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The Europa Goodbye: Chapter 1

Europa - 2351

The big ships always reminded Darius Maroney of the War. It was a mental shockwave of bad days which stretched into terrifying months on deployment. Those months cost him years of his life, leaving him a shattered mess. His ex-wife was unable to put him back together, no matter how hard she tried.

Janet stopped taking his calls years ago, and after a while he realized he didn’t want her to. That part of him was gone. So Darius was adrift in space, floating untethered no matter where he walked. A lost soul searching for purpose across a solar system filled with primal animals that killed for the fun of it. 

The bulk freighter Shanghai Sunset had a plasma magnet array which stretched nearly two hundred meters on an edge. This was below average, if Darius remembered correctly, as the really big ships often stretched into kilometer scales. The more size you had, the more cargo you could haul. And for a business like deep space commerce, where the only limit to how much money corporations like Interplanetary Dynamics could rake in was the size they built their ships, smallness meant wasted efficiency.

But for all its size, the big cargo hauler was still miniscule next to the even more massive station to which it was docked. Orbital Station Alpha-One was a kilometer in diameter, with outer habitation rings that slowly rotated to give the inner surface a sense of artificial gravity.

It was there that the cause of Darius Maroney’s early wakeup call would be found. He wondered how many had come before him through this bustling hub linking Europa’s orbit with the frozen world below. 

“Hey Maroney.” The voice called from up the tube leading from the shuttle to the station. “You gonna stop daydreaming and come join the real world? Some of us actually have lives to get back to.”

Darius pivoted on his long axis in the microgravity and looked up the tube. His boss, Lieutenant Hoskins, was still drifting toward the hatch into the station. Hoskins slowed himself by grabbing the handrail of the tube and turned back to face him. “C’mon, this case isn’t gonna solve itself.”

Smiling at the Lieutenant’s typical saltiness, Darius pulled himself up the tube with a similar grab of the perimeter handrail. “First time for everything, isn’t there?” Hoskins didn’t answer, but Darius thought he heard him chuckling as the two of them pulled themselves across the void and toward the waiting safety of the station. A shudder gripped Darius’ spine as the thought passed through his mind. There was only a thin veneer of fragile engineering between him and the void, and every fiber of him was thinking about it right then.

It was a curious sensation, one he’d never fully acclimated to even after months of EVA training and several trips to low orbit during the war. Something about being that close to the all-encompassing absolution of deep space unnerved him like nothing else ever had.

He smirked again as a joke from one of his old squadmates flowed back into his conscious mind: “A Spacer who’s afraid of space? Are you afraid of your shoes too?”

Just as he felt better this time once they had cycled through the airlock and were being greeted by the station security officer. She was a lanky middle aged woman with short dark hair and darker eyes. The name tape on her jumpsuit said, “Waller.” She nodded at the Lieutenant as she addressed him and Darius. “Welcome aboard Station Alpha-One, gentlemen. Glad you could finally join us.”

Hoskins dodged her insinuation. “Thanks for that. I’m Lieutenant Hoskins, this is Detective Maroney.”

Waller nodded at Darius, who was busy curling and uncurling his toes in the artificial gravity of the station’s habitation ring. Whoever had come up with the concept of artificial gravity he couldn’t remember, but they certainly had his thanks. “I wish our visit came under better circumstances,” he said. “Could we get on our way to the scene? No offense meant, but I’d like to minimize my time here as much as possible.”

Officer Waller stared at him and Hoskins chuckled again. His smile did not go all the way to his eyes. “Yes, I’m afraid Detective Maroney doesn’t like being this far from the pull of a gravity well. He’d prefer that it was red dirt he was standing on, but right now he’d take a glacier, easy.”

Darius said nothing about Hoskins’ jab at his Martian status. Darius stood out as a native of the Red Planet from a hundred meters off. Just another day as a resident alien, Darius thought. He grinned in spite of the situation. “Everyone’s red if you peel back the surface.”

The three of them were silent, but Officer Waller’s face betrayed a hint of amusement. “Maybe he has a point, Lieutenant. But in any case, it would be prudent to get this case behind us as quickly as possible. I’ve had to suspend cargo traffic at dock three and the suits back iceside are breathing down my neck.” She turned and gestured for the Jovian Security Force men to follow her. “This way, please.”

They walked around the outer edge of the station’s main habitation ring for half a kilometer, with Waller in the lead. No one spoke, and so a makeshift air of authority settled over them as other station staff and transient passengers from the ships docked there watched them pass. Officer Waller was surely a common enough sight here on the station, but the badged J-Sec men were not. Usually when the colonial police force showed up, it was after the victims were room temperature. This fact earned them plenty of awkward stares on the way to dock three. Darius ignored them as a matter of course.

