What I do is not pretty. Resources Collection agents are not well-liked, and our work is not glamorous. But for human life to continue on this planet, it has to be done. Of course, in light of our position as a star travel waypoint, a lot of people depend on our existence for their livelihoods. But I'm not the only one on this lump of dirt who doesn't particularly care. I'm in this work for the pay, and I'm about to get my card punched.
I step into the Collection Bureau office and drop my case on the electronic scale on the counter. I've only been out for about two-thirds of my shift, but it's been a good day, and the box is full.
Mike, the dispatch guy, wheels over in his chair. "What we got here?"
"Food remains. Usual."
"Anyone put up a fight?"
Mike punches in some data at his terminal and tags the box. After I leave, he will take the box to the back and add a bit of water and some chalk weevil eggs, and the tiny little bastards will hatch, breed, and eat through all the garbage in the box, leaving nothing but their own corpses and little grains of crystallized calcium. Five percent of that calcium will go into my paycheck.
"Okay," he says, "Nine point eight kilos, I went ahead and credited your pay stub with point-four. The excess will credit when it goes through."
"Got it. Thanks, Mike."
Before I can leave he blurts out, "You free tonight?'
I smirk. "Nope. Never."
The dispatcher is a nice enough guy, but I don't want to get tied down. Falling for someone might make me forget how bad I want to get off this world.
Mike acts hurt, but he's immediately distracted by something on his terminal. "Hey," he says, "case just popped up. You want it?"
"What is it?"
He flashes an ironic grin. "How many bones in the human body?"
The old joke. The literal answer is, of course, 206. But that's not the number that matters here. Ten currency units to a gram of calcium, a thousand grams to a kilo, about a kilo in grown man's body. Ten thousand bones.
"Live or dead?" I ask.
"A corpse. Likely corpse. Reported by a school principal. Kid hasn't shown up in a while, evidently. You want it?"
I grimace. Nabbing this type of unit is never pleasant. The temptation to go to a black market buyer for that much calcium is too great; people are known to kill for less. But even with the guy who called it in taking a piece of my cut, it's too much calcium to turn down.
"Yeah," I say. "I want it. Send me the coordinates."
I can feel Mike's eyes fixed to me as I turn and walk out the door. Times like this I'm almost glad he's sweet on me.
Out in the dry heat of the day, I check the ammo in my sidearm and get on my ride. My tablet flashes directions to where I'm supposed to go.
I drive out of the lot, through the streets of the city under the warm, distant afternoon sun. A ship takes off from the spaceport on the far side of town, leaving a thin trail of white steam behind, a hanging thread of white touched with gold from the yellow rays of the afternoon sun. I long to be on one of those shuttles, out into orbit, onto one of the interstellar ships, and away from this world. One day, maybe I'll have the bones to afford it.
As I leave town and roll out into the bleak, the alkali dust whips across my goggles, stinging my nose as I accelerate out into the dry red plains. The structures of civilization fall behind me, and soon I spot the place up ahead in the wastelands, nestled among some low rocks at the foot of the steep, silvery hills. A mine. Platinum, probably.
I pull up in front, park my ride, and step off, removing my goggles and hanging them on the handlebars as I survey the homestead: a mid-sized mostly underground house, the roof poking just above the caked earth, a couple of beat-up vehicles parked in an open garage, an underground warehouse of unknown size.
The plains winds whistle across the rocks, but otherwise all is quiet. I bite my lip at the thought of how ugly things could get here, and consider calling in backup. But splitting my commission up even further does not appeal to me, so I walk to the front door and ring the bell.
My hand hovers over my sidearm as minutes pass and no one answers. I can probably break the door down if I have to, but I decide to check the other buildings first.
I go to the entrance of the warehouse and try the controls, and to my surprise the door slides open. I dart aside instinctively, taking cover against the wall, but no attack comes.
Hand on the grip of the pistol in my holster, I lean into the doorway, cautious. "Hello?" I call, "Is anyone there?"
