IT’S CRYSTAL CLEAR: PROFITS FUND LAVISH LIFESTYLE
Workers here on Station Celeste pay 32 credits for data storage crystals that cost Administration just 6 credits, according to this invoice from HPackCorp. Where does the profit go? Station overhead accounts for some, but this internal report on Purchasing Supervisor Ross Barstowe’s relationship with MarsWare and other vendors on the Outer String suggests that much of the excess money funds Barstowe’s lavish 2-Level apartment and lifestyle, which includes parties, rare Sirillese artwork, and two mistresses (fotos here) . . ..
—Oracle (Net Posting Address unknown), 8.23.2132
He recognized the voice in his ear right away: “Duncan? Is Chris Tanos. Hey, Meeran diplomat was admitted to station hospital last night. News for your—”
Stop! Duncan Leamas wanted to shout. Not over an open channel! Instead he broke in with a sharp “Call me when you’re sober.”
Duncan cut the connection and glanced nervously around the cramped cubicle he shared with Janell. Chris would be mad, but Station Authority would throw Duncan into confinement if they connected him to Oracle. Hadn’t Tanos ever heard of Echo monitoring?
The earlink chirped. “Incoming call from unidentified source—”
“Duncan.” Chris sounded apologetic. “I forget.”
“That’s all right. What’s the flash?”
“Name is Dajo, something more but Dajo is all I heard. Meeran embassy attaché. They carry him into station hospital last night. Trouble breathing, spasms, delirium.”
“Where’d you get this?”
“Is name Ben Koprowski. Med attendant I work with at hospital, sometimes.”
“Koprowski. I think I know him.” Contrary to Janell’s opinion, Duncan didn’t know every single one of the 832 inhabitants of Station Celeste. Maybe half. “He likes action serials, right?”
“Is him. His shift is 1600 to 2400. Lives on 9 level.”
“Okay. Thanks for the flash.”
“What’s with Chris?” Janell asked.
He turned. Janell lay on their cot, scratching her short red hair while playing MarsWar on her gamepad. Ready for sleep, as soon as Duncan left for his job at Docs and Trans. Looking at her legs stretched out on the sweaty sheets, he considered showing up late. But he’d been late three times this quarter.
“One of the Meerans went to the hospital last night. I’d better check it out.”
She smiled, sleepy. “The station needs to know.”
He kissed her. “Right.”
AIR CHIEF’S QUALIFICATIONS SMELL
The recently-appointed Chief of Atmospheric Integrity and Quality has no background in atmosphere systems and only eight months of experience in any form of environmental management. Before his short stint in the accounting section of Environmental Systems on Luna’s Station Tycho, Eli Dawes worked as an Asset Management Specialist for Oversight Insurance Corp. and a Claims Arbitrator for the UNEarth’s North American Office of Property Damage (See Dawes’ résumé here). Co-Administrator Skillings defended Dawes’ hiring on his office’s NetSite, saying “Eli Dawes has a demonstrated ability to make decisions, learn quickly, and preserve vital resources.” Dawes will receive a salary of 132,000 creds and is eligible for a 20 percent raise after twelve months . . .
—Oracle (Net Posting Address unknown), 8.31.2132
Duncan had lived on Station Celeste for three years. He’d been posting Oracle—anonymously and untraceably—for two and a half. One night in the beginning Janell stared at him from their cot while he worked on an entry. “Why are you doing this?”
His eyes burned from staring at the screen too long. Two off-duty security officers had gotten drunk and trashed a bar, and then arrested three workers to blame the damage on them. Administration would deny everything he wrote, of course, but with any luck they’d get quietly fired within the next month.
He shrugged. “Because—” It’s what I do. Who I am. The only job I know. “People on the station need to know this stuff.”
“They don’t want to know it.”
“That’s why they need it.”
Now he stood in the corridor outside Ben Koprowski’s compartment, after skipping out early from his shift in Documents and Translation. Docs and Trans suited his background. He’d been a journalist on Earth and then on the Outer String. Before they’d fired him.
