“This lot says ‘vegetables.’” Arekan read off the description from the worn and cracked compad in his hand. Even as he read it, he knew this was wrong. Vegetables should have been loaded into a stasis unit for transport to protect against spoilage.
“Aye,” confirmed Grokin, “vegetables.”
Arekan and Grokin spent the last two hours double checking the manifest against the stacks of crates in the cavernous hold. It was freezing here, about minus five degrees Celsius. In the first hour, Arekan donned another long sleeve shirt from his duffle and his black leather gloves before he put on his leather jacket. Grokin gave an amused huff when he saw Arekan do this.
“What’s your problem, Bucko? Can’t take the chill?” Grokin chuckled. It was an unsettling sound.
“This cold? Is there a problem with the heating system?” Even as he asked he knew that couldn’t be the answer. The ship’s engines generated heat, which was piped through the ship. Or at least it should. He didn’t know what the hells this collection of cracked bolts did.
And as he thought of it, the gravity in this ship was at least one standard gravitational unit light. This was more than strange, and it wasn’t good either. Men could take short periods of less than the nine Standard Gravitational Units the human body needed for optimal functioning, but long term gravity deprivation harmed the human body.
“The only problem is that the captain is the cheapest bastard alive. He gets run down batteries from salvage and charges them off the engine to sell them.”
“Batteries? What sort of batteries?”
“The kind that powers turboramjets for lift-off?”
“But you can’t recharge those batteries like that. Once the solar regeneration units deplete, you must trash them.”
“Hence the ease in securing them and the difficulty in recharging them. Takes a lot of juice.”
“Juice” not available as heat for the ship. Arekan swallowed hard. It wouldn’t take much for one of those improperly charge batteries to blow.
“And he keeps these things next to the engines?”
“Aye. He found that charging lines burn out if they are too far away from the engine.”
Meaning that the cables couldn’t carry the load.
“Oh hells,” cursed Arekan.
“Don’t worry none about that, Bucko. Tinnen, that would be the engineer, watches those things like a predator. He doesn’t want to blow up any more than the rest of us.”
“Freakin’ wonderful,” muttered Arekan.
“What you need to worry about is making yourself useful on this tub. Okay, I count twenty in this stack. Lot ten oh nine. Tick that off.”
Arekan looked at the decrepit compad in his hand and eyeballed the stack Grokin stood at. Either Grokin couldn’t count, or the first mate counted differently because only nineteen crates towered above the deck. And this was the fifth stack he miscounted.
“Twenty, eh?” said Arekan. He struggled to keep doubt from creeping into his voice.
“Yeah,” growled Grokin with menace, “twenty.”
“Right,” said Arekan He checked marked the lot number on the compad, thinking of other ships he and his father took passage on. Many of them were haulers just like this.
“Shouldn’t we have done this before lift-off?”
“Shut your trap and do what you’re told.”
Grokin shot him a look full of piss and fire for this second time Arekan didn’t address him as “sir.”
“Right, sir,” said Arekan.
“Okay. That would be the last of it. Sign off on it, and we’ll meet the other crew.”
Arekan’s eyes narrowed as he thought over the ramifications of putting his thumbprint on a manifest five crates short of the whole. He had thought it strange that a first mate would perform this task, but now he had a good guess why.
“Nah,” he said, “I’m new here. My signature means nothing. Sir.” He held out the compad to Grokin.
“I said, put your sig on that manifest, wog.”
Arekan snorted. “Look, I don’t freakin’ care what games you play with this cargo, but I will not put my name to it.” He spoke in a low voice hoping that captain’s ever-present ears didn’t catch this part of the conversation.
Grokin’s eyes narrowed, and he swung. Unlike earlier Arekan was prepared. The bigger man put so much into his swing he unbalanced himself. Arekan ducked then pivoted to come to Grokin’s back. A good kick to the man’s backside toppled him into the unforgiving deck.
