SHORT STORY: Crossing the Line by Dan Zeidler

Crossing the Line

Our destination appeared suddenly outside the viewport, a technological landscape whose horizon curved away from us under the cold and distant stars. The shuttle was moving slowly enough for me to pick out the mysterious details of the other ship’s hull and I studied them carefully as we flew past. I thought everything I saw seemed to be in good working order. There were no broken and warped hull plates, no scorch marks or discolorations from the heat of fires that might have once burned within the vessel. It looked like a perfectly ordinary, if somewhat dated, interstellar transport that should have been peacefully plying a routine and uneventful path between the stars.

“So,” the Navy Man beside me in the passenger cabin of the military shuttle said abruptly. He had not bothered to introduce himself and his uniform was devoid of any helpful name badges or rank insignia. The running lights on the other ship made a feeble attempt to shine through the viewport and did little to push aside the dull red cabin lighting, but every now and then we flew past a particularly bright light that gave me a clear picture of the Navy Man’s face. He motioned with his chin toward the two travel cases in front of me and gave me a polite smile. “How does that thing work anyway?”

“Oh, well… it, aaah,” I took a breath and tried to concentrate on being calm. After six years of schooling I knew how the camera worked. I could explain it to him if I was calm. Another bright flash of light shone through the viewport and the expression the Navy Man had on his face almost concealed his expectations of a long, boring, and extremely technical answer. “The camera itself is nothing special; we can use any one of a number of commercially available models. The lens, however, ah… you can think of as being an extremely small version of a starship’s Jump drive. Instead of bending time and space to allow something to travel a great distance in very little time, the lens only bends time to allow… to allow us to catch a brief… echo of what happened as much as twenty-four hours in the past. It burns out the capacitor module pretty quickly at that focus, but you can get the capacitors to last a little longer by focusing in on more recent timeframes.”

“A miniature Jump drive, eh?” Navy Man frowned thoughtfully at the camera case and then at the smaller case containing the spare capacitor modules for the lens. I wondered what his specialty was when he was not escorting crime scene photographers to old battered starships that exited Jump with no sign of the crew or passengers. As I thought about it, I realized there had to be some sort of sign of what happened to the crew or the Fleet would not have requested a crime scene photographer. Navy Man peered at me through the dull red light. “I heard this was costing the Fleet a pile of credits. We have to pay for however many capacitors you use, I take it?”

The metal landscape outside the viewports slowed abruptly and I knew we would be docking soon. The witty reply I intended to give the Navy Man faded from memory as my stomach lurched. I managed to smile politely and nod my head. Navy Man frowned again, this time disapprovingly, as if he felt the Security Directorate had no right to send the Fleet a bill for anything. He started to say something but was interrupted by a chirp from the comm panel.

“We are lined up for docking, but our engineering team doesn’t seem to feel like answering our hails. We could circle around and wave to them through one of the bridge viewports if you like.” At any other time I would have appreciated the pilot’s dry humor, but my attention was focused almost entirely on the inner hatch of our airlock and the darkness beyond it.

Navy Man looked over at me and I tried to maintain a neutral almost bored expression. He muttered something about damn engineers in what could have been an apologetic tone and then jabbed a button on the comm panel. “The comm system on the ship is fried so it might be generating too much interference for our hail to get through. Either that or both of them are down in engineering trying to bring the system back on line. Just engage the emergency override for the boarding hatch.”

“Can do. Should only take a couple of minutes.” The pilot replied and my stomach stopped doing flips. It did not seem fair that I ended up feeling worse.

I felt the shuttle vibrate slightly as the pilot moved us in to make contact with the docking clamps and quickly knelt down to inspect my camera so I would not have to watch the tell-tales over the hatch turn from red to green. When I heard the hatch roll open I closed the carrying case for the camera and looked up to see Navy Man smiling at me patiently. He gestured through the linked airlocks toward the dimly lit interior of the other ship. “After you.” He tipped his head to one side as I picked up my two carrying cases. “Would you like a hand with those?”

“That’s okay, thank you. They are both pretty light… and, I know this is silly, but our regulations say I am not supposed to let anyone else handle them – because the capacitors are so hideously expensive. You know how the bureaucrats are,” I said lightly and Navy Man replied with a rueful chuckle. Everyone knows how bureaucrats are. The cases weren’t that light and I was stretching the truth a bit about the regulations, but I was afraid if my hands were empty that they might start shaking.

I took a breath and walked purposefully up to the threshold of the shuttle’s airlock. Time seemed to slow to standstill as my eyes followed the deck past the inner and outer airlock hatches and into the area that had, only a few moments before, been exposed to the vacuum of space. It was a simple thing to spot the line marking where the shuttle ended and the other ship began. If something went wrong with the docking mechanism it would first become apparent somewhere along that line. Then the hatches would automatically slam shut and anyone who had the misfortune to be standing between them at the time would be trapped as the atmosphere around her slowly, or perhaps quickly, vented into space. I tried to tell myself it was impossible, but my eyes kept going back to that line.

