© John Lane
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Wealthy Jane Johnson
Chapter 2.1- 14 Years Ago
The chill rain started, just like clockwork. Once the sun fell below the horizon each evening, a fine drizzle fell. Next came the steady fall of rain and finally, a downpour hit the city. The brief calm in between might fool an off-worlder into believing it was over as the rain and overcast clouds drifted off into the sea. Sometimes, if you timed it right, you could see the stars. But woe to those caught outside after the rains without a breather and slicker.
In this city that hugged the sea, to anyone caught out at night after the rains the mist meant death. The mist crept down out of the forested mountains. The mist, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, acid gas, rose from the warm ground. The deadly gas blew back when the winds off the sea returned each morning. Gilles Corp treated the ocean with genetically modified algae. Those blissful winds contained the oxygen the city needed to thrive. It took a generation to seed the planet and claim the shorelines of this sea for humanity. A delicate balance existed between the old atmosphere of death and the new one that brought life.
Weltha’s parents were part of that battle. As botanists, they worked changing this planet to accommodate the pattern of life that once gave birth to humanity. They didn’t know she was here. And she didn’t know if they were alive. They had moved on to another terraforming mission in the Fringe. She tried to follow, but her money and luck ran out, stranding her on this wet, bleak and deadly planet.
Weltha wandered the outskirts of the city dome looking for shelter. New construction projects that ambitious investors started and deserted when they ran out of funds surrounded the safety of the domed habitat. The homeless and forgotten found shelter among these ruins. She tried scavenging for food. Empty-handed, she turned her collar up to keep the rain from running next to her skin. By the time she found the open gate to the underground transport tunnel, she could smell the acid gas. It chased her deep into the tunnels before the pressure from ventilation fans pushed it out.
In the dark, Weltha fell over abandoned construction materials and tools. This work site seemed fresh. As she picked herself up, she felt the thick plastic of shipping wrap. Feeling around on her hands and knees, she found several pallets. These she drug to a ledge on the tram loading platform and dropped to the rails below the platform. There she made her nest. She stripped her wet clothing off and hung it on the pallets she propped below the ledge and wrapped herself in plastic to keep warm.
Footsteps woke Weltha from a troubled sleep.
“That was close,” a young boy’s voice said through chattering teeth. “How did you know about this place?”
“I’ve been watching them work all day,” came a girl’s voice. She sounded not much older. “Here, grab that bit of pipe there.” A light flickered on, casting shadows that bounced around on the opposite wall of the rail tunnel where Weltha hid. One bouncing shadow picked up a pipe while the other pulled out a small bit of fabric from a bag. “Wrap this around your pipe.” The smaller shadow did as instructed. A second brighter flicker of light cast larger shadows on the wall. “Now look for food. Try the trash for castoffs from their lunch.”
The lights separated to opposite parts of the platform. Weltha hid and tried to breathe as little as possible. Soon the two lights blended again, and the two young voices shared their treasures. They had found a few chips left in a bag and a discarded half sandwich. The sandwich, a real treasure, they split.
Their meal completed, they extinguished their lights and lay down to sleep. Weltha tried to stay silent. She knew alone she could be a target. They might take what little she had.
“Cassie,” the boy’s voice began, “I liked it better at the shelter. There was plenty of food and it was warm.”
“We can’t go back. It’s not as nice as you think,” the girl said.
“How can it be any worse than here? No food. It’s cold, and it’s dark,” he paused, “and I’m scared.”
“You’ll be okay. Now go to sleep.”
A few minutes later, “I can’t sleep. I’m still scared.”
“Here,” there was a shuffling noise. “Is that better?”
“Good. Now go to sleep.”
“I still want to go back to the shelter,” the young boy pleaded.
“Okay. We’ll check to see if they have any beds for tomorrow, but only for one night. After that we’ve got to move on,” the girl scolded. “Now, go-to-sleep.”