The first mate grunted and turned up. His jaw bled where it met the metal floor, and there was murder in his eye. Arekan put the compad on a short stack of crates and put his hand on the hilt of his sword. He stood close to Grokin but not so near that the man could grab his ankle.
“Wow, sir,” said Arekan solicitously, “are you okay? Those damn inertial dampeners. You can’t trust them to keep the ship right, can you?”
Grokin’s gaze shifted from Arekan’s face to his hand on the sword and made a derisive sound. But he got to his feet and wiped his chin with his sleeve.
“You’re right, Bucko. They ain’t worth spit. But if they kick out again, it will be your face bleeding into the deck.”
Arekan appraised the man. He was the first mate and had to keep the appearance of authority. In this situation where it was unclear as to who would prevail in a fight, Grokin had to resort to threats to keep a semblance of it with Arekan. And if he didn’t, it was clear he’d make Arekan’s life on this barge hell.
Arekan didn’t need or want that.
“I can see that, sir.”
Grokin gave Arekan an unsettling grin revealing his chipped front teeth.
“Come on. Let’s go meet the crew.”
“Yes, sir.” Arekan grabbed his duffle where it sat against the bulkhead and hiked it on his shoulder. Grokin walked past the compad on the crate and did not pick it up.
“What game is he playing now?” thought Arekan. But Arekan didn’t touch the thing either. It was Grokin’s responsibility to make sure the manifest was in order. Grokin looked over his shoulder toward the compad and then Arekan, and his nose twitched slightly.
“Your name really Thad?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Makes it easier to look up the bounties for you,” said Grokin twisting his lips into a frightening grin.
“We’ve three decks on this boat once we are amidship,” said Grokin. The first mate walked ahead at a fast clip, leaving Arekan to struggle to keep up while hoisting his duffle. “Most of the ship, as you’ve noticed, is the cargo hold. Above the hold and running abeam to each of the propulsion pods is the engine room. You reach the engine room from this ladder here.” Grokin slapped a long ladder reaching to the ceiling with the flat of his hand, “But mind ‘ya Tinnen, our engineer don’t fancy visitors, so don’t bother to be friendly.
“Yes, sir,” said Arekan. Now speaking those two words were automatic and he was beginning to not to like himself for that.
“Amid what?” said Arekan.
“I thought you lived your life on ships,” growled Grokin.
“I did,” replied Arekan. He narrowed his eyes and stared at Grokin. Not every ship used the antiquated Fed-Eng terms. Some used Kyn words for parts of the ship, such as his home ship.
From the middle of this barge,” said Grokin dismissively. “You better smarten up boy, or that sword isn’t going to save ‘ya from looking like a fool.
“Amidship this deck has the crews quarters, the showers, and a small recreation area. Don’t get ‘ya hopes are though. The showers are sonic only and the rec area, well, that’s been torn up by other crew, and the captain won’t replace the equipment. The laundry is there too and that works sometimes.
“The third deck is the bridge, and it’s just a tiny area anyway, accessible from the middle deck. The captain’s quarters are behind the bridge proper, and only Cripin, the navigator who is the second pilot is allowed up there.”
“There are only two people that can pilot this ship?” Arekan liked this less and less.
“Yes, Bucko. Get used to it. So if you have in mind to beat in Cripin’s head, don’t, because of the two he’s the soberest.”
“Great,” said Arekan sarcastically.
“On the upper deck is some passenger quarters and the mess. Because of the size of the crew, we operate on the one-in-two system. Watches start at zero hundred hours and runs to seven hundred hours. The next shift runs from seven hundred to twelve hundred hours, then twelve hundred to seven hundred, and seventeen hundred to zero hundred hours. You’ll start on watch one and do your duties then, except in the case of an attack, and then you better be on deck, watch or no watch.”
“I get it,” said Arekan.
“What did you say?”
“Mealtimes are at seven hundred, twelve hundred and seventeen hundred hours at shift changes when we get ‘em. Cook drinks almost as heavily as the captain, and sometimes he forgets. So if you see food eat it.”
