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Doing Freedom masthead

Bounty Hunter

Carl Bussjaeger

The private craft Roadrunner drifted down in Pallas' nearly nonexistent gravitational field like an earthly snowflake. She was a stubby pile of spheres, one life support globe atop a set of reaction mass tanks surrounding a well-shielded NERVA-class nuke motor; her ungainly appearance belied her graceful fall to the waiting 'spaceport' landing zone. RCS attitude jets braked the ship to a gentle touchdown on the rough-graded surface. Port handlers clipped anchoring tethers and APU cables to her hull, and one suited figure waved toward the asteroid's 'Port dome when they finished.

In the Roadrunner's control room, a radio receiver crackled to life. "Hello, Roadrunner," greeted a male voice with a twang reminiscent of old Kansas. "You're tied, and got station power to you. Shut her down, and welcome to Pallas."

Dmitry Ross keyed his transmitter and replied, "Thanks, Control. Give me a few minutes to settle things and I'll head over." The stocky man, dark haired but pasty-faced, toggled switches and checked displays. He spoke to the radio once again. "I'll leave her unbuttoned for your folks. I'll be wanting a top off for the tanks."

"Sure thing, Roadrunner. Distilled water? Or are you pushing H-two?" the port controller inquired. Some nukes drives were fairly open-minded about their propellant, but this new arrival didn't have the look of a go-anywhere-and-eat-anything mining vessel.

"Just water, Control," Dmitry elaborated. "I'll need about 25,000 liters." He flipped more switches, eyed comp screens, and wrapped up the Roadrunner's power down sequence; reactor off-line, auxillary functions running on Pallas' Port-supplied electricity.

"Gotcha," Control twanged back. "That's gonna be about 250 Marks."

"Right, Control," Dmitry acknowledged. "You take Ceres Credit, or do you prefer gold?" It amounted to the same thing, most of the Asteroid Belt being on an informal gold standard.

"Either's good for me, Roadrunner."

"Credit it is, then. See you in a few." Dmitry cleared the comm. After a last glance over the board, he locked it down and moved to the small ship's minimal lock. As is the norm for traveling Belters, he was already suited up in a skintight partial pressure suit. He quickly checked his 'breather pak and locked down his helmet for vacuum. He gathered up two bags waiting in elastic webbing, entered the lock, and cycled through.

As he exited the lock, he discovered that the ground crew had clipped a guide line to a ring by the hatch. He ran a lanyard from his suit harness to the line and pulled himself along to the control dome. Mascons might provide more gravity at some locations on Pallas, but near the 'Port acceleration was less than five-hundredths of a g. He was glad of the line.

When he had cycled through the 'Port's airlock, he pulled off his helmet and looked around. To his right he spotted a door labeled 'Portmaster - Fees here.' He opened the door and moved in.

As portmaster offices went, Ceres put it to shame. A large desk, massively constructed to stay still in low-grav, sat centered between two equipment racks; one was obviously comp servers, while the other had the look of comm gear. The walls were well decorated with pinups and printer sheets of ship schedules and administrative trivia. A tubby, balding man behind the desk looked up from his comp deck and said, "Roadrunner?" in a radio-familiar twang.

Dimity nodded. "Yep," he confirmed. "I'm Dmitry Ross. I'd like to get landing and reaction mass fees out of the way." He placed his bags against the floor, and offered a hand to the portmaster.

As they clasped hands, the tubby individual introduced himself. "Robby Burke. Pallas Portmaster, such as it is. Glad to meet you." He reached to his desktop and grabbed a sheet of paper that threatened to float away in an air current from a vent. "Landing runs 30 marks. Berthing is another 20 per day. Water is a penny per liter."

"Okay." The ship owner shrugged; fair enough. He nodded and reached into one of his bags and retrieved a credit card which he handed to the stout portmaster. "Go ahead and charge the 25,000 liters and landing fee." He pursed his lips and stared at the far wall as he thought for a moment. "I don't rightly know how long I'll be here..." He reached a decision. "Let me pay a week in advance. If I stay longer, I'll make new arrangements. Is that cool?"

"Good 'nough." Burke took the proffered card and ran it through a strip reader. "Not a problem. You here on business or pleasure?" Idle chitchat while he waited for the transaction to process.

"Bit of both, perhaps," Dmitry replied. "Business really; but I may enjoy it."

