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The Europa Goodbye: Chapter 3

Councilor Dahlgren broke the tension in the room. “Detective Maroney.” His gray eyes pierced Darius’ soul as he spoke. “Could you give us your assessment of the murder scene?”

Darius resisted the urge to squirm in his seat. Good thing the Spacer Corps had given him plenty of experience in performing under pressure. “Councilor, from what we could gather it seems that there were only two attackers.” He brought out his tablet and threw some of his own notes up on the hologram. He silently wished he had been able to jot down more thorough notes on the way back down to Europa.

He continued his analysis. “Pulaski was stabbed more than a dozen times, and it’s clear that whoever did it took him by surprise. He was either alone or his muscle booked it when they were attacked.”

He hesitated. “There was one other thing. We found that the station’s security suite may have been tampered with in order to facilitate the murder.” Next to him, Lieutenant Hoskins rolled his eyes and tried to suppress a groan with only marginal success. “It looks like someone accessed the camera system and spliced a loop of footage to cover up the event itself. I’m not a tech expert, but that seems like pretty high-grade interference to be running for something as straightforward as a hit-and-run.”

A murmur of conversation rippled through the room. Darius noticed that Dahlgren said nothing. The old man held his gaze over steepled fingers, then turned to the holo-image again. Darius waited for the murmuring to die down before he spoke again. “That would be a difficult thing to accomplish even for a group like the Red Novas. So, something more than a conflict between rival syndicates may be going on here.”

Dahlgren said nothing for a while. After staring at Darius for a time, he nodded to another figure seated on the dais. Darius’ eyes drifted to the second man, and he felt his blood chill a few degrees.

Commander Bertram Stanescu was one hundred and seventy centimeters tall, dead on. He told everyone around him that, “One-seventy is the perfect height for all spacers.” His subordinates just nodded and handed him his coffee. Those equal in rank rolled their eyes and focused on the Commander’s record, which more than spoke for itself. He made up for his height with an overdeveloped sense of aggression. After twenty-five years in uniform, he knew how to let the dog off the leash.

Stanescu hit a button behind his own desk topper and the holo-image settled into a report written less than two hours earlier. It showed a burnt-out warehouse module, elsewhere on Europa. The wreckage of whatever had been inside was scattered here and there in charred remnants. Darius recognized it as the same sort of supply dump that the Draconists had used during the height of the civil war on Titan.

Stanescu went on. “This hab module near the Pwyll Crater industrial site was a storehouse for a large stockpile of contraband—drugs, weapons, you name it—put together by the Callistan Dawn as part of their attempts to branch out into black market cartel status. It was raided and destroyed two days ago by the Red Novas.” He paused for effect. “We have reason to believe Regis Pulaski gave the order.”

Silence filled the room with a tangible presence. Darius felt his mouth going dry as he thought about it. That would certainly explain why the Callistan Dawn had a vendetta that ended in Pulaski’s death.

Stanescu must have made the same conclusion. “We are operating under the assumption that Pulaski tried to make a move on the Callistan Dawn and was taken out in retaliation. If this is the case, it is reasonable to assume that the Red Novas are now preparing their own response.”

He then turned to his subordinate, Major Daniela Rendara, and nodded for her to continue with the explanation. She brought her elbows up onto the desk topper and clasped one fist in the other hand as she spoke. “Here’s our plan of attack.” She stood and pulled out her own tablet to direct a montage of holo-projected files that laid out their plan for the initiative in several key steps.

“We do not take the thought of starting an open war against the syndicates lightly. So we’ll move by degrees, put the screws to the Novas, the Callistan Dawn, and any other organization that steps in to get involved in whatever develops from here onward. If we hit too hard, too fast, they’ll be after us as much as each other and we’ll have a bloodbath on our hands. But if we’re careful, and let them wear themselves out first, we might finally be able to wipe them out once and for all.”

The murmurs in the room sounded more positive this time around. Even Darius had to admit, as he read the operational reports projected before him, that it seemed to be a pretty solid plan.

 Something Station Officer Waller had said, about how if Pulaski had been aboard her station long she would have noticed and reported it, occurred to Darius as he read the reports being projected for the room. He’d taken that promise as an example of the station security chief’s frustration at not being given the resources to do her job as she saw fit. But here, in Rendara’s plans, Waller’s assertion had been written off as a case of false reporting. There was some detail in that which Darius didn’t like.

It wasn’t enough yet to stake a claim on, but it nagged at him like an old war wound. He considered himself an excellent judge of character, and he believed that if Waller claimed ignorance of Pulaski's intentions, then she was as good as her word. That the rest of J-Sec seemed intent on just throwing her under the bus not only offended his admittedly lax sensibilities, it also told him something more could be going on.