Stale human odors hung in the air. Air scrubber maintenance on 9 level wasn’t a priority. Doors began sliding open as Second Shift began heading out to report to work. A middle-aged woman nodded to Duncan without speaking. She’d tipped him off last month to the pilots who paid kickbacks for shipping runs to the String. He smiled and kept his eyes on Koprowski’s door.
It opened and Ben Koprowski ducked his head to lurch into the corridor. Tall and skinny, he had gray hair and a red face. Duncan waited for him to lock the door, then fell into step with him as he headed for the lift. “Hi, Ben.”
Koprowski glanced over his shoulder and decided to ignore him. “Do I know you?”
“Friend of a friend.” He reached into a pocket and held up a vid disk. “They tell me you’re the biggest fan on the station.”
Koprowski shook his head in disgust. “Not interested in porn—“
“The latest season of Mutant and Martian.” He’d gotten an advance bootleg from Menyatta, who ran all sorts of contraband through the docking level.
His eyes bugged. “What—really?”
“Chaz gets captured by Ringlander terrorists, and there’s a virus in Sirtis City—”
“Don’t tell me!” He dug into his pants. “How much do you want for it?”
“Not station creds. Just information. Dajo, the Meeran they took into Station Hospital yesterday?”
His eyes darted up and down the passageway. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone about him.”
“I’m not supposed to have this vid.”
He hesitated. “Let me see.”
Duncan slipped the vid into a handviewer and held it up to Koprowski’s face, fast-forwarding the recap scenes from the previous season. Music announced the new episode and he stopped the action. “Well?”
Koprowski trembled with excitement. “Okay. He came in at 0322. Delirious, and trembling, and feverish. They sent him right into isolation. The consulate is in the dark, don’t notify them—that’s the order.”
“Isolation 12. You didn’t get this from me.”
“And you—” he tossed the vid— “Didn’t get this from me. Enjoy.”
“Thanks!” Koprowski hurried back to his compartment to save the vid for later. Duncan got out of sight before he emerged.
Confirmed—but not nearly enough to post on Oracle yet. He could hear Jackson’s questions in his head as if she was shouting all the way from the Outer String. “Okay, okay,” he muttered, opening his comm and punching an ID. “Bundi? It’s me. You know anybody who’s been admitted to the hospital?”
NO ACROBATS, BUT A FINANCIAL VANISHING ACT
Acrobats from the Inner Belt did not perform at Chief Administrator Gravette’s recent birthday party, despite published reports that six performers were paid 4,000 creds apiece for entertainment at the celebration. The budget item hasn’t been accounted for, leading to questions about where the 24,000 credits went. Gravette’s office blames rumors of financial acrobatics on political rival Christine Lomar; two of Lomar’s aides were reassigned to Systems Monitoring after being questioned by Security . . .
—Oracle (Net Posting Address unknown), 9.14.2132
Package under one arm, Duncan slid his ID card through the reader. “Visiting patient Joseph Cantu.” After processing his card and voice, the grid displayed a cube number and Hospital chart. Then the door slid open.
Two security guards looked him over. Station Hospital was a tempting source of drugs, although most of the trade went through the guards themselves. One guard wore earphones, tapping his hand on the butt of his pistol in time with the music from his player. The other’s eyes were hidden behind a visor watching the security feeds, or maybe the latest exotic Asian porn. They ignored him as he passed by.
Cantu was under sedation. Most patients were. Hospital execs said it facilitated treatment, but unconscious patients couldn’t argue or complain. He lay in a tub of clear biofluid while thin white tubes pumped in the medicines to help him recover from heart surgery. The biofluid needed skimming—spots of waste material floated on the surface like stains.
Duncan opened his package, a picture cube that displayed 3-D images of mountains on Earth. He turned a view of the Himalayas toward Cantu’s face and talked for a few minutes in case anyone was monitoring the room. “Well, it’s been nice,” he said. “See you soon. I’ll tell your mother you’re looking good.” She worried—her son had been in here almost a week.
He turned the wrong way in the corridor and wandered for five minutes as if lost. He saw old people, children, broken limbs, burns, surgical scars, and restraints. No doctors. Equipment patched with gray duratape. Foul odors the air scrubbers couldn’t erase. Time for an exposé on Hospital, he thought when he reached Dajo’s isolation unit.
