A long slow trip
The airtight door opened to his ID. Thank god. I am definitely glad that trip is over. Especially the roll down the ramp. We must have hit sixty or seventy kilometers an hour . . . at least there was no one in the way until we'd slowed at the bottom.
Spence, on the other hand, didn't slow nearly as much . . . and handed the controls over to Dee to come back and help me push. Dee pretty much coasted up to their door. I don't know how he got so much experience, with a 4.35 Earth years' orbit, how many round trips can a man take in his life? He looks fiftyish.
Gerald shrugged aside analyzing the other man in favor of checking out his home for the next two years.
A short hallway past a nice large bathroom to a big open square. Fifteen meters on a side, three meters high. Absolutely bare. As he'd been warned.
At least the lights work!
"Oh my!" Sarah walked in, the kids on her heels, wide-eyed . . . "Good thing we brought more than the bare necessities."
"Eww! Is the other room like this, too? And I have to share it with Cody?" Fawn looked around, wide-eyed.
Thirteen years old. Am I insane, to have brought her here? And out to the asteroid belt? Cody's only ten. Does he understand the dangers?
"Let's go take a look, then start unloading."
Dee bounced in, with a cheerful "Hi! Hey the other one of yours and ours already have an air door in-between. Spence says we can swap, save you some money. At least that's what he says. I think he's paranoid and doesn't want an extra door to worry about."
A quick trooping between rooms and it was clear that there wasn't much difference. Sarah checked that the water worked in all three, then Dee got back on her comp and made the switch official, and the code to unlock the connecting door.
While Sarah hunted down the rugs, Gerald offered to help unload the Spencer's wagon.
"You bet. In fact lets get these two heavy ones of yours off first. Which room do you want them in? They'll make good walls."
"Yeah, it's a long trip. you'll appreciate some private spaces, even if there aren't doors, and the walls don't go all the way to the ceiling."
Sarah looked from the crates to the first room. "Excellent idea. Bring them in."
And damn, but the guns and ammunition were heavy in this near-normal gravity.
Spence hefted one end . . . "Let's back the wagon through the door first . . . "
It was a tight fit, but a damned good idea.
The two armory crates across, three lighter weight crates above and they had a privacy wall from what would probably be a living room. The kids got higher walls in their cubic, and went to work taping up their posters.
Then they took the wagons to "the shop" which was a . . . used furniture store.
"Everything they brought up originally, plus everything anyone left behind." Spence shrugged. "Dee and I will bring stuff down from the ship, but the wardrobes and beds are nice. A couple of big chairs and a screen and we're good. Oh, get a fridge, and they have folding tables if you like to eat in."
Two years rental for a couch, chairs, a dining room table and chairs (folding) four beds (Sorry, we don't get many couples) wardrobes and they had the bare minimum.
Sarah looked around and smiled weakly. "I know they said bring your own decor . . . but I didn't realize they even meant rugs."
A chime at the door. Dee, with two potted plants. "They really help with cabin fever, and Spence said he'd bring some extra stuff from the ship. From our ship, the Greyhound. I'm heading for the grocery store next, if you'd like to come?"
A chorus of agreements.
Gerald nodded, and went with them. Whatever my suspicions of Spence, running into him and his daughter has been a godsend.
They staggered home under the load and found Spence unloading more furniture and a some long vacuum compressed packages.
"Pads. They make ugly rugs, but they're warmer than the bare rock, easy on the feet and then you can layer on something more colorful." He grinned. "I'm sure Dee will drag you out to the shops."
"I started them out with the main grocery." Dee bounced happily. "The restaurants will be busy for a few days, until the fresh food is used up. Oh, it's not that bad. There are greenhouses all over, so there's always something fresh. Just, not always much selection. But right now the cooks are having a good time. So save the eating in for later."
Spence shook his head. "This is her first outbound trip. It's all gossip. Every trip is different."
Fawn eyed the girl. "You weren't born out there, were you? In the Asteroid belt?"
"On Station Zero." Dee looked suddenly wary. "I mostly live on the Greyhound, since my mom died."
A woman living on Zero . . . surely not a prostitute . . . And Spence is her father, right? She's talking about Spence's wife. I hope. Gerald pinched the bridge of his nose. I should not have brought my family out here.
"And Dee, remember that there's a different bunch of passengers now. Be careful until we've checked them out."
Gerald caught Fawn's gaze. She rolled her eyes but nodded.
He helped unload furniture, tried to not gawp at the expansion ratio of the pads, was relieved to see that Dee and Spence had small separate bedrooms, leaving a large open area. At the bottom of the wagon a large sheet of hard plastic that sat on triangular props for a large table.
Sarah sighed. "Now I have table envy."
"It's the largest size I can easily get though my airlock. Lets us spread out and work."
