From the author: This was the first story Mark and I wrote together. It started as a solo about a realtor stranded in space with nothing to sell. I charged into the story and...got lost. Frustrated, I talked to Mark at length about it, and he finally said, “You want to write this one together?” A grateful YES was my answer, and a new writing partnership was born.
by Shannon Page and Mark J. Ferrari
I shouldered my pack and moved on again, still trying to look like I belonged to someone. Someone important and frightening and powerful.
Who was I fooling?
I’d gone through lots of training before leaving Earth. I’d passed the psych tests with high scores for adaptability, calm demeanor, and flexible attitude. I’d watched virteos about all the possible dangers and side effects and unexpecteds... except for one: being marooned on Longhorn 6 with no backup, no office, no Principal Broker, and nothing to sell.
Selling was what I had left Earth to do. Selling land, specifically, and structural space, and development tech. I was a real estate broker, trained by Old Rehaus himself. I’d been on my way to help our brokerage develop Astoria Corporation’s recently settled planet Greenleaf 43, not to be a stranded vagrant on some space station thousands of light years from nowhere.
Old Rehaus was dead now. I’d been lucky not to perish with him and the rest of the brokerage when our FTL carrier, Fleetness, had somehow come apart upon re-entry into system space. Only one small portion of the vessel survived, limping to its end on this unthinkably isolated pit stop.
Ecoballs like Longhorn 6 are designed to feel like planets. But no matter how big and round it is, how much “wide open space” they’ve designed, a space station is a space station. You’re breathing canned air, hoofing it down tin corridors, and looking up at a “sky” with no sun.
Most problematic for me, there was no private property here. Not to own, not to buy, not to sell.
I’d spent most of the trip from Earth in Rest, a light trance state that makes time pass dreamy-fast. It’s far healthier and quicker to get over once one is planet-side than Sleep, where you’re put under entirely. It’s more expensive too, but being alert for that initial wave of eager buyers had seemed worth the cost to me. I’d imagined those first few turns around Greenleaf’s Monopoly board would set up the rest of my career there. Now there would be no Monopoly board—but Rest had saved my life. My colleagues had all decided to economize, Sleeping elsewhere on the ship, to their misfortune.
I still didn’t know exactly what had happened to Fleetness. The Longhorn goons who’d rescued us hadn’t said. They’d just brought us down here and dumped us into some huge processing bay.
The station’s populace seemed watchful and grim, their dress code inspired by the collision of a circus, thrift store, and military surplus outlet. Their expressions and body language conveyed mute hopelessness. Not the kind of customer I’d been trained to work with. I had no idea how to act here, much less what to do.
Confused and fog-headed, I had obediently taken my place at the end of a long line at first, just grateful to be alive. Soon, however, I began to wonder if I’d have been better off atomized into vacuum along with the rest of my agency. Most of the women ahead of me were being sent elsewhere by rough-looking male handlers with a steady stream of lewd remarks and leering gestures. Soldiers pulled away the larger, fitter men, while older folks and children were sent through a smaller, shabbier exit. As my turn approached, a sudden wave of prickly instinct made me duck from line while none of our handlers was looking.
Longhorn 6 was a busy, crowded place. It was easy to merge with nearby streams of human traffic and just keep going.
Two days later, I walked down yet another tin corridor, trying to look stern and busy as my eyes flicked about, searching for threats or clues. I’d slept only once, in a deserted construction zone under a pile of refuse, and eaten nothing but the chips and bottled water distributed free of charge at scattered “refreshment stations” sponsored by Longhorn 6’s corporate owner, Galactic Enterprises—Astoria’s only serious rival in the interstellar real estate business.
If Galactic’s patronage translated into any kind of cogent social organization or business model on Longhorn 6, however, it was still entirely opaque to me. The place just seemed one endless, rundown, hostile zoo. I knew there must be some system of registration and assignment, but it was clearly unavailable to anyone who hadn’t been processed, and I still didn’t trust this place or want to be inducted into any of it. I just wanted to get off of Longhorn 6 and back into a world I understood. I needed honest dirt under my feet, real air in the atmosphere. A desk, colleagues, rules I understood, superiors I knew how to please, and a big old-fashioned data-dump of listings. I’d just have asked someone here to help me leave, but I had a growing fear that no one here would do that.
I needed to get hold of Astoria, before someone who mattered here figured out I wasn’t right, and started making my decisions for me.
I collapsed onto a bench in a sort of park on the fourteenth level of the portside residential zone. The greenery was obviously fake, but at least they’d made an effort to provide some restful space. I pulled out a sheaf of papers I’d collected from various recycling bins. Gathered together, I’d hoped they would look enough like a bundle of work orders to fool the casual observer. People were much scarcer here at this hour than they were elsewhere on the station, which was why I’d come. But whenever someone passed, I frowned down at the papers as if I were a harried admin, stealing a quick break on a quiet bench.
I must have dozed off, because the man’s words startled me awake.
“What?” I dropped the papers, which fluttered to the ground at my feet.
“I said, interesting work you’ve got there.” He glanced at the papers. The one nearest my foot was obviously a food wrapper. I had no memory of picking it up, and couldn’t hide my blush. “You steal the food too, or just the wrapper?”
“How... What makes you think...?” My mouth went dry as I studied his wry expression, trying to suss out how much trouble I was in. He had an assured air that belied his relative youth. He wasn’t uniformed, so not enforcement personnel, I hoped. Brown eyes, heavy eyelids, slender shoulders. Cute, if I weren’t so terrified.
“Don’t sweat it,” he said, smiling. “But if you’re gonna play these games, be more convincing. Looks bad for the rest of us.” He reached into a dark green satchel and pulled out a bundle of papers, tugged the top two sheets off and handed them to me. “Like this.”
My hand trembled as I took them. They seemed to be complex schematics with a few inked notes in the margins, arrows pointing to a box in the middle. “Um... thank you,” I said. “What are these?”
He laughed. “Just meaningless doodles, but who’s to know? Better than what you’ve got.” He bent down to pluck the food wrapper from my pile. His hand brushed mine as he straightened and his expression changed. “How long have you been off-planet?”
