Chapter 1: Year 1, CARGO HAND
There was a low hum, there always was.
It was constant to the point that you simply stopped hearing it.
What was slightly harder to ignore was the constant drips of ice cold water that fell every where.
Third or fourth hand water that comes from the condensation of constantly re-breathed air.
The walls were rusty with it, the thin mattresses damp with it, and the skin clammy with it.
No electric lights, or rather there was electric light that had to be kept off to avoid electrocution. A dim glow came instead from secondary safety lights. The sort that were only supposed to be used in emergencies but were now permanently on day or night.
So this was it, he thought to himself. Chilly damp air, dark red brown walls, constant yellow lights, a few of which blinked.
He wrapped his damp blanket around his damp body on his damp mattress and tried to bury his head against the damp chilly pillow.
He felt the room sway slightly with the ship's movements despite the artificial gravity.
This was not his idea of space travel. There were no silver walls, or doors that slid with a satisfying whoosh, whoosh sound.
Being a crop farm boy had been dull, but he had lost count of the number of films and books where humble crop boys become galactic space heroes. So running away from home he signed on the first ship that wanted a cargo handler.
There he proudly waited for his uniform and gun only to find he didn't get that either.
On top of the cold his entire body ached from lifting the cargo.
He wasn't even kept particularly busy while in space, and hyperspace sickness constantly got to him, making him vomit, a pile of which steamed slowly from its bucket in the corner.
He would be eating that vomit for breakfast along with the piss and defecation of not just himself but the entire crew. Sure it was broken down chemically, filtered and altered for resemble biscuits, bread, milk and water, it was even quite nutritious.
The fact might not of bothered him if unlike every thing else on this floating dump the bio filters worked properly but they didn't. Everything had a sour pale taste.
The young human male sat up and shivered. He had stayed fully clothed to help against the cold, but water had seeped trough it from both sides of the fabric. Still he didn't dare take the loose body suit off.
He had a dull name and a dull life but now it was a life he missed dearly. He missed the warm sun, blue sky and the nice warm meals. He was to young and quite frankly home sick.
His name was John Smith he was 15 and wanted to go home.
Making his way down the corridor he had to stop a few times to twist open the wheel locks of doors, they were stiff and numbed his fingers. His shoulder still ached from handling heavy cargo boxes the week before.
Eventually he slouched into the cock pit.
A swivel chair swivelled. The captain, a large green hulking mass, span around.
Her jaw jutted out and fangs stuck out at odd angles between her lips, Large floppy ear hung of the top of her pig bristle head. Her snout steamed. Not the sight a young lad needed to see in mouldy bath robe.
The accelerator clock was in the red, a whole 0.25111 of a single G.
A buzzing sound indicated a radio transmission from another ship, The Captain span back round and wiped a panel until it was less wet and pressed a button.
"This is a pirate ship, un-load or be destroyed," came the voice.
Johns mind reeled, This was what space travel was about! Then it reeled in the other direction as he realised the ship didn't have a gunner. Having said that, if the guns were anything like the heating, lights, bio filter or anything else on this ship then using them might not be a good idea anyway.
Yet the captain seemed calm.
From that mouth came a surprisingly attractive voice, deep and husky and very feminine.
"Hi Frank!" she said.
"What you hauling today Carla?" came the pirates voice.
"Just corn seed"
"Not even worth the cargo space. What you picking up?"
"Iron" replied the captain.
"Ok, drop a couple of cubic meters of Iron on the way out then"
The captain span around again, she enjoyed her chair. She looked at John and proceeded to answer his un-asked question.
"Space battles even if you win cost too much money, it's far easier to drop a few cubes or cargo out of the hold. The pirates see it that way too, why take a whole ship when the money you make might not even cover your repair expenses."
"But you knew him?" John started.
"Iv been doing this rout for years, you build up a routine"
At this she span back.
John slunk of to engineering the only warm place on the ship. In a day or so they would land and John was seriously considering leaving.
In engineering It was warmer but at the same time it was damper.
The small round bearded head grinned at him. The Dwarf was sipping something from a bottle.
"How's you first voyage Human?"
