Here are the first three chapters of my new novel, Ships of My Fathers.
Ships of My Fathers
“You know those times when everything works out exactly how you planned? Yeah, me neither.” — Malcolm Fletcher
Michael Fletcher lost both of his fathers before he ever found out there had been two of them. He was present for both deaths, but he could only remember the second one. Discovering what had happened to his first father was neither simple nor painless.
On the day he lost his second father, however, he and Malcolm were loading cargo into Sophie’s Grace. If they had been at a regular port, they would have been watching from the sidelines as the local cargo handlers did it, but the Shorthorn transfer station was far from a regular port. Instead, they were floating outside the ship, maneuvering the cargo through the vacuum of space.
“Skipper, down zero two, starboard one three,” came the call from Isaac. He was officially the ship’s first mate and was monitoring the bulky load’s zero-gee maneuver from within the cargo bay. Michael liked to think of himself as the first mate, but at seventeen, he was not yet old enough to qualify for the rating.
“Got it,” Malcolm replied, firing a few jets on the loader. “Down zero two, starboard one three.” Malcolm Fletcher was the captain and owner of Sophie’s Grace, but he often got his hands dirty on these runs. “If you want the job done right,” he had told Michael again and again, “don’t hire it out.”
Michael was floating about fifty meters aft watching his father drive the loader. He had already prepositioned the final array behind him with the backup loader, but he was at loose ends now while his father loaded this one. The work was trickier than usual, since these cargoes were loose pallets bundled together by cables instead of the standard ten-meter shipping containers.
This kind of load was not uncommon out beyond the borders of the Hudson Confederacy, and the Shorthorn transfer station was typical as well. It was less of an outpost than a collection of floating boxes in orbit around an empty moon. Someone had tried to terraform the moon a century before, reportedly drawn to the impressive view of the ringed gas giant above them, but the effort fell apart back in the 3350’s. Since then, the orbital staging area had become a useful transfer point for some of the less orthodox shippers working in the border region. They were not technically smuggling anything illegal. They were simply dodging a number of tariffs and port fees.
“Overshot starboard, Skipper, port zero four.”
Michael watched with a wry smile. Dad had ragged on him their last time through for his own sloppy handling of the loader. Today he had hit the mark straight on four times in a row while Dad had missed on two of them so far. “Careful, Skip,” he chided, “or you’re going to have to back it out.” He could rag back on him a little, but he always called him Skip or Skipper in front of the rest of the crew, never Dad. It was a casual little ship, but it was still a ship.
“Fat chance, boy,” Malcolm replied. “I’ve got this one.”
“Skipper, you’re still drifting starboard, and you’re getting out of alignment. Another half-meter and you’ll miss the rail guides.”
Michael used his suit jets to move off to starboard so he could get a better look himself, but as he did, he caught a glance of what his father could not see. The loader was not much more than an open-framed cage around the driver, with grapplers and thrusters all around, but it did keep the driver facing forward. One of those thrusters behind Malcolm was firing, a little cloud jetting out at random intervals. “I see your problem, Skip. Your port thruster is still firing.”
Malcolm twisted in the loader’s harness to see the thrusters arrayed behind him. “Dammit, I thought we got this fixed back on Taschin.”
“We did,” Michael protested. “They told me it was solid.”
“Skipper,” Isaac called again, “you’re out of the lane now.”
“I know,” he replied, his voice tense over the radio. “I’m shutting it down. Isaac, can you get the lift arm in there to brace me?”
There was a hesitation. “Yeah, but it’s going to be close.”
Michael watched the cargo array continue drifting to starboard, rotating as it went. Inside, Isaac would be moving their internal lifter out to the end of the bay to stop the pallet array from crashing into the side of the bay doors. “Hurry, Isaac,” Michael called. “That thruster is still going.”
“I see it,” his father answered. “I’m trying to reach the shut-off valve.” Michael could see him straining against the harness, stretching out his left arm towards the loader’s frame and that sputtering thruster.
“I can get to it,” Michael called, already firing his suit jets to come up behind the loader’s frame.
“No, stay clear.”
“No, really Skip, I can come in clear of the thruster and still reach that valve.”
“Stay clear, son,” his father repeated. “That’s an order.”
Arguments with Dad took three forms. Arguments over chores earned him scut work. Arguments over his studies cost him access to the entertainment library. Then came arguments over orders. The one time he had disobeyed a direct order had cost him port liberty for eight months.
Michael adjusted his trajectory to swing up above the ship, well clear of Malcolm and the loader. “Aye, sir.”
“Gotcha!” Isaac cheered. The cargo lift arm grabbed onto the end of the pallet array.
“Good work, Isaac,” Malcolm replied, but the crisis was not over. The misfiring loader continued to push at one end of the pallet array, only adding to the momentum of the free end. With one end locked down, the bundle started to bend, crushing some of the individual crates on one side while pulling hard on the cables on the other side.
All but one of them held.
The one that snapped swung out from the left side, wrapped around the port side of the loader’s frame, and the final two meters of it whipped through the loader’s open frame and slashed against Malcolm’s leg.
“Oh, Christ fuck me!” he cried out.
