(First chapter of this space-opera is HERE.)
New Wallstreet Station
Sol Alliance Jurisdiction
Nick hit work humming a hymn and twiddling a tap sheet between his fingers. He was almost happy enough to skip, but the Wildcat Customs industrial bays were perpetually at Luna standard gravity and skipping could cause some spectacular accidents.
His first order of business was to check on his subordinates, so he went through the workbays to see if anyone else had come in as early as him. He found Terry Brown in his alcove, five-meters above the deck, tinkering on a Marshall Industries Gabriel mk4. Nick checked the tapsheet in his hands and saw Terry had a consult request in on plasma shield harmonics.
“Whatcha need, Terry?”
Terry jerked and almost fell off the giant walker. He glared down at his boss through a visor that showed the faint shimmer of a look-through display
“Watch it, Nick. I don’t have a harness hooked up.”
“Five meters won’t kill you in Luna gee. Safety Commission might, though. Or maybe me when they up my insurance assessment.”
“So whatcha need?”
Terry pointed down at his holoterminal.
“Plasma shield won’t make full containment. Got all the specs and scans pulled up right there.”
Nick pulled up the data and looked at the listed components, configuration diagrams, simulated performance and actual performance.
“Hmmm. Looks like the number three glacis projector is misaligned.” Nick tapped the problem unit on the projection, highlighting it. “That’s distorting the main containment field, which is causing a cascade effect through the whole shield.”
Nick ran the scan recording for live shield operation and pointed out the numbers showing the cascade. “It’ll disappear when you run it in battlefield mode. Test mode has less compensation for distorted geometry. On purpose.”
He closed the display.
“I could tell you how much it’s misaligned, but I expect you can figure that out now that you know the problem.”
“Gee, thanks, Nick.”
Nick smiled and left Terry to finish upgrading the mech. As none of his other techs were in yet he went to his personal workshop to start on his own project.
Nick’s workshop was semi-organized, kept so by his personal assistant Jaya Ghadhavi when she wasn’t struggling to organize his even more erratic schedule. Numerous devices in various stages of assembly lay on an array of non-reactive work tables, all gathered into project groups with dated labels to show when he had last worked on each one. Those that were part of a paid job also had big deadline signs attached to them, with digital countdowns. Occasionally Jaya disappeared the oldest non-contract projects without a trace. While Nick complained about the intrusion when it happened, he knew it helped him stay focused and got over it quickly.
He passed all the projects and sat down at his desk where he had a private, off-network, quantum-cruncher for doing serious simulations. A swipe of his hands pulled up the previous day’s work on five different holo-interfaces and a push threw one of the schematics into a giant exploded view on the ceiling-mounted holoprojector.
Nick stared at the plans for his new gunboat, looking for anything else that needed tweaking. All of the changes he had made the night before still looked good, so he opened the station comm on one of his desk interfaces and put in a call to Rudolph Aritza, Wildcat Customs’ accountant.
The thin faced spaniard answered from his highrise office in the south city district and immediately smiled.
“Nick! Always a pleasure. What can I do for you today?”
“I’m calling about funding for my gunboat project. How are my financials looking? Did escrow clear on the Kalki yet?”
Rudolph looked at something off camera and then back to Nick.
“The Kalki account just cleared, with the early completion bonus and an additional bonus for ‘performance above expectations’. Added to the profits set aside from the Kartikeya and the Hanuman, your gunboat project is cash funded for all research fees, technology licenses, materials and production costs up to a run of ten units, with a solid buffer for unexpected costs.”
“Excellent. That’s all I wanted to hear. Thanks Rudolph.”
Nick cut the link and pulled up the gunboat schematics again.
“Okay, Lord, guess I can finally start on this.”
He pulled up the list for research outsourcing and began pairing assignments with research firms he had used in the past.
His unicomm buzzed from a pocket in his overalls and he pulled it out. He had a message from a Tevyn Marsden.
