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.
Meriel switched back to the “simple black dress” option and walked to the edge of the torus to avoid the security cameras. She boarded a tram headed for green-zone—where the regular folks went to relax, and the elites went to tarnish their reputations. Her mission there was simple: score some tranq boost to dispel her nightmares without taking the meds.
Neon holograms flashed outside the transparent ceramic window. Another tram passed in sync with hers every few moments to balance the mass and smooth the microgravity tremors with a compensating angular acceleration. The view was the same from the tram on Runner Station in the Ross 128 system, which was where Elizabeth found her seven years ago, except she remembered the flashing advertisements to be a lifeless gray.
There was no color in her life then, and the incessant advertisements and colorful signage of the blue-zone bars and businesses that passed outside the window left no impression on her. She was alone—three years after the Princess attack. Her parents and friends were dead and her sister was light years away.
She knew what she had seen the day of the attack and could not forget, no matter how much she wanted to. The anonymous faces in white jackets with pleasant smiles had told her all the reasons why the Princess attack could not have happened the way she had said, and they complimented her on her rich fantasy life and creative imagination. But the smiles turned cold when she couldn’t align her memories to the stories they wanted, stories of drugs and intrigue that she could never believe. In their notes, her creative fantasies became delusions that had to be controlled by medication.
After months of interviews, therapy, and separation, she doubted herself, and unable to invent a story that made sense to her and them both, she stopped fighting and took the medication.
Now at fifteen, she had no friends and desired none. There was only the job and the biological need to be suitably compliant for the leadership and the young men on her ship. She thought only of her mission to get a part to repair her power loader, without which she would fail her cargo-2 rating and not see the increased income for another year.
Within that lifeless, gray world, a young blond girl bordered the tram accompanied by an older woman who gave her a pathetic smile. From somewhere, Meriel remembered the faces and returned the weak smile, but there was no emotional tug of recognition, and she looked away. It was her sister, Elizabeth, with Aunt Teddy.
Elizabeth sat next to Meriel and took her hand. “I’ve been looking for you, Sis,” Elizabeth said.
“Uh-huh,” Meriel said.
“Where did you go, M?” Elizabeth asked. “I miss you.”
Meriel shrugged. The briefest memory flickered that once in her life, this young girl meant more to her than life itself, but the thought slipped away, and she just shrugged.
A tear rolled down Elizabeth’s cheek. “We’ve been at the same docks, and you never come by,” she said. “You don’t answer my texts any more. It’s like you don’t remember me at all.”
Meriel shrugged again and turned to the window wondering when the blond person would leave.
Reflected in the window, Mariel watched Elizabeth reach out to her. But just before touching the scar on Meriel’s neck, Elizabeth’s hand clenched into a fist and her frown changed to a scowl. She pulled her hand back, opened Meriel’s purse and rummaged through the contents until she found what she was looking for—the meds, Aristopine, the same drug that the doctors planned to give her and the other orphans from the Princess.
Elizabeth held the tube of meds up. Teddy nodded and tapped her link a few times and looked up to check the tram stops. Four stops later, Teddy waved to Elizabeth who took Meriel’s arm.
“Come with me,” Elizabeth said and stood.
Meriel rose reluctantly. “I need to pick up a part for my cruiser.”
“We’ll get that next, but first we need to stop here,” Elizabeth said and led Meriel from the tram and through the green-zone corridors.
Meriel stopped and looked around. “Why are we going this way?” Meriel asked. “I need to fix my cruiser.”
“Mom said you need my help. You want to do what Mom says, don’t you?” Elizabeth said and Meriel nodded. “Well, then we need to go this way. Come.”
Before entering the rehabilitation clinic, Elizabeth dropped the tube of meds in the recycling chute at the entrance.
Elizabeth and Aunt Teddy stayed with Meriel for a week until the meds had flushed from her system, and Meriel finally cried. The meds had helped her push the memories of the Princess to the depths of her psyche and dragged the memories of the kids down with them. Without the meds, it all came back in a rush, but it wasn’t so overwhelming this time, because her little sister had stayed with her through it all. It was there that she learned techniques to control her symptoms, including conscious blinking and contact with the other orphans to keep her grounded in reality.
When Elizabeth told her of the meeting in the tram, when Meriel had just shrugged, it scared Meriel so much that she swore to her sister she’d never take the meds again, regardless of the nightmares.
Her ship had noticed immediately because of her noncompliance and the return of her night terrors. They tried to get her back on the meds and threatened her with pulling her work card and certifications, but after her sister scared her, she knew it was wrong.
Her shipmates didn’t help. “Meriel, just go with the flow,” they had told her. “Take the meds and get along. Lots of us do it.”
At the time, she didn’t know what to tell them and just remained quiet. What was she, all of fifteen and a half? Now she knew what to say: Why take meds to adjust to a world that sucks? It’s seductive to take a vacation from reality for a bit, hoping that things will be different when you come back to real life, but life doesn’t change like that. Instead, make the world adjust to you. You don’t need to be an ass or a bully, but you don’t have to accept the crap either. Our ancestors didn’t stay up in the trees and numb themselves to relieve their fear of tigers; they came down and made spears.
Meriel’s spear was a lie, a disguise. And behind that disguise, Meriel and Elizabeth worked out ways to fool the psych evaluations and drug tests to keep Elizabeth and the kids from having the meds forced on them.
Meriel exited the tram and walked to her destination: Heinhold’s, a bar for neighbors and upscale stationers with no business in green-zone. It was dark, discreet, and nearly empty. She sat at the bar, and a huge bartender with a chin as big as her fist came to her, drying a glass with a towel.
