The small conference room was jam-packed. Matt was unacquainted with many of the people in attendance. Chairs and tables were lined up facing a podium and large monitor screen, which filled the far wall. Officer Perry was occupying one of the chairs. Detective Zimmerman, he noticed, was nowhere to be seen. He tried to suppress his delight. Matt took a chair as the chief walked to the front of the room and stood behind the podium. The atmosphere was tense. The air felt as though it would fragment if anyone spoke.
“Okay boys and girls.” the chief broke the silence. “Nothing and I cannot say this strongly enough, nothing of what is brought up here is to leave this room. Most of what you are about to hear is classified “Top Secret.”” Vanderhaar shifted his weight. “Before today, only a small number of people have been privy to certain facts. This case is going to be a tough one. I would very much like to give each of you the option to leave now before you learn something that might disturb you, but I won’t do that. Each of you is here because each of you possesses certain skills. In short, I need each and every one of you too badly to let you off the hook.” He cleared his throat. “You will have daily meetings, and I will review all the data. This case has top priority. Until it is finished, all others are to be put on the back burner because —” He took two deep breaths and then said something extraordinary. “We have a serial killer on Sirius Primary.”
“That’s impossible,” Perry muttered. “No crime goes unpunished, certainly not murder. The tracking system guarantees it.”
“Everything will be made clear, or at least as clear as is possible under the circumstances. I want no one to say anything in public or give any impression that the system has in any way broken down. We must, above all, maintain or and protect belief in the system. Don’t fool yourselves—it is that belief more than anything else that keeps the peace in this colony. It would be chaos if the people lost faith in it.” The Chief continued. “In this case, Perry, I’m afraid you are incorrect. We have tried to keep it quiet to avoid a general panic, but some person, as of yet unknown, has committed three separate murders.”
The gasp was audible.
“I know it’s a bit much to take in, so we’ll start with the detective who has been on this case from the beginning. Step forward and fill us in Rishards.
A tall, thin, dark-skinned woman sitting to the left of Matt stood and moved deliberately toward the podium. The chief surrendered his position and took a seat.
“I hardly know where to begin. I’m sorry, but this will not be very pleasant. I haven’t had a sound night sleep in two weeks,” Detective Richards spoke loudly. “Fifteen days ago, I was called in to investigate a particularly grisly murder. Carly Dominic, a supervisor in hazardous materials safety, was found hanging from the ceiling in the administration sector. Show the image.”
A gruesome picture formed on the large screen behind her. A blood-covered woman was hanging some three feet above the ground suspended by electrical wiring by her wrists in such a way as to hand displayed blocking the hallway. Even from a visual image, Matt could tell that the cords had been pulled from the ceiling. Tod’s stomach started to turn on him. It had been some time since he had been privy to such a sight and he desperately wanted out of the room. Leaving apart from the chief ban would hardly be discreet. Matt reached into his pocket, and grabbed his anti-anxiety pills, popped one out of the plastic sheet and took it without water.
“The victim was found suspended from the ceiling by wires tied around her wrists and pulled tight so that the body was displayed across the corridor. Death was caused by two puncture wounds in her upper torso. Two precise stab wounds punctured each lung. The victim bled to death while choking in her own blood.” Detective Richards used a laser pointer to draw circles on the image to designate the puncture wounds. “At first it was considered secondary, but the victim’s palm chip was removed.”
“Why would someone go to all that trouble? It’s not like we couldn’t identify the victim.” Matt commented.
“The body was left in the center of a hall between shifts, displayed for all to see when the shift ended. The killer wanted the body to be seen.” Richards elaborated. “They took out the chip to leave a message.”
“What was the message?” Perry asked. “How?”
“The chip was used to leave a message on the city’s public message system under the victim’s identity. The message read, “I’m sorry.” Richards answered.
“I’m sorry?” Matt confirmed.
“This should be easy. Why not just run a contact web on the victim? It should be obvious who the perp is.” Officer Perry asked.
“And that would be the real problem.” The chief resumed his position behind the podium. “We can’t. During the murder, for approximately thirty-six minutes, both the city tracking systems and the video imagers were offline.”
“How can that happen?” Matt thought about what he and Officer Perry had discussed earlier about the system’s failure to record. He meant to ask him more about it but was distracted. That was why the chief had warned them, the populace assumed the system foolproof. If it became universal knowledge that the system had holes, it would undermine the general sense of security. In just the few days he had it to use, Matt found it to be an incredibly useful tool. A broken tracking system, however, shook his very, if only recently acquired faith. He could no longer rely on the best tool security had. He wondered how big a problem it was.
