Authors: Diane Duane; Peter Morwood
Why did deceleration seem to take
near the end? Evan wondered. Two meters per second, one and a half—
—and the doors were right in front of them, right in front of the plex, and the rounded front of the ship hit the doors, neatly on target. For a horrible fraction of a second everything seemed to stand still while the physics of the situation sorted itself out. Evan visualized several physical laws standing there in that moment, playing scissors-paper-stone with one another, and he listened with all of him for the sound of the groaning hull that in a moment would be a single bang, and then no sound at all—
And then they started going backward at half a meter per second, and accelerating, because of the attitudinals' setting. Joss cursed harder and started hammering on his board again.
"There, how about that?" he nearly shouted. "The doorbell didn't work. Isn't knocking enough? Wake up in there!"
Evan wiped his forehead. In front of them, slowly, the docking bay doors started to open.
It took another five minutes to drop their backward acceleration, and to pull forward again into the bay.
The docking bay proper was little more than a metal box fifty
meters on a side, fitted inside the dome to cut down on the loss of air. It was a dark box; half its lights were out completely, and the rest seemed to be running at half or one-third power. They were in any case quite dim, and the dimness only served to point up the occasional fractured and welded sideplate. Apparently some of the pilots had not been as careful as Joss at getting into the bay.
While the back doors were closing behind them, and Joss was setting the ship down onto its vectored jets, Evan said,
"If that's typical of what happens when you try to get in here, it's no wonder people leave and don't come back."
Joss nodded, and said, "The question is, was that an accident?''
Evan put his eyebrows up. "Now why would anyone here want us to come to harm?" he said. The question was meant ironically: no matter where you went, there was always
who didn't care for sops. "And how would they have been able to react so quickly, if they did?"
"They wouldn't have needed voice transmission to know us," Joss said. "Our black box transponder will have been talking to their radar computer for the past hour and a half, maybe more."
"That would narrow down the list of suspects somewhat," Evan said. "The people in the station radar room. You'd think they would find a better way to
us without attracting attention to themselves."
Joss sighed and said, "We're starting out on our paranoia a little early, aren't we?"
"I hate to get caught in the rush," Evan muttered.
"And we really have to find something to call this ship," Joss said, as the front doors of the bay began to open before them.
" 'Hey, you'?" Evan asked.
Joss very carefully brought the ship up on its bottom jets, but he refused to vector them back until the doors were fully open, showing them a well-lighted circular floor space about two hundred meters in diameter. Lines of
smaller craft were parked off around the circumference, and there were blister junctions where other smaller domes, probably used for storage, met this one. "No good," Joss said. "It has to be a proper name, so we can swear at it."
"You didn't sound like you needed any help."
"Oh, it's not the same." Joss nudged the ship forward and out into the light. "Really good swearing has to be personal."
"Here comes your chance," Evan said, looking across the hangar dome. There were several people hurrying in from a side dome, two men and a woman, dressed in the insulated skinsuits that were popular in places like this, where central heating couldn't exactly be found in every room and corridor.
"No rush, no rush," Joss said, setting the ship down with what should have been insulting precision in the very middle of the hangar circle. Evan was very glad to feel the slight jar as the skids came down on the floor; and then things in the cabin began to quiet down as Joss killed the final attitude jet and shut down the engines.
"We secure?" Evan said.
"Oh, yes. You want to put your uniform on before we go out?"
"I'll put mine on and be out in a second. I think you have things you want to be looking at," Evan said, as Joss hurried past him toward the airlock.
"Idiots," Joss remarked
and was through the inner door and had it sealed a second later.
Evan smiled to himself.
He headed into his stateroom, reached into the cupboard where his tunic was, and slipped it on.
Fine-looking as the black and silver uniform was, it was not what he would have preferred to go out in, the first time. Evan looked lovingly over at the gunmetal grey shape of his suit in its clamps off to one side of the stateroom. It usually made a most favorable impression the first time an officer wearing a suit strolled into an area he had come to patrol.
There was no harm in reminding the people you were assigned to protect that here was someone who could see clearly across half a mile of smoke or fog or darkness, or all of them together, using the vision augmentation equipment built into the helm; someone who could pick up a ton unassisted, or walk through a wall, let alone shoot or blast through it.
And as for what the people you were assigned to catch thought of it—why, the more cautious it made them, the better, Evan had always thought. Frightened perpetrators made the best mistakes.
For the moment, though, he merely touched the seams of the tunic closed, made sure his SP shield was on tight, and took down his Winchester beamer. It was a useful thing. Not as useful, perhaps, as the Heckler & Koch beamer he had used in the AED: that could have burned right through the outside airlock in a matter of seconds. And his other favorite, the custom-built Holland and Holland projectile gun that had cost him two months' pay and was well worth all of it, was no good to him here, in a pressure-sensitive environment. But the Winchester looked mean—an advantage for the gun, as for the suit—and was light and dependable. Interior walls wouldn't give it trouble, and as for human beings. ... He smiled slightly and settled it in its holster, then headed for the airlock himself.
As he stepped out of the ship, two of the three people he had seen coming into the dome went past him in what seemed a hurry. The man, in his late thirties, with a badly heat-scarred face, tall and thin, and the woman, in her forties perhaps, slightly overweight, blonde going grey-merely looked at him and didn't stop. "Excuse me," Evan said.
"We don't work here," said the man, and the woman added, "And will you move that thing out of the middle so people can get in and out?" And they hurried past him without another word.
"Hmm," Evan said, and walked around to the front of the ship, where Joss was standing and running his hands over the rounded nose with a very aggrieved expression.