“I... how did you know?”
“Your skin. You’ve lived in real air, and recently too.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re from Fleetness.”
Well, this was bound to happen. If I understood him, he was not entirely legitimate either. “What of it?” I said, trying to sound tough.
He glanced around, as if afraid of being seen, then took a step away.
I stood up and put my hand on his arm, babbling almost involuntarily. “Take me with you—help me. You’re right: I have no clue—”
He brushed off my hand, looking around more anxiously, though there was no one in the little park to overhear us.
“You weren’t processed,” he rasped, backing toward the exit corridor.
I followed him, clutching my sheaf of papers and my pack. Everything I owned in the world... any world. “No, I wasn’t. I don’t belong here.”
He laughed, mirthlessly, still moving away. “You don’t exist here. And we never met.” He turned and ran down the corridor as if I were an imminent hull breach.
I tried to follow him, but he was very good at disappearing... while I felt more like a misplaced realtor than ever.
Giving up, I stepped into a personal refresher. As the door hissed shut behind me, I sat down on the closed lid of the commode and rested my head in my hands, fighting off the urge to cry. Crying would accomplish nothing. I had to think.
I had panicked. Stupid. Was he already reporting me to someone? No. “You don’t exist,” he’d said. “We never met.” So why had he approached me? He’d known that I was faking something, and yet had come to—what? Critique my performance? He’d had false papers too... but if he wasn’t legit either, why should it have scared him that I was not?
Was my unprocessed status a crime to make even crooks here tremble?
What a terrifying thought.
Would turning myself in now help, or was I already beyond reprieve?
He had mentioned “the rest of us.” Was there some larger group that, at least initially, he’d imagined I might belong to? Should I try to find them? Would they treat me any differently than he had?
The commode station gave a warning chime. A small plasma display above the handle invited me to apply for extra minutes by inserting a credit chip in the door. Too bad for me.
Wiping my eyes on the square of rough paper provided, I let myself out of the booth and stepped up to the hand-washing station, thinking to splash some water on my face.
“Follow me at a distance,” said a tense but instantly familiar voice from the other side of the thin plio-flex wall above my sink. “Don’t stop, and don’t speak to anyone until I say to. Lose track of me, and you’re on your own. Got it?”
I nodded, then realized he couldn’t see me either. “Yes.”
“Exit left,” the voice commanded quietly.
I started down the ramp to my left and saw him, already fifteen feet away, walking off into the crowd at a calm but businesslike pace. I headed after him.
His route twisted and doubled back repeatedly, passing through crowded public hubs one moment and deserted service corridors the next. I soon stopped trying to make sense of our path. This endless maze without north, south, day or night befuddled me.
Eventually he paused in a narrow, under-street service tube to listen at a closed door. I stood some twenty feet behind him, trying to breathe quietly in the gloom, though our pace had winded me.
Seeming satisfied, he slipped a key into the door’s card slot, and it slid open. He finally turned to look at me and said, “What’s your name?”
“Come with me, Mara,” he said. “And behave.”
Wondering what that meant, I followed him through the door into a larger tunnel, blinking and squinting under the light of massive arc fixtures clearly intended for use in much larger spaces. Work stations with ever-shifting data displays cluttered the chamber. The tech here was beat up but sophisticated. Intestinal tangles of heavy pipe and conduit jostled with the gadgetry for space against the tunnel walls, as if someone had tried to jam a whole traffic control hub into a sewer intersection.
People sat at some of the terminals, hard to make out in the glare. I wondered how anyone could see to work in here. Some turned as we came in, but gave us no more than a glance before turning back to their work.
“Stand there,” my guide instructed, waving me toward a niche between two unmanned stations as far out of everyone’s way as possible in such a crowded space. “Just wait.”
My host walked to a second door in the tunnel’s side some ways off, pressed his ear to it as well, then entered, closing it behind him. At first, I heard nothing but the sibilant whispers and whirrings of the tech around me, doing whatever it was there to do. Then drifts of animated conversation became audible. A moment later, the yelling started. Everyone turned to look at the door, and then at me with new interest before returning to their tasks as if they wanted nothing more to do with it.
As I began to sweat, the door crashed open against the metal struts around it, making the tunnel boom like a giant bell. A tall, muscular woman with dark, short-cropped hair wearing drab fatigues and a wife-beater t-shirt strode through, heading straight for me with clenched lips and an angry glare. I managed to hold my ground and keep my mouth shut as she stopped abruptly, pointing at me as if I were a dog who had just peed on the kitchen floor.
“Sit there!” she said, pointing toward the terminal chair left of me. The man who’d done this to me ambled through the door behind her with his hands in his pockets and an expression waffling between defiance and chagrin.
I sat. There.
“Don’t move—at all—’til I get back,” said the Amazon in the wife-beater. She started toward the door we had come in by, then turned back and added, “If you so much as scratch your soft white ass before I return,” she pointed at my betrayer, “he’s going to kill you. If he fails to obey that order, I’ll kill him.”
To this day, I don’t know what possessed me to find my voice at that of all moments. “Am I allowed to speak?”
Two leonine strides put her right in front of me, where she leaned down and said, “Feel free, tiny-tits.” She bent even farther, planting her own very aggressive breasts practically in my face. “Just make sure your lips don’t move.” She straightened, pointing a cocked-gun gesture at my head, then turned and left the chamber like a gust of wind.
None of the terminal jockeys had so much as turned a head through this performance. Even now, they went on working as if nothing had happened. I turned to the man at fault with a look intended to convey ire, but which I suspect communicated nothing but terror.
“She didn’t mean it,” he said, “about your lips.”
“What the hell have you done to me?” I demanded.
“Saved your soft white ass, most likely,” he said with infuriating nonchalance. “That’s why she’s so mad. I’ve convinced her to do something stupid... I think. We’ll know soon enough.”
“Something stupid like what, exactly,” I asked, recovering from the rigid dread she’d left me in.
“Like convincing Adam Jones not to sell you straight off to the Cold Ones for sidestepping his authority the other day. Maybe even convincing him to let you join our little band of merry men despite not being vetted first by his boys. I could have been killed too, you know. Just for talking to you. Lexa might still do it, let alone Adam. I hope you’re at least a little grateful.”
