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Boys from the Neighborhood

by Dan Reed

part 4

It seemed to take much longer to get to Ganymede than it should have, and my grumpiness grew until we set down on the vast, hard surface of the landing pad, a hard surface of discarded ore covering three square miles in the Khumbam crater. At one end stood the low-slung prefab buildings of Kumbaya City, so named by drunken miners who couldn’t be bothered to remember exactly where they were.

The surface buildings had over time been supplemented by underground caverns, and then interconnected tunnels, just as in dozens of other colonies throughout the Rocks and Jupiter’s moons. While you still wanted a Climate Suit for gravity compensation, artificial Earth atmosphere was pumped into the interconnected city, so the residents could walk around without their flex helmets on, and talk to each other without a comm connection.

Paulie and I pulled on our Climate Suits, each of us checking the seals for the other. I left Jalen to supervise the draft robots who would be pulling the ship off to the hangars. These moons, with their essentially nonexistent atmospheres, took a steady beating from little bits of space junk, both natural and manmade, and it was worth the extra fee to put my ride home indoors and not take the chance.

We passed through the airlock, then the security checkpoint. They weren’t much for customs control out here, but they did like to know if you were carrying any weapons. We of course had hard plastic polymer knives secreted away, leaving one easy to find and the second (and in Paulie’s case, third) carefully concealed. The troopers had to make a show of patting you down, but they and everyone else knew you didn’t need to do much to find trouble in the colonies. I had explained all this to Paulie the day before we landed.

“If we thought we were in serious danger, we’d bribe the security team to let us take a rail pistol in, but my guess is that this is going to be a negotiation and not a fight.”

“Maybe we should do it anyway. I don’t know how to use a knife.” Paulie looked mildly nauseous at the thought.

“Like they say, the pointy end goes in the other guy. Only out here, people are pretty much in their climate suits all the time. So most fights end if you slash the other guy in the face.”

“Great, that sounds like a fun time. Now, how are we going to get my brother?”

“Listen, kid, despite the softness I might have shown in not making you a suit slave or throwing you out of an airlock, I have no intention of throwing my life away for a good cause. And I have no particular reason to think your brother’s case even is a good cause. All I’m going to do is get you through the door, and let you do whatever it is you think you’re going to do.” I kept saying that to myself, too, trying to convince myself that I had gone far enough in helping Sophia Quadrini’s grandson.

“But Joe needs help. What am I going to do without someone who knows how things work out here?”

“I don’t know. Probably end up in jail with your brother, unless you’ve got money or brains you’ve been keeping hidden.”

“Mr. Farrell... Captain...” I was walking down the long, rough-hewn corridor that connected the customs hall with the main administrative compound. Paulie was bolted to the floor, telling himself that his unwillingness to follow me was some evidence of resolve.

“Thomas!” I stopped short. “My grandmother Sophia knows you, I heard her talking about you when I was a kid. She doesn’t really recognize anyone anymore, but when she gave me the ring she said you were a good man and to trust you. So please, help me. I need someone who knows how things work out here.”

I cursed under my breath, hopefully quietly enough that Paulie didn’t hear it. But that hurt. Paulie sure did know when to unload his emotional artillery. I waved him on, not making eye contact, and continued at a slower pace towards the administrative compound.

Inside was the usual chaos of a mining town. The suddenly affluent were negotiating fees for the refining and shipping that would turn their finds into riches. The suddenly destitute surrounded them, looking for work or hoping the more fortunate would pay for their ride home. Administration officials (pretty thin on the ground) were listening to competing claims for rich veins of metal or reviewing the schedule of ship arrivals and departures.

The hall, meant to evoke luxuriousness and gravitas, felt like an oversized version of the entryways in those McMansions built a century ago, now being rapidly deomolished. The difference was that all of the fixtures were crafted from the metals mined in the crater, especially ruthenium, which was the least valuable and thus most likely to be donated by the local billionaires.

