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Vacant Space

June 6, 2012

Vacant Space (For Chris and the girls in the library:)
Preamble for potential publishers:
A collection of short stories set in the same: near future, near distopia, near disaster that is Humanity’s lot in the early 22nd Century; as described in the un-prize winning; un-award winning; (ahem)  un-published: “Frozen Dreams.” It continues the adventures (conceit) of Baz Lestoute: a future day Archie Goodwin as the notional author and biographical amanuensis to his intellectual master the dAImon: Zero. The latter not only lacking hands but also a physical body! Thus, this take on a post modern Nero Wolfe (by Rex Stout) weighs almost nothing! Zero, as a truly unbounded autonomous intellect rather than a mere constructed artificial intelligence: ‘feasts’ on private datasets and corporate black records. Whilst hothousing the next generation of quantum-electronic dAImons…Etc.

The setting has now moved into the new century and out of the ravaged MotherWell. Initially with three stories set on the Moon. “Now a doubly dead world, filled with the dead or dying settlements… timelessly eroding under the constant infall of cosmic dust.” Oooo! Now that the water rush of the 2060s is well over, the remaining lunar settlements and mining towns make do and mend on the charity of NEOColonials and the leavings of the CorpRats.

It’s been a hard day’s fortnight.” (Re) introduces the characters but provides some further background for those few readers already familiar with “Frozen Dreams.” (It also might tie up some loose ends and unravel a few new plot threads. Who knows!)

Ill met by Earthlight” involves a whodunnit. Baz undercover as ‘Lex Barker’  and working as a security guard for a lunar hotel gets embroiled in Chinese puzzle box of power politics.

Sayonara Tsiolkovski!” involves a silly mystery tour as two competing Zaibatsus try to eliminate a Russian criminal cartel trying to go straight! Baz has changed identities again, now posing as Magnus Hallec a lunar P.I.

(In subsequent shorts the intent is a parallel of FD where teh chase is ‘across’ the solar system vs across the globe. Thus the itinerary: Phobos “Fear and Loathing in Mars Orbit” ; Ceres; thence to Titan and naturally ending up on Pluto: an inverted ode (another conceit)  to “Steel Beach” by Varley.)

Read on…

The sentinel circuit dozed fitfully. Waking up to the microSecond every ten KiloSecs for a brief burst of activity,. Culminating in an even briefer burst of hot ions. Sufficient to star track and then to realign the solar arrays. Sucking in photoelectric sustenance for its sub-sentient existence. Then a short systems check for radiation damage. Then back to fitful slumber.

A hacked on subroutine checked a hidden data buffer.

Suddenly the micro-sat woke up. A long dormant and totally unauthorised program loaded into memory from a trojan chip and performed a totally unauthorised status check. With all systems nominal and plenty of power: delicate spurts of ionised plasma began to seriously shift its orbit. What once was a highly elliptical frozen orbit began to sweep closer and closer to the pockmarked lunar surface.

A last penetrator that had spectacularly failed to fire was readied for a final solution…

It’s been a hard day’s fortnight.

I: The Good: “Life”

Have you ever had one of those days? Well the last one has been a total crapshoot… and since the day (or night) here lasts just over 1.2 MegaSecs —fourteen times longer than it should do— that was a lot of snake-eyes.
No wonder Chang-e’s bunny boy was transfixed.

Yes I was in Luna. Contract killers, please note the “was”. And everyone else reading this back home, please note for future reference: ‘we’ don’t call it: “The Moon.” A moon is any old satellite and “The Moon” is the Earth’s Moon and for us ex-corporate, ex-pats and extraterrestrials: ‘we’ don’t belong to anyone. Anyway surely the Moon of the moment is Titan. What with all that exobiology that has both the Fundamentalists and the Scientists in an uproar.

Furthermore: you are rarely “on” the Moon. Unless it is deep in the middle of a lunar night and deep in the middle of a solar maximum. Even then, with the heliosheath straining to keep those nasty GCRs at bay and the whole of Luna as your proton shield; the occasional galactic cosmic ray will still come zapping along and fry your brain cells. If you are really lucky, and close your eyes real tight: you can see the trace of the tiny cosmic bullet with your teenie tiny personal name on it. Zipping through your eyeball after zapping through your brain.

