Chapter Fourteen: Miller
The Xinglong died stupid. Afterward, everyone knew she was one of thousands of small-time rock-hopping prospector ships. The Belt was lousy with them: five- or six-family operations that had scraped together enough for a down payment and set up operations. When it happened, they'd been three payments behind, and their bank - Consolidated Holdings and Investments - had put a lien on the ship. Which, common wisdom had it, was why they had disabled her transponder. Just honest folks with a rust bucket to call their own trying to keep flying.
If you were going to make a poster of the Belter's dream, it would have been the Xinglong.
The Scipio Africanus, a patrol destroyer, was due to head back down toward Mars at the end of its two-year tour of the Belt. They both headed for a captured cometary body a few hundred thousand kilometers from Chiron to top off their water.
When the prospecting ship first came in range, the Scipio saw a fast-moving ship running dark and headed more or less in their direction. The official Martian press releases all said that the Scipio had tried repeatedly to hail her. The OPA pirate casts all said it was crap and that no listening station in the Belt had heard anything like that. Everyone agreed that the Scipio had opened its point defense cannons and turned the prospecting ship into glowing slag.
The reaction had been as predictable as elementary physics. The Martians were diverting another couple dozen ships to help "maintain order." The OPA's shriller talking heads called for open war, and fewer and fewer of the independent sites and casts were disagreeing with them. The great, implacable clockwork of war ticked one step closer to open fighting.
And someone on Ceres had put a Martian-born citizen named Enrique Dos Santos through eight or nine hours of torture and nailed the remains to a wall near sector eleven's water reclamation works. They identified him by the terminal that had been left on the floor along with the man's wedding ring and a thin faux-leather wallet with his credit access data and thirty thousand Europa-script new yen. The dead Martian had been affixed to the wall with a single-charge prospector's spike. Five hours afterward, the air recyclers were still laboring to get the acid smell out. The forensics team had taken their samples. They were about ready to cut the poor bastard down.
It always surprised Miller how peaceful dead people looked. However godawful the circumstances, the slack calm that came at the end looked like sleep. It made him wonder if when his turn came, he'd actually feel that last relaxation.
"Surveillance cameras?" he said.
"Been out for three days," his new partner said. "Kids busted 'em."
Octavia Muss was originally from crimes against persons, back before Star Helix split violence up into smaller specialties. From there, she'd been on the rape squad. Then a couple of months of crimes against children. If the woman still had a soul, it had been pressed thin enough to see through. Her eyes never registered anything more than mild surprise.
"We know which kids?"
"Some punks from upstairs," she said. "Booked, fined, released into the wild."
"We should round 'em back up," Miller said. "It'd be interesting to know whether someone paid them to take out these particular cameras."
"I'd bet against it."
"Then whoever did this had to know that these cameras were busted."
"Someone in maintenance?"
"Or a cop."
Muss smacked her lips and shrugged. She'd come from three generations in the Belt. She had family on ships like the one the Scipio had killed. The skin and bone and gristle hanging in front of them were no surprise to her. You dropped a hammer under thrust, and it fell to the deck. Your government slaughtered six families of ethnic Chinese prospectors, someone pinned you to the living rock of Ceres with a three-foot titanium alloy spike. Same same.
"There's going to be consequences," Miller said, meaning This isn't a corpse, it's a billboard. It's a call to war.
"There ain't," Muss said. The war is here anyway, banner or no.
"Yeah," Miller said. "You're right. There ain't."
"You want to do next of kin? I'll go take a look at outlying video. They didn't burn his fingers off here in the corridor, so they had to haul him in from somewhere."
"Yeah," Miller said. "I've got a sympathy form letter I can fire off. Wife?"
"Don't know," she said. "Haven't looked."
Back at the station house, Miller sat alone at his desk. Muss already had her own desk, two cubicles over and customized the way she liked it. Havelock's desk was empty and cleaned twice over, as if the custodial services had wanted the smell of Earth off their good Belter chair. Miller pulled up the dead man's file, found the next of kin. Jun-Yee Dos Santos, working on Ganymede. Married six years. No kids. Well, there was something to be glad of, at least. If you were going to die, at least you shouldn't leave a mark.
He navigated to the form letter, dropped in the new widow's name and contact address. Dear Mrs. Dos Santos, I am very sorry to have to tell you blah blah blah. Your [he spun through the menu] husband was a valued and respected member of the Ceres community, and I assure you that everything possible will be done to see that her [Miller toggled that] his killer or killers will be brought to answer for this. Yours...
It was inhuman. It was impersonal and cold and as empty as vacuum. The hunk of flesh on that corridor wall had been a real man with passions and fears, just like anyone else. Miller wanted to wonder what it said about him that he could ignore that fact so easily, but the truth was he knew. He sent the message and tried not to dwell on the pain it was about to cause.
