Authors: Bruce Coville
Murder in Orbit
For my brother, Brian,
who has always had his head in the stars
Trouble in the BS Factory
If the dead man in the waste converter had really existed, I never would have gotten into this whole mess.
But he didn't, at least not as far as ICE-3 records went.
So I did.
Get in trouble that is.
My name is Rusty McPhee (actually, it's Edward, but everyone calls me Rusty, on account of my hair) and ICE-3 is where I live. The ICE stands for “International Colonization Effort”; the “3” indicates that this was the third colony to come on line.
You're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this. I mean,
knows about the ICE colonies, right? Well, maybe. But my grandfather, who's been writing science fiction since way back in the 1980s, keeps reminding me that just because we all know something now, it doesn't mean people will still know it in ten years. He says I should never underestimate the human capacity for ignorance, and if I want people to read this book ten years from now, I'd better make everything clear.
So bear with me while I fill in the details.
Actually, Gramps is the reason I'm writing this down at all. He keeps telling me he would have given his eyeteeth to have lived through something like this when he was a kid. My usual response to that comment is that it's a lot more fun to read about something like this than it is to experience it.
The whole thing began on June 27 of this year (2018, for those of you reading this some time yet to come). School had closed for semester break the week before, but my mentor program, which is where I'm getting my real education, was still going on. So early that day I signed out a two-seat Space Scooter from ICE-3 and flew over to the small Bio-Science Lab orbiting nearby.
The Bio-Science Lab (known affectionately to ICERS as the BS Factory) was headquarters for my mentor, Dr. Antoine Twining, whose research required special low-gravity conditions.
I had been flying solo since I turned sixteen, two months before, but I still wasn't entirely comfortable piloting the scooter by myself. As I drew close to the lab I stuck the tip of my tongue between my teeth and bit down lightly. (It's a family trait, according to my mother; she claims every McPhee male does it when concentrating.) At first I wasn't even aware I was doing itâprimarily because my entire attention was focused on the absurdly tiny docking space in front of me.
Docking a two-seater isn't actually that hard. But the maneuver wasn't second nature to me yet, so I was trying to be extra careful.
Unfortunately, I wasn't quite careful enough. I made a slight miscalculation, and the front of the scooter struck the right edge of the port. (The bump made me bite down, which was when I realized I was sticking out my tongueâprimarily because I bit it. Hard.) I muttered angrily and waited as the scooter bounced gently off one side of the entry and then the other before finally stabilizing in the center of it.
I was really disgusted with myself. The bump wasn't going to cause any damage. But I was certain whoever was inside monitoring my arrival would be smirking at the errorâlaughing about “kid pilots.”
I hate it when older people are condescending.
As soon as I was in position, powerful magnetic guidelines drew me into the BS Factory. Once the scooter had made it through the port, the door irised shut, closing out the void behind me. A moment later I felt the scooter being lifted to press against the top of the air lock. When the door seal was in place, I pressed a button. The top sprang open.
“Nice landing, Russ,” said Millicent Carter as I stepped out of the scooter. “Remind me to have you give my kid driving lessons next year.”
I smiled. “No problem, Mill. Heck, you'll probably get an insurance rebate when they find out who you hired.”
I didn't mind this kind of teasing when it came from Millie. A tall, good-looking, middle-aged woman, she was the kind who could let you know she was laughing with you instead of at youâeven while she was dumping all over you. Millie was pretty much in charge of the Bio-Science facility. She wasn't a scientist, or an administrator, or anything fancy like that. She was just the one who kept things working.
“Where's the doc?” I asked.
“In his lab. Waiting for you.”
When I heard the emphasis she put on the last words, I sighed. It seemed no matter how hard I tried I couldn't manage to get hereâor anywhere elseâon time. I stepped into the hallway and began trotting along the curving outer wall of the substation, using the careful space-jogger's technique to keep myself from bounding up to the ceiling in the lab's reduced gravity. Outside the door to Dr. Twining's laboratory I grabbed one of the loops sticking out from the wall to slow myself down.
I was about to go bursting into the room, full of apologies for being late, when I pulled myself up short. I could hear Dr. Twining arguing with someone. Things sounded pretty tense. Late or not, I decided I had better hold my horses.
The door muffled the angry voices enough so that I couldn't hear what was being said. But after a few minutes I was able to recognize the other speaker. It was Pieter Durkin. Like Dr. Twining, Dr. Durkin was one of the BS Factory's seven senior scientists. (Millie and I referred to the group as “the Mad Scientists” Club.”)
I felt bad that they were arguing. Dr. Durkin and Dr. Twining were both fine scientists. And they had both been very good to me.
