The Company Man

The Company Man, lowly accountant for the filthy-richest business in the Asteroid Belt, has modest aspirations. Air and water not endlessly recycled. Food that had not been freeze-dried and re-hydrated. A few quiet days at home. And, if he can figure out how, pilfering a bit from the company.

If he survives….

“When people talk about good hard SF—rigorously extrapolated but still imbued with the classic sense-of-wonder—they mean the work of Edward M. Lerner, the current master of the craft.” 

           Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues

 

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The Company Man, lowly accountant for the filthy-richest business in the Asteroid Belt, has modest aspirations. Air and water not endlessly recycled. Food that had not been freeze-dried and re-hydrated. A few quiet days at home. And, if he can figure out how, pilfering a bit from the company.

Alas, working as he does for evil geniuses, that final ambition seems impossible—until, at the end of an interminable trek among remote company mining asteroids, a mysterious emergency preempts his return flight. Someone has discovered a flaw in the company’s legendary security, even if people must apparently die to exploit it.

That… isn’t necessarily an obstacle. Or even the least of the consequences, in the Belt, elsewhere in the Solar System, and across Earth itself. With the body count rising, even the vast fortunes at stake cease to matter—and only the Company Man has a chance of averting interplanetary disaster.

If he survives….

Working for paranoids isn’t the easiest or the safest way to make a living, but it paid well. It even appeared that I had survived another assignment, and I looked forward to enjoying my hard-earned gains.

Afloat in the windowless tin-can cabin of my vessel, three remote rocks visited as planned, bound at last for home, I fantasized about air and water not endlessly recycled, food that had not been freeze-dried and re-hydrated, and gymnastic marathon sex with my wife. Not necessarily in that order.

Till I reached Ceres, my plans consisted of more of the same. There was nothing to do, not even if I wanted. Company vessel 724 (or as I preferred to think of her, the Bounty, though whether I channeled Captain Bligh or Mister Christian varied with my frame of mind) flew itself. Only the bridge computer knew where we were or when we’d arrive, and it wasn’t telling. Without instruments, without windows, I couldn’t as much as guess.

To be fair, the company had come honestly by its paranoia. Registering a mining claim to a rock meant less than squat when the rock regularly wandered millions of kilometers from civilization—and law enforcement. And when the wealth that rock had to offer was more than enough to corrupt anyone. And when to register the claim would have meant disclosing the orbital parameters. How many such rocks did the company exploit? What were their orbits? Apart from the managing partners, I doubt anyone knew.

On my inaugural jaunt for the company, cocky about my own brilliance, I’d suited up en route to my first rock to do some naked-eye astronomy. Only the paranoids had anticipated that ploy: looking outward from within the air lock, even after allowing ten minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark, I had seen … nada. An arm extended through the open outer hatch caught zero sunlight, meaning autopilot had me oriented away from the Sun—and that the patch of sky before me must have been filled with unseen stars.

I’d had to resist the urge to smack myself upside the helmet. Of course my employers had insisted upon furnishing my vacuum gear for the flight. Of course company ships stocked extra helmets, and never a printer capacious enough to make spares as needed. Clearly, the smartglass visor in my company-provided helmet filtered stars from a black sky. Had I been facing in a suitable direction, doubtless it would have filtered out planets, too. Otherwise every miner with a gram of astronomy sense—not to mention ringers recruited as miners—would try the same exercise I was undertaking. With a sigh, I’d taken the hint, closed the outer hatch, and returned inside. Foiled.

The anticipation of marathon sex was far more pleasant than memories of my past naiveté. It couldn’t be long now ….

A bridge console chimed: incoming message. I pulled myself into my acceleration couch and tapped to acknowledge. A display lit up and I read: Acceleration in two minutes. Mine emergency. Render all possible assistance.

Meaning, company commitments notwithstanding, I wasn’t going home. Meaning also that, beyond not knowing to where I’d been rerouted, I knew nothing about the emergency. Because the company didn’t know? Mining stations, like ships, had no transmission capability. “For security.” So how the hell did the company know there was an emergency?

All good questions, I thought. And they were all going to go without answers, at least until I got … wherever.

“Columbus managed without a radio,” the bored company recruiter had once explained. “And Magellan. And Cook and Drake and pick your explorer.”

