Four gun shots through the back of the head, all fired from the same position. It was unlikely Mr. Franklin was even aware when his assailant struck his killing blow. His body lay slumped across a control panel, it’s blinking lights and flashing monitors obscured by the mashed mess of his heads now ruined state. Little of the mans face could now be used as a reference to his identity but a name tag, hanging from his heavy brown jumpsuit gave the detectives a point of reference for how he might have once looked.
Murder was not uncommon onboard the cargohulk they all lived upon. Twenty five years spent drifting through the void of nothingness that separated galaxies was more then enough to drive even the most stable of men insane. Crews were separated by Gender to avoid confrontation and they were only allowed to mingle in supervised common areas. The commanding officers could not risk one of their workers becoming pregnant. There was no room for maternity leave onboard the massed, dark corridors of the Grand Shix.
The detectives all wore heavy wool trench coats, a luxury in the less then comfortable dampness that hung to every surface on their thousand year old vessel. Their faces were hidden behind goggled respirators; a pair of black tubes ran down from the sides of their chins and looped around at their waist, connecting the concealed environment of their heads to an atmospheric reprocessor that hung from all of their belts. The five tall men mulled about the small confines of the monitors station where Mr. Franklin had met his grizzly demise, scraping at surfaces and carefully studying the empty shells that lay on the metal floor.
“What do we know about Mr. Franklin?” Vlad Camorath stood at the center of the crime scene, watching as his underlings went about their busy work. His voice was dark and morphed by the mask that dangled from his long facial features.
“Age twenty three, born in rural Heroth. His family was poor; he signed up to serve on the Grand Shix to escape a life of poverty that otherwise awaited him.” Simon Vesbin spoke in a morphed Scottish accent from his crouched position near the fallen bullet casings that littered the compartments entryway.
“Does he have any friends or relatives onboard the Grand Shix?”
“Security records report him as being slightly introverted. He eats all his meals alone and only converses with his coworkers on official topics. A member of one of the maintenance crews who works in the pit did, however, go to basic education with him, a Mr. Garoth Hemlun, but neither of them has been seen together since we disembarked.”
Vlad moved up to better view the man’s remains. A massive chunk had been blown across the ships workstation, leaving only Mr. Franklin’s lower jaw and the semi circle sides of his deformed skull remaining. There was no clear sign of the bullets entry wounds, but four shells lay empty at the room’s entryway and none of the projectiles had hit the surfaces in front of him.
“You said Mr. Franklin’s family was poor, what was his education, and what was his job description?”
“He attended basic education in the Leloth Industrial Center, six miles from his family’s home, until the age of sixteen. He then stayed with his parents until his twenty third birthday, at which point he signed up to serve onboard a cargohulk. His job was to monitor cargo hold pressure. Watching lights and reporting any change in their color, essentially.”
Vlad looked about the monitors and panels that Mr. Franklins body lay slumped over, they all shown a steady green with an occasional flashing blue, disturbed only by the drying blood that caked their surfaces.
“Buruk, get the body ready for transport, there’s no sense in letting him rot away in this compartment.”
Buruk looked up from his work, dusting the room for finger prints. His face was obscured like the others, but underneath his dark rebreather little would have discerned him as being human. His face had been hit point blank by a shotgun blast four years before he signed up to serve onboard the Grand Shix, it was a miracle he had survived, but any remnants of his once attractive facial features were now all but obscured by cybernetic implants and grossly misshapen pieces of scar tissue.
“Right away, Vlad.”
“Tell me… Do we have any possible suspects?” Vlad had turned back away from the body, and was once again addressing Simon.
“Security feeds show three other station monitors missing from their posts at the time of his murder, a Charles Smith, a Gunth Lemont, and a Peter Lovingson. All of them have decently legitimate alibis.”
Vlad paused in his stride, staring at the weapons spent ammunition. Fire arms were a rarity onboard a cargohulk. With the hazardous conditions of the ships lower decks, or the pit, as they were known, the captain of the Grand Shix had forbidden anyone but security staffs to be equipped with weapons.
