The Adventures of Gerry Fynne
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue.
Chapter 12: Pridefully Proceeding
On the way maneuvering out to their jumppoint, Gerry had a message sent back to Fr. Bowie, for Auntie. While he had already sent a message through the mail drop to her, that was not “putting it in His hands,” but trying to maintain control over it himself.
Their jump was largely uneventful, which was a blessed relief. Gerry had met the snoring mound in a state of mutual consciousness, and found his name was, somewhat disconcertingly Jerome Finley. Gerry had offered him a sandwich and asked that he let him know if he was planning any liaisons in their cabin. This Jerome, the mound, had indeed promised, and was almost—almost—successful in delivering. In the one transgression, someone had indeed at least pulled the shade on the mound’s bunk, so although the only answer to Gerry’s knock had been soprano sighs, he at least had been forewarned enough to resolve to grab a sandwich and hurry back out without further conversation. The incident did not leave him unmoved, however; he had more than once thought about the two hundred credits he still had for Patsy. She left the mercs alone, but she would still flirt with him in passing: the odd stroke of his shoulder, or brush of her softness against him as she passed to pick up a dish that did not need to be picked up. He was tempted on a few occasions. Thankfully, there were other diversions.
Drew had, in fact, bought a shotgun for him, without direction. It was cheap, less than 200 credits, and he let Gerry know that he was under no obligation to pay him; Drew would keep it and sell it later if Gerry did not want it. Gerry took it, however, with something like relish. They had used the practice barrel to work in Drew’s stateroom using a holo program from his handcomp, but only for about three hours together. The proper barrel was secured in the ship’s locker, so despite its wonderful feel in his hands, the gun was about deadly as a canoe paddle in its current form. Gerry did not care; he was enthralled, and overall spent another 20 hours practicing on his own.
He spent some time just socializing with the mercs, especially Drew. They played a lot of cards, and he learned an obscure card game which they played with him for money, though they did not let him lose much. Despite the occasional intervention to wave him off bad bets, as a neophyte Gerry lost badly, so Drew also made further curative interventions.
In a typical interchange, Gerry was chasing a bad hand with a bad bluff, “I’m staying!”
“No, yer not.”
“But, yes, I am. Why am I not staying?”
“Because you can’t bluff, and we all know it but you!”
“How do you know I’m bluffing?” Gerry asked, an edge of indignation in his voice.
“Well, everyone’s got a tell, some physical reaction that shows when he’s bluffing. Some guys, it takes several games to catch what it is. Not for you, boy: your ‘tell’ is more like a fracking interpretive dance. We’re worried you might just fall out of your seat onto the floor. Poor bastards down in cold sleep know you’re bluffing, man. You’re folding!” Drew said, as an order more than advice. Gerry folded, and watched hands that would have shredded his being played by the other three.
He adored the mercs, because they reminded him a bit of Gunny. They tolerated him. He could not know their reasons, but they were much the same as Gunny’s: too many young faces, with the life draining out of them from stupid, preventable mistakes, haunted the dim times between their productive wakefulness and the true solace of their sleep. And still intruded there sometimes.
In his cabin, fingers sore from a four hour practice while wearing his suit, he showered and flopped onto his bunk in his PT shorts. He needed to look at his plan on arriving in his destination system of New Konigsberg, which he had been putting off. He realized he did not want to think about his arrival. The monotony of his weeks aboard ship had come to be a comfort. Each starport was a bridge to the next; the physiological lurch of jump itself an entry into a cocoon of time and space where he was cut off from all but his fellow travellers.
They were due to exit jump in 16 hours. There were no tenders to meet them, so they would go right into to the NK starport, a downport on the surface of the the small rockball itself. There was a scheduled shuttle to Khii and its satellites (including Khii 43) every month, for 58 credits, that would leave 16 hours after they were predicted to hit the starport. He realized that Eve had assumed that he would miss this scheduled route. If he had not had expeditious transfers, he would have indeed missed it. He would have had to hire a small craft to take him, or miss the float.
He also realized that if he had not make the fast transfers at Baakh and Marda he would not have even made the convoy, let alone beat it by over a day and a half. He was getting to Khii 43 before Eve figured he could, and hoped that would not throw off whatever plans she may have made.
Drew looked down at the three cards he had just drawn, and frowned.
