The Adventures of Gerry Fynne
This part originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue.
Chapter 10: Anxiously absconding
The men seemed oblivious to him, when the holo ended and they got up. Gerry was going to introduce himself, but his resolve faltered. The same old fears returned; he would make some mistake, and they would guess something…tell somebody. There were only seven more hours until they jumped, and he was anxious that, somehow, the con men would catch up. He had already figured it was impossible: by the time they had figured out what was up, they would then have to arrange for another boat, which then would take hours to make the trips. They just would not have time, even with everything going their way. The prospect still chilled him a bit, however. He could have seen it wrong, somehow.
It had been a few hours since his sandwich, and Gerry felt ravenous. He grabbed a tray from his cabin, warmed it, and took it back in to eat in isolation. The ship was actually, though worn, a little higher tech than the Maid had been, especially in the interior fittings; after going through a tutorial for about 20 minutes, he had figured out how to use the in-cabin holo-projector to project one of the tri-vids over his bed. He could lie on his back in his bunk and watch holos! He was happy to learn that there were also scores of holos that were new to him in the A’s computer. He showered, and lay back on his bunk, with an LSPill and water bottle on the shelf next to his head, and cued up two more full-length holos. Taking a pee break before the second, Gerry set an alarm to pause the holo, vibrate the bed, and play a bar from one of KiKi Dish’s more popular ballads 2 minutes before they jumped.
Predictably, he dozed during this tri-vid, a well-known comedy, and found himself sitting up while swigging from the water bottle, the pill already under his tongue, before he either realized what was going on or KiKi’s bar of baleful strings was finished. He remembered that Gunny had said their brains had a autopilot for waking, which they could train: thinking about the deliberate placement of their gear just before sleep would allow them to grab it before they were fully awake, perfecting this with repetition. If they cared about getting up, they would not sleep through their alarms. If they set alarms they did not care about, they would train themselves to ignore alarms. His initial bout of jump sickness back on the Maid had been enough to impress on him the importance of getting the LSPill down quickly, and now he was doing it in his sleep.
The wave of jump sickness washed over Gerry, without really having any effects. He then checked the Starport Authority’s last listing of outbound commercial ships, looking for any that could even theoretically catch up or outdistance them, and he found only one extremely long shot. A liner like the Maid could have done it, but there were none, and none would jump into New Konigsberg without an escorted convoy anyway. There were a number of free and fat traders jumping a single parsec, but the next far trader—the Lucky Shot—was due to jump out in four days, and had not yet even docked with the highport. As a fantastical exercise, he tried to think what would be necessary for that lone ship to catch them: turning around, a rendezvous with tankers, other small craft to transfer passengers and cargo; another thirty-some hours of maneuvering back out to any safe jump point. Then, the A would have to make a 90th percentile jump for length of time in jumpspace, and the Lucky Shot a 10th percentile jump. Thus, the Duke of Ley himself would have no better than about a 1% shot of catching them with the ships then available. There were certainly other variables, and the con men were no dukes or millionaire traders, to be able to command such instant, very costly, support. They would furthermore need some luck to even realize what happened before the Mahid left Marda Highport. There was thus a good chance that they would be not just 4 days behind, but two weeks or more.
For the first time in quite a while, Gerry felt a little smug.
Unlike his having been shepherded by the sympathetic Runch, and Purser Alice, he had in this case convinced the ambivalent Mahids to help him in a plan of his own making, and this was really his accomplishment. Running from Auntie onto the Maid had been a lot easier in effect, and seemed far behind him: all he had to do was avoid well-known cameras. This felt like playing in an adult world, though, with the deck stacked against him…and still coming out ahead.
He went out and heated up breakfast, and watched 5 men at a card game that he did not recognize, and could not figure out. He was mildly interested, but his ignorance meant less to him than it probably would have a few weeks ago. His fear was less pronounced than it had been in the weeks since leaving the Maid, and he actually wished almost yearningly that Gunny could see him right now.
