Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
The conversation began when the one sitting in the middle addressed Angel. I had hoped that Angel would translate for me as they spoke, but I was disappointed in that. Apparently, the spaceman had no interest in either talking to me, or hearing anything I might have to say. As the conversation went along, Angel did less and less of the talking. Eventually, he seemed to be responding only briefly to questions. The longer it took, the more desperate I became to know what was being said. Unable to understand the words, I tried to read the Srihani’s face and became even more frustrated. He had pale skin and gray eyes on otherwise African features, which I found distracting, but what made it impossible was that his facial expressions didn’t seem to match the tones of his voice.
If I couldn’t read the Srihani, I could read Angel, and what I saw there wasn’t promising. Angel stood ill at ease, his face growing more sullen with each exchange. Watching him, and looking at the array of spacemen in front of us, I found myself thinking that this was a kangaroo court. Perhaps, I thought in my misery, Angel had actually disobeyed orders by bringing me there. I began to wonder what horrible means spacemen might use to dispose of unwanted guests. Even the thought of facing Judge Doroty began to seem good as the tirade went on. I was actually beginning to think good thoughts about Texas justice when the Srihani stopped abruptly.
Angel hesitated a moment before he turned to me, as though he was not quite certain that the silence would last. Finally, he said, “I told him who you are, and so forth. Basically, he says it’s cool.”
“Angel, it sounded to me like there was one hell of a lot more than that said.”
Angel just shrugged. “Most of that stuff is just between Gerangi and me. Nothing to do with you.”
“Gerangi?” I asked. “I thought the captain was named Carvalho.”
“He is, but he’s on the ship,” Angel told me. “Gerangi is the exec.”
“Oh.” I nodded sagely, as though it actually made a difference to me who was sitting there. “Angel, just tell me straight once more, this is not some weird government thing, is it?”
I’m told you can recognize a crazy by the gleam in his eyes. Angel’s eyes looked okay to me.
“Fine. And you’re sure that all of that he was spouting there had nothing to do with me?”
“Absolutely. You cool, man?” he asked.
“Sure.” It seemed like a good time to lie. Actually, I was wishing that I was somewhere else, just about anywhere else.
“Okay,” Angel said. Then he turned back to Gerangi and said something very brief.
Gerangi grunted and nodded. I wondered whether that direction meant yes or no to a Srihani. Even on Earth, it wasn’t uniform. Before I had a chance to make up my mind, the three of them got up and filed out, leaving me alone with Angel.
“Okay Angel, now that they’re gone, will you tell me what that was all about?”
“Sure.” He picked at some dried blood on his cheek. “It was no big deal. I told Gerangi about you and he accepted you as a member of the crew.”
“What!” Press-ganged. Shanghaied. “You can’t do this to me!”
Angel had a face that would never look innocent, but he did look hurt. “Come on, Danny-boy,” he said, “I offered you a job back in Cleveland. You didn’t walk out then, and I sure didn’t notice you trying to bail out of my Jeep. Besides, Gerangi wasn’t exactly ecstatic that I came back with only you. You back out now and my ass is grass. Not to mention yours.”
Angel seemed to think better of that approach and changed tack, but it was enough to give me a flavor of what most of the discussion with Gerangi had been about.
“Hey, Danny-boy, look on the bright side,” Angel said. “You’re a tough guy, you told me you were always a good leader. You’ll be a natural. Beats going back to see the judge, doesn’t it?”
He had me there. Going back to Texas had looked palatable only when I was expecting imminent death. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I must’ve made a decision, but I wasn’t aware of it. Maybe I had actually made it in Cleveland. Maybe what I had decided was to go with the flow.
“All right,” I said, “I’m a space pirate. Now what? I mean what’s my job?”
“Right now, you got it easy,” Angel replied. “After all, there’s not much you can do ’til you learn the language. After that, you’ll be with me, on the Strike Force.”
“And what in hell is a Strike Force?” I asked.
“That’s the boarding party,” Angel told me with a grin. “We’re the guys who go over to the other guys, kick the shit out of them, and take their ship.”
“Boarding party? Angel, are you trying to tell me that these guys fly around the galaxy in starships and they need boarding parties? What do you do, lash a rope to an antenna and swing across in a space suit?”
“Not exactly,” he laughed. I was glad at least one of us could find some humor in the situation.
“Angel, I’m not sure I’m cut out for this,” I said.
“Bullshit,” he said. “Come on, let’s get you settled. You’re gonna love it. I know.”
I most certainly did not love it, at least not right away. I wasn’t treated as a prisoner—that much was true. I had free run of the base. What would have happened had I tried to leave is another question, but I never put it to the test. It was easier to stay there and know that Texas could no longer touch me. The real problem was boredom. There was nothing for me to do.
Everyone else, including Angel, was busy. Angel had been right that they were almost ready to leave. The repairs had been completed. It was now time to load the last of the supplies onto the boat, along with some units the engineers had been working on in the shop, close up the base and go.
The main ship, piquantly named the Flying Whore, had spent its time orbiting in the shadow of the Moon. A rendezvous had been planned in a close Earth orbit, to allow Carvalho to help shield the boat from detection but they wanted to keep the time the Flying Whore spent near the planet to a minimum. Apparently, Earth’s technology had advanced to the point that Carvalho was concerned about detection if the ship spent too much time near the planet. With the Moon between the ship and the boat, no communication was possible, so the rendezvous had to be a timing pattern.
