Just coming out of an ice age, the alien world of New Anchorage promised Neil and Cassidy plenty of cold cases to solve.
Private detectives with Reach-wide licenses, they came to New Anchorage for a different sort of adventure – and find a chilling mystery.
If you love science fiction mysteries, alien planets, and exotic cuisine, check out Headless Server.
Breakfast came on a cerulean ceramic platter, covered with a matching ceramic lid decorated with cartoony examples of native New Anchorage wildlife. The server was cold-adapted mod-sapiens, a surprisingly cute girl with really big manga-style eyes, dark bangs hung above her eyes but downy white fur covered the rest of her face. When she blinked, it showed her double eyelid.
Neil smiled at her as she slid the platter onto the small polished stone table between him and Cassidy. Their server gave him a brilliant smile back, as bright as the hidden New Anchorage sun. Then she lifted the lid from the platter.
Breakfast bounced up from the platter. The menu had said eggs and bacon. Instead dozens of orange balls, each the size of a cherry tomato, popped, a snapping-fingers sort of sound, and bounced up and down. A whole jumping, popping, crowd of them. And the smell, it was a spicy, peppery odor with a hint of apple. There were also long blue things coiled on the platter that twitched and jerked, apparently in response to the bouncing balls.
“Joy,” the server said, favoring him with a wink of one big eye.
Cassidy kicked him beneath the table.
Neil fought back a wince and smiled at the server. “Thank you.”
She turned and skipped off. Her short red apron did nothing to cover her furry backside and long, tight legs.
Another kick hit his shins.
“Ouch!” Neil looked at Cassidy. “You didn’t have to kick me.”
Cassidy’s right eyebrow raised. “You didn’t have to ogle the waitress.”
Unlike the server, Cassidy was cyber-sapiens. Mostly unmodified base DNA with sensory and nervous system augmentations. Ten years together as partners in the detective business and in private, and he still found her beautiful and compelling. She had a full figure and dark wavy hair, and an adventurous streak that excited him.
It was her idea that they eat breakfast at this place. It was a small restaurant on the river-side strip, the sort of place where they might pick up cases. The dim interior held a dozen tables, plus seats along the bar. Most of those were occupied, bundled up locals hunched over their coffee and food. Two of the other tables were in use, by a couple of old cold-adapted mod-sapiens. It didn’t look like the sort of place that attracted tourists. Not that New Anchorage had many tourists. Most that did come were relic hunters. But so far Cassidy hadn’t found them a planet that was crime free, so their Reach-wide licenses were still useful. After a month here, business had been slow, but Cassidy’s optimism never let up.
The orange ball things were slowing down. They popping noises were decreasing and the jumps weren’t going as high. Some of them were starting to look wrinkled.
“This is eggs and bacon? Are they alive?” he said.
Cassidy caught one of the bouncing things between two fingers as it popped up and tossed it into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed and smiled. “Nope. Not anymore, anyway. That’s what they say. It’s steam escaping that makes them jump. They’re better before they deflate.”
He poked at one of the blue things. It twitched like it was going to wrap around his finger and he jerked his hand back.
Cassidy jabbed one with a neatly manicured nail. The blue thing whipped up and coiled around her finger. Neil’s stomach rolled as she lifted her finger to her mouth, her lips sliding around the finger and the blue thing. She sucked on it, her eyes on him the whole time, and sucked it right off her finger. It uncoiled bit by bit and disappeared into her mouth. She chewed with relish.
“Hmmm, that’s delicious. You’ve got to try it. It tastes like pesto chicken. Garlicky.”
Neil eyed the whole twitching, bouncing mess of a breakfast. “I don’t know.”
“They aren’t alive. Not really. They react to heat, residual cellular activity, that’s all. The steam from the balls activates them. Or the heat from your finger. I’m not letting you leave until you try them.”
In the ten years that they’d been together, Neil had heard similar statements many times before. Cassidy was always the more adventurous one. She picked out their destinations, a new planet each year, while he tagged along. Solving crime across the Reach.
This year was New Anchorage, a barely habitable, cold world where the day-night cycle took a whole month. Not a place he would have picked to spend a year. Experts said it was coming out of an ice age, but temperatures wouldn’t get anywhere close to comfortable for at least three hundred years. Standard, not New Anchorage years, which lasted ten standard years. It was the ice age that had eventually doomed the native, now extinct, civilization.
