The Masque of Power (Part 1)
A Crystal Hall Library Entry
The Masque of Power
Bek D Corbin
“Jareth Diabolik, do you have any last words before I pass sentence?”
“Well, for beginners, I’d just like to point out yet AGAIN, that my name is Frost, NOT ‘Diabolik’! My Father’s name is not ‘Diabolik’ either, and he has never used that name. That comic book moniker is just something that the idiots in the popular news media came up with. They make him sound like some nutjob who wants to take over the world, which is the entire point, I guess. Not that that little technicality has stopped the ‘honorable advocate for the Prosecution’ from using that name for me, or from bringing up my father and his various crimes at the drop of a hat, despite the fact that none of those things had any bearing on the charges at hand.
“Indeed, this entire trial has been the direst, dreariest FARCE that I have ever been forced to endure that didn’t involve Yale sophomores tootling around in drag! Laycock, the detective who arrested me didn’t even bother to pretend that he wasn’t planting evidence! He just walked in with a gun in plastic bag right in his hand and held it up, and said, ‘look at what I found!’
“And the rest of this trial has been just as bad! Even when I kicked out that inept Public Defender that you stuck me with after you scared off my real defense lawyer, and took over my own defense, you refused to follow your own Rules of Order. You dismissed true, credible witnesses for the Defense while ignoring blatant irregularities in the obviously perjurous witnesses for the Prosecution. Rock-solid evidence for the Defense was outright LOST, while clearly fabricated evidence for the Prosecution was allowed. And YOU! As for YOU, ‘Your Honor’- what a JOKE!- YOU, your flagrant bias in favor of the Prosecution, your running roughshod over Defense witnesses, your seething contempt for proper procedure, your outrage that the Defense could even question the Prosecution’s case… Dear GOD, how did a ratass like you even get to be a LAWYER, let alone a Judge? I mean, I knew that the fix was in the second that I opened my door and saw that sleazebag Laycock standing there smirking, but dear GOD, you could at least have given me the respect to put a little effort into your frame! I don’t expect the oppressed masses to rise up in outrage or anything, but HOW do you expect to stay in power, if you throw away the rulebook that keeps you there?
“Oh, and if you think that my father’s going to do something stupid, like launching a retaliation campaign or kidnapping someone to force my release: dream on. My father hasn’t managed to remain at large for fifty years now in the face of an international task force dedicated to catching him without knowing to not cut off his nose to spite his face. He WILL get even for this, believe me, but he’ll do it all in his own good time, in his own way. Y’know, ironically, you’re throwing the biggest brake on my father’s activities in jail here. I’ve devoted my adult life to finding legal and ethical ways of achieving my father’s social goals, to proving that the system can be made to work. And here you are, proving my father right.
“Okay, I’ve vented. Bang the gavel, and get this railroading back on schedule.”
The judge obligingly banged the aforementioned gavel and yammered at me, blaming me for not actively helping the Prosecution by cutting my own throat when the knife was offered to me, several times. The nerve of me! Making the State actually WORK to get to the place that had been a foregone conclusion months ago! Then he really brought down the hammer: three years at hard labor.
Three years? Even at hard labor, three years is nothing, especially for a Second Degree Manslaughter charge (hey, it was the best that they could do, considering the fact that they couldn’t even prove that the person that I was supposed to have shot ever even existed!)
Then the judge gave me an evil smile and added, “And Transportation.”
TRANSPORTATION? They’re going to ship me off to some soggy mudball that’s only 20 years into a 125-year terra-forming process? Nobody comes back from being Transported, except for the crews! And they’re gone for 14 years at a stretch!
I must have been getting at The Man better than I thought! I’ve been expecting the long and dirty arm of the Law, but I wasn’t expecting to get shipped off to Alpha Centauri (or wherever). Like I said, I’ve been expecting something for decades, and both Dad and I have laid down some pretty comprehensive contingency plans in case any or all of us ever got busted. If anything, my primary concern was getting out and away before Dr. Dad arranged something to spring me. I mean, after this, I’m a stone-cold Outlaw; there’s no going back from something like this. No matter how clean I played it, The Man would have to shut me up the permanent way, just in case I got as mad as I should be.
And Dr. Dad was going to be pretty dang smug as it was, being proved so egregiously right after so many years. I really did not need the additional compromise and humiliation that being rescued would cause. So, escaping, preferably with the finest publicity and panache possible, was my new first priority.
Of course, there was an immediate priority to take care of. Not that it would do any real good, aside from that I’d kick myself for not doing later on. Still, carpe diem, and all that. As the guards were towing me off, I managed to get them to pause near Trevor Goodkind, whose puzzled expression really was not the smug gloating that I was expecting. I glowered at him and said in my best Yale alumnus way, “Well Trevor, you win. You had to cheat, but then, ‘win by whatever means necessary’ really IS the Goodkind way, isn’t it? Still, this isn’t over, not by a long shot.” Trevor gave me a gob-smacked look, but the guards hauled me off before either of us had a chance to do anything more.
So, on to my daredevil escape. I had been keeping that on my third priority, so I had three possibilities already in mind, and all that I needed was a few minutes of alone time to sort them out and make it happen.
Of course, the Universe being like that, I never got those few minutes or an opening.
I was led by three guards to a disrobing room, and then I felt the unmistakable sting of a jangler. My last thought as I faded into unconsciousness was, “What? No standing me in front of cameras for a self-indulgent round of photo-op whoring?”
I woke up to Brahms. Not his lullaby of course, some piece or another for a string quartet. I couldn’t move. As my mind got clearer, I could feel that I was entubed and catheterized to a fare-thee-well and that my arms and legs were strapped in. There was something keeping me from opening my eyes. Literally, the only things working were my ears and my brains. Or at least as much as the latter ever worked.
The Brahms piece ended, and the playback cycled through some Mozart and Bach. It was starting on some Beethoven when finally a voice cut in. “Okay, you’re all finally awake. I only want to go through this once, so listen up. This ship is currently about a Standard Week out from the station orbiting Cybele. For your information, about 7 Standard Years have passed. But don’t worry about ‘Freezer Burn’ [Author’s Note: ‘Freezer Burn’: cellular disruption caused by improper freezing for Cryogenic Suspended Animation or by improper thawing]. You didn’t go into the freezer; you slept through your trip in Stasis. And no, you don’t have to worry about your bodies having gone flabby or anything. There’s a joke that we like to tell you newbies when you come out of the can. It’s a ‘Good News, Bad News’ joke. The Good News is that you’ll never have to worry about getting a date again. The Bad News is that you’ll be the one worrying if your shoes match your purse.
“Here’s the situation: due to difficulties beyond our control, the male-to-female ratio for both the volunteer colonists and you ‘yellowsuits’ is badly skewed toward the male. And the rules say that you gotta have at least so many female colonists for so many male colonists. So, you guys- or should I say, Girls- are gonna make up the difference. Now, according to the Standard Penal Service Contract that you all signed- or had signed for you- the company has the right to –quote- ‘make such systemic adjustments as may be necessary for the contractee to survive’ –unquote-. The Consortium’s lawyers claim that this gives them the right to change you into women. Just in case you were wondering, there is a class action lawsuit pending in the UN Tribunal. They should get around to it in about, oh, about fifty years- when most of you should all be grandmothers!
“Anyway, while you were all in Stasis, the Company medicos ran a suite of genesplice and bod-mod nanites through you. Your first dose was in that shot that they used to put you under. You’ve spent the last seven years with your body being force-adjusted. We are telling you this now, so that you have some time to wrap your little pinheads around the concept before we bring you out of your cans. Just so that you won’t completely flip out, the vast majority of you will look like you’re about 17 or 18 years old. The medics tell me that it’s because the process uses a ‘second adolescence’ to smooth the transition. Don’t worry, they have this ‘second adolescence’ down pat; you shouldn’t have to worry about acne.
“We will be bringing you out in groups of five. Since there are four _thousand_ of you girls, this is going to take a while, so some of you are going sleepy-bye for a while.”
I wasn’t one of the ones that were lucky enough to be re-sedated. I had to wait for what seemed like hours with only a dreary repertoire of classic music standing between me, and complete sensory deprivation.
But, just as I was beginning to dread the sound of a particularly tedious, well, I think it was literally a Te Deum, a slow and ponderous piece of music that was even drearier than a dirge, when the music cut off, and I heard Dad’s clipped voice in my head. [Jareth, my son, I’m sorry.] Oh Lord, this is not good. Dad’s admitting that he was wrong about something or that he failed. If I could, I’d stick my head out the window to see if the world was coming to an end. [Despite my best efforts to free you, your ‘Transportation’ was so quickly expedited that it was all that my agents could do to arrange the special ‘plug’ that has been clamped onto the input socket of your datajack. Besides this recording, and other hopefully useful files, this adjusted plug will prevent the reflex and cognition-enhancement blocking functions that unadjusted plugs will do to other prisoners, and it will block any intrusions to brainwash you while you are in hibernation. Unlike the standard plug of this sort, you can disconnect it at any time, and use it as an interface plug. You can also use it to unplug other prisoners; if you can’t make good use of that, then you’re not my son.]
[While I couldn’t arrange for your escape, I was able to convince Monte Cristo to lend some assistance] Woof, and here I thought that I had wasted my time, contesting my railroading. My Self-Defense must have convinced Monte Cristo’s leader (or leadership, or however they make up their organizational mind) that I was worth helping. They don’t open their bag of tricks for every goon with a stash of cash. [Monte Cristo has sympathizers among the employees of the companies that provision those ships on their swing through the inner system. These sympathizers arrange for things to be loaded that could be useful in various ways, in ways that won’t be noticed during inspections: extraneous CPUs and RAM chips in intercom systems, cleaning compounds that can be mixed as to create grades of plastique, food preparations that can be combined to create pain killers- or sedatives, equipment that can be recombined to create various proscribed gear, including weapons] he paused [I’m never going to use non-dairy creamer with my coffee, ever again.] Not that he explained. He never does. [Monte Cristo has also contrived that a volunteer colonist identity, along with suitable papers, history, personal effects, accessories and clothing. I’ve arranged for a hefty amount to be deposited into his account, and Monte Cristo has stowed aboard several items and commodities that you should find useful, using your new identity’s stowage allowance. Use it well, my son.]
[Jareth, you have always done the right thing by my people when your paths crossed, even when we, you and I, weren’t on the best of terms. Several of my people are on that ship, prisoners like yourself. If they learn who you are, and approach you… would you please… do the same for them?] Only Dad could try to guilt someone into becoming an evil mastermind, for the minions’ sake. [Their names, and a listing of our recognition signals and meeting protocols is on the files of the plug, along with the details of Monte Cristo’s various helpful aids]
[And, finally… Jareth… I must assume that we will never meet again, even as I pray that, somehow, you will find some way of not only surviving, but escaping this trap that the Power Elite has contrived for you. My Son, I want you to know that I am proud of you. Despite my pleas for you to join my organization, you went your own way and pursued your own agenda. And you made it work. You used the Power Elite’s own system against it. Your handling of that manufactured crisis in LaSalle was first rate, the way that you turned exposing the Belgrade Hoax into a global scandal was inspired, and if you hadn’t been related to me, your actions during the Gugaringrad Infestation would have earned you the highest honors that five nations had to offer. At every step you managed to not only strike at the chains that the Power Elite uses to keep the masses imprisoned, and not only used their own laws and systems to protect you and your people, but you were SEEN by the People as striking at those chains. You were consistently as great a thorn in the side of the Power Elite as I was, and you stayed technically inside the Law doing it. Even in defeat, you’re costing the Power Elite for the ham-fisted way that they handled your trial. You cost them much in the way of credibility. Not that that makes losing you hurt any less.] Oh Crap, he’s getting maudlin.
[Jareth, we haven’t gotten along very well for the past few years] Well, that’s one way to describe screaming at each other until we were red in the face. [But for all that, we agreed on the basics. You thought that my methods were too blunt, too brutal, while I thought that your methods were too naïve, and relied too heavily on the Power Elite’s willingness to abide themselves by the rules that they imposed for others. Still, we agreed that our mutual strategy was to provoke the Powers That Be into making inconvenient changes that were necessary for the common good. And we did just that, you and I. Jareth, you argued with me. Malachi never argues with me. I will miss our arguments. They’re good for me. Please, Jareth- if anyone can come back from that frigid travesty of a planet that they’re sending you to, it’s you. Please. Come back. Come back to me, my son.] And yet, for all that maudlin, he couldn’t find it in himself to finally let me know what the deal with my mother really is. Oh well, at least he never said ‘I told you so’. At least, not out loud.
Then I felt a strange sensation all around me, as if the air around me was getting thinner. This sensation lasted for a few minutes. As the pressure around me changed, the music got louder a little at a time, and I could see a light, which also grew. There was a sound of metal against metal, and I felt a dull thud. I felt hands grab me and pull me. They laid me, still curled up into a fetal ball, on a surface (a gurney, I think) and I felt myself being moved. Then I felt a spasm that jerked every muscle in my body around. I mumbled into the mouthpiece that I was now aware of. Hands pulled my limbs straight onto the gurney, and I felt a jet of water against my skin.
When they were through hosing me down, they pulled out the mouthpiece, then the noseplugs, which I hadn’t been aware of before. My first impression of the place was a smell sort of like soiled diapers. Then the plugs came out of my ears, and then the eyepieces off. Then, reaching down, one of them jerked the catheter out of my vagina (!). There was a mild giggle from the medics at that. I guess that seeing our expressions at that unprecedented sensation was one of the few amusing parts of a rather boring job.
I looked around. I was in a clinic looking room, with four very bored looking middle-aged women in medical coveralls with rubber boots, gloves and aprons standing around me. One of the medics wiped something around my eyes as I blinked. Another took my face in her hand and moved it back and forth. “Not bad, not bad at all. Nice batch so far.”
“Yeah, well, a lot of this batch are from the San Francisco Bay Area; all those generations of Anglos, Afros, Latinos and Asians all interbreeding with each other. I tell ya, the process just loves hybrid vigor.”
One of the medics hosed some more of the suspension fluid (at least I guess that’s what they were doing before, draining off the thick syrupy fluid that cushioned the sleepers against acceleration stress, insulated us from extremes of heat and radiation, and nourished our skin) from my hair. “Okay, kid, that’s it! Sit over there with the other girl.”
“No buts! You’ll get any questions you gave answered at the Orientation Lecture, along with all the other girls. Go! Sit!” She pointed to a bench, where a skinny AfroAm girl of about 17 years was sitting. She was wearing only a wet T shirt and briefs combination, as I was, and she had this ‘what the fuck is going on?’ look on her face- again, probably the same as I did. Lacking anything more intelligent to do, I shuffled over to the bench and sat down. I looked at her and she looked at me. Neither of us had anything to say at the moment.
The medics repeated the process with three more ‘girls’. From what I could follow, the ones that followed me were from London- UK, New York- USA, and Liverpool-UK, respectively. Just as the last girl was about to settle her buns on the bench, the lead medic grabbed a microphone and said, “Okay, this bunch is done- next batch!”
A door opened up, and another female medic poked her head in. She looked at us and said, “Okay, c’mon! We gotta get you out of those things and into a shower.” We were marched to a shower room, where we were instructed to strip, shower, shampoo and douche (!). Other than a perfunctory lecture on how to douche and a warning that we had a strict ration of water each, all we got out her was “Hurry up!” and “Keep your eyes to yourself!”
When the water ran out, we were given scratchy recyclable towels to dry off with. Man, was that an interesting experience! Then we were each issued a bright pink cotton sleeveless one-piece dress with an elastic waist and two pockets in the front, a recyclable ‘turban’ for our hair, and a pair of rubber-soled slippers.
Once we were ‘presentable’, a female guard who looked like she could handle all five of us at once without raising a sweat came in and led us to a room. The room was small- maybe 10 feet by twenty feet, with two of those bunk beds with the built-in lockers units, and another bunk bed over the workstation units. And that was pretty much it.
The girl from Liverpool jumped immediately into one of the lower bunks. Knowing a good idea when I saw it, I immediately jumped on the other lower bunk, leaving the rest to battle over whom got the chump-bunk over the workstation.
Once we had settled who got what (the London girl got the chump-bunk), we looked at each other warily. The voice had said that there would be an orientation of some sort.
The New York girl said, “Can they really do this?”
The Londoner said sourly, “In case you haven’t noticed- they bloody well DID.”
“But this has got to be illegal! Or unconstitutional! Or against some Human Rights convention or another!”
I actually knew something about that. “We’re convicts being sent Out-System to a Penal Colony. The minute that the courts assigned our cases over to the colony sub-contractors, the normal rules stopped applying to us, and they won’t apply to us until we’ve served our sentences.”
The black chick (who was from L.A.) looked at me from her bunk. “And what do YOU know about it?”
“I was on the List for the Academy,” I lied. “Competition to get on the List is cutthroat; the competition once you get there is even worse. I’ve been studying just to be ready to study, for 12 years.”
The Liverpudlian looked interested. “Oh? You were on the List? For Bristol, Havana, or Djakarta?”
“Silver Springs.” Silver Springs was the American Academy for Spacefaring Officers. It wasn’t quite as tony as Sandhurst or Osaka, but it was one of the Top Schools. Bristol, Havana and Djakarta were schools for Able Bodied Spacers.
“Okay, so you were goin’ for the braid- so what?”
“So, Penal Colonies are an integral part of Extraterrestrial colonization. They’re almost as basic as terraforming nanites and orbital solar mirrors.”
“Yeah, but what do they need prisoners for, anyway? Don’t they have nanites, fusion reactors and big-ass earth-moving machines to do the grunt work?”
“Yeah. But they need people to work the machines, tend the reactors and check on the nanites and gengineered biota.”
“Moss, worms, ants, yeast, fungi, grass, kelp, scrub brush and like all that.”
“Can’t they just use computers for all that crap?”
