“Now we’re fucked!” Weavel threw up his arms as he paced the crew room.
“We were fucked from the start, Meyconte was never going to let us live.” Gayle replied, reversed in his chair playing his solo card game. Outside, Achilles drifted slowly away from Sedna, in the general direction of Earth and civilization. In Gayle’s mind it was a lonely and sombre scene. He thought about Meers and his lonely end.
“Maybe you,” Weavel said adjusting his collar, “but not me.”
Gayle raised his eyebrows, “Don’t kid yourself – you’re a liability to him now – you know too much.”
“I don’t know nothin’!”
“Yeah, like we don’t already know that.” Ty snorted without looking up. Carefully arrayed in front of her lay a blaster stripped down which she was cleaning fastidiously with a toothbrush. Gayle noted her serrated knife lay within easy reach, it was always within reach.
“The colony ship may be gone but Meyconte will hunt us down – it won’t be long before he hears about what happened on Sedna.” Gayle added.
“Is there somewhere we can hide?” Saran offered, she had been quietly listening in the kitchenette Having elected herself cook she was busily preparing a meal from a few of the vegetables Norton had given her; he’d rescued what he could from The Ares when they had evacuated.
“Meyconte will be out looking for us, he has spies everywhere.” Weavel whimpered, he chewed the fingernail of his thumb and to Gayle it looked like he was sucking it.
In the cockpit Gayle could see the silhouette of Meron bundled up in her chair, motionless, though he knew she kept one eye on the console.
“How long is your bed-pal going to mope in there?” Weavel flicked his head towards the cockpit.
Gayle shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably and glanced at Saran who avoided his gaze. “She’s not my bed-pal.”
“Yeah, but I bet you wanna be.” He sniggered.
“And you might want to clean your ‘bed pals’ if you’re coming to this table Mr Weavel.” Saran spoke sternly.
The man looked down at his hands. Gayle tried to stifle a laugh as he walked over to Saran and, as she handed him a bowl, he gave her a wink. “Thanks.”
She returned the smile and handed him a second bowl, nodding towards the cockpit. “You might like to take some of this into her – she will be getting hungry.”
His eyes lingered on the woman then he nodded slowly, “Sure.”
Saran was beginning to feature in his mind, she was so damn nice where Meron was so … he couldn’t quite put his finger on it…damaged? Deranged? Dangerous? All of the above.
Tentatively he stepped through the hatchway entering the darkened cockpit, he didn’t realise how hungry he was until a waft from the steaming chowder hit his nose. It was a homely and earthy smell and reminded him of his Aunt’s cooking back when he was a youth. He smiled at the thought of those happy days.
Meron turned to him as he entered, “I’m not hungry.”
“More for me then.” he smirked.
“Can you go away?”
“Seriously, you need to eat.”
“I don’t need to do anything.”
“Yeah you do.” Gayle snapped, he was surprised by the ball of anger that burst out of him. “We need to get to somewhere safe!”
“Go away Gayle.”
“I know how you feel-”
“-How the fuck do you know how I feel?”
Gayle paused and sucked in a breath, “I don’t give a shit how you feel right now, you’ve got to get it together – do you think Meers would be happy to know he died for nothing?”
Her head hung limply, her hair falling in a miserable curtain over her face. Then, almost inaudibly, she said, “it should have been me.”
Gayle felt a great well of emotion bubble up in his chest, he squatted and set the bowls down on the floor. He reach out as if she were a skittish child, brushing the loose lock of hair over her ear so that he could see her tear-soaked face and held her chin up. “No, Meers made the only logical choice.”
“Where’s the logic? He’s dead,” She wept. “He was a hero.”
He slid his hand along her cheek and held her gaze. “You were the best pilot; we would have all died if Meers had captained Achilles – you’re reflexes saved us.”
She turned away from his hand leaving it hanging in mid air. He guessed she didn’t believe what he said.
“I know you don’t believe it,” he ventured. “But it’s true, and everyone on board knows it.”
For a moment she was unguarded and he saw the girl, the woman, the vulnerable creature carrying so much baggage put it all down. But in an instant it was gone again, the wall between Meron and the universe rebuilt itself. He wondered if she could ever be intimate.
