*This novelette was originally published in the anthology Accessing the Future, from The Future Fire, June 2015*
by Nicolette Barischoff
The floater turned out to be one of those shiny, sky island multi-deck passenger deals that would occasionally completely lose its shit in the middle of a jump.
This one would have been alright–various backup systems humming away, fifty or sixty first-colony licensed pilots determined to discover just what went wrong–had it not jumped straight into something else. Probably a garbage scow; there were a lot of garbage scows this far out. Now, the ship just drifted, listing and rolling like a fat, pretty corpse.
The Dustpan’s crew all had their faces flat against the port windows, eyeing it like a bunch of dogs with tongues out. That was the only reason Rumer had let them go salvage. You pass up a big, beautiful floater like that, you never get your men to do anything useful ever again.
We don’t got the time or space to pull her apart, he’d told them. No scrapping. Get yourselves something small and shiny and get back.
For the most part, they’d listened, filling up their suit-packs with the sorts of little things you always find on a floating hotel like that; alcohol in expensive-looking bottles, VR games with an obscene number of attachments, the palm and wrist PCs that were only considered valuable out here where nobody could afford them. Bottles and needles from a well-stocked sick bay, cards, cash, the turtles out of an elaborate terrarium… Kell, the mutinous asshole, had tried to haul back two of those sultry-voiced concierge kiosks, and a broken servitor droid.
Rumer wasn’t sure which of them had brought back the girl.
She looked to be about fifteen, but to Rumer Pilgrim, anybody not born and raised out of New Pelican looked young.
She didn’t have to be conscious to tell you she was far from home, either Earth or first colonies… German, Canadian, American, some single-nation settlement; she was that same kind of glass-house pretty. Well fed, with pale, untouched, swany skin, and a long, long waterfall of hair that somebody brushed out for her every morning, and a pale pink mouth that looked like it was used to pouting. When her eyes did flicker open for a split-second at a time, he could see they were a pale and brittle green.
The crew crowded around that narrow infirmary bunk for a full day and a half. Diallo, a skinny kid from the pan-Africas with half a field medic’s education and a permanent shit-eating grin, actually left the pilot’s chair to bandage her head wound. And Kell, his lecherous one-eyed bulldog of a first mate, seemed to think he was going to wake her by flicking her nipples.
“Haven’t even seen one like her in a while,” he said, rubbing his scrap glass eye, a sort of endearing nervous tick once you got to know him. “Kind of forgot they made ‘em like this.”
“With two eyes and two whole titties?” said Diallo. “Not every woman’s like your New Pelican dock-workers, Kell. Back up, man, an’ stop gettin’ in the light. This one’s never seen anything ugly as you.”
Kell grinned. “I’m sure she’ll just love that child-fucker smile you got.”
Rumer ignored their dick-swinging. “Who brought her?” he asked.
Diallo shrugged. “She was the only thing alive on that boat, Captain, her and that mess o’ turtles.”
Rumer frowned. “Bad time to have a hitchhiker, you forget that already? What’re you thinking we’re gonna do with her when we have to make our drop?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Kell, “you ask me, we shouldn’t have the stuff in the first place.”
“Right. But I didn’t ask you, and we do have the stuff, and we’re going to have to make a drop before much else happens.”
“You mean before the shit’s no damn good to anybody, or before big Papa Kang figures out who took it and sends a team after us? Because I can guarantee you that second thing’s already happened.”
“I’m thinking, Captain,” said Diallo, making the sort of diplomatic silencing gesture that made Rumer like him, “she is very far from home. She might help. With carrying, with distribution. In exchange for passage, you know.”
Rumer cocked his head. Nodded.
“It’s useful to have someone who looks like her, where we are going, what we are doing. People trust someone who looks like that. Nice pretty white face. They’ll take it from her. No need to tell her where it comes from.”
“So she plays little White Mother for us, we put her down wherever she wants, she goes on home having gratefully agreed to tell nobody, and everybody’s happy and still alive, is that it?”
Diallo grinned wide and white. “She won’t even have a ship’s name to tell her mother.”
“It might work,” said Rumer. “If we don’t run into any transit police or any Peacekeeping Officers she feels like chatting to.”
“Why would she talk to any Blueberries?” asked Diallo. “Why leave the ship at all? We are just some nice men of varying degrees of handsomeness taking her to port.”
Kell laughed at that, his loud bulldog bark. “I’ll agree with that! Why leave the ship at all? Hell, I’ll teach her to have fun sittin’ in one spot.”
“You’ll wait ‘til she’s awake, you ugly fuck,” said Rumer. “If she don’t immediately bite your balls off and run screaming from your very presence.”
Kell laughed again, louder and longer. Rumer turned to Diallo.