Unlike the other cubes, which were open to every passing eye, the isolation unit’s walls were opaque; only a circular window in the door, with a dent in the plastic screen, offered any view of the room inside. No guards on the door, but it didn’t slide when Duncan tried to open it. He took a quick glance up and down the corridor and peered inside.
The Meeran lay on a bed. Meeran arms were long and slender; their legs were short and powerful. They had pouches in their abdomens to carry and nurse their young. Dajo’s face was furry and flat, with three nasal slits between his round black eyes. He was hooked up to—Duncan counted—seven different instruments. Duncan tried to read the numbers on the equipment. Pulse looked strong, but temperature was in a red zone. Respiration was low. Brain activity just below normal. He activated his handcomp and entered all the data he could see—med readings, equipment models, the number of tubes sticking into Dajo’s body. He pressed the door control again.
“You! Step away from that door!”
Busted. Duncan jumped back, lifting his hands. “I was just—which way is out? I’m visiting my friend and I got turned around, I think. Hey, is that a Meeran in there?”
“That’s nobody that’s any of your business.” The guard, his visor dangling around his neck, glared at Duncan but kept his sidearm holstered. “You need to get going.”
“Sorry. I was just—”
“Just go!” The guard, a kid maybe twenty years old, looked more nervous than annoyed. “Before I report you.” Which he didn’t want to do, because he’d have to admit that he let someone get close to the isolation unit.
“I’m out of here.” Duncan backed away. The guard watched him, sweating. Duncan turned around and scampered toward the Exit sign.
He’d already checked the Station database, which sketched the history of human-Meeran relations but said next to nothing about their physiology. He needed an expert. And he knew just the person.
Fyr’filla was a Ferellian who tended bar at the Station House on 4 Level. He’d been exiled from the Ferellian system for reasons he wouldn’t discuss. Everyone expected that his three arms would make him quicker and better at serving drinks than a human bartender, but he spilled more booze and dropped more bottles than any bartender Duncan had ever seen. His studies in religion and philosophy hadn’t prepared him for a career of pouring drinks.
The Station House was quiet, close to empty, but Fyr’filla was behind the bar. He grabbed for a beer mug as Duncan walked in, dropped it, and let loose a long, musical curse and slammed three fists on the bar in frustration. “I’ll never master this skill.”
“Hey, Firefly. What do you know about Meeran physiology?”
With all three hands, he poured Duncan a shot of whiskey. “I’m a philosopher. I know that sounds very similar to ‘physiologist’ in your language, but in the For’a tongue—”
“What’s that saying from Mak’tiradu you’re always quoting me? ‘The goblet shapes the wine.’” He drank his whiskey. “Biology influences culture and beliefs and philosophy, that’s what you used to study, and nobody knows all the alien cultures on Station better than you do. Give me another whiskey.”
Again he poured with care. “I’ve never seen a Meeran in here. They have a short lifetime by human standards, and they’ve evolved many defenses against injury and disease. They do not fall sick often.”
Duncan showed the Ferellian his handcomp. “Then something strong hit this one. Can you tell me anything from these readings?”
Fyr’filla snatched the instrument from his hand. Any problem that distracted him from the world of dirty beer mugs was a reward in itself. “I must . . . give me time . . . May I download this?”
“Use the encryption mode. And give me another whiskey.”
HOLY MESS: DIVERSITY TRAINING TO ENCOURAGE HARASSMENT
Three Environmental Control employees have reassigned after allegations of religious non-harassment. Samuel Baynes belongs to the Temple of Martyrs, a sect which considers itself under constant attack to renounce its religious beliefs. Martyrs often complain that tolerance of their views is in itself a form of harassment, “stealing” their opportunity to defend their faith (See tract here). Environmental Control personnel will receive Diversity training on Temple of Martyrs beliefs to avoid similar incidents. . . .
—Oracle (Net Posting Address unknown), 10.05.2132
He kissed Janell as he entered the room. “Tea? The mint is just in.”
She shut down her gamepad and smiled. “Best offer I’ve gotten today.”
He found a pair of dirty mugs and hit the hot water button, watching the ration meter count down.
