Search Crossed Genres

Fiction – “Lunch Money” by Kelly Jennings

It was everything he hated about hostage jobs. Meant for a simple scoop, his crew had, instead, picked up a squad of Silverbacks, what had harried them hard, fifty hours through the Zhayrs Mountains, Martin was ready to put a bolt through the holder hostage himself, dump the tool and run, he’d had his bait. In the late afternoon, they came to a narrow path above a precipice valley. Leaned up against the limestone, he checked his Vyai short rifle, one of the lot the Pirians had shipped down. “What’s left?” he asked Uriah.

“Not much. Emmett’s flat. I’m,” Uriah checked his weapon, “at nine. Jin’s got the hard loads.”

He could hear Security’s point in the thicket below. “One of you get him to Sarah, I ain’t care how. Other two run a split. Not too clear, these ain’t fuckwits.”

Uriah started to argue.

“Fuck up and do it.”

Uriah hesitated. Then he went up the trail at a dead run. Martin took a long breath and settled into position, wedged in behind the shelter of the cliff wall, listening for the Silverbacks coming up the path. Frankly, the main thing he felt, braced into the rock, was relief at getting to rest. The support of the cliff was wonderful. His muscles ached, his bad shoulder was killing him, he was so tired he could have happily gone to sleep right there.

It had been a bad summer. Ragner’s party, the Unionists, had been busy dismantling the contract labor reform ever since Lord Harper used the General Strike to ram that reform through Parliament; but not until the Union Riders started taking Ragner’s rhetoric seriously did open war break out again. Back in the spring, the Riders had started attacking the hill-camps, filled with runaway cots hiding out from their contract holders. They dragged some of these contracts back to their estates; others they slaughtered where they stood. Along with nearly everyone else in the Revolution, Martin had been in the hills since, on one job and another.

He jerked awake. Autumn sunlight slanted sharp through burr trees: night was hours away. He shifted low, settling the Vyai. He wouldn’t make it to dark, which was what his crew needed, but he would make it as far as he could. He watched the spot the squad of Security would appear.

In fact, he barely made ten minutes. He was on the last magazine for the Vyai, which didn’t stretch far, and after that nothing but his knife. He jumped the Silverback that came up the trail; the Security dodged, bashed him down, and jammed the barrel of his Lopaka long rifle into Martin’s neck. Martin closed his fists over the loose scree of the trail, squeezing his eyes shut. From the path below someone shouted.

The ‘Back hesitated, and then moved the rifle away, shoving his boot onto Martin’s neck. “Why not?” he shouted back, furious.

His Lieutenant came leaping up the path. “Because I said not. Who has restraints?”

Restraints went onto Martin’s wrists, too tight, wrenching his bad shoulder. He was shoved against the cliff.

The Lieutenant, looking as exhausted as Martin felt, took his Lopaka pup from his shoulder holster. He put the gun under Martin’s chin. “Where’s the rest?”

“Dead,” Martin said. “Just me left.”

The Lieutenant whapped him across the face with his free hand. “Where?”

Martin sniffed blood.

The Lieutenant stared at him. Then he put the gun against Martin’s crotch. “How if I shoot off something you care about, you shitting cot?”
Martin did what he could to keep still. Behind the Lieutenant, the other ‘Backs watched with clinical interest. After a moment, the Lieutenant turned away. “Gag him. Nakim. Take point. James. Shoot him if he gives any trouble.”

James used a strip cut from Martin’s shirt as a gag, and he looked like he would be happy to put a bolt through Martin’s head. Martin stumbled through the end of the stretched out Security crew. Beyond being so tired he was having trouble focusing, keeping up with the Security with his arms pinned behind him and the gag hampering his breathing was not easy.

The ‘Backs stopped. The Lieutenant huddled with Nakim, their voices hissing. Martin eased over to rest against a tree, trying to get his breath. His shoulder hurt.

A message came down the ranks. James dragged Martin through the squad, up to the Lieutenant. It was only eleven of the Security, which, assuming a standard squad of twenty-four, meant his pack of nine had taken out thirteen of theirs over the past fifty hours. No wonder they were so pissy. The Lieutenant jerked the gag from Martin’s mouth. “Where are they going?”

Martin spat blood. The gag had rubbed raw spots.

The Lieutenant slapped him across the ear. “Where?”

“I ain’t know that. Be stupid if I knew that. Is it?”

