Chapter Twenty-Two: Miller
The people-mover to Eros was small, cheap, and overcrowded. The air recyclers had the plastic-and-resin smell of long-life industrial models that Miller associated with warehouses and fuel depots. The lights were cheap LEDs tinted a false pink that was supposed to flatter the complexion but instead made everyone look like undercooked beef. There were no cabins, only row after row of formed laminate seating and two long walls with five-stacks of bunks that the passengers could hot-swap. Miller had never been on a cheapjack transport before, but he knew how they worked. If there was a fight, the ship's crew would pump riot gas into the cabin, knock everyone out, and put anyone who'd been in the scuffle under restraint. It was a draconian system, but it did tend to keep passengers polite. The bar was always open and the drinks were cheap. Not long ago Miller would have found that enticing.
Instead, he sat on one of the long seats, his hand terminal open. Julie's case file - what he had reconstructed of it - glowed before him. The picture of her, proud and smiling, in front of the Razorback, the dates and records, her jiu jitsu training. It seemed like very little, considering how large the woman had grown in his life.
A small newsfeed crawled down the terminal's left side. The war between Mars and the Belt escalated, incident after incident, but the secession of Ceres Station was the top news. Earth was taken to task by Martian commentators for failing to stand united with its fellow inner planet, or at least for not handing over the Ceres security contract to Mars. The scattershot reaction of the Belt ran the gamut from pleasure at seeing Earth's influence fall back down the gravity well, to strident near-panic at the loss of Ceres' neutrality, to conspiracy theories that Earth was fomenting the war for its own ends.
Miller reserved judgment.
"I always think of pews."
Miller looked over. The man sitting next to him was about Miller's age; the fringe of gray hair, the soft belly. The man's smile told Miller the guy was a missionary, out in the vacuum saving souls. Or maybe it was the name tag and Bible.
"The seats, I mean," the missionary said. "They always make me think of going to church, the way they're all lined up, row after row. Only instead of a pulpit, we have bunk beds."
"Our Lady of Sleeping Through It," Miller said, knowing he was getting drawn into conversation but unable to stop himself. The missionary laughed.
"Something like that," he said. "Do you attend church?"
"Haven't in years," Miller said. "I was a Methodist when I was anything. What flavor are you selling?"
The missionary lifted his hands in a gesture of harmlessness that went back to the African plains of the Pleistocene. I have no weapon; I seek no fight.
"I'm just going back to Eros from a conference on Luna," he said. "My proselytizing days are long behind me."
"I didn't think those ever ended," Miller said.
"They don't. Not officially. But after a few decades, you come to a place where you realize that there's really no difference between trying and not trying. I still travel. I still talk to people. Sometimes we talk about Jesus Christ. Sometimes we talk about cooking. If someone is ready to accept Christ, it doesn't take much effort on my part to help them. If they aren't, no amount of hectoring them does any good. So why try?"
"Do people talk about the war?" Miller asked.
"Often," the missionary said.
"Anyone make sense of it?"
"No. I don't believe war ever does. It's a madness that's in our nature. Sometimes it recurs; sometimes it subsides."
"Sounds like a disease."
"The herpes simplex of the species?" the missionary said with a laugh. "I suppose there are worse ways to think of it. I'm afraid that as long as we're human, it will be with us."
Miller looked over at the wide, moon-round face.
"As long as we're human?" he said.
"Some of us believe that we shall all eventually become angels," the missionary said.
"Not the Methodists."
"Even them, eventually," the man said, "but they probably won't go first. And what brings you to Our Lady of Sleeping Through It?"
Miller sighed, sitting back against the unyielding chair. Two rows down, a young woman shouted at two boys to stop jumping on the seats and was ignored. A man behind them coughed. Miller took a long breath and let it out slowly.
"I was a cop on Ceres," he said.
"Ah. The change of contract."
"That," Miller said.
"Taking up work on Eros, then?"
"More looking up an old friend," Miller said. Then, to his own surprise, he went on. "I was born on Ceres. Lived there my whole life. This is the... fifth? Yeah, fifth time I've been off station."