“What’ll it be?” he asked.
Without moving his head, the bartender scanned her and then the room and the door. He put his elbow on the bar and flexed a big, tattooed bicep in front of her while pretending to polish the glass, and then he looked back at her with a cold squint. “What do you want with her?”
“She’ll know. Just tell her that hope has returned.”
“No promises,” the bartender said. He walked to the other end of the bar and picked up a link.
Above the bar, a large monitor displayed the latest news from IGB, InterGalactic Broadcasting, one of the few honest networks out there, and Meriel watched while she waited.
In business news, LML Corp, representing the Local Merchants League, has added new routes to Alpha Station in the Alpha Centauri system and nearby asteroid habitats. This is a result of the redesigned and rehabilitated stations at Alpha and Proxima Centauri…
A nicely dressed woman about Meriel’s age sat next to her and interrupted her thoughts. “Hey, spacer, need company?” she said and gave her a professional smile.
Meriel noticed the subtle spacer tattoo on her inner wrist and smiled back. “No, thanks. Bunk’s full, but have one on me.” Meriel gave her a large tip, about a night’s worth. The woman smiled, genuinely this time. She put her hand on Meriel’s arm and then left.
Must have lost her ship or her sailor, Meriel thought. Tough life. That might have been Penny in a few years. Or me.
Meriel returned part of her attention to the monitor and the news.
Top news in Sol System, recently elected UNE President Biadez pledged to uphold the United Nations of Earth charter today at his inauguration ceremony…
The bartender, still on the link, looked back at her and stared for a few moments. Then he turned away. On the monitor, Biadez began his inauguration speech.
My fellow citizens of Earth, we stand here on the brink of a resurgence of Earth’s influence on the galactic stage after decades of stagnation, a resurgence of the vitality and influence…
Meriel looked around the bar. A woman in an expensive business suit, her black hair pulled back severely, now sat at a small table. She might have been a CEO or a corporate lawyer. Her glasses shimmered slightly—a heads-up display out of focus for anyone but the wearer. She looked at Meriel with a broad smile.
Other than Elizabeth, this woman was the only person in the galaxy in whom Meriel could confide: Theodora Duncan, her mother’s childhood friend and nav-6 who was so good that she could work any ship, even navy.
“Hi, sweetie,” Teddy said with a smile and signaled for some drinks. Meriel walked over, gave her a hug, and sat opposite her.
Meriel tipped her head in the direction of the girl who had approached her earlier. “What’s her story?”
Teddy frowned and shook her head. “Don’t know. She doesn’t work for me. I don’t have the heart to stop them. They’re all independent. Pimps get spaced around here, and I make sure they know it.”
Meriel glanced back at the monitor on which Biadez continued his inaugural address.
Teddy caught her glance and dropped her smile. “He’s still your hero, isn’t he?”
“Who?” Meriel said. Teddy nodded in the direction of the monitor. “Biadez? Well, yeah, I guess. No one forced him to help us, them, I mean; his foundation didn’t have to help us.” The Alan C. Biadez Humanitarian Foundation had helped them with their medical bills and relocation costs after the Princess attack. The foundation also funded the investigation. “The kids treat him like a grandfather. They still send him Christmas cards. Anonymously, of course.”
“Does he ever respond?” Teddy asked through clenched teeth.
“Not really,” Meriel said. “We get those corporate bulk e-mails. He’s a busy guy, and none of us takes it personally. We’re not supposed to have any contact at all.”
Teddy sneered. “You know what I think,” she said.
“I think they’re a bunch of bastards.”
“You’re still mad because they cut you out of the custody hearings.”
“No,” Teddy said. “Because they put you on meds so young.”
“Those were the shrinks, Teddy.”
“Sure, but the foundation paid for them.” The foundation was the biggest donor and squeezed the others out, including Teddy, who had petitioned so aggressively for custody of the kids that the court issued restraining orders.
“That’s why I came, Teddy,” Meriel said. “Boost. My nightmares flared up again when we started working the old Princess routes. They won’t leave me now.”
“Boost is legal here, you know.”
“I can’t have a trail that shows I’ve got ’em, Teddy. They’ll know I’m off the meds and pull my work card,” Meriel said.
“We’ll take care of you,” Teddy said. She tapped on her bracelet, and the big bartender turned to her. Teddy nodded, and the bartender picked up his link. “It’s more than the boost, M. What’s bothering you? Is Jeremy making progress?” Teddy asked, referring to Meriel’s lawyer. “I heard he’s visiting Lander.”
Meriel nodded but lost her smile entirely. “I just met with him. We’re stalled in court-5 for the Princess. Jeremy says he needs money for special legal talent.”
“You need a loan? How much?” Teddy asked. That was her way—no conditions, no questions. But Meriel shook her head and played with the miniature umbrella in her drink.
Teddy brightened. “Say, did I tell you I met Kenny Grannath?”
“Ah, who’s he?” Meriel said without looking up.
“Grannath. Doesn’t ring a bell? His grandpa designed the Princess.”
Meriel frowned. “Uh-huh.”
“He said the Princess was his grandpa’s favorite. He had a model on his desk wherever he worked. He showed me vids of the original interior. Did you know the Princess was a private yacht? It was gorgeous. The cargo bays moored private shuttles.” Teddy’s smile changed to concern as she waited for Meriel’s response. “There’s something else. What is it?”
