Chapter 26: Shaky Starts and New Beginnings

By all accounts the attack was a resounding triumph, one to rival the Greek victory at Marathon or the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.  In addition to the Jupiter Shipyards, six Federation ships of the line and thirteen patrol craft had been destroyed along with a hundred and twenty-two commercial vessels.  One point eight million were dead, roughly a trillion monits worth of infrastructure had been lost and their enemy’s naval production cut by nearly half in a single stroke.

            For all her beauty and glory however, Mother Night was capricious and terrible in equal measure.  She played no favorites, took no requests, and granted no favors.  First spear had been lucky, a hundred and thirty-eight wounded and only seven fatalities, the others were less so.  Morgan’s Revenge; two-hundred and thirteen killed, three-hundred and six wounded.  Eleven of those maimed and one left blind.  Drunken Banshee; one-hundred killed, twenty-seven wounded, five grievously burned and not expected to survive.  Valkyrie; eighty-nine killed, one-hundred and two wounded.  Gae Bolga; seventeen killed and twenty-five wounded, including Nefertiti Jones who lost her right leg below the knee not three hours ago.

The Ostrogoth, the Freya, Silent Knight and Vercingetorix: lost with all hands.  All told, two-thousand, eight-hundred and seventy-four dead and five more about to join them.  Six-hundred and nineteen wounded, twelve seriously enough be impaired for the rest of their lives.

His wing now shunting through hyperspace on route to Widsith, Grand Corsair McAllister had little to do but worry and second guess himself, sitting on the pressure junction floor outside the infirmary; head leaned back against the wall, arms rested upon his knees.  His throat and skin were dry as dust and itched terribly, a side effect of the radiation cleanser Bonesaw had given him.  Having accumulated more than nineteen sieverts during his twenty years in space, even fairly mild exposures left him feeling like irradiated dog shit.

            Nat Shapiro emerged from the infirmary, chest, belly and arms covered in blood and looking as though he had just talked some trash to an exceptionally large and ill-tempered bear.  Leaning against the wall, exhausted, he peeled off his plastic gloves and put them in a smock-pouch as Julian gained his feet.

            “It was hard going but they’re both alive,” Bonesaw told him.

Julian brushed past the doctor, he should have been relieved but the anxiety only climbed a little higher in his raw, parched throat.  Now he had to remind himself to breathe again.  Olga was out cold, strapped onto the table-bed with an I.V. rig attached to her right arm pumping three tubes of something into her.

            “I doped her up good,” Bonesaw told him.  “Had to, she kept hitting people.”

            Julian laughed.  “Sorry I missed that.”

            “So was she, she wanted to kick your ass,” the doctor told him.

            Julian winced as he approached the bed; the entire right-side of her face a bruise.

            Nat stood beside him and rattled off the bill: “Bad concussion, minor skull fracture, some head lacerations, dislocated shoulder, two teeth knocked out, four broken ribs and a bruised lung.  They were both damn lucky.  She was coming out of the head when we took that big thump, bounced her off two walls.”

            “Bitch told me that was all baby weight,” the captain said with a smirk as he bent down and whispered in her ear:  “Ya lablu tibya, Derigia.”  He kissed her undamaged cheek and arose.  “Where’s my daughter?”

            “The baby’s stable but almost thirty days premature.  She’s got a busted arm and there was some respiratory damage, nothing permanent.”  The doctor led him to a large plastic box in the corner of the room.  “We had to throw together a makeshift incubator,” Bonesaw explained.  “See, we built it out of a storage container we cut up.”

            “I’m impressed,” Julian said, looking over the contraption.  “You made this?”

            “More like I helped,” Shapiro said.  “Guy sent an engineer up.  I called him as soon as we knew she was going into labor.”

            “With the dance on he sent someone?” Julian asked with a touch of alarm.

            “Saved your kid’s life,” Nat told him.  “Don’t give Guy any shit about it either.  It was my idea and you know how irritating I can be.”

            “Who was it?”

            “Chavez,” the doctor told him, “he’s putting together a better one now.”