"Do you plan to go back?"
"No," Miller said. He sounded more certain that he'd known. "No, I think that part of my life is pretty much over."
"That must be painful," the missionary said.
Miller paused, letting the comment settle. The man was right; it should have been painful. Everything he'd ever had was gone. His job, his community. He wasn't even a cop anymore, his checked-in-luggage handgun notwithstanding. He would never eat at the little East Indian cart at the edge of sector nine again. The receptionist at the station would never nod her greeting to him as he headed in for his desk again. No more nights at the bar with the other cops, no more off-color stories about busts gone weird, no more kids flying kites in the high tunnels. He probed himself like a doctor searching for inflammation. Did it hurt here? Did he feel the loss there?
He didn't. There was only a sense of relief so profound it approached giddiness.
"I'm sorry," the missionary said, confused. "Did I say something funny?"
Eros supported a population of one and a half million, a little more than Ceres had in visitors at any given time. Roughly the shape of a potato, it had been much more difficult to spin up, and its surface velocity was considerably higher than Ceres' for the same internal g. The old shipyards protruded from the asteroid, great spiderwebs of steel and carbon mesh studded with warning lights and sensor arrays to wave off any ships that might come in too tight. The internal caverns of Eros had been the birthplace of the Belt. From raw ore to smelting furnace to annealing platform and then into the spines of water haulers and gas harvesters and prospecting ships. Eros had been a port of call in the first generation of humanity's expansion. From there, the sun itself was only a bright star among billions.
The economics of the Belt had moved on. Ceres Station had spun up with newer docks, more industrial backing, more people. The commerce of shipping moved to Ceres, while Eros remained a center of ship manufacture and repair. The results were as predictable as physics. On Ceres, a longer time in dock meant lost money, and the berth fee structure reflected that. On Eros, a ship might wait for weeks or months without impeding the flow of traffic. If a crew wanted a place to relax, to stretch, to get away from one another for a while, Eros was the port of call. And with the lower docking fees, Eros Station found other ways to soak money from its visitors: Casinos. Brothels. Shooting galleries. Vice in all its commercial forms found a home in Eros, its local economy blooming like a fungus fed by the desires of Belters.
A happy accident of orbital mechanics put Miller there half a day ahead of the Rocinante. He walked through the cheap casinos, the opioid bars and sex clubs, the show fight areas where men or women pretended to beat one another senseless for the pleasure of the crowds. Miller imagined Julie walking with him, her sly smile matching his own as he read the great animated displays. RANDOLPH MAK, HOLDER OF THE BELT FREEFIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP FOR SIX YEARS, AGAINST MARTIAN KIVRIN CARMICHAEL IN A FIGHT TO THE DEATH!
Surely not fixed, Julie said drily in his mind.
Wonder which one's going to win, he thought, and imagined her laughing.
He'd stopped at a noodle cart, two new yens' worth of egg noodles in black sauce steaming in their cone, when a hand clapped on his shoulder.
"Detective Miller," a familiar voice said. "I think you're outside your jurisdiction."
"Why, Inspector Sematimba," Miller said. "As I live and breathe. You give a girl the shakes, sneaking up like that."
Sematimba laughed. He was a tall man, even among Belters, with the darkest skin Miller had ever seen. Years before, Sematimba and Miller had coordinated on a particularly ugly case. A smuggler with a cargo of designer euphorics had broken with his supplier. Three people on Ceres had been caught in the crossfire, and the smuggler had shipped out for Eros. The traditional competitiveness and insularity of the stations' respective security forces had almost let the perp slip away. Only Miller and Sematimba had been willing to coordinate outside the corporate channels.
"What brings you," Sematimba said, leaning against a thin steel railing and gesturing at the tunnel, "to the navel of the Belt, the glory and power that is Eros?"
"Following up on a lead," Miller said.
"There's nothing good here," Sematimba said. "Ever since Protogen pulled out, things have been going from bad to worse."
Miller sucked up a noodle.
