Chapter 03: The Wages and Benefits Package of Sin

Scores of ships, large and small, scurried about their business: hauling sugar, hauling people; hauling chickens, ore and vice.  A brilliant but modest G-star reigned, attended by six planets, loyal and true.  A pair of jovians and a modest ice giant guarded its lonely frontiers, vigilant sentinels dutifully gobbling up the comets and wayward stones of Evernight to protect the inner planisphere.

Three terrestrial worlds patrolled these orbits; the first a vesperian hothouse soaked to the stone in acidic clouds and rivers of flowing lava, the third a frigid arean desert under a wispy salmon veil of carbon dioxide.  Between them circled the great treasure of Nova Antigua, a ringed gaian of vast oceans and long chains of volcanic islands that gave the system its name.

Vercingetorix entered first and alone, to announce the pending arrival of the captured Charlemagne.  After much discussion, the commanders agreed that a Federation ship of the line turning-up suddenly might be a bad idea; funny, but bad.  The need to subvert amusement to reason left an acrid taste in Julian’s mouth, as it always did, but he was still most pleased by the reaction when they followed.

Every tug, freighter, shuttle and prospector heaved-to when the prize ship reached the inner planisphere and more than a few salty-old skippers had an unabashed tear in their eye.  Windows on the orbital facility were crammed with faces pressed to glass.  As she passed, they crawled over one another like swarming insects to keep her in view just a moment longer.

Word spread quickly through the settlement below and people began wandering into the streets, clustered in groups.  Someone shouted, pointing skyward, and a gasp rose up like a wave through the host.  Julian ordered a hot entry close to the city, heralding their arrival with a bolt of fire across the southern sky.  As though a dam had shattered, a torrent of shouting bodies came teeming into the port quarter.  Eleven corsair crews were summed to help the constables gain control of things and keep people back as she touched down.  The throng, so mesmerized by what they saw, would have walked into her exhaust like moths to a flame.

The great vessel lifted her fins above her, lowered her claw-like struts, and set down on her new home with a single, slow suspension bounce that left the impression she was taking a bow.  The big field just outside the walls, used for the annual fair, served as an acceptable landing area.  The tarmac at the port was crowded with small craft and the captured ship would have claimed it all for herself.

She was an incredibly large vessel to be built for surface landing, the largest yet constructed according to the Lockhard literature, massing-in at a quarter-million tonnes tanks dry.  A radical departure from traditional line ship design, meant to answer the navy’s call for a lighter, more versatile fleet that would allow them to phase-out the gargantuan battleships so costly to build and maintain.  Alas for them, this would not be her fate.

Disembarking was a problem with no gantries available, not that there were any on the planet big enough, so the cargo lifts were used to lower them two dozen at a time.  Once the crew finally emerged, the city exploded in approbation.  People cheered everywhere they went.  Children were perched upon shoulders to see the conquering heroes through the crowd.  The entire populous felt uplifted by the incredible victory.

Over the last several years Federation warships had been venturing deeper into the Narrow Way and anxiety mounted.  Now all that worry seemed like a fog dispelled by the morning sun.  The people of Nova Antigua felt invincible.  Placed atop horse drawn carts, as motor vehicles were banned inside the walls, the commanders were paraded through the streets to great fanfare and a rain of beer from the rooftops.  Julian smiled until his face ached.  I’ll never pay for drink again.

In due course they were brought to the central forum and greeted by a delegation from the city council.  The gathering took place at the Circle of Titans in the central plaza, a raised granite platform thirty meters across and lined with life-sized bronze statues of great pirates from ages past:  Edward Teach, Henry Morgan, Anne Bonny, Mary Reid, Calico Jack, Sam Bellamy, Graham Chapman as Yellowbeard…  The impromptu celebration was brief and amorous to Julian’s relief.  Deacon, Billy and he all exchanged an uncomfortable look when it began, having been in front of the city council before and not cared for it.

When it was done the crowd began to clear out, leaving the corsairs to pay their respects in private, mariner customs always treated with reverence in the Rift Worlds.  At the heart of the stone platform, twice as high as a man, stood one esteemed above all others: Errol Flynn.  They knew, they just didn’t care, he was the Sea Hawk and Robin Hood.  Each mariner touched the plaque below in turn, saying “Hi, Earl!” before heading off to the spacer’s mall to get obscenely drunk.

 

Late the third night after their return, Julian sat alone on the balcony over the large garden out back.  The sun relented at last and a nice breeze came in from the shore, cool and salty.  Stonego Ponto, Nova Antigua’s belt of five thick rings, arched across the lower horizon like a glittering diamond highway.  Julian thought it a shame the Earth lacked such adornment, what stories might have come of it.

