Cast Adrift is the first part of a science fiction saga set in an interstellar world of the far future where Earth is merely a myth. Ean is queen of the Willow, a small ship with a Traditional crew who live in space and trade between the stars. Suddenly Tre, the laid back crew enforcer, is demanding that they dash to one system to pick up cabin boys and then divert to another to recruit an adolescent who is utterly unsuited to spacer life. Who is Jax? What is Rae? Why is the most powerful individual in Known Space interested in Kip? Most importantly, what is Tre up to?
Love between the stars by Mannah Pierce
In my interstellar world of the far future, spacer crews travel along the shipping routes that link occupied solar systems, earning their living by trading.
Most spacers are male, because there are many planets that offer no future to adolescent males with limited education and no connections to the local elite. This means that the majority of spacer crews are all-male.
Faced with this ‘reality’, what would spacer crews be like? As an author, my mind went to similar, Earth-bound, situations: prisons; gangs; schools; the military; Ancient Greeks; the Spartans. Then my mind settled on the crews of the tall sailing ships that crossed the great oceans, including pirates.
Then I took it a step further. For some crews, their spaceship would be their home. They would be true nomads.
In this way, Traditional spacer crews were born.
A Traditional spacer crew is associated with a specific ship. Each ship, in my novel Cast Adrift it is the Willow, has existed for centuries. The components making up the ship have changed, like the individuals making up her crew have come and gone, but the Willow continues. It is like a family home or a genealogical tree.
It is somewhere for those discarded, future-less adolescent males to settle, to belong and to grow.
A ship, a spacer crew, must have a captain. In a Traditional spacer crew the captain must stand apart so that he has authority. Space is intrinsically dangerous. A good captain has to be objective enough to take the hard, split-moment, life-and-death decisions. Captain Mel of the Willow is in his fifties. He has put aside the passions of his youth and stepped up. He knows that Tre picked out the Willow and its crew because of its quality as well as its traditions.
A spacer crew also needs a queen. In everyday matters the queen’s word is law. The queen is the heart of the crew. Ean, the queen of the Willow, is atypical. He is very young. He does not use his looks and his power as weapons. He is subtle, kind, patient and persistent. Tre needed a queen of unparalleled quality and Ean has the potential to be just that.
Conflict between spacer crews has to be managed. When a spaceship is lost, the whole crew dies. Space battles are to be avoided. Traditional crews settle their disputes through ritualised combat. The enforcer of one crew fights the enforcer of the other; hand-to-hand with standard knives as the only weapon. The consequences of victory and defeat are negotiated before the combat begins. Tre is the Willow’s enforcer. As a cyborg, only another cyborg or a highly trained hybrid fighter can defeat him.
Other than the captain, the queen and the enforcer, there is the senior crew. Senior crew members have their knives; they can hold their own in a fight. They fulfil the other roles in the crew: navigator; pilot; engineer; medico; technician; cook. The Willow usually only has a navigator, a pilot and an engineer. Then there are the junior crew; older apprentices who have their knives but are still learning the skills they will need. Finally there are the cats and the cabin boys. Cats should be over fourteen. Cabin boys are between twelve and fourteen. Junior and senior crew members can buy into a crew. Cats and cabin boys are adopted.
I know that some readers baulk at the idea of cats, which is short for catamite. I refer you to those Earth-bound, all-male examples. What would happen when you put a group of human males, mostly in their teens and their twenties, in a metal box (the space ship) with no exits (only vacuum outside) for long periods of time?
The answer is that they would end up having sex with each other; it would happen even if they thought they were heterosexual before they joined the crew.
Traditional crews have rules to manage sex, like they have rules to manage disputes between crews. Joining a spacer crew is like entering into a group marriage. The default setting is that everyone will share sex with everyone else. The exceptions are the captain, who must keep a professional distance, and the cabin boys, because the age of consent among spacers is fourteen.
So far it sounds fair, but in reality that is not always the case. Some members of the crew form stronger relationships, mostly pairs but some trios, and opt out. They announce their exclusive status with love rings. This threatens the cohesion of the crew. The solution is that cats are not allowed to opt out; that way no member of the crew ends up isolated.
Some Traditional crews do not allow love rings and the exclusivity they represent.
Others, like the Willow, protect their cats by restricting the sexual acts they are allowed to perform.
