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Beginnings


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Bernie shook his head. “But L.T., you don't have to do that. You're taking a hell of a risk. And for what? Because you'll be able to prove your fellow Dirtsiders wrong?”

“No,” Lee said, looking steadily at Bernie, “because it's the right thing to do. Because it's our duty to find out who was ultimately behind the deaths of all those innocent people on the Blossom. No matter what our gutless superiors say, that is Job One. So that's the job we're going to do.”

“Damn,” breathed Finder, “you really do sail straight into hurricanes, don't you?”

* * *

“Administrator Perlenmann is on open channel, sir. Exchange delay is minimal.”

Lee leaned toward the audio pickup. “Hello, Mr. Perlenmann. I'm sorry to come to your facility under these sad circumstances.”

“Lieutenant, as I understand the regulations, you are not supposed to come to my facility under any circumstances. We are off limits to all Upsiders.”

“That is true, Mr. Perlenmann. But firstly, I am not an Upsider. Secondly, I was given clear orders to tow the Blossom to ‘the nearest secure Earth Union facility.'”

“And why was I not informed of your arrival earlier?”

“Again, orders. I was instructed not to send any transmissions relevant to the disposition of the Blossom until such time as I was ready to transfer her to the closest facility.”

“I mean no inhospitality, Lieutenant, but your presence here, and those orders, are most irregular. However, we are grateful you have brought the Blossom to us, both for operational and personal reasons.”

“I understand that several of her passengers were late-arriving members of Outbounder families already working here on-site.”

“That is correct. They will want to take possession of those bodies as soon as it is practicable. What is your ETA to Callisto, Lieutenant?”

“Just under three hours, sir.”

“Very well. After our navigational controllers have settled you into orbit, I will send a shuttle to dock with the Blossom and—”

“Mr. Perlenmann, I'm sorry, but that isn't going to be possible.”

A long pause. “And why not?”

“Unfortunately, in handling some suspicious containers that the hijackers evidently smuggled aboard the Blossom, a hermetic seal was broken and it is possible that a bioagent was released.”

Lee glanced at Finder, who, at that signal, opened a spoiled ration pack. He wrinkled his nose at the faint stench, and whispered, “Uh oh. Could be a biohazard, Skipper.”

Lee rolled his eyes, tried not to smile, and heard a note of concern creep into Administrator Perlenmann's voice. “It is not a particularly virulent pathogen, I hope?”

“It's too early to say, Mr. Perlenmann. We're still trying to type it. But until we do, and assess how effective our efforts at containment have been, I'm afraid I have to impose a quarantine.”

“Which puts us at a most difficult impasse, Lieutenant. We cannot safely come to you, and you are not permitted to come to us.”

“That's not quite accurate, Mr. Perlenmann. I have had no personal contact with the possible pathogen and, as a Dirtsider and officer of the Customs Patrol, I am authorized to travel to Callisto.”

Another long silence. “Very well, but that does not answer the issue of reclaiming the deceased family members of our Outbounders, nor our timely access to necessary supplies. We get only four shipments from cis-lunar manufacturers per year. They fabricate all the proprietary systems that go into the Outbound colony ships. Without those components, we're unable to work.”

“I think I have a way to solve those problems, Mr. Perlenmann,” Lee said. “Upon arriving, I will shuttle down to Callisto to present the paperwork necessary for releasing the bodies to their next of kin. The bodies themselves will need to remain under observation for seventy-two hours to ensure that they are not harboring elements of the unknown biohazard.” During which time we'll ensure that the incriminating needle we're looking for isn't being carried inside one of those bodies.

Perlenmann sounded thoughtful. “And so at that point, either my personnel or yours could transfer the contents of the Blossom to my shuttles?”

“Well, sir, we'll need to be a little more methodical than that with the cargo.”

“I don't understand, Lieutenant.”

