Monday, 02 October 2023 14:00

The Martian Conspiracy

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A Care Givers Company Tale

The Martian Conspiracy

By E. E. Nalley


I awoke with a feeling of great expectation as I lay in my bunk to allow my mind to slowly come up to prepare for the new day. It is very true what the man once said, find a job doing what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life. I had not really ‘worked’ in that sense for well onto a year.

I had been busy, being a pilot on a space ship as large as the Robert Heinlein isn’t the easy berth it gets made out to be in the vids. But, it wasn’t work. I had woken up every day, just like this one, pleased and excited to begin the day. I let Jill sleep as I crept out of bed to begin my morning rituals, knowing she wasn’t a morning person the few extra minutes of sleep would be welcome.

I crossed to the locker that held my clothing by the pair of desks that faced each other in the small cabin that was our home on the Heinlein. “Computer check email,” I whispered to it as I rummaged as quietly as I could for my flight suit and the other items I’d need after my shower.

“No messages,” replied the computer at the same level of volume I had spoken to it in. The Heinlein’s computer core was really state of the art. It was smart enough to realize if you were whispering, you probably had a reason.

That reply did cause me a bit of concern. No one at Yotori Station had answered a mail since we’d left cruise phase of our journey three months ago. Once our ship was flying ‘backward’ towards Mars, using her massive engines to slow us down, Yotori Station had gone silent.

Worse, the news feeds from Earth weren’t coming through with any kind of regularity either.

I was worried about my boss and her determined stand to stare down the madness of the Earth from right above them. I wished sorely that Rei Yotori was on this ship.

I tried not to dwell on unpleasant tidings. This was a great day. Today we would arrive at Mars.

As I turned to creep into the shower, my eyes settled on the two pictures of me on my desk. One was the old me; me when my name had been Ken and my gender had been male. I had a bit of a lost expression in my eyes, afraid and uneasy that the CGC photographer had worked very hard to try to get me out of. The picture was a reminder of where I came from. The other, across from it, had been taken six months later, just after I’d received my certification from the Association of Real Time Astrogators. My name was Masako then, and I was the gender I’d be for the rest of my life; female.

I was a brand new pilot in that photo, thrilled to have been issued my Shore Leave Uniform and I couldn’t wait to go from the photo shoot in the gardens of the Hub of Yotori Station to my first solo flight. We had had a lot of fun with that shoot as the photographer had coaxed some fairly flirty poses out of me. I was obviously happier in the second photograph.

It was, oddly enough, the first time in my life I had worn a dress and I was pleasantly surprised both by the freedom of movement and the comfort of the spandex. It didn’t hurt that it did wonderful things for my figure either. The heels that went with the dress I would have passed on, but a uniform was just that, a uniform.

It had taken a bit of diligence to learn to walk all over again, but, they did do really nice things to my legs…

I was actually a little surprised that Care Givers Company Hot Pink looked good on me. It certainly wasn’t a color I would have chosen to wear before I’d joined Space’s most renowned Staffing Firm. I had to admit it suited my complexion very nicely. I wouldn’t think of being embarrassed about wearing it now.

The bathroom Jill and I shared was quite spacious in its own, cramped way. The module we and the other new girls were staying in was actually a passenger module for those rare times the Heinlein was pressed into service as a liner; which made the accommodations quite nice. Each room had a private bath, complete with a separate shower and tub. It wasn’t a Furo, but then it wasn’t a dorm shower shared by all of us either. I would take what I could get.

And the water was nicely hot with a seemingly endless supply of it. The Heinlein’s water reclamation facility was also state of the art. As I washed the hair I could proudly now say was getting even with my shoulder blades, my mind keep moving in circles from the difficulties today would bring in docking my ship in the berth that had been custom made for it, the excitement of being able to tour Mars on our lay over and a bit of vacation getting my parents settled in their new home here.

My mom and dad were traveling to Mars as Dad had finally gotten that big promotion to head the Martian Division of Honda. A few years out here might even angle him for a VP slot back on Earth. If diligence and hard work were the only qualifiers, he was a shoo-in.

“You don’t have to creep around in the morning, Ko,” Jill told me around a yawn as she made her way to in to take care of her own early morning rituals.

“I thought you’d just like the extra sleep,” I told her over the noise of both my running water and hers. “Try not to…”

But I was interrupted by the sound of the toilet flushing as I quickly reached up and pushed the nozzle of the shower away from me as the temperature spiked, then returned to normal. “Sorry,” she mumbled sheepishly.

“Maybe I should disconnect it until you’ve had coffee,” I thought out loud. The shower door opened as she let herself in.

“I’ll remember one of these days,” she told me while using her hug of me to maneuver herself into the direct path of the water.

“Jill,” I told her with a shake of my head at her shameless theft of my shower. “The trip's over. We’re here, today, or have you forgotten?”

“If I had, I think the big red thingy in the sky might clue me in,” she told me with a rye chuckle. I tweaked her nipple for her just on the principal of it.

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I ambled into the galley of the Heinlein, free for the moment of Jill who had never been one for breakfast. She was on her way to the ship’s gym for her early morning work out while I needed my morning coffee. So, my coffee and toast waiting on me along with a smile from Helga, the ship’s cook over my regularity, I settled at a table and called up this morning’s edition of USA Today on my smart paper.

And promptly wished I hadn’t.

News coming out from Earth had been spotty at best on our trip out here. It seemed to me that censorship was the issue, and I was probably right. Someone down on Earth was tinkering with the news that was coming up to us. There were usually large sections of the paper missing, generally anything having to do with news or international affairs. You could always find out how your particular team did, just nothing that was remotely useful.

The voluntary grace period of return for the Protection of Women Act ended three months ago. Another classically bone headed Grounder deadline. Even if hoards of women started coming home from space, a dead line two months into the ban wasn’t enough time for most of them to get home. The head line was ‘The Largest Sensible Return of Women to Date”. I read a bit further and found that big number they were playing up was four; four.

I couldn’t keep in a laugh at that. Although the uniform editorials praising the ‘wisdom’ of this war on gender in space made me glad I don’t eat anything heavy for breakfast. I doubtless would be puking it up.

“Well, if it isn’t the ships paper door knob,” drawled a sardonic voice attached to a brunette who was settling down at the table across from me. “How many guys did we squeeze in last night?”

“Good morning, Rebecca, I see eight hours of sleep couldn’t make a dent in that face of yours.” We stared at each other for a full minute before be both broke out laughing. The face I’d just slandered was attached to Lieutenant Rebecca Stevens, head pilot of the Robert Heinlein, member in good standing of XX-Flight Staffing, LLC and my immediate boss. Actually Rebecca was quite lovely in her squared off way. She was going gray at the temples and there was more than a few crows’ feet at the corner of her eyes, but they just gave her character.

I actually liked her quite a bit.

“Big day today,” she said around a sip of her own coffee. “Think I’ll regret it if I let a rookie pilot bring us in?”

“My watch doesn’t start until we’re well and truly docked,” I said softly, fighting down my excitement at the prospect of getting to fly the Heinlein for the last time before our lay over.

“Well, Head Pilot isn’t a show title, Masako. I do actually make the schedules around here, you know.” She smiled a wry smile as I remembered the piece of toast I had been eating and let it finish its journey to my mouth. “Actually, I was up most of the night with the final approach checks. Could use a little shut eye, if you think you’re up to it?”

“I’ve been working it in the simulator for a month just on the chance you might let me,” I told her earnestly. She nodded.

“I know. The Brigadier sent me your transcripts. Do you throw yourself into everything this hard?”

It was my turn to be a bit coy. “Ask the Captain,” I told her sweetly.

Touché,” she responded. “I like the fact you’re not using that to lord over me, Masako. You’re a good kid with a good head on your shoulders.”

“That’s not the way a Care Giver acts, Rebecca. You’re in charge and I know that. I do things the way you want them done.”

“A lot of what I heard about you people in training doesn’t mesh with what I’ve seen out here. I’ll have to send a letter to the higher ups if this damned PWA thing will ever quiet down.” I stirred my coffee a bit unnecessarily at the sour turn the conversation had taken. “Still,” she said after a moment. “If you guide us in, then you’ll already have your shift done and can go with your folks dirt side, right? They’re moving in, today.”

“Rebecca, you’re the greatest,” I told her.

“Naw, just an old softie you can push around. Say, do me a favor, will you?”

“Anything. What do you need?”

“Could you, well, forget it. It’s silly.”

“Becky…” I warned her. I could see a touch of blush on her cheeks showing she was more than a bit embarrassed.

“Look, could you just let Sy know I’m interested? Don’t spell it out for him or anything, just…”

“Sy, the head Environmental Controller?” She nodded. “Sure, Becky, I’ll be discreet, I promise.”

“Alright Pilot, get to your post; and don’t scrape the paint too much, read me?”

I grinned and tossed off a salute as I gathered up my dishes to dump in the dish pit on my rushed way to the bridge.

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“CAPCOM, Guidance.”

“Go with comm., Guidance.”

“We are at Mars Entry Interface.”

“Roger that.” There was a pause as the Capsule Communications Controller keyed his voice across Master Circuit One so everyone on the ship could hear the next message. “Mars Traffic Authority, this is the freighter Robert Heinlein on final approach. We are at Entry Interface requesting approach vectors and clearance for docking.”

The baleful face of Mars filled both my screens as I watched the Relative Speedometer slowly tick down as our path was painted in red computer graphics superimposed over the screens. “Booster, Control, you are go for main engine shut down. Stand by for Orbital Insertion Burn, over.”

“Copy that, Control. Main engines shut down.”

“Control, flight, you’re clear for OI maneuver and burn.”

“Understood flight,” I told Mike with something of a grin I couldn’t keep from my face every time I heard my lover’s voice. I believe Mike and Todd had spent more time in our cabin this particular passage than they had in their own. I took the controls now with a confidence that spread throughout my life and career, gently nudging the Robert Heinleinto turn around. She had been flying with her rear towards Mars for almost four months, now it was time to nose in and make for her yard and the berth that had been custom made for her.

“Flight, CAPCOM, I have a salute from the Magnificent Mollyout bound on our nine O’clock.”

“Send Captain Langley my compliments, CAPCOM and be sure to let him know we busted his speed record on the way here.”

I turned to watch mankind’s largest space ship, the Magnificent Molly sail by us; her port side running lights blinking in sequence in the salute of one vessel to another. But what caught my eye was a smaller, wedge shaped craft that seemed to be maneuvering to intercept our course. “CAPCOM, Control, warn small craft on our nine o’clock to alter course out of our flight path.”

I heard the other controllers turn in their seats to see the idiot that was purposefully putting itself in front of half a kilometer of space ship. “Flight, CAPCOM, we’re being hailed by the police cruiser Elliott Ness. They’re ordering us to alter to a stable orbit and be boarded.”

“What the cogida is Mars PD doing?” demanded Mike in a tone I’d never heard him use before. “Control, we have sufficient fuel to do that?” I checked the gauges.

“Just barely flight. We’ll need a tug to the berth, just to be safe.”

“Flight, CAPCOM, Elliott Ness isn’t Mars PD. They’re an enforcer craft from the International Space Council. They’re ISP.” I felt a bit of cold dread come down my spine. On our way in we’d begun to hear stories of new ISP craft searching the Belt and the space lanes, boarding ships and commandeering any females on board to be shipped back to Earth, all under the supposed auspices of the PWA. What concerned me most of all was that we’d heard nothing whatsoever from Yotori Station.

“Control, you’ve got the best view there, how many bastardos you figure on that ship?”

“I make her at forty meters, Flight. Call it thirty to thirty five if they’re packed in like sardines.”

“Todd, this is the Captain. I want you to round up every spare hand and open the arms locker.”

I turned in my seat to face him as the two exchanged looks. “Control, is our orbit stable?”

“Yes,” I whispered. I’d never been more terrified in my life.

“You’re in charge here, Control.”

“No sir, I’ll be with you.”

El infierno you will,” he countered.

“With all due respect, sir, try and stop me. If I’m there, maybe it will keep you from doing something stupid that takes this worse than it may be.” I watched Todd reach out and restrain Mike’s angry retort with a gentle touch of his shoulder.

“She’s got a point, Mike,” I heard him say through his microphone. “Let’s see what these yahoo’s want before we go off half cocked and get ourselves in real trouble.” He nodded at me tersely after a long moment of thought. I wasn’t sure where she’d come from, but suddenly Ship Mother Foster was there, helping me out of the head set.

“Go, I’ll watch after her. You keep his temper in.”

“Yes ma’am.” I told her as I quickly crossed the control center to his side. Todd had already gotten a wicked looking pistol from somewhere and was in the process of sliding shells into a compact shotgun he was holding. He took the ship’s main microphone from its place and keyed up the master circuit.

“This is Commander Williams. I want every hand not already occupied with an orbital insertion task to report to the arms locker now. All Care Givers and Female hands to remain at your current location until further ordered.” He replaced the microphone, racked the shotgun with an ominous clack before inserting a final shell in the tube. “Let’s go welcome our guests, Boss.”

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We arrived at the Starboard airlock with five minutes to spare until the Elliott Ness locked on to us. The Departure Lounge was crowded with nearly fifty men, all heavily armed and looking at the airlock door as though at stick of dynamite with its fuse slowly burning down. I was the only person there without a weapon. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

The men stood or sat in silence, triple and quadruple checking their weapons as the air was filled with the deep clangs of the Elliott Ness locking on. After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, the airlock went into cycle as the two pressures began to equalize. Mike took that moment to lean over to me and say softly, “Let me do the talking.”

“Make sure you don’t put your foot in your mouth, and try to stick to English, k?” I told him nervously, still managing to pull a smile out of him over his habit, like most Americans, of slipping into Spanish to be obscene.

Before he could retort, with a hiss, the lock door slid open, revealing a tallish man whose brown hair was cut extremely short to his head, wearing the armored uniform of an ISP police officer; behind him stood another twenty men who looked more like soldiers than policemen. Their weapons were out, their armor were actually pressure suits with the visors down. I had a horrible fear this would not end well.

“Permission to come aboard?” asked the one who looked the most like a cop.

“Denied,” replied Mike as he stepped forward, dragging me along with him as my hand was on his left arm. I was purposefully not crowding his right side; that’s where his own pistol rode. “What can I do for you officer? Now that you’ve ruined our orbital approach and thrown my schedule off.”

“Captain Hastings, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way, but either way it will be done. You will transfer all female crew and civilians to the Elliott Ness for transport back to Earth under the authority of the Protection of Women Act.”

“Or else what?” he asked with a bit of an evil chuckle.

“Or else I will arrest you, impound your vessel and still your women will be coming with me.” Mike shook his head slowly.

“I really don’t think you understand the situation here, say, what was your name?”

“I am Lieutenant Bradley to you.”

“Well, Brad, it’s like this. That chamber pot you’ve got latched onto the Heinleinwon’t hold all of my ladies, even if I turned them over to you, which I won’t. You boys really bit off more than you can chew here, so I recommend you just unlatch and go about your business before there’s real trouble.”

“There’ll be real trouble if you don’t follow my commands,” retorted the Lieutenant. He had been standing dutifully on his side of the airlock, but he made to step on board to press his point and suddenly the room was full of guns pointing at him. He froze, even as his men realized how terribly contained they were in that tube.

“Lieutenant, you step foot on my ship without my permission and there’ll be more trouble than you’ll live to see,” drawled Mike softly in a voice that gave me chills, even as I recalled Doctor Wantabe’s lecture of what seemed like so many years ago.

Men will kill at your command.

“Lieutenant,” I said quickly, drawing his eyes. I got the same feeling I’d gotten from Colonel Wolf staring at me. I’d been assessed, and this time found wanting. “Let’s not be hasty here.”

“Captain,” he drawled. “I don’t have time for this. We’ve already lost too many men when we took Yotori Station. I’m not interesting in anything but the efficient transfer of these…people…to my custody.” I must admit I froze when he told me Yotori Station had been ‘taken’. It’s why I couldn’t do anything but watch as the drama finally played itself out. “Her employer is doubtlessly already dead, so I do not care to waist my time listening to her babble. You will submit to my authority after you tell your whore to shut up.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from the men all around me as I was insulted, then a loud boom as one of the shotguns went off. Fortunately, this particular one was a shell of monofilament tangle wire which entwined the Lieutenant and his men in about a quarter mile of mesh line net. They were hauled without ceremony into the Heinlein as the men gave them the beating of their lives.

Before I could do or say anything, I felt Todd wrap his massive arms around me and pick me up, retreating to the far side of the lounge as the men used their shotguns, furniture that wasn’t bolted down or their bare hands. “You don’t want no part of this, little lady,” he rumbled. Something in his tone told me he would rather be over there taking part in that lynching.

“Stop it!” I yelled to no avail. Mike had a large handful of the lieutenant’s jacket and was using it to hold him upright as he pounded away at Bradley’s face. “Stop it!

The others had stripped the invaders to their underwear and where taking turns holding them by the feet and hands outstretched so more blows could be landed. I squirmed around to look into Todd’s face. “Todd, you have to stop this!” I pleaded with him.

He looked down at me, his kind eyes both filled with gentleness towards me for seeing this, and a hard, cold edge he wasn’t in the thick of it. “Naw, girl, I don’t. Nobody talks that way about you ladies. The boys will teach them some manners. I just have to make sure you don’t get in the way.”

“Todd Williams, if you don’t put a stop to this, I’ll never forgive you. Never.

“It’s their fault, Ko,” he started.

NEVER, Todd!”

He sighed and hung his head. “You win.” He turned and made sure I was against the bulk head before he racked the shot gun once more, replacing the first shell with a blue coated one which he then fired into the tube to loud effect. It was evidently a blank, but the noise was sufficient to stop the lynching. “That’s enough,” he growled. “Washburn, Kelly, get ‘em cuffed and make sure they’re good and tight.”

“Yes sir,” they replied sullenly.

I made my way over to Mike, horrified at his bloody knuckles and my inability to tell whether the blood was his own or not.

“Todd,” ordered Mike now back in control of his crew and a bit out of breath from his own exertions in sadism. Lieutenant Bradley was unconscious. “Take two dozen and clean out that rat’s nest.”

“Copy that, skipper,” replied Todd grimly as he strode purposefully into the airlock, the remainder of his security detail with him. Mike then walked over to the boarding party, now naked and hogtied on their knees in the departure lounge.

“Somebody wake up that swine.” A first aid kit was procured and a bottle of smelling salts roused the Lieutenant to a moan of pain and a mouthful of blood he had to spit out. “Brad, I told you there’d be trouble,” he said softly as he towered over him. “Now you’ve gone and gotten my dander up. Nobody calls my fiancée a whore.”