Darius leaned over to whisper in Hoskins’ ear. “Lieutenant, do we know whether Pulaski was fleeing Europa when he died? Is it possible that he could have been just arriving?”

Hoskins frowned and turned slightly to face him. “What difference does it make? He ordered the attack on the Dawners and he’s dead now. Open and shut case, Maroney.”

Darius thought about giving a response but decided against it. He leaned back in his seat to think on the matter, just in time to hear Councilor Dahlgren calling the session to a close. “All right ladies and gentlemen. I think we’ve accomplished all we can for one meeting. There’s not much we can do to stop what’s coming from happening. What we need to do is win. Get out there and make it happen.”

With a final glance around the room, Dahlgren gave an affirmative nod and stood up. “Meeting adjourned. Report back to your precincts and prepare to delegate operational duties.” With that, the senior Councilor disappeared. Probably headed back for Ceres, if Darius had to guess.

Darius and Hoskins stood, and the latter stretched his tired limbs. “Well,” Hoskins said as he cracked his neck. “I better get home before Celine does. She keeps thinking I'm having an affair everytime I go off world. I keep telling her I don't make enough money to afford two women in my life, but that just makes her more suspicious.” He sighed and put his hands on his hips. “I swear, you just can't win out here.”

“Yeah,” said Darius. “Too right.” But he was watching Commander Stanescu too closely to pay much attention to Hoskins. The most senior J-Sec officer in the room, nominally in charge of the new campaign against the syndicates, was deep in conversation with another Councilor, a black-haired man of about thirty who wore a suit that probably cost more than a few years of Darius’ salary.

Darius didn’t recognize the man, but he recognized the cunning intensity of his eyes, which were alive with the spark of something that spoke to the predatory instinct in the baser parts of all human minds. It was the same thing he’d seen countless times in the informational vids about Draconist leadership.

Lieutenant Hoskins either didn’t notice this third councilor or didn’t care to. He cocked his head toward the door. “C’mon Maroney, you coming with us? We’re heading back to the precinct in a few. Thought you might want to catch the train over to Central-6 with the rest of the team.” He spoke as if nothing were amiss, as if the whole city wasn’t teetering on the edge of insanity like Darius knew it very well could be.

But Darius was still warily eyeing the unnamed councilor across the conference room, sizing him up as he would a suspect in an interrogation room. The other man’s black hair was slicked back impeccably, and the teeth Darius saw as the man spoke to Commander Stanescu were almost too straight, too white. Too perfect. A politician’s teeth, to be sure, but also the dental work of a shark. That much fit with Darius’ initial read of his eyes and his overall demeanor, and his assessment of the ambition he harbored.

Then the man’s gaze drifted past Stanescu and rested on Darius. His cold blue eyes peered into him like a tinkerer might look into a box of spare parts. Disinterested, but also as if he were seeking something he could make use of, or else cast aside like dead weight. The gaze of a professional opportunist.

Darius felt a chill go up his spine. “Lieutenant, who’s that guy the Commander is talking to?”

Hoskins hesitated, and Darius knew he was sizing up the other man as well. “Name’s Dyson Cortez. He’s a rep from Interplanetary Dynamics and a junior member of the Resource Authority review board.” Hoskins stretched his arms again. He sounded bored. “Word is that he’s rising like a meteor.”

Darius said nothing. The dark-haired junior board member of Europa’s corporate overlords held his gaze for another moment as Commander Stanescu rambled in his ear, then turned away. Darius felt the cold menace of his eyes for a long time after he finally followed the Commander out of the room, though.

Hoskins sighed. “So, are you coming with us or aren’t you, Maroney?”

Darius stretched his own limbs. He suddenly felt very tired. “I’ve had enough excitement for one day. Think I’ll head back to my apartment and try to get a couple hours of sleep before things kick off.”

Hoskins looked sidelong at his subordinate. “Alright. Just be ready for the big game when you get back to the office. There’s sure to be a lot of leg work coming down the pike on this one.”

Darius figured this might be his last chance to catch some shuteye before the shit hit the air scrubbers. So he made his way over to Ward Five, looking forward to his little hole in the wall apartment more and more with each housing block he passed as the tram car trundled along on its rattling path between the wards. The sidewalk leading to his building was freshly cleaned, but you could never do away with the stench.

His own apartment was cold compared to what he grew up in. Maybe his parents were just more successful than Darius was. Janet told him that in a fight one time. Darius would never live up to his father’s standards. It hurt, but he knew she was right. Even if it was just the alcohol talking.

Darius had come to Port Midas on a kind of masochistic self-hating atonement ritual. Nothing could shake the ghost that followed him. His failure in the form of a happy blond woman holding a baby. A little boy that he never got to meet. He didn’t blame Janet, and his Veterans Affairs therapist told him not to blame himself. But you never forget the ones you can’t save, even if it was never in your power to do so.