Janell worked in the Commissary office. They’d met while he checked out a story on Administration officials helping themselves to food items reserved for visiting dignitaries. He’d been intrigued by her quick laugh, her lack of tolerance for nonsense, and her quick smile. She’d moved into his tiny cubicle a week later.
“What about that Meeran in Hospital? Any news?”
“Firefly’s working on some stuff.” He crossed his legs in front of their terminal and checked his stories for the next posting. Minor items—pilferage, unauthorized downloads, an Administration attempt access personal files. The Dajo story would be a good attention grabber. If it didn’t take too long to find something solid. He had no deadline: Oracle was posted whenever he had enough stories. But long gaps between releases risked losing people’s interest.
“Why do you do that?” Janell asked.
“You asked me that already.” Twenty-seven times over the last fourteen months.
“And you don’t ever answer, asshole.”
“It’s important. Isn’t that an answer?”
“No. Why’s it so important to you?” She jabbed her finger at him. “Duncan Leamas? It’s got to be more than just staying in practice until someone offers you a real job again.”
“Since that’s not ever going to happen, yeah.”
She crossed her arms. “So why? Give me a real answer.”
The problem was that he didn’t have one. It had something to do with showing Administration they weren’t omnipotent, that they had no right to screw the people who worked on the station. Something to do with anger at being fired, needing to prove himself to Jackson and everyone else. And everything to do with the fact that he’d never really done anything else with his life. Not being sure he could. That scared him.
“To meet girls,” he said.
“Jerk.” She threw his underwear at him.
Before he could respond the door slid open. He jabbed a button on his terminal and twisted around—
“Duncan Leamas?” Two security guards. At least they weren’t wearing full armor. “You’re coming with us.”
“Hey, you can’t just walk in here!” Janell shouted.
“What is this?” Duncan untangled his legs and stood unsteadily to his feet. “You’ve got to have a—”
One guard held up a hand viewer. “Warrant for questioning. We know the rules. Come on.”
He examined the doc. Legitimate. He shrugged. “Whatever.”
Station Investigator Eileen Arvin sat behind a black metal desk, glancing back and forth between Duncan’s face and a computer screen. Her big eyes and slender build made Duncan think of a cougar—sleek and dangerous. “You visited Joseph Cantu in Station Hospital.”
“His mother asked me to bring him some pictures.”
“Then you went looking for Trejean Dajo.”
“I didn’t go looking. I got lost.”
“You were spying on his cubicle.”
They were taking this seriously.
“I never saw a Meeran before. I was curious.”
“Trejean Dajo is a senior diplomat. You’re a level-two document specialist. What did you want to see?”
“An alien. What’s the big deal?” His voice rose.
“Stay calm. I see here—” she gestured toward her screen—“You used to be a reporter on the Outer String. What brought you to Station Celeste?”
“I had to quit. Before they fired me.” The anger came rushing back despite himself. “I fabricated a quote.”
Asteroid miners had died in an accident caused by defective equipment. The corporation knew the driller might explode. He had the documentation. But no one would talk to him on the record, so he’d quoted an unnamed supervisor to confirm the details. The supervisor didn’t exist, and Jackson started pushing him about it. In the end he had to quit. Not so much to avoid getting fired, really, but to save Jackson from getting her ass kicked off the String for defending him.
Arvin leaned back in her chair and sighed in frustration. “I’ve got nothing to hold you on, Leamas, so let me just give you some advice. About talking to anyone about Dajo: Don’t.”
“I didn’t see any—”
“This station breathes gossip and lies like bad air. Net postings, that Oracle thing—” She paused. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
Duncan’s chest tightened, but nothing in Arvin’s expression suggested anything more than a simple question. “Yeah.”
“Oracle posts half-truths and lies all the time.” She shook her head. “It’s garbage. Right?”
She was waiting for an answer. After a breath, Duncan nodded. “All right.”
“We’re going to find the people behind Oracle, and when that happens we might give them a suit before we throw them off Station. Or we might not. In the meantime—” She leaned forward—“if they happen to report on a viewing of Dajo in Hospital, I’ll know who they’ve been talking to. And you’ll be back here and you won’t be going back to your girlfriend anytime soon. So don’t talk to anybody. Got it?”
