Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chapter twenty-one: Then she left me to my own scary thoughts.

Previous Chapter

I called Marjori to confirm a dinner date for the following clock night; she'd pled family matters later that evening, or I would have tried to see her again. Then I called a squid and headed for home.

I was still trying to sort it all out, but the entire mess was a jumble. I was sure that Patrick Barefoot and Angel Lee were dead. Their transponder had failed about halfway between Marley Farm and Sky City, and they hadn't even had time to send a distress code. What the sky control records did show was a sudden loss of altitude immediately prior to the transponder failure; I checked the last few seconds of transponder signals against those that Old Bess has sent just before my little skyriding adventure, and they matched well enough to satisfy my own conclusion jumper.

Can you make a road map when all the streets you turn up become dead ends? I didn't think so. Certainly I had my theories about what had gone on, why Doria Adams and Thomas Grayling were still missing, and who had snatched, tortured, and killed Sheila Mason, but they were just theories, not even good enough for extra-legal action, let alone anything that a board of review would go for.

And how many had died so far, and how little did we have to show for those deaths? Sheila, Mickey Deere, Patrick Barefoot and Angel Lee, to say nothing of our unidentified body from the raid, and who knows how many that went out the bottom when they dumped the burning bloons.

And old Bess. Damn, but I resented what they did to old Bess. What kind of creeping sentimentality is it when you mourn the death of an ancient invertebrate?

We docked at Fumio's and I tipped both the driver and Joey. Joey gave me the usual grin and seemed about to say something, then closed his mouth and grinned again. I gave him my best tired smile.

Outside, the sun had dropped below the horizon, but there was still a trace of red to the clouds below as I walked to my room, so the entire journey took on an unreal, neon-lit quality. I was going to take maybe three or four showers, toss my clothes, and take a sedative to spend a few hours doing the oblivion waltz. I deserved at least a few hours of dreamless sleep tonight.

But as I approached my room I realized that I was going to have to postpone everything again. Someone was in my room and once more it was without a prior appointment. I stopped just long enough to slip the knife out of my ankle scabbard, then walked to the portal and unzipped it.

There was no extra light inside, just the barest hint of fleeting pink that made it though the bloon's translucent walls. But my eyes had mostly adjusted to the dimness of the corridor, so I could make out her silhouette as she sat in my one piece of furniture, the inflatable chair that Calvin Lee had brought with him so very long ago.

She'd heard the noise of the door, and could doubtless see me as well as I saw her. She rose to meet me as I entered.

"Mr. Honlin?" she said as she held out her hand. "I'm Doria Adams. I believe that you have been trying to find me."

I shook her hand and motioned for her to sit again, while I let my legs fold under me and I sat on the floor. Her face slowly came to me in the semi-darkness, as my eyes continued to adjust and as each movement she made gave me a little more of her features.

I could see how it was that so many had been attracted to her. Despite her obvious nervousness and the effects of the past weeks of fear, her face still had a marked look of innocence to it, tempered by a mobility that bespoke an unsatisfied curiosity. Teach me things her expression seemed to say. Show me life.

From her fast-lived past it should have been lies that I read in her face. How could she still look this innocent, given what she'd done, who she'd been, how she'd lived? But I didn't believe that. There was still a kernel of unaffected guilelessness to her, a core of personality that had withstood whatever else had transpired and still served to draw other souls to her, men as would-be lovers, protectors, mates, women as confidants, friends. I could understand why shy Sheila would have called her a friend, and why Thomas Grayling would have to thought her a cure for his own malaise.

We said our introductions, then Doria told me her story.

"We were leaving the Turbolift Club when it happened," she told me. "There were two of them, they both were wearing dark bubblemasks, so I couldn't see them very well.

"Mickey reacted before I even knew that something was happening, like suddenly there was a knife in his hand and one of the guys was bleeding bad. Then the other guy put his fist next to him and I heard a little popping noise. Mickey swung his knife at that one, too, but the guy backed up real fast, and when Mickey tried to go at him again, Mick stumbled and fell and then he didn't move."

"Hypojet," I told her. "Some quick acting poison that made it into an artery. Was the guy's hand near Deere's neck?" She nodded. "That means the jet probably got one of the arteries and made it to the brain quickly. It can kill in seconds."

She grimmaced. "Well, then Tommy yelled, 'Run!' and he didn't have to tell me twice. I cut and ran as fast as I could. I heard Tommy shout a couple more things, then I heard his voice get really strange, like it was a weak scream. I figured that the guy had probably got him like he'd gotten Mickey, only it took longer. There was some other yelling and cursing besides. I think maybe Tommy got himself tangled up with the guy, so that they couldn't follow me very well. I don't know exactly. I was so scared. I just kept running.

"Finally I had to stop. I couldn't run any more. I was down on the warehouse levels by that time. I wandered around for a while, avoiding people, then I went up to mid-level, found a small hotel and spent the night shaking on the bed. I don't think I slept any. I paid cash for the room, but I was afraid they'd trace me somehow."

"Why didn't you then contact the police?" I asked her, pretty much expecting the answer I received.

She made a face. "And what good would they do me?" she asked. "I didn't know who had attacked us, or for what reason. I listened to the new reports and never heard mention of it, so for all I knew, the cops were in on it. Or it was some high level assassination deal. I know that Tom's father had some pretty tough looking guys working for him, and you don't employ that kind of muscle unless you expect to need it someday."

"Did you ever meet Thomas's father?" I asked.

"No," she told me. "But Tommy did take me on a tour of his father's offices once. It was after hours and he had some sort of idea about making it on once of the desks."

I couldn't resist following up on that one a little. "Where was Mickey Deere during the, uh, tour?" I asked her.

