Jeremiah Baruch guided his engine-drawn, flatbed hovercart into Bethlehem City, a rather generous name for a frontier town with one packed-dirt street bordered by shops. A few other hover-vehicles of different sizes and configurations parked down each side of the street, and folks walked on the sidewalks in front of the stores, which were elevated a couple feet to stay above the water and muck after a storm.
He parked the hovercart in front of the general store and powered down. The cables connecting the two cylindrical engines to the wagon whined and settled onto their landing struts. The flatbed wagon, little more than a bench on low-walled open box, floated down onto its landing gear. The dull hum faded out, leaving the more distant noise of other hovercarts and the sounds of people doing business in the local shops. Music from the saloon’s synthesizer carried down the street in spite of the early morning hour. How people could be drinking and carrying on like that before lunch was beyond him, but the sheriff allowed it so long as those partaking kept the “partying” in the saloon.
In the seat next to him, Dave looked down the street at the Rusty Robot Saloon and grinned like a kid with a new lollipop.
Knew I should’ve left you home. Jer grabbed his cane. “Stay with the wagon.”
Dave sneered. “Stop treating me like Ethan.”
“Maybe if you acted like you were six years his senior, that’d be easier to do. Stay put. We don’t need trouble today.”
Jer swung his left leg over the side of the hovercart and grimaced as he helped his right leg with his hand. Weather would change soon, and as stiff and sore as his leg was today, the approaching storm would be a bad one.
Need to secure the animals, close the cover on the crops … He stopped the list of storm preparations. The town errands needed doing while there was still time to get them done. He’d left Haddy and Tamar at home with Lemuel and Ethan. They’d organize the ranch hands into finishing the chores.
Bracing himself with the cane and the side of the wagon, Jer stood. In spite of his effort to keep as much of his weight as he could on the cane, a sharp pain shot from his knee to his hip.
Yeah, there’s a storm coming all night. That’s the only time the pain get this bad. Better hustle and get the errands done. Maybe Dave could take care of the bank.
Jer paused and glanced at his middle brother. Yeah, he could stop at the bank, but how much of Pa’s money would make it into the account and how much would end up in Dave’s pocket? Jer sighed and continued on to the general store. Anything he wanted done right, he’d better do himself.
Like nearly all the structures on Gibeah, the general store had been built from panels of the generation ship that had brought the first colonists. The periodic storms on the planet had weathered the shine off the metal.
The three steps up from the street to the storefront would have been murder, but he took his time, stepping up with his left foot and lifting himself up onto the step then balancing on his right leg and cane to step up with his left foot again. At the top of the short run of steps, he paused for a moment then entered the door. A bell over his head rang.
The inside of the store had been reorganized, probably by Mr. Rubin’s wife while he’d been away at the new Jebus hospital week before last. All the premade clothes and cloth had been moved out to the shelves filling the middle of the store along with lanterns and other gear. Anything small enough to disappear into a pocket or pouch had been moved to the shelves behind the counter. Prudent, really, more than one family in the area had their own version of Dave.
Old Man Rubin came out of the back. “Morning, Jer. Got your email with your order. I saw you pull up, so I got the boys loading your wagon.”
“Thank you, sir. How’s the new shoulder?” Jer limped forward to the counter.
He moved the new cybernetic replacement through the range of motion. “Not bad at all. The surgery didn’t hurt near as much as I expected. All that new-fangled medical technology on Jebus was something else. I was in and out in two days. Good as new. Better maybe. Your Pa is getting his heart replaced?”
“Yes, sir. That last heart attack scared Ma.”
“He’ll be fine, I’m sure, but I’ll say a few prayers for him tonight.” Mr. Rubin dug out his ledger from the shelf under the counter. “Not to be telling you your business, Jer, but you might consider a replacement for that, um, weather detector of yours.”
Jer smiled. “Yes, sir. Pa’s heart surgery was first. Now we’re saving up for Haddy’s eyes. Then we’ll decide if my bum leg is worth the fee.”