She shrugged and, bending past him, picked up one of the bowls. She took a whiff of the chowder, “Saran is a good cook.”
He laughed, “Yes, yes she is.”
“There’s not much around here,” Gayle said as he explored a three-dimensional map of the solar system on a comDev. “We’re over 10 AU from anything on this map.”
“Yeah, but how out of date is that?” Weavel asked.
“I bet it has only recognised bases anyway.” Ty added. Everyone looked at her with confusion, she had just agreed with Weavel. “What?”
“Well anyone got any useful ideas?” Meron appeared bleary-eyed through the hatchway. She folded her arms, as a characteristic frown shaped her face. It was the sturdy, unyeilding face of a captain.
“Oh look who’s come to join us-” Weavel began to complain and Ty reached over and rapped him on the head with a knuckle. “Hesu!” He swore.
Gayle gave Meron a wink, “Well, we can’t go anywhere obvious: Pilus, Daggerford, New Seoul…”
She nodded, “Meyconte’s people will be watching those for sure.”
“Coolands, Milla, Freyland spaceport?” Ty offered.
“Meyconte has people there too.” Weavel held his head protectively.
They all fell silent for a moment until a distant memory wandered into Gayle’s mind, “Well, when I was a boy there was this place out among the Trojans…”
“The Trojans?” Weavel sneered.
“Yeah, they are a bunch of rocks that trail behind the orbit of Jupiter. My Pa took us there for a holiday once, it was advertised as a kind of resort but turned out to be this dodgy junkies commune. That was the only holiday we ever took,” Gayle said, his eyes meeting Meron’s, she gave him a kind of sad, knowing look.
Norton, who had been tending to some seedlings under a heat lamp, piped up, “Oh yes, I know the place.”
“Really?” Gayle spun around and raised his eyebrows at the caretaker, along with everyone else he was surprised.
“Like much of the system it was once a nice place,” The old man sighed. “Beautiful gardens… some rare specimens too – it was a kind of health retreat burrowed into the wall of a crater if I remember correctly. The owner of the place had a certain charisma, a cult leader – I imagine he is long dead now though.” He reached over and marked a spot with his gloved finger, “That’s it, Critia.”
Meron looked over his shoulder, “There’s nothing marked there …seems like a long way to go…”
Norton grimaced, “It was not a popular destination, even back then.”
“Exactly how long ago are we talking?” Ty asked.
“Oh, let’s see…my daughter must have been seven or eight…”
Weavel threw up his arms, “You’ve got to be kidding? We’re going to travel more that half way across the system to a place that some old fool went to two hundred years ago?! It’s probably been abandoned long ago. ”
“We haven’t decided anything yet,” Meron challenged him. “Besides, the way I see it you’re lucky to be on this boat at all so you go where we say! Or you can get out and walk if you like?”
Weavel, flustered, sat back down and mumbled, “If it wasn’t for me you’d all be icy corpses out there.”
“It was still there twenty five years ago, although it wasn’t exactly a resort in my time,” Gayle said hopefully.”I say we give it a try, if it doesn’t work there are plenty of places in the Jovian system.”
“Meyconte will expect us to head for one of the nearby stations.” Ty agreed waving the half-assembled gun around he was still working on.
“As good a place as any to lie low.” Meron said.
“I just wanna go some place where folk don’t want to kill me.” Gayle said.
It was the best part of a month to get to the Jovian Trojan field and Gayle completely lost track of time during the journey, unlike Meron who he knew kept careful tally of the passing days and hours. Despite his relatively blase accounting of time he was always careful to maintain a regular sleep cycle, in fact he preferred to sleep as much as possible, partly to avoid Weavel who constantly badgered him but also to circumvent the boredom. He’d watched and rewatched everything in the the ship’s archaic media library and was beginning to wondered if he should take up reading which he’d avoided like non-alcoholic wine up to then. Meron, on the other hand, always had her head down reading something or other.
“I don’t know how you can you read so much?”
“Hmmm?” Meron said sleepily.
He looked over her shoulder at the title which glowed brightly on her comDev, “’Sense and Sensibility’, haven’t you read that before?”
“Oh, well, it passes the time. We haven’t got a lot else to do out here.”
