In a flash Vincent redirected the ship’s auto-pilot toward a friendly berth in the dregs and as the vessel came about to its new heading he jumped out of his seat and dashed toward the aft cargo hold.
He rested a shoulder against the door as he slipped his pistol from its holster and clicked the safety catch off. Quickly he used his personal computer to interface with the ship’s surveillance systems, angling the camera around the cargo hold once more to see if he could locate the strange figure.
“Figures. No sign of’em.” He mumbled to himself as he switched off the display and returned his attention to the door where he tapped out a series of commands, programming the door to close and lock behind him so that only he could open it again in case he was over-powered.
A moment later he slid through the door, weapon at the ready, and stood just inside the hold until the door slid home behind him. The hold was of decent size, but he knew it, and everything in it, like the back of his hand. The search was quick and methodical and his quarry turned up in short order.
The figure lay sprawled out on the floor behind the crate they had come on board in, just out of the cargo hold camera’s line of sight. They seemed to be unconscious again, calmly breathing and apparently unaware of his presence.
“The hell am I going to do with you?” He said aloud as he slid his handgun back into its thigh holster and folded his arms across his chest in contemplation. Finally he turned around and headed for the door, deciding that it was best to just let the other person be. As he reached the door and began entering his security code a loud crashing noise issued from behind him followed immediately by the tooth-wrenching sound of metal dragging on metal.
Wheeling around, his gun instantly in hand and at the ready he scanned the cargo hold and eventually his eyes came to rest on the new crate. The palette he had set out in front of the open crate was scrunched up and in disarray and as he looked for what had happened he saw that the crate itself had been forced forward nearly two feet.
Sidestepping around the crate, he was careful to keep his distance as the figure came into view. They were still laying on the deck, seemingly unconscious but now their left hand, the feminine one, was extended out from the body, almost touching the back side of the crate where there was now a deep, fist shaped dent in the metal container. The knuckles on the extended hand had deep furrows in them that looked to be fresh wounds, but there was no blood and the base of the wound glinted silver instead of the white of bone.
Vincent looked back and forth from the crate to the figure a few times, the look of amazement on his face growing with each pass between them. “Great. I have an unconscious person with metal bones that can knock thousand pound crates around with their bare hands on my ship… Dammit Lou, you REALLY owe me for this one.”
He turned to open the door again then had a second though. Cautiously he slipped back over to the open crate and reached inside, retrieving the boxes of Jovian brandy and hastening back to the door. He slipped back out of the hold with the smaller boxes and locked the door behind him.
“Not that this door is going to stop someone that can do that to a pressurized cargo crate…” he mumbled as he finished typing in his security code. Finally he stashed the brandy in a cupboard and slipped back into the pilot’s seat to check on the ship’s progress.
As the Neophyte settled on the floor of the hangar bay, the large pressure door trundled closed outside the cockpit view screen. Vincent stood up and checked his firearm once more as atmosphere was cycled into the large hangar. Finally he stepped back into his ready room and strapped on his back holster, insuring that all of the straps and buckles were secure before he slid the large bolt caster from its cubby in the wall and checking it over.
He slid the large weapon home in its holster across the small of his back as he moved down to the cargo hold door and checked the security camera feeds again. Seeing that the figure was still sprawled out on the floor he keyed the door open, stepped inside and locked it closed again behind him. Quietly he made his way to the back of the hold and cycled the exterior door open, wincing at the smell of the massively recycled air of the dregs.
Stepping out into the hangar he was met by a small, portly man wearing greasy coveralls who smiled warmly and waved at him as they closed the gap between them. “Morn’in Vin! Haven’t seen ya ‘round these parts in a spell. How’re things your way?”
Vincent accepted the man’s extended hand and shook it, smiling back at him. “Hey Frank. Things are pretty good. How’s your world?”
The man took his hand back and scratched at his receding hairline for a moment as he replied. “Well, business is business, y’know. I guess I c’na complain much. Though things’re lokin’ t’get a lot tougher ere what with the new fed cruisers com’n on line next month.”
Vincent frowned at the other man, nodding in agreement. “Yeah, I hear they are a lot faster and more maneuverable than the larger boats they’ve been fielding up to now. Should make things more interesting for us, for a while at least.”