“I’d be even more grateful,” I sighed, daring to rub my eyes as well as move my lips, “if you’d fill some of the bigger gaps in all of that before she comes back.”
“Gaps?” But then he smiled and said, “Okay. In here, though.”
“She told me not to move...” One of the terminal jockeys snickered. Feeling foolish, I stood and followed the man into the room his boss lady had come from.
As the door shut behind us, I looked around a chamber that seemed part office, part break room, with a bunk space: a cluttered desk against the left-hand wall, a low and shabby couch, one rickety chair, a cooler in one corner. A large purple exercise ball sat in the middle of the floor.
Just seeing the bunk’s rumpled blanket and thin pillow made my body ache for rest. What I would not have done for a soft, safe space to sleep...
The man sat in the chair and waved me toward the couch, which I sank into wearily. “You got a name?” I asked.
I nodded, my old training coming back: act confident even if you’re not; take the offensive; ask questions; conceal surprise. I sat forward against the couch’s undertow. “Who was the charming lady? Lexa, did you say?”
Robbin laughed, a little grimly. “Lexa, yeah. Queen of our resource.” He waved a hand around the bleak room. “Master of all this.”
“What kind of resource are we talking about?” I asked, wondering if it were something I was qualified to sell.
“Procurement mostly,” he replied. “That’s our focus. If you need anything you can’t get on Longhorn 6, you come to us.”
His answer baffled me. “Procurement? How is that a resource?”
He looked blank, then suddenly amused. “That’s just what we call our... service guilds here. Resource is a name, not a commodity. There are all kinds. Lexa’s resource provides procurement services. Adam’s provides immigration services. He decides which resource newcomers get assigned to. Running off without his say-so was a bad idea. He’s more or less the top of the food chain around here.” He wagged a finger at me. “Not good to piss him off.”
“But... doesn’t Galactic issue work assignments here?”
“Oh, well sure, officially.” He shrugged. “But who cares? Galactic’s little soldiers may stamp their forms and send all the required guff off to their distant corporate bosses, but they take their real orders from Adam or whoever he assigns them to, just like everybody else.” Robbin leaned forward soberly. “The first and most important thing to understand now, Mara, is that ‘official’ channels are empty theater here. Everything on Longhorn 6 is run by the resources. You work with them, you’ll thrive. Try getting all ‘official,’ and you’ll lose—badly. Got that?”
“I guess so,” I said. “And these Cold Ones Adam Jones was going to sell me to; what are they? The beer resource?”
Robbin didn’t smile. If anything, he looked even graver. Before he could answer, though, the door opened and Lexa strode back in.
I tensed, fearing she’d shoot me for moving. But she just tossed a leg over the exercise ball and planted herself on top of it.
“It’s fixed,” she said, ostensibly to Robbin but watching me. She grabbed two small flex-balls from the desk, and began to squeeze them absently. “Adam’s added her to this month’s invoice.”
“Good,” Robbin said, a bit uncertainly.
“Yeah. There’s a price. But nothing we can’t handle.” Her grip on the flex-balls seemed to tighten. “So you’re Mara, right?”
“From the Fleetness. Their roster lists you as a realtor?”
I nodded again.
“Well, here’s the deal, take it or leave it. This tub’s got no real estate, and you know nothing about how things function, which means a giant suck on our training and protection before you’re of any use. Fronting you the necessary identity and credits to get started will cost us too. We’ll do it, but I’ll have sole authority to determine the balance of your debt—with interest—at any time. No appeal or recourse. I alone determine how your time is spent, including sleep. We protect you from competing resources, give you bunk, board, and training ’til you have a use here. In return, you work quickly to become a productive member of our resource, with whatever that entails. We don’t have much room on Longhorn 6. You may have to share a bunk.” Her eyes danced with amusement, though she didn’t smile. “At least ’til we relocate. You in?”
Alarms were screaming in my brain. Share a bunk? With whom? I thought of those other women from Fleetness—some as young as twelve—herded off by rough, leering men. No recourse or appeal? How much interest, and of what kind? All that front room tech hadn’t looked like a comfort services operation. But still...
“Robbin says you do procurement,” I said. “What exactly do you procure?”
“Whatever’s wanted,” she replied. “If it’s here, we get our hands on it. If it’s not, we find out where it is and how to get it here. Affordably,” she added, with a wry look that implied some second meaning.
“Do you procure women?” I asked, seeing no point in delicacy.
She snorted, then laughed. “Whores? You think that’s what we want you for? You ain’t got the tits for it, sweetness, or the spine. That’s Chanele’s resource anyway.” She turned to Robbin. “How do you find these stray creatures? Tell her something about life, okay? I’ve got too much to do.” She hoisted herself smoothly off the exercise ball and over to the desk, where she rifled through a pile of papers.
“Mara,” Robbin said. “She’s giving you a better deal than anyone else here will. I’d take it. Quickly. You owe her already just for saving you from Adam.”
My mind continued to race. Take it or leave it, she’d said. In sales of property, personal or real, oral contracts aren’t valid. Nor is any agreement made under duress. This could not possibly be legally binding. If I could get hold of Astoria, I could leave without breach. My license would remain clean. Meanwhile, I did need help with basic survival. I didn’t have a choice. We all knew that.
“I agree to your terms.”
Lexa smiled and came to shake my hand. Her grip was very strong.
I learned fast. I had to.
Three days later, I was packing up non-essentials in the resource mess in preparation for our relocation, when one of our terminal jockeys, a red-haired woman named Avini, came in and handed me a packet.
Inside I found a key card, skin chip, and bag of stick-on sensors identifying me as one Linda Margress, recently transferred from Longhorn 4 after unspecified conflict with her supervisor. That rankled me. I’d always gotten along perfectly with my superiors.
“Lexa can help you install that,” Avini said, pointing to the skin chip.
“Thanks.” I shuddered to think of Lexa near my skin for any reason. It seemed clear by now that the shared bunk she’d threatened was likely her own. Happily, that threat had not been followed up on... yet.