“I can think of a few things.” He smirked.
Meron ignore his suggestion and peered out of the viewport, “Only a few more days and well be there.”
Gayle leaned over and examined the console, where a three-dimensional map of the region flickered, “Nothing picked up on the sensors yet?”
“There is a faint glow coming from one of the asteroids.” She said. “Could be a station or it could be some aberrant signal, there are plenty of natural phenomenon out here – our sensors are just not good enough to tell the difference.”
Meron changed the subject, “What about that drive, can we fit it to this ship?”
Gayle considered this, “I think so but I don’t have the gear to do it on board, we need a base and some serious time. This is not something I can just plug in. Achilles will need a bunch of upgrades too, the avoidance system for one, otherwise we are likely to plough straight into something the first time we use the drive.”
Weavel appeared in the hatchway and eyed them warily, “What are you two plotting?”
“No plots, just survival.” Meron gave him an unfriendly smile.
“How far is this place?” he replied. “The walls are starting to talk back to me.”
“That’s a first,” Meron said under her breath, putting a rubberband in her teeth she bunched her hair together into a ponytail. “We should be there in a few days.”
“And then what?” he squawked. “If there are people there they are not likely going to be friendly – not to uninvited folk.”
Gayle wondered why they didn’t just jettison Weavel into space but on second thought he reasoned that his knowledge of the warlord’s organisation might prove critical in their survival.
“It’s the best option we’ve got.” Meron said.
Critia was a small conglomerate of ice, celestial dust and primordial rock, leftovers from the early days of the solar system, but more directly material that had avoided the gravity well of Jupiter by a bazaar contraposition of gravity between it and the Sun. This fact however was far from Gayle’s mind as he peered out the viewport at the irregular asteroid rapidly approaching. He glanced back anxiously at Jupiter which glared like a great angry eye at them; they had skirted around it as there was too much traffic close to the gas giant and its many moons, though he thought of the many bars and clubs from which he had not yet been barred.
“The signal is strong, seems to be coming from within the ‘roid itself.” Gayle said adjusting a sensor.
Meron nodded taking the ship in close to within a few thousand kilometres. The surface was cratered by eons of bombardment, most small but some so large they could accommodate several capital ships. Geological ridges marched like age lines across the surface and suggested a violent past. Perhaps it had once been blasted out of one of the moons of Jupiter?
“Look, there, a beacon!” He said, spying a single red light pulsing rhythmically, It was placed at the peak of a sheer crater wall.
“I see it.” She took Achilles in for a closer inspection as Gayle illuminated the shadowed place with the ship’s spotlight. What had once been a pristine landscape was now a junkyard; scattered around the base of the cliff were several abandoned ships – including an ancient cruise-liner, numerous rovers and some kind of monorail that disappeared off into the distance – presumably it once conveyed vacationers on a tour of the asteroid’s surface.
Cut into the side of the ancient ridge was a crude, man-made landing bay above which were the darkened ruins of an enormous neon sign which declared, “Z-Bar – open 24-7.” The bay itself was empty except for a single transport which looked almost new and which Gayle recognised as a Minotaur Long-Range vessel – its design made it look like a cross between a bull and a tank.
He whistled, “That’s an expensive number – got all the bells and whistles.”
“So I think we can assume the place is still in use.” Meron said turning back to look at Weavel.
“Yeah, and they got credit to blow.” Weavel licked his lips.
“One way to find out.” Meron gently pushed Achilles forward into the dimly-lit landing bay and brought the ship down with perfect precision.
Behind them, blast doors, which had previously been hidden automatically slid across the landing bay sealing it from the vacuum of space. Lights flickered on and a series of laser canon appeared out of the ceiling and swivelled to target their ship. On the far wall was a wide entry bay into the base proper, the door of which was firmly sealed.
“So they aren’t so friendly.” Gayle said, stating the obvious.
The ship’s com crackled to life with a voice from the base, “Who the hell are you?” It was an aged voice with a willowy whistle, though right now it blistered with anger.
Meron looked sideways at Gayle who nodded, “Errr, this is the transport Achilles, we’re in need of somewhere to repair our ship.”
There was an interminable pause. Gayle got the impression the speaker was consulting with another.“The bar is closed indefinitely. Go away.” The voice replied tersely.
