“Beaumains” by Jo Thomas

She walked in to the reception with purpose.

“May I help you?” he asked.

He perched on the side of the desk as he looked at her. Her appearance was a list to him: a dark grey skirt suit, hair caught back and a little pillbox hat balanced on top with a veil halfway down her face. The skin on display was almost perfectly smooth and ivory pale made whiter with a thin layer of cosmetics, her lips exactly the right shade of red to evoke the old archetype. Every box for “distressed damsel with attitude” was ticked. She even frowned attractively.

“I’m here to see the manager.”

He smiled. Was it the cheap working clothes that upset her, the lack of height, or the skin colour? It would be discourteous to point out the cracks in her own perfection. The confidence was too brittle, she couldn’t match the symmetry of the synthetic, and the smoothed-out accent was clearly identifiable as Earth, North American.

“May I ask what it is about?”

He tapped the desk’s console a couple of times.

“No.”

She sat, folding herself neatly and gracefully into an office chair, her legs crossed just so. It was too artful to be without thought but it was too familiar to her to be thought through.

“How can we help you if we do not know what it is about?” he asked. “Smoke?”

He held out a stick-packet and watched as she pulled one out. She sniffed at it and then put the filter end in her mouth. She leant over his offered light. Like most biological planet-huggers, she sucked on the filter with the same rhythm as she breathed. She hadn’t quite grasped the independence of the filter and the incense — one to clean the low level impurities should the air in the room get stale and one to cover the smells.

“You have been on Gateway a few days,” he said. “Or you have been here before.”

He could look up the data but it was more fun to guess, to work it out from the information she gave away without knowing.

“It’s none of your business. I need to talk to the manager, not a receptionist.”

He lit up his own stick and simply held it on the edge of his mouth, like another character from those archaic films. “Then who may I say is calling to make an appointment?”

She considered the lit end of her stick and took a deep breath of the incense. There was no sign of her taking anything from the scent but enjoyment. The little sigh and the accompanying movement were enough to drag his gaze from her face for a fraction of a second. He didn’t bother to hide it. It was what she had intended and she had a low enough opinion of him for it to make little difference.

“Linnet,” she said.

“Just… Linnet?”

She nodded.

“Of any particular place or craft?”

The rosebud lips gave a dry smile. As with everything else she did or said, it came with its own hint of suggestiveness. He smiled back, enjoying this Linnet even while he waited for the persona to fall away to show another layer.

“Formerly of the Red Lands.”

He stepped back to the working side of the desk to, apparently, give the console his full attention. He tapped the display a few times, calling up Linnet’s entry record, and then frowned. She had not used the name “Linnet” when she had boarded Gateway.

“An appointment with the station manager is not available for at least another seven days,” he lied.

“Seven days? But I need to see the manager now!”

Linnet leant forward and he received an enticing glimpse, the thin, cream blouse she wore covering just enough to keep actual cleavage from sight. He wondered how she arranged things just so and kept his smile on the inside.

“Seven days,” he repeated.

She seemed to deflate but she still sat curling towards him, the image shaken but not quite thrown off. “Seven days will be too late.”

“Maybe I can help while the manager is busy?”

Linnet arched an eyebrow. “You?”

He nodded.

“You’re just the receptionist.”

She even said that doubtfully, the thick, cheap clothing he wore more in keeping with a manual labourer than an office worker. He raised his hands, palms up, to look at them, entertained by the idea. These hands were too neat for the kind of work he’d seen other men doing on the docks. Maybe he should try that next.

“Who are you?”

“Call me Beaumains,” he said. The fraction of a second it had taken for the idea to occur didn’t cause a pause in his speech. Linnet wouldn’t realise it was another lie of sorts.

“Beaumains?”

He nodded and made an agreeing sound. “Fair hands” was as good a name for him as any.

“My… sister has been kidnapped.”

He cocked his head. “Gateway security should help with that.”

“It happened off-station. Before we got here,” Linnet said.

“Ah. And our dashing young security officers will not leave Gateway to find her.”

Linnet shook her head.

He stood up. “I need to make a stop-off, and then we can go looking for your sister.”

“Just like that? Shouldn’t you tell your boss you’re going?”

“My boss? Probably.”

“It’s not like you’ll be able to do anything,” she said.