Two of the planet’s four shepherd moons could be seen beyond the shimmering arch, both in quarter phase.  The smoky plastic overhangs that relieved pedestrians from the daytime glare also kept the streetlights dim from above and the sky was full of stars despite the ring-shine.

            Being scourge of the galaxy involved more work then he counted on as a young lad; still, he did get to kill the customers, and was his own boss.  Maria told them they could have the top floor as long as they wanted and that it was an honor to have them home.

She had always liked their mother and it was a generous offer, though also self-serving and crafty.  Overt public advertising banned in the city, business owners constantly schemed to gain the public’s attention and Maria was a shrewd matron of the capital arts.  The crews of Iceni Queen, Spartacus, and Vercingetorix were here almost constantly and everyone in town came to have a look at the heroes of the March and have a drink at their favorite bar.

            “The Cattle Raid of Amber Colossus,” as it had come to be known in these parts, was being recounted all across the Rift even as he sat there hung-over and spent.  Likewise, the sorry tale of the “Darwin VIII Disaster” would be making the rounds of corporate boardrooms and Federation council chambers.  The stories had them wiping-out a fleet considerably larger than the combined FDF Navy and making off with a planet-load of ill-gotten booty.

            The sad truth of it:  they were broke and had a great deal of work ahead of them.  The medical cargo amounted to a small fortune, and reaped great favor with the locals, but fell well short of what they would need to refit the behemoth warship.  The Lords agreed in council to forgo shares and were living out of the coffers but there was no real hope of putting to space before it was gone.

            Concern mounted that Julian had bitten off more than an army could chew and that his mighty victory might prove their undoing.  Pirates were a rowdy bunch in the best of times and starving them made for bad policy.  Moreover, there was the matter of Vercingetorix.  Mad Jack had a harder time convincing his people that patience was all the virtue rumor would have.  Instrumental in pulling-off the most spectacular raid in history, they were being told there was just no money.  As they were not the ones with the shiny new ship, Julian couldn’t really blame them.  He also couldn’t pay them.

            They were appeased for the time being that when the new Iceni Queen was ready, they would group for a high-profit shipping lane cruise of no less than five months with Vercingetorix receiving an extra share for every two at the Lords’ expense.  A hard pill to force down his own people’s throats, but Julian began in high praise of the Rix when broaching the subject and had his people whipped-up in good feeling by the time he sprung it on them, making it seem obvious and aside from question.

            They ate it straight from my hand, he noted, feeling clever.  He would have to be to get through this next year but it would pay fifty-fold in the end.  A good meeting, he decided, rubbing his swollen jaw and wincing slightly.  Until today he could claim that no man had ever laid hand on him and lived.

 

“Where’s your funny hat?” Julian seemed puzzled.  Why would this man flaunt the rules so?  Bad form.  “Your funny pirate hat, it says in the articles that crew will attend all councils ‘in formal’ which means corners and dodgy long-threads.”  He lifted the patch he wore over his right eye to shoot Richter a dirty look.  “I will not have you make a mockery of these proceedings, sir.”

            Richter turned to Deacon, expecting him to scupper this.  Julian was in charge aboard ship but the quartermaster commanded planetside.  “I’m a strange one to be looking to for an ally, Mister Richter.”  The quartermaster spoke without looking up from his preparations.

            “That’s ‘Master Richter.’”

            “Not anymore,” Victor said, tapping the insignia on his tricorner.  “You crossed your captain in a fight.  That makes you a bilge-rat born-again pup, and part of my section.  Now heave-ho and get your fucking gear, boy.”

Kyle, as a rule, did not ware indignities well and today was far from exceptional.  He turned in a huff and strutted out.  There was some laughing and there were some cold steel glances.  Deacon ignored both, Julian noted each.

            Ursula and Kitty came in as the defrocked boarding master exited.  “He seems tense,” Kitty noted.

            “Is that a stuffed parrot on your shoulder, sir?”  Ursula asked the captain.

            Julian glanced at it before answering, as if unsure what she was talking about.  “No, he’s just pining for the fjords.”

            “Beautiful plumage,” Kitty added.

            “Please stop,” Deacon begged them, and the room lightened a touch.  Scattered low-level conversations went on, some gossiping and some griping, but no one was going to introduce any business without the Richter issue settled one way or another.

            By law, once in action, the captain was god-fucking-emperor and you didn’t tell him no.  Julian could have ordered him killed on the spot but that may not have played well, leaving him with a mutiny on his hands at an inopportune moment.

There was also the possibility that Kruger would not have done it.  He was loyal to Julian but had his own take on things and didn’t budge once his mind was made up.  Victor despised Kyle as much as anyone but often scolded Julian in private about constantly bating the man.  Even if he agreed, there was a real danger that Richter’s people would have interfered.  As many of them wanted the man dead as not themselves, but the rest were his creatures and provided the bulk of his power base.

