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The Adventures of Gerry Fynne

This part originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue.

Chapter 7: Upward, miscreants, from Lirshe’s bosom

They rose to a 30 minute warning, kaff and a pee before leaving the pavilion. The light breakfast and tour of the rest of Lirshe’s barren zones, including a walk-through tour of an abandoned gem mine, was over by midmorning. They settled into an open porch on a castle-like inn, perched almost at the bottom of Lirshe’s north polar rift for a warm brew of local prominence. They wore fleece pants of little loft but incredible warmth, and greatcoats of the long-haired hides of the local meat animals. They breathed the local air, but through compressor masks. The masks admitted the long drinking straws of organic origin that bore the warm, sticky, quite unidentifiable beverage.

They were given their itinerary for their tour of all 1,600 km of this valley, fully 76 kilometers deep at its bottom, and a description of the wonder of its natural attributes, with some of the changes that modern technology had added. The atmosphere was extremely thin, but it existed. The bottoms had been deepened, by only a couple of thousand meters, and only in a few areas. Most human habitation was subterranean, with openings on the cultivatable parts of the rift faces. Natural fungi had been geneered to be a source of foodstuffs for the locals, though not enough to support them. The rift froze and thawed, according to both predictable seasons and violent swings in weather. Huge reflectors on the rift walls concentrated sunlight for more specialized agriculture, including a very few meat animals.

For those who wanted, a tethered “wet zip” through the Lirshebahn, the torrential mountain river at the rift’s bottom provided a way across to a sumptuous lunch of steaming local produce. For those nine members of the tour who opted out, watching and filming the others bobbing across was entertainment enough. Gerry was scared, but with being suited and tethered there was no real danger, so he had to try. He learned nothing new about Lirshe in the process, but he did feel he had barely missed testing the suit’s solid waste system.

Later, inside, looking at the mottled, multicolored walls of the rift towering up to 20 kilometers across from them, he was almost speechless. The planet was small and this was a very small part of the planet, but everything looked huge; it looked huge, because in human terms it was. Once again, the math of the universe, accurate and precise, failed to convey the glory of the creator’s handiwork, or even the scale of man’s modifications. That he was eating fungus with names and varieties he could neither pronounce nor remember, and some kind of long haired beast with aspects of mountain goat, tree sloth, and giant bear, did not fully register. That he was eating like he may have only eaten once before sunk into his soul, however.

He was feasting, having relished the prospect of sinning, and he was a bit on his ear about it. Something about David writing the twenty-third Psalm and killing his loyal lieutenant to steal his wife passed through his mind. He just dropped the thought completely and looked out at the vista again, and the feelings drifted away. The rest of the day brought hours of flying, walking, and even sailing in small, covered powerboats, over, beside and on the Lirshebahn. Tea in the sunlight of a glassed-in porch with a view of the rift stretching down for about 42 kilometers, to the far shore 29 klicks down. He did a shaggy Pythagorean SWAG, and figured the downward vista at about 50 kilometers. They would watch a local variant of grav ball, travel to the Lirshe Rift Haus, and there dine. They watched a local play, and bedded down in low-g splendor.

Breakfast at the Haus was sunlit, but only because of the mylar sails positioned 43 kilometers away that made it so. They went out to watch a local version of net hockey in vacc suits, played on snow, before having a final cocktail in a small pavilion, and boosting for the ship. Gerry noted it had certainly been a trip he would remember, and well worth the price… particularly in someone else’s money.

The Yungs were taciturn through the last morning of the voyage, and would not answer Gerry’s questions in any substantive way. The radical change meant, he guessed, some sort of incident the night before. While the tour had been “double occupancy,” the brothers had shared a room, and Gerry was in with a businessman from Ohasset who apparently thought it was beneath his dignity to speak with a fifteen-year old, let alone share a room with one. It was apparently above his budget, however, to buy a single room. Gerry had had plenty to think about, however, and eventually drifted off to sleep.

