فصل 02

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فصل 02

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2

Armstrong sucks. It’s a damn shame such an awesome guy got such a shitty part of town named after him.

The grinding thrum of industrial equipment oozed from the walls as I guided Trigger along the old corridors. Even though the heavy manufacturing plants were fifteen floors away, the sound still carried. I pulled up to the Life Support Center and parked just outside the heavy door.

Life Support is one of the few places in town that has genuine security protocols. You don’t want just anyone wandering in. The door had a panel you could wave your Gizmo over, but of course I wasn’t on the approved list. From there I had to wait.

The pickup request was for a package approximately one hundred kilograms. No problem for me. I can lift twice that without breaking a sweat. Not many Earth gals can say that! Sure, they have six times the gravity to deal with, but that’s thei r problem.

Other than mass, the request was vague. No info on what it was or where it was going. I’d have to find that out from the customer.

Artemis’s Life Support is unique in the history of space travel. They don’t process carbon dioxide back into oxygen. Yes, they have the equipment to do that and batteries to last months if needed. But they have a much cheaper and virtually infinite supply of oxygen from another source: the aluminum industry.

Sanchez Aluminum’s smelter outside town produces oxygen from processing ore. That’s what smelting is, really. Removing oxygen to get pure metal. Most people don’t know it, but there’s a ridiculous amount of oxygen on the moon. You just need a shitload of energy to get it. Sanchez produces so much oxygen by-product that they not only make rocket fuel on the side, they supply the city with all our breathable air and still end up venting the excess outside.

So we actually have more oxygen than we know what to do with. Life Support regulates the flow, makes sure the incoming supply from the Sanchez pipeline is safe, and separates out the CO2 from used air. They also manage temperature, pressure, and all that other fun stuff. They sell the CO2 to Gunk farms, who use it to grow the algae poor people eat. It’s always about economics, am I right?

“Hello, Bashara,” came a familiar voice from behind.

Shit.

I put on my fakest smile and turned around. “Rudy! They didn’t tell me the pickup was from you. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have come!”

Okay, I won’t lie. Rudy DuBois is a seriously good-looking man. He’s two meters tall and blond as a Hitler wet dream. He quit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ten years ago to become Artemis’s head of security, but he still wears the uniform every day. And it looks good on him. Really good. I don’t like the guy, but…you know…if I could do it with no consequences…

He’s what passes for law in town. Okay, sure, every society needs laws and someone to enforce them. But Rudy tends to go the extra mile.

“Don’t worry,” he said, pulling out his Gizmo. “I don’t have enough evidence to prove you’re smuggling. Yet.”

“Smuggling? Me? Golly gee, Mr. Do-Right, you sure get some strange notions.”

What a pain in my ass. He’d been gunning for me ever since an incident when I was seventeen. Fortunately, he can’t just deport people. Only the administrator of Artemis has that authority. And she won’t do it unless Rudy provides something compelling. So we do have some checks and balances. Just not many.

I looked around. “So where’s the package?”

He waved his Gizmo over the reader and the fireproof door slid open. Rudy’s Gizmo was like a magic wand. It could open literally any door in Artemis. “Follow me.”

Rudy and I entered the industrial facility. Technicians operated equipment while engineers monitored the huge status board along one wall.

With the exception of me and Rudy, everyone in the room was Vietnamese. That’s kind of how things shake out in Artemis. A few people who know one another emigrate, they set up a service of some kind, then they hire their friends. And of course, they hire people they know. Tale as old as time, really.

The workers ignored us as we wound between machinery and a maze of high-pressure pipes. Mr. Đoàn watched from his chair in the center of the status wall. He made eye contact with Rudy and nodded slowly.

Rudy stopped just behind a man cleaning an air tank. He tapped the man on his shoulder. “Pham Binh?”

Binh turned around and grunted. His weathered face wore a permanent scowl.

“Mr. Binh. Your wife, Tâm, was at Doc Roussel’s this morning.”

“Yeah,” he said. “She’s clumsy.”

Rudy turned his Gizmo around. The screen showed a woman with bruises on her face. “According to the doc, she has a black eye, a hematoma on her check, two bruised ribs, and a concussion.”

“She’s clumsy.”

Rudy handed me the Gizmo and punched Binh squarely in the face.

In my delinquent youth I’d had a few run-ins with Rudy. I can tell you he’s a strong son of a bitch. He never punched me or anything. But one time he restrained me with one hand while typing on his Gizmo with the other. I was trying really hard to get away too. His grip was like an iron vise. I still think about that sometimes late at night.

Binh crumpled to the ground. He tried to get to his hands and knees but couldn’t. When you can’t get off the ground in the moon’s gravity, you are seriously out of it.

Rudy knelt down and pulled Binh’s head off the ground by the hair. “Let’s see…yes that cheek is swelling up nicely. Now for the black eye…” He rabbit-punched the barely conscious man in the eye then let his head fall to the ground.

