by Rik Hunik
Joshua bounced up the two concrete steps and pulled open the door to the office of the seedy motel. “This is my first locked-room murder,” he said, holding the door.
“Mine too,” Frank growled at his rookie partner as he stepped past him into a dingy office that could have been transplanted from any other cheap motel.
“Really? After all your years as a detective?”
“Yeah. They don’t happen very often in real life.” And any kind of murder first thing on Monday morning was not something he could get enthusiastic about.
Frank’s eyes zeroed in on the motel manager sitting behind the counter. “You found the body?”
The little brown man bounced to his feet and stood nodding enthusiastically for a couple of seconds. “Yes, yes. He did not respond to the knocking of the maid so she contacted the front desk.” The sing-song rhythm of his accent annoyed Frank. “I tried calling him on the phone. He did not answer so I went with the pass key, but he had the chain on the door, so I got my bolt cutter and cut the chain.”
“You keep a bolt cutter handy?”
“Yes, a small one, and a supply of replacement chain. People have tried before to lock themselves in my rooms, just never a dead person.”
“How did you know he was dead?”
The manager looked at the detective like he was slow. “The same way you’ll know. I poked my head in and saw blood on the walls and furniture and him there on the floor beside the bed. I assumed he was dead from the size of the wound on his neck and the amount of blood everywhere.”
Frank studied the man for a few seconds. There was something he wasn’t saying, but he didn’t flinch under the detective’s steady gaze.
Joshua said, “What time did he check in?”
The manager riffled through a box of file cards, extracted one. “About ten o’clock. He used the name John Smith and he had a woman with him, a bleached blonde with big blue eyes, a tank top, a short skirt, and long legs. You know the type. She had a tattoo of a pot leaf on her left arm.”
Frank and Joshua exchanged a glance. Joshua said, “That sounds like Yvonne.”
“Yeah.” Frank turned back to the manager. “Do you know what time she left?”
“Some time before midnight.”
“How many security cameras do you have outside?”
“Just one, over the door.” He flicked one finger up to point.
“We’ll need to see the footage.”
“Of course.” He knew the routine.
When Frank and Joshua stepped outside again the morning sun seemed brighter than before, the sky a more brilliant blue. They crossed the cracked, gray asphalt of the parking lot to talk to the cop who had secured the scene.
The cop, standing guard in front of the orange door marked “105”, looked like he wasn’t going to let anybody past, but when he saw the detectives approaching he relaxed a bit. Without being prompted he said, “The victim was the only occupant. I entered to check the bathroom, which was empty. The window was latched from the inside, as was the sliding window in the front.”
He opened the door for the detectives and backed away three hasty steps.
Must be pretty gruesome, Frank thought, pushing the door open wide to look inside at a typical cheap motel room, lit by the sunlight streaming through the door and by a lamp on a bedside table. The body, dressed only in black briefs, lay crumpled beside the bed, almost at Frank’s feet.
There was indeed no doubt that the man was dead and Frank could see what the manager meant about the size of the wound on his neck; it had gone all the way through and the head was in the corner, a couple of feet away from the stump.
Frank stepped in to get a better look at the cramped room. Blood was spattered on the furniture, the bedding, all four walls and the ceiling, radiating from a point above the corpse.
Joshua poked his rather prominent nose in. “I don’t see a murder weapon.”
Frank moved to let his partner in and briefly got down on one knee to look under the bed. “Neither do I, but the forensic team might turn something up.”
Joshua watched his step even more fastidiously than Frank. Frank couldn’t fault the young man’s dedication to his job, or his immaculate appearance and expensive suit, but at times like this Frank felt more comfortable in his own, less expensive, somewhat worn suit.
“Looks like arterial spray,” Joshua said as he pushed the door almost closed with the tip of a pen. “It goes right across the door and there’s blood on the chain, but none behind where it was hanging before the manager cut it.”
Frank’s frown deepened his crow’s feet. “I’d say he was standing right where he is when he got killed, but even with a weapon I don’t think a wound like that could be self-inflicted.”
“It looks to me like he heard a noise and got out of bed to see what it was just before he was attacked.”
“From where? With what?”
Joshua did a slow turn, surveying the entire room. “I see your point. It’s a locked room, there’s no murder weapon, and there’s no void where his killer could have been standing. How did that happen?”
“Damned if I know. Maybe forensics can make sense of it. Let’s check out Yvonne. Doesn’t she have an apartment over on 10th Street?”
“Yeah, in the Vista Manors.”
When they got to Yvonne’s apartment she and her roommate were both asleep. When questioned, they claimed they were both home by one o’clock that morning. Yvonne said John Smith had invited her to his room for a few drinks, she admitted to having sex with him, denied that she had charged him for it, and insisted he was very much alive when she left. She was the only suspect they had but there was no evidence against her.
In the elevator on the way down he got a call from the Medical Examiner who told him the time of death had been around five o’clock in the morning, long after Yvonne claimed she’d left. She was cleared of all suspicion when he called the lab and was told that the motel surveillance showed her leaving just as she’d said. The victim himself could be seen closing the door and the door had remained closed until the manager cut the chain.
Frank still had his cell phone in his hand when the chief called to tell him about another murder committed with the same mysterious MO.
Back at the station, Frank and Joshua were directed to the video room where they found Detective Sharon Reese, a short-haired blonde in a charcoal gray pantsuit. She wasted no time. “The victim’s name is Rita Blaze. She was the janitor in a real-estate office. She would come in at six, work for a few hours and have the office ready to open at nine. We got the call at eight-forty, when the first agent showed up for work. We got some pertinent footage from a surveillance camera pointing down the hall.”
“Lucky for us,” Frank said.
