Pet made note of the ticket information then responded "How about October 5th? I have some minor unrelated business to finish up and it will be concluded by then."
"Fine. See you then," he said.
The days passed quickly, and happily uneventfully. Pet would swing by the orphanage building from time to time just to note how things seemed to be going. But she always did so at times she was unlikely to run into the priest, usually the wee hours of the night. She also spent some time each day learning Eleanor's security information. Madam Meegai spoke sharply to her and even gave her a whack a couple of times, when her focus was more on the information she was repeating in her mind, than on the form she was working her way through.
The morning of 3rd, she put on some of her good citizen clothes and arrived at the shop about an hour after it opened to pick up her swords.
A young man took her order number and returned with the swords. She handed him her credstick, which she had previously loaded with all the remaining value from the certified stick, and was unsurprised that it passed muster without a hitch. He smiled cheerfully and asked if there was anything else he could do for her?
Pet smiled back. "No thank you. But will you please mention to your superior that both you and the other young lady I dealt with provided excellent service."
"Do let us know if you need anything else, Ms. Lake," he said.
She nodded, and with that she carefully stowed the batons away and left the shop. She stopped at home where she couldn't help swinging her new swords around a couple of times, before leaving them there and headed out to the spaceport to purchase her ticket. Spike had told her she could buy the tickets online, but she wanted to get a feel for the spaceport. Pet always liked to be as prepared as possible, and looking over any location she was likely to spend any time had served her well up to this point.
She took the highway north, looping west to avoid Midtown and Old Town, then continued north the spaceport. It was on the coast, and as she approached she watched a couple of sub-orbital planes come in for a landing. The orbital boosters were less frequent and she didn't see one on the ride in. She hit the parking area and locked down her bike, then entered the terminal. The ticket agent was easy to find and after she told him what she wanted he quoted her the prices, "One thousand round trip in the cabin, fifteen-hundred in the forward compartment, four-thousand first class."
Pet decided to try the smiling thing again, since it had been working pretty well. So she smiled at the agent and said, "I'm sorry to be asking a dumb question, but I've never done this before. I can imagine what first class must be like, but what's the difference between the forward compartment and the cabin, if you wouldn't mind explaining."
"The forward compartment has larger seats and the pre-flight amenities are better. Since the entire flight up is at approximately 2g there are no in-flight amenities. However, the return flight is at between 1.25g and 1g so some amenities are available. The in-flight entertainment system has more options in the forward compartment. The flight takes a little over two hours," said the agent.
She considered for a couple of moments, and after deciding she could probably put up with anything for two hours, responded "I'm sure the cabin will be fine." She proceeded to pass over her credstick.
"Very good," he said. In moments, her flight was booked, "Just present your credstick at the kiosk an hour and a half before boarding," he said, returning the stick.
"Thank you," she said accepting the stick. She sighed. "I really hope this is going to be worth it," she thought to herself. And she headed home.
The launcher was a spare, efficient machine, designed for one simple purpose - to go up and come down. The attendents went through and made sure everyone was strapped in and that the padding was in the right places. They demonstrated how to use the entertainment system and then retired to their own seats. Then someone Pet's size sat on her chest as the thrusters roared. At least, that's what it felt like as the orbital shuttle accelerated upwards at 2g. The next two hours were remarkably unpleasant. Finally, the thrusters eased off and an announcement was made that the shuttle would be manouvring for about twenty minutes and passengers could move about the cabin until it was time to dock. The man nearest one of the two restrooms bolted into it
Pet took the first easy breath she'd been able to in the past couple of hours. Looking over at "Jason", she mumbled "And I thought being on boats sucked."
Spike just smiled, "You get used to it."
After twenty minutes, the call came to strap down again and attendants went through to make sure everyone did. They distributed space-sickness bags and told everyone to be sure to use them if they needed to. Then the thrust cut out, and everyone was weightless. For the next few minutes, they underwent a series of small burns to bring them into position to dock, and then a clank indicated they had done so. Debarking took another twenty minutes, but finally they were standing on the upper deck of the station, which was under rotation so they had a little bit of psuedo-gravity to keep them in place.
"Wait here, Eleanor," said Spike, "while I see about our bus."
"Not like there's very far I can go," Pet replied with a small smile. "Even if I knew anywhere to go. I'll be over there, doing the tourist thing."
Spike was back in ten minutes, "Bay 12. Let's go." They grabbed their small cases and headed out. A few minutes walk brought them to an elevator. A short ride, a short walk and another elevator trip brought them to a level where they felt like they had half or more of their usual weight. Spike said, "Almost there." Another couple of minutes walk and they were at Bay 12. The hatch was open and a few stevedores were loading supplies into what looked to Pet like an empty cylinder. Spike asked for Captain Mike and was pointed to a scrawny man lounging nearby. He went over and talked to him for a minute, some credit was exchanged, and Spike returned. "As soon as they're done loading, we can board."
