Aetna Adrift (PAX)

Aetna Adrift

A FIVE STAR OR RECOMMENDED READ:

scifi.indieebookreviews.com
sweattearsanddigitalink.com
geekdad.com
arolemodel.com
rehunter.org
littleebookreviews.com

SMUGGLER Jack Halloway beat the system…. until now.

With every aspect of his life controlled by a soul-sucking bureaucracy, Jack did the only thing he knew to do. He ran. He found the out-of-the-way places no one watched and depended only on himself.

When Unity Vice President Timothy Randall arrives, he turns Jack’s backwater moon upside down. On a mission that no one understands, Randall and his staff do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. Jack quickly finds himself blackmailed, tortured, and enslaved to a ruthless political faction. When the killing starts, he must figure out who to trust, how to escape, and decide between the girl he loves and his freedom

Aetna Adrift is the high octane prequel to the space opera trilogy The Pax Imperium Wars by Erik Wecks.

PRAISE FOR AETNA ADRIFT

In Aetna Adrift, Erik Wecks provides a satisfying blend of sci-fi action, romance, believable world building, and timely social commentary.
—SciFi Guy, indieebookreviews.com

And this world and this universe is colourful and richly illustrated. I love its decadence….You know it will collapse spectacularly in on itself eventually because it is in such a fragile state.
—Matt Mason, sweattearsanddigitalink.com

Erik’s writing and plotting is right up there with the traditionally published writers, and I suspect that Erik could easily make the jump to a publishing house with the Aetna novel.
—James Floyd Kelly, GeekDad.com

If this is the type of book you like, I recommend this one. I’m confident that you’ll enjoy it.
—RE Hunter

It’s a rich world with believable characters and strong character development.
—arolemodel.com

A fun, fast-paced ride through the frozen realm of Aetna. Jack’s struggle to maintain his individuality while stacked up against the demands of a big government corporation serve as an all-too-relevant reminder that we still have a choice.
—Ernie Lindsey, Author of Sara’s Game

Aetna Rising excels in its use of setting to create a compelling story.
—Will Hertling, Author of Avogadro Corp.

Prologue

By her own calculations, Human Resources Director Carla Savage had been the sixth most powerful woman in Unity Corporation Space, until yesterday. Yesterday had been an unmitigated disaster for her boss, Vice President and former Board Member Timothy Randal. In the patronage system of the board room, his disaster became her own.

Perspiration dampened the well-fitted, white dress shirt she wore with her regulation uniform. There would be a cost to pay for such a downfall. She was acutely aware of Randal’s head of security, Colonel Gunderson. The blow will come from him, she thought.

The Colonel had placed himself in the chair between she and Ben McDonald, Randal’s head of logistics and procurement. Together, the three of them made up the inner circle of Timothy Randal’s staff.

It could be both of us.

Their boss stood looking out of the Longworth office building in Washington D.C. Timothy Randall had just accepted a promotion from CEO Cowhill–an advancement to executive vice president–and a posting to the directorship of a broken down, middle of nowhere, pimple of a moon named Aetna.

A Unity faction downfall this complete hadn’t come in the board room since The Catastrophe, and that was nearly seventy years prior.

Hands clasped behind his back, Randall stood facing the last DC winter he was likely to see in his lifetime. Clouds drawn low by the promise of heavy snow lay over the dome that once housed The World Congress and before it the United States Congress. The building was over twelve hundred years old.

The man turned, jaw set as always, eyes undimmed. Randall never seemed ruffled. It was one of the things that, until yesterday, had attracted Carla to his faction. Now it seemed like hubris.

Randal looked at Gunderson and made just the slightest flick of his hand.

With speed, Gunderson stood.

Carla panicked. The muscular man stepped behind MacDonald and broke his neck in one swift motion.

Carla flinched in her seat at the disturbingly loud crunching sound that accompanied the pitiless act. She couldn’t help but watch. As the dying man’s air left him, his eyes wandered and met her own. He knew. Carla had no doubt–he knew who it was who had betrayed him.

Timothy Randall was a competent lover, intent on satisfying the needs of his partner and himself. He was efficient, as he was in all things, but businesslike and distant. She had only been with Gunderson once–never again. On the other hand, Ben had loved her–had loved her and told her things he ought not have said, things she found advantageous.

Timothy Randall breathed out slowly, letting the tension dissolve from the room. “Well, that’s taken care of.” He waved to the two security personnel waiting in the wings. They stepped forward and quickly removed MacDonald’s body from the chair and drug it away.

Still standing behind his desk, Timothy Randall faced his two remaining staff members. He turned to his human resources officer. “Excellent work, Carla. MacDonald’s indiscretion has opened up an opportunity for us that I could not have foreseen. With him feeding our most sensitive conversations directly to Cowhill, we have been able to put a plan into action that would have taken years of careful arrangement else wise.”

Carla’s mind started to race. “I’m sorry? I must have missed something.”

Randal smiled, his tone warm and fatherly, “When I was a little boy, Carla, I attended the last remaining Catholic school in New York–a wretched and foolish place, mind you–but I remember the priest. Father Zabek was his name. He used to say the way up is down and in this, he was apparently right. We’re going down to come back up later.”

Randal paused for effect before continuing. “The military needs my help with a project that even Cowhill doesn’t know anything about. It was Admiral O’neill who suggested my appointment to Aetna as a means of rubbing salt in the wound of my removal from the board. Cowhill has no clue. The military needs an onsite administrator to make sure that little Aetna is ready when they need it. So we’re going on a country vacation. My only concern is that without MacDonald on the procurement side of things, we’re playing a man down, and a very important man at that. Procurement is going to be essential in the hinterlands. Were you able to find someone who might fit the bill, Carla?”

Randal clearly didn’t expect much.

Feeling pleased to surprise him, Carla berated herself. None of that school girl bullshit, she thought.

“Actually, yes.” She handed over the single sheet of electronic paper.

As he flipped through the pages of the report, a small grin creased the corner of his mouth. “Well, that is unexpected. Really? All this out there, at Aetna?”

Carla nodded. “As far as we can tell, it’s the largest non-syndicated black market in the Unity, and when you think about it, it really does make sense, sir.”

Randall looked up.

“On Aetna, no one is watching.”

Randall nodded thoughtfully and handed the paper to Gunderson. “Well Andy, why don’t you see what you can dig up on Jack Halloway. Before we meet, I want to know everything.”

Chapter One
Pulling Strings

“Jack, what am I going to do with you?”

The rotund man with a pencil mustache led Jack from the small foyer into his well-apportioned offices on the twentieth floor penthouse of the tallest building on Aetna.

“Well, Lewis, you could demote me.” Lanky and tall with a slightly receding hairline, time had been kind to the forty-three year old Jack Halloway. He retained his strong frame and his alert brown eyes. If his eyelids had recently begun to droop like those of a hound, then all it added to Jack was a tinge of mystery, making him all the more intriguing to those around him. Jack showed every sign of entering late youth, as the forties were called, as that rare specimen whose physical appeal got better with age. He sat down in a chair in Lewis’ office as straight as always, attentive to the details of his environment, his face passive, inscrutable.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Jack?”

Jack shivered slightly from the residual cold as he took off his thick company issued parka.

Lewis noticed and said in an offhand manner. “There’s a blanket in the warmer if you need one.”

“Thanks,” Jack said. He gratefully went to the warmer, grabbed a synthetic wool blanket, and wrapped it around his shoulders. It had been cold on Aetna when Jack had arrived from the orbital which was his home, minus forty C at least.

By rights, Aetna, a mid-sized moon in the Sicily system, should have been a modest rock with a deep solidified methane crust and little to no atmosphere. However, fate, chance, or whatever it was that controlled these things put what would have been a frozen world in just the right orbit around Catania, its gas giant parent, to create an unlikely diversity of life that teemed in the warm waters far below its thin icy crust.

Jack always thought of Aetna as a bit of a Mama’s boy. It orbited very close to its mother, Catania. Moving fast, Aetna completed an orbit around Catania almost once every thirty-nine hours. Living that close to a planet one thousand times larger than old Earth had consequences for even a large moon like Aetna. Catania exerted a huge gravitational pull on its nearest offspring. As the inside moon closest its parent, Aetna often got caught between the gravitational pull of its mother and its fourteen siblings.

The tug and pull of all these busy bodies trying to have a say in Aetna’s orbit stretched and pulled on Aetna’s rocky core until it warmed and melted, much like pulling on taffy makes it soft and pliable. Aetna was home to the largest number of active volcanoes in the Sicily system.

In a galaxy with planetoid bodies of every shape, size, and ranking on the Zhào habitability index, what made Aetna most rare was its atmosphere and Earth-like gravity. Eons before, its volcanism melted the frozen methane and other ices which covered Aetna’s surface, creating salt-water oceans buried beneath an egg-shell like icy surface. These oceans became progressively warmer the closer you got to the writhing surface of the core. The volcanism combined with the frozen ammonia on Aetna’s surface to create water and free nitrogen. Oceans teaming with photosynthetic life eventually gave Aetna a reasonably thick atmosphere of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon-dioxide.

The surface temperature on Aetna was over one hundred and fifty degrees Celsius warmer than it should have been for a mid-sized planetoid placed well outside Sicily’s Goldilocks zone. On a good day, citizens of Aetna might even notice a bead or two of water running on their windows. All of these favorable moments of chance made Aetna marginally fit for human habitation.

However, these grand and fortuitous happenstances were far from the provincial concerns which occupied Associate Vice-President Lewis Lutnear as he sat in his office. The mind wrapped inside his pink head with its whisps of blondish hair and occasional moles was too focused on the activities of daily survival to contemplate such lofty things.

Lewis interrupted Jack’s thoughts. “But where would you go? There isn’t anywhere else in the Unity which would put up with the likes of you. But why are you here? That is the real question.” Lewis squinted at Jack as he sat down in the high-backed executive chair at his desk. The chair squatted slightly under his weight. “A man of your considerable skills could go anywhere he wished.”

Jack answered quickly with detached irony. “Well, Lewis, I guess I’m just too lazy to apply my talents like you.”

Lewis sighed ostentatiously, “Yes. I guess that’s it. You just don’t have the work ethic for climbing the ladder, do you? Now take today for instance, what will you be doing this evening?”

“I was planning on buying drinks for my staff if we get done fast enough for me to get back on the 1:00 PM shuttle.” Jack needled his boss by making a show of looking at the time on the wallet strapped to his wrist.

Lewis either chose not to respond or didn’t notice. “Yes, that’s just it,” he said with sudden animation. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Tonight I will spend my evening supervising a move of this whole city far to the north, while you are having drinks with your staff. If you would just apply yourself more, I am sure you could get appointed to a post like mine.”

Jack smirked. He had no desire to have a post like Lewis’.

It was an Irony not lost on Jack that the volcanism that provided Lewis with heat also forced him to work late on many an evening. On an all too frequent basis geysers of boiling water sent tsunamis racing across the landscape. Eventually they froze into tall mountain ranges of pack ice. The volatile waters caused Aetna to regenerate an area the size of its whole icy surface close to once every six years. In other places, consistent weaknesses in Aetna’s crust warmed the waters above to such a level that open oceans appeared on its surface.

For the one hundred and twenty thousand or so people who made the surface of Aetna their permanent residence, life was a nomadic quest for stable ice. Half of those people lived in Utopia, the little burg which Lewis supervised directly and which held the rather modest building in which Jack sat.

The need for stable ice made tall construction on the surface of Aetna impossible. Twenty stories of building set on treads, using positioning satellites and gravitational stabilizers, was about all the feat of engineering this backwater little moon could muster. All buildings on Aetna used positioning satellites and treads to keep themselves on solid ice if possible, although they could float if push came to shove.

For the last week, the city of Utopia had been preparing to move. That had meant late nights for Lewis. Jack knew he was the last little piece of business on Lewis’ agenda before he gave his full attention to the final preparations. He had scheduled the meeting that way in order to keep it brief. Apparently, Lewis had other thoughts.

Lewis shook his head with a kind of pretentious disgust. “What am I going to do with you?” he repeated mostly to himself as he reached for the last three black jelly beans in the cheap crystal dish on the corner of his desk. “Well, I guess there’s nothing for it,” said Lewis.

Not being one to miss out on a moment of pageantry, Lewis stood up and tugged the corners of his casual uniform straight. Executive level citizens all wore standard uniforms to work. As the orbital station manager, Jack remained several levels below executive level and as such blissfully free of the starched shirts and synthetic fibers his superiors wore.