“She’ll get her ride, but she’ll have to work. You think you can get her to work?”
Diallo paused. The girl’s green eyes flickered open. And she sat up.
Or rather, she tried to sit up, squirming strangely for several minutes before going limp, and saying, in a slightly strained voice: “Could one of you please help me up?”
Nobody moved for a second. Diallo took her by the arm, and when that proved insufficient, grabbed her by the armpits, and propped her against the corner. Her feet were bare, and her legs dangled off the edge of the bunk, limp and pale. “Thank you,” she said.
Diallo answered with a nod.
The girl looked around her, not exactly frightened. Not exactly. But looking a little like she’d been thrown into an icy gray lake, and was just now bringing her head up out of the water to discover which of them had done it to her. “Who… What… happened? Where is this?”
Rumer thought it best to let her have it all at once. “I am the more-or-less captain, Rumer Pilgrim, and you are currently a passenger aboard my ship, this streamlined and classically engineered cargo vessel you see before you.”
“Well, young lady, because your own is presently floating through deep space like a chunk of particularly metal-rich frozen shit. Now, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t really care to. But you’ve got to know that we’ve gone pretty well out of our way to pick you up. Now, I didn’t mind doing it, and you’re welcome. We’ll drop you off soon as we’re able, anyplace you want to be, so long as it’s not a place where people are likely to get up in our business. But before that happens… what?”
The girl was shaking her head, green eyes dry. “The ship, I was just… how did…?” She blinked, touched her head bandage, and suddenly settled on a question. “Your name’s Rumer Pilgrim?”
“That’s your real name?”
Rumer frowned. “Never had another.”
There was the smallest flick of a smile on that pink mouth. “So your name is actually ‘Pilgrim, Pilgrim’.”
“No.” Rumer Pilgrim looked at her with narrower eyes than he intended. “No, and I can’t say I know what you’re playing at.”
The girl’s smile widened the littlest bit. “Nothing. Never mind.”
“Young lady, if you’d rather not ride with us…”
“No, no. It’s fine. Thank you… Thank you.”
She let out a somewhat shuddering breath of air. She looked around. “Sorry… can I have my chair, please? Where did you put my chair?”
Rumer blinked. Blinked again. “What chair?”
Margo had been busy hiding when the crash occurred.
She was trying to find a way to get lost and freeze to death inside the “Antarctic Exploration” levels of the ship’s educational Ages of Earth VR. You never could get really lost, of course. Margo knew that. Even the game’s wrong turns and avalanches and blinding snowstorms were all part of a network of programmed paths with beginnings, middles and ends.
But on the outgoing flight, a kid who’d been angling to get a ride in her chair had tried to convince her that if you wandered far away enough from all the computer-generated explorers and the Prince Charles Mountains and the penguins, ignoring the game’s copious temperature warnings and the automatic chattering of your teeth, the VR would give you a slow and dramatic “death” on the spectacularly shimmering ice.
She’d read everything interesting on the ship’s library terminal, and at least half-watched all the films available in the tiny holo-theater, and the VR terminals were the only other place the servitors couldn’t follow her.
It had been a full two weeks of dodging the servitors. Everywhere, the servitors.
Margo had brought one droid for the return journey from Polis. Her mother had supplied the ship with the other ten. One to three of them were always hovering nearby, chirpy little orbs of plastic and metal that went into fits of attentiveness every time their sensors detected movement: “Hello. Do you need assistance? What would you like to do? Please repeat what you would like to do. If you don’t know what you would like to do, I can make suggestions. The time is now 12:30. Are you hungry? If you’d like, I can access the network to tell you what is currently available in the kitchen…”
It had been her mother’s idea of Margo “traveling alone.” Most of the swarm even had the U.N. Sky logo painted on them, just in case anyone was not aware they were handling a diplomat’s daughter. Every corridor she went down, every room she entered, her mother’s re-appropriated machines followed, causing nearly everybody to give her and the chair an artificially wide berth.
It was exactly like she was nine years old again, the only kid in her UN-run classroom flanked by droids that were programmed to answer her questions, and pick up things she let fall, and keep her schedule, and re-purify her water, and silently alert the teacher if she, Margo, wet herself.
And so, fifteen-year-old Margo had regressed a bit, sending the servitors to run baths or make sandwiches or compile obscure information she didn’t want. Luring them into closets and cupboards and password-protecting the doors. She’d even managed to send a servitor sailing into a wall of its own accord, which she hadn’t done in years.
And hiding. Lots of hiding. The nice thing about servitors is that if you tell them you want to spend all remaining 10 hours of the journey harassing allosauruses in the Jurassic United States, or deliberately trying to freeze to death in early 20th century Antarctica, they don’t ask you if you’d rather be doing something more constructive with your time.
