Authors: Diane Duane; Peter Morwood
"Heavens, no," Joss said, "having seen what benign neglect looks like."
Noel coughed. "Yes. Anyway—Yuri always filed a course plan and he always kept to it. He was no hotdogger.
He was headed toward an area he had been mining for a while, about thirty thousand kilometers antiorbital from us, and about five thousand plus-zee. Still in the neighborhood, but an area that had plenty for everybody and wasn't in any danger of being mined out—a lot of nickel-iron there, but mostly iron, rather higher grade ore than usual, and more worth his trouble."
"And there was no distress call or anything like it?" Joss said.
"Well, no," Noel said, "but the problem around here, of couse, is that even if there
distress call, communications lag times being what they are, you're frequently too far away from the source of the distress to do any good by the time you get there. Our average response time here is about six hours, sometimes more if they're really far out there. But a lot of people are careless and don't carry enough emergency air to last them. They consider it a waste of mass and fuel for something that might never happen." Noel shrugged. "In that regard, I suppose you could say that natural selection is still operating."
"It usually finds ways," said Evan.
"There's nothing we can do for those people," Noel said. "But people who haven't had an accident that's an immediate killer can usually be brought back without too much trouble in ten to fourteen hours. I'm on call to do that myself, and we have a couple of volunteers with light haulers, or big engines, who go out if I'm already out on a job."
"Are you happy with your volunteers?" Joss said.
"Oh yes. Dav Myennes and Joan Selvino are heads of two of the big old families here. Probably the only really big families we have left. Since better facilities are available back around Mars, or Jupiter, we have a lot of people moving their families out," Noel sighed. "The place is turning into a bit of a ghost town . . .
mostly singletons. It's a little sad. I miss the children."
Evan began to understand why the place had a dispirited
feel about it. "Anyway," he said, "our friend just vanished? No transponder trace?''
"None. Normally, when we start looking for a transponder with the high-powered gear, we can find it even if it's right out of the Belts. But there was no sign of Yuri's, which meant that his ship had either been completely destroyed, or the transponder had been shut down. That I find hard to believe. Yuri was very safety conscious—we did a pickup on him long, long ago, an engine failure, not his fault or the mechanic's—and I don't think I ever met anyone who was more against fiddling with your black box."
"So someone blew him completely away."
"Or he went out of range, which I also find hard to believe," Noel said. "He didn't like to roam; he had a good thing going where he was. And also, the converter ships don't have that kind of range; they trade it off for the energy they need to run their smelters. So—"
"But you don't think anyone would have bothered jumping his claim?" said Joss.
' 'Out that way, there would have been no need. See, mostly it happens when someone thinks that someone else is onto a particularly hot claim—an extremely high metal/ore ratio, or something that's not ore. We don't get much of that kind of thing around here. The last time we had a gemstone hit was, hell, six years ago now. Funny, that was Yuri too.
But it was a small find, something like five thousand creds' worth of industrial diamonds. The rest of his load, just pig iron, brought him three times as much.''
Noel did a bit more digging in the spot where he had found the first precis, and came up with several others. "Then came these. Les Bianco's
gone. Within fifty days of one another— and no coincidence of times, places, anything. To judge by their filed course plans, they were all heading in different directions. One by one they all missed their return or check-in dates."
"Meaning they weren't planning to be coming back just yet, but they would come in close enough to send a message? Or stop in at another station and send one from there?" Joss asked.
"That's right. We only eventually found one ship,
and that was by accident; someone from over at Cambrai Station found it while en route here. Its transponder was running, but there was no sign of Dail, and there was a big hole in the hull—the ship's fuel cell was blown out. It happens." Noel shrugged. "It was one of the older atomic ones: they're capricious at best. I don't know why people still use them, except that they're cheap."
Evan purposely did not look at the ceiling, or at something else he had noticed earlier: the obvious, and obviously used, emergency patching kit off beside one filing module, sitting there in case the passive sealing function of the dome should fail to work. "What about the claims proceedings?" he said.
"Well, we have a registrar, as most places out this far do. No one wants to make a special trip to Mars or Jupiter just to register a claim; you want to be able to lay over and resupply at the same time. The office is up in Main Dome. Claims still have to be filed in person—we're not that automated out here, I'm afraid—and the various station offices exchange records once a month just to make sure there are no mistakes, since asteroids do drift. Or are jarred
course." Noel grinned slightly. "We give a claimant a tag core to sink into the surface of the body in question. Like one of these." He reached down, pulled open one of his desk drawers, rummaged for a moment, and came up with something that looked like a sealed length of steel pipe, about an inch and a half wide and two feet long. "It transmits the claim number and the claimant's name to anyone with the right receiver, which around here is most people. Once in, it's almost impossible to get out without a bomb or a laser drill, and such
removal always leaves signs. They're as tamperproof as we can make them."
"But there have been exceptions, I take it," Joss said dryly.
"Oh yes. What technology can invent, technology can defeat. We've seen some very clever tamperings, even forgeries. But forgeries are easy to trace, since they don't match our records here. And tamperings leave traces. But most people consider it too much trouble to go to for one more hunk of iron, when there's likely to be a much better one fifty thousand meters further on."
"Let's put the disappearances aside for a moment," Joss said. "Have you had any claim jumps recently?"
"A couple, yes." Noel started rummaging again, and this time didn't have to dig too deep. "Sorry about this," he said, paging through a few pieces of paper, "but my data base went down months ago, and we're still waiting for the parts to fix it. I have to keep everything this way, if I want it accessible at all."
"They keep promising us the paper-free office," Evan said. "I begin to wonder when we'll see it."