They moved in to dock with Lirshe highport where the Maid herself was docked. This was a much smaller affair than Nundis highport, to be sure. It was easy to see a number of liners, quite a few in Ley Lightning’s livery, as they made their approach in the boat. The highport air smelled familiar when the airlock door opened, and Gerry realized it was from a dish they had been served in the Lirshe Haus. While at any given time the highport served only a couple of hundred small ships like the Maid or free traders, there was also a robust traffic supporting the huge Nundis bulk haulers. While these behemoths scooped their own fuel at the neighboring gas giant, J’Taii, in a very controlled traffic pattern, they depended on tenders from the highport for any emergency personnel transfers, spare parts, and the like. Nundis Lines, the massive bureaucracy that ran these bulk haulers, had a terminal that took up almost a third of the highport dedicated to such support, which Gerry could see in what appeared to be the “bottom” of the highport schematic.

They were still in the “planetary” side of customs, so needed to pass in through same type of customs that Gerry had gone through coming onto the highport of Griik Maeii. There were no hitches, though there were four Marines checking IDs like the one had back home. Lirshe was, after all, about a six times the size of his home planet in population, even if most of them lived in caves under the arctic. As they moved through there arose only a vague feeling of unease for Gerry; his papers were good, and the questions were old hat by now, but there was always the chance that something had changed. Maybe someone had found out about Eve’s forgery? But standing in line proved the hardest part, and they were back aboard the Maid in half an hour, and due to leave in another nine. Gerry was a little taken aback by the brothers’ funk, and turned into his stateroom for a Stayfresh sandwich and a nap.

He awoke a couple of hours later, and shambled up to the lounge. It was empty except for two men, who looked to be in their late forties to early fifties, who were playing cards. He noticed the video was all girls, and it somehow grated, so he checked the news. Nothing of importance had been beamed in the updated news feeds in the past couple of days. He searched the crime and justice pages of Ley Networks, and lingered on the details of a hijacking attempt on a free trader about a month earlier on the Ohasset Main. “Although three of the crew were wounded in the attempt, the four hijackers were subdued by the crew of the Green Hill$ of Urth, who killed two in the process. Captain Hilary Queet stated, ‘Antihijack software makes it an uphill battle for any passengers to take a ship these days. These guys had a chance to endanger my crew, but not a chance to take the vessel.’ The two surviving hijackers have been tried and executed at Baakh Highport by the Imperial Justice F’riid.” Gerry did have some appreciation that combinations of software and the thousands of ship functions which were completely controlled by such software could make a ship a very inhospitable place for the hijacker. The crew would be intimately familiar with the ship’s spaces, and also have a good opportunity to observe any would-be hijacker passenger. Desperation and ignorance, however, were in no short supply, nor were trivids where the hijackers got away with it.

Gerry wondered about the next legs of his journey, on some free trader or other. The mystique of the Free Traders was strong in the holovids, and while Gerry knew this was an exaggeration, it was still based in the truth of independence and danger that the free traders lived by and among. Between the well-patrolled, heavily trafficked space lanes lay the backwaters. These were less often visited by authorities, and were therefore places where a ship might be on its own. Some relied on convoys for mutual protection, involving loose cooperation between private ships, some armed and some not, to create safety in numbers. The disadvantages, though, were delays and expenses, that shoestring operations like free traders could sometimes ill-afford. A single armed Free Trader was easy for most pirates to knock off; they had played a similar scenario time and again on the ORbox. What it meant, though, was potential damage to the pirate ships that could make the exchange unprofitable at best, or crippling at worst. Winning a space battle was like winning a knife fight; the winner was almost never unscathed.

Larger merchant lines used actuaries, cooperative action, and multiple layers of private security to render the dark spaces on the star maps either profitable or written off. The Free Traders used luck, self-help, and grit to make their own niches in such places. Sometimes they could be profitable on milk runs, though seldom competitive with the larger haulers; this was the stuff of numerous commercial simulations played by tens of thousands of youth with one eye on the stars. Though the actual numbers were incredibly complex, the basic dynamic could be explained by any 7 year old with a pulse on any planet with interstellar communications.

