Nadir Jump Point
Chaffee, Lyran Commonwealth
18 June 3038
Garadun switched off the holorecorder, removed the datachip, and relaxed on his bed with his back to the wall. Wasp and Stinger were playing and wrestling, interspersed with periods of chasing each other around the room. Their little legs were deceptive; they could move darned fast when they wanted to.
He drew up his right knee, tapping the datachip against it thoughtfully. He felt like a spy in one of the TBC's popular espionage thrillers. Before he'd left Solaris he'd made an agreement with Igawa to keep the oyabun informed of how things were going with Cera and Sayuki; Igawa in turn would inform their families. This was only his second message. The first had been a few days after they arrived on Galatea and he hadn't said anything beyond the basics. Hi, we're here, we're looking for work, the planet's bloody hot that sort of thing.
In this second message the Fusiliers' new contract was some actual news and he'd spoken very highly of the girls. In particular mentioning that Sayuki was doing real well, that she was a valued member of the unit, well-liked and respected, and fulfilling her duties honourably. Cera was sending vidletters to her mother regularly so he didn't say much about her doings. One thing he hadn't included was Sayuki's relationship with Ian. That was their own damn business and no-one else's, including the oyabun. If Sayuki wanted to tell her family about Ian, then that was her affair.
The problem now was that to send the encoded message to ComStar (who would pass it through their HPG network to Solaris) would require going to the bridge and asking them to transmit it for him. After all, he wasn't a member of the Draconis Combine's infamous Internal Security Force. He didn't have fancy spy gadgets to send a signal through the ship's jump sail, or whatever the hell it was they did on the vid. On Galatea it'd been easy. He just went to the ComStar compound on his own and paid to have the message sent. Here, the whole bridge crew would know, and that meant Alexandra would find out, which would mean him having to come up with a lie to cover the real nature of the message if she asked him about it. Which he didn't want to do. Oh, he could lie his ass off and be bloody convincing about it, and on Solaris he'd done it often enough when he had to. But Alexandra was his friend and commander, someone he respected and cared deeply about.
"You owe me for this, Igawa," he muttered and put on his magnetic-soled running shoes before leaving his quarters and making his way to the bridge. With any luck, things should be quiet. Distant Memory was in the process of recharging her batteries, with nothing else happening at the moment. Freedom of the Stars had long since gone and Ganymede Elegy wasn't due to arrive until the day after tomorrow.
When Garadun reached the bridge he took a deep breath and let it out slowly to help calm his nerves. He took another breath, put on his poker face, and then activated the door. As he stepped onto the bridge, every crewman turned to see who it was. Captain Hamilton wasn't there but Mr Allen, the Ship's Master, was (the crew of Distant Memory used time-honoured sailing terms).
"Good evening, Mr Morr," said Allen. "Something we can help you with?"
"Um, I was hoping you could relay a message to ComStar for them to send," he said as he walked over and held up the datachip.
"Any transmissions have to be cleared with the Captain."
"Sure, that's fine."
"You'll have to pay ComStar yourself."
"No problem." Garadun held out a plastic card emblazoned with the ComStar logo. "Have them charge it to my account."
Allen took the card and datachip, then stepped over to the comm station and touched a button. "Sorry to disturb you, Captain."
"That's all right, Mr Allen. What is it? "
"It's Mr Morr, sir. He wants to send a message via ComStar."
"I see. Personal message? "
"You've told him he'll have to pay for it himself? "
"Yes, sir. It seems he actually has an account with ComStar."
"Well, he's from Terra. Makes sense, I suppose. Proceed, Mr Allen."
"Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir." Allen passed the card and datachip to the comm officer. "Relay Mr Morr's transmission, Mr Williamson."
"Aye, sir," said Midshipman Williamson.
"Thanks, I appreciate it," said Garadun affably.
Williamson typed a few things into his console and then hit the send button. With Distant Memory positioned at the star's jump point, it would take several minutes for the radio message to reach the ComStar HPG facility. It would have to be processed, and then the confirmation sent back. Garadun started pacing to kill time, sometimes looking out the main viewport.
"Here, look at this, sir," said Williamson suddenly, holding up the ComStar card. "I just noticed. This is a Terran Priority card."
"What's that then?" said Allen, taking the card.
"I've heard of those, sir," said Able Seaman Padeen, turning in her chair. "The owner gets priority treatment at any ComStar HPG station. Messages always go out with the earliest batch, no delays, and rates are half what we pay."
"That true, Mr Morr?" said Allen, raising an eyebrow.
