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The Adventures of Gerry Fynne

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue.

Chapter 5: City in the Sky

The airlock of the Wee Just Mite, an apparently much-aged free trader, opened. Clyde held up his gloved hand, “Wait, I’ll cut G to point five.” The transition was unlike anything Gerry had ever felt, and he did a little wavering jump, as if compensating for a moving vehicle. Clyde’s chuckle came through the suit radio. After a few words of guidance and encouragement, they were outside, floating on a tether. Gerry felt a ripple go through his guts, but told himself that the sick pill would work.

Sick pill: It worked. It made me frackin’ sick!” Gerry thought to himself, but he was not quite sick. He wasn’t entirely well either, but he would take that over vomiting into his helmet any day of the week. The nausea was a mild discomfort that sank to the back of his consciousness with activity. They went through some basic exercises: clipping onto the hull, walking up the hull, advancing the tether past the rail’s attachments.

In all, they were out for an hour, and Gerry was both exhausted and fascinated. He had wanted to stay out longer; the display estimated that he had 3 hours and 9 minutes of air left. He was so invested in learning to use the suit, that he could have ignored the fatigue and stayed on. He was relieved when Clyde motioned them in. He had said that they would avoid using the radios outside the airlock to avoid interfering with the communications around the massive starport. Gerry had asked about the frequencies, and the communication protocols at the massive high port when Clyde brought it up, but it was obvious that Clyde was a little shaky and intimidated by the subject so Gerry let it go; Clyde also pointed out, quite reasonably, that practicing hand signals and talking HTH, helmet to helmet, in zero gravity increased the value of their training time.

Clyde’s friend was Yori, a girl he went to High School with. It was obvious she was painfully shy, and looked up to Clyde as someone approachable yet desirable. He had swaggered just a bit, and she had doted more than a bit. He realized that she was painfully eager to be alone with Clyde, and that Clyde was also eager, while wanting to seem aloof in front of Gerry. He also got that had he not be in the picture, they would have had the chance.

When they came in, Gerry took his cue to leave, kept his suit on, and said, “Clyde, you kicked my tail. I’ve got to go back and take my rig off. Yori, thanks a lot; this was great.” Gerry reached out with his gloved hand and gave her slightly chubby shoulder a squeeze. He nodded to Clyde, and was back out the open hatch into the starport proper.

As he strode down the docking tube he heard Yori behind him, “Cap’n, can Clyde and me…”

“Hurry up and rut fast, girl! I want you back at the drives 40 minutes before we seal the hatch; you can bring your friend, just have him out by the 5 minute bell. If you can drive our engines while he drives you, that’s fine with me, too. Otherwise, make it a quickie…”

Gerry felt horrible for the mousy, dumpy little creature with the butch orange hair. He had a feeling that she and Clyde were already scurrying, in front of the wave of abuse of the Mite’s master, towards some frantic coupling, frantic like the kiss with Sandy. Indeed, was there any assurance that Clyde and Yori would pass this way again? He strode back onto the Maid, caught a shower and a nap. He was rationing the Stayfresh sandwiches now, so he had a hot beef and pasta dish out of his normal rations for what he guessed was dinner and wandered the famed Nundis starport for hours on his own. Despite the wonderful smells from the food court, he did not buy anything else to eat just then. He actually realized that he was a small way into his journey, and would need every deci-crud coin.

He bought a cheap moistureproof case for his hand computer, and nothing else for equipment, despite a dazzling array of tens of thousands of products that he personally saw. He knew from the maps of the starport that he saw only a small portion of the retail space. The case was were easy to find, as it was manufactured on Nundis, like almost every bit of technology from home. He hung around the Chandlers’ of Nundis, and asked the one woman working there if she could tell which of the Stayfresh Sandwiches were Pesto Ham and Swiss just by squeezing. She gave him a somewhat pained look, explained the Stayfresh sealing process, and assured him that she could not. She asked him if there was anything else she could help him with using an almost clinical deadpan. She was attractive in her own way, but her manner and complete failure to resemble Sandy in any way gave her the same appeal on all levels as a 3-kilo rotten furzell fish being brandished at head level. He eased out, not remembering even having shaken his head. He mused, as he wandered through the massive orbital city, that his escape was a journey, not a single event as he’d thought when leaving home. He was in Nundis Highport; the fact itself seemed surreal.

