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Chapter Twelve: Give and Take

Lieutenant Ning Yuanhui sat at his desk in the small office he shared with three other officers, staring at the data. Something didn’t fit, even though when he looked at the reports that summarized the information, everything was fine.

Ning recognized a deep laugh from the hall, and a familiar shape walked past his door.

“Ibrahim!” Ning called out, and the burly security chief returned to the doorway, poking his head in. “Could you take a look at this and see if you can figure out what’s wrong?”

The large man strode in, snatched a chair from an unoccupied desk and sat down. “Something about Istanzia?”

Ning shook his head. “No…although there was some weird stuff there I found, this is about one of the older discs.”

“Weird?” Ibrahim readjusted himself so he could see Ning’s screen.

“Just that the heavier levels aren’t just for utility or exercise or other stuff we normally equate with the lower levels of a disc. They actually have living quarters and work areas there.” Ning waved his hand dismissively and pointed to a few lines on his screen. “But that’s just weird, not against any regulations. This…” he turned the screen so Ibrahim could see better, “this is concerning…I think.”

“Agatea?” Ibrahim asked. “Richie rich folks who work in finance?” He raised his eyebrows. “The place where Earthers stash their money to avoid taxes in their own countries?”

“Yes, that Agatea,” Ning said. “But look at the module’s utility numbers, especially the water.”

Ibrahim furrowed his brow and studied the lines Ning pointed out. “Their wastewater flow is greater than their incoming flow. That isn’t too weird, is it?”

Ning shook his head again. “No, those numbers can go either way, especially for a module that has a lot of commerce going through. They import fancy drinking water, not to mention dozens of other small things that can affect the incoming and outgoing numbers.” He brought up another data set. “But not only are these numbers way off from the usual discrepancy we see from your average disc, but the monthly report shows an entirely different number than I get if I do the math myself.”

Ibrahim looked at the numbers on the screen. “I’d say that warrants an informal audit, at the very least.” He stood up. “I’ll ask Szajda to look into it.”

“Before the separation drill?”

“Definitely before the separation drill.”

Ibrahim ducked out the door, and Ning stared at the numbers, wondering whether there was something he simply didn’t understand about the values, or whether someone had tampered with the reports to hide the discrepancy. Szajda, the chief of habitat engineering, would know.

“Shirley, I’m going for a walk,” Ning told the office AI, standing abruptly.

“Acknowledged,” she responded. Ning considered for a moment giving her more details about where he was going and why, but he wasn’t even sure what that was.

He decided to leave the command module the complicated way instead of going to the pod bay and shuttling over to the government complex to take the intra-station trans. He needed time to think, and it gave him a sense of purpose to walk the convoluted route that connected the command module to the public parts of the Chʼil Awoshí.

Hardly anyone else was in the microgravity corridor that connected the spinning section of ops to the rest of the station. Ning propelled himself along, ignoring the current set of artwork that adorned the walls. He coughed loudly in time for someone coming the other way, who wasn’t paying close attention, to move over to their side of the corridor instead of flipping through the center. If Ning wasn’t on duty, he might turn a few flips too. That never got old. But it was child’s play. The true test of a spaceman was how far one could launch themselves without ever having to touch the sides or grab a handhold.

Once he was in the public corridor, he considered pedestrianing it the rest of the way, but Discworld was several kilometers away and it simply didn’t make sense. He entered a pod and let the system whisk him away in the most efficient way possible.

Ning exited the pod at the major station in Ankh-Morpork. He wanted to get a sense of what was considered a normal disc. He lived in officers’ quarters in the command module, which were small and somewhat old-fashioned, but very close to work. He also found it reassuring that, if they ever did need to separate the command module, he’d still be able to go home.

The central core of each disc was designed to fit perfectly to any other. There were corridors for pedestrians, tubes for the transit pods, and various utilities that ran the length of Discworld. Ankh-Morpork had a bustling ring of market stalls, restaurants, and low-gee playplaces surrounding its central core, but Ning ignored those and moved on. Some discs were terribly boring, with only an “employees only” at the entrance to the lower levels. A few were welcoming, leading off into residential areas or business complexes.

Agatea was elegant, though not ostentatious. Surrounding their central core was a ring with a hugely vaulted ceiling, what would have been a vast waste of space in the old days. Below him was a meandering path of golden bricks, weaving through a lush landscape of blooming flowers. Above the path and off to one side was a carousel of moving cubbies. Several ramps led down to a point where it was easy to float down into the carousel.

This close to the hub, the apparent gravity was still almost null. Ning pulled himself down the ramp and discovered it was magnetized; his shoes clung just enough to help him maneuver. Only a few people were using the carousel, and all of them were poised so they could step out of the cubby and float down to the path when they reached the section they wanted to enter. Ning easily “fell” lightly into an empty cubby from the end of the ramp.

