The Masque of Power (Part 2)
A Crystal Hall Library Entry
The Masque of Power
Bek D Corbin
As I went back to the Main Habitation Level, it struck me that I was in a position that I wouldn’t have for a bit: I had plenty of pots on the stove, but none of them needed tending just at the moment. Piaget would be simming her little heart out for another two hours at least, it would take Gwen a while to crack Solitary, the rest of the Executive Cell were most likely still gathering their troops or taking care of those first chores, and Kaz was doing fine without me. As I’d weaseled my way out of my chores, I had nothing that needed doing. I could actually just kick back and relax for a few hours.
OR, I could slip out of these blues, get back in pink and wait in the break rooms for Sweetie, and help her deal with her stress. I wasn’t all hyper-charged with hormones, as she would be, but the day that I’m not up for some nekkid wrestling with someone like Sweetie is the day that I retire and devote myself full-time to grousing about ‘the good old days’ and how things have gone to the dogs and yelling at kids to get off my lawn.
But, of course, the Universe wasn’t having any of that. The second that I stepped off the elevator, I heard, “Hey! BENJIE!” Looking around, I saw a well-made woman, about a half-head shorter than I was, with short dark hair spiked up in a rather rebellious way, wearing Blues, striding towards me. Not walking, striding; not just moving from one place to another, but clearly projecting her personal space well ahead of her, practically willing lesser mortals to move out of her way. I was in the middle of wondering wtf she was, and how she knew about ‘Benjie’, when the penny dropped.
"TREVOR?” I bleated, goggling at her. Recouping my cool a bit, I asked, “What did you do to your hair? And why?”
Trevor cocked a superior eyebrow at me. “’What did you do to your hair’?” she sneered. “Getting pretty girly pretty quick on me, Purvis?”
"Answer the question, Goodkind,” I countered, standing my ground.
Trevor sputtered a bit and then said, “Because, I don’t want to look like a Girl!”
I gave him a glacial glare. “You still look like a girl. You just don’t look like a girl with long blonde hair; instead, you look like a girl with a bad short hairdo and a sloppy dye job.”
Trevor looked defensive. “Weellll...I didn’t want to go through all the hair-care nonsense. I hated it when I had to wait as Tansy plowed through all that, and I’ll be damned if I waste any of my time with it myself!”
"So, instead of just running a comb through it a couple of times a day and washing it once a week, now you have to trim it regularly, and check it periodically to see how the dye’s taking,” I pointed out.
"That’s not the point!” Trevor changed the subject since she was losing; and she says that she’s not turning into a real girl… “Where did you go? Why’d you leave me hanging like that?”
I nodded and said, “We got separated, but as I was wading through that moronic ‘emergency drill’ lecture, I realized why _I_ am here.”
Her eyes popped a bit at that. “Well? Don’t keep it to yourself, Benjie!”
I smirked, “_I_ am here, because YOU are here.”
"Trev, the only reason why anyone would drag you out here and force adjust you, but not only make you one of the Volunteers who’ll be short-listed for the Top Ten, but give you the money and accreditation to make it stick, is that they want you to do something on Cybele. What, I have no idea. But there’s ONE THING that you need, more than anything else, something that you could succeed with, even without all the rest, but you might not succeed without, even with all the rest.”
Trevor picked up my cue immediately. “Someone I trust, to watch my back, and back my plays.”
"Precisimundo. But neither of us owes this mysterious person a fracking thing. We need to know who he is. Once we know who he is, then we’ll either know what’s really going on, or at least we’ll be on the track to figuring it out. It follows that our mysterious *ahem!*'benefactor’ has someone aboard the ship, keeping an eye on us. How do we find out WHO this person is?” I handed off to her again.
"We give them something to react to,” Trev mused. “Something that they need to make happen, or the plan is at risk. Something that we can watch, without being obvious that we’re watching.” She looked me in the eye significantly. “Something like us not hanging out together. They went to a lot of trouble to put the two of us together on this ship; they want us together. They will act to make sure that we get together.”
I smiled benignly and patted her on the shoulder. “Very good. Have a quacker.”
Trevor hunched her shoulders and snarled, “GOD, I hate having to be sneaky.”
"Oh?” I grinned, “That’s not what Vanessa-”
"Yeah, yeah, very funny, Colonel Blood. Now, get going. It’s not very likely that we’ve been spotted, and even if we have, we can still make this plan work.” She paused. “You’re still gonna be watching my back?”
"Not to worry, Prince Duck.” She gave me a comradely punch on the shoulder and moved on. God, what a putz. What did Vanessa ever see in that bozo?
I managed to change without any further incidents, and well, if anything, Sweetie was even more eager for the minor wait.
When I was well away from my rendezvous with Sweetie, I checked in with Kaz. “So, any developments?”
[Tybert says that you can get in and talk to her, any time you want]
"God, I love dealing with professionals. Make it happen, Kaz.”
[Just follow the cleaning drone] A floor-scrubber passed me and beeped. I was reasonably sure that Kaz knew that I had a little something on the side, and she wasn’t busting my chops about it. Which was good. I’d prefer that what I had with Sweetie was just between us, but when you work with people like Kaz, privacy is more of a romantic notion than a realistic expectation. I just hope that Kaz didn’t spend all her down time ‘praying’.
The drone led me to a panel, which opened up just as I walked up, minimizing the ‘oops’ potential. Tybert met me and led me through the crawlspaces and access ducts, and a few things that I admit I’m not 100% sure what they were or how they worked. Then I squeezed through a panel into a room that was a near-clone of the padded cell that Trevor had been stuck in, except for the fact that the walls were blindingly white. Oh, and the occupant was hardly Trevor Goodkind, in form or personality. If anything, she was one of the few people in the world that I find even more annoying than any Goodkind. She didn’t even move from the couch that she was reclining on, except to turn her head slightly from the ballet vid that she was watching on the screen. “NO, I can’t change you back to a man,” she said with a weary sneer, as though it was a particularly tired FAQ.
"You’ve been asked that a lot?”
"No,” she admitted, still not stirring from where she was laying, “but once you found out who I am, it WAS the only logical reason why you’d come in through that duct. And from the way you came in, you have a vague idea as to what you’re doing, so it follows that you know who I am.”
Well, that removes any lingering doubts that I might have had that this was indeed the person who I’d come to talk to. While the conversion had done its job in making her physique sleek enough to be, well, at least palatable, there was no way that it could make that long needle nose or that receding chin or the general weasel cast of her face attractive. And not all the genetic engineering in the world could get rid of that supercilious sneer of perpetual disdain. This was, indeed, Professor Jobe A. Wilkins, the greatest genetic engineering genius of our age, inventor of several key genetic engineering principles in use today, and spiritual successor to Linus Pauling in the ‘insufferable genius’ category. “Actually, Professor Wilkins, while reversing the feminization IS part of my agenda, that’s well down the pike. How much do you know about where you are at the moment?”
"I’m on one of those interstellar barges, headed for some partially terra-formed hellhole that the idiots in charge of the completely terra-formed hellhole that we both were born on send people that they prefer to not deal with, but can’t afford to exterminate.”
With a puckish smile on my face, I leaned forward and said, “Professor Wilkins, I can sum up the rest of your prolonged life in two words: Sharashka Research.” ‘Sharashka’ were special prisons in the 20th century Soviet Russia ‘Gulag’ prison system; they were filled by prisoners who were scientists, engineers and technicians, who worked on cutting edge research projects. The Zeks (prisoners) weren’t paid for their research, their achievements were attributed to party hacks, and they had absolutely NO say on which projects they were to work on. The Zeks’ only recompense for their years of hard work was not being thrown into the living hell that was the rest of the gulag system. The Zeks, who had uniformly spent at least six months in one of those hells, worked very hard for the State.
Wilkins’ snotty look wilted slightly. She’d probably been working rather hard on not thinking about that. She flicked a brief glance at me. “And why should I think that you offer any improvements on that fate?”
"We’ve… been involved before, Prof. Wilkins. Remember the Mining Sponge incident off Trinidad, five- er, sorry, about 12 years ago, allowing for 7 years of transit? Back then, I used to be known as Jareth Frost.” She snapped to, and started to complain, but I cut her off with, “THIS TIME, we’re on the same side. You either can work with me, or you can spend the next 10 years, which if they decide the ‘year’ is a local year rather than a standard year might just very well mean the next century, in quarters that would make a Motel Six look homey, designing better, more cold resistant strains of moss and kelp, and letting someone’s nephew get the credit.” Under less stressful situations it would have been amusing, watching her raw untrammeled ego war with her formidable honed intellect.
Finally simple logic won out. “I can’t turn you or your followers back into men. Not for years. I’d need-”
"I don’t expect you to,” I assured her. “At least, not until we have the breathing room to set you up with a lab that would give you a chance to approach what you’re capable of. No, just at the moment, we have a few chemical projects that we need handled. We have a few chemical compilers, but in order to do the things we want, the compounds will have to be done right the first time, with little if any chance of decent testing. We’re going to need a genius to do them. You’ll find the resources a little-”
"Enough salesmanship,” Wilkins snarled. “Just give me a list of what you want done, and a list of the materials that you’ve got on hand, and a rough idea of the equipment-” I reached into the pocket of my skirt and handed her a folded sheaf of paper. She pursed her lips in a snip and snatched the papers away from me. “WHAT? You want me?To do this? With just THIS?”
"That’s why we need a genius,” I said with an annoyed sigh. “If we didn’t need a genius, I’d just let you ROT here.”
"What’s the time schedule? How much time do I have? How soon do I get out of here?”
"Not today. I still need to get a few more ducks in a row. I’d say all things considered that you have two days to get everything done. I’ll have a priority list done by the time we come for you.”
"What? Two Days?”
"Wilkins, if anyone else could do it, we’d get THEM.”
After washing the taste of talking with Prof. Wilkins out of my mouth, I made myself scarce by walking around with a dataslate, looking busy, and occasionally getting one pinkskirt or another to do something that popped up on my slate. Can’t have the graysuits, or worse, the bluesuits get the idea that I need someone to give me work. As I resolved a minor priority wrangle, a sort of wary looking pinkskirt came up to me and asked me for some help with finding a lost consignment for the kitchen. I gave a ‘no rest for the competent’ sigh, nodded and followed her.
She led me to a store room, where Theresa Mayfield or Theodore Marley Mayfair, or whoever she really was (on reflection, I really was taking a lot on faith that she was who she said she was; mind you, the way people are popping up on this ship, it’s a possibility, but hardly a certainty), was sitting with three other girls standing by her side. “We don’t have much time. I have people covering for me and these others on our work shift. Very well, what’s your plan?”
"First things first,” I said brusquely, “YOU.” I indicated all the others. “Leave. Now.”
"Don’t you trust us?”
"Dia- Frost, I can vouch for-”
"No you can’t,” I interrupted her. “LOOK, you came to me because I’m the Insidious Evil Mastermind, right? The first rule of secret plans is: Keep it Simple, Keep it Quick, Keep it Unexpected, and above all else, keep the ‘Need to Know’ list as short as possible. Forget them selling us out, if I let you all in on it, there’s a chance that one of them could screw us all over by telling someone else, or doing something that gives the plan away.” Mayfair started to object, but I cut her off again. “The Unwritten Pages of History are packed to the margins with heroes whose names we’ll never know, because someone they trusted screwed them over in one way or another.”
Mayfair started to argue again, then the penny dropped, she looked at her backup and she sighed. “She’s the Evil Mastermind. We came to her because she knows how this sort of thing works, and we don’t. She stayed at large for over 30 years, and the only reason that she’s here is that the Powers That Be decided to chuck the Rule Book and be rid of her, the Law and public opinion be damned.”
The backup made the expected disappointed noises, but they filed out. Mayfair watched them go with regret. “I prefer to have the people under me know and understand both the method and reasoning of what I’m doing,” she said with the sad tone of someone who suddenly doubts the entire way they’ve done everything. I really do wish that I hadn’t heard that before.
"Which works wonderfully, if what you’re doing is perfectly aboveboard, Mayfair,” I assured her. “Just not when you’re orchestrating a prison break aboard an interstellar transport. If it means anything to you, I’ve always had nothing but the highest respect and admiration for both your ends and the means you used to achieve them. And, depending on what we find on Cybele, I want you to go right back to teaching the people what the Power Elite won’t. Because a smart dissident wants an educated and informed populace, if for no greater reason than an ignorant and misinformed populace is the greatest asset of a despot.”
She raised a wry eyebrow at me. “Let me guess: you came up with that one, and you’re bound and determined to make it a quotable quote, no matter what?” I shot her a ‘humph!’ and she said, “Very well, now that we’re alone, and we’ve gotten the mutual respect pleasantries out of the way, what’s your plan, Frost?”
Humph. “The unavoidable plan is to somehow hijack the shuttles and escape to the planet’s surface. The problem with that is that the planet’s surface is a barely habitable ocean of muck. So, we turn the problem on its head, and we go down with the shuttles.”
"How does meekly going down to the surface on schedule turn the problem on its head?”
"Mayfair, please consider the power structure that’s being foisted off on us. We have the bluesuits as leaders, the pinkskirts as support staff, the greensuits as rank and file, the yellowsuits as drones, the orangesuits as drudges and the redsuits as *ahem!* ‘niggers’. Their places in the pecking order are predetermined by how they were ‘recruited’. There are two major problems with that, and, if I may say so, a brilliant solution.”
