Wouldn’t it be great, if there was always a warning
something simple as a Red Sky in the morning
-Red Sky, Mark Chadwick
Sgt. Adil Singh watched the plethora of blinking lights on her dashboard flash on and off in a kind of serene rhythm. This was her fourth tour in orbit around the blue planet and as always she found it extremely relaxing. Most of her buddies in her platoon detested patrol duty and thought it most tedious, but it was the only time she could really settle down and be with her own thoughts. Maybe it was because she was out of reach from her family, back at base they would contact her several times a week asking for reports on if she had met a nice young army man to possibly wed, or how long she thought she was going to stay in the military. Her parents couldn’t reach her out here; communication with the public was strictly prohibited. It was nice and quiet and the only human interaction she’d had, had been in three-hour intervals when she would check in with closets Commonwealth starport: Thatcher.
‘Observation Pod Elvis Costello, this is the S/S Jeff Lynne you should have us on visual in fifteen’ her radio barked and woke her from her meditation.
‘Roger that S/S Jeff Lynne,’ she replied. ‘This is Sgt. Singh aboard O/P Elvis Costello, nice to see you again.’ She never understood why the Commonwealth always named their vessels after old classical musicians, but who ever knew why they ever did what they did.
‘Always a pleasure Sgt. Singh, that time of year again’ said Captain Kennedy, whom Adil had communicated with every year around this time.
‘Field trip time again I see’ she said flirtatiously.
‘The older kids always find this part a drag, but the young ones love seeing the Birthplace.’
‘It’s important to remember where we came from Captain’ she truly believed it. These kids were privileged to come this close to the once blue planet. Most people had only seen pictures of it pre-Exodus and had no idea what it looked like.
‘I will keep an eye out for you’ she continued. ‘Until then Captain,’
‘It’s a living thing!’ Kennedy answered back before the static from the radio went silent.
Adil had never understood the unwritten rule that Commonwealth Captains had when it came to quoting the namesakes of their ships. She had never once signed off or on for that matter by saying Radio, Radio or Veronica, but her colleagues always did. Sighing she turned around and looked back at her blinking dials. She thought back to when she was at boarding school, the advantage of having wealthy parents, combined with being puro had given her all the advantages in life.
Those memories had always stayed with her as a very happy time. At home she had been under the constant watchful gaze of her father and there had always been a sense of decency and propriety. At St. Odo of Canterbury there had been rules and mentors to enforce them, but there had also been some freedom. It was an unspoken rule that the students policed themselves to some extent and this lead to many of them being able to experience or learn things that was prohibited at home. Adil had kissed her first boy at the age of ten, had she lived at home she would mostly likely still be unkissed. His name had been Geoffrey McIntosh from a rich Irish family, who had made their fortune in beer. He might have thought that they were going to be a couple their remaining time at school, but she was only in it for the experience.
She turned from her dials, showing both her vitals and those of the Observation Pod, and swiveled her command chair to the large window overlooking Terra. Some days she would catch herself just staring at it, fixating on a spot and trying to imagine what it had been like all those years ago. The sun was behind it now giving it a halo like some ancient patron saint in one of those stained glass windows her parents had installed in their receiving room. It was her patron saint; it felt odd to think along those lines. Her family still followed the ancient traditions of Hinduism, but true to form, once the Commonwealth had been declared the religion had begun incorporating both Christian and Muslim doctrine and figures. It was an ever-changing melting pot, like the old Indus Valley had been.
Now the S/S Jeff Lynne was coming into view. The school vessel was huge, it carried hundreds or privileged students on a voyage that took just about a month and still needed to entertain and teach all forms during that time so it had a full crew consisting of caterers, tutors maintenance. She had been on that ship once every year from age six to 18, sure it had been dull as she approached graduation, but it was always something to look forward to, more than going home during the holidays when she had to live under her parents’ watchful eye again.
The ship became larger as it came closer to her position and as it did a light became brighter and brighter. At first she didn’t think anything of it and blinked a few times since she couldn’t focus anymore. She shielded her eyes by placing her hand above them, but whatever the source of the light was would not be abated. She let her gaze leave the ship to wherever it was coming from, suddenly and without warning her entire field of vision was blinded by white, intense light. It was so painful that she was forced to look away and close her eyes, it didn’t help. The light seemed to bounce off the walls inside her little station and she cried out in pain as it continued to bathe her whole existence.
Being the beginning of our tale, we are introduced to Hoffman
Hoffman is introduced to Doran and is given an offer
Children go missing
Hoffman looked up from his glass and surveyed the surroundings. He must have been lost in his own head for hours or time had ceased to have any meaning to him. The bar, quite ironically named Pleasure Station 9, was well-lit by brightly colored neon lights and the air filled with electronic melodies. There were stripper poles mounted on catwalks haphazardly thrown about the place. The poles were made of some form of durable glass or plastic and were also filled with neon lights, lighting up the slick bodies of the girls using them to ply their trade. To Hoffman it all looked like some thirteen year old boy’s fantasy of what a futuristic strip club might look like. It was horrible, not really the place one sought out if one wanted to drink in private, but he had little choice. This particular port had only one locale with the permit to serve what passed for alcohol out here. He spun his chair round and came back to the clear plastic bar that had been filled with blue and red rope lights, classy.
He examined his glass and found it to be empty and lifted his eyes to the barman, a surly thin mouthed rudo, possibly Slavic and Scandinavian it was always difficult to tell, and nodded slightly; indicating the need for a refill. The thin mouthed man brought out a nondescript brown bottle and poured most of the liquid on the bar, but eventually the glass was filled. He put a thin crystal rectangle on in front of him, Hoffman placed his thumb on it and it made a ‘blip’ sound indicating that a sum of money had been taken from his account.
