Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
The weapons were the easiest part of it. The standard in galactic personal arms was the handblaster, which related to the weapons I had seen the guards carrying as a pistol does to a high-powered rifle. As with the larger ones, the “barrel” was a sapphire rod, blackened and cratered at the firing end. The grip held a replaceable power pack, a gauge to read the charge remaining, and controls to govern the intensity of the discharged blast. Instead of a trigger, there was a stud where the thumb fit. Depressing it fired the weapon. The armorer let me fire once on full intensity, just to be used to it. There was no kick, but a loud crack (think of a cherry bomb), an orange flame danced for a second at the end of the rod, and a purple line connected the blaster and the target. Sparks flew from the metal plate used as a target and the beam drilled a hole through it. I was impressed.
The science behind the blaster I didn’t understand then, nor do I understand it now, but using it was easy. The same could be said of loading it. Press the thumb over the correct area at the bottom of the grip, a spot that normally wouldn’t be touched, and the power pack dropped out, much like the clip of an automatic pistol. Slide a new one in and away you go. So, now I knew how to fire a blaster. I doubt the army could have taught me to use an M16 that fast. On the other hand, that was all the instruction I got.
What I had was a death ray with a bunch of gauges and settings and no idea what to do or when to do it. I went running to find Angel.
He laughed. “Danny, they make these things so people with shit for brains can use them. Look, you want intensity at the top, like you have it. It’ll fire like a lightning flash. Now, put frequency at the top, too. It’ll pulse as fast as it can. The beam will flicker like a strobe, imagine it’s an automatic pumping out bullets instead of lightning. Duration is just how long it will fire before it re-cycles. Max that, too. Don’t fuck with the settings.”
“Will this block it?” I dumped a leathery coverall I’d gotten from the armory on the table. It looked like what the guards at the base had worn.
“That’s half-armor,” Angel said. “Makes Kevlar look like cheap nylons. It’ll stop bullets, anything like that. Now, with a blaster, you aim it at your target and, at these settings, it’ll even burn through half-armor if you can hold it on target for a bit. That’s why I told you not to fuck with the settings. You need the high-end for armor. Now, people not wearing armor, you can set this low and it’ll stay on like a flashlight and you can sweep it across a bunch of ’em and burn ’em all, but, if you want to stay alive, assume they’re in armor.”
“Why did you call it ‘half-armor’?”
“That’s what they call it. There’s full armor that’s even tougher, but it’s too expensive and hard to get. We don’t have it and neither will anyone we’ll fight.”
“That’s totally reassuring, Angel.”
With my basic training, such as it was, swiftly completed, I had no choice but to confront the language. Until I’d mastered it, I had to live in a separate cabin and wasn’t treated as part of the crew. It’s a bitch of a language: polytonal, the way some Asian languages are, and it formed many compound words that also changed meaning depending on the tone of the component syllables. Fortunately, the empire had designed an impressive machine to do the teaching for them and, at some point, Carvalho and the Flying Whore had appropriated one of them. Basically, you sat in a relative of a dentist’s chair with your head in what looked like a hair dryer. I’m not certain whether it interacted with the weak electrical field that the brain creates, or whether it used an even more arcane science. Regardless, when I sat down with the Teacher, I saw images and heard words and after a very short while, the words began to make sense.
Once I’d acquired enough familiarity with the language to navigate around the ship, they transferred me out of the small cabin to a regular crew berth. This was, as Angel had predicted, with the Strike Force. Even though a single cabin on a starship is counted as a luxury, by the time I moved, I was feeling so cooped up that I didn’t mind.
The Strike Force was divided equally into four sections, each section having its own living area in a different portion of the ship. The accommodations for my section were typical: a cramped, barracks-style bunkroom containing ten triple-tiered bunks, an adjoining bathroom and exercise facilities. The bunks were narrow, enough room to roll over once but not twice. Not all of them had occupants, an obvious side effect of our way of life. It was easy to see why Gerangi had been annoyed when Angel had returned with only a single recruit.