Weltha shivered as she listened to the other two lost children’s breathing. A shelter where she could find food and a warm bed, she thought. One night could make the difference between dying and finding her parents. They drifted off to sleep as Weltha made plans to follow them come morning and the fresh start to a new day.
Weltha slept in fits through the night. She awoke at the slightest sound. The little boy snored. that covered her noise
In the morning, the girl and boy on the platform lit a torch to collect their things and leave. Weltha dressed hastily. She still saw the glow of their torch down the tunnel that led to the surface. She followed them. Once above ground, she had a harder time trailing them as they scavenged for food. She needed to forage as well but was more desperate for a good night’s sleep in a warm bed. She shadowed them the rest of the day.
The afternoon clouds turned to mist, then rain and finally the evening storm broke over the outskirts of the domed city. All three children were miserable. The girl and boy started away from the dome wall and worked their way around the city outskirts toward the sea. As the sky opened to stars, the children arrived at a group of buildings huddled together. Each building wore the airtight shutters that sealed the acid gas out and breathable air in. A dilapidated sign hanging outside one building read "Rooms for Rent, Oxygen Cost Extra."
Weltha followed the girl and boy as they made their way around to a back street and a building that shared its backside with the hotel. They entered a double sealed airlock. Weltha hung back until she felt the first sting of the acid mist falling on her. She didn’t want to follow too close, but she knew she couldn’t find another shelter in time to avoid the acid mist. She desperately needed to stay the night. She wondered if they might throw her out if there were no more rooms.
She rushed through the first door and paused, letting the moisture of the acid gas run off her slicker before she entered the shelter’s lobby proper. It wasn’t polite, even among the desperate, to rot the carpet of your host during the acid nights. Weltha pushed her way through the second set of doors and approached a rundown desk against the back wall of the dimly lit lobby. She noted details as she always did. There was a stair leading to an upper floor. Sleeping quarters, she presumed. On the far side of the stair was an archway opening into a lounge where a mismatch of overstuffed furniture occupied by several youths. Some talked in hushed tones. Others slept. A couple in a dark corner made out in a tangle of arms and legs. Weltha couldn’t see a distinction in their gender and she didn’t care. A video screen played the local cage fighting sport on a wall as several others watched in boredom.
“Can I help you?” a woman behind the desk asked. She spoke to Weltha with the automated tone of boredom and routine. She didn’t look up from her screen.
“I heard you might have shelter for displaced youths,” Weltha replied.
Bored, the clerk turned to scrutinize Weltha. She took her time and Weltha bit the inside her cheek not to gasp. Instead of a left eye a gaping hole exposed a mixture of red irritated scar tissue and exposed microcircuits where her eye should be. Weltha stifled an involuntary gasp. Noting Weltha’s reaction, she picked up an eye patch and covered the chasm in her face. The woman considered Weltha and then smiled. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m not as old as I look.” She gave Weltha a crooked smile. “You heard right. You can stay one night, maybe two if there’s room. After that you’ll have to help out around here.” She gave Weltha a chance to ask the question that hung in the air.
“You don’t want to stay here long enough to become a permanent guest, do you? A nice girl like you should have no trouble finding employment.” The woman smiled again, but Weltha suspected there was something intense behind that smile she didn’t understand. Weltha glanced out the doors she entered to see the acid gas crawling out of the mountains. She couldn’t leave.
“How does this work?” she asked the woman.
The woman handed Weltha a tablet, “Fill out this form and place your thumb here for a scan.” As Weltha complied, the woman tapped on an antiquated computer console and a key card popped out of a printer. “Room 322, two floors up and on the left. You’ll be sharing with six other girls.”
“Thanks.” Weltha gathered the key card and her few belongings, turning to leave.
“If you’re leaving tomorrow, check out as soon as you can in the morning. We’ve got to get those rooms ready for tomorrow night.”
Weltha crossed the lobby to the stair when a girl’s voice shouted from above, “I’m nobody’s toy. Get your hands off of me.” A loud slap followed by a thud came from the upstairs landing.