“The Fourth Law of Space Travel: ‘Never Trust the Instruments’. Sensors lie, computers glitch, latches catch, springs break, snaps unsnap, and seals don’t. Always make sure yourself.”
“What’s the First Law?”
“Never Fuck With Life Support. Ever. Even If It Seems Like a Good Idea at the Time.”
“So, they’re gonna put us out there doing the Terraforming crap, like this?”
I shook my head. “I doubt it. ETSA regs state that all colonies, Penal or Civil, must have at least a 1.25:1 Male/Female ratio. I guess that this is the company’s way of meeting their quota. Even with the cost saving bit of doing this while we were in Stasis and under extreme acceleration, we each cost the company a pretty penny. No, I think that they’ve come up with local versions of ‘Women’s Work’.”
The New Yorker grumped, “Yeah. And I’ll betcha that spreading for the sweathogs is Number One on the list.”
The other girls all looked at me. “What?” I asked.
“Aaahhh... I was kinda hopin’ that you knew better, like you did with all the other stuff.”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 231 HOURS 27 MINUTES 52 SECONDS
A few hours later, the workstation blinked on, and a voice said, “It’s time for the Orientation Lecture! Get out of your bunks and get ready! The door to your cell will open in 10- 9-” The door opened when the countdown ended, right on the dot. A guard pointed us down the hall, to where we could see lit arrows pointing us in the right direction. We wound up in what looked like an institutional cafeteria with long tables and benches. Each table was carefully spaced for five persons on each side. I got the distinct impression that they’d worked this all out and decided that groups of five were the best compromise between efficiency and manageability.
I was a tad surprised when they started the lecture with a table empty. Well, when you’re doing forced adaptation on an industrial basis, casualties are unavoidable. Or at least, cost-effective.
Then a rather bored looking man stepped up to a large viewscreen. “Okay, Ladies, listen up! As you may have guessed we’re doing this in shifts of 100 at a time. This is procedure, so get used to it- you’re going to be doing a lot of it in the next week. I hope that you liked the girls that you were bunked with, ’cause you’re going to be seeing a lot of them in the next local Year.”
The view screen flickered to life. A shot of a large fuzzy ball appeared. “This is Yukon, the gas giant that Cybele, your destination, orbits. Since it orbits a binary star, it produces more than 150 different kinds of unique heavy pressure materials, which the Shatner Mining & Manufacturing Company™, Beekman Chemicals ®, TerraCorp ©, and Arcot-Wade-Morey, and a few other, smaller firms send remote control scoops to collect. There are 15 planetoid-sized moons that orbit Yukon. There are three other gas giants that Shatner M&M and the others send scoops into: Klondike, Dakota and Cariboo. There are four other Earth-sized moons orbiting Yukon, but they’re using the ‘slow cook’ method on them; they shouldn’t be even close to habitable for another 100 years. While Cybele is still God’s own cold, Tartarus has spent Trillions of American dollars on fixing the place up, so there are places that are actually nice to be. Since you are now female, there is a chance that you might be able to see one of them someday.
“The reason that you all have been brought here is to make this hellhole a little more livable for the men who live and work here. You will fill the job niches traditionally filled by women, first and foremost the job of being good company for the men. And don’t tell us that you’re not into guys. First of all, we don’t really care. Secondly, the reason that you, as specific individuals, were chosen to be transformed, was while you were being held, you were subjected to subtle tests to determine how well you would adapt. And you WILL adapt. While your bodies were being prettied up, the nano-nerds were tweaking your metabolisms and your brains so that they conformed to a female configuration. So, now you ARE women. Get used to it.
“For your first Ship’s day, you will be processed and evaluated. You will also be groomed and given your new female names. Won’t that be fun, girls?
“Tomorrow, you will help the Ship’s Crew and the Counselors process the men as they are brought out of Cold Storage. And I warn you: don’t try anything funny, ‘cause you’re all girls now, and the guards are the only thing between you and 50,000 horny convicts with nothing to lose.
“Now, you’re probably asking yourself, ‘WHY are they bringing us out of hibernation on the ship, when they could just set the hibernation racks down dirtside, and do the job there?’ The answer is THIS-” he clicked his remote and the display changed to a side-on schematic of an interstellar vessel, a long cylindrical thing with two large rings before and aft, “this is the NCC-NHS/457, the ship that you’re on. NO, it doesn’t have a name. The Four-Fifty-Seven is what’s called a ‘Bussard Ramjet’ or ‘Torch Ship’. For those of you who haven’t heard this, we can’t just ‘go to hyperspace’ or ‘engage the FTL drive’; that only works on TV. In order to access hyperspace, the ship has to crawl out of the System’s greater gravity well; in the case of the Solar System, that generally means exceeding the Trans-Uranic Orbit, or the Orbit of the planet Uranus. Once we get past the orbit of Uranus, we can fix a gravitic lens onto a distant point and use that to access hyperspace. Ironically, while we can cross hundreds of light-years in minutes, it takes years of standard time to get to the point where we can do that. But still, we have to GET out there. This system uses a combination Solar Sail and Bussard Ramjet to do that. A Bussard Ramjet works by gathering ionized hydrogen particles,” an arrow pointed at one of the rings, “gathering and compressing it, and igniting it in a fusion reaction,” another arrow pointed at the ring at the other end. “Besides propelling and powering the ship, the fusion reaction also powers an anti-matter breeder, which we use to power the gravitic lens. And, for all those hands I already see, YES it IS a LOT more complicated than that. But those of you who have the educations to understand the explanations already know the answers, and I don’t have the time or inclination to spell it out for the rest of you. Now, the one of the major problems with the Bussard Ramjet scheme is the speed necessary to scoop up and compress all that hydrogen; if you fall below that speed, the whole thing simply doesn’t work. Which means that decelerating is problematic, so slowing down to the speed where we could orbit Cybele to unload and pick up cargo and then travel to the other moons and stations and then accelerate again would add another year to our trip, require that we carry megatons of fuel on board, and a whole raft of other complications that would increase the time, expense, risk and insurance premiums for each trip.
“The solution was simple. An accountant probably came up with it. Don’t slow down. Or, at least we allow drag to slow us down to the minimum speed necessary to maintain the scoop, which is still thousands of klicks per second. The settlements will- HAVE already- sent out shuttles to intercept us. Keep in mind, at the speeds we’re traveling, steering is almost impossible; the course was set years ago, when we first came out of hyperspace, using navigation information provided by the local navigation system. Once it’s laid in, there is NO deviating from our course. Of course, that also means that the shuttles know exactly where we’re going to be in order to intercept us. The ramscoop, besides acting as a scoop and a solar sail, also acts as a buffer against systemic debris. Anything the size of a mote of dust is swept up and broken down into hydrogen; and despite what you may think, 99% of the junk floating around any system is dust or gas. Anything larger than a mote of dust is deflected by the ramscoop. But the ramscoop doesn’t deflect the shuttles; rather it guides them to our loading docks.” More arrows appeared along the sides of the canister. “The shuttles are loaded as quickly as possible, and they break off, using their gained momentum from the ship to carry them to Cybele, braking all the way.
“Which finally brings us to the three real problems: the time window, our cargo’s volume, and our lading system. Given the range of the shuttles and the speed that we’re traveling, we have just under SEVEN HOURS to get everything and everyone unloaded, and to load the food that we’re going to be carrying to the other settlements. SEVEN HOURS. PERIOD. And, YES, we HAVE tried figuring ways around that; if you can figure a way around it, tell the people at Cybele, they’ll be delighted to hear it,” he said in a tone that suggested that he wasn’t going to hold his breath. “Second Problem: moving stuff interstellar distances is hideously expensive. In order to justify the expense of hauling it all the way out of the Sun’s gravity well and through hyperspace, you have to move a LOT of mass on each trip. So, besides you 40,000 colonists, we also have to unload several hundreds of THOUSANDS of mega-tons of import goods on disembarkation. Third Problem: our automatic lading system can’t DO all of that in seven hours. Mind you, the engineers say that they’ve almost got that problem licked, and they should have a solution any day now. It’s been coming any day now for fifty years,” he snarled.
“The solution is simply to do it with manual labor in concert with the lading system. The colonists are going to be brought out of hibernation and physically move the contents of the inner bays to temporary bays where the lading system can handle them. Since all the logistics of bringing the colonists out can be handled before we make first contact, all that time does not impact on our time window. The details of the lading don’t really involve you ladies, but the details of decanting some fifty thousand colonists DO, since that will be your job for the next week or so.
“For the period between now and when the shuttles arrive, you ladies will assist the women who brought you out of hibernation, doing exactly that for the other colonists. You will help bring them out, wash them, help groom them, and get them dressed. You will help orchestrate their living arrangements, you will cook and serve their food, you will wash their clothing, you will clean up after them, you will run the concession counters at the break, and, in general, run the ship’s services for them. You lot are the first group to be brought out of hibernation. Then next batch will be the Volunteer Colonists, the people who applied, were vetted and accepted.” In other words, the yutzes stupid enough to fall for those inane ‘emigrate to Paradise!’ commercials.
“There will be roughly 5,000 of them, with a 4:1 male-to-female ratio.” Oh… Fuck. Woops, bad choice of words. It’s logical that the Volunteers would also be ‘adapted’, and they throw in the Rejuve along with the rest; it’s in the advertising and it only makes sense to have young, fit people who still have years of experience. And, as I recall, while it takes years for those ‘slow cook’ Rejuves to work, one thing’s a constant: they’re as horny as toads when they come out of the jar. This could be very sticky.
“The Volunteers won’t be directly helping with moving the cargo around. Rather, they’ll be assisting the ship’s marines with security, making sure that the other groups do their part. We only have 60 marines, and there are going to be over 40 THOUSAND of you running around, so we’re going to need them to keep order and make our window of opportunity. The Volunteers will either wear their civilian clothing or blue jumpsuits while they backup the Marines. Okay, for those of you who aren’t that fast on the uptake: if someone’s wearing blue or gray coveralls- DO WHATEVER THEY SAY. Keep it simple. If they’re wearing gray, they’re crew, and they know more than the volunteers, so if someone in gray says one thing and another person in blue says another, listen to the guy in gray. If they’ve got red stripes on their sleeves and pants, they’re Marines, so listen to them over someone with no stripes. If they have gold stripes, they’re Line Officers and they outrank the Marines. No matter what the jarheads say.
“After the Volunteers, come the Shorties, that is, the short-timers. They’re serving out a sentence, but it’s only a year, and they’re even-all. They’re here on ‘Three Strikes’ felonies, but minor, bottom-rung felonies.” In other words, they were the poor schmos whose only real crime was to run up 3 offenses that wouldn’t get them a weekend in jail each, if the judge wasn’t getting a bounty for every poor sap that he sent into the grinder. “They’ll be given green jumpsuits to wear, and they’ll be doing most of the grunt labor. They won’t have any real power, but on the other hand, most of them are pretty harmless. There are going to be 20 thousand of them, so don’t bother trying to get to know them, or be all that nice to them. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be nice to the Marines or the guys in the blue suits. They’ll be the ones keeping the creeps in green in line.
“The next in line are the One-to-Three Year prisoners, at 3 men for every 2 girls. They did something nasty, something that wasn’t that bad in strict legal terms, but was a real threat to the Peace and general welfare.” Translation: Political Prisoners. “They’ll be wearing neon yellow jumpsuits, and they’ll be doing the grunt labor. Girls, don’t believe a fuckin’ WORD these assholes say. They wouldn’t BE here if they weren’t complete and utter SLIME. The Shorties in green are just assholes who slipped up one time too many; the Threebies are smartasses who think that they’re slicker than everyone else, and they have histories of talking people into doing stupid things.” Like voting for the other party, actually reading contracts, learning their rights, insisting on Due Process, demanding to know the details of the power process, and other things that are inexpedient for the Power Elite. “But don’t worry about them; we’re gonna keep them good and busy. Just remember, no matter how pathetic the Yellow Dogs howl, they’re just trying to get you to pity them. There are going to be 15 thousand of them, so you will hear a LOT of pure Bee-Ess. If any of them give you any grief, just let one of the Marines or Vols know about it, and they’ll take care of ‘em.
“The last group that you’re gonna have to worry about are the Fivers, the guys with the 5-to-10 sentences, also at 3 to 2 men/women. These guys are the professional crooks, the petty mobsters, the grifters, the burglars, the street hoods, the yahoos who couldn’t stay out of jail if their lives depended on it. BUT, they’re not particularly violent. At least, they weren’t convicted of crimes of extreme violence, anyway. These guys will be the last ones that we bring out of hibernation aboard this ship. Your job will be to hose them down, shave them clean, and get them into bright neon orange jumpsuits. From there, they go straight into irons and from there into holding cells. They’ll be the last ones out of hibernation, and the first ones onto the shuttles. There are going to be 5,000 of them, so we’re not giving them any opportunity to get any ideas. We won’t even drop them down to the cities on Cybele; they’re going straight down into the field, to the remote terraforming stations. We also have another 5 thousand hardened violent criminals, who’ll be serving 10-to-20 year sentences, but we won’t be decanting them here on the ship. It’s too dangerous, and we have too many people coming out of the jug as it is. Them, we’re shipping down direct; they’ll be brought out at the terraforming stations, and you don’t have to worry about ever seeing them.
“Now, you may have noticed that the hardasses will be going down first. This is deliberate. We only have so many people to control the prisoners, so we’re bringing you out in ranks of your trustworthiness. All of you are basically honest people who had a few bad breaks. It happens. This is your chance to show us that you can be trusted, and that you are reliable.” Translation: this is your opportunity to show what an accommodating chump you are, so we can screw the hell out of you and everyone else more easily. “Of course, we’re on a very tight schedule; everything HAS to be loaded on time. You girls in pink are absolutely essential for this. You’ll be the very last ones boarded, since you’ll be the ones making the rest get aboard on time. But when that last shuttle is being loaded, it will be on the very tightest of schedules; when the time comes for that last shuttle to drop off, it drops off, no matter how many of you will be left without a seat. And we’ll be loading you all in the order suggested by your shift leaders, based on how helpful you were during the loading.” And there’s the threat. There’s always a threat. This one is being left behind on the ship, and all the hideously fearful unknowns that would go with it. They showed us the carrot, and now they’re showing us the stick. They always have a stick. They wouldn’t be in charge without a stick. A color-coded class system, a masters-and-slaves power arrangement, strictly confined living spaces where stepping outside either the living space or the boundaries of authority means immediate severe discomfort (when it doesn’t spell immediate death), several grades of punishment that are constantly held over your head, a distinct group of women who have to become completely complicit with the power elite or risk possible RAPE; jeez, it doesn’t take much to see what kind of culture this colony is developing, does it?
Dear God-on-High, you DO work in mysterious ways, don’t you? You had to jump me through all these hoops, just to get me here, just to find my life’s true work. Namely, finding the chinks in this hellhole’s armor, and ramming all this bullshit down the Lords and Masters’ throats.
“But for now, your evaluations are next. You’ll file out in groups of two and three, starting with THAT corner.”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 201 HOURS 18 MINUTES 05 SECONDS
Like the man said, we spent the next ‘ship day’ (a rather arbitrary term that consists of three work shifts: How long the shifts last in objective time is a matter of company policy; Some ‘ship days’ can last up to 35 Standard Hours) being processed in groups of three. First, we were washed, measured and then had our hair cut and our long, talon-like nails trimmed. As my hair was being styled, I finally got a decent look at my new face. My face was heart-shaped, with large round brown eyes (courtesy of my Croat ancestors), very high cheekbones (I may have a grab-bag of Asian or Latino ancestors to thank for that; I mean, I’m not really sure who my mother was), a pointed chin, a mouth with full lips (well, there’s always a chance of an Afro-Am ancestor here or there when you’re an American), and a straight nose (who knows?). I was no professional beauty, but I was cute; even _I_ could see the makings of a beauty in my features. For some reason, my roan-red hair had turned fiery red. The hair cutter wasn’t in the mood for elaborate styles- and let’s face it, most of us didn’t want fancy do’s, and couldn’t maintain them even if we did- so she just cut off most of the long curling hair, making a ‘page boy’ (or at least I think that’s what they call it). More by luck than by skill, the style suited my face, even if those stupid ‘horn’ forelocks that are the trademark of my family were still there. All of the ‘girls’ got very simple cuts, and a lot of those styles really didn’t suit them.
Next, we were evaluated and tested. Now, since they had to treat us as individuals for the first time, the next thing that they did were issue us ‘names’. If you were lucky, there was an obvious feminine version of your male name; guys named Joseph became Josephine or Joanne, or like that. I was summarily dubbed ‘Janet’. Then I was handed a dataslate and while I filled out the virtual forms, the Evaluator asked me a lot of questions. It took maybe ten minutes, but then they had four thousand of us to process, before we could be used to help process the others. The Evaluator took the slate from me and told me to report to the Shift Leader.
The Shift Leader, a woman named Piaget, looked like my old grade school lunch lady. Hell, she looked like everyone’s grade school lunch lady. Heavyset, yet not quite fat, with the scowl of perpetual boredom tinged with the annoyance of having to deal with the general public. But the scowl washed right off her face when she read my update, and was replaced by a vicious grin. “YOU… are Jareth DIABOLIK? You are the kid of that sick fuck DOCTOR Diabolik?”
“My name is Frost-”
She silenced me with a slap on the face. “Your NAME is DIABOLIK. It SAYS so, right here,” she jabbed a finger at her dataslate. “But this can’t be right. It says that they gave you the name ‘Janet’. ‘Janet Diabolik’? That’s no name for the daughter of a murdering terrorist like Dr. Diabolik…” She scrunched up her face, racking her brain (what little she had) “Jadis,” she decided with that same vicious grin. “Jadis Diabolik.” She entered that into her dataslate and sent her ‘correction’ into the database.
“Jadis Diabolik. You’re fracking kidding me.”