            Julian nodded.  “How long will she have to stay in there?” he asked, indicating the squirming infant.

            “Two weeks at least,” the doctor said.

            Julian squatted down beside the contrivance to examine the results of this strange gene-combining experiment.  Hypatia McAllister-Ekemova lay on her back, limbs flailing about and looking as though she’d rather be elsewhere.  She did not cry at all, but rather grunted faintly as if unable to believe she was dumb enough to come out here.

Julian smiled.  “You see, not an hour old and she knows the score.  I have to say though, the child looks a bit like a lizard.  Though neither I nor the girl’s mother are great beauties I see no cause for such reptilian offspring.”

The doctor crossed his arms and shrugged.  “That’s what you get for being impatient and undercooking shit.  All babies are ugly to me.”

“Don’t like kids?” Julian asked.

Bonesaw shuddered, “Disgusting creatures.  I’ve always wanted to work in a pediatric terminal ward.”

            “You sick fuck.”

            The doctor rolled his eyes in disdain.  “I’m not the one who gave her that goofy, fucked-up name, Mister Pirate Man.  The kid just got here, what could she possibly have done to you?”

            Julian laughed, conceding the point.  Tapping on the plastic window with two knuckles, he spoke his first words to his child:  “Sucks to be you!  Don’t sweat it though.  McAllisters always have it rotten for a stretch.  It’s good you’re getting this shit out of the way, that’s my girl!”  He stood up, looked back on Olga for a moment and asked if Jones was awake.

            “She insisted,” the doctor explained.  “I have her feelin’ pretty good, all things considered, but she won’t rest ‘till she talks to you so get your ass in there.  Just pistol-whip her or something when you’re done.”

            “Got it,” Julian said as the door slid into the wall.  “Owe her one now that ya mention it.”

            Jones was lying upright on the table-bed, glassy-eyed and stoned, but she waved him over straight away as he entered.  “My boat?” she asked in a horse voice.

            “Tucked-away safe and in one piece thanks to her bad-ass captain,” Julian informed her.  Lifting the end of her blanket and looking over the wound he said, “If you think you’re getting out of work tomorrow over this bilge you’re crazy.”

            “Don’t make me laugh, you fucking ghoul prick!” she told him after some aborted mirth turned into a fit of coughing.  “Bonesaw says I have a good sized stump below the knee so it’ll be easy to rig something I can walk on.  I’ll just be down a couple days, Rex.”

            “Davis told me when you got hit you splinted it with a torque wrench and some duct tape right there on the bridge,” he recounted laughing.

            “Gotta do what ya gotta do,” she smiled.

            Julian regarded her closely a moment before speaking again.  “We’ve got a supply of lizard cream, ya know.  That leg can be grown back if we start the therapy right away.”

            “Which would lay me up for a year or more,” Jones pointed-out.  “No deal.”

            “Jonesy. . .”

            “No way, Jules,” her tone said the issue was dead.  “You need me on the job, now more than ever.  If the injury was really debilitating or we weren’t in the situation we’re in, then maybe.  I can live with this and thrive.  My mind’s made up.”

Julian raised a hand and nodded in compliance.  “We can probably use a boot and greave off a hardsuit.  I’ll put Chavez on it.  You do need to pass out for a spell though.”  It then occurred to him to have a set made, giving her the left one first.  It would be hysterical.

            “How many gone?” she finally asked.

            “A little shy of three-thousand.”

            Shocked sober by the number she mouthed it back to be sure and he nodded.  Her face grew stern.  “Whole ships lost?”

            “Second spear never made it to their jump point,” he said.  “It was a rowdy dance with a big check.”

            She nodded back.  “Fucked ‘em up good though.  Has to count for something, right?  No matter what goes down now, we got back on our feet and bashed ‘em in the mouth.”  She adjusted herself and leaned the table back a bit.  “I don’t even know if anyone in my family survived Tortuga.  I don’t know if they died, hid, if they made it to Curacao and I just never found them. . .”

            “I didn’t even know you were a Rifter,” he told her, surprised.

