Chapter 18: The Thresher of Onerios
Chapter 18: The Thresher of Onerios
I’d always known that Moses kept some stuff from us. The Mosaic Fleets that roamed the solar system going about the AI’s business were more than proof of that. The thing was, I’d never had any reason to question Moses’ motive. Not till after he was gone.
After the initial panic and the colonial governments started organizing, one of the first things we realized was that there were a few pieces of technology we were going to have to reverse engineer real quick. We started with the grav plates. People had been picking them apart for years and while a few of the basic principles had been deduced, how they actually manage to curve spacetime in the way they do was still a mystery.
No problem. We’ll just duplicate the factories. Understanding will come in time.
I was on the team that worked at the Ganymede factory. In a single day, our job was deemed impossible. The computer systems still ran, but were inaccessible, encrypted with methods our own hardware wouldn’t crack before the heat death of the universe.
And the production lines themselves? What wasn’t horribly obfuscated to the point of being indecipherable was booby trapped. Two entire production lines immolated themselves the moment we opened up a robot on the line. Four of my team were seriously injured.
That sealed it. We could either keep feeding the factories materials and getting our grav plates or not. We weren’t learning anything from them. Not then, and not in more careful subsequent attempts.
For myself, I never got over the bigger implications. Not only had Moses been hiding things from us, he clearly didn’t trust us. He’d taken his secrets to his grave and would send us to ours as well. What was the point of lifting us up only to leave us adrift?
Died 16 AM
“That’s it. I can’t take it anymore,” Abigail said. She clamped her mouth shut as she realized how foolish that probably sounded.
Matthew looked at her and raised an eyebrow in question. He set his book down on the table. “I’m listening.”
He probably thought she was crazy. Nothing to lose at this point. “Are you going to say anything, ever?”
The look of confusion in his eyes was enough to confirm her previous suspicion. “I’m not sure we’re having the same conversation right now.”
“My legs! My armor! Are you just going to calmly accept it and move on?” She stood, towering over him. “It’s been a week and you’re just going to keep acting like everything is normal?”
One of his fingers tapped on the table, a nervous tic that drove her nuts. “Everything is normal,” he said slowly.
How could he possibly be so dense? “This isn’t normal,” she said, gesturing wildly at her armor.
He gazed at her, his face unreadable, and she turned away as her cheeks grew warm. What had she been thinking? She wasn’t even sure what she wanted from him anyway. Pity? She had always hated that as a teenager. Acceptance? His refusal to so much as comment on her disability was proof enough that she had that.
He drew the awkward silence out to a painful length before responding. “I’m sorry. I guess I thought you probably didn’t want to talk about it.”
Abigail would have thought that as well, but, apparently, neither of them knew her very well. “Ignore me. It’s been so long since anyone knew about, well, me, that I guess I’m losing my mind.” She sat on her crate with a thud. At least she could take solace in the fact that the others were outside getting some fresh air and weren’t around to see her embarrassing outburst. That would have been a level of humiliation she was wholly unprepared for. She bit her lip. “Did you know?”
“For how long?”
He closed the cover of his book and pushed it away. The corners of his mouth tugged upward in a wry smile. “Abigail. You’ve been living on the ship for months. The fact that you had something to hide was clear as the sun.”
Her cheeks warmed again. “In hindsight, it was a little childish to think it would go on forever.”
“Maybe. You’re living the dream of every person who’s ever lost the use of their legs. Getting caught up in the normalcy of it is about the most natural thing I can imagine.”
That was giving her too much credit. Yvonne had tried to warn her and she’d ignored her advice and gone on to make a fool of herself.
“Either way, so long as we don’t run into any more earthtech to counter your own, I think things will be just fine. You’re still one of the best freelancers in the solar system, and whether or not you choose to wear your suit around the Sparrow is a choice you can now make freely. You’re the same Abigail either way and a member of the crew.”
The same Abigail either way. For so long she’d always thought of the paraplegic teenager as a different person. Her break with the past had been so clean and her secret so absolute that it was easy to forget that other person. Of course, that was ridiculous. In some ways, we’re new each time we rise, and in others the same until we breathe our last.
“Thanks,” she said, belatedly realizing she should acknowledge the compliment. “Now that I’m fresh out of secrets, I’ll be glad to be out from under the microscope for a while.”
“Fresh out of secrets?” he chuckled playfully. “Don’t be coy. You’ve still not said a word about that piece of tech you have.”
