Murder Beyond The Milky Way

By EricRuark All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Mystery

Chapter Twenty-Nine


Before he disembarked from the personnel shuttle, Mark Chapman handed Harry a set of earplugs.

“What are these for?” Harry asked.

“The noise,” Mark said while inserting a set into is own ears. “This isn’t Nova-3. The greenways, there, absorb virtually all the noise. Here it’s different.

“How different?”

“You’ll see.”

Harry had never been to a mine hub before, so he did not know what to expect. However, whatever he thought he might have expected, he didn’t find it at mine hub six. As soon as Harry stepped off the shuttle, as Mark had warned, he walked into a wall of noise. It wasn’t the soft noise of electric motors and the gentle hum of human voices in casual conversation. It was an ear shattering roar of combustion engines of all sizes from the small ones powering the forklifts that moved along carrying pre-processed red-ore bricks to their storage facilities to the larger material carriers moving containers from one side of the dome to the other. There was also a deep throated roar coming from somewhere up ahead as if the central terraforming plant were operating without its mandated mufflers and voices everywhere as the men shouted over whatever machinery they were operating to make themselves heard above the din. And all this was with a downsized crew since many of the people were on warehouse duty.

Harry looked around him. Without a doubt, this was a down and dirty mining operation where the bottom line profit margin was the only thing that mattered. Harry smiled. Standing there feeling the sounds’ vibrations pluck at his body, he felt more at home in the tumult of the mine hub than any time since leaving Earth Prime.

“How does this place work?” Harry asked. He had to step in close to Mark and shout in his ear.

Mark was all too happy to tell him. “Terraforming plant in the center of the dome,” he shouted back pointing in its direction, “produces the energy for our LifeShieldlike at the main dome. In addition to our life support it also produces hydrogen from water drawn up from one of the deep wells beneath us. We have a bottling operation that bottles the hydrogen for use in the various machines both inside and outside the dome. We also have to bottle oxygen for use out side the dome to give to the internal combustion engines so they can burn the hydrogen. They typical by-product is ozone which is scrubbed from in here or let out into the atmosphere out there. It’s not like we have to worry about it. There’s no ozone layer in the planet’s atmosphere and since we have to be suited up to protect ourselves from the natural toxicity, the suits also protect us from the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the surface. In here, the dome does that.

“We mine a grid to the south.” He pointed in the direction. “There’s an observation platform there...” He pointed to it. “... so the bosses can watch the machines move in and out and keep track of their times. All the material is brought up to west side of the dome and off loaded directly to the initial processing plant. It removes everything from the ore except the iron and gold which it leaves press into bricks which we store over on the east side. The sludge from the processing is sent over to the terraforming plant where it’s refined even further into the loam we ship off-world. Any water is recycled into the hydrogen processing.”

“Do all the mines operate like this one?” Harry asked.

“Pretty much,” Mark said. A roaring noise echoed above the base noise of the mine. “An ore shuttle returning.” Mark pointed to it as it crossed from right to left above the southern portion of the dome. “The shuttle pads are located over there on the other side of the ore storage. Makes loading them easier.”

“I understand there’s quite the competition to get your share of the freighter filled,” Harry said.

“Everyone takes real pride in it,” Mark said. “We’d be doing better, but some of our best shuttle pilots are also flyers and they had to practice today.”

“Practice?”

“Yeah. Nothing, not even the arrival of a freighter can disrupt the flyers’ schedule.”

That made no sense to Harry, but rather than follow up on it, he asked for directions to the main office. He wanted to take care of Allyson’s errand and then get back to the main dome. Since Mark had to check in at the same place, he offered to keep Harry company and walk with him. Harry didn’t mind one way or the other. However, he was grateful that the constant noise kept their conversation to a minimum. After having spent eight days with Mark, the short ride to the mining dome was about all that Harry could take of the man.

As they were walking along, Harry began to notice striking similarities between this satellite dome and the main one at Nova-3. Despite all the hustle and noise, the two looked very similar. The buildings and warehouses were all built with red-ore blocks and were no taller than three stories high. Harry assumed that it had something to do with the airflow from the terraforming plant. The plant itself dominated the central portion of the dome which Harry could see in the distance. It was higher than the one at Nova-3 with wing or blade like structures sticking out from three central towers. Since there were no greenways, here, to cleanse the air and no need for solar panels of any kind, Harry made the wild assumption that those wing-like structures acted as air scoops to clean the dust out of the air. Many of the men in the machinery were wearing white face masks over their noses and mouths. People walking along the street had the masks tucked under their chins. On Earth Prime people wore them to keep the dust and the dirt out of their mouths. The crap people breathed in on Earth Prime was worthless unlike the stuff breathed in here. Harry figured that at the end of a shift even the masks were processed to make sure all the red-ore scraped off the planet surface made it into the processors. Now, Harry also understood the need for the planetary jumpsuits. The dust and the dirt were worth something.

Mark led Harry to a squat, rectangular structure that was set apart from the rest of the buildings. As they walked in through the only door on the south side, Mark took out his ear plugs and signaled for Harry to do the same.

When Harry had complied, Mark said, “Well here you are. Disbursements is located down that left corridor three doors on the right. I’ve got to head over to personnel over on the other side of the building. Say, if you’re still here when I get out, I’ll take you over to the dining hall and you can see how us workers live. The spread they put out makes the STAR’s mess look like a handout for the homeless.”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” Harry said. He tried not to sound too enthusiastic. After all he really didn’t like Chapman. The man didn’t know when to shut up, but, at the moment, that appealed to Harry. Harry still had more questions and if he asked them to anyone else, they might think he was ‘probing’. According to Allyson, the locals had already branded him as ‘Vigilance’ and that would color whatever response they gave him. Mark was still a blank slate and that made him the perfect man to talk to.

