Life Unpredictable, Sentinel
The giant engines whined, a high pitched sound that made the cold hull vibrate and upset Blair's stomach. The sound seemed to cut through him until all he could do was hold onto the brace straps and pray this was normal. Since this was his first trip into space, there really wasn't any way for him to know—especially since as a stowaway, he couldn't call an attendant over and ask.
"Is that normal?" Beatrice whispered, her hand slipping around his arm. He should tell her to go back to her own straps, but instead he reached out and grabbed her hand.
"Totally," he said, hoping he wasn't lying to her. Deborah looked over at him, her gaze sharp even in the dim and crowded bay. But Beatrice just moved closer and pressed herself to him.
Sometimes Blair had trouble remembering that Beatrice was only three years younger than he was, but her sister had protected her from the darker side of life and that had left her young and so very willing to cling to any reassurance. Part of Blair wished he could lie to himself as easily, but he had always lived in the real world, no matter how cold it seemed. From the time he was four, Naomi had prepared him for life on his own. The flu pandemics that had swept the world at regular intervals had made life too unsure, and she had decided that her son would survive. Sometimes Blair thought that it was only Naomi's will that kept him moving forward when he should have given up. Then he lost her in the Adenovirus-14 flu epidemic of '24.
The ship gave another whine and then a deep rumbling made Blair's bones ache. "Coming in to the dock," Carl, another one of the other emigrants offered. He was an older man with a face deeply lined from sun and age. Blair briefly wondered if he was trying to find a berth on-station or on-planet. He looked like a planet-dropper. Part of Blair wanted to ride those fragile ships down into the atmosphere with no way to climb back up to the stars. Another part wanted to live in one of the two enormous stations that lazily orbited like miniature moons, stations that still had running water and electricity and all the conveniences that Blair truly appreciated. He appreciated them even more after this trip.
"Almost over, then," Deborah said softly. She didn't look like her sister. As the oldest, she'd had to grow up fast, and that had made her harder and sharper than young Beatrice. Working the commune's farm, her skin had darkened and her hair lightened. They'd all gotten preferential status-B emigrant placement because they'd lived at a commune that had reduced its emissions to a carbon-zero, but that had still meant five to ten years on a waiting list, praying each time another flu hit that it would take people higher on the list and leave them. It was a game the three of them had decided to circumvent.
"Yeah, we made it," Blair said with a smile. They were in space. No papers, no permission, but here. And once they'd made it here, the station couldn't very well justify the cost to send them back.
"This is 'bout the most dangerous part of the trip," the older man said. "Once we're docked, the station corps is going to sweep through the decks."
"They won't find us though, will they?" Beatrice struggled to keep her voice even, but Blair could hear the fear in there. He supposed that every one of the twenty refugees jammed into the tiny hidden deck under the main decks felt the same, they were just old enough to have practice at hiding theirs. "Blair?" Beatrice asked.
Blair slipped his arm around her and smiled. "We just have to be extra quiet," he whispered. He glanced up at the low ceiling, and Beatrice's gaze followed his. Somewhere up there, corps members were walking the decks, searching for refugees or illegal cargo. Looking at the others, Blair could see the anger and fear in the faces, and the same coiled anger had turned Deborah's expression to stone.
They had done their part. They had turned over every cent they owned. They had endured five weeks in a hold so cold they had huddled together, rotating every couple of hours so that no one would be left to freeze on the edge of the group and no one could hog all the heat at the center of their pile. They'd eaten dry rations and suffered constipation and lived with the stink of each other's bodies until Blair couldn't quite remember fresh air. He and Naomi had lived in Massachusetts once, in a town on a little island where a bitterly cold wind seemed to always blow in from the ocean, and they'd had fresh air. Now that memory mocked him as he breathed in the stink of his own body.
Blair sighed, realizing he was mentally drifting again. It was better than paying too much attention to his current reality. "Om Bhur Buvaha SuvahaThath Savithur Varenyam," Beatrice started whispering, the words little more than breath against Blair's neck. Above them, something thumped, and everyone froze, the entire room going shockingly silent. Blair's heartbeat pounded in his own ears.