“Mr. Perlenmann, the hijackers compromised the Blossom's computers. Among the most heavily damaged files were those containing the ledgers of the ship's manifest, stores, and personal effects. Unfortunately, we have not been able to locate any hardcopy back-ups. Consequently, because some of the contents of the Blossom's hold were bound for locations other than Callisto, we can't simply release everything to you. Instead, I must ask you to forward an itemized list of what you expected to be receiving from the hold—or from the personal belongings of the deceased. While we wait out the seventy-two hours of quarantine, we will locate the items you indicate and ready them for conveyance to you.” And sift through all that junk for the evidentiary needle we're seeking.

Perlenmann did not respond immediately. Bernie and Finder waited hopefully; Finder even had his fingers crossed. The silence dragged on—

“Very well, Lieutenant, although this is most inconvenient. Now, when did you say you would be arriving with the paperwork for releasing the bodies?”

* * *

Perlenmann met Lee at the entry to Callisto's cavernous ice separation and processing facility. Over the sustained, throbbing moan of the catalytic water crackers, he shouted an inaudible greeting and waved for Lee to follow. As he did, spacesuited workers turned to watch him pass, the exposed faces no more readable than the ones concealed behind sealed visors. Although the volatiles refinery was a shirtsleeve environment, it was separated from the murderous surface of Callisto by only one bulkhead wall. Suits were required, no exceptions.

Lee was turning to ask his bearded host about their daily production capacity when the immense hydrogen purification tank on the far side of the processing facility exploded. The shock wave slammed into Lee like a whole-body battering ram and sent him tumbling forward. His left shoulder hit the rocky floor first, his torso cinching at the waist. His feet continued arcing away from the source of the blast, dragging him head-over-heels into a punishing low-gee somersault.

Instincts took over—instincts that had been drilled into him during his training on Luna, and that had been acquired at a high price in bruised bones and suppressed vomit. As Lee's momentum spun him back into a heads-up position, he stretched his legs wide, thereby making his longest axis perpendicular to the direction of his tumble. His rotation became faster but less powerful. At the same time, his left hand (the expendable one) went out in front of him, elbow bent, wrist relaxed: a shock absorber for what was sure to be a nasty impact. His right hand caught the lower lip of his helmet's raised faceplate, pulled down sharply—

Burning hydrogen roared over and around him just after the faceplate clanked into place. The force of the fiery wash accelerated his forward tumble; he landed hard on his left hand, felt several bones bow, one crack. Lighting streaks of pain sprinted up his arm.

He managed to keep his legs wide and his hips cantilevered forward as his chin and chest slammed into the floor. His heels tried to rise again, struggling to unclench his abdominal muscles and pull him into another somersault.

But Lee fought back, kept his waist bent and legs down. His rotational momentum bled away and he started sliding forward, his left arm out for drag and stability while his right hand protected the faceplate. A few more skittering bumps and then he felt himself drifting to a halt. He rolled over, kicked his legs out-and-up, and came to a buttock-bruising stop.

The wash of burning hydrogen had been brief but every worker in the high-roofed chamber had been knocked flat by the force of the explosion. Most were swaying to their feet, some weren't. Uncertain hands fumbled to secure faceplates as snow began to materialize in the cold, thinning air; a clear sign that the explosion had caused a press

ure breach, probably somewhere behind the shattered purification tank. Considering the leisurely pace at which the white specks were migrating in that direction, the breach was probably no worse than a small crack in the berm-covered bulkhead.

Lee rose into the almost nonexistent gravity, looked for Perlenmann, and spotted him rising to his hands and feet a few meters away. Lee dusted off his spacesuit, skim-walked over to the administrator, and helped him up.

From behind a cracked faceplate, Perlenmann nodded his thanks, silver-gray forelock bobbing limply. He smiled crookedly at Lee; “Welcome to Callisto, Lieutenant.”

* * *

Steam oozed out of the drinking tube which protruded from the top of Lee's coffee bulb. The ostensibly disposable bulb looked even older than the ones on the Gato. It had been washed and reused so many times that the plastic rim's innumerable hairline cracks resembled a thick forest of denuded saplings.

Directly across the table, Administrator Perlenmann stared down at nothing in particular as his chief engineer concluded his report. The news was not good.