To break the silence Gerry prodded, “Tell me about these gunners; the turrets looked pretty new, expensive, and they were triples. The gunners do not seem to be gunners, though. I mean Patsy and that kid, gunners?”
Drew frowned just a bit deeper and bet. A paltry bet, and then he grinned, “They are certainly listed on the ship’s papers as that. Maybe they even have certs, though certs aren’t required. If Patsy has a cert, I would be willing to bet she got it using her other skills. No the real gunners are robots.”
“ROBOTS?” Gerry burst out, his voice breaking.
“Frak, kid, be quiet! Lots of people get emotional about… certain hardware.”
“…sorry,” Gerry said, chastened and embarrassed.
“Your reaction is just the type of thing that is both dangerous and to be expected. These would not be like Zho warbots, mind you. Likely Ballard Astromechs. Your ever see the turrets open?”
“No, but why would I?”
“Well put it this way. You said you were on a liner, right?”
“Yes the Maid, the Scarlet Maid.”
Drew grinned, “Only three turrets for six hundred tons, but you saw the inside of the turrets, and gunners, or at least one?”
“Yeah. How did you know? I never told you that.” Gerry almost accused. He somewhat resented being toyed with.
“Marketing, Gerry. Same as I’ll bet the purser had a uniform that displayed her assets well?”
Drew caught Gerry’s expression.“Oh! You liked her?”
“Hard not to. She helped me out with those two con men.”
Drew nodded, “Nothing wrong with that. Good marketing works. Look at us three. We could just travel in gym shorts and flip-flops, but there is a studied certain marketing in our badassery,” Drew grinned, jerking his head slightly towards the other two mercs. Gerry realized somewhat foolishly that the rough look—blades, leather, ballistic glasses, and studiedly random uniform parts—was marketing.
“Everyone’s got an angle, Gerry. Even the Hospitallers.”
It was Gerry’s turn to frown, but he was at a loss.
“Father is traveling with us, you know,” Drew fairly broke his face with a toothy, most un-badass grin.
“Not on the Pride?!?”
“No. In formation, though. Scout rider with two boats.”
“Scout rider, what’s that?”
“Well, you know the Scouts surplus their old ships with detached duty Scouts.”
“Well, they have been used for everything from grey passages to mining Seekers, even to merchants. A lot of it is shady, but the Service does not care. They just want their eyes and ears out, even if a few regs are broken.” Gerry nodded a little vacantly, because all of the this was well-known to any high school boy with an even passing interest in spacers. “Well, a completely unlicensed mod is the Scout Rider, which is a collar that carries nothing but extra fuel and two docking collars for fast boats. The whole thing can then do only jump-1, but has the fuel for two jumps. The Scout can transport small craft between systems much cheaper than they would be on a commercial ship. Their transponders still say they are a Type-S, one turret. But they end up with three. Or they dump the whole rider rig and boats out in the black and come in. The boats hang around the jump point, looking for trouble. So the rider comes in a little before the convoy, looking to clear out the jump exit point of any opportunistic pirates looking to get lucking with an early exit from the convoy. If it is known that they navy isn’t sending anyone in system out to the jump point, some pirate might just get greedy. They only have to once in their lives.”
“So there’ll be pirates?” Gerry asked, his voice rising. Part of him knew this was a silly question, and another part hoped after such fantastic confrontations.
“Likely not. This kind of ‘op’ makes contact maybe one time out of 20 or 30, and then it is usually unclear, a distant contact that turns tail. Pirate smells something and lays low. It makes it too expensive to pirate, though. Remember how I said, in my badass intro, that I mostly just changed peoples’ priorities using violence?”
“Same principle. Deterrence. The most effective armed force is the one that keeps the other side from trying anything. Bad-enough-assery, and no one dies.”
“What kind of pirate is going to be scared by just two boats, though?”
“Well, it’s not an even comparison if it’s a stand-up fight, if he’s got any size ship. Only one pirate in a hundred wants a stand-up fight, though, and Bowie and his boys aren’t afraid of damage. They aren’t trying really hard to even stay alive. They are happy to meet their maker. Some pirate, he’s gotta get away clean; he has to scare some trader into giving up his cargo without spilling any blood. Can’t afford to get dinged up far from home. Can’t do that with these Jesus freaks in the black armor, though. No cargo to be had, and you can’t scare them. Same as the Navy, only the Navy costs a lot more, and may actually run away easier from steep odds. Live to fight another day, and all that.”