He grabbed the glass and carefully swiveled back around to face the rest of the club. It wasn’t packed, but not completely deserted either. This was a minor port and controlled by the teetotalers, so having ‘a good time’ was frowned upon by most of the inhabitants. PS9 was allowed to exist on the outskirts of society so that there would be some repeat business from the rougher merchants in the area. A port without a venue to serve alcohol or other mind altering substances was a port that died. At that not many stayed at Taze Starport for any amount of time; the people living here were just too weird. Hoffman liked it, he could remain incognito and those who did recognize him were always only passing through and didn’t bother him for more than a couple of hours. He had gotten himself a little cube close to the club, that he only used for sleeping, food and drink was provided by various barmen and entertainment came from the girls or whatever fights would break out over the same.
He was vaguely aware of somebody watching him, but he kept his eyes focused on the center stage where one of the girls was hanging upside down with her legs wrapped around a green flashing pole. Suddenly the same somebody bumped into him as he sat down on the chair to the right. Hoffman didn’t moved and kept his gaze, even though the routine was one he had seen many times before.
‘Nice moves’ a raspy voice said to him. ‘Now I understand why you spend all your days here.’
Hoffman shot a look to his side to see if the voice indeed belonged to who he thought it did.
‘Doran, fancy meeting you here’ he managed and noticed that his speech had taken on quite a slurred facet. He swiveled towards the man and raised his glass. ‘It must be, like four years since I saw you last.’
Javier Doran’s face was split into a wide grin and revealed rows of rotten teeth. Like Hoffman he was rudo, a Commonwealth/Azteca mix from some Starport close to Venus. He wore his black hair long and greasy and dressed in a soiled striped dress shirt and cargo pants. He gave the barman a nod and held up two fingers.
‘I believe it was three and a half my friend’ he replied. ‘We had just delivered a package of some note to this very place.’ Hoffman nodded. ‘Never did understand why you chose to stay, but when I see the girls in this place I have an idea.’ Doran laughed and downed the first of the two shots.
‘These theocrats never learned how to make booze’ he said and wiped his mouth with a disgusted look on his face.
‘One learns to bear it’ Hoffman laughed.
It was nice to see Doran, they had been very close at one time. They met while enlisted and had saved each other’s lives more than they could remember. Of course most of the drinking since then had ensured that Hoffman wouldn’t remember.
‘Damn, that girl must be Puro,’ Doran pointed to the girl who had previously been upside down. ‘I didn’t think they got into this line of business.’
It was true, traditionally occupations such as stripping, prostitution and services along those lines were left to rudos, people of mixed background. Puros often got higher profile jobs just because, unfair, but after Exodus it had become the natural order. This was also the reason people like Javier Doran and Alessandro Hoffman, a Germanic/Roman mix, had two choices in life; enlisting or crime, or in their case both.
‘What do you need Doran?’ Hoffman emptied his glass and eyed his old friend. ‘If you were so interested in my company you could have swung by any time during these past four years. Makes me think you have a hidden agenda.’
Doran looked at the barman for a minute and then leaned towards Hoffman. ‘I’ve got a delicate matter needs looking into, brother. Let’s move to a more private table though.’ He rose and nodded his head towards a table situated in a nicely anonymous spot with as much darkness as was possible in the place. Hoffman turned around to find a filled glass waiting for him on the counter; he grabbed it and raised his eyebrows at the barman, indicating his thanks.
‘Here’ Doran placed a ten inch long white tube on the table. ‘Check this out.’
Hoffman grabbed it and pressed at one end with his thumb. The tube made an electronic sound, as if it was trying to imitate the sound of an organic click, but couldn’t quite fake it. The tube opened and he could pull it apart, revealing a clear plastic film, very much like a scroll. When he had pulled it as far as it would allow the plastic blinked and lit up like a computer screen. It was a newspaper article from a month ago, the heading read:
ST.ODO OF CANTERBURY CHILDREN ON ANNUAL SCHOOL TRIP
There was a picture of a mass of children ranging from possibly six to more than likely eighteen. They were standing in front of a yellow ship with its name clearly visible; S/S Jeff Lynne. He tried to scroll down by turning a small gear on the side, but it seemed to be the only content on the roll.
‘So what is this? A field trip, looking for chaperons?’
Doran leaned back in his chair and chuckled. He fished a metal pipe from his pants pocket and stuck it in his mouth. He pressed something underneath the bowl and vapor billowed from the chamber. ‘I don’t know if I could trust you being around such young and impressionable minds, brother.’
‘So what’s the deal?’ Hoffman closed the tube.
‘The kids in the picture all belong to the St. Francis boarding school, a station in its own right located near Mars. It is part of the Commonwealth and all the important families have kids that go there. It’s a family thing, you know. Go to the same school as my father/mother did, just like their father/mother. It builds character and creates wonderful connections for the future. If there is one thing the Anglicans refused to leave behind during Exodus it was tradition.’
‘I know, I’ve hauled enough of their tea across this part of the galaxy in my day. So get to the point.’
‘Every year the students, all levels from first to last, go on a field trip. A space journey if you will. Gives the mentors a chance to bond with the students, the students a chance to get to know one another outside the classroom and it also gives the cleaning crew an opportunity to clean out the station while everyone is out. They usually circle around Venus, go past Mars and pass Terra at a respectable distance. The same route every year and they have fun and games aboard.’