"What sort of business you in, Mr. Ross?" Burke inquired. "If you don't mind me asking. That's no miner you have parked out there." Roadrunner had never been scarred for such work, lacking the prospector/miner's capacious work holds, cargo nets, or over-sized propellant tanks.

Dmitry smiled proudly. "Nope. A Berensen Fast Courier. She's not much for cargo, but she'll get around right quick. A good, extended third g boost." Shrug. "I don't have much call to move rock, but I can get anywhere I need to be fairly quickly." He eyed the portmaster appraisingly, then slid his datapad from a thigh pocket. "My business is this man." He called up a picture of a young man. "Name's Kevin Engels. Somebody told me I might find him here."

Burke accepted the 'pad and peered closely at the image. He fixed Dmitry in a grave stare. "Bounty hunter?" he asked quietly.

"Yep," Dmitry admitted readily. "Ceres Civil Liberties hired me. Engels skipped on an arbitration ruling."

"I suppose you have some docs to back that up?" Burke asked carefully. Contract enforcement was one thing, but he had no desire to get himself or Pallas dragged into a private feud.

Dmitry handed over a datacard. "Documentation's all there. And I'll post bond for for comm charges to verify with Ceres."

"Don't worry about communications bond," Burke said. "We like to handle that automatically anyway. No charge." He relaxed a little, glad that the forms were being met, and sighed. "But the fact is, I don't recognize your man. Not to say he isn't here; but the face doesn't look familiar." The portmaster turned back to his comp and tapped keys. After he moment he said, "Probably be tomorrow morning before we have your bona fides cleared. Why don't you get checked into a hotel and relax for a while?"

"Sure. That'll be fine," Dmitry agreed. "Any recommendations?" A safe question, as there probably wasn't a portmaster in space who didn't augment his salary with some informal advertising fees.

"Depends on what you like. But Casey's is just down the access tube; reasonable rates, and pretty comfortable. Not too fancy, though."

Dmitry smiled. "All right, then. I'll be there, if they aren't filled up. Just leave a message when the clearance hits."

"Will do." Burke handed the spacer's charge card back, along with the 'card. "What'd your guy do, anyway?" he indulged in a bit of understandable curiosity.

"Killed a woman." Dmitry smiled grimly. "That's why this is business and pleasure." He gathered his bags. "Which way to the tube?"

Burke was shaking his head. "Killing and running on the judgment. Damn. Takes all kinds, I suppose." He sighed, then tipped his head towards the doorway. "Just keep following the hallway and through the lock at the end. Casey's is about 300 meters down on the right."

"Thanks." Dmitry smiled politely. "Have a nice day." He moved into the hall, oriented himself, and headed out.

The next morning found Dmitry seated in the diner adjoining his hotel finishing a large, calorie-laden breakfast. He washed down a last bite of blueberry muffin with some excellent coffee. His waitress glided over and refilled his cup. Dimity admired the low-grav flow of her long black hair. As she moved away, Dmitry spotted Robby Burke standing framed in the doorway, scanning the dining room. He waved and caught the man's eye. "Good morning," he greeted the portmaster. "Any chance you were looking for me?"

Burke walked over to the spacer's table with a cheerful grin plastered across his face."Sure 'nuff, Mr. Ross," he answered. "Your docs checked. I've logged you on the public boards as an official Arbitrator's Rep. You shouldn't have any trouble." He eyed the scraps of tasty breakfast on Dmitry's plate longingly. His tubbiness was fairly earned.

"Well, thank you, sir." Dmitry gestured to the empty chair across the table. "Would you join me for a cup of coffee? Maybe a little snack?"

Burke declined graciously, if a bit regretfully; Maria was known as a fine cook. "I appreciate the offer, but I need to get to Control. I just wanted to be sure you got your go-ahead. We don't welcome skippers on Pallas. If he's here, I want to help you all I can."

"You have already, Mr. Burke. I thank you." He wiped at his lips, and rose from his seat. "I do believe it's time for me to get to work." He dropped a few coins on the table, and headed for the door, patting at pockets to verify the contents. The waitress smiled and wished him a nice day. In the corridor the two men went their separate ways.

A reasonably competent bounty hunter, Dmitry had long since acquainted himself with the habits that had landed Kevin Engels in trouble in the first place. He started his search in the port bars, starting in the mid-price range and working down. He hit pay dirt in the third establishment.

