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Live Free or Die: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 19:10 EDT



    Tyler dropped his chainsaw and pulled out his cellphone. He’d barely felt the vibration and it was impossible to hear over the saw. He looked at the Caller ID and tried not to curse. Three missed calls from the same… Arrgh!

    “Tyler Vernon.”

    “Tyler, it’s Mrs. Cranshaw. How are you today?”

    “Just fine, ma’am,” Tyler said, squeezing his eyes shut and waiting for it. She always started nice. “And you?”

    “Fine, just fine,” Mrs. Cranshaw said. “Fine weather we’re having. Getting cold. The frost should bring out the leaves a treat.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler replied. Here it comes.

    “Speaking of it getting cold, I think I asked you to bring by some firewood.”

    “Yes, ma’am. And I said I’d get it over there on Friday.”

    “Well, it’s gone Wednesday. Are you going to be here on Friday?”

    “When I say I’m going to be there, I’ll be there, ma’am.”

    “Well, I asked for it last week. Seems you could have got it here before Friday. You’re not doing much else.”

    Just working at the market, part-time, working in the bookstore, part-time, working at the mill, part-time, cutting wood, splitting wood, by hand, and answering your damned phone calls every damned day. Oh, and the rare consulting gig. But other than that I’ve got all the time in the world! I suppose I could point out that I could have delivered it Sunday night at 10PM but she’d go and tell all her friends I’d been snippy with her and half my clientele would dry up rather than go up against her vicious tongue.

    “Gotta work at the market this evening, ma’am,” Tyler said, politely. “Couldn’t get it by until late. Tomorrow I’m going to be working at the bookstore all day and then in the market that evening. I’ll be there at one Friday if the job I’ve got to do at the mill don’t take too long. No later than four.”

    “You’d better be here by one,” Mrs. Cranshaw said. “I don’t want to be without wood this weekend.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler said.

    “You be with the Lord, Tyler Vernon,” Mrs. Cranshaw said and hung up.

    Tyler closed the phone and swung it back and forth in his fist, wanting to crush it and the whole damned world that seemed to be determined to do nothing but ruin the life of one Tyler Vernon.

    Tyler Alexander Vernon was five foot two, one hundred and thirty-five pounds and long over the problem of having three first names. He’d been born and raised in Mississippi, graduated from LSU with a masters in computer science and, after applying five times at NASA, ended up working for an internet backbone center in Atlanta. That had led to various positions in the IT field and a pretty steady corporate advance culminating in a senior manager position at AT&T in Boston. Then came the real breakout: TradeHard.

    He’d had it made in the shade. He and his wife, okay, had some issues. But money couldn’t solve everything but it could solve a lot. He’d never thought that his webcomic was going to be anything other than something to fill the time and maybe make its nut. How was he to know it would take off like a Delta rocket? The awards, the adulation. He’d really not cared that much about the money. He really hadn’t. It was more about making a change in people’s lives. But as it turned out…

    No, that was unfair. Petra hadn’t cared about the money. She cared about the lifestyle the money brought in. She’d hitched her wagon to a rising star at AT&T back before he’d been doing much more than scribbling. Dug in there though the tough years, reveled in the good. Tyler hadn’t really wanted the cabin in New Hampshire but he was glad they’d bought it. And paid it off as the money got better and better and…

    A science fiction based webcomic about a free-trader ship. One of the few that had gotten national syndication. A small TV show. A movie deal in the works.

    And the gate opened. And science fiction, as an industry, died.

    Well, there was always IT. Five years was a lifetime in IT. Catching up was possible but hard. He’d been making it.

    And the Horvath came. And the inevitable depression that followed the orbital bombing of three major cities. Not to mention the stripping the world of all its heavy metals.

    And like one of those rocks tumbling towards the planet below, his life had gone into freefall. The fiery reentry culminating in the plasma explosion of the divorce.

    And now he lived in a cabin in the woods and saw his kids when he had any time between working five jobs.

    He put his phone away, picked up the saw, yanked it into life and applied it to the oak he was chunking. Hard.



    “Tyler, Chuck needs you to work on Saturday.”