‘Very well and I’m guessing something didn’t go according to plans this time around’ Hoffman said with a smirk. Somebody needed a job done in secrecy, something that couldn’t make waves politically or financially. ‘What’s the job?’
‘You’re right, brother. Something did happen, but not what you think’ Doran took a long drag from his pipe and let vapor slowly sneak out from his nostrils, the cloud smelled of fruit. Ironic since fruit was long extinct on most stations, the only thing left was the essence or idea of fruit. Hoffman had seen images of fruit, or truth be told, pictures of paintings of fruit; still life they were called.
‘So what is it then?’ Hoffman leaned over the table to get closer to Doran, knocked over his glass so that his liquor spilled and spoke in a low voice as if anyone inside the club was even remotely interested in them.
‘Well you see’ Doran did the same. ‘About a week into the voyage the St. Odo of Canterbury lost contact with the ship.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It vanished,’ Doran leaned back in the booth and put his hands behind his head as if the secrets were over. ‘All communication lost in the blink of an eye. One minute it was there and then the next it was gone.’
‘But ships drop contact all the time, right?’ Doran interrupted. ‘This voyage usually takes a month from the school, past Terra and then back. It’s been a little over a month and still no contact.’
‘Why not check in with the S/Ps and O/Ps along the way, or even Luna? Surely one of those places must have some information. A ship that size doesn’t just vanish,’ bringing up Luna sounded weird to Hoffman as he said it.
‘Well, that’s just the thing, brother’ a sly smile crossed Doran’s unkempt face, showing rows of teeth stained brown. ‘This is a very sensitive case when it comes to the Commonwealth. If they start asking around at the different ports or bases it will come out that they have lost the ship. This would of course wreak havoc on their credibility as a trade nation. The situation at the moment is volatile, don’t you watch the reports?’
Hoffman shrugged, he might have watched some broadcast in the past year, but was most likely too inebriated to understand what was going on. ‘With The Union and Hansa ready to pounce at any flaw that The Commonwealth might show it is not the time to announce the loss of this particular vessel. If they can’t keep track of their own children, then how are they going to ensure the safety of trade goods?’
‘So it needs to be below the radar?’
‘It needs to be so below the radar that it’s subterranean. Not even independent, rudo investigators are enough. That kind of information is so important that it can easily be sold and included in that price would be a cover so deep that no one would be able to catch the rat.’
‘Okay, so this is where I…or we, come in’ Hoffman said hesitantly.
‘Exactly, brother,’ Doran’s smile became even wider, how this was even possible was a mystery to Hoffman. ‘To be more precise, where you come in. I am too familiar in amongst certain people and if I started asking questions it would raise suspicions. You on the other hand have been holed up in this God-fearing place for so long that you might as well be dead.’
Hoffman tried to rest his head in his hand, but his elbow slipped in the puddle of booze and almost slammed his chin on the table. He tried to gain some semblance of composure, but ended up looking like the drunk he was. A million thoughts passed through his head. What could he do? He had been a soldier, a runner, a smuggler; he didn’t know the first thing about solving mysteries.
‘What’s in it for me?’
‘Freedom, a way back into civilized society, riches’ Doran began fiddling with his pipe, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say. ‘A way from this miserable existence you call your life, brother.’
‘As if your life is so much better’ Hoffman snorted and liquid shot out of his nose, he didn’t bother wiping it away.
Doran rose from the table and placed a hand on Hoffman’s shoulder. ‘All you would have to do is find out what happened to the kids, after that the Cavaliers would step in and sort out the rest. I am sure that if you beat the odds and do find out any valuable information I am sure you would have it made, and if you want to drink yourself to death this would be provided to you.’ Hoffman waved his hand off and tried to say something about him being a condescending shit, but all that came out was an unintelligible garble. ‘I have a cube in sector 312, if you are interested, come see me there.’
Doran took his digital scroll and walked, on unsteady legs, towards the exit of the club. He chanced a glance over his shoulder in time to see Hoffman’s head hit the table.
II: Waste of Love
We are introduced to a new figure
As well as parts of the Commonwealth
Political tensions and cloak and dagger ensue
Breakfast was quiet again, just like every single meal had been the past eleven days or so, but Callum Moore wasn’t counting. He sat at the table and eyed the egg he skewered on his fork; he raised an eyebrow and bit into it. He did love eggs when it came down to it and Mrs. Ashgar always did a great job preparing them no matter the form.
After savoring each morsel of the mouthful he glanced across the table. His mother had been sitting in their great dining room before he had gotten there, but he might as well have been alone, well apart from Shatter who was standing close to the servants’ entrance with a silver coffee pot in his gloved hands. His mother was staring down at her coffee cup, her face completely expressionless. She had been the type of matriarch who always saw things from its most positive perspective and in the beginning she hadn’t worried too much, it would be fair to say that Callum was more concerned than her, but as the weeks passed and it became increasingly clear that something was amiss she became increasingly introverted and silent, until she had ceased speaking at all. Every now and then Callum had stopped outside his parent’s bedroom and thought he could hear silent sobbing behind the fake wood doors.
He turned to Shatter and waved him over. The butler, whose eyes always seemed to be closed and inattentive, quickly and smoothly moved towards him with the coffee.
‘Will that be all Master Callum?’ he said in the distinct patois of a rudo. From what Callum knew Shatter was Liberian and Anglican and had grown up in the slums off of Venus, before becoming a man-servant.
‘No thank you Shatter’ he replied. ‘Do you know if my Father is about?’
