The Company Man

Working for paranoids isn’t the easiest or the safest way to make a living, but it paid well. It even appeared that I had survived another assignment, and I looked forward to enjoying my hard-earned gains.

Afloat in the windowless tin-can cabin of my vessel, three rocks visited as planned, bound for home, I fantasized about air and water not endlessly recycled, food that had been grown, not printed, and gymnastic marathon sex with my wife. Not necessarily in that order.

Till I reached Ceres, my plans consisted of more of the same. There was nothing to do, not even if I wanted. Company vessel 724 (or as I preferred to think of her, the Bounty, though whether I channeled Captain Bligh or Mister Christian varied with my frame of mind) flew itself. Only the bridge computer knew where we were or when we’d arrive, and it wasn’t telling. Without instruments, without windows, I couldn’t as much as guess.

To be fair, the company had come honestly by its paranoia. Registering a mining claim to a rock meant less than squat when the rock regularly wandered millions of kilometers from civilization—and law enforcement. And when the wealth that rock had to offer was more than enough to corrupt anyone. And when to register the claim would have meant disclosing the orbital parameters. How many such rocks did the company exploit? What were their orbits? Outside the C-suite, I doubt anyone knew.

On my inaugural jaunt for the company, cocky about my own brilliance, I’d suited up en route to my first rock to do some naked-eye astronomy. Only the paranoids had anticipated that ploy: looking outward from within the airlock, even after allowing ten minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark, I had seen . . . nada. An arm extended through the open outer hatch caught zero sunlight, meaning autopilot had me oriented away from the Sun—and that the patch of sky before me must have been filled with unseen stars.

I’d had to resist the urge to smack myself upside the helmet. Of course my employers had insisted upon furnishing my vacuum gear for the flight. Of course company ships stocked extra helmets, and never a printer capacious enough to make spares as needed. Clearly, the smartglass visor in my company-provided helmet filtered stars from a black sky. Had I been facing in a suitable direction, doubtless it would have filtered out planets, too. Otherwise every miner with a gram of astronomy sense—not to mention ringers recruited as miners—would try the same exercise I was undertaking. With a sigh, I’d taken the hint, closed the outer hatch, and returned inside. Foiled.

The anticipation of marathon sex was far more pleasant than memories of my past naiveté. It couldn’t be long now . . .

A bridge console chimed: incoming message. I pulled myself into my acceleration couch and tapped to acknowledge. A display lit up and I read: ACCELERATION IN TWO MINUTES.  MINE EMERGENCY.  RENDER ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE.

Meaning, company commitments notwithstanding, I wasn’t going home. Meaning also that, beyond not knowing to where I’d been rerouted, I knew nothing about the emergency. Because the company didn’t know? Mining stations, like ships, had no transmission capability. “For security.” So how the hell did the company know about an emergency?

All good questions, I thought. And they were all going to go without answers, at least until I got . . . wherever.

“Columbus managed without a radio,” the bored company recruiter had once explained. “And Magellan. And Cook and Drake and pick your explorer.”

Not that Magellan or Cook had made it home alive. Was I supposed to like those odds? “Which of them were in vacuum, millions of klicks from help?”

“Hence the hazardous-duty pay,” I’d been told. “And most likely, you’ll live.”

And indeed, so far, I had. But with this undefined emergency, I had to wonder if my luck had run out.

 

****

 

Waiting in a hallway, my gaze wandered about the tiny, claustrophobic room to which, almost sooner than I had struggled out of my vacuum gear, I had been delivered by a pair of taciturn miners. (Emphasis on almost. The men took the time to give me a full pat-down, an ultrasound scan, and to paw through my utility belt and valise. I didn’t have any contraband with me, but protocol must be followed—and to the pickiest detail, given that I’d had the temerity, this being an unscheduled stop, to have arrived without a mail bag.) Both men had been edgy, but that was only to be expected. No one’s ever pleased with a company auditor showing up. I wasn’t too happy myself.

My escorts, without a word, left me. Beyond the hatch, studiously (contrivedly?) ignoring me, my host frowned at his desktop. From time to time he took a sip from a drink bulb. I cleared my throat. Without looking up, he raised a finger. As in the universal annoying gesture for wait a minute. Some emergency.

It could have been the control room of any asteroid mining station anywhere, and I’d visited plenty enough to know. Wall displays cycled from camera to camera to camera, most offering dreary, near-ground-level views of pockmarked, much-churned terrain. Little interrupted the desolation but boot prints, the crablike sidling of many-tentacled mining bots, and a pressure-suited figure gliding hand over hand along a staked-down guide wire to or from some chore. Sun glinted off the occasional solar reflector chancing to appear over the freakishly close horizon; once I spotted the eldritch blue glow of an ion thruster adjusting a mirror’s hover. Other displays offered more panoramic—if no less bleak—vistas: look-downs from the hovering reflectors. As overhead pics flashed past, I twice caught sight of the Bounty as it lay tethered to the barren surface and once of the base airlock. The final few wall displays offered interior shots of this underground station: corridors, common areas, the vault (sealed; stacked with lustrous ingots), the arms locker (sealed), even air ducts and cable conduits.

All cartoonish glimpses, of course. Still and vid cameras at company stations were purposefully insensitive and low-res, hence unable to capture any astronomical object other than the Sun. Try as you might, you couldn’t repurpose these cams for clandestine astronomy projects. I worked for evil geniuses.

Where display screens didn’t cover the wall, magnets pinned paper lists, production schedules, hand-scrawled notes, and cartoons to steel panels. What little of the actual wall I could see glowed in a particularly bilious shade of green. In fine sprinklings, gauzy films, and great, sooty smudges, the ubiquitous dust—you couldn’t work an asteroid without tracking more of the stuff inside from every surface foray—tainted everything. In the minutes since I had entered the station, my jumpsuit, clean upon arrival, already gave hints of mimicking a leopard.

The used-gunpowder odor of the dust tickled my nose. I’d get used to that, I knew, and to the bouquet of hardworking men and women in tight quarters, but such olfactory adjustments always took time. To my left, from the room’s air duct, came the whirr of a fan. Ventilation and filtration somehow distributed the dust and stench more than removed it.

Finally done with whatever task I was to believe demanded his urgent attention, the station chief glanced up from his desktop. “Welcome to the Rock.” Because the smaller asteroids, no matter their official designations, went by either of two more meaningful names: the Rock or (for rubble jumbles loosely held together by their feeble mutual gravity) the Pile. He emerged from behind the desk, shoes zip-zipping on a filthy gripper rug the same sickly hue, beneath ground-in dirt, as the walls, with his right hand extended. “Baxter. Simon Baxter.”

I introduced myself. Shaking hands, I felt . . . paper. A bribe, already? Really? And for the paltry sum a person could palm? I pondered whether to be more amused or insulted—but a momentary narrowing of his eyes and the flicker of a downward glance didn’t fit a bribery scenario. Neither did the emergency summons. I found myself closely studying the station chief.

Baxter was a wiry black man, about forty-five, his head clean-shaven and wax-shiny. He had an open, honest face of the sort I associated with saints and con men—and I’ve never met a saint. Typically enough, Baxter wore a standard company blue jumpsuit, splotched and smudged. He was native-Earth tall, meaning I towered over him. I had studied his HR jacket, of course, along with those of everyone assigned to this ass-end-of-nowhere hunk of metal and stone (those files, if not any explanation of the so-called emergency, having accompanied my detour orders), but the hint of a Scottish burr still came as a surprise.

“Come in.” Baxter shut the hatch behind me, then gestured at the jump seat affixed to the room’s back wall. No matter the hearty greeting, he seemed twitchy. “Take a load off.”

“No thanks.”

“This may take a while. Sit.”

“I’m fine.” Because in—what? Well under one percent of a gee? Nothing perceptible, in any event—why would I need to sit?

Baxter swallowed. “Suit yourself.” Returning behind the desk, he sat. It made the difference between eye levels that much more awkward. He took a fat pen from his pocket and began twirling it end over end.

“Suppose you tell me why—”

“Coffee? Tea? A bite to eat?” Baxter’s gaze, as he spoke, flicked toward my right hand. Swallowing a second time, still fidgeting with the pen, he glanced up over my shoulder at the room’s lone air vent.