            Now Julian could call him out to fight, which Richter was not fool enough to accept, or order him expelled.  The latter choice would involve a lengthy proceeding, depleting time and energy they didn’t have to waste.  It would also lead to an air of hostility they could ill-afford with the whole wing on the verge of bankruptcy.

There was no real alternative, Richter would have to be bought-off and it stuck in Julian’s craw.  He had eighty-three directly under him which made him station master of the largest section.  About half would leave with him as well as a piece of gunnery and a few engineers, though Floyd and Broden both wanted to clean house on that score for some time.

            Kyle Richter returned wearing his tricorner and a dark long-coat, the least he could do to comply.

“Not even an earring?” Julian asked with disappointment.  Shrugging, he continued, “Let’s get this unpleasantness aside then shall we?”

            “Indeed,” Richter growled.

            “This is what’s going to happen,” Deacon announced, setting his portable aside and looking up from the table at last.  “You and whoever decides to go with you here and now…” and he paused to give the assembled host a look, “will take the old Queen in her present condition, minus her fighters and all but essential supplies and materials, and be on your jolly.”

            As the first rumble of defiance rose from Richter’s throat Julian tossed down two beautifully balanced, identical knives, wrapped loosely in an old black and red bandanna.  Richter tried to stare Julian down but quickly saw the futility of it and stormed off.  Six others filed in behind him with insulted looks on their faces.  The captain and quartermaster guessed a little more than a hundred will go all told.

            There was no getting around another issue now; continuing work on the new Queen would require giving-up Spartacus.  Billy was going to love the idea, a matter that would need to be broached later in private.

            “Now let us all get drunk and play ping pong!” Kakumi said.  The room burst out laughing, everyone very relieved that passed without bloodshed.  Notepads and tiny computers began to appear amid post-nervous chatter.

Deacon was well ahead of them as usual, his portable and four neat stacks of paper strategically placed around him.  If anyone dared violate the sanctity of the quartermaster’s work area they were quickly reminded the quiet man was a practiced killer of men.  He activated the small holographic projector on the central table and networked it to his portable.  A three-dimensional model of their new vessel appeared above it, rotating slowing.

            Julian hoisted a glass, “Before we begin I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge our friends from Vercingetorix.”

            “Fuckin’ Hazza!” came the call and a standing ovation to boot.  Mad Jack, in attendance with his station masters, waved-off the attention embarrassed.

            “Settle down, scum!” Julian bellowed.  “Now as we all know this venture, for all its potential long term rewards, has left us resource poor.  None more so then our brethren on the Rix, and so I think it only fair that we commit now to a five month cruise, in trade lanes to be determined by Navigation, at a three to two ratio in her favor.”  With that Julian spread his arms and looked to the assembly for objections.  When it became clear that none would be the first to voice them, Deacon called for a vote that carried unanimously.

That went well, Julian thought.

            “What’s going on with the ground staff transfers from Haveno Libera?”  Billy wanted to know straight off.

            “Most of our groundside people have agreed to relocate to Nova Antigua,” Deacon assured them, “on the provision it’s financed from our end, to include family and live-in companions.”

            Everyone looked around and nodded, more than fair.  The Lords of Entropy were among a handful of wings that employed their own permanent ground crews and warehouse staff.  The massive new ship necessitated they not only continue the practice but expand it.  They were unique for including support staff as half-share crew in lieu of salary.  Expenditures were increased, but not extravagant, and it infused the organization with a sense of unity.  Moreover, the coveted positions attracted the best people in the Rift.  They had been after a permanent seat on the council as well but Deacon convinced them to drop the issue, promising to raise it himself by next year.

            Julian now spoke.  “Time for a new face!” he announced with a clap.  “Guy Blackthorne,” he said with a point.  “He’ll be serving directly under Broden in Engineering and be putting together a repair and upgrade itinerary.

Mister Blackthorne is an accomplished naval architect and systems engineer who had a hand in designing the very ship we’ll now be calling home.  Now Guy isn’t accustomed to such unseemly company as we, so I expect all of you to savage him without mercy until we’ve made a proper brute of the man.”

            Guy smiled nervously, taking in the savage glee the prospect of beating him to a pulp inspired.  Julian noted his discomfort and grinned.  He’s right to be nervous, he thought.  They’re going to make his life a living hell for the next week or so but he’ll be accepted, he’s got the metal.  Comes off a bit prissy but he’s got that English stoicism.  Besides, he needs a rude awakening or two before he gets one dressed in FDF blue.

            “Speaking of young Mister Blackthorne,” Broden began when things had settled down.  “A reasonably clever lad, ‘ee an’ I ‘ave a situation requires fair coin an’ work.  This new ion drive’s remarkable but ‘as the flaw a bein’ ‘bout quick ta get goin’ as a lame cow.”