"Brand new," he was saying. "The mothers! That coating was
old! Look at this!"
Evan looked and saw a slight dent in the nose, and a wrinkled place where the paint had been cracked away. "It looks to me as if we were lucky not to have smashed like an eggshell," he said. "A little paint won't matter. We'll tell everyone we rammed someone broadside."
Joss snorted, then looked over his shoulder as the third person, a man in his early twenties, very small and slight, went past them after the first two. "Excuse me," Joss said, "but would you please tell us if—"
The young man took one look at them, spat immediately and copiously on the floor, and just kept going.
Joss looked distastefully at the floor, then at Evan.
"Not the welcoming committee, I take it," he said.
"And they say you should move the ship out of the way," said Evan.
"Like hell," said Joss. But he looked after the young man with a calculating expression. "Then again," he added, "no point in antagonizing the locals."
"Yet," said Evan.
It took a few minutes to get the ship moved. The ship belonging to the three people who had come in started to rise up on its jets as soon as Joss had finished moving. Their ship was typical of many others sitting around in the hangar, and was everything the patrol vessel wasn't: ugly, blocky, scarred, a sort of conglomeration of bolted-together metal boxes with an ancient nonreflective black coating on it. How nonreflective it was at all was in question, since the coating had flaked or been scraped or banged off in who knew what collisions with small asteroids or, for all Evan knew, other craft. The thing had crude jets on it, not vectorable, just fastened on at any angle; and there was what looked like a secondhand ion driver assembly at the rear end, held on with metal straps and probably prayer.
Evan raised his eyebrows as he turned away. He might have been teasing Joss about old grizzled miners with don-SPACE COPS
keys, but it struck him that those old men from the vids were probably safer in their environment than these people were—if they were in fact miners. Quite a few people who were not came to live out this way. They might like the freedom of the Belts, the way there was little of the control of the inner worlds.
No one asked you for ID every five seconds; there was no need of the ID itself. People couldn't care less if you had a banking history, or a credit history, or whether it was a good history or not. In fact, there were always people who preferred that the histories of those they dealt with should not be
good. . . .
Joss came back in a few moments, and stood with Evan to look after the ship that was leaving. "I built one like that in the back yard when I was six," he remarked. "But the boxes were cardboard. And it flew better."
"Oh, yes," Joss said, as they walked off toward the largest of the blisters leading to the next dome over.
"Once we pushed it off the garage roof."
"I take it the pilot survived."
"Sure. But ever since then I've been twitchy about any large object coming at me fast. Like the ground, or a set of landing bay doors."
Evan smiled slightly as they walked through the airlock into the next dome. The airlock doors neither opened before them nor shut behind them, having been jammed open. Joss looked at the control panel, which had been sabotaged with a power tool of some kind, to judge by the cracks hi its front, and said,
"These people don't look too worried about losing atmosphere, do they?"
Evan shook his head. It was an almost unbelievable level of carelessness, unless you had just been through the docking they had, in which case belief became a lot more accessible. "Seems that way."
"And no welcoming committee at all, it looks like. Not even from the people who almost crashed us into the bay doors at too damned many mips. A bit unfriendly."
Evan shrugged. "I'd like to see those people myself
. . . and I will, sooner or later. But as regards anything formal, it's not something you're likely to see.
Places like these aren't as regimented as inner-system stations. No customs, no immigration—as a rule—or it's handled differently from any way you expect. Some places, records aren't even kept on computers ... on purpose. I know some places on the other side of the Belts that don't care where you've come from, or what you've done, as long as you're willing to give them all your money. There are lots of people who think that's a good deal."
Evan saw Joss make a wry face. He knew that Joss was no fool about such things. The man had been partnered with him, he suspected, specifically because his mind was so quick and his knowledge even of things outside of his experience was so considerable. Such a man was a natural choice to partner with a powersuited officer. But Evan suspected that the basic untidiness of an environment like this would annoy Joss mightily, once he actually got into it himself. He had been raised in order, on the Moon, in an environment where things were controlled and kept rigorously correct. The sloppiness of the Asteroids would be trying for him. Evan was committed to making sure that this wasn't too much of a problem for Joss, but at the same time he had never promised not to be amused by it.
The small dome into which they had walked was indeed a storage area for vehicles, and a service area as well. More ships, most of them one- or two-man vessels, were sitting or lying about in various states of repair. Some were little more than stripped-down chassis; others showed signs of having pieces of five or six different vessels bolted together, the matings often looking rather crude, and occasionally positively unsafe. It was the spacecraft manufacturers themselves who had made this possible, in the days when the Belts were first starting to open up. Most people going out had very little venture capital to work with, and the shipmakers had decided that if they were going to get any of this eager money at all, they had better come up with something cheap, simple, and easily re-SPACE COPS
placeable and repairable. So VW and Skoda and Lada had decided to cut most of their potential losses. They and the other major marques had pooled their r&d money, largely duplicated one another's designs, and brought out ships that could be put together in pieces, suiting the needs of individual spacers: heavy hauling vehicles, ships with lots of extra storage, or bigger engines, or better power arrays that could manage more tools inside and outside the ship.
Naturally, when you sold your ship on, the person who bought it secondhand might find it wasn't
what he had in mind—though it was close. So he would detach the module that didn't work, or just chop it off if he had to, and add another bit that did, possibly bought from the same dealer. Within brands, of course, the module parts and their fit worked perfectly. But if you had a VW body and wanted a Lada cargo module, which was bigger than the VW's, what to do?
naturally had no intention of staying with all VW parts—though that had certainly been VW's intention.