Keeping my hand down by my side, I snuck a peek. I didn’t find money; the folded scrap of paper looked torn from a ruled notepad. If I were to park myself in the indicated chair, I would be well below the air duct—and it wouldn’t have a line of sight to me. Unfolding the curved arm rests that would keep me from drifting from the chair at the least little motion, I sat.

If there’s anything auditors are taught, it’s to put two and two together.

Wondering what was inside the duct, I unfolded the paper. In blocky printing, the hand-written note I found read: ROOM MIGHT BE BUGGED.  AFTER I TRIPLE-CLICK MY PEN, WE CAN TALK.

I nodded my understanding. “Nothing for me now, thanks. Maybe some coffee later.”

Click-click-click. Baxter slumped in his seat, open-and-honest morphing in an instant to honestly panicked. “Thank God you got here.”

I didn’t suppose He had much to do with it. “Evidently that pen is a bug jammer of some kind.” Not that any such item appeared anywhere on the company’s List of Equipment Approved for Use in Mining Facilities. If something helpful could be printed, it was—and then broken down to feedstock before returning to civilization. Or when an auditor popped by: even as we spoke, the station recyclers were surely molecularizing contraband. “If you actually feel the need for a jammer, didn’t turning that on tip off whoever might be listening?”

Baxter managed a wan smile. “I expect that person, or persons, will conclude you brought the jammer, the better to negotiate an acceptable cut of whatever goodies I might hope with your help to spirit away. I haven’t dared to look, but if there is a fiber-optic cable inside that duct above your head, not jammable, they can’t see what you did, or didn’t, just switch on.”

My opinion of the man bumped up a notch. I still didn’t know what had him so anxious, but I could venture a guess. When the product is platinum, some pilferage is unavoidable. Beyond that metal’s many traditional markets, every settled off-Earth world and habitat—where platinum was a key catalyst for the production of nitric acid, needed to make fertilizer—represented a voracious new demand. The good news was, that kept me in a job—but pilferage didn’t add up to an emergency. “Your inventory getting too far out of whack?”

“Nothing so simple.” Baxter shivered. “I found a bomb.”

A bomb? Who the hell would bomb a mining station? Someone planning to make off with a boatload of platinum, that’s who. Someone intending to eliminate any witnesses . . . .

I’ve never claimed nerves of steel—and just then, nerves of wet tissue seemed more descriptive—but focus can be a reasonable substitute. I wondered how long I could sustain it. “You said, ‘Thank God you got here.’ As if you were expecting me.”

Because that was impossible. Okay, evidently not impossible, but mysterious all the same. As mysterious as, apart from somewhere deep within the Belt, here was. But by the same token, neither I nor any miner on shore leave could be bribed or coerced into betraying the Rock’s location—the mind boggled at how much money that treachery could fetch—because the only radios permitted on company rocks were short-range: pressure-suit helmet comms, a scarcely higher wattage nav beacon, and the like. It was the beacon that had guided me in once autopilot had gotten me close, and after I’d pulsed out the company authentication code of the month by flashing my ship’s attitude thrusters.

Baxter managed a weak smile. “Your confusion is a marvel to behold. It’s also a distraction. We need to move past it.”

“But you did ask for me to be sent here.”

“Not you personally. Anyone who could help.” Baxter leaned forward, looking hopeful. “You can help, right? Company auditors all have law-enforcement experience?”

For a few years, I’d done computer forensics at the Ceres City PD. As a civilian contractor. I grunted noncommittally. Nothing like the bomb squad. That train of thought brought me back to wondering what the hell I was doing here. “How, exactly, did you call for help?”

“Hello? Bomb?”

Baxter hadn’t signaled for a ship large enough to evac everyone. Detonation of the bomb couldn’t be too imminent. I waited.

How is something known only to station chiefs. For emergencies.”

I waited.

He sighed. “There’s a stealthed and silent buoy free-flying somewhere nearby. I don’t know where. If I don’t reposition a particular retroreflector on the surface at least every second day, the buoy beams a Mayday message to headquarters.”

“And the company sent me?” Because bomb disposal isn’t in the job description of a forensic accountant.

Baxter looked away. “Not a lot of information gets conveyed by the repositioning, or not, of the retroreflector. All I could signal was that I needed help.”

“So I was on the nearest company ship?” Lucky me.

He shrugged. “That’s my guess.”

Then we’re well and truly screwed, I thought. But all I said was, “Maybe begin at the beginning.”

 

****

 

Seeing is believing. Really seeing, that is. Not the blurry download images from Baxter’s pocket comp. And so, now, I believed.

Okay, to the best of my knowledge I had never before seen a bomb. Perhaps I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions from spy and crime vids. But with my head peering gopherlike into the storeroom ceiling duct from which I had carefully removed the grill, what stared back at me at arm’s length sure as hell looked like a bomb. Whereas what I’d been shown in Baxter’s office, in supposed real-time imagery from a maintenance cam and in many weeks’ worth of logged still images alike, was an unobstructed duct.

“Damned storeroom was, is, just too damned musty,” the station chief said. His jammer/pen, once again clipped to his pocket, was still active. He had accompanied me to the storage area, latching the hatch behind us. “I would come in here looking for a crate of whatever, and the air in the room always felt, you know, close. Stagnant. Finally, I didn’t care what the computers had to say. I checked the duct myself.”

I imagined Baxter had seen what I saw: a clear-walled bottle (ordinary glass, by the way a penlight beam glinted from it) with hints of dust on the bottom; an off-white, claylike glob (plastique, I inferred); a skinny metallic tube jabbed into the glob (if I were right about plastique, the tube was a blasting cap); and an electronics module with a keypad. Behind and sticking above the rest were batteries. Everywhere, wires. The full assemblage, taped into place, all but blocked the duct. The readout chip on that electronics module was decrementing, its least significant digits changing at the same pace as, I confirmed with a quick downward glance, the seconds on my wrist-clock tattoo. It appeared we had five days till the shit hit the fan—and staring at the bottle, I wondered exactly what that shit was. A neurotoxin? A bioagent?

I asked, “And this is the only bomb?”

“Believe me, I’ve looked. When people have been on the surface, I’ve searched their rooms and lockers. This is the only device I found.”

Five days till boom. Three days, according to Baxter, till a ship was due at the Rock to rotate crews. Two crews alternated here, suggesting the bomb had been planted by someone from the current group. Then again, why deploy the bomb any earlier than, say, a few hours before shift turnover? The longer the bomb sat in the duct, the greater the chances of discovery. As, in fact, it had been discovered . . . .

I cogitated some more. Maybe the bomb had been deployed just before the other crew had rotated out. It would make a kind of sense, if the bomber wouldn’t be coming back and the target were someone in the returning crew. It made yet more sense if the target were the entire remainder of that crew. Had someone recently left that crew, I wondered?

Explosives and blasting caps were common enough in a mining camp, but not bottles of poison. Surely those didn’t get past inspection onto a crew ship. So one thing seemed certain: the bottled stuff had been made onsite. Clearing all traces of the bomb from the station computer records, even for someone with sysadmin privileges, had taken serious smarts. I could have done it. Happily, I’d been elsewhere when Baxter made his discovery, so I could eliminate myself as a suspect.

Ergo: computer smarts was a clue. It was a place to start, anyway, and I was glad to have one, because about the only other datum I had to go on was a looming deadline. And deadline looked to be literal.

But what if the time displayed were padded, to lull anyone discovering the device into the false belief they could safely wait for the crew ship rather than attempt to disarm the thing? What if my files about this crew and the incoming crew were disinformation provided by an accomplice at headquarters? What if—?

Stepping off the crate of emergency rations I had set beneath the duct, I shuddered.

“You did see it?” Baxter asked anxiously.

“Afraid so.”

“Silver lining.” Baxter managed a faint smile. “I’m not crazy.”

“Silver foil, at best.”

“I suppose.” With a sigh, he leaned back against the room’s closed hatch. “Okay. You can disarm it, right?”

“It’s likely booby-trapped.”

As if I would know. Still, the blasting cap alone would shatter the glass, or, far more discreetly, the control module might simply open a valve that hadn’t been visible to me. What purpose did the explosives serve if not acting as a deterrent? That wasn’t a hard question: the plastique would burst walls all around if the device were discovered, and hatch and duct sealed to contain the mystery gas. Bottom line—and bottom lines were sort of thing I was paid to be good with—amateur bomb disposal was a Certified Bad Idea.