She slapped me again. “Your father KILLED my husband and children,” she hissed. Bullshit. I’ve had to deal with ‘tragic avengers’ all my life. If she had lost anyone in one of Dr. Dad’s operations, it would have been the first thing out of her mouth, not that ‘Jadis Diabolik’ crap. And she’d have names. They always want you to know the names. And ages. And how many years they’d been married, for spouses. And their hopes and dreams for the dearly departed’s aborted future. And the date and place where they died, and how they heard about it and a ton of stuff like that. A quick look at her left hand showed no wedding ring; if she’d lost a husband tragically, she’d keep the ring to remember him by (and to make something special of her suffering). From the looks of her, I’d say that she’s never been married. Hell, from the looks of her, I’d say that she hasn’t gotten laid in fifteen years.
As she yapped at me, I did a quick analysis of Piaget: my summation was that she was your basic Petty Despot (bottom-rung), what the Germans call a ‘Radfahrer’; someone who kisses the ass of anyone above them on the ladder, and shits on anyone lower. And until we came along, she WAS the bottom rung of the ladder. For the past seven-odd years she’s had to clean up after and cater to the needs of everyone else on the ship. Now, she finally has someone to boss around, but she only has a week to do it in. So, she’s going to tuck right in and make someone’s life miserable as she can, while she can. And here I am, someone she can bully to her heart’s content and brag afterwards about how she put the vicious criminal in her place.
Thank you God, for this invaluable gift.
In my career, both the legal and covert phases, I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to shaft people to get things done. I’m not proud of it, but there you are. But I will say that in each and every case, I bent over backwards trying to find someone who had it coming. I admit, I didn’t succeed every time, but I gave it honest effort. And here, when it’s inevitable that someone HAS to get the dirty end of the stick, is Piaget, all but saying ‘Beat Me, Whip Me, Make Me Write Bad Checks!’
She immediately made a correction to my slate. “No-no-no-no… silly woman! Put you to work in the kitchens? Please! You’d probably poison everyone and try to take over the ship! No, you’re going to work in the laundry!” She set the others to various tasks that she would see to later, and then lead me up several levels, away from the main levels, up into the bowels of the ship- or, at least the hydrology segment. And there were several hundred pounds of soiled laundry in hampers. “The 457 is a clean ship,” she said as though she was personally responsible for that. “The crew sends its uniforms and off-duty duds down here to be cleaned every shift. THIS is your job. YOU are going to be a key element in making that happen.” What she spelled out was simple but grueling, back-breaking work that would simply never end. She grabbed a seat and kept an eye on me for maybe half an hour, but with apologies to Jerome K Jerome, the Victorian novelist who penned the immortal phrase: “I love work. I can watch it for hours”, watching simple repetitive labor is almost as boring as doing it yourself. She got a buzz on her wrist unit and was told that she was needed elsewhere. “Don’t you go anywhere,” she warned me. “That ‘watch’ unit on your wrist is keeping tabs on you, no matter where you go. And an alarm will go off if you take it off. You do anything but shift dirty drawers, and five big, mean Marines will be right down to break your fracking NECK.”
I slogged through about five to ten minutes of that, waiting to be sure that Piaget wasn’t going to pop back to check on me. Then I did what Piaget probably though I’d never do: I pushed the right buttons. The whole thing was automatic. That was obvious to me the second that I saw the whole arrangement; the volume of clothing was simply too large for a person to handle by themselves, it HAD to be on automatic. This has all the earmarks of a classic hazing prank to pull on newbs. When I checked the sleeve of Piaget’s uniform, there weren’t any ‘trips completed’ hashes, so this is her first trip; she probably got this one pulled on her, and she’s been itching to pull it on someone else.
I spent the next half-hour or so, ripping up the laundry room, finding Monte Cristo’s little ‘CARE packages’ for me. The problem was that I couldn’t refine them into useable forms here in the laundry room, and there was too much for me to carry without Piaget spotting it. Heck, in these pockets, anything larger than a paperback book would go noticed. So, I decided to relay the box with my stuff back to my room, seeing how far I could go before my minder bracelet beeped a warning to me. I got all the way to my cabin and back, with nary a peep. So much for Piaget’s faithful electronic watchdog. They simply weren’t watching me. Yet.
My shift was supposed to be 6 hours long, and we were well into 3 hours of it when I started, and I killed maybe an hour and a half collecting all that junk and getting it to my cabin. Still, it was another 3 hours before Piaget ‘remembered’ to come and get me. Not that I minded that much. I used the time to get things straight in my mind and begin my evil plotting. Still, I mimed exhaustion and strained arms for Piaget’s sadistic amusement. “When do we eat?” I asked, “I haven’t eaten in EIGHT YEARS!”
“Whine, whine, whine,” Piaget mocked, “Why is it that the biggest badasses are always the biggest whiners? Don’t worry- we made a BIG BATCH of oatmeal for you girls. Hell, it’s all that your delicate little tummies can handle right now anyway.”
Interestingly, Piaget shut up when we got to the mess hall. That told me things about Piaget’s status, and how things were run on the ship. But the looks that I got from the other pink skirts and from the people behind the lunch counter were even more informative. From the scowls that I got from the lunch ladies, and the measuring looks that I got from the other ‘girls’, I’d say that Piaget has been less than discreet, and either spread it around the lunchroom or told someone who put it on the grapevine. The counter-thing slopped some tepid slop into a bowl and handed it to me and told me in a coldly indifferent way to take a glass of drink. The oatmeal was institutional standard (barely edible paste), and the drink tasted like someone’s sweat and had that vaguely medicinal aftertaste that’s supposed to make you feel better from some placebo effect.
As everyone eating in the room had the same stunned look of ‘OMG, where’s my DICK?’, I opted to sit alone. I was gingerly eating my porridge, making myself eat it, and fiddling with my glass, when I spotted someone coming up on my Forty. She was one of the Pink Skirts, and her physique made me wonder exactly how much the ‘adaptation’ process messed with our builds. None of the ‘Girls’ were exactly hard on the eyes, even me, and I’d never have pegged myself for passing easily. Still, she was tallish, and what I think I’ll describe as ‘strapping’, lithe but athletic, with a nice rack and rust-red hair. The way that she was moving suggested that she hadn’t exactly withered away to a little weakling. If anything, she reminded me of a jock- or a thug- or a Cop. None of those possibilities thrilled me. I’ve done my fair share of time behind bars as DAs and other minions of the Power Elite tried to find some way of making whatever I’d done illegal. And they never thought to put me in Protective Custody for some reason. And among the things I learned inside, there’s the fact that prisoners have a keen need to establish a pecking order; usually through harassment, humiliation, coercion and assault. And there’s that being the kid of a big name operator like ‘Dr. Diabolik’ just means that the guy who pounds you will get that much more points for it. And that jail guards don’t much like breaking up those little games, especially when big name prisoners are on the receiving end.
Oh, and it strikes me that most of the former guys on this tub must need someone to vent on BAD.
She came up on my side and bent over to speak into my ear. I’ve had that approach before. The first time, I got shanked in the side. The Prison Authorities claimed that I’d provoked the prisoner. The second time- in another jail, mind you- I’d come up with this. It starts with a trick that involves slipping your foot under the back of your ankle, and after that I’m not really comfortable distributing details. She went down and hit her chin on the edge of the table. Then there were a few more tricks, too subtle for the startled observer, to get across that this had been a monumentally BAD idea.
The lunch room, which hadn’t been exactly the merriest place imaginable, went stone silent.
When one of the lunchroom ladies- with a Jangler in her hand- hurried up, I assured her, “Nothing happened. She was just about to talk to me, and well, I think that she’s just not used to that center of gravity.” I gave my assailant an invisible- but painful- jab in the side, and asked her, “Isn’t that right?” First impressions are very important, and this one is that I’m nobody’s bitch.
“Yeah,” she gasped, “I just think that I slipped on… some oatmeal or something…”
“Nothing to write up a report about,” I assured the lunch lady. She gave me a wary look, but the specter of paperwork made her accept it. She went back to her counter, and the lunch room went back to its prior state of glazed barely-restrained castration panic.
I leisurely finished my meal (such as it was), silently but effectively daring anyone to try anything. No one did. I was silently gratified as the girls in pink edged slightly away as I passed them on my way out of the mess hall. Which made me that much more impressed when one of them dinged me. I felt the slightest touch at one of the pockets on my dress. I only touched it once, as I was rounding a corner, to check. A slip of paper.
Well, that was quick.
Of course, we don’t have a lot of time. No time for the usual protocols or security measures. This one was going to have to be balls to the walls.
In my cabin, I checked. The piece of paper seemed to be blank. But it seemed to be rice paper, so I checked it against the light. Written in not-exactly invisible ink (I’m guessing they used that drink) was: d4 Nf6. It was a ‘Queen’s Indian defense’ opening chess gambit, written in algebraic notation. That narrowed the author down to five possibles. I assumed that the starting point was the door of the mess hall, and followed the doors to the point indicated by the move. There, written at the very top of the door in marker was: 2. C4 e6. From there it went:
3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. b3 Bb4+ 6. Bd2 Be7 7. Nc3 0-0 8. Rc1 c6 9. e4 d5 10. e5 Ne4 11. Bd3 Nxc3 12. Rxc3 c5 13. dxc5 bxc5 14. h4 h6 15. Bb1 f5
There was no message on the sixteenth door, so I went in. It was a maintenance access nook that should have been locked. Standing there was a short and slender, though well-made girl with black hair tied into a braid draped over her shoulder and a pale oval face that was set into a mask of frigid dispassion. She looked at me and I said, “I STILL say that Kramnik beat Topalov fair and square at the FIDE World Championship in 2006!”
“Please!” she snorted with what passes with passion for her, “Kramnik went to the bathroom so often that he must have dehydrated himself!”
“The whole thing was a pure meta-textual power move by Topalov’s manager, Danailov!” she started to retort, but I cut her off with, “So? Anything new and comment-worthy happen to YOU lately, Kaz?”
Kazimir ‘Kaz’ Tvardovski gave a pout that would have probably driven her crazy if I’d told her it made her look very cute, and asked, “How’d you know that it was me?”
“Well, any reasonably intelligent and educated person could have come up with using Chess notation to guide me to a discreet meeting place. I’d say that there are maybe a dozen people who know that I know the algebraic notations for chess moves, and maybe seven of them might be in a position to be on this ship one way or another, and there are maybe three or four of those who are cautious enough to come up with this. BUT, you are the ONLY person I know who even knows who Veselin Topalov WAS, let alone knows that I know how he beat Ponomariov at the M-Tel Masters in 2005 with the move sequence that you used!”
“I had to be sure that it was you,” she said defensively. “By the way, I know how they arrested and railroaded you; but how did they keep you long enough to get you into the jug? I would have thought that you would have been working on ways of getting out from the second that they brought you into the station.”
“I did. I wanted to get off legally first, but I had four escape plans mapped out, just in case. Then they jangled me right after I was dragged out of the courtroom and kept me on ice until they brought me out, eight hours ago. Yeah, I know: Illegal as hell, but when did that ever stop the Cops when they really wanted to do something? And how’d they bag YOU? As I recall, you’d done a remarkably thorough job of zeroing yourself; they had no records that you even existed, and they weren’t even sure that you weren’t three or four separate individuals pulling a ‘Nimrod’ scam.”
“They turned it around on me,” she scowled. “It was really quite elegant. They nailed me down to a physical locality, and then eliminated everyone who had a single verifiable record. When they arrested me, they simply said that I was Simon Abrieul, a convicted embezzler who’d disappeared- that is, if they simply hadn’t dusted him and wanted his disappearance accounted for- and shipped me off.”
“Ew. They ARE getting nasty, aren’t they? So? You want to start up a game to pass away our free hours?” I asked airily.
“You know what I want,” she growled.
“And you know what I want,” I shot back.
“You know that you can trust me.”
“I know that I can trust you once you’ve made a commitment. I’m doing WAY too much of this off the cuff; I can’t afford to have a party as important to my plans as you’ll be that I can’t trust 100 percent. I need to hear the words, Tvardovski.”
“I can’t afford to be left holding the bag, Frost. We’re on a prison ship, headed to a penal colony.”
“You know that I do right by my people.”
“I need to hear the words, Frost.”
“Hook up with me, and I’ll do right by you, Tvardovski. Like I do with everyone I work with. By the same lights, if you ever betray me, I’ll spare no expense, go to the ends of the Earth to hunt you down and HURT you in the most painful and humiliating way conceivable; as I have done with everyone who has betrayed me.”
“Still trying to be your father’s son?”
“I’ve said the words; now either you say the words, or you start looking over your shoulder for how I remove you from the board. I can’t afford to have someone like you around screwing with my play.”
“What’s your agenda, Frost?”
“To get off this ship and avoid being trapped in their prison system, while keeping from recklessly endangering people that I don’t strictly have to. To find safe and prosperous alternative living arrangements for myself and those who work with me. To achieve some form of justice and social progress for the poor benighted colonists on Cybele. Oh, and to cause the bastards who did this to us as much grief, discomfort, disadvantage, loss, embarrassment and PAIN as humanly possible.”
“That sounds like an agenda I can get behind,” she said evenly. “And what won’t you do to achieve those admittedly admirable goals?”
“I won’t slaughter or endanger the innocent, steal what the innocent need to live and prosper, terrorize children or slander the honorable,” I responded.
“You DO realize that eventually, after we’ve achieved most of your primary agenda, I WILL want to go off and pursue projects of my own?”
“Agreed. Give me due warning, and don’t walk off with anything that I’ll need. Just sit down with me and we’ll work out the details like civilized people.”
“Oh? How many civilized people do you know?”
“Three or Four,” I admitted. “None of them were involved in politics.”
“Okay. I agree to assist you in your agenda, to protect your interests and back, to not betray you, to eat pie, to poke holes in your pretensions, to mock stupidity mercilessly-”
“We may have to renegotiate; I DO love pie,” I licked my lips.
“-and to promote the general goals that you’ve described. At least until we mutually decide to go our own ways. OR until you start doing any of the things that you just said you wouldn’t do.”
“Agreed.” I stuck out my hand and she shook it. “We’re girls now,” I mused. “Aren’t we supposed to seal these agreements with a hug or something?”
“Let’s not. Most of the women that I’ve known only hugged so they’d know where to stick the knife in better.”
And that was that. Snarks aside, Kaz takes keeping his- sorry, HER word very seriously. But he also has a prankster streak under that glacial façade that sometimes means that he’ll jump on someone’s presumptions and assumptions. Just to keep them on their toes, you understand. Of course that sort of tricksterism is a fine old tradition with hackers. But Kaz isn’t just a hacker and a jacker and a Chess fiend; he’s an information analyst who doesn’t work with facts, but rather with the mathematical patterns of data, and the kind of math maven who waxes rhapsodic about the ‘elegance and clarity’ and so on of various tensors and transformations and all like that. In case you didn’t pick up on it, we’ve worked together. We get along well enough to argue chess. “So, Kaz- what will you need?”
“Keep an eye open for any terminals that I can get at. I’ve already got a lead on some components to kludge together a workstation that I can slave onto the ship’s systems.”
“Workstations? Isn’t that a bit of a comedown for you?”
Her poker face went actively baleful. “Well, unless you can scrounge up a key that can unlock THIS-” she turned her head pulled back her hair to show the plug in her anterior socket. I caught her hand and kept her from turning her head. I reached back and undid the plug from my own socket. Reviewing the instructions in my onboard instruction manual, I adjusted the plug, fit it onto her plug, twisted and pulled it free. The surprise of suddenly being free cracked even Kaz’s legendary sang froid. “How?” she asked, her eyes wide.
I held up the plugs with a wide grin. Keeping it simple yet telling, I just said, “Monte Cristo.”
“Monte Cristo?” The world must be ending. Kaz actually perked up and her eyes sparkled. Then a look of calculation entered her eyes. “And… so what other goodies has your father left for you?”
“What would you say about a working deck with 15 Yottabytes of memory, [Author’s Note: Giga = 109 or nine zeros/ Zetta = 1021/ Yotta = 1024] 125 Zettabytes of RAM, 128 fields of interstice, and 33 degrees of abstraction?”
“It’s an imbecile. I’ll take it. How big is it?”
“Roughly the size of a hardback book.”
“It’s a dinosaur. I love it already. What software comes with it?”
“All your favorite toys, and Monte Cristo says that you’ve already got a virtual assistant sleeping in the system, well inside the most heavily protected part of the mainbrain, just waiting for its Princess Charming to wake it up with a kiss- or, knowing you, a wet mackerel.”
“You’re spoiling me. I haven’t logged on and already the big iron’s my bitch.”
“Just remember-” I warned her, “this is NOT fun and games. We’re on a fracking prison ship traveling at 0.1 the speed of light with no brakes towards Devil’s Planetoid, and there are 4000 hormone-addled, castration-panicked girls out there who we can’t trust any further than we can throw them. This has to be seamless, the first time around. There’s no practice runs, no re-do, no ‘better luck next time’ on this; we have ONE throw of the dice. And if we crap out, at best, we’re fucked for the rest of our lives.”
“You’re just trying to perk up my interest.”
“Okay, I’ll get the stuff. You find another meet spot; you know the drill.”
“Right. And Frost?”
“d-4” and she was out the door.
“Nertz.” Kaz always bogarts White.
I got back to my cabin and was in the embarrassing spot of getting my stuff while two of my cabinmates were making out passionately. Or, since it was ‘London’ and ‘Liverpool’, maybe heavy snogging is the more appropriate term. I felt a tightening in my crotch, a tingling in my breasts, and butterflies in my stomach. I got the stuff out of my locker and slipped out without them noticing. I hid my box of stuff among a bunch of other boxes, and wheeled them down corridor and down the hall. I’d found the room where I’d met Kaz (Kaz had settled on Polerio vs. D'Arminio, Rome, 1610 as the game), and was tooling down to the next door, when it hit me: I was horny. I was massively horny. I was tackle-the-next-thing-that-moved-and-fuck-them-halfway-to-death horny. Only I was horny in the female way.
