Stowaways of the Golden Age follows the rocky redemption of Helen Callaghan, whose plans to wither in obscurity were dashed by a stroke of misfortune, sending her back into wild space in reluctant service to a vile crime boss.
In the ashes of the Greatest Depression, onset by the disappearance of the wealthiest man in the Solar System, rumors of his lost fortune have resurfaced. Sparked by clues to its whereabouts, a race to secure the haul has gripped the Solar underworld, including Helen’s hostile employer. For any hope of returning to a normal life, Helen must find the lost fortune first, although she is not so certain even that will clear her name.
The richest man in the solar system was old. Older than he would have liked, though he was not withered and decrepit. He was nevertheless alive, wealthy, and busy considering how he might spend his limited time and unlimited accounts. So wealthy was Mr. Kurosawa, that he no longer found the thrill in a multi-trillion-dollar acquisition or the dissolution of a ragged competitor. He sighed, staring out of his broad window, observing the crisscross of colossal gantries and cranes as they erected ever-taller skyscrapers in a spirited attempt to make good on their name.
Yuji considered how awful the city would look when the funding for those buildings ran out. With no money left over to take down their skeletal beginnings, they would likely spend years marring the skyline; monuments to a growth spurt that ended in destruction. The inevitable was coming. Tomorrow, he thought, or perhaps the next day, would bring about an era of unparalleled ruin, and he felt the smallest pang of guilt that he would not see it himself.
He had already removed himself from the operations of the company, although in name he was still President, which he thought may help one day. Who could know? When overly enthusiastic members of the press came chittering at his doorstep, asking about his plans and fortunes, he indulged them with a weak explanation that he was going to retire at an old cottage of his family's; that he planned to live out his days there. He never showed for any other public events. His charities had all been passed to his niece, who could be trusted to enjoy the prestige that accompanied such vapid altruism.
He folded the last of his favourite clothes and sealed them in a vacuum briefcase. Pressing a panel on the wall, a drawer revealed itself, where he placed the briefcase and let it shut itself with a soft purr. Yuji knew he was procrastinating. Not that he was having second thoughts, but control could be a difficult thing to let go. A little packing, a little cleaning; then he was saved by the ping of an incoming call.
“Mr. Kurosawa, we are ready to receive you now.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I'll be down in just a moment. Just finishing a few things up here.” There was a pause.
“...You know the team can handle the rest, right? God knows you paid them well enough to—”
“—Yes, yes. I suppose you're right,” Yuji said, deflating his cheeks, “Not that there's much anyway.” He clicked off his receiver and straightened his back, regaining his posture and resolve. How strange it was to be his own pallbearer. Yuji strode across the room, the lights dimming in his wake, until nothing but the last light of day poked in through the window.
Although the sun rose the following morning, none of mankind’s marvels could follow suit. The broad billboards that seemed to hold the hottest products of every tomorrow went eerily blank. The traffic jams, both on the ground and in the air, began early. No lights, no radio— not even the road signs were showing their typical, subdued glow. For three days, people did their best to carry on their business and support one another, as strangely, no city officials attempted to quell fears or organise relief. When concerned and agitated citizens arrived at city hall, they were shocked to find that it too had been deserted.
On the fourth day, when a few generators had restored power to portions of the city, many tried to return to work, only to discover that their jobs no longer existed. In many cases, neither did the companies that had employed them. In the wake of this shock, with the city blank and the lights out, the first riots began. By the end of the eighth day, the riots had swept most of the city and nearly every ground level shop had been looted or vandalised. Abandoned cars, as well as a few fuel-less aircars, littered the streets. Security forces of every stripe desperately attempted to bar off portions of the city, in a bid to protect neighbourhoods from the angry assumptions of their neighbours.
It was around noon on the twelfth day, when suddenly, without warning, the lights came back. Like werewolves come back to their humanity, neighbours attempted to reconcile from the past two week's damage. Repair crews were mobilised, and volunteers began attempting to clean up the garbage and wreckage that covered the city. Perhaps some tried to clear their consciences. That was when the opportunists arrived. They came in all shapes, but they shared the same message: ‘It was their fault’.
The chaos that followed claimed the lives of countless people. Paranoia and distrust became as necessary to life in the city as a jacket and umbrella. The remaining news outlets, ever desperate for some marketable name, began calling it "The Greatest Depression", after the off-handed comment of a haggard economist interviewed in the wake of the collapse.