“Since when are we engaged?” I demanded, more than bit shocked.

He snapped his fingers before digging into a pocket of his flight suit. “I knew I was forgetting something.” He opened the box and presented me with a diamond solitaire set in platinum. “That was my mothers’,” he told me. “The metal is Luminium. Lunar Platinum. What do you say, Masako? This isn’t how I wanted to do this, but…”

“Yes.” I told him, shaking my head at the ridiculousness of the situation.

“Yes it’s not the way you thought or…?”

“Yes, I’ll marry you, if you spare these men.”

“Well, I guess you really wouldn’t be a woman if you didn’t come with strings attached.” He turned back to the Lieutenant, his face once more in a frown. “This lovely lady just saved your life, Dilbert. What do you say?”

“I say I’m going to make it my mission in life to hunt you down,” he gasped in his agony. I quickly inserted myself between Mike and Bradley.

“Lieutenant,” I told him softly. “You’re standing in a departure lounge about four feet from deep space. I would put a muzzle on the bravado if I were you.” It would figure the dunce would only figure things out when somebody connected the dots for him. I could see I was wasting my time trying to reason with him. I turned back to Mike. “It looks like things are going to get really interesting here for a while, lover. You got friends down there who can sit on these idiots until this blows over?”

“Sure babe, anything your heart desires, I can work out.”

“Don’t call me babe,” I retorted with a smile then looked over the men. “Washburn, Kelly, lock up our guests in the brig until we can get docked and then see to it they get taken to whatever pit Mike comes up with until we can convince Earth to leave us alone. And keep it quiet, ok boys?”

“Yes ma’am,” they told me as they hauled the men to their feet and trudged them off.

I keyed up the intercom badge. “Susan Adams.”

“Hey Masako, what’s up?”

“Can you rig up a computer to sound like someone else if you have a sample of their voice?”

“Child’s play. What do you need?”

“Grab whatever gear you need and haul it to the Starboard airlock. Double quick, ok?”

“On my way.”

“What do you have planned?” asked Mike quizzically.

“Lieutenant Bradley is going to have himself an accident,” I told him with a twinkle. “Right after he gives us a clean bill of heath.”

“Oh,” he said, still obviously confused.

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“This is the ISP cruiser Elliot Ness,” came the voice of Lieutenant Bradley from the speakers of the Heinlein’scontrol room. “We have suffered a catastrophic computer failure and are on full burn into Mars. May day!”

The port was a flurry of activity as the Elliot Ness commenced her belly flop into the Martian atmosphere. Even the Magnificent Molly had halted her boost and looped back to try and help. The tug that had come to pull us into port tried to latch onto her with their gravity wave tow, but the Ness was under full power. The tug, not built for re-entry at all was pulled along until she finally shut down and commenced a long burn herself to come back up to orbit.

The voice fell silent shortly before the Ness separated into component pieces based on Mass as they dove towards Olympus Mons. Her primary drive coil might make it to the surface, but her angle of decent was nearly perpendicular to Mars. I doubted anything would make it; certainly nothing to indicate there had not been a soul on board.

“All stations, this is Mars Traffic Authority. Report any contact with life boats or men adrift.”

There followed about a minute of negatives before the lovely tenor of Captain Langley of the Magnificent Mollybroke on the circuit. “MTA, this is the Magnificent Molly. Ness was boosting at twenty gravities. There’s no way anybody got out of there.”

“We copy you, Captain Langley. Ok everybody, unless anyone else needs to declare an emergency, let’s get the Robert Heinleinand the Magnificent Molly back to port, then we’ll go in order of mass. Everybody have your logs ready for the FASA investigation teams. Stay sharp, folks. Mars Traffic Authority is clear to normal traffic and we are off level one emergency.”

I sighed and decided to watch the tug begin to maneuver back to lock on to us to pass the time. It would hopefully be a simple matter now of getting through a few exit interviews from the Disaster Team from the Federal Aviation and Space Authority before we could get our unwelcome guests stashed somewhere in New Atlanta. A part of me wondered how long they’d be stuck there.

I wasn’t kidding myself. A war was coming. A war of independence. Those had an unfortunate tendency to be long, bitter and drawn out. But, at least Lieutenant Bradley and his men were alive. Anything was better than having ridden the Elliott Ness to her grave.

“Flight, CAPCOM I’m picking up a Level One Emergency beacon, inbound to us from Earth.”

“CAPCOM, what do we have? As if today hasn’t been exciting enough.” I turned to watch the young man’s face split into something of a grin.

“I think our ladies will want to hear this, Flight.” He flipped a switch to fill the control room with the heart melting soprano I was so worried about.

“Mars Traffic Authority, this is the private sloop Valentina,” said the calm and matter of fact voice of Rei Yotori. “Sorry to spoil your day there, but I’ve had to use up all of my propellant to get here in something of a hurry and would be indebted if someone could arrest my fall.”

Mike keyed up his own headset even as he pointed to the controller in charge of the ships gravity wave lasso. “Ms. Yotori, I’m right glad rumors of your death are wildly exaggerated. If you’ll strap down, I think the Robert Heinlein might be able to bring you to a stop. Might be a bit bumpy, I’m afraid.”

“Colonel Wolf and I extend our gratitude, Captain Hastings. A bumpy ride is certainly better than the alternative.” There was a brief moment of pause as our comm. officer let MTA know they didn’t have to go right back to alert footing and the Care Givers Company Training Sloop Valentina was slowed in preparation for docking with us. “Captain, I wonder if I could impose on your hospitality to have my girls assembled in whatever space you have large enough and can record the briefing I have to give them?”

“I’ll see to it myself, ma’am,” he assured her.

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The recreation room was crowded once more as it was filled not only with my class, plus the remainder of the girls from Yotori Station and all of the Heinlein’s regular Care Givers. It was strictly a standing room only affair. Rei breezed in, her flight suit immaculate as though she hadn’t spent the last four months on an emergency escape burn on an over crowded sloop. “Good morning,” she greeted, managing a smile for us all.

“I won’t sugar coat things for you, my girls, my home, ourhome, has been destroyed. Colonel Wolf and his men put up a valiant defense, but Yotori Station is no more. I am a wanted felon and, my dears, by association; you are all criminals thanks to your employment and gender.”

There was a soft undercurrent of outrage at this news that washed through us. Rei held up her hands for quiet. “Ladies, this is the hand we have been dealt and we mustdeal with it. It is my intention to conduct business from our new facility in New Atlanta, along with other measures as they may be needed. But I will not knuckle under and be told where or how I will live. I am a Spacer. However, there is a general amnesty to be declared. I have already negotiated this. Should any of you wish to comply and go home, there will be no penalties for your early contract termination. I’ve already chartered the Liner Duchy of Pariest to carry any who is willing back to Earth.”

“We are home!” was the collected shout that answered her as she paused to take a breath.

“It won’t be easy girls,” she cautioned us. “If you’re caught on a ship you’ll be taken back. We’ll do everything we can, but you may be on Earth some time.”

It was Susan who started the chant, but in short order the walls of the room shook with the shouts of, “Hell no, we won’t go!” It took Rei several moments to get quiet once more.

“I don’t know how long this will take, my darlings, but it is up to you all to share this resolve with your crews. With your diligence, aid, and most of all, your caring, Space will be free. I promise you.”

I watched, awed, humbled and a bit worried as my boss so skillfully transformed anger into iron resolve. Earth had no idea what kind of a hornet’s nest they’d stirred up, but they would.

I wonder if camouflage would look good on a wedding dress?

Evidently the briefing was finished as Rei was talking animatedly with Ryoko. I decided now was as good a time as any to figure out what it was I was supposed to be doing. I made my way through the crowd so as to get close to them. “No, you’ve done an excellent job here, Ryoko,” Rei was telling her. “We’ll just have to get them ready…hello Masako,” she said with a smile for me as I finally managed to get through the crowd. I bowed.

“We were all very worried, Grandmother,” I told her. “You can’t imagine how happy we are you’re alright.”

She stroked my cheek with almost maternal pride. “So am I, my dear. But, what’s this?” She reached down to take my left hand and hold it up for her inspection. “That is a magnificent ring, Masako. Who have you ensnared so soon?”

I couldn’t keep a blush from my face, or my eyes on hers. “I was honored to have Captain Hastings ask me,” I whispered.

“Indeed?” she asked with great weight. “I’m very proud of you, Masako.”

“Grandmother?” I asked her. “What should we be doing now? There’s so much going on.”

“Now, my daughter, you have parents to see settled do you not? And some shore leave coming to you. Apollo Freight has won your contract. While you are still my employee, short of some grievance you might have with them, you are for all intents and purposes their employee. I simply sign your check. Do us proud, Masako.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I said, not sure what else I should say.

“Get your parents settled and relax for a bit, Masako,” Dr. Wantabe told me. “There will be more information coming in a little while. For now, relax. You’ve earned it.”

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New Atlanta’s Port Savannah was a sprawling facility over a mile and a half long floating adrift in the endless red ocean of Mars below it. Our Propellant reserves gone, it was the tug Steamboat Willy that actually brought us into the harbor. All I got to do was watch and pout. An arrival is so much harder than a departure. To depart, all the reservoirs are full. If you make a mistake, it’s easily corrected.

Arrivals involved the judicious use of existing momentum and the last of the cold gas for the maneuvering thrusters. Make a mistake, and, well, hope your policy with Lloyds of London is paid up. To bring a vessel as large as the Heinlein home was the ultimate test of a pilot’s skill.

Now my moment of triumph and arrival was spoiled by that takani yo baka law and the Heinlein was being pushed in like a new bone by one of the yard dogs. I don’t think I could be taken to task for pouting.

The intense blue white strobe that was mounted coaxial to the Steamboat Willy’s Gravity Wave lasso played over the bow of us, letting the tug crew know where the beam connected to us as they nudged us into our berth. We came to a stop without so much as a ripple in my coffee and I sniffed. I could have done it better.

“Flight, CAPCOM, we have hard dock.”

“Roger that, CAPCOM. All stations, flight, switch to umbilical support modes and put her to bed. CAPCOM, patch me through to Captain Harold.”

“Smooth as a baby’s bottom, eh, Mike?” said the grizzled voice that matched the haggard, slightly unkempt face that filled the right hand view screen.

“No complaints as always, Joe. What do we owe you for the push?” He made a dismissive gesture.

“No worries, Mike, weren’t your fault. I’ll just double bill the next ISP boat to come through and we’ll call it even. Although, if you’re feeling you really owe me, you could sell me the contract of that nice Ms. Foster. She still working over there?”

I felt Naomi remove my headset as she keyed herself into the circuit. “The answer is still no, Joe. I’m a deep space girl and the Willy won’t ever leave Mars space.”

Captain Harold’s face adopted a most pathetic wounded expression. “Ah, cut a guy a break, Naomi. Place just isn’t the same since you left. Home by five, every night….”

“Joe, I sold that house four years ago.”

“Well, ya can’t blame a guy for trying. How about dinner?”

“Do I need to invoice this for Apollo Freight’s accounts payables?” she asked with a grin.

The wounded expression deepened to hurt. “I said it was free, didn’t I? You can tell me to suck vacuum and I ain’t gonna charge Mike for the push. I’ll even shave, how’s that?”

Naomi couldn’t keep in a laugh. “Alright, Joe. The Blue Oyster in Merchant’s Row at seventeen hundred. A minute late and I’m gone, read me, spacer?”

His grin pulled most of the wrinkles from his face from ear to ear. “Loud and clear, ma’am!” I took my headset back from Naomi as I finished the last of my settings. The Robert Heinlein was fast asleep as far as Control went.

“Flight, Control.” I said, turning to face Mike in his perch as the Flight Director.

“Go, Control,” he told me.

“Control systems to umbilical and nominal. Quit’n time, boss?”

He grinned. “Absolutely. You coming down with me on the Friday? Ms. Chartrand is at the helm, so you can keep lonely old me company with a few million dollars of bearer bonds.”

“I love a man who spends well on a girl,” I told him with a smile. “But what’s with the Bearer bonds?” He shrugged.

“Our big ticket haul this trip; certificates of deposit from the Swiss Credit Bank of Zurich, buying Troys.”

“Troys?” I asked.

“Yes, Troys. The 1stInvestment Bank of Mars issues its own currency, the Troy, or one troy ounce of gold. The actual denominations are the Talent, the Quarter, the Carat and then the Troy, all based on weight. Talents are an eight of Carat, Quarters are a quarter and it’s twenty four carats to a Troy Ounce. Spacers find it convenient to deal in hard currencies, for a variety of reasons, most of them less than savory. Shall we?”

“What about the FASA team?” I asked, still rising to cross the room to join him.

“One of the great joys of being a Captain, my love, is the many and sundry joys of Delegation. The Ship’s Purser is the legal face of the Heinlein. If the FASA boys need my testimony, they’ll file a summons with the Purser. Let’s go, I have plans for you.”

“Do tell,” I purred as we made our way to the travel tube.

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It’s an interesting feeling to share a ship with five hundred million dollars. It was shrink wrapped on wheeled dollies. I would have felt an irresistible urge to do something very naughty on all that money, but the dour presence of Todd’s shot gun wielding security team rather put a damper on my libido.

Not to mention my parents were on the flight as well. Well, there’ll be other times.

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New Atlanta was a large central dome with a number of smaller domes branching out in stars around it. Persey made sure our flight was smooth and I was enraptured by the concept of being on another world. The Cydonia Mesa was a fair bit north of the equator, giving us good sunlight that glinted off what looked like a huge ice mountain by the domes. “What’s that?”

Mike leaned over me to see out the port. “What’s left of a comet or a burg they cut off of Europa. Water is always a constant problem. Short haulers bring Ice wherever they can find it and sell the chunks to the colonies. They’re carved up for the water the colony uses.”

I pouted. “More water rationing?”

He laughed. “Wait and see.”

In a few minutes we’d landed and had been pushed into a pressurized hanger that Apollo Freight evidently owned. The pressure equalized before Todd opened the hatch, his detail leading the way, guns out. A small tug with equally armed men drove up as we sat and watched as papers were examined and signed.

Finally Todd made a motion and the techs pushed the money down the ramp and handed it over to another set of techs who loaded it onto the dolly. The head goon gave Todd a receipt and they drove off.

Then everyone relaxed.

“Do you all do that often?” I asked.

“Always happy to haul cash for the Swiss,” beamed Mike. They pay very well.”

“Why don’t they do this electronically?” asked Dad, a curious expression on his face. Truth be told, it was probably the first time in his life he’d seen a gun up close. We might be crowded, but Japan is still the safest nation on Earth.

“Too easy to fake a transaction, Mr. Yagimura,” supplied Todd. “I know half a dozen techs that could make a bank suddenly find, or lose for that matter, a couple of million. Inter bank transfers like this are always hard cash. The Swiss always get their money.”

“And it’s a nice sideline for us,” said Mike. “That one drop made bonus for the entire crew. Mierda, I wish they bought Troys every trip.”

“Watch your language,” I told him with a grin. “So, Mom, Dad, what’s your agenda for the day? I’m off so I can get you all settled.”

Mom’s eyes darted between me and Mike before she smiled. “Dear, we’ll be in the hotel for at least a week while the house is closed on. You can help me furnish it, but for now, you and your fiancé should have some time alone.”

“But we just arrived,” protested Dad.

We need some time alone too, Moto,” she told him coyly.

“See you for dinner!” tossed Dad as he quickly ushered Mom towards the terminal to my barely contained giggles.

“So,” drawled Mike as he slipped an arm around my shoulders. “You gonna stay in that shore leave uniform, or what?”

“What,” I told him around a grin. Let’s get us settled in some hotel, then I’ll change, then you can show me the sights.”

“Hotel?” he scoffed. “I will not. We have a home here, future Mrs. Hastings. Right this way.”

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I have been asleep my entire life and awoken in a fairy tale. Once clear of Hartsfield Space Port, New Atlanta was not Southern in her lay out and charm, but very traditionally Japanese. While the skyline of the Colony’s name sake was duplicated in miniature, the tallest building was only fifty stories, the streets were cobble stone, the bridges seemed to be made of wood from the Tokugawa Era of Japan and Tori Gates were everywhere. There was even a Buddhist Monastery and a Shinto Shrine.

It was obvious that large portions of the Colony had been bought and paid for with Care Giver money. Mike had a lovely pagodastyle house in the Buckhead District Dome that seemed to be made of bamboo and paper.

It was easily the size of the building my parent’s apartment resided in, in Tokyo. He had a silly grin on his face as he led me about; pointing out the various touches here and there with boyish enthusiasm as he begged for the approval I readily gave him. I had never been in a more beautiful building. White, diaphanous curtains were draped with great artistry to dance in the gentle breeze coming off the terrace that had a stunning view of Lake Allatoona. Whoever said a man can’t decorate is wrong.

I finally got the water gag.

The ice burgs were cut up, brought inside the dome, then purified and melted to be used both as running water for human use, but was stored throughout the dome in a complete ecosystem of little lakes and rivers. Trees and green living things were everywhere.

I had stepped back into a mythic Japan that was somehow modern, while keeping the slow, quiet pace of that by gone era.

I was in love with that house.

“You like it?” he asked with a grin.

“Like? No, that’s far too soft a word,” I breathed. “Adore? Love? They all fall short. Mike this is wonderful.

“Well, it’s not bad,” he said, gathering me into a hug from behind. “It’ll be better once there are a few more Hastings running around,” he whispered, nuzzling my ear.

“You’re putting the cart before the horse, aren’t you?” I teased him. “Besides, I have a surprise for you.” I gently broke free of him to cross over to one of his servants (yes he had servants) who was carrying my day bag. “I’ll take that, thank you.” I collected the bag and turned to smile at him. “Wait for me on the terrace. I won’t be long.”

I left him with a longing look as I returned quickly to the room he’d given me. It was probably as large as my parent’s entire apartment had been, but I was in far too much of a hurry to marvel. I had a man to further ensnare.

They say the little black dress is just the thing to catch a man. I beg to differ.

While white was not considered a lucky color in my culture; it was actually the color of mourning, I had just the thing to enthrall the Captain’s heart. My mother had actually sent up the dress for me and now was definitely the time to use it.

I zipped open my bag, even as I pulled off the Shore Leave Uniform as quickly as I could. The dress was a white lace haltered sun dress that just reached my knees. I teased out my hair a bit and pulled it on; checking to make sure it was hanging right.

I paused for a moment, startled once more as the nanites swimming through my blood gave me the knowledge of how the dress should hang. It was the second dress I’d worn and had been some time since I’d been aware of the strange learning I suddenly ‘knew’ in how to be a woman.