“Where is the closest security checkpoint?”
“The one we passed through at the end of this compartment, manned by only one watchman.”
“Yes, I remember. Could said watchman have entered this compartment without someone else knowing about it?”
“Well sure, visually, but every opening door is observed by a station monitor and then logged in our security database.” Simon paused, eyeing his superior through dark goggled lenses, a man he both respected and trusted “Vlad… if you’re suggesting that a watchman was responsible for this, Lieutenant Falthorn will be less then pleased to read your report.”
Vlad didn’t need the reminder. Harris Falthorn, the head of the Grand Shix security staff was notorious for his favoritism, allowing his staff free reign to practice police brutality with very little motivation. To implicate one of his men on the charge of murder, Vlad would need something more then a simple hunch.
“I’ve seen enough of this room. Lowan, can I see the security feeds of that checkpoint we passed through?”
Lowan Blackbrittle, a scrawny man, more comfortable with computers then with people looked nervously at his superior as he exited through the monitoring stations entryway.
“Ill get them to you right away, sir.”
Vlad stopped the moment he had left the stations dark interior. He stood on a grey metal platform that ran the compartments mile long length, to either side of him dozens of identically sealed doors gave passage to dozens more monitoring stations, all identical to the one in which the late Mr. Franklin had met his demise. A waist high railing separated the platform, and those walking on it from what looked to be an endless cavity in the ships center. Both above and below, hundreds of other identical platforms ran the very same length, all connected to hundreds more monitoring stations, all manned by hundreds of male station monitors. A cool mist drifted freely through the opening before Vlad, its image given an eerie look by the green and orange ambient lighting that was cast from bulbs in the platform above Vlads head.
As he stood in the long compartment, with nothing but the ambience of the vessel which had been his home for almost thirteen years now, something else caught Vlad’s eye, much further down the hallway, much closer to the security checkpoint they had previously passed. From his distance away, it looked unassuming, but as he drew nearer, each step clanking loudly across the ships open expanse, Vlad began to recognize its importance. A brown box, surrounded by dozens of other brown boxes, all of which protruded from a section in the wall where no monitoring stations were situated, the box that had caught Vlad’s eye looked as though it had been violently bent, and then hammered back into its original shape some time later.
“What do you make of this?” Vlad spoke so that only Simon, whom had jogged to catch up, could hear.
“These are network modules. They send messages and signals both between the ships systems, the monitoring stations, and the command deck.”
“And this one in particular?” Vlad pointed to the damaged network module in front of him.
“Well…” Simon hesitated, examining the writing on the modules side “This particular module sends signals from cargo holds six hundred and forty-three through two thousand to monitoring station sixty-four.”
Vlad turned back around, looking at his team as they moved about the crime scene.
“Mr. Franklin was murdered in monitoring station sixty-four, and somebody’s been tampering with this network module, don’t tell me that’s random chance, Simon.”
Simon hesitated for a moment, but Vlad was familiar enough with the man to know what he was thinking under that dark mask of his, he turned and continued walking down the platform, Simon followed seconds later.
“So, somebody decided to keep Mr. Franklin from being able to report a change in one of those cargo holds, but then why murder him as well?” Simon’s words were hushed now as well.
Vlad said nothing, he just kept walking.
The pair walked in silence for ten minutes, down the long length of the platform. They saw nobody else during their journey, all the station monitors were likely hiding in their monitoring stations for fear of the Lieutenant Falthorn’s security staff. It was not uncommon for the Grand Shix’s crew to make all of their movements en mass, therefore reducing the risk of becoming targets for pent up watchmen. It was also not uncommon for the crew to automatically expect violence from the detectives unit as well, despite the fact that Vlad had, to Buruk’s displeasure, forbidden it.
A beep sounded from within Vlad’s coat pocket, he reached in and retrieved a flat metal panel with a screen and read the green text that scrolled across it.