Conspiracy theories were hawked alongside this coverage, some of them involving a plain but ludicrously wealthy man named Yuji Kurosawa. Some claimed that his disappearance had set off the Depression, while others said his personal wealth alone had unbalanced the economy. Some suggested that he had died in the riots, trampled in a crowd like so many others, and that his money was out there like a dragon's hoard, waiting to be claimed by some shining knight. As the years drew on, these popular theories dwindled and died. Explanations just didn't feel important anymore. Little did.
Although Earth was certainly the epicentre, the Depression crashed against all societies in the Solar System, with only a few of the more remote Non-Orbit Stations coming out relatively unscathed. Twenty years later, the economy is finally considered stable, although not growing. The enormous effect of the Depression still sends shockwaves through the many inhabitants of the Solar System. Trust, loyalty, and money are all in short supply, leaving room for an odd revival of sorts, the return of a peculiar Golden Age.
Piracy, in all its myriad forms, has risen yet again, with many individuals achieving fame and recognition by a disillusioned public desperate for heroes and the promise of success for those willing to get dirty. With few forces powerful enough to stop them, spacefaring pirates have spread across the entirety of the solar system, forming their own loose coalition of independent regions. It is in this era that a mysterious man rises to power, his vast intelligence network dwarfing that of the largest corporations. Known only by his pseudonym, Cricket, he is an infamous thorn in the side of any organisation that wishes to keep secrets.
Plumbing the depths of his high-corporate and low-life degenerate connections, he believes he just found a clue that will lead him to the treasure of Yuji Kurosawa. Now he just needs a crew…
A woman sat in her cot, still in her coveralls from the day before, and stretched out her back and arms, twisting and bending like she was trying to align the rocks in a bag of gravel. She groaned her way up and out of the makeshift hammock made from webbing and foam, rubbing her face. Helen had been sleeping in the back of her garage for a few days; her old apartment had been more of just a room to sleep anyway, she reasoned. Helen figured she'd get by with the hammock until she could afford a bed. She grimaced; just a few more days of this.
Scratching at her hair and massaging her neck, she made her way to the broad hydraulic doors of her shop, past the stacks of coolant, oil tanks, and works-in-progress. Slapping a bright red button, the bulkhead-style doors rose with a satisfying rumble to reveal that no one was waiting for her. She sighed, but also welcomed the chance for a quiet morning. Money would come sometime.
After gathering a couple sandwiches from the fridge, Helen found the cleanest bucket in the garage and overturned it in the driveway, where she enjoyed a piece of makeshift civility. Her tea and the other half of her sandwich sat on a milk crate beside her, while she looked out to her chosen neighbourhood. The ground levels were far greener than one would expect from a place that had been in such disrepair only a few years ago. Trees and flowers grew relentlessly from cracks and corners, by-products of several failed beautification projects. Well, they were beautiful, but the plants were scattered randomly and occasionally grew out of the sides of balcony levels. They seemed to survive off the complex soup of rot that followed the riots down here. That, and the towering superstructures that made up much of the city had occasional gaps, allowing sunlight to penetrate all the way down to ground level. This was one such place.
Around the block, there was much more activity, as a main thoroughfare passed nearby. Helen's side was a bit more residential, save for her own garage. Although, she thought, her garage was part residence these days. There were others like her; some enjoyed their Sunday morning on their balconies, and others were on the sidewalk outside their doors, taking drags from their cigarettes. Some strolled past her shop and through the irregular garden, as this spot was a bit of a shortcut for people walking between districts. She looked out at the working-class promenade with a little smirk of pride. It wasn't perfect, but it was certainly alive.
A few hours later, to the growing relief of her finances, she had three cars— one aircar and two rubber wheeled— sitting in her lot and in her bays. Two locals, Debare and Eddie, sat perched on some of the more stable stacks in the garage, trading tall tales and jokes with Helen as she worked on the twin-engine aircar. The aircar's owner pointedly did not participate. He instead leaned impatiently in the frame of the garage door, his attention alternating between the now busier promenade, and the work he believed to be taking too long in the garage bay.
“But you want to know what else?” Debare said, as he raised a lecturing finger up towards the ceiling, “Even those rich boys don't like each other! I was finishing up a manifest for our last shipment the other night, when one came flashing cash at me, asking me to change some numbers so the farms would look bad in front of some Metadex big shots.”
Debare shrugged, looking towards an unconvinced Eddie, “Getting them to source from another farm?”
All three scoffed lightly at this. Almost every farm fell under the same umbrella of the AgCorps. Any resourcing would only impact the manager for that farm, not the company. This was likely just another petty squabble between wealthy plutocrats, playing a game that few could care for outside of their circle. Helen laughed as she jiggled another component experimentally, then frowned as if it had told her bad news.