Nundis was the technological sun that shone on his home of Griik Maeii. For the first time he thought about it: would he ever see home again? Maybe he would under conditions not of his choosing. He was a runaway, shielded only by a small sheath of documents which were themselves a lie, produced at the request of a young woman he’d never met, some months before, who would hopefully be there in a couple of months when he arrived. His air of satisfaction, at having traveled to the next star system over 10 light years away, walked in weightless vacuum hundreds of kilometers above the surface of this foreign world, suddenly seemed to evaporate in the face of the uncertainty.

He gazed through a telescope on the promenade, down towards Nundis, looking at the thousands of agricultural arcologies laboring to help nourish her 72 billion mouths. Their struggle suddenly dwarfed his own fears, and he spent what he at the time failed to realize was an hour tracing the intricate patterns of the highly-overdeveloped surface of the little rockball of a planet that dared to support 72 billion souls. It all smacked of a very high level of central planning. He could see one type of arcology being disassembled, and another replacing it, progressing in patterns scores of kilometers long. In one belt the newer version stretched back as far as could be seen, until the patterns disappeared in the distance of atmospheric haze. From the perspective Gerry had, he could not see as far into the belt of the old models, but he could see them stretch for dozens of kilometers. Numerous wide belts of low agricultural tunnels were interspersed between the belts of arcologies, which seemed of identical shape but myriad colors. He guessed the colors were caused by the various crops and creatures grown, and their differing stages of maturity. The scale was staggering, but he knew that he was looking at a small portion of it. He was quick in school to get the difference between thousands and millions and billions: he had sort of a head for math. No amount of mathematical skill got him to the bottom of the feeling of 72 billions of people, though.

He left the promenade window, and walked, past shops, lodging, and small, exclusive restaurants. The actual commercial office spaces were broken down into different shifts, so some blocks of offices were busy and others deserted. He walked for over two hours, thinking about home, Auntie, Sandy, Eve, Yori, the purser in the enticing bodice, the coarse captain of the Wee Just Mite. He thought of his father. He even thought of Clyde. Gerry finally walked serendipitously into a three-story gallery of fast food eateries. He figured it had been over 5 hours after eating on the Maid, and so bought a bowl of rice for 3 deci-cruds coins. Gerry read through some numbers on the Nundis supply situation as he sat looking over the thousands sitting, milling or passing through the food court. It seemed that all the numbers were preposterous: to bring in an average of 150 grams of foodstuffs for each citizen, a fleet of over 7,000 massive cargo ships were run by Nundis, in addition to about 600 standard subsidized liners like the Maid. The cost of this massive effort was less than a deci-credit per citizen, per day. The size of this cargo fleet, though, was boggling, coming close to some of the Imperial battle fleets in tonnage and cost. Ultimately, it provided just about a fifth of the nutrition for Nundis, with the bulk being produced by the amazing quilt of agricultural arcologies, a small corner of which Gerry had telescoped so intently. There were almost 80,000 of these, covering only a total of 2.5% of the surface of the relatively small, airless planet, and each produced about 550 tons of foodstuffs daily. Thinking of the sleek Maid, which seemed large to Gerry, he figured that it would take over two million of her crewed by almost 20 million souls to bring that quantity of food onto planet.

Gerry looked up at a group of figures approaching, and the sight jarred him into realization of what a useless mental exercise it was; the Maid was not primarily a cargo ship, larger bulk carriers were more efficient, and there would be nowhere for that quantity of food to come from within a practical area of space. The appearance of the group, however, had ripped his mind from its cathartic fascination with the empty numbers game. Four figures in dark combat armor strode by. He recognized the livery from something he had seen on a church announcement board. The white pectoral crosses on the leading pair, in the obviously more-battered armor, marked the livery as that of the Hospitallers, a Catholic religious military order: warrior monks.

He caught himself: “soldier monks” was nearer the mark. He could hear Gunny Wright barking now, “You insult me when you call me a warrior. A warrior is one who engages in proud, glorious, single combat, victorious until soldiers come along who fight in a disciplined team and rout the warriors. The soldiers are victorious until, of course, the Marines show up!” The appearance of the Hospitallers exuded discipline. Senior ahead, junior behind, marching in step, but with an easy grace that made it appear the most natural thing in the world. Each had their gear carried in apparently identical configuration. He could see that the junior members had similar crosses displayed by their armor’s surface, but smaller and high on the left chest. He watched them as they proceeded, leading a small group of men pushing grav skidders. Four more armed men, in the lighter cloth armor, with ballistic helmets but no facemasks, more actively shepherded the 7 skidders while following the four high tech knights into the next massive docking arm of the high port a couple of hundred meters down from the food court.