"Close enough," he admitted and took his card back.
"How'd you manage that?" Williamson asked.
"I'm from Earth?" said Garadun, his tone saying the answer was obvious. He took his datachip back as well, pocketing both of them. When the reply from ComStar finally came through, it confirmed message received and paid for, and that it would be sent out in under four hours with the next HPG batch.
"Lucky devil," said Padeen enviously.
"Will that be all, Mr Morr?" said Allen.
"Yeah, I'm good. Thanks very much," he said and left the bridge.
When he returned to his quarters and opened the door, Wasp and Stinger were sitting together on the edge of the bed. They started miaowing in their high-pitched voices and sat up, miaowing again and again. Garadun chuckled.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry I left you alone."
He sat down and stretched out on the bed, and the kittens padded onto him, purring and cuddling. He petted and stroked them, and they gave happy cries now and then. After they'd been mollified, Stinger hopped down onto the floor and went after a cat toy. Wasp watched her, her rear wiggling, then jumped down and went and pounced on her. They started wrestling playfully.
Garadun smiled and shook his head. "Cats."
He grabbed the book he was currently reading (a real paper one) and settled in to relax. The kittens continued to play, comforted by his presence in the room. Sian-Xiaos were an indoor breed that thrived on human companionship and didn't do well if left on their own all day long. This was why it was best to have at least two of them so they could keep each other company while their human parent was out. He'd only read half a chapter when the room intercom went off.
He sighed, got up, and switched it on. "Hello."
"Gar, it's Jimmy. You coming? "
"It's poker night, remember? You sitting in or what? "
"Yeah, I'm in. Lemme get my money and I'll be right there."
Rummaging around in the room's desk, Garadun took out the small lockbox where he stored the bulk of his cash and emptied it. He folded the bills and shoved them in the pocket of his Chameleon Stables jacket, which he put on.
"See you later," he said and went out the door which shut behind him with its usual soft hiss. He'd only taken a couple steps when he heard his cats crying. His shoulders slumped with guilt. He turned and opened the door. Wasp and Stinger sat there, looking up at him and mewing, those wee kitten sounds that go right to the heart.
"Okay, okay," he said, letting out a sigh, and picked them up and cradled them in his arms against his chest. He headed off down the grav deck's main corridor, his kittens enjoying the ride. When he arrived at Distant Memory's lounge he paused to give them a nuzzle and then activated the door button with his elbow.
"About time," said Jimmy without looking around. Ian glanced up and stared. Stinger let out a miaow as she and Wasp gazed around at their new surroundings, and that cry made Jimmy turn in his chair. Sun-Lao stopped shuffling the deck, also staring. Cera simply smiled and pulled back the empty chair beside her.
"You brought your cats?" said Sun-Lao incredulously.
"They didn't wanna be left alone," Garadun explained and sat beside Cera. She happily petted the kittens. He set them in his lap and they both stood on their hind legs and put their paws on the edge of the table, wide-eyed with curiosity. Stinger tried to bat at a poker chip, then gave up and hopped over onto Cera's lap. Wasp mewed, and then dropped onto Garadun's lap before jumping to the floor. While she began exploring, Stinger sat enjoying Cera petting her.
"We going to play cards or play with kittens?" Jimmy asked.
"Oh, you can't tell me she isn't adorable," said Cera, lifting Stinger in her arms and cuddling her. "Look at her! She's so cute!"
"Very cute," said Ian and set the tray holding the poker chips on the table. "All right, Gar. How much you want to start with?"
"Three hundred's fine." He counted off the kroner notes and handed them over. Ian gave him the equivalent in chips and put the cash in the money box. Cera put Stinger on the floor and got out her cash. When everyone had a stack of chips in front of them, Sun-Lao gave the deck a final shuffle.
"Five Card Draw to start," he said and started dealing cards. Garadun checked on his cats; they were busy investigating the lounge. He gave his attention to the game.
"How much these worth again?" Cera asked, holding up a chip.
"Whites are one kroner, reds are five, blues are ten," Jimmy replied.
Garadun looked at the hand he'd been dealt. It was garbage. His only chance was getting lucky on the draw. The deck they were using was typical of Solaris. It had all the usual values but instead of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, the suits were based on the Great Houses. There were yellow suns (Davion), blue fists (Steiner), red dragons (Kurita), and purple eagles (Marik). The deck's two Fools were in green and represented Romano Liao, infamous for being a capricious, murdering psychotic.