Knowing these things, though, and shipping on a Free Trader, Gerry mused were likely as different as seeing Lirshe on scores of documentaries and even trivid dramas, and almost crapping oneself while submerged like an overwound pjaelik spinner in the near-freezing waters of the Lirshebahn; as different as hearing the facts of life described by Sister Mary Arthur in the antiseptic detail of biology class and seeing the Brigadier’s raunchy group lumbering off for some imagined foursome. Some poking indicated that on the Ohasset main there were weekly convoys guarded by a joint effort of the subsector navies of Outreaumer and Diamond-Prince supplemented by the Ley sector navy, from Garda through Kishimaa.

The Imperial Navy typically looked outward for strategic threats, while the subsector navies were the province of the sector and subsector dukes’ charge to keep their domains safe from internal threats to commerce and from interior system to system oppression. It was easy for a more sophisticated world to use its technology to oppress a neighbor, for instance, siphoning off resources in wasteful counteractions that added to the havoc wreaked on trade. That there was a subsector navy to play neighborhood cop thus made the neighborhood safer and more profitable. While planetary navies of individual systems like Nundis looked out more particularly to their own interests, most anti-piracy patrols were performed by subsector forces, with occasional forays by sector forces when the subsector was unable to cope or when interests outside the subsector required particular attention.

“You wouldn’t be Mr. Fynne, would you, sir?”

Gerry looked up with a start from the annotated holographic star map above his handcomp. One of the two older men playing at cards was leaning toward him as the other swept a rather large pile of one and five crud disks towards his own pile. “Hello, sir. Do I know you?”

“Well you were traveling through Lirshe, part of my commercial empire, young man. The extent of your ignorance is not the specific province of my knowledge. How could I tell you what you know of me? I am, however, Sir Geoffrey Gek-gauche von-Regina, peer of the realm of the Spinward Marches, and heir to the agribusiness speculative experimental genetics of SuSAG Lirshe-Nundis. You are, if I am not mistaken, Gerald Fynne?”

Not just the content of this somewhat bizarre figure’s soliloquy, but also its combination of melodrama and rapid cadence was enough to completely cow Gerry. Local titles might be easily-enough checked, but the Spinward Marches were clear on the far side of the Imperium, years away by Xboat message. Gerry could have checked the claim of this somewhat scrawny bantam in the slightly worn, but extravagant social suit, had he been able to fully comprehend it, but the data would be old at best. This was all, therefore, exotic, bizarre, and a bit suspicious.

“Yes, sir, I am Gerry Fynne” he admitted as he rose and slipped his handcomp into a hide shoulder bag he had picked up in the highport for 2 Credits.

“Then we are in your debt. You are just the young man we had hoped to see. Are you aware of the nature of your father's holdings?”

Gerry’s pulse continued to rise, and he began to approach full panic. “I am aware of them.”

“And to what detail?”

“Well, I… um, you see my father has asked me to come to him. I’ve been living elsewhere. Sir.” Gerry choked out. It seemed like this peculiar creature, Sir Geoffrey, had him panicked. He forced himself to breathe and blink slowly, as the small, wrinkled man sat down, leaning over the table.

“You don’t really know, do you? Don’t know what you’re dealing with on Khii 43?” the sharp, bloodshot eyes bored into Gerry’s frightened face.

“No, sir. It seems you have me… um… at an advantage. Please tell me what you mean.”

“Riches! Riches, my boy, but beyond your father’s ability to extract on his own,” he leaned in, then, to speak uncomfortably close to Gerry’s face in conspiratorial tones, “We must help before the authorities get hold of the business, and shut it down.”

The other man, who had long since arranged his mound of currency disks into neat piles, then chimed in, “That’s where we can help, Gerry boy!”

“I can talk to Dad, pass on your names.”

The figure in the ever-so-slightly worn fawn velvet, “That won’t be necessary, Gerry. No trouble. We’ll travel with you and see him ourselves.”

Gerry’s fear was palpable now. To the man’s continued oily assurances Gerry croaked out a few noncommittal replies, so devoid of meaning that he could not have repeated any a minute later as he strode out to his cabin.