"Yep, I think I know him," the bartender confirmed, looking at the datapad display. The big guy was a little grubby; but then, so was his bar. Still, he was helpful enough once he'd checked with the Portmaster's office. "But the guy I'm thinking of goes by the name 'Ken Angelo'." He sniffed. "Not 'specially original, I guess."

It did sound promising. Dmitry pursed his lips. "But the face is familiar?" he pressed. He reached over the scarred plastic serving counter to finger a sequence into the 'pad; a series of candid pix of his target flicked across the small screen.

The bartender looked again, wiped the 'pad on his apron, then handed it back to the bounty hunter. "Sure looks like him, anyway. You say he's a skipper?" Misfits skipping out on debts were a bane of businessmen across the wide open Belt.

Dmitry shrugged. "Engels is. If your Angelo is the same man, then... Yeah, he ran out on an arbitration ruling on Ceres six months ago." He drummed his fingers on the datapad's brushed titanium case. You know where I can find this guy?"

The barman snorted. "Well, since he isn't in here right now, I assume he's in another bar." Angelo's lifestyle certainly seemed to match that of the deadbeat miscreant. "If he works, I've never heard of it. I think he sold his ship when he got here, and's just drinking up the proceeds."

Dmitry snorted disgust. "Sounds more and more like Engels." He slipped the pad back into its pocket and bounced off his stool. "I'm going to work my way down the corridor. If he should happen to come in, could you send word?" He placed a generous tip on the bar to add a little punctuation and incentive.

Metal disappeared into an apron pocket. "Sure," the bartender said agreeably. "Happy to help. We don't need skipper trash around here. Place'll get as bad as Earth if we don't take care."

Dmitry chuckled lightly. "I don't think we're in too much danger of that." With the Launcher Company's example in bucking big government, the outward migration to the belt had been at least as politically - or apolitically - motivated as economic; spacers held little truck with useless parasites. "Thanks again." He headed out the door.

Two bars down, he found a small party happening. He grinned at the sight of the merrymakers and moved to the bar. He flagged down the bartender and ordered a lager. When the beer arrived, he slid silver coins across the bar.

"Whoa, man! You're overpaying a bit," the bartender corrected. "The same in copper is more like it."

Dmitry shook his head. "Nope. I'm looking for some help and data, too." He pulled out his datapad, Engels' pix already scrolling by. "I'm an Arbitration Rep out of Ceres this trip." The bartender cocked an eyebrow at that. "Portmaster has my docs on the public board," Dmitry amplified.

"Bounty hunter?" the other man asked. Dmitry nodded. "Let's see your pad." Dmitry called up an ID file and handed the pad over. The bartender looked it over suspiciously, and stepped over to the shop comp. Blocking Dmitry's view of the screen, he punched buttons. He watched the screen for a few moments. Then he seemed to relax. He returned with Dmitry's pad. "All righty. Robby says you're okay." He offered a hand, which the Rep accepted. "I'm Cholly. So who ya looking for?"

Dmitry expanded the Engels display again. "This guy. Kevin Engels. I hear there's a Ken Angelo around here who bears a striking resemblance to him."

Cholly glanced at the screen. "That he does. And if you turn around and look over in the corner, you'll probably think so, too." The now-helpful shopkeeper gestured with his head.

The bounty hunter was startled and showed it. "Damn! He's here now?" How the hell had he missed him?

"Yep." Cholly waved towards a dark corner table. "Just came in a few minutes aheada you. "So, ah... What did he do?"

"If he's my man, he's a killer and a skipper." He peered into the darkness. Yeah, that could be him.

Cholly's eyes widened abruptly. "Well. What do you say we go find out?" He lifted a hinged section of the bartop, and stepped into the common area. "Come on." He led the way through the crowd of happy hangers-out to the suspect's table. When they reached the lone seated figure, Cholly spoke again. "Hey, Angelo!"

The man raised a dour face from his glass to stare sourly at the bartender. "Whatta ya want, Cholly?"

"Got a man here who'd like to talk to you," Cholly replied. He stepped to the side to let Dmitry move up.

The bounty hunter glanced at his datapad display and compared the image with the face before him. He nodded. "Kevin Engels?" he inquired.

The drinker tensed suddenly. His eyes narrowed and he stared at Dmitry. "No, man. My name's Angelo. Ken Angelo." One hand slid out of sight beneath the scratched steel table top.