The Lieutenant stared at him, and turned to look through the trees, in one direction, and another, and then another. So they had split three ways. Swearing, the Lieutenant wheeled to put his gun against Martin’s forehead. Blood surged, a hard rush that hurt his chest; fear filled him with light fire. But he and his had cleared half this squad: a bolt through head was the best he could hope for, frankly.

The Lieutenant lowered the weapon. His pale eyes glinted: tears. “Call the helo,” he spat at Nakim, turning away.

*

He lay in the cold. He wanted sleep. He had been tanked before, he knew to rest when they weren’t hurting you; but it was too cold.

The door opened. Jeno Lord Harper.

Shit, Martin thought. And: I should have known.

“You do keep landing in tanks,” Harper said.

Martin forced his mouth to smile. “Must be the company I keep.”

Harper strolled about, stopping to look at the cleats on the cell wall, scuffing at the brick floor. Harper’s shoes were fine leather; his jacket and vest and his trousers, with their laces stylishly loose along the calf, of linen grown and woven and sewn by contract hands. Harper himself, those long holder bones, that lean muscle, he’d been fed by contracts, raised by contract nannies, lived every day of his life in houses built and kept by contract labor hands.

Martin lowered his head as Harper turned to face him.

“You’ve created a problem for me,” Harper said.

“Low on bullets?” Martin asked politely.

Harper was silent. Martin glanced up. “If you’re thinking I won’t shoot you,” Harper said, “think again. Lord Sidona not only holds critical property, including an uphill manufacturing facility I cannot afford to have mismanaged, he was not, before your people took him, in Lord Ragner’s pocket.”

“That’s what you thought. Our data said otherwise.”

Harper made a noise of contempt. “Data gathered by whom? Kitchen girls?”

“Who gathers your data, Jeno? Nexus Security? Reece Lord Sidona was slipping funds to the Riders. Now he’s a hostage. Will we give him back?” Martin shrugged his good shoulder. “Might be we’ll just send his last words back. Or, you know, his last shriek.”

“My point, Martin, if you can focus, is that half of Parliament, including Lord Ragner, your current contract holder, want you shot. Further, I have every reason to order your execution – not only were you with those who seized Lord Sidona, you are implicated in the deaths of half a squad of Full Security.” He paused to cast Martin a long look. “I need not tell you how unhappy this last makes Security.”

“Bad things happen in war,” Martin said, a hill-country aphorism.

“Perhaps I’ll let you tell Lieutenant Tariq that.”

Martin smiled. “You mentioned a problem. Which is shooting Martin Eduardo, I reckon.” He pushed himself back to brace his bad shoulder on the tank wall. “Or you’ll pretend that’s your issue. What it actually is,” he speculated, watching Harper, “is you want something done.”

Harper strolled the small space of the cell. “If I shoot you, those cots in the hills might whine. I do remember the Strike. On the other hand: think what I would gain in Parliament if I put a bullet through that thick skull.”

Martin shrugged his good shoulder again.

“I’m willing to bet your cots would get over it in time.”

“You’ve scared me enough,” Martin promised. “What do you want this time?”

“Oh, you’ll enjoy this one,” Harper said, starting for the door. “Pack of uppity contracts on a leaky asteroid mine, whining about working conditions. We leave in two hours.” He left the cell door open at his back.

*

On the way to Kana, Harper linked him everything they had on Sherlock Mines, as well as on the contract miners, the hostages, the asteroid, the bosses, the mine itself.

“What about the holder?” Martin ran a hunt for the Lord Holder who controlled the combine that held the mine. “Abigail Lord Veta?”

“Never mind that,” Harper said, from his bunk in the tiny cabin they were sharing.

Martin sent him a look past the top of the handheld. “If she holds this mine –”

“Leave it.”

Martin shifted on the narrow bunk, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt his shoulder. Though the cargo barge taking them out was only at a third, it was heavy enough to hurt. “Also, I need Opix. Did I mention that?”

“A dozen times. No.”

“Shit’s sake. It ain’t recreational, you know.”

“Settle this strike, I’ll get you all the Opix you want.”

Martin watched him. “All I want? I can want a heap, Jeno.”

“Call me that once more, Martin, we’ll see how you like finishing this ride in the brig.”

“Cargo ships ain’t have brigs,” Martin said, and returned to the files.

*

Deck-lining attempted to make thin metal mimic an executive compartment at some Core planet; latched-together shiftable walls shaped rooms from cramped space. At an open doorway, the crew boss of Sherlock Mine & Foundry, Henry Cian, scowled at Martin. “He just a bit of trade.”

