The Rock Holds Far Too Many Secrets
Freeman is a former lawyer, judge, and cop who fell into bad times, bad enough that he had to escape from Earth to the Asteroid Belt. A friend back on Earth helped get him the job he has now, acting as a private detective and personal enforcer in one of the larger asteroids in the belt between Mars and Saturn, the Rock. The gravity there is half that of Earth's, but the crime hasn't changed at all.
Begun as a scientific station centuries ago, the Rock has grown into a community with its own society and culture, and its own secrets. Freeman's best means of getting the job done is to step on toes, but this time he may have stepped on the wrong ones.
Forces back on Earth have their eye on the Belt’s mining rights and the nearly unlimited wealth those rights would bring. Freeman finds that they have no issues with killing anyone who stands in their way.
A Dead Lurker
It was the smell that attracted my attention. Any stink can be trouble in a closed environment, but this odor said trouble had come and gone long ago. Now all that was left was the reporting and the paperwork.
This section, part of the hundreds of miles of tunnels carved out of one of the larger rocks in the belt was one of those where normal folks simply do not go unless it’s something they’ve been hired for. That’s why I was following the stench of rotting meat, the credit balance in my account said I had to.
I’m what used to be called a Private Detective back on old Earth. Before that, I was an attorney and a pro-temp judge. I used to carry a briefcase and sometimes wore a black robe, but I ran into a bit of trouble years back. I know what you’re thinking, it was a woman right? Well, this time the cliché sticks. It was a woman. She was in trouble, and I was the white knight on his charger, and I charged right into a psychotic spiderweb that eventually cost me my job, and my money. Thank God for friends.
I’m talking about Bobbie, He’s retired now, but back then he had a certain amount of pull with the authorities. He couldn’t get my old job back, but he convinced them that I would be a good candidate for training. He never mentioned that the training would get me sent to the asteroids. When I saw the amount of pay they were offering I forgave him… and then I got here.
Imagine the worst of the urban jungles back on Earth and then imagine what makes them jungles trapped in a closed environment where the only escape is into the airless emptiness of space. The personality traits that make humanity what it is become distilled into a concentrated psychosis that occasionally bubbles to the top. That’s where I come in.
After I got the text that informed me of my first case I almost copied Bobbie on it with the tagline, “Thanks asshole.”
It took a while, but after receiving the case of single malt from Earth, I began to feel better about him helping me get the job. I think I have one or two bottles left. Those are being saved for special occasions. In the meantime, they make a sort of gin out here, ethyl alcohol flavored with a type of lichen that grows in some of the tunnels. The lichen has the flavor of juniper berries. It helps with some of what the job leaves behind.
As I closed in on the source of the stink, I was thinking this time it might take more than a couple of shots minus vermouth after I filed the report.
The tunnels carved into the Rock aren’t what most people think… in either direction. They don’t look like the old mines back on Earth with timbers helping to support the weight of the mountain overhead, and they aren’t all lined with metal and plastic and lit with LEDs. Some are lined, and some are more hotel-like than not, but some are like the area where I was now, smooth rock, polished by the action of the cutters with the floor and sides of the tunnel crowded with cargo containers, shoved into a recess to be gotten to later and then forgotten about.
Overhead the piping that constituted the infrastructure of the system added to the issue of getting to where I needed to be. If you were the size the administration preferred to send out here, say about five foot six instead of my six-six, you would have no problem getting around the more remote areas of the Rock. I keep a bottle of aspirin handy for the occasional trauma-induced headache.
Right about the time I squeezed my way past a cluster of containers labeled RH Corp, the RH stood for Rock Hound, a company started by a couple of asteroid miners who hit it big when they discovered a rock composed almost entirely of rare earth, elements desperately needed by the people who make AI hardware, I had a choice of either slapping my rebreather over my face of losing what little remained of breakfast.
Believe me, they may say it tastes just like meat, but if you’ve had the real thing, you know they’re lying.
There’s a point in the decay of a body where it hits the reline on the disgusting scale. This one was a good way past that. I think it was the bubbles that got me. One burst just as I was pulling out my BT unit to record and I had to rip the rebreather off before I filled it.
Everyone working and living in the Rock carries O2 as a matter of course. Sure, all the experts insist that nothing short of another asteroid could break the seals, but still… When have the experts ever been proven infallible?
I hooked up the cylinder to my rebreather and sucked in a couple of deep doses of pure oxygen. That settled my insides and helped clear my head. Then I went back to the business of recording what I found. Fortunately, the job did not include collection and hauling off the remains. All I had to do was find them, dead or alive. This one… definitely dead.
Once the recording was done, I fished around in my pockets and pulled out a tracking beacon. All I had to do was toss it onto or just near the body and the rest was up to the folks in the sanitation detail. Unless something was off, Bubbles here would eventually help with the feeding of the trees in the Greendome.
I checked my BT and hit the send tab. The admin would have the recording before I made it back to my office. I still had to write the report, but the recording would stave off the wolves of bureaucracy for a while. The unit pinged as I was slipping it back into the case on my belt.
I tapped answer and said, “Yes?”
“Freeman, it’s Gault. Do you have time for one more job? I know the hour’s late, but we need this handled ASAP.”
Gault was okay in my book. He always asked, never demanded, and best of all, he paid on time.
I said, “Send me the particulars and I’ll see. I’m almost to the hubward transit so I’ll check them over at the Soy Shack.”
