This continues straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/zara-scifi-romance-3rd-installment/
Okay, okay, y’all giving me such trouble over the cliffhanger endings. This is a little quieter. 🙂
Comments, please. 🙂 Everyone! I really love to hear feedback on how it’s coming from a readers point of view. And yes, we’re getting to the romance. Not long now.
Over her shoulder, the comms log screen jumps a line and a new message catches my eye.
Freighter Shohwa: “Newyan Traffic Control and Customs Cutter Duhalde, this is the freighter Shohwa of the Xian Hegemony, regarding your request for one Izarra Azenari. You are misinformed. We have no record of this person as passenger or crew aboard this ship. End transmission.”
I gape at the screen, not able to believe my eyes.
Then there’s a sickening, swiveling, jarring sensation, and feeling of falling that has me clutching the armrests. Just as my stomach seems to be about to exit my mouth, there’s a thump as ‘gravity’ re-establishes itself.
Both comms screens blank and disappear. The walls return to plain beige.
“I have engaged the Chang field,” the Shohwa says calmly. “My apologies for the temporary discomfort and restraints, but the acceleration compensators are configured for normal transport, not for high-G missile evasion.”
The Duhalde fired!
The restraints disappear. I jump to my feet.
If we’re within the Chang field, we’re safe, we’re not exactly not there any more, because there’s no precise there, there. I mean here, inside the field. But for the purposes of missiles and laser beams in the Newyan system, we have left the area.
“You were wrong,” the Shohwa says conversationally. “The Duhalde fired no warning shot. Their first salvo was intended to disable this ship.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I… Why? They… You’ve saved my life… took my side—”
“Not at all. I have not taken your side. I have saved this ship from an attack, as I am entitled and required to do.”
“They won’t see it that way.” I’m supposed to be thanking her—it, and instead I’m arguing. I’ll have to put it down to the understandable effects of an adrenaline overdose that has my legs wobbling.
“Will they not?” the Shohwa smiles and another screen appears behind it. “Let me summarize. The publically available records show we accepted, among others, a bid for a single person, basic level, one-way passage from Newyan to Amethys.”
The details of the transaction we made is displayed.
“That bid was from an electronic travel broking system called AnyTick on Newyan, and made by an anonymous user name: zara2735. As is standard with these broking systems, no proof of identity is required and the contract was made under a unique identifying code. Payment was made to this ship’s account which secured that contract. We do not care where the money came from; it’s of no concern to us. A person named Zara Aguirre duly claimed that contract by presenting the identifying code in the bay, and she boarded our shuttle.”
Of course I made the bid anonymously. But that unique code the Shohwa supplied was logged to my ID card, which says Izarra Azenari.
The screen splits. One half shows a video of me at the docking bay presenting my ID to the scanner.
The other half shows the electronic data scanned from my ID, including the Shohwa’s contract number.
But the name reads Zarate Mirari Aguirre.
The Shohwa gives me no time to question that as it continues: “Then, while in transit between Newyan orbit and our designated jump point to the Amethys system, we were subject to unexplained and unjustified routing requests from Newyan Space Traffic Control. We were under no obligation to comply, and did not. Eventually, Newyan Control, now represented by Customs Cutter Duhalde, provided a sufficient explanation of their requirements and a theoretically acceptable solution which would not impinge our schedule. However, it then turned out that their records were in error and this was all a mistake. We informed them of that.”
In my former life, my duties, loosely under the heading of ‘estate management’, have made me familiar with manure products, and this is premium quality, raw manure from the biggest horses in the stable. I am not about to complain, no, but…
“Thank you,” I manage to say, though it seems inadequate. It’s at least good manners, and manners matter, especially if your next job is about teaching them.
But to get to that job on Amethys, I need to survive.
My paranoid instincts rush in and short-circuit the muscles that move my jaw, leaving all my questions unspoken.
I need that caution. Despite everything, Shohwa does not like me. It has not taken my side. It has reasons for what it did. I am an incidental beneficiary.
“In spite of being informed of the error,” the Shohwa continues, “Customs Cutter Duhalde clearly continued to act under their misapprehension, and compounded it by firing on this ship, in contravention of its own system’s laws, federal rules, all the conventions and universally accepted rights of free passage, and disregard for the life of the crew and passengers on this freighter. This was a completely illegal and unjustified attack from which we barely escaped, and only then at great risk, by engaging the Chang field.”
The Shohwa stands up and the two unused seats sink into the floor without trace.
“A formal complaint regarding this incident will be transmitted to the federal authorities on Earth, copied to the Xian Hegemony and the Newyan planetary government, and will be made available to all planetary jurisdictions we visit until we have a satisfactory conclusion.”
