Authors: Diane Duane; Peter Morwood
Belts. Over the past three standard months, these reports have exceeded the mean expected number by some twenty-nine percent, a number which SP statisticians find not specifically suspicious, but unusual even for a statistical fluke. The possibility of such a fluke remains, since the past three years have had a much lower than projected number of such unaccountable disappearances. However, Statistics has had recourse to chaos/ordinate analysis of these figures, and their feeling is that the present jump in occurrences is of a pattern that does not agree closely with any predictable pattern of fluke increase.
"DISCUSSION: The attached map shows areas where disappearances have been reported.
Approximately eighty percent of them have been reported or have occurred in an area approximately centered on Willans Station/Ceres Minor. Case specifics are attached in the appendix. Space Forces patrols operating in this area have reported no new dangers to navigation or other known physical causes for disappearances."
"Huh," Evan said softly. He had an opinion of the Space Forces that was not entirely complimentary: he felt they were soft, overpaid, underworked, and a drag on society. He knew for a fact that they certainly felt the same about sops. But he did not let this bother him. He was, in any case, confident in SF's inability to find a pig in a sack, even when they were tied in the sack with it, and handcuffed to it as well.
"What?" Joss said, from the other seat. "Our friends in blue?"
"Dangers to navigation," Evan said scornfully. "As if they care about anything they can't blow up. Or as if they'd notice any rock that was small enough for them to blow. Ah, never mind them."
"Just as well," Joss said cheerfully, "because they surely won't pay any mind to
We're well on our own out here."
"And a good thing, I say."
"And as for you," Joss said, "you're just jealous of
them, because they have full military suits, and you don't."
That bit close, but was probably true, so Evan said nothing. In his police work on Earth, hi the part of the world that had once been the United Kingdom and was now just another part of the Confederation, he had been Armed Enforcement Department, and had been trained in the best mobile suit made anywhere—a properly armed piece of walking armor, a suit that let you wade confidently through a brick wall, or into a troop of less well-armored infantry, or into the middle of a bank robbery, with no worries except how you would carry the perpetrators back to the station afterwards—under your arm, or in dustpans. But when he had left the AED—something about enjoying his work a little too much, being too good at it, carrying home what that week's superior officer thought was one corpse too many—the army had stripped his suit down. A sop was a peacekeeper, not a warrior, they had said; and besides, much of the armament he was carrying was classified, Defense secret, sorry Evan old chap. . . . He had said some rude things in Welsh, but he had put up with it, and then gone up to the Moon and done his sop training.
His suit was the best police suit you could hope for, better than most; well cared for, smooth-running, mean-looking (which was half the battle sometimes). But he still felt naked when he thought about the arms that were in its ports these days when trouble started, and he still missed the plasma cannon, and the helium-acid lasers, and the nuke. Especially the nuke. He had never had to use it. But it had been a reassuring weight in the small of his back.
"That's as may be," Evan said.
"They don't know what to do with them anyway," Joss said kindly. "No brains."
"Mmf," Evan said, feeling that to agree too vehemently would give more away than he wanted to.
"ASSIGNMENT: You are directed to proceed to the marked area and conduct investigations to determine the
proximate cause for these disappearances, or whether there is any non-statistical cause. Reasonable requests for materiel and additional personnel will be considered. Optimum desired duration of assignment: one standard month."
"They're out of their bleedin' minds," Joss said, mild-voiced, shaking his head.
Evan looked at him. "Tchah. Language!"
"Look at it," Joss said. "They've tagged our expense account to one month's time out. How are we even supposed to
"Your mistake," Evan said. "You shouldn't have been so eager to provision this thing before we left. We could have eaten out all the time."
"No point in it," Joss said. "No good restaurants out here."
"That's not what the Michelin Guide says," said Evan.
Joss burst out laughing. "You're so full of it, your eyes should be brown, you know that? Your idea of good food is toasted cheese."
"Can't help that," Evan said. "The ugly ghost of nationalism. Won't lie down and be still."
"Neither will your Welsh Rabbit."
"Oh? And what about your stir-fry, you thumb-fingered Cordon Bleu reject? I had to use the pulse-laser on the last wok to clean it, it was so—"
"—well-seasoned, you gun-happy Taff! It took me nearly six months to get that wok into a state worth cooking in, and then along you come with your goddamn hopped-up can opener, and burn off a perfectly good layer of-"
An alarm on the front console began to go off, making a noisy hooting like a loon stuck in a bucket. "Oh jeez, that can't be Willans proximity already," said Joss, swinging round to the console. "Then again, yes it can."
Evan looked at the console suspiciously. "Shouldn't you be doing something about that?"
"No, it's all automatic," Joss said. He hadn't pulled
the control array and yoke over, but he was leaning forward in the seat and watching the readings on the instrument panel with some interest. "I'll keep an eye on it. Meanwhile, we should be able to see something shortly."
Evan peered out the plex, but could see nothing: no spark of light anywhere but the stars, all seeming to swing gently in the same direction. That was another of the odd things about working this far out in space, away from any planet, where there was always something largish to orient by. Out here there was no seeing a body until you were practically on top of it—and, you hoped, not running right into it. Even though the asteroids were nowhere near as close together as popular myth still painted them, there were accidents. Failures of guidance systems, sudden changes of asteroid trajectory or orbit, ephemeris errors, pilot errors.
accidents might be disguised as more innocent ones. That was one possibility they were going to be looking at closely.
"There's their docking system's acknowledgement," Joss said. "Let's see how they do."
"Run in tandem with it, for heaven's sake," Evan said. "I've no desire to be a pancake just yet."
