Chapter 25 – Changes in Plans, Changes in Courses


An Assessment

The ship had been stationary for several days, but today it had engaged the drive twice. Winifred lay on her bed staring at the ceiling when the doors opened.  John Smith stood at the door next to a strange creature.  It was long and fat looking like a grotesque slug.  It’s two eyes were wide set over a very wide mouth. Smith gestured in her direction, “She knows the drive well. She is also talented in small mechanics and decent with electronics.”

The creature gestured with a small hand, “If she is so talented, why is she hidden in this room?”

Smith glared at her.  Winifred smiled, sat up and waved the inert prosthetic arm at him.  Smith continued, “Miss Stanhope gravely exceeded her boundaries.”

The creature slid forward and examined her more closely.   Winifred crossed her arms and frowned as it looked her over. It said, “She is not restrained?”

Smith looked up at the ceiling saying, “No…at the time I had the opportunity, I found her talents more useful without restriction.”  He crossed his arms and tapped his fingers, “Morgaine seems to get more out her recruits and Miss Stanhope had great potential. However, she couldn’t follow the few rules I gave her.”

Winifred smiled and said, “Smith gave me control of the others.”

The creature squinted with its big eyes and said, “That wasn’t enough?”

Winifred leaned in and said, “I have higher goals than to be a lab assistant  – even if it is a lab assistant to John Smith.”

Smith looked at his fingers and said, “Apparently my offering wasn’t enough. She became bothersome.” He waved at the creature towards the door and said, “She knows the machine well.  She’s available as well the man next door.”

The creature asked as they left, “Any restrictions on collaring?”

Smith turned his head back and gave a twisted smile, “Once the sale of the pair is complete, how you manage them is not my concern.” He closed the door with the same dark smile.

Reaction

After Smith and that horrid creature left, Findley raced to the wall and began tapping with a pen <S. showing me to creature. Something happening>

After a moment, Winifred’s  taps came back<being sold>

Findley returned quickly and sharply <as slaves>.

Winifred replied quickly <I know>

This system was damnably frustrating.  He had no idea what she thought.  And he could not convey his anger and frustration. He added <Smith says am inferior but trainable>

Winifred replied <says to annoy>.  Findley paced the room.  More taps came through the wall. <we leave after the ship docks. Prepare.> Relief filled Findley. They were finally leaving this small prison.  He began to gather his things in a bag.

Consequences were expected

Alfred watched the aliens leave. All four principles had purchased the Omicron drives. The assembly line on Morgaine’s ship would be busy for weeks. John Smith turned to him and said, “Join me for a brandy, Mr. Redman. Morgaine’s rabble is celebrating at some local pub and Carter-has been invited.”  Alfred raised an eyebrow.  Smith smiled, “Mr. O’Malley and Miss Weiz have assured his safety with Morgaine’s less temperate crew members.”  He turned and walked up the ramp into the ships portal and said, “So it is just the two of us…unless you wish to join Liam O’Hannigan.”

Alfred had been invited to the pub by Liam O’Hannigan ostensibly to celebrate, but it was clear there would be conversation with Iti Greeneyes and others about what happens next. But the tour of the cabins required Alfred’s response.  Alfred straightened and said, “A brandy will be a fine finish to the day,” and followed Smith to the bridge.

Smith poured out two snifters and sat in the pilot’s chair with his feet on the console.  Alfred took the second glass and sat in a relaxed way in the communications station.  Smith raised his glass and said, “To successful ventures.”  Alfred raised his glass and sipped the fine brandy.  It had full caramel test with a hint of fruit and flower. Smith said, “Camille has fits when I drink on the bridge.  The only time I can properly enjoy this station is when she is off.”  Alfred smiled at the idea that Smith was bullied by anybody, although a hyper intelligent machine seemed high on the list of possibilities.  Smith said, “Between Morgaine and myself, we have contracts for 40 of the Omicron devices plus training. Suffice it to say, even with a small percentage, you are now a very rich man, Alfred Redman.”

