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Red Ice: Luna 2414 (ch. 2)

by Dennis M. Myers, 03/31/2021



Meshabu

The search for where Wayland Hartness went turned up nothing, but when they ran the search backwards, they found him arriving a week before the murder on the hyperloop from Drygalski.

When she told him, Geday shook his head. "That place is run by the Riqueza de Luna. They have the worst safety record on Luna. I would be afraid to send you there."

"I get that, Boss," said Miku, "and I appreciate the sentiment. But I'm not going anywhere. We just need to follow up on a lead and see if we can get a new digital record of his face. I'm sure that can be done from here."

Geday sighed. "Okay." He took out his phone and tapped it. "Who is the head of security in Drygalski crater?"

"Search initiated," said the phone. "Drygalski Crater is under the control of the Ashbrook Mining Group, a subsidiary of Riqueza de Luna. Security is handled by Ashbrook Group Security. Primary external contact is through their litigation consultant, Emilia Grayson, located in the Stonewall Haven district of Meshabu, Ashbrook Ridge."

"Please request a conversation."

"Acknowledged. Request denied."

"What?" Geday frowned. "Damn. What's the reason?"

"Insufficient evidence presented."

Geday's face grew red. "This is ridiculous. Look, I'll go through the process and try to get some forward motion. In the mean time, go hit the queue. It's getting backed up again."

"Yes sir." She flipped up from the chair and did a slow roll and twist, landing on her way out the door.

Her next assignment was classified as a ten eighty-eight. An altercation in the market due to a sudden price increase. Apparently the price of apples had gone up again, and people were upset. Business as usual, that's why they had a code for it.

The market originally formed at a three way intersection. Over the last century, it had been expanded and dug back into the mountain on all three sides. Open spaces crowded with makeshift stalls, some with cheap metal fencing and others left empty at night by merchants who were less trusting. A lucky few sold all their goods in a day. Overhead, various splashes of advertising beckoned to capture your attention for a fleeting moment.

Miku followed the sounds of loud chanting. Angry shoppers, clapping their hands in unison, almost singing, "No more increase. No more theft."

She stepped to the front of the crowd and turned to face them. When she raised her hands, they quieted. She brought up the agricultural reports and cast them onto the wall. Simply a matter of showing everyone the numbers. Supplier raised their bulk price, and the store owner had been forced to pass at least some of it along. When the angry party saw that the owner had taken the bigger hit, they settled down and apologized. Not every situation was as easy to handle, but all part of the job.

When she returned to the station, Geday waved her into his office. "I have a meeting set up with Grayson in five minutes. Good that you're here. It will save time. I've sent the report, and the records showing he came from Drygalski. Now we just have to see if she has any more information."

Geday, as horrible at small talk as Miku, didn't try. They both quietly browsed the grid for any information the algorithms thought would keep their attention. The time passed quickly.

"Chief Geday," said his phone, "you have a call from Emilia Grayson."

"Accept it. Pop up the image above my desk."

Emilia Grayson's upper body faded in above the desk. Her smooth gray professional jumper and short cropped hair matched her clipped voice. "You have five minutes. Go."

Geday leaned forward. "Our evidence points to Drygalski as the point of origin for a murder suspect. We request assistance in identifying and tracking the suspect."

She waved her hand, almost dismissive. "We discovered a recent cave in with a bunch of smashed, frozen bodies. I don't have anyone to spare, right now."

"Understood," said Geday. "May we offer assistance?"

"I suppose we could use an extra set of hands. Tell you what, you send someone to help keep things in order here while we deal with the debris, and they can dig through our records in their spare time as long as they stay."

Geday growled. "I can hardly spare people here, but since you are dealing with an emergency, and we really need a break in this case, it's a deal. Who should they report to?"

"Head right to the Riqueza de Luna Administrative Complex in Meshabu. Follow the line to Observation and Enforcement Control Center. Report to whoever is at the duty desk. Someone will assign quarters and set up a work schedule. Is there anything else?"

"Thank you for your time." Geday smiled.

Emilia nodded and dropped the connection.

