The Middle of Nowhere
By: Mackey Chandler
Third book in the “April” series.
Sequel to “Down to Earth”
April was tired and a bit depressed. Her trip down to Earth was a failure. She hadn’t rescued the two lieutenants who had asked her to help them get to Home. She had certainly tweaked the Giant’s Nose as far as irritating North America. But she couldn’t see she had really improved anything about the USNA ignoring their treaty obligations with Home. She’d spent a great deal of Eddie’s money, but if it made war less likely as he was hoping she didn’t see how. His fortune was still at risk if whoever replaced President Wiggen wanted war with Home.
About the only thing she could claim to have accomplished for sure was Preston Harrison was not going to ride the Patriot Party ticket to the USNA Presidency. He’d tried to arrest her and she’d shot him dead for his trouble. Her Earth hosts the Santos intimated that might not have been the best PR move of all time. However the fool swore to her face he’d kill her family and nation as his first official act. What did he expect?
Whatever their private plans and opinions April doubted other candidates would make such a public threat if they ever intended to stand under an open sky again. She’d certainly be happy to put a smoking crater where any of them showed themselves. Harrison had certainly underestimated how difficult one young girl could be to drag off under arrest.
Things were sort of a mess. Her Earth hosts were unsafe to go back to their home and instead were going off to do her job and rescue the men she’d intended to extract. Her bodyguard was sitting in the other shuttle couch beside her, apparently betrayed by his own government, the same as the lieutenants. Mixed up in politics that didn’t concern him. Assigned by Wiggen it was true, but because she’d asked for him, and she felt responsible.
She had to sort out the businesses she’d inherited from her brother. She wasn’t even sure what all of them were and if he’d left anybody in charge running them. There was the real possibility some people would blame her for precipitating his apparent traitorous theft of the armed merchant Home Boy and the destruction of it in Lunar orbit while collaborating with the USNA.
Since she’d walked away from her interest in their courier business and left her share to him she certainly had not expected him to leave anything to her. She had bluntly made clear she didn’t approve of his business practices and had separated herself before going down to Earth. So why had he left everything to her? Why not their parents or her grandfather? A friend even, if he had one. Was it guilt?
Just about everyone she knew had a good reason to chew her out or blame her for things ending in such a muddled mess. She wasn’t looking forward to facing the music.
This was a freight shuttle, so it would dock at the north end. They wouldn’t go to the passenger dockage for two people. Not unless they were high end VIPs, and VIPs didn’t ride freight shuttles. To switch docks was another hour for the flight crew, a couple hundred bucks of propellant for maneuvering jets and an expensive hour on the shuttle airframe to move it. The north end was industrial and lacked carpet and bright colors and shops. There would be an unlocked com pad at the airlock with a camera and touch pad for crew. Jon might not even send security all the way up to the north hub for one person knowing both crew and she would direct them to check in.
“I don’t know much about Home,” Gunny spoke up from the other couch. “I mean I know about you, because I read your folder. That told me a little bit about Home, but otherwise I only know what I’ve seen on the news, and we know how reliable that is. Are there any customs I should be aware of to avoid offending people?”
“I’ve been thinking about my own problems so much I didn’t stop and think about what you need in practical terms. I have a bad habit of assuming everybody knows what I do and probably more. Look, I’m not sure who I’ll get you placed with. I have to look at the companies my brother left me. One of them may need you,” she assured him.
“Believe it or not we got an actual employment agency running before I came down. How about if you stay on as my bodyguard for a month? You hang out with me and I’ll try to explain things as they come up. You can read the recordings of the public meetings when Home was formed. Especially the few before the war will explain how we voted to break off with North America. You can meet people and get a feel for how things work. I have to go around and smooth things out with a whole lot of people. Don’t be surprised if some of them are angry with me. I didn’t get the basic things I intended to done on Earth and blew a bundle trying. But I don’t think anybody will be mad enough to hurt me. Guarding me shouldn’t be hazardous.”
“How much you paying, and where would I stay?”