He did not introduce himself to any of the men; they all seemed to know each other, and pay no attention to him. He took time over his breakfast, though, pulled up a group of four Scout Flynn novels that he had not read on his handcomp, and sat back down on the couch to read the one that had the most appealing damsel in distress on the cover. With a quick break for lunch, he sat there and read the whole thing, “cover-to-cover,” as Auntie would say. That phrase always seemed odd with electronic books. The book took his mind away from it, mostly. As the fear receded, jubilation had flared up then fizzled, leaving him with a loneliness that was very real. The tedium of star travel had been broken up on the Maid by his time with Clyde and then the Yungs; even the oppression of his fearful isolation on the Mahid had been a distraction.
“Fear is the big kid on the block; when he’s there, ya don’t pay attention to anyone else. Until you get fear under control, you really can’t assess your situation.” Gunny had believed in repetition. He also believed in using emotion to imprint information. He brought them to the carnivore viewing tank of the aquarium, and made them hold their noses against the glass for two minutes, while the doorsharks had swooped in to gobble morsels just centimeters in front of their stationary noses. (Gunny had paid off an attendant for the well-choreographed feeding.) After he had picked an oblivious Kelly, George, and Gerry’s pockets, Gunny had called the boys back away from the tank, given them their knives and wallets back, and given them the line. They then sat down to study carnivore defense techniques, the opening chapter of Gunny’s training for the Aquatic Survival badge. Previously, when they were bored, he had tried to pick their pockets, and they had usually caught him. He had repeated the lesson on a rappelling course, and by a campfire that he fed some flash powder to. They got it: fear eclipses and makes us forget or ignore the obvious.
Now, however, the fear was gone and the previously ignored loneliness was palpable. He thought of all the people in his life he would never seen again: Guides he would never see, schoolmates, Gunny, Father Ki-O’Malley, his father, Sandy, the other girls who had never been his…even Auntie. He was there looking distractedly at his empty ration tray when Goode startled him, “Everything alright, Mr. Fynne: Food not spoiled, crapper working? I made your bunk, even though all of you are middle passages. Angling for a fat tip, eh!?!”
The grungy steward’s interruption was both unnerving and welcome. “Oh, yeah. Yes, sir, everything’s fine.”
Goode plunked a bag of snacks and a bottle of what Gerry imagined was a local version of UrpUrp on the small table in front of him. “Let me know if you need anything. I will go over routing you onto any connections later in the trip. You’re getting off at Guarda?”
Gerry nodded. “We have no small craft, so you’ll need to pay for any transfer, of course, but Guarda Highport is a nice enough place,” the ruddy-faced purser went on, giving the table a cursory wipe “We continue on to Egran, you know, to pick up the groceries. Funny route.” Gerry nodded, and Goode wandered off, wiping a few surfaces somewhat vaguely with the rag that he was apparently mostly using as a prop, flipping it onto his shoulder before making a few bawdy comments to a pair of men playing gin for money at the other end of the lounge. Was it just coincidence that Goode had come by? Had he known Gerry was lonely? He gazed at the canned stellar image projected on the front viewport to mask the unsettling visual chaos of jumpspace, and he wondered.
There had been a number of lucky breaks along his journey. Luck? He had gotten, in this run of his, what he needed. The fact that the con men had been caught for computer intrusion, thrown off, and that there had been just the combination of ships, greedy crewmen, and available small craft to allow him to dodge them again seemed very lucky indeed. He had prayed for deliverance, and he had been delivered. Not when and how he had asked for it, but it had come. Father K-O’M.’s voice, in its unmistakable coreward lilt, sounded in his head, “Have you prayed for your Auntie, then? Your dad?” He realized that indeed he had been self-absorbed through the whole of his voyage.