Not that Magellan or Cook had made it home alive. Was I supposed to like those odds? “Which of them were in vacuum, millions of klicks from help?”

“Hence the hazardous-duty pay,” I’d been told. “And most likely, you’ll live.”

And indeed, so far, I had. But with this undefined emergency, I had to wonder if my luck had run out.

✽✽✽

Waiting in a hallway, my gaze wandered about the tiny, claustrophobic room to which, almost sooner than I had struggled out of my vacuum gear, I had been delivered by a pair of taciturn miners. (Emphasis on almost. The men took the time to give me a full pat-down, an ultrasound scan, and to paw through my utility belt and valise. I didn’t have any contraband with me, but protocol must be followed—and to the pickiest detail, given that I’d had the temerity, this being an unscheduled stop, to have arrived without a mail bag.) Both men had been edgy, but that was only to be expected. No one’s ever pleased with a company auditor showing up. I wasn’t too happy myself.

My escorts, without a word, left me. Beyond the hatch, studiously (contrivedly?) ignoring me, my host frowned at his desktop. From time to time he took a sip from a drink bulb. I cleared my throat. Without looking up, he raised a finger. As in the universal annoying gesture for wait a minute. Some emergency.

It could have been the control room of any asteroid mining station anywhere, and I’d visited plenty enough to know. Wall displays cycled from camera to camera to camera, most offering dreary, near-ground-level views of pockmarked, much-churned terrain. Little interrupted the desolation but boot prints, the crablike sidling of many-tentacled mining bots, and a pressure-suited figure gliding hand over hand along a staked-down guide wire to or from some chore. Sun glinted off the occasional solar reflector chancing to appear over the freakishly close horizon; once I spotted the eldritch blue glow of an ion thruster adjusting a mirror’s hover. Other displays offered more panoramic—if no less bleak—vistas: look-downs from the hovering reflectors. As overhead pics flashed past, I twice caught sight of the Bounty as it lay tethered to the barren surface and once of the base air lock. The final few wall displays offered interior shots of this underground station: corridors, common areas, the vault (sealed; stacked with lustrous ingots), the arms locker (sealed), even air ducts and cable conduits.

All cartoonish glimpses, of course. Still and vid cameras at company stations were purposefully insensitive and low-res, hence unable to capture any astronomical object other than the Sun. Try as you might, you couldn’t repurpose these cams for clandestine astronomy projects. I worked for evil geniuses.

Where display screens didn’t cover the walls, magnets pinned paper lists, production schedules, hand-scrawled notes, and cartoons to the steel panels. What little of the actual wall I could see glowed in a particularly bilious shade of green. In fine sprinklings, gauzy films, and great, sooty smudges, the ubiquitous dust—you couldn’t work an asteroid without tracking more of the stuff inside from every surface foray—tainted everything. In the minutes since I had entered the station, my jumpsuit, clean upon arrival, already gave hints of mimicking a leopard.

The used-gunpowder odor of the dust tickled my nose. I’d get used to that, I knew, and to the bouquet of hardworking men and women in tight quarters, but such olfactory adjustments always took time. To my left, from the room’s air duct, came the whirr of a fan. Ventilation and filtration somehow distributed the dust and stench more than removed it.

Finally done with whatever task I was to believe demanded his urgent attention, the station chief glanced up from his desktop. “Welcome to the Rock.” Because the smaller asteroids, no matter their official designations, went by either of two more meaningful names: the Rock or (for rubble jumbles loosely held together by their feeble mutual gravity) the Pile. He emerged from behind the desk, shoes zip-zipping on a filthy gripper rug the same sickly hue, beneath ground-in dirt, as the walls, with his right hand extended. “Baxter. Simon Baxter.”

I introduced myself. Shaking hands, I felt … paper. A bribe, already? Really? And for the paltry sum a person could palm? I pondered whether to be more amused or insulted—but a momentary narrowing of his eyes and the flicker of a downward glance didn’t fit a bribery scenario. Neither did the emergency summons. I found myself closely studying the station chief.