Duncan forced a slow nod. Don’t say anything. Just leave.
“Got it?” Waiting for an answer.
“I understand. Is that it?”
Arvin frowned. “Get out.”
“Are you all right?” Janell sounded out of breath through the comm. “I almost called Uncle Zach.”
“Calling Uncle Zach” was a routine he’d worked out with Janell in case Administration brought him in for questioning about Oracle. She’d post an issue while he was in custody, filled with saved items he updated every few days. Administration would see right through it, of course, but it would slow them down and maybe force them to let him go for a while.
“I’m fine,” said Duncan, even though he was trembling with anger. “No need to bother Zach. I’m going to get some breakfast and get to my shift.”
“Oh. Okay.’ She sounded pissed off. At Security, or at him? Duncan couldn’t tell and didn’t care. “I need to get some sleep.” She cut off.
Half-truths and lies? Gossip? Garbage? Was Arvin as corrupt as everyone in Administration, or just too stupid to see the truth? Everything Duncan posted was confirmed, every name, every number, every comma. Arvin had to know that. What did she think—
Unless she’d been feeding Duncan a line of bull. Hoping to trick him into a mistake that would connect him to Oracle. Duncan leaned against a bulkhead for a deep breath of stale station air. Control, he told himself. Don’t let them run your emotions.
Station House was more crowded, and Fyr’filla had help behind the bar, a human female with no hair on her head and scarlet tattoos on her forearms. Duncan ordered a whiskey and some eggs from her while he waited for the Ferellian to have a free moment.
“Anything about our friend?” he asked as Fyr’filla cautiously pulled glasses from the washer.
“He’s dying,” Fyr’filla said.
Duncan’s stomach lurched. “What?”
“Or possibly having a baby. Male Meerans carry fetuses for several months before transferring them back to a female, did you know that? I checked every database I could find. Unless you get more data I can’t tell you if he’s on his deathbed or getting ready to pass a stone.”
Duncan grimaced. “Great.”
“But I’ll tell you what—it must be something serious.” Fyr’filla leaned in and lowered his voice. “Word is a military delegation from the Meeran Embassy on Earth is heading here.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
He waved one arm toward Sheila, the other bartender. “A bunch of security officers were in a few hours ago,” Sheila said, helping Fyr’filla with the glasses. “Complaining about extra defense drills because some Meeran assault group from Earth. They’re scared.”
“When are they coming?”
“Next few days. Maybe a week. These guards were looking for courage in a bottle. You want another whiskey?”
“No.” A Meeran assault force? Station Celeste couldn’t defend itself against a serious military threat. Maybe the Meerans thought this was an assassination attempt. Maybe they were right . . ..
“Damn it.” There was no way around it. He had to talk to the Meeran himself.
BET ON IT: SUPERVISOR’S LOSSES SPARKED GAMBLING PROBE
Two Docs and Translation Section workers were released from Security Confinement and reassigned to Recycling Operations pending a hearing on allegations of inappropriate Network use. The two had been charged with running a gambling operation based around the popular Net game Rings of Doom. An investigation determined that anonymous complaints about the operation came from their supervisor, Darla Hemming, whose losses on the Rings game totaled over 17,000 creds. Hemming is being transferred to an Outer String station. (See the official report here, and readouts of the account for DamnedGirl, Hemming’s Rings alias, here.) . . .
—Oracle (Net Posting Address unknown), 11.10.2132
“Is bad idea, Duncan,” Chris Tanos said.
“Don’t I know it.” Duncan wore a white cap and a gray hospital attendant’s uniform. It had a dark stain in the chest. He followed Chris through the hospital’s employee entrance.
Janell thought it was stupid, too. He wasn’t sure she’d be there when he got back—if he got back. The prospect of a long stay in detention was harder to contemplate if he thought she might never speak to him again.
Both were chances he had to take. Dajo’s illness, and the Meeran assault group’s mission, could spark a diplomatic incident between races—and get people on Celeste killed. Station workers had a right to know.
You’re an idiot, he thought. Then he spotted the door and pushed his worries out of his mind.
Chris, his fingers shaking, punched a code into the panel next to the door. “Okay,” he whispered. “Good luck.”
The door slid open. Chris walked away, muttering to himself.
