one of those missing ships people like to write spooky stories about. Well, whatever they wrote, buddy, they got it quite wrong. You can take it from me. I was the chief of security on that civilian behemoth. I saw it all go down. Hell, I was right in the center of it.
This is a long letter, I know, and for that I apologize in advance, but I have a lot to tell, and quite a long time to write it. Where do I begin? At the beginning? I always used to think I was special in some way. I worked hard to reach the space I occupied in life, and when I got there, never realized how small and constricting that space really was. But it was mine, and it was enough. I bluffed myself into thinking I was happy when I was simply content with my lot in life. Looking back, I can say I was nobody very special, but I was fairly well-liked and mainly because I was efficient and good at my job. That’s because it was what mattered most to me in what I look back on now as my sad, average, short little life.
Everybody likes to take a vacation now and then, and perhaps on the rarer occasion, people like to take an extra-special holiday. I know I would, if I could have – and if my job hadn’t revolved around insufferable people who were almost perpetually on holiday. In the more likely case of the wealthy – and less frequently, the extremely lucky – this usually meant a cruise off-world on one of those really huge, fancy star-liners that go from one system to the next, picking up and dropping off glittering and excitedly chattering passengers along the way – every one of them dressed in their best, bright and flashy clothes, trying to outshine the rest.
You’ve probably seen those commercials – the ones that tell you how ‘affordable’ it is to come with us, lay back and see the sights, sipping bacca-javas while you watch the next ringed super-planet scroll by your ninety-inch view-port, while bikini-wearing hostesses cater to your every whim?
Enjoy mountaineering? No problem – the peaks on Aldus Prime are among the highest, most climbable anywhere – and the views, breathtaking. Are beaches, semi-naked bodies and palm trees more your thing? No problem – Tremaine is like Miami all year round and has plenty of everything. Forests? Try the zip-lines running through the untamed, sprawling planet-wide forest of mile-high giant blue-wood trees on Marian 3… and every moment between filled with luxury, plenitude and opulence. ‘Paradise between the planets’, they call it. Most of the time, that’s how it is – but not this time. No, not this time. On the last voyage of the Demeter – a deep space star-liner with the Red Star Line, passengers and crew got more than they bargained for.
What happened to the Demeter? What was she? I assumed you knew, or could find out. I have no way of knowing now, how long I might be stuck out here, or if anyone will ever read this, and it might be a very, very long time. To cut it short, my ship – the Demeter, was a star-liner operated by the Red Star Line company based on Earth. I say ‘was’ of course, because of the events you will read about in this account. You may have seen the commercials running on all the major channels for the last twenty years or so, but the Red Star Line is the largest cruise operator in the known universe. Unless something has changed between now and by the time you read this, this is probably still true. In fact, customers of the Red Star Line get more quality, value for money – and smiles by Demeter than they do anywhere else!
Okay, okay. It’s an old joke – but I just couldn’t help myself. Anyway, RSL has more star-liners than any other company in the Commonwealth, and covers every commercial route in known space. Demeter was one of the biggest in RSL’s fleet, carrying up to 4500 passengers and crew at any single point on its never-ending, elliptical cruise around the Terran Empire.
As I said earlier, I was the chief of security on this civilian behemoth. I was one of the shepherds protecting the gilded flock of holidaymakers on their pleasure cruise through space. Most of the time it was boring tedious work with nothing more exciting than the occasional case of misplaced luggage, passengers getting lost in the miles of corridor asking for directions, and just being visible to the passengers to put their minds at ease and make them think they were safe. Safe? Ha! This is space, man – anything can happen out here! You finding my shuttle out here proves that!
A billionaire may think he knows who he is, a socialite celebrity may think her name is on everyone’s lips – and society may know their names and their faces – but the Universe doesn’t care about any of that at all. People, planets, civilizations, history – whole star systems – it’s all just bugs on the windshield out here!
“Nonsense,” I hear you thinking, “Space travel is pretty exciting!” Oh, but you’re right, it is – but that only means you get to see your life flash before your eyes several times a day – but can't hear much dialog over the sound of your own screaming. Never mind. Next time round, just learn to lip-read so you can follow what’s going on. But I digress.
People tend to forget that just because someone is wealthy and can afford to cruise around the systems of the Terran Empire for 3 months at a time and be waited on hand and foot by less-fortunate employees, it doesn’t guarantee a one hundred percent chance of reaching their destination – alive, or at all.
My security staff aboard the Demeter was good at their work, well drilled and polite, and I appreciated them for it. Having well-trained and capable staff made the job a heck of a lot easier. A few of them stood out above the rest and were men and women I could rely on to keep everything running smoothly, so the Captain was happy. As in any corporate environment, if the Captain was happy, then higher management was happy, and then – theoretically speaking, everybody was happy and got nice, fat paychecks they couldn’t really spend until they eventually went home again... But, that being said, money isn’t much good if you aren’t around to spend it, is it?
The routine of working on one of those ships is, I think, pretty much the same as working in a giant hotel – only, one that just happens to move around a bit. People got on at one stop, and got off at another. Sometimes, they went right around the loop and got off back where they started. Working on a cruise liner was all about a smoothly operating routine, and we became so wrapped up in the routine of our jobs, who we worked with, the friends we made on the staff and socialized with, that whatever happened off-ship mattered less and less, until it really stopped mattering at all. The ship became our world, our home. Our colleagues became our friends, and sometimes more – and that’s how it was for me.
At the time this happened, Tremaine was just celebrating its newly awarded first-world status, and as Earth’s oldest colony outside the home system, it was quite something. People were drunk for days, even some of the people on the ship – although I’m sure in most cases, any excuse will do. One evening, about two weeks ago, just around five PM, a fight broke out in the casino on B Deck. Some of the passengers got involved in a set-to that looked to be more about who was eyeballing whose boyfriend than who had the right to wear the same outfit that two of the ladies appeared to be wearing at the same time. Or possibly, what it was really about was who was wearing said outfit better.
Either way, what began as a few well-pointed snide remarks quickly escalated into an exchange of punches between tuxedo and evening gown-wearing second-class passengers – and then became an all-out bar-brawl involving thirty or more people – with hair-pulling, hand-bag swinging, wrestling, screaming, tables being overturned, and glasses, bottles and chairs being thrown across the room! It was certainly the biggest disturbance of the peace I’d ever seen aboard the Demeter, and the casino’s own private security staff were so overwhelmed, they sent for back-up! That, naturally, meant my security department. We got called out in a big hurry! I just happened to be passing by on my way home for the night, when I saw the neatly dressed security operatives arriving and rushing into the casino entrance, and got stuck in with the rest of them.
Just as we were done confiscating broken bottle necks and calming the situation at the casino, my assistant supervisor, Lisa Garfner arrived, and discreetly called me aside. I could tell from her breathing, that she’d been in a rush.
“Too bad you missed it!” I joked. Then, not seeing her react in the usual jovial way, “What is it?”
“Dr. Cove’s just been found in the sickbay.” She imparted to be breathlessly.
“What’s so strange about that?” I asked.
While the sickbay was for all intents and purposes Dr. Cove’s home address, she clarified, Dr. Cove was dead and his body had been found there. Also, she explained as we left the casino and headed to sickbay together, unless he’d taken to extreme depression and shot himself with the blaster found lying at his feet, then it was murder. To say I was shocked by the news would be a slight understatement, but looking back, I think it was right about then that things started to go tits-up on the Demeter.
I wasn’t averse to seeing dead bodies, not at all – though usually they were unfamiliar dead socialites who’d bled out neatly in their private stateroom bathtubs. At least in those cases, all one needed to do was pull the plug, wrap the body and discreetly move it to the morgue, and call housekeeping. This wasn’t one of those times.
I remember the look of Cove’s body – Dr. Lionel Cove, SMD (Space MD), forty-eight years old – slumped over and dead as a doornail in his wheelie-chair in the sickbay’s lab. There was a charred hole in his neck where a chunk the size of a tennis ball had been vaporized out of it by the energy weapon lying on the floor. At least, allegedly.
“Okay, Lisa – what’ve we got?” I asked my assistant supervisor.
“Two nurses were on night duty at the reception desk – Jenny Samuels and Katrina Wake…” Lisa briefed me, “They just started their shift at five, and all the other staff went home – except Dr. Cove, who was here in the lab. At around five-thirty, they heard the shot and entered the lab to investigate, and were the first to find the body.”
“Thanks, Lisa. Better pull the securi-cam feed to confirm.” I said to her. “Send it to my station please.”
“Sure, boss.” She smiled. “Only thing is…”
“There’s no securi-cam in the lab – just the one in sickbay.”
“I wonder what genius thought that was a good idea?” I asked drily. “Well I guess we’ll have to work with whatever we’ve got.”
Lisa smiled wryly and shook her head at me.
Both the nurses stood near the open doorway to the lab, alternately watching us and looking at the body. They seemed extremely disturbed at the sight, and appeared somewhat lost and bewildered in the whirlwind of security personnel sealing off the lab, taking video and still images of the crime scene, and opening and closing closet doors and looking under and behind the furnishings. The sickbay itself had been empty, and the two nurses had only been on duty in case of emergencies. If anyone needed assistance after hours, they could handle it until one of the SMD’s arrived. Both nurses claimed they hadn’t seen anyone else in the sickbay or the adjoining lab at the time. All the other offices in the sickbay complex had been locked up for the night – except the lab, and the nurses had all the key cards at the reception desk.
I turned my attention to Dr. Cove. He was a fairly gaunt fellow to begin with, but the pale white skin and lips of his corpse – and his pale blue eyes as they stared at me like they did, unmoving… it was haunting. I had known Lionel fairly well for some years. He wasn’t quite a stranger to me, like the socialites I mentioned earlier… or the billionaire businessman in the parlor of apartment five, first-class, three years ago – who found out in the middle of his cruise that he’d just lost everything on a bad investment, ate a scattergun, and blew his own head off. Housekeeping was not impressed that time, I can tell you.
The presentation of Dr. Cove’s body, the apparent and easily explained cause of death, along with the apparent instrument of it lying right there for all to see, seemed to cry out suicide. There was no sign of a struggle in the lab, which was adjacent to the sickbay itself – and none of the nurses on duty at the time appeared to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. Nurse Wake insisted they’d only investigated after hearing the shot.
“Dr. Cove really hated being interrupted in the middle of his research!” She explained. Nurse Samuels nodded her agreement. The shot they’d heard, had presumably come from the blaster that lay at Cove’s feet.
“It’s a Corsair blaster.” Lisa informed me, as if I hadn’t already recognized the shape of it on my own. I’d seen my share of the things passing through the lock-up over the years.
“Yeah.” I replied, looking around the crime scene. “Now how did that get there?”
The sight of the Corsair weapon lying at the feet of Cove’s body took my mind back to four days before that, just as the Demeter was passing a binary star system. We were still on the outward part of our journey from Earth, heading to Tremaine Colony. The solar flares from the twin suns cut off our communications for hours. This used to happen fairly often at this point in our outward journey – after all, occasional disruptions of communication are pretty much a given in space travel, aren’t they? Only this time, something unexpected happened during that particular communications black-out.
I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s funny how shit happens – or waits to happen, for times where you can’t tell anybody about it. It wasn’t funny at all though when the Captain made an announcement that we had picked up a distress call from a nearby ship and we were diverting to check it out. It’s a general rule – a law of space, as it was a law of the sea in ancient times that ships had to respond to distress calls. Unless of course it places their own lives in danger. Bearing this thought in mind, as you can probably tell by my writing here – my fingers are beginning to tremble slightly. We were not all prepared for what we found!
When we heaved-to (that means ‘stopped’ in spacer lingo) we saw it was a Corsair ship, drifting about twelve hours out from the binary star system we had just passed! We almost didn’t stop when we realized what it was! I mean, Corsairs! Space pirates! Those people aren’t like us, they don’t care about other people, and they kill for a living! They don’t show mercy – and they don’t send out distress calls! They could just as soon have killed us than looked at us – and it implied that the distress call, could’ve been a trap to lure us in!
The Exo went pale when he realized what we were dealing with. I never really thought he was a paragon of courage, Mr. ‘I’ll-be-Captain-one-of-these-days’ Beckett! He wanted to turn a blind eye as it were, and keep on going. But, as I was later told – it became apparent that the Corsair ship remained motionless, no sign of movement or hostility, and the Captain wanted to stop and check it out. It didn’t sit well with him to turn his back on a spacer in dire need, he said.
The Corsair’s navigation lights and beacons were all dead – although that was standard procedure with Corsairs because, along with their cunning use of matt black sensor absorbing paint, it made them that much harder to see. It was all very exciting, at first – we got to see a Corsair ship up close – all matt black, no markings, no lights – and practically invisible out here in the dark! The black, darkened ship was small in comparison to the Demeter – a tiny gnat beside a great big whale – but still, what a sight it was to behold! Most people don’t get to see those vicious bastards up close, at least, for very long! The passengers were excitedly crowding around viewports and display screens all over the ship to get a good view.
Captain Mulligan ordered a sensor sweep of the area to determine if there were any other Corsairs in the area. Nothing showed up at all, not even anomalies that might have been cunning little space pirates hiding behind asteroids, so then he ordered a scan of the Corsair ship. Its engines were offline, and she was adrift, with just about the only active system being the gravity net and emergency life support system. The ship was just floating there. Its energy readouts were failing, although we couldn’t see any external signs of damage. Our hails weren’t being answered, and so we assumed the ship was dead in space. Only one life sign was detected, and it wasn’t a very strong one either.
Beckett insisted again on opening up the throttles and leaving the scene with all due haste. Of course he didn’t want to run afoul of the law by just breaking off and continuing on our way – or to tempt karma… so the Old Man over-ruled Mr. Beckett and ordered the ship to all stop. Captain Mulligan, gods-rest-his-soul, called on me to form a boarding party of security and medics from the sickbay and that we were going over there to look for survivors. We weren’t a military ship, and we weren’t Star Marines, so we were lightly armed and quite nervous. I mean, this wasn’t just some of my security section being called out to break up a fight at one of the bars on the promenade, this was serious life-and-death shit! So I said “Okay, Captain!” and told my assistant supervisor, Lisa Garfner, to get them all together. Seven of us shifted over to the other ship with the transmatter (you still use those things, I take it?) not knowing what to expect. It could’ve been a trap – it could’ve been anything… and it was. In hindsight, it was a trap, but nothing like we thought at the time – not something as mundane as Corsairs lying in wait for us. Oh, no – and it didn’t spring on us until much later, when we were light-years away from there. In fact, we never saw it coming.
I recall the state of that black ship inside, all shot to bits, smashed panels hanging from the ceilings and walls, scorched and half-burned from blaster fire. There were holes everywhere from bullets, and twisted metal and lumps of charred, melted plastic lying where there had been explosions. It was such a mess. Everywhere on the ship, we saw the bodies of dead Corsairs. It looked like the crew had turned on each other. Most seemed to have been heavily wounded, with hack and stab wounds, and very obvious yawning injuries from guns and blasters on the bodies of the dead. Some still had their hands wrapped around each other’s throats – and there was no clue why!
“Looks like they went crazy and started cacking each other.” Lisa said to me tensely as we walked through the ship, searching for survivors. We noticed what looked to be barricades set up in the corridors, made up of doors and furniture. Getting through those took a little time, but there was no other way. The doors of the elevator that ran between levels, were shot through from the inside, as were the sides and the roof!
“What happened here, Sean?” Lisa asked me, as she traced the holes with her fingers. The elevator still worked, and took us to the upper level of the ship.
“Looks like they wanted to keep something away from them real bad.” I speculated. What could make a crew in space turn on each other like that, I wondered? We made for the bridge of the Corsair ship, noting that the doors had been left open. As we got closer and reached the doorway, I noticed that the doors were badly dented and damaged, and appeared to have been forced open. “The fuck went on here, Lisa?” I asked her. “Mutiny?”
“Maybe.” She remarked, keeping a tight grip on her sidearm.
As we entered the bridge, which looked every bit as much a battleground as the rest of the dead ship, something crunched under the soles of our shoes. Lisa bent down to examine the small white crystals that seemed to be scattered about the place.
“Salt.” She observed, then looked at me, puzzled. Then she pointed to either side of the doorway. “Looks like a line of it… look it runs around the walls and past the door.”
“Uh-huh.” I nodded, not sure what to make of that. “Let’s just find this survivor and get the hell out of here.”
“Hells yeah, I second that.” Lisa agreed, getting back to her feet.
The computer logs were gone. Whether that was a result of damage caused during the fighting, or if it was done deliberately, there was no way to know. There was nothing else of value on the bridge, and wherever our survivor was, he wasn’t there. The seven of us, sticking together, turned our backs to it, and continued the search. None of us wanted to be on that ship anymore, and least of all, alone. The stench of death had begun to assail our nostrils as we went lower and lower into the ship. We began to rely on our flashlights to see our way, and in a few places, where the battle had raged a little hotter than in others, the gravity net had been damaged and we had to perform jumps and little flights across the dead zones to continue. Sadly, we began to pay less and less attention to the detail around us as we went. All we thought about in the oppressive darkness, was getting off the ship and back to the safety and warm light of the Demeter.
One of the medics, a muscular fellow called Washington, pointed out that there was salt strewn on the floor in places, and it made a crunchy sound as we walked over it. One of my two security guys made a wisecrack about a food fight. Again, one of my security staff noted that some of the pirates had died while clinging to crude crosses made of wood or metal. That struck me as particularly odd – after all, Corsairs aren’t known for religiosity at all, are they?
Space pirates… Vicious monsters in human form that prey on honest ships and spacers. They’ve attacked and plundered outposts and colonies in deep space for years. They’re hard men. Hard women too. Examples of both lay all over that black ship, covered in blood – theirs and their shipmates. They didn’t strike me as the type to die while clinging to symbols of a waning faith that seemingly went against their very existence. Then again, isn’t it usually the worst sort of people who fanatically turn to religion when they suddenly see their end approaching? I’ve always wondered, is it because they fear some kind of reckoning coming their way? Was that what happened there? Dr. Cove, who was on the boarding party with us, put that question to me in words.
“Who knows, Doc?” I answered as casually as I could manage. “Some kind of madness took them, from the look of it.”
We did find the promised survivor eventually. One. Only one, among the hundred or so corpses aboard, and he was barely alive. I never thought I’d feel pity for a man like that, a Corsair, a space pirate. How many people had he killed in his life time? How many lives had he ruined? Still, there he lay, curled up in a corner, waiting to die – and yet he clung to every breath like it could be his last! Lionel Cove kneeled at the broken body of the only living Corsair on the black ship, and looked grimly at his med-scanner. Dr. Cove quickly wrapped up his precursory examination.
“Okay, let’s get him on the stretcher!” Cove snapped at his two nurses. “The sooner we get back to the departure point, the sooner we can get outta here!”
While the nurses struggled to lift the patient onto the stretcher they laid beside him, Lionel stood back, to my left, and watched.
“He’s dying!” The Doctor told me softly. I remember the look on his face as he told me – which seemed more to be puzzlement than actual concern. The man was a Corsair after all, and he had some injuries I could see. The man was conscious, and none of his injuries looked fatal – but then, I’m no doctor.
“Oh? What from?” I asked, surprised.
“I …don’t really know.” Cove replied, and shook his head. “His injuries are light, but it looks like some kind of illness attacking the blood cells. Heck if I know – it’s moving too fast to be leukemia!”
“What about viruses, bacteria?” I asked. “The rest of us could be at risk as well!”
We’d run a cursory scan from Demeter before coming over, and nothing had been detected – but perhaps they’d missed something?
“Nothing showed up that could be responsible for this.” Cove said, shaking his head. “Just the regular stuff that one would expect to find. Nothing unusual.”
“Except the fact that he’s dying?”
“Yes.” He said, and smiled at me in a funny sort of way. “That.”
That Corsair sure was heavy. He was a deadweight, but he also still had his armor on, see – and that weighed quite a bit. The Doc said he didn’t want it taken off until he got him back to sickbay in case there were more serious internal injuries. Of course, Cove may have wanted the armor for himself, as a trophy, I suppose. I noticed, half and half, that some of the lads on the boarding party indulged in a little trophy hunting while we were over there – can’t say I really blame them. I picked up a small dagger myself, from a dead Corsair on the bridge, and stuck it in my belt as a keepsake. Just to say I was there once, and I had it to remember the experience by. It was something to hold and reflect on where it came from, I suppose. It’s strange how the Human mind works, isn’t it? In retrospect, it seems that some bits of armor here, a few weapons there – things like that, came back with us to the Demeter that day. I didn’t mind, I told the boarding party before we returned, provided the crew kept to the understanding that any blasters or firearms that came back with us, were put in safekeeping at the security office during the voyage. In retrospect, it’s possible that one or more of the party didn’t take my request seriously – after all, it’s difficult to admire a trophy when it’s in a security locker somewhere else.
Meanwhile, the Corsair survivor was still conscious. He didn’t struggle or threaten us as we carried him, in fact he seemed relieved to see us. He spoke to us, or tried to – mumbling through that matted brown beard of his, pale as death itself – eyes wide open with some kind of numbing terror he couldn’t vocalize. We struggled to understand him, in fact, we got nothing intelligible out of him at all. He seemed afraid, like any dying man probably would be, but he did seem more terrified than any dying man I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen a few in my time.