"Outside the door, standing guard," she replied. We should all have friends like Mickey Deere, I thought to myself.

"Okay," I said, changing tack. "Did you think of going back to Marley Farm?"

Even in the dim light I could see that the question disturbed her. "I did," she said. "But I didn't dare to. I mean, I didn't know who it was who attacked us, you see, or what they wanted. But..." she paused.

"But...?" I prodded.

"But earlier that evening at the Turbolift," I saw somebody from the Farm. A guy named Angel Lee. It was quite a coincidence, I guess, but I didn't think that much about it at the time. I called out his name and waved to him, you know, the way you do when you run into somebody you didn't expect to see. He didn't look very pleased to see me."

"Was he with anybody else?" I asked her.

"Yes, several others. There was a group of them in one of the back booths. I didn't recognize any of them, though."

"I see," I said. "So you think that Angel might have had something to do with your being attacked?"

"I don't know," she replied. "I honestly don't know what to think. But I can't afford to take chances. This is my life we're talking about here."

There wasn't a trace of prevarication in her face, not that I could see. But then again, the room had gotten darker since she'd started talking.

"So where have you been staying?" I asked her.

"With friends," she said. "Please don't ask me who. I don't want to get them into trouble. But one of my friends told me that you could be trusted and that you were looking for who did it. He, uh, said that you might be able to help."

"Did your friend tell you about Sheila?" I asked.

"Yes," she said in a tiny voice. "That was so horrible. Do you think they did that to Sheila just to try to find me? If I'd known . . . "

"Don't beat yourself up about it," I told her. "You didn't hurt Sheila, somebody else did that. You were just trying to get out from under."

She smiled gratefully at me. If only it were really all that simple.

"You also probably did the right thing in not going back to Marley Farm," I told her. "We just learned this evening that Angel Lee is dead, most likely murdered, but since it was a bloon accident, we may never know for sure."

Her eyes widened slightly. "Oh God," she said.

I nodded. "It's not over yet, but it may be soon," I told her. "From what you've told me, I think I may be able to get at the root of it."

"What should I do until then?" she asked me.

"Pretty much what you've already been doing," I told her. "Go back to your friends' place and lay low. Don't contact anybody for a few days, then you might want to give me a call to see how it's going."

"You don't want to have some way to contact me?" she asked dubiously.

"If anybody asks, I'd rather say 'I don't know,'" I told her. "And I'd rather be telling the truth."

She nodded. If she wasn't thinking of Sheila and how many times Sheila must have said 'I don't know,' she should have been.

We rose and I led her to the door. It was almost completely dark by now, and I gave her a chembulb in case she need it for the corridor. She grasped my hand when I gave it to her.

"I see what my friend meant," she said.

"How so?" I asked.

"It's not nearly so scary having you on my side," she said. Then she left me to my own scary thoughts.

Next Chapter

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Chapter twenty: "What a thoroughgoing cockup"

Previous Chapter

Once Calvin and I got our dead guy into the vehicle, we gave him a once over and tried to figure out why he was dead. His face was contorted and his body looked like it had undergone spasm death throes. It could easily have been CO2 poisoning, but Calvin wasn't so sure.

"This looks more extreme than what I've seen before," he said. "Anyway, I'd bet he was killed, rather than dying by accident."

I looked at our corpse, who'd been dressed in the same body suit and helmet as all the rest we'd seen. "How so?" I asked.

He'd pulled off the guy's gloves, and he pointed to his wrist. "No ID bracelet. He was here illegally."

"You think somebody killed him for that?" I asked.

"No," he answered. "I think he was killed to keep him quiet. I think his being an illegal made him more of a risk. We might spot him; we could detain him and nobody could spring him, we'd have leverage."

"Poor bastard," I said. "I wonder if there were any others like him back there?"

We never found out. The explosions from the abandoned operation got larger and larger, and a fire had started in the chemical works next door. We heard the news on our way back that they'd decided that the entire level had to be dumped. No one was willing to go into a set of bloons that were coming apart at the seams. They managed to save the waste bloons, though the waste shaft suffered some damage. But the entire lowest level of industrial bloons, all eighteen of them, were cut loose to drop into the clouds below. Fortunately, it was a clear drop. Some places in the City have people living lower down.

We got back to Police Department headquarters, docked our bloon and got a stretcher at the docking area to transport our prize. Calvin and I removed our bubblemasks as well, and immediately realized why the other few people in the docking area had given us such strange looks when we arrived. I'd thought it was because of the body, but police personnel are used to bodies showing up. No, it was because we stank. The smell of smoke clung to us with a miasmatic intensity, and I felt my own nose wrinkling at it.

"Whew," said Calvin. "I think we'd better get separate body bags for our clothing, too."

"They qualify as evidence, anyway," I agreed. We commed down to the morgue and hauled our burden there, then changed into spare clothing. All that we had been wearing was now tagged as evidence, with the grime that we carried soon to pass through chromatographic analysis to find out how many different kinds of smoke we'd been through.

Calvin also left instructions that the body was to receive a thorough autopsy at Skyhook medical center. Then he turned to me.

"I need to get out of here, how about you?"

I nodded my assent.

"You prefer beer or wine?" he asked.

"I think this was a beer day," I told him.

"Sounds right," he said. Then we left.


There are about a dozen major biome parks in Sky City, all of them at the topmost level, little hillocks in the expanse of green and silver. Calvin and I went to Whisper Park, a semi-tropical biome whose lush vegetation and shadowy landscaping casts a spell of quietude over most of its visitors. We took up a position near the edge of a forest of dwarf trees, near a waste chute where we could "feed the biome" when bladder pressure built too high. Drinking liquor in the park was technically illegal, but who was going to hassle a cop about it?