"Here," said Noel, and handed Evan the sheets. He glanced down them, and passed them to Joss. "That asteroid was pretty promising," Noel said. "Good iron content. Hek Vaweda there staked it out about two months ago. She missed a check-in, and I went looking for her. Found the claim—but no ship, no Hek. No traces of where she had gone, or what had happened." Noel shook his head. "It was a pity. She was a nice lady."
"I'd like to have a look at the spot," Joss said, ruffling through the sheets, "and at the rest of these."
"I'll take you out," Noel said, getting up.
"No rush," Evan said. "You probably have things to do first—"
"Unfortunately, yes," Noel said, "but any escape from
is a pleasure. I have considered setting fire to it," he added, getting up, "but I'm the fire chief as well, and it seems a little pointless. Haifa second while I get my suit."
They made their way back to the hangar dome, and Noel stopped in the middle of it and simply stared at their ship. "I saw one of those once," he said, "in a vid. I didn't think they actually existed."
"Oh, they exist," Joss said, "and the trouble people give you for overrunning your fuel expenditure, you wouldn't want to hear." His voice was unusually dry. Evan glanced over at him questioningly. Joss shrugged at him, the "later" shrug.
"Open up," he said, and obediently the craft cracked its seals and let them into the airlock. Noel looked around admiringly as they stepped in. "It still smells new," he said.
"Not for long," Evan said, and made his way up front
unlock and rig the third seat in the front cabin.
"Wait till my friend here makes his chicken with forty cloves of garlic."
"Forty cloves of—"
"It's very innocent, really," Joss said. "It's most people's first chance to find out that garlic is a vegetable—"
"Indeed yes," said Evan drily. "A vegetable that makes parts of you speak that were better silent."
Noel blinked, and declined to comment. "Look at these cabins," he said, pausing in the door of Evan's.
"Why the hell are you staying at Morrie's?"
After cleaning out the 'fresher head, this was a question that had also occurred to Evan. "Public relations, I guess," he said. "It seems to work better than becoming known as the stuck-up sop who stays in his own ship and won't patronize local business. Even if local business does charge five times the normal rate.''
They got strapped in, and Joss put the engines into short-start mode and turned on the transmitter.
''Willans control," he said, "this is SP vessel CDZ 8064. You remember, the one with the ruined paint job." His voice was good-humored as he said it, but Evan, looking at Joss's face, saw a shadow of what Joss must have been
like that morning with the radar techs, and smiled slightly to himself.
"Uh, SP CDZ, that's a roger," said a rather sheepish sounding, middle-aged female voice. "What color was your paint?''
"New," Joss said, but this time he smiled a little.
"Sorry about that, SP CDZ. I have some nail polish here that might do the trick."
Joss laughed. "You're on, ma'am. See me after work if you like, in the Astoria." That was the bar of the night before.
Evan kept his smile to himself. Joss never missed a chance to butter up the ladies, whether he could see what they looked like or not. He was an equal opportunity flirt, and the fact had caused Evan considerable amusement on more than one occasion.
There was a chuckle at the other end of the connection. "You're on, CDZ. You going somewhere right now?"
"Out for a stroll. Noel, you have coordinates for this nice lady?"
Noel leaned in toward the- pickup. "Cecile, we're headed out past Osasco Point beacon, anti-orbital from the beacon six hundred klicks, and about minus-zee six hundred."
"Got it, Noel. You have a nice time now. Nobody out that way but old Vlad Marischal and his friends, transponder one point four four three from a.o. fourteen, sixteen klicks, plus-zee one fifty."
"Confirmed, Cecile," Joss said. "And listen, about this morning—"
"The limbs will probably grow back, we think. You were in the right. No hard feelings."
Joss chuckled. "Thanks much."
"You're welcome, Mister Sop O'Bannion Honey, and good hunting. Bay doors opening. Willans control out."
Joss closed down the connection for the moment and said to Noel, "Mister Sop O'Bannion Honey'?"
Noel looked innocent. "I guess word travels fast," he said. "Seems like a lot of people approve of your perfor-SO
mance last night. What I heard was that your friend here had to carry you out to keep you from really hurting someone."
Evan smiled again, harder this time.
The bay doors opened for them, and Joss stood the ship up on its underjets and eased it into the lock, then out after the rear doors had shut and the lock had been evacuated. As the outer doors opened in front of them, Noel sighed and said, "There goes another hundred credits."
Evan was astonished. "There can't have been more than twenty credits' worth of air in that lock.
Noel smiled sourly as Joss took them away from the lock. "Not when it has to be shipped out this far.
And Willans isn't a water-bearing asteroid: we can't crack out our own oxygen from it. We buy our oxygen as a co-op with a few other stations in this part of the Belts, but the suppliers on Jupiter say they're just passing on the cost of shipping out
processing equipment from Earth ..."
They headed out into the long night. Evan watched Joss lock in the course he wanted with a smile on his face.
He does love this ship,
he thought, as Noel showed Joss which frequency to set on the comms board for the claim marker, and then sat back to wait.
There was no way to describe space travel in this part of the universe as particularly exciting. Joss went off and made coffee, and made Noel have some, and the tea he brought Evan was actually drinkable.
Beyond drinking their tea and coffee, there was nothing to do but wait.
Whump! went the iondrivers, and Noel looked up in startlement. "What was that?"
"Engines," Joss said, sitting down in the right-hand seat again, with a look on his face like a cat that's been given cream to put on its canary. "ETA is about seven minutes."
Noel's eyes were wide. "What kind of engines have you
on this thing?"
Joss leaned back and went off into a spate of jargon that
threatened to make Evan's eyes cross. It was nothing he hadn't heard before. The day they picked the ship up, Joss had carried on like this with the SP engineer at Androni-cus, going on for almost half an hour about boost ratios and ion spill and "dirty" generation and heaven only knew what else. Evan had had to go off and get a drink. Here, he couldn't even do that.