“Did you get the splints?” Gnarled old hands reached out without looking back. Whitey was intent on his patient on the lower bunk and Briar loved him all the more for his dedication.
“The splints and some pain meds,” Briar said. “That Karen is a wonder. I’ll have to meet her someday.”
“The dead drop near the old pump house works good enough. You go near that big house where she lives and I’ll take you over my knee myself. Forget telling Reece when he gets back.” Whitey shook the canister Briar had given him and sprayed instant relief on his patient’s wound.
“Reece isn’t coming back. He hasn’t even sent a communication since he left.”
“Of course he’ll come back, and with the might of the Phalanx at his back, he’ll soon put that brother of his in his place. Until then, you’ll stay in the mine or the barracks and don’t provoke Gus. He’d love any chance to steal you away from Reece.”
“I’m not Reece’s girl anymore,” Briar returned with scorn. She brushed back her long auburn braid with a careless flip of her hand.
Whitey never stopped bandaging the broken leg in front of him. “We’ll see about that when Reece gets back. Now, when you go down today, make sure to hide the entrance to that tunnel that collapsed. We don’t want any more injuries like this one.”
“I’ll take care of it and cover your absence, too. You need to stay here with him.”
“He’ll be fine.” The older man finished his task and patted his patient on the shoulder. “He’s already asleep. Up all night in pain. He’s exhausted.”
“And so are you. Stay here and get some rest. I can manage. He might need more anesthetic spray.”
Whitey inclined his head in a noncommittal manner. “I could stay with him for an hour or two.”
Whitey sat on a bunk and reclined, and Briar knew he would be as fast asleep as the wounded man in a matter of minutes. Sneaking by shaded and out of the way paths toward the mine, she couldn’t help seething over the mention of her ex-fiancé’s name and Whitey’s assumption that he would return from the Phalanx. Now there was irony for you. The very same Phalanx that was supposed to keep them safe, the body of men who protected them as armed forces and police on Old Earth had done, the very people who ran the system that made modern life possible was the same Phalanx that had taken him away from her and turned her secure little life into the chaotic mess it was.
And where was he anyway? He had left her and was probably in on his brother’s illegal mining scheme. If he ever did dare to show his face on this ranch again, he’d better watch his back or more specifically, his personal screen. She had learned a thing or two in her time in the highly mechanized mine. She might not be strong enough to deck him like she wanted to, but everything these days ran on system and screen; the power of the charger pack fueled their computers and their lives. Tech-mech rules our lives and I rule tech-mech, she mused. I’ll make him pay.
Reece settled back in the seat of the small interplanetary shuttle, trying to avoid the eye of his fellow passenger. He wasn’t in the mood to talk, but when the man next to him stood up to shake his hand, he put on his most confidence-inspiring military expression and smiled like the modest ex-soldier he was. He had been warned this might happen. He was a public figure now and had to act the part.
“Thanks, Pike,” the man said sincerely. He was using the honorific title of Pike as it was traditionally used. After a man served in the Phalanx, he was referred to as Pike from then on. “It’s boys like you that keep us safe. Where are you headed?”
“Back home to Neil after my stint.” Ah, Neil. Like its twin planet Yuri, Neil was neither great nor important in the galaxy but he loved it better than any other. It was home.
“Just finished up in the Phalanx? Well, well, it’s an honor to meet you. When we change shuttles on Yuri, I’ll buy you a drink. You can fill me in on the local customs. I’m new in the area. Just picked up this sector as part of my territory.”
“In sales, are you?”
“Yes, sir. Rory McFarland is my name, but enough about me. I want to hear about you. Where did they put you, Pike? I can call you Pike, can’t I?”
“You don’t have to, but you can if you want. My name’s Reece Braith, but I still look like a Pike, I guess.”
“Once a Pike, always a Pike, or so they say. Where did you serve?”
“Right here in this sector. I went back to Old Earth for training of course, but then they assigned me to a station on New Io. It’s where I wanted to be. Close to home.”
“So tell me about your home planet, Neil. Is it true what they say?”
“We live like everybody else.” Reece made a dismissive gesture with his hands. “We get necessities from the central sources and use whatever we earn to supplement and craft our own lifestyle as we see fit, just like it says in the Central By-Laws. That’s in our by-laws, too, just like everybody else.”
“But what about all the travel regulations? And the women?”
Reece smiled. “Yes, it’s true that we’ve had to adapt to our own circumstances. We haven’t got too many women out here, so for their own protection the system tries to keep track of them, but it’s not strange like it sounds. Once you get used to it, it seems normal. And everybody does have to use registered transportation. Again, it’s a safety issue. Back when Telum Province was first settled they figured out it was too easy to get lost. It’s the ion storms. We’re prone to them. They mess everything up, but if you’re careful, you can make it work.”
“I’ve heard access to system is limited, too, out here. I won’t be able to use it whenever I want.”
