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Dead Man’s Hammer By Christina Engela Characters: 12126

Updated: 2018-06-30 12:02

Dead Man's Hammer

Imagine, if you will:

A bright yellow star lit the darkness somewhere in deep space, accompanied by its rather dysfunctional family of nine deceptively ordinary-looking planets. During its enormously long lifetime many beings had named it from the far ends of distant telescopes, including it into numerous star clusters and constellations as they were perceived from their vantage points. Once, or maybe twice, creatures simply looked up into their own skies to name it from their own now long dead and deserted worlds. In more recent times, beings from a world that orbited a different sun far away gave it a name too – creatures that called themselves Human, who travelled here and settled on one of its inner planets. The planet they chose to make a new home on? They called that Deanna. They called the star Ramalama.

The reason for the peculiar name could be found in the whimsical sense of humor of the early colonists who arrived on Deanna several decades in the past and found very little at all there to laugh at. Obsidian Crows might seem funny at first, unless you just happened to ride over one with your Jeepo five miles out of town and didn't have a spare tire. Although there was a reasonable expectation of hitting one of these diminutive brutes on the roads, this did not happen nearly as often as you might think.

Deanna was pretty much as boring a lump of rock as could be expected, which had promised the colonists nothing but hardship and lean years at first, until they could get things going properly – and delivered on that promise. And so, with the stoicism and determination of frontiersmen in all manner of times and places, they simply got on with the business at hand – making a life here in the outback, where at first, everything had to come from the supply ships. There was little in the way of entertainment, aside from everyday life – so they looked up into the night sky, saw the two mad little moons in orbit around the planet – and named them Ding and Dong.

Dong had been described most often as 'a huge lump of nothing much, about one kilometer in diameter' while Ding is only about fifty feet around, consists entirely of titanium and is a known navigational hazard to approaching ships. (This is where the popular term 'you've got a Ding in your fender' comes from.) On average, it would usually take about four heavy-duty space tugs to get the spherical lump out of its crater and put it back in orbit where it belonged. There would be the usual administrative delays as the Tourist Office had it polished up again first. Ding had become such a popular feature of Deanna that it had a whole page devoted to it in the Online Galactic Tourist Guide.

By now, half a century or so later, Deanna was still just another third rate colony in the Terran Empire. It was average-sized, with a land-sea ratio of only 35 percent, and with such small moons, hardly any tides or waves to speak of at all – which means that if you're a tourist looking for a great place to surf – then dude, this isn't it. Deanna had only one ocean, the Landlocked Ocean – which was fresh, shallow and – as you could probably tell by its name, landlocked. As a result, there was plenty of arable land which was just as good for farming and building as it was for mining (and in certain cases, snorting).

Which explains where all these people came from. Deanna was a good place to farm, either with crops or livestock, and there was enough Lantillium to last a lifetime or two. Lantillium was a kind of nonferrous, nonmagnetic (apolar) metal used to line warp cores in stardrive engines – and also the inside of blaster emitter barrels. It was a rather valuable commodity.

Seeing as there were no intelligent native species living on the planet, (i.e. any other flags already flying there) the Terran Empire planted its flag on it. Over the following decades, the population grew impressively with the help of new settlers, adding their expertise and skills to the workforce and economy. There were miners, farmers, businessmen, administrative staff and generally, just people. There were generations of them now, using schools, hospitals and shopping malls as if they had always been there. Amazingly enough, for those who may be interested, Deanna was already home to over two million citizens of the Empire.

The passenger liner Ossifar Distana was one of the most luxurious of its kind in space anywhere. It ferried the cream of society across the void in opulence and style. Only the wealthiest could afford an apartment on this ship for a trip of any duration, even a short one around the proverbial block. Even the crew was obliged to pay rent.

On any given day, Ossifar Distana carried around 5000 passengers, the actual figure varying slightly depending on where she was on the vast elliptical cruise that took her around the Terran Empire. When she entered the system she carried 4984 passengers, 500 crew, one dead body and one very puzzled Captain.

Captain Harald Biscay rubbed his graying temples, staring deep in thought at the vast star field showing on the large navigation display on the bridge. It had been a pretty rough few days for him. Of all the things he'd seen in his travels through the universe, not many rated worthy of being remembered. Of the few examples of items Captain Biscay rated that highly, when he was a young man, his uncle would often play the bagpipes at strange hours of the night – shortly before being put in a 'home'. That rated a mention.

On his regular scale of Things That Went Wrong, he rarely had to contend with anything more troubling than being maybe two or three minutes late at a destination or a menu mix-up in the galley. A hefty passenger got stuck in the loo once. No, his career had been pretty much all plain sailing. Biscay had never served in the Imperial Space Fleet, nor seen anything more violent than a chef dropping a live crayfish into boiling water – and he'd been around the same proverbial block a few times. This was a first fo

r him. Something like this was bound to have a negative effect on business.

