This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS
June 18, 2016
THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS
When two ex-convicts bought a clapped out spaceship for a new, possibly almost legal, business as interworld truckers, they could not have imagined that fifteen years later they would be juggling babies, slavers, butterflies and frozen livestock.
With an engineer who can fix anything, a horny cook, three kids and a travelling medical clinic on board, every day presents a new challenge; whether it is escaping an angry crimelord on a farflung moon, or enrolling children in the central education system.
Their jobs take them through a system of terraformed planets and moons where a strong central government’s reach weakens in the New Worlds, leaving gaps where the rule of law becomes at best a suggestion. Communications are advanced, but trees are rare. Newlyweds, belly dancers, farmers, cultists. People looking for a brighter future somewhere Out There.
The Company of Adventurers is a family saga covering those 15 years as Rand Hudson and Dita Aglukak move from robbery and smuggling to find themselves prosperous and almost respectable.
Chapter One- A Tonne of Money
Chapter Two- Strictly Legal
Chapter Three Honour Among Thieves
Chapter Four Surveyors
Chapter Five Flying Doctors
Chapter Six Passengers
Chapter Seven Timber
Chapter Eight Dancing Girls
Chapter Nine-- Monarchs
Chapter Ten Summerfair
Chapter Eleven Branson’s Mark
Chapter Twelve Kerry
Chapter Thirteen Meeting of the Independent Traders
Chapter Fourteen Roses
Chapter Fifteen A New Contract
Chapter Sixteen Shoes
Chapter Seventeen On a CentraPro World
Chapter Eighteen Hope and the Constable
Chapter Nineteen A Business Plan
Chapter Twenty Birds and Bees and Hearts and Flowers
Chapter Twenty-One Her Name Was Rio
Chapter Twenty Two Buffalo Jump
Chapter Twenty Three And Baby Makes Four
A TONNE OF MONEY
Rand Hudson glared at Snake. “What d’ya mean the cargo is bronzers? ”
“Puts new meaning in the name two-bit thief, don’t it, boss?” ,Dita Aglukak, pilot of Rand’s ship, Bluebell put in.
“Heyyyy, Rand. Don’t get yer knickers in a bunch. We’re not stealin a few coins here. There’s a tonne …an acktuel tonne. …of coin available.”
“What is that in value?” asked Dita.
“Ah, that’s the right question. It’s one an a half million twobyte coins. Total value three million.”
“An our cut?” asked Rand.
“Five percent, on accounta the biggest problem will be disposing of them all. But that’s gonna be my problem.”
“So. Fifteen thou. In bronzers?”
“Nah. In platinum, or notes if ya want.”
“Coin, any day.”
“So, we’re agreed?”
“Let’s look at the plan, anyways.”
Marco Majumdar surveyed the dockyard. At this late hour, it was quiet and locked down. Bright lights flooded the place.
“Do they got dogs?” he asked Rand.
“Snake sez it’s took care of, same as the watchman.”
“Dogs don’t take bribes.”
“But they like high meat, even if it’s doctored. The watch is givin them something special with their dinner t’night. And then he keeps his back turned and we chloroform him, just a little.”
Dita had hotwired a stolen hauler for the container-trailer. Wearing the same thin leather gloves as the men, she swung clumsily into the van whose door had been crudely jimmied.
“I hate lookin so unprofessional, Rand,”said Marco.
“Stop callin me by name, durin a heist then. We don’t know that the yard ain’t miked too.”
“Course there’s cameras. That’s why Dita has the pregnant belly and blonde wig. That’s why the full beards. An’ why the burnooses. An why the truck hasta look like some amateurs took it.”
Dita checked her watch. “Showtime, boss.”
The plan went smooth. Marco ‘overcame’ the watchman and duct taped him to an office chair, with just enough roughness to keep the cops from suspicion. The stolen hauler was hitched to the container-trailer easily, since hitching and unhitching containers was a normal task for the crew of a freighter
Then they were out of the gate, closing it behind them, and driving quietly into the centre of the city, where it was easy to get lost in the traffic. After an hour or so of random driving, they headed over a bridge to the pickup point, another transit yard, this one near the spaceport.
At that yard, a new crew took over unloading the container into four smaller vehicles. One of Snake’s men, took Dita’s belly and wig and drove the rig back into the city. He would abandon it near where it was stolen and dump the disguise in the washroom of a fast food restaurant. With luck, a tired cleaner would just toss the washroom trash into their dumpster and it would not be found.
“Providin he don’t decide to choose a bar instead. Cops will check those first.”
“His problem, not ours.”
Snake had sent one of his gangsters to deliver their pay. Each got a heavy purse with 5,000 in platinum coin, which took a lot less room and weight than the bronzers had. The purses were still heavy, Rand gloated.
Mamie picked them up walking a few blocks from the transit yard in the mule. The burnooses and fake beards went into a charity clothing bin on the way back to the spaceport.
“Now we make a quick getaway in case the feds catch on to us, but we ain’t got nuthin with us that connects us to the caper.”
“Ooh, we did a caper! We never get to do a caper!” Mamie and Marco high fived.
Rand groaned. “Don’t celebrate yet. Snake is still using us. If the Feds manage to connect a ship leaving port quick after the ….robbery….” Mamie looked disappointed that Rand hadn’t said ‘caper’ again.” We could still be in trouble. We gotta stash the coin for a while.”
“We’re not far from my folks, boss. I could go for a short visit,” said Mamie .
“He got someplace to bank this coin?”
“Easy peasy. My daddy’s got more outbuildin’s that he got kids.”
“Thank you for bringin my lil girlie back for this visit, Captain Hudson.”
“Thank you for lettin me take her in the first place, Mr. Dieudonne.”
“An the money she’s been sendin home, I can’t say that hasn’t been a help. Her lil sister is as smart with her head as Mamie is with her hands. We’re hopin we can afford to send her to university after she finishes her Twelve. All the kids is putting in a bit for her tuition.”
Rand took the plunge. “Mr. Dieudonne, I gotta proposition for you. We done pretty good on our last job, pulled in some good coin. I don’t like banks an I don’t like carryin too much cash money around with us.”
“Would you see your way clear to letting us keep a good portion here. Mamie says you got lotsa outbuildings for storage.”
“This cash money wouldn’t be in bronzers, would it, Captain Hudson?”
“Nossir! We got paid in platinum.”
“You heard about the Great Bronzer Robbery on Caligula?”
“We don’t pay much attention to newswaves when we’re flying, sir.”
“Not exactly an answer to my question. Which is an answer in its own self. You ain’t putting my sweet girl in any danger?”
“No moren any of us workin out here on the edge. Things can get hairy at times and the Navy ain’t too fond of us independent contractors, but seriously I never want any harm to come to your girl. She’s our sunshine.”
“That muscle ain’t givin her a hard time?”
“Majumdar? He tries anything, he knows I’d space him. Or worse, tell his ma on him.”
“That kind of tough guy, eh? Alright. Pick a shed and put your stuff in it. Don’t tell me which one.”
“Thank you, sir. An we’ll be making a contribution to the university fund.”
“Yes, you will.”
“So Daddy was okay with leavin our money there?” Mamie asked, climbing into bed.
“Once he was clear on Marco’s intentions towards you, yep.”
“Marco’s? He didn’t ask about yours?”
HONOUR AMONG THIEVES
“Mama, is that another ship?”
“Well spotted, Hope. Can you find a visual?” asked Dita Aglukak, pilot on the transport spaceship Bluebell. She guided the child through the screens to find the other ship and then magnify the view.
The ship looked much like Bluebell, a tramp freighter, no money to pretty it up and a trail behind it of dirty exhaust.
“Now, can you see the registry number?” Dita asked.
“Ess ess zero six em four nine.”
“Is that the whole number , baby?”
“Captain, could you come up to the bridge? We got an unidentified boat bout a hunnert klicks away.”
Rand Hudson arrived quickly, carrying his fussy toddler son, whole scarlet cheeks showed that he was teething.
The ship’s comm pinged.
“Damn. They’ve seen us too.” Dita said quietly.
“So we say hello back mama?” Hope asked.
“No,”said the captain, moving the girl off the torn co-pilot’s chair and handing her the baby.. “Take Derry back to your bunk and lock yourselves in.”
Carrying the squirming toddler, Hope hurried off the bridge.
“Mamie,” Rand commed to the engine room, “Looks like we may have unidentified callers. Get ready to rabbit.′
“Cain’t sweetie. I got half the ’lectrics all over the floor here. “
Rand cursed. “Okay, sweetheart, get it all back together as fast as you can. This bunch may just be sloppy housekeepers.” he turned to Dita. “Can you find anything for the partial registration?”
“Three that match the numbers and the model. Prolly. That boat’s been customized. Lookit the forward thrusters.”
“And they’re all privateers, like us... the company ships keep lookin sharp... but I don’t recognize any of em as Independent Traders..”
The Independent Traders were a very loose usually friendly network of freighters and transport who carried small cargoes from one world to another in this system of terraformed planets and moons circling UX593, called Starbright by the settlers of its system. Rand had bought the Bluebell about fifteen years earlier and with Dita as his pilot between them, they knew about half of the Independent Traders personally and many more thought tales of hard times and derring do.
Marco, get yourself strapped and bring weapons to the cargo bay for Dita and me. Does Mamie have anything defensive in the engine room?”
“Just a smile and a shotgun,” Marco″s voice come over the intercom. “And she’s more effective with the smile.”
The intership communicator pinged again.and a picture appeared on the screen.
“Hello, Bluebell. This is Hide and Seek calling. Got any interesting trade goods up for barter?”
“We’d usually be innerested, Hide and Seek.” Rand replied. “But all our cargoes, such as they are, is spoke for. Times is thin.”
“Really? And yet you have a container attached to your caFshadyrgo bay. Must have some good stuff there.”
“Nothin available, sorry. All bonded.”
“We haven’t seen another crew in weeks.” the woman on the screen said. As her ship drew closer and the picture sharpened , it became obvious that she was quite beautiful. “I’d really appreciate dropping in for a friendly drink and a chat.” She bit her lower lip.
“Did she just bat her eyelashes?” Dita murmured incredulously.”Nothing registered as Hide and Seek.”
Dita gestured at the radar screen Hide and Seek was now leas than a kilometre from Bluebell and closing. Cables shot out and clung to Bluebell pulling the visitor closer. Alarms went off as the cargo airlock was overridden and sealed to the stranger. It opened to show a flexible tunnel.
Marco faced the door alone, still carrying pistols and tasers for his crewmates, who rand down the companionway to his aid.
The visitors did not appear to be armed. The woman they had been talking with followed three muscular types into the bay.
She was more than beautiful in person. Tiny with a lusciously curved figure set off by tight pants an a low cut bustier, but wearing practical flat heeled boots laced to her knees, an a scarlet neoprene blouse that protected her arms. Her black hair was tightly plaited down her back, swinging with each step, and her round black eyes were thickly lashed.
She pouted. “We just wanted a change of scenery, guys. Why so unfriendly?”
She looked around the packed cargo bay. “Such as they are.” she quoted. “My goodness, if this is a nothing much cargo for you, you are doing well.”
The Bluebell’s crew were silent.
“Are you going to offer us tea and cake?” she continued, pouting fliratiously at the handsome captain.
Rand shrugged. “May as well come back to the galley.”
In the galley, Marco laid their weapons on the counter, while Dita put the kettle on . Rand pulled out a chair at the table for the woman, noting that her clothing was probably too tight to conceal any weapons. The other three took chairs at the table too.
“Cain’t promise cake. “ Rand said as graciously as he could.
Marco moved around the counter leaving more room for Dita and stood between their weapons and the table of unwelcome guests. The galley lights dimmed and brightened.
“So where are you bound?” the woman asked.”I’m Bennettina bin Hassan by the way. My crew here are Wong and JoJo. That little one,” indicating a man well over two metres tall. “Is Shorty. We couldn’t help ourselves. Sorry..” She beamed at Rand.
“Captain Mayfair, “ he lied. “Dita, Marco. You don’t have ident on your boat.′
“Bureaucracy bores me, captain.”she smiled “We know who we are, isn’t that the important thing?”
“Seems kinda shady, actually,”Rand said frowning.
Dita put the teapot in front of Bennettina and a tray of cups. “Please be mother, Captain bin Hassan,” she said.”While I get some eats.”
Rand silently approved of his crew’s defensive moves, seating the uninvited visitors and their leader further slowed by pouring the tea. Meanwhile Dita and Marco were standing in easy reach of their weapons.
Then, as Bennettina poured the first cup of steaming tea, Bluebell shuddered. Rand looked around in shock.
Bennettina beamed,”We’re just unhooking that container you’ve been draggin, captain.” Her smile became sharper,”You didn’t think this was my whole crew, did you?”
Marco and Dita grabbed their weapons as she spoke. Marco shot Shorty in the shoulder knocking him off his chair. The rapid response slowed the rest of the pirates but not their captain who threw the cup of scalding tea in Rand’s face, blinding him. Too late he raised his hand as protection, only scalding it while most of the tea landed on his face.
The pirates had kicked over their chairs and were now standing weapons in hand. Shorty, bleeding heavily, fumbled for a pistol on the wrong hip.
“Now you can stand down,” said the pirate queen, no longer smiling. “Or we can kill you all. I’m not fussed which.” She considered, “actully since we could take your boat and its cargo too if we kill you, I might change my mind.”
Rand ignored his painful scalds and glared at her. He signalled Dita and Marco to lay down their weapons, knowing that the high galley counter concealed Marco’s chef’s knives and that Dita preferred blades to bullets.
“I’m feeling magnanimous,”Bennettina siad. “Take the guns. Tie them to chairs, guys, and let’s get on our way.”
JoJo had a roll of duct tape in her jacket pocket . She and Wong swiftly fastened their prisoners together. Then she taped a couple of the wooden chairs to the three., making movement almost impossible.
Laughing, they left the kitchen for the cargo bay, dragging the now unconcious Shorty.
Rand’s loud cursing was silenced by the booming echo of a shotgun in the bay.
Mamie ran in from the catwalk that connected the engine room to the bridge and galley, above the bay. Silently she used one of Marco’s knives to cut their bonds. ’How can we get the container back, sweets?” she asked Rand.
Rand kissed her briefly, heading for the bay floor. Stepping around the bodies, he picked up a pistol and led the crew into the airlock attaching them to the pirate ship. There was no guard at the lock. “’You know the layout?” He asked his crew.
Dita shrugged, but Marco said, “I worked on a Crossbow- yonks ago. The bridge is up that companionway.”
“One on the cargo bay, like ours. One over the bay, big enough for cargo. No man-door on it. There’s an emergency by the crew quarters. And this one. No codes on the rattrap I flew on.”
“Okay. We can’ reach the top. We need this one. Marco, lock the emergency and check for crew if you can be fast. Dita, take the bridge.”
“Crew, not ship,” he grinned.”Might be good salvage in a week or so.”
The two ran off. Mamie poked her head through the connection to Bluebell.
“We okay, Rand?” she asked, her voice trembling.”
“So far so good, baby,” her husband replied. “Could you double lock all our airlocks but this one please?”
“I don’t....,” she looked frightened.
“We″re not sure how many crew this boat carries, sweets. Seal yourself in. And the kids,” he added.
Mamie disappeared back down the flexible connection. Marco joined Rand.
“That’s locks sealed. Looks like there are eight crew, mebbee only seven.”
“Six of ’em dead,” said Dita, from the entry to the bridge. She sheathed her machete.
“So two outside,” Rand said.
“Only really need one to move a container in space,” she replied.
“Okay, let’s ditch this boat and seal it.”
They returned to Bluebell at a trot, closing the inner door of the airlock behind them. Dita headed for the bridge, while Rand and Marco suited up. Marco pulled two laser saws from a tool box near the airlock.
As they entered the connection they closed both of Bluebell’s airlock doors behind them. With the saws they ripped open the tough fabric of the tunnel and pushed themselves Out There.
Marco spotted the single pirate working where the container fastened to Bluebell’s cargo bay. He signalled Rand to hold back and pushed himself silently behind the pirate. With a sharp viscious blow he severed the pirate’s air hose and slashed open his suit. Rand signalled thumbs up and jetted to the unseen far side of the container. No one. He made a full circuit, then turned on his comm.
“Looks like there were only seven. And now there are none. Clean up time. Marco, fix those fastenings back tight.
Marco made an offended grunt.”Of course! And he don’t seem to have got round here. Let’s get home and skedaddle.”
They were not that fast to leave. While Marco cleaned the cargo bay of blood from the pirates Mamie had gunned down, Rand and Dita collected the seven bodies and with the jets from the destroyed space suit firing, pushed them far enough away from their ship that they would not orbit it but get lost in the detritus of space.
When Dita gave permission for the children to leave their hiding place, Hope was very annoyed. “This kid whined and cried the whole time. And he pooped himself. And I had no diapers. I don’t appreciate being stuck like that.”
“You do what you’re told,” frowned Rand. “That’s what crew does.”
“If I’m crew, I should get paid,” the child retorted.
“You’re not even seven yet!” Rand laughed.
“What was happening anyway? Why was we hiding?”
“From the ship I saw, I know,” said Hope. “And I don’t never get to meet anyone new.”
“They weren’t nice people, honey,” her mother said.”You followed orders and that was good. When we make planetfall maybe the captain’ll give you some coin to go shopping.”
“Can I have books for my comm? Or a magnifier? Or a multi-knife?”
Rand gave Dita an impatient glance. “This day is being both interesting and expensive.”
That night having comforted the still jittery Mamie the best way he knew, Rand siad, “We should come back this way when we drop the container.”
“Do we have to?” she asked, her thumb circling his nipple.
“Don’t have to, but if no one else find it... We can call it in and claim as salvage. Not much cargo there, unless they got hidey holes, which I’m pert sure they did, but a ship’s worth something any day.”
“Don’t seem right.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, little girl, They woulda done to us. No honour among thieves, sweetheart. No honour.”
Dita filled her shopping cart with carrots and potatoes.
“We need garlic too, Mama,” Hope reminded her.
Her mother looked at the list she had put together while they were still out There. Now on Freya, here in the CentraPro Produce Depot some of the staples seemed like luxuries. Why was salt so expensive?
Sugar -- cane/beet
Hot sauce (Barbados style & Sribachi)
“At least we can buy the canned foods in bulk,” she muttered.
“We can get salt on Octavian, mama. They have an ocean!”
“You’re right, baby. But I don’t know if the price will be lower. The salt beds are owned by CentraPro too.”
“They paid for terraforming that world, so they own a lot of the resources. Same all over. Sometimes they did the terraforming, sometimes they bought out the corporation that did it. They own a lot of resource worlds.”
“Is that why we ship so much...”
“Hush, child. We don’t talk about work in public.”
“Well, blimey, if it ain’t the beautiful and dangerous Dita Aglukak.”
Dita turned swiftly, pushing her daughter behind her and backing both of them against the wall.
“Didn’ know Bluebell was in town, sweet’eart. You an Rand gonna be droppin in on me?”
“Let Rand know that I’ve got a simple two way deal if he’s innerested. Cargo out, and cargo back.”
“An’ who’s this wee pearl? You lil Hope, darling?”
Hope looked nervously at the tall, skinny man. He seemed friendly enough, but she didn’t like him.
“I’ve a brickie ’bout your age, too. Stepchild. Wife Sandy’s kid.”
“You’re married?” Dita exclaimed.
“Four years back. We’re five, Two other men and another woman, plus assorted kids. Like your family.”
“We’re not polyamorist.”
“Best thing I ever did. Nothin like family to keep a man healthy and focussed. An good for business. Sandy’s got a house on the docks that c’d support us all, if necessary. We’re expandin ex-pon-en-tially. Tell Rand to get in touch, we can work together. An bring the kid, I’ll innerduce er to our Vickie.”
Snake left, pushing a cart filled with expensive imported oranges.
“I don’t like that man, mama. Do I have to play with his stepdaughter?”
“No, honey. He’s just business, not a friend. You’ll probably never see him again.”
“There are dried mushrooms and sea vegetable in Aisle Four, mama. Are those on the list.? And noodles.”
Rand was amused by Mamie ’s sentimental reaction to Snake’s marriage.
“C’mon, babe. He found true love. Four times over! Ain’t that sweet?”
“Just amazing that even one person would consider that grubby creep that way.” Rand shuddered melodramatically.
“Says he has work for us, though.” Dita reminded him.
“Reckon we should call on him then. We don’t really need the money but always keep options open.
“We always need the money, bossman. Kids need shoes, Dita didn’t have enough for her whole list at the Produce,” Marco the supercargo reminded them.
“And I missed my allowance this week. And last.” pointed out Hope.
” ’Lownse” babbled Derry.
“You, sonny me lad, don’t get an allowance until you can form sentences, ’kay.?” Rand swung his tiny son over his head.
“Lownse! Lownse! Cap’n!” cried the toddler.
“So what’s this job you need doin, Snake?” Rand demanded.
“I gotta load of glass cannin jars to move to Herschel. Then you pick up canned goods, and bring em back here. All nice and legal.”
“So why us then?”
“Yer here, aincha? It’s harvest time and the cannin plants is runnin low. Had a bumper crop of ... whatever they grow there. They gotta can it or bury it.”
“Herschel’s off Elijah.,” Dita noted.
“Look, there’s no reason to fuss about that. Yeah, you had a little run in with M’goyo a while back.”
“Run in, fuck, Snake, he killed me!”
“And brought you back!”
“Just so’s he could kill me again more slow-like!”
“No reason he should ever know yer in the vin-cin. Safe as ’ouses.”
Snake found himself at the end of two Death Glares.
“An’ they got governance now. The Feds has appointed a new Governor and they’s a IAV ship patrollin with two squadrons of SREVs for enforcement. M’goyo’s time is gettin short.”
“Legal cargo, remember? You’ll have all your paperwork clean an clear. Look, Rand, I ain’t gonna lie, this ain’t a big cargo for me, or for you, but it could lead to more legal work. And legal money is easy money.”
“We got kids on board.”
“I met Dita’s brickie. You got more?”
“Got a boy, too.”
“Congratulations to both of you.”
“He’s my boy, not Dita’s.”
“We got six kids in our fambly. An one of mine on the way.”
Dita suppressed a shudder at the idea of Snake reproducing.
“Look. I need this cargo. I’m prepared to be generous about pay. An I’ll make sure the Security knows yer in the neighbourhood so’s they can watch for you.”
”Security? Sounds familiar.”
“They’ve been around the outer worlds for years. Actually a fairly easy bunch to deal with long’s they don’t think you are connin em. The captain’s got a stick up his ass about smugglin and salvage, but like I said, this is a legal cargo.”
“Whatya think, Dita?”
“We’ll have Federal protection, sir.”
“That a yes or a no, Dita?”
“Just sayin, sir.”
“You’re gonna take us to Elijah, Randolf?”
“Mamie , sweets, it’s not as big a worry as it seems. It’s not Elijah, it’s Herschel. It’s legal cargo, both ways. And we’ll be watched by government ships while we’re in system.”
“Is that achulley a benefit? War’nt Security the one that arrested us all, when Hope was a babe in arms?”
“That was a misunderstanding about salvage licenses. We walked. It’ll be fine. Don’t fuss.”
“Snake, I’m getting hot tongue and cold shoulder over this job. Not so sure we can follow through.”
“Look, I’ll give you my word. I’ll do better n that, I’ll send my stepdaughter along with you. Would I do that if I thought there was any danger?”
“I’m truly hurt, Rand. I love that kiddie like she was my own. Which, legally she is, since I married her mother. An she’s about your kid’s age, so they can be company for each other.”
“Hope don’t need company. She’s got family”
“Well, Sandy is tired with bein preggers and Vickie could do with a holiday from her, an I’d like her to learn my business as well as her mum’s.”
“Her mum? Thought her mum run a brothel? How old is yer Vickie?”
“An she knows how to run a brothel?”
“Well, not ever’thin. Her sums ain’t too good. But she can make pointments and do a work rota like nobody’s business.”
Rand was both impressed and appalled. “So you want me to teach her the finer points of movin cargo ?”
“Yep. Start em young. An this is a simple job. Legal. Easy.”
Vickie came aboard with a small rolling case and a large doll. Hope shook her hand, then showed her to the passenger dorm where she would sleep. Vickie looked nervous.
“Do you have your own room at home?”
“No, I share with my little brother. He’s four.”
“I share with my momma. She’s a widow woman. I’ll share with you, if you like, while you’re here,” Hope told her.
“I have three daddies and two mummies. ”
“I have aunties and uncles, but never no daddy,” explained Hope matter of factly.
The two girls went to inspect their room, apparently satisfied with the arrangement. Rand and Dita returned to supervising the stowing of the pallets of glass jars.
“The last two pallets are metal lids and rings,” said Snake.“Dita still pilotin?”
Rand did not reply to that. “I ain’t completely comfortable with this run.”
“Lookee. Here’s the call code for the Security. And this here’s the code for the commander, his own self. You run into any problems, scream for help.”
The trip to Herschel was quiet. The girls decided they liked each other well enough and spent much of their time playing with their dolls, occasionally pressing Derry into service as an extra baby. After helping change his diaper, Vickie decided that it was time he was toilet trained and the girls harassed him first into reporting wet pants, then the need to pee.
This necessitated having many pails and bowls scattered about the ship just in case. Marco was disgusted by this because the girls did not think it necessary to empty the used containers and it was Marco’s week on honeywagon duty.
At Herschel, the cargo was unloaded and the canning factory staff expressed delight at the fast delivery of their order. They helped smooth the paperwork at the customs office, easy enough since as Snake had promised, everything was legal and the paperwork was clean. The manager of the plant invited the crew out for a drink to thank them.
Dita and Marco accepted, but Rand and Mamie stayed behind to take care of the kids and to have a private date night.
Leaving Derry asleep in their shared bunk, Rand and Mamie had watched a vid cuddled on the common area chesterfield and then retired to an empty passenger dorm where they could make love without worrying about waking the baby.
Bluebell was closed up for the night, but the side door was unlocked to allow the revellers access on their return. The comm unit in the cargo bay was open so they could notify the captain when they got back. Everyone on the boat was in bed, if not asleep, before darkness had fallen.
“Why are you stoppin, Rand? Please... harder now.”
“No, sweets. Was there a funny noise? ”
“I don’t hear anythin. Just you breathin. And yer heart beatin.”
There was a clanking noise from the comm. Then the sound of cursing.
“That’s not Marco. Someone is on the boat.”
Rand grabbed his pants and gun. Pulling away from Mamie , he buttoned his pants on the run. Barefoot he rushed through the galley to the cargo bay, in time to see two men leaving the ship each carrying something slung over his shoulder.
Rand fired at their backs and ran after them, but lost them in the Madonnas of the dockyard.
“What in seven hells could they have taken? There’s no cargo on board yet.”
Mamie could hear Derry crying, woken by the gunshot. Nothing from the girls. She ran to check on them and found their room empty.
“Hope! Vickie! Come out! No foolin, now! REPORT!” she cried into the comm.
Rand had run out the side door and looked for any trace of the intruders. Now he returned and spoke into the crew radios. “Get back here right away. Don’t stop for anything. And if you can bring helpers, do it.”
While checking on the baby, Mamie had redressed. Now she joined Rand on the bridge and, carrying her sleeping son, watched tensely while Rand called the Dockyard office
“No response,” he reported. “Either they’re closed, which they are not supposed to be, or they are not able to respond.”
“Call the Hershel police,” suggested Mamie .
“I’m thinkin the kids were grabbed by M’goyo’s men. And the Hershel police are like to be his bought men.”
Mamie looked appalled.
“Why would anyone grab little girls?”
Rand just looked at her. Mamie shuddered.†
“If it’s M’goyo, he’s not after the girls. He wants us.”
“Call the Security.”
“Donít want the government-- they know us.”
“Fuck that, Rand. M’goyo is too big for us to handle. Call.”
She could see Rand fighting with himself over asking help from the hated Feds. Then he called , not the Security, but the personal code of the commander that Snake had given him.
“I ain’t gonna mess around with no paperpushers.”
Although it was late evening on Hershel, it was apparently still the work day on the great ship city. The commander responded immediately.
“This is Rand Hudson, captain of the cargo ship Bluebell. Got this call number from Freya/Barsoom ColonyHonest Traders. I’m reporting the kidnapping of two children.” The commander snapped to attention on the tiny screen.
“We’re parked at the Hershel Central Dockyard. We’re transporting a cargo of glass to Hershel and canned goods back to Freya for the Freya/ Barsoom ColonyHonest Traders. We have three children on board and while the boat was closed up for the night, the two little girls was snatched.”
Mamie could see the Commander waving officers over to the cortex screen. He had also punched for a recording.
“We need descriptions of the girls and if you saw the kidnappers.”
“Our girl is Hope Aglukak. She’s five, about a metre tall, blonde hair in cornrows, brown skin, brown eyes. The other girl is Vickie Pollard, seven, about a metre twenty, a little pudgy, pink complexion, straight blonde hair. Sheís not our crew, she’s a friend from Freya, daughter of one of the Honest Traders.” said Mamie .
“That information is now with every foot and car patrol on Hershel. Oberman, could you put a landlock on all the ships at the Hershel dock?”
“Done, sir” came a disembodied voice.
“That won’t help with shuttles parked away from the docks.” said Rand grimly.
“No. But we watch the sky constantly. Just traffic cop stuff, but useful in emergencies too. Now, you saw the kidnappers.”
“Just their backs as they left. I’m ashamed to say we were not locked up. Some crew are on shore leave and we wanted to make it easy for them when they got home.”
“Both tall, both men. Probably. I saw them outlined against the dockyard light as they left. They carried one girl each over their shoulders. The girls were not moving. Can’t tell you hair colour, clothing, except that one wore darker pants than the other.”
“Have you notified the local police?”
“We’re not convinced that they would be ... We’ve had some run-ins with M’goyo in the past.”
“And you think this might be payback?”
“Have you dealt with M’goyo?”
“Understood. We’ve been building a case, several cases, actually, against him for more than three years now. I will give your information to the Hershel force, but frankly, you were right to call us first.
“I just got word that two SREVs are on their way; one has already landed at the Yard, actually. Please give them your fullest cooperation.”
Rand and Mamie heard noises in the cargo bay. Locking Mamie and Derry on the bridge, Rand headed down with his pistol drawn. He hit the lights, blinding Dita and Marco as they pounded into the bay.
Rand quailed at the idea of telling Dita he had lost her daughter. Then he pulled himself together and, still barefoot and shirtless, descended to meet the crew.