My jaw is clenched shut and my mind is working furiously.
Why, why, why?
The scenario presented by the Shohwa absolves the ship of any wrong-doing and puts the blame for the incident entirely on the Duhalde. Of course, I need to go along with its story—that’s a given.
But what logical reason could the ship have for saving me?
My mind flashes back to the log of demands made by Traffic Control. Return to orbit. Okay, any freighter might refuse that one with inadequate explanation. Then the Duhalde’s demands. Stop. Same thing as return to orbit—the freighter had a valid reason to ignore that request unless justification was made.
Then: Your passenger manifest includes a fugitive criminal. We will match velocities and board to apprehend her.
The Shohwa wouldn’t have minded the routine customs inspections in orbit, where a couple of inattentive officers would inspect the cargo holds and check the manifest. But that wasn’t the same as a platoon of officers coming aboard after a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a fugitive.
If I could harbor suspicions about the ship just from a few questions about the unnamed flight crew, the shuttle specifications and Shohwa’s performance parameters, what would trained people see? What questions would they ask that the freighter would not want asked?
My instinct says this isn’t a freighter. It’s a Xian military vessel masquerading as a freighter and, on top of all that, it’s commanded by an AI.
The Duhalde didn’t realize how lucky it was. I’m certain, as I go over the incident in my mind, that the Shohwa could have blown the cutter into elementary particles without breaking stride. The only thing that saved the cutter was the Shohwa wanting to maintain its disguise.
What about when Duhalde changed from demanding a boarding to ejecting me in a survival pod?
Why not go along with that?
What if those survival pods weren’t civilian specification?
What if they were military? Built for extended use, with military beacons and hardened shell construction to withstand the environment of a battle.
If all of that was the case, I could see that the Shohwa’s only option finally was to provoke the Duhalde into firing on it, knowing it had the capability to escape that fire. No one’s going to be asking questions about the freighter’s behavior now—all the attention is back on the cutter’s actions.
All good for Xian and their disguised warship.
But I know the Shohwa is an AI, it’s admitted it to me, and that on its own would also cause questions that the Hegemony don’t want asked.
So what’s keeping me alive?
The Shohwa has assessed that I’m no threat.
I’m not going to argue, and I am certainly not going to ask questions that make the Shohwa realize I suspect that it’s a military ship.
I need to keep quiet. No questions. No comments other than agreeing.
“I understand,” I say. “It must have happened exactly as you’ve described.”
“Good,” it says. “Of course it was appropriate that I confirm your identity while talking to Newyan authorities. That is why you were called up here, and you convinced me that you are indeed, who you say you are. During the following disturbance, you appear to have dropped your cards.”
The floor shimmers and the table reappears.
On it, there is a set of the ubiquitous cards of modern life without which you are nothing: ID; credit; employment. I pick them up. They look identical to my Izarra cards, except for the name. They all say Zarate Mirari Aguirre.
The table sinks and disappears again.
The Shohwa is still watching me, still smiling.
“Enjoy the remainder of the journey, Zara,” she says. “I will disengage the Chang field in 53 hours, when we reach the planar zenith of the Amethys system, and we should enter orbit over the planet approximately 91 hours later, depending on traffic. I remain fascinated by your ongoing story. When my business leads me to visit Amethys again in the future, be sure I shall enquire after you.”
The cards are the most tactful, gently stated threat that I can imagine. Yes, she has given me my Name back, but these are cards she’s fabricated. She’ll know them, be able to track them. I have no way of buying any alternatives, and no prospect of being able to, not starting out dirt-poor on a new planet. She knows that. These cards would lead her to me, if she needed to find me.
And her final comment confirms it in my mind. If I talk about her secrets, she will find me, and no doubt rectify the situation.
I lift my head, look her steadily in the eyes, and nod my understanding. It’s fair enough, I owe her my life and my silence.
If I could just ask a few questions… No. Shut up.
As I’m thinking that, she shimmers and sinks into the floor.
I have to stop myself yelling and reaching out, as if grabbing her would prevent that body disappearing.
It’s the most peculiar, two-horned sensation. One, that I should have stopped chiding myself for attributing the Shohwa with human characteristics, thinking of her as she. And two, that she could so casually de-fabricate her physical presence like that; a construct maybe, but one that was imbued for a time with the intangible her. She had cast off that body with less concern than I might cast off an old sweater. Much less. I have unwearable, shabby sweaters from my Academy days hanging in the closet back in my old room that I have refused to throw away.
