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Variations on a theme I

Copyright © 2002 Jari Komppa

Marc Degaucho turns in his bed. His backaches, and he has hardly had a good hour's sleep all night after the recent days happenings. All those fights for stupid reasons! And of course they all have to challenge him, the best swordsman of the land, all to impress one princess or another. They should know better. But there's no help, as sun is already up and shines fully on his face. He gives up, and opens his eyes. As he does so he notices a bunch of flowers that someone has placed next to his bed. He sits up and sees that there's a parchment alongside the flowers.

Marc is surprised to find, as he reads the parchment, that it's not a challenge, but a letter from a 'secret admirer'. He judges, from the handwriting, that she's some rather well studied girl, and since most of those are royalty, he's most probably in more trouble than he was just moments ago. There's no helping it, however, so he gets up and washes his face. Damn those stupid challengers! Damn their stupid honor code! Still, he puts on his gear, cursing his back again, and leaves to work.

Sam Witkins opens his eyes. He stares straight up from his bed, and he sees an emblem of a flower inset in crystal panel. It was hard to remember where he was, as everything felt so unreal. He lifts a hand and looks at it. While it's undoubtedly his, it feels foreign for some reason.

Most of the challengers are plain irritancy for Marc. He loves a good fight, but most of these kids don't know even the basics! So what if he DID say some rude words about some princess - they could pool some money and get him some real challenger. But no, one by one they have to come and get their backside beat up. After he's done with the morning challengers he heads out to get something to eat. Over by the castle kitchen he meets lady Lilith, who owns the local pharmacy. He talks about his backaches and Lilith, the old sweet lady looks sympathetically in his eyes.

Witkins releases his bed straps and floats up. Or down. Or whatever any direction is in this place. He bounces himself across the small room and uses the toilet facility. If he had known it to be like this, he would never have volunteered. He climbs back towards his bed capsule and finds his uniform. When do they get the gravity working? Five more days?

Ratt Backrog is sleeping. Through his sleep a soft voice is trying to tell him something, something he has forgot. Something important. About work. Going to work. He opens his eyes, seeing a hologram of alien looking flower fields somewhere in the galaxy. "Oh good, you finally woke up! I was afraid you'd be late for work!", his personal assistant computer, Assie, says. Ratt wonders why people get married, if this is what they get from a computer. The hologram changes to show some new news bit. Ratt tells the computer to shut it down. He has a headache.

Lilith suggests some herbs but Marc tells her that he's been taking those for ages and they don't seem to help at all. They discuss the possibility of hot baths with some other herb use, and maybe even some back massage. As they're getting to some good bits a squire dashes through the doors and, through his hysterical babble, gets it through that Marc had better get to the King's audience chamber, as something is afoot.

He's almost gotten used to navigating around the station with his hands. They're over fifty lightyears from Earth, and everything was supposed to work as they woke up, but some little things, like the gravity, didn't. They were still trying to figure out what exactly was wrong, as none of the computer systems registered any damage. So they had to check every system by hand, to see if they can find the problem. Sam was trailing yet another wire into the core of the station as he passed one of the sleeping pods. It opened, and the woman that it contained woke up with a surprised expression, one that he had seen many times in the past few weeks. Sam found it in himself to put on a happy face, ans queried, "Slept well, I hope?"

Ratt drinks coffee and browses through the morning news. In text. Assie is, as usual, irritated by this obscure habit, but, being a machine of infinite patience, puts up with it and schedules a computer shrink time for herself. There are limits to the abuse that a humble home appliance can take. His headache reduced to a dull drumming, and he decided to leave for work. Assie was surprised, as she usually had to remind him at least twice. Yanking his SecurID card from the computer, he leaves the apartment. In fifteen minutes Assie would check his whereabouts, and finding that he wasn't heading back to the apartment, would start to clean things up.

Eight o'clock the radio snapped on, some over-energetic DJ deciding to start everyone's day with a dose of slightly heavier music than Tom was used to. Thus, he was awake at once. Heart pounding he stared at the flower poster on his wall, and then decided that, against prior evidence, his house had not been invaded by a group of teenage hip hop gangsters.