"What a thoroughgoing cockup," Calvin said ruefully. He obviously wasn't talking about either the park or the view, both of which were very nice. Condensation distorted the sight of the City out and down below the bloon wall where we sat, but the late afternoon sky outside gave a pink cast to the City and the park itself.

"Cockup is one word for it," I agreed as I flipped a pebble into a small pool of water that had dripped down from a tree branch.

"I'm not used to this sort of thing, you know," he said. "I like to investigate knife fights and insurance scams, not this reach-for-it-and-more-people-start-dying bit. This is more like some kind of war."

"I wouldn't say it's standard practice on the Moon, but it happens plenty," I told him. "It's a side effect of secrecy, and that's a side effect of, well, life on Luna, actually. The closer you pack people, the more they need their secrets."

He nodded absently. He was too preoccupied to ask me more about criminal behavior on Luna, I guess. So his next question caught me by surprise.

"Have you ever been married?"

The lie was easier than the complicated half truth. "No," I told him.

"I've been thinking of it," he said. "There's a lady that I'm very interested in, and I think it's mutual. But she's not sure how close she wants to get to a cop."

"I can see how that might be the case," I observed.

"I understand that the police are pretty high up on the social scale on Luna," he said. "Not like here. Here we're closer to loan officers, or waste treatment engineers."

"We all have our crosses to bear," I said.

He grinned at me. "Thanks, I was beginning to think you might be sympathetic to my plight."

"I am," I told him. "More than you can appreciate, maybe. But I have no pull in heaven, and that's where marriages are made, right?"

"Yeah, I guess," he said. "Don't be too sure about your lack of pull in high places, though. One of the higher ups tried to yank your card, thought you might be a loose cannon, maybe even in cahoots with somebody, you know, guilt by association and all that?"

"So what happened?" I asked.

"He got stomped on real fast. Word came down the pipe that you were not to be interfered with in any way. Pretty major backing on it, too."

Now that was interesting. I wondered who had taken an interest, and in what. Was it in this case, or in me?

"This case is about murder and disappearing persons," I reminded him. "I'm not the mystery we're working on."

"Aren't you?" he asked. "No, spike that. Of course, you're right. We're supposed to be finding out who murdered Sheila Mason. At least I am, because that's my job. But why are you doing it?"

"You guys are paying me," I observed.

"As if you give a tinker's damn," he said.

I was silent for quite a while. Then I said, "Okay, why do you think I'm in on this? You've been thinking about it."

"Yeah," he said. "I've been thinking about it, but I'm no Sherlock. I can't read minds, and you don't leave tracks. Maybe Sheila was someone special to you, but I don't believe that. Maybe you liked her, but you don't do things just because you like somebody. You only do the things you have to."

"Is that an insult?" I asked.

"Only an observation," he said. "Like you say, you have a box that you don't open. What's in that box is anybody's guess, maybe even you don't know all that's in that box."

I thought about that for a bit, and shrugged. He had me dead to rights on that one.

"But keeping that box closed is important to you," he continued. "It may be the most important thing in your life. So I'm bound to wonder if Sheila's death doesn't open that box a little, and you want it closed again."

"If you think I knew Sheila back on Luna..." I began.

"Oh, no," he said. "Nothing as obvious as that. But the way that she died reminded you of something, something you thought you'd left behind. Now you find that maybe you hadn't."

I had no snappy comeback for that one, either. The thought had certainly occurred to me more than once. For somebody who wasn't a mind reader, Calvin Lee was doing too damned good an imitation.

He didn't say anything for a long time, long enough for the character of the light to change again. The faint pink was deepening. In another few hours it would go blood red.

Finally, Calvin broke the silence and changed the subject. "The last couple of calls you made didn't come from your regular comm," he told me.

It was standard procedure to log the caller ID on police matters, so I wasn't surprised that he'd noticed.

"No, I didn't make them from my hotel," I said.

"They came from the residence of Marjori Low," he said.

I nodded. "Yes, that's true," I said. "I've had dinner with her twice now, both times in the company of my landlady, Fumio Huntington. I filed a brief report on the first time, since that was when she gave me the postcard from Doria Adams. Which you now have, right?"

He held up a hand. "I'm not asking for explanations," he said.

"And I'm not giving any," I told him.

He hesitated. "But I do have to ask," he said. "Are you sleeping with her?"

"Yes," I replied. I think he was surprised that I didn’t lie about it.

"Is that wise?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Ask me again in six months. Or ask me after you're married, whichever comes first."

"Ah, hell," he said, and gave a half shrug, half wave, a certain gesture of dismissal. "You're a big boy, too, I guess. I'm just confused."

"Why should you be any different than the rest of us?" I replied.


By the time we broke off, we'd consumed enough beer for my aches of the previous day to have melted into a soggy set of non-agonizing lumps. The throbbing in my heel eased off a little, as well, though I knew that it would be only a brief respite. We stopped by Calvin's office before I went home so I could record my deposition of the day's activities and to check messages. The beer buzz was long gone by then.

Calvin's message light was doing a rapid blink when we got to his office and he called up the appropriate recordings. The first was from the lab; they'd dug into our gear already, since we were the first back with any booty. The grime that we'd collected had a nice collection of alkaloids all right, as well as chemical signatures from several standard incendiary devices.

The next message was more interesting. It was a request to call Horowith at Marley Farm.

Calvin put it through immediately, and piped it to the room speaker. "Mr. Horowith," he said. "We just got your message."

"Ah, hallo, Mr. Lee," came Horowith's voice. "We have another little problem here that I thought maybe you should know about. Two more of our people are missing, one by the name of Patrick Barefoot, and the other's name is Angel Lee, no relation to yourself, I'm sure."

"Lee is the most common name on Venus," Calvin said.