Dmitry noted the movement. "Perhaps it is now," he allowed generously. "But my data indicates that you are also one Kevin Engels, currently in arrears on restitution payments." Other bar patrons were beginning to take notice of the proceedings. A few drew closer to satisfy their curiosity. The establishment began to grow quiet as word of the inquiry spread rapidly. The hunter continued. "I'm Dmitry Ross, acting as an authorized agent for Ceres Civil Liberties, with whom Kevin Engels entered into binding arbitration." He stared into the seated man's eyes. "I have cause to believe you to be Kevin Engels. Are you?"

"Hell, no!" the man muttered. "Go bother someone else."

Dmitry reached into a belt pouch and removed a small bag, which he tossed onto the table. "Sir, I ask that you submit to a fingerprint and retinal check to compare your identity with Kevin Engels." He pointed at the bag. "I'm posting ten ounces of gold as a bond to compensate you for the inconvenience if I should be mistaken."

"Jam off, buggerboy," the man retorted. "You ain't printing me." He raised his glass and gulped down the amber fluid. "I got rights, and I don't have to do that!"

"Sir, if you aren't Engels, you have nothing to lose but two minutes of your time. And you'll make an easy thousand marks. I see no reason why you wouldn't care to cooperate." A small, unpleasant smile bordering on a sneer grew. "Unless, of course, you are Engels, and thus seriously in arrears."

"Hum me, Ross, or whatever your name is," the man replied angrily. "I don't have to do nothing."

Dmitry considered the situation. "No, you don't." He turned to Cholly, who had watched the brief exchange less than happily. "Have you noted this man's lack of cooperation?" he asked.

"Sure have." Cholly addressed Angelo. "Get up. Get out. Stay out. You'll do no business here."

Angelo looked back up blankly. "What?"

"Get out of my bar, Angelo. Engels. Whatever." Unconsciously, Cholly flexed enlarged biceps. Beer might not weigh much in five percent gravity, but they still massed enough to give a working man a workout. It showed on the displeased bartender.

"Hey, man; you can't do that!" Angelo objected. "I'm a customer!" He raised his empty glass as supporting evidence.

"It's my bar. I pick my customers. And you aren't one anymore." Cholly pointed towards the door. "Print for the man, or get out now." Cholly's voice had gone flat. There was no other sound in the bar. Someone had even killed the music deck. He glanced over his shoulder at one of his barbacks. "Aleksey, make the rounds down the corridor. Make sure every body knows what's up." The kid nodded and headed to the front door.

"Wait a minute," Angelo called. "Don't do that." He stood and faced the bounty hunter. "Yeah, I'm Engels," he admitted. "What of it?"

Dmitry nodded to himself in satisfaction. He pulled a sheath of papers from his left thigh pocket. "Engels, on July 4, 2028 you got drunk and decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by popping off a few rounds from your sidearm. Unfortunately, you did this in the main dome. One round struck and killed Tatyana Thompson. On July 11th you agreed to a binding arbitration hearing in which you were ordered to pay Tatyana's children 100,000 Marks as restitution for the loss of their mother. Instead of making arrangements to begin payment, on July 12th you boarded your spacecraft Teapot and absconded." He sneered at the criminal. "And now I've found you."

Engels' hidden hand crept closer to his pistol grip. "Yeah, and what are you gonna do? Haul me back?" He tensed to rise quickly.

Dmitry tossed the bundle of papers at the man. Startled, Engels started to draw. Incredibly faster, Dmitry had his own gun out first. With the muzzle resting on the bridge of Engels' nose, he said, "You really don't want to do that."

White-faced, with eyes crossed to stare at the muzzle, Engels released his pistol and let it slide back into its holster. "Now what?" he whispered hoarsely. He spread his legs to relieve the discomfort of the sudden wetness that had appeared in his crotch.

Still sneering, Dmitry returned his old fashioned revolver back in his own holster. "Now what depends on you," he said.

"You taking me back to Ceres?" The prospect apparently struck Engels as little better than facing Dmitry's gunhandling skills again.

"Of course not," Dmitry replied, looking slightly puzzled. "That would be kidnapping. I'm just here as an agent to collect your payment on a contract."

Engels looked scared. He knew that skippers weren't well-received in most locales. "But I can't pay. I'm broke." Admit the worst, hope for the best.

Dmitry shook his head. "Word is you sold Teapot when you got here. You have money." But not much, if the file description of Engels' ship meant much.