Nick took a moment to recall who Tevyn Marsden was. Eventually he remembered meeting a broken captain staring at an equally broken destroyer down in the public berths.
He opened the message.
“Thank you very much for your repair offer. It meant a lot. I tried as hard as I could, but I won’t be able to fund the materials. Not even close. Still, thank you. If you happen to have any customers looking for a fixer-upper destroyer, please send them my way. It would be a big help.”
Nick finished reading the message and sighed. He looked back up at the research list and twiddled his smartcomm between his fingers.
He bowed his head.
“Father, please help that man. He has a lot on his shoulders right now. You know better than me. Please comfort him. Please rescue him.”
He finished the short prayer, waited a moment, then looked up again. The giant schematic of his gunboat still floated in the air. He studied the sleek lines, the efficient power network, the revolutionary engine configuration.
What he was really seeing was a ruined Galacticorp destroyer.
* * * * * * *
Tevyn stared at the “message sent” icon for a moment before going back to his other documents. Forty days had passed without any offers on the Firedrake and it wasn’t looking like there would be any. The price for selling the Firedrake as scrap and parts wouldn’t be nothing, as most of the ship was undamaged, but it would leave twice as much debt remaining in the end.
At present the bank was planning to shop for a buyer for another ten days before taking the scrap option. Tevyn was doing the best he could to help, but he wasn’t finding anything on his own, either.
Crushing debt or worse crushing debt, that was the question.
The worst part was the tension of not knowing, of waiting for the inevitable destruction to descend. The fear of debt while awake had blended with the nightmares while asleep into a heavy gray haze and a continual ache.
The only comfort was Allison, who pulled him into her arms every night and whispered until the other voices stopped.
For her sake he had to find a solution.
He checked his messages again but nothing new had come in. There was nothing to do but wait for the next round of responses.
Tevyn leaned back in his chair and stared at the kitchen wall display. Currently it showed the view of Earth from the station. The blue world was just a tiny dot far off to the right of the Sun, as visible from New Wallstreet as Mars would be from Earth, but it still called to him. No matter how far he went, or where he lived, Earth was still home, still pulled.
A whole sea of bitter memories couldn’t sever that link.
Tevyn rose from his chair, intent on the city again.
Down from the walls, through to the Green.
Tevyn wandered the paths for hours. When an automatic call came from the bank, reminding him that he now had nineteen days left until the Firedrake was sold for scrap, he sent Allison a short message telling him where he was and turned off his comm. Finding some kind of peace required a lack of interruptions.
Without an electronic tether pulling on him, Tevyn was able to lose himself more effectively. For a while he sat at a naturescaped waterfall and listened to the sound of the falls and of the ducks playing in the pond below. Other people came by, some to swim in the water, others to listen or picnic, but Tevyn ignored them all.
When the waterfall paled he moved on to a koi pond, and then a walk through a spectacular flower garden.
Tevyn left the Green, heading into the entertainment district of the city, which mostly clustered within a few kilometers of the Green on the walkway and skyway levels of the towers. He wandered without purpose, going to anything that caught his eye, from street artists to holo-arcades to commercial displays.
At some point he bought a taco from a street vendor located thirty stories up on the skyway and sat down to eat it on a bench in front of an empty storefront. A wild chicken eyed him for a handout but he ignored it.
Inside the storefront Tevyn saw an old african man in a button-up shirt with a wood violin, a skinny caucasian boy in a long red-and-gray t-shirt with a brass saxophone, a short-haired chinese woman in a black single-shoulder pencil dress with a silver-fitted clarinet, and a heavyset blond caucasian man in a suit on a keyboard.
In the midst of them wandered a girl in an intricately cut gray, white, and blue robe. He had only seen similar clothing a couple of times before. The girl herself had the distinct look of a Perthrain: lobeless ears, a somewhat eurasian face, faintly olive skin and, most characteristically, intricately-arranged iridescent hair that burned in the reds, golds, purples and blues of a particularly spectacular sunset.