Beaumains tapped the console display again, another lie as he left no messages behind. “Come on.”

***

The room fell silent as they walked in. They all weighed up Beaumains and dismissed him, though none of them recognised him. Those who found women attractive eyed Linnet with interest. Those who didn’t shrugged and resumed talking that bit sooner. She didn’t seem to mind and even played up to it. The sway of her hips developed to the point of parody.

They stopped at the bar. Mel, the bartender, looked up from his current customer, frowned and then smiled. “Be with you in a minute!” he called.

The looks Linnet threw at Mel and Beaumains indicated she saw the similarities in their appearance, and that she promptly leapt to the obvious but wrong conclusion. “You’re not a receptionist, are you?”

“I never said I was,” he said.

Mel walked over when his customer turned away from the bar, drinks in hand. There was a touch of disapproval on the broad, dark face. “What’s going on?”

“Mel, I am going away with this woman.”

Mel’s lips curled. Beaumains realised his phrasing had been too abrupt, and he’d forgotten to greet the bartender.

“Hello,” he added.

“People will talk,” was all Mel said.

“I hope they talk about something interesting,” Beaumains replied, uncertain what it had to do with him.

Mel snorted. “How do you plan on leaving?”

“Please keep Piotrek Leja here for the rest of the day. I will need time to take the bucket he calls a ship. And he will need a drink once he knows it has gone.”

“You can’t steal the Black Knight,” Mel said.

“It is physically possible.”

Mel glared. “I mean you shouldn’t. It’s dangerous.”

From where he stood next to her, Beaumains saw Linnet’s pulse pick up ever so slightly. Her breathing got a little faster. Was it the danger? Or just the possibility of being able to get what she wanted?

“It’s not like you know what you’re doing,” Mel added.

Linnet’s breath held.

Beaumains shrugged. “I will make it up as I go along.”

“Your br– The bartender’s right, Beaumains.” The dainty, pale hand touched his forearm briefly. “This is dangerous. You shouldn’t do this. This isn’t your sort of thing. I’ll wait until I can see the station manager.”

“The station manager is not so special. She is just a person like any other. And it is beyond her remit to leave the station.”

Mel’s eyebrows rose again. “She’s in another meeting with her receptionist?”

Beaumains nodded.

“So I’ll find a ship, a captain who can help me,” Linnet said.

“I can help you. It will be fine.”

“Fine?” She recoiled. “What do you even do?”

“That is not important.”

Mel leant against the bar and smiled. “He doesn’t do anything.”

“Nothing?” Linnet’s pale face momentarily hardened before she remembered she was a damsel in distress.

“You might say he was unemployed,” Mel added.

“You’re not going to take another man’s ship,” Linnet said with ice in her voice. “You won’t be able to.”

Beaumains smiled. “Come on.”

***

“We shouldn’t be here and we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Beaumains ignored Linnet and kept walking to the Black Knight‘s berth. At least she hadn’t said it in the security officers’ hearing.

“What are you going to do, anyway? Knock on the door and hope there’s someone to let you in?”

He counted off the air-locks, looking for the right one. The Lejas’ small family firm always used the same berth for their four ships, using it for a week apiece out of the standard calendar month. There was a little placard, engraved brass, with “Leja” in several writing forms and a knight chess-piece, the company logo. He put his hand over the key-console and closed his eyes.

“Oh great. Now you’re relying on blind luck!”

He tapped out a sequence of eight symbols without looking to see where his fingers fell. He didn’t need to. The key-console beeped, once, then the air-lock hissed.

“Step back,” he said, “Just in case.”

Linnet did as she was told but still poured scorn, this time on Piotrek. “This Leja must be an idiot if his code was so easy to break. What did he do? Program it with his birth-date?”

The lights flickered on in the Black Knight as the subroutines recognised their presence and Beaumains stepped forward through the air-lock. He paused again for a fraction of a second and then strode for the cockpit.

“Come on.”

Linnet hurried after him.

“I take it we are looking for the Red Lands,” he said.

He tapped away at the cockpit console.

“Yes,” she said. Her face held an unattractive expression for less than her own heartbeat before it cleared and she added, “But you’ll not be able to find it, Beaumains. You’re just a barfly.”