Baxter was a wiry black man, about forty-five, his head clean-shaven and wax-shiny. He had an open, honest face of the sort I associated with saints and con men—and I’ve never met a saint. Typically enough, Baxter wore a standard company blue jumpsuit, splotched and smudged. He was native-Earth tall, meaning I towered over him. I had studied his HR jacket, of course, along with those of everyone assigned to this ass-end-of-nowhere hunk of metal and stone (those files, if not any explanation of the so-called emergency, having accompanied my detour orders), but the hint of a Scottish burr still came as a surprise.

“Come in.” Baxter shut the hatch behind me, then gestured at the jump seat affixed to the room’s back wall. No matter the hearty greeting, he seemed twitchy. “Take a load off.”

“No thanks.”

“This may take a while. Sit.”

“I’m fine.” Because in—what? Well under one percent of a gee? Nothing perceptible, in any event—why would I need to sit?

Baxter swallowed. “Suit yourself.” Returning behind the desk, he sat. It made the difference between eye levels that much more awkward. He took a fat pen from his pocket and began twirling it end over end.

“Suppose you tell me why—”

“Coffee? Tea? A bite to eat?” Baxter’s gaze, as he spoke, flicked toward my right hand. Swallowing a second time, still fidgeting with the pen, he glanced up over my shoulder at the room’s lone air vent.

Keeping my hand down by my side, I snuck a peek. I didn’t find money; the folded scrap of paper looked torn from a ruled notepad. If I were to park myself in the indicated chair, I would be well below the air duct—and it wouldn’t have a line of sight to me. Unfolding the curved arm rests that would keep me from drifting from the chair at the least little motion, I sat.

If there’s anything auditors are taught, it’s to put two and two together.

Wondering what was inside the duct, I unfolded the paper. In blocky printing, the hand-written note I found read: Room might be bugged. After I triple-click my pen, we can talk.

I nodded my understanding. “Nothing for me now, thanks. Maybe some coffee later.”

Click-click-click. Baxter slumped in his seat, open-and-honest morphing in an instant to honestly panicked. “Thank God you got here.”

I didn’t suppose He had much to do with it. “Evidently that pen is a bug jammer of some kind.” Not that any such item appeared anywhere on the company’s List of Equipment Approved for Use in Mining Facilities. If something helpful could be printed, it was—and then broken down to feedstock before returning to civilization. Or when an auditor popped by: even as we spoke, the station recyclers were surely molecularizing contraband. “If you actually feel the need for a jammer, didn’t turning that on tip off whoever might be listening?”

Baxter managed a wan smile. “I expect that person, or persons, will conclude you brought the jammer, the better to negotiate an acceptable cut of whatever goodies I might hope with your help to spirit away. I haven’t dared to look, but if there is a fiber-optic cable inside that duct above your head, not jammable, they can’t see what you did, or didn’t, just switch on.”

My opinion of the man bumped up a notch. I still didn’t know what had him so anxious, but I could venture a guess. When the product is platinum, some pilferage is unavoidable. Beyond that metal’s many traditional markets, every settled off-Earth world and habitat—where platinum was a key catalyst for the production of nitric acid, needed to make fertilizer—represented a voracious new demand. The good news was, that kept me in a job—but pilferage didn’t add up to an emergency. “Your inventory getting too far out of whack?”

“Nothing so simple.” Baxter shivered. “I found a bomb.”

A bomb? Who the hell would bomb a mining station? Someone planning to make off with a boatload of platinum, that’s who. Someone intending to eliminate any witnesses ….

I’ve never claimed nerves of steel—and just then, nerves of wet tissue seemed more descriptive—but focus can be a reasonable substitute. I wondered how long I could sustain it. “You said, ‘Thank God you got here.’ As if you were expecting me.”

Because that was impossible. Okay, evidently not impossible, but mysterious all the same. As mysterious as, apart from somewhere deep within the Belt, here was. But by the same token, neither I nor any miner on shore leave could be bribed or coerced into betraying the Rock’s location—the mind boggled at how much money that treachery could fetch—because the only radios permitted on company rocks were short-range: pressure-suit helmet comms, a similar wattage nav beacon, and the like. It was the beacon that had guided me in once autopilot had gotten me close, and after I’d pulsed out the company authentication code of the month by flashing my ship’s attitude thrusters.