So the ghost followed him into his cramped apartment in Port Midas, sat on the windowsill, and watched him as he took his boots off. All he wanted right now was his futon and a drink. That, and maybe some of the non-moldy leftovers he had stashed in his refrigerator. An hour later, Darius was lying against the wall unable to sleep. Sleep never came easy for him these days, and even when it did, the dreams usually followed. So for now he was content to just nurse a glass of synthetic whiskey and stew in his thoughts.

Maybe the little inconsistencies in the case didn’t matter. Maybe Darius was looking for something that wasn’t there. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But the strange little quibbles he had with the official report festered in his mind like a splinter. Take the timing of the thing: if Pulaski had been responsible for the raid on the Callistan Dawn, it made sense to run from Europa until the repercussions died down. But what if he had been arriving when he was killed? That left even more questions nipping at Darius’ mind.

Who was tracking Pulaski? Had to be someone powerful enough to kill him quietly. But if Pulaski had  given the order to move on the Callistan Dawn, why risk coming back if he was off-planet at the time?

If Pulaski had not given the order, then the official report could be called into question. If that were the case, then who stood to gain? Things like this never went down without somebody waiting in the wings to cash in, and this far out from Sol the only thing anybody really trucked in was cold hard credits.

At some point in the midst of his musings, Darius fell away into a shallow sleep. His dreams were plagued with the same shadows that always began in space. A sensation of falling through the void, falling toward something far below that awaited him with bared teeth. He felt the impulse of his thruster pack kicking on, saw the alien expanse of Titan sweeping below him as he soared down into the jaws of death.

Darius touched down gracefully this time, like every time before. It was always the same. His descent thrust cut out and a reverse impulse kicked in just barely in time. And as soon as his boots met with the ground, he was in the shit. Bursts of fire all around, fragments of shouted orders cutting back and forth on his helmet radio. Explosions kicked up razor-sharp fragments of rock-hard ice as missiles fell and mortar bombs detonated. Utter chaos. The only way out was toward the enemy.

Darius was clambering over ice pebbles and methane sands and being spattered with a steady downpour of fat methane raindrops. But as the details came into greater clarity, his unconscious mind started spasming with the familiar panic. This was a familiar place, but for all the wrong reasons.

The only sound Darius heard inside his helmet, drowning out even the chaos spilling out of his comms, was his own ragged breathing. He could feel the weight of the EVA suit tugging at his shoulders, and the shape of the rifle he carried as he climbed the hill. When he crested the ridge at the top, he was met with a wall of fire from across a low ravine. He could vaguely sense the other Spacers all around him, also clambering up the hill or tumbling down the reverse slope, their own rifles held useless in their free hands as they tried to slow their disorganized descent. His breathing pounded arrhymically in his ears all the while.

For all the fear charging through his mind, Darius could not shake himself from the nightmare. Some part of him could not let go. Some part of him almost wanted to play it out again, as if to make things right this time. All around him his fellow commandos were rushing up the next hill, and shouting on the company-wide channel. Darius ignored them—he was so filled with adrenaline that he could focus on his hill to climb.

He saw himself shooting Draconists at point blank range. One of them was young. Maybe seventeen. He was a boy doing a man’s job. Darius was a man that did it better. The boy locked eyes with Darius as his blade slid between the kid's ribs. That kid begged him not to but Darius couldn’t hear him.

Darius knew it wasn’t real. It was like he was watching a recording of himself through his own eyes. He was screaming, but he could not hear it. All he heard was the pounding of blood in the veins near his ears.

A Draconist militiaman came at Darius, swinging a pickaxe over his head, and he blocked it with his rifle. Then he sank his knife into the man’s neck. The enemy grimaced inside his helmet. Darius was still screaming, shouting with terror and exhilaration. Death surrounded him like a fog.

The end of the dream was as predictable and inescapable as the rest. He lay in the icy sand, watching thick methane raindrops splash on his bubble helmet. His breathing was ragged, but measured. But something was off this time. An unexpected sound pecked at his mind. It was a steady, monotone beep. The sound continued steadily, growing louder, closer. Then Darius’ eyes finally snapped open.

He came to at the sound of his tablet ringing on the table, and found that he’d grabbed his sidearm in his sleep. He placed the pistol on the coffee table before reaching over to hit the connect button. Lieutenant Hoskins looked irritated onscreen. “Dammit, Maroney. I thought you were just catching a cat nap.”

Darius looked around his apartment. For just a moment, he could have sworn he smelled methane. “Just gathering my thoughts,” he lied after a moment. “What’s the situation?”

“There’s been a development in the case. I need you to check out a crime scene in Ward Six, right away. I’ll send you the files, you can check them over on the way over.” His voice darkened a degree as he added, “Keep your head on a swivel, kid. This whole mess may be kicking off faster than we anticipated.”

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