            “I thought ion drives disappeared a century ago,” Kakumi said.

            “Closer to two,” Guy said, glad to have something useful to say.  “The trouble had always been choking, you’d have a net space charge repelling new ions and keeping them out of the reaction chamber until the ones already inside escaped.  We found a way around that with a spatial compression system.  Because of the energy requirements of course, it needs time to rev-up.  We couldn’t get the acceleration change any better than forty-four seconds.”

            “Slow pirates are dead pirates,” Deacon said.  “So how do we get around the low range problem?”

            “It was a point of great contention during the design phase,” Guy said.  “The decision was made that these ships would operate like mobile bases in groups of three with their launch craft doing the nimble work.  I gathered that acceleration might be of some value in this business, so I suggested to Broden an idea that had been shot down in early production.  A tandem system: add a second set of drives, compact high-yield fusion torches, mounted in pods near the tail.”

            He drew a rough outline on his portable where it transposed to the 3-D model so everyone could see what he was talking about, using a lightpen to tweak the image until they resembled the tapered cylindrical tubes he had in mind.

            “Would she remain atmospheric?” Floyd asked.

            “Oh yes,” Guy said enthusiastically, “the great virtue of the ion drive is that it’s very low mass and uses relatively little fuel or propellant.”

            “Aye,” Broden said with an authoritative nod, “the only problem is parts.  We’d ‘ave to build ‘em ourselves.  Young Mister Blackthorne ‘as a solid design but the only way to get what we need is by cannibalizing Spartacus.  I know this is a touchy subject but it’s the only option.  We wouldn’t ‘ave crew enough for both ships any’ow.”

            There were stern objections raised at once, though not a word from Billy Julian noted, sure he had an opinion.  Though greatly annoyed the issue should be brought up in this manner, the wing captain felt relieved to be off the hook as well.  Still, despite Julian’s overall command, Spartacus was Billy’s ship and he had the right to refuse.

            “I would be willing,” Billy said unexpectedly, “providing the station masters have no major objections.”  He looked about and saw some hesitant faces but no one spoke out now.

            “A ship this size I’ll need to put down one of my hats,” Deacon offered.  “Have Billy take the ship master slot and I’ll stick to the QM job.  We can keep all the station masters as seniors and let them compete for the top slots as decided by the three of us.”  Billy and Julian both agreed and it was put to vote where it carried along with a resolution to give priority to the additional drives.

            “We also need to address the matter of cargo space,” Deacon said.  “She has about six hundred and fifty cube which isn’t much.  Also, we need a good deal more berthing space and room for some proper EVA lockers.”

            “I think there’s an easy solution to that,” Guy broke in, again going to work with the lightpen to illustrate what he was suggesting.  “It hadn’t been built yet but there was supposed to be a troop carrying module that would attach beneath the boom, latching into the secondary hull at the rear.  We could build our own version out of hull sections from Spartacus.”

            Julian scratched his chin as he listened, “It would need to be detachable, self-maneuvering, and most importantly, the ship’s atmospheric characteristics can’t be degraded.”

            “That’s not a problem,” Broden assured him.  “If you can get me a chandler dock for a month I can assign, say thirty people, and we’ll ’ave ’er done before the drives.  Give us time to get ‘er fitted proper.”

            “We could add a set of wing tanks for another shunt’s worth of fuel while we’re at it,” Guy suggested to Broden’s approval.

            “You’ll have what you need,” Julian assured them and made some annotations in the small notepad always on his person.  He refused to rely on a computer as a rule; writing in long hand provided a mnemonic component more efficient technology lacked.  He then turned his attention to Floyd.  “Tell me scary stories about things that go boom in the night.”

            “Defensive weaponry is lacking,” Floyd answered while still looking over the screen of his portable.  “A few point-defense lasers spread around the outer hull but not able to deal with a volume of missile fire, especially from the aft.  I’d like to add all the phalanx guns we have plus maybe another half dozen.” As he spoke, the floating model became transparent with the various subsystems turning red as he covered them.

“I’ve also looked into adding that missile bay to the bow.  There’ some difficulties.  There’s a lounge and some ridiculously big senior officer’s quarters up there now.”

            “We can lose all that,” Deacon said, “what’s the trouble?”

            “We’ll need to raise the main sensor port to accommodate it and that means a fair amount of structural modification; doable however.”  Floyd took a swig of coffee and continued to the offensive systems.

            “Seven turreted hard points, each with three linked, type VII pulse lasers.”  Here Floyd paused for the assorted whistles and affirmations of approval which came on cue.  “If we add a few good weapons along each fin edge we’ll have a proper killing machine on our hands.”

            “Aren’t the heat scuppers all along the fin edges?”  Julian asked.

