Chapter 8: Fagin's Brigade
Chapter 8: Fagin’s Brigade
We are all aware of the myriad of challenges that will face our colonies in the coming decades, many of which have been discussed at great length by this very committee. There is little need for me to remind you how dire these crises are. One day the grav-plate factories on Mars and Ganymede will cease to operate and we will either have learned to replicate the technology at scale for civilization to continue or we will not. A continual reminder at each convening will not hasten such breakthroughs.
Rather my team and I would like to discuss a different threat with the committee, one whose generational nature has kept its discussion off of the table until now. I would like to discuss the sub-replacement fertility rate that each and every colony is experiencing.
Simply put, there are not enough children to maintain the current population. Not one colony, no, not even the Martian colonies, have a high enough birth rate for our way of life to continue for more than a few generations. There is of course still research to be done because it is difficult to obtain accurate population data in places like Ceres and Europa due largely to the chaotic or outright criminal nature of those particular colonies. However, we can predict with relative confidence that the same trends are affecting each and every human population in the solar system.
Make no mistake. This is an existential threat on the same level as our failing technology or the lack of biodiversity in our extant flora and fauna samples. Worse, it is far more diffuse in nature, for its cause extends into all of our fields, from the technological to the sociological. It is our belief that this creates a positive feedback loop of sorts. As the birth rate worsens, the quality of life continues to degrade. This, in turn, further lowers the birth rate.
We have several different computer models detailing when the current trajectory will cross the point of no return.
If you will direct your monitors to data packet 14, we will begin to discuss the relevant data and the proposals my team has to counteract this crisis...
Fourth Committee on Colonial Sustainability
Died 48 AM
Matthew had little difficulty wrestling his opponent into cuffs. His small size and apparent unfamiliarity with fighting in zero-gee had made him easy pickings for an experienced fighter. Getting him back aboard the Sparrow was more frustrating and wasted precious time during which Sharon and the thieves were getting away. By the time they were through the port side airlock far more time had passed than Matthew was happy about.
He firmly sat the thief in a chair in the common room and cuffed him to it to make sure he wasn’t going anywhere. Matthew took his helmet off, then reached for the latches of the thief’s helmet. He thrashed around on the chair to keep Matthew at bay.
“Come on. Let’s not play this game. Yvonne! I need you in here.”
“I’m coming.” She entered the room and stopped short. “Oh my.”
“I don’t think our guest is cooperating. I’m going to hold him still. Get his helmet off.”
Yvonne nodded. “Please listen,” she said bending down to look at the thief. “We aren’t going to hurt you.”
“I might if you keep struggling like this,” Matthew suggested.
“For shame, Matthew Cole,” Yvonne said, shaking her head. “We won’t hurt you,” she said again, “but we need you to calm down.” Matthew gripped him from behind and the struggling stopped. Yvonne reached forward to unclasp the helmet. When she had popped all the latches, she gently lifted it over his head. “Unexpected,” she said quietly.
Matthew released his grip as Yvonne backed away so that he could get a good look at the young man that was causing him so much frustration. To Matthew’s surprise, he was older than he had thought. He’d have guessed that the thief was little more than a child based on his small build and barely five-foot height, when in fact he was certainly a teenager, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. He had fair skin and dark hair and Matthew could tell that his ancestors had come from the continent of Asia on Earth, but he couldn’t pinpoint more specifically than that.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” he asked. “I’ve stumbled on plenty of crazy things in my life, but I’ve never seen a pack of pint sized fuel thieves.”
The teen stared at him for a moment and then turned away sulkily.
“Come on. Don’t be shy. We’re of half a mind to help you out of whatever nasty predicament you’re in.
He was greeted with a long string of unintelligible syllables. Matthew wasn’t an expert on languages, not by a long shot, but from the venom they were spoken with, he had the feeling these weren’t the kind of words one tended to use in front of their mother. He glanced at Yvonne. “Any idea what he said?”
She only nodded toward the cockpit. “I’d like to have a word with you.”
He checked the restless teen’s restraints one more time before following Yvonne towards the cockpit. He shut the door behind him. “I’m assuming you understood that?”
“No, but from the tone, I’m probably glad I didn’t.”
Matthew frowned. “Then what’s this about?”
“Just because I didn’t understand the words doesn’t mean I didn’t recognize the language. Most languages have a certain cadence, a unique character to them that you start to recognize after awhile. Our friend was speaking Mandarin.”
Matthew stared at her blankly, unsure of why this was supposed to mean anything to him. He’d never heard of a language called…
“Chinese, Matthew. He was speaking Chinese.”
Matthew stood silent for a minute. He reached up to adjust his campero and then realized he wasn’t wearing it. “How would you know that?” he asked quietly.
“There was a small Chinese population that lived near my practice on Ceres. A hundred or so families just trying to go about their lives.” She sighed. “Probably trying to forget the Red Holocaust and avoid notice.”
Matthew shivered at the mention of the fall of Chinese civilization. No one, not even Moses, had ever really settled on a death toll. Maybe because no death toll had ever had that many zeroes attached to it until then. Calling the Red Holocaust one of the blackest stains in human history was an understatement. It had in fact been the very crisis through which Moses had revealed himself to the world and kept the Chinese collapse from plunging the entire world into darkness.
“There’s something else,” Yvonne said. “His accent was… wrong. As if he hasn’t been speaking it for a while. That’s just a guess on my part.”
“Hmm… I wonder if he knows English?” Matthew scratched the stubble at his chin.
“Of course he’ll know English,” Yvonne scoffed. “Everyone knows English. Just because he’s from a rare racial background doesn’t mean he’s lived under a rock since he was born.”
“That’s fair, but for all we know these kids might have lived under a rock their whole lives. I’m a little afraid to find out what’s going on.”
Yvonne looked back at the door leading to the common room. “The only scenarios I can imagine are too terrible to think about.”
“Slavery isn’t unique to Europa,” Matthew said, trying not to let those thoughts follow through to their usual destination. Villa Maria was on his mind more and more these days and it wasn’t a trend he appreciated. “Okay, let’s mix it up. Good cop, bad cop. I had to rough up our friend a bit to get him here. See if you can get him to talk. I’m going to see about following Sharon before they get too much further away. Remember. He’s dangerous. Keep your distance.”
