My chance presents itself when an insignificant cargo ship checks in. The captain, Frank Kipper, an easy-going loner, brushes past me calling, “Hey, Phil, do me a favor? Switch some takeoffs tomorrow so I can get out before 1400?”
It’s amazing how ship personnel believe, because you and they joke around a few times, that you’re going to let them get away with infractions. In this case, however, it’s me who’s about to get away with a major violation, so I just nod and wave him on.
In a flash, I’m inside his ship, have it humming and signal for take off. While Frank is probably halfway to one of Titon Station’s twenty-six bars or hookup suites, I back out Nuts & Bolts, the official name for his ship. By the time anyone figures out what I’ve done, I’ll be on the other side of Wormhole III.
I run a scan for life – human, android, known alien (Ferv and Rikshatan) and animal. Other than a cat in one of the halls, nada.
The cat appears, nonchalantly jumps onto the co-captain chair and licks his anus.
Soon I’m sailing free in Lao Zone, the least inhabited area of Earth mapped universe. One could float here for years without meeting an inhabited planet, moon, ship, or debris. This is the place to unwind, think and recover or possibly the opposite, check out.
I’m bored to death with the human race and its unevolving shenanigans. Devastating, wars – one ends, another already started, what horrors planet or group X has instigated, the shallow interests of people – which celebrity replaced body parts, who is appearing on what world or station, what religious sect will save your soul or new discovery will conquer death, blah blah blah.
That famous caricature of the grumpy old man?That’s me, only can I honestly say I’m still a man?How many people a hundred and twenty can?My carcass is forty-five percent biodigital, thirty-five regrown, leaving a mere twenty percent original, though even that’s enhanced. I look how natural old timers might have at forty-five. I feel physically excellent. It’s my spirit that’s tired.
I’m here now to possibly put an end to myself. Three failed marriage contracts under my belt, two sons and a daughter, five grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren I never see and who’ve apparently forgotten my name…nothing to linger around Earth or Mars for. I’m working myself into a world class pity party here.
A metallic crash reverberates through the ship. Out of my seat in a flash, I peer out the control room door into a long, dark corridor. The scan was wrong?My regrown heart thuds.
I wait…nothing, then return to Control, seal the door and rerun the scan. The cat jumps from his chair to sniff at the closed door. I see something on the screen and my gut clenches. A living entity about 45 KG is just outside one of the cargo bays. Rechecking the scan I see now that it had bypassed bay IV. Why?
Calling up the ship’s original structure map, I zero in on that bay and voila: Bay IV is benidium lined.
As a seasoned space traffic controller, I should have known what kinds of secret storage areas I might find on a small, private cargo ship. And definitely that Frank Kipper, who’s always been evasive about why he works alone, would haul illegal substances for the right price. The lined cargo room is probably no more than closet size and would slip by station scans.
I set my stuns and for back up, the Rikshatan morph blade I keep in my boot. Whoever is out there probably knows this ship better than I do, every nook and cranny.
Hearing a metallic footfall, I creep to the corridor’s end, wait for the next sound which signals me to the right, then, crouching down, pull out my stun. Someone’s shadow at the end of that hall elongates sideways.
“Hey!” I yell, jumping out and aiming for “someone’s” head. “On the floor, spread ‘em!”
The figure drops and spreads as it screams one of the more filthy curses of the solar system. I approach tentatively. Amazing that though I’m tired of living, how protective I am of my life.
I arrive at the spot to see a small human. Poking it with my foot, I order, “Get up. Hands on the wall.”It obeys.
I set the stun on the floor and tell it to keep figure inline. It flashes orange in affirmative. After frisking the individual, I stand back.“Turn around,” I bark.
She does. Her eyes are intensely blue and slightly tilted.
“You are?” I prompt.
“Linya Twenty. Got a problem with that?”
It’s hard to sound tough when your voice registers in the upper end of the scale.
“What are you doing on this ship?I was under the impression its captain travels alone or with robos.”