‘His Lordship is still in, but I believe he is in his quarters getting dressed for the day.’ Shatter returned to his post, still clutching the coffee pot. He snapped to an even more rigid attention as the two ornate “wooden doors” that acted as the main entrance to the dining room opened and Callum’s father walked in.
Sir Oliver Moore fifth Earl of New Crawford was a tall man, he probably would have been even if he hadn’t been raised in the artificial gravity of the Caledonia I/P/I Dome. His skin was the translucent paleness of one who has never worked in the man-made sunlight and his hair was jet-black combed back with a pompadour up top, his mustache neatly groomed with a curl at each end. His gate was as stiff and cold as the rest of his countenance, which came as a sharp contrast to the tender kiss he placed on his wife’s cheek. She reacted by twitching her left eye, but she kept her emotionless stare at her coffee cup. Sir Oliver pulled out the chair next to her and sat down. Shatter jumped into service mode and brought forth both coffee and a breakfast plate composed of eggs and meats, he was shooed off when he tried to place a napkin in the earl’s lap.
‘Good morning Father’ Callum said as he swallowed the last bit of egg in his mouth. His father nodded as a reply, but said nothing. Not much of a talker at the best of times, his father had gone almost as silent as his mother these past weeks. ‘Are you off to work at the House today?’ Callum continued, well aware that he was. His father was wearing his dark blue suit and white waist coat, the official dress of the Caledonia nobles in the Protectorate Parliament, only the Lord Protector was allowed to wear a black suit.
Sir Oliver grabbed a piece of bread and spread something on it. He nodded again without a sound. Callum sighed and motioned to Shatter that he could grab his dishes and the servant did. He took out a bottle from a drawer situated in the table and squirted some disinfectant in his hands, water was being rationed in the Commonwealth again and those who could afford it reserved it for coffee, tea or other forms of indulgent drinks.
‘Father, I’ve been thinking’ Callum knew that this always caught the lord’s attention and so it did. ‘Kat’s been gone for a fortnight now and so far nothing has been done to find her.’
His mother blinked and woke from her trance at the mention of his sister’s name, she stared at him and his father turned and raised an eyebrow.
Callum cleared his throat and continued; ‘So I was thinking that I could do a bit of investigating myself, well not completely myself. Ryan is most likely keen to join me, although I haven’t asked him…’ his right leg was shaking with nervousness and he was beginning to stammer. ‘We have the resources and I feel that time is running out, I do miss her…’
‘Enough!’ Lord Moore’s voice wasn’t loud, but sharp as a razor cutting through the air and clipping Callum in mid ramble. ‘I will not have you talking nonsense, Callum’ he rose. ‘You will get that foolish notion out of your head and you will under no circumstances contact that delinquent Ryan Lafferty. The matter will be dealt with in a quiet and clandestine manner. We can ill afford a public affair at this time.’
‘But I could be just as cl…’
‘There will be no more discussion when it comes to your sister’ Lord Moore put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. ‘Can you not see that this is upsetting your mother?’
‘I get that, but I can’t see that anyone is doing anything to find her and…’
‘I said enough Callum; this will be the end of it!’
‘Lord Wilcox has arrived Sir’ announced Murphy, the other butler of the house. He had arrived through the servant’s entrance and seemed unfazed that he had interrupted the family dispute.
‘I must take my leave; Wilcox has asked that we journey together to the Protectorate today. Remember, this conversation will not be revisited’ Lord Moore downed the coffee and left the room.
The announcement of Lord Terrence Wilcox coming to their home-made Callum suspicious. On one hand Lord Wilcox was the head of the New Model Army, the elite wing of the Commonwealth army and with his father being a member of the Security Council the fact that the two of them would have something to talk about might not be so strange. On the other hand Wilcox was an Anglican and Moore Manor would be quite out-of-the-way for him, just for the two of them to travel to the Protectorate. This was enough to make Callum itch to find out what was really going on. As soon as his father had left he excused himself, kissed his mother’s cheek in haste and snuck out from the dining room.
He moved slowly through the red carpeted corridor and down the large staircase that lead to the big outer doors of the manor. His father walked, as he always did, slow and with purpose so Callum saw him turn to the receiving room off of the entrance hall.
Callum snuck into the servants’ walk-space that ran parallel to all the rooms to keep them out of sight most of the time. He and Kat had played hide and seek when they were little in those spaces to the despair of the help and rage of their parents. He tiptoed towards a small hatch on the wall and opened it, revealing a small window. It was actually a two-way mirror in which the servants could peer through so not to walk in on any private affairs. It had always puzzled Callum that it was an easy way for the help to spy on their Masters. Of course if they knew what was good for them they wouldn’t even think of it .He pressed a button next to the glass and the sound from the room came through a tiny speaker by his head.
There was Lord Wilcox, dressed in a red suit and white waistcoat, on his lapel he wore a black enamel pin shaped like a wolf’s head, the symbol of the NMA. He had a short and neatly trimmed beard and his hair was parted and slicked down to the sides. He looked at Lord Moore for a few minutes in silence before he rose in greeting.
‘Lord Wilcox’ Lord Moore said in his emotionless voice. ‘How good of you to pass this way before Parliament.’
‘I felt I had no other choice Lord Moore’ Wilcox’ voice was rough, like the words that came out of his mouth were sandpaper. A lifetime of vaping, Callum thought to himself, his grandfather had sounded very similar after a lifetime of nicotine use.
‘I was eager to get an update from you before the Security Council presents to the Protectorate and Lord Protector McKenzie’ Lord Moore motioned Wilcox to sit and then sat himself. ‘How has the mission progressed?’
