The two illicators drew large wrenches from their uniform coats and were intent on breaking my bones. They were muscular, large men with weightlifter size and strength but added weight, too. Even as organized crime enforcers I don’t think they were used to getting their hands dirty. They popped their tools angrily against their palms.
I put up my fists defensively and looked for an opening. Before I could get one, the Caretaker stepped in front of me with his arms up like an experienced but old fashioned boxer. He was coiled up and ready to strike.
“You can walk away,” he told them. “I’m giving you this one chance.”
“They’re slow,” I whispered.
“Yes,” he responded. “I’m counting on it.”
“Not yet,” the Caretaker said. He cleared his throat and lowered his fists. “You really should show some discretion in front of law enforcement!”
They turned around and hid their weapons with their bodies.
“Run!” The Caretaker pointed to a lift and we ran. We jumped in and managed to close the transparent tube before they could get us.
“Where to, uncle?” I asked.
“The departure level for sleeper ships!” he answered commandingly.
“I thought diplomats had private security?” I asked.
“I’m on vacation,” he shrugged.
The lift opened and we ran from the door to a sleeper launch uncle chose.
“We’re just about to launch.” An attendant held a hand up.
“Can we buy tickets here?” I asked.
“Certainly,” was the answer. He phoned a message forward to hold the launch, making me think they needed every spare credit. “How many in your party?”
“Four,” uncle said. “I’ll pay for our tickets.”
He rapidly handled documents for the attendant and we stepped into the portal.
On the other side, I asked how he knew they would be able to follow us.
“Watch,” he said. “And kneel quietly.”
As I knelt on my bag of new clothes in the stewards’ alcove, he tossed his jacket over me and called to a steward. “It’s my niece, could you help me? In the race to get on the ship, she is having an attack. Could you summon a wheel chair?”
“Certainly, sir,” he phoned someone rapidly. “Is this an emergency?”
“Possibly, I’ll know in a moment,” he said. “Keep breathing normally, dear.”
As I peeped out, a wheelchair arrived which met the Caretaker’s executive robot! It was followed by the urgent illicitors who were ushered on by the steward . Moments passed and we scurried out of the alcove.
“Thank you for your help. I think we’ll take another flight. Get some air, you know?”
“Good choice, sir,” answered the steward who guided us out.
The executive robot returned to uncle’s side as he refunded our ticket. We walked away at a stilted pace as the ship departed. Another moment passed and we held our serious faces for a solid ten paces.
Then we bent over guffawing!
“Oh my God, uncle! That was hilarious! Seriously, mag!” I bellowed.
“Oh yes!” chuckled the Caretaker. “After three or four hundred years in suspended animation they might give a call back to Randor!”
“Madness! Just madness!” I exclaimed.
“Madness is good?” asked the Caretaker.
“Mad is good!” I praised. “Time of my life good!”
We walked to the railing and I could just about breathe in the panorama of stars, the nebula, and all those levels above and below forming a hemisphere that cupped the inhabited portion of the star hub to open up to the revelation of the local system. Blue and red clouds of young suns stretched out before us. While the escape was exhilarating it left me just a little winded.
“Excuse me, Caretaker,” said a voice behind us. He stopped as though he were stuck in concrete.
My heart was in my throat at the sight as we turned to the waiting law enforcers.
“Oh dear,” murmured Uncle. At some silent gesture, his executive robot quietly took my things. “This could be the worst turn.”
“I was sent to find you. Can I ask you to help with a burden of official business for someone in the hangar?”
“Official business?” Asked Uncle like a petulant child. “But I’m on vacation!”
He plunged his hands into his jacket. “It is the worst thing in the universe when the boss calls while you’re off work!”
The Caretaker’s immaturity evaporated with a puff of his cheeks. “Who could be summoning me?”
“My orders come from my supervisor,” the lady officer said. She was the same one that had tailed me.
“Curious. I took pains to make sure no one in the bureau knows I’m here,” with a suspicious tone.
The officer leaned in and spoke quietly. “We really don’t want to start a panic but there’s been a death. The captain of a ship asked you to investigate. As a formality.”
“Indeed?” I crossed my arms and cross-examined. The Caretaker was visibly impressed.
“You and your assistant,” corrected the woman, still not acknowledging any recognition of me. So much the better. I don’t want to be recognized any more than the Caretaker.
“Why not,” said Uncle, partly to himself. “Assistant?”
We were taken to an airlock. I had never boarded a starship. It wasn’t exactly as glamorous as I expected. I had the sense we were led on a circuitous route out of the way of crew to avoid causing alarm. Just a hunch turning through hallway after hallway. Ultimately, we entered another airlock with official looking people with badges I didn’t recognize.
A body lay beneath a covering on the floor. A forensic robot was scanning the compartment intently. We were then dressed by technicians in disposable aprons to protect the expired figure.
“I came as quickly as I heard,” said Uncle to the man who I recognized as the ship’s captain. Uncle patted him on the back assuringly.
“Thank you, Caretaker,” said the captain.
“Hm,” The Caretaker waved his slate over the body. “Otto Chisolm. Crewman?”
“Passenger. We logged him as having dissembarked,” said the captain. I watched Uncle methodically working his way down the man’s pockets. “We have searched the body and made a forensic scan.”
“Of course, just having a look for myself,” answered the Caretaker. His hand paused as he snagged what looked like a twisted paperclip affixed to a pocket zipper. He eyed it and then removed it. Uncle and the captain shared a sheepish grin. “That’s the trouble with an automatic civilization. Everything being done by machines retards a man’s ability to focus.”