"Indeed, indeed," replied Horowith. "But our Mr. Lee is one of the owners of Marley Farm; he bought in about six years ago. He's on our trading council besides. We are more than a little worried about him. He left on business about four clock days ago, and he hasn't been seen or heard from since."

"And you suspect foul play?" asked Calvin.

"I don't know what to expect anymore, man. We are not used to murders and crime out here."

"I daresay," said Calvin dryly. "Who was the other man, this Barefoot person?"

"He was Angel's assistant," replied Horowith. "He and Angel would often take our wares to markets, first along the Circle, then into the City."

"Ah," said Calvin. "Was that their business this time?"

"No," said Horowith. "This was to be a simple pickup of some machinery and other stuff. A few medical supplies, things we need from time to time. They wouldn't even have to enter the City for the run."

"Could you make a list of those things," asked Calvin. "Maybe there is a clue in there somewhere."

"Okay, I guess," said Horowith. "But they never made it to town to buy the goods."

"Have you asked for a check on their transponder records?"

"Not yet," said Horowith. "I was hoping you could do that for me."

"Sure," said Calvin. "We'll attend to it." Then he said goodbye and hung up.

He looked at me. "What do you think?" he asked.

I made a face. "I think that if this keeps up we won't have to worry about finding out who did anything," I replied. "If this keeps up, soon they'll all be dead."

He nodded as if the idea was beginning to take on a certain appeal.

Next Chapter

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Chapter Nineteen: We're rough and tough and stupid, now let's get the hell out of here.

Previous Chapter

The twenty two of us went in five separate motor squids, decamping at docking areas up and down the industrial cluster whose lowest level contained our. There were three spiral corridors that descended from top to bottom of the cluster, though I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to walk up the entire half a kilometer height of it. There were also a couple of industrial strength elevators that ran on either side of the central waste shaft. We'd pull the plug from the elevators when the raid began, or rather City Center Control would do it when we gave the signal.

Some of our squad went down the elevators, singly or in pairs, while the rest of us descended the spiral, again split up to avoid attracting too much attention. For the same reason, most of us carried our helmets in sacks or pouches. I'd put my regular clothing over the body armor, which made me look rather like a steroid junkie with bad clothes sense.

Calvin and I were to be stationed in one of the three upper corridors, near the rim corridor that connected to the spiral around the cluster. That way we covered the upper level exit route from our target bloon, the middle one of the three, but if somebody got into trouble on one of the other two, we could move quickly to cover them. I'd thought of volunteering to be one of the two men who covered an exit route solo, but decided against it. I was the outsider, here by special dispensation.

Jenkins was sending a steady line of patter throughout our taking our position, mostly to calm the pre-mission jitters. We were nearly the last to arrive, and I heard Jenkins say softly, "Hey, Sid, where are you? You and Lee Chin are just about last in line."

"I'm still two levels up," came a voice which I assumed was Sid's. "The 'vater stopped a bit farther up, and somebody hauled a big pipe fitting onto it, so I lost some time. Now they're looking at me like they've never seen somebody on a mobile comm before."

"Ah, well, take your time," said Jenkins. "You can't rush an elevator." Seemingly as an afterthought, Jenkins said, "Hey, Sid, you still seeing that teller in Silvertree?"

"Nah," Sid replied. "I decided I liked her sister better."

There was some snickering laughter at what I assumed was a running joke amongst the D&V boys. Jenkins replied, "Well, be careful, Sid. Sibling rivalry can tear you up. When the elevator gets to the bottom, let me know."

"Mr. Pipe Fitting just hauled off," came Sid's response. I should be down in about thirty seconds. I'm putting on my helmet."

"Right," said Jenkins. "Lee Chin, are you hung up? You made it down yet?"

"Yes sir," said somebody, who sounded like a Lee Chin. "I'm at my station."

"Good, the rest of you can suit up, now, if you haven't already. We move when Sid takes his post."

I had to admit that Jenkins sounded good. The whole team had a right to be nervous. I didn't know how much training they had; none as a whole unit, that much was clear. Running two teams is a hard job, and Jenkins had my vote as keeping everything under control, at least so far.

I switched off my mouth piece. "Hey, Calvin," I muttered, "How many men did they say worked this place we're busting?"

"Surveillance says ten," he answered. "There could be more if somebody lives here, but who'd want to?"

I nodded and put on my helmet, and unbuttoned my shirt so I could seal the collar to the body armor underneath.

"Well," I said, just to hear my voice in the hollow helmet echo. "Time for this show to hit the road."

"Meiners here," came Sid's voice over the comm. "Ready to dance."

"Right," said Jenkins. "Open mike time now, boys, but save it unless it's important. Set the strips and let me know when you're done."

I heard the sounds of movement coming through the open comms, and then each of the three main level door parties announced that they had laid the flash strips on the bloon portals.

"Let's do it then," said Jenkins.

There was a door buzzer sound and a mumble from someone inside the place that Jenkins''s mike didn't pick up."

"City Inspector's Office," Jenkins said. "Open up, please."

Another mumble, then Jenkins replied, "Prior notification is not required under Civic Ordinance 1777, of the Public Health and Safety Code. Please open this portal immediately. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor."

The mumble got louder and angrier.

"I advise you to please step away from the portal, then," said Jenkins, and two seconds later there came a whumping noise. With a sudden chill, I realized that it sounded like the charges that had blown Bess out of the sky.

We had four men on the main entrance, and four men each on the other two secondary entrances on the main level. The drill was, blow the portals, then two men in quick to flank the entrance and to cover the next two with gun and shock sticks. I heard the scramble of men, then the a voice amplified enough to saturate the comm channel volume limiter. There was a weird echo to it, because it was loud enough for us to hear, even on the mid-level corridors above.


