Read Back From the Dead Online

Authors: Rolf Nelson

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Military

Back From the Dead (2 page)

BOOK: Back From the Dead
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Helton grunts acknowledgment and takes another bite. A beep sounds from the countertop, and a screen in front of him lights up.

Message for Helton from Blondie: [display] [forward] [delete].

Kwon politely turns away. Helton taps the counter, scans the message while spooning stew into his mouth, then taps the counter again to clear the message. He looks up. “How far to Niven III A?”

“Normally about a week each way.”

Helton looks thoughtful for a moment, but shakes his head dismissively. “Won’t work.”

“Recently it’s been closer to a day coming back ’cause of a big swirl headed this way. Sometimes less going out … with a lucky midpoint transfer.”

“Hmm… Two days each way either end conventional, a week transit there, a day back. Less than a week grounded,” He shakes his head. “Tight.” Kwon raises an eyebrow.

“Sis and her other half moved there a few years ago. She’d like me to visit, maybe work for him for a bit. Needs a reliable techie. Things are growing fast, between kids and folks fleeing the bombings and conscriptions on III B. In any case, definitely sounds like he needs some help to get some things straightened out. Only three weeks until the next cycle starts. It could work, but…” He shakes his head again.

While Helton muses, Kwon punches at a data screen behind the counter. The wall screen next to him lights up, showing a departure schedule for the local spaceport. “There’s an independent in port, headed out this afternoon, going that way,” Kwon says. “Get away, do you good. If you’re a day or two late, they’ll hold the contract for you.”

“Dunno. Awful tight margin.”

“You can bring back some spices that are expensive here from Nath Imp/Exp as personal baggage. Make you twenty percent, save me fifty. Pays your ticket.” Helton considers for a moment, then stands up, pats his pockets, and realizes he doesn’t have his wallet.

“Ah, crap. It must have dropped out in the sim!”

Kwon waves dismissively. “That’s okay. Cash is a pain if they think you’re using it too often. Pay when you’re back.”

Helton nods and heads for the door in a hurry. Kwon smiles and begins clearing Helton’s place, calling after him, “Happy transit. Vaya con Dios!”

Security

The check-in area at the spaceport is starkly lit, with a little sunlight filtering in unevenly through high windows. It’s clean, but run-down. A few dozen people wait in queues, resigned to fate. Security guards stand in pairs, dressed in typical police-state blues and light body armor, holding carbines.

Helton walks in hurriedly, carrying a large, but only half-full duffel bag. He’s wearing a brown traveler's coat with wide cuffs and lots of pockets, waistcoat, khaki cargo pants, and hiking boots. He is unshaven and looks a bit rough-and-ready, all things considered. After scanning a reader board he heads for a counter, oblivious to the security guards eyeing him suspiciously.

The agent behind the counter is a middle-aged, bored, grossly overweight woman in a sharply creased but ill-fitting blue uniform. There are various award ribbons above the badge on her lapel. She’s interrogating a neatly-dressed elderly man who is traveling unaccompanied.

“Yes, that’s right. Business trip again,” he says.

“Job?”

“Fine arts dealer. I’m taking several pieces of commission work for a final inspection and delivery.”

“Duration?”

“Three days there. I need to return as soon as possible to continue my work.”

A couple of perfunctory taps on her screen, then the Checker asks, “Business? Any family?”

“Oh, yes, my wife is here. I mean to say ‘yes, the trip is only business.’ No family there.”

Checker presses a few buttons and waves him past, toward the boarding area. She looks up at Helton and her eyes narrow. She points to the ID scanner on the counter in front of her. He sets his hand on the palm pad and bows to place his face in front of the camera. A crosshatch of faint laser lines flashes over his face.

“Helton Strom,” he says. “Teacher.”

Checker eyes her screen, then Helton, then screen. She frowns, looks at Helton, then over his shoulder. “Reason for travel?”

“Vacation.”

Her brows furrow with suspicion. She taps on her screen again. “Job?”

“Teacher at the high school.”

Checker taps a few more times, looking back and forth between Helton and the screen. Helton’s starting to get concerned. “Is there a problem?” he asks.

“I’LL ask the questions, if you please,” she snaps.

