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Carl Bussjaeger

Judgement fell from the skies.

And it looked remarkably like a rental drop shuttle. The single passenger sat aft of the pilot and stared out the window; although, on final approach, the viewing angle didn't allow him to see much. And in west Texas there is not that much to see, other than the launcher facility itself. And things had not changed much since he had seen them last; ten years ago, when he left Earth. He had always wondered if he would be back.

Events long dreaded had finally drawn Mitchell Gantzer back from the Belt.

After the shuttle had grounded at Texas Freeport, Mitch Gantzer made travel arrangements with a Corp agent. Soon he was aboard a chartered flight to Georgia. He busied himself at the start of the flight by accessing a few public databases with his 'pad; he was ten years out of touch. The records searches went surprisingly quickly. With a collection of addresses, comm numbers, and maps stored in permanent memory, Mitch settled back in his chair and napped.

He woke when the jet touched down at Lewis Field near Macon. As soon as the craft had taxied to the terminal, he disembarked and searched out the car rental office. There he met his first Earthly stumbling block.

The clerk lifted the forms from her printer, and presented them to Mitch. "Here you go, sir," she smiled. "If you'll just sign these, and let me see your driver's license, you can be on your way."

Mitch took the pages, glanced over them, and signed. As he slid back over the counter he said, "I don't have a driver's license. We don't use the things." He waited.

The girl paused and looked up from her terminal. "Sir?" she asked, eyebrows raised. "I can't lease you a vehicle without a valid license..." Her voice trailed off. Then, "I see you recently arrived from orbit; didn't you apply for an International License then?"

"Nope," Mitch replied. "I've no use for licenses." He shrugged.

"I'm afraid that without a license from your state, you're not going to be using a car," the girl observed.

"I don't have a state to issue any such thing," Mitch pointed out. "We don't use those either." He smiled slightly.

The clerk appeared taken aback. "Perhaps it would best if you just used taxis during your stay, Mr. Gantzer." She began to throw his application away.

"Now wait a minute," Mitch interrupted. "What would you do if, say... a German came in here? Would you accept his German license?"

The clerk frowned, and replied, "Certainly."

Nodding, Mitch pointed towards a desk behind the counter. "Hand me that notepad, and I think we can take care of this." He began grinning. With a distinctly puzzled expression, the clerk handed him the pad. Mitch pulled out a pen and began writing. When he finished scribbling, he tore the sheet off and handed it to the girl. "There you go; one driver's license."

Outraged, the girl sputtered, "You can't... I can't accept this! You just made it!"

"Sure you can," Mitch spoke. "It's perfectly valid. Issued by the head of government of my world." His grin got larger.

"What?" the girl exclaimed. She stared at the handwritten note.

Mitch explained, "I'm the owner and administrator of my world; 7815 Amanda ." Still grinning, he continued, "7815 Amanda being an independent astronomical body, I figure that makes me the head of state and complete government. If I can't issue a driver's license, who can?" He leaned on the counter, smiled, and awaited her response.

"But... this... You must be..." The flustered girl spread her arms in dismay. "Sir,..."

Mitch stuck a hand into his belt pouch and pulled out a small yellow disk. He slid it over the counter to girl and said, "Of course, I'm prepared to tip well for such fine service..."

She picked up the coin and stared. "Is that gold?" she whispered. She rubbed the lustrous metal between her fingers.

"Certainly." Mitch answered. He reached towards his pouch again. "Would you prefer platinum?"

Eyes wide, the clerk took a deep breath. "Oh, no, sir.This is quite acceptable. Thank you, Mister... President." She grinned slyly.

Mitch returned her grin, and said, "Actually, I prefer 'King.'" They both laughed, and the girl typed his license data into the computer.

She mumbled to herself as she tapped keys. "License number... One." She giggled. "That's a first," she observed. Then she looked up again. "Everything seems to be in order, Your Majesty." She handed him a set of keys. "You have the red Ford Cultura parked out front." She point to the parking lot visible through the terminal windows.

Mitch accepted the keys. Then, "Cultura?" he asked.

She smiled and elaborated, "The little red two door."

"Ah. Thanks. Have a nice day." He smiled and turned to the doors.

"And you, too, sir. Welcome to Georgia." She giggled again, and watched him leave.

Half an hour later, Mitch arrived at his destination. As he pulled into the dirt driveway, he noted that the weeds were even higher than he remembered them being at their worst. And half hidden, off to the side... "Damn, that old Buick's still parked there." He shook his head. "Old sedan's gone, though." He parked and walked up to the door on the front porch. He knocked.

From somewhere inside the rundown house a muffled voice called, "Yeah, hang on! I'll be there in a minute." Mitch waited, and listened to thumps and bangs within. Some things never change, he thought. The door swung open and a disheveled fiftyish man peered out.

"Yeah? What can I do for you?" he asked. Mitch waited, standing silently. The man squinted and stared. Then in a puzzled voice, "Mitch?" he asked.

Mitch nodded, then spoke. "Hi, Doug. Long time, no see."

Doug Booker's eyes widened in shock, and his mouth fell open. "Keerist! It's been... what? Ten, twelve years? And I thought you went to space..."