Gerry thought about the intense little priest as a pirate hunter, buttoned up in his armor, his fast boat depressurized for combat, waiting in the black to defend the flock.
“So they are looking to be martyred?”
“Now I wouldn’t say ‘lookin’ to be’…” Drew shook his head, somewhat thoughtfully, “More like looking to protect the flock, and not flinching from that with any thought of safety. No, those little buggers will sell their lives dearly, and they are not looking to die. That’s my rub. Never actually fought beside them, but I have heard stories. A lot of stories.”
Gerry let that sink in, then realized he was still curious about the original thread of the conversation. “So we got good, well, gunners?”
The betting made its way around, and Gerry dumped his cards, catching a flicker of approval from Drew.
“I do not know the specifics, but here’s what I guess. Something like a basic Astromech can out-gun about 98% of human gunners. They do not sleep, have an overdeveloped sense of duty, and they do not scare. As long as they are kept under wraps, and no official freaks out about illegal uses of cybernetics, then it is a great deal. If there is an inspection, there are rated as medical and mechanical assistants, and there are human gunners for the turrets.”
Gerry thought about the killer robots in all the tri-vids and books he had grown up on, Zho warbots incinerating placid nursery schools, slaughtering whole hospitals full of patients. They loved to hate and fear robots, though really they were ubiquitous throughout Imperial space in their usually unanthropomorphic servile legions.
Gerry passed the next couple of days in rather a haze. Drew helped him send a message to Eve when they exited jump, and it was a quick maneuver into NK. They had come out of jump nine hours late, but he would still make the shuttle by several hours. Gerry asked the Second Officer, in a deferential voice about security procedures, and how to get onto the shuttle. The efficient bantam called ahead, and reserved him a spot, telling him that as long as he kept the shotgun disassembled, and locked in different bags, no one would stop him in the starport.
The starport had no comprehensive security to speak of, being essentially a set of docking tubes in crudely excavated pads, linked together by tunnels. There would be a couple of Marines, however, to shut down any open weapons carry of anything more than a blade, by those not licensed as mercenaries. There was a small dome over an open plaza, about 50 meters across, which was the hub of the wheel that was the crude facility. He said his goodbyes to the mercs, and dragged his bags onto the rental skidder outside the docking tube. He wished he could linger aboard, but departing passengers were expected to debark as soon as they hit the starport, to ready the cabins to be resold.
Drew and his bunch let him know they were meeting the rest of their group, and really did not have room for a mascot. He understood that he was not a sufficiently badass mascot to keep up appearances. Nonetheless, he followed them at a discrete distance, and ate where they stopped to wet their whistles; it was the only place to eat, essentially a cafeteria, which also sold liquor, with some vending machines to the side.
Gerry hurried ahead to purchase his shuttle ticket, and then went back to sit against the wall with some warm rice dish in a cardboard tray. It was rather a wait, and he eventually ate three, then dozed against his bags until the shuttle allowed check-ins. The mercs, he saw, were decked out again in armour, though no laser rifles were in evidence. The sidearms were carried visibly, however, and there were a couple of shotguns in the group, now numbering over seven. Merc credentials were strapped to biceps, and casual scowls abounded. Badass marketing.
He took his bags, and checked them in. The shuttle took 80 passengers, and appeared sold out. He would actually transfer to another boat that would drop him on Khii 43, as the route connected a potential 65 sites. Of these, 47 seemed active though only 36 for passengers, with and cargo drops or pickups at the other 11. Looking at the complex schedule, Gerry realized that it would take him 29 hours from departure to make it to Khii 43.
There were other small craft departing for Khii, but Gerry realized that most of the milling humanity in the dark little starport was headed for the same shuttle he was. He boarded and took a sleeping pill shortly after settling in his seat. Waking he realized he had almost another 20 hours to go. He thought briefly of the excursion on Lirshe, which now seemed so long ago, but realized there was no pavilion here, no debarking, no walking. There was likewise scant service: a little garbage chute at each seat, as well as a filler station for the water bottle that was marked “retain for journey.” The cereal bars in the otherwise empty food locker at Gerry’s seat were marked for shipboat survival rations, and past their date. The only crewman to whom one might complain seemed to be acting more in the vein of security; ready to quell anyone making trouble (like asking, “Please, sir, could I have some more?”) with the stunner he carried in a prominent chest rig. Not exactly Ley Lightning, he thought. He gnawed the cereal bars, still groggy from the sleeping pill, drained the water bottle twice, and watched a quick flat-screen feature. Then the second pill took him.
