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Visions of Liberty
By Mark Tier Martin H. Greenberg
Baen BooksCopyright © 2004 Mark Tier & Martin H. Greenberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Unnullified World
by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
The world was named Llayless. Its principal community-in fact, its only community of any size-was a desert mining center named Pummery. A number of narrow-gauge electric railway lines left Pummery through tubes built to protect their tracks from the swirling sands. When they reached the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains, they emerged to become cog railways.
At one of the railheads, swinging down from the single passenger car that was attached to an interminable string of empty ore cars, Birk Dantler encountered a sign that announced Laughingstock Mines. A short distance beyond it, he found a tiny town nestled amidst the clutter of the mining operation. There were machines to load ore into the railway cars. Farther up the slope, there were machines extracting ore from the mountain. Other machines were bringing ore to the railhead. The town was little more than a spread of small worker's cottages except for a neat, prefab building that housed the mining offices, and, standing next to it, another prefab building that was, unmistakably, a school.
All of this represented a substantial capital outlay for a mining claim on a remote world, which meant that the mines collectively known as Laughingstock were productive enough to provide that capital.
Dantler went directly to the mining office and asked a clerk for information. The clerk looked at him narrowly. "You got a reason for being here, fellow?"
Dantler presented his credentials. The clerk glanced at them and winced. "GBI? You're a Galactic Bureau of Investigation Officer? What's the Inter-World Council want with us?" When Dantler did not answer, he shrugged and grinned. "Your credentials say anyone who doesn't cooperate with you will be deported instantly, and that's reason enough to cooperate. You must know personally all of the many skeletons in the Llayless Mining Corporation's closets to be able to pry a document like that out of it." He returned the credentials. "What is it you want to know?"
"Nothing complicated, I'm sure. Where is the mine called Last Hope?"
"That's fairly complicated until you get through the Laughingstock diggings. After that there's a path. I'd better draw you a map." He went over it with Dantler, and when he was satisfied that his directions were clear, he leaned back and scrutinized Dantler's energy-charged form, taut face-no one had ever called him handsome-and neat, conservative dress. "You prepared for a long walk?" he asked.
"Isn't there any transportation?"
"There are a couple of pack mules, but they're kept on the other side of the mountain. Figure on a long walk."
"How do they bring the ore out?"
"Slowly and with great difficulty. When they've accumulated enough, they load the two pack mules and fill two or three handcarts. All the men they have take the day off and haul ore. The Llayless Mining Corporation built them a short siding off our railway line, and it keeps an ore car parked there. When they get it filled, the Corporation hauls it away and leaves an empty for them. That's as much as it's willing to do for a marginal operation. The men at Last Hope confidently expect the vein they are working to get richer instead of playing out as most marginal mines do. All miners are optimists."
Then he leaned over his desk to look at Dantler's feet. "At least you've got sturdy shoes. As I told you, it's a long walk. I've never tackled it myself, no reason to, but those who have say it's a good ten miles, and half of that is a steep climb up to the pass. It's best to make a two-day trip of it, and you have to figure on an uncomfortable night. There's no hotel or bed and breakfast place-no houses at all, in fact. And you'll be lucky if they can provide you with a sleeping bag, but you'd be an idiot to try to find your way back here in the dark. You got urgent business with the Last Hope?"
"I think it's urgent," Dantler said. "I'm investigating a murder."
The clerk nodded thoughtfully. "I did hear something about that, but it must have been two or three years ago. You just getting around to investigate now?"
"God's mill grinds slow but sure," Dantler said and left the clerk staring after him perplexedly.
Dantler found the path without too much difficulty and began to climb. It led steeply upward through a dense forest of native trees with large, ovate, yellowish leaves and shaggy green bark with strips of red in it. They seemed to exude fresh-smelling oxygen. Without them, the climb into thinner air would have been far more difficult.
When he reached the top, he discovered that the steep descent was almost as difficult as the climb. It was late in the day when he finally reached the Last Hope diggings. There was a scattering of holes with heaps of dirt around them. He walked on, past several small tents, past a makeshift corral from which the two mules eyed him suspiciously, past a more ambitious digging that had produced a tunnel burrowed into the mountain.
