Science Fiction. Cold Ends: A Brush with Death

Cold Ends:

A Brush with Death

By Lee Austin

Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Views - STS-41B by NASA

The Captain screamed, and her scream was lost to the silence of a vacuum. The void was a horrible shock. The tether desperately dragged her back, and her lungs painfully inflated as the air filled her spacesuit helmet. 

“She’ll live.” A deep voice above her said solemnly. “But this was sabotage.”

Two days later, Captain Cade breathed gingerly while resting in sickbay. She wanted to get up, but everything hurt. Of her five fellow crew members, who would want to kill her?

Doc had recounted to Cade that Danny had rushed to drag her back into the airlock. Danny was a stocky giant who barreled into things and grinned cheerfully whenever he was happy, which was often. Not a killer. No motives for murder came to mind. Not that the rest of the crew were better suspects.

Doc could have killed her anytime in the twelve years they had worked together. They’d had plenty of arguments in that time, during which he generally attempted to summarize a dozen articles that supported his point. Born researcher. They annoyed each other, but were good friends regardless. Come to think of it, no one really had a motive. 

The Doc wandered back through to check on her, and Kesa, the pilot and first officer, popped her head in as well.

“Oh good, you’re awake.” Kesa said with concern.

Cade smiled at her and raised her head, then winced, and resolved not to move again. Kesa was next in line for captaincy, but this was Cade’s last run before retirement, so she did not have anything to gain by her death. Also, the Doc had said Kesa’s movements had been accounted for by both the internal cameras and computer logs. She was on the bridge. No opportunity.

“How are you feeling?” Asked the Doc.

“I’ve been better.” Cade responded, trying not to move too much.

“If you’re feeling up to it, we’d like to have a meeting.” Kesa said.

“May as well, I’m not going anywhere.” Cade responded.

Kesa took a breath and explained, “So we’ve been looking into what happened, and it looks like your air line was cut between the time Danny and Doc were checking your attachments, and before you went into the airlock.”

“I was with Danny the whole time. I helped him check his suit once we were done with yours.” The Doc added seriously.

“I don’t think either of you would kill me.” Cade responded. “I trust Danny too.”

“If you count us out,” Kesa stated, “the only two left are the botanist, who was confirmed to be asleep then,  and the entomologist, who was on camera staring at his experiment the whole time. The trouble is the cameras. We have a black box system that saves all the videos and instrument data in real time. Doc hit the alarm when Danny was pulling you in, which triggered it to eject a copy file, and lockdown the main alarm.”

“Yes?” Asked the Captain. That was what it was supposed to do.

“The copy clears everyone except the Doc, but” Kesa hesitated “it looks legit, but I think it’s been cut. There’s a bit where it’s a little jellied, like an AI was smoothing it over.”

“It looks fine to me.” Doc shrugged.

“Is there any way this could have been an accident?” Asked Cade quietly.

Kesa shook her head.

“No. The line was cut.”

“Any chance there could be a stowaway?” Cade asked, knowing it was unlikely.

“No.” Kesa responded. “A seventh person would use more life support then is currently being drawn.”

“Kesa, please bring everyone in here. We need to get this sorted out without it turning into a witch hunt. And Kesa? How long until we reach Turtle Station?”

“78 hours.”

Captain Cade sighed. If she counted out her friends, that left the two new crew members. Cade didn’t know either of them well. This was their first trip, and they kept to themselves a lot. The botanist was Gilad. He had signed on for a five year tour to save up enough to buy some land on his homeworld, so he could grow more plants. Cade allowed some of the overflow from his workstation to grace the mess hall, and well, it was slowly taking over the ship. Cade was ignoring this for the moment, as it kept him occupied between assignments, and Gilad’s plan involved trading a good bit of the mess for some interesting dirt at the next station.