"I did," Mitch replied. "Been out in the belt; mining, homesteading. First time back on Earth since I left back in 2012."

"Well, jeez! What brings ya back..." Booker's voice trailed off, and his smile faded.

Mitch looked into Doug's eyes and said, "I'm here for Samantha."

Booker's face went white at his daughter's name. "Mitch... I think... There's something you should know," he forced out. Mitch watched and shook his head.

"I'm not here to see her," he continued. "I'm here for her. I know she's dead. I'm here to do what I should have been here for earlier. If I had known. What someone else could have done." He stared at Booker, righteous anger smouldering in his eyes.

Booker turned away and looked at his feet. "Heck. Well, come in." He stepped back, and Mitch followed him into the house. The front room was still familiar. Same old beat up furniture, though rearranged. The television in the corner. And the piled up dirty laundry.

Booker plopped himself down in a sagging easy chair. Mitch pushed a pile of newspapers to one side and eased gratefully onto the old sofa. "Gravity sucks," he declared. He sighed, and pulled out his datapad. He looked at Doug.

The older man refused to meet his eyes, but spoke. "How did you find out?" he inquired.

"I still kinda keep in touch with Andrew," Mitch answered, referring to a mutual acquaintance. "Just a 'gram every year or so; but he thought I'd want to know about this." He paused, his voice cracking. Then he continued, "Doug, what happened?"

Still staring at the floor, Booker replied, "She was robbed and murdered. In her apartment."

"By who?"

Booker shook his head. "Don't know. Police didn't much care; too much trouble to spend time on such a little case." He snorted.

Mitch took a deep breath. "Where was Charles?" he asked. Charles was Samantha's husband.

"Sammy left him two years ago. She'd been trying to make it on her own," Booker explained. "After Charley lost his business to back taxes..."

"Whoa!" Mitch interrupted. "Give me everything. I'm ten years behind on most of this. He lost the photo studio?"

Booker looked up. "Yeah. Turned out he'd started snortin' coke. Wasn't keepin' up with quarterly taxes, or his lease. Not to mention the mortgage on the house." He sneered slightly. "He lost it all. The three of them got tossed on the street. And Charley still couldn't keep straight. So she left him."

"Damn, I thought he was a good man. That's why I stopped trying to look after her," Mitch mumbled. "Hey, you said three?"

"Yeah," Booker answered. "Them and their little girl."

"A kid?" Mitch exclaimed. "She had a kid, and no one ever told me?" The anger in his eyes gave way to sadness. Then he tapped at his datapad. "Is she here? Can I meet her?" he asked the other man.

"Nah, she's in the State home," Booker explained.

"What's your grandkid doing in an orphanage, Doug?"

"Shoot, I can't look after a kid. And wherever Charley is, he's too strung out ta do it," Booker said defensively.

"But she's family!" The anger was back in Mitch's eyes. "You're just going to leave her there?"

"Hey, man; you think you can do better, you go get 'er," Booker replied. Mitch looked startled, then thoughtful. He made another note.

"What's her name?" he asked.

"Jenny. Jennifer McCall," Booker answered. "In there under her good for nothing daddy's name. She's..." He paused to think. "...Five years old."

Mitch snorted. "Don't be talking about good for nothing, Doug." He thought for a moment. "Okay, so Charles turned out to be worthless. And she lost her home over it. Why didn't call me for help?"

"You know she couldn't do that, Mitch."

"I know no such thing. When I left, I made a point of supplying her with a mail drop point so she could always get hold of me. And I've maintained that drop all these years. Why didn't she call me?"

"Mitch, she knew you were sweet on her," Booker explained, blushing as he spoke. "But she didn't feel the same way. So she didn't think she should take advantage of you." He stared at the floor again.

"Sure, I was sweet on her. But not like that," Mitch argued. "She was a special friend; and I just wanted her to be happy." He closed his eyes. "Damn." He exhaled strongly, then, "I promised her she always come to me for help; then I myself made her too uncomfortable to do it." He felt a tear working up, and fought it back. "So what next?"

"So she couldn't much in the way of public assistance, since she was theoretically married. But she couldn't afford to get divorced. He shrugged. "Anyway, she went back to waitressing... in some real dives, too. And it mostly paid for her apartment. Crappy place in the slums."

"Why didn't you have her move in here?" Mitch asked. Booker just shrugged again.

"And that got her killed," Mitch said flatly. "Okay, give me what you can about the case. Who's the cop working it?"

"Ain't nobody workin' it," Booker informed him. "But I got a copy of the original police report somewhere."

"Good. Get it," Mitch directed. "And any records on Sam's daughter." He sat quietly, thinking, while Booker rummaged around in a back room for the requested records. And decided four things needed doing. Booker returned with a stack of papers, which he handed to Mitch.

"Freaking paper?" Mitch exclaimed, as looked over the police report cover sheet. "Don't these clowns know this is the twenty first century?" He found a name on the front page, and looked up to Booker. "Okay, let's start with the cops. Mind if I use your comm terminal?"

"Got a phone in the corner," Booker offered, pointing to an simple voice set.