Frank grimaced a bit as he pulled something resembling dried tar out of his sparse hair. Once it was dislodged he looked at it passively for a moment flicked it aside before continuing. “Aye, though I’ear dere’s already a new ion drive upgrade that’ll outdistance’em by a good measure. Prolly cost an arm and leg though, I imagine.”
Vincent nodded, He wouldn’t tell his friend that he had had the new ion drives installed in the Neophyte nearly a month ago, there was no need to fluster the man. Although he was right, they had been extremely expensive. “Yah, probably. Look Frank, I’m not sure how long I will be here, and you know I don’t trust anyone else to work on the Neophyte. Can you top off my fuel and water, and empty the base matter for me? I need to run an errand real quick.”
Frank looked as though he was about to object until Vincent produced a large gold coin and tossed it to him. His eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically. “Sure t’ing Vin. I’ll take good care’o her for ya.”
Vincent nodded and then started moving toward the pressure door that led to the dregs. Suddenly he stopped and wheeled around, raising his finger in the air and speaking mid-turn. “Oh and Frank?”
The small man turned to look at him with a raised eyebrow.
“There’s…” he searched for the best words to describe the person in his cargo hold. “…a… person. In the main hold there. Try and stay clear of them, and if they make to leave, just stay away and let them go.”
Frank opened his mouth to speak and Vincent could already imagine the stream of questions and comments about the situation so he raised his hand higher and made a gesture to stop his friend from speaking. “It’s a long story and I have no idea how it ends yet, or how it even began, so don’t ask. Not yet.”
Then he turned and strode out into the dregs, leaving Frank alone with his ship and the mysterious stranger in the cargo hold.
If the ring station surrounding the long-uninhabitable Earth was a testament to human ingenuity, then the dregs were a testament to the human ability to survive in the worst imaginable conditions. In the modern, corporate run society that humanity had become in the last 800 years there were still those that chose to live ‘off the grid’. Others had no choice in the matter as occasionally circumstances would drive people out of the shiny veneer that was the corporate world and into the seedy undercity as it were.
The Dregs was more of a loose knit community of vagabonds than an actual place. These outcasts had chosen the only place left in the Sol system that could possibly be inhabited as their homestead. The thick ring of asteroids that belted the center of the Solar System offered many resources to those willing to look hard enough. There were minerals in vast quantities that could be mined out, refined and used as construction materials for homes, industrial plants, even ships. Ice was available in massive quantities as well and could be extracted, purified for drinking and broken down into its constituent parts to provide oxygen for breathing as well as hydrogen for fueling both facilities and ships.
Over time they even learned how to use the weak sunlight that was able to filter through all of the debris in the belt to grow their own crops and eventually made them self sufficient. But it was not an easy life by any stretch of the imagination. Vincent could not imagine anyone ever choosing this life as he moved through the various round tubes that connected the thousands of asteroids together into a ramshackle assemblage that these people called home, and the rest of humanity called the Dregs.
He passed numerous people, all of them looking decades older than they probably were, bent over from a lifetime of toiling away in nearly unlivable conditions just to scrape out a life here. The one thing he could say for them was that they were, most of them, living a life of choice, and as such, they were usually cordial and pleasant to interact with. They tended to take people at face value as long as they demonstrated a willingness to help out and work to achieve their goals.
As he made his way through the labyrinthine superstructure toward his eventual destination, he sighed a breath of remembrance. Finally he entered the more familiar areas of the network of tunnels and rocks, even spying the occasional familiar face among the people he passed in the access ways and passages. Memories of running up and down the corridors and causing people to dive out of the way as he and his brothers fought some imaginary battle or other flooded back through him as he drew closer and closer to the door that now came into view as he rounded the last corner.
The heavy metal door resounded clearly under the weight of his closed hand. He remembered it well, the sound of the door being struck echoing back and forth throughout their home when someone came to visit. A few moments later the sound of the latch being twisted open could be heard, followed by the groaning of the simple hinges as the door was pulled open to reveal an older woman of medium height, sandy blond hair and thin, but strong figure. They stared at one another for several long moments before she finally stepped aside and motioned for him to enter without a word.