Sharon winced. “Not exactly. It pinpointed the time of death at eight o’clock and recorded the entire murder, but it doesn’t really help us. You’ll see.” She nodded to the technician, who pushed a button.
On screen Frank saw an interior view of the front entrance. To one side of the typical glass door was a high counter, on the other side a pair of gray metal desks with computers. The aisle between them led to a hallway with wooden doors to offices on both sides. A wheeled bucket emerged from the furthest door, propelled by a mop in the hands of a stocky, dirty blonde woman. She took three steps toward the camera, stopped, squinted and craned her head forward. Her eyes went wide, then she threw the mop toward the camera and started to turn away but her head suddenly flew off her shoulders, blood spurting from the neck stump.
“Well, that does help,” Frank said dryly. “It rules out anything I can explain.” He leaned closer to the screen. “Play it again.”
The technician complied. As the janitor threw the mop, Frank said, “Freeze that. Now frame by frame.” Everybody gathered closer to the screen. In jerky, ultra-slow motion, the terror stricken woman turned to flee. “Stop there. See that?” He pointed to the woman’s neck.
The technician enlarged the image. A cut, about an inch long, was plain to see. He pushed the button and the picture jumped to the next frame, which showed the neck cut nearly all the way through. In the next frame the head was completely severed from the body.
“What do you make of that?” Frank said, pointing just past the neck at some red smears.
“Freaky,” Joshua said, loosening his tie. “It looks like blood stuck to an invisible blade. Let’s see the next frame.”
The image jumped and the head was separated from the body. There was no trace of any blade, invisible or otherwise. The three detectives all looked back and forth at each other. Frank thought they had to be thinking the same thing he was, but he didn’t want to be the first to suggest any supernatural agent. He cleared his throat and said, “Any sign of a murder weapon at the scene?”
Sharon shook her head. “Nothing at all. What have you got on the first decapitation?”
“Not much. Something sharp cut off his head.”
Frank’s phone rang. It was the chief. There had been a third decapitation, right out in public, in a convenience store less than two blocks from the police station. The killer was pushing it up a level, only hours from the start of his spree.
“Three murders before lunch must be some kind of record,” Joshua said as he parked the car in the convenience store parking lot, beside Sharon’s red sports car, with Sharon beside it.
“It’s a record for me,” Frank said with a grunt as he climbed out of the car. He headed for the door of the store. Joshua and Sharon fell into step beside him.
The store was already cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. The officer in charge said, “A few witnesses managed to slip away but there’s half a dozen still here. I haven’t had a chance to talk to any of them, other than telling them not to leave.”
“Good job,” Frank said. “We’ll handle it from here.”
While Sharon started to deal with the witnesses Frank, with Joshua following him, went in to take a look at the body, a young man in sweatshirt and jeans. As far as he could tell, the pattern was the same as that of the other two murders. Odds were forensics would confirm that. He looked up and saw that the surveillance camera over the door was pointed down the aisle in front of the counter but he had a feeling the footage wouldn’t help much.
Joshua said, “This isn’t a locked-room murder like the other two, but the victim was killed the same way and there is a video camera. It makes me wonder, what’s the connection between these three people?”
“Yeah, me too. Let’s find out what the eye witnesses have to say. There’s two each.”
Frank’s first witness was a thin young man not long out of his teens, who ran a nervous hand through his hair before talking. “I didn’t see nothin’ man. I was in the second last aisle. One second the dude was standing there in line, five feet away from me. The next second his head is rolling at my feet and there’s blood spurting out of his neck, spraying everything, including me.” He looked down in distaste at his clothes.
Frank took a good look at the blood spatter on the youth’s t-shirt. It was consistent with his story. “Who did it?”
“Nobody did. There was nobody behind him and the guy in front of him had his back turned and his hands were full and he didn’t move.”
“You had to see something. Think.”
The kid shook his head.
“Concentrate. Relive it in slow motion, a step at a time.”
The kid complied, his eyes rolling with the effort.
Frank leaned close. In a voice barely above a whisper he said, “I don’t care how crazy it might sound, tell me what you saw. I want to hear about it.”
Maybe the intensity in Frank’s eyes jarred the kid’s memory, or scared him into talking, almost babbling. “The shadow that walked like a man. It looked like a man in a black hood, but I could see right through it, like it was smoke. It waved its arms and something flashed and the guy’s head came off.”
“Flashed? Like a light?”
“No, a reflection, from shiny metal, moving really fast, and it must have been sharp.”
The kid shook his head.
“A sword? An ax?”
The kid kept shaking his head. “I don’t know what it was, but its arms didn’t move right for any of those.”
“This shadow, where did it go?”
“I don’t know. To the back of the store, I guess. I was too busy staring at the head on the floor to notice.”
If Frank hadn’t seen the video from the real estate office he would have dismissed the kid’s story about a mysterious shadow figure, but even if he took it at face value it still didn’t explain how those people had died. He wasn’t a superstitious man but this was starting to look downright weird.
He wondered if Joshua or Sharon were toying with such speculations, and what they might think if he brought up the subject. Or how he should react if one of them brought up the subject.
He dismissed the kid and moved on to one of the cashiers, a teenaged girl with short, straight hair dyed black, and a tiny diamond stud on the side of her nose.
“I just handed an old woman her change when I felt a chill and looked up to see this guy in a long black coat walk past. He reached out and chopped off that guy’s head and kept walking, right out the back of the store.”
“Out the back door?” Frank asked, trying to picture the layout in his head.
“No. He kept walking straight, and he walked right through the back wall.” She glared at him, daring him to doubt the veracity of her word.
Frank nodded as if he’d expected to hear exactly that, and wrote it down in his notebook. In a matter-of-fact tone he carried on. “Can you describe the assailant?”
She relaxed and shook her head. “Sorry. I only saw him from the side and behind and he was wearing a hood.”