To Tevyn it appeared to be some kind of jazz band, with the girl as the singer. From the traditional robes she looked like one of the Tethri, the ancient Perthrain entertainer clans, but they were almost never seen apart from their clans. Especially not the women. Seeing one who looked like a teenager mixed in with such an odd collection of Terrans was very unusual.
Tevyn finished two-thirds of his taco and dropped the rest for the chicken, who approached cautiously and began pecking up the ground beef left in the shell. He felt like moving on, but wanted to hear the band before he did.
The band got their instruments tuned and settled onto their seats. The old man started first, setting the tempo on his violin. Then the others joined in.
Tevyn relaxed. They were good.
The music flowed through the sapphire of the storefront, a complex, interlacing tune that picked up the the events on the surrounding streets and moved them to its own time. The footsteps of people walking by became the beat below the music, the vendors hawking wares the background singers, the people talking at open restaurants an audience singing along.
Tevyn tapped his foot, watched the world come alive again, let go.
Then she started singing.
Bittersweet longing mixed with anguish and joy, rising and falling in a swirling sea of praise, deep and strong like the jazz singers of old, yet ringing with the crystal clarion of a people who had sung to knit together the hearts of fleets for thousands of years before ever taking to the stars.
In that moment Tevyn wished more than anything that he knew Peritaj so he could understand what she was saying. It had to hold the answers to all his pain.
When the song ended it did so with a fade, leaving the surrounding world aglow for a long moment after. Tevyn looked around and saw that he wasn’t the only one who had noticed. People sitting at tables at a nearby cafe had quieted and were waiting for more. Several folks on the street had leaned up against the skyway railing to listen. One young man walked right through the doors, found a collapsing chair and set it up just to the side of the entrance.
The band ignored the intruder, perfected the tuning on their instruments and tested out little riffs as the old man talked to the girl. Tevyn got up during the pause and followed the intruder inside. A stack of collapsing chairs filled a bin near the door.
Tevyn quietly grabbed one and stretched it into shape, embarrassed when the mechanisms in the smart-structure snapped into place with a hundred whisper clicks. He set the chair on the other side of the door from the first man and waited for the band to start again.
Finally they did, and the world lit up once more, this time with a tune all too familiar. For a moment something in him struggled against that tune, but he was tired.
Too tired to run anymore.
Tevyn let go and peace like a river attended his way. Then the girl sang the words in English and, for the first time in far longer than Tevyn had known, it was well.
He didn’t know how long she sang, or how many hymns, psalms and spirituals she went through, all married to the lively forms of jazz, but he knew when it ended that he had been crying long enough for his shirt to be soaked.
As the music faded, memories continued to dance in the afterglow, memories of farm and family and faces, of a trusting childhood and beliefs long abandoned and forgotten. Three faces in particular, a triple entry heading the long list of people he could never go back and see even if he wanted, filled his mind.
Home. Tevyn remembered home, and he ached with all that he was to go there.
But his parents were gone, that home long torn down, and apologies to graves never accomplished the real thing.
The sound of whisper clicks announced the arrival of someone else next to him. Tevyn opened his eyes.
A set of crystal blue irises streaked with sunset gold watched him with concern.
The Perthrain girl.
“Are you well?” she asked in perfect newscaster English.
Tevyn hesitated at the question, caught off guard by those strangely vivid eyes so close.
“I’m okay,” he said.
“You were crying,” she said.
“The music was really good.”
Her eyes changed shape, perhaps showing even more concern. Tevyn tried to escape them but they pinned him like Allison’s, seeing right through his lies. He considered a different tactic, but she changed the field.
“I can never go home,” she said. “My brother told me I had to stay here, that my father would kill me if I went back to the ship, because I have abandoned the jenki and forsaken the lords of the sea.”
“You are a Tethri,” Tevyn said.
“Yes. Do you know what it means?”
Tevyn pondered what he knew about the term then shook his head.