Reece shrugged. “That’s true, too, but again, it has its advantages. Life is a little slower out here in the provinces. Everybody expects delays and understands them. We get to know each other. More of an old-fashioned, hometown feel.”
“Oh, I don’t mean to sound negative. I’m just curious. I’ve traveled all over the known galaxy and seen some pretty unusual ways of life, but it’s not for me to judge. I’m just trying to get to know my customers and see how I can make their lives better.”
The salesman was going into his pitch, so Reece gave him only half an ear. Looking out the window, he watched as Yuri came into view. Slowly at first, so that he wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but then he saw the telltale orange glow that assured him he was viewing Neil’s twin planet. Small compared to other planets around the area. Planetoids, really, but home all the same. The grandeur of seeing them from space never got old.
The salesman paused so Reece assumed he was asking a question. “Sorry. What was that?” Reece asked.
“I asked you about the job you’ll be going back to. They did save it for you, didn’t they? They have to, right?”
“Yes, anyone who gets called up for Phalanx duty has their job saved for them when they return home, but that didn’t apply in my case. My family has a ranch in Gemini Canyon, so I’ll be going back there. My brother Angus has been in charge while I’ve been gone.”
“You sound kind of hesitant there.”
“Well, it’s just that I haven’t heard from him in a while. Haven’t heard from my… from anybody at all.”
“But as you just told me, with time limited on the system, I’m guessing communications aren’t too easy. Maybe they just haven’t been able to get through to you.”
“That’s what I’m assuming. Still, I’ve sent home letters and haven’t heard back.”
“Letters? Like real paper?”
Reece grinned. “Yup. Real paper and ink and everything. Got a friend to take them for me. Told him to leave them at the transport hub and surely somebody would take them on to Gemini Canyon for me. Folks from there go in often enough for supplies and such.”
“Ah, a transport hub. You have one on Neil? I had a hard enough time getting this slot routed through Yuri.”
“Of course we’ve got a hub on Neil. Several, in fact. We’re not that backward. It’s just that it’s mostly internal traffic. And we’ve got system. It’s just internal to Neil. We can’t always connect to other planets but we can do what needs doing.”
“So you’ve got weather control and supply tracking and such.”
“Sure. Some of the best. It’s not like the wild west you read about, or the early days of space exploration when people used space like a garbage dump and treated each other like garbage. We’ve got controls and planning. Couldn’t run a ranch without it.”
“That’s good to hear. I was afraid I might run into some hard times. My wife told me she’d even heard there was violent crime on these planets. I told her that was just talk, but she was scared for me to come.”
“I’m glad you took the chance. We need more people like you to travel out here and then take the word back that we’re okay. We could use more immigrants, sure, but we do fine.”
“I’ve heard that every planet can set its own laws.”
“To a certain extent. There are guidelines, but we have some latitude.”
“But how will I know if I’m going to break one of these laws? I’m an honest man but there are some practices in my line of work that are accepted in some societies and frowned on in others, if you know what I mean.”
Reece nodded. “Like paying for contracts?”
“Exactly. Some places, it’s the law, other places, it will land you in jail.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. There’s no jail, or at least, none long term. Anybody we can’t get along with gets escorted off the planet and banned. But that’s pretty rare. More likely, if you mess up, you’ll get an official warning and maybe a fine or some mandatory service hours. Those are common and more or less a game or at worst an annoyance. If you really want to make sure not to pay up or run a street sweeper, you can read the legal pamphlet. Look it up under the ‘Local Highlights’ screen.” Reece showed the man where to look on the system screen attached to his chair.
“Thanks. I’ll be sure to look these over.”
“System is a little slow already and we’re not even in Yuri’s borders. Better get it downloaded to your personal screen before you lose the feed. Then take your time reading and if you have any questions, let me know.”
The companionable silence lasted long enough for Reece to get a quick nap and make some notes on questions he wanted to ask and arrangements he needed to make when he arrived. Looking over at the salesman, he realized that perhaps the man could help. “Say, what is it you sell again?”
Rory raised his head from the screen. “Logistical services. Sounds like there should be a pretty open market, eh? Something lots of people need? Like I was saying earlier, people in the provinces need goods. People on the major planets have goods. I put the two together and everybody’s happier, right?”
“Logistical services. Hmmm. On how large or small a scale?”
“We got it all. We do personal accounts, small business accounts, large business accounts, even government accounts, though we don’t have too many of those these days. Everything is so spread out, the system is really what the government is there for, eh? That and the Phalanx. We need the Pikes, all right, and the system, but they kind of run their own logistics, don’t they? Sure they do and that’s fine. I depend on the system in order to do what I do, and of course the Pikes keep order so I’m safe while I do it. But to answer your questions, I do it all. No job too large or too small.”
“I’ll be planning a big gathering a few days after I get home. Well, a few weeks at most. I could use some extra supplies; food mostly, and drinks of course. And a band. I’ll need a band.”