In the middle of the entryway to the third cargo dock, a man was sprawled under a tarp, his legs contorted at an angle that clearly showed he was no longer living. The blood that had seeped out from under the tarp had turned dark red by that point, only driving the point home further.

Officer Waller stuck her hand into her jumpsuit’s unzipped hip pocket and pulled out her own data tablet. With a few quick swipes she called up the full situation report from her initial officer on the scene and narrated it aloud. “Here’s what we’ve got so far. Sergeant Cardinale was called to the scene at about 0250 hours this morning, after we got reports from passersby that there was a scuffle at the entry to dock three. Witnesses said someone might be injured at the scene. Clearly that was an understatement.”

She swiped the screen and pulled up a spec sheet on the dead man, and handed it to Hoskins. “By the time he arrived the vic was already dead and the perps were long gone. There were a few witnesses, they told us that two men in dark clothes jumped the guy as he tried to leave the station.”

Darius lifted the tarp and scrutinized the dead man’s features. He was tall, probably a local boy, and had straw-brown hair and dull brown eyes. Darius had seen his face dozens of times, just walking in and out of his precinct in Port Midas. Waller carried on with her debrief as Hoskins’ eyes widened at the data on her tablet. “Victim was stabbed a dozen times in the abdomen and chest. He was dead before we even got here.”

Hoskins knelt beside Darius and stared down at the dead man. His expression was strangely haunted as they drifted over the wounds in his abdomen. “I assume you recognize him, Maroney?”

Darius said nothing for a long moment. At length he sighed and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

The man’s name was Regis Pulaski. Never met a lost cause he didnt like. Had no qualms about spilling blood, and always seemed to leave right before the bill came due. The ICA had been looking for him for almost twenty years, but here he was, cold and dead as the plains of Triton.

Darius stood up. “Officer Waller, what was Regis Pulaski doing on your station in the first place? ”

She crossed her arms. “According to records, he was going offworld under an assumed name, using a forged ID.” There was something in her voice, a hint of bitterness that told Darius more was going on that she wouldn’t say aloud. He made a mental note to leave that one alone until it became necessary.

Hoskins had also noticed her irritation, and he was much less tactful. “So you let your officers make judgment calls on who comes and goes through an ICA-administered station, without giving your input? I mean, hell, the guy’s face is in every precinct in the outer system. Somebody had to recognize him.”

Waller shrugged, her gaze as inscrutable as depths of space. “I run a tight ship. If he’d been on the station long, I would have noticed.” She narrowed her eyes further and her tone became positively glacial. “But if someone did let him aboard the station, I will find out about it.”

Another long and rather difficult pause passed between the three of them, before Darius cleared his throat to bring everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand. “What did the security cameras pick up?”

Waller sighed. “Not a damn thing.” 

Darius raised an eyebrow. “Any chance we could check for ourselves?” 

She sighed again and swiped at the screen of her tab again, and handed it to Darius. He held it up where Hoskins could see it as well. Onscreen was a suite of security feeds, all of which showed the same timestamp, about 0245 that morning, and the area in and around the entrance to dock three. There was no sign of any struggle, no evidence of an attack or anything else. The entryway was nearly deserted, save for a few dockworkers lingering around and a vagrant begging for fare onto a ship away from Europa.

Hoskins scratched at his chin as he watched the videos roll. “Looks like a normal morning on-station, not the scene of a high-profile murder.”

She nodded and swiped at the tab screen again. Another period of video came up on the holo-display, this time showing the 0245 timestamp from the previous day. “Do you notice anything?” she asked.

Hoskins started to argue, but Darius cut in before he could speak. “They’re both the same.” He pointed at the video feed. “See? That panhandler is in the same spot and he moves exactly the same… there.”

Hoskins grunted. “C’mon Maroney. Your evidence is a goddamned panhandler?”

Darius shook his head. “No, someone doctored this. Probably lifted yesterday’s feed and dropped it onto today.” He frowned. “Only thing is, that would be pretty serious work for  just a  goon squad. I mean, that is the assumption, isn’t it? That this had something to do with Pulaski’s criminal record?”

No one had laid it out so plainly, but Darius knew from the look  Hoskins gave him that it had been going through his mind, as well. Pulaski had been highly-placed in the local underground, and had a prime position in the web of illicit business that flowed out from and back to Jupiter in the years since the Jovian Crisis began. If he’d been killed by a rival syndicate while on his way back to Callisto, and the killers had the know-how to tamper with the station’s security systems to do it, then something big was definitely afoot.