Alfred raised his glass took a sip and muttered, “Mother would be proud.”  Smith laughed. Alfred looked at the images on the screen. It was a painting showing a sale of some sort. The scene might have been from the station or even London – the characters were as varied as any in the hallway or a London street.  The main characters were smiling broadly while children and animals played in the background.  Alfred said, “The theme reminds me of early Dutch Masters but I am not familiar with this piece.”

Smith grew pensive. After a few moments he said, “You wouldn’t be.  The original was destroyed by the Guild when it dropped an asteroid on the Uycarran National Museum.  The asteroid took out the town, but the targeting was more symbolic than strategic.” He leaned back and said, “The artist was famous for her portrayal of Uycarran life and cultural. We are a people of trades and commerce. ”  He looked at it, then  took a drink.

Alfred took his own sip and viewed the details shown – the people were happy, the colors were bright, and the background he could make out a long row of shops.  He commented, “An interesting choice.”

Smith smiled saying, “A momentary weakness.” He faced Redman and said, “All four customers have agreed to support Morgaine’s membership in the coalition. Even Sioubus At said she could be worse which amounts to a high endorsement from him.”

Alfred pursed his lips saying, “When we met, I would not have anticipated building an alliance with Millicent Morgaine.”

Smith smiled a bit, “I am sure it seems odd. I suppose it is a game that our families have played over the years. She and I are just the latest players.”  Smith tapped fingers on the console and the image changed to a view of London.  Smith then said, “Morgaine will be brought up to speed about the coalition tomorrow.”

Alfred viewed the picture and sipped his brandy then asked, “What of Miss Stanhope?” With a wave he added, “And Mr. Brown of course.”

Smith snorted, “Mr. Brown of course.”  He paused and then said, “He really is the laggard of the lot. His  redeeming quality is a passable skill with the sword. I suspect Felicity Richards would best him in a game of skill if the rules were fair.”

Alfred shrugged, “Miss Stanhope did warn that he was better at his blade than engineering. She prizes his devotion and willingness to follow orders.”  He leaned back and eyed Smith over the glass and asked again, “So what happens to them? It hardly seems practical to keep them locked up. Especially now that we will be actively trading with others.”

Smith swirled his glass and glanced sideways at Alfred and asked, “What would you recommend?”

Alfred sighed, “You can’t leave Winifred near civilization. If she doesn’t cause a diplomatic incident, she’ll find someone who will listen to her. She’ll report what she knows for a reward.”

Smith laughed and tsked, “Such cynicism, Mr. Redman. She was your charge.”

Alfred winced and sighed, “I speak from experience. My experience says leave her some place remote, extremely foreign and well out of touch. On Earth, China might work – the more remote parts.” He took a drink and said, “I would request some books, a decent brandy and the occasional visit.”

Smith said sharply, “You expect to follow her.”

Alfred straightened up and said, “She IS my charge, despite her annoying behavior. I warned her and I view the lock up as commensurate punishment.”  He waved a hand and frowned, “Findley Brown you can leave on an asteroid for all I care. But I have invested a bit of my life on Winifred. She is brilliant. One just needs to channel her damnable ambition.”

Smith pursed his lips and said, “I thought I had.” He sipped the brandy and then said, “Regardless, I’ve found something akin to your solution. It will be remote and foreign and she will have no contact.  However, you following along to act as her butler is not an option.”

Alfred closed his eyes and said, “I suppose it is too much to hope she will be training as a space pirate.”

Smith quirked his lips and said, “She would be very good at that. But Iti Greeneyes would space her at the first sign of betrayal.” He swirled his glass and said, “I have made a deal with Sioubus At. He will get her for three years. She’ll spend her time training and working on the engines. Scarcely a hardship.”

Alfred was silent for a bit and then said, “She’ll never agree to that.”

Smith snapped, “She lost the right to choose with that second drone and her plotting.”

Alfred maintained a calm tone and said, “I am not disagreeing with that. I warned her about crossing you.  But this I know…she will not wait to be sold as a slave even for a limited time.  She does not understand consequences. She avoids them; she circumvents them; she deflects them; but she never accepts them.  They have been tried on her and failed.”