“We just need a place to rest for a few days,” She added.
“Please leave immediately or I will be forced to destroy you.” The voice commanded.
Meron released the transmit button and frowned, “I thought this patch of space was hospitable?”
Gayle shrugged, “I don’t remember much about this place but ‘hospitable’ was not a word I’d use.”
Norton stepped over indicating the ship’s com, “May I speak to them? I think I can help.”
Meron glanced around to the others, except for Weavel they showed no objection but he was silenced by Ty who gave him a shove in the back. She nodded, “see what you can do.”
The old man hovered over the mic as Meron depressed the transmit button. “Is that Darius Arega? I visited here some years ago…back when this place was a health retreat.”
There was a long pause, then the voice returned,“That would be impossible, this place hasn’t been that for two hundred years!”
“Two hundred, yes, that would be about right.” Norton replied, his voice quavering. “I beg your pardon, my name is Norton Willard – I worked on the colony fleet on Sedna you see, I visited here on holiday. I heard you speak…”
“Willard eh? Norton. Hmmm.” The voice came back coloured with distrust but clearly Norton had peeked his interest, “You should be dead by now.”
“I could say the same thing about you, but that would be rude, eh?!” Norton cackled.
“I suppose you ought to come in, lord knows I could do with some company my own age.” The voice replied with a cantankerous laugh of his own. Outside the ship the laser canons folded themselves up and disappeared out of view as quickly as they has appeared.
Gayle looked with awe at Norton, ”How’d you know it was the same man? It could have been anyone.”
“He has an unmistakable voice; even old as I am I can remember his speeches.”
“Speeches?” Weavel sneered. “What kind of health retreat was this place?”
“Oh yes, Arega was a fine speaker – he would give a motivational speech every day as part of the treatment – ‘a motivated mind is a healthy mind’, he would say.”
“Did it work?”
Norton shrugged, “I can’t remember.”
The crew of Achilles found themselves in a waiting hall the walls of which were lined by blacked-out posterScreens and dead neon signs that Gayle remembered had once acted as welcome to visitors to Critia displaying gaudy images of the ‘fun’ to be had within – though he didn’t remember having any fun – by his time is was a run-down amusement parlor. The hall was now filled with a scattering of broken plastic chairs, some of which had been push to the walls, out of the main thoroughfare for expedience sake.
Behind them a door came down sealing them off from the ship. Now they had no choice but to continue forward. At the other end of the hall a door shot open and a figure, conveyed in an electric-chair, appeared cloaked in a blue kimono and with a martini glass in hand. Immediately they were engulfed in a cloud of cheap cologne.
“Won’t you come in?” The man waved distastefully at the ruin of the room and smiled wanely, “Please forgive the mess, it’s so hard to get good help these days and frankly I get so few visitor it hardly seems worth the expense…”
“Mr Arega I’m please to see you again!” Norton bowed timidly as if the man was some kind of rockstar.
“You can tell me more how you’ve come to live so long Mr Willard, but first let’s go somewhere more comfortable.” Using a joystick the man turned his electric-chair and led them down a passage into a kind of mall where all the shops were boarded up or left abandoned. Some of the walls or windows were covered in obscene graffiti like a boys toilet.
At the far end of the mall was a grand bar which had seen many changes of decor and fortune, that was evident by the odd mismatch of furnishings and the seemingly haphazard design – Gayle could see for example where one wall, paint now peeling away, had been added in one style and another knocked out. The light fittings were worn, damaged or just plain missing creating an uneven lighting. At one of the tables, playing cards, were a few women who turned to the newcomers with a look somewhere between disinterest and distaste. What little clothes they wore were like something out of a twenty-second century period drama.
“These are my girls.” Arega waved vaguely leading them on towards a curtain at the back of the bar.
Passing by, one of the girls stood and pawed at Gayle’s shirt, “You want some?” She seemed distant, almost robotic in her tone. Gayle got the impression she didn’t care one way or the other, this completely turned him off – Looks like Mr Arega likes them passive and lifeless, just like him, Gayle mused.