“Dad!” Michael shouted into his microphone.
“What happened?” was all Isaac could say.
Orders or no orders, Michael started jetting in. He could see a mist of blood and air escaping from his father’s left leg. The end of the cable was still embedded into the suit. “He’s venting… Dad, you’re venting!”
“Ugh, yeah…” he replied, his voice ragged. “We’ve got to… I’m releasing harness.”
Michael jetted in from the right, well clear of the errant thruster, and he finally got a good look at Malcolm’s injury. “The cable’s still in your leg. Should I pull it out?”
“Gah… no. Not here. Get the cutter.”
Michael climbed around the loader’s frame to the toolbox. A small laser cutter was clipped on at the bottom. “Got it!”
“I’m coming out.” It was Isaac’s voice over the radio.
Michael climbed back through to the left side, still wary of the thruster, and started in on the cable.
“No,” Malcolm replied, panting. “You’ll never get through the cargo bay.” He paused, breathing hard as he cranked up his oxygen. “We’ll go in… dorsal.”
The cable was not very thick, no more than a centimeter, but it was strong. “Just a few more seconds, Dad.” He glanced back to his father, seeing him slowly disentangle himself from the loader’s harness.
The cable snapped free and swung back around to the outside of the loader again, missing Michael’s helmet by a hand’s width. He moved back to his father who was floating free within the loader’s frame.
Inside the helmet, Malcolm nodded silently.
“What’s going on out there?”
Michael grabbed at his father and kicked free of the loader’s frame. “I’ve got… the skipper. He’s venting and bleeding from his leg. We’re headed to the dorsal airlock. Open it for us and stand by the other side with the med pack.”
Michael jetted back above Sophie, careening side to side as his father’s weight threw off his center of gravity. “We’re almost there, Dad.”
“Too late,” he said.
“Keep your air up, Dad. You’re going to make it.”
“Fuck… not the air.”
The airlock was close ahead, gaping open, a two-meter-wide target. Michael pushed his feet out and hit the boot thrusters again, skewing them down into it. “We’re in!” he called out.
The door closed above them, first the iris and then the sliding hatch.
“Dad, we’re in, just hang on.”
“I’m sorry, Michael.”
“Cycle the damn lock!”
“I am!” It was Henry Bartz, the systems engineer. “Valves wide open.”
Michael looked down at his father’s face once more, separated by their two visors. “Dad, hang on!”
“I always meant to tell you… I’m so sorry, son. Forgive me.”
“Cycle the God damned lock!”
But Malcolm was already gone.
Michael sat in the med bay next to his father’s body. The mad rush from the airlock had been a futile formality. By the time they cut the suit away from his leg, it was clear what had killed him. The cable’s tip had sliced into his hamstring, wrapped around the bone, and severed the deep femoral artery. Nothing short of a trauma surgeon could have saved him, even if they could have gotten him there in mere moments. But the Sophie’s Grace was an independent freighter, crewed by seven. The closest trauma surgeon was light years away.
Michael had cleaned the wound, but Isaac had insisted he leave the cable inside. There might be an autopsy at some point, so it was best to disturb as little as possible. The body remained uncovered, and Michael sat there, still staring at the wound, replaying the accident in his mind over and over.
He could have come in and turned off the thruster.
He should have, orders or not.
Port liberty be damned, he should have come in and turned off that thruster.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder. It was Isaac.
“We’re secure now. Henry and I got the rest of the load in, and we’re sealed up.”
“I’m sorry about your father. He was a good skipper.”
“I should have—”
“No,” Isaac cut him off. “No should haves. Not today. You’ll have years of them down the road, but not today.”
“Today we say goodbye to your father, and then we head back in to Taschin.”
Michael finally turned from the body to look at Isaac. “Taschin? We just left there. Nasar is the next stop.”
Isaac pulled his hand back and faced Michael squarely. “I’m afraid not, Michael. Taschin is the closest Confederate port, and we have to report your father’s death.”
Michael stood. “We’re going to put him in storage, right?”
“Yes. Henry has a cold bay waiting for us.”
“Then Dad can wait. He promised this cargo to someone on Nasar, and we’re going to follow the skipper’s orders.”
Isaac shook his head. “He’s not the skipper anymore, Michael.”
Michael set his jaw. “Ok, then I say so. My father made a promise.”
“It’s not up to you,” Isaac told him. “Look, you and the skipper ran a good ship, and between you and me, you made a good first officer, the best he could have hoped for. But on paper, you’re not the first officer.”
“That’s only because I’m too young to take the licensing exam.”
“I know, and I know you’re going to ace it next year, but seventeen is not eighteen, and I’m on the books as the first officer. You know that.”
Michael turned back to face the body again. “Yeah, I know.”
“And you know the regulations, too. We may work out here on the border, but we’re a Confederate flagged ship, and that means Confederate regs.”
Michael nodded. Dad had drilled him on the regulations every week.
“I know you want to do the right thing here, but if we don’t go back into Taschin, especially if something else were to happen between now and then, I’d lose my license, maybe even face charges.”
His shoulders sagged as he leaned in against the table. His father’s skin was pale and still. “You’re right, I know.”
