The Company Dick

In a drug-induced fog, my head pounding, I woke flat on my back in an unfamiliar, windowless place. With a herculean effort, I managed to lift my head. The room was without furniture except for the mildewy, armless, too-short sofa across which I had been dumped, and off an end of which, like dead weights, my calves and feet hung. The walls were dirty white; the floor much scuffed, of pale wood of some kind; the ceiling, aside from its single dim light panel, was dingy and water-stained beige acoustic tiles. A hard rubber wastebasket sat in a corner. From the ceiling-mounted camera, slowly panning from side to side, a red LED glowed balefully. A storeroom, by the look of things, and I being stored.

I went to sit up—and failed. Miserably. The fuel cell had been removed from my exoskeleton and its little reserve battery had run out. Between my own ridiculous Earth weight and that of the inert exoskeleton, I was restrained as effectively as if by the sturdiest of chains. Helpless as a bug pinned to a display board.

Exhausted, I let my head flop back onto the sofa. As I struggled to reconstruct what and why had brought me here—wherever here was—two words echoed and reechoed in my brain.

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

****

Two dead.

I had reminded myself of the toll—never mind how close I had been to becoming the third—so often that the words had become a mantra. I dare not forget that this business was serious. Deadly serious.

The pudgy guy ahead of me in line took a step forward. I plodded after. We’d been at this for a while and, best guess, I had at least an hour to go until the Security checkpoint. All passengers are screened before boarding, of course. But who knows? I might have printed a gun or knife or nunchucks during the flight. As I waited, interspersed with my subvocalized mantra, I gave silent thanks to whoever had designed the mobility exoskeleton I wore over my clothes. Earth was the gravitational hellhole of human space.

Interplanetary Arrivals was too damn big, a harbinger of all that I dreaded about Earth. Floor-to-ceiling wall displays cycled among agoraphobia-inducing panoramas: dizzyingly deep canyons; rank upon rank of snow-capped mountains, each ridgeline taller than the last; undulating plains stretching to an impossibly distant horizon; seascapes manic with crashing waves. The hall echoed with the footsteps and chatter of several hundred people. Ceres at present being near opposition to Earth, the ticket prices had been, well, astronomical, and I’d shared my flight with fewer than a dozen. I took encouragement in having disembarked during peak hours, no matter that, even with the exoskeleton, standing in queue had within minutes become torture. The less attention came my way, the better.

Even with the exoskeleton I struggled to stay upright, lurching with each step, learning to hate the hardware. The feeble twitching of Belter muscles sometimes conveyed my intentions to the exoskeleton, but as often miscommunicated. Then a leg would kick out to the side, or a knee would lock, or a foot would stomp, or something. After half an hour in the Security line and not even five meters of progress, admitting defeat, I tapped a command (and this task, too, was a struggle) into the tiny virtual keypad of the exoskeleton’s back-of-the-left-forearm control panel. Thereafter, lurching like Frankenstein’s monster, the hardware marched me forward one step with each tap of the virtual star key. The lone remaining shred of my dignity was that I hadn’t—yet—been tempted to slap the big, red, physical, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” Panic button.

It did not improve my mood that two lines to the left, another passenger from my ship glided along in her exoskeleton. Similar grace could have been mine—if I’d agreed before this trip to surgery. An implanted neural controller might even have been the wise choice, but I’m particular about having holes drilled in my head.

At long last, dripping sweat from stress and exertion, I reached the checkpoint. The exoskeleton caught the screeners’ eyes, of course. I was prepared for the wanding and the pat-down that inevitably followed. But not the demand that I surrender the exoskeleton’s fuel cell for inspection.

“Without power, I can’t stand.” That was maybe an exaggeration, because sans motorized assistance I could remain in place with the exolegs mechanically locked. Unless someone bumped into me. Then, I’d go over like a sack of potatoes. Surface gravity on Ceres is under three percent of standard.

“We need to check it,” one of the Security screeners insisted.

“Then I need to sit.”

While in the serpentine line behind me other weary travelers fumed, one of the screeners retrieved a chair. I sat. By the time they returned my fuel cell (Shocker! It wasn’t a bomb) I had become a statue. The exoskeleton’s power reserve—the tiny, built-in, rechargeable battery sized only to runs things during a quick, old-for-new, fuel-cell swap—had fully drained. Looking disgusted at my helplessness, a screener snapped the fuel cell back into its socket on the exoskeleton’s left thigh. Then it was on to Baggage, and then to another line. Finally, I reached the Customs counter.

“Welcome to the USNA,” the Customs officer offered in a bored monotone. The badge pinned to her blouse read Carruthers. Even by Earther standards, she was petite. With her neck craned and head tipped up to meet my gaze, she evoked an image I’d once seen of a baby robin anticipating a juicy worm. I took a passport chip from its shielded sleeve and handed it over. “Mr. . . .”

For an instant, I froze. As secretive as the company was, being one of the Belt’s major employers meant it could not hide the identities of all its employees. So, if I were to have any hope of success, I had to be someone other than myself. “Donovan,” I completed, recalling my current alias.

Carruthers busied herself for a while with mating the passport chip to an authenticator, giving the counter’s sensor pad only the most perfunctory of swipes with a sanitizing tissue. Inwardly, I shrugged. State-of-the-art med nanites had been the least of my preparations. I pressed my thumb against the sensor pad until the device bleated its constipated approval. (As expected: the company had plenty of pull with the Ceres government. The ID chip I’d given her should be good. So should the extra ID chips nestled in dummy sockets of my exoskeleton. Bogus Cerian IDs were not exactly illegal—at least not on this world—but I didn’t care to think about the questions their discovery would raise.)

“What brings you to Earth, Mr. Donovan?”

“Business,” I said. Preventing economic ruin across the Belt must surely qualify as business, and her voice-stress analyzer shone a steady green. That I also hoped to rescue the kidnapped son of a company employee? That was a complication best not contemplated anywhere near a voice-stress analyzer. “Well, not just business. I’ve never been to Earth before. I’m taking time while I’m here to look around.”

“Your computer, please. Logged in.”

Since landing, I had struggled merely to stumble about in my exoskeleton. I had had no opportunity to practice fine-motor control. The tremor in my hands (damned gravity!) as I typed my pass code confounded the keystroke-dynamics recognition. Four times, to Carruthers’s annoyance. Finally, the biometrics module authenticated me. I handed over the comp.

While reading out the balance from my digital wallet, an invasion of privacy the USNA somehow justified as an impediment to money laundering, she added absently, “What sort of business are you in, Mr. Donovan?”

“Management consulting.” That was vague enough to encompass, well, almost anything. If there were follow-up questions, I was prepared to discuss forensic accounting for as long as necessary. In the event, she didn’t ask and the LED remained green.

“Business must be good.”

“You have no idea,” I said, defying the lie detector to object.

With furrowed brow, Carruthers studied my face, comparing it to the holo projected from my passport by her chip reader. “See what?”

“Pardon me?”

“What kind of sightseeing do you have in mind?”

“I’ve heard about some interesting museums. Historical sites. Natural wonders.”

“Yeah, we’ve got those.” An icon began flashing on her screen, and she frowned. “This chip doesn’t encode your DNA.”

I nodded. “Not done on Ceres. As far as I know, not anywhere in the Belt.”

“Yeah, well, that’s there. I’ll need a sample.”

“But visitors to Earth aren’t legally required to—”

“Earth? Maybe so. Maybe you could enter that way at, say, Timbuktu. You want to enter the USNA? Then you will authorize me to update your passport and file a DNA sample. Or . . .”

“Or?” I prompted hopefully.

“Or you can turn around and fly back to whatever rock you came from.”

Had I taken as much umbrage as any upright Belter citizen? Not yet griped enough to invite a deep dive through my every digital gadget? It was a balancing act, because I really did not want to invite any extra scrutiny.

I shrugged. “Sample away.”

“Already done.” She pointed at the sensor pad. “Everyone’s DNA is collected at entry and compared against a terrorism database. You only needed to authorize filing today’s sample.”

Crushing gravity and fastidious fascism. I couldn’t finish my business here soon enough. “Will there be anything else?”

She keyed away at her terminal. Finally, it chirped. She removed and handed back the passport chip, then my comp. “Enjoy your visit, Mr. Donovan.”

“Thank you,” I answered. Because I will was a lie I could never have slipped past the voice-stress analyzer.

****

Exhausted well before I had cleared Customs, I ubered to a midtown Manhattan hotel. No matter that by local time I had landed in the early afternoon; according to ship and body clocks, it had been the middle of the night. Then, fortified with twelve hours of sleep and an epic, room-service breakfast, I got down to business.

I spent three days ostensibly enjoying some of the many famous museums, landmarks, and eateries in Manhattan. (As for the restaurants, well, strike ostensibly. In the Belt, synthed food was all I ever ate. Was all anyone—apart from senior partners of the company, or the few folks equally rich—could afford. I could get used to natural ingredients and actual cooking.) After unfashionably early dinners I returned to my hotel suite, bone-weary, to rest and to take in Earther news feeds: a litany of border wars, refugee swarms, climate disasters, health crises, anti-Spacer rage (apparently, as some would have it, we were despoiling a pristine Solar System), and spiraling crime and civil violence. In the abstract, I’d always known the mother world was a mess. Long hours immersed in that madness made it real.

And in truth? Those days were all work and no play. I mastered walking in my exoskeleton—and, “thanks” to all its metal, also stoic acceptance of a security pat-down at damn near every building I chose to enter. Internalized, after several painful conks, that I had to duck to get through almost every doorway. Came to terms with there being more people here in a single city block than the population of entire Belter cities. Proved to myself that I could survive modest exertion, that five liters of synthetic corpuscles and their super-efficient artificial hemoglobin took up the slack for my Spacer-flabby heart. Shuffled around Central Park, away from the worst signal reflections off the zillion nearby skyscrapers, until my comp obtained enough satellite ephemeris data for the GPS chip to locate me. (Freaked out my entire time in the park, I might add, by wind. What a weird phenomenon! Wished I had the time and the agility to try kite-flying. To judge by the many gleefully shrieking kids, kites must be great fun.)

I spent an entire evening in battle with downloads from the exoskeleton manufacturer’s website. Almost before the ship landed, the Updates Waiting LED on the control panel had blazed red to herald a discouragingly large number of critical patches, all new since I’d departed Ceres. Half those updates took it upon themselves to re-enable a factory default setting of “Help us improve by sharing your experience.” With growing impatience, I kept re-disabling that. Two updates simply hung, grinding away mid-installation, till I found the obscure operating-system setting that needed tweaking. One update activated the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” feature, never asking if I wanted to accept the first-month free trial offer; I undid that, too. When the patch-notification feature proved to have no Off switch, I disabled the comm entirely. There was no telling what, if anything, the manufacturer’s servers recorded from such communications with the exo—and I did not plan to leave behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs. That was the night I found a way (plenty of French wine!) to sleep through the recurring nightmare of falling splat.

What else? Practiced dining with a knife, fork, and spoon, and not slopping liquids from an open cup or glass. Acquired a small wardrobe of Earther style: men’s shirts and trousers were as ubiquitous in the USNA as in the Belt, and likewise of programmable fabrics, but the cuts differed. Here, pant cuffs and long, pointy shirt collars had come back. I couldn’t disguise my height or exoskeleton, but I didn’t need to appear fresh off the ship. And so, I prided myself, I didn’t—

As long as I remembered never to look up.

