Episode 9! Episode 9! Only one episode is left in Erik Weck’s 10-part serial, Gravlander!
Have you enjoyed the story? Have you anxiously awaited the next episode… and the next… as Erik left us wondering just what would happen next? Well, things are wrapping up fast, and you’ve got to wonder just how Erik is going to finish up Jo’s adventure! The good news is we’ve only got one week left to find out. The bad news… we’ve only got one week until Gravlander is completed.
I’m not going to think about that right now, though. Instead, I’m going to start reading. I’m literally posting this just minutes after receiving the text, so I have no head start on what’s about to happen. I just want to push the Submit button so I can sit down and read.
But before I do that, I would like to remind readers that Erik is running a contest, and you’ll automatically be entered into a contest to win an audible copy of Far Banks of the Rubicon if you click this link.
And now… let’s get to it. Episode 9.
And see you next week.
Leaving the puddle jumper, Jo felt a sense of delicious anticipation that surprised her. She had no prospects on Tortuga, no place to turn, and no direction, but an unexpected sense of coming home brought a sudden wave of emotion. She belonged here among the misfits and the lost. These were her own people—broken and downtrodden in a universe that had cast them aside. As a warm tear drifted on her cheek, a determination hardened in her mind. She would find a way to make it here.
Jo stepped firmly through the docking collar into the acrid warren of Tortuga’s market and, with no destination in mind, began to wander the aisles. The first time she had walked the twisted streets of the market, it had seemed hostile and dangerous. Then she had believed that at any moment the rocky ceiling might collapse upon her.
Now as if for the first time, she saw the mass of humanity before her with fresh eyes. Brightly-dancing electronic signs advertising everything from computer parts to protein bars assaulted her eyes. Of course, many of them only half functioned, and all were covered with the red film of dust that seemed to be a permanent part of the air in Tortuga. People smiled as they jostled by or called her into their booths. She politely declined every vendor’s invitation.
She even noticed a group of children playing a game in the dust and dirt of an intersection. Jo stopped to watch, causing the woman walking behind her in the crowded aisle to run into her back and mutter a curse under her breath. Jo worked her way to the side, trying to find a place where she wouldn’t be bumped.
It took a few minutes for Jo to begin to get the gist of the game. It seemed to revolve around capturing a small ribbon of cloth with a rock tied in the end of it. At the beginning of the round, one child, usually last round’s winner, tossed the rock with the ribbon somewhere away from where the group stood behind a line. Then each child would toss small stones toward the ribbon. They would then go stand by these marker stones and toss them again until one child got close enough to reach down and pick up the ribbon. That child was declared the winner, and the game would start again. From there, things got much more confusing. There were clearly rules about how far you could throw your marker stone. If it landed too close to the starting line, you had to throw again from five paces behind the line; too far—and this seemed to mean farther than anyone else—and next time you ended up throwing your stone from the back of the pack. It seemed to be a game that rewarded coming in second.
Jo watched for a few minutes before one of the younger girls, perhaps all of four, noticed her. She gave Jo a toothy smile that radiated as much from her eyes as her lips. Jo returned the smile to the brown-haired child with a drippy nose. When the round finished, the little girl wiped her nose, approached, and took Jo’s hand in her own very dirty and snot-covered paw. Internally, Jo cringed, but the girl’s innocent smile kept her from pulling away. Jo soon found herself standing behind a line drawn in the dust while an earnest girl in pigtails organized the group and fought with a little boy about the proper rules for the next round of Dropstones. It wasn’t until a shadow descended over their game that any of them noticed that someone had approached.
Jo looked up to see a familiar purple silk shirt. It was a confrontation she had anticipated when she decided to come back to Tortuga, but she hadn’t expected it to come so quickly. Her palms immediately began to sweat and her breath quickened. She stood up straight, alert, and looked for Delgado’s henchmen, but this time, he seemed to be alone. She looked him in the eye.