“Storykeeper. We keep and tell the stories of the Perthrain, the Homeseekers. I am a Tethrisyr, one of the Storykeepers who sings, but I can no longer sing the stories of my people, because they are full of lies. So I am bakasht, broken, and must be destroyed, lest I poison other Storykeepers and lead all to forget the voyage.”
“I didn’t know any of that about the Perthrain.”
“Perijenki looks beautiful to outsiders, but it is full of very harsh demands. It teaches that at the end of the voyage, having remained free of all indebtedness and kept one’s eyes upon the horizon, and having ranged far and wide to see all that the lords of the sea have set out to be seen, that one will find the way to Vahlperi, or Truehome.”
“And you don’t believe that anymore?”
“I believe that Truehome came looking for us. Most of you Terrans have heard his name already.”
“What do you believe that name is?” he asked.
She smiled at him, wry but playful.
“I thought you liked my singing. Didn’t you listen to the words? Most of those songs are from Terra.” She watched him for a moment with that playful smile, a glowing youth who had already suffered terrible things, then put the smile away and fixed him once more with serious concern.
“Are you well?”
Tevyn looked back at her, wanting desperately to run away, but he knew that behind those bright eyes was a woman who understood something of his pain. He looked down. After a long moment of gathering himself, he started talking.
“I ran away from home when I was seventeen to join the FGP Spacefleet. Made my dad sign the paperwork so I could join young. No real reason, I just didn’t want to be at home with my parents and my brother anymore. Spent five years as an enlisted, went mustang, checked out as a lieutenant commander at thirty-three so I could join a mercenary fleet where I got paid more and could become a ship captain without having an academy start. Made destroyer captain after six years with Oksanen’s Dragons, got my ship, made full-share captain two years after that.”
He paused, gathered more words, and went on. The girl just listened.
“I spent most of my time in border operations out on the frontiers fighting ex-Terran polities. Kir-tenz, Ancadians, Targani. Mostly garrison work and convoy escort, but we also did a lot of raiding and participated in some large scale fleet actions. We killed a lot of people, but most of it was legit defense work.”
“The last mission was different. The Admiral took a job from the TI helping them take an Anjasne colony. No one knows much about the Anjasne, but the TI has a bad reputation. The Admiral liked the contract, though, and we, the captains, all agreed. It looked like it would pay well.”
“We spent two weeks sneaking our destroyers in. Found out too late it was a trap. Anjasne dreadnoughts surrounded us, blew the whole fleet to pieces. While they were working on us, a big TI fleet surrounded them. We were just a distraction to draw out the Anjasne.”
He took a deep breath.
“My ship was the only one in Dragon Fleet that made it out. We lost over ten thousand people, all the captains and the Admiral. Didn’t get paid at all, and I got left with all the debts. My dad would have said we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. No one outside the TI government knows where the propaganda ends and the truth starts on the Anjasne. Not enough information to make a right decision.”
“Would have?” The girl asked.
“My dad died in a fire when I was still enlisted. I could have gone home for the funeral, but I didn’t. My mother and my little brother died in a shuttle crash two years later. I never visited after I left. The only family I have now is my wife, and I’m about to lock her into a lifetime of debt slavery.”
He stopped, fidgeted, started again.
“No, I’m not well. I’m more tired and scared than I’ve ever been in my life. Which makes no sense, because I’ve had people trying to kill me before, and no one is doing that right now. But I feel like a giant weight is crushing me, and all I can think about is all the people I’ve failed.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl whispered.
Tevyn looked up again. The girl’s eyes were filled with tears.
“Please don’t cry.”
“Because I probably deserve all this. It’s just Allison I’m worried about. I don’t want her to have to suffer all this.”
Her tears continued to flow.
“Look, thank you for telling me your story. And thank you for listening. And thank you for singing. That truly was the best thing I’ve heard in a very long time.”
“Will you let me pray for you? “
Tevyn had a flashback of his mother on the day he’d left, asking the same thing. He gave the same answer he gave then
“If you want to.”
She reached out and took his right hand in both of hers. Tevyn looked at those hands, slender fingered, with delicate webbing reaching almost to the first knuckle, and experienced a sense of the surreal. She bowed her head.