The vast blueness wasn’t my problem. An infinite sky is the birthright of every Spacer. Buildings, per se, were not the issue, either. Space settlements, by their nature, are large, complex structures. But office towers of five hundred meters and more looming overhead? In this gravity? And no matter that I knew clouds to be mere aerosol accumulations, every glimpse of one, even of the white-and-fluffy variety, sent my reflexes into panic and set my overtaxed heart racing.

After three exhausting days—still less than prepared, but with the foreboding sense of time running out—I took the next step on my mission.

****

I had practiced one additional skill in New York and again at every stop along my superficially sightseeing excursion down the East Coast: picking up women. Had my repartee, as the conversational rust wore off, led anywhere, I hadn’t the inclination, much less the stamina in this gravitational hellhole, to act on it. Still, no matter that I had yet to notice a tail, I did not dare risk that I didn’t have one. Flirting as I went was part of the show—because as of lunchtime on my second day in Washington, DC, the flirting became my cover.

I had lied to my wife, and then argued with her, about my short-notice trip. A once-in-a-lifetime training opportunity in advanced forensic accounting? That was less than compelling, especially on the heels of a long company assignment away from home. Oh, I trusted Bea not to blab—but not not to worry. Any scrap of the truth about why the company was sending me to Earth, of all godforsaken places, would have terrified her.

And the hazardous-duty pay I’d extracted? The reward, whether or not I made it home? The company was welcome to send someone else to investigate, I’d said. Of course they wouldn’t: the fewer people they brought into this mess, the less likely their vulnerability was to leak out. As for involving the authorities, it was out of the question. Any proper investigation must entail a visit to the crime scene—and that (even had it been physically possible) the company would never allow. I kept all that, too, to myself. Bea’s uninformed, misdirected anxiety weighed heavily enough.

Lying. Keeping secrets. Hitting on other women. It all made me feel like a dick, and not the investigative sort that circumstances so desperately called for.

Eyes cast downward, I made my way, as the appointed hour approached, to the designated bistro just off the National Mall. I folded myself into the revolving door. Beyond that rotary torture chamber, I encountered dim lighting, tinkling jazz piano, and tiny tables. Maybe half the tables were occupied.

I plodded to the brass-and-stained-wood bar. Only a few of the stools were occupied. From one of those, the blonde in a thigh-high pink dress avoided my gaze. Courtesy of the antiqued mirror wall behind the bar, I took in her tanned oval face, pouty lips, and flowing blond hair. By Earther standards, she was an Amazon and a knockout. Give her another half meter and get those breasts out of this cruel gravity, and she would have been my type.

“Hey there,” I began.

Glancing my way, she said, “Not interested, sailor.”

Her voice was low and throaty. Sexy as hell. To my tabulation of her attributes I added come-hither eyes. I went thither. “Spacer.”

“Same thing. The type with a girl in every port.”

“I happen to have an opening for this port.” She ignored me, but I persisted. “Nice place. I’m surprised it’s not more crowded.”

“Clearly, you haven’t eaten here.”

“How are the buffalo wings?” Notwithstanding recent utensil practice, I preferred finger food, though that wasn’t why I asked.

“Greasier than, and almost as insipid as, the egg rolls.” Finally turning my way, she saluted with her glass. “I recommend sticking with these.”

I caught the bartender’s eye. “Two more of what the beautiful lady is having.”

“Two double scotch rocks,” he acknowledged. “Single malt.”

“You’re pretty cocky,” she told me.

I waggled an eyebrow. “You don’t know the half of it.”

A few more lines exchanged from the cheesy script, her eye-popping outfit, and my mismatched socks, and we had established each other’s bona fides. Drinks in hand, we reconvened at a nearby table. With a deft pat of the hand, my lovely companion set the privacy screen shimmering. White noise hissed all around us.

“Maureen Rogers,” she said, suddenly all business.

“Bernie Fredericks.” Not that it mattered, I wondered if her name were any more real than mine. “You’re with the company?”

She shook her head. “PI. I sometimes do work for one of their law firms.”

While I savored my scotch (unbelievably smooth: the distilled, aged in oaken barrel kind, and nothing like the synthed stuff I got in the Belt), she found a contact-lens case in her capacious purse. “These are for you.” She tipped her head questioningly.

As in: why hadn’t I just brought my own? Or printed my own once I’d disembarked?

Because getting caught at the border with fake IDs was one thing. A common criminal might arrive with those; if caught, I could hope merely to be shipped back home. But if I’d been caught at Customs with spy gear, or the digital recipe for same? No way was that going to end well.

Maybe she just wondered what I was up to.

Whatever the nature of her curiosity, the company expected me not to share. “Who knows about this meeting?”

“On my side, as far as I know, only one of the law firm’s senior partners. I don’t ordinarily do anything for him.”

Meaning, I took it, he did work for the company, and that he had picked her because she didn’t. I palmed the lens case. “Good. And who knows about these?”

“Just me. It’s my spare set. The thing is, I work mostly divorce cases.”

Honey trap, did they call it? “And no one will know I have them?”

“I’ll report them lost and expense a replacement pair. Not to worry.”

When accountants play detective, they had better worry. “How do these work?”

“Slip them on.” As the lenses molded themselves to my eyes, Maureen took a comp from her purse. “And I’ll need your comp.”

I authenticated, and she mated the smart lenses to my comp. She taught me the blink sequences that started and stopped scene capture. Once I’d mastered those, I practiced the squint that downloaded imagery from the lenses to my comp. Then we established and tested a direct link between our comps. Between quantum crypto and routing over the dark web, the connection was as secure as either of us knew to make it.

For good measure, she threw in several apps (“Tools of the trade,” she called them. “More dark-web goodies.”) I had no reason to believe I had any use for. That those came encrypted and disguised as parts of unallocated spare memory (“Not anything you would want to be found carrying”) made me more than a little queasy. Or maybe it was the buffalo wings on which, despite her warning, I’d been chowing down.

She tried again, dispensing with subtlety. “I could be of more help if I knew what you were after …”

Eventually, she shrugged. “What more do you need?”

“Working capital. I believe an amount has been arranged?”

Maureen transferred a large, untraceable wad of cryptocash to my comp. Unlike the money I had had to disclose at spaceport Customs, this was not anything government could tax or trace. Merely confiscate, if they found it. “Anything else?”

Good luck? Given the woman’s usual line of work, being lucky could be taken the wrong way. And had the company been willing to inform anyone on Earth of their dilemma, I continued to believe, I wouldn’t even be here.

I said, “Dialing down the gravity would be appreciated.”

****

Had Maureen worn another pair of super-spy contacts to the meet? Back in my hotel room, studying my reflection, I couldn’t make out the pair still in my eyes until (having to crouch to do so) I’d brought my face to within scant centimeters of the bathroom mirror. So, I had to assume, yes.

I could envision lens imagery capturing my pass code and the nuances of my typing it, then bypassing the keyboard via a thumb-drive port. I was pretty sure I could code that hack myself. The possibility would seem academic while the comp remained in my possession, but I don’t roll that way. (Two dead. Two dead.) Once I’d ascertained that the (supposedly) inert-till-I-decrypted-them apps didn’t include a hidden keystroke logger, I began the switchover to a new authentication sequence. I entered a new pass code, over and over, until keystroke-dynamics recognition trilled completion.

No key logger (that I’d found, anyway) did not mean the unsolicited gifts were otherwise innocuous. After disabling a concealed tracker, I changed names and hotels. Had Maureen not tried to tail a secretive company agent, not tried to discover something exploitable, I’d have been disappointed. Who didn’t hunt for some advantage over the company? I had, although my ink-not-yet-dry status as a very junior partner wasn’t the sole reason for me being here.

I played around for an hour with Maureen’s toys; the wireless skeleton key for electronic locks seeming the most handy. I tweaked the code of several of her apps. Remembering her offhanded Not anything you would want to be found carrying, I downloaded two backup sets of everything into spare memory in the exoskeleton controller and deleted the originals from my comp.

Then, bone-weary, I ordered room service and went to bed early.

****

I spent another two days in Washington—watching for, but not noticing, any surveillance—while I mastered the art of blink/snapping pictures. The museums were diverting, the monuments inspirational. Even the National Mall, as long as I kept my eyes downcast, was pleasant enough. But once darkness fell? Even after, never mind expense-account wine, a healthy three-fingers slug of scotch?

Horror.

It began with the scariest sound in space: the warbling wail of a decompression siren. The roar of escaping atmosphere punctuated the klaxon’s periodic lulls. Papers and pens, drink bulbs and food wrappers, hand tools and clipboards, everything not secured was sucked up into a maelstrom. My ears popped. My flesh bloated.

As quickly as humanly possible I slapped up emergency patches. So did everyone around me. People I knew. People I loved.

Fresh wall cracks gaped even faster.

With air pressure plummeting, as the keening of alarms eerily trailed off, I was in agony. My gut distended from end to end as trapped gases expanded and expanded and expanded, spewing puke and shit. I screamed, silently, into the near vacuum—when I could, when the puking eased up—to squeeze out air before the pressure differential destroyed my lungs. Ankles, knees, shoulders, knuckles … every joint was aflame. My eardrums burst. The world turned red as the blood from ruptured vessels seeped into my eyes and as hypoxia took hold.

I could feel my eyeballs bulge.

In nightmarish slo-mo, frenetic commotion became the yet more ominous absence of activity. People slumping to the floor. Others adrift, launched by involuntary spasms or tugged by the final wisps of escaping air. A floating body nudged me. Long, chestnut-brown hair: a woman. Slowly, she turned. A delicate ear came into sight. The graceful curve of a cheek. The cupid’s-bow shape of her lips.

Bea!

I’d jerk awake, gasping for breath, sodden with sweat, trembling. And repeat.

The third morning, done in—but as acclimated as I would ever be—I moved on.

****

Chicago’s main museum complex sat alongside a freakily huge lake. There, on Day One, I observed (admired would have been an overstatement; these things had all begun to look alike) yet more artwork and fossils. Traveling inland, I whiled away Day Two gawking at wondrous beasts at the Brookfield Zoo. I wasted far too much time both evenings streaming local news feeds and surfing Earther social media, incredulous that anyone could believe the overpopulated home world would be better off without lunar He-3 or Belt rare earths and precious metals—and somehow unable to look away.

And louder than ever, the words echoed in my brain—

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

On my third day in Chicago the tourism act ended. Either no one was surveilling me, or I lacked the skill to notice them. Regardless, the clock was ticking.

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

I began with the last address I had for Darin Hodges: a name conspicuously absent from the collection of lobby buzzers. “I’m a friend of Darin’s father,” I told the apartment manager, a glum, elderly fellow with the droopy jowls of a St. Bernard. “I promised the old man I’d take Darin out to dinner.”

Only Darin hadn’t lived there in months. Skipped out owing rent, the manager said, chatty after I paid the young man’s arrears. Everything Darin had left behind—no inventory had been taken, of course—had long since been disposed of through a consignment shop (which kept no records of its customers) or recycled.

No clues to be had then, from his possessions, to the young man’s whereabouts.

The University of Chicago online directory did not list Darin Hodges, but a snapshot of that directory from the Wayback Machine confirmed that, in the previous semester, he had been a student. I roamed the echoing corridors of Watson and Crick Hall, asking about him, until a young woman with blue-and-mahogany-striped hair and gold hoop earrings pointed me to what had been Darin’s office as a research assistant. Former officemates there and, once I tracked down the professor, Darin’s erstwhile dissertation adviser, claimed they hadn’t been surprised at Darin’s dropping out. He had been distracted for months, they said, doing more coffeehouse BSing than research. BSing about what? Economics. Or politics. Maybe tree-hugging. Labeling his hobby horse didn’t seem worth the effort. More discouraging, no two of them agreed when they had last seen him.