Meriel looked up with pain on her face. “They’re gonna take her, Teddy.”
“The Princess. And I can’t stop them.”
“As a drug boat if I can’t prove we were clean.”
“The court gave us twenty-one days. Nineteen, now.”
Teddy shook her head. “Is bidding open? Can we buy her?”
“Jeremy said it was a private bid, and it’s closed.”
“That’s odd,” Teddy said. “It’s like they were trying to preclude competing bids.”
“That’s what Jeremy said.”
“Enterprise,” Meriel said. “She’s still in impound.”
“I’ll talk to Jeremy. M…Don’t give up.”
“They’re trying to buy me off.”
“How much?” Teddy asked. Meriel showed her the settlement, and Teddy raised her eyebrows. “This looks fishy. What’s your plan?”
“Well, talking to Jeremy and you first.”
“Take another shot at the sim-chip?” Teddy asked, and Meriel nodded. “That’s low probability. We need a motive other than drugs, M. The Princess’s nav systems said that they pointed you at a gas giant before you jumped. They wanted you to disappear entirely.”
“Ships disappear all the time,” Meriel said.
“Too many to be random or systems failures. OK, we need other motives. What else you got?”
Meriel leaned over the table and whispered, “If we stop at Enterprise as planned, I may—”
Teddy shook her head and leaned back. Then she said loudly, “I’m sure that anything you might consider is unquestionably legal.” She softened her voice. “Let me look into it.” Teddy patted Meriel’s hand. “You’ve always got a place here. You know that.”
“What about all the kids?”
“The court won’t let me near them, M.”
Meriel nodded. “The court orders.”
“Not unless they come out of protection, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I’m still not sure it was a good idea for you to come out.”
“Then they’ll drift,” Meriel said.
“We won’t let that happen, M.”
They updated each other about the kids and friends over a second round of drinks, after which the bartender gave Teddy a slip of paper that disintegrated a few seconds after she touched it.
“See the man at the fish-and-chips stand around the corner.” Teddy said. “Tell him you want the regular. Leave the money with Ed at the bar on the way out. It’s not for me; it’s for them.”
“Thanks,” Meriel said. “Say, do you ever see Torsten?”
Teddy smiled, and her eyes softened. “Not since May, dear, but he’s fine. He’ll be here in two weeks.”
“You ever think of going back to the Endeavor?” That was Torsten’s ship, a midsize independent freighter that worked a vector from Earth to Den 10.
“You know, I bought a ship just to chase him once,” Teddy said with a smile and a drifty look. “A sleek job, real pretty, and I could fly her by myself. Now? Nah. He’s got to come to me. He needs to be in space, and I won’t have another.”
“Thanks, Teddy. I gotta go now.” They hugged again, and Meriel left.
Meriel made her trade for boost as directed and changed her course to blue-zone for the crew’s party. All the while, she wondered about what to do to prove that the Princess was not involved in dealing drugs. Two toughs leaned against the elevator door, and she decided to find another route. She made sure not to make eye contact, but it didn’t matter.
“Hey, doll,” one of them said. “You got something of mine.”
Meriel ignored him and turned to find another lift.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” the tough said.
She heard the footsteps behind her quicken, and she prepared to run when a hulk of a man stepped out in front of her, picking his teeth with a tiny fingernail.
“Hey, cruiser,” he said. He grabbed her bag, which caused her fatigues to spill out, and then he made a grab for her.
Muscle memory engaged, and Meriel kicked her assailant in the neck. He dropped to his knees holding his throat and gasping as he faded into unconsciousness. The other two watched her, now more cautiously, but one of them, wide-eyed and grinning with a stim dose, scooped her bag off the deck and rummaged through it.
She wasn’t supposed to be there and could not leave her bag behind as evidence.
“You owe me a scotch,” a voice behind her said. Meriel spun, expecting a new assailant, but instead, she saw John Smith from the Tiger.
“I’ll be with you in a second,” she said to him and turned back to her attackers. John did not look like a fighter, and Meriel prepared to defend them both, but John walked up beside her.
“Cover your ears,” he said and held up a small tube. “Trust me. Now.” She dropped her guard to put her hands over her ears while the attackers closed in. John stepped in front of her and squeezed the tube. The air around her assailants quivered and hazed, and a soft pop blew her hair back gently, but the two men dropped to their knees, bleeding from their noses and ears. John turned to leave, but Meriel walked over to the attackers, picked up her bag and fatigues, and kicked each man in the groin.
“That was cruel,” John said as they walked away.
“What do you think they had in mind for me?”
“You know that guy?” John asked.
“God, no,” Meriel said.
“He called you ‘Cruiser.’”
“I think he was going for ‘slut,’” she said. “What are you doing up here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” he said, evading her question.
“Heading for the TarnGirl?” she asked while looking into the shadows for threats.
“I have an appointment first.”
Meriel noticed John’s nonanswer and saw that he had a package under his arm. She stopped. “What’s that?”
“Son of a…you’re dealing drugs,” she said and stared at him.
“What is it?” she asked with a sneer. “Rejuve? Stim?”
“No, really, they’re life enhancing. It’s what we do on my colony.”
Meriel wondered how she could be so wrong in her assessment of him. “I don’t believe you.”
“Please, let me explain.”
“I can’t get caught with you,” she said, backing away and checking for security cameras. “I’ll lose the kids.”
John frowned but continued. “Please, Meriel, nothing I have with me can get you into trouble with the law. I promise.”
What is it about that face that I trust? she thought. “They’re not illegal?”
