Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Frontier Minerva

by Anne Spackman


There was no possibility of making it to the residential dome before curfew. I had been working late going over some videowork in my regulator's office, decomposing falsified video evidence being used in the highly-publicized case of Minerva Corps versus Dr. Mezzini, once a prestigious member of Minerva Corps before his criminal incarceration and on-going trial, when the curfew announcement descended upon the business dome. Some people welcome the sound of the curfew announcement, that same collection of saccharine words delivered at the end of every work day in a female monotone by the colony's automated city center. Me, I hate it. It might be difficult to distinguish one day from another without these tiresome messages from Minerva's intercom system, but then, I was born on Earth, not Minerva, and I hate the curfew.

That's space station Minerva in case you've never heard of it, a rotating colony somewhere in the backwater of the solar system, what the Earthers call "the Neptune frontier", not the moon Minerva. Trust me, there couldn't be more difference between the two. Last time I went on one of those solar system cruises, our shuttle went by the place, and I didn't much care for it, or the state in which the Martian miners had left it. There's no appreciable atmosphere or weather on the silent moon Minerva. They are no winds to erode any offensive mark left there by humankind to scar the surface for all eternity. In five billion years, the abandoned quarries will still be there, their gaping mouths forever frozen wide.

But if you've seen one moon, you've seen them all, I always say, just like my mother, even if I don't happen to agree with her. Personally, I think Ganymede and Io are worth a trip, and each time I visit Titan, I can hardly recognize the place with all the terraforming constantly going on outside the ancient colonial domes. Maybe someday if the Titanians ever get their artificial sun working, they can dismantle the protective domes and live freely on the surface of Titan. Maybe then they'll use the domes just as emergency shelters, I don't know. The Titanians are optimistic about the whole terraforming thing, but for some reason I doubt Earth II will be finished in my lifetime.Anyway, the main attraction of those cheap little solar system cruises for most people isn't stargazing or moon-hopping but the stop on the resort colony Dionysia around Saturn, still the closest thing to green paradise Earth in these parts. I go to Dionysia because I don't usually get enough vacation t ime to make it all the way to Earth and back; though some day I'm planning to hoard enough vacation days to make the long trip. At least I don't have to get an interplanetary visa three Earth months ahead of time like everyone else in space station Minverva planning a trip back to their ancestral homeland.

Bless the Earth, it doesn't revoke citizenship to those of us who've gone off to join the colonies. Once an Earth citizen, always an Earth citizen. Mars, on the other hand, makes you renounce everything you ever were for a little piece of dry Martian dirt. Which wasn't so bad, back in the day, when the Earth government was giving away the Martian land for free to anyone who would move there, when Mars was the newest Earth territory slated for colonization. Ah, but then there was a nasty rebellion a century or two later, and well, the independent planet Mars became the up and coming interplanetary power on the scene.

I guess the rest of us have the Martians to thank for all of the outer colonies. For years, Earth and Mars were working like gangbusters to outdo each other in their space race and establish as many different colonies as they could all over the solar system. But since it's a tremendously long trip out here to the frontier from the inner circle of planets, I guess it stood to reason that pretty soon, the colonies would be demanding freedom from planetary control.

I was just a kid then, way back when Minerva became an independent territory. I never thought I'd end up there, but I got it in my head that I wanted to be a regulator, probably from watching too many intergalactic dramas in my holo-vision center, and for some reason I thought Earth was boring, that freedom was to be found out there on the frontier. The plain truth of it is, there's more order in the solar system the closer you get to Earth. So the Minervan colony out at the Pluto frontier is where idealistic guys like me go, with fool ideas of setting the world to rights and saving plain folks from outlaws and murderous space pirates.

I've been a specialist regulator here in Minverva for fifteen Earth years. Minerva was a Martian penal colony a century back and uses Martian time based on the short rotational period of Mars. I'm still trying to do the math to convert it to SET, standard Earth time, which is probably why curfew here always surprise me. Anyway, being a specialist regulator means I do my own investigating and set my own hours; we've got a group of a hundred regulators who work in pairs, but I went in for special training back on Earth, back when I thought I'd stay in the force there. Then when the space pirates hit Minerva, the Minervans got so desperate for law enforcement that I was able to name my terms before I headed to Minerva to work for them.