“What about a tent? No need to let the heat ruin your celebration. And chairs? Can’t ask people to stand up all night. Is it a welcome home bash you’re planning?”
“No, actually, it’s a wedding.”
* * *
“Reece! You’re back. Good to see you. I guess I should call you Pike now.” The shopkeeper, an older man with gray hair and a pronounced limp, stepped out onto the dusty street to greet the son of his old friend.
Reece went up to shake his hand. “It’s been a long time, Nolan. Things look so different. I figured the town would have grown, but all this?”
“That’s progress, boy. Your father wouldn’t recognize the place if he were alive today. It’s not like it was when the first settlers came, but it’s still home.” Lowering his voice, he leaned in to say, “Sure was sorry to hear about your home, Reece.”
Reece didn’t know whether to take the man seriously or not. “What do you mean?” He could feel the frown lines furrowing his brow, so he tried to take a deep breath.
“You don’t know? Come on in. This isn’t something we ought to be jawing about on the open street.” Once they had settled in the back room of Nolan’s shop, he poured them cold drinks and went on. “Why, what your brother’s done, of course. He’s running an unlicensed mine. Everybody knows it, but since the Canyon is so far out in the hills, nobody complains.”
“A mine? What’s he mining? We haven’t got gold or platinum, or anything worth mining that I know of.”
“Nothing like that. It’s salt, is all, but this far into the provinces, salt is important. Can’t live without it. And there are rumors…”
“What kind of rumors?”
“That Gus is dealing with some very bad people. I can’t say whether it’s true or not, but there’s been talk. Where else would he get the workers if he wasn’t dealing outside the law?”
“An unlicensed mine? Unlicensed workers? I knew Gus wasn’t exactly a straight arrow, but I never thought he was capable of this.” Reece stood. “I thank you for the warning. It’s time for me to start making things right. First things first, though. Where’s Briar?”
“Briar? As far as I know, she’s still on the ranch.”
Reece took a moment to process this information. “But she wouldn’t stand still and let him start an illegal operation like that. There’s got to be some mistake.”
“All I know is, she isn’t living in town and I haven’t seen her in months. Now, Brock, I’ve seen. Your old ramrod got the sack soon after you left. He’s done right well for himself with a repair shop.”
Reece was glad to hear about Brock’s success. They had been as close as brothers before he left; maybe closer. Certainly closer than Reece had been to his actual brother, Gus. “At least he landed on his feet and didn’t get caught up in whatever’s happening out in Gemini Canyon.”
The older man nodded. “I guess your first move will be to get some transportation.”
“I’ll be needing at least a mini-rover for now to get out to the ranch.”
“Say, if it comes up, you didn’t hear any of this from me. It ain’t smart to get cross-wise of Gus these days. Folks that do wind up having accidents.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Of course, I never got a word out of you or anybody in town. I was just visiting an old friend of my dad’s.” Leaving by the back door, Reece made his way down to the repair shop, keeping his eye open along the way for any unusual activity. Except for the news storefronts and steadily growing traffic, the town looked much as it always had. The bar was still dingy, the doctor’s office was still busy, and the sewing shop still looked like a bomb had gone off in a fabric factory.
The repair shop had been run by another old friend two years earlier, so Reece knew what the back door looked like. He slid discreetly in, looking around for any sign that he had been followed. Brock, with his back to the door, picked up an old-fashioned tire iron from the workbench where he was stripping wires before he turned around. “Gus, I’ve told you before. Leave me out of your—”
“It’s not Gus,” Reece interrupted. “It’s me.”
“It’s the Pike!” Not loudly, but sincerely, Brock greeted his old friend. Putting down the tire iron, he went over to shake hands. “About time you got back.”
“I hear things have changed. What happened, Brock?”
“I tried to get word to you, but I figured he intercepted any communications. And he hasn’t let me get a slot out of here in months. Nothing I can prove, but any shuttle I got a slot on suddenly got rescheduled, or left two hours early, or never arrived here at all. I think he’s holding something over the head of the transport company. Your brother has gone completely off the rails, Pike.”
“You can call me Reece, Brock. We’re like brothers. You don’t have to—”
“I want to. You earned it. I know what it took for you to leave Gemini Canyon…”
“That wasn’t the worst of it. Tell me what happened to Briar!”
“She’s still at Gemini Canyon.”
“Is she all right? Is he keeping her a prisoner or what?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Don’t try to tell me she agreed to this. I won’t believe it.”
“No, nothing like that. In fact, just the opposite, but because she couldn’t legally get a slot off world without Gus’s permission, she was stuck.”
“What is it you’re not telling me? I can see you’re hiding something.”
“Pike, why don’t we just concentrate on getting Gemini Canyon out of the salt business and back under your control?”
“All right. How much security does he have?”
“Not too much and it’s all technical-mechanical.”
“That’s good. Tech-mech’s the easiest to circumvent.”