The audience chamber was full of chaos. Everyone was screaming, scribes bringing tons of scrolls for the clerks who were searching for something. Marc wondered what was going on, and, especially, what it had to do with him. The king was nowhere to be seen, so, apparently he was the highest-ranking person around. He decided to get to the root of this. Taking a metallic bowl and a hammer he started making some noise. The constant babbling in the hall died immediately. "Could someone please tell me what's the meaning of this?" he bellowed.

"Why, yes, actually", she answered. "But what's going on? I feel strange". Sam found it easy to smile at her, and assured her that everything was fine. Or at least, he hoped so. The gravity was out, he told her, but nobody knew why. "Oh dear. I should probably check it out then." Sam was surprised to find that she was one of the main gravity generator engineers of the ship - and she was scheduled to wake up this late! Suddenly, the intercom popped alive and informed that everyone was to come to the core, as there was a problem.

Ratt made his way to work, which today meant reconfiguring the security systems in a couple of buildings. It was a fairly routine work, and thus rather boring. It was even made annoying by some of the civilians who just had to get in the way. Yes, they were informed ahead that they should update their passes. Yes, it cost them money. Yes, the system change could be appealed against. But did they use the proper channels? Oh no, they came directly to the man who is there to press a couple of buttons. As Ratt was finishing up with one of the security systems, Lena, his systems specialist, came and said that they didn't have the data for the next building yet. Frowning, he asked if there was a problem.

Quick shower and teeth brushed, visit to the gym, and Tom Darkwing was ready for another day at the office. If he wasn't stuck in the traffic, that is. He had given up his car a year ago when he decided that he might as well sit through the traffic jams in someone elses' car. This one happened to be a bus, but luckily it had a decent air conditioning system. He flipped through the directory on his e-reader, and frowned. He had - again - forgotten to download some new material in while he was at the office.

Martin opened his eyes. It was still dark, but he could see the outline of a flower against the slightly paler backdrop of the sewers. It was cold, wet and dark, and his body ached, but he was hungry, too, so he considered that he had slept enough.

Deadly silence fell over the crowd. Marc reissued his demand, and then someone picked up the nerve to explain it to him. Apparently someone claimed that the royal princess, who was to be married in the next month, was for some completely unexplainable reason no longer a virgin. "Well of course she is!", Marc bellowed, and murmur spread across the room. "If anyone wants to disagree with me, I'll be glad to accept your challenges." Although it meant more work for him, there was some good sides to the honor code. The clerks were happy at the outcome, for it saved them a lot of grief. In the end only a handful of people stormed out of the hall.

At the core Tilgar, the captain, waited until the rest of the crew dribbled in, before starting his announcement. "As you know we haven't been able to find what the problem with the ship is. All of the computer systems still check ok. However, it seems that the gravity generators are heating up at a pace that seems rather unhealthy." Sam felt cold shivers down his spine. "We have a couple of choices. Either we ditch the whole subsystem, practically shortening our lives by a dozen years, or we try to figure out what's wrong and hopefully fix it before it kills us all." Everyone fell quiet, some in shock, others deep in thought.

Lena assured that there was no problem, really. Apparently the security keys were really, really expensive to compute, and they had been upgrading the systems at faster pace than anticipated. Maybe they'd be able to keep a week off soon. Ratt felt good about the possibility of a vacation in the near future, and was about to ask Lena over to a cafe to waste some time until the new data was ready, when his phone rang. As he answered it he noticed that Lena also answered her phone; something was going on. They were called to the nearest SecuriCorp center for some reason. Lena jumped in her car and waved him over.

Tom arrived five minutes early, worst timing this month. He always aimed to be at his desk with at least fifteen minutes to spare so he could get his email out of the way before any meetings started. Trying not to let that kill off his good mood he started his day. Towards the evening his mood had suffered somewhat since he had finished all the critical tasks that he had the day before, and thus he had nothing challenging to do. At the water cooler he found Tina chattering with Sara. Overhearing that Tina's kitchen had just suddenly decided to stop working, Tom offered to cook her dinner.

