The ship was old and incredibly ugly, as was the case with pretty much every freighter. The things all looked as if they had been traveling around for hundreds of years, because in an uncomfortably large number of cases they actually had. Like every passenger I tried to repress that piece of knowledge when I had to travel with one of these monstrosities.
And there wasn’t really a lot that you could throw away after the “best before” date, even if they’d have one: a freighter was built mainly out of struts, between which the freight containers, life support modules, engines and the big doughnut of the ship reactor were arranged in a haphazard fashion.
Whether the mass distribution of those things was following a plan, or at least any sort of symmetry, wasn’t recognizable, often not even at third sight. The control computers constantly monitored the ship’s orientation and could correct the thrust within milliseconds of a change — for example if a container accidentally got out of place or, isis forbid, broke off — or a micrometeorite damaged one of the engines (another thought that didn’t exactly improve my anticipation of the flight).
The entire thing of course worked only as long as there were any drives at all that could thrust the ship in the right direction. That led to a more or less standardized — or at least somehow logically explainable — arrangement of the engines and control thrusters. That, the decrepit look, and the fact that without cargo most of the freight ships would probably resemble the skeleton of a rat, or maybe a fish, were the only things the freighters had in common.
That particular build was the reason why those ships could not possibly survive a docking with a Residence. That was why unloading was mostly done by movers — tug bots, distant relatives of the mining bots that were little more than a drive package, a fuel tank and a couple of massive grapplers.
Three of the movers were at this moment struggling with the attempt to lift the oversized passenger cabin with all of us inside, using nothing but their verniers. If they’d use their fusion drives in this little room, they would probably blow the entire dock to pieces — or at the very least make it glow in the dark for the next couple of hundred years.
“Man, I really hope this soup can isn’t what they’ll use to drag us all the way out to the ice belt — otherwise the two years are just the time between the toilet stops.” Ayana’s voice came from the bunk right above me, and I could almost see the expression of disgust on her face. Like probably everyone else of us she was occupied watching our start from every thinkable and unthinkable perspective, strapped firmly into her bunk, so that the twists and turns of the tug bots wouldn’t send her slapping face first into the walls of the big cabin.
And as soon as we had left the docking bay, the need for that suddenly became painfully apparent: Whoever controlled the bots, the words “travel” and “comfort” obviously did not belong together in their lexicon. On one hand, I could understand the docking pilots — all they knew, was, that the living module belonged to the asiari. I didn’t assume they had been told that the live goods inside were comprised of their former civilian friends and colleagues. On the other hand, I was pretty sure there were better ways to change the flight vector than by pulsing those monstrous fusion drives of theirs to full thrust for a fraction of a second.
“Yes… yes… harder! …” moaned somebody loudly in the dark cabin at yet another course correction accompanied by the laughter of those of us who were still capable of laughing. Though it didn’t sound like the 38 people assembled in here.
I squeezed my teeth together, so that I didn’t accidentally bite on my tongue during one of those maneuvers, and tried to contemplate. Which, as I discovered later, was the best soporific that I had at my disposal at the moment. Not that I was principally against catching up on my sleep, I just didn’t think it was very funny to wake up with a slowly swelling and hurting tongue from what they probably called “docking” with the freighter.
I sincerely hoped that the maneuver, that had almost cost me the tip of my tongue, didn’t put the already vacuum-eroded struts of the freighter over the edge. The thought of the container breaking off at launch — or worse, at the beginning of the braking burn — and becoming another isis satellite, was slightly less than pleasurable, especially since that satellite, without the ship’s power supply, would soon be quite as dead as all the rest of the isis satellites, rock or otherwise.
The docking, after the initial “contact” with the freighter — in our case, “ramming” was probably a more appropriate term, especially judging by how violently the frighter had to correct with its verniers — consisted mainly of attaching our cell to the cobweb of strutting, and connecting it to the power supply. A duct to the flight crew’s quarters was just as absent as an airlock — the live support systems were integrated into the cabin, that contained everything a ship needed, with a few exceptions, the main exception being, of course, the engines, the power supply, and the means of control.
