Prose Header

Boys from the Neighborhood

by Dan Reed

part 2

The flight out to the Rocks was generally a boisterous one. A small handful of men, each of whom was convinced he was about to become obscenely rich, had nothing to do but drink and play hologames and tell stories about good lays and bar fights. I tried to avoid them: I tend to be a bit of a downer when I’m not drinking, especially when I’m hauling a bunch of 20-something kids out to near-certain failure on some airless rock.

But I also knew almost all of their stories were total inventions: you simply didn’t fool around with women you met at a bar or punch their asshole boyfriends in the face when you were twenty-five and not-rich. Not when the boyfriend, or their uncle or their friend’s friend or their brother-in-law, could be Gilded, and therefore a maker of rules and a settler of scores.

I knew one guy, a decent, hardworking contractor with a bit of an Irish temper, who gave the finger to some vintage Tesla that cut him off. Turns out the guy was the experience engineer who had revolutionized holoporn, and thus Gilded as hell. My friend spent the next few years having every job he was working on get shut down by inspectors until he was run out of business. He ended up starting fresh in northern Canada. The poor guy begged me to get him out to the Rocks, but even I can’t afford to cross someone like that. There’s a difference between just rich and Gilded, and that’s something everyone needs to accept.

After a few weeks of the miners’ big talk, my irritation peaked and I insisted on a curfew after ten. I didn’t really expect anyone to keep it, but I hoped it would inhibit the worst of the false bravado and nervous score-keeping.

For the first few days, I’d stroll into the mess around 9:45, check my watch, and sit down with a magazine. After a minute or two of scraping plates and downing drinks, they were gone, scattered to cramped sleeping quarters where they would pull out flasks and keep slinging their crap until they passed out.

Once they were out of my hair, I’d screw around with a few holo-games. If I could play golf half as well back on Earth as I can with that damned computer, I’d be able to give up piloting and play skins for a living. I’d have a drink, check on my first mate at the controls, and get a bit of sleep.

On the third night of the curfew, I was on the sixth hole of Bethpage Black, getting ready to chip out of a bunker, when someone sat down behind me. I backed off of my shot, yanked off my visor and, as the grey walls and floor of the mess replaced the lush, well-kept grass of a championship golf course. I put down the gyroscope-filled stick that had been approximating a sand wedge. “At least you could make some damned effort to pretend you were listening to my orders and keeping curfew. It’s almost midnight.”

After that opening salvo of what was going to be a pretty decent chewing-out I turned to see Paulie Benevento, his head resting in his hands, eyes straight down at the table like a kid who just failed a big test. The surprise stopped my rant in its tracks.

“Kid, what the hell is wrong with you?”

He just sat there. Then I heard the wet, irregular breathing of someone trying to hold back sobs.

“Paulie, you leave a girl back home or something? Only time someone starts crying like this on my ship is when they start thinking about some damned girl they’re missing, someone they aren’t sure is still gonna be their private ray of sunshine when they get back home. But there ain’t no point in crying about it now, because you’re out here, and this ship ain’t turning around.”

He looked at me, just the slightest hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth as he wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Mr. Farrell, if you ever see me crying over a goddamned girl, I give you permission to punch me as hard as you can.”

I didn’t know Paulie well, but I had the impression he wasn’t the kind of kid who blasphemed very often. Or cried very often, for that matter. I smiled back, and I could tell his emotional moment had passed.

“So what the hell is wrong with you? I didn’t have you figured for the type to go falling apart out here.”

“Mr. Farrell, I’ve got a really big problem.”

“First, stop calling me Mr. Farrell. You can call me Tom, or if you’re feeling formal and we’re on the ship, Captain would do fine. Now, I don’t know that I can help you, but you might as well tell me about it since it’s got you all worked up.”

Paulie let out a deep sigh. He locked eyes with me, all trace of tears already gone and said, “You ever heard of my brother Joe?”

Now, I hadn’t heard of Joe until I started asking around about Paulie, but as soon as I brought up the name Benevento, every waiter, drycleaner and fishmonger I talked to had gone on about Joe, Joe, Joe until I reminded them, politely, that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about Joe, it was Paulie who was begging for charity.

But people couldn’t shut up about this Joe: valedictorian of his high school and college classes, star soccer player who could have gone pro, but instead went to study with Vance Barclay, the gravitational physicist.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him. He was supposed to take some big prestigious job at MIT, and then he vanished.”

“He didn’t vanish, he just didn’t tell anyone where he was going.”

“I have a feeling he told you.”

“Well, yeah.” Paulie locked eyes with me. “He went to Ganymede.”

“Kid, I’ve gotta feeling you’re about to tell me you screwed me over. And I’m not going to be happy about it. So I’m going to get myself a whiskey, and I’m going to sit here and listen to you explain whatever game you’re playing.”

There wasn’t any point in beating myself up about it: I had broken my rule, I had taken on a charity case, and now the kid was going to screw me out of my money. It wasn’t the end of the world.

I poured myself a beautiful golden glass of Highland Park, and let the smokey barbeque smell caress my nostrils. I looked back at Paulie, his eyes seeming to waver between desperation and resolve, and I slugged back the entire glass, then poured myself another. This time I put a single ice cube in it and sat down.

“Mr. Farrell, I’m sorry, but...”

“What are you sorry for? Oh, let me guess: you don’t have the rest of my fee, your brother is in some kind of trouble, and you just need me to help. That about right?”

“More right than wrong,” he murmured.