If anyone as much as suspected Darin had been abducted, they kept it to themselves. Clearly, no missing person report had been filed. Chicago PD would have found these same acquaintances as readily as had I.

Mentions of coffee were, if not productive, at least timely. I got a recommendation for a nearby coffee bar where, over a double espresso, battling exhaustion, for the umpteenth time I considered more technological methods of investigation. If I hadn’t had the skill set, I’d never have gotten into Les Hodges’s computer. I wouldn’t even be on this quest. I wouldn’t be achy and bruised inside the damned exoskeleton, without which I could not as much as get out of bed on this damned planet.

If I accessed the younger Hodges’s financial accounts, I’d have a better idea when he had been snatched. The latest transaction might even suggest where he had been snatched. Then, by hacking the city’s archive of public-safety surveillance, with facial rec I might spot the actual kidnapping. Maybe, even, the kidnappers. But the prospect, however unlikely, of getting caught and serving years in this barbarous gravity once again deterred me.

We’d call hacking Plan B.

Darin’s father was in biotech, the professor had offered confidentially. Was I aware of that? (Yes.) Perhaps an advanced degree in biotech had never been Darin’s idea. He certainly had some kind of issue with his father. (Okay, I hadn’t known that. Not for certain. To be sure, the paucity of messages from Darin on his father’s computer had implied as much.)

And maybe the young man’s adviser was onto something. Somewhere along the way I heard that Darin had volunteered as a docent at the nearby Oriental Institute. Showing ancient Middle Eastern artifacts? That was not exactly a typical hobby for a budding biotech engineer. I plodded the few blocks to the museum, passing a line of posters on utility poles proclaiming a week-earlier protest over Spacer imperialism. All that the arduous trek got me was three more sorry-haven’t-seen-hims.

Outside the museum, with evening falling, a car with heavily tinted windows pulled up. The Uber to return me to my hotel, I thought, till the rear curbside window slid down a few centimeters. From within the vehicle, a decidedly non-synthesized voice said, “I hear you’ve been asking about me.”

****

I struggled to contain my shock.

“Darin Hodges?” I said. This was, without a doubt, the “missing” son. It wasn’t just that he took after his old man, with the same slot face, cleft chin, and close-set blue eyes. More times than I cared to remember, I had watched Darin in the vid from his father’s hacked comp. I saw the same thin lips, the same slight leftward bend to the nose, and the same curly black hair.

“Yes.” I heard the click-thunk of a door unlocking. “Get in, please.”

I did. And as the car sat at the curb, my mind raced.

The terrified young man in the vid, handcuffed to a metal-frame chair, pleading for his father’s help, had had a black eye and a split lip. Had cringed from a ski-masked, voice-disguised someone threatening his slow death unless the elder Hodges did as directed. The passage of time might explain the fading of bruises, but not the young man’s freedom—much less why, to protect his son, Les Hodges had . . . done what he had. Apart from a few people within the company, no one knew that.

I hadn’t anticipated Darin finding me. That left me winging it. I temporized, “How did you know it was me asking around?”

“We don’t see a lot of middle-aged Spacers around here.”

“Your father is a middle-aged Spacer,” I reminded. (Earthborn, and so a shorter-than-two-meter pipsqueak, but a Spacer nonetheless. Belters crazy or driven enough to visit must be in short supply, though. I sure as hell looked forward to going home.)

“Uh-huh. And how often do I ever see him?”

“Let’s start over.” I introduced myself, my spiel basically what I’d used with the apartment manager. I concluded, “When your dad heard I’d be in Chicago, he made me promise to take you to dinner.”

Sarcastically: “So how is dear old Dad?”

“Fine, the last I saw him,” I lied. “So, dinner?”

“Why not? A man’s gotta eat.”

The address Darin told the car turned out to be for a just-off-campus hole-in-the-wall. It struck me as unbusy, even for not quite six on a Thursday evening. Then again, what did I know of Earth collegian dining habits? The hostess, an Earth-tall, perky brunette whom Darin seemed to know—I speculated that she, not the food here, was the main draw—escorted us to a booth in the rear. Her perfume, a floral scent I recognized but could not have named, started my nose running.

Serapes, piñatas, and mariachi music announced that dinner would be Mexican. When the stoop-shouldered waiter brought chips and menus to the table, I ordered margaritas and nachos, exhausting my knowledge of the cuisine. The menu covers proclaimed Proudly Vegan, and my expectations for the meal ebbed further—not that my dining experience was what mattered.

“Make them frozen,” Darin appended. The waiter nodded.

“So,” I began.

“So,” Darin repeated. “Tell me. Are there many hu . . . Earthers in the Belt, or is it just my father?”

Humans? Implying I was not? “Quite a few, as it happens. Lots of opportunity out there. The pay is good. That’s why your dad went. To provide for his family.”

“To abandon his family, you mean.” Darin peeled the adhesive paper strip from his paper-napkin-wrapped silverware. Rolled the strip into a tight cylinder. Unrolled it. Coiled the band again, even tighter.

Even I could read that body language. How deep did the resentment go? Changing the subject, I tapped my menu. “So, vegan?”

“Do you know what three animals are the top contributors to Earth’s biomass? Do you?”

“No idea.”

“Guess.”

“Elephants? Then whales?” I’d started us down this rabbit hole by commenting on the meatless menu. “And cattle.”

“Cattle first, then humans. And a very distant third? Every other kind of animal on the planet, combined. Elephants are massive individually, but together they still comprise only a fraction of one percent of the biomass of just cattle. That’s how few elephants remain. And how many cattle we keep. And what a blight humanity has made of itself.”

“Oh,” I offered quietly. It did not placate him.

“And do you know why so many cattle?”

Because, as I’d been learning, there was nothing like a good steak. Synthed meat—synthed any food—was a poor imitation of the real thing. “No, why?”

“Because there are so many people. And do you know why?”

From doing what came naturally? “No, why?”

“Spacers,” he snapped. “For a while, it looked like humanity, finally, had come to its collective senses. Had realized our world has its limits. Had realized that too many of us can only mean too little of everything else in nature. There was hope, at the brink of the precipice, that the human population would stabilize. Then the goodies began arriving from off-world, and people—the fools—forgot all about restraint. It doesn’t matter if we tell ourselves the sky’s the limit. The planet knows better.”

In other words, more anger at his father. Shrinks had a term for that kind of misdirected emotion. Displacement, was it? I preferred his officemates’ description: coffeehouse BS.

By any label, Darin had no idea the sacrifice his father had made. For him. “Les was very proud of you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Was?”

Oops! “Was and is. I haven’t seen him in months. I’m sure he’s still proud of you.”

“Not proud enough ever to show up at a Little League game. Or attend an award ceremony. Not proud enough to come to my graduation.” Darin plowed, scowling, through a litany of grievances. Les footing the tuition bill at an Ivy League college, and then for three years of grad school, did not merit a mention. Nor did pleading for his father to save his life enter into the diatribe. Finally, the young man shook it off. “How is it you know Dad, anyway?”

“I’m his accountant.” I wasn’t, of course, but access to Les’s company HR file let me improvise. “He talked about you a lot. And about your mother, of course. He misses her.” It seemed like a safe bet. Sally Hodges had passed away two years earlier. A half-billion kilometers away at the time, Les had missed the funeral. Doubtless his absence was another black mark. “Anyway, Les made me promise to look you up if I made it to Chicago.”

“So you said.”

Did he look skeptical? I couldn’t decide. Then again, I hadn’t gone into accounting for my people skills. I mean, does anyone?

The waiter finally returned with our drinks.

Darin downed a healthy swig. “Miners need accountants?”

“Everyone needs an accountant.”

“That’s what’s wrong with the world. No offense.”

I sampled my own margarita, and found salt crystals along the glass rim off-putting. Where I come from, we mix in a pinch of salt, because drink bulbs don’t have rims. And a Belt margarita never came slushy, because ice chips would clog the nipple. Also, maybe there was too much Triple Sec? All in all, a disappointment. “No, what’s wrong with the world is that everyone needs a lawyer.”

Darin managed a laugh. “I’m sorry to hear that that pestilence has even gotten to the Belt. What’s it like out there?”

Here, at last, was a topic about which I could discourse on autopilot. I kept looking for a segue, but what is the proper transition to, “How did you get away from your captors?”

Because, by rights, the kidnappers should not have let him go. Not yet.

****

I used to say that I work for evil geniuses.

That doesn’t mean that I much like the company. I do respect the hell out of them. No one becomes the richest outfit in the Belt, or comes to dominate the Solar System market for precious metals, by accident. Bottom line: the company controls many of the most valuable commodities in the Belt. It decides if and when any of its scarce resources get offered for sale—and so, it keeps those metals pricey.

Suppose you somehow find a way to raise enough money to go asteroid hunting on your own. Suppose that, against daunting odds, you discover the mother lode. Do you try somehow to develop it on your own, market the ores on your own, compete against the wealthiest, savviest, most hard-nosed bunch around? Or do you exchange what you’ve found for a stake in the company? I’ll give you one guess which usually happens.

The Belt is way too vast for any law—except the law of the jungle—to apply to rocks that again and again wander millions of kilometers from civilization. The company can sustain its wealth for only as long as no one else knows the orbital parameters of the celestial bodies it mines. That only works using the strictest of security measures.

Over the years I’ve performed audits on many company rocks, mother lodes of platinum, iridium, and other precious metals—and I still haven’t a clue to the location of even one of them, any more than do the miners. On every trip, the autopilot had complete control of my ship, while I hadn’t as much as a porthole by which to guess at my route. And once on site? The smartglass of company-provided pressure-suit helmet visors allowed no star, moon, or even planet to be seen. Oh, and the printers aboard company ships and in company mining bases would self-destruct if I tried to make lenses for a telescope, or hi-res optical sensors, or parts for any other prohibited gear.

Also high on the taboo list? Anything that someone might employ to build a radio transmitter of any higher wattage than what a spacesuit helmet uses, or a laser of any nontrivial output level. Once on a company rock, I couldn’t signal my location, any more than could the miners. Between drop-ins by someone like me, bringing whatever messages had accumulated at company headquarters, a mining crew was out of touch for the duration of their standard-year-long duty tour. Which meant, ironically, a company auditor had, all unknowingly, hand-delivered the ransom file (encrypted, of course) to Les Hodges.

How about narrowing down the search with math and pure logic? Deducing, or at least approximating, a rock’s orbital characteristics from the known parameters of my departure point, flight duration, and acceleration? The company had me there, too. Each flight vectors away from its starting point in a random direction. Each flight somehow involves a half dozen or more midcourse corrections. Much of that travel/meandering (inside a little, windowless can, remember, locked out of all ship’s sensors) has to be idle time to defeat attempts at dead reckoning. Bottom line? Corrupt or coerce a company miner—or an auditor—all you want: they still can’t betray the location of a mine.

So, did I work for geniuses? Hell, yes. But I hadn’t encountered true malevolence till my last Belt outing, and it wasn’t the company’s evil.

