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W. I. P. Chapter One (formerly Red Ice)

by Dennis M. Myers, 02/15/2021

Someone slipping on a patch of ice inside an old airlock should not need a detective to investigate. Yet, here she was, about to interview Service Technician Fourth Class Wayland Hartness, victim of a mild concussion, about frozen dampness.

Miku entered the room and was assaulted by the antiseptic vapors. The man on the bed was of medium build, in his late forties, she guessed. Close cropped hair. Minguard tattoo on his neck. Same as hers.

"Mister Hartness?"

"Jack," he said. "Who are you?"

"I'm detective O'Connor. Jack? How do you get Jack from Wayland?"

"Wayland was my father's name. Jack is what everyone called me. Why are you here?"

"I was sent to investigate your... accident?"

Jack laughed. "Oh wow. I slipped and fell on some ice, and they sent a corporate detective?"

Her cheeks grew warm. "I know. But it's my job, so let's just review, alright?"

"Sure. Make yourself happy." He crossed his arms and lay back.

"You were alone when it happened?"

"Just me and Clyde. My service bot. He was a few meters behind me. Good thing, too. He called for help when I went down."

Miku tilted her head. "Went down?"

"Yup. I was just about to open the hatch. I bobbled towards the control panel, and when I went to skid to a stop, my foot just slid straight out. No traction. Felt like ice. Ice and pain and dark. It's cold as hell down there."

"How long were you out?"

"Long enough for the bots to gather and start dragging me back inside."

"You were outside?"

"No, no. I was still inside the airlock. I meant back inside the tunnel. They scooped me onto a transport and brought me up here."

"When did you call security?"

"I didn't. I have no idea why you are here."

She brought her arm around and pulled back her sleeve. The corporate screen lit up under her skin. She tapped a series of icons and brought up the incident report, then watched his face. "It says that probable excessive human damage was detected."

He shrugged. "I cracked my head, but didn't break anything."

Miku expanded the text of the report on her arm. It always seemed just slightly out of focus. With a sigh she pulled out her personal phone and transferred the report. After a moment she found it. "It's not you. It's the ice. One of the bots had a camera."

"What about it?"

She showed him the image.

"That looks dark. Almost... red?"

She nodded. "Looks like it might be frozen blood. I'll have to go get a sample, but unless it's yours, or you put it there, you should be in the clear."

He smiled. "Gee thanks. No, I was in my suit the whole time. Not mine."

Walking out of the medical bay, she used her arm to order samples gathered of the red ice in the airlock. That sort of thing shouldn't take long.

Except it did.

After an hour she sent a ping to see what the status was.

No frozen material found on the deck of Service Access M-2512. Unable to comply.

"Shit. Let me see the logs, all the footage for the last five hours."

Unable to comply.

She furiously tapped at her arm until she saw the issue. Jack had been sent to fix a power problem down there. The sensors had been out of order for several days.



* * *



Her pressure suit squeezed tightly. It was hard to move around, even when it wasn't filled with air. The bot she was riding brought her all the way down to service access M-2512. It was darker than she was used to. An old service airlock. She stepped carefully into the open inner hatch. The glint of the floor made her think she had found what she was looking for. She turned up the lights to glistening disappointment. It was the cleanest airlock she had seen in years.

"That complicates things." She brought up her arm screen and flagged the scene as an active crime location, then sent a request for any tracking to and from the area. With this whole section being offline, that was a longshot.

She put on her helmet and ran the pre-checks. Shortly the inner hatch was closed and the air was pumped out. The outer hatch opened with a stiffness she wasn't used to.

Stepping onto the lunar surface was always uncomfortable. She preferred to have something less penetrable between her and space than a simple suit. Still, she needed to look around, and that meant bringing air and heat with her.

The smooth dust and lightly scattered pebbles were devoid of any trace of activity. No bots, no people, no nothing. And with no wind on the moon, those things last for decades at least. Just like the airlock, this place had been scrubbed clean.

She turned to go back inside to another disappointment. No atmosphere meant no sound, so the airlock being closed was unexpected. The missing handle was a problem. She opened the access panel. No power. That was a bigger problem.

She activated her suit phone.

"Network not found." The Southern Lunar Communications Service had a pleasant male voice. It was meant to be comforting, but it wasn't. She hadn't been able to afford the long range link. It never seemed necessary with everything hooked into the short range mesh. The power outage must have killed the whole tunnel.

She touched the display and opened the map. A red indicator told her that live updates were offline. She expanded the view until she had the next nearest access. The distance was greater than she had bargained for. This place is more isolated than I thought.

She walked to the hatch and gave it a final inspection. The handle was missing. Access panel power was off. No communication. It didn't budge.

She turned east and started loping up to the next access hatch. On the moon, you didn't just run. You did a bouncing skip the locals referred to as loping. It kicked up dust in your wake, but by constantly moving forward, less of it stuck to your boots than would if you were just walking.

Boots.

Jack's boots had made contact with the red ice. What if they picked up a sample in the skid? Something to explore when she got within phone range.

She passed over the first ridge. Wheel tracks. Small tracks like a bot. More than one. She followed them as they were going in her direction. After a few kilometers one of the tracks, the top set, veered off to the south, up the low ridge of a small crater. Only one track left. She kept heading east. The remaining track veered off to the same crater.