“A woman has to keep some things to herself.”
“I wouldn’t know. But I have to admit I couldn’t help but notice the last name.”
Abigail frowned at the sudden turn. “What’s that supposed to mean? Sharon isn’t all that uncommon.”
Matthew tapped that finger again. She eyed it and he stopped abruptly. “As a given name, you’re right. As a surname? Different matter entirely. Combined with a few other clues you’ve been dropping, I have a theory.”
So he knew or at least guessed that as well. If he weren’t sure, he wouldn’t have mentioned it. “If that’s the case, then you know why I don’t talk about it.”
He nodded solemnly. “For the longest time I thought you were like me, running from a past you weren’t able to face, but I think your secrets are a bit less selfish in their nature.”
She shook her head. “Not all of them.”
They sat in awkward silence, aware that, while one wall had fallen, others still stood, and each continued their lonely watch.
Yvonne stepped into the cockpit and leaned against the door frame. Matthew was in the pilot’s seat, feet on the console, deep in an argument with Benny.
“It’s perfectly within my right to run my crew as I see fit and, no, I’m not under any compulsion to give you detailed resumes.”
She heard a loud sigh come over the speaker. “You’re right. I get it. I really do. I understand you not telling me about the Naude woman because of the bounty, but a couple of kids? That wasn’t what I had in mind when I suggested getting a crew.
So much for keeping Benny in the dark about her presence on the Sparrow. “How’d you find out about me, anyway?” she asked. Matthew startled at the sound of her voice and sat up abruptly. “Calm down, Gaucho. I could feel you talking about me and came to investigate. How did you find out about me, Benny?”
Benny hesitated for a moment. “Umm. Pleased to meet you, Ms. Naude. I didn’t mean…”
“That’s fine. I’m hard to offend.”
“Right. Cole told me you guys had been in a bit of dust-up with White Void, so I did a little digging. Wasn’t hard to piece things together after that. Your name showed up in a couple of media outlets.”
“White Void already knows you’re on the Sparrow,” Matthew offered. “I don’t see any harm.”
“And what about you, Benny?” she asked. “On the day White Void posted that bounty, you sent it along to the Sparrow. What does a million dollar bounty mean to you?”
Matthew pursed his lips and turned to the speaker. Yvonne crossed her arms as she waited.
“They posted it through a shell corp,” Benny said, flatly. “I had no idea, I swear. I don’t work for syndicates.”
“Good,” Matthew said. “Because if you do or say anything to compromise Yvonne, I’ll track you down. Nowhere in the solar system will be safe for you.”
“Geez. Lay off the threats. We’re business partners here, right? We’re all here to make money. Which if we’re done with this, I’ve got two jobs for you guys that I’ve been working on.”
Matthew looked at Yvonne, a question in his eye. She shrugged. What choice did she really have in the matter? Either they had to continue with Benny or find a new broker. May as well go with what they had. Benny didn’t seem like he had the courage to betray Matthew, anyway.
“Let us have ‘em,” Matthew said, turning back to the speaker.
“Both of them are personal requests for you guys. First one involves some research company here in Arizona.”
Yvonne frowned at that. “What kind of research are we talking about, and why would they ask for us?”
“Umm… Doesn’t really say, but they promised it was nonintrusive and would only take a few minutes, followed by a questionnaire.”
“That’s not how research works,” Yvonne said. “You don’t hire freelancers for lab work.”
“We’ll check on it,” Matthew said, waving her off. “It’s local and I don’t see how any harm can come from it. What’s the other job?”
“Huygens Industrial Chem is having some trouble with security for their fuel tankers and is hiring freelancer escorts. Their rep specifically asked for you guys after that whole thing with the children.”
“That one is a go,” Matthew said. “Thanks, Benny. Send the details over on both of them.”
“Will do. And… I’m glad you guys made it through okay the other night.”
The comm shut off and Matthew gestured to it. “See. He’s not all bad.”
“Except for this research job. I don’t like the idea of being a lab rat.”
He tapped a few buttons on the keyboard and peered at the display. “Let’s see. Details coming in now. Praxus Biomedical. Pay is good for how low the investment is. Here’s the contact information.”
“Call them,” Yvonne said. “This doesn’t smell right to me.”
“Already on it.”
“What’s going on?” Abigail asked, stepping into the cockpit.
“Matthew is farming us out as lab rats for experiments now.”
“We talking maze running lab rats or injected full of glowing chemicals lab rats?”