Let me tell you, Corsair or not, that terrified man grabbed whatever hand would hold his – including mine, and he clenched it so tight it made my knuckles turn nearly as white as his own! He kept fading out as we carried him on the stretcher the medics brought with them. Looking back, I think he tried to warn us, poor bastard – he may even have tried to tell us to leave him behind and go, but we wouldn’t listen. We thought we were better than the Corsairs, remember? Like you probably do now, too. We thought we would be moral and upright and try to help him and show him this is what Humans do. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” were the last words he said before losing consciousness for the last time – at least, those that we could make out. At the end of it all, he was right – as it turned out, we couldn’t even help ourselves.
Back on the Demeter again, Dr. Cove took his patient to sickbay. Corsair or not, he was given the best medical help the Red Star Line had to offer, in line with his Hippocratic Oath. Then we settled back into our routine again, and everything carried on as normal. I went to see the Old Man on the bridge. Captain Mulligan recorded everything I reported to him in his log while Mr. Beckett champed at the bit to hit the boosters with the throttles wide open. Mulligan finally gave him the nod, and then we put that black ship to our stern scanners and returned to our course and core business as quickly as we could! Few of us gave it another thought.
Meanwhile, in the sickbay, Dr. Cove – and Demeter’s other medical officer, Dr. Carver – together spent almost a whole 24 hour shift at the Corsair’s side, trying to find something that would save his life – but the man never spoke again. It was during the next day, without any fuss at all, that our deteriorating guest quietly expired in the sickbay. After that, Dr. Carver lost interest and went back to his regular routine of treating the usual passenger complaints of sunburn, or wrist, back and knee strain injuries from various onboard sporting activities.
For the rest of us, two days passed uneventfully. Dr. Cove, meanwhile, lingered on the case a while longer. It intrigued him, and in more ways than one. Cove stripped the body of all its Corsair artifacts, yes – even the tattered clothing that smelled faintly of dead Corsair – wrapped them in plastic bags carefully, and locked them in a locker in his office. No doubt he thought they might fetch a nice price later, on some online auction perhaps. Corsairs are the stuff of myth and legend after all, and anything of theirs that could be sourced and sold is highly sought after and usually fetches a good price! The unwanted bits – that is, the body of the unfortunate late Corsair, was placed in cold storage – and that seemed to be that. Except for Dr. Cove. He spent a good deal of that part of the voyage studying blood and tissue samples of the dead man, and for all intents and purposes, not sleeping. He wrote extensive notes about the case. He didn’t talk about it again, to anyone – except one day, in passing – to Dr. Carver. Cove’s new obsession became the topic of minor office gossip at the sickbay. Then again, we didn’t call him ‘creepy Dr. Goth’ for nothing.
I was certain then that the Corsair blaster – the instrument of Lionel Cove’s death – had come back with us from that black ship. But suicide? The suicide theory just didn’t add up for me – not even at this early stage. The circumstances of Dr. Cove’s death might have indicated suicide, but Lionel wasn’t depressed and he wasn’t suicidal – at least, he never seemed so to me. In fact, nobody else appeared to think he was either.
About twenty minutes after I’d arrived, Dr. John James Carver, SMD, fifty-two years old, sometimes referred to as “J.J.”, arrived.
“Where is he?” His voice boomed in the corridor outside the lab.
“In here, Doctor.” Nurse Samuels called, and pointed inside. John James Carver appeared to be quite upset. The very first thing he said after getting over the shock of seeing his dead colleague, was to cynically ask me “You don’t really think this was a suicide, Mr. Lange?”
“Suicide? It’s possible, I suppose.” I said reluctantly. After all, that’s what the evidence seemed to suggest, and who was I to argue with the evidence?
“But unlikely.” Carver countered.
“Why do you think that?” I asked him. I knew why I disagreed, but I was curious to know why he did.
Carver at once told me how intrigued Cove had been at the cause of death of the Corsair we’d picked up – and how interested his colleague had seemed in finding out what had killed him. Carver too admitted that whatever it was, he’d never seen anything like it before either. If Cove had identified a new disease or condition – it would be named after him. He said Lionel was – had been – very excited about it, and had already tentatively named it. “Cove’s disease”. Carver explained further, that it would’ve been a big, bright peacock feather in Lionel’s cap. That didn’t sound to me like the kind of man who would just off himself at a moment’s notice! It didn’t to Carver either.
“Think about it.” Dr. Carver explained. “A man becomes suicidal and decides to end it all – fair enough – it happens, but Lionel was a doctor, for god’s sakes – he had access to our entire stock of medicines, and he knew how to use them! He could’ve done it quickly and painlessly and peacefully… But instead, he decides to shoot himself... with a blaster… in the neck? Why the neck? Why not the head? Why not in the heart? That would’ve been instant death, virtually painless. But the neck? That’s a painful, slower way to die! He’d also be fully conscious, terrified, possibly paralyzed, his body twitching, in the throes of death! Blood would’ve been spurting everywhere! And he certainly wouldn’t still be sitting in that chair by the time it was all over!”
Carver looked around at the lab and the space surrounding the chair in which Lionel Cove still sat. “Where’s the blood?” He asked pointedly.
Carver drove a good point. Sure, I agreed with him about the doubtfulness that Cove committed suicide – and even the method he apparently chose to commit suicide. I admit, it would be pretty hard to aim to shoot oneself in the head or chest, and then miss and hit oneself in the neck! But there was some blood there at the scene – a little blood spray from where the energy bolt had struck Cove in the neck, had spattered across the wall behind him – but that was just droplets, a few small chunks of cooked flesh, and some signs of blood-misting from the blast.
“Where’s the blood?” Dr. Carver asked again.
“What d’you mean?” I asked, and shrugged. “Surely the wound was cauterized and sealed the rest of it inside him?”
Dr. Carver grunted disapprovingly, and shook his head.
“No, Mr. Lange.” He retorted, and produced a medical scanner from his jacket pocket. He quickly checked the body over with it and pointed at the wound. “The wound in his neck is cauterized as you correctly assumed, but if the blaster wound is indeed what killed him, it still doesn’t add up.”
“What do you mean, Doctor?”
“Think about it, Mr. Lange – come now, it’s not that difficult – it’s elementary mechanics. The heart is a pump, is it not? He shot himself in the neck, not the chest, not the heart, severing the carotid artery. After he shot himself in the neck, his heart would still have been pumping – for a while at least, a few minutes even – not so?”
“Er…yes?” I agreed tentatively, wondering where Carver was heading with this.
“If his heart was still pumping when he was shot, there would’ve been some arterial spurting – there, see this open artery? Think of a garden hose, or a fuel line, Mr. Lange – the end is open, and the fluid is pumped through it from the other end, what happens? The edges of this artery – which is just a fancy name for a fuel line, if you like – see, they’re burned through? But the artery is still clear! There would’ve been blood everywhere!” The Doctor said, waving his hands around at the lab, which suddenly seemed a lot cleaner than it ought to have been. “Where’s the blood, hmm?”
That question had me stumped, to be honest. Before I could think of anything worthwhile to say, Carver carried on:
“The Human body contains around five liters of blood...” He continued in a less dramatic tone, and pointed out Cove’s near-spotless lab coat which was still clean and had barely a drop of red on it, and only on the collar, close to the wound. Then Carver slowly walked up to me, until his face was barely an inch away from me, his eyes boring into mine. He held up his medi-scanner so I could see the screen. “He’s nearly empty, Mr. Lange – and there’s barely a drop on him, or here in the lab! Where’d it go?” I opened my mouth to say something clever, but Carver beat me to it again. “It’s not inside him, and that’s a scientific certainty!”
“So he was already dead when he was shot?” I asked. “That’s what you’re getting at, isn’t it?”
Carver smiled cynically.
“It’s even worse than you already think it is, my friend.” He remarked before moving away again. “Because, if Lionel Cove committed suicide by shooting himself, then his heart had already stopped by the time he did so – and that’s a pretty neat trick to pull off, don’t you think?”
Carver seemed to tire of the bustling lab and turned for the door. “Send the body to me for the autopsy when you’re done.” He said abruptly, and left. The acerbic Dr. Carver was right of course. Dr. Cove’s body was about five liters shy in the blood department – and it wasn’t anywhere in sight. The few droplets on the wall and on his lab coat didn’t account for what was missing. The lab floor was still clean and shiny, save for the smooth black shape of the Corsair blaster lying at his feet. Where had the rest gone?
I didn’t have an answer to that question, other than to wonder if Cove had been killed somewhere else on the ship, and the body left here to be found. The securi-cam video footage would hold the answer to that question, I hoped.
Although the peculiarities of Cove’s death made my head spin if I tried to work it out, the core fact of the matter was that Dr. Cove was dead – and despite his death being dressed up as suicide, it was clear to me that he hadn’t wound up dead without help. An attempt had been made to make his death look like a suicide – and, with nearly another full week to go before the Demeter reached Tremaine, it was going to be up to me to find out who wanted him dead, and why.
Captain Mulligan, wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of a murder having been committed aboard the Demeter – suicide was bad enough – and as could be expected, any kind of news like that was seen as something of a potential PR disaster for the company. It was my second visit to the bridge to see the Old Man in person that week, which was a little more frequent than I was used to. It was already getting late anyway, so I just brought the Old Man up to speed and promised I’d do my best to keep the matter as low-key as possible. Then I went back to my office, and set the wheels of my investigation in motion. Lisa noticed my absence at dinner time, and dropped by on her way home with a take away dinner from the crew restaurant. I was very fond of Lisa, even then. She knew I was busy with the case, and after a brief exchange of niceties, she said goodnight and left me alone.
By nine PM, my investigation began to take form. Meanwhile, the crime scene had been recorded, and the images and videos and accompanying details had been forwarded to my desk terminal. The blaster had been sent to the Security section’s small crime lab for analysis, and the body of the late Dr. Cove was being officially autopsied by Dr. Carver, who under the circumstances, probably took little delight in the irony of his name.
I reviewed the statements taken from witnesses – who were nurses in the adjacent sickbay, who had discovered the body. Everything they said seemed to check out, which only made it even more frustrating when I reviewed the sickbay’s security video logs. Video footage from the securi-cam in the corridor outside the sickbay showed nothing suspicious. Dr. Cove was last seen alive leaving his office inside sickbay, from where he entered the lab and closed the door. Forty-eight minutes, sixty-two seconds later, the sickbay securi-cam recorded the sound of a blaster firing inside the lab. Immediately after that, the two nurses on duty were seen quickly approaching the door to investigate the noise. They opened the door, went inside – and less than a minute later came running back out into sickbay, from where they raised the alarm.
Maddeningly, there were no securi-cams inside the lab itself, so nothing that went on in there had been recorded. That was beside the point however, because I knew there was no other entrance or exit from the lab other than the one covered by the cam in sickbay, which seemed to indicate that Dr. Cove had died right there where he’d been found… which only made my head hurt, because Dr. Carver’s points and questions suddenly started to look more valid.
It was a little after nine when I received a call on my com-link from Dr. Carver. He wanted to give me the autopsy report, but in person, so I made the trek back down to sickbay. I found J.J. Carver in his office, which was beside Cove’s, inside sickbay. His door was open, and nobody was on duty at the reception desk. The complex seemed deserted. Carver curtly welcomed me inside and closed the door to his small office.
“I sent the nurses home.” He explained, and went to sit down opposite me. “They were a little traumatized, poor things. Besides, I’m here in case anyone comes in – and I’m not likely to sleep tonight, anyway.”
I waited as Carver fell silent and looked at me pensively.
“The autopsy report, Doctor?” I prompted. I’d never really had reason to dislike Dr. Carver, but he tended to make me feel a little uncomfortable. It was his manner, I think. He always struck me more as a lecturer, a professor of some sort, rather than how a healer should be, like Lionel Cove.
“Yes.” Carver said genteelly, looking at the display of his desktop terminal as he turned it round so I could see it. “And you’re not going to like it.”
Carver’s terminal screen showed his notes and findings on the condition of the late Dr. Lionel Cove, which were lengthy and filled with medical jargon, and I found it predictably arcane.
“I think I’ll need a little translation, doc, if you don’t mind?” I said. “To save time?”
“What killed Lionel Cove,” Carver began, “Wasn’t the energy bolt from the blaster.”
“Okay.” I said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Then what killed him?”
“I have no idea.” Carver admitted, seeing my look of skepticism. “Look, all I can tell you is that he’s dead – and to a degree, I can tell you what didn’t kill him. It wasn’t a disease or some kind of infection, or parasite, or any kind of toxin. There’s no sign of a stroke, or that his death was a result of organ failure, or anything of that kind. His lungs and airways were clear, and there’s no sign of any internal injuries, hemorrhage, or abnormalities – other than the wound caused by the blaster.”
“Surely that would be enough to kill him, Doctor?”
“Yes.” Carver nodded. “Of course it would’ve – but it didn’t. As far as I can tell, his heart stopped as a result of oxygen deprivation of the heart muscle. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d call that a heart attack…but…”
“…But a heart attack causes cellular damage to the heart muscle, and the damaged cells release a chemical called troponin. There was virtually no troponin evident in Lionel’s heart muscle tissues, and none at all in what remained of his blood. Frankly, I don’t think there was any time for it to be generated before death.”
“So he died of a very sudden heart attack?”
“No, no – you’re not listening to me, Mr. Lang!” Carver snapped rather rudely, before recovering his manners. “I’m sorry – in a crude sense, yes, when the heart experiences some kind of impediment in its function – electrical or mechanical, say some kind of blockage in the blood, a clot or blocked artery for example, it stops – or almost stops, and suffers cellular damage that produces troponin – and that’s called a heart attack! What I’m saying is, there was no apparent cause for Lionel to suffer a heart attack. None. But yet, his heart stopped!”
“So what would you say caused his heart to stop?”
“My guess is, it ran out of blood to pump.” Carver said. “No blood means no oxygen – of course the heart is going to race at first, then it would begin to suffer damage, which would produce some troponin – which would normally be injected straight into the bloodstream… only there was no blood to inject it into – and then death.”
“The blood thing again.”
“Yes, the blood thing again.” Carver echoed. “Remember what I told you in the lab earlier?”
I nodded. “So his heart stopped because he had no blood left in him, which is what killed him?”
“And that’s why – when he was shot – there was so little blood?”
“Right.” Said the Doctor again. “It would’ve sprayed everything in his immediate area – the floor around him, his clothes at the very least.”
“And yet, there was almost nothing.” I remarked. I admit it was difficult to imagine why, at first.
“What about anemia?” I asked. The question seemed to affect Carver like fingernails drawn across a chalkboard.
“Are you being deliberately obtuse?” He snapped at me.
“No, of course not, Dr.” I said, and shook my head. “I’m just trying to figure out all the angles, get to grips with the whole scenario. You said he was low on blood – just a liter left in his body?”
Carver made a visible effort to calm down before continuing.
“I… I apologize, Mr. Lange, it was quite a shock… losing Lionel like that!”
“No need to apologize, Dr.” I smiled.
“No, really, it’s unreasonable of me to expect you to be familiar with the medical field. I’m sorry.”
“No problem, please continue.”
“Anemia? No...” Carver went on. “The amount of blood that was missing was far too drastic for that. When I examined him just now, there was less than a liter of blood left in him. Even taking into consideration the amount of blood at the scene – that was still only about a liter accounted for. To put this into perspective for you, the average Human adult only has about five liters, maybe six or seven for really big, weighty individuals…” Carver chuckled humorlessly. “Now, for someone like Lionel, who weighed around eighty kilograms, somewhere between five and six liters would be a good place to start.”
“I’m starting to see what you mean.” I remarked. “One liter out of five is a little low.”
“A little?” Carver said, shaking his head/again. “Like most of us, he could lose ten percent of that over the short term without any problems. Any more than that, and he’d start experiencing immediate difficulty. At forty percent loss – that’s somewhere around two liters out of his five missing – and that really doesn’t sound like much, does it? …he’d already start going into hypovolemic shock, lose consciousness, and require immediate resuscitation and liquid infusion! Lionel was down to one liter… how was he even alive?”
“When last did he have a medical exam?” I asked. The company had us all do one every two years just to keep our jobs – it was standard procedure.
“His latest med-exam was just last month – I was pretty sure of that, but I checked anyway. I conducted it myself, and there was no sign of a problem. It’s impossible to lose that much blood in such a short period of time without it having been noticed!”
I nodded, feeling suddenly fatigued. It was well past my bed time. It was nearly ten, but my mind was just too busy and wrapped up in the untieable knot that was the case. As no further answers seemed to be forthcoming, I thanked Carver and asked him to send me his report, and retreated back to the safety of my office again. There was no point in going back to my apartment to try to sleep that night.
I poured myself some fresh hot coffee and sat at my desk to eat the cold food parcel Lisa had left for me as I mulled over the case. What had happened in the lab? Whatever it was, it must’ve happened within the forty-eight minutes and sixty-two seconds between the time Cove entered the lab, and the shot! How did Cove really die, if it wasn’t the shot that killed him? Blood loss, the doc said. But where had that blood gone? There was no sign of it at the crime scene. Why? If Cove hadn’t been ill – and according to Carver, he certainly should have been – what had happened to it? I couldn’t imagine for a moment that someone had simply removed it! Why would anyone do that? For what reason? Why kill him that way? If anyone wanted Cove dead, then surely it was easier to just shoot him anyway, if the goal had been to kill him!
Somehow I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the missing blood played a central role in the mystery Cove had been shot – that was undeniable, but how – if not by his own hand? The blaster was fired forty-eight minutes, sixty-two seconds after he’d entered the lab, and according to Carver, Cove was already dead by then. Was someone else in the lab with him? Had someone else shot him in that time? If so, what happened to them? Why weren’t they seen by the nurses when they arrived on the scene… or by my security staff when they arrived? There was no securi-cam inside the lab, but perhaps the one in sickbay… Perhaps the killer hid under a work bench or in a closet, and waited for the fuss to be over, and then left when the coast was clear?
I went back to the surveillance video. There was no sign of anyone exiting the lab after the shooting other than the two nurses. I watched them going in again, then twice more. Both appeared hesitant to enter. I suppose, after hearing a blaster firing inside a closed room, I might be reluctant to just walk in, too. Neither of the nurses mentioned seeing anyone else inside the lab with Dr. Cove. I watched the pair exit again, leaving the lab’s door open. One held her hands to her mouth in shock as she quickly hurried in the direction of the reception desk. The other looked back through the doorway, followed her companion, and then glanced back again. They’d hardly been inside the lab long enough to look around – and probably just long enough to see Dr. Cove’s body, to realize what had happened – to panic, and then to arrive at the decision to call for help. They probably saw nothing else, even if there was something else there to be seen.
I watched the feed past that point another time, carefully – right up to the time-index my security people arrived. It was nine minutes later, and I watched further – until I saw myself joining them thirty-three minutes after the initial alarm, with Lisa Garfner right in front of me, leading the way. While I was in there, examining the crime-scene, I know I hadn’t seen anyone in there I hadn’t recognized. They were all security staff, aside from the two nurses that kept coming back for another look at the tragedy. I watched a bit longer, skipping through frames now, watching as the body was taken away to the ship’s morgue, and then as the security staff began to leave, carrying various bits of forensic equipment with them. I watched beyond that point, up to the point where a team from housekeeping went in to clean up the mess, and where they came back out again, half an hour later. There was still no sign of the killer! This was giving me a headache!
I made a fresh, hot mug of coffee, and decided to try another approach. I went back to the beginning of the lab footage, this time, to an hour before the shooting – and began watching from there. If I’d been hoping for a different result, I was disappointed in that exercise as well. For everything the security footage could tell me, the lab was empty when Cove went inside. I watched him carefully as he entered – he gave no sign of noticing anyone else inside before closing the door.
Then, in mounting desperation, I reviewed the crime scene evidentiary scans again. There was no trace of Dr. Cove’s blood on anything in the lab at all, except on Dr. Cove, his lab coat, his shirt, and across the wall behind him. There was nothing on the floor, or any of the worktables, or in the waste receptacles. The only items that had his DNA on, were ordinary items which he would likely have used in the lab – such as a few pairs of discarded gloves found in the waste receptacle, which he’d worn himself. If anyone had drained Dr. Cove of his blood, they clearly hadn’t left any sign of it behind in the lab.
By the end of that rope – with midnight fast approaching, I sat with my head in my hands. All I had in my increasingly painful head by that time was more questions than I had answers! I was already certain that someone had killed Cover, and then shot his body to make it look like suicide, but I had no way to prove it. Basically, what I was looking at, was the case of an apparently healthy man who went into a room with only one entrance, suddenly died of extreme blood loss, and then somehow shot himself afterwards.
Serious crimes have always been rare aboard star-liners like the Demeter, but – being in charge of the security department of a cruise liner – that meant that I’d inevitably one day have to deal with a serious crime such as murder. That meant I’d have needed at least a six month introductory course in law enforcement under my belt just to apply for the job. That small amount of experience already told me how a police investigation was likely to view everything I had lying on my table. Dr. Cove’s death would be ruled a suicide, and Dr. Carver’s findings would be side-lined and dismissed as either “fanciful” or “flawed”, and the case closed.
