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The Adventures of Gerry Fynne

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue.

Chapter 3: Meeting the Maid

He awoke in the dark, unaware of having dimmed the lights. Then he realized he was in a starship, and this was probably automatic. He remembered locking his door. He did not remember where the door was, though he had a vague idea it was behind him. He almost shook himself: “Lights on!”

The rising lights revealed his four Bigsofts standing and secured in a locker, one door of which was left ajar. He was hungry, and realized that this was probably what had awoken him. 0430. He had missed lunch and dinner in his escape; well, he had chewed a couple of snack bars on the shuttle, but that would have been a meager breakfast. He rummaged the Chandlers bags until he came upon the Stayfresh sandwiches, and pulled two out. He ate the first one so fast he found himself breathing hard, and went to the fresher to get some water. He went to the desktop console, “Ship itinerary, progress to jump. Show on screen.”

They had only a few hours until they jumped, at 0853 Imperial. Having eaten, he put away his things, and put the vacc suit manual in the reader slot of the monitor, and went through the basic functions. It said that he should spend some hours in it in a shirtsleeves environment before venturing forth in vacuum. Well, he had no idea when he would have an opportunity to get into vacuum, but he would work on the general familiarity once they had boosted. He sliced open his second sandwich’s robust, unmarked wrapper, and began to nibble: Pesto Ham and Swiss. Lovely girl! She had squeezed sandwiches for half an hour to find ten of these in a bin of thousands while he watched in rapt attention. Then he noticed the little heart on the wrapper, in the same marker as the number. Crazy bitch!

He watched the viewport for the jump when the clock said it was approaching. The jump klaxon was more subdued than on the Trivids, and there was no feeling of motion, except in his head. The light from the viewport was all wrong, then a piped-in image of a starscape covered the swirling madness of jumpspace. He had felt everything sort of flicker, and then he was fine, visually, mentally, but feeling a bit nauseous. He drank a bit of water and lay on his bunk. The nausea was gone, and it felt safe to explore the ship.

He was aware of being a middle passenger suddenly. He was allowed into the middle lounge, the corridor up to it, and that was it. The middle lounge was not bad, he noticed. They were always depicted on the Tri-vids as seedy and grim. He remembered the small, round, clouded viewport that Flynn had looked out the last time he saw his home while shipping out in Scout Flynn. The reality on the liner was a striking contrast: the whole port and starboard walls were taken up with video.

He noticed that there was only one other passenger in the lounge, a man of maybe 30 standard years, who was taking his food out of the warmer, and noted that the video screens were playing a travel video on one side, and canned news on the other. Both were filled with young women, scantily clad. He went to his food locker, and pulled out a cold pack without really looking at it, picked up a fork, and moved over to flop in front of the news. The other man had set himself in the corner, farthest both from the entrance and Gerry, and had something on the table other than his food. Without looking, Gerry could not tell whether it was a hand comp, a player, or something else. He did not look, but ate his cold dairy and vegetable breakfast, pretending he was unaware of the man.

The story ended, and new news announcer came on, “Thanks, Terry. On a more somber note, there was an explosion on a mining station on…” Gerry noticed that the announcer was a handsome, respectable looking man, just like the other man: married with children, early thirties, he thought before turning around to see the woman with her toddler daughter who had entered noiselessly. He shifted in his chair to look at the other screen. Sure enough there was now a family in the travel video. 

An Imperial tech ship tracked everybody aboard, and this was certainly a commercial vessel; he could expect busty babes on every available screen, trying to soften him up towards buying a vacation, a Tri-vid, another breakfast, though not too obtrusively when other women were around. The ad mix was tailored to the demographics of the lounge at that moment, and back in his stateroom it would be tailored to a male, mid-adolescent. 

“Mommy, is that what daddy looks like?” The question cut Gerry, even though he knew he was invisible here. Here, in the lounge, he was cloaked in the social anonymity of long distance travel. 

“Here Kitty: you remember,” the young mother said, as Gerry took a casual glance at the holobase she put on the table. It was a naval officer, handsome in his dress blacks, with an easy smile. Gerry had been hoping it wasn’t a Scout. Except in a major war, the navy was usually pretty safe. The Scouts died all the time, usually alone, and without immediate explanation. He had read about it in a book, Behind Scout Flynn, that he assumed was not Imperially subsidized. It had made him bitter about his sister’s death, that they had sent her into such danger with no warning of the odds.