“I don’t think you and I hit it off on the right foot, so to speak, deary. How’s about I buy you a drink to make it up to you?” Delgado’s smile left his dead eyes far behind, a contrast all the more apparent to Jo with the four-year-old, who now clung to her pants.
Jo reached down and put what she hoped was a reassuring hand on the little girl’s head but kept her eyes on Delgado. She tried to sound noncommittal—beaten down. “I’m not really that kind of person, but I’m down on my luck. I need a place to stay.” She hesitated, and when she spoke again, she let her voice crack just a little. “I thought you might be able to help.”
Cooing his concern, Delgado stepped up beside Jo and put his arm around her. Brushing off the young girl, he guided his new charge away from the game of Dropstones, trailing behind him a miasma of cheap cologne. Delgado held Jo to his side. He purred, “Listen, babydoll. The first time I saw you I knew you were something special.”
Jo wanted to rage or laugh at the ludicrous comment, but given the delicacy of her situation, she kept the impulses in check. Instead, she said in her most coy and naive voice, “Really?”
“Oh, yeah, baby. You’re something different, so fresh and innocent compared to most of the girls around here. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
Jo pulled Delgado to a halt. She tried to sound both skeptical and flattered all at the same time. “You’re just saying that.”
The taller man turned to face her. He put both hands on her shoulders and looked down at her. “No, darling, I really mean it. You’re truly something special.”
Jo took a half-step closer to the lying swine, drawing him in. She forced herself to look up into his eyes. She pulled out all the stops, trying to sound entranced. “You really mean that? You think I’m special?” She sounded as wide-eyed as a thirteen-year-old.
The jackass responded to her innocent advances just as Jo expected him to. He stepped forward, bringing his head down to give her a kiss.
Jo reached up and put her hand behind his neck to keep him close.
The cutting torch slipped easily from the sheath on her forearm. She let her hand brush against Delgado’s groin. The torch snapped on, just as his lips were about to meet hers.
The familiar snapping sound of the laser torch caused Delgado’s eyes to go as wide as saucers.
Jo tighted her grip on Delgado’s head, keeping his eyes centimeters from hers. “I don’t think I’m your type, Delgado. I’d cut it off before I’d let it in me, and I’d do the same to your clients.”
As soon as he realized she hadn’t cut him or cauterized anything delicate, he burst from her grasp and stepped back. His hand strayed for a minute to the pistol in his waistband. Then, seeing the busy corridor in which they stood and the attention they had already drawn, he shrugged the shirt on his shoulders and said with an oily smile, “Like I said, something special.”
Jo watched him for a few seconds as he disappeared into the crowd, lit torch still in her hand. She finally turned it off for fear that her shaking hand would lead her to cut herself.
A familiar voice to her right said, “So, Little Jo knows how to take care of herself.”
Jo turned to see Gloria Soren leaning against the post of a nearby stall. “I’m learning. Do you think it will put him off?”
Soren stood straight and stepped toward her, staring down the aisle after the retreating Delgado. “Probably. Delgado doesn’t need to waste his time on girls who aren’t interested in the very little he has to offer. Unfortunately, the galaxy is populated with too many women desperate and foolish enough to listen. Show him that you respect yourself, and he’ll move along to someone who doesn’t.”
Soren looked sideways down at Jo. “Where’s Tanith?”
“Probably back on Korg Haran. Things didn’t work out so well for me there, although I think I probably hold the record for the longest visit by a Gravlander. In the end, the Timcree just couldn’t find a place for me.”
Soren nodded. “So what’s next?”
“To be honest, I don’t know.”
Soren narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “I might have an idea or two, if you’re interested.”
Jo didn’t know what to say. It was more than she had hoped. She just nodded.
Soren turned back to the stall where she had been purchasing ship components. Over her shoulder, she said, “I’m in berth thirteen. It’s your first test to see if you can get yourself through this little rat maze and find the ship. You ought to recognize The Clarion. I’ll see you there at fourteen hundred hours.” With that, Soren turned back to the parts dealer.