Gerry thought about their life, committed to service with violent death as the most likely end: no retirement of any import, no families, no permanent home. It seemed foreign to everything he had been raised with. Despite the good influences in his life at school, the Guides, and church, Auntie had raised him by the example of doing just enough to be proper. She mouthed tired truths about the faith, but did not seem to live them in any way other than by ‘following the rules.’ He understood why his sister had left both home and faith. She was escaping what she saw as Auntie’s hypocrisy, which she attributed to the whole church.

Gunny was not given to theological profundity, generally, but his sayings tended to be more memorable for their paucity. About hypocrisy he said, “If we weren’t a bunch of reprobates, we wouldn’t need a church. So we fall short of the rules. Should we chuck out the rule whenever we break it? No, we’d have no rules in about a day and a half! So what do we get? A church full of hypocrites. As long as you’re humble with the Man about your sins, it comes out alright. Proud, though, you’re just a hypocrite.”

The little column was out of sight, but stuck in his mind. He had seen much of the loads on the skidders: the medical supplies and provisions; the ammo and the meds. He had seen what he guessed was courage and discipline, in service of others in places that those with a choice typically avoided. He thought about the difference between a few men, mostly alone, without women, choosing some chaotic corner of the sector to serve; and the massive, centrally controlled mega-nation of Nundis, where everything was ordained by the bureaucracy to ensure the collective welfare. He started to say a prayer for this band of Hospitallers, but his mind wandered to the type of gauss rifles they had carried. He checked his watch: there were over nine hours until they shipped out. He had seen Nundis Highport, however, or all he cared to. His thoughts briefly touched on some of the other experiences to be had here, well within the credits he had left, and he turned back towards the Maid.

It took him a while to figure out the way back, as he had only half payed attention as he had previously wandered the highport. As he followed the most direct route, he passed through a number of retail areas. He paused to ogle in a store for armaments, and passed on by. He did stop by a pastry shop, and purchased a cherry tart for over a credit, feeling suddenly guilty for doing so. He suddenly thought that he deserved to buy himself a tart, for having resisted the temptation to buy himself a tart. Licking his fingers, he turned out onto the thoroughfare and headed back to the Maid. He passed from confectioners, casual eateries, and snack shops through a row of more serious eating and drinking establishments.

When he passed the Impie Marine courtesy patrol, dressed in their undress soft armor, he held no fear. He realized how completely anonymous he was. A number of patrons from a bar spilled noisily into the boulevard-like corridor, apparently ejected by the bouncer, and Gerry paused to gawk as an argument broke out. The curses and screams rose sharply above the otherwise subdued sounds of the shoppers, travelers, tourists, and shopkeepers, above the muted and almost featureless music. The most vehement of the obviously drunk bunch started to swing at his companions. The courtesy patrol split up, with one member shooing bystanders away, while the other drew his needler pistol and dropped the still swinging drunk in his tracks. Gerry looked in immediate horror at the brutal response to such basic disorder. He met the eyes of the crowd control Marine, who pointed imperatively to Gerry’s rear, turning him back. Before he could even react, which his sense of self-preservation was urgently commanding, the vocalization and realization came to Gerry simultaneously, “He bricked him!” The marine’s mouth twitched a confirmation, and he jabbed his finger again back towards Gerry’s rear, as Gerry was already in the process of turning to leave.

He felt a bit foolish for imagining that the Impies would have killed under such innocuous circumstances. In such public situations, Gerry knew from his training with the Guides that security would have brick, a potent neurodisruptor, loaded; even in the unlikely event of a shootout, brick was often as effective as the lethal needles in overcoming resistance. If not, a simple magazine change would provide plenty of lethality.