“And you focus on everything at once to make up for it?” I jabbed.
“Touché,” he said. His holo slate pinged. “I make many mistakes due to distraction!”
“Was he killed and stuffed in the airlock or was he suffocated in it?” I posed.
“Another good point,” acknowledged the captain. “Since we didn’t connect a gangway to this section the airlock is out of service. He didn’t get in there by accident but there would have been no video from inside.”
“It looks like he was suffocated,” added the ship’s surgeon.
“Not decompressed in the airlock? That would at least give us something.”
“According to this—no surprise—Otto has already left the ship. Did he sneak back on board?” He stopped as he read. “Precious metals from Earth are climbing in price. Curious.”
Around this time Witt Dunaway made his way into the darkened labyrinth of the storage cabin level. He walked with a sway in the poorly lit metal framed coves. Witt had suffered a blow to the head earlier in his security career which affected his balance in low illumination. Ever since that event he carried a self-charging hand-lamp, embarrassingly labeled with a handicap symbol. The account of his discovery came to me by a third party.
“Yo, Cass! You down here?” Witt shouted as he clicked on the lamp. Sound in this place was tricky but in a way a person gets familiar. Large cabins, soft containers mixed with plastic, some filled with liquid and others harder than a pallet of bricks cause sound to swirl around unpredictably. Luckily, Witt wasn’t very auditory. “Section sent me down to find you, man. You gotta answer them!”
As he passed into the second cabin of forklift pads, he found the floor sticky.
“Aw, shit, man! What’d you do, spill something? You should call this in so the maintenance robot can find it fast!”
The sticky spot grew into a very thin trail of goo which Witt followed into an alley.
“Maintenance droid to my location,” commanded Witt into his throat mic. He waved his lamp up at the lights. They stubbornly refused to come on.
“It smells, too. Are you eating down here?” called Witt. “Answer me, Cass. This ain’t funny. And I mean max!”
An echo behind him caused him to wrench his whole body around. Nothing. He shone his light up the alley cross-section he was in; then the other way.
“If you ain’t dead, I am going to kill you!”
He continued forward, his lamp flickering once. Witt again looked around, perhaps thinking he had heard something in exposed girders. Random squeaks and grinds were just a part of the environment in the uninsulated warehousing sections. Grey floors sporting trails of sticky slime, though, that was new.
“God! Smells of sulfur,” Witt continued walking slowly. His footfalls echoed twice for every step now, even over the slime trail. “Phwew! Strong! And something else. Like burning wires. Surely you are not cooking!”
The alley came to an end with a left turn. Witt turned with it and called out.
At first he must thought it was a mouse. Or mice.
Huddled together he found several roundish objects with broken tendrils. Two were large and two were tiny. Other mid-sized but similarly shaped things filled the trail occupying space about the breadth of two large fists.
“Cass, you leave some meat here to go bad? It’s rancid!”
His lamp flashed off for a second then back on. Witt shook as though a breeze had struck him. A shiver ran up his spine.
“Aw, no,” he said, stepping out of the trail and walking beside it to the last round object. It was as large as a walnut. Mentally, Witt arrived at a possibility. He crouched down taking care not to come into further contact with the sticky slimy mess. “No, no, no.”
The lamp flickered out and back on casting a shadow from the walnut. He nudged it over with his boot toe to discover that unlike a package of meat left for cooking, this was an eyeball.
“An eye, two lungs,” Witt whispered out an obscene, macabre grocery list. “Spleen, liver, kidneys…”
After the fact I learned the integrator on Earth is effectively the head of the government although there are men filling more impressive sounding titles. The accounts that I was given were very eye-opening. For many years Earth’s world government ran the intergalactic government but at some point was pushed aside.
“Through here, integrator Staignebridge.”
The civilian integrator and his assistant—again, as I heard it—entered the engineering bay through the main bulkhead. Their technofabric clothing adjusted built-in indicators to the harsh pink and orange lighting.
“Might we have the lighting raised to normal?” asked the integrator as he waved his hand graciously but gingerly. Combining the question with the graceful body language was an acquired skill that he had learned studying ancient eastern cultures here on the Terran home-world. Oddly the combination seemed to work, holding people at ease while he convinced them to perform menial tasks up to dancing on the edge of a knife at his whim. The lighting brightened for the assistant as she tapped commands on her holo glove.
“Thank you,” the integrator said in a nasally tone. His beakish nose was hefted and never lowered to her eye level. A subtle gesture of power that he displayed with the lower executive class. She would not presume to gaze into his eyes as none of her underlings would to presume to look into hers. From the viewpoint of a social convention, it was less pretentious than a salute and precluded any perceived insult. “I was under the impression there had been tampering in this section.”
He opened every inspection hatch, ignoring warning sounds as he went.
“Every pipeline in good working order. Note that please.” The integrator passed his holo glove over a tube. It amplified the conduit before him revealing a unique nest cobwebs etched into the walls of the metal. “Observe. Metal fatigue? Do you agree this is metal fatigue on a newly fabricated part?”
“I do, integrator. And I have noted it. It is a wonder the tubing had not burst in flight,” she said. The long-haired blonde girl seemed to mentally trace the tube into the walls. “It’s a wonder the liner didn’t suffer a catastrophic fuel rupture.”
