Staff Sergeant Kate Tipton pursed her lips as she scrolled through the data. Something wasn’t right and it was beginning to irritate her. She looked up from her tablet and gazed out the window. The sunrise was gorgeous, complete with what the ancients called, the “rosy fingers of Dawn,” but upon closer examination she could see a brown haze on the horizon.
“Katie, it’s time to come in, sweetheart. There’s a storm coming.” Words and a voice from a distant past brought her back to her task. She had twenty-four hours of free time and she felt she was wasting an opportunity. Kate was part of a marine expeditionary force on a backwater planet to conduct maneuvers; four months of maneuvers on a mostly barren lifeless rock of deserts and mountains.
Haven II, the second planet in the Haven system, was the only one capable of supporting life. It was a dry desert world with a single small ocean and a single city hugging its coast. Dorado City, the golden city, was indeed an oasis on an otherwise hostile world.
The information Kate was seeking should have been simple to find, but it wasn’t. She pulled up site after site on the nets. Her frustration was mounting as she tried various search conditions. Graves were marked and people moved on. Even burials in space had coordinates as to where the remains had been deposited. It had to be on the nets somewhere.
“There you are! I thought I’d find you in the duty hut,” said Sergeant Tanya Yates closing the door behind her. “Don’t you know liberty started an hour ago?”
Looking up from her tablet, Kate scowled. “Yes, I know liberty started an hour ago,” she snapped.
“Whoa, are you in Staff mode or Kate mode?” Tanya asked as she removed her beret and ran a hand through her hair.
“I’m sorry, Tanya. I wanted to do something simple today and it has turned into a bothersome mess.” Kate turned off her tablet and slipped it into a desk drawer.
“What were you trying to do? Maybe I can help. Contrary to popular opinion, I can read and write.”
Kate stood and smoothed her khaki blouse. “It’s nothing. I was trying to find my mother’s grave— “
“Your mother’s grave?” Tanya’s eyes widened with curiosity. Kate could see the questions forming behind them.
“Believe it or not, Tanya Yates, I was born on this planet.”
“You were? I thought you were a Gryphon IV orphan like a lot of us.”
“I am. My father and I immigrated to Gryphon when I was a toddler. Mother had been too ill to immigrate and she passed away while we were in transit. When I was six, my father was killed. I was raised in a state orphanage, which means— “
“Mandatory state service,” Tanya interrupted, “a twelve-year hitch if you don’t go to university and eighteen years if you do. It’s supposed to be our way to reimburse the state for our upbringing. It’s also no small wonder so many kids ran away from the orphanage. Do you remember much about your mom?”
“Not much. It’s funny, I can’t remember what she looked like, but I can remember her voice. I thought if I found her grave, I could remember more. Maybe find a little comfort and peace of mind. Looks like that will have to wait for some other time.” Kate glanced at the clock on the wall. “The next shuttle for Dorado City leaves in thirty minutes. Let’s get our things and get going.”
“You’re not giving up, are you? That’s not like you, Kate.”
Kate shrugged her shoulders. “I searched the local nets for her obituary, cemetery directories, and public records for a death certificate. Nothing there.”
“You can’t give up that easy.”
“Why not? Why this interest in finding my mother’s grave?” Kate asked.
“Because you have a mother to remember. I was a fire station baby. Do you know what that means? I was dumped, only a few hours old, and I was dumped by someone who didn’t want me. My name was randomly assigned to me by a computer. Did you know that my full name is ‘Tanya Yates One-One-Nine’? The naming program’s data base has one hundred thousand last names and one hundred thousand first names for girls. Out of all of the thousands and thousands of combinations, I’m the one hundred nineteenth girl to be given the name ‘Tanya Yates.’ A mother is a foreign concept to me.”
“I’m, I’m sorry, Tanya. I didn’t know how the orphanage handled newborns.”
“And there’s one more reason you can’t give up! You’re Staff fucking Sergeant Kate Tipton. You know, the one who walks on water.”
“I don’t believe ‘fucking’ is a part of the honorific.”
“Now you’re talking like a staff sergeant, again. The Kate I know would have replied ‘Fucking A, sister, I can walk on water.’” Tanya said with a Cheshire cat grin.
