The Tiger dropped out of jump at the edge of the Lalande system and made a few short jumps to synch its velocity to that of Lander Station. Lander was the interstellar hub for the system and another transshipment logistics center. It was also the financial center for the sector and had the highest concentration of wealth outside of Earth and Sirius.
There would still be a few hours of one-g deceleration until the pilot ships and tugs met them near Lander, so Meriel returned to her cabin after checking the cargo. Her lawyer said he’d be on the station, so Meriel thumbed a text to him.
Will be on Lander by 2300. Where should we meet? M
Then another to John.
I owe you a scotch. M
To which she received an immediate reply.
Ack. On duty. Will collect at TarnGirl.
Meriel knew the place, a spacer bar in Lander’s blue-zone docks, just around the rim. Her thoughts drifted to John standing at the window gazing at the nebula. Like a tree rooted to the deck, she thought, looking up at the stars. She shook her head. No time for that now.
She pulled up her personal log and added a new category, attacks in open space, and included what she had learned from Cookie. In her calendar, she added a reminder to talk to John or Jerri about coordinating in space.
Nav, she thought and fiddled with the sim-chip on her necklace, the chip with the jump program that had rescued them a decade ago. She took off her necklace and plugged the sim-chip into her link. So what was it that Mom wanted me to know?
She opened the research on Home and scrolled to a holo file. It was unreadable, like all of the other files on the sim-chip, but she knew from the file name what it was—the single thing that said that her mom was right about Home, the most sought-after real estate for everyone who didn’t already live on Earth.
She cued up a copy from a conspiracy site that had the same name as her mother’s file: “Interview with J. Mouldersen.” The vid was a low-res, fuzzy version of a hologram squeezed onto 2-D, maybe shot using a personal link held in an unsteady hand while autofocus struggled to find the right subject—or by a holographer trying to hide. A forest of white jackets filled the foreground beyond which two men and a woman sat at a table looking haggard, or maybe tipsy, but smiling. Meriel could not make out any insignia of affiliation.
The woman behind the table stood. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have the most wonderful news,” she said. “A few years ago, one of our remote survey probes returned and found what we’ve all been searching for. The data looked crazy until we found a key. We discovered something wonderful that—”
A woman’s voice interrupted the speaker. “Cut the hyperbole, Jeannine. What did you find?”
“An earthlike object that—”
Loud grumblings interrupted Jeannine again. The conversation was almost inaudible and sounded like they were speaking inside a tin can with their mouths full of bread.
“We’ve found lots of earthlike objects but not like enough to be livable,” said another voice.
Livability was always the issue. People existed on lots of habitable bodies in space, but habitable referred to what humans could survive. The best were domed structures like Mars and Moon-1, that had enough wealth and energy to provide continual artificial gravity. The worst were low-g communes or overcrowded arcologies. These were hellholes that stretched the limits of what could be called human life.
Jeannine continued. “It’s really earthlike—liquid water, [incomprehensible static] high oxygen atmosphere, close to one-g, temperate—” she said, her voice disappearing in loud mumblings.
“It’s bad data, Jeannine,” said a new voice. “This is a scam or faulty instrumentation. The probe should have come back with the others decades ago.”
“Yeah, how did it get lost?” someone asked.
“Apparently, there’s lots of EM noise and dust nearby,” Jeannine said, “and the probe got confused. It took the AI algorithm a while to figure out where it was in order to get back home. Clever thing used spectra in the Magellanic cloud to orient itself.”
“Did some real-estate speculator sign you up for this?”
“No, no, really. Have an independent lab review the data,” she said, and others at the table nodded.
Meriel heard scuffling on the vid, and the image spun and looked up—as though the camera had been dropped under a chair—as black boots and tailored cuffs walked past the link.
“Meeting over. Stop recording,” a man’s garbled voice said. After a few unintelligible sounds, the vid cut off, either due to a dead battery or a judgment that the rest was just noise.