He smiled. “Do not hold back, Linnet. Say exactly what you think.” He checked the environmental controls and held out the stick-packet again. “Smoke?”

Linnet reasserted her attitude as she leant over his lighter. Beaumains called up flight control and submitted a plan that should match Piotrek’s usual trading route. While he waited for approval he checked through the system for various bugs, viruses and glitches. For the hell of it, he cleaned up what he could. Those he couldn’t, he brought to heel and left for another time, if he felt like it.

***

“Hail, Black Knight! Hey, Piotrek! What are you doing out so early?”

The call was in the Lejas’ native tongue and it sounded harsh and aggressive enough to make Linnet look scared. “Beaumains? What’s going on? We’ve been caught, haven’t we? Stupid! Why did I let you come with me?”

“Hello, Beatya. Piotrek is not here,” Beaumains replied in the same language, “He’s back on Gateway.”

There was a silence that spoke of weapons systems being prepared. He knew exactly what weaponry the Green Knight held because it matched the Black Knight‘s inventory. He considered preparing said weaponry and dismissed the idea immediately. He took some of viruses out of their electronic kennels instead and played with their structure while Beatya Leja prepared for the fray.

“Who are you and what are you doing with my brother’s ship?” Beatya demanded in Common.

Linnet’s almost panicked expression returned to her careful mix of distressed cynicism.

“We borrowed it while Piotrek was in the bar,” Beaumains said.

Linnet strode over to the console and tapped it so she could reply to Beatya herself. “I’m here against my will. This barfly has stolen your brother’s ship but he’s otherwise harmless. He has no idea what he’s doing.”

“He holds you against your will and has stolen my brother’s ship, yet he’s harmless?” Beatya echoed. There was a hint of dark humour to her voice that he approved of. “Does this barfly have a name?”

Linnet looked at him. He shrugged.

“Beaumains,” Linnet replied.

“I’ve never heard of this ‘Beaumains’.”

He touched, briefly, one of the tasks on the console before Linnet could realise what he was doing. The task completed and closed before she could do more than protest and try to slap his hand away.

“I’m talking, fool. Keep off the console.”

Her protest was broadcast to the Green Knight and Beatka’s laugh rolled through their speakers.

“Against your will? Really?”

“If you had any humanity in your soul,” Linnet said, “you would free me from him.”

“There could be a problem with that. The guns they carry are for putting holes in hulls, not keeping people breathing,” he said softly.

Linnet paled further under her pale skin and paler make-up. Beaumains wondered if it was a sign that she might faint. Quietly, little more than a murmur over the speakers, he could hear swearing in Leja’s native tongue.

“Anyway,” he said more loudly, “Beatya will have difficulty doing anything but returning to Gateway on her usual course.”

“What the hell have you done to my ship?” Beatya demanded in her own language and then in Common.

“I just modified one of the bugs Piotrek’s ship carried. Your ship will revert to your command in the event of a system crisis or reaching your next destination.”

Beatya swore again. In several languages.

“Your vocabulary is intriguing,” he said. “I must talk with you the next time we are both on Gateway.”

The swearing continued.

“Goodbye,” he added and touched the console. The communications link closed.

“How could you do that?” Linnet demanded. “You can’t do that, you’re just an idiot. You’d be nothing if your brother didn’t own a bar.”

“Mel is not my brother.”

Linnet said nothing but watched the Green Knight continue on its course — away from its sister ship and her.

“Now we are far enough away from Gateway for a change of course not to call undue attention, do I get a clue what route you followed? Or do I have to guess?”

“It won’t make any difference if I tell you,” Linnet said, “You’ll not be able to do anything. You won’t be able to get my… sister back.”

“In that case, I suppose we had better stick to the Lejas’ route. It will be mildly entertaining. We have two more of them before we make it back to Gateway.”

Linnet turned her back on him but there wasn’t enough room to stalk off. She flicked her stick so that ash fell towards him.

“Acting like a spoilt brat ruins the damsel in distress image,” he said.

“There are more Lejas?” she asked.

“A brother in the Red Knight, their mother in the Blue Knight. I have plotted their company’s standard trading route along the edge of the mining territories.”

“You won’t be able to beat all of them so easily. Your blind luck will run out.”

He smiled but said nothing.