“His robos are down and stored since I’m here. Unless he wants one of the sexuals.”
For a moment I flounder.“Uh, well, glad to hear he’s not into children.”
She scowls. “Frank’s a good guy. You want me to kick you where it hurts?” The defiant set of her little chin stabs me in the heart. My daughter when about that age flashes through my mind – I’d caught her doing something, can’t recall what, but the chin thing, that seems like yesterday. For a sec, I have an insane urge to weep.
“So…Frank knows you’re on here?”
“Of course he knows, you idiot!What did you do to him?You better not try anything with me, I’ll bite it off!”
I’m old enough to be her great-great-great grandfather. “For your information, I haven’t been interested in ‘trying anything’ for longer than you’ve been in the flesh. So shut up and explain why you’re on this ship!”
“Why are you on this ship?” she snaps.
She’s an odd little creature, wiry and mean looking. Her reddish brown hair appears to have been styled by a lunatic. Her skin is pasty, as if she has never seen sunlight.
I stare her down. “Eventually, one of us will have to eat,” I say sarcastically. “Or use the toilet.”
She spits on the floor, wipes her chin with her arm and barks, “I belong here. You’re the one who don’t.”
“Yeah? Frank didn’t mention passengers when he checked in. And apparently you were hiding in that benidium bay, so technically I could turn you in.”
“Really?” she says, voice riding even higher. “And how would you explain Frank’s disappearance?”
“How do you know he disappeared?”
“Well, you’re here and that says it. He wouldn’t have taken on another passenger.”
“Why’s that, squirt?”
“Because…because he hates people, that’s why.”
“Really? So how come he let you on here?”
She clams up. I realize I still have the stun on her, so order it off. Taking a chance – for all I know, she could ram me with a something.
“Where are we?I shouldn’t be out here exposed.”
“Lao Zone, and why not?” I ask, very suspicious now.
“Anyone around here?” she snaps.
“Totally unlikely. But do explain.”
I need something to eat,” she says, ignoring the question. “I’m frickin’ starving. And you,” she adds. “You’re gonna explain what happened to Frank.”
She zips past me while I rush to keep up. We whisk through a door and enter the galley. Haven’t seen it yet, so it kind of surprises me. All done up in blue with curtains around a false window and fake flowers in a vase on the table.
“This your work?” I ask.
She ignores me while opening and shutting drawers, slamming pans around. In a few minutes, onions are sizzling on the fancy looking stove. She behaves as though I’m not there, so I park myself at the table. The aroma of food drives me crazy.
But she plops down only one plate of mystery meat with the onions.“I don’t get any?” I whine.
She ignores me and shovels it in. As she lifts her arm, her sleeve rides up to reveal a row of symbols on her wrist. My gasp causes her head to pop up, her fork in midair.
“Nothing,” I say, then change my mind. Why am I allowing a pip-squeak teenager to intimidate me?“That tattoo on your wrist.”
She stands up and slams both hands on the table, sending the fork clanging to the floor.“You mind your own business, you hear?” she yells, then runs from the room. I dart for the corridor, but she’s gone. Since she abandoned her food, what the hell, I eat it.
Back in Control, I worry. God only knows what she could be doing out there, sabotaging in ways too numerous to count. I run scan and locate her in one of the apartments, not moving, possibly lying on a bed. I decide to let her be for now.
Unless I’m mistaken, that tattoo is the mark of the Galodea, an organization like twentieth century Nazis melded with Cosa Nostra. Purity of humans is their obsession and if you happen to carry even a tiny percentage of Ferv or Rikshatan DNA, they may visit in the dark of night and your landlord will wonder why you disappeared before paying your rent. Within a short time, you’ll be someone’s personal property on any of the worlds where such activity is tolerated. A Galodea slave is tattooed the day of its capture, using an ink that their technology can detect from quite a distance and escape is nearly impossible. Should the impossible happen, woe to the slave who escapes and to anyone who facilitates that escape.
My guts turn to gurgling lava.