Binh, now in a fetal position, moaned, “Stop…”

Rudy stood and took his Gizmo back from me. He held it so we could both see. “Two bruised ribs, right? The fourth and fifth on the left side?”

“Looks like it,” I agreed.

He kicked the prone man in the side. Binh tried to cry out but had no breath to scream with.

“I’ll just assume he has a concussion from one of those head punches,” Rudy said. “Wouldn’t want to take things too far.”

The other techs had stopped to watch the spectacle. Several of them were smiling. Đoàn, still in his chair, had the slightest hint of approval on his face.

“This is how it’s going to go, Binh,” Rudy said. “Whatever happens to her happens to you from now on. Got that?”

Binh wheezed on the floor.

“Got that?!” Rudy asked, louder this time.

Binh nodded fervently.

“Good.” He smiled. He turned to me. “There’s your package, Jazz. Approximately one hundred kilograms to be delivered to Doc Roussel. Charge it to the Security Services account.”

“Got it,” I said.

That’s how justice works around here. We don’t have jails or fines. If you commit a serious crime, we exile you to Earth. For everything else, there’s Rudy.

After that “special delivery” I did a few more mundane pickups and drop-offs. Mostly items from the port to home addresses. But I did nab a contract to move a bunch of boxes from a residence back to the port. I love helping people move. They usually tip well. That day’s move was pretty modest—a young couple relocating back to Earth.

The woman was pregnant. You can’t gestate a baby in lunar gravity—it leads to birth defects. And you can’t raise a baby here, anyway. It’s terrible for bone and muscle development. When I moved here I was six years old—that was the minimum age for residency back then. Since then they’ve bumped it up to twelve. Should I be worried?

I was just moving on to the next pickup when my Gizmo screeched at me. Not the ring of a phone call, not the bleep of a message, but the scream of an alarm. I fumbled it out of my pocket.

FIRE: CU12-3270—LOCKDOWN ENACTED. ALL NEARBY VOLUNTEER PERSONNEL TO RESPOND. “Shit,” I said.

I threw Trigger into reverse and backed up until I found a patch of hallway wide enough for a U-turn. Now facing the right way, I sped to the ramps.

“Jazz Bashara responding,” I said to my Gizmo. “Current location Conrad Up Four.”

The central safety computer noted my report and popped up a map of Conrad. I was one of many dots on that map, all converging on CU12-3270.

Artemis doesn’t have a fire department. We have volunteers. But smoke and fire are so deadly here the volunteers have to know how to breathe with air tanks. So all EVA masters and EVA trainees are automatically volunteers. Yes, there’s an irony there.

The fire was on Conrad Up 12—eight floors above me.

I screeched along the ramps up and up to CU12, then sped along the corridors toward the third ring. From there, I had to find the lot that was approximately 270 degrees from true north. It didn’t take long—a crowd of EVA masters had already converged.

A red light flashed over the thick door to the address. The sign above read QUEENSLAND GLASS FACTORY.

Bob was on-scene. As the ranking guild member present, the fire was his responsibility. He gave me a quick nod to acknowledge my presence.

“Okay, listen up!” he said. “We’ve had a full-fledged fire inside the glass factory, which has burned off all the available oxygen in the room. There are fourteen people inside—all of them made it to the air shelter in time. There are no injuries, and the shelter is working properly.”

He stood in front of the door. “We can’t just wait for the room to cool like we normally would. This factory creates glass by reacting silicon with oxygen, so they have large tanks of compressed oxygen in there. If those tanks burst, the room will contain the explosion, but the people inside will have no chance. And if we let fresh oxygen in the whole thing will blow.”

He shooed us away from the doorway to make an empty area. “We need a tent right here, sealed to the wall around the doorway. We need an inflatable accordion tunnel inside the tent. And we need four rescue workers.”

The fire brigade, well trained, got on it immediately. They built a cube skeleton out of hollow pipes. Then they taped plastic to the wall around the fireproof door, draped it over the skeleton, and taped the edges together. They left the rear flap open.

They hoisted an accordion tunnel into the tent. This was no small task—unlike the makeshift tent, inflatable tunnels were made to hold pressure. They’re thick and heavy, designed to rescue people from air shelters when there’s a complete vacuum outside. A bit of an overkill in this scenario, but it’s the equipment we had.

The tent wasn’t very large, and the tunnel occupied most of the space inside. So Bob pointed to the four smallest responders. “Sarah, Jazz, Arun, and Marcy. Get in.”

The four of us stepped forward. The others put air tanks on our backs, breather masks on our faces, and goggles over our eyes. One by one we tested our gear and gave a thumbs-up.

We crowded into the tent. It was a tight fit. Bob stood a metal cylinder just inside. “The air shelter is along the west wall. A total of fourteen people inside.”

“Copy. Fourteen,” said Sarah. A fully licensed EVA master with the most tenure out of the four of us, she was the insertion team’s leader. The other fire brigade volunteers taped the tent flap closed, except for one corner, which they left slightly open.