"First, the bluesuits aren’t leadership material. Hell, they’re not even lower Upper Class or upper Middle Class material. Let’s face it, the real reason that they’re here is that they know they couldn’t hack it back on Earth or in EarthSpace. However, from what I’ve seen of them, they would quite likely make for excellent lower Middle Class -slash- Upper Working Class types. Lower Management. Clerks. Cops. Non-commissioned Officers. Enforcers. They’ll be perfect for keeping the lower orders in line. They even have a prepackaged reason to despise the ‘lower orders’, as they’re all convicts, and their children will be the descendents of convicts. If you’re going to put the screws to someone, you really do need an excuse to despise them first. Okay, it’s not skin color, but suit color will do until they come up with some other way of differentiating.
"Second, the Yellowsuits are political prisoners. Political prisoners are always more trouble than regular crooks. They’re aware, dynamic, educated, intelligent, they plan for the long-term, and they prefer to operate in groups. And the Yellowsuits are slated to be the drones, the ones doing the boring, mundane, hands-on work; which is absolutely perfect for sabotage. And the entire reason that they’re here is that they wouldn’t just kick back and get with the program back on Earth, where it is so much easier to just give in and let the Power Elite have its way, like it always does. Why would they change, after getting hauled all the way out here, where they actually have a chance to get their way for a change?”
Mayfair nodded. “And yet, for all we’ve been told, this system does work. Is this that ‘brilliant solution’ you were talking about?”
"And this brilliant solution IS?”
"Take a big chunk of the political prisoners and the more problematic professional crooks- and turn them into women.”
"HOW would THAT help them, in any way?”
"Okay, Mayfair, this is where you’re going to trust to my experience as a professional dissident. What they’re counting on is the ‘Chickenshit Conformist’ syndrome. There’s a truism that the more militantly hardcore revolutionary a dissident is when they’re active, the more militantly hardcore conservative they become when they finally sell out. When they lose faith in the cause, they just give up and go to the other side with the zeal of converts. Also, there’s the rule that while a woman may be a passionate revolutionary while she’s single, the second that she has a kid, she starts metamorphosing into a classic suburban mom. Hey, I have SEEN this! Some of the most fearsome bomb-throwers of my acquaintance only became truly terrifying when they started lobbying me to get their kid into Yale.
"Even with turning three thousand of us into women, the Male: Female ratio on Cybele is still quite skewed towards the Male. Women are at a premium. Young, healthy, attractive, intelligent, sane women,” I waved at first her and then myself, “are hot ticket items. From the second we put down, every Pinkskirt is going to be wooed like an Old Money heiress. As it’s just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man- and a lot more comfortable- the Pinkskirts will gravitate towards those men who have money and power.”
"In other words, the Haut Bourgeois,” Mayfair said, picking up. “And so, instead of mucking around fixing vending machines and clearing out sewers, which will foster resentment against the system, the Pinkskirts will either marry or hire into the upper echelons of Management, which means that all those aware, dynamic, educated, intelligent, long-term planning, group-oriented new women will be putting all those qualities into supporting a system that provides them with comfort, security and power.” She looked at me with concern. “And it will only get worse when they conceive.”
"Why do you think they’re letting us hump away with the Bluesuits, as long as we don’t do it in the corridors?”
"My God! Who would come UP with such a cold-blooded scheme?”
"An Accountant,” I replied. “More accurately, I’d say that this solution probably evolved over time in response to the local pressures. It has all the earmarks that the Ganymede Crab scam had. It started with one little bit of fudging and, bit by bit, it grew into something truly monstrous. Like THIS.”
Mayfair absorbed this, thought it over and said, “Then… your plan is to somehow prevent the Pinkskirts from ‘losing faith’ as you put it, and contrive a subversive organization within the Establishment’s own management and executive classes?”
"Better,” I gave her a pat on the head. “You’re starting to think like a dissident. But not quite. This is where this whole ‘sex change’ thing gets truly insidious. I’ve heard the lecture that the Volunteers are getting, and they don’t say anything about the Pinkskirts being sex changed, or political. If anything, they’re being pitched as short-termers, and born women at that. Somehow, they’ve managed to keep the sex-change factor a secret. Most likely, a simple tacit conspiracy of silence. This suggests that the Pinkskirts cooperate to perpetuate that silence, since they all know that if the Pinkskirt Secret gets blown, they’re ALL fucked. If it gets out that they used to be men, odds are even their own children won’t talk to them. And it’s utterly incredible to me that the Executive Class doesn’t know about this and use it like a club.”
Mayfair turned this over and said, “Very well, I see the problem, but not the solution. How will going down and getting bogged down in that mire improve our situation in the slightest, let alone do anything for the other prisoners, or the native born Cybeleans?”
"Mayfair, the secret to attacking a corrupt power structure is to use the weakness inherent in the corruption against them. The corruption that props up the Cybelean system is the abject disdain that the classes are taught to have for each other. That color-coded caste system is Cybele’s weakness, and we’re going to turn it on its head.”
"What happens…” I teased her slightly with a long suggestive pause, “if we’re all the same color?"
"Same… color?” I could see the connections click in her head. “But simply changing our uniforms wouldn’t work. Our minder bands. Our files on computer…”
"I’m working on the computer AND the hard files.”
"But people will remember who was wearing what uniform!”
"Not really,” I assured her. “That’s the thing about uniforms: people tend to see the uniform, not the person wearing it. And after serving the terms of sentence, it’s assumed that we’ll have been accepted into our color ‘tribe’, and so the caste system is perpetuated.”
"Yes,” Mayfair murmured, “I can see the elegance in your solution. Instead of breaking up into the color castes, all the prisoners will claim to be Volunteers, and insist on being treated as such. So Tartarus will be caught on the horns of either accepting all the 457’s colonists as Volunteers, or treating them all as One- or Three- Year prisoners. If they treat us all as Volunteers, then they give up their hold on the Pinkskirts, as they’ll have no idea who’s a Pinkskirt and who’s a born-female Volunteer or Short-timer. And instead of being welcomed into the bottom ranks of the Upper Class, the Volunteers will be tarred with the brush of suspicion, right along with everyone else. But if they summarily decide that we’re all prisoners, we’ll clog their local courts contesting the sentences. And they’ll risk alienating their own management class, as well as having all those jobs that they were expecting the Volunteers to fill go unfilled. Or worse, be filled by ‘the lower orders’.” She nodded. “If the former, you’ll have your people in an excellent place to leverage a change of regime.”
"Actually, while I haven’t formalized my extended plans, I have no intention of overthrowing either the Colonial government or Tartarus.”
"You’re joshing me, right?”
"No!” I insisted. “Violent overthrow of a working government usually only makes things worse. If you lose, the government takes out its resentment on the locals, aggravating the damage done by the fighting even more. If you win, the government usually decides to trash the place, and makes off with the country’s liquid assets. Yeah, you’re in charge, but you’re in charge of a broke, war-ravaged husk of a country, where the social order is in complete disarray. Often, the guys who risked their lives to get rid one tyrant have to become tyrants themselves, just to get things back up and running. ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. And it really doesn’t work in an enclosed habitat like we’re heading to. The Boss can just threaten to open up a dome if things get too hairy for him, and he can make it stick.
"Nope, no armed overthrow of the government for me,” I assured her, “I already have too many lives on my conscience as it is, thanks to my father’s heavy-handed tactics. No, my strategy on Cybele is going to be more or less the same as I used back in EarthSpace: a deft combination of legal action, PR, corporate manipulation, covert action and a LOT of espionage and blackmail.”
Mayfair gave me a measuring look. “That sounds… quite reasonable, for someone of your reputation.”
"Just remember that part of the reputation which you’re referring to was crafted by PR flacks working for the very same people who put YOU here,” I pointed out.
"True.” She looked at me with new eyes. “So. Your plan and long-term agenda, as nebulous as they are, are reasonably sound. I will help you. But howcan I help you?”
"Do what you’re good at,” I told her. “In order for this to work right, we need to know who’s who, so we’re not operating at the same disadvantage as everyone else. We need to know who’s a Pinkskirt, their names, where they came from, who they worked with, what their causes were, what their methods were.”
"Does that really matter, now?”
"Oh, HELL yeah!” I shot back. “Things are going to be hairy enough as it is, we don’t need to drag trouble along with us, all the way from Earth! Just because they’re Political, doesn’t mean that they’re nice people!Hell, some of the meanest, nastiest, most vicious assholes I’ve ever met were political, and they were absolutely convinced that their ends were worth any means. There are people we are NOT going to want in our tent, PERIOD. I’ve never met a Socialist, let alone a Trotskyite, that I could work with. Hell, I’ve never met a Trot that I didn’t want to shoot! And I think that anyone who says that they’re an Anarchist should have to run a Pre-K daycare center for a year.”
"I can just tell that this is going to be one big happy family that we’re walking into,” Mayfair said wryly.
"Just get them to talk about themselves,” I said. “What they did before isn’t anywhere near as important as how they are now. Are they angry? Are they suicidal? Are they burned out? Are they ready to give up and go over? Have they already gone over? Are they clinging to their old credo and agenda, more in that it’s the last shred of their old identity than any relevance to what we’re going into? Consider this: a major part of Tartarus doing the sex change on us is to break us, so we’ll sell out more easily. My dear Mayfair, I suspect that a good number of our fellow travelers are very broken.”
Mayfair sat there, and absorbed it for a moment. I could just hear the wheels turning in her head and the connections clicking into place. “Very good,” she said definitively. “That sounds like an agenda that I can not only commit to, but I can endorse to those who listen to me.” She let out a focusing breath. “Speed is of the essence. Fortunately, I have a few tricks of my own.”
She gave me a sly smirk. “You’re not the only one who knows a thing or two about Social Engineering. Asking them who and what they are will be less useful than seeing how they react to certain situations.”
She gave me a pranksters’ grin. “I’ll arrange for a few *ahem!*'emergencies’ and ‘opportunities’, and see how they react. I’ll give you a few hours’ notice beforehand, so my ploys won’t interfere with your… whatever you’re up to. And, as I said, I have a few tricks up my sleeves to speed things along. A large part of what I did was knowing who to listen to, who to ignore, who to woo, who to humor, who to cajole, who to bribe, who to threaten, who to Siberia, and who to bury deep and lose the map that says where they’re buried.”
"That sounds like an executive. God help us all.”
That done, I shed Mayfair’s entourage as best I could and went back to my cabin. I settled into my bunk, relaxed a bit, and then looked around the cabin. Something was off, something was different. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then Cutlass came in, “Hey Boss!”
"Cutlass, what are you doing here?”
She hopped into one of the bunks. “Oh, Melanie, the girl who was bunking here before, swapped me bunks. And hey, it’s not like we got a lot of stuff to move around, right?”
"Why’d she want to leave?”
"Well… she, ah, found out who you were, and decided that she didn’t wanna risk it.”
"I dunno, she just looked kinda spooked.”
"I thought who I am was general knowledge.”
"So did I. Go figure, huh?”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 129 HOURS 23MINUTES 41 SECONDS
The next day my shift started with Reveille again. I think they were operating on the annoying but effective principle that routine breeds obedience and efficiency. We were informed that we were on schedule (Woo-hoo! Break out the Champagne! We’re on Schedule!) and we should expect to finish bringing out the Yearlings, and start bringing out the 1-to-3-Year prisoners. We Pinkskirts were warned that the new prisoners would be of a vastly different nature, and that we should avoid speaking with them, and that we shouldn’t take anything they said at face value. For a moment, I wondered if they really believed that we would swallow that. Then it occurred to me that a lot, if not most of the new girls were so shell-shocked by what had happened to them, might just believe that, simply because it was easier to do so.
I have to admit, what happened next really was my own fault. My only excuse was that I was still half-asleep. It wouldn’t have happened, otherwise. I avoided Cutlass and her two buds, and stumbled towards the mess hall, hoping that they’d added something that vaguely resembled coffee to the menu. As I staggered along the corridor, I blundered into someone who was carrying a double-armload of stuff, knocking her over. I helped her up. She was a delicate little slip of a thing, with a pixie face and the requisite big blue doe eyes and all like that. I felt like a big clumsy ox for knocking her over, and I had to stop myself from offering to buy her an ice cream cone to make it all better.
Instead, she apologized in a high-pitched British Working Class accent, and asked me if I’d help her move this stuff so she could get to brekky. I was only too happy to help, and maybe make amends. But apparently she wasn’t in a forgiving mood. ‘Cause the second that we were out of sight, she took advantage of the load that I was carrying by dropping what she was carrying right under my feet and giving me a big shove. As I went sprawling, she gave me a big kick to the jaw that suggested that maybe she’d played football at school. As I tried to get my head together, she scrambled up on top of me, and held another shiv made from a toothbrush and a sharpened bit of plastic to my throat. But she didn’t make the mistake that Maure did- she wasted no time talking; the only reason that she didn’t gut me like a fish is that her blade hit my jaw instead of the artery, and it blunted the blade. She snarled and was going for another go, when Cutlass and Stiletto tackled her and got her off me. Even so, it was close going for a bit there. Both Cutlass and Stiletto were taller and heavier and stronger than she was, but the shrimp but up a hell of a fight. I had to grab one of the boxes that she’d suckered me into carrying and bash it over her head for the girls to get her down on the ground with one arm behind her back.
