Monday, June 6, 2011

Barbara Wednesday's Treasure (1st 5K words)

"Papa, tell me a story."
It was late in the dark cycle, when most folk on ship were asleep, or should have been. But Barbara Wednesday's father, Louis Armstrong Wednesday III, was hard at work on some neglected maintenance. The good old girl, 'Columbia', was betwixt, straining through that other space which starships cut short between the stars. This was not a vital system, but it was down; Louis was the ship's mechanic, and so here he was, "Whispering sweet nothings to his other woman," as her Mama, Susan, sometimes said when she and he were quarreling. Which they tried not to do in front of Barb and her twin brothers, Junior and Valentine, but still, it did happen, more and more often these days.
"What are you doing up, my littlest neo-barbarian?"
Louis sat up, bone-tired, but he didn't need to force a smile for his youngest, the brightest star in his sky. Barbara was five, a cheerful, thoughtful, happy child. Junior, twelve, was duty incarnate. Valentine, the slightly younger twin, by all of 213 seconds, was always getting into trouble; whereas Barbara was beyond blame. "Good Twin, Evil Twin and Blameless Barb," was how Val put it when he was complaining about the manifest injustices of the universe. But she was a bit of a peacemaker, too, between her brothers, between her parents, and sometimes between the twins and their parents. She loved her Pappa, and could feel when he was hurting... they were going to lose the ship one day soon, everyone knew it. It would be an open wound, and there was nothing to be done.
"Papa, I want you to tell me a story!" Barbara insisted, and put her small hands on her hips. Louis hid a smile behind his hand and sucked on a bloody knuckle. She looked like her Mama when she did that, and her Grandma Kelly. Or even his Aunt Bethany...
"Well, I suppose I could tell you, just one, but you need to promise to go straight back to your bunk afterwards, you hear?" Barbara nodded emphatically, and set her blanket down on the decking, sat on it and clutched Mr. Wiggles, her stuffed toy hippo with the broken artificial stupid. Once it had spun  her tales which had been told to it by her Grandpa Kelly and his Uncle Roark, but no more. Then it had stared listlessly until Louis had pulled its power source and left it inert; the ghost of the great toy it had once been. That had been painful.
"What kind of story would you like to hear?"
"An adventure, with treasure, a curse to be lifted, and wrongs, righted, all with a whip and a fedora!"
Inwardly, Louis groaned. Her brothers had also loved the world-weary archeologist once. Still did, but they had found other things of interest lately, such as girls, aliens and sports. Or sports, girls and aliens; it was hard to say in which order, but they were obsessed with modern things, not a beloved old family tradition, Middle to Late American Empire 2-D media. Louis had inherited a few dozen movies and TV series, and dozens of non-cannon stories from his father's side of the family; had added on to them. Barbara was the true fan of the family, however. She'd even come up with a decent fanfic on her own, or with only a little patient ghost-writing by Val. That boy was like a different child around her. She brought out the best in him.
"This one isn't about that guy," Barbara's father began. "It's about a little girl and the starship that she and her family lived on, a magical old flying barn of a house, for going from one world to the next, and one adventure to the next... Cattle, cows, were extinct for a hundred and seventy years."
"Really?" Her mouth made a small 'oh', as she tried to wrap her pretty little head around that much time, at all of five years old.
"Really. Nobody had any beef, nor beef cheese, nor tallow, nor beef-leather, in all that time. The biggest mammals were goats, dogs, and people, of course. And the giant rabbits they bred on the Eastern Twilight Continent on Candle. One hundred to one-fifty kilos tops; little cousins of Boots- remember Mr. Boots?" That had been a rabbit pony, in a petting zoo on Flores; the Floresicans had taken ETC rabbits up to three or four hundred kilos, but they weren't really rabbits anymore. The feral cousins of ETC bunnies were called Bunnylopes on dozens of worlds where they didn't belong, but had made a place for themselves anyhow.
