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Authors: Diane Duane; Peter Morwood

Kill Station (6 page)

BOOK: Kill Station
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charge which did not exist. Evan had leaned over him, at his chipped, stained little desk, and glowered.

This was normally a technique Evan was too proud to use. His size was an accident; the good God had decided to make him two point one meters tall. He hated to make capital of it, but this man was a walking excuse for intimidation—and not by some blackmailing
thug of a miner, but by someone with the law on his side. Evan stood there, therefore, eyes narrowed, expression darkening, leaning closer and closer to the man, and quoted the station's housing law to him, chapter and verse. He did this before he had brushed his teeth, which was simple enough, because the 'fresher had broken down between the haircut and the shave. The man had winced



and gone scowling off into his own quarters, muttering about changes in the law and calling the station. He hadn't come back.

Evan was satisfied. So was Joss, who had left Evan to deal with the guy at the desk and had gone about the morning's first errand: that postponed discussion with the people in the approach control. "Maybe the guy heard about last night," Joss said to Evan as they headed out together for the station police office.

Evan laughed. "I doubt there's anyone within a light-hour's circumference who hasn't heard," he said. "There's nothing to do out here but work and gossip. And which would
rather do?''

Joss grunted.

"And how was your interview with the radar techs?"

Joss rolled his eyes. "Pretty pitiful. None of them had anyone's demise in mind, I'm sure of
much. It looks like they're understaffed, and they're working with the kind of equipment I haven't seen since my high school science fair. I yelled at them some, but my heart wasn't in it. They'll be more careful, maybe, but how much good is it likely to do when you're working with machines that have vacuum tubes in them?" He grimaced.

The look was unusually pained. "Your head bothering you?" Evan said.

"No, I'm fine. It just seems—" Joss shrugged. "Maybe it's just me, but everything looks dirtier this morning."

"Oddly enough, I know what you mean," Evan said, and there was truth to that, as he thought back to what he had found in the 'fresher head, and how long it had taken him to remove it before anything would flow freely again. "You were right. People do seem awfully preoccupied here, at first glance, much more so than normal. Even the bare minimum of cleaning doesn't seem to be done."

"Or other things," Joss said. "I had a closer look at the rock this morning."

"Trust you to do that," Evan said, only partly bantering. Among various other hobbies, Joss was an amateur

geologist and spelunker, when he could find a cave worth crawling into. "What did you do, pull up the flooring?"

"Not much to pull up. We're on raw rock here, cut flat. The dome seals are direct, just aged silicon clathrates."

Evan said softly. 'How cheap can you get?" Such seals were little better than sticking a dome to the rock of the asteroid with rubber cement.

"That cheap, at least. Evan, the rock's not as bad as the reports made it out to be. It's straight conglomerate with iron and iron oxides. Even without my kit, I make it out at about one percent iron. It's hardly high-grade ore for these parts, though, and even if they had slagged the asteroid out when they first came here, I'm not sure they could have made their settlement expenses back. It's too bad."

Evan shook his head. It all fit together in a veritable panorama of tackiness. The patched domes, the dirt, the shoddy surroundings, the shoddy people—for all the people they had seen in the bar last night had that same aura of worn-down goods. There seemed to be no one there really successful and showing it, not even one flash of cash from a miner in from a good strike. There hadn't even been the grumbling hospitality of someone in from a run that had been a break-even business, simply okay. People had sat nursing their drinks like precious things, and had fought not out of anger, but boredom. It was distressing.

In some ways it reminded Evan of pictures of Wales as it had been in the bad old days between the great coal-mining period and the inrush of high technology, when half the country was on the dole. People hadn't cared about work, or anything else, their spirit almost broken by years of never having enough.

The comparison troubled him a great deal. "You told me," he said, "that this area was doing all right hi terms of mining. Iron-nickel."

Joss nodded. "So the report said. But I think I'd like to go out and do a little assaying of my own, if tune permits. We're not exactly set up for it in terms of hardware, but I can teach the chemical analysis software what I need, and


we don't need to be dragging whole asteroids inside the hull. Cores will do."