“Officer Perry, your reports often mention what you call glitches.” The chief said.
“Yes, but they are infrequent and only last a few seconds.” Perry objected.
“Now it’s time to let you all in on the most tightly held secret in the star system. These ‘glitches’ as you call them, are referred to as ‘Black-outs’ in official reports. It would be less confusing if we stick with that term.”
“You knew?” Perry asked.
“It has been a closely held secret since the founding of the colony,” Vanderhaar said. “I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that this remains a secret.”
“The whole system is a lie?” Matt wasn’t sure how to feel. A favored toy had been taken away, but he gained a system that needed someone like him, a person who trained to investigate without a safety net.
“How can the system fail to work?”
“We can predict black-outs. Solar radiation spikes cause them. They occur when large solar flares on the surface of the smaller sun, Sirius. This radiation interferes with the signals emitted from palm implant signals, preventing the sensor network from picking them up unless the chips are within a few inches of the sensor. The digital images of the video systems are likewise compromised.”
“They can last half an hour?” Perry inquired.
“The longest one recorded was a little under three hours.” The chief said. “Luckily, we have back up programs so that all security and financial systems continue, and no one notices the outages. We’ve gotten good at predicting them in advance.”
“Apparently someone else can too,” Matt commented.
“That information is a closely guarded secret, and very few outside of this room know about it, and no-one outside the government has the equipment to track it.”
“It was initially thought to be a coincidence — an unlucky happenstance.” Richards continued.
“Initially?” Matt did not like where this was going.
“Yes, and we apprehended a suspect. A memory impaired exposure victim by the name of Toby Kossman. He was discovered at the scene, unconscious. Unfortunately, since his memory centers were surgically removed, he has no recall of the events. A medical examination found a concussive wound on the back of his head consistent with blunt force trauma. We now believe that the killer struck him from behind to prevent him from saying what he knew or saw. Regrettably, we will never know for sure.” Detective Richards said.
“Is there any way to retrieve a burnouts memory?” Officer Perry asked. Vanderhaar glowered at the young officer’s use of the pejorative.
“No, to save them, all the memories of the mind rip must be deleted. The process, as we know, prevents them from making new memories. Once they go to sleep, they reset. Everything they saw or knew since waking up is lost.”
“Dales. You and Rishards will get together after the briefing and go over the details. We need to be thorough about this. You can take a seat, Detective.” Richards nodded and left the podium. “Doctor Taylor had training as a criminal profiler before she came here. She has agreed to assist us with this case. If you’d please—” The chief motioned for the Doctor to take the podium.
An elderly woman stood and ambled to the front. “Never thought I’d have to do this again. Okay. Thank you. First, it has long been acknowledged that most serial killers are male between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-six. Most are male and come from the mainstream of the dominant culture. That being said, there are significant variations to the rule to throw it straight out the window. Therefore, we will let the nature of the murders tell us about the killer. The elements that first spring out are the visibility of the crime scene. The killer wanted this to be seen by the citizens, either as a warning or perhaps for the accolades.”
“What do you mean accolades?” Matt asked.
“Well, we live in the most secure place that mankind has ever created for ourselves, and the killer was still able to do this. It’s a message, perhaps of defiance against that system, or as a warning to others. We also cannot rule out an organized crime element. She could have been killed as an example to others who owe money to the wrong crowd. But I think that it is more likely to be the former.”
“Why?” Officer Perry asked.
“The identification chip and the message.” The Doctor continued. “A mob enforcer wouldn’t apologize. It would dilute the message to those it intended to terrify.”
“Let’s save the debate until we’ve heard the entire presentation.” The chief announced. “This is going to be a long session. Copies of the case files will be delivered to your accounts shortly. You’ll be able to review them in detail. Next case.”
“Eight days ago, we found another victim. An exploratory CAT crew found the support systems technician. The saw the body staked out outside the dome as they returned from a scouting expedition. The atmosphere had already corroded most of the body.”
“Don’t serial killers keep the same MO?’ Officer Perry asked.”
“Not always.” the doctor spoke out. “Although their method of killing was significantly different, there were some specific elements which linked the two murders.”
“Such as?” Matt asked.
“The palm chip was also cut out of the victim’s hand, and again the ‘I’m sorry message’ was left on the city message board.” The doctor continued.
“Not to mention that this murder also occurred during a blackout.” Detective Richards spoke out.