“If it had we wouldn’t have this forensic scan to work with.” An illuminated bar code streamed across the magnified graphic above the integrator’s holo glove. “Here is the lot marker. Have the responsible inspector on the fabrication line executed.”
“Also noted, sir.”
“Efficient!” He smiled almost imperceptibly. “I like that.”
The integrator opened the next door into the engine room.
“Just that line, integrator? There are many others,” the assistant indicated.
“One fatal flaw is significant for our purposes. One execution will motivate the workers. Too many executions in the news, however, could limit our global exports for decades. As you said, it is a wonder the line had not burst in flight,” commented the integrator. He paused and grimaced like a man trying to balance on a wrecking ball with a cup of water in one hand.
“What prevented that, I wonder? These ships are notorious for random shifts in coolant pressure.” He ran his hand from the other room and traced the line around, up, over and finally down into the floor. “The ship’s engineers often seal limiters onto the lines. They become problematic when the fitting freezes and shatter. Metals don’t match, gaps open and dangerous leaks occur…”
He drifted off with his hand still extended. The integrator found broken bits of glass and rings of copper on the floor. He raised his hand upward to a knot tied around the broken device and a tacky putty.
“What in heavens flames?” said the integrator. He pried the cloth out of the gunk. An alarm cried out with flashing lights.
“Pause simulation,” instructed the assistant in her monotonal voice.
“Thank you, deputy integrator.” He held the ragged strip of cloth up like a dead rat.
“Is that a… I think it’s called a neck tie, sir?”
“Yes… I’m surprised you even recognize it. I’ve never seen a real one outside a simulation room.”
“My grandfather had photos of men wearing them. When the landfill mines of pan Asia opened,” she added. “It was the last photo of him and his shift descending into the shaft at one of the first mines. They were the first to work those resources for our global restoration efforts.”
“A fine family among fine families. That explains why you are so devoted to your work, I suppose,” speculated the integrator, trying to give no indication of the deep regret his assistant had provoked in him. He snapped photos of the accessory with his holo glove. “Perhaps this is a returning fashion in the outer worlds.”
“Or a fashion that just hasn’t died out yet,” added the assistant. “It takes time for the economic pressures and waves of fads to break the light speed barrier; to grow and then fade out into the stars.”
“Philosophy or economics?”
“Popular pseudoscience. But it holds up for the sake of conversation.”
“A relic of the past either way,” concluded the man. He dropped the neck tie. “Discontinue the simulation.”
The dark, red engine room broke down into collapsing blocks that winked out of existence. No longer an image of a space liner, the room reassembled itself into the familiar office suite of the executive government building.
“Do not discuss this. I need more information before I release a report.”
Steepling his lengthy fingers to his lips, the integrator walked ponderously to his office. It was minimal. A simple table stood at one end with an egg-shaped meditation chair. There were no windows but lighting panels to simulate the movements of the sun before the poisoned factory plumes occluded it. Windows invited prying eyes, curious glimpses, and even spying. While governmental and corporate espionage are reduced threats, his was a job of confidence boosting in the workers and Terran populace. First and foremost and inspirational drive to the minions that labored to support the hulking livelihood of the planet.
A smooth blackened stone sat on a single shelf in the room. The integrator dropped the peaked fingers and blew across the top of the rock on the outside chance a speck of dust had appeared.
On his simple desk, a report had been placed. “Research & Development Updates Regarding Travel Experiments” read the subject line. The integrator read the summary hastily and finished with a smile.
“Dr. Glaxx has exceeded expectations,” he said to himself.
He pressed a transparent button on his sleeve. As it illuminated, a meditative melody began to fill the office. He cherished the act of meditation almost as much as the privacy it gave him by wrecking the reception of any listening devices in the room.
The integrator sat in the egg-shaped chair which kept most sound within the shell. He opened a tiny flashlight and removed the head triggering a communicator.
“This is tan,” spoke the staticky voice.
“Tan, this is blue,” said the integrator. “The Randor space liner arrived safely at its destination. Repeat. Safely. Over.”
A lengthy pause seemed to suck the air out of the room. The integrator ground his teeth to one side. Irritation he had been hiding spread onto his face.
“This is disconcerting news, blue. I will investigate.”
“Additional information, tan. I personally examined the forensic data from the incident as it was reported to the Galactic Pleasure Line,” explained the integrator. “Someone used a neck tie, repeat, a neck tie to prevent harm to the vessel.”
“Interesting. This someone was well informed or extremely lucky to have been in the engine room.” A short pause. “Blue, what is a neck tie?”
Re:generation—that’s me, part of a generation of hobos hiding in plain sight during the age of space discovery and adventure. Wrapped in the space elevator’s metal rusty skin, I stand shoulder to shoulder with civilian workers, beggars, drug drones, and very few lost tourists. Smells of Randor’s dirt, food, sweat, and God knows what clings to us. Randorians do not casually look each other in the eye unless there is actual conversation.
Unavoidable contact routinely happens when the poorly maintained car bumps hard in to dock. I make this climb routinely enough and surprisingly I nearly stumble every time, my hand sliding conveniently into someone’s pocket. The cheerful upside to being shorter than most. To conceal my latest fishing expedition’s minor success my eyes stay to the front until the door rips open.
“Keep moving. We’re behind schedule today,” said a man at the door. “Let’s unload fast so the next car can come through.”
“I never hear you say we are ahead of schedule,” I quipped lightly.