Louis went on with his work while he talked and Barbara listened, rapt even when she would hand him a tool. He was proud of the way that it was always the right one; he had never had a better apprentice and helper, and she loved the old girl as much as he did. More, possibly. When he ran down, she asked, "What happened then, Papa?"
"Oh no’s, you little scamp! Our deal was one story and then off to bed," Louis chided her.
"But I want to know what comes after 'The Adventure of the Day-Glow Orange Cattle', and you need me to help you with the ship..." It was bad parenting, perhaps, but she was like bottled charisma, and usually got her way. Thank the stars above that she was such a good little girl...
Hours later Barbara lay curled up in her blanket asleep. The job was finally done and he was admiring his work; taking stock. It was a good life, but hard, hard on the kids, on their marriage and on the extended family; ties both of blood and of heart. 'Uncle' Roark had been the Columbia's pilot for decades and had never married into the Wednesdays, but he made the journey 'home to Old Earth' as one, yes he had. Ship was life, Gandpa Wednesday had always said, and Louis took that as an article of faith. Without Columbia, what was he? What were the Wednesdays?
The Kelly's had had 'Emerald' and had lost her; had beached and stripped her. 'Columbia' and her folk had needed the extra hands and spares, but that was the death of Susan's dad, their boss mechanic on 'Emerald'. He had faded, drinking too much ship's lighting and drifting away. Death had almost been a relief in the form of a broken neck at the bottom of some stairs. Louis shuddered. That lay in his future, not if, but when. It poisoned all hope and set folks nerves on edge.
There were eyes on him, a tower of will that felt like Zeus or his daughter, Athena. Louis looked up into the piercing gaze of his wife. She looked so very determined; he could see the little girl that had grown up into the woman, the mother of his children and the Captain of his ship. "Morning, Honey," he said brightly.
"Don't, Louis. You've been up all night again. Why can't you learn to delegate, why?" She spoke soft, more in sorrow than in anger, and that was so much worse... "She's been up half the night, too?"
Louis nodded. Susan, Captain Kelly-Wednesday, bent over to where he sat on his toolchest for a stool and hugged him tight. "Don't do that to us, Louis. Don't... do what my father did to us."
He had gone away, somewhere beyond the next star, somewhere back past Yesterday. Where ice fairies danced in the cometary halo and Old Earth was the center of the human part of the galaxy.
They were grounded on Jericho for more than ten days, with neither the money for the spare parts they needed, nor a cargo or job which might pay for them. They lived on lifesystem byproducts, which wasn't a hardship for ship-folk, and ran the reactors at just above idle, which was a problem for the mechanic and the lifesystem itself. No. 3 went down and Louis nudged one and two up to ten percent, then fretted over getting three re-lit. An old poker buddy stopped by with some power coupling which she 'needed to clear out of her warehouse'; neither of them could meet each other's eyes during that transaction. In eleven days of desperate, painstaking labor he and his second had rebuilt the shield-sail which protected Columbia from the ravages of that other space and allowed her to surf through it at the same time. It had taken eight of those days to polish the pits out of the projectors to get them back into the demanding tolerances, for Louis was betting nothing less that his entire family on them.
On that eleventh day, the Captain came back from a meeting with the friendly folks at T-Corp with a job, a cargo and a flight-plan, but she wasn't very happy. That night, as they celebrated at dinner with fresh food from the local farms of Jericho, she had held herself apart from her folk, watching them all sadly. She could not bear to tell them, not just yet.
She told her husband, later, but not because he had asked her what it was. He had already guessed, with barely a glance at the manifest and the destination. It lay between them, unspoken, and they made slow, gentle love as if for the last time.
"I love you..." he told her.
"I know you do; love you, right back..."
They lay together, after, in the moon-light through their sky-light. 'The fish leapt for the fly' in the light and dark spaces of that bright and full new-penny moon, high in the middle of local night, which for once synced up with ships' time. The moonlight was bright enough for him to make out the wetness on her cheeks.
"Those tears make you ugly," he teased her, and she laughed. That he stored away like a miser for the years ahead. Then she pinched him and he said, "Ow!"