I may not have been overly fond of Dr. Carver, but I certainly didn’t doubt his expertise and credibility. I quickly went through Carver’s autopsy report. There was no mention of any puncture wounds or needle marks on the body. This suggested that the only place the blood could have left the body was through the wound. Rather than get caught up in another headache-inducing vicious circle, I turned my thoughts to the blaster again. Of course the killer had to leave it at the scene to make Cove’s death look plausible as a suicide – because a dead body without the weapon would’ve blatantly suggested the opposite. But was the weapon itself really a clue? Who was to say it had any real bearing on the case? For all intents and purposes, Cove’s suicide might have been rigged with any weapon – a cartridge-firing automatic, or one of our security blasters, for instance – they were common enough onboard the Demeter. Instead, the killer chose a specific weapon – a Corsair blaster. Was it an attempt at misdirection?
I shrugged off the feelings of confusion and decided another change of approach was in order. Who had a motive to kill Lionel? I started looking into Dr. Cove’s recent background. He had no known connections to any gangs on any of the worlds Demeter regularly visited, nor any known criminal associations of any kind. He didn’t gamble, he hardly drank alcohol. His credit rating was excellent, as was most of the company’s employees’ – since we were off-shore most of the time, we hadn’t much opportunity to run up any debts. Company employees weren’t allowed to gamble on the ship, anyway. Who would want him dead? A jilted lover perhaps?
Lionel was single, and had been ever since he was divorced four years previously. He kept to himself, didn’t date, and just lurked either in his office at sickbay, the lab, or in his apartment. In fact, just about the only time he went anywhere socially, was when he met myself and Lisa for drinks somewhere on the ship. His ex-husband, John, was a cardiologist who lived on Tremaine and worked at one of their big private hospitals – and was currently still there (I checked). It was an amicable divorce, uncontested. I know relations were cool, but amiable – they still exchanged birthday cards. John Talbot had remarried two years ago and moved on with his life – and to be blunt (aside from not being on the Demeter) seemed the most unlikely suspect ever. I reached for the bottle of headache pills in my drawer, and swallowed some with my coffee.
None of Lionel Cove’s personal effects from his cabin or office, his notes, emails, or recent interweb searches were those of someone contemplating suicide. Statements from Dr. Cove’s colleagues – including Carver – all agreed that he’d been extremely up-beat and positive in the past few months, with no sign of depression or unusual behavior – that is, unusual for Creepy Dr. Goth.
Just then, at half-past midnight, the test results of the blaster came back from the crime lab. The lab was working double-shifts that night, and I was glad for the support of my staff. Sometimes it didn’t really matter if they smiled at me or laughed at my weak jokes, as much as being there when the job needed doing. This was one of those times. The blaster had tested positive for latent internal heat radiation – meaning it had been fired very recently, at least within the time frame approximating Cove’s time of death. Also, it was of the type of weapon that could cause a wound of the type and severity as suffered by Dr. Cove. Residue collected from the wound matched the weapons pattern exactly, which confirmed that it was the weapon that had been used on Dr. Cove. There, the good news ended. The only fingerprints on it at all – and identifiable DNA traces – were those of one Dr. Lionel Cove. That was hard luck for my part, but I knew all too well that someone could easily have put the weapon in Cove’s hands before placing it on the deck to make it look like it had fallen there from his dead fingers. The only problem I encountered in demonstrating that obvious fact, was that all the evidence dictated otherwise.
The securi-cam footage proved that Cove had been alone in the lab at the time of his death. The shot recorded by the securi-cam, the wound itself, and the blaster left at the scene suggested he’d shot himself – BUT the absence of blood in his body and at the crime scene showed that he’d died before he could’ve inflicted the wound on himself. As far as I could tell, that – and the unlikelihood that he’d been depressed enough to be suicidal – seemed to be the only two fish swimming upstream.
Somehow, a murder had been committed, and an attempt had been made to cover up that murder. It was the only logical conclusion. Those were the only two facts that made any kind of sense – everything else was contradictory. Lionel Cove had been shot with a blaster, presumably to make his death look like suicide – by someone who wasn’t there. Or …who simply couldn’t be seen. That of course, was impossible! Unfortunately, that was where my logic lost its shit, crashed out the window, and ran into the bushes, tearing its clothes off and screaming.
Investigative procedure in my line of work usually only extended to cases of theft, pickpocketing and standard crime prevention measures. I wasn’t a cop, and I’d never been one. In essence, I was an administrator in charge of a fancy security guard detail, with some training in company procedures in the event of A, B or C happening while on a voyage. I didn’t have to kill myself trying to work it out before we got to Tremaine – I could just put all the evidence together, sit back, and just hand it over to the cops at our next port of call, in this case, Tremaine Colony. But I was too proud to do that. This was more than just a case after all, this man had been a friend. It was personal. My attempt to uncover a motive had ended in failure. Who would want to kill Lionel Cove, SMD, and why? I couldn’t think of a single reason. Cove was a nice guy. Everybody on the staff seemed to like him. What about robbery? I balked at that notion – in a medical lab? The only thing missing seemed to be the victim’s blood! It didn’t make any sense!
It was turning into a long night indeed! A fresh mug helped to put things into perspective, as I began a process of elimination. I started with how the Corsair blaster had come to be in the sickbay lab. Where had that blaster come from? It was a Corsair blaster, as I mentioned before – which was a unique design. Why wouldn’t the killer have used a different weapon? Well, because most of them were inaccessible to everyone except select members of my security staff, including me, Lisa and perhaps two shift supervisors.
There were some weapons aboard the Demeter, including thirty company standard-issue hand blasters held in the weapons locker at the back of the security office. All of those were accounted for. I also knew that Mr. Beckett, the ship’s Exo, had a small hand blaster he kept in his night stand – but he had a company permit for that one, and I’d never had a cause to confiscate it. Passengers weren’t allowed to keep their personal weapons with them or in their apartments – at least not since the incident in apartment five I mentioned earlier. Passengers and crew were thoroughly scanned upon boarding Demeter – not only at their points of origin, but also at every stop on the voyage where they had an opportunity to debark and return. They were permitted to bring small, personal weapons with them, but they had to be surrendered to the security section for safe keeping for the duration of their voyage, and would only be returned to them as they disembarked. There were only fifty-two such items in the lock-up at the time – and none of them had been Corsair-type blasters. Aside from that, there were no loose unchecked hand weapons aboard the Demeter. At least, none that I knew of. Evidently, none of the boarding party had checked in any trophy weapons collected from the Corsair ship.
“Someone’s been a naughty boy!” I muttered in the silence of my office. “…Or girl.”
I’d always known, in terms of weapons security – as did the company – that some crewmembers might bend or break company rules and regulations because they were the ones expected to ensure that the passengers and crew complied with them. It was a case of who’s watching the watchers? This was especially true of those working in the security section, I realized again. I’d kept an eye on them as best as I could, but I couldn’t be everywhere at once… but I’d been with the boarding party on the Corsair ship – and I knew the other members had been picking up trophies while we were there. How many had picked up Corsair blasters? They were lying right there, and we walked right by them – they were ready for the taking!
Finding the source of the blaster Cove had been shot with, was a path likely to lead me to the killer! Corsair weapons didn’t just fall from the sky, after all. The weapon was unique to Corsairs – the buggers made them themselves on their home world, so these unique Corsair weapons were generally rare, and a specimen like that one, would undoubtedly command a nice price on the rare collectibles market! The only time the Demeter had come into direct contact with a clear source of Corsair weapons had been four days prior, when the boarding party ventured onto that black ship!
There were only seven members of the boarding party – me, Lisa, Dr. Cove (who was now deceased) two from security, and two medics. Was one of them the killer? Which one? A nurse might have easier access to the lab than anyone else! Then again, someone from security might know a few tricks in bypassing the securi-cams, for starters – and they wouldn’t find many obstacles in hiding illicit weapons on a ship as large as the Demeter! It might even have been more than one individual, I theorized – and before long, I was building a conspiracy inside my head, with some hidden agenda at the heart of it!
I yawned and stretched, and shook my head. I couldn’t imagine one just ‘lying about’ on Demeter for an unspecified time, and then conveniently being used to cover up a murder just days after the Demeter encountered a Corsair ship in deep space? No – the weapon had to have come onboard recently, and from that Corsair ship! In that case, I thought, the most likely suspect had to be someone on the boarding party. At least, that was my first premise – and going through the list of who’d been on the boarding party made my headache worse… All of the people that went across with me – medics and security – had exemplary records and should have been above suspicion. They just didn’t seem the type. I know, I know – people can be capable of extraordinary things, even extraordinary cruelty, under the right set of circumstances – but again, what motive would they have had to kill Cove?
I was still sitting in my office and pondering that question, when the next day-shift rolled into the security complex. It was already morning – not that it showed. Out here in the dark, the stars are always out, and we regret having taken the sun and blue sky for granted. At least, I did. The main office was suddenly filled with fresh staff, chattering noisily about their previous night’s activities and sharing whatever news they had to share. I suddenly realized I was hungry, and went to the crew restaurant to grab some breakfast before I missed the chance. I saw Lisa there, and we ate together as usual. I didn’t know what to tell her when she asked me if I’d made any progress on the case. The thought of it just made my head pound harder.
After breakfast, I swung by my apartment to have a shower and changed into a fresh set of clothes, and then started walking back towards the security complex. Back at my desk, I took a fresh look at the list of names on the boarding party. Then I started going through their company files and work records, cross-referencing with the central population database to verify any details, such as previous criminal records etcetera. Suddenly, something went wrong. I could no longer access off-ship links and databases from my desktop terminal. An internal notification popped up on my screen and informed me that the external communications system of the ship had mysteriously stopped working and that the technical department was looking into it. I sighed in frustration, and then continued to work with what I had at my disposal, examining the locally stored company work records of the individuals in question – and not finding anything much of interest. I’d often wondered if other members of the crew had led lives as boring as mine, and I must say, that was one way to confirm my suspicions.
At first, the communications problem had seemed to be just a random technical malfunction, but upon investigation, Demeter’s technicians had discovered otherwise. This being a technical issue, it was some time before security was made aware of the exact nature problem. Sometime around seven-thirty AM, Chief Engineer Todd Burton left the confines of the Demeter’s engine complex and shuffled his way up to the bridge to see the Captain – which was something of a rarity, since he rarely left that part of the ship. It was at about that point that I received another call from the Old Man. This of course, is where I started thinking about the bottle of headache pills in my desk drawer again. Murder, okay. Sabotage, okay. But murder and sabotage within twenty-four hours?
After reassuring the Old Man that I’d look into it, I had a notification sent out to all members on duty, to warn them to be on the lookout for anything suspicious – bearing in mind of course, that it was very suspicious indeed that one or two of them might be the culprit. Needless to say, I had a very interesting time trying not to put it quite that way. I decided to pursue my hunch that the killer was one of the members of the boarding party – er… just as soon as I’d done looking into the alleged sabotage of the ship’s communications system.
The engines of a ship like the Demeter are pretty damn big things and, as far as my knowledge of stardrives extends, it takes a lot to keep something that complicated from just blowing up and creating a new sun, let alone keeping them running efficiently enough to propel something the size and mass of a cruise-liner across the galaxy. It took a very specialized team of highly trained minds – led by a very qualified, experienced and responsible engineer – to keep those engines running at peak efficiency, and Todd Burton was just such a person. He was a very serious man indeed – and not only because he had sixty years of service with the company behind him, but I suppose with such a weighty responsibility, seriousness was a prerequisite of the job.
Burton seemed quite perplexed as he tried to relate to me how a set of communications leads – bundles of optic fiber cables, together about as thick as a human forearm – that ran inside a narrow fifty meter length of duranium tubing a few inches in diameter, from the bridge to the subspace relay and on the outside of the hull, had seemingly been deliberately cut… from outside the ship. Burton seemed not to believe it himself as he explained in more detail, that the tube itself, if empty, was barely wide enough for a large housecat to crawl through – and yet the cables had somehow been ripped loose from the external subspace transponder at the other end – from inside the tube! Burton couldn’t explain the damage, or how anyone could access that end of the tube without using a viro-suit, or setting off a dozen alarm systems in getting outside the ship!
Burton also couldn’t explain how that was even possible, let alone how it could’ve been an act of sabotage. In his professional opinion, it wasn’t simply a case of accidental damage or wear and tear. “Shit like that, just doesn’t happen!” he told me, and then repeated himself, before launching into an explanation about stardrive acceleration and deceleration and the stresses and strains on solid materials and ship’s equipment. He rambled on a good deal about how this damage was inconsistent with anything caused by such as he’d seen before.
After finally escaping from the engineering complex, I returned to my office to visit my bottle of headache pills again, and kicked my office door closed. Then I lay down on the small sofa beside my desk to grab a power-nap, and as I drifted off to sleep, I thought about recent events a little more.
Usually, I would just put my head down on the pillow and drift off, thinking about whatever had happened during the day. I didn’t often have nightmares, either – but that day was an exception. I saw Lionel in my dream – sitting there in his lab, like we’d found him… dead in his wheelie-chair. His head was tilted a little to one side, his lips just slightly parted, and his pale blue eyes wide open and staring at me. The wound in his neck looked raw and painful, and so terribly… graphic. The blast had cut a large chunk of his neck out, and I saw the side of his vertebrae exposed. Then suddenly, his eyes moved and looked right at me! I grew afraid, and the feeling of dread grew into terror as I watched the man’s head tilt right over to the other side, as though it were about to fall off!
I suddenly awoke to the sound of my own voice, and lay there confused for a moment, and breathed hard. My “power nap” had lasted just on four hours! The headache had subsided at least. In the meantime, it had taken Mr. Burton and one of his techs in a viro-suit at the other end outside the ship, that much time to repair the cable and restore external communications. I could work again – but first, my mug needed a refill.
I took a sip of steaming hot coffee and reviewed my work from a few hours earlier. I’d managed to put together a working list of preliminary suspects. Now wait, I know that sounds really impressive – a whole lot more impressive than it really was of course, because the list still only consisted of everyone who was on the boarding party. I excluded myself and Lisa, who I knew well enough to have serious doubts that she would do something like that. Dr. Cove was off that list too, obviously, and thus I had only four likely suspects on my list: Mike Ashton and Hanna Dren from Security, and two nurses: Jenny Samuels and Mark Washington.
A plan began to form. I knew what to do, but I thought it would raise the suspicions of any would-be killer if I did it myself. I opened my office door and called Lisa into my office.
“I need your help.” I told her.
“Sure, Sean.” She smiled. “What d’you need?”
“Here’s a list of names.” I said, and passed her a hastily written paper note. “I need you to have a chat with each of them, separately. See if you can find out who among them brought souvenirs back with them from the Corsair ship?”
“Hmm.” She said, reading the names. “This is the boarding party. The only ones missing are you, me, and Dr. Cove?”
“That’s right.” I smiled.
“What’re you looking for?” She asked.
“I want to know if any of them saw who picked up blasters like the one that we found with Cove – and I want you to see if they’ll show them to you.”
Lisa nodded. “How will that help?”
“I want to know if any of them brought back a Corsair blaster – and if they still have it.”
She stared at me, and I could tell what she was thinking.
“If I do it, they might get suspicious.” I told her.
“Okay.” She nodded.
I always had great respect for Lisa, and I knew she wouldn’t let me down. Her assignment took her practically the rest of the day. Lisa finally reported back to me with news in the late afternoon. Finally, we had something of a breakthrough in the case, or so it seemed.
As it turned out, all but one of the four suspects had returned to Demeter with keepsakes. Mike Ashton and Hanna Dren had showed her a Corsair helmet, a blaster each and a knife in the crew lounge. Both told Lisa that Mark Washington also had picked up a blaster – and the three of them had compared their finds later, in the crew rec-room. Lisa impounded the two blasters on the spot, with promises that they’d be returned when they left the ship – and put the two security staffers on notice that they were on report for not handing them in. The thought of the looks on their faces at the time, brought a smile to my face – I knew Lisa could be pretty formidable.
Next, Lisa had interviewed Jenny Samuels, one of the two nurses on the boarding party – and also coincidentally, one of the two nurses on duty the night when Dr. Cove was killed. She told Lisa she hadn’t brought anything back from the Corsair vessel at all, and that she’d felt like a tomb-robber just for having been there – but she said that her colleague had brought a blaster back with him. Samuels had seen Mark Washington pick one up and stick it in the back of his pants. According to Samuels, Nurse Washington had shown off his trophy to several of his friends in the crew rec-room when he got back. There were other blasters being shown around, but Samuels wasn’t sure if Dren or Ashton were the owners. Lisa was very thorough. She went to my terminal and showed me video footage from the ship’s security feed as proof. All three crew members – Mike Ashton, Hanna Dren and Mark Washington – were seen passing around their trophies in the rec-room the evening after we’d returned from the Corsair ship.
Additional routine tests of the weapons she’d impounded from Ashton and Dren showed that neither of them had been fired during the same time period as the first one already in the evidence locker. Ashton, Dren and Samuels were pretty much scratched off my list at that point. That just left Mark Washington.
“I can’t wait to hear this!” I grinned, starting to enjoy the feedback I was getting.
“Well, I haven’t actually interviewed Washington yet!” She told me. “I thought it wiser to look into his recent activities first.”
“And did you?”
“Damn right I did!” She smiled, knowingly, and opened another video archive. “Buckle, up, buttercup – you’re gonna love this!”
Nurse Washington seemed to have been having what looked like clandestine meetings with a passenger in the cargo area on E Deck. The crew quarters were out of bounds to passengers, and the passenger decks were well covered by security cams – so the chances of any kind of ‘romantic’ liaison between a passenger and crew would be very remote – except perhaps in more remote parts of the ship, where there was much less security coverage. The video feed only showed the nurse passing a securi-cam while going down a bleak grey corridor on E Deck, alone – and the passenger, a well-built man with short white-blond hair following just a minute later. About 75 minutes later, the same pattern played out in reverse. The date stamp of the feed was from the previous day – just a few hours before Dr. Cove’s alleged suicide. Well, that quite nicely fitted the theory I’d been building. We ran a scan of the passenger’s face, and discovered who we were looking at. His name was Peter Caine, twenty five years old, from Tremaine.
According to the manifest, Mr. Caine had a suite in second-class, B Deck, section twenty, cabin 340. Second-class passengers weren’t normally the wealthy elite, you understand. They’re not the rock stars, actors or CEO’s – they were more typically people who had a little extra money and wanted to combine travel from A to B with the luxury of a little relaxation on the side.
I knew Mr. Washington enjoyed the company of men, and honestly, that never bothered me at all. Breaking a few of the Company’s more minor regulations about liaisons with a passenger – that wasn’t so serious either. Frankly, I wouldn’t lose any sleep about it, and things being normal on Demeter, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid – but things weren’t! There could have been more to this than just a sexual liaison, I thought. Something was exchanged during that clandestine little meeting, and it might not have been only bodily fluids! I thanked Lisa for her efforts, and gave her the task of tracking Mr. Caine’s recent movements on the ship, while I went to have a little private chat with Nurse Washington. I finally felt like I was making solid progress on this bitch of a case! I found Washington on duty at the sickbay, getting ready to go off shift.
Mark Washington was a big, muscular guy, dark brown skinned, afro hairstyle, and the company’s navy blue nurse’s uniform suited him quite well. Had a big friendly smile that disappeared as soon as I started asking him about the blaster he brought back from the black ship. He seemed suddenly nervous, but I couldn’t tell if it was me he was afraid of, or Mr. Caine.
“Yea, I brought back a blaster from the Corsair ship.” He admitted right away. “But I needed a little extra cash, so I sold it.”
“You sold it?” I asked, scarcely able to believe my ears. “Here, on a ship, between worlds?”
“Yea.” He told me. “I sold it to a friend.”
Not only had Mark Washington illegally brought a dangerous weapon aboard, but he’d also sold it illegally as well! I didn’t bother to ask him if he knew the penalties for illegal arms trading – especially if that weapon turned out to be the one involved in a murder.
“A blond friend?” I hinted. This seemed to make Washington even more nervous. He nodded.
“He paid me ten thousand credits for it. He lives on Tremaine – he said it was for his collection.”
After telling Washington to not leave town in a hurry (ha ha) I decided that Mr. Caine warranted a closer look as well. With ship’s communications restored, I was able to access the central population database on Earth again from my office terminal. I only wish that had made my task easier! Instead, I discovered that there were seven hundred and fifty-six Peter Caine’s alive around the various worlds in the Commonwealth – and none of them was currently aboard the Demeter! Interesting, don’t you think? This revelation left me with something of a puzzle on my hands! Was the man traveling under a false name? Rather than making a hasty move, I decided to keep a discreet eye on Mr. Caine first.
I followed him around at a distance. The stocky blond fella sitting in the bar on C Deck and chatting to a well-endowed lady in a very fancy evening gown, who was smoking a long electronic cigarette – was either a figment of everybody’s imagination, or his name wasn’t Peter Caine. In fact, I had a pretty good idea it wasn’t. As a matter of interest, the lady he was flirting with at the bar was Baroness Ilge Francesca von Scheutz, a member of the new aristocracy and a resident heiress on Tremaine Colony. She was a very wealthy first-class passenger, and a little far south of A Deck for the accepted social norms of her home colony. She looked high 50’s, stylish and – well, let’s call her “well-preserved” – that should suffice. The baroness seemed to be taking Peter Caine’s bait and flirting back. Frankly, neither of them were my cup of tea. In fact, if either of them were my last hope of not spending the rest of my life alone, I’d sooner prefer my own company.