No matter how I knew, it was perfect.

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“Mike?” I called softly, looking at him over my shoulder with my back to him. I watched his jaw fall open as his handsome face was overcome with a mask of love, devotion and absolute lust. Oh yes, he’s mine. “How’s this?”

“I, um, wow?” he stuttered.

I couldn’t keep a grin of accomplishment off my face as I slowly turned and did a slow pirouette for the approval he so readily displayed. “I’m guessing you like it?” I asked; eyeing the bulge that had appeared in the front of the shorts he had changed into.

“If you need my approval, you have it,” he breathed. Now I know how the butcher eyes the cow. There was a very hungry look to his eyes that should have terrified me.

But it didn’t.

What it did do was make me feel extremely warm and proud. “So, where are we going?”

“Going?” he gasped.

“You don’t think I got all this dressed up just for you, did you? Someone promised to show me the sights.”

“Well, yes,” he managed. “But what if I want to monopolize you all to myself?”

“Think how envious everyone who sees me on your arm will be of you.”

“I’ll just get my coat.”

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The first, non-government, noncommercially backed colony on Mars was something of a contradiction, looking for a cultural identity of its own. I felt quite at home as a large portion of the populace was Asian generally, and of them the vast majority seemed to be Japanese. While the odd electric car moved along the street, for the most part travel was by foot, or as in our case, rickshaw.

The human propelled cart we rode in was actually quite comfortable as I watched the sinew bunch from time to time in the back of our very fit engine/driver. Along the streets I watched the crowd, amazed at the clashing styles of dress in a few short moments of ride.

Someone, probably Pierre Cardin III, had resurrected the Frock Coat and a number of obviously well heeled gentlemen sported it as well as walking sticks and top hats they tipped to the passing ladies in kimonos, leather mini-dresses and everything in between. The streets were fastidiously clean and there was a sense of ordered purpose to the colony.

It was like a moving photograph from 1800s San Francisco. New Atlanta was an amalgam of cultures and identities united on the face of a very hostile frontier.

Yet there were dangers on the streets as well.

It was not often, but every now and then I’d catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a pair of Samurai, complete to the pair of swords they wore, and always a pair of them. There was a diffidence to the crowd as they passed, always giving way.

Finally I caught a good look and pointed them out to Mike. “Are those two Samurai?

He nodded. “Yes, and very much in the tradition you’d expect.” I raised an eyebrow.

“They’re tax collectors?” I asked with a grin.

He laughed as he slipped an arm around me. “Well, no, they’re police men. Just because we’re out in deep space doesn’t mean there’s no crime.”

“And they fight crime, with swords?

He pointed over head at a magnificent view of the sun filtering in through the dome. “The Lexan in that lovely dome over head is two inches thick. Yes, it’s bullet proof, but there’s 1000 Millibars of pressure in here and six on the other side. You want to risk a shoot out?”

“Well, I wouldn’t, but who says the crooks won’t?”

“Intelligence is a survival skill in space,” he told me with a sardonic grin. “We do have crime, just generally smart crime. The last time somebody pulled a gun inside the dome, didn’t fire it, mind you, just pulled it, got spaced. That was two years ago.”

I frowned. “The swiftness of frontier justice?”

“Swift? Lord no. That trial took five months. That’s with video tape of the perpetrator in the act of waving the gun around. Give us a little credit, Ko. This isn’t the Wild West. You have to have an atmosphere of your own for that. Ah, here we are.” The rickshaw had come to a stop before a small, squat but graceful building that was labeled in four languages, 1stInvestment Bank of Mars.

“More work before we relax?” I asked him with a smile as both he and the rickshaw runner helped me down. Mike shook his head as he dug a small gold coin from his trousers and palmed it to the driver.

“Not at all, my dear. Merely thought you’d like to get your first check safely in the bank before we hit the town. And no protests, Ko, it’s all my treat.” He didn’t wait for an argument, but turned to the runner, a dangerously handsome Hispanic youth and spoke rapidly in Spanish for a moment. The runner nodded; a large smile on his face as he pocketed the coin.

Sí, señor,” he told Mike, who then offered me his arm.

“Shall we?”

We walked through the edifice of the bank into a rather nice, old world elegance furnished bank. The best word to describe the place was, I believe, unobtrusive. The technology was discreetly hidden out of sight within the desks of the bank workers. There were no armed guards that I could see, but for some reason I had a definite feeling they were there. Likewise, there were not any visible cameras or other recording devices, but the marble and the polished wood gave a deep feeling of security.

For some indescribable feeling I felt my hard earned money would be safe here.

“May I help you?” asked a rather pretty young brunette as she bowed, first to me and then to Mike, from a podium in the center of the foyer we had entered. I hadn’t touched on it before, but with all this marble, you would think the acoustics in here would be terrible. But you’d be wrong. I could hear her clearly, but not any of the half dozen conversations going on elsewhere in the room.

Oh yes, I like this bank.

“Yes, thank you,” Mike replied easily, drawing her attention from between us to him directly. He indicated me which returned her earnest gaze. “My fiancé would like to open an account and make a deposit.”

“Wonderful,” she told me, all smiles. She consulted a hidden screen in the podium. “I believe Mr. Conner is free just now. If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll introduce you.” She pressed something on the podium then bowed to us once more. “Right this way.”

She led us smartly to a nice, but humbly decorated office with a pair of comfortable looking leather wing backed chairs. Mr. Conner was obviously an older gentleman, there was more salt than pepper in his hair and the crow’s feet about his eyes and mouth had ambitions of founding their own estuary. There was not, however, anything but happiness about his face as he rose to greet us like old friends. “Mr. Conner, the young lady wishes to open an account,” the receptionist told him with a final bow of departure.

“George Conner,” he greeted first bowing, and then extending his hand.

“Masako Yagimura,” I answered him, returning both courtesies before he waved us to the chairs which were as comfortable as their promise had been. “This is my fiancé Michael Hastings,” I said by way of introduction. George’s eyebrows ascended his round face.

“Mr. Hastings, it’s an honor to meet you,” he said earnestly. “If you’ll allow me a few moments to see to your lovely fiancé and her needs, if I can be of help to you, I’d be glad to.”

Then he immediately turned his gaze back to me. “Miss Yagimura, first let me welcome you to the 1stInvestment Bank of Mars. What kind of account did you want to open with us today?”

“Well, I’m not entirely sure,” I told him truthfully. “I have my paycheck and I’m learning that Mars evidently has a different currency system than the yen.”

“Ah, you’re a Care Giver, I’m guessing?” He said with a smile. I nodded. “Wonderful. Glad to see you young ladies coming out here, despite that clap trap being pushed on Earth. We have an understanding with your firm here. We can convert your yen to Troy, or, split the balances in any number of accounts you’d like to help with your book keeping. All of our accounts come with yearly audit of expenses, credits and spending traces you make either through our Bio-Visa, which is based on your thumb print, or through a more traditional check. The only thing we can’t track for you is, of course, any currency you spend, so you’ll need to keep track of those receipts. However, if you bring them with you for your yearly audit, we’ll be happy to add them into the statements for tax declarations.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Is there a charge for converting yen to Troy?”

“Not for a Care Giver,” he told me with a smile. “If you’re not comfortable carrying currency, nearly every merchant on Mars accepts the Bio-Visa. A good number accept checks as well. We also have a network of ATM machines for your convenience through out New Atlanta as well as the other Colonies and the Orbital Stations of Mars.”

“Wonderful,” I told him, more than a bit overwhelmed.

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I won’t bore you with the details of how my financial needs were met. Suffice to say by the time I left the bank with his rather heartfelt offers of assistance should I need it, I had a checking account, savings account, my Bio-Visa was set up, along with a retirement account and an Educational Trust Fund for children I didn’t have yet.

And my check filled all of them quite nicely with room for a satisfying chink of coins in my purse. All Martian money, I would learn, was coin based, except for large bearer bonds, but those were generally reserved for transactions in the hundreds of Troy. After all, who wants to haul around a couple of hundred pounds of gold?

In the five month journey from Earth to Mars, I had made as much money as my father in a year at Honda and Dad was head of a Division.

Did I mention the fact that Ilove my job?

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The remainder of the morning and the early afternoon we spent touring the sites of New Atlanta. I paid my respects at the monastery and the Shinto Shrine, as well as a stint of feeding the koi and catfish that were abundant in the countless little streams and creeks that ran throughout the city.

We settled at a lovely little bistro in the center of Town, over looking the Care Givers Facility here and the tranquility of Piedmont Park. Mark, who was evidently not especially hungry, only sipped something he called Sweet Tea, which was over ice and a slice of apple pie.

I tried some of it, but found its name misleading. It should have been called Disturbingly Sweet Tea. How he drank something as sugary as it while having pie escaped me. I settled on a double espresso and wonderful biscotti as I rather dubiously watched his hobby in self destruction. “I don’t see how you can stomach that,” I said with a rueful shake of my head.

“What?” he asked around a mouthful of pie.

“Cheese and pie should never be served together, not to mention a sugar plantation must have been used on that drink. You won’t sleep for days.”

“This from the girl who eats something called fermented bean curd and raw fish,” he jabbed back with a grin. “Besides, there are side benefits to not sleeping.”

“Now you’re just being ambitious.”

He grinned. “I have to be to live up to my dad. He went from nothing to top ten of the world’s richest men list. Those are mighty big shoes to fill.” I sighed.

“Mike, you are your own person. No one expects or is even measuring you against your dad.”

“I am,” he said softly. “And I’m the only one who has to.” I cast him a measuring glance over the cup of my espresso. He meant it too, which was the frustrating part. He probably wouldn’t be happy until he passed some bar he’d set for himself to set himself apart from his father.

In some men that could be a good thing. I was already setting my mind along that line to keep him from the more traveled and self destructive route. “So,” I said. “I’ve been out of the loop for more than a while, and once I had the time on the Heinlein the news coming up from Earth was so spotty it wasn’t worth trying to follow. What is the deal with this trade agreement your dad is here to work out?”

He cast a glance around to see if anyone was listening in on us. “It’s complicated,” he hedged. “New Atlanta and the ISG mean to break away from Earth; completely. The Heinlein was on station at Earth for so long as there was a meeting going on practically every other week trying to get The Fred involved with this little Revolutionary Council.”

“The Fred?” I asked around a smile.

“My dad has a slight reputation in space,” he said glumly. “I’d rarely bet my trust fund on something, but I’ll lay even odds dad has decided to throw Apollo Freight behind the ISG.”

“Over having a more friendly port?”

“This goes way deeper than Port Fees, Ko,” Mike told me. “Earth hasn’t had an active Iron Mine in half a century, due mainly to population pressure and the less expensive availability of it from space. If the Spacers break away, that means iron becomes the hot futures market and its cost per ounce could skyrocket. Earth has to have Iron and they’re terrified that they won’t get it if Space is free.”

“I know why the PWA is coming about,” I replied. “It’s all about control. You can’t have a culture if you can’t breed.”

“You can’t have a revolution if your founding fathers are dead, either,” he said darkly. “I can’t prove it, Ko, but I checked the Kings Ransom the day before we boosted. The attitude control computer was fine. But right at orbit threshold it fails? Somebody tried to kill me, Ko, and my dad. I’m sure of it.”

I couldn’t quite suppress a sigh. “Am I marrying into a secret agent novel?”

“Masako,” he drawled. “I may kid about a lot of things, more probably than I should, but my piloting won’t ever be one of them. That computer was tampered with. And I’m not being paranoid. I lost my mother to an assassin’s bullet, remember?”

I cast my eyes down because I did remember; along with the embarrassment of how I’d learned it right before we had made love the first time. “Well,” I said softly. “We’re safe now.”

“Safe?” he questioned with a dark chuckle. “My love, you hang around me and you probably won’t ever be safe again. I don’t want to lose you, Masako, but I don’t want to mislead you either. I’m the heir. I’ll be a target forever.”

We sipped our drinks in silence for a moment as I chewed on this particular nugget. The situation Mike found himself in would be the same situation I would place any children I had by him in. That was worth considering carefully. It wasn’t Mike’s or his parent’s fault of his situation. I’d be willing to bet Fred never realized he would do as well for his family as he did. There were things that went along with being that successful he never realized. But that wasn’t an excuse I would be able to give to a future son or daughters over their lot in life.

My tendency to plan out to the far reaches of time was a side effect I was learning of being a woman, and a Spacer. Both evidently took the Long View in solving even what on the face of things appeared to be a temporary problem. I would need to figure out what the pluses of this situation were to balance out a long ledger of minuses I was discovering. As I was doing that, I couldn’t quite stifle a yawn. While it was just barely past noon locally, my internal clock, still set to the Heinlein was telling me it was nearly eight at night.

“Tired?” he asked solicitously.

“Jet lag,” I told him. “Maybe a nap would be the thing to get re-acclimated.” I paused. “How long is our lay over here going to be?”

He shrugged. “Till whenever Dad is done hammering this out or tells them to go suck vacuum. Could be a while, I’m afraid.”

I let a lecherous smile pull at my mouth. “You say that like you don’t want as much time as you can get with nothing better to do than to make love to me.”

His hand shot up to match the sudden rise in his voice. “Waiter! Check, kudasi!

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Mike returned to the terrace of our house, a smile on his face. It was obvious he was successful in fulfilling my request of him to give the staff the day off. I’m not easily embarrassed any more, but it would be somewhat tacky to have one walk in on us. He stopped to stare, the grin fading from his face as I watched him watching me. I lay on thedaybed that was on the terrace, on my stomach, my chin in my hand.

My dress was around my elbows and the only other article of clothing I was wearing was my panty. “Hey sailor,” I told him with a smile. “Been in port long?”

“Will you marry me?” he gasped as he stumbled to the side of the bed.

“You asked me that already.”

“I just worry that if I stop asking you, I’ll either wake up from this wonderful dream, or you’ll think I take you for granted.” I rose up to kneel to help him undress to his sharp intake of breath as my breasts, that he knew nearly as well as I did were bared to him.

“It’s not a dream,” I whispered to him as I made him as topless as I. “And, somehow, I don’t think you’ll ever take me for granted.”

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My first day on Mars and I get made love to in the most tenderly and powerful way by a man I deeply adore in probably the most romantic place I could imagine. Is this place great, or what?

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“Mike?” called a deep, husky voice that pulled me from my wonderful sleep. I opened my eyes to find Todd, a concerned expression on his handsome face, reaching over me to shake my future husband on the shoulder. “Mike? Come on, buddy, wake up. We’ve got a situation.”

“Hey, Todd,” I greeted him sleepily, not the least concerned I was nude and probably at the look of being ridden hard and put away wet. Funny, that had been the way of it…

“Sorry, Ko,” he told me as he kept shaking Mike’s shoulder. “Mike!” he called more forcefully.

“What?” he demanded groggily.

As the sleep retreated from my mind I saw the sun was significantly lower in the sky than when we’d finished and I began to notice how Todd was dressed. He still wore the bulky ballistic armor he’d been wearing for the currency exchange, his pistol on his hip and I knew it wasn’t because he hadn’t had time to change. Something was seriously wrong.

Mike sat up, taking in what I just had that cleared the fog from his mind. “What’s wrong?” he said in more congenial tone by way of apologizing for his earlier tone.

“Mike, we can’t find your dad,” Todd told us without preamble. “He missed an appointment with Tonji Cardinal and now nobody can get a hold of him.” He sighed. “We’re becoming afraid he’s been kidnapped.”

“Tonji Cardinal?” I asked softly, even as I scooted aside to let Mike up and out of the bed.

“He’s the head of the Independent Spacer’s Guild,” supplied Todd. “Basically he’s the Mayor of New Atlanta.”

He didn’t have to, but Mike made a point of finding my dress first for me before pulling on his shorts and going hunting for his polo shirt. I pulled it over my head before looking up at Todd’s wide face. He wore a worried expression I wasn’t happy with at all. “When was the last time someone saw him, Todd?” I asked.

“About four hours ago. Doctor Wantabe told me he had told her he was going to take a nap before the meeting. When she went to wake him he wasn’t there so she called me.”

“Not just you,” said another voice from the doorway into the house. “Please forgive my intrusion, the door was unlocked.”

I turned, startled by the sound of the voice to find a handsome young samurai standing in the doorway. His hands were cautiously free of his swords, both in plain sight, even as I heard Todd snatch his pistol from its holster. He was young looking, but with a soft, honest face I found myself liking nearly instantly. He wore his hair long and gathered in the traditional Mage, or topknot and his kimono was lovely. There was no malice in his eyes. He bowed. “Please forgive my interruption, I am Sergeant Katsuo Taki, New Atlanta Police,” He told us. Todd returned the pistol to its holster.

“Wantabe-Sensei contacted us about the disappearance of Hastings-Sama. I have been assigned to this case and was told I could find you here.”

“Sorry if we’re a little jumpy, sergeant,” apologized Mike as he gestured the young man to the table and chairs on the terrace. For the first time, the young man smiled.

“It’s quite understandable, given the situation,” he said softly. “Our Chief has asked me to let you know the safe recovery of Hastings-Sama is our top priority. Do we know for a fact there has been foul play at this point?” He sat carefully on the edge of the chair, his weight and balance forward. It was evident that was as relaxed as he was as likely to be.

He could be on his feet and killing in less than a second.

“All I know is what my first officer just informed me,” replied Mike cautiously. He took out his phone and dialed discreetly. “Sergeant, I do not wish to be rude, but may I see your identification?”

That actually brought a smile to Katsuo’s face. He carefully reached into his left sleeve and removed a badge wallet with an ID card. This, he removed and handed to Mike. After a moment, my lover returned it. “My apologies.”

“One should never apologize for good judgment,” was Katsuo’s answer.

Mike looked at Todd, who turned back to the Samurai. It was not the first time I’d witnessed their level of non-verbal communication, but I was still amazed at the complex issues they could ‘discuss’ with glances. “We haven’t received a ransom demand, or any claim of responsibility. On our end of things, only Doctor Wantabe and the three of us are aware of this.”

“So, it is possible your father is simply out and did not take his phone?”

The younger Hastings frowned. “My father has been a creature of habit and punctuality for over one hundred years, Sergeant. I don’t recall a single time in my life he wasn’t where he said he would be, when he said he would be there.”

Katsuo nodded. “I see. Most distressing. I will need access to your father’s room to begin my investigation, if that is acceptable?”

“I will need to make the Board of Director’s aware of what has happened,” said Mike softly as he turned to me. “Masako, can I impose on you…?”

“It’s not an imposition,” I told him firmly. “Just let me change, Sergeant, and I’ll be right with you.” Katsuo bowed from his neck as I stood and hurried to my room.