A memory trickled in... I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death. Blair wondered whether the author of that little gem knew the French term, le petit mort or the little death, was another term for an orgasm. Fear is the little orgasm. It sure as hell was making his brain cells scatter to the four corners, so Blair could stay without a doubt that total and absolute fear had the same general side effects as an orgasm.
Muffled footsteps above them. Fear. Blair forced himself to breath. Pain. He looked down to find Beatrice's fingers digging into the soft of his arm. A long scraping sound.
Blair looked around, and he could see his own panic mirrored in nineteen other faces. More scraping sounds, and it seemed like someone was spending a lot of time in the hold above them. Was Captain Henderson coming back to let them out? Were they about to be given a fast and unceremonious welcome to the station and then a swift kick to the backside to get them the hell off his ship or were the corps officers searching for a way into the hidden deck? Did they know?
Blair could feel panic pressing against him like an animal caught in his chest. He'd heard stories of captains opening the hidden decks and flushing the refugees out like trash. Their bodies would be instantly frozen, the air driven from the lungs by the vacuum of space, and then their hard corpses would either get caught in the gravity of the station, sticking like flies on flypaper, or it would slip away into the dark. Either way, they'd be gone.
Blair tightened his hold on the brace straps even though he knew he couldn't save himself if it came to that. However, he just couldn't die. Not now. He had to survive—the last of the Sandburg line. There wasn't anything left of bright Naomi who had protested and fought and argued about pollution and pandemics long before others were listening. There wouldn't be anything left of Elijah Sandburg, his cranky grandfather who had disowned Naomi until the horrors of the H9N2 flu outbreak of '11 had convinced him to change his mind. There would be nothing left of Elijah's wife who had died so young—long before Blair had been born. There would be nothing left of Yada nee Zandberg, the woman who had died in Poland when Hitler had lost his mind so many generations ago and left behind only one son to tell the story of her suffering. He would not have his family end in the cold of space.
A warm draft swept through the small deck, and at first Blair thought he was imagining things, but the way the fresh air seemed to make the stink even more noticeable, that was not his imagination. A scraping sound warned them right before the door above them slowly showed a crack of light and then started opening.
Blair smiled at Beatrice who was almost bouncing on the seat next to him. Unhooking the brace straps, Blair had just started to stand when he saw the face peering in through the crack. It was a tall man, his brown jacket carrying the marks of the space corps. In one second, Blair's hopes popped like an over-stretched balloon, exploding into a burst of despair so great that he fell back against the seat.
"No one move. This is Cascade Station Corps. You are under arrest for illegal entry into station territory. Any attempt to evade will lead to additional charges."
Blair sat, numb, listening to this large man bark out his threats, and he wondered exactly where they were supposed to 'evade' to. They were locked in a tiny little cell with armed guards outside, there wasn't much choice here. Beatrice was clinging to his arm, but when he looked up at Deborah's face, he could see only cold hatred.
"Fucking gangway rats," she said in a rough whisper. The words were like a kick in Blair's guts. He'd worried about getting spaced by a frightened captain, he'd worried about getting cheated of his money and never allowed on the ship, he'd worried about so many things without worrying about this moment.
They'd been arrested. They all faced a period of slavery, and he just wasn't sure how either Deborah or Beatrice would handle that. Deborah had already been through so much. She'd lost her own parents and then, not long after Naomi had taken her in and let her start recovering her childhood, Naomi had died. Blair remembered those horrible days after Naomi's death when Deborah thought that, as the oldest, she had to carry all the weight of adulthood.
And Beatrice. She'd been too young to remember her parents and too sheltered by Deborah to really develop the hard edges her sister had. How would she survive slavery? Blair knew the history of slavery all too well, and the women never fared well in any slave-system. He would sell himself before letting either of the girls do the same, but he knew he was only delaying the inevitable. They were all going to be sentenced, and there was nothing he could do. He'd talked them into this, and now he had condemned them to this.
When the order came, Blair stepped out into the main hold. Beatrice had left his side, retreating to Deborah's arms now that the situation had turned serious, and Blair stood alone.
