Councilman Theodore Chambers made his excuses and broke away from the small group of well-wishers, and his own birthday party, to look for his son.
He guessed what was holding Malachi up. The problem would be that girl again. She was a rogue element in a fragile society. Theo sympathised with her predicament but held firm to his conviction. He could not afford to give her any special treatment. Since he had been welcomed to the New Haven council he was responsible for the lives of almost a thousand citizens. All of whom needed to be fed and protected from the dangers of the Juggernaut, both inside and out.
Tila Vasquez was not so special that her need to roam free could be allowed to threaten the security of everyone else.
Theo bumped into a young, excitable couple as stepped through the airlock which was stuck open by rust and decay, on their way to the party. He smiled at them and made small talk for a few minutes and was under no illusion that their excitement stemmed from the fact it was his birthday.
The renovations of the decommissioned livestock transport ship, registration BV601, had recently been completed, and Theo’s fiftieth birthday had provided the excuse for the community to celebrate. It was more than welcome after such a successful project.
Theo’s original aim had been to simply make this space habitable for their growing population. The fact that he had personally trained four new engineers in the basics of life support technologies was the icing on the birthday cake.
The couple pattered off the polite small talk expected of people who wanted to be on their way but didn’t want to seem rude, as Theo tried and failed to remember their names. Eventually he shook the husband’s hand, accepted a kiss on the cheek from the wife and told them to go have a good time. He watched them leave and smiled at their happy union.
He was glad they had found each other, especially here, but he was not surprised. Love, like any other seed, could take root in the darkness.
The couple joined hands as they walked. The husband whispered something in her ear and she giggled and playfully slapped his shoulder.
Why couldn’t Malachi find someone like that? Theo wondered. Why couldn’t I find that again?
Theo adored his son but still found him to be a frustrating young man. Even Malachi would admit to that. But Theo recognised his son’s strengths too. Malachi was more than capable of dealing with the finances and clients of the little business they had carved out for themselves here, but his real gift was understanding the machines they dealt with daily, and knowing how to fix them.
Theo smiled to himself again. He was a good engineer, his years of study and alphabet soup of qualifications could attest to that, but Malachi had an easy gift with machines. All you had to do was explain what a machine was supposed to do, then hand him a manual and a box of tools, and wait.
Maybe it was the natural consequence of how he had raised his son. Malachi’s mother, Theo’s wife, had not been in Malachi’s life – either of their lives – long enough. Malachi was only six when they arrived on the Juggernaut twelve years earlier. He was nine when his mother died in the raid. Theo had worked every hour he could so they could survive, and so young Malachi had spent his childhood in the workshop, helping his over-protective father with anything he could and absorbing, totally, everything he was taught. Malachi had a mind like a bucket. He was fortunate to have a father with a mind like a tap.
Before his family had moved to the freeport of New Haven, Theo had worked as chief engineer for one of the interstellar corporations on a range of projects from experimental engines (promising) to asteroid-based arcologies (too expensive) and from space elevators (too theoretical) to moon-based launch systems (efficient but already outdated).
Their family had ended up here for the same reason everyone did – they had nowhere else to go. The Juggernaut was their best, last and safest option. And besides, no one searches the trash for treasure.
One day soon Theo planned to explain to Malachi why and how they had ended up here, but he suspected Malachi had already pieced together enough clues and overheard enough whispered conversations of past regret to learn the truth. A business deal gone bad had brought them to the brink of bankruptcy.
The ensuing court cases had done the rest.
With no money left to prove himself innocent Theo had sold the last of their possessions and ran. They raised enough money for one last journey. One final destination. The Juggernaut.
No central authority existed in the Celato system so Theo couldn’t be extradited if someone came looking. After all, someone needed to sign the paperwork.
But this didn’t mean they were completely safe. His creditors, or the bounty hunters they hired, still wanted him, but the cost and risk of seeking out one man in a lawless star system, aboard a dangerous labyrinthine city of almost a million people meant that he was unlikely to be found even if someone thought the effort to be worth their while.
The dangers of the present had protected them from the dangers of the past. There was one advantage to being a member of the dispossessed after all.
A mixed blessing if ever there was one, thought Theo.
Once they had settled into life on board Theo soon discovered his skills were in demand in every area of city life. Life support, water reclamation, hydroponics, heating, and lighting.
With the benefit of his expert knowledge, New Haven had thrived as new immigrants and migrants from elsewhere in the city came to stay.
Despite the added strain on every available resource, slowly, gradually and carefully, Theo and his son transformed one small corner of the Juggernaut into an area where people could at last not just survive, but actually live.
Since then Malachi had grown up in something of a bubble, constantly discouraged from taking risks by his father. Theo knew he could often be an overbearing and overprotective parent but Malachi never complained, at least not to him. Maybe his son only endured it because he loved his father.