Suddenly he received a sharp blow on the head that nearly knocked him senseless. He reacted instinctively, twisting as he fell, somersaulting into a thick growth of shrubbery, and coming to his feet ready for action.
There were three bearded, shabby-looking men facing him. All of them were armed with whatever they had been able to grab when they saw him coming. One brandished the handle of some kind of hand-operated machine. Another had a piece of firewood. The third had an ax raised high over his head. They began to edge forward.
Dantler's head ached, and when he brushed his hand across a swelling lump, it came away bloody. He sensed that the men were about to rush him, so he decided to act before they did and talk afterward. He drew a small electronic pistol from an inner pocket and sprayed them.
They were halted in their tracks. One at a time they toppled forward and lay twitching on the ground. Dantler noticed a spring nearby, and he went to it, drank deeply, and washed the blood from his head. Then he seated himself on a convenient boulder and waited. He felt exhausted, and his head throbbed fiercely. He wanted to lie down with the three men and twitch for a few minutes, but he couldn't spare himself that luxury.
As the charge began to wear off, his victims displayed the usual reactions. They rolled over onto their backs. They flexed arms and legs. They touched their faces and wriggled tingling fingers. None of them had come through his ordeal unscathed. One, a man with a long gray beard and a fierce-looking mustache, had a bloody nose from his fall. Another, with a blond beard, had smacked his forehead on a stone. It was already a black and blue swollen lump. The third, with a neatly trimmed black beard and newish-looking clothing, was going to have a splendid black eye.
Finally the man with the mustache, sat up. He stared at Dantler.
"Bashing a visiting stranger over the head is a perverted kind of hospitality," Dantler observed pleasantly. "Or were you expecting someone else?"
The other two men struggled to sitting positions. "What'd you do to us?" the man with a blond beard asked.
"Something a trifle more civilized than the bashing you had in mind," Dantler said. "I trust that one dose will be sufficient."
"Hell, yes," the man with the mustache said. "Who are you?"
"As I said, a visiting stranger. I walked ten miles over the mountain to ask the favor of some information. I wasn't expecting this kind of welcome. I have credentials issued by this world's factor. Perhaps you would like to examine them." He held one of them under the man's nose. "As you see, a word from me, and the Last Hope mine will have exhausted its last hope. All of its employees will leave Llayless on the next ship. I was hoping I wouldn't have to use it. Are you ready to talk?"
"No reason not to. We thought you were a whacker."
"What's a whacker that makes him deserve that kind of reception?"
"Whackers kill miners and take over their claims."
"Really. Are there whackers on Llayless?"
"Don't know of any, but we've encountered them elsewhere. Better to act first and then ask questions."
"Only yesterday I talked with Jeffrey Wallingford Pummery, who is the esteemed-I hope-factor of the world of Llayless and he told me Llayless was the most law-abiding world in the galaxy."
The man laughed derisively. "That's a good one. Llayless has got no government. It's got no laws-just a few regulations about mining. If it had laws, there would be no one to enforce them. It's got no law officers. It's got no judges and courts. On my mining claim, I'm the law-that's what my contract says. The only law on Llayless is what the person who controls a bit of ground can enforce at the end of a stick."
The man with the black beard had recovered enough to get to his feet and hobble around. "Never expected to get stunned out here in the mountains," he said resentfully. "What's this information you want?"
"I want to hear all about the murder of Douglas Vaisey by Roger Lefory."
"Never heard of either of them," the man with the black beard said. "What's that got to do with us?"
"Walt is a newcomer," the man with the drooping mustache explained to Dantler. "The murder happened before his time. I thought all that was dead history."
"Murders are never dead history."
"What do you want to know?"
"Everything," Dantler said. "By the way, who are you?"