“I can take care of myself, Matthew Cole,” she said, opening the cockpit door. “But I’ll see if I can get anything more out of him.”
He sat down to prep the Sparrow for launch. On a whim, he decided not to fire up the main engines. If the thieves thought they were clever by coming in cold, then two could play at that game. He pulled up the tracker and checked on Sharon’s signal. She was already over a hundred miles out.
He released the landing clamps and let the Sparrow drift for a few moments before using steam thrusters to push further away from the refinery.
Having a new thought, he pulled up the comm. “You there, Sharon?”
Silence. Without any additional equipment to relay her signal, they must have gotten out of the transmitter range of her suit.
He took the flight yoke and rotated them towards where the signal still pinged silently in the cold darkness of Titan’s orbit. “Stay safe, Sharon. We’re coming.”
Riding a ship above Titan, under the eyes of distant Saturn was a new experience for Abigail. After the first few minutes, she relaxed, no longer worried that she would be discovered. She re-positioned herself, as quietly as possible, on top of the ship so that she could both watch for potential destinations ahead and watch the refinery fade into the distance. The facility, with its lights and constant stream of ships entering and leaving Titan’s atmosphere, entertained her for a few minutes, at least until she was too far out to see much of what was going on.
Ahead, she could see nothing at all. Wherever they were going was probably too far out for her to see with the naked eye.
Or it was running cold with lights out like the ship.
She settled in for the long haul. She could be on her own for quite some time one way or another. The wait ended up being about four hours. About the time she had reached the conclusion that she would die of boredom, the ship’s steam jets began to fire, slowing their velocity.
She looked around. Her surroundings looked much the same as they had. Titan beneath her and Saturn far above. Ahead there was nothing to see, except maybe…
No, there was something there. A dark silhouette floated in space, much larger than the ship she rode on. Either it was another ship or some kind of station.
A crack of light appeared as a portal opened in the side of the dark shape. The ship drifted into the open hangar and slowed to a stop with a final puff of steam. With a disorienting lurch, gravity flicked on, and the ship settled onto the deck. The enormous bay doors began to grind shut behind it, their rumbles felt through the deck rather than through the vacuum that still filled the cavernous space.
Better to move now rather than later. She leaped from the top of the ship and hit the deck as lightly as she could, taking cover in a corner behind a stack of coolant barrels. The hangar doors closed. At any moment the chamber would be flooded with atmosphere, rendering her vulnerable to discovery.
She glanced at her wrist to confirm that the air pressure was rising. Within a minute it had reached standard, and there was a single clear tone announcing that the locked doors into the hangar were disengaging. She crept further into her corner and found a gap that she could peer between. Once again she found herself in a situation that demanded some stealth. Maybe Cole was right. Maybe she needed a poncho to break up her silhouette. Next thing he’d have her wearing a stupid cowboy hat. Gaucho hat. Whatever it was called.
The door at the far end of the hangar opened and a handful of forms entered. Small forms. Children each and every one except for two teenagers leading the pack. Abigail gritted her teeth. The teenagers appeared to be armed with compact automatic weapons. She couldn’t quite make out their model from here, but she suspected the caliber was too small to be much of a threat to her.
Not that she was going to tempt them. She wasn’t quite ready to see Ivan again.
The crew of the ship disembarked, clearly stalling and unhappy. The lack of fuel module and associated fuel was probably about to get them in hot water. Sure enough, it only took a few moments before the shouting began. The voice of one of the teens rose above the higher voices of the children.
“Are you all stupid? Where’s the fuel tanker? Answer me, bilgeworms.”
There was a lot more shouting in answer, as the crew began to panic. Abigail regretted her part in the trouble they’d found themselves in. She eyed the weapons again, hoping she wasn’t about to have to go charging in to rescue the very thieves she was pursuing.
“One at a time,” the lead teen shouted, “I can’t hear myself think over the shrieking. You. Talk. Where’s the fuel tanker and where is your escort?”
A short boy with close-cropped brown hair stepped forward. He was practically trembling. “We got ambushed. Someone was waiting for us. Someone jumped Davey. I saw it happen from the cockpit. And then a giant attacked the tanker crew. We had to get out of there!”
“And leave the fuel? Are you insane?” The teen was yelling even louder than before, but Abigail could see that he was also afraid now. That was interesting. There was a pecking order here, and the teens were still vulnerable to it.
“It was either that or be captured,” the boy retorted balling his fists in defiance.
“Should have gotten captured then. Now we’re all going to get it.”
“And risk someone talking?”
The teen shrugged. “You left your escort.”
The boy laughed bitterly. “If you think Davey is going to talk, then you’re sniffing coolant again.”
The teen swung the butt end of his weapon at the boy. “You shut your mouth, bilgeworm!” There were a handful of screams as the brave little boy dropped to the ground whimpering. “All of you. Report to Block Four. We’ll have to figure out how to break this to the Duke if we don’t want to all be thrown out the airlock.”
This Duke didn’t sound good. If Abigail were placing bets, she’d put good money on him being the adult in the room. Still, something about this whole operation seemed mad. Surely these children weren’t here solely to siphon fuel off of a nearby refinery. There had to be a bigger game. She needed more information, but if she just charged through the halls looking for whoever was in charge of the station, children might get hurt.
The kids and teenagers filed out. Soon the hangar would be empty and she’d have a chance to move.
Then she saw the straggler. The blonde girl she’d seen earlier in the fuel module. She sat slumped against the landing strut of the ship.
And she was bawling her eyes out.
Abigail bit her lip. This was a terrible idea, but she really didn’t have any better ones right now. Besides, the girl looked like she could use a friend. And maybe she’d know a few of this place’s secrets.
Abigail crept from her hiding place and walked over to the girl. As she knelt in front of her, the girl startled and looked up at her in wonder.
“Hi,” Abigail said with the friendliest smile she could muster. “What’s your name?”