Weltha had seen many strange things since she had been on her own outside the dome. This was different. As she started up the stairs, she dodged the body of a young man as it rolled down the stairs. At the top of the stair, Weltha saw the girl from the unfinished tram station. The small boy stood behind her panting with fear.
The girl thundered down the stairs. Red faced, she leapt the last three steps and landed hard on the back of the man. She grabbed the hair on the back of his head for purchase and slammed his face into the floor.
“Nobody! NOBODY, touches me or my brother.” Slam. The girl stood and turned, noticing Weltha. “What?!” she grunted in a low timbre threat.
She didn’t see her victim roll over. He caught the girl off guard with his legs and flipped her. “You know the rules.” He rolled on top of her, pinning her under him. “You have to help out around here and you will help me,” he growled as his blooded nose dripped onto the girl’s face.
Weltha noticed that no one was moving to stop this attack. In fact, no one payed attention. The clerk shopped on the network and the occupants of the lounge ignored the ruckus. The couple from the corner, both girls about Weltha’s age, walked around the two on the floor to climb the stairs.
In school Weltha never ignored bullying and she would not ignore it now. But as she dropped her satchel on the floor and moved to separate the fighters, a flash and explosion from the front doors shook the building.
Armed figures in protective armor burst through the door dragging the deadly acid gas behind them. Weltha collapsed to the floor, choking. Next to her, the girl and her attacker struggled to breath. The armed figures entered the building and as several others spread out and moved up the stairs to the rooms, the last one inflated a temporary door over the hole they made.
Weltha thought they were there to stop the fight. Instead they shouted for everybody to get on the ground. Everyone in the building, including Weltha, had their hands secured behind them and what Weltha now recognized as a security force, ushered the lot of them through the temporary door to a waiting van and hauled them away.
“You two, next to the toilet,” the guard grunted. “You’re next.” The two girls huddling next to the toilet struggled to get up and follow the instructions of the guard standing in the cell door. Weltha noticed these were the girls from the lobby at the shelter. In the harsh glare of the holding cell light, they looked younger than she first guessed.
Hours passed as the crowd thinned in the cell. Weltha had trouble keeping track of the time. Two large smelly boys wedged Weltha between them. She had to keep her face covered with the collar of her shirt. During the shelter raid they herded them out the temporary air lock into a waiting van. The seals leaked, and the acid mist seeped into the van. Once at the receiving station, the van backed up to the holding facility and tilted up dumping the kids from the van down a chute into the cell. Some fought the fall, but most rolled down the chute and landed on each other at the bottom. With no regard for age or gender, they got dumped together. Many bore injuries for their treatment.
Weltha counted her blessings the way her mother always taught her to do when she felt alone and comfort far away. She took a deep breath. Weltha had air and shelter from the acid rain. That was about it. No one bothered to tell her where she was or why she was here. Weltha rubbed the burns from the mist, but the pain was mild. Hunger gnawed at her gut. She thought it couldn’t get any worse. She stood up to relieve her cramped bottom and to relieve her bladder.
“There’s my pretty baby,” a familiar voice sang out from a corner. At first Weltha thought he spoke to her. She ignored the voice. She turned to do her business on the toilet vacated by the girls. “Hey! I’m talking to you,” the voice rang out again.
On the toilet, Weltha risked a glance up from under the hood of her slicker. The crowd of teens and young adults thinned as they processed them out of this holding cell. Weltha watched those left.
The young man climbed out of a pile of younger boys. His swollen face and eye needed medical attention. There were open lacerations covering the exposed skin on his arms. “Laron, whacha doin’?” one asked as Laron crawled over the pile to stand. He wasn’t looking at Weltha. Weltha looked into his eyes. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone with eyes that dark. There was a hunger in them. Weltha hadn’t seen that hunger in anybody before, but she feared she knew what it was. She was watching a predator, an animal who didn’t stop until he stalked and claimed his prize. His gaze fell across the cell to the girl, Cassie, her brother called her.