Appalled, Mitch lifted the handset and put it to his ear. Dial tone. "This is still an old analog system?" He read a number off the report and punched it in. And listened to ringing. Eventually someone answered.

"Macon PD. Can I help you?" came an anonymous voice over the line.

"Yes, please," Mitch replied. "I'd like to speak to a Sergeant Seeman. please. In Homicide division, I believe."

"Stand by." There was a click, and the voice was replaced with music. Eventualyn another voice interrupted.

"Homicide. Whatcha need?"

"Sergeant Seeman, please," Mitch enunciated.

"You got 'im. Talk ta me," the voice replied.

"I'm looking for information regarding a case you're handling. The murder of Samantha McCall three months ago."

"Don't ring any bells," Seeman said. "Got a report number on that?"

Mitch scanned the page. "Yes, WD22-02-20-045."

"Slow down, man. Gimme that again," Seeman directed. Mitch repeated the number. "Okay," the policeman said. "Gimme a couple days to get the file pulled on that, and I'll get back to you." The line clicked and went dead. Mitch stared at the instrument, then hung it up.

"SOB hung up on me," he told Booker. "Okay, we'll do it my way, then." He tossed his car keys to Booker. "Go get the satchel out of the front seat," he ordered. He extended am antenna from his datapad, then looked up at Booker who was still there. "Git!"

Booker got. As he stepped out he heard Mitch begin, "Hi, honey. It's worse than I thought. And there's something I need to talk to you..." The closing door cut off the rest.

When Booker returned, Mitch was speaking to his datapad. "...should have adequate funds for most of it. But I'll need you to arrange the annuity. Okay?"

From the datapad's screen a young blonde replied, "That should be easy enough. For ten kay, you think?"

Mitch nodded. "That'll do it. And don't forget the conditions of payment." He smiled. "Isn't it great when doing the right thing is good for us, too?"

The woman smiled and answered, "Yeah, talk to her as soon as you can. I'll keep my fingers crossed." The tiny image reached out touched her side of the screen. "'Bye, love. You be careful." Mitch touched the 'pad, meeting her touch.

"I will. 'Bye." He tapped the keyboard, and broke the connection. Then he looked to Booker, and took the satchel. "Thank you." Mitch opened the bag and removed a full computer deck.

"That thing's a phone, too?" Booker asked. "With a picture an' all?"

"Uh huh," Mitch responded absently as he rooted through the bag for a com cable.

"So who was that?"

"Annelise. My wife. She's still up in our ship, looking after the refit," Mitch answered. "She's going to handle some admin details for me."

"You got married?" Booker looked surprised.


"I'll be damned."


"What're ya up ta?" Booker asked. He watched as Mitch ran a slender cable from the computer to the datapad/comm unit.

"I'm getting the data the cop couldn't be bothered to look up," Mitch answered. "I'm going to access their computer."

"You're a hacker?" Booker asked in surprise.

"Nope; but I know some. And I have a collection of their goodies on this deck." Mitch patted the computer. "And I just arranged to use hook my comm into the local cell phone system." He shook his head. "Why aren't y'all using a direct broadcast sat system?" Mitch wondered. He flipped open the comp and started typing. The sound of dial tone emanated from the 'pad, followed by a series of touch tone beeps.

Booker looked worried. "Mitch, this's illegal..."

"Only if they catch me," Mitch returned. "Well, well... Isn't it nice of Macon PD to allow their officers to file reports remotely?" He tapped some more. "Okaaay... so I'm Sergeant Seeman today... I wonder what he uses for a password..." He touched the screen and the image of a box expanded. Mitch made a selection from the text list displayed. Then he turned to Booker. "Seeing how primitive the rest of the systems are, you care to bet that they use a single simple password system?" he asked.

"Mitch..." Booker began, only to be stopped by a beep from the computer.

"Too late," Mitch said, shaking his head. "We're in." He read the displayed menu. "There we go... review file... input number..." He waited. "I can't believe it's this easy. Who wrote their access software? The IRS?"

"Mitch," Booker said. "What're you doing?" The computer beeped again. As he typed, Mitch answered.

"I'm downloading the most current files on the case..." He frowned. "Which appear to be two and a half months old; these guys aren't even trying. And... Aha! A suspect!"

"Booker crowded close. "What? They said they didn't know who it was." He tried to read over Mitch's shoulder.

Mitch read faster. "Lessee, they found the murder weapon with finger prints. The kni..." He choked; then, "You didn't tell me her throat was cut."

"It was bad enough that she's gone," Booker whispered. "What else do you have there?"

"Okay, finger prints on file... Name: Levon Carter, address, past record of violent offenses, photo... Freaking idiots," Mitch grunted out. "They have everything necessary for an arrest and conviction. But they couldn't be bothered to cross reference and see where the perp was. They just couldn't be bothered!" He swore. "That's okay. I can handle it." He tapped away at the computer. "So long as I'm here... delete... delete... delete..."

"What are you doing?" Booker wanted to know.

Mitch smiled grimly. "I'm deleting anything that can connect us to the main deletion."

"Main deletion?"

"Yep, I'm going delete one Levon Carter, murderer."