“I never see your pass, brat!” he replied gently enough, again likely a benefit of looks and being a tiny girl. We both know the game Randor’s economy requires. Disguised as a cook to get up the space elevator, nice looks get a girl past security when the throngs move to the star hub. Luckily for us Res, the elevators must keep moving and we are overlooked. They can’t stop the flow to determine if an unemployed Re should be detained. Res can work unnoticed as long as we keep a low profile. I entered the hub in the cover of janitors and many other hard dirty-handers. No doubt a bad pick-pocket can make more in a day than an honest worker.
Our parents had hoped we would be the social benefactors of the galactic new society when they pushed out from Earth into the colonial space. Rather, as our population exploded out into the stars, we became the sparks or more likely the dying embers of our civilization. Time and distance from the seven home worlds created a flash of economic boom on a ring of colonies spiraling out. Corporatism gambled that by supporting our expansion by growing into debt they would reap a huge pay-out as the light speed barrier was eventually broken, connecting the off world economies. The boom hit a downturn, though, when money was exhausted all at once reality struck—the expected new drive system development failed. Galactic growth hit the light speed barrier never to recover.
Revelations that the expected supra-light drive was vastly too expensive and dangerous for extended use led to a collapse in galactic growth. Point-to-point hyper-light ships can only fly on streams of charged wavelengths from site to site. Those stations had been built by sleeper ships in the first phase of expansion, establishing a cosmic honeycomb of hyper-light or hyper-wave terminals. My parents, like most people at the leading edge of their generation got stuck with the cancelation of exploration plans. Stopping-off points on planetoids became overcrowded, tiny colonies of wrongly-skilled unemployables. Their expected farming opportunities on distant agricultural planets never developed, leaving communities of farmers, scientists, and engineers marooned on rocky moons unable to support themselves.
Birth rates yielded an abundant workforce for service businesses that could never open in these most unneeded solar systems. Families like mine scattered to scrounge for a livelihood while keeping below the notice of law enforcers. Unemployment was ruled a crime. The redo-generation learned by necessity to live below the radar of homeless hunters, and forced labor gangs. While I made it on my own on Randor, crime took off and organized somewhat under warlord illicitors. We Res are now looked on as surplus parasites on the economy and unwanted spares. A cancer on society.
I can’t argue with that. Not as a teenager anyway. Philosophizing is for smarter people with time to waste and food to eat.
It was the Age of the Hero Explorers, as I remember it being publicized.
The age of heroes is dead.
Here, on a high-traffic, run-down star hub connected by space elevator to the mediocre world of Randor, there is plenty to scavenge and a great opportunity to hide out in automated sectors of baggage handling, service, and storage. As a teenage girl, it’s been an improved hunting ground over the rust world below but requires an athletic determination to stay undetected in plain sight. The high traffic comes from the intersection of colonial shipping and passenger sub lights stopping to refuel and offload traffic to outer and inner galactic planets.
Res are not allowed to travel off-station except to return to the surface of Randor below.
I paused at the dock to take in the view beyond the security partition. The star hub is a transparent and oblong sphere. Decks cut arcs all the way around with the middle dropping out. I have no idea how many levels there are.
To one side a nebula wraps the sky and the Milky Way on the other. Randor’s ugly surface is thankfully out of sight.
“Hey, no standing, worker!” declared an enforcer. I don’t need their kind of attention. The view of forbidden paradise is just an unrealized dream blocked by a sound rubber-hosing or electro-cabinet correction treatment. Everyone has to pass through security for entry onto the rings from passengers to workers.
“Yes,” I answer thinking approaching a security arm might be worth the risk if I were to ever snatch a pass. “Moving along.”
Quickly stuffing my hair net in a pocket and reversing my belt turns me into just another visitor to the hub. Just as well, I think to myself. My trash-tube recovered tunic doesn’t stand close scrutiny. If nothing else I can mix into the foot traffic for an honest day of pick-pocketing for an upgrade. Or at least pay-off illicitor protection fees.
Today’s traffic varies by the orbital position of the hub in relation to the hyper-light junction a few thousand miles away. The hub is locked into geostationary stagnation and held prisoner to the semi-simulated night and day of Randor’s weak star. Today Tarpon, a heavy liner, is due to arrive from a swing through the outermost atolls of the galactic expansion. Its mingled-class pedestrians should cloak me from identity checks if I mix in quickly enough.
Sadly for me it’s arrival is late. Which is unusual for heavies.
That means more enforcers patrolling through. When they get bored, law enforcers higher priority ratchets up quota hunting of unemployed Res. And, of course, me. I like to think a Re is a single celled organism swimming in the flow of flotsam performing an occasionally benign service to society if not parasitic. But the illicitors and gangs feed on us by demanding barter and protection money. It’s harsh to live this way but it allows a Re a measure of self-sufficiency and anonymity—something the mingler class has none of.
To keep it that way, I have to stay a step ahead. Res are not family and rely on no one. The sighting of another Re is overcrowding. Or a gang crossover. I counted an unheard of five between unused emergency doors to the concourse.
“Cricket, girl, you’re in trouble,” I said to myself. They were undoubtedly gangers looking for protection money. I took a seat in the arrival terminal, just away from the powered walkway. In public view they won’t do anything, yet.
An enforcer wandered into the terminal ring. She was armed and avoided looking in my direction. I avoided looking at her again. Her job is to keep her head on a swivel but she doesn’t look everywhere. She had come to watch me. Could she have been following me at a distance? Like the gangs, law enforcers won’t risk a very public takedown. Res, unlike pan-handlers, are a political hot topic. As long as a Re minds their own business the public expects enforcers to leave us alone. Blessing or curse, that’s why they play hands-off and her presence prevented the gangers from dragging me off.
