The Living Land by Karl Elkoura – FREE STORY

If she could only talk to her mother, Kris thought, she could figure out what to do, what to say, what to think even. How to handle this situation like her mother, Captain Donna Lynd, would.

The situation: having long ago negotiated the exchange of fifty viable near-term embryos for a half acre on New Haven, Donna Lynd had been on the cusp of making her delivery when the ship carrying her, her daughter, and their precious cargo had crashed. Kris’s mother lay in a hospital bed, and the embryos, acquired at tremendous expense and effort, had perished.

And Mayor Kirchip wouldn’t let Kris see her mother, claiming she was too ill to be disturbed—or at least not until Kris signed off on voiding the deal.

He sat across from her, the mayor in his large home office with the intimidating dark wooden furniture, large bookcases displaying wooden figurines but devoid of books, and, opposite the French doors, a beautiful bay window overlooking lush green grass stretching out until the horizon.

“Kris,” he said again, sighing, no doubt his gaze passing pointedly across the large wooden desk to rest on the tablet he desperately wanted her to pick up.

He could say her name all day long. She’d keep staring out the window, at those dark brown cows grazing contentedly on the verdant hills, until she was ready to respond. That much her mother would tell her to do. “Anyone tries to change the deal, kiddo, it’s going to be on your timeline, not theirs.” And how many times had her mother said: “If someone ever tries to pressure you—yes or no, right now—the answer is always, always, always no.”

A new, chilling thought froze her body. Was she being lied to? Had her mother died in the accident, and the mayor decided to keep that knowledge from Kris until after she’d signed?

If her mom weren’t dead already, she would die to think that the deal she’d negotiated over fifteen years before, and had worked most of her career to fulfill, now lay in Kris’s inexpert hands.

In the field, a baby cow nuzzled against her own mother.

Kris’s mom hadn’t been that kind of parent, not one to nurture or encourage. The tough- as-nails, independent ship’s captain didn’t soften for her only child. Nope, Captain Donna Lynd drove her daughter as hard as any of the ship’s hands who passed through her employ. Except they could leave whenever they wanted, but Kris couldn’t until she came of age. And when she had, last year when she’d turned fifteen, she realized she couldn’t leave then, either. Like the baby cow, she only had the one mother—and that mother, really, only had her.

“Kris,” the mayor sighed again.

She allowed her gaze to drift back to him, as unhurried and contended as the grazing cows. “I’d like to see my mother.”

The tall man leaned back in his tall leather chair. He’d allowed his tawny hair to grow long, down to his shoulders, like so many of the dirtsiders. No one in space—on a spaceship or space station—would allow their hair to get that long. It would be like not showering for several days, and advertising the lack of hygiene and care. But dirtsiders were different.

That’s what she’d told her mother, several years ago, when Kris was finally old enough to understand why her mother worked herself to tatters, but never seemed able to afford a bigger or nicer ship, or even a holiday, like the other captains could.

“You’ve spent all of our money on embryos?” she’d said. “But why?”

“On buying and securely storing them,” her mother had said, as if that was an important point to make clear. Then, she’d explained the deal she’d started negotiating when she knew she was pregnant with Kris. The planets were happy to pay the spacemonkeys who made interplanetary trade possible, but only ever in credits. None were willing to part with even a small parcel of their precious, never-to-be-replicated land to an outsider. Until New Haven, who for fifty embryos were willing to give up a half-acre of their planet to her and Kris.

“But—we’re not dirtsiders,” Kris had said.

The Captain’s stern voice had boomed out in a reproach of Kris’s whiny tone: “Do you understand how rare this is? You were born in space, kiddo, but I’m buying you a ticket in.” Her voice softened slightly, which was as much as it ever did, perhaps as much as it ever could soften. “This is what I’ve always wanted for you,” she’d said. “Being part of a stable community, having citizenship. Using your own two hands to plant flowers and vegetables and fruit in real dirt. Living on living land, not dead sheets of metal.”