It all seemed carefully calibrated. A bomb large enough to spread the . . . whatever across the station. Bomb placement deep enough underground to not compromise the overall integrity of the station, where a bomb near the airlock would plunge everyone, almost instantly, into hard vacuum. Someone had given this a lot of thought.

Baxter grimaced. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“Maybe we can ease it out of the duct, then take it outside before it goes off.”

“Did you see a squat tube, about two centimeters long, mounted on the electronics module? Parts code X27C82?”

Maybe I’d seen something like that, but I had no idea about part numbers. I stepped back onto the crate. There was such a tube, but the text was far too tiny for me to read. “What is it?”

“An accelerometer. They’re in most of our robots. It’s like the part of your pocket comp that knows when you’ve changed its orientation—only a lot more sensitive.”

Just great. Floor vibrations from climbing on and off my crate apparently weren’t enough to trigger the device—I was still here, wasn’t I?—but this time I alit, gingerly, on tiptoe.

“So can you disarm it?” he tried again.

“No. I wouldn’t have a clue where even to start.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate.” He paused. “Okay, we have four suspects. Where do you want to begin?”

Uh-uh, I thought. Five suspects from the other crew. And five from this crew, as well, because how better to deflect suspicion than being the person who called in the bomb threat? If appearances were why I had been summoned here, what did that suggest about my odds of getting away alive?

Bottom line: for all I knew, anyone among those ten might aspire to seize the crew ship, disable the autopilot, and fly away (never mind that I’d never figured out how to do it) with a heap of stolen platinum. Leaving behind lots of dead bodies . . . .

Holding in another shudder, I said, “Let me get back to you on that.”

 

****

 

My plan, if an idea this simple could be so dignified, was straightforward enough: run a normal audit. Merely doing my job—as every miner knew and resented—authorized me to snoop and pry. How else was I going to ferret out the identity of the bomber? Once we knew who he, she, or they were, we ought to be able to convince or coerce them into disarming it. Making them stay onto the next shift, with the bomb due to go off, seemed like incentive enough . . . . It wasn’t much of a plan, but try as I might, I hadn’t come up with anything better.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly true. I could climb back aboard the good ship Bounty, of passenger capacity one, and its autopilot would take me home. It’d be safe and smart, no matter that (“RENDER ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE”) fleeing might get me fired. And perhaps futile: Baxter, through the minimal effort of not shifting something on the Rock’s surface, could get my ship turned right around. Also, who was to say that whoever had set the known bomb wouldn’t—or hadn’t already—put another example of his handiwork aboard my ship? All that practicality aside, a part of me knew that to abandon these men and women would be wrong.

Cutting out could be Plan B. It would wait a few days.

So: On Day One, I tallied records of ore collected, assayed, and processed; ingots printed; ingots delivered through the one-way valve into the vault; ingots reported stacked and tied down by the robotic arm inside; and an eyeball inspection through the vault’s thick Lucite view ports. Just barely within the unofficial bounds of acceptable pilferage, almost a kilo unaccounted for, the data matched. I randomly searched cabinets, bins, equipment consoles, and suchlike for contraband—everywhere but in the air ducts. I spot-checked gear and personal belongings that the departing crew might intend to carry aboard the crew ship. That I saw, no oh-two tanks had, since departing Ceres, magically transmuted from base metals into platinum. Anything that blatant I would have had to deal with. I noticed and ignored some pens and a class ring that were almost surely platinum. Had I cared to check, I doubtless would have found many small items miraculously platinum beneath thin veneers, in everything from jewelry to work-shoe toecaps to jumpsuit zippers. Part of the company’s evil genius was letting petty theft succeed. Anyone focused on the penny-ante smuggling had less time to spend, and less inclination to spend it, plotting a grand heist. And I went over security logs. In the process, I spotted the vid loop in digital surveillance feed by which a maintenance cam failed to show the bomb. I didn’t immediately find digital fingerprints to reveal how, or by whom, the hack had been pulled off.

All that activity was simply me doing a familiar job, laying the groundwork for my Day Two “interviews.” That way the coming questioning would seem like the routine/follow-up prying of an auditor. I tried to believe I’d put on a more compelling performance than Baxter’s feigned preoccupation with his desktop when I had first arrived.

Going through the motions while I did nothing to identify our mad bomber was at once exhausting and nerve-racking, and I looked forward to a few hours of unconscious respite. In damned near no gravity, the hardest floor is comfier than the softest mattress on Earth. In theory, I could have slept just fine in the wiring-closet/storeroom I’d been given as temporary quarters.

So much for theory. My mind never stopped churning, fixated on the bomb in the ceiling of the very next room. I couldn’t as much as pace for fear a clumsy footfall would trigger the bomb. But I did come up, at about oh-dark thirty, with an idea that sent me scurrying to the station chief. I rapped impatiently on his hatch.

“Just a minute.” He sounded groggy, as if I’d awakened him. As if dumping the problem on me had lifted all the (nonexistent in this gravity) weight from his shoulders. Must be nice.

“It won’t wait,” I said, overriding the lock and letting myself in. Auditors had prerogatives.

Baxter was with a friend. From Mariana Kwan’s file I knew she was thirty-two and Macau-born. Olive-complected, with a loose halo of wavy black hair and only the merest hint of eyefolds, she looked more Portuguese than Chinese. A mining engineer. As the newbie in a crew that had otherwise labored together for eight years or more, she defaulted to being my chief suspect. And seeing these two together? It recalled my instinct that Baxter “finding” the bomb was an obvious way to deflect suspicion.

Kwan had raised a sheet almost high enough to be not quite decent. She wasn’t in the slightest embarrassed by my entrance. I was. And from the way Baxter wouldn’t meet my eye, he was. She said, “I’m curious, now. What can’t wait?”

Baxter cleared his throat. “Give us that minute, please?”

I backed out, closing the hatch behind me.

Kwan emerged soon after, jumpsuit draped over one arm, wearing nothing but grip slippers and a loosely wrapped sheet. Maybe she made it to 155 centimeters tall, the top of her head scarcely reaching my waist. It wasn’t the top of her head that drew my eyes.

“Done a full enough audit yet?” Head canted, one bare leg thrust forward, she struck a pose. “Or will you be making a closer examination?”

“I’ll get back to you,” I mumbled, my face hot. I let myself back into Baxter’s quarters.

He had gotten dressed. “It’s not what you think.”

What did Baxter suppose I thought? That his file showed a wife and three teenaged kids. That boinking an employee he supervised was a firing offense under the best of circumstances—which these weren’t. I did think all that, and also how I’d been away from hearth, home, and humping—er, honey—for way too fricking long before getting dragged here to save this guy’s fornicating bacon. But maybe none of that mattered. Not if the brainstorm I had had paid off . . . .

“About Mariana.” Baxter swallowed, hesitated, then swallowed again. “The thing is—”

“Skip it.” We had bigger fish to fry. And what passed in me for people skills said the bump-and-grind had been at Mariana’s instigation. “You and I need to talk ASAP to someone who understands bombs. The comm buoy you visually signaled to get me summoned? It has a long-range radio or, more likely, a high-power laser for the tight beam. Right? Of course, right. You couldn’t access that transmitter, because you don’t have a ship. But I do. If I can—”

“You can’t—”

“The hell I can’t,” I interrupted right back. “I figure the company would’ve made the buoy physically small and unobtrusive, without any big honking telescope. That means it’s got to be fairly close to monitor the exact position of your retroreflector. So: we print some IR sensors, do a sky search.”

And also vid cameras and lidar to bond to the hull of my windowless ship, because the Bounty‘s own nav sensors—and its nav computer—were inaccessible. (It was much debated among my peers how, before departing Ceres, mission data made their way into that sealed computer. From the mid-flight update that had rerouted me, the process involved the ship’s likewise hidden and unreachable radio receiver. If I made it home, that breakthrough should get me a free drink or three.) Try to access the built-in sensors or the computer anywhere but in a company dry dock, and protective circuitry would fry them with a power surge.