“So I suppose you think, out of the goodness of my heart, that I’m going to take you to Ganymede instead of dropping you off on Ceres and making you work off your debt as a suit slave.”

“Please, Mr. Farrell, you can’t do that.”

“You know goddamn well I can. It’s well within my rights out here to collect the debt you owe me any way I can. And since you have no money, all your mining equipment, including your Climate Suit, belongs to me.”

“But my brother needs my help. And if we help him, then I can pay you, even more than I promised. You’d be rich, rich enough to buy this ship and then some.”

“You can’t really expect me to trust you when you already sold me on a bill of goods just to get your ass this far. At least if I rent you out as my suit slave, I’d get some sort of income out of the deal.”

Paulie put his head in his hands. No one, no matter how tough, is going to react well to the thought of being a suit slave. Imagine a life — potentially a very short one, if your new master cares more about his money than your safety — laboring on someone else’s claim, with every dime you make going to make payments on the suit that lets you breathe and move.

“Listen, Paulie, I’m not going to make you a suit slave. I’m not a barbarian.”

His eyes peeked over his long, thin fingers, fingers that looked as though they belonged on a pianist or a surgeon, not a miner. He looked expectant, and I hated to disappoint him. “But I am not going to Ganymede. That rock is twice as far out as I’m taking these other bastards, and there’s no way I’m going to waste that much time and fuel. You can either get off on Ceres when I make a pickup there and try to sweet-talk your way into a ride, or come back to Earth with me. But that’s all I’m going to do for you.”

Maybe it was too much to expect gratitude, but Paulie just glared at me like I had kicked his dog. Disgust competed with anger for the control of the muscles of his face, his hands clenched and unclenched, and he took deep, deliberate breaths.

Under the table, I unfastened the thigh pocket that held my stunstick, a tool I carried to deal with unruly drunks. I wondered if I would be able to zap him fast enough if he came over the table for me. But his disgust won, and his muscles released their built-up tension.

“Mr. Farrell, I know you’re not exactly a soft touch, but maybe you can try to understand that my brother is rotting in a cell on Ganymede, and after his show trial is going to end up a suit slave, and will probably have a very intentional accident before anyone can do squat to help him.”

“Hey, it’s a hell of a sob story, but like I said, I can’t trust you. And even if I did: what the hell are you going to do when you get there? Cry for the judge? Worked great on me.”

“I’ll think of something. I got this far.”

“And you’re not going any farther, at least not with me.”

Paulie Benevento got up, suggested that I engage in a sex act without a partner, and stormed out of the mess. I finished off my second whiskey and stood washing the glass when he came storming back into the room as fast as anyone had ever moved in the low gravity of my ship. I dropped the glass as I reached for the stunstick, but before I could pull it out he had me by the arm and was spinning me around, pressing me against the aluminum alloy cabinets. I closed my eyes and winced, waiting for the blade to slip between my ribs.

Only after at least twenty stabbing-free seconds did I open them, to see directly in front of my nose a large sapphire, held in an antique-looking platinum setting. You could tell the craftsman had worked hard to make the most of a metal that had been, before the great discoveries on the Rocks, exceptionally precious.

“This is my grandmother’s favorite ring.” Paulie’s eyes were so close to mine I could see the neurons firing behind them. “She wore it every day since before I was born, until the day I got on this ship. Alzheimer’s has been hard on her, but we think she understands what I’m trying to do. Anyway, she gave it to me so I could buy my brother’s freedom. I was trying to save it until I actually got to Ganymede, but it doesn’t do me any good if I can’t make it there. So take it, it’s yours if you’ll stop being a selfish bastard and finish the damned trip.”

I held his gaze for a long moment. I thought about telling him that the ring would cover, maybe, a quarter of the costs I would expend going out there. I thought about laughing at the shocking naivete of a boy who could think with no plan and a single gemstone he could defy the will of men so rich they could pay to have states renamed after them — and for the record I still call it South Dakota. I even thought about slipping out my stunstick, knocking him out with a full charge, and letting him wake up in a cabin locked from the outside.

But I did not do any of those things, because that ring belonged to Sophia Quadrini, and for Sophia Quadrini I would fly my ship to Ganymede.

“I don’t know if it will do you any good, kid, but hold onto that ring. You’re right, if you’re going to have any chance on Ganymede, you’ll need it.”

“Mr. Farrell... wait, what? Are you serious? Please tell me you’re serious.”

“Yeah, Paulie. I’m a sentimental fool, but I’m serious. Just don’t make me regret it. And like I said, Tom or Captain, but no Mister Farrell, okay?”

Nine days later, we dropped off the prospectors on Fortuna, which despite the name was likely to bring them little more than some near-worthless siderite deposits. They took any positive energy off the ship with them, and Paulie, my first mate Jalen and I settled into a grumpy routine.

Jalen and I rarely had to speak, because we alternated navigation duty, which was basically sitting in command and making sure we were still going straight. In our brief check-ins between shifts, he made it clear, without ever quite slipping into insubordination, that he thought it was a damned fool waste of time to be rocketing to Ganymede for one kid.

Paulie was a ghost. Occasionally, as I was choking down food in the mess, I looked up to see him with a handful of food, already halfway back to his room. Maybe he was worried that any contact between us could only cause me to change my mind. But there was nothing he could say that would change the debt I owed to Sophia Quadrini, a debt that could be partially repaid by flying a desperate kid to Ganymede.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2011 by Dan Reed

Home Page