“Not yet, not until our competitors find out about ’em.” Meriel did not move, and John continued.
“Please, let me show you.”
Meriel nodded slowly, and they left for white-zone. John led her to a plain building with a small green cross by the door.
“Hospital?” Meriel asked.
“Recovery facility. A clinic for physical therapy and rehabilitation.”
John introduced himself to the receptionist and signed them in as Mr. and Ms. Brown. Before Meriel had fully adjusted to the smells of alcohol and disinfectant, a man in a white coat met them.
“You are Mr. Brown?” the man in the white coat asked. He took off his name tag and put it in his pocket.
“Yes,” John said. “Pleased to meet you. Dr. Wo, is that correct?” Meriel smiled and rolled her eyes at the transparent charade. “As part of our quality control, my associate and I would like to review the efficacy of the prior samples my associate left with you.”
“Yes, of course,” the doctor said. “This way please.” He led them down a corridor to a small room where a patient sat in a chair covered from head to foot in a gown. His face was protected by a hood from the harsh clinical lighting.
“This is our burn unit,” the doctor said and showed them into the room. “Hello, Phillip.”
The patient nodded, and the doctor sat on a stool facing him. “Phillip, may we see your progress?” Again, the patient nodded. The doctor took the man’s right hand and pulled the sleeve up to the elbow to expose perfectly normal pink skin. “We’re treating this patient with your…” The doctor looked at his link. “Your product C, I believe.” The doctor raised the sleeve to the shoulder to expose the hideously scarred skin above the elbow.
“As your associate promised, there is no scaring at the tissue boundaries, and melanin is normal,” the doctor said. He then took both of Phillip’s hands and rotated them together so that John and Meriel could compare both hands and wrists: badly scarred on the left and fully recovered on the right.
Without thinking, Meriel put her hand to the scar on her neck and looked up with a smile. She expected to see the face of a grateful man under the hood, but instead she saw the burned and torn face of her Uncle Ed. The smell of charred flesh filled her nose and she gasped, transported back ten years to her struggles on the Princess.
“Meriel, help me,” her uncle said in her nightmares while reaching out a hand to her.
She stumbled backward to get away from the horror until she bumped into a table and fell. Instruments crashed onto the clinic floor around her, and she clutched her arms to her chest and neck to hide her scars.
John rushed to her and kneeled. “Are you all right?” he asked.
John’s voice brought her back to reality. She blinked repeatedly and nodded. “Yes. Just some water, please,” she said, and John helped her to her feet. She walked back to sit near Phillip. He pulled his hood farther down to hide his face, and Meriel realized how much she must have hurt him. She looked more kindly at his disfigured face and put her hand on his arm. “Please, forgive me, and don’t be offended. Your injuries reminded me of a close friend who had wounds similar to yours. The memory was very painful for me.” The hood nodded, and he patted the back of her hand as a tear rolled down his scarred cheek and fell onto her sleeve.
“You can see the improvement in just two months,” the doctor continued. “With access to the final product and replicator templates, we will be able to…ah…thank you, Phillip,” he said and led them out of earshot.
“Treatment can begin next week if we reach a final understanding,” the doctor said, and John nodded. Meriel frowned at the idea that he might delay treatments for the burn victim because of financial arrangements, but she said nothing.
Dr. Wo led them to a small exercise area where two athletic women played a version of racquetball. One woman had red cuffs around her left knee and ankle and a bright pink scar that ran between them on the outside of her leg. Four monitors adjacent to the viewing area showed side and top views of the knee and ankle joints as they moved. It was clear that the red cuffs were instrumentation displaying real-time telemetry.
“See,” the doctor said while pointing to a graph below the display on the monitors of the knee joint, “the joint stress exceeds the nominal range for her age. She needs to worry that the ISA will rule this as a disqualifying enhancement.”
“Is she a professional athlete?” Meriel asked, not recognizing her on the sports networks.
“No. At least, not yet. A talented amateur. Her joints were crushed last year in an accident. They told her to forfeit the leg and hip for prosthetics. Your company offered her an alternative. She learned the sport as part of her physical therapy. Now she’s considering a professional career.”
Meriel wondered if John had some business deal that would require continuing treatment for people like Phillip and this girl.
“What about the radiation patient?” John asked and looked at his link. “Mr. Thompson?”
The doctor smiled again. “Released last week.” He looked at Meriel. “An impossible case, you know. Mining accident. Just remarkable. Stage IV melanoma spread to his lungs—incurable. He came here to die, to waste away where his family could not see him degenerate.”
“Bone-marrow regen,” John said.
“That’s right, Mr. Brown,” the doctor said. “Genetic replication for hematopoietic regeneration. Your company also provided the cancer-cell tagging. The regenerated T-cells wiped out the melanoma completely.” He looked back at Meriel, clearly moved. “Death comes easy for some who have nothing to live for. This man recovered remarkably fast and returned to children who loved him.” The doctor walked ahead, and Meriel and John followed a few paces behind.
Meriel could remain quiet no longer and whispered, “John, it’s cruel to withhold treatment for business reasons.”
“Yes, I agree it is immoral and unethical to withhold it,” John said, “but treatment is also extremely expensive.” Meriel opened her mouth, but John raised his hand to stop her. “That’s why their treatments are free.”
Meriel raised her eyebrows. “Then what’s this ‘final understanding’?”
“In a moment,” John said. The doctor stopped by the door to a small office, and John turned to Meriel. “If you will excuse us please, I’ll be out shortly.”