I pass a shaky half hour, visualizing myself on one of Galodea’s rumored torture racks till I’m startled by “music” that sounds like cattle being sliced to shreds in a clanging, threshing machine. Frantically, I search the puters for sound control and turn everything off, but it continues. Nothing for it but to chase it physically. Not hard – she’s back in the galley stuffing her face while bobbing to the mind murdering racket.
“TURN THAT OFF!” I bellow.
Deliberately, she continues to chew. I slam my fist on the table, causing her bowl and utensils to clatter.“Either do it or I’ll cut off your food and water!”
She makes a face, snaps her fingers and the horror stops.
“What the hell was that?”
“Where is the damned thing?”
She reaches around to pull something from a back pocket then hands it to me. It looks like a grape.
“Where’d you get this?”
“Frank,” she says. “You know, the guy who actually owns this ship.”
My hand shoots out and grabs her wrist, hard. Before she can fight me, I have her sleeve yanked up and the tattoo exposed.
“Explain this,” I growl, more terrified than angry.
She jerks away, intending to run, but I have my stun on her. “It’s set to low. Won’t kill you, just hurt like hell.”
“You wouldn’t,” she says, and to her amazement and my regret, I blast her. She slams back against the wall, slides down and curls up in a ball, rolling about yelping. I feel like I kicked a puppy.
I help her to her feet. She’s too weak to fight and indeed, leans against me. Depositing her back in her chair, I sit and try again.
“Since you’re endangering my life, you’re going to explain. How did you get that tattoo and how did you escape?”
Her head is wobbly, but she manages to speak.“Frank promised me,” she says, so low I can hardly hear.
“Promised you what?”
“That he knew someone who’d get it off, that the guy’s a genius and no one will be able to tell after.”
“How did it get on there in the first place?”
She turns away, but the fight in her is gone. “They had me from the beginning.”
It takes a moment for that to sink in.“You mean…you were a lot baby?They bought you before…”
She nods. Lot babies, for the sheltered among you, are fertilized embryos black-market labs sell in batches. Those who need a cheap workforce of children are eager to buy. The punishment for engaging is such activities is death, unless you’re involved in high end organized crime. In which case, you get away with anything you please.
I put away the stun.“All right, so you were raised in a Galodea den. How is that done exactly?”
She breathes heavily, rubbing her arms, trying to recover.“I don’t remember anything till I was three. They had ‘mother’ slaves take care of us. Some were decent, some weren’t. They’d been lot babies themselves. By the time we were eight or nine, we were harvesting spode, then as we got older with better fine motor control, we graduated to working in the refining mills. By the time I was fifteen, Earth Count, I was foreman of my section.
“How old are you now?”
“Did you ever get to go anywhere? What about education?”
“Education consists of what we need to know. Math, physics, technical stuff, obviously how to read. Two languages, Anglo and Galactic Mandarin. How to cook and keep yourself and belongings clean. Travel?One of the plant owner’s sons, Nigel de Galodea, decided he wanted me. He forced himself on me several times, then occasionally took me away for business trips on other moons and once on Koglan IV.I got to see what free people do. I made up my mind.”
“Made up your mind?”
“Yeah. That I would escape or die. I didn’t care which.”
“I heard that escape is impossible.”
“You heard wrong. Many have escaped, many have been caught. And then either killed or brain dulled.”
“And the people they were caught with?”
She doesn’t answer. My intake of breath is shaggy. The only thing good we have going is where we currently are in space. But we can’t stay here forever. I could eject her. Her demise would be quick.
“Please don’t kill me,” she says softly. Her eyes are lustrous like you only see in the very young, their whites still milky blue.
“How did you know I was thinking that?”
She looks off to the side and instantly I know she is part Ferv. But the Galodea would never purchase lot fetuses with that in them.“You read my mind,” I say. “How did this happen?”
“I’m not sure,” she says.
“They wouldn’t knowingly buy a batch of hybrids.”
