In 2065, after ten years as a shuttle pilot for the Bifrost asteroid mining complex, I took it upon myself to settle my affairs off-planet, return to Earth, and resign myself to look upon the stars from afar. This was a common migration, as miners and crew often found themselves with the same vague yearning for a planet many of us had not seen in decades. We none of us acknowledged that we were embarked on a migration, but all gave different reasons on official documents for our decision to pack it in. Yet humans are as instinctual as any animal; no doubt if you ask the wildebeests, you’d get a different answer from each one too.
My voyage from the Bifrost mining complex to Earth took eight months, my ship the venerable United Nations Hohmann, an ancient, chemical-propelled workhorse whose frame was laid in the early 21st century. The Hohmann carried supplies on the Earth-Mars-Bifrost run. It was a small, cramped ship, the bridge barely larger than the cockpit of my shuttle, and it had been retrofitted with two modules attached like train cars, and a big turning centrifuge of a caboose for crew and passengers to experience up and down, put on muscle, and salvage bone.
The first inkling that my voyage might not be as smooth as hoped came when I stowed my duffle next to my assigned sleep pouch and found myself next to the two asteroid miners, Carter and Rose. We carefully did not acknowledge one another, but my heart sank. What other surprises were there going to be?
I was soon to find out, and my misgivings grew when I met everyone at dinner our first night out.
Besides myself and the brothers, the Hohmann carried three other passengers: Elton Haley, a talkative fellow with blond, receding hair and a portly figure, who never answered a straight question about what he was doing on the Earth-Mars-Bifrost run; Agnes St. Germaine, a first-generation Mars colonist; and Mrs. Paavo, a veteran of the Mars conflict of 2047.
I disliked Haley from the start. “Ah, Meredith Hawkes, the shuttle pilot. I’ve heard about you,” was the first thing he said to me.
“All good, I hope,” I replied lightly, and set down my cup. Yes, set down, for the Hohmann‘s skipper, Captain Ngotu, was old-fashioned and requested passengers dine with him at a common table in the centrifuge chamber. Thankfully, the captain relaxed the rule that we dress for dinner, so we were all in some variation of ultra-lightweight T-shirt and trousers. Mr. Haley’s had a legend advertising a barbecue restaurant.
“Yes, now what was it? There was something that rang a bell. No matter it will come to me. I have eight months after all. Ah, the brother miners! Which are you two–Dopey and Grumpy?”
At his jocular tone, Carter and Rose looked over sourly from their end of the table, and then back down at their dinners, forks clenched in their fists. Haley had better watch out, I thought. The brothers might be height-deficient, but they were more like trolls than dwarfs, and just as thuggish.
“What about you, Mr. Haley? Why are you leaving Mars?” I said, going on the offensive.
“Oh, I’m not from Mars,” he said cheerfully.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. A tourist from Earth? The Hohmann was a slow, chemical-fueled supply ship, and lacked all but the most basic amenities for space travelers. The only reason I booked a ticket was because there were no passenger ships on the schedule, and I found it expedient to leave as soon as possible. I had resigned myself to an eight-month journey that on a newer ship would have taken four. As for the Martians, why had they chosen to book passage on a ship that was going an extra four months out of their way?
Mr. Haley turned to Miss St. Germaine. “Now Miss St. Germaine, are you remembering to keep up with your bone supplements? I see you aren’t eating again, as usual. Our Bifrost friends will think you don’t care about your health.”
Miss St. Germaine murmured something, and at his jocular tone, made an effort to move her dinner around her plate. Like all first and second-generation Martians, she looked as if she were twelve years old, with a delicate bone structure and petite form. Her diffident manner emphasized her childlike appearance. Her ancestry was like mine — African and American — but her skin had the artificial pallor of genetic enhancement. She would need as much Vitamin D as her body could manufacture, even with the implants all spacefarers had that released a steady supply of vitamins and hormones. Her curly hair was wrapped in a colorful scarf, a startling print against the industrial background of the ship, and at odds with her shy personality. Unaccountably, I felt nostalgia. I had shaved my head for the last ten years out of expediency and simplicity. On Earth, I could grow out my hair.