Grace Anderson was having one of the worst days ever. It had started like most any other day until she and her big brother Davey had gotten into another fight over him enlisting as an enforcer. He said he had his reasons, but what reason could justify something so horrible? How could he join up with that group of bullies? How could he follow the Duke’s orders so blindly?
They’d cut the argument short when the scheduled fuel ‘salvage’ mission came up. Grace was getting assigned to them a lot lately. Her hard work and reliability were paying off, and she hoped to get a better room soon, maybe up on one of the brightly lit levels near the top of the station. She’d lived in the lower levels, lit only by maddening red emergency lights, for so many years that the thought nearly made her giddy.
Davey had somehow managed to get himself assigned as the enforcer escort on her last several missions. She didn’t mind normally. Having her brother around calmed her nerves, helped her work fast, and efficiently. But after this morning’s fight, it was another matter entirely.
The mission should have been like any other. They had silently drifted across space to the refinery and started their work securing fuel for the Duke. But then they had been attacked by the giant and it had all gone so horribly wrong.
Grace had been in charge of the fuel tanker and she’d lost it.
And Davey? Davey had been left behind. Grace knew she’d never see him again.
She’d slipped away from the group deliberately, unable to imagine a future without Davey. The world closed in around her as she slumped down against the landing strut and the tears came unbidden and unwelcome. If the other children saw her they would whisper behind her back. Stories would be told and she’d never get a room on the upper levels.
The enforcers would push her around. Treat her like a fresh acquisition.
And then she no longer cared. Davey was gone. Just this once, she would show a little weakness. It would be several minutes before they’d realize she was gone and come looking for her.
There was a loud clomping noise on the deck in front of her. Grace looked up from her cry to see the giant leaning down to look at her and she froze in terror. She wanted to run, get help, but her muscles refused to move.
“Hi! What’s your name?”
Her eyes focused on the giant’s face for the first time and saw that it was a woman with short dark curls. Curiosity got the best of her, and she wiped away her tears. “Gr… Grace.”
“That’s a nice name,” the woman said smiling brightly. “I’m Abigail. I can’t help but notice that you’re not doing so well.”
Grace nodded and the tears started flowing again. “My brother…” she mumbled.
“What was that?” the woman asked.
She wiped the tears from her eyes. “My brother. What did you do with him?”
The woman stared at her, a look of confusion crossing her pretty face. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about…”
“You attacked us and we had to leave him behind,” Grace’s voice squeaked with emotion. Normally she’d be embarrassed, but right now she was too upset to care. Right now she was all emotion and nerve. “What did you do to him?” she rasped through her tears.
Abigail looked at her again and cocked her head. Her face suddenly lit up. “Oh, your brother was the one outside with the pipeline. Don’t worry! He’s safe. My friends have him.”
“And they aren’t going to hurt him?” Grace looked at Abigail doubtfully, unsure if this strange woman was at all trustworthy.
“Of course not. We’re not going to hurt children. We’d like to help you if we can, but I may need you to help me out first.”
Grace, bit her lip nervously. “Prove it.”
“That we want to help you?”
“That my brother is okay.”
Abigail shrugged. “Yeah, okay. I guess we can do that. We may have to wait a few minutes, but my friends will be along soon enough. As soon as they are back in comm range, you can talk to your brother.”
Grace’s eyes narrowed. “How long will that take? Someone could find us here, and I’d get in big trouble with the Duke and his enforcers.”
“I get the feeling I’m not going to like this Duke of yours. It could be a while. I don’t know how quickly they were able to follow our trail. Do you have someplace we could hide till they get here?”
There were places in the lower levels, in the dark, where people almost never went. At least not if there wasn’t a reason.
“Yeah, I know a place. Come on. We’ll take the maintenance shaft.” Grace led Abigail to the back of the hangar and pointed at a heavy access hatch. “That takes about four of us to open, but I bet you can do it by yourself.”
Abigail bent over and pulled back the cover from the accessway with one hand. Grace tried to not show how impressed she was but failed miserably as the grin crept across her face. Work on the station would be so much easier if they had someone like Abigail around for the heavy lifting.
“Come on,” Grace said, climbing down the ladder into the dark. Above her, Abigail climbed into the shaft, blocking out the dim light filtering downward. As she approached the bottom, fear began to grip her heart.
Strangers were coming to the station. The one thing the Duke said could never happen. One was already here.
The enforcers would put her in a dark box. There was no other outcome to this disaster.
She reached the bottom of the shaft and stepped clear to give Abigail room. But then again, the giant woman in a suit of magical armor seemed nice enough. Maybe she wouldn’t let them put Grace in a dark box.
Maybe no one would ever go into a dark box again.
Grace smiled as she pulled a small light out of her pocket to show their way through the dark lower levels of the station. She’d dreamed about a room on the upper levels. But this was better. Maybe, just maybe, the strangers would burn this stinking place to the ground.
Unfortunately, the good cop had gotten little more out of their captive than a few more Mandarin curse words. Yvonne noticed the small tells that he understood English. A flick of the eyes when she spoke. A twitch in the forehead muscles that revealed he knew quite well what she was talking about. But he was stubborn. She had tried off and on for the last several hours with little to show for it.
The doctor in her marveled at his small stature. The Chinese community she had known hadn’t been particularly tall, but this teen was far below expected height. Probably first or second percentile if she had to guess. He had either been cursed with unusual genetics or been chronically malnourished at key stages of his development. Maybe both.
She’d seen enough kids on the streets of the solar system to have seen it all, and it still broke her heart.
“Well, if you change your mind and decide to help us and your friends,” she opened a cabinet and pulled out a self-heating meal, “then you can have yourself a nice little meal. Until then, I’m going to leave this over here where you can see it and think about it.” His eyes followed the package intently.
She hated lying to the young man and had already decided that she was going to give him the meal no matter what happened. Completely by accident, she had become the bad cop, resorting to manipulation to get results.
“Yvonne, I’ve got Sharon back on comms,” Matthew called from the cockpit.
“I’ll be right there.” She turned to their captive. “Think about it. I’ll be back.”