As he strode purposefully back towards the Maid, he again thought of the scene. It reminded him of the customs post back at Griik Maeii in its calm, unhesitating but carefully restrained use of minimal force; both, however, left no question as to who was in charge. He thought about this latest incident. He noted that he had not seen another courtesy patrol since leaving the ship, but here there was one in the middle of the bars. He imagined that in the vast facility, there were probably all manner of crimes occurring. The Impies were quite purposefully placed there, though, to publicly deal with the most obvious disorder. While rubbernecking was minimized, enough bystanders were there to see enough to convey the very clear impression that the Imperial authorities were swiftly, but magnanimously bringing order to chaos: Justice as theater!

When he finally got back aboard, he slept for a good eight hours, indeed through their casting off. He had a vague concern in a dream about the being followed by some authorities. When he awoke, he noticed that there was a message from Clyde, saying that he would not be continuing on the Maid for the next jumps. For breakfast in the lounge, Gerry soaked up the news that had been missing while they had been in jump, and wondered about Clyde, whether something in their relationship had caused trouble for the shambling youth. He actually messaged the purser, saying he had a quick question. “I’ll be there in a minute,” came the almost immediate reply. Of course she knows where I am, he reminded himself, and in less than a minute, she strode in.

“Good day, Mr. Fynne. How was your port time?”

“Just fine ma’am. No complaint about that.” She cocked her head slightly, waiting for him to continue. “I noticed Clyde had gone, and it seemed rather sudden. I was hoping that everything was alright.”

She cracked a quick smile, and in reassuring tones dismissed his concern. “Drivehand Clyde Barrowman got an unexpected break, actually. The second engineer on Ley Lightning’s Golden Matron had to leave her, so Drivehand Barrow left us to rendezvous with her as she maneuvers in. It will be at least a temporary promotion for him.

“We all just learned of it a few hours before shoving off; he wanted to say goodbye, actually, but the computer listed you as inactive. We actually presumed you were asleep.” Gerry’s expression must have registered his mild alarm, because she continued, “We do not surveil passengers directly in their quarters, but the computer dims your lights when it surmises you are inactive, and lists your status as inactive. Communications protocol is that when a passenger is listed as inactive in his cabin, we do not disturb them for routine matters, especially social. I know you two got along. He left you this.” She handed over a small, sealed pouch.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Gerry’s occasionally lustful eye for the purser was stayed by not just her bodice-covering apron, but the feeling like he had just been given a special treat by his matronly grade school teacher. He was distracted from her closing question by the pouch, and shook his head as she turned on her heel. He noticed they had been alone in the passengers’ lounge, and all the videos featured a preponderance of young attractive women. The pouch contained a number of holocrystals, 40 credits, and a quick note with a couple of numbers beneath it, all scrawled on a part wrapper: “Sorry I missed you, groundhog. Here are some 3Vs on the suit, and a few on girls. There’s one short recording of Yori and a couple of guys getting it on. She told me I could give you her number. We’re friends but we hump when we get a chance. There’s plenty to go ’round, tho, and it’s lonely in the black. Look ’er up! I’m leaving my number, too. I plan to ride the Lightning for as long as they’ll have me. You know the Lightning routes. The Wee Just Mite, Yori’s ship, runs between Nundis and Avatar, tho, carrying tech for their farms; Capt treats her bad. I’d feel bad about taking your money, with me leaving. Take the cruds back and buy yourself a quickie. I hope the training will keep you safe. Good luck.”

Gerry felt a number of things. He was grateful for Clyde’s generosity, and a bit flattered by his inclusion, as an equal, in sharing the same partner. He was also a bit horrified, and a bit guilty that he was not more horrified. Clyde had taken a woman, a young, compliant woman, to bed, and now was sharing images of her as if it were a sporting event. While Yori was not who he would pick out of a crowd, even a small crowd, the thought of her, suddenly compliant, raced through him. He saw that adoring look she had for Clyde, and imagined it, ever so briefly, focused on him, from beneath him. She was there on the holocrystal, doing all sorts of things he could imagine. Her and two boys, at once? He looked guiltily up, as he saw a young couple walk in. They were oblivious to him, but he hurried out as if caught in some despicable act.

He could see himself, alone in his cabin for weeks with the pornography. It was not a sight he would be proud of. When he got to his cabin, he pulled out the holocrystals, and put the three dealing with the vacc suit on his desk, dropping the rest in the empty pouch, dropping it to the deck, and crushing the contents under the heel of his boot like it was a snake. He was frightened at how he had felt. He not only lusted after this young woman, he lusted after her vulnerability, her eager need to please. He was thrilled by her abasement, abasement by others as needy of assurance of their worth as she, thrilled by the prospect that he could join in treating her as a slave, a trained creature, an object. He felt disgusted at himself, and prayed. He did not, however, call to his conscious mind the fact that he still had Yori’s number.