Despite his injuries and open sores, Laron strutted across the cell, kicking limbs and bodies out of his way. “We’ve got some unfinished business, Cassie,” he unzipped his pants. Cassie cowered in the corner near the toilet trying to avoid eye contact. Weltha scanned the cell. She didn’t see Cassie’s brother in the cell with them.
“Yup, I’m finished Laron,” Weltha said as she pulled up her own pants. “No need to piss in the corner like a dog marking your territory.” Weltha knew how to push the buttons of a bully. Some of her cellmates laughed.
“Who do you think you are?” Laron turned, noticing Weltha.
“Oh, sorry, I was just trying to save you more embarrassment. I’m done if you have to go.” Weltha moved out of the way and positioned herself between the older boy and Cassie in the corner.
He smirked at Weltha. “Stay out of my business, kid,” he spat in Weltha’s face. “This is between me and my girl. We were interrupted, and I don’t think no one objects to us finishing our business here.” He moved toward Cassie but Weltha stood in his way. He hadn’t recognized Weltha as a girl, yet. She kept her head down and her hood up.
“Yeah, I remember your business getting beat after it almost landed on me. Cops kinda saved your skin,” Weltha taunted him. Most of Laron’s companions chuckled at this. None of them came to back Laron. Good, that meant that if Weltha controlled the confrontation she might get out hurting no one.
“The cops don’t know nothin’ and they won’t. We don’t snitch,” Laron bragged, poking a bare finger into Weltha’s chest. He didn’t realize that his boys were more entertained watching him fail. He paid no attention to the drops of acid mist still clinging to Weltha’s slicker. “Ow!” he exclaimed as he pulled back his burning finger and dropped his pants he held up with his other hand. Without thinking, he stuck his finger into his mouth to relieve the pain and burned his tongue and mouth. In pain and still not thinking, he shouted, “You freak! You did that on purpose!”
Laron lunged at Weltha who sidestepped, and he tripped over his own pants bunched around his ankles. Laron flopped on the floor under the metal sink next to the toilet. He tried to stand and hit his head under the sink. Most of the cell laughed at him. When he stood, his face burned bright red, livid with anger. Weltha noticed that his lips and mouth bled again.
“Come here,” she commanded, grabbing him by his long hair. He resisted ready to punch her. “Do you want to die now or would you like help washing out the acid mist from your mouth?” Weltha glared into his eyes.
“You sound just like Mar…” said Laron.
Laron realized he had to clean out the acid or swallow it and risk internal injuries, Laron let Weltha lead him back to the sink and hold him to clean out the mist from his face and mouth. “Are you feeling better?” Weltha asked. He nodded. “Good, take it easy. You may feel nauseous if you swallowed any of the mist. It’s worse coming back up.”
Weltha moved to leave him at the sink when he grabbed her by the wrist and clung to her. Laron was much stronger than he appeared. “I’m going to remember this.”
“You’re welcome,” Weltha replied. She had no illusions he might show gratitude for her help.
“No, I’m never going to forget this, kid. You will never be safe.”
“Is that a threat?” Weltha asked, smiling. She swept her foot across the back of his knees, dropping him to the floor. She slammed him hard on his back and pressed her knee into his throat. Weltha twisted out of his grasp and reversed it so she held his wrist in her fist with her thumb putting pressure on the pulse point. She hyper extended his arm and there was no way for him to escape the pain she inflicted.
Weltha leaned in so Laron heard her, “You threaten those smaller and weaker, but I promise,” she pulled tighter on his arm while she increased the pressure on his throat. “I can end you any time. There is always someone bigger and badder than you are. But I’m smaller and smarter. Don’t-Go-There,” she warned.
“Who are you kid?”
Weltha leaned in closer to his ear and said “Weltha Jane Johnson.”
“What?” Laron’s face went white. The fight left him.
Weltha released her grip on his arm and stood. A smattering of applause ran around the cell. Her fear hadn’t hit her. She took martial arts classes with her grandma. Gram was a tough competitor. Weltha was better. Weltha used what she had learned. When Weltha glanced around the cell, her eyes met Cassie’s. She was staring at Weltha, amazed.