For a good while they both gazed out the plex, but saw nothing. The swinging of the stars stopped, though, and they steadied into one heading. "You were out here at one point, weren't you?" Joss said.
"A couple of years ago, before my desk work on the Moon. But it was the other side of the Belt, over by Highlight station, and the Crux. Bigger settlements, mostly. This was hicktown to those people. No big money, they said."
"Possibly we should be grateful."
"You mean if we're shot at," Evan said, "it'll be for something besides money.''
Joss looked bemused at that, but said nothing for a little while. "There," he said finally. "See it?"
Evan peered out the plex. "No."
"Sort of the lower left-hand corner."
He peered for a few moments more. "Is that a red light on it?"
"Should be green, shouldn't it? If it's the approach beacon."
Joss pulled over the augments and peered through their oculars. "Looks like the approach beacon is burnt out. The actual docking facility is on the far side."
"Wonderful," Evan said, leaning back and feeling for the restraints. "Do you want to give them a ticket, or shall I?"
"I wouldn't," Joss said, "not till we've had our on-site briefing, anyway." He fumbled around for his own restraints and started fastening them up, the cross-belts first.
Willan Station started to grow larger in the front window, and Evan began to understand why the miners and holders over on the other side of the Belts might not have had a very high opinion of it. The asteroid was big enough to have been dug for cubic—it was about eight kilometers long and five wide, a lumpy potato-shape—but its surface was pocked all over with domes as if with a bad skin condition. And the domes—some clear, some opaque— were the old, unstable ribbed variety rather than die reinforced Fuller design that had supplanted the first kind almost as soon as people had begun settling out this way.
Willans Station was
from the looks of it—and no one had made any great attempt at modernization.
Possibly understandable: materials were expensive out here, labor hard to find, or to keep—at least, good labor. But in this environment, your life depended on the integrity of your dome.
"They never mined here," Evan said, glancing over at Joss.
"No," Joss said, "there was no point. According to the ephemeris, this asteroid's nothing but conglomerate and stone—worthless. There's a fair amount of nickel iron
found around here, though. Enough for it to work pretty well as a trading base and credit center."
"Independently owned and operated, I take it," Evan said, looking at the central dome as the station data system spoke to their ship's and brought it around and over toward the docking area. The dome was patched, and not very well. In places, laminate patches overlapped composite plastic patches in a way that caused Evan concern about the level of maintenance of things here.
"It started out as a franchise operation from ConBelt," Joss said, peering through the augments again.
There was an abstracted sound to his voice that Evan had heard before: it meant Joss was getting nervous about something. "It earned out about twenty years later, and the family who were titleholders at that point started running it on their own."
"They broke even, did they?" Evan said, very hopefully, as the attitude thrusters fired again. Well off to one side of the central dome, attached to a smaller dome-opaque, but similarly patched—was a round set of bulkhead doors divided down the middle, the generic opening to a docking bay. There was only one problem: it wasn't open. And Evan watched them starting to get very close to that docking bay, very fast.
Joss looked annoyed and reached out to a toggle.'' Willans control, Willans control," he said, "this is Solar Patrol vessel CDZ 8064 incoming, please check your autoapproach computer, over."
Nothing but the hiss of empty air. Evan looked at him.
"Willans control, Willans control—" Joss looked bemused, did something to the console, said again:
"Willans control, this is Solar Patrol vessel CDZ 8064, reply please."
Joss said something under his breath that Evan didn't catch, yanked the yoke and control array around in front of him, and started hammering on the controls that would do things to the attitude jets, very quickly indeed. Evan
clenched his teeth, then loosened up, remembering that clenching was exactly the wrong thing to do. He would have closed his eyes, but there seemed no point in dying if you didn't know how it had happened.
So he" watched the ugly round slitted bulk of the docking doors swim closer and closer outside the plex, slowing only slightly—
"Oh, come on, dammit," Joss said, "come
you idiots!" He was practically hammering on the console now. Evan sweated, wondering whether Joss was hollering at the people on the asteroid, or the ship's equipment. In any case, there was nothing he could do to help; flying the ship was Joss's speciality. Those doors were closer, and closer. The soft hiss of firing rockets, all that could be heard of the attitudinals from inside the ship, went on and on—
"If you people make me crash my new ship," Joss was muttering, "you're all meat, that's all. Just hamburger, and I'll feed you to the first dog I see." He locked all the attitude thrusters into one configuration and sat there, gripping the console. There was nothing else he could do, from the looks of him.
" 'Your' ship?" Evan said, watching the docking bay doors draw near, and wondering why his life wasn't flashing before his eyes.
"Good God," Joss said then. "It's working."
"It is?" Evan said, but at that moment he realized that the ship was in fact slowing, slowing a little faster every moment, so that those doors, surely no more than five hundred meters away now, came toward them a little more slowly, a bit more slowly still.
"Are we going to be able to stop?"
"Good question," Joss said. Evan broke right out in a cold sweat.
They slowed, they slowed—and the doors were four hundred meters away, three, two— " 'Our' ship, I should think," Evan said, trying desperately to sound conversational.
"Sure," said Joss. "Come on, you idiots, come to! Isn't anybody home?"
—and they slowed and slowed, no more than fifteen meters a second now, ten meters a second—Evan watched the passive meter on the console read down, digit by digit. But ten meters per second could still kill you quite dead if your shell breached and the atmosphere got out. Not to mention the simple shock, and the results of hitting, say, a dome, and being in the way of an explosive decompression equivalent to a thousand tons per square inch of released pressure—
Joss was cursing actively now as they came down past five meters per second, and the bay doors were seventy meters away. Four meters, three—the meter hovered there for what seemed like a little lifetime.