She opened the door to the cockpit and heard Abigail’s voice crackling over the speakers.
“And so Grace and I are hiding out in the sewage treatment plant now and have been waiting around for you to catch up.”
“Who’s Grace?” Yvonne asked.
“Cute little blonde girl. Which by the way, I think you guys are holding onto her older brother.”
“Mmm. I don’t think so if she’s blonde,” Matthew said thoughtfully. “This kid’s Chinese. Dark hair.”
Suddenly a girl’s voice came over the speakers. “Well Davey’s not my real brother, but he’s looked out for me since long before we came here, so I call him that. But how did you know he was Chinese? He tries to keep that a secret.” There was a pause. “He didn’t say a bunch of bad words, did he? He does that sometimes…”
Yvonne chuckled. “Yes, but I’m not too offended. I’ve heard them all before. Maybe not the Chinese ones, but there’s only so much creativity in cursing.”
The girl laughed. “Are you Yvonne? Abigail told me about you. And sorry about Davey. He can be pretty dumb sometimes. I hope he’s okay. You didn’t hurt him did you?”
“I promise, he’s fine,” Yvonne reassured. “I’ll even let you talk to him in few minutes.”
“So what’s it like over there, Sharon?” Matthew asked, impatient to be back to the task at hand. “I’m looking at a derelict habitat that’s not so derelict. I’ve got plenty of signs of activity and heat, but no outside lights and only dark viewports.”
Abigail sighed. “Horribly messed up is the short answer. Grace has been telling me a little bit about it. There’s only one adult on the whole station. He calls himself Duke Fagin.” She paused for a moment. “You read that one, right Cole?”
Yvonne glanced at Matthew and saw his face twist up. “Not very subtle is it. So this guy is a real sicko?”
“Pretty much. Best I can tell shipments of fresh children arrive on occasion. They get put to work here on the station. Eventually, they get shipped off again before they grow into teenagers. A few of the meaner kids stick around for a few years as the Duke’s enforcers, but even they disappear before they turn eighteen.”
“This... This is part of a slaver operation,” Yvonne said, mouth agape. “They bring in kids that are too young to be of any use. Duke Fagin puts them to work and trains them into docile workers and then they get shipped out when they’re useful.”
Matthew shook his head sadly. “And I bet the enforcers get recruited into whatever cartel or gang will take them.”
Abigail cleared her throat. “According to Grace, Davey has recently joined the enforcers. She’s understandably not very happy about that.”
There was complete silence for nearly a minute. Yvonne’s heart broke for the children, especially Grace. Was their captive a bad apple? Maybe it wasn’t too late for him if they got him away from this horrid place.
Matthew interrupted her thoughts. “Grace, can you tell me how many children are on the station with you? Best guess.”
“Mmmmaybe... Maybe four hundred? I don’t know. Sorry, Mr. Cole.”
“That’s good. Do you think maybe you could step away and give us some privacy to talk to Abigail?”
“Sure. Do I still get to talk to my brother?”
“You bet, just give us a few minutes.”
After a moment Abigail’s voice came back over the comm. “Okay, she’s out of earshot. I don’t even have words for this.”
“Monstrous,” Yvonne said. “Evil. Wicked.” She shuddered as she looked out at the dark shape of the station blotting out the stars like a hole in the sky.
Matthew mumbled something so quiet that Yvonne could barely hear it. “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.” Yvonne raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth to ask him about that but was interrupted by Abigail.
“What was that? Speak up.”
“It’s nothing, Sharon.” He sighed and Yvonne could see how his shoulders drooped. “So what do we do about this?”
Abigail made an unhappy sound. “I was kind of hoping you had an idea. You’re the boss.”
Matthew frowned. “Not sure who put me in charge. This is way beyond the scope of our contract, and I don’t really have any right to demand anyone do anything.”
He looked to Yvonne, but she only crossed her arms. “We’ll follow your lead on this one. However you want to approach this, we’ll trust your judgment.”
Matthew apparently wasn’t thrilled with the prospect. “Give me some time to think. Sharon, are you and Grace in any immediate danger?”
“Grace says the sewage plant gets weekly maintenance. It’s been a while since she’s come down here, but if the old schedule holds we could hide out for the next two days. Honestly, though, I’m more worried about the smell than getting caught. Stuff like this works into my suit and I can smell it for weeks.”
“Let me have an hour then,” he said and turned to Yvonne. “Head on back to the common room. Let Davey and Grace talk. We may need his cooperation.”
Yvonne stood and turned to go, but paused and placed a comforting hand on Matthew’s shoulder. “You alright?”
“Fine,” he grunted. “Why?”
“Just a hunch.” If Matthew Cole had a past with Europa, then slavery was most likely a sensitive subject for him.
“I thought you were a medical doctor, not a psychologist.” His expression was playful but hollow. There was no mirth behind his eyes.
“Very well. Some other time perhaps.” She turned away, meaning every word of it. That would come later when there were less pressing matters at hand. Returning to the common room, she walked back over to where the teen still struggled in his bonds. He sure was persistent.
“Davey, would you like to talk to your sister? I can raise her on the comm if you would like.”
It took Matthew less than the promised hour to come up with a plan, or rather the bare bones of the plan. It would take a bit of input from the others and require cooperation from Grace.
The linchpin would be Davey. If the teen could be convinced to join in the venture they’d stand a real chance.
It was a foul tactic, grooming kids into enforcers. Train them to turn on their own and they’ll be well suited for a life of abusing their fellow colonists. It was the oldest method of gang recruitment. Make someone feel special. Like they were important. Once they bought that lie, they were yours.
It had happened at Villa Maria. They’d lost the youth first.
Matthew wondered if Davey had fully bought into the lie already. Grace said that Davey had only recently joined the group. Maybe his loyalty to his sister was still stronger than his loyalty to the Duke and his goons. He hoped so.
When Matthew crept into the common room, he heard soft conversation and stopped short, not wanting to interrupt anything. When he’d first secured Davey to his chair, he’d made sure to face him away from the hall to the cockpit to give them more privacy to move about if they needed it. As it was, the teen didn’t hear his approach and kept talking to Yvonne. She registered Matthew’s presence with a flick of the eyes but kept her attention on the teen.