The pair watched for another half an hour, then Captain Mike stood and walked toward the hatch as the stevedores began to vanish from the hallway. "That's us," said Spike. He and Pet climbed down into the cylinder. The cargo had been lashed to almost all the wall space, but Spike found a place to lash their cases.
Captain Mike said, "I've got room for one up front if you want. Otherwise, tie yourself down."
Spike said, "Go ahead, if you want. It's worth seeing at least once."
"Thanks," Pet said "I'd like to watch." She had never done anything even remotely like this before and she hoped she wouldn't embarrass herself by throwing up.
She stepped through the door into the command cabin, which was almost as bare as the cargo hold. Then she saw through the viewport. In front of her was the Earth, she had a moment of vertigo as her mind told her that she must be upside-down and falling, but the beauty of the vision was staggering. Captain Mike smiled. "It hits lots of folks like that, the first time. Strap in, now." He helped her get settled as the Earth rotated from view.
Pet was seldom speechless, but seeing the Earth like that did it to her. She cooperated with Captain Mike as he helped her strap in, but all her attention was on the viewport. Finally she pulled her eyes away, twisted slightly toward him and said "How could anyone doubt the Great Spirit after seeing that?"
Mike jacked in to the simple looking control panel, then spoke, "Decoupling in three, two ... now." There was a faint clank and the psuedo-gravity vanished. Mike muttered to himself, there was a faint shudder and then they were floating again. He jacked out, "Alright, we've got an hour."
Pet continued to look around her, fascinated by what she saw. "Captain," she finally said "this is amazing." She glanced at the stoic man beside her. "You must have been doing this for a long time," she offered, "because it would take some time before a person stopped being awestruck."
"You'd be surprised how fast you get used to it," he said. "And, besides, there's almost always something besides sight-seeing that needs to get done."
"Really?" she replied obviously interested. "If it wouldn't be too intrusive, I'd love to hear what kinds of things need to be done?"
"Well, right now, I've got to go make sure the cargo didn't shift," he said. "Then I'll come back and check to make sure we're still on course. And ... you get the idea. We're trying to make a living up here, not just on vacation."
Pet nodded. "Of course. I don't mean to be in the way. I'll just sit quietly and look out the viewport." And when she smiled at Captain Mike it was a real smile, not one she pulled out to be polite.
The time passed pleasantly enough. Spike joined her after a while and they watched the stars moving slowly across the porthole. At some point, Pet noticed an object that seemed to be getting consistently larger. She pointed it out to Spike who nodded, "That's probably Heinlein station." As it drew closer it becam clear that the station was a very different animal than Azuma-Daiko. It didn't look designed as much as thrown together. It was wildly asymmetric and, Pet realized, didn't seem to be rotating at all.
Pet frowned, then said to Spike, "That has got to be one of the stranger looking "objects" I've seen out here. And it isn't rotating. I'm completely out of my element here, but doesn't that mean it has no gravity?"
"Yeah, that's what it means. Although," said Spike, pointing, "bits of it are rotating." Pet saw one small section rotating slowly. "But there's hardly any psuedogravity anywhere on the station."
Captain Mike joined them. "And at that, it's mostly for visitors. But yeah, it can look it a little odd. It's been built out of leftovers. Most of the structure is empty cargo pods. Some of it is repurposed jettisoned thrusters, it's like a magnet for space debris."
An eyebrow rose over one golden eye. "And people live on... in... that? Surely it must have been possible to build something a little more... a little less..." Pet sputtered to a stop and continued to stare at the structure... complete confusion on her face.
"It's home," said Captain Mike.
Pet was immediately contrite. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I didn't mean to insult your home. It's just... I guess it just isn't what I expected... in space. But so long as it functions, I suppose that's all that matters. Is it all living space?"
"Living space, work space, everything you'd expect. There are advantages to living and working in orbit," said Captain Mike. "That there is the central hub. That's the sort of common space. From that, each bit is more or less privately owned. There're six main branches off the Hub, and they run themselves. A comittee oversees the Hub, with reps from each of those branches. It works pretty well, we haven't had to space anyone in months."
Pet focused on Captain Mike trying to figure out if he was serious or not about spacing people. She decided not to ask, saying instead, "What are the advantages to being up here? Isn't it tough to come back to ground level after awhile?"
"Who wants to go back?" he asked. "As for advantages, microgravity engineering, good commo, freedom from interference. And you get to live up here!"
Pet smiled. "The freedom from interference appeals I have to admit. But not sure I have any skills that would be useful here. But who knows? Maybe I'll retire up here someday."
"Time to strap back in," said the Captain. "We'll be docking soon."
Pet found herself a little sorry the trip was ending, but obediently strapped herself in.