I grabbed a bit of paper from the haul to staunch the bleeding on my jaw, and looked down at her. “Okay, Short-stuff, who are you, and why’d you try to grease me?”
"Yah!” she screamed as Stiletto did something that looked extremely painful to her. “Okay! So, I saw an opening and I took it! So fuckin’ WHAT?”
"Who are you, and what’s your angle?” I nodded for Stiletto to motivate her some more, and Stiletto did something that suggested an intimate familiarity with the human body and a large bag of nasty tricks.
"FINE! Fine,” she sighed, “I’m Union Mitford.”
"UNION MITFORD?” I yelped, taken aback for once. “MAN, and I thought that *I* got shafted! Jesus CHRIST, Mitford, what happened to you?” There are concepts that simply refuse to just up and die, no matter how obviously History disproves them: Socialism, Aristocracy, Theocracy, Racism; but without a doubt the vilest of the social bad pennies is Fascism. And Union Mitford isn’t even just a Fascist, he’s a Neo-Nazi. Nazism, a movement so vicious that time hasn’t erased any of the stink; if anything the stench gets worse as new proof of old crimes bubble up out of the muck. But somehow, Union Mitford had not only made the British Neo-Nazi Party work, but he’d managed to make it a factor in British politics. A fact that embarrasses many of my English associates considerably. I’m not that surprised that the Power Elite decided to rid themselves of Mitford; but I am surprised that she changed that much. Union Mitford was a big bulldog of a man, standing over six-feet-six, weighing in at 22 stone, precious little of that flab, with barrel chest, bull neck, and big hamhock fists. He’d started playing for Manchester RC, a notoriously tough Rugby Union team and one of the oldest, and somehow parlayed that and a reputation for ferocity and fearlessness both on and off the field, into a career in Far Right politics. His major catch-phrase was, ‘There was a time when Englishmen took pride in being English MEN’; a bit of hubris that must be particularly bitter for her just at the moment. How did that mountain of a man turn into this delicate- if vicious- pixie? That just had to be deliberate.
"Union Mitford,” Viper purred, taking the shiv out of Mitford’s hand. I got the distinct impression that Viper had some business of some sort with Mitford; personal business, political business, who knew? Mitford was a nasty fuck who had a real knack for dragging people down to his level.
Sensing some really nasty business that I really didn’t need cluttering up my 40, I headed it off by taking the lead “So, what did you were going to accomplish, Mitford? We’ve got no history, you and I. Okay, you were on my list of people to jack up, but you kept getting bumped down the list by bigger and more noxious assholes. I never messed with you, so why the bushwhack?”
She grinned viciously back up at me, “You’re the one that everyone’s looking to, to get them out of this shit. With you gone, they’ll need someone. Someone strong.”
I broke out snickering, and Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto joined in. Mitford struggled and snarled with outrage. When she’d vented for a bit, I sneered, “Stupid, Mitty, WAY stupid. The feeble chance of you stepping into my shoes aside, you almost killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.”
"What’s that supposed to mean, Seppo?”
"THINK about it, Mitty. What’s the ONE thing that you want- that we ALL want, more than anything, even a way out of the system that Tartarus has waiting for us?”
She went slack in their grips as it clicked for her and looked up at me. “You can do that? You can make me a man again? A proper man?” It was almost touching, the pathos she put into that.
"Not yet,” I admitted. “Not for years. But I’m working on it.”
"Oh, you’re working on it…” she sneered viciously.
"YES, I’m Working on it!” I snapped back. “Do you think that I wanna spend the rest of my life like this? Y’think I want to DIE like this? You think ANY of us want to live like this? Tell me, Mitford, do YOU have any plans for that? NO! You don’t have the slightest clue, do you? But not only do I have ideas, I have a solid plan and I’ve already made contacts that can make it happen.”
"Like I’d tell you. Now, here’s the thing: the only reason that I don’t grass you out to the Graysuits is that I happen to have a USE for you.”
"Any of the several plans that I’m considering will have to take the Line Officers, the Marines and the Bluesuits into consideration. I need basic Intel: Who’s a hardass, who’s a sadist, who’s full of shit, who’s incompetent, who’s burned out, who actually knows his job, who can be tricked, who can be bullshitted, who can be confused into inaction, who can be bought, who can be threatened, who can be bluffed, who has to be neutralized and who has to be removed from the equation before anything even starts. You’re good at that, aren’t you Mitty? That was how you kept your fun-loving blackshirts on a leash, and used them to shake down politicos both in Britain and on the Continent, wasn’t it? You knew whose button to push, whose cage to rattle and whose ass to kiss. Okay, there are too many Bluesuits for you to suss out effectively, so only concentrate on the real leader types, and on Marines and the Gold Braids.”
"Yeah?” she grunted suspiciously. “I get you the down-low, and you’ll let me in on your scam?”
"Let me see what kind of info you bring me, and see how it stacks against my other informants.” Mitford growled, but agreed. We let her up and she walked off, trying to look as butch and badass as anybody that, well… cute…could pull off.
When she was well away, Viper looked at me askance and asked, “You’re really going to bring Union Mitford into this?”
I shot her an offended look back. “Don’t be ridiculous! I just said that to keep the little bitch busy while I work. Don’t worry, I know better than to trust Union- or Unity, or whatever they’ve tagged her with. Like I said, he was on my ‘To Do’ list back on Earth, but bigger assholes kept bumping him down the list. While I may use those personality profiles that she comes up with, I have absolutely NO intention of letting that bitch anywhere near my organization.”
"Ah, Frost?” Viper asked carefully, “You DO know that Mitford practically made a career of letting people who thought they were smarter than he was manipulate him, and then turning it around on them?”
I started to make a smart comment in reply, but it suddenly struck me that ‘Viper’ had a point; every one of the yutzes that Mitford had walked over on his path to power had thought that they could play the big yahoo for a chump. They’d been just as confident that they were sharper and more capable than the ones who’d gone before them as… well, I was. “Good point, Viper. Viper, I have a very important job for you. I want you to check out every inch of this ship, until you find a toilet large enough to flush that little shit. Find some way of disappearing her body. Don’t actually DO anything to her; just find a nice quiet way of dealing with a problematic body.” Well, hopefully I won’t have to use it. But still, it’s nice knowing that I’ll have the option, if necessary.
I’d worried that Mitford’s idiotic ploy would have made us late for breakfast. I needn’t have worried. There was more than enough NutriYeast glop to go around. Oh well… at least the Coffee-like beverage product (no, I’m not being snarky, it’s right there on the packet!) was hot and cram with caffeine.
As we worked to process the last of the Greensuits, I picked up that the Goldbraids were very keen on getting this all done on schedule, if not before. They wanted the last of the Yearlings out and in their greenjeans before lunch, and they were all-too happy to lean on the bottom rung Graysuits- oh, and us poor benighted Pinkskirts as well- to make it happen. I tried to fit this into my standard ‘gallery of assholes’, but to be honest, I couldn’t quite make them fit. There was something going on that they couldn’t be bothered to let the Pinkskirts in on. I got around Piaget by simply pointing out on her slate that ‘her’ crew was at the top of the performance; at least during the shift that I’d covered for her while she was Simming. Piaget looked dubious, but the other Pinkskirts made the decision for her by coming up to me and asking what they should do. I took Piaget’s slate from her and started allocating jobs. Piaget just stood there, looking miffed, so I pointed out that there was an urgent task that needed doing (read: busy work) that didn’t involve that much (read: any) elbow grease. Piaget took that, and I got her off my back for a few hours. Finally, I was able to get some work done without Piaget hovering over my shoulder; oh, and I helped get the last of the Yearlings out.
I’ll give the screws this, you really could tell the difference when we started bringing out the Threebies. The Greensuits had been, as a group, pretty resigned to their fates. They just wanted to make the best of the hand they’d been dealt and get on with their lives; well, those that didn’t look like they were about to break down and cry with homesickness, anyway. The Yellowsuits on the other hand, allowing for individuals and style and so on, pretty much had very bad attitudes. The first words out of their mouths were some complaint or another. And Grabby! The Bluesuits and the Yearlings had been pretty randy as well, but the Politicals were like fracking March Hares! And, somehow, they managed to mix complaining with making moves on the Pinkskirts. I wondered if the Medics had mixed something into the wake-up nutrients to make the Politicals cranky, so they’d make a very bad first impression with the Pinkskirts; ‘See what assholes your former comrades are? You were an asshole. Now you can do better’. That sort of thing. I could see the girls almost physically restraining themselves from telling the crybabies that they’d been lucky, that they could have it a lot worse. But they couldn’t, as they were ashamed of it. And so, yet another cycle of the victims protecting their victimizers was created.
Oh well, at least one of Mayfair’s girls came along and told me to avoid a certain sector for about a half-hour. Pity I couldn’t go see what Mayfair was pulling. At least I was sure that it would be more amusing than THIS.
I endured this for an hour until the Lunch Break was called. I made sure that the shift’s gear was all stowed away right and then trundled off to the mess hall, fiercely trying to psyche myself up for a hearty meal of… nutriyeast… I got in line and heaped a tray high with selections. We must be doing a real good job- they added Tofu to the menu! <blech!> I paused and took in the situation in the cafeteria, figuring out from the seating situation and the expressions I saw what situation I wanted to create by where I sat.
And it was a good thing that I did; nobody gave me a warning in time, but I read several expressions, and had just enough time to react. Reading an attack from left (my attacker was probably right-handed), I jogged to the right, and brought my tray down on her head. She was a redhead Pinkskirt I didn’t recognize, and she had a shiv fashioned from sharpened piece of metal with a plastic handle. It was a nice piece of work, better than Maure or Mitford had been able to put together. Lucky for me, she didn’t really know how to use it. They key to surviving a knife fight is getting out of the fight as soon as possible without getting cut. I shoved a bowl of nutria-glop into her face, elbowed her down to the ground and kicked the shiv away from both of us. Then I got hit by a Jangler. It didn’t knock me out, thanks to that amended insulator that was built into my trick interface plug ‘cork’. But still, it was enough of a slap that I stopped reflexively, just long enough to realize that it would be a good move to drop to the ground before whoever jangled me got wise.
Several long minutes later, I let myself be dragged up and ‘brought back to awareness’ by the jangler’s ‘jump-start’. The redhead screamed that I was ‘Jadis Diabolik’, and my father had killed her entire family. Oh Wonderful, simply wonderful, I’ve got a Tragic Avenger on the ship. And she’s a bushwhacker, not a screamer. Well, it could be worse- she could be a saboteur; I’ve had people throw huge monkey-wrenches into my plans, for the simple reason that they were nursing a grudge against Dr. Dad. Hell, the whole Bratislava Affair might have been one of my shining moments, if it wasn’t for those three moronic ‘Sons of Galati’. As it is, the most shining thing about the whole debacle is how I managed to keep Bratislava from becoming a 3-km wide radioactive pit. Not that anybody outside my organization knows that.
I faked coming to and looked into the stony face of the ship’s marine sergeant who’d ‘jump-started’ me. Red had screamed herself out and was glaring at me with red-faced rage. “Okay, both of you- four hours of solitary,” he said with the finality of a Supreme Court justice.
"WHAT?” I shrieked, “But SHE jumped ME! I barely survived that!”
"I don’t care who started it,” he said blandly. “You get in a fight, you get chucked in the hole.” Wait a minute… most experienced prison guards know that that bit doesn’t work. Yeah, you save yourself piecing together who threw first, but it encourages fights, since the aggressor knows that his chump will do time right along with him.
I filed that away as the ship’s marines frog-marched us to the solitary holding cells. “But I haven’t had a chance to EAT yet!”
"Sucks to be you, don’t it?”
Solitary was a rerun of the cell they had Prof. Wilkins in, only the video screen was off. After all, it’s supposed to be a disciplinary measure, not a place for Zeks to goof off in. I waited for an indeterminate length of time, until the panel in the roof popped open. “What took you so long?”
Gwen silently replied by dangling a cardboard takeout carton down from the panel. “Bless you my child!” I took a big bite and… dear GOD, it was FOOD! Real Food! Not nutriyeast, but actual, honest-to-God Food! “Where did you get this?”
"I raided the Line Officers’ kitchen.”
"God blessyour larcenous soul!” I chowed down on some very nice shrimp scampi, complete with noodles that, dear god, actually weren’tmade from nutriyeast! That kicked in a thought that had me chuckling, and Gwen asked me what that was about. “Oh, I just had a thought; that lox Trevor Goodkind must be eating with the Bluesuits.”
"Well, you’d have to know her. She’s such a food snob that she’d think that THIS was cruel and unusual punishment. But she’s with the Volunteers, choking down nutriyeast that’s just one step up from the slop they’re serving US. Heheh..."
"Wait a minute… Trevor GOODKIND? The Goodkind Clan’s go-to guy? What’s he doing here? Slumming?”
"Good question, Ty. I really wish I knew. And it’s ‘she’ now.”
"Tell me about it. And, NO, she didn’t volunteer for any of this.”