“Then Taschin it is?” Isaac asked.
Michael nodded. “Taschin it is.”
“You got any family there? I know your mom’s been gone a while.”
“Since I was a baby,” he replied, only then taking it in. He was an orphan.
“Anyone else? Maybe back on Arvin?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, we’ll see when we get there.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder again. “Do you want me and Henry to take care of the body?”
He shook his head. “No, I’ll do it. He was my father, after all.”
“Some goodbyes are really good riddance. It’s the others that are hard.” — Malcolm Fletcher
Michael sat next to Isaac as the Taschin port magistrate read over the files in his office. They had brought video of the accident from the rear cargo monitors, but he had not bothered to look at it. The rest of the crew was still back at the ship seeing to the offload of cargo and waiting to hand over the body to the authorities.
“Very regrettable,” the magistrate said. He was graying and peered down at his reader through half-rim spectacles. “Though I find no fault in any of the crew or officers, you might have a case to make against the loader repair company… Wall-to-Sky, oh, that’s here isn’t it? Ah yes…”
“So you find no irregularities, sir?” Isaac asked.
He looked up to face them again. “No, everything looks by the book. I admit I’ve never particularly cared for the use of these border transfer points, but this kind of accident could have happened in any orbital facility, and I don’t know if we’d have any better results. Barring any push back from the coroner, I’ll mark this closed tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, sir,” Isaac replied, “but there’s also the issue of the ship ownership.”
“Oh? Was Captain Fletcher also the owner?”
“Yes,” Michael spoke up. “Well, actually, he always said it belonged to the two of us, him and me.”
He looked back down at the file. “Ah, you must be the son, Michael.”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“I’m sorry about your father.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The magistrate paged through a few files and followed a link. “It looks as though you’re probably correct. Sophie’s Grace’s owner is listed as the Fletcher Trust, an owner-share cooperative with Malcolm Fletcher as the executive agent. You’d have to look up the bylaws and structure to see how the ownership flows in the event of his death, but that’s getting outside of my jurisdiction. My mandate is strictly to enforce the Confederacy’s shipping regulations, and this is getting more into property law. Do you have a local lawyer to look into this?”
Michael hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I mean Dad may have had one, but I don’t know who that would be.”
The magistrate took off his spectacles and looked back and forth between Isaac and Michael before focusing on the boy. “How old are you, Mr. Fletcher?”
“Why do you ask?”
He sighed. “It’s a matter of public record, I’m sure. Are you going to make me look it up?”
“No, sir. I’ll be eighteen next year.”
“Next year, eh?”
He frowned. “Well, I’m sorry to say that the law does not care how old you are next year. It only matters how old you are now, and at seventeen you’re still not considered a legal adult. I gather from the fact that it’s the Fletcher Trust rather than the Fletcher joint property that your mother is no longer in the picture. Is that correct?”
Michael shook his head.
“I believe, sir,” Isaac offered, “that she died quite some time ago, before Captain Fletcher purchased the Sophie. He told me he named the ship after her.”
“Sophia,” Michael corrected. “Sophia Grace Fletcher.” If they were going to talk about her that way, they could at least get her name right. “She died during the Caspian rebellion, killed in a pirate attack before I was one, and now I’ve lost my dad at seventeen.” He tried to fake a smile but failed. “So what, are you planning to lock me up in some orphanage for the next nine months?”
“It won’t be me, Michael,” the magistrate replied, “but I do feel I have to make a few calls on your behalf. I’m sure someone from the local child services or perhaps even the Captains’ Guild can appoint a lawyer for you. They won’t be able to take over your guardianship, but—”
“My guardianship?” Michael asked with a firm shake of his head. “No offense, sir, but I’m not some little kid who wandered into port. I’ve been on freighters my whole life, working as crew since I was a kid. I know how to take care of myself.”
The magistrate leaned back. “Look, Mr. Fletcher, I am sorry for your loss, and I’m sure you could go on to be a fine owner and captain yourself, but if you are as old a hand as you say you are, then you know the regulations as well as I do. You’re not going to captain that ship until you pass your exams, and the Guild will never offer them to someone your age.”
“I could hire a captain,” Michael insisted.
“Not on your own you can’t,” the magistrate replied. “You’re too young to enter into a legally binding contract, and no captain is going to hire on without it.”
Michael looked to Isaac for support, but Isaac merely shook his head. “He’s right, Michael.”
“It’s not so bad, boy,” the magistrate went on. “It’s only nine months. It’ll take a while to sort out the ownership transfer anyway. Take some time, grieve for your father, and figure out what you want to do with your life. From the sounds of it, you’ve been working since you got out of diapers. I think you’ve earned a little time off.”
Michael set his duffel down on the bed as Isaac rolled the trunk into the corner.
“That should do it,” Isaac said. “I’ve got my stuff in the other room.”
They had moved Sophie’s Grace into a long-term storage bay on the outskirts of the port. The Port Authority team had then sealed it with a double-keyed lock. No one was getting back in without Michael’s authorization, but he could not get back in either, not without an order from the Port Authority.
