* * *
Thad had never been up to the higher levels of Phoenix Dome before. He’d kept a low profile since leaving Mars. The dome was a place he thought he could lay low for a while and sort himself out. Europa still haunted his dreams. If it weren’t for the three guns at his back, he wouldn’t be here now.
“That’s all for now, Yamini,” said a man behind a massive black marble desk.
The wall behind the man was an immense window that curved in the shape of the inner dome wall. An angry red sun was setting beyond the desert mountains in the distance.
Yamini, an Asian woman in her mid twenties, looked into Thad’s pale blue eyes as she walked to the door. He wasn’t sure what he saw there. Fear? Pleading? Thad heard the door close as she exited.
“Rodney Stachle.” The man stood and extended his hand across the desk.
So this was the man whose burlies either inspired fear or fawning on the lower levels. He was an imposing man. Stachle stood over six feet tall with thick black hair and pock marked skin. Thad didn’t know anything about suits, but he recognized the quality and fine cut of the midnight blue slacks and black shirt Stachle wore.
Thad hadn’t been expecting any trouble when Stachle’s men accosted him. He’d been on his way for his customary after work Vodka Blaster when they came out of a narrow side passage, guns out and ready.
Stachle lowered his arm when it was clear that Thad wasn’t going to shake.
“Yes, well… right to the point. I have a job I need done. Discreetly. You have the skills to complete the job. Afterwards, you’ll have enough money to move up in the dome. Depending on how well you accomplish the task, I will even consider bringing you on fulltime for… security.”
“I’m a maintenance worker on level three. Not interested in working in… security.”
Stachle pursed his lips and walked around the desk. He stopped, hands clasped behind his back, less than a foot in front of Thad. Stachle towered over Thad’s five-six frame, but where the business man’s skin was almost white, and he carried a paunch, Thad’s skin, where his sleeveless maintenance coveralls showed it, was a shade darker than a dry stalk of wheat and taught against his cabled muscles.
“A maintenance worker. Yes.” Stachle seemed to be studying his strong, cleft chin, sandy blond buzz-cut, and small, sharp nose. “I was told you might be hard to convince. You know,” he said, walking toward the window, “The ISS is looking for you. Has been for a while. I can protect your identity from them.” Stachle turned back to Thad, a black silhouette against the last of the sun’s rays. “It would be a shame for your whereabouts to be reported to them.”
“I don’t work for people like you,” said Thad, aware of the burlies shifting behind him. He had a rough idea what kind of job it was. He didn’t do that kind of work anymore.
Stachle crossed the distance between them in three fast steps. With his finger pressing into Thad’s chest, slowly, quietly, he said, “I am not a man accustomed to being turned down. You think about it,” he hissed, pressing his finger into Thad’s unyielding chest. “Think hard.” Stachle stepped back. “Out,” he said, with a toss of his head, to one of the three men behind Thad.
At the desk in the anteroom, Thad noticed Yamini studiously ignore him as Stachle’s men roughly showed him the door.
* * *
Level three had once been a commercial business section of the 75 floor dome. Over a decade it had slowly been converted to low income housing. The conversion was done in different sized blocks as businesses vacated their space and moved to lower crime areas. The result was a maze of different width corridors and service tunnels that branched at odd angles or ended suddenly against a wall. Thad knew every twist and turn, a result of two years working maintenance.
Thad, using a false name, and two other workers were responsible for the entire level. The three workers shared the job of what should be ten, and hardware funding was less than a quarter of what it needed to be. The result was that in most corridors one out of five lightstrips worked, creating pools of light in mostly dark hallways.
Too warm in here. Have to fix the environmentals again. Well, someone will.
Thad sighed. Stachle will probably give me a few days to think about it, but I’ll be gone by then.
He still wanted his after work Blaster but decided to stop by his apartment first. His unit, a standard three-by-three meter cube, was in one of the poorest sections of level three and all that his pay could afford. After stripping off his coveralls, he folded them and placed them on the bunk of his sleep-coffin.
Unhooking the nylon cord that held the ceiling of the coffin in place with one hand, he reached in the gap with his other and pulled out an EPP10 and holster. The Electronic Projectile Pistol was silenced and could fire a three shot burst in a five-hundredth of a second. Ten millimeter ‘show-stoppers’ filled the fifteen round clip.
Thad set the weapon on the warped kitchenette countertop and retrieved a set of black fatigue-style pants from the drawers below the bunk. Once he donned the pants, Thad pulled a heavy vest from the cabinet above the coffin. The black vest had Zanlar plates sewed in, making it excellent protection from most projectile weapons. He pulled his shoulder holster on, then the vest, then a set of jump boots with ankle sheaths already occupied by short xoplast fighting knives. The knives wouldn’t show up on any detectors and could be thrown or used for close combat.
On the way to the bar, he noticed a figure following him. Only a few people were out. Most of the third-levelers avoided eye contact and gave Thad plenty of space in the dim passageways. Turning a corner, Thad glanced and saw his tail watch him from his last turn.
Clumsy. Not a pro. Probably alone.
He turned into the foyer of the bar and pressed against the wall. After a couple of minutes, a slight figure in an expensive long coat turned into the nook.
Thad put his right hand on the person’s right shoulder and pushed, spinning them towards him. As his forearm connected with their collarbone, he pushed back, pinning the body against the other wall. At the same time he brought his EPP10 up. The barrel pressed against a soft midsection.