As in every freighter, the flight crew had their own cabins, in which it lived and from which it controlled the rest of the machinery. Those, together with the drives and the reactor, were usually the only “solid” elements of the ship — which meant, only a laser or a welding torch could get them off the frame. Which also meant, that once the ship was built, the crew cabin only went into dock for a total overhaul or scrapping. Anything that went in or out of there needed to go through the airlock, and had to be able to survive the hard vacuum outside. Which was the reason why rats, and other stowaways, generally preferred the normal living modules.
The less intelligent of both species sometimes tried the freight containers, providing a rather spectacular proof that the theory of natural selection wasn’t just a pipe dream of the Walimu. And reminded me from time to time about the beauty of the Wachimbaji job — quite unlike the dock workers, we didn’t often have a reason to puke all over our workplace. Not a very appetizing business, free fall or no free fall.
As for the crew modules, Komarovs had shown us around in one of theirs as well, being pretty relaxed guys as they were. Those things were furnished better than some quarters I knew. But what surprised me more was, that there actually was a cockpit, with seats, screens, and manual controls — something that told me more about the age of those things than the countless scars on the outside.
That there was such a thing as a crew-module wasn’t just a tradition though: automatic nav systems weren’t very welcome, especially since the even less welcome automatic weapon systems had to follow, to prevent “resourceful entrepreneurs” from capturing those things between stations — or at least to make it more difficult.
Remote controls, outside of the cruise mode, were next to impossible — not even the best pilots, let alone the gunners, were really comfortable with ten-minute delays between sending a command, it’s execution, and receiving the feedback, when the stuff on the other end was happening in real-time. And besides, somebody still had to keep those heaps of junk space-worthy, and even people had often enough trouble with that.
Besides, most of the freighters didn’t just shuttle between A and B, but decided about their next destination by the amount of orders, the fuel price, the state of the ship, the space weather and the mood of the crew, often just one or two stations ahead. Some of them never visited the same haven twice in one trip, traveling all the way around the isis, sometimes on a path that not even the asiari could trace all the way back with any certainty.
The fact that the crew rooms weren’t connected to the passenger rooms had a number of advantages for the crew. Not only could no-one mug the crew, nobody could muck around with the controls or take over the ship either, since none of the modules except the cockpit had access. I did wonder from time to time how that was possible, since terminal connections to the crew worked with no problem. Zakiya tried to explain it once, something about tagging the packets coming through an interface — but for me the relation between tagged packets and filtered data streams was about as clear and intuitive as the relationship between light particles and light waves, and I had to give up. That wasn’t my world — I could maybe exchange a processor block, but that didn’t mean that I had to understand how the damned thing worked.
After I finally heard the rustling of safety frames folding up, and checked once again, that the freight bots had disengaged from our soup box, I released my own safety frame and pushed it aside, stretching extensively, my shoulders against the bunk.
Both the safety frame and the bunk looked not that much different than in other uncomfortable living modules — rectangular pieces of metal frame, with sheets of dense but thin fabric spanned across them. The safety frame was a head shorter and was missing the top metal piece — otherwise I would have had a rod-shaped dent across my chest by now — and both the bunk and the frame could be easily folded against the wall to make better use of the expensive cabin space.
After a few moments of stretching I bumped into Ayana’s back, that I could clearly feel through the thin fabric underneath her. She cursed quietly, floating up from her bunk. Her curse came back as a sort of delayed echo with rather unusual variations, from further three bunks above us.
“Oops, I’m really sorry…” I replied loudly. I didn’t think of that — my reflexes were still Residence reflexes, and my mind was still with one leg in dream space.
A couple of seconds later I heard a number of muffled oofs, and finally Ayana bumped hard against me, catapulting me back into my own bunk, where I grabbed the edges with both hands so that I wouldn’t bounce back and start the whole thing all over. The uppermost guy in the row seemed to have taken the thing too personally, and pushed himself back into the bunk with his feet — quite vehemently, too, since between him and the actual ceiling there was a sheet of fabric just like the one I lay on, making it quite difficult to produce this much thrust. I made a mental notice to find out who was so damn irritable.
