In the constant drizzle of condensation from the high ceilings and the smells of oil and stale beer, Chief Hope wrangled her cargo loader. Lander’s wide, cigar-shaped cross section made unloading easy for her cargo crew and the faceless labor droids. She stopped the cruiser when a text appeared from her lawyer.
Meet me at Pierre’s, w4552. J
White zone, she thought and looked down at her stained fatigues. Totally inappropriate.
Cookie led the off duty crew out of the lock but stopped near the dockside ramp and waved to her. “Meriel, we’re heading for the TarnGirl. Gonna join us? John will be there.” He gave her another cagey smile.
“Sure. Later,” she said. “I need to finish up and do some shopping first.”
A few hours later, Meriel and her crew finished unloading, and she walked down the blue-zone docks wearing a more stylish bracelet link heading for white-zone to meet her lawyer. But white-zone was special, with fancy shops and clubs intended for station administration and finance personnel that were too bright and expensive for spacers. So Meriel altered her course to green-zone for a more suitable dress.
Once in green-zone, Meriel paid cash for some stationside clothing. She picked out a versatile high-collared outfit that would cover her scar and mimic a range of styles and then pressed a tab on the sleeve to select the “little black dress” option as the most neutral. Discussing the orphans with a lawyer violated the no-contact court orders, so without thinking, Meriel stuffed her fatigues into her bag, lowered her head to hide her face from the pervasive surveillance cameras, and left the store camouflaged within a group of women.
Well-dressed adults and children without the lean and nervous look typical of spacers filled the white-zone concourse. When passersby looked at her, their generous smiles disappeared, and their eyes narrowed with suspicion. Meriel felt out of place and wondered if her simple dress made her too obviously a stranger. Then she remembered that the cold looks might simply be the security scans of android nannies.
At Pierre’s, a uniformed man briefly glanced at a link, smiled warmly, and opened the door for her. Past the door, she entered a busy public square with a ceiling so high that clouds drifted above. Tiny white and pink blossoms drifted in the air from the cherry and plum trees surrounding the square, and pigeons pecked at seeds between the cobblestones. Artists sketched young couples while mimes entertained the children, and the scents of coffee and pastries drifted past. A jazz trio near the corner played something upbeat. Meriel smiled and switched the dress option from black to a white sundress with a rose print.
“Ms. Hope,” a voice called, and Meriel turned to see a man waving from a small table at an outdoor café nearby. It was Jeremy looking quite professional in an impeccably tailored business suit. She walked over, and they shook hands. Then he pulled out a chair for her. No spacer would ever treat a woman this way, so she blushed. He snapped his fingers, and a waiter brought over a glass containing a dark-red liquid.
“Nice, huh?” he said. “It’s Montmartre, Paris, on Earth. That’s the cathedral behind me.”
Meriel smiled. “Is this all for me?”
“Yes, of course, my dear,” he said with a broad smile and a flourish of his arms. “Really, my clients invited me to lunch here,” he said, but his sincerity was insufficient to overcome her anxiety and impatience.
“The drug impound was supposed to be a technicality and temporary, Jeremy. That’s what you’re working on.”
“Let’s order first.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I insist,” he said. He called the waiter over and ordered something in French. She looked for the kiosk that would sync with the dietary profile on her link but did not find it. Jeremy just smiled and shook his head.
When the waiter left, Meriel leaned over the table. “She’s ours, Jeremy. The Princess is ours.”
“Not for long. They want to close the case as a drug deal gone sour. The Princess has been impounded for a decade, and the station wants to recoup the dock fees. Forfeiture will let them do it.”
“My folks would never do anything like smuggle drugs,” she said. “And they never found anything to implicate the Princess or crew.”
“No one has adequately explained an attack in deep space, Meriel. A bad drug deal is the easiest interpretation.”
“And the most convenient,” she said. “If they ruled it piracy, the merchant fleets might refuse to fly.”
“Yes, yes, and the stations would die without the trade,” he said. “You’re right of course, and it’s all circumstantial. If the Princess had simply disappeared, they would write it off as bad nav or pilot error. Showing up the way you did leaves only piracy or smuggling, so they’re stuck with a drug drop as the only acceptable explanation.”
“But they have no evidence!”
“Absence of evidence is not proof of innocence,” he said. “With all else equal, the simplest explanation, the one with the fewest assumptions, is usually the truth. That’s how they see this.”
“That’s Occam’s razor, Jeremy. We have science and facts now.”
“Meriel, these are judges, not scientists, and law is much older than science. Most scientists believe everything taught is the truth and build on that; they extrapolate in one direction or another. Judges see scientific explanations as temporary agreements that live only until better explanations arise. From Newton to Einstein and now Nakamura, science evolves better explanations. The judges have nothing but speculation, but it is the most logical and useful speculation.”