“Is everything okay?” Navy Man asked from beside my shoulder. My mind raced.

“I… I thought it was impolite to board a Fleet vessel without doing that… ah… boarding ceremony thing,” I moved one hand to make a vague motion with a carrying case toward the other ship, “with someone on the other ship?”

“Oh,” Navy Man said, probably after he’d concluded that I was a Class 1 Airhead. I glanced back at the thin line between the ships that was all that separated us from the nothingness of space and my heart began to pound. Perhaps I was an airhead, worrying over a silly line. I realized Navy Man was talking to me and shifted my attention back to him. “Yes, there should be someone here to welcome us aboard, but the engineering team is apparently a bit on the absent-minded side. I’ll have a chat them with them about it and I guarantee they won’t be offended that we decided to forgo tradition rather than wait for them make their way to the airlock.”

Navy Man’s tone of voice chilled considerably as he spoke his last sentence. He was annoyed and obviously looking for someone on whom he could vent his annoyance. I did not want that someone to be me. “Well then, we best get to the crime scene.” I had no more excuses for delaying so I took a breath and walked quickly through the open hatch. The few steps I took in the short passage linking the two ships were lost in a blur that cleared once I stood on the deck of the other starship. I chastised myself for hesitating and tried to believe that the next time I walked through the airlocks would be easier.

The boarding area was smaller than I expected and decorated in shades of brown, orange, and cream. The ornate carpeting on the deck was slightly worn, faded in some places and stained in others. The furniture was likewise worn and dated in its styling. The dim light from the antique lighting combined with the warm colors of the room to give it an almost cozy, homey look when compared to the high tech polish of the Fleet orbital station or the Fleet shuttle that were my only other points of reference.

Navy Man stepped nonchalantly through the hatch and gave me a look as if he expected me to do something interesting.

“Do you know where the potential crime scene is or do we have to find one of the engineers first?” I arched an eyebrow at him when he responded with a puzzled expression.

“This is the potential crime scene,” Navy Man said with a gesture that took in the room.

“This? Here?” My voice squeaked. Dammit. My heart began to race as I realized that the hatch I had just so casually stepped through, well, hesitantly stepped through, must have failed and the passengers and crew had been pulled through it to their deaths. People liked to tell me such things never happen, but obviously in this case they were wrong. My eyes went back to the line. What was to say that the seals or the locking mechanism or any one of the other arcane mechanisms involved in the workings of an airlock would not fail again? I wondered if the two engineers had not returned the shuttle’s hail or met us at the hatch because they too had been sucked out into space.

“Yes, here and, well, the rest of the ship. There are no clues as to what happened to the passengers or crew and no internal sensor logs for the last twenty-four hours. We’ll need images of the entire vessel in order to figure out what happened.” Navy Man had the gall to shrug his shoulders casually. “We may as well start here though, right?”

“You want me to photograph the entire ship? By myself?” My voice squeaked again, but that time it was justified. Dammit. “Do you have any idea how many days it would take one person to complete full-coverage photography for every room and hallway on this ship? No, of course you don’t, because not even I know and I am the expert here. This ship has already been sitting here for two hours and that means the furthest we can go back is twenty-two hours before it came out of Jump. Every minute that passes is one minute less that we can see back in time. If we hope to get any useful coverage of the entire ship we will need a team of photographers – a huge team of photographers.” I paused to shake my head in angry disbelief. “I can’t believe you only requested one photographer…”

“Ummm… sorry?” Navy Man had edged out to what he must have felt was a safe distance while I had been talking and had left me a clear path back onto the shuttle. I set my jaw and proceeded to march determinedly through the open hatch. “Wait, where are you-“

I thought I had built up enough momentum to carry me past the line, but my feet seemed to stop of their own accord as I reached it. I spun around to cover my hesitation. “You said the comm system doesn’t work over here. I have to go back to the shuttle to make the truly humiliating call to my Captain to let him know I am not capable of doing this job by myself and that he will need to mobilize just about everyone to come help me.” It was more than I meant to say even if it was true. I turned back around so Navy Man would not see me closing my eyes before I forced myself to walk the rest of the way through the airlock. The second time was unfortunately not any easier than the first.

It took only a few moments to establish a link to headquarters which unlike me was resting safely and firmly on the surface of a planet and blanketed by miles of atmosphere. It took only a few moments more to explain the situation to the Captain and much to my surprise he quickly offered an apology. “Ah! Klari, I’m sorry. It was my fault for assuming the Fleet would only want you to photograph one or two compartments. I should have known they meant the entire starship. Send that Fleet shuttle back and by the time it gets here I’ll have a team assembled and ready to go. We should meet back up with you in about 90 minutes.”

“Yes sir,” I struggled to keep the disappointment out of my tone, but I knew the Captain would know how I felt.