“Jesus, my vahlperi, please forgive this man. Please take his burdens on your shoulders and show him your love.”
“Thank you,” Tevyn said.
“What is your name?”
“Nela. Just Nela.”
“Thank you Nela.”
“What is your name?”
“Thank you for coming, Tevyn Marsden. Sleep well tonight.”
Nela rose and went back to her band, which appeared to be fully packed up and waiting for her. After a moment of wordless thought, Tevyn got up to head home. A moment before he left the old man handed him a paper business card with the band’s name on it.
He pocketed the card and went through the door.
Outside, the dome had gone dark for New Wallstreet’s arbitrary night-time, shifting the city into a high-contrast blaze. Tevyn usually ignored the dome, but this time he looked up at the projected starscape, a nearly perfect reproduction of the one outside. By day it was replaced with a false sky, complete with clouds, but at night it almost became the real thing. Looking carefully Tevyn could even see a few ships moving about in the vacuum, running lights outlining their pointed shapes. Beyond them the stars twinkled, four kilometers of atmosphere had that effect, but still remained clearer than they would have been on Earth.
Tevyn wondered again what had brought him out here so far from home.
Why had that girl prayed for him? It wouldn’t matter.
He biked home slowly, letting others pass him while he did his best to keep the memory of the music.
When he got to the apartment Allison was already asleep, but she had left a sandwich in the fridge for him, thick with expensive roast beef and sharp cheese.
He sat down to eat it and pulled out his unicomm to see if he had any useful messages. The device booted and accessed the New Wallstreet comm data network.
Several new messages.
One from Allison telling him about the sandwich.
Two pointless adds from local businesses.
Another automatic reminder from the bank.
A recorded legal document from Mr. Nagel.
Tevyn stopped at that one, cold with disbelief.
It couldn’t be.
He opened it with a shaking thumb and watched as Mr. Nagel’s smiling face appeared in a holoprojection in front of him.
“Captain Marsden, it is my great pleasure to inform you that an anonymous party has made an extremely generous offer on the Firedrake. If you accept, your current liability will be completely cleared. As your sales agent, Galactic Union Banking has already handled all the requisite transfer forms. All that’s needed is your approval.”
Mr. Nagel’s face disappeared, replaced with a legal document. As his voice explained what it meant and where Tevyn needed to sign and put his thumbprint, the document scrolled to the relevant locations.
Tevyn wrote his signature in three locations and added his thumbprint at the end. The same lasers that made the projection read the print off his thumb and affixed it to the document.
Finally Mr. Nagel’s recorded voice asked him,
“Do you, Tevyn Marsden, agree to all the terms of exchange I’ve outlined in this contract?”
Tevyn had to clear his throat before speaking.
“I, Tevyn Marsden, do.”
The contract flashed and vanished with the recorded thumbprint, voiceprint and signatures.
“Congratulations Mr. Marsden! The sale of the Firedrake is completed and your debts with us are fully satisfied. A message containing an update of your account with us will be forwarded automatically. Good day!”
The message closed and Tevyn’s comm beeped with a new message. Tevyn opened it and saw his account balance with Galactic Union Banking listed as zero.
He couldn’t believe it.
Tevyn opened his account with the bank to check it himself. His account listed an absurd credit, paid only a moment ago, which precisely matched his debt
He shut the comm off and pushed it away. Tears started to fill his eyes as he stared at it.
He looked up.
“Why would you do this for me?”
* * * * * * *
Nick was sitting across from the destroyer berth viewing window when the paperwork came through. He stared at the ownership documents which represented the majority of his gunboat money and exhaled slowly.
He stood up, slowly so he wouldn’t bounce himself off the passage overhead in the low gravity, and went to the window. The Firedrake floated before him, it’s broken side painful to look at.
“What now, Lord?”
Nick stared at the ship, his ship, for a long time.
Slowly, the seeds of new ideas began to grow.