Gerry scooped up the last of his breakfast, and went to get up. He wasn’t sure what role to play here, and he really did not feel comfortable with young children. He made a trip to get a drink, and left the lounge. He returned to his cabin, did some research on the route the liner would take, and his route after that. He watched three of the Tri-vids he had bought. He grabbed another sandwich, and went to sleep.

For the rest of the jump, he spent most of his time in his cabin, and talked to no one. He remembered to pray. He slipped a small “tip” to the purser to get him in touch with someone on the crew to work with him on the vacc suit. Clyde was a crew member from the ‘black gang’, the engineering staff, and he looked young, maybe early twenties. He was soft around the middle, and wore his hair too long to keep out of his eyes and too short to tie back.

Clyde offered him some comments on the donning and fitting. “You gotta get the cuffs tight so’s the gloves are tight. Everythin’ that is going to keep you alive you’ll have to touch with those gloves.”

Clyde was a moron, but Gerry knew what he was trying to say. He could see it: hatches, tools, lifelines, ladders, and even the controls to the life support on the suit all would need to be manipulated with the suit’s gloves. He was used to being able to take off a glove to do anything that really needed dexterity. While he was able to get the basics of optimizing the fit, he still felt like he was trying to sew in oven mitts. Clyde somewhat imperiously insisted that Gerry spend three hours a day in the suit. Gerry asked about working in vacuum and zero gravity. “Not for a while, Mr. Fynne! You get where you can write your name where’s I can read it in pencil with the whole mess on, then we’ll talk.” The first meeting passed mostly like this, with Clyde giving tips while explaining to his student with an overabundance of drama how difficult the future tasks were. Gerry tried to be patient, and they worked out a schedule. Clyde would message his student again for the next session. Gerry slipped Clyde a tenner, to his parting admonition: “Work like yer’ hide depended on, groundhog, and I’ll see ya.”

Gerry thought about writing a message to his aunt. It would have to be sent much later, so as to not give her any evidence to use to have him stopped. The express boat network could well outrun a liner like the Maid, let alone the free traders that he would have to take once he reached the Ohasset Main at the Baakh system. He mused over his route: he was on the liner from Griik Maeii, which he had left behind to Nundis, a jump of 3 parsecs. She was owned by a Nundis company, to keep a reasonably cheap supply of foodstuffs flowing for Nundis’ 70-some billion souls. They were scheduled to dock at the Nundis Highport, he would continue aboard for another 3 parsec jump to the parched little world of Lirshe, and then another such jump to Baakh. The Nundis liners, though built at Baakh, were subsidized by Nundis to keep markets for their manufactured goods, and also to provide a reliable return conduit for food. At Baakh, the liner would turn back, bringing foodstuffs and passengers back from this critical trading hub. He wished he could stay with the line.

Baakh was not up to Imperial tech, but it was much more advanced than Nundis, and Gerry was looking forward to seeing some of the local technology. Baakh was also his entrance into the Ohasset Main, a chain of some 19 worlds all lying on a 1 parsec route, accessible by the cheaper, lower tech free traders. These were smaller merchants who generally stuck less to schedules than following the best trading opportunities, and had a reputation in the Tri-vids of being run by free spirits with little respect for propriety, morals, or any law but the invisible hand of the market.

He mused about what travel on a free trader would be like. A bit more dangerous, he imagined, because they often sought trade at the smaller starports which were not as patrolled; thus they were far more likely to be attacked by pirates. He had read the story of one free trader who had his cargo taken by a pirate. The captain had two good turrets, to the pirates’ eight. The captain had agreed to let his whole cargo be taken without a shot if his vessel, crew and passengers could continue; he would otherwise have lost the fight, but caused more damage than could be repaired for what his cargo was worth. It did not always go like that, though. Sometimes pirates would take an unarmed ship, with all aboard disappearing. Some would be taken as slaves, and frozen. A few might be taken as slaves for the pirates themselves. The Imperial penalty for piracy was death, which was the same as for slavery. Once a pirate then, becoming a slaver was not much of a jump. Low berths were poorly regulated, though, and it was rumored that many of those in low berths for a longer transit would be diverted into a slave market in some corner of space. There was, however, a service offered by the Travellers’ Aid Society, where X-boat messages would be sent to track a low passenger. This service was, however, an additional tenth the price of the low passage itself, so many poor enough to trust themselves to the low berths could not afford the extra 100 cruds.

