SUMMARY: It's a long, long way from where he started.
CHARACTERS: Various OCs
RATING: R for language and themes (gen fic).
WARNINGS: This is a very alternate universe. Adult themes and adult language.
DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em. Never will.
NOTES: The second part of the Distress Call universe. Links to all chapters are here.
The buyers from the big solar concerns were a strange crossbreed of businessman and rancher, and for a long time Alton had thought that was what he'd wanted to be. These were men who knew stock, who could judge a feeder cow or a wool alpackey at a single glance, but who, at the end of the day, went back to their ships orbiting above Riata. Instead of bedding down in nu-canvas tents, with the dust and stink of livestock in their noses, they were in comfortable beds, looking out novaglas viewscreens at Riata, suspended in the vast darkness of space.
Jerome knew now that these men were nothing special -- that they were just employees, doing their job like any other hired hand, and that some of them had been very bad men indeed. At the time, though, they'd seemed almost unbearably exotic -- sojourners who traveled between the stars, and Alton's feet had itched to join them. Every season since Alton could remember, his family, his silent, taciturn father and his equally silent brothers, had been making the run up to Recipe Creek with all the other ranchers, and every season Alton would slip from his saddle and lie awake in his bedroll, staring at the stars and reading the old stories.
Moby-Dick. Two Years Before the Mast. Kon-Tiki. John Carter of Mars. Thunder Over Rapid Station. The Battle for Delta Dancer Six.
There'd been other men there, the men who actually handled the animals that Alton's family brought in. Almost invariably, they were dark-skinned, the color of the fertile earth at places like Almond Grove, where there was good rain the year-round. These men, the real stockmen, kept to themselves, regarding Alton and the boys like him with grave courtesy and mild amusement. Alton's father treated them with the utmost respect, and told his sons that the men were of the "blood-race." He'd also told them how the men had earned that name, and why they sometimes preferred payment on the hoof rather than silver coin or credit sticks.
Alton and his brothers had listened, and then talked among themselves. Jerome, who had read the most books, recounted the tales of the Maasai, an extinct race of Ancient Earth who had taken blood nourishment from their own cattle. The boys had argued back and forth for a while, but in the end they'd all agreed -- the blood-race men were no different from themselves, and how they took their sustenance was nobody's business but their own. Unless they suddenly started devouring squalling babies, there was nothing to fear.
He never found out how his father knew they'd even discussed the matter, but his smile the next day had revealed how proud he was. It wasn't until then that Alton realized he and his brothers had been tested, and had, in his father's eyes, passed muster.
Some of the other boys -- some of them Alton's friends -- weren't so accepting, and showed it in numerous small, deliberate ways.
Refusing to acknowledge a blood-race stockman's presence. Not fetching them a drink of water when needed, or using spurs on an already-gentled pony. They'd whisper skeeter and leech in tones just loud enough for the stockmen to hear and tip over pails of tick dip on their boots.
The blood-race men had always declined the bait, and Jerome's father had told him that this was the way it always was, that some folks would always cut off their noses to spite their faces, because if they'd only listened, the stockmen could have taught the boys their taming ways, drawn on their storehouse of knowledge.
Instead, boys like Ronnie Fitzgerald and Kenardo Jones wasted their time on petty insults, stubbornly building up useless prejudices and silent grudges, even on the last night of auction, traditionally reserved for Rodeo, when the golden teosinte liquor flowed and there was calf roping, bareback riding, and the nimble bull jumpers vaulting over the tossing horns of the wildest steers.
That was the way it had always gone -- the drive, the selling, the Auction Rodeo.
Always, until Alton's sixteenth year. That was the year the freight recruiters came around, seeking young men who'd work cheap. They dressed better than the cartel buyers, with vestcoats of nuveen satin, and they smoked thick, sweet-smelling baccyrolls that they trimmed with silver penknives. They passed out flyers at the camp lodges that bore 9-D illustrations on the front, moving pictures of huge animals that had long, tubular noses, braying creatures that none of the boys had ever seen before.
COME AND SEE THE ELEFANT! the flyers proclaimed. SIGN UP NOW FOR A SPACE CONTRACT! EXCELLENT PAY; NO EXPERIENCE REQUIRED!
Luke Fitzgerald was going, and his brother Ronnie, and Sammy Maldonado, and Kenardo Jones and some of his friends.
And in the end, Alton Jerome had gone too, shaking the dry scruff of Riata from his boots as he'd slung his bedroll over his shoulder and boarded the recruiter's dartship.
Alton sits silent for a moment, turning his glass of Siglis whiskey in his hand.
Luke Fitzgerald had died of Scarlet Plague just two years after signing up. Sammy Maldonado was Senator Samuel Maldonado now, holding a royal warrant on the Hoopoe Range -- Alton was first-father to both of his kids.
And Ronnie Fitzgerald and Kenardo Jones ... they'd disappeared, somewhere out in the farthest reaches of the False Focus, and whether they'd been lost to disease, a ship malfunction, or a raid by slavers, Alton didn't know and didn't much care.
Actually, he wouldn't be surprised one day to learn they'd simply jumped ship, becoming pirates and slavers themselves, their small streams of greed and hate feeding inevitably into the larger rivers of the brigand crews. For all Alton knows, those two might have been among the vultures sweeping in to pick the bones of the Hotel California.
The two doctors don't know it yet, but Jerome's crew is doing a little more than just repairs. The artifacts he's taking will more than pay for the upgrades to the California's antiquated defense system; his business partners will understand.
They knew who he was when they joined him, after all.