But alcohol is a much nicer way to slowly fry your brain. Or should that be flambe? Having recently experienced the former: during a long and ultimately lethal game of cat and mouse. Roughly some 1500 klicks and 1500 kilometres from my present location. The latter: a bottle much much closer in time and space: 1.5 kiloSeconds and 1.5 metres respectively, two shots of Alexi’s infamous: “Ole XXXentuxea Rocket Bourbon.” I was pondering the trouble ensuing from downing a third…

Thus I am able to state quite authoritatively: of the two forms of slow brain death, I definitely prefer an ice cold bourbon —with no ice— over cosmic bullets. And, obviously, cosmic bullets over real ones. Alas, Alexi’s bourbon is entirely ersatz. “Ch-Ch-Chentucheya” the product of a solar powered chemical reactor and refinery; tirelessly fractionating away up on the surface. That never gets closer than 356,400 kilometers to Kentucky. Or, for that matter, anywhere else on the Earth’s surface. Machines do just fine up on the lunar surface. Especially those with no moving parts. But men, not so much. Moving about up there under the full glare of Sol is never fun, even when it is supposed to be. Mostly ‘cos you know that a new level of locker room stink will be forever associated with your inner pressure garment. And nothing, nothing; short of a new suit will solve that problem. Radiation may get you eventually but a tainted P-Suit? That’s for life. And then for the life of the poor SOB who gets to wear it after you. Worse still, it stenches out the vestry where all the other P-Suits are racked. And you know, just know; that yours outstenches them all.

Fortunately my P-Suit was in the repair shop with a neat little puncture hole to be patched up. Unfortunately I was using one of their spares. Whilst not as ripe as mine; it was still pretty stinky, over and above the tang of bleach and synthetic pine odour.

Why? Did I have a little accident out there? Well yes and no chers. There was an accident. But in mitigation, as I said, I was being shot at. By both teenie tiny cosmic bullets and big black chunky ceramic ones. Teflon coated, with a plastic cartridge and some special explosive charge, formulated to pass undetected through local customs control. Neat. I would show it to you but LunaPol have it in an evidence bag until we decide what to do about it. Projectile weapons on the Moon? Unthinkable! Bad for tourism. Bad for customs control. (A division of LunaPol). So rather than attempted murder a little ‘accident’ looks better in the official report.

But not my accident. My would be killer’s. I mean who in their right mind would start a stalking match just before full lunar and in a cheap hired P-Suit? Using a custom stealthed howitzer based on a KPV heavy machine gun and its  huge 14.5 mm cartridge. Perhaps they thought that a P-Suit was armour plated rather than micro-meteorite proof.

A dead Dirtsider. That’s who. And I should know, ‘cos I was that dumb when I arrived here in Luna. I glanced at my wristComp: exactly  157786672 seconds ago.

Like most of us Lunar lags, I had noted the exact time of landing, counting up the seconds of my internment. Or should that be interment? Something that my fuzzy brain was also pondering. Buried or Banished? Either way the figure ran in a little window on my bio. Which I had called up when I had arrived here waiting for the big “157788000”. Hurrah! Five years Dirtsider style. Give or take a leap second. All those MegaSeconds were why I was still alive, pending those teenie tiny bullet holes in my brain and the dirty great big one in my left thigh.

That big hole, so the LunaCit doctors assure me, I should survive.  Perhaps with a slight limp but best to avoid a serious gravity field. The effect of that teenie tiny bullet hole is moot. Once you are out of the MotherWell: radiation is a cumulative fact of death. Even with the “NoGlo” pills that everyone takes as a sacrament to acts of stupidity.

Those same doctors at LunaCit had, at last, pronounced me fit to travel. After a recovery that had lasted the best part of the day and well into the following night. Which shows you just how badly I had been injured. The docs had patched me up taking another fortnight to fill the hole with cultured bone, muscle & skin. But the hole in my soul was less easy to fill.

Another reason to head for my favorite waterless watering hole up here at Barmin Base in the deserted North. Where the twenty-eight day cycle of night and day are pretty much meaningless. Here the sun shines almost all the time. Low on the horizon but still shiny.  Then you walk a few hundred metres and it is eternal night. And a cold that will creep into your bones forever.

“The Fischer King” is a bar that few tourists ever find. But every long term Lunar Lag can find in the dark. Alexi does not put out any welcome lights. Primarily to save power and the bar is surrounded by a thick impenetrable forest of industrial junk that doubles as raw materials and as a barrier to solar flux and cosmic ray alike.

For all that the Fischer King is closer to being ‘on’ the Moon than most Dirtsider tourists ever get and no long term resident ever wants to get. But it is the cheapest place to get, drunk. It’s Luna’s only privately owned public house. Naturally not counting the various bars of the various hotels. Or counting the private wining and dining establishments in the retirement enclaves. More to the point, it’s not counting the extortionate amounts of money they charge for imported Earth liquor! With freight charges being what they are: a bottle of cheap wine is not an option. So for the CorpRat elites and spritely nonagenarian retiree… its Chateau Lafite and Bolly and antique Napoleon brandy.