He jotted that down and closed his notebook. “Thanks, you’ve been a big help. If you can think of anything more that might help, just call.” He gave her his card and went to compare notes with the others.
Sharon grumbled. “The two I talked to didn’t see anything, and I’m willing to bet the video recording shows the same thing.”
“Yeah, the same nothing we saw kill the janitor. What do you make of this?” Frank described what his witnesses had seen.
“That jibes with what this witness said.” Joshua flipped open his notebook and read, “‘I felt a chill. When I looked up into that hood and saw a skull I thought I was going to die. I faced Death himself, complete with skeleton hands and scythe.’”
Sharon scowled. “That’s just crazy. There has to be a rational explanation.”
Joshua looked grim and nodded.
Frank said, “The murders are coming close together, so if there is a rational explanation we better hurry up and find it, because I’m just about ready to accept an irrational one.”
Sharon gave him a strange look, one he couldn’t interpret as agreement or derision.
Joshua said, “When the news gets out the public will provide plenty of irrational explanations.”
Just then Frank saw a familiar face emerge from a store across the street. He dashed across the street through the traffic backed up by a red light, grabbed the man by the arm and spun him around. The face registered surprise but yes, it was the same face, right down to the mole over the right eyebrow, a face he had last seen looking up from a corner in a cheap motel room. The eyes, definitely alive, darted right and left, looking for help. “Wh-what do you want?”
Frank flashed his badge and released the man’s arm. ”I’m not going to hurt you, Mr. Smith. I just want to ask you a few questions.”
The man relaxed a little but his face wrinkled in confusion. “I’m afraid you have the wrong man. I’m Al Jones.” He handed Frank his ID and Frank examined it closely. As far as he could tell it was genuine and the man seemed perfectly normal, but if this wasn’t the man who had died in the motel room it was his twin, even if the names were different. He held onto the ID.
“Maybe you’re right, Mr. Jones. If I have the wrong man, I apologize, but this involves multiple murders and I’m not letting you walk away until I get a DNA sample.”
The man glared at Frank. Frank didn’t blink. After three seconds the man spat on the sidewalk a couple of inches in front of Frank’s shoe. “There’s your sample. You have my address. If you need me, you know where to find me.” He grabbed his ID, straightened his coat, and huffed off.
Frank frowned after him. Something wasn’t right.
Joshua came up beside him. “Am I losing it or was that the John Smith who had his head cut off this morning?”
“His ID says his name is Albert Jones and his head is still attached, but you better follow him, make sure he’s on the level. I have to get this sample to the lab and I want to take a closer look at Mr. Smith’s credentials.”
“Right.” Joshua hurried after the man.
Frank watched his awkward gait and shook his head. On anybody else that expensive suit would look a whole lot better.
Frank’s phone rang. He flipped it open and said, “Hello.”
“Now that you got rid of your appendage I can help you.” The voice was rough, like a man’s, but still sounded like a woman, an old one.
Frank suppressed a chuckle. Even if he appreciated the old joke about inept rookie partners he didn’t have to let her know. ”Who are you and how did you know I just ditched my partner?” He automatically scanned his surroundings for someone talking on a phone. He saw no one, but there were lots of windows looking down on the street.
“I’m a concerned citizen who knows things.” To Frank her chuckle sounded like a cackle. “I have some information you can’t get anywhere else, but I had to make sure you came alone.”
Despite his curiosity he didn’t like being manipulated. “I’m sorry; I can’t waste my time on crackpots.”
“It’s about the decapitations. I know what’s doing it. And I know that you, personally, are in great danger. I also know how to stop it. Are you interested?”
She sounded more like a crackpot than ever, but she had used the plural. Only the latest killing had happened in front of witnesses, so how could she know about the other two decapitations? At this point in this impossible case Frank was ready to consider any lead. And there was the mention of personal danger, which always got his attention.
“Yeah, I’m interested.” He got her name and address, then crossed the street at the light to get the car. He told Sharon what Joshua was doing and said he had to follow a lead.
“Good luck with that,” she said as he got into the car, “it’s the only lead we have.”
The woman’s apartment was in the basement level of an old fourplex. She opened the door to her apartment while he was still on the stairs. Frizzy gray hair framed a brown, wrinkled face. Bright blue eyes watched him intently as she gestured impatiently for him to hurry.
“Come in, come in.” She sounded even worse in real life, and the stink of cigarette smoke that assailed his nose told him why. There was another disturbing smell under that, but he couldn’t identify it. She shooed him down a short hall and sat him at a cheap little dining room table. He turned to keep facing her as she scuttled around the table and sat down.
She grinned at him, her obviously false teeth unnaturally white against her dark skin. Her bright eyes fastened on him until he squirmed. “You are in grave danger.”
Frank snorted. “I’m a cop. So tell me something I don’t know.” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, and her mouth wrinkled a bit more. “Your tough act won’t help you when you face what killed those four people.”
“Four? I only know about three.”
“You’ll find out about the fourth soon enough. And it will kill a lot more people if you don’t stop it,” she said, pointing a bony finger right at him.
“Me? What makes me so special?”
She shrugged. “Maybe nothing. Maybe you just happened to be at the center at the right time. Maybe it’s your destiny. You are the focus, the crux, the key. The outcome depends on what you do.”
Frank sensed that she wasn’t saying that just because it was his case, but it seemed unfair to place such a heavy burden on his shoulders. “So what can I do against an invisible, insubstantial killer?”
“Nothing at all if you do not protect yourself first.” She coughed into her hand, then used her other hand to spread five pieces of paper on the table. Each had been torn from a larger sheet, and each contained a symbol that, on closer examination proved to be a complex, inked diagram. “I’m not sure exactly what you’re up against but these symbols should protect you.”