"You can't do that!" Booker wailed.

"Wanna bet? Read it for yourself." Mitch spun the computer screen towards the older man. "You have any doubts that he's guilty? Or that the police aren't ever going to do anything about it?" Booker read the displayed file and cursed.

"Jeez, the guy was on parole... for another murder!" The father was beginning to feel outrage.

"Yep," Mitch agreed. "But it's his last one." He punched computer buttons again,and broke the connection the PD system. "I'm leaving to take care of business. I'll be back this time tomorrow to pick you up. Be showered, shaved, and neatly dressed," he instructed Booker.

"Wha... Why?" the other man asked.

"I have four things to do to try and set things right. You're going to be part of the next three." Mitch slid the comp back into the satchel, and stood. "I just wish I could've stopped this from happening to begin with." He opened the door and stepped out. "Remember, tomorrow at..." He checked his watch. "Three o'clock," he told the speechless man. He walked to the car, got in, and left. Booker stood on the porch and stared down the road.

Several hours later, darkness had fallen on Macon. Mitch sat in his parked car on a side street off Broad. He had a clear view of a tiny house even more ramshackle than Booker's. And wonder of wonders, Levon Carter was at home. But, currently, he had company. Mitch planned to wait until Carter was alone before approaching to conclude his business. Fortunately, there seemed to be no vehicular or pedestrian traffic to notice the red car. Macon must be just about ready to dry up and blow away, Mitch thought.<

While he waited, he checked his weapon again. It was a normal enough firearm by spacer standards. It incorporated both compensator and noise suppressor; recoil being a bad thing in a low grav to no grav environment, and loud noises undesirable to folk who lived perpetually indoors. And since blowing holes in a pressurized living dome was bad form, the projectiles were highly frangible. In this case, they had an added benefit; there'd be no obtaining ballistic evidence from the remnants of the 15 millimeter bullets. The gun had been easy to carry through airport security; the weapon was primarily high tech composites and ceramics. The only metal was the aluminum alloy barrel. Even the rounds were caseless; and the bullets plastic bundled ceramic shot. Mitch checked the magazine and chamber a last time, then replace the pistol in the shoulder holster under his jacket. And waited.

Carter's front door opened, spilling light into the night. Mitch watched and counted the departing figures. One, two... Yep, all four. Carter was alone. The visitors climbed into a half wrecked car and drove away.

Mitch looked around to see if anyone was in sight. The streets were clear. And the other houses were dark, or the drapes were closed. He got out and walked up to the house. He rapped on the door.

The door opened. "Yo, man; it's late," the occupant began. "Whadja ferget?" He stopped when he saw Mitch. "Who're you?"

Mitch stared at the man. "Levon Carter?" he asked. He pulled out his datapad and checked the man's face against the photo.

"Who wants ta know?" Carter asked.

"Mr. Carter," Mitch began; "we have some business to conduct. May I come in?"

Carter pointed at the 'pad. "What is that thing? You the cops?" he asked.

Mitch shook his head negatively. "I'm not a cop. And this is a datapad." He saw Carter's puzzled face. "It's a portable computer and... call it a phone. You still don't have them on Earth yet?"

"No, man; I ain't never seen one a them," Carter confirmed. Then, "Hey, you said on Earth... You one of them spacer guys?"

"Yes," Mitch agreed. "May I come in," he repeated.

"Sure," Carter replied. He moved aside and waved Mitch in, and closed the door behind him. "So... like what bizness ya got for me?" he asked.

"I'd like to start with some questions, to be sure I'm talking to the right person," Mitch said. He slipped the 'pad back into its pocket, and reached inside his jacket. "What can you tell about the young woman whose throat was cut in a botched robbery three months ago?" He brought the pistol out.

"Hey, man! I don't know nothing about no robbery... or throats," Carter denied. He started to reach under his shirt.

Mitch placed the muzzle of his gun against Carter's forehead. "Please keep your hands in view, Mr. Carter," he directed. "I remind you, I am not a police officer, but I do have reason to believe that you have first hand knowledge of the murder. It could be in your best interest to cooperate."

Carter's face was locked in terror. His eyes crossed as he tried to look at the gun against his head. "Man, I'm tellin' ya that I don't know..."

"Mr. Carter," Mitch said tiredly, "your finger prints were found on the murder weapon; which you stupidly left behind. All I want is for you to confirm that you were the robber." His finger began to tighten on the trigger. Carter saw it.

"I didn't mean to!" he squeaked. "It was an accident... She woke up and..."

Mitch stopped him. "Mr. Carter, one does not accidently cut a woman's throat," he pointed out. Then he pulled the trigger. He left the house as quietly as Carter had left the world. As he drove off on the otherwise empty street, he mentally checked the item off his list.

Later that night he sat in his motel room. He had just finished speaking to Annelise, and had downloaded some information for tomorrow's business. Today's, rather, he thought; noting the time. Put the 'pad away, and stuffed the hardcopy into the satchel. Then slid under the blanket and killed the lights. And slept soundly.