On the draw he managed to get a pair of fours. He folded. When it was his turn to deal he chose Seven Card Stud with no limit and included the Fools as wildcards. It paid off; he had a Fool hidden and used it to make a low straight flush, winning a nice pot.
It wasn't long after that Wasp came over and miaowed at him. He picked her up and she was soon curled up on his lap, fast asleep. Stinger cuddled up with her a short time later. They'd stay there for the rest of the game.
There was a lot of friendly chatter and hard playing, and a good deal of money being played for. Cera, Garadun and Jimmy were all from Solaris and gambling was a normal way of life for them. Sun-Lao had spent much of his free time in the Lancers playing cards. Ian was the least experienced but wasn't a sucker by any means.
"So where's Sayuki?" Jimmy asked Ian. "I thought you two might've been working on your zero-gee manoeuvres."
"Funny," said Ian with a smirk. "She's in the pods with Lady Alexandra, Laura, and Marie. Practicing in extreme environments, I think."
"I'll take two," said Cera. "If they want extreme, they should try the Jungle."
"A jungle setting?" said Sun-Liao.
"No, the Jungle. The Capellan arena on Solaris."
"I hate that place," Garadun mumbled. "One for me."
"I don't know anyone who does like it," said Jimmy.
"That bad?" said Sun-Lao in surprise.
"Worse," said Garadun and Cera nodded in agreement. "The Jungle is pretty much the most dangerous arena on Solaris. The building is this epically huge, pyramid-like thing made of ferrocrete. They call it austere, but I call it ugly.
"On the inside it's literally a jungle. Dense trees, hot and humid, streams and ponds, the whole deal. Supposed to copy the jungles on Spica or something. It means the fighting is always up in your face because there's damn few open areas. But what really makes it dangerous is that they have mines and vibrabombs planted all over the place. One wrong step and BOOM! Blow your 'Mech's legs off."
"The mines are supposed to be random, that they can get anyone unlucky enough to step on one, but I wouldn't risk it," said Cera emphatically.
"What do you mean?" Sun-Lao asked.
"Too easy to rig."
"You mean fix the fight?"
Garadun chuckled nastily. "What, you don't think that happens on Solaris? Happens all the time. How hard d'you think it'd be for someone to bribe the right person at the Jungle to sit there at a control board and either turn vibrabombs on and off, or simply detonate them on command? D'you know how many non-Capellan fighters have been blown to hell compared to Capellan ones?"
Sun-Lao looked at Jimmy. "Is that true?"
"'Fraid so," Jimmy confirmed. "It's damn hard to prove, but it happens more than you'd think. There's always the chance a fight is rigged anywhere on Solaris, but in the Jungle it's that much more lethal because of the mines."
"Gar and I turned down a big-money team match because it was in the Jungle," said Cera. "We just didn't trust anyone that it'd be a clean fight."
Sun-Lao was shocked. He'd heard about corruption on Solaris; everyone had. But hearing about it from two Solaris gladiators directly was something else.
They finished the current hand before he said, "Can I ask you guys something?"
"Sure, go ahead," said Garadun. Cera got up from the table to get everyone a drink and a bowl of crisps while Ian dealt the next hand. Sun-Lao waited until everyone was settled with their cards before continuing.
"It's kind of personal."
"Dozo," said Cera.
"Have either of you been asked to, you know, take a fall? Or be on the 'winning side' or whatever it's called. Been part of a rigged match?"
The two old friends exchanged a look. Cera was not happy with the question. "Yes, we've been asked to be part of a rigged match."
The whole table went quiet as people absorbed that bit of data.
"And?" Ian prompted hesitantly.
"I shot the bastard," Garadun admitted. "Right in the leg. His bodyguard went for his gun but Cera put a laser bolt through his shoulder."
"Damn right I did," she said fervently. "He lived, though."
"I told that gou cao de fight organiser if I ever saw him again I'd kill him. I don't go in on rigged matches and never will. Same for Cera."
"Word got around real fast after that," she said with an evil grin. "Nobody ever tried that kind of drek with either of us again."
"There's a lot of scumbags on Solaris," said Jimmy, leaning back in his chair. "Comes with the territory. But Garadun Morr and Cera Kuroda are two of the good ones. They never got into the championship, but they always put on a good show and won far more matches than they ever lost. And most important, they had a solid reputation as clean, honourable fighters. It was an honour being their Tech. Still is."
" said Cera, blushing.
Garadun was equally touched. "Thanks, man, that means a lot to me."
"Call 'em as I see 'em," said Jimmy. "Now, bet's to you. You in or what?"