I was beginning to worry if the intense love I felt for Mike and Todd were going to out weigh this kind of thing being inflicted on my children. His mother’s ring was very heavy on my finger as I opened the door to my room.

My thoughts were so in a jumble I paid no attention to the sudden feeling of something being out of sorts. It was one of those feelings I’d begun having ever since I had become a woman, thanks to the nanites that swam throughout my body. I was just too intent on getting my flight suit and helping my lover in his time of need.

I simply didn’t see the man who had heard me coming and hidden behind the door. I was grabbed from behind, my right arm twisted painfully behind my back while my mouth was covered to keep me silent.

There may come a time, Wantabe-Sensei had said in my mind, when you will need to defend yourselves, my dears. The unfortunate cruelty of life is why we teach you these things.

I picked up my right foot and drove it backwards and down as hard as I could, onto the boney place where his foot and shin met. He gave a muted cry of pain and outrage, but his grip loosened just enough for me to twist quickly out of his grasp to his right. He turned to follow me, surprised by my sudden action that allowed me to plant my now much broader hip into his as I stopped and grabbed the black military like uniform he was wearing as I threw him over and away from me.

His own momentum did all the work for me as he crashed into my armoire with a satisfying thud. “Sewaninaru yo!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, a bit too excited to keep from my native tongue.

The man, his face obscured by a balaclava rolled to his feet, eyeing me more warily as he produced a wicked looking knife the length of his forearm. I settled my weight to a more centered balance, keeping my eyes fixed on him. “Mike! Help me! Rape!” I shouted once more.

That was a word we Care Givers were most cautious of. It was tuned to a primal part of the Spacer mindset. To call it would bring every man around and the death of the offender was assured. It was something we did not let pass our lips, even in conversation. It was far too powerful a word.

He knew his time was short as he heard as I the thunderous racket of the men charging to my rescue. His eyes narrowed in anger as he turned and leapt through my window to the terrace below.

Teiryuu!” shouted Katsuo’s voice, even as the door burst open and half off its hinge by Mike and Todd. I heard a strangled cry from the broken window. We rushed there to see the intruder on the ground; one arm pined to the ground by the sergeant’s foot, his sword inches from his throat and a nasty gash down one leg.

¡Usted hijo de una perra, matanza de I'll usted!” shouted Mike as he whirled, eager to match deed to words to run into Todd’s firm hold on his shoulder. The two angrily traded Spanish at the top of their lungs for a moment before Mike calmed down ever so slightly. “Watch over her,” he told Todd, who nodded and let him pass, evidently satisfied the prisoner’s life was no longer measured in seconds.

The rush of the moment hit me then as I started to shake and would have fallen if Todd had not caught me. “Are you alright, Ko?” he asked me, his own voice low with concern. I forced a nod I didn’t really feel. In actuality, I was worried I would throw up. The adrenaline from fighting for my life was leaving me and none of my muscles wanted to co-operate any more.

“Todd, don’t tell Mike about this, please,” I whispered, trying desperately to focus my mind with sufficient clarity to bring up my learning of Zen so I could calm down.

“Your secrets are safe with me, girl,” he told me as he guided me over to the bed and helped me down. “What do you want to wear? I’ll get it for you.”

“Flight suit,” I muttered, my attentions drawn to the somewhat raised voices I heard through what was left of my window. He turned to get it as my attention settled on the voices outside.

“You may be a very wealthy man, Hastings-san, but all of your money will not allow you the liberty to torture this man,” said Katsuo’s voice.

“My father has been kidnapped and my wife attacked in my owncogida house. Don’t make me hurt you Sergeant. If you come between me and this dead man again, so help me, I will.”

I heard a sword drawn and leapt to my feet, but Todd was standing there, blocking my way, one of my flight suits in hand. “Todd!” I shouted, but he just smiled and pushed me back down on the bed.

“It’s ok, girl,” he whispered in his deep bass voice. “The boss is just playing bad cop. Wait and see. Here.” He handed me the flight suit and placed the boots that went with it next to me on the floor.

I began to have a lot of mixed feelings about this dress as I pulled it off and snatched a bra from my overnight bag, still on the bed. While Todd tried to pretend his attention was on the argument outside, I could tell at least some part of him was ogling me. That small bit of normalcy did me a world of good, letting me quickly pull the flight suit on and zip up the boots. Now I had a professional face to hide behind as I confronted my attacker.

We made our way down stairs, stopping at Todd’s soft touch to my shoulder where we could see but not be seen our selves. Katsuo had Mike in a hammerlock, bent over the table but it seemed clear he wouldn’t be able to hold him for long. My assailant was handcuffed to the railing of the patio, seated in one of the chairs just beyond.

His balaclava had been removed, revealing a thick, square face under an extremely short military haircut. His eyes were nervously taking in the scene before him. Katsuo turned to him and shouted, “For God’s sake, tell me where his father is, I can’t hold him much longer! If he gets loose he’ll kill you!”

Evidently the good sergeant’s Spanish was much better than mine and had heard them plotting this at the top of their lungs. Which was my guess, in any event. Maybe they just naturally fell into it, the way men fall into being boys when ever some new gadget enters their collective world.

It’s funny how I can think of my former gender so differently now.

However they’d settled on this, the man spilled forth an address in a tumble. “But, they won’t be there long,” he gasped out, his fear for his life genuine. I began to detect the odor of urine from the terrace. “Once I miss the rendezvous they’ll move and get him out of the city. I don’t know where from there.”

“I do not think so,” said the sergeant as he released Mike, producing a small communications device from his kimono as he did so. “Go! I will see to this man, save your father.” He keyed on the device. “This is Sergeant Katsuo Taki; I am declaring a level four emergency. Halt all traffic throughout the space port and over ride every airlock to the outside to closed. Send three units to,” and he repeated the address, as well as our own.

Someone was shouting at our front door, behind us. “Police! I am coming in.” I turned, amazed at the speed of the response, as the door opened, revealing another samurai, his sword draw. Then I remembered; they always were in pairs.

“He’s on the terrace,” informed Todd, parting as the man rushed forward.

“Watch him!” ordered Katsuo “Kidnapping, burglary and rape!”

Then, even as the man protested the charges, Katsuo was rushing us outside. “I have a car, let’s go.”

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I’d always been a public transportation kind of guy back home in Japan. Even my dad had not had a car. I was not aware electric cars could go so fast.

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But it was not fast enough. When we’d arrived at address there was no one. There were signs a hasty departure had been made, but there was neither Fred Hastings, nor any clue on the face of things where he might have been taken.

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As we waited for the CID team to go over the building our prisoner had tipped us off to, Mike paced like a caged tiger. I began to hope that New Atlanta PD found these people first. If Mike beat them to the perpetrators; I’d seen his temper. I didn’t want to think what he could come up with if he had time to plan. Spacers are dangerous when they plan.

“Mike, you can’t put this off any longer,” Todd told him. “Make the call.”

I watched the two of them have one of their glancing conversations, and then followed him over to a vidphone booth that was near by. He thumbed the pad, and then punched a series of numbers before speaking directly into the camera. The screen only showed his face, letting me know he was taping a ‘letter dump’ for a call back to someone on Earth. “This is Michael Hastings. Under provision one of Article Seventeen of the Corporate Charter I am announcing to the board my temporary position as Chief Executive Officer. My father has been abducted against his will in New Atlanta. Thus far there has been no ransom demand, nor statement of responsibility. I will continue to act in the Board’s best interest until such time as my father can be located, or a more permanent solution needs to be made. I am also hereby activating Contingency Plans Twelve, Seven and Bravo.”

“I await response of the Board, acknowledging this transmission as well as the result of any vote of No Confidence under provision two C. I remind the Board, under the emergency powers granted me by Contingency Plan Seven, a final transfer of CEO and Chairmanship must await my return to Earth. I hope I have the Board’s trust in dealing with this matter. Michael Hastings, New Atlanta, Mars, Wednesday, June 24th2105. Authentication Romeo one seven two eight Bravo.”

He watched his message back through, nodding that he was satisfied with it and punched send. I gently stroked his arm, having been careful to stay out of the camera’s pickup. “Do I want to know what all that meant?”

Mike’s face was impossible to read. “Congratulate me, Masako; I’m now the President and CEO of Apollo Freight.”

“We’ll find your dad, Mike,” I promised him. He forced a smile for me and turned to Todd.

“Commander Williams,” he started.

“Mr. President,” responded his lover.

“Notify the Purser of our present status. No further cargo is to be booked for the Heinlein as she will remain in orbit until further notice. I want security teams on full alert patrol status there. Bring down whoever you need to be of assistance to New Atlanta PD. Get me a meeting with our New Atlanta Rep yesterday to get both a status of assets on hand here, and to reroute cargo due to ship out on the Heinleinon will call status of our departure.”

“Yes sir.”

“Be discreet, Todd, but I want these sons of bitchesfirst. Have personnel be looking for a specialist to hire.”

“You want to risk that kind of liability, Mike?”

“No trial, Todd, on your way.”

“I’ll handle this by phone, sir. Under Contingency Bravo, I cannot be out of sight of you.” Mike grimaced, having just evidently remembered that detail. “I’ll handle it boss.”

He nodded.

“Mr. Hastings?” asked Katsuo as he approached. Todd had his cell in his ear and withdrew to a discreet distance, all the while keeping eye contact with Mike. “We have completed the initial investigation of the trace DNA we’ve found here. Your father was here until at least an hour ago. There were four or five other men here as well we’re running a cross check to try to determine who they are. It is only a matter of time before we have warrants.”

“Apollo Freight and I appreciate your diligence in this matter, Sergeant Taki.” The samurai bowed.

“If I may, sir, I have just received a call from Mayor Tonji, asking who will now speak for your company?”

“That would be me,” Mike replied. “If you would be so kind as to ask the Mayor if I might meet with him tomorrow once some house cleaning has been done.” Katsuo nodded. “Will you still need access to my father’s rooms?”

“I have been informed a CID team is there now,” he replied. “I can give you a lift to your residence while we get this matter sorted out if you’d like.” Mike shook his head.

“No, thank you, I believe a car is coming for me. I would ask that you keep my man there informed as to developments. We will certainly keep NAPD apprised of anything we discover.”

“Mr. President?” called Todd’s voice. A new car had arrived, this one a limousine. Mike and Katsuo shook hands before he bowed to me as we were rushed away.

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John Gilmer was the Apollo Freight Division Head on Mars. I never knew you could combine helpfulness and vengeance in the same tone. Mr. Gilmer was evidently a master of it. Now I was reallyworried about who ever had grabbed my future father in law.

While Apollo Freight was diligently turning its considerable assets to the investigation we received a letter from the Board of Directors on Earth, pledging their unanimous support of their new Chairman.

Mike Hastings had carte blanchein throwing whatever he needed of the company, where ever he saw fit. There are men who would be dangerous or full of themselves to have that kind of power. If anything, Mike seemed to get a little smaller and withdrawn. He insisted people stop referring to him as Mr. President.

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I spent a restless night in what promised to be my new home, and for the first time as a Care Giver alone in a room. It was a very strange feeling. There had been times aboard the Heinlein or even back on Yotori Station where I had thought a bit of privacy would be the answer to a prayer.

It wasn’t.

I could tell this was eating at Mike, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to go about being of use. I wasn’t a detective, I had no investigative skills to speak of and while we were on Mars my own talent, being a pilot would be of no help whatsoever. I felt about as useful as mold.

So, upon waking and finishing of my morning absolutions, I began to set my mind on exactly how I could help. As nothing was leaping to mind, I called around, first Jill and then Persey to try to figure out something.

Mike and Todd were both gone, a short note hastily scribbled in Todd’s less than perfect penmanship told me they were off to meet with Mayor Tonji and would be back sometime late that afternoon.

It also asked that I not leave the house.

Fat chance.

“Good morning, Ko,” greeted Jill’s face from the screen that was split down the middle with Persey on the other side. “So, you finally got both of them to yourself, how was it?”

“I slept alone, Jill,” I told her glumly.

“What? What’s happened?” demanded Persey.

So I told them that story to their widening horror. After things had settled in, they both asked at once, “How can we help?”

I sighed. “Honestly, girls, I don’t know how I can help. It’s eating me up inside. Mike’s all bent out of shape and I’m really afraid if he gets his hands on these men first, he’ll be spending the rest of life in jail.”

“Then we have to find them first,” declared Persey matter-of-factly. “I’m in downtown in the main dome. Jill, where are you?”

“Still on the Heinlein,” she wailed. “I got stuck pulling the Nav. Data for the FASA team.”

“Masako, I’ll be at your place in twenty minutes. Jill, be ready to go when we get there and ask Naomi to put her ear to the grapevine and see what she can learn. These assholes will be trying to get Fred off Mars. We’ve got at least one girl on practically every ship for a million miles.”

“Will do.”

Persey locked her startlingly blue eyes with mine. “I’m on my way. We’ll find him, Ko, don’t you worry.”

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Nineteen minutes later I was in my flight suit and answering the front door bell. There I found Persey, similarly attired with a rented electric car on the driveway. Our conversation was sparse as I hastily drew up a flight plan on the way to Hartsfield. I only just got it done and sent it off as we arrived and parked, returning the car to the rental agency.

As we rode the maglev train from the parking area out to the hanger where the Friday waited on us, I turned to her. “Even when we get Jill down here, I still don’t see how the three of us are going to be able to solve something Todd’s entire security force and New Atlanta PD is working on.

She smiled a sardonic smile. “Simple, we’ll think like the kidnappers are. What’s the first thing they’ll try to do?”

“Get Fred off Mars. But they can’t do that as the whole place is locked down tight. I think the only reason we got the ok was we’re with Apollo Freight.”

“Now, suppose they sent the guy after you as a diversion to buy them a bit more time to get off Mars? Say, they sent him as they were on their way to the space port?”

I felt my heart sink. “Then they could have already boosted by now.”

Neyt,” she corrected me. “I’ve already checked and nothing Earth bound has departed yet. Too obvious anyway. Think like them. If Earth is behind it, where’s the first place we’ll look?”

“Something headed to Earth…” I started then trailed off as I followed the logic to its conclusion. “They’re going to the Belt!”

“Right! Probably to link up with some kind of fast boat that can take them back to Earth, or,” and she sighed, “give Fred a long walk out a short airlock.”

The train arrived at the private hanger level and we scrambled out, walking briskly to get to the ship. “What if they’re still trying to work that out?”

“Hopefully, Naomi will give us a bit of a clue there. The only ISP ship anywhere near Mars was the Elliot Ness, so that’s not open to them any more. So, they have to book passage and that’s where they’ll hopefully come into contact with a Care Giver who can give us the word.”

I nodded to the techs that were finishing the final preps to the Friday as I hauled up the ramp as fast as I could and got the cockpit. Friday was designed fairly close to the lay out a port runabout with a couple of extra bits for atmospheric flight. I plopped into the pilots couch and began working up the preflight.

Friday’s fusion motor came up quickly and was purring by the time Persey had buttoned up the lower hatch and gotten to the cockpit. “Hey!” she exclaimed as she entered. “Who says you get to fly?” she demanded.

The outside environmental sensors told me the hanger had been returned to Mars Atmospheric pressure and the door was slowly coming open. As Friday still had her wings furled against her sides, she’d fit through the door already. I clicked off the parking break and used the drive motor to roll us forward with a slight lurch as I pulled on the crash webbing. “You gonna stand there and complain about who’s driving or you gonna help me get her up?” I shot back.

“Geez, save a life or two and suddenly the rookie thinks she’s a Master Jedi or something,” she said with a smile as she settled in the right hand seat and pulled on her own webbing. Friday got through doors with about three feet to spare on each side, thanks to her wings being retracted. This way she was only a slightly flattened oblong cigar on three sets of landing gear with the gaping mouth of her engine bell behind her. “New Atlanta Traffic, this is Apollo Freight gig Friday, requesting clearance to the Orbital Sling on pre-filed flight path, over,” Persey told the Tower.

“A little eager, aren’t we Friday?” demanded the voice of the tower as a pressure suited figure directed me in short hops the thrusters on his suit and the low gravity of Mars allowed him to do.

“We’re in a bit of a hurry, here, Traffic,” responded Persey. To me, she said, “Fusion drive to operational temperature, and systems nominal, Masako. This isn’t a sim, you know. Take it easy.”

“Reset main drive to warm up, pull the flight path data into the Nav computer from Traffic and I know,” I told her with a wink. “Trust me.”

Friday you’re clear to boost on pre-filed flight plan and as we have no other traffic today, we’ll have you in the Sling in two shakes. Stand by.” The Orbital Sling was one of the first things built on the Mesa New Atlanta sprawled over. It was basically just a long monorail track that stretched off into the horizon, curving upwards ever so slightly as it went.

Most modern landers had a standard carriage built into their bellies that fit over the rail. From there, electromagnetism snatched the carriage and the ship along with it, faster and faster until she ran out of track and just keep going. A tap from the main motor of the Fridaywould be all we’d need to get back into orbit.

Still, it’s easier to describe it than to go through all the checks and minutia of actually getting into the Sling. That took the better part of an hour. “Friday, this is New Atlanta Traffic, you are clear for boost to orbit along your pre-filed flight plan. Optimum burn is at release plus twenty seconds for one minute on trajectory to Port Savannah. Acceleration to begin in one minute.”

Shortly there after we were pushed into our couches rather firmly by the acceleration as the Friday shot down the track at an ever increasing rate of speed. The twenty miles of track flashed by in an instant it seemed like before the wings unfurled themselves by the computer that also kicked in the main motor at just the right moment. The reddish sky of Mars faded back to the endless black of space as I came home once more.

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Our trip over Port Savannah was largely uneventful, other than a pair of strange bedfellows in berths next to each other at the Garner-Haikasu yards. One I knew on sight from the nightmares I’d shared with Persey over the Halcyon incident. It was the RG921, the vessel that had attacked and murdered the Halcyon. Her UN markers had been stripped away and the Garner-Haikasu techs were busily repairing the damage as well as giving her a new coat of paint.

In Apollo Freight Livery colors.

As I understood it from a couple of restless nights with Mike, now the ship was going to be called the Black Pearl; due both to her non-reflective black paint and her status as a foundling and prize of war. There was something he found funny about the name but would only wave me off when I asked him about it.

The other vessel was a bit more interesting.

Her name was stenciled across her bow as the Pride of Eireand my manifest listed her as a merchantman and freighter. But I didn’t know many freighters that needed a power plant the size the G-H boys were busily bolting onto her. Then there was the matter of the smooth bulges that were almost finished, bulges that matched the corresponding ones on the Pearl. It seemed clear that bad times were ahead.