Smith said defensively, “Sioubos At is a firm believer in the collar.”

Alfred shrugged, “I don’t think he’ll get a chance.”

Smith said in a low voice, “You should make sure your loyalties are properly aligned, Alfred Redman.”

Alfred drank the rest of his brandy and set the glass down, “My loyalties have always been flexible in most matters.  Winifred is my charge and it is my responsibility to ensure her comfort and success.” He brushed some imaginary dust off his sleeve. “But, I do not blindly serve Winifred’s ambitions.” He waved at the image of London, “Her comfort and success are not served by selling out humanity. I will oppose her efforts on that.”

Smith eyed him and said, “Her ambitions need to take a rest.”

Redman smiled back, “And you underestimate her again…if you think they will.”

Smith leaned back and said, “That is Sioubos At’s problem now. Not mine.”

Alfred stood and bowed and said, “One can hope…I suppose” and left the bridge.

Escape Attempt

Winfred worked the knife as a screw driver with her left hand and useless prosthetic  on the right. Getting the screws took longer than she would have liked, but they gave way. A panel exposing the workings of the sliding doors slipped off and she moved it away.  Inside the cavity were gears and a cable to pull the door open.  She molded the digits of her replacement hand and fixed them as best she could.  She reached up and snagged the cable and pulled. It resisted and she pulled harder; the door opened a bit but stopped after less than an inch.  She tightened the straps on the prosthetic and leaned harder, bracing with her feet and legs. The fingers of the fake hand broke off and Winifred slammed into the other side of the entryway  swearing viciously.  She resisted the urge to break something else. She took a deep breath and then went to the wall and tapped out a new message.

Escape Complete

Winifred’s tapping sounded angry and he had not believed that was possible.  It would be up to him to get out of the room and then release her. He found his own hidden butter knife. The utensil was useless as cutlery – it barely cut cooked vegetables. At least now it had a more meaningful purpose as he removed the screws quickly. He removed the panel and examined the gears and cables. He reached up and pulled the cable down. The doors opened a crack and then resisted. There was very little to brace himself on. He climbed up on the entry wall, braced with his feet and pulled but the door remained stubbornly closed. His hands were starting to blister. He found a belt and wrapped it around the cable. The extra length gave him better purchase as he pulled using both legs now. The door cracked two inches. Not enough for him to get through, but enough for him to use other methods.

Findley disassembled the utilitarian chair. Using one of the chair legs, he started levering the doors open. Each inch seemed to be a supreme effort, but the two doors slowly separated.  Finally he had enough to force himself through. Pushing himself, he collapsed in the hall at the feet of Alfred Redman.

Establishing Order

Alfred leaned against the wall as the two doors began to work their way open. He supposed he should admire the persistence and ingenuity of the man.  But it was hard to get past the idiocy inspired by desperation. Smith had remained on the bridge when Alfred excused himself. As he was returning to his quarters he noticed the crack in Findley’s door and the chair leg wiggling a bigger opening.  This was leaving Alfred a sizable conundrum as Findley Brown spilled out onto the floor at his feet.

The young man stared at Alfred for a moment and tried bluster, “Dammit, Alfred help me up” and raised his hand.  Alfred pursed his lips and wrinkled his nose at the outstretched hand as if it had something distasteful in it. He smiled and said, “No.” A throwing knife appeared next to Findley’s shoulder. Alfred said, “If you address me in such a fashion again, I will kill you in your sleep.”  Alfred leaned down and pulled up his knife and said, “I assist Miss Stanhope – not you.”

Findley sneered, “So you are going to turn me in.”

Alfred returned the knife to an unseen hilt and said, “No.”  He shrugged as he settled the knife place and said, “Your disposition is of no concern to me. “ He stared back at Findley.

Findley groaned and worked his way out the door and pulled his bag through the opening of the doors.  He moved to Winifred’s door and said, “At least help me open Winifred’s door.”