“So I’ve been told, but I still don’t know how to do it and without your authority, I couldn’t.”
His friend sounded defensive, so Reece tried to assure him as quickly as possible. “I understand, Brock. Never crossed my mind to think you should.”
“But you know I’ll help you get it back.”
“Never crossed my mind to think you wouldn’t.”
“Not much crossing your mind these days, is there.” Brock gave a low grunt of laughter.
“Only one thing, actually. No, two. Getting back my girl and getting back my ranch. Let’s get moving.”
“Hold on there, Pike. We need a plan.”
“What for? I walk back in with you behind me just in case he gets any funny ideas. For the tech-mech I’ve got some little gizmos they let me bring home from the Phalanx that should make things pretty simple. The way I see it, I walk up to the house, demand to see his books, then kick him out.”
“You think he’s just going to give up?”
“He hasn’t got a leg to stand on. I own the ranch free and clear. Dad left him some money but I got all the land. Gus wouldn’t dare deny me.”
“Things have changed, Pike. Gus has changed. He blew through his money soon after you were gone and had to move back home. Rumor has it he even mortgaged the place.”
“A mortgage? But that’s crazy.”
“And then there’s his hired hands.”
“His? What about mine?”
“They were all let go, same time I was, except the few who didn’t mind going outside the law. And you have to figure they’re not exactly shy. How else do you think he keeps all those illegal workers on the place? I don’t have any reason to think they’re armed or anything crazy like that, but they control all the transport and your place is a pretty long way out. And if I were him, I’d set a patrol around the perimeter to beef up the tech-mech.”
“I guess you’re right. That’s what I’d do, too. Maybe this is more serious than I thought. We do need a plan. If you can draw me a map of what you remember of his operation, I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Brock sketched a hasty map, noting all the perimeter security and outbuildings that Gus had constructed since Reece’s departure. As nominal owner of Gemini Canyon, Reece was able to request records for staple food supplies and other central resources Gus had requisitioned from the hub. By late that afternoon, they had calculated out how many workers and enforcers he was feeding.
By looking at satellite pictures of the area, they were able to conjecture as to what technical and mechanical features Gus would need to run a mine of that size and keep that many workers under control. From there it was just a matter of some creativity and daring to come up with a plan. Brock was all for putting it into operation that night, but Reece held back.
“We need to make sure what we’re talking about. We have to get closer and actually see the tech-mech we’re up against. Then we can tweak the plan as necessary.”
“Since when did you get so cautious?” Brock wanted to know.
“You’ve got to remember, Briar’s in there. I can’t take a chance on anything happening to her.” Into Reece’s mind swam a picture so vivid, so enticing, it stole his attention. He could almost feel her auburn hair. Had she cut it short, as she had threatened to do? Or was it still hanging down her back? Was her nose really that cute? Her mouth really that inviting? Her lips really that full and kissable? Or had his memory changed her somehow? Surely she was still the same feisty little redhead he had fallen in love with.
Brock cleared his throat, bringing Reece back to the real world with a thud. “Okay, then. Nothing more we can do tonight. And you must be exhausted. Let’s go get some dinner. I’ve got plenty of credit with the diner. The lady who runs it is sweet on me.”
Reece took the alleyways behind the buildings and entered the diner by the back door. After the requisite exchange of greetings, they ordered their food and took it into a private dining and work area to eat. “Yeah, right, she’s sweet on you. I’ll bet you fix her lights or ovens or something.”
“Well, that could be a contributing factor,” Brock admitted. “But you didn’t pay anyway. Doesn’t surprise me. A returning Pike? People will want to give you freebies for the next ten years. How did you get called up, anyway? I’ve never known anybody to get called up from Neil. They usually leave us alone.”
Reece looked awkwardly away and continued to eat. “I’m not sure really. Nobody was more surprised than me when the notice came up on my screen.” Reece felt in his pocket for the little disc of black and clear glass. Everyone carried one, but while he had been in the Phalanx, his personal screen had been taken up and replaced with a smaller, less personal model. He was now carrying his own screen again, the one he had used to send communications to Briar. He still had all her old communications to him, even the mundane ones that had been answered years ago. And now they were on the same planet, he could contact her and they could talk again, like they used to. Only, when he had first tried to contact her, longing to hear her voice when he returned to Neil, she hadn’t answered. Now he thought he knew why. She probably didn’t have her personal screen with her.
“I’m surprised the Phalanx was able to get through, what with the system limitations and all.”
“It wasn’t easy. I found out once I got there that I was late getting to training because the Phalanx had trouble getting the message even as far as the hub. From there, it took a couple of days to get to my screen. Good old Nolan was waiting for me to come in to get supplies but finally he figured it might be important, so he brought it out to me himself. Dad had just passed away and Nolan hadn’t been out to Gemini Canyon since the funeral.”
Brock finished first and sat back. “If we want to move around without being seen, we’d best take a mini-rover.”