Mr. Haley leaned toward me as if in confidence, lowering his voice but without any effort to hide his words. “Miss St. Germaine and I have become great friends. She’s off on a wonderful adventure, back to the ancestral planet. Trading Red for Blue, eh Miss St. Germaine?” He winked at her.
The other woman, Mrs. Paavo, was an elderly white woman who had a no-nonsense manner and the erect bearing of a general. Her eyes were piercing blue, and I soon learned she had the habit of snorting indelicately whenever someone said anything she found absurd.
She snorted now at Haley’s impertinence with Miss St. Germaine. “I must say, Mr. Haley, I have no patience for personal remarks and undue familiarity,” she said.
“No doubt, no doubt, Mrs. Paavo,” he said, with the same smirk. “But we have only each other for amusement, and I am resolved that we will become great friends before this voyage is over.”
Ignoring the disgruntled looks of his fellow passengers, he raised his glass high. “Here’s to the Hohmann and Captain Ngotu. May our journey be uneventful and fruitful. Captain, what an honor it must be to skipper the Hohmann. Did you know she was one of the first to establish supply lines between Mars and the Bifrost stations? Amazing, how these old birds just keep going. She’s fifty years old at least.”
“She’ll last another one hundred and fifty,” Ngotu said, with simple pride. “These ships don’t take off or land. They’ll last forever.”
“Sentimentality is all and well good, Captain, but quite frankly, I’m appalled that the only ship available is this ancient wreck,” Mrs. Paavo said. From the way Miss Saint Germaine rolled her eyes, I gathered it was an old complaint, and one she had heard plenty in the preceding months. “And the price for tickets is extortion, plain and simple, considering that we’ve added four months onto our journey.” She glared at our Captain as if she expected a refund right at the table.
“The government sets the ticket price, Mrs. Paavo,” he said with admirable diplomacy. “As for the length of our journey, the Hohmann is a supply ship, not a passenger liner. We keep to our schedule and our route, and take on passengers only when there’s room.”
“Now, now, Mrs. Paavo,” Mr. Haley said. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on the Captain’s. You could have booked the express if the local were too slow.”
Mrs. Paavo’s old eyes narrowed. I wondered how much capacity for violence existed in that birdlike frame — certainly the spirit was willing.
“There were no tickets to be had.” Miss St. Germaine spoke up. “It was an inconvenience for all of us.”
“Well, there you go,” Haley said. He gave Miss St. Germaine a smile. “You see, Mrs. Paavo? Rather than blaming the good Captain, you should be thanking him. The Hohmann was the only ship available.”
There was little any of us could say to that.
We grew used to the routine on the ship. Captain Ngotu ran a tight ship; everyone knew their position, and we all worked hard not to breach the artificial cordiality that was the mainstay of a long space voyage. All of us, that is, except for Elton Haley.
The man was an insensitive boor. Besides flirting with me, he adopted a fatherly approach with Miss St. Germaine and an overly solicitous one with Mrs. Paavo. With the former he joshed her unceasingly regarding the virile Earth men she needed to beware of, pushed her to pair off with one or both of the brothers or various crewmembers, and advised her of many pitfalls of life on Earth. With the latter, he could not lay eyes upon her without asking about her health and if she had grandchildren or great-grandchildren to care for her, and enquiring at every interval if she was taking her bone medications.
With Carter and Rose, he was simply patronizing, assuming they were simple, ignorant miners. I did not bother to disabuse him of that notion.
I tried to stay out of Mr. Haley’s way except at meal times. However, the voyage was long and the ship small, and so it was that when I was enjoying a bit of peace and quiet on the observation deck, he found me. The hatch opened and to my vast annoyance, Haley pulled himself inside. I had my feet hooked around a foothold, and pointedly turned away from him. He did not take the hint.
“Ah, Captain Hawkes,” he said, holding on next to me. “I was hoping to find you here. Do you know, I remember why your name sounded familiar.”
I supposed I could just go to my bunk, but all the passengers had were narrow sleep cubicles, and we hung there like bound-up spider victims. And blast it, the observation deck was the only place I could be alone, and I was there first.