    Steve Moorman was the night manager of Mac’s Market in Franconia. Tall, stooped and prematurely balding his life ambition seemed to be to retire as the night manager of the Mac’s Market in Franconia. Tyler considered him lacking in ambition. But despite his current downcycle, Tyler considered most people to be lacking in ambition.

    Since it was Chuck that needed help that meant day-shift and there was an ‘issue.’ He had a gig at a con in Reading on Saturday. The greater SF market may have suffered the fate of the dodo but fandom just would not let go. There was even some anime still going.

    He did some quick calculations.

    He wasn’t getting paid for the gig, the only reason he was invited as the Artist Guest of Honor was that he was somewhat famous, local and cheap. But he still could move some merc in the dealer’s room and people still bought his sketches of Gomez, Frank and Forella. The market was a little saturated but he’d still make more sitting on his butt in the dealer’s room than working it off in the store. And Saturday sucked. The ski-birds from Boston and NYC would be flooding in and asking ‘Why don’t you have arugula? Where’s the couscous?’

    The flip side being that if he said no not only would one of the other stockers get asked the next time some extra time came up, Steve, the passive-aggressive asshole, would probably start cutting back on his hours.

    Short term money or long term money? More like medium term because he was not going to retire as the night manager of Mac’s Market.

    Somehow the con co-chair had gotten a Glatun to attend. That decided it. The chance to talk to a real-live alien wasn’t one to pass up.

    “Steve, I’m really sorry but I’m already scheduled for something on Saturday,” Tyler replied, diplomatically. “I’d love to work but I’ve got a gig in Boston.”

    “Uh, huh,” Steve said, slowly. “Isn’t that one of those… convention things?”

    “Yes,” Tyler said, just as slowly. “It’s one of those convention things. I can work the evening shift…”

    “No, that would be too much juggling in the schedule,” Steve said, puffing out his cheeks. “I’ll just ask Marsha.”

    “Sorry about that,” Tyler said. “Anything else?”

    “There’s a spill in produce,” Steve said. “Help Tom clean the oranges.”

    “Right away.”



    Tyler took the two crisp twenties from Mrs. Cranshaw and nodded.

    “Thank you,” he said, politely.

    “Forty dollars seems an awful lot of money for a cord of wood,” Mrs. Cranshaw said. “Not like I don’t already own plenty.”

    Owner of five maple sugar distilleries and over four thousand acres of maple forest and white pine, one of Mrs. Cranshaw’s noted peculiarities was that she was so tight with money she made the buffalo squeal.

    “Going rate, ma’am,” Tyler said. He’d wondered when he started delivering wood to her why he’d been chosen rather than one of the local lumberjacks. You know, people who worked for the old witch.

    The answer being, nobody else would put up with her.

    “Forty dollars is just robbery for firewood,” Mrs. Cranshaw said. “When I was a girl, Coke’s were a nickel. A nickel I tell you!”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler said. If you tried to stop her she got mean. Best to just ride it out.

    “And the winters is getting worse. It’s these damned aliens.”

    At best the orbital bombardment of Shanghai, Cairo and Mexico City had dropped global temperatures by .0001% according to Glatun backed studies. It took a lot more than a few megatons of rock and, okay, some really major secondary fires, to disturb earth’s climate.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “I’m thinking about selling this place,” she said. “My old bones can’t take these winters.”

    She’d apparently been saying that since before her fourth husband died. They’d all been wealthy, they’d all left her all their fortune and they’d all died natural causes. Anyone who suggested anything different had better move out of the county. Besides, after husband three there’d been a pretty thorough investigation and the final result was ‘dead of stress.’

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Everything seems to go up but maple sugar land,” she said, angrily. “Wood isn’t bringing what it used to, not at all. Nor maple sugar. Damn aliens. Hate those damned aliens.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler said. He bit his tongue before adding: ‘And so do the Chinese, Egyptians and Mexicans.’

    “They’re listening to everything we say,” she said, looking at the sky nervously. “They’re up there right now, listening to us.”

    While the Horvath information systems did seem to be able to track just about any conversation made around an electronic device, Tyler rather doubted that they were personally listening in on this one. He had a moment’s empathetic thought for any Horvath who was and quashed it rather automatically.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Well,” she said, relenting a bit. “You did stack it neat. I like a good neat stack of wood.”