“That got to be the limiting factor. Someone who has access to the information about the black-outs must be involved, even if unwittingly.” Matt offered. “That would have to limit our suspect pool to a very select crowd.”
“That’s what we thought, and it is a small list. Even smaller when you consider that the murderer would have to have precise knowledge of when the black-outs would occur and how long they’d last.” The chief said. “We’re getting off subject continue detective.”
“As I said, the victim was staked out exposed in the acidic atmosphere. The only wounds we could still discern were the severe laceration of the palm and a small cracking on the back of the skull.” She continued. “The only clue we have is a protective suit. It was found in the airlock closest to the victim by the body. To perform this murder, the killer would have had to don the suit, activate the airlock, and drag the body out into the atmosphere.”
“We should have gotten some DNA or hair samples from the suit.” Matt prodded.
“It was left in an airlock; the wiring on the hatch had been damaged so the outer hatch wouldn’t close. The acid destroyed the entire inner lining of the suit. Nevertheless, we know the size of the suit. It was fit to a six foot, one-inch tall man.”
“Okay, so we know how tall he is?” Offer Perry offered. “I can run a list on all colonists that height. It should reduce the suspects quite a bit.”
“You’d have to run it on anyone six foot one and smaller.” Richards continued. “The killer could have worn it baggie or tight.”
“Okay well, it should still help.” Perry continued.
The chief retook the podium. “We ran that check. It narrowed the list by twenty percent of the colony. We also limited it to a two-step contact web of those who knew about black-outs. Hell, we also limited it to those who were out of dome at the time, then researched the locations of those every microsecond of the day since the first murder. We came up blank. That is why I called in Detective Dales. He has experience in real, hard, detective work. He’s earth trained, not dependent on the data banks and systems tracking system.”
“So, you are the man.” Offer Perry jostled Matt with his elbow.
“Pipe down.” The chief continued. “During the last couple of black-outs, we ran extra security patrols. Everyone on our short list was visually observed. And two days ago, it happened again.”
“This murder occurred in the canyon. We are unsure of the exact method of death here as we are still trying to locate most of the body.” This time there was no debate, just horrified stares. “The victim, Telly Sawyer, was an executive with SiCore. In this case, I first learned of the murder through the cities message board. The victim’s palm chip had been used to place the ‘I’m sorry’ message. It wasn’t until last night that we started to find pieces of the body. The victim had been chopped up into pieces and fed into the auto-fertilizers on the farms, where the pieces were scattered and buried by the machines.”
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Perry said.
“Well, I’m going to eat only pre-packed meals until they find the rest of the victim,” Richards said.
“This is when they called me in.” The doctor said. “We had three murders, all linked together by the messages and the black-outs. It is my opinion that we have a serial killer who will not stop until we stop them. In a case like this, the first step is to identify how the killer chooses its victims. We also need to understand the motives.”
“With the divergent methods of killing, it is possible we are dealing with a murder gang, sharing knowledge and using the message as a way of counting their kills,” Matt asked.
“We haven’t ruled that out.” The doctor admitted.
“How about cult behavior,” Matt asked. “The first two murders did look a bit, Christian.”
“Excuse me?” Rishards voice was shrill.
“Look put up the first two murders on the screen.” Matt requested. Detective Richards complied, and the two bodies appeared next to each other. “See the victims look kinda like they’ve been crucified. Before I left the earth, there was a protest against the palm chips. Religious groups have openly referred to them as the mark of the beast, a prelude to Armageddon.”
“Then it is possible that the killer sees themselves as an avenging angel killing the followers of the anti-Christ?” the doctor mused.
“Or maybe as the savior of their souls by freeing them from the evil of the ‘mark,’” Matt said.
“By killing them?” Richards asked.
“The mind of a religious zealot is not always rational. In the middle ages, the clergy believed they could save the souls of witches by purifying the bodies in fire.” Matt continued.
“Yes, but only the women who recanted were saved, and they were all tortured and killed regardless,” Richards added.
“There have been numerous accounts of serial killers following religious or even delusional beliefs.” the profiler added.
“Well then, what about the last victim, where they crucified also?” Officer Perry inquired.
“Hard to tell,” Detective Richards said. “It is possible the victim was ritually staked out and run over by an auto-tiller.”
“The sorry messages could mean they are not sorry for their actions, but sorry they were forced to go to such lengths.” The doctor added.