He sent a message to Alice the purser: “I have some urgent questions. My cabin, please.” She was there in a few minutes.

“Hello, Mr. Fynne. I trust your tour was fun. You said you had questions?”

“Well, it’s about those men, in the lounge.”

Gerry did not notice that she seemed to know exactly who he was talking about, as he started to wander into his story. She asked a couple of questions about what he had told them, and what they had known, then held up a hand to stop him. She was so comforting when she did that. “Wait, please. Would it be alright, Gerry, if I asked another crew member to sit in? We take the security of our passengers very seriously, and this is more along his line of expertise. I could stay or leave you as you prefer.”

Gerry was already nodding his assent, and she tapped the barely noticeable comm in her left ear, and fairly purred, “Jack, at your leisure, we have a question. Thanks.” Gerry, who remained on the bed, had gathered his wits enough to recognize the security posture of her message. “We … question.” If it was “I,” then she was isolated or at odds with those present, in potential danger; because it was “we,” they were on the same side, there was no threat. “A question,” also meant no threat. She would have used a more ambiguous term, like “situation,” if it was a potentially threatening, and “problem” meant that an immediate intervention was called for. Her words calmed him, and the hulking Fourth Officer was there after a delay that corresponded quite well to Gerry’s brief seconds’ musing on these matters, learned from his security communications class in the Guides.

The door slid back and he leaned in, “Ma’am?” He hadn’t knocked, had known where they were, and the doors were set to open automatically. Had it been, I have a problem, Gerry guessed the gentle bear of a man would have bounded in, needler ready.

“Thanks, Jack. Mr. Fynne was approached by some other passengers in an exchange that was possibly innocuous, but may have some serious security implications. May we sit?” Gerry nodded, she motioned the Fourth Officer Jack to the desk chair, and perched herself on the edge of the bunk, sliding over to make room to turn toward them. “To cut to the chase, Gerry did you tell anyone currently on board or on Lirshe of the location of or even existence of your father’s mineral claims?”

He actually paused to think, panicking briefly. She had touched on this issue just before, but he had not thought hard about it. As far as he had known, Clyde was the only one he had talked to about it at all, and he couldn’t remember what he’d exactly told Clyde. He knew they’d spoken about him going to help his father mine a moon, but whether he had told Clyde what moon, he could not remember.

“Only Clyde, or drive hand… um… ”

The Fourth Officer’s smile broadened as he cut off Gerry’s fumbling, “No. No, he’s fine. First, he’s trusted, and next, he jumped in the opposite direction. Word could not have reached these two. No other passengers or people planetside; something you may have said when a bit impaired, possibly?”

“No, sir. When I did have a something to drink, I remember quite clearly what we were talking about. No, and I remember the other parts of the trip like they happened yesterday.” Gerry paused to notice the absurdity of his last statement, but not for long (they had happened yesterday!) “And I really didn’t talk about my dad with the brothers. I didn’t want to. Only came up with Clyde talking about my suit, and need for it.”

“We’ll look into the matter, but it sounds like the most likely explanation is some sort of data theft. It could be from a number of sources. The Maid’s crew will investigate. It is possible that these men are truthful, but the likelihood seems very slim. The most likely is that they used stolen data to try to run some sort of confidence scam, which makes them con men. That they offered to follow you would make them potentially dangerous con men. This is all conjecture, but until we tell you otherwise, I would avoid their presence. Within a few minutes, I will instruct the computer to alert our security staff anytime these men are in your presence. You may summon assistance by simply uttering the word computer followed immediately by the word security. I will also set up an override to allow you to check if they are in the Middle Passenger’s common areas, to help you keep clear of them. Depending on the results of our investigation, I may even urge them to stay out of these areas.”

The purser leaned in slightly, “We will arrange for your meals to be served in your quarters if you’d like, as some small compensation for the inconvenience. We are Ley Lightning.” Gerry realized that she was wearing neither jacket nor apron, and could not help a glance.

“That would be nice.”