“Dummy,” sighed Ayana looking down over the edge of the sheet. In the relative darkness of the cabin I could see a light blurry glow in her eyes — she was still busy looking at the freighter through her lenses.
Which reminded me of my own lenses. It felt like my eyes were completely clogged up, and my lenses had a thick film of goo on them — everything that wasn’t projected looked grainy and blurry at the same time. I rubbed my eyes, which didn’t do either the eyes or the lenses any good, and didn’t change a thing about the coating. So I finally decided to extract them and to clean them — and never to fall asleep with vidlenses in my eyes again. Just like every other time when that had happened.
Suddenly Ayana’s head disappeared, and I heard the rustling and the click of a closing safety frame. I hastily did the same with mine, just in time to prevent myself from flying all the way across the cabin from the hard bump and the push of the freighter’s verniers that followed, unlike some other people who tumbled, collided and cursed in the attempt to get back to their bunks. Now I knew why Ay’s lenses were still on.
“They’re still loading” she explained surly.
“Fucking ratheads! If I’ll ever meet them again, I’ll rip their balls off!” answered somebody from farther above.
“If they have any, cub.” answered Ayana calmly, opening the safety frame again and maneuvering elegantly around all the people who were hectically thrashing the air — probably in search of the privy.
A good idea — we would certainly need it sooner or later. Gamba — that was the name of the guy giving us the nice warm reception earlier, and who seemed also to be our future instructor — revealed to us that the trip would take about half a month. Fifty cycles. Five hundred hours, in an overfilled soup can with nothing to do. Fifty thousand minutes. Since our start, no more than fifty had passed, and I was already bored enough to start counting.
If I thought, boredom would be the worst part of the trip, it was only because I had repressed the ship rations. Normally freighters travelled for a lot longer than our 16-some-odd days, both because of longer distances and because they generally didn’t move fast — not everybody could afford to burn one-fifth of the entire ship’s weight for a trip like this, even if it was just “normal” hydrogen — which, by the way, was the reason for the huge reactor, and the slow-motion rides. On the other hand, with deuterium, or helium-3, no-one would be able to afford to travel at all. I was already wondering as it was, how much the asiari had to pay for the extra thrust on this trip here.
Whatever it was: to carry extra food or drink for months-long trips wouldn’t have been very efficient for the flight crews either. And that’s why — and of course to reduce the amount of excess waste — they would recycle everything on board that was recyclable. Not that it was a bad thing — the residences didn’t do it too differently — but on a flight like this they could hardly take all the high-pressure synthesis equipment and the bioreactors with them, that were necessary to produce the synthetic meat fiber, the flavors, and similar frills, bells and whistles. Which resulted in the selection of foods on board being “somewhat” limited — to a sticky, viscid, transparent mass of goo, whose pristine taste resembled something like sweet-salty varnish garnished with tarnish, and which apparently was easily extractable out of some designer algae, whose job it was to eat all of our waste as fast as possible.
What that goo really was, was a nutrient solution, that unfortunately had to be applied by mouth, instead of intravenously, and allegedly contained everything the human organism needed for its survival. As a feeble attempt to compensate for the unfortunate fact that a human organism, to the great nuisance of all the nutritionists out there, also contained such a thing as taste buds, the vending machine, from which we received our daily bread, also offered the choice between a number of flavor concentrates, which it mixed into the solution. Aside from the usual meat, fish, sausage and cheese flavors there also were a number of different fruit, most of which I’ve never seen in person. I had tried some of the namesakes of said fruit at Komarovs’, and found that they didn’t resemble anything out of that machine except the names. The machine also had a number of flavors whose only occurrence in nature was probably limited to the imagination of food designers, and that, strangely enough, reminded me of colors. Or maybe it was paints.
Unfortunately, those flavors weren’t manufactured on the freighter, which, in my experience, meant that on any given trip they lasted for about five days. If anything lasted longer, it was only because that particular flavor had been there for the last three trips already, and had developed a very particular flavor indeed, probably along with an intelligence of its own.
