Chapter 14: Matrons

 
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Chapter 14: Matrons

 
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The founding of the Colonial Vatican happened mere weeks after Earth’s went silent. The Seminary of St Bartholomew on Ganymede was well established by this point and it was already the center of Catholicism in space. That it would be chosen as the site of the new Vatican, was something no one questioned.

Cardinals from all across the colonies were called to form a new College of Cardinals. As halls of stone rose up around them in construction, they met in Conclave to elect a new pope.

There was little resistance to Cardinal Josef Krupnik from Tethys. Indeed if the stories are true, Krupnik himself was the only one who protested. As one of the first colonists born in the Czech colony on Tethys, Pope Krupnik was a quiet man, a scholar and philosopher more than a mover and shaker of men. At least that’s what they thought.

In a few short years, Pope Krupnik would lead the Last Reformation, the greatest upheaval in the Church in over five hundred years. Any institution as old as the Church is in constant need of course corrections and one was long overdue. The quiet philosopher drove the tares from the clergy as Christ drove out the moneychangers two thousand years previous.

As he declared in the papal bull, Deus Peccata:

“May God forgive us if we teach any lie. May he forgive us for when we have done so in the past. May he guide our path in the future, as the sons and daughters of Adam’s race face the coming night. May we ever turn to Christ, the lighthouse that will lead us home.”

The Church had put its business in order in case the end was soon to come.

Cardinal Phillip McMerrick
Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Titan
Died 93 AM

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Abigail stepped down the Sparrow’s ramp and breathed the cool air of Mars. Once, she had been focused on expanding her operations past Mars, always looking for the next big thing. But in the months since she’d left, the red hills and pale skies had grown a little cheerier. The red no longer seemed so drab. Now it was almost comfortable, like an old friend.

She looked out over the landscape and frowned. Farmland. Not in the distance, but in her face. Rows of wheat grew not twenty meters from the Sparrow. Cole had said he was going to land a bit outside of Flagstaff, but this was more rural than she was expecting. The sun was just peeking over the distant red hills, casting thin lines of light through the rows of amber grain.

The sound of boots on metal announced his presence. “Beautiful isn’t it?” Cole asked. “I’ve only seen an Earth sunrise in the movies, but I like to think Mars is the next best thing. Our first home in the stars and maybe our last. I wonder how long we’ll hold out here?”

“What do you mean by that?” she asked. 

“Well,” he said scratching his stubble. “I mean once the factories finally shut down. Once the grav plates all give out and we can’t make more. One-third of a gee may be livable for a bit. Who knows? Maybe some creative folks will live indefinitely here.”

“You’re being way too melodramatic for this early in the morning,” she said. “Humans are tenacious if anything. I don’t like to think extinction is our destination.”

“No one does, but most of the colonies will be abandoned in a century or two at most.”

“Plenty of time for a turnaround.”

“Maybe,” he said, then laughed. “Sorry. Coming home always makes me a bit thoughtful.”

She caught the strange look in his eye but, not knowing what to make of it, decided to ignore it. “Hope the owner of this field doesn’t mind us coming to roost.”

Cole pointed at the horizon. “See the farmhouse the next hill over? She lives there. You could say we go way back. Trust me. She’s fine with it.” 

It was the usual level of Cole vagueness. “So what are you up to today?”

“Waiting for Benny mostly. He promised that he’s got something good enough to bring us back to Mars but hasn’t finished working out all the details yet.”

“As long as he comes through,” Abigail said, shrugging. “I’m not sure I like us being on Mars with Yvonne though. White Void does have a moderate presence here, at least where the Sakuraba Syndicate hasn’t crowded them out.”

“It’s been months since the bounty was posted, and Arizona has always done a good job of limiting the influence of the big three.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’ll have to forgive me for not exactly trusting Arizona law enforcement.” 

“Hey, the men with badges are fine. It’s the politician at the top that’s a bit suspect.

The memory of the government man, Ryan Thompson, sitting unperturbed in his office after aiding a gang of known killers and getting six civilians killed sent a chill down Abigail’s spine. She wondered if he had trouble sleeping at night. Probably not. 

“How about you?” he asked. “You said you were heading out.”

She looked out over the field. “Need to catch a train over to Doch Rossiya. I’ll be back by this evening.”

Cole raised an eyebrow. “Your business is your own, but I’m curious what you’ve got going with the Russians.”