Evan nodded.

They came to the police dome. It was primarily and officially a Solar Patrol office, but it also served as the HQ for the station's own tiny private security/police force. As they walked in the door—which opened properly for them, no screwdrivers here, thank heaven—Evan drew a breath and held it to keep from saying
again, loudly, at the tininess and wretchedness of the place.
was the representation of the Solar Patrol in this part of the world?

Another dome, the whole thing hardly the size of a decent office back on the Moon? A dome patched inside and out, cramped, piled up with filing modules and printout in great stacks, the situation desk almost lost in the midst of everything? And one young officer, in uniform, looking almost pitifully smart in the midst of it all?

He looked up as they came in, and an expression of shock came over his face. The young man was astonishingly red-haired, and very freckled, perhaps in his mid-twenties. As he leapt up to welcome them, Evan found himself wondering if he himself had looked like this before he got his growth—a bit on the gangly side, but of a frame and build that promised some heft to come.

"Gentlemen, come in, I wasn't expecting anybody, they didn't tell me—" the young officer said, hurrying over to them.

"I don't think they wanted to," Joss said, shaking the young officer's hand. "Joss O'Bannion. My partner, Evan Glyndower."

"Noel Hayden," the young officer said, and Evan was mildly pleased at his grip as they shook hands. If it was anything to go by, this lad would have no trouble in the bars, which was almost certainly why the SP had sent him here to hold down this job all alone.

"Come and sit down," Hayden said, leading them back toward a desk, and starting to unearth several chairs from beneath piles of paper. "I didn't think they were going to


send anyone so soon. In fact, I wasn't sure they would send anyone at all."

Evan sat down and turned his datapad on to take voice notes. He noted that the message area was flagged. The ship's computer must have picked up something for him from HQ during the night. It could wait, though. "It was your report that set all this off, then," Joss was saying.

Hayden nodded. "I hope so. The disappearances have been going on for a while now, and the place was starting to get nervous."

"More than nervous, I think," Evan said.

Noel smiled gently, a remarkably knowing expression for someone so young. "Yes, you passed your qualifyings last night, I heard. Hasn't been an officer here in twenty years that hasn't happened to. But you got a little more than the usual treatment.''

"I was wondering whether that was quite normal," Joss said.

"Nerves," Noel said, "and there were two of you, and one of you was big."

Evan raised his eyebrows in a resigned look.

"Can I give you something?" Noel said. "Coffee? Tea?"

"I'll pass," Joss said. Evan shook his head.

"Right. Anyway," Neil said, and spent a moment shuffling around on his desk looking for something. It promised to be an interesting search; there was enough paper on the desk alone to cover the whole inside of the dome.
Which might not be a bad idea,
Evan thought.
You wouldn 't have to see the
patches then.

"This started about three months ago, as far as I can tell," Noel said. "At least, that's the furthest back I can trace it. Though HQ doesn't find anything statistically suspect in it until about a month after that."

Noel snorted. "They don't take feelings into consideration, but if you've been out here for a few years, you start getting a feeling for real accidents as opposed to contrived ones."


Joss looked slightly surprised. "How long have you been out here?"

"About eight years now." Noel smiled. "Oh. Don't let my looks fool you. I'm thirty-eight."

Evan smiled. "You have a picture aging in a closet somewhere, then."

"So people say. One of my nicknames here is apparently 'Snookums.' " Noel grinned, an expression that had a hint of satisfaction about it. "Everybody who comes here makes the predictable mistake in a bar—once."

Joss chuckled. Noel kept looking for his piece of paperwork. "Anyway, about four months ago, people started simply disappearing. Now, it's not as if they don't do that anyway. Mining is hardly a safe occupation, no matter how you look at it. Just the basic mechanics of it can get you killed. A cheap pressure suit goes south, your ship has a power failure and your transponder goes out—or doesn't work," he added, "possibly because someone's been fiddling with it. There's a lot of that around here, people killing their own transponders so as not to show where their claims are."

