Black Mountain: On This Earth

As the inspector was leaving her apartment, he said, "Now, you'll be sure to report anything suspicious. If there really is someone on this facility causing problems, we need to catch him before the pirates do."

"I will, I promise," Atira said. She saw the man out, closed the door after him, and rested her forehead against its cool steel with a sigh.

A lot of off-ship pirates had been disappearing in this area, and while this development was little bother for the corporate forces who paid for the colonial crime monitoring, it was starting to draw the ire of the pirate factions, who had threatened to post more patrols and even to send in their own squads of ground enforcers. The Angels in particular had made some very pointed threats, and Atira had already had to deal with some of their people.

It was known that pirate factions routinely sent out recruiters for their cause - after a few years working on a mining colony, the average worker would easily be regaled by stories of life on pirate ships or even in their own earth-bound working forces - but they were usually found out and shown the door without much incident. They could be killed in-space, where they posed a valid threat, but not on the colonies. Different rules applied in the skies and on this earth. The inspector, funded by some of the main companies, was here to sort this out before things got even uglier.

Atira started getting ready for the evening shift. Equipment was kept quite basic on the mining colony, as complex electronic repair parts could be hard to get. Atira had air-pressured taser guns with settings that defaulted to stun but could be set to deadly levels, along with a retractable metal truncheon, a reinforced vest and other sundry equipment. She liked the tasers, which were attached to her hands and only useable by her, but they had to be aimed carefully and at a fairly stationary target. The truncheon, on the other hand, could be aimed and thrown with no hesitation. It contained ball bearings set on a tiny piston that, when the piece hit its target, would ram its momentum home even harder. A nasty feature, but the colonies were nasty places.

She pulled the truncheon from her belt, drew it out and hefted it, and tossed it a few times at a small, electronic scoreboard that hung in her living room. She got no bull's-eyes, but hit well enough that she'd have knocked a real-life target out. Satisfied with that warm-up, and certain that the evening wouldn't hold any more troubles, Atira headed out on patrol.

They strolled through the various bars, Atira and her partner. Each bar was kept as low-tech as everything else on the colony, although there were occasional pretensions to affluence. Some places leased bootleg Egones, special transmitters and receivers that played sound waves which only reached the customer's ears and that were specifically chosen to fit his tastes, or they had the similar eye-cast TV that required special ocular filters and was used mainly for sports events. These generally cropped up in the lower-level establishments, aimed as they were at people who preferred to drink alone. Most sane people tended to be put off by the sights of patrons nodding their heads to total silence or shouting sports tactics and grievances at empty air.

Other establishments relied on more corporeal attractions. It was paradoxical, but the more hands-on a place was, the more peaceful it tended to be. Due to the overwhelming amount of testosterone and aggression that suffused the mining colonies, strippers would only work in the high-level places where they could be provided with constant protection both at and off work. Prostitutes, of course, could be found everywhere, but a year or two of living here would wear them out faster than the mining drills, and leave them with similar looks.

Equipment in bars, likewise, was kept in good shape, and included everything from holoball to miniature mind clash fields, but repair costs were so high - particularly for anything electronic - that only the more higher-class establishments even bothered with it.

It was a hard business to be in, but highly profitable if you had the talent. People drank a lot here, and fought a lot, and the bars were in a constant race to attract the first type and repel the second.

Tonight, Atira trawled the lousier bars, the ones full of people with little to lose. It was hard to know who was new and who wasn't, since teams of workers came and went on a regular basis, but you did learn to recognize types. In one of the seediest she saw some people who definitely did not look like miners, and made a mental note to check up on them. She also noticed a man, well-dressed and apparently alone, who was quite calmly sipping on his drink and not doing anything much at all apart from apparently enjoying the ambience. She filed him away for further study as well and, realizing that her partner didn't seem to have noticed the undercover pirate recruiters, decided that she might have a chance of dealing with them later using her own methods.

The evening wore on, and they were headed towards the last bar of the evening when the inspector caught up with them. There was little traffic here, and the only sounds wafting out from the bar's doors were general chatter and the clinks of pleximugs on metal tables. No music could be heard, of course, nor any sports.

"Ah, I hoped I'd find you here," he said to the pair, then turned to Atira's partner and said, "Could I speak to you for a second, please? Alone."

Atira was annoyed at the slight, but then realized that the inspector actually seemed hesitant even to look at her, as if his gaze might betray something. She felt a pang of nervousness, but said, "Hey guys, I'll just head into the bar. Come in when you're done, okay?" and went in.

Again she noticed that calm, relaxed man, sitting at his own private table and sipping his drink. She was going to walk over and ask him a few questions, but at that moment the inspector walked into the bar and said to her, in a voice far too loud and tremulous, "I need to speak with you. Right now, please."

She stared in his face, and she realized that she'd been found out. They'd discovered a corpse, or her dogtags, or a witness, or something, some kind of ruination.

She was wondering exactly what to do when the calm, well-dressed man walked past her and up to the inspector, pulled out a gun, pointed it at the inspector's head and blew his brains out all over the floor.

***

It was the day after, and Atira was returning home from her shift. She was puzzled, tired and getting rather paranoid.

Nobody at work had remembered anything strange happening last night at the bars; no murders, nothing. They also did not remember any inspectors. When she'd quizzed her partner about it, he'd furrowed his brow and said, "Why? You expecting someone like that?"

The previous night, after the gunshot, the bar had fallen dead silent, its patrons too stunned to act. The gunman had turned to her and said, "Walk out," and she had obeyed, amazed by his initiative. The inspector's body wasn't the first whose death she'd had a hand in, though it was usually more direct, and she had stepped over his inert, mottled form without a second look. Around her, the patrons had held their breaths, the only movement at all coming from the seriously drunken Egone guys, who'd were lying down on their tables with their heads gently bobbing from side to side in tune to the silent music.