Avini rummaged through the cooler for a drink. “Can’t wait for our new digs,” she said, glancing at my half-filled boxes. “We got really lucky this time. Or smart.” She smirked mysteriously. “Lexa’s very resourceful.”
“So I’ve gathered,” I said. “I’ve been wondering, though. If Galactic owns all the space here, who decides how things are allocated?”
“Oh, turf’s the biggest game in town,” Avini said, opening her beverage. “With more newbies all the time, space keeps getting tighter, so everybody’s always scrambling to trade up. There’d have been a Turf resource here ages ago, but no one’s willing to hand one group sole authority over something that important.”
“I can imagine,” I replied. So real estate wasn’t bought or sold per se here... but they were still negotiating deals for structured space—something I knew lots about. Suddenly, I could imagine being much more useful than Lexa supposed.
As moving day approached, our preparations grew increasingly frenetic. My new identity as Linda Margress enabled Lexa to start sending me on errands elsewhere in the station. I was terrified at first of screwing up and being exposed... but the tech was good. “Linda” passed through doors unchallenged, and I’d learned enough by then inside Lexa’s warren to make better sense of what I encountered outside it. Soon I was walking Longhorn 6’s corridors with the confidence of a native.
Robbin was a godsend in those first weeks, constantly appearing at my side to answer questions I hadn’t known to ask yet, or to help with tasks Lexa had fired at me without sufficient explanation. I quickly came to appreciate and even trust him, but he was so attractive, not to mention so far above me in the pecking order, that I never suspected he might regard me as more than just another of the needy strays he loved to save.
I was often asked to carry messages to members of the Food Services resource with whom we were about to swap locations—a trade down for them. They liked to complain about that, and I took care to be a sympathetic listener, which made them even more forthcoming about the larger ‘space-trading game’ on Longhorn 6. I learned tons about who had or was or would be trading which space with whom, and why. As my grasp of which attributes and locations were commonly preferred or avoided increased, I began to see how such preferences might be manipulated even more effectively, and to suspect that Procurement could do better than Food Services’ slightly larger but still cramped offering.
I had learned that the Transportation resource was looking not to move but to expand into new equipment and storage space. The Entertainment resource had a very spacious but unneeded warehouse they were tired of maintaining, but Transportation wasn’t happy with its location. They wanted something closer to... Procurement’s sector, as it happened. A few discreet inquiries convinced me that, with some trifling modifications, Entertainment’s warehouse would make luxuriously spacious headquarters for us, if anyone looked beyond the building’s current label to see that.
Leery of attracting any more of Lexa’s attention, I dropped a few casual remarks about all this to Robbin instead. Two days later our resource was celebrating the announcement that we’d be moving not to Food Service’s squalid nest down in the maintenance sector, but into Entertainment’s even bigger building three decks up, smack in the station’s dining and theater hub. Lexa had convinced Transportation to cover rental on Entertainment’s warehouse, but move their excess storage and equipment into our better suited labyrinth of tunnels instead, free of further charge, allowing Food Services, who’d only been strong-armed by Lexa into trading down at all, to stay right where they were. Win, win, win. Everyone agreed that Lexa’s cleverness seemed boundless.
Lexa, unfortunately, knew very well whose cleverness lay behind this sudden windfall. Robbin had been scrupulous about giving me credit for the idea. My reward was promotion to a desk job in the new hive, right in Lexa’s grandly expanded office. I sat all day now at a small terminal to one side of Lexa’s desk, where we could consult each other more readily about any other innovative opportunities I might come up with. And about the flatness of my chest and ass, and the cute way I always flinched when Lexa came to look over my shoulder. There were no rules in resource-land about sexual harassment in the workplace, and I soon realized that Lexa expressed interest, even admiration, through taunting and disparagement. My boyish figure might not have suited a whore, but Lexa didn’t seem to mind it much.
My yearning to get off of Longhorn 6 altogether grew steadily. I floated the subject once with Robbin, whose disapproval was instantly palpable. Procurement hadn’t taken me in and trained me, he admonished, just to send me off again with best wishes and a sandwich for the journey. I had debts to resolve before I went anywhere. I didn’t air the topic again, but they vigilantly denied me any access to off-station communications after that.
I had an even bigger problem here, however, than mere loathing of the predatory Lexa. I simply wasn’t formatted for a life of petty criminality. Ironically, it was the very act of recognizing another, much larger ‘innovative opportunity’ for Lexa’s resource that brought this fact home to me.
My interest in untapped approaches to Longhorn 6’s quasi-real-estate game was now encouraged. Lexa began engineering chance opportunities for me to chat with folks from any resource I wished. She even lured the infamous Adam Jones to her office one evening on some other pretext, just so I could listen in while she salted their conversation with passing queries about his own thoughts on space around the station. He was an older gentleman who, in striking contrast to everyone else I’d seen here, looked and dressed more like a corporate board member than an underworld boss. Interest in the acquisition of place in this inherently spaceless canister was virtually bottomless, as his talk made clear. The upper echelon of underworld bosses here controlled ample wealth to purchase entire prefectures on lots of nice planets. Yet all that wealth was just being endlessly recycled on this dingy interstellar truck stop.
I was baffled by such short-sightedness until I recognized a subtle but important difference between myself and others here. Nearly everyone on Longhorn 6—maybe even its extraneous corporate functionaries—had been compelled to come as punishment for something, or been driven here only after exhausting all better options. The very idea of ‘elsewhere’ must have seemed void to them even before arrival. The struggle just to survive here, much less bend this insular network of Darwinian ambitions and imperatives to one’s own advantage, was so consuming that perhaps even those who won the game were too shaped by it to retain awareness of any world beyond.
I, however, had not come needing to stand or die here, and thus still thought to look outside the cage we shared. That simple inclination, I realized in a dizzying flash, might constitute a kind of super-power here, if used cleverly.
That night I fished Procurement’s own extensive data banks, then reduced my findings to a single, easily comprehensible page. Next morning, I walked into Lexa’s office and asked her to join me at my terminal.
She raised a brow in surprise, and came to lean, too closely as usual, over my shoulder. This time, I didn’t flinch, and I could tell she noticed.
