Medith Riggs: First Contact — Thula

Susan’s note:  Since this is “first contact,” it clearly (IMO) has to happen fairly early after Stildyne and the wolf pack arrive in Gonebeyond and not long after the Malcontent has sent the thula into their stewardship (because of the short story “Into Gonebeyond”).  Since Medith debuted as a voice on the other side of the door to Stildyne’s office, this is the first thing I wrote that started to establish what kind of a person she was.  I decided I liked her.


Her name was Medith Riggs, cargo handler second class just up from third, and she’d been warned to expect a little trouble.  People in Gonebeyond space were predisposed to push back against bureaucracy of any kind; still, rules were rules for reasons, and any ship that wanted to use port Wilmot’s facilities for cabin refresh and merchandise management had to play by Wilmot’s rules.

Workforce Management had sent her out to one of the older slips to see a hull named Fisher Wolf – a small ship, ten to twelve souls maximum, that had declined to say much about itself during the course of making the necessary arrangements.  That was all right.  Fisher Wolf apparently had good credit, and meant to spend some at Wilmot to hold some cargo.  Goods or equipment, Riggs had the quals either way, though her Class Two was relatively recent.  She knew her job.

Pausing in front of the closed foot-traffic portal in the tall blank-faced wall that surrounded the holding slip Medith put her bivvy-kit down.  “Ahoi-hoi,” she called out, to get the door’s attention.  “Cargo management here, Port Authority told you I was coming.”

A shortish run, the PA had said, out to Langsarik Station and back.  Wilmot saw a lot of Langsarik traffic, although it hadn’t made up its mind yet about whether it was going to actually align itself with the Langsarik quadrant or with the Nurail at Safehaven.  The Nurail had been in Gonebeyond longer, so there was better infrastructure – such as it was – with stronger networks and more of them; and since Medith was Nurail herself she had a natural leaning in that direction.

On the other hand the Langsariks had major resource allocations coming in from the Dolgorukij Combine, having apparently engaged with one of the richest systems in all of Jurisdiction as a trading partner.

The door didn’t open.  It gave her back-chat, instead.  “Thanks, not wanted-needed.  Have a good.”

Right.  Medith shook her head.  “Not optional, sorry.”  People in Gonebeyond didn’t like being told what to do.  She didn’t, she knew that much.  But life was life and a person had to make the occasional compromise.  “Wilmot protocols.  Bring cargo in, must have cargo handler on board.  Precondition for access to Wilmot warehousing.”

She thought she heard the door grumbling to itself as the comm feed cut off, but she didn’t catch the words.  The silence stretched; she could stand here all day if she had to, because this was her assignment and she couldn’t afford to reject it any more than Fisher Wolf could shift hull without her on board.  She had bills to pay, and a professional code of ethics to uphold.

If Fisher Wolf decided to forgo the use of Wilmot’s facilities and left the station without clearance they wouldn’t be allowed to warehouse here ever; that was usually a strong argument, for most traders at least.  Most traders came in on bigger ships.  She’d scanned Fisher Wolf’s capacity predictions, though, based on its weight and class, and they might well be able to find warehousing somewhere else.

She’d get half-a-day’s pay for report time if Fisher Wolf up and left, but to collect it she had to make a good-faith effort to perform.  Standing here for half a day.  More, if she got stubborn about it.

“Let’s talk,” Door said.  Opened.  Medith stepped through into the inner darkness of the wall’s internal access-ways and waited for her eyes to adjust.  There was someone waiting for her at a polite distance; a relatively big someone, and Medith was a fairly tall and physical sort herself.  This man was taller than she was.  And really, really dark-complected; the rose-gold of the uniform he wore came up into focus before his face and hands did.  Langsarik colors.  The uniform apart from that was standard merchanter’s dress, however, cloth boots, bloused trousers, an over-blouse.

“I’m Pyotr,” he said.  “Come on through.  I told our crew chief that he gets to deal with this issue, we’re busy.  What name should I give him?”

