“I . . . shit.” Millers feet slipped of the chair and he leaned forward.
“Am I up to question seven? Yes. Ceres’ orbit is slower than the Stations’ orbits, so the stations catchup to Ceres and pass it every twenty-four plus years.”
Miller blinked. “So?”
“So last time no one cared. This time the pirates went well out of their way to get to it five years ahead of opposition, and are still there. Why is that bothering some . . . let’s call them persons of interest. What has changed? I’m told ‘Little Tony’ Hendricks is in charge out there. Is he the Anthony Henderson who was a young scientist on the 2119 Asteroid survey?”
“Ahhh . . .”
“And was he out here the last time Ceres was close, or was this his first opportunity? And what about other various people out here? I would like complete profiles and pictures of everyone on those early missions.” Gerald sat back and eyed the young officer.
“I think . . . I need to talk to my superiors.” He stood. “I’ll be back . . . sometime?”
“I’ll look forward to it.” Gerald smiled. “And when you talk to them—ask them what’s out there on Ceres that is drawing all this interest? What did they find, and possibly conceal, out there?”
Ceres was a big gray golf ball. Almost a thousand kilometers diameter, spinning slowly as it trudged around its 4.6 year orbit.
Unlike Gany, the dwarf planet’s gravity was high enough, and its rotation slow enough that the centripetal force of its rotation was completely overwhelmed by its gravity. Of course that was just under 3% of Earth’s gravity. So even an F-class mining ship could land and take off without difficulty.
Two weeks without a hair cut, and more important, no acetaminophen, and he looked a lot younger, a lot hairier, and a lot less scarred. Funny, how the wrinkling and scars are accentuated by a centuries old common painkiller. And fade within a few days when they stop. It must suppress something that those altered genes do.
Handy, when I need a disguise.
He kept the ship dark all the way in, landing gently on the surface of the dark side, fifty meters from another ship. Then he flipped the hull plates and the Greyhound was just another F-class, with the name “Crazy Loon” on the hull.
“First time the Loon and her owner have come for a visit. Well, since we last caught up with Ceres. Or, from their point of view, since the last time the real Crazy Loon stopped by.”
He eyed the spot lit area around what—according to Spike’s report—was being used as the main entrance. “Let’s see if any of the back doors still work.”
He turned on his suit radio, receive only, and dialed through the channels. Nothing but faint mumbles and static.
What with vacuum welding, ice movement, and the ubiquitous dusty regolith, it could be hard to even find the old doors. Whether they still worked, and whether the space they opened into was still connected to the rest of the tunnels was always a matter of luck.
Good thing we went overboard making sure we could escape if a tunnel collapsed. Poor Tony. Does he realize he can’t keep us out? Does he realize that we come out at every opposition? Starting shortly after we started building the stations.
We stashed stuff there, built habitats . . . never had to use them, we weren’t dumped until after we’d finished the stations, and Ceres had been left behind.
The stations are more livable, in any case. We had them a whole lot closer to habitable than the managers ever realized. We just had to spin them up and make air out of water, and grow food before we used up the food stashes and starved.
But the find . . . we’d all agreed to hold the information close, to never broadcast it. Never give them something to fight over. Until we reported in person.
Then they sent a big expedition to study it, to reverse engineer it. Of course we dug a lot of tunnels “to see the structure and variation of a dwarf planet’s makeup.” Over ten thousand kilometers of tunnels. Veering all over, sticking to the dirty ice where possible. Lots of dead ends to check out the rocks to one side or the other. Or give up and take a detour.
In between the care recreation of bits and pieces of the find, with the scientists trying to figure out what was missing and what the hell it was supposed to do.
And as the political climate got even chillier downstairs, our mission was cut short. The United States, Canada and Mexico were joining forces to face down the Eastern Bloc, and they needed the money to build up the military.
So we buried it here, on Ceres. With all the notes, the experiments, the engineering details of the things that worked. A hundred and thirty years ago.
Only three of us ever knew about the second find.
And Little Tony wasn’t one of them.
We never told the New Government. The Federated States of North America.
We never spoke of it.