"But… she’s eating with the Bluesuits… she’s not one of the untermenschen…"
"Exactly,” I agreed. “And NO, I don’t know how she got here, or why she’s here, or why they femmed her. And YES, I agree, that’s hugely significant. The rest of the passenger list on this Singles’ cruise we could put down to the Global Elite getting rid of their trash in one big dump, but not Trevor. He’s a member of the Tribe, he’s a real person as they perceive persons, and you don’t DO that to members of the Tribe.”
Tybert raised one eyebrow. “You think that maybe the Walcutts are pulling a move, trying to position their girl Tansy into taking over hubby Trevor’s holdings?”
"No. If it was as simple as that, they’d just get RID of Trevor. As it is… it’s weird. On one hand, they’d screwed him over as badly as you can, shy of physically maiming him. On the other hand, she’s getting the closest that they get to the Red Carpet treatment on this tub. And get this:” I filled Gwen in on ‘Ayla Goodchild’s’ oversized bank accounts.
"Is this the same girl who’s Stowage Allotment you wanted me to find?” I nodded. “So? Let’s go see what’s in it. Maybe there’s a real clue in there. ‘Cause, I’m tellin’ you, Frost- there is something seriouslyweird going on here. That weird is the reason that I am personally here, and I’m laying odds that it’ll make my personally getting OUT harder, if not impossible. And your buddy Trevor sounds like the first solid lead we’ve got.” With that, she led the way out the panel and through the Byzantine wainscoting of the ship’s between-spaces.
In true Goodkind fashion, Trevor hadn’t gotten the usual Stowage Allotment bay, like I did. No, ‘Ayla’ got an entire cargo module. The module’s manifest was just a little too bland and unexciting to really be credible, so we had to start opening crates. At first it was… well… moderately useful stuff, like concentrated high-profile perfume, and blocks of high-end virgin Rag, Crock and other Recyke materials. Then, we hit the jackpot. “Christ, Krishna and Kwannon,” I breathed as we opened it up.
"Okay, what IS it?” Tybert asked keenly. “A nuke?”
"It’s the Industrial Warfare version of a nuke. Or let me put it to you this way: to use a conventional warfare simile, the compilers and fabricators that my father gave me are the equivalent of boxes of assault rifles; THIS, on the other hand, is a fully-loaded Warship, complete with assault VTOL bays, missile racks and over-the-horizon rail guns. This is an Industrial Level Fabricator; it’s practically a SOTA factory, all in itself. Throw the right materials into it, and the balance of power on Cybele takes a HUGE hit.”
"Does your buddy Trevor know how to use these things?”
"Only in the way that Cyrano de Bergerac knew how to use a rapier- or a pen.” I touched the minder that we’d been using for communicators. “Kaz? Have you been listening in?”
[With one ear; you’re not that interesting]
"Any insights from the expert information analyst? And she is an expert-” I added aside to Gwen, “-just ask her; she’ll tell you about it for hours.”
[Only the obvious. The patterns of data have a contextual ambiguity that suggest that there are at least two, but less than five major factors that define the situation that we don’t know about]
"My reading of the situation is that it’s all about Trevor Goodkind,” I said definitively. “They’re trying to make it look like it’s about me, but it’s really about good ol’ Trev. They want him to do something major on Cybele. What, I’m not sure, but it’s industrial, and probably major league economic, and quite possibly it will change the entire nature of the situation on Cybele, so they don’t want the Consortium to know about it.”
[That was the obvious that I didn’t want to belabor]
"How well is your buddy Trevor taking all this?” Gwen asked.
"Not at all,” I answered authoritatively. “I’m not sure which aspect is pissing her off more: being kidnapped, getting Shanghaied to one of the colonies, losing billions in money, losing her identity and position, or losing her wife’s best friend. Or, knowing Tansy, his mistress’ steady paycheck. She’s screaming that she’s Trevor goddam Goodkind at the top of her lungs to anyone who’ll slow down long enough to listen, so there’s no way that she’s trying to be stealth here.”
[I’m shifting title of that bay from ‘Goodchild, Ayla’ to New Genesis Developments, a minor firm on Cybele that has a few shipments on board. Now, I’m giving your old classmate title to a rather mediocre bay that was the property of one of the Volunteers who died while being adapted. There’s nothing exciting in it, just the sort of mass market crap that a middle-class noid might think would sell well on a colony]
"How many Volunteers died while being adapted?”
[297, with a slight disproportionate ratio of female deaths]
[There were 82 female deaths]
"How many of them were married?”
[None. This is a Singles’ cruise. They don’t want to narrow the dating possibilities by having pre-established couples, or bring in the social problems that old couples in newly young bodies would create]
"Especially if Wifey is suddenly a hot commodity,” Gwen snarked.
"Kaz, compile a list of those 82 dead volunteer women, shuffle names around so that it’s not obvious, you know the drill. Create some phantom work shifts, and make it look like they’re alive and being good little Bluesuits, so they can vouch for each other.”
[How much detail you want on this?]
"Dunno. I leave that to your expert opinion. They could be our ticket out of the Pink Ghetto; they could be one option out of several. It could just be a decoy that I use. We may not use it at all. Too many things are still up in the air to be sure.”
[Okay, but you guys will have to get a move on. Frost, suddenly you’re little miss popular. I’ve got multiple meet signs; I think that people want to be reassured that you’re still in the equation, after getting chucked in the jug. Do you want to handle those immediately, or go through the motions of being let out of the cooler?]
"I’ll go through the motions; it’s nothing that can’t wait. I don’t want it known outside the three of us- four, if you include Wilkins- that we can get in and out of Solitary any time we want. Just give me a list of the people who need to have their hands held.”
[Or something else held,] Kaz snickered in a way that suggested that my trysts with Sweetie weren’t as covert as I might hope.
Tybert got me to the break room just before Sweetie came in, which made for a nice change of pace. Ty had the decency to wait for us and not be obvious that she was watching us. Still, as she was leaving the Solitary cell after getting me back in time for my ‘Time Out’ to be over, she grinned and snarked, “Oh, by the way… that pussycat smirk doesn’t really GO with being in the cooler for three hours.” And then she was gone, having gotten in the last word.
I kicked back for a few minutes, just long enough to get moderately bored and lose any trace of that smirk. As the door unlocked and opened, I reflected that being thrown in Solitary was a great way of getting out from under the Crew’s thumb; well, as long as I had Gwen to get me out, anyway. I regretted not thinking of it before. I wondered how I could get thrown in there more often, without making it too fracking obvious.
I was told to report for my shift, which was going to be extended to make up for my time in the hole. I went to see Piaget, but I took the time for a little side trip. When I found her, Piaget didn’t look happy, not at all. “I hope that you don’t think that you’re going to get off easy, just because you screwed up and got chucked in the jug. You’re not going to get off your obligation -”
"Piaget, how do you have your sign-on money?”
"What?” she bleated, not expecting an intelligent question, let alone one that far out of left field. “Why would-”
"Just answer the question: how did you invest the money that Tartarus paid you up front when you signed on for a 14-year voyage? Did you give it to your family? Did you use it to kill a bunch of debts? Did you put it in a Round-Trip Bond, set to pay off when the 457 returned to Earthspace? Did you buy a building, and hire a management company to run it, with a contract for your share of the rents to be placed in a secured account? Maybe you bought into an orbital habitat that should be just about finished by the time you get back?”
"Nnnnooo…” she drawled uncertainly, “I just kicked the money into the Company’s long-term certificate of deposit fund-”
"Like the nice lady at the recruiting office told you to, ‘cause it was nice and safe and you’d get a good return?” I prodded her with a knowing grin.
"She said we’d get a 23.7% return, guaranteed…” she trailed off with a note of dawning dread.
"Piaget, hit the Academic Research database, the one that the ossifers use when they’re studying for that extra bit of virtual sheepskin. Google ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’, ‘Millennium Investments Fraud’ and ‘2171’.”
Piaget did and she went as pale as a sheet as she read about the cold-blooded, underhanded, unscrupulous, totally illegal- and yet for the most part unpunished and oddly underreported- raping of various Long Term, allegedly ‘secure’ accounts by the officers of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank of London. She stammered, and just as she started to furiously deny that Tartarus would do that to HER, I interjected, “Piaget, where did you go to the Academy?”
"Where did you go to get your Able-Bodied Spacer’s cert? Bristol, Havana or Djakarta?”
"ah… uhm… Pigeon Creek.”
"Yeah, Pigeon Creek Spacer’s Academy. What about it?”
"Let me guess… Pigeon Creek Academy is one of those places that advertises on basic package channel TV, pitching that you can make good money as an Able-Bodied Spacer, right?” she looked at me sourly. Score one for the kid. “Piaget, how much are you supposed to be making a year on this trip?”
"Thirty Grand a year.”
"At what interest rate?”
"Twelve percent, compounded annually.”
"Piaget, by my rule of thumb calculation, your account should have somewhere in the vicinity of one-and-a-quarter million dollars in it when you get back to Earth. That is, if there’s anything at all. And there’s the second half of your pay, on top of that. That is, what they leave.”
"Whaddya mean, ‘what they leave’?”
"Piaget, you DO realize that there’s a cash penalty that’s deducted from your pay for every demerit you’re given.”
"Demerit?” she peeped, going even paler. She pecked furiously at her slate, called up her personnel sheet and she almost lost it.
"Piaget! No! Don’t bite that slate! It’s probably toxic plastic, and you’ll be hospitalized, and I’ll get blamed for it!” I took the slate away from her, checked it, and said, “Well, there’s good news. You’re not getting dinged that badly by demerits.”
"I’m not?” she asked like a hopeful little girl.
"Nope. On, the other hand, you’re getting reamed on food and board.”
"Man, at these rates, I hope that you get at least a mint on your pillow.”
"WHAT?” she grabbed the slate back from me, “But room and board is supposed to be part of the package!” she checked herself, and screeched, “THAT much? I’m paying that much for a bunk with a woman who snores and nutriyeast twelve times a week? Who would do something like that?”
"Accountants,” I said matter-of-factly, looking over her shoulder. “By the way, you might want to check that alert there,” I said pointing at a flashing red dot. “As I recall, that means that you haven’t paid taxes in…” I reached over and touched the pad, “Whoa! Since you left Earth seven years ago.”
"WHAT?” she shrieked, “I’m supposed to pay TAXES? But I’m in DEEP SPACE!”
"So? We’re talking the IRS here. The IRS doesn’t care. Hell, that’s their motto: ‘We Don’t Care’; that and ‘Just Give Us Your Money and Nobody Gets Hurt’.” I’ve gotta be careful; I’m enjoying yanking Piaget’s chain too much.
"What’s your point?” Piaget grated through clenched teeth.
"What was your point when you asked about where I went to school?” she snarled.
"Ah yes… well, my point was that I assume that Pigeon Creek Spacer Academy is a, uhm… affordable…” read: bottom rung “school, and by my calculations, all told at the end of this run you’re supposed to be paid in the neighborhood of one and a half MILLION dollars. Now… Piaget… given the way that you’ve see the Company work… do you really think that they’re going to pay out one and a half Million dollars… to a graduate of the Pigeon Creek Spacer’s Academy… for being the space-going equivalent of a charlady? Let alone do it two hundred or so times, once each for every wrench monkey on this barge?”
"But… but they’re making billionson each of these runs!”
"So? You don’t get rich by making something that sells for billions, Piaget. You get rich by nickeling and diming billions of people day in, day out, every day of the year, even Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s the way that the Free Market Economy works. Every officer and administrator on this ship gets a dime for every dollar they ding you for. BUT! There IS good news!”
"What’s that?” she asked, looking at me suspiciously.
"You CAN get in on the action,” I informed her smiling widely. “There are things that we can do for each other.”
"I can’t sneak you into some hidden bay on the ship, so you can go back to Earth with us,” she grumped. “It’s seven YEARS, idiot!”
"Actually, Piaget, I’m resigned to spending the next major chunk of my life on Cybele,” I assured her. “If anything, Piaget, if I were you, I’d jump ship when the shuttles arrive and try to blend in with the Volunteers.”
"Like I’d blend in with you wispy little teenyboppers,” she snarled.
"True that,” I mock-sighed. “Piaget, I figure that what with one thing and another, between the Company and the IRS, you’re gonna walk away from this with maybe 15 to 20 grand- IF that.”
"Twenty grand?” she gasped, “I paid more’n that going to that stupid school, to GET this job!” Then something clicked in that watermelon she’s got on her shoulders. “Wait a minute- how do YOU know about all this?”
I gave her the ‘don’t be any more stupid than you absolutely have to’, glare. “I’m Jareth Frost, Remember? The son-daughter- whateverof ‘Doctor Diabolik’, remember? Crap like this is the reason that my father went renegade in the first place. I grew up dealing with things like this, one way or another. And the reason why I’m here on this overgrown firecracker, and not knocking back cocktails with my classmates from Yale, is that I refused to play the game. I’ve spent most of the past 30 years knocking over Global Capital’s rotten apple carts. This? This is nothing! The only reason why I haven’t done anything about this particular racket is that I’ve been busy with things that make this look like a Sunday picnic in New Zealand.”
"I ain’t no Commie,” Piaget said defiantly.
"Finally, something about you that I can respect. Just because I recognize the glaringly obvious truth that Global Capital is a pack of vicious greedhead bastards, doesn’t mean that I automatically buy the Reds’ pack of BS. No, I tend to lean towards a more free-market approach. AND, since you’re obviously not picking up the screamingly obvious hint…” With a flourish of sleight-of-hand, I produced one of those bogus gold sovereigns and ran it across my knuckle.