After her mother’s death, this clip, and the hope it represented, gave Meriel something to hold onto and sustained her with the dream of a home for the orphans. She and Elizabeth dreamed about Home and researched it obsessively. Even after the troopers put all the orphans into protective custody and fostered them out on different ships, Meriel and Elizabeth searched the archives for different versions of this video clip that might give them additional clues.
But before that first year ran out, the dream was gone. When Meriel was just thirteen, too young to protest, they gave her a psych evaluation and put her on meds to control her nightmares. The meds numbed her emotions, and she stopped caring about pretty much everybody and everything and hid herself in her work. She never told Elizabeth she had lost faith in Home, and she excused her apathy by calling the vid an amateur production, a teaser for a screenplay. By then it was too late; the social workers contracted Meriel out to another ship to split her from her sister, and Meriel drifted away.
So what can I do now? she thought, playing with the sim-chip. In less than twenty days, the Princess will be gone and this will only be a dongle.
Meriel put the sim-chip back on her necklace and fiddled with it while she switched back to her incoming messages.
Elizabeth K ET 2187:58:14.3
Hey, M, miss u!
I finished nav-2 training and am ready to solo, not that I really need to solo, but I can’t rightly tell the test committee I jumped a ship when I was ten, now, can I.
Met Penny at her last stop at eIndi. Some pretty face on the Murititius has turned her into a love-sick puppy. He’s sweet but dull as a bolt.
M, regarding your last question about my well-being…squawk…hiss…reception is breaking up. Ha. How am I doing? Feeling low. My LI (love interest) swapped ships for a promotion, and I won’t see him for at least a month. I don’t know if it was me or the new contract, but either way, he dumped me. That leaves me the only eligible female on the boat. His replacement is a horror, some hairy beast who thinks he’s gonna move in, and I can’t be caught alone. There’s a slot in security on the Tjana that matches my marine-2 qual. If the troll persists, I’ll transfer.
I’ll be at Etna about the time you are, and maybe we can meet. LU always. Littlebit.
Crap! I don’t want her dragging spacers out of a drunk tank.
“Reply,” Meriel said to the console. “Sis, we want you on the bridge, not in security. Don’t volunteer to be in the line of fire yet. Stay with comm for now; it’s safer. And use the marine training to tame your admirers.” What can I tell her about the Princess that would be helpful? Nothing. “Bad news from the lawyers. I’ll tell you when I see you. Love, M. End reply.”
She clicked on the message from twelve-year-old Harry Fisher, who still missed his older sister, Anita. A vid of Harry popped up. It looked like he was in his bunk with the covers over his head.
“Meri. I wanna be with Anni,” Harry said on the vid. “I don’t like it here. The captain’s fine, and Ms. Lanceux is OK, but the kids tease me about being a foster. They play pirates all the time, and it’s creepy. They don’t get it, and I can’t tell them.
“I haven’t seen Anni in a year, M, and I’m not gonna see her for another month. I want to be with Anni, M. Please, please, please.”
God, what do I say to him? she thought. His fosters have their own plans, and they’re never gonna put him back with Anita.
“Reply. Audio,” Meriel said aloud. “Begin. Harry, hon, hang in there. I’ll do what I can. The logs show you at Cygni about the same time as Sam. I’ll make sure that you touch base. M. Stop. Send.”
Harry’s birthday is coming up. That’s the worst of this, not having family at your birthday. It’s like celebrating on an asteroid all by yourself. Sure, friends help, but family is different. I’ll have to do something special for Harry.
Meriel rose and chugged a juice pack. She shook her head. Maybe I should have left them alone. Then they could adapt to the separation rather than giving them hope of getting back together again. Now they miss what we lost, and it stops them from finding happiness where they are, especially Harry. He was young enough to bond with a new family, and I keep tempting him with something I can’t deliver.
She went back to her console and pulled up the calendar that showed everyone’s birthdays. Now, where will the kids be on Harry’s birthday? It was one of her duties to get at least one other family member at every birthday celebration, or something special if no one could be there. But Meriel never thought of her own birthday.