Just watching so many well-moneyed, shallow people flirting and cavorting in loose social circles for so long had left me feeling somewhat jaded and detached, and disconnected from Humanity. Mercifully, it wasn’t very long before the pair left the bar and headed to one of the nearby elevators together. That particular car only went up to A Deck, so it wasn’t very complicated to add one and one to make two. Right about then, my com-link buzzed. It was a call from the transmatter operator on duty, asking me to pay her a visit at her station. She said it was important. It was already near dinner time, and I felt ravenous, but I decided that would have to wait until after Ms. Parker.
The transmatter is, as I’m sure you already know, a teleportation device allowing the transmission and reception of matter – that is, objects such as people and baggage. It cuts out the need for relying on shuttles to convey passengers to and from the ship – or having to make planet-fall in order to pick them up or drop them off. As such, the rather spacious jump-platform was also a point of entry into the ship, and a security concern to my department. It was usually manned by a single crewman during every shift, even when the Demeter was between worlds and there was no conceivable transmatter destination or point of origin within range.
I didn’t know Sinead Parker at all really, but I recognized her from seeing her around the ship. If I knew her at all, it was by her professional reputation – which was pretty solid. As soon as I arrived at the transmatter, she rushed to meet me, and I could tell she was eager to tell me something. She had a nervous look about her, and I felt her trembling as she grabbed my wrist and pulled me into her office cubicle at the side of the main platform – and into her confidence.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Parker?” I asked her, somewhat astonished.
“I was going over my shift logs from the past few days.” She began explaining as she accessed her computer terminal. “Can you confirm for me, how many of you went over to that Corsair ship the other day?”
“Seven.” I replied, wondering where this was going. “Eight when we came back with the sick Corsair. Why?”
“That’s what I thought too.” Sinead said tensely, and pointed at the screen on her console. “Seven persons,” She said, pointing at the display under the heading Sent. Then she pointed under the next heading, Received. Where it should’ve said eight, instead, it said something different. I blinked.
“Nine?” I read aloud.
I thought back to the day that we’d encountered the Corsair ship. That was four days earlier – seven of us had shifted over to the Corsair ship – seven! I remembered us arriving back on the platform on Demeter after the rescue, with the injured Corsair on the stretcher. That definitely made eight! I didn’t recall seeing anyone else on the platform I didn’t recognize! There were no other life signs on the Corsair ship!
“This isn’t quantum physics, is it?” I asked giving her a skeptical look. It turned out to be a rhetorical question, because Sinead just stared at me, worried, silent. “Technical malfunction?” I suggested then, trying to hide the little worried feeling at the back of my mind, tugging my shirt sleeve as if to try and say there was something big standing behind me.
“I ran a diagnostic, Mr. Lange! Twice!” She replied in a worried voice. “Everything checked out. Now – take a look at this!”
Sinead showed me another screen, one which displayed the pax-list for our return to Demeter. All crew had semi-permanent tracker implants that identified them to the ship’s systems. The company would never inconvenience paying guests with such an invasive procedure, so passengers only carried small tags that could be carried in a pocket or clipped onto an item of clothing. I read the names in a worried silence that was of both our making.
Below that, were two more entries:
One of the ‘unknowns’ would have been the injured Corsair they rescued and brought aboard… I knew that much about the transmatter’s system and procedures… fine – but the second? Nobody on the team had said anything unusual to indicate the presence of a ninth unknown person. It had to be an error! It had to be! If not, then it meant they could have a stowaway onboard! One of the Corsair crew perhaps? I was pretty sure some fella parading around in Corsair gear on Demeter would’ve been spotted toot sweet. But there’d only been one life sign on the ship when we went over, so that couldn’t be the answer!
“Let’s cut to the chase.” I told Sinead. “Did you see anyone arrive on that platform with us that you didn’t recognize?”
“No!” She breathed tensely. “I saw seven people leave, and I saw eight return. I counted – that’s my job – and I take it very seriously, Mr. Lange!”
Of course she did – it was her job to be sure everyone sent out came back! The company wouldn’t like it very much if passengers just went missing whenever they went through the transmatter! Missing passengers were also a hell of a lot harder to just write off than lost luggage! It would cut into their profits in a huge way! She’d counted – and so had I!
“Dammit, I knew you were going to say that!” I muttered, feeling my neck muscles start to tense up. “Okay, Ms. Parker – is there any way to confirm that the two unknowns actually arrived on the platform? A way to confirm data transmission?”
Without a word, Ms. Parker brought up another display on her terminal, and pointed at it.
“There you go.” She declared. “As you could expect, the system had no way of knowing who number eight was in the stretcher, but we all saw him, and he came back with you – that data is listed in the buffer record under Unknown One. No problem there at all, okay? Now, Unknown Two’s data stream appears intact and indicates all the data necessary for a standard human load. Only thing is – nobody saw him, not that side, and not on the platform at arrival!”
“Is there any chance it could be a malfunction?” I asked again, hoping that’s all it could be – because if it wasn’t an error, it meant that some kind of invisible entity had returned to Demeter with us! Obviously that was not going to be a good thing. In fact, it was all I needed to make me want to walk into an airlock, leave the door open, and take a walk outside.
“No.” Sinead said and shook her head definitively. “Because if it was a malfunction, or if there was a false reading and nothing was actually shifted onboard, then the data stream registry would’ve been blank, incomplete or shown something other than a clear human imprint!”
“Okay.” I sighed. The airlock wasn’t a serious option. But a headache pill might’ve been nice. “So let’s assume this machine isn’t faulty – something we couldn’t see came back with us?”
“Mr. Lange.” Sinead said with a serious expression on her face, “I shift dozens of people between the ship and planetary locations a week – and every single time I do, something we can’t see comes and goes with them!”
“What’s that, Ms. Parker?”
“The air, Mr. Lange.” She replied almost sarcastically. “The air!”
I ignored her sarcasm. After all, I understood her frustration. It might as well have been air that shifted back with us – because that’s pretty much invisible, isn’t it? I pointed at the securi-cam pick-ups around the transmatter platform.
“Have you checked the video at that time index?”
“No, not yet.”
“Do it, please – then check it for anything unusual and get back to me?”
“Sure!” She nodded, “Will do!”
“Great – and it’s probably best if this stayed between us, okay?”
As she nodded and smiled, I turned and headed back to Security. It was just after dinner time and the restaurant was closed, so I stopped at one of the small shops on the promenade and picked up a take-away on my way there. As I was halfway back, still fighting through a steak and kidney pie, Dr. Carver called to inform me that he had just been to see Baroness von Scheutz at her cabin. She’d called him to her cabin that evening, because she was feeling poorly, and he found her to be suffering similar symptoms as the Corsair survivor we picked up days previously. I nearly dropped my pie.
“Say that again?” I said into the com-link.
“I’m not joking, Mr. Lange.” Said the surly Dr. Carver. “I’ve taken samples and I’ll be testing them shortly, but for now it looks like it may be something similar.”
“Wonderful.” I said. “Keep me posted, please.”
First a murder, then an act of sabotage, and now an apparent epidemic! What the hell was going on?
In the meantime, the baroness was admitted to the sickbay under care. I feel it worth noting at this point, that this was the last time Dr. Carver volunteered any information to me. He started acting a little strangely soon after that, like he was holding out on me in the information department. I began to suspect it was because he thought something was “off” about this mysterious illness that had killed our Corsair guest, and that now may have been manifesting in the passengers and crew. Or perhaps Dr. Carver had time to think about it, and decided that “Carver’s Syndrome” might sound rather more attractive than “Cove’s Disease”.
The unusual events didn’t end there. As that night wore on, more odd things began to happen. That very same evening, Nurse Washington collapsed in the crew rec-room in front of a dozen witnesses. He was rushed to the sickbay by a group of friends shortly afterwards. You guessed it – Washington was also suffering the same symptoms as the Baroness.
I dropped in at sickbay around eight that night to visit Dr. Carver and get an update. Both patients were in quarantine and stable for the moment. I found Carver in the lab, where he’d been examining blood samples from Baroness von Scheutz and Washington, and reviewing Cove’s research and notes on the Corsair patient. He seemed cagey and aloof, and maintained that some kind of virus – which despite all his efforts, refused to be identified – was responsible for both patients being taken ill. I questioned him as to how it could’ve been transmitted… How could it be a virus or bacteria if it didn’t show up at all? Dr. Carver couldn’t answer me. He just sat there, shaking his head before saying “It must be something we missed!”
The problem of how the disease had been transmitted concerned me. I’d been on that Corsair ship as well! I took out my com-link and called security control – and had the rest of the surviving members of the boarding party brought to the sickbay. It took just half an hour for Lisa Garfner to get them there – and there was some swearing involved. Mike Ashton was in his pajamas still, and barefoot. Dr. Carver ran tests on all of them, and me, just to be sure. The results were all negative. Whatever had killed our Corsair guest, and was affecting one passenger and one crewman, didn’t seem to have affected any of us. Washington had been on the boarding party. Had he unknowingly become infected and brought the disease back to Demeter with him? If so, how had it spread to the baroness?
“Is it okay if I speak to Washington?” I asked the Doctor as the other former members of the boarding party left, heaving sighs of relief.
“Okay.” Carver nodded. “He’s in quarantine in sickbay; there’s an iso-field around his bed – but I have no idea if that’ll help – we still don’t even know how this thing is transmitted.”
I visited Washington where he occupied a bed in sickbay. An iso-field surrounded his bed, to keep any bacteria or airborne viruses from crossing it in either direction. His skin had taken on a gray tone, and he looked terrible. As long as I stayed on this side of the field, I wouldn’t pick up any bugs from the other side.
“Come to interrogate me some more?” Washington joked weakly.
“Not really.” I smiled. “I just thought I’d look in on you. You doing okay?”
“Not too sure.” He replied, his voice sounding rough and brittle. “Doc’s got me on some antibiotics, have to see.”
“How long ago did you start feeling ill?”
“I…I dunno…Couple hours before I passed out. Came over me… all of a sudden.”
“So you felt fine the whole time until a few hours ago?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Washington croaked.
“Just one more question.” I said, showing him a picture on my com-link screen of the baroness. “Did you ever spend any time with Baroness von Scheutz? One of the first-class passengers... Elderly lady?”
“Nah.” Washington said, shaking his head. “Not my type, dude.”
“Thanks.” I said, and smiled in parting.
The baroness was being treated in the alcove next door to Washington’s, also in quarantine. I decided to take a chance and see if she was awake and had anything to add to my investigation. Every other time I’d seen her, she was laughing and seemed to be having a good time. It’s hard to imagine that someone with so much wealth and free time had any reason to be miserable, but right at that moment, the baroness looked the picture of it – in a thousand words or more.
“Yes?” She groaned when she saw me stop and look at her. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Sean Lange, your ladyship.” I said by way of introduction. “Chief of Security. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
“I’m not going anywhere.” She said resignedly. “Fire away.”
“I’m just wondering, ma’am.” I said, approaching the very sick woman with my com-link held up for her to see. It had a picture of a smiling Mark Washington. “Have you ever seen this man before? Perhaps spoken to him?”
The baroness squinted at the picture.
“No.” She said tiredly. “No, definitely not.”
“Are you sure?” I persisted. “Think carefully, ma’am – it could be important.”
“Young man,” the baroness croaked. “If I say ‘definitely not’, I don’t mean ‘maybe’. I may be old enough to be your mother, but I’m not senile yet!”
I smiled instead of laughing out loud at her candor.
“Thank you, ma’am. I hope you get well soon.” I said, and left.
In retrospect, I had a suspicion that wasn’t very likely. I returned to Dr. Carver in the lab, and shared my thoughts with him.
“I may not be a doctor,” I began, “But surely if one of us got infected with this thing on the Corsair ship – just by being there – surely the rest of us would’ve got it as well?”
“Er.” Said Carver distractedly, his eyes still locked onto a terminal screen displaying blood samples and analyses. “Yes, well…no, maybe.”
“I’m lost!” I shrugged. “Which is it?”
“Look,” Said Carver, irritated, “Lots of different things could’ve happened over there. If it was transmitted via the air as you suggest, why weren’t all of you infected? Hmm? The sensors and my medi-scanners haven’t picked up any sign that it is. So it probably isn’t airborne. What if Washington suffered a small injury over there – a slight cut, a scratch, something that broke his skin just enough to become infected?”
“That sounds more likely.” I added. “It would explain why only one of us got infected!”
“But that didn’t happen either.” Carver said, sounding almost as though he were delighting in smashing my hopes like wooden ships on reefs of facts. “I asked him about that – he said he hadn’t noticed anything like that. In any case, I checked over all your bio-scans.”
“The ones taken of us when we came back from that ship?” I prompted. “Did you find anything?”
“No, nothing. Nurse Washington hadn’t so as much nicked himself shaving that morning.”
“Whatever the method,” I continued. “Whatever’s making them ill, it came off that ship!”
“You’re absolutely right.” Carver said, turning away from his terminal to look me square in the eyes. “We just don’t know how.”
“What if it was transmitted through contact?” I suggested, “Physical contact.”
“What, you mean…like…sex?” Carver balked. The question certainly cast the ship filled with dead Corsairs in a new and frighteningly different light for me, but no – that’s not what I meant.
“Well no… and yes, that too – but I meant through simple touch.” I clarified, resisting my blush response. “Then it could’ve gone from the Corsair, to Washington? I mean, he helped carry the man back on a stretcher – and he was one of the nurses who helped care for him, wasn’t he?”
“Maybe.” Carver nodded “But if it was that easily transmitted, then why didn’t Lionel get it? He spent much more time with the patient than any of us – including Washington.”
If neither Nurse Washington nor the Corsair had been in contact with the Baroness, then how had she contracted this mystery disease? Washington and the baroness both had casual intimate relations with Peter Caine, I knew that much… but that also didn’t make sense, because there were still several empty beds in sickbay, and Peter Caine wasn’t in any of them. Peter Caine didn’t seem to be ill at all. This didn’t make much sense – at least not to me – if it was a transmittable illness! Dr. Carver agreed with a heavy sigh.
For a few more minutes, we speculated why, if the disease was communicable through touch, Dr. Cove hadn’t contracted it from his patient. That was known as “the Physician’s Curse”, according to Carver – doctors often contracted diseases from their patients, and sometimes paid the ultimate price of being a healer. Anyway, Lionel had died before he started showing any signs of the illness being passed onto him – and there was no sign of it in his post mortem examination. It seemed to me that the mystery disease was starting to nudge the mystery of the missing blood out of the spotlight in this very perplexing case.
“I have a headache.” I groaned. “Again.”
“Welcome to my world.” Dr. Carver smiled, and casually tossed me a small bottle of headache pills from his pocket.
This wasn’t getting me anywhere, so feeling deflated, I left the doctor to go on driving himself crazy, and decided to look at the thing in a different light from my office. Once there, I found Lisa’s latest surveillance report waiting on my desk. Mr. Caine seemed to be quite fit. Instead of falling down deathly ill from the mystery disease, he’d spent most of the day cruising the bars around the ship and having interesting encounters – in all three classes. His two most recent activities for the evening included working on seducing Sammy Lancer, the playboy barista at a bar on B-Deck, as well as Shaneen Spear, a seductive blond passenger from second-class.
Sinead Parker called in shortly after I arrived, to report nothing unusual in the securi-cam feed covering the transmatter for the day in question. She said she hoped the matter wouldn’t affect her career and suggested I leave it all out of my report. I said I’d think about it, and hung up.
I did think about it – for a whole moment, before I decided I needed to take a closer look at the video in person. I accessed the central security system, located the stored feed from the cams in question, filtered the time index, and hit play. The feed from three cams covering the transmatter center popped up in their own little windows on my desktop terminal display. When I viewed them all simultaneously in a split screen, I recognized the scene immediately. It was taken from just before we rematerialized on the transmatter platform. Each cam had taken its footage from a different angle. I recognized myself, Washington, Lisa, Cove, Ashton, Dren and Samuels in each separate video. The Corsair was still lying in the stretcher. The lighting wasn’t too bright, but it wasn’t that dim either, and yet, those were the people I could see on the platform, clearly, and I watched as we dismounted the platform, going our separate ways – as I remembered it happening. I rewound to the start of the time index, and ran it again, switching my focus between the different angles. And again, and then a fourth time. As it passed the end-time index I just let it play. Frustrated, I sat back into my chair, wondering what I was even looking for in the first place!
Just then, a feint movement caught my eye – first in one window, then the second, then the third! I stopped the playback, and stepped it back a few seconds. I let it play again. After the last of us walked out the doorway, something moved on the transmatter platform! I leaned in more closely. It was hard to make out, and even now I find it hard to put into words – but what I saw was a movement… just a movement – an upright figure, but not a figure – appeared to move off the platform! Then it vanished off the side of the displays of each of the screens, as though it were an echo of one of us as we left the room! I stopped it, and replayed it. I squinted. I couldn’t make out any details – there was no face, no color, no shape of a body even… Just the movement! I stared, realizing eventually that I had been holding my breath! I literally could not believe my eyes! Even after I replayed the whole thing again a third time just to be sure I hadn’t seen what I thought I hadn’t seen!
I reconsidered the malfunction scenario again – and then quickly dismissed it. One cam might malfunction – but three at the same time showing the same malfunction? When I realized that, it became even clearer to me that neither the securi-cams nor the transmatter had malfunctioned… that it was no wonder I couldn’t find any trace of Cove’s killer on the security feed from sickbay! My blood chilled inside me. What had we brought back with us? A ghost? Something worse? What was I going to tell my security staff? “Keep an eye out for an invisible man? Sure – you’ll recognize him, because he’s the one you can’t see!”
Let me tell you, in all the years I’ve been out here in the black, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff – but never anything like this! I remember at the time, I put my head in my hands and groaned. Pretty loudly too. Thinking of where to take this particular thread of my investigation just made my thoughts run around in circles! I decided to put it away for now and to only worry about it if or when something else came along that could only be explained by a phrase like “the invisible man did it!” I decided to call it a night – and to actually go to bed this time! That was the end of the second day of my increasingly surreal investigation.
Day three of my investigation dawned. From the start, I decided to keep it grounded in reality – or, if that weren’t possible, to at least limit it within the kind of pseudo-reality that could be managed for the price of a few good headache pills. Invisible men were just too unrealistic a scenario to explain in any kind of criminal report – and I was still too far away from company pension to risk being boarded for a mental breakdown.
The day passed somewhat disappointingly with no new developments at all – but also without any unfortunate mishaps, ending on more or less the same bewildering and somewhat pointless note as the previous day. Both patients seemed to be hanging on in sickbay, with the tight-lipped Dr. Carver hovering around them between lengthy sessions in the lab. Demeter was on a quiet stretch of her voyage, a two week hiatus between stops, with nothing much for her passengers to do but immerse themselves in staged events, theater, follies, games, sports partying and relaxation. The routine went on as planned, although I seemed to detect a faint note of tension among the crew. One doctor had died of apparent suicide, and two people were circling a drain in sickbay… the rumor mill was at work.
I’d hoped to get an early night, but Lisa dropped by for a social call. We had become good friends in our time as colleagues. Lately I’d become so busy, preoccupied with the case, I’d completely let go of my routine. She stood outside the door to my apartment, holding a box pizza and a pack of microwave popcorn. The realization hit me like a wad of wet toilet paper.
“Oh shit!” I exclaimed. “Is it movie night already?”
“Uh-huh.” Lisa smiled patiently. “It’s Friday. You forgot, didn’t you?”
I must’ve grinned like an idiot.
“I’m so sorry!” I apologized sheepishly. “I got so busy with the case…”
“We can skip it this week if you like?” She offered.
“No, no – come in!” I said, and ushered her inside.
We spent the rest of the evening watching movies on the onboard channels, eating pizza and popcorn. It was a good thing – it gave me a chance to unwind and to spend time with someone I really liked without thinking about work. We called it a night just after midnight, and she went back to her apartment.
The next morning, day four of the investigation into Lionel Cove’s death, I awoke to messages on my com-link that told me her ladyship the baroness had abruptly expired in the early hours. Nurse Washington was in a bad way himself – and I didn’t think the outcome was worth betting on. For the moment, there were no new cases of infection. If that’s what it was. I couldn’t help feeling we were losing time and ground in the struggle against whatever it was we were fighting, without knowing what it was. I had no other suspects in Dr. Cove’s death, other than a line of dead people that seemed to be growing longer by the day, so I decided it was time to have a little chat with Peter Caine.
His apartment door opened just as I arrived. Someone I recognized – a passenger – Ms. Spear came out, bubbly and overflowing, and in more ways than one.
“Well hello there!” She smiled at me flirtatiously in passing.
“Hello.” I greeted awkwardly as the bubbly socialite disappeared down the hall.
Clearly Mr. Caine was quite the playboy. He seemed quite friendly, and stood aside to let me in – while I hoped he didn’t think I was next in line. Indeed, he was quite the charmer. I decided to get this over with as quickly as possible, and went for the jugular so-to-speak, and confronted him about his traveling under a false name, and informed him that traveling that way was a criminal offense under at least three Terran counter-terrorism acts. He just laughed at me and casually popped out an official-looking ID card. The name on it wasn’t Peter Caine – it was Tenika Jackson.
“This another one of your girlfriends?” I asked him.