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I was more than a bit surprised to find Ship Mother Foster waiting for us. There was an odd look to her eyes as she waited for the airlock to finish cycling, hands on her generous hips. I’d never had the misfortune of having her angry with me, but I don’t think she could have looked more fierce if she were. “Persey, you and Masako in my office, now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” we replied, some what mystified. The walk she led us on was brisk and silent back through the ship. Persey and I shared a curious glance as to what we might have done to garner the Ship Mother’s ire.

We kept our wonderings silent, however, as talking would probably have made things worse. Finally we arrived at Officers Row, as the collection of small offices due the senior staff was referred to. She palmed open the door and ushered us inside, pausing to flip her sign to Do Not Disturb before joining us.

Jill was already there, looking glum and just as fearful as we were. “Take a seat,” ordered Mother Foster as she made her way to her desk. She stared at us as we complied before Care Giver training kicked in. “Is anyone thirsty?” We shook our heads. “Masako,” she said finally, “Can you tell me what Paragraph 14, Clause 7 of your contract states?”

I swallowed nervously. “An Employee shall be guilty of dereliction of duty, if, in the judgment of the employee’s superior to have been negligent, knowingly and purposefully not physically fit to carry out her duty, or leaves that assigned duty station before end of watch or having been properly relieved,” I quoted in a small voice.

Naomi’s eyes swiveled to Persey. “And what is the penalty for violation of Paragraph 14 Clause 7?” The blonde beside me became a bit cross.

“I don’t see how it matters, Naomi,” she said with far more courage than I had just then. “As Masako and I are both on Leave, we can not breech 14/7.”

“Just because a Care Giver is on leave does not mean she stops being a Care Giver,” shot back Naomi, just as hotly. Her eyes came back to me and I felt extremely small. “Your fiancée and Captain is going through an intensely difficult time. He is probably at the limits of his abilities and you are up here.

“We’re trying to help find Commodore Hastings,” broke in Persey with a somewhat irate tone. Naomi’s fiery green eyes didn’t leave me.

“And you helped her up here. I should have you both in the brig for a month over this.” She stared at me for a moment before turning her eyes on Jill. “What’s your part in all of this, Stewart?” Mother Foster asked evenly.

“Probably to suffer through what ever bent punishment you’re going to give Masako while I file a grievance over your actions,” she said in quiet, but steely voice. I must confess I felt a new wave of love and devotion to my friend for sticking by me. “But, to answer your question, I am going to help them find Commodore Hastings, thus removing the stress on Captain Hastings and the basis of your disciplinary action.”

“Commodore Hastings whereabouts are no concern of any of you,” Naomi said with such finality that I looked up, somewhat in shock. “Top men are handling the situation. Their efforts do not need being fouled up by the three of you playing Nancy Drew. Further, I hereby order the three of you back to Mars where upon you will not continue to seek the Commodore. Is this in any way unclear?”

Persey frowned at Naomi, probably the first time I’d ever seen her unhappy with being in the Ship Mother’s presence. “How do you know that we don’t make the difference? They could get him off world, except for something we do.”

“Aunt Chartrand,” she said, “I am not in the habit of explaining my motivations to my subordinates. If you cannot follow my orders, I can relieve you of the burden of that rank.” Persey seemed genuinely confused and perhaps more than a bit hurt.

“Naomi, what’s gotten into you? I know you’re worried about Commodore Hastings, we all are….”

“I am not worried about him,” she replied, a bit angrily. That finally brought me out of my fearful silence to try to figure out what was going on.

“Why not?” I asked softly. “Everyone else is.”

“He is…” she started before clamping her mouth shut and starting again. “He will be found. I want the three of you to concentrate on keeping Captain Hastings sane and dealing with what he has to. That’s my final word on this. Are we clear?”

Hmmm. “Yes mother,” we echoed in chorus.

She forced a smile after a heartfelt sigh. “Thank you. I’m sorry to have to be so firm in this, girls. These orders come from high up,” she said with just the slightest emphasis. “Off you go and remember, I told you specifically to stay away from the Hazardous Environmental Training Center…”

We stood and filed out, more confused than when we’d filed in. Once clear of Officer’s Row I turned to Persey. “What just happened?”

Persey shrugged her shoulders as Jill hesitantly said, “I…I think we just learned something important. Anybody know what this HETC thing is?” she asked as the travel tube station door opened, revealing a smiling Susan Adams.

“It’s a big training center on Mars,” she told us with a wink. “A place I was hoping one of you pilot types could take me.”

“What on Earth for?” I asked.

“It’s a Care Giver Facility, I presume for training in Hazardous Environments, though why it’s on Mars I don’t know,” she replied. “As for what; a hot date.”

“With who?” demanded Persey as we piled into the car and punching in the code for the Friday’s berth.

“Colonel Wolf,” was Susan’s answer with a wiggle of her eyebrows. “I met him on Yotori Station and, well, we’ve been friendly ever since. I got word from Mother Foster he was with Rei at the HETC so I thought I’d pop down and pay him a visit.”

“Now why would Colonel Wolf, Grandmother Rei’s de facto body guard be there?” I asked in a puzzled tone of voice. “Congratulations on nabbing him, by the way. Is he as dangerous off duty as he is on?”

“More,” intimated Susan with a giggle. “I just need a lift down to New Atlanta. The HETC is out by the Face and there’s a monorail link to it.

“Why would Rei be there instead of the Mars Office?” mused Jill.

“I think I know, and if I’m right, we’re going to be very angry,” supplied Persey in a low and dangerous tone of voice.

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At Persey’s insistence, I let her fly the Friday back down to Mars. Susan and Jill crowed up into the cockpit, taking the normally vacant engineers places so they could get a front row seat to our decent. This time she’d taken the longer approach to the city from the South East, over the Face.

For the uninitiated, The Face was a geographic oddity that was discovered on the Cydonia Mesa by Viking 1 in 1976. It is a small outcropping, more or less one mile across, relatively square and appears to be a head on view of a human face. Through out the latter portions of the twentieth century, debate raged over whether The Face was a trick of light and shadow or an artifact, left by some by gone advanced civilization.

From our altitude over it, the similarity was rather striking. The solar collectors of the roof of the HETC were tucked, rather like a stud ear ring on the left side of the head, closest to New Atlanta. From it, the ribbon of the monorail track back to the city snaked out over the Mesa. “It sure does look like something someone made,” remarked Jill as we cleared our target and firmed up our final approach.

“It’s rather uncanny,” agreed Persey. “Buckle up, here we go.”

“Back so soon, Friday?” chuckled the voice of New Atlanta Traffic in my ear.

“We, ah, ran into some old friends,” I answered with a smile.

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And this was where things got interesting.

The monorail to the HETC was shut down. Power loss of all things. Techs were working on it, of course. It should be up in a couple of days.

Something is rotten in Denmark. “Everybody got their EVA suit down here?” I asked after a fruitless and frustrating exchange with the mournful monorail clerk.

“Yes,” drawled Susan. “Are we about to get into trouble?”

“Loads,” I growled. “Follow me.”

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Being a woman will get you a lot with Spacers.

For us it got us a pressurized land rover, maps of the entire Mesa and a dinner date for Persey later on that evening. “What will the Brigadier say?” I chided her with a smile as we helped each other into our EVA suits.

“Have fun,” she replied with a smile and a lecherous wink as I got her helmet locked down. “Do we really need these maps? All we have to do is follow the monorail track.”

“Can’t hurt,” replied Susan from getting Jill’s helmet sealed. We took a moment to double check each other’s seals and, satisfied of them, ambled through the locker out to our chariot. In this instance it was a GMC Pathfinder 10x10 work van; full pressure cabin, comfortably seated ten and could fit twenty in a pinch with the power window package thoughtfully left off. It ran off a pair of fuel cells that gave it a range of several hundred miles in rather nice comfort.

Leather seats too.

It was silent as it came up into an idle, Jill and Susan at its controls. As I’ve said before, I can’t drive, and evidently Persey had gotten her need to be in control out of her system on the way back down. We were cycled through the airlock pretty quickly and in short order rumbling along in the shadow of the monorail track, twenty feet or so above us.

Transportation throughout Mars was one of the first projects that had been undertaken as Man found a home on this new frontier. Kennecott Geophysical’s colony, Vulcan had actually been the first permanent instillation here, tucked into the shadow of Olympus Mons, over a particularly rich iron deposit, completed all the way back in 2026. It had quickly become something of a tourist spot thanks to the regular passenger service Pan Am ran back and forth to the colony.

Kennecott had actually snatched up most of the very first class of Care Givers when they had graduated and had their contracts posted for bids. The rest had gone to Pan Am as stewardess and relief pilots and, of course, The Fred had snatched up four, one for each of his ships at the time.

Vulcan had been alone on Mars until 2033 when NASA launched a small fleet of ships to built Cooper’s Town, several hundred miles to the south east. They’d named the colony after one of the Mercury Astronauts, Gordon Cooper, although the humorous sharing of the same name as the city on Earth that hosted the Baseball Hall of Fame was of note.

There is still talk of making a Spacer’s Hall of Fame there, but that’s probably a bit far to go for a gag.

As soon as construction on Cooper’s Town had started, Kennecott Geophysical had begun construction of a monorail line to link the two colonies, just for safety’s sake and to make the moving of goods easier. That bit of convenience had become a tradition, each new colony on Mars required to link into the system. As New Atlanta was well north of, but roughly equidistant between Vulcan and Cooper’s Town, this track meandered it’s way south until it reached the line moving between the two at a station New Atlanta had built.

So we followed it until we reached the small station that was where the branch line off to the Face met the main line. From there, we turned east and continued our trek lost in our own guessing as to what we were going towards. “I don’t get why kidnappers would hold Commodore Hastings at a Care Giver Facility. If they were there, surely we’d know about it, right?” asked Susan after we’d filled her in on our little day trips’ purpose.

“Naomi isn’t cryptic for the fun of it,” replied Persey. “There has to be a reason she’d specifically mention this place.”

“Hey, look,” called Jill as she pointed out to left. “We’re not the only ones out here today.”

I followed her arm to another Pathfinder, this one painted a dull red and black in a mottled pattern, hiding in the shadow of the pass through the ridge that separated the Face from the rest of the Cydonia Mesa. “Why do I get the feeling that’s not a good thing…?” I thought out loud.

At that moment the lights of the other Pathfinder kicked on and it began to rumble after us, just as the speaker of the radio on the dash crackled to life. “New Atlanta Pathfinder, you are entering a restricted area. Turn around at once.”

“Keep going, Jill,” I told her as I reached for the Microphone and switched to my native language. “Gomen nasai. Watashi wa Eigo de wa arimasen. Nihongo desu ka?”

“What was that?” asked Susan.

I couldn’t keep in a chuckle. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak English. Do you speak Japanese?’”

A giggle, despite our situation, floated through the compartment as we raced ahead of our pursuer. The radio remained silent as, doubtless who ever was back there was trying to get some kind of translator on the line. “Jill, let’s work around to the right of the Face, not directly at the center. Maybe if those jerks back there think we’re just passing through, they’ll give up.”

“It’s worth a shot,” she mused as he began to turn us, away from the Face and towards the roughly pyramid shaped hills beyond. We passed another Pathfinder, this one guarding the approach from the hills and the first discontinued his pursuit, but the new one maneuvered to where they could see us without following. “What now?” she asked. “It seems pretty obvious something is going on here.”

“Let’s park over there and get out. The Pathfinder is going to be too big to sneak in. We might be able to do it on foot though.”

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We parked by the closest of the hills, in plain sight of the other Pathfinder that never pulled away from us. They were still a couple of miles off, but getting to the Face, let alone the HETC on the other side of it would be problematic at best. We had our suit radios off as we formed a huddle in the cover of our ride, using the Induction method to communicate.

Sound is just vibration in the atmosphere that in turn vibrates the small bones in the inner ear and your brain then interprets those vibrations as sound. Plastic and metal will carry vibration too, just not as well. So we made a circle with our helmets all touching. You had to shout this way, and the quality of the sound that made its way through the materials of the helmets, inside to the air in our suits wasn’t great, but you could be understood. “What now?” asked the tinny voice of Persey. “There’s no way we’ll be able to sneak across the way until dark. And if we’re here that late, they’ll probably come to find out why. Not to mention I don’t know if our air will hold out that long.”

“Mar’s gravity is significantly lower than Earth,” said Susan. “Couldn’t we just run or hop or something?”

“They’ll see us,” replied Jill.

Susan shifted her weight. “There has to be something…!” she trailed off as the ground under her gave way and she vanished into a new hole that opened under her feet.

The depression was about six or seven feet deep that tapered at a gentle slope to the base of the hill we stood at. “Susan!” I shouted before I remembered to turn back on my radio. “Susan! Are you ok?”

“Rope!” snapped Persey to Jill as she cautiously joined be on the side of the new hole. Jill was back at the Pathfinder in a single bound and in its equipment locker as Susan slowly got to her feet.

“I’m ok,” she said breathlessly in my ear over the radio. “Suit’s intact. No punctures.”

Jill had returned with coil of bright yellow safety rope. “What happened?” She asked as she began working the rope out of its storage coil. Susan gave an exaggerated shrug through her suit.

“I dunno; the ground just gave under me. Landed on my butt, mostly; computer says my suit is ok, though.” Jill made ready to toss the end of the line to Susan before Persey stopped her with a touch to her shoulder.

“Susan, hit your lights and turn around,” she said, pointing. The pair of high intensity floods on either side of the visor of her helmet came on right as Susan turned back into the hole.

There was a smooth, metal wall next to her, a dull red from the Martian dust in the center of which was obviously a door. “What the…?” she started before there was a screech of static over the line. I couldn’t keep my hands from the sides of my helmet trying to protect my ears. It cleared as Persey took her finger from the line clear tone control on her suits arm.

She waited until we were all looking at her before she held up a single finger in an exaggerated ‘be quiet’ gesture. With her hands, she told Jill to clip the line to a D ring on the side of the Pathfinder. Once that was done, Persey took a hold of the rope and led the way carefully down the hole. In short order we were all at this strange new door.

There was an airlock control panel next to the door along with a plaque that was labeled in a strange, flowing script that was mostly sweeping lines and short, sharp dots and commas. We huddled up with the radios off once more. “Is that Arabic?” I asked, pointing to the plate.

“Looks like it,” agreed Susan. “The plate doesn’t look standard though. Look at the size of the buttons.”

“Maybe they’re oversize for ease of suit use,” mused Jill. I reached out and touched the bright blue button that was the bottom most of the three. It was easily three times the size of my gloved finger.

“I’ve never seen a button that size before,” I commented. “Do you think we can get back to the Face through here?”

“Depends on whether this lock has power,” replied Persey. “Can’t hurt to try, I suppose. Everybody got full tanks?” We nodded before she broke the huddle and, after a moment, pressed the blue button. A reddish purple light dully came to life over the door before the door slowly slid open. Inside, florescent lights flickered to life after a long sleep. The ceiling of the airlock was painted a deeper blue than I’d ever remembered seeing on Earth. This came down to about my shoulder height on the walls before it switched to a deep emerald that covered the floor.

The top of the door frame was nearly ten feet tall and the ceiling in the lock flowed up to nearly fifteen. We ambled into the lock and looked about. There was another door on the far side, but the room was nearly four times the size of any personnel airlock I’d ever been in.

The outer door slid shut silently before the wail of air being pumped in flowed through our helmets. Persey raised her arm and keyed on her radio once more. “I’ve lost the beacon of the Pathfinder,” her voice told me. “I don’t think radio waves can pierce this lock.”

“Lock pressure is too high,” called Jill’s voice as I reached up to turn on my own radio. “It is holding steady at one point two bars.”

I checked the atmameter on my suits right sleeve. Jill was right, not only was the air thicker than was human sea level norm, which was one bar, its oxygen content was higher too. Not by enough that it would be worrisome, but odd. The atmameter told me everything else about the air was fine.

“Let’s keep buttoned up till we know what’s on the other side of the door,” replied Persey. We made to step do the inner door, but as it began to slide open, a deep, deep voice began speaking in a language I didn’t know. It seemed to hold more than its fair portion of ‘H’ sounds. “Anybody ever heard Arabic being spoken?” asked Persey softly.

We shook our heads. Somehow, I didn’t think what ever the voice was speaking was Arabic. The pressure on the other side of the door was the same as the air lock, which was a relief. Where ever we were was atmospherically sound. The next room in was an environmental suit locker which put to rest any suspicions we had.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” whispered Susan as we all stared at the five suits that hung neatly in their racks.

The body of the suits indicated that what ever wore them would stand somewhere between nine and ten feet tall. The helmets in the cubby holes next to the suits were made to fit something with a muzzle that extended out from its face by nearly a foot. The gloves had what looked like one huge finger and two thumbs, one on either side. “I…I think maybe we should be going…” whispered Susan in a tiny voice.

“Do any of you know what this means?” Persey said in a quiet voice. “Do you know what we’re looking at?”

“A death sentence,” interrupted a male voice over the clicks of rifle safeties. We turned to find a dozen men dressed in gray uniforms holding small, lethal looking machine guns they pointed at us. We raised our hands before the tallest one smiled and lowered the pistol he’d been pointing our way. “At least it would be,” he chuckled, “if you ladies didn’t work here.”

His men lowered their weapons as he holstered the pistol and stepped forward. “I’m sergeant Masters, 1stSquad, 2ndPlatoon of Bravo Company, Wolf’s Raiders,” he said turning to show us the howling Wolf’s Head patch he wore on his right shoulder. On his left shoulder he wore the Hot Pink circular patch of the Care Givers Company; it showed a Geisha in the traditional Waiting Posture, leaning forward to present a computer. “My boss works for your boss. And I think they’d both like a word with you.”

Yep, just like I’d thought. We were in a load of trouble.

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Sergeant Masters and his men had a small, electrically powered tram that carried us swiftly through the massive complex that seemed to be under the entire Cydonia Mesa. Everything was obviously sized for whatever could wear the pressure suits we’d seen hanging in the lock, although there were a number of new signs, some in Japanese, but mostly in English. They pointed to odd sounding places like Propulsion Research Lab, Men’s Dormitories and, most ominously, Armory.

It took us nearly twenty minutes to cover the distance between where we’d found our way into the area and the large space labeled Ground Vehicular Bay that was obviously under the Face. It would have been a more uncomfortable ride if the sergeant had not let us strip out of the pressure suits to our flight suits underneath.

In the Bay were a number of Pathfinders, some smaller all terrain crawlers and, most worryingly a dozen tanks that could be nothing but fighting vehicles. They were all tucked in and around three massive crawler type rovers that had evidently been here when this place was discovered. A number of techs were going over them, and the atmosphere was one of a being pressed for time.