Baxter managed a weak smile. “Your confusion is a marvel to behold. It’s also a distraction. We need to move past it.”

“But you did ask for me to be sent here.”

“Not you personally. Anyone who could help.” Baxter leaned forward, looking hopeful. “You can help, right? Company auditors all have law-enforcement experience?”

For a few years, I’d done computer forensics at the Ceres City PD. As a civilian contractor. I grunted noncommittally. Nothing like the bomb squad. That train of thought brought me back to wondering what the hell I was doing here. “How, exactly, did you call for help?”

“Hello? Bomb?”

Baxter hadn’t signaled for a ship large enough to evac everyone. Detonation of the bomb couldn’t be too imminent. I waited.

How is something known only to station chiefs. For emergencies.”

I waited.

He sighed. “There’s a stealthed and silent buoy free-flying somewhere nearby. I don’t know where. If I don’t reposition a particular retroreflector on the surface at least every second standard day, the buoy beams a Mayday message to headquarters.”

“And the company sent me?” Because bomb disposal isn’t in the job description of a forensic accountant.

Baxter looked away. “Not a lot of information gets conveyed by the repositioning, or not, of the retroreflector. All I could signal was that I needed help.”

“So I was on the nearest company ship?” Lucky me.

He shrugged. “That’s my guess.”

Then we’re well and truly screwed, I thought. But all I said was, “Maybe begin at the beginning.”

Seeing is believing. Really seeing, that is. Not the blurry download images from Baxter’s pocket comp. And so, now, I believed.

Okay, to the best of my knowledge I had never before seen a bomb. Perhaps I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions from spy and crime vids. But with my head peering gopherlike into the storeroom ceiling duct from which I had carefully removed the grill, what stared back at me at arm’s length sure as hell looked like a bomb. Whereas what I’d been shown in Baxter’s office, in supposed real-time imagery from a maintenance cam and in many weeks’ worth of logged still images alike, was an unobstructed duct.

“Damned storeroom was, is, just too damned musty,” the station chief said. His jammer/pen, once again clipped to his pocket, was still active. He had accompanied me to the storage area, latching the hatch behind us. “I would come in here looking for a crate of whatever, and the air in the room always felt, you know, close. Stagnant. Finally, I didn’t care what the computers had to say. I checked the duct myself.”

I imagined Baxter had seen what I saw: a clear-walled bottle (ordinary glass, by the way a penlight beam glinted from it), with hints of dust on the bottom; an off-white, claylike glob (plastique, I inferred); a skinny metallic tube jabbed into the glob (if I were right about plastique, the tube was a blasting cap); and an electronics module with a keypad. Behind and sticking above the rest were batteries. Everywhere, wires. The full assemblage, taped into place, all but blocked the duct. The readout chip on that electronics module was decrementing, its least significant digits changing at the same pace as, I confirmed with a quick downward glance, the seconds on my wrist-clock tattoo. It appeared we had five days till the shit hit the fan—and staring at the bottle, I wondered exactly what that shit was. A neurotoxin? A bioagent?

I asked, “And this is the only bomb?”

“Believe me, I’ve looked. When people have been on the surface, I’ve searched their rooms and lockers. This is the only device I found.”

Five days till boom. Three days, according to Baxter, till a ship was due at the Rock to rotate crews. Two crews alternated here, suggesting the bomb had been planted by someone from the current group. Then again, why deploy the bomb any earlier than, say, a few hours before shift turnover? The longer the bomb sat in the duct, the greater the chances of discovery. As, in fact, it had been discovered ….

I cogitated some more. Maybe the bomb had been deployed just before the other crew had rotated out. It would make a kind of sense, if the bomber wouldn’t be coming back and the target were someone in the returning crew. It made yet more sense if the target were the entire remainder of that crew. Had someone recently left that crew, I wondered?

Explosives and blasting caps were common enough in a mining camp, but not bottles of poison. Surely those didn’t get past inspection onto a crew ship. So one thing seemed certain: the bottled stuff had been made onsite. Thereafter clearing all traces of bomb-making from the station computer records (as I presumed, and would confirm, must have been done), even for someone with sysadmin privileges, would take serious smarts. I could have done it. Happily I’d been elsewhere when Baxter made his discovery, so I could eliminate myself as a suspect.