“Stachle send you to convince me?” he asked, once he recognized Yamini.
“No! No!” She stammered, eyes wide.
Before lowering his arm, he brushed the back of his gun hand against places she might hide a weapon.
“What do you want?” He asked.
“I, I, talk. Just talk.” Her body shook. He lowered his arm and looked out around the corner to see if anyone else was there.
“In.” He gave her a gentle shove toward the door of the bar as he holstered his gun.
Bart’s Base, like every place on the third level, was rundown, dim and in serious need of disinfectant. Prostitutes, dealers, thieves, and the lowest of blue-collar workers joked and yelled in the smoky bar. Only two lights lit the place: one small red lightstrip over the bar so Bart could almost see what he was doing and one towards the front door over an empty booth. The place smelled of stale beer and cheap cigarettes. None of the tables matched, and most of the chairs had suffered some abuse as a result of being used as impromptu weapons: broken backs, tottering legs, and one with a missing seat. Even the men from the fourth level and higher who came down to score some excitement avoided Bart’s. Though Thad never instigated a fight here, he had done Bart the favor of ejecting a few troublemakers in the past. For that, he was seldom bothered.
Yamini’s long expensive coat, business skirt and white silk blouse attracted open stares as he led her through the tables. Thad figured only luck had gotten her this far without being mugged. Or raped. The table he led her to was in the back next to a door. A broken mirror hung on the wall and Thad sat with his back to it, facing the door, as Bart set down a Vodka Blaster on the stained table top.
“Drink for the skirt?”
“No,” Thad said, as Yamini looked up, appearing to be about to ask for something. Bart went back to the bar.
Yamini, looking down at her writhing hands, opened and closed her mouth.
“Why are you here?” prompted Thad.
“Stachle’s very angry at you. He has contacts in the ISS and he will not hesitate to turn you in or send men after you.”
“Why are you here?” he repeated.
“I,” she looked up, “I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m here. I followed you. I thought you could help me.” Her words came out in rapid bursts. “I need to get away. You need to get away. I thought you could take me. Someplace.”
“You don’t even know me!”
“Yes I do,” she pleaded. “I did your background trace for Stachle. He was told you might be here.”
“Who told him? Do you know who his ISS contact is?” Thad noticed she was looking in the mirror behind him. He looked up and saw the dark form of a large man at the door.
“Take this,” she hissed as she got up and ran out the back door. Thad saw a small black chip on the table. As his fingers closed over it, the man from the door spoke into a hand-held and headed back out the way he came.
Great. Just great, he thought. He looked at his drink; surveyed the bar. No one was looking at him. I could have got my case from Di and left tomorrow before Stachle came after me or called the ISS. She must really be in trouble to ask a stranger to bail her out, but people who put their trust in me die. Great. It ain’t gonna be pretty if they find her. But, if I help her, then they will be after me too!
Thad stood, dropped coins on the table and rushed out the back.
* * *
She could be anywhere by now, Thad thought as he hunted through the maze of passageways. After searching for more than an hour, he turned a corner only to find himself face to face with two of the three burlies that had ruined his day in the first place. Thad didn’t wait.
He chopped the tall curly haired man in the throat with a sharp right. Turning his hips to give him more force, he buried his left first into the shorter man’s stomach. Curly was on one knee, holding his throat and reaching for his gun. Thad’s boot smashed into his jaw, throwing the man back to the floor, where his head cracked audibly. His booted foot landed just as he saw Shorty pulling a gun. With his left hand, Thad grabbed the top of the gun and pulled up and back. With his right, Thad slammed his fist into Shorty’s temple. While the man fell, Thad hit him twice more with rapid, powerful blows to his jaw and ear. Shorty was out.
After gathering the guns, he continued down the passageway, intending to drop them off in one of the maintenance trash bins. He turned down a dark passage that ended at a service door. Yamini’s body lay in her blood on the floor.
Thad walked over and crouched down to her. She still had her expensive coat on, so she wasn’t mugged. Blood leaked from a single hole in her chest, covering her white blouse. Her face had started to bruise, but it would never finish that process.
They beat her. They wouldn’t have shot her unless she told them what they wanted to know. Damn. I should have followed her right out. This is my fault too. Just like Europa.
He felt beaten. Defeated.
So young, he thought as he gently brushed stray hairs from her face. Thad hung his head, wondering where he should go.
So, now they know I have the chip and they’re gonna be after me. Can’t go to my apartment. Could just go down and get my case from Di. But where next?
Pulling his palm unit out of the thigh pouch of his fatigues, Thad stepped over the body towards the door. His card-key wouldn’t open the door for him since he wasn’t scheduled to work, but there was another way. Angling the infrared com-port of his palm unit toward the reader on the door, he started his black market lock-pick program and looked at the displays. These doors were easy. No one cared enough about it down here to install proper security software.
“Kim has a concussion, Marty’s dead and Stachle wants this guy alive. We should just shoot him,” said a voice in the hallway.
“The guy got lucky. We can take him.”
The readout on Thad’s unit indicated 73% complete. Hurry up, he thought, clenching his teeth. Thad reached into his bulky vest, wrapping his hand around the butt of his EPP-10. As he eased it out of the vest holster, the door buzzed loudly. He yanked the door open and stepped through. Before he slammed it closed he heard heels clicking quickly toward him.