Making sure he had not left anything behind, Martin stretched his aching limbs. He took a bit of meat from the remains of his last meal and chewed on it. Then he took his old knife and carefully washed it in the muddy water that still flowed on the bottom of the sewers. The rats had become rather smart lately, or so it at least seemed to him, so he wanted to make sure that no part of him smelled like rat blood, especially the knife. After he was satisfied with the knife he smeared some mud on the blade, for any reflecting light could also scare the rats away.

He always woke up to the smell of the sea. The smell was constant this close to the harbour, but that smell was still always the first thing he noticed. Taking a deep breath he opened his eyes and saw a dried up flower in the vase next to his bed. He had been at sea for weeks, so some things had suffered. But the trip had been worth it; most of his catch would be stored for the winter.

The rest of the evening went peacefully. Marc could see people speaking in hushed voices but these discussions always stopped just before he passed. Curious. He hoped that his claim was really true, or otherwise he'd have to top it off with claims of virgin birth or some other miracle. Oh well. After finishing couple more challenges without even breaking sweat, the sun was setting and he decided to call it a day. Tossing the flowers out of the window and taking a last wondering glance at the secret admirer note, he shrugged and took off his armour. His back still ached, but he had no trouble getting to sleep.

"It's perfectly normal", the woman Sam had seen waking up said, suddenly. "We couldn't finish the system before the launch time so the Earth control decided to send me along at the last possible moment." Tilgar looked at her suspiciously, and said "And you are..?", to which she promptly answered, "Marla. If you don't mind I'd like to get to work? Here are my records," she said, tossing, carefully, an info cube towards Tilgar, who expertly plucked it off the air.

The trip over only took them a minute with Lena's car, after which they ran to the designated meeting room. A superior officer who didn't bother introducing himself shouted to the dozen or so SecuriCorp troopers present that they had a situation in their hands. Some well-known criminal had been using his identity card to buy some stuff in their district, and they would have to catch him. The officer hit a button and a holographic image of the area buzzed into existence. A pulsing red dot marked one street corner. "The transaction occurred four minutes twenty seconds ago. You are to block these streets -", he said, when another dot appeared on the map, way outside the planned blockage area.

Tina answered that she'd be delighted to come over. Sara walked away, staring at the ceiling and shaking her head. Tom didn't mind, as he had seen the reaction before. He continued talking with Tina for a moment, asking for her preference on the dinner, when the CEO screamed from the end of the hall for him and half a dozen others to come over, quick.

He started on his rounds, checking the closer tunnels first in case some hungry rat had dared to come closer, and then started checking outward. He never checked the tunnels in the exact same order to keep the rats on their proverbial toes. Sneaking as quietly as possible he suddenly heard a sound right around the corner. Moving more swiftly he turned the corner, expecting anything but another human. "What are you doing here?" he asked her. "Going home." She was a scavenger, probably coming back from a daring trip upside.

Leo got up from his bed and opened a window. The sun was shining and wind blew from the sea. Under his window he could see a lightcaster cleaning out the remaining dim spheres of light that still floated in the air. For him, the following week would be for repairs and relaxation. He found his mirror and sharpened his razor, shaving for the first time in a very long time. His thoughts wandered and he wondered where his son would be. They had let him go to school, like all children were, at the age of six. If they ever met again they wouldn't know each other. And it was unlikely that he'd end up being a sailor in any case. Finishing off, he splashed some of the cold water on his face and decided to head out.

In the following months the princess was happily married and the amount of challenges Marc had to handle diminished somewhat. Lilith's herbs helped somewhat, but his backaches never really left him. He started to ponder if it was a curse of some kind, but forgot about that after getting other things to worry about, such as what he should do about his impending marriage with Lilith.

Not waiting for a reply, Marla launched herself towards the wing where the gravity generator was placed. Tilgar plugged the cube into a nearby terminal, flipped through a couple of pages, then turned around and shrugged. Slowly, everyone returned to their tasks. Everything still had to be checked, just in case, even though now they didn't know if anything was wrong. After finishing the check up of a whole wing Sam swam back to his bed capsule and strapped himself in.