Reece rubbed his chin. “I hate those things. You feel every oily spot on the track they ride so close to the ground. And who thought it was a good idea to stand up to travel?”
“Most people aren’t going as far as we go in a mini-rover. On most worlds, there are a lot more people and more public rovers, or even transports, full size, with all the comforts of home. This is Neil, or had you forgotten?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything. I was just hoping somebody would come up with a better way to get around.”
“We could take horses? Or one of my cars.”
“A horse, I might go for, but not one of those death traps you favor. They don’t even have any internal guidance or passive object avoidance.”
“Briar liked them well enough, as I recall.”
“And Briar got her fanny tanned for riding with you.” Reece remembered having to take his fiancé to task over her dangerous stunt.
“Not for riding with me. I wouldn’t have told on her for that. She stole the thing, remember? Went joy riding all over the ranch by herself. Nearly bent the axle. That’s what got my goat.”
“Riding or stealing, it was all the same to me. That was one time I was glad Neil bylaws allow for spanking of females. Now, if you’re done, let’s clear out. Can I crash on your couch tonight?”
“Where else did you think to sleep?”
“When I got on the shuttle this morning, I thought I would be in my own bed by nightfall.”
“Tomorrow night, pal. Tomorrow night.”
* * *
After a thorough reconnaissance of Gemini Canyon, Reece and Brock agreed that their initial plan should work. They had used back roads and traveled through the pastures and woodlands to circle the ranch, but now that it was time to show himself, Reece took the rover straight up the front drive. At first, the gate wouldn’t admit him, but he still had his Phalanx master password scan on his personal screen, so he was able to open it without too much trouble.
He must have set off some kind of alarm though, because by the time he had reached the main house, his brother was waiting for him on the front porch. “Well, hello there, brother,” Gus called.
So this was how he was going to handle it, try to brazen it out. Would he lie? Justify his actions? With a huge effort, Reece kept his anger under control. He kept telling himself, by the end of the day, he would be back in his rightful place, with Briar by his side. “I tried to let you know I was coming, but I guess you didn’t get my messages.”
“You know how the system is out here, Reece. Not very reliable. And even messages left at the hub can take weeks to find their way to the right hands.”
Convenient, that. Reece sauntered up to the porch steps, made his way to the office and sat down behind the desk. “So, bring me up to date.”
“Hang on there, Reece. This is my office now. There’s no need for you to hit the ground running. Take your time. Relax. Look around you. Maybe travel. See the rest of the planet for a while. I’ve got things under control here.” When he said this, two of his biggest hired hands stepped into the office and took up positions on either side of the door.
“You think so? Well, I think otherwise. Let’s end this little farce right now, Angus Braith. I heard about your side ventures.”
“The salt mine, Gus.”
“There’s big money in salt. Nothing wrong with it. Not like its drugs or anything. We should be able to mine our own land.” Gus maintained his conciliatory tone and manner.
“And maybe we will, but not like this. Not off the books, off the system.”
“Once a Pike, always a Pike, is that how it is? You’d turn your own brother in because of some law?”
“I am a Pike, and that means something, but Pike or no, the rules are there for our protection. We have to follow them or pay the price. Now, I’ll tell you how it’s going to be. You shut down that mine and let your workers go home. The way I figure it, you can’t have more than what, four or five? You give them a nice bonus and housing in town until we can get them slots on shuttles or transports going to wherever they came from. Then, you make your apologies to the magistrate, pay the fines, maybe do a few hours community service and we forget all about this shameful bit of blight on our family tree.”
It was not until Gus and his enforcers actually laughed that Reece began to see how much trouble he might be in for. He patted his pocket and laughed right along with them.
* * *
Finally, the office was quiet. Not a chair was left whole, not a bookcase standing, not a lamp still functioning, but Gus and his enforcers were nowhere to be seen. “Do you want me to chase them, Pike?” Brock asked, panting and leaning against a wall.
Reece shook his fists out and tried to straighten his fingers. “No need. We can track them any time we want. And they’ll have to come in for central resources sooner or later. The magistrate can deal with them then. Let’s go find this mine and shut it down.”
They walked down the hallway and had almost reached the back door when a young woman came out of the kitchen, fear written all over her pretty petite features. “What’s happening? Why are the lights out? Are they malfunctioning? Or is the power just down? What was that noise? Who are you? Where’s Mr. Braith?”
“I’m Mr. Braith’s brother, Mr. Reece Braith. You must have heard of me. But who are you?”
“I’m K-karen. I work in the kitchen. I’ve never heard that Mr. Braith had a brother.”
Reece turned to Brock. “Surely you know Brock. Haven’t you seen him in town?”
“I never go to town. I’m not allowed. Only Mr. Braith’s men are allowed to go to town.”
Brock nodded slowly. “I’ve never seen her before and believe me, I would remember a girl like her.”
