Hisako Saski was born with her life already mapped out. In exchange for an education, better housing for her family, and a boost out of poverty, she’s been contracted into an arranged marriage to Adem Sadiq, a maintenance engineer and amateur musician who works and lives aboard his family's sub-light freighter, the Hajj.
Hisako is not happy with the deal. The arcane branch of physics it requires her to study broke off a thousand years before, and she is not keen on the idea of giving up everything she knows to marry a stranger and move onto an aging spaceship.
Onboard the Hajj, Hisako soon learns her dilemmas are overshadowed by the discovery of ancient secrets, a derelict warship, and a chance at giving the survivors of Earth a fresh start.
File Under: Science Fiction [ E=mc2 | Happy wife, Happy life | Marital Bliss | Light Years Away ]
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Versailles City, Oct 14, 3235
Maybe God will make it better.
The thought escaped Adem's throat in barely remembered Arabic. Years before, his grandmother had given him the words as a talisman against specters like the one he faced now. A crusted sore sealed its right eye into a squint, protein starvation bloated its belly, and its arms were thin as sticks. The little boy smiled and presented the bowl again. The blessing might have worked better in French. The Almighty always had a soft spot for Europeans and their descendents, the EuroD.
Adem reached into the belly pocket of his utilisuit and sorted through his supply of coins by touch.
"That bowl is an antique," he said. The technology used to produce them had been lost to Gaul a century before. Sealed in its bottom, an animated 3D image of a once-popular cartoon character offered a cheerful thumbs up in recognition of cereal well eaten. "You should take it to an–"
Adem finished the sentence in his head. An antiquities dealer would most likely swindle the boy, and he would come away little better off and in need of a new bowl. There wasn't much justice available to people like him. There were work programs and shelters for state- approved orphans, so the boy had to be an illicite: an illegal birth. His parents had abandoned him in fear of punishment or lost him to the streets when they went to prison.
Adem covered the cartoon's grinning face with triangular coins, enough for a month's worth of food. He dug into his supply of New Portuguese, a simplified language adopted by Gaul's civil service and foisted on the planet's refugee population, hoping to be better understood. "Keep it for yourself. Don't give it to any–"
The boy dashed away, the bowl tight against his narrow chest. Adem cursed. The money would likely end up in the hands of whatever Fagin gave the child his daily meal and a corner to sleep in. Adem pulled up his hood and resumed his walk.
The russet afternoon light turned the roadway's cracked pavement the color of dried blood. The area had devolved since Adem's last visit, the people becoming poorer, more desperate. Rows of refugee shanties and hovels pressed up against the elevator depot. In a taxi he might not have noticed. He could have avoided it completely by darkening the taxi's windows and watching a news or entertainment vid. But when he was on-planet, Adem walked where he could, curious to see what had changed. Once, his simple clothing helped him blend in with the locals but now his sturdy utilisuit made him a target.
A woman beckoned him from the next corner. She was standing in front of a crumbling building that had been a thriving noodle shop half a standard century before. She ran her hands down her short dress and raised its hem to reveal her scrawny thighs. "You look lonely, spaceman!"
"Bad luck," Adem said. "I'm getting a wife today." Talking to another child might have broken his heart, but he had thicker skin where adults were concerned.
"I'll give you my bachelor discount." She stepped closer. The smell of her sweat allied with the chemical tang of whatever drug she favored and the cheap ginja on her breath. Her tight dress was grimy, hugging bone more than curve. Her hair was dry and limp.
"Last time I was here this was a nice place," Adem said.
The woman shifted position, her malnutrition not quite eliciting the desired response. "How long ago was that?"
"Two and a half years relative. About fifty years your time."
She rubbed her lower lip with the stump of her missing left thumb. "I have a friend across the street. Maybe you'd like him better. Maybe you want both of us."
"I'm all set." Adem reached in his pocket for more coins. "Take a couple of days off. My treat. Call it a wedding present."
She limped away with the money. Rationed, it might keep her off the streets for a couple of weeks, but more likely she'd head to a tea shop and spend it on Bliss or whatever people like her were inhaling these days. If she forgot to save a few of the coins for her pimp, she might lose the other thumb.
Adem pushed his hands into his pockets. Nearly three standard centuries ago, during his first visit to Gaul, Adem had offered a woman named Tamara his virginity and four coins from his pocket. She had relieved him of both with algorithmic efficiency, and he'd been back on the street in fifteen minutes. Tamara had long been dust, but once she had been beautiful enough to attract well-heeled customers. The one- thumbed woman might be dead the next time Adem came this way, and her daughter or son, or even a grandchild, might be working the corner where the noodle shop used to be.
Four grim-faced men in cheap armor manned a checkpoint on the next block, slowing the creep into midtown. There hadn't been a checkpoint fifty years before, and the line between the central city slums – La Merde, as locals called them – and everywhere else had not been so sharply drawn. Adem brushed at the front of his utilisuit. A block prior it had made him desirable; at the border it made the authorities wonder why he was afoot.