The board was thick. The incident count was twice what it should have been. This is what it looks like, he thought. No riots. No hole-by-hole military action or marines in the corridors. Just a lot of unsolved homicides.
Then he corrected himself: This is what it looks like so far.
It didn't make his next task any easier.
Shaddid was in her office.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I need to make some requisitions for interrogation transcripts," he said. "But it's a little irregular. I was thinking it might be better if it came through you."
Shaddid sat back in her chair.
"I'll look at it," she said. "What are we trying to get?"
Miller nodded, as if by signaling yes himself, he could get her to say the same.
"Jim Holden. The Earther from the Canterbury. Mars should be picking his people up around now, and I need to petition for the debriefing transcripts."
"You have a case that goes back to the Canterbury?"
"Yeah," he said. "Seems like I do."
"Tell me," she said. "Tell me now."
"It's the side job. Julie Mao. I've been looking into it... "
"I saw your report."
"So you know she's associated with the OPA. From what I've found, it looks like she was on a freighter that was doing courier runs for them."
"You have proof of that?"
"I have an OPA guy that said as much."
"On the record?"
"No," Miller said. "It was informal."
"And it tied into the Martian navy killing the Canterbury how?"
"She was on the Scopuli," Miller said. "It was used as bait to stop the Canterbury. The thing is, you look at the broadcasts Holden makes, he talks about finding it with a Mars Navy beacon and no crew."
"And you think there's something in there that'll help you?"
"Won't know until I see it," Miller said. "But if Julie wasn't on that freighter, then someone had to take her off."
Shaddid's smile didn't reach her eyes.
"And you would like to ask the Martian navy to please hand over whatever they got from Holden."
"If he saw something on that boat, something that'll give us an idea what happened to Julie and the other - "
"You aren't thinking this through," Shaddid said. "The Mars Navy killed the Canterbury. They did it to provoke a reaction from the Belt so they'd have an excuse to roll in and take us over. The only reason they're 'debriefing' the survivors is so that no one could get to the poor bastards first. Holden and his crew are either dead or getting their minds cored out by Martian interrogation specialists right now."
"We can't be sure... "
"And even if I could get a full record of what they said as each toenail got ripped off, it would do you exactly no good, Miller. The Martian navy isn't going to ask about the Scopuli. They know good and well what happened to the crew. They planted the Scopuli."
"Is that Star Helix's official stand?" Miller asked. The words were barely out of his mouth before he saw they'd been a mistake. Shaddid's face closed down like a light going out. Now that he'd said it, he saw the implied threat he'd just made.
"I'm just pointing out the source reliability issue," Shaddid said. "You don't go to the suspect and ask where they think you should look next. And the Juliette Mao retrieval isn't your first priority."
"I'm not saying it is," Miller said, chagrined to hear the defensiveness in his voice.
"We have a board out there that's full and getting fuller. Our first priorities are safety and continuity of services. If what you're doing isn't directly related to that, there are better things for you to be doing."
"This war - "
"Isn't our job," Shaddid said. "Our job is Ceres. Get me a final report on Juliette Mao. I'll send it through channels. We've done what we could."
"I don't think - "
"I do," Shaddid said. "We've done what we could. Now stop being a pussy, get your ass out there, and catch bad guys. Detective."
"Yes, Captain," Miller said.
Muss was sitting at Miller's desk when he got back to it, a cup in her hand that was either strong tea or weak coffee. She nodded toward his desktop monitor. On it, three Belters - two men and one woman - were coming out of a warehouse door, an orange plastic shipping container carried between them. Miller raised his eyebrows.
"Employed by an independent gas-hauling company. Nitrogen, oxygen. Basic atmospherics. Nothing exotic. Looks like they had the poor bastard in one of the company warehouses. I've sent forensics over to see if we can get any blood splatters for confirmation."
"Good work," Miller said.
Muss shrugged. Adequate work, she seemed to say.
"Where are the perps?" Miller asked.
"Shipped out yesterday," she said. "Flight plan logs them as headed for Io."
"Earth-Mars Coalition central," Muss said. "Want to put any money on whether they actually show up there?"
"Sure," Miller said. "I'll lay you fifty that they don't."
Muss actually laughed.
"I've put them on the alert system," she said. "Anyplace they land, the locals will have a heads-up and a tracking number for the Dos Santos thing."
"So case closed," Miller said.
"Chalk another one up for the good guys," Muss agreed.
The rest of the day was hectic. Three assaults, two of them overtly political and one domestic. Muss and Miller cleared all three from the board before the end of shift. There would be more by tomorrow.