Doc Ferrell’s call caught XO Molly Vingel by surprise.
“Can we do this later Doc?” she asked. “I’m updating the ship’s logs.”
“Exec, I need Hope’s confidential file,” Ferrell said.
“Why?” Molly asked.
“I think she’s off her meds, and that means she’s dangerous.”
Molly paused. “The Jolly Roger cleared her, Doc.”
“It was conditional,” he said. “She’s a loose cannon, and if she goes off, it will reflect badly on my tour here.”
Molly remained quiet.
“Do this, or I resign,” he said.
Captain Richard Vingel, Molly’s husband, leaned in from the adjoining ready room after hearing the word resign and raised his eyebrows.
Molly scribbled untreated narcissist in her log and held it up to show the captain and then returned to her link. “OK, Doc. Then keep this confidential, and focus on her performance,” she said. “You stir up her past, and I’ll write you up—with prejudice. Your tour will be over. Clear?”
“Clear,” Ferrell said and Molly switched off her link.
“You don’t trust him?” the captain asked.
Molly leaned back in her chair. “Nope,” she said. “He’s the league’s pick. We had to take him or the insurance would break us. I’m trolling for a replacement.”
“Shame that Doc Griffin had to leave so suddenly.”
“Death in the family, he said, but I’m not sure about that. Griffin is older than dirt and should have outlived all his relatives. And he didn’t seem to care about losing his tour bonus either. He was just in a big damn hurry to leave.”
“Let’s find out where he went. Put a flier out for his whereabouts,” the captain said and left.
Dr. Ferrell opened a bottle of whiskey and poured himself a drink while waiting for Meriel’s file to appear.
“Open private journal. Create new record,” Ferrell commanded his link. “Title Meriel Hope. Ship ID. Subtitle summary of confidential file review. Entry. Time stamp.”
When the link chimed, he used hand motions to project the data on the wall to scan the file.
ET/2177:38:57 Enterprise Independent News Wire: LSM Princess (GCN 13442:88), family merchant ship, found near Enterprise outer beacon, Procyon system with only one survivor from an unexplained tragedy. Unfolding.
Well, that’s pretty sketchy. He did a quick search on comp with Princess and survivors and turned up only the same article.
ET/2177:38:59 Global News Network:
LSM Princess attacked in deep space by unknown assailants. Unidentified surviving minor in protective custody. Station authorities deny rumors of piracy…
They buried the story ten years ago. That would have made her almost twelve.
ET/2177:105:19 Meriel Hope:
Daughter of Esther and Michael Hope. Born ET 2165:85. Residence: family merchant ship Princess until attack ET.2177:37:10. Princess severely damaged and recycled. Details sealed by order superior court 4, Enterprise, to protect minor.
ET/2178:102 Meriel X: foster child in protective custody of Enterprise Station. Released to unidentified merchant vessel, Cargo-0 trainee.
Huh. Unidentified vessel. Witness protection? he thought. So what did she witness? The next item was a news vid dated ET/2181:86:13.
This is Lance Freiden of GNN on the dock of the LSM Thrace. Sixteen-year-old Meriel Hope has surfaced today after four years in protective custody. Hope is the only survivor of an attack on the LSM Princess. Claims of piracy have been repeatedly dismissed by authorities…
He searched the net for more information about the Princess and Meriel but found nothing. That’s it, he thought. God, what a childhood. He scanned the training and certification logs.
“Rated nav-two, logistics-five,” Ferrell said into his link. “Ambitious.” Only twenty-two and made logistics-five. Admirable, he thought. “Marine-three.” Yikes, what’s she preparing for? He waved his hand to skip forward to the arrest record and keyed in his ID for access to her private records.
ET/2181:83 Dexter Station. Aggravated assault. Ruled self-defense.
ET/2183:147 Ross Station. Resisting arrest. Charges dropped.
ET/2184:220 Wolf Station. Disorderly conduct. Charges dropped.
