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The Reasonable Man

by Edmond Morell about a month ago in investigation / fiction
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Chapter 1: The Karman Line

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Given the condition of the victim, I’m convinced he’d have died before he could have made a sound. I know Hutchins has to say “suspected homicide” because we’re not doctors, but it’s a damned obvious murder from where I’m sitting. I’ve never heard of a guy on an outdoor walk on a space station stabbing himself and half tearing off his helmet before. The body, still anchored to the deck of the station by magnetic boots, bobbed back and forth under the undetectable movements of Tranquility Station, slowly spinning below us. It was an object of horrified fascination: somehow limp and rigid, a body weighted to the bottom of an infinite black ocean with metallic cinderblocks. I could see the pallid white of his frozen neck beneath the torn edge of the suit’s neck seal. I shook my head to clear away something that danced between nausea and morbid curiosity.

Hutchins took the lead, plodding a few paces ahead of me and tapping the “incident/scene topography” and “dictation” commands on his wrist tablet. He cleared his throat, and said over the comm channel:

“Begin crime scene analysis. Date: 29 March 2762. Crime: Suspected Homicide. Agents: Greer, Nathan R., and Hutchins, Charles T. Location—” he trailed off, and I imagined rather than saw the questioning glance conveyed in a slight turning of Hutchins’ vacuum suit helmet. I pointed to a sign on the corridor wall. Hutchins turned to read the sign and continued: “—Location: Tranquility Station, in orbit above planet Aldrin. Marker placed at,” Hutchins glanced at the sign again, “Exterior Maintenance Corridor 3, Nominal Station ‘North’, base of Entertainment Spire on Tranquility Station. Victim: Stillwell, Martin A., 32-year-old Caucasian male, Security Officer Grade 3, Tranquility Station Security Forces. Date of Birth: 3 January 2730. Beginning analysis of the body.” I’m sure I was imagining it, given that most of body language is unreadable in a vacuum suit, but I swear I could detect an irritated cant of Hutchins’ head, even through the suit.

“What’s the matter, buddy?” I asked, crossing the last few feet to the body. It was no better up close.

“Why can’t we have a full forensics team and scene control like the other families have, papa?” Hutchins asked in a horrible imitation of a child’s voice. I laughed, which helped. It pushed the grotesquery of the frozen, bobbing human body out of my mind for a minute.

“Well, son,” I said, not bothering to imitate anyone other than myself, “ISIB doesn’t have enough agents, plain and simple. We’ve got 50 agents plus support staff for 9 planets in-system. We’re not getting a full forensics team and scene control for one dead dude in a hallway.” Hutchins gave a sour grunt of acknowledgement, and I was left thinking about how an agency with a million-plus agents could be short staffed. I shook my head slowly. Try as I might, no matter how many times I travel the Core Worlds and the Colony Waves, I’ll never understand the scale of the operation we serve.

“I heard Earth and Mars have five thousand agents a piece, plus Corporate, plus fleet, plus planetary defense forces, plus other law enforcement. Intersystem Special Investigations Bureau, my ass. We couldn’t investigate our own asses with this few people.”

“And yet, here we are,” I said, trying for more professionalism. I couldn’t help myself, and added: “And besides, I heard Core and First Wave have more like 10k agents per system.” Hutchins swore violently for a few straight seconds before catching himself.

“Redact last from the report,” he amended hastily, and I laughed. “Can we get focused, please?” Still grinning, I started my examination of the victim from the front while Hutchins circled to the victim’s back. The smile fell quickly from my face. It was an ugly, professionally dealt death. That much was obvious immediately. What I couldn’t fathom was how a security officer had been undetected as missing in a depressurized corridor for apparently over an hour. Especially a corridor that had been breached from the outside of the station. I let my eyes linger on a breach in the hallway wall that led out onto the shell of the station, clear evidence of precision plasma cutter tool work evident on the melted edges of the station’s thick steel.