The entomologist, Joncas, on the other hand, was definitely weird. He didn’t talk much, and when he did, he tended to ramble, and somehow always wound up on the topic of venomous spiders. He had been permanently excused from dinners for eating live cockroaches. Joncas was fine on work assignment, he just preferred to be left alone. They were, in fact, dropping him off at a very isolated cylinder where he would live almost entirely alone.

So Danny and the doctor had an opportunity. The whereabouts of Kesa, Gilad, and Joncas were accounted for. No one had a clear motive. Assuming the logs could be tampered with (which would basically take an admiral-level override once it had been locked down, or equivalent hacking skills), then it would have happened after she checked her spacesuit, and before she left the ship. She furrowed her brow. She had fully checked her suit immediately prior to putting it on. It had been fine. The doctor helped her with a few of the attachments, then left. Danny also suited up to follow her out. They left her alone for about five minutes while she was getting into the suit. Anyone could have come in once the bulky thing narrowed her field of vision, assuming the culprit stayed behind her, and was very, very quiet. Possible, but unlikely. Kesa was out — in a tricky gravity, and she wouldn’t leave her station with an extravehicular activity in progress. Even if she ran, it would take about seven minutes to make it there and back without bumping into anyone. So it would be extremely difficult, with a high risk of getting caught. The biologist was out. He was farther away then Kesa, and-

The entomologist, Joncas,  came into the sick bay.

“Feeling better?” He asked awkwardly.

The captain nodded, and winced with pain. Doc came in to help her adjust the bed so she was sitting up. The rest of the crew came in and awkwardly perched or stood against the wall.

“Well,” Said Danny. “The air line was cut, I know I didn’t do it. That leaves you Doc, but neither Captain Cade nor Kesa think it was you, and frankly I thought we were all good friends by now. So, that leaves you two newbies, but you were too far away. So I reckon one of you taped a knife to one of those little drones.” The large man was angrily eyeing Gilad, who was shifting between his feet, holding a plant with a “get well soon” stuck among the foliage as if it possibly shield him from the large, angry engineer.

“Danny!” Called the Captain. “Did you find any evidence of a knife-wielding drone?”

“Not yet Captain. But I will.”

“I’d no part in this, Captain.” Gilad said angrily. “I’ll cooperate with any official investigation to clear my name, but I want someone impartial investigating.”

“Same.” Joncas. “We weren’t even there. Also, I don’t know why it was decided to leave you alone with the Doc, since he’s the prime suspect.”

Kesa interjected “We don’t have anyone else onboard who could keep Cade alive, and none of us are good enough at medical to stop Doc if used the wrong drug, or the wrong dose.”

“You don’t suspect him, though.” Pointed out Joncas. “You’re trusting friendship over opportunity.”

“Why were you targeted, specifically?” Gilad asked the Captain. “Could anyone else be in danger?” There was silence at this. “Could we pair up or something to stay safe?”

“If we stay in pairs, someone is always alone with a would-be murderer.” Pointed out Kesa. “We’d need to stay in groups of three.”

“Wouldn’t work.” Joncas stated. “All you’d need to do is stab the target and blame it on the witness.” He thought for a moment and added “Or stab anyone in another group covertly, and boom, off the suspect list.” The crew stared at him. “Captain, do you have a reason for this meeting? I have work to do.”

“I’d rather have everything out in the open than deal with any private witch hunts.” The Captain pointedly looked at Danny, who crossed his arms and looked away. “We also need a way to keep everyone safe for the next three days, then we can have someone impartial from Turtle Station investigate and pull the black box. Does anyone have any evidence-backed theories?” The crew looked at each other and shuffled quietly.

“Why don’t we each grab some extra food, and lock ourselves into our own space?” Suggested Gilad. “I’d feel safer that way.”

“Works for me.” Said Kesa. “I can stay on the bridge. Everyone should take an emergency air tank, too. Captain, you’d still need Doc? I could stay with you for safety, and have Danny man the bridge.”