Martin moved his eyebrows, amused, and nudged closer to the bulkhead: scarlet and dark blue, the deck-lining was a silk and pina blend, very worn.

Harper murmured something. Cian’s uphill dialect got rougher: “You tell me we was wait’n on that hive bait?” He flung the last words toward Martin.

Martin glanced his way. “Is that’n an itch or a tug-dream, boss?” he asked, and added, to Harper, shifting his dialect up the register to high Public Standard, with its crisp vowels, “Where will we find these miners?”

Another boss took them into the levels: Damek. They went through two separate locks – the deck lining vanished after the first. Martin sent a sidelong glance at Harper, whose holder posture was easy, whose gaze was bland. Martin straightened his own spine.

Sherlock, like many of the hundreds of mining facilities in Julian’s system, had been built to be mobile; in theory it still could be. In theory, if it was ever stripped out and uncoupled from the asteroid with which it was currently linked, it could jettison or stow its anchoring and other gear, and jet for some new prospect. In fact, when that distant day arrived, more likely the facility would be scrapped. Meanwhile, as the facility had been built to be temporary, and since, like all these mines, it was worked by cots, who, as Lord Holders blandly described the situation, only served short terms, little had been done to make the physical plant more than minimally inhabitable.

For instance, very little light or heat was provided; nor was the air pressure kept high, here on the working levels. Nor was any attempt made to create push, which, granted, would have been pricey; and since no cots were likely to survive long enough to suffer the effects of years at zee, well, no harm done, is it?
Martin, born in space, raised on an unaffiliated ship, had been given the nanotropic fix for low gravity environment in his childhood– his musculoskeletal system behaved no matter what push he was under – but here in the Republic messing with human g-sets was proscribed.

Damek talked on the way, to Harper, though he did send Martin glances. He spoke Public Standard, a fairly good version. He told Harper his version of the strike, all about the rotten cots who started the trouble, how Cian had done everything right.

After the second lock, they emerged in a bay where the pressure was far too low. Martin swallowed, working his ears, checking automatically for safety gear. The kit by the lock was broken open, its e-light unlit, half-stocked. He had already noted that neither he nor Harper, much less the boss, had been fitted with lids or tanks before coming down. Not even skins. Nor did Damek hook them up – he just kicked across the bay, breathing this thin dry air unguarded. Martin glanced at Harper, who followed in a straight clear leap. Kicking after him, Martin supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised to find Harper adept in zee; nearly all young Lord Holders did two years with the Republic Guard, and most of that was space duty.

The bay was so dimly lit Martin didn’t see the lock until they were nearly on it. It was unsealed, which, even after years on a planet, sent a flash of alarm through him. Shut the lock behind you: it was the first rule every kid in space got taught, and one you never broke.

As they drew near the open lock, a contract miner pushed the open seal back with the blade of a plasma drill. “All up.”

Damek scowled. “Hachi. You.”

Hachi pushed the seal open more, looking through the gap. Like most cots, she was wiry, reedy, her eyes too big for her face. Like every miner Martin had ever met, she was broody and tense. You got that way when your world might could blow up or collapse every second you worked. It was Martin she peered at. “In shit,” she muttered, and shoved the drill further out. “Send him in.”

Damek moved. “Hachi –”

Hachi leveled the drill. “Just him.”

“Just me.” Martin went straight into the lock. Hachi sealed it swiftly, before Damek or Harper could react. Martin smiled at Hachi, whose dark eyes were wide.

“You’re Martin Eduardo.”

“I am.” Martin looked through the other seal of the lock; it opened into a drift tunnel, straight into the stone of the asteroid, sloping upward, probably following a drift of ore. The passage was narrow – no miner ever dug more rock than he had to – and unlit. In his younger days, Martin had mined slate; he had done his time in mines. The inside of his stomach flushed hot at the idea of having to travel that dark space. “How far?”

“It’s a way.” Hachi whistled. In a moment a light came bobbing through the dark. It resolved into a tiny child, scudding along the incline, headlamp bolted to her tiny skull. “Ruby. Look now. Martin Eduardo.”

Ruby grinned, showing half-grown front teeth. “Told you.”

Hachi grunted. “Get him to Judah.”