Reece looked over at his friend. Slack jaw, eyes bugging out of his head, cheeks and ears flushed. The signs were all there. His ramrod had just been struck by the thunderbolt. He remembered the feeling well. It happened to him the first time he laid eyes on Briar. “I’m sure you would. Well, Miss, congratulations. Your life is about to change for the better. I’ve just come back from the Phalanx and I’m here to shut down the mine and send everybody home. Can you show us where the mine entrance is? The satellite images were a little fuzzy.”
Karen gulped visibly. Her face, which had been pale before, grew an even lighter shade of white. “I… I suppose so. It’s a long way.” She started back down the hallway and out the kitchen door into the yard.
“I have a mini-rover,” Brock said hastily as he followed her. “In fact, I have a car. Not here, of course, but in my garage in town. You’ll have to come see it sometime. Sometime soon. Maybe tonight.”
Reece followed them, shaking his head, hoping the girl was from somewhere close by so it would be easier for Brock, who would be needed on the ranch when he wasn’t running his repair shop. Still, who was he to stand in the way of a man finding happiness with a woman? He’d work something out. They climbed into the spherical rover and Brock tried to progress through the starting sequence without looking at the panel. When the vehicle didn’t respond, he finally pried his eyes away from Karen. “Hey, does your gizmo have an ‘ungizmo’ setting? I think when it fried their tech-mech, it fried our rover, too.”
“I wondered when you were going to think of that. Pop the instrument panel and I’ll apply the fix to just this mechanism. I don’t want all the security cameras and blocking fields coming back up right now. If any of the workers have noticed they’re free to leave the mine, I don’t want them stopped.”
“Oh, they’ll have noticed all right. If you fried the technology and mechanisms, they can hardly help but notice they have free use of their arms and legs.”
Reece hardly noticed her use of the full phrase most people shortened to just tech-mech as he processed the meaning of the rest of her words. “You mean, he had them shackled?”
“Sure. Otherwise he couldn’t have kept control of two hundred workers with just a few guards.” Karen’s shy attitude was melting a little the farther they got from the house, but she was still acting unsure and intimidated.
Reece ran a hand over his jaw. “Shackles? I had no idea. That would get him more than a fine. No wonder Gus put up more of a fight than we expected.”
“Turn behind that rock outcropping. It hides the mine entrance.” Karen was sitting up and looking around expectantly.
As they rounded the turn, Brock slowed down considerably. Before he could come to a complete stop, however, the vehicle was completely surrounded by angry men armed with power sprayers, hydraulic chippers and other tools of the mining trade they were wielding as weapons.
“I guess the tech-mech is still fried,” Brock shouted as the crowd converged on the rover. “But they won’t need it to beat us to a pulp.”
“You’ll have to fix it. Re-apply the shackles, I mean,” Karen yelled. “Then I’ll explain to them.”
“No,” returned Reece with an emphatic gesture. “I won’t use tech-mech restraints against these people. Not even for one minute. We’re safe in the rover. We’ll just have to wait them out.”
“But they’re damaging the rover,” Karen protested.
“I can buy another one. I can’t buy their trust. Besides, maybe they deserve the chance to vent a little of their frustration.” Reece put up his hands in a gesture of peace and mouthed the words, “It’s over. You’re free.”
Karen looked around frantically then gasped with sudden understanding. “They think you’re kidnapping me. They want you to release me.” Turning back to the window, she shouted, “Stop! Stop! It’s okay. We’re free! Mr. Braith is gone!”
Brock hit a couple of buttons on the panel, prompting Reece to ask, “What are you doing?” but after a moment, he thought he knew.
“I turned on the external speakers. It’s a classical piece by one of the old masters. It’s called, “Happy Days are Here Again.” I hope they’ll get the message.” Brock grinned back at Reece as the crowd’s faces turned from fury to puzzlement.
In the quiet that followed, Karen could make herself heard. “It’s okay. I’m fine. Back up and I’ll open the hatch.” With the silent agreement of the other two in the vehicle, Karen hit the panel that opened the hatch. She stepped out and several of the men pulled her into the crowd, then reached in and dragged Brock and Reece out.
When Reece could finally distinguish one speaker from the rest of the crowd, it was to hear one of the men point out to Karen, “But if he’s a Braith then he’s the enemy. This is our chance. We can all go home!”
“Put them in the stockade and let them see what it feels like,” another voice suggested. “Then we’ll have plenty of time to find the transports and make a break for town.”
“Look, he could have put the restraints back on you any time he wanted, but he didn’t! He came here to rescue us, to make it right. We can’t turn on him like that.” Karen’s eyes pleaded with the crowd, but only a few were taking her seriously. When she tried to step back toward the rover, one man grabbed at her hand.