"Frankly, I think the sketch you helped develop is good enough."

"Boss," said Miku, "I'm not saying I have to go. But someone needs to. Someone who can track down his departure and look through the video recordings of the passengers."

Geday rolled his eyes. "I don't have anyone I'm angry at right now. Who would you suggest I punish?" He shook his head.

"Do you really have to be angry at someone when you have a volunteer, right here?"

Geday thought for a moment. He sighed. "Fine, pack your bags."

"Thanks, Boss. Right away."

"And you be careful. I meant what I said about their safety record."

She packed a spare uniform, a couple of shirts and some leisure pants for the short trip she expected. Her work slippers would do. For money while away, she downloaded an exchange app onto her personal phone. Embits were only accepted in Minguard and affiliated corporate territories. Riqueza de Luna used the more popular lunaro. The rates fluctuated by the hour.

She boarded the hyperloop pressure capsule and found her seat. Her small luggage followed her. A black MinBag autonomous case that had been a gift. She grabbed the handle so the legs would retract and placed it in the overhead compartment.

She sat against the blank outer hull, there were no outer windows. The tunnel mostly a tube of cement, had electromagnetic rails embedded in lunar regolith based construction product. Not pretty, not fancy, but fast.

A blurry message from Geday popped up on her arm. Don't go shopping in Faustini. Terrible bargains.

She groaned and sent a text back. That joke is so old it's etched on a tablet by a guy named Moses. Layover in Amundsen is only twenty minutes. No time for shopping there. Hale's is over an hour, so maybe at least time for lunch and a couple of shops.

His answer took a few minutes. Just checked the express to see why you didn't take it. One less stop, longer layover. You could have spent twice as much and arrived at the same time. Can't fault you for that.

She remembered. Straight through at hyperloop speeds it should have been about a two hour trip. That three hour layover in Amundsen had caught her attention. Then it proceeded on the exact same leg as her non-express that stopped in Hale, first. So she left later, and got there at the same time for less money. It seems so stupid, really. But that's the way it is.

The doors closed and sealed tight. A slight blink of the lights meant the power had shifted to internal batteries. The capsule thumped, then stopped suddenly. The vibration of the vacuum pumps started strong, then faded away as the atmosphere left the hyperloop airlock.

A chime sounded, followed by a friendly female voice. "Please remain seated while the capsule accelerates. Once cruising speed has been attained, the remain seated light will go out, and you will be free to move about the cabin. Please enjoy your trip today."

The acceleration might have been enough to knock someone off their feet if they hadn't been paying attention. The trip settled into a dull hum as the internal ventilation moved the air through the cabin and back to the air cleaning systems. The carbon scrubbers and a slow bleed from the oxygen tanks provided air fresh for everyone.

White hair with green stripes in an asian bowl cut, asian eyes, sparkles on her cheeks with pale skin, round face. Short with a medium build and dark eyes glued to her palm. She's got one of those new extra small models that you can only read if you are right in front of it. Extra privacy, extra expensive. What is she hiding? Nothing, Miku. Stop looking at her.

About when Miku expected it, the Minguard jingle played through to the end. As it faded a new jingle faded in. She looked it up. HSL, the primary corporate presence from Hale, through much of Schodinger, and out to the Lyman plains. An advertisement for Lindam's Chunky Nuggets danced for her attention on the back of the next seat. Tastes so much like chicken you'll swear it has feathers. Situated at the edge of the shopping complex right near the next station. She smiled to herself. Perfect for a layover meal.

The large LCN sign overpowered the little space where the nuggets were cooked and served. They provided only one choice of dipping sauce. A strange shade of orange, but very tasty. As she placed her tray into the recycler, she noticed that a man in a red shirt watched her. He had been there before, but she hadn't thought anything of it. Red shirt. Black pants. Might be part of a uniform. She turned and ignored him. Quit being paranoid, Miku.

She browsed through a couple of shops, her MinBag trotting behind, before heading back to the station. She spotted him again, sitting on a bench near the entrance. She could feel his eyes on her the entire way to the boarding platform. She stowed her luggage, took her assigned seat and watched the door, feeling relieved when it closed without that man on board. Stop imagining things.