"What's your business?" The guard was a big man, and his ceramic armor strained to cover the vulnerable parts of his body.
Adem kept his hands in sight. "I'm just down the elevator. Got an appointment with a matchmaker." He offered the address.
The guard inserted Adem's ID stick into his reader. Adem held his breath. There had been a couple of dust ups when he was a kid. No one alive had anything to complain about, but the law could get complicated when relativity was involved.
The guard grunted and handed back the stick. "You crew?"
Adem shook his head. "Family. Part owner."
"You paying for gene work, then? Give her a big smile and no brains?" The guard's face darkened. "A nice little splice to keep you happy up there in space?"
Adem forced himself not to take a step back. "Nothing like that. Just a standard contract."
The guard sneered. "Lost my little sister that way. She married a Trader, too. Standard contract. Won't see her again until I've got gray in my hair."
"What ship?" Adem said. "Maybe I can get a message to her."
"Doesn't matter. She's gone. I tell Ma that she's got to move on with it." The guard gestured with his stun club back down the street. "Still better than that. Her contract got us out, but the shit keeps coming. Next time you're here checkpoint's liable to be a mile further up and all these pretty offices turned to squats." He spat on the sidewalk. "She's better off up there. She might as well be dead to us, and she's better off." He waved Adem on. "Go meet your wife."
Past the checkpoint, the midtown business district assembled along well-groomed streets. There was a green park to Adem's left, complete with a statue of Audric Haussman, a long dead city planner who had claimed descendance from the First Baron Architect of Paris. Adem double-timed the next two blocks with his head down, hoping to avoid anyone else who might want to flag him down for the novelty of a conversation with a spaceman. Too many times it turned hostile. No matter how far La Merde spread, no matter how many ad-hoc refugee settlements sprang up around the elevator, Traders like him could stay above it all. Take the ship up to 99.999 percent of light speed, and decades of standard time might erase the stain by the time it came back into port.
Adem held his ID stick up to the door scanner of a nondescript office building and walked through the airlock into the climate- controlled lobby beyond. He nodded to the robot secretary. "Adem Sadiq. I have an appointment with the matchmaker."
The repurposed robot stared blankly at him as it accessed the information. It was a bulky thing, nearly immobile behind the desk and built for construction or mining, but it seemed comfortable with its reprogramming. It gestured toward the waiting room.
Adem paced up and down the small room until the matchmaker came to fetch him.
"Monsieur Sadiq?" The small woman held out her hand as she advanced on him. Adem accepted it clumsily, unsure whether to shake it or offer it a kiss. "I am Madam Toulouse. You look younger than I expected." She spoke Trader Esperanto clearly but with a thick accent.
Adem touched his cheeks. In his rush to make the elevator he'd forgotten to shave. "We don't get a lot of solar exposure on board. Gives us baby faces."
The matchmaker smiled. "Your bride is lucky to have you." She had vetted Adem's application and verified his mother's credit, but that was as far as her knowledge of him went.
Madam Toulouse's heels clicked like a half-interested radiation detector as she led Adem into the lift and down a long hallway. "Are you nervous?" she said.
Adem stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Some."
"You'll just answer a few questions and sign some documents." She fiddled with Adem's collar. "Are these the best clothes you have? No, never mind." She studied his face. Adem half-expected her to lick her thumb to scrub at some smudge or other he had missed. "What happened to your hair?"
Adem brushed his hand across the left side of his face and head. The skin graft had taken nicely – his father did good work – but his hair hadn't grown back out all the way. "Conduit fire."
The matchmaker sighed. "You're pretty enough. She might not notice." She pointed to an alcove. "Get in there, and smile when the computer tells you. We'll get a picture for your future wife."
Adem had never found it easy to smile on command but felt he may have managed a friendly grimace by the time the computer had taken half a dozen shots. Madam Toulouse frowned at the test strip the computer printed out for her. "These will do." She propelled Adem by the arm farther down the hallway. "Let me do most of the talking. I know what your family is looking for and how much they are willing to pay."
The lighting in the interview room was warm and subdued. The chairs were well-stuffed, and the table in the middle of it all was an antique made of honey-colored fauxwood. Adem took a seat, interlacing his fingers on the tabletop. The matchmaker frowned, shaking her head an inch in either direction. Adem got the hint, slid his hands off the table, and rested them on the reinforced knees of his utilisuit.
The door swished open. A pear-shaped man in an old-style suit walked in first, trailed by Adem's future in-laws: a man and a woman in their early twenties. They walked closely together, and their clothes fit like they had been purchased for larger people. Adem experimented with a charming smile, but it felt phony. He looked at the table instead.
The matchmaker stood and discreetly touched Adem's shoulder. Adem lurched to his feet and, again not sure what to do with them, put his hands in his pockets.
Madam Toulouse smiled at the newcomers. "This is Adem Sadiq, son of Captain Maneera Sadiq. He is part owner of the Hajj." She put her hand on Adem's elbow. "Adem, this is Joao and Hadiya Sasaki."