It took them three days to do the job to Gerangi’s satisfaction. The last chore, setting boobytraps in the base, Gerangi handled himself, along with one of the engineers. Finally, Angel came by to tell me that it was time to go. This departure lacked all of the drama I remembered from watching rocket launchings at Cape Canaveral. It was more like boarding a commuter shuttle at an airport, which it probably was for the Srihani. The seat harness looked strange, but it fastened like a backpack’s across the hips and chest and proved easy enough for me to figure out. I sat there tensely, expecting a god-awful blast and to be squashed back into my seat like an astronaut. Instead, there was a gentle, sustained push, a lot like going down the entrance ramp on the freeway. After about a half hour, there was an announcement overhead. Too bad it was all Greek to me.
But Angel listened to it, then turned to me. “We’ll be on the ship in fifteen minutes,” he said. “No sweat.”
Hello galaxy, good-bye Earth. The one thing I still regret, though, is that I’d never had the chance to see Earth from space.
t took a little while to get accustomed to the idea of being on a spaceship. There were no portholes or viewscreens that I could find. For all that I could see, I could just as easily have been in an underground bunker, or a very spacious submarine. And, suddenly, weirdly, I was homesick, because I was actually in space, and there was no way of going back. I was not going to play football in Dallas again; I was not going to spend anymore nights barhopping in New York. Of course, I wasn’t going to jail in Texas either. I consoled myself with that.
Measuring time by my body clock—I think my watch was still in Cleveland—the ship took three days to reach the outskirts of the solar system. There was no sensation of movement. We walked around without restriction—or I did. Everyone else looked busy. About the middle of the fourth day, there was an announcement of some kind overhead. It was followed by a bump, and the whole ship shuddered. Then it became quiet, and even the muted buzz that had filled the ship went away. I didn’t know it then, but we had made our transition into a wormhole. In fact, I didn’t even know what a wormhole was until a lot later. Since most of you will probably never have the opportunity to travel through one, let me try to explain how they work.
Interstellar travel is feasible only because wormholes exist. A wormhole is not really a tunnel; it is a property of space that provides a means of moving from point A to point B without having to traverse the ordinary three-dimensional distance in between. They can be entered anywhere the local gravitational field is weak enough, although for obvious reasons, the mapped ones are around stellar systems. A ship doesn’t so much enter a wormhole as interact with it. A burst of energy is released and the ship goes elsewhere. There is still a physical limit to velocity in a wormhole, but it is vastly different than in three-dimensional space; in fact, it varies from wormhole to wormhole. There is a distance between going in and coming out too, but it is different than the distance in normal space.
Time is funny, too. The net effect of transiting a wormhole is that you cover vast distances in the three-dimensional universe in days and weeks instead of years and centuries. The empire could not exist without them. In fact, you could say that the empire was built on wormholes, a prophetic statement if there ever was one.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. What I did know was that travel through a wormhole was just as dull as travel in normal space. Aside from the jerk at transit, I didn’t perceive any motion. Had the transit not been announced, I would have been unaware of it. The things that did catch my interest were things in the ship.
Clothing was the first of these. I’d been wearing blue jeans and a Dallas T-shirt, both slightly on the gamey side, when I left. I didn’t need Angel to translate the instructions that they would not do on the ship. Pirate or not, Carvalho’s crew wore uniforms, tight black trousers, black boots that came up just over the ankle, a plain, ocher tunic and a wide belt with holders for tools and weapons. The cloth was light and slippery, something like a mix of silk and polyester, but without the shiny appearance. I rather liked the way I looked in it.
Everyone had a shipsuit too. It appeared to be a one piece replica of the uniform. Angel showed me a thin, red seam that ran from neck to groin, concealed under a flap. When I slid my finger along this, the front of the suit split open, and I put it on like a pair of coveralls. At first, it fit like a poncho. When a green patch at the waist was pressed, however, the suit responded like plastic shrink-wrap. In less than a minute, I was wearing a perfectly form fitting suit that remembered the shape it had fit itself to.
The suit’s memory was hardly its only remarkable feature. Altogether, it was maybe two to three times the thickness of regular cloth. The inner surface was composed of filmy material that nestled right up against the skin everywhere it touched. The outer layer was airtight, made of a material that flexed easily but completely resisted radial expansion. In between was a maze of circuits and miniature plumbing embedded in a superinsulator. Gloves and helmet, attached by a fastening that appeared to melt into the suit, giving you a serviceable vacuum suit. The outer surface prevented decompression, the plumbing and insulation kept you comfortable in space or on ship, and a small pack fastened to the belt generated oxygen. It wouldn’t serve for someone working continually, or repeatedly, in space. It would serve to keep the wearer alive if the ship was breached. Many of the crew, I noticed, wore them all the time, gloves and collapsed helmet hanging off the belt. Both the uniform and the shipsuit were not only formfitting, but provided support at strategic locations. It was a little like a whole body corset, but comfortable. It was a great way to make a midriff bulge disappear. (Not that I needed it, of course.)
Simply wearing the right clothes, however, wasn’t enough to make me part of the crew. The keys were learning the weaponry and the language.