Sarah cranked the valve on the cylinder and it sprayed a fog of carbon dioxide into the tent. It’s a sloppy process, displacing oxygen, but we didn’t need to expel every last atom. We just needed to get the percentage as low as possible. After a minute, she cranked the valve shut again and the people outside sealed that last corner of the tent.

She felt the door. “Hot,” she said. We were about to open a door into a room just waiting to blow up. We weren’t going to add oxygen, but it was still unnerving.

She keyed the fire unlock code into the door panel. Yes, a code. Once a fireproof room’s alarms go off, the doors and vents seal immediately. The people inside can’t get out—they have to get into an air shelter or die. Seem harsh? Well, it’s not. A fire spreading in town would be far worse than a few people dying in a sealed room. Artemis does not fuck around with fire safety.

At Sarah’s command, the door clicked open and heat from inside filled our tent. I immediately broke into a sweat.

“Jesus,” said Arun.

The factory was thick with smoke. Some corners glowed red with heat. If there’d been any oxygen to spare, they would’ve certainly been aflame. Along the far wall, I could just make out the shape of the industrial air shelter.

Sarah wasted no time. “Jazz, you’re with me up front. Arun and Marcy, stay here and hold the back of the inflatable.”

I joined Sarah. She grabbed one side of the tunnel’s front opening and I grabbed the other. Arun and Marcy did the same with the back half.

Sarah walked forward and I kept pace. The accordion-style tunnel expanded along behind us, with Arun and Marcy holding the rear steady.

Reacting silicon with oxygen creates a lot of heat. Hence the fireproof room. Why not just melt sand like they do on Earth? Because we don’t have sand on the moon. At least, not enough to be useful. But we do have plenty of silicon and oxygen, which are by-products of the aluminum industry. So we can make as much glass as we want. We just have to make it the hard way.

The primary reaction chamber stood just ahead of us. We’d have to get the tunnel around it to reach the trapped workers. “Probably a hot spot,” I said.

Sarah nodded and led us around in a wide arc. We didn’t want to melt a hole in our rescue tunnel.

We reached the shelter hatch and I knocked on the small, round window. A face appeared—a man with watering eyes and ash-covered face. Most likely the foreman, who would have entered the shelter last. He gave me a thumbs-up and I returned the gesture.

Sarah and I stepped into the tunnel, then clamped the hoop around the shelter’s hatch. That was easy, at least. It’s exactly what the tunnel was designed for. Still at the tent, Arun and Marcy pressed their end of the tunnel against the plastic and taped it in place. We’d created an escape route for the workers, but it was full of unbreathable air from the room.

“Ready to blow it out?” Sarah yelled.

“Sealed and ready!” Arun called back.

The folks outside cut a slit in the plastic. Smoke from the tunnel leaked into the hallway, but the brigade already had fans and filters ready to minimize its spread.

“Tent’s open! Blow it out!” Arun yelled.

Sarah and I exchanged a glance to confirm we were both ready. Together, we took a deep breath and popped the vent releases on our air tanks. The escaping gas pushed the smoke along with it, down the tunnel and out into the hallway. Soon, the tunnel had “breathable” air inside. Conrad Up 12 would have a sooty smell for days.

We both coughed when we tried the air, but it wasn’t too bad. It didn’t have to be pleasant. It just had to be non-toxic. Satisfied that it wouldn’t kill the workers, Sarah cranked the handle to the air-shelter hatch.

To their credit, the workers filed out in a fast, controlled line. My respect for Queensland Glass went up a notch. They kept their employees well trained for emergencies.

“One! Two! Three!…” Sarah counted off each person as they passed. I kept my own count to confirm.

Once she reached fourteen, I called out, “Fourteen! Confirmed!”

She looked into the shelter. “Empty shelter!”

I did the same. “Empty shelter! Confirmed!”

We followed the coughing, choking workers down the tunnel to safety.

“Good work,” said Bob. Other volunteers were already fitting oxygen masks on the singed employees. “Jazz, we have three moderately wounded—second-degree burns. Give them a ride to Doc Roussel. The rest of you, shove that tent and tunnel into the room and reseal the fire door.”

For the second time that day, Trigger and I served as an ambulance.

In the end, the oxygen tanks didn’t blow up. Still, Queensland Glass was destroyed. A shame—they’d always been solid on fire safety. Never even had a single infraction. Bad luck, I guess. Now they’d have to rebuild from scratch.

Still, their well-maintained air shelter and regular fire drills had saved a lot of lives. Factories can be rebuilt. People can’t. It was a win.

That evening, I hit my favorite watering hole: Hartnell’s Pub.

I sat in my usual seat—second from the end of the bar. The first seat used to be Dale’s, but those days were over.

Hartnell’s was a hole in the wall. No music. No dance floor. Just a bar and a few uneven tables. The only concession to ambience was noise-absorption foam on the walls. Billy knew what his customers valued: alcohol and silence. The vibe was completely asexual. No one hit on people at Hartnell’s. If you were looking to score, you went to a nightclub in Aldrin. Hartnell’s was for drinking. And you could get any drink you wanted, as long as it was beer.