Mitch began the next morning by borrowing the PD comp again. A quick check gave a series of known hangouts for Charles McCall. Mostly soup kitchens and bars. Mitch decided to have a quick brunch, then start looking at the soup kitchens; Charley would likely be looking for lunch by then.

It was easier than Mitch expected. He had tried the Salvation Army first; but their kitchen was closed that day. Funds only allowed them to operate the lunch service on alternate days. Mitch dropped some yellow disks in the collection box and headed out to a nearby church. And struck lucky.

He entered the lunch room and looked around. He didn't see McCall' face among the diners, but he did spot a man in a priest's collar and apron clearing tables. Mitch approached him and spoke. "Excuse me, Father."

The man straightened up and looked Mitch up and down. "Well, you don't have the look of someone in need of our help; but what can I do for you? I'm Father Joseph, by the way." He wiped a hand on his apron and held it out.

Mitch clasped his hand and replied, "Hello, Father. I'm Mitchell Gantzer. And I'm..." He paused and looked around. "Heck, Father; you're too busy for me to just walk in and interrupt. Let me help with those dishes." He held out his hands. "Pile 'em on, Father."

The priest looked rather surprised. "Hmmph. That's a first," he noted. "But good enough." He smiled and began picking up empty plates and bowls and piling them on Mitch's waiting hands. As they moved along the tables and diners, Father Joseph said, "So what can I do for you, Mr. Gantzer?"

"I'm looking for a man. And my sources say he comes here fairly often."

By now, both men were loaded up. The cleric led the way to the washroom. They slid their burdens onto the window counter. The priest turned to Mitch and frowned. "You the police?" he inquired.

"No, sir. I'm a... family friend. I've been out of touch for quite a while. And I've just learned of the man's situation..."

The priest peered at him. "No, you don't feel like a cop. Who're you looking for, and why?" A couple of dinner patrons walked up with their empty trays. The two men stepped aside so they could put their dishes in the window. A pair of hands came into view and pulled the dishes out of sight.

Mitch answered the priest by pulling out his datapad and displaying a mug shot of McCall. "This is Charles McCall. Have you seen him?"

The cleric glanced at the photo, and noted the 'pad. "Nice little pocket computer you've got there. Why do you want to find him."

"To pay an old debt."

"Sounds ominous. Does he want the debt paid?" Farther Joseph wondered aloud.

"To tell the truth, he probably doesn't even know about it, Father. But it is to his benefit," Mitch added.

Father Joseph looked at him appraisingly. "I'll take a chance on you, Gantzer. Not many folks would bother helping with the dirty dishes." He waved a hand at the dining room. "You're not going to find him out there." He paused, then pointed to the washroom. "He's in there. He has enough pride that he won't eat free sometimes. So, occasionally he volunteers for clean up duty."

Mitch considered the ramifications of the revelation. "That's a good sign, then," he decided.

The priest shook his head. "Don't bet on it, Gantzer. You've been out of touch, you say. How much do you know about Charley?"

Mitch smiled sourly. "You mean that he's an addict?"

The priest sighed. "That's the one," he agreed. "He has some pride. How much depends on how long ago he had his last toot. Still want to see him?"

"Nope. But I still have to see him."

"On your head be it," the priest declared. "Come on back." He led Mitch through a side door, where they found four men wiping down dishes, running them through an old fashioned steamer, and racking them on steel shelves. None looked familiar to Mitch. The priest called out, "Charley! Charley M! Come over here! Got somebody to talk to you."

One of the men glanced back. He grabbed a rag and wiped his hands off, then walked over. "Hey, Poppa Joe; whatcha got?" he asked.

Mitch stared at the gaunt face, and finally recognized the man he had once watched wed a dear friend. He held out a hand. "Hello, Charley. You may not remember me; it's been about ten years. I'm Mitch Gantzer." He watched McCalls' face. "Samantha's friend," he added.

A look of shame passed over McCall's features. "Gantzer? The guy who used to give her rides and... " His voice stopped.


"So what do ya wan' with me?" the bum asked. "Ya gonna finish me off?"

At this, Father Joseph stepped forward. "Gantzer, if you're here to get some sort of revenge..."

Mitch shook his head. "No, Father. Not like that." He turned back to McCall. "Do you know what's happened to Sam?" he asked the wreck.

"Naw; but she's gotta be better off since she left me," McCall replied.

"She's dead, Charley. Murdered." McCall's face went white with shock.

"What? H... how... b-but...?" he stuttered.

"A botched robbery," Mitch told him, the priest listening in. "I've come back from the Belt to set things right."

A tear welled up in McCall's eye. "So what's that got to do with me?"

With a stern face, and a flat voice, Mitch went on, "I consider your drug problem, and its effect on your old business, to be a contributing factor to the circumstances leading to her death." He paused to take a deep breath. "I might've wanted revenge; but you're already in your own private chemical hell." He stared into McCall's eyes. "Did Sam ever tell you about the promise I made her? That she could always come to me for help?"

Fear apparent, the man whispered, "No."

