BRYONY’S DILEMMA BY ALYSIANAH NOIRE
ArcCorp Area 18 | Sleep Pod Barracks #21
Fog laps at the edges of a dimly lit street. Debris turns to mush in shallow pools of rain. Vermin scurry, snatching morsels from overflowing trash bins. A neon marquee flickers intermittently then fades to black before restarting. Letters scroll by identifying Pod Barracks #21, a row of nondescript cement towers. You’re asleep inside sleep pod 16. Over the hum of the air recycler, you hear the rat-a-tat of raindrops pelting the pavement. Ugh, just what you need. Your chest rumbles when you breathe. You shiver and wipe beads of sweat off your forehead.
You’re asleep inside sleep pod 16. Over the hum of the air recycler, you hear the rat-a-tat of raindrops pelting the pavement. Ugh, just what you need. Your chest rumbles when you breathe. You shiver and wipe beads of sweat off your forehead. “Not yet. More sleep.” Exhaustion drags you back under. Your eyelids clamp shut. Heavy as a stone, you plummet into blackness. Time stands still until…
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. A loud beeping ricochets around the pod. You flay a hand over your exposed ear as if swatting a mosquito. Yawning, your wits begin knitting themselves back into place. Alarm clock!
You groan. Your stomach grumbles. From muscle memory, you whack the button on the panel overhead. Ahhh, sweet sweet snooze. Curling into a ball, you grab a fistful of blanket and drift back to sleep.
Precisely fifteen minutes after hitting snooze for the second time, your sleeping pallet begins vibrating. Muscles and joints protest. You groan but can’t afford to be late. Gingerly, you roll over onto your back, turn off the alarm and flip on the lights. You take a moment to wake up more fully and gain your bearings.
You’re in a stark white claustrophobia-inducing fiberglass tube. Pinpricks in the ceiling cast diffused light. Cubbyholes of varying sizes line the curved side walls. Your UEE Citizen dog tag and mobiGlas are in the cubby closest to you. Yesterday’s uniform and work boots are in a heap at your feet. You peek through the slatted window behind you. Dawn is creeping up over the horizon. At least it’s stopped raining – for now.
Propped up on an elbow, you grab your dog tag and slip it over your head and clip your mobiGlas to your wrist. You inch toward the pod’s entrance by sliding on your butt. Before deactivating the door lock with your heel, you check that your PJs are still snapped shut. The pod door hisses as it retracts. You scoot into a sitting position, your legs dangling out over the edge of the sleeping pod. Your slippers are hanging on a nearby hook. You mindlessly put them on while rummaging in the wardrobe inset into the wall on your right.
You hop down into the growing throng of residents preparing for the zero-five-hundred shift change. They’re in various states of undress. You nod ‘morning to familiar faces, fellow transients, and low-wage workers at an industrial facility or loading dock here on ArcCorp. You check that you have everything you need to get going. A bathroom kit is wedged under your right arm. Work boots attached by their shoelaces are slung over the opposite shoulder. A freshly laundered uniform is on a hanger in your right hand. When you turn to head toward the restrooms, you see Naomi. Punctual to a fault, she’s already dressed in the drab and common olive colored jumpsuit you all wear. Waving a hand back and forth, you croak out her name – once…twice.
It takes her a moment to figure out who’s calling her. When she realizes it’s you, she smiles and heads your way. “What’s doing?” Her voice is light and cheerful. Curse her, it’s too early to be chipper.
“Not much. Heading to the salt mines.” You hold up your uniform as evidence.
She laughs. “Ouch, still shuffling crates?”
You nod in disgust.
Her mouth puckers as if tasting something sour. “Damn. Short on experience but you’ve got certs.”
You’re seized by a coughing fit as you’re about to reply. You have to clear your throat a couple of times before you can speak. “Tell me about it.”
As your coughing continues her face takes on a yikes look. “That sounds nasty.” She mockingly takes a step back. “Taking anything?”
“Didn’t want to spend the creds. Trying to get outta this dump. At least get a real room.”
She laughs. “You and me both!” She adopts a more serious tone. “Still salty I never got moved to the shift manager dorms like my contract says. But who the hell am I going to complain to here?”
You rub your throat which is starting to burn. “Exactly.”
“I don’t push ‘cuz it could be worse. We dropped a hundred freshies last week. No warning.” No free ride off-world like their contract says. They’re basically screwed.” Punching you on the shoulder she adds, “These days steady creds, couple meals and a bed is the dream.”
Pointedly looking around, you reply with disgust, “Yeah… it’s the dream alright.” Inside you’re disappointed with yourself and situation. Most of all, your stupid choices that landed you here.