"Blair Jacob Sandburg," he said. It seemed stupid to lie at this point. Maybe it would work in his favor that he'd earned preferential status-B ranking before giving up on the system altogether. Maybe not. The corps officer across the table didn't actually look like the kind to care about extenuating circumstance. Blair blushed when he tried to gesture with his hand and that made his restraints jingle.
"Training or certifications?"
"Teacher certifications for community college and secondary in history, anthropology, and sociology. Training in organic gardening and husbandry on a carbon-zero farm." Blair had hoped some of that would at least impress. It didn't. The man just clicked the information into his pad.
"Twenty-three." Blair bit out the words. He was reaching a critical level of frustration, and having this asshole totally ignore him was pushing a few buttons. Luckily, his last answer finally brought the officer's cold blue eyes up to study him. Getting glared at was much better than getting ignored.
"You look pretty young for your age."
"I'm twenty-three," Blair repeated firmly, "I have a master's degree in anthropology, and I lived on a zero-carbon commune for twelve years."
The officer put the pad down and steepled his fingers as he looked across the table. "And you're still stupid enough to stow away on a freighter?"
Blair pressed his lips together. Anger was not going to serve him well now, but it would feel really good to rip into this asshole. Somehow it made it even worse that this asshole was a stunning man. His startling light blue eyes and classic Greek god profile made him look like the cover on some romance novel. If it weren't for a slightly receding hairline, Blair would have suspected the corps of slipping an actor into the interview room because this guy had the sex appeal of one. And he really hated that he found the officer currently ruining his life cute.
"Do you have any idea how many refugees get flushed into space in a year?" The man leaned forward, his sharp gaze making Blair shift nervously.
"A pretty good idea, yeah. I'm not an idiot," Blair said stiffly.
"I don't know about that." The officer leaned back. "We have to scrape the bodies off the hull. You're lucky you aren't out there."
"I was careful about choosing who to hire," Blair contradicted him. The officer leaned back and crossed his arms.
"Were you? Let's talk about who you hired."
"A man with a mask and digital voice disguiser," Blair said with a smirk. The officer's eyebrow twitched, and Blair thought he saw a trace of surprise under the man's layers of stoic. No way was Blair going to make this any easier on the corps, though. Captain Henderson hadn't spaced them, and Blair planned to do whatever he could to repay the man for that kindness.
"You're in a lot of trouble, kid—"
"Oh please. If you want to play good cop, go play with someone stupid enough to buy it," Blair snapped. "So, since Cascade is slavery-central, why don't you just lay it out for me. Where do we go from here?" Blair tried to lean back in his chair, gathering what little machismo he had around him to give off some sort of "cool" vibe, but the reality was that his wrists hurt and he was scared spitless. He wished he could see Beatrice and Deborah, but he wasn't in a great position to go demanding anything because the ACLU was a long way away.
"Slavery central?" the cop sat up straight. "That's what you think?"
"Three years of service to even get on the Cascade immigration list. Three years of having no choices and no rights. So yeah, that sounds like slavery."
The officer leaned in. "Then maybe you should have chosen a system other than Cascade."
"We did. We were bound for Ryugujo."
"You missed it." The bastard looked a little smug, and Blair had to swallow a whole lot of angry words.
"So, I researched the penal system at Ryugujo, which includes fines and loss of some citizen rights. I haven't researched your cute little system. What am I facing?"
The officer leaned back again and studied Blair, searched him with his gaze until Blair felt as naked as he had during the strip search. "A legal immigrant agrees to three years indentured service."
"Indentured service, Sandburg. Servants have rights."
"Just not the little ones like freedom of speech or plain old freedom. Call it whatever you like, man. You know, in the American south, the plantation owners actually started with an indentured service system, but do you have any idea what kind of monsters people become once they have that kind of power?" The second the words slipped out, Blair kicked himself. This man probably had a couple of slaves at home, and here Blair was poking him. At this point, he really had to hope that illegal immigration had a flat sentence because if there was any kind of flexibility in sentencing, he was pretty much asking to have the book thrown at him.
"So, you think we're all going to wake up and lose all our ethics," the officer summarized. He crossed his arms and actually looked mildly amused, like Blair was a particularly young and befuddled child who had misunderstood a word.
