He brought a pile of danishes on a platter, two plates and cups and a coffee pot.
And a fiendish grin. “So . . . you want to know how it all started? Well, the World Council got the funding for twenty-four space stations and started sending the materials out there, so everything they need would be out there when the crews arrived to assemble them.
“Good time for the orbital manufacturing companies, yep, yep.”
Gerald frowned. “Where did they get the raw materials? Before they were mining the asteroids?”
“The Moon mostly. Moon rocks are mostly rocks, and you can refine iron and aluminum and such from them. But the Moon’s been hit by every kind of asteroid that’s out there, so you can just pick up nickel-iron meteors, or impact melt breccia on the surface easily enough.”
“Then they hit the next problem. Who the hell wants to come out here for low paying, dangerous work and no vacation for years? That’s when they got permission to use convict labor. Volunteers only, but, well, they got them. Young healthy and . . . not very nice, right?”
“Men with long term sentences, I suspect.”
“Lifers, most of ‘em. A lot of miners came out at about the same time, the Stations were their main customers. I mean, they had machine shops and foundaries, all they needed was iron, by and large It was still cheaper to import aluminum from the Moon, but the iron asteroids are easy to find, out here.”
“Was there competition between the miners?”
“Eh, not really, then. But see, twenty-two years some of those convicts worked out here. Knowing there was a good chance they’d never set foot on Earth again. They made plans. They prepared. More to the point, they had those foundaries and machine shops. When the Fleet moved out with all the staff and managers . . . they didn’t realize the convicts they’d abandoned out here had built more than Stations. They’d duplicated all the machinery, build little mining ships, built independent habitats, even had some working farms.”
“Damn. Australia in space.”
“Sort of. Well the people who did most of that work—and truth be told more than their share of the Station building as well—were maybe ten percent of the total laborers.”
Gerald nodded. “Sturgeons laws or something like that. 20% of the people do 80% of the work. True everywhere.”
“Heh. Less that, criminals aren’t an average group, right? Now, they had Fifteen, Zero, 345, and 330 done by then, and were working on Thirty and Forty-five. And there they were. Over a thousand men. Abandoned to die.”
Gerald winced. “They moved here? Or . . . Fifteen would have been the closest, then.”
“Right. They ferried most of the people over there . . . and themselves further, to Zero.”
“They” were not ordinary criminals, were they?
“How the hell did they hide all that?”
“Eh, see the order they built the stations depended on their relation ship with Earth, so they started with 330 and then 345, Zero, Fifteen . . . So the duplicate machinery they made were hidden on the stations. And . . . well, it was dangerous work. Lots of deaths and injuries. And sometimes . . . just as the a station was completed, some deaths would be reported. They’d hold a funeral and smuggle the supposedly dead guys back into the station, to mind the hydroponics and so forth. Which had all been installed after the final inspection, while they were packing up and moving to the next construction site.”
Gerald whistled. “So when the fleet abandoned them, they had four working stations to move to.”
“Yeah. And they were on good terms with the Miners, and they could supply both themselves and the miners with fresh veggies. The miners had been abandoned, too, with no deliveries from home.”
“So they joined forces.”
“Yeah. The miners had money in the bank, back home, and used it. Gany brought out a load of chickens, rabbits, goats, miniature cows . . .” Hask shrugged. “And as soon as they were all sitting pretty, they started fighting over stuff.”
“Well, twenty years of forced hard labor wouldn’t have made the convicts fond of working for a living.”
“Yeah, well, those rivalries were mostly because of miners hijacking ‘finds.’ See? When you find a good asteroid, or find the hot pebbles in a gravel pile, and decelerate them toward Earth orbit, you put a tracking beacon on it. The mineral companies in earth orbit snag it when it’s close enough, assay it and stick the payment in a downside bank.”
“And the hijackers would track the signal?” Gerald guessed.
“Yep. Reprogram it to their code and let it sail away. People took umbrage. There were fights. Killings. Not many. Out here, any two people being on the same station at the same time is rare. But it happened often enough. Zero, 345, and 330 started kicking the troublemakers out. Fifteen took them in, and decent folk moved to one of us three.” Hask shook his head. “Women coming out on the Gany didn’t help any at all. Mostly whores who worked on Gany, deciding to stay out here and fleece the rich miners. They turned out to be the newest targets for raids. Not terribly surprising.”
“That’s about the time the Council privatized the stations, isn’t it?”
“Yep. The miners here bought Zero outright, the others went to Earth companies . . . who generally wrote them off as bad business expenses. The residents and miners of 345 and 330 bought those stations. Fifteen? No one is quiet sure who owns them anymore. No one brave enough to come out here and clean them out, that’s for sure.”
“What about Fifteen moving? Was it really for the mining?”
“Oh hell no. Look at them, now. Barely 3 million kilometers away. And moving slower than the rest of the stations, on a slightly larger orbit? They’re going to have decades of easy raids.” Hask slurped the last of the coffee, hefted the pot and shook his head. “I think my coffee break is over.”
“Thanks. I needed that perspective . . . umm, what about Ceres?”
“Oh that was a private mining company. It was on the far side of the Sun from us, didn’t pan out, so they all went home, leaving it empty. We’re just finally getting caught up to it . . . and Little Tony Hendricks nabbed it.” Hask snorted. “Spence was wrong—he thought it was too far away for them to want it. Everybody passed it up last opposition twenty-six years ago, if I remember right. But they went way out ahead of it this time, and they’ve been infesting it for 5 years now.”
“Did a lot of people move out there?”
“Oh yeah, three quarters of Station Fifteen! Couldn’t believe it. Can’t figure out what he’s up to, either.” Hask stood up stiffly.
“Huh. Fifteen must have been stuffed.”
“Oh yeah, and mostly men. I mean, there’s a reason they keep stealing women.” Hask shrugged. “Maybe he thinks the Sliders won’t go that far to rescue them, which just shows that he’s forgotten a whole lot about them.”
Gerald eyed the wishful look on the old man’s face.
Retired soldier. Still wants to run toward the sound of the guns.
General Murphy’s space marines. Were you one of them, Hask?
Hask stumped off toward the kitchen. Gerald left a big tip and headed back to the office to transcribe the conversation before he forgot.