And there goes your last year’s pay…

Despite the low price booze and the low rent ambiance, the Fischer King is a nice little earner for Alexi Yangel; who came late to a life of scrap merchant and, like any good engineer, is always tinkering up some new trouble. In the process discovering a profitable little sideline in a lithium hydroxide monopoly. After all these years, you would think that someone would invent a better way of dealing with carbon dioxide. I mean FFS look what it has done to Earth! But no, the disposable LiOH can is still the Spacer’s standby. Sucking up the old CO2 so that the Spacer can go on sucking in air.

And where do all those disposable LiOH cans end up?  Alexi’s scrapyard. That’s where. Where the valuable carbon is extracted and the priceless hydrogen carefully conserved. The lithium and LOX get dumped. Usually in the form of reaction mass. In Luna, lithium and LOX are way cheaper than water.

So rather than brew by conventional means: water; mash; yeast; fermentation and whatnot. All WAY too water intensive. Alexi uses the Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis, tailored to the production of ethane and, eventually, turning 6H and 2C and a little bit of O into C2H5OH. The reaction takes a little energy but there’s plenty of that.
Especially under the burning full Lunar sun.

But it had been Lunar midnight when I first learnt that I had a killer on my tail and it took the best part of a MegaSec to make sure that Zero’s paranoia was justified and then for us both to arrange to turn the tables. The night hunter become the day hunted. First a little base jumping: UNSTF’s Shackleton Base to New Hong Kong (High Kingdom); a side trip to Armstrong (FUSA) then on to  Korolev (NPO-Energia I.T). Until it was clear that I was the target. Then something a little more difficult: a trap to catch out our killer and then a way to make sure that they never would be able to kill me. But without killing them. That started at Scott Base: a tiny Euro-U.K. enclave; mostly run by Canada and India. Followed by a trip to a remote waystation out on the eastern limb and then on to Farside. Engineering the move to be sure that my killer would be wearing a P-Suit optimised for Lunar midnight. And that the only local provider was a low rent, rental agency that I would only recommend to my worst enemy.

Thus equipped for the cold. The old switcheroo and back to Nearside and a shootout at high noon. Or should that be “Outland.” Gary Cooper or Sean Connery? Either way, either of them would have been proud. Of the plan. The execution? Not so much. The setting was appropriate enough: the LunaCit Cemetery. Inspired by another western: “Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Naturally since it was Zero’s plan: he cast himself as Clint which meant that I was Eli since I wasn’t Bad. Who says computers don’t do irony: a killing zone in a vast tract of square plots. Each with its little casket. Or more grandiose enclosures containing nothing but vacuum: ornate mausolea built from dirt cheap, sintered regolith bricks. A vast grey landscape of searing light and stygian shadow. Hot and Cold. Life and Death. Interment on an industrial scale. Yes an industry of death on a doubly dead world: not only filled with the dead but with the dying.

It is difficult not to muse on such matters whilst crouching behind some cinderblock cenotaph of a cheapskate who couldn’t afford the freight costs for a couple of grammes of bone dust. Passing the time waiting, like some deviant little Jerry the moon mouse, to turn the tables —or a flat iron— on a tiring terrestrial Tom cat. In a quiet moment, as Thomas was getting hot… hotter… hottest; I had found myself wondering why their Moon had such a draw to the morbid mind. Immortality in the form of a mooncrete monument, timelessly eroding under the constant infall of cosmic dust.

It was just at that sepulchral moment that a GCR with my teenie tiny name on it chose to do a bit of brain zapping! I could see it because my eyes were screwed tight shut watching a little blip moving on a 640×320 array hotwired into the left optic nerve and as interpolated by my visual cortex.

Blip. Blip. Blip. Zap! WTF?

I opened those bleary eyes and found myself staring at the empty shot glasses. Three now. I carefully arranged them in a little pyramid. Translucent, smokey grey and made from cullet and reject batches from a local optical glassworks. Now long abandoned. Left to rot over an eternity of time. Eternity. Epiphany. That was it! Under the satrapy of the CorpRats, their Moon (our Luna) has become a thanatotic themepark attracting not just the wealthy dead but the unhealthy dying. Instead of a new bustling high frontier they had done everything they could to kill it stone dead like they had with the low rent, low expectation, low wage economy of Earth.  Like DisCorp had with themepark Florida and like those elderly enclavers in a Camp Celebration of death. Slowly stretching out their disabilities and senilities into the middle hundreds. Now I knew why those liches didn’t just opt for hibernation like the Don. Sensibly sleeping in a deep, cold medical coma and waiting for a real rejuvenation technology to come along. The CorpRat future was no future. With nothing to live for except stretch out a dotage in a terminal competition to be the oldest man or woman alive. Unhealthy. And Dirtside was still too unhealthy for me. The (very) old boy was safe behind friends; family and impressive fortifications. But as his unwitting cupid I had ruffled too many feathers. Primarily Don Nuoro’s nemesis the “Sons of the White Eagles” a particularly nasty pan Balkan neo-fascist organisation with roots back to the WWI. And before. Organised crime for political ends. With long memories and large bank balances. And assassins.