"It's gone," Engel said hoarsely. He eyed the bar patrons surrounding him, and licked at the beads of sweat forming on his upper lip.

Dmitry's eyes closed to thin slits. "I demand that you make good on your voluntarily incurred debt," he intoned formally.

"I can't."

Dmitry stared him down. "If you can't make full payment, make a partial payment as a show of good faith, and arrange to complete restitution in a manner acceptable to your creditors."

"I can't, I tell you. I'm broke." Engels was looking panicky. Perhaps his bladder would be cutting loose if it hadn't already.

Cholly spoke up. "What do you mean you're broke, Angel... Engels?" he corrected himself. "Can you even pay me?" he demanded. The bar tab was minimal, but Cholly meant to get his claim in, too.

Engels hung his head in silence. Dmitry mumbled an obscenity and turned to the bartender. "Can I use your printer? I have to post him on the Post Net. And I'd appreciate it if you'd post him on Pallas' board." Engels had had his chance to make good; now, per Belt custom, the word would be out that he was a deadbeat skipper. Social ostracism might drive him to find a way to make restitution.

Cholly nodded. "No problem." He looked at Engels and spat, splattering the man's shoes. "You jammin' scum. You killed that woman. You left her kids with no momma. And you won't even try to make right." His arms tensed as he slowly clenched his fists. "Get out," he whispered. He looked back to Dmitry. "Let's get this piece of scheisse posted." The two turned their backs to Engels and moved to the bar.

Engels stood and looked across the faces of the watching patrons. He saw disgust on every face. No one said a word as he picked his way through the tables to leave.

Several minutes later, volunteers were carrying hastily printed handbills, hot off Cholly's printer, to to every other bar in the corridor. And Cholly had already posted notice of Engels' failure on the asteroid's public comp board. A version countersigned by Dmitry Ross had been forwarded to the offices of Ceres Civil Liberties, who would see to it that a paid notice was placed on every Post Net node server in the Belt. The skipper's name, face, and compounded offense would be common knowledge across the System in days.

By the end of the day Kevin Engels was an outcast. Not just socially, but bodily; he had also been in arrears on his rent. When word of his inability to pay, and refusal to make restitution reached his landlady, she locked him out. Her kids were were picking through Engels' meager belongings to find something worth selling to recoup lost rent. Not even the soup kitchens would have him. Engels spent a very uncomfortable night sleeping in the city commons.

Three days later, Dmitry was still grounded on Pallas, enjoying another in a series of Maria's fine breakfasts. The portmaster found him there dawdling over coffee and artfully prepared eggs.

Dmitry glanced up as Burke approached his table. "Morning," he said cheerfully. "Have a seat. Want some coffee?" he offered.

"Don't mind if I do," Burke accepted. He planted himself in the enameled steel chair across the small table from the bounty hunter and watched him with a curious expression. Dmitry smiled and gestured to the long haired waitress, who gathered up another mug, saucer, and the coffee carafe.

Dmitry sipped coffee and grinned at his guest. "It's a fine morning today, wouldn't you say? Even the air smells fresher." For no apparent reason, he seemed to find that rather amusing.

Burke played along. "Ought to be. Hydroponics finally got around to cleaning out a few stale trays. And I heard they've got some roses just started blooming."

That also tickled the arbitration rep's funny bone. "Just roses? No daisies by any chance?" he wondered idly.

A frown creased Burke's forehead. "No, not that I know of." He raised his coffee and sniffed at it.

"Too bad. It would have been so... appropriate," Dmitry said cryptically. He raised his own mug in a little toast. "To debts paid in full." That part at least made sense to the portmaster. He returned the toast, then Dmitry pushed on. "So what can I do for you today, Mr. Burke?" he asked with a sly grin.

Burke poured a dollop of milk into his coffee. As he stirred, he replied, "Actually, I was wondering about the same thing." He blew on the hot beverage, then sipped. Smiling slightly, he continued. "Seems to me you did what you came for a few days ago. I was wondering why you're still here."

"Oh, dear. You aren't running me out of town, are you, sir?" Dmitry asked, sipping at his own coffee.

"Oh, heck no." Burke shook his head. "I just had the impression when you landed that you were planning to leave as soon as business was taken care of. So I'm curious. What else is up?"

Dmitry grinned. "Ah, but business isn't quite finished. But I think it will be soon. Your people have fueled Roadrunner?" he asked.