Lewis began to pace. Jack didn’t move, attentive as ever, his face deadpan. Lewis spoke in a formal voice. “Jack Halloway, on behalf of the Unity Corporation and the government of Unity-owned space, I am privileged today to offer you the post of Deputy Executive Director of Aetna.”

Jack opened his mouth and started to answer, but Lewis held up his index finger and waved it at him as he continued speaking.

“Promotion to Deputy Executive Director in the Unity is a privilege offered to few. There are only fourteen higher ranks available to citizens of the Unity. This offer comes with a considerable increase in your monthly stipend, a larger housing allowance, and all the privileges accorded to its rank. What say you?”

Ignoring the question, Jack looked at the ceiling and asked no one in particular, “Why do they insist on saying the Unity and the government? The Unity Corporation is the government.”

Flustered at being put off his game, Lewis answered as a parent instructing a wayward child, while dismissing the question with a wave of his hand. “It’s just simply a leftover from when the legislature was dissolved two hundred years ago. It is the same as saying ‘under God’ when we pledge our allegiance to the Corporation.”

Still pondering and apparently not paying attention to Lewis, Jack said aloud to the ceiling, “Well, I wonder if we ought to change that.”

Lewis blushed. “Jack, I can’t have you saying that in this office! That’s dissension! It’s a crime!”

Appearing to suddenly return to the present, Jack said with the barest hint of sarcasm, “No, Lewis. I was wondering if they should change the proposal for promotion to reflect the reality that the legislature was dissolved two hundred years ago. What did you think I meant?”

Lewis sighed irritably. “Never mind.” Then he repeated his question with more firmness. “Jack, what is your answer?”

“No.”

Not wanting to let Jack derail him again, Lewis plunged forward. “While turning down such an offer will in no way hinder your career in the Unity, this is the eighth time you’ve turned down promotion to Deputy Executive Director, and as such, I must punish you by docking your pay.”

“Lewis, I’m already on minimum stipend. You can’t dock my pay.”

Lewis began to lose his temper. “Jack, I know that, but it’s what I’m supposed to say. Now just let me finish so we can get on with this. As I was saying, I must punish you by docking your pay.” Without saying another word, Lewis pulled out a piece of electronic paper from his desk that had already been filled out. “Now, if you will sign here, Jack. I will sign there.”

Jack reached over and pressed his thumb to the paper. The paper registered his thumb print and matched it to the DNA it sampled from Jack. Lewis did the same and dropping his formal bearing, walked around the front of his desk and leaned on it. Jack could smell some kind of sweet cologne.

“Jack, Julia and the kids were wondering when you were coming for dinner. Jo has been asking to see Uncle Jack.”

Jack allowed a small smile to creep onto his face. “Tell Julia to get with Molly and put it on my calendar. I’ll come.”

Lewis smiled broadly. “Excellent. Now, I must be off to dedicate a new ice driller. If the volcanologists are right, we will need it soon enough. It’s a busy day in Utopia.”

As he talked, Lewis moved away from his desk and Jack stood up, gathering his parka and his not-so-regulation fur cap. Lewis kept up a stream of conversation all the way until they parted in the lobby of his building. He headed to the parking garage, where his driver and personal hover car lay hidden. Jack headed out the public entrance of the warm lobby into the much colder public vestibule. He shivered and buttoned his fur hat over his ears.

The Unity administration building on Aetna, like all buildings, had a heated lobby on its ground floor with entrances scattered on all sides. Beyond this warm interior lay an attached transition zone between the building and the harsh conditions outside. These public vestibules ran around the perimeter of almost all buildings on Aetna, including private residences. They had several entrances which could be connected to other buildings when the city was stable and staying in one place. This allowed pedestrians to walk from one building to another without having to face the bitter winds and occasional snow.

Shapeless, metallic, and painted a standard gray, these vestibules always reminded Jack of the inside of shipping containers. Although attached to their buildings, they were considered public spaces, similar to the pedestrian malls under the flying traffic in larger cities.

On Aetna, where corporate discipline was relaxed to say the least, these vestibules also acted as a kind of unregistered flea market. The local gendarmes did a good job keeping the most unsavory items in check, but a payment here and a freebie there allowed the legitimate business people to stay out of harm’s way. Jack walked past the various stalls hawking everything from electronic components to hats almost identical to his own.

He took a particular pride in the flea market. Indirectly or directly, he had provided almost all the goods sold on Aetna. In one sense, this was his baby. These people depended upon him for the extra cash above their minimum salary from the company. Through selling illegally on the black market, they gained a better lifestyle and a chance to express their individuality in ways which the corporation did not provide. Jack didn’t quite become wealthy from the smuggling he did here on Aetna, but he sure came close.

He stopped near one of the cold exits to the wan brownish light outside and put a gloved hand on a screen with a large sign over it stating “Automated Taxi Stand.” The screen lit and in green lettering announced: Thank you, Mr. Halloway. Your Taxi will be available in four minutes and thirty seconds. The numbers began to count down.

Jack kept an eye on the countdown and stepped up to the coffee stand next to the queue. He ordered a coffee and a sandwich, and chatted genially. Just as he was finishing, he heard the electronic whine of the approaching taxi. He held up the wrist wallet he had used to call the taxi, transferred the necessary dollars and a tip to the man behind the counter, and then picked up his coffee and sandwich, both in containers insulated against the cold. He was about to walk away when Hank reached out and shook his hand, surreptitiously passing Jack a small slip of paper. Jack smiled and stepped out into the piercing cold of Aetna at dusk.

#

Recognizing its ride, the taxi aimed a warm jet of hot air in his direction. Jack took the few steps necessary in the forty below temperatures and then hopped in the open door of the taxi. The door closed behind him, the car rose into the air, and an automated voice asked, “Destination?”

“Fishing dock B, entrance eight,” Jack said as he undid his jacket and slipped Hank’s note unread into an inside pocket.

“Thank you,” came the reply. The pilotless car banked gently left and arced around the administration building as it made its way to the outskirts of town.

Jack zipped up his jacket against the cold and worked on his coffee and sandwich during his short flight. He glanced at the clock on the dash of the AI taxi. He had about two hours before he needed to be on the shuttle back topside. He had plenty of time. Jack relaxed for a minute, enjoying the salt and vinegar flavor of his cold fish sandwich. Oily fish of all sorts were a staple on Aetna.

Even as he flew, Jack could see the huge warehouses on the outskirts of the city which were his destination. His taxi landed eight minutes later. Jack took another bite of his fish and vinegar sandwich, threw the rest in the garbage, and stepped out from the vehicle, coffee in hand. Despite the warm jets of air from both the taxi and the vestibule entrance ahead of him, drips of Jack’s coffee still froze before he made his way inside.

As he entered the door, Jack held his coffee up to the heater to make sure he didn’t freeze his lip to the cup while trying to get at the warm liquid. This vestibule was very different from the one outside of the administration building. This one was an extension of the warehouse it surrounded. It smelled of salt, ocean life, and fish in all stages of freshness. Crates of fishing nets, lines, and other gear lay in heaps here and there. Giant traps for catching bottom dwellers stood in neat stacks, all painted with the name of the submersible that owned them.

Fishing the rich seas on top of which Jack presently stood was one of two major industries which propelled the economy of Aetna. From the point of view of Unity Corporation, it was by far the least important. But to the men and women who made Aetna their home, fishing by submarine was a way of life. Like all fisherman, they were fiercely proud of their work.

Jack stepped through a door to the main warehouse. Inside, the warehouse boomed with noise and activity. It was a moving day, Jack noted. There were at least sixty people on the docks trying to get ready. Even as he walked in, a thirty meter long submarine rose slowly out from the hole in the ice at the center of the warehouse. Jack stood and watched as the cylinder lifted itself out of the water below. The noise of its anti-grav units became deafening. Jack set down his coffee on a low metal walkway next to him and plugged his ears. He stood that way for about ten seconds before he noticed a pair of boots standing on the walkway. Looking up he saw his business contact Rick Carter above him.

Rick was a thick man with a wooly brown beard and arms that could have substituted for one of Jack’s legs. He nodded in greeting and threw Jack a pair of bright yellow ear covers with a small heads-up display that fell down over one eye. Jack put them on and instantly the noise subsided. Rick didn’t say anything. He and Jack stood and watched as the sub raised itself out of the ice and piloted itself into its cradle high up on the walls of the broad warehouse.

The heads-up display showed basic details of the ship, its name, the captain’s name, and its speed and direction. Jack idly wondered what kind of fish they had caught. The built in intra-mind scanner on the ear protectors read Jack’s brain activity, took it as a command, and placed the catch information from The Behemothon his heads-up display. By the time the city began to move, this warehouse would be filled with twenty-three other vessels all in their cradles.

When The Behemoth finished docking, Rick nodded for Jack to follow him into his office. Once inside the sound proofed office, Rick took off his ear protection and sat in the chair behind his desk. Jack followed his lead.

“How’s the fishing, Rick?”

Rick just rolled his eyes and pointed with his bucket sized arms to the chair across from him. “Shit, Jack, do you know how much a fisherman hates being asked that question?”

Jack’s face broke into a grin, which deepened the perfectly placed crow’s-feet now taking up residence at the corner of his eyes. “Yes, I do.”

Rick let out a huge guffaw. “Of course, you do. That’s why you ask me every time I see you. How the hell are you, Jack?”

“Good, Rick! I’m good, all things considered.”

“Glad to hear it.” Rick pulled the coaster out from under the cup of coffee on his desk, held it a few inches above the desk and let go. Instead of falling back, the device flew up into the air, hovering over both him and Jack.

Jack smirked and said with a hint of sarcasm, “You aren’t afraid of Lewis listening in, are you? He wouldn’t touch me. Who else would supply him with licorice jelly beans?”

Rick looked seriously at Jack for a moment. “Jack, you can’t be too careful. Human Resources is no joke, and a man in your position ought to know that.”

Jack snorted with laughter and absent-mindedly picked at a loose thread on the fur cap he had taken off his head. “What do you think is going to happen, Rick? The Corporation doesn’t even remember that Aetna exists. When was the last time you saw an actual human resource officer come through here? If they do think about us, then we’re nothing more than a seedy fuel depot on the way to the gate out of Sicily, and I do believe that is the way most of us like it.”

Rick just shrugged. “Yes, that’s the way we like it, and I don’t think we can be too careful in keeping it that way.”

Jack decided to change the topic. “I turned down the Deputy Executive Director position for the eighth time today.”

Rick laughed again. Jack always enjoyed hearing Rick laugh, something he did quite often. “Why does he do that? Lewis has to know what you’ll say.”

Jack grinned, “You know Lewis never misses a chance to look officious. He enjoys tweaking my nose once a year to remind me who pulls the strings around here.”

“Uh huh, right.”

“You sound skeptical. You think he has some dark hidden motive lurking behind that balding head?”

“No, I just think the idea of Lewis pulling strings is a little bit ridiculous. We all know why this place keeps running.”

Holding the hat in both hands, Jack looked at the floor and said with an “aw-shucks” tone, “Well, one does try.” He then added with a grin, “If it pays.”

After letting his words sit for just a beat, he looked at Rick. “So, what can I do for you today?”

“Just the usual list: gear, bait, rations for the crew.” Rick took out an actual file folder from his desk and opened it. Inside there was an antique–a pen–and a sheaf of papers. He took out a hand pressed piece of low quality paper and slid it across the desk to Jack.

Jack figured that human beings in the Unity would have forgotten how to write long ago if it weren’t for the black market. Electronic communication could be traced. Old fashioned written communication demanded that the spy had to be on site to see it, and you had to understand what you were looking at. The black market tended to develop a kind of short hand that only specific buyers and sellers could read.

Jack folded the piece of paper and put it in an inside pocket of his parka. “I’ll get this to Molly when I get back topside, and we’ll get the bids out. Should have something to you by the end of next week.”

Rick smiled, “Thanks. Payment will be in the usual fashion. So, when are you going to go fishing with us? You keep saying you’re going to come on a trip, but then you never do.”

“Well, you know. Someone has to keep running the world.”

Rick laughed.

Chapter Two
Topside

Jack was the lone passenger on the afternoon shuttle back to Unity Standard Orbital 1358. Ernie, the pilot, was trustworthy, so Jack took a deep breath and removed from his pocket the eight scraps of paper he had been handed on his visit to Utopia.