His news was greeted by a shocked growl from Marco,and a roundhouse punch from Dita that knocked him to the floor.
Marco, thinking like a tracker, had run to the girls’ stateroom and was looking for clues. The girls had been painting before bed and coloured paper and wet brushes were scattered on the floor. Marco found a torn corner in the hallway.
“They might be tryin to leave a trail. But they won’t have much paper and it’s a little windy. Y’heard a clankin noise?”
“Yeah, that an some cursin made me realize there was strangers aboard. Thought someone was fixin ta rob us.”
Marco was sniffing the air. “There’s yer clankin. Those creeps tripped on a bucket of baby piss. That might be useful.”
A squad of uniformed Alliance soldiers appeared at the door.
“Captain Hudson? I’m Sargeant Sheng,” the fresh faced woman said. “We got out orders from the Security. Is there anything you can add that might help my squad?”
“Looks like one of the buggers might smell of piss. He kicked over a pailful when they was takin the kids.”
The sergeant looked disgusted at the toilet habits of spacers.
“I’m goin with you.” said Dita.
“And you are?”
“Dita Aglukak. They took my baby.”
The sergeant looked doubtful. “We usually try to keep the parents away from the search party. You may be more useful here, waiting for the call.”
“Ransom. There is reason to think the bastards were not planning to rob the ship, but had targeted the children.”
Mamie emerged from the bridge, followed by Ditawho had unlocked the door. “Targeted? They were after the girls? M’goyo was after the girls?”
Rand spoke firmly to the purplebelly sergeant. “Marco here is the best tracker I’ve ever met. Includin city trackin. Unless you got dogs, I’d suggest you take him along or give him a crew to work for him.
“And Dita is a soldier. If you allow her along she will follow orders. And she has more reason to find the kids than anyone here.”
Sheng considered for a moment. “Right. You stay here and wait for a call. I’ll leave men on the door. Aglukak, you go with Corporal Mukerjee’s platoon. Do you have weapons?”
Dita pushed back her coat to show her mare’s leg pistol. Sheng nodded approval.
“Marco. You lead Corporal Beatty’s patrol in finding a trail. We don’t think they will be in the dockyard, but they may have a shuttle parked nearby. They have just under an hour on us. Let’s roll.
“And Captain Hudson, I’d advise you to get dressed. It gets cold on Hershel at night.”
Bluebell was lit up like a nova, every light on high, while Rand and some of the foot patrol, checked her for clues about the kidnappers.
Mamie was locked in the bridge with Derry, peacefully sleeping in his travel cot, and Sargent Sheng.
There was a buzz from the comm. Sheng nodded to Mamie to answer it. She shuddered when she saw the kindly smile on M’goyo’s face.
“Ah, hello young lady. I think I do not know you? Do you work for Snake? He has been a very naughty boy. He took something of mine.”
Mamie trembled. What was Snake to M’goyo? They worked together didn’t they? She looked fearfully over at Sheng, who indicated that Mamie should reply.
“I don’t know what he’s done. Do you know something about the girls?”
“His daughter, yes?” M’goyo looked puzzled. “He has more than one?”
“I don’t know. A little girl was travelling with us, a friend of ... of my daughter.” Mamie realized that M’goyo did not know who she was nor that his men had grabbed Hope Aglukak along with Vickie.
“Two girls? Sloppy of my messengers. But more for me to work with. Tell Snake to call me.” And M’goyo closed the connection.
“Can we contact this Snake?” asked Sheng.
“I know the codes,” said Mamie .
Sheng and Mamie were surprised that she got through immediately to Snake’s office on Pentangle, where it was evidently day.
“Well, it’s Rand’s little friend from Pentagle. He finally let you know that I was askin fer you, sweet’eart?”
“I knew. Just not innerested. What have you done to cross M’goyo? What was special about this cargo?”
“Nothin! Strictly legal, like I tol’ yer capt’n.”
“So why has he snatched our Hope and your Vickie?”
Snake’s pasty face turned a little green. “Bloody shite,” he muttered. His oily smile returned. “Nuthin. Strictly legal, just like I tol’ Rand.”
“Then what did you leave out?” Rand loomed over his tiny wife. “Cause we got two missing children and no reason to think M’goyo would be any easier on them than on a grown man.”
In spite of the millions of kilometres between them, Snake quailed at the fierceness in Rand’s voice.
“M’goyo has a lot of straight businesses too. He’s been expandin’ in the strictly legal sector. Could be he wanted to be the only source for cannin’ jars on Hershel. Monopoly-like.”
Rand glared. Mamie ’s stream of invective showed that she had been paying close attention in the rough dives the ‘Bluebell’s crew had introduced her to over the past decade. Snake looked embarrassed by her language.
“You will call M’goyo right now. You will promise him whatever he wants.” Rand said flatly. Sheng looked disturbed. Rand ignored her. “But remember, M’goyo isn’t satisfied with square one. He will want two pounds of flesh. And that better not be Hope.í
He cut off the call.
Then he clicked “return”. Snake’s frightened face appeared, half turned to a dainty blonde woman behind him. “It better not be Vickie either,” added Rand.
Before he cut the connection again, he heard the blonde say,“What was that about rVickie?”
The police had found the dockyard office abandoned and locked. They opened the door by judicious use of a targeted explosion and were able to switch on all the lights over the parked ships. The yard was brighter than day.
“M’goyo should be able to see us from his satellite,” Mukerjee, the police officer leading the party muttered.
“You’re familiar with M’goyo?” asked Dita.
The officer grunted. “He keeps out the random crooks and grifters, but his own riffraff are probably worse. They are as nasty and vicious as ...”
“Pirates? Slavers?” another officer interjected.
“We’ve arrested them for both,” said Mukerjee. “But we arrest them for murder, rape, assault and the next thing they’re back out on the streets. Orders of a Chene judge.”
“Muk!” called a policeman,“I think I saw some movement down this way.”
Dita was pounding down the narrow passage between a Dasher II and a Milspec Intruder before Mukerjee could give orders to his crew.
The other police party had dropped slightly behind Marco, recognizing his tracking expertise within minutes of leaving the ship. With little light, Marco was using his nose to follow the faint scent of baby urine that clung to the invader’s shoe. The path took him towards the back of the shipyard, where a drydock serviced breakdowns.
Halfway there, the lights came on and Marco, blinking in the sudden flash, was able to see bootprints that might have been a little deeper and longer than most on the dirt paths between the randomly parked spacecraft.
He beckoned the police leader. “Keep it quiet. They might think they outsmarted us by goin’ for the drydock. They’ll have a workin’ ship there.”
The leader, Beatty, nodded. She signalled her crew to be silent and they nodded acquiescence.
As they approached the drydock, there were fewer footprints but the bootprints continued. The ships here were parked farther apart to allow workcrews scope. There was no actual boundary between the parking area and the repair area.
“Most of these ships are cold, but Frenchie’s getting a heat signal over that way.”
“Goes with the bootprints.”
“Ií’ll lead with the heat seeker.”
Marco dropped back. He didn’t mind following when someone could do the job better. Besides Frenchie had a great ass in those tight uniform pants. Marco considered asking for a date when this was settled.
The squad approached and surrounded an apparently derelict Streak, a small shuttle suitable only for in-atmo transport.
“Do the landlocks extend over here?”
“Hope so. Sheng might have assumed the station was smart enough to think of it. She’s an optimist.”
“There an escape hatch?”
Beatty looked unsure. One of the squaddies whispered, “I had one of these back home. The hatch is on the other side. And it can be opened from either side. There’s no airlock on it.”
“Good for us, though.”
Beatty made up her mind. “You know the craft. Get over there quiet and open the door. Keep your face shield down and all your armour in place. Don’t go shooting. You got your knife?”
The squaddie pulled out his weapon and reholstered it fast enough to impress Marco.
“What do you want me to do?” Marco asked.
“You’ve got no body armour, right?” Marco nodded. “Then stay put near the main entry. Be the familiar face when we pull the girls out. If the bastards manage to flee, stop them, but try not to kill. We want evidence.”
“Findin them with the kids ain’t evidence?”
“Evidence against M’goyo. Bastards ’ll be safer on Security telling us all than going back to thier boss as failures.”
Dita and Mukerjee’s crew arrived just as the girls ran out the entry and Beatty’s crew grabbed M’goyo’s men.
Hope clung to her mother while plump Vickie launched herself at Marco, gripping him tightly around the neck. Unsure of what to do with a frightened child, Marco patted her back tentatively and muttered,“There, there”
Frenchie, the soldier with the glorious buttocks, flashed him a grin from under lowered eyelashes. Marco grinned back.
Back on Bluebell, the girls were bedded down in Dita’s cabin, whose steel walls and lockable door made them feel more secure.
Rand struggled with the painful task of thanking the soldiers.
Sheng stopped him.
“It’s our job. Peace Order and Good Government. We can’t do much about the last, but we can work on the first two.”
“Think you’ll get much from them about M’goyo?”
“They’re pretty low on the food chain, but we can get their bosses and maybe their bosses’ bosses. M’goyois running out of underlings and finding it harder and harder to recruit. But the Federated Worlds has lots of people and believe it or not, we want things out here to get better. Some of us even are from the Outer Worlds,too.”
“Don’t look like that, Captain.” said Sheng. “But we think, well, I suppose some are just in it for the paycheque, but a goodly number think that the easiest way to be free is to know what the rules are and to know that everybody has the same rules.
“Someone like M’goyo, he ain’t the real thing, for all he crows about freedom. You’ve run into them tinpot dictators with big talk about freedom and silence about the slaves working in their farms and factories.
“It’s our forces that will put those creeps out of business. Eventually. If we work together.”
Rand and Dita were closeted on the bridge of Bluebell, anxiously scanning the “Transport Needed” announcements on the intra planet web.
They had one screen showing a map of the solar system set up to give astrogation details and the other showing the announcements. “There’s terraformin equipment needs shipping to Nones from Octavian.”
“But we’re on Deuce. Not enough fuel to make September, never mind haul, geez, six hunnert tonnes? Can you reset search parameters, Dita? We can’t haul more’n two hunnert.”
“Computer’s being wonky again,” the pilot replied. “It was givin tourist views of Third Rock when I fired it up at sunrise.”
“We need a cargo that’s here and less than 200 tonnes. See anything small and high value?”
“Too far...Too heavy... Livestock...”
Rand shuddered. “No way. I don’t mind horseshit and cows are bearable, but pigs’ll die on you if you look at ’em wrong.”
Dita laughed. “You’re the farm boy. I’ll let you win on that one. I never saw a live animal ’cept people till I was past sixteen”
Rand sat back on the co-pilot chair with tis torn upholstery. ’Your fam’ly never let you off that ship you was born on?”
“Well, of course, by mostly at spaceports where everything was paved. Momma stuck mostly to the Old Stock worlds. They were still terraforming twenty five years ago on Octavian and Nones.”
“Well, lookit that!” breathed Rand.
“Labour supply?” said Dita, “We ain’t that desperatt yet. We could go down to the Yard Office and look for day work as longshoremen,”
“Nope, looks like some greenfoots got their ad in the wrong spot.” Rand smiled. “Passage to Decimal for two, required. Private quarters required. Time sensitive.”
“We don’t have private quarters.” complained Dita. “All the passenger staterooms share the crew commons and heads.”
“How ’bout a shuttle? We never use but one of ’em. Worth seeing what those two will settle for anyway.”
“We got work,” Rand announced at lunch.
“Bout time, captain,” growled Marco, “How long we been stuck here ,now? No work, bad food...”
“Hey!” said Mamie , who was on galley duty this week. “That’s a good soup you’re drinkin. If you don’t like it, pass it on to someone who does.”
Rand patted his indignant wife. ’Don’t get your tail feathers singed, honey. Marco doesn’t mean it. He’s got the tastebuds of a springtime bear.”
Marco looked puzzled, but shrugged it off. “Ah, s’okay., Mamie girl. It tastes fine, but soup, soup. Soup gets on a man’s last nerve. I need something that will keep the lead in my pencil.”
“Work will do that,” said Dita. “ And we have summat at last.”
“Now that I have your undivided attention, “ said Rand. “We’re going to be carryin a pair of surveyors out to Decimal. Actually to Moon Two, off Decimal”
“Didn’t know they was ready to terraform those moons yet, “ said Mamie . “Which cabin will they be in?”
“I think I sold them on taking the shuttle. And got more pay for it than a cabin. We’ll haul their equipment in the cargo bay but they want the privacy of their own space.”
“Geez, you’d think they’d have enough privacy doin first surveys of black rocks.” said Marco.
“Seems they’re honeymooning. They’ll join us day after tomorrow cause they’re getting married today.”
As he expected Mamie went into a romantic haze. “Ooh! How sweet. What an adventure!” She looked all gauzy. “Remember our honeymoon, Rand?” She sighed.
Rand was about to mention that their honeymoon had coincided with the beginning of her morning sickness which in turn had followed some tense discussion with her extremely angry father. He reconsidered, wisely.
“So we need to find the best mattress aboard and sheets that ain’t torn.”
“I’ll take the nice duvet off our bed,”Mamie said. “It’s brought us good luck.” She smiled happily at the idea.
Raj TenHaas and Seiko Jeong were very young. All their equipment appeared to be brand new and quite expensive.
TenHaas was a tall man with golden brown skin and long black hair worn in three fashionable pigtails. His new wife was not much shorter, and broad enough that she probably outweighed him. Seiko was a peppy personality, deeply enamoured of her somewhat morose husband, and enjoyed physical work. While loading their equipment she was matching Marco in lifting.
“You have weights.” she said to him, indicating the equipment stowed at the back of the cargo bay. “Anyone allowed to use them?”
“We all do, cept the kids,” he replied. “You gotta have a spotter though.”
“Of course. And do you keep the gravity on all the time?”
“Yeah. Captain figures the expense of the power is worth it, compared to muscle loss on longer trips.”
“Ah.” she seemed disappointed.
“When you’re docked, the shuttle shares the ship’s grav. When you disengage, you can have grav in the shuttle or not until you hit atmo. The the world’s grav takes over .”
“I didn’t know that.”
Marco looked puzzled. She said, “I was born on Deuce. I’ve never been off-world before. Even my practicum was here.”
“Ain’t no big thing.”
“We...” she blushed and tightened some ziplock cords.
Marco grinned. Honeymooners. He reminded himself to advise Ten Haas from his experience. Gravity free could be fun but weight and mass were different things.
The young couple had paid in advance and agreed to eat with the crew. Ten Haas was aloof, rarely spoke with the crew and appeared shocked that there were children aboard.
“This is our home,” Mamie explained to Seiko. “Dita was born Out There , same as her Hope.”
“Nope. Rand took me from my happy home when I was young.”
Since Mamie appeared to be in her teens and her son was nearly five, Seiko wondered how young that had been. But the mechanic had filled the dishwasher while they spoke and hurried off to the bridge where she and Dita were doing something with Bluebell’s computer.
At dinner, Seiko asked how to make the spicy stewed pork Mamie had cooked, confessing that she didn’t have much experience with cooking.
“How ’bout you , Raj?” Mamie asked. ’You able to take up the slack?”
Raj looked appalled, “We brought more than enough meals for our time on the moon. We have been told to cache what we don’t consume for the secondary expedition.”
“Well, enjoy this while you can,” said Rand, patting his wife’s knee. “Mamie is our mechanic and will be busy with engines for the voyage. You’ll be eatin Marco’s cooking mostly.”
“I make a triffic lasagne vindaloo,′ grinned Marco. “Hope you enjoy spicy.”
The newlyweds returned to their shuttle soon after dinner and Dita, having confirmed that the small shipments they were carrying to Decimal were safely stowed, took off. Hope was in the co-pilot’s chair giving her mother unnecessary instructions as part of her learning plan.
The trip from Deuce to Decimal took most of a week. Mal bluffed that the orbits of the two worlds made the trip longer, but ten Haas told his new wife that Bluebell was just old and slow.
“Don’t tell Mamie that, Raj-ji. She’s crazy about this old boat. Might shove you out the airlock.”
She laughed stopping abruptly when Ten Haas looked sick at the thought.
“I was just teasing, Raj-ji. She wouldn’t do that, sweet little girl like her.”
Her new husand glared. “At least she shows her husband proper respect.”
When Mamie decided to do some work on the ship’s solar wings, she asked the passengers if they wanted to EVA with her. Seiko agreed with enthusiasm and promptly unpacked her suit, shiny new and custom made for her tall, broad form.
Marco watched Seiko in her tight undersuit as she and Mamie, who made do with a tee shirt and leggings, helped each other into their EVAs.
“You got a fine piece of woman flesh there, Raj,” he said as he operated the airlock for them. “Somethin to hold on to on that there cold black rock yer headin for.”
Raj stiffened. “You are speaking of my wife!” he hissed.
“Well, yeah,” Marco continued, unabashed. “Too many of these little sticks around. Not healthy...”
He stopped when Rand punched his arm.
“Ms. Jeong is a lovely woman and you are a lucky man to have won her heart is what Marco is trying to say,” Rand soothed.
“Zacktly! She’s a ...”
“Shut up while you’re ahead, Marco,” said Rand.
At Decimal, Raj and Seiko met with the CentraPro Planetary System manager. They returned with long faces.
“She’s not happy with us as primary team,” Seiko told Marco, who was spotting her on the weights. “She think we’re too inexperienced.”
“What does a survey crew do, anyways?” Marco asked. “They already got maps, right?”
“We check hot spots for recent volcanic activity. That’s for geothermal power, of course, but sometime we see hot springs of water, so we don’t have to make it.”
“Make water. I thought there’d be water there?”
“D2 has lots of hydrogen and some oxygen. A few other gases. And we know there are high radiation locations that might give us nuclear fuel. All that can be mapped on flyby. But we need secure locations for the gravity machinery if we’re going to make it liveable. So spots with low chances of earth movement.
“This is our first real job. Usually surveyors are one experienced and one trainee. We’re both trained but neither of us is really experienced, not on a black rock.”
“You’re a real smart girlie, though,”said Marco.
“Raj got mad at the PSM. I just hope...”
“Bosses need tellin sometimes.”
“Telling what, Marco?” asked Rand dressed for a workout.
“Pert well everthin, times,′ growled Marco.
“I could do with telling what’s for dinner tonight.” Rand said.
“Biryani carbonara with apple salad. Pie for dessert.”
“Naan?” Rand said hopefully.
“You like naan, Seiko?” Marco asked.
“I’ve liked everything we’ve had. I should take lessons from you.”
“Learn to cook and you end up cookin’,” growled Marco. “Notice we don’t let the captain into the galley much?”
Rand laughed. Of the crew, he was actually the best cook, but Marco, as supercargo had little to do Out There so he took over the galley. The crew shared other housekeeping work, like cabin cleaning, laundry and honey wagon duty.
Raj came out of the shuttle and shouted down to the cargo bay where the exercise equipment was kept. “Seiko, we need to make plans for our expedition,” He slammed the door behind him.
Seiko jumped up. “My husband calls, I must respond.” She wiped down the bench quickly. “I’m sorry I can’t spot you, captain.” Rand waved her off and she bounded up the companionway.
“I must respond?” said Marco.
By noon the next day Bluebell was on D2.
TenHaas was on the bridge with Dita when they arrived. He had chosen their landing spot from the flyby mapping of the moon done when the planet was terraformed, a job only completed eleven years previously.
Decimal had proved such a popular destination for pioneers that plans to terraform the moons had been fast-tracked. The surveyors’ primary job was to locate hot spots whose geothermal energy could be harnessed to power the terraforming equipment.
Opening the cargo bay on an airless world took as much careful planning. as opening the airlocks to the vacuum of space. The engine room seals were checked although they were regularly closed tight, partly to keep the children away from the dangerous and delicate machinery and partly to keep any engine problems isolated. The bridge was also sealed against loss of atmosphere.
Each crew bunk had it own sealed door. And the large common space with the galley, dining area and family space was also sealed carefully, with Hope babysitting Derry as the delivery proceeded. Finally the airlock doors to the unused passenger cabins , farthest from the bay, were fastened.
The job went fairly smoothly, with their tracked vehicle the last piece lowered from the roof of the cargo bay where it had hung next to Bluebell’s mule.
Rand signalled to Dita on the bridge that she could close up the ramp. As it rose he commed TenHaas.
“Shall we put up the habitat first, or would you prefer to start with the equipment sheds?”
“My wife and I can handle that. I’m sure we don’t need any further help.”
“No extra charge, Raj!” said Rand, in a cheery tone that masked his annoyance. “Many hands and all that. Get the habitat up and the two of you can take a breather, see the back of us, mebbee christen the world.”
“It’s not up to the survey to name a world,” tenHaas replied.
Rand wondered how long was the stick up ten Haas’ ass. “I meant... honeymooners... look, never mind. Let’s make sure the habitat is good to go and then we’ll be off. We’ll return in thirty seven standard days as agreed. But we’re gonna be flyin between Nones and Decimal so if you need us we kin be here lickety.′
“I think we know our jobs,” TenHaas began.
“Thank you, captain,”interrupted Seiko. “I would like to have the habitat ready to use before we’re left. And then we’ll have lots of time together,” she stroked her new husband’s arm clumsily with her gloved hand.
“A whole month to ourselves,” she said throatily.
Rand could see Marco’s grin, and sighed. “Yes ma’am,” he agreed. “Won’t take but a Unix minute. We’ll just unpack, inflate and double check the atmo machinery. Done and dusted.” He waved and Marco headed to the neat array of boxes and crates at the slow hop enforced by the moon’s low gravity.
“We got a few jobs in-system over the next week Want us to drop by?” asked Dita.
Raj frowned “We won’t need any help. I’m sure.”
“Sure. No charge.” Dita responded. “We could help move all this to a different spot if you find a better location.”
“The location I chose in my professional opinion is the most likely to suit our needs.”
“Well, you’re the one with the training.” Dita’s tone did not match her words. “Our contact codes are in the habitat and the EVA unit just in case.”
“Protocol is to contact the PSM with problems”
“Of course, but , if you call us as well we’d probably be faster. “
“I’m sure you have other jobs to do.”
Dita nodded briskly. “Understood.”
She turned on her heel, a feat of muscle control in the moon’s low gravity and strode over to Seiko. She hugged the big woman and murmured. “Thirty nine days.Enjoy your honeymoon.” and returned to her ship.
“He never asked about makin it in zero gravity,” remarked Marco.
Dita and Seiko had agreed on a schedule of calls every five standard days. Although they called them checkins, before the first was over Hope was participating and learning how a primary survey was conducted.
Even at the first call Seiko and Raj had moved their habitat to a canyon that showed better signs of becoming a geothermal energy source for primary terraforming. The trench was over four kilometres deep in places and there were many lava flows at the bottom.
Decimal shone green in the black of Out There on Bluebell’s screens.
Hope was inputting data to the ship’s elderly computer, setting up an orbit around the planet that would keep them out of the way of the many satellites circling it.
Derry sat in the open area behind the co-pilot’s chair, playing a game on his father’s comm. Although Hope was babysitting him, she was not actually paying him much attention. Bored, he wandered off. The door to the bunk he shared with him parents was locked, so he checked the galley, finding some cold dumplings and peanut sauce in the icebox.
He put a vid on the big screen in the commons but he had seen them all dozens of times.
He watched Dita on the weight bench in the bay where she was being spotted by Marco, then feeling tired, he climbed the companionway to Shuttle Two, which had a daybed with a warm quilt.
He slept while Dita and Marco finished their workout then slipped into Marco’s bunk for a happy ending. He slept when Hope commed her mother to take over the bridge as they approached Decimal. He slept when Rand joined her on the bridge and they chose a quiet landing spot. Dita’s landing on the rough ground was so smooth he did not wake. When a landdrive joined the ship, he was still fast asleep.
Rand and Marco, fully armed stood at the top of the ramp to the cargo bay watching the woman who emerged from the landdrive.
Although her vehicle was coated in dust and mud, she was clean and neat. She had blonde hair, possibly natural, piled high and glossy. Her long brocade coat was matte and satin black, over a pristine white stock and black sateen pants laced into high flat heeled boots.
She stared across at the two big men, the bigger one in worn army pants and a torn tee shirt, the other more neatly dressed in denim pants, shirt and jacket which, she noticed, drew attention to his blue eyes.
“Bluebell?” she called.
“Yes’m . And you?” said the blue eyed man. ′
“You needed some paperwork updated. I’m your advisor, Shelagh Murphy.”
“Captain Rand Hudson,” The denim clad man replied. “C’mon in. Join us in a friendly drink.”
Murphy turned away from the men and retrieved a black leather case from her car, showing just a glimpse of her own weapon as her coat swung.
Mamie and young Hope were already in the commons with Dita , her shotgun set on the galley counter, but within arms reach. The others were setting out cups and sweet cakes.
As they all seated themselves, Rand pulled a heavy bag of coins from a galley cupboard. He kept it by him as he and Dita inspected the papers Murphy handed him.
Mamie poured tea. “Do you take milk? Sugar? Lemon? Or I can do green tea or mint if you give me a second, water’s still near boilin.”
“Black tea, please, milk in the cup,” replied Murphy politely, ignoring Marco, standing between her and the bay, his hand on his pistol.
Mamie passed her the tea, surprising her with a fine porcelain cup and saucer. The youngest crew member passed her a matching plate with freshly baked cakes iced in delicate pastels.
“Our Hope’s been learning baking. She made them pettyfores and I iced them,” smiled her hostess. “It’s a book recipe. Come out pretty good though.”
Murphy agreed, although she did not actually like the almond flavouring which reminded her of an unfortunate past incident with some gaseous cyanide. The tea was excellent.
The crew drank their tea from worn mugs. Mamie’s said. “Best Momma Ever.”
“These look good, real good..” said the captain finally.”Should keep us flyin another five year.′
“You many want to get some other inspection stamps, real ones, as you go along,” Murphy suggested. “Keeps the Home police some confused mixing the good and these.” She looked around at the shabby commons. “Old boat like this must need some pro work from time to time.”
Her hostess went stiff.” Bluebell gets the most lovin care... ′ The captain rested a soothing hand on her shoulder.
“Mamie is our mechanic. She ain’t got no paper, but she can out engineer any papered master on all the Home Worlds and the Provinces to boot.
“No offense meant, Ms. Mamie,” said Murphy. “ and if you ever want them papers, we’re here to help. Journeyman or master. No fusspot examiners, neither.”
“Maybe for your birthday, eh , sweetheart?” the captain asked. Mamie relaxed. “Don’t need no papers, no more’n Bluebell. Lotta nonsense for red tape bloodsuckers.” she muttered.
“The offer’s on the table. You ever need any paperwork we can supply at competitive prices.”
Murphy rose, picking up the coins without counting them. Rand raised an eyebrow. “I know when I’m dealing with an honest man,” she smiled. “Thank you for the tea. The cakes were lovely. Ms. Hope. You have a real talent.”
Marco and Rand walked her out eyeballing the landscape before she climbed back into her grimy vehicle and rolled off. Mamie heard two gunshots and Marco returned with a brace of partridge.
While Dita and Hope returned to the bridge for take off and Marco closed off the cargo ramp and airlock, Mamie asked Rand, “What’s your name this time, hon?”
“Breipthaupt, seems. Bluebell is still Bluebell, though. I paid extra for that but saves confusion mong our customers. Still got Marco down as engineer under Prakesh. Soon’s you turn 21 we’ll put you down, instead. Keep it simple.”
“That’s a while yet though,” laughed Mamie. We’ll be okay long’s no one asks Marco any tough questions like where is the engine room.
“What’s Dita down as?”
“Herself. She keeps her pilot license right up to date. When do you turn twenty one?
“Hard to keep track of time Out There, hon,” Mamie laughed.
Dita’s voice on the comm called for strapdown as they took off.
A few hours of atmospheric flight brought them to the spaceport at Kafoozelum, the industrial suburb of Jerusalem, the main town on the northern continent of Decimal.
Marco had produced a dish of curried chickpeas with flat bread. When they landed he had picked up some broccoli and tomatoes from a vegetable cart to make a salad.
As they gathered again at the table, Mamie looked confused. “Where’s Derry?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen him since before we stopped for the paperwork lady.” said Hope.
“Np, me an Dita was workin out,” said Marco. “Then we landed and then we come here. I ain’t seen him since lunch.”
“The bay ramp was open when Ms. Murphy was here,” said Hope.
Dita headed for the bridge to clear takeoff.
It was nearing dark as they reached their appointment place.
Bluebell hovered over the landing spot. Dita shone all the exterior lights on the surrounding area and Mamie call her small son on the exterior comm. Nothing moved below and Marco appeared with a long gun equipped with a night vision scope. He scanned the area, finding nothin larger than a rabbit, two of which he shot from the open bay.
In the shuttle, the reports woke Derry, who stumbled down the companionway . “What’s doin?” he asked. Hope joining him on the catwalk where she was watching Marco’s search.
Derry got a spanking from his daddy and was nearly drowned in his mother;s relieved tears. In all the excitement no one asked where he had been and Derry continued to make Shuttle Two his private playroom.
The second call from the surveyors was even better news. Seiko had found iron oxide less than 100 km from the trench which would be one less necessity to import.
With their ‘up to date’ papers, Bluebell was able to pick up a new cargo at nearly every stop and they worked between September and Decimal carrying mixed cargoes: foodstuffs, machinery, a bay full of work clothes for the biggest chainstore on Decimal, bamboo plants to Decimal One where gravity, water, and air were in place and soil building was underway. Rand even felt prosperous enough to turn down a cargo from the the honeywagon processors at Decimal spaceyard destined for Decimal One.
“But I was real polite about it,” he assured the crew “We many have to haul reprocessed shit from them someday again. But not just now.”
Dita took Hope to the Decimal School Board at Jerusalem to write her Eight and offered to register Derry at the same time. She came back annoyed.
“Did you not register Derry when he was born, Mamie?”
“We got him christened on Pentangle at my folks’ church.”
“That’s not registerin a birth, child.” Dita told her. “I know Rand prefers to be so far under the radar that sonar can’t find him, but no birth paper means no school and no school means ending up like Marco.′
“Hey!” objected Marco.
“I have his baptism certificate somewheres,” sighed Mamie. “I was gonna frame it, it ’s so pretty.”
“You and Rand got a marriage cert too?”
“Yep, from the same church,” Mamie beamed. “I wasn’t gonna frame that one cause it’s so soon fore the christening.” She looked slightly embarrassed.
“Well, I attended both plus there’s wet signatures.” said Dita. “We’ll go back t’morra and get him legal.”
’We shoulda bought Derry papers. when we got Bluebell’s from that Murphy.”