"Oh, sure. We took care of that your first night here. And it only came to 24,000 liters or so. You have a refund coming," the portmaster added.

Dmitry nodded in satisfaction. "Thank you." Then, "I checked schedules on the board last night. I understand quarterly air fees were due yesterday."

Burke blinked, surprised at the non sequitur. "Sure. But you don't owe. As a transient, your air fees are covered by the berthing fee. You're paid up."

"Oh, I'm not worried about myself," Dmitry declared. "But how do you suppose Mr. Engels plans to pay?"

Burke's face lit with enlightenment. "Ah! I see. I wonder..." The tubby man fished his datapad from a pants pocket. He fingered commands. "My, my. It seems that Mr. Engels hasn't paid his air fees. He hasn't even asked for an extension." He looked up and flashed Dmitry an evil grin. "We should probably do something about that."

"Indeed," Dmitry concurred happily. He sipped coffee. "I imagine that he can be found in the commons park this time of day. Apparently he isn't welcome anywhere else on Pallas." He chuckled delightedly.

Burke smiled and stood. "Mr. Ross, as fine as Maria's coffee is, I think some things should come first. Would you care to join me?" He gestured to the door.

"I would be delighted. If you'd give me a moment." He stepped towards the kitchen. "Maria!" he called.

A woman's voice answered. "Si?"

"I'm stepping out for a few minutes. Would you place my breakfast in the warmer till I get back?"

"Of course, Mr. Dmitry. If you are gone too long, I make you fresh omelet."

"Thanks, Maria." He turned back to Burke. "Shall we see what we can see?"

"Certainly," the portmaster replied.

Along the way to the park, Burke made stops at various businesses. After brief explanations, some proprietors, and not a few customers, joined them. By the time they reached the park, they had a veritable parade. The good folk of Pallas dispersed through park searching for their wayward skipper. The commons being fairly small as such places go, it wasn't very long at all before they found Kevin Engels, and brought him to the portmaster.

Dimitry hung near the back of the small crowd interspersed among the little hardwood saplings and low bushes which enlivened the park. Robbie Burke stood in the shadow of an older and larger tree, as if he needed protection from the glare of the dome lighting. He looked down his nose at the vagrant and tsked. Really.

"Now what?" Engels asked bitterly. He looked around him suspiciously, and spotted the bounty hunter, whom he awarded a fierce glare. "You've already ruined my life. What more do you want?"

Dmitry corrected him. "Engels, no one ruined your life but you. You have the sole responsibility for your own actions and inactions. Don't blame anyone else." Then he smiled at the man. "But as it happens, I have nothing else for you. I'm just tagging along with these fine folks, and enjoying a stroll in the park." He chuckled evilly. "But I do believe they have business with you."

"Indeed, Mr. Ross," Burke said graciously. "Quite so." He stepped forward. "Mr. Engels," he began formally.

Engels sighed. "What already?" Dirty from sleeping on the ground for days, and sore because even a twentieth of a g didn't make up for rocks in a makeshift bed, he really didn't need this shit.

"Are you aware of the date?" Burke asked. "And the significance of said date?"

"Sure. January fourth--what of it?" What the hell?

Burke made a dramatic show of referring to his datapad. "Do you realize that yesterday was the deadline for paying quarterly air fees?" He tapped idly on the case waiting for a response.

Air fees? "Oh, Jesus Christ!" Engels exploded. "You know flippin' well that I'm broke!"

"Indeed." Burke smirked. "Have you made arrangements for a delayed payment?" Then in a stage whisper to the gathered throng, which was attracting more inquisitive persons, "Of course, as the representative of Pallas Port, I know he hasn't. But forms must be met." Light chuckles erupted from the crowd.

Engels stood red-faced with anger. "I'll pay my fees. I just have to scrape up the money. Gimme some time."

"Time, Mr. Engels, is something you lack. Frankly, I don't see how you could 'scrape up' the money. You are still unemployed, I believe?" He elevated an inquiring eyebrow toward the dome roof.

"I'll get a flippin' job!" the exasperated skipper shouted.

"With whom, I wonder?" Burke turned deadly serious. "Who on this entire world do you believe is willing to offer you employment, Engels? With your record?" He sneered. "You've run up debts. You have a public record of skipping on restitution. Who's going to hire you?"

The implications began to sink in. Engels' eyes widened as he turned his face down to the ground. His feet began scuffing at the thinly growing grass. "Now wait a minute. You've got to give me a chance..."