This specific corridor ringed the base of the station’s entertainment district and observation platforms, and under normal conditions was pressurized and required no Vacuum Suits to operate in. I couldn’t hear the busy interior of Tranquility Station, but if I focused hard enough, I could feel the micro-vibrations of the slowly rotating station beneath my feet. I imagined I was feeling footsteps and machinery, the faint buzz of conversation, and wished I could hear something other than my own breathing. I hate Zero Gravity operations. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve done; it doesn’t matter how many I’ll do. I’ve always hated 0 g. Too much silence, too much danger, too little line of sight, too much reliance on machines. Plus, the suits are claustrophobic. I have never gotten used to them either, no matter how many times I’ve worn them. I miss my suit, not these cheap walk-about ones. I felt like I could actually breathe and move in that thing. This felt like walking across the bottom of a pool by comparison. What was I thinking about? My mind was wandering, it was proving difficult to focus. I wondered if this was the anti-nausea drugs, poor sleep, long days, 0 g, or some combination thereof.

I returned my focus to the crime scene, denoted by an entirely unnecessary slowly rotating orb of yellow, holographic cautionary phrases: “STATION SECURITY---INVESTIGATION IN PROGRESS---SECURITY LINE--- DO NOT CROSS”. The orb extended from the maintenance hallway onto the station’s smooth and slightly curved exterior for about a hundred meters, while the corridor itself was blocked with more subdued “Security Line--- Do Not Cross” yellow security holograms. The victim was in the middle of all of this, his left arm mostly tangled up in exposed wiring inside of a gunmetal gray wall panel, swaying gently under the careful investigative touches of Hutchins, his boots the only thing holding him to the station’s floor/ceiling.

The wall compartment was full of a thousand-plus identical wires, their color coding of red, blue, yellow, green, and purple be damned. The access panel had been removed and magnetized to the bulkhead to the right of all the wires (and the victim). Yet station security had said nothing about an airlock breach. Curious. I filed that away for further inquiry later, and finally got to my study of the body.

Like I said, even if the victim could have screamed his lungs out, and the whole station could have heard him, he wouldn’t have had the time. While Hutchins concerned himself with the victim’s back and recording the environment, I tried to work out what had happened in what order to the dead security officer. His matte-blue suit had the bog-standard ablative plating across the arms, chest, stomach and shoulders, partially covered actuator joints, an exposed air hose leading back to a Life Support Pack, plus the usual maneuvering thrusters and a utility belt. His vacuum suit had a holster on the front affixed to his chest plate, and optimistically the dead man had brought two pairs of handcuffs and, inexplicably, Crowd Control spray with him onto the outside of the station. I shook my head and turned my attention to his obvious injuries.

Stabbed twice in the lower stomach. The knife had been cleanly slotted into the narrow seam between his stomach protective plate and the reinforcement along his lower spine. The wounds were so close together that at first blush they looked like a single wide wound. It was only after stooping over and touching the torn material that I was able to see the two perfect stabs, clearly visible, surrounded by black frozen blood and pale white frozen flesh. I couldn’t quite touch the wound through my thick gloves and the victim’s thick suit, but it looked like a medium width blade made the wounds. An autopsy would show more, of course, but the blade appeared to have punctured his diaphragm. I looked away from the wound and let my eyes roam over the exterior of the vacuum suit, looking for any disturbances.

There, at his collar. Scuff marks and some abrasions on the metal. I squinted at it and couldn’t make anything out, so I moved on to the two most obvious causes of death: the cut air hose and the partially removed helmet. The air hose had been slashed with one clean motion, cleanly severed from the helmet. It would have been terrifying for the security officer, albeit for not very long, to have had his non-metaphorical lifeline cut. Though, cut is the wrong word. Sheered, more like. The oxygen hose had been sliced in the same way a rope would be cut: the attacker had made a loop in the hose with his—I checked the angle of the stabs again to confirm his dominant hand—left hand and then sliced the hose with the blade in his right. The victim would have been dead almost immediately, even without his helmet being torn mostly off. Victim, victim, victim. The word was starting to sound made up. I sighed again.

“What’s this dude’s name?” I asked. Charles Hutchins’ floodlights and polarized visor appeared over the frozen corpse’s shoulder. I closed my eyes, just as my onboard computer helpfully chirped “Polarizing Visor: 60%”. Late as always. Technology. Always works until it doesn’t. My right hand twinged painfully at the thought, and after a deep breath I pushed the shooting pain in my arm from my head. Hutchins, of course, thought the audible breath was about him nearly blinding me. Which wasn’t entirely incorrect, frankly.