Brock took hold of her and pulled her close to him. Rather than backing away, she put herself between the crowd and her rescuers. Reece, encouraged by her actions, continued forcefully. “Take the transports if you want, but you’ll have to give me a minute to make them operable. We only re-enabled this rover. Anything else that runs on tech-mech is down until I hit it with this.” He held up the interrupter and showed them. “I can localize it or bring everything back up together, but that means the shackles and blocking fields will be up again as well. Your choice.”
The crowd seemed to calm down. Some of them shouted “No!” and “Never again!” but most just put a hand to wrist or ankle. Reece could see that every man had at least one metallic ring on either hand or foot.
“We’ll get those off of you before we turn it back on. And as for the transports, anyone who wants to go today can go, but if you’ll be patient, I promise I’ll take care of you. It’ll take some time to get all of you back where you came from, but I will.”
Brock relaxed, but stayed close to Karen. “Who’s in charge? Who’s a leader among the workers?”
Karen looked around. “I don’t know. I worked in the house, cooking for Mr. Braith and his men.”
And suddenly, Reece’s world went slightly off-kilter. He heard the voice he had been waiting to hear, saw the face he had been hoping to see. A young woman stepped out of the crowd. She was as covered in dirt and black smudged soot as any of them. Her hair color unrecognizable, her face a mask of anger and grime, her coveralls so shapeless, she was only identifiable as a woman because of her short stature and small snapping blue eyes. “Me. I can speak for the men. Okay with you boys?”
There was a general sound of agreement.
“Briar!” Reece moved to take her in his arms, no other thought in his head than to claim the kiss he had been waiting to enjoy.
Briar put a hand out to stop him as two of the men nearby stepped in front of her to protect her. Reece’s brow furrowed. “Briar?” Was she worried about her appearance? He didn’t care what she looked like. She was his Briar and no amount of dirt could hide that fact. Looking at her expression, her need for a shower and change of clothes didn’t seem to be what was bothering her.
She waved him away, then gave him no choice but to follow as she strode away. “We can talk in the office shed over here. You boys take turns at the river but not everybody at the same time. Go company by company. Start with company number one and go on from there.”
Someone from the crowd shouted, “What about lunch?”
“No lunch today, boys. Dinner on the Braiths. Right now! Start with Company Four just as soon as the food is ready and eat them out of house and home!” A general cheer rose up.
Reece kept a tight hold on his temper as he allowed Brock to escort Karen into the large shed. It was climate controlled and comfortable, he noticed. His brother did well by himself, but from what Briar had just organized out front, he had to assume the workers had not lived so well.
“I really shouldn’t be here,” Karen was protesting slowly, hanging back by the door as if she would bolt.
“Better stay,” Reece noted. “All those men out there, newly free? Not a place for a woman alone. Are there any others? Let’s get them in.”
“They’ll be fine. Our guys know them and look out for them. They don’t know her. Who are you?” Briar’s tone wasn’t gentle. She looked at Karen as if she had just been caught in the pantry with jelly on her face.
Brock seated himself after pulling up a chair for each of the women. “This is Karen. She was cooking for Gus.”
“Who?” Karen sounded confused.
“Angus. The other Mr. Braith.” Reece recognized the signs of slow, careful cognition typical of someone who had been ill-treated and even abused. When things were tense and happening fast, she seemed to react quickly and logically, but in the calm quiet shed, she was withdrawing into herself again.
“Just cooking?” Briar’s tone was accusatory.
“That’s uncalled for,” Brock shot back.
Karen wrapped her arms around her middle, rocking slightly. “Cooking and cleaning and everything to do with the house.”
Briar’s face cleared. “Oh, I’ve heard of you. You’re the one who kept us in iodine solution and bandages. You made it possible to stitch up everybody’s cuts and splint broken bones. Couldn’t have survived without you, but only the ones you’ve actually worked on will recognize you. Better stay here until I spread the word. “
Karen blushed and looked away. “I felt bad, living so much better than the rest of you.”
“That wasn’t your fault.” Briar gave the girl a reassuring smile.
“Living better? How bad was it for the rest of the workers?” Reece tried to keep his voice neutral.
Briar made no such effort. The scorn in her tone froze the atmosphere in the room colder than midnight on the dark side of the farthest moon. “Never enough food. Never enough bunks. Never enough heating fuel or bathing water. We had to sneak off to the river in shifts. We had to keep organized just to make sure everybody could get by.”
“That’s what all that ‘Company One’ and ‘Company Four’ stuff was about. You did that?” Brock asked.
“Along with Whitey and Max and some others.” Briar coughed. “Can we get some coffee in here or something?”
Karen jumped up. “I’ll get it. I know where everything is.”
“Whitey? He’s still around? He was party to this?” Reece was shocked. Whitey had been one of the few hands still around from the time when his father had been in charge.
“He was never really on their side. I begged him to stay. We needed at least one sympathetic guard so he pretended to go along with Gus. He did what he could for us, once Gus took over and brought in all the new people. Kept us informed. Warned us when he could.”