Oh God, I should have known that you wouldn’t make it that easy. First Monte Cristo, then Piaget, and then Kaz- I should have known that you were setting me up for something! I do NOT need this. I don’t have fracking TIME for romance, or even the complications that simple raw sex would involve. And the entire idea of a guy even kissing me, let alone sticking that… thing… of his into me makes me wanna spew! Even as it makes me wet below… Maybe London and Liverpool had the right idea… But that means adding a fuck-buddy to my list of things to do. The obvious choice is Kaz, of course. She turned out cute and I don’t have to worry about Kaz getting romantic or clingy. But canoodling with anyone that I’m going to be working with as closely as I’m going to with Kaz is a BAD idea. After Chanthana, never again. That almost got me and my entire team killed. I took a deep cleansing breath, focused, and pushed down the hallway.
I knocked on the door with no chess moves on it, and greeted Kaz as she opened the door with, “e-4.” I looked around the room. “Did any of your options have a microwave oven?”
“Trust me, we need it.” A few minutes later, in a less secure room, a break room to be exact, I explained, “The secret of Monte Cristo’s success- or at least the one of the few of no doubt many that they imparted to me- is that they break up their little presents and disguise the components as things that the prisons- or transport ships- consider everyday and unremarkable. Something about a trick that the Americans played on the Germans during the Second World War being an inspiration. For instance, this really will be an instrument of our Salvation,” I held up a leather softcover bible, the kind that they keep around just in case anyone feels a need for spiritual guidance (or, more accurately, so no one can accuse them of neglecting that need).
“You’re going to PRAY us off this ship?”
“Oh, ye of little faith.” I found the passage indicated by my onboard manual, placed the proper chips in the proper place, and put the proper sheets of aluminum foil between the proper pages, and then another sheet of gold foil from the comm stations that I raided, and then I mixed two chemicals from the laundry with water, some crock powder and a dab of a specific cleanser. Then I dunked the bible in the water mixture, and counted slowly to 25. Kaz arched an inquiring eyebrow at me as I put the soaked bible in the microwave, fiddled with the controls for a bit and then set it to cook for a very specific set of time. As we waited, Kaz and I pursued our game without the luxury of a board, and I prepared a few other packets for the microwave.
When the microwave dinged that it was finished, I tucked the other packets in to cook, and let the bible cool. “The pages of this bible are loaded with nano-tubes and nanites; when the microwave irradiated the compounds that I placed in it, the nanites carried particles of them to the proper places to create a working computer with the capacity that I described. The microwave’s even charged it for you. When you need to recharge it, just chuck it in the nearest microwave for a minute or two.” When the bible was just cool enough, but hadn’t quite set just yet, I tore a tab off the cover, and handed it to Kaz. “Stick this in your socket.”
She did so, and her eyes popped open. “Yeah, Verily! I was blind, but now I see!” She clutched the bible to her breast. “I am filled with the Light of the Lord! Excuse me, but I must PRAY!” she fell to her knees, her hands clutching that bible, her head canted back, her eyes closed in concentration, her lips mumbling silently. That tab acted as a remote link between Kaz’ socket and the bible/computer.
I let her have her prayer time, and started on a few other projects while she worked. A good 40 minutes later, she snapped out of her reverie and said, “Well, at least I won’t be bored. I don’t even know the Main Computer Officer’s name, but already I know more about him and his two mates than their mothers do. On the other hand, someone’s doing things in the mainframe, and it’s not me.”
“Oh? What’s he doing?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” she admitted. “Mostly, he’s setting up tripwires, minor alarms that will tell him when this condition has been met, or that action has been taken. He’s trying to keep tabs on what’s going on without anyone knowing that he’s doing it. Maybe even without anyone knowing that he’s there.”
“Interesting,” I mused to myself. “How difficult will he make you doing what you’ll have to?”
“Just enough to make it interesting.”
“What are his chances of spotting you?”
She grinned, “Just good enough to make it interesting.” She glanced at my projects. “So, what other goodies has Santa left for us?”
“I’m trying to keep it simple for the moment,” I explained. “The less we have on us, the less we have to hide. First, the basics: multi-tools, small, versatile, easily concealed, and, to be honest, just enough to get the job done.” I set out six folded tools, three for each of us.
I produced another multi-tool, and fanned out the blades of keys. “Skeleton keys. These should open any mechanical lock on the ship, if you have the time to find out which one fits.” Then I fanned out the picks. “Lockpick set; not great, but they’re better than nothing.
“An Electronic Inductive Patch/Override unit,” I put the small flat patches on the table. “Nothing fancy, but it should open most electronic locks, and keep the alarms from going off.
“Janglers,” I produced two thick bracelets. “No real range,” I admitted, “Just five feet or so. But that’s the best that they could do with a shape that doesn’t scream ‘weapon’. It has three charges, but like that Bible, you can recharge it just by nuking it in a microwave. And after the measure, there’s the counter-measure,” I placed a small, locket-like object on the table. “An anti-ranged Jangler blocker. It reacts to a Jangler’s preliminary pulse by broadcasting a counter-pulse that misdirects the primary pulse. You have to be facing the Jangler for it to work. Not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got.”
I produced three waxy cakes next. “This is a Bi-Phase Hair dye,” I explained. “Use this like regular soap and rub the lather into your hair. It won’t do anything immediately, but when you run this through your hair,” I produced a comb, “the catalytic coating will cause the chemicals on your hair to react. A hot comb- not very hot, just run some hot water over it- will cause the dye to change color. A cold comb will cause the default to kick in. So, do you want to be a brunette, a blonde, or a redhead?”
“I’ll pass,” she said dryly.
“You’d be amazed at how effective something as simple as changing your hair color can be, when you’re trying to fool people.”
“Okay, fine, BE that way,” I sighed. “Next, we have a nasty but versatile and effective favorite of mine: monomolecular wire,” I held up a spool. “I don’t think that I need to tell you that that bit on TV with it passing through inch-thick steel like a hot knife through soft butter is bunk. But this WILL be a very useful tool, in a host of ways. As will these,” I fanned four leaf-bladed knives. “Monomolecular-edged glass knives, complete with sheathes designed to hold them. And these padded, inconspicuous ‘sleeves’ we’ll wear over our forearms to conceal them.” I pulled on one of the sleeves to demonstrate. “They’re only to keep them hidden under casual observation; if anyone gets a good look at them, they’ll spot it right away, so only carry these if absolutely necessary. AND, because it would be very inconvenient to explain having any of these things,” I produced a box. “This is designed to look like any of thousands of air-ventilation control units on the ship. Just latch it up on the wall of your cabin near the ceiling, and nobody will give it a second glance. The shape, vents, markings, and even the inspection chips are all perfectly valid.”
“Is this my cue to make a ‘007 bantering with Q’ crack?” Kaz quipped dryly.
“Only if you think tradition absolutely demands it,” I replied. “This is just the stuff that I made, as I think that it’ll be immediately useful. In here,” I tapped my datajack significantly, “I’ve plans and locations and descriptions for a carrying box, plastic explosives, incapacitating gas grenades, spring sheaths for the knives that will fit in our slippers, trans-dermal sedative/ euphoric drug patches, monoflex ‘gloves’ that will act like brass knuckles, fullerene lubricant (you can always find a good sneaky use for a good lubricant), chameleon sheets for short-term concealment, instant ID kits, body armor, even a gun and bullets. And other stuff, of course.”
“Gear doesn’t ensure victory,” Kaz pointed out.
“Yeah, but it give you options,” I counter-pointed, “Which is crucial in a stealth-based operation.”
Then the microwave dinged that it was done. “Oh, and what’s that?” Kaz asked, “A pot pie with a schematic of the ship on it?”
“Nah, I already got that in my onboard datastore,” I answered as I went to the microwave. “No, instead in here, I have the ultimate key, tool and weapon.” I pulled the paperback book with the foil hopper on top of it out, and crushed and discarded the hopper. I opened the book and shook the coins out onto the table to cool. “GOLD! Slightly fraudulent British Gold Sovereigns, which will open locks, solve problems and make enemies go away when used properly.”
“Sovereigns? Not Canadian Maple Leaves?”
“Sovereigns are traditional. People trust gold sovereigns.”
Then one of the panels on the ceiling gave way and a girl in a pink skirt came crashing to the floor. Kaz and I reflexively went for the daggers, but Kaz recognized her and snapped, “YOU! What were you doing up there?”
“The same thing that you were,” the newcomer replied with a groan. “Trying to catch a ride on the Freedom Express, while there were still seats in First Class!” She kipped up to her feet. “Jareth Frost, I presume?” she stuck out a hand with a big smile. She had a minxish heart-shaped face with large green sloe eyes and dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a lithe, but requisitely curvy body under her pink work outfit.
“Finally,” I grumped, “somebody who remembers that name.” I shot Kaz a look. “You know her?”
“She’s in my cabin. And that’s all that I can vouch for.”
“Not a worry,” the newbie smirked, “I have an irreproachable reference.”
“YOU.” She grinned again. “Do you remember Ganymede? The TerraCorp Crabs Scandal?” The TerraCorp Incident had happened about 18 years ago, on Ganymede (of course), one of the major moons of Jupiter. TerraCorp was running a scam on their monopole miners, where they issued them defective eviro suits that were designed to fail in ways that resulted in amputated limbs. This was with an eye toward implanting progressively ‘borged miners into full-body replacement carapaces known as ‘Crabs’, due to the large claw-like secondary arms the units had. Y’see, heavily cyborged miners are a lot easier to provision with food, water and air, because of the lower nutrient requirements. Shipping food and medicine all that way is expensive, and it cuts into the overhead something fierce. On top of that, they suckered the ‘Crabs’ into forking over a big chunk of their pay for cloned bodies that they’d be implanted into at the end of their hitch. There were no cloned bodies. They simply ditched the brains and what support organs had survived, and informed the surviving relatives that the miner had died in transit, even charging the families for shipping bodies that were never actually sent, and getting corpses that weren’t even theirs. Exposing that scam was one of my shining moments. Well, with the major blemish about the ‘Crabs’ rioting and tearing up a big chunk of Lindberg Station.
“You know that I do,” I responded warily. So, she leaned over and whispered technical, tactical and personal details of the affair that I know for a fact are not common knowledge. I raised an eyebrow at her. “And you ARE?”
“TYBERT, the King of CATS, a votre service!” she bowed grandiloquently. Then she wilted badly. “Well, maybe not ‘King’ so much anymore…”
“Tybert?” Kaz hooted, “You mean that whacko *ahem!* ‘gentleman burglar’ with the Robin Hood complex?”
“Tybert?” I echoed, “You’ve helped me out a few times- if you’re not pulling my leg. What was the name of that scrappy little Voter Registration Promoter that Tybert helped out in Lagos a few years back?”
She gave a roguish cad’s smirk that would have gotten his face slapped on general principles a few years back, and murmured, “aaahhh… Achike…”
“Okay… but TYBERT, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, I heard about you, was watching, and I spotted Gloomypuss over there slipping a slip of paper in your pocket. I thought that I’d best get to you before a line formed. I’ll give you this, following you two without giving the whole thing away was a real bear!”
“No,” I started, “I meant- wait, what do you mean, ‘before a line formed’?”
“What? Haven’t you heard?” She went all pixie-faced and squealed in a giddy school girl voice, “Why yer just, like THE absolute totally hawtest girl in SKEWL! EV’rybuddy wants t’be yer bestest bff and hang with you and stoff!”
“HAH?” I honked inelegantly. “But that doesn’t make any sense! They should all be bending over backwards, trying to prove to the powers that be what good little girls they are, not plotting to escape! They should be avoiding me at all costs!”
“You want to be a pariah?” Tybert asked askance.
“NO, but it doesn’t make any sense, and-” a connection clicked, and I looked at Kaz. “Kaz, are they monitoring our positions right now, using these tracking bracelets?”
“No,” Kaz stated definitively. “First thing I checked. And, right at the moment, you’re in your cabin in your bunk where the workstation’s camera can’t see you, and I’m in line for the cafeteria. And…” she rolled her eyes back and concentrated for a moment, “Now, Gwen is hanging around the break room, and has been for fifteen minutes.”
“My newly given name,” ‘Tybert’ grunted with annoyance.
“Ah, ‘Gwen’?” I asked, “Exactly WHY are you here? I mean, someone with your rep should be with the Professional Criminals, still in hibernation, not running around unsupervised. And how did they manage to bag you, anyway? I mean, you were slick! How’d they prove anything?”
Gwen shrugged. “What prove? They grabbed me, said that I was ‘Arthur C. Kent’, a convicted parolee, that I’d violated my parole, and jangled me- and then I woke up in the tank.”
I resisted the urge to go ‘hunh?’ again and focused. “Kaz-”
“Checking the record for ‘Gwen’ –slash- ‘Arthur C Kent’.”
“No, check what the Ship’s Security Officer is doing, if he’s not checking on us.”
Kaz went into a reverie again and came out. “Huh. They’re busy: three fights, and one girl’s locked herself in a closet and won’t come out.”
“Kaz, I’m going to want sheets on the SSO [Ship’s Security Officer] and the Marine’s Major if they’re not the same person, and their Number Ones. Then, I want you to go over the Pink Skirts’ sheets with a fine-toothed comb.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Just look; I don’t want to prejudice you.”
“You are ADDICTED to playing things close to the vest, you know that?” Kaz asked me with asperity.
“What can I say?” I shot back, “I hate making a prediction or theory that doesn’t pan out.”
“AND,” ‘Gwen’ smirked, “this way, you can change your theories and plans on the fly without having to admit that you were wrong.”
“And this is a poor strategy exactly HOW?” I paused. “So, ah, Gwen… how did you get up there?” I looked upwards toward the panel in the ceiling that she’d fallen through. “I mean, these things are modular as hell; I thought that they made the ‘rat in the wainscoting’ bit impossible.”
She grinned. “Ah, but I know a few things about the Box System that the designers never even dreamed of. Even without tools, there’s no part of this ship that I couldn’t get to, if I wanted to.” Oh HO! Suddenly, the spectacular break-ins and escapes of ‘the King of Cats’ weren’t so mysterious! The ‘Box System’, which consists of constructing uniform 9m x 15m x 46m modules or ‘boxes’ of jaditin compound and customizing them to whatever purpose they’re intended for, is one of the keystones of spaceship and orbital architecture. Space stations, ships, habitats, manufacturing platforms, orbital agricultural cells, even groundside buildings, and all that are basically collections of these ‘boxes’ slapped together and connected by locks, ducts, cables and struts. The 457 is basically 10 or 12 layers, 20 units long, of these ‘boxes’ wrapped around the ‘spine’ of the ship; indeed, that’s probably the crux of the problem that they’re having with the lading system. If Gwen can get from one module to another without going through the locks, then this entire ship really IS open to her. Gwen is suddenly indispensable to me.
She must have read my expression, because she said wryly, “And this is the part where you regale me with some horrific fate, should I betray you and your plan.”
“Can we take that as a given, and get on with it?” I asked.
“You threatened ME,” Kaz sniffed pettishly.
“You wouldn’t have respected me if I hadn’t,” I pointed out. “Besides, now I have you backing me up, which is ten times as intimidating, right?”
“Of course,” Gwen breezed, “look at me, I’m simply trembling in barely sublimated terror!”
“Okay, enough of that,” I said, or we’d be bantering at each other until they came looking for us. “We’ve taken too much time unaccounted for as it is. We’re going to have to do more of our meets online.”
Gwen gave me a pained smile. “And HOW are we supposed to go online? The screws are going to be monitoring the workstations like hawks.”
Wordlessly, I spun her around, uncorked her socket and handed her the plug. “HOW?” she goggled.
“Monte Cristo,” Kaz said with a superior little smirk.
“Monte Cristo?” Gwen echoed, her eyes sparkling and a wicked grin forming. “I just knew that flying First Class always pays.”
I took the plug back and tweaked it. “There. Now, not only can you have that in your socket if anyone checks, but it’ll diminish the effects of a Jangler by insulating your neural link.”
Gwen put the plug in, moved experimentally, and then did a couple of handsprings. She moved experimentally, and the settled. “Okay, the weaker upper body strength is a bitch, and the lower center of gravity is gonna take some getting used to, but still! Having that blocker in was like walking around in heavy chains all the time!” Still, she perked up a bit, reached over and checked out some of the equipment. “Crude… but better than nothing,” she muttered clinically. She spared me a look. “Weren’t you going to make anything for yourself?”
“Very funny,” I countered. “Okay, Gwen, what I want you to do in the meantime is crawl around and get to know the layout better. YES, I know you’re already doing that. Go, find the colonists’ cargo bays, and see if you can track down…” I tracked down the name that Monte Cristo had laid in for me, “… Wendell Merrick. Find it, and see if you can get me in there to see what toys my dad has left for me. Pass anything that you find to Kaz here, and she’ll pass it along to me. Oh, and I need a set of the blue jumpsuits that they’re going to issue to the Volunteers after they’re brought out.”
She nodded and did a backflip and then sprang back up to the panel that she’d dropped through. She tried to do it all in one fluid move, but didn’t quit pull it off. I heard a muttered, “Stupid center of gravity” from above.
I left right after that, knowing that Kaz would find her own way back to her cabin. Three of my roomies were hanging out. ‘London’ and ‘Liverpool’ were studiously avoiding each other’s gaze, which suggested to me that they were in the ‘that didn’t happen’ phase. Ah, drama, drama, drama: what would life be without it? A lot more peaceful, but far more boring as well.