“The real ones is free and there’s a central archive on Third Rock. Having an extra set is one thing, but he really needs originals.”
The next day the women took Derry, his baptism certificate, and whatever other proofs Mamie could find to the Municipal Centre at Thatlldo, the capital city of Decimal.
Both dressed carefully for the expedition. Dita in the same black jacket and pants, piped with red and high red laceup boots that she had the day before, Mamie in loose floral pants, tight at the ankle above pink sandals and a snug low cut sequinned top that flared out over her hips. Each of her three braids ended in an ornament of tinkling bells that matched her ear and nose jewelry. Derry wore a clean white linen shirt, khaki pants, and a loose bolo. His only decoration was a single small hoop earring suitable for his age.
Rand refused to come, although he insisted that Derry have his name as well as Mamie’s. “Derrial Dieudonné Hudson. Like he was christened okay? Don’t get fancy.”
The Municipal Centre had been planned to dominate the planet and probably the planetary system, once the two moons were terraformed. It was only five stories high less than a third of the height of many other buildings in the downtown, but was nearly a kilometre long, with a central arch through the edifice three stories high. The walls of the arch were blank, awaiting the memorializing of the glorious future of Decimal, which had not yet happened.
The Hall of Records was in the left side of the arch on a floor dedicated to the Homelands bureaucracy.
The Records clerk sighed when he saw Derry’s papers. “Is he chipped?” he asked hopelessly.
“No. We got him baptised though,” smiled Mamie. “There’s the parson’s testament.” She passed him a large ornate paper, decorated with brightly coloured pictures from the Old and New Testaments as well as The Book of the Sacred Blood.
“Are you chipped?” he asked Mamie.
“Well, no, Daddy never really got around to it. No need back home and then I went off with Bluebell.”
“Who is Bluebell? Is that you?” he asked Dita.
“Aphrodite Aglukak. I’m pilot on the transport spaceship Bluebell. Mamie is our mechanic and the captain’s wife and Derry is their sprog.′
“I’ve got my wedding certificate too,” added Mamie, smiling happily.
The Records clerk looked at the second fantastical certificate, even larger than the first.
“What I really need, since none of you are chipped would be another form of identification like a DNA sample.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Mamie said. “We all signed the certificate in blood.”
“In...” the clerk stared at the brown ‘ink’ of the signatures on the certificates.
“Yep, cause we’re Brethern of the Sacred Blood like it sez on the papers.”
“I... guess that would be acceptable.” the clerk took a quick swab of Mamie’s inner cheek and of Derry’s. Mamie showed him where Derry’s baptismal blood sample was on his certificate and the clerk passed all the samples through his desktop scanner.
“Now, I can chip both of you right away and save all this trouble in future, or I can prepare certificates and send them on to you Registered, if you have a postal address.”
“We’re spacers. We move around,” Dita pointed out. “Give us a minute.”
Mamie wanted to use her family’s address on Pentangle, until Dita reminded her that the crew was keeping quite a lot of cash hidden in various outbuildings on the homestead.
“But Rand is dead against being chipped.” Mamie argued.
“Less’n they know who they’re lookin for they can’t really follow our trail. And pretty well all our work is legal these days, barrin some quiet salvage jobs. And for Derry’s school....”
In the end, Mamie allowed herself and her son to have the tiny ID chip inserted under their left arms. “No worse’n a skeeter bite,”Derry said.
On Dita’s third call, Seiko only spoke briefly before Raj interrupted and told Dita they were too busy to speak. He cut off the call abruptly.
Soon after the short visit to Decimal, they were on Decimal One, where a small community served the terraformers. Marco said he needed some time away and after supper he put on his good shirt, the one Rand called his whoring shirt, and left to find whatever excitement the town could offer.
He did not return until mid-afternoon and, taking Rand aside, told him he had found htem good paying work. “And you don’t get more legal than the Post Office.”
“How do you find that kinda contract in your kinda bars?” Rand asked.
“Treated myself to a nice meal in a tea shop and met the local postmaster. We chatted, had a few drinks, I fucked her silly and she needed some short term contractors to cover for her usual guys who got done for smuggling. “
“Well, good... See what happens when you stay outta the brothels?”
“Wasn’t planned or nothin. I made her breakfast and we talked a bit. Exchanged names like. And it came up I had a ship...”
“You had a ship?”
“Details. Rand. She likes the idea I’ll be around for a couple of months off and on. Got signed paper.”
“When’s the first run?”
“Tomorra aft. Oh, an ask Mamie to make supper? I won’t be in.”
Along with two cubic metres of letters and parcels bound for Octet, Bluebell had passengers, a farm worker family headed for the indigo plantation in the equatorial belt of the planet.
They were a cheerful group, with several children and occupied all the passenger cabins.
“Good thing they bring their own bedding,” Dita told Rand. “Passengers can pay good if we could supply all-found suites.”
“We’re already feedin them,” Rand scoffed.” And them mattresses is practically new.”
Hope and Derry quickly made friends with the children. Mamie with Sou-Fen, the mother of three, was watching them all play tag from a catwalk in the bay and complaining about the problems with getting Derry registered for school.
“And here I am all legal married and everything,” she finished.
Sou-Fen sighed. “I’ve never tried. Moving around so much, it was too difficult.”
“Well, how can the kids get their schoolin?”
“I’m teaching them to read and write. And I’m real good at maths, so when they’re older I can teach ’em that too. They ain’t gonna be ignerent.”
“What about your man?”
“We’re travellin with them, but I’m not a Traveller.”
Mamie looked puzzled.
“They’re mostly related. Travellers are like a moving town. They’re all over the system. Farm workers, good with metal and small engines. But they don’t settle down. Not like Roma.”
“Some say gypsies, but the Roma don’t like that. Some call the Travellers gypsies too, and they don’t like it either. And Travellers and Roma are different, but I couldn’t tell you how zactly.”
“How long we been gone from Old Earth and some still hold on to the old ways,” said Mamie.
“Ain’t so bad,” Sou-Fen replied.”Be a dull old world if we was all alike.”
“Right enough,” agreed Mamie.”So you’re not a Traveller or a Roman?”
“Roma. Nope, I just latched on a couple worlds back. Boss Liam got a knack for knowin where the work is, and I gotta work with three kids.”
“Divorced. My husband and my wife decided to go monogamous and divorced me. Then they up and left me with all our kids.”
“All three kids got his DNA, but I only birthed one of em. Love em all to bits, but money’s tight.”
“Can’t see harvest work payin much.”
“It don’t. But like I say Liam keeps us workin and there’s allys food on the table and usually a table too. And I keep my kids near me.”
“Ever seen support from the others?”
“Ten planets, near on forty moons. More’n seven billion people. I don’t reckon my chances.”
The women watched their playing children silently. Mamie took Sou-Fen’s hand.
The stop on Octet was short. The Travellers boarded the Indigo Express a rail car taking several groups to the fields .
Sou-Fen kissed her new friend goodbye. “Next time you see us we’ll be blue to the knees and elbows.” Mamie wasn’t so sure they would meet again, but exchanged ansible contacts in case.
There were more letters and parcels for delivery to Decimal which was still an easy flight from Octet. Then short runs for a couple of weeks mostly between Nones and Decimal.
Finally, after missing a scheduled call, Dita was able to contact Seiko on Decimal Two. She sounded tired and her natural cheer was somewhat forced.
The survey was going well. Raj had spotted a potential helium source which could be a useful export and they had identified the best location for the terraforming machinery. “We’ve also found silver and nickel in exploitable amounts . So it looks like Decimal Two will be a hot property. The terraforming crews won’t need to print as many substances as they do someplaces. ”
“And have you christened it yet?” asked Dita.
Seiko had a better sense of humour than her husband. “For sure. This little world would have more names than the King of Unix, truth be told. But I just call it Honeymoon to myself.”
Dita grinned. “Good start to any marriage. Food holding out? No equipment problems?”
“I don’t like the quality of the cables we were provided, but I’ve been doubling up on them, just in case.,” said Seiko. “Raj thinks I’m being silly. He has very high standards.”
“We’ll be seeing you in six standard days. Glad you’re doing well.”
Bluebell had two more Post Office runs,from Octet to Decimal and one from Decimal to September and back to Decimal in those six days.
As the ship approached Decimal Two for the scheduled pickup, Rand called the surveyors to give them an updated arrival time.
“They’ll be sick of the place by now, and glad to see a new face/” he said to Marco.
“I’d been sick of that tightass Raj before we dropped them off,” Marco replied. “Dunno what a nice girlie like that sees in him.”
“The heart wants what the heart wants, “ chirruped Mamie. “No counting for love. Mebbee she likes the bossy type.”
Dita piloted Bluebell expertly down near the new location, she joked over the comm about how Raj had said his first choice would best suit in his professional opinion. “And then they move in less than a week. And it was Seiko who found the iron deposits, not her high and mighty husband.”
“He’s young. He’ll mellow,” said Mamie. “Learn to preciate that he’s got a great partner.” She kissed her husband’s cheek and left for the commons to see that Derry was strapped in for landing.
There was no one outside at the new camp. Rand and Marco put on their EVA suits, ready to load the equipment Seiko and Raj would be bringing back. Dita flashed the exterior lights, since on this airless rock no sound would travel.
The men walked the 500 meters from the landing spot to the camp. Still nothing stirred.
Rand buzzed the airlock of the habitat and it opened. He stepped in and then backed out, bumping into Marco who was following close behind.
“What the...” exclaimed the big man.
There were bloody footprints on the floor of the airlock. And prints of gloved hands on the walls.
The men exchanged looks and, as one, activated their suit cameras. Rand moved forward again, closing the outer door of the airlock, then opening the inner.
The habitat was about ten metres in diameter. The blood was all over the floor, but most heavy by the bed, where Seiko lay.
She had been tied to the bed with silken scarves, now as soaked with her blood as the bedclothes.
The blood was still red, but she had been dead for some time. Her throat was cut and there were deep slashes to her naked belly.
The men stared in shock.
“Where the fuck is Raj?” shouted Marco.
“Might not have been him, might have been....”
“What? A passing stranger? A boogeyman from under the bed? Aliens?”
Rand found a tarp neatly stowed with the other equipment and unfolded it over the young woman’s corpse.
“We’ve got pictures. Let’s find him.”
He commed Dita. “Did you see?”
“Keep the pictures away from Mamie and the kids. We’re closing up here and looking for Raj. Contact Decimal-- I guess the PSM first and they can call in the police.”
“Be careful. Don’t look like he’s really thinking things through.”
Rand barked a short laugh. “You got it.” He turned to Marco, who had been breathing heavily, rage building up. “Don’t touch anything and keep your camera going. Record sound too, if you ain’t been. Let’s go.”
They turned carefully, hampered by their suits, the low gravity and their need to keep the scene undisturbed. Outside, Marco rested his helmet against the side of the habitat and roared.
Rand waited for the moment to pass. “If you wanna go back to the ship, it’s okay. Get Dita to come out with me.”
“I’m okay, I just can’t see why anyone would kill a sweet girl like that. Specially her own man.”
“Let’s ask him. And just restrain him, don’t try to kill him.”
Marco let his tracking skills take over. There were a lot of footsteps in the moon’s dust, most between the habitat and the equipment sheds. It was obvious that the surveyors’ landvehicle was missing.
Most of the car’s tracks led over a small rise where the canyon that would be the energy source for terraforming lay. The landcar was there at the edge of the canyon.
As the men approached, they watched carefully for possible ambush, but there was no motion. Even their shadows huddled close to them in the mid-day light.
From a hitch on the front of the landcar hung a rope dangling into the canyon. And from the rope hung an EVA suit.
None too gently, Rand and Marco hauled the suit out of the canyon. The rope was tied around the neck of the suit, as if the occupant had tried to hang himself. Of course, the armoured suit prevented that, but it looked as if Raj had thrown himself off the edge and at the end of the tether had swung back into the canyon walls.
Weight was less in the low gravity, but mass was unchanged. His faceplate had hit the stone and cracked. He had suffocated, slowly, as the air drifted out of the tiny break.
They pulled the body onto the stoney ground and stared at it.
“Shit,” said Marco, and kicked the stiff body.
FLYING DOCTORS ASSOCIATION
There was little talk around the dinner table that night. Dita had made a beef stew with potatoes and carrots, and everyone stared into their bowls. She had found a watermelon for dessert but even Derry was affected by the grownups silence and just spat the seeds onto his plate instead of competing with Marco and his father in spitting across the room.
“Well, we found out the shuttle is rentable, anyways,” said Rand. “So where we gonna find another passenger for it?”
“Got one, two actually,” Dita said. “The hospital at Decimal has some staff going to Octet’s moons on a Flying Doctor clinic run. They need transport and don’t need too much space.”
“Fine,” said Rand. “Thanks for keeping a cool head.”
“SonuvaBITCH!” yelled Marco, and left the table.
Hope quailed, leaning against her mother.
Mamie spent most of the next day cleaning Shuttle Two. “I’m not ready to do Seiko’s shuttle yet, hon. Mind if we switch them over?”
“Do what you think is right, sweetness.”
“There’s enough money for new bedding for the shuttle and a duvet for us,” she sighed. “I thought it would bring them some of our good luck.”
“Well, it don’t always work that way,” her husband replied. He wondered why she thought they had such good luck. Transporting the surveyors had been a tiny light at the end of a long tunnel of lost jobs, bad pay and hardscrabble to keep fuel in the ship and food on the table. He knew there were times when both women had skipped meals to keep the children fed. He’d done it himself.
The Flying Doctors were two young men, and the older one was actually a nurse-midwife, David Commanda. He was as tall as Rand, with a healthy coppery glow to his skin and long black hair worn in a pigtail down his back. He immediately set to arranging their equipment in the cargo bay, doing as much work as Marco in the lifting and carrying.
The actual doctor was shorter, very slim and like Rand and Derry had blue eyes. Michael Chen was very pale and wore his black hair cut short. He arrived about an hour after his nurse.
It turned out this was to be their first assignment together. They were surprised that they had been expected to share quarters.
“Not a problem,” said Mamie. “I can put one of you into one of our passenger cabins. You’d be sharing a shower with the rest of us, and the commons, if that works?”
David was happy with that arrangement, and Doctor Chen liked the idea of his own space on the shuttle. “But I understand I would still be eating with the crew?”
“We could bring meals to you I guess,” said Mamie. “But you’ll get a meal guaranteed hot if you do join us.” She looked doubtful, thinking he might be snooty about it, because his accent was very Third Rock.
“Oh, good.” he replied. “I do have a lot of work to prepare, but I hope the crew will be willing to help me understand the problems of pioneer worlds.”
At supper the two men spent as much time learning about each other as they did about Bluebell’s crew.
Doctor Chen had been working on Third Rock since completing his medical studies. He was reticent about why he had decided to join the Flying Doctors, “Perhaps I’m looking for adventure?” he smiled.
David was more experienced. He had come up on Turtle Island, a Home Planet moon originally settled by aboriginal nationalists from Old Earth’s American continents. Two hundred years later, the population was more diverse, and the traditions of a few hundred Indian nations had made a new culture rooted in the old beliefs. He had taken his nursing degree on Quinto, Turtle Island’s planet.
“And I joined the Flying Doctors right out of university,” he told the crew.
“How did you come come by being a midwife?” asked Mamie.
“There was a need. So the Doctors asked me to do the training. And I get on well with women.”
“Don’t the husbands get jealous of some guy fiddling with their wives’ ladybits?” asked Marco.
“No, I’m gay, so most know my interest in the ladies is professional. I’ve had to make that clear less often than you’d think.”
David took charge of clinic preparations, using his several years of experience to arrange the equipment to his liking. Dr. Chen quietly watched, only occasionally asking the reason for David’s choices. They soon fell into a rhythm and worked comfortably together.
Octet was on the wrong side of the sun for a quick voyage, but only a few days were required even with Bluebell’s speed limitations. When they put down on Octet Five, called Brandywine, the first community was more than ready for them.
The medics were greeted by the community Council, two elderly women and a sleek young man, who introduced themselves and showed the crew where the Clinic should be set up, in a square across from the village hall.
The village had been set up like most homesteader centres. A square with a large, fortified Hall made of adobe had been the first building, used by the entire community while they built individual homes. There were a few of those homes, also in adobe, still standing in the dry climate, but newer buildings like the school and a strip of shops were built of local stone.
Most of the settlers now had houses on their homesteads, built of adobe, stone or brick depending on how they had prospered. One brick house had a wooden porch, with decorative bargeboard. Rand pointed it out to Mamie. “One day we’ll have a fancy house like that. Maybe all wood, if we strike lucky.”
When the medics returned to Bluebell from their first clinic on Brandywine, they were pointedly not looking at each other.
Marco had been busy unloading cargo and had produced an easy antipasto spread of finger foods: salami , pickled mangoes and peppers, cubes of paneer and mozzarella, zucchini flower fritters and onion biryani, tomatoes, sweet onions, cucumber raita, followed by a hot dish of spaghetti with curried lentils.. There were bowls of yogurt with honey for dessert.
“Looks terrific, Marco,” Mandy told him. “Nice havin some cash in hand when you shop, eh?”
“Made the paneer last night and the only fussy bits were the fritters and biryani.” Marco replied shyly. “We got here at the right season too. With the doctor money, I’ll shop tomorra and do some cannin and freezin for bad times.”
Dita and Hope had been on the bridge. “We better not get dependent. Them two were starting to argue when I passed the shuttle Might not go on with the clinics.”
Mandy spoke into the comm. “Dinner’s on the table.”
Derry and Rand came in from the commons where his father had been supervising a calligraphy lesson. David, entering from the catwalk, said, “Doctor Chen has asked that his dinner be served in his shuttle, please and thank you.”
“Not a problem,” replied Mandy. “Derry,you can take the tray up for the doctor.”
“Mummy, I’m hungry,” he complained.
“Don’t sass. Have a biryani and raita, while I make up the plate. You can have more when you come back,” his father frowned.
Sighing loudly, the boy took a large biryani and ate it in three bites, nearly choking in his hurry.
His mother shook her head and gave him a tray. “Carry it flat and don’t hurry or you’ll drop it.”
David was quiet during the meal, only saying that he clinic was “Fine, a few glitches,but fine.”
Mandy was disappointed that he had no stories of dramatic cures or horrible diseases. The nurse excused himself immediately after dinner.
“I’m meeting a friend.” he said.
“Thought this was your first time on Brandywine,” said Rand. “Old friend?”
“New one actually,” David grinned widely. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Going out he passed Derry returning. The boy surveyed the much depleted table and sighed dramatically. His mother pulled a filled plate off the service counter and put it in front of him.
“What do you say?” asked his father.
“Thank you. Mummy,” Derry replied meekly.
“You didn’t drop anything did you?” his mother asked.
Derry decided he had rescued the doctor’s fork and spoon before the five second rule applied. “No, mummy. The doctor was sorta sick, though.”
“He’d be the best one to cure himself then.”
“He was all red face and breathin hard. I think he’d been pooping cause the was doin up his pants.′
“Did he want his dinner?” asked Marco.
“I put it on his desk.”
“I’ll go up later and see if he’s poorly,” said Mandy. “Mebbee he et somethin...”
“Not my cookin!” objected Marco.
Both medics seemed tired in the morning. David was cheerful, but had returned well past midnight according to the ship’s log. Doctor Chen was red-eyed, saying at breakfast that he had had a sleepless night. Both took large cups of strong coffee with them for the second day of the clinic.
“What’s a hookup, mamma?” Hope asked Dita.
“I heard Doctor Chen tell David that his hookups shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with doing his job.and David was really pissy.”
“Don’t say pissy,” her mother reprimanded.
“David said his social life was not Doctor Chen’s business, and the doctor said as far as he knew his business was nursing not whoring. Are there boy whores, mamma?”
“Yes, dear. Not everyone has a partner.”
“Marco goes to girl whores, though.”
“Never asked him. Not my business. And what our passengers say to each other is not our business. That’s gossip. Rude.”
“Sounds like our good doctor is even more tight assed than we thought, gettin mad at David for datin.”
Mandy agreed with Dita as they folded sheets. “Hope it ain’t cause David’s gay. I’ve heard of people gettin upset about that.”
“Why? Either you’re in the dating game or not. If you don’t want to sleep with someone why should you care who he does sleep with?”
“It ain’t the sleepin,” Mandy giggled. “Mebbee he’s jealous, Mebbee he wanted to hook up with David’s date.”
“Or...” suggested Dita. “With David?”
“They’d be a cute couple. Nice bodies both and David’s hair and the doctor’s eyes...”
“You just have a thing for blue eyes, little girl.”
“Yeah. They sure do turn me over,” Mandy agreed.
By the next day, the last day of the Brandywine clinics, the situation between Dr. Chen and his nurse seemed to have calmed down. Dita saw them talking as they pulled together their stock of medicines, vaccines and protheses. The talk ended with Dr. Chen shaking David’s hand and David pulling the doctor into a hug. Dita noticed that Chen seemed startled by the warm gesture.
The next stop was on Octet Seven, named Pearlywhite for it’s large snowcaps and many glaciers. Bluebell was not picking up cargo here, but just dropping off mail. Rather than waiting for the clinics to be over, the medics decided that they would stay in the shuttle and allow Bluebell to continue on the inter-world postal run, returning in two days to move the shuttle to the next mining camp, since neither man was licensed to fly shuttles.
Mandy brought them more linens and made up a second bed. Marco supplied them with precooked meals. The shuttle had no cooking facilities, but the clinic did have a microwave which could double for heating food and sanitizing.
Dita supervised Hope in flying the shuttle to the next camp.
“If I knew flying was simple enough for a child, I would have done it myself,” Dr. Chen told Dita.
“Hope is nearly twelve, but she’s been learning piloting for over two years. Mostly navigation and course plotting, but she can fly pretty good. Landing is still tricky, though.”
Chen took the mild rebuke in stride. He seemed much more relaxed with the crew than he had been just a few days before.
They left fresh supplies and took off for Octet Three on the postal run, this time also carrying a few miners on furlough and one who had managed a spectacularly broken leg while skiing the glacier overlooking the mining camp. She was awake, but grinning happily under the influence of some very strong painkillers. One of her workmates sat with her and wiped the drool from her face occasionally.
“Does she even know where she is?” asked Mandy.
“Actually, she’s pretty much like this even without the meds,” her friend said. “Which is how she broke her leg. Crazy and dumb with it. Kiteboarding in these winds. Shithead.” He wiped more drool from her lips as she tried to pat his arm, succeeding only in slapping his face and the wall.
They returned a little ahead of schedule. The clinic was closed, and the medics were not in the shuttle. Dita, wrapped against the cold wind, made her way across to the clinic and entered through the unlocked vestibule.
Chen and David were not packing. Instead they were wrapped in an intense embrace, eyes closed and clothing partly removed. Dita slipped back out.
“They’re busy. They should be out in about half an hour tops,” she reported. Marco and Rand had the landmule packed and took the cargo of supplies they had brought for the camp over to the quartermaster’s store.
“Don’t bother making up David’s cabin,” Dita told Mandy. “I don’t think he’ll be using it anymore.”
“No? Why?.... Oh!” Mandy squealed in joy. “All that get away get away was just a coverup.?”
Mandy sighed happily. “Some men don’t know what they want until someone shows ’em,” she said.
David found Mamie in the the passenger’s shower room fixing the drippy showerhead. “Not complaining, Mamie, but there are no sheets on my bed.”
“Oh, are you still wantin your own space? Dita thought you and the doc were an item . Was it just a one off?” she asked sympathetically.
David was nonplussed.
“Can’t keep any secrets on a boat, Davy. Dita saw you all but nekkid in the clinic.”
David’s coppery skin flushed deeper. “I don’t think...”
“No worries. I’ll make up your bed. Takes a while to settle in with a new lover sometimes.”
“Hey, it took me near on two months to get the captain into bed and I’d decided he was gonna be my man a whole year afore that.”
David looked at the mechanic’s baby face and noted a few acne spots on her chin. Derry was five but David wondered again about his mother’s age.
“How did you two meet? At one of those Traders’ Reunions?”
“No, I was born on Pentangle. Daddy runs a mechanical repair shop there and has a homestead. All pretty hardscrabble. I just inheritied his knack for engines and other machinery. Like Hope learning piloting from her mamma. And I was one of the first born in the village so I got roped in at school into takin care of the littler ones.
But I never wanted to stay there. I wanted my own spaceship. Hung around the yard when the ships come in. Which war’nt too often. And bugged the engineers about showin me their engines, which they didn’t much go for until my boobs come in. Got to see the engine rooms then. And once I learned to give a blowie, I could get into any engine room, even the fuel sections. I think the guys told each other I wanted to learn everything they could show me.” she seemed unfazed by what was effectively child abuse.
“I first met Bluebell when I was still in school, when the teacher asked me to chaperone a bunch of Sixes and Sevens on a field trip. I was only a Nine my own self, but I was sorta apprenticin with Daddy by then and Teacher knew I loved machines.
The captain showed us kids around, and I was real taken with the ship, cause there was so many things I could see needed fixin. And the captain was pretty cute too, for an old guy.
Bluebell was waitin for some parts from off-world and I told him about Honest Austin’s junkyard where he could prolly get some. And when I went back a couple days later, the ship was gone, cause he had gotten the stuff he needed there.
Then near on a year later, I’d just started Tenth year, I saw Bluebell again. We didn’t really have a spaceyard, counta nobody ever came to Penguin, which was why the field trip, y’know? So Bluebell was parked on the edge of town and the captain was sitting outside lookin right disconsolate.
An I bopped up and asked what he needed, an he said his mechanic had quit on him and now he couldn’t figure what was wrong with his gravity. An I asked if I could look, and he sorta sighed and let me. An I fixed it. Someone had put in the amplifier upside down, which is easy to do, and hard to spot. An he was right grateful and gave me some money, which was handy, times being.
An then he asked if I wanted a job as his mechanic. An I said yes, if Daddy agreed.”
“Your father was willing to let you leave home so young?” asked David. If Mamie was in Level Ten she would have been about fourteen.
“Daddy was pleased that I had a job offer, but less happy when I told him I would be mechanic on a spaceship.
He was downright grumpy when the captain came on the mule to pick me up with my stuff. They was grunting at each other like ruttin moose.
“She’s never been off this world.”
“So she said.”
“She ain’t trained on spaceships, all’s she got is what I taught her, and I ain’t trained on no spaceships, neither.”
“I understand that.”
“She’s pretty young.”
Then the two of them just stood sorta glaring at each other for a bit.
“I need me a mechanic that understands my boat. She spotted and fixed what my trained mechanic couldn’t.”
“She can do that. Got a knack. A talent.”
I could see Daddy softening.
“What’s your boat?”
“Bluebell’s an Arrow C-105.”
So they stood there for a while.
“No wonder you need a mechanic, them Arrows is older n me.”
“Good mechanic can keep her flying forever, if the parts is available.”
“Did we settle wages?”
“She’ll get ten percent of the profit after expenses, her own bunk, and free run of the kitchen.”
Daddy nodded. “She’ll do.”
I hugged him and ran upstairs to my bedroom and started packing.
When I came down the captain was gone and a tall brown woman was there instead.
“Dita Aglukak. Pilot. Captain sent me to get you settled.”
Daddy looked uncomfortable, and Mum was cry-smiling.
“Ms. Aglukak? You’ll see that she comes to no harm?”
“There’s just four crew, M’am. You’ve met the captain and me, and I got a little girl. Then your daughter.”
Mum looked happier that I wouldn’t be the only female on board.
“You remember your coming up. “ she told me. “You remember to be a good girl and mind your employers like they was your parents.”
And Mummy kissed me and Daddy kissed me, and I got on the mule with Dita and that was the last time I saw them for near on two years.
I got my coveralls on and got stuck in with the engine. Weren’t nothing much wrong with it, cepting needing cleaning, so I scrubbed it down with solvent and listened to her complaints.
Mum had sent a box of garden stuff with me, and an apple pie from our tree out back. At dinner, which was pretty awful, cept for the pie, the captain listened to me babble on about what Bluebell needed and agreed to buy a few parts if I could find them at Honest Austin’s Salvage. I told him that Leroy always gave me good prices and Daddy usually sent me to pick stuff up for him.
He said, “That does not surprise me a bit.” and Dita gave him a funny look.
After dinner, I went back to the engine room and set up my tool bench. The captain came with me.
“Do these tools belong to Bluebell or to the guy who quit? Cause I like to keep my things where I can find them fast and keep them nice.”
“When he left, he was swearing something fierce. I don’t think he’ll be back.”
“He left?” I had missed that part, even though Dita had said. I thought I would be working with another mechanic, training like.
“Don’t need more than one mechanic, boat this size.”
I was shocked at how much trust the captain was putting in me. I was pretty sure I could handle it, long as I could call Daddy on the inter-world ansible if I ran into a big problem, but this was more responsibility than I thought I would have.
“So she’s my baby? I’m the only one who can keep us flying?”
“Pilot knows about the navigation and computer systems. And she worked a bit with Chuckie, until he stopped. Huh. Gave up, more like.”
There were tools all over the place. Captain watched me as I found them and put them in order with my own. I had to put some aside for cleaning. Chuckie wasn’t much for helping his tools out
The captain watched as I cleaned my hands. “You’ll be wanting your bed soon. Long day. I’ll show you your bunk.”
My stuff was already in the bunk. I guess Dita or the captain had put it there.
There was only one light, a glarey overhead thing with no shade. The walls were mostly grey, except where they were rusty, and everything was dirty. Not deep down dirty, just old, not used in a long time. One wall curved in over the little bed. But there was a new mattress, still rolled in its burlap sack, and pretty good cupboard space and a web screen so I could listen to music or watch my stories. And there was a sink.
The captain read my mind. “There’s a head with a shower at the other end of the hall. And...” He pushed the sink and a commode swung up. I couldn’t help it, I laughed.
The captain smiled back. I think that was the first time I had ever seen him smile. Mostly he looked sad or angry, like he couldn’t stop thinking about something that tore him up and he couldn’t do anything about it.
“Dita’s next door to you, with her kid, and I’m in the biggest cabin next to that. It says Captain on the door, if you need anything.”
“I think I’m good. I’m really grateful for this job, captain.”
“Do it right, and you’re here as long as you want to be. Screw up, and I’ll drop you back home.” The frown was back.
“I have a question, though.”
“What’s your name? Everybody just called you Captain.”
“Captain’s fine, but my name is Randolf Hudson. What’s yours?”
“Amanda Singh Dieudonné, but Mamie’s fine.”
“Mamie. Pretty.” He smiled again.