“The feeds were full of the story,” he announced, making himself comfortable. “The asteroid mining disaster that killed five. You were the shuttle pilot on that job, and according to the breathless reporters, if it weren’t for your exemplary skills, the death toll would have been far higher.”
I said nothing, willing him to close his mouth and knowing that he would not. Yes, the accident and investigation were public knowledge and part of the corporation’s filings, but what ordinary person would look them up?
Haley just wouldn’t stop. “You know, I just wasn’t clear on one thing, Captain. Why were you hauling that particular asteroid in the first place?”
I pushed off, heart hammering as if I were in the centrifuge. As I irised out of the hatch, I heard him laughing behind me.
I didn’t calm down until I was in the centrifuge, pedaling furiously on an exercise machine, and thought about how I wanted to murder the man.
After that, I avoided the observation deck except for the Mars approach. Normally, the view is a cause for great celebration — sighting Mars is a sign that the next maneuver is on deck, when the Hohmann slingshots around the planet to gather speed for its final approach to Earth and then turns around and begins deceleration. As a result of the tension on the ship — no one looking at Haley as he beamed and prattled — the oohs and aaahs were lukewarm rather than enthusiastic. I noticed Miss St. Germaine looking more pensive than usual and thought how homesick she must be. She gave off such an air of childlike frailty that my ordinarily hard and cynical heart grew quite maternal toward her. We often ended up side-by-side on the weight machines, and she unbent toward me, her diffidence charming. She asked shy questions about what it was like to be a shuttle pilot, and I couldn’t resist exaggerating my exploits.
“Oh my,” she breathed, wide-eyed. “It sounds exciting. May I ask why you’re leaving it all behind?”
Mindful of Haley’s nosiness, I decided I had said too much. “Oh,” I said, “It was time to retire, see the old homestead, feel 1G again. That sort of thing. And what about you, Miss St. Germaine?”
She stopped her frantic pumping, resting her arms on the handlebars of the weights. “My parents came to Mars twenty-five years ago,” she said. “So did I, as an embryo put in a deep freeze and protected from radiation during the entire voyage out. They waited ten years to have me, and by then they were…old. When it became clear I had little aptitude for the life of a colonist, my parents decided to send me to Earth. So they could start over, with a new child. Another chance for their genetic legacy, despite the cost.”
“I–Miss St. Germaine –” I faltered to a stop. I knew that things were hard on Mars, but to so coldly discard one’s child–was it possible?
Her voice was hard now, though her eyes were wet with tears. “It’s quite all right. I’ve reconciled myself to it. Do you know what Mr. Haley said?”
“I can imagine,” I said dryly.
“He told me that I should be grateful my parents didn’t leave me out on the Meridiani Planum to die as some Martians do. That they had probably bankrupted themselves to send me home.”
“Mr. Haley is not to be listened to,” I said. “He likes to get under people’s skin.”
“I know,” she said, and now there was a catch in her voice. “I just wish he didn’t hit so near the mark.”
The Mars maneuver was a success and we were on our last leg of the voyage. Dinner was especially celebratory, enhanced by Mr. Haley’s absence from the table. No one cared to ask where he was. We were lively and talkative, and at the end of the dinner, Captain Ngotu came around and poured us each a tiny serving of coffee in real cups.
“We are six months away from Home,” he announced, to a scattering of applause. “We are on the downhill side of our journey, and so tonight is a special celebration.” He tucked his head into his collar and spoke briefly into the mic attached to his uniform. The lights dimmed, creating a candlelight effect with small electric tea lights on the tables. Everyone oohed. Captain Ngotu raised his small white coffee cup in a toast and we followed suit.
“To Home,” he said and we chorused, “To Home.” Even Miss St. Germaine echoed his toast, her eyes bright.
We lingered over dinner. Carter and Rose produced a flask of homemade vodka, and we all indulged. At last when I was forced to go to the head, I was quite tipsy when I bumped into Mr. Haley drifting in the passageway between compartments.