“We lived in one of the coreward cities on Ceres,” Davey said. “Dump of a mining town named Blight. Yeah. Blight. You know a place is great when they name it that. Anyway, we ran with a pack of other homeless kids. Looked out for each other. Made sure everyone got fed. Turns out someone in Blight didn’t approve of us. The rumor I heard was they hired the cartel to come pick us up. Eventually, we couldn’t evade them. All the kids got separated into groups. I guess the teens all ended up on Europa or somewhere. I was already thirteen but slipped in with Grace’s group because of... well, you know.” He trailed off into silence.
“How long have you been here under Duke Fagin?” Matthew asked gently to announce his presence.
Davey stiffened and tried to turn to see the newcomer. As Matthew walked around in front of him, the teen glared thumper blasts at him. Matthew wasn’t sure he deserved quite that fierce a look, at least not for anything he’d done today. The teen set his jaw, apparently unwilling to talk at all while Matthew was around.
“Oh, so we’re going to play tough guy? Give me the silent treatment? Fine.” Matthew crossed his arms and leaned against the counter. “It’s a good thing your ears are open, Davey, because right now I want you to listen.”
The teen only looked away. Yvonne gave Matthew an apologetic look and shrugged.
“So here’s the deal. We were hired to stop your little fuel thefts. Lucky for you kids, we’re also halfway decent people. Now, we could just call this back to our employer or some local authorities and they’d come clear this little operation out. I get the feeling that would result in a lot of people getting hurt. But our crewmate Abigail seems to like your sister Grace, so we’re gonna try and do this ourselves.”
Davey glanced at Matthew before looking away again. Okay, at least he was listening. “I’ve got a couple ideas on how to do this, but we’re going to need a man on the inside.”
“Not interested,” Davey said shortly.
“That’s a pity,” Matthew said shaking his head. “You know your sister told us she was upset about you joining the enforcers. Maybe she thought you were turning into a bit of a thug.” He paused to let the moment sink in. “Maybe she’s right.”
A tense silence filled the common room and Matthew wondered what struggles went through the young man’s mind. He decided to go in for the kill. “I overheard you talking to Yvonne. I’m kind of curious what happened to the kid that used to be part of the group from Blight. The group that looked out for each other.”
Davey frowned and sighed. That must have done the trick. “Okay fine. I’m in. What do you need from me?”
Yvonne smiled and sat back in her chair, relaxed. Matthew made eye contact with her briefly and then looked at Davey. “Mostly information and a bit of cooperation.”
“I’m doing this for Grace,” Davey said. “Just so we’re clear.”
“Sure,” Matthew said nodding. “For Grace.”
Truth was, Davey wasn’t that bad a kid. At least he didn’t think so. Everytime Grace nagged him about joining Duke Fagin’s enforcers, though, he had a few doubts.
“You gotta make sacrifices,” he explained to her over and over.
He’d been making sacrifices since he had first taken her under his wing all those years ago on Ceres. Life would have been easier on Ceres without Grace always being underfoot, and it would have been easier here too. But he kept on making those sacrifices. For Grace.
Joining the enforcers was the only thing keeping him here on the station with Grace and not shipped off to some new owner. Humiliating as it had been, he’d lied about his age for years. Being short had that one advantage. The Duke and the enforcers had finally wisened up, so he made his last desperate bid to stick around with his sister.
He tried not to think about the things he’d done as an enforcer. “It’s all so I can protect Grace,” he told himself over and over. And yet each time he’d bullied or stood by as a kid was beaten it bothered him less. Maybe you can sacrifice too much.
Maybe these strangers were a chance to escape. They could be used. He wasn’t sure they were all that clever.
This plan certainly had vacuum for brains.
They docked the Sparrow noisily onto the station. Every other enforcer on the habitat would be waiting on the other side of that airlock, armed and itching for a fight.
Davey was supposed to keep that from happening. Somehow.
The airlock opened with a hiss of air. Davey took a deep breath and stepped forward hands in the air. “Guys it’s me. Davey!” He could see the other twenty or so enforcers, in positions of cover in the hallway. Looked like the whole gang was here to greet the strange ship. “Oh come on, exhaust jockeys, it’s me.”
One of the other enforcers stepped out. It was the Duke’s top man, Dexter. Dexter’s face was covered with piercings he’d done himself and, right now, that face wasn’t screaming happy.
“You’re supposed to be dead or captured, shorty.”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you? Lucky for me we got caught by a different set of thieves.”
Dexter wasn’t impressed and crossed his arms. “So you led them back here? If we don’t kill you here and now, the Duke will.”
Davey matched the other teen's stance. “Turns out the thieves are interested in the operation and may be buyers.”
The lead enforcer seemed to consider this. “Even if he ends up liking these guys, he’s still gonna kill you. Maybe he’ll let me do it.”
“In your dreams,” Davey said smirking. “Look, are you gonna send word to the Duke or not?”
Dexter wrinkled his nose in annoyance before rolling his eyes. “Fine. Let’s head right up. Your thief friends got someone that wants to talk to the Duke? I can’t promise their safety.”
“Yeah, Yeah.” Davey stepped back into the Sparrow’s airlock. “Come on,” he said to Cole. “They’re gonna take us to the Duke.”
Davey and Cole emerged from the Sparrow. The gaucho nodded gravely at the group of armed teenagers and they relaxed a bit. It helped that he looked the part. Some of the buyers that came by the habitat were dressed similarly to Cole. The man’s street clothes were the perfect disguise.
“Follow me,” Dexter said. “Oh, and what’s your name?”
Dexter shrugged. “Whatever. Come on.”
Davey kept right on walking, aware that the other enforcers weren’t lowering their weapons. The way he figured it, the odds of him making it out of this were pretty close to zero, but as long as Grace made it out of this pit, he wasn’t sure he cared.
Matthew couldn’t help but feel nervous around a pack of angry teenagers with itchy trigger fingers. He didn’t show this discomfort of course. Didn’t fit the role he was trying to play. He let the enforcers lead him and Davey up several flights of stairs and several hundred feet to a different part of the habitat. Curious children poked their faces out of darkened doorways but quickly disappeared at the first disapproving look from an enforcer.