And since I still was feeling excitable, and he was pretty cute for an old guy, I took his hands in mine and stroked my thumbs over his palms. “You’ve been so good to me, Rand, is there anything you would like from me?”
He snatched his hands back. “I’m your captain, Mamie, not your boyfriend.” His frown was back and he climbed up the ladder and out of my bunk.
But I had made him smile.”
“What do you think, Dita? Fifteen people too much for two weeks?”
“Life support’s no problem, but they’d be camping in the cargo bay. Restricts the other cargo we could carry, And meals would have to be in shifts.”
Owner Macharia interrupted. “They have special dietary needs, so they wouldn’t be needing your culinary skills.”
“So eight adults and and six children headed for Lazarus. Plus their personal luggage and homesteading equipment. Any animals?”
“None. And on the trip back you’ll carry fresh produce, mostly grain and root vegetables, potatoes and the like. So pretty straightforward.”
“Right. Anything we should know about these ‘dietary restrictions’?”
“No pork products, so no bacon for breakfast.”
“Like we could afford it!”
“And no alcohol.”
“Oh, Marco’s gonna be dee-lighted by that .”
“What about Mamie’s InterEngine distillery?”
“We don’t allow passengers in the engine room anyways. Worse comes to worst, we end up with some fine aged moonshine.”
Macharia chortled, “Aged two weeks!”
Rand grinned, “That’ll be the smoothest hooch Mamie has ever produced.”
The passengers brought several surprises. Most noticeable was that the adult women all wore burkhas and the men full beards. Even the children wore some form of religious dress, with the three girls in headscarves, even the toddler, and the two boys wearing skull caps.
More surprising, however, was the special agricultural cargo they brought - a dozen date palm trees and a dozen orange trees.
“Our ancestors are not actually from the parts of Earth-that-was where palms and oranges flourished,” explained the group leader, who had introduced himself as Imam Machmoud el-Said. “But there is a niche market for dates and anything that pulls us above subsistence farming will be a gift from Allah.”
Hope was beside herself. She had set up a kitchen garden when Michael had turned one of the passenger staterooms into a hydroponic garden for her after her biology studies exposed a talent for horticulture.
“Considering our family is shipborn for ten generations, it has to be a mutation.” her mother had commented.
“Imam el-Said, half my crew is women. If you’re gonna make any fuss about that, we can end this contract right now.” said Rand doubtfully.
The imam’s round face resolved itself in to laughlines. “Allah asks that men and women wear modest dress. Our womenfolk chose to cover, but there is nothing immodest about the demeanour of any member of your crew, I think. God be merciful, that we will all be fine.”
“You ain’t met Marco.”
The crew included their own three children since the passengers would include youngsters. At twelve Hope Aglukak was about matched with the oldest girl, Aysha, who was as quiet as Hope, although her silence seemed more shyness than Hope’s innate dignity. Her sister, Habon, was the three year old and as outgoing as her sister was shy.
The third girl was ages with Derrial Hudson, about seven, and came aboard completely dressed in pink including a pink suitcase which she opened to reveal several dolls and a plethora of pink playthings. Derry was appalled.
Two of the boys were older than Derry. Halid , son of the imam,was ten, as was Ahmed. They were cousins and Rand was amused to watch the jockeying for dominance among the young boys. Amhed’s mother was the sister of the imam’s wife, and his father Faoud was a wide bodied man apparently made entirely of muscle.
The third boy was a newborn. “We were lucky he was a little early or we would have had to wait for weeks,” his father, Sander, told Rand. “Allah blessed us with an easy birth and a healthy child. We have named him Mohammed for the Prophet, blessings be upon him.”
Rand looked a little uncomfortable. His own baby daughter was nearly a year old and still had not formally been named. She was referred to as The Baby or Baby Girl or occasionally as BG.
Mohammed’s father, Sander, a tall thin man, had African features and was almost plum black. Rahim, the father of the two girls, however, had blond hair and blue eyes, with the kind of features once common to Northern Europe on Earth-that-was.
The four families set to work raising tents in the cargo bay for privacy. The imam worked on some advanced calculation that required use of the CentraPro ansible net before setting out a beautifully woven carpet.
“For prayer. We will pray several times a day. We were instructed to face Mecca on Earth-that-was, but in these late times, we can only face the Sol System.”
Rand looked less than pleased. “Let me know your schedule so’s I can make myself scarce.”
Rand and Marco had been helping to organize the tents and sort the luggage that would be needed immediately. Now Mamie appeared, pulling her coverall into place after nursing Baby. Her welcoming smile and one woman charm offensive brought a matching smile to the imam’s face.
“My wife, Mamie Dieudonné,”said Rand, “And the only other crew member you have to meet is our pilot Dita Aglukak, who is preparing to take us out of this world. “
“C’mon, bossman, we do have more crew,” Mamie reminded him.
“Well, yeah, they ain’t on this trip, We’ll pick ’em up on our way back. Michael’s a doctor and his husband David is a nurse and midwife. They’re part of the Flying Doctors and are holding a clinic on Muir. Buncha towns and villages there without permanent medical staff , so they gets paid to call in regular.”
Out of the corner of her eye Mamie noticed the blond man stiffen at “his husband” but let it slide. His opinion wouldn’t matter on this leg of their job.
A chime rang at the imam’s waist. “Well, as I mentioned, we pray several times a day and one of those times approaches. Any of the crew are welcome to join us….?”
“I have things to do.”Rand said and strode off stiffly.
“Capt’n’s not big on God and I’m a Blood,” said Mamie, “but you’re welcome to your own beliefs . And thanks for the invitation. “
After prayers, the passenger women joined Mamie in the kitchen. They had removed the enveloping burkhas, although they still wore hijabs.
“The Prophet, blessed be his name, tells us to be modest in our dress. The burkah keeps us sheltered from the general gaze, but the hijab is acceptable among friends,” explained Fatima, the imam’s wife.
“And saves us a fortune in hairdressing bills,” laughed Miriam, the mother of the newborn.
Mamie laughed too, although she noticed that the sisters Miriam and Fatima both wore heavy elaborate makeup. Golden eyeshadow and ruby lips enhanced the South Asian features of Miriam, while Fatima favoured kohl and black mascara on her long lashes.
Rehab, the mother of the two girls and wife of Rahim, was like Mamie with her skin scrubbed pink and clean. And Nasirah, wife to Sander, wore the kind of maquillage that looked totally natural and required hours of work to stay that way.
The women had brought foodstuffs into the kitchen.
“Most of this is pretty ordinary,” explained Fatima,”But these are meats that were slaughtered by our rules and there are some foods we do not touch.”
Mamie nodded,”No pork, no shellfish, don’t mix meat and dairy -- pretty much like Jews? But genfood and protein bars are okay?”
“Pretty much”, agreed Fatima, “The survival foods are made to match almost any diet. At any rate, they are vegetable based. If algae is a vegetable.”
“Show me what you can’t eat from our stores.” offered Mamie .”Then we can eat together, if you like. The capt’n likes us to eat together at least for dinner when we’re Out There”
“The Captain is your husband, I think?” murmured Rehab, “You show him great respect, I think, not like so many infidel women.”
“Oh, he was my capt’n ’fore he was my man. Kinda got used to it. Hardly never call him anythin else ’cept in bed.”
Rehab blushed. “The children…”
Mamie was amused. The ship children had a robust understanding of adult behaviour, although Rand had found it necessary to insist on “behind closed doors” when Michael and David were courting after an accidental PDA gave a six year old Hope the idea that when she was grown up she would have a penis.
Mamie made a mental note to speak to Marco about keeping all his clothes on. It was a pity they all still had to share the shower room.
The women passengers cooked dinner that “evening” after the rest of the cargo was stowed, some of it quietly and away from the ken of the passengers. Dita had set a course that had taken them well away from any asteroids or planetoids or other space junk and with Bluebell on autopilot, was able to join them for the first time. Slim and elegant in her black jumpsuit, she gazed curiously around the new comers. She smiled at the children, especially the girl toddler, who immediately decided Dita was going to be her best friend.
With so many at dinner, the children picnicked on the floor, while the twelve adults crowded around the table. The passenger women sat together flanked by their husbands, the Captain and the Imam took the ends of the table.
“Cozy and right friendly for our first dinner but I reckon shift will work better ,” said Mamie with her trademark smile.
“Yes, said Rahim. ”The men should eat first and the women and children later.”
“We prefer to be all together each day. Gives us a chance to talk abut anything that might have come up.” Mamie chirped.
The tall blond frowned. “Surely your husband should make that decision.
Rand interrupted, “Mamie is our engineer. She know more about what Bluebell needs mechanically than any of us. Same with Dita. She and I both can pilot, but she’s far and away the better. Only ever met one who could have beat her skills.”
“Now Rahim,” the imam intervened .”Did not the Prophet. blessed be his name, encourage his womenfolk to be independent and to be the best they could be? My own wife will be our agricultural technologist when we reach Lazarus,” the imam went on. “Our wives are accomplished women. Our daughters will also make us proud. We are particularly delighted with the proficiency Aysha shows with languages. Perhaps some day she will rise high in government service- an ambassador or diplomat.”
“An obedient wife and good mother.” Her father said.
Dita frowned at the word obedient. But Mamie jumped in with a change of subject.
“Ms. Rehab, didn’t you make that green salad thing? What is in it? It was delicious.”
“Tabuleh-- It’s mostly cracked wheat and parsley, with lemon juice, olive oil, some other herbs. I can write you the recipe. “ Rehab gave Mamie her worried smile.
“Parsley? That’s something. I see at the side of the plate in fancy restaurants. Who knew it was so tasty. ?”
“Could I have that recipe too, Ms. Rehab?” asked Hope. ” I grow a lot of parsley but nobody ever uses it.”
As the families took their children off the bed, Dita and Marco cleared the dishes companionably. “Them kids is better behaved than I was feart,“ said Marco.
“Mmm. But that Rahim seems pretty stiff-necked especially about the women . You’re gonna behave right?”
“Did you hear me talkin’? And you know I don’t need to bother any married women. I got charm enough to pull any free woman I want.”
Dita was silent. It was true enough . Marco had been on his best behaviour.
“Good. I figger that any trouble would land on the women and not on you”
“I don’t like that Rahim. Got a big head on him. Too much schoolin’ not enough livin’.”
“Naw. He’s okay. Gonna have a talk with him before they leave. This prophet sounds innerestin.”
They were four days out from Freya when the children started falling sick. What had been thought to be diaper rash on the babies, spread to their siblings and all the children, passenger or crew, had raw, weepy patches on their buttocks and bellies.
Nasirah, the mother of Ahmed, was a certified midwife with training in early childhood diseases. She identified the rash as coxsackie enterovirus. “I’m puzzled,” she said, “Usually this does not show up in children who have been vaccinated. It is an opportunistic disease that comes when the immune system is weakened by other diseases.”
Rehab looked scared. Fatima snapped, “Your children have been vaccinated, Rehab? We were all told to have our shots to prevent carrying diseases from world to world . And once we are settled, we will be on our own. Only occasional visits from the Alliance medics and Flying Doctors.”
“My husband does not believe in vaccinations. He says illness is the will of Allah and that if we live according to His will we would not get sick.”
“Then Rahim is a boob,” said Dita
“Dita!” Mamie exclaimed. “How rude!”
“She’s not wrong though.” said Nasirah. “The children are protected because the pool of immunes makes it difficult for germs and viruses to survive. But if the percentage of non-immune children rises, all the children are at risk.”
“My Muhammed has not been immunized either,’ exclaimed Miriam, mother of the newborn.
“Nor my Babygirl, she’s too young to have completed the series,” added Mamie .
“I’ll check the infirmary for antibiotics and the webdoctor for dosage,” said Nasirah. “And Fatima, perhaps your husband should have a talk with Rahim. He needs some education on the interpretation of the scripture. We all know he’ll ignore anything we say.”
Rehab’s tears spilled over. “I am so sorry to have caused all this trouble. And to make the children sick too. Please try to forgive me.”
“Not your fault,” said Dita.”You need to stand up to that husband of yours more. Men need respect from their womenfolk, not fear.”
“He would divorce me,” whispered Rehab, “and take the girls. What use am I, except as an obedient wife?”
“Don’t you have a profession, sweetie, like the other women?” asked Mamie .
“No. I married quite young. My parents were killed and my uncle arranged my marriage. Then when Aysha came, I could no longer go to school…”
“You were still in school when she was born? How old are you?” demanded Fatima.
“The other women stared.
“And Aysha is twelve?”
“I mean, is that even legal?”
Rand considered. “Depends on the world, even the part of the world.”
“Still. How old were you when…?”
“When I got someone pregnant? About thirty four. As far as I know.”
“Ass! C’mon Rand! When was your first … experience?”
“I was sixteen. And yeah, she was younger. About fourteen , I reckon.”
“Dirty old man!”
“Fourteen. And he was about sixteen. But he was smart enough to use a condom! More’n I knew about.”
“My maw said. ’If you love her , you’ll use a condom. If you respect her, she won’t have to ask.”
“Huh, That makes Dolph seem a better guy lookin’ back.”
“Dolph like Randolph?”
“Yeah. Seriously. Weird.”
“Was he any….?”
“C’mon, sweetie, he was sixteen. He was an idiot. Let’s go with enthusiastic. But a nice boy and… well, I bet his wife is a happy woman.”
“Pfft. Men. No … just sweet and wanting it to be good for me. But no idea how to get a girl started.”
“How do I get you started, darlin?”
“Lover, you just have to look at me. Or just ask me about Bluebell’s engine problems. Ain’t that our sweet talk?”
“Do you really love me, or just my boat?”
“Like you have to ask! Rand, I’ve liked you since you showed me Bluebell’s engine room. I wanted you when you accepted my opinion about Bluebell’s grav boot. I loved you when you asked me to be crew.”
“You are so black/white. No maybes. No grey areas.”
“Mechanic. It works or it don’t . On. Off.”
“Works for me with your clothes off.”
“Turn about, sweetie. Fair play.”
Mamie unbuttoned his shirt, kissing his broad chest as it was revealed. She stood on tiptoes to kiss his mouth and he responded tenderly. His big hands clasped her bottom and pulled her stomach into his hips breathing deeply and steadily.
He picked up his wife and laid her on the bunk, gazing into her hazel eyes, unbuttoning the dress she had worn to dinner, pulling off the high heeled sandals that she wore even when working in the engine room. He ran his hands along her slim legs and kissed her thighs.
Mamie pulled her dress off. “Hey,’ Rand objected softly, “I wanted t’ do that.”
“You c’d make it even by takin off your pants,”
“Still. She was only about twelve when she got knocked up. That can’t be right. And how did the rest of the group not know?” sighed Mamie about twenty minutes later.
“Seems Rahim was a late addition. With the baby not being expected for another month, he was going to replace Miriam and Faoud. Miriam is a water tech. It was her skills that got her the placement with Faoud tagging along. He’s a builder by trade, but she is the value added. Rahim is trained as a small engine mechanic which is always a good skill on a homestead planet and he has a background in farming. Rahim’s family were riding on his skills alone. “
“You don’t usually get this interested in passengers, Rand.”
“Got talkin’ horses with the imam. He’s a horse trader and breeder. One of them cryoboxes is full of embryos. Horses, cattle, sheep, camels, goats.′
“Hey, doncha remember that world where they was breedin’ mammoths? Did some backbreedin’ from elephants.”
“You were with Dita on that trip. Stinky things too. Glad I missed out.”
“We could have shared a romantic mammoth back ride across the plains of... wherever it was. All wrapped up in our thick quilted suits. “
“I like being wrapped up in our birthday suits better. You still of a mind for a ranch one day?”
“Worth considerin’. We’re getting’ to havin’ some assets. We could branch out a bit.”
“Mmmm. Twelve. That’s just wrong. Babies havin’ babies.“
“He’s older though. Near forty.”
“So he was twenty five when he married a twelve year old.”
“Yeah. Sounds pretty sick don’t it?”
“Momma, Aysha’s throwing up.” Hope reported.
Dita paused in her inventory of foodstuffs. “Did you tell her mother?”
“I found you first.”
Dita ran cool water over a clean dishtowel an grabbed a mug. “Where is she?”
“In the toilet.”
One of the shared toilets had been identified for the exclusive use of the women passengers. Dita and Hope found Aysha, ashen faced, sitting on the commode.
While Dita washed the child’s face and gave her some cool water to rinse her mouth, she asked “Did you eat anything yesterday that doesn’t usually agree with you? Do you feel hot? Or cold?”
The girl shook her head. She was quite pale, even considering that she had inherited her Father’s Nordic blondness. She whispered, “Thank you.”
“Take a minute til you feel better. Then go back home and lie down. Prolly just a passin’ thing.” She looked at the youngster again. “Might be your period comin’. Have you started your monthlies yet?”
“Bout time you talked to your mamma bout that. But basically, when you become a woman and not a little girl, you’ll have a flow pret’well every month. It can make you vomitous and crampy, but there are meds. Ask Nasirah bout that when you start.”
“I was eleven,” said Hope.”We had a nice ceremony for me at the Goddess House.”
“Goddess worship! My father says they are the lecherous spawn of Shaitan!”
Dita grimaced. , “Some don’t hold with the religion, but I never met a priestess who wasn’t the picture of gentility and kindness. Mebbee all an act, but they can sure make a person feel special. And safe.”
“Safe,” said Aysha.
Dita asked Nasirah about Aysha later when they met in the galley.
“I gave her some calcium tablets to settle her stomach. I don’t think it’s anything infectious. The impetigo was bad enough.”
“You don’t know that family well?”
“They were a last minute addition. We thought that Mohammed would arrive too late for his parents to ship with us. We needed at least six adults to make the trip and the homestead community affordable and Rahim had joined our mosque several months before. The teachers at the local school knew Aysha, but her mother we had rarely met. She was always very quiet―well, you’ve seen how she is.”
“Really under her husband’s thumb. Think he’s violent?”
“Somehow…no. Too proud. But he’s got her pretty cowed.”
“Married at twelve? Not a surprise.”
“You understand, that is not the norm in our community? We are traditional in many ways, but our traditions tell us women stand beside their men, not behind them.”
“Mmmmph. As long as the girl ain’t spreading sickness on the ship. Capt’n would not take that pleasantly..”
“She should be fine later”
Aysha and Hope spun out of the bridge and raced over catwalks and down companionways. No apparent reason, just joy of movement and play.
As they whirled across the cargo bay, Hope, her head turned to check Aysha’s position, slammed into the Captain’s solid bulk.
“Hey!” he complained, swinging the girl easily over his shoulder, “There are too many people around for this horseplay! You’re gonna squash a munchkin or ram into a tent.” He swatted Hope’s bottom.
“C’mon, time for your lesson anyways” and carried her off.
Crouching back in her family’s tent door, Aysha’s eyes filled with tears.
When Rand was satisfied with Hope’s understanding of her lesson, he assigned her an essay on their current novel and sent her on her way with another fond slap to her bottom.
Aysha saw them emerging from the stateroom they had pressed into use as a classroom and cringed back into the passage wall at the tap. The Captain nodded as he passed her, then Hope approached more slowly, reading her assignment and thinking about her work. She was startled to be hugged by Aysha, who whispered, “I know, I know.” Then with a frightened glanced at the retreating Captain, she dashed in the opposite direction.
Hope gaped at her upset friend.
After lunch the next day, Aysha vomited again. Nashirah again gave her a stomach remedy. But this time she gave Aysha a cursory examination.
She called to the imam’s wife, her sister. The two women took the young girl to an unused stateroom and quiet voices questioned the child. Then tears .
The Captain was confused by all the comings and goings among the women on board. They were talking in low voices, and going silent when any of the men or children approached.
“What’s goin’ on, darlin?” he asked his wife.
“Right now, woman stuff. We’ll tell you soon enough. “ she said grimly. “Keep the kids out of our hair for a couple of hours, kay?”
The imam had been equally unsuccessful in getting information from the passenger wives. His wife and sister-in-law were stonefaced and had sequestered Aysha, her mother and her tiny sister in a stateroom.
Finally, the two leaders were invited in to the women’s council. Miriam told the men to sit down.
“Aysha is pregnant,” she said.
The men gaped. “She’s just a little girl. She’s what? Eleven?” said Rand.
“We can assume this was not a consensual relationship? That she was…. coerced?” said the imam.
“Yes. And it gets worse. It looks like the creep who did this is Rahim.” said Dita.
Rand shot to his feet and started out the door, only to be stopped by Mamie .
“No Rand. Stay cool.”
“I’m cool. I’m ice.”
“Yeah? Your plan include a trip out the airlock for Rahim?”
“There are others to consider here. His widow. Two children without a father.”
“That last part sounds like a benefit to them.” The captain raged in a quiet voice that was more terrifying than any shouting. “And widow? You agree with me about the penalty for this…filth.”
“Where is Rehab?” asked the imam.
“She went to her tent. She has rejected what Aysha has told us. Apparently the attacks started during her last pregnancy.” said Miriam “When Aysha was eight or nine. Aysha … her father told her this was normal and her duty.”
Aysha and Hope were sitting together, arms entwined. The men looked over at the youngsters.
“It ain’t.” said Rand. “It ain’t and he was wrong to hurt you.”
“Mama called me a whore. She said I was lying. She said I was spreading for …. I don’t even know who she meant!”
The imam reached out for her. She cringed back. He stopped and said, “No one should ever touch you without your permission. You have done nothing wrong. No one will punish you. we are here to protect and comfort you.”
Mamie started to weep and Rand embraced her. ’We’ll do all we can to stop the hurtin, sweets.”
“But her mother called her out. Her mother is trashin her and makin her out a slut.”
Rand took a deep breath. “Ms. Miriam, would you take the girls away? Help Aysha understand that we are going to do everything we can to help her?”
After the children left, the imam said, “Thank you. I don’t think our discussions are going to be fit for young ears.”
“It will make our decisions harder.” The imam considered.
“The first decision ain’t. He’s off my boat. Now.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the women.
“I’ll take care of that. Want Marco’s help?” said Dita, rising.
The imam looked horrified.
“They say the worst punishment is to turn the criminal over to the women.” said Rand.
“No. There is law on Lazarus. We should take him there and have a trial”
“We’ll get the same decision. Airlock is cleaner than hangin’.”
“Then what happens to the girls? Can Rehab understand the innocence of her daughter? More practically, with no husband and no skills, how can she support the family?”
Dita stood by the stateroom door, at parade rest. Mamie and the imam sat on the bed: the imam cross-legged; she leaning against her husband, who had taken the only chair and sat with one arm around his wife and the other on his knee. The three passenger women sat on the floor, their robes flowing around them.
Nasirah said grimly, “ I hate this but.... it would be dangerous for a child as young as Aysha to give birth. She seems to have been pregnant before her first menses. “
The women nodded.
“That does seem the first step. Sooner the better,” said Mamie . “Can you do it?”
“Yes. This was not a part of my training that I ever wanted to use, but I can. The infirmary should have everything I need.”
“I can help you.” said Dita.
The men took a few moments to understand the women’s discussion.
“But...” said the imam. Rand just looked grimmer.
“You don’t get a say in this,” said Mamie .”We’ll explain it to Aysha and she can have the final word. But it is her body and her decision.”
The imam started to say something. “No.” said his wife. “Incest, rape and pederasty. That is not something any child should have to learn of his parentage. If Aysha agrees, her pregnancy can be over today.”
“So, what about Rehab?” asked Fatima.
“Let’s give her time to get over her shock.” Mamie suggested.”She ain’t got a lot of choices here. She ain’t been given a lot of choices in her whole entire life, seems like. She gotta be scared.”
“She’s taking it out on her child.”
“We’ll keep ’em apart for a few days.Let her cool down.”
Dita interjected, “ Whatever happens to that filthy bastard, she ain’t gonna have a husband no more. Somethin’ will have to be worked out about that.”
Dita and Nasirah left to talk to Aysha. Fatima and Mamie went to Rehab, to comfort and counsel her. Miriam had rounded up the children and was keeping them occupied with snacks and vids.
The men looked at each other. “Seems like the women got most of this sitchashun under control. Mebbee we should be talkin’ to the men about what to do with this piece of crap.” suggested Rand.
Rand had shoved Rahim into an empty bunk, and stationed Faoud, the builder, to guard the door, a flimsy structure of thin metal struts and bamboo. In spite of his anger, he was cool enough to realize that Rahim would not survive the wrath of his usual choice for such work. Marco was better at action than careful consideration.
Rand called Sander and Marco on the intercom to join them at the bunk door. He stood between Marco and the bunk, while Machmoud spoke.
“Rahim is being held prisoner while we decide what to do about a terrible crime he has committed. Most of you are fathers, and will be angered and disgusted by his actions. But we are here to discuss not our feelings nor to exact revenge but to find justice. Justice for all.”
Faoud, like the other men, had not been told why he was keeping Rahim captive. “He has brought harm to one of the children? Which one?”
“His daughter, Aysha. She is pregnant.”
Rand had been wise to stay near Marco, who surged towards the door. The other men took a moment to grasp what the imam was implying. Marco had seen more of the underside of life than these honest family men. Rand needed all the control he possessed to restrain the furious crewman.
A babble of cursing rose from all three men in a powerful mixture of English, Spanish and Arabic.
“She’s a child herself, a baby! How could he think to touch his own daughter like that!” cried Faoud.
“She is ruined,” howled Sander, “Who will think of her as a suitable wife after this?”
Marco growled. “She’s a kid. And the victim. Not guilty of anything. Git that inta your head right now.”
The imam waited until the men quietened, although Rand could hear Marco growling sotto voce like a bear.
“Our thoughts now must be how to handle the situation. The women are taking care of Aysha and will be helping her mother.” he reasoned. “The Captain’s first thought was to throw Rahim off the ship. Immediately and without a suit.”
Marco’s growl became louder. Faoud nodded in agreement.
Sander looked confused. “Has he admitted to this crime? Are we only taking the word of the child?”
“We have only spoken to the child and her mother so far.” admitted the imam. “The mother accuses the child of seducing her father.”
Sander looked disgusted.
“You are right, however.” added the imam. ’We must have Rahim’s story too, before we make such life changing decisions.”
“Then can we chuck him out the airlock?” demanded Marco.
“Well, here it is,” said Rand “The child is pregnant. She says her father has been abusing her for near four years, from since her mother got pregnant with the little one. Her mother is frantic and accusing the girl of whorin.”
“What does Rahim say?” asked Faoud. “He was just yelling when I was guarding him. It was not too clear what about.”
“We haven’t asked his story yet,” admitted Rand. “My first thought was to put him off my boat. I got kids too.”
“We’ll all be getting off at Lazarus.”
“Wasn’t plannin on waitin till we hit dirt.”
The imam interrupted. “We must not allow revenge to become our guide. We must find justice for this child, for her family and for Rahim.”
“The airlock is justice.” said Rand grimly.
“He was rapin Hope’s little friend,” said Marco. “Airlock’s too good for ’m. It’s fast.”
The passengers looked horrified at the attitude of the spacers.
“That is anger speaking.” Said the imam. “We must seek justice not revenge.”
“What will happen to Aysha?
“Well the women are taking care of her… medical needs. She is too young to undergo a pregnancy. And they are offering counsel to her mother. They hope to reconcile them as soon as Rehab calms down.”
“What happens when we get to Lazarus? We turn Rahim over to the authorities there?” Sander looked nervous. “This sounds like it would reflect on the rest of us as we settle in to the community.”
The spacers stared at him.
“Whatever happens to Rahim on Lazarus: jail, execution, even release, the story will stick to us and, unfortunately, to Aysha.” Sander said, his jaw set. “We have not only to protect an innocent child, and her even more innocent sister, because you all know that this kind of dirty gossip will spread, but we need to protect our own families, parents and children.”
The imam sighed. “Your words are cold, but yes, we must consider the whole community. I’m sorry, Captain, this is not the simple crime and punishment that you may have envisioned.”
“Nothin ever goes smooth, Machmoud. Nothin never.”
“Well. We know the girl’s story. I suppose we should hear Rahim out too. Should we all speak with him or shall we have just one person take his confession.”
“I’ll do it. I kin get anyone to talk.”
“No, Marco. We need somethin that can stand up in court if necessary. He don’t need scarin.”
“He does Rand. He needs scarin bad.”
The imam said, “As the leader of our little group, I will take his story. I would like another person as witness. Sander, you have indicated that you have a wider view of this than the rest of us. Will you?”
While Machmoud and Sander were talking with Rahim, the other men waited silently in the galley.
Mamie and Fatima were with Rehab, who was sobbing uncontrollably.
“How can I forgive her bringing such shame on us? And accusing her own father to cover her own whorish behaviour. I will kill her and her bastard!”
“She was eight when the abuse started. Eight. The child is innocent of any wrongdoing. The sin is Rahim’s and no one else. Unless refusing to see that sin is a sin iin tself.”
Rehab began wailing.
Nasira and Dita finished their work with Aysha and gave her a sedative to make her sleep.
They joined the other women in the kitchen. Miriam made mint tea and found sweet biscuits. A chime sounded. ‘It is time for prayers,” she said. “We should join our husbands in the cargo bay.’
Adults and children, all but Rahim, Rehab and the sleeping Aysha, gathered at the prayer rug.
The imam said the traditional comforting words and the passengers made their well –known responses.
After prayer the adults gathered in the common area. Rehab was sleeping.
“That stateroom ain’t much cop as a brig,” muttered Marco.
“There’s nowheres he kin go, Marco.”
“True enough, but he could get out, cause all kinds of fuss.”
Rand grunted. “What did he have to say, imam?”
“He’s denying everything. And his accusations against the child are worse than those of her mother. He seems to have a great hatred for women in general. He also accuses his wife of infidelity and claims that the smaller girl is not his. He has whores and promiscuity on the brain. Short of a DNA test, which we can’t do here, we have no way of proving that he is lying. He may even believe his stories.”
“I gotta nidea. We could try to scare it out of him.”
“Marco, you been told. Nuthin that won’t stand up.”
“Put him in the airlock,” repeated Marco.
“That time has passed. Do it immediate-like, hot blood, no repercussions. Do it now? Looks bad on all of us.”
“I didn’t mean put him out the airlock, Rand. I meant just put him in there. We’re just a day out of the Heinlein system. Give him time to think and not enough comfort for him ta think we’re believin him.”
The imam nodded slowly. “That’s not a bad idea. We would still be turning him over to the authorities on Lazarus? No accidental opening of the airlock before we land?”
“And there’s an alarm on both airlock doors, shipside and outside. Could work.”
“Are we in agreement then?” Imam el-Said looked over at the women who looked back at him stonefaced.