The trick with running a successful black market was deciding what could and couldn’t be done. Rule number one: keep a low profile. If you couldn’t get it quietly and for a profit, you didn’t do it. Most of his customers understood that. He had turned Rick down many times and he had never been upset by it. Rick always just shrugged his shoulders, said “you do what you can,” and went on about his business. Jack knew that sometimes he had desperately needed the spare parts Jack couldn’t provide. Rick got it.

Then there were the desperate ones, the business owners losing everything they had, the childless couples looking for exit visas to someplace which didn’t mercilessly persecute partners without children. They didn’t get it. Desperation bred stupidity and inflexibility.

Eight pieces of paper, six of which he knew he could fulfill without even thinking about it. Jack checked the list. Fishing gear for Rick wouldn’t be any problem at all. There was a milk run between Sicily and Oceanus. He knew the captain on that run. He had a whole slew of contacts that would gladly transport a new coffee grinder for Hank.

He skipped through the list to the last two pieces of paper. Jack wasn’t sure what to make of the first one. A desperate looking woman had stepped up to him just as he entered the vestibule of the shuttle port. She had a huge bruise on her cheek. He hadn’t recognized her at the time, but without a word she had handed him a note. She wanted a gun. Jack hadn’t run many guns into Aetna. Most residents couldn’t pay the price it took to make it worth his while to stick his neck out that far. Besides, Jack always worried that someone somewhere might get hold of one and use it on him. One of the perks of the black market was a healthy list of unsatisfied customers. Jack didn’t figure he would appreciate the irony of being capped by one of his own guns.

He read the note again. Well, this woman probably had the money. She wanted to meet the courier at the Red Carpet Club. That club was haunted by the wives of the élite, such as they were, on Aetna. No doubt, she was attached to somebody important.

This realization put the pieces together for Jack. The woman he had seen was Cora Hanson, the wife of the police commissioner on Aetna. Jack had seen her a few times at various functions. He didn’t recognize her at first because she had been beaten so badly.

This was a problem. Jack had no doubt now how Cora had received her bruises. If anyone but her husband Frank, or someone he assigned, had beaten Cora, then they would have already been detained, if not found dead from exposure or some other accident.

As a police commissioner, Frank Hanson was all right in Jack’s book. He stayed out of the way of the black market, taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell approach.” His officers let things slide as long as a bribe was paid and you didn’t sell anything which damaged public safety.

But Frank was still HR. Technically, he still reported to Lewis, but HR had its ways of getting what it wanted. Before Lewis had come along, the previous Administrator on Aetna had tried to put his own woman in as commissioner. This was just before Jack had arrived, although he had heard the story from Lewis many times.

Apparently, HR felt like this little peon was getting uppity and decided to teach him a lesson. The compliance audits and random checks by HR officers were a nightmare. Within three months, HR had the central administration demote him for all his violations of company policy. Lewis was promoted to replace him and wisely changed course and picked whoever HR wanted for the office of commissioner. HR, which had demanded the highest of standards for Aetna, melted away as quickly as they had appeared. Since then, they had seen a compliance officer once every couple of years, and that was over fifteen years ago.

Jack never seriously considered Cora’s request. There was no choice when it came to getting her a gun. The shooting of a police commissioner was bound to get someone’s attention. The bureaucrats at HR would be smart enough to wonder how Cora had come by a gun and that would be a problem for Jack and all the people who depended on him. Jack calmly took out a small stub of pencil he kept deep in a pocket and wrote in his distinct hand “For Frank” at the bottom of the note. He re-folded it, and put it back in his pocket

The final note was from Dr. Trina Musgrave at the hospital. Jack appreciated Musgrave. Musgrave didn’t fit within the existing order as Jack perceived it. That made her interesting in Jack’s book.

When she had first arrived to take over the hospital, Jack hadn’t given her much thought. Most doctors believed pretty strongly in the “stability” created by the Unity. They may not have believed in the system when they set out to become doctors, but by the time they were done with their ten years of schooling, most of them had succumbed to the indoctrination.

Somehow Musgrave survived with her sense of reality intact. A short six weeks after she arrived, she made a visit to Jack’s office on the orbital. Since then, Musgrave had become a regular customer of Jack’s. At first, her requests had made no sense to Jack, all of them related to cosmetic treatments and enhancements. The stuff she wanted Jack to get was pretty risky, so Jack always charged a premium. But she had yet to flinch when Jack got her a price.

It wasn’t until Jack saw the first cynthy from Sicily Four walk by his office and head for the shuttle to the surface that he began to understand Musgrave. Wealthy women in the Unity needed their beauty treatments, and they had the money to pay for them, rules be damned. Most of them were almost half lab grown by the time they hit thirty-five. Regular people called them cynthys–a mutation of the word “synthetics.”

Now, if you ran in the right circles in six different systems, the public hospital on Aetna was your destination for high quality, off-list synthetic treatments. If Dr. Musgrave used the profits from her little endeavors to better the treatment for the rest of Aetna’s residents that was her business. Getting paid was Jack’s business, and Musgrave paid Jack well.

It was while watching the immaculate body of the first cynthy to walk by his office on the orbital that something clicked for Jack. I’ll be damned, he had thought. Entrepreneurs are everywhere.

The Unity didn’t appreciate competition. In fact, owning your own business in the Unity without a permit was a crime. Last time he had checked, Unity had given out about one hundred business licenses each year for the last three decades. The vast majority of these went to the sons of board members and other well connected politicos. For everyone else, the good of the Unity was to be the sole business of every citizen.

Until Musgrave had come along, Jack had seen people similar to himself as misfits who existed on the margins of society. Musgrave showed him that invention, creativity, and a business mind existed everywhere. It just needed a spark to light it.

Watching the bulbous, enlarged ass of the cynthy walk away from him, Jack suddenly understood why people like him were considered pariahs, why the Unity feared them. Independent thinking and competition threatened to undermine Unity control. Yet no matter how hard the Unity tried to stomp out human ingenuity, it remained.

Throughout the Unity, black market entrepreneurs tended to gather in out of the way places like Aetna. Asteroids and orbitals were full of them, and the Unity merchant marine wouldn’t exist without the money the sailors made on the side.

Today, Musgrave wanted three tissue growing tanks. Jack wasn’t sure how he would get them, but he had no doubt he would try. Creative entrepreneurs, like Musgrave, had a way of getting Jack to stick his neck out a little farther than he would for just about anyone else. Besides, she wasn’t bad to look at either, and Jack always appreciated the female form.

#

Jack arrived back in his office late in the orbital work day. Molly was still at her desk, Joe was in his office typing up end-of-the-day reports, and Robert was sitting in a chair in Jack’s office waiting for him, thumbing through manifests on his tablet.

“What’cha got, Robert?”

Robert Logan was Jack’s senior cargo inspector. He was in his late seventies, with a rounded belly that made his inspector’s coveralls pooch and a white beard trimmed long. He had one calloused hand in the strap of his company issued inspector’s overalls as he sat in the chair in Jack’s office.

Robert smirked. “Oh, nothing important, I just caught The Leroy trying to unload a container full of engineered salmonoids. They looked to me as if they were pretty well tailored for Aetna.”

“No shit? Charlie?”

“Yep, I was surprised myself. He says that he recently hired a new cargo master. Some kid straight outta school looking to make extra on his first time out. Anyway, I had to turn it over to Frank’s boys. Charlie should be okay as long as he didn’t know anything about it.”

Jack appeared puzzled for a moment. “Don’t think we could have fenced them, do you? You know, threatened them with the Gendarmes but then offered to make it all go away for a price?”

Robert was already shaking his head. “I looked. Nothing available to carry them to any place that would take ’em. That was one of the reasons I knew they had to be for here.”

Jack nodded in agreement. “okay. You do realize they’re going to give that ship a shakedown. There wasn’t anything that could have been traced back here?”

Robert smiled. “Nothing that wasn’t walked off the dock before I reported in to Frank. They had a good half an hour or more to clean things up before the Commissioner’s agents arrived. We’re fine.”

Jack returned Robert’s smile. “You’re a real pro. You know that?”

“Damn straight, young pup! And don’t you forget who taught you everything you know.” Robert had been in the Administration and Inspection office of the Audit Division on the Aetna orbital for forty-five years, three years longer than Jack had been alive. “I sat in your chair for twenty-five years.”

Jack’s office served both as the administrative department head for Aetna’s only orbital and as an Audit Division inspection point for company vessels coming through the Aetna system. As the head of the office, Jack was both the administrator in charge of the orbital and the person who was supposed to make all ships entering the system adhere to Unity corporation regulations. “So why did you give it up?”

Robert folded his hands on his belly, “After a while it got a little boring. I had stashed away what I needed, and I was tired of taking the risk. When you came along as an eager beaver cargo man, it seemed like a good opportunity to pass the job along to someone else.” It was Robert who first showed Jack that the office was the perfect place to organize the black market on Aetna.

Jack grinned, “You ever think about how weird it is that we are both cop and criminal on this station?”

Robert chuckled, “Once in a while. We’re just corrupt bureaucrats like everyone else in The Unity.”

Jack thought for a moment. Speaking mostly to himself he said, “I’m not sure anything would get done without corruption in this swamp.” Turning to the matter at hand he continued, “Any idea on the buyer for those fish?”

“Not sure, I left that to Frank’s people. Not that I’d want to be them. Mother Unity takes a bit of a dim view on unauthorized genetically-modified species.”

Jack shook his head. “Isn’t that the truth. What was it they did to that iceboxer over near Dignity who tried to sneak in the Manila clams?”

“Six months of re-education and then execution.”

“Not a very forgiving mother, is she?”

“Cold and hard as the vacuum she came from.”

Molly interrupted from the door. “Well, isn’t this a cheerful conversation,” she said crisply.

Jack smiled, which for Jack amounted to lifting the left corner of his closed lips ever so slightly. Molly Vargas’ title was Assistant to the Administrator. However, neither Jack nor Robert had any illusions about who kept all of them out of re-education.

Molly was the real brains behind the black market. Her job was to provide legitimate destinations and electronic documentation for all the cargo headed out from Aetna. A separate set of paper books was kept on the actual goods which came and went through their office. In eight years, Molly had only been spotted three times, and each time she had had a plausible back up story on why the manifest was wrong.

Molly wore a tight red knee-length dress, modest on the top, which complemented her curly auburn hair. Bright red lips and freckles went along with the outfit. Molly was about five years younger than Jack. He thought she was nice looking but nothing to write home about–kind of plain with no chest.

That didn’t mean she didn’t have her more soft spoken husband Todd eating out of her hand. He thought she was stunning. Molly was easy to get along with, humorous at times, with a ruthless mind when she needed it. She was interesting.

But, with no desire or need for a life partner, Jack was not the type to think about members of the feminine sex as anything more than a fine bottle of wine. When the bottle was empty, it was time to pull the cork on the next one and see what was in the new bottle.

It was for the same reasons which Todd appreciated having Molly as a partner that Jack enjoyed having her around the office. She was damned good at her job, and Jack respected talent wherever he found it. Jack figured Molly appreciated him because he treated her like a human being. From Jack’s perspective, associating with talent got you places. If talent came with a vagina, that was fine by him.

Molly walked over to his desk and put down three pieces of electronic paper and one badly pressed piece of real paper. Jack thumbed his electronic signature onto all three pieces of official business and then read over the unofficial business. As he read, he enjoyed the hand crafted antique feel of the actual paper. He nodded to Molly. Once again, her work was efficient and clean. Jack pulled the eight slips of paper out of his pocket. He handed Molly six of them.

“I think we could get Michael on The Titan to help us with Musgrave’s stuff. I know that one is going to be a pain in the ass, but I think we should try,” he said, while holding out the seventh slip of paper.

Molly pursed her lips. “What does she want now?”

“Skin tanks.”

“Seriously? We’re going to try to smuggle skin tanks in here? What happened to not sticking your neck out?” She rolled her eyes.

Jack smiled wryly. “It’s just business.”

“Yeah, well, your business is going to get all of us strapped to a chair while we watch holis on the glory of the Unity. You do know that skin tanks are class five goods; genetically modified animals like those Manila clams are only class four.”

Jack looked at Molly. “Just do what you can. If we can’t, we can’t.”

Molly still scowled but took the paper. “All right, but you understand we don’t want to get caught with this.”

“I understand.”

“It’s just because you like her tits, you know that?”