If the Traditional crew is sound, it works. Lost boys join a crew. Cabin boys are cosseted. Cats are loved. They grow up and enter a profession where their backgrounds no longer matter. If space does not kill them, they end up with enough funds to make choices about their future.
And sometime they fall in love.
Excerpt from CAST ADRIFT:
Jax had to trot to keep up with his escort. The big man’s stride was smooth and effortless but deceptively quick. Jax recognised it as one of the many features that dissuaded the honourable from challenging and the dishonourable from attacking.
Other, equally intimidating, characteristics were his height, his muscular bulk and the knife scar that ran down his left cheek.
He wondered what the man’s name was. He would not ask, just as he had not asked the other five men who had escorted him over the last three days. They would not remember him; the forgetting pills would see to that.
So this was Carrefour Station. Jax recalled the models of spacestations that his tutor had insisted he study. This type of corridor, ten paces wide with its walls lined with advertisements, was typical of throughways in residential sectors. They passed a media screen. On it was displayed the person Jax used to be; a towheaded, green eyed boy in a velvet jacket. It was a shock. None of the simulations had suggested that his uncle would throw the net this wide this soon.
The reward for useful information had been raised to five thousand credits and the cover story of a kidnapping would be more believable out here than at home.
Suddenly the corridor was wider and lined with shops. Jax realised that they were closing on their destination; the margins of the spacer quarter were where residents sold and spacers bought. Reflected in one of the shop windows was a small, cloaked figure trotting beside a large spacer. Peering out from inside the hood were dark eyes and Jax could see wisps of brown hair.
His eyes and his hair; his mother had made temporary changes and then reprogrammed his nanobots to maintain them.
He blinked back tears. He would never again hear her voice or feel her touch.
There was no time for such sentiment. As his mother had made him promise; he would escape and survive until he could challenge the usurper and reclaim his inheritance.
This day was critical; he had to go through an open recruitment fair and yet end up with the correct crew.
They slowed. The change in pace refocused Jax on his surroundings. The shops had gone, replaced by stalls. Now almost everyone around them was a spacer, identified by their long hair, short jackets and tall boots. Instead of their path being direct, it swerved this way and that; residents scuttled out of a spacer’s way but spacers avoided each other.
Then their route was blocked by people standing with their backs to them; the rear of a crowd.
His escort’s hand grasped his shoulder and pulled him close. It was a shock to be manhandled; Jax had to stop himself twisting away. No one other than his mother, his father or his trainer had been allowed within touching distance for as long as he could remember.
The crowd was not uniform; it was made up of groups with gaps between them. Jax realised the groups were crews and that they must weave their way carefully between them. Touching a spacer without permission was dangerous; it could easily precipitate a challenge.
His escort made Jax walk before him, a large hand on either shoulder.
Then they were out the other side of the crowd and into the Killing Square. Jax’s eyes went immediately to the empty floor around the cross.
It was clean; no blood had been shed since it had been scrubbed at station’s dawn.
They joined the queue that contained the younger boys; a few were alone but most had adults with them.
These were those wishing to be cabin boys. Most crews did not recruit cabin boys; they were considered more trouble than they were worth. It made more sense to stick to cats, who were bigger, stronger and old enough to help relieve sexual tensions amongst the crew.
That was how his tutor had put it; relieving sexual tensions. The other men in the household had been much blunter; cats sucked rod and, once they were old enough, spread their rear cheeks for anyone who was interested in poking a hole.
Jax would not think about that. He was pretending to be twelve, which was too young. He would be a cabin boy and not a cat.
Two ahead of him in the queue was a very small boy.
“Age?” asked one of the two recruiters seated at the table.
“Twelve,” the boy squeaked.
“Not a chance,” the other man said. “Be off with you.”
“I’m a hybrid,” the boy replied. “It’s not my fault I’m this size.”
Jax was intrigued. He had never seen a hybrid close up; his father disapproved of them. He moved so he had a better view between the adults in front of him. The boy did not seem to have a tail, which was a disappointment.
He did, however, have whiskers. He also had fangs, which he was displaying to the recruiters.
“You been tested?” the first recruiter asked.
“No,” the boy admitted, “but I’ve got the fee.”
Jax wondered where the boy had got the gold credit that he put on the table. There was a silence; apparently the recruiters were similarly surprised.
“Fine,” the second recruiter decided. “Name?”