            “Born and bred, went to the Expanse twelve years ago when I signed-on with the Dominator.  Always meant to get home and see my family but kept telling myself there was time.  Somebody had to pay.  A lot of people on both ends gone who didn’t deserve it I guess, but I still wouldn’t take it back.  Not for a second.”

            “Sometimes the only way forward is headlong,” Julian said, voice distant and eyes searching.

            “Fuckin’ yarr,” she agreed and closed her eyes.

            Julian was quiet for a moment before he spoke again.  “I hate to admit it but I can’t help but question how much of it was just rage.  I mean. . .  I tell myself it was the only move, I can justify it up and down but I find myself doing just that and I have to wonder.”  Julian paused, bumping into a plastic box near the base of the bed.  He kicked it, “What’s this?”

            Jones sighed, “My leg, dumb-ass.”

            “You felt that?”

 

* * *

 

They were three of five new recruits taken-on at Nova Antigua.  The others were both older merchant spacers, migrants from the core come to try their hands at piracy.  The Rix’s ship master, a short, wide fellow named Farrokh Banerjee, spoke in a deep baritone voice that never seemed to go up or down much in tone.  Just back from the drive room, he was covered in a greasy black lubricant when he introduced himself as their new lord and master.

            Billy smiled at the title and was punched in the face with such speed and force that Julian could barely tell the blow came from Banerjee at all.  The man’s mood never shifted a hair though, he did it they way you might fasten a loose panel you noticed in passing.

            A casual killer, Julian thought, worried he would be next as he grabbed his brother to keep him on his feet, blood flowing from his broken nose.  The senior commander ignored him however, continuing with the formalities of when and where they would eat, sleep, scratch themselves, what have you.

            Deacon winced slightly at the air quality.  Stale and a touch “lived-in” for his liking.

            “You’ll get used to the recycled air in no time,” Farrokh said, noticing.  “This is nothing to spending twelve hours in a vacsuit.  You’ll get used to that as well.”  He turned and made his way along the corridor, everyone getting out of his way then promptly back in theirs as they struggled to keep pace and offer no offense.

            “While at space:  On even days you will spend three hours of each day cycle in the gym, four on the odd days.  You will do this without fail.  You will not make eye contact with blood wet crew until you’ve joined them.”  He stopped, turned on them and added, “All of you are worthless, sniveling dogs until I have seen otherwise.”  The grand tour continued.

            Vercingetorix began life as a heavy frigate more than thirty years earlier.  At eighteen-thousand tonnes she barely held that classification today but could outfight most ships half again her size.  Her third and current master, the renowned Captain Mad Jack McAllister, liked to say she was a “classic” and rightly so:  a 469 Bowcorp Raptor, one of only a handful remaining in existence.  Less than two-hundred were made when Bowcorp lost out to Lockhard Astronautics for a large naval contract despite putting-out a far superior machine.  Those built found their way into merc companies or were scrapped.  To their knowledge, only two others survived in private collections with the Rix being the last in space.

Conditions on the aging warship were cramped and filthy.  Exposed piping, electrical conduit, jerry-rigged bypasses, and welded patches: she was the most beautiful thing Julian had ever seen.  He liked the nasty air, thick with sweat and ozone.  Air that needs to be chewed you can trust, he came to believe.

She had two counter-rotating centrifuges in the center of her finned, disk-like drive hull used for sleeping, dice and cards.  Kept at one and a half G to compensate for time spent in freefall, they were profoundly uncomfortable at first but did put you out like a light after a long, weightless shift.  It was not uncommon for pups to have bones break or limbs slip out of joint in the night but the boys were young and fit, adjusting to ship-life quickly.

            They were presented to the captain only once during their first month aboard and he barely paid them any heed.  Julian was brought to his cabin on the first night where he recounted his mother’s killing and its aftermath.  Worried his uncle would put them off at their next port, rather than having to avoid Nova Antigua for a decade, he explained they would understand if he dropped them off at Tortuga when they arrived there the following week.

            Mad Jack laughed at that then slapped him in the face.  “Family is everything, boy, and she was my sister don’t forget.  You did the right thing and take no shit about it, especially from yourself.