No longer mine, or my concern.
The Newyan Bureau of Industry has seized the manor and my room. Most likely, those old sweaters, and everything else I owned, are ash now.
At least the Shohwa can re-fabricate her construct.
The door I entered through reappears and the lights in the corridor outside go on.
I return the way I came, down the elevator, and go straight to my shared cabin.
On the far end of the cabin, set in the wall, there are four small combination code safes, one for each of the occupants. I open mine.
It’s nearly empty. I don’t have much of value. My cards were in there, but it appears the nanotechnology of the Shohwa reaches every part of the ship.
I put my new cards in and lock the door.
If only it was as simple to lock my questions away.
The passengers know nothing about what happened. The majority of ship staff are similarly unaware, beyond that there was an unusual and quickly-corrected problem with the acceleration compensators just before the Chang field was engaged. An alert had been broadcast and everyone had managed to strap in or hold on somewhere.
However the security team know I went to the flight deck and came back down. That gives me legendary status with them, as none of them have. I believe most of them are unaware of what’s up there. I think Danny knows. Maybe. We don’t discuss my visit to the flight deck, at all.
The good news is that I get to join in their training sessions.
Of course, they now know that I’m quick and sneaky in sparring. My element of surprise is lost and I spend much of the time picking myself off the floor or thumping the mats in surrender. Life’s like that.
Fat Boy, real name Gartz, is especially keen to be my partner for sparring. He collects his payback with a toothy grin and a gleam in his eye.
Out of his hearing, Danny mutters thanks in my ear that the boy has turned a corner with the effort he’s putting into training now.
Best of all is Slow Guy, real name Bernard. I learn a lot from him, despite the fact that I can never actually lay a hand on him unless he lets me. He’s always not there when I grab, like he has his own personal Chang field. I end up grabbing thin air and he’s standing a little to one side, blinking and with a look of faint surprise, as if he were saying ‘how come I’m over here?’.
I split most of my waking time between training and researching on the ship’s InfoHub. I devour all the additional information on Amethys that the Shohwa has released. It’s all great overview and broad brush, population statistics and political parties, but there’s nothing on the family I’ll be working for, or even the place I’ll be living.
Once we’re in the Amethys system, the ship links directly to the local InfoHub, but there’s not really a lot more information and my search ability is restricted by the bandwidth.
There are general maps. They show me that I’ll be descending the only space elevator, which they call the Skyhook, to Kensa, which is the largest continent and sits on the equator. Then I have to make my way across to the smaller, southerly continent of Murenys, and once there, to the western coastal region of Welarvor. The only further clue I have is ‘Stormhaven’—but whether that’s the name of the estate or a town is not clear.
The local InfoHub is full of advertising and that doesn’t bring me good news.
The local credits are called dynare.
Five dynare gets me food for a meal from a store. Fifteen would get me a meal in a restaurant, but double that if I include alcoholic drinks. It looks like forty would get me a night in a hotel, or a new set of ordinary clothes.
What remains of my pan-system credits converts to less than a couple of hundred dynare and the trip on the scheduled passenger plane from Kensa to Welarvor costs a thousand.
The transport system is the same as on Newyan, which gets summed up with the phrase broke or broker. In other words, if you fly on the standard passenger fare, you’ll go broke, so register with a broker system and put bids in for special deals.
The trouble is that it takes time to get a ticket with the broking system. I can’t afford to stay in Kensa because my money would run out inside of a week. I could bid higher, and maybe I’d get a ticket sooner. Maybe I don’t need to eat this week. Or sleep in a hotel.
There’s added stress I don’t need at the moment. My job offer came through a pan-system employment broking network. The way these work is hampered by the difficulties of communication from one system to another. The same job offer is broadcast to multiple planetary systems. It takes too long for any detailed negotiation to go back and forth between wherever the offer originated and wherever someone applies, so the local agent is granted a limited authority. At the time I was offered the job, the local agent in Newyan was not aware of anyone else being offered the job, but that doesn’t mean someone else on a different planet wasn’t offered the same job by their local agent at the same time.
It could be a race to get there, and second prize would be the termination salary in the offer—three month’s wages.
I could be left jobless and with barely enough money to live on while I apply for another job.
I have to get there, and I have to get there quickly.
I send a message through the employment broking system that I’m on the way, but it isn’t even acknowledged. That could just be a holdup in the comms system which is still all channeled through the Shohwa’s connection.
The day we make orbit over Amethys, I’m on the InfoHub, checking my bid on the travel broker in case a ticket has come up, checking if I have a response from the employment broker. There’s nothing.