Meriel waited for a few minutes and then went back to watch the women playing racquetball. She looked at the screens with interior views of the ankle and watched it flex and extend. The graphs spiked with stress each time she planted her foot or cut in a new direction.
The young woman’s faint scar caught Meriel’s attention again, and she recalled Phillip’s scar-free wrists. She rubbed her shoulder above her left breast. Maybe his people can heal me, she thought.
John came up beside her. “Well, what do you think?”
“Well, it’s not stim. Can…” Her voice trailed off, and she blushed, not wanting to expose her disfigurement to another round of “poor girl” or “oh my God.”
“Does the scarring treatment work on…old scars?” she asked.
“As far as I know, yes,” he said. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing. So what’s this ‘final understanding’?”
“It’s a trade for marketing,” John said. “Each treatment is custom to the patient and still very expensive until we can get equipment and replicators near the point of treatment.”
“Their treatments are free?”
John nodded. “And no one else could help them.”
Meriel thought she had misjudged him more than once today and looked at John with newfound respect. She pointed to the women playing racquetball. “Which was your product? The joints or the instrumentation?”
“Yes,” John said with a smile and led her back to the entrance of the clinic.
“Both. When we first introduced joint regen, the doctors could not distinguish the performance between the original and the regenerated joint without better instrumentation, so we had to invent that, too. All of our competitors had joint replacements, but no one could heal the bones, nerves, and muscles at the same time. We can. The standard postop goal is mobility. We’re changing the goal to performance functionality.”
“Why so much secrecy?”
John looked around them and smiled. “Not here,” he said and led her outside the clinic and flagged a personal shuttle heading back to the docks in blue-zone.
Blue-zone included the docks and had its own shops and bars that were functional, sterile, and resilient because spacers from different ships tended to mix it up. Stationers thought spacers brought vermin with them and were hard on their fragile decor, so they mostly forced spacers back to the facilities near the docks. Station police harassed the blue-zone bar owners with sanitation orders that kept most of them alternating between repair and fumigation.
Meriel and John joined the Tiger crew at the TarnGirl in the middle of a raucous party and pulled chairs over to the table. Cookie flirted with a buxom blonde at the next table, which annoyed a large bald man sitting beside her. Their shoulder patches identified them as crew on another ship in their league, the JSS Rowley. Both crews had already reached stage 5—loud and bawdy—of Meriel’s ten stages of a spacer’s party with Alf Martin, Socket’s alternate, acting surly and heavily invested in a severe hangover. Socket was there as well, enhancing her legend with two muscular escorts.
John scrolled through the list of premium scotches. “What do you think, Alf, a single malt or blended?”
Alf Martin blinked with his mouth open, and Meriel looked away and bit her lip. She let her breath out slowly when John ordered a scotch-flavored alcohol replica.
“So why the secrecy?” Meriel asked John.
“Our competitors hunger for information about our products and customers. I can travel under the noses of our competition when I work crew.”
“Not really,” John said, “but they control the product buzz and the media. Our tactic is for loyal customers to post testimonials on the net and spread the word before BioLuna and others can suck the air out of our message.”
“Who’s the ‘we’ in your story?”
“LGen Inc. You heard of them?”
“No,” Meriel said.
“Good. That’s the idea.”
“What are you selling?”
“Information,” John said. “It’s too expensive to ship finished goods, so we sell replicator data sets so partners can mass produce locally.”
“Everybody does that,” Meriel said.
“Yes, but ours mimic an individual’s genetic markers—implants are guaranteed nonrejection; drugs are guaranteed compatible; drug blends without contraindications. We just need to have our nanoscale replicators on site to execute the data sets.”
“Why haven’t I heard of LGen before?”
“The big corporations have a media blackout to keep LGen out of retail,” he said, “so we need to sell through channels. Even BioLuna sells our stuff. Actually, the anonymity gives us lots of flexibility.”
“How does a small group like yours compete with BioLuna and the other conglomerates?”
“They need us. We’re still a big part of their R and D,” John said. “Most of the technology, the research threads, started on L5. You know about L5?”
Meriel raised her eyebrows, remembering that was where John came from. “Not much,” she said with a skeptical tone.
“What’s the matter? Why the look?”
“You look too normal, too healthy, to come from L5,” Meriel said.
John stood up and grabbed a pool cue from the wall and then hit his leg with a loud whack without flinching. “Nobody’s perfect.”
“Prosthetic?” Meriel asked.
“That’s us—prosthetics, genomics, pharma. They built L5 for research and development of products that could be mass-produced back on Earth. Well, L5 got old and worn, and the residents, including my parents, took a chance and left for a habitat called Haven. Our station is called LeHavre.”
“Haven’t heard of it,” she said. Sheesh, refugees from a condemned habitat moving up to a low-grav hellhole like Ceres. Meriel shook her head. “Rumor has it that L5ers were sterile from radiation and went extinct.”
John smiled and shook his head. “Nope. We’re doing fine.” He reached for his link and pulled up a vid of two girls, perhaps nine and eleven, and a woman kneeling between them. The older girl had a patch over her left eye. “See? I got two of the sweetest and healthiest little girls in the galaxy there. Becky and Sandy.”
Meriel raised her eyebrows and smiled. Good thing he didn’t surprise me about that, she thought. “They’re beautiful. Is that their mom in the middle?” Meriel asked.
“Yeah. She died some years ago.”
“Sorry,” she said and paused. “People out here don’t know anything about LeHavre either.”
“Only LGen ships fly in and out. The catalog coordinates are wrong, and BioLuna keeps them wrong.”