“I’m sorry again, Klari. I know you were looking forward to your first solo case even if you were not looking forward to your first trip off planet,” the Captain said as he smiled encouragingly to me from the vid-screen. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. Now Navy Man and the pilot knew just how much of a rookie I was. The Captain’s face became serious. “Don’t worry. You’ll have your chance to shine.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see you in ninety minutes, Captain.” After the Captain made his farewell I tapped the disconnect button without taking my eyes off the vid-screen. It was uncomfortably quiet in the shuttle. I glanced cautiously over at Navy Man and the pilot.

Navy Man spoke first. “Is this really-“

“Yes. It isn’t my fault this is my first solo case. Everyone has a first solo case,” I snapped before he could finish. I could put up with him acting cold and distant, but I would not tolerate being patronized. “And not everyone enjoys leaving behind a nice safe planet to go traipsing about deep space…” My voice trailed off as Navy Man and the pilot tried to secretly exchange an angry look. “And now you’re both angry with me. That’s just great. Just great.” I really was not doing well on my first solo case. I grabbed my camera and made a beeline for the airlock. I closed my eyes and may have also held my breath as I stepped through the inner hatch. I stopped a few steps inside the boarding area of the other ship and waited for Navy Man to catch up with me.

“Klari? Agent Dielle?” Navy Man’s voice said from within the maw of the connecting passage. I turned to face him and was startled by how close he already was to me – as if he had run after me. Navy Man looked down at me with a hard edged-alertness in his eyes that was not there a few moments before and I realized he had unsnapped the flap on his pistol holster. I doubted very much that he considered me that much of a threat. He smiled as the hatch rolled shut behind him. “Listen, we weren’t angry with you. You’re right; everyone has a first mission. There are also plenty of people who never get up into space, but for everyone else there is a first time for that too. So don’t go thinking we were angry with you. No, we were angry with your boss for setting you up. I mean, if he wanted to send you on your first solo mission and have you get your space legs at the same time, well, he should have made sure it really was the right mission for you. A good boss takes care of his troops like that.”

“The Captain is a good boss. Usually. I guess he just made a mistake this time.” I paused to take a breath. “Like I did when I snapped at you and the pilot. I’m sorry about that. I guess I am just a little tense… about being in… space…” My gaze drifted toward the airlock as I began to feel that something was horribly wrong.

“Most people get a little nervous their first time off planet,” Navy Man glanced over his shoulder toward the airlock and grinned. “You don’t have to worry about one of these failing.” He thumped the only thing between us and a very grim death much harder than I felt was strictly necessary. “Mankind has been building airlocks for thousands of years now. Even on a tub as old as this one the airlocks would be failsafe.”

I gasped and said, “Oh my God!”

Despite Navy Man’s recent assurances to the contrary, he looked quickly over his shoulder to see what was wrong with the airlock.

“The spare capacitors! I left the spare capacitors on the shuttle!” With my hand over my open mouth I dropped back into a nearby chair. Forgetting a carrying case full of spare capacitor modules would not be the end of my career, but it would be uncomfortably close.

“Oh,” Navy Man said in the tone of voice of someone who does not understand. “You don’t have to worry about that; the pilot is a good guy. He’ll stow them someplace before he docks with the station so no one will know. Listen,” Navy Man said with a quick glance over at the boarding room’s comm panel as he took a small interference generator out of one of his pockets just long enough for me to catch a brief glimpse of it. He dropped his voice and spoke quickly. “There is more going on here than you know, Agent Dielle. Earlier I thought you were, ah, playing a different role in this scenario.” Navy Man gave the comm panel another glance and raised his voice to a normal level and pace before I could say anything. “I’m sorry for being rude to you before. The name is John Blanchet. There are three other guys named John in my section so pretty much everyone just calls me Blanchet.”

Blanchet gave me a smile that appeared genuine and offered his hand. I shook it after a slight hesitation I hoped was not too obvious. “Most people call me Klari. I tend to be the only one in any group,” I said and Navy Man, Blanchet, nodded his head encouragingly. The airlock loomed behind him, both menacing and tenuous, and I decided that I wanted a few more airtight doors between me and the new line marking the boundary between safety and deadly emptiness. “So… we have ninety minutes before the shuttle returns with the rest of team. I should probably do something useful while we wait. I only have one capacitor module, but it will be enough for a detailed study of one room on the ship. Is there any place you can think of on this ship where it would be a good idea to take some pictures? “

Blanchet smiled approvingly and I began to wonder if this was some sort of training exercise. “You’re right. No point standing around here, is there? Let me think… the bridge would probably be our best bet. We can see what the crew was doing during the last few hours before the ship came out of Jump and we will be able to see what the displays were reading which will give us a good idea what was happening on other parts of the ship. I am also curious to see how long the engineering team has left the bridge unattended,” Blanchet said as he crossed the room to tap a button on the door control. The door snapped open crisply to reveal a dingy, moderately well-lit hallway or corridor or whatever they were called on starships. I picked up my camera case and Blanchet smiled at me again. “Yes, the bridge is perfect place for us to be.”