Jack let the matter drop, and, without looking at it again, drew the eighth piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Molly. “Lewis is out of jelly beans, and would you see he gets this personally? I don’t want Cathie to see it, and you don’t want to read it. It would be a liability.” Molly took the piece of paper by the corner, touching it as little as possible, as if it were toxic. Robert’s eyes narrowed as they locked on the piece of paper.

Molly said, “I have a package of licorice beans ready to head down with our papers in the morning.” Jack gave Molly a wide smile. It would have appeared very natural on anyone else. Few people in the world besides Molly and Robert would recognize that the eighth slip of paper made him nervous.

He decided to lighten the mood. “Good,” he said. “Let’s all get out of here. It’s a Friday night, and I need a beer. First round is the boss’ treat. We’re celebrating.”

Robert piped up from his chair, “What’s the occasion?”

“My reprimand from Lewis for refusing promotion.”

Robert smiled. “Eighth time’s the charm. Maybe he’ll quit asking.”

Molly shook her head as she turned to go back to her desk. Over her shoulder, she said, “No, you watch, Robert. Lewis won’t stop asking until he reaches ten. At eight, he has two fingers left.”

That got everyone laughing.

Jack stood, grabbed his parka and hat, and followed. From the lobby, he yelled across the room to Joe, still busily typing in his office. “Come on, Joe. Quit trying to write a perfect report, and let’s go get a beer. I’m buying.”

“Right with you boss, almost done,” came the reply.

“Forget about it. She’ll still find something wrong with it when you turn it in. It can wait ’til Monday. That’s an order.”

Joe looked up shaking his head, and Molly let out a little snort behind her desk. Joe and Molly had a running bet that any time he turned in a report in which Molly couldn’t correct his grammar, she would buy him lunch. In the fifteen months since Joe had joined the team, it hadn’t happened yet.

Jack headed out the door as Robert walked to his office to find his things. With the door open, Jack turned back to Molly. “Tell Todd to join us. His dinner is on me tonight. I think I still owe him one for our bet on the last ice runner races.” With that, the glass door closed behind Jack, and he was out in the corridor of the station.

Jack enjoyed reading a bit of history in his spare time. As far as he could find, in every system in which one party controls economic production, the rights of citizens quickly become undervalued. This held true both for socialist forms of government, in which the government came to control production, and corporate monopolies, like the Unity. Jack found the truth that both corporatism and socialism led to tyranny comforting in some odd way, as if all was as it should be in the cosmos, even if it added a tinge of bitterness to every smile, laugh, and gesture from the citizens of the Unity he passed as he walked the corridors of the station he managed.

Corporate governments tended to believe choice and individual expression represented a lack of efficiency. Producing too many types of space stations meant extra labor wasted on questions of design and an inefficient system of production which had to be customized to suit different products. Thus, the Unity restricted its production of orbitals to six standard models of Unity orbital, each with their own distinct purpose.

From the perspective of the Unity, Aetna represented one thing–fuel. Ever since human beings first left old Earth on the first fusion drives, water represented much more than something necessary to maintain life in the void. It represented easily separated hydrogen–hydrogen which could be compressed until forced against its will to become helium. This fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium was the most energetic process in the known universe and the basis of all space-based transport within every civilization in the Empire.

Starships used fusion within solar systems. Transit between stars was a different matter. Unless governments and fleets wanted to deal with all the impossibilities of time dilation and relativity, travel between the stars required bending time and space in such a way that two points touched. That required giant gates which ships could pass through and messing with gravity in a way which just wasn’t very safe inside the boundaries of a star system. Warping gravity over and over again tended to alter orbits and attract asteroids and comets to the gate. For this reason, gates were kept well out in the ort cloud in a stable position relative to the star they served. Most systems had two gates located on opposite sides of the system, one serving outgoing traffic and one serving incoming ships. Gates tended to alter their roles based on where sources of fuel were located.

Moons or planets with water far out in systems like Aetna were goldmines for the Unity. They allowed for much easier fuel calculations and acceleration curves when moving ships out to interstellar gates. For the Unity, snowballs like Aetna meant shorter transit times and profit.

To the minds that ran such things, Unity Orbital 1358 orbiting Aetna was nothing more than a greasy floating fuel depot, a place to top off on the way out of Sicily. To Jack and the ten thousand people who lived on the station, it was their home.

Jack walked the short distance around the station perimeter to one of two restaurants which served the station’s inhabitants, Chuck’s Place. There were very few ways in which individuals had a say in their lives in the Unity; running a government owned restaurant could be one of them. All profits still belonged to the corporation, but if a person could get a permit, they were free to serve whatever they wanted and decorate the restaurant however they could within their budget. This crack of freedom from scrutiny tended to make restaurant ownership a highly popular career choice.

Homes and restaurants were nearly the only places which didn’t have prescribed decorative styles. This tended to make both of them quite garish. Chuck’s was painted pink, with neon-orange booths around a polished steel bar that ran in a rectangle in the middle of the restaurant.

Jack walked in the door, waved at Chuck behind the bar, and began pulling bright yellow tables together. Leanne, one of Chuck’s young bar maids, came to help. By the time they had the tables arranged, Robert and Molly walked in the door. Jack ordered a couple of pitchers of beer from Leanne. Joe followed, and Todd arrived shortly thereafter.

Jack spent a pleasant few hours drinking and eating with his staff, enjoying a Friday night ritual. The bar quickly filled with station personnel and crews from the various docked ships. Jack was happily buzzed by 11:00 PM and just beginning to think about finding someone to go home with. He considered Leanne, but he would probably have to buy her a bunch of drinks. Besides, she didn’t get off until late.

He put down his half empty glass, paid his tab, and was just standing from his chair when a little old man came wandering up to his table unsteadily. Earlier, Jack had noticed him at the bar taking in what now appeared to be liquid courage, a shot at a time. The old man came too close to Jack and put his hand on Jack’s arm to steady himself.

Jack sat back down, guessing what was coming next, the alcohol not helping his mood.

“Somebody told me that you were the man to talk to about getting papers to Jersey Prime.” Of course, he said it loudly enough that half the restaurant would have heard him. Jack didn’t know where the man would have gotten the idea he could help. People smuggling was not on his resumé.

Jack’s expression went cold. With a clear edge of irritation in his voice, he said with equal loudness, “You must be mistaken, old man.” He turned around in his seat. All the expressions at the table matched his. Half the patrons in booths along the wall behind their table were now watching.

The old man bent down quietly and tried to whisper in Jack’s ear. Again the effect was much louder than it should have been to be safe. “My wife is sick. They say she’s unemployable. They’re going to kill her.”

Jack’s answer equaled the old man’s in volume as his anger rose to the surface. “What problem is that of mine, old man? I told you, I can’t help you.” He could already see Chuck coming out from behind the bar with another beefy barkeep.

This time the man tried pleading. His voice cracked with emotion. “Please. You have to help me. I can’t be without my Emma. We have been married eighty years.” Jack stayed facing away from him, his face unyielding. At this point, Chuck and the barkeep dragged the old man away, who broke down into sobs. “You have to help me.”

As if nothing had happened, Jack prepared to leave again. “I’ll see you all on Monday. I need a distraction.” He was just about to leave the table when he saw someone come in the door who made him stop. Molly and Robert followed his gaze. “And unless I am mistaken, there comes my distraction now.”

Molly just began shaking her head. “Jack, she is bad juju.”

Jack picked up his half-empty glass of beer and finished it in one long drink.

“Seriously, Jack, go find yourself a nice wench down at the spacers club. Go anywhere. Go home alone. Hell, Leanne would go home with you if you ask nicely. Just don’t go over there,” Molly pleaded.

Without acknowledging Molly, Jack walked away from the table.

“Well, my week just went to hell.”

Molly, your week would have gone to hell no matter what I did. Remember, we have to get skin tanks for Musgrave, Jack thought.

For the last three years, Anna Prindle had been a drug he couldn’t put down. In Jack’s world, in which sex was merely another form of consumption, Anna was something of an enigma. Here was a bottle which didn’t ever seem to run dry.

She was a provisioner for Sicily Four, who specialized in protein. Provisioning officers were responsible for purchasing food for their given territories to be resold to the public in the company run stores. Anna came by Aetna every three or four weeks to pick up frozen and processed fish for the markets in New Amsterdam.

Eight years younger than Jack, Anna was a one hundred and seventy-five centimeter brunette in her early thirties. Fit, she was all curves, olive skin, and green eyes. Tonight, she wore a neon green dress cut high on the legs and low on top. She matched the lack of subtlety in Chuck’s perfectly.

Jack walked up to the bar and sat down next to her. Anna didn’t see him arrive because she was busy chatting up the crewman on her other side. He was big, handsome, and athletic, probably worked in cargo. He was also young. If Jack felt threatened, he didn’t show it. To his knowledge, Anna had never been with anyone else while she was on his station.

Jack ordered a cognac neat, for himself, and a Brandy Alexander, nodding toward Anna when he ordered the brandy. He waited, listening to Anna’s bubbly girl next door voice and watching her use her warm smile to great effect. When the drinks arrived, he took the cognac. Chuck set down the Brandy Alexander in front of Anna. Anna stared at Chuck with a question on her face. Chuck just smiled and tipped his head toward Jack.

Anna turned. “Oh, Jack,” Anna squealed, the sparkle of her eyes matching the enthusiasm of her voice. She leaned over and kissed her greeting, lingering just a moment with her face next to his. She smiled, her nose wrinkling along with her freckles. Jack loved her eyes.

“Hey, kiddo. You didn’t tell me you were coming through.”

“I didn’t know myself until this week. Then there was so much to do to get ready that I figured I would just surprise you.”

Jack enjoyed the irritation on the face of the crewman behind her. Grabbing his drink brusquely off the bar, the crewman slopped a little of the brown liquid onto the polished steel. Watch and learn, young one, thought Jack as the crewman stalked off in search of other prey. To Anna, Jack said aloud, “Well, it’s a lovely surprise.”

Jack and Anna chitchatted for a few minutes while they finished up their drinks. Jack paid his second tab of the evening, and they stood to go. Anna reached over and took Jack’s arm. As he stood, Jack could see Molly across the room just shake her head.

Outside the noise of Chuck’s, the station was silent. The shops had closed for the evening, and most residents were either already tucked away in their apartments or out for the evening at either Chuck’s or the more enthusiastic restaurant and club Pogo’s.

As they walked, Jack absorbed the closeness of the girl at his side. He breathed deeply, enjoying the smell of her hair. She leaned into him. He walked slowly. He didn’t walk slowly with most women he took home.

Jack asked Anna about business and what had happened since he had last seen her. Through long years of experience, Jack had found that the walk between Chuck’s and home was best used discussing the mundane. The bird had been caged at Chuck’s. Now was the time to compliment it and flatter it so that it would spread its wings when the door closed at home.

“You made quite an impression on that crewman tonight. He wasn’t very happy when I stepped in.”

Anna laughed. “Yes, I bet he wasn’t. But I didn’t let him buy me a drink.”

“Why not? He was good looking and stacked.”

Anna shook her head. “You think that’s what I want?”

Jack lifted one shoulder in a kind of ‘I don’t know what you want’ fashion. “Whatever it is you want, I just hope you keep finding it in this old bugger.”

Anna put her arm around him and gave his lanky frame a squeeze. “Underneath your tough exterior, you’re kind. You were kind to me the first time I met you. I don’t think you know how rare it is to find kindness on a station.”

Jack grinned. “A hard candy shell with a soft chewy center, eh?”

The wanton look in Anna’s eye and the groping she gave his rear end furthered a process begun by the alcohol and the kiss back at Chuck’s. “Something like that.”

“Shush, that’s our little secret,” he said with a wink. Jack wasn’t convinced he cared what Anna thought he was. If she thought there was some deep hidden layer inside Jack, that was fine by him. If she wanted him to play the gentleman, he would, as long as it kept her coming back for more.

A few minutes later, they arrived at Jack’s neat and sparsely decorated apartment. Jack unlocked the door with a palm reader, opened it, and gestured for Anna to enter. Even before the door closed, Anna was reaching back to unzip her dress.

Chapter Three
Free-Fall

Saturday morning, Jack left his bed quietly and headed to his kitchen. He always had fun cooking for his overnight guests. He put on his heads-up display and checked his email while he cooked. The device appeared similar to the ear protection Rick had thrown at him in the submarine hangar but without the ear muffs. Jack’s email was unusually empty. Typical Saturday mornings meant sorting through Lewis’ forwards and attempts at humor. Grateful, Jack put the heads-up on the counter.