If somebody adamantly insisted on having something to chew on, the entire thing could be fried, turning it into a flat transparent block with the consistency of a rubber boot, with the additional benefit of tasting slightly burned. Normally I passed on that treat — despite the viscous consistency of the fluid I at least mostly managed to knock it back past my taste receptors, a feat that was rather difficult to accomplish with the gumboot surrogate.
But in the first couple of days — before the flavors ran out — I tended to hoard “meat flavored” blocks. They were, in principle, indestructible, since nothing except a few very stubborn and rare varieties of mold and us space travelers were crazy enough to attempt and assault one of those.
About ten days later, however, they turned into something that, with one’s eyes closed and a lot of imagination, could pass for a way too salty steak, and could be used as a chewing gum for days on end, serving as a welcome distraction from the boredom of a freighter flight.
The first five and a half cycles we spent lying down — not because of the acceleration, it was a meager fifth of a standard g — but our room was designed for free fall, and as such was far too crowded for thirty-eight people under acceleration. Besides, for those who had the luck to get the topmost of the six-level bunks, moving around wasn’t entirely free of danger either — mass was still mass, no matter the weight.
But despite not even being able to mail home due to asiari’s comm restrictions on top of the rip-off connection prices — the boredom failed to arise: Gamba had something against it. Unfortunately, as we had to find out.
He gave us one cycle to catch up on our sleep, which was fair enough. Then he gave us a full-time education program to chew on — the computer projected all of us into a classroom, face to face with a virtual Gamba, who could teach us all the military terminology, weapon schemata and battle strategies without even having to leave the comfort of his personal cabin. All of that was followed by a test, which most of us weren’t prepared for, and consequently received a “failed” from the computer as a reward, followed by Gamba giving the less fortunate of us a “homework” for the precious little time during which he left us alone. And the only thing we could do to relax was to trade jokes, that got more frequent and grittier by the hour — a trend that, as I found out later, would continue all the way through our training program, as one of the few things to keep ourselves sane. If that word had ever applied to a bunch of juvenile diggers in tightly confined spaces in the first place.
When after about two days the engines finally shut off, we all had the feeling, our heads were about to explode — not just from the fluids that suddenly didn’t have any incentive to prefer one part of the body over another.
Everybody groaned and hoped that at least the zero-g was reason enough for Gamba to change the schedule. And it was: in the first class that we spent floating, and that didn’t contain any less theory than any of the others, Gamba announced “a surprise”. Whatever the others were expecting, I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be anything good. When finally the sleeping cycle arrived, we collectively sighed in relief — it seemed, Gamba had forgotten his little promise. At least that was what we had hoped.
When in the middle of the sleeping cycle the lights in the cabin suddenly went to full, I just as suddenly understood what the “surprise” was about.
“Up, you rats! Lenses in, bunks up!” bellowed Gamba in the tiny cabin so loudly that one could hear the sound waves reflecting back and forth from the walls, adding to the already substantial noise level in the cabin. The acoustic properties of our living module were rivaled only by a standard-g toilet bowl.
After the bunks and the partitions were finally folded back, and the chaos receded somewhat, we wound up inhabiting a relatively large hall, that, however, looked rather full with the thirty eight people and one instructor distributed among all the six walls.
“Today we will start with our zero-G infighting lessons.” Gamba continued, fortunately at a slightly lower volume setting, posting himself in the middle of what formerly had been the floor. A circle of floor devoid of students suddenly and mysteriously appeared around him.
“Kumani too po’ to buy weapons, huh?” came an answer from a wall.
“Not at all” answered Gamba cooly. “What will you do in this room here, where shooting would blow you and all your friends out into space? Or if the enemy catches you unarmed?”
“I’ll kick him in the balls so hard, he’ll stick to the ceiling.” murmured Ayana sleepily, earning giggles from our fellow sufferers, and a sharp look from the instructor.
“You wouldn’t even get a chance to try. Yes, for many of you, movement in zero-G is nothing new…” somebody yawned loudly, receiving a look that didn’t bode any good.