Blessing, I concluded.
Time slipped by. Like tar sliding uphill slow. Artificial morning lights brightened into afternoon. I shuddered coldly.
Then the floor shuddered. I was the last person to look up as the liner moved in for her berthing. Passengers soon began exiting behind me. Once there was significant occlusion I would leap away and disappear. Perhaps I could fleece one of the passengers for today’s protection tithe on the way.
“Do I pass for a hobo?”
Behind me the word hung in the air. I dared not to look too quickly. It would have to look like a leisurely waft of motion. A breeze to carry my gaze over my left shoulder. Where it freezes inexplicably.
A man stood there, talking to a ship’s captain. Dressed in simple attire, distinctive only in being out of place in space: a kind to top jacket and an off-white shirt. His bag was carried by an executive wheeled robot. The graying man’s crop of hair was dashing and unruly. Crystal blue eyes darted within a perennial grinning, wrinkled face.
“No, no, Caretaker,” said the Tarpon’s captain. “I can’t say thank you enough. I owe you greatly.”
“That’s overstating it, don’t you think?” replied the man softly with a voice gravelly with age. “That shudder in the stabilizer would certainly have been found by your engineers. You give me too much credit.”
“Far from it. Our engineer discovered that the mechanism you found to be broken and repaired could have triggered explosions in faulty pipelines in the engine room. The ship would have been lost had you not stepped in.”
“Faulty?” The man stopped walking. His bag moved on momentarily and then returned as the robot adjusted. “I find it difficult to accept that your engineer missed a fundamental flaw in supply lines. He’s too competent a man.”
“Confidentially, so do I,” I heard the captain say into his hand. “I have given orders for an extended layover, quiet overhauls, and inspections.”
I looked up—directly into the eyes of the graying man in the dark suit and open collar. His face turned curious.
He walked away as the captain distracted him with a gold debit card.
“The line owes you handily. Name you price, Caretaker,” I locked my eyes on the captain’s card. That would easily cover many needs for me. It was almost untraceable funds. Who cares how much!
“Captain, the only occasion I ever accepted payment for helping people was when I was hired to do so. I’m on vacation and provided for by the embassies,” the man waved off the money and the suggestion.
“You must allow the line to give you something. You’ve saved us billions.”
“Billions?” The man smiled sheepishly as he stroked temptation away from his chin. “Well, they can owe me one.”
The men laughed, as I swiveled out of my chair to get into the flow of bodies behind them. “Seriously, take the cash. It isn’t a bribe but a sliver of a bonus the ship is allowed to expend. I take it from no one. If nothing else, please go buy yourself an expensive liquor at your destination!”
“Ah, you do keep insisting!” said the man. I hurried behind him as we approached a security gate. “Actually, captain, do you have the ability to de-hassle security? I would really appreciate a rest in the Admiral’s Bay before my next launch.”
“No worries,” answered the captain as he handed the graying man the debit chit.
I brushed up under the man’s right hand and so very deftly swiped it and turned on my heel with—an empty hand! I turned again to see the man chuckling and displaying the card now in his left hand!
“Of all the—!” I caught myself saying, certainly overheard by the wily gent. “He made me?”
I almost caught him again when a hand fell on my collar. It happened fast. The enforcer pulled me back.
“No!” I cried out. All was lost. I got sloppy playing cat-and-mouse with a mark out of spite.
The man’s eyes flashed back. His hand struck like lightning and broke the enforcer’s hold on me. He yanked me forward possessively and declared in a deceptively ancient, tottering voice “Kindly unhand my niece!”
A piece of metal was placed hotly into my palm. Hotly isn’t the word. It stung with the tinge of metal! When I looked at it, it was clearly a passport. Fraudulent, but there it was. With prints and DNA still burning into it. How he had the presence of mind escapes me.
“I’m taking this child into custody,” announced the officer. “Homeless aren’t permitted in the Star Hub.”
“My, uh, niece is under my care, if you please,” announced the man as a question the melted into a command. He tugged my shoulders securely, safely. “Why her? I didn’t see her doing anything untoward?”
Ticket-holders were all craning their socially-aware necks.
Tarpon’s captain came to our side. “It is plain the young woman is holding ID. Passengers disembarking from my ship have been through a harrowing encounter. Interfering with them would be seen as interfering with the line.”
I held my fresh passport for all to see. While they examined my practiced innocent expression I shot a glance to the gang members that were now turning away. Their bosses will be disappointed in them but this level of attention remains an excellent repellent.
Then a look up at the smirking man. The magician winked sideways even though he had no idea of the bone-breaking he had saved me.
A grumble in the surrounding passengers began to stir.
“My mistake. We make every effort not to alarm or mistreat law abiding citizens,” said the enforcer grudgingly but at a volume for all to hear.
“Move along, captain.”
“I should think so!” came a voice.
“Come with me… niece?” said the man.
“Cricket,” I whispered.
“Huh?” he asked.
“Of course it is!” The man suppressed what had to be howling laughter. “I can’t wait to hear how the family is doing.”
The captain saw us through the security turnstile and the man posing as my uncle kept a protective arm around me as we walked.
“Pinprick, retina scan and passport please,” said the entry officer.
“Pardon me, sir. My niece and I are allergic to retinal chips. We have medical cards.” He presented the two passports and some other bizarre documentation.