“Say, a hundred-ten for the month plus basic cafeteria access and your air and water fees. The Holiday Inn is really expensive for a month. Let me see if the company still lets transients rent out space in the company barracks.
“Yeah, thousand dollars, USNA, unless you insist on EuroMarks.”
“That seems, generous,” he said. So generous he was somewhat dubious.
“It won’t after your first hundred dollar t-shirt and you need to buy lunch off station and it’s a forty-five dollar cheeseburger and a fifteen buck beer with a ten buck tip.”
“I see,” Gunny said slightly stunned.
“If we hadn’t had the devaluation back the year before I was born think what it would be.”
“That’s of course easy for me to remember. My paycheck was suddenly one tenth what it was the month before. The prices didn’t all instantly adjust either. I kept a bunch of clean uncirculated notes figuring they would be worth more as collectibles in my lifetime rather than turn them in. I’m pleased I’m on the plus side of that deal already.”
“But if they were in your house or a bank box you might never recover them.”
“No, no. They are out in the piney woods. You have to dig down as far as my arm will reach under a big old pine tree where you have to crawl under the branches. You get down there and you find a screw out cap. Then the stuff is on a line hanging down at the end of a three meter plastic pipe. There’s old money, some newer money, a few gold coins, and a spare pistol. I’m sure I’ll be able to recover it someday. I have the GPS coordinates memorized.”
“Kind of hard to do that on an orbital habitat.”
“Not at all. I can hide stuff on a ship or an aircraft. That’s one way I can earn my keep. I will teach you how to cache stuff so others don’t find it while I’m working for you. Perhaps there are a few other tricks an old man can teach you if you want.”
April was still processing the original question. “Gunny, we don’t have many customs different from North America, I can’t think of anything important, but I’m sure we’ll run into little things as you get settled in. But we do have a lot less laws. Don’t assume anything you see is illegal by ground side standards. You can let your minor child alone in your apartment, or let them go to the cafeteria unsupervised. They can be in public in short sleeves or even shorts. Marijuana and tobacco are legal to own and use, but it is against regulations to pollute the air or have an open flame in public spaces. And you can own and carry any crazy sort of weapon you want.”
“Burn in thirty seconds,” announced their pilot. After a very sort burn there were a couple minor taps on the attitude jets and the lurch of the grapples pulled them the final couple centimeters flush to the station with a >clunk<.
The number two passed through and opened the airlock hatches. The pilot waited at the hatch of the flight deck for them to exit before she’d leave her vessel. There was the slight pressure change when it opened and they had to swallow and force a yawn to get their ears to feel right. Neither had any carry on to deal with. April motioned Gunny ahead. He’d never been in zero G and she wanted to watch and help him. He was so big he sort of blocked the view, which is why she was to the outer door before she saw it was the tunnel for the south end passenger docks.
She grabbed the edge of the flange. “Why aren’t we up at the freight docks?” she asked their copilot. “You didn’t have to dock here for us.”
“We were told the north docks would create a problem. It isn’t set up to handle a crowd meeting the shuttle,” she explained.
Just then Gunny reached the end of the tube. It did have a line for newbies to go hand over hand. April heard a murmur of voices. She hurried after him without another word to the crewwoman. Where the tunnel opened up there was Jon manning the entry station himself, and here outside spin where they restricted access were her parents and Jeff and Heather, Ruby and Easy, Eddie, Doris, her Grandpa Happy, and a couple of Jon’s off duty people as well as a half dozen of the militia guys.
Around the entry bearing to spin there were folks elbow to elbow all around the rail looking through at them, and there was a banner strung beneath it that said, “Welcome Home April”. It was so long you had to watch it a full turn to read it all. The crowd noise indicated there were quite a few out of sight on the other side of the rail. She looked up there and most of them waved. What else could she do? She waved back. Then a dozen people all tried to hug her at once and she was squished. Somebody had her left hand and was patting the top. She couldn’t even see who it was so she just squeezed back.
She folded her arm over her ribs worried she’d get bumped but people were careful though they still reached to touch her hand.
