Jer considered his options. He was not only choosing his crew. Whoever he didn’t take would be left here to run the ranch, with all the complexities that brought. With Ma and Pa still away, there was only one person who really knew the ins and outs of the ranch well enough. Haddy could keep things running just fine. The hired hands respected her a lot more than Ethan, and she was family, unlike Tamar and Lem. She had the authority to act as needed.
Now, who to leave with her? Tam and Lem were tough as nails, and either could back Haddy just fine. There were bandits in the area, off and on, and for all the Theocracy’s efforts to convert everyone to the true religion, there were still holdouts. The Squatters, the unauthorized colonists who’d tried to claim land without Theocracy permission, surfaced now and then to register a violent complaint, contracts notwithstanding. If something or someone riled up those unauthorized colonists, Haddy needed someone who knew the defensive systems as well as he knew how to put on a hat. That meant Lem.
So, Haddy and Lemuel would keep an eye on things here while Jer, Tamar, and Ethan chased down Kane and made him pay for the crime of killing Dave.
“Haddy, I’m leaveing Lem here with you to watch over the homestead. Keep your eyes open. We haven’t heard or seen much of the Squatters lately, but that don’t mean they aren’t planning something.”
“That means I’m going?” Ethan grinned.
“You and Tamar. We’re leaving as soon as you’re packed.” Jer clapped Ethan’s shoulder.
Brow furrowed, Haddy hid her quivering hands by crossing her arms over her chest.
“Meet you back here in fifteen.” Tamar stood.
Ethan followed her to the second floor stairs. After they disappeared around the corner, Jer sat where he could see both Lemuel and Haddy without straining something. “Sorry to leave you two short-handed. Haddy, you just need to keep things running. Put off big decisions until Pa’s back. I’m leaving Lemuel with you in case someone riles up the Squatters.”
“They have been remarkably quiet lately.” Lemuel rubbed his stubbly chin.
Jer nodded. “Don’t expect that to continue.”
“No, patrols will happen as planned. We’ll keep eyes and ears open.” He stood and tugged his pants up and jacket down. “Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, sir, patrol’s due back shortly.” He settled his hat on his sparse hair and nodded once to Haddy. “Ma’ am.”
Jer waited for him to leave. “You’ll be okay here, Haddy. There are good folk here to help you out until Pa gets back.”
“I’ve only run the place for a day or two before. How long will you be gone?”
“I can’t say for sure, but Ma and Pa will probably get back before I do. A lot depends on what the judge decides.”
“Do you really think you’ll catch Kane before he gets to the City of Refuge?” she asked.
“No, but the judge will give me a week to get there before hearing the case without me. I’ll stop and break the news to Ma and Pa on the way.”
She shook her head. “I already told them. Ma called to give me an update earlier and wanted to know why I’d been crying.”
Jer leaned forward with his elbows on his knees? “How’d she take it?”
“Better than I expected, actually.” Haddy sniffled and wiped her nose with an embroidered kerchief. “I guess no one’s too surprised. She said for you to watch yourself with Kane and forget planning any kind of memorial until they get back by the end of the week.”
“Makes sense, but probably shouldn’t wait for me and Ethan to get home. If the judge rules it an accident or if Kane rabbits out of there after the trial, we might be a while. We’ll pay our respects when we get back.” He stood. “Anything you need me to do before I leave?”
She hugged him. “No, I think I can do this, but come back soon. Be safe out there.”
“I’ll be home as soon as I can.” He kissed her forehead.
When the solar gravity numbers reached the safe zone for the quantum drive Jer engaged the stabilization systems. Retrorockets fired, and Yireh slowed to a stop. At least it felt like they weren’t moving. They had a long way to go before the quantum drive would be satisfied. He entered the coordinates for Shechem.
“I’ll see you at Shechem.” Tamar slipped out.
Jer turned to his brother. “Glad to see you’re looking less green.”
“Yeah, sorry, Jer. Zero G just turns my guts.”