"Well, I did. But she didn't take me up on it. So I'm offering you that chance." Mitch reached into his jacket. Father Joseph and McCall both froze. Mitch's hand came back out with a sheath of hardcopy. The men relaxed. "Here's the deal," Mitch went on, "I've arranged for an annuity for you. It's prepaid in full, so you can draw the money now. It amounts to about ten thousand dollars a year." Mitch sneered slightly. "Don't be thinking you can spend it on coke, or whatever you kick is these days. There's a catch."

Mitch separated a set of papers from the bundle. "If you want the money, which is a nice safety net for getting yourself started again, you have to sign these. And you'll need a doctor's certification."

The fear had faded, but confusion was evident in McCall. "What're you talkin' about?"

"These are your agreement to end your abuse of drugs. And instructions for reporting to a certain clinic. There, you'll be given a series of injections of Anacaine..."

"What is Anacaine, Mr. Gantzer?" asked Father Joseph.

"A drug developed in the L5 colonies. It essentially renders the recipient allergic to a wide range of cocaine derivatives." He looked at McCall. "Any intake of coke will make you violently ill. It won't cure your addiction, or get you over the withdrawal. That's what the rest of the stay at this clinic will be for. It'll hurt; you'll hate me. But offering you this chance is one of the last things I can do for Sam; 'cause gods know why, she loved you." He waved the papers. "Well?"

"Why're you trying to help me?" McCall asked.

"Don't worry; it isn't for your sake," Mitch said coldly. "I'm doing it for Sam. Because I loved her, too."

McCall stared at the wet kitchen floor. "I'll do it," he mumbled. Then he burst into tears.

Mitch turned to the priest again. "Father, do you know where we can find a notary?" Two down.

Shortly before three o'clock, Mitch pulled his rented Cultura into Booker's driveway. A very nervous Booker was waiting on the porch. Mitch honked the horn, and waved him to the car. Through the open window called, "Come on, get in!"Booker trotted over and climbed into the passenger seat.

"Nice car," he said. "Where we goin'?"

"To the orphanage. To see Jenny," Mitch stated simply. He pulled out into the street and headed out to the Interstate., They rode in silence until Mitch had the vehicle h"To the orphanage. To see Jenny," Mitch stated simply. He pulled out into the street and headed out to the Interstate., They rode in silence until Mitch had the vehicle heading north on I-75. "I've got the address of the place. But point it out on the map for me," Mitch instructed Booker. He pointed to the electronic map display in the car's dashboard.

"Umm..." Booker began hesitantly. "I'm not sure I can find it. It oughta be about..." His eyes swept over the map.

"Damn, Doug," Mitch said irritably. "You have been there, haven't you?"

"Of course!" Booker said defensively. Then in a smaller voice, "Once."

Mitch looked at his passenger in disgust. "She's your grandchild, for gods' sakes. Once?" He cursed.

"I've been busy."

Mitch snorted in derision.

"Anyway," Booker said, "It's right there." He tapped a point on the screen, and a target light glowed. Mitch reached over and punched the ROUTE button. The car's onboard computer queried the GPS receiver for the vehicle's current location, then highlighted a series of roads leading to the orphanage. An amber dot echoed the car's movement on the map.

TRIP TIME: 0.75 HOURS, the screen displayed. It's going to be a long forty five minutes, Mitch thought.

An hour later the two men sat in a sterile seeming lobby waiting to see the child.

"Do we have to do this?" Booker asked in a whisper. "I don't feel right here."

Mitch looked up from his datapad, where he was arranging data for his anticipated meeting. "Yes, we do," he confirmed. "I need to see the girl; I need to know what she needs. And..." He interrupted himself. "And they aren't going to let me in on my recognizance, so I need her grandfather along; no matter how useless otherwise." The sound of approaching footsteps caught his attention. He turned to see a stout, middle-aged woman leading a small child by the hand. The little girl was clutching a tiny teddy bear.

Mitch stared at the little girl's face. "Oh, gods; she looks like Sammy." He tugged at Booker's sleeve. "That's Jenny, isn't it?"

Booker looked, and a flash of guilt showed briefly. "Yes," he croaked hoarsely.

Mitch stood and walked to meet the girl. She looked nervous, vulnerable. "Jenny?" Mitch said. He knelt to face her on her own level. "Hi, Jenny." He smiled at her; his heart breaking.

"Hi," she replied in a high, soft voice.

"Jenny, I'm a friend of you mommy's," Mitch began. Jenny huge eyes turned misty, and she bit at her lower lip.

"My momma's gone," she told him. She hugged her bear to her chest.

Mitch felt tears rising. "I know, honey. But I was her friend a long time ago. And I'd like to be your friend, too. I came a real long way to see you."

She looked at him inquisitively. "How far?" the child asked.

"Miles and miles. Millions of miles. 'Cause I had promises to keep," he explained.

"Miwwon... millyuns," Jenny repeated. "That's real far, isn' it?"

"Uh huh," Mitch agreed. "I came here in a spaceship."

Jenny's eyes lit in awe, and she smiled for the first time. "A spaceship? You're a spaceman?" she asked excitedly.

"I sure am. And I came all the way from the Asteroids to keep a promise."

"Azzerods. Thass a funny word," she smiled. "What kinda promise?"

He closed his eyes and sighed. "I promised to take care of your momma. But now I can't. So I want to keep the promise to you." He waited for her reaction.

