The Things We Do For Family

Image by Amy from Pixabay

Bolts punched through the composite walls like they were paper, making me hunker even lower behind the ferrocrete foundation. Not for the first time since this standoff began, I wished I could burrow into the floor but there was a granite-like rock under the thin layer of regolith that covered this planet. So far, I’d been safe from the gunfire but the ferrocrete that sheltered me wasn’t anywhere near high enough for my taste. Just then, the firing stopped and I heard a voice call out.

“Hey, kid! You might as well come out. We got you hemmed in good.” A pause, then, “Give us what we want and you can walk away clean.” I knew that was bullshit. There was no way they were letting me walk away after what I’d done.

“Yeah, tell me another one, Moargan,” I shouted back. “You really think I’m thick enough to believe that?”

“Hey, it was worth a try,” he said. I could hear a slight chuckle in his voice. “Tell you what, hand over the bag, and I’ll make sure you go out easy. Quick and painless. Make us come in there and root you out, though, and I make no such guarantees.”

Now that, I could believe. “Let me think about it for a minute,” I said. I wasn’t really considering it, but I needed time and this seemed like the only way to get it.

“All right,” he said. “Just don’t take too long. We got to get moving before the laws show up.”

Well, Gav, I said to myself, you’ve done it again. How do you keep ending up in situations like this?

How I Got Here

Actually, I knew the answer to that question: I was here because of bad choices compounded by bad decisions and bad luck. Early on, I blamed this all on my father, but in truth, I am just as culpable. Maybe even more. But to explain that, I have to begin with my father’s screw-ups. And, they are legendary.

When I was 3 years old, my father decided that his job as an IT specialist for the Terran Federation left him supremely unfulfilled. It didn’t matter that it was steady work, or that it paid well, or that he would have a very nice pension when he retired. No, he found it utterly boring and that was that. He packed up the family and moved us to Xatis, an agricultural world in the Gliese 163 system known for producing sarromat, a stalky, fibrous plant that was even more versatile than Earth’s hemp, along with one other more profitable crop. Dad was very much a “back-to-the-land” type and wanted nothing more than to be a farmer. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about farming, having grown up in a dome community on Europa dedicated to coding and information technology. To say things didn’t go well was an understatement.

Things Were Looking Up

By the time I left for my compulsory service with the Terran Defense Force, the family’s situation had begun to improve because my brother Maddax, was a whiz at raising sarromat. Somehow, he found ways to coax those greenish-brown stalks out of hard, rocky ground that was totally unsuited to growing anything but the rocks that were so prevalent. Taking what he’d learned from growing sarromat and applying it to some other crops, he was to improve our diet and we finally had enough to eat. Circumstances were definitely on the upswing when I shipped out. So, imagine my surprise when I returned home 3 years later to find that we had fallen on times even harder than our early farming days.

Coming Home

My sister, Chlo, met me at the Serenia spaceport. She was driving the family hover-dray, carrying the sorriest-looking load of sarromat I’d ever seen. The hover-dray, or Chlo, for that matter, didn’t look too great either. But, she was happy to see me and the smile that lit her face when I came down the ramp did wonders for her appearance. “Gav!” she called, waving at me. “Over here!”

I made my way across the pad to where she waited for me. “Hey, Chlo,” I said, embracing her. “You’re looking good.”

She laughed. “I see the TDF didn’t improve your lying skills any.”

“What? You don’t look good?”

Her face turned slightly sour. “This god-forsaken planet and our god-forsaken farm are aging me prematurely.” She pushed me back and took a longer, more close-up look. “You, on the other hand, don’t seem to have that problem. We’re twins but anyone who didn’t know us would think I’m your significantly older sister. Maybe even a spinster aunt.”

“Get out of here,” I said. I tried to keep it hidden but part of me thought she wasn’t wrong. “Nobody’s going to think that.”

“I still say you’re a terrible liar but you are making me feel better, so I’ll let it go. Come on, we need to get going. Everyone’s waiting to see you.”

Sad News

When Chlo had said “everyone” was waiting to see me, I thought there was something off about her tone. I was right, as it turned out. “Everyone” meant “everyone except Maddax”.

“What happened?” I said, standing at his grave with Chlo.

“He was working on the sonic cultivator when the jacks failed. It came down on his chest and crushed him.” She looked off into the distance. “Doctor Brensom said it instantaneous and he didn’t suffer, so there’s that.”

Doc Brensom was lying, I thought. I’d seen enough death in the last 3 years to know that the likelihood of Maddax going quickly and painlessly was roughly equal to that of my father making a smart decision. I didn’t say that, though. The family needed that fantasy and depriving them of it wouldn’t serve any purpose, so I just sighed and said, “Yeah, there is that.”