“Come on, you have to,” Cassidy said.
He reached out to pick up a deflated orange ball and his finger brushed one of the blue wormy things. It coiled swiftly around his finger. The touch was drier than he had expected and cool.
Cassidy grinned. “Go on. Try both.”
She’d never let him live it down if he didn’t. Neil lifted both up, closed his eyes, and shoved them in his mouth. He nearly bit his finger, pulling the blue thing off with his teeth. He wasn’t making it look sexy, he was just trying not to gag. The blue thing was thrashing in his mouth, trying to coil around his tongue.
He bit down to stop it. Juices filled his mouth. And Cassidy was right. It did taste sort of like pesto, with the orange thing adding a peppery and apple taste to the mix. The texture was firmer than chicken or pasta, not exactly rubbery, but chewy. He chewed quickly to stop the thing from moving and swallowed.
It wasn’t so bad, really. He caught one of the orange things that hadn’t quite stopped bouncing. It popped in a hot rush when he bit into it. That was better. The peppery steam helped clear out his sinuses.
A scream from the back interrupted their meal. Neil stood up, so did Cassidy, as the cute server backed out of the kitchen area. She screamed again and fluttered her hands in front of her eyes, like she couldn’t decide whether to cover them or to look.
The locals stood up off the bar stools and crowded up to the edge. A big man, the fur on his face long and trailing down a hairy chest, reached across and touched the server’s shoulder.
“Bethany, what wrong?”
Neil edged closer to the crowd, but held back. Maybe she’d seen a spider or a mouse or something. If they had those here, or their equivalents.
“Dixon, in the freezer,” she said. Her arm pointed for emphasis.
Dixon? With a name and a reaction like that, it didn’t sound like a spider had scared her. Neil moved closer and pulled his badge. He held it up.
“Detectives. May we help?”
Bethany turned, fixing her big eyes on him. She rushed to the edge of the counter. The locals fell back, turning to face him.
“Yes, sir. Please do,” Bethany said.
Cassidy was beside him, her own badge in her hand. She held the shield out toward the locals. “Case claim, then. We’ll investigate.”
A case claim meant that the local governmental body couldn’t just throw them off the case without paying a nominal fee. Cassidy always did look after the business side of things. She was great at getting reluctant municipalities to pay up, which helped them make enough on each planet to afford moving on to the next.
“Show us Dixon,” Neil said.
The freezer was a simple box at the back of the place. Lacking insulation, it used the ambient temperature outside to keep things frozen. It was neat. Clean plastic boxes lined the shelves. There were whole cartons full of those orange eggs, not bouncing right now. The one thing that didn’t belong with the body lying in the center aisle. It’d be face-down, if it still had a face. The bloodless neck was pointing at the door.
Bethany, and the two cooks, crowded in behind them.
Cassidy went in first. Her implants would film the whole scene, record environmental factors, and document everything that they did. She walked over to the left side of the body and worked her way around to the other side. Her breath fogged the air. They’d left their heavy outer gear in the airlock on the way in. Neil picked up a large can of some sort of pickled vegetable and dropped it on the floor in front of the door.
The server, Bethany, stood in the doorway wearing nothing but her red apron and watched. “Doing what?”
“Just want to make sure the door doesn’t shut on us,” Neil said. He wasn’t going to take any chance, even if it was unlikely that they would all decide to shut him and Cassidy in the freezer.
He turned his attention to the body. The air in here was cold. Freezing, well-below freezing. Cassidy stood opposite, hugging her arms.
“Let’s make this fast,” he said.
The body was another cold-adapted colonist, just like the girl. White fur covered the body. This one also wore a red apron, apparently that was the unisex dress code at the restaurant. Neil walked around the body, following the path Cassidy had walked, watching for anything of interest. Standing at the feet, the view was uninterrupted by the apron, and the body was clearly male. He completed his circuit to end up beside Cassidy.
To Bethany, he said, “His name was Dixon?”
“Uh huh. Yes.”
He didn’t want to be indelicate, but he said, “How do you know it’s him?”
“Dixon worked last night,” Bethany said. “Just he and I covering shifts with Lalia off. And I recognize him, we see each other this way.”