Kris had grown up on sheets of metal, and had never minded. She’d grown up with an unstable community—the comings and goings of ship’s hands who entered into and left her mother’s employ, the other ships and stations and planets they traded with to make their living.

But Donna had decided that wouldn’t be the life for her daughter. So, she’d spent so much of her life and all of their savings collecting fifty embryos to deliver to New Haven, one of the artificial planets designed to resemble Earth in their gravity, atmosphere, flora and fauna, though only a fraction of its size, and tossed out to orbit the sun forever. With the destruction by nuclear war of Earth and the space stations in its orbit, the knowledge and remarkable infrastructure that had allowed for that magic of conjuring up new planets had been vaporized. And so, for the foreseeable future, the Earth-like planets the solar system already had were all the Earth-like planets it would have.

As for the people of New Haven, they were as infertile as the populations of the other artificial planets floating behind the irradiated Earth, like ducklings blindly following a cinder-burnt mother whose body has kept motion. The current human population numbered just under twenty billion, spread across the dozen artificial planets, hundreds of space stations, and thousands of wandering spaceships, not counting the scattering of tiny fringe communities on the system’s mostly inhospitable planets and natural satellites. The average birth rate, which had been dropping every year since the destruction of Earth, and perhaps even before then, now sat at five per hundred thousand, which meant one point five million babies born a year on all of the habitats in the solar system. Most of those rare new lives, the lucky planets or stations preserved for themselves to replenish their own populations, but a viable human embryo was such a highly valued commodity that most couldn’t resist the temptation to put up a few hundred for sale every year. Captain Donna Lynd had spent her entire career collecting frozen near-term embryos until she’d reached the magic number of fifty; to buy that fiftieth, she had sold her own ship, with just enough left over for passage to New Haven.

The mayor cleared his throat, then reached across his desk and pushed the tablet toward Kris. It was getting perilously close to the edge of the table, Kris thought. Nudge it one more time, and it’s going to come toppling down to the ground. She swallowed back a smirk.

“Sign, please,” he said, sighing again. So hard for him to deal with this petulant, unreasonable child. “Sign, and I’ll go see if your mother is well enough to allow for visitors.”

Kris looked out the window again. The mother and baby cow seemed at peace with the world. She wished now that she’d made more of an effort with her own mother. Maybe not have been such a disappointment.

“I never wanted this, did you know that?” she said, looking back at the mayor.

He leaned back, shook his head slightly. He took a deep, steadying breath. He didn’t care what she wanted; he wanted her signature and then for her to be on the next ship off his precious planet, with her ill or comatose or dead mother in tow.

“My mother decided she didn’t want me to live as a spacemonkey.” She suppressed another smile at the way he flinched at the pejorative, though she was sure he’d used that word to refer to them without thought—behind their backs. “As soon as she became pregnant with me, she started negotiating—but her price was land, citizenship.”

The tight muscles betraying his frustration cleared from his face. “Your mother was pregnant—really?”

“Really. She spoke to every planet, of course. She got laughed off of more screens than she could count, repeating her overtures every time there was a change in government or leadership. I was born and playing hide-and-seek in the access conduits before she finally reached a deal—with your predecessor. Fifty embryos.”

“I know the deal.”

“I don’t,” she said. She’d never bothered to read the terms for herself, of course, and she’d never asked her mother about them. But, regardless, she refused to believe that her mother would have staked everything without protecting herself and her daughter and their life-long investment. The mayor refused to let Kris see Donna, refused to let her read the original terms (claiming confidentiality that couldn’t be waived except by Donna herself); insisted she press her thumb on the tablet to admit the deal had fallen through.

“What’s the one thing you always rely on?” her mother had once said to her, when Kris was still young, maybe only seven years old, and had hung off of every word from the Captain’s stern mouth.

Kris had pondered and pondered, then finally said what she thought her mother would want to hear. She’d pointed at her head and said, “My brain!”