“Ray,” the boy replied.
“How do you spell that?” the recruiter asked.
Jax doubted the boy could spell but he answered, “R, A, E,” and the man tapped the information into the tablet strapped to his forearm.
Then the gold credit was exchanged for a token and the boy was directed to one of the booths at the side of the square.
The next boy, like Jax, had his test results. The man with him, maybe his father, passed a tape to the first recruiter, who checked it in a portable viewer before taking the boy’s details, giving him a token and directing him to the pen.
They suggested that the adult accompanying the boy wait in the crowd until the end of the fair, which was worrying. Jax had thought the adults handed the boys over and left. Certainly his escort would not stay.
Jax was next. His escort pulled down his hood as they reached the table. The two men looked at him with approval, which was more than they had done when faced with the previous two boys.
“Twelve,” Jax answered. Neither man queried it. It was as his mother had said; a well-nourished boy of eleven could easily pass for twelve.
He handed over the tape and watched, heart thumping, as they checked it. The last thing he wanted was for them to insist on a retest; the data on the tape had been heavily edited.
“Fine.” The second recruiter turned his attention to Jax’s escort. “We accept responsibility for the boy Jax until he becomes a member of a certified Traditional crew.”
Jax realised it was a compliment. It meant that they were certain he would be placed with a crew.
Then his escort was gone and Jax was walking towards the indicated pen clutching his token.
When he got there he took off his cloak, folded it carefully and strapped it to the outside of his pack. Once he had slung his pack across his back, he stood up straight and risked looking at the crews, hoping that one of the men would give him a signal he recognised.
Jax was accustomed to being the sole focus of attention. This time was different. He wished the crews were paying attention to the other boys.
None of the men gathered around the pen, nor any one of those he could see in the crowd, had offered the prearranged signal.
The queens of three of the crews were well into a ruthless negotiation with one of the recruiters over who should claim him. In a bizarre way they reminded him of his mother, which was crazy because they were male and ugly while his mother was female and beautiful.
Perhaps not ugly; different. All three were thin. Their long hair was dyed, their jackets embellished and their faces painted. To Jax’s eyes, their pants were too tight, their heels too high and their chests too exposed.
If no one gave the signal, he would end up going with one of these men.
“It’s up to you,” a voice whispered.
It was the hybrid boy. Jax twisted around and looked at him.
“The recruiter gets a cut, so he wants them to bid each other up, but the rules say you choose. That’s why you have the token.”
Jax had forgotten that. He looked back at the three queens. He didn’t want to go with any of them. He scanned the crowd around him, his gaze darted from man to man, hoping to see the signal.
Another voice, this time soft and pleasant. “My name is Ean; I am queen of the Willow.”
Jax looked around and up. It was a young man with kind brown eyes.
“What’s your name?”
Jax knew it was in the information on the tablet but the young man, Ean, was not holding one. “Jax,” he replied.
Ean smiled and Jax felt himself smiling back.
“Excuse me,” one of the queens interrupted in a tone that said, “Get away from him.”
The recruiter was beginning to look anxious. “Please stay away from the boys unless you are serious about making an offer.”
Ean turned to face the queens rather than the recruiter. “I am Ean. I am queen of the Willow. We are interested in the boy Jax.”
“You are too late,” one of the other queens hissed.
“Have you registered an interest?” the recruiter asked, much more politely.
Someone walked up behind Ean and handed him a tablet. Jax moved a little so he could see better; it was an older man with a captain’s insignia.
“Yes,” Ean replied. He turned back to Jax. “The Willow is a small, strictly Traditional crew. Our song goes back centuries. Over a thousand spacers have begun their new lives with us. With us you will learn what it means to be a spacer.”
“Six thousand credits,” squawked one of the other queens.
The sheer magnitude of the offer stunned the other queens into silence.
Ean recovered first. “It is not about credit,” he continued, still only speaking to Jax. “I know that you get three-quarters of the fee, I know that four and a half thousand credits seems a lot, but what you could get from being cabin boy and cat on the Willow is beyond price.”
One of the other queens snorted with derision and another laughed outright.
Jax had already decided. Something had gone wrong. The man he was meant to be meeting was not here. He either chose a crew or walked away with his test tape and his token. The latter was not an option. A boy of eleven would not last a single night in a spacestation without protection.