The corpse, ready for its trip to the surface was being loaded up in shuttle bay two – away from the passengers in shuttle bay one, who were disembarking at the small backwater colony called Deanna – a tiny little blue-brown speck in the dark void, which the ship was currently orbiting. A huge red nine-pointed star on the even more ginormous white tail-fin proclaimed this gargantuan a ship of the Red Star Line, the largest and most successful star liner company in like, ever.

Nothing unusual was noted during the voyage, in fact everything ran smoothly until Security alerted Biscay about the stiff in cabin 407. Nobody heard or saw anything suspicious. None of the passengers were missing or acting suspiciously. No airlock doors were opened or any transports allowed since their last stop four days prior. There were no notorious names on the passenger list, nor any unsavory persons among the ranks of his crew. In fact, the ship's commander had never even seen a dead body in real – um, life before. And yet, almost magically, there it was.

Sumone Yiden Smiff was a businessman of note. Was, past tense. Through years of sweat and swearing and amazingly smart (or lucky) deals he'd built up a mining empire that spanned the sum of known space. At 74 years, he had reached the apex of a career stretching half a century. His companies mined precious commodities like Impervium, Obstinatium and Bitanium. He wasn't really famous, or ostentatious. In fact he only ever made the cover of Fortune One Billion once, twenty-five years ago. He'd never married, had lots of children – light-years apart, apparently.

This was his first trip on the Ossifar Distana, his first real splash in life. Look what it got him. Mister Smiff liked anonymity. He kept a low profile, often traveling under assumed names, claiming to be anything from a banker to a (very) successful life insurance salesman. He'd never broken the law, at least not irreparably. He was quite generous, well liked, sponsoring many charities anonymously – which is why it was so surprising to find him floating face down in the private spa in his apartment, murdered. He had been murdered, unless it was a freak shaving accident. Those old razors weren't called cut-throats for nothing. Yikes.

How and why a man like Smiff had met such an unpleasant end was a mystery – but one thing was clear: it had been planned and executed by someone with an obvious streak of cruelty. And theft was not a motive, since nothing was missing. All right, he considered, nothing seemed to be missing. It's not as though Smiff had a manifest of his belongings or anything. Nobody could tell if anything was taken because, quite simply, if it had, it was missing after the fact – and Smiff wasn't saying much. Pity. Would be nice if he could tell who killed him. Sort of a retro-active solution to the murder. It wasn't even as simple as saying 'the butler did it', if the butler had, since there were 100 butlers on the staff to see to the needs of the wealthiest passengers.

So rich a client having suffered such a messy death was an unsettling embarrassment to Captain Harald Biscay. It was bad for business. He had the murder hushed up immediately, his security staff investigating the matter covertly but thoroughly. Five and a half thousand souls onboard. Five and a half thousand suspects. Three days. So far, nothing. Now it would be taken further by the planetary authorities on the colony world below. A forensic team (cunningly disguised as a cleaning crew) was now rummaging through Smiffs apartment, examining every single particle. He had a feeling -- a strong feeling, about what they were going to find. Somehow, Biscay was of the opinion that this was going to be another contender for the Unsolved Murders show.

* * *

Life had been pretty good lately to Gary Beck, aka Beck the Badfeller, who was on his way to San Fedora to meet with Sheriff O'Donnell about some bounties he could pick up in his area. No, there were no spare Ferrari's or free beach houses to live in, courtesy of an affluent writer – but there were other things. Good things, like the fact that it was a beautiful Saturday morning, that he had a home to go to, a Jeepo to get him there – and a girl who would be waiting for him. When he thought of Mei he would get all warm and fuzzy inside. After seven months he was beginning to realize she was the one. Right now though, there was the job he was going to find out about, and the road to San Fedora.

Apparently some rustlers had been swiping red-horned wildebeest from farms in the San Fedora area and transporting them off-world to other colonies where they would sell them. And these were known repeat offenders. He could make a packet if he got the whole bunch of them the same time. The pickings were kind of slim in Atro City lately and he could use the money. He didn't like feeling like a leech around Cindy-Mei.

Obsidian crows tended to avoid cities, mainly because they didn't enjoy taking a roundabout route to anywhere, having to turn corners or follow a road like humans did. (How was a crow supposed to walk to where it was going if these silly Humans put all these buildings and things in the way?) They preferred to travel in a straight line, which typically ran between where they were and where they wanted to be. This came about because of a) laziness and b) they tended to overbalance when turning corners and would sometimes fall over. These somewhat trivial, if not annoying facts are what occupied Gary Beck's' mind as he angrily slammed the trunk lid of his Jeepo shut. He'd run over the obsidian crow five minutes ago and, as his check confirmed – he had a flat spare wheel in the trunk. (Well, now at least it matched the tire on the front left side of the vehicle.) Predictably, the hard-bodied bird-like creature had merely shaken itself off and squawked at him, before climbing awkwardly out of its shallow crater and resuming its journey.

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