She laughed. “What is it with you guys? Not even a couple centuries can put that disagreement to rest, huh? My broker’s Russian and she’s been harassing me for weeks now about ditching her.”

“Benny mentioned that he’s been getting threatening messages from her too. Something about poaching one of her best freelancers.”

“Mistress Medvedev is…” Abigail hesitated. She didn’t exactly want to slander the woman who had done so much for her career, but at the same time, she made it hard to be complimentary. “Let’s say she’s possessive of her charges.”

Cole turned to face her directly. “Wait just a minute. This is that broker that only takes women freelancers. I’ve heard she’s a crazy misandrist.”

“Half true,” she admitted. “She’s not crazy, but she definitely doesn’t care for men.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” Cole said making a shooing motion. “I don’t want her putting some kind of hit out on me.”

A wry smile crept across her face. “I’ll take care of it, get her off you boys’ back.” She walked down the ramp and stepped onto the Martian soil. There was a mag-train station not more than a mile away. No sense in taking the bike. That jogged another thought. She turned to face Cole and looked at her feet. “There’s another matter of business I’ve got to take care of in Rossiya.” 

He looked down at her, question plain on his face.

“My skyhopper. I had Mistress Medvedev move it into storage. I’m going to have to settle on that debt.”

Cole whistled. “I’d forgotten all about your aircraft.”

“She got me a good deal. I mean, it’s going to hurt, but life is expensive, right? What I was really wondering was…” If the past was a tough subject, the future was almost as hard. She bit her lip. “Should I just sell it? Is this,” she gestured at the Sparrow, “going to last.”

He regarded her for a moment. “Do you want it to?”

“Of course,” she answered quickly. “But it’s your ship and you don’t always act like you want a crew around. I’m not going to sit here and assume that this is permanent.”

The sun had fully risen over the hills, casting Cole in rose light. He stood for a moment in silence. She never really knew what he was thinking, though she knew the gears never stopped turning. It was a wonder he didn’t drive himself crazy.

Finally, he nodded. “Wouldn’t dream of being alone now. Having a crew’s been good. Having a partner to rely on in a tight pinch has been better. Sell it.”

So that was that. She nodded. The crew of the Sparrow was official. “I’ll be back tonight.”

“Try and make it by dinner. We might have something better than normal fare.”

Yvonne had gotten a lot better and was branching out past single pot meals, but she was still a better doctor than she was a cook. It was more than what any of the rest of them could manage, but that wasn’t saying much. It just wasn’t in her blood. 

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said. She walked the edge of the wheat field toward the road. When she reached the hard concrete, she turned back to look at the Sparrow. It was a familiar sight now, it’s sharp metal angles cut against the pale Martian sky. Once she had been envious of the ship. Now it was home.

Cole was nowhere to be seen. He’d either gone back inside or left on business. For as much as they trusted each other in a fight, they still didn’t know each other. Abigail glanced down at her legs. Yvonne had been pestering her lately to tell Cole and the others why she wore the suit. He wasn’t stupid. Maybe he already knew. That kind of pity was exactly what she didn’t want. Once, before her father had procured this suit for her, she couldn’t escape it. People treat cripples differently.

She didn’t want Cole to see her as an invalid.

She’d deal with that another day. Today she had an angry broker to contend with.

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“Ha. Another bullseye. Beat that.” Davey crossed his arms and leaned back against a storage cabinet, a smug grin plastered on his face. At least there were still some games he could whip Grace at.

She frowned with determination and stepped up to the line they’d drawn in the hold. Raising the dart to eye level, she peered down the length of the shaft. She drew her hand back and launched the missile at its target. 

It smacked the dartboard with a satisfying thump. Thankfully for Davey, the score she’d hit, a measly seven points in the lower left quadrant, wasn’t nearly as satisfying. Grace grunted in frustration and threw her remaining two darts in quick succession. Triple-ten and seventeen. Not near enough to catch up to Davey’s one-twenty two.

“That’ll do it,” he said walking up to the board and pulling out the darts. “Again?”

“You’re just going to win,” she said, snatching her darts back from him.

“Now you know how I feel about Checkers.”

She paused and looked down at the dart in her hand. “Point taken. Maybe we need a game where we’re on the same level. Or maybe I just need to practice darts on the days that Matthew has you working.”