Paulie forced his way through the crowd and found the information desk, trying to find out when court would be in session next. When he finally bribed the clerk, he found out the judge would sit briefly in twelve hours. For a few hundred dollars more, he also found out that Joe was being held in a sealed room in the Charity Dorm, where the broke miners lived before tucking tail and heading home. The two-cell jail was holding a murderer and a robot thief, and Joe was considered a comparatively unserious prisoner.

The Charity Dorm was a depressing place, as it was in any colony. The governments of the space-faring nations had made a deal with the largely independent colonies: provide some aid to those who lose out in the great race for riches, and we will continue to allow you to land in our launchports and trade with us.

As a captain, I had listened to the sad tales of many men coming back to Earth after months or years in those dives. But it was especially depressing to watch Paulie run up to the little plexiglass port in the metal door that was sealed to hold his brother, and the joyful look on his face turn to one of pain as he saw the man he came to save.

I pulled Paulie back from the door and took a look. Joe was curled up on the narrow bunk, his head towards me, two nylon straps holding him in place. Even without having seen him before, I knew he was a wreck. The boyhood athlete had become stick-thin. Many colony-dwellers lost muscle tone in the low gravity, but Joe looked as though he hadn’t left his bed in a year. His black hair, starting to thin, transitioned into a bushy, unkempt beard. His skin had a yellowish tint.

As I stood there, wondering if this man had completely given up, he shifted his head to look towards the door, and caught sight of me. I met his eyes (one of which was sporting a fantastic shiner) and was reassured: he was still there, still ready to fight if given a chance. I wondered how long he had been in that cell.

Joe walked over to a comm panel by the door and said, “You another one of Bae’s goons? He really needs to give up.”

Before I could press the button to reply, Paulie had seized control of our panel, and shouted back, “Joe! It’s me, Paulie! And that isn’t a goon, it’s Captain Farrell.” He paused, looked at me, and then added, “He’s from the neighborhood!”

“Paulie? What the hell are you doing? You shouldn’t be here.”

“What did you expect me to do after we heard you were in jail? I came to get you out, and get you home.”

“I expected you, and Mom and Dad and everyone else to accept that I was probably not going to be able to get home for a long time, and to move on with your lives. I have to deal with this myself.”

“You know, I came out here to get you out, you could at least act like it means something!”

It was amazing to watch how Paulie, who had seemed more or less stoic and put together, turned into a blubbering, overexcited kid in the presence of his big brother. Gotta love family.

“It means that you acted without thinking things through,” Joe retorted. “And that there’s a really good chance I’m going to be sharing this rathole with you for the foreseeable future.”

“You’re such a jerk!” Paulie’s face began to turn red, and I decided I had better cut off this brotherly feud before they attracted unwanted attention.

“Boys, both of you, shut up for a second.” I gently bumped Paulie away from the comm panel so I could be sure Joe was hearing me. “For what it’s worth, your brother has gotten a lot farther than most men would have so far, so you should cut him a break.”

I turned to Paulie, “And you know he’s got a point. There’s no plan from here on out. So maybe we should just listen to him and see what the hell we’re up against.”

Over the next hour, Joe explained how he had wound up a prisoner in Kumbaya City, a status he had enjoyed for a little over a year. He had arrived several months before that, with a claim in the vast Nicholson Regio about 100 miles northeast of the crater. He had acquired the territory on the cheap, as the prevailing theory of Ganymede’s geology was that the surface was about sixty miles of solid ice, and the only mineral deposits were in craters where meteors had left their riches behind. His claim, though huge, had no significant meteor strikes.

But it was at the center of a subtle distortion in the moon’s gravitational field. He had found it during his studies at MIT, puzzled over it, looking for any explanation why a body every eminent astronomer had dismissed as an ice ball should appear to have a heavy lump of something very near its surface. He eventually concluded that he had found the location of an unprecedentedly large metal deposit in an area where no prospector was looking for it.

He went through a complex theory involving a cryovolcano (which he helpfully explained to me was just a spew of chilly water expelled through the icy crust) which might have erupted when Ganymede was in alignment with Europa and Io, generating enough force to pull some metals up through the watery mantle of the moon and deposit them in the crust. I didn’t get it, but I suppose it only mattered that Joe did.