After the groundhogs were secured, Captain Mike deftly moved them to a dock on one of the spars. There was no clanging sound, but they clearly were grabbed by something, which rotated the little vessel and pulled it along for a moment, then there was a clang. Mike was jacked in and after another minute or two, he jacked out, "Green across the board. We can go in." The same hatch they had come in through was opened again and a different crew of stevedores was ready to start off-loading the cargo. Captain Mike stretched. "It's good to be home. Come with me, I'll drop you at Ray's." Travel in free-fall was a novel experience for Pet. There were rungs set into the wall at irregular intervals, and progress was made by pulling one's self along from rung to rung, or in the case of those with 'space-legs', from one rung to one two or three down the line. Progress was slow, and the haphazard collection of salvage made the place feel mazelike. Airlocks were common and they went through half a dozen before Mike stopped in front of yet another and tapped the call button by its side. "Ray, your guests are here," he said.
There was a short pause, then, "Great!" said a different voice and the hatch began to spin.
"See you later," said Mike and floated away.
"Thank you," Pet called after him. Mike waved casually and continued on his way.
The hatch finished opening, and an long and attenuated man strapped into a supportive exo-skeleton appeared in the opening. "Spike, good to see you. Come in, come in." He ushered them into a largish geodesic dome like structure, with equipment strapped to nearly all the supports and the ends of tethers floating eerily in space. "Grab a seat," he said, tethering himself loosely near a wall.
Spike found a tether and tied it off on his belt. "This is Pet. Pet this is Ray."
Pet, a little clumsily, did the same. Then she nodded to Ray. "Pleased to meet you. This is an amazing place. I've never been in space before and I've never seen anything like this anywhere."
Ray chuckled, "And unlikely to see anything like it elsewhere. Now, Spike says there may be biz to do. What are we talking about?"
"Indeed," Pet smiled. "I like a man who gets down to it. I ...eh.. found a datachip. Spike's my tech guy, and I guess you're his. Apparently there is "something" on it. Too much encryption for him to break. We're hoping you might be able to crack it." Pet's smile got bigger. "And I'm hoping you'll do it for a percentage of whatever the information turns out to be worth."
Ray actually laughed. "A percentage? Pet, I'm not even going to look at it for less than five kay."
Pet answered him with a laugh of her own. "I figured. But you can't blame a girl for asking. So look." And she handed over her credstick. "Take half from that and half from the short guy."
He waved it away, "I'll bill you later, there may be more. Why don't you let me see this chip, then."
Pet looked over at Spike. "Guess it's time to find out if this was just a fun trip. Give the nice man the chip."
Spike handed it over and Ray floated over to what looked to Pet like a high-end tweaked out deck of some kind. He slotted the chip, jacked in and, as was typical of those plugged in to this kind of hardware, sort of ... dissappeared. Minutes passsed. Pet looked at Spike, who shrugged. More minutes passed. Then Ray stirred. "Interesting," he said. "Spike, no offense, but I'm not sure you can afford to have me crack this."
"That tough?" said Spike.
"Maybe," replied Ray. "On the other hand ... we might be able to work an exchange of services."
Pet raised an eyebrow, looking interested. "What kind of services?"
"I have an associate and he has recently become incommunicado. This disturbs me. I suspect he's been grabbed by one of the families here on Heinlein, or maybe even by a corp. I'd like someone to go out to his hab and check it out. If I'm right, and he's been snatched, I'll need someone to cut him loose," he said.
Pet raised the other eyebrow, unintentionally looking a bit comical. "But I thought this was... utopia! That stuff goes on up here too?" She shook her head. "What makes you think he was grabbed by someone?"
"I'm not sure ... but, he's gone quiet, very suddenly, and I don't think he'd do that on his own," said Ray.
"Can you give us a rundown on the politics up here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Pet began "first of all tell me everything about this associate of yours. Starting with his name I guess." She began ticking off points on her fingers. " Who is he? Who was he before he moved here? What does he do for a living? What does he do for fun? Who are his friends besides you?" She ran out of fingers. "I have to know him. Then," she continued "I have to know this place." She started with her fingers again. "How it works? Who's in charge? Who likes who? Who hates who? How do your friend and this place intersect and interact." She ran out of fingers again, and grinned. "I need to know everything. Then I can tell you if there's any chance of me finding your friend."
Ray shook his head, "There's no time to tell you everything. Can you tell me about where you live in an hour? Two? Ten? A hundred?" He shook his head, "I'll try to hit the high points. His name is Jake Nguma. He's a freelance ... scientist? Engineer? Somewhere in that area. Before he moved here he was the same, only not so freelance. For the rest ... how should I know? Well, for fun, we sometimes play computer simulation games. Roman wars. Fascinating stuff.