"You always know what to say, but this is not going to be laughed away, Husband. I took the job they offered."
"Without talking to me, Wife?"
"It kind of fell outside of our marriage, Husband; this I had to do as Captain. The ship is life..."
"But the crew always comes first." There was love and there was marriage, but she would sacrifice that for family, and he could not fault her. He just wasn't sure that he could live with it.
If a faster mode of transport exists, all other things being equal, it will soon be the only mode of transport... Starships lasted thirty years into the Transmatter Era.
The job on Kestral was to ship and install the new matter transmission station. The T-Corp Regional Director who had hired Captain Susan Kelly-Wednesday, her ship and her crew, was looking for a good decisive manager to oversee expansion into that sector. It was both opportunity and betrayal.
"But if you look at it in that way, Captain, you won't be doing yourself or the space-born any favors. I need workers, they need jobs; need to transition from an obsolete technology."
"But we still need ships," the Captain said. It sounded defensive even to her.
"A few. Not even a tenth as many as we still have..." The Regional Director was not an unkind man. He and his had worked Starports for three generations. He understood.
A lot of people understood and forgave. A few never did. Aunt Bethany was the oldest woman on the ship, and set in her ways. She let the whole ship know what she thought of the situation. Susan put up with it for three weeks on Kestral. Then she had the old woman's things packed onto 'Windy City', her Bates cousins' ship, along with No. 3 fusor, unshipped in three hours flat. At that, 'Columbia' got the better end of the deal, her cousins later insisted.
The time flew by after that. Louis learned more than he ever wanted to know about the care and feeding of transmatts, but he learned. Oh how he learned... It was knowledge ground in hatefully, spitefully, which bothered him when he thought about it. His teacher had given him 'The Sons of Martha' to memorize and recite. Neither he nor Kipling would have cared for such thinking.
The principles were as different as night and day. Starships passed through another, hostile, universe on their journey betwixt and between the stars. In Transmatts, matter was transmitted as energy, a lot of it, directly from point A to point B. The first sensational years had involved a rather lot of hysteria; were the persons arriving at the destination merely copies, were they in fact being murdered in the name of progress? Cheap transmission of goods paid for the early infrastructure. A campaign to prove the safety of the technology got a big boost as aging starships, acting on narrower and narrower margins, led to a few ineffably well-timed tragedies... and despite the conspiracy-mongering, the T-Corp had nothing to do with them.
They were playing a long game. The Corporation refused to patent the technology and had a de facto monopoly; soon they effectively owned planetary governments that were agreeable, and froze out those that refused to play by their rules. It didn't hurt that a number of out-worlds fell to feuding and raised the specter of a general interstellar war again, after a few centuries of comparative peace and expansion. The Company could afford to be generous and set a few extra places at the table. The space-born families, the people who had worked the independent ships on the edges of the human expansion, could not afford to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Not exactly win-win, but not lose-lose, either.
The twins' relationship with their parents was always problematic. Their mother was the captain, and demanded loyalty. Their father was the ships' engineer and mechanic, and demanded perfection. The elder twin never stopped trying to please them both, and often he succeeded. The younger twin... chose a different path.
Valentine Saint Wednesday, Valiant Val, was named for a character in an old 2-D monster movie which both his parents had liked very much; it was their 'date' movie, comfort food for the soul. No matter how many times the mechanic scoffed at the impossibility of the threat, or the captain railed against two goof-offs saving the day, it was really about people working the problem and saving themselves. That always had special meaning for the two of them.
Val took the lifestyle to heart; he also had liked the swashbuckling archaeologist, and the free-booting First Officer from that SF horror series. He made a career of bucking the system, looking for treasure, fighting monsters and sending home stories for his little sister. The Transmatt network got bigger every year, and he steered to the edges of it, for the wild frontiers that he visited first as a construction worker, then as a gambler and an explorer, and finally as a... what he did didn't have a set name or job-description. He troubleshot. He found problems, solved them or patched things over. His brother worked 70-hour weeks, following in his mother's footsteps, and Val worked for a less public section of the same company, risking life and limb, sanity and soul, 24-7 and 365 days a year... except for when he came home, busted up and in need of recuperation.