‘Our Agent has made an initial contact with the appropriate people and it has advanced from there. That is all I know at the moment.’ Lord Wilcox brought a long silver tube from inside his jacket and lifted it to his mouth.
‘Can we trust that these channels that you have used are trustworthy? This may, under no circumstances come back to the Commonwealth.’
‘I am well aware of this Sir Oliver’ Wilcox blew vapor above his head in just as a sarcastic tone as his speech. ‘Can one ever really trust the rudos? Yet I do trust our agent implicitly he is one of the foremost men among the Diggers.’
Callum shivered when he heard the name; The Diggers where the secret police of the elite military division that was the New Model Army. Even though their existence was well-known they were highly clandestine and if they were on your trail you were in serious trouble. Like most offices in the Commonwealth the name was taken from history, but only applied to the division without much thought to what it meant, mostly because nobody really knew anymore.
‘And the witness? Where do we stand there?’ Moore enquired.
‘Adil Singh is unfortunately being kept from us’ Wilcox let another puff of nicotine infused vapor escape his lips. ‘According to my sources she is being hidden by her family, maybe somewhere around Luna. Maybe we should put some pressure on her father.’
‘That would not be advisable and you know it. We cannot come into conflict with the Singh’s, they are to powerful and control much of starch industry that this nation has, Mr. Singh is far too unpredictable and him hiding his daughter is a sign of it.’
Wilcox nodded and then picked up his Term; he looked up at Lord Moore and nodded again. The men rose and Callum’s father opened the doors.
‘So then we do know what we are presenting to the Protectorate?’
‘I believe so’ Wilcox let his Term and Vapo vanish into his jacket. ‘The Security Council can stand united in this mission and I will keep the rest of you posted on the development.’
‘Excellent, at least we shall not seem toothless here. Most of us are having our positions tested by The Young Lions, led by that insufferable Lord Griffiths.’
‘Don’t worry Sir Oliver, Griffiths and his faction of cubs will get what’s coming to them soon enough.’
Callum turned off the speaker as the two Lords shut the door behind them. He crossed his arms and furrowed his brow in deep thought. So the Security Council had been charged with finding out what had happened to the children of St. Odo of Canterbury and this had been kept from the public, why? It was even so under the radar that the Protectorate weren’t even part of the initial planning; Diggers were involved, but not quite. Some kind of outside agent, untraceable persons and then there was this Adil Singh, where had he heard that name before. Right, it was that girl from when he was at St. Odo. The one who had messed around with Paddy McIntosh, but left him hanging without explanation, he had been destroyed after that. This was way too interesting to let lie. If he could get a hold of Adil and crack this mystery his father would see what an asset he could be and maybe his mother would get some peace.
He stepped out from the walk space and lifted his own Term from his vest. He tapped an image and it sent a contact request.
‘What?’ said a drowsy voice on the other end.
‘Ry’ Callum heard the excitement in his voice. ‘Interested in solving a mystery?
III: Strange Dimensions
Hoffman wakes to a new day
Maybe even a new life
Takes a left instead of a right for the first time
When he was younger Hoffman had been a very prolific reader. He had fallen in love with books at an early age, but unfortunately, like most rudos, he was denied any form of decent education and this also resulted in a lack of access to classic literature. He had sought them out himself and quite a bit was readily available to those who so wished. This interest in the written word had not been easy to live with in the area where he grew up. Most of his friends, who basically saw school as an extended punishment that wouldn’t amount to anything worthwhile, began ribbing him and so he proceeded with his hobby in secret. He found that reading about life experience was sometimes preferable to experiencing it firsthand.
The description of the morning after in some of those books he had realized was very much romanticized and not at all the way he had come to know it most of his life. They described waking up with terrible anxiety with only remnants of the previous night left in memory and maybe, if one was lucky, the stink of a romantic entanglement of the previous night. Hoffman had been drinking himself to sleep every night for the past five years or so, he couldn’t remember, and had never been able to say; ‘so this is what they were talking about’.
At least the past two years were completely blank, a haze without as much as shadowy figures visible through it. At times it felt like he might be able to grasp what had happened the previous day, but it was difficult for him to pin point if it had happened three days ago or three years. Added to that could be the fact that his days all followed the same pattern: Get up/drink/dress/go to PS9/drink/pass out/repeat.
This morning, as he gingerly swung his legs from the hard cot that was both his bed and dining table, there was something gnawing at the back of his mind. As if there had been something of an anomaly the previous day. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it and, performing his routine morning scratch, figured that it might as well have been the memory of him forgetting to turn off his cooking unit and causing a small fire two months earlier. His feet touched the cold stainless steel floor and shuffled the three or four steps it took him to get to his cooking area. The rubber paint that was supposed create warmth on his skin and protect the floor had long worn off and he had ignored the fact, he was really only reminded of it when he got up.
His living unit consisted of one room with an adjacent bathroom where he could wash up and sit on the crapper at the same time. It was almost a perfect square, his bed/table was about seven feet long and stretched from end to end on one side which coincidentally was the same length from wall to door. Someone had generously provided ten feet of height so an eight feet man would sleep uncomfortably, but be all the more happy standing up. His cooking station consisted of an oven and a drink dispenser. He rested against the space next to the dispenser and pressed one of the three buttons on it. A paper cup fell into a small holder and clear liquid came pouring out of the machine. The dispenser was designed to serve one hot drink and two cold, one of which was supposed to be water or Wike, a substance created to replace water for those who couldn’t afford pure H20. Luckily enough Hoffman hadn’t been forced to live through the quite scary period of the human race when the scientists had to come up with a solution to the coming Water crisis.
