THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS

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Chapter Ten: Kerry

“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.”

“Sad.”

“Sad.”

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.

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