The tram came to a stop at a wall that seemed to be a new addition to the area as the doors were more human sized. A pair of guards with more of those unpleasant looking rifles flanked the doors that nodded to Sergeant Masters as he led us through it. Out the windows we passed we could see we were back, out side of the Face, in the HETC. Finally we arrived at a door labeled Administrator that the sergeant knocked on before opening. Inside, looking up from something they were going over on the desk was Colonel Wolf and Grandmother Yotori. “Here are the intruders we picked up Colonel,” the Sergeant said. “Ma’am,” he added to Rei before he turned and moved by us and back out.

Sitting in a chair by the door was a highly bemused Commodore Hastings. “Saving me seems to have become a habit with you, Yagimura-san,” he told me with a smile.

“Son of a bitch, I knew it,” muttered Persey.

A number of emotions ran though me before anger leapt to the forefront and demanded to be vented. “Do you have any idea what you’re putting your son through?” I yelled at him, much to everyone’s surprise, including my own. “He’s half out of his mind worried about you, you old goat! And here you sit feeling smug?” My hand rose of its own volition. “I ought to…ow!” Before I could complete my threat, my hand was taken by Colonel Wolf with a nearly friendly wink.

“Let’s all stay friends, shall we?” he asked with a smile.

He released my wrist and I took the moment to rub some feeling back into it. Somehow when he’d grabbed me it had gone numb almost instantly. The Fred decided to speak first. “Yes,” he said sadly, “I know exactly what I’m putting Mike through, and it’s for his own good, young lady.”

I had a very angry retort on the runway before Rei’s soft voice smoothly interrupted. “A wise woman listens before she leaps to judgment, Masako,” she told me.

Fred sighed. “Surely by now you’ve noticed that my son feels a rather strong desire to prove himself and step out from my shadow.” I nodded, guardedly. “I rather thought you were that clever,” the Commodore said with a rueful chuckle before fixing me with his steely gaze once more. “I actually was kidnapped, soldiers from Earth, trying to stop Apollo Freight from backing this new Independence Movement in space. But, like most VIPs with any kind of sense,” and he paused before pulling up the sleeve of his flight suit and bringing my attention to a small mole on the inside of his arm, just below his armpit. “Radio tracker,” he said. “Once I realized what was happening I kicked it on. It alerted my security staff and, as luck would have it, Colonel Wolf was in the process of working out security for the conference and was able to offer his assistance in the retrieval. About the time I understand you were being attacked, Miss Yagimura, Colonel Wolf was breaking in the door of where I was being held.”

My eyes went red. “Where are they?” I hissed in outrage.

“Safe,” replied Colonel Wolf with a dark chuckle. “They’re answering questions from men with far more creativity than you could come up with, Miss Yagimura. Don’t worry, when the time is right they’ll be cause for some rather intense embarrassment on the part of Earth.”

“Well,” went on Mr. Hastings, “once the excitement was over, I realized I had a golden opportunity to hand my son. This was his chance to do something that would outstrip anything I had in my oh-so-many years of life. Let him be his own man.”

“And you, Masako-san,” interrupted Rei, bringing my eyes to her, “are going to give him that chance.”

“Even with all of the misfortune on the horizon,” continued Mr. Hastings as he stood wearily and crossed the room to stand above me. “My son is going to be a Founding Father of space, as it were. He needs this, Masako. So I need you to play along.”

“What about Doctor Wantabe?” I asked softly. “You know she’s worried too.”

“Oh I’m in for quite a scolding,” the Commodore told me with a wink. “Disserved, of course, but Ryoko will come around. The rest just hinges on you, my daughter. What do you say? Help the ‘old goat’ out?” I stared into his face as my emotions fought a battle I ultimately lost.

He was right.

There was just no way around the simple fact that Mike needed this and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Damn it. “Alright,” I told him finally. “I don’t like it, but it doesn’t look like I’ve got much of a choice.”

“We all have choices, Masako,” Rei chided me. “But they are usually difficult. For the time being, the difficult choices are the only ones we can make.”

Susan, I could tell, probably like the rest of us, just bursting with questions. She was just the first one to get them out. “Grandmother, what is that place?”

“What place?” asked Rei innocently. I think all of our collective mouths hung open.

That place,” retorted Persey with an angry gesture back towards the Face. “You know? With the pressure suits no human could fit into and everything is too big for humans to use?”

Rei was consoling. “When you really need to know, you'll be told, but until then make sure you keep what you've seen here to yourselves, please. For now, just consider this a Company Secret and treat it as such. I don’t think that’s too much to ask from three Sisters and a Ship Mother of my company, now is it?”

“Um,” started Jill who was a bit slow on the up take. “We’re not…”

One perfectly sculpted eyebrow ascended Rei’s forehead. “Oh, really? SisterStewart, it is, at least for the time being, mycompany. You four have done a remarkable job getting here. I shall depend on your acting skills when you ‘rescue’ Commodore Hastings,” she said as The Fred gave a small chuckle and bow. “Until then, my dears, to quote the film, ‘A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.’ Let this be one of them.”

“Yes ma’am,” we echoed each other. Rei Yotori nodded ever so slightly.

“Ship Mother Chartrand. Would you be so kind as to escort these Sisters back to New Atlanta?” She paused for one of her wry smiles. “And see to it they are properly in uniform.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Off you go.”

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The ride back to New Atlanta was a silent, surreal one. We were escorted by some of Colonel Wolf’s men as far as the spur line station before they turned back, leaving us the last few lonely miles to ourselves. As we bounced along in the Pathfinder, each of us lost in their own thoughts, I couldn’t keep mine from the pressure suits, awaiting use in their racks.

What ever they fit were huge, but, based on the size of all the fittings, I couldn’t help but think they were somewhat clumsy. I tried to image what these…creatures for lack of a better word would look like. What would they imagine a human being looked like if they only had a pressure suit and their imagination to fill it? Would we be as terrifying as the images that kept filling my mind’s eye?

“How…” started Susan before she trailed off. “How long, do you think?”

I licked my lips before answering softly, “The first Care Givers came here to help run Vulcan in June of 2027.”

“You think they’ve known about it that long?” asked Jill.

“It sure looks like they’ve been there for a while,” was Persey’s response. She laughed a hollow laugh. “I wonder what else they’ve found in that hole? Maybe there were keepers.”

Susan was trying to figure something out and looked up at us. “Maybe they’re in us now,” she said with a slight green tinge to her skin.

“What are you talking about?” demanded Jill.

“When did the company come up with the DeCorvin Process?” she wanted to know.

Having had my life so radically altered by it, the date was ready for my tongue. “Doctor Robert DeCorvin accidentally dosed himself with the nanites in April of 2028,” I said dully before the enormity of that sunk in. “You don’t think?”

“That’s just a bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?” she whispered.

Well, as you can imagine, that pretty much did in any conversation after that.

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Jill and I managed to beat Mike and Todd to his house by a matter of minutes. It was enough time for me to give her the nickel tour and give the staff the rest of the day off. Somehow, I had the feeling Jill and I would want to talk about what we’d seen on this remarkable day. That, and the fact, given the day my fiancée had probably had, the fewer ears around the better.

The door to my bedroom had already been repaired so I took her there and relived a bit of horror from yesterday. I didn’t think I’d want to spend another night in there. So we made our way to the kitchen and I put on a pot of coffee to try and forget about how my boyhood dreams had become very womanly nightmares. “It’s a nice house,” commented Jill dully as we stood around the center island and waited for the machine to finish its brew cycle.

“It is that,” I agreed with her. “I just can’t get over what they’re doing to Mike, you know?”

“What are they doing to me?” he asked as he ambled into the kitchen, followed closely by Todd. “Hey you,” he greeted me with a smile and kiss that promised of things to come.

I blushed and presented my shoulder to him that was now the new home of a rather sizable circular ruby, the symbol of my new rank of Sister. “Rei’s quirky sense of humor,” I hedged. “She decided that a Daughter was too low a rank to be marrying a Ship Captain.”

“Congratulations,” he said with genuine praise. “I don’t think you have to worry about the household bottom line, but hey, more is better.” He put a hand computer on the table as he rooted around in the cupboards, producing a quartet of mugs.

I heard Jill and Todd’s kiss break with a pair of breathy “Hellos” between them and couldn’t keep a grin off my face. “I see ya’ll got booted upstairs too,” he noticed with a deep chuckle.

“Rei has never been stingy with handing out the rewards,” Jill told him with a smile.

“Be precious few rewards for a while,” said Mike with a heavy sigh as he set the mugs on the counter before beginning to rummage in the refrigerator. He gestured to the computer with a wave as he took out the milk. “Read that.”

I picked up the device and touched the screen to take it out of power save mode. “By unanimous Declaration of the Free Citizens of the Solar System?” I read in a small voice. “Is this what I think it is?”

“Keep going,” he ordered mirthlessly. The coffee was sufficiently ready for him to fill the four mugs and pass them out. So I read out loud in my kitchen the document that would forever change my life.

“By unanimous Declaration of the Free Citizens of the Solar System, Mars and Independent inhabitants of Space; A Declaration of Independence from the Tyrannies of Earth. Herein assembled, the representatives are gathered under the Auspice of Almighty God, at the Heart of New Atlanta, a Sovereign and Independent Government on the planet of Mars. Thus, do we, in all good conscience, and by the inalienable rights and responsibilities of all free men, declare the bonds of government between our homes amongst the stars and the world of our Birth sundered in favor of a new Allegiance, United in cause, to redress the grievances hereafter alleged against the United Nations of Earth, for their acts of unprovoked War and subjugation against the same, charged and addressed herein as follows:

“One: That the Apollo Freight vessel, Halcyon was attacked without cause, provocation or mercy in Free Space, plundered and set adrift by the warship RG921, a vessel registered to and crewed by soldiers of the United Nations of Earth.

“Two: That the United Nations of Earth, in their adoption of the Protection of Women Act, has deliberately attempted to interfere with the manifest destiny of Space and those who would call it home.

“Three: That all attempts of negotiation in good faith have been rebuffed and ignored by the United Nations of Earth by means of legal evasion designed to supplant our welfare and God given rights as human beings.

“Four: That by use of extortionist tariffs and unreasonable port fees has the United Nations of Earth sought to enslave Space and those beings that choose to live there for the enrichment of those remaining on Earth.

“Finally, that we, as free beings, find it not meet that any being, with no regard for creed, race, religion, or homeland, should take upon themselves the mastery nor subjugation of any other free being, lest they themselves be sundered from all liberties and privileges therein.

“In that all these matters are factual our Nature as Human Beings demand that we present this Declaration of Independence from our Native World and fulfill a new destiny in space. It is our profound hope that this Declaration shall not be received by those still on Earth as one of War, but as we, being free beings, love peace, so must we avow that we shall protect those freedoms against the armed aggressor assault by those seeking our enslavement and destruction.

“So are we all unanimously resolved, by virtue of a stainless cause and with the benediction of Almighty God, to meet any further such assault on our homes, wives or children, with all due force. To the people of Earth we extend the hand of friendship in peace. To the conquerors from Earth, shall we extend the Sword of Righteousness, so declared, foresworn, and signed, this…” and I paused for moment as the text ended. “It ends there,” I whispered.

“Yeah, we’re still working on a few bits,” replied Mike in a soft voice. “But we’re decided. All of us. No more, Ko. This far, no further.”

I took a fearful sip of coffee as Jill voiced the chief concern of my mind. “Wars get started this way, Mike.”

He smiled at her ruefully. “Jill, we’re already at war. There have been two dozen ships go silent and missing just since we put out from Port Sheppard. Halcyon, God rest their souls, was just the one we caught. They’re already killing us. And that is about to change.”

I looked up, worried even more so by the metal in his voice. “What are you saying, Mike?”

“Apollo Freight has already assisted Garner-Haikasu with the construction costs of the Pride of Eire,” Todd told us in his soft, deep voice. “They’re in turn patching up what we’re calling the Black Pearl. The Pride is a warship, Masako. She’ll be the bait for the rest of the 921s friends in the Belt.”

“We’re the trap,” Mike told me. “The Big H is already armed. My dad…” and his voice failed him for the briefest of moments. “…My dad has had to fight off pirates before. I have committed all assets of Apollo Freight to the Independence Movement; so has Captain Langley with the Magnificent Molly. Between the four of us, we are the Spacer Navy.”

“The Spacer Navy?” I repeated dully.

Mike nodded. “Todd is going to be captaining the BlackPearl…”

He would have continued, but Todd angrily cut him off. “I am not. Mike, you know I can’t and won’t be out of sight of you. What ever happens, my brother, you and I are going to face it together.” Before Mike could build up a head of steam on his argument I spoke up quickly.

“Give her to Persey.”

“What?” demanded Mike.

“Give the BlackPearl to Persey. Rei just promoted her to Ship Mother and even if she hadn’t, Persey is a good pilot and skipper. She’ll make the right choices, Mike. Look how she handled the Argonaut. Persey is a Spacer, Mike, you can trust her.”

I watched the cogs turn behind his eyes before he turned to Todd. “Can we do that?” he asked quizzically. “By Contract?”

Todd scratched his chin. “Technically she’s our Employee. We can give her whatever Duty Station we see fit as I understand it,” he said slowly. “She holds a Masters’ Certificate from NASA that hasn’t expired, and she’s officer rated from CGC. I don’t see why we can’t.”

“She won’t be happy about leaving Mother Foster or the Brigadier,” said Jill.

“Leave that to me,” replied Mike with a wink. “Todd, get Merkowitz on the comm.,” he ordered, referring to Benny Merkowitz, the Heinlein’sPurser. “I need to know for sure we can assign a Care Giver as a Captain.”

“Ok, Mike.”

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After a far better night that the previous one had been, around the breakfast table we planned out the rest of the day. Mike and Todd had a quick video conference with Benny who put the final legal stamp on his little odd ball plan. We called the brigadier and Persey over at ten as the Delegation were taking the day off to ruminate over the ramifications of what they were doing.

Not that Mike for a second thought anyone would back out.

Everyone was, at least according him, just as resolved and angry about the situation as he was. So, at ten am local time, Persey and the Brigadier arrived to be led by me through the house to Mike’s office for the business he brought home with him. “What’s this all about, Ko?” she whispered to me as I led the way, but I shook my head.

“Sorry, Persey, I’m sworn to secrecy. You know what that’s like.”

She rolled her eyes. “Do I ever.”

Mike’s office was about twice the size it needed to be for its purpose. Not out of any kind of vanity on his part. Quite the reverse, there were only a couple of small mementos of his scattered tastefully about the area. One was a Gibson electric guitar on a stand that surprised me as I filed it away to ask him about later. There were models of the Heinlein of course, and, surprisingly enough, a small, well worn Ford Henry class space ship, the Apollo, Fred Hastings first ship.

The rest of the room was a small conference table with a good view of the flat panel screen on the back wall that currently held the image of Benny Merkowitz, a thin, sharp featured man who appeared to be in his early fifties with kind, but tired eyes and the warm, open face of Ship Mother Foster. “Thanks for coming,” greeted Mike as he ushered the guests to the table. “I think everyone knows everyone here, yes?”

“What are you up to, Michael Hastings?” drawled out Naomi with a grin from her side of the screen. I could see from the thin, black line that meshed the two images together that she was in her office and Benny in the Purser’s Office.

“Just a bit of business to clear up before we can start getting the crew ready to head out again,” he hedged. Turning to his Martian Guests, he asked, “Anyone need anything to drink?”

“I’ll handle the hospitality,” I told him with a grin as I rose to fetch the coffee service from his small micro kitchen in the office. “You stop killing them with the suspense.”

Mike spread his hands in supplication to Naomi. “Can’t you do something to keep her in line?”

One of her eyebrows ascended her forehead. “Oh, suddenly she’s too much for you and it’s my job to keep her in line?” she demanded with a smile.

“You’re the Ship Mother!” he complained as I set out the mugs and began to pour the coffee.

“And you’re the Captain,” Naomi replied, her smile broadening to a grin. “If you can’t keep her to your liking, that’s your problem. If she wasn’t keeping you in check, then it would be mine.” He chuckled and shook his head.

“I can see there’s no wining here, so I’ll concede gracefully.”

“Very wise of you,” complimented the Brigadier.

“Ship Mother Chartrand, on behalf of Apollo Freight, I offer my congratulations and promote you to the rank of Captain. You are assigned as the commanding officer of the Apollo Freight vessel, Black Pearl. The brigadier will serve as your first officer and I’m transferring Ship Mother Foster to serve in that capacity aboard your vessel. The purser shall so note for the ship’s log.”

“No,” said Naomi softly, with great regret.

That caught us all unprepared. “Naomi?” asked Mike, a bit hesitantly.

“Sir, if you transfer me to the Black Pearl; it shall be against my wishes and I will be forced to file a grievance with CGC over your actions.”

“But,” Mike stuttered, “I’d have thought…” Naomi smiled.

“I appreciate and thank you for your thoughtfulness, Mike. But I can’t, in good conscience leave the Heinlein. Not now, with so much going on. I do love Persey and if I were my own person, I’d leap at the chance. But you need me right where I am.” She turned to look more fiercely at Persey. “You’re a big girl and you can take care of yourself. I will see you again. Or you’ll hear about it, read me?”

I watched a tear roll down her cheek. “Never fear, beloved.”

Mike sighed softly. “Aright, if there are no further objections, Captain Chartrand, do you accept your position?” Persey nodded gravely as I watched her grasp for control. “Mr. Merkowitz, so note in the ships log.”

“Aye aye, sir,” he replied.

At long last, Persey seemed to master herself before she turned to the Brigadier. “Alistair, my love, as much as it pains me to do this, my first official action as the captain of the Black Pearl is to relieve you of your duties as Executive Officer to be transferred to Mars.

What?” cried the room in shock. Captain Chartrand nodded savagely.

“Yes, damn it! Alistair, we need you somewhere safe, training the next generation we’re going to need far too soon. I’m sorry; I won’t risk losing expertise like yours out on the Fringe somewhere.” She turned back to Mike as her mastery slipped away from her and the tears rolled down her face. “Mr. President, I formally request a replacement Executive Officer.”

The Brigadier ruefully shook his head. “What a strange time I have lived to see; where the women rush off to war and leave the men behind to train the next generation.” Persey sniffed mightily and gave him a mock punch to the arm.

“Welcome to the twenty second century.”

Mike licked his lips thoughtfully. “Alright, Captain. Mr. Merkowitz, please assign the next available name on the promotion list. Hopefully they’llwant the job. And send a beam down to CGC Mars and start a bid on a Ship Mother. Hopefully one will be available.”