The Situation Is Bleak

As I headed back to the house, Chlo caught my arm. “We need to talk,” she said. “Mom and Dad won’t say it but things are not good around here. The last two harvests have been about half of what they were when Maddax was alive and we’re hurting for cash. I can’t get a look at the books, because Mom guards them like a hawk. But I think the bank is about to call the note on the farm.”

I looked at her for a minute before answering. “You said ‘hurting for cash’. When I left, Maddax told me there was enough of a reserve to cover almost any emergency. Have things been that bad?”

She motioned for me to walk with her. “Emergency-wise? No. Dad spending money-wise though? That’s a different story.”

“Shit,” I said. “What was it this time? More crappy land that no one in their right mind would want?”

“I wish,” she replied. “If it was land, it’d worth a little something.” She kicked one of the ever-present rocks out of her path. “No, it was his other passion.”

“Gadgets,” I said.

“You got it. I swear every salesman in the galaxy knows what a soft touch he is when it comes to that stuff. He’s blown so much money and gotten no return from it.”

I shook my head. “Okay, I’ll sit them down tomorrow and see if I can get them to talk.”

“Good luck with that,” Chlo said.

Having The Talk With My Parents

It turned out that things were even worse than Chlo or I suspected. The bank had already called the mortgage. And, they’d done it almost 20 days ago. Which meant we had about 10 days to come up with 300,000 credits. I sat back from the screen that displayed the debacle of my family’s financial situation. “Why didn’t you say something before now?” I asked. Dad wouldn’t look me in the eye and left it to Mom to answer.

“We… we thought we could find a way without bothering you kids,” she said.

“So, what was the plan? Just let them foreclose?”

“No,” Dad snapped. “I figured something would come up and I could take care of it.”

I sat back and sighed heavily. “I’ll go to the bank tomorrow and see if I can work something out,” I said.

“Yeah, about that,” Dad said. “Um, the last time I talked to them, they said that we shouldn’t come back without the money.”

I looked at him. “What did you do?”

“Nothing!” he said. “Just offered a couple of suggestions. They didn’t appreciate them, though.”

I sighed. “Well, between my savings and my separation bonus, I’ve got some credits.” I saw their faces light up. “Not 300K, though.” I just hoped it would be enough.

Dealing With the Bank Is Never Fun

I won’t bore you with details of my bank visit. Let’s just say it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I got the foreclosure pushed back 3 weeks but it took most of the money I had saved and some very creative accounting from the loan officer, Ryleegh Koba, who had been crushing on me since high school. But that was it. So, I had a little extra time to come up with the remaining $225k, or my family would be out on their ass. Before heading back out to the farm, I decided to grab some lunch. I was sitting in Kolb’s Diner, nursing a cup of stimmy and trying to figure out how to gather more money than I’d ever seen in my life when Ryleegh came in. She made straight for me.

“Hey, Gav. Mind if I sit?”

Ryleegh hadn’t done it for me when we were kids, but she had definitely grown up since then. In the best possible way, too. “Sure,” I said. “We can catch up a bit.” I lowered my voice conspiratorily and said, “You can also help me get the lay of the land around here.”

She laughed and sat down. “Things haven’t really changed that much. It’s still a dumpy, little backwater where nothing happens.”

“Imagine that,” I said. “Xatis gonna Xatis, huh?”

“You got it.”

“Say,” I asked, “What was up with your boss? He seems to have a real hardon for my family.”

“You don’t recognize him?” she said. I shook my head. “It’s Paxt Kahl.”

Everything clicked the moment I heard that name. Paxt Kahl and Maddax were rivals in high school. And, Maddax had one-upped him on pretty much everything, including being valedictorian of their class. Kahl never forgave him for that. It looked like his resentment carried over to the rest of my family. “Well, shit,” I said. Just then, the waitress came over and took Ryleegh’s order. I told her to add to my check. It felt like the least I could do after all her help. It didn’t hurt that she was looking pretty cute these days.

A Plan Develops

It took a couple of days, but I finally came up with an idea. It was illegal as hell but you’re not going to raise 225k worth of credits in a few weeks through strictly legal means. One of those more profitable crops I mentioned earlier was a spice called peshurrel and it was in demand all over the galaxy. And, that demand meant it was expensive. And, when I say “expensive”, I mean expensive. Leave it to my father to settle on a planet that produces just two things and then pick the least lucrative one. I asked him about that once, saying “Dad, why do we grow sarromat when pesh brings a lot more money?”