Kate tried to suppress a laugh. “I know at least one gunnery sergeant who would take exception to that claim,” she said picking up her blue beret, the beret worn by Force Reconnaissance. “We can stop by the Bureau of Statistics and give it another shot before hitting the casinos.”
“Now you’re talking sister. Grab your goggles and mask, there’s supposed to be a doozy of a sandstorm today.”
An impatient Pearl Lemay tapped on the bathroom door. “Nina? Nina are you nearly through? We need to get a move on, or we will be late to the office.”
“Come on in, mistress. I’m just brushing my teeth,” chirped a pleasant voice.
“Brushing your teeth?” Pearl opened the door in time to see a bra and panty clad Nina spit into the sink. “You’re an android. Why would you brush your teeth?”
“Whhhyyy, to prevent cavities, mistress,” replied Nina cocking her head and giving Pearl “the look” followed by a pause. Pearl couldn’t decide if “the look” meant “I don’t understand, please explain” or if it was sarcastic and meant “this is perfectly logical, do I need to explain it to the slow human?” The look displayed both innocence and cynicism. Nina’s appearance was that of a very attractive young woman of twenty-one. Her true age was unknown, since it was common to mind wipe an android when it was repurposed. To find her true age would entail removing her head and finding the manufacturer’s serial number and manufacture date embossed on the base of the skull. A task too delicate for any technician on Haven II to attempt.
“Do androids even get cavities?” Pearl asked looking in the bathroom mirror. Pearl wasn’t quite happy with what she saw. It was time to touch up her hair color again. In the past, the roots would be a dark luscious brown as it grew out. Now, at forty-six, the roots were taking on an ashen color. The corset under her tank top hid the “love handles” that were becoming almost impossible to get rid of.
Nina placed her toothbrush in the toothbrush holder. She turned and slid past Pearl. “Brushing is in my programming, mistress. One brushes at least twice a day, morning and night, brush after every meal, if possible, and brush after oral sex.”
Pearl cringed at the mention of oral sex. She had received Nina Luvdoll just two weeks ago in lieu of payment from old Mrs. Chang, wily old Mrs. Chang. After installing a new security system for Mrs. Chang’s “Palace of Irresistible Delights,” Mrs. Chang led Pearl to a storage closet where a nude platinum haired young woman stood wrapped in plastic. “I give you something worth more than security system. I give you this ‘Luvdoll.’ She be good for you, you see,” she said in her stereotypical sing-song voice. Every human in this part of the galaxy had some Chinese ancestry, but Mrs. Chang was one hundred percent. She played the part of the eccentric Chinese auntie very well. People fell for the act so much that often she had done an encore and two curtain calls before they realized they were being played. Pearl had the feeling that no matter how much she tried to get Mrs. Chang to pay the invoice in cred units, Pearl was going to get what Mrs. Chang was going to give.
“She top quality. She good for Pearl,” the sly old woman continued while removing the plastic wrap from the android prostitute.
Pearl thought she saw an opportunity to get Mrs. Chang to change her mind and just pay the invoice. “If she is top quality, why give her away when she can do top quality work here at the brothel?” Pearl suggested.
Mrs. Chang waved her hand dismissing Pearl’s suggestion. “She too good. Luvdoll too human. Clients that want bang robot want robot be more like machine, not human.”
“But I don’t need a sex toy,” Pearl protested.
“Luvdoll can be more. You retrain her. She can cook, clean house, help with business. You see, Luvdoll good for Pearl,” insisted Mrs. Chang. And with that, Pearl became the owner of an android prostitute complete with all of the accompanying frustrations.”
“How do I look, mistress?” Nina asked bringing Pearl back into the moment. She was wearing a white smock over a sea-foam green sweater and gray leggings. A pair of black flats completed the ensemble.
“You look wonderful,” Pearl replied picking up one of her pearl handled Matheson TL9 pistols. With a motion that had become second nature, she slapped in a full clip and slipped the pistol into a shoulder holster. The gun and holster disappeared when Pearl slid on her red duster, the one lined with GenWeb body armor.
Pearl walked through the apartment with Nina in tow. They turned off lights as they went. Pearl stopped at a sofa table neat the door. She picked up a motorcycle helmet and handed it to Nina. She picked up her own helmet and opened the door. They were greeted by a gust of wind and rolling brown clouds.