She called out from the inner workings of the car, “Debare, how you can still put up with that dock is beyond me. Even when your boss leaves you alone you’ve got those busy-body white-collars breathing down your neck.”
Debare clicked his tongue, “Hey, at least I have a boss to make sure I’ve got work to do when I clock in—”
The aircar's owner threw his hands up, seeming to have had enough, “For God's sake, would you just finish this one tiny thing for me without wasting my time talking? You can chat up all day when I'm gone.” The garage grew uncomfortably silent. Eddie and Debare both gave sidelong glances toward the impatient young man. Helen sighed lightly as she let components clatter into the housing someplace. She straightened from her work and pushed up her sleeves, then looked at the man. After a long stare, she spoke calmly.
“Do you know why the twin-engine models have an analogue coupling and synchronizer?” He eyed her capable, tattooed arms and said nothing. When she was certain he would remain silent, she continued, “Because with two separate engines like this, any small hiccup in their timing could send them misfiring, at best stalling you, and at worst—” she made a motion with her hands like splitting a melon, “—ripping your car down its middle.” She gestured to the pieces in the housing, “Carefully aligning these pieces now, although it may take time, means you don't have to worry about dying later.” Slightly sympathetic, she added, “Sometimes some chatting can help me focus; I’m sorry if that makes it look like I’m goofing off.” The man shifted his weight nervously.
“Fine, just get it done. Jesus.”
Helen looked at the man another few seconds, a reminder that this was her domain, then crouched down to her work. More cheerily, her voice echoed out of the engine compartment, “Why don't you go around the corner, grab a cup of coffee, and by the time you finish, I'll have you all rung up and ready to go.”
With a huff, he took the invitation, and the light click of his designer footsteps faded quickly. After a few quiet seconds, Eddie cracked a smile, “Softy! I was hoping you'd be kicking him out with a boot on the ass!” Helen chuckled as she hefted the components back into place.
“Yeah, that was never my greatest sales technique. Figured I'd try something new.”
Debare shook his head to Eddie and began reciting the brawls he'd seen her in over the years. His favourite, more so than the time a rowdy vet got on her case, was the first year she'd been in town. Only a few weeks into her job as a longshoreman, Debare had been working alongside her when she got in a fistfight with another dock worker who had claimed she was a ‘gypsy’ and had stolen some cargo. He was just getting to his favourite part when Helen looked up from her work.
“As much as I love hearing about myself, that suit might've had a point—”, she gave her friends a sympathetic smile, “—How about you come back and pick up your cars in a few hours and we'll play some cards or something.”
Eddie and Debare both groaned with good cheer but hopped down from their perches to say goodbye. They knew she was right. And she knew that the ‘repairs’ they needed were really just charity disguised in good company and busywork. Helen knew that some older men struggle to express affection directly, so she saw the gestures for what they were. When she got busy talking with them, her work took a comfortable backseat. However, when she was working on a real customer’s car, she couldn't afford to run a clubhouse.
Helen watched as they left, smiling to herself. They were a couple of real good guys. Goofy and conspiracy-addled, but good guys. With no one around to distract her, Helen made quick progress with the coupling. The sounds of her neighbourhood poured in through the broad doors, carrying the lunchtime sounds of vehicles busily zipping overhead, ground-level crowds making their way to various lunch counters, and the exclamations of school kids as they walked back to school after their breaks. A slight, rueful smile crossed her face. It was peaceful here.
For once in a long while, Helen felt that dangerous pang of hope, the kind that told one to let down their guard and allow the world to be nice for a change. But Helen knew all too well the passing nature of calm, comfort, and stability. The internal debate simmered in her always; was it her own doing? Was she, in fact, the one sabotaging her potential calm? Even now, she could feel the self-destruction in this line of thinking, but it couldn’t stop her from calling to mind the many fines that loomed over her finances. A missed payment or another fight could see her in prison. If she stayed on her toes, she could flee before it came to that, but then where would she be?
Helen held the sounds of the buzzing life around her in her mind, reminding herself that she existed as a part of that chorus of living out in her neighbourhood, she was not merely observing the lives of others. Belonging isn’t passive. Helen settled the debate for the time being and allowed it to cool off in her mind. Get some cash, make a few payments, she thought of her wardrobe, buy a couple new shirts; I really can make this work. The dual voices continued to argue somewhere within her, but she simply sighed, allowing them to join the muffled cacophony of the busy world outside her garage.