"Gold?” I finished for her, “Why, YES it is. A British gold sovereign, to be exact. By Law, for over 300 years, 113 grains of pure gold per coin; not the purest mint out there, but THE most reliable.” Okay, so this is counterfeit, and there’s just a layer of gold around a nickel slug, with an extra thick layer around the edge, so it’ll look good for a rub test. So what? Piaget here pretty much volunteered to be the scapegoat when she pulled that phony ‘tragic avenger’ crap and tried to make me her buttmonkey. “As I recall the market when we left, this little beauty goes for a little over 2,000 American.” Okay, so I’m overvaluing it. Gimme a break, I’m working here! I smiled viciously. “AND, there are more…”
She was weakening. “I’m not stupid enough to mutiny…”
"Mutiny?” I sneered, “Why would I want a mutiny? My plans have NOTHING to do with staying on this ship. My plans are all about how I go down to Cybele.”
I had her on the ropes. “I won’t betray…”
"Betray who? The Company? The Company that LIED to you and said that being a Spacer was a sure-fire ticket to a secure and comfortable retirement? And then put your Up-Front money in an account where every sticky fingered bean-counter and MBA with an itch to play the market could use it any way they wanted? And then dinged you ten dollars for every conceivable little thing that went wrong! AND, when they should have provided room and board gratis, like they’re supposed to, like they Promised To, they charged you Waldorf-Astoria rates for quarters and chow that would start riots in Turkish prisons! And, ON TOP of all that! They arranged it that the IRS will seize everything that the rats don’t chew up, ‘cause THEY didn’t pay the taxes!” Of course, most of that was crap that I had Kaz plant in the files, but hey, we’re playing for keeps here. Besides, that bit about the FFB and other companies routinely raiding ‘Millennium funds’ was for real.
She was reeling, so I went in for the kill. “Piaget, you were born and raised to be a victim. All your life, you’ve tried to be one of the cool kids, and done whatever they said, hoping beyond reason, beyond hope, beyond sanity, that someday they’d say, ‘well, she’s done enough. She’s earned her place. Let her be one of the gang.’ Newsflash, Idiot! That’s never gonna happen! They don’t like you, they don’t respect you, and they don’t need you. They’ll just keep dumping on you, because they CAN.
"And get this, Piaget- you’re how old? Fifty-two? Fifty-three? This trip was your last chance! You’re too old to make another voyage. And when you get back, you’ll be in your sixties, and you’ll be 15 years out of the loop! It wouldn’t be so bad… if you’d spent the past seven years studying for a degree, like the SMART people!” I saw that strike home on her face. “But you didn’t, did you, Piaget? Even now, if you started right after they load us off, seven years, part-time… you’d have just enough academic credit for it to be a complete waste of time!
"Let’s face it, Piaget: it’s time for you to wake up to the fact that being a stooge for Tartarus is a one-way ticket to the Food Stamp line. In order to get out of the tarpit that you’re trapped in, you need money. LOTS of money, that neither the Company nor the IRS knows about.” I held up the sovereign. “There’s another 50 of these for you if just do me a few simple favors.”
"How would you get 100 thousand?”
I grinned into her face evilly. “How do you THINK?” I rolled the sovereign across my knuckles again. “Piaget, this was all planned out in detail a LONG time ago. Okay, I didn’t see the being turned into a girl part coming; someone in my intelligence operation is gonna pay merry Hell for that. Still, I have to get to Cybele, and not as I am at the moment. YOU are going to help me with a few things, and be paid handsomely for it. Come ON, Piaget! In five days, I and the rest of these prisoners will be gone, and you’ll never see any of us again, EVER. Take the money and you’ll arrive back on Earth with enough money to live the rest of your life in reasonable comfort.” Or, knowing people like Piaget who make it big, have a 4-month vacation from the gutter, wallowing in tawdry luxury while experts pry all that money away from her. “OR, you can do something stupid, like tell the ship’s officers about this, and watch as they pocket the gold and forget to mention you in the report.”
And I had her. She reached out and took the sovereign. I pushed her back to the bulkhead and snarled into her face, “Just remember THIS, Piaget: you’re not shaking me down; I’m paying you off. I expect service from you for this. Blow me off, and well… just look me up online; there’s a lovely listing of the things that I did to people who double-crossed me. They were experts in treachery, but I taught them things that they’ll never forget. Not them- not their families- or neighbors- or the Police- or the Press- or the Morgue attendants…” Okay, yes, the Omnipedia© article on me is pure Mass Media propaganda swill; so what? I’ve had to cope with that for years. It’s about time that it served my purposes for a change.
She nodded and took the coin. “So.” Dramatic pause. “What do you want?”
"I’ll get back to you. Don’t worry, it won’t be anything big. And each time that I do want something, I’ll pay you off with another of these, so the more you do for me, the more over the fifty grand I promised you’ll get.” That caught her interest. “In the meantime, all I want is off the rest of this shit detail, the freedom to do what I need to do, and… oh yeah- I need that whacko who jumped me off my back. Can you handle that, Piaget?”
Piaget nodded eagerly, tucked the coin in a pocket and made busy-busy noises. As I walked away with the rest of my day open, I could practically hear the gears in Piaget’s head grinding away as she tried to figure out how she could screw me over, but still keep the gold. Co-opting Piaget is so basic that it scarcely warrants mentioning. The only real thing that my chores for Piaget will do is give any eager young crimebusters something to watch while I take care of real business. Unfortunately, all it really does is clear the floor for me and my real opposition to dance.
Whoever the hell they were.
I put some distance between Piaget and myself. Then I contacted Kaz on my minder. “You said that I had multiple meet signs?”
[Three. du Chantraine and LaClavar both put out the ‘meet’ signals that you agreed on, and one of Obregon’s people has been noodging your buddy Cutlass for a meet. But I think that du Chantraine is just trying to make sure that the system works]
I thought it over for a second and decided, “LaClavar’s most likely to have something that I want to hear, and it would be best to pick his brain before I meet with Obregon. Send du Chantraine a mock meet notice and then give her a ‘don’t waste my time’ notice at the time and place of the meet.”
[I’m giving the prettyboy his heads up] Kaz gave me the time and place for my meet with LaClavar, and I killed a little time before that actually clearing Piaget’s docket for her. They didn’t have very high expectations for her.
But when actual time came to make the meet, I ran face-first into Kaz’s sense of humor. The meet place was in one of those ‘break rooms’, the ones with the discreet little nooks with privacy curtains. You don’t have to be a Romance writer to see where this was going. The only reason for the two of us to be up close together in this room was to be making out like it was the roof of the gym at high school. Still, there was no reason for this to get sticky. All we had to do was use one of those nooks and shut the curtain, and simply talk to each other like civilized people, and then walk out when we’re finished with smirks on our faces.
And wouldn’t you know it? Just before LaClavar walks in, another couple just blows in and takes the last of the niches! Then Roman walked in, and we looked at each other, took in the lack of decorous cover, and each checked our minders. We didn’t have the time to wait for someone to finish up. I gave Roman a hapless ‘fuck, let’s get it over with’ shrug, and we enacted the old High School ‘romance’ (for want of a better word) trope, went to one of the corners, and Roman pinned me to the wall. As we mimed making out, I whispered, “Okay, what do you want? And watch the hands.”
"A couple of major complications have arisen.”
"Thank god. I was going nuts, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Let me have it- er, the news, that is.”
"I’ve heard that Trevor Goodkind is on the ship. WHY, I have no idea. The details are… confusing.”
"I’m already on it.” I told him. “And the details are even more confusing than you think. I’ve already hooked up with him, but I made the mistake of offering him a shoulder to lean on, and I can’t afford to give him that much time. We’re gonna want to put some people on him. Two pinkskirts, one as a romantic interest, the other as a little buddy and confidant.”
"Why is giving Trevor Goodkind a girlfriend a priority?”
"Because, if Goodkind was a prisoner and not an involuntary ‘volunteer’, she’d be wearing a pink skirt.”
"What?” LaClavar stopped and looked me straight in the eye. “Why-”
"That’s rather the question of the day, if not the week,” I pulled him back to our cover. “She’s NOT here by choice, so whatever’s going on with Goodkind is probably the key to whatever is really going on with this. So we need people who Goodkind will pull strings to have attached to her. The two personality types that Trevor’s most likely to do that for, based on my personal observations-”
"How closely have you observed Goodkind?” Roman asked. “I mean, I know that you two have been crossing swords for decades, but how much of that is what he let you see?”
"We went to Yale together. That’s pretty much WHY we’ve crossed swords so much. Okay, the ‘girlfriend’ should be black, either American, British, or Canadian- possibly French or Jamaican- but not South American or actual African. She should be Middle Class, or at least act like it, friendly, intelligent, straightforward but not confrontational. Oh, dark complexion, and a bit on the zaftig side, definitely busty.”
"That’s his type?” Roman asked. “As I recall, his wife is the classic upper-crust WASP sleek blonde type.”
"Trevor doesn’t really like his wife, Tansy, that much,” I informed him. “Who I just described was his College girlfriend, Vanessa Jackson. Their college romance ended… badly…” Just as I’d told her it would, and I had nothing to do with the way the pancake landed. “Most of Trevor’s flings and mistresses have been white, but he’s had a couple that lasted a lot longer, and he took a lot more seriously, and they were pretty much from that mold. Trevor’s way off balance, and desperately clutching around for anything that will provide stability and reassurance. Right at the moment, that’s ME, and like I said, I can’t spare him the time. I think that if our agent reminds him of Vanessa, he’ll calm down and not be as suggestible- at least, to anything that we don’t feed him. The other girl should be small, perky, chipper, and eager to help. Asian not necessary, but wouldn’t hurt. Most of his personal assistants have been of that mold. Oh! Wait a minute… if a perky, pixie-ish blonde Brit offers to fill that position, find something else for her to do.”
"Because the odds are heavily stacked that that’s Union Mitford.”
I filled LaClavar in on what had happened that morning. “And what are the odds that there are TWO tiny blonde English pixies on this ship? LaClavar, I don’t want her anywhere near Goodkind. I don’t want her anywhere near any of our operations, but that might not be doable. LaClavar, she’s already figured out that she can use her looks to manipulate people; that’s how she got me alone and almost shanked me. If it registers how powerful that ploy could be- and stops wanting to hurl when she does it- Mitford could be real trouble for us.”
"I’ll work on it. I’ve handled women like that before.”
"Just remember- Mitford’s made a career of being dismissed and underestimated. I had to be reminded of that, too.”
LaClavar gave me a smile that made my stomach do strange things. “So have I.”
Pointedly steering my attention back to business, I asked, “Okay, what’s next on your list?”
"Melkir Larsen is on board, and she has friends.”
"Oh… crap…” Melkir Larsen is three or four places below Bruce Goodkind on my ‘Least Favorite People’ list. Larsen is a professional Old School Marxist-Leninist, and is almost a textbook example of why the Right has such a stranglehold on the political process. Every time that anyone to the Left of fricking Richard Millhouse Nixon gets anything started, Radical Lefties move in and crap all over everything. If it’s a peaceful demonstration, they try to turn it into a riot. If it’s an alternative supply organization, they ‘collectivize’ it so that nobody wants to shop, let alone work, there. If it’s a Social Reform movement, they use Trotskyite Process Blocking tactics to take over the forum and proclaim that the problem that they had gathered to deal with was but a symptom of the greater problem of Capitalism, and the only solution is REVOLUTION! This of course, causes everyone rational within the organization to completely disavow the movement. That’s not bungling; that’s a deliberate tactic. Their theory is that content people don’t rise up in revolution, so you have to make things so fracking miserable that the people WILL rise up in revolt, with the presumption that once the uprising is underway, the militant masses will fall in line behind those best qualified to lead. Who would be, at least in the Trots’ view, them. Personally, I think that if they ever manage to completely upset the apple cart, they’ll be the first ones up against the wall. Still, Larsen has been at this game for a long time without getting shoved up against any walls. He’s queered my game on a number of occasions, and I’ve returned the favor, tit for tat. I regard Larsen as a cynical professional terrorist who’s forsaken whatever principles and ideals he may have had for ‘playing the game for the sake of playing the game’. On his side, he regards me as a ‘pointless troublemaker, who futilely throws pebbles at the side of the corrupt juggernaut that is Global Capitalism and loudly congratulates himself when he chips the paint’. At least, that’s what Larsen says officially; I have no idea how he thinks of me personally. If he tells me that he respects me personally, I may just throw up on him. “Friends? He’s already made contacts? Who?”
"SHE,” LaClavar said significantly. “She’s a Pinkskirt. And she’s hooked up with Sebastiano Valensuera y Ramirez, and Kallista Thessellarean.”
"The Don? And HEKATE?” I peeped. “Are they INSANE? On top of everything else, they send THAT uncanny bitch to a sealed habitat?” Larsen is a cold-blooded snake, and Valensuera is an opportunistic sociopath, but Thessellarean? Most covert operatives start out with a functioning set of ideals, and lose their empathy for the Common Man a little at a time. But that bitch sold her soul to The Darkness right out of the gate, and never looked back. Hey, they call her ‘Hekate’, the ancient goddess of darkness, fear and black magic; that sort of says it all right there, doesn’t it? “How long have they been working together?”