Ruby shot into the dark. Martin followed. The passage was so narrow in places they had to squirm – Ruby slid easily, but he was a tight fit. He shoved through, using fingers and toes, old habits returning. Rock scraped his spine, even through his thermal shirt; his bad shoulder hurt fiercely. The dark and the thin air mixed with the pain torqued his anxiety up good. Finally, he saw light, and heard sound. Ruby scrambled further ahead. He caught up, uncoiled carefully. A small open pit, mined from the stone – lights flickered, not many, but bright enough to cheer him after all that dark. Also, miners everywhere, clinging to bolts and cleats, tethered to stanchions, dropping from drifts. Probably every miner in Kana, near two hundred of them. His name rippled: “Martin Eduardo!” “Martin Eduardo!” “It’s Martin Eduardo!”

A skinny boy bounced from the crowd. He was barefoot despite the chill and the risk, as most here were. A bad scar marred his narrow, intense face: cut one eyebrow, dented the bridge of his nose. His dark hair was clipped short. Gripping a cleat at the edge of the pit, he stared at Martin. “You’re here.”

Martin spread his hands. “I am as astonished as you are.”

He looked beyond the boy at the pit of miners, their faces turned toward him, bright with glee, clearly thinking they had won something.

“They sent you?” the boy said.

“Course they sent him, Judah,” Ruby said impatiently. “I told you they would.”

Judah kept staring at Martin. “Good shit.”

“That’s what I said,” Martin agreed. “All the way here.”

Judah frowned. “I put you on the list. List of demands and that. Passage to the Drift. Plasma rifles, cartridges. Martin Eduardo. I never thought they’d send you.”

“Not only did they take me out of the tank, where they had a gun at my neck, to send me,” Martin said, smiling his sweetest, most charming smile, “but Jeno Lord Harper, Prime Minister of Julian, fetched me here in person. He’s right across the lock, acting my errand boy.”

Judah’s gaze sharpened.

The crowd of miners was shouting questions and gleeful comments. Judah got Ruby by the collar, said something in her ear, and jerked his head at Martin. Then he grabbed Martin and towed him along the rim of the pit into another passage. It too was dark, but as they approached it, Judah slid up a light. Martin saw this was office space: deck-lining; worktables; even a portable space-heater, though that was shut off. A row of tethered hostages, gagged, their wrists and ankles in restraints, floated along the bulkhead, squinting at the light.

Judah ignored them. “You think it’s a screw.”

“Of course it is,” Martin said.

Judah scowled, rubbing his hands over his face.

“Did you think holders would give up what you asked? You seize the mines, make demands, they give in? That sounds likely, does it?”

“It worked for you.”

Martin laughed. “In shit it did. First, we fought twelve years in the hills before we held our strike. Twelve years of rearguard and underground action, propaganda and persuasion and contracts getting the bullet. Then we held our strike. And that ain’t finish it, neither. We’re still fighting to get what we won enforced. I’ve got me a nice little brush-war in those same hills, this summer, which might be half why I’m here. Two bugs with one rock, Harper might be thinking. He gets me killed dealing with you lot, that might solve his issues on Julian, is it?”

Judah gave him a sullen look. Probably he hadn’t followed most of that, and hadn’t cared about what he had followed, which why should he? What happened in the hills of Julian was not his problem: these miners were. Martin took a deep breath of the thin air, forcing himself to focus. “I saw your list of demands. You ain’t get that crap, you know.”

“We got you.”

“As part of their game. You’ll get tucked and take it for dancing?”

Judah flushed.

Martin tried to leash his temper. “They’re running something on you. They ain’t been, they would have dogged their locks up yonder and opened all this here to vacuum. That’s how Lord Holders settle strikes in space, if you ain’t keep up with posts recently.”

“We had that handled,” Judah said, sullenly. “Hachi does tech. She packed an infiltrate. They couldn’t pop our seals, not from up there.”

“And you had air to last for how long, now?”

Judah hunched his shoulders. “We pirated some.”

“How long was that again?”

Judah lifted his head high. “You think we don’t have that list? All the reasons this can’t work? I’ll give you another list: we don’t do this, the list of those of us who make it out of this mine. Want to know how many names are on that list?”

He glared at Martin in the faint light.

Martin smiled, abruptly. “You won’t get Sherlock to cut your penalty years, or ditch the bad bosses, or give you oversight, any of that. So focus on what you might get. Better gear, better safety conditions, amnesty for what’s been done during the Strike.”

Judah looked unhappy. None of that was much. Finally, he said, “The kids. It’s kids young as six brought in to work these mines. That’s not right.”

Martin grimaced. “We can put that up. Mines need kids, though.”

Judah sent him an angry look.

