“It’s nothing serious, just a few murders.”
That much should have alarmed me, but the woman I talked to on the dispatch line didn’t give away what should have deterred me. I took the job without question, partly because I needed the money, but mostly because her lack of information had sparked my curiosity. The Federation was notorious for keeping information from the public when things in the galaxy got sour, and I was willing to pucker up to see what was so serious about murders in the heart of the storm. The dispatcher’s memo about total confidentiality made it sweeter.
Travel was difficult the closer you were to the center of the Milky Way, but it wasn’t impossible. You just needed the right kind of ship, one that could escape the pull of so many stars and the black hole we all knew was there. There were still crazy bastards who wanted to study the radio waves, so the Sagittarius Station was constructed to satisfy them. There wasn’t much out that way for crime, which was why I was so curious about a string of murders aboard the ship. It was possible that a grad student was getting deep space sickness and strangling his colleagues, or that there was a stowaway onboard from a galactic pirate ship. I was intent to find out.
Sagittarius was nothing but a black speck in a sea of stars as I approached the station, hitching a ride aboard a Federation cargo ship delivering supplies to the scientists. The first person to greet me upon docking was Dr. Doerr, a plump astrophysicist in a grey jumpsuit who had a stronger handshake than I expected.
“We’re glad someone finally came,” he sighed, leading me away from the deck. “We’ve had accidental deaths before, especially last year when we were having issues with the reactor core, but never anything like this.”
“I haven’t been given much information by my superiors,” I told him. “I only know that three people have been killed in the last two standard weeks, all the same way.”
Doerr was grave. “They were turned inside out, detective.”
“Great. Where are we headed?”
“Captain’s quarters. He asked me to fetch you when you arrived.”
Every ship needed a captain, I figured, and when there were a thousand scientists and government officials aboard Sagittarius at a time, someone needed to be in charge. Doerr led me up and down a few elevators and across three bridges before we arrived in the quarters of Eldridge Penny, a former Federation official who now went by Captain Pen.
“You must be the detective the Federation decided to send over,” he said to be from behind his desk. I was seated across from him, with Doerr cowering in the back corner of the room. Pen was framed by a vast window, looking out to the pulsing heart of the galaxy. He wasn’t that intimidating at first glance, but the hard lines etched into his face started to suggest he had fists of iron.
“You can call me Straka,” I offered. “They’ve been looking for someone to get over here for the last few days, ever since the third murder.”
“It’s about time.”
“I have a good track record with the Federation. I hope to have this solved as soon as possible, but I’m going to need some more information than what’s been released to the public. Dr. Doerr already told me one tidbit.”
“Did he?” Pen asked, glaring to the poor man in the corner.
“It slipped out,” Doerr shrugged.
“I was going to find out eventually,” I added. “There’s not many things in this universe than could turn a man inside out.”
“The autopsies performed by the biologists confirmed it,” the captain said. “Their organs were on the outside, and their skin inside. No one has even seen anything like it before.”
“It could have been a man.”
“A talented man,” Pen shrugged. “There was no indication that the skin had been flayed by a knife. The biologists found no incision wounds.”
It was going to be a stranger case than I’d expected. “Did anything important happen before the first murder? Maybe a big discovery, or good or bad news came for someone from the capital?”
“Everything was normal. A research ship had returned from a short excursion to the nearby nebula, with less than thrilling results from one of the big experiments, but it wasn’t anything too crazy. The scientists aboard this station, no offense Doerr, aren’t the most exciting stars in the sky. Some of the younger kids like to get drunk on their days off, but we’ve never had murders aboard as long as I’ve been in charge.”
“And when you weren’t?”
“Even when my predecessor was in charge, the only deaths were accidents.”
“That’s what I said,” Doerr piped up.
“Quiet over there, doctor,” the captain hissed. “As I was saying, we’ve had mechanics fall off of ladders, physicists with cancer from the reactor, and now and then a suicide when someone misses home too much, but never anything like this.”
“Was anything caught on video?”
“No. Before the victims were attacked, the feeds were disrupted by something that the technicians can’t figure out. They suspect it’s a radio pulse, but can’t figure out what it has to do with the murders.”
“And no one else has seen anything?”
“Well...” Doerr started.
“Did someone see something?” I asked him.
Doerr nodded solemnly. “Well, we don’t know for sure, but when we found the second victim, we also found an astrophysicist in the same room, though she’d been driven mad. She’s been in the infirmary since.”
“I’d like to talk to her.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Pen said.
“Dr. Chomsky has been deemed a risk to herself and others. I don’t want the Federation on my back about a detective with his throat slit. I like this job.”
“I’m assuming you don’t give her weapons.”
“She’s...found means of doing what she wants regardless of what she’s been given.”