She patted him on the shoulder as she rose, “I’ll send the first meal from the galley, and from then just send the pack you want next up with the server. Was there anything else?” The twinkle and Gerry knew he was being toyed with.

“No, ma’am. Thanks.”

They left in a blizzard of teeth and few brief, impressive jiggles.

Gerry was a bit shocked. His feeling of being isolated in his fears were less, and he thought of the crew as his ally. He lay back down on his bunk and opened a book in the Scout Flynn series he had already read twice. He had already napped that morning, so did not drift off. After a couple hours, he stiffly pulled a cold ration pack from the locker in his stateroom, and barely enjoyed the cold seafood salad. The origin of the seafood was the ocean of his homeworld of Griik Maeii, and so under different circumstances he would have had a certain nostalgia, but this was eclipsed completely by the shadow of the shabby pair.

After eating, he realized that he still had another three hours until dinner, and another 90 minutes until they cast off. He worked through donning both his suit and the EVA kit, his first time with the latter, first by reviewing the manual, and then physically putting it all on. The kit weighed an additional 24 kilos, and even in the shipboard .5g environment, he felt awkward. He had worked up a real sweat after multiple dons and doffs of the whole ensemble. He dared not remove the safeties and manipulate the maneuver controls, even though they were, he thought, unhooked. Making a mistake in his cabin could be destructive, expensive, or possibly deadly.

He showered and tossed his Guides longsuit in the fresher. What would normally feel like a cozy cocooning in his now very-familiar cabin seemed like incarceration. He did not want to give that pair any more chances at whatever it was they were trying to get from him, however. He checked on his stateroom’s terminal, easily finding the application that the crew had set up for him to monitor the common areas for the two “passengers of interest,” as they were labeled. They were not showing in the common areas, but for some reason Gerry’s anxiety did not lessen.

He watched a holovid as the time dragged, and saw the cue as they cast off from the highport. About an hour before dinner he got a message from Purser Alice asking if he would be ready for dinner about 45 minutes early. He typed a hurried agreement, finished the tri-vid, and checked the ship’s status. They had only about 44 hours of maneuver before they jumped. There was a small craft docking in just over half an hour: a ship’s boat. These were as fast as anything else in in-system maneuvering. While playing a somewhat mindless but addictive game on the console, Gerry noticed the two men show up on the tracking application. They spent almost no time in the lounge, however, shortly moving to the starboard airlock. In fact they waited for just a minute, where the boat was docking, and disappeared from his screen. They were, it appeared, off the ship! Gerry stared for a full minute to see if they reappeared in an adjacent area on the display, then sat back and wondered what this meant. He was nonplussed, and sat on his bunk to read his pulp, but in a minute caught himself not really registering what he read.

There was a knock on his cabin door, and he bounded up, “Come in!'

“Dinner, sir.” the purser came in with a decent-sized grav tray with quite a few dishes. “The others are busy,” she moved in without his having time to react, “so I thought I would deliver this myself.” Placing it on his desk with her right hand, while folding the monitor down flush with the other, “Along with our news.”

“Yes, ma’am. What news?”

Dish covers came off. The twinkle. “Security’s investigation established to the captain’s satisfaction that those two passengers had hacked into information systems, violating Ley Lightning’s policies and many applicable laws. He had them put off the ship.” The apron top was, he noted, folded down, and he’d taken her invitation to sit to be served.

“Thank you… for everything,” he caught his eyes darting to her chest, mere centimeters away, through the gaudy lattice.

“You’re welcome, of course! We are Ley Lightning. Service is what we do.”

She was gone, just like that. He was too surprised for a parting glance, and fell upon the meal. China, cutlery with heft, cloth napkins, and a perfect spread for an anxious teenager who found solace in food. He ate. And ate. Three full plates, plus rolls, a soup, and salad. Two desserts. A small pot of kaff. He left the kaff, but ate every other scrap. He felt both profoundly full and quite content. He slept well, and sent a message to Burg about breakfast. He got no response, but ate in the lounge anyway. After about half an hour, the younger boy showed up, and they settled in for a few games without saying much of anything.