“Crap,” Pearl uttered. “We’re going to have to leave the bike at home and take the train.”
A cheerful Nina put her helmet back on the table. “I’ll go and get scarves and goggles, mistress,” she said bounding back into the bedroom.
“You better get the particulate masks as well.” Pearl sighed, “This is going to be a long day.”
It didn’t take long for the shuttle to reach the star port from the encampment. Kate and Tanya boarded a train for downtown Dorado City, a distance of forty-eight kilometers from the star port. Tanya closed her eyes the moment she sat down, while Kate looked around. The sandstorm was in full force reducing visibility to less than one hundred meters. The few businesses and homes Kate could see were old and had that rounded-box appearance so common to frontier colonies. Wind gusts rocked the train at each stop. Kate could smell the dust through the particulate mask. Someone coughed. She wondered if perhaps her mother had died of a respiratory disease. Kate knew what it was to feel all alone, she wondered how her mother must have felt, not only to be alone, but to have been left behind to die alone.
Two M.P.s wearing the familiar black and white armbands with stun batons and side arms hanging from white belts boarded the train at the next stop. “Hey, look who just got on the train,” said Kate nudging Tanya awake.
Tanya adjusted her goggles and peered down the aisle. “Is that Neumann?” she asked.
“Yeah, let’s go see what he’s up to.”
Kate and Tanya made their way toward the front of the car where Sergeant Ken Neumann and the other M.P. were seated. Kate tapped Sergeant Neumann on the shoulder. He turned giving Kate an indifferent stare. Kate realized he probably didn’t recognize her, so she raised her goggles and pulled down her mask. His eyes widened and a smile spread across his face.
“Why Sergeant Ken Neumann, fancy meeting you here,” Kate said trying to sound coy. She could hear Tanya giggle.
“Well hello, Staff. I didn’t recognize you with the goggles and mask. That must mean your sidekick there has to be Yates.”
Tanya pulled down her mask. “Good to see you, too… bonehead!” Neumann laughed.
“Are those seats taken, Ken?” asked Kate pointing to the two seats facing Sergeant Neumann.
“No, no, not at all. Please, Staff, sit down,” Neumann replied with a large sweeping gesture toward the seats.
Kate and Tanya settled into the seats. Kate lowered her goggles back into place, but allowed the mask to hang below her chin making conversation easier to understand. Pointing at the black armband with the large letters “M.P.”, Kate asked “Did you transfer to the M.P.s, Ken?”
“Oh no, Staff, they just needed some extra help and I volunteered,” answered Neumann.
“Volunteered? You? Out of the goodness of your heart?” Tanya asked dripping with disbelief.
“All right, I did it for the extra pay. I’m always on the lookout to pick up a few extra creds,” he replied. “Forgive me, this is Corporal Stan Michalowski. He’s a real M.P. Stan, this is Sergeant Tanya Yates and this is Staff Sergeant Kate Tipton. She holds the record for the highest jump during atmospheric entry.”
“Only because she was first out of the hatch!” protested Tanya. “By the time I got to the hatch, the ship had dropped nearly ten kilometers.”
“Why was that?” asked Michalowski.
“You see, Stan, the ship makes a dip into the atmosphere and marines jump as the ship drops to the bottom of its parabola. That way when the last man jumps out, all of the others have fallen to his altitude. In theory, everyone reaches the ground at the same time,” said Neumann.
“It sounds hard… and a bit crazy. I mean, you recon rangers must be nuts, jumping out of a space plane in the first place,” said Michalowski.
Tanya laughed. “Nah, the hard part is to keep from blacking out when your body hits the sound barrier.”
“Actually, for me, it’s stepping through the open hatch. The Corporal is right. It’s a crazy thing to do, jumping out of a craft traveling faster than the speed of sound. On top of that, we do it at night when there’s no moon,” added Kate.
“You, Staff? I thought I was the only one who nearly freezes up at the hatch,” said Neumann.
“By the way, I noticed you guys are carrying side arms in addition to the stun baton. What’s up with that?” Kate asked.
“It’s standard practice on worlds out on the fringe of Alliance controlled space,” began Corporal Michalowski. “This planet, for example, has no planetary defense force and a very small police force. Citizens arm themselves for their protection. The gun laws here are very lax.”