Two young boys rounded the corner carrying a heavy pot between them. They wobbled, and Theo made to intervene, but then they recovered, hefted the pot a little higher and carried on. Behind them followed their mother, Theo assumed.
She trailed behind them just a little way, just enough to let them feel independent, but Theo could see the fear etched into her brow that the food they carried might not make it to the party.
“It’s just potatoes,” she apologised as she passed, as if this would make everything alright if the boys did end up spilling the food.
Of course it was potatoes. Only mushrooms grew better here. Mushrooms and rats. And nobody wanted to eat rat at a party.
Was it too much to ask for more than this on a man’s fiftieth birthday? he wondered. He chided himself for his selfish thought. This wasn’t about his birthday, or the celebration of a ship restored. Everyone deserved better than this life, even his only son. No, especially his only son.
And yet Malachi never complained. On the surface, he seemed content with his life of technical problems which he rarely failed to solve. He didn’t waste time dreaming of escape and adventure and romance. He was too practical for that.
Besides, adventures, of a sort, were never far away on the Juggernaut. Not if you counted the roaming gangs, local warlords, the raiders and pirates, and the frequent attacks and constant attempted thefts of their water and power. If you really wanted adventure it was there for the taking, just like everything else in the city.
Theo was grateful his son was more interested in helping a customer and keeping the workshop organised than he was in escaping the Juggernaut on some foolish crusade.
It never occurred to Theo that a complete lack of options might have had something to do with it.
The truth was that his son had no way to leave. Very few did once they were here. Theo owned just one ship, and even this had taken a year of work and restoration to make it space-worthy again. There was nothing new on the Juggernaut. Nothing new under their dying sun.
If you couldn’t repair, remodel or recondition it then you didn’t get to use it. Sure, there were plenty of short-range craft around. Runabouts and racers were perfectly adequate for the short hops to other communities and free ports, but Theo’s ship was one of the few vessels capable of a system jump. That made it priceless.
The Rhino was certainly nothing special to look at but it was big enough to function as a mobile workshop which made it ideal for those awkward jobs in situ. It was also spacious enough to transport larger items, like engines, back to his workshop for repair. Without the Rhino, Theo would never have been able to source and supply the items New Haven needed to transform itself from a community that was barely surviving to one which had almost – almost – begun to prosper.
Ships capable of any sort of extended journey were incredibly rare on the Juggernaut, and therefore incredibly valuable. And ships capable of making a system jump was almost unheard of.
Typically, the only way out of the Celato system was to buy passage alongside a surrogate, and that was expensive. Theo was sometimes able to scrape together enough money to buy passage on an outbound jump out if he needed something from one of their three neighbours, but he also had to make sure he had enough money for the return trip. He avoided spending more than a day or two away from the Celato system. The risk of being seen was too high.
It had been months since Theo had needed to leave the Juggernaut for supplies of any kind, but thanks to a recent deal he had made to repair the drive of a cargo ship which had broken down while in transit between the Celato beacons, he would shortly have the funds.
It was any irony Theo didn’t appreciate that even though he was one of the few people in the city with the means to leave the system he could never be away for long. Sooner or later his ship would flag up on some watch list and he would have to return before someone tried to arrest him or cash in a standing warrant.
The sound of approaching footsteps brought him back to the moment. They were light, bright steps which tapped quickly upon the cold floor. Theo recognised them. He smiled to himself and retreated into the shadows. He liked to play the stern overseer on occasion.
Ellie skipped around the corner and suddenly a large and imposing figure stepped out of the shadows to bar her way. Recessed lights reflected off the dark skin of his bald head. His muscled arms were folded across his broad chest. He looked down at her, his face impossible to read behind the cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He filled the corridor and loomed over her. Ellie might have found the man intimidating if she had not known him so well.
“Eleanor Young!” boomed Theo, more statement than question.
Ellie made a face. She hated that name. It sounded so grown up.
“You’re late,” he continued.
“I’m sorry,” said Ellie. She wasn’t.
“And where, young lady, is my wayward son?”
“Malachi’s right behind me. Tila’s coming too. She might already be here. Have you seen her?”
Theo ignored this last question. “You have some good news for me at least, I hope?”
“Maybe. If you let me in,” she teased.
Theo frowned and bent down to bring his face level with Ellie’s.
“And why should I do a thing like that?” he dared her.
“Because this,” said Ellie, and kissed him on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Theo.”
“Ha!” roared Theo as he swept Ellie up in a bear hug as he spun around. Ellie laughed until the bear hug made breathing too painful. She patted his arms in submission until he put her down. When she was back on solid ground she took a moment to smooth out her clothes, then she looked up at him and said, “Ow.”
He winked. “If I thought for one moment you didn’t like that I wouldn’t do it.”
“Yes, you would,” she accused him playfully. “But I don’t have time to argue today. I need to find Tila.”
“Ellie,” he called after her as she started to turn the corner. Her head popped back out. “Did you at least win?”
Ellie just grinned and vanished.