It was probably being all strapped in to the VR system that saved her life. She didn’t feel the crash. She didn’t hear or see the crash. Her only thought as everything around her went blinding white, was that something interesting was finally happening in her game.
And when she opened her eyes next, what she saw was the factory-made steel ceiling of the dirtiest, dankest little room she’d ever been in.
She wouldn’t stop talking about the chair, even after Rumer told her they hadn’t picked anything like that up. “Are you sure? Are you sure? It has a call function, it’ll come right to me.” Like she thought they’d find it tucked away in the corner of the cargo bay if they just looked hard enough.
When, after about a half hour, the girl was convinced they were not hiding the damn thing from her, she seemed to think they were going back for it. Even Kell’s outright laugh did not cure her of that delusion. “How long was I out?” she asked. “It didn’t feel like that long. It couldn’t possibly be that big a jump from here to there.”
“You were out for more than a day,” said Rumer. “And we don’t jump, much as that might surprise you.”
“What do you mean?” Such confusion in that voice, and a little bit of rancor, too. Rumer supposed that’s how it was with first-colony girls. Kell saved him from having to answer.
“This ship don’t jump, coochie, she’s just an old dustpan ramjet. She’s got no drive.”
“What do you use a ship without a drive for?” the girl asked, genuinely curious.
“Oh, you’re shittin’ me,” muttered Kell.
“Nothing has drive out here, young lady. Nobody can afford it,” said Rumer Pilgrim, and then off her open stare, “around here, we just stay close to home, and make sure that our most valued possessions don’t end up somewhere where we can’t get to ‘em in a hurry.”
The girl squirmed on the bunk, looked around for Diallo. Not finding him, she looked to the floor, gauging the distance. “I have spina bifida,” she said, tightly. “That means I’m missing spine.”
“Missing spine,” repeated Rumer. Kell caught his eye.
“So, you can probably guess I don’t really get around too well without that chair.” Then, after a pause, “There are people in my life who would kind of freak out if they knew I was without it.”
Kell laughed again, baldly. Jesus, the little bitch was actually making threats, or at least toying with the idea. She wasn’t practiced enough at it to know to be specific.
“I am sorry about that,” said Rumer. “You’ll all just have to work that out, won’t you, amongst yourselves. Listen, now. What did you say your name was?”
She hadn’t. “Margo,” she said, now.
The girl’s lips pinched together. She looked warily at Kell. “For now,” she said.
Rumer couldn’t help smiling a little. “Okay. Margo. Listen now, Margo. Even were I to feel such an inclination, and I don’t, to track a free-floating ship through space would take days we don’t have and don’t want. Now, we’ve got our own rather time-sensitive business to see to, which you have interrupted…” Rumer put up a finger to stop her speaking, “So you’ll want to keep your head down and let us finish with that, and then we’ll see about dropping you at a port when we can get to one. And as I said before, you’re welcome.”
The brittle green eyes blinked.
“Now, where is it you’d like to be just now? Floor? I’m afraid it’s the floor or the infirmary bunk, until we can find you a free hammock.”
She nodded. He picked her up and sat her on the floor. She sat there with her legs oddly tucked under her, and watched the men (his sweaty, scarred and hardened crew) file out and go back to work. All except Kell, who stood there alternately scratching ass and eye. “How far out are we?” she asked suddenly.
“Of major colonized space. Of UN space.”
Kell barked. “Coochie, you are right smack in the middle of UN space. There’s Peacekeeping Officers all over this vacuum…” Rumer passed him a look, and he shut his mouth.
Margo’s brow furrowed uncertainly, and she looked at the deeply rusted gray of the ship around her, at Kell’s cloudy piece of scrap glass, as though prepared to contradict. “You can just drop me at a station, then,” she said, finally.
“Can I, now?”
“The officers will know who I am,” she said.
Rumer watched Kell watch her drag herself from the room, legs out, across the factory steel floor. With effort, she turned herself around in the doorway. “Do I have a room?” she asked.
“Anywhere where there’s no one to kick you out.”
Margo nodded, the flick of a smile reappearing. “Anyone going to literally kick me?”
“If they do, you lay yourself out flat. Mess is in an hour if you want it.”
The girl drew herself up, recoiling a little. “I can wait. I’ll wait until a station.” And she dragged herself away.
“Fuckin’ hell,” Kell said. “Fuckin’ shit.”
Margo did manage to find a long, rusted metal cupboard in a large utility closet that none of the crew was yet sleeping in. With two of the synthetic wool blankets and three very fibrous pillows, it was almost a bedroom. There was even a steel door that slid noisily open and closed, and made a locking sound when you hit the right button.