Thad knew they would have lock-pick ware too, so he ran down the tunnel. Water pipes, cables and breaker boxes lit only by thin yellow ceiling strips flew by. He skipped the first turn and made the second. The service door buzzed again. Here they come. He headed for a ladder just a few steps from the corner and slightly behind a disused sewage control panel. Tucking his feet around the ladder’s side bars, Thad quickly dropped to the next level down. After a few turns he dropped to another level.
The soles of his boots were soft rubber and barely made any noise as he navigated to a door into the Park. He stopped before opening the door to catch his breath. Probably lost ‘em. They wouldn’t follow me in here anyway.
The Park, he thought, hell of a name. This was lowest level of the dome. The first section abandoned by those who could afford better. Refugees and homeless had built a shanty town in the wide plaza down here. This was where the dregs lived, infested with rats, coraku-heads and worse. The cops didn’t even come down here anymore. Lighting was sparse, as the power company had cut the circuits long ago. A few of the inhabitants had tapped power illegally, providing some light, but mostly the Park was lit by trashcan fires and candles. The only reason environmentals hadn’t been cut was that air from the dome came in from the top and blew downward. Somewhere on this level were exhaust tunnels, and Thad needed to find them.
Something was on the other side of the service door, and he had to push hard to get it open. The door hinges groaned. Cautiously he peered into the darkness, checking the angles, before stepping out. The smell of urine and burnt refuse struck him as he noticed a body on the trash strewn floor. Must have been what was blocking the door. Thad didn’t check to see if the old man was alive or not. Instead he headed into the shadows.
The place was dim, like a night on the outside with a quarter moon. Heaps of burning trash created enough light so he could see shacks built of old ceroplast and metal panels. Doors were blankets. Most of the hovels looked as if a good push would flatten them. The people he passed were dressed in rags and didn’t make eye contact. Most moved as far from him as they could get.
As he quietly threaded his way towards the center of the Park, he became aware of being followed. Glances showed him three figures. Thad kept moving, hoping a confrontation wouldn’t be necessary. The place had changed in the two years since he’d been here. There were no permanent paths. Shacks moved as residents died or could no longer keep people from stealing the shabby building materials.
Before the Park had been forsaken by the dome council, grass and trees had grown around small hillocks and creeks. When the power was cut to the lights, the dead trees were pulled down for burning. At the heart of the place was a large gazebo - his destination - whose pointed white roof could be seen from anywhere in the Park. Thad knew that the closer to the structure a person lived, the more status that person had. In the rest of the dome, the closer you were to the outside skin, the more money you had.
Two of the three would-be thieves rushed ahead around rows of shanties. They each came out of hiding at the same time, one to the front right and the other to Thad’s left. He knew the third was closing the gap behind him.
“Got sompin’ fo’ me Upei?” Upei, the name given to anyone not from the Park, was spoken by an Asian man in his mid twenties. His main distinguishing feature was a mangled mass of scars where his left ear once was. A knife stood erect in his right hand and a half meter long pipe in the other.
“Bus’ yo up. Give over,” yelled a younger white kid with greasy yellow hair armed with a crude cudgel.
“I’ll give you each a five token to get lost,” Thad replied glancing behind him. All three were closing.
Thad stood with his hands at his sides, his feet slightly apart and knees bent slightly. He looked relaxed, but his teeth clenched. They weren’t going to be bought, but he’d had to try.
The first to swing turned out to be the little one behind him. Spinning his arm around, Thad grabbed the pipe from the attacker’s hand. A Latino girl of no more 16 tripped to the floor as her weapon was yanked from her grip. Dodging left to avoid the leader’s knife, he brought the girl’s pipe around to slam One-Ear on the side of the head. Greasy’s cudgel was coming in a downward arc and the girl was grabbing for his leg. Thad stepped inside of the blond man’s reach, kicking the girl’s stomach with his other boot. His fist connected with Greasy’s stomach, lifting him into the air. All three attackers were down or crawling away. Letting the pipe clatter to the ground, Thad continued to the gazebo. Without thinking about it, Thad dropped some coins on the ground before continuing.
As soon as he stepped past the last row of shanties into the center of the plaza, a small crowd of people materialized around him out of the shadows. Some sported shiny ornamental bits on their clothing or wore necklaces made of cast-off bits from the levels above. Most looked slightly better dressed than the people on the fringes. Many carried various guns; others the standard Park weapon: a pipe.
Flickering flames from trash drums located around the dilapidated gazebo lit the area. The rails and stairs had been torn away from the structure, leaving a platform a meter off the ground and three meters across with posts supporting its roof. Sitting in one of the chairs up on the gazebo’s floor was a one-armed woman with a buzz cut. Two puckered scars on her upper bare chest could be seen in the dim light. The crossing bandoleers over her shoulders covered her small breasts, and a military-style assault weapon sat in her lap.
“Bring him here,” she commanded.
Thad let himself be shoved and poked toward her. She stood and let the assault rifle hang from her remaining hand. It swung slightly as she walked to the edge of the platform and looked down at him. Light from the drum fires flickered across her thin, strong jawed face.
“Thaddeus Edison Clinton,” she paused. “Who invited you down here?”