"As for the rest ... it works OK, no one's in charge. Some people hate other people and some like each other. Alright, that's not useful. Let me think for a minute and see if I can summarize. Unless you've got questions right now," he said.
Pet frowned. "I'll wait for the summary. But you have to understand that just telling me you think your friend may have been taken by someone for some reason isn't very useful. How do you know he isn't visiting a friend, or a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or someone down below? I've been here an hour or so. This guy is your friend. I'm assuming you've known him longer than that. You're going to have to tell us who might hate him, or profit by him disappearing. You'll need to tell us what he looks like, and where he lives. As much detail as you can. Or else we'll just be wandering a place we don't know, looking for a person we don't know, likely pissing of people we don't know."
"Heh. What he looks like is easy, you want hardcopy or just a chip? As for where he lives, Captain Mike'll take you, he's got his own little set-up floating around out there. Which is one of the reasons I'm pretty sure he's not just visiting someone. He's got no way off his platform without help. Also, we're good enough friends that I think he'd tell me if he was going off-line for a while. The rest I can work up for you, but it might help to know what you find out at his place."
Pet grimaced in Spike's general direction, but she responded "No holes in my head, so hard copy for the description. And unless Spike needs something else, how do we get in touch with Captain Mike to arrange a ride?"
"If you're in, I'll let Mike know," he said. A printer buzzed behind him and spat out a pair of pictures of a striking, middle-aged black man. "That's Jake."
Pet nodded, taking the pictures and studying them. "I'd say we're in. Spike?"
"Alright - as much because I owe you a favour as anything," he said to Ray.
"Good. You've got a couple hours at least to crash, but I'll schedule a launch window with Mike."
"Great," Pet said. "A nap would be good. Anyplace we can get a bite as well?"
Ray gave them directions to a place where they could get some food and showed them the guest straps.
"Hmmm..." Pet said looking at the straps a bit skeptically. "Up for some food Spike?"
"Sure." They headed back out of Ray's quarters and followed his directions down and around, making slow progress in the free-fall conditions. Finally, though, they found the cafe and ordered some food - all processed algae in this case.
"Oh yummm" Pet said. "As interesting as it is in some ways, I don't think I could live up here. Processed algae? I don't think any amount of spices could make this taste like anything I would want to eat all the time. And it doesn't make a decent tea. I wonder if I can take some of this Algae Tea back for SC?"
She drank a bit more of the tea, then said, "I have a bad feeling about this little venture for our friend. I hate going into anything blind. And here we're not going to know much more than the guy's name and how he looks. Plus all my friendly steel and explosive helpers aren't with me. Nope. I do not like this at all."
"Ray can probably fix that, to some extent," said Spike.
"Oh, of course he can! What was I thinking," she replied, looking a bit happier. "I'll talk to him about it after our nap."
She drank some more tea and looked at Spike. "Anyway you can dig up any info? I mean if our friend gave you a chip or something? Maybe even... I don't know a virtual newspaper?"
"Depends, I can try," he replied.
"Please do," Pet responded. She looked at the plate full of algae and continued, "I wonder if the cook here has ever heard of hot peppers? It would have to help! At the very least if they were hot enough and you used enough of them, they'd burn the heck out of your taste buds and you wouldn't be able to taste this!"
They finished their meal and returned to Ray's hab. Spike borrowed a terminal and jacked in to see what was up on the net and Pet strapped in for some shut-eye.
Just before she fell asleep, Pet said to Ray, "If there's any way you could get me some weapons, it would be appreciated. Spike thinks. I make things less mobile. Guns or knives or swords... whatever." And she yawned and closed her eyes.
When she opened them, it was to see Spike floating a few feet away and snoring gently. Ray was jacked in on the far side of the hab, doing whatever it was that people did when jacked in.
"Well if this isn't the most fun I've had lately," Pet thought with a small smile as she stretched herself fully awake. She looked around for the facilities in some confusion.
Ray noticed her as soon as she started to move, and, in fact, had to explain to her where the facilities were and how to use them. When she came out of the small chamber, he floated a bag gently over to her. "As requested ..." he said.
She opened it and found two pistols and two decent-sized knives. The guns were Ares Sliverguns, firing only flechette, which as Pet considered it, made sense in space where punching a hole in a wall was bad for everyone.
She smiled at Ray as she examined the weapons. "Thank you!" She checked the guns to find out how many shots she had and the balance on the knives. The Slivergun had a clip of thirty and was in a shoulder holster rig. The knives were balances for fighting not throwing. "Not bad at all. I suppose it's illegal to carry weapons up here?" she asked.
"Illegal is a fuzzy term. It's not a good idea to go out and about with serious firepower visible. Those Sliverguns count as serious. Knife on the belt ... eh." He shrugged.
"You have no idea how much better I feel!" she said as she tried to figure out where to put the knives without the belt holders she was used to. "I wonder if Spike found out anything useful?"