He put a couple of small dark red fish steaks in the pan along with some synthetic greens. Anna emerged from the bedroom wearing one of his button-down shirts and a pair of his boxers. She was toweling her hair just as Jack was putting the fish and cooked greens on plates. Jack took them to the table while Anna poured two glasses of Breakfast Juice–another Unity synthetic. This one was supposed to taste like oranges, whatever they were. Jack had never seen or tasted one, so he couldn’t say.

After finishing, Anna picked up her plate. “What do you want to do today, Jack?”

“Oh, I don’t know…” Jack ran his hand up Anna’s thigh and under her shirt as she walked by.

Anna skittered away from him, shaking her head and giggling. “You know life does offer other pleasurable activities.”

“None that match my time in bed with you.”

Anna shook her head and rolled her eyes. This time her answer had a bit of a bite to it. “How many women have you said that to over the years? I’m serious. Let’s go do something today.”

Jack turned his chair away from the table. He shrugged his shoulders, “What do you want to do?”

“There’s a new surrealist art exhibition at I-MAM.”

Jack groaned. There were several reasons to avoid I-MAM if possible. First, when Anna said she wanted to go to I-MAM, she didn’t mean the physical Imperial Modern Art Museum. That was located hundreds of light years away on Apollos. She meant visiting the museum via the intraspace.

Jack glanced over at the intraspace cap on a low shelf near his table. For Jack, putting on an intraspace cap was something quite different than its country cousin, the heads-up display. A heads-up display was a communications tool one used in the real world. It read your thoughts and turned them into commands and messages which you controlled.

On the other hand, intraspace caps, like the one Jack stared at on his shelf, caused the wearer to enter an altered state of consciousness in which the cap could project people, places, and activities into the mind that the subject experienced as authentic sensory input. It showed you things. It took over your mind.

Some fifty years before, this technology had been combined with what was known as the internet and intraspace was born. Deployment had slowly percolated across the galaxy. Always wary of foreign meddling, Unity Corporation had resisted intraspace. Caps had reached average Unity citizens late in the process.

Jack didn’t enjoy entering intraspace. He picked up his cap and looked at it for the thousandth time. He decided again that intraspace was unnatural. It was bad enough that anything could read his thoughts. But to Jack, the cap crossed the line when it projected sensory experiences into his mind. He felt invaded.

Kids like Joe and Anna had grown up with intraspace and took this stuff for granted. Jack, on the other hand, had vague memories of a time before he was ten in which heads-up devices and caps were solely used to control a world safely outside of him on a screen. He still tended to transact all his business in that way, staying out of intraspace unless absolutely necessary.

Occasionally, he visited a virtual brothel when boredom and frustration overcame his control. But Jack didn’t see the online world as a place for socializing. However, he was becoming increasingly isolated in that opinion. There were now couples who had never met in the real world. They spent their whole relationship in their heads.

Jack knew that part of the allure of I-MAM was the fact that it was one of the few intraspace destinations average Unity citizens could visit, not officially sanctioned by the Unity board of directors. The Unity was not the end-all and be-all of human expansion in the Milky Way.

Unity Corporation belonged, unwillingly, to a confederation of states headed by an emperor. The Pax Imperium had been forced on the Unity nearly three hundred years prior, when the Unity had been humiliated at the end of the last galactic war. The House of Athena and its allies had led the resistance to the Unity and its puppet states, eventually forcing an unconditional surrender from the Unity. The Department of Education still taught Unity school children about the Athenian atrocities of the Great War. While he had no proof, Jack instinctively understood that Unity history glossed over similar atrocities on their side.

Establishing the Pax was an attempt to keep the peace by creating a new federation of states without allowing a single state to dominate. Most of the time, the Pax Emperor was virtually powerless, and Jack still wasn’t sure how the Empire had managed to force I-MAM access on the Unity, but the rumor was that the Emperor himself had intervened.

No one had ever told Jack that it wasn’t safe for Unity citizens to visit I-MAM. Jack didn’t have to be told. When you lived under a suspicious and unforgiving government like Unity, you just knew certain things. Jack’s whole mode of operating in Unity had been to hide, to keep his head down, and keep a low profile. Going to I-MAM had nothing to do with keeping a low profile.

Finally, there was the fact that the Imperial Modern Art Museum wasn’t Jack’s cup of tea. When young, Jack had let a date talk him into going to an art exhibition in intraspace–once. Apparently, while suiting up for the party, Jack had picked the wrong avatar–a purple dinosaur, which was only in the art gallery collection as an ironic joke. It was a joke he never understood, and no one bothered to explain it to him. That evening ended coldly. It was not a pleasant memory for Jack.

Anna came back from putting the dishes in the washer and sat on his lap facing him, putting her legs around him and the chair. She wrapped her arms around his head and smiled at him. She spoke quietly, playing with his hair. “Come on, Jack. Let’s go have some fun. It’s me. We’ll go have a good laugh at the pretentiousness of it all.”

“‘Pretentiousness’ is a rather large word, my dear. I’m not sure that I’m qualified to date someone who uses ‘pretentiousness’ in casual conversation.” Jack moved his hands up under her shirt, feeling the skin around her waist.

“Pretentious, pretentious, pretentious.” Anna whispered the word in Jack’s ear, letting her lips brush him. Jack found the nape of her neck and began to kiss her as his hands began to roam. He was brought up short by pain in his ear lobe.

“Hey. Ouch!”

Through teeth clenched onto his lobe, Anna said, “Are we going to I-MAM?”

Jack was amused. Anna always knew how to make him laugh. He thought through the implications and decided that a little mild rebellion against the system might do him some good. “okay, we’ll go see the art gallery,” he said, while trying not to laugh too hard and pull on his ear.

Anna let go of his ear lobe. “Good,” she said, as she went back to kissing him. “Don’t stop now,” she crooned. “That was feeling good.”

#

Late in the morning, Jack picked up the cap and walked into his bedroom where Anna waited for him. Caps took the mind into a state that was very similar to REM sleep. So, while the body didn’t thrash around, spending anything more than a few minutes to an hour in intraspace was best done lying down. Otherwise, one tended to come out stiff and sore.

Jack had heard that in other countries in the Pax, citizens could take intraspace trips lasting for days. Supposedly, these were done in special care centers where medical professionals monitored patient’s health and kept them fed and hydrated intravenously. Jack doubted it. There were so many rumors flooding around about how life was better in the other countries that Jack didn’t believe any of them. In Athena, everyone was supposed to have their own vehicle as well.

All Jack knew for sure was that regular Unity citizens didn’t have access to these long trips. Of course, if there was such a thing as an intraspace care center, the Unity elites would have it. Even though Jack wasn’t sure why one would ever want to spend that long in intraspace, the inequality still pissed him off.

Jack lay down on the bed and put the cap on his head. He closed his eyes. Anna reached out and held his hand. Jack took a deep breath, trying to let go of everything on his mind. On the exhale, his world changed.

He stood up from a desk which looked almost exactly the same as the desk in his office. He was in his transition room. Transition rooms allowed the mind a consistent frame of reference when it first entered intraspace. As a rule, transition rooms were highly personal, often safe places from childhood–places where the mind could relax. With nothing in his brutal upbringing worth remembering, and unmotivated to create something personal, Jack had chosen his office at work to stand in as his transition room.

He faced the large screen on the wall and, using his thoughts, brought up the I-MAM as his destination. He stepped out of the door of his office into a high marble hall, with an ornate ceiling inlaid with gold. Well, if I didn’t have a security file with HR previously, I do now, he thought.

The lobby was busy with people from all over the galaxy coming and going. Behind him, doors opened and shut on a world which to him appeared blank, an off-white void. That world, the virtual world of the Imperial capital on Apollos, was not available to average citizens of the Unity. Those coming in the doors appeared out of the void.

Jack turned away and stepped up the four broad marble stairs into the cavernous entry hall. Anna waited for him at the top. Now that he had arrived, Jack felt exposed. His mantra had always been to keep his head down and avoid attention, and here he was heading into I-MAM. As he reached the top of the stairs, Anna took his hand. Jack swore that everyone was watching them.

“Nervous?” Anna asked.

Jack smiled. “Of course not. Let’s go look at some art. Although, you’re going to have to interpret it all for me.”

“Have you ever been here before?” Anna regarded him with a questioning look in her eye.

“No. I usually don’t do things which the authorities wouldn’t like.”

Anna giggled. “Oh, don’t worry about that. They don’t care. Why didn’t you tell me? So we’ll take it slow.” Anna took his hand and led him toward the turnstiles at the other end of the hall.

Once they entered the gates, Anna took a few minutes to look over a map and then headed for their first exhibit. Anna stepped through the threshold of the room, spreading her arms wide as she did so. She disappeared into a bright white mist which filled the space beyond the door.

Jack followed and felt himself enter free-fall. Instinctively, he spread his arms. With the spread of his arms, he felt the change. He didn’t seem to be falling so quickly, but his arms felt all wrong. They were placed back on his body as if they were far down his torso. His fingers felt splayed well apart. When he tried to move them, they seemed fused in place, as if there was webbing between them.

The mist parted below Jack, and he began to comprehend what had taken place when he entered the exhibition hall. The ground lay far below him. He was plummeting toward a coastline. Next to him, as if waiting for his arrival, a black bird with a very long neck began honking excitedly. He assumed it must be Anna. He turned his long neck to look at it, and it struck him that he was gliding instead of falling. He examined himself. His body had morphed into a similar black bird. From somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Jack pulled out the word ‘swan.’

He flapped his arms, or rather wings, but no matter what he did, the ground continued to rise at him at an alarming rate. He wasn’t worried about hurting himself. He assumed that was impossible in an art piece like this, but he just didn’t want to embarrass himself. Anna seemed a natural, gliding where she wanted and gaining altitude with ease. Jack felt a long dormant sense of competition rise up in him. He didn’t want to let his date beat him.

There were already several other black swans who seemed to have stranded themselves on the shoreline. The small piece of Jack’s mind not devoted to trying to stay aloft was highly amused as one couple seemed to be fighting about it all, honking madly at each other and nipping at each other with their beaks.

He was very close to the rocky shoreline now. He flapped his arms madly and eventually gained some purchase. All the while, the swan next to him continued to honk at him. With a frantic effort he slowly gained altitude, and then he felt the lift from the nearby surf. He surged upward.

The next few minutes for Jack became a desperate struggle to hold altitude, but he found himself readily adapting to his new body. Once he seemed to have learned the basics, Anna honked at him and led him past the surf over open water. Jack was beginning to enjoy himself. They zoomed lower and lower, surfing the air currents just above the swell.

Without warning, Anna dived in. Giving in to an adventurous streak which he did not know existed, Jack followed without hesitation. This time he recognized the sensation as his body changed shape. His vision changed. He could see beside him and behind him and in front of him. He surfaced and instinctually drew a breath, but what a breath. He had vast lungs that took in huge volumes of air and his nose seemed to be located somewhere on his back. A creature of vast bulk swam by him and he recognized that its bulk equaled his own–Anna, he guessed. They were some kind of air breathing fish. Anna brushed up against him and then took off swimming with all her might. He watched as she lifted her bulk out of the surface of the water and crashed back again. Jack tried to imitate her and managed to pull his enormous body out of the water on the third try. He was huge, perhaps some twenty meters in length. On his fourth leap, Jack managed to get far enough out of the water that he once again reverted to the swan.

Anna followed and then led him on a short flight across open water to a grass covered plain. Upon landing, she morphed into some kind of cat type creature. It somewhat resembled a creature Jack knew as a New Samoan Camel, but it didn’t have water sacks. Jack landed and found himself running on four paws, covered in golden hair, his head surrounded by a mass of auburn fur.

Jack and Anna spent the next couple of hours putting all sorts of fantastic animal life through their paces. When finished, they bounded through one of the many exit portals he had seen on their tour. Jack was laughing even before he had fully returned to his own body. He grabbed Anna and held her to his chest. He couldn’t ever remember a time in his life in which he had given himself so fully to the pure joy of the moment as he had done in the last couple of hours. Anna leaned in and laughed with him, tears streaming down her face.

“What was that?”

“Old Earth.”

“No! Seriously? It was amazing.”

“The artist Nanami Komatsu has a strong environmental thread in all her work. In this piece, she wanted us to understand that humans have much more in common with the life on Earth than on other planets. Her argument is that we understand Earth life instinctually because we evolved with it. She thinks the instincts of the whale–that air breathing fish–the swan, and the lion–the cat–are buried in our DNA.”

