She stared at the vids of the planet over and over. It was a barren rock of deserts and mountain ranges. There was a single small ocean on one side of the planet and a single city sat on its coast. New Hope was the only habitable planet in the Haven system tucked near a massive asteroid field. The proximity of the asteroid field was what had attracted the original settlers over a century ago. Smugglers and pirates looking for a place to hide and store their goods until markets were favorable. Now, it was a protectorate of Gaea Prime.
“You know, Staff, no matter how long you stare at it, it is still an ugly planet.” said Sergeant Tanya Yates. “They sure went out of their way to find a desolate place for these training maneuvers. What’s down there that has you so deep in thought?”
“Well, believe it or not, Tanya Yates, I was born there.” said Kate.
“You were? I thought you were a Gryphon IV ward of the state like some of the rest of us.”
“I was orphaned on Gryphon IV and became a ward, but I was actually born on New Hope. I don’t remember anything at all about the place. I was thinking that maybe if I had the time, I might try to find out more about myself.”
Orphans and abandoned children became wards of the state on Gryphon IV and for every year the state paid for education and rearing, the ward had to do a year of government service upon adulthood. Many of the wards were enlisted into the Gryphon IV Planetary Defense Force. Large affluent systems such as Gryphon IV maintained an Expeditionary Task Group to assist the Star Army when needed. This Task Group now found itself in the Haven system for joint training exercises with Star Army.
“You sure you want to do that, Staff? They say the entertainment and casinos on New Hope are some of the best in the Third Ring.”
“I did say ‘maybe’, Sergeant Yates. By the way, didn’t you just come from ‘Officer Country’?”
“Sure did, Staff. Nothing’s changed. We assemble on the hanger deck at oh eight hundred system standard to begin planetfall.”
“Well, let’s get to the troop quarters and light a fire under them.”
When departure day for Margaret Dominique (aka Sara Reid) arrived, it was mass confusion for New Hope City’s star port. Margaret’s family didn’t send one of their yachts to retrieve their wayward daughter, they sent a freighter full of merchandise to sell on New Hope. In addition to the freighter from Dominique Shipping, a military task force also arrived to begin training maneuvers. This, in turn, generated a considerable amount of outbound traffic as some aliens and other undesirables chose this day as an opportune day to leave.
The star port was fifty-six kilometers from the heart of downtown. Pearl had ridden her bike, the red/black Shadow Reaper. Vivian had driven her car. Vivian didn’t like to ride on the bike. As a stylist, she absolutely insisted that allowing the wind to rush through one’s hair caused serious damage and “helmet hair” was an unforgivable fashion sin. Vivian went through the security check point with no problems. It took Pearl a bit longer as she had to be searched even after she had produced her conceal and carry license for her pistol. They failed to find the ceramic knife in her boot, but did find her little Hussert Compact Needler backup pistol. Luckily, it too was covered by the license.
Vivian had an obvious frown of disdain on her face. “Can’t we go anywhere without you being armed to the teeth?” she asked.
“Hey, I left one of the pistols at home… and the switchblade knife… and the flash grenade… and Nina has latched onto the stun baton. I’m not as armed as I usually am.” Pearl replied with a devilish grin.
“Oh, you’re incorrigible!” said Vivian.
“I wish I could go somewhere unarmed, Viv. But with my profession and the way my life has gone to date, I’ll probably have to carry a gun until the day I die.”
“Well heaven knows you’ve helped me out of enough jams. I do hope you die of old age in the arms of your robot lover.”
Pearl blushed a little. “Nina is much more than a Synthetic, Viv. I… I can’t explain it all, especially my feelings. Maybe I need to see a shrink again.”
“No, I was only kidding, Pearl. Nina is very good for you. I’m glad she’s in your life. She’s someone you can finally trust enough to love.”
The concourse seemed to stretch forever, but they soon arrived at the gate being used by Dominique Shipping. There was a fair sized gathering of well wishers. The media had just finished shooting vids for the evening’s entertainment and celebrity news segments. With that out of the way, most of New Hope City’s “in crowd” began to leave. Margaret looked radiant, a far cry from the neo-Marxist revolutionary Pearl first encountered. Yet, beneath the expensive veneer, Pearl saw an unhappy woman. Ian stood next to her wearing the dress uniform of a merchant pilot. He had passed the last of the exams and was now a qualified starship freighter pilot. His face didn’t even attempt to hide the fact that he was miserable. The most miserable looking creature, however, was an ancient woman enthroned on a hover chair. The combination of rejuvenation procedures, cosmetic surgery, and centuries of time had produced a frail wrinkly turtle looking person with a flat plastic face.
“Hey, Vivian!” exclaimed Denise. Denise no longer worked for Vivian. She had struck up a close friendship with Margaret that continued once Margaret became the darling of New Hope City’s social elite. Denise was now the trophy wife of a prominent attorney. “Pearl, it’s good to see you, too.” While Vivian and Denise caught up with the events in each other’s lives, Pearl scanned the crowd and found another not-so-happy face.