“No. I’ll have Danny in down with the engines, and Doc here. I’ll be okay, and we’d be the only ones together. The four of you should go together to get the supplies.” Everyone nodded except Joncas, who looked alarmed.

“No, wait, this won’t work.”

“Why not?” Asked Kesa.

“Because... “ Joncas hesitated, struggling to find the right words. “You’d be alone with the doctor.”

“I’ve known Doc for twenty years.” The Captain protested.


“So, I trust him.”

“What if there’s an emergency, like the ship we pass in about twelve hours?” Joncas persisted.

“It’s on a different course.” Kesa stated. “And if you’re worried about piracy, we’d barricade ourselves anyway and let insurance deal with it.”

“What if the killer gets out and comes after us one by one?” Joncas asked.

“Joncas, I will show you how to seal and lock a door. You will be fine. Let’s go.” Kesa said firmly.

“I...” Joncas was looking panicked.

“What’s with you anyhow?” Asked Danny. ‘You like to be alone.”

“Hey look, I don’t know how to say this, but, well.” He paused with annoyance. “Look, it’s just a job, alright? A very lucrative client, with many, easy high-paying jobs. But also a very careful client, if you catch my drift.”

“You are drifting alright.” Stated Danny. “Make your point.”

“There is a significant chance that the ship we pass in twelve hours will have orders to kill us if no message reporting the Captain’s death is sent out in the three hours.” Gilad and Kesa stepped away from Joncas, and Danny straightened up menacingly.

“Just a job.” Joncas raised his arms in a peaceful gesture. “Just a job. Here you’d have a quick death, the doc would take the fall, and I would have a nice payout. Now you are all loose ends, if you follow my meaning, and I’m concerned that any back-up plan may include that very well armed ship which will pass close in about twelve hours. So new plan, join me, and make all our retirements a little earlier and less permanent.”

“Joncas, you tried to kill me?” Asked the Captain.

“Yes. So we send the message, and make it to the station. I have a way out from there. Get me that far, and I’ll take you as far as” Joncas hesitated, figuring in his head “New Kansas. For a price of course.”

“You tried to kill me, you’re just telling us this, and you want us to pay you to take us someplace else?”

“To take you there alive. The alive part is difficult. That is why I ask for money. A lot of money, since you don’t need money if you’re dead, which you will be without my services.” Joncas explained. “And since I’ve botched the job, the Frontier Company probably wants me dead too. No witnesses.”

“Why should we believe you?” Asked Kesa.

“Just call up any of your old pals from retirement tier three or higher. They’ll know.” Joncas said, looking at the doctor. The rest of the crew also looked towards him. Doc could have retired years ago.

“Money attracts problems.” The doctor shrugged. “There’s a high rate of kidnappings and weird accidents and so forth. A few of my old buddies are okay. A bunch are not.”

“Is that why you haven’t retired?” Asked Kesa.

“I’m happy here. I have time for my research. I travel everywhere, and I don’t have to deal with sick people very often.” Doc explained casually.

“Excuse me! Ship of death. Eleven hours. Act now, plan later.” Joncas interrupted.

“Joncas, I’m not going to hire you to keep us safe.”

“No worries. Scratch that. Many worries. Just send out the message that Cade is dead, and we’ll part ways at Turtle.”

“Should I arrest him now, and find a spot to hold him for a while?” Kesa asked. The Captain looked thoughtful, and Kesa added “We’re not really entertaining this lunatic are we?”

“I’ll take responsibility. If there’s a chance our lives are at risk, then I want to hear ALL of the options.” The captain decided. “Can you prove that we will be in danger if we do not send out that message?”

“Not directly. I can prove I tried to kill you. I used a sharp, razor thin wire on a high-speed motor to cut the air tube from the inside.” Joncas looked dejected “and it’s probably floating who knows where by now. I have knife skills. I understand poisons.” No one looked convinced. “And the real Joncas is stuffed into my cold storage locker.”

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