Packing had been hard, but he kept telling himself it was not forever. He brought the bulk of his civilian clothes along with a couple of uniforms, both functional and official. He copied all his files and most of the entertainment library from the ship’s computer but had left quite a few personal belongings behind. This was temporary, after all.
His father’s quarters had remained untouched with two exceptions. Michael had taken his father’s utility knife and an old portrait of his mother. Sophia was in a blue-gray ship uniform, curled up against a circular viewport. A nebula dominated the star field beyond her in the view, and she was looking out into the void with a hint of a playful smile on her face. Father had always told him that the picture was taken shortly after she found out she was pregnant with him. It was the only picture his father had kept of her.
On ship, the picture had been mounted to the wall. After all, everything on ship was glued down, screwed in, or locked into a groove. There was no easy way to do that in the hotel room, so he settled on putting it on top of the dresser, leaned against the wall. It threatened to slip a bit, so he braced the bottom of the frame with a rolled up towel. It was not the most picturesque arrangement, but it would do.
Isaac stuck his head back through the door. “I’m all set, and the rest of the crew is waiting for us down at the Lucky Black. You ready?”
“I guess, though I’ve never been to a wake before.”
“It’s easy enough. Drink until you can only remember the good, and then drink some more.”
The Lucky Black was better than the average spacer bar in that the bathrooms were as clean as most engine rooms, which as any engineer will tell you does not say much. It lay in the central crossroads section of the port, between the actual docks, the warehouses, and the administrative district. Even then, it was hard to find, tucked back off the main roads and behind the more touristy restaurants.
The rest of the crew was there, all four of them, but that was not so surprising. Where else would they be? What was surprising to Michael was how many familiar faces there were beyond the crew. Captain Wallace and most the crew of the Johnny Rose were there, already toasting to his father before he arrived.
Crews from seven other freighters trickled in over the next hour, though the captain of the Quincy Quack sent only his first officer and his regards. “It’s some snafu over livestock quarantine,” the officer had explained. “You know how it goes.”
Michael nodded knowingly but only guessed at the details. Dad had never transported livestock, but he still appreciated being told of the problem with candor. Everyone there was treating him like a fellow spacer, not like a kid who had just lost his father.
The drinks kept flowing as various crewmembers took turns buying a round. Michael did his best to pace himself, but he was getting fairly wobbly. Dad had started teaching him to drink two years before, telling him that if he was going to be a spacer, he had to learn to handle his liquor. He tried to keep up the routine he had learned, buffering each drink with a handful of whatever the local snack was, along with the occasional drink of water. It worked for a while, but before long he had fallen behind and started losing track of how many it had been.
At one point, he found himself leaning against the bar, listening to Isaac and Captain Wallace swap stories about his father’s love for local chili recipes, when a uniformed officer plopped down on the seat next to him. It was the uniform of the Confederate Navy, and the various tags identified him as Lt. Commander Montgomery Wheaton of the CFS Alvarez.
“Monty,” he said, extending his hand.
“Michael,” he replied, trying to take it, but then realized he had to switch his glass over to his left hand.
“Sorry to hear about your skipper. Your dad, right?”
Michael nodded. Monty was the first person to bring it up so far.
“Good man. Saved my ass once, back in the war.”
Michael shook his head. “Dad was never in the service.”
Monty nodded and downed his own shot. “Yeah, I know.”
Monty put his hand on Michael’s shoulder and gave it a good squeeze. “Don’t believe all the stories, boy. He was as solid as they come.”
“Stories?” Michael did not know what stories he was talking about, but he did know that the alcohol was making it hard to remember.
“But I guess I owe you one now, so if you ever need a favor, look me up.”
But the very next moment Isaac turned around and grabbed at Michael. “Hey, what was that um, that spice Skip picked up back on Ringway? You know, the blue one with the bubbles?”
Michael tried to switch gears but only managed to mumble, “No idea.”
When he turned back around, Monty was gone.
Hours later, people slipped out in twos and threes, always shaking his hand on the way out. The number of “if you ever need anything” offers piled up into one long blur of favors never to be collected. By midnight, it was down to just the Sophie crew. Isaac funneled them into a booth while Wendy Sheers and Liam Campbell brought over the final round.
They all gathered around and looked to him to make the last toast. It had been his father, but to them Malcolm Fletcher had been their captain, and Michael knew enough to know he had been a good one. “To Skipper,” he said and raised his glass. Several clinks later, he downed it in one gulp.
“So what now?” Wendy asked. She was their senior drive engineer and a damn good one. She had come on seven months earlier and had managed a portside refit without putting Sophie into an orbital dry dock.
Isaac gave Michael a moment but then answered for him. “Well, I think we’ve definitely got something of a wait on our hands.”
Michael shook his head. After seeing so many other spacers from other ships at the wake, he knew the score. “It’s a wait, but it’s probably too long for any of you to be beached. I haven’t talked to the lawyers yet, but the Sophie and I are stuck here for a while, maybe as long as nine months.”
Henry Bartz shrugged. “Nine months isn’t so bad. I bet you can upgrade the scrubbers while you’re here.” Henry had been the systems engineer for the last year and a half and had complained about the environmental systems the entire time. They were far too fragile for his taste.