****

“All very nice,” Darin said, back to questioning my seeking him out. He leaned across the table, studying me. “But oddly persistent, considering. I mean, how often can you get to Earth? You could’ve just explained that I’d left the university and you couldn’t find me, then spent the day sightseeing.”

“When I make a promise, I—”

“You’ve let your ice melt,” he interrupted. “We can’t have that.” Our waiter was nowhere in sight, and Darin called out to the hostess. “Another round. Especial, por favor.

“Special, how?” I asked.

Darin grinned. “You’ll see.”

I took a new tack. “Why did you drop out of school?”

“Not important.”

Waiting him out led only to an awkward silence. “What are you doing now instead?”

The hostess bustled up to our table with fresh margaritas. The especial variety added paper cocktail umbrellas. I got the glass with the tiny red parasol. Darin’s was blue. She said, “Enjoy.”

“Well, Darin, what have you been up to?” I tried again.

He raised his glass, waiting till I did the same. “Bottoms up.”

I took a healthy swallow, then waited.

“You know,” he drawled, “someone else came around, a couple months back, likewise curious about me.”

“Oh?”

“A bill collector, or so he asserted. He also put a disproportionate amount of effort into finding me.”

“To collect the rent you had, well, forgotten to tend to before moving on?”

“Drink up, Dad’s friend.” Darin downed more of his margarita, then waited till I followed suit. “For my back rent? That’s a good one. No, the guy worked for the company.”

“What company?” I asked, with the sinking feeling that I knew. The company. Two months ago, I had returned to Ceres. Two months ago, my employers first saw the coercive vid on Les’s hacked computer.

If the company had hired an investigator Dirtside, why hadn’t they said so? And what else hadn’t they told me?

Toppling onto the table, spilling what remained of the drugged margarita, as awareness faded, I intuited an explanation. Or maybe it was Darin’s smirk that suggested the answer.

That first investigator had never reported back.

****

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

Coming out of my drug-induced fog, I took solace from not having become number three. Yet. Or perhaps the bullet I’d dodged was becoming number four, the fate of the Earther “bill collector” remaining ambiguous. Either way, I silently chewed myself out for having so thoroughly scrubbed my comp of Maureen’s spyware. Damn my obsessive-compulsive thoroughness anyway! Never mind the company’s penchant for secrecy, right about then I could have used a competent someone tracking me. Not that I had any idea where my comp was, other than gone from my pocket. Ditto, the passport sleeve for my current ID. I would have felt their lumps under my ass.

I’d awakened at least once before into this dismal, windowless storeroom. Apart from a clearer—if still throbbing—head, nothing had changed. I remained immobile, helpless. The cyclopean red eye of a camera still guarded me.

Just maybe I remembered Darin and the pretty hostess maneuvering me from the booth. Either way, I’d lost consciousness before exiting the vegan restaurant. At least I assumed we had left. The indistinct murmurs that penetrated the walls and closed door did nothing to suggest I was in the back room of a restaurant.

Unable to move, I ransacked my memories. Speculated. Analyzed. Cursed myself out. Regretted. Cursed myself out some more.

My chief regret? How blind I had been. I had never considered the possibility—at this point, the near certainty—that Darin was a co-conspirator. The one ambiguity remaining was whether he had conspired all along, or begun as a victim and been turned. I thought I remembered some famous case involving an abducted Hearst family heiress become a terrorist. The Stockholm syndrome, was that called? Whatever Stockholm was.

Unable to kick myself except figuratively, it was just as well that, soon after my second(?) awakening, the door to my cell opened with a soft squeak. Letting gravity do most of the work, I turned my head. I caught a glimpse of knapsacks, flight bags, and other satchels, all piled against the far wall in the next room. A poster with a woodland scene hung above the luggage. I heard snippets of conversation about . . . birthrates? . . . and laughter. Darin walked in, carrying a folding chair.

There popped into my mind an ancient cartoon of two filthy, bedraggled prisoners dangling by wrist manacles from a dungeon wall. Now, here’s my plan . . ., one of them was saying. Blinking, I snapped an image of the other room before Darin closed the door behind himself. The hinges protested in this direction, too.

I said, “I still owe you dinner. Or you can treat.”

“I’m good,” he said. “But you, funny man? You might want to take matters seriously.”

“I am. In hindsight, I should never have paid your back rent.” Was that a ghost of a smile? Or an expression more predatory? The look, whatever it signified, vanished before I could decide. “So, what did happen to that bill collector you mentioned?” And am I going to end up like him?

Darin unfolded the chair and set it facing the sofa. He sat, glaring down on me. “Do you even know my father?”

“I told you. I’m his accountant.”

“Uh-huh.”

Okay, that had sounded dubious, even to me. “But personal accounting isn’t why I’m here. I came to network. Representing Earther companies in the Belt will be a big career step.”

“Not with the company? Then”—intoned ominously—”you’re of no use to me.”

Sharing or stonewalling? Which offered the better chance of keeping me alive? I wouldn’t get a do-over. “Okay, you got me. I’m a lowly accountant for the company. They send me from rock to rock, my job being to audit physical stockpiles and onsite records for evidence of any pilfering. Your dad was among the miners at the most recent rock I visited.” When Darin didn’t comment, I added, “And I know why you’ve been in hiding.”

“Uh-huh. Why is that?”

“Because as soon as Les got back to civilization and long-range comm, he was certain to try to contact you. It wouldn’t have fit the storyline for you to be reachable. You had to have disappeared months ago, when you were kidnapped, and still be gone.”

“Do tell,” Darin smirked.

“The thing is, your abductors”—and not that I could lift my arms, I wondered if that last word deserved air quotes—”wouldn’t have let you go till they knew whether Les had complied. Whether, as per your heartfelt plea, your father had constructed and deployed an aerosol-dispersing device at the mining base. Oh, he might have reported that he’d done so, but no one would know for many months. Not till the relief ship with your dad’s crew returned for their next tour of duty. And that shouldn’t happen till months from now.”

The smirk had not quite vanished, but I had the young man’s attention. Darin said, “He showed you the vid, then. While you were onsite auditing. Why?”

“No, I came upon the vid after. The thing is, Darin . . .” Almost despite himself, he leaned closer. It made no difference that he had put himself within arm’s length of me, because my arms were also dead weights. “Your father is dead.”

“Bullshit.”

“No, really. Haven’t you wondered why he hasn’t tried to make contact? Even in hiding, you’d have gotten an email.”

Darin shrugged. “Everyone in his crew went straight from the rock to company jail, whatever the euphemism the company uses for detention. I guess the strip searches to discourage smuggling of platinum scraps weren’t invasive enough.”

The crew—what remained of it, anyway—was in confinement. But not over any mundane pilferage. Not directly. The company cover story was holding. (Two dead. Two dead . . .) I shook off my guilt with outrage at Darin’s hypocrisy. It’s not like I was his guest here.

“He built and hid the device, just as your people ordered.” The young man ignored your people, reinforcing my suspicions. “It wasn’t his fault another miner found it tucked into a ventilation duct. You can imagine the concerns that discovery raised. And the questions . . .”

“Then what happened?”

“I think Les was terrified at what might happen to you if he gave out any information. Because he believed the vid, you know? He believed you’d been kidnapped and abused. He believed that, to save your life, he had to do exactly as ordered. As much as possible, he had. When the device was discovered, he was desperate to show your captors he had done everything he could to cooperate. Protecting you was more important to him than . . . anything.”

“You can’t know that.”

“You tell me.” I stared at him. “Besides whatever nasty stuff the device was meant to disperse, your father also synthed a cyanide pill.”

The blood drained from Darin’s face. Too little. Too late. “Dad took cyanide? But he wasn’t supposed to . . .”

Les was not supposed to die. The vid had directed him to set the timer for two days after his crew was scheduled to rotate out. As for the men and women of the alternating crew, they were expendable. And while I had my suspicions, I had no actual clue as to why they were to have been expended.

Words, if I could find the right ones, were the only tools available. “Yes, your dad took cyanide. In front of his crew. In front of his friends. Because once that device had been found—and no one, of course, admitted to any knowledge of it—everyone was made to turn over their personal comps as possible evidence. Your dad must’ve figured that if he weren’t forced to unlock his comp, the encrypted coercive message to him might go unseen. That protecting those secrets with his life might mollify your abductors.

“Of course, an expert at the company did unlock everything.” That expert being me, a fact whose disclosure I doubted would improve my situation. “We saw the vid. We saw how Les had been put into an impossible situation, how he had been forced to build that device.”

I strained to lift my head, the better to stare at my captor. “And the people who coerced your father? They are responsible for his death.”

Exhausted, closing my eyes and letting my head flop back onto the sofa, I hoped Darin would chew on that.

****

With no timepiece beyond a growing thirst, unsure even if I had nodded off, I had no idea how much time had passed before Darin reappeared. Behind him, past the open door, a woman in dark slacks and a tan sweater strode by. Her head was turned, but though I saw only the back of her head I blink-snapped an image anyway. This wasn’t the hostess from the Mexican restaurant. She had been taller, her hair straighter and darker. But, I suspected, my co-abductor was in the next room. The whiff of her perfume, and the start of my nose dripping, were unmistakable.

“Time to continue our chat,” Darin announced.

Chat had not come out sounding friendly. Perhaps it didn’t matter, but I wondered whether he’d already come to terms with his father’s death—plainly, they had had issues—or if he had convinced himself I had lied about it to rattle him.

“Unless you like things messy,” I countered, “first you’ll return my fuel cell and point me to a bathroom.”

He pointed, instead, at the wastebasket in the corner.

“I can’t stand without power for the exoskeleton, much less walk.”

He canted his head, considering, then turned toward the door. “Back in a minute.”

“I’ll be here,” I called after him. I snapped more images through the doorway as he exited, and again when he returned with a brown paper sack.

With a roll of duct tape from the bag, he bound my ankles. Around and around he wound the tape, a good ten times. “Hands together now.” I couldn’t lift my arms and so, grumbling, he maneuvered them together and bound my wrists just as securely. Then, he snapped a fuel cell taken from his bag into the exoskeleton. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll need at least five. And will the camera be turned off?”

He left, not deigning to answer.

It took me more or less forever to maneuver bound legs off the sofa and to sit up. (Seated, I saw that the Panic button had gone missing from the exoskeleton’s forearm control panel. Two of the chips visible through the ragged hole bore sooty scorch marks. I pictured the flat blade of a screwdriver prying out the button, in the process shorting the chips immediately beneath. The joke was on them: I hadn’t enrolled in the service.) It took me as long to stand, to the accompaniment through the wall of faint sniggers. It took longer—toppling twice, struggling laboriously back to my feet—to shuffle to and from the chamber pot. It’s not as if I’d had reason to train the exoskeleton to interpret muscles twitches made while restrained hand and foot. Some hopefully discreet experimental flexing as I shuffled convinced me that even at full exertion, the hardware could not snap my bonds. As for unzipping myself? Doing my business with bound wrists? Those were about as much fun.

Finally, gasping for breath, I plopped onto the sofa, but sitting. I hoped the voyeurs watching through the webcam had found the exhibition compelling.

When Darin returned, he had a clear bottle in his hand. Just to see condensation beads dotting the glass, a few drops running down the bottle and onto his hand, made me realize how thirsty I was. He held out the bottle to me.

I raised my arms, wrists still bound. “Uncap it, please?”

He did, and handed it over. As I drank, clumsily, sloshing some of the water onto my shirt, he asked, “What was that?”

