Once back in Sol, of course I had to stop in on Johan and head out for noodles (without him this time). At the university, there were rumors that Chantelle got married, which tells me she must have gotten more serious about being less selfish. I felt strangely pleased to hear that.
A rare long chat with Elisa at Cafe Nouveau brought up an interesting idea. She wanted me to see if I could pick up some coffee beans from Estacion de Amazon, where they apparently grow them. As I sat there, watching everyone enjoy this delightful beverage and pondered the joy of being a supplier for it, . . . well, that sounded exciting, but I hadn't seen a chance to get hold of any while I was there. To be honest, I'd rather find a way to grow them myself. Then I could bring her as many as she could use.
My friend at Taungoo asked me to carry a sealed, personal message for him to an "old friend" at Hopkins Legacy, which he said used to be a frequent port of call for the Tanegashima fleet, where his friend had served in special operations. I rather suspect he did too, and I wonder why he didn't want to go there himself.
My puzzled look brought a few stories about this fabled band of ships carrying all manner of plant and animal life in the hope of some day rekindling the human habitation of planets. I would never have believed such a thing a few cycles ago. The places I have been and the things I have seen have taught me never again to question even the wildest tales of fancy from Ser Shadow, as they seem to barely scratch the surface, so surely I need to keep an open mind to what may actually be out there.
My friend was right. I do belong in the stars, no matter how much I love the Broth Base and the culture of Taungoo (minus the Kyarr, of course).
I told him of the thunderstorm at Amazon, and I saw a brightness in his eyes that I hadn't seen before. Soon, he was chatting with me about unimaginable wonders laying out there, beyond what he said was an artificially limited reach. Perhaps he belongs to the stars as well. Clearly he once did.
Apparently, I have to earn my right to explore and participate in the cultures I encountered, and he was quite amused at my new name the Amazonian locals call me. While he wouldn't say why, he said the name was special, and that I should keep it as more of a private matter.
The next day was full of excitement as a local festival brought everyone out for noodles . . . and kept me very busy with my friend. Even the Kyarr seemed to be in an unusually happy mood, and people ran around under a strange tapestry with what looked like a monster's head at the front, bobbing up and down, weaving through the concourse. My friend called it a dragon.
An amazing array of musicians, very young, just a meter tall, very old, looking ready to fall over, playing everything from a stick with a string on it to a rack of metal slabs and a hammer, banging metal disks together, blowing into pipes with holes they cover with their fingers, hitting wood blocks with mallets, . . . was taking part in a magnificent, captivating performance, producing a singular work of music, rather than the cacaphone on Nouveau Limoges (not that that wasn't equally fascinating). The shrill whines, crackling, banging and booming of what they called fireworks frightened me at first, but then I saw it was just part of a celebration. The best tea I had ever had was served in abundance there that day.
Some people had set up a booth where strange stick figures with exaggerated faces were used to tell stories, and nearby someone was doing the same thing with shadows cast on a white cloth draped over a wall. Everyone but me was arrayed in the most colorful clothing and dancing about in one display or another. It was truly a marvelous sight, though I was dashing here and there with trays of noodles the whole time. My friend said my timing was perfect once again.
A fellow I used to think I knew, who was involved with the Prometheans, insisted that I had do meet him on Daedalus, so I went there with caution and discovered how wise my discretion had been. I stayed in the middle of crowds, where it was difficult to distinguish my CoreTechs name tag from among theirs, and I kept a hand on my sword at all times, and I observed this "friend" of mine waiting with a band of thugs, all masked and robed, crouching behind a panel where I would have had to pass to exit the port area. I think they would have taken me somewhere I didn't want to go. I paid a passer-by to hand him a note, and I got on the next shuttle while he was distracted. There are better places to go and better things to do than to mix it up with the "peerage."
I felt it best at that point to return to Amazon as soon as my course was finished, so I did, this time taking with me over 200 of those foul, raunchy rations packs, a small amount of V.I. solution and enough bonds to hire trainers while it lasted. Before I left, I retreated to the safety of Tau station and discovered that Mr. Cool had not yet returned from abroad, so I could just take on whatever tasks befit my career aspirations (I know, I should be more careful of using those two words together).
I found myself free to sort through the decommissioned ships, analyze and replace hull plating, diagnose and repair ships, install scientific equipment, update star maps and navigation systems, and even produce design after design for clients who wanted to build new ships.