“Not fair,” he grumbled. He was thankful the gaucho had given him a day off that wasn’t Sunday. It didn’t happen all that often. “You don’t work your tail off like I do.”

“I help Yvonne in the kitchen and Abigail with supply lists.” Grace stuck her tongue out at Davey but he wasn’t sure that really helped her case much.

Davey threw his first dart. It froze in mid-air. 

Grace held her left hand out, her bracelet glowing an icy blue, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

“I don’t think Matthew would approve of you using those things for fun,” he said stepping forward and plucking the dart out of the air.

“What he doesn’t know won’t…”

Yvonne’s voice rang out over the intercom. “I’m heading topside to get some fresh air. You two want to join me?”

“We’ll be right up,” Davey replied. “Let’s go.” 

“Oh.” Grace hesitated and Davey turned back around. “Go ahead. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

He shrugged and climbed the ladder out of the hold, past the main deck, and through the top side airlock. Yvonne had left the airlock open, leaving only the ventral hatch closed. He stepped out onto the hull and felt the warm sunshine on his skin. He breathed in deeply. The air felt fresh, clean, and a little bit alive. Maybe it was all the fields around the Sparrow, air scrubbed by plantlife rather than recyclers. Maybe it was his imagination. 

Yvonne sat on the hull, ragged book in hand. He sat down beside her. “Whatcha reading?”

“Since we’re in Arizona and surrounded by Americans, I thought something from their canon would be appropriate. The Minister’s Black Veil, by Hawthorne.”

He glanced over at the page and read a couple of sentences, but couldn’t make much of them out of context. “What’s it about?”

“Sin. Guilt. The veils we hide our true selves behind. At least that’s what I think. I’m not really sure. It’s about a preacher that one day starts wearing a veil over his face. It scares his congregation half to death, but they really start listening to his sermons.”

“That’s kind of creepy,” Davey said. “Did he kill someone or something?”

“Story never says.”

“I see,” he said, not because he understood, but because he didn’t really know what else to say. 

She passed the book to him. “Maybe you could give it a read and let me know what you think.”

He took the book carefully, knowing it cost a lot. “I’ll think about it.” This felt too much like an assignment. The hatch banged open behind him and he turned, glad for the interruption.

Grace climbed out, decked out in her space suit with helmet on. 

“Grace, what in…?”

She looked around at the Martian landscape and used her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Woah. This is pretty wild.” She walked over to the other two and sat on the other side of Yvonne. “What are we doing?”

“Enjoying the fresh air and sunshine,” Yvonne said, “only one of which seems to interest you. Grace, why are you wearing a spacesuit.”

“I felt like it.”

“You don’t need it on Mars. Not under the environmental shields,” Davey said leaning forward to look at her. Sometimes Grace could sure be weird.

“I said I felt like it,” she repeated. This time there was a hint of ice in her voice.

“Oh, I understand now,” Yvonne said. “You’re a Tunnel Baby.”

Davey frowned. As usual, the doctor was the one to figure things out. “Mind filling me in?”

Yvonne ignored him. “Grace, were you born on Ceres?”

“Yes.”

“And have you ever walked under an open sky without a pressure suit?”

“No.” Her shoulders slumped in defeat.

“That’s what I thought,” Yvonne said. “Tunnel Babies are those born on stations or underground, like the cities on Ceres. Most of them have difficulty going without a roof over their head.”

Davey thought about this. It made some sense. “But what about all the spacewalks we’ve done?”

“I wore a spacesuit on those,” Grace shrugged. “I knew I was safe.”

“Look at us,” he said. “You can see that it's safe.”

“I know, just give me… give me some time.”

“Take all the time you need,” Yvonne said. “Thankfully you’re young enough to learn new habits. Tunnel Babies have a lot harder time adapting once they’re adults. I take it this means you weren’t born on Ceres, Davey?”

He shook his head. “Nope, Thebe, little bitty rock up close to Jupiter. They have the whole thing shielded and breathable.”

“Yes, I’ve heard. Davey, why didn’t you tell us where you were from?”

He looked at her dumbly. “Didn’t think it was important. Is it important?”

“Yes. Because Thebe is very small. It would be a trivial task to locate your family if you still have any.”

He wasn’t really sure what to make of that. “I don’t know. I was seven. Bunch of slavers broke into our community and took a bunch of kids.”

“Wait,” Grace interrupted. “Then how did you end up on the Ceres?”