Ergo: computer smarts was a clue. It would be a place to start, anyway, and I was glad to have one, because about the only other datum I had to go on was a looming deadline. And deadline looked to be literal.

But what if the time displayed were padded, to lull anyone discovering the device into the false belief they could safely wait to evacuate on the nearing crew ship rather than attempt to disarm the thing? What if my files about this crew and the incoming crew were disinformation provided by an accomplice at headquarters? What if—?

Stepping off the crate of emergency rations I had set beneath the duct, I shuddered.

“You did see it?” Baxter asked anxiously.

“Afraid so.”

“Silver lining.” Baxter managed a faint smile. “I’m not crazy.”

“Silver foil, at best.”

“I suppose.” With a sigh, he leaned back against the room’s closed hatch. “Okay. You can disarm it, right?”

“It’s likely booby-trapped.”

As if I would know. Still, the blasting cap alone would shatter the glass (although, far more discreetly, tripping the control module might simply open a valve that hadn’t been visible to me). What purpose did the explosives serve if not acting as a deterrent?

It wasn’t, I decided, a difficult question: the plastique would burst walls all around if the device were discovered and hatch and duct then sealed to contain the mystery gas. Bottom line—and bottom lines were sort of thing I was paid to be good with—amateur bomb disposal was a Certified Bad Idea.

It all seemed carefully calibrated. A bomb large enough to spread the … whatever across the station. Bomb placement deep enough underground to not compromise the overall integrity of the station, where a bomb near the air lock would plunge everyone, almost instantly, into hard vacuum. Someone had given this a lot of thought.

Baxter grimaced. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“Maybe we can ease the device out of the duct, then take it outside before it goes off.”

“Did you see a squat tube, about two centimeters long, mounted on the electronics module? Parts code X27C82?”

Maybe I’d seen something like that, but I had no idea about a part number. I stepped back onto the crate. There was such a tube, but the lettering on it was too tiny for me to read. “What is it?”

“An accelerometer. They’re standard in most of our robots. It’s like the component in your pocket comp that knows when you’ve changed its orientation—only a lot more sensitive.”

Just great. Floor vibrations from climbing on and off my crate apparently weren’t enough to trigger the device—I was still here, wasn’t I?—but this time I stepped down gingerly, on tiptoe.

“So can you disarm it?” he tried again.

“No. I wouldn’t have a clue where even to start.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate.” He paused. “Okay, we have four suspects. Where do you want to begin?”

Uh-uh, I thought. Five suspects from the other crew. And five from this crew, as well, because how better to deflect suspicion than being the person who called in the bomb threat? If appearances were why I had been summoned here, what did that suggest about my odds of getting away alive?

Bottom line: for all I knew, anyone among those ten might aspire to seize the crew ship, disable the autopilot, and fly away (never mind that I’d never figured out how to do it) with a heap of stolen platinum. Leaving behind lots of dead bodies ….

Holding in another shudder, I said, “Let me get back to you on that.”

My plan, if an idea this simple could be so dignified, was straightforward enough: run a normal audit. Merely doing my job—as every miner knew and resented—authorized me to snoop and pry. How else was I going to ferret out the identity of the bomber? Once we knew who he, she, or they were, we ought to be able to convince or coerce them into disarming it. Making them stay onto the next shift, with the bomb due to go off, seemed like incentive enough …. It wasn’t much of a plan, but try as I might, I hadn’t come up with anything better.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly true. I could climb back aboard the good ship Bounty, of passenger capacity one, and its autopilot would take me home. It’d be safe and smart, no matter that (“Render all possible assistance”) fleeing might get me fired. And perhaps futile: Baxter, through the minimal effort of not shifting something on the Rock’s surface, could get my ship turned right around. Also, who was to say that whoever had set the known bomb wouldn’t—or hadn’t already—put another example of his handiwork aboard my ship? All that practicality aside, a part of me knew that to abandon these men and women would be wrong.

Cutting out could be Plan B. It would wait a few days.