“But for the rest of us, yeah, nine months is a long time,” Wendy replied.
James Nellis raised a finger. He was the steward and had only been on board for five months. “Well, I heard the Johnny Rose has room for a cook, and with all due respect to Skipper, I’m thinking about it.”
“You should take it,” Isaac said. “Captain Wallace runs a good ship.”
Captain Wallace indeed, Michael thought. Coming to his father’s wake and hiring off his crew members. But it was true. From everything his father had said, Wallace ran a good ship. “Yeah,” Michael heard himself saying. “The Johnny Rose is a fine berth. You should get it if you can.”
The nods around the circle came one by one, so Michael prompted them. “Anyone else? I know you’ve got to work, and there’s no point in hanging around playing nursemaid to me.”
Wendy spoke up. “Takasumi Lines has a posting for an engineer. I’d have to play catch-up with whatever ship they post me to, but it’s available today.”
“You’d go corporate?” Liam asked. He had been their prime shift navigator for two years and never had a kind word for the larger shipping lines. Malcolm had hinted at some bad blood between Liam and one of the larger shipping lines, but he had never given the details.
She shrugged. “Hey, they’re offering five-year contracts. Good money, too. You should check it out.”
“No thanks,” Liam replied. “Besides, with all my time logged past the border, I’ll have no trouble finding a berth from here.”
“Maybe for you,” Henry said, “but I think Wendy’s onto a good thing. Did you see anything for systems?”
She nodded. “Two of them, one general and one mechanical specialist.”
Isaac gave him a nudge in the ribs. “Sounds like that mechanic spot might be your ticket out of the sludge tanks.”
Henry nodded. “Yeah, it would.”
“What about you, Isaac?” Michael asked. Isaac had been there longer than any of the others, a full four years, but even that was a little short compared to other family ships he knew. Malcolm had been a good skipper, but he had also been a hard skipper.
The older man looked at him with a hint of sadness. “I don’t think I’m ready to ship off quite yet. I’m no nursemaid, but I figure I should keep my eye on Skipper’s boy at least a little longer.”
They wrapped it up with a heartfelt round of handshakes, though Wendy had given him a hug that lasted a lot longer than Michael was expecting. They said their goodbyes at the door, and Michael and Isaac staggered to an auto-pod for the ride back to their hotel.
The message light was blinking when they got to the room, so Isaac hit it.
“Mr. Fletcher, this is Charles Hollings from Walters and Merrimack. The local court has appointed me as your representative for the dissolution of your father’s estate as well as the advocate for your minority status. I have set up a meeting for ten tomorrow morning at my office,” he said and rattled off the address. “Please be there.”
Isaac turned back to face Michael. “Well, that was quick.”
The room began to turn, and Michael stumbled towards the toilet to throw up. He did not make it in time.
“It’s not so much that I lied. It’s more that I simply hadn’t gotten around to telling her the truth yet.” — Malcolm Fletcher
Michael sat in the reception lounge of Walters and Merrimack. It was high in one of the super towers downtown, well west of the port, but he could almost make out the control tower through the low morning haze. At the very least, he could see the occasional glint of a ship punching up through the fog, but he tried not to look too much. Even through the shaded glass of the office building, the glare of the sun made his head throb.
He had worn his dress uniform for the meeting. It was as close to a suit as he had, and he always thought he looked older in uniform than in his civvies. He knew his clothes were not going to fool the lawyer about his age, but he hoped it would at least impart some sense of maturity. Short of a Captain’s star, these non-military uniforms rarely showed any rank, but it did show him as a working member of the crew rather than some ship-schooled passenger.
Isaac had offered to come along, but Michael had insisted he go alone. “I’m hoping to convince this guy I don’t need much supervision,” he had said. “Showing up with a chaperone doesn’t exactly help.” Isaac had protested, but in the end he had stayed back at the hotel suite.
At five after ten, Charles Hollings emerged from the back offices. “Ah, Mr. Fletcher, come this way.” He wore a formal suit with the double-breasted vest that was becoming fashionable on colder worlds. It had the effect of making Hollings look broader than he actually was. Michael had tried one once, but its bagginess only accented how thin he was.
He followed Hollings into his office and sat opposite the desk while Hollings opened the files on his desk screen. “First of all,” he said, “let me offer my condolences for your loss. I never met Captain Fletcher, but from what I have read, he was a fine man.”
Michael sighed. He still was not used to hearing about his father in the past tense, but at least he had stifled the urge to correct people. “Thank you.”
“I see you came alone. Are you staying with anyone?”
He tried to sit a little straighter without making it look like he was puffing out his chest. “I asked my first officer to stay in port while we sort out the details on the ship ownership.” It was sort of true, but phrasing it that way made Michael sound far more like the responsible party.
“I see, well, we can get to the guardianship in a moment. The ship ownership should be fairly simple.” He swept his hands across the desk screen and the virtual papers shuffled around. “I see that Sophie’s Grace is held by the Fletcher Trust. I read through the formation and bylaw documents yesterday afternoon, and if we wait until next year, the transfer should be a straightforward matter. We could proceed now if you wish, but the complexity would still add significant delay.”