So he did what any ambitious, driven young man would have done: bought the claim for next to nothing, burned up every dollar he could get his hands on for one-way passage and mining gear, and set out to make his fortune.

Only, when he had arrived, he had run into Jeong Bae, and Jeong had made it his singular purpose to ruin Joe.

Jeong had been a classmate of Joe’s in high school, and also his chief rival for academic honors. Joe had always won. Jeong’s parents, immigrants from Korea, could not believe their son had been defeated in academic combat by a soft Italian-American boy, and their shock turned to anger when Jeong was rejected by M.I.T. while Joe got in.

Jeong, crushed by his parents’ cold disapproval, did not even go to college, but earned passage to Ganymede, where he became a remarkably successful merchant, then a subterranean construction mogul, then owner of the biggest refinery in the colony. Within four years of his arrival, no one bought or sold anything on Ganymede without money ending up in Jeong’s pocket.

He had also gotten a reputation as someone who enjoyed throwing his weight around. A pilot had told me about a miner that tried to short him on a refining payment. Bae’s goons had taken him out to some forgotten, dead-end ice-tunnel, melted a section of the floor, and threw the poor bastard in the pool at the bottom. Then they sealed off the tunnel. When they went to expand the tunnel months later, they found the guy frozen up to his neck. Or so I was told. Regardless, he was a man who enjoyed taking retribution, and no one had ever hurt him more than Joe Benevento.

A few days after Joe arrived, Bae challenged his claim. Now, a man like Jeong Bae was not going to be ignored by the authorities on Ganymede, and Joe was ordered to cease any mining activity until the dispute could be worked out. Then Jeong invested what would be — for most men — a significant sum, undermining Joe’s rightful claim and fabricating one of his own. It wasn’t bulletproof, but it was good enough to put Joe on the defensive.

A judge ordered Joe to produce additional documentation and prove he hadn’t tried to defraud Bae. In the meantime, he had been confined by the Kumbaya City authorities as a potential flight risk.

“I’m completely screwed,” Joe finished. “They want some type of satellite-verified claims map, which the Intrastellar Purchase Oversight Division does not issue, and a Pan-Jovian Environmental Impact Review voucher, which no one seems even to have heard of. Without those, the court is going to rule in favor of Jeong and ship me off to Titan as his suit slave.”

Even as I questioned my sanity, I jumped in, “Look, Joe, let me see what I can do. I know some people up here, and maybe I can pull some strings to get you the hell out of here.”

“Mr. Farrell, don’t take this the wrong way, because I respect what you’re trying to do for me, but I don’t want or need your help. If I just wanted to limp on home, I could have done that six months ago. The judge was willing to release me if I renouncd my claim and retreated to Earth. But I’m not just going to quit, especially not now that I’ve given up a year of my life for this claim. I will win or lose, but I won’t surrender.”

I felt the temper I tried so damned hard to control clawing its way out of my gut. “Listen, spacehead, if you want to wind up dragging your half-dead carcass around Titan for the rest of what will undoubtedly be a ridiculously short life, keep it up. You’re playing this exactly right.

“As for me, I’ve already broken every rule I’ve made for myself when I got going in this business, and all I’ve done is waste my damned time on you and your oxygen-deprived brother here. If you were as smart as all those bastards back in the neighborhood say, you’d get home, go back to work with the rest of the genius squad, and eventually be rich enough to pay me for my kindness. As it is, the two of you can sit here with your righteous baby-whining and your thumbs stuck in your rectums while you wait for Jeong to finish you off.”

I walked away, happy that at least I would be washing my hands of the Benevento brothers and their family ego. The last thing I needed in my life was just-grown-up kids who believed in bullcrap like justice and restitution. If I hadn’t repaid my debt to Sophia Quadrini by now, it would just have to go unpaid.

* * *

Proceed to part 5...

Copyright © 2011 by Dan Reed

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