After he clocked out, Miller stopped at a food cart near one of the tube stations for a bowl of vat rice and textured protein that approximated teriyaki chicken. All around him on the tube, normal citizens of Ceres read their newsfeeds and listened to music. A young couple half a car up from him leaned close to each other, murmuring and giggling. They might have been sixteen. Seventeen. He saw the boy's wrist snake up under the girl's shirt. She didn't protest. An old woman directly across from Miller slept, her head lolling against the wall of the car, her snores almost delicate.
These people were what it was all about, Miller told himself. Normal people living small lives in a bubble of rock surrounded by hard vacuum. If they let the station turn into a riot zone, let order fail, all these lives would get turned into kibble like a kitten in a meat grinder. Making sure it didn't happen was for people like him, Muss, even Shaddid.
So, a small voice said in the back of his mind, why isn't it your job to stop Mars from dropping a nuke and cracking Ceres like an egg? What's the bigger threat to that guy standing over there, a few unlicensed whores or a Belt at war with Mars?
What was the harm that could come from knowing what happened to the Scopuli?
But of course he knew the answer to that. He couldn't judge how dangerous the truth was until he knew it - which was itself a fine reason to keep going.
The OPA man, Anderson Dawes, was sitting on a cloth folding chair outside Miller's hole, reading a book. It was a real book - onionskin pages bound in what might have been actual leather. Miller had seen pictures of them before; the idea of that much weight for a single megabyte of data struck him as decadent.
"I was hoping we could talk."
Miller was glad, as they went inside together, that he'd cleaned up a little. All the beer bottles had gone to recycler. The tables and cabinets were dusted. The cushions on the chairs had all been mended or replaced. As Dawes took his seat, Miller realized he'd done the housework in anticipation of this meeting. He hadn't realized it until now.
Dawes put his book on the table, dug in his jacket pocket, and slid a thin black filmdrive across the table. Miller picked it up.
"What am I going to see on this?" he asked.
"Nothing you can't confirm in the records," Dawes answered.
"Yes," Dawes said. His grin did nothing to improve his appearance. "But not by us. You asked about the police riot gear. It was signed for by a Sergeant Pauline Trikoloski for transfer to special services unit twenty-three."
"Special services twenty-three?"
"Yes," Dawes said. "It doesn't exist. Nor does Trikoloski. The equipment was all boxed up, signed for, and delivered to a dock. The freighter in the berth at the time was registered to the Corporaçõ do Gato Preto."
"You know them?"
"Import-export, same as everyone else," Miller said with a shrug. "We investigated them as a possible front for the Loca Greiga. Never tied them down, though."
"You were right."
"You prove it?"
"Not my job," Dawes said. "But this might interest you. Automated docking logs for the ship when she left here and when she arrived on Ganymede. She's three tons lighter, not even counting reaction mass consumption. And the transit time is longer than the orbital mechanics projections."
"Someone met her," Miller said. "Transferred the gear to another ship."
"There's your answer," Dawes said. "Both of them. The riot gear was taken off the station by local organized crime. There aren't records to support it, but I think it's safe to assume that they also shipped out the personnel to use that gear."
Dawes lifted his hands. Miller nodded. They were off station. Case closed. Another one for the good guys.
"I've kept my part of our bargain," Dawes said. "You asked for information. I've gotten it. Now, are you going to keep your end?"
"Drop the Mao investigation," Miller said. It wasn't a question, and Dawes didn't act is if it were. Miller leaned back in his chair.
Juliette Andromeda Mao. Inner system heiress turned OPA courier. Pinnace racer. Brown belt, aiming for black.
"Sure, what the hell," he said. "It's not like I would have shipped her back home if I'd found her."
Miller shifted his hands in a gesture that meant Of course not.
"She's a good kid," Miller said. "How would you feel if you were all grown up and Mommy could still pull you back home by your ear? It was a bullshit job from the start."
Dawes smiled again. This time it actually did help a little.
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Detective. And I won't forget the rest of our agreement. When we find her, I will tell you. You've got my word on it."
"I appreciate that," Miller said.
There was a moment of silence. Miller couldn't decide if it was companionable or awkward. Maybe there was room for both. Dawes rose, put out his hand. Miller shook it. Dawes left. Two cops working for different sides. Maybe they had something in common.
Didn't mean Miller was uncomfortable lying to the man.
He opened his terminal's encryption program, routed it to his communication suite, and started talking into the camera.
"We haven't met, sir, but I hope you'll find a few minutes to help me out. I'm Detective Miller with Star Helix Security. I'm on the Ceres security contract, and I've been tasked with finding your daughter. I've got a couple questions."