“I’m telling you what the holders will say. I don’t say I like it. Also, those kids ain’t here, you know where they’ll be instead.”

“School,” Judah snapped. “It’s where they should be. Playgrounds.”

Martin laughed, because that was funny. “Right. Now here’s what we need to consider.”

“What?” Judah asked, stiff with temper at Martin’s laughter when this was being done to his people.

Martin moved his head at the hostages bobbing beside them. This deal had bothered him since Harper had linked him the files: it made no sense. Why not just open the locks – or, all right, wait until the air ran out? Wouldn’t take long. Come in, capture clips to post as warnings for the next crew of uppity cots, pitch the bodies out the lock, start over. It was two hundred cots, it was one mine: for an operation like Sherlock Mines, that was lunch money. Probably the capital loss would end up helping them, when it came to running their taxes at the quarter’s end.

And, in any case, why was Jeno Lord Harper out here messing with some minor labor squabble?

Well, Abigail Lord Veta – she might be enough to get that shitting fox-beetle out of his nasty little nest. If whoever this Veta was, she was someone Harper thought might be useful to have on the leash, down the way.

“What?” Judah repeated, watching him.

“I’m just thinking.” He sent Judah a smile. “Want to know what I’m thinking?”

“Are you always this annoying?”

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Martin said, watching the hostages openly now. “I’m thinking one of these hostages might be more important than we got told.” He flashed Judah the cheery smile. “What do you think?”

Judah looked over the hostages. “These ain’t anything but Cian’s interns and that. We know all these.”

“I’m guessing one of them is more. I’m thinking…this one.” Martin reached to pull out the third hostage from the end, a young woman with fire-red hair. “What’s your name, miss? Do you reckon it’s maybe…Veta?”

She lifted her chin, holder arrogant.

Martin shoved her at Judah. “That’s your bit,” he said, cheerily.

*

Cian and the Combine tools sent by Sherlock Mines crowded the office space, making Martin say everything a dozen times, arguing with his every word. He wanted to swear at them, or invite them to go crawl through the drift themselves, do their own negotiating if they ain’t trust him; but he kept it in his teeth, and, eventually, the holders went off to their ship, and Cian to huddle fretfully with his desk.

Harper, after ordering Damek to handle Martin, followed the Combine bosses. Annoyed, Damek ditched Martin in Harper’s quarters. This was a prefab square about the size of a tank, and Martin stayed in it only until Damek’s retreat faded from hearing.

The level he found himself on was lined with prefab rooms. Nothing was marked; but Kana’s developed space was not large, and he found the tunnel to the loading docks easily, along with the large latched-together sections that served for cargo bays. Badly latched – he was able to pry and peer without trouble. That’s where he was, running his fingers over the section walls, thinking what was stacked behind them, what it meant, when Cian seized his collar.

“What y’don here?” the boss demanded.

Martin had bit his tongue; he bit it again, at the jolt of pain that shot through his shoulder at how hard Cian shook him. “Nothing! Lookin for infirmary, that’s it!”

Cian slammed him against the overhead, and then towed him along the tunnel, past a crude cage, which Martin supposed did for their tank, to another latched-together prefab: the infirmary. A physician turned. Cian shoved Martin in and blocked his exit. “Says he needs infirmary,” Cian said, his tone clearly saying he knew this was a lie.

Martin caught himself stable in the cramped space, up against a bank of bins. “I do need one,” he said, in his grieved voice. “I took a plasma bolt to my shoulder, couple years back. Lost my kit when I got tanked. I need pain patches.”

The physician crooked a skeptical eyebrow. “Narcotics, I suppose?”

“My regular physician gives me Opix.”

“Of course he does. Take off your shirt.”

Unhooking his collar, Martin struggled from his thermal shirt, never an easy proposition.

“Well,” the physician said, taken aback. Though Martin was badly scarred from his years in the contract labor system, the worst damage was the wreck the bolt had made of his right shoulder. The physician probed the shoulder gingerly. “It’s a rebuilt joint?”

“Cloned muscle and bone. Some donated tissue. It ain’t ever work proper.”

“You keep up with your PT?”

“Absolutely,” Martin lied.

“I’ll give you a sheet of Opix. Enough to get you back to your regular clinic.”

Martin watched under his lashes as the physician fed his code into the pharmacy. As the Opix was mixing, he added, casually, “I get anti-inflammatory, too, usually.”

The physician grunted, fed in his code again, and made a sheet of that as well.