"It just happened. Larsen’s a Pinkskirt, and Valensuera’s one of us male Pinks, but Thessellarean is a Yellowsuit, and just got out of the jug. Larsen and Valensuera were there when she was brought out, and somehow Thessellarean recognized Valensuera- don’t ask me how- and called him by name, and before you knew it, it was Old Home Week. Larsen recruited them both as the rest of the core of her new cabal right then and there. Well, as soon as the old biddy who was overseeing them was out of sight, anyway.”
"How sure are you of this?”
"I got it straight from the horse’s- or in this case, jackass’ mouth,” LaClavar assured me. “Sebastiano shares my dorm, and he tried to recruit me.”
"Why did he try to recruit you? I thought that you were laying low, and using the ‘new name’ that the Graysuits gave you. Hey, the only reason that everybody knows who I am is that bitch Piaget thought that it would be more fun to rat me out.”
"I am. Only you, Banks and du Chantraine know who I am. I’ve been relying solely on my networking skills, not my reputation to build my part of the organization.” He paused and looked at me curiously. “That’s the major reason why I was sure that you were Jareth Frost- that you knew who *I* was; I’ve been meaning to ask you: how DID you find out?”
"I snagged my overseer, Piaget’s slate,” I sort of lied.
"And it wasn’t locked down?”
"Please! Piaget had to study for five years at a two-year school for an Able Bodied cert that’s probably considered primo toilet paper by real spacers.” But that clicked another thought into place, which I couldn’t handle right at the moment. “So, what did Valensuera say that Larsen’s plan was?”
"I don’t think that she’s got one yet,” Roman said, wording it carefully. “I think that they’re going to assemble as large an organization as they can, then wait to see what happens, and then capitalize on it. But there IS one thing that I definitely think that you need to know about.” He paused and looked me straight in the eye. “Something that Valensuera hammered at repeatedly was how ‘close’ you and Larsen were, back on Earth.”
"Close?” I yelped. “Larsen and me? The closest we ever got was not shooting each other!”
Roman closed a bit. “And how Larsen was your logical successor…”
"Successor? Like in… inheritor?”
"Precisely. Fortunately, I’ve already taken steps to rein in the Unholy Trio.”
"I’ve dealt with Valensuera before, and I’ve had scrapes with Larsen as well. Valensuera’s a classic sociopathic libertine, and Larsen came out of the tank as the kind of cool blonde heartbreaker that Sweden’s tourist industry would like everyone to think that all Swedish women are. She’s calling herself ‘Freya’. Given the level of pheromone overload around here, it’s almost a given that The Don and *ahem!* ‘Freya’ are going to go to bed together. And I’ve given The Don a little hint that nailing ‘Hekate’ would be a prime notch on his bedpost.”
"Ew! And I’ve always felt that ‘Hekate’ had a nasty streak of ‘Medea’ in her.” I mused. “With that, and Larsen’s Queen Bee streak, we are looking at a catfight that we could sell tickets to, and Worldwide broadcast rights!”
Roman chuckled. “Almost as good a show as seeing The Don and Freya going at it! Can you imagine those two together in bed?”
Which was, of course, the absolute worst thing to have said. The image of two supple young bodies in the absolute prime of their lives writing against each other on the sheets rampaged through my mind like the Mongol hoard through Kiev. I looked into his eyes, and I could see the same images romping through his mind’s eye as well, and there we were, out bodies pressed together like that, and the sounds of lovemaking coming from the stalls, and the smell of sex and funk everywhere, and well, from there it was like trying to stop a tidal wave with a sponge.
He mashed his lips against mine, and underwear magically disappeared, and well, that was all she wrote. He slammed me up against that corner, and well, it was sex. Past that, and it descends either into poetry or pornography. Still, I will say that Roman did better by me than I did by the first girl that I ever did. Of course, Laclavar being a 70+ year old man in a biologically 17-year-old body may have had something to do with it.
I orgasmed with a power and intensity that drove home that one of my worst fears was true: I was Het. Or, at least, my body was. Either way, I was going to be looking at men in bathing suits in a whole new way. Sweetie was… well, sweet, but this was what my body really wanted, and what my mind thought of it all was its problem.
And, well, then there was that really sticky (in every possible way) moment, as our rational minds kicked in. We avoided each other’s eyes and talked numbly about what we should do… y’know… about Larsen, and then we started to leave, thoroughly ashamed of ourselves, and then suddenly we were back in the corner, grinding away, and my body was yelling ‘Oh Yeah, LET’S MAKE BABIES!’
After that, we managed to get away, but not after I mashed LaClavar against the wall for a big going away kiss. STUPID HORMONES!
I walked away from the break room in a daze. I needed something, anything to get my mind off what had just happened. I’d have to sit down and think hard about what all that meant, but not right at the minute. I needed something immediate and pressing and objective… like an interstellar invasion or something like that. “Kaz?” I asked, hitting my minder. “Is Obregon still looking for that meet?”
[Ah, yeah… you wanna put it off?]
"No. Set it up. Just… give me a few minutes…”
Like Mayfair, Obregon already had a small following of Pinkskirts. Unlike Mayfair, I didn’t need to get rid of the entourage; they were all off at a discreet distance, making sure that nobody interrupted El Jefe and me as we talked. “So, Frost? There’s a lot of buzz that you’ve got something in the works. What is your big plan, and why should I allow it to happen?”
Oh well, nobody ever said that El Jefe was a ‘let’s all play nice with each other’ type. Of course, that’s why I need her either on my side, or at the very least not queering my pitch. So, with that, I started tap-dancing as though my life depended on it. “Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way- there’s no way on God’s Green Earth that we’re going to be able to hijack the shuttles. They’re expecting someone to try something, and they’ll be waiting with guns. We don’t know how to pilot the damn things, and even if we could coerce the pilots- THERE’S NO PLACE TO GO.”
Obregon gave me a ‘you’re not telling me anything that I didn’t figure out my first day out of the tank’ glower. “But, as I said, that’s just to get that out of the way. I thought about arranging some sort of major snafu during the embarkation, so we could sneak some of our people aboard; the idea being that we might be able to sleaze our way into the local population as something other than prisoners.”
"NO,” Obregon said flatly. “On a ship with a schedule this tight, any disruption could escalate into a flat-out Crisis!”
"Exactly,” I said with an evil grin. “And a Crisis is exactly what we need.”
"What, Jefe?” I grinned at her, “You never played the ‘Crisis Management Game’?”
"As in not ‘the management of crises’, but ‘management through crises’? Arrange a crisis, and use that to force concessions out of Management?”
"NO,” I said definitively. “The problem with you Labor types is that you’re tied into the whole confrontational mindset. That will NOT work here. Remember the shit that you got into in Orbit, when Management spun that maneuver into ‘Sabotage’? It’ll be a thousand times worse here, first, ‘cause the repair network is so much thinner, and second, because we’re all fucking CONVICTS. The point here isn’t to create a crisis and hold Management over a barrel; No, it’s to create a crisis, and then come in and FIX it.”
"So?” Obregon bleated, totally underwhelmed. “Whoever we send it to do the fixing gets a pat on the head, and then it sent back to mopping floors. Big deal.”
"Not if we do it right,” I assured her. “There are four things that we’ll have to do each time, so that our girl doesn’t just get the credit, but gets the JOB. FIRST, we have to arrange it so that the ring-knocking ratsass who has the job that the crisis will directly impend on looks like a total loser, not only to his subordinates but to the Brass as well. Second, the fix can’t be perfect. It’s got to look like our designated Plucky Heroine is the only thing keeping a lid on, and if she’s replaced, it’ll all fall apart. Third, as the dust is settling, and the Brass is wrapping its collective brassy brain around the fact that this Pinkskirt has moved into a position of minor responsibility, we spring ANOTHER crisis on them. Possibly it’s another scam to insert one of our own into a position, maybe not. The point is that the Brass has a limited ability to handle multiple crises at a time. While they’re putting out THAT fire, we just quietly arrange to make her *ahem!* temporary appointment to the position permanent. By the time that anyone remembers her, she’ll have the job, and if we do it right, a contract, and there’ll be nothing that they can do about it. Fourth, we can’t let the Brass see this, ANY of this, as a challenge to their power. If it’s presented in terms of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’, they will close ranks and hang together. If it’s ‘Business as Usual’, they’ll just leave the poor asshole to twist in the wind, and make a big noise about ‘no one being above the Law’ and all that crap. Any crisis we create HAS to be seamless, something that could happen, something that an intelligent engineer or logistician would worry about. Hell, we’ll probably get our best sabotage information from engineers’ reports that have been gathering dust for years, waiting for someone to take them seriously.”
Obregon was listening intently, thinking it over. “And what do we do with that organization?” she asked cautiously.
"First, we catch a rabbit. We figure that out after we find out what the conditions are like, and what the situation is on Cybele.”
"We KNOW what the situation is!”
"No, we have highly educated guesses, which will most likely be mostly right. But the devil’s always in the details.”
"And how can we be sure that we won’t simply be putting new petty despots in place?” Obregon asked, quite reasonably.
"When undercover agents go over to the other side, it’s usually because either the other side rewards them in ways that their controls won’t or can’t, or because they’re isolated from their controls,” I pointed out. “We may not know the particulars of the situation on Cybele, but we DO know that women are at a premium; you’re probably able to cut the sexism with a butter knife. That should take care of the first thing. Hell, the real problem will be keeping them from setting their bosses on fire! As for the second part, we’ll all be in the same habitat, so we’ll be able to back them up, and lend them tactical- and emotional- support. Also, I’m seeing us setting all this up on the ‘Economy of Favors’ model.”
"A: because it reminds our people in place that they’re there because people PUT them there, and that they’re expected to repay the favor. ‘Going over to the other side’ usually happens because the moles think that their controls can’t GET to them.
"B: because if the connections ever leak, the Brass won’t think about it too hard. It’s how they work, so they won’t be surprised if there’s another network around, as long as it looks like it’s supporting THEM.
"And C: because it works.
"One of the reasons why the Soviet experiment in Communism tanked was that after decades of harshing on ‘Pie in the sky in the sweet bye-and-bye’, they offered it to the Russian peoples, ‘cause after the Revolution, it was all that they had. And when they had more, they gave that to the Party elite. We’re not going to do that; every time we pull one of these moves, everyone gets something. The Economy of Favors model has the strength that you’re only expected to do things as long as you get something in return.
"The girl- or some carefully selected guy (it wouldn’t be very smart if it was a Pinkskirt who saved the day every single time, even an Executivewould smell a rat)- who’s our designated hero gets the job, but everyone who pops out of the woodwork with just the right thing, be it blueprints, components, tools, materials, whatever, gets something too. And so does the Pinkskirt or Yellowjacket who accidentally severs a control cable at the right time, and the guys who cover for him or her, and the Pinkskirt who changes the paperwork so that it looks like it was Executive or Managerial incompetence. And all of that has to be in place before the first step is taken. Everybody’s got to know that they’re covered, and that they’re going to get something.
"This is where the Organization really comes in, providing these goodies. And the Designated Hero has to know that she owes the Organization; that she’s going to come across with the payback when the Organization comes for it, and that if she doesn’t come across, the Organization can fuck her right up.”
"Are you threatening me, Frost?”
"Not yet. It hasn’t come to that, and I’m optimistic that it won’t come to that.”
"You’re saying that you have the ability to make sure that these, ah, ‘designated heroes’ honor their debts?”
"Are I and my people supposed to be the ones to enforce these debts?” she asked suspiciously.
"Oh, Good Lord, No,” I assured her. “That would be a complete waste of real talent! No, I have a muchbetter use for YOU.” I gave her a foxy grin. “As I recall, you’re very proud of the fact that you weren’t one of those college boys who tried to run the Union with principles learned at some nice Ivory Tower college. No, you started out in a warehouse, doing lading and inventory. And weren’t there rumors that you paid for your online education with ‘inventory shrinkage’ that got sold out the back door?” Obregon started to complain, but I cut her off. “Which is JUST what we need. You know ALL the tricks. Even as we speak, Greenjeans and Yellowjackets are busily moving crates around and making a complete hash of it. YOU are going to be assigned to a place where you will be able to use those logistical skills to clear up that entire mess. Oh, and relocate certain crates to where we know where they are and how they’re labeled, but nobody else does. This is how we get the goodies to repay all those people, on hand and secure, before anything happens. Decent food, clothing, tools, fuel, vehicles, weapons- I’ll make moves to make sure that after we touch down, you’ll be assigned to a strategic warehouse, where you and your crew will be able to make sure that the Organization has all those goodies to repay our people for all their hard work. A carrot without a stick is foolishness, but a stick without a carrot is tyranny, which is vicious foolishness.”
"And me without a bumper for that sticker,” Obregon sneered. “And HOW are you going to make sure that I get that job, instead of rinsing off horny assholes coming out of the soup?”
With a grin I held up Piaget’s tablet, pointed at her listing and highlighted ‘Experience: Warehousing, Logistics…’ “I can either bump this over to where the ossifer in charge of the lading won’t be able to not see it, or I can shove it to where they’d have to send in SWAT programmers to find it.” I stopped grinning and gave Obregon a flat look that said, ‘NOW I’m threatening you.’
"Okay, and what’s in it for me?”