"Nope," said Spike from his strap. "Interesting, sure. This place is always interesting, but nothing germane." He floated toward the head.
"Crumb!" she replied to the air. "Well..." she continued to Ray, "when will Capt Mike be taking us to your friend's place?"
"About an hour and a half," said Ray.
"OK" She looked back at Ray. "If there aren't any other tidbits of information you have to share that will help keep us alive up here, I guess I'll try to get used to using these knives in this atmosphere while I wait."
"And Ray, do you think we could get a map or maps if need be? It helps to know where you are," she said with a smile.
"Maps?" he asked with a confused look. "Of what?"
With an equally confused look, Pet replied "Well, of here. Of this place. And of the place where your friend lives. Is that a strange request? Are there no maps in space?"
A light dawned in Ray's face, "Oh. I think I was unclear. You don't need a map of Jake's place. All there is, is Jake's place. It's just a couple of cannisters hooked together in orbit. Heinlein Station is a bit more complex, but not much. I guess I could bang something out for you on that front."
"Thanks," Pet responded then turned away to work with the knives. "I am beginning to feel a little like I'm on the darned ocean again," she thought to herself. "Things are moving that shouldn't move, and there's no way off. I sure hope this turns out to be worth it!"
Pet sat quietly during the flight, re-running what she was certain was inadequate information through her mind. Finally she just leaned back and decided to stop worrying. "Whatever will happen will happen. We'll deal or we won't."
"That's it," said Mike, breaking her reverie. "That doesn't look good."
Pet jerked awake out of a semi-nap. "What... ," she said, looking around and trying to orient herself. "What doesn't look good?"
"Come and see," he said. Spike and Pet came forward to look through the front viewport. It took a moment for them to figure out what they were looking at, then it clicked into place. Jake Nguma's place was little more than a cargo cannister in a parking orbit. Unlike the other places they'd been in LEO, this was just an isolated box in free-fall. More accurately, it was a box with a couple of smaller boxes strapped to it, and a big solar film array deployed.
Once they figured that out, they saw what didn't look good. One end of the cylinder was blown open.
"I don't think anyone is living in there" Pet said with a grimace, "in any sense of the word. Have you seen anything that looks like that before Captain?"
"Yeah, sorta," he said. "If something punches a hole, the explosive decompression will give you that sort of thing. It's why we don't like guns."
"So someone might have been over there with a gun,"she said. "Great."
"Other things do it, too," he said. "Anything that might punch a hole. Meteorite. Space junk."
She continued staring at the place for a couple of moments before saying to Captain Mike. "Do you have any suits or whatever... so we could go over there and have a look around?"
"Yeah, I do." He went back and opened a storage locker. "I don't usually carry a dwarf-sized one, but Ray said it might come in handy." He handed a suit back to Spike and another to Pet before pulling out a third for himself. He showed them how to suit up and which indicators on the HUD were the most important. Then he sealed himself in. The three sat, connected by hoses to the shuttle while he depressurized the interior. Then Mike told them to disconnect the air hose and go over to individual supplies. As they did so, he opened the hatch. "Your cable clip goes here," he pointed. "Once you're over there, you can clip onto something else if need be. Don't ever go without a clip. If you get loose, I don't know if we can get you back before bad things happen."
"And I thought I felt out of control on the ocean!" Pet thought to herself, but she only nodded at Captain Mike, attached her clip and started moving out the hatch.
Spike followed. They floated across to the gaping hole in the hab and looked in. At first glance, it looked like everything not tied down had been sucked into space when the hab blew. Now, things floated gently on their tethers against their walls.
Pet looked around carefully, trying to see if she could figure out what had caused the hole or if there appeared to still be anything dangerous in what was left of the hab.
The hole was quite large, easily large enough for them to enter through, and seemed to have peeled back in four pieces or panels. Examining the ends, Pet decided that it looked like something "X" shaped had punched through.
Pet couldn't think of anything that would make a hole shaped like that so she asked Spike and the Captain if they had any ideas. "I don't think it was a meteorite or anything in nature though," she said.
"A meteorite would come in from outside, so there should be some intial warping in, kind of a double curve. See anything like that?" asked Mike.
"No. This is definitely more of an X shape." Pet responded. "Let's go inside and see what else we can see there."
Pet and Spike slipped through the gaping hole into the fab. It was configured in the way that they had already begun to accept as standard for zero-g habs: an empty space in the middle with equipment and "furniture" strapped to the walls in every direction. It was still disorienting to realize that "up" and "down" had no real meaning here. There was a small toilet off in a separate chamber on one side, and nearly oppisite it was a galley, the rest was given over to computer equipment and various bits of scientific hardware. A birdcage floated incongrously in a corner, and a set of empty cages for rats or mice were near it.