“Sorry,” said Hutchins, as I tried to blink away the dancing phosphenes from my eyes. The floodlamps dimmed. “What did you ask?”

“What’s the dead guy’s name? I keep saying security officer or “the victim” in my head, and it’s starting to make me mad.”

“Did you not hear me? I told you that like 15 minutes ago. This guy’s name is Martin Stillwell. Tranquility Station Security Officer, Grade 3. 32 years old, married, no children. Been on the job for about 6 years.” I grunted, studying the frozen flesh of what had, until recently, been a decently attractive man. Straight nose, square jaw with a neatly trimmed beard, wide forehead, straw-blonde hair, deep-set blue eyes. Small scar at the corner of his left eye. Or, at least, the eyes had been blue. They were more reddish and glassier with a blue tint now. Petechial hemorrhage had taken away the robin’s egg quality of Martin’s eyes. It was while studying his eyes that I noted a contusion on the right side of his face. I leaned closer and saw the cracked glass at the top of his mostly removed helmet, a spider web impact pattern in the visor and barely visible frozen blood in the helmet itself.

“Bashed his head into the wall,” I said to myself. I ran my hand over the helmet, ignoring the way it bobbed in place, turning the cut neck seal into a cackling and chomping mouth, a pale white tongue of frozen flesh barely visible beneath it. I shivered and was saved from the hideous image by realizing the radio relay had been ripped right off of the helmet. We’d never find that. “Radio relay is gone too. Ripped it off during the attack.”

“What?” asked Hutchins, dimming his lights before circling around to look at me. I’ve always appreciated that about Hutchins. Never screws up the same way twice.

“The attacker bashed his head into the wall, hard enough to crack the helmet and abrade Martin’s head.” Which is no mean feat. It takes a lot a more power to smash someone’s head into a wall in space than it does within a gravity well, frictionless environment or not.

“Powered suit, you think?” Hutchins asked, pointing to something I missed: the helmet was visibly dented in on the left side. I could almost see individual finger impressions.

“Shit, I missed that. Good catch. Yeah. Yeah, he had to have a powered suit to do this. And not cheap shit like this, either,” I added, indicating the maintenance actuators on our borrowed suits. “Combat tech. Fully actualized movement enhancement. Our guy was wearing a war suit when he killed Martin.”

“How do you think it went down?” Hutchins asked, now beside me, studying Martin’s face, frozen in a look of permanent surprise and horror both literally and metaphorically. How had it gone down? That was a good question. The mechanics of the attack were self-explanatory. Stab, bash, cut hose, smash head into wall, cut helmet seal, rip of external radio gear somewhere during all of this. But why? It had something to do with the open access panel, I was sure of it. And why hadn’t the station’s decompression alarm triggered? There should have been way more people present for a hull-breach than just one guy. “Greer?” Hutchins asked again, and I realized I’d been standing there in total silence, not answering his question.

“Yeah. Ok. Sorry, Hutchins, I was just thinking. Uh.” I paused. “So, our guy, he stabs Martin twice.” I thrust my empty hand twice at the wounds, still professionally marveling at the precision of the strikes, while Hutchins watched my mime interestedly. “He cut the air hose and then the seal of the helmet. He…” Throws an elbow strike, trusting the actuators in his suit to do most of the work. I can almost feel the impact in my own elbow. I blink the sensation away. “Throws an elbow strike, disorienting him further. Martin’s magnetic boots keep him from toppling over. The attacker grabs the air hose in one hand and makes a loop. Slices it cleanly.” More specifically, according to the Null-Gravity Fleet Hand-to-Hand Field Manual, “…while gripping the tube in a loop, slice the tube with a swift upward strike. Rip the hose away from the helmet, before…” “—before he bashes Martin’s head into the wall with his off hand. Cuts the seal around the helmet, and then tries to rip it clean off after disengaging the clasp right here,” I finish, indicating the helmet lock, marked in the open position. Hutchins eyed the damage appraisingly.