' 'I think we might want to look at the actual method for filing claims," Joss said.

"Surely." Noel kept digging about among the papers on his desk. "The worst of it all, anyway, is that there's no pattern I can find. My first suspicion was claim-jumping, of course. But that tends to be pretty easy to trace. Gossip is everything in this community, and it doesn't take much listening to find out who seems to have hit it big lately and whom they've told about it, if anybody. Or who's jealous, who's had a bad run of luck, and so forth. The result tends to be straightforward death by violence—shooting, or something of the kind. Sabotage happens occasionally, but it's rare. I think the perception is that it's too much trouble, and too easy to get caught. Also, the mechanics here are very careful about their work, since any ship that goes out and doesn't come back immediately brings them

into disrepute even if plain old backshooting isn't apparent."

Joss nodded. "What's the population breakdown like here?"

"Mixed, of course, but mostly Russians and Japanese. We have a strong Baltic and Central European component, for some reason. I recommend Satra's over in the main dome—they have some pretty good

Joss's eyebrows went up. "There's a restaurant here?"

"Hey, this may be the asteroid belt," Noel said, "but we're not quite the end of the world. Ah!" He came up with a piece of printout, handed it over to Joss. "Here."

Joss scanned down it. "That was the first one I found suspicious," Noel said. "Yuri Brunoy's ship

Yuri wasn't the kind to have people trying to claim-jump him in the first place. Nice calm man, only shot people who needed it—"

"How do we determine who needed it?" Evan said softly.

Noel leaned back in his chair and sighed. "YouVe worked out this way before. No murders, though, I guess."

Evan shook his head. "Not from claim-jumping. Drug enforcement, mostly."

"It's kind of a problem," Noel said. "Someone jumps someone else's claim and gets shot for his trouble.

The jumpee comes back with the body, claims self-defense. Short of a body that's been backshot, and sometimes even with one, without witnesses—and there are rarely witnesses out there since the family ships have fallen pretty much out of style—how do you prove that it
wasn 't
self-defense? If there's even a body left. In zero gee, from the surface of small asteroids, bodies do get lost. And it's understandable when the person who's just been attacked doesn't particularly feel like chasing a tenth of a light-hour after the corpse of the person who just tried to backshoot
Or if they do, they would have to throw ore out to make mass room for it. It doesn't seem like a good deal


to a lot of people." Noel sighed. "So
habeas corpus
is a bit of a problem. And judges frequently refuse to hear these cases simply because they've seen so many of them end in the same way, with hung juries or dismissals. No," Noel added, "you have to manage these by feel, when it comes down to it. There's a certain amount of justice done here by the people themselves. You learn not to interfere too much. But if someone's taking the law into his own hands, he tends to die of that, too. Word travels fast."

Evan nodded. "Anyway," Noel said,
was a fifty-ton vessel, a small ore processor. We have a few people based here who prefer to crush and slag down their own ore. There's an advantage to it: you don't have to spend the money for reaction mass to haul around what's essentially going to be ninety percent waste rock after someone else processes it. It costs more in energy than just hauling ore back, of course, but if you're steadily turning over enough raw material, you can do a lot better than break even in a few years. Well, Yuri was well past that point. He had actually gotten married a few years back— they had a 'summer house' on Dacha Station around Jupiter—and he would work half the year, then take half the year off with his wives. Anyway, Yuri had just started his work year, when he went out and didn't come back. He was a careful pilot—"

"Yes," Joss said dryly. "I would think careful pilots would do well here."

Noel grunted. "I heard about your problem last night. Your assailants have already been cited—I did that just after breakfast—but you'll forgive me if I didn't fine them too much. They're fighting with inadequate equipment, like all the rest of us here. And the last thing this place needs is a landing guidance facility that's unfriendly to sops."

BOOK: Kill Station
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