She smiled her beautiful smile again. "You're nice," she decided. "Whass your name?"

"Oops. My name is Mitch Gantzer."

Her mouth open in surprise. She held up her bear. "His name is Mitch, too!" she told him. "Momma named him. When she gimme 'im."

That did it. Tears rolled down Mitch's face. He pulled Jenny close and hugged her. Somewhere in background, ignored, Booker was swearing. "Jenny, I'm sorry I wasn't here to take of you and your momma before," Mitch mumbled. "But I want to take care of you now." He let her go; but she latched onto a finger and clutched it.

"I don' think you can," she told him solemnly. "They make me stay her. 'Cause momma's gone, an' I don' have a daddy."

Mitch shook his head. "I can if you say it's okay," he told the little girl.

"Mr. Gantzer!" the home administrator jumped in. "That is not how we do things here!"

Mitch glanced towards her and said matter of factly, "Shut up. We're talking." He turned his attention back to Jenny. "Honey, I think we can do this if you want to. But you need to meet someone else, too." He reached into his pocket for the datapad.

Hope shone on Jenny's face. "Who?" she asked.

As he tapped on the 'pad screen, he said, "Her name is Annelise. She's my wife. She lives in space." The screen lit.

"Hello," came the tiny voice from the comm.

"Annelise," Mitch said, "I've been visiting with Jenny." Mitch saw hope on his wife's face, too. "She's a very nice girl; and I think you should meet." He turned to Jenny and held up the 'pad. "Jenny, this is Annelise. She wants to meet you."

"Wow! She's on telebision!" Mitch grinned.

"Hello, Jenny," Annelise's voice called out. "I'm very glad to meet you. Mitch has told me that you need a new family."

"Momma's gone," Jenny agreed.

Mitch placed the 'pad in the girl's hands. "Here, honey. You talk to Annelise for a while. Careful not press any of those buttons."

Jenny accepted the datapad absently. She asked Annelise, "Why're you on TV?"

"I stay in space all the time," the woman began explaining. "I can't go down to planets." As the two ladies conversed, Mitch stood up and turned his attention to the outraged administrator.

"Now, then," he said. "You had some questions, Ms. Gardner?" He walked the angry woman away from the happily chatting child.

"Mr. Gantzer, this is totally unacceptable! How dare you walk in here and..."

"Ms. Gardner," Mitch hissed out. "This child does not belong in an orphanage. She needs love. My wife and I can do that. What's left of her family," Mitch glared towards Booker, who shrank in upon himself, "obviously can't."

"There are rules..." the matron started.

"Don't tell me that rules are going to take precedence over Jenny's well being," Mitch responded. "And if rules are that big a deal... here!" He held out an envelope. "That's a notarized statement from the child's biological father agreeing to an adoption." He turned an eye to Booker. "And her grandfather will sign one, too. Right?"

Shamefaced, Booker nodded agreement.

"Still, there are procedures," Gardner maintained. "You have to be investigated... Why, I haven't even met your wife! If the child is so important, why can't she be bothered to come here?"

Mitch's lips thinned, and his face went red. "My wife can't come down. By your stupid standards, she's crippled. A mining accident. In freefall or micro-g, she's fine. On a planet she'd be stuck in a chair. I won't do that to her."

The harridan was obstinate. "I'm not sure that a handicapped person is the best possible parent for any child. And what of your own children? How will they react..."

"Do you practice to be so offensive?" Mitch demanded. "There are no other children. We've spent several years trying. I'm sterile, you freaking little... " He stopped himself, then pointed to an animated Jenny laughing on the comm. "That sweet child is our hope now. And just maybe we're hers, too. Ask her," he finished.

"Mr. Gantzer, do you think you can just walk in here, and stroll out with a child; as if this were a supermarket?"

"I didn't think so," he answered. "But now... If I walk out of here without her, I may not ever be happy again." He felt the tears again.

And Gardner noticed them as well. "You're serious, aren't you?" she asked quietly. She looked at Jenny, smiling for the first time since her arrival. "If Jenny is agreeable, I'll support the action," she relented. "I think this is the first time I saw a would-be parent break down into tears over the child."

"Thank you, Ms. Gardner," Mitch said more calmly. "And I'm sorry for my rude behavior."

"But still," the woman said, "there are details to attend to."

Mitch sighed. "Okay, let's do it. Where do we start?"

"Well, tomorrow we'll need to bring in your attorney..."

"Whoa! We don't do attorneys," Mitch said. "And tomorrow is too long." He thought. "Okay, try this. Run the paperwork to log us as foster parents... Georgia still does the paid foster home-thing, right?"

Gardner cringed at the phrasing, but, "Yes."

"Good enough. We're foster parents for Jenny. But don't bother with the support checks." Mitch eyed his surroundings. He noted the spotless, but rundown condition. "In fact, I think it needs to work the other way," he decided. "Wait a minute." He walked over to his original seat and repossessed his satchel. He reached in and pulled out some objects. He paused, looked thoughtful, and retrieved a couple more. He returned to the administrator. "Here; I think y'all need this." He handed the yellow objects to Gardner. She stared.