He felt vaguely uncomfortable, shifting in the couch. Gunny’s voice spoke up, “You can go to your maker with your pagan prayers, ‘Save me-save me!’ and being a loving God, he will answer, and it may even be in a way that you imagine is good for you. But if you want to be safe, go to him with Christian prayers, ‘Save them-save them.’ You'll need it. We all do. Live for yourself and you’ll die alone!” Damnation. Gerry mused briefly on his choice of interior invective, then said a half-hearted prayer for Auntie. He had thought a lot about her, but it had been about how to escape her. How to abandon her. She was not affectionate, and in fact was neither pleasant nor generous. She did care, though.
“Does she love you?” Father again.
Well, Gerry guessed that she did. She cried when they talked about Space Camp, and had forbade him to go. That was not meanness, surely. It certainly was not sentimentality: Auntie was one of the least sentimental people, let alone women, that Gerry thought he knew. That was her love, a love that forbade to protect. he loved him, and he had left her. Had there been reasons? Certainly. But she had loved him, and he had left.
He felt a little catch in his throat. He had felt compelled to leave, but it was not necessary. What of Eve? Well, he did not know her, and Auntie was family. He went back to his cabin and wrote her. It took a while; the final text seemed elusive, difficult.
I am alright, but have gone to seek my fortune. I had not planned this, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose, and I felt I had to take it. I did not want to hurt you, but I knew that you would try to stop me if I told you. I felt this was the only way. I am well, though, and I am grateful for all that you have done for me. God Bless You.
He looked up mail drops on the ships’ computer. The idea was, of course, to break the traceability of the origination of a message. In the holos, it was always some seedy free trader crewman who picked up the message in a bar, to mail it from their next port of call, usually for the price of a shot of cheap whiskey. Though Gerry was sure that this happened, the more common and certainly reliable method was a commercial drop. The X-boat message (courier message from Guarda) would be sent to the drop, usually at a highport on the X-boat routes, which would initiate an X-boat message with a useless return address. He figured it out, that it would actually be best to have the ship carry the message for the next two jumps, to Egran and thence to Landing which was on an X-boat route. The purser would sent an X-boat message from there to a maildrop on Darksky, which would send it to Auntie.
All of this would mean that it would take a minimum of two months for the message to reach her, possibly nine weeks; any legal response could theoretically get back quicker, in as little as a month. This would still give him a minimum of nine weeks on Khii 43 to settle whatever needed to be settled with his father’s estate, claim, and the like. If he was hauled off after that, well so be it. He would just have to see what that would bring. How she would figure out where he had been or was going from receiving such a note was beyond Gerry, but he still had enough paranoia about being caught, which in turn mingled with his training that any electronic trail gave law enforcement enough to go on.
He sent the message to the purser, along with his instructions. In what was obviously an automated response, he was given an acknowledgment and the price tag: less than 10 credits. Even though it required jump capable ships to do so, moving information around space was much cheaper than moving people or cargo, though only slightly quicker. He settled in to read a bit in his bible, feeling like a wretched soul. He also realized just then that he had not hit a Mass in weeks. Very few ships had a priest available, so the church had centuries before excused the Sunday obligation as long as Mass was made at the first available opportunity after a given Sunday. This almost always meant at a highport. There were a few backworld installations with a priest who would come onto the starport to say mass once or twice a day, but in the absence of such it might legitimately be weeks between opportunities. With a decent highport at Gaurda, though, he would need to. He was genuinely contrite about Auntie, and he would just have to take his chances that his confessor would not give him turning himself in as a penance. He was not sure he would turn himself in, but he was not ready to do so before getting to Khii 43, anyway. These things turned over and over in his head, and it was 3 more holos before he fell asleep.
The rest of the jump on the Anxious A passed without incident. He had made a point to talk to Goode whenever he saw him, and actually introduced himself to one of the group of men that made up all the rest of the passengers. The belter Kanshu Stevens was in his early 20s, and had nothing good to say about mining. He was a belter working for a mining company out of Baakh, which essentially controlled Guarda. Gerry asked him a lot of questions about mining. The company paid him reasonably well, 1,700 credits a month he was proud to say, but only gave them a couple of middle passages per year back and forth between work and Baakh. Even that would have been unlikely, but the company owned the far trader as well. Kanshu was actually a mechanic who fixed massive robotic mining platforms in situ, along with whatever other equipment needed fixing. Gerry told him he was going to visit his father, but that he was not sure what his father did. Kanshu looked a bit incredulously at Gerry, but let it go. He let it slip into conversation later that, “Secrets keep a belter healthy and rich. That’s a hard enough proposition, let alone for something free.”