Alfred quirked his smile and said slowly, “No.”  He put his arms behind his back and faced towards the door and said, “Do it yourself. I am not convinced Winifred’s escape is in her long term best interest.”

Findley narrowed his eyes, “So you are just going to stand there and do nothing.”

Alfred rocked on his feet, looked at the ceiling and said, “If you get her out, she will need assistance and I will help at that point. “ He then stared at Findley and said, “and if you leave her there, I will report that to her.”

Findley Brown shook his head at a loss for Alfred’s conflicted loyalties and began to take the door control panel off. He turned to Alfred and said, “At least give me a decent knife to work with. “ Silently Alfred flipped a knife in his hand and presented the knife hilt first.  Findley nodded and said harshly, “Thank you.”  Alfred kept his face impassive but felt the weight of the moment arriving. He could not blame Winifred, or even Findley Brown, for using their considerable intellect and ingenuity to avoid an unpleasant fate.  Alfred might know that it was temporary; it was unlikely they did.  But it was her measureless ambitions that had put herself and Findley in this position. And, in this case, her ambitions were definitely unseemly.  He had, through the years, accommodated her unusual tastes.  He had, through the years, cleaned up awkward situations created by her without regard to consequences.  This time the scale of her ambitions, of her lust for power had shaken him to the core. This was not some lost London trollop who would receive more money than she had seen in her life for an unpleasant week or two.

Brown’s exclamation of triumph roused Alfred. Brown had reconnected wires in the door control and the doors started to open.  Only to stop opening after a crack of two inches.  Brown muttered, “Blast” and began to push. He called, “Alfred…Mr. Redman help me push this door.”

From behind the door, Alfred heard Winifred Stanhope say with an unexpected catch in her voice, “Alfred are you there?” Alfred took a deep breath, looked at the floor briefly, and then straightened up and said, “One moment, Miss. We’ll have you out shortly.” And he joined Findley Brown in pushing the doors wider.

Returning from the bar

Neville felt a bit light headed as he returned to the ship and it was not just from the drinks. Miss Morgaine’s group was almost civil to him. Rachael and John had been friendly and even conversation.  Liam O’Hannigan, while not warm, had passed him beers and nodded to him on occasion. The others had been cool, but not hostile. And Neville supposed cool was as best he could hope for.  The group had met with guests and that made the evening pleasant. Iti Greeneyes had offered some useful tips on ships maintenance. Oexan Lili, the Kaum Legit, was suggesting good places to shop and visit on the station.  And after time, Neville was being incorporated into group conversation as a whole, even by Jason and Eleanor.  He regretted having to leave early, but he had a practice bout with Smith in the morning and woe if he missed it. All things considered, it had been one of his best days in a very long time.  As he approached the “Uycarran Glory”, Alfred Redman, Winifred Stanhope, and Findley Brown burst out of the ships portal toting bags.

Leaving the ship

The threesome came to a sudden stop when they saw a startled Neville Carter-Frasier at the base of the ramp.  Findley muttered “Shit, not him” under his breath. Winifred smirked as she took in the unsteady Neville Carter-Frasier.  Alfred simply set the bag down and crossed his arms in front.

Winfred walked slowly down the ramp and said smoothly, “Neville…you’re just in time. Findley and I are taking our leave. Care to join us?”

Neville sputtered, “How…How did you get out?”

Winifred shrugged and wiggled the fingers of her restored hand and said, “A big of ingenuity,  a bit of brute force.”  She waved her arm lazily and said, “The rooms were never intended to be cells. Camille being off takes away the watchman.”  She pulled out a blaster and said, “We even made a stop or two before we left…supplies and such.”  Neville steadied himself and stared at the blaster. The suits would not stop the beam from the gun.  Winifred stopped smiling and said quietly, “I’ll ask once more, Neville…care to join us?”

Winifred could feel Findley leaning forward a bit behind her. She kept her eyes on Carter-Frasier.  Finally he frowned and stuttered a bit as he said, “You… You shouldn’t be out.”  Winifred got wide eyed as Carter-Frasier shrugged a bit, straightened up and said calmly, “This has been the best month I can remember.”  He gestured to the entry way into the dock and said, “Winifred, you are deluded if you think you can negotiate the Guild. You haven’t heard what they’re saying.”