He was woken from a dream by the vibration of his seat. “Gerald Fynne, your transfer is in 10 minutes. Accept the beverage with our compliments, and proceed to the aft, port hatch.” The message flashed across his screen and played from the speakers in his headrest, looping until he took the cup of green fizzy liquid from the seatside console and scarfed it. “Deposit cup in chute before leaving, please,” followed until he did so. It tasted like UrpUrp gone horribly wrong, but he could feel the stimulant working. He rushed to make a fresher before the rendezvous.
He worried about his bags, and waited in a small queue for the fresher. He didn’t have time, and shuffled to the airlock, almost forgetting his shoulder bag in his seat. He had remembered that the luggage transfer was automatic as he had done a groggy peepee dance in the second queue. He realized he was being iris scanned, but could not tell from where.
“Anderson. Dorner Anderson!! Two minutes to transfer!”
There was jostling and pointed cursing a few rows back. Despite some serious air scrubbers, the shuttle still smelled heavily like the acrid body odor of anxiety, stale urine, with a subtle undertone of dried vomit.
An unconscious form, smaller than Gerry but looking four times his age, and smelling as if he could single-handedly be the source of all the shuttle’s bad smells, was being dragged by the shoulders up to the end of the queue, two behind Gerry. The dour-looking crewman bent over him with a small handcomp. He looked like he was both doing an iris scan and checking vitals as another crewman came up, spraying some disinfectant on the diminutive, unconscious, stinking form, “I already got his seat,” he said, unrolling what appeared to be a cheap cleansuit stuck to a semi-rigid backing. They slid him on top, and zipped the limbs of the suit around his noodle-like appendages.
Gerry was feeling almost giddy from his little green shot of stimulant, and forgot about peeing for a while as he watched this darkly comic scene unfold. They were treating him almost as leaking cargo, which nonetheless had some value. The suit could be removed from the backing, but they had not done so. As soon as they had pumped a liter of fluid into him through an auto-sleeve, the second crew member left, and the last limb, a scarred and somewhat emaciated arm, was zipped in. The airlock cycled to open, and they stepped through, with Mr. Anderson dragged behind, and strapped into the first open seat.
Gerry had started to smile when he realized the pathos. The crew had done what they had to: transferring the passengers, while making sure that none died on their watch and the seats were not unnecessarily soiled. Mr. Anderson was well into drinking himself to death, it would appear. Gerry felt no more like smiling, dropped his should bag on a seat, and almost bounded to the fresher. This was a much smaller boat than the shuttle, and thanks to Anderson’s containment in the cleansuit, smelled reasonably clean.
Gerry was moved to the “window seat” by a woman in bright blue coveralls, who was apparently the second crew member. The pilot was standing just outside the cockpit door, making a short speech to the effect that we would each be given twenty minutes before the airlock cycled to get our suit on. No ship-compatible airlocks were to be expected for individual stops this far out into mining territory, so getting out the airlock had the quality of a low level bombing run. There were eight stops listed on the seatback comboscreen, giving the time for each. He scowled, and looked like he would be happy to use his stunner on all of us, given the least provocation. A nametag said, “Joan,” and though she was all business, and probably in her thirties, Joan smelled good, a subtle perfume, and had her coveralls zipped down enough so just the top of a green lace camisole peaked out, behind her own diminutive stunner.
She smiled, as someone else’s mother might who didn’t know him. “Need anything, son?” He shook his head no. She checked the airlock, took a look through a hatch in the rear of the passenger compartment, dogged it again, cast her eyes once more over the ten passengers, and said, “We’re up” into a collar com unit to the captain who had already retreated back into his cockpit.
Gerry could actually see out of his window, and the view was even a bit interesting, as the back-lit launch broke away from the sanded-gray side of the shuttle, flipped backwards, and was suddenly off under its much higher maneuver thrust. Gerry turned on his handcomp, thinking that any electronic trail he left this far out was a risk he was willing to take. In a few minutes he had synched with the on-board passenger information software, and had a holo image of their flight path, and that of the shuttle they had just left.
“We're selling some food to make the payments on this bucket, along with some other comfort items.”