"What the..?" The officer said, unable to stop himself. Just as he was about to continue, yet another dot appeared on the other side of the map. Then another. The officer slowly put down his stick. After ten or so dots were scattered around the map he cleared his throat and said that it seems that the system is malfunctioning, and everyone should return to their positions, but still keep their eyes open for any suspicious activity.

In the room CEO told them that the company was being attacked by a possibly hostile takeover. An unknown buyer was operating through a sentry, and buying all the shares that could be found. The company didn't have enough funds to fight this unless they took an expensive loan, which, considering the market situation, was far too risky. None of the main shareholders claimed to have anything to do with it, which made the situation feel even stranger.

She wore the same kind of dirty drags as he did, but even in the dim light of the sewers he could see that she was quite pretty. It was just too bad she was a scavenger. He shook his head; his job as a rat catcher was much safer. And more sane. "Found anything?" "Sure, but it was too heavy." He nodded, and then they both could hear distant drumming. "Were you alone?" "No.. we were.. attacked", she panted as they ran towards the gathering place.

Arriving next to his boat Leo noticed that most of his crew was already here, busily going through the nets. The most critical fixes had been finished yesterday, and the crew knew that the sooner everything was finished the sooner they could get started on the relaxing bit. Leo picked up a net from the heap and sat down, starting to go through it. It was boring, safe, and easy task compared to most things that happened on sea. While fighting over a particularly difficult tangle he overheard someone talking about the ship's flag. Turning to watch it was a couple of seamstresses trying to figure out what some color had originally been.

In just two days Marla had got the gravity working. Everyone's morale rose tremendously and they could start waking up more people. It felt funny drinking off a glass, and not being able to leap through a whole hallway, even though they had been in zero gravity only for a couple of weeks. Sam had mixed feelings about it, but after a repair trip outside, he decided that it was good to feel ground under his feet.

When they returned the data had been processed and Ratt could finish off the block and, satisfied with his work, started walking homeward, ignoring the angry calls of people locked out of their homes. Damn those whiners, why can't they just get their passes updated? Back home he put his ID card back in Assie and collapsed to his bed. Then he asked, for this once, for her to tell her the news briefs. The criminal's name was mentioned but he was asleep before Assie was finished. She lowered her volume to make sure that he didn't wake up, and was content. After a moment she decided to cancel the shrink. Maybe things could work out after all.

Tom smacked his forehead. "Through a sentry? Oh dear, I think that's just me.", Tom said. He explained that he had set up an account and whatever is deposited there was automatically spent to buy the company's stock - although he never expected a lot to end up there. He only used the account for any extra income, like lottery wins or tax returns. In anxious mood everyone waited while he confirmed the fact. He also stopped the automatic share buying while he was at it. Even as it is someone was bound to accuse him of insider trading. How could he have expected a lottery jackpot?

Most of the tribe had already arrived at the gathering place when Martin and the girl arrived. The elders had already told the grim news, and the newcomers soon heard them. Their food storage had been flooded - nobody knew how, maybe some ancient water tank had finally rusted through. Martin cursed, for many a rat had been there, dried in salt. Apparently some of the food had been salvaged but the blow was still hard. "How fared your team?" an elder asked the girl whose name Martin still hadn't heard. "Not well", she answered. "We found a carreck but it was too heavy. We didn't have time to remove the mirrors even before we were attacked. I fled, and don't know where the others are."

He joined the conversation, partially out of boredom and partially because he one of the ladies was particularly pretty. Before long he was telling them a tale of all those seas the flag had seen, and of distant places. So entranced by his story the ladies were that they forgot completely what they had been doing, and long after they had left Leo heard a fight starting in a nearby house.