“Need your help, Di.”
“You need my help?” Her laugh was harsh. Di slung her weapon over her shoulder and jumped to the ground, landing like a cat in front of him. Standing a head taller than him, and powerfully built, she looked down her long sharp nose at him. “Since when do you need anyone’s help?” Di asked as she draped her arm over his shoulder, pulling him into a rough hug.
Di pulled back and made a fist in front of him. “Europa,” she said as his fist and hers bumped knuckles.
“Europa,” he repeated, looking down. Neither spoke for a moment.
“A lifetime ago.”
“No. It was yesterday,” he said, looking into the gloom of the Park. “And everyday before that.” Neither spoke.
“Stachle is looking for you. About ten of his burlies came in here armed with APW-15s. Asked if I had seen you.” Thad didn’t have to ask. Di wouldn’t have told them anything even if she had seen him. “Funny. You walk in here alone and those guys have to bring an army. Assholes.” Despite himself Thad laughed at the disgusted look she wore.
“Wide perimeter,” she said to the man nearest her. Di leapt onto the gazebo’s floor, again with cat-like grace. Her warriors spread out as Thad hopped up and took the chair next to hers.
“I need my case and a way out of the dome. Don’t want to be seen at the main portals.”
“Easy. I’ll have Tommy guide you,” she said, standing.
Thad watched as she moved her chair and pulled up two short planks from the gazebo floor. She reached down into the black gap and pulled out a black case covered in spider webs.
Despite its worn casual look, his case was shielded against security scans, projecting a view of underwear, shaving kit and suit for the x-ray cameras. The case had been given to him to covertly transport weapons for a job he had never finished. Currently it contained a pair of phony passport chips, 200 extra rounds for his EPP-10, a tranquilizer gun, and an extra change of clothing.
Di replaced the planks and chair and sat down facing Thad. She looked in his eye and cocked her head. “Take a roll?”
“Thought you liked women.”
“Only ‘cause there aren’t any real men around here. ‘Cept you.”
He scratched his whiskered chin as he studied his knees.
“Thad,” she said, putting her hand on his knee, “Europa was a long time ago. Let it go.”
“What about you? Why stay down here?”
“I’m queen here.”
“No. Still have the pension and benefits. Haven’t spent any of it since coming here. Suppose I could retire someplace, but these people need someone. Some sense of order or something.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
Thad heard the crackle of fire and the wail of someone’s pain - or pleasure.
“Sure you don’t want a roll?” Her half smile was infectious, but he stood.
“Thanks,” was all he said.
After a brief introduction, Tommy guided Thad though a massive air exhaust shaft that ended in a gully a mile from the dome. Thad gave him the two guns he picked up from the burlies as payment. Once on the streets of Old Phoenix, he hailed a cab to take him to Phoenix Spaceport. Getting on the first flight to EOS6 had cost more than he used to make in a month. It had also involved nervous waiting in Intra-Solar Security check point lines, but his phony passport chips worked fine.
* * *
Thad was nursing a Vodka Blaster in his dim room at the Marriott on Earth Orbit Station 6. After a very long travel day, he’d slept until two hours ago. He looked at his watch again: three hours for the next space liner to Jupiter Orbiter. Stachle might send his burlies here to EOS6, but not to Jupiter, he hoped. Still, there were plenty of other people looking for him, so he had to be careful.
Thad pulled the small black chip from his pocket. What’s on this chip this Stachle would kill Yamini for? Why the hell did she give it to me? He turned the small black chip over in his hand. I hate mysteries. It was a different format than his palm used. Maybe my having this chip will keep Stachle from calling the ISS, but maybe it won’t. Yamini said that Stachle had contacts in the ISS, but who in the ISS would deal with scum like him? Unless… Sounds in the hall distracted him. Thad tiled his head and listened.
He snatched up his tranquilizer gun as he rolled off the bed. By the time he was prone on the floor behind the bed, the sight of his tranqu gun was leveled on the door. The lock buzzed. The latch clicked. A thin ray of light lit a wedge of the floor. Thad waited. Light 20 year old Muszak-ized pop wafted into the room. The carpet smelled of dust this close. Dust in a space station? Just as he was about to berate his inane thought a silhouette of a head peaked into the room.
Before the dart from his gun hit the man’s face, Thad was rolling to the other side of the room behind the low bureau. The door smashed open and a figure flashed into the bathroom. Another darted his head into the room for a quick look. Shit. Three of them. One down. Two to go. Unless there’s more outside.
“Just tranqus,” came from a low voice in the hall.
Fftt Fftt Fftt Fftt Fftt
The mattress jumped from silenced weapons fire. Thad swiftly rose and fired twice. His aim had been almost perfect. The man from the bathroom dropped, clutching his neck. The other man still stood, unsteadily raising his weapon. Thad jerked left and fired again just as bullets ripped into the wall. The man was still standing, though his gun thumped to the floor. Finally he slid down the door to the floor.
Thad crouched in the middle of the room with his arms straight, holding the gun in front of him. Bits of mattress stuff floated slowly down. As silently as he could, he made his way to the door. Once satisfied that no one was outside, he quickly dragged the bodies into the room and gathered his few possessions.
He hung the Do Not Disturb card on his door. With the vague idea of getting a drink, Thad headed for the terminal. No one would look in the room before he was on his next flight.