She had a short-lived impulse to salute, but it passed off quickly.  There were lots of former military in Gonebeyond, running away from political repression or just plain tired of playing.  An entire warship, for one; Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, with its “mutiny in form.”  Langsariks, for another.

“Riggs.  Cargo handler, second class.”  Pyotr’s crew chief could have a word with her all he wanted.  It wasn’t going to change things.  “Port protocols, per agreement.”  Someone had agreed.  Crew chief, maybe.

“Well, let’s go, Riggs.  It’ll be this way.”  The walls of these older slips were deep enough to contain some storage space – and the all-important lavatories – within them.  Pyotr led her through to an office not much larger than a closet of middling size, or her hired room; and she liked her room, but it didn’t have much.  Much room.

There was a man just standing up from the desk as they got there; Pyotr leaned in through the open doorway.  “Medith Riggs, Chief Stildyne.  Chief Stildyne, Medith Riggs.  I’ll be on board, Chief.”  Doing pre-flight checks, maybe.  Maybe maintenance.  Planning to leave soon?  Wasn’t for her to ask.

Chief Stildyne was as big as Pyotr was, just as bulky with what was going to be mostly muscle because she didn’t see any extra flesh on his face, and his face was not the easiest thing to look at, at first glimpse – hard, grim, and scarred.

She knew what to make of a nose that was mis-shaped like that.  So he was a brawler; she got up to the occasional fist-fight in a bar herself, mostly of the “didn’t you hear the lady?  She said no” variety.

“We may have missed a crucial bit of information when we got here,” Stildyne said.  His voice wasn’t unfriendly, just gravel-paved and a little whisper-raspy, like the voices of people she’d met in the course of her work who’d taken one too many police-action gas attacks before their escape into Gonebeyond.  “The bit about having to take on Wilmot’s cargo handler.  I can’t see how that’s going to happen.”

So check your options.  Medith thought it, but she didn’t say it; she didn’t get the kind of vibe from Chief Stildyne that would call for a rejoinder in that spirit.  “If I’m not on board at time of atmosphere clearance they won’t let you return to stow cargo.”  He might not have noticed that part while he was not-noticing the other one.  “If you don’t want one of our cargo handlers, the Port Authority will help you find warehouse space somewhere else.  Well, not really.  But they’ll try.”

“I see,” Chief Stildyne said.  “So that idea we had about paying you to go away and lie low till we return.  Won’t work.”

“Or the one about locking me in the closet for the duration,” Medith agreed, since that was the next thing he was going to suggest.  “You wouldn’t believe what kinds of things people try to stock in our warehouses, these days.”  She said that just to be polite.  She wasn’t putting the hint that Fisher Wolf was trafficking in items that violated Wilmot’s statement of trade policies out there.  Oh.  Wait.  Maybe she was.

She did have one option; she actually could turn around and leave now – when you got your Class Two license you got extra no-fault contract cancellations to use, because your responsibility to detect illicit cargo was increased, and the penalties for failure to declare or for collusion in illegal and et cetera went up too.  But she had rent to pay and a meal-shelf to stock.  She’d give Fisher Wolf a chance, at least, to correct an impression that they might not have meant to convey.

Stildyne laughed, a short sharp startling bark of a laugh that surprised her.  Scared her, maybe just a little bit, before she realized what it was.  “Check.”  She got the feeling from somewhere that he liked her, just on the basis of what she’d just said.  She got the feeling that she maybe would consider liking him, because it was a very small office, there wasn’t much by way of personal space available, and he was keeping his body language to a very manageable roar.  Which was polite.  Respectful.  Nice not to feel the distinct possibility that there might be a scrap coming up soon.

“Riggs, let me tell you plainly.  We’re on a tight schedule, and we’ve already contracted for warehouse space.  Our mistake.  We’ll take you on board, there and back again.”  Not saying exactly where “there” was.  Medith didn’t mind not noticing that; cargo handlers weren’t required to.  “Maybe ask you to sling a hammock in main cargo, we’re going to be a little pressed for bunking-cots, this trip.”