    Most people when you delivered a cord it was ‘Here you go’ and get it off the pick-up as fast as possible. All done, that’ll be forty bucks.

    Not with Mrs. Cranshaw. That firewood had better be stacked in a neat and tidy cord on her back porch. Which took about five times as long as just dumping it in the yard.

    Speaking of time.

    “Ma’am, I’d love to stay and chat. But I’ve got an event in Boston where I’m the speaker and I need to be going.”

    “Speaker?” she asked, incredulously. “About what?”

    “The webcomic I used to do,” Tyler said, evenly.

    “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Cranshaw said, with the most perfect note of neutrality that it descended past condescension and straight to contempt. “You used to do that comic thing.”

    “Yes, I used to do that comic thing,” Tyler said. “And now I’m going to go talk to people about doing comic things.”

    “Used to run in the paper,” Mrs. Cranshaw said. “Never did get what was so funny about it. And I didn’t like all them alien names. Couldn’t figure them out.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler said.

    “Well, if you’ve got a commitment you best be to it,” Mrs. Cranshaw said. “Can’t hardly figure out what you’re going to talk on seeing as there’s real aliens now. But you do go on and talk about comic things.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler said. “See you in a couple of months, then?”



    “Sorry I’m late Mr. Du Vall,” Tyler said, shaking the con-chair’s hand. “Got hung up doing some server work.”

    “Not a problem,” the convention co-chairman said. James Du Vall was 5’ 11”, AmerAsian and shaped something like a large bear. He had black hair, a white and black beard and it patterned in a very familiar way. Tyler had never met him but could just about guess his nickname… “Call me Panda. Everybody does. You’re just in time for opening ceremonies which was your first panel.”

    Tyler had gotten a peek into the ballroom as he was walking in and shook his head.

    “I thought you said this was a small con. There must be a thousand people in the ballroom.”

    “I’d say they’re all here to see you,” Panda said with a shrug. “Truth is they’re mostly here to see…”

    “A real-live Glatun,” Tyler finished, gesturing with his chin at the alien standing in a corner and watching the ‘pros’ straggling into the small, walled-off area. “I won’t ask how you got him to attend.”

    “Simple,” Panda said, smiling thinly. “I paid him. More than I’m going to get out of the con but that wasn’t the point. Science fiction isn’t dead, it’s just become reality. And fandom is still where people who want to work for the future gather. I could go on but we’ve got to get going.”

    “Lead on,” Tyler said.

    Panda headed up the steps to the stage and the other ‘Special Guests’ sort of straggled after him.

    There was the usual series of tables flanking a podium and the usual milling as people tried to figure out where to sit. And Tyler had his usual flash of annoyance at it. They’re chairs. You sit in ‘em. Sit. Heel.

    Since the Glatun looked particularly puzzled he caught its eye and waved to a chair, pulling it out. Fortunately Glatun and human design were similar enough a human chair worked just fine. The Glatun sat down and Tyler snagged the chair next to it by right of conquest. Worked for the Horvath.

    “Ladies and Gentlemen and honored extra-terrestrials…” Panda said to some cheers at the last part. “Welcome to MiraCon…”

    “You are Tyler Vernon,” the Glatun whispered as Panda started into what sounded like it was going to be a very long speech.

    Tyler noted that the voice, which was fairly human normal, was coming from a small pod on a collar and the Glatun had not, in fact, opened his mouth. He’d heard that they mostly communicated through their implants but it was still a bit of shock.

    “Yes, I am,” Tyler whispered back.

    “I am Fallalor Wathaet, captain of the Spinward Crossing. A pleasure to meet you. You used to write TradeHard, did you not?”

    “Yes,” Tyler said, shocked again. “How did you…? Why do you know that?”

    “The security situation on Terra for traders is good,” Wathaet said. “But if I was going to be dealing with people I wished to know who I might be near.”

    “We are, after all, potentially dangerous locals with bizarre and disgusting customs,” Tyler said.

    “ ‘Who will do anything to screw us out of our credits. Our job is to be better screws.’”

    “You read the comic?” Tyler was still recovering from the earlier shocks. This was water on a duck.

    “It is one of the few times when I have understood human humor,” the Glatun said. “Perhaps in part because it struck so close to home and was so true. Although banks do not routinely send mercenaries to collect your ship. There are people in our government who do that quite well, thank you.”