They’ll be out for twelve hours. Not good enough to be from the ISS.
The Intra-Solar Security had been looking for him since he quit. Not that he’d given them any notice or choice in the matter. After that last job on Mars Base, Thad had just disappeared. He had believed he could do the assignment, but he couldn’t. He’d been hiding for over two years when Stachle approached him.
I have to find out what is on this chip. Then I’ll know how far they’ll follow me, he thought sipping a Vodka Blaster in the port’s bar. He had cleared security using his second falsified passport chip in hopes of throwing off any pursuit. Jupiter Orbiter may not be the best place to go, but it was home. Long ago.
* * *
Even with the new hybrid-ion-fusion drives, the trip from EOS6 to Jupiter Orbiter took forty days. Thad spent the first week considering his dilemma.
Assume Yamini was right. Assume Stachle does have some contact in the ISS. If he does, then that person or people won’t want to be publicly linked to a suspected mob boss. But, if the contents of the chip are incriminating enough for Stachle to kill Yamini over and send burlies to Earth Orbiter to try and kill me, then he’ll pull all the stops. He’ll call his ISS friends and insist they do something. He’d use threats, blackmail, whatever he can.
His contacts can’t call the entire ISS out. Officially I am just one AWOL trooper. Yeah, I’d be arrested, but that would be too public. They wouldn’t want to take a chance of me handing the chip to the wrong person. That means two things: they won’t tip off my whereabouts to the ISS at-large, and they will have a limited set of people. They will try to take me alive in order to secure the chip. Though, if they catch me, they will kill me after they have the chip.
With my phony passport, they won’t know where I’m going, but they will have a list of ships that left the day I did.
First, they would have quietly searched Earth Orbiter. Then they would have checked ships to Moonbase – they leave everyday. When they didn’t find me there, they would check ships docking at Mars Orbiter – ships travel to and from Mars a couple of times a week. When they didn’t find me there, they would assume Jupiter.
So, they will probably think I am on this ship and wait for me. But they should only be able to cover a few exits.
Once Thad came to the conclusion that it was likely someone would be waiting for him, he began to wonder how he could get off the ship without going through the passenger tubes. Getting access to the ships computer through his palm unit was tricky. Hours of frustration paid off. His palm unit now had maps and schematics of every part of the ship. After studying his options, he developed a plan. He spent the remainder of the trip practicing his martial skills. As the ship lined up with Jupiter Orbiter for docking, he ran through the plan one more time.
Jupiter’s spots and swirling salmon and cream colored clouds filled the view-port completely. Despite his grim circumstances, Thad couldn’t help feeling awed by the grandeur of the view. Seeing the vista reminded him of why he had joined the ISS at eighteen: to see the wonders of space and to be of service. He’d believed in that once. Before Europa. As he watched the mesmerizing show, low deep sounding clanks gave credence to the announcement that docking procedures had begun.
First magnetic stabilizing pads would attach to the ship. Next, six flexible boarding tubes, three for passengers and three larger ones for servicing, would snake out and clamp onto the air locks. Then the tubes would be pressurized. All passengers were required to remain in their staterooms until the all clear was sounded.
Thad’s tranqu gun rested in its shoulder holster under the baggy blue maintenance coveralls he’d managed to filch from the service level. He slid his black case into a large tool bag, also pilfered, and zipped it closed. Both the coveralls and tool bag had a logo patch prominently displayed; the partial ellipse and circle with the words Saturn Tours Incorporated under it. He looked at his watch again. The time was two-fifty in the morning, Jupiter Orbiter time. The docking procedure took ten minutes.
The boarding tubes should be hooking up now. Time to go.
He’d paid for a cheap cabin, so he was on the bottom passenger level, P1, near the aft-most service portal. The hallway was empty as he made his way to the hatch. His palm unit opened it easily. Inside the maintenance passageway, the carpet and wood paneling of the passenger section was replaced by exposed ceroplast .
Just to the right of the hatchway was a ladder to the lower levels. Thad would have to go down three levels and navigate his way to his destination amid ship without being seen. This was the risky part of his plan. Once things started happening, there would probably be too much confusion for anyone to notice an extra maintenance person.
Down at the lowest level of the ship, M3, a maze of color coded conduits and pipes hung on the walls and ceiling making for a narrow passageway. There would be no place to hide should someone come out of a connecting corridor. So far, he had seen no one on his way to the Waste Management Control Processing Center.
Stenciled in black, the letters WMCPC on the open hatch told Thad he was in the right place. A bulky man with thinning brown hair sat in one of the three chairs at the console with his back to the door. The entire wall above the control consoles was a screen showing the layout of the ship. Highlighted in yellow were the ship’s waste systems. Two harsh white lightstrips on the ceiling cast deep shadows in the corners behind cabinets and other consoles. Thad walked in, reaching into his coveralls to pull out his tranqu gun. Brows furrowed, the man at the console turned and seemed about to protest Thad’s entrance, but instead looked down at the dart protruding from his wrinkled coveralls.
Thad set the tool bag down and dragged the unconscious man behind a cabinet in the corner. Looking at the displays, he saw that the boarding tubes were clamped and had begun to pressurize. He connected his palm unit into the console and started the software he had cobbled together. He wasn’t a hacker, but the tools he had could be linked together to accomplish a variety of tasks. Once the program indicated it was ready, he checked the progress of the boarding tubes and found that the pressurization was complete. Thad hit the go command on his palm unit.