"Too bad about the animals," Pet commented, starting to look through the objects on the walls. "Spike, think you can find out anything from the computers?"
The bird in the cage stared at her with glassy eyes, frozen against the bars, as she began a more thorough examination. Spike floated over to some of the computers, "Doesn't look good. They look pretty trashed."
"Trashed how?" asked Mike.
"To start with, all the peripherals are gone, sucked through the hole, I guess," answered Spike.
"But is the computer's "brain" still there? Could we take that along and replace the peripherals?" Pet asked, still looking around.
"Sure, we can take along what's left, but external storage is gone. Anything internal is still there. It does look like there's some empty space, though, so I wonder if some whole decks went out the hole, too", said Spike.
"I don't suppose we'll find much if the external storage is gone, still might as well try I guess." Pet said a little sadly. "See anything else that looks like it might be useful?" Pet continued sorting through the junk tethered to the walls.
Spike grunted and continued to poke at the equipment.
As Pet looked around she tried to figure out what should be there that wasn't. Finally she asked Captain Mike "You live up here. Anything you notice that should be here that isn't?"
"I can't see what you see, I'm afraid," he said. "Just talk it out as you go."
Pet shrugged and examined the storage panel built into the walls. One was full of parts for scientific or engineering apparatus, the sort of thing that engineers just seemed to naturally accumulate. One was empty.
When she finished with the panels, she searched the toilet chamber and the kitchenette. She found nothing that struck her as odd in either place.
Finally, just in the way of not missing anything, she went through the jumpsuits in the wardrobe and the spacesuit and its cupboard. The jumpsuits were fairly standard issue as far as she could tell through her suit. The space suit itself was stil on its rack.
"The space suit is on the rack?" asked Mike.
"Yes," Pet replied. "I suppose that means that either he wasn't here when all this happened, or else he blew out the hole with all his things. Not sure what other options there might be," she finished.
"I don't know where else he'd be," said Mike, "he's got no shuttle. Something isn't adding up."
Clearly frustrated and sure she was missing something, Pet realized they hadn't opened the airlock. "Mike, can we open that airlock?"
"Sure, should be a button right by the door. I guess we don't need to worry about equalizing atmospheres. If the button doesn't do it, you can do it manually with the wheel in the door itself."
Pet punched the button, and when it didn't have any effect, applied herself to the wheel, which did work. The airlock was another bare and frustrating room. She noticed that when she started, the outer door had been the open one.
"What the heck," she thought. "I'm going to check outside," she said to the folks inside. After checking her tether to make sure it was still secure, she opened the outer door and moved slowly out.
The view down to the planet below was beautiful, but Pet concentrated on looking for anything unusual around the airlock. After a throrough examination she returned to the hab having seen nothing that struck her as odd.
Spike greeted her, "The more I look, the more I agree with Mike. Something looks fishy here. All the computer gear is gone, but sometimes stuff right next to it is still here."
"Well we all agree on the weird... Pretty out there, but nothing useful," Pet responded. She looked around again. "Guess all that's left are these access panels in the walls." She sighed a bit and moved toward one.
Spike followed her lead and the two began to check the access panels. As Pet opened the second one, something moved and she jumped back, startled. An exercise ball for rodents rolled out of the duct. Clearly it was sealed against air loss, and just as clearly it had its own air supply, since the rat inside was still alive and looking at her queruously.
Pet stared grumpily back at the rat. "Seriously? All this searching and we find a rat?" She grabbed the ball so it wouldn't float away, then looked back to see if there was anything else in the duct.
Pet examined any other ducts they hadn't already looked in, really hoping she wouldn't find any more cranky rodents.
Finally she examined the rat's cage to see if there might be a magic treasure map or note explaining everything hidden in it. She wasn't really terribly hopeful about that one.
She was reassured when none of her hopes were answered. The rat looked at her and spun its ball casually in freefall. Spike looked at it with an odd expression on his face.
"Spike," Pet inquired nodding at the rat, "you got something to say about our friend here?"
"What was he doing in the wall?" asked the dwarf.
"I wish I knew that," Pet said. "You figure there would have to be some reason. But I didn't see anything in the wall or in his cage. And as far as I can tell, he doesn't talk."
"Well, someone put him in there, right?"
"Likely. And I"m assuming it was the guy who lived here as I can't imagine it was the person who blew the hole in the wall. But unless the guy was as small as his friend here, or we're missing some really obvious place to search, I don't see how finding this rodent helps us find his owner. Unless he really can talk." And Pet stared for a couple of moments at the rat again, before shaking her head, and looking around the hab again.
"But why was he in the wall?" asked Spike. "I mean, you don't just keep a rat in a self-contained environment in the wall for no reason. Or do you?" He shook his head.