The troops never leaked the first find. Loyal to the end. Loyal to me, in the end, following me out here to build the stations, and hopefully stay out here. A third of them dead, accidents, pirates, old age . . . But we made a good life out here. And once we managed some false IDs, a few of the guys even went home to Earth.
He grabbed the canes and turned away from the lit entrance and toe-walked very carefully away to check the nearest airlock. Not that it ought to have frozen up in the three weeks since Spike snuck in. It’s a pity that ships show up so well on radar, and even the naked eye. I’d rather park elsewhere, enter further from the busy area.
When he reached the edge of the disturbed regolith, he turned on his light and proceeded on the two canes. Since he weighed only eleven kilograms, it only took balance and care to leave almost no trail.
Little Tony knows the find was hidden in an ice cave just below the surface, that we filled in with the ice rubble from the tunnel excavations. I’m surprised he hasn’t found it yet, everyone knew it was 200 kilometers (more or less) west (roughly) of Occtal crater.
South side of the equatorial tunnel we told them. Didn’t mention it wasn’t connected to the tunnel. Was twice as deep. Maybe that’s why he’s having trouble finding it.
Spike says they’re using a mining laser, Almost randomly, then manually removing the tailings.
He spotted a familiar boulder and slipped around behind it. A slight over hang helped conceal the door in the ground.
He ran the test instruments over the door and all around. Nothing.
He spun the wheel and lifted the door. Stepped over the edge and Caught his tiny weight on the edge and pulled the door down. Dogged it. He climbed down rough cut ledges in the gritty ice down to the bottom of a deep hole. At the bottom there was an airtight door in the wall. Indicators long dead. Spence turned the wheel and pushed it open with no resistance. Still working in a vacuum. I’m surprised Little Tony isn’t kidnapping laborers.
He closer the door behind him got his feet up and pushed. Got his hands out to steer with an occasional push on a wall, the floor, overhead . . . and dragged the canes along the wall when he got to the mine tailings.
So Tony can’t be bothered to take it all the way outside? Heh. Or his miners are lazy.
The tunnel was only half full. Spence crawled along with his hands and toes. Stopped and turned off his light when he spotted a dim glow ahead. Crept up to a loose stack of ice chunks blocking the way.
Spike’s work perhaps? He is a bit detail oriented in his paranoia. And he’s had four years on his own to keep checking progress. I shouldn’t be surprised he’s got it set up and concealed.
He ran through the standard channels on his radio, and found three in use. Someone giving orders, and two full of grousing.
He maneuvered around until he could look through a gap between the piled ice chunks. Two men in sight. Coasting down the tunnel. Ordinary canvas over suits, with pads on shoulders, elbows, and knees. Grubby.
Perfect. I’ll fit right in. Spence waited until his limited view was empty of people and pulled the top ice boulder off the wall.
A better view, still no one in sight. Two more chilly chunks and he slid through, reaching back and replacing the ice before he turned and headed the direction the two pirates had taken.
A cross tunnel, with carts full of ice headed one way, unburdened men pulling strings of empty carts going the other direction. A bit of a bumping tangle.
Cursing on one channel.
Spence drifted across and shifted carts and got them all heading the right direction. “Gimme half. I’ll take ‘em.”
Got a rude reply, but the guy moved off with three, and Spence followed.
Found himself shifting ice to fill his carts, lost them to their proper owner, shrugged and started filling the next guy’s cart. More crashing. A growl o the supervisor’s channel. He pointed at Spence. “You, stop sloughing off, grab four carts out of that mess and haul them!”
All the way back to the surface. Dump them, head back down.
Three trips up and down, and Spence was ready to start grumbling himself.
Sudden silence on the boss’s channel, puzzlement on the others.
“Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” a man bounced down the tunnel, wall-to-wall travelling fast.
Very tall. Thin. Was that Little Tony?
Spence got his empty carts moving. To a ragged hole where they’d broken through to an ice cave
“There, there! I told you! Oh, look at that beauty.” Tall and thin climbed over rubble to touch the ship’s hull.
A smooth oval, with three flares, just enough for some control in an atmosphere. Mostly still covered with ice, the damage hidden.
Spence remembered the inside.
Set up to carry passengers. A shuttle, or possibly a life boat.
Small seats, odd controls. Strange engines—what was left of them.