"What? I’m throwing you into the briar patch, if you’ve got that idiom. You’ll be in a position where you’ll be able to maneuver the rest of your followers into similar positions, and if you’ve got half the chops that you should have, you’ll be able to leverage yourself and your girls into similar berths once we touch down. You’ll be in a position to control the movement of high value goodies. If you can’t make something of that, then why are we talking?”
Obregon gave me a suspicious glower. “And you trust me with this much power?”
"Let’s say that I respect your judgment. Back home in the Labor Movement, you were one of the people who GOT that there was a time to strike, a time to get nasty, a time to talk, a time to take the money, and a time to walk away.” On a flash on insight, I added, “And, let me make this perfectly clear: while I do intend to make things as good as possible for myself and those who work with me, I have no intention of just kicking back and ‘making the best of a bad situation’. No, I intend to HURT these bastards. All this is just getting people into the right places so they can stick the knives where they’re tenderest. I’m going to hurt them where it hurts the worst, and believe me, by the time I’m through, those scumbags are going to curse the name of whatever idiot came up with this!”
Obregon smiled that smile of calm cruelty that Latins do so well. “I think we can do business, Frost.”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 81 HOURS 10 MINUTES 27SECONDS
The next day started with Reveille again. “I wonder how long we’re gonna hav’ta put up with THIS crap,” Viper muttered.
"Until we can get out from under it,” Cutlass muttered back as we stepped into place for the headcount. The headcount wasn’t really necessary. Those minder bands kept track of us prisoners a lot better than any long drawn-out roll call ever could. But it reminded us that we were prisoners, and we’d better get used to the idea, real fast.
The daily announcement told us that we were still on schedule, but foul-ups the day before had put a serious ding in our lead, so we’d have to hustle if we wanted to make our pressing schedule. Which was just standard operating bullshit, of course. Nothing like a little fire under the grunts’ asses to get them to going. So of course, having said that, just as we were finishing up breakfast, they pulled another Emergency Drill.
Y’know, I hate to admit it, but… yeah, watching the Bluesuits running around screaming actually was fun, when you know what’s going on. And I noticed one or two things that I think were Mayfair and her merry pranksters at work.
While they’d had Greensuits and Yellowsuits lugging stuff around the day before, that was really just a warm-up. Today, the real heavy hauling was about to begin. We Pinkskirts would still be hosing down Yellowsuits as they came out of the soup for at least another day, but we were also being filtered into other support jobs, to free up the Graysuits to oversee the shuffling. Piaget was a tad miffed when I took her slate as a matter of course, and started dealing with various issues. Not that that stopped her from taking a *ahem!*'well-deserved break’. I just walked up to Obregon and Mayfair (at separate times, of course), and thrashed out the details of getting them and their cronies into the positions where they’d do the most good (or wreck the most damage, depending on your point of view).
Things were so fucking busy that I just waltzed into a bathroom, ran a hot comb through my hair, slipped into a bluesuit and just turned into ‘good old Benjie’. Nobody so much as blinked. With the briefest check of my slate, I found out where Goodkind was, and what she was doing.
I paused every so often to untangle a mess by virtue of being a god-like Bluesuit, just to establish my credentials among the Greensuits (and more’n a few blues). And let’s face it, some of these yutzes really are just that pathetic. I made my way down to where Trevor was hard at work, trying to get that mess straightened out, because, God knows, if a Goodkind wasn’t directing it every step of the way, it can’t have been done right!
As I got there, I noticed that Trevor had ‘somehow’ managed to gain two assistants from somewhere.<whistles, looks innocent> As ordered, Roman had somehow managed to scare up a busty, dark-skinned AfroAm pinkskirt and an Asiethnik pinkskirt who had either somehow gotten kicked back to pre-puberty, or was just very, very short and slight. She looked 12-years old, fer cryin’ out loud! Cute as a button, chipper as a chipmunk and busy as a bee, just the way that Trevor likes his flunkies. Roman chose well. At least I’m not in lust with a loveable loser.
I managed to snag the ‘Busy Bee’ on the fly, and told her to tell Trevor that ‘Colonel Blood was waiting for Prince Duck’. A few minutes later, Trevor ducked around the corner into the side access where I was waiting for her. “You’ve already got assistants?” I asked, with the required hint of envy.
"Well, of course!” Goodkind smugged. “These girls know someone who has the right stuff, even when she’s wearing the wrong underwear!” Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, putz. “So, you’ve found something out?”
"Kinda, sorta, maybe,” I hedged. “I’ve spotted a couple of Pinkskirts and a Yellowsuit. I’ve noticed them working the Pinkskirts and Yellows in a way that, well, if this was back in Boston, I’d be worried that I was being targeted to get my shop unionized.”
"So, there’s a few troublemakers?” Goodkind sniffed. “So what? On a ship like this, I’d be amazed that there weren’t troublemakers trying to stir up whatever they could, before we hit the ground. I mean, consider the kind of scum we’re hauling here.”
"Trev? Think about it. If Mr. X was gonna try to force us to get together, what would he do?”
My suggestion clicked immediately. “He’d try to dummy up a situation where we’d have to act, or the schedule would be completely blown.”
"So? DEAL with them. And I’ll be watching from the crepuscular shadows, just off-stage, waiting for our foeman to react, and girding my loins for the moment justeto strike!” I intoned over-dramatically.
Goodkind gave me the withering eye. “Maybe. But there’s something more important. Jareth Frost is aboard this ship.”
Oh. Fuck. Just what I don’t need: Trevor Goodkind, trying to find Jareth Frost. “Don’t fall for it, Trev,” I said, thinking a mile a minute and burning coal to get up to ten miles.
"Listen to your old Colonel, Prince Duck,” I said severely. “If Jareth Frost is behind us being here like this, then facing off against him is the LAST thing you want. Why? Because if he is behind this, then he’s counting on you to go pouncing on him with both hands. Why? I have no clue, and I really don’t relish the idea of finding out what it is. Think about it! In order to get not just you, but me as well, he had to burn a ton of pull that could have been put to use getting him OFF this ship! Whatever it is he’s got up his sleeve, it’s a LULU! And on the flip side, if Jareth Frost isn’t behind this, then Mr. X wants you two at each other’s throat. Why? Hey, maybe this is some weird form of sabotage, and the two of you are supposed to tear the colony apart, trying to kill each other.” I paused. “Mind you, that doesn’t answer why I’M here, let alone why we’re girls…”
Then it ‘registered’ with me. “Oh… my… gawd..."
"He’s… Jareth Frost… is still a GUY…” And the longer that Goodkind thinks that, the better.
"Trev, WHY would Mr. X make you a girl? Maybe they did something to you, and the second that you see Jared Frost, or get a whiff of his pheromones, your hormones, suddenly, bang, go into overdrive, and you’re hot for a slice of his magical massive man meat?”
"Ben-JIE! EW!” Goodkind grimaced, repulsed (as I knew he’d be) by the thought of it.
"Trev, getting someone OFF of one of these prison transports is almost impossible, but getting someone ON is easy as hell!” I pointed out. “What if this is Dr. Diabolik’s way of providing for his boy, while he’s doing hard time? THINK about it, Trev: a gorgeous blonde who’s hot for his body, who has a perfect – okay, not perfect, but still credible- background that will almost instantly translate into a ton of local influence, AND a small fortune, not counting whatever you’ve got in your transport allotment! And, if you think that ‘good old Jerry’ is your one-and-only-true-soulmate, bla-bla-bla, you’ll move Heaven and Earth to get him all the very best accommodations, get him out of prison early, and hell, maybe even arrange tickets for two back to EARTH?” I broke off and ‘admitted’, “Okay, I don’t see where _I_ fit into that scenario, but my point here is that it’s obvious that you’d go confront Jareth Frost, the second that you heard about him. Trev, WHY do the obvious thing?” And that got her. Score one for the kid.
"Benjie?” she squeaked, more vulnerable than I’ve ever seen Trevor Goodkind allow himself to be, “Do you really think that they’ve… done… something to me?”
"Trev? We KNOW that they’ve done something to you. And to me. Whether they’d done something to our brains? Hey, what would stop them?”
Goodkind wilted badly at that thought. So, I comforted her as best I could without squicking her out. “Look, Trev, I agree; we’ve got to check out whether Jareth Frost is aboard this ship, and whatever it is he’s up to. And no matter whether or not he or his father are behind what happened to us, he’s up to SOMETHING. I mean, after that kangaroo court trial of his, he’s got to be only slightly less pissed-off than we are. But let ME handle him. If nothing else, since we haven’t mixed it up, he doesn’t have any experience with the moves of Colonel Blood! Why don’t you handle those three troublemakers I spotted?”
Trevor let out a sigh of mild relief and nodded. “Good idea, Benjie. What are their names?”
"Names? They have names?” I made a production of thinking intently. “Well, the frosty blonde called herself ‘Freya’; that much I picked up. Her yellowsuit cohort, I didn’t get the name, but she’s Mediterranean, maybe Greek, I’d say. Got a major ‘tood, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t some pro terrorist that they decided to ship off or something. But it’s the third member of their little party who should be the tip-off, Trev. This Pinkskirt’s a GUY.”
"A GUY Pinkskirt?”
"Trev,” I droned, “I don’t know, I don’t wanna know…” I finished it with the ‘there are things you DON’T ask about’ glare. She nodded, the Global Capital stooge; no way she’d go nosing into any Establishment closets, no matter how obvious or corrupt. “Anyway, he’s a big strapping guy with long waving dark brown hair. He’d look like something off a Romance Novel cover, if not for the pink skirt.” Okay, I’m assuming, but if they pulled that with Roman, they’d pull it with The Don.
"Right.” We made buddy-buddy noises, and told each other that we’d hang out and catch up after we nailed Mr. X, and like that. And then the ‘Busy Bee’ came up with something that ‘Mr. Goodchild’ had to deal with right away. I took advantage of that to split; the hypocritical bonding was getting to me. Once I was safely away from Trevor, I checked my- or at least Piaget’s- slate.
According to Kaz, Piaget was trying to find me, Maure had contacted Cutlass for a meet, and du Chantraine had sent up a flare for an emergency meet of the Executive Cell!
It never rains, but it pours. I contacted Kaz. “So, Kaz, what are the chances that du Chantraine is just having a twist in her knickers?”
[Very minor,] she replied. [I’m seeing lots of traffic on the Security bands, and they’re compiling a list of Troublemakers for Visual Confirmation for Minder placement-]
"What? They’re only compiling a list of Troublemakers NOW?”
[Yeah, that bothered me too. I’m using Piaget to keep you off that list, but once they crack open the cold files-]
"WHAT? They haven’t accessed our background files yet?”
[Yeah, that bothered me too]
"Are Larsen, The Don and Hekate on their Troublemaker list?”
[As of five seconds after I noticed them starting one up]
"GOD, I love working with Professionals. What about Maure?”
[They have her on the list, but I’m bumping her down from ‘Organizer’ to ‘Grumpy Fight-picker’]
"And what about the Executive Cell?”
[Well, there was no way that I could keep Roman from being listed as an ‘Associate’ of The Don- hey, they share a room- but past that, they’re clean]
"Okay, tell the Executive Cell that I’m losing a tail, tell Maure that I’m wrapping something up but I’ll get to her, and find something to keep Piaget busy for an hour or so.”
[Do you want me to cancel your massage then?]
"Perish forbid! Do you have any idea of what it takes to get a decent Swedish Masseur to make a house call way out here in the suburbs?”
"Sorry about the delay,” I told my three arch-conspirators, “I was in the middle of one project, when this and two other crises dropped out of the sky on top of me. What’s the emergency?”
Banks scowled at du Chantraine and growled, “A&M dropped the ball, and a bluesuit found one of our weapons caches.”
"What was in it?”
"A flywheel linac carbine, a few anti-goon gas canisters, and a couple of kit-bashed gas masks,” duChantraine grumbled. A flywheel linac uses an electrically driven wheel to impart the initial momentum to a slug, classically whatever bit of ferrous metal that’s cylindrical that you can find, and passes it through a makeshift linear accelerator. They pack a punch and they’re silent, as long as the slug doesn’t break the sound barrier; on the flip side, they have huge electromagnetic signatures, the punch and accuracy drop at hideous rates with range, and they’re notoriously bulky and awkward. They can use almost anything metallic as munitions, which is good, because an inexperienced operator can empty the magazine with a five-second spray. They’re classic ‘it’s better than nothing, we had the parts, and we’re desperate’ last-ditch weapons.
"Who found it? What’s he like?”
"The bluesuit is a Guy, American,” Banks said. “I make him to be the kind of security guard who put in a new application for the Police Academy every six months. I’d say that he volunteered largely on the hopes that he’d be taken in by the colonial Police. But he didn’t find the cache. It was a pinkskirt.”
"Pinkskirt?” Roman cut in. “Is the bluesuit Byford? Boswash boy, tall, hook nose, lot of chin, fair hair already cut into a high-and-tight style?” Banks nodded. “Is the rat a short, petite Brit with short blonde hair and a high pixie voice?” Banks nodded again. Roman and I shared a significant look. “I put her on Byford to keep her out of trouble.”