“You’re right. They’d never let hybrid slaves work in their spode plants. Captured hybrids are for mining and hard labor; they work them to early deaths. Because,” she says smirking, “we can read their evil minds.”
“What I cannot understand is how the whole batch of you keep it hidden or who made the batch in the first place.”
“I’ve heard,” she says, “that there are those who secretly mock the Galodea. Infiltration, so to speak.”
“A sorry way to do it, at the expense of so many miserable lives.”
“But don’t you see,” she says, smiling for the first time. “It is the thing most feared by Galodea masters, it’s why they hate hybrids! You know, don’t you, that when they capture known hybrids and enslave them, they do something to their minds so they’re no longer telepathic?Somehow, I guess by the time we lot babies developed telepathy, usually around age eight, we knew to keep our mouths shut. I was able to mind read Frank when I first saw him on Koglan IV. It was how I made my escape.”
“What did you read in Frank?”
“He was with a sex robo, pretending to have a conversation. I don’t understand why men bother talking to a sex machine. Do they imagine the robo cares what they think?Anyway, he’d been watching me. Somehow he knew what I was, knew what Nigel was. Frank has been around.
“When we passed near him, he was thinking: That bastard, I’d like to ram a rod into both ends till they meet in the middle. His eyes focused on me and that was when he had the thought that he knew someone who could remove the tattoo.”
“How did you know,” I ask, “that he’d be willing to risk-”
“Somehow he knew I’m hybrid. A while later, he said in his mind, ‘Dock 515, tonight 2300, password RODINIANGEST.’My problem then was how to get there.”
“Wait a minute. How would he project to you?Can I do that?”
She is silent for a long moment.“Maybe he was just thinking it for me and I just happened to be near enough to read.”She seemed a little evasive.
“So, how did you make your escape?”
She shudders. “Nigel de Galodea, like most arrogant assholes, has an addiction. His problem is spriol, very high grade, elite spode. I guess it’s hard to be a Galodea prince with access to anything you want and not get sucked in.”
“Never heard of the stuff,” I say. I tried spode once, decades ago. The experience was not negative, yet not positive enough to attract me a second time. Alcohol is better for my personal oblivions.
“Not too many people have. But he wanted some and there wasn’t any on Koglan IV.I knew how to make a version of it from spode. He jumped at the chance, got me everything I needed. I wouldn’t let him watch and he was so eager, so desperate, he let me boss him around. I cooked it strength and half. Could have done double and killed him, but controlled myself. A Galodea family avenging a murder is not something you want on your tail.
“He took forever to get blazed, but obviously, I made it out. Frank let me in and we were off and down a wormhole sooner than it takes me to smoke a v-stick. Our plan was to drop off his cargo at Titon Station, then he’d take me to that guy he knows who’d rid me of the tattoo.”
She gave me a look that could shrivel your organs. “But now he’s back there freakin’ out about his ship and you, you idiot, you messed up whatever future I was gonna have!”
My God, she’s right. Then something occurs to me. “We’ve only been gone a few hours. Frank is probably just mellow enough by now to see some girls for a romp and may not even notice anything wrong for another hour or so. Maybe more if he nods off after.”
“He told me he wasn’t going to drink this time. Chances are, he’s already called in cops. They’ll be crawling all over the place. The dirty bastards will send me right back to Galodea since most of them are in its pocket!”Her eyes are filled with stark terror.
“Look, even though you probably think I dislike you, that’s not true. I admire your spunk. The thing is, I don’t relish being killed for all this.”
Funny, but just a few hours ago, I wouldn’t have cared of someone blasted my head off, but now….well…I feel an old longing when I look at the girl and I’m not referring to sex.
“I’m wondering,” I say, “why Frank would risk his own life to free you. Something’s not adding up.”
She doesn’t look at me.
I grab her arm and shake her.“Listen, I don’t need to read minds here. Frank is a hybrid, isn’t he?Somehow he hides it, has all this time. You didn’t just read his mind, he projected to you!”
“Tell me you haven’t suspected it.”