Of course they did. The aprons didn’t cover their backsides, so that’s what she would normally see. It was an obvious thing. He moved on.
He looked back at the cooks. “Were either of you working last night?”
Both men shook their furry heads. The tallest of the two, with a round face that gave him a teddy bear look, said, “Taylor, he cooks night. Does morning prep.”
Neil looked at the crates of the orange eggs. “Has anyone been in here this morning?”
All three of them shook their heads. The cook who hadn’t spoken yet broke his silence. “Taylor loads cooler.”
He turned and pointed back into the kitchen. There was a big refrigerator.
“I come in,” Bethany said. “Starting lunch prep and find Dixon.”
Cassidy said, “Where do we find Taylor?”
He would have been the last person to see Dixon, and right now the most likely suspect.
“I get address,” Bethany said. “Don’t wanna be here, anyhow.”
She shoved between the two cooks. Cassidy moved into the doorway. “Come on, I will take your statements, while my partner works.”
Slowly, the two furry cooks left Neil alone, trailing along with Cassidy. That was the thing about ten years together. They each knew what the other needed. And right now, he needed privacy. The next part of the investigation made some people uneasy.
Plus it was damn cold and he wanted to get done without having to answer questions while he was working. And Cassidy’s enhancements made her a natural lie detector. She could take their statements, and she’d know if they were lying or not. Their thin covering of fur wouldn’t change that. He had his own work to do.
He started back at the neck, absent a head or blood. He bent close and inhaled deeply. No odor. The edges were clean, precise. All the tissues were cut in the same fine line, which had passed right through the spinal column between the vertebrae without cutting bone. Some sort of molecular blade? That would account for the lack of tearing and the precise nature of the cut, but the whole inside of the freezer should have been sprayed with Dixon’s blood and there wasn’t a drop.
That suggested he was killed elsewhere. But why kill the server at all? And if you did kill him, why bring the body back to where he worked and leave it in the freezer?
Neil leaned closer, looking the severed ends of the major veins and arteries. They had a puckered look. He pulled gloves out of his pocket and pulled them on. They didn’t do anything to help warm his hands. His teeth chattered. He had to get out of here soon or freeze.
He poked at the tissues. They were soft, pliable beneath his finger. That was weird. The body wasn’t frozen. He bent closer and probed at the carotid. The cut was clean, level with the cut through the rest of the tissues, rimmed with a fuzzy white substance he had taken for frost. Down inside the artery was more white stuff, completely clogging the inside. It pulled in the sides, causing the puckering that he had noticed.
Neil rocked back on his heels. What could cause that? Not an ordinary cut, and why wasn’t the body frozen if it’d been in the freezer since the night before?
He stood up and moved to Dixon’s side, and crouched again. It was time to roll the body over and see what else there was to see. If he found anything interesting, he’d call Cassidy to document it. He ran his fingers along Dixon’s arms. The tissue was soft to the touch, not exactly warm, but definitely not freezing. He continued on down the arm and discovered that Dixon’s hand was cupping something. It was small, hidden in the shadow between his hand and his thigh.
Neil didn’t disturb it. He wanted Cassidy recording before he moved the body and uncovered the object. It also gave him a reason to get out of the freezer. He walked out into the warmer kitchen. Cassidy was talking with the heavier cook. He caught her gaze and she excused herself.
When she reached him she said, “What did you find?”
“He’s not frozen,” Neil said softly.
“Come see for yourself. I want close-ups of the neck, there’s something odd there. And he’s got something in his hand that we’ll see when we roll him over. I wanted you there for that.”
Neil glanced back into the kitchen area, past Cassidy. The cooks were talking amongst themselves, and Bethany. Many of the locals were crowded around too. It wouldn’t be long before they all started wanting answers. With the case claim filed, they’d also have the local law down here soon too. Some jurisdictions would just pay the fee to get them off the case. Sometimes that was okay, but this time he wanted to dig deeper. There were just too many things that didn’t make sense.
“Any trouble with them?”
She shook her head. “All of them are shocked. I don’t think they have a clue about what happened. I did get a picture of Dixon.”
“That’ll be helpful if we find his head,” he said. “Let’s get this done before we get interrupted.”
They went back into the freezer together. Cassidy bent down to get a good look at the neck wound.