Helton is taken aback. He straightens up a bit and steps back slightly, bumping into someone behind him. He turns to apologize, but it’s a pair of security guards standing right behind him, guns at port arms. Something is badly amiss. He responds to Checker in a more tightly controlled voice. “I would be happy to answer any questions you have.”

“Who bought your ticket?”

“I did, just–”

“It was bought with cash. Can you prove it was you?”

“I don’t know, I–”

“Stop lying!”

“I don’t think–”

“Lying to a government agent is a crime, Mr. Strom, so don’t think, just ANSWER!”

“But I did tell–”

Checker holds up her hand to silence him as she looks at the screen. “Well, well, well. And just
why
is it that you were sent a list of spices in commercial quantities, when you are not a registered and licensed wholesaler? A violation of the Terrorism-Supporting Black Market Reduction Act, perhaps?”

“How did–”

“You lied to me. That means a summary fine against assets, one per false statement.”

Helton’s shocked. “What?!”

“You were a teacher, but are now listed as
unemployed
. You lied. You said you were going on vacation, but you have a job offer from your sister.
You lied
. Someone bought your ticket with cash to avoid tracking,
you lied.
You are obviously attempting to dodge taxes and business licensing. You bought a one-way ticket indicating that you are an emigrant–”

“Because I didn’t know when I was coming back! I just now decided to go to–”

“But you still tried to dodge the emigration tax!”

“But how could I be emigrating if I’m planning to smuggle spices back here!?”

“Well, now, that WAS pretty stupid of you, wasn’t it? Didn’t think things through. Tell it to the judge! WE don’t make mistakes that stupid.”

Helton’s eyes widen with realization. A faint, deep CRUMP sounds in the distance, but Helton barely notices as he stares at the smug Checker.

“Escort Mr. Strom to Interview Room C for further questions.”

The guards step even closer behind him, and one indicates with his elbow which way Helton should walk. The Checker smirks. The other passengers studiously look away — at the ground, or at things in their hands — avoiding eye contact as the guards turn Helton and escort him away.

Helton sits at a small table in an undersized interrogation room, his coat over the back of his chair. Across the table is a uniformed guard with a weaselly face, blandly monitoring him and entering data into a tablet. The e-cigarette dangling listlessly from the corner of his mouth twitches when he asks Helton yet another question in the seemingly endless stream of trivial questions with answers he already knows.

An hour later, same room, different uniform. This one has more gold braid, a bigger hat, and a nervous tic; his eyes twitch as he reviews the information on his table. Helton sits as straight and dignified as he can, biting his tongue, doing his best to not make things worse.

The room is filled with a slight smoky haze. Helton sits across from a sour-faced woman with a pinched smile. She’s wearing the black robes of a judge. Gold Braid stands off to the side, smirking. The judge bangs her gavel on the small table between them, the door opens, and a pair of armed guards enter to escort Helton away.

The space liner’s lounge is sparse and spare, dim with the faint, reddish light that indicates the night shift. A few round ports and several screens line the walls above solidly mounted furniture. Helton slouches at an angle, half-facing Art, an elderly businessman with a dazed expression on his face and a drink in his hand, looking absently out one of the larger viewing ports. His coat is in a heap on another chair, and his bag supports his feet. “By the time it was over, virtually all my assets were forfeited on the spot, I’d been stripped of citizenship, and searched by the Blue Gloves way more personally than I’d like. How?” He shakes his head slowly in disbelief. “How did we get here?”

“It could be worse,” the old man says quietly. “You are
here
, yes?”

Helton stares at him, incredulous. “Well, yeah, but–”

“Not in jail. Not in uniform.”

“They wouldn’t–”

“Still breathing.”

Comprehension dawns on Helton’s face. He takes a drink, then says, “But I don’t understand. Why?”

“They get a percentage of any fines or forfeitures they assess, as an ‘incentive’ to be attentive to the letter of the law. Likely you were put on a list some time ago, and this was just the easiest opportunity to make you go away. If they hadn’t gotten busy with that bomb on Level Eight, you might still be there.”

“Wha…? Bomb? Nobody said anything about a bomb.”

“The disturbance that called them away?”

“But that was some sort of transformer explosion in an electrical vault…”

Art looks as him with a slight shake of his head and a knowing, apologetic smile on his face. “
Always
buy a round trip ticket.
Always
have the appearance that you have good reason to come back, and no plans to do otherwise. Terrorist, separatists, false flag — makes no difference.”