It's not easy keeping the peace on the frontier, but not for any reason I ever imagined back on Earth. It isn't the space pirates or outlaws that I worry about now. The space pirates aren't the real threat to Minerva. No, I never would have suspected it, but it's the trading companies supported by Minerva Corps who make the real trouble behind the scenes here on Minerva, and the worst part about it is, they aren't breaking the law, Minervan or interplanetary.

I remember how it was only a few short years ago. There was an open trade policy among the outer colonies and Sol planets, and every colony, including Minerva, had big, bustling port centers and no curfew. Then some time back, the Minerva Corps took over the Minerva colony by buying out the major dignitaries with bribes. The Minerva Corps decided to regulate the trading and close the free ports so that now, every Earth year, the Minerva Corps reaps a fat profit in taxes. For the most part, they've completely revolutionized the Minervan economy, which used to be a struggling free market. Some say change is for the good, others say it's the worst thing ever to happen to free Minerva, but at least the space pirates have moved on to maraud the Titan-Ganymede trade line.

I guess my biggest problem with the Minerva Corps is the curfew. The curfew was supposedly a way to keep people from working overtime and to give everyone more time to enjoy in the residential domes by forcing them to stop working past curfew. And maybe that's how it started, but the curfew isn't just a friendly reminder to go home and spend an evening with your wife. The first announcement gives you exactly thirty minutes to make it to one of the gateways between the five business domes and the outer ring of residential domes; if you don't make it through by the second announcement, you'll be stuck in the business dome all night. That's worse than it sounds. Because you see, sometimes, they'll cut off all of the air on you.

It's a good thing the regulators have special exemptions and special atmosphere packs, or I literally wouldn't be here, talking so cavalier about the matter. The truth is, I've worked on patrol in the business dome after hours. It's dangerous for anyone to stay there when the system decides to clean or cycle the air for possible space pirate biological weapon attacks, or more likely when the air is diverted to other areas, back to the residential areas, to save money. Air is, after all, the only thing more precious than water and soil out here.

Curfew isn't just an evening ritual, either. The people living in the residential domes are cleared out every morning in the same way as the business domes are cleared at night, and the air is usually cut off in the residential domes, too, during the day. So you can understand why no one has gardens here on Minerva, like people do on Earth. Here, soil is also more precious than gold, and even hydroponic orchards are controlled by the agricultural specialists. The average Joe does his job, whatever that happens to be, and he doesn't gripe about it, or else he'll lose his job and become one of the vagrant "dome drifters". The dome drifters haven't got homes and run the risk of being caught in the checkpoint every night and sent into forced labor outside the colony. And of course they run the risk of starving.

The worst part is, the computerized system can't always tell who's a drifter and who is gainfully employed. The whole curfew thing isn't just a way of saving air reserves, either. The curfew was established to save money on air and to keep people from bringing back anything they might receive through the black market in the business dome into the less-monitored residential domes. All citizens are checked for possession of unauthorized items at the curfew checkpoints. And the curfew is an ingenious way to monitor the citizen's activities, to keep them from traditional, telecommunication work, which somehow recently got the reputation of being inefficient. People simply have to go to the residential dome to work, so that the Minerva Corps can save money on air. And sometimes I think telecommuting was outlawed because the work is practically unmonitorable by those who crave absolute authority over everybody. People like the despotic Earth government officials I thought I'd left behind. People like the dignitaries and chiefs of Minerva Corps.

The sad thing is, a lot of the people who telecommuted, as people have traditionally done in our solar system for centuries now, just weren't able to change jobs so late in their lives, and a lot of them ended up as drifters. I heard once that a drifter got expelled from the colony and set adrift in space; after that, the Minerva Corps made a big fuss about publicizing their free shuttles to Ganymede, where the Ganymedians would pay any price to human miners for precision work. I don't know if that's true or not, since I haven't been to the dark side of Ganymede in more than ten Earth years.

Anyway, Minerva Corps has weeded out what they call "inactivity", and sure, the colony is prospering. The head of Minerva even built himself a new dome that floats above the rest of the colony; there's no direction in space, but Minerva was set on the same solar parallel as the rest of the Sol system's planets, so I guess you could say the dignitaries' dome is "above" the rest of us. There was a minor leak in the dome a while back, I heard, and the dignitaries still worry about sabotage from the pirates, which is another reason why the regulator forces have grown in the last few years. I've flown by the new dignitaries' dome on my outer-colony patrol, and all I can say is, it's a good thing the rest of the colony doesn't know about what they're missing.