*

Catching Harper’s expression not quite in time, Martin tried to dodge, but Harper caught his bad arm, shoved him against the bulkhead of the tiny room, and twisted expertly. Pain flashed hot through the damaged joint, stabbed into his belly; Martin bit on a yelp. His words flat with temper, Harper said, “You lie badly. Tell me what you’re doing. Now.”

Martin nodded desperately, sweat hot all over him.Harper stepped back.

“Raja Lord Veta.” Stupid from pain, Martin couldn’t put affect into the words, or give much attention to watching Harper’s reaction.

Harper’s eyes narrowed. “Then I assume she’s still alive.”

Martin put his hand on his throbbing shoulder. “You can get what they need?”

“Don’t be an idiot. They’re lucky not to be freeze-dried.”

“Yesterday that was luck. Now they have a bit to bargain with.”

Harper’s mouth twisted. “A Lord Holder’s heir as their hostage will carry them only so far. As you know. You hill-country rabble have tried that a few times, as I recall.”

“If that’s all she was, yes.” He was walking the line now; he watched Harper through his lashes. “If that’s all she was, you would have kept your neck on Julian. And mine in that tank.”

Harper, always difficult to read, locked his expression down. Of course, this told Martin as much as any reaction would have. Satisfaction kicked in his belly.

After a moment, Harper spoke. “No one is reducing contracts. Not even to original sentencing.” This was an item from the list Martin had given the holders, in that meeting in the office. “You better not be leading that crew to believe they will get anything like that.”

“What we want –” Martin grimaced, clutching his bad shoulder. “What I want first is Opix. Give it up.”

“When this is done.”

“Now, Jeno. Seriously.”

Harper gave him a look, and then, taking a medkit from his jacket, extracted a sheet of patches. Martin put on two patches at once, on his belly under his shirt, tucked the sheet into his pocket, waiting while the drug eased into his blood. When he opened his eyes, Harper was watching, mouth crooked with impatience and contempt. He looked away, letting Harper think he was ashamed. Harper didn’t know about Cian finding him among the cargo bays. Cian hadn’t told him anything. Martin took a careful breath, hiding his glee.

“What we want.” He gave Harper the real list – the safety regulations kept, safety gear provided, amnesty for the strike itself, children under ten out of the mine and no more brought in.

Harper started shaking his head. “There are seventeen children in this mine. Clearing that many contracts creates a debilitating tax liability, never mind labor costs. This mine is already close to the edge, something your strike hasn’t helped. No.”

Martin put his fist on his chest. “My heart. It’s bleeding real blood for your holders and their labor costs. Front the money for the kids, Jeno. Buy them out yourself. Is it?”

Harper snorted.

“Also, I’ve got a list of five bosses who mistreat contracts. They go. And not just to another mine – Sherlock cuts them loose.”

Harper was shaking his head again. “Contract labor has no say over management staff. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

“Which giving those tools unlimited power over us ain’t?”

“I won’t argue this point.”

Martin shut his hot answer in his teeth. Threatening Harper only worked if he had Harper absolutely cornered, which he did not, not this time. He forced himself calm. “What if we went another way?”

Harper gave him an impatient look.

“You noticed the deck-lining. The tea kit that boss Cian was using? And contracts ain’t have safety gear, well. But neither ain’t the bosses.”

Harper’s impatience had faded. “The deck-lining is Pirian. I didn’t notice the tea kit.”

“It’s Pirian. That toss-off bamboo they work, when they’re hanging about.”

“Cian’s dealing under the deck, you think.”

“Mining Sherlock Mines, is he? Think maybe that’s why this mine ain’t turning profit? Pirians need our metal as much as we need their tech, Cian’s out here in the dark, one jump from the Drift. Why ain’t he? Especially with what Lord Veta must be paying him, which, I would reckon, would be nothing much.”

Harper grunted.

“Here’s what I’m thinking. Give him the names of the bosses. Tell him what we know. I reckon he’ll come to see how he should do the right thing.”

Harper’s eyes were remote.

“Also, this way you can own him and Lord Veta. Won’t that be pleasant?”

“Stay here,” Harper said. “Let me work.”

*

Judah was waiting with Hachi: getting tense. Martin sent him a smile, scooting past him to the drift. “We need a chat with our hostage. Take me through.”

Judah caught up. “You think you’ll get that bint talking how? Ain’t had two words from her since you cut her from the lot.”

Martin drew the edge of the sheet of patches from his pocket, letting Judah catch a glimpse. “Veritas,” he explained, at Judah’s frown.