The rumor mill had it that, early in the company’s history, a pilot took a can opener to his sealed console—and zap. He was adrift for months (no transmitter aboard but a helmet radio, remember?) before he failed to show up as expected and anyone knew to go looking. The derelict was eventually recovered, still coasting along one of its preprogrammed trajectories—its pilot having long since starved to death. Was that story a company plant, just to discourage clever people like me? If so, it worked.

Anyway, assuming I could print my own sensors, low-res crap that they’d be, I had yet to decide how best to get their readouts onto the bridge. Not wireless comm: that wouldn’t penetrate the metal hull. Most likely, I’d run cables through the closed airlock. I’d stay in a pressure suit, because the cables would keep the hatches from seating properly. Even making liberal use of anti-leak patches, chances are the ship would be losing air.

None of which factors constituted a selling point.

Shaking my head, clearing the cobwebs, I continued. “Like any rock, the buoy will soak up sunlight. We spot the buoy by its reradiated IR, work out its orbit. I seat-of-the-pants fly my ship to it”—because, Baxter knew as well as I, autopilot wouldn’t do a thing but fly to a company-specified destination—”and then I—”

“No!” He wrung his hands. “Okay, here’s another thing you’re not supposed to know. The buoy carries a comm laser, all right. The onboard computer has orbital parameters for the Rock, to track us, and orbital parameters for more distant relay buoys that in turn hold orbital parameters for other buoys, some shadowing other valuable rocks. To safeguard that data, each buoy in the network also carries a bomb and proximity sensors.”

Huh. I’d convinced myself a small buoy would be battery-limited. It couldn’t, I had then extrapolated, store enough solar energy for its laser to damage an inbound ship that was bobbing and weaving and spinning. Once again, damn it, the company had me outwitted. An onboard bomb triggered by a magnetometer was simpler and more reliable.

I said, “If I get close, it blows?”

He nodded glumly.

“Hold on,” I said, “I have a better idea. I hack a printer, override its blacklist so I can make a transmitter. Under the circumstances, the company can’t get too mad. We broadcast”—in every damned direction, since we couldn’t see anything to aim at—”on a public emergency channel. We explain our situation and ask for guidance.” I thought some more. “My bosses know they sent me here. I’ll encrypt with my private key, and they’ll be able to decrypt with my public key. No one overhearing will know this is a company asset.”

“You think you’re the first person ever to imagine bootlegging a transmitter?” Baxter sighed. “It’s been tried. If a printer sees it’s being hacked, it fries itself. I’ve seen it happen. Same thing if you try to print lenses or magnifying mirrors—or IR sensors—anything that might contribute to making an astronomical instrument.”

Surely the hack was an acceptable risk. If we didn’t defuse the bomb in the next few days, we’d evacuate on the inbound ship. Suppose every printer in the station were to go pfft. So what? My temporary quarters alone held enough emergency rations to last everyone here for weeks. “For sake of argument, suppose I succeed.”

“Won’t matter. Remember that buoy shadowing us? The comm laser?”

I nodded.

“A long-range comm laser is a short-range weapon, at least against stationary targets. If the buoy hears us broadcasting, it’ll take out any antenna we put up.”

“Well, shit,” I said, and let myself out.

 

****

 

After a sleepless night contemplating bombs, mystery toxins, and Mariana Kwan’s sheet wafting to the floor in micro-gee, Dance of the Seven Veils, slo-mo, I followed the scents of coffee, vanilla, and cinnamon toward breakfast. From the direction of the station mess came the sounds of conversation. The zip-zip of my grip slippers and the rumble of a corridor ventilation fan rendered their voices unintelligible, but tone of voice, if I was any kind of judge, suggested argument.

As I entered, the two miners in the room fell silent. Stony-faced, drink bulbs in hand, they stood between me and the nearest printer.

“Morning,” I offered in passing.

The woman nodded. The man grunted.

Plugging a memory stick into another printer, I ordered a large pancake rollup and a larger coffee bulb.

“Old family recipe,” I explained.

Because I hadn’t ordered straight from the printer’s menu. Because someone on the Rock had synthed, quite possibly on this very printer, whatever poison the hidden bomb was days from dispersing. I couldn’t prove that, of course. What purpose could there have been for logging what people synthed to eat? If I got off the Rock in one piece, I’d recommend changing that policy.

My unsolicited explanation didn’t rate a grunt.

“Mind if I join you?” I ventured.

Anisha Chatterjee made a desultory, one-handed motion that I chose to take as yes. She was slender and graceful, with dark skin, jet-black hair, and soulful eyes: a classic Indian beauty. Thirty, her file said. Electrical engineer and robot wrangler. Born in Mumbai, but her family had emigrated to the Moon before she turned six. Twice as smart as everyone, Baxter had told me, and apt to let it be known. Charming enough, also per Baxter, that people seldom took offense.

I was still waiting for the charm. “Ready to head back to Ceres?” I asked her.

“Sure.” With the uptick of an eyebrow, she silently added, “That’s a stupid question.”

I tried again, gesturing with the hand that gripped a rollup. “What’s it like, eating flat pancakes? With syrup and butter dripping off the stack? Using a knife and fork?”

It was her companion who answered. Ramon “Buck” Buranek was a Vestan, as spindly, and about as tall, as me. Pallid like me, too. Life-support engineer and medic. A dragon tattoo twined about his right forearm, the beast’s head evidently hiding inside his short sleeve. His HR file offered useless speculation about if or how a buck and a dragon related to one another. Personally, I guessed they didn’t, and that no explanation for the ink was necessary beyond too much booze or pot or whatever. He said, “It’s too early for small talk.”

“It’s too early for anything but.” I took a bite of pancake and made a face. The printer could use a recalibration.

“So much for being subtle.” Buck glowered. “A pre-departure audit doesn’t make anyone here feel chatty. And maybe you’re the genius who decided the strip search when we reach Ceres is inadequate.”

Strip search was a bit of an exaggeration. Noninvasive ultrasound scans more than sufficed. And the scans were kabuki theater, in any event, letting miners—and roving auditors—feel good about sneaking little items through. “I go where the company sends me, same as you.”

This comment didn’t merit even a shrug.

After awhile, Anisha cleared her throat. ” ‘Breaking the awkward silence,’ she also says with subtlety, ‘pancakes and maple syrup are not Indian cuisine.’ ”

True enough, but flapjacks had to be common enough around the UCLA campus where she had gotten her masters. That knowledge was one more item to keep to myself. Her height, or lack of it, showed she was an Earther. Admitting that auditors had access to HR files wouldn’t make us any better loved. “Then egg rolls with the mustard sauce on the outside? Vichyssoise that doesn’t clot in and clog the nipple of a drink bulb? A French dip sandwich that a person gets to, you know, actually dip?”

She laughed. “Now you’re just teasing me. And yes, I—”

“Buck,” the PA speaker in the ceiling called out. I recognized Baxter’s voice. “Can you come to the control room?”

The control room was next door, apparently too close to bother responding over the intercom. I called out after Buck as he zipped/stalked to the exit, “We’ll talk later.” Because who was more likely than the crew medic to gin up and handle whatever evil brew lurked in the duct?

Turning into the hall, maybe he grunted.

“So,” Anisha said, “are you ready to explain why you’re actually here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Please. There’s no logic to an audit days before we rotate out, much less scarcely a month after the last auditor passed through. If someone here has come up with anything clever, smuggling-wise, what are the odds you’ll spot it before we go? And if we try the usual tricks—of which, of course, I plead complete ignorance—well, those are surely covered by customary inspections when we get home.”

I had to give Baxter credit on the topic of this woman’s charm. “Then why do you imagine I’m here?”

She canted her head thoughtfully. “Maybe you found a way to defeat the system. You and the boss are all buddy-buddy.”

I shook my head. “The system is foolproof.”

“Do you know Robb’s law?”

I shook my head again.

“For every foolproof system devised, a new and improved fool will arise to overcome it.”

Long, sleepless night notwithstanding, I had yet to find a line of questioning that wouldn’t suggest my awareness of the hidden device. I did have plenty of ideas where not to start. Top of my do-not-ask list was: are you, by any chance, the mad bomber?

I took another bite of pancake rollup, chewing slowly, making it last. “You know, I can’t decide. Which of us are you insulting?”

“You can choose.” She deposited her drink bulb in a recycle bin. “It’s off to work I go.”