For a second, Blair's good sense won out and he kept his mouth closed. For a second, anyway. But if he was going to go down, he was going down swinging. "Man, inch by inch, you will lose your ethics. Slave systems are like open septic tanks. They breed corruption and filth."
Surprisingly, the officer's face turned thoughtful and he glanced over at the one-way mirror. Habit made Blair look even though all he could see was the reflection of the two of them sitting at the table: him in his blue jumpsuit and the officer in his neat brown uniform coat.
"Sometimes it does, Sandburg. However, idle hands are the devil's joy. Those of us who live here don't want Cascade to turn into a system full of rich brats who bought their way onto ships with daddy's money. We actually prefer immigrants with experience on carbon-zero farms and a marketable skill."
Blair snorted. "Yeah, I feel really welcome." He jerked the handcuffs that chained him to the desk.
"You might have been if you'd applied instead of showing up without warning."
"Whatever. So, what happens now? I have to play good, meek slave for three years?" Blair clenched his jaw at that thought. He didn't do meek well. He couldn't even fake meek well. And Deborah and Beatrice... Beatrice was entirely too meek for her own good. Slavery would emotionally shred her. And Deborah was even less meek than Blair, which was saying something.
"Three years is term of service for applicants. If you wanted to apply, you should have done that before you left Earth. You were the kind of kid who never remembered to use the bathroom before getting into the car, weren't you?"
"Great. A comedian. Keep your day job," Blair suggested.
"Never planned to give it up."
"So, clearly I can assume the term is longer and that you're a sadist who's enjoying drawing this out." Blair wished he could cross his arms and glare, but he settled for glaring. He was surprised when the officer actually managed to look a little surprised and maybe even a little pink. Maybe the man wasn't a sadist.
"I didn't mean to make this harder, kid. The term is six years."
"Six?" Blair could feel his stomach knot. "Six? Oh man. Shit."
"That would be the smelly stuff you're standing in, yes," the guy agreed. Blair wanted to glare at him again, but he just didn't have the energy. Six years. Blair would be nearly thirty before he was free again. And the girls.... In six years, Deborah would be thirty six and just starting out on a new planet with nothing.
From the time Deborah was twelve years old, she'd had to prove she was a woman capable of defending herself and her little sister over and over again. When Naomi had taken them in, Deborah had been sixteen, and four years of fighting had already left her hard in ways that sometimes scared Blair. He'd been totally intimidated by Deborah as a child, and it was only once he was older that he had realized that her strength was also a weakness. She had survived things that Blair didn't even like to think about, some of which had left scars on her body and her psyche, but that same strength made her inflexible and quick to attack—two traits that wouldn't serve her well in slavery. Blair had expected Deborah to make a run for planetside in Ryugujo, and he had no doubts that within ten years, she would have been a matriarch running a successful farm, a thriving business, and probably a huge family. He'd never doubted that, but his powers of precognition failed him when he thought of her trying to follow someone's orders for the next six years. He just knew it wasn't going to be pretty.
"There are consequences for actions, kid." The officer shrugged, and even though Blair could tell that he had meant it with some sympathy, Blair could feel his anger rising.
"Fuck you. And I'm not a kid."
"Of course not." The officer rubbed a hand over his face, a look of discomfort crossing his face, but Blair wasn't sure what he had to feel uncomfortable about. He wasn't facing a six year term of slavery.
"Six years, and you think that whatever asshole buys Beatrice isn't going to do her any harm? You think she's not going to come out of that warped?" Blair snapped at the officer, and he was trying very, very hard to forget the statistics he'd learned about the incidence of rape among slaves and indentured servants in the American south. Entire areas had considered rape an effective economic tool. Every time a woman got pregnant, the owner lost three or four months of work, but he got to add a whole year to the term of her indentured servitude. It had turned into a defacto slave system that had trapped women.
"If she wasn't psychologically prepared for life on the frontier, then you shouldn't have brought her, but I give you my word that she is not going to be abused."
"Right." Blair poured on the sarcasm.
"Do you really think we're monsters?"
"Then put your money where your mouth is and take her years." The officer leaned back and crossed his arms, and that damn smug look was back, like he just knew Blair would shut up now.