I loved the place. Partially because Billy was a pleasant bartender, but mainly because it was the closest bar to my coffin.

“Evenin’, luv,” said Billy. “Heard there was a fire today. Heard you went in.”

“Queensland Glass,” I said. “I’m short so I got volunteered. The factory’s totaled but we got everyone out all right.”

“Right, well the first one’s on me, then.” He poured a glass of my favorite reconstituted German beer. Tourists say it tastes like shit but it’s the only beer I’ve ever known and it works for me. Someday I’ll buy an intact German beer to see what I’m missing. He set it in front of me. “Thanks for your service, luv.”

“Hey, I won’t say no.” I grabbed the free beer and took a swig. Nice and cold. “Thanks!”

Billy nodded in acknowledgment and went to the other end of the bar to serve another customer.

I brought up a web browser on my Gizmo and searched for “ZAFO.” It was a conjugation of the Spanish verb zafar, meaning “to release.” Somehow I doubted Mr. Jin from Hong Kong brought something with a Spanish name. Besides, “ZAFO” was in all-caps. Probably an acronym. But for what?

Whatever it was, I couldn’t find any mention of it online. That meant it was a secret. Now I really wanted to know what it was. Turns out I’m a nosy little shit. But right at that moment, I didn’t have anything else to go on, so I mentally set it aside.

I had this bad habit of checking my bank account every day, as if compulsively looking at it would make it grow. But the banking software wasn’t interested in my dreams. It gave me the dismal news:

ACCOUNT BALANCE: 11,916ğ My entire net worth was about 2.5 percent of my goal of 416,922 slugs. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I needed. Nothing was more important.

If I could just get into the damned EVA Guild, I’d pull down serious income from then on. Tours are big money. Eight customers per tour at 1,500ğ each. That’s 12,000ğ per tour. Well, 10,800ğ after I pay the guild their 10 percent.

I could only give two tours a week—a limitation enforced by the guild. They’re cautious about their members’ radiation exposure.

I’d be making over 85,000ğ a month. And that’s just from tours. I’d also try to get a job as a probe wrangler. They’re the EVA masters who bring the probes to the freight airlock and unload them. Then I’d have access to shipments before Nakoshi inspected them. I could sneak contraband in right then or set it aside for later recovery with a sneaky midnight EVA. Whatever worked best. Point is, I could cut Nakoshi out entirely.

I’d keep living like a pauper until I’d saved up the money I needed. Accounting for living expenses, I could probably get it done in six months. Maybe five.

As it was, on my porter’s salary with smuggling on the side, it would take approximately forever.

Goddamn, I wish I’d passed that fucking test.

Once I’d taken care of the 416,922ğ, I’d still be making a bunch of money. I could afford a nice place. My shithole coffin only cost eight thousand a month, but I couldn’t even stand up in it. And I wanted my own bathroom. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is. I realized that around the hundredth time I had to walk down a public hallway in my nightie to take a midnight piss.

For fifty thousand a month—well within what I’d be earning—I could get a condo in Bean Bubble. A nice one with a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and its own shower. No more communal anything. I could even get a place with a cook nook. Not a kitchen—that’d be stupidly expensive. They have to be in their own fire containment rooms. But a cook-nook burner was allowed to get up to 80 degrees Celsius and could have a 500-watt microwave.

I shook my head. Someday, maybe.

I guess my pained expression was visible even from the far end of the bar. Billy walked over. “Oi, Jazz. Why so glum?”

“Money,” I said. “Never enough money.”

“I hear ya, luv.” He leaned in. “So…remember when I contracted your services for some pure ethanol?”

“Sure,” I said. In a concession to basic human nature, Artemis allows liquor even though it’s flammable. But they draw the line at pure ethanol, which is incredibly flammable. I smuggled it in the usual way and only charged Billy a 20 percent markup. That’s my friends-and-family rate.

He looked left and right. A couple of regulars minded their own business. Other than that we were alone. “I want to show you somefin’…”

He reached under the bar and pulled up a bottle of brown liquid. He poured some into a shot glass. “Here. ’Ave a sip.”

I could smell the alcohol from a meter away. “What is it?”

“Bowmore single-malt scotch. Aged fifteen years. Give it a try, on the ’ouse.”

I’m never one to turn down a free drink. I took a sip.

I spat it out in disgust. It tasted like Satan’s flaming asshole!

“Huh,” he said. “No good?”

I coughed and wiped my mouth. “That is not scotch.”

He looked at the bottle with a frown. “Huh. I had a bloke on Earth boil the liquids off then send me the extract. I reconstituted it with water and effanol. Should be exactly the same.”

“Well, it’s not,” I rasped.

“Scotch is an acquired taste….”

“Billy, I’ve swallowed better-tasting stuff that came out of people.”

“Bugger.” He put the bottle away. “I’ll keep working on it.”

I gulped beer to wash the taste away.

