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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 1: An Ancient Story

    The food wasn’t bad for a diner on an unaffiliated planet. The eggs and meat were fresh, if not spectacular, leading Joseph to think there were probably some farms near the small shipping port. It was clear that the hash browns weren’t made of potatoes; some substitute that probably grew better locally replaced them, but they still tasted alright.
    Unfortunately, his meal was interrupted by a little drama that had been unfolding at the front of the diner since he’d walked in. A young lady was sitting at a table near the middle of the diner arguing with a man dressed in expensive clothing as they ate breakfast. Despite attempting not to listen, he’d caught snatches of the conversation. The volume had been steadily increasing, and it was harder to maintain the pretense that he didn’t hear.
    “I’m grateful that you helped me come here, but I’m not comfortable with what you’re asking me to do.” The young lady stood up. “I can find a job somewhere else.”
    “Oh can you?” The man stood up into the table in his anger, knocking it into her, and she fell back into her chair. “How about where you’re living and the food your eating? There’s a price for that and right now you aren’t paying.”
    The girl stared up at him in horror, on the verge of tears. Joseph guessed that this was a side of him she hadn’t seen before. “But...but you said...”
    “I said I would bring you to the city.” Joseph muffled a disparaging snort; the port wasn’t much of a city, just a collection of businesses around the starship docks for loading and unloading transports. “I said I would pay for you to come here and work for me.”
    “You didn’t tell me what the work was, I thought you ran a dock, I didn’t know...”
    “It doesn’t matter what you thought the work was.” The man was yelling now. “You’re here, and you’re obligated to do it. You have a debt to pay. And don’t think you can go crawling back to the farm, back to mommy and daddy. They won’t take you back now, I’m all you’ve got.”
    The whole picture rapidly solidified for Joseph. That was the classic strategy of a pimp forcing a girl into prostitution. It was an approach that went back thousands of years: convince the victim that you’re their only protection, the only support they have, and that if they alienate you they’ll be left in the streets to die. It was also a patently false statement, assuming the girl’s parents were worth the air they breathed.
    Joseph sighed and discreetly loosened his pistol in its holster. He should probably stay out of it. He probably wouldn’t.
    “Face it Allison. I own you.” The man sat back down, appearing to have regained his temper. Allison was eyeing him nervously, not at all reassured by his apparent calm. “You’ll be on stage in the club tonight. I don’t care whether you want to do it. If you aren’t there will be consequences, and I can guarantee you won’t find a job anywhere in this town.”
    The man rose again, put some money on the table, and walked out of the diner. Allison dissolved into tears at the table. Joseph sighed and moved his hand away from his pistol. It wasn’t quite “crisis averted,” but at least he hadn’t had to shoot anyone. Well, so far. It could still come to that.
    “Who was that?” Joseph demanded of the diner’s owner as he arrived with the bill.
    “Local thug,” the owner shrugged. “Terrence Reed is his name. Owns a nightclub near the docks.”
    “And forces his employees to become prostitutes,” Joseph added blandly. “Does he conduct that kind ‘business’ here often?”
    The owner gave him a half-surprised, half-offended look . “I don’t particularly like it, but there’s not much in the way of law enforcement out here to stop it. A starman like you ought to know full well what unaffiliated worlds are like. He’s with an organization that runs most of that kind of thing on Temoran, and all of it here in Nevarris.”
    “What are they like?”
    “Just a bunch of street toughs, at least around here. Terrence is fairly typical, he just happened to have more money to invest than the rest of them. You ought to be careful around them. They won’t have any problem with killing you if you get in their way, and nobody here will bother to look for your body. Or your killer.”
    Joseph paid his tab and the owner disappeared into the kitchen. You never knew exactly what you’d get on an unaffiliated world, but the wild west routine he’d seen so far on Temoran was fairly typical. It failed to intimidate him. He’d been on the planet less than forty-eight hours, and he’d be gone before local sundown.
    He glanced around the diner from his stool at the counter. Allison was still at her table crying and nobody else had entered yet. He pulled his phone from an inside jacket pocket near his pistol. Tyrone was going to love this.
    His partner answered before the first ring ended. “We’re less than halfway loaded, if that’s what you want to know.”
    “It’s not.”
    “Oh. Well, what do you need? You’ve still got a couple hours before it’s your turn to supervise.”
    “I...well...saw something in town. I guess ‘witnessed’ would be a better word.”
    “That sounds bad. Do whatever passes for cops around here want you to stay on hand a few days to testify?”
    “Not at all. Apparently what passes for cops around here are gangs, and if they catch wind of what I have in mind to do they might chase us when we leave.”
    There was an extended pause. “Are you planning to kill any of them?”
    “Not if I can help it. Could you take a look at our supplies and tell me if we have enough to take an extra person on our flight back to Couradeen Station?”