I had high hopes about the perfection of the bridge as Blanchet led me deeper into the starship, putting layer upon layer of solid metal between us and the vacuum of outer space. The empty hallways and rooms that we passed had an odd stillness about them that reminded me of walking through an old and unoccupied building. I did not realize it was unusual until I noticed Blanchet never let his hand stray very far from his pistol. It took us several minutes to reach the door leading to bridge and Blanchet made me wait to one side while he made sure the room was clear. It was not until he told me that it was safe to enter that I realized that Blanchet was a madman.

My attention had been focused on my camera and running the lens through its startup routines so I was looking down when I stepped onto the bridge. As the door slid shut behind me, I looked up and gasped.

Windows. Three out of the four walls were nothing but floor to ceiling windows. Windows with spindly support structures that could not possibly strong enough to hold them in place against the strain of the atmosphere pushing out toward the waiting vacuum of space. Windows that did nothing to conceal the naked stars beyond them, glittering in the endless nothing through which the ship drifted as lifeless and empty as a tomb.

The bridge most certainly was not the perfect place to be.

Conflicting desires tore at me from within: I wanted to run, to hide in a corner, to stand my ground and face down that terrifying vista. Time seemed to be moving very slowly. The transparent material of the viewports seemed flex against the strain. I knew it was my imagination. I knew I was not about to be flung out into that cold void where the vacuum of space would force the air from my lungs and leave nothing to replace it. My heartbeat thundered in my ears. I forced myself to take a breath.

“I know what you are thinking, Klari,” Blanchet said. He sounded like he was talking to me from the other end of a tunnel. “The view is breathtaking.”

“Breath taking. Just what I was thinking.” I heard a slight tremor in my voice. Blanchet was obviously a madman, but at least he was not thumping the viewport glass to prove how sturdy it was. A small shiver ran down my back as I knelt down to rest the camera case on the deck. I hoped concentrating on photographing the crime scene would distract me from the siren call of the stars. A quick visual survey was enough for me to see that the best place to set up my camera was coincidentally the one place on the bridge I wanted to be – near the center of the back wall as far from all the viewports as it was possible to get without leaving the bridge.

“Are you able to record video or are you only able to take stills?” Blanchet asked as I set the camera to float at a comfortable height above the deck so I could program the photography sequence. From his tone I could tell that he thought he already knew the answer, but wanted confirmation.

“I could do video, but it would drastically reduce the life of the capacitor module. We also wouldn’t be able to watch it as the camera was recording it; we would have to wait until the sequence finished,” I explained as I composed the image using the live feed. I set the lens to wide angle and through it saw Blanchet staring at me with a thoughtful expression. I looked away from the camera and met his gaze.

“I really do want to see how long those two engineers have left this bridge unattended. If you don’t mind, could you please make me a video record of the bridge with a start time of… oh, say…” Blanchet glanced down at the chronometer on his wrist. “Ninety minutes ago?”

There were little clues in Blanchet’s voice, in his facial expression, and in his body language that told me he more than had the authority to make his request an order. He was opting to be nice about it rather than obnoxious. I nodded my head in casual affirmation. “That won’t take me very long to program at all. We will still have to wait a bit for the camera to finish recording.”

“Understood. Thank you, Klari.” Blanchet said, again in that subtle command tone. I wondered why he was pretending to be a lowly nobody who was stuck babysitting a crime scene photographer.

Blanchet said nothing as we waited for the camera to finish its sequence. I noticed he was always sure to keep himself between me and the door leading on to the bridge and that his right hand never strayed very far from his holstered pistol. Wondering who he really was and why he seemed so ready to shoot someone kept me from thinking about how the only things separating me from the emptiness of space were some panes of high tech glass. If Blanchet did start shooting at someone and missed then he would probably blow a hole in one of the enormous viewports. The same would apply to whoever Blanchet decided to start shooting at – if that person missed then… a cold feeling of dread filled me as I realized if that person did not miss then Blanchet would be dead and I would be trapped on an empty starship with some sort of gun-toting maniac. I had a hard time trying to decide if that was worse than getting sucked out into space after someone blasted a hole through one of the viewports.

When the camera was through recording it took me a few moments to reconfigure it to play back the imagery. Blanchet stood close beside me and peered over my shoulder at the grainy picture on the small playback screen. The two engineers moved around the bridge pausing every now and then in front of one console or another. A few minutes into the fast-forwarded playback, one of the engineers left the bridge and his partner settled into the chair beside the communication console. A few moments after that a dark shape passed in front of the camera when the other engineer returned to the bridge.