“Happens to lots of folks, kid. Don’t fret over it.”
Ethan sighed. “Yeah, but I know your leg doesn’t trouble you as much at Zero G.”
“True, but if a half G Keeps your dinner in its place, I’ll be fine.” He turned back to his console and called up the holoreader. “Go be still somewhere so the quantum drive can cancel out our movement.”
“M’kay. See you when we’re there.”
As Ethan left the bridge, Jer watched the estimated stabilization time climb upward. Even the minimal force of walking across deck plates had to be zeroed out before the quantum drive would engage. Once the drive established the ship’s momentum at absolute stop, their location could be anywhere in the universe. This time, it’d be Shechem.
The holoreader scrolled at Jer’s comfortable reading rate so he could read without any motion. With a page width of only one to two words, he didn’t even have to scan left to right with his eyes. Meanwhile, miniature thrusters all around the ship fired in different directions, at different durations. After he’d read for a while, Jer refocused his eyes be on the instrument panel beyond his book. That miniscule motion added a couple hundredths of a second to the countdown. He watched the last few seconds. The timer hung on a tenth of a second before everything went black.
The darkness cleared and Jer looked out the viewscreen at a yellow, main sequence star with its collection of planets: Shechem. The quantum drive powered down, and Jer keyed the ship wide PA: “We’re here. I’m taking us into Refuge.”
He powered down his reader and engaged the thrusters. With continuous acceleration, he closed the distance quickly at an increasing rate and adjusted course for Refuge, the planet where the Theocracy’s major court issues were settled. As he passed the system’s fifth orbit, four small fighters rose from the planet’s surface. Jer checked the radar and keyed the identification protocols.
Bailiffs, probably coming to see what our business is.
Tamar walked onto the bridge and perched at the communication station just moments before it pinged.
She answered the call. “This is the Gibean ship Yireh. Please identify.”
“City of Refuge patrol group Theta. State your business.”
“Jeremiah Baruch is onboard pursuing Kane Lindemann who is responsible for the death of David Baruch at Nain.”
As Yireh passed orbit four, he reduced his acceleration.
“Yireh, we have record of Kane Lindemann’s arrival. All cases involving the Nain asteroid field are settled in Heptam City, We will send you coordinates and the approved course. Do not deviate.”
Jer looked back at Tamar and nodded.
“Understood,” she said.
The radar showed Theta patrol keeping pace with Yireh. The communication system pinged.
“Got the course. Sending it your way.” Tamar droned.
The course appeared in the radar a moment later. The required route, almost as complicated as breathing, took him all the way to a specific landing hangar. Jer adjusted course and speed to match the specifications before the patrol returned to the planet by a different route.
When Yireh entered the atmosphere, the attitude jets fired to turn the better-armored underside to the reentry burn. Orange and red haze filled the screen for almost a full minute before it faded and the jets fired again to turn Yireh back into flight mode.
Most of the colonized worlds of the Theocracy were terraformed into ranch and farmland, but Shechem was the exception. The rocky surface had been leveled for industrial purposes, and the eight Cities of Refuge had been built as judicial and manufacturing centers. A gray haze filled the air in spite of scrubbers scattered all over the planet working full time to keep the air breathable.
The course led Jer around to the day side of the planet. Heptam City grew larger on the horizon. Factories reached up through the smog blanketing the city, but there was no obvious sign of pollution sources. No smokestacks belched black clouds. Modern vehicles had no exhaust fumes, and yet the pollution was worse over the city.
Jer settled the ship in the designated hangar and set all systems in standby mode. He’d never been to Shechem, but merchants who did business here called it City of Refuse. There had to be a reason why.
“Take me with you,” Ethan pleaded.
Jer startled and spun toward his youngest brother. “Y’know, one of these days I’ll get used to how quiet you move.”
“Sorry.” Ethan’s goofy grin had nothing like an apology in it. “Really, though. I want to go to court with you.”