She sighed. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Beaumains. Even if you’re nothing but a barfly with good luck. You’re not man enough to take on Ironside. He’ll win. He’ll kill you. And maybe me. And maybe Lenora.”

“Ironside?” He feigned ignorance. “Who is he?”

“The captain we hired to pilot the Red Lands for us. He’s big and mean and he’ll kill you with one punch.”

He shrugged. “Perhaps we had better test my blind luck against this Ironside rather than the Lejas? One test is better than two, right?”

“He… He’s not human.”

Beaumains shrugged. He already knew who Ironside was. “You will not tell me where you left the Red Lands, Lenora and Ironside?”

“No. I want you to turn around and go back to Gateway.”

She sighed again and hugged herself, Linnet almost gone and almost forgotten. This layer did not have the attitude or use sexual appeal to get attention. This layer was lost, lonely and without hope.

“Never mind,” he said, “I can guess.”

He tapped the console a few times, sending a specially coded information request back to Gateway. He only needed the name of the ship Linnet had arrived on. From the name, he knew the route. He also knew where bored, rich planet-huggers travelled to experience the delights of the asteroid belt. With both he could work out the overlap and where Linnet was likely to have been left.

***

The Red Lands was a big ship. Bigger than a private yacht probably ought to be. But then it would have to be a big ship with a man like Björn Haraldsen at the helm. Ironside did not fly little tubs or rowing boats.

“It’s not too late to turn around,” Linnet said.

He whispered, “Shhh! We are sneaking up on them!”

“Can they hear us?”

“Unlikely,” he whispered with a smile, “There is still vacuum in the way. I just find it more fun if we act as if they can.”

“I was wrong, Beaumains. You’re not a barfly. You’re a fool and a damned idiot.”

The console beeped, announcing the Red Lands‘ wish to speak. He waved Linnet’s hands away from the console and tapped in the command that had unleashed the bug against the Green Knight.

“What –” Ironside stopped and there was a growl that made Linnet cringe. “That bug will be wiped out by antiviral in seconds. It won’t gain you anything, Black Knight!”

“Please,” Linnet whispered, “Don’t –”

He gently put a hand over her mouth and shushed her. As her eyes widened with panic, he tapped into the console and pointed out the message. “Do not tell him things he does not need to know.” Aloud, he said, “It gains me enough, Björn.”

The ships kissed, a gentle touch that sent a fine tremor through the Black Knight as the parking subroutine gave the correct engine bursts to keep the Lejas’ little ship stationary relative to the other. The blinded Red Lands might have felt a minuscule change in course but the exchange of energy would not flutter through its skeleton in the same way. The invader bug patched Black Knight‘s console through to the Red Lands‘ systems and Beaumains began to cycle the air-lock. By the time the antiviral had fulfilled its purpose, both he and Linnet would be aboard.

“Who are you? How do you know me?” Ironside demanded.

Beaumains called up the Red Lands‘ schematics and worked out the fastest route to the bridge. He saw the things he would walk past: the guest quarters, the elegant dancing and feasting halls, the fitness suite that Olympians would envy. Of course, virtually everything was automated, with only the passengers and the captain-pilot required by most port authorities in the solar system by common agreement.

“Does your real name not travel well, Björn?”

“Beaumains?” Linnet said, ignoring his earlier advice, “What’s going on?”

“Beaumains? I don’t know anyone called ‘Beaumains’,” Ironside said, “Who are you?”

The console on the Black Knight flickered but Beaumains was already turning away from it. “Air-lock,” he said, and walked through.

Linnet hurried after him. “How does a barfly know a ship’s captain?”

“I know lots of ships’ captains. Many go through Gateway.”

“And drink in the one and only bar, no doubt,” she said with a sour note.

“No doubt.”

Alarms and sirens began to sound. Lights flashed.

“Where is the bridge?” he asked.

Linnet hurried, more disturbed by the sounds and sights than her performance would have led him to expect — if he had thought it real. “Lenora! I’m coming!”

He followed as calling “Linnet” would not attract her attention, the persona forgotten in the moment.

“Where are you, Beaumains, you lying rat?” Ironside bellowed over the big ship’s speakers.

“Coming,” Beaumains said. He didn’t care if the comms picked up the word or not.