He tapped his knuckles against the hull restlessly. “I think there was some kind of slave market down there in the core cities. Anyway, we were getting transported by truck, when we got hit by a grav car. Back popped open and the kids that weren’t too badly hurt from the accident scattered. I didn’t run into you for another four years or so.”

“What about your family, Davey?” Yvonne asked. “What if we could find them?”

He shuffled his feet. “They wouldn’t know me and I wouldn’t know them anymore. It’s fine. I’ve got Grace, and you guys are okay too.”

She looked at him, face stern. “Family is important, Davey. If your parents are on Thebe, wouldn’t they deserve to know you’re still alive?”

Davey shrugged. He didn’t have a good answer to this. He hadn’t thought about them in years.

“I’m going to mention this to Matthew,” she said.

There was a popping sound. Grace removed her helmet and set it on the hull beside her, eyes squeezed tightly shut. Davey was impressed. Honestly, he hadn’t expected her to take it off without a lot of badgering. That said, it didn’t look like she was…

Yvonne beat him to it. “Grace, dear. Breathe.” 

“Don’t want to,” she said. 

“I don’t think you get the option, actually. When you pass out, you’ll breathe whether you will it or no.”

Grace took a short gasping breath then fumbled for her helmet and began clasping it back on. Once she had it secured, she turned to the other two and smiled. “Baby steps, right?”

Davey rolled his eyes. Apparently, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

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Abigail stepped off the mag-train onto the crowded platform. Thankfully, her suit ensured that crowds always magically parted for her. She got more than a few stares and whispers in mixed Russian and English. She’d been used to that even before the suit when it had just been her and the wheelchair.

On her way out of the station, she glanced at a map of the city posted on the wall, double checking her route. Her destination was only a couple klicks away, but it never hurt to be careful. Getting lost in a city was always a drag.

Walking through Doch Rossiya was a bit like walking through the past. The Russians had kept their national and cultural identity over the past few centuries, more so than most of the other colonies. While most had switched to English as their trade language, the Russians had stubbornly kept their own. An English speaker was always within arm's length, but you usually had to ask. No one was going to volunteer if you were struggling. Abigail had had enough business here with Mistress Medvedev that she’d memorized the alphabet and learned the basics of the language so that she could read street signs.

She set off at a brisk pace. Rows of neat and ordered concrete apartment buildings lined the streets and statues of historical figures stood watch over the roundabouts at the end of each block. She passed a granite statue of the composer Mussorgsky, baton high over his head. She remembered this particular landmark. Her destination was just ahead.

A block past the composer, stood a foreboding manor, built in the distinctly Russian style of neoclassical architecture favored hundreds of years ago. The building was faced with a row of columns that looked out over the busy street. Abigail walked up the front steps and knocked on the heavy oak door. The door itself had probably cost a fortune and might have made its way here from Earth long ago. It opened slowly and a young woman stood in its place.

“Oh! Mistress Sharon! It has been quite some time!” She had a pleasing accent that Abigail always thought lent her a certain gravitas.

“How are you, Natalya? The Mistress still treating you okay?”

“Of course. Mistress Medvedev treats all of her women like her own daughters. Come in, she will want to see you.”

Abigail stepped into the sparsely furnished foyer. A wide staircase led up to a second level that looked down over the entryway. 

“If you will give me but a moment, I will check with the Mistress,” Natalya said as she locked the door behind Abigail and hurried up the stairs. 

Abigail bounced on her heels in boredom. Now came the part she wasn’t really looking forward to. There was no way the Mistress was going to take this as anything but an insult. Thankfully, Natalya did not leave her to stew in her anxieties long. The woman re-appeared at the top of the staircase and gestured for Abigail to follow. She was led down a long hallway to a pair of double doors. Natalya pushed them open.

The room was dark. Heavy midnight blue curtains were pulled over the windows, and only a single lamp on the desk cast a feeble yellow light across the room. Behind the desk sat a slender woman, pale and tall, the tallest woman that Abigail had ever seen. Mistress Medvedev was nearly two meters tall. Wispy white hair fell about her shoulders and a smile was on her lips. 

“Abigail, my daughter, you have come home at last. Have you had your fill of frivolous travel?”

It was best not to be too direct. Let her feel this was going her way before letting open the airlock. “I hope you are well Mistress and that business has been good.” 