"Kit Grumery. I'm the claim owner here. Everything I know about that murder won't take long to tell. My men work on shares, see. They get fed but nothing fancy. They make their own sleeping arrangements. Beyond that, whatever the ore smelts down to is divided into shares. It's hard work and poor pay, but we all hope to hit a mother lode and get rich. Lefory and Vaisey were working for the Laughingstock, and they came here taking a gamble on sharing in something big. Dougie was a nice kid, a good worker. Lefory was a loafer. He took so many breaks it sometimes was hard to say whether he was working or not, and he had a hell of a temper. He and Dougie got in an argument over Lefory not doing his fair share, and Lefory charged at him and brained him with a hand ax. Killed him instantly. That's all there was to it."
"Not quite all," Dantler said. "What did you do then?"
"Did what I always do when a worker is killed. Mining is dangerous work. Death doesn't happen often, but it does happen, and there's a procedure to follow. We buried Dougie-I can show you his grave if you like. Regulations don't call for it, but we held a bit of a ceremony for him. Shorty Klein-he's working further up the mountain today-has an old Bible, and he read a couple of passages and did a prayer, and I carved a marker for Dougie's grave myself. As I said, he was a nice kid, and I liked him. That's all, except that I also took care of the paperwork."
"What sort of paperwork?"
"Every death has to be reported to the Llayless Record Section. It insists on knowing who's still on the planet. I also figured what Dougie had coming from his work share, and I filled out the form the Record Section requires and sent it down to Pummery along with a voucher for the money due Dougie and the few trifles of personal effects he owned. The Record Section is supposed to cash in a dead man's return ticket and put the amount received with the other assets the man had. Everyone arriving here has to place on file a fully paid return ticket to the world he came from or they won't let him off the ship."
"I know about that," Dantler said. "I suppose it's sort of a guarantee he won't become a public charge."
"Right. Records is supposed to cash the return ticket and send the money along with all of his other assets to his designated beneficiary. Whether it actually does this I couldn't say. And that's the whole story."
"You didn't report the murder to the police authorities?"
"What police authorities? I just told you-Llayless has got no government. It's got no authorities, police or any other kind. Who would I report it to?"
"Then a murderer can't be arrested and brought to trial?"
"Who would arrest him, and who would hold his trial? There's no police. There's no court. There's no judge. There's no jail for wrongdoers. Actually, it was a dirty shame. Dougie was well liked, and Lefory was a jerk. Everyone was angry about what happened."
"But you let him carry on scot-free as though he hadn't done anything?"
"I wouldn't say that. We shouldered him right out of camp."
"How did you do that?"
"No one would talk with him. No one would work with him. No one would eat with him-we form teams and take turns cooking. No team would have him. No one would kip with him. After a couple of days of that, he left. Sneaked out of camp early one morning and walked over the mountain to the Laughingstock. It was almost a day before anyone missed him."
"That seems like a rather mild punishment for a murderer," Dantler observed dryly. "What happened to him after that?"
"He got a job at the Laughingstock. Llayless's mines are always short of labor. But we let the Laughingstock workers know about him, and he didn't stay there long. Probably they shouldered him, too."
"But you don't know that for certain."
"No, I don't know it for certain. But I know he didn't stay there long."
"Do you know where he went from there?"
"I never heard him mentioned again after he left the Laughingstock, but you can bet that the workers there passed the information about him along to workers at the next place he caught on."
Dantler stayed overnight. The men gave him what was, for the Last Hope, a fabulous luxury-a tent all to himself. The food was rough but filling. The other amenities were just a shade above zero. There was barely enough hot water-heated over a campfire-to go around. There was plenty of ore soup, though-a hot, stimulating drink made with local herbs-and it was obvious that no one at the camp went hungry. Early the next morning he walked back over the mountain to the Laughingstock. All of the camp's men came along to make certain he didn't get lost. The loaded mules came, too, and the men took turns pushing cartloads of ore.
"Paths look different going the other way," Kit Grumery explained.
At the Laughingstock settlement, he took his leave of his Last Hope companions and went directly to the office and asked to see the manager. A different clerk was on duty, and for a second time Dantler presented his credentials.
Excerpted from Visions of Liberty by Mark Tier Martin H. Greenberg Copyright © 2004 by Mark Tier & Martin H. Greenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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