"I can do that?" Blair got very still. His stomach just about rolled in fear because he was suddenly contemplating what it would mean to be a slave for a whole lot longer than six years.
The officer shrugged. "A lot of young people do that. One comes here, works the three years and then sponsors a sibling or a spouse and splits the next term so they both do a year and a half. It's pretty common."
"So, could I just take her years?"
"Kid—" the officer cut himself off. "Chief," he started again, and Blair wasn't sure that was an improvement, but Blair suddenly didn't want to aggravate this guy any more. He wanted information. "If you sign to take this woman's years, that's going to put you at twelve years. You'll be thirty-five before you have your freedom back."
"I'll be forty-one years old. I want to take the service years for Deborah and Beatrice Obote."
"You... Chief, that is the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
"Why?" Blair stared at him. "If you're telling the truth, then you guys have this indentured servitude system down to a humane science. You're never abusive sons-of-bitches."
"Most of us aren't sons-of-bitches," the officer said, "but even if your contract goes to the most humane person in the entire system, you're talking about eighteen years of your life. You need to think about that."
Blair took a deep breath. "Man, they are the only family I have in the world. I don't have to think about that."
"If they're your family, then they won't want you to do this. Just think it over." The officer stood up, and Blair pulled helplessly against the cuffs. He didn't want to be dismissed, but there really wasn't much he could do to stop it.
"I won't change my mind," Blair called out as the officer reached the door. He'd grown up playing with Beatrice and watching Deborah with this awe that someone not much older than him could be so much of an adult. They'd been there when Naomi died, crying with him. They'd all slept in the same bed when the heaters had failed, the three of them huddled together as they told stories under every blanket they'd owned. Deborah had paid for his first semester of college with her sewing and Beatrice had bragged to everyone that her big brother was going to be a professor one day. They were family. They were family, and it was time he repaid them both for the love they had shown him and for his own foolishness for leading them into this mess.
"How do I file paperwork? How do I make an official request?" Blair called as the officer opened the door to the holding cell. He'd forgotten the pad with Blair's information, and for a second, Blair thought the officer was staring at that. However, he was staring too blankly.
"Man, are you okay?" Blair asked, feeling odd. He was fairly sure he wasn't supposed to care about his captor's health. When the man didn't answer, Blair shifted nervously. It looked almost like a petit mal seizure, but the guy was not coming out of it.
A very large man with dark skin stepped in from the hall.
"I did not do anything to him," Blair quickly pointed out. Shit, the last thing he needed was to get accused of doing something to trigger some seizure, but if the guy had medical problems, that explained why someone who looked to be in the prime of his career had gotten stuck interviewing illegal immigrants.
The new officer totally ignored him and put his hands on the guy's shoulders. "Ellison, focus or stop focusing or something. For Christ's sake, snap out of this."
"What?" The first officer shook his head, reminding Blair of a dog coming out of the water, but he decided to not share that observation. He did have some sense of self-preservation.
"You over-focused," the new man said wearily. Blair watched in fascination as Ellison, the first officer, rubbed his hand over his face.
"Yeah, that'd be it. Clearly, the kid isn't helping."
"What? Me? I didn't do anything," Blair repeated.
The big man spared him a rather unfriendly look.
"Simon, he is the one, but something he said startled me. I just lost my concentration."
"Am the one what?" Blair demanded to know. Both men ignored him.
"Jim, you can't keep working if you can't get this syndrome under control."
"Which is where Sandburg comes in."
The big man, Simon, looked over at Blair again, and doubt was etched into his face.
"Man, do I even want to know where I'm coming in?" he asked. This whole conversation was getting a little too weird for him.
Ellison sighed and took a step back into the room. "Have you heard of intermittent hypersensitivity disorder?"
"HD... sure. People with senses way beyond the normal. Everyone thinks it's related to space living or low gravity, but when I was getting my degree, I found a text by the explorer Burton who documented a warrior with HD back in Peru in the 18 or 1900s, and trust me, they did not have a whole lot of space flight or low-gravity back then." Blair blinked as his brain finally caught up with his tongue. "Shit. You have HD. Man, that is why you keep staring at me like you can see through me."