“Despite the supposed risk, I’ll still need to talk to her if we have any hopes of stopping these murders. Unless you have any sane witnesses aboard, captain.”
He scowled. “Doerr, take Detective Straka to the infirmary. Make sure there are as many guards as possible on hand in case Chomsky doesn’t want to agree with protocol.”
The scientists we passed on the way gave me a combination of fearful and excited looks. It was clear that everyone aboard the ship was worried by the murders, and possibly more worried by who could be doing it. I’d seen a lot of bad thing on my trips through the galaxy, but turning someone clean inside out was new to me. It took a sick mind to do that to someone else, and having the skills to do it flawlessly made me a tad uneasy.
The infirmary was easy to pick out as we approached; five guards stood outside the doors, and even more were inside, mostly concentrated around one bed. There were a few other patients and doctors going about their normal business, but I was more interested in the thin woman with her arms and legs strapped down to the bed.
I shuffled through the guards to get closer. Doerr cowered behind somewhere, his usual place. “You must be Dr. Chomsky,” I said, greeting her with a nod.
One guard leaned towards me and whispered, “I have to warn you not to get too close. She’s escaped three times since we brought her here.”
“And I’ll do it again!” she shouted. I imagined she must have been young and pretty before going crazy. Now Chomsky was pale and sickly, her skin nearly grey.
“Does she eat?” I asked the guard.
“Sometimes,” Doerr said from behind me.
“I’m a detective under the Federation,” I told the young woman. “I’m here to find out what’s been happening, and I was told that you’re the only one who’s seen something.”
Her arms tensed under the straps that bound her. I could only guess how much she wanted to leap up and escape again, but I figured that the guards didn’t want her out for a fourth time. “I told them everything, detective, and they strapped me down here. I won’t say it again.”
“I need to know. More people could die.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’ll happen again anyways. It’ll come back for me again too and let me free. It’ll let me go again! Don’t let it near me!”
One of the guards nearest to her removed a syringe from his jacket. I waved it off. “What is it?” I asked Chomsky.
“It’s nothing of this world, detective. It’s nothing you’ve ever seen before!”
“She’s getting worked up again,” the guard with the syringe said. “The captain has requested she be sedated when this happens.”
“Give me a few more minutes,” I said.
“Dr. Chomsky, you have to tell me something.”
She gritted her teeth. “You’ll see it soon enough, detective! It’s watching us all right now, deciding who to flip next! Maybe it’ll be a Federation cock-sucker like you! Or you, Doerr! Yes, I see you hiding from me back there! You let those goddamn idiots bring it back here!” The guard readied the needle. “You’re all next!”
It only took a few seconds for her to lapse into unconsciousness. I left the infirmary once I was assured she was out.
“Dr. Doerr,” I said over dinner in the mess hall, “I’ve been thinking.”
“About what, detective?” he asked. It seemed that Pen had made him my unofficial babysitter while I was aboard Sagittarius. I hadn’t been able to shake him since arriving, I noticed.
“Dr. Chomsky seemed to be under the impression that the murders had to do with something that was brought back to the station from a mission, and a mission that you supervised.”
“It’s absurd, really.”
“What if it isn’t?”
“Excuse me, detective?”
“What exactly was the mission for? Was it the one that Pen mentioned to me?”
He looked all around us to make sure no one was listening, and then leaned across the table to me. “I wouldn’t tell you if the Federation weren’t involved...”
“But the nebula is about as close to the black hole as you can get without being in danger. The scientists study the radio waves from there, and there are a few small planetessimals that offer landing sites.”
“Does anything exist on these planetessimals?”
“Not that we know of. Think of them as primordial planets, with no atmosphere or vegetation. There’s barely enough gravity to hold us to the surface, let alone to hold the worlds together.”
“Would the scientists bring something back here from the surface?”
“There isn’t anything to bring back.”
“If Chomsky isn’t as crazy as we all think she is, then maybe they did, possibly without knowing.”
“She’s crazier than we all think she is, detective. They keep strapping her down, but she keeps finding a way to get out.”
“Are there tapes of her escaping?”
“No. In fact...”
“What is it, Deorr?”
“There have been disturbances in those video feeds too.” He appeared to be feeling grave again. “You don’t think that someone’s letting her out? The same person who’s behind the murders?”
“How could she be let out when she’s so heavily guarded?”
“Could it be one of the guards?”
I shrugged. “Let’s find out.”
Captain Pen hadn’t been thrilled by the idea of isolating Chomsky in a separate room for the night, but Doerr insisted that he could be nearby with a sedative in the case that she got excited. One guard had to be with us in the case she overpowered Doerr, which was likely, but I insisted it be one that hadn’t been aboard during at least one of the murders. We ended up with a tall brute that only went by Skull.