On my left forearm, in a corner of the control panel, the Charging LED glowed yellow. Accepting the water might already have sunk my plan. Such as it was. “What’s what?”

He pointed. “That lamp.”

“Status indicator of some kind? Not happy with having a button pried out?” As he extended an arm to reclaim my fuel cell, I dipped my head to indicate the bottle. “Let me finish this first. I can’t lift my arms without power.”

“Be quick about it.”

I chugged the bottle, and he plucked it empty from my hands. I had barely rested my arms in my lap when he popped out the fuel cell. The charging LED went dark.

Darin settled into his chair. “You’ve had your fluid-adjustment break. Now, we talk.”

I talked, he meant.

He had sought me out. Why? I assumed, to stop me from continuing to look for him. To stop me drawing attention to him. Had my explanation for the search been credible, I imagined we’d have had dinner and gone our separate ways.

Then there was the so-called bill collector. However expendable the company considered me, they wanted—no, they needed—to get to the bottom of things. If they had retained, and then lost contact with, an Earther investigator, almost certainly they would have told me, if only to tip the odds for my success. By that line of reasoning the bill collector was a fiction invented to rattle me, his indeterminate fate intended to encourage my cooperation.

Almost certainly.

Like a particularly dimwitted rat in a maze, my thoughts thereafter darted every which way and ended up getting nowhere. I’d been drugged, kidnapped, and imprisoned. If I lived to implicate Darin, he could implicate everyone in the cabal. Short of rescue or escape, was there any way back from that?

Two dead. Two dead. I very much wanted not to be number three.

I licked my lips. “Tell me what you want to know.” Not that I cared, beyond construing from his answer which lies I could get away with while still earning his trust.

“Why are you here?”

“Because you drugged me and brought me here,” I blurted out.

While that crack imparted nothing he didn’t already know, what could needless antagonism accomplish? What was wrong with me?

He seemed not to take offense. “Understood. But why did you come to Earth?”

Company business. This time, I caught myself before volunteering more needless truth. What was it Mark Twain had said? If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Maybe the epigram applied as well to selective truths. “To find you. I told you so upfront.”

“To buy me a dinner, as you promised my father. Only you also told me he’s dead. Which is it?”

“Both, except for the promise part.”

Darin frowned. “So Dad is dead? How?”

“I told you earlier. He took cyanide.”

“Tell me about this device you say he made and what happened with it.”

I saw no harm in answering. Darin and his associates knew what they had ordered built. “A clear glass bottle. An electronics module of some sort, lots of wires, and a slab of stuff like clay. Stuck into the clay was a metal tube that one of the miners told me was a blasting cap. Everyone was afraid to touch the thing.”

“Sounds like a bomb,” Darin suggested.

“It looked like a bomb,” I agreed. “Apart from the glass bottle part. Logically, that held a gas or chemical or something.”

“Logically. Did you or anyone see anything in the bottle?”

Had I? I thought back. “Dust speckles on the bottom of the container.”

My mention of dust made him smile. “What else? What did you think about the bottle?”

“That the explosion or a control valve would release whatever . . .”

I froze mid-sentence. What the hell was I doing, rattling on this way? I did a quick mental rewind and replay of the past few exchanges. It was as if I’d forgotten the danger. It was as if I wanted my answers to please.

What the hell was in the water I’d chugged?

“You were saying?” Darin urged.

The Belt is big. Flying from rock to rock on company business, I read a lot. I watched vid after vid. I’d done plenty more of both during the long flight to Earth, mostly detective and spy stories: my homework. Several plots had involved someone compelled to talk under truth serum. And before dropping out, Darin had been a graduate student in biotech. How hard would it have been for him to have synthed a drug? Make that two drugs. He had likely also synthed whatever had knocked me out at the restaurant.

“Umm,” I continued, mumbling, “something would release whatever was in the bottle.”

But truth serum, like lie detector, was a misnomer. Wasn’t it? At least, what I recalled from police-procedural stories was that sodium pentothal and its ilk were basically anti-anxiety meds. They lowered inhibitions. Reduced or eliminated fears. Suppressed higher cortical functions, in theory making it harder to sustain a lie. (Good one, Mr. Twain.) They could be disorienting. They did not so much force truth-telling as make a person want to please. At one time, psychiatrists had used the meds to treat PTSD and the like. Under the guidance of a skilled practitioner, a drugged subject would confirm what the questioner already knew.

And when the questioner didn’t know the truth? Drugged subjects in the main still answered with whatever a questioner signaled, intentionally or not, he expected. And so, shrinks wielding sodium pentothal, persistently probing and hinting about abuse to otherwise traumatized child patients, had once gotten a bunch of innocent parents and daycare workers thrown into prison as abusers.

Good thing I didn’t read only fiction.

“What was in the glass bottle?” Darin asked.

“The bottle with the bomb? I don’t know.”

“Why a bomb and a bottle?”

Were my arms not impossibly heavy, I’d have shrugged. “My guess? The explosives were to discourage any attempt, if the thing were found, to move or disable it. If so, the plan worked.”

“And the company? Do they know what was in the bottle?”

“I don’t see how. The device hadn’t gone off when the crew-rotation ship arrived. Everyone abandoned the base.”

That was truthful—as far as it went. But auditors flew from rock to rock in single-person ships. I had remained behind in my ship after the miners evacuated, remotely monitoring the deserted base through cameras left inside. Within a few days of the device going off, every sort of plastic, rubber, and synthetic fiber . . . dissolved. Including the nylon layer of backup pressure suits that had been left behind. The base itself retained atmosphere—the airlock was gasket-free, its shaped-metal hatches pressing like springs against the metal frame—but anyone who had stayed behind, or who entered the base afterward, would have been trapped.

Bottom line (and that’s what we accountants deal in), I knew what the stuff dispersed by the bomb did. But was it a potent, if selective, corrosive gas? Plastic-loving, fast-reproducing bacteria? Plastic-hating, self-replicating nanites? Did anyone know what, precisely (beyond, perhaps, more of Darin’s biotech handiwork), it was? No.

What I did know was that determining what had been set loose was impossible absent venturing inside the stricken base—and that, no simple undertaking. During the hasty preparations for my trip to Earth I’d overheard talk at company headquarters about how they hoped, someday, to regain use of the mine. The thinking had yet to advance beyond generalities, involving a custom-built robot cum mobile laboratory and a hermetic barrier to encase both bot and the mine’s airlock. Remotely operated by techies—outside the barrier on the asteroid’s barren surface—the robot would enter the base. Unless and until testing identified the contagion and someone crafted a way to neutralize it, that robot would stay sealed within. And short of constructing a new base from scratch, all the precious platinum on that rock would remain in the ground.

“I don’t see how,” I repeated.

Darin shook his head. “If the company had Dad’s computer, they must know what was in the bottle.”

For once in this interrogation, I got to speak the unvarnished truth. “The vid ordered Les to digitally shred everything after he’d deployed the device. He did destroy the recipe files used to print it and whatever was in it. I suppose he couldn’t bring himself to delete the vid, because that might have been the last he ever saw of you.” As, in fact, it had been.

“You must have a theory,” Darin pressed.

Drugs and lowered inhibitions be damned, I had to out-and-out lie. “Knockout gas of some kind?”

“And you say there was something like dust at the bottom of the jar?”

My confirmation again pleased him. That dust, somehow, was a clue. Though its meaning eluded me, I knew I needed to get the information out to the company.

“So, what’s the company’s reaction to all this? I mean, beyond so recklessly sending you to nose about?”

“They’re pissed.”

Darin laughed. “Why was the device put there to begin with?”

“You must already know.”

“Why do you think the device was put there? Why does the company?”

“Well . . .” With the exoskeleton inert I couldn’t even squirm. “Do my uninformed speculations matter?”

“You must have some theory,” he coaxed.

“Extortion.” Suppressed inhibitions be damned, I had to choose my next words with special care. At least if I hoped to get out of here alive. “The company is incredibly, obscenely rich. I understand wanting a piece of that. Honest, I do. After tax evasion, the Belter national pastime is trying to put one over on the company.

“Knocking a platinum mine out of production blew a huge gaping hole in their forecasted cash flow. I’m an accountant. I know how that hurts them. I assume the plan was to incapacitate the miners on the one rock, demonstrating that something worse could have been done. And having shown it could be done once? Then other crew members, on other asteroids, could likely be coerced to take down even more production. I expect your people will demand a payoff to ensure that doesn’t happen on any company rock.”

He sat silently for a while, smugly stroking his chin.

The extortion part? That I believed, one hundred percent. What I didn’t get was why the conspirators had been so cold-blooded. Knockout gas would have made their point. But the vile stuff that had been released? If the device had gone undiscovered until it went off, the men and women of the relief crew would have been trapped. For the short term, perhaps, they would have been fine (Les’s gerbil in its cage had seemed unaffected—at least till its water bottle dissolved). But they could forget about the long term. Once the contagion found its way into the synthesizers, dissolving an internal gasket or two, food production would have ceased.

“That’s why . . .” I trailed off, mid-blurt. Damn whatever inhibition-lowering drug he had given me.

His eyes narrowed. “Why what?”

Why he was so interested in the dust settled to the bottom of the bomb bottle? Until Darin had asked, the dust had made zero impression on me. I’d never mentioned it to company debriefers. Anyway, dust was my term. Darin had said, “something like dust.”

How had the rubber-eating stuff been synthed? Or, rather, how had it been synthed without revealing itself by eating gaskets inside one of the base printers? Before I’d headed Earthward, these questions had been driving company engineers nuts.

For lack of any answer, a witch-hunt had been ongoing as I left. Never mind that smuggling contraband aboard a company ship would have involved bypassing two independent automated surveillance systems and corrupting an entire four-person team hand-inspecting everything. No matter that company Security in the main looked for disassembled radio transmitters, a seemingly empty but sealed glass bottle would surely have triggered a closer look.

And if inspectors had opened a plague bottle on Ceres? I shuddered, just to think of the devastation . . .

“Why what?” Darin repeated.

“I don’t know,” I answered shakily. “You know how an idea will just pop into your head? And be gone even before you can grasp it?”

“We’ll just have to bring that thought back, won’t we?” He took a deep breath. “Once more then, from the top . . .”

****

Slumped against the sofa back, struggling for breath, I wheezed, “I’ve got to have a break.”

“No, you don’t,” Darin said. “You’re just sitting there.”

Conveying exhaustion took no great acting skill. Or any. “I weigh like thirty times what I’m used to, jaw included. Talking is hard. Just breathing is wearing me out.”

From astride his chair, its back still toward me, he watched my chest heave. “I suppose we could take five.”

“No,” I insisted, panting. “Not ‘take five.’ I need another bathroom break. I need something to eat”—about then, even soy-cheese nachos would do—”and more to drink. And I need sleep.”

“And if I say no?”

Beats me, I almost said, but a beating wasn’t the notion to put into his head. I let my eyes fall shut, my head tip forward.

“Fine,” Darin said.

“Steak, medium rare, and a loaded baked potato would be nice.”

“Beef?” he barked. “You want beef?”

I couldn’t stop myself flinching. “Just trying to lighten the mood. Except the part about needing something to eat.”

“Fine.” He stood and strode from the room. In the short while he left the door ajar, I heard the pretentious tones of a 3V talking head—and a man with a nasal voice yelling back at it. Who gets worked up over some local zoning board approving a high-rise complex? The man was still ranting (“Packing them in like cattle!”) when Darin returned with a couple sandwiches on a cardboard plate, a bag of whole-grain chips, another water bottle—and my fuel cell.