"Who's the new contract?" he asked.
"CPM," Sematimba said.
"Never heard of them."
"Carne Por la Machina," Sematimba said, and pulled a face: exaggerated bluff masculinity. He thumped his breast and growled, then let the imitation go and shook his head. "New corporation out of Luna. Mostly Belters on the ground. Make themselves out to be all hard core, but they're mostly amateurs. All bluster, no balls. Protogen was inner planets, and that was a problem, but they were serious as hell. They broke heads, but they kept the peace. These new assholes? Most corrupt bunch of thugs I've ever worked for. I don't think the board of governors is going to renew when the contract's up. I didn't say that, but it's true."
"I've got an old partner signed up with Protogen," Miller said.
"They're not bad," Sematimba said. "Almost wish I'd picked them in the divorce, you know?"
"Why didn't you?" Miller asked.
"You know how it is. I'm from here."
"Yeah," Miller said.
"So. You didn't know who was running the playhouse? You aren't here looking for work."
"Nope," Miller said. "I'm on sabbatical. Doing some travel for myself these days."
"You've got money for that?"
"Not really. But I don't mind going on the cheap. For a while, you know. You heard anything about a Juliette Mao? Goes by Julie?"
Sematimba shook his head.
"Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile," Miller said. "Came up the well and went native. OPA. It was an abduction case."
Miller leaned back. His imagined Julie raised her eyebrows.
"It's changed a little since I got it," Miller said. "May be connected to something. Kind of big."
"How big are we talking about?" Sematimba said. All trace of jocularity had vanished from his expression. He was all cop now. Anyone but Miller would have found the man's empty, almost angry face intimidating.
"The war," Miller said. Sematimba folded his arms.
"Bad joke," he said.
"I consider us friends, old man," Sematimba said. "But I don't want any trouble around here. Things are unsettled as it stands."
"I'll try to stay low-profile."
Sematimba nodded. Down the tunnel, an alarm blared. Only security, not the earsplitting ditone of an environmental alert. Sematimba looked down the tunnel as if squinting would let him see through the press of people, bicycles, and food carts.
"I'd better go look," he said with an air of resignation. "Probably some of my fellow officers of the peace breaking windows for the fun of it."
"Great to be part of a team like that," Miller said.
"How would you know?" Sematimba said with a smile. "If you need something... "
"Likewise," Miller said, and watched the cop wade into the sea of chaos and humanity. He was a large man, but something about the passing crowd's universal deafness to the alarm's blare made him seem smaller. A stone in the ocean, the phrase went. One star among millions.
Miller checked the time, then pulled up the public docking records. The Rocinante showed as on schedule. The docking berth was listed. Miller sucked down the last of his noodles, tossed the foam cone with the thin smear of black sauce into a public recycler, found the nearest men's room, and when he was done there, trotted toward the casino level.
The architecture of Eros had changed since its birth. Where once it had been like Ceres - webworked tunnels leading along the path of widest connection - Eros had learned from the flow of money: All paths led to the casino level. If you wanted to go anywhere, you passed through the wide whale belly of lights and displays. Poker, blackjack, roulette, tall fish tanks filled with prize trout to be caught and gutted, mechanical slots, electronic slots, cricket races, craps, rigged tests of skill. Flashing lights, dancing neon clowns, and video screen advertisements blasted the eyes. Loud artificial laughter and merry whistles and bells assured you that you were having the time of your life. All while the smell of thousands of people packed into too small a space competed with the scent of heavily spiced vat-grown meat being hawked from carts rolling down the corridor. Greed and casino design had turned Eros into an architectural cattle run.
Which was exactly what Miller needed.
The tube station that arrived from the port had six wide doors, which emptied to the casino floor. Miller accepted a drink from a tired-looking woman in a G-string and bared breasts and found a screen to stand at that afforded him a view of all six doors. The crew of the Rocinante had no choice but to come through one of those. He checked his hand terminal. The docking logs showed the ship had arrived ten minutes earlier. Miller pretended to sip his drink and settled in to wait.