“He never said,” she replies.
“How far away can you read me? Across the room?On the other side of the ship?A hop, skip and a ship away?”
“I don’t know, across the room.”
“I see. Not on the other side of the ship then?”
“And if you’re in a place with a bunch of people around, you hear them all at the same time?”
“Sort of, but if you want to hear just one, you can concentrate on that one.”
“And can you project to someone?”
“I don’t know, farther.”
“And to receive it, the target would have to be telepathic?”
“I guess so.”
“So how far away was Frank from you when he sent his message about being at Dock 515?”
She hesitates.“I see what you mean.”
“Now I understand why he was so sympathetic and knew where to get rid of those tattoos. Maybe he won’t be so quick to call on the cops, not with his own hidden background, the shady cargo he sometimes hauls and the fact that you never know which cop is in Galodea’s pocket. What we need is a way to contact him without you sticking out like a sore thumb.”She’s all big eyes now, street sass gone.
“Any booze on this heap?”
She gets up, opens a drawer and pulls out a bottle of Mars-Dunberry Scotch and pours me a double.“I need to think,” I tell her. “Can you send a message while protected by benidium?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Listen, gotta remind you, I wasn’t hiding in that bay just to avoid the life scanners, but because Galodea could pick up my tattoo in well traveled space.”
“To get close enough for you to even hope to project, it’s not just you we have to hide, it’s the entire ship.” Something occurs to me. “We could conceal ourselves behind one of Saturn’s moons reasonably close to Titon. There’d be the jump from the worm hole exit to that moon and during that we could be detected. Is it humanly possibly for the Galodea to check all points at all times? You didn’t live in the benidium bay the whole time you’ve been in this ship…..”
“I’ll take the chance if you will,” she says.
I don’t stop to breathe because if I do, I could change my mind.“Get into that bay,” I order and she runs like hell.
In Control, I set the coordinates for Wormhole III return, then for the fastest jump possible, considering the abilities of Nuts & Bolts. The cat, as if he understands the seriousness of the situation, hunkers under my seat. My hands are slippery with sweat. Not a religious man, I mutter a prayer and signal Go. This is it.
In a matter of twenty soul wrenching minutes, Hyperion’s spongy looking surface is 32,000 km from my drenched face. The cat, now cleaning his left paw seems ignorant of his close call with the Reaper. Not that we’re safe now.
I shakily signal Linya.“You okay?”
Oddly, her little voice warms my heart.“Yeah,” she says. “We’re there already?”
“We are. It’s time for you to see how far you can project and if the benidium stops you. Do your thing, hybrid.”
“’Kay,” she says, voice tinier still.
There is a long silence while my guts make dangerous gurgles. Not now, please, not now. Finally, she speaks.
“Got him,” she says.“He knows we’re here. Give me our coordinates to send so he can get here in a shuttle. It’ll take a while though,” she says.
I do, my relief intense. But it’s short lived.
We’re being approached by an unidentified ship, second class.“DON’T LEAVE THAT ROOM!” I bark at her.“Somebody’s coming.”
She doesn’t reply and I feel a panic that completely dwarfs my former one.
They signal and full of dread, I open communications. A smirky face fills the screen.
“You have no clearance to be in this area,” he opens.“We’re coming aboard.”
Though practically blind with terror, I manage to blurt, “Who are you?”
“Never mind. Maybe we’re Policia. Don’t try anything. Our weapons can reduce your ship to oatmeal.”
They’re not the police. The police would know Nuts & Bolts is not “my ship.”That means they’re probably Galodea. Linya and I are good as dead – after they torture us for days first.
I should have familiarized myself with the ship’s defense, but then I haven’t been in it all that long without distraction and didn’t expect to need weapons in Lao Zone. They lock onto the airlock and, though practically pissing myself, I walk to meet them.
There are two – one wiry and and covered in scars and the other tall and beefy.“Strip,” they order.