Of course, all of the outer colonies have a cooperation pact to aid each other in case of a real emergency; we're still too vulnerable to risk confrontations yet, even when conflicts break out between the Earth and Mars; but, with the second Cold War of human history in full swing, it's hard for the outer colonies to keep neutral. Both the Earth and Mars keep pressing Minerva and the other colonies to choose sides. Maybe it's only a matter of time before there's more to worry about than food shortages; the regulators talk about war now and again, and about trade embargos. I just clock in and do my job. Maybe because the regulators get paid more than anyone else here in Minerva with money and extra luxury items from Earth, they talk more about the possibility of war than about the necessity of freedom.

Call me crazy, but for the past few years, I've actually begun to wonder who the bad guys in the solar system really are. But the law's the law. I may not have had anything to do with making it, and I seldom agree with it or with those who make it, but without it, there'd be no decent place to live for nice people, and the people of Minerva are nice people. Despite the things that happen to them, they still are. You see, they've got character, maybe because they have so few material possessions. So few things like those I took for granted on Earth and would give a month's pay for now.

Not all of the people of Minerva are content, not by a long shot. The regulators know me on sight, though I took to wearing plain clothes several years ago; it keeps me from seeing the way the plain folks see us, their regulators. Some of the older people still think of us as protectors, from the days when the space pirates blew holes in the colony every other week. The younger ones just glare at us.

That's how I know how much they hate us.

Glaring is their silent protest, their silent resistance; silence is their statement of defiance. They don't say anything to us or even to each other when a regulator passes by. They just glare. And there's no law against that.

But I'm not a regulator, I'm a specialist regulator, even since the change in government to Minerva Corps control, which means I don't have a set routine like the other regulators do. I keep an eye on the people and on petty crime, hidden in my plain clothes; some citizens assume I'm a dome drifter and offer what kindnesses they can to me.

Yes, I have to say that things are pretty bad here out in the backwater. The occasional outlaw stirs up trouble within Minerva, and this effectively diverts the population with just enough gossip to keep them from contemplating their own problems. Oh, I could go back to Earth anytime, paradise Earth, that still dangles its luscious freedom over my head and free air you don't have to pay taxes for, but I can't leave Minerva. Someone has got to make the world safe for nice people, and the regular regulators are the last ones to do it.

So, the second curfew alarm had just sounded, and I was still working on the Mezzini case evidence. The original digital footage taken by the Minerva Corps spy system had been recently recovered by one of the regulators after a scandalous disappearance within our office, and it had yet to be sorted or checked for signs of tampering. Lawyers get next to nothing on Minerva, so it's not likely they're doing much to keep tampering of the evidence down; maybe some of the other regulators can strip falsified video evidence, even those who never had specialist regulator training on Earth, but I hadn't heard of any attempts, and my patrol was short today. So, there I was looking for signs of digital tampering that wouldn't have been evident in the copies Minerva Corps had been using against Mezzini.

I guess I wasn't really surprised to discover that Dr. Mezzini was innocent according to the original digital footage, but even if the proof ever made it to the court center, it wouldn't really matter. Mezzini couldn't just pick up his life where he left off, after two years waiting for missing evidence crucial to his case to reappear. Even so, he was innocent; the original digital was clear: someone, a caucasian male with dark hair and of average height and weight, had stolen the access code to the freighter carrying the shipment of liquid oxygen from Jupiter, but it wasn't Mezzini. If Mezzini had been in on the crime, and a part of the conspiracy of space pirates operating in the outer planet ring, there was no evidence of his participation. And if he had been in on it, why hadn't Mezzini ever left Minerva when he had the chance? Why would a guilty man stay on Minerva to face trial when he could have joined the pirates?

But I'm no lawyer, so much the better, and my eyes were getting tired, so I sent in the report detailing my work on the digital evidence to the court center over the computer, hoping it would be processed before Mezzini's sentencing. The other night-shift regulators were drifting around in the halls when I came out of my office; they always look at me with respect and deference for some reason I can't fathom, as though just having come voluntarily from glorious Earth to rural Minerva makes me some kind of ally. They still write off my plain clothes endeavors as spying on the subversive population, which they apparently approve of.