The Rock had four main transits, each splitting off into a dozen or more arms, slideways that worked as a form of public transit. There were also fast transit auto-guided pods that traveled in non-pressurized tubes for those needing to get from one end of the Rock to another, but for most of us, the local neighborhood had just about everything we needed, including work.
The transit I needed went by the ingenious name of T-16, which was reached by taking one of the closest arms and transferring a couple of times before stepping onto the final slide. It took me to the landing just below the Soy Shack.
The place was one of the dozens of small shops and eateries set into a cavernous hollow called by the residents of the Rock, the Grub Hub. Unless you had credits to burn, everything dished up and served there came from the same yeast and soy incubators built into a section of the Rock a few hundred levels down and the same hydroponic farms in the domes spotting the sunward side of the surface. I'll admit that earth-grown meat and produce are good, but I am not a guy who enjoys putting down several months’ rent on a steak. With the locally-grown stuff, what made the difference was the talent of the chemist slash cook, and the fellow running the Soy Shack was one of the best.
I never asked what went into the various dishes they cooked up. It seemed easier to just enjoy the meal instead of wondering what it was made of.
Sally was the name the owner went by. I never asked him why he used it. Sally was even bigger than me, both ways, and I don’t know of anyone, even a hammered lurker high one whatever they were sniffing or shooting that day stupid enough to try to rip Sally off.
He was scratching the expanse of his gut as I approached the window. I got a wide grin surrounded by stubble and a gap in the side of the blocky teeth as a welcome.
“Hey, Freeman,” He chuckled in his stone crusher voice, “How’re they hanging man?”
I answered with the usual, “At half a gravity, Sal, not as low as they used to.”
That got me a huge laugh. Sally’s an easy crowd. He’s heard that stinker about three or four dozen times now.
He then asked, “So whatcha want, Freeman?”
I said, “One large with chips and juice, Sal. Thanks.”
I set my BT against the reader, and it beeped, letting me know the payment had been processed.
Sally replied, “Comin’ right up.”
I looked around and commented, “Traffic’s a bit light. Anything going on I should know about?”
He talked as he worked, “Nothing much. Word came down a few hours ago about some kinda new drug going ‘round. Admin’s all in an uproar and the rights groups’re raising all kinds of fuss about the prohibitions hitting the folks who need it the hardest. The news has been covering it solid for a while. You’d know if you ever watched the screen.”
He had me there. I prefer listening to recorded music and reading books to some overly made-up news jockey preaching their version of what actually happened. Nine times out of ten, if I get involved, I find out the story on the screen isn’t what happened. Of course, nine times out of ten, my report never makes the news because the folks that dispense that sort of thing think the public would get upset if it did.
Sally pushed the container with my food and drink out of the slot and I took it over to the table closest to where I was standing and sat down. A few other folks were also eating, and a couple were staring moony-eyed at each other. About half the tables were empty, which made what came next both odd and interesting.
“You’re in my seat, grounder.”
I didn’t know the voice, but I knew the tone and the insult. Grounder is a nasty slang putdown for those of us born planetside, whether it be Mars, Titan, or Earth. Even Moonies don’t get cut any slack, and they were born into half the gravity the Rock has.
I turned my head slowly, partially to be as insulting as possible, and partly to distract from what my free hand was doing out of sight from the speaker’s viewpoint.
The one issuing the challenge was a Belter, about five feet tall and slender. On Earth, he’d likely not even be able to stand for any length of time without needing to rest. Gravity is an unforgiving landlord. His skin had that corpse-pale tone of those who spend too much time away from the Vit-D lights. A deficiency in that rad-induced vitamin is not something you really want to court, but this type considered a healthy skin tone to be a sort of betrayal against the belters, those born among the asteroids.
I asked him, “Where’s your sign?”
He blinked, “What?”
The others backing him, about eight in total, were wearing the Belter youth uniform. All of them dressed in the fashion of Belter youth, heavy eye makeup, half-shaven scalps, sidelocks on some in the way of ancient Egyptians, others were wearing old-fashioned Stetson-style hats and kilts. A couple of the girls wore glitter-covered pasties, one of them was heavy enough topside to demonstrate the benefits of lower gravity. All of them looked like they were several IQ points short of a full deck.
I pointed at the table with the hand holding my drink, “Your sign. You said this was your table, where is the sign indicating ownership?”
I called out, “Hey Sally, did you lease this table to somebody, and I never heard about it?”
Sally called back, “Naw,” just as the kid was reaching for a weapon.
His knife was working loose from its sheath when his eyes focused on the pulse gun in my right hand.
Projectile weapons and the more powerful beamers are not allowed inside or even around the Rock. The danger of puncture is something that is not tolerated, and if there is one crime that can get you expelled minus a vacuum suit, it’s doing anything that might cause the interior to lose atmosphere. The pulse gun only poses a danger to soft things filled with fluid, say… like a human body. Depending on the setting, you can cause severe bruising and possibly unconsciousness, or you can make the victim rupture like a punctured balloon.
I snarled. “How’s your health insurance, lurker?”
To a Belter, lurker is every bit as much an insult as grounder is to a verified citizen.
His eyes crossed as he gulped and remained focused on the emitter at the end of the gun.
I put down my drink and took out my ID.
Holding up so he could see it, I said, “See this? It means I can end you and the only thing I get is more scrudding paperwork, no matter who your daddy is. So why don’t you and your little friends do something less dangerous than hassle with me, like playing in the rapid transit tubes?"
He backed away; his eyes still locked on the emitter.
I waggled it a couple of times as a signal to hurry.
After the gang left, Sally remarked, “Kids, eh? What’re you gonna do, huh?”