The Sasakis offered Adem a formal bow. He returned it clumsily, hands still in his pockets. The pear-shaped man ignored him completely. "I am representing the Sasaki family," he said. "They do not understand the Trader's language."
"Of course," Madam Toulouse said. "Won't you sit down?" She gestured to the chairs on the other side of the table.
The Sasakis sat close together with their attorney taking up more than half the table to their left. He tented his fingers on the table. The cuffs of his shirt were worn. "Captain Sadiq wants the bride to study United Americas physics and engineering," he said.
Madam Toulouse looked at Adem expectantly.
"Yeah," he said. "I mean, yes. That's what we want."
"Not much use on a Trader vessel."
Adem had wondered about that, too, but his mother hadn't seen fit to enlighten him. "I'm sure we'll find a way to put her to use."
The attorney's eyes widened. "I'm sure. Are there any other skills and interests you would like her to acquire? Cooking? Materials recycling, perhaps? BDSM?"
Adem rubbed the back of his neck. "Maybe she could learn to play an instrument."
"Will children be required?"
"If it happens, it happens, but I don't want anything like that in the contract."
The representative whispered with his clients and turned back to Adem's matchmaker. "My clients have no objection," he said. "Does the Sadiq family want naming rights? It will cost extra."
"Her parents can pick a name. That's their business."
"We want a contingency fund for genetic alteration in case the fetus does not have the math and science traits. If it is not used, it will revert back to Captain Sadiq."
"We are prepared for that," Madam Toulouse said. "There will be enough in the fund to get the work done on Versailles Station."
"Fine." The representative rolled his shoulders and adjusted the cuffs of his shirt. "Let's get down to it."
Adem tuned out. Madam Toulouse had a reputation for being fair and having a soft spot for the families of the brides she was placing. Both families were in good hands. Besides, he had a lot to think about, not least of which was turning his bachelor quarters into something a woman might like.
The matchmaker stood abruptly and offered her hand to the Sasakis' representative. "We have a deal."
Adem scrambled to his feet in time to see his future in-laws headed for the door. Hadiya Sasaki was crying. Her husband put his arms around her and pressed his mouth to her ear. She wiped her eyes on her too-long sleeves. Before Adem could say goodbye, they were gone.
"Congratulations," Madam Toulouse said. "You have a bride."
Adem looked at the door the Sasakis had gone through. "Will they be alright?"
The matchmaker's mouth twisted. "Their representative kept as much as he could for himself, but they will be far better off than they were."
"Thank you for that." Adem forced a smile. Marriage was supposed to be a happy thing, but what he felt was more akin to shame or embarrassment. "I should get back to my ship."
Madam Toulouse showed Adem where to sign his name and press his thumb. "Your mother has already transferred the funds to my account. Everything, minus our commissions, will go to your bride's rearing and education."
Preparations for departure were underway when Adem came aboard the Hajj and climbed to the environmental-control deck. He winked at the engineer in charge, a slim AfriD man named Sarat. "Everything all set in here?"
"We are breathing, and we have hot water to spare." Sarat turned from his workstation. "And you're married."
"Betrothed. I'll be married in a year." Adem's eagerness to see Sarat faltered. Making environmental-control his first stop had been a mistake. "Let's not talk about this now. We're about to leave orbit, and you know how my mother gets."
"Your sister can handle it."
"She's the pilot. I'm the one who makes sure the ship moves when she tells it to."
They both knew he was dodging.
"Let's have dinner tonight," Adem said. "My cabin."
Sarat nodded and turned back to his work.
Adem skimmed through the cargo manifest as he rode the lift to the command-and-control section in the bow. They'd invested heavily in food stuffs and building materials, an odd choice considering their next scheduled stop was Freedom, where entertainment and luxury items were in demand. Adem put his reader away as the lift slowed. Mother knew best. The Hajj hadn't ended a trip in the red since she'd taken over the bridge.
Adem took the five steps between the lift door and the entrance to the bridge and crossed to the command chair to kiss the captain on the cheek. "Marhabaan 'umi." She nodded, not taking her eyes off her display screens. "How did it go?"
"You have a daughter-in-law full of useless knowledge on the way."
"They didn't say much, and they left right after we shook on it."
"Probably afraid they'd back out." The captain rotated her chair to face the helm, where Adem's sister Lucy reclined in the piloting chair. While linked, she saw through the ship's cameras and sensors.
Lucy spoke through the bridge intercom. "Hello, little brother. How is Sarat?"
Adem refused to take the bait. "Did you get enough shopping done on the station?"
Lucy's sigh was amplified and dehumanized by the intercom's processors. "Can I ever? And it will be out of style by the time we come back."
"The time after that it will all be vintage and in high demand," Adem said. "You can sell it back at a profit."
"True. Did you buy me a new little sister?"
"A future math and science genius. Most likely spliced. Her parents are smart enough, but they don't have the genes for it. You'll have a lot to talk about when we pick her up."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Light Years"
Copyright © 2019 R.W.W. Greene.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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