Pathetic weakness, or perhaps it was the PBJ mess my first clumsy bite squeezed onto my shirt, got the tape around my wrists snipped and a rickety folding table to support the snack. Carrying in the table (was that bamboo?) required both hands, and Darin didn’t close the door behind him. After he sat, I got my first unobstructed pictures of the room beyond, in which the luggage pile seemed to have grown, and, twice, profile shots of bearded men walking past the doorway. Good data about my captors. A bad omen for my prospects. After maybe two minutes, responding to a complaint from that next room, Darin closed the door.

Mid-meal, I dropped my left hand into my lap, below the tabletop. Soon after, the Charging LED flipped from yellow to green: I had approximated the reserve-battery charging time about right. Beneath the table, the tiny lamp was not in sight of Darin or the unblinking webcam, but the table might not be staying. I turned that arm to palm up, control panel and its status LEDs down.

Either my yawning was contagious, or Darin was also tired. He stood, mouth briefly agape. “Get settled. I’ll be back soon to unplug you. We’ll finish this in the morning.”

I did not much care for the sound of finish. “How about some kind of blanket?”

He paused by the exit, a hand on the knob. The camera, in its motorized mount above the door, continued to sweep from side to side. “What else, Princess? Silk jammies? Hot cocoa? Shall I send for a masseuse?”

“The blanket is to put over my head, so I can get some sleep. Unless you care to turn off the lights?”

“Or, you could close your eyes.”

By the time he returned with a blanket, I had maneuvered myself into a sleeping position: lying on my left side, knees raised until the short sofa supported my feet. My left arm rested palm-side up—putting the exoskeleton control panel, with its glowing LEDs, down. My face was to the back of the sofa, and my back to the ceiling camera. Darin dropped the folded blanket, stinking of mothballs and stale sweat, on my head and shoulder. As he groped for and removed the fuel cell on my exoleg, I managed to tug an edge of the blanket down to waist level.

I heard the soft pad of Darin striding away, hinges squeaking, the click of a door latch, and the thud of a deadbolt slamming into place. I heard a man with a gravelly voice greet Darin, and then, at an almost imperceptible level, indistinguishable conversation. The occasional word or phrase I might have made out—midway, pizza, socks, plastic, carrying capacity, starve the beast—told me nothing. Unless that had been Sox, not socks, which could mean I remained on the south side of Chicago. Somehow, I promised myself, I’d live to make it to a ballgame. And have pizza.

I rotated my left arm to palm down. Cautiously, so as not to dislodge the tented blanket, I slid my right hand to the control panel. I had scarcely roused the virtual keypad when the Charging LED reverted to yellow. Type fast, I told myself. But lest I run out of time, I used a few precious seconds of panel glow to smear the status LEDs with PBJ drippings scraped from my shirtfront.

Plan A was to reactivate comm and then activate the “I’m fallen and I can’t get up” service. Once an operator came online, he, she, or it could connect me to 911. In theory, Plan A was easy to put into effect. No matter that the Panic button itself had been ripped out, whatever software the button invoked should still be available. Tapping feverishly, working by the soft glow of the control panel, I enrolled in the service—and found I still couldn’t trigger a distress call. Those scorches I’d noticed? A critical chip or two had indeed fried.

On to Plan B, and the tracking software Maureen Rogers had tried to plant on me. I’d deleted it and all her other shady software from my comp—not that I had my comp anymore. But I did have the disabled copies I’d saved, just in case, in spare memory of the exoskeleton controller. With a few hurried taps I installed the tracker, spliced Help! Prisoner! into the app’s output format, and linked the program to the exo’s wireless capability.

Alas, the restored app would not give Maureen much to go on—even assuming she hadn’t given up on tracking me. Disabling the “I’ve fallen” service had also disabled its underlying GPS service. Without GPS, the spyware could only locate me to the vicinity of the nearest cell tower. That wasn’t nothing. It should suffice to get Maureen on her way here from DC. Better yet, it might get her to start some associate or hireling already in Chicago to hunting for me.

If she hadn’t given up.

Poking around deep within the menu system, in a race against the rapidly draining battery, I found and enabled the exo’s embedded GPS service. It, of course, had no idea where I was. Yet.

Back in Manhattan, meandering about Central Park, my comp had taken about twenty minutes to find enough satellites and download enough detailed orbital data to initialize its own GPS service. The little reserve battery was only sized for five, and I guesstimated I’d already burned through at least three of those. I might eke out a few extra seconds by lying still—the motors must draw more power than did the electronics—and maybe I’d be lucky. Maybe, before the battery ran dry, I’d get a precise lat-long readout. Then, so would Maureen’s spyware.

It was a nice idea, anyway. The exoskeleton’s GPS chip was still initializing when, beneath the blanket, everything went dark. My right forearm and hand flopped to the sofa, dragging my elbow from my side.

Eventually, somehow, I drifted off to sleep . . . .

****

Somewhere among the impaling stakes, torture racks, thumbscrews, red-hot pincers, and trays of glittering surgical instruments, in one of the rare moments when I wasn’t plummeting, or suffocating beneath my own gargantuan weight, or wilting beneath the penetrating gaze of dead miners, my wife came to me.

Bea starring in my dreams was in no way unusual, especially when I was far from home. Black attire was common enough, too—but of the peek-a-boo, lacy variety. Not in black from head to toe. Not veiled. Not (when she lifted the veil) with tear-stained cheeks. Not, once she met my eyes, so angry.

“You went away for the damned company,” she said. “For the crumbs they condescended to throw your way. So, you got them to name you a junior assistant deputy associate minion. What good will that stake do you now?”

“Do us,” I corrected. “Worst case, do you. However this turns out.”

“Did you honestly think I’d want their damned blood money?”

“It’s not like that.” My voice trailed off even as Bea’s image morphed into . . . an iron maiden. Forever, side by side, it and I fell. As it faded away, I came down, splat, in a deep oubliette. The walls began to dissolve, and I realized they weren’t stone and mortar, but plastic. The floor gave way beneath me—

Once more, I was falling . . .

****

I shuddered awake, blinking at the sudden bright light, as the blanket went flying.

“Rise and shine, Princess.” I couldn’t see Darin, but I knew the voice. Grabbing my shoulder, he rolled me onto my back, then slapped a fuel cell into its socket on the exoskeleton’s left thigh.

That was the moment, as he crouched over my legs, to knee him in the head. To make a run for it. For a nanosecond, I even considered it. The three, maybe four, loud voices in the next room (did these people ever not argue?) dissuaded me. They would have been upon me faster than I could unbind my ankles or hobble to the door.

Darin stood. The opportunity, such as it was, had passed. “Hands,” he commanded. I raised them, and he wrapped my wrists with layer upon layer of fresh tape. I was glad to see a peanut-butter smear still masked the controller LEDs. “Five minutes for your morning ablutions.”

I took my time. With power restored, the exo’s GPS would be trying to initialize.

Eventually, I was back on the sofa, behind the restored rickety table, gnawing on a gravel-and-twigs energy bar. Maybe my morning water bottle was also drugged; I was too parched to leave it untouched and too keyed up to judge. We went through everything again. My arrival at the rock where his father worked. Discovery of the device. Evacuation. What the company thought, and I thought, of all this. The rehash took more than enough time for GPS to have initialized. To have localized me. More than long enough for my reserve battery to have finished recharging.

No sign yet of the cavalry.

Through the closed door, I heard a flurry of footsteps. Thumping. Rustling. “Time to wrap it up,” a woman called out.

I can’t say I cared for the sound of that.

“I’ll be right along,” Darin yelled back.

“Hurry it up,” the same woman shouted.

“In a minute.” In a lower voice, Darin continued, “And Dad dead.”

“Two dead.” I’d gotten careless, or worn down, or there had been drugs in the latest water, and I’d succumbed to them. Maybe all three. Whatever the reason, the words just popped out.

Two people took cyanide?”

I hadn’t killed anyone, but there was no disguising my guilty shiver. “If I could identify the bomber, or so I reasoned back there on the rock, I could get him or her to disarm the device. Auditing gave me an excuse to interview everyone—not asking about the bomb, of course, but in general. What I did uncover was an inventory discrepancy, somebody having diverted several kilos of platinum. More likely two somebodies, one distrusting the other to keep quiet. Soon after I’d begun poking around, one of the crew vanished.” Pretty little Anisha Chatterjee, turned to . . .

“The morning after her disappearance, I spotted an unexplained spike in organic feedstock for the printers.” Also, after I’d synthed and eaten breakfast. My gorge rising, I forced myself to continue. “An increase that came to about her body mass.”

Darin chewed on his lower lip. “You don’t suppose Dad . . .?”

More thumping and stomping noises from the next room. Doors, each fainter than the last, slamming. And then, silence. If the unseen among my captors had left, what did that bode for me?

Nothing good, especially if I didn’t keep my wits about me.

I said, “Les didn’t seem like the homicidal type. Anyway, what with the vid of you, he had plenty else on his mind.” Then more truth slipped out. “But if I hadn’t gone digging, hadn’t been trying to identify the bomber, I wouldn’t have rattled whoever did kill Anisha. Who gives a good goddamn if she planned to rip off the company a little?”

“Who gives a good goddamn if someone rips off the company for a lot?” Glancing at his wrist-clock tattoo, then at me, Darin stood. He managed to look apologetic. “The thing is . . .”

The thing was, he and his cronies had planned to trap and kill off a crew of five. Why would he balk at eliminating the witness already bound hand and foot? The extent just then of my offensive potential was leaping to my feet—while somehow not falling—and lunging across the table to head-butt him. After which, without doubt, I would crash to the floor.

What good is money to you now? Bea chided. Of course, she wasn’t here. Besides, I’d never shared with her my deal with the company. If this was guilt, well, then fair enough. But maybe it was my subconscious making a suggestion . . . .

“You know,” I whispered, leaning over the table, “you can get a bit extra out of the company. And in return, I get to walk out of here. What do you say?”

“Go on.”

I dropped my hands into my lap. “The company set me up with a slush fund. For expenses.”

“How much are we talking about?”

What I had left wasn’t bribe-worthy. I lied.

He whistled.

“Do we have a deal?” I pressed.

He laughed unpleasantly. “So you can use a duress code, or so the funds you transfer can be traced? I don’t think so.”

“No. Cryptocash. Anonymous. Untraceable. Untaxable.” Also, for those reasons, beloved of organized crime and money launderers. Illegal for decades in the USNA, of course, and most other Earther jurisdictions. Kidnappers and extortionists would not quibble over that detail.

Darin was silent, but clearly tempted.

I said, “The funds are in a standard wallet on my comp. I’ll transfer it all. Just promise you’ll let me go.”

“Uh-huh. I power up your comp, and it broadcasts your location. Oh, I’d still walk away before anyone got here, but I don’t need anyone to come looking for me. Pass.”

He wasn’t wrong. To make a transfer required being online. A cryptocash transaction was a bookkeeping entry, no more and no less, in a digital ledger distributed, and replicated, on computers across the planet. That had been the basic architecture going back to the mother of all cryptocurrencies, bitcoin. No communication with that ledger? No transfer. For this to work, my comp had to go onto the net.

“Hear me out,” I said. “Open up my comp. Pull the GPS chip before turning it on. It can’t reveal where I am when it doesn’t know.” I didn’t volunteer the presence of an active GPS chip in my exoskeleton.