“I’ll find out as soon as you two stop talking and I can call them.” he said, giving them both a withering look. Yvonne returned the look to make sure he thought better of his impertinence.
A few moments later, a woman’s voice came over the speakers. “This is Dr. Shiratori.”
“This is Matthew Cole. I believe you were looking to hire my crew.”
“I’m glad you’ve decided to help me, Mr. Cole! The data we get from you and your…”
“We haven’t exactly made up our minds yet. Just what does this entail?”
“Oh. Praxus Biomedical is researching induced stress responses. We’ll expose you to stimuli, observe you, and then ask you a few questions. You’ll be in and out in an hour.”
“I have a few questions now if you don’t mind,” Yvonne said. “As the doctor on the ship, I’d like to know a bit more.”
“Naturally,” Dr. Shiratori said. “I’d expect nothing less.”
“What’s the purpose of this study? Medically speaking, inducing stress isn’t all that good for the human body.”
“We’re researching new counseling and therapy techniques. We hope to assist patients with various forms of PTSD by triggering mild responses and helping them work through it.”
Counseling wasn’t exactly Yvonne’s field, but that seemed reasonable enough. “And how will you be inducing this stressed state?”
“A screen of flashing lights will cause a neurological response. Some people are more photosensitive than others, so there is a rather broad range of effect. Part of our research is trying to identify both resistant and hypersensitive individuals, as neither are suitable candidates for therapy via this method.”
“Interesting,” Yvonne said. Flashing lights certainly could cause seizures in epileptics, but she had never read any literature on photic responses in the general population. She was skeptical, but human neurology was complicated.
“Are you through grilling the Doctor?” Matthew asked.
Yvonne shook her head. “Not quite. What do you want a crew of freelancers for? Seems like the usual pool of subjects for clinical trials would be more appropriate and much cheaper.”
“In general, yes,” Dr. Shiratori said. “However, we’d like a few subjects with actual combat experience, being as we’re hoping to treat PTSD patients.”
“Wait,” Abigail said. She shifted her bulk. “You’re trying to induce PTSD? Make us have flashbacks or something?”
“Not quite. Naturally, it would be unethical to test this on actual PTSD patients at this stage of trials. However, testing relatively healthy combatants is the first step in that direction. If any of your crew have a bad response, we’ll need to reevaluate how to move forward.”
Matthew turned to Yvonne. “Well, what do you say? Does it pass muster?”
It was still bizarre, and she wasn’t convinced that what they described was even possible. However, since none of the crew members were epileptic, she couldn’t see any harm in it. “I’ll have some more questions when we get there.”
“And we’ll be happy to answer them. When can you come into the lab? The whole crew will be there, I assume.”
“About that,” Matthew said, scratching his head beneath his campero. “Only two of us are vets. Then there is the doc. A young man, with only a little combat experience. And we also have a twelve-year-old that… Actually, she just lives on the ship mostly. It’s a long story. I’m not sure it’s all that appropriate for her to take part.”
“I see. We can discuss the younger crewmembers tomorrow. There aren’t any other suitable freelancer crews around Flagstaff at the moment. Can you come by around noon?”
“We’ll see you, then.” He cut off the comm. “See. Nothing to it.”
“I think this is highly irregular,” Yvonne said. “And I still get veto power tomorrow if anything smells even remotely wrong.”
“No complaints there,” Abigail said. “But this actually sounds kind of fun in a weird sort of way.”
“And, most importantly, an easy paycheck,” Matthew said, standing and walking past them out of the cockpit.
“Relax, Doc,” Abigail said. “Just imagine you’re part of pushing science forward and go with it.”
Yvonne breathed out a deep breath. They were right. An easy paycheck wasn’t something they could ever really afford to turn down, not with how much it took to keep the Sparrow flying. Besides, she’d get to ask as many questions as they’d let her. It was going to take a lot to convince her that stress-inducing phototherapy wasn’t the purview quacks.
Grace couldn’t stop smiling all the way into Flagstaff. She and Davey were riding with Abigail on her oversized bike, him in the back and her in front. Watching the red Martian landscape zoom by was exciting, at least until they got into the city and had to slow down for traffic. Then the ride became a chore and she was ready for it to be over. When the vehicles became thick enough that they came to a complete stop, Yvonne turned around and waved at them from Matthew’s bike. Grace made a face like she was falling asleep from boredom.