“You know, Jack used to sit in that chair.” Gloria Soren sat behind the captain’s desk on the Clarion looking down at Jo. Soren’s captain’s quarters were nothing compared to the quarters for the admirals and their staffs on the Ghost Fleet. It felt tiny, and the dark, faux-wood paneling didn’t help. Clearly the ship had seen better days. Behind Soren, a balding thirty-something man with freckles and red hair stood behind his captain. Soren had introduced him as Alexander Jones, her first mate.
“Yep, back when he thought he was king of the universe for running a black market on Aetna.” Soren snorted.
Jo felt surprisingly defensive for her surrogate father. “He’s different now.”
Soren caught the defensiveness in her tone and backtracked. “Really?”
“Yeah, he’s not like that any more. He cares a lot more than most. He’s always working hard to put things right, like the fall of the empire is his fault. In fact, sometimes I think he works too hard.”
Soren raised her eyebrows and folded her hands on the desk in front her. “Hmmm?” was all the answer she gave. Then she grinned a little. “That’s a bit of good news in a dark time.”
Pleasantries over, Soren looked her up and down with a captain’s jaded eye. “So tell me again exactly how you ended up on Tortuga of all places with no work and no clear plans for finding any. That wasn’t exactly a smart move.”
“Perhaps not, but so far it hasn’t turned out so terribly.”
Soren conceded the point with a gesture. “So far.”
Jo went on to explain again how she didn’t fit well on the Ghost Fleet, finding herself unwanted wherever she went. Then she explained how the opportunity to go with the Timcree had opened up, and she had jumped at it just to have a place to start fresh. She continued right up to the present moment, even telling about being pulled from hibernation by Ohlson. Soren listened carefully to it all, nodding at points, and asking tough questions at others.
When she had finished, Soren tented her hands in front of her face and stared at Jo for a long minute. “Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“To stick it out when things get hard?”
“If I believe it’s important, but not just because someone tells me to. That’s never made sense to me.”
Soren nodded, “So what’s important to you?”
“People. People have always been what’s important to me.”
Jo caught a glance pass between Soren and her first officer.
Emboldened, Jo spoke her mind. “I don’t know when the Unity is going to go away. It might be soon. It might be a long time from now, but it doesn’t really matter. People still have to get on with the business of living. I would like to be part of helping them do that. It’s why I liked medicine. I think I could have enjoyed being a doctor and not just a med tech.”
Again the look between Soren and her officer. Soren sat silent for a second, contemplating Jo, and then said, “Well, my first officer and I have some things to talk over. Why don’t you head down to our mess hall and get a meal.” The Captain pressed her index finger to the clear top of her desk. The desk pipped back at her, and a female voice said, “Yes, captain.”
“Anderson, would you escort my guest to the mess hall and make sure she gets a square, and don’t let Alice give her any of that gawd awful soup. It’s important that she get a good first impression.”
Soren looked back at Jo. “Get yourself a hot meal. We’ll talk and be back with you in about thirty minutes.”
Recognizing the formality of life aboard The Clarion, Jo answered, “Yes, sir,” and stood.
Soren grinned just a little at the acknowledgement of her rank as the door slid open, and Anderson stepped in.
Anderson surprised Jo. She didn’t look any older than Jo, with short brown hair and just the tip of a tattoo peeking out of the corner of her jumpsuit. She didn’t speak until they had climbed down the ladder out of what was known on all vessels as officer’s country. Then she smiled at Jo and said warmly. “That’s a good sign.”
Jo smiled back, feeling suddenly more at ease. “What’s a good sign?”
“She sent you for a meal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the captain send a prospect for a meal without giving them an offer.”
“Yep. If she wasn’t going to give you an offer, she’d a just told you that you’d hear from her in a few days’ time and got you off her deck, back on hard ground.” The young sailor turned to Jo. “Name’s Rebecca Anderson.”