“I’d say it is, but you and your folks will have to decide that.” Mr. Rubin scanned through all his clients and stopped on Pa’s name. “That’s two hundred sixty-three fifty this week.”
Jer pulled out his credit chip, set it on Mr. Rubin’s ledger and tapped his payment code. The display showed the money transferring to Mr. Rubin’s account.
Aaron, the older boy in the family, rushed in from the back and skidded to a stop. “Mr Baruch! Mr. Baruch! Your brother’s in an awful fight with Mr, Lindemann! Micah already went for the sheriff, but come quick!”
There was no such thing as “come quick” on days when his hip was acting up, but he limped along as best he could. Mr. Rubin’s strong left arm, the recently repaired one, caught Jer under the right elbow and helped bear his weight down the stairs.
Halfway down the street, Kane Lindemann and Dave were throwing fists at each other while Kane’s two pals, Nahum and Vashti, stood off to the side cheering their friend on. The gathering crowd stayed well back. Nearby, Jessie Zimmel, Rusty Robot’s head barmaid, leaned on a light pole and watched the fight with a grin on her face. Sheriff Weisser ran down the street.
Dave’s fist connected with Kane’s jaw and sent him sprawling in the dirt. Kane came back up with a knife in hand. He thumbed the switch and energy crackled down the length of the blade. Jer reached for his pistol but from his angle, he’d have to aim past too many people.
Sheriff Weisser pushed his way through the crowd and shot the dirt at Kane’s feet. “Put it away, Kane, before I stun your hide and stick you in a cell.”
After turning off the plasma edge of his knife, Kane slammed it into its sheath. He jabbed his finger in Dave’s direction. “You stay away from Jessie.”
“Or what?” Dave spat at the ground.
“You won’t always have the sheriff and your kin around.” Kane made a fist. “Then we’ll see.”
“Oh yeah, we’ll see.”
Sheriff Weisser stood between them. “That’s enough.” He pointed at Kane and his pals. “You three, get outta here before I decide to put you in a cell for disturbing the peace.”
Jer wove his way through the dispersing crowd. “Dave, I told you to stay with the wagon.”
Dave gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “I’m not your boy!”
““No, but he talks sense,” Sheriff Weisser said. “You know Kane is sweet on Jessie, so –”
“And you aren’t.” Jer chimed in.
“– Why are you coming onto her so strong even I can see it on other end of the street?”
“Words, boy. I’m not your Pa, but I’m the law. Unless you want a night in a cell for disturbing the peace, you’ll answer with words, not head jiggles. Why you coming on to a girl you don’t even like?”
“Joking with Kane.”
Jer rolled his eyes. “Only Kane’s not joking.” He turned to Sheriff Weisser “I’d be obliged if you could sit on Dave until I’m done with errands. Shopkeepers don’t want him around after last month, and looks I can’t leave him with the wagon.”
Sheriff Weisser nodded and got a good grip on Dave’s upper arm. “Yep, Me and Dave here are going to have a little chat about a man’s responsibilities, just like I promised the last time you came in here and started trouble. Let’s go, Dave.”
Jer watched them go and blew out a sigh.
The crowd went about their business, except for Jessie who still leaned on the lamppost. Her dress, transparent except for a few strategically placed decorations, shimmered in the orangey light of the sun overhead.
She smirked, pushed off from the pole and practically slithered over. “Poor Jer. That brother of yours is like a stampede waiting to start.”
“This is all one big game to you, isn’t it?” Jer adjusted the grip on his cane. “Do you care at all for either of them?”
“Those two?” She snorted. “Boys have been fighting over me for years. I have never belonged to any man, and certainly never will to some penniless asteroid herder like Kane.” She reached for him. “Now a ranch owner like yourself …”
He stepped back. “Good day, Ma’am.”