"I have no idea," Pet said. "But, if you assume he could keep the rat alive, maybe he could keep himself alive as well. And if you assume he had no way off here, then maybe he's here. Somewhere. But we looked everywhere. Didn't we?"
Spike looked around. "Yeah, I think we did."
"Anything like a message?" said Mike.
"Not that I can see," said Spike. "Pet, anything?"
Looking around again, she said "No. Why don't we take the stuff you found... and the rat... and get out of here."
"Fair enough," said Mike.
Pet and Spike made their way carefully back to the shuttle and Mike helped them stow their haul. Mike shook his head, "It just doesn't add up. Maybe Ray will have an idea."
"Let's hope so," Pet responded.
The return trip passed in silence, as each of the three wrestlec with their own thoughts. They docked and hauled their cargo back to where Ray waited. He listened carefully as they made their report. "I'm not buying the 'accidental explosive decompression' theory," he said. "It's too pat. All the computer gear gone? No evidence that he tried to get to his spacesuit? Besides, decompression sets off alarms locally and broadcast. It stinks."
"I feel that we've missed something," Pet said looking unhappy. "But I have to be honest, I'm just not sure what it could be. I'm used to going into a place, searching it thoroughly, and *finding something*. We looked inside, outside and inside everything we could look inside of. And all we found were some bits of electronics and this rat." Pet shrugged. "Unless you can see some sort of message in the rat cage here," she sighed, "I'm just not sure what else to do."
"Let's think about this," said Ray. "You found the rat cage in the wall. Was there anyway it could have gotten in there by accident?"
Pet looked at Ray, and snorted. "No. There isn't." She shrugged and continued, "but we searched and didn't find anything else inside the walls."
"So," said Ray, looking at the rat, "if it wasn't something else in the wall, it must be the rat. Let's think this through ... we all think the explosive decompression looks like a set up, right?"
"Yes," Pet replied, looking at the rat. "It was obviously some sort of set. Are you thinking we need to dissect him... her... it?"
"Wait," said Spike, "what was his speciality again?"
"Didn't I say?" asked Ray. "Nanotech."
"Nanotech," said Spike. "I didn't see any nano-factories. Another thing missing from the hab."
"So Jake's out there and something's coming toward him," said Ray, "a shuttle or something."
"He maybe isn't sure he can get away, or he can, but he knows he needs to leave a message. So he puts it in or on the rat and shoves the cage in the wall?" Pet stopped and looked at Ray and Spike. "Sorry guys, I'm a guns and knives sort of gal. How do you 'read' a nanotech message?"
"Makes sense, the message part, I mean. Where's the rat?" asked Ray. After they handed it to him, he continued, "First, we can just look it over very carefully. Even better, I've got a scanner here." A few moments later, they had the poor rat in position for a thorough scanning and photographing. Shortly after that, pictures started to pop up on the largest monitor.
Pet looked at the monitor over Ray's shoulder. "So what are we seeing here?" she asked.
"Highly magnified pictures of a rat," said Ray. "We can start here, looking for anything that's not normal, and if we don't find something ... try something else."
"Well, I'll just stay out of your way until we get to the 'dissect option,'" Pet responded. "I'm no help with this part."
"Stay," said Ray, "the more eyes here, the better."
"OK," Pet responded somewhat dubiously, and continued to watch the monitor.
Pictures flashed by, slowly and in a silence broken only by the occasional mutter of, "what was that? Oh, nothing ..." until Pet thought she saw something odd in the rat's eyes.
"What was that?" Pet said. "In its eyes..."
"Where?" Ray scanned back and following Pet's directions, zoomed in. Slowly an image took shape, apparently in the rat's eye. "Clever," said Ray, "the nanites have broken the blood vessels in the back of the critter's eye. Damn!" He froze the picture. There was an image of a stylized bug made up of interlocking letters T and N. "Terra Nanita," said Ray. "Those bastards."
"No doubt their mothers never even knew their fathers!" Pet responded a bit crossly. "But besides that who or what is Terra Nanita and why is it in the back of the rat's eye?"
"Terra Nanita is a group of nanite engineers. Jake didn't want to work with them. Now it looks like they've grabbed him," said Ray.
"OK," Pet responded. "Can you tell me something more about these guys? Like... oh... what is a nanite engineer? Do they have offices, hang out in a specific bar? Live up here or down on earth? Is there a lot of money involved here somehow? I can't imagine grabbing someone unless there is."
"Alright," said Ray, exchanging a long-suffering look with Spike. "Nanites are tiny little machines that can live in your body and ... do stuff. Nanite engineers design and build them. Some have offices, some hang out in bars."
"Some live in orbital habs by themselves," added Captain Mike.
"A lot of the work is done in LEO, since the low gravity makes it easier to work with microscopic machines. Some work groundside, of course. And, yes, there can be a lot of money involved."