    “It was a rare situation,” Tyler pointed out. “But… thanks for the compliment.”

    “I almost stopped reading in the first few panels,” Wathaet said, “because I did not understand the cultural conditions of stealing the infant’s candy. When I was able to grasp it fully, though, I very nearly had an accident. Rule Nine: If the other guy doesn’t feel screwed we’re not doing our jobs. I printed that out and put it up in the mess. We all got it. But I personally feel it’s more of a guideline.”

    “Same here,” Tyler said. “If I’d really been a backstabber I would have been a VP.”

    “Why did you stop writing?” Wathaet asked. “I was only able to find the comic on an archive server and there were no notices to explain your cessation.”

    “Whooo…” Tyler said. “Big answer. Basically, it was an economic decision. As soon as the gate opened everyone in the industry quickly saw that anything SF was falling off. So I got dropped like a hot potato in most of my markets. The website traffic fell off sharply as well and merch. Then with our Horvath protectors requiring a very high payment for protection, server space started getting expensive. Eventually it simply wasn’t economical.”

    “You have very few new drawings on your personal system,” Wathaet said. “Sorry about looking. But your information systems are so primitive that it’s a bit like trying not to look through a plate glass window. Once I’d scanned all your available archives on other systems I set my system to find more and only realized I was in your personal system when I saw many of them were partials. But I think you haven’t had much time. Your personal and business finances are terribly screwed up. My apologies. Again, it’s rather hard not to look.”

    “No problem,” Tyler said, gritting his teeth. “On another subject, was trading good?”

    “No,” the Glatun admitted. “With the Horvath control of your heavy metals, which were paltry anyway, your world has virtually nothing to trade. Despite that, every time one of our ships comes here we have to first meet with members of your senior governments who ask if there’s anything we, the traders mind you, can do about the Horvath. No, there’s not. Then we meet with senior corporate representatives who have gathered such things as we might be interested in and we trade. The pattern is always the same. And, really, what am I going to get for folk art?”

    “The Venus D’ Milo is hardly folk art!” Tyler said. He’d seen the news. “Not to mention the paintings.” He paused and sighed. “Sorry. I really do understand the situation. Probably better in some ways than those ‘senior representatives.’”

    “Hmmm. From your comic I would say that is the case but how exactly?”

    “Look up Polynesian contact with the West,” Tyler said. “I assume that is…”

    “Yes, the similarities are there. We do not carry diseases but…”

    “You’re trading iron nails for pearls,” Tyler said. “Well, you were. Now our Horvath benefactors receive the pearls as an honorarium for their defense of our system. And we only have coconut husks and carvings to sell.”

    “Do you really think the Horvath are your benefactors?” Wathaet asked.

    “Of course I do,” Tyler said, smiling. “Our Horvath benefactors who find our systems as porous as you do and are listening to this conversation on my cellphone are our friends!”

    “Ah,” the Glatun said, making a noise something like a sneeze. “Don’t worry. The Horvath are most certainly not listening to any conversation I am involved in.”

    “Really?” Tyler asked.

    “Really. Horvath systems are better than yours. But the information systems on what they call a battlecruiser, which is not much bigger than a Glatun admiral’s landing barge, are no match for even my ship. And I’ll admit I don’t have galaxy class systems. The Horvath are most certainly not listening.”

    “In that case,” Tyler said, smiling again. “Of course we’re poor. They’re stealing all our metals. What I don’t get is why the Glatun don’t throw them out so Glatun traders get the metals.”

    “Other than assuring the safety of trade our military tries very hard to avoid non-strategic entanglements,” Wathaet said. “That has not always been the case and we’ve had times in our history of military adventurism and colonialism. But we’ve given that up mostly.”

    “I can understand that, too,” Tyler said, nodding. “I know this is a shot in the dark, but have people sort of shown you, well, everything we have to trade?”

    “What do you mean?” the Glatun said then held up a hand. “Your turn to talk.”

    “Damn,” Tyler said, getting up and trying to remember what he was going to say.

    He managed to stumble through some remarks then sat back down quickly.