"Actually, we need do no such thing. But I'm feeling vaguely generous." Burke turned to the waiting crowd. "Is anyone here willing to employ Mr. Engels?" he asked.

"I don't think so," returned an anonymous voice. The only other answer was general laughter.

Burke made a show of sighing. He faced Engels again. "Sorry. It seems you're still unable to pay." His grin split his face. "I'm going to have to ask you to stop breathing our air. Now."

Engels' face paled. He began backing away from the crowd. His eyes showed white with panic. "Hey, man... You can't ..."

"Wanna bet?" Burke replied quietly. Then he spoke to the watchers again. "If you fine people would be so kind as to assist me..."

Engel's resistance was valiant - the only such act in his miserable life - but futile. With two enforcers per limb, and a couple more holding his torso, he was escorted quickly to the nearest airlock - 'escort' being the polite term for involuntary body surfing.

Dmitry watched, not happily but satisfied. It went quickly. Someone who bore a striking resemblance to Cholly the bartender punched buttons and turned the manual crank to open the inner lock door. On a three-count, the premature pall-bearers tossed their screaming burden into the lock, which was slammed shut on the terror-stricken Engels' hands. He clutched at the door frame and begged that he at least be given his pressure suit. Some kind soul reminded him that he had sold it part and parcel with his ship, and pried his fingers loose. The lock door slammed closed with a muffled thump. The latches engaged as meaty fingers pressed more buttons.

The portmaster formally made a last check of the status of Engels' air fee account. He shook his head sadly, flipped a bright red safety cover open, and depressed a palm sized emergency evac release. Engels clawed at the lock viewport as pressure dumped. Fortunately for the state of the watchers' stomachs, he passed out and slipped from view before the display became too graphic. Dmitry watched the lock until the crowd began to break up, and a couple of maintenance workers arrived with mops, buckets, and a body bag. He felt a little sick...

But satisfied.

Afterwards Burke walked back to the restaurant with Dmitry. "Would it be a safe assumption that your business is concluded now?" Burke asked facetiously.

"Yes, I do believe so," Dmitry allowed. His stomach had settled, and his conscience was pleased. "I'll just finish breakfast and check out of Casey's. After checks, I should be ready to lift by 1300." He held the restaurant door for Burke and waved the man in.

When they were seated, Maria brought fresh coffee and Dmitry's warmed omelet.

"Mind if I ask a personal question, Mr. Ross?" Burke began slowly.

Dmitry swallowed a bit of omelet and replied, "To quote that annoying bastard Kirk, 'You can always ask'."

The stout portmaster chose his words carefully, aware that he was treading on privacy. "I couldn't help but notice that you seemed to take the Engels case very seriously. Was there..." He paused for a second, "...something personal at stake?" The chubby portmaster fidgeted and continued. "Was ...um, Tatyana Thompson someone special?"

Dmitry stopped eating and set his fork down. He took a deep breath before answering. "Yes, and no. Show me someone who isn't special to somebody. Certainly she was special to her kids." He sighed. "But in the way you mean? To me specifically?" His head shook in definite negation. "In fact, I don't think I ever met the woman."

Burke frowned. "Then why the special attention to Engels?"

Dmitry closed his eyes for a moment. "Not too many years ago I was a cop on Earth. Want to guess why I gave that up and came here?"

"Aside from the reasons any of us left? 'Voting with your feet,' a new life, open spaces..." Burke iterated the usual causes. "But I suppose you have something else in mind."

Oh, yeah," Dmitry said emphatically. "I quit because I got sick of watching people get hurt, only to have the official system grant more rights and protections to admitted criminals than their victims." He blinked back what Burke was sure were tears. "But out here everyone is on an equal footing. No fancy courts: just people acting fairly, more or less. No escape clauses so a drunken killer can duck responsibility; just a society that expects him to fix what he did. And I can help make sure it stays that way." He snorted. "An American court back on Earth would be horrified by what happened today. But everything was centered on recognizing every person's rights and responsibilities. I like that. "Engels had every possible chance. His case was heard in a hearing he specifically agreed to. He helped pick the arbitrator. He agreed to the restitution. Three days ago, he could have begged Cholly for a job washing dishes and offered partial payment. But he couldn't be bothered." Dmitry relaxed and smiled. "And now he won't ever be bothered, or bother anyone, again. "I'm happy."

(c)2002 Doing Freedom Magazine


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