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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."
"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?"
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."
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.
"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?"