This time it was an eye; his right eye. The bad guys had not gone gently into that good night, had had to be hoist on their own petard, assisted off-stage with a little of their own medicine. The alien artifact responsible for their diabolical little scheme had had a very high density energy-storage device built in, which the company was interested in reverse engineering from the remaining shards, one of them removed from behind his sadly non-functioning eyeball. Medical Section was growing him a new one, but for the eternal now, Val wore an eyepatch rakishly, trying out by turns his grizzled old U.S. Marshal and his nihilistic guttersnipe impersonations.
In his brother's living room he intoned, "Snake, the name's Snake Pli-"
"Daddy, Uncle Val is funny!" his six-year old niece, Lisa, pronounced. Davie, aged two, sippy cup deployed, observed the local life-forms with interest.
"Your Uncle Val is a real laugh-riot," her father not-quite agreed, and the two brothers shared a look. Over thirty years ago, they had come from the same mother, two identical halves of the same genetic crap-shoot. Now, in their late thirties, they looked like fun-house mirror images, light and dark, law and chaos, straight and crooked. Each envied the other, and reviled the other, and depended on the other. 'He is what I'm not, and I am not what he is...'
"Doctor Peterson is Sally's old room-mate, you know-" Louis Armstrong Wednesday IV began.
"Dinner!" his nine-year old namesake, his and his father's, interrupted. Junior and his grandmother had cooked a special home-coming meal. Senior... had assisted. The twins hung back by mutual agreement, a thing which passed between them like telepathy.
"So the Doc is your wife's old gal-pal..."
"If the that chip hadn't destroyed the orbit of your eye, it might have tumbled around..."
"And if it had hit me square in the skull, it would have ricocheted. Or three centimeters to the right and it would have grazed the back of my head, just a low velocity fragment of a 'splody piece of alien tech- So what?"
"Number Two, why do you do it?"
"Because it's fun, Number One- 'splody bits!"
"Grow up!" said the father of three tiredly.
"Boys! Get in here and eat!" their mother called.
Val snuck up on Doctor Diana Peterson at her work station and leaned over her shoulder. She asked, "What are you up to, Mr. Wednesday?"
"I'm 'playing doctor' with my doctor, Doctor."
"Are you, now?" She turned around in her chair and he dropped down on one knee so that he could kiss her, which she returned with interest before he continued on around to her neck. She closed her eyes and sighed contentedly. "I suppose a check-up is called for..."
She did interrupt their little make-out session to look over his wounds, and sighed again. "You are such a very good customer, Val. One of these days..."
"Never gonna happen."
"Because?" She prompted, whispering in his ear and taking his ear-lobe between her teeth.
"I'm lucky, and because I've got the best Doc- Ow!" He yelped.
"Dumb-ass! I can't do anything but pick up the pieces, do you understand? Do you? Stop trying to get yourself killed."
Val leaned back to get a good look at her, taking her face in his hands. "You alright?"
"No, I'm not." She met his eyes. "Don't worry, Val. This isn't getting serious, or anything like that. But one of my best friends keeps going out and finding a woodchipper to stick his-" She closed her eyes. "I thought you probably would wise up after this one, and you haven't."
"Well maybe I'm almost as good a liar as you, Diana." Val brushed away a tear on her heart-shaped face and stood up. "Thanks, Doc."
"Oh no, you don't. I'll be having my pound of flesh, for services rendered," Diana said as she got up from her chair and put a hand to his chest, fingernails pressing ever so slightly through the fabric into the skin over his heart. There was one time-tested remedy for death, come knocking at your door.
Val smiled. "Blood-thirsty woman..."
Barbara Kelly Wednesday was singing along with an old tune when Val found her later that night. Moments like this were what made him so very good at his job; he liked to stand apart and observe before he acted. It didn't occur to him that this held him apart from everyone else.