“May I help you?” asked a female voice, he assumed an AI. Ning had thought about this on the ride to Discworld. Most of Agatea’s sections were either office space or housing and a stranger “just passing by” had no legitimate reason to enter. His uniform might get him inside, but it would raise suspicion.

A few areas, though, were designed for visitors. “The Baoshí Zhan,” he answered.

“The Baoshí Zhan,” the computer echoed. “Located off corridor H. Please step off the carousel when the counter reaches zero.”

A display lit up with twenty-two, and counted down every second. Ning watched the path below him. The carousel felt like it was turning with the spin of the disc, but slightly faster. There were a few people walking below, and drones cleverly disguised as hummingbirds flitted from place to place. He spotted two security guards and suspected there were more. If he hadn’t explicitly stated his destination, he probably would have been approached by one and asked what he was doing there.

When the counter reached zero, Ning stepped off the carousel and gently floated the last few meters to the path below. His feet snapped to it, allowing him some control in the ultra-light space. He walked along the path just a few more meters, finding corridor H easily.

There was a bank of lift doors, and a sign that clearly labeled the Baoshí Zhan as well as several other businesses on the corridor. Ning entered the first lift that opened, pushed the button for the Baoshí Zhan, and held on tightly to the safety bars as the lift took him down, away from the hub.

“Greetings Lieutenant,” the deep-voiced receptionist greeted him as he stepped through the doors. Ning was impressed. Most of the Chʼil Awoshí’s citizens would see his uniform and register ‘random officer.’ Very few would recognize his rank insignia.

“Good afternoon!” Ning said in a cheerful tone. “I have a modest savings, intended for retirement, and I’m considering investing in rare earth metals.” It wasn’t a lie. He did have a tidy sum stashed away, and rare earth metals were a good investment.

“Wonderful!” the receptionist said. “Now, if I could just get some basic information from you, one of our representatives will be right out to help you.”

Ning spent the next hour and a half discussing the various precious resources being mined in the solar system, whether or not new techniques might soon make them much easier to acquire and refine, and how it would affect the market if an exceptionally large deposit were to be found. A small part of him felt guilty because he was finding it interesting and enjoyable, while another part of him also felt guilty because his prime reason for visiting was essentially to spy on them and figure out if there was anything suspicious.

He realized five minutes into the conversation that he was a terrible spy. Yes, Agatea was luxuriously appointed, with fountains and foliage to make any other module green with jealousy. But they were wealthy, that was expected.

He wished he knew how much was too much. There were new river-discs added to Discworld regularly, to handle the growing needs of the population. Agatea happened to be adjacent to one.

“It has been a pleasure doing business with you!” the associate said, shaking his hand after a large chunk of his savings had been converted to a diverse investment in rare earth metals and other resources being mined in ever greater quantities from the moon, Mars, and the asteroids. “May I offer you one of our guest pods to return you home?”

Ning’s mind went immediately to some regulation he vaguely remembered about officers accepting gifts from any module’s leadership or government. He decided this didn’t count.

After being whisked up to the hub, through the core of Discworld and then a series of interconnecting tubes, Ning disembarked the luxurious private pod at the main shuttle bay in the government complex. There was a small crowd in the lobby, all Ekumen personnel.

Ning approached Lieutenant Sariputta. “Shelton, what’s going on?” he asked.

Shelton looked up from the magazine she was looking at. “They shut down the pod bay on the command module temporarily because something went wrong with the small airlock.” She glanced up and out, where they could see ops across the short void from the government complex where they were waiting. “The repair crew went out an hour ago, but for some reason one guy is still out there.” She shrugged. “I’ve no idea why.”

The spin of the government complex, which was shaped like a hollow tube, was at an odd angle from ops, which was a unique shape something between a ring and a sphere, designed with the ability to orient in any direction. As the modules performed their clockwork dance, the sculpture garden in front of the bridge came in and out of view.

There was someone out there. A lone spacesuit, just standing between two of the monuments. Ning took out his link and opened a zoom lens. The modules rotated so he couldn’t see the bridge, and he had to wait a few minutes until they synched again and he could get a good view. He tagged the suited figure, recording just a few seconds so he could examine it more closely.

“Isn’t Commander Dalrymple still on his honeymoon?” Ning asked.

Shelton nodded. “One more day, I think. He’ll probably be back tomorrow.” She chuckled. “Of course, he keeps popping in on ops, just to make sure everything didn’t fall apart without him.”

Ning had noticed the first officer checking in on the bridge now and then, even though he was off duty. He hadn’t thought it was anything notable.

“Why do you ask?” Shelton querried.

“Because,” Ning answered. “He’s the one creeping around in the sculpture garden.”

Chapter Thirteen: The Doors

Chapter Eleven: Lunch with an Empress