“I came across some interesting anomalies in some of the more obscure system logs.” I hadn’t, but I wanted to see her reaction. Computer smarts remained the closest I came to having a clue to the bomber.

“And sleuth that you are, you know I’m the sysadmin here.” She smiled. “You also ought to know I’m good at my job. Trust me, if I’d done anything inappropriate, I wouldn’t have left tracks for you to find. And I’d have seen anyone else’s ‘anomalies’ if they existed to be found. Hence: you’re fishing. For what, I wonder.”

“Maybe you don’t want to see what I’m seeing?”

“Still fishing,” she said, starting for the hatch.

“So,” I said. She stopped and turned. “Are you friends with the other crew?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why ask that?”

Because I wonder if you’re planning to kill them off. “Idle curiosity.”

“I don’t know about friends. There’s some friendly rivalry, sure.”

Because the company pitted crews against each other, basing bonuses on which team brought back the most ingots. Demonstrably the competition was motivational, but—and it was a rare instance of the company being too smart by half—that incentive sometimes led to sabotage. Like the background level of theft, this pattern was inferred more than proven, but—to an auditor, in any event—statistics don’t lie. Productivity dipped right before crew changeover, and bumped back up soon after the same crew returned. It was just as if end-of-shift effort were being diverted into hiding the richest ore veins. To obscure that sort of subversion took serious computer legerdemain, too.

I asked, “And how does that rivalry play out?”

“Side bets and testosterone displays,” she said. “Are we done here?” Once more she headed out.

“What were you and Buck arguing about?”

“Worlds affairs,” she called over her shoulder. And then she was gone.

 

****

 

Cornering Buck near the airlock as he suited up, we had a short chat to which his contributions were monosyllabic. Or nonsyllabic, when I included the scowls, shrugs, and squinty-eyed stares most often elicited by my conversational gambits. As for fresh insight into our present situation, that amounted to squat until my final question. “So, you and Anisha. What were you arguing about?”

“Sports,” he bit out while sealing his helmet. Then, magnetic boots clunking, he stomped into the airlock and started it cycling.

One of them—at least—was lying. Because they were involved with the bomb? Or garden-variety theft? Maybe I just pissed them off. That last, for sure, could be problematical, because the reason for having humans here in the first place wasn’t to do mining. Robots alone did an acceptable job of that, with none of the larceny hazards inherent with any human crew. But absent autonomous missile batteries and military-grade warbots, both thankfully difficult to come by, automation couldn’t protect against a failure in the company’s secrecy measures—a lesson the company had learned the hard way. Hence, just in case, the onsite armory. Hence, everyone in the crew, petite Mariana Kwan included, was a combat vet. Any one of them was more than capable of snapping me like a twig. (But none of them had had any special training with explosives. I’d checked their files.)

I set aside for later consideration Buck and Anisha’s inconsistent stories, then went looking for another member of the crew. Les Hodges was a biotech/nanotech engineer; in terms of capability for poison-crafting, he was as plausible as anyone here. (The situation was getting as muddled as any Brit cozy mystery, Agatha Christie and such, wherein everyone is a suspect.)

I found Hodges—his hands inside a glove box, brow furrowed in concentration—in the station’s tiny machine shop, reassembling a battered prospecting bot. A few shiny pieces inside the box looked fresh from a printer. (Among those parts I spotted a squat tube. I told myself Baxter said accelerometers were standard in their bots. I told myself a lot of things.) At the least nudge, parts went airborne. He hummed along with something orchestral and baroque-sounding playing softly in the background. With only the briefest of glances away from his work as I entered, he ordered, “Gimme a minute.”

I spent that minute, and the next several, considering the man. He was another Earther, and fairly tall as that breed went. Balding, pale (or was sallow the more accurate term?), with a slot face, cleft chin, and close-set eyes of cloudy blue. Two years a widower; one son at university back on Earth. Maybe it was the stooped shoulders that gave a weary impression of age, or the hang-dog expression, but he struck me as older than the fifty-four years shown in his HR file. I didn’t foresee a lot more mining tours in his future—and that might be another reason to suspect him. After awhile, I switched my focus to someone’s pet hamster, caroming and somersaulting about its cage. Short of gluing zip strips to the little guy’s feet, I guess an exercise wheel was out of the question.

“Done.” With an efficiency doubtless acquired from long practice, he extracted his hands from the elbow-length gloves, opened the box, and removed the reassembled bot. He turned, finally, to face me. “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it. Is there anything else?”

“Well, as long as you didn’t do it.” I smiled. “Ready for the crew rotation?”

“Anyone ever not?”

“Good point.” I tried the tack that had set Anisha on edge. “Do you have friends among the other crew?”

A long pause and an odd look preceded the one-word answer. “No.”

After a bit more such snappy repartee I wandered off, none the wiser, to speak with the delectable Mariana Kwan. Apart from the flirting, that session, too, proved equally useless. I was out of ideas, even as the clock kept ticking.

 

****

 

Like the proverbial drunk hunting for his keys near where the light is best and not where he’d last seen them, I fell back upon routine. Auditing was something to do while—I had to hope—my subconscious exhumed an idea more useful than fleeing like a bat out of hell. Because only a day remained till the crew ship was due, and only three till the bomb released . . . whatever.

Long story short, someone, and I took Anisha Chatterjee at her word, was good at what she did.

But so am I, and routine offered an excuse for putting my skills to work.

No significant piece of software, never mind how extensively tested, is ever one hundred percent bug-free. That’s why, every few weeks, vendors distribute updates. Company rocks, being off the net, don’t get updates except at crew rotation or when someone like me passes through. And on a mass spectrometer that in every other way seemed copasetic, an update I’d had with me refused to install into the instrument’s embedded software.

Intrusion-detection software and device diagnostics alike compare a stored checksum for any given app against a checksum value newly calculated for the same app. For the mass spec, old and new checksums matched. But the app’s update installer made its own check for the integrity of the software it would patch—and that test failed. I’d installed this update on my three planned stops this trip, suggesting the glitch was somehow specific to this particular mass spec.

And with some digging, I discovered the root cause. Device diagnostics and intrusion-detection software alike examine the memory allocated to each app. The update software made a slightly more expansive check, extending its scope over the unallocated memory the as-yet uninstalled patch would occupy. I found a program in what should have been such unallocated memory. Then, doing a painful, line-by-line comparison, I found the small modification to the app that accessed the unauthorized patch. Ordinarily, overwriting an executable with a jump to patch space alters the calculated checksum. This overwrite included a weird embedded constant that, I proved to myself, hid the change as far as the routine checksum calculations were concerned.

Still, I didn’t yet see how intrusion detection had been bypassed to make the unauthorized changes, or to keep that activity out of the security log. Those were brain teasers best left for another day. Assuming I got one.

The unauthorized patch itself was simple enough to reverse-engineer. It underreported by a tenth of a percent the concentration of platinum within an ore sample. That didn’t sound like much, but doing the math, and depending on when the hack had been made, the inventory discrepancy could reach ten kilos of ultra-refined platinum. In round numbers, a quarter-million Belt bucks.

Someday, maybe, I’d figure out how the crook(s) expected to sneak that much platinum off the Rock. Right then more important matters held my interest. Someone, and I still assumed Anisha, was damned good at covering her digital tracks. That someone, and anyone working with her, wouldn’t be involved with the bomb. Why work this hard at stealing a few kilos when the bomber, I had to believe, had the entire inventory in their sights? Once more dealing in round numbers, the vault presently held ten tonnes of ingots. My second realization—entirely unrelated, apart from any scrap of progress being inspirational—was that, at last, I understood how to proceed.

 

****

 

My brilliant idea, with sleuthing having gotten me nowhere, was entrapment. Baxter let it be known that the scheduled crew rotation had been postponed by at least a week—breaking bad news that he, of course, attributed to me. The announcement didn’t make me any more popular, but it did give whoever had placed the bomb, now due to go boom in three short days, the motivation to reset the timer. Or so, anyway, I hoped.

While Baxter kept his crew outside for various tasks, I borrowed a drill from the machine shop to make a peephole in the wall between my quarters and the bomb room. I disconnected power from the actuator of a nearby HVAC damper; the automated controls could no longer reposition the damper and no robot creeping through the duct could get past the damper to the bomb.