So: On Day One, I tallied records of ore collected, assayed, and processed; ingots printed; ingots delivered through the one-way valve into the vault; ingots reported stacked and tied down by the robotic arm inside; and an eyeball inspection through the vault’s thick Lucite view ports. Just barely within the unofficial bounds of acceptable pilferage, almost a kilo unaccounted for, the data matched. I randomly searched cabinets, bins, equipment consoles, and suchlike for contraband—everywhere but in the air ducts. I spot-checked gear and personal belongings that the departing crew might intend to carry aboard the crew ship. That I saw, no oh-two tanks had, since departing Ceres, magically transmuted from base metals into platinum. Anything that blatant I would have had to deal with. I noticed and ignored some pens and a class ring that were almost surely platinum. Had I cared to check, I doubtless would have found many small items miraculously platinum beneath thin veneers, in everything from jewelry to work-shoe toecaps to jumpsuit zippers. Part of the company’s evil genius was letting petty theft succeed. Anyone focused on the penny-ante smuggling had less time to spend, and less inclination to spend it, plotting a grand heist. And I went over security logs. In the process, I spotted the vid loop in digital surveillance feed by which a maintenance cam failed to show the bomb. I didn’t immediately find digital fingerprints to reveal how, or by whom, the hack had been pulled off.

All that activity was simply me doing a familiar job, laying the groundwork for my Day Two “interviews.” That way the coming questioning would seem like the routine/follow-up prying of an auditor. I tried to believe I’d put on a more compelling performance than Baxter’s feigned preoccupation with his desktop when I had first arrived.

Going through the motions while I did nothing to identify our mad bomber was at once exhausting and nerve-racking, and I looked forward to a few hours of unconscious respite. In damned near no gravity, the hardest floor is comfier (I’d been told) than the softest mattress on Earth. In theory, I could have slept just fine in the wiring-closet/storeroom I’d been given as temporary quarters.

So much for theory. My mind never stopped churning, fixated on the bomb in the ceiling of the very next room. I couldn’t as much as pace for fear a clumsy footfall would trigger the bomb. But I did come up, at about oh-dark thirty, with an idea that sent me scurrying to the station chief. I rapped impatiently on his hatch.

“Just a minute.” He sounded groggy, as if I’d awakened him. As if dumping the problem on me had lifted all the (nonexistent in this gravity) weight from his shoulders. Must be nice.

“It won’t wait,” I said, overriding the lock and letting myself in. Auditors had prerogatives.

Baxter was with a friend. From Mariana Kwan’s file I knew she was thirty-two and Macau-born. Olive-complected, with a loose halo of wavy black hair and only the merest hint of eyefolds, she looked more Portuguese than Chinese. A mining engineer. As the newbie in a crew that had otherwise labored together for eight years or more, she defaulted to being my chief suspect. And seeing these two together? It recalled my instinct that Baxter “finding” the bomb was an obvious way to deflect suspicion.

Kwan had raised a sheet almost high enough to be not quite decent. She wasn’t in the slightest embarrassed by my entrance. I was. And from the way Baxter wouldn’t meet my eye, he was. She said, “I’m curious, now. What can’t wait?”

Baxter cleared his throat. “Give us that minute, please?”

I backed out, closing the hatch behind me.

Kwan emerged soon after, jumpsuit draped over one arm, wearing nothing but grip slippers and a loosely wrapped sheet. Maybe she made it to 155 centimeters tall, the top of her head scarcely reaching my waist. It wasn’t the top of her head that drew my eyes.

“Done a full enough audit yet?” Head canted, one bare leg thrust forward, she struck a pose. “Or will you be making a closer examination?”

“I’ll get back to you,” I mumbled, my face hot. I let myself back into Baxter’s quarters.

He had gotten dressed. “It’s not what you think.”

What did Baxter suppose I thought? That his file showed a wife and three teenaged kids. That boinking an employee he supervised was a firing offense under the best of circumstances—which these weren’t. I did think all that, and also how I’d been away from hearth, home, and humping—er, honey—for way too fricking long before getting dragged here to save this guy’s fornicating bacon. But maybe none of that mattered. Not if the brainstorm I had had paid off ….