“Not only do they arm themselves, there’s a mini arms race among them. You wouldn’t believe some of the fire power some of the locals have,” added Neumann.
“You mix armed locals, alcohol, marines on leave—who now also have easy access to weapons—and it’s a recipe for trouble. We were in a gun shop this morning which had an entire crate of SN21s,” continued Michalowski.
“SN21s? The SN21 is the standard rifle of the Shien Nahoor Empire. How did they get the rifle used by our enemy?” asked Kate.
“Potential enemy,” Tanya interjected, “We’re in a cold war with them. There’s been no official declaration.”
“Pshaw, that’s nothing. Staff, you know that new pulse rifle still in testing? We found one in a pawn shop here on Haven!” exclaimed Neumann.
The conversation turned to typical marine topics: where the maneuvers were going to take place, the quality of food, overdue promotions, and other topics dear to the hearts of marines and sailors across the galaxy. The one thing not discussed among the N.C.O.s was the popular speculation among the enlisted ranks as to who was sleeping with whom. Though the conversation had moved on, Kate wondered in the back of her mind why the citizenry was so heavily armed. Her father had been shot and killed on Gryphon IV where law abiding citizens were unarmed.
The architecture changed the closer they got to the downtown area. The rounded-square buildings gave way to more conventional buildings and skyscrapers. Kate couldn’t help but notice the changes, for Tanya was pointing out every bar and night club the train passed.
When the train reached its downtown terminal, the marines adjusted their masks and goggles, and went their separate ways. It wasn’t hard for Kate and Tanya to find the government office building. It was a bit more challenging to navigate the maze of hallways to find the Bureau of Statistics. The office of the Bureau of Statistics was small. The walls were beige and the carpet was a brown only a few shades darker than the walls. Two walls had shelves from floor to ceiling filled with bound books. Since the records were digitally stored, Kate wondered what was in the books. There were two computer terminals imbedded in a counter for public use. Behind the counter was a doorway to an office were the clerks sat behind desks. Public records were public, but accessing them required paying a fee, which was true across the galaxy. On Haven II, not only was there a fee to access the records, there was also a fee to use the computer terminals, and a fee if one required assistance from a clerk. After looking at the list of fees, Tanya remarked “I bet they have pay toilets here.”
Kate scrolled through list after list. After several minutes, she sighed and looked up.
“What is it, Kate? Did you find her?” asked Tanya with anticipation. “No, it’s the same as before, and I’ve looked through five years of data around the time we left the planet. There’s no mention of her anywhere.”
“Maybe they didn’t bury her,” said Tanya.
“Yeah, like the old nursery story. Had a kindergarten teacher that whenever we had crackers for snacks would tell the story about the green crackers.”
“Green crackers? I’ve never heard this story.”
“Seems that in olden times things got hard and people only had crackers for food. Brown crackers were made from vegetables, red crackers were made from fish, and everyone’s favorite were the green crackers. Only they didn’t know the green crackers were made out of dead people.”
“Dead people? And your kindergarten teacher told this story?” asked Kate.
“Yeah, all the time. One day, she served us crackers with green food coloring. Messed up some kids where they never ate crackers again.”
“You’re incorrigible,” Kate replied. “It looks like I’m going to have to pay the fee to get a clerk to help.”
“Ok, but if they give you a box of crackers you’ll know.”
They had been in the office for less than half an hour and Kate could tell Tanya was bored. “Excuse me, I’m afraid I need some help here,” she called out to the clerks.
A slender woman stood up from a desk in the other room and walked to the counter. She had dark curly hair with gray roots around the temples. The soft curls contrasted the hard scowl worn on the woman’s gaunt face. With a fair amount of condescension, she asked “Yes, what do you need?”
Tanya gave a low breathy whistle. Kate knew it was a signal Tanya was ready to put someone in her place. Though the woman was obviously inconvenienced in having to do her job, Kate thought it wiser to play along than to allow Tanya to “bitch slap” the woman across the room. “I’m so sorry to interrupt, my mother passed away on Haven about twenty-two or twenty-three years ago, and I’m trying to locate her grave. I can’t seem to find a record of her death.”
“Name!” she demanded.