“That was the plan when we came here, growing peshurrel. And, this was supposed to be prime pesh-growing land,” he said. Then, he shook his head. “It turned out that the guy who sold it to me wasn’t exactly being forthright when he said that.” My father, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a master of understatement.

The thing about peshurrel is that it’s very labor-intensive and requires a lot of hands. And, those hands had to be paid. The best cultivators of peshurrel are Stakels, some very weird little dudes from a planet called Ronars. Stakels, it seems, are very distrustful of human banks and demand to be paid in hard credits. That meant that every week a payroll shipment came in. I wasn’t sure how many credits were in one of those shipments, but I had a feeling it was significantly more than 225k. If I was going to grab one of them I needed to know more and that meant research. Fortunately, my time in the TDF had introduced me to some people who could help with that.

The Plan Unfolds

“All right, boys,” our lead guard said, “I need to go over some things before hit dirt.” There were groans from the old hands which Austim immediately quelled. “I don’t want to hear it. We’ve got some new people on this run and I want everything crystal. Okay?” There were nods around the compartment. “Good. Now, this is going to be the largest payroll we’ve seen in quite a while. Prices on pesh are at record highs which, of course, has led to more production which has led to more workers. And, workers gotta be paid, right?” We all nodded this time. “Unfortunately, the bosses couldn’t keep this hidden and you can bet that there’s plenty of people looking to relieve us of it, so be on your toes.” He pulled up the roster on his screen. “Malcalm and Hueson, you’re on scouting duty.”

“Got it, boss,” Malcalm said. Hueson hadn’t said a word since I met him and he did not break that streak.

Austim continued. “Aedard, you got overwatch. Aedard, a former member of a Guards unit (aka the TDF’s elite troops), gave a thumbs up. “Moargan, Adriyal, and Rohn, you’re with me, handling the crates.” We all rogered our assignment. “Okay, get your crap together. We’ll be landing any minute and I want us looking sharp from the second we step onto the platform.” He closed his tablet and started getting ready.

They say some things are like riding a bicycle, whatever the hell that is, meaning that once you learn a thing, it never really goes away. I fell into readying my gear for the coming op like I’d never stopped, even though I hadn’t seen action in over a year. As I did, Austim came over. “Rohn, I see by your record that you qualified ‘expert’ with the boomstick in the TDF.” “Boomstick” was army slang for the Defenstrator 7, a shotgun-like weapon used in shipboard combat.

“I did,” I answered. Which was fudging a little because while I was familiar with the weapon, I’d never actually qualified with it, since it was a naval piece and I was an infantryman. But, the plan required me to have experience with it, so Danlo, one of my old TDF pals, had constructed a new identity for me that was TDF marine who was an expert.

“Great,” he replied, handing me the gun. “You’re on messenger duty.” He turned to the others. “Messenger duty” meant that I’d be locked into the vault with the crates giving me the privacy necessary to do what I needed to do.

It All Goes South

The transfer went off without a hitch and about an hour later, I was buckled into my seat, 3 large crates of pure Zaslite credits next to me. Thank the maker they were Zaslite and not Straedium since Straedium was much heavier. Worth more, sure but not enough to offset the weight difference. And, weight was a factor because I was about to pilfer these crates for 550,000 credits. That was twice what I needed for the mortgage but I had to cover my friends’ expenses and make sure I had enough to cover the fees for laundering the stolen loot. And, pay myself back the money I’d put up to buy the time for this hair-brained scheme. I planned to get started as soon as we were underway.

It took some time since I was pulling a little out of each crate and replacing it with boxes of dirt that weighed exactly what a Zaslite ingot would. That way, nobody would notice until they opened them and I would be long gone by then. I had just stashed the last credit in my old TDF service pack when I heard a scuffle outside the compartment. A couple of seconds after things died down, the door slid open, revealing Moargan, one of the experienced guards. He leveled his gauss rifle at me and said, “Hand over the boomstick, Rhon”

“What’s going on?” I said. I was pretty sure I knew what he meant but felt making sure wasn’t a bad idea.

“We’re taking the payroll. You can be a good boy and give up your weapon or you can be dead. Your choice.”

“Well, when you put it like that, I guess I’ll hand it over.”