Sometimes when an operation goes sour, it happens by imperceptible steps, and you're never sure afterwards either when it went awry or when you first realized that it was blown. But on that one I remember the sudden sinking feeling when I hear the sound. I hadn't heard it before, as such, although I'd heard it in videos and audio plays. I asked Calvin, "Is that. . .?"

"Fire alarm," Calvin confirmed.

I had one brief thought that it was just a diversion, that the men inside had hit the alarm hoping to buy some confusion and time to allow them to escape. That, in fact, was the plan, as it turned out, but it sure as hell didn't stop at the alarm.

"What the hell?" came Jenkins' voice on full override to the sudden babble in the comm channel. Then someone else's unfamiliar voice came through.

"Jesus! Smoke!"

Jenkins voice overrode it all again. "Can it!" he yelled. Then the quality of the background noise on the channel changed and Jenkins was saying, "Jenkins to Central Control, we have a situation here. The target has begun a fire alarm and we see smoke." He paused. "Make that a lot of smoke," he continued. "It appears to be coming from the central bloon, and it's already too thick to see through. We see no flames or fire, so it's probably a diversion, but this whole cluster is about to go to panic evac."

Jenkins' first estimate was right, we later learned. The first gouts of smoke were fake. Someone inside had opened canisters of ammonia and also of hydrogen chloride, and the resulting ammonium chloride cloud took only a few seconds to reduce the visibility in the central bloon to essentially zero, giving those inside a huge advantage over those unfamiliar with the territory.

"Waddich, Slough!" Jenkins call out. "What's your status?"

"Heavy smoke coming through the door from the central bloon," someone said. "We saw just a couple of them just as . . . oh, shit. . . an incendiary just went off. . . just on this side of the portal to the central bloon." We heard a couple of distant whumps!, followed by assorted profanity from our team.

Then a hatchway opened up in the corridor floor in front of us, and suddenly Calvin and I got very busy.

I'd been holding back near the main corridor junction, in case someone needed quick help. Calvin was nearly halfway to the first freight portal, set in the floor a third of the way down the passageway that ran atop the central bloon. What we hadn't figured on was a hidden trapdoor portal that opened up almost under Calvin's feet. A gout of smoke poured out of it and two men emerged.

"Hold it right where you are!" I heard Calvin say, then he showed some sense and, without waiting for their response, fired his dart pistol.

Which had no effect, unfortunately. The men who emerged were in full body armor, just like we were, and their helmets were of the industrial hard-shell variety, at least as sturdy as what we were wearing. I didn't have time to reflect on just how likely it was that men who were working with compressed gases, heavy machinery, and probably toxic pharmaceuticals, would be wearing protective clothing. Chalk one up planning snafu number one.

Standard encounter tactics now would be for Calvin to use his shock stick as a baton and go for the most vulnerable targets of the body armor. More sensible tactics would be to fall back and let me help. But Calvin had time for neither of those. The first man, who was still only halfway out of the hole, swung some sort of weighted pipe at Calvin's legs, and connected with his ankle, which is one of those vulnerable sites I just mentioned. Body armor isn't rigid enough to stop a blow like that, and Calvin went over sideways as his leg folded under him. The man swung his pipe again before Calvin had hit the floor, and it landed on his helmet. Helmets are rigid, but there was force behind the blow. It slammed Calvin flat to the floor, and I really didn't like the sound it made.

Well, when a man's partner is in trouble, he's supposed to do something about it. I broke into a run toward them, but the other figure clambered from the hole and came at me with another pipe. Where did they get those things, anyway?

I didn't have time for that kind of crap. Just before we met, I used a quick hop feint, to draw his attention, then dropped to the floor, a maneuver quaintly called "The Rock." This moron was actually dumb enough to keep swinging even when his target had disappeared. He went over heavily, and I darted forward again.

Moron number two must have really hated cops, because he was still swinging at Calvin, oblivious to the fate of moron number one. It only took four or five steps to get into kick range, and I leapt forward, driving my heel into the seam between his helmet and body suit. The helmet edge slammed into the base of his skull, and that was it for him. I slap hit the floor and bounced slightly, then yanked the now unconscious moron off of Calvin. I was relieved to see that Calvin's helmet was cracked but not broken. Man, those things are tough. I wondered if I hadn't done damage to my heel, but I was too cranked to feel pain.

"You awake?" I called to Calvin Lee.

"Uh, yeah, I think," he replied. "I don't hear too well, though, from all that banging he was doing."

I gave a quick glance to check out moron number one, who'd managed to pick himself up and was limping toward the exit. Past him was the outer corridor and I saw people running. By this time the alarm had sounded through the entire cluster, and most of the people outside were from other bloons. Once our suspects reached the outer corridor, they could ditch their hard helmets and blend with the crowd. Maybe they wouldn't even have to remove the helmets, if there were enough heavy machine operations nearby.

I looked at Calvin's cracked helmet and at the smoke welling up from the trapdoor. I had no idea what sort of toxic crap was in that smoke.

"You can't go in without a helmet," I told him.

He rolled to one side and reached over to unfasten the helmet of his attacker. I helped him pull it off the guy; I couldn't tell if he was still breathing, and I didn't care either way. We tried the helmet on Calvin's suit join. The seals on the armor suits are pretty flexible, and the helmet connected up okay.

"Let's go," he said.

"Are you sure you can walk?" I asked.

"Hell, yes," he said. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It makes you brave and maybe a bit stupid too. We should probably have stayed outside and pulled back to deal with the escaping suspects, or maybe help with the panic. But there was physical evidence going up in smoke down below, and we wanted to try to get some of it.