“… since that was one of our selection criteria. Concerning the fight, however, I doubt very much that you stand a chance against a trained asiari. You over there, with the exceptionally big mouth” — he pointed in the direction of the yawner — “move over here.” The guy reluctantly left his place on the former ceiling and maneuvered in Gamba’s direction.
“Since you don’t seem very interested in what I have to say, I assume you know all about zero-G infighting already. Please demonstrate.”
The victim, whose name the computer revealed to be Okpara, and who also happened to be the very excitable fellow from the top bunk, didn’t need a second invitation. He stroke out, remaining in a firm stance, and hit, aiming at Gamba’s solar plexus, with the directions calculated so that the blowback would press him against the floor and lift Gamba off the ground. Which was nice in theory. In practice, however, Gamba turned aside just before the blow would land, caught Okpara’s arm and pulled him further into the direction of the hit and his own rotation, so that the poor guy sailed through the air and landed head first on a couple of less than thrilled spectators on the wall, while Gamba remained firmly planted where he was. The main reason for that was Okpara’s impulse, and not the weak adhesive shoes Gamba was using — those haven’t been of much use to his opponent either.
“Does anybody else feel the need to make an ass of himself before I can finally start to teach you something?”
This time, there were no objections — nobody seemed too hot to repeat Okpara’s embarrassing performance.
A couple of hours later, though, we had to realize that we didn’t really have a choice: After showing us a couple of techniques and moves that we could practice against each other for a while, and after a questioning session on whether or not we understood the reasons for this event, he tested everyone of us personally.
Even those of us who seem to have had some experience with this orderly kind of fight — and to my surprise, there was quite a number of those — didn’t look very good against Gamba. Since he, of course, had a block for every demonstrated move (and a number of more obscure ones), and liked to end a test by catapulting the poor student all the way across the room. It took the audience quite a while to figure out where the victim was going to land, but after that the test subjects started to crash against the scantly padded walls instead of their fellow students.
I couldn’t wait to see how he would manage to do that with Ay. I had my problems with it — her strength alone was enough to make some of the parrying moves completely ineffective, and others at least painful. I assumed, there had to be better moves, and that we would learn them sooner or later — eventually even during this trip — but I wouldn’t mind having them demonstrated early. Analyzing and understanding movement was right in my ballpark — the only reason for my success in z-ball, since I was the smallest of the guys on the team. Maybe I could gain a little advantage for my own hour of plight.
It was her turn before mine, which I was very grateful for. The defense moves were tested first, and Ay seemed to keep up rather well. She did a couple of mistakes, and seemed to improvise in a place or two, but Gamba didn’t really manage to penetrate her defenses anyway — even if she got an angle wrong, or too short a lever, she compensated with sheer force. And besides, she seemed to be quite experienced at hand-to-hand combat — I suspected, the bar fights had a thing or two to do with it. Then it was her turn to attack. The first couple of moves Gamba parried the way he showed to us, even though it must have hurt. Then he switched the technique and executed most of the blocks with his legs, and hit Ay pretty badly in the process.
The last hit was a sham — Ayana pretended to aim for the “weapon” with her right foot, and Gamba turned at the speed of lightning to parry the hit with his leg. Instead, Ayana used the upward impulse to strike with the tip of her left foot straight into a point which wouldn’t even have been accessible if Gamba hadn’t turned — lifting him straight off the floor. I couldn’t help but cringe in sympathy for a fellow male being, while Gamba hit the ceiling with his head and his shoulders, holding his crotch — hardcup or no hardcup, that didn’t seem to have been very comfortable.
“Thank you, Bwana, Now I understand why this lecture is good for us,” said Ayana calmly to a rather wounded Gamba, when he finally reached the floor again.
“Yes?” asked Gamba cautiously, re-assuming his position.
Ay tipped the battery pack on her left temple with her finger — “So we don’t have to rely on buggy combat software. Bwana.”
The rest of our relatively eventless journey was spent with daily theory courses and repeated training, Ay had something useful to do even during her formerly free time, and our vacuum toilets suddenly became a lot cleaner.
Continued in “You’re in the Army Now”