Naomi’s voice pulls you out of your reverie. Checking her mobi she says, “Better get moving. Don’t be late. I’ll catch you later.”
You nod in agreement and turn to walk away. Over your shoulder, you call out, “grub later?”
“Sure – meet you at G after the shift.”
The wait in line for an all-in-one restroom cube was less than five minutes. With the exception of a small mirror above the pull out washbasin, the interior and all of the fixtures are made of stainless steel.
You use the pull-out toilet to relieve yourself. The smell of the disinfectant used to make you gag but you’re used to it now. You wash your hands, face and splash water under your arms. That’s as good as it’s getting today. Brushing your teeth, you take a good look in the mirror. Bleh, you look exactly how you feel. Your cheekbones are more pronounced, body leaner and arms more defined. Wide-eyed wonder has been replaced by dark rings of harsh reality. You run a hand through your severely short haircut. It suits the new you that’s evolving. You aren’t the same person who eagerly waved goodbye to parents, a comfortable home, and a scholarship because “I need adventure in my life before settling down! C’mon dad, I need to see more than this planet. There’s a universe to explore!”
Unfortunately, having your business associates steal your ship, stranding you on ArcCorp, wasn’t the grand adventure you had in mind. No way gonna message home for a hand-out. And couldn’t hit up friends either, all of whom were at university with tight pockets of their own. You’re better than these first few mistakes. Pointing a finger at the reflection in the mirror you assert, “If granny made it out here on her own, so can I!”
Through bouts of coughing, you slide into your jumper and put on work boots. You chuck the paper slippers in the recycler and ball up your PJs. Dressed in a clean uniform you feel a bit better. You stop by your sleeping pod to grab a plastic laundry bag. The front of the bag is stamped with your UEE ID barcode. You shove yesterday’s uniform and PJs into the bag. Heading toward the back entrance, you drop it down the laundry shoot. Bracing yourself for the weather you exit the barracks.
Towering industrial buildings box you in on all sides, stealing the meager sunlight of an overcast sky. The air is thick with moisture. You shiver as a clammy breeze snakes down the collar of your jumpsuit. You check your mobi. Good – just enough time to make a quick trip to the Area 18 Med Unit. As much as you loathe spending the credits, you can’t see how you’ll make it through the day without something. You mutter to yourself as you approach the Area 18 Medical Unit. “Better not be crowded…” Tan walls, shiny floors, and uncomfortably bright lights. They’re all the same – medical facilities. A twinge starts in the pit of your stomach as you enter the triple-wide sliding glass doors. They hiss and whomp as they retract.
You wrinkle your nose at the potent antiseptic smell. Instantly, your mind is transported to five years earlier when you and your parents were frequent visitors to the hospice facility where your grandmother had been placed. Days turned into weeks of visiting every day. Watching — and waiting for her to die. She’d lived to a ripe old age. Feisty and fearless, roaming the galaxy in a souped-up science ship with granddad. She even kept at it after he was gone. Seeing her crippled and deflated by age was hard to watch. The remembered loss grabs you by the throat, threatening to suffocate you. The pain of it, as lethal today, as it was then.
Throw the throng of people milling around while waiting to be seen, you spot the QuickMeds dispenser across the waiting room and sprint to it. Eyes front, you block out everything around you except the display case. Your nose pressed against the glass, you scan the medicinal options. “What the hell? This is crazy.” You contemplate not buying anything. You can tough it out another… Before you finish the thought you’re seized by a hacking cough that near doubles you over. That seals it. You can’t afford to be dismissed from the shift altogether. “Freakin’ spacelane robbery!”
You choose a moderately priced antibiotic and a low priced cough suppressant from the QuickMeds LED display. A 60/40 mixture stem should do it. After confirming your purchase and authorizing payment, the dispenser begins to whir. You hear faint metallic clinking noises. You anxiously tap your fingers on the glass while watching the progress meter inch toward ‘Ready’. When it’s done, a metal drawer slides open from the bottom of the dispenser. You grab the package and go. On your way out the sliding doors, you pop the top off the stem, exposing the head with its pincushion of needles. You quickly jab it into the left side of your neck. Wincing you say, “shit better work.”
Walking briskly through the growing crowd of pedestrians, you arrive at loading dock J42 with a few minutes to spare. You hurry up the stairs, turn right and swipe your ID to open the security gate. A Freelancer MAX is parked on the landing pad. Quasar is painted with gold metallic swirls encircling the letters like a tornado. You recognize the ship and it’s Captain. He unloads cargo here a few times a week. Being that this landing pad is for smaller cargo vessels, the Quasar is the first of many Freelancers you expect to unload today. There will also be the occasional Avenger or Hull A. But in these parts, the boring Lancer is king.
