Read Back From the Dead Online

Authors: Rolf Nelson

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

Back From the Dead (4 page)

BOOK: Back From the Dead
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His wife chimes in, “What’s Komen-whatever?”

“Komenagen,” Lag explains, “the Plataean coming-of-age trial. Legal adulthood and voting rights are earned there and have no specific age. Some earn it by military service–”

“I’ve heard Plataean soldiers are bloodthirsty butchers!” says the Senator’s wife.”

Lag continues, unperturbed. “-some by earning a living on their own for a decade, but most go through a trial between the ages of 15 and 21 standard years to demonstrate adult capabilities.”

“How barbaric!”

“Not at all. ‘Things not earned are not valued.’ The individual picks the challenge, with advice from adults close to them. It can be something relatively easy — like planning and catering a full dinner for twenty people, including childcare and entertainment, for someone with more limited abilities and modest aspirations — to apprenticeships like one of those young men went for, or even some very difficult, perhaps life threatening, challenges, that may take a year or more to complete. Military service in battle often passes on its own merit.”

Trask sounds unconvinced. “So why doesn’t everyone just do something simple and be done with it?”

Lag shrugs. “True, all who pass legally become adults, regardless of score, but that score becomes the first point on their résumés. A high score can help one’s prospects a great deal.”

“So, how is it scored, if everyone is doing different things?” the Doctor asks.

“It is based on three simple scores from 1 to 5: overall difficulty, difficulty for the chosen challenge relative to that person’s particular abilities, and actual performance. Those three numbers are multiplied together, and any extra points they earn are added in.”

“They– Hey, the big drunk one is coming over. I hope you didn’t just make him angry!” The Senator glares at Lag, who smiles and applies himself to his food while the tipsy Plataean approaches. The buzz of the dining room quiets as he walks unsteadily to their table. He stops, turned toward Lag, but looking straight ahead, standing (sort of) at attention.

“I apologize if we–”

Lag cuts him off with a soft sound, then nods toward the rest of the table. “Not me. Them.”

The young man turns toward the Senator, thinks hard, and speaks carefully, though his words are slightly slurred. “We are sorry if we disturbed you, sir, that was not our intent. It won’t happen again.” Then he stands, awaiting a reply from the surprised table.

“Uh, proper?” the Senator confirms with Lag, who nods. “Proper!”

The young man nods, does an about-face, returns to his table briefly, then heads out the door with three others. Lag occupies himself with his meal, while the others exchange glances, and the Senator’s eyebrows rise in surprise. “What did you say to them?” he asks.

Lag looks up from his dish. “Hmmm? Oh, I just wished them well and explained the situation clearly.” He takes another bite of his food, having explained everything, and it being trivial.

“How did you know he’d apologize?”

“Wasn’t sure, but it was a likely outcome. With clear understanding a best course is usually obvious.”

“I’m sorry,” says Penger Trask, “I didn’t catch if you said what you do.”

“Ah. Didn’t. Dispute resolution and troubleshooting. Mostly corporate or intergovernmental.” He smiles. “Occasionally interpersonal.”

“It seems you know your business.”

Lucretia Trask’s tone and manner is ingratiating. “Perhaps you could settle a small dispute at the table?”

“Maybe. No guarantees, unless…” his smile grows to a grin, “you get a contract and a bill.” There is general laughter around the table.

“Well,” Lucretia continues, “before you arrived there was a question as to which occupation was more important, a senator, or a doctor?” Silence falls over the table; some are interested, others embarrassed at the attempt to liven things up at someone else’s expense.

“Ah, I see,” Lag replies. “So, if I may interpret your question more precisely, you are asking me to say who is the most important person at this table?”

The Doc and Senator and their wives protest halfheartedly, but someone says, “That’s a great way to put it,” to the general agreement of the rest of the table and a few passengers nearby who have been listening in. Lag looks around at everyone seated.

“Well…” he chews thoughtfully, “obviously I don’t know everyone perfectly, so there is always a chance I’m wrong, but: A senator passes laws that affect everyone. If he makes a mistake, he doesn’t know who died. There are lawsuits, money changes hands, and he passes another law while blaming the opposition.” There are gasps of agreement at the baldness and accuracy of his words.