“No stoopid.” He said – that’s mine. “I’m Tenika Jackson.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. I must’ve looked and sounded like an idiot. It turned out Mr. Caine was female. Well, at least biologically – although that state as it were, was in a – um, state of transition. From female to male, that is. Peter was the name he was comfortable with, and Caine was his mother’s maiden name.
Still, it was a crime to travel under an assumed name, I told him. Thereupon, he produced a three page letter from his medical specialist on Tremaine backing up his story, and a copy of a pending letter of application to change his name and registration details. I took the details to verify these later. It took a moment for me to get over the initial confusion, then I went in for the kill – and asked him about the blaster he was supposed to have bought off Washington. Instead, he smiled again and opened the nearest trunk at the foot of the still mussed up double bed. It was right about then that my knees felt weak and I instantly developed another headache. There was a blaster inside it that looked exactly like the one used to kill Cove!
“I always wanted one of those!” Caine told me, beaming like a school boy. I sighed deeply. Unless someone on Demeter had brought more than one blaster with them from the Corsair ship, then I’d been chasing my own tail for the last two days.
I impounded the blaster for safe-keeping, promising Mr. Caine that it would be returned to him when he disembarked, and sent it to the office with one of my people I met in the corridor with instructions to do a radiation test to see when last it was fired – more for interest’s sake than anything else. Then I went to the nearest bar to order a stiff drink. I would have to wait a good deal longer for that drink as it turned out, because as I arrived, a worried looking Dr. Carver and a medic were just leaving the bar. It didn’t look like it was a social call either. Sammy Lancer, the popular barista with an Italian look about him – and a just a twist of gigolo – had collapsed behind the bar and was just being taken to sickbay in a floater. Just then, as if Lisa had some kind of early warning that I really needed a break to get my thoughts back in order again, she called me to report that the Washington/Caine blaster had not been fired in quite some time, meaning that quite literally, it was as ice cold as the Cove case. As if that weren’t bad enough, a few minutes later, the Captain called me in again to give me another grilling about progress in the case.
Circumstances had thrown virtually my entire investigation out the window in the previous half hour, and I had the uncomfortable duty of informing Captain Mulligan that I had nothing left to go on. Zilch. Okay, except for the evidence which suggested that Dr. Cove’s death had been murder made to look like a suicide. The suspected sabotage of the ship’s communications array appeared to be unrelated – and I had nothing to go on there either. I didn’t mention anything about the remote possibility of an invisible man creeping about the ship, because I figured I still needed the job and retirement was still a good long way off. Instead, I told the Old Man I was still following a few more leads with my people. While we were duking it out on the bridge, more sad news came from sickbay that Nurse Washington didn’t make it. The Old Man gave Beckett one of his infamous looks, and told him to increase speed for Tremaine.
Dr. Carver, meanwhile, had been holding out on me. He must have, because late that same night, without telling anyone, he went to the ship’s morgue on his own, with all the kit necessary to take blood and tissue samples. On the following morning, of day five of my investigation, one of the cleaning staff found the entrance to the morgue open, and went inside to turn off the lights. A ship the size of Demeter had a fair sized morgue in case of accidental deaths – but you wouldn’t see that advertised in the Red Star Line brochures at all. “Now with two hundred extra berths in our super-deluxe mortuary complex!” Imagine that! This was where all the recent bodies were kept – including the Corsair we picked up, Dr. Cove, the Baroness von Scheutz, and Nurse Washington. A slip of white clothing that stuck out of a closed door had led the two cleaners to open it – where they discovered Dr. J.J. Carver’s body inside a cold storage unit.
I received the news just in time to postpone my breakfast for the second day running. The morgue was also right beside the sickbay – which made sense, because if anyone died while being treated there, their bodies could be taken away without causing a disturbance by transporting them through the rest of the ship, being seen by passengers paying to have a relaxing voyage without being reminded of their or their loved one’s mortality. Forensically, we didn’t have much to go on, but while Dr. Cove’s death had been made to look like suicide, the killer didn’t even bother with window-dressing this time. Carver had been killed alright, although there were no clues to the identity of the killer. As for motive, I was just as stumped this time. I’m still not sure what happened down there – there were no security feeds in that part of the ship either, but when he died, he was probably screaming.
Demeter had by this time lost one passenger and three crew members – and now we had five corpses in cold storage, including the Corsair we rescued – and both our staff doctors. While we were there, I decided, it was time to take a closer look at the bodies myself to see what Carver had been either hiding from me – or had been too afraid to disclose.
I had Lisa arrange with the senior nurse to have the bodies moved back to sickbay and laid out on the beds there. It wasn’t easy under the circumstances – being that the crew was beginning to get a little spooked. They were starting to fear infection being passed on to them. It wasn’t a fear confined to the crew alone anymore – the passengers were starting to pick up on it as well. Nothing travels faster than bad news.
Dr. Cove’s body looked pretty normal for a dead guy with a whole chunk of neck blown out of it. The sight of him reminded me of my nightmare the other night, and the sight of all the bodies together sent a chill running up my spine. The bodies were all naked of course, and covered with sheets. I had them uncovered so we could begin to make comparisons. Lisa and I began to examine them, with the assembled nursing staff looking on. Jenny Samuels, who it turned out, was the remaining senior nurse, hovered nearby.
The Corsair stiff had some scrapes and cuts and bruises on most of his body, but nothing to indicate severe internal injuries. Carver, Washington and the baroness completed the grim picture, all lifeless, drained of color, still. I decided to look more closely. On the neck of the baroness I saw what seemed to be small puncture marks in the skin, similar to what you would see from a syringe needle. Lisa found similar marks on Washington’s wrist. Then, in turn, we found similar matching marks on each of the bodies, including the Corsair – all but Dr. Cove’s. There were two or more sets of marks in the case of the Baroness and Washington – and only one pair on Carver. They were in different places on the others, but they had something important in common – they were all found in the same area as a major artery in the human body!
Cove’s carotid artery had been blown away with a blaster – but I had no doubt at all, that had it not been, I’d be looking at the same thing there! That was suspicious in itself! Had Cove been killed first, had his blood drained from there, and then blasted to cover up the same wound? Was that the reason for shooting his body? And by whom? The killer, most definitely – but still, why? What did the marks signify? Was that where blood had been removed from the victims? Even so, there was another important difference between the dead bodies – only Cove and Carver appeared to have been drained of their blood – the rest had died from the disease! Yet they all bore the same puncture marks in different places! And why was no effort made to conceal the marks on the later victims? What had changed?
On top of all the deaths, there was still the weird damage to the communications assembly that could’ve been sabotage. And those marks. What were they? Needle marks? Bite marks? My thoughts wandered a little off the map into the realm of myth and lore… Seriously? I shook my head. Who in their right mind would draw such a conclusion – and stake their reputation on it? I began to appreciate why Dr. Carver hadn’t shared this information – probably for the same reason I’d elected to keep quiet about the ‘invisible man’ on the transmatter platform.
The medical journal Carver had kept on the sickbay computer – which included verbatim tracts of Dr. Cove’s journal entries – confirmed my suspicions. Carver appeared to be onto something – rightly or wrongly, he appeared to have typed a ream of notes at a feverish pace! To add to the puzzle, Carver mentioned that apparently the bodies of Cove and the Corsair were both a couple of quarts low on the blood count, post-mortem – enough to result in death. Jenny Samuels, now the senior member of the sickbay’s medical staff, confirmed that Dr. Carver was too. I noticed for the first time that she had taken to wearing a garish silver crucifix around her neck, outside her clothing.
“Well, fuck me!” I remember saying out loud. As if in answer to my prayer, I got a call to inform me that Captain Mulligan wanted to see me again, demanding an update. Back to the bridge I went.
“Either there’s an alien that sneaked aboard the ship, one that happens to bite people and sucks out most of their blood,” I told him. “Or we have an actual vampire running around biting people, and popping them in the wound with a blaster to try and cover up the cause of death. Except it only did that once. Hmm. And if it’s an alien, it could be invisible – which might explain a few things... Incidentally Captain, just in case you think I’ve gone off my rocker, there’s video footage of an interesting anomaly on the transmatter platform the day we returned from the Corsair ship to substantiate that theory. Fuck it. Pick one.”
He didn’t. That’s probably the only time I ever saw the old man lost for words, but that could be because we’d both just heard Beckett announce to the bridge staff that there were seventeen new reported cases of the same mysterious symptoms among the crew and passengers since that morning – and now Demeter had no doctors left, just nurses – and some of them were among the sick! As if that weren’t bad enough, most of them had also come down with religion. To make matters even worse, the chief engineer, Todd Burton, had also disappeared during the night – along with the entire communications cluster that used to be on the other end of the cable he had replaced only a few days before!
For all intents and purposes, according to the ships sensors and highly sophisticated self-analyzing matrix, the communications assembly module (to wit, one sub-space radio dish) had simply detached itself from the ship for no apparent reason, and floated away unnoticed as the Demeter happily cruised along. The Demeter was now effectively cut off from the rest of the universe. That is, unless we got close enough to anyone to flash our lights at them, throw something, or use smoke signals.
“How in Hades does someone disappear on a space ship?” I wondered. Unless one of the hundred or so small hatches and pressure-doors leading to the outside of the ship had registered being opened in the previous 24 hours, then Burton (or his body) should still be somewhere on the Demeter, surely? All of the space doors or airlocks had sensors on them – and none had been opened in that time – since Burton had sent a tech out a few days before on that repair job. I hated putting more pressure on my security team, but that’s what we were there for after all. After just two hours of intensive searching – somewhat to my surprise – a couple of my guys found Todd Burton’s body tucked away inside a relay cabinet on D-deck. Med-scanners certainly come in useful for finding things. His body had been drained out like the others. Sammy Lancer also kicked the big one later that same day.
For a while, panic had already been germinating – and now began to put down roots in the Demeter’s community, as had the aforementioned scourge of religiosity. A high-ranking priest among the passengers announced his presence to the passengers and crew. He was some elderly Bishop from the Reformed Puritan Church, who wore a purple suit decked out in bling and a white dog collar decorated with rows of Swarovski crystals. A big blinged-out gold cross hung from a thick gold chain around his neck, and he strutted about the Promenade, exuding confidence and a broad smile. Odd cult, the RPC – clearly they don’t have any issues with wealth, that lot.
When the doddering old priest began spreading rumors that there was an ‘unclean spirit’ or even an actual vampire stalking them, something resembling a small riot in the main lounge on C Deck followed. What a mess that was! It took the combined shifts of my whole security section to break that up! After the dust settled again, it became pretty clear that the passengers weren’t just there for a holiday anymore – they were dissatisfied residents, talking about forming committees and demanding to speak with the Captain and drawing up petitions etc. I’ve never been so happy to not be the Captain as on that day! Even the ever ambitious Mr. Beckett seemed happy to defer these matters to the Old Man.
If I thought the pressure would come off while Captain Mulligan entertained the Bishop and his new followers in committee discussions, I was to be disappointed. Instead, I had to manage a full watch round the clock now, and had to ‘borrow’ some off-duty ‘macs from engineering to help out. I gave them a brief crash-course in the basics of security work myself – which accounted for the rest of that Sunday. Of course, most of the ‘macs looked quite silly in our regulation security suits, big hulking bruisers they were, tugging at their collars and ties every few minutes as they patrolled Demeter’s corridors. Most people would’ve thought twice before tangling with one of those guys, so I thought it worked in our favor.
With that little project on the go, I decided to take another look at Peter Caine. He was the one verifiable link between Washington and the Baroness, and yet, days later, he still wasn’t among the sick. Something didn’t add up – and I didn’t mean that his name was actually Tenika Jackson! That little hope faded when Caine didn’t answer his door chime. I used my security over-ride key to get into his apartment. I felt the circumstances warranted the intrusion – and anyway, I found him naked in his bathtub, dead. Of course, that might explain why he hadn’t been seen since the previous day.
I noticed he looked completely male from the waist up, and only slightly different somewhere in the middle. He had a peaceful expression on his face, as if he were asleep. I identified the same puncture marks around his inner thighs. There was no blood at all in the water – but, the last time I checked, dead men tell no tales – so I was still stumped. Well, not quite. There was one more link in the chain I hadn’t checked yet. I called in to report the death of Mr. Caine, and waited for a security staffer to turn up before I left. On the way back to the security complex, I passed through the main lounge again. The bishop was leading a group of mad, frightened sheeple in something resembling a prayer and praise session. There were staff members among them too, singing along to hymns with hands raised and staring at the ceiling with blank expressions on their faces as if willing their new-found faith to shield them from disease, aliens, or whatever was killing people around them. I realized then that things were beginning to break down on Demeter – and quite badly.
Lisa Garfner was more than just a close friend and colleague – she was my right hand in the security section. She was the best I had, and when I tell you that I had the best security section on any liner in the RSL, then I want you to know that meant something. She always was good at reading my expressions, and when I sat down opposite her at her table in the main office, she knew I was troubled.
“Something on your mind, boss?” She asked. I decided to lay my cards on the table. She knew most of the facts of the case – well, the alleged case, such as it was – and at least as well as I did. I just needed to vent and to share my thoughts with someone. Preferably someone who wouldn’t dock my pay on account of suspicion of mental instability. So I vented, filled in the blanks, and shared my thoughts with her.
“A vampire?” She repeated, nodding to herself. “Out here?” She chuckled. “Well that explains it.”
“The shops on the promenade are reporting increased sales of religious artifacts such as crosses, crucifixes, and items like garlic essence, oils, and candles.”
I balked at the thought myself, and I found it odd that Lisa took to the suggestion so easily. Honestly, I was far more inclined to suspect some kind of alien predator rather than an undead creature lurching about Demeter’s corridors, and somehow going unnoticed. Besides, all the bodies were accounted for, and still in cold storage. Very still. Weren’t they supposed to turn into more vampires already? Instead, the dead were just piling up – and there seemed to be more on their way. Other than that, Lisa didn’t know what to make of it either, and I was at a loss to find another explanation. As for the missing communications assembly, figuring out the how was next to impossible. The assembly had simply detached itself, with the only person holding the right kind of security codes to allow it, found dead a matter of hours later. The why in turn, was simple – someone wanted us isolated and unable to communicate. The who and the what about that were another question I had no answer for yet.
A call from the sickbay informed me via Lisa that another three of those taken ill had expired, and that more were likely to follow in the next few hours. In fact, there was a steady stream of visitors to the sickbay now. Pale, shivering fatigued people I passed in the corridors, not looking at anyone they passed on their way… it reminded me of the prison death-row term “dead men walking”.
The religious nuts began gathering for longer and longer in the main lounge on the promenade, singing and clapping and – ahem “witnessing”, while being cheered on and encouraged by the certifiable lunatic in the purple suit. His flock grew steadily in number. Some of his supporters seemed to be camping out there permanently now, like hippies. “Kumbaya,” I thought. Oh well, if they thought there was safety in numbers, we were likely to see if that would protect them. I had my doubts.
The social structure on the ship had begun breaking down. The Captain and Exo didn’t even venture far from the bridge these days, to avoid being swamped with questions, petitions, demands, or for fear of being lynched. I had security teams seal off vital parts of the ship – chiefly the bridge and engineering complexes. Without a chief engineer, there was little chance of any kind of resolution to our technical problems. The Demeter was still traveling as fast as possible, but she was a cruise liner, not a fast military ship. We were still a few days away from Tremaine at least, and with no way to call for assistance, there was nothing more we could do than we already were doing.
In pursuit of the last link in the equation, I visited Ms. Shaneen Spear’s apartment. The communications link being unavailable, there was nothing I could find out about her in the ship’s database, other than the details about her ticket: point of origin (Earth) and destination (Tremaine). Despite everyone else on my short-list of suspects onboard the Demeter already lying in the ship’s morgue, she was neither ill, nor dead. In fact, she looked quite ravishing.
“Can I help you, Mr. Lange?” She greeted me at her door, reading the name tag on my jacket. She wore a short dress of deep red material, and I noticed that her make-up was perfect. Her voice was a melody and her smile was like a camera flash in a dark room. I told her I was following some leads, performing a routine investigation, and wanted to ask her some questions about her friend Peter Caine. She showed me into the apartment’s modest reception area-cum-lounge, and asked me to sit.
I decided to be a little more relaxed and friendly in questioning this lady, perhaps it would help me to get more answers. I struck up a polite but friendly conversation, sharing my thoughts about previous suspects, all now deceased, and theories surrounding possible alien beings that might have somehow come aboard when the boarding party returned. By the way she was listening, and sitting, and her mannerisms, and the look in her eyes, I could tell I had her attention. How right I was. Perhaps if I knew then what I know now, I might have decided to stay in bed that day.
I got lost in her eyes, hesitated, and…she seemed to be so interested. At first I thought it was a bad idea to just blurt everything about the case out, but then, seeing her genuine interest and friendliness, I relented. I spilled the beans, discussing my personal theories regarding alien life forms that might come aboard a ship unseen, not be detectable by securi-cams, bite people and suck out their blood – and then still have the presence of mind to wipe out the evidence with a blaster.
“Oh come now, Mr. Lange!” She laughed dismissively. “Surely you don’t believe it was some alien creature that did these things?”
“What else could it be, Ms. Spear?” I asked naively, throwing in a little perplexed look to seal the deal.
“Why, you must surely know of the legends?” She continued sotto voce and leaning in towards me conspiratorially. “The stories of the Old Ones?”
“?” I asked, leaning in closer as well.
“Vampires, Mr. Lange!” She giggled. “Nosferatu, the undead! Vampires!”
“Oh come now, Ms. Spear!” I jibed, feigning ignorance. “Surely not?”
“Here we are, sitting in a ship the size of a small moon, traveling through hyperspace while having a pleasant conversation! But while this is taken for granted, some things are seen as impossible? Anything is possible, Mr. Lange!” Ms. Spear grinned, flashing her beautiful white teeth at me as she leaned in all the way and kissed me. “Come to me, Sean...” She moaned, looking deep into my eyes. Things got a little out of control after that… and hazy. I remember passion, moaning, a good deal of thrusting, silky smooth skin and ecstasy. We finished in her bed, completely naked. Through it all, I remembered her blissful giggles and her sweet feminine scent, like heaven.
Day nine began with me waking, feeling a little surprised at my own performance… no, I mean my behavior… no, dammit, I meant performance! I slid off the bed as stealthily as possible so as to not wake Shaneen. She was asleep still, and the simulated morning shone softly on her gracious curves through the thin curtains in front of the fake window display panel in the wall beside her bed. With a shock, I realized what that meant – I’d been with her an entire afternoon and night! A little frightened at my loss of control, and the loss of time, I quickly gathered my clothes and dressed quickly in her parlor before leaving discreetly.
I experienced the distinct feeling that I was doing the walk of shame all the way down the corridor as I made my way back to the crew section on D Deck as fast as possible. Finally, I reached the safety of my apartment, and found it in the same state I had left it – and I do mean state. There was barely time for a quick shower, and then maybe if I was lucky, breakfast and coffee – before I had to go to work and the day’s bad news began rolling in. Considering the trend of the past few days, I knew it would – and I was not to be disappointed.
Strangely, I wasn’t hungry yet though, but I knew I would be soon enough. I felt surprisingly good, I thought at the time. Strong like ox! Full of energy, cocky even! In passing the dressing mirror on my way into the shower in my tiny crew toilet, naked, I noticed something strange – stopped dead and froze. There, in my reflection - ! My fingers explored the small swollen welts at the base of my neck… I recognized them for what they were!
There was no pain. They didn’t hurt at all. I wondered if maybe there was some kind of venom or anesthetic in the bite, something like the saliva of bats or mosquitoes on Earth… But – I didn’t remember being bitten! Aside from that, I looked pretty incredible, as usual. Well, maybe better than usual. Then the other implications hit home. I was doomed! Like the others, I was going to die! I wondered how long I had before I started to feel ill! What was I to do?
How fast I walked back to Shaneen’s apartment, I don’t know. On the way, I wondered if my Will was still in order, if I’d left my few remaining possessions on Earth to the right distant relatives who probably didn’t even remember me, and if I should take up a religion any time soon. The nutters camping out in the main lounge put me off that right away. I detested religion! I wanted nothing to do with it! Music, of a sort, had been emanating from the area for a good while. A konga line had formed, and was winding across the space and across the open corridors to the sides, chanting and banging makeshift noisemakers. One of them recognized me as part of the security section, rushed right over and tried to waylay me, demanding answers. He was very angry and got right up into my face. When I couldn’t find words to answer his aggressive line of inane questions, he grabbed my jacket by the lapels. Silently, I shoved him out of my way, feeling surprisingly strong! Now, when I tell you that this was quite unlike me on an ordinary day, I mean it! These were clients and paying customers of the Red Star Line, after all – but I acted out of a sense of self-preservation. Besides, this was no ordinary day. Ignoring the stares I received from the shocked faces around me, I pressed through the throng and kept on going, until I got to Shaneen Spear’s apartment door.
I was a combination of scared and curious and enraged at the same time, and I wanted answers! She answered the pounding on her door fairly quickly, looking only a little annoyed at the potential scene I risked making. I pulled my shirt collar away to indicate the bite marks.
“Care to explain these?” I demanded.
“Come in.” She said softly.
Today was a different day. Gone was the pretense and the courtship of yesterday. Today was a day for truth! I knew she’d bitten me – she must have – nobody else even got that close to me, even if I couldn’t remember it! …And if she had bitten me, then I was doomed already – so fuck it, I was going to get some answers!