She had to change to another capsule in Amundsen. The new capsule had seats facing both directions. She settled in for the long ride with three other passengers. One next to her, and two facing. All of them happily scrolled through their feeds. She did the same, not wanting to be rude.

After the first half hour she decided to take a nap. As she settled back she caught the eyes of another man. He glanced away quickly, but the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Again?

Middle aged man, medium build, with almond skin, close cropped dark hair, clean shaven, wearing an old blue jumpsuit. Nervous look. Why? What's he afraid of?

She closed her eyes, but sleep eluded her. She grew more and more uncomfortable. Her furtive glances at the man turned up nothing new. I must be getting paranoid.

She sent a message to Geday. I keep getting the feeling I am being watched. No proof. Just the awful feeling. I catch a man's eyes for a moment, and I suspect him of being on my tail. I run into him again later, and I feel like I have confirmed he is some sort of agent following me. Now I have a guy who caught my eyes, briefly, and then nothing else, but my skin is crawling like I am in immediate danger.

She waited an eternity for his reply. Two things I have learned. When you have a close call such as you recently did, you can become a little paranoid. Be mindful of that. Become more observant and look for signs that there is nothing suspect.

That's one thing, she replied. What's the other?

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

She scowled. Well that helped a whole lot, Boss.

Keep on your toes. It's probably nothing, but be cautious all the same.

She sent him a nodding smiley faced kitten back.

Another glance at the guy found him sleeping. His head back, mouth slightly open. She shook her head and went back to browsing social media on her personal phone.

When they arrived at the station in Drygalski the man stayed in his seat. The last she saw of him he still casually browsed the news. Told you. Paranoid.

Similar to a hyperloop in miniature, the tube had small pods with seating for up to six, unpressurized as the tube itself maintained full pressure. Air blasted in at one end and pulled out at the other, while a slender electromagnetic rail system propelled the pod toward their destination. It made for a quiet journey.

Miku took a pod to the Administrative Complex up in Meshabu. She wasn't alone. Female, late twenties. Black curls spread out like an explosion, toffee skin, medium build with appealing curves. Silver eye shadow, dark red lipstick, utility uniform. She works for a living, but likes to have fun. The blue stain on her left leg is fresh. Smells like antiseptic. Probably a medical technician.

Her built-in phone couldn't connect to the network, so she used her personal phone on the public grid. An area map displayed the indicator for the Observation and Enforcement Control Center. Within moments she found the right path. The crowd thinned out once she left the station.

She entered the main lobby and spotted the front desk. The woman behind the desk had curly brown hair cropped short except for in front of the ears. Those went down past her chin. Freckles, golden eyes, cute, peach lipstick. Gold service uniform of Riqueza de Luna. She's had it adjusted to fit. Did she do her eyes to match the uniform?

The woman looked up and smiled. "Welcome to the OECC. Fill out the complaint form and take a seat over there." She slid a pad in Miku's direction.

"I'm not here to file a complaint."

"Then what brings you here?" She glanced at the MinBag.

"I am here to lend a hand," said Miku. "On loan from Wexler Station Security. Emilia Grayson made the arrangements."

The woman slid her finger repeatedly, scrolling through a list. "You Detective O'Conner?"

Miku nodded.

"Take a seat. Someone will be with you shortly."

"Thank you."

She didn't have to wait long. A wheeled service bot rolled up to her. Squat, square, with a slim neck and a flat panel screen for a face. Her MinBag chirped as if in greeting.

The wheeled bot smiled at her. "Please follow me, Detective O'Conner." It turned and wheeled off at a slightly uncomfortable pace. Too slow to be a full lope, and too fast for a walk without bouncing.

"Where are you taking me?"

The flat screen swiveled to face her. "Our first destination is your temporarily assigned quarters. You will have twelve minutes to unpack and settle in before your scheduled departure. Your second destination is entrance two. There, you will be given a fifteen minute course on handling entry procedures. Upon completion, you will assume the next six hour watch. Once your watch is completed, you will have the following eighteen hours to eat, sleep, and conduct your research. The watch cycle will then be repeated."