“What’s this then?” she asked.
“The top list shows price ranges for extensive real-estate holdings on several desirable planets, all of which were available for purchase just prior to my departure from Earth. The middle list contains my conservative guesses at the likely net worth of Longhorn 6’s most prosperous resource bosses, including yourself.”
“That’s any of your business why?” she asked; then, before I could respond, she snorted, “Ridiculously conservative, actually.”
“I didn’t have access to sufficient data to be more accurate. This longer list down here contains my much more educated estimates of probable return over just five years on any of the investments listed above.”
Lexa leaned even harder into my shoulder to scan the bottom list with increasing interest, shoving her breasts against my back. “Impressive, but why should I care about real estate stuck halfway across the galaxy?” she asked, breathing the question into my ear.
“Why shouldn’t you care?” I replied, shrugging her off as I stood and turned to face her squarely. “That seems a better question.”
She just stared, trying, it seemed, to make sense of my answer, or perhaps of my behavior in general.
“This resource keeps meticulous track of every item on every cargo manifest, and every passenger or crew member aboard any vessel traveling within 40,000 light years of this station,” I said. “That’s how we locate what we wish to ‘procure.’ The planetary assets I’ve listed here are all far closer than that. Why ignore them?”
She just seemed startled by my denseness. “There are lots of ways to steer a slice of cargo from its intended route. We can lure an entire ship here, if needed. But how am I supposed to finesse some big chunk of Elysium 17 over to Longhorn 6? If anybody here wanted to purchase planetary real estate, he’d go there to enjoy it. I bring items here for people who need to have them here.”
“Money moves independently of the land that generates it, Lexa. Money’s easier to move than any other item in the universe. You of all people know that. Does no one here want to move the kind of money I’ve listed here as well?”
Lexa grew uncharacteristically silent for the second time in five minutes. I could see gears grinding into reverse behind her eyes.
“Every person on that list could nearly double their hoard within ten years,” I said into her silence, “just by going to see a decent realtor.”
“There... are no realtors here,” she said, half gaping as my point finally pierced her shield of entrenched assumptions.
“There’s one,” I said. “This is what I’m trained to do, Lexa. Remotely, if necessary. Interested in an untapped market for something more lucrative than the occasional case of luxophore vials or taze-guns? Something for the more discriminating customer?”
“Well, well, well,” she murmured, gazing inward now.
I had never seen her so off balance, and I grabbed the opportunity. “I know where and how to look for bargains. I can recognize a trap and scam the scammers in this market. I understand the language, the games, the miles of documentation involved, the legal and financial knots and how to cut them. I just need you to start tilling the soil here while I get on the net and troll around.”
“Well, well, fucking well,” she said, grinning at something other than my tits and ass for once.
Lexa wasted no time. By the following morning, Procurement’s unlikely rising star had an office of her own. Our discriminating customers would, of course, need to feel that they could take me seriously. I even found the nerve to suggest that turning down the sexual brinksmanship a little might crank up my productivity even further. To my quiet amazement, Lexa had just nodded with a wry look of—was that actual respect—or just pragmatic avarice?
Most importantly, my new office contained a terminal with access to unrestricted communications. I could hardly manage complex, mega-real estate transactions, after all, without engaging in research and communication beyond Longhorn 6. My plan seemed to be working even better than I’d hoped.
As my fortunes rose, Robbin’s ‘supportiveness’ increased. I finally got the picture when he came by one afternoon to ask if I’d have a drink with him at the Blue Muse: a pricey eatery I’d heard about, but never dared to enter, given the debt I was already incurring just by breathing here under Lexa’s sponsorship. When I reminded him of my strapped condition, he just looked surprised and said the drinks would be on him, of course. Though he also assured me that, given my amazing progress, I’d surely be settled up with Lexa in record time.
The Lemon Drops we ordered must have cost him dearly in their frosty flutes of real glass. They contained at least a squeeze of real lemon; I found a seed in one of mine. Ignited by the liquor, his charm grew almost incandescent, and I was very flattered—still incredulous, in fact, that a guy this cute would even notice me. A few weeks earlier, I’d probably have lunged at the extra shelter his affection might lend me. But as pretty as he was, and as helpful as he’d been, he was a creature of this place which I now hoped to leave soon. I owed him, yes, but I could not pretend to love him. I laughed at his witticisms, and expressed my gratitude for his many kindnesses, but continued to pretend I didn’t understand how much more he wanted.
Certain that Lexa would carefully monitor my off-station communications, I was perfectly behaved for several weeks. My pursuit of investment opportunities was real and relentless. I even sent a few short missives to Robbin about how exciting it was to have serious work again, and how invested I felt in my future here, hoping that Lexa would see them.
Not until our first big transaction was in motion did I dare hope Lexa might have grown distracted and complacent enough for me to make an attempt at summoning rescue. Having found a credible real estate opportunity in which Astoria was involved, I sent them a complex contractual proposal with an encrypted link to my brief S.O.S. embedded in the yards of fine print at its end. I felt sure their legal sniffers would find it quickly enough, but hoped Lexa would never even read that far. Fine print, after all, was what I was here to spare her.
More than a week passed before Lexa called me to her office to discuss one of our recent proposals. When I arrived she asked me to close the door and come look at something on her desk display. I walked to her side and looked down:
From Broker Mara Sandstrom, urgent. Fleetness destroyed on entry into Longhorn space; unknown number of survivors held on Longhorn 6. Send rescue. Security here doubtful. Respond to this alias only.
There wasn’t even time to blanch before Lexa’s backhand struck me hard enough to rattle teeth. I staggered back, holding my burning cheek and staring at her through watering eyes.
“Traitorous bitch!” she snarled. “How dare you betray me—Robbin—all of us this way, after what we’ve done for you?”
“How is wanting off this place betrayal?” I demanded. “I can do this work for you from anywhere, but I’ll never belong here. That must be as obvious to you as it is to me. Why should you care if I manage your new empire from some place with a real sky?”