            In any case it won’t be necessary.  The other commanders in port and I have had words with the council, who have been informed that Antigua will be boycotted by the lot of us for the term of your exile.”

            “Uncle Jack, you can’t do that.  You could starve the whole colony out.”

            “Yes, that occurred to them as well,” the captain acknowledged.  “Subsequently they’ve decided to moderate the judgment.  The three of you can’t set foot on the planet for the allotted time but the system-wide injunction’s been lifted.  When at port here we’ll make use of the orbital facility and you boys will have to remain aboard for the duration, which may be weeks long in some cases but life is cruel.”

            Julian nodded.  “Thank you.”

His uncle merely shrugged, “No need to thank me, boy.  No need at all.  This isn’t about you.  We’ve always been locking horns with the colonies over jurisdictional issues.  Your situation just provided an opportunity to test their boundaries.  Boundaries we have clarified.

            It had been my intention to keep your identities secret until you boys were blood wet but that’s not feasible now with all the commotion.  The end result for you is that I’ve instructed Farrokh to make it very clear by example you’ll get no special treatment aboard this ship.”  Mad Jack raised a bottle to his lips, swallowed hard then laughed in a sinister tone.  “My ship master has a talent for making people not feel special.”

            “So I’ve noticed,” Julian said, glancing down at his shoulder which was still soaked in his brother’s blood.

 

The first seven weeks were brutal to put it mildly.  Drilled incessantly and made to perform every hideous task that could be dreamed up by four-hundred ill-tempered pirates with too much time and empty space on their hands.  Painting the ship after repairs in a chandler dock over Tortuga was an especially merry affair.  Julian found it difficult adjusting to zero-gravity and spent much of his time a lovely shade of green.  Billy took to it like a fish in water and if it bothered Deacon at all he never spoke a word, an accomplished stoic from an early age.

            There were also socially awkward occasions, usually resulting in Julian or all three of them being savagely beaten for a wide variety of infractions, each with the common theme of failing to show proper respect to senior crew.  It was in part his inability, or unwillingness, to hold his tongue at crucial moments but Mad Jack had also set numerous commanders to adjusting the boy’s attitude preemptively.  Though only able to visit his sister and her sons a few weeks out of the year, he knew his nephew well enough to see he was wildly undisciplined and thought over much of his abilities.  While there was no denying he had a natural gift for this kind of work, he’d fall well-short of his potential left to his own devices.

            Julian and Billy were assigned to Navigation while Deacon’s remarkable organizational skills brought him the attention of the ship’s quartermaster.  All three would play the role of grunts for their first action however, as traditionally every mariner pup did.  Their target had been selected not long after the boys first came aboard; a freighter laden with freshly mined platinum from Dietrich’s World, third planet of Epsilon Indi.

            The night before the attack the three stayed up, unable to sleep, and used the time to clean weapons and ready their vacsuits.  No one spoke, but none wanted to be alone.  Brutal reality hung over them like the sword of Damocles; they were about to be formally introduced to their destinies.  Mouths were dry, muscles tense, minds raced.

            “Have you guys ever really thought about stealing?”  Deacon finally broke the spell with an open question to the floor, one met with some bemusement.

            “Yeh,” Billy said.  “I thought I might crimp some shit tomorrow.  Wanna come?”

            “No, no,” Deacon said.  “I mean in a more abstract sense, have you ever really thought about it?”

            “I have and I love it,” Julian said.  “Purist form of commerce, I always feel dirty when I pay for something.”

            “I’m being serious,” Deacon said.

“As am I,” Julian assured him.  “Economics is just a struggle to control resources, the best way accomplish anything is the direct path.  Take that shit!  Whatever you call it, you’re crimpin’ the booty.  Taxes are stealing, tariffs are stealing, and selling people shit they don’t need is stealing.  The word as a pejorative is just that.  Sticks and stones.”

            Billy rubbed his chin, thinking this over.  “If it’s all the same, then why not just do it to anyone and everyone?  Crimpin’ Rifters is a no-no.  Doing it to a shipmate and that’s your ass.  Shouldn’t it be?  Should it just be a free-for-all until a few alphas have everything?  I think that’s been tried.”

