We went to analytics. Analytics folk are unusual people. They spend more time with their head buried into their vid screens and their piles of data than they do walking the decks or climbing up the city and seeing the real world. I think I’ve seen an analytic type out of their den twice in all my years at Midway. They were a good hand with data. Could figure out just about any problem sent their way, and did not ask too many questions either.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” the woman sitting at the desk said. She was sitting tall in her chair, as though she stumbled on some great mystery of the universe. As a rule, analytics type love mystery. As a rule, maintenance types don’t.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked. Silver pretended to be uninterested, looking at all of the crystal ports along the walls, where ages and ages of data was stored.
The analytics woman leaned closer to the cube, the magnifying specs on her nose making her eyes look twice their normal size. “It’s no terrestrial alloy that I’ve seen,” she said.
“So it’s spacer?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Spacer tech has a very distinctive perfection about it. It’s a whole lot easier to make straight lines when there’s no gravity to mess you up. That’s why most of the tiny pieces that we use for tech comes from spacers. This, though, has enough imperfections to be made on the planet. It’s World tech that’s for sure, but it isn’t terrestrial.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“This alloy, it’s cloud folk.”
Silver immediately pounced on the cube, snatching it from the woman’s hands. She examined it over again, her cybernetics snapping and crackling with energy. At least, I like to imagine so, but it’s really hard to tell. “Impossible,” Silver said.
“Cloud folk mine trace elements from the atmosphere, they don’t make alloys,” I agreed with Silver.
The analytics woman looked up at us as though we were completely insane. “Of course the cloud folk don’t mine alloys. There is hardly enough trace elements for them to mine, especially with the regulations on making sure they don’t ruin the atmospheres for the rest of us. But someone made this, and it’s definitely cloud folk.”
I took the cube and rolled it around my fingers, examining it from every angle. It had slight imperfections, ridges running along the edge, a few tiny nodules on each side. But to me, it looked like pretty much any other metal alloy that you could find on Midway. Sure wasn’t copper, and it wasn’t any of those electric conducting synthetics. If it had been conductive, then it would’ve fried with the dead man. “If the cloud folk could manage to produce their own metals, however they do it, what would that mean? I mean in regards to the status quo?”
The analytics woman fixed me with a firm glare. “All you maintenance people care about is that stupid status quo. The rest of World don’t think like that. Cloud folk is always searching for power and money, more influence over the terrestrials, better bargaining with space folk. If they could make their own metals, they wouldn’t be dependent on grounders for materials. They wouldn’t have to ship through Midway. In fact, they could ship down, if the metal is light enough and strong enough. The only questions are cost of production and, well, what they’re pulling out of the atmosphere for this.”
I nodded and put my hands back into my pocket, taking the cube with me. I looked over his Silver, who was pretending to examine more of the screens flowing with numbers and data. She flicked her gaze back to me, then stretched as though she had nothing better to do. The analytics woman narrowed her eyes at the both of us. “That cube should stay here with us, for analysis.”
I shook my head. “Sorry no can do. We got some angry changers coming around looking for this. They’re going to be wanting it back before too very long here.”
“Come on Slocum,” Silver said turning toward the door. “We have better things to do than hang around here, crunching numbers.”
The analytics woman bristled, but two more people came to the door just as we were preparing to leave, so she dropped it. I had a feeling that she wouldn’t be telling many people about that cube. It was to unbelievable. Cloud folk were notorious for wanting more out of life. More power, more money, more influence. But there were some truths that people believed more than anything. One was that their mining operation was limited to pulling out molecules from the ozone layer and the lower stratosphere. They were experts at pulling carbon, had removing trace elements that people didn’t want. Some of it they managed to sell to spacers, who used the pressurised gases for certain operations. Others just simply disappeared, some mysterious cloud folk methods at work there. But the cloud folk couldn’t do much else. Sure, they had some plants that would grow up that high. But not many. And animals didn’t last long up there. They had to send down for solid products, though they managed water pretty well on their own. Food, building supplies, clothing, you name it, the cloud folk had to send out to get it. Some might think that that put all of the influence and power in the grounders control. Them as thought such would be wrong.