Seemed that everyone around here knew their place.
He kept a watchful eye on Davey. If he decided to betray them, there would be no help for Matthew Cole.
They arrived at a room filled with child sized benches. “This is the Duke’s antechamber,” the lead enforcer explained to Matthew. “Wait here. I’ll check with him and see if he’s interested in seeing you.” He smiled a wicked smile. “For your sake, you’d better hope he is.”
He disappeared into the double doors at the end of the room. Matthew leaned against a wall and put on his most impressive bored face. Not for one moment during his wait did the pack of enforcers take their eyes off him. As far as he was concerned, they took their jobs far too seriously. They should be chasing after girls or going to school or some other kid thing.
After about five minutes, the double doors reopened and Dexter emerged. “Looks like it’s your lucky day, Mr. Cole. The Duke will see you.” Matthew caught Davey’s eye on the way out of the room. Hopefully, they’d meet again on the far side.
He pushed this thought aside as he was ushered through the doors into one of the most opulent rooms he had ever stepped foot in. Faux marble columns lined the walls and purple hangings of silk filled in the spaces between. From the ceiling hung crystal chandeliers that cast the room in flickering light. A red carpet trimmed with gold led across a mirror polished floor to a dais and a throne. Upon the throne sat a fat man in a navy blue military uniform from some previous century. Medals of dubious origin and decorative aiguillettes adorned the jacket’s breast, and heavy gold bracelets hung over on the outside of each sleeve. Topping off the ridiculous guise was a bicorne hat with an obviously fake ostrich plume sticking out haphazardly to one side.
Without a doubt this was was a madman and narcissist of the highest order.
“Welcome! Welcome!” said the fat man standing to his feet. “I am Duke Fagin and this is my domain. To whom do I have the finest pleasure of speaking?”
Matthew took off his hat and nodded his head politely, hoping the Duke wasn’t expecting some display of fealty. “Matthew Cole. Entrepreneur.” He placed the campero back on his head. “I have a variety of investments scattered through the system. Times being what they are and with the cost of labor being what it is, I’ve been thinking about diversifying my workforce a bit.”
“Oh I know just what you mean,” the Duke said sitting back on his throne. “The universe is a mean place and men are animals. Of course, it takes real men to carve out a bit of civilization amongst the chaos. But order can be achieved with a bit of proper training and even feral children can be of some use given time.”
“So I hear,” Matthew said, feeling disgust course through his body. “Imagine my pleasure at stumbling upon your operation purely by chance. I’m sorry that your servants lost your fuel tanker. Thankfully, the lad we captured kept his wits about him. Seems a resourceful enough fellow.”
“Yes, yes, the Chinese boy,” the Duke said dismissively. “He’s had his uses I guess, but he’s become a bit of a disappointment.” The man smiled wickedly. “Sometimes the... unique children can be isolated from their peers and turned into something more useful. I made sure he was bullied for his small stature and uncommon ethnicity. Sadly, it seems he only became an enforcer so he could watch after his sister. Pity. Oh well. His pedigree will fetch a handsome price when I decide to sell him. Some of the richer fools out there will pay for exotic house servants.”
Matthew knew only black rage as his heartbeat hammered behind his temples. It took an act of iron will to smile and nod and even attempt to continue the conversation. “Well, I don’t need to take all your time. How about we talk a little business?” There was nothing in the universe he wanted less than to continue, but he would only have to endure this conversation until he got the signal from the others. At that point, it would be his pleasure to dethrone this tyrant permanently.
As soon as Matthew went in, Dexter turned on Davey. “The Duke’s not happy, Davey. Thinks you really messed up this time.”
Davey curled his lip into a snarl. “He’ll change his tune soon enough when he gets a new buyer. I might even get promoted.”
“You’re clueless.” Dexter motioned towards the door. “To the barracks, enforcers. We need to teach one of our own a lesson.”
Despite the implied threat, Davey had to keep from smiling as he was jostled out the door and back down the hallway. At least the Duke and the enforcer’s were predictable. If they’d decided to mix things up, Davey might have been in trouble.
As it was, he was about to get a beating for his failures earlier in the day. He’d take the fall for the lost fuel tanker. Or rather he would if not for Grace’s new friends. In theory, they were going to jump in and save him. He wasn’t sure that was possible. How anyone was going to go up against all the enforcers at once was beyond Davey’s ability to guess, but they didn’t seem to think it’d be too much of a problem.
Thankfully he’d correctly guessed where they would take him once Cole went in to see the Duke. At least he’d stand a chance. They roughly pushed him down one level and toward the barracks. One of the enforcers waved a pass in front of the scanner and the door slid open. He was stepped into the messy living area. Clothes and piles of trash filled the corners. The strict rules on the habitat weren’t quite as strict for the enforcers.
He reached into his pocket and pushed the button on the transmitter Matthew had given him.
That was that. Either Grace’s friends saved him before he was beaten into a bloody pulp or they didn’t.
“Take a good look around, Davey,” the lead enforcer said with a sneer. “Cause this is the last time you’ll ever be in the barracks. The Duke is going to sell you. I suggested he send you to a fertilizer plant on Europa, but he said that was going to be too good for you.”
Davey stretched himself to his full height to stare down the other teen. Unfortunately Dexter was at least a head taller than him. He smiled and decided he wouldn’t go down like a bilgeworm. Without warning he hit Dexter in the gut and dove at him, tackling him to the ground. Maybe help would come, maybe it wouldn’t.
Davey was going to wipe the stupid grin off of Dexter’s face either way.
When the Sparrow docked, Grace quietly crept into the habitat’s control room. Usually, only a single kid was posted on duty. If something went wrong, a dozen more could be diverted to monitor the station. What happened next depended entirely upon who was on duty. As it turned out, luck was with Grace, as Lumpy manned the controls. The round-faced boy was good-natured and trusting, despite their hard life. Grace didn’t think he’d ever lived on the street like she and Davey had. Maybe he could go home to his parents if they really did all escape.