Stepping past her and into the living room of the apartment he instantly recognized almost everything in the room. The furniture was still the same after all the years he had been gone. The woman pushed the door closed with some effort and twisted the lever that created the pressure seal between the door and the frame in case there was some sort of accident that caused decompression of the facility. Finally she turned around and looked at him again, eying him critically for another long moment.
“You look well.” She finally said, her voice was strong but bore the temper of a hard life.
“So do you.” Vincent replied truthfully. He was surprised how well she seemed to have held things together.
“Can I get you something to drink?” She asked awkwardly.
“No, thank you. So… where is everyone else?” He motioned to the four doorways on the opposite side of the room from where he stood.
“It’s just me now. After you left, everyone else seemed to follow suite pretty quickly. Val hooked up with the federal navy and just made Captain. I hear tell she is going to be given one of those new boats they are about to commission. Dan moved to Hektor and is running a hydroponics outfit there. It’s small but he is doing alright, growing mostly exotic stuff since the conglomerate can’t seem to figure out that little trick. I haven’t heard from Matt and Tanner for about five years now. Last I heard they were starting up some kind of private investigation business on Earth Station.”
Vincent watched her intently while she spoke, he knew she had been devastated when he had chosen to leave, but he didn’t know that his leaving would precipitate the demise of the entire family. “Mom I…” The words stuck in his throat.
“I knew you would come back Vincent. And I knew why you left. It wasn’t your fault when you father died, and it certainly wasn’t your fault that all your brothers and sister left after you did. I’ve been making ends meet here.” She sounded sincere but the edge stayed on her voice.
“I know mom. I just. I didn’t know how to reconcile dad’s death. Nothing made sense to me any more after he was gone and they only just started to make sense again recently.” A vision of the strange figure laying on the deck of his cargo hold made him second guess the statement but he tried not to let on about it to his mother.
“I know what that’s like Vincent. These things take time. I’m just glad you finally made it home again.”
A moment later they were embracing in the center of the room and Vincent felt that long forgotten comfort that only the embrace of a mother can offer. “I missed you mom. I should have come sooner but I had convinced myself you would be long since gone by now so I kept putting it off.”
She broke the embrace and held him out at arms length, looking at him with a stern look. “You thought I was gone? Where would I go?”
“I don’t know mom. I just… Well I’m just glad you are here. What have you been doing to keep this place up?”
She smiled at him then, a knowing, motherly smile. “I have my ways boy. Don’t you worry about me. After your father died I sold off the refining equipment and got a new start in compression gear. I always had a head for gasification and compression technology. Anyway, almost all the hydrogen and oxygen in the dregs is run through my equipment before it is used in ships or anywhere else.”
Vincent looked flabbergasted for a moment before a wide grin broke across his face. “I don’t know why I ever would have considered another scenario.”
“You’re darn right boy. Now. Tell your mother what YOU have been doing for ten years. Out there on your own.” She plopped down into a chair and crossed her legs as she looked at him expectantly.
Vincent found himself a seat on the couch, looking across the room at her and smiled. “Well, I run my own shipping business. It’s small, just the one ship, but I am doing pretty well, all things considered.”
“So what’s keeping you from the big time then? You were always the best pilot in the Dregs. No reason you shouldn’t be running the shipping lanes for the whole Sol system.” She asked pointedly, raising an eyebrow at him.
He sighed as she looked at him. How did she always know when he was holding back? “Well… I guess the only way to say it is that I’m not particularly choosy as to what I ship.”
She arched her eyebrow at him again, instantly understanding. “My son, the runner, eh? How’d you get in that line?”
“It’s a long story mom, and I promise I will tell you. Soon. But right now I am in the middle of something and I have to get going. I just didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see you while I was here.” He stood up and began slowly moving toward the door to let himself out.
“Vincent, you just got here are you sure you can’t stay a while?” She was up in a flash and beat him to the door.
“I wish I could mom but this run is pretty… strange, and I need to get this… box… off my ship. I’ll come back straight away though, as soon as I get rid of it, and we can talk for as long as you want.”
She eyed him again for a long moment, then wrenched the door open once more and turned to face him. “You had better!”
He grinned at her. “I will mom. I promise.” He stepped through the doorway and turned around to face her once more. “Oh and one more thing before I go.”
“Yes?” She prodded.
“I’ve met someone. She’s really great mom. And… I think I’m going to ask her to marry me…”