This is it. They’ll probably blast off my penis for the pleasure of it. Instead they tie and gag me, leaving me heaped on the floor in a humiliating posture. As I wait for them to return and finish me off, my life runs past. I think about my kids I never see, about what they’ll probably put Linya through, about what will happen to her if she survives. What’s the point of it all if life just turns out like this?
For what feels like eons, they clang around the ship. Then I hear a couple of thuds and their ship pressing off. What the -?Here I am, a naked trussed pig till Linya finds me, if she’s still there. Not that I relish her seeing me like this. I’ve soiled myself too.
Suddenly, she is behind me.“How do I get these off?” she says, referring to my bindings.“They’re metal.”She removes the gag.
“Find a stun; they took mine. Look in Control, galley, anywhere.”
Ages pass before she returns.“They took stuff, drawers are open all over, but I found this.”She holds it in front of my face. It’s a large work stun, but will have to do.
“Set it low and try not to hit me.”
I feel heat, but she manages and the bindings fall off. She hands me the stun and I do my ankles.“For crying out loud, let me clean myself up.”
“Don’t worry,Nigel shit himself when he was wasted all the time.”
“Just the same,” I tell her. “But before I go do that, how did you keep away from them?”
“Frank thinks of everything,” she says.“Inside that bay, there’s a little door to another compartment. That’s benidium lined too and big enough for me to curl up in. When the door’s shut, you can’t tell unless you know it’s there.”
“I suppose,” I say, “that’s where he stores his really illegal cargo. Thank God. Now get back in that bay!”
She obeys while I clean up and return to Control. Frank has signaled he’s halfway to us.
“So who were those abominations?” I transmit to Linya.“Not Galodea – we’re still here.”
“They work for a small crime boss. I read their little pea brains. Robbery is their game, mainly drug cargo. Wasn’t any on here so they left. They took some of Frank’s things. Bastards.”
It occurs to me Frank probably wants to kill me, but I’m too exhausted to care.
Linya says, “What am I going to do after the tattoo is off?I can’t stay with Frank.”
She sounds so small and scared and it’s then I know what I want.
Soon Frank’s shuttle is clamping to the airlock and his voice booms, “Open, you son of a bitch!”
“He’s here,” I inform Linya.
I open the airlock and in a matter of minutes, he bursts into Control, Linya dangerously out and behind him.
“Let me handle this,” she says, giving me a hard look.
“Don’t hurt him, Frank. He knows everything, more than you can guess. He’s sorry he took your ship.”
Frank peers around her in order to shoot me the evil eye.
“Tell him you’re sorry, Phil,” she says.
“Sorry, Frank,” I say in the manner of a twelve year old forced by his mother.“I was desperate. Wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“I could freakin’ kill you,” he says.
There’s a long, embarrassing moment. I say, “After she’s clean, what are your plans for her?”
He looks surprised, like he hasn’t given it any thought.“Uh, I dunno.”
She looks at me.
I find myself stuttering.“Well, uh…”
“Yeah?” says Frank impatiently.
“She can stay with me if she likes. I’ll say she’s my niece, maybe later adopt her. They have a decent secondary school on the station, beamed in classes, occasional visiting professors.”
“I’m probably really behind,” she says tentatively. But the fact that she notes this pleases me.
Frank shrugs.“Up to you, kid,” he says.
I can’t believe I have done/said this, but it’s exactly what I want. More so what I need.
“You’re pretty old,” she observes.
“But not dead yet.”
She gives me a long stare, not at all sassy, then nods.
I head to the station in the shuttle while Frank, with Linya stashed back in the bay, heads out to where he won’t say. I claim to administration that I’d been sick as a dog, delirious even. They deduct from my pay and issue me a warning.
Takes Frank and Linya two months before they return with Linya’s arm clean. He hands her over, safe and sound. I hire a remedial tutor and she’s catching up quick. In a bit, she’ll start university. They transmit from every university on Earth and Mars, she can take her pick.
This time, I’m doing my best not to screw up as a parent. I’m not the least bit bored anymore.