Nothing. Just the eerie ever-present whistling of the wind.
I draw my weapon and step into the building. A steep ramp takes me underground onto the floor of the warehouse, maybe twenty meters square, walls lined with stacked, clear shipping crates, a few filled with platinum bricks. From the stockpile I guess the proprietor is waiting for the exchange rate to improve, hoping he can get more calcium per kilo of metal.
Good luck with that.
I walk to the door in the far wall. Suspecting some kind of trap, I put my ear to it, but hear no signs of life. I try the controls and the door opens, and I find myself facing dense machinery, floor-to-ceiling, packed tight. All quiet, none of it running. I hesitate to enter the maze of metal and piping, fearful of an ambush.
Screw it. Holding my sidearm upright, tight to my body, I slip into the room. Checking to my right and left at each turn, I make my way slowly between the metalworks, toward the room's rear.
"Hello?" I call, my voice reverberating metallic off the irregular surfaces. "Come out and cooperate."
As I climb over a stack of tubing, I finally receive a response. "Stay where you are, lady," shouts a man. "Don't come any closer."
"I'm a Collector and I've been sent here by the Bureau. Failure to cooperate is an offense punishable by death. I have no intention of harming anyone, and I promise that it will be for your benefit to come out and talk with me." Lines I've used often.
"Nothing here to collect," says the old man.
"Then you can come out and talk." Receiving no response, I add, "I got a report of a possible death."
"Busy back here," he says. "Come back later."
I've been working this job long enough to know the guy is behaving like someone with something to hide. I bite my lip, left with no choice but to do things the hard way.
I snake through the tight walkway between the machines, staying alert for any signs of an attack. Stepping under a mess of cooling lattice, I find myself at the room's back wall.
The old man is kneeling next to a piece of equipment, fastening something to it with a power drill. He looks up at me, and I see fear in his eyes. His back is hunched, and he's got the telltale purplish mottling on one of his forearms. Hypocalcaemia. Not a case that will kill him soon, but it marks him with the look of poverty and desperation.
"I told you you got no business here," he says. "I've got work to tend to."
I raise my firearm emphatically. "Stand up, old man. You need to get in your head that this is serious."
Begrudgingly, he climbs to his feet. "Got nothing to say."
I take a few steps toward him, sizing him up. "I need to search every building on this premises before I can leave."
"You can wait until I'm done with my work."
"No, I can't," I reply, dropping the cordial tone. "Now."
He doesn't budge. "Shoot if you need to and be done with it."
I motion with my weapon to the refining equipment. "Shame if a bullet hole cut through any of this stuff. I imagine repairs would set you back a lot, no? Set back your family, too, I bet, even with you gone."
He sneers at me, resenting me and what I represent.
I stare back coldly, unable to judge him for hating me so.
"I take you through the house, you leave?" he asks. "No more questions?"
"If I don't find anything."
A lie, of course. I can't let the case drop without some explanation of where the body went. Not on something as big as a human cadaver.
"Fine then," he says. "Come along."
He steps into the blocky jungle of equipment, navigating with surprising ease through the tight, restrictive pathways. Keeping my weapon ready in case the old codger tries to spring anything on me, I struggle to follow behind him, bumping my head and elbows against the metalworks.
The old man waits for me at the exit, then leads me across the warehouse floor, up the steep ramp and to the surface. The rolling winds scathe me with dust as I follow him out the door and across the baked alkali field to the house. He holds the door open for me.
"Thanks," I say, trying to avoid antagonizing the guy despite the weapon in my hand. "But you first."
He shrugs, resentful, and steps inside. I stay behind him as he leads me into the two-room home. Low ceilings top tight walls; a thin layer of dust covers the floor and the worn, beat-up furniture. It is the home of a poor miner family of maybe four or five people.
The old man hobbles into a corner in the kitchen area. "Nothing, see?"
The place is a dusty mess, but nothing sticks out as criminal. Of course, if these people have sold that dead body to a black market buyer already, the only likely evidence would be calcium tabs -- and those would not be sitting out.