Weltha’s knees buckled when she sat next to Cassie. “Wasn’t anything you wouldn’t have done,” she said remembering that Cassie had the upper hand in her fight with Laron. “Hi, I’m Weltha Jane Johnson,” said Weltha extending her hand.
“Wealthy? Cool name. I’m Cassie.” She extended her fist. Weltha responded by curling her fingers into a fist and bumping Cassie’s fist. They shared a brief smile. “He won’t stop, you know.” Weltha glanced at Laron expecting the glare of hatred. Instead, she saw fear and confusion.
“Probably not, but for now he is afraid,” Weltha paused, “of both of us.” That brought a satisfied grin to Cassie’s face as she watched Laron moan on the floor where Weltha had left him. He rolled under the sink to nurse his wounds.
“Listen, I know we’re both exhausted,” Weltha said pitching her voice so only Cassie could hear. “I’ll keep a lookout while you try to get some sleep.”
“I can’t sleep,” Cassie replied. “They took Garnett, my brother. I don’t know where he is,” she stated. “You go ahead and sleep. I’ll keep an eye on Laron.” Weltha cast a skeptical look at her. Cassie hadn’t slept the night before on the tram platform, Weltha remembered. Seeing the doubting look from Weltha, Cassie added, “If he even looks this way I’ll let out a scream so loud everyone will know.” Cassie slumped into a tight ball in her corner and chewed on the sleeve of her blouse. She stared at the floor.
Weltha was unsure how to comfort her. Weltha made herself as comfortable as she could next to Cassie on the floor. Her fatigue made her bones hurt, but that pain, her wariness of the other prisoners and the hunger in her belly, kept her awake.
So, she sat against the wall watching Cassie. Weltha guessed that Cassie wasn’t much younger than she, around fifteen or sixteen. Weltha saw the dark rings around Cassie’s eyes and the tension in her shoulders. She must carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, Weltha thought. She supposed that if she had a brother or sister depending on her and they had been separated in a strange place, she might look the same. This, thought Weltha, is a good reason to trust this Cassie girl.
Sometime later, a guard entered the cellblock and opened the door. “Laron Gilles,” he shouted. Laron rolled over from where he lay under the sink. None of his gang lifted a finger to help him, Weltha thought as she watched. “Gilles! Sound off now or stay here. It’s your choice,” the guard threatened.
“Here,” he moaned. The guard turned to close the door. “HERE! I’m right here.”
“Your father has sent his lawyer. Get off your butt and come with me,” the guard grunted. “You’re being processed now.”
“Ooooh, Daddy’s sent your nursemaid,” one of Laron’s gang sang out from the opposite end of the cell. “Please, baby boy. Take us with you.” The other boys giggled at this.
Laron stood and glared at the boys as they led him out of the cell in cuffs. The guards weren’t taking any chances. Neither was Laron. He kept well away of Weltha, avoiding eye contact as he left. The other boys lost interest soon after he left. A boy murmured, “life isn’t fair.” Fair is what you make of what you’ve got, Weltha thought.
Her thoughts wandered to her own circumstances. She had left her home to find her parents when her grandmother died in a freak traffic accident. The last month since the tragedy was a blur to her. She remembered being pulled from class to hear the news. Without her parents the arrangements for her Gram’s funeral fell to Weltha. She sat through a small memorial service and burial. As the only living relative, Weltha hoped that there might be something to keep her going while she waited for her parents to return. If they had gotten word about her grandmother’s death, they never came home.
The child welfare agency forced Weltha to live with a large foster family who had problems of their own. Weltha faced an older boy there, too. When he came after her, she dealt with him in a much more decisive way than Laron. Weltha ran before knew if that boy ever got up again.