“You look upset.” She began, and closed the door behind her.
“Shouldn’t I be?” I demanded.
“I was going to tell you, but you left so early this morning…”
“So it’s my fault, is it?” I ranted angrily.
“You came to me before, asking about dead bodies, missing blood and vampires.” She began. “Don’t tell me you didn’t suspect, Sean?”
Well, okay – I had. A little.
“So it was you?” I demanded to know. Was I finally looking the killer in the eye? If so, this killer had the most beautiful, most captivating eyes I’d ever seen! “All this? You killed all these people?”
Shaneen drew back and looked momentarily horrified at the suggestion. “Oh good heavens, no!! She cried. “It was a vampire, Sean – I’m sure of it – but it wasn’t me.”
This was one of those times I would’ve got one of those headaches again, but strangely enough there was no dull thump at the back of my head to accompany the epic face-palm I had just given myself. In fact, it had been quite a hard blow, come to think of it.
“Do…” I stammered, “Do you mean to tell me there’s more than one of you on the Demeter?”
“You didn’t bite that Corsair on the black ship?”
“No. I’d never been there.”
“You didn’t bite the nurse, the barista, or the two doctors, the chief engineer – or any of the other people dead or dying on this ship in the past few days?”
“Two ships passing in the night – I hardly knew him… and I certainly didn’t bite him.”
“But you did bite me?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “That was me.”
This was just outrageous! Either she was lying to me about the whole thing, or she was telling the truth.
“Why?” I appealed to her.
She shrugged casually, smiling. “It seemed like a good idea at the time?”
“Oh, come on!” I shouted, then lowered my voice again. “You don’t just kill people on a whim!”
Well, some people do – I know that, and I’m sure you know that too. I sincerely hoped she wasn’t one of those people. My current predicament would seem to be something of a contradiction.
“It wasn’t a whim.” Shaneen said, making eyes at me. “I really like you, Sean. So I thought, why not? Anyway – you’re not dead.”
“Not yet!” I fumed. “But the day’s young! What the hell are you doing here anyway?”
“A girl needs to go on a holiday now and then.” She shrugged evasively. “Life can be so boring sometimes, don’t you think?”
And that brought me to another point…
“Am I going to die?” I asked, pointing at my neck again. “From this, I mean.”
“No.” She smiled. “Those we bite only die if they choose to. That is, if they’re given the choice at all.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
The lady flopped down gracefully onto the sofa, crossing her gorgeous legs over smoothly.
“Once you’re bitten, your blood dies and you die.” She smiled blithely. “It’s a slow, terrible way to go – but if you take inside you the blood of one of us, you will be reborn to our life. What’s the matter – don’t you people read horror-fiction anymore?”
My mind raced at the significance of all this. I was going to die, at least one death, and soon – and there was nothing that could stop it… But there was a way past it – IF I got some of her blood, then I would be like her. At least, that’s what she seemed to be saying. I wondered how old she was, how long she had lived like that, ageless, beautiful, immortal. Would I have to kill people, or could I just sip a little? Would I go to a hell I didn’t believe in for it? Would it hurt when I died? Would I suffer? She laughed at my thoughts, leaning in close to me again, placing her hands on the side of my face.
“Don’t worry so much.” She said gently and smiled. In her eyes I saw kindness… compassion? What kind of a monster was she? “It’s not like that at all. When one of us bites, the venom kills quickly. Or if we take too much. That’s why most of us don’t do that anymore – it makes it hard to hide from your kind.” I relaxed a little and calmed down.
“Then what the hell’s going on, on this ship?” I demanded. “Why’re all these people getting sick? Why are so many dying?”
“What’s being done here is just cruelty, Sean. Whoever’s doing this, is a sadist – biting people without offering the gift? That goes against everything our people live by – it’s sick! It’s twisted!”
“But I’ve been bitten too.” I said numbly, sinking to my knees, feeling like a lost child in a giant maze. “I’ll still die?”
“No.” She said, in her soothing, honey voice, and smiled again. “It’s just an expression in the old tongue. Your mundane human life ends and your vampire life begins. There is no break in between. Without taking from our blood in return, those who are bitten will die. Those who accept the gift of our blood, become one of us.”
She seemed to be a very merry monster indeed. More like a fairy, I thought, than a dark foreboding walking corpse.
“So you’re not dead? Or – I mean, undead?”
“No!” She giggled again. “And neither are you!”
“But how do you live then? How do you get blood without killing people or making more vampires?”
“We have friends who bleed for us, into cups or through syringes, so there’s no way for the venom to enter them. It’s not as sensual or pleasing for either of us, but it salves our consciences a lot. It also means there are less people dropping dead around us wherever we go!”
That made a lot of sense – but it also insisted, if she was telling me the truth – that there was more than one vampire on the Demeter! If true, it implied that at least one of them was not playing nice!
“You have friends?” I asked, perhaps foolishly, perhaps risking offense. “I mean, friends who aren’t vampires?”
“Oh yes, darling!” Shaneen giggled. “And you will too.”
I had so many questions. After all, I had just learned of the existence of real actual honest-to-fuck vampires – and now, that I was turning into one against my will – what do you expect? Shaneen did her best to satisfy my curiosity.
“How do you explain the other one?” I asked. “Whoever he is, he’s not playing by your rules.”
“Always the policeman, I see.” She said, looking deep into my eyes again, gently stroking the hair at my temple with one hand. “Yes, he’s risking making a big mess for all of us.”
“Not for long.” I replied, unsure why I didn’t feel as depressed as I ought to. I wondered how long I had before I started feeling the symptoms. Perhaps I would spend the remainder of my day screwing my little lungs out. That didn’t seem like such a bad way to go. “Seems I got bitten by a vampire and should be dead in about a day.”
She paused in stroking my hair and broke away laughing, holding a hand in front of her mouth in a ladylike fashion. My puzzled expression seemed to amuse her no end.
“No dear,” She said pleasantly. “You accepted the gift of my blood last night. You’re already one of us. You don’t remember?”
“Bullshit!” I breathed, barely able to believe any of this, as her face drifted closer to mine again. We kissed, and again, I was overcome with passion. When the arousal took me, and I felt the sharp pain in my jaws as my fangs shot out for the first time like little switchblades, I was shocked, intrigued – and thoroughly convinced. Exploring the sharpness of them with my tongue, I looked in her eyes. She didn’t need telling, she already knew. I was thirsty.
I felt guilty for it, I should’ve been out there looking for the other vampire that was behind all these deaths – instead I was here, cavorting naked on the appropriately named shag carpet in a passenger’s cabin and – well, shagging. …And then I was worried about hurting someone to sate my need.
“Don’t worry.” She said, lifting up her long loose hair to clear her beautiful slender neck.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Go right ahead.” Shaneen cried. I grasped her gingerly, and apologized, before my fangs sank into her flesh. I drank her in deep, and she moaned. I felt a burst of energy entering me, like I had sipped from her very soul! It was incredible, and I doubt you would understand or believe that just from reading my words on this ordinary scrap of paper!
Right about then, my comlink buzzed again. It was in my pocket – which was now on the other side of the room with the rest of my clothing. I wrested myself away from her, trying to focus on my responsibilities to the ship – and to what was left of its crew and passengers. The call was from Lisa. I’d been missing for almost an entire day without checking in even once! Of course they would wonder where I was! I answered, my lips still marked with essence of Shaneen… and – do you have any idea how hard it is to speak normally with extended fangs? Well, I found out the hard way! I’m sure I sounded drunk! As I calmed down, they retracted and I spoke normally and I reassured her that I was fine and had just been busy looking into stuff discreetly around the ship – which wasn’t a lie exactly.
Lisa informed me that the nuts were loose all over the ship, and that they were getting harder to control without responding with actual violence. These were paying customers, after all, but they’d been damaging the fixtures, breaking wooden chairs and tables to make stakes and crosses and even wooden mallets with. Up until just then, I hadn’t considered a stake or a cross to be any more threatening than props at a bad Sunday school play for someone else’s kids.
Then Lisa told me half our security staff had called in sick during the last day. Security was running on a skeleton staff now, and people seemed to be dropping like flies. The rest seemed nervous, afraid. She joked about even having to hide the key for the weapons locker from our twitchy colleagues in security, who just wanted to get their hands on a “good blaster” to feel safe again. As though a blaster was any defense against a virus, she joked. But she was afraid too – I heard it in her voice. I imagined for a moment how I would explain to the Old Man why it had been necessary to blast holes in several hundred paying customers on the promenade… it didn’t go over too well, and I nipped the thought in the bud right away.
Lisa – ever the tough little fighter – asked the remaining staff if they’d looked into religion yet, as a crutch – as so much of the ship already had – she was on the receiving end of some very dirty looks! The disintegration of our little world and its ordered, structured society sounded way too surreal to be true – even if it was, so I just nodded along to most of it, hoping it would all just go away. I cut the conversation short and said I would look into the promenade on the way back to the office, and killed the call.
“Crosses?” I asked Shaneen, hoping for the abbreviated version.
“Superstition.” She said, smiling again.
“Okay then, garlic?”
“Love it on pizza!” She smiled, rolling onto her back and looking at me upside down.
“Funny squeaky balls of fur with wings?” She giggled, making an awkward flapping motion with her hands. “Kinda cute… Ee ee ee!”
“In all my years I’ve never met anyone – mundane or vampire – that didn’t die if you jammed a shaft of wood into their hearts.” She said enigmatically, rolling right side up again.
“Weakens us, but doesn’t kill us.” She smiled softly, with her fingers to her mouth and between her teeth. “You should invest in some sunscreen and good sunglasses.”
“Is there anything we should be afraid of?” I asked.
“Other vampires.” She said. “For a start. Religious fanatics, people with small minds and even smaller hearts. Politicians, generally.”
“Is that really everything?”
“So how do I know if the people he killed won’t turn into vampires?” I asked, forgetting what she told me earlier.
“If they’re dead, they’re not going to turn into anything but food for the plants.” She sighed. “They don’t need any watching.”
Well that was a comfort.
“How long do we live?”
“I don’t know.” She mused in a nonchalant tone. “Till we get bored?”
“Do we ever age?” I wondered. “How old are you?”
“No – and you should know better than to ask a lady her age!” She chided, and threw one of her shoes at me, laughing. I ducked.
“That’s a conversation for another day, Baby Bat.” She sighed poignantly.
“How the hell did he get on this ship?” I wondered.
“The universe is energy, Baby Bat – all he had to do was ‘tag along’ when you shifted back here – and then all he had to do was stay out of sight.”
“Out of sight?” I asked, incredulously. “Where securi-cams can’t see him?”
“It’s a form of hypnosis, dear. He can hide from people – but not from technology. He might appear in video recordings – but people who aren’t supposed to see him, won’t see him.”
That’s when I realized Sinead Parker’s equipment malfunction – it wasn’t a malfunction after all! No wonder I hadn’t won any ground in the case – the bad guy held all the cards!
“Doesn’t it bug you, what’s been happening on this ship?” I demanded of her.
“You mean all these people dying?” She replied, turning serious for a moment. “Sure. Death is always sad, but it happens to mundanes Baby Bat, and it’s not my doing. It’s not our way. This one is probably someone who doesn’t care about our rules – or doesn’t know them. We survive by them, or we die by them – there are few exceptions.”
I believed her. Something deep within me knew she was telling the truth. Whether it was because of the bond that now existed between us, I wasn’t sure. Of one thing I was certain – it worked both ways.
“Don’t worry, Baby Bat.” She smiled at me knowingly. “It doesn’t mean we’re married or anything!”
“You don’t recall the promise I made you at your turning?” She continued. I didn’t. The whole thing had been a blur.
“No strings.” She said. “But I will show you the ropes.”
“Strings. Ropes.” I murmured, deep in thought, pondering the way forward, part of me appreciating the bondage symbolism. “Gotcha.”
The weight of it all suddenly came crashing down on me. All the deaths and mysteries – or almost all of them – had been explained by the simple revelation of truth. That I didn’t find it overwhelming was quite out of the ordinary for me, out of step with who I was – well, with who I’d been for the rest of my life up to that time! It must’ve been my new nature taking hold, under my skin, in the heart of my spirit, I thought. Instead of freaking out – which would’ve been a normal Human reaction, my thoughts revolved around the events as they’d unfolded, working it out, and accepting the facts rather easily. After all, what good would freaking out do me? It was all done now, over – and there was nothing that could be done now to change anything, except the future.
Where it all started, I had no idea – but the killer, the rogue vampire – whatever he or she was to be called – had somehow boarded the Corsair ship some time before its encounter with the Demeter. I felt more comfortable with the thought of a male having done these things, somehow it fitted better. Considering the ease with which he’d boarded the Demeter, that wasn’t the least bit surprising. He’d bitten his way through the crew, causing them to become sick. A suspicious people as they were, it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the killer to play opposing Corsair factions against the other while the death toll mounted and superstitions came to the fore.
Sabotage would also have come into the equation, as it did on the Demeter – the engines, or the coms array perhaps… we hadn’t actually stuck around long enough to check. Then, all the killer had to do was to sit back and wait for a ship to turn up, to start the whole process again. Of course, that would work best if the ship were left stranded near a busy shipping lane, to make it easier to find – and since Corsairs weren’t in the habit of advertising their presence anywhere, the S.O.S. we’d picked up suddenly made perfect sense. It had been staged and sent by the killer.
When our boarding party arrived on the Corsair ship, the killer found out who he was dealing with – a civilian cruise liner, full of passengers and entertainment for the sort of sadistic mind that could go on doing something like that over and over again… Under normal circumstances, I would’ve been sickened, angered by the mere thought of it – but today it made so much sense! I looked at the concept and turned it around in my mind, detached from my old self. “Jackpot!” I could almost hear the monster cry with glee. The Demeter was a soft target after all – there would be far less resistance or risk of being caught or killed than on a military vessel.
The killer boarded the ship with us as we were beamed back via the transmatter. Although I didn’t understand the “trick” quite yet, he went unseen by mundane eyes – including mine, until recently, so we never saw the killer until he wanted us to. Meanwhile, he crept about the ship at will, playing a sick little game of life and death with four thousand five hundred people!
It started with Dr. Cove. The killer was curious to hear if the Corsair said anything important to anyone, so he hung around sickbay until he died. Dr. Cove was entranced by the mystery illness paid an awful lot of attention to it, perhaps getting too close to the truth… so he became the killer’s first new victim aboard the Demeter. Of course, the killer must’ve known that an obvious attack or bite mark would draw unwanted attention, hence the blaster wound in Cove’s neck. He wasn’t ready to be talked about just yet. The blaster had come with the killer of course, which he planted on the scene! That little red herring kept us busy running around in neat little circles for several days, so points to him!
After that, the killer felt freed up to roam around the ship, perhaps pretending to be a passenger, seducing willing dupes into becoming his unknowing, unwilling victims. …Of course, he made sure that his first victims were associates of those who treated the Corsair, so as to keep it all in line with the pattern of a transmittable disease... That was accomplished by simply following one victim to the next, discreetly, unseen, only revealing himself to them when it was time to strike. A bite here, a nibble there, and he had the makings of an outbreak and epidemic.
He started off slow at first, probably enjoying himself as he watched us chasing our tails trying to figure it all out as people began to fall ill and die. Sammy Lancer, the baroness, nurse Washington, Chief Burton, Peter Caine – all fell swiftly to the mystery illness, as the killer visited them one after the other – and I ran out of suspects and sane, rational, ordinary solutions to my increasingly surreal case! By the time the killer finally got to Dr. Carver, they could afford to be more blatant since by that time, the Demeter was already isolated and we couldn’t call for help, or warn of our predicament. By then of course, it was open season.
I understood it now. The killer had followed a pattern, and by the flawlessness of it, I had an idea that he was an old hand at it. To satiate his sick appetite for cruelty and suffering, he’d ensure that everyone aboard the Demeter died – which at the present rate, would probably only take a few more days. I had no idea how much blood it would take to fill a vampire’s hunger, but I was already certain that the very least of the killer’s sins was gluttony! After all, he didn’t have to drain everyone to infect them with the deadly affliction – and he hadn’t… all it took was a bite!
Humans didn’t believe in vampires anymore, except perhaps the very superstitious and isolated. The disease wasn’t a regular, ordinary disease – but it was transmittable, as Dr. Carver and I had tried to work out… we’d just not figured out that it was transmitted by means of a bite. Like rabies used to be carried canines on Earth long ago, and transmitted to other creatures by means of a bite, so it seemed to be with vampires… except it seemed, vampires also carried the cure in their own blood!
The complex puzzle lay before my mind’s eye – completed at last. Yet, my satisfaction was selfish I knew, because I could never share it with anyone who would appreciate it! I’d solved the case – the biggest, most important and impressive case of my career – and yet, in the process, I’d forfeited the chance of making it known! I’d discovered the cause, if not the actual culprit – vampires and vampirism… and in the process, I’d become one myself! I could never type out a report on this case to Head Office that would be taken seriously! I could never make the truth known without being either carted off to an insane asylum, or to some top secret government research facility!
I was wrong about not feeling anything about this. The emotions were there underneath it all, and the more I thought about this awful business, the more they surfaced. If vampires didn’t need to kill to feed our hunger, if there were other options as Shaneen, my mentor explained – why had this vampire chosen this path – if not to feed something else? Their ego perhaps? Their narcissism? Their sadism? It made me angry to think that one man – a psychopath, could singlehandedly wreak such suffering and misery for their own entertainment! That he thought he had any right to kill so many people just because he felt like it! I knew right then what I wanted to do – more than ever. I wanted to find the killer, and to stop him!
Trouble was, I didn’t think I had enough security personnel left to help me find one vampire on this ship, not even if I enlisted what was left of the crew and tried to give them training before half of them died. Nobody would believe me anyway, I thought… But there was another way. The nuts in the lounge wanted to find a vampire, and they were clearly preparing ways to kill whatever vampires they found. Despite everything, I knew they could be useful in helping me find him.
The killer had a plan of sorts I knew – he must’ve had, because he’d gone to an awful lot of trouble to get onboard, to attract the Demeter with the distress call, to cover up his presence and his first attacks – and to ensure that we were isolated, at least via communications. Demeter still had at least another day’s travel before we reached Tremaine – and anything could happen before then.
“I’ll be back.” I said, giving her a parting kiss. “I have to do something about this.”
“Not naked, I hope.” She smiled again. “That would cause quite a stir when you walk past all those stiff people out there who have just rediscovered religion, courtesy of the Puritans. Of course, it might make them stiff for other reasons.”
I laughed. For the first time in what seemed like ages, I wasn’t tired. I was awake and full of energy.
“Be careful, Baby Bat.” She said, blowing a kiss at me, with extended fangs. That would take some getting used to. Dressed, I left her apartment and headed down to the hippies camping in the Main Lounge, my mind racing to form a plan. I had to save the other people on this ship from the fate that awaited them. As it turned out, ‘anything’ was pretty much what had been happening already during the past two days. The sickbay was swamped, and there were no nurses left. The dying and the already dead were piling up in the corridors outside it. The Demeter was starting to resemble a zombie apocalypse movie – without any of the actual zombies. It wasn’t going to be long before the Red Star Line was a star-liner short, having to explain the loss of something like 4500 passengers and crew to anxious insurance companies all over the sky.
There always seemed to be a large group of passengers in the main lounge lately, hiding like sheep and finding comfort in either the bishop’s bling or purred words of comfort, or in the notion of safety in numbers, I guess. The bishop – he was an elderly man, typical of the senior clerics of the Reformed Puritan Church, all purple and frivolous in his vestments – was busy whipping his new mass of faithful congregants into a frenzy. His flock consisted of a mix of passengers and crew, I couldn’t tell them apart anymore. He spoke in a deep, reassuring, carefully measured inspiring tone – inspiring his followers to ignore the security details watching from the sidelines, and to go forth into the deepest recesses of the ship, to look for the dark thing that was hunting them, and in God’s name, to kill it! Two men wearing garlands of garlic and crosses circulated through the group, passing out crude weapons, including stakes, mallets and fire axes. That at least explained the state of the furniture, or the bits of it that littered the place.
“Whatever it is, we must end it!” The Bishop cried to a chorus of shrieks and ‘amen’s’.
Lisa Garfner sidled up, looking relieved to see me. Our conversation half an hour previously obviously hadn’t done much for her, other than to reassure her I was still alive.
“Hi, boss.” She greeted.
“Hi.” I replied.
“What are we going to do about this?” She asked me in a low tone. “These idiots are going to tear the ship apart looking for something that doesn’t exist!”
It was good to see Lisa again. She didn’t know the truth, and I knew that was probably best – but who was it better for? For the killer? For Shaneen Spear? Or for me? I resisted the impulse to tell her otherwise.
“Step back and let them.” I smiled at her. “Keep out of their way and let them run their course.”
She looked at me as if to say “Are you insane?” and then put the look into words.
“It’ll give them something to do.” I replied. “Besides, you never know – they may actually catch a vampire.”
“Well, I think they’re nuts!” She said scornfully, holding onto the railing around the center for support. I could tell there was something wrong with her beside her grouchy mood. Her body temperature was off. It was too low. Somehow I could sense it, standing there beside her. She was sweating too, and I could practically feel the vibrations of her faint shivering in the air. My new listening skills picked up slightly erratic breathing. She smelled wrong too. In fact, she smelled horrible.