Not that the door did her much good. The men (the ones who weren’t afraid of her) still went in and out like the closet was wide open. For the first couple of days, they bothered with pretext, coming in to fish around amongst the jumbles of cord, and replacement switches, and lengths of as-yet un-rusted wire. But that didn’t last long.
There came a period of relative privacy after Captain Pilgrim Pilgrim picked a man to guard the door, and told the worst offenders to stop being quite so pervy, or expect double-shifts. That didn’t last long either.
Now almost every one of them, including the man supposedly assigned to the door, came in at least twice a day to have a good, grinning gape at whatever she was doing. When that got boring, they’d try to get her to talk.
“You ever get freaky in that chair you miss so much? Is it good for that?”
“There’s buttons on it I’ve never pushed.”
“So it could be good for that.”
“We’ll never know.”
“You feel anything down there?”
“I feel enough.”
“You ever been with a man who’s sewed back on his own arm?”
“Would you like to?”
“Not especially. Can you sew other things, or just your arm?”
Margo wasn’t bothered, she decided, since being bothered never seemed to do very much. Nobody else on this ship went behind a door to strip their rank clothes off, or smell their own belches, or scratch their ass-cracks. Why should she?
At any rate, she’d learned pretty quickly to stop asking for things. The one time she’d asked about the number of servitors on board, they had laughed for what seemed like an hour. “People who use those servitors get to love them a little too much,” Pilgrim Pilgrim had said. “Embrace your liberation.”
“I’ve never loved them,” said Margo, “I grew up with swarms of them, it drove me fucking nuts. I used to send them smashing into walls just to see if I could do it.”
“I believe you,” he said, in a way that told her that wasn’t the right thing to say to someone like him.
And when she’d asked where the toilets were, he’d gone into another dark narrow, metal closet where he lifted up the false floor to reveal the dark, deep, seatless hole.
“How do I use that?” she’d asked, a little pale.
“How did you sit the toilet in that big, fancy cruiser before it broke?” he asked.
“It had a seat-back, and armrests, and a fall-guard. And… I usually have droids.”
“Same general principle,” he’d said in an absolutely unbearable voice. “Squat, let loose, and get well out the way before you flush.”
(She did end up doing it, a full hour and ten minutes later, squatted on all fours with her dress up over her head, one leg on either side of the hole. She felt marvelously defiant, even as she emerged to a round of sarcastic applause from the crew.)
Margo had fully intended to keep to her closet-room as much as possible until they’d come to a UN Sky station. But whenever she asked Diallo, the grinning pilot, how close he thought the nearest one was, he would call her a little dictator and offer her some of his reconstituted soup (the sort of lumped up stuff that poor people ate before there were food labs). Also, Pilgrim Pilgrim and his one-eyed first mate seemed to be much more comfortable when she stayed put, and Margo didn’t see any reason to make them comfortable.
So, she dragged herself all around that filthy, rusted-out ramjet, seeing what she could see.
They were hiding something. Margo had figured out that much. They were carrying something–in the cargo bay, maybe elsewhere too–that they didn’t want found. There were a few too many halted conversations to ignore. A few too many badly suppressed glances in her direction.
Not that they were afraid of her finding it, necessarily. Even if they’d known who she was, she doubted it would mean anything to most of them. Most stepped right around her and carried on with their work when she crawled by, looking down to grin at her only when she called out cheerfully to keep from being stepped on.
But Kell and Captain Pilgrim had guessed something about her. The captain would straighten when he saw her, and ask her if there were any particular reason she needed to be there, wherever there happened to be. And Kell, whenever he came on her by accident, usually turned directly around and walked in the opposite direction.
“You don’t let it bother you,” Diallo had tried to tell her. “You must excuse a degenerate like Kell. Raised on a prison colony, the American kind. No hope of learning good manners, no experience with women. His mother was not a very successful prostitute.”
Margo smirked. “How can you be raised in a prison colony?”
Diallo shrugged. “Perhaps his mother was also a less than successful terrorist. I can’t claim to know.”
Margo studied his smile a moment. “But there are no prison colonies anymore.”
“Not in UN space,” she said, sounding like a teacher even to herself. “The Security Council ruled a long time ago that abandoning prisoners on far-world correctional colonies constitutes inhumane punishment. The ruling was just upheld again the year I was born. It’s illegal.”
Diallo smiled, or at least showed his teeth. “That is comforting to know. Thank you.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“That’s the whole point of UN Sky. To make sure stuff like that doesn’t happen.”
Diallo was silent for a moment, and then said, with irritating slowness, “As you say. It does seem to me that people will always discover a place to put away the things they do not want, so that they don’t come back again. But I’ve never been very clever with names.”
