" ... is Still Not a Home."
I was floating, completely relaxed, my space suit turning slowly at the end of its tether. The stars wheeled majestically past, multi-colored points against velvet black. I watched them turn, and imagined that each one was a woman. Tall ones, and short. Pale ones and dark. Young, old, and in-between. Women I'd known, women I'd seen, women I'd only dreamed about.
Forgotten for the moment were the months of grinding monotony, of plunging through hyperspace, never sure just when or where we would emerge from the gray nothingness. This time we had broken out almost exactly on schedule, falling down the long slopes of a gravity well toward a welcoming sun. Every space-hand not on duty was out there with me, a double handful of us enjoying the release of a long, uninterrupted space float.
"All hands. All hands." The tiny voice in my ear brought back all of the boredom of mind-deadening routine. I ignored it for as long as I could, drinking in the soothing, healing emptiness of deep space for a few more seconds. "All hands return to ship. Prepare for Class Three maneuvers."
Regretfully, I punched the acknowledge button. A tug on my line turned me to face the ship, and I drifted slowly closer. In the light of the brightening sun the Kobold was a ghostly shape, an irregular white-enameled bulk that swelled to monstrous size as I drew near. Sunlight struck ruddy gleams off her flanks, a port gaped wide, and I was locked into the drab world of everyday reality.
"Fortan Gregg, Third Engineer. On standby at Power Station One." Slipping out of my suit and ducking into a shower had taken only seconds. Bill Martino, manning the Power Engineer's board this shift, nodded a welcome as I slid into my chair and buckled down.
The board was alive with twinkling lights, mingling the amber of standby with the green of ready. Around us the rest of the crew took their places. Twenty men may not sound like enough to man a star freighter, but the Kobold was nearly new. She was about as automated as a ship can be and still cross the emptiness between the stars.
"Class Three warning! Ten seconds"
At the proper instant a faint nudge of returning weight pressed down on me, building quickly until I was almost at a third of my normal weight. We would hold it there for a full eight hour shift before going to Class Four, and not until we were almost at our destination would we be at Class Ten. A full standard gee, one thousand centimeters per second per second, is nothing to get hit with after months of free fall.
The slow hours passed. We welcomed the return of weight, or at least the younger crew members did. It meant that we were getting close to port, with its many diversions. Only a few million kilometers, now.
"Prepare for docking. All hands strap down."
We'd been ready for ages, it seemed like. Our destination, an irregular cluster of structures in the midst of the local asteroid belt, was clearly visible. Port Karlich, named for the master of the ship that was its original nucleus. His ship, the old Dragon Queen, had been lucky enough to break down close to the nexus of several trade routes. Ships stopping for supplies at the same time would often end up swapping parts of their cargoes. The resulting trade had nurtured a lively city in space, capable of supplying most of a lonely space hand's needs.
The local drinks were nothing but the usual watered-down grain alcohol disguised with flavorings and spices, and after a couple or three had cut the space dust I waved the bartender over. Too old and fat for space duty, he'd elected to stay here rather than take his retirement on today's crowded, dirty Earth.
"Another drink?" He held up the bottle to display its garish label. "You from the Kobold? I hear you just got in from the Orion cluster. How's trading out that way?"
"No more right now, thanks. Yeah, and glad to get away from there. The trading's okay, but those ground hugging colonists are getting too stuffy with their laws to suit me. Closing down the port districts, and all that. Planets give me a pain. And not just in the feet, neither."
Port Karlich kept its gravity generators set at a nice Class Six. Enough to give a man weight, yet not enough to drag him down. Anyway, lots of alien races can't take any more than that.
"Speaking of port districts, where's the best place around here to get laid?"
"Sadie's." He shrugged his shoulders, not worried by the thought of losing a customer. I'd be back when I'd had my fun, was his attitude. "Up two levels, then a hundred twenty meters at two twenty degrees. You can't miss it."
Every port had its Sadie's, or Mabel's, or Gert's. You don't find many women in space, and Sadie would be typical of the few you did see. Leathery, stringy and old. Hyperspace does funny things to living organisms. Plants just curl up and die in a couple of weeks, faster if the ship is a new one, capable of pushing up into the higher levels where you make the best time.
Men, male animals of any kind grow sterile after too many trips, and women and female critters are hit even quicker. That's one of the reasons for the strict laws on colony planets. Women are too scarce to be used as play-toys for visiting spacers. They're needed too badly for raising families. Big families.
"Fortan Gregg. Third Engineer, Kobold."
A high class place. I had to show my ID at the door. Most places just check out your wallet.
"Come in! Come on in, spaceman! Sit down, sit down." Once inside, Sadie's welcome was warm and hearty. "Drinks are on the house, all you want, and there's eats over there on the table. Make yourself to home. The girls'll be down in just a bit."
My ears perked up at the word 'girls', but I knew better and I was right. They'd been surgically altered and conditioned for their job but they were still Rocid, saurian humanoids too far down on the scale of intelligence to be protected by any laws. They looked human enough in their filmy gowns, all the curves in the right places, but they weren't human and they never would be.
They peered eagerly at me from their side of the room, walled off by invisible fields of energy, and tittered. I eyed the posturing bodies, wondering how many more drinks it would take to make one of them look and feel like a real woman.
"What'sa matter, Gregg?" Sadie's coarse voice held a wealth of understanding. "Not quite human enough? A few more years in space and you won't mind quite so much. Have another drink and I'll see if Juli's up."
She pressed a button and the Rocid filed out, still giggling and posturing mindlessly. I sipped my drink morosely, wondering what was coming next.
"Hello, there. I'm Juli."
She sounded so human that for a second my jaw dropped, the throaty voice sending tingles through my loins. Then I saw she was an alien too, but of a type I'd never seen or heard of. Taller than any human woman, and slender. An impression of bird-like grace emphasized by a cap of crimson feathers that clung tightly to her narrow scalp. Her gown half concealed a thin body that yet had curves in all the right places.
"I'm ... I'm Fortan Gregg." I could feel a sudden warmth coursing through me, and suddenly my body was sitting at attention. Whether it was the soft voice or that last drink that did it, I didn't care. This was no Rocid! "Won't you join me for a drink?"
She moved with an easy grace, folds of gown revealing, concealing, revealing that lovely fine lined body. She spoke little with her strangely accented voice, letting her hands and eyes express her thoughts.
"Juli Na'ar, planet unknown," she answered my unspoken question. "I've no idea where it was. Somewhere in this spiral arm of course, but that takes in a couple million suns. The traders who bought me from my parents weren't human, either."