I quietly got my shower kit without saying anything. But from the looks that they were giving me, I’d guess that they’ve gotten the word as to who- and what- they were bunking with. And they were trying to figure out exactly how they should react to that. I made my way to the showers, and lucked out. No one was using them at the moment. I rinsed out my hair and squeezed the nanite-laden goop from Monte Cristo into it. The idea is that it will infuse the strands of my hair with a catalyst-keyed nanite complex. When I run the provided metal comb through my hair when the comb is warm, it will key the nanites to turn my hair blonde; when I run the comb through it when it’s cold, it’ll turn the hair back to the rich red it currently is. The secret to a good disguise is to keep it simple and easy to maintain. Well, that’s the idea anyway. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t turn my hair GREEN. I was barely out of the shower when the PA announced that the ‘free time’ segment of our ship-day was over, and it was time for beddy-bye. Anyone not in their cabin during headcounts would be penalized, anyone caught in the hallways after curfew would be questioned and punished.
Of course, on this ship, all that that means is that this is when most of the really interesting stuff will go down.
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 177 HOURS 05 MINUTES 53 SECONDS
We were all woken up with the ear-rattling sound of a klaxon going off. The workstation screen was flashing, ‘EMERGENCY’, rotating with ‘COLLISION ALARM’ and ‘EVACUATE!’ The cabin door opened, and there was the sound of chaos and movement in the halls. We boiled out of our bunks in whatever state of dishabille we happened to be in (I was wearing the ‘Rag’ nightgown provided; Los Angeles was in her skivvies; New York was waving her tits for the world to see) and headed it out into the halls. It was a girl-stampede, and only the fact that there were Marines in the halls kept any of us from getting trampled. Then the observation hit me that the Marines weren’t concerned. If anything, they were rather amused, and enjoying the show as well-toned, underdressed nubile young female flesh rushed to and fro. Then the penny dropped. I stopped rushing around and swaggered over to one of the marines and smiled at him. “Yeah?” he asked, looking me up and down, liking what he saw, even through the rag of my nightgown.
Guys looking at me like I’m a joytoy; I’m going to have to get used to that, unless I decide to disfigure myself somehow. My witty opening remark was fouled by almost getting creamed by one girl who was running around in a panic, openly crying. I righted myself, set my hands on my hips and asked, “So, how long is this drill going to last?”
The marine smirked. “Until everyone finds their way to an emergency pod.”
“And WHERE are the emergency pods?”
He pointed down the hallway. “Just look for the flashing lights and go inside.” I got the impression that he felt that I was being a wet blanket.
“Thanks, you’re a brick,” I said sourly, and went to find the nearest room with a flashing light. Hopefully, the gyrene wasn’t yanking my chain. I stopped to shake a little sense into one girl who was having a full-out panic attack. Then I led her to the nearest room with a flashing light, and gathered a small following of four other girls; apparently, being the only one not freaking out qualifies you for leadership on this ship.
We found a flashing rotating light, and went in the door, where there was at least some peace and quiet. We weren’t the first ones there, and the place wasn’t empty. It was a general storage unit, and there were six girls lounging around on crates, waiting for the insanity to ebb, so they could get breakfast. I set ‘Georgia’, the pinkskirt who’d been hysterical, down on a crate and coached her through some calming down exercises. Then I sat down, took a breath. “It’s just an emergency drill,” one of the girls who’d been there before we were said in a voice with a rich educated Mexican accent. “Like a lifeboat drill on a cruise liner.”
“Then why didn’t they TELL us that it was just a drill?” one of the girls who’d come in with me (I never got her name) snapped.
“Spacers are like that,” the Mexican said with the air of authority that comes with certainty. “It’s a commonly held Spacer notion that Ground-pounders never really GET why certain measures are necessary until they experience WHY they’re necessary in an emergency. A routine hazing incident for Pounders when they’re assigned to an orbital habitat is to be exposed to hard vacuum in what appears to be a malfunctioning airlock. That is so that the Pounder in question understands why it’s so important to go through all the locking procedures with a lock, even in locks that don’t have hard vacuum on their other side. This? This is so that we’ll understand why it’s necessary to know where the lifepods are.”
“Wonderful,” I groaned as I took a seat. “That means that we’ll have to put up with at least three more of these cluster-fucks before they cart us off. Assholes like these like to get as much mileage out of their victims as they can. And, I can almost guarantee that they won’t try it again as a wakeup call. They’ll do it when we can least expect it, and they’ll do it at least once per shift: once when the Volunteers have all gotten out of their cribs, once for the short-termers, and once for the ‘Threebies’. And, every time, we won’t really be sure whether it’s a drill or the real thing.” I paused, as it occurred to me that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I was puzzling this out when the Mexican came over to me and laid a hand on my shoulder, “Frost,” she said in Spanish, “we need to talk. I am Javier Jesus Obregon.” I froze for a second. Javier Jesus Obregon? J.J. ‘Jefe’ Obregon was one of the major lights in the North American ‘Labor Renaissance’ movement, a lynchpin in the resurgent machine that was bringing the moribund labor movement back to life. Yes, I could see why the Power Elite would want Obregon out of the way, but WHY in the aching name of sanity would they arrest, convict and transport him? Obregon was notorious for keeping the hotheads of the ‘Renaissance’ from going too far. If he disappeared somehow, the entire Pacific Rim would probably erupt, and I wouldn’t want to be in the Caribbean, either. Not that Orbit would be a scene of pastoral serenity. I started to frame a question, but she cut me off with, “Not now. Later. I’ll arrange a meeting.” With that, she wandered off, trying to look as though our little conversation had been nothing worth noticing, and doing a pretty good job of it.
Jefe Obregon? Here? I chewed that over for a while, and all I got for it was a headache. It took the better part of a half-hour, but eventually they got their quota for this lifepod. A crewguy came in, shut the door and informed us that this was just a drill. Shock! Shock! Then he gave us the spiel about how all this was absolutely necessary, they weren’t doing it just for the shits and giggles, that if we weren’t useless brain-dead ground-pounders who couldn’t be trusted to not get our heads stuck in our own toilets we wouldn’t have to go through all this, blah, blah, blee… now tell me the one about the Three Bears, Gramma!
Then he demonstrated how the life pod system worked. On a cue, one of the 40 suspension pods dropped from the roof of the module. Normally, it folded flat against the roof, leaving the module open for whatever use they put it to. The ‘Pod’ was basically a suspension harness with entubing, catheterizing and electro-hibernation induction systems. In case of emergency, we were to come to one of these rooms, where we’d grab the nearest dangling pod, climb in, and strap ourselves into harness and plug ourselves into the various systems. Then we’d curl up into fetal positions and zip ourselves into the cocoon-like ‘sleeping bag’ that would protect us in case the module was breached. The electro-hibernation system would slowly put us into a deep metabolic stasis, which would start with a fuzzy dreamlike state and progress ever deeper into slumber until we were completely comatose. The slow nap was easier to pull off than the conventional method of putting you into stasis, but it took a lot longer, but that also meant that it was easier to pull you out of stasis, in case you were only drifting around for a few hours. Mind you, with these things if you were in stasis for more than 3 months, you were fucked. (They didn’t tell us that part, it’s something that I picked up a while ago, leaked to the Media, and was repaid for the effort with a resounding yawn) Then they dropped 5 pods and had us go through the motions of getting into and out of it, including zipping up into the ‘sleeping bags’.
Finally, the last girl fumbled her way through the drill, and the crewguy led us through the halls and we got some breakfast, which wasn’t oatmeal. No, it was NutriYeast.
As we choked the slop down, I checked out the scene in the cafeteria, seeing who was hanging with whom, what power relationships were building, and most importantly, what their attitudes toward ME were like. And I was very much the center of considerable interest. I fiddled with my glass (more medicinal sweat) nervously, waiting to see if there’d be another scene like yesterday, with some yahoo trying to prove how badass she is over my battered body. And there was some interest in that direction. A girl with a round face and a haircut that made her look pie-faced got up and cautiously walked over to me. But instead of approaching me from the side, she sat down across from me and considered me carefully. I arched an eyebrow at her. She leaned over and asked in a lovely velvet Received Pronunciation British accent, “So? You’re Jad- er, Jareth Frost?”
“Yes.” I left the ‘you got a problem with that?’ unspoken, but clearly understood. I let that sink in, and then responded, “And YOU are?”
“My given name is Theresa Mayfield. My real name is Theodore Marley Mayfair.” WHAT? T. M. Mayfair is- or, at least was the main man, guiding light and Elder Statesman of the CHIRON Educational Concorde, the minimum-profit that for the past 40-odd years has done more to educate the Working and Lower Middle Classes of the English, French and German speaking worlds than all the (shabby, obsolete, overworked, understaffed, and underfunded) state education systems of all those countries combined. Dr. Mayfair is remarkable for being a man who knows how to work the Media without being undermined by it. His popular press books on ‘How to Learn’ are perennial best-sellers, and I’ve seen some of his more rarified works on Logic and Information Analysis and Educational Theory sold in the bookstores at Yale. I had no doubts that this girl was exactly who she said she was; of all the names that she could have pulled out of a hat to try and impress me, Mayfair’s was maybe second-to-last, right after Bruce Goodkind. But WHY? I’ve been expecting to get put in the bag for decades; I can completely understand why they yanked Kaz and Tybert into the ‘Night and Fog’; I can even get why they’d disappear ‘El Jefe’. But WHY would they arrest, if not flat out kidnap, the ‘Great Schoolmaster’?
She went grave. “We have to talk. Not here. I’ll arrange something. But, before I go, I must make you an apology. I have long disparaged your father’s works as those of a malcontent and terrorist and I’ve dismissed your own deeds as those of a vulgar trickster and apologist for your father. I believed that the best way to approach the world’s trials and tribulations was through a sufficiently educated populace; that the world’s leaders would respond more willingly to the voice of the People than to threats and trickery. I was wrong. You and your father were right. I give you that out of sheer honesty. We will deal with the other issues later.” With that, she got up and made her way back to her seat.
I tried to not show my confusion. I can only hope that I succeeded.
I was still mulling over all that when the PA sounded that breakfast time was over, and our shifts were about to begin, that we were on a very tight schedule, and we were an important part of meeting that- why don’t they just tell us to go to fracking WORK? I went out the door with the rest of the suckers, and then I felt a tug at my pocket. Fearing that someone might be planting something on me (and fearing even worse that it might be a more circumspect invite for yet another meeting), I checked. It was a data-spike. Kaz works quickly. Let’s just hope that she works thoroughly. I covered inserting the spike into my socket.
With fields of data lying temptingly within my internal field of vision, I reported to Piaget for that shift’s work. I hoped that Piaget would try to see how long it took me to ‘wise up’ to her prank with the laundry. No such luck. We were issued rabber aprons, boots and biceps-long gloves, and some industrial breather masks. “Today, we bring the Volunteers out of hibernation, the way that we did with you girls yesterday. There are more of them, but now we have YOU girls, so it should go more quickly.”
“Okay…” one girl commented, “I can see the aprons and gloves and all that. But why the breathers? I mean, they’re guys… but they can’t stink THAT bad when they come out, can they?”
Actually, they did. Well, it was pretty damn foul, but it wasn’t the stench: it was the MUSK. The adaptation process doesn’t just change your DNA and like that; no matter what shape you go in as, when you come out, the automatic conditioning process that’s part and parcel of the adaptation makes sure that you’re in the sort of physical trim that most people are only in during their last week of Basic Training. When the crew women brought each guy out, we had to help uncurl them from the fetal positions around the support unit, and wash them down. So we were right there, getting all that concentrated male stank right in the face, as we were holding and looking at trim young men in the primes of their lives. It was like someone took a hundred high school locker rooms during football season and distilled the funk down. And while the breathing masks helped, they sure as hell didn’t filter out all of the funk or the musk. It didn’t help that these guys were as randy as hares in March, and they took advantage of every opportunity to grab a handful of whatever was available. I mean, there was a symphony concert of pheromones going back and forth, and I was stuck between the percussion section and the brasses.
It sure as hell didn’t help that the crewwomen decided to take *ahem!* ‘five minute breaks’ and needed the help of a particularly strapping young male colonists out to the ‘break room’ to help her. Nor did those smug little ‘just got my ashes hauled’ pussycat smirks on their faces. Jeezus Christ, all those women were right: men really WILL boink anything with a hole if their juices are raging. And me? I was as horny as if I hadn’t been laid in about…
oh right- eight years and change.
That clutching sensation in my crotch turned into a rock-hard fist and hit me in the gut. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what it was. Okay, I knew, but the very thought of it made me wanna hurl. On her way back from break, tucking her uniform back into positions, one of the crewwomen gave me a smirk and said, “Just go ahead and DO it, honey. If you fight it, you’re only making yourself crazy for nothing.” I regard myself as showing incredible self-control and fortitude for not smacking the bitch one. I managed to get through it all with my sanity (and virginity) intact by reviewing Kaz’s files on my onboard system; it kept my mind off things, and the crewwomen simply interpreted my reticence as my barely holding on.
After two and a half hours of hosing down hard, lithe male bodies, we finally got a 15 minute breather. I think that they’ve pulled this ‘we have too few girls’ trick before; either that, or bringing guys out of adaptive hibernation is an ongoing thing, because the ‘break room’ was specifically designed with little make-out nooks shielded from the main compartment by curtains. I got a hot cup of something vaguely like coffee and sat down on the hard bench and tried to not pay attention to the squishy noises coming from behind the curtains or the gasps and grunts and giggles. I sipped at the *ahem!* ‘coffee’ and reviewed the files to keep my mind off things. Then someone was talking to me. I snapped out of my reverie and looked into the face of an angel.
Okay, so far every ‘Pink Skirt’ had been at the very worst cute, going on pretty, with a clearly deliberate (if not flat-out malicious) high level overall of feminine attractiveness. But she was a quantum shift above and beyond that. She had silky lustrous dark-chocolate brown hair that the hairstylists, as callous and jaded as they were, hadn’t had the heart to cut, pulled back into a chignon that fell past her shoulders. Her face was apple-shaped with large dark brown doe eyes, a straight nose, cheekbones that could cut glass, and full lips, all with an absolutely flawless olive complexion. Her head was perched on a long swanlike neck and the rest of her had that gazelle-like slender grace of a college-age heartbreaker, and her pink dress was showing enough cleavage to suggest that she was going to be very well endowed indeed. When I snapped out of it enough to get past that flummoxing beauty, I noticed that she’d stopped in the middle of saying something to me, and was gawping at me. Her delectable lips were parted, pursed, as though for a kiss.
It wasn’t me, it wasn’t her; it was just… like two magnets being drawn together. Pure hormonal attraction slammed us together in a crushing lip-lock that was as purely instinctual and reflexive as a mountain lion pouncing on a running deer. We ground our bodies against each other, and somehow managed to drag ourselves into one of the make-out nooks and shut the curtain without breaking the lip-lock. We peeled each other out of our dresses like bananas, and started undulating against each other. I kissed her magnificent breasts and she repaid me in full (and then some) by returning the favor. WOW! And the girls that I’ve been with always made out like they were doing ME the favor! We intertwined our legs and rubbed our slits together not really thinking about it, just letting passion, passion and instinct guide us. It was like rubbing sticks together, getting heat, and building the heat until fire erupted in our crotches, and set our entire bodies ablaze!
Okay, that was a tad purple prose, but, still, it was damn invigorating.
I brought her to a climax, and she came while biting my shoulder. She returned the favor, for which I am still quite grateful, and we went back and forth a couple of times, until the wristbands that we’d been given to keep track of us buzzed, and we were rather rudely informed that our breaks were over. Blushing furiously, we pulled on our clothes and made our way out of the break room. But before we exited, I pulled her over, pressed her to the wall with my body, and kissed her deeply. She was stiff at first, but she melted against my body. Once I was sure of her reaction, I broke the kiss and said, “We WILL do this again.”
“Damn STRAIGHT we’re gonna do this again,” she said with a lovely velvet contralto voice that had one of those indistinct ‘cosmopolitan’ accents that comes when you move around a lot, learning different languages as a kid. She sealed it with a quick kiss, and we went back to work.
Work was more of the same, but at least I had the breaks to look forward to now. The musk still had that effect, but I was able to keep it in check. And my sweetie was there, waiting for me on the second and third breaks. And it was definitely something that improved with practice. But there was a problem. There’s always a problem. If Sweetie knew that I was ‘Jadis Diabolik’, or the ‘Daughter of Dr. Diabolik’, or whatever braindead label was making the rounds, she’d head for the hills. Or, at least she would if she had the survival instinct of a lemming. So, as we were getting dressed after our tussling bout at the beginning of lunch break, I told her, “Look, I’d love to spend lunch with you, but Piaget, my supervisor, has decided that I’m her whipping b- girl. We have a good thing going, and we don’t need to have Piaget figure that she can hurt me by putting you on another duty, or something worse.”
“Good thinking,” she said as she tucked herself into her bra. “And I’ve got one of the Marines pressuring me to go into a closet for some heavy breathing. I haven’t been a babe for very long, but I still read him as the sort who’d get all upset if ‘his girl’ was making it with anyone else; even another girl.”
“Oh?” I asked, suddenly all protective and territorial, “Which Marine?”
“DON’T,” she stopped me. “I can handle him. And the last thing that I need is for him to decide to take YOU into that closet and ‘put you in your place’.”
“ah, YEAH,” I wilted, “Good call. Still, I can be very sneaky when I need to.”
She gave me a feline smirk and said, “So can I- when I need to.” And I wondered exactly who- and what- I’d hooked up with. Unfortunately, asking her would have set me up for a question as to who I was, and I didn’t want to go there.
They must have decided that our digestions were up to snuff, because they didn’t serve us NutriYeast mush. No, they served us NutriYeast ‘meat’ balls in NutriYeast noodles with flavored NutriYeast sauce, with a leafy NutriYeast ‘salad’ and salty NutriYeast chips on the side. I sat by myself, and observed the lunch-room social dynamics (or at least my shift’s) at work, fiddling with my drink as I took in who was eating with whom, who was watching whom, who was talking to whom, who the budding Alphas were and which were the ones on that list I was reviewing, if they were present. And most especially, I was watching those who were watching ME.