“What is it, Vlad?”
“Its Lowan, he says feeds from the security checkpoint show that the stationed watchman had left his post fifteen minutes before Mr. Franklin’s murder.”
“Regardless, the ship would have told somebody if this compartments door was opened from the other side, and our database shows nothing.”
Vlad turned and punched the old, sticky keys of the compartments door, triggering it to jolt open. The two detectives walked through, first Vlad, and then Simon, into the security checkpoint they had previously passed through.
The corridor was hexagonal, all made of dark grey steel, and the lighting was pure white, but sparse, illuminating only every few feet, what wasn’t touched by its cool radiance was left in concealing darkness. The pair had a short distance to travel before they came upon the lowered cage door that indicated they had come upon a security checkpoint and Vlad used the time to write a response to Lowan, telling him to investigate who was stationed in the monitoring stations that would have warned of an entry into the compartment of the ship they were interested in.
“How can I help you detectives?” The watchman spoke from his position, reclining in a chair on the other side of the cage door. His armor was typical carbon fiber, and he had a dishonest look about him.
Vlad stood in silence, letting the presence cast by his outfit wash over the man. When he did finally speak, he simply ordered the cage to be opened so that the two of them might step through.
The watchman looked suspicious, confused even, but he did not look nervous.
“Your side arm, hand it to me.” Vlad stated flatly once they were through, letting the morphed words carry their own weight.
“Hand it to me.”
Weapons onboard the Grand Shix were not uniform, it was a privately owned ship, like most cargohulks, and thus the security staff was made up mostly of mercenaries and guns for hire whom had nothing better to do then spend the next twenty-five years of their life in the void of empty space. Each watchman brought his own weapons and equipment, but all of them reported to the same man, Lieutenant Harris Falthorn.
Vlad gave the weapon a quick run over, checking it for details. The clip was full, holstering twelve rounds; all the same caliber as the empty shells that littered the monitoring station Mr. Franklin had been killed in, the barrel was clean and well kept, it shone in the light as if it had been recently cleaned, and the handle was made of hardened leather, a stylistic touch to an otherwise uninteresting lump of well crafted steel.
“What is your name, watchman?” Vlad looked up, still holding the weapon in both of his hands.
“Am I being interrogated, detective?” the watchman seemed suddenly put off by Vlad’s questioning and he took a few defensive steps backwards, giving him a full arms reach of space.
“A man has been killed on your watch, watchman. What is your name?”
“Tulm Garreth, I’m close friends with the ships chief of staff.”
Vlad noticed his readiness to drop an important name; it was a smart choice on the man’s part. When a ship spends twenty-five years traveling between galaxies with no contact from anybody, important people quickly become the most valuable recourse a person can acquire.
“Did you murder Mr. Franklin, Tulm Garreth?” Vlad questioned.
“No, that’s absurd. I spent the entire shift at my post!” Tulm’s voice had become agitated, but he stood his ground.
“Mr. Garreth, the security feeds show you leaving your post for a period, fifteen minutes before Mr. Franklins murder.”
“No, that’s impossible; I was here the entire time.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Garreth but we’re going to have to detain you until we conclude our investigation, unless you want to tell me where you went during that time.”
Tulm’s eyes widened into fear, darting back and forth between Vlad, holding his only weapon, and Simon who was reaching into his dark grey trench coat for a pair of handcuffs. Vlad saw the panic in that mans eyes, and he hoped he wouldn’t struggle; this case wasn’t as simple as it seemed and he needed the man to cooperate so that he could get to the bottom of it.
Tulm had a different idea; he turned on his heel and darted into the shadows of the Grand Shix. There was no hesitation before both detectives were sprinting after him, keeping distance, despite their encumbering gear.