She traced her parents this far using savings that her Gram had put away for her education. Interstellar travel wasn’t cheap. Besides, she couldn’t risk tapping any more of that account and being traced. She laughed bitterly at that thought. Here she was in a stinking jail cell waiting to be processed for…
That brought her up short. She did not get how a youth shelter had merited a raid and why she had ended up here. She almost asked Cassie what was going on in that shelter that the Peace Enforcers raided it when the cell door opened again and a different guard walked over and nudged her leg. “Come with me,” he said. Cassie glared at the guard. “You too.” he said to Cassie. They rose and followed. Weltha noticed that, unlike the others, he didn't cuff she and Cassie.
The guard led Weltha and Cassie through a short hallway and into an adjoining room. It wasn’t much bigger than the cell they had just vacated. This Peace Station was not very large. Patrolling the outer city beyond the dome was not a priority. A concrete construction buried in the mud, it had a make do look similar to many other buildings outside the dome. It hid from the rain as little more than the abandoned foundation of a larger building someone put a roof on and sealed up the holes.
“It’s like a bunker,” Cassie whispered.
“Quiet,” the guard warned. He stopped somewhere in the middle of a maze of cubicles that filled the floor of the room. “You,” he indicated Cassie, “in here.” She continued into a small cubical with a desk, two chairs and little else. “You wait here,” he said to Weltha and moved aside to reveal two folding chairs propped up against the cubical wall.
The accommodations aren’t much, Weltha thought, but they are better than the cell. She unfolded a chair and sat with her back to the wall of the cubicle that Cassie had entered. Weltha heard someone typing on a keyboard inside the small space.
“ID scan?” a harsh female voice asked from inside the cubicle.
“Where’s my brother?” Cassie asked.
“I need your scan!” the harsh female voice repeated with irritation.
Cassie’s voice only matched the woman’s irritation with stubborn insistence. “I want to know where my brother is. Where’s Garnett?”
Across the hall a woman stepped out of another cubical. “This way young lady.” Weltha rose to follow when a crash erupted behind her. Cassie rolled out of the cubicle into a standing position ready to flee. Her face a mask of indecision, she was ready to run, but something else trapped her there.
“I want to know what happened to my brother!” she yelled at the officer about to restrain her.
Weltha again couldn’t help herself. “Cassie!” she stepped between Cassie and the officer. Facing Cassie, she grabbed her shoulders gently and looked straight into her eyes. “I will find him. It will be okay.” she whispered. Cassie took several heavy breaths, and then focusing on Weltha’s face, she calmed.
“Good. Now get back in here and sit down,” the officer said. “You just cost yourself more charges.” She grabbed Cassie from around Weltha when Weltha spun and confronted the officer.
“Ma’am, I believe you will get more cooperation if you can help us find her brother,” Weltha said as she remained a barrier between the two.
“Who do you think you are? Out of my way before I rain more trouble on you than you can handle.” The officer had enough of teen hooligans telling her what to do. She was now reaching for Weltha. Weltha knew better than to resist. She was ready to stick with peaceful noncompliance, a protest tactic she had studied in history class.
“Vassar. Just do it,” an authoritative female voice ordered from behind Weltha. The officer froze. Weltha glanced over her shoulder at the forgotten woman who had come to interview her. The same woman from the shelter, now dressed in a professional looking suit stood next to her cubical door.
“It’s not procedure,” the officer protested. “You can’t just…” A glare from that single eye and the officer backed away. The gaping hole where the other eye should be added to the intimidation, thought Weltha.
“Anderson, Garnett. Male, eight years of age. Check child services.” With a single raised eyebrow over her open socket, she implied the “Now.”
“Yes Ma’am,” said the officer as she returned to her cubicle.
“This way ladies.” Cassie and Weltha both ushered into a larger cubical by the woman. “Take a seat,” she said as she closed the door.
Weltha noted this cubical was different from the others. Suspended over the top of the cubicle was a privacy shield. When activated it blocked out prying surveillance and the interior sound from escaping. Weltha could scream and no one would hear. Not sure if the shield was a comfort or not, Weltha took her seat in a simple metal chair.