Chomsky wasn’t happy with the arrangement when she woke from her previous slumber, but she didn’t have much choice but to spend the night with the three of us. Though she was nearly worked up to the point of sedation at first, she eventually calmed down enough and became pleasant to talk to, though most of it was about the insides of the biologist she’d seen be turned inside out, and she still called Doerr and a cock-sucker. I allowed it, because what she was telling me was finally useful and coherent.
“I spent three years fighting on Earth during the Expansion Wars,” she told me, “I’d seen some terrible things there, but this was different. One moment Gabaldon was testing samples, and then all I heard was ripping. It was his skin. It was being sucked into his body while all of the insides were coming out. There was so much blood. It was everywhere.” Doerr stifled a gag. “It happened so fast. His heart was still beating for at least a minute after it happened.” With her arm still strapped down, she mimicked the heartbeat by clenching and unclenching her hand against the bed. “They found us a few minutes after he finally died.”
“They didn’t suspect you?”
She glared at me. “They did, but I had an alibi for the first murder. I was on the other side of the station when it happened, caught on tape.”
“Earlier today you suggested that whatever is responsible came back from that research mission two weeks ago.”
“What makes you say that?”
She pursed her lips. “They must not tell you much out near the capital, detective. If you even are one.”
“I’m just trying to figure out what’s happening here. It’s my job.”
“Here’s the deal, then. Funny things happen in that nebula that no one wants the Federation to know about. They only asked for help because it was finally getting out of hand.” Doerr exhaled a low groan. “You know he’ll find out, cock-sucker! Just knowing about what I saw is knowing too much.”
“What kind of funny things happen there?” I asked.
She took a deep breath. “They’re not studying radio waves out there.”
Skull interrupted with his first words of the night. “First, I have to remind Detective Straka that everything he sees and hears aboard Sagittarius is to remain confidential.”
“I know that,” I said. “That’s one of the first things they told me over dispatch. What are they studying?”
“The black hole,” Chomsky answered. “Some of them think they know what’s going on, but they don’t. I know what happened out there, and I know that they brought something back with them.”
“Still preposterous,” Doerr added. “Nothing living is out there to be brought back. We’ve been over this, detective. We’ve done numerous tests looking for signs of life, but there is nothing that close to the hole.”
It sure sounded preposterous to me, but something about the fear in Chomsky’s eyes was too intriguing. “What happened?” I asked her.
“I don’t know exactly,” she started, “but I know there were experiments to see where the hole leads and how objects behave within it. They were sending objects into it. I think it was a probe.”
I looked to Skull. “I believe it was a probe as well,” he grunted.
“Does the captain know about all of this?” I asked.
“Make sure you let him know that he can’t hinder an investigation by hiding information.” I looked back to Chomsky, urging her to go on.
She nodded. “They sent in a probe, and the hole sent something out. I didn’t realize it until I saw it happen to Gabaldon. I’ve done some work on timespace and the prospect of a fourth dimension, detective. That’s what we’re dealing with and no one here believes me!”
“Because there is no fourth dimension,” Doerr quipped. Now he was the one getting worked up. “We’ve done all of the tests and there was nothing that suggested the damned black hole led to another dimension.”
“How sure are you about that?” I asked him, and then turned back to Chomsky. “You also said earlier that whatever came back has been freeing you.”
“It has!” She was beginning to tense up. “You believe me, don’t you detective? We have to get out of this station before it kills again!” She struggled to move under the straps. “We’re all going to die!” Doerr reached for his syringe and I allowed him to inject her, because I’d gotten all that I needed. The needle slipped into her vein. “You can’t keep me quiet forever! It’s going to happen again!”
We remained in the infirmary after she was asleep. Doerr and I slumped onto two chairs as the hours got later, but Skull remained standing strong.
“Be honest with me,” I told Doerr, “is there a possibility that the scientists here somehow did it?”
Doerr was tired, and thankfully looser in that state. He shrugged. “If I’ve learned anything studying the universe, it’s that anything is possible. I still have my doubts. Unless you can prove it, no one will believe it.”
“How do you prove the existence of a fourth dimension?”
“We tried, and it didn’t turn out so well.”
I looked over my shoulder at Skull. “How about you? Do you think Doerr’s people brought back a monster?”
He shrugged too. “There have been worse people aboard this ship.”
I tried to stay awake for as long as I could, but when Skull assured me that he would be standing tall all night long, I let sleep overtake me. The chair I was in was as stiff as Captain Pen, but the long day was catching up with me.
I dreamed of the usual things: home—the capital planet—and all the people there, the alarm of the dispatch phone going off, and even the thumping sound of my upstairs neighbor fucking the brains out of another poor soul.
I opened my eyes to see Chomsky’s own set an inch away. Her hot breath was panting; it smelled like stale crackers and aspirin.