“Excu–” I started, unable to hide my irritation. The last thing I needed was him poking his nose into my business. I could have skin like a heat shield and he would still know how to get under it.
Then I realized that Mr. Haley would be getting under no one else’s skin anymore. He drifted sideways in relation to the corridor, not oriented horizontally as we all did, and an expanding spray of round drops of blood scattered around him. His eyes stared blankly at the bulkhead.
I pushed myself forward and slapped at the emergency call button on the wall. The shriek of the siren blared. I grabbed onto Mr. Haley and anchored myself against the grab bars. I could hear hatches opening and voices raised in concern. With Mr. Haley captured against my side, and droplets of blood coalescing around me, I felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing.
The ship’s doctor pushed herself through the corridor from sickbay, expertly gathering momentum by thrusting herself off of each grab bar. With quick efficiency she readied a shot and jabbed him into his heart. He jerked, but sank back again. “Help me get him to my clinic,” she said, and she and I and Mrs. Paavo pushed the man through the corridor after her. All the while she was barking comments into her mic, recording blood droplets, rate of coagulation, body temperature. I couldn’t help but wonder if she could save him, and if so, if he could identify his attacker.
I don’t deny I was in shock. It was one thing to idly contemplate the murder of a nemesis. It was entirely another to face it in reality. Haley was dead. We all hated him; but which of us had taken matters into their own hands to do him in?
After a period holed up exchanging transmissions with both Earth and Mars, Captain Ngotu gathered us all in the lounge a few hours after Mr. Haley was found and briefed us with terse sentences. The comms officer had notified criminal investigators on both planets; and the authorities would be questioning all of us via radio and again when we made planetfall. The Hohmann herself didn’t land — we would be shuttled to Earth to the Salto di Quirra base in Sardinia.
“Please be useful and open with the authorities,” he told us sternly. “Tell them everything you know.” He glanced at me when he said that and I stared impassively back.
“As for that, Captain, perhaps you could be useful and open with us,” Mrs. Paavo said, the steel in her voice and demeanor as always. She had seen more death than any of us, and her manner was of one who was irked by the inexperience of everyone around her. “Have you found a murder weapon? Do you know how Mr. Haley died? Have you accounted for the whereabouts of everyone on board this ship, and most importantly, are you taking measures to prevent another murder?”
“Mrs. Paavo, calm, please,” Captain Ngotu begged. “It has only been a few hours. We can’t discuss everything we’ve found out, surely you understand that?”
“It’s hardly unreasonable to ask what you are doing to ensure the safety of your remaining passengers,” Mrs. Paavo said. Her jaw jutted out. “We are six months out and we are traveling with a murderer.”
“Yes, Madam,” Captain Ngotu snapped. He took a deep breath, clearly reaching for calm. “And just like everyone else aboard my ship, you’re a suspect.”
Mrs. Paavo reared back in outrage. “What utter nonsense,” she said. “Utter nonsense.”
“Is it?” The Captain looked around at all of us. “Mr. Haley irritated everyone on this ship. We all had good reason to — well, there’s no good reason for murder, but good reason to dislike him. And until I get further orders from Earth, I don’t intend to release any information about the murder that could compromise this case.”
Mrs. Paavo made some well-chosen remarks about the Captain’s professionalism, but he ignored her, taking another calming breath before floating off to the bridge and further communications from Earth.
In death as in life, Mr. Haley was the topic of all of our whispered conversations, in the passageways, the centrifuge, the observation deck. Even in our sleep pouches with the lights dimmed to meet an ancient circadian rhythm, the whispers went on and on. More than ever I wished the voyage to be over and cursed myself for booking passage on an antique ship. Why hadn’t I just waited for a ship with an ion drive?