Duncan slipped inside. The smell was a mixture of chemicals and unpleasant bodily odors. Dajo lay on the bed, his fur matted and sweaty. Eyes half closed, he moaned softly.
Duncan peered at the readouts on each piece of equipment. Respiration was a little better, and brain activity had improved some, but the fever was still high.
“Uhh,” Dajo groaned. “Mraolo ishpa la donnu?”
He reached beneath the uniform for his handcomp and set it to translate as Dajo continued murmuring in his native language. The translation program caught individual words—“head,” “water,” “mother,” and some obscenities involving genitalia. Dajo seemed delirious.
Duncan frowned at the equipment readouts he didn’t recognize, a jumble of jagged lines, multicolored shapes, and stark impersonal numbers. He lifted the handcomp and shifted it to visual record, trying to focus in on the data—
—And Dajo grabbed his arm like a drowning man dragging himself into a rowboat. “Kila!” he whispered in a raspy voice. “ Kila!”
“What?” Duncan’s heart thudded and he almost dropped the handcomp onto Dajo’s chest. “What do you—”
“Kila!” His black eyes bulged in—desperation? Excitement? Duncan knew better than to assume he could read alien body language. He pulled Dajo’s fingers from his arm—the Meeran’s grasp was weak as a human child’s—and quietly asked “What do you want?”
“Kila nozzer wann wann . . .” Then he closed his eyes and threw up. Duncan jumped back, but couldn’t avoid some of the spill of whatever had been in Dajo’s stomach on his shoes. Foul.
Time to go. The med staff monitoring Dajo would probably notice his return to brief consciousness and Duncan needed to be gone before anyone asked him a question he couldn’t answer. He slid the door, turned for one last look at Dajo, and caught another whiff of vomit. Disgusting, but something in it was faintly familiar. Almost like . . ..
“Kila,” Dajo whispered, and Duncan smiled. He knew.
“He’s drunk?” Janell peered over Duncan’s shoulder as he tapped his keyboard.
“Tequila. Meeran bodies don’t metabolize it very quickly. He’ll be intoxicated for a week. And hung over for a month.” Duncan laughed. “He may be the first Meeran to get drunk and live to talk about it.”
“And this is news?”
He looked at her. “Of course it is—a military assault force is on the way here. Meerans aren’t supposed to have access to alcohol. Firefly checked the bars around Station House and found one that sent a bottle to his habitat, but station security delivered it. Maybe they really were trying to kill him, but probably someone just screwed up. And Administration is trying to cover it up and they might get us into a war here.”
“All right! All right.” She sank back on the bed. “I’m just glad nobody reports on me when I’ve got a hangover.”
He glared at the screen. Where was he? His earlink chirped: “Incoming call from Christakos Tanos.”
Damn it. “Accept. Chris, what’s up? I’m in the middle of—”
“Duncan! I am fired.”
He blinked. “Huh?”
“Hospital tell me they reevaluate my record. Terminate. I don’t know. I report to Resource Center, get reassignment—Environmental Maintenance, grade 4. Bastard.”
Grade 4 was the second-lowest pay rate on Station. “Chris, I’m—did they tell you why?”
“Bastard,” Chris spat, and Duncan flinched in guilt. But then Chris said, “Bastard Doctor Fielding never want me there, look for any reason. But I know why. You know why.”
Duncan stared at his words on the screen. Chris had a family. “You know, I’ll ask around, maybe somebody has a job—”
“Forget that. Get the bastards, Duncan. Just get them.” Chris cut the link.
“You got Chris Tanos fired?” Janell asked.
“Uh-huh.” He didn’t have the nerve to look at her.
“Sons of bitches.”
His fault. Station was run by corrupt, petty bureaucrats only interested in their own power, but Duncan had gotten Chris fired. Damn it!
Nothing he could do. Not now. Except one thing . . ..
The story went at the top of the post. Big flashy head: “BOTTOMS UP: MEERAN DIPLOMATIC CRISIS SPARKED BY TEQUILA.” One last check for spelling. Then—
Send. He sat back, folded his arms, and closed his eyes. One more Oracle posting on the Station Net.
Station needed to know.
# # #