Simultaneously the cabin lights shifted from white to red, and the ship-wide address system began to blare out a warbling warning. Red flashing numbers on the wall screen indicated extreme high temperatures in the aft and bow collection and compaction compartments. The affected compartments were under the ship’s fusion reactor in the aft, and the environmental control room in the bow. Immediately the computer listed the anomaly as having a 99% chance of being a fire. Since both affected cabins were under sensitive ship’s systems, the computer would assign critical emergency status and begin spewing foam into the affected areas. Standard procedure for a ship with a critical emergency in port required a ship wide evacuation of all passengers.
“THIS IS CAPTAIN PAUL PROTEUS. PLEASE FOLLOW THE BLINKING LIGHTSTRIPS IN THE PASSAGEWAYS TO THE NEAREST EXIT. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO GATHER YOUR BELONGINGS, THEY WILL BE COLLECTED LATER. YOUR SAFETY IS THE FIRST PRIORITY OF SATURN TOURS INCORPORATED.”
The Captain’s voice came from the console as Thad stood, about to move onto the next part of his plan. “Waste Management Report! Finnerty! Report! What’s going on? We’re seeing conflicting sensor readings. Finnerty!”
He ran back through the passageways the way he had come, but now there were a few other maintenance personnel running the same direction: toward the aft compaction cabin where the fire was supposed to be. Thad turned and went up a ladder to deck M1, the topmost maintenance level where the service tubes connected to the ship. He headed for the aft tube amidst a confusion of people running to their posts.
“Hey, who are you? Where’s your post, mister?”
Thad glanced back and saw a stern faced black man coming towards him from amid-ships. He looked as if he’d been a drill instructor before retiring to the private sector.
“Mister! What’s your post?”
Thad ran. He couldn’t drop the man with so many people around and the tube wasn’t far. He heard the old drill instructor take up the chase.
“Omar! Stop that man!” The drill instructor bellowed.
Thad saw a tall slender man of Indian descent turn toward him. Omar crouched and spread his arms as if to lift a barrel. Thad set his face into a grim mask of determination, the heavy tool bag swinging in increasing arcs, and ran straight for Omar. At the last minute, eyes wide, the tall man backed up and raised his hands, palms forward.
Thad turned and sprinted into the tube, only slowing when he entered the space port servicing level. Maintenance people in greasy coveralls scurried aside for a fire trolley heading for the ship. Other people ran toward or away from the critical emergency. Thad blended in perfectly with his tool bag and hurried jog.
He looked to make sure he wasn’t being followed then slipped around a corner into a public restroom. In the stall he hurriedly removed the Saturn Tours coveralls, opened the tool bag, took his black case out and stuffed the coveralls in. The case latches popped as he opened it. Thad dropped the tranqu gun in the case and holstered the EEP-10 after verifying the clip was full. Dressed in his black fatigue pants, t-shirt, vest and jump boots, he dropped the tool bag into the waste incinerator on the way out.
Thad knew all the passageways of the servicing level. As a boy, Thad’s father owned a small cargo hauler that loaded and unloaded at this port. Thad helped whenever he wasn’t in school. In Thad’s early teens, his father went missing. Port authorities blamed pirates. Thad continued to haunt the service level, but down at the end where the military ships docked. He watched the ISS troopers going about their business and dreamed of being one of them. Years later, he was stationed here under Colonel Masterson.
* * *
The trolley doors hissed as they opened for Thad. No one else was on the automated car that ran the circumference of Jupiter Orbiter’s giant cylinder. He stepped onto the platform, a lobby like area with advertisement screens on the walls of both sides. The lobby opened onto the arcade of the private ship’s dock. Looking both ways he saw no one. He turned left and began down the passageway.
The corridor, big enough to drive small flatbed cargo trolleys through, curved gently left. Large support beams, spaced every ten meters, ran up the walls and across the ceilings, giving the impression of walking through a rib cage. It was late night by local time. Weakly lit ceiling lightstrips cast eerie shadows behind the supports.
Huge gray blast doors, with address numbers above them, were set between every other set of ribs on the right. Where ships were docked, these doors were open, revealing a cube shaped room, three meters to a side. An airlock, ringed by green lightstrips, was set in the back wall of these nooks. The light strips would change to red and the blast door would close if vacuum or decreasing pressure was detected on the other side of the door. The first address he passed was 100.
I hope he’s there. Should be at 127.
Along the opposite wall, amid the ribs, were closed bars, cafés and other shop fronts. Occasionally, shuttered vendor carts were parked along the arcade. Thad looked both ways before stepping behind a cart with red and yellow signs. The tourist cart purported to have the best prices on rocks and ice from Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto as well as vials of gases from Jupiter’s atmosphere.
As he came to airlock 127, Thad heard a low pitched hum coming from down the hall. He stepped into the alcove and pressed the com-key next to the two meter wide door. The hum was becoming louder. Coming closer. When no answer came over the come, he pressed the button again.
“Who the hell is buzzing me at two in the morning?” The gruff Texan accent came from the speaker above the panel.
“It’s Thad. I need your help.”
Thad popped his head out from the airlock’s alcove. An old man riding a sweeper back and forth was working his way along the arcade. He looked the other way saw a staggering man being led to a ship berth by a slim woman.