"What does an Asteroid miner work on?" Cody craned to look at the comp Spence set on the table.
"I've got a number of semi-autonomous surveyors. They fly around sampling small asteroids, and I decide if it's worth collecting. I have to check them once a week when they're between asteroids, and several times daily when they're on one. Right now I've got three in transit and two actively sampling."
"So you're not really taking a break, taking a four year trip to Earth?"
"Well, I'm not earning money—other than what I sold personally—last month. But I'll have a nice back list that I can work out a least-time-and-fuel-path to collect." He'd been bringing up data on his comp, then sending a duplicate to the large screen on the wall. Black and white, but good detail.
"This, as you see, is what we call a gravel pile. The micro gravity pulls stuff in. There's usually a fair amount of ice in there, and even a slow collision can heat the ice enough that the re-freeze incorporates the newest chunk into the whole. So we basically dig a hole, with frequent reflection spectra tests to tell us what elements we're looking at, to the middle to see if there's a chunk of something valuable in the middle. Or in the crust—you do find metal nodules, and if they're high enough in a couple of rare elements, they're worth stopping by to pick them up."
They watched the little robot push out a thick arm and freeze.
Dee giggled. "And they have no discretion as to what they test. That one is testing water ice. That spike right there is ammonia ice, not real strong, so there's not much of it."
"Is that good or bad?" Cody eyed all the graphs.
"Water is used for almost everything, including ship propulsion. This is a bit more ammonia than we like to see, to use in the ship. But for the greenhouses, it's a plus."
"Why does it matter for the ship?"
Dee grinned. "Because we have to get rid of it before we slowly electrolyze the water and store the oxygen and hydrogen for the engines."
Fawn sniffed. "I never understood how that works. Don't you wind up using more energy than you get back?"
"Oh yeah, tons. But the electricity is from the solar cells on the skin. It just perks along slowly making fuel, then we use it all up in a few maneuvers, and then coast to the next asteroid."
"Making fuel, slow and steady, all the way." Fawn beamed. "And that's what you're looking for? Asteroids with something valuable and enough water to get you to the next asteroid, or back to one of the stations. That's neat!"
Spence laughed, and looked over to where he was shaking out a roll . . . rugs with bright vibrant colors. "You have to like the life of a hermit, and the risks. It suit me, but I suspect Dee will outgrow it."
"Or I'll get a ship of my own. I'm saving up, you know."
Gerald couldn't tell if Spence was skeptical or proud. Maybe both? Dammit, back home I could run his name and . . . right, it's not like we're out of communication with Earth.
Marshal Fallon is going to be a decent frontier lawman, once he gets his ass kicked good and hard a couple of times.
At least he can play poker.
"Call." Spence waited to see if anyone was going to raise, then laid down his hand. Scooped the modest pot.
The money didn't matter, but as a way to get to know the other men hitching a ride out to the belt it was hard to beat. Good losers, and poor winners alike. Some experienced miners, some first timers. There were even a couple who lacked even orbital construction experience. Brothers who'd gone through so-called training camp downstairs.
At least they know how to put on a spacesuit. I hope. And they've bought Finnegan's ship and remotes, so they've got decent equipment. Now if they'll just stop rubbing in their wins and whining about their losses, they may survive long enough to be useful members of the community.
Fallon dealt with quick efficiency. He was fitting in nicely, a solid dependable man, despite being prickly about small transgressions that on Earth might have warranted a ticket, or a pulled license.
By the time we get out to the belt, he'll loosen up, and be sensible.
With so many newbies, every single one of them believing all the tall tales the fine citizens of Zero Station love to tell the few news reporter who've actually been there, our new marshal is getting too much reinforcement of his misconceptions.
On Zero Station, the reporters can roam freely, and see everything. And tell the world about it. Fifteen and Ceres? They make damn sure the reporters never see the dirty side.
So all the marshal has is propaganda on one side and tall tales on the other. If I can just keep him alive long enough for him to wake up . . . God knows we need some form of law enforcement.
Spence suppressed a sigh as he viewed his cards and discarded two. Picked up a pair of aces and shook his head. Dammit, I was going to lose tonight, so I didn't get mistaken for a professional gambler.
He bid once, folded.
One of the Faulkner boys scooped up the pot, laughing. "You should never try to bluff me, Jase."
Jason Faulkner scowled. "I think you saw my cards, you dirtbag."
Silence, as people looked around to see who was going to get killed.
The marshal slapped a hand on the table. "I think you loving brothers need to split up and play at different tables. Christ, you sound like whiney children."
Which instantly united them, to face the marshal. Who stared steadily at them. Arms on the table, clearly not armed.
Spence casually laid his right hand over the heavy watch on his left wrist. Clicked the button to arm the mini-laser.