Jessie’s laugh followed him back to the wagon. Mr. Rubin’s boys had done a fine job packing the supplies. Jer tightened one of the bands securing the load and increased the power on another. Both adjustments probably weren’t necessary, but he felt better to have done something. The remaining errands to the church, the bank, the butcher, and the dairy went smoothly, and the supplies were added to the wagon.
That left one more stop, and Jer was of a mind to leave his brother in a cell until Pa got home next week, Dave would stay out of trouble and everyone else would have some peace. Everyone except the sheriff, that is. Maybe Dave would go out on one of his asteroid-herding runs and give everyone a break that way. Jer hobbled across to the sheriff’s office and took the steps one at a time. Inside, Sheriff Weisser sat on one side of his desk and Dave sat on the other, sulking while the sheriff worked at his computer.
Now, almost two hours after the fight, the side of Dave’s face had swelled some and a shiner was developing under his left eye.
“Sheriff, can I take Dave home?” Jer asked.
“Yep. Lack of common sense isn’t a crime.” He looked up from his computer and drove a hard glare into Dave. “But the next time you come into town and instigate a problem, David Obadiah Baruch, I will find something to charge you with. You got me, boy?”
Dave pushed off from the chair. “Yes. Sir.”
“Let’s go, Dave. Storm’s coming and we need to get ready for it.” Jer indicated the door with a twitch of his head. “Thanks, Sheriff.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They went back to the wagon in silence. Dave grabbed the side of the wagon and vaulted up and over with an ease Jer hadn’t known in ten years. Jer set his cane behind the seat and grabbed the side.
Dave offered his hand. “Come on, Gimpy, or we’ll be here all year.”
You’re not joking with me, are you? Gonna throw me in the dirt soon as I trust you? Jer clasped his brother’s wrist with one hand, and rocked back for momentum. Dave pulled as Jer pushed off with his stronger leg. He turned as he got up onto the wagon and planted himself in the seat.
“Oh, no, thank you, big brother. Don’t know when I’ve ever had so much fun in town.”
“No one told you to start a fight with Kane.” Jer flipped the switches for the engines.
As they wound up and lifted off from the dirt, the wagon floated upward, too. Jer took the control sticks in hand and throttled up slowly. The cables connecting the two motors to the wagon scooted forward until they were taut then picked up speed as Jer increased the throttle.
“Why’d you make me come in the first place?” Dave asked.
“You were one more innuendo short of Tamar’s fist up your nose, that’s why.” Jer glanced at his brother. “I was trying to keep you from a fat lip and a black eye. Lot of good that did.”
Dave planted his elbow on his knee and his chin on his palm. “No one around here knows how to take a joke.”
“No one around here thinks your jokes are funny. Flirting with a girl you have no interest in just to get Kane’s goat or making fun of Tamar one moment and grabbing her butt the next while suggesting a roll in the hay? Don’t know many who’d find that funny, Dave, and certainly no girl worth having?”
“Maybe you and I like different kinds of girls.”
“That may be, but you need to look further afield than Tamar. She’s had it up to the gills with you.”
Dave sat back, kicked his feet up on the front of the wagon, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Sounds like everyone’s had it up to the gills with me, which is fine by me. I’m tired of everyone treating me like a kid. I’m going to herd some asteroids to the refinery.”
“Just get your supplies honestly this time. Take them from our storeroom, not a merchant.”
Dave sat up straight again and jabbed his finger at Jer. “Stop needling me, you self-righteous jerk. What I wanted on that trip wasn’t in the storeroom, and those merchants got paid back for everything I borrowed and gained another twenty percent. They made money off the deal. That left me with almost nothing to show.”
“Yeah, because the judge gave you a choice of that, ten years in prison, or thirty-nine lashes. How much would those merchants have gotten back if you hadn’t been caught? Anything?”
After glaring for a moment longer, Dave crossed his arms over his chest and stared straight ahead.
A cool wind picked up from the North bringing a scent of ozone. A blue-black storm cloud loomed. That storm would hit by tonight. Jer increased their speed.
