"Poetic Justice" - another excerpt from Conjuring Dreams

>> Friday, August 21, 2015

So, with our political climate and the talk about sexism and the roles of women, seems only fitting I dust off one of my short stories from Conjuring Dreams.


Poetic Justice

    The secretary barely lifted his head as the door slid open, just glancing at the slim figure in the doorway. A glance was enough. He saw pilot leathers, scuffed and ill-fitting on the gangly body, close-fitting comm-cap and a mask across the face. Some of the pilots had taken to wearing the masks on the ground, unhappy, the secretary supposed with the unfiltered air of what they called "dirtside." Affectation, if you asked him.
    Apparently consumed by his screen again, the secretary said, "No one sees Prime Kaladan without an appointment. If you need an appointment," and the secretary paused as if that seemed unlikely, "you'll have to go through proper channels."
    "I have an appointment." The voice was absurdly youthful and the secretary looked up again at the large eyes and smooth skin. Why he was just a boy!
    "You're Pilot M. Cremden out of Pandora's Box? Lord Admiral and Prime of Havern?"
    "My father was Admiral and Prime," the boy answered. "But I am pilot of Pandora's Box, I am from Havern and here on her business. And I do have an appointment."
    "Is this a joke? Where's your father?"
    "My father is dead, sirrah. Faladian Plague, two years past."
    The secretary leaned back in his chair, instinctively giving the pilot extra room. He squinted at the youthful eyes, large and dark, above the mask. That was certainly plausible.
    Faladian Plague was a menace, wiping out whole populations with a particular genetic trait, that changed with time and venue. Once it was hemophiliacs. Another it was anyone with blue eyes. Three times, whole clans had been eradicated because the mutating disease chose something peculiar to their genetic makeup. It was postulated that it never quite faded despite its devastation and the efforts made to combat it because it would mutate into a form benign to existing genetic gene-maps and stay resident, sometimes for generations. But, when it attacked, it was virulent, it had a 100% mortality rate and the several year incubation meant that people were infected and infectious without ever knowing they were already dead or spreading death to others. Or both. Some of the planets in the Federation would never recover.  The secretary found himself grateful for the pilot's mask. Still...
    "ID?"
    Wordlessly, the boy slid it under the laser. Pilot First Class, M. Cremden, certified pilot for four standard years, attested to by the father. Well, that was normal. Pilots learned father to son, of course, or apprenticed as the guild demanded. 22 standards old. Odd. He looked younger, his eyes...
    The secretary waved him to a seat. "You're early. You'll have to wait a few minutes."
    The boy tucked the card back in a pocket and sat in the chair indicated. The eyes were calm, but the fingers twitched and fidgeted, belying the outward calm. The secretary double-checked the scans from the boy's walk in. No, no weapons. Still, something was making the secretary uneasy. Something was just not right.
    "Havern, eh? I haven't heard of pilots from Havern for months, nor other word. Price of Latvium was starting to climb rapidly without fresh shipments. I hope you brought a big one."
    The boy shook his head. "Only a little. It's a one-man ship with only minimal cargo space, 22 metric tons. And some of that I needed for extra logistics. She wasn't made for long hauls and it's a sizable trip from Havern. Nine jumps."
    "One man? Why did you come alone? You're just a strapling! Why didn't you bring more ships or a crew? Bring us a real shipment. Your arrival will probably jack up prices even further..." The secretary squinted his eyes suspiciously. "Or was that the plan? The Federation takes price gouging very seriously."
    "We're not trying to manipulate the market," the boy said defensively. "As for why I came as I did, that's a discussion I came here to have with the Prime, not with you." There was an air of bravado on the last sally, underwritten by fear, as if the boy expected to get slapped back down for his effrontery.
    The secretary was more than happy to oblige and would have done so if the intercom hadn't buzzed. "Deeb, send Pilot Cremden."
    "But, sir—!"
    "Now." The word was implacable.
    "At once, sir."
    Secretary Deeb rose and touched the palmplate to release the door, then held it open with a bow. That bastard pilot waltzed through without so much as a head nod. Damn, Deeb thought, I hate those damn pilots! Deeb closed the door, careful not to slam it. Too bad a temper tantrum was not worth losing his job.
    Mina Cremden breathed out a sigh of relief as the door closed, trying to do so unobtrusively. Everything depended on Prime Kaladan's reaction to what happened on Havern.
    You think that, because you believe the lie, Linette said in Mina's head. You risk yourself for nothing.
    I have to try, Mina told her.
    You are too stubborn.
    "Well, Pilot Cremden, you have my attention. Did you plan to spend my valuable time staring at nothing?"
    "Pray forgive me, Prime Kaladan," Mina said, with a bow.
    The man behind the desk was older than Mina's father had been, but his green eyes were razor sharp. He studied Mina for a moment, then indicated a chair. "Kindly have a seat, young Pilot, and tell me why Havern has not been making shipments of Latvium. My secretary is right to be concerned, as am I. It is always interesting how a substance no one knew about thirty years ago can become indispensable. Your failure to keep up shipments is...disturbing."
    "It was the plague."
    "The Faladian Plague? Yes, I heard you mention it to Deeb. That is unfortunate. It's a wonder that no one on your planet sent any word."
    "It happened very quickly, within weeks. Every expert, every pilot, every communication technician, every doctor . . . everyone who knew how to do anything—gone. I'm the only pilot remaining."
    Prime Kaladan's eyebrows rose. "Everyone? That seems implausible even for the Faladian. What possible genetic trait did it target?"
    Mina took a deep breath before removing helmet and mask. "Y chromosome."
