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The Europa Goodbye: Chapter 2

As the shuttle entered its final approach to the landing complex on the outskirts of Port Midas, Darius occupied his time by looking out the window near his seat. Everyone who came to Port Midas found the views of the approach breathtaking, and he was no exception. The faint bluish white aura around the sun as it peeked over the glacier fields of Europa never ceased to amaze.

As the shuttle raced downward, Darius let his mind wander about the facts. Regis Pulaski had been a Draconist cell leader, and he’d gone on the run to avoid a war crimes tribunal. It was a better choice for him to turn his skills into a career within the criminal syndicates that sprang up after the Jovian Civil War.

This wouldn’t be the first time someone had turned up dead in the Jupiter system, either.The Jovian Civil War was supposed to be over, but  someone had forgotten to tell the combatants.

Only a month or so before Pulaski was killed, a former Special Reconnaissance group leader, one who’d spearheaded raids against the Draconists on Callisto in the last few years of the war, had turned up on Vesta with his throat slit by a garrote of piano wire. It was a classic Draconist execution method.

That was the nature of low-intensity warfare, and it was the reason the Jovian Security Force existed. Incorporated by the Harrison Accords which ended the Jovian Civil War, J-Sec was conceived as a preventative measure against Draconism. It was meant to be staffed exclusively by those whose affiliation could be verified as a means of preventing corruption. Sometimes it prioritized industry over citizens, but for the corporate backers, this was not seen as a problem. The system didn’t always work, but it was the best they had.

“Hey Maroney!” called Lieutenant Hoskins from across the passenger compartment. “We’ve landed. Let’s get back to the precinct and start unpacking this suitcase full of bullshit, shall we?”

Darius looked out the window again and saw that they had indeed finally touched down and the loose ice particles kicked up by their arrival were slowly drifting back down to the surface. The landing pads themselves were layered with sheets of carbon-metal composite to provide stability, but everything on the surface of Europa suffered periodic coatings of ice crystals. It was just part and parcel to living on a frozen desert, and if anything three centuries of human interference had only aggravated that situation.

His ex-wife said Europa was a lot like Mars, only with less color. Once the divorce was finalized, it served to match his mood. As he stood up, Darius felt the familiar nausea brought on by Europa’s thirteen-point-four percent gravity pulling at him. He’d been here for the better part of six years, but just like the view outside the windows of the shuttle, the gravity was one of those things you never got completely used to.

Aside from the supplements concocted to treat gravity deprivation, there were also the pills taken daily that steeled the body against the harsh Jovian radiation. Someone had once said that it never stopped raining here, but the stuff coming down would give you cancer if you weren’t careful.

“All right gents,” the crew chief said as he stood up, wobbling slightly as the lower gravity took its toll on him, as well. “Time to gear up,” the man said as he unzipped a pack secured to the front of his waist.

Darius pulled his own pack open and retrieved the breathing apparatus that he’d purchased on his first J-Sec paystub. It was made of a material that collapsed down into a single strip not too dissimilar from a metallic-toned hair band, but when Darius pressed it against his hairline it rapidly unfolded into a helmet which covered his entire face and head. It linked up to a supply of recyclable oxygen that all personnel wore under their warming outer layers, which would protect Darius from the razor-thin atmosphere of Europa as they transited from the shuttle to the transportation back into Port Midas.

Once the two agents had their masks in place and adjusted, the crew chief’s voice flooded into Darius’ earpiece. “You guys hear me okay? We need you squared away before you board the train to Central HQ.”

Caught by surprise with the crew chief’s statement, Darius and Hoskins traded a glance that spoke to their mutual unease. It was the Lieutenant who voiced this feeling aloud. “What do you mean we’re headed to central headquarters? I thought we were just on our way back to our own precinct.”

The other man shook his head as he walked over to the control panel for the rear cargo hatch. As he pulled the handle down to lower the ramp, he spoke again. “We received word while we were coming into the descent cycle. Your initial report raised eyebrows up the ladder. They want a full debrief on the situation.”

Darius tapped the button on his mask. “Something must have them pretty spooked if they want to hear the story directly from us. There’s something going on that we don’t know about yet, isn’t there?”

The crew chief watched the ramp lower completely and turned to face the two agents. His eyes seemed grave but unreadable as he spoke over the comms uplink. “I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you. My orders are to see that you two are aboard the train and headed for J-Sec Central HQ by 1015 hours.”

Darius and Hoskins shared another serious glance. It was one thing for an ex-Draconist cell leader to wind up butchered on an orbital station, but it was another thing entirely for them to be called in for a debriefing by the Jovian Security Advisory Council as a result.

The Council was a provisional governing body made up of ministers from the ICA and the J-Sec brass charged with overseeing Jovian space in the aftermath of the Crisis. Having that level of authority made them a formidable power in this sector and throughout the outer solar system, and being called in to discuss Pulaski’s death meant more blood was coming. That and a helluva lot of paperwork.

Darius couldn’t shake his unease as an advertisement for cheap flights to Mars played in his earpiece. “I should pay for the ad free version,” he muttered as a silky voice promised him a new life. Men like him didn’t deserve new lives. Europa was a good place for someone like him to end up, and to circle the drain.

He took in the sights around him, what with the light of dawn warming from blue to yellow and glowing upon the carapace of the shuttles now already gathering frost upon the pad, and the far distant hills of the central chaotic uplands shining in the aura of the morning dust. Port Midas was laid out across and beneath the confluence of several jagged linea crisscrossing this region of the Europan midlatitudes.