Donna had reached out gently (well, gently enough, as Kris remembered) and brought Kris’s hand down until it pointed at her belly. “This, kiddo,” she’d said. “You have to trust your gut. And if it tries to tell you something is wrong, you better listen!”

Something was very wrong today.

Early that morning, she and her mother had been sleeping in their shared quarters aboard the Legato, where they’d booked passage for themselves and their secret cargo, when the alarm sounded, jolting them both awake. Out of her cot in an instant, Donna yelled at Kris to stay put as she left their room.

She hadn’t seen her since. The Legato’s captain made an all-decks announcement that they were crash-landing on New Haven, and everyone brace yourself immediately. Kris had barely had time to stumble across the shaking deck and strap herself into the harness along the bulkhead. Then, the true shaking and bouncing came as the ship slammed and rolled and spun, carving craters into New Haven’s living land. She’d sprayed out last night’s digested dinner and everything else in her stomach before Kris finally lost consciousness.

She came to in an empty hospital room. Some silent alarm must have alerted the staff; almost immediately a nurse opened the door, strode in without a word, checked her vitals, nodded, followed by a doctor who repeated the same tests. Neither would answer her questions; both told her to relax and they needed to make sure she was all right after what she’d gone through.

After nurse and doctor had been satisfied, they left and an orderly appeared, pushing a wheelchair. The orderly, almost obscenely cheerful, also didn’t know anything about her mother, but he’d been instructed to bring her to the mayor, who’d be happy to answer her questions, he was sure.

“Can you ask someone?” she said. “Donna Lynd. I’d just like to know she’s all right.”

“I’m sure she’s fine, love,” the orderly said, helping her into the wheelchair. Her muscles ached, the harness and bulkhead having played a spirited game of ping pong, with her body as the unwilling ball. “Thing is to get you to the mayor now. Those are my instructions, and that’s the man to answer your questions!”

She kept her eyes open as she was wheeled through the hospital halls, but saw nothing that gave her a clue about her mother’s whereabouts. She’d hoped to stop and ask someone who looked in authority, but everyone rushed past her so fast as the cheerful orderly pushed her along. Then all of a sudden, they were exiting the hospital and flying down the ramp.

“You’ve never breathed fresh air,” her mother had once said, still trying to sell the idea of dirtside living. “They don’t let spacemonkeys out of the spaceports to walk abroad on their precious land, do they?”

They do when you can afford vacations, Kris had thought, but didn’t say.

Gray-white clouds diffused the early morning rays. The orderly pushed her toward a parking lot to the side of the hospital, bordered by tall, leafy trees that rose from mounds in the ground in neat rows and columns. He stopped in front of a van, opened the passenger door, and helped her inside, then folded up her wheelchair and put it in the back.

“Off we go,” he said, smiling, and the van lifted and exited the parking lot to join the steady flow of early-morning traffic in the streets around the hospital.

“Ever been to New Haven before?”

She shook her head.

He began giving her a tour and history lesson, but she only half-listened. Her head and body ached, her stomach had been twisted into knots—and she’d been harnessed in. Where had her mother been when the ship slammed into the planet?

“Where did the Legato crash?” she said, interrupting the orderly’s arguments in support of New Haven’s disputed claim that it was the original, the first, the oldest of the artificial planets.

He glanced over at her before returning his attention to the road. “Cornfield just outside of town,” he said, his enthusiasm diminished.

“So no one was hurt?”

“Thank the Gods, no. Very lucky under the circumstances!”

“But you don’t know anything about my mother?”

The skepticism in her voice seemed to hurt him, and when he spoke again, the energy in his voice had dropped even lower. “I don’t,” he said. “My shift started this morning, after everyone had been brought to the hospital. I was told to bring you to Mayor Kirchip right away.”

She kept her questions to herself after that, stared out the window at the city of New Haven, its tall silvery buildings in the middle of wide-open green spaces. They passed a park with an immense play structure shaped like a sea-pirate ship, with children climbing its masts and sliding down its gangplanks, while their parents stood in the surrounding sandy pit, chatting and sipping coffees in the early morning sunshine.