The room was almost dark.
She was gripping onto my arms hard enough that I couldn’t move.
“Doctor Chomsky...” I started.
“Fourth and fifth,” she muttered. “Fourth and fifth and now we’re going to be sixth and seventh.”
“What’s going on? How did you get out?”
“It let me out. I told you that it was doing it.”
“Let go of me.”
“If I let you go, it’s going to get us. It’s here right now.”
She quickly looked away, up at the ceiling, giving me the chance to break away while I had the chance. I threw her off of me and scrambled to my feet, but felt that the floor was slippery underneath my feet.
I could see it in the near-darkness, the blood. The only light we had was coming from one of the overhead lamps, which sputtered dimly, but it was enough.
They were inside out, both of them. I couldn’t tell which was which; both Doerr and Skull were merely heaps of organs and tissue. The only indication that they were even human was the beating hearts.
“It works quickly,” Chomsky muttered somewhere behind me. She didn’t sound close. “I woke up and I was free. You were asleep, and they were dead. I bet they didn’t even scream. Galbadon didn’t either.”
I turned back to see standing near the bed, her eyes on the floor. She wrapped her arms around her chest. “We need to leave. Everyone needs to get out of this place.”
“It’ll follow us.”
I looked around the room again, and as much as an imaginative fraction of me wanted to see this monster, I could only find us and the bloodied piles of skin and organs that used to be Doerr and Skull.
“Stay here,” I ordered her, as my stomach finally began to lurch. “I’m going to order an evacuation of the ship.”
I squeaked through the blood on my way to the door, forcing it open and stumbling into the dark and empty hallway outside. It was still late at night for Sagittarius, so there were likely only guards and insomniacs wandering about at the hour. In our sector of the ship, there was no one. I closed the door to the isolation room behind me, and I was alone under a series of more dim fluorescent lights.
There was an emergency alarm button a few yards away. I pressed it to find no sirens or lights begin to go off, and when I began to pound it with my fist, the hallway still remained silent. If I had any chance of getting everyone on Sagittarius evacuated in good time, I was going to have to get help, even if it meant running all the way to Pen’s office.
My strides pounded on the metal floors as I moved through the ship, looking for any sign of life. The first I found was a pool of blood coming out from underneath a closed door.
The cafeteria was empty but smelled like old iron. The widest of the halls and passages were deserted as well, but the ire in the air was stronger.
It took what seemed like years to find my way to Pen’s room, but when I forced open the door, the space was cold and silent, lit only by the stars and nebulae behind the desk, though the desk itself was somehow draped in shadow.
“Captain Pen?” I called. There were a few closed doors within the office, and I was hoping that Pen was behind one of them. My fingers were raw from forcing open doors. “It’s an emergency! I need you to evacuate the ship!”
A thin whisper of a voice breathed into my ear. “Why do that if you are alone here?” That voice sounded like it was not meant to speak standard language, but I still understood every chilling word.
“Captain?” I called again, but then the shadow on the desk moved to envelope the wide window, removing all light from the office.
I was alone in the dark.
The voice spoke again. “If you could see the universe end and begin, would you see it?”
“Is that what you showed everyone else?” I muttered.
“They wanted to see it. That is why they came to find me and bring me to their home. They’ve tried so hard to come into infinity, but the only way is for infinity to come to them. Do you want me to show you, man? Do you want to see the universe end?” It spoke all around me, always moving and never staying close or far away for very long.
“What are you?” I asked.
“A woman knew. She saw me and she knew, and she refused to go. She called me a monster.”
“You’ll tear apart this universe.”
“I will make it whole. That is what the men wanted of me. They wanted to understand. I gave them all a gift.”
“You turned them inside out.”
“But inside, they were stars and planets. On the inside they were everything. I will make you everything so you are not alone.”
“If the woman refused, why can’t I?”
“Her mind refused me. She was frayed, and you cannot make the universe out of frayed threads. Only those with the mind for it can go, and a glimpse of it deteriorated the pathways and connections inside her. Your mind is ready for me.” The last few words snaked into my ear and chilled the soft tissue of my brain. “Let me show you how the universe began, and how it will end.”
There was no darkness anymore. There was light and it was in an infinite amount of colors. There was heat and there was more heat, but there was no sound. There was more color and movement, coalescing into different objects and all within one dark sphere. There were other spheres. Each one glittered, and sometimes, one would burst, but there was still no sound. Even then, I could tell if I could hear it, the sound alone would tear me into pieces. The colors expanded and contracted, breathing with a heartbeat.
There was a sound. It was ripping. A black void tore through the colors and the floating spheres, and then there was bangs and booms and clatters louder than any sound that had ever been. And then there was blackness, with a fading light in the center that soon disappeared over an invisible cliff.