I ran my finger over the swing arm noting I had never walked through these gates before.
“Just off the liner, sir?” asked the port officer.
“Yes. It was quite a difficult trip. I understand we almost had quite a crack-up,” said the graying man.
“Not too bad… Look at that sky,” I said gesturing to the open view beyond us. I felt a gasp welling up at the full sight of the nebula from the transparency. The men chuckled without ridiculing me.
“We had some minor excitement.”
“Everything is in order. Enjoy your stay,” said the port officer. He handed me my passport commenting “Take care of those lovely eyes, now.”
The arm swung up and we went thru. My heart was in my mouth. The moment passed and I breathed twice. “It looks the same but so different on this side.”
Looking up, I felt dizzy.
Neon-lit magenta, blue, and yellow shops lined rings below and above that were not visible from areas I could previously enter. Black-lit decks housed what appeared to be night clubs. Habitation levels were a mix of hotels and housing. Very high-end. They sported colorful plants not common on the rust world below. Far beyond the hydroponics that supported the star hub.
“It’s your first time in an open-sky hub? I remember once on an island many years ago, the airport I visited was open air. Struck me as innovative at the time.”
“Airport?” I asked.
“Forget it,” he said with a shuffle and a nod to an enforcer that seemed to be following us. “My word. We can’t seem to go more than a few feet without a soldier appearing in our path.”
“That’s my fault, sir,” I whispered. The man looked at me disbelievingly.
“I’m in the re:generation. A Re. One of an enforcer’s jobs is to keep us away from the public.”
“I must have been in the outer worlds too long. Tell me how this works, Cricket.” I recounted my short history to him in a whisper. Promptly and quietly. I found myself becoming breathless on the verge of tears.
Sympathetically, the man patted his hand on my shoulder.
“Here, Cricket, step into this shop. You look famished,” said the man posing as my uncle, mainly for the benefit of others listening in. I was emotionally exhausted and he knew it. “Excuse me, could we have one of those and some water?”
He led me to a tiny open cafe table in an area set off by inoffensive ropes.
“Now, tell me, how do I get you safely to your parents?”
I eyed his lined face for a few moments. He seemed open and trustworthy but how can anyone really know.
“They were caught and put in forced employment camps,” I began. “And they died there. Down on Randor. I’ve been on my own ever since.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a serving droid.
“What is this?” I asked when a dish of frozen milk scoops and chocolate and berries and nuts settled on banana halves arrived before me.
“Why, it’s a banana split!” laughed the man. He opened a digital slate and began to make a show of browsing the news. “Or something resembling one. Go ahead, try it. You looked like you haven’t eaten a solid meal in weeks. A little hydration and blood sugar surely will do you no harm.”
I tried it as he encouraged. Amazed, my eyes bulged as wide as the bowl before me!
“Go on,” he laughed again. “What do you think?”
“Mag!” That was certainly the word. I shoveled mouthfuls while asking “It’s positively amazing! Did you invent this? Uh, Uncle?”
“I wish I had!” he said. “That honor goes to a young person much like yourself in the 1900s on Earth in a place called Pennsylvania. Made quite a bit of money as a result.”
He tapped his finger a moment in thought. “Apart from your attire, what attracts the trouble enforcers to you Res?”
“They say we look like hobos,” I shrugged.
“Oh, yes. I remember now. You know, I dressed like a hobo myself for many years as I ventured out to see the stars. A lot has changed and so have I for that matter,” He looked sharply around the ring. I am certain he noticed everything larger than a hair. “Well, we can’t have that continuing. Eat your fill, Cricket, anything you like. After that, let’s get you a change of costume with the money the captain provided.”
He laid the debit card on the table.
I didn’t touch it.
Did I need the money or an ally most? Maybe it was the cold spoonful of banana. Regardless, indecision overcame my judgement. I nervously looked around by habit. Even in the shop we saw the rising tides of foot traffic from space craft and elevators docking with Star Hub. There was a gleam to one side. In hindsight, and in examination of my own thoughts, I paused wondering whether the Caretaker saw the gleam of a woman’s white dress. It was remarkable but then she was gone. He took in every other detail with a nearly perfect recall. With an eye for everyone else’s garments, accessories, and mannerisms I tried to have a running mental playback for the purpose of my own future disappearance into the surf of the crowd.
Men at the bar, possibly cargo handlers on leave, were getting bleary-eyed and telling tall tales of space monsters and mystery wraiths that emerged from the Black Hole of Madness at the center of the Milky Way to capture a man’s soul. One claimed to have raced with a space angel to escape a gravity eddy but was laughed at mercilessly when he was accused of swooning over a siren or a mermaid. The Caretaker showed his teeth cheerfully while the story was batted around the bar like a frightening ball of burning pitch, new details of worsening creatures attaching with every serve.
I laughed with him until he said “Black Hole of Madness! That isn’t a black hole at all.”
I gaped at him. He was serious!
“There are many black holes in the galaxy for that matter,” he then added to me dismissively. “But there are some mysteries that do drive people mad just to name them.”
“You’re taking this seriously?” I asked.
“My dear, Cricket,” asked the Caretaker. “Where did you get your schooling? How many years did you spend studying the middle of the galaxy?”
“Studying?” I then scoffed. “I was given the same education pill all children on Randor get.”
He looked at me with a patronizing but gentle expression that melted into a wistful eagerness. “If I can tell you nothing else there is nothing, not one single thing more valuable to you than seeing and measuring and testing sights and ideas for yourself.”