“Not just traitorous, but stupid after all,” she spat in disgust. “Did you really think anyone here would let someone who knows all you do about this place just flee into the arms of some off-station corporate authority? Hasn’t it occurred to you, Ms. Smartypants, what an exposure threat you’d be? If Adam were to discover this little stunt of yours, he’d have you iced yesterday.” She shook her head, almost wearily. “Galactic turns their head to what goes on here because we make it worth their while to do so. Astoria would have no such motivation. Don’t you get that?”
I did now. My stomach was a cold, hard knot of fear. They’d never let me go, however much debt I paid off. They might not even let me live now.
“If you had succeeded at this,” Lexa growled, “I would have been held responsible—by anyone here with something to lose—and that’s everyone! I’d have been fodder for the Cold Ones, and this whole resource would have been stripped of respect or leverage, and reorganized if not dismantled.”
I glanced back miserably at the message still on her screen.
“Yes,” she said. “That needs fixing. Now.”
“How?” I asked, no longer able to meet her gaze.
“I don’t know or care, but you have three hours to convince me that Astoria has been persuaded to disregard your idiotic message, or I’ll march you to the Cold Ones myself.” One look at her hard expression told me this threat wasn’t empty.
Back in my office, I tried to compose some credible reversal of my appeal, but there was nothing I could say to Astoria now that would not arouse even greater suspicion. I still had no precise idea of who the Cold Ones were, or what they’d do to me, but with only three hours left before finding out, there was nothing to lose by trying something even more desperate.
I’d heard more than once about a Galactic enforcement official here, a Major Samuel Fisk, whom everyone resented or admired for refusing to be bought. Local lore held him as the only corporate functionary on Longhorn 6 wholly loyal to Galactic. It seemed time I met him.
As I hurried to find him, I kept looking over my shoulder, fearful of being overtaken by some henchman of Lexa’s, but I saw nobody following. When I arrived at Major Fisk’s unassuming complex, claiming urgent need to see him, I was ushered straight into his Spartan office.
“How may I help you, miss...?” he asked, awaiting my name.
“Mara Sandstrom,” I said, breathlessly. “I’m told you are the only fully trustworthy man on Longhorn 6. Is that true?” Confident of my shrewdly honed ‘realtor’s ability’ to read people, I knew I’d be able to parse his response for genuineness if I took him by surprise.
He looked nonplussed. “I pride myself on thinking so. My loyalties are to no one but Galactic, if that is what you mean.”
He did seem sincere. I nodded. “Good. I need your help. I was brought here from the Fleetness.” This drew a startled expression. “Before I could be processed, I was coerced into the service of... a criminal organization here.”
“I am well aware of the resources,” he said, “and I am in none of their pockets, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Yes,” I said, deeply relieved. “I have just escaped from one of them after being threatened with execution. I’ve contacted my previous employer—”
“Astoria Corporation, I assume?” he interjected. At my surprised pause, he spread his hands and said, “You arrived aboard the Fleetness...”
“Of course.” Hoping my attachment to a rival company would not dispose him against me, I continued. “I believe Astoria may come to retrieve me, if I live that long. Can you protect me until then?”
“I’m glad you came to me,” he said reassuringly. “I do know people who can help you. I’ll escort you to them personally.”
“I would be so grateful,” I said.
He touched his desk display, and a functionary entered. After instructing the man to notify my would-be protectors of our imminent arrival, he turned back to me and said, “Shall we go?”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“No need for thanks,” he said. “This is what I’m here for.”
Neither the furtive route we traveled, nor the dark, deserted service tunnel to which he led me aroused my suspicion. We were here to hide me. Of course it would be done secretively, far from prying eyes. Not until the two forbidding men who met us there grabbed hold of me and clapped my arms into restraints did I understand I’d been betrayed.
“Who are you?” I demanded of my captors, tugging at my bonds to no avail.
“The Cold Ones,” one of them replied, with the hint of a smirk. “You haven’t guessed?”
“Liar!” I shouted at Fisk, my heart sinking. “Who owns you? Lexa?”
“I am owned by no one here but my employer, Galactic Enterprises.”
“Has no one told you who commissioned the sabotage of your vessel?” he asked. “In all this time? I’m surprised to find so much discretion here.”
“Sabotage?” I asked, feeling lightheaded. “Who would want—”
“My employer did not want yours to gain a foothold on Greenleaf 43.” He shrugged apologetically. “Business at this scale requires unpleasant things of us all. ...Gentlemen,” he said, nodding at my captors. Then he turned and walked away as if I were a bundle of celluboard left for the recyclers.
My captors neither spoke again, nor exhibited any perverse pleasure in their work, but their grip never wavered until I was locked into an unfurnished, corrugated metal holding cell not far from where I’d been delivered. I was soon visited there by a new if equally laconic man who handed me a drab paper jumpsuit and demanded my clothes and few possessions in exchange. I was not allowed privacy, but he kept his hands to himself, showing no sign of prurient interest while I changed. When I’d finished, he gave me a bottle of water and some refreshment stand chips, then turned to go.
“How will I be killed?” I asked as he reached for the door.
“Killed?” he said over his shoulder.
“That’s what you do, isn’t it?” I said, trying to sound brave for some reason. More reflexive realtor training, I suppose.
“We let people think so.” He turned back to face me. “But in fact, little of what you’ve been told about us is true.”
“I’ve been told nothing,” I said in frustration. “People keep mentioning you guys like you’re the ultimate nightmare, but they never tell me what you do. You’re a resource, I take it?”
He nodded. “A sort of Waste Disposal resource. We dispose of those who prove too useless to merit the space and air they consume here, or too troublesome to those in power. We let the general populace imagine what they will, of course, because that scares them more effectively than anything else, but we don’t really salvage organs here, or hoard gold teeth. There’s not even any killing, unless we’re left no choice. That’s up to you, of course.”
“Then how do you—”
“You’ll know soon enough,” he said, turning away again. “Let your current troubles suffice, Ms. Sandstrom, and rest while you can.” He passed through the door, which locked behind him.
I sat down against the wall, seeking some comfortable position on the metal floor, and pondered the long list of mistakes that had landed me here. No wonder Lexa hadn’t prevented my flight. She’d known there really wasn’t any place for me to run here. Now I was to be ‘disposed of,’ without being killed?