“—so I figure we're down to forty-eight percent production capacity, Mr. Perlenmann, since that was our largest purification unit.”

Perlenmann nodded slowly. “Can we reconfigure any of the standard tanks to function as purifiers?”

The engineer nodded and rubbed his blistered cheek; he had been at the processing plant when the explosion occurred and hadn't gotten his faceplate down in time. “Can't do it, Mr. Perlenmann.”

“Why?”

The engineer scratched his reddening cheek, winced, snapped his hand away from his face. “Because storage tanks can't be retooled for refining. They're too thin-skinned to take the pressures generated during purification.”

“Very well, Mr. Carroll.” Perlenmann turned toward a man and a woman who were sitting at the far end of the table. He inclined his head slightly toward the woman. “Doctor Iseult?”

The woman, about thirty and pixie-ish, straightened in her seat, an action that was more suggestive of a porcupine bristling than a mere effort to improve posture. “Casualties were much lighter than they might have—or rather, should have—been. One fuel operations worker, Grigori Panachuk, is still in the infirmary.

“Frankly, it is a miracle that Panachuk didn't wind up in the morgue. He was standing within thirty meters of the tank when it exploded, with his faceplate open and his gloves off. Luckily, he was facing the other way, adjusting his collar communicator with both hands. Otherwise—”

“—Otherwise, Panachuk wouldn't have a face or hands left to worry about,” finished the man who was sitting near Iseult.

The doctor shot him an annoyed look, but nodded assent. “Mr. Parsons' assessment is correct. As it is, Panachuk has serious burns and a number of internal injuries. A piece of debris punctured his suit and lodged in his back. Seventeen personnel have been treated for second degree burns, another eighteen for fractures—nineteen, counting Lieutenant Strong.” Her eyes, sharp and unfriendly, flicked in Lee's direction. “The pain has subsided, yes?”

Before Lee could nod and lift his splinted hand in thanks, Iseult was finishing her report. “First degree burns and other, minor traumas—I don't even have a final count on those yet.”

Perlenmann nodded toward the man next to her. “Mr. Parsons?”

Parsons shifted his blocky frame, stared down at his coffee bulb, and wiped a greasy hand on the front of his faded gray coveralls. He didn't seem in a hurry to answer, or to be particularly impressed with Perlenmann's authority.

A faint German accent intruded upon Perlenmann's otherwise perfect diction; “Your report, Mr. Parsons.” Parsons now sounded like Parsuntz.

Parsons shrugged. “My report? Okay, here's my report. The casualties were predominantly fuel ops techs. All Upsiders. All my people.” There was a distinct tone of accusation in Parsons' voice.

“As I understand it, Mr. Parsons, there were also half a dozen flight technicians and two environmental maintenance workers in the processing area when the explosion occurred, all of whom sustained some level of injury. All Dirtsiders. I therefore doubt that this explosion was targeted specifically against your personnel.”

Lee stopped in mid-drink; a targeted explosion? Terrorism? Sabotage? Here too?

Parsons' face was split by a humorless grin. “Perlenmann, if you weren't such a book-loving Green, sometimes I'd swear you were in cahoots with the Sols yourself. How can you even doubt they were behind this? It was Sol sabotage, pure and simple.”

Lee put down his coffee bulb with a sharp clack. Eyes turned towards him. “Excuse me, but would somebody mind telling me what the hell is going on at this ‘secure' facility? Specifically, who or what are the ‘Sols'?”

Iseult, Parsons, and Carroll all exchanged brief, awkward glances. Perlenmann seemed to be waiting. In the end it was Parsons who leaned forward, incredulity in his voice. “Don't they tell you guys anything before they send you out here? Oh wait a minute, I forgot. It's beneath a Dirtsider's dignity to learn about Upside.”