If cloud folk could start making their own materials? If they could get even one solid thing away from grounders, then the entire balance that we managed World side would fall apart. So I held onto the cube, and I knew that the analytics woman wouldn’t say anything. Silver on the other hand, might be stupid enough to run her mouth off as soon as we were confronted again by the changers. So I steered her in the direction of a tiny, private room as soon as we could. Silver waited until the door slid shut behind us with an audible click, before practically launching herself at me.
She had picked my pocket before I could stop her, and held the cube up to the light. “It’s really strong. The molecules are loosely packed, loose enough that I can scan it to see the space between them. But they are arranged in a way that is incredibly off the charts strength-wise. Some sort of triangle overlapping triangle pattern. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I whistled. “Your cybernetics can see all that? What are you doing down here in maintenance? Never mind, don’t matter. Of course cloud folk could create something so light. Weight is a huge issue up there, you know.”
Silver rolled her eyes, and unusual phenomenon given that one of them was mechanical and glowed orange. She handed the cube back to me with a huff. I slipped the thing back into my pocket, and waited for the rest of her tirade. I was sure it was coming; Silver never argued about just one thing before moving on. She always had to argue every single point, make sure that she was in control and winning. “I got news back from the database on our dead guy. He’s nobody terribly important to the Mercurians. Some sort of middling cousin to the main family or something. Those tats are only half real. They’ve been added to make them look more important.”
I considered the tats that had been scrawled over half the man’s face. The whorls and curls and lines usually distinguished someone’s importance, but they could easily be faked. Though, it was hard to get a reputable artist to draw anything that resembled power symbols. They weren’t dumb; getting caught faking power tats was a dangerous profession. I waved my hand at Silver to continue.
“Docking has no record of him coming onto the station. There are seven cloud folk types that are meant to be here right now, with the number to increase in the next two days due to the annual shift from solar to heat differentials. Our changers managed to stay off that list, by the way. Means there someone in docking is pulling in bribes to keep things quiet. We’ll have to let security know, so they can deal with it. Anyways, our guy is registered to another middling station. Some small little thing, halfway out to sea and anchored on it tiny island. There imports and exports are minuscule. If he was from there, then I am a grounder.”
I sighed and shook my head. Most everybody came through Midway, because we were the biggest and the best. But the other middling stations had to make their way in World somehow. Unfortunately, most of them dealt in smuggling. Not so much product, because that was highly regulated. But people were far easier to smuggle. You could almost always tell cloud folk from grounders simply by the way they look to breathe. But middlings and cloud folk? Grounders and middlings? It weren’t always so easy to tell. All you needed was a registration from some obscure middling station and Midway no longer knew whether you were cloud folk or grounder. Unless you had some ridiculously obvious tats across your face to identify you.
“All right,” I said. “Looks like we’ve got to go deliver our news to the higher ups. We ain’t equipped to deal with changers.”
Silver rounded on me, baring her teeth. She took two steps forward and jabbed me in the shoulder with a very sharp finger, backed up by some really high tech cybernetics. That sort of stuff hurt. “You’re just gonna hand this off to the higher ups? We don’t even know who killed the guy!”
“Kiddo, this is mess and with the status quo like you wouldn’t believe. We can’t keep working on this, not when things are getting so big.” I shrugged, and Silver glared at me.
“I thought you cared,” she snapped. “I thought you cared that things and Midway were meant to be safe and good and clean and right. We ain’t some grounder place. We ain’t cloud folk. We’re middlings. And if we don’t care about these things, who will? I’m going to find this out, if you won’t.”
Silver held up her hand, revealing the cube that I had supposedly stored in my pocket. I patted my uniform down, frowning. She had picked my pocket again. Before I could stop her and protest, or agree to go with her, Silver turned and stalked out of the room, her head held high. I picked up the tool chest before I ran after her, but it was too late. Silver, pulling some impossible feline trick to disappear just as you were looking for her, was gone. The only way to stop her, to protect her, to fix whatever this was, was to investigate. I was getting way out of maintenance territory, well into higher up or changer realms. Oh, well. I was the best maintenance officer they had. They wouldn’t promote me. But they sure wouldn’t fire me, either.
I went out of the room, and went to go talk to some of the people who had their finger on the pulse of the cloud folk. I went to the oxygen deprivation bars.