Jack listened but only a little. He was too drunk with the sound of Anna’s voice and his enjoyment of the last two hours to listen carefully to what she was saying. He stopped and held Anna away from him by the shoulders. He gazed into her eyes. “Thank you.”

She reached out and took Jack’s hand, as she had done many times before. Precisely what made this instance so different, Jack couldn’t have said, but when she took his hand, he understood that Anna meant that she enjoyed him, that he was part of her laughter. Jack was unnerved to discover that she meant the same to him. He hesitated.

Anna smiled. “There’s more to see.” She tugged him forward.

For the second time that day, Jack embraced discomfort for the sake of Anna. He allowed her to lead him down the corridor toward their next adventure.

After several more hours of all sorts of mind and reality bending exhibits, Jack was ready for a break. He suggested that they find something quieter, a place to sit for a while. He and Anna walked hand-in-hand into the Imperial Peace Garden which sat under glass in the center of I-MAM. Jack inhaled the damp aroma of growing things as if it were an elixir. As someone who had spent his adult life on space stations, barely habitable moons, and asteroids, the smell of living plants and fertile soil always smelled amazing to Jack.

After taking a break on a bench and then wandering the various paths surrounded by plants of every variety, Anna said, “There’s one more thing I want you to see Jack, but it definitely isn’t on the Unity approved list.” Anna stood and reached out her hand for Jack to follow.

Instinctively, Jack recognized in the request both the danger and Anna’s reason for coming to I-MAM. He sensed danger and hesitated. So far what they had done had been innocent enough but Jack was so used to keeping his head down. He looked at Anna’s outstretched hand. I’ve come this far. It doesn’t make sense to back out now, he thought and he shrugged. Looking up at Anna’s face he said, “It’s been a day of bending rules. Why not?”

Anna led Jack to another corner of the peace garden. As they approached a bend in the path, Anna began to grin. “Watch out. They might try to glare us to death.” She gripped his hand a little more firmly, straightened her back, and walked confidently forward.

Scanning the sparse crowd, Jack easily picked out two beefy Unity human resource officers eyeing everyone as they walked around the bend. They stood to the side, evidently powerless to interfere, dressed in the charcoal gray suits and purple ties of HR.

“They can’t stop us from going in, but they definitely try to scare you.”

Jack was already so far outside his comfort zone today, he decided to just go with it. What could they do? Jack straightened his back and confidently matched Anna’s pace. As they approached, the HR thugs watched them the whole way, jaws clenched. Jack stared strictly forward, refusing eye contact. Once around the corner, Jack and Anna slowed their pace.

They walked a path between two highly ornamental gardens like none Jack had ever seen. On the one side, four foot trees clustered in places of artificial sunlight. Every couple of minutes or so, the sunlight would be moved to some other space in the exhibit and the trees would use stubby root-like feet to follow the light. Their leaves were long and triangular and trailed stiffly behind them as they ‘walked.’

On the other side of the path were also trees of about four to six feet, but these did not move. Their stems appeared somewhat crystalline in appearance, but at the top, greenish blue leaves erupted for photosynthesis. Jack recognized these as the native trees from the Unity owned world of Cyprus Four. Cyprus four had been made barren in the war. Exceedingly rare, trees from its ecosystems only existed in botanical gardens like this one.

He looked back at the first side of the exhibit and something from his early studies came back to him. The home planet of the Unity’s chief rival in the empire, Athena, had trees that moved. Without speaking, Jack and Anna stepped forward.

Mixed in with the trees on either side of the path were striking holographic images from over three hundred years prior. Each image, taken from an implant, a heads-up, or security camera, showed the moment at which horrific destruction rained down upon a planet during the Great War–the very instant at which that planet was made uninhabitable. Underneath each photograph was a simple plaque stating the name of the planet and the number of humans killed.

Every person raised in the Unity knew that twenty-four worlds belonging to the Unity and its allies had been made uninhabitable during the Great War. An estimated one hundred and ten billion Unity citizens died. Yet as Jack walked, something didn’t make sense. There were two planets listed on the Athenian side before any were listed on the Unity side of the path, and from then forward there was a simple tit-for-tat trade–a back and forth–for several planets. Right at the end was there a long list of planets destroyed on the Unity side in quick succession. This destruction was the famous Catastrophe that every Unity school child learned about. What confused Jack was the similar list of planets on the Athenian side. Jack had never learned anything about that.

Jack felt betrayed, angry. While he may not have much affection for the Unity Corporation, he had always seen it as the victim of aggression in the Great War. Here was a narrative which showed something different. Unity had been the first to push an asteroid into a planet. In fact, they had done so twice before Athena responded in kind. By the time Jack reached the end of the path, he was sick to his stomach. There, at the feet of a statue honoring the first Emperor, the gardens merged. The walking trees of Athena moved among the crystalline trees of the Unity.

Jack sat heavily on a bench.

Anna wiped tears from her eyes. “It’s a lot to take in the first time you see it, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. It can’t be true.”

“Can’t it, Jack? I don’t think you believe that it’s a lie. The HR thugs at the gate are the best proof. If this weren’t true, they wouldn’t be there.”

“Typical HR behavior, isn’t it? Make a problem more obvious by trying to keep it secret.”

Anna just nodded as she wiped away tears. Then standing up, she turned to Jack. “Well, this isn’t how I want our time at I-MAM to end. Let’s go find something crazy and laugh ourselves silly.”

Jack stood with her, and this time as they walked past the guards, he wasn’t nervous; he was furious.

#

Sometime early on Monday morning Jack woke up, lifted his head off the pillow, and rested it on his hand, while he listened to Anna’s slow breathing. He curled up behind her naked body, wrapping his free arm around her. He put his face close to the top of her head and kissed her gently. Anna grinned at his touch and, keeping her eyes shut, snuggled closer. She wrapped his arm tighter around her as she settled down to sleep again.

Ever since their visit to I-MAM on Saturday, Jack recognized that he needed to quit pretending his regular visits from Anna were about sex for him. Truth be told, he had known it for some time. At the beginning of the relationship, he told himself that it was just the relaxed, easy quality of the intercourse which kept him interested. With Anna, sex never felt like a performance, as it was with so many others, but, as he lay there in the dark, he wondered how long he had been fooling himself. He may tell himself that he didn’t care about what Anna thought of him, but he did. He wanted her to come back.

A few hours from now, Anna would leave his bed and not return for another three or four weeks. Jack knew he would come home that evening and drink. Anna was too polite to talk about it, but Jack was no fool. He knew that Anna didn’t spend their time apart pining for him. She simply moved on to the next station and found herself another warm bed. He knew, because Anna never tried to contact him between visits. He knew, because it was what he would have done at thirty-two. Hell, most of the time when he was in his twenties he didn’t always bother to stay the night.

Jack wasn’t jealous. He liked to sample the wine, and living on a station gave him ample opportunity. There were always travelers coming through looking for a quick bit of companionship. Yet Jack had to admit to himself that something was different with Anna. This wasn’t strictly sex any more. In the past, the answer had been easy. If things got intimate, he just moved on. For reasons he didn’t understand, he hadn’t moved on from Anna.

The idea of fidelity had never appealed to Jack. Limiting himself to sex with just one person just didn’t seem sustainable to him. He figured boredom would set in at some point, and he’d wander.

Looking back, Jack figured that things had gone astray the night Anna bought him a drink. That night in the bar, the attention of this thirty-something had flattered him. At the time he had just turned thirty-nine, and Jack knew that by most standards he was handsome, in a late youth kind of way. Yet, he found himself wondering what a younger woman in her prime like Anna saw in him. What she saw in him, she would say, was kindness, but Jack didn’t think of himself as a particularly a kind person.

The night on which Jack met Anna had not been her best. Having had one too many, she found herself at the mercy of a scumbag named Larry Wilson. Wilson had been a dock worker on the station who didn’t last very long. He arrived with a foul demeanor and a hair trigger to match. He had set Jack off from the moment he met him, but Larry hadn’t been Jack’s hire, so he hadn’t done anything to get rid of him.

By the time Jack sat down at the bar, Anna was laughing at everything Larry said. Jack had never seen her before. Larry kept trying to put his hand underneath her yellow halter top. She was slapping his hand, but her body was responding to the attention.

It hadn’t taken Anna’s dilated pupils for Jack to put two and two together. The situation irritated Jack. Chuck, and for that matter the whole bar, looked nervous. Only Larry, with his three day stubble and greasy coveralls, seemed to be enjoying himself.

After watching Chuck towel dry the same glass for the third time, Jack decided he needed to do something. Setting down his drink with more energy than usual, he stood up. The movement and the noise got Chuck’s attention. Jack stared hard at him. Chuck nodded imperceptibly and from under the bar flashed the stick taser which Jack had procured for him sometime before.

Larry remained oblivious, intent upon his goal. Jack walked up behind him and Anna. With one quick motion he grabbed Anna’s hands and pulled her away so she wasn’t touching Larry. At the same moment, Chuck reached over the bar and gave him a jolt that would have felled an elephant. Anna stopped mid-laugh. Larry went rigid and fell forward onto the bar. Jack picked up Anna and began to carry her to the door.

“Let me go!” Anna shouted, trying to kick and punch Jack. Jack kept walking.

“Chuck, you better call the Gendarme.”

“Leanne’s already on it.”

“I’ll get her out of here, but you better keep him down until they show up.”

Chuck just nodded. “You know what bothers me most about this?” Chuck said grimly.

“What?”

“I’m going to have to clean his piss up off my floor.”

The next morning, Jack woke up stiff and in pain on his too short couch. He had given Anna the bed, a glass of water, and a hard to miss note saying, “DRINK THIS!”

He rolled over and found Anna sitting in a chair watching him.

“I am sure that I owe you a huge thank you, but, to tell the truth, I don’t know exactly what for. The last thing I remember, this grubby looking guy offered to buy me a drink.”

Jack rubbed his eyes and sat up. “Well, it wasn’t just a drink.”

“The rest of it is pretty hazy, but that was my guess.” She stood up. “I don’t want to keep you from your day. Thank you.” She walked briskly to the door. “And thanks for the water.” She tried to smile as she palmed the latch, and then she was gone.

Two days later, Larry had an accident while doing an EVA on a freighter that had just come into port. Mysteriously, his suit sprung a leak in hard vacuum right in the small of his back and he died. Whether the other dock workers took care of it or if Frank’s boys cleaned things up, Jack never found out. He didn’t want to know. Knowing would have been a liability.

Jack didn’t think any more of it, until later in the week when he was sitting at the bar in Chuck’s finishing a beer and someone set down a Cognac in front of him. Jack looked sideways at Anna.

“I think I at least owe you a drink,” she said, as she flashed her winning smile.

Out of curiosity, Jack followed her lead. He wanted to see where she wanted to go. When they finally got back to his place, Anna had just cuddled with him for a while, soaking in the feeling of being in his arms. Of course later they had sex, but for Jack his memories always tended to linger on the simple enjoyment of holding her and their conversation. She seemed to feel safe with him. That simple moment had thrilled him in a way which none of his virtuoso erotic performances, or his conquests of perfectly formed cynthies, ever had. It still thrilled him every time he thought about it.

Anna opened her eyes, laughed, and reaching down behind her, said, “Well, good morning to you, too!” Then turning, she kissed him slowly. Jack felt his sense of strength grow. Anna rolled over onto her back and pulled him on top of her. Jack took control.

Chapter Four
New Management

Jack entered the office promptly at 8:00 AM, ready for a mundane day of paperwork. He and Anna had kissed their good-byes a couple of minutes before, as he left for the office. As usual, Jack didn’t know when he would see her again. They both said they would stay in touch while they were apart. Neither of them meant it.

Jack refused to feel anything. It wouldn’t do any good. Most importantly, he refused to give Molly or anyone else in the office any reason to discuss it with him. Molly, in particular, didn’t approve of Anna. She had made it clear that she didn’t think Anna was good for him. It always took him about a week to get back to top form after she left, and that tweaked Molly, because she had to pick up the pieces he dropped.

Molly was already at her desk. She didn’t say anything to Jack as he walked by. Her silence communicated her position as effectively as a three page, single spaced memo. Jack walked into his office and shut his door.