"Mr. Gantzer," she started, "is this..." she looked at the four gold bars in her hands.

"Gold, Ma'am. 500 grams per," Mitch confirmed. "In the Earth market, I think that's about thirteen thousand dollars. That should get you started. If you'll provide me an account number, I'll have two hundred thousand in the home's accounts by midnight."

"I don't accept bribes," the woman hissed angrily.

"Ma'am, that's no bribe. That's a donation. Even if I walk out of here and never get to see Jenny again, that gold and the funds transfer are yours... The orphanage's, anyway."

Gardner's eyes bulged, and her jaw dropped. "But..."

"Ms. Gardner, Annelise and I are homesteading now. On a rock we own flat out. But we used to be prospectors and miners. And we were darned successful." Mitch shrugged. "Or darned lucky, anyway." He pointed to the gold bars. "That, literally, is pocket change. I carry it for traveling expenses, for when I don't want to use credit."

"Good Lord," the shocked woman murmured. "I think we can work this out, sir."

"Mitch!" called Jenny's sweet voice. "Annelise says in space I can fly!"

"That's right, honey," Mitch told her. "Annelise flies all the time. And she'll teach you how, if you want."

"Really? Neato!"

"Let me have the TV for a while, Jenny," Mitch asked gently. "I have to talk to Annelise."

"Okay," the child assented. She brought the 'pad to him, and handed it over. Then she tugged on his sleeve. Mitch bent down to her face.

Jenny whispered in his ear. "Annelise is really nice. I like her."

"I like her, too," Mitch whispered back, grinning. Then he spoke into the comm. "Well, honey?"

"Mitch," the blonde replied, "if you leave that sweet girl there, don't bother coming back. I'll break orbit." She smiled.

Ms. Gardner heard as well. "That's two, then. If Jenny wants to go, it's settled so far as I'm concerned." She turned to the child. "Jenny, do you want to live with Mitch and his wife?"

In wonder, the girl asked, "You mean for always? Like with momma?"

"That's right, Jenny. They want to be your new momma and daddy."


"Really and truly, Jenny," Mitch spoke.

Jenny dropped her bear and wrapped her arms around Mitch's leg. He pried her loose, and knelt. She promptly reattached her self, then grabbed at the datapad. "Annelise! I get to live with you!" She told the woman in the screen happily. Annelise added her remote control tears to those of Mitch.

Mitch looked up at the administrator. "Ms. Gardner, shall repair to your office?"

Several hours later the Cultura was pulling into Booker's driveway yet again. The Gantzers' status as incredibly solvent millionaires had lubricated the proceedings to an almost corrupt degree. Mitch had found the oddly truthful fiction of being a planetary head of state useful, as well. The adoption had not begun formally; as yet, Mitch and Annelise were merely fostering Jenny. But they had Ms. Gardner's tacit approval to unofficially take Jenny to orbit. Of course, once done, Mitch could probably never return to Earth. Somehow, salvaging an innocent child's life became kidnapping in the eyes of the State of Georgia.

Well enough. Mitch saw no reason left on the planet to ever return. His family would be in space.

Mitch parked the car, but left the engine running. He looked to the back seat where an exhausted Jenny clung to her bear, and snored softly. He glanced to Booker and nodded. The two quietly got out of the vehicle and walked towards the house. Three down, Mitch thought.

They stood in the darkness. Booker spoke. "I can't believe you came all the way from the Asteroid Belt for this. Why?," he asked.

Mitch eyed him sourly. "I wouldn't expect you to understand. But... you see, I loved Samantha."

"Hey," Booker protested. "She was my daughter!"

"And you cared so much that you couldn't even let her back into your house when she lost her husband and home. Jenny didn't even know who you were, except that you came to fill out paperwork once." Mitch sneered. "If you had been a father to Sammy, it wouldn't have mattered that she didn't call me."

"But," Booker began weakly.

"You're just as responsible for the conditions that let Sammy die as Charley," Mitch added coldly. Then, without any fuss, he drew back his right arm and let fly. His fist connected solidly with the older man's jaw. Booker's head rocked back and to the side from the impact, and he fell to the ground. And lay moaning, clutching his chin. Mitch walked back to the car and got in. Four.

Then he held his hand carefully, and grunted. "Damn, that hurt!"

"Not s'posta say 'damn'," Jenny said sleepily from the back seat.

Mitch chuckled. "You're right, honey. I'm sorry. Let's go to the motel and sleep. Then in the morning we'll fly to Texas."

"Is that a azzerod, too?" Jenny asked.

"Nope, Texas is here on Earth. That's where we fly off in a rocket, to go to our spaceship to see Annelise." Mitch put the car in gear and headed out.

"An' then we'll go miles 'n miles to home?" the child asked.

"That's right," Mitch said.

"Cool." Then, "Mitch? Can I call you daddy?"

He felt a lump in his throat, and the tears starting again. "I sure would like that, Jenny."

Her sleepy voice continued. "And I can call Annelise momma?"

"Yes, Jenny. That's what we want."

"Good. Love you, daddy." She drifted back to sleep.

"Love you, honey."


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