Breaking Away

Moargan’s crew had planned things out pretty well. We diverted to the dwarf planet Vion 93 where we were met by another ship. Austim, me, and the shuttle crew were ordered to transfer the crates. Fortunately, they’d taken the boomstick, but left me my gear with all those credits stashed away so at least I wouldn’t have to worry about getting it back from them. It wasn’t much, I was something and at this point, I needed something. After we returned from moving the last crate, Adriyal, our guard, was supposed to “secure” us, i.e. put a slug in each of our heads. But he got distracted and before he realized what was happening, I smashed his face against a bulkhead and he slumped to the deck, and a trail of blood smeared down the wall. I grabbed his weapon, threw my pack onto my back, and ran like hell.

Back Where We Started

“The clock’s ticking, Rhon,” Moargan yelled. To punctuate it, another slug slammed into the ferrocrete wall. “Tell me something, or I’ll let Malcalm come and get you. He’s not happy about what you did to Adriyal.” Malcalm and Adriyal were lovers and Malcalm was champing at the bit to get at me. I just needed a little more time for my ride to show up. I prayed I’d actually get it.

The minute we’d landed on this rock, I’d activated the beacon that signaled Sawyr, another TDF buddy, to come get me. This wasn’t part of the plan. I was supposed to jump ship during the first gate layover and this was slightly early. But this actually worked in my favor since the larger theft would cover my tracks better than the ridiculous plan we’d come up with. I was flirting with giving up when Sawyr pinged me. “I’m here, Gav. Where are you?”

“Man, you are right on time,” I said. “I’m sitting in the middle of some ferrocrete ruins. You see ’em?”

There was a pause, then, “Got ’em.”

“Land on the open side, but be careful. There are some angry dudes out there who do not want me getting away.”

“Roger that,” he said. “Same old Gav,” he added, laughing. “Making friends wherever you go.”

I could see him coming in and after a second, I realized he was dropping down between me and Moargan’s crew. “What are you doing, man?” I yelled over the net. “They gonna shoot you down!”

“Don’t worry, I got this,” he answered coolly.

He came in hot, blowing dust and rocks all over the place, obscuring visibility and making Moargan and his boys take cover. He hadn’t stopped moving when I clambered over the low wall and ran to his ship. The ramp in back opened and Helna, his girlfriend, pulled me in. She slapped the button to close the ramp and yelled, “Hit it. I got him!”

Making Our Getaway

I made my way to the cockpit and said, “You see the other ships on your way in?” he nodded. “Take us there.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

I settled into the weapons position. “Make sure we aren’t followed.”

“So, you want to strand them on this rock? You know that’s basically a death sentence, right?”

“Yes, I do. And, considering that they’ve been trying to kill me for the past hour, I’m not losing any sleep over it.”

For all my tough talk, though, I just couldn’t bring myself to consign these jerks to an ugly death on a barren, godforsaken rock like Vion. Instead, I targeted their engines and dialed back the power on the guns to disable, not destroy. I squeezed the trigger and watched the bolts fry their engines. “Let’s get gone,” I said, laying my head back and hoping my decency wouldn’t come back to bite me in the ass.

The Return Home

Between all the extra jumps to throw off any possible pursuit, working out a deal with the Zocci gang to launder the Zaslite credits, and then getting back to Xatis, I arrived home with just a few hours to spare. I headed straight to the bank. When I walked in, Ryleegh met me. “Where have you been?” she hissed. “You’ve got like 10 minutes to spare.”

“I know,” I said, “I waited outside for a while for dramatic effect.”

She rolled her eyes and started to say something but Kahl came out of his office. “Well, if it isn’t Gav Latn,” he said smugly. “Come to beg for more time?”

“Nope,” I said, plopping my service pack on the counter. “I came to bring you this.” I watched his face fall as I set out stack after stack of Federation script.

“Um, right,” he said, gathering it up and carrying it over to the currency counter. I wasn’t thrilled about waiting around while he ran it through the machine but there was a method to my madness. When he was done, he walked over and handed a one-credit bill, saying, “You were over.”

“Oh, thank you, Paxt.” I chuckled. “, I’ve never been great with numbers.” I paused a beat and added, “Maddax was the math whiz in the family. But you know that.” Ryleegh tried hard to conceal her amusement and managed it poorly.

“I would say it’s a pleasure doing business with you,” I said. “But, I’d be lying.”

Maybe Xatis Isn’t So Bad

As I drove the hover dray back to the farm, I wondered what I’d do next. I knew I’d need to stick around long enough to get things back on track. And, by “back on track”, I meant “Dad-proof” things. Otherwise, we’d be right back here again. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that was going to take a while. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of staying on Xatis any longer than I needed to, but you do what you gotta do. And, like I said earlier, Ryleegh really had grown up while I was gone. Who knows, maybe staying here for a while wouldn’t be so bad.