“That’s weird. It’s like all of the capillaries have been sealed with that white compound,” she said, moving around to join him at Dixon’s side. “Some sort of clotting agent?”
“What could do that and prevent any blood from spilling?”
“Beats me.” She knelt beside the body and pulled on her gloves. “Let’s see what else we’ve got.”
Neil joined her on her right, closest to whatever Dixon had in his hand. Neil put one hand on Dixon’s wrist to keep it pinned to the body, and the other on Dixon’s side.
“You get the shoulder and we’ll roll him up and over,” Neil said. “On three. Two. One.”
They both pushed and lifted. The body came up, but it was loose and floppy. Not frozen, and not stiff with rigor. As it rolled, Neil got a look at the thing in Dixon’s hand.
It looked like dark wood, a deep reddish material laced with a grain. Except the grains in the object were white and seemed to snake beneath the polished surface. At three points the white lines joined together and continued out of the object, extending down where they pierced Dixon’s hand beneath his index and little fingers, and at his wrist.
“Hold it,” Neil said. “Can you see this?”
Cassidy leaned close to him. Her warmth was welcome. He wanted to huddle close to her, preferably with both of them in some deep hot spring or pool, without anything on, just to get warm again.
“I see it,” she said. “Whatever that is, it looks attached. What do you think?”
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he’s got that white stuff around his wound, and this thing is connected to his hand and wrist.”
She leaned across him, still holding Dixon’s upper body. He wanted to press against her warmth, but the situation made that awkward. And there was no telling what that thing was doing to the body. At least they were wearing gloves.
“If this is biological we have to close the place down and file an alert,” Neil said.
“It doesn’t look biological,” Cassidy said. “I’m not getting organic readings from it. And in the infrared there are markings on the object.”
“Native? Is it a relic?” The ice age had buried and ground up most of the native civilization’s artifacts, but relic hunters were still digging up pieces that had survived.
“Looks like it to me,” she said. She smiled at Neil, even though her lips were starting to turn blue. “This could be a big break for us.”
Neil pushed the body further up. “I don’t see any signs of trauma to the front of the body.”
“Wow.” Cassidy’s eyes widened, irises huge and dark, the way they got when she looked into the infrared. “He’s still warm, Neil. There’s a pulse!”
He shivered and it wasn’t only from the cold. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. It’s slow, wait,” she said. She stared intently at the furry chest beneath the apron.
Neil’s legs were beginning to cramp. He didn’t feel anything in the wrist he was holding. Not that he doubted her, but how could the server be alive without his head?
“There! Almost two minutes between beats. It’s faint, but there.”
“Put him down.” Neil said, lowering the body with her help.
When the headless server was back as they’d found him, Neil stood up. He took Cassidy’s elbow. “If there’s a pulse, does that mean he’s alive? Without a head, isn’t he sort of brain-dead?”
“I don’t know. We don’t know anything about that relic. Or where his head is. We’re going to need help on this one.”
“Fine. Let’s get out of this freezer, and contact the local medical responders. We’ve got a case claim, amend it to include the relic.”
She didn’t move. “Should we get him out of the freezer?”
Neil shook his head. “We don’t know what that would do to him. Maybe being nearly frozen is part of it, sort of a hibernation thing.”
“I don’t think their mod includes hibernation.”
Teeth chattering, Neil shrugged. His toes were feeling numb. “Either way, we need to go and find this Taylor that was working last night. He was probably the last one to see Dixon alive. Or intact.”
Cassidy finally moved out of the freezer. Neil followed her out, and moved the can away from the door. He told the cooks and Bethany to stay out of the freezer while Cassidy contacted the medical responders and filled them in on what had been found. From the sound of it, they didn’t want to believe her at first. After confirming her universal license and with an image of Dixon’s body, they jumped into action and would be on site within minutes. She gave them strict instructions to leave the native artifact alone, until they knew more about its origin.
With that done, Neil and Cassidy headed out to find Taylor. The best thing about leaving, was getting to put on their cold-weather gear. Neil dialed up the suit’s internal heating to the max.
New Anchorage was a relatively new colony, that had garnered interest primarily because of the extinct civilization. Conditions were considerably harsher than those experienced by its namesake. Habitable definitions had been stretched by the colonial administrators, in Neil’s opinion, as they stomped into the big geo-thermal-powered warren where Taylor lived. Ice fell from their boots into the melt grate at the entrance while jets of air blasted off the ice clinging to the outside of their suits. By the time they got through the jets their suits were dry. Neil pulled down his face mask, but kept the rest of the suit on. He still hadn’t warmed up.