The Strike Force was all male, as was the entire ship’s crew. I was astonished at the number of them who could neither read nor write, not in the common language of the empire, nor in the language of their home world if it was different.
Angel shrugged when I brought it up over a bitter brown drink in the mess one evening. “What did you expect, Danny? Most of them come from planets in the Outer Empire. Shit, I went to school, some of the time, but most of them … they’ve never seen one. The computers talk and listen and, if you need ID, your palm and your eye work fine.”
“And this doesn’t bother anybody?”
“Not in the Outer Empire. You don’t spend money on schools for the likes of them when you need beams and missiles.”
“That’s where we operate,” Angel said. “No law out here. The Fleet doesn’t pretend to keep the peace. Some places are still in pretty good shape, most aren’t, and some have totally fallen apart so nobody’s been there for a hundred years. They all fight over whatever there is to have and we’re just in it for our share.”
“Let me get this straight. This empire has fallen to pieces to the point that most people can’t even read and we fly around stealing or smashing what’s left?” (Sounds like some great job I’d landed, huh?)
“What’s your problem, Danny? They’re shooting at each other most of the time and they’re happy to shoot at us any chance they get. Why is it my fault if the place is fucked up?”
I let it drop there because I could see Angel was starting to get hot and if there was one person in the galaxy I didn’t want to piss off then, it was Angel.
I spent the night thinking about it, though. As far as the crew not being literate, I guessed that universal education wasn’t a priority for planetary governments facing dwindling trade and increasing defense needs. You can get away with that, of course, only as long as technology can be imported and a high level of automation maintained. When the imports dried up and the machinery broke, the resources saved by ignoring education would be dwarfed by the problem of trying to prop up a society with so many unproductive members. It would be a downward spiral, both for the society and its illiterates. Not surprisingly, the life of a freebooter was attractive to members of that underclass, even though most of them were limited to positions that required little more than a willingness to follow orders and fight. Those who could read and had some skills could hope for better positions on the ship and, maybe, eventual promotion. But not very high, even then. I discovered that department heads and the entire bridge crew were all well-educated, many from the aristocracy of their worlds. It spoke volumes about where the empire’s talent saw their opportunity.
The Strike Force might have been the bottom of the barrel, but it had a pecking order all its own. As a newcomer, I was largely ignored, with the exception of the inevitable bully or two whose method of sizing up an individual was to pick a fight. I declined the fights. Maybe that was a violation of custom, and certainly earned me some humiliation, but it seemed safer. At least, I was allowed to decline. I was left out of the gambling and casual conversation that seemed to fill most of the spare time, but it could have been worse. In a sense, it was a little like being a rookie in training camp all over again. The problem was, this time, I was not sure how to become one of the boys.
Angel was always available, at least if he was not busy working or gambling. I think that, as much as he fit easily into the social routine of the ship, he was happy to have a compatriot around. He loved to brag about his exploits. Unfortunately, his stories all had the same plot. If even half of them were true, and if I were planning to go along with Angel, I was going to need an asbestos condom. Beyond that, however, the topics were sparse. There were limits to the conversational potential of food, sex, football, and drugs since we didn’t have three out of the four and the food lacked variety. Worse yet, I began to suspect that he really shared his old man’s opinion of my passing arm.
My first contact with Imperial civilization was not what I had anticipated. There was no raid, for which I was thankful, but there was also no planet-fall. Instead, we came out of the wormhole in the Orgumuni system and shaped our course for the trading station. The Orgumuni had adapted to the freebooters, as had many other systems, by trading with them. A station hung in orbit around one of the outer gas giants, serving as a transit point and brokerage for a wide variety of goods. The Orgumuni, good traders that they were, dealt with anyone. Most of the time, this meant systems in need of materials or technology they could no longer produce or obtain from the empire and freebooters who found it for them. The Orgumuni, in addition to their trading skills, were not naive. The position of the station was far beyond firing range of the inhabited planet, which orbited two planets sunward of the station’s location. The precaution was understandable in an environment where there were no police to call, although major problems at a trading station were rare. Freebooters needed their traders the way any thief needs his fence. Besides, trading profits could buy up-to-the-minute defenses.