Sounds of a scuffle came over the comm line as Calvin and I climbed down into the trap door. It seemed that most of the suspects had exited on one of the lower access corridors and had pushed aside Jenkins' men to make a quick escape. Not real surprising, since the odds had probably been about eight to two. Backup hadn't been able to reach them because of the sudden confusion in the outer corridors.

I clicked open the comm channel tried to get a word in edgewise. "Honlin, here," I called to Jenkins. "Lee and I just took out two of them, but one got away. The other is unconscious or dead. Are all our men clear?"

Jenkins broke off what was another is a string of updates to Central Control, which was assuring him that lots of evac vehicles were on the way. "Honlin?" he said. "I've given the order to fall back. There was a scuffle on the lower access corridor and the suspects broke through. Everyone should get clear. We need everyone to the main corridor. If there's a panic, people could get trampled."

"Lee and I are going into the target area," I told him as we climbed through the trap door."

"Negative," he said. "We need you to help control the crowd."

"Sorry," I told him. "I don't do crowds anymore. Get a man up here to check out the guy we laid out. We're going in."

He said a few things that I won't repeat, but I ignored them. I was too busy trying to see though the murk.

Like most Lunar natives I'm afraid of fire. A pure O2 environment gives it a ferocity that turns even mildly combustible materials into fire bombs. Images of fire deaths linger in our collective unconscious, even extending to children's stories and legends of those who anger the fire devils enough to be punished by being struck down in a single flash of flame, spontaneous human combustion.

Venus dwellers are a lot more relaxed about fire, however, even to the extent of sometimes burning candles, or, like the Rastafarians of Marley Farm, ingesting drugs via smoke inhalation.

Venusians can afford to be relaxed about combustion because they live in an atmosphere that is only about twenty percent oxygen, with plenty of heat absorbing nitrogen mixed in. Then too, there isn't all that much in bloon life that is terribly combustible. Bloonskin is almost completely fireproof, and even bloonsilk has flame retardant properties.

Fire doesn't burn very well in enclosed spaces, either. Without access to unlimited air supplies, a fire will snuff itself in fairly short order. So most fires on Venus are industrial accidents and most of the deaths are through smoke inhalation, from someone who was careless enough to forget to carry their bubble mask with them.

There is a certain fascination to staring at death only a few inches away from your face. Descending into the smoky pit was like that, since the only thing between me and the thick, toxic smoke was my helmet. Sure, it's not really different than wearing a bubble mask outside, where the CO2 would kill you in seconds without protection, but you can't see CO2, and we could see the smoke. In fact, we couldn't see much besides the smoke.

"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Calvin told me.

"Well, it was your idea," I replied.

"My idea?" he said. "I thought it was your idea."

"Well, no matter whose idea it was, if we don't get some clearing soon, we'd better call it off," I told him.

But the visibility increased as we descended, and we started to see the red glow of small flames through the haze. Apparently the heat had burned away a lot of the initial smoke bomb haze, and the thick clouds of smoke that came from what looked like a storage closet were hot enough to rise.

Another incendiary flash caught us by surprise, and we jumped back from the wall where the charge had been set. The whole place must have been booby trapped as a precaution against raids and when the occupants left, they triggered some sort of destruct sequence. But the thing was strung out to give a lot of time for the escape, counting on the confusion and panic of so much smoke to retard any quick pacification of the area. There was probably even some way to terminate the program that triggered the incendiaries, but we'd never find it.

"We need to get into that storage closet," said Calvin, pointing.

"I'll bet it's booby trapped," I told him.

He nodded and picked up an empty gas cylinder. It was about as big around as my waist, but not so heavy that he couldn't lift it one handed. He jerked it up and shot putted it at the door to the storage room.

It hit the door and bounced. From the sound of it, I guessed that the door was just laminated bloonboard, which is fairly easy to cut into. But we didn't have a chance for that, because after a couple of seconds, there was a small explosion and the door split apart, with a gout of flame leaping out of it. Whether Calvin's canister heave had set off something or whether the explosion was an accident I couldn't say.

Calvin and I both ducked at the noise of the explosion. He poked his head up and looked at the gouting flame and said, "They've got more gas canisters in there. If they're loaded with air or oxygen, it's going to be a chain reaction as they heat up."

I caught his point. If the closet was full of combustibles, with incendiary charges to light them, then the heat would eventually rupture the canisters, which would in turn feed the fire some more. It meant that it was too dangerous to approach. It could go off at any moment.

In fact, it was too dangerous to hang around.

"Okay," I said. "We've made our point. We're rough and tough and stupid, now let's get the hell out of here."

We picked ourselves up and headed for the main door. Another small explosion hit, this one not from the storage area. Glancing to the side, I saw that it had ripped a small hole in the bloon floor, and that I could see a wire reinforced webbing underneath. Beyond that was just the shadowy clouds below.

"I believe that this may be somebody's idea of a scorched earth policy," Calvin opined. "They may intend to dump the entire thing."

I nodded, not that he could see me though my helmet, which was rapidly accumulating some sort of grunge on the outside.

Then we stumbled over the body. Literally. We could barely see our feet at that point, so the corpse was almost invisible to us. It wasn't the first thing that we'd nearly fell over, but it was the first thing that felt like that.

We dropped down to get a better look, saw what it was, and without discussing it, we both took hold and carried it to the main portal.

By this point the fires had begun to die down, all except those which were being fed by leaking gas canisters of one sort or another. There couldn't have been much oxygen left in the air, and what air was left was beginning to mix with the native stuff outside, and the CO2 was turning flames into smolders. The small explosions were getting louder, though, and the underside of the bloon was starting to look like a lace doily. Through some of the holes we could see into the lower access tube, or the lower lifting bloons, but some of the others showed nothing but empty sky and the clouds below.