Kane hustled around the ship he called home. Imperious had been a gift from his grandmother in an attempt to get him to do an honest man’s work. Herding asteroids to refineries paid decently for him, Vashti, and Nahum, even if it wasn’t always the safest job.
Vashti’s footsteps, softer than Nahum’s, ran up the loading ramp. “Kane! You were right!”
“About Dave Baruch?” Kane closed up the engine maintenance hatch and dogged it.
“Yeah, he’s just filed flight plans.” Vashti hollered. “Where are you?”
He left the engine room and met her at the ramp. “Where’s Dave headed?”
“Nain, according to my contact,” she said.
“That’s perfect. Let’s get there.” Kane jogged toward the bridge. “Get Nahum and button it up. I’ll file plans.”
The storm raging outside rattled the house with bursts of thunder. The winds shrieked. Jer had gathered not only his own hired hands but also the surrounding neighbors under his roof, the only shelter for miles around rated to handle the worst of the storms. This one, a category eight, ranked high enough for the record books. He prayed earnestly for the safety of those who were meant to come here to his house for shelter but hadn’t made it. The Michalsons, the Greenburgs, and at least four others. Maybe they had found somewhere else safe. Jer sat in his room, reviewing the ranch’s financial statements on a battery-powered handheld computer. The power supply for the building could conk out any moment now with a category eight raging outside.
A strong knock banged on the door. Jer looked up from his handheld. “Come i–”
The door flew open, and Ethan, the youngest of his brothers changed in. “Jer, we’re getting a message over the FTL.”
“In this weather?” He set his computer aside.
“It isn’t clear at all, but sounds like it might be Dave.” Ethan waved for Jer to follow. “Come on!”
Jer grabbed his cane and hobbled after Ethan to the radio room at the end of the hall. Haddy sat there listening intently to a static-riddled transmission that sure sounded like Dave’s voice.
“…in troub…ran into…maj…mage…”
Jer snatched the microphone and squeezed the transmitter button. “Dave, we got a bad storm here. Your message is all static. Soon as the storm lets up, I’ll come get you, all right? Get somewhere safe if you can and sit tight.”
“Wha…Jer, I c…ear you…ran into K…out…I–”
The light on the FTL transmitter went dark. A second later, thunder shook the house. The lights guttered then went out, leaving everyone in darkness for a few moments while the house system turned on the red emergency lights and ignited the backup generator. All the talking in the house went quiet then resumed at a lower level.
Haddy turned toward him and pushed her thick glasses further up her nose. “Sounds like he’s in trouble.”
“That’s what it sounds like, but we’re guessing. There wasn’t much to that transmission. What’d he say before I got here?”
Haddy frowned, which made her glasses slip. “Not much I could make out. I recorded it, but we’ll have to wait for main power to listen to it.”
Who would’ve thought we’d need the FTL radio on the emergency power grid. “Fair enough.”
“But what do we do?” Ethan asked.
Jer gripped his brother’s shoulder. “The only thing we can do. Take care of our guests until the storm passes and pray everyone stays safe. Once the weather clears enough for me to launch, I’ll fly out to Nain and find out what’s happened.”
The wind shrieked outside the house and the thunder roared.
The quantum drive dropped Jer’s ship at the edge of the asteroid belt orbiting Nain, a red dwarf further out from the galactic core than his own home system of Gibeah. The asteroid belt took up the space of four planetary orbits, the largest collection of asteroids anywhere in the Theocracy’s holdings. As the most dense asteroid field, Nain was both the most lucrative and the most dangerous. A man could make good living here if tumbling rocks didn’t kill him first.
Jer unhooked his flight harness and pushed off from the chair. The sense of flying in zero G was the only chance he had to move without pain. If he didn’t have obligations at home, he’d happily brave the risks of asteroid herding. When he landed at the scanner station, Jer called up a reading of the Nain belt. Five ships aside from his own were in the system, all congregated on the near side of the ring, which was odd in itself.