            “Most of them,” Floyd said, “but she’s got space set aside for a heavy weapon mount.”

            “A modular design,” Guy said.  “It was made to swap-out between a nuke launcher and an orbital bombardment platform.”

            “We won’t need either of those,” Julian said.  “Although . . .”

            “Don’t even think it,” Deacon told him.

“The spinal mount is a monster of a weapon,” Floyd went on; “a two-gigawatt sublimation model ion cannon.”   If people were impressed by the ship’s laser batteries, this floored them, excited whispers filling the room.  “Requires an absurd amount of power to operate, intensive maintenance and it’s going to be a while before we have time to start training on it.  In addition, it’ll need its own dedicated crew.  I’m thinking eight gunners and a dozen techs if you wanna keep it.”

            “Oh, I do,” Julian assured him.  “It’s a ship-killer.  We can take on some sizable chase with that little number.”

            “What about the fighter bay?” Ursula spoke-up.

            Guy answered here, “Designed to hold six Fire Hawk heavy fighter drones, though they hadn’t been delivered yet.  We can modify the tubes to accommodate the four Cheetahs fairly easily.”

            “I’d much rather have some Rapiers,” Kitty said and Ursula nodded.

            “I’m confident we can spend ourselves into ruin without having to resort to that,” Deacon warned.

            “I’m just saying,” she told him with laughter.  “But that aside, what’s this I hear about a corvette bay?”

            “It’s not a landing bay in the traditional sense,” Guy answered.  “It’s more like a semi-internal docking port that clamps down to integrate the smaller ship into the hull of the mother craft.  About half the boat is inside the cruiser, accessed through special hatchways and an airlock.  It was designed to be used with a custom Broadsword EL-22, also wasn’t delivered by launch date.  It’s a shame too.  Combined with the fighters it makes a formidable screening vessel.  Maybe with some work we can find something to retrofit and make use of the docking port.”

            Deacon tapped his temple lightly with his pen.  “I think I know where we can find one.”

            Guy gave him a curious look but the wing master just smiled and signaled to wait with a gesture.

            When the meeting let out everyone was a little tipsy, and so prepared, they set out to begin their carousing proper.  Captain and quartermaster left last and together as was custom.  They strode down the alley a short way when Julian turned to ask Deacon what the angry mug was about.

Julian lay on his back for a time, eventually deciding it best to lean over and spit out some blood.  Once satisfied he sat upright and shot Deacon a bemused look.

“You were after that ship from the start,” the wing master said, pointing angrily.  “The whole damned time. . .”  He shook his head and walked away.

            “I deserved that,” Julian said.

 

The next day Julian awoke to a murderous noon sun.  He was sore and hung-over; the daylight wholly unacceptable.  Olga, a contemptible sort of beast known as a morning person, was up and about and apparently left the curtains open.  Such creatures should have been exterminated before they could breed off world and spread their vial genes across the galaxy.  He pulled the sheets over his head but it was pointless.  He had been disturbed.

            Rising to a sitting position, he surveyed the room for an unemptied bottle and yawned. Little chance of that with the crazy vodka monster up first, he decided.  Suddenly feeling adventurous, he assembled a makeshift toga from a sheet and made for the bar.  Olga was off being sunny somewhere so he had the place to himself.  The shacking up question had been broached shortly after they arrived on Nova Antigua and she agreed far more readily then he expected or cared for.  He was beginning to suspect he had been duped.

            Finding a full bottle of whiskey and putting on a pot of coffee, he sat in one of the big wicker chairs with his back to the sun.  He noticed a stack of letters and a small package that Maria must have brought up, another early riser.  He picked-up the padded envelope and saw Deacon’s handwriting on it:  Just in from the core–You’re famous.  He poured out the small cased D-chip and popped it into the consol on the table.  The live view of the beach south of the city turned briefly to static then a Federation News Service upload began.

 

            “Now an update to our story reported earlier in the week.  A massive fleet of pirate raiders attacked and destroyed a twelve ship convoy of food and medical supplies destined for low income families in the New London system.  Reports have come in that authorities there have suspended all social services indefinitely, citing increased acts of piracy and local criminal activity as the major factors in that decision.

            The announcement has been met with praise throughout the Federation as a great step forward in the elimination of the last remnants of parasitic welfare allowed to run rampant on some outer core worlds, robbing local businesses of much needed subsidies.

            The FDF has acknowledged that an undisclosed number of warships were damaged or lost, but denies widespread rumors that a major ship of the line was captured and spirited away by a rogue mercenary and pirate organization calling themselves ‘The Lords of Entropy.’  The group is believed to be led by one, Julian ‘The Bastard’ McAllister, son of domestic turned prostitute and serial killer, ‘Bloody Boo’ Boudicca McAllister.  A name some of you might remember for the infamous ‘Double Socialite Murders’ of thirty-five years ago.