“You’re sick!” I said to her, stunned with the realization. She gave me a look filled with mixed emotion, mostly annoyance. Lisa Garfner was no cream puff. She could kick some ass in a good fight, if it came down to that sort of thing. She’d even kicked mine more than once.
“Yea. Since late last night. I guess my time is nearly up too. Pretend you didn’t notice, Sean. You owe me at least that much.” She said, and abruptly walked away with the circulating crowd.
I’d always been fond of Lisa Garfner. Very fond. She’d been my best friend ever since started working on the Demeter twelve years ago. To me, she was like the sister I never had. The realization that she was dying was profoundly disturbing to me.
“They stink, don’t they?”
I turned to see the owner of the voice, standing beside me. He’d seemingly appeared out of nowhere, a tall, not unattractive man, about 30 years old, dark brown hair, clean shaven and dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and denims. He seemed relaxed, friendly, but in the sort of way that reminded me of the friendship between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, which was conspicuous by its absence, and unfailingly involved subterfuge, sub-sub plots, conspiracies, riddles, and sharp objects.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, not sure if that remark had been meant for me.
“They stink.” He repeated, in a way that outlined his detachment and arrogance. In fact, he inhaled deeply, as if breathing fresh morning air. “They stink of death. Every single one of them! Isn’t it great?”
“Do I know you?” I asked pointedly. I was sure I’d never seen him before.
The man tilted his head slightly, curling his generous black eyebrows upward, as if to say that I should. I caught his scent. It was faint, but different somehow… And come to think of it, there was more different about him. It was a feeling, more than anything I could put a finger on. It reminded me of Shaneen Spear.
“Of course.” He smiled, laying a hand on my shoulder. “You’re new. You must be hers.”
That’s when the penny dropped, and I knew that I was getting a face to face with the killer. Well, a shoulder to shoulder, anyway. One thing was certain – he wasn’t invisible – at least not to the naked eye.
The hippies were organizing themselves into groups around us, getting ready to go hunting vampires, and building up their fighting spirit by singing hymns. There must’ve been a good thousand of them there, with more hiding inside their cabins, and a good number of them already dead or dying all over the ship.
“You know her?” I asked.
“Never met her, don’t care to.” The man said. “I saw her around the ship. I’ve never cared much for socializing with our kind. Too many rules, too many restrictions. Out here, I’m free. It’s why I spent so much time with the Corsairs. Now those guys really know how to live! These sheeple think huddling together and pretending to be all pious and perfect while I feast on those around them will save them…And they think it’s working too. Hah! I’m just saving them for last!”
“So… how come I can see you – on the cam feed from the transmatter when you came back with us, I couldn’t see you – just a vague movement?”
“Nature’s little trick!” The guy smiled narcissistically. “The perfect camouflage for a tech-obsessed prey!”
I felt little more than loathing for this man, this fiend that had killed so many, and caused so much upset and suffering, but I also wanted answers.
“Why?” I asked him, as the throng of the crowd milled around us.
“Why?” He asked, slightly puzzled by my question. “Oh – you mean, why them? Why this? Well, because I like it! The feelings of depression, the fear and the hopelessness in the air! The adrenalin in their blood! It drives me wild, man!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I think he noticed the look of disbelief and disgust on my face.
“You don’t approve?” He spat the words out. “Well, tough! You’ve been one of us for what, five minutes? You think you can judge me? Go ahead and try!”
“All I need to do is call security.” I said, not entirely sure if that would help.
“Better hurry up, before they’re all dead.” He taunted me. “They’re dropping like flies, in case you didn’t notice – this little party won’t last much longer. Another ship’ll be along soon, and then I’ll be off on my merry. Till then, stay out of my way if you know what’s good for you! Tell the bitch who made you as well – this is my party, and you’re not invited!”
Then he turned and was about to walk away into the crowd and disappear – but before he could, I grabbed him by the wrist. In an instant, I twisted his arm into a jujitsu lock and held him against the railing, struggling vainly. The crowd around me stared.
“Here is the monster!” I shouted, much to his astonishment of the local pitchfork brigade and vampire-hunting committee. “This is the one you’re looking for! He’s the one!”
And so, there we stood, right in the center of the Main Lounge on the promenade, in a brand new circle of empty space forming in the middle of the crowd of cross and garlic-wearing, stake and hammer carrying lunatics. Some, I noted, were carrying water pistols filled with holy water. The chants and hymns had given way to an awkward silence now, and there was a good deal of muttering and murmuring going on. The muttering died down when the RPC bishop arrived, dressed in his full regalia – a frivolous outfit covered in bling from head to toe. He held in front of him, clutched in one near-skeletal hand, a large gold cross that was suspended from a thick gold chain around his neck. The crowd parted for him, like the proverbial Red Sea, as he approached us, trembling slightly. He looked first at me, and then at the guy I had pinned against the railing, who grimaced and struggled to free himself – but he wasn’t going anywhere, not unless he broke every bone and tore every ligament in his arm! I turned the monster round to face the leader of that circus.
“Er… Are you sure, my son?” The bishop quavered, looking doubtful. “He doesn’t look like the unholy undead to me. I was expecting a little more, er… pallor, a little decay – and perhaps… er, perhaps some fangs?”
The dude I had in the shoulder-lock seemed to have a sense of comedic timing, and irony, or perhaps it was because he didn’t see any of us as an actual threat. After a little sarcastic eye-roll, he showed his teeth to the bishop and the crowd... and then let his fangs slide into place. There was a sharp group-intake of breath. With so many around us, it created a draft.
“Ah.” Said the dithering old man clearly in the awe-struck silence. “Jolly good – there they are.”
The crowd – whose beliefs had seemingly just crossed the line from comforting, scapegoating fantasy into concrete physical reality – scarcely able to believe their astonishingly good luck, began shouting demands for a hanging, a staking, a burning, a decapitation, and a jumble of other entertainments for the evening.
“Now, now.” The Bishop called for order. “There shall be a proper exorcism, before we lay this poor undead (and not too unattractive) soul to his rest!”
I almost empathized with the vampire – er, the other vampire, who was also rolling his eyes at the mob mentality of it all – but he wasn’t getting any sympathy from me. The Bishop produced a little vial of holy water and showed it to the crowd, who quieted down again. With his mouth agape, as the bishop was about to speak some words, and probably in pig-Latin, the vampire-dude reached out with his free hand and snatched the vial. He quickly brought it to his lips, pulled the plug with his teeth and spat it across the room (literally over their heads and across the room) gave a sarcastic little salut, and drained it into his mouth.
A few seconds later, appreciating the looks of astonishment he was receiving from the audience – who seemed to be waiting for him to either burst into flames or start melting, he casually spat the water back out in a neat little stream – into the face of the bishop, and grinned! As the old man stood there, dripping wet, the fella mocked him.
“Do you think, if your ridiculous faith made any difference to me, that I could look you in your eyes, priest?” He said, his eyes boring into the old man’s.
That was as much as the Bishop could stand. Cringing, shying away from his worst fears made flesh, he staggered backwards, pointing a quivering hand – and called for a beheading, the rack and for someone to pass the thumb-screws. Someone in the crowd cried “Amen! Hallelujah!”
A couple of burly-looking fellows I recognized from the engineering section stepped forward carrying fire axes. I guess by then, the other fella had had enough entertainment, because that was when he whirled around, broke free, and threw me across the room. I remember seeing the shocked faces of the people below me as I sailed overhead – fearfully, they parted and I somehow managed to land lightly on my toes with nary a sound. Vampire instincts. Go figure.
And him? He’d disappeared, but not before he’d dispatched the Bishop, who still stood for a moment before his mind caught on to the fact that he was already dead. The old man’s eyes turned over and he sank, frothing, into a heap of purple bloody bling on the carpet. I think, in retrospect, I was the lucky one in that engagement. Then, from where I was standing, I saw Lisa. She was looking at me strangely, and she wasn’t the only one.
“He’s one too!” Someone shouted. “Get him!” Shouted another. I’ve seen too many tragic results from the mob mentality in my time to stay and try to argue my way out of that one, I can tell you! So I did the only sensible thing – I ran!
Somehow I got out of there and ran as fast as I could – which, come to think of it was pretty damn fast – until I was in a clear corridor. I found myself outside the doors that led to the bridge. Wondering what had happened to the security detail I’d posted earlier, I punched the key-code into the door control and the doors parted. On the bridge of the Demeter, it looked pretty much business as usual inside – except for the mood. The bridge crew looked shabby to say the least – it looked like none of them had been off the bridge in days, unshaven – and everyone seemed to have been wearing the same uniforms for several days, but I couldn’t detect a scent of illness among them. Smart move, I thought – they’d quarantined themselves! Of course – the ship had to remain on course, and the old man wouldn’t want anyone else – anything else to take control of it.
Beckett stood just inside the door with a blaster trained on me. He had at least three days of stubble on his face and a look that told me he never liked me, or my attitude – and certainly wouldn’t hold back if I gave him any excuse to fire.
“What do you want, Mr. Lange?” He asked tersely.
“I’m the head of security.” I replied, recovering my composure somewhat and taking a step inside. “I’m doing my job – what do you think I want?”
“Uh-uh.” Said Beckett, indicating that I’d better stop. “Not any more, you’re not. We’ve heard some very interesting things about you! Vampire!”
I fumed, half-shocked at my situation. I’d been a vampire for only about a day and I was already being discriminated against by my employer!
“I always pegged you for a bigot, Beckett.” I said. “Looks like I was right.”
“That’s enough of that, thank you!” This order came from the Captain, from where he sat, in his command chair. Behind him, the view screen showed nothing but stars. One though, was bigger than the rest. I assumed that was the one Tremaine orbits. He beckoned me to come closer, rising.
“That you, Sean?” He asked me thoughtfully as I approached. “I mean, still you?”
“Yes, Captain. All me.”
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“You…” He said, making slow little gestures with his hands. “Turning… into a vampire.”
I decided to keep Beckett in my sight, while I nodded my answer.
“Yes, sir. It’s true. But the deaths weren’t caused by me, or by the one who turned me. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this business – and, well – that’s how this happened.”
“He lies, sir!” Beckett interjected rudely. “How can we believe him when…?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Mulligan cried, close to exasperation. “I said, that’ll do, Mr. Beckett, thank you!”
Beckett fell silent, sulking – but he kept the blaster pointed squarely at me.
“And did you?’ Mulligan asked me, smiling wryly, slowly circling me whilst looking me up and down. I began to understand what it felt like to be a famous actor or rock star.
“Yes sir, I did. Believe me, there’s so much in the worlds around us that we don’t know about…”
“Sir!” Beckett exclaimed. “We can’t believe a word that comes out of his lying mouth! I believe he’s every bit as complicit in the mass-murder of all those who died. We should blast him to hell right now, and be done with it!”
“You might feel at home with the nuts in the Main Lounge!” I told Beckett. “They want to gut me too – despite the fact that I handed the actual perp over to them! If you hurry, they should still have a space for you in the Inquisition!”
“I…” Beckett began, but he caught the Old Man’s eye, watching him closely – and thought better of it. Captain Mulligan just smiled again, tiredly, gesturing Beckett to be silent and to lower the weapon. Beckett eventually complied, but kept it in his hand. Mulligan indicated the view screen.
“You see that star, Sean? The big one?”
“Yes sir, I do. Bernardus?”
“No.” The old man said. “Not Bernardus, not Tremaine’s star. It’s Gamma Epsilon 281 – a star we would normally pass on the way to Tremaine. It’s the closest star to us, and it’s a solitary – it hasn’t got any planets. Its make-up and output are very similar to Earth’s sun.” He looked at me again, shaking his head. “Can’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, boy. A vampire! Will sunlight kill vampires?”
“No, sir. It’s all myth. Crosses, garlic, sunlight – it’s all bullshit. To cut to the chase, vampires are just people with advanced abilities – and, er – some allergies and special dietary concerns.”
“Pity.” Said Mulligan. “That would’ve been our last hope. We’ve become a plague ship, Sean. We can’t go to Tremaine like this – it will spread there!”
“Sir, what are you planning?”
“That star is our last stop, Sean. Demeter must never reach Tremaine… Or anywhere else.” The old man explained, the determination strong in his trembling voice. “For the greater good, we will see this ship and all aboard it destroyed!”
“But it’s just one man!” I objected. “The dead won’t reanimate! They won’t turn! He’s not here to build an army of vampires – he’s just sick and twisted and killing you all for sport! If we can take him out, the whole thing ends!”
I let that sink in. I also couldn’t believe I had just said ‘you’ and not ‘us’! …And Demeter wasn’t going past the star, we were heading for it!
“You’ve been trying to catch that son of a bitch for a week now!” Beckett spat the accusation at me, still holding the blaster, though not aiming it at me anymore. “You had him in your hands just fifteen minutes ago – we all saw it on the security feed! For all we know, you let him go!”
Well, they did have a point. I did have him in my grasp – and he still got away… And time was running out fast.
“Before now, they were just walking around in circles and rattling sabers. They didn’t know what to look for – they weren’t even sure vampires really existed until you handed them one! Thanks to you, they know there are two vampires on the ship – and if there can be two, there can be more!” Beckett added. He was right about that, and I knew it.
“You know what they’re doing now?” Beckett asked angrily. “Killing each other. They’re killing people they think are vampires! This mess just got so big it needs its own address on the star charts!”
“I’m dying, Sean.”
It was Lisa’s voice, only it didn’t sound right. She sounded tired, fatigued. I turned to see her standing at the door. She had a standard security sidearm trained on me.
“Lisa, don’t.” I said.
“Which one of you did it?” She asked in a flat tone. “Which one of you sick fucks killed me? That man in the lounge just now? Or you, Sean? Was it you? The other night when we watched movies together?”
“It wasn’t me.” I said, moving slowly towards her, keeping my hands where she could see them, “We’re not connected. Neither is the one who turned me. The fact that they’re even here on the ship at the same time is just pure coincidence.”
“Bullshit!” Beckett exclaimed aggressively from behind me.
Ignoring Beckett’s remark, I went up close to Lisa. She’d turned gaunt, pale and weak suddenly. She must’ve been sick for days already – how hadn’t I noticed? Her eyes looked into mine, pleading, sorrowful and tired. The blaster sagged slowly by stages until she let go of it and the device slipped from her fingers and clattered noisily on the deck. I stepped forward and put my arms around her. Her arms went around me and she held on tightly, like she was a sleeper scared she would never wake again. I counted the years we had been friends and work partners. Twelve years. It was a long time. It brought tears to my eyes.
I wanted to tell her I was going to find him, track him down and kill him and make him pay for what he was doing. I wanted to be the hero and save the day, but mostly it was too late. More than half the ship was already dead, and the ones that weren’t, were either planning suicide or had turned into religious fanatics who had seasoned themselves with garlic and were running riot around the ship with hammers and stakes, hoping that fella they were hunting – and who was picking them off one by one, would sit still long enough for them to drive one into him! I wanted to save them all – even from their own stupidity, but I couldn’t! I was just one man! Well, one vampire – who hadn’t even read the manual yet – and who fervently hoped there was one, somewhere. Then she slumped and the only thing holding her up, was me.
I looked round at Captain Mulligan, sitting there in his command seat, looking every inch the sea Captain prepared to go down with his ship.
“Anything I can do to change your mind, sir?” I asked him.
“No, son.” Mulligan said, slowly shaking his head, giving me a final smile. “I’m afraid not.”
I nodded, holding onto Lisa. The star on the screen had grown a little bit since I’d entered the bridge – the Demeter was rapidly approaching it, and we didn’t have much time left. I knew what I had to do... Or at least, what I wanted to do now. Beckett must’ve expected me to try and stop them, or something of that order, because his blaster jerked up again to follow me as I moved. He almost seemed disappointed as I only supported Lisa back to the bridge door instead, and outside. He followed at a short distance, ready to reach up for the door control to close it behind us again. I eyed the Exo cautiously all the while. Despite his loathing of me for what I’d become, and his earlier shallow pursuit of position and status, he seemed determined to support Mulligan in this brave, pointless and hopeless venture. In that moment, I found a new respect for him. Gods know, I never had any for him before. I slowly extended a hand towards him and to my surprise, after a pause, he took it.
“Good luck.” I said, looking him in the eye.
“You too.” He nodded grimly. He was afraid. Not of me, but of what was coming. Even so, he was doing it anyway – and that’s the definition of bravery, isn’t it?
Turning, I carried Lisa back down the corridors in the direction of Shaneen’s apartment. She wasn’t heavy, and I had grown much stronger recently. It wasn’t too difficult to avoid the roving packs of loons – all I had to do was avoid the smell of garlic and keep an ear out for the chanting and off-key hymns. I did run into one gang of them though – armed to the teeth with axes, knives, hammers and crude wooden crosses and stakes. On spotting us, they blocked off the passage ahead, and rushed to the attack.
“There it is!” One shouted.
“Onward, Christian soldiers!” Shouted another.
It’s amazing how much energy I suddenly had! And the speed! Without even putting Lisa down first, I sent the first axe-wielding maniac flying backwards in mid-swing with a frontal kick! His body struck two of his companions behind him, leaving them lying prostrated across the length of the corridor. Two were unconscious, and one writhed on the deck as I stepped over them.
One stood in my path, holding up a large cross that had obviously been made from a pair of broken wooden chair legs tied together with what looked like shoe laces. Two more stood behind him, awe-struck, eyes fixed on me as I gently put the unconscious figure of Lisa Garfner down on the deck against the side. Then I straightened up again, flexed my knuckles, and resumed walking towards them.
“Back!” The man with the crude cross cried threateningly, shifting his feet in a way that told me he was resisting the urge to turn and run away. “Spawn of Satan! Back I say!”
The closer I walked towards the man with the cross, the bigger his eyes seemed to get. I think the idea was that I was supposed to – what? Burst into flames? Back away with my arm raised in front of my face? They would be in for a long wait indeed! By the time I reached him, the pair behind him – one holding a hammer which had probably been looted from engineering, the other clutching a crudely carved wooden stake two feet long – had already backed off a whole meter. I was just about to reach out to grab the cross from him, when the guy up and fainted! Slightly disappointed, and more than a little amused, I shifted my gaze at the two behind him.
“Boo!” I said. The remaining two members of that particular lynch mob glanced at each other before abruptly running away, screaming.
“And let that be a lesson to you!” I chuckled as I went back to Lisa and lifted her up again. All three of our would-be attackers still lay lights out on the deck, along with the fourth who’d just passed out through fear, apparently. I was somewhat relieved that I hadn’t had to kill anyone, even in self-defense… I wasn’t ready for that sort of burden on my conscience yet. It wasn’t a fair fight really, not like this – stronger and quicker… the man with the axe didn’t stand a chance… and even though I didn’t care a damn about people who reveled in ignorance and blind hatred, or who allowed it to lead them into killing people they knew nothing about, I really didn’t want to face that issue just then. Besides, by now they were nearly all sick and dying anyway. I’d been just like them until recently, only human, and although I knew I was different now and that things would change, I wanted to leave this ship with a clear conscience.
It wasn’t to be that easy though, because around the next corner, I walked right into an ambush. Without any warning, a wild man wielding a long-handled fire-axe jumped us from the left side of the junction, swinging wildly. Luckily I was quick and agile, and the big athletic guy missed twice before I swung Lisa’s legs around and put her boots into his face so hard he did a backwards somersault. The axe hovered in mid-air for a moment, before clattering noisily onto the deck beside his prone form. At that moment, the rest of the gang – there were five of them – charged, and it was just a moment’s work to put Lisa down again so that I had my hands free. I must’ve looked like a blur of motion as I ducked their blows and smashed them into the bulkheads, the ceiling or the deck with hammer-blows as quick as lightning. In moments, the deck was littered with battered unconscious and semi-conscious figures, with an assortment of weapons raining down onto the deck around them.
The rest of our path to Shaneen’s apartment was clear of the late bishop’s witch-hunting gangs. I rang her bell. Once inside, I lowered Lisa onto the sofa while Shaneen quickly closed the door and locked it behind me.
“The natives are restless.” Shaneen Spear joked. “What’s this?” She asked. “Girlfriend? Snack?”
“A friend.” I said. “A very good friend. She’s dying. Our other friend bit her.”
“And?” She frowned. “You want me to save her for you?”
I shrugged. I’d been hoping. She pouted.
“Do it yourself.” She said almost dismissively. “You can, you know. There’s no great art to it. She’s already been bitten. Just give her some of your blood, and it’s done.”
“That’s all?” I asked, just to make sure. “No spell or mumbo-jumbo to chant?”
Shaneen ignored my sarcasm.
“Just the rule.” She cautioned me. “Never forget – it’s a gift to Become, but it’s also a choice. She has to want it, Baby Vamp. She must agree to it first. Otherwise she could become one of those awful whiny, depressed vampires they used to write books and make movies about!”
“And if she says no? Or can’t answer?” I asked.
“Then she dies.” Shaneen shrugged, almost callously. “But it’s better than doing this to someone against their will. Imagine someone hating your forever.”
Lisa was semi-conscious by now, and slipping away fast. I could barely hear her heartbeat, or her breathing. I had to hurry. I kneeled down to her and lifted her head, patting her cheeks gently.
“Hey!” I greeted, as she opened her eyes. “I can help you, Lisa. I want to help you. I can make all this go away.”