Winfred lifted the pistol higher and aimed at his head, “That is what Morgaine is going to do, isn’t it? Thing is Neville, I’m not going to negotiate with them…I am going to join them.” She sighed dramatically and said, “Pity… you’re a good engineer…”

Neville almost laughed, “Winifred… you fool. Millicent isn’t going to…”

He was interrupted by a sharp crack from behind her and Carter-Frasier crumpled at the base of the ramp.  Winifred looked around to see Alfred holding a pistol.

Loose ends

Alfred  pushed his bag at Findley Brown and snapped at Winifred, “You were wasting time. Get out into the hall. That shot probably roused someone.”

Winifred squinted at him.  Alfred pushed Brown down the ramp towards Winifred and gestured to the entry to the dock, “Go…now. I’ll finish this.” The two of them grabbed the bags and sprinted towards their freedom. Alfred sauntered down to the end of the ramp where Neville was groaning and trying to move away.

Neville gasped, “Why?”

Alfred stepped to his head and leaned down saying, “Because you might have crippled this little revolt before it is even finished birthing.” He tapped the gun on Neville’s head, “Winifred doesn’t need to know about the coalition or Smith and Morgaine’s plots.”

Neville groaned, “Please…”

Alfred muttered, “Neville… you were doing so well before. You are really going to need to work on that ‘stiff upper lip’ and all that rot.”  Alfred knelt next to him.  He whispered into his ear and said, “Sorry about this last shot, chap. Appearances… you know.”

Neville gasped for breath.

Alfred hissed, “Hush you fool. Winifred is going to want to see blood. We don’t want too much of it.” He leaned down and said, “Listen carefully. Tell Smith he has a man on the inside. Smith has a man on the inside.  Raise your finger if you’ve got that.”  Neville raised a finger. Alfred smiled a bit and said, “There’s a good chap. I know this is going to hurt. Damned sorry. Don’t move after or I’ll have to do much worse.”  Alfred stood up; casually aimed and fired one last time. Neville, to his credit, did not flinch. He only raised his finger.

New Alliances Grow

Rachael rolled along easily with John and Jason.  She was ready for bed. The bar had grown friendly after she and Unyack had bested most challengers in darts and cheerfully bought drinks for the ones they couldn’t beat. She had also been glad that Neville was finding a place. The past month had warmed her to the stiff toff. She needed to work on his social skills though.  He left the bar early so he would be ready for his daily workout with Smith.

As for the others, Liam had worked his magic with the bartender and was meeting other purveyors of information. And the couples had excused themselves early to find quieter, and more romantic venues.  It was a good evening and reminded her of the “Pressure Drop” parties after exams at the University. All the tension was gone and people were friendlier.

As the trio entered the docking bay, Jason laughed, “Seems Master Neville had a bit more than he could manage.”  There was Neville lying in a pile at the base of the ramp. Rachael frowned. Neville hadn’t had that much.

John scratched his chin, “He was sober as Felicity when he left.”

Rachael muttered, “Doesn’t matter. Come along boys. We need to tend to a fallen comrade.”  As the trio approached, they heard Neville moan.  Rachael said sharply, “Something is not right.”

John hurried up to Neville, knelt and then shouted, “He’s been shot. Dammit, he’s been shot!”

Rachael and Jason were frozen in shock for a moment. Rachael snapped back and hit Jason hard saying, “Help John move him onto the ship. I’ll rouse the ship. She rushed ahead of Jason as the chair moved faster than Jason. The ramp had never felt steeper and longer. When she reached the ships port, she pressed the button for ship emergencies and a klaxon began to ring.  Smith’s voice hung in the speaking tube, “This better be an emergency.”

Rachael snapped into the tube, “Neville’s been shot, you heartless bastard.”

Smith said quickly, “Bring him to the medical bay. I’ll meet you there.”