"...and I am not afraid, so bring on the rain!"
Val smiled and backed down the hall, then came on again, making just a little purposeful noise. At her door he leaned against the jam and peered at her. Barbara looked up from her work, startled and embarrassed, and then she smiled at seeing him there.
"Lady sings the Blues..." Val drawled, waiting for it.
"But that's a late American Empire Country and Western song," she countered automatically. She was a teacher and a historian, of sorts. Her day-job was IT and Data Security. But that was 'just to pay the bills' and gave her access, the keys to the kingdom. Since the insurance provisions of the Transmatt meant that they held onto copies of all media transmitted physically, the T-Corps' Data Deeps had taken a page from the Library of Alexandria and kept everything they could, even the stuff that they officially deleted; Barbara made copies of copies. She had a better grasp of the extended economy, of the governments and the culture of the Human Expansion than any other private individual, and better than most institutions of higher learning. She also wrote, was a published novelist three times over, all period pieces, capers and thrillers. She also had dozens of short stories and novellas to her credit, taught both writing and information systems for the Corporate University as well as history. Two of her non-fiction books were a history of the Space Born and a complete reference on Ancient Data Storage Media, from 2-D movies to text files. She wore thirty extra kilos with ill-grace, slogging through the hated exercise with grim determination but no real hope.
"I stand corrected. So, why weren't you at dinner?"
"I got busy with the new novel and lost track of time..." she answered a little shame-faced.
Val laughed. "You know, you're the only one in the family not giving me grief about..." he waved a hand at his face, "Because you, you don't really believe I could die, do you?"
"No, I'm actually grateful. And okay with it besides! I'm like one of the characters in your stories-"
"But Val, I kill off your favorites, all the time. And you give me grief, for that, all the time."
"You give them good deaths. That's something... Let's change the subject, okay?"
They talked about the new novel for a bit, two great story-tellers completely at home with their craft, at ease in their own skins. Someday Val would have to try his hand at this business; for now he was content with the fiction in his reports.
"So, what are you up to next?" Barbara asked just a little too casually. Val gave her a look that said, 'Really? And who taught you to suck eggs?'
"I'm getting a new eye..." he pointed at the doc-patch which covered his missing one. "Lost it..." Val swallowed. Even he couldn't whistle past his own, unoccupied for now, grave. Not with is little sister. "I've got a few months of down-time while this gets... better, and I'm planning on hiding out. Just so's they can't grab me for some new Charlie Foxtrot before I get to enjoy life a little bit."
"I've got a little thing planned-"
"Are you getting married, Sis?!"
Barbara rolled her eyes. "No! Who has time? And after that last little misadventure, I'm... No, this is a trip I've had planned for a while now, to a wrecked human world- Aurora."
Val whistled. "You located Aurora?"
Aurora was the planet where the original Big Bad Aliens had first attacked humanity and filled their species in on the dread realities of the Known Galaxy, over seven hundred years before. This arm of it had been a pretty bad neighborhood back then, with three different Hunters-of-Dawn, berserker-type species; the Bigbees, of course, the Tommyknockers and the Jabberwocky. Humanity had gone to the stars and settled a dozen worlds before being rudely being awakened to the facts of life. Then they had settled in to survive, adapt, scheme, lie, cheat and steal. To commit genocide and fratricide; to outlast and overcome first the Jabberwocky, then the Bigbees and finally the Tommyknockers. Along the way, they had managed to become the most common and widespread of the starfaring species, made friends, and ended enemies.
Aurora was where it all began.
"Do I even have to say it? I'm in."
That was not the end of it, of course. There were, shall we say, interested parties with their own opinions on, "Trekking halfway across the Galaxy!" Neither their mother nor their older brother wanted them to go; from Transmatter-head by ancient starship of questionable maintenance to a planet out of legend. Their older niece and nephew wanted to go, of course. Davie had no opinion and did not care what all the hollering was about. He was a very strange child, for a Wednesday; when all the drama had rolled into the living room, he had quietly found his Aunt Barb, curled up in her lap despite her being one half of ground-zero, and took a nap. Clearly, the local life-forms needed more time for their threat and posturing rituals...