He sipped the liquid and scanned his unit; something was different, something out of the ordinary, maybe connected to the gnawing sensation at the back of his mind. It was a noise that was the difference, a tiny beeping sound at the very edge of his hearing. His days in the army and all the different drills on Mars had rendered him hard of hearing and the drink from last night had most likely not improved anything. He started scanning his home with great suspicion. The beeping meant something, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Something that used to happen before he had gone into voluntary exile and wandered into the mist that had become his life. It seemed as if the sound came from a tiny little light that was blinking on the wall, well not on the wall per say on his screen incorporated in the wall. Slowly he walked towards the screen and slowly he eyed the blinking light. Next to it there seemed to be a button, he looked over his shoulder as if he was being watched and then he pressed it. The screen lit up and played a strange melody and Hoffman jumped back, almost spilling his beverage. He backed up some more and waited as a female voice spoke:
‘One new message’ Hoffman cocked his head to one side. ‘Would you like to accept this message?’
‘Yes?’ Hoffman tested.
The screen came to life and showed another living unit much like his, slightly cleaner and with a figure in the center of it. Hoffman squinted, who was that? Wasn’t it Javier Doran, his old friend? Slowly something tried to pry itself from the dark recesses of his hazy mind. He felt like they had met not that long ago, but he could never be certain these days.
‘Hello brother,’ Doran said with a stained smile. ‘I figured you were too drunk to remember that we met today and I left you in quite a state, so I thought I’d send you this message to remind you of an offer that I have extended to you.’
Hoffman scratched his head, sat down on the bed and tried to remember, well, anything at all.
‘About a month ago the S/S Jeff Lynne disappeared on its annual journey passed Terra’ Doran held up a digital picture that he had brought up on his Fire. ‘It carried about four hundred Commonwealth prep school kids from St. Odo of Canterbury. The ship lost contact with the school a week into the voyage and has not been heard of since. I was contacted by an agent from the Commonwealth and they need help finding out what happened. It’s very hush- hush and they don’t want any publicity on this so they have decided to go through, shall we say unusual channels to find the cause.’ Doran winked and looked around. ‘I don’t think I need to mention, brother, that if you are successful in this your fortune will be made. You can drink yourself to death in a classier place than this for sure. You can find me in sector 312, cube six if you’re interested.’
The image of Doran froze as he showed a smirk and it looked as if he was having a stroke. Hoffman put down his cup on the floor and lay down on his bed. He stared up at the ceiling and tried to form some kind of real thought. When he had decided to leave the service, right after they had thrown him out coincidentally, he had tried to get into detective work, much like some of his literary heroes Holmes, Marple and Madame de Scuderi. He had some knack for it, mostly due to his reading, but his drinking had taken over and unlike Marlowe he couldn’t balance the job and the drink. Smuggling had worked better then. He rolled over to his side and pulled out a little drawer from the wall at the head of his bed. It was filled with all kinds of crap, he had a tendency of emptying his pockets when he came home and just dump it all in there. He rifled through the mess of wires, broken glass and other unidentifiable object until he found what he was looking for. It was a blister pack that could hold six pills, only one small red one remained and he gingerly forced it out of the plastic casing. His hands were trembling, why was it that one’s hands always seemed to shake when taking medicine out of packaging, as if the body knew that sweet relief was close and symptoms worsened just before the cure could be administered? The pill fell into his palm and he quickly flung it into his mouth and swallowed as he fell back onto the thin mattress.
It was impossible to tell how long he had remained lifeless on his bed/table and stared at the once white washed tin ceiling, but once his body felt what passed for normal these days he rolled onto his feet. He scanned his body to make sure his body was intact and as it was on the bed he assumed everything was as it should be. He felt around on the outside to make sure he had his Fire and quickly realized that he wasn’t wearing clothes. Placing a hand on a spot above his bed another drawer was revealed when it came out of the wall. He rifled through it in an attempt to find an outfit appropriate enough to wear outside a dive strip club. Tucked off to one side he located a pair of faded black slacks that he unfurled and with that action came a white long-sleeved T-shirt that appeared to be clean, albeit wrinkled. He didn’t feel the need to iron the clothes since few in the Sharon Spaceport would give him a second glance, but naked or the worn out duds he usually dressed in may cause some raised eyebrows and that was something he didn’t want or need. He managed to find his Fire under the bed and even managed to find his Fire Shades and placed them over what he could only imagine were bloodshot eyes, it was time to face the real world for the first time in forever.
Even though Sharon was one of the smaller ports orbiting Europa and acted primarily as a resting and refueling station for traders, but was also known for being the main hub for those who were looking to settle on the moon. Since it was owned and operated by the theocratic AUB it followed their fundamentalist laws, but was also the sole port in their organization that allowed trade in alcohol and other items forbidden by The Doctrines and Covenants and this was what made it a near lawless place. The scum knew where to keep itself though and remained in the red light district and The Danites rarely ventured there either.
Instead of hanging a right and venture further into the red light he turned left to the more naturally lit areas. His pod was situated on a side street off the main thoroughfare and he was forced to shield his eyes as he stepped out on to Main Street. Lacking a concept of time, as well as day, week, month or year, Hoffman was initially surprised at the bustling activity he met. His street was fairly quiet when he would venture outside, but that was most likely due to the fact that the districts busiest time was in the evening. Here trade merchants, buyers and sellers were on their way to engage in the art of trade and time was of the essence since there was only an eight hour window where bartering was allowed in Sharon. He considered hailing a rickshaw, but thought better of it once he had glanced over his finances through his Fire Shades. The allowance he received from the military was just about enough to cover his living expenses, food and drink and since drink was such a big part of his budget board it left little for frivolous things. If he remembered correctly the three hundred block of pods was only about a block down. He shoved his hands in his pockets, was mystified by the various salt and soy packets he found deep in the recesses of the fabric and he was bewildered by it since he could in no way remember when he visited an Asian restaurant last. They were few and far between, the Asian eateries. Sharon was completely devoid of one, not even the odd perambulatory café rolled around there and Hoffman did miss them. He didn’t miss eating in general, but he did remember stir fry and sweat and sour sauce fondly. He must have acquired the packets when he was on leave on Mars and that was most likely the last time he wore the pants.