Michael tried to follow the language, but much of it turned to mush in his aching head. “What’s the delay?”
“Well, as I said, if we wait until your eighteenth birthday, the transfer is not much more than a simple filing with the port registry. The bylaws of the trust are clear that on the death of Malcolm Fletcher, Michael Fletcher becomes the executive trustee, and in that role, you can become the primary signatory for all the ship’s business. However, there is a clause for taking care of things if the death occurred before your majority, which it has. If you want the ship to continue to operate, you and I will have to select an executive trustee to act for you, but I don’t recommend it.”
“Well, it’s the short timeframe. For ship trusts, the executive trustee is typically someone with a captain’s license and a background in law. We would have to select one, convince him to hire on, and then there are a few hearings and a filing to be sent to the sector registry offices. When it’s all said and done, we’re probably looking at three to six months before you would be operational. But the question is for how long? While you could keep the hired captain on, his role of executive trustee would evaporate after a few short months. I think we’d be very challenged to find someone willing to take it on for such a limited duration.”
Michael thought it about for a moment. It would go much more smoothly if only Isaac could pass the Captain’s exam, but he always insisted he did not have the engineering skills to pass. In truth, he was more of a glorified navigator than a true first officer, but then navigation had always been a mathematical mystery to Michael. “I’m not so sure,” he said finally. “I do have a lot of friends in the shipping business. I might be able to convince one of them.”
“To give up their own vessel or posting to take yours on for a few months? I can’t speak to the quality of the friendship, but I would be truly surprised to hear of someone with the necessary background who would make that kind of decision.”
Michael shrugged it off. “Well, I may ask around, but for now let’s assume that I’ll be clear in nine months.”
“That may be the best attitude. Your luck may surprise me after all, but I wanted you to know what you were up against.”
“So Sophie will sit there collecting dust in that sealed dock in the meantime. Who pays for that?”
The lawyer sighed. “Well, regrettably the storage fees accrue against you and the trust, but they aren’t as much as you might think. I imagine Captain Fletcher’s accounts would be sufficient, but failing that, I understand there is a possible litigation against one Wall-to-Sky repair facility here on Taschin?”
Michael shook his head at the thought of the accident, watching that errant thruster again in his head. At a trial there would be the video, cross-examinations, and questions of why he had not gone into help his father. Help his father like he should have. Damn.
“You’d rather avoid the trial?”
Michael looked up. “How did you know?”
“It’s not uncommon. I’m not going to push it on you, and I imagine they would be eager to settle out of court. It wouldn’t be enough to retire on, certainly, but it would easily cover your living expenses for the upcoming year along with any port fees that accrue. I could start the process if you’d like.”
He nodded and looked out the window beyond Hollings. This one did not face the port, but north to the snow-capped mountains instead. It was not nearly as bright, so his head did not throb as much. “I guess the question is, what will I be doing for the next nine months?”
“Then let’s move on to the matter of your guardianship.”
Michael shook his head to clear it and focused on Hollings. “Yeah, I had a thought on that. I get along pretty well with my first officer, Isaac Rubin. He agreed to stick around for at least a while. I imagine I could hire him on to fulfill whatever guardian requirements there are for the next few months.”
Hollings shifted the virtual pages around again. “With due respect, Mr. Fletcher, I don’t think the court would be satisfied with that kind of arrangement. Traditionally the guardian holds authority over the child. He is not an employee of the child.”
Michael waved his hands to cut him short. “Semantics aside, he’s a good guy, and he’s looked out for me before at other ports.”
Hollings frowned briefly before masking it. “Certainly, the court is likely to look favorably upon his present assistance and will not press for foster placement, but I did perform a next-of-kin search, and without overriding factors, the living family takes precedence. In fact, I already took the liberty of sending notice to your uncle Hans, but with transit time and not knowing where he is on his own shipping route—”
“Wait, Uncle Hans? I don’t have any Uncle Hans.” He blinked twice and tried to focus on the virtual pages before Hollings. “For that matter, I don’t have any uncles. Mom was an only child, and Dad’s little sister died when she was my age.”
Hollings referred back to the pages on the desk screen. “Oh, sorry, I meant Hans Schneider, the older brother of your birth father Peter.”
“Your birth father,” he replied, still reading the pages, “Peter Frederick Schneider.”
“Birth father? What are you talking about? My father was Malcolm Fletcher.”
Hollings looked up and paused. “Oh, dear Lord, I am so sorry. I thought you knew.”
The room was threatening to spin. “Knew what?”
“Uh, perhaps we should take a moment. Can I get you something to drink?” He reached for the intercom. “Jenny, could you fetch Sarah for me?”
Michael leaned forward and grabbed hold of the edge of the desk. “Fuck the drink. You thought I knew what?”
Hollings licked his lips and swallowed. “I’m so sorry you have to find out this way, Michael, but you were adopted. Your parents, Sophia and Peter Schneider, died in 3381 on board the Kaiser’s Folly. Malcolm Fletcher filed for adoption two weeks later. I have the paperwork right here.”