Dita’s gaze circled the women’s faces. “He’s gettin off light.”
Miriam agreed, “This is a terrible crime. A crime against a defenceless child.”
Mamie said, “Can we protect the kids from what is happening to him? And what happened to Aysha?”
“We’ll have to leave explanations up to parents, sweets. They know how much each child can understand.” Rand stood. “If we’re agreed, we’ll move him to the airlock at dinnertime, when the kids are distracted. And when we hit dirt, we turn him over to the local authorities.”
Everyone nodded, some more slowly than others.
Rand awoke, missing his wife’s warmth next to him.
“Where is she,” he muttered when Mamie did not return swiftly. He thought she might have felt something wrong with Bluebell’s engines. “First people problems, then engines. Nothin ever goes right.”
The airlock alarm went off. Briefly. And stopped.
Mamie returned, kissed her sleeping daughter and slipped into their bunk.
Rand Hudson was looking critically up at his ship, Bluebell, an Arrow C-105 transport capable of carrying 200 plus tonnes of cargo on interplanet runs, one hundred interstellar.
“Do the solar wings look right to you?′ he asked his wife, Mamie Dieudonne, who took care of the spaceship’s maintenance. Mamie looked up at the partly unfolded panels, acting for the moment as energy collectors.
“Cain’t rightly tell dirtside. Need to take her outta the gravity well and spread ’em.”
“And that mean EVA time. And fuel we ain’t got.” Rand growled.
Mamie shrugged, “You got a line on an interstellar job, hun?”
“Don’t want to take it if we end up stranded Out There. Might have to eat one of the kids before we’re found.”
Mamie slapped his arm, “Don’t even! Got anything else comin’ around?”
“Yeah. It would pay good and honest work for a change. Not as good as an interstellar run.”
“Not worth takin’ chances. And them kids is pretty skinny anyways..” said Mamie .
“Right. Dita’s off with Marco bout an interworld job that’ll need some dodging the border patrols. Less pay for more trouble.”
Mamie looked around the dusty spaceport towards a haze of green on the far off hills. “That the timber?”
“For Godforsaken, yeah. Some big fart wants a timber house. Damn moon’s not been terraformed for fifteen years yet. No trees worth harvesting for another decade or more. Don’t see why he can’t go with adobe or stone like a normal person.′
Rand grunted his agreement.
Dita Aglukak, first mate of the Bluebell, had taken their stevedore, Marco Majumdar, along on her negotiations. Usually even on quasi-legal jobs she had no concern about working alone, but this customer gave her an uncomfortable feeling.
Frank Wyllie was pleasant enough looking, well barbered, thin, neatly dressed in a black duiponi suit. It was his manner that was offputting. And his bodyguards. The body guards, for one thing, appeared to be twins, or at least closely related, big muscular men in pants and tunics.. Marco was fairly sure they had weapons concealed in their high boots.
“Who brings bodyguards to a classy place like this?” muttered Marco.
Dita had chosen a bright clean chain restaurant that catered to families with young children. A busy spot with distracted parents who would be too busy to eavesdrop.
The man from Godforsaken was also nonplussed by the restaurant and the noisy active children. Dita guessed it was not the sort of place he would ever enter on his own. She smiled as his discomfort.
“You have the time and place for the pickup set then?: she asked.
“Mmm-hmm. At Kilometre 24. The trees are planted in kilometre wide bands, with an access path between each. The men have harvested logs throughout Band 23 and Band 24, good sized timber but not so much in either band that it will be noticed in two or three years when those bands are harvested.
“So you set down on the highway between Bands.The logs are loaded. You leave for Godforsaken.”
“Not often around there. It’s not wild fire season. In any case, the patrol will be concentrating on the Arrival Day crowds here in town.”
“We hafta leave right then? There’s gonna be fireworks,” complained Marco.
The client frowned and smoothed the wide cuffs on his silk jacket.”I don’t foresee any problems with the plan.”
“Marco means there will be fireworks as part of the Arrival Day celebrations. The children were looking forward to them,” Dita shook her head at Marco. “We should be on Godforsaken Moon by nightfall. There will be fireworks there too.”
“I regret not,” the client said stiffly. “The people of Godforsaken don’t celebrate Arrival Day... or anything really. They seem to have chosen the world for its name. A glum bunch.”
“Must be tough,” said Dita.
“We make our own entertainment Lovely ladies are always welcome to visit.”
“Mmm. The work is always appreciated. Who do we deliver to?”
“My steward, Hervé Richtofen. You set down by my compound- here are the coordinates- my men unload and Hervé pays you.”
“In coin. No credit, no scrip.”
“Credit I understand. No scrip?”
“Scrip has trackers. Captain don’t like it.”
“I will let Hervé know. The Forsaken populace prefers coin too, even bullion bars. Part of their policy of being as difficult as possible.
“We would accept bullion long as it’s hallmarked.”
Wyllie rose and shook hands with Dita. “This should be smooth.”
“Depend on it. We do the job.”
Cocking his head at his blackclad guards, the client left. His careful exit was lightly spoiled when an exited toddler threw a handful of pudding randomly and hit him on the back. The guard spun, the baby wailed. The client said, “Come.” through gritted teeth.
Dita and Marco held their laughter until the client left. “Cocky little shit,” said Marco.
As Dita had predicted her daughter, Hope Aglukak, and Rand and Mamie’s boy, Derry Hudson, were disappointed at missing the fireworks. Derry at five, was young enough to be in tears. Hope, nearing ten, was more philosophical. “Expect there will be a show on the moon, too,” she said. Her face fell when her mother said there would not be.
“How can they not celebrate Arrival Day!” she said. “Everyone in the System celebrates the generation ships and the terraforming crews.”
“Well, Godforsaken doesn’t,” her mother said.
“Good name for ’em then,” muttered Marco.
Rand laughed. “Marco , I reckon you’re as disappointed as the kids.”
“Not hardly. Not great workin’ on Arrival Day though,” Marco replied. “Do I get overtime?”
“You get paid, which is more’n would happen if we don’t take this job.”
“How long will loading take, huh?” asked Mamie. “Cause I was thinkin’, I could keep the kids and one shuttle back here for the ceremonies and carnival then join you before you leave.”
“We got enough fuel and air, you could even join us on Godforsaken the day after,′ suggested Rand. “And don’t even ask, Marco.”
The pickup went smoothly. The lumbermen had been slipping out of their camps for several weeks harvesting trees and limbing them deep in the woods, so when Bluebell set down on the highway, their foreman had several landtrucks ready to unload into the spaceship’s cargo bay.
The foreman was quite stout, an unusual build on these recently terraformed worlds where food rationing had only recently ended. Rand guessed that this was not his first black market transaction. His men were very efficient, getting the timber loaded and tied down in less than six hours.
“We could go back for the show,” suggested Marco.
′ “We stick to the plan,” replied Rand.
As planned they left September for its moon, Godforsaken, just as the main sun set, although its tiny sister was was still high. Godforsaken was gibbous and shone a patchwork of red and white.
On the bridge, the three crew watched the sky on the viewscreens.
“Allys looks funny aimin’ for a moon that skinny,” said Marco.
“You know...,” said Dita.
“Yeah, yeah. I ain’t that stupid. I said it looks funny.”
“Sorry Marco, look at Screen Four, you’ll be able to see the fireworks from above a bit.”
On the ground the children. were enthralled by the fireworks display. Having been terraformed and settled for almost a century, September was fairly prosperous and self-sufficient with an export economy based on fish and grain, with timber and gems as high value extras. ′
The town fathers had decided to showcase that success by hiring a pyrotechnics team at great expense from Third Rock , the world first terraformed and settled, and still the government and cultural centre for the System.
The Arrival Day show had included singers, dancers and acrobats. As dusk fell a son et lumiere told the story of the terraformers leaving Old Earth and of the generation ships that followed them. Early failures and disasters on Four were glossed over, but the committee had hired Priya Parsons, a celebrity singer who performed an elegiac hymn to the terraformers lost, accompanied by a light show of volcanoes and earthquake, of tsuanamis and hurricanes, as Third Rock became liveable. A triumphant chorus heralded the arrival of the generation ships with well known images of the colonists descending in their thousands to the applause of their descendants.
After the slick show, the fireworks were almost an afterthought.
Mamie carried her small son back to the shuttle. He woke only for a moment to throw up all the junk food he had been demanding all evening then settled back to sleep. Mamie washed his face and laid him on the shuttle’s Murphy bed face down.
Hope complained about sharing the bed with Derry. “He stinks of throw up,” she said.
“Just lie down till we break atmo,” said Mamie, and as she thought, Hope was asleep as soon as she lay down. Mamie was left to enjoy her memories of the singer whose style, wit and clothes were constant feature on the gossip casts she followed relentlessly.
The shuttle was not the only craft leaving after the programme. The dark sky above the town’s shipyard was filled with light from firing engines. Bluebell’s shuttle went unnoticed in the activity.
Godforsaken must have been named before terraforming. When Bluebell set down after the short flight from planet to moon, it was on a fenced meadow, as verdant as any old-stock planet. The meadow was even treed along the fence line with small poplars, no more than a decade old.
Wyllie’s foreman, Hervé Richtofen, was waiting just outside the fence with a crew and a truck. The logs were efficiently moved from bay to truck and rapidly disappeared behind an adobe palisade near a fast running stream.
Rand was paid in coin as requested. But Richtofen was not happy that Bluebell wanted to stay around until the shuttle caught up with them.
“Draws attention, a spaceship parked by Mr Wyllie’s compound.”
Rand tried reason, “He didn’t actually say no, though did he?”
But Richtofen was of the ‘anything not specifically allowed is forbidden’ school. He puffed up at Rand’s polite disagreement.
“I was hopin we’d find another job. Not too particular what it is or where it goes. But you know that,” said Rand.
Richtofen was stone-faced. He shrugged, “I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.”
“Think there would be any chance of work at the village up the road?” asked Rand.
“Who knows what the Forsaken will do?”
Rand gave up. He signalled Marco and strode up the ramp. He commed Dita, who had been checking controls on the bridge to take the ship up. If could have slammed the cargo hatch he would have but contented himself with signalling all clear to Dita the second Richtofen stepped outside the safety zone.
“Where are we headed, Rand?′
“We can’t go far since Mamie thinks we’re meetin here. Let’s try the village.”
The village was only a few kilometres from Wyllie’s compound. It too was palisaded, although with grapestakes rather than adobe walls.
Outside the palisade here were green fields of beans and corn and golden fields of ready to harvest grain. Each field was edged with young trees, at first glance newly planted, but on closer inspection, coppiced to provide a constant supply of firewood and wattle.
There was no landing place, so Dita put down the ship on the gravel road that ran between the homesteads and settlements.
The arrival of the spaceship, an Arrow C-105,a full 30 metres long and twenty high, as big as a five storey building, as long as a city block, drew a crowd of children. Dita could see them on the bridge screens, the older children holding the younger safely away from the exhausts. Rand used the small door to the cargo bay to descend.
The crowd was almost all girls, in bright floral shirts or dresses. “Hello ladies,” said Rand. “I’m Captain Hudson.”
Some of the children backed away, some giggled, but one small girl perhaps five, looked up at him. Her face contorted into what she may have thought was a controlling expression. “My name is Amanda,′ she said in a surprisingly deep voice.
“Howdy Ms. Amanda,′ said Rand, smiling at the child. “That’s a pretty name.”
The girl pointed at the ship. “Is that your wife?” she asked.
Rand laughed and crouched down to Amanda’s level. “No mam. That’s my ship. Her name is Bluebell. Is there a grownup around or are you the boss lady here?′
Amanda frowned. “Teacher” She looked back at the palisade. A thin tall woman was hurrying towards them.
Rand stood and waited for Teacher. Marco and Dita joined him.
“Welcome to Secajaweya,” she said, extending her hand first to Dita, then shaking with Rand and Marco. “The girls didn’t give you any trouble did they? I’m Teacher Brasilia.′
“I’m Captain Rand Hudson. This here’s our pilot Dita Aglukak and supercargo Marco Majumdar. We took a big liberty settin down on the road.”
“I can move the ship if need be. We’re waitin for our shuttle to catch up,′ added Dita.
“It’s not a busy road, but you’d better come talk with Mayor.” Teacher spelled off two of the older girls. “Take our visitors to Mayor. She’ll be at the Office, then come right back for Woodworking class.” The girls puffed importantly as they led the crew into the palisade. Little Amanda took Rand’s hand and went with them.
The village was laid out around a square with a gazebo and play equipment. Inside the palisade were low buildings with roofs sloped towards the fence and large loading doors. “Warehouses?′ Marco murmured to Rand.
Two sides of the village were lined with attached cabins like motels, A larger two story building stood at the back of the compound, the lower storey shops and offices with large plate glass windows and an upper floor with many smaller windows.
There were no identifying signs, but a few of the show windows advertised their wares: “Highgate Cottons New Style” “Dried Plums and Apricots” “Special on Comms and Trackers”. The usual products imported by otherwise self sufficient communities. The shops were well-stocked and a few shoppers looked curiously at the visitors.
“This is my friend Captain Rand and his ship is the Bluebell,” Amanda told a grey haired woman who looked more curious than most. “I’m taking them to see Mayor.′
“Come to my house after that,” said the woman. “Have something for your momma.′
“Yes, abuela,” said Amanda, cheerfully.
The older girls has stopped a few doors away and knocked . They entered a large room, taking up most of the length and all of the width of the unit. The floors were bamboo, as was the ceiling, the walls painted a pleasant blue. There were two desks near the front, a raised platform with a metal table and folding chairs and an office that was partly screen off. ′
The clerks at the desks were enough alike to be twins, although one had bright green hair and and the other multiple shades of blue. Both smiled brightly. “How can we help you, Miz?′ the green girl asked Dita.
She shrugged at Rand. “We were told to speak with the Mayor. We parked our spaceship on the highway for a bit. I couldn’t see any traffic for a couple of hours in either direction, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t a problem. ′
A slightly older woman, with an elaborate blonde hairdo, pushed back the screen around her office. “I’m Mayor. Why did you stop here?” she asked Dita.
Dita explained how Wyllie’s foreman had insisted they leave that settlement when they had completed their delivery. “But we have two kids and our mechanic coming in from September in a bit. They were.stayin behind for theArrival Day celebrations.”
“Family reunification, then?” the mayor smiled.
“Suppose. My girl, and the captain’s boy and wife. Any place better we could park?”
“Doubtful. Later in the year we’d have harvested fields, but we’re not quite at harvest yet.”
Rand interrupted, ‘We dropped a shipment at Wyllie’.s Our cargo bay is pert well empty if you got any goods need transport off world. Or even on.”
“Bad time of year, but I can’t sepak for every manufacturer or merchant in Sacajaweya. We’re a very entrepreurial group. Ginny,” she turned to Blue Hair, “put out a message to all about our visitors. Amanda,” the small girl peeped out around from behind Rand. “you should be somewhere else, shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t think so, Mayor,” Amanda replied politely. The mayor sighed and looked at the clock.
“You have two hours playtime before your momma gets home from work. You may stay with our visitors if they are willing. But if they say go, you go.” she sighed again, “They say it takes a village and this one is the proof.”
They went to the square where the late summer sunshine was warm. Amanda persuaded Rand to push her on swings. Dita listened to music being broadcast from the gazebo for the pleasure of the women with small babies chatting together. Another dozen toddlers, in bright floral dresses, played under the supervision of two women and an elderly man, the first adult male they had seen since arriving.
Marco sat with Dita for a while, then, noticing the women noticing him, removed his gunbelt and jacket, revealing his well-muscled torso under a worn and very tight tee shirt. He started his exercise routine with stretches and pushups then jogged around the square. Dita stretched out in the warm sunshine.
The older man, still watching the toddlers, offered Marco a bottle of water. They spoke for a moment, then Marco resumed jogging. The women gave him appreciative glances but none seemed inclined to make conversation.
He rejoined Dita on the bench. “Teacher Rene there sez he was pleased to see a few peaceable men visitin. Seems they have trouble with Wyllie’s gang.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You noticed there ain’t too many men here? Or boys This is a woman’s community. They don’t forbid men, but they lean to women. Most of the kids is female cause they don’t continue pregnancies of boy children.”
“Not common,” said Dita.
Rand joined them, tired by pushing his demanding new lady friend. “That girl is high maintenance, lemme tell ya.” he complained laughing. Amanda climbed on his lap and snuggled her little arms around his neck. “Nice kind of demand, though.” He dropped a kiss on her hair and she sighed happily.
There was a roar overhead and the disc of Bluebell’s shuttle appeared on the horizon. Dita dusted off her pants and strode rapidly to the ship.
As the shuttle settled into her berth, a dust plume appeared up the road. Dita waved to the car.
“Sorry about the parking ,we were kinda between a rock and a hard place finding somewhere to put down.” With a sinking feeling she saw the government shield on the side of the vehicle. “Ministry of Natural Resources,” she thought. “At least it ain’t the traffic cops.′
The woman who left the car wore a cheap black business suit with a lanyard filled with badges and passes. She was frowning.
“I’m the ship’s pilot,” continued Dita. “As soon as the shuttle there is docked firm-like, I can take her up. We was jist waitin for the kids...”
“Blocking the public highway is an offence”′ snapped the woman. “But I am not the police. At least, not traffic police,” She smiled thinly. “This is my stop anyway”. She locked the door to her landcar with a meaningful look at Dita and headed for the palisade gate and the usual giggling crowd of children.
“And with her car parked there, now we can’t move, thout blisterin all the paint off’n her car,” said Mamie , descending from the cargo door and followed by Derry and Hope.“Ah well, I’m like to wantin a stretch anyways.
The four followed the official into the village. “Delivery go good?”
“Fine. Haven’t found an outbound cargo yet,” replied Dita.
Dita brought them to the playground square. Rand had some difficulty dislodging little Amanda to kiss his wife, until the child spotted Derry.
“Your eyes are funny.” she told him.
Derry, nonplussed, looked at his parents for help.
“They’re like his,” Amanda continued, pointing to Rand. “Blue. That’s funny. Are you blind?”
“No!” Derry shouted. New people found the blue eyes he had inherited from his father unusual, but he didn’t know how to deal with this.
“This is Derry. He’s the captain’s son,” said Mamie . “Children often look like their parents. I’m Mamie , Derry’s mother and Rand’s wife.” She took Amanda’s hand, which looked ready to poke Derry’s eye, and shook it firmly.
“You’re his wife?′ the child asked. She turned her attention back to Derry. “I’ll be your wife then.” She took Derry’s hand and led him away to the playhouse.
“Play nicely, Derry” his mother called grinning as he was pulled into the little structure.
Marco ambled over. “Teacher there jus told me the Forsaken got an industrial base.”
Rand, Dita and Mamie waited patiently until he stopped laughng.
“I tol you they was a women’s community? Almost no men?” Marco shook his head. “They still need us though or at least,” he started giggling. “Parts of us men folk”
Dita’s brows rose. “There was a big display in the pharmacy. Are those locally made?”
Marco nodded, “Yep. The whole upstairs of the building is a dildo factory.”
“What’s a dildo, momma?′ asked Hope. Dita shrugged. “It’s a toy, grown women use sometimes. Men, too, sometimes.”
“Can I have one?”
“Are you grown?”
“They must have contracts for their products”′ said Rand “Dita, I’m gonna go get the car moved. You find out about their customers. Where we headed next?”
“Sapphire. There’s a wholesale pharma distributor there. We were picking up some bales of Silverhold Green from them on spec. They could be buyers.”
Rand left the pilot to find a deal. They had the timber cash on hand to buy outright, which he hoped would give them a leg up on any rivals who offered consignment terms. He headed for the Office.
Blue Hair and Green Hair ignored his entry, their attention fixed by the loud voices behind the Mayor’s screen.
“Natural Resources, my Aunt Fanny’s arse!′ the Mayor’s voice. “Ain’t nuthin ‘Natural’ on this moon. We ain’t even twenty year terraformed from a black rock.”
“There are unsettled lands . The Ministry is deciding which are to be cultivated and which to be allowed to develop on their own.”
“Well, our lands is cultivated We been fencin and farmin for fifteen years.”
“It appears you have fenced more land than you were granted.”
“No. We got our surveys. Our grandmothers staked our perimeter. Them stakes is still there. Six kilometres from where we built that bandstand in every direction, all ours barring the road allowances.”
“Our paperwork shows only four kilometres were granted. This visit was to arrange a survey party to find the stakes.”
“Six! Six, not four!”
“The stakes will tell the tale,” The woman in the black suit insisted. “And this is a courtesy visit. You cannot legally prevent the Ministry from doing its duty.” she turned on her heel and strode out of the Office.
The Mayor, redfaced, slumped into Blue Hair’s chair. The clerks fluttered around her. Rand saw a water cooler an brought a cup to the rapidly calming woman. She took some deep breaths.
“Jen, I need you to search the files-- theArchives hardcopy files-- for our original land grant. Mavis, talk to the abuelas and see if any of them have a souvenir copy.”
“Yes, Mayor,” the clerks chorused. Blue Hair, Jen, looked doubtful. “Wouldn’t the grants be on the Web Mayor?”
“And couldn’t someone play with them there? We need dated hardcopies. With seals and ribbon and dates and wetsignatures if at all possible.”
“Thirty odd square kilometres is a big chunk of land to lose,” said Rand.
“Especially improved farmland,” said the Mayor. “And some of the crops are woodland orchards, just starting to be good producers. Almonds, olives, even the willows at the lake we planted.”
“We process them to pharmas for rooting hormones and a source of acetylsalicylic acid for pain tablets. It’s cheaper to produce chemically, but some communities won’t accept those. Centuries old recipe and works almost as well as the synthetic.′
“And the Ministry wants to turn it into what? Parkland?”
“They say. But it’s my guess our wiley neighbours will put in a claim. That may even be how this bullshit started. Natural Resources, my arse.”
“Any thing we can do to help?”
“No. I’m betting the Ministry crew will find stakes to back up their bogus land grant. If they ain’t already moved, they will be when the crew gets here.”
Rand considered. “We got two shuttles that are pretty easy to move. If we took pictures of the stakes, time stamped, we’re neutral third parties. Nuthin to gain. Nuthin to lose.”
“Depends on who got bribed at the Ministry.”
“Where they work outta?”
“Temple is our central town. All the moons are provinces of the world government on September. There’s only bout forty million in the September planetary system, so far. Only about ten million between the three moons. Godforsaken has only one million maybe less.”
“Thin all right.” Rand said. “Look, we’re needin a cargo and we’re headin for Sapphire and the CentraPro pharma headquarters there. My pilot is talkin to your factory about maybe buying a consignment of your devices.”
“No need to be coy, captain. But the brand name is LadyLove.”
“Yeah? My Mamie has a couple of those. Anyway, we can search for the stakes and you could put in a good word for us with the makers, mebbee.”
“And if I don’t?”
“We’d do it anyways, just to be neighbourly. And to piss off Wyllie’s foreman.” Rand’s wicked grin made the mayor giggle. “No time like the present then. I’ll get a shuttle goin. Who’d be most likely to show me the where the stakes should be?”
“One of the abuelas, reckon. They were here from the start. Abuela Jasmine is pretty sharp,′ said the mayor.
Blue Hair snorted. The mayor raised an eyebrow .
“Darn right she’s sharp, ′ said the clerk. “She broke up that gang that was trying to seduce the twelves into going Out There with them.”
“Twelve year olds?” said Rand genuinely shocked.
“Level Twelve, mostly eighteen, Standard years. More schooling than sense. One of the was her own grand daughter and she put one or two remarks together,” said the Mayor. “She was pretty sure their plans included selling the girls, but we didn’t have anything to bring to the police. They said that women’s intuition wasn’t enough.”
“That’s the kind of attitude brought our grandmothers to Godforsaken in the first place,” said Green Hair , speaking for the first time.
Blue Hair and the Mayor nodded.
Jen, the blue haired clerk, had already commed Abuela Jasmine, “She″ll meet you by the gazebo. She has her survey equipment still, though she’s retired long since.”
Jasmine turned out the be the elderly woman who had spoken with little Amanda earlier and when she met Rand, the child was with her.
“Derry’s no fun,” the child complained. “She doesn’t know how to play houses and babies.”
Rand grinned. “He’s a boy. He likes other games better.”
Jasmine frowned. “We treat our boys and girls alike . They all play the same games.”
“I won’t argue, abuela,” said Rand. “but Hope has yet to break or sprain anything and Derry spend half his life in casts ,seems.”
He led them through Bluebell’s cargo bay and up to the shuttle entry. Jasmine looked around at the shabby interior with a judgemental eye, but Amanda was enthralled.
Rand remembered the first time he met his future wife, leading a gaggle of children on a tour of Bluebell for the Penguin village school. As the daughter of a mechanic, she was most interested in the engine room and had helped him find a parts dealer who actually lived up to his name, Honest Austin. Bluebell had returned a few months later and he had hired her as ship’s mechanic on Austin’s recommendation.
Amanda’s excitement was obvious. She was astonished by the size of the cargo bay and thrilled by the steep companionways. She pointed at the big wing controls with their manual override levers. “What are those?”
“They control the wings. We don’t use them in atmosphere. Only Out There.′
“Are we going Out There?” Amanda’s brown eyes gleamed.
“Nope, just a little jaunt round the borders of our village today.” Abuela Jasmine settled herself into tht co-pilot’s seat. Rand strapped Amanda into a pulldown bench with a good view out the windows. “You ever flown before?” Amanda shook her black curls.
Rand strapped in and Shuttle One lifted smoothly. He suspected Mamie had been tinkering while she flew on autopilot from September.
The tour was straightforward and confirmed the Mayor’s suspicions. On three sides, including to the south where there was another community, the stakes were at six kilometres as marked on Jasmine’s map. From the village towards Wyllie’s compound the stakes were at the four kilometre mark.
“Let’s go a little beyond,’said Rand, turning back to the southern neighbour. And once again the stakes between Wyllie’s property were two kilometres farther south than those bordering the Forsaken land.
“You may have allies in your case, abuela,” said Rand.
“We don’t mix with them much, but we’re neighbourly enough,” she agreed. “I’ll get the Mayor to call on them Real Soon.”
Rand prepared the timestamped printouts, making multiple copies. They returned to the village.
The Mayor was delighted with their discoveries. “It would have taken us much longer to find the stakes from the ground.. And just having the equipment to pickup the signals from the stakes, which we don’t, was very useful.”
“Glad to be help, and to cock a snoot at that Richtofen,” replied Rand. “You have our contact info if you need testimony.”
“We’ll wire back the money for the toys and the willow bark from Sapphire,” added Dita.
“If all this tomfoolery was on-world, this information should settle it.” said the Mayor. “If it goes back to September, then this is just the beginning of a long fight.”
“Boudewyn van Oort,” the small woman said, extending her hand to Rand Hudson, captain of the transport Bluebell.
“We have enough cabins for your troupe, but I’m not sure about your equipment, Ms. van Oort. Our cargo bay is pert well filled between the Flying Doctors’ portable clinic and the meat lockers.”
Van Oort wrinkled her nose, “Meat?”
“We take any jobs we can,” Rand slapped the shiny metal side of a container, stacked five high and ten wide in the cargo bay. “This is frozen beef and chicken for Jakarta Station on Akbar.”
“No smells then?”
“If there is, we’re all in a lot of trouble. If you show us your equipment, we can tell you if we got room to take you along.”
Van Oort led the captain and his preteen son to the site of the theatre. Stevedores were busy packing the last of the tent into a landmule already filled with tightly bound folding chairs and stacks of small tables.
“My troupe pack and carry their own clothing and costumes.”
“Whaddya say, Derry?′ asked the captain.
“No worries, daddy,” the child replied confidently. “But we’ll have to take the medic stuff out and reload it cause they get off before the meat or the ladies.”
The captain grinned at the surprised woman. “Nobody rides for free,” he said his odd blue eyes twinkling. “Derry can do sums in his head faster than any comm.”
The boy’s eyes, the same strange blue colour as his father’s , glowed at the praise.
It took an hour to unload and reload the cargo bay, and Boudewyn van Oort was amused and impressed at how the first mate, a tall woman in her late thirties and the huge labourer who had been introduced as Marco, supercargo, took instructions from the boy.
Her troupe had arrived with the parcelled theatre, all giggles and gauzy fabrics. The big man was momentarily distracted by the girls, but a sharp word from the woman, brought his attention back to the job.
“Get the girls settled will you, Athena?” she asked her assistant. “Keep them away from the bay. One of them will fall and break something.”
“They’ll probably try and do that anyway when they hear there’s a doctor aboard. They’re all looking for a ring and an easy life.”
Bluebell was out of atmo and on her way before supper. Everyone gathered in the commons while the captain gave a safety lecture and an overview of their schedule.
“We’re just two days from Akbar as the system turns. We’ll drop off Dr. Chen and Nurse Commanda,” The girls from the troupe looked disappointed and one slim brunette glared at the women crew members. “That’s just a quick stop and unload at Denpasar Station.”
A tall copper-skinned man with a black plait that hung down his back raised his hand. “David Commanda. If any of you ladies have any medical needs, renewed prescriptions, annual exams, or just the squeems, I’ll be happy to help.” The slim brunette looked much happier that the nurse was not a woman, working intimately with the doctor.
Her pleasure was dashed when David continued,” And if there is anything actually serious, my husband is a fully qualified surgeon as well as a general practitioner.”
“Thanks, David,” said the captain. “For the rest, we usually eat dinner together at 18:50 - that’s Mamie, our mechanic, over there in the galley. Hope is our pilot’s daughter and Marco is willing to help your with any heavy lifting you may need. “ Marco flashed a grin at the women that left one or two a little wobbly. He looked mean and not a little scruffy, but also very masculine.
There were fourteen places set a the table plus a high chair between the captain and the mechanic which held a red-headed baby watching everything silently.
Hope, who was about thirteen, Boudewyn thought, helped serve the dishes on the table, then filled a plate and left. A few minutes later, Dita entered and took a seat. “Hope’s monitoring the auto-pilot.′ she told the captain, who grunted.
Marco had taken a seat between Athena and the slim brunette, who gave her name as Linnet. “Like the bird,” she said, working her big brown eyes.
The crew were so expert at getting the portable building set up and secured that the clinic drop took only an hour the. Pickup date was confirmed and Bluebell flew on to Depensar and Jakarta Stations.
But in Denpasar Station there were problems. The buyer for the fozen meat had not responded to Rand’s comm from Out There.
“Sun spot, mebbee?” he remarked to Dita. “The spaceport is answering fine,” she replied.