John said nothing and just sat down.
"I suspect your feeling disappointed,"
John looked up
"This may not look much but this ship cost at least 216600 credits"
"Why?" john smirked despite himself.
The Dwarf looked serious for a moment
"Don't take that tone with me! It's ships like this that keeps the empire running. You add all your fancy cruisers together, you huge pod cargo tankers and they supply less than 10% of the empires needs. Its small ships like us, LIKE US," he continued pointing "that make up the rest! No US then NO EMPIRE!"
"We just agreed to drop of two cubes of cargo to a pirate"
"Who Frank? Two out of a cargo of seventy one cubes means nothing! And did the Captain explain why?"
John went silent
"Let me show you something" the engineer pulled out a metal box full of wire, string and elastic, "tell me what you see."
"No what you see is life"
No response from John who was now expecting some sort of space philosophy, If he knew the practical minds of Dwarfs he would of known better.
"I have saved the lives of the crew a hundred times, with jury rigged repairs with things like these. Surviving in space isn't about scanty clad woman and big guns its about using what you know. We don't have proper life support but thanks to some elastic and a shard or copper that rarely needs replacing, that we have some Life Support at all. What's the thing you hate most about space travel?"
John just wiped the moisture from his nose but said nothing
"Well if damps the problem then find a solution, You're a farm boy how did you keep condensation off the crop in the barn? How have you kept the sacks dry on the ship? Do the same for your quarters!"
The Engineer noticed the strange expression pass over Johns face.
"You did realise being a Cargo Handler meant looking after cargo while in transit not just loading and unloading didn't you?"
John looked up into the old engineer's eyes.
"What have you been doing all this time? Just stewing in your quarters?"
Again silence but the look of guilt on Johns said everything.
"Come We'd better get down there and look at the damage."
In the cargo bay the bottom seed sack of each pile had half soaked through and had become useless.
Seventeen bags of corn seed were ruined.
Eventually the Cotra-grav units kicked in for the ships slow decent. It was quite a good landing that only resulted in very minor damage.
The bay door opened onto a dark cave. The planet they had landed on had no atmosphere of its own. It was an underground mining station.
John waited in dread for him to be shouted at.
But the captain seemed quite cheerful. After a brief discussion with an Elf he came on board and ordered. John politely to unload 54 cubes of gain sacks and to leave the ruined ones where they are.
John was puzzled but did what he was told. The cavern outside was only slightly better lit than the ship.
and John found himself longing for sky.
The Captain came down later and gave the Engineer his 150 credit wage for 10 days on ship, they talked a bit then the captain approached John. Smiling her unappealing smile she gave him a pink piece of paper.
"What's this" he innocently asked.
"A bill for 100 credits. Grain cost 10 credits a bag here and you've brought 17 bags then deduct your wages equals 100 even"
John felt his knees give way with despair as he sat on the floor.
"Oh and you might want to find a home for it all because if we take of with it on board I'll have to add a haulage charge, Don't skip or Ill set the police on you. See you in 48 hours, Ok!" and with that she walked of to her quarters.
John felt someone close, with tear stained eyes he looked up to see the engineer.
"It's not fare," he croaked fighting to hold the tears back "I'm only a kid!"
The punch sent him across the water covered metal floor.
That was more than the poor fifteen year old could take and he burst out crying, holding his bloody nose.
"YOU ARE NOT A KID, YOU ARE MEMBER OF A CREW AND MUST BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN ACTIONS!" the Dwarf Shouted "YOU STOPPED BEING A KID WHEN SIGNED ON DEAL WITH IT!"
Then john was alone with his misery, his blood and his wet sacks of grain.
Later he wondered off into the docking cavern and took a tube to the main port gate.
Here it was bright and at first it hurt his eyes. There were Restaurants, Arcade games, photo booths the usual amenities for the tired traveller. He noticed there weren't all that many spacers here.
He had only 10 credits to his name but despite him self he couldn't resist getting a quick warm burger meal.