“Thorough. Very thorough. Each one of those would have killed our security officer individually.”

“Which is the point,” I commented. “Our attacker has had some serious training. Textbook no gravity hand to hand kill.” 0 g hand to hand is terrible under the best of conditions. Simultaneously much easier and much harder than combat in a gravity well, but much more reliant on armor and sensors rather than instincts and balance. Martin, in his cheap maintenance rig, might as well have been an inanimate target to a dude in a war suit. I felt nausea churn in my stomach and took a settling breath. “See anything unusual on your side?”

“Yeah. His credentials are gone.” Hutchins held up Martin’s stiff right arm and showed me the slot in his vacuum suit where a missing personal assistance tablet had been removed. “Detached it.” That struck me as ominous, and I looked at my own wrist tablet, still idling away in standby mode. Mine rode on the inside of my left arm.

“Martin was a lefty,” I said, mostly to myself, moving to examine his left arm. There. Something I’d missed. A deep cut, up the forearm and into the bicep muscle at the top of his left arm. “He drew his weapon.”

“Yeah. SceneScan picked up two round impacts down the corridor a bit. Have you not turned your scanner on yet?” Hutchins demanded. I shook my head before realizing he couldn’t see me. Body language dies hard in outer space.

“No. I’ve told you before, Hutchins, machines break, and eyes don’t. I wanted to get a feel for what happened here before I resorted to cheating.”

“How is it cheating to use your tools you’re issued with?” demanded Hutchins. I ignored him. This was coming back around to the wiring again, so I studied it more carefully. Two of the wires had been stripped. It looked like someone had plugged something into the wiring, and then…what, been surprised? And why was this corridor open to hard vacuum in the first place? Why had only one person been sent out here to investigate decompression of a maintenance corridor? That part hadn’t made any sense the first time I thought of it, and it made less sense now. I turned and studied the man-sized removed panel, beyond which glimmered thousands of stars and, brighter and closer, the muddled greens, blues and reds of Aldrin, serenely spinning below us.

“Hutchins, I don’t think we’re getting a complete vision of events here,” I said, caving and activating my scanner, which immediately informed me the spliced wires within the open wall panel were for communications and video surveillance inside the station. Hutchins, watching and listening intently, didn’t interrupt my train of thought. “This is a lot more serious than a workplace altercation or whatever they said it was on the way up. I think we need to head back inside and talk to the security team.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

One of the many great joys of law enforcement, especially at a federal level, is jurisdictional conflicts. No matter how many which ways the ruling authorities back on Earth categorize our reach and influence, every time we respond to a scene, some variation on the scene playing out in front of me occurs. Hutchins, who is allegedly the senior agent between the two of us (though that usually doesn’t matter), was locked in a contest of wills with three officers from the Tranquility Station Security team as well as the ambiguously named “Director of Personnel Affairs”, a vaguely ethnic looking woman in her mid-thirties, who as-yet hadn’t said a damned word.

The argument wasn’t going anywhere productive. This is what they call in negotiations training “an impasse”. On the one hand, Hutchins and I want the station command to call in a security alert, lock down the station, and call in the military for backup so we can find this goon before he does…well, whatever he came here to do. On the other hand, we have the director—who’s name I didn’t catch—and the security teams, who want to do exactly none of that, because doing so will admit they can’t control the station and will impact profit margins. I asked Hutchins, on the way to this impromptu meeting outside the airlock, why we didn’t just order them to lock the station down. As it turns out, according to Hutchins, the reason why we can’t do that is that it isn’t exactly clear who’s responsible for Tranquility Station, or the homicide. Let me explain.