“You…?”

“You are just now realizing what’s been going on these last months and years?”

Helton says, feebly, not even accepting his own excuse, “Been busy.”

“People have had to flee on a moment, packing light, for thousands of years. The warning signs of collapse are always the same. The debt. The scapegoats. The lies. The ‘temporary emergency measures.’ I cut it closer than I should have.” Art shrugs and takes a drink from his own glass. “My family is all safely away, and everything else shipped ahead for us by others.” A small, sympathetic smile crosses his wizened face. “It looks like you won’t be returning, either.”

Helton looks at him in disbelief, frowning, brows knit. Quietly, in shock, he says to himself, “Homeless.” He turns his gaze back to the port, staring blankly.

“You are lucky, though,” Art says.

“If this is lucky, I’d hate to see
unlucky
.”

“They picked you clean, but they let you leave.” He looks intensely at Helton. “Think. What
do
you have? Where are you going?”

He shrugs, waves to his coat and bag. “My sister’s.”

“And?”

Helton shakes his head, still not sure what Art is asking. Art taps his temple, then his chest. Then waves to the room around them, at the glass in Helton’s hand. Slowly, forcing himself to think positively, Helton taps his temple. “I have … useful skills … and knowledge.” He touches his chest. “I’m heading for family … who will welcome me. Work. I’m not sucking vacuum or” he holds up his glass, “dying of thirst in a desert. Better off than Odysseus meeting Nausicaä.”

A big smile spreads across the old man’s face. “A man of education.”

“Not enough. Didn’t see
this
coming.”

“It will serve you well. Never forget your assets, just because you acquired some new liabilities. Have faith in yourself, and you’ll be okay. God works in mysterious ways.”

Helton looks at Art silently for a long moment. He drains his glass, unconvinced.

New Acquaintances

Helton walks down a passageway on the space liner. It has a sense of faded high-tech elegance. He’s dressed in his normal shipboard attire: collared shirt, earth-tone vest with several pockets, dark pants, five-finger style shoes. Several others head in the same direction, each with a different style of clothing, mostly of simple cut, but more stylish, in much brighter colors. As they walk, the ship’s announcement system drones in the background in a calm and pleasant female voice. “Passengers on B Schedule proceed to your assigned dining rooms on Level E, Corridor F, for the traditional first-night formal meet-and-greet. Your seating assignments will be at your tables if not noted on your ticket. Please arrive promptly at 1830…”

Helton and the other passengers turn and stream through a doorway into a large, low room with some two dozen oval tables that can seat ten people each. The dining room has the same sense of faded elegance as the passageway: a nice chandelier with a few lights not working, slightly worn upholstery on the seats, indirect lighting of inconsistent brightness, and colors that don’t quite coordinate, as if the maintenance crew could not be bothered to find identical replacements.

Each table has a busy artistic centerpiece and a small sandwich-board style screen with a list of names on it. Many of the tables are full, or nearly so. Helton finds a table with several openings, glances at the seating screen, and wanders on. He finds his name on the screen at the next table with open spaces. Eight people are already seated: a doctor, a senator, a businessman, and their wives; the space liner’s engineer, an older man in a disheveled uniform; and a beautiful, well-dressed East Indian woman in her twenties. Everyone except the Liner Engineer greets Helton cordially. He takes a seat between the young woman and the Businessman’s wife.

“Howdy.” He picks up the slim, paper-like e-reader and scans it. Most of the items on the menu are asterisked, signifying synthetic. Helton’s selections light up as he taps them, and the price totals at the bottom. Meanwhile, his tablemates chat quietly among themselves. The background is noisy with the droning of other tables doing the same, the clatter of silverware, the hum of the air system and engines. He sets the menu down and looks up, now listening to what the others at the table are saying. The wives appear to be engaged in an esoteric competition concerning whose husband has the most status: the Businessman is a wealthy mining and manufacturing magnate, the Doctor is a neurosurgeon, and the Senator sits on several moderately important committees. Doc Local and Senator Snol are unconvincingly modest, playing up their importance while feigning to deprecate it. The Businessman, Penger Trask, is more sincere.

BOOK: Back From the Dead
4.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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