We were all unsettled, even the crew. The first officer and the navigator, who had been conducting a brisk affair in the medical bay, now avoided their usual trysting place, since the body was stored there. The enterprising brothers Carter and Rose, who had a significant sideline in narcotics, now did a brisk business in sedatives, since no one was sleeping very well. Captain Ngotu, whose wrist implant dispensed blood pressure medication, took to tapping it almost compulsively. Tempers were snappish and easily triggered. Mrs. Paavo’s stern good sense was driving me insane. She was relentless in her constant conversation on what Captain Ngotu should do and what his many failings were. Miss Saint-Germaine’s childlike facade had cracked and she had become waspish. Not long after the murder I saw her in close conversation with Carter and Rose on the observation deck. They all three glared at me, and I took the hint and irised right back out the hatch. But with me Carter and Rose were as taciturn as ever, and I could tell by their constant sideways glances at me that they suspected me.
I wanted to shake them by their scruffy necks. Yes, Mr. Haley had brought up the botched tow and the subsequent inquiry. But I wasn’t the one designing and dealing drugs. Nor was I the one who habitually carried what was referred to as a miner’s mercy — a tiny shiv that could be used to jimmy the air mix on a miner’s suit. Tether broken? Said your last good-byes? Rather than suffocate in the deep, alter the mix and go gentle into that good night.
It was the perfect device to exsanguinate Mr. Haley. The only problem was, both Carter and Rose were at dinner too.
And what had they and Miss St. Germaine been talking about, in such close conference on the observation deck?
We were all throwing accusing glances. I decided to take a leaf out of Haley’s own book and look up my fellow passengers. The news on the Hohmann was canned; the archives got updated only when the ship docked. Those archives were surprisingly thorough, although they were silent on one name: Haley himself.
“May I join you?” I said to Miss St. Germaine in the centrifuge, where she worked diligently on the machine. She glanced at me and shrugged. I slid next to her. As I set the weights, I said, “We have to talk.”
She gave a dry little laugh that was nothing like her childish manner. “Do I have a choice?”
“How do you know the brothers?”
“Never met them before this journey.”
“Really,” I said, my voice as dry as hers.
“Really,” she agreed.
She was lying, but that was not surprising after what I had learned. Miss St. Germaine made me look positively wholesome. Maybe her parents should have abandoned her on the Meridiani Planum after all.
The days crept along excruciatingly. I was tempted to stay in my sleep sack but there was no privacy there and I couldn’t allow myself to waste away. I couldn’t bear to be around the others, however, so once again I went up to the observation deck, and contemplated the growing Sun. Mrs. Paavo found me there, and in her bracing, astringent manner, told me to get over myself.
“You’re being a fool,” she said. “For God’s sake, Captain. You’re the last person who should become moody over this.”
“Hardly,” I said. “Aren’t you worried that I’m the murderer?”
“No,” she snapped, and pulled herself in next to me. We watched the stars for a while. Finally, she said, “What did Haley have on you?”
“I caused an accident that killed five people.” I kept it to that. What Haley knew, it died with him.
She gave me a sidelong glance. “So much for the heroic Captain Hawkes,” she said, her voice dry.
“I never claimed to be, Mrs. Paavo, unlike you. I had to cross-reference — you took your husband’s name for this trip, but you are better known as the Butcher of Dome Two. How did Haley find out?”
“As I was a celebrity, as it were, on Mars barely twenty years ago, it wasn’t difficult. I served my time, Captain. I paid my debt to society. It was time to go Home.”
The Dome Two disaster was back in 2047, during the Mars conflict. An outbreak of flu started in the primitive hab. Mrs. Paavo had ordered a quarantine, with no medicines or food to be spared. I could see her, twenty years younger with her same no-nonsense manner, explaining that compassion for the doomed hab would jeopardize the entire colony. They could not spare their meager resources.
A merciless despot, two drug dealing thieves, and a conniving Martian black marketeer– the investigators would have more suspects than they knew what to do with. And in ironies of ironies, I would no doubt be considered their prime suspect.
There was no celebration this time when Earth loomed into view. She was surrounded by the blinking lights of the complex of half-way stations surrounding the planet, distinguished among the field of stars because stars don’t blink. She grew in the viewscreen hourly, and we all crammed onto the observation deck.
“I’m glad we’re all here,” Mrs. Paavo announced, looking around at everyone. “There’s something we need to discuss.”
“You aren’t the captain,” Miss St. Germaine said. “I’m not discussing anything with you.” Ever since the murder she had lost her waiflike appearance. All the hours spent at the weight machines had paid off. She was hard now, and her eyes glared.