“BioLuna thinks they still own us. They want to control immigration and don’t want squatters,” he said. “It’s just as well. The ecosystem can’t handle a large influx of immigrants.”
Meriel nodded, only half listening. She was thinking about Haven and how impossible it sounded that a viable station and habitable body she’d not heard of could even exist. Before she could ask John about Haven’s location and livability, he interrupted her train of thought.
“Back there,” John said, “what did you mean when you said you’d lose the kids?”
“The kids from my ship when I was a kid.”
“The Princess?” John asked, but Meriel remained silent. “Sorry. Word gets around. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Meriel did not hear a note of pity in his voice and gave him a friendly smile. “You’re not…yet. I try not to talk about them. What did you hear about the Princess?”
“Only the announcement. The story disappeared pretty quick.”
“You’re the kid who survived?”
“One of them,” she said. “I’m trying to get our ship and the kids back together. There are lots of lawyers involved, and I need to act like I’m a good influence—or at least not a bad one.” Meriel finished her second drink and felt it. She wondered if any of the station lawyers might be taking vids of her here.
“Where are the others now?”
I should not be talking openly like this. “I really don’t know.” She lied. “Sometimes, I want to go AWOL to see them, especially my sister and little Harry.” She knew she had said too much. The drinks had affected her mood. Time to change the subject. “Say, Cookie told me you could help with some questions about coordinating in space.”
“How could one ship ambush another between stations?” she asked. “Cookie says they teach marines that it’s impossible.”
“Not impossible, just improbable, and that’s the issue—probability.”
“They don’t teach two-ship coordination.”
“That’s because they don’t do it anymore. Let me get Cookie.”
John turned around, and Meriel stole a look at his profile. A nice face, she thought, and honest eyes. He’s the most straight-arrow guy I’ve met in my life. But he’s not some station hookup. I still need to work with this guy tomorrow.
When John turned back to her, she felt the blush returning to her face. Cookie had a similar blush, and she suspected that the nearby blonde still held his attention. It appeared that the table next to theirs had already achieved stage 6 on Meriel’s party scale, and at the current rate of alcohol consumption, they would soon enter stage 7.
“You’re nav two, right?” John asked, and Meriel nodded. “OK, so I’ll just take it for granted you know about jumping and the sphere,” he said. Meriel nodded again. “Before they built all the stations, spacers tried to transfer cargo at jump points but gave up. Bottom line is that merchants could not make their margins trying to transfer cargo at jump points, and thieves gave up looking for them.”
Cookie turned to join their conversation. “’Cause you need to know exactly where something’s gonna be.” He swayed in his chair and grinned, oblivious to the balled up napkins that the blonde bounced off his head and the growing annoyance of the muscle beside her. Meriel wondered if they had reached stage 7 already.
“That’s right,” John said. “You need to know exactly where something is going to be, and you just can’t know that exactly. Even if they tell you where they plan to be, no one can hit the mark exactly.”
“The sphere,” Meriel said. She wondered if she should have invited them back to Teddy’s to discuss nav with an expert.
“Right,” John said.
“Right,” Cookie repeated and hit the table for emphasis. Meriel wondered if he would fall from his chair.
John continued, “OK, even if you know where your partner is supposed to be and wait there for him, you will not actually know he is there until his EM broadcast appears on your scopes.”
“When they wink-in,” Meriel said.
“Right. EM travels at light speed, so you don’t see their signals until then. Let’s say your sphere is one AU, which is pretty good for a jump. That’s still hundreds of millions of miles. It takes nearly ten minutes before you can see the signal and still lots more time and energy to get there. It’s much easier to build a station on the high-traffic routes.”
The big blonde had been listening and tried to wedge her way into Cookie’s conversation. She poked him on the shoulder, and he turned around. “Say, so why do we still use AU anyway?” she asked. “Earth is eight light years away.”
“It’s just a convention, like meters and feet,” Cookie said.
The blonde swung a dainty shoe onto the table in a most undainty manner. “Sure, but we bring our feet with us; we don’t bring Earth with us.”
Cookie slammed his boot onto the table, dwarfing hers. “Your foot is different than mine, but we all agreed on what a foot of distance is, just like meters and AU,” he said, removed his boot from the table, and turned back to rejoin the conversation with John and Meriel.
The blonde tried to swing her foot off the table but leaned back too far and would have fallen over if not for the nearby muscle, who caught her chair. Meriel guessed that the blonde would either pass out or be the first to reach stage 7 on the party scale.
“What if they don’t broadcast their position?” Meriel said, and Cookie frowned.
John continued, “If they don’t broadcast when they wink-in, you’ll need to find them against the background of stars. A ship’s albedo is really small at one AU and it can take hours to compute contrasts and displacements. Hell, it’s really hard to find anything smaller than a moon at that distance, if you find it at all.”
“And it could jump away first…” Meriel said.
John caught Cookie’s frown, and they exchanged glances. “So what’s this about? The question isn’t academic, is it?”
“No, sorry. I’m trying to figure out how pirates attacked my ship when I was a kid. Pirates have the same problem you two are talking about.”
“Right, pirates gave up because it’s too hard to find the victim.”
“Everyone says it couldn’t happen, but it did,” Meriel said. “I just can’t figure out how or why.”
John dropped his casual smile and looked at her. “Are you sure that the meeting was not…intentional?”
Meriel clenched her jaw and balled her fists but restrained the urge to punch him in the face at the insinuation of a clandestine drug drop. She held her temper and glared at him instead. “Absolutely.”