Hours later, in the face of crew hostility, I retired early to my room with a covered dinner tray and waited. And waited. And waited. Thanks to chemical assistance, I waited the entire night shift awake and alert—and no one showed up.

That’s not to say the time had been uneventful.

The next morning, Anisha was nowhere to be found.

 

****

 

Her room looked stirred. For all I knew she liked it that way, but everyone assured me she was a neatnik (indeed, the walls were comparatively free of the ubiquitous dust), and also that several small personal items were missing. Likewise gone, from its locker near the airlock: her pressure suit. No one said this looked exactly like Anisha had sneaked out by dark of night shift. No one had to. And if such stealing away seemed odd, well, neither could I understand why anyone able to arrange for a ship to retrieve her from a clandestine platinum mine would settle for a mere ten-kilo heist.

Baxter sent Buck, Mariana, and Les outside to scour the surface for any sign of Anisha, while he and I did a more thorough inside sweep. We didn’t find her, of course. We fast-forwarded through surveillance vids for the preceding twelve hours. Once people went into their rooms for the night—personal spaces didn’t have cameras—we had nada. Well, I’d seen surveillance feeds hacked before.

The outside search was still underway when the crew ship came within range to flash out the month’s authentication code, and Baxter summoned his crewmates back inside.

 

****

 

The new crew crowded into the station, likely anticipating the customary changeover festivities. Neither incoming nor outgoing crew can expect to see any new faces for a while; rivalries notwithstanding, rotation was ordinarily the occasion for a party. But not this trip.

Mustafa Gilfoyle, station chief of the new crew, was the first to shed his vacuum gear and emerge into the Rock’s main corridor. He was a second-generation Loonie; an easy-going guy I knew slightly from years ago on another company rock. In seconds he processed the glum faces and the peculiarity of an auditor onsite at shift rotation. “What’s the problem here?”

“Let’s wait for the rest of your team,” Baxter said. Four more joined us, and he turned to me. “Okay. Your show.”

I caught Mustafa’s eye. “Let’s you, Baxter, and me go for a walk.” I led them into the side corridor that held crew quarters, detouring to the mess to dispense a special recipe into a drink bulb. If either man noticed that this bulb had a misting attachment, what spacers use to water potted plants, he didn’t comment. Still, the stopover earned me quizzical looks. We paused outside Anisha’s room.

“I’ll ask again,” Mustafa said. “What’s going on?”

Baxter cleared his throat. “One of my crew . . . disappeared this morning. She and her pressure suit are gone.”

“More specifically,” I corrected, “she was murdered this morning.”

Baxter twitched. “Why would you say that?”

“To start, the too-clean walls in her room.” I raised the drink bulb. “This is luminol.”

Evidently I wasn’t the only one here who watched crime vids. Mustafa said, “The forensic stuff. Right?”

I nodded. “We three will go into the room, shut the hatch, and I’ll turn out the lights. Then I’ll prove what I already know.”

“It’s pretty snug quarters for three,” Baxter said.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “You’re welcome to wait out here.”

All “night” I’d expected Baxter to come after me while my attention, or so I’d intended him to believe, remained fixed on the peephole. (I’d delegated that task to my comp, its webcam taped against the opening.) Only nothing had transpired in either room.

My thinking had been this: Baxter or an accomplice deployed the bomb with its load of mystery toxins to take out Mustafa’s crew. Dead station chiefs move no retroreflectors. The ship with Baxter’s crew, having just departed the Rock for Ceres, would still be nearby when the failsafe “uh-oh, no one moved the retroreflector” Mayday message was received on Ceres.

So: the ship would automagically return to the Rock. Baxter (and his cuddly new friend?) would send the unsuspecting, non-accomplice members of his crew into the station for a look-see, at which point the toxin would take them out. He’d have bots dispose of the bodies, leaving behind blood spatters from everyone in both crews—a few cc’s of his own blood being a small sacrifice. The conspirators would fly away leaving the company to infer pirates (a) killed Mustafa’s crew and then (b) killed Baxter and crew, when they returned, and finally (c) took away the crew ship and its cargo.

Where did I fit in? Before Baxter pulled the trigger (as it were) on his scheme, he would have needed to confirm what he’d been told about the retroreflector and Mayday signaling. That might have been pure company BS, a tall tale to mollify station chiefs putting up a fuss about their lack of comms. Unless someone—in this case, lucky me—showed up, I figured Baxter would have called off the caper. He likely had been on the verge of aborting when, finally, I did arrive. My eleven-day detour had delivered me to the Rock a mere three days before the scheduled crew rotation. But that long, surely nerve-racking, wait would also have meant very good odds Baxter would be in the closest ship when the next “emergency” was inferred.

Once someone like me was onsite, Baxter would need to explain the summons. The partial truth, “There’s a bomb here,” served perfectly well—as long no one else was told—and with everyone a suspect, naturally I hadn’t breathed a word. I also couldn’t be allowed to warn Mustafa’s crew about the bomb and their need to evacuate. Hence, in this twisted conspiracy I had so tortuously concocted, Baxter would come after me during the night. He’d disappear my body and the Bounty. A bot placed aboard could easily be made to boost the Bounty off the Rock, using only attitude jets, the autopilot disengaged. Odds were the ship would never be seen again. His crew would be told I’d slinked away in the night shift, avoiding more of their disdain.

That was the theory. Instead, after an interminable night spent with my back pressed against the wall beside the hatch, ready to brain Baxter with a wrench when he skulked in . . . he hadn’t.

It had bugged me no end that someone might have found a way to hijack a company ship. I considered myself pretty savvy, and I hadn’t figured out a way. Injured pride, to be honest, is why, more than anything, I hadn’t—entirely—bought into any of this.

Had I mentioned two nights without sleep, the second on uppers and in fear for my life?

“You want me to wait here in the hallway?” With furrowed brow, Baxter studied me. Incredulous, or posing as such? “Because I might have killed Anisha. If anything like that happened, that is.”

“It happened,” I assured him. And innocent of setting the bomb—for which, once again, I was without suspects—wasn’t nearly the same as innocent.

Anisha could have been behind the excess pilferage I’d noticed. If so an accomplice, who might be anyone among her crew, could’ve gotten greedy. But maybe—and part of me wanted dearly to believe this, because, damn it, the woman was charming—she had just been doing her job. She’d seen something amiss, brought her suspicions to someone’s attention, and that had gotten her killed. The most likely someone for her to have approached being her boss . . . .

“Perhaps so,” Baxter said, “but I had nothing to do with it.”

Mustafa opened the hatch and stepped into Anisha’s room.

Baxter and I followed. I oriented us toward the cleanest wall, wondering if I smelled chlorine beneath the pervasive used-gunpowder stench, or if that was my imagination. With bulb firmly grasped in one hand, I flicked off the lights. I spritzed the wall, and glowing blotches appeared.

“Oh, shit,” Mustafa said. “Blood spatter.”

I spritzed all around that first, lucky hit. Lots more spatter. When I’d read from the wiki in my pocket comp that the fluorescence lasted only about thirty seconds, it had seemed worrisomely short. Just then, by the damning blue glow, a half minute felt interminable. That turned out to be fortunate, because I almost forgot to take pictures. As darkness finally returned, I flicked on the overhead lights.

“And the body?” Mustafa asked. “Chucked off-world?”

In the hunt for Anisha, no one had admitted to hearing the airlock cycle since before dinner. I certainly hadn’t, and I’d been keyed up even aside from the amphetamines. (As for the station airlock controls, those gave no indication of having been operated during the recent sleep shift—but I trusted its records about as much as I did the surveillance feeds.) Not to mention it would have taken nerves of steel to tote a dead body through the halls. Sleep shift, and everyone asleep, are quite different concepts. Not to mention that, plastered against the wall for hours, interminably waiting, I’d given considerable thought to how I would dispose of a body.

I said, “I’m pretty sure not. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”

Our next stop was the main printing/recycling room. Digital readouts showed more or less middling levels of everything. Eyeball the physical reservoirs, however, and the picture changed. Metals and plastics—pressure suit (and murder weapon?) materials—had both jumped. Most stood noticeably above the time-stamped inventory I’d printed the day previous. (No foresight or intuition involved: auditors routinely monitor stocks of metal and plastic. Feedstock increases in either category often suggest mundane personal items getting remade in platinum.) At my level of engineering sophistication, nanotech was indistinguishable from magic, but even I knew that disassembling physical objects into chemical feedstock consumed lots of energy. It was more than a little suggestive that the main battery bank—as characterized from a voltmeter measurement, not by its computerized readout—had all but drained overnight. And the stomach-turning clincher: the organics supply was nearly sixty kilos increased from the day before. About what Anisha must have massed.