He began strutting down the street with its artificially created milieu of light, blacktop and rows of merchants trying to hawk stolen or bootleg wares. The walls lining the street, that was no more than a wide corridor, was covered in advertising; some of it static and others animated. They tried to sell him various forms of H20; all infused with a plethora of vitamins and nutrients or trips to better places; to spas on far off planets where every dream might be fulfilled or even companies selling the ability to improve your failing body with cybernetics. It was all done with young, sexy puros who promised that the product could do the same for anyone in paying the price. While trying to avoid the barrage of information from the ads and the calls of the real salesmen and women he tripped over one of the many beggars lining the street, avoiding rickshaws, the law and high speed traffic threatening their lives. Hoffman gave an excusatory nod to the scruffy looking old woman, dressed in discarded AUB army whites and a wide brimmed hat looked back at him with one milky eye. She made a grunting noise and then pulled a dingy looking blanket round her body and vanished in a pile of vile smell.
‘There by the grace of my wits go I’ Hoffman thought to himself. Any rudo not able to find steady employment, especially those born on the fringe of society, were always one paycheck away from ending up on the streets, marooned on some godforsaken, or in this case, god fearing outpost where they were prime targets for human traffickers, taking them to far off colonies or even chopping their bodies into pieces and sold to various medical centers.
Hoffman quickened his pace and found an alley marked 300 and turned down it. The block wasn’t as seedy as his, the higher the number the better the neighborhood, and he located 312 in no time. He pressed a red button with the name Doran scrawled in marker on it. A bell sound could be heard on the other side of the door and before he could press it a second time his longtime friend appeared before him.
IV: Anti Ordinary
Noble men gather to debate
Journalists are introduced
And speculations run wild
The gates of the dome slid open with ease and allowed the slick black speed car to pass through and enter Londinium. It continued down the main street and halted outside the Protectorate. The building was an exact replica of the historic Parliament, but where the original was made of brick and mortar the center of the Commonwealth was constructed from black steel and tinted glass. There had been a plan from the early builders of the modern union to create something that at the same time harkened back to the past yet represented the space age in which they lived. That and the fact that brick were impossible to find, seeing as no one had bothered to bring them during The Exodus and finding a method to construct new ones was too arduous a task.
It was the seat of the governing body of the Commonwealth and sat at the heart of Londinium, a constructed capital that only housed official buildings. No one lived there and at night a skeleton crew of guards or officers inhabited the dome. Just like the Protectorate Londinium was the hub of the Commonwealth and the nations that were part of it were spread out around very much like a wheel across Venus.
Lords Wilcox and Moore stepped out of the vehicle, straightened out their suits and gave the driver, a rudo dressed in a black uniform with the Commonwealth crest stitched on his lapel, and walked towards the black building. Londinium was the smallest of the domes on the planet and the buildings and offices contained under it where snugly put next to each other except for the Parliament that had been given a generous amount of space to house a proper English garden spread out over several acres. The grounds housed a grand lawn suitable for Cricket, a pond and an area with herbs and flowers of typical British stock. The Commonwealth’s terraforming of the planet had been more successful than the attempts of other nations, at least in the field of grass and plants, yet proper trees and fruits still eluded the scientists. The atmosphere had also only been partially modified and the different areas on the planet had to be housed under giant domes to keep the inhabitants safe from the elements.
The inside of the building was teaming with activity, as it always was the minutes before Parliament was to convene. Runners were hurrying back and forth across the great hall making sure that their lordships were in possession of the information they needed for the upcoming debates. Lord Moore and Lord Wilcox were uninterested in the hustle and bustle and headed towards the main floor where the Lords of the realm would meet. They had done away with the House of Commons when the Commonwealth was built with the reasoning that most commoners now had become title holders and as the years turned into decades and centuries the new commoners were viewed as unreliable and too, well, common to understand the complexity of politics. As with most things the true meaning behind names in the new union meant nothing.
Suddenly a man appeared next to Lord Moore and fell in step with them. It was Lord Brandon Lafferty Earl of New Carrick. He wore his white hair long, tied in a ponytail at the neck, which was the stile amongst the Hibernian nobles and was in his official garb; dark green suit with an orange waist coat. Towering over the two other men, he was a perfect representative of his people in terms of height and build.
‘Lord Wilcox, Lord Moore it is nice to see you again Sirs’ Lord Lafferty said in a somber tone. The kind of tone Oliver Moore had become accustomed to since the disappearance of the S/S Jeff Lynne less than a fortnight ago.
‘Thank you Lord Lafferty’ Lord Moore replied and tried to match the somberness. ‘Back to work is the best remedy I find. It is what my father taught me.’ Lafferty nodded and gave a sound of approval.
‘So Brandon’ Lord Wilcox said with just the tiniest hint of a sigh. ‘Do you know what is on the docket for today?’ Making sure to change the subject.
‘Well naturally the main topic is the St. Odo Affair as it has come to be known’ Lord Lafferty went quiet as his two companions stopped to look at him. ‘Well, an unsavory name, I know. Trade business and The Young Lions have asked to present something or other.’