We got to the main portal and found that our team had put some sort of patch seal on it as they left, trying to block the smoke was my guess. But it hadn't held up too well against the various pressure changes that accompanied the fires and explosions, and it had popped the seals in several places. I used my knife on it at the openings, and cut us a hole in a couple of seconds. Then we hauled our prize into the outer rim corridor.

The connection to the up ramp was only a few meters away, and there was a single officer at the portal, checking anybody who came out. Cluster Security and Maintenance had sealed off the lowest five levels in this cluster before any smoke got to the higher floors, so the outer stairs of the bottom five were filled with people who were getting a little panicky. The first round of evacuations had been from personal vehicles and taxi services that had been in the area, and all those had been from the lowest level where there was a docking area. That meant that most of our suspects had probably gotten out before any of the other people in the area. And we had no idea how many of our suspects had departed in that first wave. Great. From the standpoint of law enforcement, it was unfortunate that the first rule in emergencies is, "get everyone to safety" while checking IDs and establishing bona fides are distant priorities.

Sealing at level five was a screw-up as well, since the central docking area was at the middle of the cluster at about level ten. So we had a bunch of panicky citizens, all trying to crowd up the stairs to the dock landing which they couldn't get to.

Jenkins gave us a comm channel chewing out for being irresponsible imbeciles, but his heart wasn't in it, since he still had his hands full directing crowd control on those who had by now crowded into the top two levels of the sealed off section. The best thing to do would be to lower the sealed zone to level one or two, those being the only ones that were really affected by anything except rising smoke. But people are wiggy about smoke, and Sec and Main were afraid that unsealing the zone would spread the panic to the upper levels. People were already leaving the top levels in droves, and the smell of smoke could cause a stampede.

Jenkins was arguing with arriving City Health and Safety officials about what to do with the lower level. The torched bloons had lost most of their lift, by now, and while the rest of the cluster could compensate, standard procedure would be to cut them loose and let them fall before they could endanger the waste treatment sections. But Jenkins wanted to save whatever evidence might remain, so he was arguing his case and didn't have any time for us.

I looked over at Calvin and said, "Look, I think we'll do a lot better on the bottom dock." He nodded.

It wasn't really much of a risk. We already knew that the fire itself had about run its course and there wasn't much danger of it spreading. And the bottom dock was connected to the waste treatment bloons, not the affected cluster levels. Besides, it was down from where we were, and hauling a corpse up two to three hundred meters of stairway did not have much appeal. So we turned around and headed down.

The dock itself was primitive with not even a cluster to bloon airlock. But up about a hundred meters from where we were was a swarm of bloons, waiting for docking at the upper levels. Calvin switched to local line-of-sight frequencies on his comm and kept changing until he found a relatively quiet space. Then he sent out a taxi call signal, coded for the dock's ID. After a few seconds, one of the taxis in the bloon swarm above us broke out of the pack and descended to where we were.

"You guys need a ride?" came a voice over the comm.

"Damn right," said Calvin. "We'll even pay for it."

"Now you're talking," said the driver, and he dropped a line anchor to the dock.

Next Chapter

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chapter eighteen: And even with that, I had no inkling.

Previous Chapter

I got to Police Headquarters early, but the tack room was already full of the guys who were going to be on the raid. If there was a leak on either the Vice or Tax squad, the word was probably already out, but the surveillance on our objective reported no unusual activity. So either there were no leaks, or this particular objective was being offered up as a sacrificial lamb. At least that was the way I read it.

Then again, there might be nothing there and we were going to wind up looking like idiots. But the biosniffers had shown an awful lot of alkaloids in the corridors surrounding the site we were going after, and it was hard to see how those could get there if not by hanky panky.

Calvin introduced me to the mission commander, another guy who looked pure asian but had the improbable name of Kazuo Jenkins. Jenkins had a ramrod back, and a smooth face that seemed always about to break into a grin. I felt myself warming to him immediately and figured that to be his major talent. His men would like him and respect him and do whatever he asked so he wouldn't be disappointed. I wondered how long it would be before he entered politics.

"So you're Honlin," Jenkins said to me as he shook my hand. "I've read your book."

It took me a moment to realize that the was talking about the manual on crowd control, "The Riot Bible," as it's sometimes called.

"I didn't write it," I told him. "I was part of a six man team that made a few revisions. Not that many revisions, in fact, and those mostly had to do with tricks you can do with air supply. Not much use here on Venus, I expect."

Jenkins shrugged. "I expect you're being modest," he said. "Either way, though, I've heard good things about you. Calvin's opinion counts for a lot, and you have other friends, too."

Too bad I'm not one of them I thought.

Calvin was be in the leadoff spot for the briefing, because it was his intelligence that found the place, but the entire operation was under Jenkins, who was out of D&V, Drugs and Vice, with the Tax Squad supplying additional manpower. Calvin and I were in as observers and as backup. There would be about twelve guys on the primary raid, and another ten on backup, counting Calvin and me. It was a large, but not overwhelming force; I prefer massive superiority, myself, but that's difficult to achieve inside of bloons, even tethered ones. If nothing else, the additional weight will cause the tether alarms to trigger, alerting the occupants of the target bloon before the strike is made. But more important is the simple fact the law enforcement on Venus is a pretty slender deal. Drugs and Vice had fewer than a hundred men overall, and Calvin was one third of the entire homicide operation. Only the Tax men had good numbers, but most of them were clerks and accountants. Sky City was a very big small town when it came to that, and I was not eager to see it develop either big city crime or big city cops.
I prefer massive superiority, myself

"Okay, now here's the objective," Calvin Lee told everybody, as he put a big graphic up on a projector screen. It was a schematic of the entire cluster that we were going to, a central shaft with a series of circular levels made up of six large bloons each, bunched together in threes, with the top and bottom of each trio being for extra lift. There looked to be about twenty such bunches. The structure was topped with a biome park, and at its bottom was a set of bloons with their longest dimensions in the vertical.