Bulkheads and adjacent corridors flashed by as the two pursued their quarry through the maze of tunnels and passages that made up the majority of their massive vessel. Tulm was no fool, he’d worked for the watchmen thirteen years now and he carefully navigated and turned through tunnels that neither Vlad, nor Simon had ever been through. Still, both detectives kept pace with the fleeing man, and as their pursuit neared what looked to be another monitoring compartment Vlad leapt forward, tackling Tulm to the ground and bringing both men sliding across a slick steel floor and into the feet of three idle watchmen.
Their guns were drawn and ready before either fallen form could scurry to his feet.
“Freeze, don’t move a god damned muscle!”
“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” Tulm began screaming, panting and out of breath “These men are trying to kill me!”
The other watchmen recognized his insignia and began kicking and beating Vlad ruthlessly with the butts of their guns. Tulm scooted away from the scene, holding his chest and wheezing for air. Snaps and bangs resounded through the emptiness of the corridor for several seconds before their assault was halted by the clack of a gun being armed.
“Step away from that man before I turn your friend here into a splatter on the wall.”
Simon stood behind the biggest of the three watchmen, his gun pointed at the man’s temple and his other hand firmly grasping the guards shoulder. He had used the poor lighting of the long corridor to his advantage and amidst the commotion he had slipped behind the three aggressors.
“What do you think this is? We’re watchmen, we are the law.”
One of the men spoke up, though they had all taken a few steps back from Vlad, who laid hunched over with one of his masks hoses hissing as it lost pressure, broken in the fight.
“Check his jacket for a badge, we’re detectives” Simon snapped, never lowering his firearm. “and all of you, put your weapons on the ground.”
The men scowled, never breaking eye contact with Simon, save for one, who searched through Vlad’s pockets for identification.
“On the ground!” Simon snapped again, shoving his prisoner down with the force of his gun.
“I don’t care who you are, you’re going to regret this.” The man held at gunpoint spat, hate hanging in his voice.
After moments of searching through his jacket, Vlad finally shoved the watchman off of him, irritated by the wasted time.
“Get your hands off of me, I’ll find it myself.”
Vlad knew how this would end, and he didn’t like it. Either they would let the other watchmen take Tulm away, or they’d be forced to drag the prisoner away while threatening the men with violence. Watchmen, despite their claims to the contrary, cared little for the law, and entirely for keeping their own kind safely protected from any kind of retribution.
“Here, heres my badge. We’ll be taking the prisoner now.” Vlad reached back and removed his broken mask as he spoke to the three looming goons in front of him. His face was firm and set into a scowl. Grey whiskers grew scraggily from a sharp jaw and silver strands of hair hung limply past his ice blue eyes. Blood dripped from his nose, a reminder that his mask didn’t make him the unstoppable force he’d always imagined himself.
“You’ll be taking nobody, scum. I don’t care if you’re the captain of this boat, a watchman stays with watchmen.” The same watchman, held at gunpoint continued in his resolve to be defiant.
Vlad knelt down and collected the guard’s firearms and stuffed them into his coat pockets or hung them across his shoulders.
“We’ll be sure to return these.” He laughed, though he hadn’t found a thing funny, he was simply putting on a challenging display.
“You, get over here.” Vlad turned back to the cowering Tulm and pointed a gun in his direction, not willing to take any chances this time.
“I haven’t murdered anybody, I swear!” Tulm pleaded for his safety, but he’d inadvertently backed himself into a dead end with no where left to flee. The security checkpoint behind them remained in lockdown, its cage still closed and fully secured.
With their prey collected, the two detectives retreated back the way they had come. Both kept their weapons raised the entire way, walking backwards, each with a hand on the secured Tulm Garreth and their eyes focused on the three glaring watchmen, none of them blinking the entire time.
Unbeknownst to any of the party, and unnoticed in the chaos of their struggle, Vlad had received another message from Lowan. It simply stated the names of those station monitors whom would have known if the compartments doors were opened: a Charles Smith, a Gunth Lemont, and a Peter Lovingson, all of whom had been away from their stations at the time of the murder, all of whom had never once spoken to Tulm Garreth.