He went on to tell tales of belters who died in various ways, from the mundane accidents to bizarre or mysterious circumstances. Some piqued Gerry’s morbid curiosity about his father’s work, and some just left him anxious. He tried to ask about EVA work, but nothing that Kanshu shared with him seemed to be new information. The conversation left Gerry exhausted.
Loneliness was still there, though he spent a lot of time praying for Auntie, and of course worrying. The anxiety now was more and more about what lay ahead, as opposed to what lay behind. He practiced with his suit, and even fasted a couple of days, squirreling away the extra ration trays into his Bigsofts, leaving just the “3 squares” a day for their calculated time until docking at Guarda highport.
The jump exit was going to be more significant, and so he had looked at the Star Port Authority’s information on Gaurda’s highport traffic to prepare, because they would have a very short predicted run-in from their jump exit. There was a convoy to New Konigsberg due to cast off 48 hours after their most probable docking. He would, he imagined, be shipping on that convoy.
This convoy was weekly, and would have an escort of a small warship from Outreaumer or Diamond Prince subsector navy, or even from the Ley sector navy. Some of the ships would likely be armed, and a scheduled Scout/Courier would be traveling with the convoy. This would provide a decent amount of firepower. Of course, without navy navigators and synched jump programs, the jump exits could be a bit scattered, but another navy or scout ship would be staged to meet them as they exited jump, and to reform the convoy. It made piracy a very dicey proposition against any convoy members, and that was the intent. The mining arm of the Ohasset Main joined two X-boat routes, and was a critical trade link, even if it passed through backwater worlds, so Gerry had about as lucky a backwater route as one could hope for he mused as he lay in his bunk for the last night before jump exit.
Their exit from jump was eight hours early, and then Gerry had more information to deal with. As luck would have it, the nine ships registered to travel with the convoy listing passenger service were already booked. The convoy would leave just under 40 hours from their docking. There had even been a couple of middle passages bumped by high passages. There had been a free trader that was down indefinitely for maintenance that had dropped from the convoy, and her 12 passengers had tied everything up looking to make other arrangements. There was another free trader, Ivanovich’s Pride, due to leave almost 31 hours before the convoy; it was listed as traveling with a Scout ship. Since the active Scouts were supposed to travel with the convoy, and an urgent mission would likely be gone long before, it seemed likely that this was a detached duty Scout/Courier, possibly carrying “grey passages,” unsanctioned but not strictly illegal passengers. Gerry sat looking at his screen, his palms beginning to sweat. He would not be able to use his middle passage for that.
They would dock in less than 5 hours, so Gerry started packing the last of his gear into his BigSofts, as he reviewed what he knew, and what it meant to him. He contemplated his options.
Grey passengers violated a number of Imperial regulations, but such was the need that often the local, subsector authorities either passed regulations that made loopholes for them or simply looked the other way. As long as the fares were not predatory, and the basic safety issues taken care of, there might be a few minor fines and bribes, but no drastic steps were taken. A detached duty Scout might be given a letter of reprimand, and a small suspended fine, but this was in the face of a lot of profit. There might even be three double-stacked staterooms in the scout ship before it went.
None of this bothered him, but then Gerry remembered he could not use his middle passage on the Scout even if, as he assumed, it was running gray passengers. Gerry also did not want to try to reserve anything remotely on the Pride, though, because he did not want to make any more of a signature than was necessary. It sounded like a hasty “duffle bag drag” through highport, then.