When you log into the InfoHub, there’s a messaging utility. It’s the way Danny told me when the security team planned to train. I open the utility and there’s a new message. It’s anonymous, a tag that links me to a small news item just broadcast from the Amethys InfoHub: the captain of a customs cutter in the Newyan system had gone mad on duty, firing at ships. Luckily no damage was done, the article says, and the man ended up killing himself.
Believe what you will. The Newyan conspirators are cleaning up loose ends and presenting their defense and apology to Xian.
That leaves just the one loose end, here in the Amethys system. Me.
As I read, another message arrives and a second tag links me to a message board on the Amethys InfoHub which is maintained by the Xian delegation on the planet. It gives me an account and password. I guess I have a way to report what I’m doing to the Shohwa. And she’ll have another way to keep track of me.
I change my entries at the two brokers to my new Xian-sponsored address and check the time. The infopad shows me there’s only an hour left before the shuttle leaves.
It doesn’t take long to clear my stuff out of the cabin. I have a single long duffel bag which contains everything I own, apart from what I’m wearing. Embarrassingly, what I’m wearing is cast-offs from Danny. They’re durable fabric, pants and jacket, faded dark brown and with lots of pockets. I re-stitched the seams, washed and pressed them. They’ll do. I can’t afford to refuse charity now. This is my new life. I’ll get over the embarrassment. Or I’ll get used to it.
Not just Danny; all of the security team have been real friends.
I didn’t say anything, and I don’t think the Shohwa told them, but they work out that I’m in a bad way financially. There’s nothing too obvious. If we sit down to eat, somehow my meals get paid for when they divide up the bill. Danny and others casually ask if I wanted anything from the stuff they’re throwing out.
I’m angry. Not with them, but with myself, or with fate, that I have to accept charity. And I have to keep smiling.
I blink the thoughts away. There’s a new life on Amethys to concentrate on.
But I’ll miss them, I’m thinking, just as I spy Danny, Gartz and Bernard at the docking bay.
Paranoia kicks in with a scenario where they’re here to hand me over to the police as soon as we land, but Danny’s grin dispels that.
I lift my mood by going on the attack.
“Things are that bad they’ve put you in charge of bidding for freight planetside?” I say.
Danny laughs. “That would be bad. No. Just new rules. Security on all shuttle operations, until further notice.”
We banter some more, which is better than me choking up.
Gartz has actually taken shore leave on Amethys once before, and while we all board the shuttle and strap in, he lists all his recommendations. These are mainly seedy bars in the coastal resort on Kensa he stayed in. Not much use for me, but his exaggerated descriptions are worth listening to for the laughs.
I guess it’s my last chance to ask more about the Shohwa, but I don’t. The shuttle is still part of the ship, and I suspect the lens next to the comms unit at the front of the seating area is for recording everything in the passenger area.
The questions continue buzzing inside me like wasps, but they’ll die down soon enough, I hope.
It’s harder for us all to talk while we’re in flight because Bernard and Gartz are in the row of seats in front of us. But once we’re accelerating at a constant rate down the Skyhook, they unstrap and kneel backwards on their seats to continue talking to us. In doing so, they happen to block the line of sight to the recording lens at the front.
Danny ignores what they’re saying.
“Zara, just listen, can’t talk long,” he says. “Boss wouldn’t like any recorded evidence of there being any substantial association between us and you. Understand? No evidence we planned with someone from Newyan to cause a fight with the cutter. No evidence you’re a particular friend, outside of us training together and talking to you.”
I nod. I wonder where this is going. Boss is just his way of saying Shohwa.
“We’re the good guys, okay?”
I nod again. I don’t know what the Shohwa is really doing. I don’t think they’re spying, or that the Xian Hegemony is planning an attack of systems on the other side of human space. The only thing I can think of is some kind of anti-piracy patrol. Not that they’d get attacked in the Margin or the Inner Worlds, but a Xian freighter that only travelled out in the Frontier would be suspicious. Pirates aren’t dumb, and they monitor traffic movements to spot the best targets.
Piracy is an ugly, ugly problem in the Frontier and anti-piracy patrol would require the sort of absolute secrecy Shohwa wants.
It half-fits. The questions come buzzing up again, but Danny doesn’t give me time to voice them.
He presses a battered old wallet into my hands.
“Despite the stories Gartz tells, the guys didn’t manage to burn all their spare dynare last time they had shore leave on Amethys. This is what’s left.”
“Danny, I can’t take this.”
“Hush. It’s really not much. In there is a ticket as well. A printed ticket. You know, retro-style, a piece of paper. Don’t lose it. It’s not traceable and not replaceable.”