“I am healthy as ever and my empires run like the finest of clocks. Come into the light so that I can see you better.” Abigail obeyed and stepped around to the desk and knelt on one knee so that she was face to face with the sitting woman. “Much better. Oh, you’ve let your hair grow out. I never knew it was so wavy. You are beautiful, my dear.”

“Thank you, Mistress.” This was always her way. Shower with ten thousand small meaningless compliments. Abigail knew better than to let it distract her. “I came to Rossiya to talk to you.”

“Yes, of course I will take you back. I am sure you have been horribly abused by that man.” She put enough venom into the last word to poison half a city.

“No, Mistress, actually Matthew Cole’s been a perfect gentleman.” She turned an antique globe of Mars that sat on her desk but could still feel the mistress’ eyes burning into her. “We’re partners actually. Get along pretty well in a fight. I was thinking that I’d travel with him a little longer.” Permanently actually, but she wasn’t about to say that out loud.

Mistress Medvedev was quiet for several long uncomfortable seconds. “You disappoint me, Abigail. After everything I have done for you, this is how you repay me.”

“Mistress…”

“Do not interrupt me. Who was it that found you wandering the streets of Kyoto, without a home or purpose? Who was it that taught you how to fight and make a career for yourself. I gave you a purpose Abigail, turned you into the Shield Maiden, a force to be reckoned with. And here you decide to throw it all away for some… some man?”

“Woah, it’s not like that,” Abigail said quickly standing to her feet. “Cole’s just a friend. Pretty sure he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. But he’s a solid freelancer. We’ve done some good things too. Surely you heard about the children we saved over Titan.”

The mistress’ eyes were cold. “Of course I heard. I know every job you’ve taken on. The solar system is a small place. My operations may be based on Mars, but I have eyes everywhere.”

“Then why can’t you see that this is a good thing for me?” Abigail asked, trying to put as much steel in her voice as she could.

“Because you will be used and discarded.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Abigail said.

“And why is that?”

“Because, well... Cole is a decent man. Every time I turn around I see him going out of his way to protect the weak. He gives second chances to those that deserve none. He cares about what is just.”

“Then he would be a diamond hidden in a sea of sand. But I doubt very much he is any of these things.”

“How would you know?” she challenged.

The mistress stood and looked up to Abigail. “Because I have lived long. I run empires. I own politicians, businessmen. I am no fool and know that he will disappoint you. It takes years to work through all the layers of another soul and truly know them. What demons does this Matthew Cole hide? One day you will see him for what he is, and you will beg me to take you back.”

She did have a point there. There was an awful lot about Cole’s past she didn’t know. Just what was he keeping secret? Maybe he hadn’t always been such an upright citizen. But then she’d kept just as much, probably more, of her own past from the crew.

Mistress Medvedev must have caught her hesitation. “Yes. I feel your doubts. Your choices are your own to make of course, but I pray you lean on my wisdom.”

Abigail shook her head. “My mind is made.”

“What if I cut my fee in half? Could you be persuaded to see reason then?”

Tempting, but not tempting enough. “I have my own reasons.”

The mistress turned away. “Very well. Your life is your own to live, and I have neither the time nor patience to be disappointed. If I have need of you, can I count on you to answer my call?”

That was an easy answer at least. “After all you’ve done for me? Of course. But I may come with a gaucho and his crew in tow.”

The mistress sighed. “Child, are you trying to vex me?”

Abigail smiled. “Always.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Finally, Mistress Medvedev turned to face Abigail. There was a weak smile on the woman’s face. “Go then, not with my blessing, but with my goodwill and warning.”

“I will take both,” Abigail said, relieved that she seemed to have relented a little. “But the latter isn’t necessary.”

The mistress wrapped Abigail in a delicate embrace that she barely felt through her implant. “We shall see, won’t we?” the older woman said.

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Matthew finally got the call he had been waiting for late in the afternoon. He stepped outside of the farmhouse to answer the comm on the wide back porch.

“Cole,” Benny said, “good to hear you in real time. The time delay always makes business a bit of a fuss.”

“Agreed. It’s good to be back on Mars,” Matthew said. “Thank you, Benny.” For a moment the only sound interrupting the quiet afternoon was the call of a distant bird. “Thank you for making me get a crew.”