“Luminol showed blood spatter in this room, too,” I offered to break the silence.

Mustafa muttered under his breath. Curse? Prayer? It hardly mattered. He turned to Baxter. “Someone in your crew is a murderer.”

“The news gets worse.” Baxter gestured toward the hatch. With a quick visit to a certain nearby storeroom he made his case.

 

****

 

Shocker: no one admitted to having a disarm code for the bomb.

That left no options but evacuation. In the best of circumstances, shoehorning two crews onto a one-crew ship would be unpleasant. But with an unidentified murderer aboard? That I wouldn’t be along for the ride almost reconciled me to my immediate future. I’d be staying to observe events two days hence, and what, if anything, remained afterward of the station.

With two crews loudly venting about the situation, I cleared my throat. No one heard, and I resorted to a piercing whistle. “Another thing, people. I’ll be collecting everyone’s computers. Preserving evidence for the authorities.”

“The hell you will,” a newcomer snapped.

“From Baxter’s crew? Damn straight,” another said. “One of them is a killer.”

“From everyone,” Mustafa said firmly. “We don’t know how long the bomb’s been here, or if for some reason one of us is the target.” Shaken, his crew confronted the possibility of a would-be murderer among their number. “Cough ’em up, people.”

Baxter handed over his pocket comp for me to bag and tag. “Now the rest of you,” he told his folks. Most, grumbling, complied. “C’mon, Les. Give it up.”

Hodges’s eyes darted about nervously. Everyone had good cause to be agitated, and I didn’t read anything into his reticence. Personal comps are personal; experts can glean our most private secrets and embarrassing moments from the devices.

“Back on Ceres, the cops will need it,” Baxter said.

Still, Les hesitated.

“It’s not a request,” Baxter barked. Like a ship’s captain, at sea or in space, a station chief’s word was law.

“The authentication and encryption are biometric,” I reminded. Of course, forensic accountants, like cops, had ways to crack open locked comps. There was nothing to be gained in volunteering that little detail.

But maybe Les knew or, at the least, suspected as much. Maybe he was racked with guilt, about the bomb, or Anisha, or both. Maybe he was plain crazy. Whatever his reason, with no more explanation than a soft-spoken “Sorry,” he collapsed, convulsing. Seconds later, his mouth giving off the faint smell of bitter almonds, Lester Hodges was dead.

 

****

 

Every crew ship arrived carrying an empty modular vault. The departing crew used a crane to hoist the vault they had spent months filling, replace it with the empty, then lift the filled vault aboard the ship. Not even a vault full of platinum had much weight on the Rock—but full or empty, that sucker had plenty of mass and inertia.

Ticking time bomb notwithstanding, no one even considered abandoning ten tonnes of platinum ingots. I spared a moment from my preparations to watch, channeling a toon from my youth of dancing hippos in tutus. Ponderous vault or lumbering hippo: you wouldn’t want either bumping into you.

Minutes later, with not quite thirty-six hours remaining on the bomb’s clock, the ship launched. Who, I wondered, would still be alive when she got to Ceres?

I glued cameras, chemical sensors, and pressure gauges to walls, floors, ceilings, and air ducts throughout the station. The printer catalog included wireless versions (radiating, of course, at very low power levels), any subset within radio range of one another able to self-organize into ad hoc networks. I couldn’t begin to guess what havoc an explosion or pressure breach might wreak on cabling or even wireless routers, so fault-tolerant and reconfigurable networking seemed the way to go.

The hamster I’d seen had been Les’s, and no one objected to my claiming it. Mustafa had had to order his people to leave behind their pets, a ferret and a parakeet. I didn’t expect to return them. I positioned the animals in their respective cages, with plenty of food and water, in three widely separated rooms.

I sent a recall to the smaller mining bots, lashed magnets to tentacle tips on some of them, and shuttled two dozen bots inside. I tested and retested the low-wattage primary and backup transmitters, and the fiber-optic cables linking those surface transmitters with the underground station, confirming I had end-to-end connectivity to everything through my helmet radio. Remaining suited up, I took a final pass through the station, harvesting data backups from every automated system capable of dumping its files into portable storage. I printed and then scattered yet more wireless sensors, this time on the surface directly above the underground station, half-expecting the coming shockwave would send them careening clear off this tiny world.

With not quite seven hours to go, I retreated to my ship—surely I’d be safe there, a quarter klick from the station—setting an alarm for thirty minutes until boom. Apart from popping my helmet, I remained prepped for vacuum.

Then, for the first time in days, I slept. Fitfully.

 

****

 

The explosion came right on time.

I didn’t feel a thing. Monitored from the safety of the Bounty, events were strangely anticlimactic. The duct with the bomb ruptured, of course. The nearby damper I’d positioned to keep out robots impaled itself in a nearby wall, itself buckled. The storeroom hatch came off its hinges, shredding the gasket. A pressure wave propagated back and forth several times through the station, in the process bursting open a few more interior hatches and generally making a mess—but never compromising the integrity of the overall facility. Enough of the ventilation system survived to quickly clear the smoke and dust.

The parakeet happened to be airborne when the blast wave hit; the poor critter was thrown across its cage and clearly broke something. Ferret and hamster, as best I could tell, came through spitting mad but unscathed.

An hour later, the animals were still okay; even the bird had somewhat perked up. Had the glass bottle, somehow, not broken?

The blast had taken out the camera I’d set into the duct. To walk a mining bot up the wall on magneted tentacles took finesse and patience, neither of which I possessed just then, but finally I got a bot to where it could peer into the burst ceiling duct. What little of the bomb’s bottle remained had been reduced to grit and slivers. The bottle’s content, whatever that might have been, was well and truly dispersed. My sensors hadn’t reported anything scary, which likely only meant the catalog for the station’s printers hadn’t anticipated exotic chemical attacks. Why would it?

For fifty-five hours straight, apart from nodding off once or twice, I cycled among cameras across the station. I directed robots into remote corners for yet more views. I pored over sensor readouts. I monitored the nearby surface for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. Except for bots and the three animals in their cages, nothing stirred. I was seriously considering a trip inside for a more personal examination when, inside the hamster cage, the plastic water bottle . . . dissolved.

 

****

 

Over the next two days, in more and more of the station, things crumbled. Furniture. The wrappers on emergency rations. Drink bulbs. All manner of everyday items, large and small. Interior hatch seals, and the gaskets inside equipment I hadn’t even realized used gaskets. Scariest of all: spare vacuum gear as they hung in their lockers.

It did my mood no damned good to have only crappy views of this slo-mo nightmare. Company printers just wouldn’t make sensors with decent resolution or light sensitivity—I might as well have watched through layers of gauze. The webcams on company-approved comps were no better. This was another of those rare instances when, in hindsight, the genius paranoia was too clever by half.

While I didn’t know what the bomb had dispersed, it was all too clear what that crap did. It attacked things composed of rubber, plastic, or synthetic fibers. As the damage spread, I speculated it had to involve a bacterium or virus or nanite. Something that replicated and spread. Something nasty. I didn’t dare go inside for a sample lest the stuff attack my suit. I didn’t dare have a robot carry out a sample, for the same fear of contamination.

Throughout, the station maintained atmosphere. I’d never given much thought to types of airlock hatch seals, but a dive into station schematics revealed an all-metal hatch design. Like springs, properly shaped metal surfaces would press together. That technology, it appeared, was maintaining the station’s airtight seal. But many off-Earth facilities—including ships—used rubber gaskets in their hatches. The ship in which I huddled, for one.

Through it all, the animals were fine. They might stay fine for as long as robots could keep delivering food and water—and while recyclers, printers, and life support still ran. I had no idea how long that might be. And I had the greater good to consider.