“Useful for them,” Meriel said.
The waiter came back with two small plates. Gracing her plate was a pastry containing a variety of fruit and vegetable sprouts surrounded by abstract patterns drawn in dark-brown and red sauces.
Meriel stared with her mouth open. Oh my God. She leaned over to Jeremy. “Is this fresh?” she asked quietly, and Jeremy smiled and nodded. Meriel blushed with fear. “Am I paying for it?”
Jeremy grinned at her discomfort, leaned back, and shook his head. Meriel sighed, having been saved from a debt she might never be able to repay.
“Enjoy it. My clients have paid for it all,” Jeremy said. “Where were we?”
“Jeremy, they have no proof.”
“Your parents are guilty until proven innocent. It’s Napoleonic law out here, Meriel, not like America before the UNE.”
“How can they do this? My folks never did anything wrong,” she said while toying with her lunch.
“They were in debt,” Jeremy said.
“Everybody’s in debt. They’d never carry anything illegal or dangerous. Papa even did long jumps to keep us near stations.”
“It was a big debt,” Jeremy said.
“Never, J, never!”
“Then prove it.”
“We were just kids, Jeremy. We had to depend on the Biadez Foundation investigation, and the private investigators never seemed to get any further. I don’t have a lead.”
“My ship will stop at Enterprise next week, and I can stop by the Princess.”
Jeremy shook his head. “You’ll need a court order and that will take too long.”
Meriel sighed. “Then what the hell can we do now?” She clutched the sim-chip on her necklace. “The police went over every bit of computer data on the ship and found nothing—the pirates wiped all of it.” She held out the sim-chip for Jeremy to see. “And the police screwed with my chip. It’s the only thing my mom left us, and they screwed with it. The police and troopers went over every inch of the Princess, every deck plate and hidey-hole, and found nothing but a pair of counterfeit designer shoes and some unidentified hair.”
“That hair came from a stim user, Meriel.”
“Not our crew! Not on our ship!” She threw down her fork, leaving her lunch untouched, and lowered her head to hide her tears. Jeremy put his hand on hers.
In a soft voice, she said, “The cops took everything, Jeremy, even our stupid toys. Liz and I don’t even have a single photo of our folks. And now they’re taking our ship.”
Jeremy laid a handkerchief by her hand. “Photos of the adults could be dangerous for the kids, Meriel,” he said. “They’re still in protective custody.”
Meriel took the handkerchief and brought it to her eyes. “Well, I’m not,” she said. “And so what?” She held out her sim-chip again. “This and the Princess are all my sister and I have to remember our folks and our friends. The other kids have nothing at all.” She shook her head and exhaled slowly.
“What about an extension?”
“Extensions are usually automatic…but not this time.”
“Can we buy her?”
Jeremy shook his head. “They’ve got the bid they want and closed the bidding. They did it without any announcement.”
“Is that legal?”
“For an impound that’s damaged, yes.” Jeremy leaned over the table. “Ms. Hope, as your counsel, it is my responsibility to advise you that a settlement has been offered to you first, not to the station.” He pulled out a link and displayed the offer letter. The sum, in bold, was a fantastic amount of money.
Meriel whistled. “That’s almost enough to buy a new ship.”
“Almost. It’s like they’re trying to discourage opposition.”
Jeremy nodded. “Or our mutual friend.”
He means Teddy. “They don’t want me to have my ship but will compensate me when they steal her. This stinks.”
“I must advise you that you’ll lose everything if you pass up this offer. If we let the remaining time expire you’ll forfeit your rights, including any remainder from the proceeds. You’ll get nothing. Finding exculpatory evidence in less than three weeks is unlikely, and that information would still be subject to the ruling of the court. And that can never be certain.”
Meriel remained quiet.
“The settlement can set you up, Meriel.”
“You mean buy me off,” she said. She was ready to spit or cry but not sure which.
“As your counsel I advise you to be prudent and take the cash if you cannot meet the court’s demands. Make your peace with this and move on. Lots of people would say you’ve been through enough.”
“It’s not about me, Jeremy. It’s about the kids. They’ve got nothing—parents gone, ship in a graveyard, no future. All we’ve got is the Princess and each other. That bid will not go very far split between eight of us.”
“Don’t misunderstand, Ms. Hope. The offer is to you alone, not to them,” he said.
“But I can’t just take it and run.”
“It’s not the Princess, and it’s not a new ship, but it’s something, even if it is split eight ways.”
“It’s not enough to save us from drifting into danger if we’re alone,” Meriel said. “Did Teddy tell you about when Penny went missing?”
Jeremy shook his head.
“Penny is a real pretty kid—” Meriel began to say.
“It runs in your family,” Jeremy said with a playful smile, but Meriel just tilted her head and did not recognize his compliment.