Virtual pages fluttered across the desk screen towards Michael. He tried to read them, but his vision blurred. “No,” he said. “There must be some mistake. Mom and Dad were married. She died on our old ship, the Hammerhead.”
His memory of it was vivid, the day Dad showed him where it happened. It was the day after his seventh birthday when he had asked. They had gone back to the starboard cargo access, and Dad had pointed to the welds where the hull had blown out. “Fucking pirates,” he had told him. “Never forget that, Mikey, and never let them get away with it.”
He looked back up at Hollings. “The papers aren’t true. They can’t be.”
Hollings sat there a moment with his jaw hanging. “I’m, uh, look Michael, I wasn’t there. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what happened or who did what. I only have the records, and that’s all I have to work with.”
Michael staggered to his feet. “Well, the records are wrong, and anyone who tells you different… well, they’re lying. Malcolm Fletcher was my father, and Sophia Fletcher was his wife. You understand?”
“Perhaps another one of my associates could explain…”
“No, there’s no explanation. I know what I know,” he said, waving his hand across the virtual pages, “and all of this is bullshit.”
The door opened behind him. “Charles? Jenny said you needed me.”
Michael did not bother to look at her, keeping his gaze locked on Hollings instead. “Yeah, he needs help getting his facts straight.”
“Michael, I don’t know…”
Michael stood straight. “Yeah, you don’t know shit.” He stormed to the door, the startled Sarah stepping back and clenching a pad to her chest. He paused in the doorway and looked back at Hollings. “You ask around, and you’ll hear the truth. Call me when you get your records squared away, and we can talk about my real father, Malcolm Fletcher.”
Michael did not bother getting an autopod back to the port. He just ran. He ran for almost three kilometers before he even started to pay attention to his direction. He ran until he was winded, then he walked, and then as the confusion and anger built up, he ran some more. He arrived back at the hotel suite in mid-afternoon, hungry and dehydrated, but too exhausted to realize either.
“Michael!” Isaac called as soon as he came in. “Where have you been?”
“That bastard… bastard, ha, that’s rich. That stupid lawyer Hollings doesn’t even know who my parents are.” He walked around in a circle before collapsing onto the sofa. “We’ve gotta get that magistrate to pick someone else.”
Isaac pulled up a chair on the other side of the coffee table. “Yeah, he called me, said something about you being adopted.”
Michael waved a hand in dismissal. “Yeah, can you believe the guy? His paperwork is totally fucked.”
Isaac shrugged. “Well, I have to say, it makes a lot of sense.”
Michael paused and scrutinized Isaac for a moment. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, I’ve known for a while Malcolm wasn’t your dad. I mean, not biologically.”
Michael sat up again. “What the hell? Did Dad tell you something?”
“No, of course not. I didn’t think it was my place to ask either.”
“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about either, Isaac.”
Isaac stared at him a moment and looked away. “It was the eyes, Michael. That’s what tipped me off at first.” He looked back to face him. “Yours are as blue as the Lateran oceans, but Malcolm’s were brown so dark, almost black.”
Michael shook his head. “Dad always said I got Mom’s eyes, and that’s one of those recessive traits, so that doesn’t mean shit.”
“I know,” he replied, nodding. “But it got me to thinking, so I pulled up the med files and checked your blood types.”
Michael fidgeted. “So?”
“So what’s your blood type?”
“I’m type O.”
“Yeah, type O-positive. And Malcolm?”
Michael looked away, trying to remember. “He’s A… no, AB.”
“That’s right, AB-negative.”
“So, that’s another one of those recessive things. You’re still full of it.”
Isaac shook his head. “You’re right. It is one of those recessive things, but not like that. An AB parent can’t have an O child. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Michael started fidgeting in his seat, trying to escape further back through the sofa. “No, Isaac. You’ve got that wrong. It’s gotta be the other way. An O can’t have an AB, something like that.”
Isaac frowned. “I’m sorry, Michael. I wasn’t sure at the time, but I looked it up in the medical texts — even asked a doctor at my physical last spring.”
Michael got up and paced across the room to the kitchenette. He started the water running. He ran a wet hand across his face and through his short hair.
“Hey, the adoption is actually a good thing,” Isaac continued. “I never really thought about it that way before. I had always thought maybe your mom… well, you know.”
Michael turned off the water. “My mom what?”
“Sorry man, I know it’s not my business.”
“What?” Michael insisted.
“I’ve seen the picture, Michael. A fine looking woman like that? I figured maybe she’d had something on the side.”
“Fuck you, Isaac! That’s my mother you’re talking about, not one of Dad’s portside girls.”
Isaac put up his hands and backed up a step. “No, Michael, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that it must not have been that, you know, with the adoption and all. I’m sure she was a good woman… a good mother.”
Michael headed back out the door. “Fuck you, Isaac, and fuck Hollings too. You’re both full of shit!”
Michael wanted to keep running, but he was exhausted. Instead, he wandered the port on foot, fuming and kicking at whatever loose debris he came across. He started getting sleepy around sunset. He knew he must be hungry since he had not had anything to eat since a light breakfast long ago, but he no longer cared.