Fifteen minutes later, he recognized that he had sat down at his desk and had yet to open the briefcase full of reports he was supposed to read over the weekend. Jack put on his heads-up. With his thoughts, Jack commanded the company server on the station to project his inbox onto the large screen which sat above his desk. In most business settings, workers avoided the full intraspace experience. Instead, they used heads-up displays or projected communications onto screens, leaving themselves available for interruptions and visitors.

Jack’s email appeared on the screen only to be abruptly overridden by a direct message from Lewis. “Please take the 8:30 AM shuttle to the surface. There is a meeting for all department heads in my office at 1:00 PM standard time.” The message startled Jack. He didn’t even know there was an override which would let Lewis ping him that way.

At the same moment, Molly knocked on his door and entered without waiting. “Jack?” She was staring down at the tablet she had in her hand, sounding nervous. “Have you seen the docking manifests from this weekend?”

“No. Should I?”

“HR put two ships on the surface. Admin brought in three. I have another HR ship scheduled to dock here later this morning.”

Jack felt an instant rush of adrenaline. “No shit?” He took the tablet out of Molly’s hand, and his mind began to race. It could be a trick, but he doubted that. He kept his face carefully neutral as he thought.

When done, he smiled casually. “Well, Molly dearest, things are about to get interesting around here. I have a meeting in Lewis’s office at one.”

Molly turned pale.

“Have a seat.” Jack nodded to the chairs along the wall, as he reached into his desk for a bottle of scotch and two glasses. “Now is not the time to panic.” He heard the door in the lobby swing open. Jack lifted his eyebrows and asked Molly an unspoken question.

She shook her head. “They aren’t due in until eleven.”

Jack reached back in his desk and got out a third glass. Joe would be at home today. He had finished up the weekend inspection and cargo duties early that morning. The door would be Robert.

Robert came in the door to Jack’s office. Jack held out a glass of scotch and gestured to the seat next to Molly, then handed Molly a glass.

Robert smiled. “I don’t usually drink before three. What’s the occasion?”

Molly leaned forward, pulled the tablet off the desk, and handed it to Robert.

“Mother of God, protect us.”

Jack just smiled. “Have you ever seen anything like it, Robert?”

Robert shook his head and answered, “No.”

Jack took a gulp from his glass and looked at the wall clock. He had about ten minutes until he had to be in the shuttle with Ernie. He took a moment to throw a message to the shuttle pilot with his cap and ask him to hold the shuttle for him.

“All right, we have a plan in place for this. Now we have to work quickly,” he said to his staff.

#

Jack stared out the window all the way down to the surface. He needed time to think. They were going to have to be cautious moving forward until they could get the lay of the land. It could all be some kind of inspection. They had gone through those before, nothing to worry about. They simply showed the inspectors the cooked books. HR, or whoever, glanced over them, and that was the end of it. It wasn’t as if they could find anything by looking at the electronic records, not without digging deeply into them. One of the advantages of heading the black market on Aetna from the inspection office was that the shipping records could be made to match from start to finish. Sometimes even the ship’s captain didn’t know that instead of carrying a load of bulk wheat he was bringing in supplies for the fishing fleet.

Even as he thought it over, he recognized that with this many ‘troops on the ground’ it was unlikely that all Unity had in mind was a typical inspection. Changes were coming to Aetna. That was all right by Jack. Jack had yet to meet a Unity official who couldn’t be corrupted if you offered them the right thing. The trick was figuring out what they needed that they couldn’t get. Offer the wrong item to the wrong official and that could be the end of everything. Jack would have to sit back until he could see all the angles.

Jack took a relaxed breath. HR would just have docked at the station. They would likely have made their way to his offices almost immediately. He breathed again. Molly would be ready, he thought. She has never let you down. Trust your staff.

#

The shuttle landed and Jack disembarked, chatting with Ernie as he exited. There was a taxi waiting at the stand when he approached. He got in and took the short ride to the Sub dock. Jack arrived just in time to see Rick come out of his office.

He appeared surprised. “Jack, what are you doing here?”

Jack gave him an easy smile and a shrug. “I was in the neighborhood, and thought that I would just drop by.”

Rick nodded, and from the tightness of his smile, Jack knew that he suspected why he had dropped by.

“Come in.” Rick gestured to his office door.

This time he didn’t use his floating coaster before he said, “What’s on your mind, Jack.”

Jack glanced at his coffee cup.

Rick gave him the barest hint of shaking his head. Jack shrugged and began to talk. “Do you know what’s coming our way?”

“Not really, but I guessed something was up when three or four ships landed late on Friday, and Lewis delayed our move until they were all tucked in.”

“Two from HR and three from admin.”

Rick looked surprised but answered with an almost exaggerated ease. “Well, I guess that means we’re probably getting some new management.”

“It might mean we won’t be able to get your shipment in for a while. We’ve had to put everything on hold.”

Rick turned a little pale but didn’t miss a beat. “Naw, anything coming through regular channels should be fine.” He stood up. “Thanks for coming by to tell me.”

Taken a little aback, Jack stood as well. It was as if Rick feared they were being watched. Jack was out the door before Rick spoke again. With an overly genuine smile and a pat on the back, Rick said, “Jack, if you ever get serious about taking that little fishing trip, just let me know. And don’t try it by yourself. This moon has a lot of surprises up her sleeve that people from the orbital don’t know anything about. A man could get lost out there.”

Jack decided to play along. He chuckled and grinned. “I’ll remember that. You have a great day, Rick. I better get to my meeting.”

Jack got back in the waiting cab, a little confused. Rick was scared, more than usual scared, and suspicious. He no longer trusted that his office wasn’t bugged. In fact, he was so concerned about it that he hadn’t wanted to even reveal that he could undermine it with his talking coaster thing.

Yet, even though he was scared, Rick had made sure to offer Jack a way of escape if things got interesting. Jack wondered why he was willing to stick his neck out for him.

#

When Jack exited the cab at the admin building, he did the usual duck and run to get out of the cold into the comparatively warm vestibule. It was empty, not a vendor in site. Jack had anticipated that. He couldn’t decide if this was good or not. Probably they all had been warned, but maybe not. Either way, he didn’t figure the vendors would be showing up today. He put on his most passive look as he walked by two HR gendarmes he didn’t recognize and entered the building.

He smiled his usual smile to whoever was running the lobby desk and proceeded to the elevator. He checked the time; he would be fine, a few minutes early in fact.

He calmed himself as he stepped out, walking naturally through the door. Reassuringly, Cathie was behind the desk where she should be. Jack had half expected to see someone from HR at the post. Jack smiled and said nonchalantly, “What’s the scoop, Cathie?”

Cathie jumped as she looked up at Jack. There were tear stains on her cheeks and her eyes said her mind had been occupied elsewhere. “You’ll just have to see for yourself,” she replied evenly. Her tone lacked its usual warmth.

Jack entered the office, deciding to take a more subdued tack. He slipped in quietly and took the last seat available. Although about ten minutes early, he was the last to arrive. The twelve different heads who reported directly to Lewis were there. All were seated in a single row of conference chairs organized around the desk. None of them were talking to each other.

Seated at the desk was a man in a dark blue suit with a red striped tie and white shirt, the uniform of business executives for almost one thousand years. This year’s model of tie had tiny blue pinstripes running up and at an angle to the right. The man was a perfect Unity executive. He had dark brown hair, cut short, with a perfect part on the right side. There was just enough salt showing through the pepper on the sides of his hair to give him that sexy, older man look. He had thick eyebrows, a strong chin, piercing blue eyes, and a square jaw line. Even as he read over the papers in front of him, he had the permanent smirk Jack associated with those in power. He looked vaguely familiar but Jack couldn’t place him.

Next to him, on his left, stood a security officer in the dark purple jumpsuit of the gendarmes. His hands behind the back of his lean muscular frame, he stood in perfect at-ease posture. He had a buzz cut to go with his silver hair, and his eyes constantly scanned the row of individuals in front of him. Jack checked down the row to see if Frank was in the room. He sat on a chair at the end of the row with a grin on his face that made him look like a kid in a candy shop. As Jack glanced back down the row, he realized that most of the eyes in the room, particularly those of the women, were not watching GI Joe. They were elsewhere.

On the other side of the Suit stood Venus herself, perfect in every way: straight blond hair–highlighted–a face both innocent and capable, and a medium frame. She wore the strictly regulation blue skirt suit of a female HR officer. She had turned the collar of her perfectly white shirt up. Two sizes too small, the shirt had been unbuttoned to expose the swell of her tan breasts. There was not a freckle, wrinkle, or flaw of any kind to be found on her skin. She had a designer heads-up display over one eye, and she was concentrating on something, likely checking her email, Jack decided. He immediately pegged her as a cynthy, but this one had treatments far beyond what even most could afford.

From Jack’s perspective, it was a lovely view. The women in the room were pissed. Red in the face, Bonnie Stuart, the head of Fuel Processing, looked as if she was about ready to launch herself across the desk and strangle the bitch as she smoothly took off her heads-up and folded it with a loud click.

Where was Lewis? The thought hit Jack like a freight train. He quickly surveyed the room and found him sitting in a chair off to the side, hands nervously folded on his belly. He wore a double-breasted blue suit which Jack had never seen him wear. Jack recognized it as an official executive’s uniform which went out of style about twenty years ago. Lewis appeared uncomfortable. Every once in a while he would wipe the sweat off the top of his balding head with a white handkerchief. Then he would return to fidgeting in his chair.

Jack checked his watch. It clicked over to 1:00 PM. On the second, the Suit started talking. The guy must be wired, thought Jack. All the better, maybe we can figure out a way to hack his brain.

His manner of speaking was polished, too polished. He said exactly what should be said, smiled in all the right places, and paused just where he should, all without any of the warmth or good natured clumsiness that would have made it human. His eyes were anywhere else but in the present. The effect was off putting but helped Jack get a better picture of the man Jack suspected would be his new supervisor.

“Good afternoon, everyone. I am pleased to be here today. My name is Timothy Randall. I am an administrative vice-president with specialties in resource development and compliance. This past week, by an executive order, signed by CEO Cowhill himself, I was asked to replace Director Lutnear as the head of the administration here on Aetna.” Here the suit smiled at Lewis. “Director Lutnear has agreed to stay on as the deputy director.” The suit started clapping. GI Joe and Boobs immediately followed his lead. Most of the staff followed suit. Lewis started clapping with them; then, realizing it was for him, stopped and bobbed his moist pink head.

“We have important changes in our future, but, before we get to that, I would like to introduce the other members of my staff. On my left is Colonel Andrew Gunderson, our new head of security.” Here he paused again for a round of polite clapping. Jack gave the new head of security two claps. “Frank Hanson will be taking over as head of security on the orbital.”

“I am also delighted to introduce senior executive director Carla Savage, our new human resources officer. There are enormous advantages to having our own human resources staff here on Aetna.” This time Jack clapped right along with the rest. Boobs smiled politely and, after looking around the room, made eye contact with Jack. She held his gaze as she smiled and absentmindedly ran one hand through her hair. Jack decided that he could see the benefits, and he agreed they were enormous. He also decided HR might not be such a bad department after all.

“In the Unity, we are one family, a unified team headed for the same goals. Right now, the Unity needs team Aetna to pitch in and carry a greater share of the load. We have a shortage of processed fusionable hydrogen. The Unity needs to produce more if we are going increase our rate of growth. I have been given a mandate to triple the production in the next two years here on Aetna. I know all of you will be as excited as I am to help accomplish the goals which the board of directors has set for us.” Here he smiled and paused, waiting for a response from his audience. No one moved. The suit continued without giving any sign that he was surprised.

“In the coming days, I will be meeting with each of you individually to discuss how we can work together to accomplish the task set for us by the board. Cathie will be in touch shortly to let you know when you will be expected in my office. Thank you very much. Have a good day.”

The suit stood, faced the Unity flag in the corner of the office and put his hand over his heart. Boobs and GI Joe did the same. Recognizing the ritual, Jack stood with the other staff. Suit started. They all followed. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Unity Corporation…”

Crossing the room at the end of the meeting, Jack walked directly up to Lewis. Jack smiled warmly, holding out his hand and said sardonically, “Lewis, congratulations on your demotion. I have an evening free on my calendar. I was wondering if tonight would work for that offer of dinner.”

Shell-shocked, Lewis took Jack’s hand and shook it. “Thank you,” he said with a vacant stare. Jack waited, while his words penetrated a mind thickened by worry. He watched his words register as Lewis’ eyes focused.

Lewis spoke clearly this time. “I would like that Jack, I really would. What do you say to this evening at six? You’ll come by the house?” He was now shaking Jack’s hand vigorously.