He paused outside the fitness suite and decided to take a diversion. He found what he was looking for and caught up with Linnet using an alternative route. She hadn’t made the bridge and it was unlikely she’d noticed his absence. He put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off without stopping or turning around. He put his hand back on her shoulder, gripping a little tighter. She spun around.

“I must get to her!”

Her eyes shone with a coat of salt-water, tears not yet shed.

“I go first,” he said, “Let Björn take his anger out on me, not you.”

“Like you’ll be able to stand up to it, you– you dwarf!”

“Better I get hit than you,” he said firmly.

She pointed, her finger shaking, at the door she had been running for. “I agree. You might as well be good for something.”

“Well, some of the attitude was real,” he said with a grin.

“What?”

“Not important.”

He walked towards the door, which became walking through it when it automatically irised open. In the same time, he pulled out the antiquated pistol he had taken from the fitness suite.

“Björn. Don’t–”

A large redheaded man was already charging at him. The man, Ironside, hit shoulder first and the impact threw them both back into the corridor and against a wall. Linnet ran passed them, ignoring their fight altogether.

“Björn,” Beaumains tried again. “Don’t. We can work this out.”

He still had the pistol in hand and he gripped it tightly as he punched Ironside, once, between neck and shoulder. Ironside grunted and tried to disengage, clutching at his collar-bone. Beaumains’ pistol followed his movement.

“Who are you?” Ironside asked in a whisper.

“We will stick with ‘Beaumains’ in present company.” He nodded to Linnet and another woman with a strong resemblance to her. The other woman, who must be Lenora, sat in a comfortable seat, upright and commanding. Linnet knelt before her, supplicant.

Ironside lashed out while Beaumains was watching the two women. The force of the sweeping kick was more than a wholly biological form would be capable of. It rocked Beaumains but did not take him off his feet.

“The claim jumping story is true?” Beaumains asked.

Ironside growled and lashed out again but the punch was wrapped up and turned into an arm-lock. “Is that all you’re going to do? Show ‘mercy’?” he demanded.

“What happened?” Beaumains answered the question with more of his own. “Why have you kidnapped this woman and her ship?”

Ironside shook his head. “I don’t know you. I have nothing to say to you.”

“You know me.”

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“No,” said Beaumains. “You have just never seen this form.”

Ironside tilted his head over the arm-lock, looking back at his captor. “I didn’t kidnap anybody.”

“I have to admit,” said Beaumains, “I was beginning to doubt that story also.”

“Whatever the lying bitch told you, it isn’t true. She’s just jealous because I’m the sex-toy, not her,” Ironside said with bitterness.

“What happened?” Beaumains asked again.

In the time it took for him to say the words, Ironside shifted his weight. Minutely, unnoticeable to biologicals, Beaumains shifted his hold accordingly and held Ironside down.

“You’re synthetic, too?”

“You are not synthetic,” Beaumains said. “You still have a biological brain. And most of the upper torso, from the feel of it.”

Ironside sneered. For him, being part synthetic must mean that he was no longer human — just as it had to Linnet and, perhaps, Lenora.

“Come back with me to Gateway.”

Beaumains looked at the two women, Linnet now resting her head on the regal Lenora’s lap. Lenora didn’t look down but watched Ironside and Beaumains with narrowed eyes and pursed lips.

“She is unimportant,” Beaumains said, carefully pitched for Lenora to just hear. “Forget her and come with me.”

“I can’t leave her until she lets me go.”

Lenora smiled, triumph personified. “I own the brute, stranger. Go without him.”

Linnet raised her head and said something, a murmur not quite loud enough to resolve properly into words. Lenora looked down at her then laughed.

“What, my pet? You thought he took me by force?”

Linnet fell backwards, landing with a lack of grace that didn’t fit at all with the persona she had projected before. The lines of her hurt contrasted with Lenora’s amusement. Both were harsh and deeply drawn.

“A strong resemblance between the two of them,” Beaumains commented aloud. “Linnet is a clone?”

The ages did not match well enough to be sisters. They could have been mother and daughter, if Linnet hadn’t looked so like a stricken lover.

Lenora stood. “There is nothing wrong with clones.”

“No, ma’am,” Beaumains said. “Although it strikes me you do not always follow the legalities of it.”

“What makes you say that?”

“No-one owns another person. Whether they are your clone or your captain-pilot.”