Weltha surveyed the rest of the office. Family photos scattered among desktops and cabinets with at least three commendations for bravery awarded by the constabulary of the city. She likewise noted a shrine to the woman’s past tucked in the far corner. Weltha recognized the woman in several halo-photos wearing fatigues. In several photos she accepted medals. These hung above the photos on the wall. In others she smiled with other soldiers. She wore a lieutenant’s stripes. Photos of the squad storming a wall in training and others where they celebrated surviving combat and returned to a camp, smiling, completed the shrine. A single photo depicted the woman receiving a flag while in her hospital bed. On the wall behind Cassie’s head was a large recruitment poster.
“Cassie Anderson and Wealthy Jane Johnson,” the woman said, drawing Weltha’s attention back to her as she sat behind the desk. A nameplate on the desk read Detective Francesca Eraso. She pulled a small mirror and a case out of her desk.
“Actually, it’s ‘Weltha’ ma’am,” Weltha corrected.
As Detective Eraso spoke, she did not look at the girls. “Actually, it is Cassiopeia and Weltha. Hardly, the desperate characters we hope to pick up in these operations,” Eraso explained as she set up the mirror and pulled a piece of her face from the case. “You are, however, the lost children that we do pick up and the reason I’m out there.” She adjusted the flesh in the mirror, and as Weltha watched the flap of skin blended over the scar tissue around her eye. “You both are in serious trouble. And I’ve got to collect just the information that the judge will need to decide whether you end up in a work camp processing the terraforming sludge or a hard confinement until you come of age to be tried as full adults.”
Adults she had said, not citizens. Weltha knew they didn’t give citizenship away on the Frontier. You earned it. The rights under the law were not equal. It was a harsh life out here and having a record with the Peace Enforcers meant that your chances of citizenship and fair treatment under the law were slim.
Eraso looked the girls over for a moment. “Where to begin?” she wondered aloud. Her console beeped. As she read the message she said, “It looks like we’re going alphabetically. Anderson, we’ve found your brother.”
Cassie sat up straighter in her seat. Her anticipation for news resonated as strong as her instinct to flee. “Where is he?”
“Child Services has him in their shelter for the moment.”
“Can I see him? Is he all right?” Cassie’s questions rushed out of her mouth before she could form the thoughts.
Eraso waited. This gave Cassie a chance to breathe and calm herself. “He is fine. Seeing him before you see a judge is out of the question. After that depends…”
“On what?” Cassie blurted out.
“… on your statement and your hearing,” Eraso finished as if she hadn’t been interrupted. She examined the screen in front of her. “Ms. Anderson, your record is far from exemplary. You have been picked up on more than one occasion. Out after curfew, trespassing and resisting arrest. Each time we returned you to your family only to have you leaving again.” Eraso again considered what she was reading.
“They are no family of mine,” Cassie stated.
Still she was loud enough that Eraso responded. “They list them as your blood relatives and the legal guardians of both you and your brother. Let’s see, a cousin and her husband.”
“They don’t care about us. We’re just a meal ticket for them,” interjected Cassie.
Eraso turned from Cassie and tapped out further instructions on her keypad. “Interesting,” she said. “You’ve made that claim before.”
“And I’ll make it again. They want my grandfather’s estate.”
Still reviewing the record, “There are no financial records available on planet to support your claim. You are native born.”
“He was from the central systems. His estate was to pass to my father, but he died in a shuttle accident before the letter arrived about my granddad.” Cassie explained.
“Again, there is no record of this available. I see your arbitrator sent an inquiry packet through the Postal Service, but there has not been a response. It’s been five months, so that doesn’t mean it may not arrive,” Eraso shared the information on her screen. “I suppose that puts you in a bit of limbo. Not legally of age to claim any estate and become emancipated.”
“Yes, that’s what Rent-a-Lawyer says,” Cassie confessed. She slumped back in her chair knowing what was coming next.