            The incident has fueled rhetoric in the Trade Council, and several of its constituent corporate boards, that the pirate threat to Federation shipping calls for decisive military action, as these terrorist mini-states become more organized and better armed by the day.”

 

            “Does your skin ever itch?  If so, then you mostly likely suffer from Dermal Degenerative Disorder.  Dermal Degenerative Disorder, or D3, is a condition that can lead to serious impairment or even death.  Luckily, your good friends at the Phelzor Corp–”

 

            Julian turned it off.  Well, at least Deacon was still speaking to him; more or less.  He laughed to himself about the “food and medical supplies destined for low income families” line.  The entire shipment was comprised of Gekkel fish livers.  Though true, these could have produced millions of doses of medicine for radiation sickness and a variety of degenerative illnesses, they had but one use in the core: anagathics.  The entire shipment would have been used to keep a single monger around to see his tricentennial.

Tossing the envelope aside, he noticed more written on the back.  He leaned close, “Dark Vengeance, formerly Iceni Queen, left port for whereabouts unknown at 8:20 this morning; Kyle Richter commanding.”

            “I should have killed that filth when I had the chance,” Julian thought aloud.  He meant it only for a quip but a voice then sounded from the nadir of his mind:  “Yes, you should have.”  The room, uncomfortably hot a moment ago, felt strangely cold.  He shook it off and downed his glass.  The future was full of disturbing possibilities but his thoughts now turned to a story his mother once told him after a little too much to drink.

 

* * *

 

Conner and Ellen McAllister were independent asteroid prospectors with their own ship and a reasonable, if hard won living, among the Expanse and March worlds.  Their two children, Boudicca and her twin brother Jacobite–Just plain Jack if you please–were still in their early teens but already skilled in the family trade.

            The couple named their daughter for the great warrior queen Boudicca of the Iceni Celts, who dared raise arms against mighty Rome three thousand years in the deep past.  Her father always insisted they were descendants of the illustrious ruler, by way of her youngest daughter Tasca who fled to Ireland, swearing revenge.  If pressed for evidence he would cite “family tradition” as though any other proof would be superfluous, and frankly insulting.

            For three years the McAllisters worked the asteroid fields and Oort cloud of Nova Antigua where they had done well for themselves.  Rich as the system was, a huge number of prospectors operated in the Rift and prices were low.  And so, a new ship purchased with their earnings, the family made ready to take on Hades Rising.  A red giant on the edge of the Fringeward Expanse, as remote an outpost as they came and a rough a place on a good day.  For all its many drawbacks however, the giant star possessed the richest ore fields in explored space.

They were all sad to go, the children most especially.  Already a talented pilot and navigator, Jack was determined to return here and join the corsair ranks, raiding Federation shipping for fun and profit.  A dangerous but romantic trade, it offered great status and wealth though his parents who have preferred a less belligerent vocation.  Boudicca long since had her fill of life in space, spending much of her free time in the near-by jungles, painting landscapes and exploring.  Conner felt especially guilty over taking Boudicca away with her finally making some friends.  She had always been shy and on the move, burying herself in painting and books.

Vast wealth waited to be found in Hades Rising though, more than enough to allow Conner and Ellen to send their children to a decent planetside university and hire some new hands to help with the expanding business.  They were insistent that the children spend some time on solid ground and in one place, as well as round out their educations.  Both were bright and fast learners but the couple could only do so much with a labor-intensive business to run.  Though expensive, professional teachers could accomplish more.

            There were three planets in Hades Rising, two airless rocks and a prodigious macro jovian.  The two terrestrial worlds may have been very earth-like once, but their aging sun had scorched them bare millennia ago.  Their interiors were rich in metals and gemstones and either alone could have justified the settlement of an entire system.  The grand jovian, officially HR III but “Cerberus” to the locals, was a near brown dwarf at one-fourteenth a solar mass.  Of her two-hundred and sixty moons, thirty-two were home to mining outposts.  What made Hades Rising so important though were the most extensive asteroid fields in known space, divided into four wide bands encircling the star between its surviving worlds.

The primary settlement was known as Sisyphus Rock.  Cut from a coal-black carbonaceous asteroid more than eighty kilometers across at its widest, rough and oblong in shape.  On its completion, massive tow vessels and imbedded thrusters were used to set the ugly beast rotating along its axis like a propeller, providing artificial gravity within.  More than ten thousand dwelled there in cramped and filthy conditions, breathing poorly recycled air and deepening in debt to absent employers.  Hardly a place you wanted to take your family but an excellent opportunity for a well-equipped and experienced independent.

Still, the more Conner saw of life on Sisyphus Rock the more he missed the pirates, smugglers and mercenaries of Nova Antigua.  There was a place you could safely walk the streets at night.  For all the roughness and ethnic tensions of the Rift, there was an earnest sense of community there nowhere to be found in the core worlds and nothing that approached the random violence here.