“I’ll keep calling .But let’s plan to land the ladies first and get them set up. Won’t hurt either one to change the landing times.”
The troupe was booked at a suburban entertainment hubwith a large parking lot, empty at this time of the morning and big enough even for the 35 metre Arrow C0105. The troupe’s equipment was unloaded and safely sdelivered to the theatre building.
Van Oort was pleased that they would be playing an actual theatre. It makes a change having running water in the dressing room,” she told Rand. “And when we circulate out playbills, theatres get more respect than tent shows.”
Rand was reading the marquee above the multiplex theatre entrance. Several entertainments were on offer, dance troupes like Van Oort’s, a few vids, a concert by Priya Parsons, the current top vedette. What interested him most was that the theatre was owned by Pollard Family Entertainments, Snake’s family concern.
He mentioned to vanOort that Bluebell had had a few run ins with Snake and his formidable wife, Sally Pollard.
“That family is all over the place,” she told him. “Snake I haven’t seen too much, Met him, avoid him. But Mme Pollard is a big deal , They’re taking over on the New Worlds and word is they’re fixin to move into the Centre.”
“Pretty good for a smuggler and a madam.”
“Oh, that family thinks big. One of the other husbands is their talent scout. He says he’s a lawyer but if he hasn’t been disbarred it’s only because he’s fast with a bribe. And two of the other wives are producing and directing vids. Mostly romance so far, cause that can be done low budget, but they’re supposed to be buying production rights. Might be able to sell him some talent.”
“Tough to dicker with.”
“Can’t be tougher than being a travelling dance trouel. Do you know I have to hire and train at least one new girl at every stop? And collecting fees is no picnic.”
“Never is. Nobody wants to pay for an honest day.”
“What do you do about it?”
“You seen the size of Marco? Not very bright but loyal. He’s a mean one in a fight.”
Van Ooort laughed. “I use my whip dance.”
Rand looked amused. “Sounds dangerous.”
“Needs a lot of control. But when I whip the button off a shirt or the rings from someone’s ears, they pay attention.”
Rand fingered his gold and silver earrings nervously. “I won’t ask for a demonstration.”
“You can see it tonight. Mostly I work with two dancers and whip them down from seven veils to their skin.”
“Maybe that’s why they keep quitting.”
“Showing a little skin doesn’t bother them. I hire girls wanting a change from whoring. Less money, but less work too. Athena has stayed longer than anyone and even she sometimes talks about finding a nice House, settling for a while.”
“I can’t believe not one buyer wants this meat.” complained Dita.
“Still not contacted the first buyer?” asked Rand.
“Not on this world. Owner Macharia sez to give him another two four then start offering it around. He’s got a deposit from the buyer but if it don’t sell, he’s out thousands.”
“And we get paid from the payment not the deposit.”
The buyer turned up the next day as the crew was breakfasting.
And refused the cargo.
“Those idiots!” he complained “Gave me the wrong pickup information and now the wrong cargo.”
“All the barcodes match what you made a deposit on,,” Dita said firmly. Marco stood behind her, frowning. He carried a laser whip which could inflict nasty skin damage and a projectile pistol.
“But there were supposed to be clean labels.” the buyer explained angrily. “Kosher and halal. This world won’t take anything else. I can’t sell this trayf. I’m out.”
He turned and marched from the cargo bay, followed by his own crew of loaders.
“Trayf?” Rand called after them.
Hope was tapping her comm. “It’s..... I think it means dirty. The language is Yiddisch from Old Earth’s Europe.”
“What in seven hells? It’s inspected at the abbatoir before packing and we carried it clean.”
“But it’s not ritually clean. This sez the animal has to be butchered.... oh, yuck... anyway, there are rituals, and then the meat is signed off by a rabbi for kosher or an imam for halal.”
“So why not sell it to someone who don’t care?”
“Jakarta Station, captain,” Hope said in that teenage to dumb adult tone. “Most of the opulation here is cultural Muslim with a lot practising and there’s a pretty big orthodox Jewish community too.”
“Shit,” Rand remarked.
The dance troupe was off the ship and settled in their hotel but Marco had invited Linnet for supper before their first show. He told her about the problem with the cargo.
“You could try selling it to Pollard Entertainment “ she said, taking some fried carrots from his plate flirtatiously.
“Them buggers?” he sneered.
“Well, when I worked for them, we got our meals as part of our pay.. The wages wasn’t much but room and board and tips made it okay. We ate from a buffet cause of the shifts, so each house has a cook”
“You worked for Sweet Sally Pollard?”
“Three years whoring. Near made me sick of men. Dancin has improved my opinion mightily. Cept for terraformers. Grabby bunch.”
When Marco returned from escorting Linnet to the theatre, he told Rand about her suggestion.
“Hate dealing with Snake, if he’s even here. Have we met Sweet Sally herself?” he asked Dita.
“No, but she’s that Vicky’s mama, so we might have a chance after rescuin her, when Snake got her ‘n’ Hope kidnapped,” Dita said.
It took several calls for Dita to speak to Madam Sally Pollard. The tiny blonde on the comm screen was waxen, her maquillage almost white, her green brocade business jacket just a little too on trend for style. She took a moment to remember Dita, then gushed, “But of course I owe you my daughter’s life, darling! Anything I can do for you!”
Dita nodded cooly. “My daughter too, Ms. Pollard. You don’t owe me anything. Snake might for putting the girls in danger.”
“Oh Snake! He get such ideas!?” She had a disturbingly tinkling laugh.
As Dita explained the cargo Madam Sally’s expression barely changed. Dita could see a very feminine room behind her, pale blue with pink and yellow rosses on the wallpaper, chairs, draperies. These did not appear to be any windows and Dita wondered if she was on world or Out There.
Sally’s offer was half of the contracted price. “Can’t do it, Ms. Pollard.That don’t even cover our fuel nevermind other overhead.”
Dita countered with a price one third higher than had been contracted. Negotiations settled in, with much tinkling laughter from Madam Sally. Dita was not sure if she had found ultra-femme a useful tactic with male negotiators or if it was meant to wear down a woman.
Certainly Dita was getting annoyed.
“Let’s come at this from a different angle. Your house here can’t use all of this, but you have houses on other worlds.”
“Yes, and more! We have bars and resto-pubs and theatres. It’s Pollard Entertainment not just Sweet Sally Houses now. “ Sally said with satisfaction.
“So the goods are on our transport ship. How about we go to my first price, but we deliver to there locations of your choice? The convenience would be worth it.”
“Up to five locations on three worlds.”
Sally rose and Dita saw that she was indeed probably in a ship’s cabin as a drapery swept aside to show an airlock door. Opening the door, Sandy spoke to someone outside. A moment later a nervous young girl brought in a large screen and set it where both women could see it.
“Shoo!” Sally told the child and trembling she dashed from the room. The drapery swung back into place. “The urbanizing worlds are gonna be best for turnover but...” she tapped a small white tooth with an immaculately manicured nail. “We’re opening resto-pubs on ... Well, okay. Give me ten percent off your price and I have five locations on two moons in the same planetary system.”
“Works,” said Dita. “You get good product and I keep my shirt.” She was even more pleased when the contract showed on her screen for confirmation. One of the moons was Akbar where they had left the Flying Doctors clinic.
That evening the entire crew went to hte theatre with comp’d tickets from Boudewyn Van Oort. The show had been advertised as traditional dancing from Old Earth.
Athena opened dressed in a green velvet jacket and very short plaid skirt. She danced with swords, both placed on the stage and swung as props, then juggled knives to great applause. All the girls shrieked and kicked their way through a dance that involved lifting long heavily ruffled skirts. Linnnet was the comic in this act, kicking off men’s hats and shaking her satin clad bottom while the other dancers cartwheeled around her.
Marco murmured to Mamie, “Lil Linnet tells me at the late show the girls go commando.”
Mamie laughed in delight. “Spinnin crotches!”
Boudwyn performed dressed like a temple dancer holding cups of water in thin glass goblets which she balanced on open palms and on her head as she moved sinously. Then the troupe again, dressed in long loose dresses decorated with tiny bells.
“I know that one,” said Derry delightedly.”David showed me. It’s the Rabbit Dance from Turtle Island.” He slipped from his seat and performed the steps. Linnet noticed him and pulled him into their circle for the remainder of the act, to the approval of the audience.
After a short interlude during which Boudewyn played some Old American folk tunes on an autoharp, taking requests from the audience which sang along., Athena reappeared in a long gown with lace mantilla held by high combs with a heel stomping fast dance. Then the troupe again, all swathed in gauzy fabrics and veiled faces performingm what the programme called an Arabian Wedding Dance.
“Think I know what part of the wedding that dance is all about,” Rand remarked as the women rolled their stomach muscles and swept veils around.
Boudewyn and Athena reappeared. Boudewyn with a long braided leather whip. As Athena danced, Van Oort’s whip snapped kerchief after kerchief from her costume until she was left in a jewel encrusted bikini. The troupe whirled around them veils fluttering and the whip snapped twice more. The dancers ran into the wings leaving only a small pile of glittering jewels on the stage.
Dita went over to the bar an bought drinks for the table. The children and Mamie got bubble tea, while the others went for the local ipabeer. Athena joined them a few minutes later, bringing her own drink of mango juice and wrapped in a long blue silk kimono.
“Boudewyn’s losing her touch,” she grumbled. “She hit me with that damn whip, near cut my skin. Better not do that again or I’m gone. And I’m that sweaty.”
“Just a glow, Ms Athena,” said Marco.
“Yeah, well, I’m glowing like a pig.”
Marco stayed behind to escort Linnet to her hotel, after the late show, but arrived home while the crew was still up. “She went off with the ladyboss for a private show for some rich guy,” he complained.
“Girls’ got a living to earn.” Dita pointed out.
“She shoulda tol me though. Went off and Athena was the only one that knew. Still goes to show what she really thinks of me.”
It was Athena who commed Marco next afternoon asking if he had heard from Linnet. “Boudewyn said she was staying with the john, bu she was supposed to be back by noon.”
Apparently van Oort and Linnet had gone to a hotel with their employer and Linnet had agreed to stay for a ‘private show’. Van Oort had taken their pay and left. “Don’t think she’s ever been into the Life. Not a man’s woman anyways.”
Marco promised to let Athena know if he heard anything.
Bluebell delivered some of the frozen chicken and beef to a Sweet Sally some four thousand kilometers west and more to a newly opened pub about the same north of Jakarta Station.
Mamie stayed put with the children, getting some shopping done for shoes, groceries and several reels of various wires and cables.
“Do you know every junkyard in the System, Mamie?” Hope asked. Mamie laughed’
“Everybody know Mummy,” Derrial said, serious.”Daddy says she’s the Notorious Missy Smile.”
“I need books for my astrogation course,” Hope said, “Did mamma tell you?”
“Nope, but keep an eye open for a vid shop. I want some new stories.:
“Me too mummy! One with Mongols!”
The vidshop they found sold novels and learning materials along with a post office and a public comm station. They were able to buy and upload Hope’s coursework as well as several books for the crew.
In spite of all the messages they had to do, Mamie and the children were shopped out well before Bluebell was due back at the spaceport. Mamie commed Athena and asked it they could stop at the theatre while they waited. “We’d go to the park, but it looks like rain.”
“If it was sunny, I’d join you at the park. We’re done rehearsal, such a fuss, that damn Linnet! Come to my hotel, we’ll have tea.”
Once at Athena’s room, Mamie settled the children to read their books, and stretched out on the bed.
“Our bunk is cozy, but it sure feels good to sttretch out on my back steada spooning up..”
“All three of you share one cabin?”
“Yeah, well, I had my own for a while after I joined the crew, but Dita and Hope had the big cabin, and then I moved in with Rand, and then Derry came along and we just never changed.”
“That’s one think I like about the troupe, we always get our own hotel rooms. I think that’s why some of the girls stay.”
“Be tough sleeping where you work.”
“In the brothels? We didn’t sleep in those rooms, unless someone wanted the overnight package. But we was hotbunking since we worked shifts.”
“So what’s with Linnet?”
“Damn girl din’t show up for rehearsal. We hadda reset all the programme around her. Not the first time some twit has wandered off. Boudewyn’s always hiring. Only the baladi’s hard to learn right, but even it can be faked with a lot of veil waving.”
“What happens to those girls?”
“If they’re hired on, Boudewyn puts their back wages into he bank and we leave for the next gig. They’re replaceable. The bonded girls even more so.”
“She’s the original ice queen that one. She can be mean too.” Athena showed a scar on her upper thigh and a cut on her arm.”From that whip dance,” she explained. “Both times she was pissed at me about something. Could be an accident, but I told her ‘Three times? I’ll be gone.’ She’s funny about that routine.”
Mamie passed the story of Linnet’s disappearance on to Marco after dinner as he cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher..
“Guess she found her sugar daddy,” Mamie said. “Sorry Marco.”
“Just a bit of fun,” Marco said but he looked grim.
Two days later they were on Akhbar to pick up the clinic. First they stopped at Pollard Entertainment’s Sweet Sally House, to unload their contracted cargo. Derry took the opportunity to check out a field of horses just down the newly paved road, while Hope read her astrogation book on the wide porch under a pergola heavy with wisteria.
A plump girl sat down beside her. “Do your remember me?” she asked.
Hope looked up startled, her mind still whirling with numbers. Although the girl was only a few years older, her blonde hair had an artificial glow and she wore heavy makeup in the very current
“illuminated” style. But her pale eyebrows said her enhanced hair colour was built on natural blonde, a characteristic very rare outside of a few inbred colony worlds.
“Vicky?” she ventured.
“In one! But I’m Mamselle Victoria here. I’m training.”
“Oh. I’m still studying. Piloting,” Hope said show Vicky her comm. “I have another year of study before I can write my first set of exams. Is whoring easier?”
Vicki made a rude noise. “No training at all. But I’m learning the management side. The kids here are a dime a dozen. Anyway, you have to be eighteen.”
“Oh,” said Hope. She sat silent, having nothing more to say, but Vicky was’t concerned and chattered happily about the logistics of running a house. Hope remembered she had not actually liked Vicky very much when they had shared a trip and an adventure. She was bossy, Hope recalled, and a scaredy cat who had done nothing bu cry when they were kidnapped.
Her mother called and Hope hustled to rejoin the ship, faster than she usually would. Derry took longer, ignoring his mother’s call, util Rand took to the external comm, “Derrial Hudson, get yer ass back here or you won’t be sitting for a week,” he roared. Derry sauntered up the road, cradling an elbow he had fallen on while dismounting from one of the horses.
Michael and David had their equipment neatly packed on a mobile and the Clinic just needed collapsing, a task handled by Rand and Marco, while Dr. Chen gave a cursory exam to a late arriving patient and David dispensed prescriptions from the car’s printer. Mamie counter-signed invoices for illiterate patients so that the medics could be paid.
Their next stop was Sextet Five, called Glitter, three days away according to the astrogation problem Dita set for Hope. But the girl suggested a short cut and they made dirtside in less than forty eight hours Standard. They delivered.to the new resto-pub and were treated to a steak dinner by the happy manager.
“I’m a better cook that this guy,” Marco claimed but the clientele seemed happy to eat in a bright room with large glass panels set into the walls looking out over a flat sandy landscape.
“And the toilets is clean enough to eat in,” marvelled Mamie.
Rand contacted some local businesses suggested by the pub manger. He was rewarded with a cargo of glass in sheets and bulk glass in solid cylinders ready to melt and form, bound back to Denespar Station.
Mamie went in search of new push plates and returned with gossip. “The cops found a body!” she reported.
“Why would that be news?” asked Marco.
“Denespar is prac’ly crime-free. This is the first murder they’ve had in ten years. And this is a real nasty one. Looks like she’s been tortured!”
“Any idea who she is?”
Mamie said, “It would help if she had a head.” She gave a delighted shudder..
The children goggled. Dita said, “It’s not our business, Mamie. Let’s drop it.”
Mamie laughed and bopped off to check the newscasts for more lurid details.
There were many. The corpse was a small slender woman but she had been badly burned and her hands were scalded until her fingerprints had boiled off. If she had had an identity chip it was gone. The police were running DNA but with no results so far.
The push plates were successfully replaced, but Bluebell had to wait three days in port for the adhesive to cure and the purchase had send a notice to CentraPro Transport for an inspection. Knowing Rand’s propensity for arguing with officialdom, Dita told him to take the children to the zoo.
“There are supposed to be mastodons.”
“Mammoths,” corrected Derry.
“Mammoths and mastodons ain’t the same thing? When you get back explain to me what the difference is.”
When Rand and children boarded the zoo’s visitor train, They were surprised to see Athena, dressed in a fancy yellow silk shirt under denim overalls. Hope immediately sat beside her, while Rand and Derry, cradling his elbow cast, took the bench behind. There were indeed mastodons and mammoths, carefully separated to prevent cross breeding. The tundra habitat also displayed sabre tooth tigers, and cave lions, aurochs and Irish elk. Przewalski horses and herds of bison and caribou.
After the tour, Rand invited Athena to join them at the zoo’s delicatessen for smorgasbord. The adults drank very good ipa beer and the children ginger pop, and demolished large servings of smoked fish, sweet buns, hot borscht, succotash, and as an experiment, a dessert of Arctic ice cream, a mixture of animal fat and berries that all agreed was better than expected but not worth repeating.
The children were given coins for the feed dispensers and went out to the attached petting zoo.
Rand asked if the troupe would be moving on and if they needed transport.
“I might,” Athena replied.”For the rest, Boudewyn has fired all the other free girls. I’m the only one not bonded in the troupe now. And it shows.”
Rand lifted an eyebrow.
“The free girls paid more attention to the dancing. The bond girls just walk through that. They want the private shows where they get tips towards buying off their bonds.
“And I think Boudewyn is pimping them out too. I joined to get away from whoring. And one of the bonded girls told me she though she was only gonna be dancin. She was right upset. But she run off.”
“What did Van Oort do bout that?”
“Nuthin. Which is downright odd. She paid out for the bond, right? Then nuthin when the girl runs off.”
“Who got the bond money?”
“Dunno. Maybe she had debts. Maybe her fam’ly got it . I bonded to get my little brother’s pilot school fees. But that was only a six month bond and I paid it off in three.”
“Dancin pays good?′
“Nope. I was bonded to a Sweet Sally. Didn’t like the work much but I faked it and made lots in tips. Nothin dangerous but there were girls who made really big tips in kink.”
“Black latex and whips?” Rand grinned.
“Doms do okay but the real money is in sub. Can cost in medical bills though and you cant afford insurance.”
“Van Oort must see those kinks with her whip routine.”
“Oh yeah, That was where she and Linnet ....”
Rand waited for her to complete her sentence. The children were feeding a lamb from a bottle of milk. The cool spring sun shone down picking up reddish glints in Derry’s hair and golden ones in Hope’s dreads. Derry was on his knees hugging the lamb, his nose buried in its soft wool. He looked up, nose wrinkling and Hope laughed.
“Linnet was bonded and so was Leah, the new girl. Boudwyn took Linnet for a private date and she never came back. The new girl got picked up for a private show, Boudewyn said.”
Rand was confused. “So?”
“Bonds are expensive, not as expensive as wages, but it’s all upfront. What if Boudewyn sold on their bonds?” Athena paused.
“But the girls didn’t say anything. And they didn’t pick up their stuff. They just disappeared.”
She rose and grabbed her leather satchel. She dropped some bills on the table. “I’m kinda scared. I’m thinkin about that body and how what was left of it mighta been Linnet.”
“You don’t know that,” said Rand.”You wanna get involved with the filth?”
Athena looked confused. “Oh, you mean the police. No, but there’s worse filth in the world. I’m gonna check. I guess the morgue would be the place to start.”
“Pert sure they won’t let just anybody walk in. And you don’t know...”
“I want a friend with me. Could you?”
“I got the kids. Let’s go back to Bluebell. Mebbee Dita or Marco will stand with you.” Rand topped up the bills on the table with coin and called the reluctant children.
Marco went with Athena to the police station. Looming silently behind her while she told her story. The police took them to the morgue.
She recognized a patten of moles, enough to tentatively identify the corpse as Linnet. She took Marco and two constables to the hotel which was holding Linnet’s belongings. The found a pawn ticket and reclaimed good jewelry which had been pawned by Boudewyn Van Oort. Preliminary DNA connected the two.
Linnet had been found.
Dita joined Marco in the cargo bay, working out on the rings, covered in sweat.
“She was a pretty thing, wasn’t she?” Dita said softly.
Marco pulled himself into a handstand on the rings and held there, face scarlet , muscles tensed.
“Athena says she’ll claim her and pay for a cremation ceremony.”
Marco swung to the floor and buried his head in a towel.
Athena turned up the next morning, a duffle slung over her shoulder. “I’m on the run,” she explained. “Boudewyn gave the police the name of Linnet’s date. She told them she had sold Linnet’s bond to him for a fat price and left.”
“She gave his name to the cops and they looked scared. They arrested Boudewyn even though she didn’t do nothin illegal.”
“I asked if they would be arresting the date as well,” Said Athena. “One of them told me I should get off-world, if I knew what was good for me. And here I am.”
Bluebell left Denpasar that afternoon. The cargo hold was only half full. The did not leave a flight plan with the port central.
“The sky is purple!” said Mamie .
“Rand mentioned that to me once,” said Dita. “The sky on Madonna is purple too. Said it had something to do with the plankton in the oceans. Guess they used the same plankton here when they seeded it.”
With the exception of the sky, Summerfair was pretty much like any agricultural world. A little greener than some, since the towns had been located near water rather than mineral deposits or prairie. The influx of refugees from Madonna running from the catastrophic failure of terraforming, had led to shortages of food and housing at first, but the refugees had brought money and skills, having left behind a once prosperous ranching and farming planet.
Rand was untying the combines.
“Do you know our contacts, Rand?”
“Wohlstand Province was resettled halfway round this moon. So, no.”
“I’ll handle the negotiations if you want sir.”
“I’m fine, Dita.”
Mamie and Marco set up a fence around the cargo door to make a safe play area for the children. Dita laid a blanket out on the hard packed dirt and basked under the low ultraviolet of the protostar that was Summerfair’s sun. Her spacer’s tan was getting pink and Mamie had to remind her to cover up before her pale skin burned.
Their buyer had sent a crew to pick up the tractors on a wheeled lorry pulling a trailer. The crew, two women and a man, were efficient about the paperwork, and Dita was able to get the machines out of the bay and payment waved to their employer, Business Solutions Unlimited, within half an hour.
‘Where are the crew for these combines?’ asked Rand. He was tense and kept striding down the dockyard road to the gate, then sChenping back to the ship.
The day wore on to afternoon and in the purple sky rose Madonna, near the horizon but looking like a mountain range beyond the skyline of the port city.
Mamie had brought some of the children’s toys outside where they would be able to run about, including a trampoline which had been stowed for weeks while the cargo bay was filled with wine, clothing, fabrics, grains, bales of herbs, and finally machinery.
The children were screaming with delight as they bounced and somersaulted about. Mamie joined them and Marco was deciding whether his dignity was more precious than the fun of bouncing.
There was only one other ship in port and it did not seem to be a family concern. From the other ship, a man much like Marco, big grim, and tough, stopped to watch the game.
“My crew. None of my get.”
“Nice tits on the eldest one.”
“Watch yer mouth. She’s the captain’s wife.”
“So not a goer.”
“Best check out the whorehouses. Our crew’s not available.”
“No harm asking. Gal rides with us, she’s allys up for it, but you get tired of the same old. And of takin sloppy seconds.”
Marco found himself surprisingly disgusted.
So you fly outta here?” the other merc continued.
“Freya. Doing the New Canaan Run on long contract. You?”
“Naw, the Walden is scrabblin for work. Know anythin open? Don’t much care what it is.”
Marco had already decided he wouldn’t pass any information along even if he knew any. He gave a negative grunt.
Rand shouted from inside the ship, “Mamie ! There’s water on the floor of the bunkie.”
Mamie jumped down from the trampoline and called to Marco, “Watch’ em?” before running into the ship.
Marco took the opportunity to nod dismissively to the Walden merc, and entered the play yard where Beege threw herself off the trampoline and climbed to his shoulders. Marco laughed.
The water leak turned out to be more serious than they expected. “At least we can afford the parts, Rand. And there’s nothin too expensive or scarce. But it’s gonna take a lotta time to get it all fixed and ready,” she told him.
“So we’re stuck here.”
“It ain’t so bad, sweetie. We’re waitin’ for the combine pickup anyways. Got the play yard set up for the minis. And this is a good world, not too dry, not too hot or cold. Trees.”
Before Rand could move to his usual grouchiness when uncomfortable or unhappy, Mamie kissed his cheek. “I gotta work on this, darlin. And Dita’s takin’ care of the customers, when they show up. Why don’t you walk around the town, see what’s doing’. Might find us our next cargo?”
Rather than walk, Rand took the land mule and the supplies list from the galley wall. Ignoring the inevitable request from Derry for a puppy, his first job was to find an art supplies shop, since both Mamie wanted craft supplies for the children. It took some searching, but after a couple of hours he found most of the items on the list. He added a large amount of glitter At a grocery, he bought some specialty condiments, including a salty yeast paste, he had rarely tasted since leaving Madonna.
As he returned to the ship, he passed a livery stable with a prominent list of prices for hourly rentals of horses and equipment. He stopped and made arrangements to rent a horse the next day.
Mamie had made good progress on the leak. It had been located, and supply to that set of pipes had been closed. Unfortunately, that meant that the rooms in the former passenger quarters, would not have the use of their commodes or of the shower room. The crew quarters, the infirmary and the kitchen were unaffected. Mamie had found the parts she needed, but not before the shop was closing. She would pick them up the next day.
“But he wants some of the Barsoom Colony parts we still got, so that’s shiny, too.’
“If you don’t need me, I think I’ll take time to ride out of town. Shake off some of this…. whatever.’
“The combine people called and apologized,” Dita reported. “Seems we landed during a religious holiday of some sort. They won’t be here till day after tomorrow. Coming in from Branson’s Mark. I offered to take the machines to them.”
“From The Mark? They won’t allow that. They got some real standoffish cult going there, has been for fifty years.” Rand complained. “And Dita, when you do meet with them, check the payment close. Them spiritual types will cheat you just because you ain’t as holy as them.’
“Whatever you say, sir.”
“Just do it.”
Rand was the only horseman as he headed out from town. All the traffic was motorized,fastcars, landmules and trucks of various types. His mount seemed used to it and paced steadily even when a group of boys in a flashy fastcar whooped by, tossing beer cans at his rump.
Once past the city limits, the personal vehicles disappeared and only occasional trucks passed, often in convoy. He saw tractors and combines in fields, too far away for greeting.
The air was green and lush. Rand had rarely smelled the like since he had left Madonna as a teenager.
Ten kilometres out of town, there was a little sign of human life, save the road itself, which was lined with bush.
The trees were mostly second growth but eighty year old patriarchs towered here and there. planted when the moon was terraformed. The sun was high and hot, the sky clear of clouds shining violet , but man and horse were cool in the shade under the canopy.
The paved road had wide unpaved shoulders, part grassed over, and Rand steered the horse to where it could move more comfortably.
“You wanna run, buddy?” Rand nudged the horse, who sped up until they were galloping along the roadside, Rand posting high in the saddle hoping to prevent sore buttocks that had not been used like this for years. The wind in his hair swept thought from his mind.
Eventually he noticed the horse’s breathing was laboured and he reined it in to a walk. He looked ahead and saw a break in the woods.
Following that side road, hardly more than a wide path, he came to a clearing with a shabby house surrounded by swept gravel.
He stopped and waited long enough for any inhabitants to look him over, then dismounted.
“Hello, the house,” he shouted. There was no response.
The children had gone inside for lunch but Marco sat on Mamie ’s chair in the sunshine, watching the Walden. The merc had left for town and no one else had come out from the ship. Walden was an Odyssey liner, larger than Bluebell but able to operate with a four man crew if necessary. Unlike Bluebell, whose cargo door lay wide open, Walden was closed up tight. There was something not right about the ship.
Marco dozed and woke with a start to the hail of the honey wagon crew. After getting a crew census, they negotiated a price for emptying Bluebell’s sewage tank and supplying fresh water. Dita arrived as they came to an agreement.
The white-suited honey wagon techs hooked up the pump to Bluebell’s valves, while the foreman crossed to buzz Walden. A tall, handsome man answered and negotiated with the foreman. Then the foreman returned an spoke with his crew. “Anybody up for a rinse and comb out?” Marco overheard.
The tech spit on the ground. “Let the filth take care of their own filth.’
The younger tech said, “Vern’s gotta point, but I need the money. Big house payment next month. Count me in.”
The foreman returned to the Walden and began negotiating again. The big man seemed angry and shouted a lot. The foreman just shrugged.
“What’s a wash and comb out?” Marco asked the techs.
“Shovel out the shit an bedding from a cargo hold been carrying animals. Hard work but okay less they’s been carrying pigs.”
“That what they was carrying? Pigs?”
“No. Worse. Slavers. Don’t let their cargo up to use the head and crowd in more bodies than they would with cattle of Horses. so the shit builds up. And they’s ally a chance of catching something. Not the zoonoses.”
“Animal diseases. They don’t pass easy to people but if one human person is sick on a slaver, you got shit and puke and pus. The slavers don’t care. At least with cows, as many as goes in , some out. We’ve found bodies in slavers from time to time. Most of the bodies gets dumped before landing though.”
“It ain’t They grab unchipped folks on some back birth world. Chip’em on board, so they can’t be identified. Any die, they didn’t pay for ’em. So they don’t care if they load 500 and deliver 300. Less food even. And if they can’t read then they sell em with labour contracts signed with a mark.”
“Say that for our captain. Rand won’t deal with slavers.”
The techs disconnected their hoses and reconnect another batch. “Just give your tanks a rinse out an you’ll think you’re shitting rosebuds.”
Updated Nov 4
Rand got a cloth from the saddle bag the stable had supplied and rubbed down the big gelding’s sides. It whickered in pleasure at his sure touch. ‘We’ll hafta find you some water, fella, Guess this place has all mod cons. Indoor plumbing, belike.’
He removed the saddle and rubbed the sweat from the animal’s back. Chickens strutted out from the porch and from the enroaching bush.
“Ugly beast, that.”
Rand swung around, his hand on his pistol. A woman, some twenty years older than Rand, holding a pitchfork stared blandly back at him. Rand relaxed slightly and so did the woman.
“We do have indoor plumbing, although we’re on advisory at the moment. I can offer the horse a drink, and boil water for tea if you want.”