My Gizmo beeped at me. A message from Trond:

“Free tonight? Can you drop by my place?”

Meh. I was just starting my evening beers.

“It’s late. Can it wait?”

“Best if handled tonight.”

“I’m just sitting down to dinner…”

“You can drink dinner later. This is worth your time, I promise.”

Smartass.

“Looks like I have to cash out,” I told Billy.

“Pull the other one!” he said. “You’ve only had one pint!”

“Duty calls.” I handed him my Gizmo.

He took it to the register. “One pint. Lowest tab I ever rung you for.”

“I won’t make a habit of it.”

He waved my Gizmo over the register then handed it back to me. The transaction was done (I’d long ago set up my account to accept Hartnell’s as a “no-verify” point of purchase). I slid the Gizmo into my pocket and headed out. The other patrons didn’t say goodbye or even acknowledge me. God, I love Hartnell’s.

Irina opened the door and frowned at me like I’d just pissed in her borscht. As usual, she wouldn’t let me pass without stating my business.

“Hi, I’m Jazz Bashara,” I said. “We’ve met over a hundred times. I’m here to see Trond at his invitation.”

She led me through to the dining-hall entrance. The smell of delicious food hung in the air. Something meaty, I thought. Roast beef? A rare delicacy when the nearest cow is 400,000 kilometers away.

I peeked in to see Trond sip liquor from a tumbler. He wore his usual bathrobe and chatted with someone across the table. I couldn’t see who.

His daughter Lene sat next to him. She watched her father talk with rapt fascination. Most sixteen-year-olds hate their parents. I was a huge pain in the ass to my dad at that age (nowadays I’m just a general disappointment). But Lene looked up to Trond like he put the Earth in the sky.

She spotted me then waved excitedly. “Jazz! Hi!”

Trond gestured me in. “Jazz! Come in, come in. Have you met the administrator?”

I walked in and—holy shit! Administrator Ngugi was there. She was just…there! Hanging out at the table.

Fidelis Ngugi is, simply put, the reason Artemis exists. When she was Kenya’s minister of finance, she created the country’s entire space industry from scratch. Kenya had one—and only one—natural resource to offer space companies: the equator. Spacecraft launched from the equator could take full advantage of Earth’s rotation to save fuel. But Ngugi realized they could offer something more: policy. Western nations drowned commercial space companies in red tape. Ngugi said, “Fuck that. How about we don’t?”

I’m paraphrasing here.

God only knows how she convinced fifty corporations from thirty-four countries to dump billions of dollars into creating KSC, but she did it. And she made sure Kenya enacted special tax breaks and laws just for the new megacorporation.

What’s that, you say? Favoring a single company with special laws isn’t fair? Tell that to the East India Tea Company. This is global economics, not kindergarten.

And wouldn’t you know it, when KSC had to pick someone to run Artemis for them, they picked…Fidelis Ngugi! That’s how shit gets done. She pulled money out of nowhere, created a huge industry in her formerly third-world country, and landed herself a job as ruler of the moon. She had run Artemis for over twenty years.

“Bwuh—” I said eloquently. “Shaa…”

“I know, right?!” said Lene.

Ngugi’s traditional dhuku headscarf counterpointed her modern, Western-style dress. She stood politely, walked toward me, and said, “Hello, dear.” Her Swahili-accented English rolled so smoothly off her tongue I wanted to adopt her as my grandma right then and there.

“J-Jasmine,” I stammered. “I’m Jasmine Bashara.”

“I know,” she said.

What?

She smiled. “We have met before. I hired your father to install an emergency air shelter in my home. He brought you along. That was back when the administrator’s quarters were in Armstrong Bubble.”

“Wow…I don’t remember that at all.”

“You were very young. Such an adorable little child, hanging on her father’s every word. How is Ammar these days?”

I blinked a couple of times. “Uh…Dad’s fine. Thanks. I don’t see him much. He’s got his shop and I’ve got my work.”

“He is a good man, your father,” she said. “An honest businessman and a hard worker. One of the best welders in town, as well. It’s too bad you had a falling-out.”

“Wait, how did you know we—”

“Lene, it’s been lovely to see you again. You’re so grown-up now!”

“Thanks, Administrator!” Lene beamed.

“And Trond, thank you for a delicious meal,” she said.

“Any time, Administrator.” Trond stood up. I couldn’t believe he was in his bathrobe! He had dinner with the most important person on the moon and he wore his bathrobe! Then he shook Ngugi’s hand like they were equals or something. “Thanks for coming by!”

Irina showed up and led Ngugi away. Was there a hint of admiration on the grumpy old Russian’s face? I guess even Irina had her limits. You can’t hate everyone.

“Holy shit, dude,” I said to Trond.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Trond turned to his daughter. “All right, pumpkin, time for you to skedaddle. Jazz and I have business to discuss.”

She groaned the way only teenage girls can. “You always send me away when things get interesting.”

“Don’t be in such a hurry. You’ll be a cutthroat business asshole soon enough.”