“Come on! Shipping out to the middle of the galaxy is ludicrous in itself!”
“With the new heavy light engines?” asked the Caretaker referring to the experimental starship engines sent on wild expeditions years ago. Now rusting antiques they have the dubious honor of freight hauling and pirating. “It was worth the risk to see the experiment through so I shipped out with men like these.”
“You?” I laughed, trying to picture this dainty gentleman working the decks with privateers like them.
“The space navy was a bit different back then but I’ll wager those men were, too.” He eyed them with a disapproving nod. “Well, you never know.”
He focused back in my direction. “The point is you have to live life while you can. Don’t maroon yourself without at least a proper education. Don’t protest, I know, pills. It isn’t the same as proving to yourself how things work in the universe.”
“Caretaker, I know how things work.”
“Really? At what temperature does water freeze and melt?” he challenged me.
“Zero degrees Celsius,” I quipped snobbishly. “Water freezes and melts at the same temperature.”
“Really?” answered the Caretaker. “Is it that simple?”
“Yes, don’t be silly!” I said, refusing to doubt myself.
“Very well,” said the Caretaker sitting forward. “What happens under 15 degrees below? Under 16 degrees below? I’ll tell you. Ice actually melts. Just a bit, but it melts and refreezes again at 17 below.”
“No way!” I scoffed back at him. “What are you using? Salt?”
“It’s doesn’t make sense, does it?” said the Caretaker.
I didn’t have an answer. I doubted he would make his stand on a fact that wasn’t proven.
“It has to do with the subatomic behavior of particles of water under different conditions. An exception to the rule. There are always exceptions and it is a tremendously exciting adventure to find them.”
He watched me scratch my head.
“You believe me.”
“Of course, you talk like a teacher,” I said. “I feel that I have to trust it. Do you believe my story?”
“Of course. Now, I can’t spend my whole vacation sitting here to keep you from being picked up.” He nudged the chit again. “I do intend that you take that.”
“For a pick-pocket this might be hard to sell but I don’t know if I want it. I mean, what strings are attached?” I asked.
“Strings?” The Caretaker studied the card and placed it on the tablecloth.
“No… Not literal strings… Look, I’m a crook—”
“Not a good one.”
“Only because you caught me—”
“Hence, not a good one.”
“I’m not used to people helping me,” I said.
“If you take it to heart I will teach you three words that will change a criminals life,” he said. I looked at him expectantly motioning with my hands to continue. He began to whisper to me. “Don’t. Get. Caught.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream at the man. We both leaned back. I said “There is something wrong with you.”
“Cricket, I know, you’re a Re. I was paying attention to that part.”
“You’re infuriating,” I shook my head. It was like talking to an opinionated parrot while drive a racer. “Does you mind wander just a little, old man?”
“No, but I do need to take care of some things once I make sure these people aren’t going to hurt you,” he declared checking a flashing color on his holo slate.
“You’re helping me? Just like that?” I asked.
“You don’t know anything about me. I could be a lying grifter”, I said.
“I’m a diplomat,” he said. “That makes me a professional grifter. Paid by taxpayers, no less!”
“Ugh! I could be a con. Just like that I could be making off with that stipend.”
“Are you planning to steal from me? Well, again.”
“There you go. I would know if my own niece was lying to me. I’m your uncle, after all!” professed the man too much. My blood ran cold when enforcers walked by and continued on walking. He had seen them and gestured “We should keep the charade up for a time longer.”
“Understood.” The cold ice cream was making my head hurt so I decided to keep him talking. Whoever he was he wasn’t revealing any sinister motives. Yet. I had to figure this guy out. “So, vacation. What do you do in real life?”
“I am a caretaker. One of ten in the colonized galaxy. Kind of a circuit judge or magistrate. No, that’s not right. A galactic… agent, um— ”
“…Hobo?” I offered slyly.
“Yes, precisely!” he said. “Let’s go back to diplomat. Yes, diplomat is better. I fix things, if possible.”
He shrugged “When things need fixing. I should go back to being a professor one day.”
“Very well, Caretaker!” I tried on the word. It seemed stiff.
“Stick with old Uncle,” he reckoned and we both had a laugh.
He admired a fish on a nearby table and stirred his glass. When the bubbles slowed he peered through the glass at a single tiny bubble.
“Fisheries on space colonies are universally easy to establish, you know. A farm raised fish eats what we eat and can be raised anywhere with the right gravity.” Then he followed with “almost the same with pork. Harder to make an environment in space for a pig. But you can ship pork and beef embryos along with nutrition tanks.”
“You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this?” I asked, ignoring his gnat-like attention span and thinking the only other explanation for some of his observations and detailed knowledge might have placed him on the ancient sleeper ships from centuries past. But that would timespan surely drive someone mad. Which makes a stay in a madhouse another option.
He smiled wryly and seemed to roll his answer around. “I studied it a lot.”
“Studied as in student or teacher? Either way I sweat the fish hooks.”
“I think of a professor as both. But please don’t call me that. I’m not that guy,” said the Caretaker. “Now, fishing is a whole other subject.”
His digital slate chimed, announcing a new message.
“Oh, no! This can’t be right,” he read to himself.
Eventually, after waiting, I added, “Why? What’s happened?”
“It’s this message, Cricket,” he began. “It says another caretaker, a friend of mine, has, um, been hurt. Indications of suspicious circumstances. I must go there. Investigate. I hope you won’t mind.”