From what I’ve been able to determine, the issue goes something like this. Tranquility Station was predominantly built by the same corporation that initially owned Aldrin. However, that corporation no longer owns Aldrin, and Aldrin is a UCS territory. This specific station doesn’t have the resources or professional investigators to investigate a murder. So, they call their parent corporation, who told them it wasn’t sending people out over “one dead guy”, and told Tranquility Station to take it up with Aldrin. The Aldrin Planetary Authority said that it wasn’t a matter of planetary security and invoked the Karman Line principle: investigations would be under the purview of the nearest settlement on the ground within eighty-five miles of the station that had participated in the construction of said station, which would be De Gama, the capital. However, De Gama says the Tranquility Station is eighty-six miles from the ground, making this a crime that took place in a shipping lane with a “real and tangible threat to system security and economic traffic.” Yeah, bullshit. That’s government speak for “pawn this off on the feds, we have better things to do.” So, sometime in the last two days while this was getting sorted out, Wheeler—my boss—was told in no uncertain terms that this was Intersystem Special Investigation Bureau issue, and that the military wasn’t dispatching a destroyer to Aldrin over “one dead dude.” Wheeler told them he didn’t have the agents to spare on a milk run up to Tranquility Station. The fleet, very sympathetically, told him to “fucking figure it out” and hung up on him. So here we are. We, being myself and Hutchins. We don’t want to be here. The station doesn’t want us here. The security team doesn’t want us here. This is how I know this course of action is a great compromise from the powers that be: no one is happy with it.

“—I don’t want to be up here, neither does Greer,” Hutchins said, indicating me with a wave of his left hand. “We don’t like K-Line investigations any more than you do. You guys said you had a murder, you said you didn’t have the personnel to investigate it, so you asked Aldrin to send up personnel to help out. Which it did. That’s us. So, what’s the issue here?”

“The issue is that we wanted De Gama PD, not the Feds,” the Director said, speaking finally. “I have no desire to report to my superiors that I have federal agents tromping all over my station, causing an uproar—”

“How are we causing an uproar?” Hutchins demanded. “We just asked what the timeline of events was leading up to you calling us. We’re not here with two battalions of jack-booted thugs, it’s just us. Lady, look, we worked a full day before we flew up here. I don’t give a shit what kind of weird garbage you people get up to up here, I’ve got 30 cases on my desk alone. Listen to me: I need you to do a station wide identification check, your security officer’s credentials are missing and we—”

“Oh, so we’re not important to almighty Aldrin down below us?” the Director screeched. “Forget the tourist revenue and the taxes we pay you! Never mind the entertainment and shipping and receiving we—”

“You need to get on top of this,” Hutchins insisted, emphatically smacking one hand into the other as he spoke. “You’ve got what we believe to be a trained operative loose on your station based on the evidence that my partner and I collected, it’s highly probable that he entered Tranquility Station from the exterior not a shuttle or a vessel—”

“Look I’m real sorry about the dead guy, but I’m not going to pull the fucking fire alarm over one maybe murdered security officer, ok? Maybe it was some kind of grudge or an internal dispute with the maintenance team or—”

“A dispute with the maintenance team? Do you have a lot of trained killers on your maintenance team? Greer, do something, this is a fucking joke—"

I whistled loudly.

“Hey!” I shouted. Everyone stopped talking, including the people traversing the chaotically loud and smelly circular walkway around the base of the entertainment spire. Tranquility might not have been the largest station in orbit around Aldrin—that was Vertigo—but it was a strong contender for second place. I read in a guide once that millions of tourists visited Tranquility a year and looking around me at the teeming masses of humanity, I’d believe it. Tranquility was for the wilder crowd than Vertigo, and its brothels, casinos, virtual reality simulations, drugs, and markets of dubious legality made it a fan favorite among travelers from multiple locations across any of the Jump Lanes coming in and out of the system. Their insatiable need for stimulation had largely kept the onlookers from paying too close of attention to arguing law enforcement and bureaucrats, but the whistle had perked them up. I gave the crowd an irritated wave, and the few curious faces disappeared into the throng moving along the corridor under a barrage of neon lights and booming voices.

“You can talk to us, or you can talk to the UCS. I don’t care what they told my boss, they one hundred percent have a battlegroup in the area. Do you want me to drag the fleet over here and make it their problem?” I demanded. The Director said something indistinct. “What was that? Speak up.”

“I said ‘no, I’m sure we can work this out.’,” the Director said mutinously.

“Phenomenal, thank you”, said Hutchins. “Now, when did Officer Stillwell disappear?” “Who?” asked the Director. Hutchins snorted and station security looked murderous.