“They owe me their medical debts. Hell, Ironside owes me for losing my mining claim. I own them.” She shrugged. It was unimportant to her.

“So why did Linnet arrive at Gateway on her own? And using your records, Miss Konstantiou?”

There had been no records for a clone, meaning Linnet’s mere existence was illegal on Earth and most stations.

“Who are you? There’s no such thing as interplanetary police,” Lenora laughed. “You can’t do anything about it. If it’s true.”

“Lenora gave me leave to go,” Linnet said from the floor, barely more than a whisper. She wrapped her arms around her legs and rocked. “I misunderstood why.”

“The two of you stay here willingly?” Beaumains said.

“No,” said Ironside.

“Yes,” said Linnet.

Beaumains dropped the arm-lock and stepped backwards, freeing Ironside from his position against the corridor wall. “Then come.”

“You can’t take Ironside. I need a captain-pilot in order to dock.”

“Get another one,” Beaumains said.

He turned and walked down the corridor, the heavy tread of Ironside behind him.

“Stop!” Lenora screamed over the ship’s speakers.

“Make me.”

He was generous enough to release another bug into the Red Lands‘ system. One that took over the navigation subroutine and took them to a settlement as far away from Gateway as their supplies could last.

***

Beaumains walked into the bar and sat down while Mel finished serving another customer.

“How did it go?”

“Whiskey, please.”

Mel served him and then asked again, “How did it go?”

“Piotrek Leja has the Black Knight back. The manager is having another meeting with her receptionist–”

“You’d think there was more for a station manager to do than just screw her receptionist,” Mel observed.

“Not much. The subroutines handle most things. I could handle the small day to day if you would let me.”

“I built you to be curious,” Mel said, “so it’s not surprising I know better than to put you in charge. Your butterfly brain would be off chasing a new idea instead of paying attention.”

“Or calling a meeting with my receptionist?” Beaumains said with a smile.

“At least now we know the station won’t collapse when the core AI walks off,” Mel said, ignoring the comment. “How did the little knightly jaunt go?”

“I have found Björn Haraldsen.”

“Old Ironside?”

Beaumains nodded. “The claim jump was true. He was refitted with synthetic limbs and his employer did pay for it. He thinks himself a true Ironside, now.”

“Nice employer.”

“Lenora Konstantiou. She is not nice. She was using him as a slave. And maybe a sex-toy. I am not clear on that part of the mobile experience. He returned to Gateway with me and is looking for new employment.”

“No, that isn’t nice,” Mel said. From his expression, Beaumains knew he was missing something but he wasn’t sure what.

“Not nice. And not legal. I am banning her from my station. If she ever touches my decks, she will land in the brig so hard, she will need medical attention.”

“Some people are like that,” Mel said. He polished a glass with a dish-towel and sighed. “You need to work on verbal contractions. And the damsel in distress?”

“Lenora’s clone. And lover, I think.”

Mel laughed. “So the two damsels in distress rode off into the sunset together and the hero got left with rescuing the villain?”

“It is not the way it is in stories,” Beaumains conceded. “But I wouldn’t have been very entertaining for her if either of us had been that way inclined.”

“Hey, I needed space to fit all the brain-wiring in. I didn’t have room for mimicking biological functions.”

“But you managed to make me so I could mimic different forms,” Beaumains pointed out.

“I wanted you to be able to do something no human ever really could,” said Mel. “See through different eyes.”

“I think I shall try being like Linnet next. The way she was when she came into the reception.”

“Just don’t change in front of my customers,” said Mel, “I wouldn’t want you to put them off their drinks.”

Beaumains hid a hand quickly — the skin had started to change texture and colouring — and nodded his head. “Okay.”

Mel appeared not to have noticed and he continued to polish glasses. “You really want to try out Linnet? Not Lenora?”

“Lenora. Interesting woman but not nice.” Beaumains picked up his glass of whiskey with his unchanged hand and rolled the glass slightly so that the spirit clung to the sides. He wondered what it was like to taste it. “Pity.”

“What?” Mel asked.

“Lenora. It is what the name means.”


.

About the Author

Jo Thomas is a part-time writer hiding in a full-time job. She lives with her dog, Finn, a part-time muse hiding in a full-time Hellhound. They maintain a web-site at http://www.journeymouse.net.