Barbara hugged her brother's child to her like her old toy Hippo and idly wondered if she would ever have one of her own. There had never been a man, or a woman, for that matter, who had been 'just right'. Admittedly she was romantic and had certain high expectations. But she did want children, and not because of some old-fashioned, silly sense of duty, that 'the ship must have a crew', as the litany  went. She wanted to share her life with a son or daughter who would live into the next century, take what she had done with her life, plus the gifts and baggage of ten thousand generations,  to build on.
The arguing stage was winding down; even Wednesdays had to shut up and listen to each other eventually. Barbara decided it was past time to hit her points again. What had Churchill said? If you had something to say, a point to make, keep hammering away, a mighty whack! And, of course, the one everyone knew from The Hiding Time, that if you're going through hell, keep on going...
"This little excursion is worth the risk. We don't really know much from that time, at the beginning of the Hiding, nor about life, before. They kept seed banks and such on Old Earth, but she got completely trashed-" The Mother of Man had been hit by at least seventeen different Dawn-Hunter task-forces from the big three and was sterile. Mars had more Earth-life, now. "Perhaps Aurora has, I don't know, coffee? Or elephants! There were three big genetic engineering companies there, Aurora is an outlier and they were altering the human genome to better fit the environment, as well as terraforming it to be a better fit for us."
"What's it like now, I wonder," Sally Wednesday asked. She was a strategic planner for T-Corp; where the company was going, how and why were her concerns. Habitability was high on her list of desirable traits in a world. People could and had lived anywhere, during the Hiding. Had made a living in the atmosphere of gas giants, tunnel-farmed foamed-plastic walled habitats inside comets, made antimatter in close to hellish suns. A natural lifesystem was far cheaper to maintain, and maintain they did. Sustainability was just a sensible business plan, the only way for the immortal corporation to persist past even one human lifetime. T-Corp used the resources of whole worlds, and could easily use them all up.
Barbara smiled. "Why don't we go find out?"
"I don't see how there could possibly be anything salvageable, after all this time-"
"N-Stasis was experimenting with a method for turning organic, living tissue into an inert block, completely dehydrated and hopefully impervious to bacteria. Their reversal method was problematic, but there could still be something, a little something that we could turn into an epic species cascade, like with cows and horses!" Cows and horses had been brought back by steps; first goats giving birth to pony foals, then smaller breeds of cows and horses giving birth to buffalo and plow-horse breeds like Percherons and Cydesdales. But mostly domesticated animals. Elephants, giraffes, tigers, bears and orcas, not so much.
"What sort of resources do you need?" Susan Kelly-Wednesday asked. She had risen through management to VP of Operations. Her eldest son was doing her old job, along with half a dozen other Transmatt Site Start-Up Managers. The network was over three thousand installed T-Sites with one or more Transmatts, roughly comparable to old-fashioned spaceports or airports, on about a thousand worlds of the Human Expansion and several allied species. Unfriendly species were left out of a pan-species economic sphere that grew at double digits every year.
"Among other things, I need a ship..."
They had beached 'Columbia' on Kestral a quarter of a century ago, and she was still there, mostly. The space born who passed through had helped themselves to spares off of the 'good old girl' and, untended, her lifesystem had died, leaving a stinking mess of organic gunk to be cleaned out and recycled, the lifesystem refreshed with new cultures, borrowed off of 'Golden Gate' and 'Halley', as well as a half a dozen other ships. 'Windy City' was grounded a few hundred meters to port, with old No. 3 fusor. Three of Susan's Bates older cousins had retired in gentile poverty, with the rest of their clan scattered to the Transmatt network. They tended their garden plots and ranched bunnylopes, told tales to visitors and watched the skies for more starships. There were always more, every year.

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