But this one was definitely no Son of the White Eagle, going by the tattoos: clearly a Russian nationalist and obviously an anti-communist just by the look. By the book too. Zero, operating at close to light speed, had instantly accessed the Moscow police database. And then spent twice that time moaning about the two second comSat communication lag. From my hospital bed, we had been watching the video feed from the morgue. Officially for a change! One of the technicians gave us a nice little close up and we earned a little bit of this lunar’s pay with an initial datadump that should blow a hole in the organisation of some Russian criminal gang. Or political party. Or both. That is if UNPol decides to act. Naturally all the  passports, IDs and credit keys were faked but, with time, Zero will track them to their source too. A full on DNA search would identify them for sure but I think LunaPol isn’t that bothered. A massive query of terrestrial databases would open up a can of Earthworms asking uncomfortable questions…

No, LunaPol are more worried about that nasty undetectable. I have an aversion to guns in the first place and big noisy guns are an anathema in any pressurised environment. Doubly so in a pressure suit. Even though, of course, you can’t hear the noise. LunaPol would dearly like to have that gun to find out how it got past their detectors: Dirtside, HiPort and especially at NearSide station. However it wasn’t with the body. I made damn sure of that. A damn sure that I would remember the name of the plot where that particular treasure is buried.

My would be assassin needn’t have died. I keep telling myself. If only they had listened to the safety briefing that every tourist gets before they even get to the Moon. If only they had not panicked as they tried to hook up to their emergency backup air supply. If only I had not trusted Zero! In truth, by that time, both their brain and life support must have been fading fast. Both unable to cope with the searing temperatures whilst I, coolly, had laid in wait in the shade. If only our plan had worked! I had hoped for a near terminal case of heatstroke and a non-fatal object lesson in the futility of an amateur killer going after a professional survivor. Imagine their embarrassment when their target turned out to be their saviour! But I had miscalculated and that custom cannon had one shell too many. So after taking out their main PLSS with the first thing to hand: a sintered brick, I was too busy slapping on a peel and pray patch to think of their rescue. I had to save me! By making big, one booted, bunny hops to the nearest airlock as I leaked blood into the other.

Now that the worry of someone trying to kill me was over, the real worry was now that my old cover from EuroPol was blown, which meant that now I had to change my identity. Which was a shame, as my employer: LunaPol (UNSTF) paid well and the routine makework of a “United Nations Space Task Force Technical Liaison Officer” lighter than one sixth of a gee, despite the flowery title. Back in the FUSA: the work, when it came, was heavy duty. But then so were the payoffs. Business as usual in what used to be the United States of America. Yeah right. We were never very united in the first place.

However with the lightweight makework, I had had plenty of time to reflect on my previous life. Reviewing the many mistakes and the few triumphs that still somehow make it all worth while. Casting my mind back to those childhood role models for something to blame were a confused fusion of: Knight Rider, the Lone Ranger, The Postman and Easy Rider. All crystallised into a career that started out as a simple dispatch rider. Shifting important legal documents, urgent medical supplies, lifesaving donor organs;… Good Guy stuff. Then during the Bust-Up it started to get Bad: contraband goods; banned books and smuggled stuff that was technically illegal but still had honour. Of sorts. Then as things turned Ugly during the Break-Up so did the contraband. One day I discovered that the “time sensitive combat drugs” were a carton of a dozen eggs each with a wax sealed puncture hole in the top. Well I had a puncture too and a little accident and that delivery never reached its destination. My next package was the big one: Zero.
Alea iacita est.

Must have been a D10!

With a childhood filled with retro real gaming: Dungeons & Dragons as well as the cheap Sims pirated off better off friends. I used to consider myself a modern day Knight Errant. But in truth I was always just an errand boy and that last adventure was definitely more error than errant.

Now I could expect more contract assassins: a lucrative contract and a free holiday on the Moon? Who could blame them.

I would be tempted to do doing in myself. Myself!

Suddenly I had a cunning plan.

(To be continued!)

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