“Just like my dad.” She smiled. She reached to the floor and picked up her crutches. They were the kind that gripped the upper arm. She got them both into position with ease and brought herself vertical. Her legs hung free. She kissed Trond on the cheek, then walked out on the crutches without her feet touching the ground.

The car accident that killed her mother had paralyzed Lene for life. Trond had money coming out his ass, but nothing could buy back his daughter’s ability to walk. Or could it? On Earth, Lene was confined to a wheelchair, but on the moon, she could easily move around on crutches.

So he hired VPs to manage most of his companies and relocated to Artemis. And just like that, Lene Landvik could walk again.

“Bye, Jazz!” she said on her way out.

“Bye, kiddo.”

Trond swirled his drink. “Have a seat.”

The dining table was huge, so I picked a chair a couple of spaces away from Trond. “What’s in the glass?”

“Scotch. Want some?”

“Maybe a taste,” I said.

He slid the glass across to me. I took a sip.

“Ohhh yeahhh…” I said. “That’s better.”

“Didn’t know you were a scotch gal,” he said.

“Not normally. But I had an awful approximation of it earlier today, so I needed a reminder of what it’s supposed to be like.” I offered the tumbler back.

“Keep it.” He went to the liquor credenza, poured a second glass, and returned to his seat.

“So why was the administrator here?” I asked.

He put his feet up on the table and leaned back in his chair. “I’m hoping to buy Sanchez Aluminum and I wanted her blessing. She’s fine with it.”

“Why would you want an aluminum company?”

“Because I like building businesses.” He preened theatrically. “It’s my thing.”

“But aluminum? I mean…isn’t that sort of blah? I get the impression it’s struggling as an industry.”

“It is,” said Trond. “Not like the old days, when aluminum was king—each bubble required forty thousand tons of aluminum to build. But now the population has plateaued and we’re not making new bubbles anymore. Frankly, they would have gone out of business long ago if it weren’t for their aluminum monopropellant fuel production. And even that barely turns a profit.”

“Seems like you missed the gravy train. Why get in now?”

“I think I can make it hugely profitable again.”

“How?”

“None of your business.”

I held up my hands. “Sheesh. Touchy. Fine, you want to make aluminum. Why not start your own company?”

He snorted. “If only it were that easy. It’s impossible to compete with Sanchez. Literally impossible. What do you know about aluminum production?”

“Pretty much nothing,” I said. I settled back in my chair. Trond seemed chatty tonight. Best to let him get it out of his system. And hey, as long as he talked I got good booze.

“First, they collect anorthite ore. That’s easy. All they have to do is pick up the right rocks. They have automated harvesters running day and night. Then they smelt the ore with a chemical and electrolysis process that takes a shitload of electricity. And I do mean a shitload. Sanchez Aluminum uses eighty percent of the city reactors’ output.”

“Eighty percent?” I’d never thought about it before, but two 27-megawatt nuclear reactors was a bit much for a city of two thousand people.

“Yeah, but the interesting part is how they pay for it.”

He pulled a rock from his pocket. Wasn’t much to look at—just a gray, jagged lump like all the other lunar rocks I’d ever seen. He tossed it toward me. “Here. Have some anorthite.”

“Yay, a rock.” I plucked it out of the air as it approached. “Thanks.”

“It’s made of aluminum, oxygen, silicon, and calcium. Smelting separates it into those base elements. They sell the aluminum—that’s the whole point. And they sell the silicon to glassmakers and the calcium to electricians for next to nothing—mainly to get rid of it. But there is one by-product that’s incredibly useful: oxygen.”

“Yeah, and that’s what we breathe. I know.”

“Yeah, but did you know Sanchez gets free power in exchange for that oxygen?”

He had me there. “Really?”

“Yup. It’s a contract that goes back to the early days of Artemis. Sanchez makes our air, so Artemis gives Sanchez as much power as they want—completely free of charge.”

“They don’t have to pay an electric bill? Ever?”

“As long as they keep making oxygen for the city, that’s right. And power is the most expensive part of smelting. There’s just no way I can compete. It’s not fair.”

“Oh, poor billionaire,” I said. “Maybe you should have some moors installed so you can pine on them.”

“Yeah, yeah, rich people are evil blah, blah, blah.”

I emptied my glass. “Thanks for the scotch. Why am I here?”

He cocked his head and looked at me. Was he carefully choosing his words? Trond never did that.

“I hear you failed your EVA exam.”

I groaned. “Does everyone in town know about that? Do you all meet up and talk about me when I’m not around or something?”

“It’s a small town, Jazz. I keep my ear to the ground.”

I slid my glass over to him. “If we’re going to talk about my failures, I’ll want another scotch.”

He passed me his full glass. “I want to hire you. And I want to pay you a lot.”

I perked up. “Well, okay then. Why didn’t you open with that? What do you need smuggled in? Something big?”