"So I stand one in four watches?" asked Miku. She glanced over her shoulder to be sure her MinBag kept up. It had only fallen a pace or two behind.

"Affirmative."

"And meals are when?"

"Zero, six, twelve, and eighteen," said the bot.

"So right now is meal time?"

"Affirmative."

"And I am going to miss it," said Miku.

"Affirmative."

"Excellent. The perfect way to begin. Is there any way I can grab a snack?"

"There are three packages of nutrition wafers in your quarters," said the bot. "You may consume those at any time. We have arrived."

A door marked with the large numbers 1042 slid out of the way. She stepped inside as the lights faded on. A single, small empty room with bare walls.

"Where do I put my bag?" asked Miku.

A panel to her left at floor level slid aside. Her bag fit itself snugly inside.

"I need the fresher."

Another panel slid open, this one the size of a door. The fresher it revealed was small, even by Lunar standards. It will have to do.

Once her basic needs had been taken care of, Miku looked around the room, hands on her hips. "Now where are those wafers?"

A small panel right above the first cupboard opened. Inside were the promised wafer packages in bright green and yellow with a Haak Snaax logo. Not her favorite brand. Those things tasted like thick saltine crackers without the salt. She slipped them into a pocket since it was all she had.

"Alright. Let's head to entrance two."

"Acknowledged." The bot rolled back out of the room at that same annoying pace. She followed.

A desk identical to the one at the main entrance, sat in the smaller entryway. The man on duty looked up and frowned. "Are you new?"

"Miku. I'm a temporary pair of hands." She extended her hand in greeting.

He shook her hand. Firm, warm with a pleasant smile. Neat uniform, clean shaven. Dark hair slightly spiked upward.

"Dave," he said. "Glad you're here. That puts us back in a twenty-four hour rotation. So much better than those eighteen hour days. Here's the instructions. The upshot is that you give them this form, and call a guide bot." He pointed to the one she had been following. "Anything else, just call the bot."

"Why do they have people here in the first place. You would think they could automate the entire process."

He shrugged. "Policy. Human face at the door. Now, it's your face. Any questions?"

"Why are you so short handed? The cave in?"

Dave nodded. "Someone said the M word and now they have everyone available in there with hand heaters trying to preserve the evidence. I'm just grateful I get to sit on my ass all day. Those people are on their hands and knees trying to melt fingers in a vacuum without destroying fingerprints."

"The M word? Someone did it on purpose?"

"That's why they are taking such care. Looking for clues. Someone said it might have been some sort of suicide pact."

"That would be horrible," said Miku.

"Yeah. Well, you have the watch. See you tomorrow, same time."

She smiled and settled into the seat he had made warm for her. "Have a good night. Nice meeting you, Dave."

Within the first twenty minutes she started looking at the time. Her hunger returned after an hour. The wafers tasted as bad as she remembered. It only got worse from there.

By the time her relief showed up she was hungry, thirsty, bored out of her mind, and had to pee.

Her relief was a solid looking man with chocolate skin and no, she really needed to go. She scolded herself for her apparent need to assess everyone she met.

An hour later she returned to her blank room. I forgot how empty this looked.

She had tried her built-in phone earlier, but it still wouldn't connect. Her personal phone only had access to the local public network. She spoke to the terminal in the room. "I need a terminal with access to the video logs I am allowed to search."

The room responded in a warm female tone. "All search activity must be accomplished within the appropriate location under supervision."

"Oh rudding hell! Where and when?"

"Building 582, room 307. A supervising agent can be available for you at fifteen hundred hours. Shall I make the appointment?" asked the room.

"Fifteen? That gives me less than three hours."

No reply.

"Fine. Make the appointment."

"Acknowledged," said the room. "Your appointment request has been submitted."

"Now I need a bed," said Miku.

What folded down from the opposing wall could as easily have been a bench. Too narrow for two people. Still, she was tired, and there it was.

Once settled in, she had another thought. "Is there any way for me to hook my communications tech to the local network?"