“Wait! That isn’t the second engineer.” I slowed the playback down for Blanchet’s benefit and watched in horror as the mysterious individual stealthily approached the first engineer from behind and killed him with a single thrust from a long, wicked-looking knife. The killer did not bother to check to see if his victim was dead, he already knew, instead he merely bent down and cleaned his blade on the dead engineer’s uniform. When the killer paused and stared back in the direction of the camera I froze the image. I felt myself sliding down the wall and ended up sitting on the cold, hard deck.

“This must be the first time you have seen someone murdered, Klari?” Blanchet asked, his voice a mix of concern and surprise. I shook my head no and he frowned at me. He looked thoughtfully back at the screen and then turned to study the wall over my head. “Any idea what he is looking at?”

“Me.” I forced myself to say it. My instructors had told me about killers like this and I did not want it to be true. “He is looking at me.”

“What?” There was no longer any surprise in Blanchet’s tone, only concern. There should have been surprise.

“This is the best place for a crime scene camera. He knew there would be a photographer here. Some killers stage their murders for the camera; it isn’t common but it happens. The ones who stage their murders for the crime scene photographer though…” My eyes drifted to the chair where the engineer had been murdered. Killers who staged murders for the crime scene photographer and who deliberately reached out, either through a look or some other message, were extremely rare creatures. They always followed the same pattern. Always. “He killed everyone on this ship someplace where it would be easy to get pictures of the murder. In each case he would have left a message for the crime scene photographer to see because he knew that-” I glanced up at Blanchet and saw his right hand was resting lightly on the butt of his pistol. A sense of betrayal made my heart pound furiously. “You- You- You’ve known all along that this was an elaborate trap set by some lunatic who wants to gets his hands on a crime scene photographer!”

Blanchet moved faster than I thought was humanly possible and reached down with his left hand to grab me by the arm. He was much larger than I was and strong enough to haul me to my feet like a rag doll. He let go of me to point a finger at my face. “Now is not the time for this, Klari. Pack up your camera. We are going back to the boarding area. It’s the safest place on the ship.”

Three walls of floor to ceiling viewports may have been frightening, but unlike the airlock in the boarding area the viewports were at least not designed to open up to the vast and terrifying emptiness of the universe. Blanchet snapped his fingers loudly in front of my face. “Hey! Focus, Agent Dielle!” He grabbed my other arm and spun me around to face the unblinking gaze of the cold and distant stars. “I know you are terrified of that, but I also know that you don’t let it beat you. This killer is just a man and he is nothing compared to the vastness of the Universe. Got it?” I took a breath and felt my heart rate slow down a little. With my eyes closed against the stars, I nodded my head. Blanchet let go of my arm. “Good. Now, camera.”

I deactivated my camera and packed it quickly, though still securely, inside the carrying case. Blanchet had drawn his pistol when I was not looking and he motioned for me to follow him into the hall outside the bridge. The bridge door opened noisily; far louder it seemed than it had the first time we went through it. The hallway beyond was empty… and dark… and menacingly quiet. The killer could have leaped out at us from anywhere, but we made it back to the boarding area without seeing him.

I moved to one side of the room and turned my back on the inner hatch of the airlock hoping if I could not see then I might be able to pretend it was not there. Without the airlock the boarding area looked like a normal waiting area and as a general room of thumb people did not die of decompression in normal waiting areas. Blanchet shut the door and pulled a blue crystalline cylinder from another of the many pockets on his uniform. He glanced down at the door panel and hesitated for less than a heartbeat before turning to me.

“This a Fleet Emergency Access Key, or an E-Key for short,” Blanchet said as he handed me the key. “You can use one of these to unlock any door on a civilian starship and if you use it to lock a door then only someone with another E-Key will be able to open it.”

“Are you leaving me here and going after the killer?” I did not think that was the brightest course of action. The only way the Fleet would not have detected the killer was if he had a camouflage net that would have hidden him from their sensors. It meant he had prepared his trap very carefully, but his type always did.

“The look on your face is priceless, Klari, but this isn’t the first time I’ve tracked down a bad guy on what was supposed to be an empty starship.” Blanchet gave me a crooked smiled as he pressed the key into my hand. He nodded his head toward the door control panel. “You lock that door as soon as it closes behind me. I’m going to make my way to the auxiliary comm room to see if I can’t contact our shuttle. When the shuttle docks, the pilot will call you on your comm unit so you will know it is not the killer trying to get in the airlock, okay?”

“Okay. I still think you are crazy, but okay. Be careful.” I said and with a nod of thanks in my direction Blanchet slipped through the door. I did as Blanchet instructed and passed the E-Key in front of the ID sensor on the door control panel. There was a satisfying clicking sound and a series of red lights sprang to life above the door. I took a breath and turned to face the airlock.

