THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter Four: Surveyors

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...”

“What kind?”

“Pigs.”
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.”

“Were you?”

“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.”

Dita nodded.

“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.”

“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.”

“Widow?”

“Divorced. My husband and my wife decided to go monogamous and divorced me. Then they up and left me with all our kids.”

“Holy shit!”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

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