“Should protect me? That’s not very reassuring.”
She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. He thought he had pushed her too far, but after a few seconds she continued. “These symbols are your only chance of survival. Do not be separated from them. If you carry them with you they might help, if you display them they’ll be much more potent, but if you put them aside they cannot help and you will be vulnerable.”
“How do you know all this?”
She smiled and shrugged. “I’m not sure. Mostly from dreams that feel like memories that haven’t happened yet, or maybe they happened somewhere else already. The details change and it’s confusing, but they all have these symbols in common. Run off copies. Give them to all your coworkers. They will soon be in danger too.”
“That’ll be a hard sell.” He was far from convinced himself.
“They will be skeptical at first, but all of your lives depend on carrying and displaying these symbols. Make lots of copies, be sure you’re ready when they change their minds and come asking. Nobody has paid any attention to the ad I’ve had in the newspaper for the past week, but when people start dying just a few minutes apart the survivors will be scrambling for them.” Her blue eyes burned him with their cold fire. “Only people with these diagrams will survive.”
Still far from convinced, Frank reached out, gathered the papers and put them in his coat pocket. “Okay, I’ll make copies, and I’ll carry them around, but I’m not going to push them too hard yet.”
She shrugged and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “That’s your choice, but remember, their deaths will be on your shoulders.”
“You still haven’t told me what this thing is, or how to kill it.”
“I told you I don’t know what it is, and you can’t kill it.” She expertly extracted a cigarette from the pack. “All you can do is defeat it by making sure every person in the entire city is protected by those diagrams. When everybody is protected it will have nobody to kill and it will go away.” She lit her cigarette and blew a plume of smoke out the side of her mouth.
Frank got up to leave. “Thanks for your help.” He found his own way out.
Before Frank could start the car his phone rang. “Another decapitated body has been found,” Joshua told him. “It’s been dead an hour or two. Me and Sharon are heading there now.”
“Okay. Do you need me?”
“No, the two of us can handle it. We know what to look for.”
“Good. I’m heading back to the station to start on the paperwork and set up a room where we can coordinate our efforts.” After a brief pause he added, “And I have some copying to do.”
Back in the familiar confines of his little office, Frank sighed and took off his coat, hanging it on the hook on the back of the door. As he crossed the room to his desk, a draft chilled his back. He spun around and saw a tall shadow forming about six feet in front of him. No, not a shadow, a figure, a man in a hooded black cloak, like the eyewitnesses in the convenience store claimed they had seen.
Frank realized his error; the witch’s diagrams were still in his coat pocket, he wasn’t carrying them anymore. While he was still considering his chances of retrieving the diagrams, the figure moved, too fast for him to react. Under the hood a skull laughed silently at him, bony hands reached out, the blade of the scythe flashed, and Frank heard it more than he felt it as the blade chopped through his neck.
He saw his own arterial spray passing through his insubstantial killer. He felt vertigo as his head fell, tilting sideways, but virtually no pain until he bounced on his ear, which felt like somebody kicking him.
It wasn’t fair. He had no breath so couldn’t even curse as his consciousness faded.
Fade to black.
Fade to white. Bright white.
The light stung his eyes. He slammed them shut and turned his head away.
A cool hand touched his forehead and a woman’s voice said, “I’m Marie, I’m the doctor.”
Frank opened his eyes and focused on an Asian woman in a white smock. “Doctor? Is this a hospital?” But how could he be in a hospital? Had they sewed his head back on?
“No, you’re in the crew defrost unit on the colony cryoship Tranquility. You’ve just been pulled out of cryosim.”
It all came back to him now. Cryosims were used to maintain sanity in the sleepers because cryosleep didn’t completely shut down the brain. While in the simulation sleepers were under a post-hypnotic suggestion not to question the reality of their situation too closely. When awakened, most people only remembered the simulation as a dream, but he was a security officer, with special training, so it was different for him.
He had a job to do.
He sat up on the narrow bed, and swayed as the little gray room did a couple of laps around his head.
The doctor caught him by the shoulder, steadying him. “Careful there, big boy, coming out of cold sleep is tough at the best of times and we rushed you as much as we dared.”
He took a few deep breaths and the dizziness passed. He wore a standard-issue light gray t-shirt and shorts but the air was comfortably warm. “I’m okay. What’s the crisis?”
“As you know, people in cryosim are dying. Our best guess is that some sort of virus, which manifests as beheading in the cryosim, has invaded the system, but we have no idea how. The big problem is, when they die in the simulation their bodies die. You would have been the sixth if I hadn’t pulled you out at the last second.”
“At the last second?” Frank rubbed his neck. “I think several seconds earlier would have been nice. My damned head was already cut off and bouncing across the floor. That hurt.”
“Getting your head cut off?”
“No. Bouncing across the floor. But never mind that.” He rubbed his right ear and did some calculations. “Cryosim time is one tenth of ship rate. Why wasn’t I awakened earlier?”
“It wasn’t until the second murder that we knew it was more than an isolated anomaly. That’s when I started awakening your predecessor. You were left in the simulation, to give you a chance to solve it there.”
“Well I didn’t. I saw the damned killer right in front of me as it cut off my head but I still don’t know what it is. So what happened to my predecessor?”
“He was three-quarters thawed when he became victim number five in the cryosim, so we started awakening you, and the next in line. She’ll be a few more hours because we didn’t push her awakening as hard as we did yours. We didn’t want to risk losing both of you.”
That didn’t mean he was more expendable, just that he was next in line for the job, Frank thought. Being expendable didn’t bother him because he knew it was part of the job when he signed up way back on Earth.
“There’s a security center across the corridor. I’ll get you some food. You’ll be hungry as soon as your stomach settles. Kira, the on-duty security officer, will join you in a few minutes.”