After at least three lifetimes, they pulled up to a stop at a small building in a row of identical ones. This one looked freshly painted and had a big blue sign that read Praxus Biomedical.
“Hey, Abigail?” Grace asked.
“What do you need?” she asked, getting off of her bike.
“You know how you said I should get something to eat before leaving the Sparrow? You were right.”
“Hungry already?” Davey shook his head. “Figures with the growing you’ve done lately.”
“You won’t be taller than me for long,” she said, stepping up to him to compare heights.
He frowned, an irritated look on his face, and backed away. A hand clapped on her shoulder. “Maybe don’t rub that one in,” Yvonne said.
“Fine,” Grace said. “What are we even doing here? I don’t understand this mission.”
“They’re going to give us a bad day and then ask questions about it,” Matthew said. “Let’s head in.”
The waiting room was a dull, lifeless place, little more than a white box with a few chairs. Matthew and Yvonne spoke with the receptionist and then disappeared from the room. The three of them sat in silence. Grace passed the time by trying to make patterns out of the markings on the ceiling tiles. She’d found patterns that looked like a slightly too tall Abigail-in-armor, the Sparrow, and even the old ship they’d used to fly on fuel runs back over Titan. Matthew and Yvonne returned before the game got too boring.
“What’s the news, doctor?” Abigail asked. “You going to let us do this?”
Yvonne looked uncomfortable but nodded anyway. “I think this is probably pure pseudoscience, but don’t see how any harm could come of it. We had a bit of discussion over the children and legal guardianship. No parents to sign their paperwork. They were rightly a little concerned over liability and ultimately decided that Grace would not be able to participate today.”
“Hey, that’s not fair!” she cried out. If she was going to be forced to come all this way just to sit and wait on everyone else, she was going to be steaming mad. “I can make my own decisions. I’m thirteen.”
“Which isn’t even close to the age of majority in Arizona,” Matthew said. “Decision is final.”
“What about him?” She pointed a finger at Davey.
“He gets to decide for himself,” Yvonne said.
Davey looked at Yvonne and then back at Grace. “Then, I’ll stay with Grace.”
That took her off guard but was a happy surprise. “Fine. But can we go find some food? This white room is exciting and all, but I’d rather bail.”
“Alright,” Matthew said. “Stick close to her, Davey. We’ll only be about an hour, so don’t wander too far.”
Davey walked to the door and opened it. Grace followed him and hit him in the arm. “You’re not all bad, you know that, right?”
“Oh, that’s a pity. Because you’re the worst.” He may have been smiling when he said it, but she hit him again anyway.
“I’ll go first,” Yvonne said. She’d given the okay for this foolish venture. It made sense that she reap the consequences first, if there were to be any, and then pull the plug if need be.
“Right this way,” Dr. Shiratori said, gesturing to the door leading into the facility.
Yvonne gave a quick look over her shoulder at Matthew and Abigail and then followed the woman. They walked down a brightly lit hall. Everything seemed almost painfully clean, which was appropriate for a laboratory setting, but this was surprisingly so. “Have you been in this location long?”
“A little over a month. We’re just moving into clinical trials and needed an appropriate location for test subjects and eventual patients. This room, if you will.”
Yvonne entered the prescribed door to find a softly lit room painted in relaxing shades of blue and green. It seemed reasonable to keep patients calm before exposing them to whatever was about to happen. A single screen on the wall showed only a Praxus Biomedical logo bouncing around in a screensaver. The wall across from this was clearly a one-way mirror, and a camera was mounted high in each corner. She sat in the chair facing the screen. “Are you going to have to strap me in, or am I good to just sit?”
“Ms. Naude,” Dr. Shiratori said, her face creased in amusement, “I think you’re imagining something far more severe in nature than the test we have planned.”
“Very well. Proceed with the mad science.”
Dr. Shiratori smiled again, something Yvonne found smug and annoying at the moment. “I will leave you alone now. Please remain seated and keep your hands on the palm pads. Sensors in the armrest will monitor your vitals. I’ll rejoin you after the test has been completed.” She shut the door.
She looked at the monitor. “Time to see if you’re real or not.”
A few moments later, the Praxus logo disappeared and was replaced by a black and white checkerboard effect. It began to ripple as if it was a surface of water disturbed by droplets. Yvonne crossed her arms as her skepticism ratcheted up to new heights. This was starting to get laughable.
Then the design began to spin and things got weird.