“Oh, I…” Must have surprised him good, because Benny was never speechless. He finally regained his composure and continued. “You’re welcome. It’s been good for business too, right? Still wish you’d enlighten me on the support staff. Might help me in planning new contracts.”

“I understand your concern,” Matthew said sitting in one of the rocking chairs. “But there are reasons I’m being quiet about their identities. I’ve got one who’s turning out to be a decent pilot, though I don’t think they’ll be ready to be shot at any time soon. Afraid that’s about all I can say.”

“Can’t say I understand, but at least Abigail’s a veteran. Which,” he said with a sigh, “reminds me. I’m still getting threatening messages from her broker.”

“Sharon went to talk to her this afternoon. Hopefully, she’ll put a stop to that.”

“You are reading my mind today Cole and making my dreams come true. You must have missed me.”

Matthew smiled in spite of Benny’s prattling. “Maybe a little. So what’s the word on this job?”

“It’s all set up. Mining town outside of Arizona proper has had a string of murders. A couple different factions are blaming each other. Mayor wants you to slip into town and scope things out.”

Matthew winced. He didn’t much mind detective work, but it wasn’t exactly his specialty. Usually, the police were better at that. Then again, if this town wasn’t part of Arizona, their resources may have been limited. “I guess the mayor doesn’t want us landing the Sparrow in town and drawing attention.”

“You’ve got it. Are you somewhere you can leave the Sparrow for a week or two?”

“Easily. We may have a problem with Sharon. She isn’t exactly inconspicuous with her armor.”

“Can’t she take it off for some undercover work?”

Matthew hesitated. “I don’t think so.”

“Awkward. Well, talk it over with her. Maybe you can head in and have a chat with the Mayor and see just how secretive he needs you to be. I’ll send you the rest of the info. Can you get started on it tomorrow?”

“Easily.”

“Alright. Take care of yourself, Cole.”

“You too, Benny.”

The comm clicked off with a pop, and Matthew removed his campero to scratch his head. If he left the Sparrow here, then presumably Yvonne and the kids would be staying here too. All in all, there were worse places for them to be, but Matthew wasn’t sure he wanted to be away from them for too long. Grace would be fine, but Davey was, well, Davey and still had his sour days. And Yvonne still had a price on her head, even if they were in a nice quiet parking spot and unlikely to attract attention. What if he and Sharon were off the grid for a couple of weeks?

It didn’t look like he had much of an option.

The Sparrow sat in the distance, standing tall over the fields, a silhouette against the ruddy sky.  They’d either be okay, or they wouldn’t. Sometimes you can’t control everything.

Getting up from the rocking chair he stepped back inside the farmhouse.

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The sun had already set by the time Abigail stepped off the train. After having to deal with Mistress Medvedev and spending the rest of the afternoon finding a vehicle lot that would take the skyhopper off her hands, she’d loaded the last of her belongings into a bag she carried over her shoulder. A few books, memorabilia, her cutlery with oversized handles she’d been missing for months, and some odds and ends. The last of her life was coming to the Sparrow. 

It really was her home now. 

She was starting to get hungry. She didn’t care what Matthew had planned, she was ready for dinner. A few stray street lights shone on the county road, pools of light in the gathering gloom. Her comm buzzed and she moved the bag to her other shoulder so she could answer.

“Hey, where are you at?” Cole asked.

“Couple minute’s walk away.”

“Good. We’re waiting for you at the farmhouse.”

“Okay...” she said, taken back. Looks like dinner was with Cole’s friend.

“See you soon.”

A minute later she walked up to the farmhouse and stopped at the white picket fence. The Americans took their modern revival stylings very seriously. She pushed the gate open and walked up the stone pathway and onto the porch. The porch was one of the old fashioned ones that ran around the entire house. Abigail had only seen them in movies. The kind of place to spend an afternoon with friends and a lemonade.

She knocked on the front door and Cole opened it almost immediately.

“Come in.”

She stepped out of the twilight into the warm light of the farmhouse.

“Sharon, I’d like you to meet my mother, Elizabeth Cole.”

Abigail wasn’t sure she’d heard that right. Cole was gesturing to a woman in her early sixties, with salt and pepper gray hair. His mother?

Elizabeth Cole extended a hand. “Does Matthew always call you by your last name, Abigail?”

“Yes, ma’am. And I return the favor,” Abigail said shaking the woman’s hand. This was a new turn of events.