Brock accepted the coffee cup Karen handed him. “Well that’s all over now. Time to concentrate on what needs doing today. We’ve got to get control of that crowd. I don’t want another riot.”
“My people won’t riot. They thought the tech-mech was just malfunctioning and you were Gus come to check on it. They didn’t realize what was really going on. For that matter, we still don’t know what’s going on.”
“You have to ask?” Reece demanded, his temper boiling over. “As soon as I got in to town and found out what was happening in Gemini Canyon, I came out here and put a stop to it, of course.”
Briar looked at him over her mug, assessing, eyes slit in the way Reece remembered so well. “You really didn’t know what was going on? Didn’t you read my communications? I sent plenty while Gus was making his changes and ramping up. He didn’t do it all at once, you know. It took time.”
Reece was tired of being on the defensive. “Plenty of time for you to get to town and find help. What are you doing in a miner’s get-up?”
Brock put out a hand toward his friend. “I can answer that for you. She did try to get help early on, but Gus wasn’t doing anything actually illegal. He could build buildings if he wanted to. He had the right to hire and fire men, including me. By the time he was breaking the law, I couldn’t get proof. I’ll bet Briar couldn’t either.”
“That’s right. He told me you had planned it all, Reece. He said you had agreed to everything and would take over when you got back. He was just building the business for you.” Briar’s brow furrowed in confusion for a moment, but then anger set in again. “I couldn’t leave, since I was a registered resident of Gemini Canyon, but I wouldn’t have any part in what Gus was doing, so I left the house and went to the barracks. Better to work in the mines than be party to his schemes.”
“That must have been when he brought me in,” Karen said in a quiet voice, sitting down on the edge of a chair with a cup of her own. “There was no one in the house but Mr. Braith and a couple of his enforcers. No other women.”
“Gus was trying to keep me in the dark, but I saw more than he wanted me to, so in the end, he left me alone with the other workers, still claiming you were in on the whole deal. I didn’t want to believe it, but when you didn’t answer my communications…”
“I never got them. You have to believe that. I never heard from you either. Gus was probably intercepting everything coming and going. In the Phalanx there wasn’t much time for investigating personal problems.” Reece didn’t want to say any more in front of Karen. “But as Brock points out, we need to plan how things are going to go now. If you think you can control the workers, I’ll be very grateful for your help. I mean to make it right, but to do that, I need to know what’s been done. First of all, we’ll need to calculate some sort of back wage and pay these folks, then help them find other work.”
Briar rolled her eyes at him. “Back wage? The first order of business is to get them home.”
“Well, sure, if that’s what they want. I’ll make good on the debt no matter where they are. It just might take a little longer if they scatter.” Reece sat back, taking a sip of his coffee.
“How do you think you’re going to get slots for all these people?” Briar demanded scornfully.
“Slots? You only need a slot to go off-world.” A pit formed in Reece’s insides, roiling like an ion storm. “He brought people in from off-world? Unregistered? Off the system?”
Briar seemed to be watching him intently. “Not all of them, but enough are off-world. And yes, all of them are off the system. Why do you think he went to the expense of feeding them from his own funds rather than from central resources?”
Just then, there was a loud pounding on the door. Before Reece could reach it, the door was wrenched open. Shouts of “Let them go!” and “We’ve got you surrounded!” blared at them from a massive gathering.
Karen stood up, hands raised above her head to calm the crowd. “It’s all right. We’re not being held. We’re trying to plan how y’all are going to get out of here and go home.”
Hearing this, the men in front quieted down and soon the silence spread to the rest. Briar stepped forward. “We’re taking too long. I’m sure that’s why they got suspicious again. I’ll go talk to them and keep things moving. You’ll need to know exactly who belongs where so you can start the process of reserving the slots.”
Reece looked down at her, desperate for some kind of understanding. “I need to talk to you, is what I need.”
“What I need is to see justice done,” she sneered back. “If a Braith is capable of it, get to work. Get the people who have been kept here against their will back where they came from.”
“Then we’ll talk?”
“Then I’ll be back where I belong, too, away from this family and this cursed ranch! If I never see Gemini Canyon or another Braith again, I’ll count myself lucky.”
“Briar, wait!” Reece called to her retreating back. When he attempted to follow her into the milling men, he was forcefully stopped.
A tall, lanky, white-haired man stepped to the fore. “Let her go, Pike.”
“Whitey! A sight for sore eyes. Maybe you can help me make sense out of all this,” Reece answered gratefully. “Why is she stalking off like that? I didn’t do any of this.”
“She needs to cool off. You can find her later. She can’t leave.”
“And neither can anybody else till we get busy,” Brock put in. “I’ll go ungizmo the transports so we can at least take care of the locals.”
“Good man,” Whitey declared. “With you two back in charge, things have a chance of getting back to normal around here. I knew you’d come back and set things to rights.”
“I wish you’d told her,” Reece muttered.