He leaned forward. “It’s not smuggling. It’s an entirely different enterprise. I don’t know if it’s even in your comfort zone. You’ve always been honest—at least with me. Do I have your word that this will stay between us? Even if you turn down the job?”

“Of course.” One thing I picked up from Dad: Always keep your bargains. He worked within the law and I didn’t, but the principle was the same. People will trust a reliable criminal more readily than a shady businessman.

“That power-for-oxygen deal is the only thing standing between me and the aluminum industry. If Sanchez stops supplying oxygen, they’ll be in breach of contract. Then I’ll step in and offer to take it over. Same deal: free oxygen for free power.”

“Where would you get the oxygen?” I asked. “You don’t have a smelter.”

“No rule says it has to be smelted. The city doesn’t give a shit where the oxygen comes from, so long as it comes.” He steepled his fingers. “For the last four months, I’ve been collecting oxygen and storing it away. I have enough to supply the entire city’s needs for over a year.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t just take city air and keep it. That’s monumentally illegal.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Please. I’m not an idiot. I bought the oxygen fair and square. I have standing contracts with Sanchez for regular deliveries.”

“You’re buying oxygen from Sanchez so you can take over the oxygen contract from Sanchez?”

He smirked. “They make so much oxygen the entire city doesn’t breathe it fast enough. They sell it cheap to anyone who wants it. I bought it slowly, over time, through various shell businesses so no one would know I’m hoarding.”

I pinched my chin. “Oxygen is pretty much the definition of flammable. How’d you get the city to let you store so much?”

“I didn’t. I built huge holding tanks outside Armstrong Bubble. They’re in the triangle formed by the connector tunnels of Armstrong, Bean, and Shepard. Totally safe from idiot tourists, and if anything goes wrong, they’ll just leak into the vacuum. They’re connected to Life Support’s systems, but they’re separated by a physical valve outside. No harm can come to the city.”

“Huh.” I spun my glass on the table. “You want me to stop Sanchez’s oxygen production.”

“Yes, I do.” He stood from his chair and walked over to the liquor credenza. This time he selected a bottle of rum. “The city will want a fast resolution and I’ll get the contract. Once that happens, I won’t even have to build my own smelter. Sanchez will see the futility of trying to make aluminum without free power and they’ll let me buy them outright.”

He poured himself a fresh drink and returned to the table. There, he opened a panel to reveal a bunch of controls.

The room lights faded and a projection screen came to life on the far wall.

“Are you a supervillain or something?” I gestured to the screen. “I mean, come on.”

“Like it? I just had it installed.”

The screen showed a satellite picture of our local area in Mare Tranquillitatis. Artemis was a tiny blob of circles brilliantly illuminated by sunlight.

“We’re in the lowlands,” Trond said. “There’s plenty of olivine and ilmenite around. Those are great for making iron, but if you want aluminum you need anorthite. It’s rare around here, but the highlands are littered with it. So Sanchez’s harvesters operate in the Moltke Foothills three kilometers south of here.”

He turned on his Gizmo’s laser pointer and pointed to a region south of the city.

“The harvesters are almost completely autonomous. They only call home for instructions if they get stuck or can’t figure out what to do next. They’re an essential part of the company’s operations, they’re all in one place, and they’re completely unguarded.”

“Okay,” I said. “I see where this is going….”

“Yeah,” he said. “I want you to sabotage those harvesters. Take them all out at once. And make sure they can’t be repaired. It’ll take Sanchez at least a month to get replacements shipped here from Earth. During that time they’ll get no new anorthite. No anorthite means no oxygen production. No oxygen production means I win.”

I folded my arms. “I don’t know if this works for me, Trond. Sanchez has like a hundred employees, right? I don’t want to put people out of their jobs.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Trond said. “I want to buy the company, not ruin it. Everyone will keep their jobs.”

“Okay, but I don’t know anything about harvesters.”

His fingers flew over the controls and the display changed to a picture of a harvester. It looked like something from a catalogue. “The harvesters are Toyota Tsukurumas. I have four of them in my warehouse, ready for use.”

Whoa. Okay. Something the size of a harvester would have to be shipped in chunks and assembled here. Plus, it would have to be done in secret so no one asked awkward questions like “Say, Trond, why is your company assembling harvesters?” He’d had his people on this for a long time.

He must have seen the gears turning in my head. “Yeah. I’ve been working on this for a while. Anyway, you’re welcome to examine my harvesters for as long as you want. All in secrecy of course.”

I got out of my chair and walked up to the screen. Man, that harvester was a beast. “So it’s my problem to find a weakness in these things? I’m not an engineer.”

“They’re automated vehicles without any security features at all. You’re clever, I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

“Okay, but what happens if I get caught?”

“Jazz who?” he said theatrically. “The delivery girl? I barely know her. Why would she do such a thing? I’m baffled.”

“I see how it is.”

“I’m just being honest. Part of the deal is your word that you won’t drag me down if you get caught.”

“Why me? What makes you think I can even pull this off?”

“Jazz, I’m a businessman,” he said. “My whole job is exploiting underutilized resources. And you are a massively underutilized resource.”