“Nothin’ doin’, kid. You and Tamar are staying on the ship. Only avengers of blood, the accused, and members of the court are allowed in the court itself.”
Tamar shook her head. “Tales I’ve heard about these cities? Uh-uh. No way, Ethan I’m not leaving this ship, and neither are you.”
Ethan frowned. “If it’s that bad, shouldn’t we go along to protect Jer?”
“And come back to Yireh totally stripped of all useful parts?” Tamar asked.
“Wait a minute.” Ethan propped his left hand on his hip and pointed with his right. “Shechem is the legal center of the Theocracy. Shouldn’t there be more law here?”
Jer smirked. Such innocence. “Maintaining law and order requires something like ninety-eight percent of the population to be law-abiding citizens. When somewhere between one-third and one-half of as Shechem’s population is criminals who beat the court waiting for the high priest to die so they get their pardons, what do you think that amounts to for those trying to maintain order?”
“Oh.” Ethan flopped in the nearest chair. “Guess that means I’m stuck here. Why’d we come if we’re just going to sit on the ship?”
“Get going, boss.” Tamar indicated the loading ramp with the twitch of her head. “While you’re gone, I’ll explain the likely scenarios to Ethan here. We’ll make sure you have a ship to come back to.”
“Good. Button it up and use the ship’s defenses if you need to. I’ll be back when I can.”
Jer grabbed his cane and headed aft with Tamar on his heels. The half-gravity gave an extra bounce in his step which complicated using the cane, but the pain wasn’t so bad. He could tolerate more weight on his bad leg without the pain getting the better of him.
Tamar lowered the ramp, letting in a gust of Shechem’s air. The chemical stench threatened to turn Jer’s stomach. He hobbled down the ramp as quick as he could, pausing at the end and making a deliberate downward step as if he were on stairs instead of level ground. The increased gravity pulled at him, and he gritted his teeth against the pain in his leg. After making sure he’d gotten the pained expression out of his face, he turned back to the ship and waved. Tamar closed everything up again.
He turned toward a voice deep enough to come from the center of the planet. A lean man in a dark green uniform stood there with a demeanor of careful confidence.
Ready for trouble and capable of handling it? Jer limped forward, switching the cane to his left hand and offering his right to the man. “I’m Jeremiah Baruch.”
The man kept his own hands loose at his sides. “Physical contact with court officials is strictly forbidden. Come with me, please. The court was alerted to your arrival. Your case will be heard as soon as you arrive at the judge’s bench.”
Jer followed the official out of the hangar complex and into the open air. If it were possible, the stench outside was worse than inside. The official stopped at a heavily-armored car and reached into his pocket. The hovercar beeped twice and two doors opened.
“Get in.” The official pointed to the nearer open door.”
Jer sat on the heavily cushioned seat and swung his left leg in before lifting his right leg with his arm. He set the cane next to him. The official climbed in the other side and tapped a button on the control panel. The hovercar beeped as the doors slowly closed and sealed. Cool air smelling of sweeter chemistry blasted from the air vents for ten seconds, eradicating one disagreeable stench with another that was only somewhat better. After the official entered information into the navigation system, the hovercar lifted off and drove itself.
“I am authorized to accept your tax payment.” The official pulled out a ledger.
“Tax payment?” Jer asked.
“Yes. To support your use of the court system, there is a voluntary tax in any amount you wish contribute.”
Jer thought back through his civics classes in secondary school. “The court is supported by the Theocracy. Otherwise justice would only go to the wealthy.”
The official snickered. “That’s what the textbooks say, don’t they? The real world doesn’t work like the textbooks. Consider it like a donation to church. It’s not required, but the judge loves a generous giver.” He leaned closer. “For an extra ten shekels, I’ll tell you what the accused paid for his tax.”
Is this a scam or are you for real?
Help Jer decide.
Should he pay the tax?
You have 1 week to vote. Results will be posted on 9/3/15.