If he was going with a crew, he preferred Ean’s.
“Can I meet the rest of your crew first?” he asked Ean.
Ean smiled again. “Of course you can.”
One of the other queens groaned, turned and walked away. The other two were slower to accept they had lost but they faded into the background when Ean’s crew came to stand around him.
There were Ean, the captain and five others: four with knives and a cat.
Then another man appeared at Ean’s side and, suddenly, Jax could not look anywhere else.
He was a cyborg. Jax had been trained to recognise them. What was a cyborg doing spacing? Converting a man into a functional cyborg cost…Jax discovered that he did not know how much; enough that even his father could afford only a few of them.
Then the cyborg’s fingers were moving and Jax recognised the signal.
It all fell into place. This was the man: the one his father had ordered to prepare a crew for him; the one who had held him as a newborn and pledged his life to him.
That his father should allocate one of his precious cyborgs to the task was unexpected. Perhaps his father had cared more about him than he had ever shown. Jax’s eyes prickled with tears but he willed them away. He would not cry. Only the weak cried.
Ean was introducing the crew. “…Captain Mel. This is Vic, our engineer, Art our navigator, Ben our pilot and this is Cas.” He did not introduce the cat, which Jax recognised as proper space etiquette. Then he turned to the cyborg. “This is Tre.”
Jax held out his token.
“I see you have worked your usual magic, Ean,” the engineer, Vic, commented. He was the oldest other than the captain. Of course the cyborg could be older; if you were paying for cybernetic enhancements you would not skimp on nanobots and age retard.
The captain looked towards the recruiter. “We will give you an honorarium of two hundred credits.”
The recruiter managed to look grateful for the payment, even though it was scant compensation for missing out on over seven times as much commission.
Ean’s fingers closed on the token and Jax gave it to him.
It was over. He was safe. Jax had thought he would feel better than this. Instead, he was convinced he had missed something important.
He found himself looking back, toward the hybrid boy. What was his name? Rae.
The boy gave a grin, which showed his fangs and lifted his whiskers.
He seemed more pleased that Jax had found a crew than he was worried about no one showing the least interest in him.
“Is that your friend?” Ean asked.
One of the crew, Jax thought it was Vic, groaned.
“Yes,” Jax heard himself answer, which was weird because he didn’t have any friends. Neither his father nor his mother approved of friendship.
“Ean,” the captain warned.
“But…” Ean began.
“One is more than enough,” Art complained. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” the cyborg, Tre, ordered. He was looking at the tablet; presumably at Rae’s details. “You, Rae, come here.”
Rae came over. Suddenly Jax was aware that the boy was grubby and probably stank. Worse, he was a hybrid. What had possessed Jax to claim him as a friend?
“Put your hands this far apart,” Tre instructed him.
Rae’s whiskers twitched in what Jax guessed was suspicion but he did what he was told.
“I’m going to drop a coin. I want you to catch it. No moving your hands until you see it drop.”
Jax squirmed. It was impossible; Rae was being set up to fail. His hands were too far apart; no one’s reaction time was that good.
The coin dropped but there was no clink of the coin on the metal floor. Rae’s left hand had moved so fast that all Jax had seen was a blur.
“By the Lady,” Ben murmured.
“We’ll take this one too,” the captain said immediately.
The recruiter looked over. He obviously had not seen the outcome of Tre’s test. “The hybrid?”
“Rae,” the captain clarified.
Rae’s chin came up. “Maybe I don’t want to go with you.”
Ean frowned slightly. “We are a good choice, Rae. If…”
“As if you have anywhere else to go,” Art interrupted, which Jax thought was rude. Ean was queen; Art should be treating him with more respect.
“I’ve survived on my own this long,” Rae replied. “I’ve a choice. It’s up to me.”
“Yes, it is,” the captain agreed.
Rae paused for a moment and then held out his token and the coin to Tre. “I’ll join because you thought I would pass your test. No one ever thought I could do anything before.”
Tre nodded and took both. He handed the token to Ean and the coin back to Rae. “You won it.”
Rae pocketed the coin and grinned.
Jax got his first close-up look at Rae’s fangs. They were long and impressively pointy.
What had he done?
Learn more about the author’s imaginary world of the far future at www.mannahpierce.com . Read more about the crew of the Willow in Cast Adrift, its sequel Foothold and her upcoming novel, Homeward.