He needed to put his mind elsewhere, so he looked forward to their next destination, Lirshe. Lirshe was a small, ice-capped vacuum world, with the only marginally habitable areas in deep rift valleys on the poles. Its two million souls were legally a lot freer than those of Nundis, but their actual existence was governed by similarly harsh environmental factors. Lirshe was served by a much smaller highport, that was the same tech as Nundis, similarly stocked the higher tech parts shipped in from Baakh. Lirshe was therefore capable of maintenance of the massive Nundis bulk hauler ships with these parts, and others from Nundis. Nundis ships were indeed mixed tech. Every tech increase adds some benefit in design and materials, but at some point the increase is in efficiency rather than capacity.

He remembered Gunny showing them an Imperial tech axe, along with a number of lower tech axes. The Imperial tech axe was lighter, but cut almost as well as one twice the weight; it maintained its edge far better, had an internal processor that would send out its position data if paged, automatically send out a distress signal when it detected the blood of any of the major races on the blade, and charge itself through its integral solar cells.

After the Guides present had spent a while felling a patch of biscuitwood trees, Gunny had continued, “If you live on an Imperial tech world, the Impie axe is cheaper. It does things more efficiently. Ultimately, the low-tech axe cuts about as well. You need to have the skills, the technology, if you will, to sharpen it properly, the low tech axe has the same basic capacity, without the high-tech bells and whistles. It has much greater capacity than a stone, axe, however. Those living in the stone age could not produce it, but they could use and understand it. They could be taught to maintain it fairly quickly, and would do so much better with a lighter, high tech sharpening stone.

“I have a mixed tech axe, with a low tech head, made by a craftsman, and a higher tech fiberglass handle. I have to sharpen it more than our high tech wonder here, but that goes much quicker with my high tech sharpener which weighs 10% of what a stone does. If I cut my foot off with it, well, I'll need to use my own comm for help. High tech always has some advantages, if it’s plentifully available and maintainable, but mixed tech is a great way to make the most of your options if you live somewhere else.” At that moment, Gerry understood the mixed tech dynamics well enough that the Nundis ships now made perfect sense. He had done a report on them the year before in school.

The drives, computer, and major control systems of the Nundis ships were made in Baakh, as were the massive hulls. A host of other parts, from the entire life support system, to all the myriad hull fittings, and those of the crew areas for the ninety-some crew members were all manufactured in Nundis, at a lower tech and shipped to Baakh for assembly. This made it easier to focus the relatively smaller industrial base of Baakh, with a population that was one twelve thousandth the size of Nundis's, on those systems that Nundis could not produce, like drives and computers that would push the behemoths 3 parsecs. This made the Nundis ships easier for Nundis to maintain at their own high port as well. It still seemed a grossly overcomplicated system, but it was an even better example than Gunny’s of the advantages of mixed tech.

He caught himself again, staring at the edge of his cabin’s desk, lost in these mental manipulations to which he escaped from thoughts that scared him. Yori and the holoporn was no longer on his mind, and he put a manual on the viewer, but lay back on his bunk. The information might save his life, but he had weeks to view it, and there would be no chubby gadfly to check his progress tomorrow.

He learned that there were a couple of brothers aboard about his age, from Baakh, but he had no desire to meet them, as he was afraid of slipping up in his story, or betraying his status in some other way that he had not thought of. He dozed on his bunk, more from boredom than fatigue.

In the next two days maneuvering out, he had begun to exercise, in the very small gym packed with exercise machines. He had saved his Stayfresh sandwiches, read, and did little else. He had started reading some of the spinoff books from the Scout Quinn franchise. He knew they were junk, but with little else to do he felt no need to justify his literary choices. They made space travel between the stars sounds dramatic, romantic, and dangerous. He knew that it was dangerous in some places, but he was weeks from there. He knew that those who had faced real danger, like Gunny Wright, did not romanticize it. He voiced the same sentiments, that war and killing were horrible, all while hoping to some day be part of it. For the romance.