And then there was the extortion.  Back on Nova Antigua, you could pay whom you liked of several local services and you received honest protection at a reasonable price.  Here on “The Rock,” as everyone took to calling it, it amounted to nothing short of naked thuggery.  Some unlucky souls had the misfortune of becoming disputed clients between rival gangs.  Flee or die were the specials of the day when such became your lot.  He was right to be concerned of course, but not of the street level hazards he had in mind.  It would be the forces of law and order that would shatter his family.

            ConCo Industries had recently set up shop in Hades Rising.  Their presence at first limited to an office, a geology lab, and a lone survey craft; they soon bought-up nearly a quarter of the space on Sisyphus Rock and swelled the population by thirty percent.  With the arrival of this corporate member of the Free Trade Federation came all the miracles of civilized life: an oppressive and corrupt court system, FDF police presence, the odd visit by naval patrol craft, and a hell storm of paperwork and bureaucracy for anyone wishing to do business there.

            The first month was hard going but they were quickly learning the peculiarities of working the vast asteroid belts of the red giant.  The McAllisters could smell prosperity on the air for all the foul contaminants; then came the “Impact Fees.”  Fifty percent taken off the top from all their earnings, paid in penalties to ConCo.  Meant to redress the terrible wrong done to the interstellar conglomerate by competing with them in their chartered system, one for which they paid a considerable licensing fee to the Council on Fair and Equitable Commerce.

            After much discussion, the McAllisters resolved to approach the man in charge at ConCo to propose a mutually beneficial solution.  They would continue prospecting as a subcontractor for the megacorp, who were in need of more ships and personnel in any case, at three-quarters the rate set by the exchange each week.  Working for them in this capacity might also have the benefit of shielding the family from some of the rampant gang activity on the station.  While the courts ignored activity that made life difficult for the dwindling independent population, they were jealously protective of ConCo’s interests.  However bad things got on The Rock, corporate employees went unmolested.

            His name was Tilbert and it seemed to suit him, a hawk-nosed little man that insisted on showing you his cavernous nostrils when he spoke.  He was dismissive and rude at first, but just as they were about to get up and leave, his demeanor shifted to something almost pleasant if oily.  Not only did he agree, but saw to all the necessary paperwork being processed or bypassed and the couple walked out the door with a signed contract in hand.  A remarkable feat, it made them both highly suspicious, but there seemed little to fret over.  He agreed to the exact language requested by the McAllisters who had done their homework.

“I swear,” Ellen said, hugging herself for warmth though it was rather hot, “if that effete little prick had a mustache he’d have been twirling it at the end.”

            “A very creepy man going about his very creepy ways,” said Conner.  “Let us never speak of him again.”

            “Agreed,” Ellen said.  “Hey, let’s celebrate tonight!  We can take the kids out to dinner at that fancy place where no one’s been killed.”  With that, the two laughed their way home in the best mood they would ever be in again.

 

Five months of toil gave way to prosperity and they did well for themselves, despite doing even better for ConCo.  “Life is cruel,” Conner would always say.  “If you’re waiting on things to get fair you might as well do it in your grave.”  At any rate, they would have to delay their plans no more than a year if luck held.  They even rented a second apartment down the corridor for the kids to share.  There they could drown themselves in dirty dishes and laundry to their heart’s content, provided they endured a lengthy decontamination procedure when they showed up looking to be fed.

            It happened the morning Boudicca was to take her exams.  Ellen arranged for the husband of a friend, who was the local assessor, to monitor the test that would go out on the next shuttle.  Boudicca had never set foot on Earth but scarcely a night passed where she did not dream of it.  Within three months she should know if she had been accepted at John Brown, a very old school predating the Long Night and one of only a handful of independent universities left in the core worlds.

She would be gone most of the day, her parents scheduled to be home by dinner if possible, Jack off with his insipid friends.  Her mind was a flurry of things that needed doing and seeing to.  Admittedly far too serious for her fifteen years, she set her sights on being a great artist at the age of eight and much needed to be done if she would be ready to play the part.

            As to what she would do for money…  Making a living that way was not an option in the core, the arts considered a province of the sons and daughters of the corporate aristocracy, not someone born a prol.  Just as well, since all forms of entertainment were required to sell a product or otherwise glorify the free market in general to pass DOJ censors; unrestricted expression being inherently subversive and a mere step from anarchy.

She could potentially find low-level work in advertising but would rather have disemboweled herself then travel that road.  This was not an issue however, as she intended to return to the Rift after graduating, loving the time her family spent on Nova Antigua.  The tropical jungles, great rivers, and mammoth waterfalls were the most beautiful things she had ever seen.  Sisyphus Rock only served to cement this opinion.