“In shit,” Judah said, startled. “How’d you get Veritas?”

They had reached the place where the tunnel narrowed. Nervy, and also in no hurry to go into the dark, Martin grinned. “Haven’t you heard? I’m Martin Eduardo. I make bread from stone and bullets from black air. Veritas ain’t no deal at all.”

Judah flushed, annoyed. “How?” he repeated.

“Foxed that physician you have up top,” Martin admitted. “He’s a shitting tool, it ain’t even hard. Got him to make me patches, thieved his code while he did it, slipped in during afterwatch and ran up this here on his pharmacy.”

Judah was frowning. “He’ll notice. Is it?”

“Not for a day or so, maybe. With any luck, we’re long gone by then.”

“What?” Judah said, his gaze sharpening.

“Come on now,” Martin said, and slid into the passage.

*

“What are you doing?”

Harper sounded calm. That calm didn’t shift when Martin turned and Harper saw the Vyai plasma pup in his fist. “Where did you get that? Weapons are prohibited on Kana.”

“In Kana.” Martin showed his teeth. “When you talk of asteroids, Jeno, it’s in, not on.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Cian had a stash. Imagine that.” Martin was careful not to aim the pup at Harper. “It’s a set of restraints in the bin, sir. Put them on.”

Harper did the thing where his expression locked down. Martin waited; Harper went to the gear cabinet, opened the bin, found the restraints – restraints Harper had brought along in case Martin got lively. He strapped them around his wrists. Once they were on, Martin tucked the Vyai in his cargo pocket and came to tighten them up.

“What are you planning?” Harper asked.

Martin ran the snub of the restraints through a clamp in the mine wall, one of the bolts holding the prefab to the rock wall.

“You can’t be thinking of stealing Veta’s ship? You aren’t that stupid.”

Martin hunted through Harper’s pockets, found his pocketknife, and cut a strip from his undershirt. “Your Raja Lord Veta. That heir. What if she wasn’t just some hostage you rescued? What if she was, say, implicated in this issue with Cian?”

Harper frowned.

“More specifically,” Martin wound the strip into a gag, “what if that issue was her idea from the start? What if she was running it? Doing the bookkeeping? Providing the brains?”

“And you would support these wild claims how?”

Martin slid Raja’s handheld from his other cargo pocket. “Got it captured.”

Harper’s eyes widened. This was the most reaction Martin had ever gotten out of him, and he savored it. “You got her to admit all that?” Harper said, disbelievingly.

“Well, not exactly of her own free will. Lord Holder admitting she’d done treason? She’d be a rat idiot, is it? But the method we used, it ain’t show on the capture.”

Harper’s eyes stayed wide.

Martin smiled at him. “So what can you do with that, Lord Harper?”

Harper’s expression went remote.

“Do I need to gag you?” Martin asked softly. “Or will you give us an hour?”

“You’re leaving Raja behind?” Harper asked.

“We are.”

Harper, his eyes still distant, shook his head. “Gag me. Just in case.”

*

The Pirian ship linked with the dock deep in afterwatch, exactly when Raja Lord Veta had told them it would arrive. Running with stealth up, expecting to find Cian in the bay, none of the Pirians seemed rattled by the change in plans; nor did they hedge at the request to take a hold full of contract refugees along with the cargo they were here to lift. Rather, they seemed unhappy they couldn’t get every contract miner on aboard. It was a matter of life support, the Captain explained – not Topwatch Captain, but the Captain herself, pulled from her quarters for the occasion. They could take eighty-six contract miners, no more. Even that was pushing it; they would have to jump hard for the nearest station past the Drift.

Martin assured her this was expected, that they had the contracts sorted already, which they did. They started loading folk from the bay where they were hidden: the children first, then those at most risk, then those Judah selected. Martin left the choosing to Judah. “What will happen to the rest?” the Captain asked, watching Ruby scramble into the cargo hold.

Martin didn’t answer that.

They had about half the miners aboard when things went bad. Martin was up the ramp seeing about some issue a contract was having over being loaded into the hold – not all Pirians spoke Public, and none of them spoke the thick, messy dialect that uphill cots spoke – and he had forgotten to leave anyone watching the tunnel. Damek, who ought to have been asleep, came down it, saw the loose contracts, and yelled.