“A surgeon holds life in his hands. If he makes a mistake, someone dies on
his
table.” The Senator and his wife look flustered. The Doctor smiles but says nothing. “But it’s only that one person.” The Doc frowns, and the Senator’s wife smiles.

“However … judging by the flaming cogwheel badge of a drive tech, the number of stripes on his sleeve, and the bags under his eyes, the chief engineer down there,” everyone swivels to look at the older man wearing an ill-fitting and rumpled ship uniform, with a badge on one shoulder and many service and rank stripes, “has been putting in long hours keeping this old bird flying. If he makes a mistake, we all die. I’d say he is the most important person on this ship right now.”

General acclamation at the table, accompanied by muted protests from the Senator and Doc and their wives. The Chief Engineer’s surprised expression slowly turns into a sly grin.

Dinners have been eaten, conversations moved on, and the seating shuffled a bit. Lag and the Chief Engineer now sit next to each other, conversing in low tones. “Seriously, how are things?” Lag asks.

“Holding together. We’re down a few key guys so we do a few extra shifts. Keeps us busy. No real problems, though.” Lag nods in understanding and leans back in his chair.

The evening progresses, and people have moved again. Helton’s discussing transition space with the Senator and the Doctor, while their wives and Bipasha compare notes on restaurants in New Chicago. Trask and Lag sit leaning slightly together, half-facing the table.

“Well, that is a way to end an argument, though I think you made an enemy or two.”

Lag chuckles. “I said I settle disputes, not that I make people happy. Besides, annoying a third-rate snollygoster that will get voted out next election and a self-important body technician is a small price to pay for the truth.”

“You certainly made everyone else at the table happy.”

“It is amazing how a little perspective makes things clear, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed,” Trask says, more seriously. “You know, I was wondering…”

“If I’m available for some intractable problem you have?” Lag says.

Trask nods, looking mildly embarrassed at being anticipated.

“Things are a little busy at the moment but I may have some openings. What and where?”

“I was heading to Throwdart II to deal with a series of disputes at a local mine. It seemed to finally be settled after an explosion killed some people, but now the accounting is looking very … odd. And I’m not getting any straight answers from anyone.”

“Hmmm. I don’t usually do accounting issues, but … Throwdart II is interesting. Rough place a while back, with a very ugly mine strike. Quiet now, I hear.”

“Ah, good, you know of it. So … any chance you’ll be out that way?”

“Not planning on it, but it’s not too far off course. If we catch a swirl that forces us over that way, I might be able to drop in. Are you going directly there?”

“Not quite. I’ve another couple of stops. I should land there in a month or so.”

“Well, we can talk more as we get closer to transfer, and I’ll see what looks possible.”

A large transfer-point station orbits four AUs from a star, out at the edge of its gravity well, near the transition line. No planets are nearby. The station is dimly lit against the black background of space.

Several ships are attached to the station. One liner is approaching, and a freighter is leaving. Both glow faintly. It is a facility like hundreds of others in Human-space, serene and quiet, everything moving in accordance with a precise, computer-regulated plan.

An explosion flashes from one of the docked liners, and debris sprays away from it into space.

Inside the transfer-point station’s docking ring, a pair of uniformed starliner crew stand at the top of the ship’s gangway, saying the routine “Goodbye and thanks for flying with us” to the departing passengers. Their voices are flat, visages grim. The one-armed Plataean stands at stiff attention in the background, wearing a brand new ship uniform and a barely contained smile. He salutes Lag as he walks by. Lag nods and grins. “Looking sharp, young man! Do your family proud! Now, get out of here. You’ve got work to do!” The young man turns smartly about and strides away.

Penger Trask passes by as Lag turns to leave. He extends a hand and says, “Good luck on your trip, and I hope our paths cross near Throwdart next month so we can connect on the ground.”

Lag returns the shake firmly. “I will, I will. And if you ever find out where that missing two-and-a-quarter percent went, let me know. Sounds interesting.”

Lag heads down the gangway with the Doctor, Senator, their wives, and others, while Trask goes back for his wife. Helton, carrying his duffel, and Bipasha, carrying nothing, walk side-by-side a little ways behind, pausing to look up and around at the lights as they fluctuate in brightness.

“Another power system problem? Glad we made it to the station,” Bipasha says.