Among the parties watching me was that redheaded chick who’d tried to jump me yesterday. She’d picked up a couple of buddies, and they were trying to check me out without being obvious about it, and doing a pretty poor job of it. I was mulling over what I was going to do about them (and maybe 16 different topics; in my life, multitasking isn’t an asset, it’s a necessity!), when my ‘watch’ buzzed. Curious, I looked at it, and the display read, ‘c3 dxc3’, which was one of Kaz’s possible next moves. The ‘watch’ was a cheap unit made in-ship from Plas and Crock, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t almost identical to the units that they had made for the Volunteers, which kept track of them and told ship-time and acted as personal communicators. Which meant that Kaz needed to talk to me. But I couldn’t answer, without giving away FAR too much to people I don’t trust. So, I got up. And Big Red and her two buddies were watching me, and I almost missed them getting up just as I was leaving.
Let’s just say that I dealt with them, and leave it at that?
I got to secure, discreet place, and feeling far too much like a spy out of cheap fiction, I spoke into the ‘crystal’ of the ‘watch’, saying, “’Bc4 cxb2’.” Which happened to be my next move. “So, what do you have for me, Kaz?”
[Well, first of all, to state the obvious, I’ve subverted the ship’s internal communications system, and now we don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops to talk to each other.]
“What can I say, Kaz? You’re an evil genius.”
[I’m working on my evil laugh. Want to hear it?]
“Never do a WIP evil laugh over the phone; it needs to be up close and personal. So, any other good news?”
[Yep. Tybert tells me that she’s found your gear stash, and she’s working on a way of getting you into it without setting off any alarms. She also tells me that she can also get into any of the Personal Storage Allotments; well, once she gets around the alarms, anyway. Interesting; there have been a lot of hits on the PSA’s inventory list.]
“What’s so interesting about that? People are going to want to check on their stashes, aren’t they?”
[All these hits are from before they started decanting us colonists.]
“Oh dear,” I said. “Check my PSA locker for breaches.”
[Already done. You’re clean. But then, Monte Cristo made sure that your listed inventory is pretty unappealing.]
“GOD, I love working with professionals. Speaking of which, Kaz, get in touch with Tybert and have her contact the following people from my list: Rachel Barker, Romeo Lester, and Janine Michaels. I want a face-to-face meeting with them. Just the four of us.”
[I could just contact them on their minder units]
“No, I don’t want them to know about you or Tybert, or that you have hacked into the computer, or that you’ve hijacked the communicators. This is going to have to be quick and dirty, and you and Tybert are the aces up my sleeves. Tell Ty to not expose herself. She can use my name, but she has to do it in as mysterious a way as possible; with this crew, the mystery will sell it better than anything she could say.”
[You’re the inscrutable mastermind]
“Let’s see, anything else… oh, right. Kaz, any developments with your mysterious playmate?”
[Just that he’s been hacking around the system since this trip’s crew came aboard, he’s deliberately avoiding the computer security crew, he’s been in contact with someone on Cybelle that CompSec doesn’t know about, and he’s very interested in someone among the Volunteer Colonists]
“Okay, now THAT’S interesting! Who?”
[I’m not sure. Yet. He’s too slick to check out individual files. But he’s keeping an interest in the decanting schedule, and whoever he’s looking for hasn’t been defrosted yet]
“Do I need to tell you to find out everything you can about who the volunteers are, once you nail down their identities?”
After lunch, it was back to the grind, same as before: Hard work, hormonal stress, and harassment from above, with rest breaks that were sweet, but hardly restful. At the end of my shift, I was tired and just wanted to go whatever R&R center that wasn’t packed with assholes. And who knew? Maybe there was one.
But, wouldn’t you know it, all I want is to kick back and knock down a cold brew, like any working stiff, and Kaz buzzes me to tell me that that meeting I’d insisted on was waiting for me. Typical, fracking typical!
I made sure that I wasn’t being followed- and had to lose Big Red and her two idiot buddies- and then got to the room where my meeting was waiting for me. Standing there, stiffly checking each other out, was a tall strapping AfroAm chick with her hair pulled up into a topknot, a sleek angular European woman with her blonde hair in a braid, and a remarkably handsome, almost pretty, young Euroethnik man with long red hair- rather uncomfortably wearing the same pink dress that the other two were. I held up a hand for silence and apologized, “Sorry for the wait; I had to lose a follow. Okay, you all know who I am. But before I get to the introductions, let’s get the really important thing out of the way first: As you no doubt suspect, I’ve asked you here to recruit you for a dangerous and illegal act that will require you to follow my precise instructions with no absolutely unnecessary questions. Are any of you unwilling to do so?”
“I wouldn’t BE here if I wasn’t,” the black chick snarled.
“I’m in,” was all the redheaded Adonis said.
“Just get me OUT of this moving hell, and I’ll do whatever you want, Frost!”
I folded my arms across my chest and said, “And you all realize that backing out after this means certain death- IF you’re lucky?”
“Just get ON with it!”
“Okay, we only have six days, so we’re going to have to form a 3-teired 4-man cell organization on the fly. We are, of course, the Executive Cell. Planning and Ops,” I pointed at myself. “Security and Transportation,” I pointed at the Afroam girl. “PR and Intelligence,” I pointed at the redheaded cross-dresser. “Acquisitions and Manufacturing,” I pointed at the blonde. They all nodded. They didn’t need it spelled out for them; I picked them because they knew exactly what I was talking about. We were the brains, the heads of the four branches of the cell-based organization that would execute the breakout. Each branch had three levels: The Executive cell, the Management Cells, and the Operative Cells. The Executive cell (namely the four of us) would make the important decisions. If A&M needed something, then Blondie would talk to me, but no one else in the P& Ops division, and likewise. It was clumsy and it would cost precious time, but it guaranteed the security of the members of other cells. Each Executive had three lieutenants at the Management level, who would handle the running of that section. Each member of the Management Cell, including the Executive, had three assistants who only answered to, or even knew, them. That was the Operative cell, which would to the actual work. Each Executive would recruit her lieutenants, and each Lieutenant would recruit their assistants, with as little knowledge of the upper echelons as possible. Planning and Operations would handle the planning and the hands-on dirty work. PR and Intel would handle managing the general population, keeping their eyes and ears open, and occasionally doing a little what they once called ‘Spin Doctoring’. Acquisitions and Manufacturing would handle getting the stuff that we needed for this that and the other, by begging, scrounging, stealing or kludging it together from what they could lay their hands on. Security and Transportation would move those things from where A&M left them and get them to where P& Ops would receive them, make sure that designated areas weren’t intruded on at key times, and if necessary, suborn by force and quite possibly kill someone. “I don’t have a definitive plan- YET. I have 5 or 6 plans brewing though. In four days, the Executive and Management cells will meet in a place to be designated. By that time, I should have my plan of action crystallized, and I’ll spell it out for everyone, so there are no misunderstandings. In the meantime,” I handed out slips of paper. “Initial orders, locations of caches of gear that you’ll need, and contact protocols. I hate to be melodramatic, but memorize these and then eat them.”
They looked at each other suspiciously, so I sighed, “Okay, I hoped that this wouldn’t be necessary. I chose each of you because I know and respect your work. But here goes: SHE-” I pointed at the Afroam girl, “-is, or at least used to be Major Raymond Banks, possibly better known to you by his call sign ‘Render’. Blondie nodded, but Red didn’t recognize the handle. “He was an American Spec Ops spook who went freelance 16- sorry, 23- years ago. Still, as ‘Render’, Major Banks here showed significantly greater concern for civilian casualties than his Pentagon controls ever did.
“SHE-” I pointed at Blondie, “-used to be Jean-Armand St. Michel-du Chantraine, a player in the European Black Market, specializing in slightly warm historical relics and objects d’art. By the way, du Chantraine, why did they bust you?”
She groaned and said, “I had the questionable judgment to diversify into confidential data, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, and sell them in War Zones. Apparently, the European Union considers that too ‘political’.”
“Interesting. HE is Roman LaClavar.” That needed no explanation. Roman LaClavar was world-famous as the media spokesperson for various worthy causes, including Due Process, Right to Trial, Freedom of Information, Police Service Provider Transparency, Debt Mediation, Refugee Rights, and Recovery of Political Prisoners. The last one must be painfully ironic to him. He had a genius for reading crowds large and small, public and private, and for knowing what people wanted to hear. He was also a dab hand at tailoring what he was picking up to suit his agenda.
Banks gave me an appreciative nod. But du Chantraine asked LaClavar, “Why did they leave you male?”
“They didn’t,” He responded. “The process simply didn’t take. It rejuvenated me but it left the Y chromosome intact. There are five more like me, and we’re sharing rooms, thank God.” He slumped dejectedly. “I’ve spent the better part of the past thirty years honing my ‘Benign Grandfather’ act; and now… I’m a prettyboy!”
“And… they left your hair like that?” Banks asked, “And make you wear the pink dress?”
“The crew insists,” LaClavar groaned. “They say that I’m adorable…” his eyes went haunted. “I’ve never been so consistently propositioned in my LIFE!”
“His ‘colonist’ name is ‘Romeo’,” I informed them. Banks and du Chantraine winced sympathetically. “We can’t spend too much time in each other’s company,” I pointed out. “So, anything we need to cover before we split?”
“Yes, I already have people,” LaClavar said. Oh, I’ll just BET you do! “But I can’t pare it down to a 15-man cell without making waves.”
“I picked you guys because you’re pros,” I said. “Run your cells as you see fit. But when crunch time comes, we’ll definitely have limited seats, so keep the ‘friend of a friend’ factor to a minimum. And LaClavar?”
“I’ll keep your name out of it.”
“I also already have contacts, but I have the opposite problem,” du Chantraine said. “Can I use your name?”
“Yes. And Banks? You also have my okay to use my name.” She gave me a thumbs-up, and that was it. I let them leave first, one at a time. After LaClavar left, I slumped against a wall, and touched my minder unit. “Kaz?”
“I need some information, and I need it desperately.”
“Kaz, is there anywhere on this tub that I can scare up a beer? After the day I’ve had, I’d kill for a drink!”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 153 HOURS 27 MINUTES 51 SECONDS
They didn’t wake us up with a klaxon and an emergency drill this time; no, this time, it was the comparatively soothing sounds of ‘Reveille’ played at ear-bursting volume. Knowing that it would keep playing until we were out of the room, we all climbed into our clothes and staggered out for roll call. Then the supervisor told us that we’d complete bringing the Volunteers out, and then there was going to be a small break before we started bringing the Short-Timers out. We’d gotten to the point where they had enough people out and about that they’d break up the shifts from three 8-hour shifts to four 6-hour shifts, with fewer people on each shift, but operating around the clock. There would be some ‘musical chairs’ as we were rotated around various shifts to find what we were good at, and some people would have to work extra-long shifts to stretch out into their new time-slot, but we had to remember that we had a very tight schedule, and we all had to pitch in, blah, blah, blah… Then- get this- she started telling us that she realized that we were all under a huge stress, and having to adjust to being women under these conditions had to be traumatic. She announced that the Ship’s Counselor was always available, yada, yada, yada, like they were expecting her to do a land-office business. Interesting.
Hosing down the last of the Volunteers after they were decanted was even more stressful than the day before. Between passionate makeout sessions Sweetie and I agreed that we really wanted this relationship to continue for as long as we could stretch it out, and we hammered out contact methods and possible ways of getting together on the chance that we were put on separate shifts. It is amazing how resourceful you can be when someone’s tonguing your areola. The first half the (first) shift ground to a stop as the last of the Volunteers were brought out.
Seeing my opportunity, I slipped away from the crew and contacted Kaz. “Kaz, has that special package that I ordered arrived yet?”
[It should be arriving any second now.] A low-slung mopping drone trundled up to me with a small package on its back and beeped at me.
“Ah, promptness. If only my grocers back home had been this professional.”
[By the way, one of my opposition’s alarms went off. He’s been monitoring one of the Volunteers, waiting for her to wake up]
“Oh! This should be illuminating. Who is she?”
“TRE-” I started to shout, but remembered that I was being stealth and choked it down. “What the HELL is Trevor fracking Goodkind doing here?”
[You’re surprised? I thought that she was another going-away present from your father]
“Not Hardly. He would have told me, on the ‘last words’ message that he left on my chip. Him pulling off something this big and not gloating about it? SO not his style. Also, if Goodkind just came out, then he’s one of the volunteers; if Dad bagged him, he’d stick the little prince in with the Violent Thugs, and let him sweat out a 20-year hard labor sentence. Wait a minute… you said, ‘SHE’?”
[YUP] the gloat penetrated Kaz’ usual frosty monotone.
[She is currently under observation by the Ship’s Counselor, and there’s a call out for anyone with any sort of connection to the Goodkind family. So far, they’ve got no takers.]
“Kaz, get into my records as ‘Wendell Merrick’, change them to, ah, ‘Wendy Merrick’, and adjust the legend so that ‘Wendy Merrick’ was at Yale at the same time as Trevor Goodkind. Fill in all the blanks as only you can- and, oh, send me a memo as to what they are, so I don’t trip over my own back story; that has happened to me once or thrice- and then lead them down the garden path so they come looking for me. I’m heading into the Volunteer’s orientation.”
[I’m resetting your minder beacon to ‘Wendy Merrick’. I’ll give you a half an hour to establish yourself as ‘Good ol’ Wendy’, the eager young Volunteer colonist, and then alert the Ship’s Counselor]
“Go, do that voodoo that you do so well.” With that, I made my way to one of the Volunteer’s women’s rooms (and, yes, you can tell what sort of culture they’re promoting, when the frickin’ bathrooms are segregated!) and slipped in without being spotted. I quickly slipped the blue Volunteer colonist’s overall (in my size, no less!) over my pink outfit as I ran some hot water in the sink. I then ran that special comb through the hot water, and then through my hair, turning it from fiery red to ash blonde, and slipped on a hair band so that it quashed those stupid ‘horn’ forelocks that are the tell of my family. At several stages of my career, including various bits of covert operations, con games, undercover investigations, and a few stints as a wanted fugitive, I’ve learned the basics of makeup and disguise. The main principle being, as with so many things: Keep it simple. People tend to see what they expect to see. So, instead of going all elaborate and trying to cover up my face with paint, I just used a few tricks to make my chin less prominent and my cheekbones wider. When I changed back, I’d simply do the same, but make my chin more prominent, and emphasize my nose, for a more ‘hatchet face’ effect.
Then I went for the clincher. While men have different things that they notice first about a woman’s body (I admit it, I’m an ass man myself), the first thing that people notice about other people’s faces is their eyes. That is unless they’ve got a really memorable feature like a Cyrano de Bergerac nose or a scar. Now, this last bit, I freely confess that I owe to dear ol’ Dad. While I admit that I complain about him a lot, I do have to confess that Dad did his best (being a hideously wanted fugitive and all) when it came to providing for me and Mal. What looks like pretty standard, off-the-shelf Neural Interfaces and Spinal Reinforcement are actually beyond State-of-the-Art Cognition Enhancement and Reflex Boosting systems that passed through the closest screenings without raising so much as a blip. And there are Renal Augmenters, Pancreatic Filters, and a few other upgrades that also pass muster without raising any eyebrows. The point being here, that he also upgraded my eyes. They see two bars up into the ultraviolet, three bars into the infrared, have 20/20 vision, and they can change iris color and the general shape given a few minutes of concentration. With a moment of just that sort of concentration, my eyes went from a non-descript shape and shade of brown to nice round eyes with a really interesting golden tone; just the thing to draw people’s attention away from the general shape of my face and such. I had nothing for the lips, which would have been nice, though.
That done, I steeled myself to go to the Volunteer’s orientation as ‘Wendy Merrick’, and introduce myself to my ‘fellow colonists’. And hopefully, I wouldn’t throw up all over the fracking crypto-fascist halfwits.
I got in a few minutes late and made my excuses. I told them that I was decanted last night and had been dealing with complications ever since, and this was my first chance for the orientation. Kaz had managed to get ‘Wendy Merrick’ listed with one of the earlier shifts, so it flew, and I was tacitly accepted as one of the herd. Mmmooo…
This briefing was substantially like the one that the Pinkskirts had gotten, only without the ‘you’re stuck with it, so deal with it’ attitude. On a very real basis, the Volunteers were going to be the ones who helped Cybele’s version of the Power Elite keep the large prisoner and ex-prisoner populations in their place, so they had to be brought on board with a modicum of respect. He chatted up how noble they were being, pioneers and all that and how their descendents would remember them and honor their bravery. The subtext being: ‘we’re choosing up sides here, and you get to be in the Upper Classes for a change’. Oh yeah, you can just see what kind of culture they’re going for on Cybele. And this shit has been going on for, what? Thirty, forty years? I checked out the other ‘Volunteers’, and I could just see what they were, by the way they were listening: the social climbers, the power junkies, those who’d sacrifice their neighbors for their own security, those who’d wrap themselves up in whatever tattered glory they could lay hands on, the control freaks, the greedy, the queen bees, the bullies and the brutes who’d found an excuse for being brutal. Y’know, for years I’ve seen the ads for colonization, and despised the people who answered them as sheep. I was wrong; they’re wolves, and I am a sheep in wolves’ clothing.
Then the tenor of the lecture changed. The speaker started talking about the Pinkskirts, but he told them that they were simply Short-Termers who’d been selected to assist with the decanting and social services for the colonists. There was nothing about them having been Politicals or Professional Criminals, let alone males who were feminized to fit the gender quotas. They didn’t want the Volunteers knowing about that. It was yet another club to hold over the Pinkskirts, who had a pretty good shot at marrying into the new haut bourgeois. And, get this: he started talking about how there had been ‘unfortunate incidents’ (read: sexual harassment) with the Pinkskirts, and that this was causing friction between two vital sections of the Control Forces. He didn’t put it that way; he talked around the less savory points, and to be honest, he wasn’t as polished with this part, as practiced as he had been with the previous parts. I think that there have been more ‘freak out’ incidents with the Pinkskirts, and the ship’s Powers That Be are starting to worry about the effects of their unofficial ‘dating pool’ policy on the vital business of meeting a very tight schedule.