Rachael shouted down the ramp, “John, Jason can you move him? Smith is heading to the medical lab.”

Jason shouted back, “The suit stopped all but one.  One got through to his thigh and it’s bleeding bad.”

Rachael watched as John pulled out a kerchief and applied it to the bleeding thigh and held it.  But he had nothing to hold it in place.  Rachael rolled down the ramp and rummaged in side bag and pulled out a thin rope.  She used a hidden knife to cut the cord and handed it to John.  He took the rope and eyed her and shook his head, “Any patching plaster in your bags?”

Rachael remained straight faced as she said, “Nay but I might start stocking it if this becomes regular.”  The two large men grunted as the lifted the tall frame of Neville as gently as possible and hurried up the ramp.  The group passed the two cabins that had held Winifred Stanhope and Findley Brown. Rachael hissed, “I will kill that bitch…” Louder, she said, “Move it boys. Neville’s one of ours now and I want him alive.”  Jason and John picked up the step to the medical bay with new intensity.

Damages assessed

Millicent sipped her tea.  Felicity had prepared the tea and snacks and then left Millicent and John Smith to their business. This was not a conversation to be recorded. Smith sipped his own and then set his cup down. He asked, “How soon will the crews have the drives installed on the other ships?”

Millicent said, “Silverbeam’s and Clio’s drives are installed. Tuireann’s is almost done. Sioubos At is taking more time because of the training.”

Smith handed her his notebook and said, “Read this. I got it this morning.”

Millicent read the message in Alfred Redman’s neat handwriting,

“WS and FB established in charity hall, deck 302. Meeting Trades Hall w/ Guild Station Secretary tomorrow. Mr Flea Dander”

Her heart raced a moment and there was a small tremor in her hand. Millicent sat the notebook down and pinched her eyebrows. She said, “We will need to work out a communications method for Mr. Dander.”

Smith took the notebook back and said, “I’ve alerted Ciom Olo. Ciom Olo will work out a drop method with Dander. We’ll leave one of Winifred’s annoying drones for later use. I will enjoy hoisting her on her own petard.”

She picked her tea with more calm than she felt, “How long do we have? You are closer to Guild workings than I am these days.”

Smith snorted, “Winifred will find a new meaning to the word ‘bureaucracy’.  The Station Secretary will need to consult with Central Guild before he does anything or simply ignore her.  That means a dispatch and return. “ He took a sip of tea and said, “Worst case scenario,  Central Guild will get a message back here in a week.  Realistically, we should be moving on no later than two weeks.”  He then paused as he drank and said, “I suppose the truly worst case would be that the Station Secretary realizes there are three newly registered Earth people here claiming to have been on Earth two months ago and takes them seriously.”  He set the tea cup down and wiped his mouth,  “I can’t tell you how to run your crew, but I plan to leave in the next two to three days.”

Millicent closed her eyes and said, “I’ll rearrange crews. We can finish Sioubos At’s work in two days but the training stops. You’ll need to explain why.”

Smith smiled, “Everyone here will need to know regardless.  We have to shift locations for sales and installation.” He shifted in his seat and said, “I’ll send the next location shortly. I’m sure Silverbeam has a hidey hole he can share. We’ll finish the current work there. The others can start sending more customers in our direction.”

Millicent raised her hands and said, “I am going to have to spread people out in this first run. Is Neville fit?”

Smith said, “I’ve been keeping him isolated. The boy couldn’t lie about his age and we can’t afford others knowing the whole story right now. But he can pilot when we leave.  I will still need Camille to run the machines with that skeleton crew. ”

Millicent said, “I’ve already warned the others they will be staying with customers soon. Neville is critical and everyone will need to do their part. I will bring up Charles as well. He can run the machines and the core team can help with the other ships.”

Smith grimaced saying, “I should have dealt with those two earlier. Regardless, this is going to cost Miss Stanhope and Mr. Brown dearly.”

Millicent smiled for the first time, “Do leave something for the crew. I think Rachael is ready to lead a hunting party for the three of them. She might even be pleasant to you if you let her watch when accounts are settled. “