“I can’t take this,” I say again.
“You don’t have an option. We hacked the employment broking system you used. You’re in a race. There’s one other person who has applied for the job. Only one—the offer has been closed now, so no more are coming—but that one person is on their way.”
I look down at the wallet and blink tears away. My friends don’t owe me anything. They don’t really even know me. And yet, without them, I could have waited in Kensa for a ticket to become available, and lost the job.
“Put it away in your pocket,” Danny says. “Now, as soon as you clear Immigration, change your pan-system credits to dynare, because you won’t be able to do that anywhere else. Then take the first bus you can find to the commercial airfield. It’s only a couple of kilometers away. The name and loading areas are printed on the ticket. This is not going to be a quick or comfortable trip—it’s a Xian industrial transport plane that flies out once a week to places including Welarvor—but it starts off in a couple of hours. Don’t miss it.”
“Thank you, all of you,” I say, blinking again.
He grins. “And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t cost us anything. It’s a favor.”
He looks up at Gartz and Bernard. “Guys, sit down and strap in. You’re setting a bad example, and we’re about to start braking.”
Beneath the view of the recording lens again, we talk about neutral things and I try not to choke up.
All of which is how, a couple of days later but a whole continent away, I am able to step down from the cargo plane onto a dusty little airstrip in Welarvor, on the western coast of Murenys, and start trying to find out how to complete my journey.
“Stormhaven, you say?”
The local merchant who had come to collect his delivery from the Xian transporter rubs his nose, and squints away westwards.
“There’s a Stormhaven down the coast,” he says. “Fair distance, mind.”
The accent is soft and slow. After listening to Xian accents, it sounds very unhurried.
“Are you going that way?” I ask hopefully.
“No, lass. I’m heading back with this load up the coast. I can drop you in Bandry. That’s the biggest town ’round here, and it’s on the coast road.”
“That would be good, thank you. Do they have buses there that go along the coast?”
“Can’t say I’m sure they do,” he replies. “But they have an inn, and you could call ahead, get your friends to fetch you, maybe.”
I could call ahead if I had their telephone number. I could find their telephone number if I had their name. Unfortunately, every time I’ve managed to check on an infopad there’s been no response to me from the employment broker, and I have nothing except the validation code which I was given on accepting the contract, and the name of the town, Stormhaven. All references in the contract are just given as ‘the Employer’.
I help with loading his truck and then we talk while he drives to Bandry.
When we get there, I buy tea from a little refreshment shop and talk to the owner. It’s a slow day. She joins me with her cup.
However slowly I feel she’s talking, by the time we finish, I know many things:
This is a sparsely populated area. It’s also a safe, law-abiding place. Mostly. It’s a step back in time, and the inhabitants like it that way.
It suffers from powerful storms coming in off the ocean.
A ‘fair distance’ to Stormhaven is a long day’s walk and it would be better to take the coast path, not only because it’s more direct than the coast road, but also the road suffered major subsidence in the last storm. Traffic on that road is very light.
And the predators, mainly nighttime, she assures me, tend to stay inland. Thank you.
I spend some of my dwindling money on a new pair of walking boots, some strong tape, a plain meal and a good night’s sleep at the inn.
At dawn, I’m walking on the coast path. The handles of my duffel have been converted into a backpack harness with tape and some foam I’d been able to beg from the innkeeper.
I’d also been allowed to use his infopad. No messages. The continued silence from the employment broker is unnerving me, but I’m out of options.
I glance upward. Somewhere up there is Shohwa. I wonder if she has surveillance watching me now, but thinking of that makes my flesh creep. Her message, through Danny, is clear enough. Even with the explanation that the incident with the Duhalde was all down to the cutter’s captain going mad, the conspirators on Newyan will be trying to turn it around and point at the Shohwa. Trying to show that the Xian ship had some plan involving using me to provoke an incident. To counter that, it has to be obvious to all observers that I’m completely independent of the ship, and that my travelling in her was a coincidence. She won’t be able to help me, even if there was a logical reason for her to want to.
I hit a low point, and I walk with every doubt in my head weighing me down.
What if the other Dancing Mistress beats me to Stormhaven?
What if there’s a problem with the contract?
The broker’s no longer in business? Does that impact on the contract?
Coming second to another applicant would be bad enough, but if there’s no job at Stormhaven, I don’t even have enough money to make my way back to anywhere populous enough that it could offer a chance to work, let alone enough money to survive while I find that work.
So much for being a Name.
I won’t just be poor, I’ll be a beggar.