"Negative," said the room. "Minguard network access is temporarily blocked from Riqueza de Luna networks due to a contract dispute."

Miku rolled over and tried to adjust herself for sleep.



* * *



The next morning she took some time to get her bearings. Her personal phone's map wasn't detailed enough to show her the building she needed to find. Luckily she remembered how to get to the cafeteria and from there asked for directions to building 582. She arrived in plenty of time for her appointment. Feeling rushed because of her duty assignment three hours later, she entered the room expecting... well, anything. A little larger than her room, it was as blank and empty.

"Hello?" Miku looked around the room, half expecting someone to step out of a closet. "I need place to sit, please."

The bench that folded out of the opposing wall looked suspiciously like the bed she had slept on the previous night. She sat and waited.

An older gentleman hopped into the room. He used the tips of his toes to accomplish the motion. "Sorry I'm late. Had a bit of an issue to deal with. I'm Frank Givens, research analyst first class. Now, how can I help you, today?" He wore an old tan jacket with a crisp white shirt and a red bowtie punctuated by khaki pants.

She stood and offered her hand. "I'm Detective Miku O'Conner, Wexler Security. I am doing research, trying to track down a lead, but I was told that I needed supervision."

The old man nodded. "That sounds about right. Shirley, bring out a full research desk and a monitor. What are you researching?"

"I'm looking for someone who left here by hyperloop and ended up in Wexler where he killed someone. He has the ability to hack the system and erase himself, so we don't know where he went, but we could still see where he came from."

"And he came from here?"

"Yes sir. He took an express tube from Drygalski. I don't know anything before that."

Frank nodded. "Shirley, give her access to all Drygalski hyperloop boarding platform archives. Go ahead and give her any public video records she finds a connection for as well. Oh, and duplicate her monitor and give me my recliner, please."

"Certainly, Officer Givens." Shirley's voice sounded flat, simulated.

The dark brown, padded seat that came out for him looked very comfortable. A monitor on a swivel dropped down from the ceiling. He hopped in with practiced ease. "You may proceed."

"Thank you." Miku swiped the display and started poking around and smiled at finding the standard setup. She made her way to the records she needed and set up a search request. Cross referencing the date and time brought her to the video of passengers boarding the hyperloop. Then she kept watch.

Too skinny. Female. Female. Too short. Female. Wait, look closer at that one. Not him.

She did this for all the passengers as they boarded. The video neared the end and she thought she might have missed him. A straggler arrived. The doors almost closed him out.

"Got him!" She tagged him, and traced him backwards. She watched as he walked in reverse through the station, up the ramp and into the general commons. He walked backwards through the crowd and turned into a passage. When the camera angle shifted, the passage appeared empty. She looked through the records. The passage had been empty for hours beforehand. She scrolled forward and found a good shot of his face.

"I need to connect to the network so I can download an image of his face. I want to hang onto it for future reference, if that's allowed."

"Certainly," said Frank. "And thank you for asking. Most folks just do as they please. Here," he slid his finger in her direction. "There's a temporary credential for you."

She added it to her built in phone and downloaded the facial data. "Thank you for your help."



* * *



Miku arrived at her watch station on time and found her friend from the previous night. Dave had a big smile on his face. His hair looked neater than before. His uniform, sharply pressed.

"You look ready for a night out."

He blushed.

Why is he blushing?

"I, uh," he stammered. "Th-thanks. All yours." He put his head down and dashed into the passageway.

That was just plain odd.

She sat down and surveyed her little area. It looked exactly as it had the night before, so she settled in for a long watch and repeated the night before by ending up hungry, thirsty and needing to pee.

Miku had managed an earlier appointment the next day with Frank. The old gentleman looked nearly the same as before, but today his dark green bowtie matched the argyle slippers on his feet. He set her up with Shirley as before and she started with the obvious, a reconstruction of the facial identity tags that had been corrupted previously. She remembered that little trick from Wexler. This time, she hit paydirt.

"Patrick Kennedy Nettles VI." Miku shook her head. "I would think that a fictional name, but it checks out. He's the sixth."