ET/2184:259 Lander Station. Aggravated assault on a bouncer. Charges dismissed as self-defense. Treated in blue-zone infirmary and released to outpatient physical therapy.
Ferrell smirked. “Journal entry. Subject has evidence that she is not invulnerable,” he said.
ET/2185:315 Ross Station. Disorderly conduct. Charges dropped. Doctor testified as personal reference. Released without charges.
Here we are, Ferrell thought.
Tests: EMR 485. STM 223. KRTT 454, Briggs and Hall E3R4
“Tests out as a loner and driven,” Ferrell said into his link. “E3R4 borderline psychotic. Request data that produced that score.”
ET/2180:115:19.50 LSM Thrace (GCN 23492:06) X. Johansen, PhD.
Quick learner. Highly motivated. Gets along well with crew.
Continuing nightmares of childhood trauma on Princess. During therapy, she still speaks of the Princess as her ship and plans to reclaim it. She also speaks of getting custody of supposed orphans from the Princess and chartering routes in Sector 42. Requests to the captain for legal assistance have been denied. Court records are sealed, and no evidence has been found of legal rights to, or existence of, the Princess or any other survivors…
Ferrell poured himself another drink. “No evidence of any other survivors,” he said aloud to his journal. She was alone but thinks that the other kids are still alive. “Survivor’s guilt.” Damn, that’s tough.
Diagnosis: severe neurotic delusions, bordering on psychosis. Severe agitation occurs when delusions are challenged. Well-adjusted teen as long as fantasy remains intact. Continuing to work with her to adapt to the reality that all of the crew and her friends on the Princess were lost.
Prescribed mandatory antipsychotics. Psychogel-H (H1804-005) (aka Aristopine).
“Private journal entry,” he said. “Adaptation to trauma by creating a fictional reality. Truth too difficult to face head on.” So which world is she living in now?
ET/2184:115:20 LSM Commodore Levski (GCN 65512:43) Dr. Botev
Excellent crewmember. Commendation for diligence.
Resistant to therapy and analysis. Not willing to discuss the events on the Princess. Court records are sealed, and no evidence to substantiate delusions. Continuing mandatory antipsychotics.
ET/2186:152:12 LSM Jolly Roger (GCN 41223:21) Dr. L. Kustenov
Excellent crewman. Eager to work.
Bailed out on Lockyear for illegal tranq boost. Reluctant to discuss it. Continuing resistance to therapy and analysis. Will discuss nothing of the events on the Princess. Continuing mandatory antipsychotics. Check of comm traffic (Cpt’s approval on file) indicates communication with a low-rent lawyer (J. Bell esq. of Lockyear). Discussions confidential, but believed to regard custody of the Princess and the fictional orphans. As long as she has that fantasy to structure her reality, she appears in control. Without it, or the meds, her stability is uncertain.
ET/2186:283 Captain’s commendation for exceptional service. Unconditional recommendation.
Ferrell paced the three steps across his tiny office. Damn, he thought. The entire crew was killed—parents, kids, everyone. Man, what hell she must have been through, and maybe still going through. How could she survive? How’d she get back to a station? He sat down at the console again and drummed his fingers on his desk. Delusions and barely in control, never lost it on duty, but maybe dockside at Lander Station. Now she’s brought this cheap lawyer into her fantasy world?
“Append file, Meriel Hope,” Ferrell said. “Entry, ship ID, time stamp now, name. Begin entry. Hope comes highly recommended. No meeting yet to form professional opinion. Continue mandatory medication. Close entry. Append private journal. Entry. Insufficient information to modify treatment. Monitor to assure continuing medication. Recommend continuing trauma-counseling therapy. Close record.”
I sure hope she opens up to someone about this before it eats her up, he thought. Poor kid. It’s a shame what happened to her.
Ferrell poured himself another drink, which emptied the bottle. Huh. Whiskey rations get smaller every year that I’m out here.
(c) 2014, Benjamin R. Strong, Jr.
(c) 2014, Benjamin R. Strong, Jr.