Ellison nodded. "And why I could find you on that refugee ship. I don't know how you could stand the stink, Sandburg."
Blair shrugged awkwardly with his hands still cuffed. "People do what they have to. I guess I'll have about eighteen years to think about that."
"Eighteen?" Simon looked at Blair in confusion.
"I want to take the service years for Deborah and Beatrice Obote," Blair said firmly, despite the butterflies currently flocking in his stomach. He felt some satisfaction at the shock in Simon's face.
"Jim, that would certainly solve one problem," Simon said.
"Do you two ever speak in complete sentences or do you just enjoy being annoying?"
Simon's expression darkened significantly.
"Cool it, Chief," Ellison said. He took a couple of steps and sat back down across from Blair. "Did your book say anything about a people with HD needing someone?"
Blair thought back to that old book. Eli Stoddard had bought it when they'd been on an anthropological trip in Mexico, and Blair had been suffering book envy ever since, even if he suspected that Eli only bought it because Blair loved it and hated leaving it behind. "Burton called the warrior a sentinel, and he said that the sentinel had a companion, someone to watch his back if he had problems with the senses."
"Burton was missing the point, Chief," Ellison sounded so tired that Blair couldn't quite extinguish the sympathy he could feel rising. "People with HD have a partner, someone who just feels right to their senses, or they start having problems with the senses."
"Why?" Blair frowned. He was a scientist and teacher, and this was not making sense.
Simon snorted again. "That would be the million dollar question. If you find an answer, you could probably even talk a judge into cutting a year or two off your sentence on the good-of-the-community merits."
"We just know that every person with HD finds themselves attracted to someone."
"Attracted?" Blair squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable being cuffed around these two very large, very armed men.
"Relax, Chief," Ellison reached across the table to put a hand on Blair's arm. "A lot of partnerships never turn sexual. Every pairing has to make their own rules for what works for them. Some partners come to work, others are just at home at night so the HD sufferer can get a break in their own quarters, and some meet for a specified period each week, an hour or two."
"But... you are trying to tell me that you want me for a partner, right?" Blair asked, suddenly unsure of his own deductive powers.
Ellison looked over his shoulder at Simon. "It's your call, Jim. I'll back up whatever you want, but if you bring him into the precinct, you'd better keep his mouth under control or you'll be unpopular when he starts taking shots at people."
"Do you really think I'd mind all that much?" Ellison asked, a dry sense of humor coming to the forefront.
Simon shook his head. "I imagine you wouldn't. However, as your captain, I'm asking you to keep him from doing any significant harm with that mouth of his."
"Wait. Is anyone going to ask me about this? I mean, I have never been a fan of police work and trust me, I am not all that thrilled at the idea of partnering with someone who arrested me and my whole family." Blair tried to sound firm about that even if a little part of him was now intensely curious about just how Jim Ellison ticked. Did he truly have the same syndrome as Burton's sentinel from so many years ago?
Jim pulled out a key and got up to walk around the table and uncuff Blair. "You don't get it, Chief. You don't have a choice. HD sufferers get first pick of immigrants because typically there are only one or two people whose presence seems to calm the sensory overload. The second I tell the judge that my senses feel more under control around you, he's going to sign your contract over to me. So, before you decide that you're willing to take two extra terms, consider this: you won't just be indentured for eighteen years, you'll be indentured to me."
Blair opened his mouth, but he really couldn't think of anything to say. Maybe Ellison took that as permission because he caught Blair under the arm and pulled him to his feet. "Look at it this way, Chief, you're starting a whole new life."
Still unable to really find the right words, Blair allowed Ellison to pull him into the hallway. He had planned everything: which smuggler to trust, how much to pay, what supplies to bring. He had never planned for this. Then again, Blair had learned a long time ago that life wasn't predictable and sometimes you just had to roll with the changes. He could do that. Hell, he was downright talented at doing that. Blair walked a little faster so that he was beside Ellison instead of getting dragged behind. Besides, Ellison had no idea what he was in for if he thought Blair was going to be a meek and obedient little slave. This could actually be amusing. Blair entertained himself with that thought as his new owner escorted him down the corridor.