Later, while she lay in her bunk trying to think of all the things criminals would not want UN Peacekeepers to find in their cargo bay (nukes, sonics, VX gas, high-power low-precision lasers?), Margo could not help thinking about Kell’s glass eye.
People without eye donors had biomechanical eyes. They had microchipped acrylic ones. At the very least, Margo had always thought, they had those plastic boxy pieces that you had to keep a cap on at night to block out images while you slept.
When you were Kell, on a faraway colony, and you knocked your eye out, what had to go wrong, what had to break down, before you fashioned your own out of whatever you could find, and carried on?
“Someone’s taken an interest in us,” was the first thing Diallo said when Rumer came on to the bridge.
“Peacekeepers, or the Kang family fun squad? Or both?”
“It’s difficult to say. She’s not marked. And she is keeping her distance.”
“Blueberries,” said Kell, “gotta be. You’ve heard that bitch talk. She knows somebody.”
Rumer ignored him. “Can you signal-cloak us?”
“I have done, of course,” said Diallo, “but I cannot do it long, and eventually she finds us. Very quietly persistent.”
“Keep on it ‘til you shake her. She don’t want us that bad, or she’d be on us already. We make our drop, even if we gotta pour it down there like manna.”
Diallo nodded, and bent over his joysticks.
“About that,” said Kell, rubbing his eye.
“About that,” said Rumer.
“What’re you thinking you’re gonna do with her? Our hitchhiker, I mean?”
Rumer shrugged. “I don’t know as I have a whole lot of options. We take her with us far as we can, drop her at the first opportunity, and hope she has the good sense not to talk to anybody.”
“You don’t mean you’re still gonna take her on the drop?” Kell looked entertainingly uncomfortable. “Jesus, Rumer, she’s not… she can’t even… plus, you heard her, she’s dyin’ to talk to the police. She thinks police are like… service dogs, or somethin’.”
“Don’t shit yourself, soldier. We drop her at Black Oven before anything else happens. It’s backworld enough no one’s going to care why we’re there, and she can go about her business, and we about ours.”
“Pretty outta our way, isn’t it, Black Oven?”
“Everything’s out of our way. What do you suggest?”
Kell shifted a little. “Hey, I’d just like to remind you, but we got about two tons a’ very perishable cargo down there, and there’s some very angry Koreans want it back. This was your idea, this thing. I wanted to do something small, something normal that’d make us a little fuckin’ money. You’re the one who wanted to go all Wyatt Earp Robin Hood…”
“What do you suggest, Kell?”
“Well,” Kell hesitated. “Well, have you thought maybe we just… maybe we just get rid a’ her?”
“How the hell you want to do that?”
“I don’t know, man…”
“Yeah, you do, asshole.”
“Look, she woulda’ been dead anyway if we hadn’t picked her up, that’s all I’m tryin’ to say. Just, in the interest of the cargo. I’m not saying exactly we should, you know…”
“What are you saying, exactly, you fuckin’ moron?”
“I’m saying, you know, maybe, we put her in one of the shuttles, with some food, if you want, and we just…” Kell mimed the dustpan’s tiny shuttle drifting harmlessly away into space.
Rumer smirked, despite himself. “I thought you wanted to fuck her.”
Kell recoiled like he was standing too close to a serial kiddie-diddler. “She’s in a chair, man, don’t even joke. That’s some sick shit.”
Rumer rolled his eyes. “Turn the temp down in cargo and head for Black Oven,” he said to Diallo. “She’s clever enough to catch her own ride from there, I expect.”
Margo wasn’t going to let them continue to have their muttering, panicked, poorly-buried talks around her as though she didn’t understand what they meant. From now on, she would be where they were. If they wanted to continue having conversations about their secret black hole machine, or whatever, they’d have to do it while she was in the room.
That was Margo’s reasoning for finally joining them at dinner.
They had boiled the turtles, neatly diced, in four tins of reconstituted cream of tomato soup. Chin-Hae, the ship’s cook, who was alternately sipping beer out of his prosthetic leg and adding it to the pot, looked up grinning when she appeared. Margo hadn’t known that anyone still ate turtles. But then, until this voyage, she hadn’t known there were spaceships that couldn’t leave immediate space, or people who replaced their vital members with removable plastic and bottle-glass.
The mess turned out to be two long metal tables bolted to the floor. The men crowded around them on one-footed metal benches and passed stories and sloshing carafes of beer. Every one of them had scars they bragged about, and for the first time, Margo wondered whether this was because they really took any pride in them, or because they lacked the technology to remove and forget them.
Pilgrim Pilgrim looked up at her. “Come to eat, or just watch?” he asked.
“Waitin’ on the servitors?”
“No,” though Margo realized as she said it, that she had been.