He drifted in thought for only a moment.
“No parents. On your own. Fear not, we’ll get you established with some degree of safety or livelihood before I go. If you want, I have connections on other planets. I can get you a career.”
“Your focus leaves an impression on me. The world below the star hub is my home. I would never leave it,” I said with sarcasm like a mouthful of hairy caterpillars.
“Well, leave it, I must.” He stood to go. I did, too, although I could stand to eat more. “Let’s find you a couple of outfits so these patrolling peelers can find something better to do than loom over you.”
And he did precisely that. Uncle had a sneaky sense of frugality when it came to convincing sales clerks that they had sales he would like to take advantage of. I tried very hard to learn his tips for reading price tags and shelf placement. It’s a pity he would blow out of here soon. A protective friend almost like family.
The fantasy of how that life could be now felt very thin to me.
A new level had art and craft shops in lower-rent stalls. My benefactor took an interest in a cane seller as a green-bronze teen with slicked back hair appeared out of a distant shadow. He rattled his charms of obsidian. One for every one of his childhood murders. Another one, taller, flanked him from behind a luminous holo display.
“Are you watching those gangers?” I murmured.
A scale-skinned, muscular lizard girl began to rattle her charms like a needle shaker snake coming from another direction.
“Behind us,” my whisper fell deaf on the Caretaker’s ears.
Lastly, a blond fur-faced teen stepped into the light. All behind the Caretaker’s notice.
“Uncle! There are four gangers coming at us,” I pointed out urgently.
“They’re going to hurt us!”
“Ah, you see their black kill charms, too?” He asked as though he had turned. The shop keeper looked up sharply.
“Of course, I noticed. Up close. Too often,” I hissed.
“One of the principles I live my life by is to be as forgettable as possible. Not to raise a ruckus, you know. That sort of thing.” Oblivious to the approaching gangers, the old man picked up a walking stick from a booth.
“Is this stick mahogany? Real mahogany?”
“Oh, dear —no, sir. It is the best replica wood out this far,” said the skittish clerk.
“Mind if I try it?” asked Uncle particularly.
“Be my guest.”
The Caretaker swung his hips, drawing his body away from a lunge the green-bronze ganger had committed to. The walking stick became like an ancient sword in his hand arcing up, over my head to beat down on a weight-bearing shin from under the next teen. Back, the head of the stick went probably to perforate the diaphragm of green-bronze. He folded with his hands extended helplessly. The foot of the stick had by then done something terrible and snapping to the scaled girl’s collar bone behind me. And the fourth, I will have nightmares about the way his blond face struck the deck, unconscious for a second or two before striking the metal.
“It is balanced well,” said Uncle with the stick held out. “Just a hair too much vibration from the cork inlay for my taste, though. Thank you.”
“I’m not sure why, Uncle, but I’m shaking,” I pointed out with a case of nerves gripping me. “No ruckus?”
“Well, not much. That brings me to another guiding principle—”
“For when a ruckus is needed?”
“—do everything you can with finesse, rather than gravitas.” The Caretaker stepped me around the gangers. “This parcel of organized crime has led me to consider it best for you to travel. Care to join me on a shuttle after all?”
We both looked up to find illicators blocking our path.
“Who am I to argue?” I concluded.
I fired the BBC.
As a boy I loved the adventures they produced but now they don’t reflect the mindset or adventure-seeking spirit that I enjoyed so much. The show I loved belongs to them and I wouldn’t dream of tampering with someone else’s property. I shall have to write my own.
In a lot of ways Re:Generation is intended to recapture that youth and I invite you along on the way.
About the Space Statesman and Gentleman(An Introduction)
A mature, pleasant grandfatherly man in a simple sporty explorers jacket steps from a spacecraft and I knew life for everyone would change in a blink. Maybe it was the way he carried himself or the harmless almost gentile affect he projected a perception gap. Death falls in and yet retreats from his footsteps. Mystery shrouds his method. He will lead or hunt. Nature knows he can destroy or save. What weight lies on his shoulders as the soft, wrinkled face of the gentleman looks our way?
A man funded by an order of mysterious galactic justice finders, yet, constantly maintains he is on vacation.
Regardless, the puzzle will be solved by him if not the day saved.
The Space Gentleman is a human character. He is employed by a nebulous, galactic justice authority known as the Caretakers. There are ten of them like circuit judges for the twelve sectors of the Galaxy. Best to leave it that way to start with so we have room to grow. He has no ship. Rather he has a mute robot that tugs his baggage whenever it is convenient. He is wizened, oldish in years, young in spirit and while straight as a driven nail, not sexual in his behavior.
This is a science fiction story. While it may on occasion slip into scifi or even fantasy, under no circumstances is this a genre piece to proclaim victim hood. Let the characters be the characters.
Of the scifi elements, we allow aliens. Scientifically, I don’t like the idea. The more I study, the more incredulous alien life seems to me; but it remains a romantic idea I just love to toy with.
Time and Space have rules. We will abide by them for science’s sake. This is science fiction, tho. If we want to break certain rules we shall have to invent them. The light speed barrier is a major hurdle for society in the future. Colonies joined and yet separated by great distances and time.
The assistant is a vagrant. The Space Gentleman assumes the identity of her Uncle. Or rather, she takes the role of his niece. His willingness to protect her is a question and a plot point.
“I am on vacation!” shall be the mantra of the nearly empty handed Caretaker of Sector Seven. “Now, what have we here?”