Taylor’s apartment was on the third floor down, the fifteen door in a stained and chipped corridor that smelled of smoke, food and urine. A half-dozen fat mod-gen cats lounged around the corridor, basking beneath the light tubes bringing in reflected sunlight from outside.
“Why are there so many cats in this colony?” Neil said, not for the first time.
Cassidy grinned at him. “You just don’t like cats.”
That was true. Neil stopped in front of Taylor’s door and pushed the call button.
No response from inside. Neil pushed the button again.
This time something thumped inside.
He looked at Cassidy. “Did that sound like someone in distress to you?”
“It did,” she said.
Their license gave them limited rights to enter private dwellings, unless they thought there was risk of deadly harm coming to someone inside. Or that the dwelling was an obvious crime scene. Given that they’d come here to talk to the last person likely to have seen Dixon with a head, Neil was pretty sure they had cause.
Cassidy moved to the other side of the doorway. He took up position beside the panel. They didn’t carry weapons, but that didn’t mean that someone inside wouldn’t be armed.
He entered his license code into the panel. It flashed green, confirming and recording his authorization, and opened the door.
“Private detectives,” Neil called. “We’re unarmed, and coming in. We are recording.”
At least Cassidy was recording. Which meant he went first with his hands open and out to his side.
It wasn’t a large apartment. Not much more than a rectangular box that extended from the hallway to the enclosed sun balcony on the far side of the room. These were compact dwellings, with features that folded out from the room. Right now there were two people in the bed that was taking up most of the room.
And there was a mod-sapiens head on the steps beside the bed that led up to the sun balcony. Neil looked at the head and she looked back. The head belonged to a woman with fine features, covered in soft fuzz. Her eyes were open, fixed on him, and her mouth moved.
Red lips mouthed the words, Help me.
One of the native artifacts, just like the one that Dixon’s body held, was attached to the head’s neck.
The people in the bed finally stirred. One of them sat up, a woman with rather large, and firm, shaved breasts. She rubbed her eyes and then dropped her hands to blink at Neil and Cassidy.
Except the head had masculine features, and dark eyebrows.
Cassidy nudged Neil with her arm. “Umm, Neil?”
“That’s Dixon’s head.”
“That’s not his body.”
The head on the steps rolled her eyes, and then looked sideways, glaring at Dixon.
The other person in the bed groaned and sat up with his eyes squinted shut. He was unmodified, with golden skin and wavy blond hair. He would have looked more at home on a sunny beach than New Anchorage. He yawned.
“Man, what time is it?”
The woman with Dixon’s head jabbed the guy in the side. “We over slept!”
Neil looked at Cassidy. “Dear, would you contact the authorities?”
“Already doing it, honey.”
Local law arrived in five minutes along with a medical response team. Cassidy shared their files, billed the colony the usual fees for the case. Given that no one was actually dead, Neil agreed that they bill the case as a kidnapping and assault, rather than murder. That, plus the claim they’d filed on recovering the native artifacts, meant that the New Anchorage was going to turn out to be one of their more lucrative planets. This was a discovery that would have the medical establishment salivating for more research.
Dixon stopped in the doorway as they were going to lead him away. “We weren’t going to keep her body. We hired her for the night, that was all. Once we got up we would have switched back, and Taylor would have taken my head back to my body. We just slept in.”
The med techs carry were carrying out the woman’s head at that moment and she started mouthing curse words at Dixon. It was less effective without lungs to give them voice.
“Why all this?” Neil asked.
Dixon glanced at Taylor, being questioned over by the bed and lowered his voice. “Taylor, he’s into women, you know? Once I knew what those things could do, I talked him into trying this.”
Dixon’s voice became wistful. “It was worth it, you know?”
He was led off and Neil stepped out with Cassidy. One of the fat mod-gen cats rubbed against his leg. Cassidy pulled him close and planted a kiss on his lips.
“The lengths people go to for love,” she said.
He kissed her back. She had a point. He’d come to a frozen planet for her, and would follow her wherever she wanted to go next.
This story is the 48th weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Flame Breaker.