“People always told Penny that she was pretty, but her folks played it down, hoping that she might not let that define her. Well, on her ninth birthday, she disappeared from a play area on Ross.”
“What about her biotag? Her link?” Jeremy asked.
“I’ll get to that. Anyway, the kids scoured the station for her with no luck. Sam Spurell, Tommy’s little brother, found her. Sam was looking after her because her older brother got spaced on their prior ship. That’s why the Hubbards joined the Princess. Well, Sam knew that Penny wanted something for her mom for Mother’s Day, and a vid might be the thing. He found her just down the boardwalk in a dress-up shop. He called us, and we all rushed there.
“We found Penny in tears. They had her all tarted up with big hair and lots of makeup, so she looked like she was going on twenty years old—unrecognizable. But Sam recognized her. My dad called the station police, and there was a big fuss. Apparently, the shop owner had lured her in with free vids for Mother’s Day. But the shop had a jammer to mask the biotags, and it made her untraceable.”
“EtnaVid?” Jeremy asked, and Meriel nodded. “I heard of them. Lucky you found her in time.”
“Not luck. Family. They closed them down after that.”
“I heard. What happened to Penny?”
“Penny’s mom got her out of there before the shouting and took her and us girls to a legit photographer. They scrubbed her makeup off, washed her hair, and redid her in very subdued makeup with a French braid. She was gorgeous. The photographer offered to introduce them to an agent, and her folks had the good sense to say no. But he kept a copy of the photos for advertising.”
“You saw it?”
“Yeah. It’s still there,” she said. “And Penny has only gotten prettier. You can’t hide beauty like hers. We all know she’s gonna waltz into a white-zone party when she gets older and walk out with a prince. But I’ll bet Sam will be two steps behind him, checking his pedigree.” Meriel took a breath. “We nearly lost her, and without the family, we would have. We’re stronger together, Jeremy. I want this for them.”
“It doesn’t change things with the Princess.”
Meriel tried her pathetic kitten look. “There’s nothing you can do?”
“Not and keep my license to practice,” he said.
Meriel looked as though she was going to say something, but Jeremy shook his head. “I can’t help you if I lose my license.”
Meriel sighed and stared at her uneaten lunch. “How many days to decide on the money?”
“Ten days, ET.”
“Damn. How can they do this? My folks never did anything wrong.”
“Then prove it. Bring the judges a better explanation—means, motive, opportunity. They have nothing but speculation, but it is the most obvious speculation. I’ll do all I can to help.” The link on his wrist buzzed and he looked at it. “Excuse me, Ms. Hope I have another appointment. Please advise me soonest of your decision.”
He rose and they shook hands briefly, but rather than let go, he held her hand and put his other hand over hers. She blushed again at the attention.
“Now, business aside,” he said with a steady gaze, “I did mention that the authorities moved the Liu Yang to the impound dock, yes?” When Meriel nodded he smiled and let go of her hand. “Great to see you again, Meriel,” he said and turned to leave.
Meriel watched Jeremy walk away and thought about what he had said. Of course, she knew that the authorities had moved the Princess. They had just talked about it, and he told her she could not visit legally. Then why would—
The waiter interrupted Meriel’s thoughts with a polite bow. “Pardon me, miss, but is there something wrong with your lunch? I am sure that Chef Pierre would be happy to prepare something special if this is not to your liking. Perhaps an ile flottante or raspberry crepes with crème fraiche?”
She had no idea what he was referring to, but said only, “No, thank you. I’m sure that would be delicious, but I’m just not hungry.”
The waiter frowned slightly and raised an eyebrow, as if forgiving a veiled insult. “As you wish. If I may, we will close for the afternoon in approximately five minutes. If there is anything else I can get for you, please just signal me.”
“Thank you,” Meriel said, and the waiter took her lunch plate, the only fresh food she had been served in her entire life, away untouched.
Meriel looked out at the busy square and the beautiful day and sighed. The settlement for the Princess and her current savings would buy her a vacation on Earth, perhaps in the real Paris, but it would only be for her and only for a little while. And when she left, it would all be gone, every physical reminder of the Princess and her childhood and her family. Everything would be gone forever. Still, I would have something more than I have now.
She pursed her lips. No. This is beautiful, but it’s just an illusion. This is not my life. She would need to prove that the Princess was not a mule and her parents were not drug dealers. But how do you prove a negative? she wondered and rose to leave.
As Meriel walked out of the café, the hologram faded away, and the space became featureless gray walls and ceiling. When the doors closed behind her, the waiters and customers, all mindless androids, lined themselves up against a wall and turned themselves off.
(From Home: Interstellar, Chapter 3: Lander, On station. Get it at Amazon)
(c) 2014, Benjamin R. Strong