He noticed his teeth clacking, for the first time in a while, a sign of anxiety. He pulled out his vacc suit, and did a full don, including the longsuit and the EVA pack. He talked himself through the radio controls, without locking on the helmet, and thought about those for the pack. The batteries were in the suit, so the radios would start to drain them if he put everything on. Similarly the pack had the fuel canisters in place, which would be “live” if he put the helmet on without an umbilical, which both fed the suit and told it that a manual over ride was necessary before it “fly” anywhere. He put on the umbilical, then his helmet, and began some of the Guides’ “daily dozen,” to loosen up.
He had finished, and was packing the last things in his small desk when there was a rap on his helmet. He half-jumped, half-stumbled aside, while twisting in an ungainly fashion towards his presumed assaulter. There was the purser, with a somewhat bemused but friendly look. As Gerry pulled his helmet off the purser chirped, “Sorry! I did knock on the door, and then page you on the intercom when you didn’t answer. The cabin coded you as active, which obviously you are. I figured you could be in the death throes of fatal jump sickness. Good to see you’re not, but I do find your lack of confidence in our hull integrity a bit distressing.”
“Err…oh, no, this; I’m just practicing.” Gerry stammered.
“I can see you are, sir. Good idea, but I came to see if there was anything we could do about making further travel arrangements, and getting your luggage ready to go.”
“Well. Well, I would like a skidder an hour before we dock. No other arrangements.”
“Very well sir.”
“Can it be sent to return to the ship? I may be in a hurry once I debark.”
“I’ll see to it. Sorry I interrupted your training.”
“Not at all. Just didn’t hear you.”
The purser smiled, and nodded his head as he left. Gerry closed and locked the door, then took off the suit and packed up. He even checked through the BigSoft with nothing but the extra tank sets. He realized he was being silly, and lay down for one more holo. Actually it was a repeat, the one with a scene of which Father K-O’M. would definitely not have approved. He actually dozed after the credits until a somewhat peculiar knock came on the door.
“Come in,” he managed, still mostly asleep.
The door opened, and a couple of indistinct noises came before a cheerful voice chimed in, “Mr. Fynne, you may load your bags onto me, and tell me when you are ready to leave. Please!”
The robotic skidder caught him a bit by surprise: Those on the Maid had mutely followed you around like a dog and obeyed voice commands, but they had not come, knocked on the door, and given you marching orders. Gerry rolled off his bunk, and rolled the four bags onto the skidder, while keeping his backpack with him. “Stay here until I tell you otherwise.”
“Surely, Mr. Fynne.”
He walked out into the crew lounge, and a long-range visual of the highport was being projected on one flat screen, and schematic of it on the other. Guarda Highport had a rawer feel to it than the other four Gerry had been to. It was smaller, with only 24 docking tubes on the main, public level, and those had a generally varied look. There appeared to be no drydocks, and as they approached the visual clearly showed a patrol cruiser, a scout ship, and two ship’s boats on the upper, government level. There was a smattering of crude flat plasma screens visible on the outside, and a few ships and small craft in odd positions. The docking tubes seemed of three different designs, and the whole effect was one of eclectic, ad hoc collection. Goode brought around some drinks as they approached, and Gerry traced his route to the Ivanovich’s Pride; the ship had not listed how many staterooms were available, so Gerry imagined getting stuck there in the high port, possibly until the con men showed up.
He went back to his cabin, did another quick sweep—probably his fourth—and then prayed somewhat distractedly. Gerry went back out into the lounge. He made some idle comments to Kanshu, then actually felt them dock. Had he not been so focused, he would not have realized what it was, the almost subliminal shudder of docking a starship. He opened his cabin door, and said to the skidder in his best parade ground voice, “Meet me just outside the ship in the High Port!”
The captain, a soft, kindly looking man with a scar on his cheek, was there to see them off, along with the grubby Goode. Gerry palmed him a 10 crud disk, and thanked him. When the last of the passengers had debarked the skidder came swooping slowly out. “You come back to us, you damned machine!” Goode barked at it as it passed out into the starport corridor. Gerry smiled in one more brief, fond look back at the Anxious A, and spun on his heel.