She had the distinct impression that she was being followed. Someone was behind her, pursuing her, and she couldn’t quite shake the feeling. Her own pride wouldn’t let her turn around, after all, Dr. Shiratori was most certainly watching, and Yvonne refused to give her that satisfaction.
Her pulse quickened. She placed her left hand on her right wrist and counted, ignoring the instructions. There it was again. This time she did turn. In her mind, she imagined Kudzu there, but of course, this was nonsense. The room was empty.
The hateful man smirked and dragged her kicking and screaming back to Piggy. This didn’t happen, would never happen, Matthew wouldn’t let it, but nonetheless, it was happening.
Her freedom was gone. Worst of all, the one she hated was always there. Kudzu. The man who killed Tomas. Tomas should have known to let him die. Why had he wanted her to save his killer? Why had she saved his killer?
Now he haunted her, like a specter, and the regret ate at her mind. She would never be free of him.
She’d kill him given the opportunity.
But of course, the room was empty. She was alone and felt very unusual, and her heart still raced. But it was slowing down now. The screen had returned to a bouncing Praxis logo.
The door opened and Dr. Shiratori entered the room. “I hope you don’t feel too unwell. Please stay seated until you regain your composure.”
Yvonne gave the woman a long hard stare, heedless of propriety. “That’s a neat trick. I hope you don’t give your patients heart attacks.”
The doctor smiled politely. “Rest assured, we will be thorough in our prescreening. Now if you’re feeling ready to answer a few questions, we can begin.”
Abigail watched as the strange pattern suddenly began to spin. Her head and the entire room seemed to go with it.
She felt as if she couldn’t move from where she squatted in front of the chair. As if… As if her implant was on the fritz again. No, it was worse than that. Her exo-suit was damaged. Beyond repair.
Her breath caught in her chest. And she shook her head, looking away from the screen. The feeling of anxiety didn’t go away. She’d never be able to walk again. Her career was over. All the respect she’d earned.
Cole probably wouldn’t even speak to her. What use was she to him now? Or to anyone for that matter. After all her father had sacrificed for her, she’d been foolish enough to risk it all and…
No. This was all a test. She stood to her feet, commanding her armor to obey her. It wasn’t damaged. It was all part of the stress test. The Sparrow was in flames punched clean through by several thumper blasts. Bodies floated in the cold of space, and only Abigail was suited for the vacuum. Except that wasn’t what had happened. Had it?
The nightmarish feeling receded from her beleaguered mind. The world shrank back into the dimly lit room and the display in front of her showed only the logo. She took a deep breath, forcing her nerves to calm and decided that they had not been paid nearly enough to be subjected to this infernal screen.
A block away from the research lab, Davey and Grace sat on a bench beside a street vendor selling tacos. He’d spotted it on the way in, knowing she would be ravenous by the time they left Praxus. As it turned out, they were free a little sooner than expected.
She was still sore about not getting to participate. “It’s not really fair. I’m not even really a kid anymore now that I’m thirteen.”
Davey shook his head. “If you think adults treat teenagers any better you’re in for a rude awakening.” Grace was busy picking all the little green leaves out of her tacos. “Hey, don’t waste that. You don’t like it?”
“Not these gross leaves. What is it, anyway?”
He took another bite of his second of three tacos. “Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s all amazing.” Food variety had always been a bit lacking on the habitat, and while they’d had more variety in their street days, regularity had been the problem there.
“Tastes like soap to me,” she said.
He looked at her and set his taco down. “Sorry. Guess this place wasn’t a great idea, after all.”
Her eyes went wide. “No, it’s fine, I promise. I’m just being picky.” She took a mouthful and chewed it thoughtfully. “First time I’ve ever been able to be picky.”
Now there was a thought. They really did have everything they needed on the Sparrow. Here they were, eating street food bought with money Davey had worked to earn. On Mars of all places. Crazy. “This is the best we’ve had it so far, isn’t it?” he asked. She nodded absently. Her mind was already somewhere else. “What’s got you distracted?”
“We’ll be leaving Mars soon, you know.”
He didn’t follow the jump in topic. “I’m not sure I…”
“I asked Yvonne about our flight plan. We’ll end up in the Jupiter Neighborhood after the next job.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Thebe is in the Jupiter Neighborhood.”
So that was what she was after. “Look, I haven’t seen my parents in a decade. I don’t even know if they are still there.”
“What if they are?” she asked quietly.