The captain tossed her down a thick wooden bowl. “Queue up and get yourself some turtle surprise, before this mess of rapists and degenerates eats it all.”
Margo paused, then dragged herself to the back of the line forming in front of Chin-Hae’s pot. When it was her turn, Chin-Hae winked at her, a little drunkenly, and filled her bowl to the brim, tilting in a little extra beer from the bottom of his leg.
He intended this as a kindness, she was sure, but it meant that she had to make her way to the tables pushing along a wildly sloshing bowl of oily turtle meat. The whole crew watched, apparently entertained, while she left a splash trail. Margo stopped at the benches. “You’re gonna want to help me up,” she said.
“Sure a’ that, are you?” said Kell.
“Pretty sure,” she said, evenly.
No one moved, so Margo proceeded to get up onto the bench herself. She couldn’t put weight onto her legs, but if she lunged forward violently enough, the one-footed bench rocked, no matter who was sitting on it. If she did that enough times, eventually the drunkest lost his balance; the man who’d sewed his own arm back on fell straight backwards, which made everyone laugh too hard. “All right, all right…” He picked her up under the armpits and stuck her in his own seat. “Christ, you’re a shit.”
Diallo cut Margo a thick slice of very brown bread for her soup. Rumer Pilgrim poured her a cup from the carafe, and raised his own, almost imperceptibly. Margo flattened the smile on her lips.
Before long, Chin-Hae brought out a very motor-oil looking whiskey, and some apples and pears in tin cups, roasted without cinnamon or sugar. “Enjoy these, gentlemen,” said Pilgrim, frowning at the fruit, and Chin-Hae. “They’re the only ones you’re like to get out of the bunch.”
“We’re damn well going to have some,” said Kell, “they cost us enough.”
“Why?” asked Margo.
“Why would you pay for apples? What kind are they?”
No one answered her. “Are they rare, or something? They look like lab apples.” The fruit was just exactly like the smallish, slightly underripe specimens that came out of every food lab in every corner of every galaxy in UN space.
The captain paused, then said, eyes on Kell, “That could be considered rare enough for some folks.”
Margo knew a little history. “Sure, but… not anymore, though. People don’t pay for stuff like that anymore.”
“Stuff like what, do you suppose?”
“Like, fruit, or grains, or simple proteins. That’s the whole point of food labs. You’re always replicating, so there’s no food shortages, and nobody has to pay.”
Pilgrim nodded. “Well, that’s a cracker-jack idea if I ever heard one.”
“It’s part of the rules of compliance for a colony’s admission to the UN.” That terrible, smug, teachery voice, again. Margo couldn’t seem to help herself.
The captain took a swig of his whiskey. “But it only works long as everybody plays by the rules, long as nobody takes more’n they need.”
Margo nodded, conceding.
“So, to your knowledge, who runs these food labs? Who maintains them? Who stops people takin’ more than they need?”
“There’s… private companies,” said Margo, “they’re vetted by the UN.”
“And so what stops a real powerful company, a real powerful family from… gettin’ creative? Say they start to decide for themselves who needs what. Say they start thinking they’d like to bring a little money back into it, or they’d like to put a limit on, I don’t know, milk, for certain families with too many kids? You could keep a whole solar-system full of folks currying your sweet favor, if you went about it the right way.”
“That would never be allowed to happen,” said Margo.
“Because it wouldn’t! Because there’s audits of compliance. There’s officers who come and make sure you’re following all the rules.”
“And how well do those work out here, do you think?”
“How well do they work?”
“You think they work well here in our dark neck of the woods? I’m just asking.”
“I don’t know.” Margo’s voice was way too tight in her throat. “I don’t know where we are.”
Rumer Pilgrim nodded. “Alright. Do you think every man always does exactly the job he’s supposed to, even when there’s no one to watch him do it, even when he’s far from home, in a place he can’t stand?”
“Are you talking about Peacekeeping Officers?”
“I’m just talking about men. There’s a lot of men sent to do their jobs in the very deep dark of space where nothing thrives and no sound travels. How easy you think it would be for our family–this very powerful hypothetical family we’re talking of–to have a few such men in their pocket?”
“Somebody would say something,” asserted Margo, more loudly than she meant to. “Somebody would alert Sky headquarters.”
“They might,” said the captain levelly, “if they had any idea how to go about it. And if they didn’t mind a slow kind a’ death. Starving’s slower than just about anything, you know. Your body holds on like a muther, eating away at all your fat, and then all your muscle…”
Margo stared at him, her stomach pitching with understanding she didn’t want. “What are you hiding in the cargo bay?” she blurted. “Who’s looking for it?”