“That wooden pirate ship is just about as large as my mother’s spaceship,” she almost said to the orderly, but found the silence difficult to break.

They pulled into a long, paved driveway, which split off into a circular road after they passed a gateway, the ornate metal gates having opened at their approach. The mayor’s house was large and long, and mostly white-bricked, with wide circular concrete steps leading up to its beautiful wooden front doors.

When the van descended, the porter jumped out and around to the back, but she called out to him that she didn’t need the chair. He helped her down from the seat, then up the stairs as she felt some of the stiffness leave her muscles.

When they reached the top step, one of the large wooden doors came open and a tall man with long light brown hair and a professionally charming smile spread out his long arms. “Welcome to my home!” he said to Kris. Then, turning to the orderly, “I’ll take it from here, Julian.”

The mayor tried to put his arm around her, but Kris insisted she was fine. She took a moment to stabilize herself.

“Wonderful,” he said. “I thought we’d be most comfortable in my study. It’s just through those doors.”

Every step seemed agony, her muscles so sore that she feared they might burst. Finally, the mayor pointed at a plump, red leather club chair opposite his desk and she dropped gratefully into it.

“Now—” he said, walking around the desk to take his own seat.

“Where’s my mother?” Kris said, repositioning herself to sit up straighter. “Is she ok?”

In his most sympathetic, reluctant, bearer-of-bad-news voice, the mayor explained that her mother had been injured in the crash. No, Kris couldn’t see her yet. Her mother was receiving the best care available in New Haven, and it was utterly impossible for her or her doctors to be disturbed. Besides, they had something important to discuss that the mayor needed her help to clear up right away.

Distracted by concern for her mother, Kris didn’t fully process the words, but the mayor’s tone pierced through the haze in her mind. “Something to discuss?” she said.

“Well, you see,” the mayor said, then paused to take a deep breath and release it in a slow sigh, as if he hated to go on, but he must, he must, “we had a deal with your mother. Delivery of fifty embryos in exchange for citizenship for you and her, and a half-acre of land for you to live on.”

“Yes,” Kris said, unnecessarily.

“The embryos were damaged in the crash.”

Kris shook her head. “They were in a deep-freezer safe.”

“Nothing is indestructible.” He leaned forward. “That’s our first problem, Kris. Here’s the second: your mother didn’t declare to Dietr—the Legato’s captain—what cargo she had paid him to transport.”

“So what?” Kris said. She hadn’t liked the mayor on first meeting him; now, listening to his slow drawl, feeling like he was a mostly disinterested judge reading out her death sentence, she began to hate him. She wanted to leave.

“Well, you see,” he said, ignoring her tone or oblivious to it, “normally, we could’ve made a claim and recouped your mother’s expense. The Legato and its cargo—its declared cargo—is insured, of course. But because of that omission on your mother’s behalf, the embryos . . . are not.”

“But,” Kris said, searching for the words to explain something so obvious. “Of course we didn’t declare what we were carrying!” she settled on. Her body trembled. “We had fifty embryos! Someone on that ship would’ve stolen them from under our noses, maybe slit our throats first!”

The mayor leaned back, as if to distance himself from such a thought. “That’s quite a cynical view you have. I’ve heard that about space”—he paused—“spacefarers. But here’s the thing, Kris, I also have a strain of spacefarer’s cynicism myself. Because the thought I keep coming back to is, how do I know they were ever viable embryos?”

“They were!”

“Well, you see, I can’t take your word for it. Maybe they were, maybe not. Certainly what we have now is not fifty viable embryos.”

“So what’s your accusation? My mother spent every credit to her and my name collecting dead embryos, then caused a crash that put her in the hospital?”