“How am I supposed to know? I haven’t thought that far ahead.” He felt a growing frustration with her. “I’ll cross that hurdle when I get there.”
“What about me?”
He stopped short, dumbstruck. Something else he hadn’t thought about.
“Are you going to leave me to stay with them?”
“You know, you normally call me the dumb one, but right now, you’re trying to catch up.”
She turned on him, bristling for a fight.
“You’re my little sister. Nothing is going to make me abandon you. Not even if we find my parents. Got it?”
She smiled and he shoved another mouthful of food into his face to cover the awkward moment. That only made it worse. “That is if you’ll have a big dumb brother like me.” His words were muffled by the food and he probably sounded like an idiot.
She leaned her head on his shoulder. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, but he knew complaining would just get him in trouble.
“Love you, brother.”
“You too, sis.”
Matthew watched the pattern on the screen ripple with a touch of fascination and a heaping dose of skepticism. The women had come out surprised and maybe even a bit shaken. But this? This was nothing. The doctor had said some people weren’t very susceptible. Maybe he was just…
The image began to spin and Matthew’s entire world disintegrated.
It was like he was falling. Falling towards the time and place he wanted least to be. So he took another job. Always another job, just to keep busy, to stay occupied.
Anything not to think about that place. Anything not to be there.
Not to be here. Europa. Villa Maria.
He would never forget. The farmlands. The old saloon. The church. Homes of families he’d known, people he’d protected. Faces he’d cared about for years. He’d done everything he could for that town, those people. And in the end, it hadn’t been enough. It wasn’t enough.
Clouds and thick darkness circled the town and he drew his revolver. Ten thousand men surrounded the town, and for as many as he killed, another hundred replaced them. Depraved men. Men that debased their own kind. Slavers.
How many did he have to kill? Each one he buried himself, outside of town, in penance for the foul deed.
And betrayed by a friend, Villa Maria in shackles, every man, woman, and child cartel owned.
Men must eat and Europa must provide that food, they said. The cartels furnish a necessary service now that the robotics have failed. The Jupiter Neighborhood will have their food for as long as the cartels keep up their hard work. Even the Vatican and the University of Ganymede, lights in the dark, paid the blood price. There were no alternatives.
A man of the cartel beats a slave who has fallen in the field. Or maybe they were making bricks. It was hard to tell in the gathering darkness. Matthew takes the man and kills him, but maybe that had happened long ago. He was an Egyptian. And that other Moses hadn’t failed.
Matthew was neither.
And Villa Maria still cried out in agony.
Maybe God heard their cries and maybe he didn’t.
It was so hard to tell with the way the world was spinning. His ears thundered and his vision was cloudy. Who was that in front of him? Where was he? Faces he knew. Two of them begging him to wake up.
People that he hadn’t failed. Not yet, anyway.
“His eyes are open,” one of them said through the haze. A friend. Someone he should trust more than he does.
“Pulse is coming back down too,” the other answered.
“Can you hear us, Matthew? Are you all right?”
“...mmm fine,” he slurred. A few rays of light seemed to pierce the miasma as the nightmare receded.
“Let me check on…” a third voice said.
“I think you’ve caused enough harm. I’m a medical doctor and am fully equipped to take care of him from here.”
“There was no way to know he would be hypersensitive to the phototherapy.”
The voices were still distant, detached from their sources, but becoming clearer as the moments passed. He opened his mouth and found his words were sticky and refused to separate. Maybe it was his tongue. Maybe his brain. “It’sssokayy. Jusss gimmeee five ani’llbeee ready.”
Abigail was in front of him, her face pressed with worry. “Gave us a scare there, Matthew.”
He closed his eyes again, trying to will the fog away, and managed to smile. “Gotta be good at somthin’, I guess.”
It took some time for them to get out of the clinic. To Matthew, it was all one big blur. Dr. Shiratori insisted on thoroughly questioning him after he had recovered enough to give coherent answers. He also consented to have his blood drawn in case it helped them figure out why he had been so sensitive to the therapy.
He didn’t care all that much anymore. The sooner he made both the doctors, his own and the weird research one, get along, the sooner he got to go home and take a nap.
Then there was the barrage of questions from the kids. Grace would barely leave him alone until Davey finally got the hint and rudely told her to be quiet.
The last awkward moment came when they stood at the bikes and realized that they were down a driver.
“I can drive,” Davey said. “Probably.”
“When it snows on Venus,” Yvonne said. “I haven’t driven one of these things since I was a teenager, but they say you never forget how to ride a bike.”