“Um, sir?” asked Benny in a small voice. “The next name on the list would be Commander Williams.”

“Nope,” growled Todd with a very final crossing of his massive arms.

Mike chuckled. “Next one, Benny,” he said with a laugh. Mike turned and walked back to his desk. “You’re going to have your work cut out for you, Persey, getting the Pearl up and going. But, I thought you might like to see where she gets her name.” He picked up a CDVD from the desk and handed it to her.

Pirates of theCaribbean?” she asked.

“It’s an oldie. Ever seen it?” She shook her head. “I think you’ll enjoy it. Try to find some time, so you’ll get why everybody snickers when your ship’s name is mentioned.”

Persey’s eyes shown. “They won’t be laughing long, sir.”

“No, Captain, I don’t think they will.”

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“I’m Thomas Merchant for Mars News Service and this is what’s happening tonight. Good evening. Residents of the New Atlanta Colony were rocked today by a pair of developments with ramifications far more reaching than anyone at this point can truly see. First off tonight is MNS correspondent Jennifer Conley with details on the sudden re-appearance of Spacer Legend, Frederick Hastings. Jennifer?”

“Thomas, the air here in the Buckhead District Dome of New Atlanta is one of jubilation on the safe return of Apollo Freight Founder Frederick Hastings. There are several spontaneous parties happening all over the dome tonight as word broke that the missing shipping magnet’s location had been discovered by a quartet of Care Givers Company employees, all under contract to the flagship of Apollo Freight, the Robert Heinlein. The names of those Care Givers Company employees have not been released to us. Reports are sketchy as to what had caused Mr. Hastings disappearance two days ago, but MNS has unconfirmed reports that Mr. Hastings had been kidnapped by forces of the United Nations to prevent his taking part in the on going closed door talks taking place in City Hall. New Atlanta lead investigator for the disappearance, Sergeant Katsuo Taki had no comment on the story uncovered by MNS only that the investigation was still on going.

“Once again, Apollo Freight Chairman Frederick Hastings has been recovered, free of injury from his disappearance two days ago. More on this story as it develops. This is Jennifer Conley, Mars News Service. Thomas?”

“Thank you, Jennifer. In a related story, Mars Network News has learned that the meeting Jennifer just referred to in City Hall is, in fact, a Constitutional Convention that is drafting a declaration of Independence from Earth. MNS has not learned the scope of such a document would have or how such a Declaration would be received on Earth. We will certainly keep you apprised of this and other stories as they develop.”

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After Mike got his dad back, there really wasn’t a lot of free time for any of us, so I did the best I could in making what there was memorable. We took in some plays, the latest films coming up out of the gravity well from Earth and things like that. Todd was usually very conscious of security during these outings so I had to keep them as spontaneous as possible, both to keep him and any would be kidnappers off guard as well as to keep the boys’ minds off the very serious tasks they were doing during the day.

It isn’t every day you help write a document that will go down in history after all.

Of course, we all had to be on hand for the understated ceremony that accompanied the launch of the Pride of Eire, The Fred especially, as the Spacer Congress had put him in charge of the de facto Spacer Navy. The now Admiral Hastings had only a fleet of four ships, but the diligent folks at Garner-Haikasu were pulling around the clock shifts to see to it he had more as fast as was humanly possible.

I did manage to get a bit of quiet time with Mike at the reception that followed to discuss a bit of nefariousness that had been tickling my mind for some time. “Mike?” I asked him softly, making sure our conversation was going unnoticed.

“What’s up, Ko?”

“I just had a thought. We’re already being talked about as the ‘first couple of space,’ do you think we should set an example?”

He frowned thoughtfully as I made use of the nickname the media had tagged us with. I knew he didn’t like it, but there were some things you just put up with. “Like what?” he wanted to know.

“Well, what about opening our marriage up to Todd and Jill? Instead of just you and me at the ceremony, we could all tie the knot together.”

“You know,” he told me after a long pause. “That’s not a bad idea. With all the craziness that’s been going on, love, I’ll be honest I haven’t had much time for thoughts of our wedding. There’s a part of me that wonders if we shouldn’t put it off until things are a little more stable.”

I frowned at him. “And when might that be?”

Touché. Well, what about a small, civil service with no hoopla and once we know a bit better how life’s going we could do something more formal to kind of ‘re-commit’ our vows?”

There was a lot to like about his idea. To be honest, a big wedding was something I was more than dreading. On some level I figured it rather went with the territory, but if I could dodge that bullet, so much the better. “No complaints here. But you still haven’t commented on my suggestion.”

“Jill and Todd? Sure. It’s not like they’ll ever not be a part of our lives. I suppose this would be something of a big deal, though, wouldn’t it? How do you suggest?”

I smiled a coy smile. “I have my ways…”

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“I’m Thomas Merchant for Mars News Service and this is what’s happening tonight. Good evening. This has been a red letter day on the social calendars of many of the movers and shakers in the Mars Political arena; the wedding of Michael Hastings, heir of Apollo Freight founder Frederick Hastings to Care Givers Company Sister Masako Yagimura. MNS’s own Jennifer Conley was there. Jennifer?”

“Thomas, understatement was the watchword that best describes the Hastings/Yagimura wedding. The service, deliberately kept small was attended by some of the most well known members of Martian Society. We don’t have access to the entire guest list, but we do know that Rei Yotori, CEO of the Care Givers Company was on hand, along with Mr. and Mrs. Moto Yagimura, the bride’s parents. Yagimura-san, you may recognize as the Vice President of the Honda Mars Division. Of course Frederick Hastings was on hand along with New Atlanta Mayor Tonji Cardinal.

“This was, in fact, a quadruple wedding as the wedding party also included Todd Williams, the Executive Officer of the Robert Heinlein and a long time close associate of Michael. The last member of the wedding party is something of an unknown, Sister Jill Stewart, of the Care Givers Company. We have found out that Sister Stewart and Sister Yagimura are bunkmates on their journey to Mars on the Robert Heinlein, as well as the pilots’ responsible for the daring rescue of both Frederick and Michael Hastings from the Kings Ransom near disaster early last year.

“Security here has been very tight, Thomas and there’s no word as to where the Hastings/Yagimura family may be spending their honeymoon, if any due to the ongoing conference still taking place in New Atlanta City Hall behind closed doors. On behalf of everyone at Mars News Service, this is Jennifer Conley, wishing the new family the best of luck in the future. Back to you, Thomas.”

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Four Months Later

The space suited figure sat alone in the desolation of the bridge of the Pride of Eire. The panels were destroyed and burned out, there were blood stains on the floor, but the figure wearing the hot pink pressure suit sat with a regality that would impress any that saw the recording. Her words were matter of fact in a voice tired with too much work and far too little sleep.

But there was steel under those weary words. They had been attacked, they were badly hurt, but they were victorious and alive. And they needed help.

Mars came to a stop to give them that help.

Within an hour the signal had been triangulated back to its source. Vessels with priority cargos developed mysterious mechanical flaws that would delay their own launch and needs so that the two ships chosen to fly to the Pride’s rescue could be made ready that much faster.

Within a day the Robert Heinleinand the Black Pearlwere boosting as fast as their frames would permit. Help was coming.

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The Attitude Relay Control Center was a rather large name for a glorified closet. It was about two meters square and just a big computer switch room really. From the bridge, the control computers came here in one of the most heavily protected areas of the ship to follow out cable spaces the God only knew how many Cold Gas attitude control thrusters. It was a bit of a walk from the nearest Travel Tube station where I linked up with Susan to try to track down the elusive problem I’d been having at Control.

“It’s the damnedest thing, Susan,” I told her as we walked. “It could go days with everything working fine, then nothing for a minute or to, then its back.”

“Sounds like a cable may be trying to vibrate loose,” she diagnosed as he reached the door to the ARCC. Like most of the protected doors of the ship, this one was a fairly hefty looking metal that bolted into place with a central wheel to work the bolts. She gave the wheel a tug but it didn’t budge.

“What’s wrong?” I asked quizzically.

She shrugged. “I don’t know; it won’t budge. Give me a hand.” We both took hold of the wheel and pulled. It gave a bit, but still didn’t want to travel. “It’s like there’s something wedged into the wheel on the other side,” she grunted. “Rock it back and forth.”

So we did for a couple for frustrating moments before we were rewarded with a dull clank of something hitting the deck on the other side. The wheel spun freely then; allowing the door to open to reveal a young girl, about ten or so who was looking fearfully at us. There was a large wrench on the floor, just inside the lip of the door. Her flight suit told us her name was Pritchard. It seemed obvious she’d been having a picnic amongst some of the most expensive and critical computer components in space. There was a small basket with a salad bowl, a dozen apples and a thermal jug. “What are you doing here?” demanded Susan. “Do you know how dangerous this place is?”

“Where’s your friend?” I asked softly, noting there were two cups of juice.

The girl shrank back, eyes wide and fearful. “We didn’t touch anything.”

Susan sighed to master her temper. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Toni Pritchard, ma’am,” the girl answered. “Am I in trouble?”

“That would be for your folks to say, Toni,” Susan told her. “You look like you’re a big enough girl to know better than to be in here to me.”

Toni didn’t answer but her body language told the psychology training I’d had that she was terrified, and for more reasons for being somewhere she shouldn’t be. “Toni,” I said evenly. “Where is your friend?”

Her eyes darted to a ladder well that led up into a crawlspace for the cable run up to the bridge. I nodded. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Don’t tell!” she said frantically. “I promised him I wouldn’t tell or let him get caught.”

“Toni, Susan and I are here because I’m having trouble flying the ship,” I told her. “You know what that means. If we can’t get to where we’re going, we’ll run out of food and air. You two playing in here is dangerous honey. I tell you what. You promise me you’ll stay out of here from now on, I won’t tell. Alright?” She nodded. “Now, what’s his name?”

“Ryan,” she admitted softly.

I stood up and walked over to the ladder well. “Ryan? I need you to come down here, young man.”

“No,” rumbled a voice far deeper than a boy Toni’s contemporary should have. In a way it put me in mind Todd’s incredibly deep and masculine voice. Susan and I shared a startled glance. “You’ll just laugh at me.”

“Why would we do that, sweetie?” called Susan up into the crawl space.

“For hiding,” rumbled back Ryan.

“Ryan,” I scolded him. “Everybody gets afraid, it’s natural.”

“I made him hide,” Toni interrupted. “It’s not his fault. He’s very brave. And smart too! He…” and she clamped her mouth shut with such force her teeth popped.

I put my gaze on her for a long moment before I put a hand on the rail to look up into the space. “Ryan, if you won’t come down, I’m going to have to come get you. Actually, you need to stay there, so we can see what you’ve knocked loose.”

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to hurt anything. I’m just clumsy.”

“I know, just stay there.” I exchanged a glance with Susan. “You want me to go first?”

“You seem to have a repport with the boy,” she told me with a smile. There’s enough room to get around him anyway. Best to get and keep him calm so he doesn’t cripple the ship on accident.”

I nodded and started climbing. About three meters up the ladder ended at a space just big enough for two people to crawl side by side in. It was lined with pipes, cable conduits and lit ever few feet by fluorescents. The ladder forced me to be looking aft, where it ran long and straight for what seemed like forever. “I’m sorry,” rumbled Ryan’s voice again from behind me.

“It’s alright,” I started as I carefully turned about on the small landing. I couldn’t say anything else for shock. Ryan was perhaps a meter away from me, his impossibly large eyes, easily twice the size of mine, imploring forgiveness.

Ryan wasn’t human.

His long, narrow face was dominated by a muzzle that ended in a wide, flat mouth that was topped by a pair of nostrils that flared every so often as he breathed. His skin, what I could see of it, was coal black, the impossible black of plastic or outer space itself from which peered those two large, gray eyes. His head was perched on a neck the thickness of both my arms put together and up the back of it ran thick, somewhat stringy hair of absolutely pure white.

The rest of him seemed to be nothing but arms and legs as he was lying in what looked like, for him, a very uncomfortable position, staring at me. A pair of triangle shaped ears peaked through that shaggy mane and were both canted forward, towards me. After a long moment of just staring at each other, a bright pink tongue slipped out of his mouth to lick his lips. “You’re a Care Giver,” his deep bass voice labeled me with great relief. “I recognize your uniform.”

“Masako?” called up Susan’s voice with a pat of my leg. “Masako what’s wrong?”

“We…” I started, unable to take my eyes off Ryan. “We have a guest.”

“What?” she demanded angrily.

“We have a guest Susan. From the HETC…?”

An impossibly long pause settled on the ladder well. “A guest that could use one of those pressure suits?” she finally asked in a very small voice.

“In a couple of years, maybe.”

“Ryan,” she squeaked, her voice very close to breaking. “Where are you from?”

Ryan blinked for the first time and it startled me. “Mars,” he said in a very matter of fact way. “I was born on Mars.” After a long moment he stared at me and I became aware of a somewhat spicy aroma filling the compartment. “You haven’t seen anyone like me before, have you?”

“No,” I whispered. “We saw some pressure suits, but…” Susan crowded next to me on the landing to go forward.

“Oh my God,” she whispered.

“But…” continued Ryan in the pause that followed. “But you know about us, right?”

“No,” whispered Susan in reply. “Grandmother Yotori said when we needed to know we would be told.”

Ryan looked down at the deck and back at us. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

“Probably not as much as we are,” I replied with a laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation. “What…how did you get here?”

“In a crate,” he said in an off hand manner. “Well, a crate from New Atlanta. I uh, snuck into a crawler from the HETC and snuck into a crate to be boosted up.”

“In God’s name, why?” asked Susan.

“I wanted to see Toni. We’ve been email pals for a while. She told me how neat it was on the Heinlein, and I wanted to see it. So, here I am, I guess.”

“And you’ve been hiding in here since we left Mars?” asked Susan. Ryan gave a much exaggerated nod, in the process banging the top of his head against the ceiling. “Careful,” she called as he winced and rubbed his bruised head.

“Everything is so small here,” he groused.

“Your…English is really good,” I complimented. “Do you speak any other languages?”

hahhanth Hahahal Raarvan Hhandithal Chhandhru,” he said.

“You’ll have to run that by me again,” said Susan in astonishment.

“I said, my name is Raarvan Hhandithal Chhandhru,” he supplied. “But Sergeant Masters thought that was too hard to say, so he started calling me Ryan. It kind of stuck.”

I felt my eyes narrow. “Sergeant Masters knows you?” He nodded again, this time more carefully.

“Yes, and Reitōn and some others.”

“Rei-tōn?” I asked.

“I’m sorry; tōn is a way of showing respect in my language. Well, I guess more my moms and dad’s language. I’m really more comfortable in English.”

“I…imagine your parents will be worried about you,” I said slowly. “Are they at the HETC too?” Once more he nodded. “Alright, Ryan why don’t you come to me, Hon, nice and slow alright? Susan is, oh, where are my manners? This is Susan Adams, and I’m Masako Yagimura.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said with a hesitant smile. I couldn’t help looking at his teeth and doing so gave me a bit of relaxation. His teeth were wide and flat as the promise of his mouth had been.

“You’re a vegetarian, aren’t you, Ryan?” I couldn’t help asking. His quizzical look prompted me to elaborate. “You only eat plants, right?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” he asked as he carefully crawled to the ladder well. With more than a little trouble, Ryan and Susan tried places. The young…boy…for lack of a better word, was dressed in an Apollo Freight jumper that only just fit him. He was significantly taller than me, by nearly a foot or so. His legs had an extra joint in them and his ‘finger’ was easily the size of my palm with a pair of smaller thumbs on either side of his hand.

I couldn’t keep in a bit of a giggle at the name tape on his breast. It read Hastings. “Ryan, sweetheart, this is my husband’s.”

“That’s my fault,” called up Toni. “I needed to wash his so I borrowed that one from the laundry.”

“He’s been looking for it,” I said with a chuckle. Susan had crawled down the access to about where Ryan had been laying. “Is it bad?” I asked her.

“No,” she yelled back. “The master trace from the bridge is loose from this junction. I’ll have it tightened up in a second or two.”

“I must have bumped it,” Ryan admitted with a glance down at me. “I’m sorry.” I rubbed his shoulder in encouragement, frankly amazed with myself for so casual a gesture. He didn’t feel particularly alien.

“It’s ok. These things happen. That’s why the two of you shouldn’t be in here,” I said with a glance down at the contrite face of Toni. “You go ahead down and I’ll follow you.” He scampered down the ladder, taking the rungs three or so at a time. I followed at a significantly slower pace until we were all back together again on the deck. After a moment to collect my thoughts I looked at both of them. “Ryan, there’s someone you’re going to have to meet. When he gets here, we’ll figure out where you’re going to be staying for the rest of the trip.”

“Ok,” he said amicably. I pressed my comm. Badge.

“Mike Hastings,” I called out.

“Hey there,” called his voice from the speaker. “What’s going on?”

Toni’s eyes got wide as saucers. I got the feeling her folks used the ‘you’d best hope the Captain doesn’t hear about this’ line a lot. “Mike, I’m gonna need you to come down to the ARCC.”

“The what?” he asked.

“The Attitude Relay Control Center. Remember I told you I was having some relay trouble with the thrusters?”

His tone of voice changed at once. “Is it serious?”

“No, no,” I told him quickly. “We, well, we’ve got a stowaway.”

“A stowaway?” he repeated, his voice changing from confusion to amusement to worry. “Are you alright?”

“Our stowaway is an email pal of one of the kids who snuck aboard to see where she lived. I’m fine, but I’ll need you and just you, to come down here.”


Anata,” I said, falling back into Japanese to give my request emphasis. “I need you to hurry.”

“On my way.” I sighed as the line closed even as I heard Susan on the ladder rejoining us.

“I’m going to wait in the hallway and make sure we’re not disturbed,” I told them. “Let’s all just stay calm, and we’ll get through this, alright?” There was a collection of nods as Ryan reached down and picked up one of the apples. “Can I have one of those?” I asked him.

“Sure,” he said, bending to fetch one for everyone and passing them around. He got the entire apple in his mouth and began chewing it noisily. It was more than a little disturbing.

“I’ll be outside,” I told Susan once more as I suited actions to words.

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If my trip was any kind of indication, it was going to take Mike nearly ten minutes to get here, even if he didn’t have to wait on a tube. So, knowing I had a bit of time, it was time to kick this upstairs a bit. It would be interesting to see how her sense of humor would deal with this. I picked up one of the ship’s interphones I punched in the code for the CAPCOM station on the bridge. “CAPCOM.”

“Tommy, I need a favor,” I told him.

“What’s up, Ko?”