“Elizabeth is fine.” She graced her son with a disapproving look. “It’s no wonder he has so few friends when he keeps the ones he has at arm's length.”

Cole didn’t even react to the jab. “The others are already seated around the table,” he said.

“I’ll call you Abigail, if that’s alright with you,” Elizabeth said. “Come. Dinner will get cold.”

They led her into a dining room. Yvonne, Davey, and Grace were seated around a quaint table. At one end, the chair had been replaced with the low crate that Abigail usually used on the Sparrow. 

“You made it!” Grace said. “Davey wanted to start without you.”

“I never said that,” he growled back.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not true,” she laughed.

Yvonne had to scoot forward to let Abigail squeeze past to her place. “Did you have a good trip.”

“It was just business, but yeah. I did what I needed to do.” She sat down and dropped the bag behind her, fishing out her custom silverware. 

Matthew and Elizabeth began setting dishes of food in front of them. Potatoes, mashed with the peel still on, carrots candied with brown sugar, butternut squash, a salad of fresh greens, crisp bread, and the highlight of it all, boiled fresh eggs. Abigail was pretty sure she hadn’t had a fresh egg in years, and her mouth watered.

“It’s not much,” Elizabeth said, sitting down, “but it’s fresh from the garden and farm.”

“I’ve never seen so many vegetables in my life,” Grace said. “This is practically heaven.”

“Well, I’m not sure if I would go that far,” Elizabeth said with a laugh. “But speaking of that, Matthew would you say grace for us?”

“Of course.” He cleared his throat and closed his eyes. “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.”

Abigail peeked the whole time and she was pretty sure she wasn’t the only one. The thought had never crossed her mind that Cole was particularly religious or even raised that way. Her mind flicked to the copy of The Everlasting Man in the bag behind her chair. Then again, maybe she should have.

“Amen,” he said and opened his eyes. “Well, don’t just stare at me. Load your plates while the food is hot.”

Wholesome was the only word that Abigail could find for the evening. Good food. Friends. Laughter. Even Davey was almost pleasant to be around. Mistress Medvedev’s cold office seemed more than a train ride away. Her former broker was most certainly wrong about Cole. How ominous could his past be if this was the home he had come from and was still welcome in. 

“So why didn’t you ever tell us you still had family, Cole?” she asked, as she slathered butter onto a piece of bread.

“No one ever asked.”

“He writes once a week usually,” Elizabeth said. “I won’t have you thinking too badly of Matthew on my account. I’m a tough old bird. I’m busy enough with the farm and don’t need him underfoot every other week.”

“Since, clearly, as a crew we should have detailed all our family histories,” Matthew said, “maybe we should go around the table to make sure there aren’t any more surprises.”

Abigail was pretty sure he was kidding, but Yvonne obliged him anyway. “I’m an only child. My parents died twenty years ago in a depressurization accident on Amalthia.”

“I remember that,” Elizabeth said softly. “My condolences.”

Yvonne nodded. “And of course my husband died a year ago.”

“I’m an only child too,” Grace said. “My parents were killed in front of me by some gangster types. Something about money, but I was too young to know what was happening.”

Yikes. That was worse than Abigail had realized. It was a miracle the kid had made it so far without losing her mind. Or worse.

Davey spoke up next. “I had an older brother and sister. Parents on Thebe last I knew.”

Abigail’s eyes went wide.

“Why didn’t you tell us this?” Cole asked, putting his silverware down.

“I don’t know why you guys are making a big deal about this.”

Cole stared at him for several seconds. “We’ll talk about this later.” His eyes flicked to Abigail as if prompting her to continue.

She sighed, not really enjoying this game. “I was an only child. Never knew my mother and Dad wouldn’t tell me anything about her. As far as I know, he’s probably still rotting in prison. Can we be through with this?”

“I think we had better,” Elizabeth said, “before we spoil what is left of the good cheer. But to finish the round, we buried Matthew’s father twenty years ago.”

That put Cole at a rough age to lose a parent, Abigail thought. It seemed the whole crew had tasted their share of tragedy.

“But the past is the past,” Elizabeth continued, standing to her feet, “and the future isn’t quite so dim. It might even have cake in it.”

“Now we’re talking,” Davey said, as glad as Abigail was to change the subject. “What kind of cake we talking here?”

“German Chocolate. The coconut in the icing is fake, but I guess you can’t win them all.”