“I make no accusations,” the mayor said, spreading his hands out on the desk. “None at all. I’m merely saying your mother did not deliver the embryos as promised. Moreover, I don’t have proof that the embryos were ever viable and I can’t—and your mother can’t—claim damages on them.”

Kris had been taking deep, quiet breaths to control her trembling body. In a traitorous, trembling voice, she said, “What do you want from me?”

“The city council and I are concerned,” the mayor said. “Your mother did not hold up her end of the bargain—I’m stating a fact, not assigning blame, you see—but you and her are guests here without permits. Normally, spacefarers sign documentation promising they’ll leave when their permit expires, and proving they have the means to depart the planet.”

Her and her mother did not have those means; her mother had gambled away all of their means on this deal.

“It’s a serious liability for us to have spacefarers here without authorization,” the mayor went on. “We cannot take the risk that you’ll sue for arbitration of the contract; you would lose, of course, but where would you stay while due process was carried out? Or, say, your plan was to arrive here and then claim refugee status?”

“The plan was to be made citizens!” Kris said, jumping to her feet. What was the punishment for murder on New Haven? She wanted to dive across the desk and throttle the mayor until the falsely sympathetic smile dropped from his face.

“Yes, I know,” he said, not having flinched at her outburst. “But if the plan was to arrive here under false pretenses and claim refugee status—well, you would lose that claim too, of course, but to defend it, we’d have to make those allegations I was unwilling to make earlier. And defend them vigorously. That would be a blemish on your mother’s record that would limit her ability to ever trade with another planet again. And on yours too, if you’ll permit me to say so.”

And then, the devil’s deal. Here, take this tablet, read it over. Sign it by pressing your thumb at the bottom. All of your problems go away. This grants you a limited-time permit to stay on New Haven until both you and your mother are well, and then you promise to leave. And, on our side, we forget the whole thing ever happened.

She took the offered tablet, read it over, but the words melded into one another. After a few attempts to focus on them, she gave up. She placed the tablet back on the desk and crumpled into the red leather chair.

Can I see my mother, please?


Can I talk this over with her?

No. The council and I need you to sign it right away, to limit our liability—and yours.

Can I see the terms of the original deal?

No, it’s confidential. Anyway, the embryos weren’t delivered. The terms don’t matter.

“Kris,” he continued, sighing again. He would say it just like that several more times in the next hour. “Sign the tablet, and let’s both move on with our days with this problem cleared up. It’s the right thing to do.”

Unable to escape physically, her gaze found the bay window and she stared out at the rolling green hills and the brown cows, at the mother and her baby closest to the house.

She didn’t know what to do. She needed her mother. Even when Captain Lynd had decided she’d had enough of Kris’s laziness, Kris had always had her there to consult, to get advice from.

How many times had her mother stormed into their shared room on their small spaceship, found Kris reading or watching a show, and said, “Captain Mueller (or Tinks or Ghein, or Governor or Mayor This or That) is waiting for you. Come on, up you get. She’s going to say we’re late, and so will only pay us half of what was promised. Stick to your guns, no matter what—the price is the price, and we have other clients if the captain has changed her mind, no hard feelings.”

Reluctantly, Kris would force herself off her bed as her mother settled into hers and picked up her tablet. “Good luck,” she’d say, without looking up.

But she hadn’t needed luck. Whenever the discussion became difficult, she would request a small break, then find her mother and beg her to take over. Her mother always refused—no doubt thinking Kris was just trying to get out of work, rather than genuinely frustrated and worried about how things were going—but she’d always give Kris some bit of advice, a different tack to take, that would help unlock the negotiations.

But this long-haired man refused to allow her to see her mother . . . if her mother was in any shape to give advice.

“I’d like to leave,” she said, returning her gaze to meet the mayor’s exasperated face.

“Of course. Once we have this cleared up.”

She decided to wear out the mayor’s patience so that he’d relent and let her go, but an hour later, he’d only worn out her name.