He mulled it over. Went into the next room, returning with what looked like my comp. (Also with a bulge in his pants, and I doubted he had become happy to see me.) Sat. Unfolded the comp face down on the table, and exposed the guts of it. Surfed awhile on his own comp, I presumed to identify the GPS chip used in mine. Finally, he pried loose a chip, closed my comp, turned it over, powered it up, and slid it toward me across the wobbly table. “Do it.”

I rested my hands, still taped together, on the comp. “Can’t, not this way. Keystroke-dynamics recognition.”

He swore, demanded I try authenticating anyway. Authentication failed twice.

I raised my hands. “Remove the tape. It’s the only way this will work.”

He did. I shook my hands, flapped my fingers all about. “Give me a couple of minutes. I won’t type normally till the hands get circulation back in them and they wake up.” I rubbed one wrist, then the other. I dropped the hands back into my lap, still massaging.

Just maybe, I heard a soft scuffing noise from beyond the door.

“Get to it,” Darin said.

I interlaced my fingers, turned my palms toward him. I straightened my arms, flexing fingers till the knuckles cracked. “Almost there,” I announced.

The gun came out of his pocket, though not yet pointed at me. “Hurry up. I have things to do.”

“Really?” Somehow, I held my voice steady. “You would shoot me?”

“I have my father’s death on my conscience. What do I care about you? So quit stalling and type.”

Indeed, I was stalling. I typed. Mistyped. “Umm, a gun in my face does nothing to steady my hands.”

“I’m losing my patience,” he snapped.

Ever so cautiously, the door behind Darin opened a crack. Sans squeak: as though the hinges had been oiled. Something (I could not make out quite what. A small mirror, perhaps?) peeked into the room.

I logged onto the comp and opened my wallet app. “Almost there,” I declared. “No need to shoot.”

I’d intended that suggestion for the cavalry, evidently preparing to breach. Darin must have grokked it, too, or heard a suspicious noise behind him, or seen an unexpected shadow or a reflection from the mirror. However, he intuited the danger, whatever he thought was going on—he raised his gun.

And all hell broke loose—too many things, too quickly, to process, much less for their order to register:

—I hurled myself down and to the side, off the sofa.

—Shouted orders to “Drop the gun.”

—Maureen burst into the room.

—Shots rang out.

—Sadness at everything I was leaving behind, Bea most of all. Sadness and guilt for the children Bea and I had always wanted, but for whom I had never quite been ready.

—With eyes wide, and a bright red splotch spreading across his shirtfront, Darin crumpled to the floor.

—And excruciating pain, burning, in my shoulder . . ..

****

The next several . . . minutes? . . . were a blur. Pressure—and agony!—on/in/throughout my shoulder. Ululating sirens. Urgent ministrations of the EMTs. Racing from my cell, with feet dangling off the end of an Earther-sized gurney. In the next room, where I’d seen bags and knapsacks piled, one lonely tote remained: Darin’s, I assumed. The gurney jolting over an uneven surface, and me gasping with each bump. Cops swarming. An interminable ambulance ride, with Maureen at my side, squeezing my hand. The ambulance drove with its siren off; apparently, I was stable.

“It’s okay, Bernie,” she said. “Try to relax, Bernie.”

Parsing Bernie took a second. That was me, as far as Maureen knew. Smart cookie that she was, she figured I was apt to be using aliases. Hence, she was reminding me of the name she had given to the authorities. Because she would’ve known some moniker for me, even if I were the kind of jerk who gave out fake names to women in bars. (Which the cops would decide, because I had been using a different name in Chicago. Likewise fake.) Just happening to be in the neighborhood from Washington to rescue a total stranger from his kidnapper would never pass the smell test. Especially not with a dead body involved.

I had just about finished puzzling through all that when she leaned close, brushing the hair from my eyes. To kiss my forehead, I supposed. For show. I didn’t see why she would bother when the EMTs were ignoring us, one tapping notes into her comp, the other poking around inside an ambulance supplies cabinet: inattention I chose to take as further confirmation I’d pull through. The next thing I knew, Maureen had a finger in my eye, removing one of my spyware lenses. She whispered urgently into my ear, “Where are you staying? Under what name?”

I answered, wondering why she’d asked.

An EMT glanced our way.

“A little privacy, please,” Maureen snapped, and the EMT’s head whipped back around to her supplies cabinet. Maureen continued, in a yet softer whisper, “Keep your voice down. I’m guessing the snatch involved company business, and you want as many details as possible kept close.”

I nodded.

“Here’s our story. We met in a DC bar. We planned to hook up again when I came to Chicago on my own business. I’ll refuse to identify the client. That bit of noncooperation may cause me some grief till my lawyer arrives, but no big deal. Before you and I could meet up, you were grabbed, told it was for ransom from the company. But you managed to get out a quick note to me, just ‘help.’ How I found you is my problem to explain. Do not mention the tracker. And from the moment I came through the door, tell everything just as it happened. Okay?”

I whispered back. “They’ll want to confirm my note, won’t they?”

“You’re married, so we were using self-destructing messaging. Um, Snapchat. No record anywhere. Okay?”

As one more tiny bit of misdirection, my wedding band had been in a suitcase since Ceres, but she had read me right. Whatever the EMTs had put into my IV finally began kicking in and, my mind beginning to wander, I wondered what being able to understand people would be like.

“Okay?” she prompted.

Was it? “Maybe not. GPS on my comp is disabled.”

“Then how did . . . no, that can wait. I grabbed two comps from that room before the cops got there. Was one of those yours?”

I managed to nod.

“If it comes up, your captors took your comp. You have no idea where it is.”

“Okay.” But through the ever-thickening drug stupor, yet another complication tried to assert itself. The cops would discover soon enough that I’d been asking around for Darin Hodges. I’d lost track of time, but that could not have been longer than a day or two ago. As I struggled to put my apprehension into words, the meds took over. Everything faded away . . ..

****

“Dear Bea, I am so sorry that . . .” I stopped recording. Hit erase. Such an overwrought apology was no way to begin. Reconfirmed that I was in a tight close-up, that the odd position at which the exoskeleton held my arm immobilized was outside the camera’s view, that no hint of wound dressing peeked through the fabric of my shirt. Switched mindsets to banter. “Hey, kiddo. It’s yours truly, from the Land of Too Damned Heavy. I miss you bunches.” Hit pause while I considered that opening. Good enough, I decided. “You have no idea how much I miss you, beyond even how abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. But the class is good. The food here is terrific. We”—while I lied through my teeth, what did some of the Royal We matter?— “even had the opportunity to play tourist. And check out the accommodations they gave us.”

I could feel my composure slipping. Panning the camera across the sitting area of the hotel suite, then showing the vertiginous view from the glassed-in balcony, got my face off the vid. “Here’s the thing, hon. There was a bit of a mishap on a sightseeing excursion. Kids out joyriding, which means, I discovered, disabling automatics and controlling a ground vehicle manually. Primitive, right? Anyway, it was a minor accident, what folks here call a fender-bender.” I finished panning, put on my best sincere face, and put that face back onto the camera. “The thing is, in the collision my safety harness did a number on my arm and shoulder. Belter bones, ya know? Not the sturdiest.

“So, hon, as much as I hate to say this, I’ll be staying awhile after the class ends. Being on Earth is tough enough. Launching from here before those bones fully knit, before PT? I could ruin that arm for good, or so the docs tell me.”

That prognosis, at least, was honest. The bullet that inbound had so inconsiderately missed my exoskeleton had struck metal when trying to exit my shoulder. Titanium is a lot harder than lead; ricocheting bullet fragments made mincemeat of muscle and bone.

No matter my happy pills, I wasn’t.

I was feeling sorry for myself, again, knew I had to wrap things up before the self-pity slipped out. “So keep the home fires burning. I’ll let you know when I know more. Love you.”

Off the recording went before I could add anything mawkish. I was again feeling like the wrong type of dick. Also, trapped, and not just by stern doctors and my duty. The Chicago PD expected me to hang around while they cleared up “a few details.” After the surgery on my shoulder, that had meant questioning most every day. And if the cops decided to run my DNA against the Customs database? That would add another alias to those the police knew, and bring on unwanted attention from the feds.

“Done,” I called out.

With only one possible shooter, the cops had taken Maureen into custody. Once the cops released her, she had shown up at my door. By then I understood: the cover story required that we seem hooked up. And it explained her questions in the ambulance about my latest name and hotel. I used the waterbed; she took the couch.

“She’s a lucky woman.” Maureen emerged from the kitchenette with steaming mugs of coffee. She handed me a mug, then settled with the other into one of the overstuffed chairs overlooking the balcony. “Let’s see about getting you home to her.”

Home, like clarity, seemed remote. Okay, I had survived. That mattered to me, but it didn’t rise to the level of success. My one lead, my only reason for coming to this hellhole, had been Darin Hodges—and he was dead. “That will take actually accomplishing something.”

“Haven’t you?” she asked. Because by then I’d shared some of what I’d been through, some of what this mess was all about. She had earned it, not to mention that I needed the help.

“Precious little.”

Oh, I’d concluded Darin had been in on the conspiracy all along, never—till he forced Maureen’s hand—its victim. If coercing his father to plant the bomb wasn’t his idea, he had gone along, starred in the vid to make it all happen. He had, almost certainly, designed the whatever-it-was plague, and I’d messaged the company that the dust in the bottle was somehow relevant. We knew Darin had had accomplices and, courtesy of the nifty spy lenses, I even had some pictures—but not a full face shot of any of them. My snaps of the gear pile— “go bags,” Maureen called them—turned out to be just as useless: the single luggage tag in view had been edgewise to my line of sight. From an address and menu I could remember only in part, Maureen had even identified the vegan restaurant. Which she had pursued into yet another dead end. The hostess—who had not shown up at her job since my abortive dinner—worked off the books and, it turned out, under a false name. For whatever it was worth, I spotted her in Maureen’s picture of a staff-picnic picture found decorating a restaurant wall.

“It was never about extorting money from the company, was it?” Maureen continued. Prompted? Goaded? Insinuated? Intuited?

Because it turned out that detectives, like accountants, tend to follow the money. Go figure. And there had been no ransom demand for me.

“I can’t yet say that.” From the start, I’d expected a demand for a payoff in return for some method to decontaminate the base. Within the company, everyone aware of the true situation did. But not for a while. “Remember that, apart from low-power helmet comms, company rocks don’t have radio transmitters. Darin and friends hadn’t expected the release of their nasty stuff to be discovered till the next crew rotation. That’s months from now.”

Sun was streaming through the glass doors that opened onto the balcony. Maureen got up and drew the sheers. “Okay, maybe that was the original plan. But you told Darin, and he must have told his accomplices, that the company already knows about the device. That his father’s crew, what remains of it, evacuated with the incoming crew. The bad guys gain nothing by waiting. So why haven’t they made their demands?”

I shook my head. First thing after my release from the hospital, I’d checked back in with a managing partner at the home office, the messages encrypted both coming and going. Still no demands.

Maureen frowned. “So what are Darin’s friends up to? What’s their endgame?”

“You’re asking me?” Because I was a clear failure as a detective.

“Well, you’re who’s here,” she drawled. “Also, I don’t accept for a moment that the cops have lost interest in me. So, yeah, there will be questions.”

Did she suppose I wasn’t already asking myself these things? Not already driving myself crazy with them?