“Your dead guy, lady. Your missing officer?” Hutchins asked, incredulous. The Director, whatever her name was, at least had the good grace to be embarrassed.

“Um…probably two or three days ago?” She thrummed her fingers on her arm, eyes glazed over and flickering with images. Looking through files on her eyes, I imagine. They looked expensive. Indistinguishable from the real thing. The eyes, I mean. “Didn’t…didn’t the maintenance team brief you on this?” she asked, one eye clear, and the other full of dancing colors. Now it was security’s turn to look nervous and embarrassed. Something clicked into place. They hadn’t just sent one guy to investigate the hull breach, had they. They’d sent a team.

“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said, singling out the nearest and most senior of the officers. He avoided eye contact with me. A sergeant. 45 years old, 60 pounds overweight, balding. Uniform was sloppy. Something about his appearance made the rest of the pieces come tumbling into place. These were low effort guys. They were more concerned with paychecks than doing the right thing. “You motherfucker.”

“What? What? What’s happening?” asked the Director, sounding panicky.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” I asked still staring down the sergeant.

“Monique.”

“Monique. This asshole and his friends cooked the reports you were reading. How many people did you send outside to investigate the station breach? Huh? How many? Three? Five?” I invaded his personal space. He looked pale and shaky.

“Five.”

“You sent five people out, and we’ve only found one. Where the hell is the maintenance team?” I demanded.

“Missing,” the sergeant said, very quietly.

“Missing?” Monique asked, apparently aghast.

“They’re not missing, they’re dead,” I told Monique, still staring at the sergeant. “Your murderer spaced them. I have no idea why he didn’t space your security officer, too.”

“Spaced?” asked Monique. “I don’t—what does that mean?” Hutchins rolled his eyes, but I didn’t. In her defense, contextually, spaced means different things. I didn’t ding her for that one.

“Demagnetized their boots and turned their thrusters on. Dumped their bodies towards the planet. Monique, tell the AI to issue a Foreign Bodies in the Planetary Travel Lane Advisory. The only thing I can’t figure out is why he didn’t do the same thing to Stillwell.” I tapped my foot on the ground, staring daggers into the fat sergeant. “Why didn’t you send out a station wide alert when they failed to check in? Oh.” I forestalled a pair of open mouths, the image of the spliced wires and open bulkhead electronics compartment fresh in my mind, along with the frozen flesh of dead man. I rubbed the bridge of my slightly crooked nose and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach.

“Let me guess. Your communications and sensors were glitchy yesterday, right? Communication was real spotty, errors with identifications swiping in, right? A system wide malfunction?” The sergeant groaned. “Oh yeah, motherfucker. You got hacked. Your murderers uploaded a virus into your mainframe. Is that good enough to pull the fire alarm, Madam Director?” Monique sighed by way of answer and turned away from the group. I could barely hear her speaking into her earpiece a few steps away. I heard “scan for missing” and a few serial numbers, then she stepped closer to the crowd, and I heard nothing else.

Murderers, not murderer. Five dead changed the scope of the investigation considerably. That probably would rate a full forensics team and support from the next planet over. It also changed the portrait of events. It was still possible that one operative killed all five people, somewhere out on the surface of Tranquility Station, but I was betting on it being a duo, maybe even a trio. What concerns me more is guys in powered suits would have stood out like a sore thumb, literally. They’d be seven-plus feet tall in those things. And even if they weren’t tall, war suits are immediately recognizable even by people who’ve never held guns. That would have triggered the station alarm for sure.

No, something more subtle happened here. The killing of the maintenance team shortened the timeline, made them act faster than they would have otherwise. I had to wonder about that. Why didn’t they just disable the alarms ahead of time? Why all the racket? There was a missing piece here. While Hutchins tore into the security team and the Monique the Director ordered the station into lockdown until an investigation could be completed, I wondered. I wondered why they hadn’t spaced poor Martin Stillwell along with the maintenance team, and what the point of leaving one dead guy in that corridor had been. I, of course, had no answers on that score. So, I sat there on a bench and watched the recording of the body on my wrist tablet. And waited. And wondered.

******

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Edmond Morell

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