She paused and pulled out her map. It wasn't a crater. Vent hole. Marked as deep. Red Ice. A bot trail that runs by a vent hole and loops back on itself.

"Network not found."

She clenched her teeth, then followed the trail to the vent. As she got there, the tracks faded. Someone had dusted the place. There was a whole section right at the edge that was swept clean. Just like what she saw near the airlock.

She dropped a marker on her map, took a new bearing, and headed back towards her target access. She checked her air, did the math, and picked up her pace. A little adjustment to the mix, and she should still make it in plenty of time.

The steep angle of Wexler mountain tried to slow her down, and succeeded more than she wanted. She tried to pace herself. The access point was up there, closer to the station at the peak.

Nighttime on Luna was bad enough, but she was on the far side. No Earthlight to illuminate the shadows. After the second stumble, she slowed her pace, stepped more carefully. She was breathing too heavily, moving too slowly. A glance at her air supply didn't help.

"Network not found." The service was just teasing her now.

"Try again. Keep trying until I tell you to stop."

"Acknowledged. Network not found."

"And stop telling me you haven't found a network. Just let me know you are connected."

"Network Connected."

She growled. "No, you stupid digital moron. I mean when you are actually connected."

"Network Connected."

She dropped to her knees and sat on her heels. "Call Wexler Station Security. Chief Geday."

She heard the Minguard corporate jingle that was the local call tone.

"O'Connor, where have you been?" Geday sounded mildly annoyed.

"I got locked outside. I need someone to go grab some possible evidence for me. I could also use a pickup."

"Outside? Hold on. I'll send a cab. What do you need us to do?"

"Wayland Hartness slipped on frozen blood in M-2512. Need his boots checked for a sample. The airlock was scrubbed clean. I'm sending you a..." She stopped to catch her breath.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. Running low. I just sent you a marker. I think they dumped the body. Deep vent." She thought for a moment. "They used a bot, so maybe run checks on that too. Oh, and Hartness has a bot he calls Clyde. Just in case."

"Got it. Your cab is on the way. Fifteen minutes."

The red flashing light on her gauge, the difficulty she was having breathing told her the bad news. Her finger slid along the temperature control. She tried to say thanks, but fell to the side instead.



* * *



The stinging of the antiseptic in her nose told her two things. She was alive and she was in the med center. She tried to wipe phantom dust from her eyes. It didn't work. She opened them anyway.

"There she is." Geday still sounded annoyed. "Give us the room, please."

The nurse scoffed and walked out, sliding the door closed.

"I have news for you. Some good some not."

"Gee, I'm fine, thank you boss. Thanks for asking."

He chuckled. "That's the good news, smart ass."

"No joy on the sample?"

"On the bot? Treads were squeaky clean. The forensics bots eventually found a sample in a crack on the top plate."

"Top? So it carried the body."

Geday nodded.

"And Hartness?"

"Contract switch before you even got to the airlock. By the time you were running out of air, he had already shipped out. Lightbody Pharmaceuticals."

"What? That's all the way over in Clavius. No retrieval?"

Geday shook his head. "Expensive, too. And it gets worse. He never arrived. No record of him even getting on the shuttle, except the footage we kept. He's been erased."

Miku sighed. "So he's a corporate assassin. Who did he kill?"

"Todd Sipe."

"Doesn't ring a bell."

"We went through surveillance videos and tracked him down. He likes to sit in bars and talk loudly about corporate malfeasance, and that economic study from a few years back. The last few weeks he was gathering a bit of a crowd."

"Ah." She glanced around the room. "So?"

Geday shrugged. "He was begging for it if you ask me. You ever read that study?"

Miku shook her head.

"The Perry-Watts Economic Study of 2402." He glanced around the room, then lowered his voice. "It showed that by reorganizing the economy and giving each person on Luna a single share in a new cooperative, everyone could afford to live off the dividends."

"Living wage?"

"Upper class wage. Luxury life. But no corporations. No ultra-wealthy, either."

"Shit."

"Which is why we are closing this case. Because that's a silly idea and it will never work. Right?" He scratched his Minguard tattoo as if it itched.

Miku swallowed hard. "Of course not."

"By the way, remember to keep your personal crap and your work info separate. They flagged a data transfer to your phone. You know they don't like that."

She nodded. "Sorry." Minguard tracked all of their equipment.

Who knows what else they track. Todd Sipe was too loud. Attracted attention. That study might be an interesting read in my off time. No record of Hartness getting on the shuttle. Just video. Contract switching is expensive. Very expensive.

"Boss, what if he never actually got on that shuttle? Faking a video is cheap compared to a contract switch."

Geday frowned. "I hadn't thought of that." He brought up his arm display. "Security alert. Conduct a station wide verification sweep. Search for the face of Wayland Hartness."

Miku sighed. "It's probably a waste of--"

"Got him. That was quick. He's right here in medical. I'll call a security team."

Miku smiled. "So, not a perfect escape after all."

Moments later the security team arrived and, guided by their scanners, arrested Chief Geday.

"Dammit, O'Connor. Get this cleared up, will you?"

Miku didn't know if she should laugh or cry. "So, traceless escape, and facial recognition hacking. Is this a good time to ask for a raise?"



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