“Hey, Lumpy! How’s it going?”
Lumpy turned in surprise. “Grace? I thought for sure you’d be in a dark box after that mission.”
She laughed nervously. “I’m probably supposed to be, but I’ve been hiding.”
The boy looked at her like she was crazy. “You’re just gonna make it worse when the enforcers catch you.”
“Don’t worry they won’t. They’d never look for me here would they?” she said putting her hands on her hips.
“Well…” he replied doubtfully. “I guess not. But if they find you here on my shift, then I’m going to be joining you.”
“So don’t be here,” she said sitting in the chair behind him. “I’ll take your shift and they’ll never be the wiser.”
Lumpy seemed to consider that. “All right fine. But you owe me.”
“I’ll give you one of my meal rations.”
Lumpy didn’t even stop to think about it. “Deal,” he said happily. “I’ll be back at the end of the shift so that when Lena comes on, she won’t know what we did.
“Thanks!” Grace said with a smile more cheerful than she felt. An awful lot could still go wrong. Her pocket vibrated with the signal from Davey. She needed to wrap this up quickly. “Oh, one more question! Did any of the rest of the kids on this morning’s mission get in trouble? Is anyone in the dark boxes right now?”
Lumpy shook his head. “Nah, I heard it was just going to be you for ditching the fuel tanker.”
She gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up. Not having to rescue anyone from the dark boxes was going to make her job much easier. “Alright, I’ll see you later.
The boy nodded and slipped out the door. Grace took his seat and glanced over the monitors. Didn’t seem to be anything going on.
She could fix that.
She leaned over to the console on her left and flipped open a glass panel. Her hand hovered for a moment over the heavy red switch. There would be no going back after this.
She flipped the switch.
Red lights and fire alarms began to blast through the station.
Fire was one of the greatest threats to any space station. A fast-spreading threat that consumed oxygen and lives, fire also turned a space station into an oven that can cook you alive before it even reaches you. Monthly fire drills had prepared the kids for just such an emergency. Four lifeboats, one at each end of the station unlocked immediately. They would have about three minutes to reach a boat before they automatically launched and anyone left behind would be left to face the flames. No one ever missed the boats. Later the Duke would come pick them up in his own ship.
Grace smiled as she stepped out of the control room and saw the kids running towards the boats. They’d all make it. Only this time the Duke wasn’t going to be there to skim them out of space.
Moments after Davey landed on top of Dexter, the fire alarms went off. The main lights went out and red emergency lights came on. There was a moment of confusion as the enforcer’s stood dumbfounded.
“There’s not a drill today is there?”
“What’s going on?”
“Is this real?”
Davey was thrown off of Dexter and the bigger teen drew his weapon, one of the compact submachine guns that all the enforcers were issued. “Time’s up for you, runt. If you think I’m dragging you to a boat, you’re mistaken.”
Davey grimaced. Maybe he shouldn’t have gotten that hit in on Dexter.
With a deafening boom, something enormous landed in the middle of the room. Davey saw it out of the corner eye and backed away.. It moved towards Dexter, and with its massive shield, swatted him away like a rag doll. Davey looked up at the figure and realized it was a woman. Only she was a giant in a suit of armor. His eyes went wide. Somehow she’d dropped from the ceiling. Was there a maintenance tunnel up there or had she been hiding in the room the whole time?
She smiled. “Guessing you’re Davey. You might want to get behind me.”
He obeyed and she slowly backed towards the door. Several of the enforcers got their heads about them. They might not have known any more about this newcomer than Davey did, but they knew she wasn’t on their side. Sprays of automatic fire bounced harmlessly off her shield. Davey slipped out of the door, and as the strange armored woman backed out, he shut it.
“I can’t lock it from this side,” he said desperately, feeling a drop of sweat run down his face. “They’re just going to follow us!”
The woman looked thoughtfully at the door then smashed it with her shield several times, warping its surface and destroying the mechanism that opened it. “Try it,” she commanded.
He hit the controls. There was a tortured metallic groaning, but the door refused to budge. He smiled grimly. The enforcers would be panicking as they wondered when the fire would reach them to end their pathetic lives. There wasn’t a fire of course, but let them feel a bit of fear. They deserved that and worse.
The armored woman nodded. “That should hold. Take me to the Duke. Cole may need my help.”
Davey gestured back towards the stairs. “This way.”
The moment the fire alarm went off, Matthew reacted, standing and drawing his revolver on Duke Fagin in one swift motion. He’d had enough of this sickening conversation and was more than ready for action to take the place of words.
The Duke didn’t seem particularly phased by the gun in his face. “Oh my, so there’s a plot against me. If you think my kingdom will be felled so easily, you’re mistaken.” The Duke made to stand from his throne.
Matthew wasn’t willing to take any risks. Quick as a thought he fired a single bullet at the Duke’s left leg. It wasn’t meant to kill, only cripple.
The bullet shattered into a spray of sparks and molten metal three feet from the Duke and the gold bracelet on his right wrist lit up with fiery light. For the space of one heartbeat, Matthew stood confused at what had happened. By the next heartbeat, he was pulling the trigger again. Five more bullets failed to reach their target in equally spectacular fashion as the bracelet blazed with inner light.
The Duke stretched his left arm outward towards Matthew. The left bracelet flared with a cold blue light and Matthew was thrown across the room and held by an invisible grip against the far wall. His brain tried to catch up to what was happening, comprehend how any of this was possible. Duke Fagin chuckled to himself and stepped down from the throne, never lowering his arm for an instant. The bracelet still shone blue.
“I’m not sure who you are, or what all the deception was for, but this is a rather poor assassination attempt. It’s not the first of course. Usually, it’s kids or enforcers that don’t know any better.” The duke smiled and used his free hand to hike his pants a little higher. “I can defend myself and my children well enough. So tell me, Matthew Cole, if that really is your name. What put it into your head to try and do the noble thing and save the poor children?”