    Tyrone sighed. “Hold on, I’ll take a look.” Joseph could hear his partner’s heavy footsteps on the deck plating aboard their vessel as he tramped fore from the cargo bay to the galley. “I’ll expect an explanation when you get here.”
    “Naturally. I promise a good one.”
    The footfalls ceased, and there was another pause while Tyrone peeked in storage bins. “We’ve got plenty. We were stocked up for the next month with just the two of us, and it’s only a week to Couradeen.”
    “Alright. I’ll be back before too long.” He ended the call and slipped the phone back into his pocket, checking the diner again. An elderly married couple had drifted in for breakfast, and Allison’s crying had almost ceased, but all else was unchanged.
    Joseph left his seat at the counter and approached her table, deliberately choosing a different spot than her previous companion. “May I sit down?” He didn’t actually wait for an answer, sinking onto the chair he’d picked.
    “I guess I can’t stop you, can I?” She hiccuped miserably, brushing away the last few tears. He probably should have waited for permission. That would have been the polite thing to do.
    “I apologize for my rudeness.” He twisted his mouth in a contrite grimace. “I'll leave if you ask me to, I promise. Watching that thug Tyler threaten you irritated me, and I forgot my manners.”
    She looked confused. “You mean Terrence?”
    “Tyler, Terrence...whatever.” The starman raised his arms to show his lack of concern. A hint of a smile flickered across her face, vanishing quickly. “Whatever his name, I have an alternative to offer you.”
    Hope now appeared in her expression, followed closely by suspicion. That was good. She had already been duped once, and it had taught her to be cautious. “Why would you offer me help?”
    “Because it’s the right thing to do, for one. That counts for a lot with me. You need it, and I’m in a position to offer it. It won’t even cost me much. Second...” He paused for a long moment. It was difficult trying to put the second reason to words. He'd never needed to before. “I have a powerfully hostile reaction to someone claiming ownership over another human being. The Teton Sector, which is where I’m from, despises slavery in any form, and whether he used the word or not it’s what he’s doing.”
    She took her time thinking over his reply. He looked down at the table to avoid just staring at her, and nosily examined the bill the owner had left. He noticed with another flash of disgust that Toby had only left enough money to cover his own meal, not Allison’s. He was trying to drain whatever money she did have. Silently wishing various painful diseases on the gutter rat, he took a few more coins out of his pocket to cover the rest of the bill.
    “What is your alternative, if I decide I trust you?” Allison now sounded more curious than frightened, but no less suspicious. Joseph couldn’t blame her.
    “I’m the co-owner of a freighter, which is over in the stardocks being loaded. We’re scheduled to leave early in local afternoon. We’re bound for a station in the Teton Sector. You can catch a ride there with us, and once we arrive we can help you find work. You’ll be a long way out of Ted’s reach. If we leave without him realizing you’re aboard, he won’t even know where to find you.”
    “What do you want in exchange?”
    Joseph shook his head. “We don’t want anything. Maybe a friendly face to stop by and have lunch with when we’re on the station in the future, if you don't end up moving somewhere else.” She didn’t look like she believed him. “Look, you still have a third option: you can go home.”
    She shook her head. “My parents didn’t want me to come here in the first place. They were pretty angry about it. I’m not sure they would let me come home. Terrence said they wouldn’t.”
    “He lied to you to get you to come here, didn’t he?”
    “Well then what’s to stop him from lying to keep you here?”
    She started to answer several times, but never got more than a few words in before stopping. “Okay, that’s a good point,” she admitted.
    “Exactly. I think your parents would be happy to have you come home, although they might be insufferable for a good long while about how they were right about everything. Parents are like that sometimes.”
    That comment finally elicited a laugh from her. “That definitely sounds like mine.”
    “How about this option then: we can take you back to your parents’ farm. That’s probably a short flight from here anyway. If they welcome you back, as I suspect, we drop you off. If they tell you to get out and never come back, then you leave with us. Either is an improvement over where you are now.”
    She sat considering it for several minutes. Joseph checked the clock over the counter, trying not to let her see what he was looking at. He still had plenty of time before Tyrone expected him back. His partner still had errands he wanted to run in town. They always needed some supply or other, and were usually traveling a week or more between stops.
    At last, she made her decision. “I don’t want to go home. I didn't just want to come live in Nevarris, I had other reasons for leaving. I’ll go with you and your partner. If you’re lying to me, I’m probably no worse off.”
    Joseph chuckled. “Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but not unfair either.” She almost smiled. He stood up.
    “Just give me a moment to pay my bill...” she trailed off, digging in a small purse for money.
    “I already took care of that.” Joseph pointed to the coins he’d left on the table. “If Thomas leaves you alone, he can have it as a gift. If he comes after you, be certain I’ll collect it from him.”

Published: January 7 2018

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