    “You said something about everything you have to trade,” Wathaet said. “Your produced items are rather crude and expensive for you to produce compared to fabbers. Not economical for us. There’s not much mark-up in the market for things that are simply made by hand. A fabber can produce variation easily. We produce what you consider precious gems practically as industrial waste…”

    “Got all that,” Tyler said. “I mean, you read the comic. Covered that.”

    “True. And Forella really screwed those natives.”

    “Well, they deserved it. What about commodity materials?” Tyler asked.

    “You mean foodstuffs?” Wathaet said. “I did read the comic. You know as well as I that your foodstuffs are chemically incompatible. We may have some similarity in appearance to terrestrial organisms but our chemistry is radically different. You covered that as well.”

    “Which is all very good theory but it hasn’t been tested,” Tyler said.

    “Yes, it has,” Wathaet said. “By the first contact ship. We’re incompatible.”

    “Did they test everything?” Tyler said. “If not…”

    “My turn to talk,” Wathaet said, getting up. “Where is that… Ah. There’s the speech…”

    Tyler sort of tuned out his speech and thought.

    “What are you doing before you leave?” Tyler asked as Wathaet sat back down.

    “We leave on Wednesday,” Wathaet said. “That’s when we’re picking up our last few trades. Not much on Monday. Why?”

    “Let’s check,” Tyler said. “I’ll load up my pick-up with just…stuff. You’ve got something that can tell if it’s poisonous, I’m sure.”

    “Yes,” Wathaet said.

    “I’ll bring a bunch of…stuff,” Tyler said. “It’ll take a bit for you to check them but there might be something that you can find that’s worth trading. If so, you make a profit and I’ve got the lock on a major extra-terrestrial market. Unlikely but why think small?”

    “Intriguing,” Wathaet said. “I’ll do it. On one condition.”

    “Which is?” Tyler asked, warily.

    “Can you… do a sketch?”



    “Mr. Vernon?”

    Tyler looked up from the sketch he was doing and smiled.

    “Hey, how you doing?”

    “Great,” the man said, smiling. Six foot, short red hair, really Irish complexion, green eyes. Miskatonic U T-shirt and jeans. “My name’s Dan Poore. I’m a really big fan.”

    “Glad to hear that,” Tyler said, handing the previous customer his sketch.

    “Thanks Mr. Tyler,” ///sic/// the kid said, forking over ten bucks. “This is great!”

    “And thank you,” Tyler said, ignoring the mistake. “Would you like a sketch…uh…”

    “Dan,” the red-head said. “Uh…sure.” He dug in his pocket and came up with two fives. “Could you do one of the Glatun?”

    “Wathaet? Sure,” Tyler said. Might as well get some practice.

    “You guys were sure talking up a storm on the stage,” Dan said.

    “Turns out he did some research on the people he might be meeting and took to TradeHard,” Tyler said, starting to sketch rapidly.

    “I guess… a story about a group of space free-traders would make sense to an alien free-trader,” Dan said. “Were you just talking about the comic?”

    “That and why I stopped doing it,” Tyler said. “And he wants me to come over to the ship and do a sketch of him and the crew and the ship TradeHard style.”

    “Getting paid in atacirc?” Dan asked, curiously.

    “I wish,” Tyler said, handing over the sketch. “Thanks for your continued support. Are you part of TradeCrew?”

    “Uh, no,” Dan said. “But I’d like to get a What’s Your Score? T-Shirt.”

    “Twenty-five bucks,” Tyler said, handing over a large. “And thank you again.”

    “Must be a bit of a come-down doing small cons,” Dan said, forking over the money. “I hope I didn’t…”

    “Just love the people,” Tyler said, neutrally. “Anything else?”

    “No,” Dan said. “Thanks.”



    Special Agent Daniel Nolan Poore got in the van and was swept head to foot before he opened his mouth.

    “He’s meeting with the Glatun. Didn’t get into when. Says he’s just doing a sketch of the crew and the captain.”

    “Why do they want a sketch?” the Senior Special Agent asked.

    “Said that Wathaet’s a fan,” Dan said, shrugging. “Makes sense.”

    “Write it up,” the SSA said. “Long-hand. I want somebody with a camera, and I shouldn’t have to point this out but a chemical camera, getting shots. I don’t want the Horvath or the Glatun to realize they’re under surveillance.”#

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