“You’ll discuss and you’ll like it,” Mrs. Paavo snapped. “We’re all under suspicion of murder and I’m not taking the fall. I’m due to be on Earth in two weeks’ time and that’s where I intend to be.”
“Are you sure they’ll have you?” Miss. St. Germaine said sweetly. “The Butcher of Dome Two is hardly going to get a hero’s welcome.”
“I’ve paid my debt to society,” Mrs. Paavo said, repeating the excuse she gave to me. “The same can’t be said for the rest of you.”
“Ah, after causing the death of hundreds of innocents, Mrs. Paavo doesn’t think she should be a suspect for murder,” I said.
“Don’t start, Captain Hawkes,” she snapped at me. “I can do research too. You did more than just cause an accident on Bifrost — you were part of the gang that was diverting asteroids to the black market.”
All eyes turned to me. “I was never convicted,” I pointed out. “Charges dismissed.”
“Oh stuff it, Hawkes,” Rose said, glancing at his brother for support. “You ratted everyone out, and you got a plea bargain.”
“Pardon me,” I said. “But while I was lying in the medbay handcuffed to a bed, you were throwing me under the bus. Of course I sang.”
“Oh, how surprising, the miners were involved too,” Mrs. Paavo sneered. “I thought you two were just the local drug dealers.”
“Sure, they were in on it,” I said. I was tired of playing the lone villain. “Carter and Rose were responsible for finding the Mars buyer, and setting the tow. They’re quite the jack-of-all-trades, our miners.”
“That’s enough,” Carter said. He pointed at Miss St. Germaine. “Ask her what she’s doing here, and you’ll find out we’re not the ones who killed Haley.”
“Don’t be absurd,” she snapped. “I didn’t kill him.”
“Even though he was the reason for your exile from Mars?” Mrs. Paavo smirked. “You aren’t the innocent daughter you like to portray, Miss St. Germaine. Your sole reason for leaving Mars is that you were the sorrow of your parents and the bane of Dome Four. Quite a black market in diverted goods you were operating.”
Diverted goods…black market…I flashed back to her huddled conversations with the brothers. Our mysterious asteroid buyer was based on Mars. “You?!” I cried. I was flabbergasted. She curled her lip at me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I let you down?” she said, and I flushed. I admit it — she had played me like a violin. “Too bad you couldn’t pilot a ship or keep your mouth shut.”
“Very interesting,” Mrs. Paavo said. “I paid my debt to society.”
“Stop saying that, you self-righteous madwoman.” I had had enough. If anyone was a candidate for the airlock…
The lock irised open, and Captain Ngotu pulled himself in. “Good. You’re all here.” He grabbed a handhold and moved sideways. In floated Mr. Haley, alive and well and with the same irritating smirk, and holding up an InterSol badge.
To say we were astonished would not do justice to the thing. I had seen him — held him in my arms. There was blood — with a sinking realization I understood that I had been duped.
“The good news is, none of you are murder suspects,” Mr. Haley announced. “The bad news is, you are all under arrest for the various infractions that you committed while off Earth.”
It turned out that the authorities on Earth, Bifrost, and Mars had coordinated efforts to apprehend and build a case against a ring of asteroid thieves and black marketeers. There were no tickets to be found on a larger, faster ship, because InterSol made sure the only berths available were on the slow, ancient Hohmann. Our confessions to one another were the last bit of evidence Haley needed to bring us to justice.
Miss St. Germaine was the mastermind of the asteroid theft; the brothers were her lieutenants. I was the hired pilot, lured by the money and the chance to go Home in style.
Mrs. Paavo was collateral; but it turned out that the irritating old bag still faced civil and criminal charges on Earth. She had not paid her debt to society after all.
It was a subdued group that walked off the Hohmann onto Midway Station into the embrace of the authorities. I looked back once at the observation screen that offered a panorama of the vastness of space. I was conscious of a deep pang of longing. Maybe if you asked the wildebeest, in the maw of an opportunistic crocodile, she would say she regretted migrating too.