“Charles?” quizzed Pearl. Pearl thought the Zhuh-Zhuh was Charles, but she had met so few Zhuh-Zhuhs up close that she wasn’t completely sure.
The Zhuh-Zhuh broke into a big toothy grin. “Ms. Pearl! So good to see you. You fine?”
“I’m fine, Charles. Why all the long faces?”
Charles sighed. “It’s like this, Ms. Pearl, Margaret has to go back to Gaea Prime.”
“We all knew that.”
“Yeah, but she has to go alone. Ian can’t go.”
“Why? Did they break up? I know it was kind of hard on Ian when he first found out who she really was. But, I was sure his love for her would get him over it.”
“They didn’t break up. Well, they didn’t. Her family, especially her father and mother, have other plans for her. They don’t want her with Ian. Ian’s too low on the social ladder. So it’s her family that’s doing the breaking up.”
“Who’s the old woman?” asked Pearl.
“That’s Margaret’s great-aunt. She was named after her, that’s Margaret Antoinette Priscilla Dominique Haines-Stanley.”
“Good grief! How many names do rich people have?”
Charles laughed. “It depends on your culture, I suppose. We have the same thing with names and titles. It isn’t uncommon for a Zhuh-Zhuh elder to have twenty or more names. Mostly ancient clan names. Come on, you might as well meet her.”
They mingled their way through the crowd catching up on events. Charles, like Denise had maintained a friendship with Ian and Margaret. He had even taken a job as their chauffeur. In the back of her mind, Pearl wondered if Charles staying close to the couple was Azumi’s doing. As they neared the hover chair, they caught Margaret’s attention.
“Oh Pearl, I’m so glad you could come.” said Margaret hugging Pearl. She began to quietly sob in Pearl’s arms. Pearl looked about. She could tell from Ian’s expression that he wanted to hold Margaret and comfort her. The ancient woman in the hover chair leaned forward scrutinizing what was going on.
“There, there,” cooed Pearl, “things will be all right. It’s sometimes difficult to move on.”
Margaret sniffed. “You’re so right, Pearl. I’m afraid I’m ruining my makeup.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Pearl, I’d like for you to meet my great-aunt Margaret. I was named after her. Aunt Margaret, this is Pearl Lemay, the one who saved me.”
The ancient turtle-looking woman leaned forward and squinted at Pearl. “Hmmpf! Wasn’t she the one who let you get taken in the first place?” she said with a heavy amount of sarcasm.
Margaret blushed. “Auntie Margaret! I wandered off and got myself into trouble. She rescued me. Anyone else would have given up on me, except for Ian.”
“Yes, yes, whatever.” the old woman said.
“Speaking of Ian,” Pearl began. ” Charles said that he isn’t going with you. Will he join you later?”
“No, my family was quite explicit. I’m the only one to go.” Margaret said quietly with tears welling in her eyes.
“Well, then, don’t go.” said Pearl. “Do you love Ian?” Pearl turned to Ian and asked “Don’t you love Margaret?”
Ian and Margaret looked at each other. The pain of separating was clearly on their faces. “But we can’t stay here. My family…”
“Family?” Pearl raised her voice. “These people send an old freighter and a great-aunt to fetch you home for what? To fit their ideal family, to hand you off as some trophy?”
“You’re not running away. You’re living your life on your terms, not theirs. Aunt Margaret, if she goes back will she have any influence on Dominique Shipping?”
“Good heavens, no.” replied the ancient aunt. “Her brother will see to that.”
“Sure you can’t stay on New Hope and live an obscure life. But, there is nothing wrong with being the wife of a starship pilot and going where he goes. In fact, you could probably buy your own ship.”
“Damn it, Ian! Stop being noble and kowtowed by her family’s wealth. I don’t know what the last few months of living among New Hope’s ‘elite’ has done to you two, but the Ian I knew put his life on the line to rescue Margaret from certain death. I need that Ian to step up and save her from a fate worse than death, in my opinion.” ranted Pearl.
“Ahem! Your ruffian friend is the only person I’ve met today who is speaking straight.” announced Aunt Margaret. “Return with me to Gaea Prime in shame; be a penitent daughter until they find a suitable marriage; and then become a mere footnote on the family tree. Or sell your birthright, so to speak. Cash out of the family politics. I like the way your friend thinks. And furthermore, I happen to know that the ship I came on, the ‘John Hammond’, can be had for a very reasonable price.”
Everyone was astonished with what the old woman had said. There were quite a few mouths that had dropped open and eyes wide with possibilities. Vivian broke the silence. “Well, this is a fairy tale ending if I ever saw one. I say that ‘Prince Charming’ and the ‘Princess’ should go for it!” The concourse erupted in cheers as Ian and Margaret embraced, kissed, and cried. In the end, things worked out. Ian and Margaret would travel to Carston’s Station with Great-Aunt Margaret. There they would be married; purchase the ‘John Hammond’; and begin their own shipping company delivering goods to the backwater planets on the edge of the ring considered too small by the larger shipping lines.