"I was wondering when she’d make a play,” I mused. I explained to Banks and du Chantraine about Mitford. “We’re gonna set Mitty up so it looks like she stage-managed the whole thing, as to get in good with Security. du Chantraine, do you-”
"We have a voltage thrower that blew a circuit in the preliminary trials,” she cut me off. “It’s no good anymore and we don’t have time to fix it on our schedule, so we dumped it. It’ll explode if anyone tries to charge it up for a shot, but it LOOKS big and nasty. Still, if anyone who knows anything about weapons looks at it, they’ll see that it’s a washout.” She smiled wanly. “It was a first effort,” she explained apologetically.
"I have someone,” Roman said, “new girl, very cute, but she’s adapting well and she already knows how to work it. And, best of all, she already has her claws into a Redstripe.”
"Byford’s the kind of rod-up-the-ass pissant wannabe who pisses off real Cops big time,” Banks mused. “The Marines have been giving him the stink eye already, so they’ll jump at the chance to take him down a peg.”
"Does Mitty know who you are?” I asked Roman.
He shook his head. “I handled it through an intermediary, who’s already willing to slit her throat for us.”
"Let Mitty handle that for us,” I suggested with a smirk.
"I have a possible cache point that we’ve nixed, as it was too risky to access in a rush,” Banks said to du Chantraine. “Have your people get the voltage thrower to this place by this time,” she jotted a few things down on a piece of paper, “and we’ll take it from there.” She said to Roman, “I’ll let you know when and where.”
"What are the chances that this is a Security-managed staged incident?” du Chantraine asked. “A bit of mindfuck theater, to see who reacts and how? After all, with a ship as full of bad actors as this one, Security would most likely to want to pull something to build up a few hopes of escape, just to crush them. Or something along those lines.”
"Good point, Blondie,” I admitted. I arched inquiring eyebrows at Banks and Roman.
Banks shook her head definitively. “Nope. Security’s not sharp. The Marines aren’t used to this level of activity, and it shows. They want the alert to be over, so they can go back to a routine they know.”
"I agree,” Roman said with a nod. “The only snitch-baiting that I’ve seen has been the most basic, rote-and-textbook stuff, and there’s been no sign of any Shepherding or Corralling. They’re either VERY good, or they’re just coasting along, not even bothering. And, Frost, who’d put Agent Provocateurs on a Prison Ship?”
"And yet… here we are…” I mused. “Okay, Blondie, it was a valid question. All right, Banks, du Chantraine, you can head out. I have something to discuss with LaClavar.” One at a time, Banks and du Chantraine left, and then- and then, let’s just say that I had my wicked way with Roman, and leave it at that?
After Roman finished putting a sparkle in my eye, I contacted Kaz and had her confirm that meet with Maure. I rounded up Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto (I cannot believe that I’m working with someone called ‘Stiletto’!) as my ‘honor guard’, and proceeded to the meet in all due strength. As per the agreed-on protocol, we met in a disused corridor. Facing us from about 20meters away, Maure stood with her three backups. I had *ahem!*'my girls’ stay back and advanced to the midpoint between two groups. Maure paused, but couldn’t lose face by coming to the immediate meet all mobbed up. It implied fear, which implies weakness, which Maure couldn’t afford at the best of times, but especially not when she was as weak as she really was at the moment. With the merest gesture, she held her girls back, and she advanced.
Man, I’ll never have a better opportunity to be rid of Umberto Maure.
Maure met me and looked square at me. ‘Well?’ she silently asked with eyes that might have been tombstones for all the mercy they held. “What will you tell me?”
"I have a use for you.”
"And what use is your use to me?”
"Fine. BE a secretary or waitress. It might just be your true calling. Hey, I hear that drunks give cute girls like you BIG tips.”
She didn’t flinch. I could tell that Maure was giving it everything she had to not flinch. “And what will we get for being useful?”
"You get to be one of the winners. Period. I’m not giving you any guarantees that I’m not giving my more useful- and loyal- people. If I make any special arrangements for you, it would only undermine my position with the people that I’m actually depending on.”
"You don’t feel that you can depend on me?”
"I’m gonna pretend that you didn’t say that,” I said stolidly. “I have a use for you, but I certainly don’t need you for a damn thing, and we both know it.” She opened her mouth to object, but I cut her off. “And don’t give me that bullshit about you being able to screw up my plans. If you’re nuts enough to cut your nose off to spite your face, then you’re too irrational to actually be a danger to anyone but yourself- and your nose.”
She glared at me, and I saw minor Armageddons in her eyes, but she mastered herself and grated out between clenched teeth, “What do you want us to do, Frost?”
"Despite a lot of yapping about keeping weight down to the barest minimum, every ship ever launched has a ton of redundancy built in, for safety’s sake. The final ring of boxes on the outermost layer of these ships are always empty, both so that they have those boxes available to replace any that are lost in an accident, and so that there’s moving around room during the period when they’re shuffling things around, like they are now. I need you and your girls to mark those boxes as ‘unavailable’, and pack them with as much food, canned air, emergency supplies, and anything else that you can scrounge up, including as many spare hibernation cocoons as you can make disappear without raising any alarms.”
"Frost, I know that you love playing your cards close to your vest, but we can’t do this in a vacuum. We need to know what we’re doing, or we’ll screw things up by making mistakes that we don’t even know are mistakes!”
I let out a martyred sigh and scowled at Maure. She just glared back at me. “Okay, Maure, do you know why we’re doing this whole nonsense with lugging the cargo around?”
"Because the lading system-”
"The lading system can’t work fast enough, because the cargo boxes are literally brought up from their positions closer to the ship’s spine. If the cargo boxes lined the outermost levels, then the lading system would be able to do it a lot faster.”
"Then… what’s on the outermost levels?” Maure asked, legitimately confused.
"US,” I answered. “The next outermost layer is taken up by living space and hibernation chambers. The reason for THAT- and bear with me, this requires some foundation- is that these ships can’t steer for shit, and they’re simply not designed to decelerate. Period. It’s a critical flaw in the basic design, and we’re several technological shifts away from even beginning to fix it. The courses for these things are plotted years in advance, and any shift in course requires millions of klicks per fraction of degree changed. So, if anything that can’t be deflected by the ship’s Bussard ramscoop floats into the ship’s path, it WILL hit at a full 0.01 C. The ship WILL be totaled. Period.”
"Like I said, this requires a foundation. They’ve come up with a maneuver to handle this, since, as I’ve said, they’ll see this thing coming for at least a year, unless it’s some sort of planned attack. Not that anyone’s actually managed to pull off a pirate raid in deep space. What they do, is they pull a ‘Bootlegger Reverse’; WTF a ‘bootlegger’ is, I have NO idea. Anyway, they increase the ship’s rotation is such a way that the ship flips over so that the thruster end is facing forward,” I mimed the ship doing so, “then they reverse the rotation so the heading is the way they want, and they kick in the afterburners.”
"And the ship breaks apart in time to avoid the whatever-it-is?” Maure asked dubiously.
"More to the point, it changes the heading, so the ship can veer out of the way of whatever the ship’s going to hit. The point of all this is that as part of this maneuver, the ship sheds its protective exterior sheath, and the lading system starts shedding modules in a way that helps create and control that flip.”
"And what does that have to do with the lading system being log-jammed?”
"Maure, if a crash like that ever happens, then those modules that are jettisoned are the most likely to survive. The modules that are jettisoned first are those on the surface rim. So, the insurance companies insist that the living, hibernation and life support modules are set next to the surface rim, so they’ll be among the first to be jettisoned, so they’ll survive.”
"And insurance companies really care if the crew and passengers survive, instead of valuable cargo, which can be retrieved?”
"They care, because valuable cargo doesn’t have surviving relatives with hungry lawyers, and there are thousands of years of Sea Law that says that cargo can be tossed over the side for the good of the ship. Maure, this is one of the few things that the Navigation Authority, the Insurance Companies and the Spacers’ Union agree on. The problems with the lading system are freighting company headaches, and they’re stuck with ‘em.”
"Very interesting,” Maure grumped. “And what does all of that have to do with stocking those modules with food and water?”
"Maure, have you ever heard of a ‘fungiphage’?”
Those gravestone eyes flickered for a moment. “You mean… like what happened to the Greater Asia Prosperity Habitat? But can you really create such a poison and get it into the yeast chambers?”
"Can?” I echoed with a smirk. “HAVE. Really, Umbie, you must have heard of the ‘Watchmen Rule’? Never talk openly about a plan that isn’t already a done deal. No, the active part of the compound has been well-established but dormant in the yeast vats. If it isn’t activated, it’ll be noticed by Environment Control as soon as they do the Post-Disembarkation status check and deal with. The maintenance nutrient is constantly and reliably being fed to the Fungiphage. All that I have to do is add the catalyst, and the Fungiphage will go into total chow-down mode, with the resultant impacts on yeast production and everything that entails from that.”
"Towards what point, Frost?”
I gave her a wicked grin. “You don’t need to know, Umbie. You know just enough to hold up your end of the deal. And Umbie, this is an option. I’ve got other pots on the stove, and they don’t need you. But hold up your end, and you’ll get a bowl of soup, just like the others I’m working with. But fuck with me ONCE and you’ll drown in raw sewage.” I held out a hand.
Maure looked like she was chewing on sour mush, but she shook my hand. I gave her the respect of letting her and her crew leave first.
As we strolled away, Viper asked me, “You’re really going to try and cripple the ship like that?”
I made a dismissive spit. “Oh GOD no! As I told someone recently, the First Law of Space Travel is: Never Fuck With Life Support; Even If It Seems Like A Good Idea At The Time.”
"Then what was all THAT about?”
"THAT serves two purposes,” I answered. “First, it gives Maure something to do other than fuck with me. Even if she doesn’t throw together that cache, she’ll be so busy trying to figure out what I’m finessing with it that she won’t have any spare time for messing with ME. And second, if she does arrange that cache, it’ll be noticed, and whoever is watching for what I’m up to will be watching that hand, instead of the hand that’s picking their pocket. Hell, I might even figure out who that is.”
After Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto all went about their own business, I bustled about for a couple of hours going about Piaget’s business. And, if I must say so myself, doing a much better job of it. I took care of everything on her slate, untangled a couple of other managers’ logjams, and weaseled several bits of my own agenda through, even as I kept up a leisurely game with Kaz. When Piaget wandered up as I was wrapping up the end of her shift, I asked, “So, did get those little errands taken care of? Or did you get your hand stuck in the vending machine again?”
She gave me the ‘smart-mouth bitch’ glower and said, “I took care of three of them. But there’s a complication.”
"Which IS?” though I didn’t really need to ask, I already had a good idea as to what it would be.
"I’m going to need two or three more of those gold coins. There are a couple of people who I need to turn up sweet.”
I gave Piaget the ‘don’t insult my intelligence’ glower. “NO. We both know that there’s no way that you’re going to tell anyone about those coins. If you did, you’d have to sweat out the entire seven years back to Earth, worrying about how they’d screw you out of them. Now I have only so many of those coins-” a lie, of course, but so what? “- and I’m going to need as many of them on Cybele as I can. I can only afford to give you any more than the fifty that I promised when you actually DO something.”
Piaget smirked and said, “Oh, you’ll give me as many as I ask for, so I WON’T do something.” She pressed a tab on her tablet, and a couple of Marines showed up. “Boys, take this troublemaker to the cooler. She’s being difficult and uncooperative.” Without so much as a question as to what I’d done to be uncooperative, the two jarheads dragged me, kicking and screaming to the lockup. The only question the jailer asked was, ‘How long?’ “Eight hours, just long enough to completely eat up her down time,” Piaget smirked.
I cussed at her as the door closed, and kept it up for a few minutes, just for appearances sake. Then I made myself comfortable and managed to achieve a superficial meditative state when Gwen opened the grate and hissed for me. “Ah well,” I groaned, “no rest for the wicked. So, what have you gotten done, and what do you need me to handle?”
"What?” Gwen grunted. “You mean that you planned to get tossed in the jug?”
"No,” I admitted. “To be honest, I didn’t think that Piaget had that much initiative or brass. And now that I’m here, I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t think to come up with something like this. I wonder what I’ll have to do to get tossed in here permanently?”
"Is that a good idea?” Gwen asked with a suspicious solicitude. “I mean, if the word gets out that you’re in the jug permanently, then all your projects could fall apart. Worse, the word could get out, and someone would recognize you in the hallways. Then the word would get out that you can get in and out of here whenever you want. And then things get very sticky, very quickly.”
"I find your solicitude suspicious,” I said suspiciously, gazing at her archly. “Why would you want to keep me out of the stir? I mean, I’d have more time to spend on the stuff that we need to have done and- hey, wait a minute… how have you been managing to get off your work shifts to do all the stuff that you have?”
"Oh, ah, I found someone to cover my shifts,” she said through a tight smile.
"Oh? And how did you wrangle that?” I smelled a rat.
"Oh, I got Kaz to transfer me over to another crew, but not inform the shift leader. The shift leader just accepted the extra jobs allotted as a matter of course.”
"Annnddd...exactly WHO was this obliging shift leader?”
"Oh, a real bottom-rung loser… named Piaget.”
"WHAT? You’ve been sluffing all your work off on ME?”
"eehhh...Y’know, if we hurry, you might just be able to catch that foxy little brunette just as she’s getting off her shift!” I did just manage to catch Sweetie before she committed herself to her down-shift friends, and it WAS sweet as all get-out, but still I don’t think that that really excuses Gwen’s shabby trick.
To Be Continued