For his part, Lieutenant Hoskins didn’t seem too impressed. “We’ll see about that.” Then he turned and smiled at Waller again. “Thanks for your time. We’ll be in touch if we require any further information.”

Waller cleared her throat. “Always glad to host agents of the J-Sec,” she said coolly. “Perhaps not under these circumstances, but I’m sure you see my point clearly enough.”

Hoskins met her frigidity with a grin. “Of course. Well, we should get back down to the surface.” He stuck out his hand and Officer Waller clasped it tightly. “Have the body sent down on the next cargo shuttle, and route all your files on the case to my office. That’s Precinct 161, Port Midas ward four.” He smiled, and  it did not go to his eyes. “Thanks for your time.”

While he headed back the way they had come, Darius lingered to bid farewell to Officer Waller. He stuck out his hand and she took it with a much less firm grip than with Hoskins. “Look,” she said. “ A guy like Pulaski gets waxed like this, out in the open, for all to see, and you know this ends with a stack of bodies.”

Darius met her gaze, trying to pry some hidden meaning out of the depths of her irises. What he saw there was a sort of quiet, unspoken respect, grudging but clear as a bell, as well as a hint of warning that made him wonder just what he was getting into by volunteering to take up this investigation. He’d wanted a change of pace, but he often chased things that wanted to kill him.

By the time he caught up to Hoskins, the older man was busy with a call over his own data tab. From the sound of it, he was in the middle of a heated discussion with Captain Maseko, his immediate superior and frequent verbal sparring partner. “Listen, boss: the guy was hacked up by competitors. This fits the Draconist M.O. It looks like they might be  cleaning house, anyway. It’s like clockwork.”

Darius followed silently along, pondering what the Lieutenantwas saying. Pulaski’s outfit, the Red Novas,  had sprung up in the years since the Draconist movement was forced from power on Callisto. They weren’t as violent as the old mainstream DRACs, but they certainly had the same flair for the dramatic.

Hoskins finished up his call as they cycled back through the airlock. “Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind. Hoskins out.” He swiped the screen of his tablet, muttering as he did so. He turned to Darius as they stood between the inner and outer hatches of the airlock and sighed. We’ll have to deal with the Captain’s bullshit when we get groundside. I’ll be expecting you to back me up if she gets on my case.”

Darius said nothing. He was still weighing the possible outcomes of a turf war. If one was brewing among the branches of the underworld family tree, things could get bloody fast.

They cycled into the shuttle, where the crew chief and pilot were busying themselves with a game of cards. Darius was silently strapping himself into his own seat when the crew chief drifted over to help him. “So what do you think, Maroney?” he asked, smiling casually. “Any ideas on the case thus far?”

Darius raised his arms to let the man secure his harness. “Not yet. But I’ve got some ideas.” The crew chief cocked an eyebrow, so Darius elaborated. “Whoever did the deed pulled a slick hack job on the security suite. That would take some pretty high-level access, or technical know-how way beyond syndicate thugs.”

The crew chief shrugged and patted the centerpiece of the harness before pushing himself back toward his own seat and securing his own restraints for the ride. The pilot called back to the passenger compartment. “All right, gents, I’ve got her locked down and we’re disengaging from the station.”

There was a metallic THUNK as the shuttle detached from its docking collar on the outside of the station, and the pilot spoke again. “As soon as we’re clear of the station I’m putting ten on the clock.”

Darius brought his hands up and ran his fingers through his hair, before resting his palms on the front of the restraint harness. The pilot called out again a few moments later: “Okay, we’re clear from the docking ring. Putting ten up on the big board and we’re entering our descent stage… Now.”

The lights in the passenger compartment flickered against the looming potential energy of the priming engines as the pilot called out—starting with “Ten” and dropping from there—and Darius felt himself gently drift up in his seat as the shuttle entered its descent phase arc.

“Six... Five…” The pilot paused to call back to the meager crew aboard the small shuttle. “Get ready for some chop. Two… One… Initiating drop sequence. Engines firing on entry burn.”

The engines roared to life, pushing it onto the long parabola down to the surface on a plume of fire. To observers below it would seem like a meteor streaking across the black skies of Europa’s eternal midnight, but to Darius it felt like riding the tiger. Just like the old days. Just like Titan, He thought.

It had been a long time since Darius Maroney had ridden a fireball like this down to the surface, and the experience had certainly not improved with his increasing age. He hoped that finding Pulaski’s killer would prove easier than the old days, but as the furious vibrations of the descending shuttle nearly shook his teeth from their sockets, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his time riding the tiger had only just begun.

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