Matthew didn’t answer. He only glared at the Duke as he walked across the room towards his helpless captive. His eyes fell on the golden bracelets. Miracles. One of a kind technology designed by Moses himself. It was the only explanation. He’d heard stories from other freelancers, whispers of tech that seemed like magic. Never had any reason to give them more than half an ear.
Clearly, that was a mistake. He cast his eyes desperately around the room, looking for a way out, anything that would help. His eyes fell on a possibility. If he just waited for the right moment, he might have one trick left to play.
“And now you hold your tongue. Pity. You’ve given a bit of entertainment today and I hate to end it so soon. Spending all day every day around children can be dreadfully boring.”
There it was. Matthew fought against the invisible grip and lifted his revolver to point it at the Duke.
Duke Fagin laughed at the effort. “Come now, you’re not going to waste another bullet in a futile attempt at harming me are you? What a pathetic end.”
Matthew lifted the barrel higher still and fired his last bullet. It pierced the chain of one of the chandeliers. The crystal fixture fell, clipping the Duke on the way down and shattered into ten thousand shards. The invisible grip lost hold of him when the slaver fell to the ground and the blue light cut out. Matthew hit the ground running and closed the gap between them in a flash. Taking a flying leap, he aimed a kick at the Duke, catching him under the chin as he tried to lift himself from the floor.
The impact made an unpleasant sound and Duke Fagin slipped back to the floor never to rise again. Matthew picked up his hat, then leaned over to check the Duke’s pulse. Silent.
“Good riddance,” Matthew said to himself. Then he noticed the bracelets, the Miracles. They had unlatched themselves from the man’s wrists and fallen to the floor, dark and inert. Matthew scooped them up and slid them over his own wrists, but they refused to latch shut and there didn’t appear to be any controls to operate them. He shrugged and hooked them on his belt. A mystery for another day, perhaps.
Sharon burst into the room, followed by a much more cautious Davey.
“I did my job,” Matthew said, gesturing to the dead man and the fallen chandelier. “You guys take care of the enforcers?”
Sharon nodded. “Trapped in their barracks for us to deal with at our leisure.”
“Then let’s head back to the Sparrow. We still need to scoop up the children’s lifeboats. I imagine they’re in for quite a shock.”
Huygens Industrial Chem’s executives were rather surprised when the Sparrow docked at its corporate tower at the refinery with four outdated lifeboats in tow. They were even more surprised when the lifeboats opened and nearly four hundred children spilled out into the hangar.
Abigail stood back from the group as Cole and Yvonne explained the whole thing. Grace refused to leave her side after catching back up with her, which meant that ultimately her brother Davey was nearby as well. She could have done without the dour-faced teen. Something about him didn’t rub her right, even if Grace vouched for him.
“So what happens now?” Grace asked, fear in her eyes.
“I don’t really know,” Abigail said carefully. “Cole already put in a call to the office of the Archbishop of Titan. I’m not sure he trusts a corporation to take the best care of you guys.” She looked at the crowd of children meandering around the hangar. Guards watched them uneasily and kept them from wandering off. “Can’t say I blame him, personally.”
The enforcers stood in cuffs at the side. Most of them were probably too far gone, but Abigail suspected that at least a few of them, would be willing to turn over a new leaf. She saw the leader, Dexter. A purple bruise from his fight with Davey had swollen one of his eyes shut, and he looked utterly defeated. Then again, they were still kids. Maybe they’d all turn out okay in the end.
Grace sat down at Abigail’s feet. “Some of the others have parents they might be able to go home to. Some of them were stolen, but others…” She trailed off.
Abigail bent down to comfort the girl, not quite sure how to cheer her up. “I’m sure the Church will find places for all of you.”
The girl looked up at her with tears in her eyes. “Can we stay with you?”
She laughed and, reaching down, gently brushed a lock of blond hair out of the girl’s face. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. We do a lot of dangerous things, and I bet Mr. Cole would get grumpy with children around. I’ll keep track of you though. Maybe we’ll be able to visit when we’re in the area.”
Grace continued to cry. Davey walked up and took her hand yanking her to her feet. “Come on. Let’s go. No use bothering her anymore.”
Feeling the disappointment rise up in her chest, Abigail watched as the teen dragged his sister away and disappeared into the crowd of children, What else was there to do? They couldn’t very well keep kids on their ship. She cursed under her breath and rejoined Cole and Yvonne.
Cole was just finishing negotiating a bonus with Huygens. The executives seemed hesitant, as they most certainly hadn’t paid them to rescue children. But somehow or another the slick talking gaucho had guilted them into offering a little extra. It wasn’t a lot, but it was better than nothing.
He also warned them that they might still have a mole. Duke Fagin had somehow known when Huygens had staked out the fuel tanks. But that was a problem beyond the crew of the Sparrow.
They waited another hour and a half for the Archbishop and his entourage to arrive. When the shining white and red shuttle pulled into the hangar, Cole pointed at the Sparrow. “That’s our cue. Come on.”
Yvonne caught Abigail’s eye before following. “Not interested in seeing this through to the end? I would have thought you wanted to make sure the children’s future was secure.”
“Their future is secure, but I don’t really want to stick around.”
Abigail frowned, not following the thread of conversation at all. “I thought you were the one who called the Church?”
Cole kept walking and didn’t turn around. “I did. And they’re the best group to take custody of the children for now.” He walked up the Sparrow’s ramp. “It also doesn’t mean I want to rub elbows all that much. We’re done here.” Cole disappeared into his ship without another word.
The women exchanged another look and Abigail shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I don’t have a clue what goes through his head. The captain says it’s time to go, so it’s time to go.”
“So it seems,” Yvonne said.
Abigail paused at the top of the ramp and turned to look out over the children, hoping to get another view of Grace. Sadly she couldn’t spot her in the crowd, and she too retired to the Sparrow. The long day had drained the batteries of both her suit and her body. She’d need a long time to recuperate from this one.
That night she dreamed of Grace. They were running across an open field under the skies of Mars. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite catch the blonde girl as she managed to keep just out of Abigail’s reach. It wasn’t until she noticed the cool grass between her feet that she looked down and realized she wasn’t wearing her suit.
She woke with tears streaming down her face.