    She was prepared for shock, had steeled herself against it, but still she felt it like a blow. "A woman!" he gasped, rage warring with disbelief. "How dare you! How dare you enter this office under false pretenses!" He had leapt to his feet as if glavanized and stalked around the desk to glare down at her.
    "I had no choice," Mina said firmly, fighting the urge to prostrate herself. "I'm the only pilot left." She knew what she looked like. Dark eyes in a pointed face, hair cut close to her head. No artifice, no effort to be beautiful, which was a woman's duty, but she knew her face was unmistakably female.
    "You should never have been a pilot. Your father, he taught you? If he were not dead, I would kill him myself for the blasphemy! Women are forbidden from becoming pilots."
    "Yes, and miners and managers and technicians. Aren't you listening? There is no one else. We need help."
    "You thought you could come here and be heard? You have no right—," he hissed.
    "We are desperate, Prime Kaladan. We have done only what we had no choice but to do." Mina tightened her lips to try to keep the words back, but failed. "Once, women did the same as men, were pilots and technicians and engineers and even scientists. My father told me, before the first Faladian Plague when women were all but eradicated, women and men worked side by side. He said it was just—."
    He cut her off with an impatient gesture. "Your father was a damned fool! He should never revealed such things but to another Prime, let alone a woman. He did not deserve the title of Prime. And you come here as if we are equal . . . "
    "I came because there was no one else to come. Help us. There are none but women and a tiny number of men left. Send us experts and leaders. We are so vulnerable. If you would send . . . "
    "I send men and you women will just toddle back into your rightful place? You flew a spaceship here and you expect me to believe you'll return blithely back to your proper place? How will unlearn what you had no right to learn?"
    He bent over her menacingly and she slid from the chair to kneel at his feet, head bowed. "Forgive me, Prime. My father had no sons . . . "
    "Then he should have adopted, like a reasonable man! You have tied my hands, left me no choice."
    "We came for help," she despaired.
    "Oh, we will come for Havern, make no mistake. Latvium is too valuable to lie fallow nor can we count on the Havern survivors to die out naturally. Who knows if this poison that your father spawned has spread. What else to women take upon themselves to do there? No, it is too dangerous to leave things as they are." He tipped her head up and regarded her sorrowfully. "Pity. Despite your hair, you could have been beautiful, good skin, good bones, a fine addition to a respectable man's household. A possession to be treasured. Gone to waste." His fingers lingered at her chin. "I'm sorry."
    She never saw the blade that slashed across her throat.
    Linette gasped, her own throat seizing as her twin's throat was cut. Her fingers touched her neck, tears starting in her eyes. Mina!
    It was inevitable. She'd known what Mina would bring on her own head, just as she knew Prime Kaladan would call on other Prime and would build an armada to attack them, as anxious to eradicate any hint that women could be more than chattel as they were to help themselves to the Latvium. Still, it grieved her, just as Mina's death sliced her to the core.
    Prime Kaladan was right about one thing. The women on Havern would not return to their former roles. Thirty years under Prime Mendel Cremden had as much to do with that as the plague. Once they realized they could be what they chose to be, there was no going back.
    Oh, some still struggled with it, as Mina had. Linette's mother still cowered in her robes and mourned a world where she knew her role. But others had come forward to do what needed to be done, when the men were gone. They would survive until the next generation. And then things would be different.
    As for the Prime and his plans, they were as futile as Mina's had been. Her father had known how to build a defense matrix, and Mina lied about there being only one pilot. Linette was also a pilot. There was a sizable number of very serviceable spacecraft at the Havern port. And a likely looking group of pilots-in-training.
    Nor could Kaladan see past the threat he thought existed in the women to the real risk of the Faladian Plague he had exposed himself to and would expose those he called to his aid. He'd risk a galaxy-wide deadly scourge to put an isolated handful of women in their place. Fool.
    But then, as her father had always said, one couldn't help but be a fool if one deliberately devalued half the populace.

2 comments:

  • R C Larlham
     

    You dropped a hint about halfway thru that most folks would think was either a straight up mistake, or a leftover from an earlier draft. But I know Stephanie Barr, and she doesn't make a mistake that important.

    Aside from that I was captivated from the beginning and carried along like a river raft in the rapids. And rapids there were once our Pilot got thru that door. I felt a little sledge-hammered by the message this story carried. I get the importance in this day and age, but I think people will get it with less obvious parallels.

    Enjoyed the story, need to see more.

  • Stephanie Barr
     

    Nope, that WAS an oversight (since corrected).

    As for the heavy hand, that's a perfectly true statement and a valid criticism I agree with. If I wrote this today, I'd use a lighter touch probably because, for my audience, the more enlightened Westerner, it's the subtle stuff that still stings. Those subtleties are so hard to make clear since he's likely to think he's been magnanimous enough because he's NO LONGER treating women this way (even if they're second class citizens to him in a dozen other ways).

    But, I wrote this a few decades back when I was more black and white and more idealistic and, because of the format of the book (showing my progression and growth as a writer), I chose not to rewrite any of the stories in it.

    Also, for all our enlightened Western thinking, we're still buds with countries where this is no exaggeration. And there are still Western minds that would return to this if they could.

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