As I looked around, I noticed that there was a very interesting mix of reactions, most of which stemmed from ‘What? You mean we’ve got to consider the feelings of *ugh!* PRISONERS?’ And there were some very different reactions coming from the women than were coming from the men; suddenly, those pretty little things in pink weren’t just maids and shopgirls; now they were competition.
The Presenter was good enough to pick up on that and quickly move things along. He went over the geography of the moons and like that, and suddenly he went into new territory. “There are three colonies on Cybele, operating under American, British and French authority, with French and English being the official languages of all three colonies.” Interesting. Ever since WWII, the Yanks, the Brits and the Franks have been pretty chummy. Especially since the Brits and the French backed each other up over their sleazy ‘Arab Removal’ ploy during the Pan-Asian War. And, as I recall, their policies regarding Colonial Law are just similar enough to each other, while still being different enough so that they can pick and choose which law they want to enforce at their convenience.
“The British Colony is called Avalon, with major settlements called Ambridge, Barchester, Holby, Kings Oak and Walford, and Wessex as the colonial capitol.” What? SIX distinct settlements that are separate enough to be regarded as discrete political units? There’s something going on there, and it’ll be interesting to find out what.
“The American Colony is called ‘Franklin’, with ‘Liberty City’ as its capitol. The major settlements are Carvel, Fifth York, Fourth Orleans, Gotham, Grandlake, Keystone, Metropolis, Riverdale, and Tara.” WHAT? TEN distinct settlements?
“The French colony is named ‘St. Denis’, the colonial capitol is named ‘La Guivre’ and the major settlements are Garguiem, Matagot, Occitan, Tarrasque and Voivre. You will be landed at Franklin, but, of course, you’ll be given the option of emigrating to either Avalon or St. Denis at your pleasure.”
Six distinct settlements? How can a colony that’s less than 50 years old be terraformed enough that it can support 21 distinct settlements? If this was Earth, I’d say that they were just listing little bugfuck burgs out in the boonies, as to pump themselves up. But why? Given the sea of mud that Cybele must be, it would make sense that they’d keep all the enclosures as close together as they can, for convenience and ease of maintenance. But why name what must be little more than extensions of the main settlements? And why do the Americans have as almost many as the Brits and the French combined?
“Of course, being from Earth, you colonists aren’t familiar with a very sad fact of colonial life: namely, that it’s very expensive to build factories. Cybele simply doesn’t have the credit or cash flow to afford to construct or import pre-built factories to manufacture the latest technologies. Mind you, Cybele does have several factories orbiting the moons; but the Consortium could only afford to purchase factories that had a Pre- Superconductor/ Nanotech basis. So, while the gas giant refineries have the advanced technology they need, that has to be transported the hard way, with these starships. The locally produced technology is roughly that of the mid-to-late 20th Century. I’m afraid that you’ll just have to adapt, like everyone else.” And in my mind’s eye, I saw mountain ranges of reeking bovine manure. Calling that tripe hogwash was an insult to porcine hygiene. This is just another string in the Consortium’s bow of social control. I’ll lay you odds that the ‘technology ceiling’ that their local factories impose is just shy of the Computer Age; just high enough that they can run the habitants and the integrated agriculture that the refineries will need, but just not quite that unimpeded access to information that the Power Elite finds so inconvenient.
They’ve arranged a classic ‘Economic Imperialism’ setup: the homeland (Earth) imports (reasonably) cheap Gas Giant products from Yukon and exports cheap high tech to Yukon at the highest possible mark-up. The Consortium’s members and employees get the stuff at a slightly lower mark-up, because they’re the ones keeping the lid on. Their having the tech helps them keep that lid on at Yukon and Cybele, but the general lack of said tech keeps the Cybele Power Elite from thinking of the dump as ‘Home’. They want to make their piles on Yukon and come back to Earth to spend it in comfort and luxury; just the way the Homeworld Power Elite wants it. Access to and possession of Earth-tech creates a class schism between the Haves and the Have-nots, as it always does, and creates a demand for the Earth-tech, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation of every strata of Cybellan society by the Earth Power Elite.
I worked hard to stifle a vicious grin; of course, that can be used against them. While they probably have the technological version of Sumptuary Laws, most likely ownership and operation of Fabricators and such have to be strictly licensed and like that; that just means that there’s a Black Market for the stuff. And Black Markets are absolute breeding grounds for funding, personnel, training, and generating popular support for any savvy dissident. Hell, this flying junkyard we’re on is probably carrying megatons of finished high tech consumer and Police/ Government goods for Cybele, and giga-tons of finished industrial materials and such for the Yukon refineries. All on this ship. That _I_ am on. Hell, the only real problem will be not hurting the poor schmuck currently playing ‘Godfather’ to the Cybele Black Market. Too badly.
Then the presenter paused and checked his dataslate. “Is Wendy Merrick here?” I quietly blushed and raised my hand. I was instructed to report immediately to the Counselor’s office. There was the expected awkward silence as I made my way to the door. So, I’ve been noted by a bunch of Volunteers as being one of theirs twice, and by name. Well, what can I say; the most effective ways of being remembered are rarely the most gracious.
And wouldn’t you know it? I get called, just when it was getting interesting.
I made my way to the Ship’s Counselor’s office- hey, the crews on these ships have to be stuck on these hyper-thyroidal tin cans for 15 years per trip with only each other to talk to; smoothing out the inevitable frictions is only slightly less important than keeping the oxygen banks going- and I almost hit a fatal snag in my elaborate (yet still very abstract) plans in the form of red tape. The Counselor was indeed doing a land-office business, and the receptionist tried to play the ‘take a number and get a seat’ card. We’re talking hours that I cannot really afford to waste here, people! So, I countered with the ‘Hey, you called ME!’ card.
She peered at her slate, looked up my name and said, “Oh yes! Tell me, how much do you know about… Trevor James Goodkind?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Then you DO know Trevor Goodkind? He’s some sort of big shot back on Earth?”
“I don’t know if you’d call him a ‘big shot’…” I hedged in the way that Old Money always does when they’re trying to dodge the fact that they OWN 80% of fracking everything, “He’s definitely Old Money; his family’s been in banking ever since Colonial times, and if you listen to them, they helped bankroll the Industrial Revolution.” She gave me a blank look. “Yeah, we went to college together,” I said flatly.
“You, ah, went to Harvard together?”
“YALE,” I corrected her with the totally unaffected heavy disapproval of a true Eli. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
“Well,” the receptionist lowered her voice, “one of the colonists was brought out, and when she came to, she insisted that she was this rich guy named Trevor Goodkind… I never heard of him. Is he connected to the Goodkind Bank or something?”
“Or something. His father is Bruce Goodkind, the head of the Goodkind Bank, Goodkind International Finance, Goodcredit, Terracorp, Interstellar Labor Contracts and- wait a minute… you said, ‘She’?”
“Yeah, when they brought her in here, we just thought that she’d had a bad reaction to being decanted… but when we checked her Immigration record, it said that she had a MBA from the Yale Business School, a few other degrees, and that for the past 15 years, she’s been the Global Head of Operations for GK Mono Tech.”
“So, she dummied up her file. So what?”
“Nah-ah,” the receptionist shook her head. “The hard copy is notarized and verified. The name on the file is ‘Ayla Goodchild’, but so far, from what we’ve got, everything ON the file fits what records we got for Trevor Goodkind- except for the sex, of course.”
“Okay, that’s pretty dang weird,” I agreed, not having to fake that confusion in the slightest.
“But the kicker is her credit balance.”
“Okay, I’m listening…”
The receptionist lowered her voice again. “Five. MILLION. Dollars. American. Certified.” [Author’s Note: prices have been adjusted to 2020 standards]
“I… thought that the maximum limit for money on deposit was 100 thousand, USD,” I said skeptically.
“It IS,” she replied, spooked. “By the way, what are you doing here?” she asked, confused. “I mean, on this ship? I mean, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard of an Ivy League type emigrating to one of the colonies. Except for the guys who have doctorates, I think that even the captain got his degree online!”
“Don’t ask,” I said with a sad sigh that suggested a long nasty story that she really didn’t want to be involved in. Getting her off that, I asked, “So, you want someone who actually has MET Trevor Goodkind to talk to her, and maybe get some sense out of her?”
Then the counselor herself walked up and the receptionist introduced me, and we danced around a bit and I finally got her okay to talk to ‘Trevor’- or whoever it really was. We were about to depart the desk, but I stopped and told the receptionist, “My records were a little scrambled when they brought me out, and I just finished getting them untangled. But I haven’t been issued my dataslate yet. Could you arrange for a slate to be registered to me by the time I get through here?” she gave me a chipper thumbs up. I don’t really need a dataslate, but I’ve noticed that it’s like the venerable image of the clipboard as a tacit symbol of authority; if you walk around jotting things down on a clipboard, people seem to think that you know what you’re talking about. And I need that. The room was maybe 8 x 10, and they clearly had taken some pains to try and blend ‘comfortable nook for chatting’ with ‘padded cell’. There were two benches that ran the entire length both ends of the room facing each other that were built into the walls, they (and everything else) were covered by thick soft padded taupe leather, and the wall opposite the door had a large viewplate showing a ‘soothing’ animation of a waterfall. If she’s been stuck in here for over an hour, I’m still amazed that she wasn’t foaming at the mouth when we walked in.
As it was, she was pacing back and forth like a caged tigress. She even snarled as we entered and growled, “So, who the hell are YOU?” Now, if this was one of those idiotic Rom-Com movies, this would be the point where the audience is supposed to accept that she’s the heroine and she should hook up with the cool-guy hero, because she’s smoking hawt, despite the fact that she’s acting like a chrome-plated bitch. Yeah, RIGHT. Mind you, I will give her that she WAS smoking hawt. Classic beauty features, big flashing impossibly green eyes, flawless skin, long silky (if still pretty gunky from the suspension fluid) golden blonde hair, and a fitness model bod, which wasn’t helped by the off-gray T-shirt and briefs that they put on us when we went under. Though the fact that she clearly wasn’t wearing a bra did help.
I gave her the ‘I’m in charge here’ glower and said, “NO, the question here is, who the hell are YOU?”
“My name,” she grated out through clenched teeth, “is Trevor James Goodkind- AS I’VE TOLD YOU FIFTY TIMES!”
“Who was the President of Yale when you went to school there?”
“Answer. The. Question.”
“Look, I don’t know who-”
“Answer the question, or I’ll have the doctor here put you under heavy sedation until we’re disembarked, and you can spend your time on Cybele getting your wiring straightened out.”
“Newbright,” she replied mulishly. “It was Madeline Newbright when I matriculated, but she was replaced after the Noodle Incident by Dr. Kelso.”
“Who won the Lion’s Trophy the year you graduated?” And from there, I bounced around with questions about detailed yet obscure points about Yale University, the Yale Business School, GK International, the Goodkind family in general, and various points of his long career as meddling busybody and stooge for Global Capital (oh, my bad- ‘international troubleshooter and financial mediator’), deliberately hitting certain sore points, getting points wrong (especially points of pride), telling her that she’d answered wrong when she’d answered right, and generally pushing her buttons to get specific responses. I finished up with, “What’s the air speed of a European Swallow?”
“WHAT?” she gawped.
“She’s Trevor Goodkind,” I said to the counselor. “Anybody could have researched and memorized all those facts if they really wanted to, but nobody could get that ‘hooked bass’ look of bewildered confusion like Trevor could.” I crossed my eyes and opened my mouth in a moronic gape in mimicry of her expression. She fumed at that. I added, “Mind you, the ‘Queen Victoria, I-am-NOT-amused’ look is pretty distinctive too, but any of the Goodkinds can pull that off.”
“Who ARE you?” Trevor demanded.
“Would you excuse us for a bit?” I asked the counselor. I added sotto voce, “Yale stuff.” She gave me an odd look, but agreed and left. Once the door was shut, I lay my hand flat on my chest intoned, “Kerothen” in my best ‘reciting the pledge’ tone, and started the opening for the Delta Kappa Epsilon ‘secret handshake’.
Trevor looked at me askance, took my hand and joined in, “Philoi.”
We completed the handshake, and said in unison, ‘Aei!” ‘Kerothen Philoi Aei’, or Friends from the Heart, Forever, is the open motto of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the oldest college fraternity in the United States, and Trevor’s frat. After we finished, I snapped to attention, saluted and barked out, “Colonel Blood, reporting for duty, Prince Duck!” Frat nicknames go through fads and phases, like everything else. Classical allusions give way to animal names, then to other things. When Goodkind had been at Yale, they tended to be based on embarrassing pictures taken of the pledge as they were being hazed. Trevor’s nickname of ‘Prince Duck’ was based on his imperious general demeanor and a snapshot of him with half a sandwich sticking out of his mouth. ‘Colonel Blood’ was the nickname of Anselm Benjamin ‘Benjie’ Purvis, one of Goodkind’s frat brothers. He got the name on the basis of his first and middle initial, and a shot of him trapped outside the frat house, wearing only a towel around his commodious middle.
I know all of this because I kept tabs on the elitist fucks from Day One at Yale. By the end of my freshman year, I knew more about ‘Deke’ (Delta Kappa Epsilon), than some of their chapter presidents did. I started off skeptical and hostile to their position of privilege and inherited power; I ended off barely managing to restrain myself from torching their ‘Temple’. I picked Purvis because they’d known each other at Yale, but hadn’t been very close; and given Trevor’s self-absorption, I really doubt that he remembers that many details about ‘Benjie’. Also, I knew quite a bit about Purvis, as I’d been studying him in preparation for exposing some of his sleazier practices in a particularly ruinous way. But he was down the line a bit; there were seven other people higher on the list, and only three of them were friends of the Goodkinds. And lastly, Purvis was the sort of chummy, slow-going opportunistic mooch who cruised along in the wake of major predators like Trevor, scrounging after whatever choice morsels they could cadge; if Purvis had ever found himself in this position, he would have practically welded himself to Trevor’s side, which is exactly what I want.
“BENJIE?” Trevor gasped with glee as she grabbed me in a big hug. “What the HELL are YOU doing here?”
“That’s MY question,” I said as I disentangled myself from her in a typical macho display of embarrassment. “What the hell AM I doing here? What are you doing here? And what’s with THIS?” I gestured at both our breasts.
Trevor gave a wide Gallic ‘who knows?’ shrug. “I’m not even particularly clear on where ‘here’ is!”
“What? They didn’t tell you?”
“The message that I got said something about ‘Cybele’, and from there they sort of assumed that you knew what the frell they were talking about!”
“Trev, this is a colony ship. Like, an extra-solar colony ship. We’re heading towards a moon called ‘Cybele’ that orbits a gas giant called ‘Yukon’. Like, in another star system.”
“_what?_” Goodkind went wide-eyed and slack-jawed at that. And me without a camera.
“Trev, it takes YEARS to force adapt a body. They tell me that we’ve been under for about 7 years. Trev, what’s the last thing that you remember?”
She sat down, thought it over very carefully, and said cautiously, “Well, to be honest… the only thing that stands out clearly and doesn’t just blend into everything else… is that farce when they were sentencing Jareth Frost…” Her green eyes flashed cold fire (I’ve always wanted to say that…), and she snarled, “OF COURSE! Dr. Diabolik! He must have done this in revenge for sending his son away!” She sprang to her feet, fist cocked, jaw set for war.
“Ah? Trev?” I interjected, “Four things: First, as I recall, YOU didn’t arrest, prosecute, or even testify against Jareth Frost. Second, you know what the Diaboliks are like; if they were going to scapegoat you, they’d do it big and splashy, as to send a message. They’d force-adapt you into something that looked like a cross between a chimpanzee and a frog, or they’d implant a neural control override chip in your brain and send you do kill your entire family, or they’d chop off your head but keep it alive in jar, so they could put you on a shelf and laugh as your mouth moved but nothing came out, and watch as you slowly slid into insanity. They do have a reputation for that kind of nastiness, right? Third, IF Dr. Diabolik or his son was going to take it out on you, WHY are we here on this ship? What’s the point? Who’d know? And after the 14 years that it would take for the news to get back to our families, who’d really CARE? And fourth: Trev? You just got decanted, which means that you’re listed as one of the ‘Volunteer’ colonists, like me. Unlike 80% of the chumps on this tub, we won’t have to serve any prison time. Period. We’ll automatically be integrated into the upper/middle- to- lower/ upper echelons of the local power structure. Such as it is. And on my way in here, I picked up that you’ve got Five Million dollars registered to your credit account.”
She gave a gasp like I’d just told her that she was broke or something.
*Tsk!* Rich People.
“TREV, that’s a LOT of MONEY where we’re heading! It’s 50 times the allowable upper ceiling for such accounts! By local standards, you’re probably richer than anyone except the companies that make up the Consortium that run this system! While your file says ‘Ayla Goodchild’, all the facts on it easily support your claim that you’re Trevor Goodkind, so you even have credibility. If Dr. Diabolik had set up all of this as some sort of obtuse punishment, WHY would he go to such lengths to make you comfortable and give you all these assets? IF he was using this as some sort of punishment for you, then you’d be listed as one of the violent criminals under the name of some mass murderer, probably force-adapted into some hulking Neanderthal, with absolutely bupkiss to your name. All things considered, taking into account how we got here, I’d say that we’ve got it pretty good. Given all that, I don’t think that it adds up to Dr. Diabolik.” I paused. “Okay, I admit- I have NO CLUE as to why they turned us female.” Or, at least, I’ve got no idea as to why they turned Trevor female.
Goodkind looked at me with a questioning gaze. “You’re taking this very well, Benjie.”
“Only on the surface, Prince Duck,” I assured him. “I was decanted over a day ago, and I’ve spent the better part of that day curled up in a ball, humming tunelessly to myself. And to be perfectly honest, right at the moment, I’m just this close to running around in circles screaming ‘where’s my dick?’” Which was far too close to the truth.