‘Bah, The Young Lions’ Lord Wilcox almost spat on the floor and Lord Lafferty felt as if he had dodged a bullet by mentioning the rebellious youngsters. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what they want, stirring up trouble and conflict within the ranks of the Commonwealth.’
‘It is enough to let them be heard during these sessions’ Lord Moore reflected. ‘There are other, more pressing matters to deal with and keep away from the media’ he nodded in the direction of the room that housed the journalists. ‘The noise of the Lions’ roaring drowns out the prowling of the leopard among the brush.’
‘Indeed’ Lord Wilcox smirked and puffed on his silver Vape pipe which he had produced during their walk. ‘The Diggers are doing their best to keep the incident out of the ears of the press and have so far managed well.’
They reached the large double doors that hid the Chamber of Commons and stopped. Two white clad men flanked the entrance and pulled the doors open and out stepped a man with long flowing whiskers and bushy eyebrows, dressed in a white suit and red vest identifying him as a nobleman of Anglia.
‘Lords Wilcox, Lafferty and Moore’ he revealed a smile under the mustache and nodded his head at the three men. ‘If you would be so kind as to wait I shall announce you presently.’
‘Naturally Lord Mahr’ Lord Moore replied and within a minute they were waved in.
‘That is odd’ Julia Bates said to herself and put her cup of tea to her mouth as she stared out of the great glass window that separated the press cantina from the Great Hall of the Protectorate.
‘What is that?’ said Rajit Kahn of The Indus Globe as he walked behind her.
‘Well if I’m not mistaken that is Sir Oliver Moore, Earl of New Crawford and by my count he has been absent from the Protectorate for two weeks.’ She swiped through her Nook Term to double check her facts. ‘And he was in the company of Lord Wilcox an unpleasant man during the best of circumstances.’
‘True’ Thomas Dansereau from The Explorer had sidled up next to her, apparently taking an interest in what she was saying. ‘The journey from New Essex to Londinium doesn’t quite go past Moore Manor’ he added.
Julia placed her cup on the windowsill and proceeded to tie her black hair in a ponytail, which she always did when she was getting down to business. She leaned up against one of the walls and continued to stare at the doors to the Hall of Commons as she let her fingers dance across the touchscreen of her Term. She pressed air through her tea stained teeth and traveled deep into her own mind.
‘What are you thinking?’ Dansereau sat down at a table behind her. ‘He was probably sick, it happens to the upper class as well.’
‘Do they though?’ She replied and returned her attention to the screen. Since the Exodus there had been great advances in medicine and most of the common illnesses, like the flu, the cold and the childhood disease had been eradicated, at least among the puros. Among the rudos, especially those who lived in the poorer and crowded parts of the nations were often afflicted by illness and often with devastating results since the doctor to patient ratio in those areas were several one to several thousands. Naturally sickness caused by a person drinking too much, eating spoiled food or even cancer still occurred, but was still fairly rare.
‘So he’s been absent for a fortnight, what does that matter?’ Dansereau was intrigued, she could hear it in his voice, but there was something else there; doubt with the slightest quiver of interest.
‘Lord Moore has never missed a day of the Protectorate being in session since his father passed away and he inherited the position.’ Bates continued to consult the Term. ‘In fact, the day his father was laid to rest he was here on the very same afternoon. For him to stay home fourteen days, well ten working days as it were, something must have been very important.’
‘And that would have been?’
‘What would keep a man of his stature home? Economic strife, maybe, servants acting up, unlikely, something with the manor, not very likely, then what? ‘
‘That would leave family matters.’ Dansereau tapped the coffee table with his long, unkempt nails. ‘His Lordship has two children and a wife, right?’
‘Correct.’ Bates looked at him. ‘A daughter and a son and there has been no mention of Lady Moore being ill or treated for an ailment.’
‘Actually.’ The baritone of Rajit Kahn joined the conversation and both Bates and Dansereau turned to him. ‘Lady Moore has been absent from several society engagements the past two weeks, including a gala dinner she herself had arranged right here at The New Savoy. Her husband attended though.’
‘Interesting’ both Dansereau and Bates replied in unison.
‘So is that the answer?’ Dansereau continued by himself. ‘He’s been caring for his ailing wife, who has been keeping her illness a secret from society.’ He placed his own cup on the table in front of him like an exclamation point, in his mind ending the discussion.
‘I don’t know about that.’ Bates raised an eyebrow. ‘I just can’t see a man of Lord Moore’s stature staying home on those grounds. Has he ever shown that kind of regard for anyone? We must keep in mind that the nobles rarely marry for love, to them it’s only business.’
‘So you’re saying that the nobility have no love in their hearts for their families?’ Dansereau leaned over the table and let his fingers glide across the rim of his cup.
‘Well I’m sure they feel some form of affection for their kin. Children probably more than partners, but I am highly doubtful that Lord Moore would stay home to care for his wife. I could be mistaken I guess…’ She drifted off as she continued to stare at the closed doors that kept her from the collected nobility of the Commonwealth.
‘I think you are.’ Dansereau grinned in a sly fashion. ‘Whatever it is The Young Lions have to say and the impact it might have on the Trade Council is more interesting than the comings and goings of a Calidonian Lord. Mark me, Griffiths and his cohorts will have our editors keeping us busy for the coming months.’
Jules nodded, but that feeling she got in her stomach when something wasn’t quite right was not convinced. There was a deeper mystery here and she had made up her mind not to rest until her curiosity was satisfied.