Cautiously I open the door to the other room.
Three small beds inside, against each wall. On one of them lies a little girl of maybe six or seven years. Curled up on her side in a fetal position, she is shivering and sweating, and one of her legs twitches. Clearly alive, but very sick.
I step close to her to get a better look. The poor girl is frail and brittle, and her ankles and forearms show the mottled purplish spots that attest to a calcium deficiency. One of her knees is red and swollen, as though broken. I touch her delicately on the shoulder, and she shudders and flails at me, a snap reflex.
Something's wrong here. Something more than hypocalcaemia.
I could call in an investigative medic, run the girl through some tests and maybe get her some help. She won't get calcium for free, but if there is something else wrong with her, the crew might treat it.
I look around the room, not quite knowing what to search for. As I kneel down and peer under the girl's bed, however, I see something.
Empty, scattered about on the floor. I reach under the bed and pick one up, careful to avoid the needle. A single-dose unit, empty. Not government issued -- black market stuff for sure. Thin, gold metallic stripes line it -- probably a branding mark. Underground dealers sometimes use such insignia, usually to build market trust in their products' authenticity, and to set themselves apart from the many sellers pushing fake or watered down calcium gluconate or CaCl.
I count seven syringes, including the one in my hand.
Why is this girl still lying here?
I hear something creak behind me. Over my shoulder I see the old man stepping through the door. An axe in his hands. Suddenly alert, I drop the syringe and turn to face him.
He brings the blade up over his head and swings it down hard. I roll aside, avoiding the killing stroke as the sharp edge digs into the floor next to me.
The little girl on the bed shrieks. "No! Grandpa no!"
I aim my sidearm at the old man as he tries to get the blade un-stuck. "Back up!" I shout, "Hands off the weapon or I'll fire!"
The old man rips the axe free. Stepping toward me, he heaves it high and swings.
The crack of the gunshot fills the little room with tinny echoes as the bullet cuts a tiny hole in the front of the man's neck and a big hole in the back, spackling streams of blood and bits of flesh out onto the dusty wall behind him. I jump up, avoiding the axe as it tumbles out of the guy's dead hands, clattering aimlessly aside. The old man's body tilts forward and falls into a face-down slump on the floor.
I hope the little camera at the end of my gun -- the one they put in the barrel of every Collector's firearm -- got a clear image. Either way the paperwork will be hell; there's always a suspicion of corruption when a Collector offs somebody.
I take a blanket from one of the empty beds and toss it over the body to cover the ugly sight of the ragged wound gushing blood from the back of the neck. The little girl in the bed stares at me, wide-eyed.
She says nothing, but she is still shivering and sweating. I put my hand on her, trying to comfort her, and this time she doesn't thrash at me.
"It's okay," I say. "I'm going to do my best to get you help."
She nods, afraid.
I pick up the syringe from the floor and show it to her. "Where did this come from?" I ask, trying to sound calm.
Her breaths issue heavy from her weak lungs. "Doctor."
She nods again.
"My brother..." she says, weak. "My brother was sick. Grandpa took him to a doctor." Tears well up in the little girl's eyes. "He didn't come back."
I glance at the body on the floor. A dark red stain grows upon the blanket, where the blood seeps up through. "Your brother didn't come back?"
She nods, crying.
Trying to put the pieces together in my head, I hold up the syringe again. "How long?" I ask. "How long have you been taking these?"
"More," she says. "I need more."
"How long?" I ask again. I add a lie. "If you help me, maybe we can get you more."
"Two days," she sputters.
"I see seven needles here. You took them all in two days?"
"The last one was two days ago. I took them all in a day."
I pause for second, trying to grasp what she is saying. "You what?"
"I took them all in a day."
"I need it," she says, gasping, "I need it."
Something strange is going on here. I'm now certain of that. "Who is this doctor? Where is he?"
"He's from in the city."
"Next to the space port."