Jack pulled his hand away, surreptitiously wiping the sweat off before he put it in his pocket. “I’ll see you at six.” He projected confidence, trying to reassure Lewis. He needed to get it together.

As he finished talking to Lewis, Jack had the distinct impression that someone was now standing very close behind him. He turned to leave the room and found himself confronted by Boobs, who was standing a step and a half inside the perimeter of polite social distance. Jack looked her in the eye.

She put her hand into the small space between them. “You must be Jack Halloway.” Without looking down, Jack took her hand and shook it. Carla held on a moment longer than was polite.

Jack’s mind recognized the invitation. He didn’t even make a conscious choice to follow. Years of habituation and practice made that choice for him. “So I am, and you are Ms. Savage, our new compliance officer.”

She nodded slightly, holding his gaze and remaining within the perimeter of familiarity. She smiled. “You and I will be working closely together in the coming weeks.”

“Then I will count that as one of the benefits of having our own HR staff on Aetna.”

Boobs put her hand on his arm and leaned in, allowing her chest to brush into him ever so slightly. Jack leaned down to listen, this time looking down to enjoy the view. “I have a particular problem, which I believe of all the people in this room, you are the best qualified to handle.” Her hand strayed to the buttons on Jack’s shirt. “Would you meet me in my office in thirty minutes? I took one of the corner suites on the eighteenth floor. Go right from the elevators.”

Jack savored the pleasant rush like a fine wine. For a connoisseur like himself, anticipation was as much a part of the fun as the actual joyride itself. “I would be happy to meet with you. Since we are going to be working so closely together, it makes sense that we get to know each other on a professional basis.”

Carla laughed politely. “Well said. I’ll see you in thirty.” She turned and walked away. In the crowded room, Jack chose not to observe the view. He could wait.

Instead, he surveyed the room and almost burst out laughing. Vice President Suit was standing and talking with Bonnie from Fuel Processing. She had her arms folded across her barrel-sized chest and didn’t look happy.

Tall for a woman, Bonnie equaled Suit in height, but Jack guessed she had forty pounds and twenty years on him, not that she was fat. Jack thought of her as thick, built square for heavy work. There was a rumor that she had earned her supervisor’s job by reporting her senior for harassment. Jack didn’t believe it. She wasn’t handsome enough to harass. Jack figured she did it the old fashioned way, working twice as hard as her male counterparts.

Bonnie and he didn’t see eye-to-eye on just about anything. They were barely on speaking terms. But they both respected what the other could provide. As the head of the largest industry on Aetna, Bonnie was a major customer of Jack’s, but she usually let a male surrogate get orders to him.

Jack walked toward the pair. As he approached, he could hear Bonnie. “…I just don’t see how it can be done without new workers. It seems dangerous to me.”

Suit reached out and put a reassuring hand on her arm. Big mistake, thought Jack.

“Director Stuart, we can do this. I have tackled much more difficult projects in the past, and we succeeded every time. I am sure that we are going to make a great team.” Suit saw Jack approaching and decided to shift the conversation. Looking away from Bonnie, he turned to Jack and gave him a smile with teeth unnaturally white.

Jack returned the smile and held out his hand. “Associate Director Jack Halloway, sir.”

“Jack, I am glad you came to say hi.” Suit returned his handshake warmly.

“I just wanted to say that I am looking forward to the challenge which is before us.”

“I bet you are.” The suit paused for half a beat and continued. “There is going to be so much work to be done on the orbital in the next few months. We are going to have to ramp up her capacity. In fact, why don’t you stop by the desk and talk to Cathie. I think I have some time late in the day today. I would hate to see you have to come down again for another meeting.”

“That would work well, sir. I’ll look forward to hearing more about what you’re thinking. For now, I just wanted to say if you need anything from me, don’t hesitate to ask.” Turning to look at Bonnie, he said with a smile, “That goes for you, too.”

Already blotchy from anger, Bonnie’s face turned scarlet.

Suit rescued Jack. “Well, thank you, Jack. I will be in touch, and I look forward to our meeting.”

Jack smiled, said “thank you,” and ducked away, enjoying the simmering wrath he had created in the shrew, Bonnie.

Jack left the room, quite a bit less worried than when he went in. He stopped off with Cathie and scheduled a meeting with The Suit. Jack glanced at the time. He had twenty minutes before he was to meet with Carla.

He grabbed a quick bite in the cafeteria and called up his email on his heads-up. Molly didn’t say much but didn’t use any of their code phrases for trouble either, so Jack assumed the inspection had gone well.

He knocked on the door to Carla’s office just after his appointed time. Set to private, the window next to her office was a dark gray.

“Come in.”

Jack opened the door and was greeted by much more of Boobs than he had seen at the meeting earlier. He shut the door behind him, giving his attention to enjoying the moment.

Twenty minutes later, as he finished tucking his light blue oxford shirt in and zipped his fly, Jack asked, “Was that all the business we had to discuss today?”

“Mainly,” Carla said, with a mischievous grin. “Why? Wasn’t that productive enough for you?”

“Oh, it was quite productive.”

“I will need to schedule some time with you on the station after you meet with Timothy.”

“That sounds lovely.” He patted her ass as she bent down to put on her other shoe.

“Yes, it does, but at that time we will have Unity business to discuss and our professional relationship will have to take a back seat.” Carla gently removed his hand.

“All right, I have my meeting with Vice President Randall this afternoon. If you throw a message to Molly, my assistant, she should be able to get you on my calendar, the day after tomorrow.”

Straightening up, she looked at him as she leaned against her desk. “That should work well.”

“I will see you then.” This was always tricky. He offered his hand to Carla to shake. She took it and leaned in and kissed him hard. “That’s so you don’t forget me.”

Jack used the time between his rendezvous with Boobs and his meeting with the Suit to visit some of his customer base on Aetna. It was about as bad as he expected. Half of them were panicked out of their minds. The other half of them still had their wits about them but were just about as scared. Jack spent a couple of hours repeatedly explaining to people like Hank the coffee guy and others why the new folks from admin and HR were here. Once they understood that it wasn’t some sort of raid, most of them calmed down. Jack encouraged them to stay low for a little bit, work their regular jobs and take their company pay, while he and his staff got the lay of the land.

#

Jack arrived back at the executive suite just before his appointed meeting at 4:00 PM corporate standard time. After cooling his heels in the lobby for about five minutes, Cathie peered up at him and said he could go in. Jack noticed that she appeared calmer, more collected.

He opened the door and sat down in one of two chairs in front of the desk. Suit already had a set of crystal glasses sitting on his desk. Jack recognized them as contraband he had procured for Lewis through the black market. He was busy filling them from a bottle of Lewis’ scotch, also contraband. Lewis’ crystal dish with jelly beans was sitting in its usual place on his desk. Jack felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand.

“I hope you don’t mind if we don’t follow the rulebook exactly.”

Jack smiled, maintaining a deliberate calm despite the adrenaline. “Not at all.”

“Of course, you don’t. After all, you provided these things for Lewis.” Picking up the tray he said, “Have a jelly bean.”

Jack was instantly alert to everything. He half expected to hear GI Joe come in behind him. He took two jelly beans from the proffered tray and put them in his mouth as a means of stalling to think. He could have just gotten this information from Lewis. Candy and alcohol were petty offenses, no big deal.

Jack decided there was no point in denying what Dick in a Suit already knew. “Do you know how hard it is to get these?” he said, plucking another from the dish. “We don’t even make them here in Unity.”

Dick in a Suit smiled, taking a handful of the jelly beans himself. “I like you, Jack.”

Jack wondered if this is what a mouse felt like as the cat played with its dinner. There wasn’t anything he could do but wait until he found out what Suit wanted. Jack took his drink off the tray on the desk and took a sip. He decided to be patient and not say anything.

Suit smiled for an appropriate length of time and then recognizing Jack’s choice to wait, continued forward unperturbed. “Let’s cut the crap, Jack. You’re half the reason I decided to take the position here on Aetna.”

This surprised Jack, but he didn’t let it show. He continued to sit passively and let The Suit continue to speak.

Suit picked up a data pad from his desk and threw the image from the data pad onto the huge screen behind him. Jack recognized what appeared to be his HR file. Suit absentmindedly scrolled through a list of pilfered and smuggled items, all traced to him.

Early on in his career with the black market, Jack had learned to be cool under pressure. Often, the more tense he got, the more still he sat, the more deliberate his movements. Fight or flight had to be controlled. He waited, impassive.

They knew a lot. They knew most everything in fact, everything important anyway. It was enough for a dozen death sentences. As Jack scanned the list scrolling by, he noticed that his purchases for Musgrave were missing. That struck him as odd. He still didn’t know what the suit wanted. He sipped his drink.

“You’re a very talented man, Jack. I could use talent like yours on my team. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like your little enterprise. It took a sophisticated understanding of how cargo flows through Unity space to pull it off.”

In an instant, Jack knew what Suit wanted, and he knew he wasn’t going to be arrested or killed, at least not yet. Internally, he relaxed. He still refused to say anything. He took another sip of his drink.

“Jack, the idea that the Unity is one consolidated corporation led by an undivided board is bullshit. It doesn’t work that way at the top.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “I always figured that had to be the case.”

Suit nodded and continued. “Anyone with two brain cells figures that out, and you have many more than two.”

Recognizing the compliment, Jack raised his glass at Suit. Suit continued, “The boardroom is an everlasting combat between unrelenting enemies. There are alliances, backstabs, and turns of fate almost daily. I would guess there is a murder at least once a week based on the board infighting, all dolled up to look like an accident, of course. “

“So you want me to be part of your team?” Jack was always amused by how smart you could look by merely repeating what had already been said.

“I do.”

“I’m not much of a team player. You’ll be disappointed.”

“Oh, I doubt that. I can provide you with what you want. I like to keep my team happy.”

“And what do I want?”

“From what I can see, not much–wine, women, and song, mostly. If there is anything else, just name it.”

“Autonomy.”

The Suit nodded and brought his hands together at his chest, leaning his elbows on the desk and intertwining his fingers. He put his two index fingers together and tapped them under his nose.

“Jack, let’s get something straight. You have done well for yourself. You have built a little trade empire on the fringes of nowhere. You managed to stay under the radar until you started putting stuff together for Musgrave. Once the cynthies started making for this system, HR figured that somebody had to be supplying him with the equipment. That was your mistake. I had some of my people at HR do some research and I was impressed. Your little network is by far the biggest independent network I have ever seen in the Unity. But I have you dead to rights.”

He tossed the tablet to Jack across the desk. Jack caught it with his free hand. The Suit continued, “So far my little research project is just that, mine. Anytime I choose, a simple little toss of that information to the right people and you will go down, hard. You don’t have many choices here, do you?”

Dick in Suit looked at Jack with a deadpan expression. Jack recognized that he had done this before. He wondered what he had on Carla and GI Joe. Suit continued, “But it doesn’t have to be that way. I have a lot to offer you. Here’s the game. You take care of getting me what I need to get things done around here, and I don’t pay you any more than your salary. I only pay the carriers and suppliers. But after that, I turn a blind eye to whatever it is that you bring in or trade elsewhere. Jack, I have networks you haven’t even dreamed about. No more of that craft stuff. No more flea market kitsch and single bags of coffee. The need to keep your head down meant you had to stay local and keep it small enough not to make ripples. I can offer you the protection you need to take it across Unity and even international.

“If you’re smart, you’re already wondering why Musgrave’s gene baths and tissue tanks don’t show up on that when I know about them.” He pointed at the tablet.

“The thought had crossed my mind. Let me guess, a nip here and a tuck there for the right people, and the right people look the other way.”

“I knew I liked you.” Suit again showed his unnaturally white teeth. “So what do you say?”

Jack was furious. He didn’t want to play on someone’s team, beholden to their good graces and subservient to their beck and call. There were always strings in a situation like that. Jack didn’t do strings, but he knew there was no other option but to play along. “I don’t have a choice, and I don’t like being forced into things.”

“Who does? But you’re smart enough to know when I have you by the balls.”

Jack took all the emotion out of his voice. “What do you need?”

on October 11 • by

3 Responses to Aetna Adrift (PAX)

  1. Just 14% through this book and loving it. Thanks for putting all your heart and soul into this mate.

  2. selene49 says:

    I love how available you’ve made yourself, Erik. It makes reading your work just that bit more personal. Carry on, dude!

Leave a Reply to selene49 Cancel reply

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