Remember, honey, her mother had said. If they want an answer right now, yes or no, the answer is always no. And so that had to be the answer, and the mayor would have to accept it. “I’m not going to sign, Mayor,” she said, finally. “Not until I’ve had time to think things over.”

The mayor emitted a small derisive laugh at the same time as he shook his head. He seemed to be debating something in his own mind, then, apparently having decided, he stood up and walked around the desk. Then, so suddenly that she couldn’t react, he slapped Kris across the face, knocking her out of the chair and onto the ground.

“New Haven will not be bullied by a child,” he said, spitting out the words. “You will stop wasting my time. You will sign.”

She got back to her feet while he turned around and picked up the tablet from his desk. He held it out to her with all of his features set like stone.

Kris began to laugh, but unlike his, her laughter was long and full of genuine mirth.

Who did this man think he was? Who did he think he was dealing with? She’d faced down Captain Xerxes—twice her age and four times her size—when he’d tried to swindle them because he saw Captain Lynd had sent her daughter to finalize the deal instead of coming herself. “He wants to close this deal,” her mother had said, over the sound of running water. Kris had thought at the time: I have to go deal with this bully because you want to have a bath—now? But there was no use arguing with her mother when the Captain had decided that Kris needed to earn her keep.

Pretty quickly, Captain Xerxes had realized Kris was willing to walk away—her mother had told her she could, if she needed to—and maybe he perceived that Kris really didn’t care either way.

And even during deals where she did care, she’d sat across from the solar system’s most seasoned captains, alone or at her mother’s side, and listened and withstood all of their tricks, all of their veiled threats, accusations, bluffs.

After all of that, this dirtsider mayor thinks he can intimidate me?

And then, suddenly, she saw a truth so clearly that it was like a bright beam of sunlight cutting through and clearing all of the haze in her mind. She’d always assumed that her mother sent her into those negotiations and exchanges because she was sick of how lazy and entitled Kris was. But that didn’t make sense. On a spaceship, there was enough grunt work to keep Kris occupied every waking hour of the day. Why entrust her with something as important as closing deals? Because—how could it be anything else?—her mother had trusted her, that was why, and believed in her, and wanted to equip her . . . maybe for the day that her mother wouldn’t be there to back her up.

“You caught me off guard that time,” she said, wiping blood from her split lip. “But put your hands on me again, and I’ll throw you through that beautiful bay window.”

“Are you insane?” the mayor said, feigning a light dismissiveness of her threat, but doubt had relaxed the cold, hard veneer he’d painted on his face.

“You said you couldn’t take my word that the embryos were viable before the crash. That’s fair. But you want me to take your word that they didn’t survive? Prove it. Show me the damaged deep-freezer safe, show me the damaged embryos.”

Never, ever lie in a negotiation, her mother had once said. But, you know, if you need to stretch the truth a little . . . .

“We have DNA records for all of them,” she went on, stepping closer to him as he tried to back up and bumped into the desk. Maybe that was the truth, who knew? “We’ll compare those records to whatever you trot out for my benefit.”

The mayor made a few hesitant half-words, turned them into a clearing of his throat, put the tablet back on his desk, then slid away from her and retreated to the safety of the other side. A coward, like all bullies.

“Well, you see, no, that’s impossible. They were given decent and proper burials, as per our customs.”

She put her hands down on his desk, leaned over it toward him. “Already?” she whispered, wonder in her voice. “You don’t waste time. Disinter them.”

“No, no, that would be disrespectful.”

“Disinter them respectfully, then. They’ll understand.”

“No, no. Utterly impossible. A disgrace.”

In every contentious negotiation, she’d learned, there was a moment when the tide turned. When you realized that you or the other person has made a fatal error.

She allowed a smile to spread across her face. “You buried them? All of them?”

“Yes—of course.”

“Then you accepted delivery. You took possession and did with them as you saw fit.”

Blood rushed to the mayor’s face as his mouth opened and closed while he searched for words. “But—but. What? That’s a preposterous way to look at it!”