She'd spent the day on tenterhooks, expecting at any moment that someone would come in, point at her and scream her guilt. She had gone on as many open, circuitous colony rounds as she could, retracing her steps, trying to find some clue as to what had happened and what was coming, but had come up empty. Even the floor that had held the inspector's cooling body seemed free of blood and brains, though it was too grime-encrusted to tell for sure.

So when Atira finally made it home, she was not yet in the land of adrenaline backwash where relaxation reigns, but her exhaustion meant that she had long since stopped getting jittery at the least little thing. And the instant she walked in and closed the door behind her, her subconscious needed little effort to cut through the subdued noise of her thoughts.

Someone was already inside. It was the silence, and the way that the air felt deader than usual, and it meant the person was there for her.

She kept to her routine, taking off her shoes and jacket and unbuckling her belt, and pulled the metal truncheon from it. As she walked down the corridor and towards the corner to her living room, she crouched, tensed her legs and quietly extended the truncheon, then in one swift motion jumped past the corner, twisting in the air, and flung the truncheon at the human target she glimpsed there. As she landed she kept moving, rolling into a crouch and preparing her tasers for a high-voltage shot, but was stopped short when she realized who her target was.

In a corner of her living room, sitting in her easy chair, was the well-dressed man from last night. He held the truncheon, caught in mid-air inches from his face, but otherwise he didn't appear to have moved. He was smiling.

"Who are you? How did you get in here?" Atira demanded.

"Name's Alad, but you forgot the last question," he replied. "What did I take?"

She stared at him in incomprehension. Then realization dawned and she rushed into the bedroom, tore open the bedroom cupboard and grabbed for a box that was no longer there.

Alad stepped into the bedroom doorway. "It's gone. An impressive collection, I must say."

She contemplated whether to kill him on the spot. Risk as it might her chances of figuring out last night's murder, she couldn't afford to be blackmailed or indentured by any man.

But then she looked properly into his eyes, and the tiny fire she saw there stayed her hand. She'd only ever seen that kind of mad, unquenchable gaze from one other person. In the mirror.

He held up a glass of water. "Drink it."

She took the glass and downed it before he had a chance to say anything else.

Alad regarded her with clearly added interest. "You know," he said, "I was rather looking forward to baiting you a bit. Maybe saying something like, 'Oh, come on. What's the worst that could happen?' You've completely ruined that."

She grinned at him. Despite the oddity of the situation, she found herself rather liking the man. Besides, he'd caught her truncheon in mid-air, and blown a man's brains out in front of the world. Open defiance was probably the only realistic way she could take charge of the situation without compromising her own safety.

"What if there was poison in that glass?" he asked.

"Everyone dies someday," she replied sweetly. "Even you. Now, can I please get an explanation for all this?"

He pulled out a small box about the size of a fist and opened it. She looked at its contents and winced.

"What do you see?" he said.

"It's like a visual migraine. Flips through images that remind me of things I ... don't want to think of."

"So it doesn't make you want to see more?"

"I'd be happy if I never saw the damn thing again."

As he stared at her in apparent amazement, she added, "Right now, thanks."

He came to, and snapped the box shut.

"I appreciate your help the other night," she said. "And I can spot the work of a professional. So I'm going along with this for now. But I'm getting very curious."

"Coming soon, dear, coming soon. One more thing. Why didn't you fire these?" He pointed at her hands, on which the tasers were affixed.

"Taser shots are monitored. I didn't want a criminal investigation in this house, for obvious reasons, so I preferred to knock you out."

"Also," Alad added wryly, "You've got a very high faith in your aim. And possibly little fear of dying, maybe coupled with a hidden want to be found out."

She shrugged.

He said, "Well, I'm happy with what I've seen here. You're in."

"In what?"

"I can't tell you everything right now. Basically, we're building a team of people to go on a potentially dangerous mission."

"And you think I'm fit for this?"

"You have several natural gifts, of which this one," he tapped the box, "was the most impressive.

"Oh?"

"You're the first one not knocked on their ass by that," he said. "Anyway, if you do what we ask, and help us find what we're looking for, we'll erase your criminal record. Moreover, we'll eliminate all possible ties between you and the acts you've committed. If you want to restart your life somewhere else, we'll even throw in a facial remolding to get you going, along with a substantial monetary reward. You'll be rich as a capsuleer."

She walked into the living room, sat down in her easy chair, and stared at him. After a while she said, "That's quite an offer. And I'll be working with other people of similar talents?"

"Broadly speaking, yes. You'll all be working under codenames, incidentally. Yours is Draea."

"How will you keep control?"

"Leave that to us."

"Right, because you're such good planners."

He hesitated at that. "What do you mean?"

She rested her head on her hand and looked at him askew. "Like lightning from a blue sky, some inspector arrives. His corp is worried that all those naughty, naughty pirates who've been disappearing in the area have been doing it on my watch. Lo and behold, his questions lead him directly to me, just in time for you to come in and save the day. You rotten cheats," she said, with about as much amusement as reproach.

He opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hands, tasers aimed, and said, "If you are going to say anything other than how clever I am, be warned that I can fire two shots from each hand, and unless you're intending to catch them all with your teeth, you're going to have a real bad time."

"Does this mean you refuse our offer?" he asked.

"Hell, no," she said, lowering her hands. "I'd much rather work with people I can't trust. It makes everything so much simpler, and I can focus purely on myself for a change. When do we start?"

"As soon as you're packed. I'll wait outside." Alad headed towards the exit, and on his way out added, in a tone barely loud enough for her to hear, "We may have to move you up a division."





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