Trevor accepted that, and went on to a gushing spiel about how good it was to have someone that she could talk to, and on and on. And it struck me that I hadn’t quite figured this one out as well as I might have; while this had come up aces for having ‘Wendy Merrick’ accepted as a valid Volunteer colonist, there was no way that I could ‘double-dip’ as both Wendy Merrick and ‘Jadis Diabolik’. Trevor would probably want me on hand all the time for one thing or another. We have four days where all we’re supposed to do is ride herd on the prisoners, but Trevor will find some way of turning this to her advantage. She’s a Goodkind; it’s what they do. And she’ll expect her good buddy Benjie to be there, backing her up. But ‘Jadis Diabolik’ can’t just disappear. The entire ship would go on Red Alert once I went missing, and they’d tear the ship apart until they found me. And there aren’t that many places to hide on this tub! And I don’t have a lot of time left before my next shift begins.
Hey, gimme a break; I’m in a rush, things happen.
Then the alarm went off. They must have decanted the very last of the Volunteers, and decided to get their drill out of the way. And since the shift changeover was just about to go down, what better time? Trevor reacted as anyone who was under great stress would, and I managed to get her out of the Counselor’s office and into the corridors, where the chaos was the greatest. It would have taken real effort to not get separated in that mess, so losing Trevor was easy. Then I ducked into one of the ‘Ladies Rooms’, ran some cold water over my comb and changed my hair color back to red. A few swipes of makeup, a quick shimmy out of the blues, and I was ‘Jadis Diabolik’ again.
Oh God, no matter what, I’m going to be ‘Jadis Diabolik’ for the rest of my life…
It was a lot harder finding one of the Emergency Pods that was occupied solely by Pinkskirts. Hey, I want to blend into the crowd of pink skirts as much as possible. I sort of got the impression that at least some of ‘the girls’ were either taking advantage of the ‘shipboard romance’ element, or being taken advantage by it. Interesting.
I waded through first waiting for that last clueless yutz to get the idea, and then the rote Emergency Drill lesson. I was wondering how to get to the lunch room and bag a fast meal before Piaget found me and nailed me into that second shift which I just know she’s got up her sleeve, when I noticed that somehow, Big Red and her two buddies had gotten into the same group with me. This did not fill me with great hopes for getting that quickie nosh in peace. I headed out first, tucked back into the module at the last minute, inserted myself in a cluster of pinkskirts, hoping to hide from Big Red-
-and promptly fell into a trap.
Two of the girls in the cluster that I was trying to hide in grabbed me by the arms and frog-marched me down the corridor, with another covering us, and a fourth opened a door so that we whisked in without so much as a pause. The other side of the door was one of those innumerable little storage closets that they designed this ship with (WHY, I have no idea), that seem to serve no purpose other than to provide nasty little places to ambush people. Two of them pinned me against the wall, while a third, who had the face of a Mediterranean beauty- and the eyes of a gorgon- held a shiv made from a toothbrush and a blade of honed plastic against my neck. “So,” she said with a cold, level cosmopolitan European accented voice, “YOU are ‘Jadis Diabolik’.”
“NO,” I snarled, more annoyed than frightened. “I’m Jareth Frost. I don’t answer to ‘Jadis’, unless I absolutely have to.”
“That is worse for you,” she said with low menace. “I am Umberto Maure.”
“If you’re expecting me to say, ‘NO! How could you be?’ or ‘What are YOU doing here?’, then you’re going to be disappointed.” Umberto Maure is- or at least was- a major wheel in the Venturi family of the Union Corse, operating out of Marseilles. He was a very bad, very tough man, and we’d gone head-to-head, oh, I think 16 years ago, and he came out second best on the deal. “I’m disappointed in you, Umby,” I said making a show of how unconcerned I was. “You know the rule: never make a show of violence like this, unless you’re absolutely going to follow through on it.”
“And what makes you think that I’m not going to follow through?” she smiled menacingly as she pressed the shiv deeper against my neck.
“If you were gonna kill me, you’d have done it already, and not done the cheap spy flick bit about introducing yourself.” She started, checked out her backup and started to say something, when there was a kick at the door. Her door-watch held the door shut, but I said with a victorious smirk, “AND, I already have backup.”
The door burst open, and Big Red and her two buddies busted in. Big Red went for Maure. The one with the dark hair pulled back into a ponytail looped a cord around the door-watch’s neck and set her knee into the small of the poor slob’s back. The last one, with dark hair in a rather unfortunate page-boy, went for the nearer of the two thugs who were holding my arms. I used my sudden leverage to muscle the one that was remaining into Maure. Once I was free, I slipped the mono-dagger than I had hidden from that special sleeve, and tucked in just under the nock of Maure’s jaw. “I think this fight is OVER,” I said in a tone that brooked no guff.
“This changes nothing,” Maure said as all the others came to a stock still.
“Yeah, right,” Big Red scoffed.
“Actually, she’s right,” I said. “Umbie here just wanted to talk to me, isn’t that right, Umbie?”
“You will tell me what your plans are,” she said as though she still had the knife at my throat. “I can completely destroy your scheme, no matter what it is, unless it suits me to allow you to carry it out.”
“Y’know, Umbie, I don’t really think that you’ve processed that you’re a girl now,” I countered. She flinched with that one. “The only thing more pathetic than your ambush is thinking that I’d fall for that line; Babe, if I was chump enough to fall for that, I wouldn’t be any good to you.”
“And what makes you think that that wasn’t exactly what I needed to hear?”
“TISK! Please! The old ‘I meant to do that’ gag?” I took the knife away from her neck. “I’ll tell you what: arrange another meeting. Do this one with respect, or you and your gang here will simply disappear.” I hit the nanite destruct on the dagger to illustrate the point. “Tell me what you have to offer, and I’ll tell you… whatever I choose to tell you.” With that, I exited, Page-boy holding the door for me, and Big Red and her crew following me like they were my backup.
I got well away from Maure and her crew, when I steered Big Red and her two cronies into a side corridor. “Okay, who the hell are you three clowns, and why are you sticking your noses into my business?” I demanded.
“Hey, we saved your bacon back there,” Ponytail objected.
“I had the situation under control,” I said, keeping my temper under wraps. “You’d be amazed at how chatty people get when they think they’re in control of the situation.” I waved down their objections, and asked again, “Who? ARE? You? And what do you want with me?”
Big Red launched into her spiel, and my worst (okay, not worst; they could be fanatical tragic avengers out to get even for when Dr. Dad stomped on their sand castle) fears were confirmed. They were Wannabes. I’ve had to deal with people who wanted to get close to Dad through me since I was eight, right along with the tragic avengers. Of the two, I can handle the avengers a lot more easily than the wannabes; hey, I can just shoot the fracking avengers. Big Red said that her ‘craft name’ was ‘Cutlass’, and that she’d been busted for Union work in the Pennsylvania Industrial Revival zone. Pageboy was called ‘Viper’ and had been part of the Retro-DeLeonist insurgency in Budapest. And Ponytail’s handle was ‘Stiletto’, and she’d been busted in Trieste for being part of an unauthorized newsgroup. In other words, they were the sort of demi-political thugs that gather around the fringes of any movement, scrounging around for whatever crumbs fall their way. Hey, they call themselves ‘Cutlass’, ‘Viper’ and ‘Stiletto’; that says it all right there, doesn’t it?
“LOOK,” I said, “I appreciate the assist, but I AM trying to operate here, and having an entourage will only make me more conspicuous and easy to trace, so I can’t have you three following me around all the time. BUT, now that I think about it, having you three backing me up would be useful. But it would be most useful if you three came as a surprise; they’re expecting just me, but the four of us show up. That’s advantage, the kind that we need, since walking around with weapons showing would be a huge mistake.” Stiletto quickly tucked her strangle cord away. I showed them a couple of the ‘wordless ranged communications’ signals that my father developed for making sure that his followers knew what was going on without making it plain to observers. Some of them were very subtle and convoluted; with these three, I kept it simple. That done, I told them that I’d need them after my next shift was done, and to make themselves as scarce as possible until then. As they walked off, I vaguely wondered which one, if not all of them, were planning on selling me out to Ship’s Security.
As soon as they were out of sight, I hit my minder and told Kaz, “Initiate the Monkey Trap.”
When I got to my shift location, Piaget snarled at me, “You’re LATE.” Like she wasn’t planning on punishing me as much as she could, just for shits and giggles. She assigned the last few poor chumps to their duties, but left me for last (of course). With a smirk of confident sadism she said, “I have something special in mind for you…”
“You’re under a lot of stress, aren’t you, Piaget?” I asked coyly.
“You have no idea,” she snarled. “You just have to follow orders and do what you’re told; I, on the other hand, have to make sure that everything actually gets done, and keep slackers like you on their mark.”
“Wow, that sounds just like what the TIS suites were built to help cope with.” [TIS= Total Immersion Sensorium, a full-sensory interactive recreation system]
Piaget snarled even more. “I haven’t been on the TIS in months. There’s a line a mile long, and my priority keeps getting kicked back, ‘because my services are low-impact’.”
“Are you sure about that?” I asked ingenuously. “Check your scheduling.”
She checked on her dataslate and gasped. “My GOD! I have three hours scheduled for RIGHT NOW!”
“It’s an old trick,” I explained, “Everybody’s busy right now, so the Morale Officer slates the ship’s buttmonkeys – like you- into the slots when nobody could reasonably expect them to be free to take advantage of them, so they can say ‘Well, you got the hours that you were contractually obligated to receive, but you blew them off; tough on you’. It’s a variant of a standard ‘stick it to the rank and file’ bit of chicken-shit that various services have been using to good effect for centuries.”
“They WOULD,” Piaget fumed as she almost ground her teeth to stubs.
“Tell you what,” I offered, “Just give me my assignment, and go Sim your brains out. Hey, it’s not like you were going to give me anything really important, anyway.”
“But I have all these things that need to be taken care of…” she whimpered, clearly torn between covering her ass, and both jumping on a rare opportunity and sticking it to the people who had obviously been sticking it to her (if only in her imagination; though, I will say that Piaget does make for an obvious and tempting target for that sort of thing).
“So? Designate me your errand girl. It’ll be easier than what you were gonna give me, and it’s so busy that who’s gonna notice?”
Piaget looked at me suspiciously. Then, giving in to temptation (as I knew she would), she made a few corrections on her dataslate, shoved the list to the top sheet, and locked the rest. Like I was really interested about anything that would be on her slate. Then she lit out for her date with virtual vice fulfillment. When she was out of sight and I was alone, I hit my minder: “Kaz, part two.” I strolled over to where I had my ‘Volunteer’ blues hidden, hit the bathroom for a quick change of hair color, and then I took care of Piaget’s list of chores the quick way: I sluffed it off on a bunch of pinkskirts. Then I went to the quartermaster and signed for my own dataslate as ‘Wendy Merrick’.
As soon as that was taken care of, I took an elevator up to the Personal Stowage Bays. I say ‘up’, because due to Safety Regs, the Living, Loading and Operations modules are arranged the closest to the outer ‘skin’ of the ship, so they can be jettisoned first in case of emergency. The Stowage Bays are several ‘floors’ closer to the spine of the ship. And, since the ‘artificial gravity’ for the ship is created by the centrifugal force of the ship spinning, ‘up’ is closer to the spine. So, ‘up’ I go. Using my dataslate as my ID, I gained access to my Stowage Allotment. If nothing else, this will give the sticky fingered scavengers who’ve been poking their ratty little noses in other people’s luggage that checking out my stuff isn’t a good idea; especially after I made an appointment to check it again just before Disembarkation. The clerk made offended noises, like that fooled anyone.
As I closed the door to the cramped bay behind me, Tybert, or Gwen, or whatever the hell I’m gonna wind up calling her, came out from the sole cover within the room, wearing a crewman’s gray coverall. “What took you so long?” she asked.
“Traffic was murder. There was an overturned pig truck at the bypass.”
“So? What in here is worth the special trip?”
“Everything. I want to be sure that everything’s here. Here’s the manifest,” I showed her my dataslate. Then I inserted a spike, “and here’s what everything really is.” Now the dataslate showed the manifest, with the following corrections:
- Ammunition nano-factories (6)
- Belgian chocolate <preserved> (100 kgs.)
- BioWar agent cultures, median grade (12 strains w/. vaccines)
- Chanel No. 5™ perfume concentrate <preserved> (200 liters)
- Chem Compiler Suites (4)
- Clothing (adjustable): 40 male units, 20 female units each for:
- Menial labor
- Cocaine <preserved> (100 kgs.)
- Columbian coffee <preserved> (2000 kgs.)
- Covert Ops grade B&E kits (6)
- Covert Ops grade Bugging, Wiretap and Surveillance suite
- Covert Ops grade Superior Computers (6)
- Demolitions packs including incendiaries and nano disassemblers (16)
- Disassembled Omni-Environment ‘Bikes’ (6)
- Disassembled Power Frames (6)
- Disguise kits (6)
- Disguised Communicators (40)
- Drones: Attack (40)
- Drones: Infiltration (30)
- Drones: Reconnaissance (50)
- EVA suits and Reentry Bubbles (40)
- Fabricators (ceramic, electronics, fabric, glass, graphene, plastics, metal, wood, one each)
- Gold Sovereigns (20,000)
- Hashish <preserved> (400 kgs.)
- Heroin <preserved> (10 kgs.)
- High Range Ageriatrics (6 varieties), Regeneratives (7 varieties), and Rejuvenatives (9 varieties) <preserved> (1000 units each)
- ID Kits (200) with Civilian Authority grade camera and film
- James Bond Combo Guns (15) 5 pistols, 5 SMGs, 5 combat rifles
- K-rations <preserved> (40000 units)
- Memory Plastic emergency Habitats (8)
- Memory Plastic Tool kits (40)
- Military Grade 1st Aid kits w/. diagnostic AIs and sensor wands (6)
- Pop Culture downloads (8 markets, 5 years worth)
- Silk Cloth (dyed five basic colors) <preserved> (4000 kgs.)
- Silk Underwear and Hose <preserved> (400 kgs.)
- Single-shot very/smart anti-armor rockets w/. launchers (50)
- Stealth/Armor suits (6)
- Various Combat Drugs <preserved> (400 units)
- Various teas <preserved> (2000 lbs.)
- Various Smart Drugs <preserved> (5000 units)
- Woodchucks (6)
“WHY do they call situation-sensitive Tac/Ops AI packets with sensors ‘Woodchucks’?” Gwen asked conversationally.
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “What I’ve always wondered was why James Bond thought that firearms that disassembled into inconspicuous civilian items was a good idea…”
“Exactly WHAT does your father regard as ‘median grade’ in BioWar agents?”
“Problematic, but not dangerous, let alone lethal,” I answered straight out. “Symptoms that include lethargy, extreme histamine reaction, extreme sensitivity to heat or cold, nausea, disorientation, things like that. To be honest, the most dangerous one here is that one,” I highlighted one entry, “it’s a Fungiphage that’s targeted against NutriYeast and derivatives. If I dropped that in the sewers of a developed city, it would reduce city services by 20% +/- 7 for a week, give or take a day or two; if I dropped it in the sewers of an enclosed habitat, like we’re heading to, it would crash city services for at least two weeks, reduce people to living with breathers for at least five days, and send the price of food skyrocketing. If I flushed it down the toilets of this ship, I could force an emergency evacuation, as it would kill both the yeast and the algae that feed on the yeast’s byproducts, cripple oxygen production, and we’d be swimming in shit inside five hours.”
Gwen slid me a look. “Y’know, Frost… your father scares the hell out of me.”
“Why should I be the only one terrified?”
We sorted through all the stuff and made reasonably sure that I had what I was supposed to have. “What?” Gwen asked puckishly, “No Tank?”
“We can use the fabricators to build one, if we need one. On the ground.”
“You have the plans for a tank?”
“Main battle tank, patrol tank, urban suppression, or amphibious landing?” Gwen gave me a worried look. “Relax. I’m only joking.” She let out a breath. “Why would I need an amphibious landing tank?”
“To lend fire support to an amphibious landing?”
“Why would I support an invasion of frogs?”
“Who better to deal with the Lord of the Flies?”
“Someone with a LOT of sticky paper?” We could have spent all (day? Night? Shift?) bantering like that, so I told her, “Okay, as much as I hate it, there’s someone in Solitary Confinement who I have to talk to. She was brought out of hibernation and put straight in, so she’ll be the only one in the long-term holding cells. Find out if you can get me in to talk to her without the screws knowing about it. Also, do you have any ideas as to where we could set up a small chem lab that could operate without the crew finding out about it?”
“You want to move one of those chem compiler suites into there?”
“All four. She’ll insist on all of them, and then bitch and moan about how primitive the working conditions are.”
“You gonna do the same with the fabricators for the manufacturers?”
“No. Keep the fabricators, along with all the rest of my stuff, in this bay.”
“Why? The manufacturers will be able to produce some really great stuff with them.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “But they’ll be more useful to us in the long run, down on Cybelle. Packaged as they are, they’ll be easier to get down to the ground, without a lot of unnecessary risk of getting them back in here. You’ll have enough to do, without moving all this crap out. Besides, the list of stuff that I ordered was chosen with the idea that it could be kludged together from things on the ship. And, if any of that stuff should be found by any of the guards- and we have to assume that at least ONE thing will-”
“It always does,” Gwen admitted with a sigh.
“Exactly. When Security finds one of our gizmos, it’ll be jury-rigged, not fabricated. As it will be jury-rigged, they’ll look for someone trying to kludge together another one. If it was fabricated, then Security would tear the ship apart looking for the fabricators.”
“Point,” Gwen allowed. And that was that. I left Gwen inside the bay, to let herself out the way she got in. I signed the statement that my stowage allotment was complete and untouched, and left the clerk with the tacit message that it had better damn well stay that way.
To Be Continued