Eventually, the door lifted upward, revealing untied grey work boots, then denim jeans, then an old-fashioned, unbuttoned, cowboy shirt. Finally, a gaunt face and dark eyes studied Thad. A scattering of scars on his left jaw made the man look menacing. For a moment he looked at Thad as if he had never seen him before.
“Thought you were on Earth,” Ross Jenkins drawled. More softly he said, “Europa,” putting his fist out.
“Europa,” Thad replied bumping Ross’ knuckles with his own. “Kind’a hot out here,” he said glancing both ways down the corridor. “Can I come in?”
“Oh, sure,” Jenkins stepped to the side and Thad entered. Jenkins pressed a series of buttons on the control panel to close the airlock then led the way through the inner hatch. Thad felt a pang of guilt as he noticed Jenkins’ limp.
They walked in a white cylindrical passageway that ran the length of the ship. Thad saw cables and color coded pipes through the steel grate floor. All the ship’s compartments were accessed through this corridor. They passed open airlocks for empty cargo pods and then open hatches to what Thad guessed were living quarters, environmentals, and communications and computers compartments. At the end of the corridor they climbed a ladder to the bridge.
Thad came up into the bridge from a hatch in the center of the compartment floor. The bridge was more spacious than necessary for a ship this small. A small bar and table sat between the two rear observation ports, and a couch long enough for Jenkins’ six-three frame to lie comfortably on was placed against one wall. Out the rear ports he saw what looked like engines, but not like any engines he’d seen before.
“Ships a beaut’, isn’t she. Six ion-fusion drives around the central axis. She’s faster than anything out there.” Jenkins stated as he walked to the bar. “Something to drink?” Jenkins shook his head back to clear his face of the straight brown hair that hung most of the way down his back.
“Vodka Blaster?” asked Thad.
Jenkins nodded and began to mix drinks. “So what’ve you been doing, Commander?”
“No one’s called me that in a long time. Not sure I like it.”
“The six of us wouldn’t have come out of Europa alive if it weren’t for you.”
Thad walked to the pilots chair at the front of the compartment and looked out the window. Jupiter Orbiter hulked over them. Studying the view, Thad said, “And 14 died there. They trusted me, and they all died… Listen,” he went on quickly, walking back to Jenkins, “do you have a reader that can access the data on this chip?”
After studying Thad for a minute, Jenkins swapped the drink for the chip, glanced at it, and limped across the blue carpet to a console next to the pilot’s station. Both men were silent as Ross ran his decryption tools.
“Lordy, lordy. Where did you get this?” Jenkins asked after a few minutes.
“What?” Thad asked, moving closer to the screen.
“Looks like someone named Stachle’s book keeping records. Private records. See this line?” pointing to his screen, “Colonel Masterson. 50,000 credits. Coraku to Mars. So Masterson’s on the take. Boy must be using ISS ships to smuggle drugs. Never liked him. And this one, 75,000 for shipment of coraku to Jupiter Orbiter.”
“Bastard. I thought it might be him.”
“You knew about this?”
Thad filled him in on what happened at the dome and since then.
“So, Masterson was the contact Yamini was referring too. Way back, I joined the ISS to stop people like him. I reported to him for over four years.” Thad studied the screen then said quietly, “He ordered the strike on Europa Ocean Colony. Reported to him on Mars too, but...”
“Yeah. Heard ‘bout Mars. Well, didn’t believe the version I heard, but, I figured something crooked went down and that was why you went AWOL.”
“I was sent to kill some scientist. A chemical biologist. Never knew why. When I got there, with my gun in his face, I couldn’t pull the trigger. I’m not an assassin, Ross. After I left, someone else did the job. Read about his bloody death on the net.”
“ISS doesn’t do that kind of shit. How’d Masterson get you to do that?”
“After Europa, I started using Coraku,” Thad painfully admitted. “When Masterson found out, he threatened me with court-martial unless I did a special job for him. One job lead to another. He became my supplier. Had me under his thumb. Stopped using after I left Mars. That was the worst two weeks of my life.” He pulled a chair up to the console and asked, “How far back do those records go?”
“First record is,” Ross’ fingers flew over the keys, “February 12th, 2070.”
“Can you do a search for Europa?”
Nodding, he set to do it. Nothing came back. Jenkins did a search for October 19th, 2072, an unforgettable date for both of them.
“Sheeit, Commander. 100,000 credits itemized as Gustov Assault.”
“So, there is some link between Stachle and Masterson and the hit on Europa Ocean Colony. But Gustov?”
“Heard that name a while back,” said Jenkins, swishing his hair back. “Couple of big wig developers paid me to bring them and some equipment down to Europa Moon Base. They were going down to the Ocean Colony to scout it out for use again; been mostly empty since we were there. They told me that just before the ISS – us, in this case - hit the Colony, some doctor name Gustov had created a new drug down there; something to do with forming crystals in the lower gravity. He was making piles of credits selling it around the Ocean Colony, Moon Base and Jupiter Orbiter.”
“That means Stachle paid Masterson to knock out his competition. It wasn’t about a colonial bid for independence! It was a drug war! That’s why they were so well armed. Masterson used us. That Bastard! Sending twenty ISS commandos against over a hundred dug in, well armed, drug burlies just so he can keep taking his share of coraku profits. People died! My people died!”
