THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS

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Chapter Eleven: 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.

Lotus grimaced.

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.”

“From Snake?”

“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.

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