Asteroid herders tended to maintain a greater distance from each other to prevent getting caught up in stampedes, runaway chain reactions that happened when one misstep with a tractor or repulsor beam sent asteroids smashing into each other or anything else in the way. Jer switched the readout on his screen to show vectors, which made the odd choice clear. The far side of the belt tumbled at a greater speed in random directions, the telltale of a stampede dying out.
The dull ache of tension spread across Jer’s shoulders. Had Dave been caught up in that? Jer called up a transponder readout and searched for a familiar code. The tension became a tremor. Maybe Dave had left the system. He was a good pilot and an experienced herder.
The communication system pinged.
Jer pushed off from the sensor station and flew across the bridge to the communication console. It pinged again before he had himself settled properly. The code on the screen identified one of the other ships in the system.
Jer punched the Accept Call button and identified himself. “Who is this?”
“Name’s Zack. Just a friendly bit of advice for you. Stay this side of the belt. Couple fellas got into it just yesterday on the other side, started a stampede and ended up getting one of the ships blowed up. The other one lit out on a course for Shechem.”
“Sir, you didn’t happen to catch the name on those ships.”
“Yep. One of them. Imperious was the one what lit out of here. Just about ran over old Adon on the way out.”
Kane. Ma will be devastated if the other ship was Dave. “I hate to be a bother, mister, but last night, I got a message from my brother. He was supposed to be here at Nain, and he sounded like he was in trouble, but a storm kept me pinned down. If–”
“I hope that other ship wasn’t your kin, but let me get the transponder number outta my sensor log.”
“I’d be obliged, sir.” Seconds passed like decades. Tension in his shoulders became a persistent ache. He whispered prayers that the most obvious answer wasn’t the real one.
“All right. I’m sending you the transponder number of the ship what got caught in the stampede.” Zach’s voice startled Jer out of his thoughts.
Jer swallowed hard and checked the readout screen.
“Sorry, but that code’s only a couple digits off yours.” Zach’s voice held equal parts certainty and condolences. “If you both registered near the same time or place, I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you for your effort.” Jer rubbed his forehead and shut off the system.
He was the nearest kinsman. Chasing Dave’s killer was his job, but first he needed Sheriff Weisser to deputize him.
Jer parked his wagon in the barn and hobbled inside. His shirt weighed more with a couple ounces of titanium pinned to it. Sheriff Weisser’s imprimatur had turned Jer from ranch boss to avenger of blood. Now all that remained was to chase Kane down and see justice done according to Theocracy law. First, though, he had to pick two people to crew with him. Short runs by himself were fine but this hunt for Kane might take a while. Ethan and Haddy along with the managers of their Pa’s hired hands, Tamar and Lemuel, sat in the front room. Ethan tinkered with one of his mechanical widgets. Haddy’s brown eyes were red from weeping, but she had composed herself as well as could be expected. Lemuel sat still as a board with his hands folded in his lap, while Tamar stared out the window.
Ethan set his widget aside and bolted to his feet. “Take me with you. I’m really good at fixing stuff, and he was my brother, too.” His words came out faster than last night’s wind.
“Calm down, Ethan.” Jer patted the kid’s—er, rather, young man’s shoulder. Eighteen makes you a man by law, but you’re still my kid brother. “I haven’t decided who I’m taking.”
Tamar turned away from the window. “You know there’s no love lost ‘tween me and Dave, but if you need a medic on this trip, I’m with you.”
“With a snake like Kane, you might need someone who knows weapons.” Lemuel smiled.
Haddy said nothing and pushed her glasses up. Words had rarely been necessary between them on important matters like this. She was a real jack of all trades, and that familiarity with a little of everything made her valuable, but she would trust his judgment and go along with his choice no matter what it was.
Haddy, the generalist
Ethan, the mechanic
Tamar, the medic
Lemuel, the weapons specialist.
Jer needs 2 people for his crew. Who should he take? Leave me a note in the comments below or on my Facebook page. You have one week to vote. A week from tomorrow, I’ll post the result.