“Not now, Melody!” With a withered hand the man slapped the girl away with surprising viciousness, who flopped back into the chair like a discarded rag-doll. The man clicking his jaw in irritation and turned back to Gayle, “In their day these were the best pleasure clones money could buy, now they are so…predictable.” He smacked his lips distastefully.
Gayle had heard of these but they were highly illegal in more civilised places as it was seen as slavery – but really it was more to do with the social imbalance they caused. Worker clones, whether they were used for prostitution or factory work, were scanned and farmed for their docility from millions of embryos, and even then their DNA was altered via gene therapy to ensure their total supplication. Of course adding such an inexhaustible supply of clone labour to the workforce made human labour worthless but before long this caused riots as folk went hungry, ultimately their was mass murder of the clones by the disgruntled workers. Governments were forced to ban their use, or at least conceal their use but Gayle was pretty sure this wasn’t the only place where a few of them remained in use. Like anything, with enough money you could acquire it.
Gayle, sensing that Ty was set to leap on the man for his treatment of the woman – and probably kill him, checked her with a hand. Their eyes locked for a moment. Her gaze of fury said it all and he was forced to step back but the fraction-of-a-second delay was enough to defuse a disaster. He had to admit the man was repulsive but right now they needed him and his base.
“Take a seat,” the man waved vaguely at a booth as he disappeared behind a plexiGlass wall. Gayle watched as he fiddled with a console and a gentle wave of atmosphere music began, the kind easily ignored. The man then returned and snapped his finger, “Drinks for our guests!”
A few moment later one of the girl appeared with a tray, she placed a crystal carafe of a red-brown liquid on the table along with a enough glasses for all of them.
“Well pour the damn thing!” he roared tersely. “Now, tell me everything!”
“Well our ship you see-”
“Not you!” Arega said to Meron then waved at Norton.” Him!”
Meron raised her eyebrows and smiled awkwardly as Norton spoke, “Oh yes well …err…you see-”
“Spit it out man, you were saying you’re over two hundred years old?!” The man probed.
“Yes, I worked on the colony fleet, but I was chosen to stay behind…”
“But still that doesn’t explain how you have lived to such a venerable age.” Arega asked as he made a vague motion to the girls playing cards. Gayle detected an ulterior motive in the questioning.
Two of the girls stood and slid into an erotic dance, wrapping themselves around pole. Gayle tried to stay focused, weavel didn’t. The old man’s face screwed up into a lecherous smile, his eyes shamelessly exploring their undulating, exposed flesh.
Meron frowned, “he was left behind on Sedna to care for the launch facility, they extended his life with a supply of drugs.”
Arega’s eyes lit up, “Ah, the fountain of youth!”
“Not quite, Norton replied, “it just slowed the biological clock.”
“Do you still have this drug?” he asked, lunging forward with desperate excitement.
“I have a small amount yes, but it seems to have less and less effect the older I get.”
Arega rocked back in his electric-chair, “I must admit to you that I have had access to a supply of the same drug, they call it Dorphine – this is why I am nearly as well preserved as you, but now it is exhausted and as far as I know the technology to manufacture it no longer exists, gone with that damn colony fleet!”
“So you want more.” Norton said, his voice wavered.
He gave Norton a drilling look, slapping a hand on the table, “give me what you have left and you can repair your ship, take whatever parts you need from the wrecks at the bottom of the crater too.”
Both Meron touched the old botanists hand, “I can’t let you do that Mr Willard.”
Norton gave her a wane smile and shrugged, “I have only a year or two’s supply remaining anyway, and frankly I’ve lived longer than I should have anyway.”
“But how long will you live without the drugs?” She asked.
He ignored the question, “yes I feel like I have passed my used-by date like an old tin of mung beans. What is there left to live for? My life’s work is gone with The Ares and my daughter…”
Meron gripped his arm to steady him as he began to weep, not the deep sobbing of the young who feel emotions so intensely but slow tears. He nodded slowly, “If you will give my friends what they need then you may have it.”
“Wonderful!” Arega roared, clapping his hands. “We are in agreement!”
Gayle felt the taste of bile rise in his throat, what right had any of them to live and the expense of the old man who’s life had been dedicated to keeping a fragment of the earth alive? And Arega, the soul-less creature would probably live longer than any of them.