“I think you’re lying,” Kris said. “I’m not signing anything. You’ll let me see my mother. You’ll let me see the detailed terms you signed.”

Slowly, the mayor regained his composure. He sat in his chair and motioned for her to do the same. She didn’t budge. He shrugged, picked up the tablet, tapped his fingers on the screen, then slid it across the desk again.

“One hundred thousand credits,” he said, speaking through gritted teeth. “You can buy a new ship, with enough left over to get you started on trading again.”

Taken aback by the sudden change—as if her own mother had advised him to calm down and try a different tack—she straightened up. A hundred thousand credits? Just like that?

“The embryos survived,” she said, with sudden realization.

“Not all of them. One of the deep-freeze compartments was damaged in the crash, like I said, and those ten embryos were buried decently.” His glance dropped to the tablet. “It’s a very fair deal for delivering only a part of what was agreed to.”

Now that the adrenaline wasn’t flooding her body, she was once more aware of her aching muscles. She sat back in the soft club chair. No point at all in going over the lies he’d told, the allegations about not knowing if they’d ever been viable. He’d explain, defend, dismiss.

Lies are like fish, her mother had said once. If you catch one, you know there are more.

“It’s an odd thing, don’t you think?” Kris said. “The crash. It could’ve hit New Haven, struck into a building, killed a bunch of citizens. Thank the Gods it didn’t, but a lucky break that the ship crashed just outside city limits, in vegetable fields, isn’t it?”

“Thank the Gods,” the mayor said.

“The way you were talking about the Legato’s captain . . . you know him, don’t you? I have a friend who makes a living out of uncovering these types of relationships, how far back they go, how close they are.” She knew people like that existed in the solar system, and one of them could be a friend, why not?

“So? He trades with New Haven regularly, of course I know him. What does that prove?”

“Oh, nothing, I’m sure. But, you see, don’t you? My friend, this person I’m telling you about, the way he gets his information is . . . well, let’s say he talks to people. And I wonder what this Captain Dietr would say?”

“What are you insinuating?”

“I make no allegations, none at all. But imagine if you and Dietr struck a deal. Dietr, who has come to New Haven a thousand times without issue. This time, he’s to land, not in the regular spaceport, but in a field outside of city limits, and maybe the landing is a bit bumpy, and maybe that allows someone—I’m not making allegations, just spinning a theory, you see—to claim the cargo was damaged and void our deal.”

“That’s preposterous.”

“Really? I’m not even finished. It has to be quite bumpy, or no one would believe the cargo was damaged, but I don’t think it was supposed to be that bumpy. Certainly not enough to send anyone to hospital. When that kind of—shall we call it a mistake?—happens, people feel a little guilty. And my friend, this friend I’ve mentioned, he’s really good at getting people to unburden themselves. The captain, someone in the crew, he’ll be happy to talk to any of them.”

“You space—spacefarers sure have quite an imagination,” Kirchip said. “Look, enough of this dance. I’m authorized to go up to one hundred and fifty thousand credits for the embryos that survived. That’s it.”

She was right about him. And yet, the mayor didn’t seem nervous at all—angry and frustrated, yes, someone who is being squeezed for more than he wants to give up, but not an elected official who has been caught in a criminal enterprise.

“We’re not looking for money,” Kris said.

“There’s no deal here where you get land and citizenship. I’m not authorized to offer that.”

“Then I’ll talk to whoever is authorized. I have quite a few things I’d like to say to them.”

He stared at her, his cheek twitching with barely restrained frustration. She stared back.

“A quarter of an acre and non-voting citizenship for you and your mother, but it doesn’t pass to any children either of you may have or adopt.”

It took another hour—and more threats of looking into the crash, as the mayor became progressively angrier, but didn’t still betray signs of guilt or nervousness—to get back to what she assumed was the original deal: a half-acre and full citizenship, which would pass on to their children. In exchange, her and her mother would not hold the mayor, the city council, or the city liable for the crash or any damages, regardless of the cause of the crash, now known or to be discovered in the future.