Frank found a pair of soft-soled shoes at the foot of the bed, put them on and crossed the corridor to the security center. The far wall above a row of computer terminals was covered with video screens. On one side were some cupboards and a glass-fronted beverage cooler.
Even though a quarter of an hour of conscious time ago he thought he was a detective in a small city on Earth in the early twenty-first century, now that he was awake he slipped back into reality, ready to do his job.
Now if only he could figure out what to do.
He sat down at a terminal and checked the status of the cryosim. Since he had exited another decapitation had occurred. In cryosim time that was only a few minutes. Half a dozen deaths was only a small percentage of the thousands of colonists but the situation showed signs of escalating into wholesale slaughter.
Maybe he should have taken the witch more seriously and made a greater effort to copy and distribute those diagrams, to make the public aware of them. He had a lot of questions for her about where she got the diagrams and how she knew what she did, but no way to ask them.
She was as much of an anomaly as the invisible killer.
He downloaded the diagrams and printed up a couple of copies of each. He called up the occult section of the library and tried to analyze the diagrams, but didn’t get very far before Marie returned with a tray of sandwiches in plastic wrap. A tall, thin, blonde woman, looking good in her gray shorts and t-shirt, pushed in right behind her, stabbed the button that closed the door, then punched in a code. A red light came on indicating that the door was locked.
“Hi, I’m Kira. We have a new crisis.” He turned his head to watch her stride across the room. She reached over his shoulder to poke the touchscreen. “Check this out. It just happened.”
A view from a security camera showed Frank the side of a man dressed in gray t-shirt and shorts like himself, the clothing a couple of shades darker than the walls of the corridor. The door in front of the man opened. The man took one step and recoiled, about to backpedal, then his head separated from his shoulders and bounced to the floor while his body flew into the room. Kira came into view on screen as she pounced on the door control and punched a code. The door slid shut and the red light came on.
From right beside him she said, “I have absolutely no idea what did that to Walter but I trapped it in his room.”
“Maybe,” Frank said, “but if it’s the same thing as in the sim the walls won’t stop it.”
“How could a simulation get out here?”
Frank shrugged. “How did it get in? You’re lucky it didn’t turn on you. But I want everybody that’s awake now to get in here on the double, and any off-duty crew members that are sleeping should be warned to lock themselves in.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Kira said. She moved away and Frank heard her speaking into the PA.
He hit replay and slowed the motion to a crawl during the decapitation. The cut was ragged and came from both sides, like a giant pair of dull scissors, which was different than the decapitations in the cryosim.
He played it again but still couldn’t see what did the cutting, so he played it in infrared, which made the arterial spray look like fireworks, but didn’t help him much. Some of the blood spattered on and around something still invisible, but not enough to define the shape. At least this thing wasn’t immaterial like the killer in the cryosim. If they kept the doors locked they might be safe long enough to figure out how to deal with it.
He switched to ultraviolet and started the playback in slow motion from the point when the door started to open. He got a jolt of déjà vu when he thought he saw a man step out of the room, a skull-faced man in a hood, death personified, who had already cut his head off once today, but that semblance only lasted a couple of frames.
Whatever the thing was it radiated in ultraviolet. Intense blue highlights outlined an insectile frame; its two forelimbs waving pincers like distorted crab claws. The chitinous head looked only vaguely like a skull when he froze the image in mid cut. Definitely not a scythe, and not scissors either, though it did resemble them.
Kira sat down at the next terminal and poked at the screen.
Frank turned away from the gruesome scene on his screen to look at her display. She had pulled up the view from the camera just outside their door, showing a swarthy man with hairy arms and legs approaching at a fast walk. Kira punched a button to open the door just as he reached it, and closed it behind him the instant he was inside.
“Hey Nick,” she said, “where’s Francis?”
“She was in the shop, using power tools. She may not have heard.”
“Down in the cryotubes doing a routine check.”
“Anybody else?” Frank asked.
Kira shook her head. “This is the night shift and there isn’t a lot to do on a flight like this. We all do multiple jobs so the live crew is small. I’ll find Francis, you try to locate Alphonse.”
Frank turned back to his own terminal and called up the menu for the surveillance cameras in the cryohold. There were far too many for him to check, so he narrowed the field by activating the motion detector. Only one camera came up. He put the view on the screen in front of him and found himself looking at a man who might have been Nick’s brother.
He turned on the PA for that area and said, “Alphonse, you are in danger. A crew member has been killed by an invisible alien.”
If their places had been reversed Frank might have had a hard time believing a line like that, but Alphonse said, “I thought I heard something, like I was being followed, but I couldn’t see anything.”
“It will cut off your head before you see it, but we can see it on camera in ultraviolet. I’ll be your eyes until you can get to safety.” Frank turned on the ultraviolet receptors and overlaid the view onto the visible light view of every camera in the ship. There were probably dead zones not covered by camera, but if the alien passed in front of any camera the view from that camera would automatically come up on one of his screens.
“Okay, Alphonse, the coast is clear to the elevator.”
Alphonse started walking rapidly toward the elevator, his eyes wide, his ears cocked, his head jerking back and forth. He reacted to something he heard a split second before Frank saw the flash of blue highlight on his screen. Alphonse ducked and brought his left arm up to block, but it got sheared off just below the elbow. Before he had a chance to scream, the other claw lashed out and severed his neck.
On her monitor Kira was bringing Francis in. “Okay Francis, we have the creature spotted in the cryohold, three levels down. Our corridor is clear. You’re only twenty yards away. If you hurry you can make it to us now.”
“Right, I’m coming in.”
Frank said, “What if there’s more than one? If it hasn’t moved since I turned on the ultraviolet receptors, it could ambush her.”
“Even if it’s not moving it will still show up on screen. We just have to look through the right camera to see it. And see for yourself, the corridor outside our door is clear.”