Blanchet was correct – this was, much as it pained me to admit it, the safest place on the ship. Even if the killer was insane enough to deliberately go outside the ship it would be impossible for him to sneak in through the airlock. Airlocks had alarms and flashing lights and things of that sort and, as the name implied, they locked. I decided it would not hurt to see if the E-Key would also secure the airlock, but pulled my hand back when I noticed a set of scratch marks near the airlock control panel. The marks were parallel and closely spaced; almost as if someone had used a flat metal object to force the panel open. I stared thoughtfully at the airlock for a moment and then slowly turned my head to look over my shoulder at the door control panel.

Blanchet had hesitated when he looked at it.

I concentrated on keeping my breathing even as I crossed the room for a closer look at the door panel. I quickly found another set of scratch marks near the edge of the panel. I kept my mind empty of all thought as I set my camera case down and took out my camera. The capacitor status light was glowing a greenish-yellow so it was in relatively good shape. I set up the camera by the airlock and pointed it across the room to the supposedly locked door leading out into the hallway. The killer knew how crime scene photography worked and he wanted us to see his handy work so that meant he would have waited until a few hours before the ship was due to exit Jump before killing everyone else on board. He would not have risked being caught tampering with the doors before then. I programmed the camera to record events that had happened from six to three hours in the past and then made myself sit patiently in one of the plush chairs while the program ran. When the camera was through the capacitor status light started glowing a bright amber.

I fast forwarded through the recording until I saw the killer enter the boarding area. He had stood in the doorway for a moment staring thoughtfully at the airlock. Then his gaze shifted slightly and he stared into the camera lens. He smiled and shook his finger at me reproachfully before turning to work on prying open the door control panel. I stopped the recording and bit my lip thoughtfully. I had no way of knowing what the killer had done to the door or the airlock since I had no experience with starship tech. It was possible he had done nothing and he was only toying with me. It was more likely that he had rigged the door controls so he could override anything I might do on my side of the door. He could then open the airlock and jettison me out into space or worse, he could slowly vent the air in the room out into space until I fell unconscious. Then he would be able to take me alive.

Blanchet had realized all of this and had decided to offer himself up as bait for the killer in the hopes that he could keep the game of cat and mouse going long enough for help to arrive. The killer was too well prepared for Blanchet to have much of a chance. The safest thing for both of us would be to stick together. I grabbed my camera, unlocked the door, and stepped cautiously out into the hallway. The only way for me to know which way Blanchet had gone was to set the camera up for a short snap shot into the past. I hoped that I would find him before the capacitor switched from amber to red.

I walked in near silence down the dimly lit hallway, more due to the soft carpeting than any skill on my part until I came to a T-junction that had a ladder leading to the decks above and below me. There was no carpeting – a visual cue, I guessed, that the area was intended for crew only, not passengers. There were congealing puddles of blood glistening on the bare metal floor.

Again, I kept my mind blank and concentrated on setting up my camera. Blood, I told myself, was an excellent indicator of how far in the past an incident had occurred. I studied the blood for a moment and then programmed my camera. The video took a disturbingly short time to record.

On the small screen I saw Blanchet turning right at the T-junction. I saw the killer leap out of the shadows in an attempt to stab Blanchet just as he had stabbed the engineer on the bridge. Blanchet had not been taken entirely by surprise though; he twisted his body around and dodged slightly to one side. The killer’s blade still ended up with blood on it, but it had not been a killing blow. The killer lunged again, but Blanchet dodged nimbly and shoved the killer into the ladder. The killer vanished from view as he fell through the hole in the floor for the ladder. Blanchet leaned heavily, almost falling, against the wall. He picked up his pistol and staggered down one of the corridors. I started to breathe a sigh of relief.

Then the killer pulled himself back into view. The fall had not been kind to him and he limped heavily as he shuffled down the corridor in pursuit of Blanchet. Judging from the trail of blood Blanchet was leaving behind I knew he would not last long when the killer caught up to him. I was not authorized to carry a gun, all I had was my camera. With the anti-grav disk shut off, however, it was a very heavy camera. I decided if I was able to sneak up in back of the killer I could hit him with my poor camera. Then Blanchet would have time to shoot him.

I knew it was a dumb plan, but it was all I had.

I followed the blood trail, pausing every now and then to use my camera to see how far ahead of me Blanchet and the killer were. After several minutes I reached another T-junction. The hallway ran off to my left and my right, but the blood trail led to a closed door in front of me with a sign identifying the room beyond as the secondary communication node. I kept to the relative safety of the shadows and set my camera up once more. The capacitor light had dimmed to a reddish orange but I knew it had enough life left in it for one, perhaps two more glimpses into the past.

I watched Blanchet stagger across the hallway to the door. He paused for a moment and deliberately looked back, not at the killer I realized but at where he knew I would eventually hide and set up my camera. My heart began to pound heavily as I wondered how he had known I would follow him. The door opened and Blanchet fell through it. Then a few moments later the door opened again and I saw Blanchet sitting on the floor with his back against a closet door staring at something just inside the room. His lips were moving slightly but they soon grew still. A few moments more and the killer limped into view. He stared at Blanchet’s body for a short time and then turned to look angrily back down the corridor, but thankfully not at my hiding place. The killer swore and then limped off camera to the right, presumably so he could get back to the boarding area where I was supposed to be waiting.