He found himself in front of Sophie’s locked hanger bay. He tried to twist the locking clip, but it held fast. He sat down on the ground, leaned into the corner of the door frame, and fell asleep.
Around midnight he was woken by a security guard. She had stayed in her little pod and was shining a small spotlight at him. “Hey!” came the amplified voice. “You can’t sleep here. Move along.”
Michael nodded and got up. His legs were stiff, his stomach rumbling and his head pounding. The sun-baked pavement had long ago given up its warmth and had been sucking the heat back out of him. He buttoned up his uniform jacket, and gave a perfunctory salute towards the spotlight and started walking back towards the center of the port. The guard trailed him for a minute but eventually peeled off onto another cross street.
At night, this part of the port was virtually deserted. He could hear the shifting whine of an electric motor echoing off the hangar walls, but he saw no one. The truth was the security guard might have saved his life. Taschin was not the most dangerous port by far, but he would have been easy prey for any manner of portside predators.
He needed to eat, drink, and get some rest, but he refused to go back to the hotel suite, not after what Isaac had said. Fucking disrespectful.
A different hotel would be his best option, but if Isaac or Hollings had notified the authorities, then they could track him by his bank card. Michael fished out his wallet as he walked. A fifty and two tens. That was not going to last long. His stomach rumbled again. First he would eat. Then he would worry about the money.
The late night district was in full swing, but he steered clear of the nicer places. They would use up too much of his money, and they might look at him a little too closely, so he headed further back on some of the side streets. He thought about the Lucky Black but knew better. That would be one of the first places Isaac would have looked, so the bartender was no doubt keeping an eye out for him.
Then he remembered a late night with Dad and a little twenty-six-hour diner behind the Far Meridian. Only one booth was occupied, with two more people eating at the counter. The dinner crowd was long since gone and the bar-closing throngs would not descend for another two or three hours. More than anything, he wanted another shot at breakfast, so he sat at the counter and ordered a large platter of eggs and sausage. The local flavor was a spicy mix with a lot of cheese. When he finished, he found he was still hungry, so he ordered another. After that, he finished off with a couple of sides and got the bill: twenty-six.
He broke the fifty and looked at the meager leftovers in his wallet. “Do you have any bank access here?”
“Around the side,” the waitress told him, “next to the Meridian entrance.”
He wandered outside, his full belly urging him towards sleep, but he found the bank machine. Dad had kept accounts at all his regular ports, and Michael was used to drawing his portside allowance this way.
He waved his chit over the reader, pressed his thumb, and then traced out his pass code shape, an asymmetric five-pointed star with four of the outlying points connected by separate downward strokes. Dad had helped him design it. “Never use a pass code with only one finger trace,” he had always said. “Always add some touches.”
He requested six hundred. It was the maximum he could pull in a single day. That had been another thing from Dad. He had figured that six hundred should be enough to get him out of any emergency long enough for him to report back to the ship. Now with no ship to report back to, six hundred would not last him long. The machine spat out the bills, and Michael stuffed them into his wallet. He could always try for more in the morning.
“Mikey? Is that you?”
He turned to see three women coming out the door of the Far Meridian, music blaring after them as the door swung closed. They were all dressed stylishly, with the oldest in an off-the-shoulder blue dress that left little to the imagination. He blinked a few times before he recognized her. “Annie?”
“Oh my dear Mikey,” she said coming towards him with arms open. “I heard about Malcolm. I’m so sorry.”
She put her arms around him, and he leaned against her. There had been a time when he could lean into her belly, but now even in heels, she was not quite as tall as he was. “I… oh, Annie.”
She waved her friends off, and they made their own way down the alley. “Mikey, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there at the wake. I didn’t hear until this morning.”
He did what he could to bury his face in her shoulder, but all he got was a face full of her hair. “It’s ok. It was crew stuff, and I… oh God, Annie. Isaac said the most awful…”
She pulled back. “Hey, what’s wrong? I mean, you’re out awfully late. Where are you staying? Let me walk you back.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going back there. They said that Mom and Dad… even Isaac. They say Dad’s not my real father.”
She reached up and tussled his hair. “Oh that’s crazy talk. Let’s go get you back to your bed.”
“No, Annie. You know the truth, right? Dad said he’s known you forever.” Annie was Dad’s most regular portside girl. Michael had figured out a few years back that there was some kind of money involved, but Annie had always been there for them: trips to the park when Dad had business, shopping for new clothes, even something approaching family dinners. Dad had other girls in other ports, but Annie was the closest thing Michael had ever had to a surrogate mother.
She nodded. “Yeah, I’ve known Malcolm since before the war. I was about your age when I first met him.”
“Then you must remember him and Mom, you know, Sophia. They’re telling me I’m adopted, that Mom was married to some Schruber… Schneider guy. But you know different, right?”
“Oh, Mikey…” she replied, but the look in her eyes told him all he needed to know.
“No,” he pleaded, “don’t…”
“I see how much you’re hurting, Mikey. Do you really want the answer, or do you just want me to make it all better?”
He collapsed to his knees and buried his face in her belly once more. He had not yet cried over his father’s death, and now that he finally was, he did not even know who he was weeping for.
- – - – - – - – - -
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