Murder Beyond The Milky Way

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Chapter Twenty-Eight


Allyson gave Harry directions on how to get to Mine-6. He had to hop on the cable-car and take it all the way back out to the outer circle. Mine-6 had is own terminal on the southern rim of the LifeShield. Harry remembered seeing the spoke-like radiations emanating from Nova-3 on his arrival. He remembered the 10/12/2 and 4/6/8 positions of those spokes on the outside of the dome. Mine-6 controlled the position 8 terminal.

As Harry worked his way back to the outer circle, he quickly grew bored with the conversations around him. They were practically the same as the ones he had heard earlier in the day with one or two minor exceptions. He learned that Mine-4 was ahead on the unloading, but that Mine-6 had the best fliers. Harry wondered how you could have the best pilots and be behind in the unloading?

Harry hunkered down, closed his eyes, and put on his best I-don’t-want-to-be-disturbed expression and locked himself away with his own thoughts. He had hardly started reanalyzing the data he had seen on the screens in Keith’s office when someone literally bounced into the seat beside him and started talking. It was a few seconds before Harry realized that the man was talking to him.

“...so when they told me that I could have any place in the Mine-6 catalog, well, you can imagine that I jumped at a place that was a step or two above what I was used to. I mean it’s nice... real nice... a little big... but it’s something I sure could get used to. Can’t get used to not locking the door, though. I do it out of habit. Don’t know how much time I’ll be spending there... they’ve really got me hopping around today... had to get my clothes, draw my rations and basically learn the ropes...”

Harry opened his eyes and looked over at Mark Chapman. Chapman was probably the last person Harry wanted to see. He was about to make him go away, when he realized that Mark had mentioned choosing a place to live from the Mine-6 catalog. Suddenly, Harry was very glad Mark had interrupted his thoughts.

“So they let you off the ship,” Harry said as friendly as he knew how.

“I’m sure they couldn’t wait to get rid of me,” Mark said. “Did you know, that they convert all the passenger rooms into red-ore storage facilities. There is absolutely no wasted space on the outbound freighter.”

“Where did you hear that?” Harry asked.

“I forgot some stuff, so I went back to our cabin. The crewman who also worked in the mess hall was there converting the room into cargo space. He barely gave me a chance to pick up my stuff before he kicked me out.”

“So, how do you like Mine-6?” Harry asked.

“Haven’t seen much of it, so far, just the hub,” Mark said. “They processed me in, gave me a quick tour, then gave me a list of things to do before I officially report for work.”

“When do you officially report?” Harry asked.

“Soon as I get back,” Mark said.

“Been underground, yet?”

“Don’t have to,” Mark said. “Red-ore is right on the surface. All the mines are strip mined. You can kind of catch a glimpse of it from the viewing platform inside the Mine-6 LifeShield. It’s not even a major hole in the ground. They’ve been at it for years, but the strip mining grid is so large that they are barely down a couple of yards from the surface.”

“Strip mining. Really?”

“Basically all they are doing is scooping up the ore right off the planet surface, extracting any ‘dirt’ like qualities and then compressing the remaining red-ore into 10 x 4 x 2 inch bricks. It’s the bricks that are loaded into the freighter, and then the freighter takes them to a processing plant. According to my boss, this whole planet has been surveyed and mapped. Each mine has been assigned various grid sections to work.”

“10 x 4 x 2? The blocks in the roadways and in the buildings looked bigger to me.”

“They are. The building bricks are unprocessed. The dirt-like impurities make them stronger and therefore better for building. Scoop the red-ore out of the ground and add water and a bonding agent and you have building blocks; take out the impurities, reduce the moisture content and you have the stuff that dreams are made of. Go figure.”

“Any disputes between the mines?” Harry asked.

“Not that anyone’s told me about,” Mark answered.

“So what do they need an engineer of your quality for?” Harry asked. He fought every ounce of sarcasm that was screaming to slip into his voice.

“Mostly for the nuts and bolts of the daily planning,” Mark said.

Harry recognized that Mark was a talker and at this point all Harry wanted to do was listen. Harry nodded. It was all the encouragement Mark needed.

“It’s not all that complicated, really,” Mark began. “The atmosphere is too toxic for people to breathe and there is no oxygen for combustion so all the oxygen for the people and machines is produced by the terraforming unit where it’s bottled in different sized containers depending on who gets to use it. My job is to compute just how long a given machine can operate before it’s oxygen tank has to be replenished or replaced. Same with the people. I have to make sure that the right amount of O­2 is sent to both. Can’t have either the machines or the men caught out of the dome with nothing to breathe.”

“Why don’t they use batteries for the machines?” Harry asked.

“It’s a question load,” Mark explained. “You can do more work with a combustion engine than you can with batteries and since the atmosphere is already toxic you don’t have to worry about by-products.”

As they made their way down to the outer circle and waited for the personnel shuttle that would take them via the connecting tube out to the Mine-6 hub, Mark told Harry everything he knew about the operation. Mine-6 was operating in a grid that was about 150-miles long by 150-miles wide. They were stripping the red-ore off the surface and bringing it back to the mine hub. Once at the mine hub, the ore was processed into unrefined red-ore bricks with the ‘dirt’-like materials siphoned off and stored for shipment along with the bricks. Apparently Magnum-4 ‘loam’ was a well sought after growing medium and highly prized by the groups that ran the produce planets. Magnum-4’s by-product invigorated nutrient depleted soils making the next season’s harvest bigger and better than the one before.

Harry ran the data he had gleaned from Keith’s computer through his mind and quantified the ratio between the red-ore and dirt shipped off world. Harry was absolutely amazed. Even their dirt was making them money.

“You’ve made me kind of a celebrity, you know,” Mark said quickly changing the subject.

“I have?” Harry asked.

“Boy, I’ll say,” Mark continued. “First, there was this fellow that everyone’s been talking about getting killed; then there’s you showing up and everyone’s wondering what the Directorate is sending someone out here for; then there’s all this talk about you showing up at Turgenev’s last night as one of the Vigilance Committee (which I still haven’t figured out yet) and when I mentioned that you were my roommate on the trip out, you can’t imagine how everyone jumped all over me to know all about you...”

“And what did you tell them?” Harry kept his voice even..

“Just what you told us: that you were working for Lydia Thompson. You can’t imagine how that impressed everyone. Some people even told me to stay away from you.”

“You don’t seem concerned.”

“Nah. Everyone thinks you’re some kind of big Kahuna and since I know you that kind of rubs off on me.”

“Guilt by association,” Harry said.

“I guess,” Mark said. “Anyway, you’ll never guess who I ran into on my maiden ride out to the mine, yesterday.”

“Who?”

“That Fitz-Porter fellow, you know, the one who was spending all that time on the trip out with that good-lookin’ brunette.”

“Jane Somerset?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. He’s not sucha bad fellow. Thought he was kind of a stick in the mud up on the STAR, but he seemed really nice on the ride out. Got me to the right place at the right time. Actually made me look good for my boss...”

“Who would have thought it,” Harry said, but the sarcasm was lost on his seatmate.

The ride from the main dome to the Mine-6 hub took about 20 minutes. The spoke connecting the two was some kind of pneumatic tube powered by the O­2 manufactured at the mine hub terminal. It was another safety feature designed to keep the planet’s toxic atmosphere away from the main dome in case of a catastrophic failure. Despite the speed, the trip tested Harry endurance to its limit. Mark Chapman talked the whole way.

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