I stared at the closed door for a few heartbeats. In all likelihood the killer had also disabled the inside controls to lock the door so I would find no safety on the other side. For some reason though, Blanchet had wanted me to follow him into that room. I crossed the hall, stepping carefully so as not to leave footprints in the blood outside the door, and the door glided silently open.

The room was extremely small. There was a desk with a chair immediately off to the left and a bank of electronics off to the right. On the other side of the room Blanchet’s body was still slumped against the closet door with his legs splayed out in front of him and the soles of his boots were no more than two feet away from the door where I stood. The metal floor was almost completely covered in blood and the smell of it was almost thick enough to taste. I stepped quickly into the room and closed the door behind me. Blanchet’s sightless gaze was focused on an empty corner of the desk – a spot just large enough for my camera. I replayed the recording I had just made and saw that Blanchet had been staring at the same spot just before he died. His lips had been moving … perhaps, hopefully, he had left me a message in time.

I set my camera up under the baleful red gaze of the capacitor status light. The best I could hope for was a few seconds of imagery. I programmed the camera to record what had happened after the door had closed and was dismayed to see the capacitor did not have enough life to go back that far. I pushed the start time forward one second at a time until the camera accepted the program then hit RUN. I winced when I heard the capacitor pop. We were supposed to replace the capacitors before that happened to avoid the risk of damaging the lens. It seemed likely my boss would make an exception for a photographer being stalked by a homicidal maniac.

I played back the recording and saw Blanchet’s deathly pale face staring back at me. He was moving his lips slowly, trying to carefully mouth each word so I would understand, but it only made it more difficult to read his lips. In the few seconds of video I had been able to capture Blanchet repeated his silent message several times, but the only word I was able to understand was closet. “What are you trying to tell me, Blanchet?”

I jumped, perhaps even yelped a little, when the intercom speaker crackled suddenly to life. “There you are. You really should have stayed in the boarding area. It would have been easier on you,” a rough voice said over the intercom. “Now I am going to have to go all the way back to the auxiliary comm room and I will not be happy when I get there. Don’t try to hide. I know all the hiding places on this ship and it will only make me more annoyed.”

I slapped off the intercom. “Oh, not good…” The killer was right, there was no place I could hide. I glanced down at Blanchet’s empty holster and wished fervently that I had a pistol. My eyes swung quickly back to the playback screen on my camera where the video was still looping. Blanchet’s lips moved slowly forming the words ‘in the closet’ – he had hidden his pistol in the closet and then blocked the door with his body!

I leaped across the room and almost lost my footing on the slick floor. I grabbed Blanchet’s arm and tried to pull him away from the door, but he was much heavier than I expected. I tried to give his body another heave, but my feet slid out from under me and I landed roughly on the floor. I tried very hard not to think about what was soaking through my clothing and pushed myself up on my hands and knees. I crawled over to the other side of Blanchet and tried pushing him off the door. Several tries and one more fall later I had managed to move Blanchet far enough from the door for me to open it a few inches. The pistol, thankfully, was within easy reach. I grabbed it and turned to face the door.

Things happened very quickly after that. The door opened. I brought the pistol up. The killer started to charge into the room. I pulled the trigger. I pulled the trigger again. When time slowed back to normal I realized I was sitting on the floor staring over the barrel of the pistol at an empty doorway.

“Agent Dielle! Imperial Marines! Hold your fire!” A voice shouted from somewhere beyond the doorway. I lowered the pistol slightly. A dark-visored helmet appeared cautiously around one side of the doorframe. “Oh my God!” the voice said through the helmet speaker. An Imperial Marine stepped fully into my view and shouted down the hallway, “Get Doc over here now!” He snapped open his helmet to reveal a baby face I did not think was old enough to be a Marine and crossed the room to knee down beside. “Hang in there, Agent Dielle, Doc is on the way.”

“I’m not hurt.” My voice sounded unusually quiet.

“Yes ma’am. Ah, if you don’t mind, ma’am, I’ll just hold on to this for you,” the Marine said as he slipped the pistol out of my hands.

“I think it’s broken. It stopped working after a couple of shots.”

The Marine glanced down at the pistol and an uncomfortable expression appeared on his face. “You fired more than a couple of shots, ma’am; you drained the power cell. You, ah, definitely stopped the bad guy though. Please don’t take this wrong, Agent Dielle, but I never want to make you that angry at me.”

“Oh my God!” Another armored figure, this one with a woman’s voice and medical insignia on her armor, said suddenly from the doorway. The medic shooed the Marine away from me as she snapped her helmet open and took his place by my side. “Where are you injured, ma’am?”