Gerry thought further of the fates of those sold into slavery. He knew that children and young women were a large portion of this slave trade, according to the Scout Service news feeds. That being said, for the children to be diverted without legal outcry, the parents would have to disappear too. He thought of the classic Tri-Vid Scout Flynn. Flynn had followed news of pirates to their base, where he freed 14 beautiful young women from the clutches of a pirate band who had just woken them from cold sleep to use for their own pleasure. He thought of the one petite redhead wearing the remnants of a green negligee, and then of Sandy. He suddenly needed to leave his cabin. He said a quick prayer on his way out, also realizing it had been a few days since he had truly prayed.

He went and got a breakfast. It was late so he had a hot breakfast of eggs and sausages, and watched the news feeds for hours. All of this was days old, at least, and some coming from other systems would be weeks and even months old. There was a story about a pirate ship destroyed by a naval patrol, and he thought about who the pirates may have had in their low berths. Would the navy check the hulk? It was a silly question, he thought. They would comb the wreck for anything of use in finding the next bunch, including the low berths. The search would likely take days, and if the ship was in a naval battle, a low berth was probably the safest place to be.

He went to a terminal to message Clyde. Clyde said he was going on break in a little over 15 minutes. Gerry realized that although bored and a bit without direction, he hadn’t worked a bit on practice with the suit. He types back, “Haven’t practiced, but I’ll buy you a sandwich.” He really did not enjoy Clyde’s company, but felt a little trapped; he could plan very well when he put his mind to it, but when he acted on impulse things often went sideways fast. He did not want to embarrass himself further backpedalling on the meeting.

Clyde bounded up shortly and Gerry offered, “I’ve got a store of Stayfresh sandwiches, we can open two, and you can have your pick.”

“Alright, groundhog. Whatever your pleasure. I’ll take what you feed me.” Gerry had no trouble believing this, but he grabbed the sandwiches from his cabin and went back to the lounge. Gerry wanted to ask Clyde about himself, but hesitated; how would he answer Clyde’s questions? He knew it was better to start with someone like Clyde, as sympathetic and nonthreatening as possible.

He realized that he had thought of the story until now, in its’ verbal form, but it was the same as his passage indicated; as the somewhat boring conversation wound around to it though he simply said, “My father left when I was young, and he has sent for me to work his mining claim on Khii-43 in the New Konigsberg system.”

Clyde, for the first time looked impressed, “You know how dangerous mining is out in the black?”

“Well, I’ve seen the numbers. Sure I know.” Gerry sounded like he was trying to reassure himself.

“Well, think about it!” Clyde almost squeaked.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I’m going, Clyde. I have to.” Gerry paused awkwardly, as he wanted to steer the conversation away from his father, and away from the risks of giving away his real status or too much of his fear. “Show me about powered EVA.”

Clyde pulled a holocrystal out of his belt case, and put it into a viewer. It was manufacturer’s video of EVA training, with some commentary. It showed beginners fumbling in zero gravity making some obvious mistakes, a few of which had serious consequences. Commentary was voiced over, and in a few places the action was frozen to highlight certain important aspects of form with graphics. The two boys watched for half an hour and Clyde got up. “Got to get back to the black crew, groundhog. Thanks for the sandwich.” There was none of the bravado in his manner this time, and he waved his hand at the player, indicating Gerry could keep the crystal, “I’ll get that next time.”

Gerry watched the rest of the film, another hour and a half, and felt somewhat stiff getting up. He went back to his cabin, but took a detour back towards the engineering section. The corridor was blocked at the aft end by a hatch he didn’t have clearance to. He had known he couldn’t go farther, but just went, just to see. To see what exactly, he didn’t know. 