Cookie leaned over the table. “Then someone sent you somewhere your pilot didn’t intend.” He looked coldly serious but then blinked twice slowly as if the last drink had just reached his brain. The blonde escalated to cocktail olives to get his attention again, but stage 7 impaired her aim. From the look on her companion’s face, violence was imminent, but Meriel could not leave just yet.
“They could not just follow you in,” John said. “It would take too long to find you. They’d need two spheres to put you there and keep you there.”
Cookie nodded slowly as if he had uncovered a priceless gem. “And lock your nav so you couldn’t jump away before they got to you.”
Meriel frowned and fiddled with the sim-chip on her necklace. “But you can’t lock nav, right?”
Cookie leaned back with a smile and said loudly, “Right. Nav is more secure than a hooker’s client list.” He laughed, but Meriel shook her head with disappointment.
The blonde turned to Cookie. “Who you calling a hooker, sailor?” she said with a jiggle and a teasing smile. Apparently, all of the Rowley’s crew had reached stage 7—looking for trouble—and Cookie was where they were looking. He opened his mouth to reply, but the big man sitting with the blonde stood up.
“Yeah, who you calling a hooker?” the big man said.
Cookie stood up with open arms and a generous smile on his face, but the big guy swung at him anyway. Cookie leaned back and deflected the punch, but the big man lost his balance and fell on the table, spilling all of their drinks. It looked like Cookie had knocked him down, and both crews stood and squared off for a yelling match complete with shaking fists and threatening postures. Alf Martin escalated to a pool cue, which started the punches. Meriel backed away and looked for the door but could not maneuver around the fighters.
She grabbed John’s sleeve. “I’ve got to get out of here, John. I can’t get caught in a fight,” she said, intentionally leaving out again.
“It’s just a bar fight. They’ll let us all go in a few hours.”
“My sheet is too long, and I’m marine-three,” she said. “If I hurt someone, even by accident, I’ll lose my ship. I’ll lose my kids, John.”
“We can just blame it all on Cookie.”
“I’m serious. I gotta get out of here.”
John nodded and led her to the back of the TarnGirl as the bartenders and bouncers rushed past them to form a cordon in front of the liquor inventory. They found a door behind the bar, and Meriel went outside to a service corridor. John tried to follow, but someone pulled him back and threw a punch. The door slammed closed before she could stop it and would not open from the outside. She leaned against the wall to wait for him, but when the police sirens wailed, she knew she had to leave.
On her way back to the Tiger, Meriel stopped at a party-planner’s office to arrange a party and cake for Harry’s twelfth birthday. She used an alias because of the court orders that kept the kids’ identities and whereabouts secret—even arranging a party could put the kids at risk and her legal cases in jeopardy. While giving instructions to the party planner, she dreamed about having all of the kids together again, something that had not happened since they left the Princess all those years ago.
She tried to call John and Cookie without response, so she returned to the blue-zone docks and the Tiger. Molly stood at the air lock talking to Lev from her cargo crew and hailed Meriel.
“Seems our crew is in jail,” Molly said. “How’d you avoid that?”
“I was arranging a party, ma’am.”
“Well, they’re not getting out by themselves. Better go get them, Chief. I’ve authorized you for bail, but call me if the damages exceed your allowance.”
“Shore patrol is Cookie’s job,” Meriel said to hide that she knew he’d been arrested with the others.
Molly smiled. “He’s detained as well.”
“OK,” Meriel said and looked at her link. The authorization surprised her; it was almost a blank check—limited in purpose but not in amount. Meriel turned to go, but Molly continued.
“Oh, and Meriel, someone found this in green-zone,” she said and handed Meriel a lapel ID button that read, “LSM Tiger/Cargo.” It had fallen off Meriel’s shirt when the tough grabbed her purse. Meriel desperately tried to guess how much Molly knew so she could spin a cover story, but Molly interrupted her thoughts. “Maybe you can find the owner and return it,” she said with a smile and turned to board the Tiger.
Meriel borrowed a cargo cart that could accommodate everyone on the ship, not just her crewmates who were in jail, and drove the short distance to red-zone and the police station. She trusts me with the ship’s funds. If this is a test, then I need to pass it. How much does she know? she wondered.
Security spiders idled by the entrance to red-zone; their crimson lights blinked to remind everyone that they were armed. No ID was required to enter so as to expedite representation and removal of the detainees.
She parked the cart next to the police station and went inside. The small waiting room was equipped with two wire benches, a video monitor on the wall, and a single opaque window opposite the entrance. No exits were visible other than the door, and she guessed that a hazmat crew could hose down the entire room and sterilize it without damaging anything—like some bachelor apartments she had nearly entered.
Meriel approached the opaque window. It appeared to be thick and most likely made of a ballistic ceramic that would fog at ionizing wavelengths. She held her bracelet link up to the window so it could scan her ID, after which the window cleared, and the desk sergeant appeared.
“Here for the Tiger crew,” she said.
Without raising his head, the desk sergeant looked up at her with an asymmetric squint. “Haven’t I seen you before?”
His gaze returned to his monitor, but he pointed to a comm button on the wall. She ran her link near it.
“Damages?” Meriel asked. The officer nodded slightly and hit a button to display his console data on the window in front of her. Meriel synced the data again. When the data hit his screen, the officer hit a few keys.
“The Rowdy boys are here too,” he said absently, referring to the crew of the JJS Rowley.
Meriel turned away from the window and keyed her link. “Molly, they’ve got the Rowley crew. Can we take them?”