“There still remain the current charges arising from tonight. We found you both in an illegal shelter where contraband drugs were sold and there is evidence that the shelter was trafficking in slavery. Do either of you have anything to share?”
“Don’t say a word. They’ll twist it around and it won’t make any difference,” Cassie said as she crossed her arms on her chest.
“Ma’am,” Weltha began after considering Cassie’s warning. “You were there, I’m guessing undercover. You know we both had just arrived. Cassie may have been there before, but I had just walked through the door. I only wanted shelter and maybe a bite to eat.” Weltha allowed Eraso to respond.
Instead she said, “Anything else to add to your statement?” Weltha didn’t reply. “Well, Ms. Johnson, you are a mystery. We have records of you arriving and staying in under the dome for two days. Then you disappear. You seem to have spent the last week off the grid. Running our recognitions protocols don’t show you within the dome or how you got yourself outside its parameter. Care to explain?”
“Nope, sorry,” Weltha was non-committal.
“How about your business on planet? You don’t have to state that when you arrive, but under the circumstances it needs to be part of the record,” said Eraso.
Weltha considered her options. She came to the planet to find her parents. That had led her outside the dome. She located the terraforming plant several miles from the domed city and off limits. She spent her last credits to get out of the city unnoticed and travel to the plant. The gate guard turned her away with more questions than when she had begun. Why they couldn’t or wouldn’t help her find her parents baffled Weltha. Now she had the opportunity to make it a part of an official investigation. Maybe, she reasoned this detective could get the answers she couldn’t.
“Well,” she took a deep breath and launched into as brief an explanation as she could. Weltha started with the sudden death of her grandmother in a transport accident on their home world in the central systems. She shared her attempts to contact her parents while she had to handle arrangements for her grandmother. After that, her foster situation had gone sour, so she gathered what funds she could and headed out to find her parents at their last known location. Once she made planet fall here on New Bayonne, she tried to find them but her funds ran out and the Gilles Corporation who ran the terraforming operation blocked or ignored her inquiries. They had hired her parents to survey systems for terraforming and establish settlements.
“Thank you, Weltha,” Eraso said. “I have to move you both to a holding area,” she began, but her voice and the sound in the room changed. It sounded muffled and as Eraso spoke Weltha thought she sounded like her voice was bubbles under water. Weltha glance up and saw the red indicator light on the privacy unit was active. “There are, as Cassie said, Rent-a-Lawyer units there.” she shared. As she spoke, she wrote something on a small slip of actual paper. “Do what you can with it to prepare for your hearing. I suggest you use the last unit. It is older, but I think you’ll find it more useful than the others.”
“Okay” Weltha replied. She wasn’t sure what to think.
“I’ll pursue whatever trail I can find about your parents, Weltha. Cassie, you’ll see your brother after the hearing, but it won’t be for long. That’s the best I can do for you,” Eraso finished.
“But,” Cassie began, then after a glance at Weltha she finished, “I was hoping for more, but I’ll take what I can get, Ma’am.”
Eraso stood behind her desk, “I’ll take you to your new holding area. Remember the Rent-a-Lawyer is there, and you’ll find food. You’ll be called to the hearing when the judge arrives in the morning along with the rest of your group.” Her voice was back to normal.
The privacy unit was off and Weltha realized that they were being watched. Why, she wondered, did they rate surveillance at the Constabulary among the Peace Enforcers? “Thank you, Ma’am,” Weltha replied, sure that a response was expected.
“You’re welcome,” Eraso said as she extended her hand to shake Weltha’s. “You seem like nice girls.” She looked meaningfully into Weltha’s eyes as she shook hands and said. “Make good use of the privacy settings in your Rent-a-Lawyer session. You need time to understand your charges.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Weltha felt obligated to respond again. As she drew her hand away from the long handshake, she had just shared with Detective Eraso, she slipped the hidden note into her pocket without glancing at it. Weltha struggled not to succumb to her curiosity, but she got the unspoken message from Eraso. They were in danger.
Wealthy Jane Johnson
Chapter 2.2- 14 Years Ago