Pilgrim paused, opened his mouth. Margo didn’t want to give him the chance to lie. “My name is Margo Glass. I’m Helena Glass’s daughter. I’m the daughter of a UN Security Council member, you stupid motherfuckers! If somebody’s breaking the law, if they’re starving people, you have to tell me. Understand? You have to tell me!”
“Young lady,” said the captain, but didn’t say anything more.
“Say it!” Margo was suddenly snarling. “Say what you’ve got in the cargo bay!”
But of course, Margo could never really cow anyone, no matter how loud she shouted. It was easy, infuriatingly easy, for Pilgrim to pick her up, throw her into her cupboard, shut the door, and walk away.
Rumer let the air out of his chest, and felt himself sag. Kell looked at his captain with a cloud in his glass eye. “You still think we can carry this girl all the way to Black Oven? Look, I can’t speak for you, but I’m not prepared to die spoon-feeding a bunch of sad, sorry motherfuckers we’ve never even met, and I’m certainly not prepared to go to some new kind a’ interstellar prison because some UN Security cunt decides we kidnapped her whelp.”
Rumer couldn’t find anything to say, so he said nothing.
“We need to let her float, now, Rumer. We need to stick her inside the shuttle, give her some oatmeal and quick-bread, and let her float. And then we need to drop what we’re carrying quick as we can, and go back to doing somethin’ we know how to do.” Kell rubbed, and rubbed and rubbed the glass. “C’mon, man… I… we just can’t do what you’re tryin’ to do. We’re not built for it. Men like us don’t fix the shit-holes of this world, Rumer. We’re just… we’re a load a’ pirates.”
Rumer nodded heavily. “You are right about that,” he said. “I can’t think of what you’d call us but a load of damn, dirty pirates.”
There was a silence, during which Rumer wondered whether it would be possible to pre-program a route for the shuttle so that it would take her straight to Black Oven. That way, if her food and oxygen held out… and if nobody too bad picked her up when she got there…
That was when Diallo came in, not grinning. “We have company, Captain,” he said. “They appear to have finally made a decision about us. They want to board.”
It was a long, slow nightmare run to the bridge. And then Rumer looked on one of the biggest U.N. squadron ships he had ever seen. Still a ways off, it swallowed up the whole screen like a big, blue open-mouthed whale. “How do they keep finding us? What are they locking onto?”
“I do not know,” said Diallo, “I have picked off every signal I could find.”
“I think… I know.”
Rumer turned. The girl sat in the doorway of the bridge. She was out of breath. Her knees were bloodied. She must have dragged herself from the stern-end utility closet to the bridge, all the way across that steel floor. “Are these them?” she asked. “Are these the kind of officers you’re talking about, who are working for… for somebody?”
Rumer jerked his head. “Any particular reason why you’re in here, Miss Glass?”
“I know what’s going on.”
“I’ll bet you do. You’re very clever at that. But if you wouldn’t mind headin’ back to your little room just now…”
“I know why the squad ship’s here. I know why they found us.”
Rumer stiffened, blinked. “Say what you mean, girl.”
The girl swallowed. “I have… a chip.”
“I’m chipped. In case anything bad ever happens to me when I’m… it emits this low-level signal all the time, so people can find where I am.”
Rumer glared at her, this pretty, pale girl he once thought too fragile to live, his eyeballs hot. “And this was something you chose not to share with us?”
“‘Course not. She’s got friends who’d pat her head like a good little bitch-hound if she helps land people like us in prison,” said Kell. The way he looked at her even alarmed Rumer, angry as he was.
“Jesus.” Rumer pressed his palms into his eyes. “Well, you’ve certainly fucked us, kid, if that’s what you meant to do. I’d throw you straight out the air-lock if I thought it would do us any good, you hear me?”
Her green eyes looked frantic for the first time since he’d known her. “No!… I mean, I’m sorry, it’s just, it’s not something I really think about.”
“Not something you really think about? Is there anything you really think about?”
The girl got angry at that. “My parents made me get it when I was eight, okay? I didn’t even know what it was supposed to do. It was just something that happened to me, like everything else in my fucking life. For God’s sake, if I really wanted all of you to go down on all kinds of charges… but I don’t!” She took a long overdue breath. “I don’t.”
“That’s comforting,” said Rumer. “You can tell them what perfect gentlemen we’ve been while they’re thundering all over our cargo bay gathering up our stolen goods to return them to people we won’t be able to get police protection from.”
“It wasn’t meant to be comforting, asshole.”
Rumer let out air. “What would you have me do, girl? What is it you’d like to do?”
“I want to help,” said Margo. The eyes blazed bright, now, not brittle at all. “Let me help.”