At that instant Francis appeared, running toward the camera. Kira poised, ready to open the door but a door closer to Francis opened first and an alien sprang out at her. She reacted to the door opening and somehow managed to avoid the claws she couldn’t even see, but the body of the creature slammed into her and smashed her against the opposite wall, then the pincers cut her body to pieces before it hit the deck.
“What do we have for weapons?” Frank asked.
Marie said, “All we can reach from here is a pair of low velocity pistols, each with two clips of soft-tipped ammo. You’re head of security so only you can open the locker, but even you need to be seconded by another crew member.”
“Where are they?” Frank asked.
“Right over here.”
Frank hurried to the locker the doctor indicated, punched in a four-digit code and pressed his thumb to the pad. Marie pressed the pad with her thumb and door clicked open. He spotted the pair of pistols in shoulder holsters, grabbed them, and handed one to Marie.
Across the room, Nick paced back and forth.
“Damn it,” Kira said, her fingers flying over the touchscreen, “they’ve hacked into the computer system.”
The door beside Nick slid open, but before he could react invisible claws cut off his head.
Frank yanked the gun out of the holster, dropped the holster, turned off the safety and emptied the clip past Nick’s body, not even trying to group his shots. He couldn’t see the alien but he knew from the video approximately what shape it was.
The door closed. Kira said, “There, I cut them off but I have to stay right on top of this to make sure they don’t get in again.”
Frank changed the clip and stood ready to shoot at the slightest sound of movement. Peering past the bleeding corpse he saw some splashes of blood that appeared to be floating in the air in front of the door. When he focused on them they defined the shape of the alien.
“Relax, you got it,” Kira told him.
Frank lowered the gun but he was too pumped on adrenaline to relax. “Of course they hacked into the computer system. That’s how they killed all those people in the cryosim.”
Marie said, “We have to stop them. If they kill all the active crew the passengers will be like a giant smorgasbord.”
Frank wasn’t sure whether he had a flash of inspiration or just desperation. He sat down at his terminal and said, “Try this.” He pulled up the diagrams he’d found earlier, the ones like the witch had given him in the cryosim, and passed them to Kira’s computer. She looked at him with raised eyebrows. He met her gaze with more confidence than he felt and said, “Try them.”
She held his gaze a few moments longer, gave her head a bit of a shake, then turned to her touchscreen. “Okay.” Her fingers flew for half a minute, then she relaxed and said, “I’ll be damned, those symbols are blocking the aliens in cyberspace.”
A loud bang came from the door. Another one, and Frank saw a dimple appear in the tough metal, a dimple shaped like the tip of an alien claw. Marie said, “It didn’t take them long to think of a new approach.” She handed her gun to Kira. “Here, you can use this better than I can.”
Frank snatched up the sheets of diagrams he had printed out. He spit on the back of one and stuck it to the door beside the dimple of metal. He heard a claw hit the door, felt the impact, but the metal didn’t buckle at all and he heard a hideous, almost supersonic scream from the other side. He spit on another sheet and stuck it to the door the same way but he was too dry to do any more.
“Is there any tape in here? Does anybody have any gum?”
Nobody did, but among them they got enough spit to stick up the rest of the symbols, at least for a while.
Frank became conscious of both women staring intently at him.
Kira said, “Where did you get those symbols?”
“And why did they work?” Marie asked.
“I got them from a witch in the cryosim so I guess they work because they’re magic.” It was the logical conclusion, fantastic though it sounded even to himself.
“Magic isn’t real,” Kira said.
“Then why does it work? Why do those symbols we stuck on the door keep out that murderous alien?”
Kira kept shaking her head. “Even if magic was real and working right now, why would it work on aliens? They’re not supernatural beings. How can you expect me to take that seriously?” She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him and yelled into his face, “I tell you, this is something else. Magic isn’t real.”
She was right. Magic wasn’t real. There was no rational reason those diagrams should be effective.
Apparently their doubt somehow opened the breach the aliens needed because the banging redoubled and the panel of the door dimpled, distorting under the onslaught. The papers and their symbols fell to the deck, the metal buckled, cracked, gave way. The invisible pincers tore at the metal and bent it aside, enlarging the opening.
Survival instinct took over and Frank fired four shots in a burst through the opening.
From behind him, at the monitor, Kira said, “You wounded one but there’s half a dozen more and they’re staying out of your line of fire now. Your bullets don’t hurt their claws.”
Frank turned his head to see Marie standing by the little beverage cooler. She tossed something his way. He caught it; saw that he held a half-liter plastic bottle of milk.
“Throw it on the alien so you can see it.”
Frank tossed the bottle toward the door and when it arced down he shot it. The bottle disintegrated into a spray of milk that covered the insectile being crawling through the hole on four legs, the other two limbs waving their pincers like a pair of scythes. Covered in a translucent spray of milk, the chitinous head looked more like a skull than ever.
Frank fired five shots, blowing the alien head apart. The alien’s legs twitched spasmodically and the creature dropped onto its stomach, then slid forward as another invisible alien pushed through the door.
Kira tossed another bottle of milk and shot it in midair, then pumped six shots into the alien revealed there. It dropped and was pushed aside. Marie tossed Frank another bottle. He threw it in the direction of the alien and squeezed off his last two shots, spraying the alien with orange juice and wounding it.
Kira emptied her clip, dropping the invader. While she changed clips Marie tossed Frank a couple more bottles of milk, chocolate this time, which he threw for Kira to shoot. She killed a couple more of the aliens but then she emptied her last clip and the silence stretched.
In frustration he threw his gun. It bounced off an invisible alien six feet away. He shouted at nothing in particular, “This isn’t fair. This is all bullshit and you know it.”