I head there. On the way I call dispatch, and Mike tells me a team is on the way to the mine and the medics will help the little girl if they can.
Dusk is banishing the light from the sky when I arrive at the doctor's office closest to the space port. I park my ride in the otherwise empty lot and walk to the front door. Still a few minutes left before the close of business hours, and sure enough, the door opens.
I find myself in a little, empty waiting room. Spare and austerely furnished, but clean.
The receptionist greets me from behind his desk. "Can I help you?"
"I need to see the doctor."
The guy steals a glance at the gun in the holster on my hip. "He's out. Care to schedule an appointment?"
"I need to look around. Collection Bureau business."
"I'm sorry, miss, I can't -- "
I try the door next to the reception desk. Locked. On impulse, I pull my sidearm, step back, and shoot the knob. The bullet punches it off clean.
"Hey! Hey!" The receptionist is yelling at me, frantic as I lean into it and kick the door in.
It opens into a little hallway with an open, empty exam room and a closed metal door. No sign of anyone here.
"Doc? You here?"
The receptionist approaches in a huff. "Miss, you can't be back here," he says. "You need a warrant."
I actually don't, in these circumstances. "Get out of my way."
I shove him aside and search the exam room. Nothing I can use. I try the knob on the thick metal door, and find it locked.
In the corner of my eye, I see the receptionist lifting something. Instinctively I whirl around, and I find myself facing the nasty end of a rifle.
Panicked, I shoot from the hip, firing off a few reckless rounds. The rifle blasts off two shots, the flare from the broad muzzle blinding me as the smell of burnt powder stings my nose. Dizzy, I fall into the wall. I rub my eyes, trying to regain my vision and get an aim on the guy.
Unable to see him in front of me, I duck down in fear, expecting the end to come at any second.
But it doesn't. The first sight that hits my recovering eyes is the receptionist on the ground, bullet wounds in his belly and forehead. Dead.
I hear something behind me. Again I spin round, alarmed.
A man in a white lab coat holds a pistol in each hand. A short, balding man, pale of skin but otherwise healthy, he stares at me, his beady eyes unblinking through thick glasses. "Stop," he says, his voice calm.
I keep my sidearm trained on him. My heart pulses quick inside my chest.
"Put the guns down," I order through clenched teeth. No irony.
"My ride is parked outside. I don't show up to work tomorrow, the Collection Bureau traces it, and eventually they show up here."
"Fine then." He smirks. "There's no reason to do anything rash."
He motions for me to follow him through the door. Knowing it's probably a bad choice, I step through anyway.
The chill reveals that the room is a walk-in freezer. Five bodybags -- with bodies in them -- are stacked against the far wall like rolled-up carpets. This doc can't have them here legally, and my cut of a calcium haul that big will be worth around half a years' pay. A little bit of greed cuts against the revulsion and the horror.
The only other objects in the room are a flat metal operating table and a couple of enforced metal briefcases.
I keep my gun trained on the doctor as puts his weapons down on the operating table, picks up one of the briefcases, and presses his thumb to the fingerprint lock. He opens it up on the table in front of me.
I peer inside. Neat little racks of syringes. All full, all marked with thin gold stripes.
"Calcium gluc in the front. Cackel in the back. Take your pick of twenty in exchange for your silence."
A bribe with some teeth. Over a year's worth of Calcium gluconate or calcium chloride -- well more than my take will be from the corpses. I glare at the doctor, who stares back at me with the cold professionalism of someone who has done this before.
I pull the calcium test kit from the pouch in my belt and toss it onto the table. "You know what that is, don't you?"
"I'm a doctor."
"These are each -- "
" -- I don't care what they're worth. If you want to deal, use it."
He shrugs, and reluctantly he plucks one of the syringes from the briefcase, snaps the cap off the needle, and squeezes some liquid onto the surface of the table. He opens my testing kit, takes one of the thin, blue strips, and swabs it over the liquid.
It turns pink.
So he's not selling fakes. But I have no intention of taking a bribe from this man, and I am still sure something is wrong here.