Gunny had been signing in at the entry com before she’d looked up and waved. It didn’t look like she was going to get a chance to log in. She was more or less dragged along by both hands and elbows as the mass of friends and family all took off for the rim of the bearing like a bird flock. Somebody kindly grabbed her by the belt in back and pulled her over to the rail as they approached it.
She gave the rail a symbolic touch but there was no need to swing over it. More hands grabbed her patting back or arm or shoulder, whatever they could reach, urging her along and a succession of people most of whom she at least knew by sight hugged her.
The astonishing thing was the brief greetings spoken softly in her ears as she was passed along. “Good job, good job, welcome back.” – “You scared us. Damn Earthies.” – “Hated to see you on the slumball, but thanks for going.” – “‘Bout time you came Home.”
She had home and a bed in mind. They ended up at the cafeteria. A hand fell on her shoulder and a male voice asked what she wanted? “Coffee please,” she told the fellow, giving the hand a touch. Wasn’t he from maintenance? She wasn’t sure. The coffee when it came had whisky in it. Pretty good whisky by the taste of it. She didn’t object. Music started up and people started dancing on the other end of the room. The chairs all scooted down and one with Gunny was inserted next to her.
Somebody reached past and slid a plate unasked in front of April and then Gunny. They had a nice little steak and fresh rolls and butter. It didn’t take long before a cold shrimp plate and a sweet potato casserole and fruit salad got passed down the table to them.
Gunny had a glass of amber fluid, the same as hers minus the coffee. “I’ve never seen so many civilians with weapons,” he said in shock, “and all of them pissed off at you just like you warned me,” he said straight faced over the noise. “I’m moving. People want to talk to you,” he pointed out with folks reaching across his dinner and leaning out past him. He moved down to the end of the table but opposite so he could see her.
The chairs next to April kept changing owners. Eddie took too long talking to her and somebody grabbed his chair back and dragged him off into the crowd. The next chair was just slid down and it was her mom.
“I am so glad to see you,” April turned and hugged her as best she could sitting down. “I thought I’d just come home and get Dad to settle my hired man Gunny in and I could go to bed and sleep a shift. Do they still sell transient bunking down in the Animal House?”
“He’s your body-guard isn’t he?” her mom asked.
“Yeah, but I just have him on a thirty day contract. I imagine I’ll find him a slot somewhere else. I don’t really need him here,” she insisted. “He’s sort of another rescue. He got caught up in the politics for guarding me and they wanted to arrest him.”
“You should keep him close, not all the way across the station. We boxed all Bob’s stuff up for you, and gave away his clothing to charity, but the cubic is still partitioned off and there is still a bed in there. Why don’t you stick him in there?” her Mom offered.
“Wouldn’t that make you feel weird, having somebody in Bob’s room?”
“I’m not going to make it a shrine. Some folks leave everything like it was as if maybe the person will walk back in some day if they keep it the same. I’m sad, but that’s just sick. I’m not in denial, Honey. I just haven’t got around to hiring out the remodeling to tear it out. Go ahead and use it. Even a hot bunk with a small locker is around two hundred-fifty a day in company housing. No reason to throw that away. Besides, if you have a body guard use him for now. The same people who would hurt you down on Earth might infiltrate somebody here.”
“Okay Mom, thanks.” April had worried. She thought her Mom favored Bob, just like she was sure she and her Dad were closer. But if she didn’t seem any warmer she didn’t seem any cooler either. That was a relief.
When Bob had gotten so selfish and driven he’d tried to take advantage of their parents. Her Dad had firmly resisted. April wasn’t sure if her Mom could have resisted without her Dad to quietly point out what was reasonable and not. She worried she’d be blamed for Bob’s actions, but so far nobody was looking daggers at her.
“I’m whipped. This is nice, but I need to get home and get some sleep.”
“Collect your man then and we’ll go home. These folks are all charged up and out of sync with your day by almost twelve hours. Let them party on and you can talk to them when you aren’t sleep deprived.”
April gave Gunny a ‘come on’ jerk of the head and he excused himself. It was Mr. Muños next to him. That was a good choice to find out a lot about Home in short order. But he had to be tired too. He could speak to him another day.