“Grokin, answer me honestly. Why are you on this ship?” said Arekan. “Certainly anyone here can find a better one.”
“Other ships,” growled Grokin, “ask too many questions. Which is why you are here, isn’t it, Bucko. Besides, the pay-outs are decent if we get some good cargo or some salvage.”
“And how does that work?”
“We have an interesting little system. Half of the haul is divided evenly between all the ships members. The other half, Captain gets a half, cause it’s his ship, and the rest divided depending.”
“Depending on what?”
“What our expenses are. Who’s left at the end of the run.”
“Left?” Arekan hardly wanted to ask that question because he was sure he wasn’t going to like the answer.
“We started this trip two men short because of the crew we lost last time. But we’ll pick up some more crew next stop one way or another. We didn’t this time because the impies were hotter than a sun going nova. We couldn’t risk it.”
An incredulous expression must have spread on Arekan’s face because Grokin snorted a half laugh.
“Surely you know, Bucko, that ours is a dangerous profession, and we don’t attract the largest labor pool. Sometimes we have to expand that.”
Arekan didn’t even want to contemplate the idea that crewman was kidnapped from their planet and forced to serve with these brigands. Here we are.”
Grokin walked into the crews quarters, and some said, “Officer on deck.” By the time Arekan entered the four men, there were standing groggily by their bunks at attention.
The room was poorly lit, and the smoke of different noxious substances hung in the air. Ten bunks, stacked two at a time, four against one bulkhead, four against another and two in the middle were fixed into the deck with poles that went to the floor to ceiling. A few of the mattresses were rolled up. The middle bunks seemed unoccupied, and there were no mattresses on them. One either end wall were lockers across what space could accommodate them.
“Buckos, this is Thad Greene, our new blade. We’ve got here Tinnen, Oban, Egran and Cook.”
Arekan looked over the shabby looking men. All sported dark tattoos and varying length of beards. Even in the poor lighting, Arekan could see their clothes were unclean and unkept. All were in various states of intoxication. They looked at him dully and replied hi, hey or said nothing at all.
“Alright, back to ‘ya bunks. Thad, you’re in luck. You get to choose yours. Whatever of the mattresses are rolled up you can take.”
“Yes, sir,” said Arekan. He could hardly believe his luck at having to choose from bad to worse.
Grokin grunted and left the cabin leaving Arekan alone with his new crewmates. He looked them over warily, but they were all too drunk or high to pay much attention to him.
Arekan surveyed the bunks available and found something wrong with each of them. Some were missing supports that would keep the mattress off the ground. Other’s the beds were so stained and dirty he didn’t want to touch them. Finally, he decided one mattress looked relatively clean and moved it to a bunk in the back right-hand corner.
Arekan moved to the lockers and found several with locks on them. He pulled up to the first one without a lock. Crammed with junks, its contents spilled out on the floor and onto Arekan. Hurriedly while cursing under his breath, he jammed the items back in. He checked the next one, cracking it open slightly. It pleased him to find it empty.
Or so he thought.
When he opened the locker wide a mass of long sinewy muscle attached to a long head with sharp fangs launched itself at Arekan hissing furiously.
Acting on instinct, he shifted his body to the extreme left, and the creature sailed by him and landed with a thud on the floor. Arekan whipped out his sword intending on killing the beast, and it whipped around to rear up and hiss at him.
“By the seven hells,” complained one of the crewmen. “Can’t anyone get any sleep around here?”
“Snake!” called out Arekan in anger and shock.
“Yeah,” said the crewman, “that’s Grokin’s pet. Don’t kill it or he’ll kill you.”
“But it, it’s…”
The snake weaved eyeing Arekan until another crewman threw a shoe at it. It turned and fled out of the hatch into the corridors of the ship.
“Well, you’re off on the wrong foot now, blade,” said that man. “There goes our joke on Grokin, and now we can’t collect any money from that. You’re going to have to cover our losses.”
“Yes, Blade. And it doesn’t look good for you that on your first day you end up owing money.”
Image by Starry Night Graphixs