“Yes, but no damages,” Molly said. Meriel turned and synced her approval on the button.
The officer nodded. “Wait, please.”
After examination of the bench for fresh stains and vermin, Meriel sat down in front of the monitor.
In breaking news, elections on the Chosho colony on tau Cetu-4 have been in turmoil with the late inclusion of Fredric Allen on the Senate ballot. Allen’s candidacy is supported by the Archtrope of Calliope. His only legislation to date has been to extend the domes to include an exclusive self-governing colony for followers of the archtrope. His standing for election is seen as a referendum on the archtrope’s involvement…
Meriel half listened while she worked on her link. News was so sequential, so linear, and so dumbed-down that she needed something to do between the endless clichés and cultural tics. She composed another text to her hacker friend, Nick.
See if you can find anything on a colony named Haven or a station called LeHavre.
Haven, she thought. John. I didn’t thank him for helping me out. She leaned back on the bench and imagined the two possible outcomes for her—prison or traction—if he had not intervened between her and the two stim addicts. He did not look like a fighter but seemed competent. How many other non-lethal weapons does he carry?
One of the thugs had called her “Cruiser” when he had first confronted her. Was it really just an insult, or did he know she worked cargo? Her fatigues were hidden in her bag. They might recognize me as a spacer by my walk or the proximity to the handholds or maybe just my nervousness on a station. But why cargo?
Meriel walked to the window and waved her link near the button. “Excuse me, Officer. Do you have a moment?”
The window clarified. “Is it business?”
“You betcha. You’ve seen thousands of people come by here, huh?” she said, and he nodded. “So, what do you think I’m rated for?”
The cop smiled. “Well a pretty young—”
“Way off. Start over.”
The desk sergeant shrugged. “Spacer, of course. Right handed. Study a lot. Marine training, maybe three or four. Let me see your hands.” Meriel showed her hands in front of the window. “Marine three. Got a rough past—no I don’t want to know. Shipside accident maybe with a torch.”
“I thought I covered that.”
“You still flinch. You’re bailing out friends, not just shipmates.” He smiled broadly. “Right. And you were with them.” Meriel opened her mouth, but he waved his hand. “No need to deny it.” He squinted. “Trouble sleeping. Boost—”
“OK, OK. I wasn’t looking for a CAT scan. Rating?”
“Hmmm. Not security. Nav? Communications?”
“Anything that would indicate cargo?”
He looked at her again and squinted. “Nope.”
“You still get insulted when they call you a cruiser?” he asked. “Don’t take it personally. Some guy called my wife a cruiser.”
“What happened to him?”
“Dunno really. Seems he kinda disappeared,” the desk sergeant said and fogged the window.
Then why did the thug call me a cruiser? Maybe he saw me dockside. Maybe it was just an insult to throw me off.
The scene on the monitor switched to an interview of a tall man in uniform impatiently slapping a riding crop against his leg.
General Subedei Khanag of the Draconian League and follower of the Archtrope of Calliope has posted his fleet near Chosho Station. A spokesman for the government called the presence of Khanag’s highly armed ships intimidating and provocative. The general was candid in a recent interview with INS news correspondent Uriah Limets.
“Why have you brought so many armed ships into neutral space, General Khanag?”
“Merely as a sign of support and solidarity,” Khanag said.
Meriel heard repeated shouts of “Subedei!” from the men behind him led by a handsome young man with captain’s bars.
“I assure you we only wish Representative Allen and the archtrope the best of luck in this election.”
“Allen’s opponent has claimed that you plan a new front in the Immigration Wars right here on TC-4.”
“Nothing of the kind, I assure you. Such silly rumors should not be entertained for an instant. As believers, we value all human life and would never use our powers in the Immigration Wars. Those battles are for the desperate and the fascists. We support self-determination and the will of the populace to decide their own future.”
“General, where will the archtrope send you next?”
“Don’t misunderstand. The archtrope is my spiritual guide and prophet, not my commander…”
Another front in the Immigration Wars, Meriel thought, and another band of thugs to fight them. If we get the Princess back, I’ll remember to stay away. She shook her head and sighed. So just how am I going to get the Princess back?
“Chief Hope,” the officer said, interrupting her thoughts. “Tiger crew will be at R258T in three minutes. I’m sure you know the way, yes?” Meriel smiled, waved, and left the police station, then walked to the detention-center exit.
A few minutes after she arrived, John came out leading the crews of the Tiger and Rowley. Cookie came out arm in arm with the muscle from the bar, both of them in their T-shirts, and the blonde who had instigated the fight squeezed in between them. Meriel noted the similar marine tattoos on the two men’s biceps.
The big man came over to Meriel. “Thank your cap’n for us, dearie,” he said and extended his hand. However, before his hand reached her, he began to fall backward with the same speed as the extended hand, and it appeared suspended in space. A second later his body pulled his hand back, and he fell to the deck and began to snore. The Rowley crew picked the big man up, his arm still extended in the air, and they all boarded the cargo cart.
Cookie and the blonde talked softly in the back of the cart on the way to the docks and hugged when Meriel dropped off the Rowley crew.
“Who’s the blonde, Cookie?” Meriel asked as she drove them back to the Tiger.
“Whose?” John asked.
“His…and mine. She’s the reason I left the Marines.”
Meriel just shook her head.
(c) 2014, 2015 Benjamin R. Strong, Jr.
Meriel just shook her head.
(c) 2014, 2015 Benjamin R. Strong, Jr.