And then she realized: the bastard already had this deal, including indemnifying them from the crash, written up, vetted, loaded up on the tablet. He had grown progressively angrier because this was his furthest fall-back position, and she’d forced him to it. But it was still a position he’d been willing to retreat to.

She breathed to relax her tense body; focus on the deal you want, her mother had told her. Doesn’t matter if they’re getting away with murder, that’s on them. Is it the deal you want?

It was the deal she wanted, because it was the deal her mother wanted.

“I want those cows, too,” she said suddenly, impulsively. “The mother and baby.”

He looked up to follow her gaze, then shrugged. “We’ll have to make that a handshake deal.”

“I’m fine with a verbal agreement,” she said. “I’d rather not touch your hand.”

“I’ll have them sent over as soon as you’re settled into your new home,” the mayor said, unfazed, smiling a politician’s smile. “Welcome to New Haven.”

She smiled back, a genuine smile because, first, she had gotten the deal she’d wanted and, second, because she would stay on this planet, and one day she’d find a way to make him pay for what he’d done.

He tried to escort her to the front door, but she told him she knew the way. She walked out of his office without looking back at him. Outside, Julian the orderly waited by the van. He rushed up the concrete stairs to meet her.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I can walk on my own.”

“I’ve made inquiries about your mother,” he said in his ever-cheerful tone, as they headed down the steps to the van.

She stopped moving, turned to face him, ready for anything he had to say.

“She’s perfectly well,” he said, nodding, smiling, genuinely thrilled to be sharing the news with her. “Just resting and recovering.”

Tears formed in her eyes, but she blinked them away. “Thank you for telling me, Julian.”

As they drove away from the lavish white-bricked house, she said, “Mayors are elected here, aren’t they?”

“Of course!” Julian said, turning to look at her as if she’d just asked him to confirm that the sky was up and the ground below them.

“Who can run for office?”

“Anyone! Well, a New Haven citizen of age, of course.”

“What’s the age?”


“And when are the next elections?”

“Every five years.” He paused to think. “So the next one is in three more years.”

“Well, that’s just perfect, then,” she said, and in her exuberant joy she slapped his shoulder.

Julian once more turned his lifted-eyebrows, are-you-a-crazy-person look on her, but she didn’t elaborate. She went back to staring out the window at New Haven, the silver buildings reflecting the sunshine, the wide open green spaces, the pirate-ship park where the sound of the children cackling with delight reached into the van.

At the hospital, Julian helped her find her mother’s room.

Kris pushed open the metal door.

Captain Donna Lynd lay stretched out on a bed, one hand holding up a tablet, reading, the other hand cuffed to the bedrail.

“Kristina, finally!” her mother said, dropping the tablet and repositioning herself in the bed. “They just kept saying you’re fine, resting. Is that true? Are you all right? Nothing hurt?”

“Mom,” Kris said, loudly to stop the torrent of words. “Why are you restrained?”

Donna glanced down at her wrist as if suddenly remembering. “I took down a few people,” she said, sheepishly. “When they wouldn’t let me see you right away.”

In a reproachful tone she’d usually been on the receiving end of, Kris said, “You attacked them?”

A sudden seriousness seized Donna’s features, and her voice dropped. “I think I was attacked myself, kiddo. On the ship. I think I was knocked out purposefully. I don’t believe that I bumped my head against a bulkhead.”

“I know, mom,” Kris said, approaching her hesitantly.

“You know?”

Where to start? How to explain what’s happened, the terrible gamble the mayor took with their lives, the treachery of the Legato captain, the ruse the mayor tried to play . . . and that, ultimately, they were getting what her mother had spent Kris’s entire life fighting for, citizenship and a parcel of living land.

“My darling,” Donna said, softly. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Kris said, then smiled half-heartedly as her gaze met her mother’s skeptical one. Then, she burst into tears and sunk into her mother’s welcoming arms.


# # #

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