"See that star in the corner?" asked Frank. "Means he's a clone. Here, check it out." He swiped the display and it showed all six profiles. "Looks like the first one was genetically incapable of reproducing. Sterile at birth. So he cloned a son. The second. And so on. All of them worked the mines over in Drygalski. Generations of them. Well, all except the third. Looks like he tried his hand at baked goods for a while. But all the others."

Miku frowned. "Can you pull up their mug shots?"

Frank flicked a finger and six faces appeared above the profiles. "Oh surprise, the sixth doesn't look anything like the rest of them."

"Oh kenkakeseo! That's my guy!"

"So our suspect here slips his face into the identity of number six, and look over here. He's on the list of those suspected to have been killed in that cave in."

"I'll bet a thousand embits they come up a body short," said Miku. She put in a call to Emilia Grayson and told her what she had found.

"We could only find sixteen bodies," said Emilia. "Here, these are the people we've identified as being inside at the time of the--"

Miku bounced in her seat. "There he is."

"I see him," said Frank. He hit the information tab. "That's Patrick Nettles alright. New construction worker. Recently transferred... okay. That must be the body you are missing. We'll know for sure once the lab results are in, but it's a good bet."

"That's going to complicate matters," said Emilia.

"I agree," said Miku. "I'm already looking to see if I can trace his movements back and see where he came from."

"I found him here," said Frank. "Just like the report said. Transferred in from Ashbrook."

Miku nodded. "I found him. Six is actually working at a reprocessing center on the other side of Ashbrook crater. So this," she swiped the display and brought up a transfer document. "This must have been faked. That gave him an in to the group with an identity, long enough for him to do whatever it was he needed to do."

"Which looks a lot like murder. What do they have on the other sixteen dead?"

"They came from all over." Miku pointed to the map. "See the reason everyone was so confused? There isn't any active mining in that section right now. These people came from all seven of the active mines, and two of the business centers. They were middle management. A lot of people looked up to them."

"What would bring all these people together?" asked Frank.

"Tell you what. You look into the why and how. I need to see if I can track him back further."

"Do you need anything else from me?" asked Emilia.

Miku shook her head, "Sorry. I forgot you were still there. I'll keep you updated. Thanks for your help."



* * *



Back in her room, she made a call to Chief Geday with her personal phone. She approved the charge and put it into her expense account.

"Hey, Boss," said Miku. "Looks like our guy used a different identity, and killed sixteen people in Drygalski before he headed our way. I have a lead, but you aren't going to like it. I got him arriving by shuttle from the Ujuseon Launch Facility in Poczobutt."

Geday winced. "Poks-oh-butt? Is that a real place?"

"Poczobutt. Yes, it's a real place. And yes, I had to look it up to be sure. It's one of the smallest shuttle facilities on Luna, but it exists. Up northside, and it's a Shelldale Corporation holding. And before you ask, yes I requested access to their logs, and I was shut down because the new fee structure isn't in place, yet."

"What new fee structure?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," she said. "But a ticket from here is only 350 embits, and the place has at least two hotels."

Geday sighed. "We need you back home, Miku."

She folded her arms. "I really feel that since I am already in the field, I should keep going. There are sixteen dead people here. We only lost one, but this guy is killing his way across the face of the moon. We need to find out where he is now. Oh, and here's a news flash. After he appeared to die in the cave in, he emerged from an empty passageway then got on the hyperloop. Maybe check to see if anyone appeared and boarded a capsule or took a tube from Wexler after the murder."

"Okay. I'll get on that myself. You have my permission to track him back to Poczobutt. Make sure you keep both Emilia Grayson and myself informed. If you find more, this could involve three corporations, and that would mean the Auditors get involved."

"The Auditors? Aren't they mostly bribery and smuggling?"

"Yes," said Geday, "and they have a murder spree clause they like to invoke if more than two companies are involved in related murders. Supposed to keep conflicts limited."

"Okay. I'll let you know when I get there."

"I'll see if I can find a contact and have more for you when you do."

"Thanks, Boss." Miku waved and dropped the connection.

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