Calvin gestured with a pointer, "We think the lab is somewhere in a three bloon factory setup that's housed in a manufacturing cluster on shaft 127, about fifteen kilometers northeast of the Hook. The cluster is a daisy petal job, centered on a waste shaft. Our target is the lowest cluster on the shaft, in fact, just above the waste collection bloons that terminate the shaft. The waste terminator is a standard upender setup, and there's a methane tap off it that supplies some of the operations in that cluster, including this one.

"What's in the other half of the cluster?" somebody asked.

Calvin said, "The three bloons next door are a small chemical mill. There's a catalytic oxidation plant that turns methane into methanol, and that feeds a synthesis refinery. It mostly produces monomers for plastics."

Calvin turned away from the screen. "There are two separate leaseholders to the three bloon common area, a small testing lab and a pressure storage vessel concern. The latter both makes and fills pressurized storage tanks. The filling operation is for industrial gases, methane, ammonia, carbonic, the usual. The two leaseholders are ostensibly independent companies, but are apparently cooperative, running the space under a joint operating agreement. The directors of both corporations reside at conveniently large distances out on the Circle. The addresses for management are the bloons themselves, with no formal listing of personnel, just 'manager operating out of Cluster 21-F, Shaft 127.'

"We haven't tried contacting any of the corporate officers, except to verify that they do exist. If this is a drug lab, they will be false fronts and probably clueless, but they'll be picked up immediately after the raid.

"The superstructure has docking facilities at the top, midsection, and under the waste holders. The bottom docks are seldom used; they date from when waste sludge was carted by bloon, rather than by pneumotube to the factory farms out on the rim. We'll have only one bloon docking down below; the rest will be top and midside, and we'll take the stairs and elevators down. We'll be going singly and in pairs, to try to maintain surprise."

That was it for Calvin, and Jenkins took over. He touched a control, and we got a vid zoom to the bottom cluster. "Here's the City Plan schematic of our target," he told us. "Obviously it might not be current if they've modified the space."

The three bloons did indeed look like half of a daisy as viewed from the top. The two outer bloons connected to the innermost at two places, and all three bloons connected to the waste shaft and central access shafts on the interior side and to a circular walkway that ran around the rim. The rim corridors connected to the next clusters up via stairway; three big circular ones that ran up the entire cluster in a triple helix. There were spoke-to-hub access corridors above and below all three bloons.

It looked like a lot of bolt holes to me. Apparently it did to somebody else, and they asked about the access corridors, above and below the bloons.

"We'll need coverage to all six, obviously," Jenkins said. "That will be for backup personnel." He grinned. "So they won't get lonely. The main access holes are tight-sealed from the inside with composkin, hard to get into, so we're not using them for primary entrances. But if any are opened during the raid, we want personnel on them immediately.
It looked like a lot of bolt holes to me.

"We need close communication, then, so keep your ear comms on at all times, but don't talk except for priority."

He went to a table and picked up a dart pistol. "This is the standard issue gas-powered dart weapon, fully loaded with anesthetic darts that deliver two milligrams of somnomix, injected on impact by the pressure pellet in the dart. It usually takes a man down in about ten seconds and it rarely results in death from any fewer than four separate hits. The butt end here," he demonstrated by lifting the pistol, "Has a separate gas powered injector for direct hand to hand usage. That's meant as a backup to the darts, or as a follow-up to electrical immobilization."

He laid the pistol down and picked up a shock stick. "One standard issue electric prod. One good jolt can paralyze a man for several seconds, then you use the gas injector.

"All personnel will be body armored, of course. Standard fiber/plate interweave. It will turn a knife and even stop an illegal explosive or electrically driven projectile, at least anything short of a high velocity rifle bullet, not that you'll ever see one of those. You'll also be wearing full helmets, but those are a weak spot, since the air holes can be penetrated by stiletto or thin knife. The same is true for the flex seams in the body armor. So watch your heads and your cracks."

A couple of the men snickered and I realized that this was supposed to be a joke. A little male-bonding cop humor, I supposed. Oh, well, I thought. Whatever works.

# #

The trip out was uneventful. Apart from the prep-school athletics aura of the briefing, the preliminaries to the raid didn't feel like anything I was used to. I'd been on riot prevention and crowd control crews on Luna, and the feeling before any large action was always tense, a genuine sense of "God, I hope I don't have to kill anyone, today." On the other hand, small scale raids were purely routine, with more a sense of boredom than anything else. We always sealed off the section, then clogged the corridors with men, and let the occupants out a few at a time. Trivial.

This felt more like a continuation of the briefing, somewhere between rah, rah comradery and waiting for the big exam.

"Calvin," I asked. "How often do you do a police raid here in the City?"

"You mean me personally, homicide, or the anything from the force?"

"The whole force."

"Well, Taxation does maybe one every couple of months," he answered. "But those are usually just knock and enter inventory audits."

"How about things like drug labs, kidnapping rings, that sort of thing?"

"Not very often," he admitted. "And those are usually much smaller than this. A crank lab is maybe two guys, usually, and most of them have been in Darkunder, so we just lasso them and haul them to a docking bay. Kidnapping is pretty much the same thing, except that it's more often in City, so you have to surround the area. Usually a much smaller area, though, like I said."

"So this is an unusually large operation?" I asked. "With twenty-two guys?"

"Oh, yes," he said smugly. "This is the largest raid I've ever heard of. We probably would have used only half this many men, but I managed to convince D&V that it would be a good training exercise."

And even with that, I had no inkling.

Next Chapter