I was sitting on my bunk, grousing to myself about the lack of a planet to visit, when Angel popped in.
“Hey, Danny-boy! Have I got good news for you!”
“Ah, and what might that be?” In the days since my transfer into the bunk room, I had not been assigned anything to do, which left me bored and feeling useless. Just then, I was not in the mood for any of Angel’s stories.
“I have got,” he announced proudly, “station passes for the two of us.”
“So?” My less than eager response puzzled him.
“Danny, what the fuck is the matter with you? These places are like Grand Central Station in orbit. You can buy damn near anything and some of them have some real weird shit.”
“No doubt. However, I don’t have any Imperial money and I’ll bet they won’t take dollars.” Carvalho didn’t pay salaries. You got a cut of the loot instead.
“Well shit, Danny. I’ve always wanted to show one of those stations to a fellow American. Tell you what. I’ll buy. You can owe me.”
“Okay.” I eyed him closely. “But no interest.”
“No interest,” he agreed and we shook to seal it.
As an example of fiscal prudence it wasn’t much, but it was a start.
Orgumuni Station could have been quite a tourist trap. Unlike the ones closer to real civilization, Orgumuni had not been planned as a big trading station. It had grown haphazardly over the years, along with its trade. At the time we docked, it was a huge, roughly spherical cluster of interconnected modules. The only pattern that I could see was that the modules at the edge were designed for docking spaceships. The others were linked in no apparent order, with what had probably been the original station at the center. Since the Imperials could generate a gravity field within a structure, there was no physical reason why the station had to be organized any differently. There were enough people, that is, Srihani, on the station, in all sizes and shapes, that I could have spent the whole day trying to sort out the parts that resembled Earth nationalities. I also saw my first non-Srihani. He, if it was a he, was an Aalori, the second most populous species in the empire. The Aalori looked like a five-foot-tall, upright panther, wearing a long blue-and-yellow tunic that ended halfway down the thigh. The image was produced primarily by the short black fur and digitigrade walk. The eyes and ears also suggested a cat, but the resemblance stopped there. The hands were six fingered, each with two opposable thumbs. The teeth I saw were those of an omnivore.
“Danny, don’t stare,” Angel hissed. “Species don’t mix, except at the stations. You never know who might take it as a challenge, and with Aalori I can’t tell.”
In truth, the Aalori didn’t even notice me, but I dutifully shifted my gaze. He didn’t look like a being I would want to annoy.
Orgumuni Station did hold many other exotic beings and items, but I know that from later visits. As a tour guide, Angel was a disaster. Once he had his bearings, he moved off at a brisk pace, paying no attention to what we passed, or to my interest in sightseeing.
“Angel, what is the problem?” I asked, when it became apparent that we weren’t going to poke into the various shops.
“I found a little bar in here the last time,” he answered. “They have a drink, I don’t know where it comes from, but it beats the shit out of scotch. Anyway, Carvalho’s death on booze on the ship, so we better drink it while we can.”
All Srihani, and that includes humans, share the failings of a common biology. One of those is the susceptibility to alcohol. It varies in degree among groups, just as it does on Earth, but to some extent it’s a universal taste. Consequently, I wasn’t surprised that Carvalho banned alcohol from the ship, nor that it was big business on a trading station. In that respect, I felt right at home. What did surprise me was Angel’s haste.
I asked him about it as soon as I could draw even with him.
“Gonna be a real short stop,” was his reply. “It was hard to get any pass at all. My bet is that we’ll have just enough time to go drinking, and, if we hustle, to get laid.”
“Shit, what are you talking about?” I protested. “All I heard was that Carvalho was going to make arrangements for the cargo you grabbed on the last run. That’s gotta take time!”
“Ain’t gonna take any time. I’ll tell you about it when we sit down.”
Further conversation was suspended while I trailed after him, trying not to be left behind. Finally, Angel let out a satisfied sigh. Set into a wall of the corridor was an open compartment. An illuminated sign above it announced “Food and Drugs.” By “drugs” they did not mean the cough and cold variety.