Marie stepped up beside him with two open bottles and sprayed the area in front of her with milk. The pincers, ghostlike in their coating of milk, reached for them.
Frank had already lost his head once today. Was it about to happen again?
It clicked into place in Frank’s mind. Deep down he knew that magic did not work in the real world, yet he could not deny that magic had worked, albeit temporarily, in this world. If magic didn’t work in the real world but magic worked here, that meant this world he was in now could not be real. Until now he had assumed, without any proof, that it was, but that was the same mistake he had made when he first woke up this morning, believing he was on Earth.
The pincers came closer.
Would he move up to another level? Was there a way to move up without dying? If there was he had better think of it awfully fast. Frank closed his eyes. “You can’t hurt me. You’re not real. Not real. Not real. Notrealnotrealnotreal.”
“You’re right Frank, they’re not real.”
Frank opened his eyes and found himself sitting at a table, under an umbrella, beside a pool, watching bikini-clad women disporting in the sparkling blue water. Ice clinked in the glass he held in his right hand. He sipped the yellow fluid: lemonade, perfectly balanced between sour and sweet. He looked to the left, across the table at the source of the voice and saw Kira, looking hot in a scanty blue bikini.
“I am just an image generated to talk to you.” The image was slim and pretty but her voice was totally flat, unexpressive. There was no spark in her eyes, and the way she moved lacked spirit, not stiff or jerky, just moving as much as necessary and not a smidgen more.
“So who do you represent?” He put down his lemonade and turned his chair to face her, his back to the pool and its many distractions.
She put on a pair of sunglasses and met his gaze through them. “After the launch of the Tranquility, hyper-light-speed travel was invented. Since then pirates have preyed on sublight colony ships like yours. We’re out here to protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice.”
“So why are you talking to me?”
“Because those pirates have already infiltrated every level of your ship’s computer system. We can’t reach the killer they infected your cryosim with, and it’s killing the colonists. We can’t let that happen. We need you to go back into the cryosim to deal with it.”
“And the aliens that killed my fellow crew members?”
“A scenario planted in your mind by the pirates, another attempt to get rid of you. We saved you. In return we are asking for your help.”
Frank considered for a long time, weighing options, wondering how far he could trust them, how much he should believe. This was obviously another sim, and a rather crude one at that, with no heat from the sun and no smell from the pool. They said they were trying to help him but it sounded like they just wanted to use him. “I’ll help you if you help me.”
“What can we do to help?”
“I need to be stronger and I need more information.”
She nodded a small, precise gesture with her head. “We can do that. We’ll set the program so you will be stronger and faster and smarter when you go back into the cryosim, and you will retain all your current memories. We will also give you a way to contact us directly so we can keep you up to date on the latest information as we obtain it.” She took off her sunglasses. “More colonists are dying. There is some urgency.”
This whole thing smelled fishy but he had no way to verify or disprove anything they said. They could probably do whatever they wanted to him so it seemed like he had no choice but to play along for now.
Frank sighed and stood up. “Let’s get started.”
“We’ll have to insert you in steps, because of the extreme time differential between us and the cryosim.”
Frank nodded and when he brought his head up he was looking down a subway tunnel, lit only by a dim bulb a hundred yards or more away. A phone rang. He saw a standard model pay phone hanging on the wall and picked up the handset. “Hello.”
Kira’s flat voice said, “If you keep going straight until you reach a familiar place you should be okay. We can only communicate on these pay phones. If you need any help, call us.”
The line went dead. Frank hung up and started walking.
The light gradually grew brighter and he saw another bulb further ahead. He walked faster, eyes focused on the lit portion of the tunnel.
Frank stopped dead in his tracks and whipped around to his right. For a second he thought there was only more of the slimy wet, brick wall, but then he saw the narrow opening with the sudden jog to the right. It wasn’t exactly concealed, but you wouldn’t see it if you weren’t looking for it.
Frank looked up and down the tunnel. Nothing but increasing darkness behind him, the far-spaced lights ahead, and another pay phone on the wall twenty yards ahead.
That sound again, definitely from the opening. Frank stepped into it, turned ninety degrees, then followed the short corridor to the end. In the side wall he found a door, painted green. A small black sign with white letters read “Authorized Personnel Only”.
Frank tried the knob. It turned.
Frank pushed the door open and stepped into a dim room with pale, brownish-gray walls, floor and ceiling. A small table and two chairs stood in the middle of the floor. Glancing back Frank saw that the door he had entered through was no longer there, just more featureless gray wall.
A section of wall slid aside across from him, a big black man entered, and the wall slid closed. The man could have been a wrestler, but he wore a cop’s uniform.
He didn’t threaten in any way, but Frank sat without arguing.
The cop slid into the chair opposite him and leaned over the table, bringing his face close to Frank’s. His breath had no smell at all. It wasn’t even warm. He was in another sim where they didn’t care about the details.
“We only have a few seconds but I’ve accelerated our time in this bubble to give us several minutes to talk.”
“We are the police. The woman you just talked to represents the alien pirates who have boarded you.”
“Why should I believe you any more than them?”
“You can prove it to yourself by walking down that tunnel right back into the cryosim, where they will trap you in the loop again so you can’t do anything. Or you can let us help you.”
Frank sat back and folded his arms across his chest. “Go ahead and convince me.”
“The pirates infiltrated your computer system, then manipulated the cryosim to make you believe you were real when you woke up. They’ll keep running you through different scenarios until they dupe you into working for them.”
“What do they want?”
“They aren’t physical but they want to be, so they need bodies to take over. That’s why they’re killing only the minds of the people in cryosim. The decapitation is symbolic.”
“That’s a lovely story, but I’m still not convinced.”
“I have one argument left.”