Matthew frowned, not sure he liked where this was going. “That’s not the type of bike…”
“It’s either Davey or me,” Yvonne said. She took one last look back at the clinic and shook her head. “You’d think they’d have made us come with designated drivers. Unprofessional.”
In spite of Matthew’s misgivings, they made it back to the Sparrow in one piece. He slept the rest of the day, and the cries of slaves echoed in his dreams.
Elizabeth Cole hated it every time. It always came before she was ready. No sooner had her son come home than he was off planet again. Always the next job. Never in one place for longer than he had to be. She knew what it was that haunted him, what specter gnawed at his conscience.
It drove him to a hard life, and that life had followed him here. It had nearly swallowed them both this time, and his crew too.
A rational part of her was angry at him, angry at the choices that he made. But she was his mother and love is not always rational.
She stepped out of the grav car onto rocky ground. Clumps of grass tried to grow in the thin, dry soil. Mars was a hostile place for life, even under the shield. Unless the hand of man tamed the land, it remained an arid desert.
Matthew walked down the ramp toward her. She thought about meeting him halfway, but after the trouble this visit had caused, decided he’d have to close the whole distance himself. Then she found she had gone to him anyway, in spite of her silly pride.
He took her hand. “You’re sure you’ll be okay?”
“I can manage the farm from afar. I’ll stay with my cousin as long as necessary.”
“It could be some time.” She looked at her son and he broke the gaze. “I’m sorry. This is why I don’t like to come home. For all my fears, it finally happened. My work followed me back to you.”
“And they followed you because you are a decent man and take care of those who have no other place,” she said. “You haven’t changed, you know. Not in ten years. Nor will you in a century.”
There was a long silence and Elizabeth felt the cool wind blow against her skin. She thought of the farm and the work to be done and wondered how long it would be until she could revisit it in person. The farmhands would manage, but she would miss being there for the hard work. She’d miss the soil between her fingers.
She would also miss her son.
“Take care of yourself. And take care of that crew. If I find out something has happened to one of them…”
He smiled and tipped his hat to her. “I will.”
They embraced each other and then their time had come. He returned to his ship and she to her grav car. The wait wasn’t long. Ten minutes later, the Sparrow burned towards space, its engines thundered across the landscape.
Elizabeth waited until she could no longer see the points of light before leaving. She was used to it by now, the empty feeling after his departure, but something was different this time. Maybe it was knowing that he wasn’t alone this time.
“This was an enormously expensive operation,” the voice continued from the comm. “I hope you got the information for which you sought.”
The Unchained Man, who once had gone by Whitaker, looked up from his pad of scribbled notes. He’d had to write furiously after each session to ensure he didn’t forget any details. “I imagine it was. Your people did a flawless job setting up the clinic, and Shiratori played her part perfectly.”
“I would expect nothing less. She is, after all, a doctor.”
He smiled. “Of course. And has your possession been returned to you safely?”
“It has been returned to its vault. You are either very brave or very foolish to willingly handle such a trinket.”
He set aside the pad. “I prefer to consider myself well informed. This wasn’t the first miracle I’ve handled, nor will it be the last. They each have their purpose, and that’s the key. The Thresher of Oneiros is for the winnowing of another soul. To share the nightmare of another is an informative, if exhausting, experience. Rest assured, Mrs. Ishii. Your organization’s prized ring was put to good use.”
“Then our debt to you fulfilled?” the Japanese woman asked curtly.
As much as he hated when a valuable resource was expended, it was against his nature to cheat a bargain well struck. “Of course. Though I do hope we have the pleasure of doing business again someday. My services are always available.”
Mrs. Ishii was silent for a long moment before she answered tersely. “Your trade in the currency of favors is expensive. It may be long before you hear from me.”
The comm went silent and The Unchained Man picked his pad up off the desk, his eyes running over the familiar notes. Yes, there was a good deal of value here. The Shield Maiden and the Doctor had been interesting of course. Such insight into the psyche of another could always prove useful in the future.
But Matthew Cole had been the prize that he had gone to all this trouble of calling in debts for.
It seemed that Villa Maria had never left the Gaucho after all.
The Unchained Man had been afraid that it had, afraid that Cole had been thoroughly ruined.
There was still hope though, hope that Cole would not go to waste.
Perhaps he need only apply force in the right place. He settled back into his chair as a solution to the problem began to form in his mind.