When he got back to his cabin, he pulled his manual up on the player and put on his suit. There was actually a place where he could plug the suit’s umbilicals into the cabin life support. He did this so he would be able to close the suit, and he spent a couple of hours browsing through the manual on his reader. He rose and did the drills Clyde had given him for almost another hour. He looked up some information on mining and in-system traffic on New Konigsberg. It felt a bit like doing the research for a school report or a Guides cultural presentation, rather than preparation for going alone out to some small satellite of a barren rockball world in a backward system. Well, not entirely alone.

He sat there, listening to his breath on the inside of the facemask as he thought, no – not alone. Eve would be there. He hadn’t thought of her for a few days. She seemed more unreal than the rest of it. The claim on Khii-43 did not feel real, but he was not sure he even imagined Eve to be real.

As the days passed, Clyde met him every couple of days to work with the suit, and much more often just to talk or share a sandwich. The purser was seldom seen in the passenger areas of them ship, but they both noticed when she was. There was another passenger, a lithe, athletic, dark-skinned girl of possibly 16 or 17 who did a form of yoga-like dance in the lounge, it being the largest area open to the passengers. Clyde and Gerry managed to notice when she set up, and by unspoken agreement met then for their lunch, for the last few days in jump.

Neither actually spoke to her, as they had no reason to, and they actually tried to be fairly discrete with their gawking. She had set up six small pylons that marked the corners of her elongated hexagonal dancing area, which made a tone when something approached the boundaries, about 10 cm from the inside, and about a meter on the outside. These pylons also created a lattice of visible light lasers between them, establishing a visible boundary. A slight mist was emitted from each, just enough to allow the laser web to be seen as it spread from the pylons and perceived where it was essentially invisible between them.

The girl danced, if you could call it a dance, with a dark scarf across her eyes. The tempo was slow, almost painfully slow to watch, and the moves all seemed to be an exaggeration of something. Her body remained low, and she used almost all the space in her long, narrow arena, with legs sweeping wide. Gerry thought of a frog doing martial arts, and then wondered if this was some sort of martial art. She leapt, doing a midair roll and twist, and landing catlike in a low, lopsided crouch. The smooth twist rotating herself from facing away on one heel, to facing towards them on the other seemed painfully slow. The young mother with her daughter gave up, apparently, on trying to keep her quiet, and ushered her out of the lounge. Clyde seemed to realize that the three youths had the lounge to themselves, taking a quick glance over his shoulder and they stepped out, and dipped quickly into his belt pack. He held a small, covert camera that fit in the hollow between a couple of fingers, and took a few pictures of the girl, then gave Gerry a quick wink as her dropped the tiny device back in his belt pack.

As Clyde checked his watch and hurried to get back to his shift Gerry followed him out. He was feeling much more comfortable with Clyde, but the sneaking pictures of the beautiful, young dancer made Gerry feel a bit guilty. Without fully forming the thought, the fragment of a quotation played in his maid, “…that good men do nothing.” Him, a good man? As he arrived inside his cabin, Gerry thought he’d settle for man, but he thought of the idea of do unto others. He felt a tightness in his throat and thought he should read some scripture.

After really not thinking about God for days, Gerry sat on his bunk and read his bible for hours. He needed to obey his father; he needed to be kind to auntie; needed to be respectful of Clyde and the dancing girl both; did not want to displease Clyde; did not want to think about the dancer that way; did feel about the dancer that way, though he’d never even spoken to her or heard her voice. He prayed, but his mind wandered. He read from Maccabees until his eyes got heavy, and he napped. He woke with the remnants of a dream that involving Sandy, Auntie with a Tri-vid camera, and a Stayfresh sandwich with a nonelectric detonation system.

He put on his suit, and unpacked his clothes from a squatting position. He was almost through his first bag when he fell over. He thought of the dancer, and then imagined Sandy watching him; he worked through it. His legs burned, and his breath steamed the inside of his facemask, briefly as each puff of condensation was whisked away by the fresh air he inhaled. He was pleased that he remembered this was a passive system, operating in the absence of lifepack power. He was removing the clothes, refolding where necessary; some he had to do three times over, but he stayed down until he was done. He did a quick ten pushups, then took the suit off with his eyes closed. He lay on his bunk, and fell asleep again.