“About Mariana.” Baxter swallowed, hesitated, then swallowed again. “The thing is—”

“Skip it.” We had bigger fish to fry. And what passed in me for people skills said the bump-and-grind had been at Mariana’s instigation. “You and I need to talk ASAP to someone who understands bombs. The comm buoy you visually signaled to get me summoned? It has a long-range radio or, more likely, a high-power laser for the tight beam. Right? Of course, right. You couldn’t access that transmitter, because you don’t have a ship. But I do. If I can—”

“You can’t—”

“The hell I can’t,” I interrupted right back. “I figure the company would’ve made the buoy physically small and unobtrusive, without any big honking telescope. That means it’s got to be fairly close to monitor the exact position of your retroreflector. So: we print some IR sensors, do a sky search.”

And also vid cameras and lidar to bond to the hull of my windowless ship, because the Bounty’s own nav sensors—and its nav computer—were inaccessible. (It was much debated among my peers how, before departing Ceres, mission data made their way into that sealed computer. From the mid-flight update that had rerouted me, the process involved the ship’s likewise hidden and unreachable radio receiver. If I made it home, that breakthrough should get me a free drink or three.) Try to access the built-in sensors or the computer anywhere but in a company dry dock, and protective circuitry would fry them with a power surge.

The rumor mill had it that, early in the company’s history, a pilot took a can opener to his sealed console—and zap. He was adrift for months (no transmitter aboard but a helmet radio, remember?) before he failed to show up as expected and anyone knew to go looking. The derelict was eventually recovered, still coasting along one of its preprogrammed trajectories—its pilot having long since starved to death. Was that story a company plant, just to discourage clever people like me? If so, it worked.

Anyway, assuming I could print my own sensors, low-res crap that they’d be, I had yet to decide how best to get their readouts onto the bridge. Not wireless comm: that wouldn’t penetrate the metal hull. Most likely, I’d run cables through the closed air lock. I’d stay in a pressure suit, because the cables would keep the hatches from seating properly. Even making liberal use of anti-leak patches, chances are the ship would be losing air.

None of which factors constituted a selling point.

Shaking my head, clearing the cobwebs, I continued. “Like any rock, the buoy will soak up sunlight. We spot the buoy by its reradiated IR, work out its orbit. I seat-of-the-pants fly my ship to it”—because, Baxter knew as well as I, autopilot wouldn’t do a thing but fly to a company-specified destination—“and then I—”

“No!” He wrung his hands. “Okay, here’s another thing you’re not supposed to know. The buoy carries a comm laser, all right. The onboard computer has orbital parameters for the Rock, to track us, and orbital parameters for more distant relay buoys that in turn hold orbital parameters for other buoys, some shadowing other valuable rocks. To safeguard that data, each buoy in the network also carries a bomb and proximity sensors.”

Huh. I’d convinced myself a small buoy would be battery-limited. It couldn’t, I had then extrapolated, store enough solar energy for its laser to damage an inbound ship that was bobbing and weaving and spinning. Once again, damn it, the company had me outwitted. An onboard bomb triggered by a magnetometer was simpler and more reliable.

I said, “If I get close, it blows?”

He nodded glumly.

“Hold on,” I said, “I have a better idea. I hack a printer, override its blacklist so I can make a transmitter. Under the circumstances, the company can’t get too mad. We broadcast”—in every damned direction, since we couldn’t see anything to aim at—“on a public emergency channel. We explain our situation and ask for guidance.” I thought some more. “My bosses know they sent me here. I’ll encrypt with my private key, and they’ll be able to decrypt with my public key. No one overhearing will know this is a company asset.”

“You think you’re the first person ever to imagine bootlegging a transmitter?” Baxter sighed. “It’s been tried. If a printer sees it’s being hacked, it fries itself. I’ve seen it happen. Same thing if you try to print lenses or magnifying mirrors—or IR sensors—anything that might contribute to making an astronomical instrument.”

Surely the hack was an acceptable risk. If we didn’t defuse the bomb in the next few days, we’d evacuate on the inbound ship. Suppose every printer in the station were to go pfft. So what? My temporary quarters alone held enough emergency rations to last everyone here for weeks. “For sake of argument, suppose I succeed.”

“Won’t matter. Remember that buoy shadowing us? The comm laser?”

I nodded.

“A long-range comm laser is a short-range weapon, at least against stationary targets. If the buoy hears us broadcasting, it’ll take out any antenna we put up.”

“Well, shit,” I said, and let myself out.