Bill Komiko hustled over. "No fight in bar. You start fight, you no come back for one month."
Mark Faulkner cast a sneer Bill's direction. "Oh yeah? Watch this." His hand darted behind his back, whipped out a pistol . . .
The laser hit his bicep and he lost his grip on the gun. It skidded across the table. Spence grabbed it, leaned back and, holding it by the barrel, lifted it behind his head. "Here Bill. Better lock this up for a month. Maybe . . . which brother are you? Mark? Can come back in a month and apologize."
"Good. You tell them, Spence." Bill took the gun and scuttled away.
Spence eyed the brothers. "Why don't you two collect your winnings and call it a night. Think about the consequences, out here, of insults and gloating." He stacked his own coins—the six carot gold and copper alloy that was the standard out here—stood and pocketed the money without taking his eyes off of the other people in the room.
Mark glared, but started gathering his winnings.
Spence turned and walked out, watching them in the mirror, in case Jason was also going to pull a gun. He didn't. Fallon joined the rest of the players in pocketing, in Fallon's case, a bit less that he'd brought.
Spence dawdled long enough for the marshal to catch up with him.
"That was a laser, wasn't it? And you fired it."
Not really a question. Spence tapped his watch. "Single shot. Weak enough that I'd have to be very unlucky to seriously hurt, let alone kill, anyone." Lucky, unlucky, depends on which end of the laser you're on. "The aim is difficult, but anywhere you hit them, the heat will make them flinch."
"Right. Thank you. I wasn't prepared for a shoot-out in the tavern. Guess I’ll have to start carrying—like everyone else out here. Now please tell me you aren't on my list of people to arrest."
"Gerald . . . I hate to spoil a good joke, but half of those 'famous criminals' are completely imaginary. The other half are made-up umbrellas names being credited with the exploits of hundreds of people."
"No Spinner? How about the Slider, or the Old Man."
"Lots of miners, myself included, will, when a nickel iron asteroid is at hand, shoot it with an electro-magnetic harpoon as we pass it, swing around on the harpoon cable and releasing it so we go flying off in the direction we want. We brag about especially good spins. But asteroids are not like in the movies. They are very spread out. There is no Mythological Spinner, swinging through the asteroids, never needing a course correction burn."
"The Sliders—plural—are a vigilante group committing . . . generally well-timed rescues, and yes, sometimes revenge. No, I will not name names. Your job should be to make them unnecessary, not arrest them. Jack the Giant Killer was so named because he picked large asteroids and demolished them. He died five years ago, without ever harming anyone. And if there's a century old war criminal hiding in the belt, well, I've never met him."
The marshal grunted. "I got a brief on that last. Experimental treatments to maximize the cellular level repair of radiation damage in the early space force troops. Then they topped it off with stuff to force recalcification of the bones after long stretches of zero g that caused some form of . . . not dementia, per se, but a loss of empathy.
"Apparently there were a couple of hundred men who received both treatments. It created an aggressive, ambitious man with a drive to control, and followers who would do whatever he ordered them to do. They were all tried for war crimes and sentenced to life in prison. Except that General Jack Murphy never aged, never died, like the rest of them."
"Yeah, I've read about the atrocities in history classes. Always figured it was the usual. Orders from on high. Anything gets out of control, blame the troops. The politicians get off scot-free." Spence sighed. "In the highly unlikely case that I believed a word of this . . . how did this supposed immoral immortal get out here? I mean, the war ended . . . ninety-eight years ago? They were just starting construction of the first three stations about then. When did he escape? There was a lot of stuff shipped this direction, for several years, but there was no place to escape to."
"Well . . . that's umm . . . they don't know. At some point they realized the man they had in prison wasn't him."
"What? That's . . . uh, did they ever have the right man? Or was there a prison break?" Spence boggled. Stupidest cover story ever. But enough, perhaps, to motivate their naïve agent here. "Not that I doubt that's what they told you . . . but do you believe it?"
"Nope. I can smell bullshit when my nose is rubbed in it." Fallon sighed. "I'm beginning to wonder how much of anything I've been told is accurate."
Wisdom strikes! Because the only way they got these six stations completed was with a work force that was sort of radiation resistant and didn't lose calcium from our bones, wouldn't demand to be rotated back to Earth, and that wouldn't get them into political trouble if we died.
Or were abandoned without supplies.
"You'll be walking into a viper's nest on Station Fifteen. Hopefully they will behave themselves, because I suspect that Ceres really wants you."
"Yes. I've exchanged mail with Mayor Hendricks. He was very welcoming."
Spence winced. "That's ominous. You should seriously consider leaving your family on Zero. Then going on to Ceres." He looked at the man's stubborn face and shrugged.
"Right. Well, how about tomorrow some hands-on introduction to spacecraft? Your kids'll love it."