She took up her share of space, because she was tall mostly; but she was good at not taking anybody else’s.  Came of having younger siblings, and also common self-respect.  “I’ll do,” Medith said.  “And I mind my own business.  Within parameters.  Code of the Cargo Handler’s Guild.”  There really wasn’t one, and Stildyne knew that or didn’t.  The point was more or less the same, either way.

“Come out and meet the ship, then,” Stildyne said, and pointed at the open door with a flattened hand held side-wise.  She went first, because she was between him and the door.

The narrow hallway inside the wall ran another dozen paces down to another door.  Since she was ahead, she pushed through, stopping to blink her eyes back into focus in the brilliant white light reflected off the white thermal coating of the docking-slip.  Stildyne stopped beside her; there were two men working around the cargo loading ramp, Medith saw, but they gave her only the briefest of glances.  They had their crew chief there; everything under control.

Fisher Wolf,” Stildyne said.  “Heavy courier, I don’t know what its current registration is.  Renewal notice must have gotten lost in the transmits, somewhere.”

That was a favorite Gonebeyond joke, really.  There wasn’t a ship in Gonebeyond space that had a current registration.  Registrations were per the Bench requirement for the conduct of trade, and of course the all-important assessment of tax revenues.  Based on weight class, function, and carrying capacity; Medith was willing to swear that Gonebeyond wouldn’t have even known how to register something like the Fisher Wolf.

She’d certainly never seen anything like it.  Fisher Wolf was long and almost straight through the flanks, though its forward sector bulged out into a bit of a tilted pitfruit shape.  The wheelhouse’s clearscreens were beneath the forward hood of the ship’s top skin, taking a rakish angle down to their thermal sills on the slant; its back stabilizers were six, two to a side, one dorsal, one ventral, and the dorsal stabilizer was at least twice the size of any of the others.

It reminded Medith of nothing so much as an aquatic predator, a famous monster out of the great ocean worlds of Tabyhee Allegate; she’d seen pictures.  Ancient beasts.  Primitive, efficient, and beautiful in their savagery.  It fairly took Medith’s breath away.

“What – is – that?”  Well, Chief Stildyne had just told her, yes.  Heavy courier.  Her question was a little more specific, or more general, than that; and Stildyne didn’t seem to mind.  He answered the question behind her question with cooperative cordiality.  He probably heard it with relative frequency.

“That is a Kospodar thula.  Arakcheek shipyards, Dolgorukij Combine.  A friend of mind works for a – h’mm, charitable organization.  Arranged for us to borrow her.  But you can see why we don’t take people on board that we don’t have to.”

No, that didn’t quite explain their reluctance.  But it went a far way:  because Medith thought she knew what Stildyne was talking about.  That “charitable organization,” if it was Dolgorukij and why else would it have a probably very expensive machine from the Arakcheek Shipyards at its disposal as a general rule and on Gonebeyond of all places, was the Malcontent.

Which in turn would mean – “I heard they were the secret service of the Dolgorukij church,” Medith said, mildly and politely and meaning no offense.  “Maybe I’m thinking of a different Dolgorukij charitable organization.”

Stildyne smiled, gently.  Almost sweetly, Medith thought.  Of course big men could afford to be sweet; there were fewer risks that people would mistake it for a weakness.  “That would be the one,” Stildyne said.  “Got your bivvy?  Let’s go inside.”

The ship being on loan from a secret service of any sort didn’t change the chance that there was hanky-panky going on.  Political agencies might be trafficking in arms; non-political agencies, in drugs or people.

Getting arms into the hands of people who needed them was not necessarily a bad thing, in Medith’s opinion.  There’d been horror stories about pirates raiding unarmed settlements, leaving everybody dead.

So long as some outfit from the Jurisdiction was charitably running guns into isolated settlements for the defense of their communities she didn’t think she would have a particular problem with that.

But if that was all there was to it, why would Stildyne feel the need to play coy with her?