The criminal, whoever he was, had been manufacturing copies of his SecurID card and 'forgotten' them in several places. Human nature being what it is, the cards had been 'stolen' and several of them had been tried in different stores. SecuriCorp assumed, after a week, that the criminal himself had left the planet, and pulled the plug on his ID indefinitely. Unfortunately for Ratt, the incident caused the corporation to invest heavily on computing hardware, and his bonus vacation escaped out of his reach.

Tom spent the rest of the day trying to figure out the mess he was in. The IRS called after him not long after the incident, and he tried to salvage whatever was possible before his account was frozen. He decided to take the whole division out for a lunch to pay for the scare he had caused. In the end it didn't look too bad. His boss promised to vouch for him in the inevitable investigation. The only thing Tom really regretted was the missed opportunity for a date with Tina.

"We got some great news!" came the shout from behind Martin. "We managed to sell the carreck to a merchant!" It was really good news. Not only the selling of the carreck, which they couldn't move, and from which they could have salvaged maybe some pieces of glass, mirrors and maybe the battery, but the fact that they had a connection with a merchant after all these years. Unless something strange happened, the tribe would be safe for as long as Martin would live.

As Leo came to the doorway, he could see the seamstresses arguing in loud noises, with several others in place. "Red I tell you!" "No, green it has to be!" People were just screaming, not listening at all. Leo found it all to be rather strange, but remembered similar situations from his marriage years. Sadness flowed over him as memories of his wife came to his mind. Usually when he had witnessed such a fight he had known better to just leave it alone, but knowing that he was partially responsible for it, he couldn't. He went and grasped one hand of a hysteric seamstress and stared in her eyes, and then, with a soft voice, asked what was the trouble. "The tablecloth! It should be the color of the flag, but we haven't got enough green!" "So it should be red then, like the cross!", screamed someone.

In the end Tom got away with fairly little damage. His only major punishment was the limitation of stock that he could sell per year, which ended up being worse punishment than he had expected, for the company went under, like many others, during the next depression. He still had a lot of money from the lottery win, so it wasn't so bad, and an energetic and positive person like himself could always find work, somewhere.

A careful investigation of the merchants' nature was made, and before the night was out there was a celebration, with the merchants joining in. Martin was happy, as the tools they bought from the merchants made scavenging so much safer. His job wouldn't change much, except for the fact that he would not need to feel hungry so often. That night, first time in ages, he went to sleep with a content stomach.

The screaming continued, and Leo was baffled. What did it matter what the color would be? Suddenly a drifter ran to the door, panting, catching her breath for a moment, and then screamed with all her might, "Blue!", and then she was gone. The room fell quiet, and after a moment someone said, with a quiet voice, "what did she say?". The head seamstress cleared her throat and with her strong voice declared that whatever color the tablecloth would be it was past time they started with it. After a brief conversation everyone rushed to work. Scratching his head, Leo returned to his nets.

The coming of the merchants changed Martin's life more than he had expected. More tools were bought, and the merchants would buy all sorts of useless garbage that their scavengers found. He was asked to join the scavengers at some point but he truthfully pointed out that his job as a rat catcher was still necessary. The tribe bought traps that made his job easier, but he claimed that the rats were too smart for the traps, and some would always get through. Eventually he even took an apprentice to make sure his skills would not be wasted when his time came.

In the evening a great feast was held in the name of Leo's ship and all its crew, for the catches had been poor lately. Leo knew that in the morning everything would be normal again, and he's be off to the sea in a week or so. He kind of liked the blue tablecloth and decided to have a new flag made before they got out to sea again. He just hoped that blue cloth was easier to come across than green one.

Less than a week later the winds blew strong and Leo had had enough. The ship was ready, and so was the crew - for most part. The rest had to be dragged from wherever they were and off they went again, new blue flag flying in the wind, inspiring young apprentice fishermen who watched the ship disappear in the thin morning fog.

Afterword

This was an exercise I made for myself during my one-week vacation. As you can see there's six stories there. I started off by writing the simple steps that each story would take, and wrote them out in the order you can see above. After getting halfway or so I noticed that it was harder than I would have thought beforehand =) It would probably have been easier to just write all six stories separately than to leap from one idea to the next after a couple of sentences.

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