Harry walked down the hall. It reminded him of Keith’s corridor, devoid of any personality. It was carpeted with the same dun-colored carpeting and had the same recessed lighting. It was exactly the kind of building where form followed function. It was also the kind of building that no one could become attached to. When the time came to tear it down for its red-ore brick, no one was going to care in the slightest as long as the red-ore was more valuable than the memories of the people who worked there.

The third door on the right was closed and there were no markings on it. If Mark had not told him this was Distribution, Harry would never have known. Harry thought about knocking as he would have done on Earth Prime. But this was Magnum-4 where they do things differently. Harry turned the knob and boldly walked in.

There were a half a dozen men in the room sitting at an equal number of desks. Holoscreens floated in the air in front of them. Everyone seemed to be talking to someone on their head sets. Harry found it bizarre to hear six different conversations about six different topics all happening at the same time. On Earth Prime, each man would have had his own soundproofed cubicle in which to privately carry on the company’s business. Obviously it didn’t matter, here, what anyone overheard.

Harry walked up to the first desk. The man sitting behind it was talking to the holographic image of another man at another location. “Okay, I hear you, Burt. All I’m saying is that yesterday morning, harvester #1691’s O­2 was running 3% low. That’s why it’s in the shop. I’m not sending a man out into that atmosphere if there is even the slightest chance that he’s going to run out of breathable gasses 100-miles away from base.”

“Scrapers four and six they are still showing their O­2 levels within normal parameters.” the holographic image answered.

“I know,” the man behind the desk said. “That’s what worries me. We lost one man to a stupid warehouse accident. I don’t want Mine-6 to get a bad rep... Hold on a sec.” The man looked up from the holographic image and asked Harry, “Can I help you?”

Harry held out Allyson’s info chip. “You shorted us on some supplies,” he said.

“Who’s us?” the man asked.

“Lehman’s,” Harry said.

“The big guy over there,” the man said then went back to his conversation with the hologram. “Check the air lines for me. Hell, replace them all. I don’t want anyone else dying on my watch.”

Harry walked over to the big man a couple of desks over. The man was sitting down, but Harry guessed that he was over 240 pounds of hard muscle with a frame to carry it when he stood up. Harry stood on the opposite side of the holoscreen and waited for the man to notice him. When the man didn’t respond, Harry waved his hand in the focused light disrupting the image.

“What the fuck,” the big man said.

“You shorted us,” Harry said.

“The fuck I did,” the big man responded.

“Do you even know who ‘we’ are?” Harry asked.

“Like I give a fuck,” the man said.

“Well, maybe you’d better,” Harry said. “I got a list of things, here, that need to be shipped to Lehman’s as soon as possible.” He tossed Allyson’s lading chip on the desk.

The big man stared at the chip for a moment and then stood up. He was even bigger than Harry had guessed. “Listen, you little shit, I got some real work to do here getting all our stuff off the freighter. When that’s on the ground, maybe I’ll have the time to look for your shit.”

Their voices had been edging up in volume.They were loud enough, now, so that all the other men in the office had stopped doing what they had been doing and were snickering at the miss-matched confrontation that was taking place in front of them. Quincey had only kicked Harry on to his luggage. Behind his bluff, Harry was worried that this guy could kick him all the way to the freighter out in space. But he had no intention of backing down.

“Look here, you overgrown brick of red dirt, our ‘shit’, as you call it, was in place to come out first. Which means that it’s sitting on the ground here in one of your warehouses collecting red dust. I don’t intend to wait until you get all your shit off the freighter in order to find it. Now, get back on that holoscreen of yours and figure out where one of your bright handlers put it.”

The two of them stood with their fists closed and leaning on the desk with their faces separated by the floating lights of the holoscreen. Suddenly, a voice from Harry’s left shouted, “O’Malley, give him what he wants and get him outta here!”

Harry looked over. Albert Harlas was standing in an open doorway watching them. Harry hadn’t noticed the door before. It had probably been closed. But the door was open now and the owner of the #6 was standing in it watching the confrontation. Parker Huntington was standing next to him. Harry hadn’t seen Huntington since that last day on the freighter and in the shuttle.

Grumbling under his breath, O’Malley picked up Allyson’s invoice chip and roughly dropped it on to a sensory panel on his desk. He touched a couple of keys and the description of the missing items popped into view in the air in front of Harry’s face.“Boss, this is piddling shit,” he said almost whining like a child who didn’t want to do what a parent had ordered.

Huntington leaned in and whispered something to Harlas. Harlas grunted and then snapped at his employee, “I don’t care if it’s chewing gum. If it’s theirs, get it out of our supply chain and on the next supply run to the city.”

“Yes, boss,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley sat back down and began the search. Harlas returned to his office. Huntington walked towards Harry. Harry realized from the silence behind him that the others were expecting some kind of confrontation.

As Huntington approached, Harry sensed that their was something different about the man. At first he couldn’t put his finger on it, then he realized that Huntington wasn’t dressed in the standard planetary jump suit. He was dressed in black: black shirt, black pants, black boots. The only other person Harry had so far seen dressed this way was Quincey. That’s when he put two and two together. He remembered Chapman saying that Huntington had “the reputation of being some kind of freelance law enforcement officer”. Quincey had worked in some capacity for Somerset and was, now, acting for the Vigilance Committee. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what Huntington had been hired to do. So, Harry wondered, if Quincey was Somerset’s enforcer, whom is Huntington enforcing for?

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