“Such a person would be driven to save souls all the time, surely. Do we have any files on preacher types who routinely get carried away?” Matt asked.
“No, someone like that wouldn’t have gotten past the UN screening process for eligibility off world.” The chief stepped in.
“What about the first victim?” Richards spoke up. “The second victim could perhaps be viewed as purified, even the third in a strange back to the soil kinda way. The first, however, she was stabbed through the lungs. I can’t see anything purifying in that.”
“I can’t either.” Matt conceded.
“What do all the killings have in common? What do they say about the killer?” The doctor asked.
“They know about black-outs, they were all vicious.” Officer Perry said.
“The first two were public,” Richards said. “Except for the canyon killing. There was no attempt to hide; in fact, the killer went out of the way to publicly display what they did.”
“If the killer splayed out the victim in a field, it is possible he wanted to make it visible too. The may have misjudged the tiller schedule.”
“So why would they do that?” the doctor prodded.
“As a warning or a challenge?” Matt thought aloud.
“Maybe both. The messages indicate remorse, a person who really doesn’t want to kill but is driven to it for some inexplicable reason; at the same time the public displays, as well as the elaborate methods, indicate a person who wants recognition.”
“What? Do they think this is some kind of game?” Perry said.
“Yes, I think they might be daring us to catch them.” the doctor said.
“This is Sirius Primary,” the chief spoke out. “Crimes don’t go unsolved here. Not under my watch.”
“Well, that’s not entirely true any longer is it?” the doctor continued. “This killer is in the most secure, policed environment mankind has ever produced, and he has defeated our flawless system. Yes, Officer Perry, I believe the killer thinks it is a game. And it’s between the system and himself, and he’s winning.”
“How about the burnout?” Perry asked.
“Do you mean Mister Kossman?” Detective Richards asked.
“Yes, is it possible for an exposure victim to be a serial killer?” Perry asked.
The doctor rubbed her chin. It was an idea that hadn’t occurred to her. “No,” she started slowly. “I don’t believe they can be, at least not a very sophisticated one. A burnout cannot make new memories. Each time they go to sleep, they awaken knowing only what they knew previous morning. If one were a serial killer, he would awake most likely with the same plan in mind. One might go out and kill, even using the same criteria for choosing their victims and using the same method. To them, it would be the only murder, the same murder every day. They would very much seem like a serial killer, but in actuality, they wouldn’t be.”
“Well that was a clear as mud.” the chief said.
“Sorry, I think maybe it might be possible, but not in this case. There are too many variables; the victims were killed in different ways, they look different and even come from different segments of society. A person who is memory impaired would be incapable of such ‘variety.’
“Okay,” Perry said. “Just a thought.”
“How about the size?” Matt said. “We know the murderer has to be tall enough to have hung up the first victim from the ceiling, and also six foot one inch or shorter. The two facts argue against each other.”
“Physical strength, enough to lift the woman up, and drag the technician out of an airlock,” Richards added.
“Or have accomplices,” Matt said.
“Most serial killers are loners.” the doctor said.
“How about mentality?” Matt said. “These killings all indicate a certain degree of knowledge about the city. They knew about the location of the power cables that ran along that section of the admin quad in the first murder, as well as the break schedule of the administrative personnel. The killer also knew to use an environment suit and an airlock.”
“And how to use and where to locate farm equipment,” Richards added.
“Any of that information can be found on the colonies mainframe,” Perry said.
“If someone looked up that information, the queries could be tracked. Could you track them down?” Matt asked Officer Perry.
“I think so,” he said.
“You forget that the killer eluded our extra patrols to commit the last murder.” the chief said.
“You don’t think it’s a member of the force?” Richards gaped.
“I’m not limiting my suspect list at all. As of now, everyone in the colony is a suspect unless we can definitively count them out.” The chief scrutinized them intently.
The doctor tapped on the podium until she got the attention of the others. “The killer’s apologies indicate that they feel remorse. This would indicate a strong compulsion to kill. I think they want to be stopped because they cannot or will not stop killing on their own.”
The chief walked over to the door and let in an officer whose hands held several data chips. “I want each of you to study this carefully. I want some ideas by the end of the shift.”
Officer Perry was the first out of the door, followed by Detective Richards. Matt was a little slower, his mind was reeling at the implications of everything he just learned.
“Dales,” the chief called him over.
“Yes, sir,” he turned.
“Your drug dealer’s trial has been moved up. You are expected on the stand in an hour and a half.”
“Yes, Sir.” Matt took a file and headed toward his desk.