Pearl said her goodbyes and began the long walk through the concourse back to the parking garage. A solitary figure caught her attention standing at an empty gate gazing out the windows. It was her blue skin that Pearl had noticed first and upon a closer look, it was Azumi. She didn’t seem to notice Pearl until Pearl was standing next to her.
“You’re missing the excitement down at the Dominique gate.” said Pearl.
“I didn’t come to see Margaret Dominique’s departure.” replied Azumi, not taking her gaze from the window. The window over looked the space port’s tarmac. The tarmac was filled with bustling activity, military activity. Equipment and ordinance was being unloaded, while row upon row of soldiers formed up into formations.
“That puzzles me, Azumi.” said Pearl. “With all of the wealth of the Dominique family, why didn’t you seek payment or a reward from them for the recovery of their daughter? I’m sure they would have more than paid for the operation.”
Azumi smiled. “The Dominique family didn’t contract for the recovery of their daughter. You did, Pearl.”
“Well, why didn’t you have me hit them up? They would have paid.”
“There’s more to life than money, Pearl.” replied Azumi.
“Yeah, there’s power. Isn’t that what being a Xeog is all about, wealth and power? You girls go stir crazy in your sisterhood convents and then go rogue through the galaxy looking for adventure, riches and power.”
“You’re overreacting, Pearl. Not all Xeog go rogue. Though wealth and power is a strong enticement regardless of race or gender.”
“Then why are you here?” asked Pearl. “What do you want from me?”
“New Hope is a contested world. It is in what Gaea Prime calls the fourth ring and therefore rightfully belongs to the Xeog home worlds. One fact which you ‘basics’ often forget while claiming the world is in your precious third ring. Not all Xeogs you see have gone ‘rogue’. And as far as your debt to me, I will tell you when and how you will repay it.”
Pearl had always seen Azumi as a power hungry competitor on the streets of New Hope City. Now, Pearl began to wonder if Azumi was some sort of agent, or if she was just crazy. She thought it wise to try to change the subject. “The soldiers out there look impressive. Business should be good while they are in the city.”
“Their being here is a message.” said Azumi. “A message with many subtle meanings. There are whispers of war.”
“Well, I for one leave any mention of war to the ‘talking heads’ on the news vids. And I hardly ever watch the news vids.” Pearl’s phone began to chirp. She was thankful. The phone call would give her a graceful way to exit. She looked at her phone and saw that it was Nina calling from the office. “Excuse me, Azumi, it’s my office. I have to go.”
Pearl turned and began walking away from Azumi. In fact, she wanted to run away from Azumi. She had only gone a few steps. “Pearl, red, Pearl.” said Azumi.
“Red?” inquired Pearl.
“Yes, red. You should change your hair color to red. It is your favorite color and you will look so much younger as a redhead.”
This took Pearl completely by surprise. “That sounds like a good idea, Azumi. I’ll think about it.” She turned to leave once more.
“And Pearl.” Pearl froze in her steps. “Have it done by the end of next week and then come see me. You can then start paying what you owe.”
“Yes, Azumi. I’ll be there. And I’ll be a redhead.” Pearl had an odd feeling about what she would have to do to repay her debt.
As soon as Pearl exited the security check point, she called Nina. “Hello, Nina, what’s happening?”
“Afternoon, mistress!” answered Nina. Pearl thought she heard a note of pleasure in Nina’s voice. “Two soldiers came into the office a short while ago looking for you.”
“Did they say what they wanted? Did they leave their names or any contact information?”
“No, but they did say they would return.”
“Ok, I’m on my way. If they show up before I get there…”
“I know, mistress, I will have them wait for you.”
“Thanks, Nina. And I love you.”
There was a pause on the other end as Nina resolved a minor conflict in her programming. It was still a challenge for Nina to display affection while carrying out her duties as receptionist. “Mistress, you make me blush. I’ll await your arrival.”
They were standing outside of Pearl’s office as she crossed the street. Two healthy female soldiers wearing bluish-grey uniforms with bright blue berets. They both had several stripes on the shoulders of their sleeves. Pearl knew very little about military rank, but she knew that lots of stripes usually meant a sergeant of some kind. They were both brunettes. One wore her hair pulled back tight into a small bun, while the other had a pageboy cut. They both looked serious. The one with the pageboy looked vaguely familiar. So familiar that Pearl should recognize her, but she didn’t. The feeling was so odd, the hair on Pearl’s arms was standing up. There was something about that girl.
“Could I help you two ladies?” asked Pearl. The girl’s eyes grew wide with disbelief. Her bottom lip quavered, her face contorted and she rushed to Pearl with tears streaming from her eyes. Pearl instinctively threw her arms open. Suddenly, dim memories sprang to life.
“Momma?…. Oh, momma.” she cried as she flew into Pearl’s arms.
“Katie? Katherine? Oh, my god!” moaned Pearl. “My baby!” the two women collapsed to their knees as they embraced. Pearl cried.