“Hey,” said Hoskins, his voice flooding in through the earpiece. “You think we're fucked?”

Darius didn’t speak for a while, and when he did, his voice was thick with weariness. “Why did I ever leave Mars…?” He dragged a hand across the outer layer of his mask, feeling tired.

A technician in coveralls jumped down from the deck at the back of the bay, holding a clipboard in one hand. He fell in the odd slow-motion way that all things did on Europa—slow and steady. “The train’s waiting up for you two,” the man said over the comm channel as he approached. “Hurry and get onboard.”

After Darius and Hoskins climbed out of their bucket seats, the technician led them to the two stage detoxification and sterilization chambers. These functioned both as an airlock and the last line of defense against any contamination that might be breeding in the fledgling atmosphere. The question of whether alien life existed on Europa had been settled in the affirmative a long time ago, but the fear that it could infect humans was still open-ended. So far, Europa’s human denizens had been lucky in that department.

“Don’t forget your gene therapy!” the technician reminded them as they stepped through the other side of the chamber. Darius extended his palm and took the proffered ration of radiation treatment pills, popping them into his mouth as he took off his mask.

Across the terminal, their descent car was waiting just beyond the next airlock. The two officers flashed their ID badges to the uniformed officer standing near the airlock hatch before stepping through. A smooth, artificial voice of a female persuasion sounded on the train loudspeakers as they stepped inside. “All passengers, please prepare for rapid descent away from the surface-level terminal.”

With a low whooshing sound the car began its fall into the city. The whole trip took a little under five minutes, even with the gentle slowdown factored in at the end as the car pulled into the inbound terminal on the upper edge of the city. It slid to a stop with a barely audible hiss.

The trip from the terminal to J-Sec headquarters was as uneventful as any across the inside of the Port Midas sprawl could be. The city was a melting pot of working class technicians and mechanical engineers stuffed into seven roughly identical “cylinder cities,” which spun to provide a modicum of livable gravity. Sometimes Darius liked to think that each one was just a centrifuge bringing out the worst in the locals.

What the J-Sec HQ lacked in size it made up for in its imposing brutalist lines. The structure rose like a great pyramid of plasticrete made mostly of local ice, measuring seventy meters a side at its base. The front was emblazoned with a huge hologram depicting the J-Sec emblem and motto. The image of a sword being beaten into a plowshare over a shield was a bit on the nose in terms of symbolism, but it served its purpose. Darius always smirked at how the public relations wonks managed to earn their paychecks.

He stepped onto the platform of the last elevator he hoped to ride today, and flashed his badge at the little scanner chirping at him to pay his fare. “Wait up,” he called as he headed up the stairs to the entrance. He took one last look out over the cramped skyline of the subsurface city.

Darius nodded at a facility guard and extended his arms to let the man’s partner scan under them with the contraband detection wand. It whined as it passed over his sidearm and the FPO blinked numbly at him. “Please show me your weapons permit, Detective.” Darius retrieved the orange card from his wallet and showed it to the man, who scanned it with the image-finder on the scanner wand.

Darius returned the permit to his wallet, then saw Hoskins waiting in the middle of the atrium, looking impatient as he looked back to see where his subordinate had disappeared to. Hoskins had his arms crossed and was tapping his foot as Darius walked up to him. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

The elevator ride up to the sixth floor was starkly silent, even though a dozen other officers bustled in and out of the pod on its tortured route back skyward. When Darius and Hoskins arrived at the executive level, they found a young personnel officer named Kessler waiting for them. She had the same look on her face that Janet did when he forgot her birthday. Then again, Darius had that effect on most women.

“Lieutenant Hoskins, Detective Maroney. Good to see you’re finally here. The councilors have been getting impatient. Follow me, there’s a lot to cover and Mr. Dahlgren is eager to get down to business.”

“Come,” called a voice from inside the conference room. Beyond the double doors, their entire investigative detachment was seated around the oval-shaped conference table. It consisted of four other detectives plus Captain Nneka, as well as teams from two other precincts.

There were also eight members of the JSAC seated at the dais. Louis Dahlgren, a tall, gaunt, silver- haired Ceresian who ran the civilian oversight board, looked at them over the horn rims of his glasses. “Gentlemen. Thank you for finally joining us.” His tone was neither annoyed nor reproachful, but was somehow more concerning for its apparent lack of emotion. “Take your seats and we’ll begin.”

As Darius and Hoskins took their seats, a holo-projector hidden in the center of the table kicked on and a 3D representation of J-Sec’s files on the Draconist Front emerged into the space above it. Everyone stared at the image in silence for a while, taking in the syndicate’s sordid history.

  “Intelligence suggests that a turf war is imminent between opposing factions of local criminal syndicates. Both factions fought with the Draconist during the War.”

He tapped his command key again and the projection changed to show Regis Pulaski’s face. “Regis Pulaski was a major figure within the Draconist movement and, until today, a major player in the Red Nova crime syndicate. He’s responsible for a laundry list of illegal activities in the Jovian sector.”

No one spoke to interrupt. They knew Pulaski’s sordid history only all too well.

He tapped the key again and the image switched up to show the pictures Darius had taken at the murder scene on Station Alpha-One. “Early this morning, while he was trying to leave Europa under an assumed identity, Pulaski was killed by members of the Callistan Dawn.” He looked around at the gathered agents and officials, as if allowing the tension to build as he gauged their attentiveness. “We believe they wanted him out of the way before they made a play against the Red Novas.”

The words sank into Darius’ mind like iron claws. He and everyone else in the room now knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the situation on Europa would only get worse from there on out.

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