The voices got louder. Suddenly the door slid open and Dr. Durkin came storming out. He was carrying a chimpanzee in his arms, and his usually pale skin was flushed with anger.
“Hello, Rusty,” he growled. Then he ran a hand through his thinning blond hair and tried to smile, as if he realized that whatever was bothering him wasn't my fault. “Sorry to intrude on your lab time,” he muttered. He lowered the chimp to the floor and hurried off down the hall.
The chimp, who was named Ron, turned and signed a little message to me: “Got to go. Bye-bye.”
“Bye-bye, Ron,” I signed back. I smiled as I watched him scurry down the hall.
Ron was one of my best friends. If nothing else, I could always count on him for a smile and a hugâwhich is more than you'll get from some people.
I stood in the hall for another minute or so, figuring it wouldn't hurt to give Dr. Twining a little more time to cool off.
When I finally thought it was safe to go in I poked my head through the door and said, “Sorry I'm late.”
Dr. Twining stood at a lab table, his tall, gangling frame huddled over whatever he was working on. When he answered me, his voice was almost unnaturally calm. “It's all right, Rusty,” he said, without looking up from his work. “Actually, I've gotten so I count on your being late. It was nice to know I would have the twenty minutes I needed to finish this experiment without being interrupted.”
Obviously we weren't going to talk about his fight with Dr. Durkin. Well, that was his privilege.
I crossed the room and peered over Dr. Twining's bony shoulder. “More limb regeneration?” I asked, looking down at the mouse he was examining. The poor thing had three good legs and a bud where the fourth should be.
Dr. Twining rubbed his long, thin nose and nodded soberly. “Between the low-gravity effect and the hormones we're learning to generate up here, I think we might actually crack this thing before long.”
I nodded back. I was well aware that even though the prosthetic device Dr. Twining wore at the bottom of his left leg worked nearly as well as the real thing, he continued to dream of growing back the foot he had lost in an Earthside car accident some twenty years back.
I had a personal interest in his research myself. I've got a bum hip, a problem I was born with. Right now it doesn't do more than slow me down once in a while. But my doctor has told me I should plan on having it replaced sometime before I'm thirty. If Dr. Twining pulls off his research, I might be able to have a real one. If not, I get to carry around a chunk of high-grade plastic inside me for the rest of my life, an idea that doesn't thrill meâthough it beats not being able to walk at all.
I waited in silence while my mentor finished examining the mouse. After a moment or two he sighed, scooped up the small bundle of fur, and returned it to the cage at the end of the table. Then he turned to me and said, “Ready to work?”
I nodded eagerly. My sessions with Dr. Twining here in the Bio-Science Lab were the highlight of my day.
Within a half hour I was studying a slice of frog brain through an electron microscope, so lost in the mysteries of chemical information storage that I didn't notice Dr. Twining standing behind me until he tapped me on the shoulder. “I'm going back to the main wheel,” he said. I saw a smile twitch at the corner of his lips. “I'm meeting with one of my private patients: Dr. Puckett.”
He waited for me to react.
I did. Elmo Puckett was the most famous man in ICE-3, a fabulously rich recluse who had invented nearly half the technology that made the colonies possible. Everybody had heard of him, but I didn't know anyone who had actually seen him. According to rumors, he had huge private quarters in the center of the colony, where he kept his fingers in as many pies as possible. He never allowed himself to be photographed; any interviews I had seen showed only his hands.
“I didn't know you knew people like that,” I said after the shock wore off.
“We're old friends from Earthside,” said Dr. Twining. “Elmo likes to paint himself as a hermit, but the truth is he knows more people than anyone I've ever met.”
He glanced at the clock on the laboratory wall and changed the subject. “I want you to make sure you're not late for your job today. They tend to blame it on me when you are.”
I promised and turned back to my work. In seconds I was so absorbed I barely heard the door close behind me.
By the time I looked up again, two hours had passed. I spotted the clock out of the corner of my eye and slapped my forehead in disgust. Despite Dr. Twining's request, I was going to be late. Again. I packed away my materials and dashed to the loading dock.
“In a hurry?” asked Millicent.
“Don't bug me, Millie, or I'll teach your kid to drive backward. Just get me out of here.”
“Hey, calm down. The scooter's all set to go. I was pretty sure that when you finally got here you'd be in an almighty hurry.”
I relaxed. “You're a pal, Millie. Those driving lessons will be on the house.”
“The way you drive, they'll be on the wall, and on the roof, andâ”
“All right, all right,” I said, hopping into the scooter. “Just open the door and let me out!”