“This one?” said a voice outside my door.
“Yes, sir. She’s in there.”
My cell door clicked open once again, and a man I recognized walked in, looking as dapper and respectable as ever.
“Why, Mr. Jones,” I said, beyond surprise by now. “I don’t suppose you’ve come to rescue me.”
“I rarely offer second chances, Ms. Sandstrom. Never third ones.” He closed the door and leaned against the jamb. “What a lot of trouble you have been.”
“So what brings a man of your importance here?” I asked.
“I sometimes check on my employees’ work, especially when such important guests are involved.”
“Your employees? You run this resource too?”
“No one outside our membership is allowed to know that, but yes, I oversee both immigration and emigration here. You slipped past me in one direction, but I really couldn’t let it happen twice. It’s quite crucial to us all that you be thoroughly misplaced before Astoria’s rescue mission arrives.”
“They’re coming then?” I asked, with less enthusiasm than I might have had if I had still hoped to be around for their arrival.
“Oh yes,” Jones said. “They’ve been quite stealthy about it, but they’re on their way, and with a military escort.” He shook his head. “Accidents won’t be viable this time, I’m afraid. We must let them dock, and seem quite as appalled as anyone to find you’ve disappeared. Rest assured, however, that we shall leave no stone unturned in our attempt to discover your abductors. Examples will be made of... well, all kinds of people by the time we’re finished finding out what happened to you.”
“And what is going to happen to me?”
“As you may know, Ms. Sandstrom, our corporate leaders here on Longhorn 6 abhor waste of any kind. Merely killing even very undesirable people results in nothing but expense without profit. On the other hand, there are numerous corporate clients out there desperate to reduce the excessive expense, labyrinthine regulatory burden, and endless documentation associated with any legitimate labor force. In places like Longhorn 6, Galactic Enterprises has found a way to address these problems quite profitably, by hiring people like me to harvest useless, unproductive individuals and convert them into an astonishingly valuable commodity. As I believe you have been told, Ms. Sandstrom, we’re not here to kill you. We are here to offer you a brand new, immensely more productive life on Steele 17, a lovely planet in the—”
“I know very well where Steele 17 is!” I gasped, shooting to my feet. “It’s a decimated strip-mine in the Chlorite system! You’re selling me into slavery?”
“No, Ms. Sandstrom. Galactic will be doing that. I am just a humble middle man conveying self-selected candidates like yourself for their consideration.” He stood away from the wall, and put his hand to the door. “I did give you a second chance, my dear. And for a while I was almost glad I had. What a shame.” He shook his head like a disappointed father. “Perhaps they’ll need a realtor on Steele 17 as badly as we did.”
He left me then, gaping in dismay. I had wanted off of Longhorn 6—but not this way.
Eventually exhaustion prevailed and I slept on my cell floor. Sometime later, a hand on my shoulder nudged me awake. Robbin bent over me, a finger to his lips.
“Come. Quietly,” he whispered. “We’ve only got a minute.”
Seemed like I was always following this man. I climbed stiffly to my feet. Whatever he meant to do with me now could hardly be worse than slavery on Steele 17.
I followed him into the corridor and found the two men who’d brought me here sprawled face down on the floor. I looked back up at Robbin in astonishment, but he shook his head and waved me urgently past them. He seemed to know where he was going, stopping only to peer around corners or listen at doors before proceeding. We finally stopped at a floor hatch, where Robbin took something from his pocket, shoved it against a key slot, then pushed the hatch door open and waved me through ahead of him. We climbed down into a poorly illuminated crawl space, through which we hurried in a crouch.
The cramped passage snaked on endlessly. Twice we had to freeze and hold our breaths as running footsteps passed above us. By the time Robbin helped me up into some blessedly taller service corridor, I had an awful crick in my neck.
“Where are we going?” I finally dared to whisper.
He just waved me after him around two more corners to a room lined with wall-lockers full of grimy coveralls and jumbled tools.
“Put this on,” said Robbin, handing me a set of coveralls before pulling on his own. Then he rummaged around and produced two welding helmets. “Don’t forget to tuck your hair inside,” he said, handing me one before donning his.
“What are we doing?” I asked again. “Did Lexa send you?”
“Lexa won’t be sending me anywhere but back to the Cold Ones, after this.”
I stopped fiddling with my helmet and looked up in surprise. “You did this behind her back?”
“There was some other way?” His voice was muffled by the helmet, but his tone was unambiguously grim. “Astoria’s headed here to get you,” he said. “ETA five days. Lexa’s spitting sparks about it.”
“I know,” I said. “Adam Jones told me.”
Robbin’s faceplate snapped around toward me. “How would you have talked to Jones?”
“He came to my cell. He’s the Cold Ones’ boss.”
“No shit!” Robbin exclaimed. “That’s info worth a fortune.”
“How did you find out where I was?” I asked.
“Called in a lot of favors,” he said. “You’re not the first stray I’ve helped, you know. It pays to make friends—even here.”
“So, if you’re at odds with Lexa, where are we going?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he admitted. “I was lucky just to find out where you were before they killed you. Haven’t had a chance to think much further. But there are places we can hide until your ship comes in.”
“Then what?” I asked. “For you, I mean? Where will you go?”
“With you, of course. I’ve just crossed Lexa badly, and cold-cocked two Cold Ones. Can’t very well stay here now—not breathing anyway.”
I shut my eyes, thankful that the helmet hid my face. How would he feel, I wondered, when he learned that even after this, I still didn’t love him? “Actually, they weren’t going to kill me,” I said, half-apologetically.
“Oh really?” he asked skeptically. “I’ve never heard of anyone returning from delivery to the Cold Ones.”
“They don’t,” I said. “Adam turns them over to Galactic, who sells them to corporate interests looking for free, unregulated labor. I was slated for sale to Steele 17.”
Robbin simply stared at me.
“None of you knew this? Really?” I asked.
“But the stories,” Robbin said, sounding stunned. “Everyone’s heard—”
“—what everyone else assumes or invents,” I finished for him. “The Cold Ones just let you all believe yourselves.”