            Julian put his reassembled LAM pistol down and leaned back in his chair.  They were still getting used to the high gravity of the centrifuge and found it hard going to relax.  “I’m not trying to make a judgment about it one way or another.  I’m simply pointing out that it’s all the same thing in essence.”

            Billy set his own freshly cleaned weapon on the table and leaned forward.  “So it’s all a matter of convention then?  Don’t touch my shit and I won’t scalp you.”

            “Yes.  Not that there’s anything hypocritical or wrong in doing so.  Thievery is a tool, one with no agenda, same thing for violence, of which economics is just a tributary.  It needs doing from time to time, in fact, it’s wholly unavoidable.  The very act of living is violent; we devour other life to survive.  Even if you’re a vegetarian, a plant is still alive, wherever you choose to draw the line is ultimately an arbitrary choice.  People like to live in groups so we make certain compromises.”

            “Then morality plays no role in your world view?” Deacon asked, reentering the conversation.  “You don’t believe in it?”

            “Oh I most certainly believe in it,” Julian told him.  “Morality shot our mother in the face.  I choose not to deal in that sordid trash, however.  I hold to ethics.”

            “Okay, you’re splitting a hair now,” Billy said.

            Julian shook his head in the negative.  “I assure you they are two distinct hairs.  Morality is any nonsense you can get a few half-wits to agree to.  Ethics are quantifiable, measurable.  They are, because…”  Julian trailed off with a gesture.

            Deacon mulled this over for a moment.  “Would you, if trapped in the wilderness with another person, kill them if it meant increasing your chances of survival?  Because of food or water, say.  And let’s assume there’d be no consequences.”

            “It would depend on who it was I guess,” Julian said and Billy nodded in agreement.

            “Wouldn’t that be a moral choice?  Mister Ethics?”

            “I’d prefer to call it an aesthetic judgment,” Julian said flippantly.

            Deacon squinted a bit.  “So is all convention equally valid, or invalid, as any other?”

            “Not at all,” Julian said firmly.  “In the Rift you can’t own more than a single business and you have to run it yourself.  You wanna rent housing, you gotta live there.  These are sensible precautions against turning ourselves into capitalist swine.  I’m not against people making a living, even getting rich, but you have no right to make someone else poor doing it, even passively.  It is, however, an arbitrary distinction in the end.”

            Deacon began pointing as he quickly assembled a new line of argument.  “So, you aren’t a believer in absolute freedom?”

            “Fuck no,” Julian declared.  “That ‘libertarian’ bilge always spills out of people who know they’re in a position to take advantage of other people and are looking for cover along the way.  You know, viruses have always perplexed me.  They injure and often kill the very hosts they need to live.  Of course they’re mindless, reactive creatures that can’t appreciate the consequences of their actions.  But what excuse does a capitalist have?  If religion permeates a society we call it theocracy and agree it’s bad.  Politics, we call it totalitarianism.  Why then is it freedom if everything’s about money?”

            “If some rich-boy asshole falls in the woods, what’s the sound of me not giving a shit?” Billy said.  “I’m down with Jules on this one.  I’ll rob a man blind and sleep like a babe because I’d have the decency to stick a gun in his face.  I’ll kill a man in heartbeat if he gets between me and mine, but I’ll do it with that same gun to the same end.”

“Fuckin’ yarr,” Julian said, leaning forward and rapping the table with his fist.  “It’s the filth that thinks he’s no killer because the blood didn’t splash on him that has his head up his ass.  It’s the shit that takes from people with nothing and never looks ‘em in the eye that needs a bleedin’ the way I see it.”

“Here, fuckin’ here!” Billy said.

“Well, as long as we’ve settled that…” Deacon said, reaching into his bag and procuring a spliff of Tampico Purple Leaf.  As it came back to him for the second pass he paused for another question.  “You motherfuckers as scared as I am?”

“Shitless,” his brothers said in unison, sending all three into a fit of laughter.

 

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