After the initial hunger was gone he noticed people starring at him. They were all dressed quite brightly and acting as people do on a cheerful shopping spree. A nearby mirror revealed why. He looked like a tramp. His skin had become pale. His clothes hung from him dirty and damp leaving foot trails where ever he went. His hair looked like cloth cap of grease.
"Oh My Emperor," he thought, this life is going to kill me.
There was just no way he was going to afford fresh clothes, but he so needed to feel warm.
He spent another credit on the data terminal and another on tube fare leaving 7 left.
His destination was the underground gardens.
On the way the read about the planet he was on.
It was called DUNGIN. A hole in the ground for mining and solar collection. It had to have all food, air and water brought in but the mineral exports had made the inhabitants rich. There were a few unusual laws.
For starters it was a dry planet. No alcohol, caffeine, or any other narcotic was permitted. Neither were weapons, or melodrama fictions of any kind. Every one had to visit the gardens at least once a week and read, see or listen to something humours.
Although no longer a problem, about a hundred years ago there was a very high suicide rate among miners. It was to protect from depression and its effect that these laws had come about.
John put the print out down as the tube stopped. The gardens were one of the deepest in the city and second only in size to the space dock. Huge powered lights provided light overhead. But from the cavern floor it looked like an unnaturally bright white sky. Under which was a large green field stretching as far as the eye could see. Dotted by trees. In the distance he could see the planets Imperial cathedral.
Although like all good families, they had gone to church every tenth day. He had always seen it as a chore. A needless break in to his one day off work... It was a small stone building back at home with a mild mannered, over middle aged priest.
As he looked at the magnificent gothic style cathedral carved out of the living rock, the spire touching and melding into the cavern roof somewhere among the artificial thin wisps or cloud he felt more alone than ever. He turned his back on the structure and found his eyes falling on green house that although large had been dwarfed by the stone tower behind him.
John padded his feet across the lawn and for some reason, despite his lack of money, paid the entrance fee to get in.
There was no queue, the place was quiet. Only a space bum like him was off work mid week.
It was warn inside. The receptionist had given him a dirty look but that had happened so often now he hardly noticed. The main thing, the important thing to him was that he was warm.
Unfortunately the humidity was high so he wouldn't dry out but it was warm enough for him to feel the blood pump slowly back into his fingers and toes.
The place was segmented by environment type for different rare plants with air locks separating each section. Although what constituted a plant sometimes had to be very loosely defined.
Some rooms were so hostile to normal human life that you could only view the plants through energy fields.
There were delicate purple lily's that floated on bubbling volcanic larva from the planet core.
Glowing white Krulian thorns, a crystal plant that could elongate its spines fast enough to stab a man and suck the life out from him.
Giant Dinosaur eating Venus Flytraps in a humid Rain Jungle environment.
And there were organic trees made up of little more than magic and rotting undead flesh of the damned, still crying out in pain to be released.
As a farm boy, (sorry ex farm boy, ) John was fascinated by the huge variety of different foods and conditions each of the plants needed.
It was in a quiet corner late in the day that he noticed a strange little gardener tending to the more regular plants. He looked a bit like a dwarf but he was thin with no bread and slightly pointed ears. Now he thought of it he did look more like a silver Elf, only a very sort one.
He was carefully digging quite deeply and turning the earth over, John couldn't be quite sure but the earth he was moving towards the roots wasn't that much richer than the close to dead earth he was lifting from the top.
It was a risky way of doing things because it could damage the roots. There may have been a time when John would never of questioned the creature about his methods. After all he was only human and this thing might have hundreds of years of experience. But John had felt so miserable and useless for so long now that he simply thought 'What the hell'.
Although he was far from confidant as he slowly ambled over. For what seemed like a long while he stood there watching, it must have been at least quite a while because his feet began to ache.
"What!" Snapped the Elf possibly Dwarf.
"The plants or me?" the It growled.
"You some sort of ass staring pervert"
"NO!" cried John
"Just admiring your spade work, no mater how close you get to the roots you just don't seem to hurt them, even the fine stringy ones, Is it magic?"
"No, Just experience. Something you short lifers wouldn't understand"
"Ah so you are a..." John stopped himself short as he realised he hadn't known what he was about to say.