“Yeah. And lucky there are some other ships docked with room to squeeze us all into, if only barely. Too bad we couldn’t both make the same one, though.”

The lighting fluctuates more, and a distant, barely audible thump sounds amid the hubbub. They walk down the gangway together. The waiting room beyond has a couple of exits with reader boards above each listing different ships and parts of the station. They pause and face each other uncomfortably, both starting to say something, then Bipasha waving for Helton to speak first.

“Here is where we part, I guess. Good luck with the job. Maybe you can get out to–”

“Yes, maybe so,” she says. “We’ll see.”

They shake hands awkwardly, then she goes one way, and he goes another.

HARBIN

Slaves

Helton lies face-down, stretched out in the dirt. A puff of dust blows by his face; he twitches, blinks his eyes, and squints at a reddish sun low in the sky. He starts to move, groggily, as do a few of the other people lying near him. A big brute of a man, chewing a dopestick and wearing something vaguely resembling a uniform, drags two men by their collars and roughly drops them in the dirt next to Helton. Then he walks back the way he came, as another man in similar clothing drags and drops a woman and a child. All told, about two dozen men, women, and children are scattered about, dropped like so many sandbags around the loading ramp of a small anti-grav transport, at the bottom of a dry, dusty desert basin.

Dopestick Puffer picks up a large canister, shaped like a two-gallon fire extinguisher, and sprays a white chemical fog over the unconscious people, sweeping it back and forth as he stands on the ramp. The cloud settles over the bodies, then dissipates. “Wakey wakey, sleeping beauties!” Slaver Two thinks this is hysterical.

The sleeping beauties start to twitch and slowly turn over, shaking heads, spitting dirt out of their mouths, sitting up or getting unsteadily to their hands and knees. Dopestick walks around, kicking passengers who aren’t moving. One groans and starts to stir. Another lies unmoving. He kicks her again, harder.

“One down already. Might have to put another bet in the pool.”

He walks back to the ramp and hops on. “Welcome to Hell,” he says, with malevolent relish. “You can sit here and die, but that’s no fun. For us, that is. Or, you can walk that way,” he points down a valley between two mesas, “for a few days to get to the prison mine. Those that live that long will dig ’lonium there ’til you work off your debt. In the meantime, how many of you die on the march there will entertain us. I’m betting the pool that only eleven of you make it. My friend here is betting on eight, ’cause of all the weak ones he sees. But I’m an optimist.”

One of the younger men rises unsteadily to his feet. “You can’t DO this to us! WHAT debt? When we get there, I’ll rip out your–”

Slaver Two draws a pistol and shoots him. He drops to the dirt without a twitch. “No, you won’t,” he sneers. “One less tough guy!”

Dopestick chuckles and kicks a stack of one-liter water bottles off the ramp. “One each. You can fight over ’em now or later, your choice. We got bets on that, too,” he says with an evil grin. “See some of you soon!” The transport lifts up and speeds away.

The passengers are unsteady as they recover from the effects of the sleeping gas. Some start walking or crawling toward the water bottles. Next to Helton is a bearded Sikh in his late forties, adjusting his turban. He looks at the retreating flier, then at Helton. He speaks quietly, in a one-meter voice, “Name?”

“Helton. Can’t say I’m glad to meet you.”

“Harbin. The same.” He starts to flex and loosen up, looks at the dead passenger, shakes his head. “Stupid.”

“What the hell happened?” Helton asks, as they both move carefully to their knees.

“Pirates. They can sell the ship and cargo. People are harder. Inside guys put knockout gas in the air, but they get skittish about just spacing everyone. So, entertainment, then slavery in a prison mine where there isn’t a lot of paperwork filed, I expect.”

Helton glances around at the terrain. “Sssshhhhiiiiit.” He looks back at Harbin, then behind him. “
That
doesn’t look good,” he says, nodding at a small group of tough-looking, young punks. Some of the other passengers have noticed the gathering as well.

Harbin rises to his knees, casually glancing back out of the corner of one eye, then bending as if stretching, he surreptitiously picks up an oblong rock. “Good call. Can you move okay?” Helton stretches carefully, grimaces, and nods. “Right. Follow my lead.”

BOOK: Back From the Dead
2.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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