“I’d purely enjoy that, m’am.”
“You’re a Madonna boy. But I don’t know you.”
“Yes’m. Randolf Hudson. I come up in Wohlstand. My ma had a ranch there.”
“She didn’t make it here, then.” It was a statement,not a question.
“Where was you at?”
OutThere. Seeking adventure. I reckon I was at Quattro when Madonna burned.’
“There’s a pump behind the house with a trough. Give your horse a drink and put him in the barn outta the sun. I’ll have tea in the house.”
She turned briskly on her heel. Rand admired her style. Madonnans didn’t waste words on what couldn’t be changed. “We change what needs changin’,” he thought wondering how much change he really had accomplished.
The farmer introduced herself as Winona. She didn’t say so, but Rand thought she lived alone. Her children, she said, had scattered, some taking academic degrees, all moving away for work. She was divorced.
“Kicked his philanderin ass to the curb when the kids was mostly grown. Weren’t much good as a farmer, a father and downright useless nights.”
“Hope my wife gives me a better report,” said Rand.
“So here I am, getting old on a farm that needs young muscle and more money than I got to make it beyond subsistence. “
“Plannin on sellin up?”
“No. Yes. I dunno. Seems stupid to keep going on. My girl wants me to come to her on Hera, my boys think I should sell up and move inta town. Closer to the church and the library.”
“Got any offers?”
“Ain’t listed. Not many young ’uns want the farm life. And a lot of the land’s gone back to bush.”
“A house,indoor plumbing, the photovoltaic are only a few years old, Andy, my youngest, had ‘em replaced when he made a bundle selling contract labour to CentraPro.’
Rand winced. Her youngest had been running slaves, whether mother knew it or not.
“House is weathertight, just needs paint. Price of timber is way down, but anyone clears it out, there’s good soil for grain or fruit.” She had been rehearsing that.
“We was ranchers, back home. Ma had twenty hands, needed all of em at drive time.”
“Felt like it was the whole world.”
“They said on Madonna you could see so far, you could glimpse God’s plan.” she poured more tea. “I sold off my stock couple years back. Only got a few sheep, a couple nannies for milk and way too many damn chickens.”
Rand accepted more tea. A bell rang outside.
“Egg man.” said Winona. The chickens were screaming at a hover mule in the gravelled yard.
The egg man ’s hover mule had a cooling unit installed. Rand helped Winona load pallets of eggs— mostly brown but some larger and blueish white. Those were counted separately and paid for in cash. The ordinary eggs were a credit transfer.
“The blue eggs a specialty, then?” he asked as the hover mule departed.
“Noticin, not talkin.”
“Some say they’s special good for pregnancy.”
“Startin and goin on.”
“That a problem here?”
“No but up to The Mark, they want babies there. Allys seems to be a problem with that.’
“Still run by Branson, himself?”
“Yeah. He’s powerful old now, course.”
Rand had learned a version of the history of Branson’s Mark in his schooldays on Madonna. Settled by a cult let by Jonah Caesar Branson in 2483, the moon was owned outright by the leader. They were basically self-sufficient, pacifists and conscientious objectors and were the subject of many scurrilous rumours about their practices.
“How often you shipping eggs?”
“Hafta send ’em fresh, so every two days this time of year. Ronnie there sells most of them from his factory, but when they’s a surplus he pasteurizes em for export.”
“He got a regular transport?”
“Catch as catch can. The bottled eggs keeps good so they kin travel.”
“I’m looking for cargo. What’s Ronnie’s company?”
“Soak et Cie. Down at the Market Square. Not everybody will take a small cargo like that.”
“We do specialty work. Not worried bout what it is.”
“You should look into labour supply. My boy done good in that.”
Rand was almost sure the old lady didn’t understand that ‘labour supply’ was a euphemism for slave trading.
“Well, Winona, I might do that. Mostly this run its been farm crops and dry goods.”
“There’s The Mark now,” said Winona, as the moon rose n the afternoon sky. “Less you want to stay for dinner, you’’d best be getting back to town.”
“If that was an invitation, I’ll have to say thanks but no thanks. I think I’m on the cooking rotation tonight and best be on the move.”
While Rand saddled the horse, Winona packed a dozen of her fresh eggs for him, refusing payment.
“Gets lonely out here sometimes. I’ve enjoyed the visit.”
Rand was thoughtful all the way home.
Marco called Dita who transferred credits to the honey wagon’s accounts. She stared across at Walden, and the big man, arms crossed, stared back.
“That the captain?” she asked the foreman.
“Honda? Yea, right bastard too. Family’s from hereabouts, but he don’t pay them no mind neither.”
The techs moved on , with the foreman shouting to Captain Honda that the would be back in about an hour to clean their bay.
The captain leaned in the side door to the bay, watching what little passing traffic there was. His eye caught Bluebell’s painted logo. He eyed Dita and Marco, shrugged and went inside.
The children were playing outside when the honeywagon techs returned. The foreman come over to Marco,who was once again supervising the children.
“You might want to take the kids away, bud. This job’ll make a horripilous stench.”
The cargo bay doors rose proving him absolutely right.
The children look appalled. The baby started to cry,’NOT me, Mawk! NO!’ she sobbed. She pulled off her panties and waved them at Marco. “NOT Me!”
“Okay Baby Girl. You’re good. All dry.” he soothed her, pick her up and patting her bare pink bum. “Derry, take yer sister inside.”
The Walden’s captain emerged again, laughing at the children’s hasty retreat. Jay’s dirty look was wasted on him.
The techs moved quickly in spite of their hazmat suits. They used wide shovels to move the bulk of the filth to the front, where it was vacuumed into a honey wagon tank. Then they used heavy push brooms for the remaining bulk.
Next came a tank mule, and hoses sprayed the walls and floors with detergent and water as the techs picked up the floor grates to expose the metal decking. Some of the filthy water dripped onto the dockyard dirt and the foreman shouted at his crew to be more careful.
Nearly two hours had passed and Branson’s Mark was rising in the late afternoon sky. The techs had stripped off their hazmat suits, trusting to the germicidal properties of the fluids.They were all red-faced and sweaty. The foreman shovelled up the wet earth where dirty fluid had landed and tossed it into the tank. He handed out sanitizing towels to his crew.
“Took you long enough,” grumbled the captain as the foreman walked up the cargo bay ramp for his pay.
“We does it right,. You could transport medical supplies that bay is so clean.”
“Well, you’ll hafta come back for yer pay. My man’s in town picking up the cash now.”
“Not gonna happen, Handy. You can pay cash or you can pay wire, but you pay or you get a tankful of stink in your nice clean hold.”
‘Handy’ glared at the smaller foreman. “C’mon, Lao, you’ve known me all our lives.”
Lao signalled his crew, who picked up their hoses. “Yep. I have. Which is why you’re payin now, fore you run off.”
The glare turned to a feral grin. “Just jesting, Lao. Gimme yer paybook.” He took the foreman’s comm and punched in payment. Lao checked the figures and entered his own acceptance codes. He nodded and turned away, signalling his men that they could pack up. The captain re-entered his ship.
“That Honda fella’s a right twisty bastard,” remarked Marco at the dinner table.
“Honda?” asked Rand. Marco filled him in on the cleansing of the Walden, interrupted by Beege’s insistent explanation, “Not me!”
“Farmer I got them eggs from is name of Honda,” said Rand. “Wonder if that is the son she’s so proud of, the one in ‘labour contracts’.”
Mamie reported that Bluebell’s water system was fixed. “Better’n new, bossman.” she said. ’The shower’s got real good pressure and the hot water is faster too.”
“But them combines is still in the hold.”
Dita nodded. “The men from Branson’s Mark are due tomorrow. Their holy days is over. we can leave as soon as we have a decent cargo for Third Rock.”
Rand was not paying attention. ’Walden sounds familiar too..’
“It’s a fairly famous book, Rand,” Dita said. “About living a simple life away from civilization.”
“That farm was …nice though,” Rand said later, sitting with Mamie in the commons after the children were in bed. “Felt good, the only noise from the chickens. Only smell the bush.”
“And the chickens.”
“The old lady needs a little help with that. She’s younger’n Marco’s Ma, reckon, but not as strong.” He sat silently, running his hand through Mamie ’s smooth hair.
“Would she like visitors again?” asked Mamie . “We might could take the kids out for a drive.”
“Wouldn’t want to impose….”
“You got her contact. Call. Ask if she needs anything from town. I’ll bake a cake, too.?
Winona was happy to have visitors. She asked Rand if he would pick up her regular order from the hypermarket, mostly staples she couldn”t grow, and her mail from the postal outlet. “You”ll save Ronnie the egg man a side trip, too.” she said happily.
Rand used the trip into town to fix a contract with Soak et Cie carrying their bottled pasteurized eggs to Third Rock . Dita called Perse to explain the new cargo. He would find them a customer for a cut of the profits. On Third Rock he had another cargo set up . “Just a simple delivery.,” he told her.
After lunch the Reynolds family, supplemented with Hope and Dita, packed into the mule with the groceries.”We look like an invading party. ” said Derry.
“More like a field of flowers,” his father said, taking in the four feRandes in their bright sundresses. He and Derry wore plain teeshirts and khaki pants.
The trip was quick and uneventful, the reception more than friendly. Winona had pulled out her best china, delicate floral cups and plates that Mamie admired enthusiastically.
“My second girl sent them from Pentangle. She wants me to move there, but I”m tied to the farm.”
“He”s not here,” said Dita sympathetically.
Winona looked confused. “You… my husband? The old bastard”s in the jar on the credenza. Took him back after he was safely dead. ”
“A moveable feast.”
Winona changed the subject. “Your littlest one likes the chickens.” Beege was following a spectacular white bird with orange wingtips and high crest around the gravelled board. She saw her parents watching and pointed, “Bubba,” she crowed.
“Not butterfly, BabyGirl, chicken.”
“How old is she?”
“She”s two nearly three,” said Mamie . “Derry is going on nine. Hope turns thirteen next month .” Mamie stopped, abashed.
Their hostess poured more tea for Mamie , but Rand demurred, asking if he could walk about.
As they returned to Bluebell, the baby sleeping, Hope and Derry playing games on their comms, Mamie asked Rand, “You like living here, doncha, sweetie?”
“See anything innerestin on your walkabout?”
“It’s overgrown, but there’s good farmland. The bush has some real timber . Outbuildings in good shape.
“Winona was say her daughter wants her to sell up and move near her.”
“Told me that yesterday.”
“Summerfair’s like to be makin money with the terraforming on Madonna.”
“It ain’t terraforming. It’s reclamation. The gravity and water’s still there. Just poisoned.”
“It”d be hard to look up at Madonna every day knowing that. ”
Rand looked at the purple sky. The Mark was halfway through its first nightly orbit. Ossemaria was rising near the horizon. And Madonna gleamed a deeper violet overhead.
The buyers had turned up as promised from Branson’s Mark. Their foreheads were grey with ashy paint, although otherwise they were immaculately clean, beardless and shaven-headed. Their in-system shuttle had just barely enough capacity for the two combines although they packed in a small CentraPro cryopac marked Bovine Sperm- With Care.
David had taken some time away from the local clinic to help Marco and Dita with the delivery. But his attempts to make conversation were shuffled off.
“You must be getting good crops to need pricey machines like these.”
“Pater Branson tells us we need them.”
“Did your holy days go well?”
“We do not speak of that to gentiles.”
“Are you hooked up with the Flying Doctors? We”re here on a regular stop for them, but I”ve not been here before.”
“We take care of our own.”
“Flying Doctors can drop in with clinics— we do vaccinations , cosmetic repair, maternity and well baby care, fertility aid.”
The older man looked interested in the last while the younger man went stiff and seemed angry.
“Tell me about the babies.”
“We handle all kinds of sexual and reproductive health concerns. I”m a certified midwife and of course Michael handles surgical care. He was lead for a heart operation at our last stop; a preemie— less’n two kilos— born with her heart outside her body. She was in surgery for four hours and when we left she was looking about. They ran an apgar and she made norRand even with all that trauma.”
“D’you see a lot of monsters.?”
David’s lips thinned. “We see a lot of sick babies with abnorRandities. Sometimes it’s a genetic thing, sometimes it’s environmental. On Strike a lot of kids are born with strange lungs. We’ve done a few replacements and they’re fine, or no worse off than anyone else there. It”s probably Bowden’s Randady but no one has pinpointed why and how it affect newborns.”
The younger man, looking angrier by the minute put his hand on his co-religionist’s arm. “Brother, we have to return by evensong.”
The older man looked embarrassed and gave a last tug to the tiedowns. Dita passed him Bluebell’s CentraPro comm and they processed payment.
The younger man nodded briskly and headed aboard. The older man whispered to David, then he too went aboard.
Within minutes, the shuttle was in the air and heading out of atmo, towards Branson’s Mark.
Dita lifted an eyebrow.
“He wanted the Flying Doctors wave. Guess they have some baby troubles.”
“They been marryin cousins for fifty years,” said Marco.“bet they got a lotta backbirths.”
By dinner time, the Flying Doctors central office has contacted Michael about doing a reproductive clinic on Branson’s Mark.
“Mamie , I’m not getting speed,’ Dita commed from the bridge.
Mamie slipped out of her hammock, where she had been hiding from her family. Privacy was hard to find in just 35 metres of spaceship with ten people aboard.
“Looks like some of these fuel cells is underpowered. They’re practically new, too.” Mamie reported.
Investigation showed that a dozen of the cells were definitely no longer producing their marked power outputs. Further investigation….
‘Hey , Dita, you better plot a course for the nearest world with a decent supply depot. Some creep passed off crappy counterfeits from Athena as real FSWs. We gotta replace them pronto if we wanna make Bernadette.’
“So how much is this gonna cost?” asked Rand at the supper table.
“We can get replacements at Kerry. But usually we can trade the done cells for recycling or retrofit. No one is gonna take this crap.” Mamie rubbed her temples in frustration.
“And there’s layover time.”
“That’s not a problem, Rand,” said Dita. “Waved Bernadette and got quotes on new and retro fit cells. Not much difference in price and if Mamie does the buying we should get a good deal on quality goods.’
With Mamie ’s charm and expertise,she made a formidable bargainer. It didn’t hurt that many merchants were disconcerted by the tough bargaining from a pretty teenager.
“It’s my fault, captain,” said Mamie . I should have installed ’em myself. Check the readings better.”
“We thought we were getting a good price on them at the Athena Bazaar.” Rand kissed the top of his wife’s head. She smiled up at him. “So, Kerry. We been there before right?′
“Not since our honeymoon, sir.’ said Dita.
Michael’s husband, David, looked from Dita to Rand in shock. The rest of the crew laughed.
“We done a job there and then got pinched,” Rand explained. “Me and Dita tried passing as newlyweds innocently honeymooning. That din’t go so good.”
“If we plan on an overnight on Kerry, and a two day layover, Mamie, would fresh cells give up any benefit?’ Rand finished.
“Not really. Faster than we been going, but not three days worth.”
“Well, needs must.” said Rand.
Dita took her daughter, Hope, to the bridge to observe the course correction for Kerry. While the pilot seems to work on instinct so quickly did her mind do the calculations, Hope went step by step, but had already, at twelve, surpassed Rand as a pilot.
Bluebell limped into port at Hancock on Kerry. Fortunately the bad fuel cells were not powering the landing gear and Dita set her down precisely.
Immediately, pilot and engineer set out on the mule. The first supplier didn’t have the FSW cells he had promised and tried pass off the same kind of counterfeits they had already purchased. The second had Miracle-made cells and would take their fakes but for scrap only. The third had real FSW cells, but would not accept the counterfeits even as trash. They would have to pay the dump to accept the hot cells.
“I’m happy with the Miracle cells. We been using them mostly anyways. They do real good work, them little guys.” Mamie opined.
“Strange folk,” mused Dita. “Hairy. I swear even the women shave twice a day.”
They were able to load two fuel cells on the mule and the merchant agreed to deliver three more to Bluebell the next morning. Mamie could remove the bad cells overnight for pickup and, with Marco acting as muscle, install the new ones in about three hours.
“So we can be Out There tomorrow night, every thing going as planned,” Mamie smiled in satisfaction.
“As planned,” Dita did not sound as sure.
A roar interrupted the bustle of the shipyard. “That’s an Odyssey. Don’t see many of them on little worlds like this,” remarked David.
“We did a cruise on one when I was about fourteen,” Michael told him. “My father was furious with my mother most of the time. We didn’t know why, but I later learned she had lost a lot of money at mahjong. I just remember there was a wave pool and most of the cabin stewards gathered there after shifts.” His husband raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t even know they were flirting with me, honey. I was only fourteen.”
“I remember fourteen. Us sly boys used to ride out to inspect the herds. Mostly inspected each other. Don’t think I ever had so much cock in my life since.”
“Not even?” asked Michael, running his hand through David’s long smooth hair.
“We’re not teenagers, daddy-ji. And there’s just two of us. Get five or six horny teens together and there ain’t no end to the amount of fucking that goes on. My ass was sore that whole summer.”
Marco stomped down the ramp and joined them. “Ain’t that the Walden we saw on Summerfair? She followin’ us?”
“She was going to Branson’s Mark when we left for Bernadette. Picking up some of the Bishop’s boys for their wanderjahr,” replied Michael.
“This is a dumb place to come if you want to see life. Why not a Central world or even someplace with cities like Bernadette or Freya?”
“I suppose anything is exotic if you’ve spent your whole life on Branson’s Mark.”
“Where’s Rand at?”
“He went to the post office to talk to Macharia about the delay. Should be back any time.”
Owner Macharia was not particularly upset about the delay but reminded Rand that some of the foodstuffs aboard were being bought for the New Year’s Festival. Rand didn’t think that would be a problem, but asked for reminders to be sent to Bluebell about Standard Year deadlines for Bernadette.
It was all too easy for timelines to get confused Out There, where each world visited had its own clock, its own calendar. Some moons turned to face their planets twice or three times in 25 Standard Hours. Some worlds revolved around the suns in less than 100 Standard Days, some took more than 1500. The Standard Day of 25 hours and the Standard Year of 350 days allowed ships to keep schedules, but rarely had much to do with daily life, even on Third World whose actual year was over 400 Standard days and which spun on its axis every 30 hours/
As he left the communications centre, he saw a face he recognized. And not one he was happy to see.
Bluebell had parked next to the Walden on Summerfair, and the foreman of the honeywagon crew that had emptied the waste tanks of both ships had argued with the captain, Andy Honda, a Summerfair native he had known for many years. The foreman had told Rand that Honda was a ‘labour contractor’, a euphemism for a slaver, who traded in bonded labour.
And there was Captain Honda, swaggering down the main drag of Kerry, followed by a gang Rand did not recognize.
The pirate checked his comm and beckoned his crew to follow him into the offices of Corone Mining, a multi-storey building faced in fine white stone. Rand watched the door for a few minutes then crossed the street and looked inside.
There was no trace of the pirate crew in the spacious lobby. After looking at the display that flashed pictures and contact information of the executives who were in their offices that day, Rand strolled to the reception desk.
The receptionist could have been a retired sumo. He wore a smart business suit, vast amounts of gray silk, custom cut to fit his enormous shoulders. He even wore his hair neatly oiled and bound in the traditional sumo style.
“Can I help you, sir,?” he asked in a deep baritone.
“I thought I saw…” Rand flashed his most charming smile. “A guy offered me work in a bar last night.. I didn’t get his name… I had a wave but it don’t work. But I think I saw him come in here. Does he work for Corone?”
The sumo looked at him sceptically, “No name? We do most of our recruiting at Labour Boards here or off-world through labour contractors.”
“Big guy, bout my height, blond curly hair? He was with a skinny bald guy and someone with a long black pigtail.”
The sumo gave Rand a flat look. “Certainly no one who works here.”
“Darn,” said Rand. “I’m really hurting for work. This was the best lead I’ve had in weeks.”
“Perhaps if you didn’t do your job search in bars,” said the sumo. “Look, buddy, I know it’s tough in this economy but stay away from that guy.”
“I’m needing work real bad, friend,” Rand put a little whine into his voice. “The guy said there was a hiring bonus I’d get. He said he’s pay me upfront for my contract. And I owe some guys. Pretty rough guys , you know? I know about the sickness, but they tell me Corone supplies the meds to control it, so I’m willing.”
“Yeah, buddy, Corone do,” the receptionist sighed. “But only to their own hires. That Honda is a labour contractor. They ain’t required to spend money on contracted workers. Corone pays him. And bonded workers don’t get the meds. Or paid really.”
Rand paused. “Oh, slavers. Should guess, my luck bein. Thanks ,friend, I owe you a beer.”
“I don’t indulge. Go up to Strike. Ask at the mine face there. And be sober when you do. Work for wages. Don’t try for a big score. TANSTAAFL.”
As Rand left the lobby he could hear the big receptionist sigh.
Dita and Michael listened to Rand’s story carefully.
“Some of the Branson’s Mark boys are supposed to be on board Walden for their wanderjahr.”
“Anyone say anything about them boys ever returning?”
“It’s a pretty closed community. No one said whether they do or don’t. I believe that kind of cult tend to have surplus males.”
“And teenagers, twentysomethings are the most difficult to control,” added Dita.
“I’m making a call. said Rand. “What was the name of the Sheriff in Strike?’
“Sir, he knows about our little difficulty.’
“And that we didn’t actually get away with anything. I think we had a moment.”
“Fifteen years ago. Who knows if he’s still sheriff? And he said he had the sickness. He may not even be alive.”
“This Honda tried to kill me and steal Bluebell. And he’s been walking the spacelanes free ever since. All I want is to tell my story to someone who might be able to clean off his stain.. Failing that, a dark night and a lonely alley.”
“I’d start with the alley.” said Marco entering the galley and pouring himself tea.
“We’re a strictly legal crew these days, Marco,” Dita reminded him. “And there may still be some fallout from your little adventure in whoremongering on Brightside.”
“Yeah, you gave ‘head’ a whole new meaning there,” chuckled Marco.
“Could you not…” choked Michael.
“Cause of slicing that other damn girl’s head clear off,” Marco continued.
“I’ll take the shuttle up the line to Strike,” said Rand. “Dita?’”
“I’m staying here with Hope. If you get taken, Bluebell will still be secure.’
“I’ll go , Rand,’ said Michael.”I look respectable and I can give you moral support.”
“Worse comes to worst, they ignore me.”
At Strike, the sheriff been retired by a promotion to provincial judge. His former deputy, a stocky woman of about fifty, remembered Rand.
“Sheriff thought justice was done when he chased you off. I’m still not so sure. But statute of limitations has run out. You can find the judge’s chambers up the road to your left. Away from the mine face.”
“Megwich,” said Michael.
The sheriff broke a smile. “What clan are you?”
“My husband is from Turtle Island. He’s Wood Bison Clan.”
The sheriff looked happier with the men. “My grandmother was from Turtle Island. She was Beaver Clan. Rest of the family are from Anson but originally from East Canada on Old Earth”
“David is back at Hancock . He’ll be sorry he didn’t come with us. He loves to find someone who speaks the old language.”
“No, I gotta disappoint him there. We didn’t have any elders to teach us. Pert well died out.”
The judge’s chambers were upwind of the mine face. Judge Muir didn’t know Rand’s name but he remembered his face.
“No one can look that innocent and be an honest man,” he told Rand.
Rand spread his hands. “Times change?”
Muir grunted. “So this time you’re searching me out. What’s it about?”
“You heard of Branson’s Mark? It’s a moon of Madonna.”
“Madonna I heard of. Been a black rock long since : natural disaster. Horrible.”
’’I come up there. There’s a start being made on restoring it.”
“How does this affect Kerry?”
“Madonna don’t. The Mark belongs to a fella name of Branson, who runs a cult of followers. His own religion, eh?”
“Lotta those around. Not many have a whole moon though.”
“We was there a few weeks back. Doc here is with the Flying Doctors and did a clinic.”
“We have our own hospital. Corone Hospital-Strike. Got a whole wing just doing respiratory research.”
“I’m not looking for work,” Michael said.
“We left the Mark after Michael gave them some bad news.” The judge had a ‘I’m not surprised’ expression.
“Then we spotted something odd. The boys from The Mark do a wanderjahr. Go out and see something of life, the universe, whatever.” The judge looked impatient.
“Well, we saw them and the whole family of a trusty man on Summerfair in charge of a guy with a local reputation as a slaver. And then we saw that guy here- at Hancock- at the Corone Mining offices.”
“Hancock is a Corone town. Hells, this is a Corone world. What are you getting at?”
“We think the Marksmen were being sold here.”
“Corone does buy labour contracts. Bond labour ain’t illegal. Guys sign up for the upfront money, work a few years for room and board, come out with a nice stake. Start a family, go homesteading on one of the new worlds.”
“Forced bondage is.”
“How you going to prove that? Corone would want signed proof of the bond and match it to the bondsman’s chip.”
“The Marksmen wouldn’t have chips. Part of their beliefs,” said Michael. “If you were willing to look into this shipment of bondsmen, I think you would find the chips don’t match the boys’ stories.”
“Take the money then tell the police that the chip is not your chip?”
“Well,” Michael shrugged. “I have some experience with forged chips. I’d be able to tell you if they were counterfeits. Probably, anyway.”
Rand looked at Michael with admiration. “Lookit you, doc. Teetering off the edge of respectability.”
The judge laughed.
“Look , we got those folks into this fix. I’m asking you to give them a choice in their futures.” Rand said.
“Like I say, bond labour ain’t illegal.”
’ “ And I repeat, it is if it’s coerced. All I’m saying is, ask the boys their names and origins. Check that against their chips. If it all matches, I’m wrong. If I’m right, you and Corone Mining get the honour of breaking up a slaving ring.”
The judge looked levelly at Rand, who met his eyes straight on.
“Corone has to look good in all this.” he said.
“I ain’t saying anything different.”
Muir called his clerk in. “Call the sheriff and ask her and a couple of deputies to meet me at the bunkies. And make out a search warrant….?” He looked to Rand for guidance.
“The ship name is Walden. The captain is Andrew Honda. The only names we know for the slaves is George and Charlotte. They got two young kids, boy of twelve and a girl of ten. They got older boys and they may be with the wanderjahr bunch.”
“All from Brendon Mark?”
“B R A N S O N’ postrophe S Mark”
Walden had settled on a pad near the bunkhouses for bonded labourers. When the sheriff and her men, accompanied by Doctor Chen, arrived, the labour manager was processing his new workers.
“Geez Handy, where d’you find these yokels? They all act like stunned oxen.”
“Strong young farm boys, Ravi. Hard workers. You’ve had ’em before . May be dumb as oxen, but plenty strong.”
“Yeah, yeah, but did this bunch get their shots? The last bunch one is pretty well all dead cause they didn’t get the shots.”
“They got all the medicine they need. Move it along, will ya, Ravi? There’s a girl waiting for me back in Hancock.”
The sheriff interrupted, “Ravi, I got a complaint about this intake. Mind if I ask the boys a few questions.?”
Ravi looked impatient but waved the sheriff towards the young men, standing with their packs a few metres away. Honda was less accepting. “Whaddya want with ’em. They’s just bondsmen. All the paperwork is done.”
“Doctor Chen?” the sheriff said calmly, ignoring Honda. “Would you check their chips?”
Michael used a police reader to read the chips . He noticed that all the men had proud flesh around the site of the implanted IDs, indicating that they were new.
The sheriff was asking the boys their names and home worlds. All said Branson’s Mark and one of the boys, less dozy than the others, told her this was part of their religious training, going off-world to test their faith. “Many return?” asked the sheriff. The boy was silent.
Michael showed the sheriff the report. None of the information on the chips matched what the boys had told her.
“Where are George and Charlotte?” asked Michael. The boy said. “They stopped at Summerfair. Captain Honda told us they would meet up with their kids later. When we get picked up in three months.”
Ravi looked startled. “Your contracts are for three years. We don’t bother with anything shorter.”
“No, Bishop Branson told us we would be spreading the word here for three months.”
“Good thing I got a search warrant for the ship,” muttered the sheriff. “How old are the kids?”
She found the boy locked in a passenger cabin, desperately worried about his sister and his parents, none of who he had seen since they were forced onto the Walden at Branson’s Mark.
His sister was in a crew cabin, naked and terrified. When Michael tried gently to clean her wounds, she screamed.
The sheriff arrested the entire crew for kidnapping and the crewman who had taken the girl for rape. “We’ll get to the slaving charges as soon as we figure out who knew what the boys Honda brought in were.”
Handcuffed, Honda was being escorted into the Strike jailhouse as Rand lounged against a lamp post, watching.
“Good to see you again, captain,’ Rand said. Honda looked at him blankly. Obviously he had no memory of Rand or of Bluebell.
MEETING OF INDEPENDENT TRADERS
Nones Five had completed terraforming and opened for settlement three years earlier, but only a few homesteaders had made their way to the moon, which had little farmland and many seas both salt and fresh.
There was a Home World government in place, which stuck close to the first settlement, named unimaginatively Capital City, while the bureaucrats drew maps and portioned out land for the pioneers who would be arriving over the next few years.
Dita Aglukak brought the news of an Independent Traders Reunion scheduled for Nones Five two months ahead. “They got a quiet place halfway round the moon from Capital City and at the bottom of an old crater. A river runs through it for fresh water and there’s lots of flat space to park ships.”
Dr. Michael Chen asked, “Why would it be necessary to plan so far in advance? Surely you traders meet often all over the system.”
“We’ll get prolly half or more of the Independent Traders coming together. We don’t do it too often, in case we’re noticed. And we can’t do it for long. More’n a week and the powers might notice they ain’t no commerce happenin.” Rand Hudson, captain of the transport freighter Bluebell replied.
“And not all the Traders is as strictly legal as us,” added Marco Majumdar, the ship’s stevedore. “I usta run with a gang....”
“We know about your pirate days, Marco,” Dita said. “If you hadn’t found us, you’d be dead by now.”
“I can handle any trouble that comes my way!”
“Those idiots you ran with would’ve put you all in jail within six months. Or dead from pissin off some warlord even sooner.” said Rand.
“Or ravaged with some dread disease,” chimed in Mamie Dieudonné, ship’s mechanic and wife to the captain.
“Would the Reunion organizers like to have a medical clinic on site?” asked Michael. “We can set it up with the Flying Doctors easily enough this far in advance.”
“The Reunion ain’t big on papertrails.” Rand told him. “Some of the Traders are near on invisible and like things that way.”
“We can work around that,” David Commanda, Michael’s nurse, said confidently. “You’d be surprised how much of our work is confidential, especially at the higher levels of society.”