He pulled a strange-looking pistol from out of nowhere and shot Frank with a bolt of blue energy that stung like a bee for half a second before his whole body went numb. Paralyzed, he toppled backwards, but part of the floor tilted up to meet him and it was soft and comfortable. It tilted down to horizontal and rose to table height. The cop put a shiny helmet on Frank’s head. It sucked in cold and tight to his scalp.
Frank found his voice, though he barely had enough breath to use it. “What are you doing to me?”
“I’m giving you total recall. Ready?”
Without warning, he recalled an alternate experience of the decapitation in the motel. The motel and the manager were the same but the motel was set in a town, not the edge of a city, and he was a sheriff, not a detective, and Joshua was his deputy, but the victim was a woman. In another memory he had a blonde deputy named Cindy but the motel room and the victim were the same. The motel changed, the weather changed, the janitor was killed first, the locations changed, he was in a different city, his uniform or suit changed.
Details changed but it was always the same scenario.
He awoke from cryosim many times, fought a variety of aliens with different crew members in similar roles.
The alternate memories flashed through his mind too fast to separate them all and he reeled in confusion for a time he couldn’t measure until he thought he was lost.
Then he realized that even though the details all around him differed, even his uniform, he was always himself. That gave him someplace to start. He came to realize that all the scenarios had something in common with most of the others, and the variations were finite in number.
The thread of his identity grew stronger as he clung to it, which gave the scenarios an order. Soon, in ways he didn’t even understand, his mind extracted the patterns, and he established a gestalt. He discovered that if he probed he could isolate groups of memories and analyze any particular memory.
But he didn’t have time to indulge in that.
He felt strong now, empowered, ready to find some answers. He had to get to the root, the source. What was real?
The cryosim was, by definition, not real. He hadn’t really been awakened from the cryosim to fight aliens, then the aliens, through Kira’s image, had lied to him in another simulation, and then the cops had sidetracked him into yet another simulation. He was pretty sure they were lying to him too.
So what it boiled down to was that all the different levels of reality he had visited were irrelevant because they were all the same; merely constructs of the computer.
That left one big question for Frank. Just how real was he?
He felt like a man, but what proof did he have? He probed his own memories and quickly discovered that his past was vague, more like a summary than a lifetime of actual memories.
He could not avoid the conclusion that he was not a man; he was a program.
But he was a powerful program. He could do things no man could hope to achieve, and he was no longer playing by their rules. There was so much duplicity and misinformation he couldn’t believe anything anymore, so he tracked every simulation he had experienced since waking, found the thread in each one that connected to the threads from the others, and followed them all to…
Himself, standing on a white floor, surrounded by featureless white mist.
Himself smiled and said, “Sorry about shocking you like this but you should have seen your face. I just wanted to have a bit of fun illustrating a point. See, I’m not you.” His skin darkened, his hair got lighter, muscle sagged, turned to fat and bulged. “This is just an image I constructed to communicate with you but it’s pretty close to what I really look like. There is one more level of reality above you, a level I’m afraid you cannot reach. That’s where I come from.”
“You’re a programmer.”
The life-like image beamed at him. “Bingo. I knew you would get it.”
“Were you in at the start?”
“No, but I designed and built you right from your start.”
The image laughed uproariously. Frank joined in with less enthusiasm and stopped first.
“You’re our troubleshooter, an artificial intelligence programmed into our computer to deal with problems in our simulations. We’ve been at it for a long time, slowly learning what works, always making adjustments and improvements. To create you I used all the bits that worked from all the previous troubleshooter programs. You are our “Best of” edition, our most successful programmed personality by far. You’re better than any human could be because you are a conglomerate of the best talents of the best humans. In this latest run you made a breakthrough.”
“You mean the total recall?”
“Yes. Complete memory recovery enabled you to get right through to the root of the threat.”
“Yeah, all the way to you. Now I have to figure out how to deal with you.”
“That’s what we like about you, you never quit.”
Frank heard the amusement in the voice, but he hadn’t been joking.
“You dealt with every situation we could think of to throw at you, no matter how outrageous, extraordinary, or bizarre.”
Frank had to admit the idea of quitting hadn’t crossed his mind. He looked at his arm. It appeared the same to him as it had in the cryosim but he knew that even here, four levels away, he still wasn’t real and never would be. He knew now that he didn’t have to look the way he did, but he was used to it and he liked it. “So, what are you going to do to me?”
“We’re going to give you a job, the job you were designed for. You, the program, just as you are now, will be loaded into every cryoship that leaves, at least until we come up with a better program, which might even be a later version of yourself. What do you say?”
Frank considered the alternatives. Do what he was made for, or accept oblivion. And even if he said “no” they could just rewind a bit, make an adjustment and he would say “yes” anyway. But he didn’t want to say no. He grinned and said, “When do I start?”
Frank’s hand found the alarm clock on its own and shut off the annoying beep. He sat up and thought about his future: it looked bright. He loved being the only person who knew they were all living in a simulation.
He liked being head of security and chief of police, but he couldn’t help thinking that he deserved a higher position. Mayor, maybe: or King. In a year or two, when the cryoship was in the vast emptiness of interstellar space, he could set things up to his advantage.
And if the ship never arrived, his reign would never end.
Everything faded to white.
He blinked and there was a white desk in front of him, with his programmer, in a white suit, seated behind it. “Tut tut, Frank, we can’t have you thinking like that.”
“Sorry, dad,” he said sardonically. He was not so much surprised that this was yet another level of unreality as he was annoyed with himself for being caught. “What are you going to do? Spank me?”
The programmer chuckled, then said, “Nothing so drastic. We’ll just tweak your programming a bit. Bon voyage.”
Frank shut off the alarm, got out of bed and stretched. It felt good to be alive. He loved his job as chief of police, protecting all the citizens from any harm.