THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS

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Chapter Nine: Summerfair

“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.

“Yours?”

“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.”

“Zoo?”

“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.”

“Bad business.”

“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.

“No.”

“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.

She nodded.

“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.”

“Location’s good.”

“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.”

“Big ranch.”

“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 sort?”

“Noticin, not talkin.”

“Some say they’s special good for pregnancy.”

“Startin? Stoppin?”

“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.”

“Chitch.”

“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?”

“Pleasant enough.”

“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.

CHAPTER NINE

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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