“I beg your pardon?” Kate slipped into staff sergeant mode giving the woman a slightly menacing look.
“The name of the deceased,” she huffed.
“Her name was Kathleen Tipton.”
“Date of death?” she intoned.
“I’m not sure. My father and I left Haven when I was only four. He told me after we had arrived on Gryphon Iv that she had died.”
“What is your age?” she asked with the same monotonous tone.
The gaunt woman attacked the keypad with furious strokes. She paused and stared at the screen. “Starting with the year you turned three and ending when you would have turned seven, there is no record of a Kathleen Tipton, but we do have death records of one hundred and three ‘Jane Does.’ Do you remember what she looked like? Some of these have physical descriptions.”
“Why no, I don’t remember what my mother looked like. I can remember her voice and that she had long soft hair. But that’s all.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you. She may be one of the Jane Does, but there is no death record of a Kathleen Tipton.”
Kate was confused. “But she was sick and in a hospital. A hospital would have reported her death, right?”
The woman shrugged her shoulders and turned to go back into the office. A heavy set woman blocked her way. “Gretchen! That’s no way to behave.”
The heavy set woman pushed past the thin woman and approached the counter. She had blonde hair rolled into a bun and wore a blue sweater matching wide blue eyes. “Hello, I’m Jane Matthews. I must apologize for my co-worker she— “
“Has issues,” Kate quietly added.
“Yes… Yes, she does. Anyway, I couldn’t help but overhear. You are looking for your mother’s grave, sergeant?” asked Jane.
“You say your mother’s name was Kathleen Tipton and you were born here? What is your name, dear?” Jane asked while signing onto the terminal.
“My name is Katherine Tipton, Staff Sergeant Katherine Tipton.” Kate was relieved someone was going to do a more thorough search.
“Ah, here is your birth certificate. I see your mother’s name was actually Kathleen Ernestine Lemay and she was born on Carsten’s Station, two parsecs or about eight light years from Haven.”
“I did not know that,” Kate said.
“It’s often common out here on the fringe for many women to not take the husband’s name. Hmmm, I don’t have any record of Kathleen Lemay passing away either. Who told you your mother was dead?”
The question took Kate by surprise. “Why, why my father did when I was five.”
“Were they happily married?”
It was a question Kate had never considered. “I don’t know. I always assumed they were happily married.”
“Well, you were very young and many couples try hard not to fight in front of the children. There’s really no way you would know.” Jane said as she continued to weave a family history foreign to Kate. “Ah! Here’s a divorce decree.”
“Divorce? My parents divorced?” The information was beginning to overwhelm Kate.
“Yes, he cites mental incompetence through drug use as the grounds for the divorce… And then your mother disappears from the records.”
“Drug use? She disappears?” a confused Kate asked. This was an entirely different picture of her family from what she had imagined.
“Oh, you don’t know much about Haven II, do you, dear?” Jane asked. “The planet was originally known as ‘Smugglers’ Haven,’ a base for pirates. Being so close to a huge asteroid field made the planet hard to detect. Pirates would store their goods here and wait for favorable conditions to sell them. Over time, their descendants settled here. Many of these folk are very independent and wary of any type of government involvement in their lives, so they live in the shadows. People can easily disappear into the shadows on fringe worlds, especially here on Haven.”
“So my mother’s not dead?” Kate asked. “She could be out there somewhere?”
It was the large woman’s turn to shrug her shoulders as she tapped the keypad. “She could be. She could have just as easily left the planet. If she was a heavy drug user, she could be one of thousands of Jane Does over the last twenty years. It would take a lot of detective work and a great deal of luck to find her, especially if she doesn’t want to be found.”
Kate felt absolute dejection. A lifetime of memories of her parents had been shattered. Trying to find her mother might have been a big mistake.
“Oh-ho!” exclaimed Jane. “Do you know if your mother had any relatives on Haven?”
“I have no idea,” replied Kate.
“Well, there is a Pearl Lemay who started paying business taxes eight years ago.”
“Do you think she is related to my mother, or might know what happened to her?”
“I don’t know, but if you are thinking of seeing her, be careful. This woman has a long record,” said Jane with a concerned look on her face.
“A long record?” Kate had a feeling the other shoe was about to drop.
“Arrest record, dearie.” Jane replied.