Being privately owned, the company was not subject to securities law. They were not required to disclose disasters like the loss of the mine. The partners could hope to sustain the secret awhile, but their (and in the tiniest sliver, also my) stockpile of platinum had its bounds. Absent new production, there would be market turmoil and industrial disruptions. In habitats large and small, and on every settled off-Earth world, platinum was the essential catalyst for the production of nitric acid for fertilizer. When prices spiked at the prospect of shortages—and more so once actual shortages started to bite—entire ecologies would be endangered. I figured the company had maybe two years to reclaim or replace the abandoned mine before the sky fell.

So okay, metaphor isn’t my thing. Perhaps not irony, either. Or detecting. Maybe I should stick with accounting.

“You all right?” Maureen asked. “You zoned out there.”

“Just tired.”

“I know you don’t want to hear it, but we have work to do. So whenever you’re ready for a few questions . . . .”

That morning, a Chicago PD homicide detective had grilled me—again—for three solid hours. Disclosing much of the truth would’ve rocket-propelled us down the Teflon-coated slope to vile stuff in bottles, company secrets, and bringing chaos to commodity markets throughout the Solar System. I didn’t want to go there, and “couldn’t remember” much. In any event, the only captor I’d seen was Darin.

To get ahead of the inevitable discovery, I had volunteered even before my discharge from the hospital that I’d been looking for Darin, explained it with the same promised-his-father-I’d-look-him-up spiel I’d told so many others. It wasn’t as if Les could contradict me. (Not that the detective hadn’t tried for corroboration. The company responded that Les was away on company business and would be unreachable for months. For once their legendary security measures came in handy. With a shrug, my inquisitor had accepted that any contact with Les would be a long time coming.) How was I to know, I had whined yet again that morning, that doing a simple favor would make me a target of larcenous opportunity? Not to speak ill of the deceased, but the young man had major abandonment issues. I had to assume Darin had chosen to take out his resentments on the company.

Bottom line (and I was losing confidence in my ability even with those), I was well and truly drained before Maureen set out to reanalyze every word I’d exchanged with Darin, every sound that might have penetrated the walls of my cell, every pixel of every image I’d blinked. And beyond enervated, I was drowning in cognitive dissonance. What could I tell whom? What had I told whom? What, even, did I want to tell anyone? (Uh-huh, Mark Twain. I hear you. You weren’t full of pain meds.)

The nth time she started in again as to what I knew, inferred, or suspected about Darin’s vanished accomplices, I snapped. “They’re off to join the circus.”

She hummed a few bars of a tune I did not recognize. “If you’re done yanking my chain, we’ll continue.”

“I’m sure I heard one of them mention the midway. That’s part of a circus, right? Where the sideshows are? Unless you think they took time out from their crime spree to discuss”—and here my memory of Earther history failed me utterly— “obscure naval battles.”

The midway,” she repeated, frowning.

“Midway? Absolutely, I heard that word. You can’t expect me to remember every ‘the.’ ”

“Well,” Maureen said, “Tracking down Darin’s accomplices, once we figure out who to look for, just got harder. Midway is Chicago’s second airport.”

We continued losing ground until I demanded a halt. “That’s enough for a while. I’m ready for a big honking steak.”

“Geese honk, my friend. Cattle moo. Steers moo in soprano.”

“They can tap-dance while whistling Dixie, for all I care, as long as the meat is fresh. Just in case cattle are the beast they propose to starve . . . .”

The penny had finally dropped.

That there were no pennies.

 

****

 

The looming disaster was bigger than the company, which even they conceded. Bigger than the Belt. This affected everyone

With me, incongruously, at the epicenter. No wonder I felt wrung out.

“You did good,” Andy Singh declared. He was Bollywood handsome, tanned, and self-assured. Short, even by Earther standards, and barrel-chested. Side by side, we were like a fireplug and a lamppost. Andy had hired Maureen—her true name, I was now to believe, being Jaime Olafson—to support me. It was only fair that he had posted bail for her.

Andy was a senior partner at the white-shoe Washington law firm representing company interests on Earth. (What did the color of his shoes matter? I didn’t get that, and anyway, those were black, not white. He had only smiled at the question.) By extension, he was the company’s chief lobbyist and fixer on the home world. I guess I should not have been surprised when Ceres informed me Andy was also, sub rosa, a managing partner of the company—and I should do as he said.

Being in the presence of Belter near-royalty impressed me less than the connections he had on Earth: the influence that had made possible the summit from which—with me used up, as limp as a dishrag—we had finally taken our leave. And also the clout to get the Chicago police to allow Maureen (I was doing my best to ignore any other name, lest it pop out at an inopportune moment) and me to fly to Washington for that meeting.

The three of us were riding in Andy’s car. His as in he owned it, not that he had been the person to summon it. His as in no one could possibly eavesdrop through the vehicle’s voice-activated navigation system. His as in I could not shake the fear that, fatigue taking over, I’d drool on the soft-as-butter, cream-colored leather of its seats.

“You did good,” Andy repeated.

I grunted acknowledgment. If he knew I’d heard him, maybe he would let me rest.

What I’d done was hold myself together through a tag-team interrogation by a dozen agencies’ experts at the United Worlds counterterrorism center. Because that’s what we were embroiled in: terrorism. There had been no ransom note—for me, much less the quarantined asteroid—because we were dealing with extremists. They didn’t care about money. They worshipped Earth.

Their issue was with humanity and, more broadly, the billions of people (and their cattle) overloading the planet. It took Spacer-developed resources to make the current population supportable. On that single point, Darin and I would have agreed. Grant that dependency, and how do you fix the “problem?” By starving the beast. By cutting off Earth from those resources. By making humanity live within the planet’s carrying capacity. I had not forgotten Darin’s slip of the tongue. Spacers weren’t human? Then we, doubtless, were expendable. Unlike the nonhuman, non-cattle fauna who did matter, that distant third of all other terrestrial animal biomass.

Where were Darin’s cronies? Possibly in hiding, as the Chicago PD still assumed. My personal belief/conclusion/dread? They had scattered, en route to off-world destinations, there to build and deploy devices like the one they had forced Les Hodges to beta test. The field trial had been a success: built with readily available supplies and equipment under microgee conditions, then functioning just as intended. As I knew from firsthand experience . . ..

The spooks, if not one hundred percent convinced, had at least conceded the possibility. And so, resources beyond the company, beyond metropolitan police, beyond the minimalist government favored by off-world settlements, would be assigned to tracking down the cabal—before, I sincerely hoped, Darin’s plague shut down space travel. At national labs, scientists would tackle the problem of determining what the plague was, how to counteract it, what code updates to the Solar System’s myriads of printers and synthesizers might impede its production.

All in a race against time . . ..

Oblivious to my angst, Andy asked, “So, ready for dinner? You’ve earned it. I know a great sushi place.”

“Another time,” I said. But while I was too tired to eat, sleep beckoned.

And more than either, I needed to come to grips with my fears. If the contagion were ever set loose on Ceres . . ..

“Car, how long to the hotel?” I asked.

“Ten minutes,” it answered.

I didn’t make it that long without dozing off.

“We’re here,” Andy announced. Still out of it, I did not respond till he gave my shoulder (the uninjured one) a nudge. We had pulled up to the curb outside the hotel entrance. “Can I give you a hand up to your room?”

“I’ve got it,” Maureen said. “I’ll get him tucked in.”

If only there were time to sleep. “Have a few minutes for a drink, Andy?”

“Sure,” Andy said. His comp rang as I began climbing out of the car. “You two go ahead. I’ll be right up.”

I let the exo march me across the lobby to the elevator. Ineffably weary, unspeakably worried, the exo got me down the long corridor to our room. As I decanted whiskey from the minibar into three glasses, Maureen scanned all about our suite with a gadget from her purse.

“We’re clear,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“Let’s wait for Andy.”

When he arrived, he arched an eyebrow at Maureen.

“You, too?” she said. “I just swept for bugs. We’re fine.”

“Ready for some good news?” he said. “That call downstairs was from one of the folks we just met with. Their facial rec has already tracked down your vegan buddy. She’d been to Midway, all right. She flew to Mojave Spaceport, and from there to an O’Neill habitat at L5. They spotted her about to board a shuttle for the return flight.”

“Is she in custody?” My spirits rose—

And were as soon dashed, as Andy shook his head. “Habitat law enforcement thought they had her cornered. She went out an airlock. No suit.”

Spaced herself! Even as my gut lurched, a part of me took grim satisfaction in that gruesome death. A part of me wanted all those fanatical bastards pitched out of an airlock. If they had their way? If their plague ever got loose, destroying suits, eating vacuum seals? Hundreds, thousands, of innocent Spacers would be the ones dying of explosive decompression. My wife, family, and friends all too possibly among them.

“But they’ll recover her comp,” Maureen said. “That’s all we need. Right? To get the recipe?”

“The comp wasn’t on her,” Andy said. “They’re reconstructing her movements through the habitat, to find where she stashed it. No joy just yet.”

Except they wouldn’t find her comp, and not only because having the recipe in hand would be too easy. “You said she was ready to board her return flight. Then she’d already made and deployed her device. As a security measure, I’ll bet she tossed the comp into a recycling bin.”

Like Anisha Chatterjee, reduced to organic feedstock on a distant, contaminated rock. I shuddered.

“The locals will keep looking,” Andy said. “And they’ll hunt for devices like what those miners found. A bomb squad is being dispatched to L5 as we speak.”

“If anyone finds a bomb,” I predicted, “it’ll be set with a long delay. For maximum impact, and to give minimum warning, they’ll aim to strike everywhere at once.”

“Scary,” Andy said, “but logical. And a silver lining, too, if correct. It’d mean we have time. Anyone in the cabal going to the Belt will be awhile yet in transit. Before they get there, maybe we’ll have another face or three to search for. The intel types are tracking down Darin’s known associates, and the neighborhood tree huggers, and recent university dropouts to see who among them also dropped off the grid.”

Maureen came over to sit beside me on the sofa. “That was Andy’s news. There was something you wanted to bring up.”

“I know I can trust you both.” Her, for saving my life. Him, for introducing me to the highest levels of counterterrorism. To not rescue me, or to not make those introductions, would have been simple enough.

“But you trust no one else,” Andy completed. “Yes, this has been hard. Yes, we’re not out of the woods. But you can let down a bit. I’ll grant you the L5 action wasn’t a complete success, but it’s progress. The rest of the terrorists are doubtless flying a lot farther. The spooks have time to find any device at L5, to identify Darin’s accomplices, to sort out this whole mess.”

I downed my shot, and raised the empty glass for a refill. Andy delivered it, and I downed that, too. “And who will sort out matters within the company?”

“What do you mean?’ Maureen asked.

Andy’s eyes just narrowed.

I said, “Darin knew that his father’s crew was in detention, incommunicado. And he wasn’t surprised when I said that rock had been evacuated.”

Andy stiffened. “No. You can’t believe that.”

“I can,” I said. “I do. There is a leak. Someone inside the company is involved in this mess. Somebody well-placed, high up, because no one else would have known those things.”

“On Ceres?” Maureen asked.

I shook my head. “Here on Earth, I have to believe. No need to coerce Les Hodges to do their field trial if they had had a collaborator on Ceres. Or anywhere else in space.”

“Then what . . .?” Andy trailed off, his face ashen.

“What do we do?” I said. “We three get back to work. We have our own private investigation to run. And we dare not fail.”

Because if we did, the toll would be a lot higher than two dead.

****

 

 

 

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