“Can you get me a direct comm. dump back to Mars? I need it to go directly back to Rei Yotori and I need it to be absolutely private.”

“Sure thing, Ko. You can record your message at the tone and I’ll get it right out, and then purge it from the system. With the turn around, assuming she answers right away, it’ll be about twenty minutes before we get a reply.”

“That’s fine. Thanks, Tommy, you’re a life saver.” He chuckled before the line clicked and there was a soft tone in my ear. “Rei, remember when you told me when I needed to be told, I would be? That time is here, Grandmother. I’ll need you tell Raarvan’s parents he’s alright and aboard the Heinlein. Evidently he is email pals with a young girl here and got a burning desire to pay her a visit. I have Captain Hastings coming and I don’t see a way around this without his knowledge so that’s where we are. I’ll be looking forward to your reply. Sister Masako Yagimura, AF 1078 Robert Heinlein.”

Then it was just time for a bit of a snack while I waited for the hubby.

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About fifteen minutes later Mike arrived, as I’d feared, with Todd and collection of his security people. They were frankly surprised I was waiting for him outside the ARCC. I gave him and Todd a quick kiss before looking past them at the security guys. “Sorry for the inconvenience, fellas, just a misunderstanding. You guys can head back.”

“Masako?” asked Todd with a confused expression.

“Todd, I guess you’ll be ok. Mike will only tell you anyway. Really, it’s alright boys, go on, now.”

“Sir?” asked Washburn to Todd.

Todd shrugged. “It’s not like somebody could be controlling her out here, right?” he said with the slightest bit of emphasis. I nodded sincerely.

“I’m ok, no one is in danger and I’m not being coerced, honest.”

“False alarm, boys,” Todd told Washburn. “Thanks for the quick response and we’ll cancel this week’s drill. Good job.” The men gave me a nod and ambled off, I’m honestly not sure if they were relieved or disappointed I wasn’t hurt and they didn’t have to thump someone. Once they were gone, Todd fixed me with his best, ‘what’s going on?’ gaze. “Ko?” he rumbled.

“Boys,” I started hesitantly. “You’re about to meet a stowaway. He meant well, just got a bit in over his head. He, well, he’s not from around here and I don’t want you to panic, ok? Todd, if you’re packing can I hold it for you, please?”

“Masako?” demanded an intensely curious Mike.

I sighed. “Mike, behind this door with Susan and Toni Pritchard is…well, I’m not sure where his folks are from, it hasn’t come up. But Ryan was born on Mars.”

“Girl, what are you talking about?” asked Todd with a chuckle.

“Guys, Ryan isn’t human.”

You could have heard an atom split in the silence that fell on that passage way. After one of Mike and Todd’s glancing conversations, Mike turned back to me. “What is Ryan then?”

“Ryan is just shy of six feet tall, carries himself like a ten year old or so, is a herbivore, has one finger and two thumbs,” I shot back. “His parents look like they range in the ten foot tall neighborhood, built the Face on Mars, and are evidently one of CGC’s most closely guarded secrets. I didn’t know about them until a couple of months ago and I hadn’t met one until today. He’s just a kid and I don’t want you two to go off half cocked, alright?”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” asked Todd. “There’s some kind of creature in there that isn’t human.”

“Well, he isn’t homo sapiens, but he is a rational, thinking young boy,” I told him with a smile. “Actually, he’s rather polite and egger to please.”

“No, mouth within a mouth or acid for blood, right?” asked Mike whose face was a bit green.

“Plant eater, Mike,” I told him with as much reassurance as I could. “Nice flat teeth of a strict herbivore.”

After a moment of gathering himself, Mike nodded to me. “Alright, let’s go meet Mr. Ryan.” I gave the boys my best stay calm look and opened the door. They ambled hesitantly in, giving me just enough room to squeeze in and shut the door. There was one of those long, awkward silences before Mike finally said, “That’s my flight suit.”

Ryan’s midnight skin flushed darker. “Sorry, mine is in the wash.”

I could almost hear the gears turning in Todd’s head. “Son, what are you?”

“I’m ten,” he replied, utterly deadpan, before what Todd was really asking him sunk in. “Oh, I’m a Mavith-Tain. At least that’s what I was taught in History.”

“And you’re from Mars?” asked Mike slowly.

“I was born on Mars, but we’re not native to Mars.”

“Where do you come from?” asked Susan softly. Ryan shrugged his narrow shoulders in a very human gesture.

“I dunno, I’m just a kid.”

Todd’s belly began to quiver the way I knew it did when he was struggling mightily not to laugh. “Well, son, that’s the first reasonable thing I’ve heard in half an hour. I imagine your parents are worried sick about you. Is there a way we can contact them?”

“Handled,” I said softly.

He winked at me. “For the time being, then, we’ll have to set you up somewhere till we can get back Mars way.”

“Ryan, if we’re staring, you’ll have to excuse us. We haven’t met an extra terrestrial before.”

“If it helps,” he said softly, “you guys look just as funny to me.”

Toni thumped him in the arm which caused Mike to join the laugh that finally wormed its way out of Todd. “You’ll find the womenfolk around here are pretty strong minded, Ryan,” he said. “Bear that in mind.” Mike scratched his chin as he turned to Todd. “Where are we going to put him? Discreetly?”

“My cabin joins yours,” Todd answered. “If you don’t mind doubling up we can put him there. That’ll give us a discreet way to keep him fed and out of sight. I don’t have to tell you the craziness that could happen if word gets out.”

Mike nodded thoughtfully. “Make up a route and get it secure. We’ll go with that. And when have I ever minded spending time with you?”

“I’ll handle it, skipper,” he said with a nod. “Well have to bring Jill in on this.”

“She knows,” replied Susan. “Well, not about Ryan specifically, but…”

“I get the idea,” groused Mike. “Any other choice little secrets you’d like to let me in on?” he asked with a bit of put on irritation.

“I’m…a natural blonde…?” she offered with a wink. Mike had the grace to blush. Good for him.

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It wasn’t easy working up a way to get Ryan back into Officer’s Country on a ship the size of the Big H without anyone being the wiser. We had a close call or three, but we finally got to Todd’s cabin without having to make a statement over the PA that we had a very special passenger. Jill met us there with the amount of awe and incredulity you’d expect from our previous first introductions.

Ryan, bless his heart, took everything in stride and really turned on the charm. The kid was going to be quite a lady killer once he got grown up. Todd only had a few personal effects he wanted access to that he had to stash quickly in Mike’s room before the place ‘officially’ became Ryan’s. Toni had already been dispatched to fetch our new guest’s pressure suit and liner from where she’d stashed it which led us to another interesting fact once he sheepishly gave Mike his flight suit back.

Our Mr. Raarvan had a tail.

It was hair, the same startling white as the mop that grew from the top of his somewhat small head down his long, thick neck, and hung to the back of his first set of ‘knees’. Before his biology became a topic of conversation, probably to his growing embarrassment, my comm. badge went off. It was Tommy, the on duty CAPCOM officer. “What’s up, Tommy?” I asked him.

“We’re getting a reply to your message, Masako. According to the header, it’s for you, the Skipper, Mr. Williams, Jill and a Susan Adams.”

“Can you pipe it down to Todd’s cabin, Tommy? We’re all here.”

“Sure thing. If you want a copy, make it local there. I figured it’s just as private so I’m purging it from the system.”

“Tommy, you’re the best,” I told him with a smile as I keyed up Todd’s rather sizable video screen. After a moment the CGC logo was replaced by a medium close up image of Rei sitting at the desk I’d seen her using at the HETC. Seated with her were what I assumed were Ryan’s parents. Not really being able to ready their body language, I was guessing, but guessing by the amount of moisture in the female’s eyes she was relieved her boy was alright. Ryan’s father, by comparison had a tightness about his mouth and posture to match the narrow slits his eyes were down to told me he was just this side of livid. His ears were rotated backwards in a way that didn’t promise a pleasant homecoming for our stowaway.

Rei smiled. “Masako, first off you have my thanks for your quick action in this matter. Knowing the rest of your group of friends would be interested, I’ve included them in the address line as, you are correct, and the time for your knowledge here has come. I didn’t think to include her, but you may discreetly make Persey aware of this as well. Mr. Williams and Captain Hastings; first let me offer my apologies for your inconveniences due to your unwitting passenger. CGC will make good the cost of his little tour of the solar system and your discretion in this matter would be greatly appreciated. I’d like to present Univanni and Rehaalin, Raarvan’s mother and father, who send you their deepest appreciation for your finding their son and are looking forward to his safe return.”

“We are also,” Rehaalin, interrupted smoothly in a voice so far below bass as to not really have a name, “Deeply aghast and ashamed of our son’s theft of your food and air, despite it being made good. You have our deepest and most unconditional apologies, Captain Hastings, for our boy’s reckless disregard to your safety.”

Univanni seemed to want to say something, but she and her husband (?) exchanged a glance that discouraged her. Rei’s smile was one of sore spot being smoothed over with the grace only a Geisha can. “The Heinlein is a big ship, Rehaalin,” she told him with an encouraging pat of his clinched hands. “She’s running practically empty. There’s no harm done.” There came a skip in the video as though Rei had been interrupted and decided to pause, and then resume the transmission. Univanni and Rehaalin were gone Rei’s face assumed a mask of careful neutrality that told me terrible news was in the offering.

“Mike-san, you must brace yourself as I have bad news.” She paused as I felt myself drift over to my husband to take his arm. I knew whatever this was would not be good. “Corazon is dead, my son,” she said softly, a single tear flowing unabated down her cheek. Mike trembled as if struck. “We just received word from the Pride of Eire after Masako’s message. Gomen nessai, my dear boy, I know what she meant to you.” She paused for a moment to give Mike the time to compose himself. I could tell from the tremors that shook him he was on the verge of a collapse. “As we understand it, it was radiation poisoning from the attack. We have some updated vectors that I’ll send in a separate batch dump for your course. If he hasn't already, have Liam put her body in Cryo Stasis and bring her with you when you return Ryan. I'll see to her final arrangements." She paused, looking for a moment to my eyes as nearly lost to her emotions as Mike was. Tears were streaming down his face. “If there is anything I or my company can do, Mike-san, ask. We look forward to your safe and speedy return.”

The screen went black as Mike’s willpower left him. His legs gave out and he fell, despite mine and Todd’s best effort to the floor and wept openly. I worked my way into his arms and he held me with the fierceness of a drowning man to a bit of flotsam. He wailed in a manner that tore my heart in two, yet all I could do to comfort him was hold him.

Even Susan, the great emotional neutral I had known throughout my early training in the company was moved by his emotion. His wails gave way to a stream of obscenity that only abated for the sobs that still racked his body. In between this, Todd quietly said, “Corazon Gutierrez is the Ship Mother of the Pride of Eire, she’s also Mike’s God Mother.”

“¡Esos hijos maldecidos dios de putas mato cada si es la cosa pasada que lo hago!” he shouted, scrambling to his feet, and while my Spanish wasn’t anything close to conversational, I’d been around them both enough to pick out the naughty words and they promised mayhem. I kept a hold of his arm and pulled, using as much of my weight as I could. “Every one, Masako!” he screamed at me. “What have we done to them? What did we do to deserve this? Killing is too good for them! God as my witness, I’m going to torture them to death!”

“And what would God think of that?” asked Jill softly, coming nose to nose with him. “Do you think He’d commend your actions? Compliment you on your technique? And will any of that bring her back?

“I will hurt them, Jill…” he started but my love just crossed her arms under her bosom and glared at him.

“Just like they hurt you, Mike? And what would Corazon say about that?”

Mike could say nothing as the tears streamed down his face and I didn’t need any background or history. I knew what this woman I had not known meant to my love. I was filled with sadness at the missed opportunity while overwhelmed with worry that Mike may do something intensely rash in his quest to avenge her.

“So, that’s your advice, huh?” he yelled finally. “Just roll over and let them take everything?”

Jill finally seemed a bit cross. “Did I say that? Did I even imply that? Wars are brutal and ugly, Mike, but they’re not a license to commit barbarism. I know you’re hurt love, and before this is over, I’m sure we’ll all be, but we didn’t start this. And we can’t finish it by behaving like those we hate. We have to better than them.”

“My parents are right,” whispered Ryan to fill the long pause that fell over the room. “Humanity is in love with violence and blood. There is a part of you that welcomes this, isn’t there?” he asked, searching each face that stared at him, startled by the wisdom of his words. “Is this how you will act among the other races in the galaxy? Draw your lines, make your excuses and let war be the arbiter of your herd? I had thought better of you all. I had argued with my parents that you were struggling to change. I was wrong.”

Mike wiped his eyes on the handkerchief that Todd had fetched him. After a long moment, he finally shook his head. “Out of the mouth of babes. You weren’t wrong, Ryan, I was. Corazon took the place of my own mother when she was killed by men trying to force my father to follow their line. I’m sorry you had to be here when I learned that. Don’t give up on us humans yet, Ryan. We’ll always surprise you.”

I got the feeling he wanted to say more but couldn’t. The lighting flipped from its normal white to a deep red as the close contact alert claxon began to sound. “General Quarters, General Quarters, this is not a drill. Captain to the bridge.” Mike was at the communications panel before I’d become aware he’d moved.

“Flight, this is the Captain, what’s going on?”

Tommy’s voice was tense, but calm. “Radar reports ten contacts of various mass on intercept to the Pride of Eire, Skipper,” he said. “Looks like three about the mass of the Black Pearl and six half that, one massing practically the same as all the others together.”

“Get me an express travel tube up to the bridge. Bring all the weapons up to stand by and stand by for hard maneuvers.” He clicked off the comm. and caught Ryan’s eyes. “We’ll always surprise you,” he repeated before leading us at a dead run back to the bridge.

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“Ship answers General Quarters, Captain,” Tommy told us as we rushed in. I was a bit surprised when Becky relinquished the pilot’s chair to me and waved me down.

“Make us proud,” she whispered to me as I pulled on the head set while getting a feel for the situation. The Pride of Eire was about ten thousand kilometers just off the starboard beam of the Big H. I almost didn’t need the computer enhancements to make her out; she glowed from a series of nasty gashes concentrated along her engineering sections. Her boats were about a thousand kilometers out in front of her, the baby ducks leading their mother, they were all locked together to conserve life support and power and I was certain they were glad to see us.

Between us and them, however were the other ships Tommy had told us about, everybody holding their relative positions. They had the drop on the Pride and we had the drop on them. As I finished taking all this in, Tommy’s voice cut through the chatter of the Heinlein making ready for war. “Flight, CAPCOM, I’m receiving a hail from the George Washington, Admiral Neustadt commanding.”

“On the One MC,” replied Mike as he stood. “Admiral, this Michael Hastings, Commanding the Free Space Navy vessel Robert Heinlein. I get the feeling you and yours weren’t responding to that disaster beacon to offer assistance.”

“Captain Hastings, I can’t say as I can find a thing humorous about this situation. More over, that vessel in formation with you is a UN craft.”

“Not anymore,” replied Mike with an even tone I was surprised he could muster. “Your United Nations murdered nearly a thousand people on board my company’s ship Halcyon. As far as I’m concerned, she’s a prize of war. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Navy Law backs me up here.”

“We can discuss murder and piracy at another time, Captain…” started the Admiral, but Mike interrupted him.

“We’ll discuss it now, if you please, Admiral. Under the Declaration of Independence that was beamed out on every frequency four months ago, you and yours are hip deep in an Act of War. There are two ways we can settle this, one, you order your fleet to strike their colors and surrender, or we can get to a brawl. I don’t have to tell you how that’s going to end, Admiral. The Big H is more than a match for your whole damn fleet, and we’ve got the Black Pearl along, just to make things that much more interesting.”

“I’m not in the habit of surrendering my fleets to pirates and terrorists, Captain. My governments do not recognize your Declaration.”

“Neither did the British, Admiral, but that didn’t stop the United States, now did it?” The Admiral chewed on this for a moment.

Finally, he grudgingly asked, “What are your terms?”

“Your ships will be boarded by teams who will see to their demilitarization, whereupon they will be piloted back to Mars. Beyond that, it’s for the courts to decide. If you attempt to scuttle your ships, or sabotage them in any way, I’ll put you all in boats and you can take your chances with space.”

“You expect me to…”

“I expect you to comply with my terms, Admiral, or I expect you and yours to die a slow, horrible death.” Mike swallowed and caught my eye before he continued. “A few minutes ago, that would have been your fate regardless. But, I’ve been told that we can’t allow our struggle for Independence to descend to the level you and your men have shown. As such, I am inclined to offer mercy, on my terms, Admiral.”

Admiral Neustadt took a long breath before finally nodding. “Very well, Captain. If I have your word for the safety of my mine, I offer my formal surrender.”

“Your word is enough for me, Admiral. I’ll have my men along presently. For right now, I have a rescue to complete.”

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It was a somber moment as the survivors from the Pride of Eire were brought aboard. They carried themselves with a quiet, unbeaten grief as they came aboard, a make shift honor guard of six men haltingly working the cryo-box that held Corazon. They were led by a youth, obviously fresh from the academy on his first run.

He was weeping openly.

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There were many sleepless nights on that return voyage.

Nights I spent comforting my husband from his grief and coming to grips with the very many changes in my life. I spent some of them pondering the long, odd road that I have traveled from the unsure boy from Tokyo that had finished second in the class, but first is so many other ways. The observation lounge, just below the bow docking collar, the forward most space on the ship had become a favorite place for Mike. He would sit and stare out at the stars and the slowly growing baleful face of Mars that grew slowly closer.

I found him there as he sipped his coffee and contemplated oblivion. By some sense I didn’t have he became aware of my presence as I crept slowly up to him. Without turning, he whispered, “I can’t imagine life without her, Masako. Not introducing you to her or hearing her play guitar again or her laugh. She had the most wonderful laugh.”

I settled beside him and rested my head against his shoulder. “I think she is proud of you, Mike,” I told him quietly. “Wherever she may be, she sees what a fine man you are.”

He turned his handsome face to meet my eyes, but there were not tears in his eyes. Only the shadows of distant regrets and the fantasies he had longed to turn to memories. “She would have liked you; probably have picked some embarrassing pet name in Spanish to call you. And she’d tell me what a good choice I’d made, like I had something to do with it.”

“You had everything to do with it,” I chided him softly. “You claimed me on the lower deck of the Sally Ride and have owned me ever since.” I leaned down to kiss his shoulder before taking in the cold, stark beauty of my home. “What pet name do you think she would give our child, my father to be?”

He looped my shoulders with his arm and hugged me to him. “I wish I knew,” he whispered.


* finis *
Read 2395 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 November 2023 08:44

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