“What does that make the Traders? Dregs?” asked Marco huffily.
“C’mon Marco. Snake is gonna be there. He gets a crick in his grubby neck lookin up to dregs.”
Bluebell was one of the first ships to arrive and was greeted with delight, since her hold was filled with hundreds of portapotties. Each ship had its own plumbing system of course, but enough Traders were expected to make up a community of fifty thousand if not more.
Rand had bought the new huts in the expectation that he could sell them on after the Reunion some to other Traders, but most to the new settlements and to small entrepreneurs.
“All we need to do is clean em out good and we got a little gold mine here.” he told the crew confidently.
Marco and Dita hired a crew of youngsters to place the portapotties around the gathering site. They promised the lads more work monitoring the huts during the Reunion.
“The pay for cleaners is highest,” Dita explained to the kids. “You’ll get assigned to a bank of huts that will be your responsibility.”
“And we’ll be charging a piastre to use ’em so I need pairs to empty the lockboxes,” added Marco. “That don’t pay as good, and those report to me, personal.” He didn’t bother looking tough, his quiet tone was terrifying enough.
Mamie and the children were setting up their security fence around Bluebell. It looked like a simple bamboo partition not quite a metre high but was reinforced with metal. When real security was needed. It could also be electrified, but most of the time it just provided a safe spot for Baby Girl to play.
As she tossed a ball a the fence to test the electrification, Mamie saw a vaguely familiar face among the teens seeking work from Dita and Marco.
“Sou-fen! Ain’t this a stitch!” she cried out and the woman they had met years ago with Travellers seeking work as farm labourers on Indigo turned in puzzlement.
“I’m sorry I know your face, but I don’t know where we met.” she confessed.
“Right here on Bluebell. I’m Mamie. Them’s Dita and Marco.”
”You’re the engineer. And there was a little boy,” Sou-fen said tentatively.
“My boy Derry, ages with yours. I gotta new Baby Girl since then,” Mamie waved her hand at BG who was digging in an anthill. “Your three doin good?”
“Not too good. We’re still together but it’s still tough. Kids eat more when they’re older . And my eldest...” she laughed uncomfortably.
“Come and share a pot of tea. I made scones earlier, too,” Mamie took Sou-fen’s hand and urged her up the ramp.
“I...thank you but I’m really here to get a job. One of the cleaning jobs that pay best.”
“No worries! They’s our shithuts and Marco’ll be happy to have you” She waved to get Marco’s attention. “Put down Sou-fen here. She’ll be good.” Marco nodded and waved back.
“Does he remember me?” Sou-fen asked anxiously.
“Doubt it, but if you ain’t good he’ll fire you, so takin you on is no problem.” She led her friend up the ramp.
“Uh, Mamie, the baby,” Sou-fen said.
“Oh yea, c’mon Beege,” Mamie ran down and carried the toddler inside.
Sou-fen said her family had stayed with the Travellers for two harvest seasons. Then, when one of the men asked to marry her daughter, had left them on the more urban world of Quattro.
“How old are your kids now,,” asked Mamie adding cheese, hummus and jam to the scones and tea on the galley table.
“’Now they’s seventeen, fourteen and ten. But Bing was twelve at the time. Liam, the leader thought it was a good match.”
“So y’all left.”
“Which was a mistake. We only had enough for one room and city folk want papers to give out jobs. There warn’t nuthin for the kids to do and all I could find was some housecleanin.
“Then I met a guy.... well, it didn’t go good and he left us on..... . I heard about the Reunion....′
“How? The Traders is pretty tight about it.”
“Call it pillow talk. I was making scratch where I could.” she looked defiant.
“No worries. How’d you get here?′
“Warmed a bed, cooked. He brung us with him, but he’s gotta couple of wives and husbands already and they don’t want more fam’ly”
“So now you’re lookin for work again?′
“Cleaning out the potties is all that’s come up so far. But all four of us can do that, if you’ll take us on. And I’ll look for other work while I’m here.”
Mamie had thought life on Bluebell was hardscrabble, but compared to Sou-fen she had been living like a Home World vedette with a loving husband, solid friends and a warm place to sleep. And she had work she loved. Since the medics had been flying with them, they even had a steady income that kept them flying.
“So, where are you stayin?”
“Dunno. Thought we could camp out.. I got a tent and bedrolls.”
“But we got empty cabins. So you can stay with us.”
“I won’t take charity.”
“I can’t let a friend sleep out in the cold when we got empty beds,” Mamie said firmly. Rand had planned to rent the passenger cabins to Traders who were between ships, but she would deal with that later.
Rand was surprised to meet four new faces around the dinner table, more so when he learned they were new employees and none would be paying rent. He took his wife’s decision in stride and welcomed them politely enough.
“Do you remember us at all?” Sou-fen asked.: “This is my baby Rance, he’s ten and my girl Bing, she’s fourteen and Lazlo is seventeen.”
Rand nodded at the youngsters and shook Lazlo’s hand. Although Sou-fen’s family had been labouring for their living, the boy’s hands were soft.
“Not sure that lad is gonna preciate any work he’s given.” he told Mamie later.
“Keep Marco on his tail, he’ll learn how to work,” she replied.
Lazlo was assigned to a bank of portapotties behind what would be an entertainment district in the instant town the Reunion had formed. Two bars and a brothel would provide most of the business, and Dita made sure there were extra hands assigned to keep the huts clean and collect fees.
Lazlo’s laziness showed early. His workmates complained to Marco that he was never around at cleaning time, but always on hand when fees and tips were being collected.
Marco made an effort to keep an eye on him, and even spoke to Rand about firing the boy.
“Mamie’s girlfriend’s baby boy? If I fire him, I’d never get laid again.” Rand protested.
The boy also annoyed the medics, hanging about when they were in the ship’s commons, trying to make conversation even when they were discussing cases or whispering sweet nothings before bedtime. Michael was getting quite upset with his pushy behaviour. But David was just amused. “A kid trying to be an adult, daddy-ji. Give him some space to learn.”
Marco and Michael both spoke to Mamie about the boy and Mamie spoke to his mother.
“I seriously don’t know what to do with him. When I try to get him to work, he just tells me I’m not his mother, which is true enough though I brought him up from six years alone and really even before that.”
Mamie knew that only one of Sou-fen’s children was her biological. She and the kids had been abandoned by her polyamorous spouses a decade before and she had been keeping them together ever since. Now adolescence was tearing them apart.
“Mebbee the best thing is to let him go. Might be time. I went to see about working at the Sweet Sally,” said Sou-fen. “They didn’t want me as a whore, but might take me on as a cleaner. Then I mentioned the kids.”
Mamie saw that her friend was depressed by the rejection. Sou-fen had been trading her body for food and housing for her family for years. But she was not young and hard work and worry showed in her ashy skin tone and lined face.
“You got more to offer than that, girlfriend.” Mamie told her. “You can cook good and...
“And nothing. I left school when I got married. Got no papers. Done nuthin but raise kids, clean houses, and pick crops. Guess they was right to leave me, I got nuthin to offer.”
But the crew discovered Sou-fen’s talent that evening at dinner. Mamie was on the cooking rota, and was happy to allow her friend to make a ‘special thank you dessert’. She had been on the morning shift for cleaning potties, and the workers were paid daily at the end of their shifts. She had taken some of her family’s wages to buy baking supplies.
She made banana cream pies topped with sugared banana chips, salty roast almonds and whipped cream.
Having arrived early, Bluebell was parked in the entertainment district of Reunion Town, across the dirt street from a quiet family restaurant and a tavern that had found a business client base.
A few lots away was the large tent of the Sweet Sally. The chain of brothels had been turning up at most spaceports and sometimes in tourist towns. Rand had seen over two dozen of them on various worlds. Marco had visited most and reported that they were clean and well run. “At any rate, I ain’t picked up the crud from them and they change the sheets regular.”
There were other brothels, but it was obvious that Sweet Sally was the name brand when Marco found a Soursop Susi and a Salty Sam doing business in the further reaches of the town.
“Is Salty Sam for men?” asked David.
“They all are.... oh, no they got rentboys though. I didn’t really notice. Even Sweet Sally does.”
Dr. Chen looked disapprovingly at his lover.
“I was just asking, daddy,-ji” David said. “I don’t have any plans to visit.”
Rand spent most of the Reunion with other captains exchanging news and warnings. He settled on a dining tent with good beer as a meeting place. On their third day, however, he spotted a familiar and unwelcome face.
Snake Pollard was unmistakable. Fully two metres tall, he barely weighed sixty kilos, most of it in legs and arms. He move gracefully, even sinuously, slipping between tables with an eye on Rand.
“The bastard captain of the friggin Bluebell,” he cried out, his grin revealing very white teeth.
“Snake, “Rand responded, carefully. The man may have been unpleasant, but he often had good paying jobs. And just as often dangerous ones. Rand had worked for him a few times since the kidnapping of Hope and of Snake’s stepdaughter, Vicki Pollard, but still mistrusted him.
“Saw the ship but that pretty bird of yours said you weren’t home”
Rand regarded him stonily.
“Don’t be difficult Rand. I got a job needs doin right up your alley.”
“Okay, spill. But we got a pretty full hold already.”
’I need cabins. A couple of Sally’s girls are goin back to the main house to have babies and I hear you got a midwife aboard.”
“True. Whatya mean ‘a couple’, don’t your employees take contras?′
“Well, yeah, course. What good’s a whore who’s outta commission? But we got a cheap batch that turned out bad and now we gotta deal with it.”
“Surprised you didn’t just fire ’em for dereliction of duty.”
“Problems of friggin success, Rand, milad. The girls got themselves a union. Fire one and they all go on strike. And the bureaucrats is all over you. Injunction, audits, boards of enquiry.”
“So you gotta take care of them?”
“I would anyways, whattya think I am?” Rand looked skeptical. “Hey, they chose to stay pregnant and they been working down to the wire. Makin good money too. Pervs pay extra for their kink. Anyways, whaddya say?”
“Room and board. A cabin for each one, eat with the crew. And let them know they don’t hafta service crew.”
“Works. Marco still with ya then? The ladies actually like him for some reason.”
“Huh. David Commanda’s the midwife, they should talk to him too. We’re here to the end of the Reunion, then we got another day to clean and store the loos.”
Three Sweet Sally women turned up that afternoon. Two others were expected, but had decided to keep working until the last minute.
“Strong work ethic,” laughed Lotus Blossom,who had a deeply tanned complexion and hair dyed a variety of yellows and oranges. “They want all the tips they can get. Maybe enough to change jobs,” Rose Red ,who had dropped on the commons chesterfield with a sigh, sneered, “Too dumb for other work.”
The third girl, who sported a bruised face was silent. She found her cabin and closed the door t behind her.
“Don’t,” Lotus warned Marco, who looked concerned. “Stay out of it.”
Marco stowed the passengers’ baggage and left to supervise the afternoon shift change. “Lazlo! You plannin on workin t’day?” he yelled and the teenager trudged after him, looking back at the whores.
“Rand!” a deep voice roared over the tumult in a beer garden set up where a wholesale market had established itself.
Rand was pleased to see his old friend ‘Butters’ Margolin beckoning him from the middle of the tent.
Butters was at the top of a long table, papers and several comm stations stacked in front of him. His first mate, a man even bigger than Butters’ two metres, but thin rather than broad, sat on his left, his fingers dancing on claviers and passing paper notes to runners.
Butters was sole owner of a large spaceship, Pretty Baby, a Samson T-300, once a Home World personnel transport, used to carry troops doing their Patriotic Service, when youngsters fresh out of school were automatically drafted to complete terraforming before actual settlement. Many draftees would never leave the newly opened worlds, finding patrners and settling down far from the Home Worlds, using their built up wages as a stake on a homestead or a business or to join a kibbutz.
The draft has ended more than a decade ago and now Butters had come into sole possession of such a valuable ship was a mystery. Rand knew most of the bitter story, but respected his friend’s silence.
“How’s business, Butters?” Rand asked politely. He knew Butters had parlayed his single ship into a dozen in the past five years. Amazingly, Margolin had maintained a reputation for fair dealing and promise keeping.
“Fair to middlin,′ the big man allowed, enveloping Rand, who was ten centimetres shorter, in a bear hug. “Aw, hell, now! Things is great! Run off my feet with work and lookin to spread it around. You lookin for work?”
“Always, but I gotta hold full of used shit huts when I leave here less I can peddle ’em off.”
“You runnin those? Great idea!” Butters was incapable of anything but enthusiasm. “Lemme think on that, Zaydim, make me a note on it. How many you got?”
“Bout a hunnert. Marco’s got a squad keeping them clean so they shouldn’t be too putrid.”
“Whatcha doin for honeywagon service?”
“All worked out. Super Sucker Simpson is takin it all. He’ll compost the....”
“Nightsoil,” said Zaydim primly.
“Yeah, compost it and sell it on as fertilizer to CentraPro’s terraforming sector.”
“And your ladies? “ Butters enquired cocking his shaven head.
“Mamie’s fine. I only see her when she turns up at dinner, squeakin about some new thingdoody some ship’s engineer has been showin her. Dita’s Dita. She ain’t complaining so I guess she’s fine.”
Dita had many admirers among the Traders and when she was not supervising the portapotty cleaners or collecting fees, she had been enjoying the generous company of several men, as well as a couple of women. Hope was old enough not to need supervision and Dita had nothing on the duty rota that week. She came by to drop off cash, but did not sleep in her own bed the whole week.
“She’ll come home with a goofy grin and walkin funny, “ said Marco.
Hope knew she had been conceived at a Reunion, and that her mother had no idea who her father might be. “It’s Reunion, nobody asks names,” she said.
“And your son and daughter?” asked Butters.
“Growin like weeds. I think we feed that boy too much. Hope’s right bright. Dita’s gonna hafta think about her schoolin real soon. She ain’t mine, y’know but I;m happy to be taken for her daddy.”
“Right, the mystery of Hope.”
Rand laughed. “Sounds like one of Mamie’s stories. No mystery. Dita just lets her hair down at these Reunions. She more likely to be yours.”
“I’ve never had the pleasure. Perhaps one day,” sighed Butters. “A fine woman.”
“And a great pilot. Training Hope up in her bootstraps. She’s already doing interworld bridge watch on rota. Hows your....crew?”
If Butters noticed the hesitation, he politely ignored it. “Don’t really know half of ’em . More employees than crew outsida Pretty Baby. And we just lost our cook. Some bastard seduced him out from under me. They’re gettin married Last Day in the four o’clock Ceremony. So if you know a decent cook?”
“No help, we have dinners on the rota when we’re dirtside. Gives Marco a break. Mamie’s cooking this week. Come to us one night?”
“Don’t know when I can.”
“Drop in. Mamie’d love to see you. And you might get a chance with Dita if she’s home.”
“Fine woman , that. I’ll come. I’m sure I’ll have business for you anyway.”
“Great, bring Zaydim if you like.”
The assistant nodded quietly, pleased to be included.
Zaydim commed late the next afternoon asking if it would be convenient for Butters and him to take up Rand’s invitation.
Mamie took the call, just as she arrived from a pleasant day spent rebuilding a catalytic decompression drivetrain in an almost new Peregrine Q404 owned by a trader she had met inside another engine a few days before.
“No, that’d be great! Lookin forward to see’n Butters and meeting you!” Mamie told him. She skipped to the galley where Sou-fen was emerging from the showers, after a long day cleaning porta-potties.
“I got two more for dinner. Rand invited em. What’ll I make?”
“Two more?” Sou-fen said in dismay, “That’s ...um.. my family is four, and your crew plus kids six more, and the medics, two more, and the whores is three-- seventeen all told.′
“I hadn’t thought a that. Wha d’we have in store?”
Sou-fen had been helping Mamie in the kitchen, once she had revealed her skill as a baker. The day before she had rearranged the galley, finding food no one remembered buying.
“Good until... huh, still got six years on it,” Mamie had said. “Okay, we’ve got tofu and seaprotein cubes. Frozen peas, sweet potatoes...”
“There’s rice natch, apples onions , garlic, canned beans, dry lentils...”
“Frozen chicken pieces-- good we’ll use those for main. There’s lots.′
Mamie put the chicken in the defroster and drained cans of chickpeas. Sou-fen peeled sweet potatoes and chopped onions.
Lotus Blossom waddled in from her cabin and was drafted to set the long table. Mamie told her where to find her good, actually only, table cloth , a wedding present from one of her sisters-in-law. “She done the embroidery her own self.” Mamie said. “She’s no good at it, bless her, but it’s the thought.”
“Let’s serve Russian style,” said Sou-fen. Two blank looks. “We put the stuff on plates for each person and give ’em the plates. Everyone gets fair shares. Then they can come to the counter for seconds. Kay, Mamie?”
“You’re the boss. I ain’t never fed this many at once before. And I’m no great cook either.”
Sou-fen smiled and kissed her friend. “It’s just being organized.”
Sou-fen turned lentils and onions into a starter course of dhal soup, and hummus for dipping. Derry wandered in from playing and was given an apple and some money.
“Go to the baker’s stand and get pita- about twenty loaves.” his mother told him “And when you get back, shower,” she surveyed his daily quota of cuts and bruises. “What have you been playing at all day?” Derry escaped before she demanded a real answer.
Sou-fen turned cabbage, carrots and more onion into cole slaw. The chicken and sweet potatoes, herbed, garlicked and swimming in olive oil went into the oven.
“What’s onion jam?” Mamie asked, looking at the oddments found in the clean out.
“Just the thing with the tofu and seaprotein.” Sou-fen exclaimed pulling out a wok to fry the cubed tofu. “I put three fruit pies in the freezer yesterday. Guess they’ll have to come out.
The frozen peas went into the microwave, ready to heat when everyone had arrived.
“Okay, done,” said Sou-fen smiling happily just as the crew and passengers arrived from their busy days.
Marco and Dita set up a small table to count the day’s take from the porta-potties. When Rand arrived he took the heavy bags of coin off for storage and Hope rearranged the little table for the children’s meal.
Butters and Zaydim arrived soon after with huge bouquets of cut flowers for Mamie and Dita. The women were overwhelmed by such an extravagant gift.
“Where’d he even find them,” Dita whispered to Marco.
Only sixteen sat down to dinner, since the third prostitute was still stayig in her room. Lotus asked Dr. Chen about her condition and was told the beating had not harmed her pregnancy, but she would need help to regain her trust.
“They hiring?” asked Sou-fen hopefully, passing around the filled plates.
“Prolly not,” Lotus replied. “It’s about changeover time. And the Reunion was basically a stopover.”
Butters had been talking business with Rand and Dita as he drank his soup, but paused to smile at Sou-fen. “When did you join Bluebell, ma’am?′ he asked her.
Rand said, “She’s not crew. Mamie invited her and her kids to stay with us during the Reunion. The Sankawulos have been working on the loos, too. An’ Sou-fen cooked our supper tonight.′
“What’s the brown stuff?” Butters asked.
“Tofu in onion jam. It’s better if we had broccoli but this is passable.” Sou-fen murmered.
“Passable-- little lady, you made tofu taste good! That’s genius, that is,” Butters laughed.
The rest of the party agreed with Butters, congratulating Sou-fen on the meal.
“And she did it since she come home three hour ago and the only thing that didn’t come outta the cupboard was the pita. Which... Derry did you bring home change?” Mamie asked.
Derry looked startled, and jumpin up from the children’s table brought his mother a handful of change and a receipt.
“This is your boy, Rand?” said Butters. “He’s got your weird eyes. “And the pretty girl is yours, Aphrodite.?”
Dita nodded, “Hope.”
The willowy preteen looked up and waved shyly.
Conversation moved on and Sou-fen brought out her apple pies. “Skyhigh Apple Pie.” she announced, indicating a streusel topped pie a full 10 cm high at the centre. “Catchaman Pie” was pastry topped, but just as tall as the first, and “Sour Cream Handpies” small single serving pastry crescents with a lemon glaze. A chorus of yums ran around the table.
After dinner, David and Lotus went to visit her colleague, while Sou-fen supervised her children clearing and washing all the dishes.
Rose Red, Lazlo and Dr. Chen moved to the commons, where Hope and Derry were playing cards. It was Hope’s ambition to beat Derry at the game, but the boy had a knack for numbers that made him hard to beat.
The adult crew stayed with Butters and Zaydim at the table. Butters had found buyers for sixty of the hundred porta-potties and he and Rand had come to an agreement about price when the comm signalled visitors at the cargo door.
Marco picked up his pistol and belted it on, before going o answer. He returned with Snake and two more pregnant women.
“More passengers for you , Rand,” Snake said, his eyes darting around the busy common area. He ignored the children, but Hope and Lazlo got an appraising look. Rose Red stood and curtseyed. He waved her to sit.
Mamie offered Snake tea and he sat down next to Rand.. The pregnant women looked around nervously until Marco pulled up chairs for them. You two et yet?” he growled. The shook heir heads and he filled plates for hem.
Dr. Chen left the kids in the commons and introduced himself. “Nurse Commanda is just checkin up on... what is the other woman’s name?”
Snake sideyed the doctor. “Dahlia,” he said and turned back to his tea.
The women introduced themselves as Orchid and Camillia.
Lazlo asked Rose, “Are those their real names?”
She laughed “Course not. This House, well, tent.” she gave a flirtatious sneer, “All us girls is flowers and the boys is cats. Last house I was assigned, we was fruits. I was Apple there.”
Snake was feeling expansive , boasting about how well business had gone at the Reunion. “Even these girls was in demand and now I’m five workers short going on to visit the terraforming on Decimal Two.”
“You can visit there now?; Butters asked.
“Not official. They got grav, water, and atmo. They’re soil buildin now. Super Sucker Simpson is takin all your....”
“Night soil,” Zaydim supplied.
“Hah! Nightsoil to the compost plants there. The workers are outta habitats and lookin for reck ree ay shun.Which is what Pollard Family Entertainment is all about. I’m bringing vids and music and whores to a hungry market.”
Lotus Blossom and David returned. Lotus gave sketchy curtsey to Snake before hugging her workmates giggling as they manouevered their bellies around.
David and Mamie took the women to their cabins for a quick exam as they settled.
Snake poured himself more tea. “You girls okay here?” he asked Lotus.
“Fine,′ she replied curtly. Any word from Sally?”
“Madame Sally knows you’re goin to Quattro. No worries, But she’s still got the contracts.
Butters and Rand had been watching the exchange.
“If you still got them shithuts, I could take some of em off her hands, price is right,” Snake told Rand.
“Or I could haul em to Decimal myself,” Rand countered.
“You gotta cargo of pregnant whores to deliver before they do, and all the way to Quattro,” Snake pointed out. “I could take twenty off yer hands.”
They settled to bargaining , fixing on a price a third higher than Butters had paid. Rand promised to mark the huts with yellow tape. Marco promised that they would be clean.
“Not for that pisspot Snake,” he told Dita. later “But the Sweet Sallies won’t want to be travelling with shitty cargo.”
Snake was still dominating the conversation. Even big Butters was keeping quiet, letting Snake’s mouth run with all the gossip the operator of a bar and brothel was able to glean.
Finally he rose. “If you know anyone wants to make good coin, tell em I got five or six jobs goin. Boys too -- work’s even fun if they incline that way. Or if you know anyone needs fast cash, I’ll take bond labour on one or three year contracts.” He kissed Dita’s hand and left.
Dita washed her hand in the galley sink.
“We’re short on soap.” she remarked.
“What will you girls do when your babies are born?” asked Marco.
Orchid said, “RoseRed sez she’s gonna hire out as a wet nurse. She’s free, so she don’t owe Sweet Sally nuthin. I’m bonded so I gotta keep workin. Baby goes for adoption, but the price for that goes toward payin my bond. Same with the other three, but I think adoptin out the brat pays off Camilla’s bond and she can move on if she likes. She’ll prolly stay as a free worker, though. She likes the Life.′
Sou-fen sighed. “I tried to get in with Pollard, but they won’t take employees with kids.”
Butters was looking at Sou-fen. “You interested in working as a cook? You made this dinner tonight?”
“Well, Mamie...” Sou-fen began.
“Mamie helped, here and there,” Mamie put in, “Sou-fen planned everthin, around what was in the cupboard.”
“We had to send out for bread,” Sou-fen interjected.
“She done everthing,”Mamie said firmly.
“Well I’m short a cook. If you’re interested come see me tomorrow at PrettyBaby. You can see if we come up to your standards.”
“I have three kids.”
“We got lotsa room. Never take passengers any more. Lotsa room.”
Sou-fen’s worried face relaxed for the first time since she had joined them a week earlier.
Butters and Zaydim didn’t stay late. Before they left Zaydim gave Sou-fen directions to Pretty Baby’s berth.
The night was not quite ended. Lotus Blossom who had been tense during Snake’s visit felt cramps and everyone got excited, but it turned out to be Braxon-Hicks contractions. “Good thing too, I gotta contract for the kid but the couple want to be there for the birth.” she said, drinking the mint tea Mamie made her.
“Already?” Mamie asked.
“Snake set me up early on countta I know where them useless contras came from.”
“Yeah. And the madam don’t know it. She’s the queen bee in that marriage group. The polyamorists usually have more women than men, but not Sweet Madame Sally. She’s got four husbands now and only one wife. She runs the houses and the family.”
“Snake’s been with her a long time.”
“Him and their wife. The other men come and go. Drones around the queen bee.”
“And Snake bought the contras that left five girls preggers?”
“Not five, nearly twenty. We’re just the ones kept ’em. I’ll grant you, he did give us the choice, and it works out great for us bonded girls. But the work load was heavy for a couple of weeks when the others was recuperatin, and now he’s right desperate for new bodies. And he doesn’t want to buy labour contracts, that never works out. He wants new contracts or free workers on wages.”
Mamie looked puzzled. “What’s the difference?”
“Well, the free workers might quit anytime, but they’re comin in willing. Same with the new contracts, they have an idea of the work and they’re wanting the payout to whoever, family, debt collector, lawyer. But buy a labour contract, the bonded worker don’t got a choice and some are real hard to get along with. We even met up with one girl... she was crazy and didn’t speak any language we could figure out. And Sally finally gets to learnin that she hadn’t signed any bond at all. She had been taken off a lost generation ship. Straight from Old Earth to Sweet Sally. “
“What happened to her?”
“Dunno. But Sally don’t want no law problems. She was gone. Might have been turned loose, might have been kilt. That Madame Sally is a mean bitch. Either way, she never existed.
The day after the Reunion was a busy one. Mamie left BabyGirl in charge of the Sallies and joined the portapotty crews in cleaning and dismantling. It was Mamie who pointed out that the huts could be dismantled for transit. By then, Snake already had claimed and loaded his huts.
“We should tell him, prolly.” Said Mamie.
“Yeah, probably,” Rand remarked and set about collapsing the huts set aside for Butters.
Sou-Fen had her family packed and was putting some pies and cakes into Bluebell’s pantry.
“Just a thank you for everything,′ she said. “I would never have met Captain Margolin without you. And we have our own cabins! One for me and Bing and one for the boys. So when Lazlo gets back from work,we’ll be on our way.”
“He didn’t turn up for work today, hon,” Mamie told her. “I ain’t seen him since after supper yesterday. Ask Rose , he’s been talkin to her a lot.”
Sou-fen took her younger children to Pretty Baby and left them to unpack and get to know their new home. She returned just as Lazlo and Lotus Blossom drew up in a biketaxi. And watched astonished as he politely helped the pregnant woman down.
“Where...?” she began, but the teen waved her into silence.
“I got work, mamma,” he told her.”And I got paid in advance, and I get room and board. So here.” the boy gave his foster mother two bundles of notes. “Lotus and Rose say I can keep my tips and that’s all I’ll need. I can even save up, they say.”
Sou-fen looked confused.
“He’s bonded himself to Pollard Family Entertainments” Lotus Blossom explained. “ I told him he should go in as a free worker, but he wanted to give you a stake.”
“How long do you have to back out?” Sou-fen demanded. “I don’t want you to leave us. You’re too young.”
“I got till nightfall to give the bond back and be done with it. But mamma it’s a good job and I think I’ll like the work,” his mouth got stubborn. “And I am old enough to take care of myself.”
Sou-fen threw her arms around the boy she had raised for twelve years. She gave Lotus an imploring look.
“I tried to get him to go in as a free worker,′ Louts repeated. “I asked Leo and Bobcat to watch out for him. They’re reliable. But don’t you trust that Tiger,” she told the boy. “He’s one of Snake’s boys. A sneak and a thief. Keep an eye on the rota and keep your own records of hours and of piecework.”
“I bought an ansible comm for you and for me with some of the bond money,” Lazlo told his mother. “And I kept some for new clothes when we get to Decimal. I’ll keep in touch.”
He pushed his mother gently away. “Tell the kids, I’ll be in touch, kay? I’ll send presents on their birthdays and on Arrival Day. ′
His eyes welled up and he looked very young and vulnerable. He turned abruptly and marched to the airlock door. He stopped and turned.
“Mamma, when are Bing and Rance’s birthdays?” he asked meekly.
pikagirl311: Katie Masters has definite skill when it comes to plot work and characters. The story is well-paced and pulls you along with the tide, keeping you hooked until the very end. The only reason I did not give it five stars across the board is due to a few minor quibbles with misspellings and such lik...
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Guywithgunz: Vanessa's saga has been an ongoing labor of love for the author and her core gp of fans.The saga as a whole is a must read for fans of Adventure / SciFi stories. The uploads here are in need of a final look by an editor for the spelling and grammatical errors that have crept in somehow into the f...
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gunter1987: I just want to say here that this is my first review, but I really wanted to review this story. I apologize if I don't write English to well, I am French.Reading through the many science fiction stories posted here and other places in the world, I started to see a few linking themes: heavy-hande...
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Chris Rolfe: BOY!!! I sure love what Aer-Ki Jyr did with this series. IMHO he captured the essence of what stargate is all about. Thru out the Stargate stories Aer-Ki wrote Stevens and John Shepard some of the main characters in his stories are pursued by a corrupt I.O.A.. All the while Stevens is changing in...
Jasmin Soriano: If you want a thought-provoking, ribs-busting tale of religion look no further than Ouroboros!The characters are an absolute riot, and more often than I care to admit, I wondered where I could get the book of hilarious quotes so I could have something to laugh at every morning.We travel back in t...
CookieMonster911: The story overall was an adventure that is appealing to any age. The way the characters develop adds a more human characteristic to the novel. The writing style itself is amazing because you can learn every character's thoughts and emotions. The awkward love triangle and jerk moments adds to the ...
FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"
Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."