Parsons was clearly looking for trouble. Lee held his tongue until he was sure of his resolve not to give it to him. “Mr. Parsons, prior to my assignment to the Gato, I read everything I could about Upsider communities and issues. And you're right, the info we're given on Earth is incomplete and slanted. However, I've been fortunate enough to be included in some Upsider conversations, so I know about some of the less obvious issues, and about political movements like the Spacers.” Parsons blinked. Hah, gotcha. “But I have never heard mention of the Sols, so maybe you'd be kind enough to clue me in.”

Parsons guffawed. “I don't know any way to ‘clue in' an inherently clueless Dirtsider, but I'll give it a try. Ignoring the Greenie administration in charge of this facility,” he glared briefly at Perlenmann, “you've got at least three distinct groups on Callisto. The smallest is made up of Dirtside contract workers. The largest is comprised of Upsiders like me, some of whom are probably undisclosed Spacers. Then you've got Outbounders, who just can't wait to get on their colony ship and abandon us Upsiders to the tender mercy of Earth's Greens and Neo Luddites. It's also possible that you've got a small number of Sols here, who think that Upsiders like me are soft, and that Outbounders are craven traitors.”

Iseult scoffed, looked away. Lee seized the opportunity. “You have a different perspective, Dr. Iseult?”

She turned to look at Lee, apparently trying to decide whether he was worth talking to. Eventually, she shrugged and offered her version. “Many of the personnel here do express one of two primary political sympathies: pro-Upside or pro-Dirtside. However, their differences have never been violent. The great majority of the Upsiders want to stay on Callisto and keep the Outbound operations running. They rightly believe that if it wasn't for the opportunity to send Earth's most wealthy Dirtsider dissidents off to the stars, the Green and Neo Luddite political alliance would probably discontinue all space-based activities altogether.

“The Dirtsiders are the technicians sent here from Earth to carry out the confidential engineering on the colony ships, or the Outbounders themselves. The Outbounders fear the same outcome that the Upsiders do, but rightly believe the way to prevent the closure of Callisto's shipyard is to offer strong support to the mostly moderate Greens of the Earth Union Steering Committee. As long as they stay in power, Callisto stays open and the starships keep leaving.”

“And the Sols?”

“They are the wild cards in this strange game. The Sols—the self appointed ‘star-chamber' of the entire off-Earth population—think that Outbound activities should be ended so that the moderate Upsiders are no longer seduced by the contracts they get from Earth. Then, they believe, the Upsiders would become desperate and help them overthrow the Earth Union.” Iseult shrugged. “I do not approve of their methods, but you can hardly blame them. They know what's coming.”

They know what's coming. Strange that such a simple sentence could have so ominous a sound. “They know what

is coming, Dr. Iseult?”

Her fine-boned face was very grave. “War.”

“With whom?”

“Mon Dieu, can you be so blind? Why, with Earth, of course. Upsiders may resent Earth, but they work with it—and have done so for almost three centuries, now. And over that time, the Upsiders have been accumulating power, gathering the knowledge and means to independently produce technologies which will soon reduce, maybe eliminate, their dependence upon Earth. However, when that day comes—” Iseult shivered although the room was warm.

“And the Sols believe that things are getting so bad that it's better to trigger a war now, to openly engage in sabotage?”

Perlenmann volunteered the answer. “Lieutenant, even out on Callisto, we hear the protectionist rhetoric in the speeches coming out of the Steering Committee in Geneva. The Behavioral Standards Committees have even gone so far as to retroactively restrict the books that may be distributed or owned Upside, including those that will comprise the now-stunted libraries of the Outbounder colony ships we launch.

“The last century's trend toward gradual improvements in freedom of trade and information is now reversing rapidly. And the Sols are not willing to stand by and let that happen. If they are behind today's bombing, it would be to call attention to the creeping return of tighter controls and the danger of Upsider complacency in the face of a potential conflict with Earth.”

“There isn't going to be any such conflict, and the Sols know it.” Parsons' growl swelled in both volume and disdain. “Let's be realistic. You Dirtsiders know that with us already sitting on the moon, ready to pull another Heinlein ‘drop-the-rock' maneuver, you can only push us so far. The Sols are making a mountain out of a molehill. When push comes to shove, the Earth Union will back down.”



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