“I’m not injured,” I said as the medic ignored me in favor of her hand-scanner. I motioned toward Blanchet’s body. “Blanchet hid his pistol in the closet and then blocked the door with his body before he died so the killer couldn’t get it. I slid and fell a couple of times trying to move his body so I could open the door. He is very heavy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Hmmm, you aren’t hurt.” The medic sounded surprised.

“Oh my God! Klari!” My Captain was the next to appear in the doorway. I thought it was nice of him to come along. There was not enough space in the small room though for him to enter it as well.

“None of blood is hers, sir. She has a few bruises, but otherwise she’s fine,” the medic reported and a look of relief appeared on the Captain’s face.

“You knew this would happen!” I yelled at him as I jumped to my feet. I lunged toward him, but the medic held me back. “Is that why you sent me? The rookie was the most expendable person on your team?”

“No one on my team is expendable, Klari. I sent you because you were the only photographer on the team with a psyche profile that indicated a chance of surviving if things went bad, like they obviously did.” The Captain frowned and nodded his head like he did when he made a decision about something he had been thinking about for a while. “It is obvious that your talents are being wasted with you being just a photographer. I’m promoting you to full Investigator effective immediately.”

“Full Investigator?” I was breathless. It was a promotion I had not expected to happen for several years. I glanced over at Blanchet’s body; if both of us had been armed from the beginning then perhaps he would still be alive. I looked back up at the Captain “Would I get to carry a gun?”

The Captain nodded his head. “Of course.” He cleared his throat politely after the Marine handed me back Blanchet’s pistol. “I did not mean she would get to carry one now, Sergeant.”

“You’re safe, sir,” the Marine replied crisply but I had seen the humor in his eyes when he had handed me the pistol. “The power cell in that pistol is completely drained.”

“Why?” I threw the word out, a verbal gauntlet demanding an answer to my challenge.

“The lens alone would fetch an enormous price, you know that, but an Imperial crime scene photographer who actually understands the technology behind the lens is even more valuable. Someone has put out a contract for the abduction and delivery of a Imperial crime scene photographer. The Empire needs to find out who so we can discourage anyone else from getting similar ideas.” The Captain smiled a very cold smile. “Now that we have the body of the man hired to do the job, we can trace his movements back and find out who hired him. Then we can dispense a little Imperial justice, but that is something that none of you need to trouble yourselves over.”

The Marines chorused a “Yes, sir!”

I picked up my camera as more Marines filtered into the corridor. I surmised their shuttle had been waiting out of visual range but much closer than the ninety minutes I was told it would take for the Captain to bring a full photography team. The medic, the Marine sergeant who found me, and the Captain began to escort me back to the boarding area. The other Marines stopped to stare at me and I began wonder just how much of poor Blanchet’s blood I had on me. Just as we reached the boarding area a second horrible thing became clear. “Captain? As a full Investigator, would I have to, ah…”

“Yes, Klari,” the Captain said with tolerant patience. “You will have to make trips off planet into space. I’ve told you time and time again: there is nothing to worry about, space travel is perfectly safe.”

I was so surprised he had said it with a straight face that it took me a moment to realize that I’d stepped over the line dividing the two airlocks without thinking about it.

Dan Zeidler is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and the author of the upcoming science fiction adventure novel Ghosts of a Fallen Empire. Dan began expressing his love of writing at an early age with the parentally acclaimed poem Trains are Great which, along with other early examples of his work, earned a place on the prestigious Refrigerator Magnet Gallery. While nothing can be done for his poetry skills, which haven’t improved a whit since that train poem, a steady diet of great stories ranging from ancient mythological tales to Arthurian legends to classic sci-fi and fantasy and on up to Star Trek and Star Wars have improved his storytelling abilities considerably. To further refine and enhance his writing and storytelling skills, Dan lived a life of adventure first by getting a degree in geoscience, then by serving in the US Air Force, then by embarking on a career as a data analyst… hmmm… okay, let’s go back a bit to the part about how a lifetime of reading as many great stories (and many not so great stories) as he could have inspired Dan to write his own stories; stories that above all strive to be fun and entertaining reads.

Dan currently resides with his family among the rugged, forested hills of his home state of Connecticut.

Makhtar Series 1:
Ghosts of a Fallen Empire
In the distant future an isolated human world has survived the Nomad Wars and the Fall of Imperium. Together with their non-human allies, the Dussakairay and the Bregus, they repopulated and rebuilt their devastated region of the galaxy to form a 40 system Commonwealth. For over five centuries the people of the Commonwealth have known only peace and prosperity, but an ancient enemy has been watching from the ruins of the old Imperium, slowly rebuilding their forces, and waiting for their opportunity to reduce the Commonwealth to ashes. The founders of the Commonwealth may have given up their Imperium, but they did not give up all of the Imperium’s secrets. Now the only hope for the people of the Commonwealth lies with the Ghosts of a Fallen Empire.

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