Genre: Science Fiction Space Opera
Type of Short Story: Novelette
Summary: HE WANDERS THE STARS IN SEARCH OF A HOME. INSTEAD, HE GOT A GIRL WITHOUT ONE.
When Jeremiah arrived at Megiddo Station, all he wanted was to make some trades and resupply his starship. He never thought he'd come away with a wife.
Before he knows it, he's back on his ship, alone with his accidental bride. Since neither of them speak the same language, he has no way to tell her that there's been a terrible mistake. And because of the deadly famine ravaging her home, there's no going back. She's entirely at his mercy, and that terrifies him more than anything.
Jeremiah isn't ready to take responsibility for anyone. He's a star wanderer, roaming the Outworld frontier in search of his fortune. Someday he'll settle down, but for now, he just wants to drop the girl off at the next port and move on.
As he soon finds out, though, she has other plans.
Jeremiah knew something was wrong the moment he stepped out of the Ariadne’s airlock and onto Megiddo Station. A variety of people milled about the tiny spaceport concourse, mostly in-system haulers and traders, as well as a few beggars and questionable women in the shadier passageways. The air smelled slightly of smoke, but that wasn’t too unusual; the settlement was certainly old enough, with ventilator fans that chugged and floor tiles that were grainy with wear. The locals, however, had an eerie look about them. Their faces were gaunt, their skin sagging. They stared at him as he passed by, as if sizing him up. When he returned their gaze, they turned suddenly away from him, as if afraid.
I just need to stay long enough to unload my cargo and make the trade, he thought anxiously to himself. Once I’ve gotten clearance, everything else should go smoothly.
The suppliers at the last system had warned him about this place almost a standard month ago. “You be careful,” they had told him in their peculiar Outworld creole. “We many see go, since six cycles not any come back.”
At the time, Jeremiah hadn’t thought much of it. Traders this far out didn’t follow any set routes, and the dozens of uncharted colonies and outposts always had problems of one sort or another. But from the hollow, expressionless faces he passed on his way spinward, an uneasy feeling told him he might have made a mistake.
Like many of the other doorways in the hallway, the entrance to the station master’s office had a miniature gilded image of a half-cyborg saint tacked above the lintel. Jeremiah keyed the chime and the door hissed open almost immediately.
“Come, come!” came a voice from inside, calling to him with urgency. Jeremiah stepped in, door shutting behind him.
“You Captain Jerem-ahra?”
The station master was short and balding, with a rotund face and a minor cybernetic implant in his left eye. He wore a simple blue jumpsuit with a black felt vest and an insignia on his arm that probably denoted his rank. That wasn’t too unusual; most of the settlements in the Outworlds tended to be hierarchical.
“Yes,” said Jeremiah, bowing in a universal gesture of greeting and respect. “Are you Master Korha?”
“Korha? Yes yes,” said the man, gesturing impatiently for him to come inside.
Jeremiah followed Master Korha from the rather sparse front office into a back room that appeared to be the apartment’s main living quarters. Mattresses lined the floor along the aging bulkheads, indicating a sizable family and not much living space. An ornate mosaic table sat on a dull blue rug in the center, with sticks of incense burning in a bowl off to one side. Except for the two of them, the place was empty.
“Sit, sit,” said the station master, motioning to a cushion across the table. It seemed like a strange way to conduct trade negotiations, but these were the Outworlds after all. Jeremiah took his seat and made himself comfortable.
“You young,” Master Korha observed, producing a thermos and two glasses. He poured them both a thick, white drink that had the consistency of syrup.
“Yes,” Jeremiah answered, taking a sip from his glass. The spicy sweetness hit him like a punch to the mouth, and he struggled to force it down.
“Far,” said Jeremiah, eyes watering. “Many parsecs.”
The station master nodded. “You trader?”
“Of a sort.”
“Man of fortune?”
“You could say that.”
“Searching woman?” he asked, looking Jeremiah in the eye. “Searching home place, find woman and make babies yes yes?”
“Is tradition, no?”
Jeremiah nodded slowly. “That’s right,” he said, mind racing as he tried to rethink his negotiating strategy. Did the station master expect him to settle down here? Was that why he’d called him to his private quarters? The thought made Jeremiah swallow.
“You young, you need woman.”
“Among other things, yes.”
“Not good to man is alone, no no.”
The station master looked off as if lost in thought. Jeremiah took advantage of the moment and cleared his throat.
“As much as I would love to find a wife and settle down, I have some coffee from the Chondarr system that I was hoping to trade, and since you insisted I meet you in person, I—”
“Listen,” Master Korha hissed, glancing over his shoulder before leaning forward to look Jeremiah in the eye. “You no stay here. Not safe.”
Jeremiah frowned. “Not safe? What do you mean?”