As Jenkins watched, Thad rocked back and forth in his chair looking at the floor. An old fashioned clock on the wall ticked the seconds away. “It’s his fault they all died,” he said quietly. Thad barked out a laugh and sat up, meeting Jenkins eyes. “All this time… Everyday, Ross, everyday I thought I was to blame. With this chip we can put both Masterson and Stachle away for a long time.”
“If we send a copy to the station governor’s office, and the Jupiter Gazette, the governor’ll be forced to investigate. But once we hit the send button, we better be cleared the hell out of here.”
“Let’s do it. You know, Gustov escaped Europa.”
“How? That place was a ghost town when we left.”
“I don’t know, but the file I got on the guy I was supposed to hit on Mars listed ‘Gustov’ as one his aliases. Masterson never mentioned Gustov before Europa. Never heard the name until I saw it listed as an alias.”
“UNAUTHORIZED ENTRANCE AT MAIN AIRLOCK,” the ships computer intoned.
“That’ll be Masterson,” Jenkins said, crossing the room to a cabinet over the couch. “I’ve been told he keeps tabs on everyone that was on our team. Probably figured you’d come here.” He pulled a military style blaster out and tossed it to Thad, then another for himself. “Safer on a ship than projectile weapons,” he said checking the charge.
Jenkins sealed the hatch over the ladder and went back to the console.
“Didn’t you just trap us in here?” Thad asked.
“Move the couch. Open the air vent and shimmy down to the enviro compartment. Here.” Jenkins tossed him an ear piece and plugged his own in.
Thad complied. The shaft was small, but Thad was able to follow it the short distance to the vent in the enviro compartment.
“You read, Commander?” Jenkens’ voice sounded in his ear.
“Got five on vid. Two in Cargo Pod one. Three in Cargo Pod four. They have the central passage covered. I’m cycling the main lock and undocking the ship. This should create enough noise for you pop the vent off and get out of the shaft. Watch out for flash-bangs.”
The ship rumbled. Thad pushed the vent and tumbled into the room behind a machine with ventilation shafts attached.
“…Listen Jenkins,” Thad heard Masterson’s voice through his ear piece as well as out in the passageway. “Clinton’s in big trouble. Don’t let him take you down too.”
“Three moved forward,” said Jenkins. “Living compartment across the hall.”
“Jenkins,” Masterson continued, unaware that Thad was listening as well, “Dock at once! I can have three armed corvettes here in minutes. You won’t…”
Thad edged quietly around the machine, crouched low, as Masterson continued his threats.
“I think I can get the two in pod one. Get ready,” Jenkins said. A sharp clang sounded down the hall. Four rapid blasts followed. Thad moved around the corner. He quickly noted two troopers. One was crouched with his gun covering the hatch above the ladder. The other faced down the hall toward the noise. Thad depressed the fire stud as he sighted the trooper covering the ladder. The bolt tore into the man’s shoulder and neck. Thad was faster than the remaining trooper. His blaster moved left and fired before the other could bring his gun around.
“Hot damn!” Jenkins whooped, “Two of those boys are in a pod on their way down to Jupiter. You owe me a pod.”
Both of the troopers Thad shot were down, smelling of burnt flesh. If Ross had ejected a pod with the other two troopers in it, then only Masterson was left. Thad moved closer to the door. He kept his blaster level, waiting for his old colonel to come out. Thad was inching past the hatch, when Jenkins cried out “Wait!”
Masterson’s boot came up and knocked Thad’s blaster down the hall. Thad stood, bringing his hand left up to push the colonel’s blaster aside. A bolt burst from the gun into the room behind Thad. Mastersons’ left fist came at his head. Thad twisted and rose, blocking the blow with his shoulder. He slammed Masterson’s right wrist against the jamb of the hatch. There was a sharp crack as Masterson’s wrist broke. The blaster clattered to the floor. Masterson grunted bringing his left up for another punch, but Thad deflected it easily. The colonel’s right elbow slammed into Thad’s temple, spinning him back against the other hatch jamb. Masterson got two solid hits into his stomach before Thad brought his boot up and pulled one of his xoplast fighting knives. Before the colonel could back up, Thad buried the blade into the man’s midsection, just under his combat vest.
Jenkins came down the ladder, blaster in hand, as Masterson was staggering back. The colonel sat hard on the steel gating of the floor, clutching his wounded gut. Thad finally looked at the man’s face. His short hair had gone ash gray, and he sported a scar across his jaw that wasn’t there when Thad took orders from him. His green eyes burned with anger and pain, and his breath came in gasps.
“What do you want to do with him?” Jenkins asked, looking at Thad.
“Eject him over Europa.” Thad’s eyes met Jenkins’.
Thad turned back to see Masterson reaching for his belt. Thaddeus Edison Clinton’s hand blurred; his knife buried itself in the ISS colonel’s neck.
“You are going to help me clean all this up, right?” Jenkins asked.
* * *
Phoenix Dome Net News (Jupiter Gazette News Feed) (12.24.2076) – Rodney Stachle, a Phoenix Dome businessman, and ISS Colonel Gregory Masterson, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, along with sixty accomplices, were implicated today on charges of drug trafficking, racketeering and murder after an unknown source disclosed…