Lisa just opened her eyes slightly, looked at me with a glazed expression, and then closed them again. I shook her urgently.
“Lisa!” I called, aware that time was running out fast. Soon it would be too late! Her eyes opened again, slowly.
“How?” She whispered hoarsely, frowning.
“You can change.” I said. “To be like me.”
Lisa nodded. “How do I do that?” She whispered, a confused look on her face. She gripped my hand weakly and squeezed it.
“Leave that to me.” I said. Shaneen, ever helpful and considerate, passed me her nail file. I rolled my eyes at her as if to say ‘WTF must I do with this? A mani or a pedi?’ Shaneen gestured at her wrist, suggesting I use it to cut myself.
“Better hurry.” She told me. “Your friend doesn’t have much time left.”
I groaned. Of all the crazy things to have to do, I thought. Letting go of Lisa for the moment, I allowed her to sag back onto the sofa. Then, bracing myself, I jammed the tip of the nail file into my wrist. Yes, it did hurt. Ignoring the sharp pain as best I could, I pulled it out again, covered in my own blood, and carefully bent over to place my wound over Lisa’s cold white lips. The warm red blood first ran between them, and then a few drops splattered on her lips. Almost on contact, she began to swallow it. Then she stiffened – electrified, like lightning bolt had just arced through her! Then, her eyes still closed, she grabbed hold of my arm with both hands, and drank, sucking at my wound until it ached. Before long, Shaneen intervened.
“That’s enough, now.” She instructed, resting a hand on my shoulder. “You’re going to need your strength, before she needs hers – and I’m not carrying both of you!”
“Sorry about that.” I told Lisa’s sleeping form, as I rolled my sleeve down again, noting that the wound had already started to heal closed. “It’s my first day as a vampire and I haven’t even read the manual yet!”
“You did just fine, Baby Bat.” Shaneen crooned, patting me on the back. “You did fine.”
Now that the problem of Lisa’s illness had been taken care of, only the obstacle of getting off the ship remained.
“We have to get off this ship!” I said, looking up at Shaneen. “It’s heading right for a star – the Captain and the flight crew have made up their minds to destroy the Demeter and everyone aboard! They’re determined to not let it spread!”
“What!” She exclaimed in surprise. “Did you explain to him…”
“I did.” I explained. “I tried – they wouldn’t listen. Actually, I’m surprised Beckett didn’t shoot me!”
Shaneen pouted, as though what we were faced with was no more inconvenient than missing a turn in a game of Loderunner. It was a good deal more complicated than that – and even a noob vamp like me realized. It meant we had to get off the ship, obviously – but it also held other implications. Demeter was at that time in a quiet stretch of our voyage to Tremaine. Other ships hardly came this way, preferring to use the quicker more direct routes for trade and express travel. If we took a life boat or a shuttle – and we’d have to in order to escape Demeter’s fiery end – we could be stuck out here a very, very long time! Neither of those options featured stardrive and could only travel at sub-light speeds, and it would take years to reach anywhere.
“Well,” She said, putting on a smile. “It’s inconvenient, but we’ll just have to make do.”
Shaneen was glad she’d packed light. After so many years, she said, she had learned what was important – which is why she hadn’t brought anything really important with her. She went to her closets, opened them, and then crammed everything she thought she’d need into a modest back-pack, and slung it over one shoulder. I had nothing on this ship I really wanted to take with me – nothing I would risk going all the way back to the crew accommodation block for – that might result in even more costly delays. The only things I wanted to save from this mess now were right there with me. Shaneen opened the door for me as I carried the still sleeping form of Lisa Garfner into the waiting corridor outside. She was no longer dying, and her heart and breathing sounded strong.
It took us less than twenty minutes to reach the stern-upper deck of the Demeter, where the launch bays for the ship’s shuttles were. Most of that trip was spent avoiding the nuts patrolling the ship in little clusters, banging on tins and improvised drums and chanting a little like Hare-Krishnas – but carrying sharp implements – and taking turns in accusing each other of being vampires. This time we eluded them completely, but even so, no less than five times, we heard the sound of screaming, punctuated by the distant hammering of wooden stakes – but we knew those weren’t vampires they were staking.
There was still no sign of our opponent when we arrived at the entrance to the port side shuttle bay. The door was locked, and even my security pass didn’t open it.
“We don’t have time for this!” Shaneen sighed. She grabbed the door by the manual safety release handles, and applied far more pressure than it was designed to resist. The locking bolts snapped off with disquieting ease, and she pushed the door panel freely aside into the doorframe. The Lady led the way inside – I again followed, carrying Lisa.
The shuttle bay looked deserted, and parked shuttles stood in a row along the relatively narrow space along the port side of the ship, facing outward towards space. We boarded the nearest shuttle. With the rapidly approaching destruction of the ship, we didn’t want to waste any time settling in before launching – so I left Shaneen to place Lisa in the passenger compartment, while I made straight for the flight deck and began to power up the systems. Shaneen curiously slid into the co-pilot’s seat beside me and watched as I did a very quick pre-launch check, and fired up the shuttle’s main drive. I ran them for a few minutes to warm them before edging the throttle forward. Then I punched the remote control to open the hangar door. Nothing happened. I tried it again, with the same result. The shuttle bay doors were basically roll-up garage doors a hundred meters long – they were closed, and they weren’t budging. I closed the throttle again, and the whine of the engine faded back into silence.
“What’s wrong?” Shaneen asked.
“Someone on the bridge put a lock-out on the doors.” I breathed. “Looks like they don’t want anyone getting off this ship before it hits the sun!”
“Can’t you just shoot the door out?” She asked with slight sarcasm, but so that I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not.
“With what? These shuttles don’t have guns!” I replied. “They’re civilian shuttles, not Space Fleet gunships!”
“Okay – do you have a work-around?” Shaneen asked again.
I didn’t have an answer for her yet. The pressure doors were designed to keep the air in if the atmospheric containment field failed, and not much else. They tended to be kept closed when the shuttles were not in use. This was a star-liner, not a warship. The containment field worked like the edge of a bubble, and allowed shuttles to pass through it – unlike the doors. How the hell were we going to get off the ship now?
“Give me a minute.” I said, working something out in my thoughts. “Okay.” I said at last, making sure on the control console that the atmospheric containment field was on. It was.
“What are you going to do?” Shaneen asked me as I got out of the chair and began heading back to the exit.
“Not enough time to explain.” I said, opening the shuttle’s main hatch again. “Wait for me, I’ll be right back.”
I ran down the extended ramp and to the nearest neighboring shuttle, only about a hundred meters away. I couldn’t open the doors to let the shuttle out, and although I was much stronger than I used to be, I doubted very much that I could smash or tear a hole in that door big enough for a shuttle to fly through! …But I knew something that could – another shuttle!
Once inside that shuttle, I headed straight for the flight deck and began powering up the systems. It was only then that I noticed how I wasn’t panting from the exercise, and how incredibly good I felt! In just a few moments, the shuttle’s drive system came online and the small ship began to vibrate around me. Two rows of sequentially flashing lights in the deck began to flash from both sides of the shuttle to the still closed doors, lighting up to indicate the flight path.
“Warning!” The shuttle computer’s voice announced on the flight deck. “Hangar doors closed! Warning! Hangar doors closed! Warning…” I punched the mute button, then the control that detached the magnetic deck-clamps, then I programed the flight computer with a twenty second countdown and engaged the auto-pilot. Then another alarm started buzzing a warning. I ignored it, and bolted back down the ramp before it retracted, just as the shuttle began to lift off the deck. The sound of the roaring thrusters was deafening at close quarters! I quickly ran back towards our own shuttle, while that one built up thrust and power – and began to surge forward at increasing speed!
I made it back onto the flight deck of our shuttle just as the other one impacted the doors with a jarring, thunderous shuddering crash! The atmospheric containment field caused translucent blue flares around the shuttle where it made contact. Between the roaring of the shuttle’s engine and the rending, tearing crash against the doors, it was quite a show. The portion of the door being assaulted by the shuttle began to give way, tearing loose from all sides, paying out like a reel, before snapping loose – the rogue shuttle, which still pressed against it, pushed through the maw it had created, and with a part of the twisted door wrapped around one of its landing skids, looped round and smashed back towards the ship – right into the outer hull! An explosion lit up the sky outside, casting bright light and shadows across the inside of the shuttle bay.
Shaneen sidled into the co-pilot seat beside me again.
“Are we going?” She asked cheekily.
“Hold on.” I said. My vampiric female mentor smilingly placed a warm, sensual hand on my knee, running it playfully toward my inner thigh as I opened the throttle. Behind us, the roar of the drive rose in pitch and intensity and the shuttle surged forward. We shared a knowing glance as I maneuvered the shuttle over to the side, and then out through the hole into clear space. We left the launch-deck and the nightmare that was left of the Demeter, and quite probably all our previous lives, behind us.
The stars looked welcoming in the cold vastness of space, and presented me with a tantalizing return to sanity. “Sanity!” I thought incredulously to myself. Here I was – thirty-eight years old, and leaving behind what had been a pretty sound career – and I was giving up on all the things that had defined my life up to this point! On the other hand, there was good reason to rejoice. I had a whole new life – a whole new lease on it, in fact! I was a fledgling vampire now, and my real adventure was just beginning…
Once clear of the ship, I slowed the shuttle and turned it around so we could see the Demeter. The huge, majestic ship still cruising at its maximum speed, rapidly shrunk in size as it moved away. The star up close seemed enormous, and the UV filters on the flight deck viewports snapped on to cut the intensity of the light down to normal safety margins. Our eyes stung and began watering from the brightness of it, and I adjusted it down further still, until we could see clearly – and we sat in a deathly silence, watching as the late, great ship Demeter drew nearer to the star, and nearer still… until it flared briefly and brilliantly, close to the surface of the lonely sun, and was no more.
It was quite a sight. All those people aboard, the lives we’d led, the colleagues and friends we knew, those we respected, the ones we loathed – and the hysterical lunatics many had devolved into, were all gone. We hoped that the monster who had done all these things had been ended with them, but we never knew for certain. We got off the Demeter just in time, of course, so it was reasonable to assume that it was possible he might’ve as well. I often wondered afterwards, what had happened to him. Who was he? What was his name – and why had he gone down that path?
The Red Star Liner Demeter was lost in space with all hands – passengers and crew, as I’m sure your research will show. That’s how the records will read all across the Empire, and barring three of us, that – as far as I know, is the truth. Insurance for space holidays would go up a little, as would risk ratings for star-liners, I’m sure – but then again, that sort of thing goes up over time anyway. The industry would go on, and people would still go on bluffing themselves that space travel is perfectly safe, and then break it all down into numbers and statistics to convince themselves that if anything bad was going to happen, then it would more likely happen to someone else, on some other ship, on some other voyage, in some other star system. Except when it didn’t.
As far as the worlds would know, Shaneen Spear, Sean Lange and Lisa Garfner ceased to exist along with the Demeter on that day. Shaneen explained that aspect to us later, after we’d adjusted the course of the shuttle and set the autopilot for Tremaine, turned off everything we could to save power, and we settled in and began the long wait. She told us she had friends on Tremaine who could help us to start over somewhere else – with new identities, so that whenever and wherever we turned up one day again, we wouldn’t raise awkward questions about what happened on that ship.
It will be a long journey through the black to Tremaine without a stardrive, I know. At least ten years at this speed and from this distance. Unless of course, something unexpected happens to alter our course and sends us off somewhere else. Regardless, someone will find us along the way, one day. Someone like you, perhaps. This being space, I know anything’s possible.
Time didn’t matter anymore – we were all vampires now, after all, and we could sleep all that way and not age a day. So we said our goodnights and then I put Shaneen to bed, and Lisa, and then I lay down on this bench. As the cold darkness closed in around me, I wrapped myself in this fluffy gray blanket with the Red Star logo on it, and I wrote you this letter, and then I lay down to sleep the sleep of ages, waiting.
And then, one day, you came along. You found this shuttle, picked up my letter – and read my story.
I’m hungry now. So very, very hungry.
I promise I’ll make it quick.
Please turn around.
* * *
“Well?” Dr. Killian asked pointedly, having arrived just before Stuart Flane had finished reading the last page. The coffee Killian brought with went down quickly, despite being a little warm for speedy consumption.
“Gods, I need a drink! A real one!” Flane sighed, exhaling a cloud of steam that reminded Killian of Mount Vesuvius. Then he pointed at a panel in the wall of the Captain’s modest cabin. “Fix yourself one as well.”
Flane’s mind raced. Was it all true? Or was this just some kind of cruel joke played by an unknown spacer – perhaps marooned onboard that shuttle for years and driven to madness before taking his own life?
Killian finished pouring two brandies from the bottle into the two glasses he found inside the small closet in the wall and presented one to Flane.
“Thank you, Doctor.” Flane said, taking a sip. “Now – tell me about our friend.”
“It’s the strangest damn thing I ever saw, Stu.” Killian said, sampling his brandy. “Oh, I’ve seen plenty of strange stuff in my time in the Fleet – especially on this ship… a patient actually bursting into flames in a bed in my sickbay has to top it all off, but… medically, I mean.”
“Doctor!” Flane chided.
“Sorry, Captain!” Killian grinned. He did tend to get carried away sometimes. “Okay, look – the man we found in the shuttle… first of all, he doesn’t match any description of any of the crew or passengers from the Demeter’s manifest – he’s dressed in what looks like coveralls like you’d find on a loderunner crew – and secondly, he’s been dead only about thirty-five years.”
“But the Demeter disappeared without a trace over forty years ago!” Flane exclaimed.
“Forty-four years, six months and seven days as of this morning, according to Vic’s report – and if he’d been onboard the ship when whatever happened, happened – he’d have been dead around the same length of time, not so?”
“I suppose so.” Flane nodded. “That makes sense.”
“Added to that,” Killian continued. “All three names mentioned in the letter – Sean Lange, Lisa Garfner and Shaneen Spear – check out with the Red Star Line’s crew and passenger list for the ship – and according to the central database, those individuals have never been heard of again.”
“At least not under those names, right?”
“Yes, exactly.” The Dr. nodded, savoring the taste of the alcohol. “That is, if we’re assuming this isn’t all just some tall tale – not under those names.”
“So that means someone else found the shuttle before we did?” Flane concluded, realizing the implications of the letter, the story it told, everything. “That poor sod boarded the shuttle all those years ago, perhaps hoping to find something to salvage, perhaps a keepsake – and instead wound up dead… and if this letter is to be believed, probably at the hands of three hungry vampires…”
“Bingo!” Killian agreed. “Which explains the fella I’ve got in cold storage.”
“Any idea who he was?”
“None.” The Doctor shrugged. “His prints and DNA profile aren’t on the central database at all, so he’s probably from some backwater colony that hadn’t got around to logging him onto the central database yet by that time. He doesn’t match any description for missing crewmen lost from loderunners in the area, and there’s no ship name or number on his clothing either. He may never have been reported missing. We may never know.”
“How did he die, Fred?”
“Complete exsanguination, Captain.” Killian reported pointedly in a way that suggested he’d been waiting to use that word all night. “He was completely exsanguinated.”
“Exwhatinated?” Flane balked.
“Ex-sang-uinated.” Killian repeated slower. “It means ‘completely drained of all blood’. I presume the six puncture wounds on the right side of his neck and both wrists had something to do with it.”
“Six holes, not two?”
“No, six. As if he’d been bitten three times, by three different people – the differences in bite measurement bear this out – er, more-or-less simultaneously.”
“And that’s definitely where the blood left his body?”
“Yup.” Said Fred Killian, taking another hit from his glass. “Right into the artery in each case – not an easy thing to do if you don’t have pretty exacting medical knowledge. Not a drop was spilled inside the shuttle.”
“So what do you think happened, Fred?” Flane sighed, “Some unlucky ship spotted the shuttle adrift in space thirty-five or so years ago, that guy boarded it and Sean Lange and his friends pounced on him and sucked out his blood?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Doctor, or should I call Admiral Tawney for a second opinion?”
“Look, Stu…” Killian sputtered, his ire suddenly up, “Whatever’s in that letter aside, as a doctor I can only tell you what my medical instruments and my years of experience tell me – that the man I have in cold storage has been dead around thirty-five years, and he died from having all his blood removed through six puncture wounds at various locations on his body! Now, what made the holes, and where the blood went, is what I can’t tell you! There’s no sign of it anywhere in the shuttle, so where did it go?”
“Okay, okay,” Flane said, holding up a hand to placate Killian. He pointed at the letter where he’d dropped it on his desk. “I was just trying to wrap my head around this…”
“That’s okay, Captain.” Killian nodded, draining his glass. “Forget it. Besides, you and I both know there’s more out here than ordinary conventional scientific knowledge currently explains.”
Fred Killian was dead on the money there. Flane nodded.
“According to the shuttle logs and the letter,” Flane speculated, “it would’ve taken ten years to reach Tremaine – which given the time-frame, would put their expected arrival at the colony around…”
“Thirty-four years ago.” Killian nodded. “So about a year short of their arrival, that would put the shuttle in a more busy area, more traffic, more ships, they’d be more likely to be spotted.”
“That must be what happened.” Flane smiled at the doctor. “I wonder what happened after that?”
“Well, think about it – someone spotted that shuttle near Tremaine.” Flane postulated. “A loderunner perhaps, like you suggested, Doctor. He – or his skipper decided to stop and take a look – maybe to claim it for salvage, or to scavenger hunt for parts or trophies…”
“…Boarded the ship through the airlock, found three sleeping figures, and the letter…” Killian continued, feeling his throat run dry. “He began reading it… and then, if he ever got to the end of it…”
“I doubt that!” Flane grinned, remembering the hours he’d just spent reading it himself, even with the time saved by just scanning a few bits here and there. “I mean, if Lange was as hungry as he said in the letter!”
“… And then Lange pounced on him, and they killed the unlucky reader!”
Flane and Killian exchanged tense expressions.
“Another drink, Doctor?” Flane offered, holding out his empty glass. Wordlessly, Killian took it and dutifully refilled both glasses before returning to their intriguing speculative conversation.
“Oh, you mean after that?” Killian sighed, after a sip of brandy. “Well, I think that any loderunner crew who saw something like that happen to one of their colleagues would probably high-tail it out of there right away!”
“But then we’d have found four people aboard the shuttle, Doctor – or three and a corpse.” Flane said, shaking his head. “No, I think Lange and his friends got off the shuttle – most likely onto the ship that our friend in your freezer came off – and went on their merry way.”
“Well, Stu,” Killian shrugged, “It may be a little Gothic of me, but I can’t help wondering what the skipper of that loderunner thought when he sent one man through the airlock who didn’t come back – but three strangers mysteriously still alive after nine or ten years without cryostasis turned up thanking him for the snack… and what – asked for a belfry and passage to the nearest colony?”
Flane pondered his reply for what seemed like a long moment, during which he also pondered how he was going to wrap up this investigation – and what he was going to put in his report and in a way that wouldn’t make matters even worse for his ailing career. Perhaps if he used brevity… fewer words in his report? Telegraph style? Hmm…maybe not. He didn’t really think if he wrote “FOUND ABANDONED SHUTTLE STOP ONE EXWHATINATED BODY INSIDE STOP SUSPECT DEATH BY NATURAL CAUSES STOP”, it would help him much.
“Maybe.” He nodded. “Still, I was kinda partial to Lange. From the letter, I gather he was a good man trapped in unfavorable circumstances… He would’ve made a great author if he’d got round to writing instead of running around biting people’s necks! Er…If any of that story was true at the end of the day, of course.”
“Do you know, I rather like to think it was.” Killian nodded, swirling his half-empty glass of brandy gently in thought. “Intriguing thought though, isn’t it?”
“That vampires exist.” Killian said, breaking into a grin. “Vampires really exist!”
“Yes,” Flane replied sullenly, wondering how to keep anything suggesting that and anything else hinting at the supernatural out of his investigation and subsequent report to Admiral Tawney. He suspected “Found abandoned shuttle in deep space, registered to lost starliner Demeter, one unidentified body aboard” ought to do the job.
“Immortality. Eternal life.” Killian smiled. “Sounds kinda fun. I wonder if they’re alive and where they are now.”
“Well, Fred – what are the nearest colonies to where the Demeter was lost?” Flane asked, sipping from his glass. “Thirty years ago, I mean?”
“I dunno…” Killian sighed, “Tremaine? Caries? Atooin? Deanna? …Floridia-7?”
Flane chuckled at the mention of Floridia-7, rumored to be the most haunted abandoned Terran outpost known to Humanity. In fact, Flane knew firsthand that it was no rumor. “Well, that would be appropriate, wouldn’t it?”
Killian raised his glass and smiled at his captain in his genteel fashion. “Cheers.”
Flane leaned forward to join his to Killian’s. “Cheers.”
“Well, whatever became of them,” Killian continued, “I wish them well. All three of them. And… not Floridia-7!”
“I’ll drink to that!” Flane said approvingly. “Not Floridia-7! For their sakes, anyway… I guess we’ll never really know, will we? There’s just too many variables, and not enough evidence.”
“Yuh.” Killian smiled. “Guess that’s why it’s called a mystery!”
“One thing I’m very glad about, though…”
“What’s that, Captain?”
“I’m very, very glad I wasn’t the first person to read this letter.”
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About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”