Joan’s voice had surprised him, and he noticed she was leaning slightly onto his seatmate, a fairly young-looking tall, blonde miner who studiously avoided eye contact, like they all seemed to, holding a basket of sandwiches, some drinks, pens, a suit patch kit, some toiletries, and a box with some tri-vid crystals. The sandwiches appeared to be Everfresh, opened, halved, and rewrapped, he got two, just to see her smile again, and because although he was more bored than hungry, he was still hungry.
Back to the software, he could see their approach. He was to get up to suit-up in another three hours and some minutes. He went back and got a tri-vid, for 3 cruds: too much, but he wanted something to occupy his mind. He was only vaguely conscious of being scared of what came next. He really had no idea what came next. Eve, some unknown challenges, a mining claim of unknown character, life in the black. What else?
There was a hailing freq for Khii 43, and he asked Joan to have Khii 43 hailed to say there was one passenger and luggage inbound at the landing point. Her warm smile made him feel like sending some more messages. Returning a few minutes later, “Joan” related that the response to the radio message had noted that he was expected and should follow the path to the airlock.
“Well, it’s a standard stop, monthly, so let me see what I can pull up.” Straightening, and turning half away from Gerry, she pulled out a thin, flexible terminal from a thigh pocket, tapped three times, and turned it so he could see an enhanced color image of a pair of pads, linked with the passenger transfer and cargo transfer symbols respectively. A pathway of decking formed a tall, narrow “T” that linked them and a shelter burrowed into the rock, some 30 to 40 meters distance; the decking was bordered and center-lined with standard industrial markings. It had all the look of a very small, permanent belt miner’s camp. Overprinting on the image noted that the decking was ferrous and had grav of .125 g. Looking at the image, Gerry realized that it made the return message unnecessary; there would have been no question where he was to go, even if he was coming out the airlock with no preparation.
“We drop cargo here most months. Probably rations and sundries. You are the first person I recall coming in,” she turned the terminal back toward her, and pecked a few more times, “Sometimes the miner would boost out with us, according to the records of the past few years, but never back. We only go monthly, so he likely chartered a boat to get him back. I’m guessing, just guessing, mind you, he did not go outsystem in the past few years. That is all I have records for, sweetie. Are you family?”
The familiar tone she slid into took Gerry a little by surprise. He realized that she was looking at him in what he thought might be maternal, or flirty, or a teasing mix. It was more personable, whatever it was.
“I am his son.”
“Oooh. From where?”
“Coreward a few parsecs.” Gerry said casually. He was feeling a little anxious about giving away details, and the vagueness was taken by “Joan” to mean that he was a little uncomfortable.
“Belters keep their own counsel, sweetie. You do likewise with those who aren't kin.” she brushed his cheek in a maternal gesture and was off.
There was jumpseat by the airlock where passengers suited up. Gerry’s bigsoft with the suit was by the seat when the twenty minute warning came for him. He casually finished his drink, went to the fresher, showered, and changed into into his IM PT shorts there. As he washed quickly, Gerry wondered about Eve. Wondered about how he smelled. What Father K-O’M would counsel. How she smelled. They would be far away from everybody…
On the heels of thoughts of lust and morality came barely formed anxieties. What if it was a trap? Why would it be a trap? Why else would she want him out here alone? He imagined some scam, like the two con men. He could put the shotgun together on the pad, he realized, but that sounded silly. A sarcastic line came back from one of his teachers, his stock reaction to some misanthropic gaffe, “How to win friends and influence people!”
He had 7 minutes and a bit remaining when he left the fresher. “Joan” gave him an inquisitive look, glancing back to his suit bigsoft. He shrugged, went back to his seat, packed and checked his hand luggage. At 3 minutes out he sat down in the jumpseat, after she had given him a 5 minute warning in a nagging tone that would curdle most dairy products. He had his suit on and airtight a leisurely 45 seconds after he unzipped the bag, and gave “Joan” a shrug. It had been a self-indulgent little bit of showmanship, but she gave him an admiring smirk. Not a belter time, but not a groundhog fumble either. It was a matter of clinging to his little patch of competence out here.
The cargo lock spat out his small cube seconds before his airlock door opened. As he had been told, it was a 2 meter drop at .125g, and he made it look almost graceful. He looked to his left, to see the small cube and shuffled his feet to look back at the boat, but it was already gone. “Well, thanks!”