The Captain shouted. Contracts hollered. Martin launched himself down the ramp. Damek had taken off. Martin shouted over his shoulder at the Pirians, and kept going. He heard the Captain bellowing instructions at her crew in Pirian. They were casting off. They were out of here now. Contracts wailed. Judah shouted. He thought of going back – no way he would catch Damek – kicked hard against the bulkhead, rounded a corner, and banged into him, slammed him into the bulkhead, jamming a knee into his belly. As he hauled him back toward the ship, he could hear people calling along the passage: other bosses, waking.

By the docks, the Captain and Judah were shouting at one another in separate though equally obscene dialects. Martin shoved Damek into the grip of a Pirian crewman and jerked Judah away. “Get out,” he said, to the Captain in Pirian. “Go.”

The Captain nodded and yelled up the ramp at her crew.

“What did you say?” Judah snarled. “What?”

“Anyone who’s aboard can go. No time to load anyone else.”

Judah gulped air. “It’s only – we only got—”

“No time,” Martin said.

The Captain slapped the gear to close the ramp. Her eyes met Martin’s. Judah swore bitterly. Remembering just in time – if he was caught armed, the bosses here would shoot him – Martin spun the Vyai across the space between them. The Captain caught the pup neatly. The ramp shut, the hatch sealed, and Martin shut the hatch on their side, just as the bosses came spiraling up the tunnel.

*

As a tank, the cage was awful – no pisser, no water source, no bedding. Worse, they had taken his boots and most of his clothing and everything else they found on him, including his patches, and beat him purple and black. Also, they didn’t bother feeding him.

Not that he was whining.

Harper showed up on the third day. “Another tank,” he observed.

Between the pain from his shoulder, and what Cian had told him when the bosses had come in to give him his daily beating, Martin was in no mood.

“You’ve heard about your contract friends?” Harper asked.

“They’re keeping me up on all the hot news. Is that why you’re here? Gloating?”

Harper stopped at the cage gate, his yellow eyes dark in the dark passage. “I don’t hold that bucket. I’m not who put those miners out that lock.”

Martin shot him a furious look.

“You had choices,” Harper said. “You made them. Live with the results.”

Martin bit on the words he wanted to spit. He needed Harper, badly.

Harper, seeing this struggle and this restraint, smiled his thin smile. Martin lowered his head, shame hot under his skin. Judah’s fierce determination, his wiry body. Hachi’s eyes, wide with hope because Martin Eduardo was here to save them. How had she looked, when the bosses backed her into the lock, when she knew no one was going to come for her?

“You better start using that thick head,” Harper warned. “Those contracts didn’t have to die.”

He lifted his head a fraction. “Right. They could have stayed slaves.”

“I’m sure they’re happier now,” Harper agreed.

Martin flinched, and looked down again. Ruby, he thought. She is.

Harper circled the cage, coming closer to where Martin sat. “You still have it. Yes?”

Martin nodded, barely moving his head. Harper knew he didn’t have Raja Lord Veta’s handheld on him – had not had it on him, when he was taken. Harper would have already been through Martin’s gear. Also, Harper would have looked everywhere he could think to look. He was only here because he hadn’t found the handheld on his own.

“All right then,” Harper said, and went to find Cian.

*

It was in the infirmary, the best place he had been able to think of – the physician spent most of his time in his bunk; and its doorway faced the tunnel to the loading docks.

He took Harper into the tiny room, tugged open the storage bin, which had three or four other handhelds in it, sorted out Lord Veta’s, and gave it to Harper.

“Hide in plain sight,” Harper said, sourly.

“Hardly plain sight,” Martin argued. “Bin was shut.”

Harper shook his head, checking to be certain it was Veta’s handheld. “You have her codes?”

Martin rolled his eyes. “Which I’ll give them to you right here, is it?”

Harper grunted. “I’ve got passage on Veta’s ship. They’re delighted I’ve put you aboard, as you might imagine. Come on, I talked Cian into giving your boots back.”

“What about my Opix?”

“Push your luck, that’s the Martin Eduardo I know.”

“It’s the path I walk,” Martin said, and thieved the physician’s pharmacy on his way out.


.

About the Author

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings teaches writing at the University of Fort Smith-Arkansas, where she uses way too many office hours working on a five book series about Martin Eduardo and the contract labor revolution on Julian. The first book, Martin’s War, is due out with Verb Noire press early in 2010. You can follow her blog here: http://delagar.blogspot.com.

3 comments
Leave a comment »

  1. […] Fiction – “Lunch Money” by Kelly Jennings […]

  2. […] Fiction – “Lunch Money” by Kelly Jennings […]

  3. […] Fiction – “Lunch Money” by Kelly Jennings […]

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.