“’Til they’re so scary, we don’t even want to think about them, much less snoop. It’s the perfect curtain.” Robbin shook his head. “If people here knew that Adam was selling even the worst of us to Galactic, they’d riot. He’ll want us dead now even more than Lexa does. We’d better keep moving.” He grabbed a hand torch off the bench beside us and handed it to me. “Just act like you can’t wait to weld something.”
For three days we snuck from hidey-hole to hidey-hole. Robbin seemed intimately familiar with every service hatch and ventilation shaft on Longhorn 6. He was an accomplished thief as well. We ate better on the run than I had ever eaten at the resource—and for free.
Early on our fourth day, Robbin found us a small, unoccupied living module where we could sit in plush inflatable chairs before a simulated roaring fire on the virteo screen.
“Why do you help people like me?” I asked him. “What’s in it for you?”
“There’s an ancient myth from Earth about a bandit king named Robbin Hat,” he said, sheepishly. “Ever hear it?”
I shook my head.
“My father had,” he said. “He loved to tell it to me when I was little. He named me after Robbin Hat, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.” Robbin shrugged. “My dad tried to be that kind of thief, I think. I guess I’ve always wanted to be too.” He stretched out lazily, wiggling his bare toes before the virteo fire as if it were actually warm.
He had never seemed more charming to me than he did at that moment. “Robbin,” I said, “I’ve been thinking about what Adam and Galactic have been doing here, and if we tell Astoria—”
The sound of a keycard in the door brought us both to our feet. We whirled around to find ourselves staring at the barrel of a snub-nosed scrap gun—the kind used by people who don’t mind a mess.
“What a cozy place,” Lexa said to Robbin, her face a mask of cold fury. “Your realtor find this for you?”
Robbin just looked blank, then dropped his gaze. “How’d you find us?”
“If your network was better than mine,” she said contemptuously, “you’d have been my boss, and I’d have been your toady.” She glanced at me with even greater disdain. “Her I saw coming, Robbin, but I never thought you’d stab me in the back. You know what Adam thinks of me by now. I’ve gone from trusted confidant to laughing stock.”
“Adam’s always thought you were as clueless as everybody else here,” I said, recklessly. “He as good as told me so when he dropped by my cell to see how well his Cold Ones were doing their job the other day.” Taunting her was suicidal, but Robbin had said that our new information about Adam was worth a fortune. I hoped she’d think so too.
“What crap are you barfing up now?” she growled.
“Adam is the Cold Ones’ boss,” I said. “Or hadn’t he mentioned that? He uses them to harvest slave labor here on Longhorn 6, for Galactic to sell off on other planets. That’s what really happens to the people they ‘dispose of,’ but I’m sure Adam’s already shared that with you too. He says it’s very profitable. Does he kick back any of that wealth to trusted confidants like you?”
“What an inventive mind you’ve got in that pretty head,” said Lexa. “I almost hate to blow it off.”
“It’s true!” Robbin insisted. “Jones is in Galactic’s pocket, and I’ll bet slave labor’s not the only way he’s sold us out to them. How do you think he’s held so much power for so long? He plays both ends.”
“Why should I believe you either?” Lexa snapped, pointing her gun back at him.
“Adam said he would be making examples of a lot of people after Astoria comes,” I pressed. “Scapegoats to explain my disappearance. How much you wanna bet that you’ll be one of them?”
“Shut your fucking mouth!” she yelled, her gun on me again. But I could tell we had her, and began to talk as fast as—well, a realtor.
“Galactic sabotaged the Fleetness.”
“What?!” Lexa blurted.
I looked her in the eye. “If you don’t believe me, ask Major Fisk. I think he arranged it personally.” Lexa’s jaw went slack, and I decided it was time to bet everything. “Galactic and Astoria are quietly at war, Lexa, and Astoria’s been losing. Can you imagine what they’d give for what we know about Galactic? They could destroy their biggest rival overnight. Forget Procurement. Astoria could give us rule of this entire station!”
“Or I could kill you both and let Astoria hand everything to me,” she said.
“Your testimony is just secondhand hearsay,” I told her. “I’m the only direct or credible witness, and Astoria won’t pay for what won’t hold up in court.”
“None of that’ll matter anyway after Adam fingers you for Mara’s kidnap, Lexa,” Robbin interjected. “Incriminating you discredits your testimony and saves his neck. You can’t think he won’t see that. I’d be pissed at us too, Lexa, but come on.”
“It doesn’t matter how we do this,” Lexa said. “Adam will—”
“Adam will go down in flames with his partner, Galactic,” I cut in. “Help us hide for one more day, get us onto that ship alive tomorrow, and let Astoria set you up for life. Or shoot that thing and go back to your trusted confidant for a pat on the head. ...That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Lexa held up her part of the bargain easily enough. Jones was so sure of her that he never thought to look for us under her skirts. Rumor has it he was last seen shortly after Lexa got us aboard Astoria’s transport, screaming away from Longhorn 6 in a small private craft. His Cold Ones have vanished into legend here as well.
Galactic Enterprises is history too. And, as expected, Astoria has rewarded us lavishly enough to make even Lexa blush.
It’s been six months now, and I’m finally getting used to my new routine here. Robbin is my second-in-command. Lexa... Well, Lexa works for us. She’s our top enforcer now; number-three dog in Longhorn 6’s food chain, and damned well paid for what she does. Not all she might have hoped for, but considering that I knew enough to have her clapped in chains for life if I had chosen to share her history with Astoria too, I think she’s content.
Am I bummed to find myself still stuck out here on Longhorn 6? Not so much. I live in the former Station Master’s palace now, and spend my days administering Astoria’s new construction project. Longhorn 6 already orbited a star. It just had no planets, so Astoria has decided to build a very nice one. I can see the work progressing from my window, without even getting out of bed. And when it’s done and ready for settlement, its first on-site brokerage will be mine.
Robbin is still trying to convince me to be his Maid Marian, but I haven’t decided. One way or another, he’ll be fine.
And so will I.
This story originally appeared in Space Tramps: Full Throttle Space Tales #5.