From the presumed (whistling through the graveyard?) safety of the Bounty, I remotely experimented. I doused the station’s lights for twenty-four hours. With the lights restored, I could discern little effect upon the pace of destruction. I switched off the heat and let the temperature plummet as low as I dared. I didn’t relent for the animals’ sake, although I would have regretted their deaths—and, indeed, the parakeet didn’t make it. Sustained temperatures below freezing would destroy both hydroponic crops and the bacterial mats in main life support; I had my doubts how accepting the company would have been of that. For what it was worth, lowered temps did slow the . . . whatever, if only by a little.

Might truly deep and prolonged cold—the interior temperature on Belt rocks averages about -70o C—stop the mystery plague? I had no idea, nor dare I remain, incommunicado, for long enough to find out. There was likely a murderer, or a mad bomber, or both on the crew ship I’d recently seen off, and I held key evidence. And anyway, if I were to undertake such an experiment, how long would I stay? Bacteria have been revived from dormancy after millennia frozen in ice.

Would vacuum kill the stuff? I saw no way to do that test without spurting contagion right out of the station. The crud might contaminate the surface, or my ship, or even get blown clean off this tiny world to drift to others. So: no. Make that: hell, no.

I’d been using a mining bot every day to shift the hush-hush retroflector, lest the unseen Mayday buoy signal Ceres to send out another ship. In preparation for leaving, I reprogrammed the bot to continue those moves in my absence. The last thing anyone needed was another ship and its unsuspecting crew diverted here before I got back to Ceres to explain the situation. For good measure, along with a warning note duct-taped to the outer airlock hatch, I stomped skull and crossbones into the dust.

With that, there was nothing more here for me to do. I untethered the Bounty, then eased her away from the Rock with the gentlest possible puffs from her attitude jets. I did not activate autopilot until we were way too distant for the main drive’s exhaust to stir up any contaminated dust.

 

****

 

It would’ve been nice to have an inkling when I’d get back home. How long would I be left obsessing about sabotage, murder, and pressure-suit-chomping bacteria? Days? Weeks? Months? As days ceased to be a possibility, I thought about home and hearth. I listened to my music library, watched vids from that library, read, did what little in the way of exercise was possible in the Bounty‘s tiny cabin. All the while, trying to ignore the siren song of the bagged personal comps . . . .

The longer I stewed in my own juices, the more confused I became. Among the miners were a thief, a murderer, and a bomber. Just possibly, someone took on more than one of those roles. The simplest theory now consistent with what I (thought I) knew: Anisha and a confederate had diverted several kilos of platinum. The confederate killed her, whether from greed or for fear she would confess to me. Someone else made and set the bomb. Les Hodges was guilty of something, but I couldn’t decide of what.

The interminable flight had given me ample time to imagine other scenarios. Maybe Anisha, rather than being a thief, had discovered the thief, tried to blackmail him or her, and gotten killed for her trouble. Maybe Anisha found something suspicious that led to her asking the wrong questions of the bomber, and that got her killed. Maybe—

Enough navel-gazing! Okay, I’d never seen an elephant, but I understood metaphor. I’d been ignoring the giant pachyderm in the cabin. For any merely vindictive or larcenous purpose, simple explosives would have sufficed. Massive, without-warning decompression would, comparatively speaking, have killed everyone at the station quickly. Setting loose that weird contagion within the station? Trapping everyone inside, and making their rescue perilous at best and impossible at worst? That had to be someone sending a message. The nasty truth I had been loath to confront was this: the Rock had been targeted by terrorists—or nut jobs.

“Screw it,” I declared to untold kiloklicks of vacuum all around. “I know Les was up to something. Let’s see what’s on his comp.”

 

****

 

Biometric authentication and encryption algorithms are no more secure than the software that realizes them—or any other software on which those algorithms rely. I had a half-dozen patches for operating-system bugs found after Baxter and his crew set out for the Rock. I had only to connect a comp of mine into the PC I’d taken from Les’s pocket and exploit any of the unpatched vulnerabilities. Simple.

It wasn’t.

I hadn’t offered PC updates to anyone on the Rock, and yet, it turned out, Les’s comp had all the patches I’d brought. But hadn’t Anisha mentioned another auditor had been at the Rock shortly before me? Yes, she had. He must have had with him at least some of the patches I had.

But I also had, still unused, a copy of the latest patch set Mustafa’s crew had brought directly from Ceres. That patch set was newer than mine—and, I found, included a fix for a very recently discovered operating-system bug. Reverse-engineering that patch, I characterized the underlying bug and found my way into Les’s comp—

Wherein a couple terabytes of personal stuff needed wading through.

 

****

 

The company didn’t give miners—or auditors—much in the way of personal space. No strip searches, Buck Buranek’s complaints notwithstanding, but to call the company’s security measures intrusive remained industrial-strength understatement. The encrypted data on your personal comp and a camera-free room were pretty much the extent of any privacy. And, because the law required the company to respect the confidentiality of medical records, and hence, of people’s pharmaceutical needs, printers accepted personalized inputs for pretty much anything organic. That’s how I’d been able to fill a bulb with C8H7N3O2: luminol.

Food printers also made intact cells, everything from live-culture yogurt to yeast for fresh breads (and beer) to bleu cheese and steak tartare. That’s how I got my sushi. And that, almost certainly, was how Les concocted the plague I’d seen digesting everything plastic on the Rock.

Computer code, I could reverse-engineer with the best of them. Genomes, not even close. I homed in on a particular recipe file only because it turned out to match one of two large attachments to an email date-stamped about three months earlier: it had to have been from a hand-carried message-cube delivery when the last auditor stopped by the Rock. That message’s second large attachment was a vid.

“Dad, I’m in trouble,” a frightened and bedraggled young man, maybe twenty-five, began without preamble. He had a black eye, a split lip, and had been handcuffed to a sturdy chair. No matter the bruising, I needn’t have seen the holo in Les’s room; the family resemblance was unmistakable. “They’ve got me. If you don’t do as th-they say, they’ll k-kill me.”

Who they might be wasn’t clear, apart from someone in a ski mask who strode into view to slap duct tape across the kid’s mouth. (The few, non-bouncy steps suggested the vid had been shot on Earth. In standard gravity, for sure, and nothing in the background looked like a spacecraft.) “A slow death, I might add, unless you do as we say. We’ll know in due time whether you’ve cooperated. And we’re very serious.”

Most of the vid, with Les’s son quavering in the background, consisted of an admonition to tell no one, a bomb-building lesson, a timetable, and instructions on deploying the final attachment: a trojan. Among its tricks, that malware could splice loops into camera feeds, exactly as I’d encountered on the Rock.

The vid attachment ended on a close-up of the young man’s terrified eyes. I wondered how many times Les had watched it.

 

****

 

“There you have it. You now know what I do.”

With nothing more to add, I stopped recording. The vid was for insurance, for the record. For—were anything even remotely akin to the plague on the Rock also loose on Ceres—the possibility I won’t get to report personally on all I’d encountered. Pressure suit, ground vehicles, airlocks . . . even after I touch down, there’ll be a plastic-and-rubber gauntlet to be run.

I’d never been as relieved as a few hours ago, when a console LED lit to report Ceres had come into range. Autopilot put me into a parking orbit, from which a short-range company tug—with, you know, radar, lidar, and two-way radio with traffic control—will deliver me for inspection to a company facility. And then I’d never been as relieved as when the bored-sounding human pilot aboard the approaching tug drawled, “Folks kinda wondered when you’d get here.” Her complacency meant Ceres was safe. My honey was safe. I was safe.

Caveat to those rosy sentiments: safe for now. The overcrowded crew ship left the Rock a few days ahead of me; that hamster’s plastic water bottle took a few days to dissolve.

I’m trying my best, with limited success, to focus on a joyous homecoming. The company has suffered one employee killed and another driven to suicide. They’ve had an epic security breach and a platinum mine taken indefinitely out of commission. Just to be clear, that’s my priority order, not theirs.

Whether or not, in a moment of humane weakness, the company will care that the son of an employee remains kidnapped and imperiled, the clues to this disaster all appear to be on Earth. Clues that someone will follow up: it surely must be untenable not knowing who drove Hodges to set the bomb, and why, and if they plan to attack again somewhere else. Perhaps they already have! And when the company does investigate, they’ll want to disclose as little about the fiasco (including the crime scene!) as possible, and to as few people as possible.

I foresee my joyous homecoming being cut short by a trip Earthward.

****

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