"I'm both and that's personal!"
"Wouldn't it be better to replace the soil entirely? Or perhaps some compost?"
"Oh I never would of thought of that!"
John started to beam a smile then he realised the thing was being sarcastic at him.
"We haven't got any, If we had some I'd be using it, wouldn't I"
"Sorry" said John.
"Space bums like you only think of the obvious. Only bring finished goods to a mining planet. Only farm planets need agricultural stuff, And couriers cost a fortune and then get themselves blown apart by pirates. "
John pondered on this. A courier one man ship is likely to only have cargo belonging to someone else in those small holds. They couldn't really afford to bribe their way past a pirate with other peoples property. You had to really know how to fly and fight if you're a courier.
Then another though hit him.
"Um do you have a bio compressor?" asked John.
Basically all it was, is a way of making compost out of fresh material quickly.
"No!" the thing was being sarcastic again, "We have not got any dead plants to put in it, At least," he continued stoking of the leaves with concern "Not yet,"
John remembered the old Engineer's advice 'Well if damps the problem then find a solution'.
Accept now he could see a solution to selling of those sacks of grain he'd been lumbered with and paying of his debt.
"I think" John said carefully, I might have a solution for you."
The half Elf Dwarf turned around and now gave his full attention.
John smiled, at last there was hope.
"How badly do you need fresh bio matter?"
The deal was made at 15 credits a bag with the thing paying for transport.
Everything was arranged and done by that evening.
Except, that when the bags were delivered and John went to get the money...
"What do you mean your only willing to pay 6 credits a bag!"
"Well," said the thing "The bags weren't fit for human consumption,"
"You did not want them for human consumption!"
"And then there is transportation cost"
"You agreed to pay transpiration cost!"
"Sorry it's that or nothing"
"Ill have the grain back then!" Shouted John
"You cant its now composted"
"Then Ill have the compost then"
"Fine, Compost cost 7 credit a bag, you give me 17 credits and you can transport the compost back to your ship,"
"How about I call the police!" screamed John.
"How about you consider my offer, My word of head garden keeper to the Baron of this planet is worth more than that of a space Bum, take the offer and go."
John went quiet then for the first time ever, bluffed.
"How about I pass out the word to other traders do no one sells you so mush as a single seed, You'll have to pay double prices through intermediaries for years. Every one will know you as a bad payer."
The half breed scowled
"And," John continued "Just for the emotional upset I'm now charging you 17 a bag!"
"But... " The thing began.
"You want to go for 20?"
"Dam you! You little short lived space bum monkey boy human!..."
"20 it is then. You want to go for 25? Or I could pay you your 17 credits and take the bags away and let your plants die, and stop anyone else ever wanting to deal with you."
The half thing went quiet.
"Ok. here's your 17 credits then," John made to reach into his almost empty pocket with no way near that much money in it.
"Ok!" the gardener shouted! "Ok, you win, But I only have 102 credits Ill have to give you the rest in plants."
"That's not acceptable, A plant wouldn't survive on by ship"
"Ah. That depends on the plant" The Gardener said tapping his nose, "What are the conditions on your ship like"...
Within hours John was back on ship with his debt paid, and a few credits to his name.
His quarters were well lit, dry and warm, although a little more cramped.
Dwarven cave vines took all available space between the bed and door. But they soaked up moisture and gave out a bright light and a genital heat. In fact he was laying on his bed worrying that perhaps the room might get too dry and kill the plants so he had left his door open to draw moisture in.
Captain Carla propped her head around the corner.
"You must keep this door closed in case of de-compression, you know."
"Sorry," Smiled John.
"I see your quarters have altered a bit"
"Yep" he felt he knew what was coming
"Still it leaves you allot less room"
"I don't mind and I don't want to have to pay you any courier charges by having them in the cargo bay,"
"Oh, ok." She replied
There was a moments silence.
"So how much might you sell these for,"
John had been waiting for this.
"Well Id only want to sell a few, I need to stay comfortable,"
"How much for one plant then"
"Let's say about 25 a plant" John smiled
"Done" replied the rather clammy cold wet captain.
Science Fiction /