"You might have seen the nanotats around?" said Spike. "Those run around 5 kayyen. For a freakin' tatoo!"
"And, of course, because they're small and self-replicating they're cheap to get into orbit ..." added Ray.
Pet thought about all this for a bit. She'd seen the tats and thought they were interesting if over-priced for what you got, but then she pretty much felt that way about all tattoos. She had scars of course, but she didn't see any reason to pay someone a lot of money to get herself prettier scars - even if they changed over time.
"First of all The Rat... do you think there is any other information in him or on him?" she said after a few minutes. "And second I take it Jake was one of these engineers, and a pretty good one? I don't suppose you have any idea what he was working on? Or parallel track, what these Terra Nanita folks are working on?"
"Point one," said Ray, "probably not - and I'm not sure how to get it out if there is. Jake would only have had a few minutes to inject Ratty there with a payload. Which, actually raises the question of why he'd have a bunch of eye-modifying nanites sitting around. So that might answer your second question."
Pet nodded. "OK and the 3rd & 4th?"
"Umm, what were three and four?" asked Ray.
Pet sighed and responded, "Three. Do you have any idea what he was working on? Four. Or what these Terra Nanita folks are working on?"
"Ah, he might have been working on eye modifying nanites. And as for Terra Nanita ... no idea," said Ray. "Although, if they grabbed Jake ..."
"Is there an end to that sentence?" Pet asked. "Because unless it is 'they may be working on eye modifying nanites too." my ability to read minds is failing me."
Ray smiled and shrugged.
She added "I don't suppose you know where we could find any of these Terra Nanita guys?"
"They're out on another arm of the station," said Ray. "Which is several different problems all at once."
Pet grimaced and sighed before saying, "And you would perhaps be willing to share what those problems might be?"
"Well," he ticked them off on his fingers, "How to get there. What to do when there. How to get back. I think that covers it."
"Ah," Pet said, "those types of problems," feeling she'd finally found something that made some sense to her.
She thought for a moment then said, "I've only been a couple of places up here. Your place and your friend's. Do you know what TN's place is like? One of those handy dandy maps of yours maybe? Do they live there, work there or both? Or any idea about how many folks might be there at any given time?"
"Look," said Ray, "Those are the problems. But they aren't your problems. These aren't groundsider problems, it's different up here. We're all literally in the same boat. It's hard to sneak around when the whole place is made up of steel tubes. There's usually only one way to get from place to place. And we all depend on each other to survive - to keep our vacuum seals working. There's a sort of truce here ... dammit."
Pet actually just stared at Ray for several long seconds. Then she said "You asked for our help. You know who - what - we are. What did you expect from us? Have we done enough by confirming your friend is gone and bringing back the damned rat? I - we," she continued looking over at Spike, "are willing to do what we can, but at this point I think you're going to have to tell us what you want - what you think we can or should do."
"I said it wasn't your problem. You did what I asked, I'll do what I said I'd do," said Ray. "You can head back groundside whenever you want and I'll let you know when and if I find something."
"Well... OK then," Pet said. She looked over at Spike, "I wouldn't mind getting back to someplace where the beds are horizontal. Anything else you want to do here?"
"You go on back, I think I'll stick around for a while," said Spike.
Pet looked a bit surprised, but she nodded and said "There do seem to be a lot of interesting things going on... if you're the type who uses their head instead of their reflexes." She smiled at him.
She turned to Captain Mike. "Can I get a ride from you?"
"Sure, I'm heading back to the big station day after tomorrow, that work for you?"
"Don't forget to make a reservation on the shuttle back down," said Spike.
"Great," she said with a smile. "And thanks for the reminder Spike. Ummm... Ray, anything I can do til then to stay out of your way?"
Ray shrugged, "You're not too much in the way. The hab across the way has a terminal you can use for vids and to make your reservation.
Spike went with Pet to the hab and made a reservation with her. "Might as well let people think I'm heading down with you, eh?"
"'Cause you're my protection?" she asked with a little grin.
"Heh, yeah, that's it."
The next day passed without much happening to interest Pet. She said goodbye to Spike and Cap'n Mike ran her back over to Azuma-Daiko. He shook her hand as they parted and she headed to the commercial shuttle terminal.
The return to Earth was much less exciting than the trip up had been. The acceleration was less than one gee, since they wanted to go down. From there it was back home, albeit with a faintly dissatisfied feeling.
Pet had felt restless and a little edgy all the way home. She was aware it stemmed mostly from the fact she hadn't resolved the 'rat case' and the fact that she still didn't know what information might eventually show up from her moon jaunt.
At least her kittens were ridiculously happy to see her when she arrived home. And she would be able to work off some of her edginess by working out hard and doing some target practice.
She found she was really looking forward to getting back into her routine. "I wonder if Madam Meegai has missed my cooking."