"Take the rest," I say.
He blinks. "And do what with it?"
"Inject it. Like one does."
He stares at me for a long, silent moment, the syringe resting in his fingers. He finally places it down calmly on the cold metal surface.
"No," he says, his right hand hovering over the syringe. He still stares at me with a gaze as cold as the refrigerated air between us, but my vision stays locked on the twin pistols resting on the table.
"Why not?" I ask.
"I didn't say you had to use them," he says. "They're marketable. You've seen that they'll test. I'll up my offer, even. Twenty-five units."
"Pick them up," I whisper, challenging him.
He stutters. "Ss- Sorry?"
"The guns. I can see you itching to get your hands around the grips. Why not pick 'em up?"
"I'm trying to negotiate. Trying to be reasonable."
"Those stiffs," I say, motioning to black rubberized bags stacked against the wall. "They all die from whatever's in the calcium doses?"
"The bodies were payment."
I'm not sure what he means by that, and at this point I care little. "Pick them up," I say again, nodding at his weapons, my voice soft with false reassurance. "Just put your hand on one of them."
His stare stays frozen on me. Neither of us say a word for a long, icy moment.
And then he snatches one of the guns.
A blur of motion. Two quick thunderclaps as we both fire. Muffled echoes and a whiff of gunsmoke in the tight space of the freezer.
The doctor hits the floor hard on his side. The gun slips from his hand and clatters across the tile, but I keep my sidearm trained on him, cautious. As blood spreads out in a dark pool underneath him, his eyes remain open, but his body is still.
I lean closer and see a neat hole just above the sternum. The bullet must have cut through the spine.
I suddenly feel trapped here in this sterile freezer. The danger is gone, but now the silence of the awful place grabs at me, suffocating. I try to calm myself, try to remind myself of the proper procedure for the situation.
But my eyes come to rest on the other briefcase. The one the doctor didn't open. I realize that I should call dispatch, wait for forensics to get here, play it by the book. But son of a bitch, I need to know. I need to know.
I step over the pool of blood beneath the doctor and lift the unopened briefcase. I place it beside the body, gently lift the already chilled right hand of the dead man, and press his thumb to the lock. The mechanism issues a mechanical click, and the case eases open.
I recoil at the sight of its contents. I should have known; it should have been obvious. But the ugly truth of it clutches me somewhere deep inside and twists. Neatly packed in the case, alongside the empty syringes marked with their gold stripes and the clean closed vials of calcium serum, is a half-full pack of chalk weevil eggs.
I holster my weapon as I stand. Nauseous, I push the door open and rush out of the room, into the hallway, then out into the open air. The setting sun streaks the sky overhead with red and orange, the air thick with dust wafting in with the plains winds.
I put in a call to dispatch. Mike answers. "Linz. I got some bad news."
"What?" I spit the words out. "What is it?"
"That little girl didn't make it. Medics said somehow chalk weevils got inside her, chewed her up pretty bad. Awful way to go." Knowing I won't take this news well, he pauses a second before he asks, "What did you call for?"
"I need a team and a truck. I've got more here than I can carry back."
I hear Mike typing as he pauses for a second. "Where are you?"
"A doctor's office out by the space port. Trace my ride."
"Got it. Hold tight."
I clear the call and sit down on the pavement, shielding my eyes from a gust of wind as a rumble rolls through the air.
In the spaceport a couple of blocks over, behind the high fence, plumes of white steam burst forth from beneath a launching shuttle. The reaction drive burns hot, a gleaming bright shining blade of fire piercing the path of steam behind the ship as it crawls upward, ripping itself free from the heavy bonds of this world's gravity, hurtling itself toward the sky.
I feel the radiated warmth from the engine; I smell the too-clean vapor of ozone mixed with steam. I have never seen a launch from so close, and I know when this day is over, I will be four thousand bones closer to buying my way to some better world, some place not so brutal.
But somehow that dream has never felt further away.