“Here is not safe—much is dying, yes yes. Accident since many cycles—no can food to eat. Station crowded, very. Stores run out since many days, many angry, dying much.”
A chill ran down the back of his neck. “You mean the starvation is so bad, the entire outpost is starving to death?”
“Yes yes! Smart young man. Have ship, yes. But cannot stay—very dangerous.”
The gleam in Master Korha’s eyes made him shift uncomfortably on his floor mat.
“Why are you telling me this?”
The station master took a long draft, draining almost half his glass. “You young man, you captain, you go places. Is good, yes. Have favor I ask you.”
He clapped his hands twice, making Jeremiah jump. A side door opened, and five girls lined up in the front of the room. They each wore a loose-fitting chemise made from cheap synthetic fabric that left the shoulders bare while barely stretching to the knees. As Jeremiah looked on, they stared at him with wide, nervous eyes.
“My daughters. You choose, yes yes.”
Jeremiah swallowed hard. “Choose one?”
“Choose one, choose two, choose all no matter. You go, take with. Is good, no?”
This can’t be happening, he thought to himself. His heart pounded in his chest as he glanced from Master Korha to his five daughters and back again.
“Look, let’s not be hasty. My ship doesn’t have any room for extra passengers, and—”
“Aiee!” a voice wailed from behind the door. Jeremiah leaped to his feet as a middle-aged woman barreled past him. Soon, both she and the station master were shouting at each other in their incomprehensible language.
What the hell is going on?
He glanced over at the girls, as if to apologize. The youngest stared at him with wide, frightened eyes; she couldn’t have been older than eight standard years. With her blond hair, she reminded Jeremiah of his younger sister.
“Choose!” Master Korha bellowed. Apparently defeated, his wife collapsed to the floor in tears.
Jeremiah tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit, sweat forming at the back of his neck. “What? Choose?”
“Yes yes—choose quickly, you take, you go!”
“But this is crazy; how can I—”
“If not take, will die. Choose!”
Jeremiah turned back nervously to the girls. The three youngest ones stared at him in absolute terror. The two oldest ones weren’t quite so frightened, but avoided meeting his gaze directly. They wore their long hair down with glistening sequined headbands across their foreheads, and the innocent looks on their faces cried out to him.
Should I take them both? If they were going to die otherwise, it seemed like the right thing to do—but he didn’t know if he could afford to take even one extra passenger on his ship. And besides, the whole situation had an eerily awkward feel to it, as if he were trading in people, not goods.
“You like? You like?” Master Korha asked, ambling to his side. He pulled the two girls forward to give Jeremiah a better look. One of them giggled nervously, while the other bit her lip almost apologetically.
“What the—how can I do this?” Jeremiah asked, raising his hands in protest. “They’re your daughters.”
Behind them, the wife let out an awful wail, but Master Korha waved his hand as if to say ‘pay no attention to her.’
“You choose one, must take, save her yes yes.”
Jeremiah looked into the desperate eyes of the daughters and realized, purely on a gut level, that their father was telling the truth.
“Her,” he said, pointing to the oldest of the two. Her eyes widened, and she covered her mouth in shock.
“Good! Good!” said Master Korha. He took Jeremiah by the wrists and had him clasp hands with the girl. Her fingers were cold, her palms clammy. Her arms stiffened and trembled, but she held on tight. Jeremiah almost pulled away from her, but her father held him in place, making the sign of the cross across his chest and muttering some arcane prayer in his native language.
All at once, everyone in the room was crying. The mother’s wails sounded above all the others, and she shoved Jeremiah aside, wrapping her arms around her daughter. The other girls soon surrounded them, tears streaking their faces, while Master Korha clucked impatiently and pushed them all away.
“Come, come,” he said, grabbing Jeremiah and the girl by their arms. A moment later, they were in his office, away from all the madness. “You take, you leave, must go now yes yes?”
“But—wait!” said Jeremiah, jerking himself free. “What about my mass allotment? My ship’s not built to carry passengers; I’ll have to recalcu—”
“No problem, no problem, she not bring anything,” said Master Korha. He palmed a console in the wall and a hidden door opened, revealing a long, empty maintenance corridor. “Must go now,” he said, ushering them in. “If not, others soon do bad things, yes yes.”
“Are you serious? What do you—”
As if in response, the sound of fists pounding on the front door echoed through the office. It started out innocently enough, but quickly grew louder, as if an entire mob was trying to break in.
“Come! Come!” said Master Korha, hissing as if to emphasize the point. Jeremiah glanced anxiously around the room and instinctively knew that if he didn’t comply, he would soon be in danger.
“Okay,” he muttered, ducking his head as he climbed into the narrow maintenance shaft. “Whatever you say, old man.”