Abigail felt a grin spread across her face. “Elizabeth Cole, you might just be my favorite person in the solar system right now.”

Davey enjoyed the food and most of the company, but still felt bizarrely out of place. Like he was intruding on something private. 

The thought had never crossed his mind that Matthew might have a family. He wasn’t sure what he’d thought, maybe that they were all dead or had disowned him. That was nonsense. It turned out the freelancer was a lot like his mother. If she ran the farm by herself, it meant she had as much grit as her son. And they seemed to be okay with each other.

He’d barely finished his slice of cake when Matthew put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Davey looked at Yvonne, but she merely shrugged. 

He stood to his feet and followed Matthew out the back door onto the porch. The cool night had settled in on Mars. A few beetles flittered around the lights, their wings clicking against their shells. Davey at first thought that Matthew was going to lead him back to the Sparrow, whose dim outline was faintly visible against the sky. Instead, he turned the other direction, down a path between rows of wheat.

“Where are we going?” Davey asked. He kept his eyes at his feet, hoping not to trip in the dark. Not that he could see his feet anyway.

“It’s not far.”

A few minutes later they reached the edge of the field where it butted up against a small cliff. A few scraggly trees grew in the shade of the hill, making what living they could in the thin soil. Beneath them was a tombstone. Matthew stood facing it, like a tombstone himself, quiet and imposing. Davey let some time pass before he dared to speak.

“Was this your dad?” Davey asked.

Matthew flicked on a small palm-held flashlight. The light fell on the letters etched into the granite face: 

Albert Cole 
48-83 AM

“How did he die?”

Matthew breathed in a deep breath and held it, and Davey feared he’d asked the wrong question. After several long moments, the gaucho spoke.

“My father was an alcoholic for most of his life. It was a demon he just couldn’t seem to beat. Growing up I only knew him to do two things. Work on the farm and drink.”

Davey didn’t dare say a word.

“He always provided for my mother and me, and she claimed that he loved us, but I never believed her. She always tried to protect him. Truth was he was just an addict and had been since before he met my mother. I did my best to ignore him. Spent most of my time with my nose in a book, trying to forget the outside world. When I was thirteen, he nearly drank himself into a coma. I was the one that found him unconscious in the barn. He was in the hospital for weeks.”

“He came out a different man. Said a priest had made the rounds to see the patients and that he’d told my dad about God. I didn’t believe him. Thought it was just another excuse. Dad never touched a drop of alcohol again, but the docs told him the damage was already done. His liver was basically shot through and he wasn’t a transplant candidate.”

Matthew turned the light off and knelt on one knee in front of the tombstone. “By the time I was fifteen, dad had made a believer out of me, both in himself and in God. We had a few good months together. He spent most of it apologizing to mom and me for the man he’d been. Said that a man takes care of his responsibilities. That we were his responsibility and he’d neglected us. A man uses the strength of his hands to build and he’d squandered what strength was his. He died a few days before my sixteenth birthday.”

A chill wind rustled through the leaves of the trees as Matthew stood back to his feet. “We buried him and my mother and I went on with our lives. She ran the farm and I... Well, I took my own path.”

Davey stared at the tombstone tracing the letters with his eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because Abigail and I will be leaving on a job tomorrow morning. We’ll be gone a week or two.”

“What about the Sparrow? Are you kicking us off or…?”

“The Sparrow stays here. You, your sister, and Yvonne will stay here where it's quiet and safe. Yvonne will be in charge, but if something happens, I need you to step up and take care of things. I know you’d do anything to protect your sister, but I’m adding Yvonne to your responsibilities now. There’s still a bounty on her head and if White Void or a bounty hunter manages to track her…” 

He thought about Albert Cole, a worthless drunk that had tried to make things right with his family. He’d stood up in the end, a little late, but that was better than never. “I understand,” he said.

There was a time when Davey had held a gun to a woman’s head because he’d known no other way to get what he wanted. Matthew had given him a chance he didn’t deserve. He’d given him responsibility. Trusted him when no one else would. When no one else should have.

And now he was asking for more. He wanted him to be a man and to take care of Yvonne and Grace. He didn’t want him to waste his life like Albert Cole had.

“I understand,” Davey repeated. 

“Good.” Matthew took one last look at the tombstone. “Let’s go home.” He turned and walked toward the warm light of the farmhouse glimmering in the distance and Davey hurried to catch up.

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