He stood and walked to the credenza for another pour. “You could have been anything. Didn’t want to be a welder? No problem. You could have been a scientist. An engineer. A politician. A business leader. Anything. But you’re a porter.”

I scowled.

“I’m not judging,” he said. “Just analyzing. You’re really smart and you want money. I need someone who’s really smart and I have money. Are you interested?”

“Hmm…” I took a moment to think. Was it even possible?

I’d need access to an airlock. There are only four airlocks in the whole city and you have be a licensed EVA Guild member to use them—their control panels check your Gizmo.

Then there was the three-kilometer trip to the Moltke Foothills. How would I do that? Walk? And once I was there, what would I do? The harvesters would have cameras and film Then there was the three-kilometer trip to the Moltke Foothills. How would I do that? Walk? And once I was there, what would I do? The harvesters would have cameras and film everything in a 360-degree arc for navigational purposes. How would I sabotage them without getting spotted?

Also, I smelled bullshit in the air. Trond had been squirrely and evasive about his reasons for getting into aluminum. But it was my ass on the line if something went wrong, not his. And if I got caught I’d get exiled to Earth. I probably couldn’t stand up on Earth, let alone live there. I’d been in lunar gravity since I was six.

No. I was a smuggler, not a saboteur. And something smelled off about the whole thing.

“I’m sorry, but this isn’t my thing,” I said. “You’ll have to find someone else.”

“I’ll give you a million slugs.”

“Deal.”

Yo, Kelvin, What’s new? Haven’t heard from you in a few days. Did you get into the chess club? What kind of junior high chess club has entrance requirements, anyway? Are they so impacted with applicants they have to turn some away? What, like they don’t have enough chess boards? Only so many tables? Limited number of pocket-protectors? My school is trying to put me in the gifted classes. Again. Dad totally wants me to go, but why should I? I’m probably just going to be a welder. I don’t need differential calculus to stick pieces of metal together. Sigh… Hey, so what happened with Charisse? Did you ask her out? Or talk to her? Or indicate in any way that you exist? Or are you sticking with your brilliant plan to avoid her at all costs? Jazz, Sorry, I’ve been busy with extracurricular stuff lately. Yes, I got into the chess club. I played several games to establish my skill level and they rated me at 1124. That’s not very good, but I’m studying and practicing to become better. I play against my computer every day and now I’ll get to play against people too. Why don’t you join the gifted classes? Academic achievement is a great way to honor your parents. You should consider it. I’m sure your father would be very proud. My parents would love it if I could get into the advanced classes. But math is hard. I keep my grades up, but it’s hard. I have resolve, though. I want to make rockets, and you can’t do that without math. No, I haven’t talked to Charisse. I’m sure she wouldn’t be interested in a boy like me. Girls like boys who are big and strong and who beat up other boys. I’m none of those things. If I talked to her, I would just get humiliated. Kelvin, Dude. I don’t know where you’re getting info about girls but you’re WRONG. Girls like boys who are nice and make us laugh. We DON’T like boys who get in fights and we don’t like boys who are stupid. Trust me on this. I’m a girl. Dad has me helping out around the shop. I can solo the simpler jobs. He pays me, which is nice. But he stopped my allowance now that I have an income. So now I’m working for a little bit more than I was getting for free. Not sure I’m on board with that plan but whatever. Dad’s having problems with the Welders’ Guild. Around here, you can either be freelance or part of the guild. And the guild doesn’t like freelancers. Dad doesn’t have a problem with guilds as a rule, but he says the Welders’ Guild is “mobbed up.” I guess they’re pretty much owned by Saudi organized crime. Why Saudi? I don’t know. Almost all the welders here are Saudis. We’re just the people who ended up controlling the welding industry. Anyway, the guild forces people to join with bullshit tactics. Not like in movies where they threaten you or anything. Just rumormongering. Floating stories that you’re dishonest and you do shitty work. Stuff like that. But Dad spent his whole life building a reputation. The fake rumors just bounce off. None of his customers believe them. Go Dad! Jazz, That’s too bad about the Welders’ Guild. There are no unions or guilds at KSC. It’s a special administrative zone and the normal laws that help unions don’t apply. KSC has a lot of power in the Kenyan government. There are many special laws for them. But KSC is a boon to all of us and they deserve special treatment. Without them we would be poor like other African countries.

Have you ever considered moving to Earth? I’m sure you could become a scientist or an engineer and make a lot of money. You’re a citizen of Saudi Arabia, right? They have lots of big corporations there. Lots of jobs for smart people. Kelvin, Nah. I don’t want to live on Earth. I’m a moon gal. Besides, it would be a huge medical hassle. I’ve been here more than half my life, so my body is used to ⅙th of your gravity. Before I could go to Earth I’d have to do a bunch of exercise and take special pills to stimulate muscle and bone growth. Then I’d have to spend hours every day in a centrifuge…bleh. No thanks. Talk to Charisse you chickenshit.

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