Of course all of those designs were legal. You believe that, right? If you do, you are a fool. In fact, the last design I tried (and failed) to draw up got me thrown into the brig, where I was informed I had been promoted to Hull Integrity Specialist in recognition of that design. Two segments further into my 4-segment sentence, I received my daily salary, increased to my new rank as a level 7 technologist. 30 bonds accompanied my 511 credits. I felt too smug to say anything, and I simply relaxed through the rest of my quiet time there.
Unfortunately, it did cost me the admiration of the Consortium's elites, but they still seem to respect me.
On the way to the shuttle to Sol Jumpgate, I went to the University and started another new course to keep up with my goals (wait, I have goals?). The shuttle ride to Barnard's Star System was the first time I have ever gone through a wormhole without recycling a single ration bag, and I felt so accomplished.
Finally arriving at Amazon Station, I set to work making use of their unusually simple and effective training area, clambering up trees, swinging from ropes between them, mimicking the strange, warbling vocalizations I'd heard some of the children making back on Spirit of Botswana as they swung back and forth like pieces of a clock, almost yodeling like Johan, . . . well, . . . actually, no, I believe that's an art form I haven't mastered. Bystanders appeared to disagree as they recognized me, pointed me out to their friends and called to me, smiling, by my local name.
I felt so much stronger at the end of it all (and quite content to remain uninterrupted in my training, which never would have happened at Gadani). Also, I was getting far better results for my effort. Then I felt a change, a strange feeling, and I got a notice that I had received some money and a lot of bonds for some odd reason. After that, the rations weren't so filling. and I didn't feel so refreshed. Fortunately, I only had two packs left at the moment.
After checking in on my fish, repeating my promise to them that I would take them to the river and put them in the water, I set off to keep another promise . . . at Hopkins Legacy . . . and became embroiled in some very unsettling local strife, all over the simple crime of human compassion.
Hopkins is a mix of two dominant cultures with a strange and dangerous subculture lurking in its midst. Partly, it resembles Taungoo, but without the Kyarr, and partly, it is brown-coats who call themselves Lionhearts. Standing by is a significant, well-armed, well-supplied array of warships and support vessels, the Tanegashima fleet. The third is just desperate people who do not hesitate to do dangerous things, regardless of what the reasons may be. Amidst the confusion, I found the man, got him his note and hid myself in the shadows of the ruins while I pondered my traumatic observations and near death experiences.
Whom should I see there? Toe Moss. El Bandito Peteo. I confronted him with a smile on my face, expecting him to recognize me, which he clearly didn't. No, he pulled away, yelling angrily "Whah dar Ju doing? Hah? Who do Ju tink Ju are? Hah?"
I think this just might be the original, and all the rest are clones (perhaps were). I am all the more convinced there is someone cloning people while they are still alive.
This guy was a lot more combative, muscular, cocky, in-your face, dancing around like the chicken image on Spirit of Botswana, squaring off at me, actually shoving me backward as he spoke.
"Oh ho! What, Ju wanna fight?" as he shoved me back again. "Hah?" and again... "Ju gotta do dis da right way! Tirdy steps, den turn an fire, an den we see."
So I did, and I nailed him square in the chest, which would have ended it if not for his armor. He nicked the side of my face, prompting me to pull down my face shield.
"Oh, a tough guy. hah?" he yelled from his unsafe distance. I fired again, and down he went. His attempt to return fire as he went down was pitiful. I felt sad, but it didn't stop me from taking a little compensation for my trouble.
I found it very easy to disappear into the crowd now, and actually I rather preferred to stay lost for a while. Looking around, I found the usual odds and ends you expect on any station, then I retired to a rented room until I was ready to provide my services at the port.
I couldn't believe how clumsy I had become. I spilled fuel all over the deck, dropped and broke priceless equipment I was installing, ruined navigation systems, totally botched hull analyses and nearly got caught again trying to design a special ship for a special customer. Frustrated, I decided to look around for more of my special customers. It seems they are clones too. They always have the same names and are spying on each other, robbing each other, arranging for each other's equipment to be repaired and such, and they have an obsession with plastic scrolls. I spent half the day chasing plastic scrolls just to find the guy who had paid me to rob his buddy earlier, repair his sword and collect my reward from the guy he had paid me to rob...
I'm so confused. I think I'll just go home.
Wait . . .