It wasn’t a very good plan, Margo knew. It would have been a better one if they’d roughed her up a bit first, or cut off her pinky toe like she’d suggested (“It grows all wrong, anyway. And it’s not like I’m using it.”) But even Kell had been too pussy to do it. She hoped the dustpan looked like a horrible enough place that it would still be believable. It was too late to reconsider.
The com-link connected on the third try, and the other ship picked up.
“You are speaking to a representative of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Please identify yourself.”
Rumer was ready with the apple sack over his head. “I am what you might call an independent profiteer looking to do some business. If you would, please inform Secretary Glass that we have her precious little daughter, and are interested in discussing the terms under which she may be returned in one piece.”
The man on the other end paused, and went pale. “One moment. Don’t do anything. One moment.”
“Don’t take too long, now.”
The man disappeared for what seemed like a very long time. Margo wiggled against her ropes so that at the very least her wrists would have rope marks on them.
The man reappeared. “We need to see her before anything can be discussed.”
“You know we have her,” said Rumer. “She’s got a chip. We found it. Would you like to learn how?”
The man set his mouth, calmly obstinate. “If you want to move forward, put her on the com, and let me speak to her.”
“Assholes,” Margo muttered. “I could be dying right now.” But she whipped up some shuddering breaths and let Rumer throw her against the terminal.
“Please!” she screamed. “Please it’s me! Tell my mother it’s me!” She didn’t know the man on the com, and she hoped he knew her only by sight.
“Calm down. Calm down, now. You’re going to be all right. Who are these men? What are they doing to you?”
Rumer piped in loudly. “Wrong question, G-man.” Margo winced as though he’d tightened the ropes.
“I don’t know who they are, they never take off the sacks,” said Margo, feeling the blood pound in her ears. “They boarded our ship, and they… everyone… so they took a bunch of stuff, and they took me. They want money. That’s all they want, and then they’ll let me go. Tell my mom… seventy-five thousand. In credits. Tell her.”
“Alright,” said the man. “Alright, we’ll tell her, Miss, stay calm. We’re doing everything we can.” The man shifted to try to get another look at Rumer, just out of frame, and then disappeared.
“We should’ve asked for more,” muttered Kell.
“You should’ve roughed me up,” said Margo.
“Shut up, children,” said Rumer.
The com crackled in the silence, picking up no conversation on the other end.
“He’s not goin’ for it.” Kell rubbed his eye. “We should’ve asked for a lot more. No one lets a piece like her go for under ninety thousand.”
“Oh, they’ll round it up to a nice even hundred for us when they put it to the secretary.” Rumer didn’t take his eyes from the screen. “They wouldn’t go for this if they couldn’t take something off the top.”
“And this way, they’ll think it was their idea,” said Margo proudly.
Kell scowled at her.
The man on the com returned. “We’ve spoken to Secretary Glass. She’ll pay. Clear your bridge. We’ll send someone over shortly to make the trade.”
Margo swallowed the bile in her throat. “NO!… no, you can’t. If you send someone over here, they’ll kill me! I don’t want to die, please, don’t make me die!” It surprised her how easily the whimpering came from her throat.
“Calm down, Miss. Miss? Please calm down.” The man seemed more rattled by her hysterics than by the situation itself. “What does he want us to do?”
“You have to send the credits directly using the ship’s AT, and then they’ll send me in the shuttle. That’s what he says. Just do what he says. Please!”
Then the com-link cut out, and the screen went blank.
“What happened?” asked Margo.
“Backworld machinery,” said Rumer.
“Did he even hear the last thing I said?”
They were all silent, listening for sounds of being boarded, for the click-snap of metal weapons and the thunder of boots.
“I’m gonna throw up,” said Margo airlessly.
“Do me a favor,” said Rumer. “Save it ‘til they come for me.”
And then there was a disused buzzer that sounded, somewhere, a quick “ping,” short and loud. Everyone turned.
“Credits,” said Diallo. He aimed his grin at Margo.
Margo laughed a sob.
There were no goodbyes, exactly. Just nervous half-slaps and grumbles. Kell rubbed his eye at her an absurd number of times.
It was the captain who strapped her in.
“Well, that’s just about it,” said Pilgrim Pilgrim. “Gone over all the controls?”
“I’ll figure it out,” she said.
“You got your story straight? What you’re gonna tell them?”
“I have a few stories to tell them.”
“They’re not gonna want to hear ‘em all.”
“That’s my problem, not yours. Go deliver what you have to deliver, let me get off this ugly ass ship, for the love of God.”
She knew she’d made Rumer laugh, though she didn’t stay to listen to it. Instead, Margo darted off into the black, and prepared for what she would do when she landed. She’d have to give up the true tale soon enough, tell people there had been no kidnapping, that she was perfectly well.
First, though, she would have a servitor run a bath, and actually get in it.