The truth is that I've never set them straight on this matter; since I have a tendency to keep my mouth shut, my presence always tends to stun conversations around me, and if no one asks me anything, I don't volunteer unnecessary information. At the same time, the regulator squads always make a point of wishing me a good night and a new hello each morning, as though, even after fifteen years, I'm still the curious outsider. Well, I suppose I still am.

I put on my breathing gear before leaving the regulators' building, but it looked like the business dome air wasn't being diverted that night. The moving paths took me to the main transportation nexus of the business center, and I was really looking forward to sitting down on a transport on the other side of the checkpoint and waking up before my own door back in the fifth residential dome.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the utter silence that should have already descended over the nexus. From a distance, I could hear a sharp voice coming from the secret access transport tunnel leading to the dignitaries' dome. I edged my way closer to the sound, until it became clear that I recognized the sharp voice, and that there was another person besides its owner in the transport gateway. The access panel was open, exposing the tunnel to the larger, main nexus.

I peered around the yawning opening, searching for Mezzini in the dim light.

There he was, standing in the center of the dignitaries' tunnel, an illegal laser gun aimed directly at the rotund chief of Minerva Corps. One of the regulators had already been shot dead and lay a few meters to the side of the Minerva Corps chief.

I stopped, tried to think about what I should do.

"Give it up, Mezzini, while you still can," the Minerva chief, Johnson, was saying in a surprisingly calm and assertive voice. "You're already in enough trouble, selling our freighter to the pirates, and now killing one of the regulators. Don't add to your punishment by attacking one of the city's respected dignitaries."

"I never stole anything from you, Johnson, and you know it," Mezzini threw back defensively, sounding vulnerable even though he was the one brandishing the laser gun. "But it doesn't matter. Even if I had, I'd still be less guilty than you."

"Less guilty than me?" Johnson repeated in a mocking tone.

Mezzini nodded. "Everything you own you stole from the people of this colony, but that wasn't even your worst crime. Since you took my profession, my life, from me, I've drifted in and out of this colony like a beggar, raked it inside and out, haunted it like a ghost, sniffed out its every last stinking inch for a place to hide or to find food or a scrap of ground to sleep on. And do you know what I think? No, do you know what I know? What I learned is the only truth to live by?"

Johnson said nothing; he blinked twice, seeming even through his veil of composure to sneer at Mezzini, to show him to the last how little he thought of the vagrant who had once been a prestigious research scientist working for Minerva Corps.

"Poverty is an even greater crime than theft." Mezzini declared, this time in a voice as keen as a finely focused laser-beam. "Yes, it is." He said, noticing Johnson's skeptical expression. "Because poverty breeds the despair that motivates a man to steal what he can to survive. And despair is a greater crime against man than murder because despair corrupts and destroys a man's soul. Without a soul, there's no crime a man can't commit, even taking another man's life. And for the man who would force poverty and despair on his neighbors, for the man who would take and take from his fellow man until there was nothing left to take from him, for the man who would rob another man of his soul, I think there can only be one punishment."

Mezzini clenched his hand on the pistol, halted, his hands weak from starvation. I didn't show the same reserve. Earth training served me well; my shot was true, and Mezzini fell to the ground, his pistol clattering away down the corridor.

I stepped from the shadowed area at the doorway and headed to the fallen man to check his pulse.

Mezzini was stone dead. Johnson appeared, gloating over the body with a triumphant smile.

"Good shot, man--" he began to say.

I turned to him, saying nothing, just glaring at him. That was how I let him know how much I hated him.

"You agreed with him," Johnson pronounced after a moment, smiling.

I nodded, silent.

Johnson found this discovery highly entertaining. "But you had to shoot him, didn't you? You're a regulator," he said, eyeing the laser gun I had been issued, with its emblem shaped like an exploding star.

I nodded imperceptibly, turned, and walked away.

And the greatest crime of all was that there was nothing else I could do.

THE END


© 2010 Anne Spackman

Bio: Anne Spackman was hired to teach writing science fiction and fantasy at the MMC Writing Center at Marymount Manhattan College in NYC. Her work has appeared in various magazines, including Steelcave and Aphelion (Exiled From Illusion: A Modern Tale of Gwydion, April 2002).

E-mail: Anne Spackman

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