            Coming out of an extended shower, vigorously drying her hair with a towel, she tried to calculate whether there was still time to eat when her body seized in pain.  She knew at once it was her old friend electricity, having felt that wonderful sensation before while helping her father repair a faulty mineral scanner on the family prospector.  Darkness took her.

            Eventually, she realized she was awake, through she could not guess as to how long, lying naked in a pool of her own urine on the simulation hardwood floor of the kitchen.  She heard the muffled sounds of talking, laughing, things breaking.  Only her eyes remained sharp, taking in the scene:  Boots, men in big black boots.  Police boots.  Someone grabbed her firmly by the hair and pulled her up.  She lost consciousness again before the first one finished with her in the bedroom she had been dragged to.

            From what she eventually gathered, an official at the ConCo offices by the name of Tilbert was arrested for his arithmetic involving unreported outside contractors that included her parents.  Though no one ever accused them of doing anything wrong, or even knowing about a crime, they were party to a criminal act and each held responsible to the full amount plus a variety of charges for legal expenses, administrative costs, detention fees, it went on.

            In one thing Boudicca was successful.  She arrived on Earth after a sixteen megasecond stay at a corrective vocational rehab where she drilled in the arts of serving dinner and being invisible.  By the terms of her contract with the “domestic academy,” she was a bonded servant until six-hundred and sixty-three point six megaseconds old.  At that time she would begin to receive a small salary with which she could purchase her freedom for the cost of her education and upkeep, plus any fines imposed by her employer for poor performance.

“A prudent girl can buy her contract by the time she’s a gigasecond old, if she is well-behaved and spartan,” the headmistress was fond of saying.  She periodically contemplated suicide but resolved to not end her days as the property of anyone, least of all the person whose property she became.

Boudicca had been picked to be a handmaid to a very important woman.  Exactly why she was important being something of a mystery.  She possessed no great talent or intellect.  She possessed no moderate talent or intellect.  What she did have going for her was being one of the wealthiest, and therefore one of the most famous, people in the galaxy.  Just ask her.  Elizabeth “Lizzy” Harrington was three years older than Boudicca and of a whole other species as far as she was concerned.  Had she bothered in inquire, Boudicca would have agreed on that point.

            The first encounter with her new mistress came at the Harrington family residence, high on the uppermost level of the New York Archology, rising from the Atlantic more than twenty kilometers offshore where its namesake city once stood.  Two kilometers wide at its base, it stretched-up twelve-hundred levels, topped by a massive disk more than twice the supporting tower’s width, covered in a clear dome.  Only the wealthiest of the wealthy had quarters on the outer ring of the park and the Harrington’s had them all lined up at their door.

            “It looks like a giant evil mushroom,” she spoke to herself as they approached; receiving a sharp slap from the tiny woman the school had sent to supervise the delivery of eight girls today.  The refusal to hold her tongue bought her many beatings, often more.  Mistress Kelp looked at the tag on Boudicca’s neck and laughed, saying something about it being “too perfect.”

            Mistress Lizzy looked over the new arrival as if she were an animal far more removed from her then the yapping little rat-dog ever nested in the crook of her arm.  Anything that required use of the hands could be tasked-out to her pet remora, Cousin Paris.  Paris Grubworth, a foot shorter then Lizzy, emulated her in all things, especially when it came to dialog.  Boudicca and some of the other girls on staff took to calling her “Echo” behind her back.

            “Cut its hair, Lizzy,” said Paris with disgust.  “It looks like a wild beast!  What’s its name?”

            “Boudicca,” Lizzy said reading the tag.  “What a bizarre name.  We shall call her Boo,” she decided, tapping her on the nose.  “This Boudicca nonsense makes her sound like one of those feral blacks from the sprawl.  Imagine, this pasty little ghoul!”  The two shared a raucous laugh until Boudicca opened her mouth.

            “Black Irish,” she said defiantly.

            “Oh dear,” Lizzy said.  “It speaks.”

            “Yes,” Echo prattled.  “It speaks.”  More of that night, Boudicca would never recount.

 

* * *

 

Julian suddenly realized he was not alone in the apartment.  He could hear Olga in the bathroom emptying her stomach, having gotten her grog-blossom on last night.  He grinned and continued writing but, after an especially painful sounding bout of dry heaves, decided to put down his pen and keep her from drowning in the toilet.

 

We are all born of the far-flung debris

Of ancient lights that have gone from the night.

We and the trees, the rocks and the soil:

All brothers brewed in a cosmic cauldron.

Strewn wide like seeds through the boundless reaches

And reunited by gravity’s hand,

We race our way along the expanse in

A seething tempest, too huge to be seen.

Until we tire and make our way home;

For then it grows time to set out again.

 

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