You’re not a fan of the Lancer’s design. With its elongated forward cabin, slightly bigger than the neck on which it rests, the Lancer has always reminded you of pictures you’ve seen of tortoises found on Earth. Not an attractive shape for a ship in your eyes. But you ain’t going to complain by starting with a small one today. You walk forward to join coworkers who are standing around Zone Manager Rodrick. You put on your work gloves as Rodrick begins speaking. He’s a no-nonsense ex-military guy with a booming voice.
“Listen up!” He waits for silence. “We have a newly registered Connie arriving on platform J45. It’s going to take a bit longer to process her through. To stay on schedule I’m going to switch things up.”
Rodrick checks his mobi before continuing. “I’m leaving a few of freshies here to process the MAX. It’s business as usual.” He points over his shoulder to the man standing by the ship’s cargo bay. “You all know Captain Chuzen.”
You look to where Rodrick is pointing to see Captain Chuzen talking in a huddle with his crew.
Rodrick checks his mobi again and begins calling names. “Bryony as cargo inspector.” Wait. What? That’s you! You hesitate. When you don’t move, Rodrick looks up and calls your name again. Coworkers standing nearby give you the “Are you stupid? look”
You gain your composure. “Sir… Yes, Sir, I’m here.” You separate from the crowd and walk forward. Thomas, the actual inspector for J42 gives you a “What the fuck?” look as you go by. You shrug your shoulders in his direction.
Rodrick calls out the rest of the assignments. Thomas has been assigned to lead the team processing the new Connie. Damn, you’re jealous of that one. You’d rather be unloading crew, getting a chance to see inside the Connie, than leading the team processing a tortoise.
When all’s said and done, you have three cargo movers assigned to you. Rodrick hands you the Inspector mobi and says, “You know your way around this right?”
You nod your head. “Yes, Sir.”
He continues. “The ship’s manifest, travel log and cargo list are loaded. I want this done quickly.” He makes eye contact with the others in the group. “An Aurora CL is scheduled to touch down in 30. I want the MAX gone before it arrives.” Everyone nods their head.
As Rodrick is about to step away, Thomas comes forward. “Sir, I think I should stay here to make sure this is processed quickly. I can walk Bryony through it and join the J45 team right after.”
Rodrick looks surprised but not annoyed by the interruption. “Bryony can handle it. I need you with the other team. First time processing is a full inspection, as you well know”, he says in an admonishing tone. “It’s gonna take more time and I’m not having my schedule jacked over it.”
Thomas starts to speak but Rodrick cuts him off. “Is there a problem?”
You look at Thomas quizzically wondering, “What’s your problem?” There’s a long silence. Thomas’ eyes cut toward the MAX. You and Rodrick both notice and look in that direction too.
“No, nothing. Just trying to make sure regular customers get good service.” Thomas replies.
Rodrick claps Thomas on the back. “Captain Chuzen’s not goin’ anywhere. He’ll forgive us a hiccup or two.” Looking pointedly at you, he adds, “But that’s not going to happen is it?”
You stand up a little straighter and add a little bit of base to your voice. “No, Sir! It’ll be like clockwork, Sir.”
“Excellent” Rodrick slaps you on the shoulder and walks away with Thomas trailing behind.
Scanning through the manifest you notice a discrepancy between the ship logs and its approved route plan. The log shows an unscheduled stop in Cathcart. “Probably just an oversight. Last minute change of plans,” you shrug. Around you, the team is preparing to unload the cargo. Joey, a hefty bald guy in his early thirties, is hoisting himself into a mech suit to handle the heavier crates. The suit hydraulics hiss and clank as he stretches and retracts the arms, and tests rotating the hand clamps. The other two, Rhon and Alya, grab hover carts for the smaller crates. The platform vibrates under your feet as Joey lumbers toward the Freelancer. You head toward Captain Chuzen.
You approach the Captain of the Quasar, your hand extended in greeting. His meaty hand grabs yours and gives it a quick shake. Captain Chuzen’s hair, wide sideburns, and beard are all immaculately trimmed. His hands are callous free with manicured nails. No bruises, no tats mar his skin. If not for the Quasar jumpsuit, you’d mistake him for the office type, not a space trucker.
“Morning Captain. I’m Bryony. I’ll be overseeing your inspection and unloading today.”
Captain Chuzen’s staring off in the direction Roderick and Thomas went. “Where’s Thomas going? He usually handles my ships. He keeps it quick and simple. Suits are schedule.”
“He’s helping Roderick with a new Connie coming in on LZ J45.” Adding more confidence to your voice you continue. “We’ll get you done as fast.”
Distractedly Captain Chuzen replies, “Sure kid. Let’s get moving.”
“Excellent.” Flipping through screens on the inspector mobiGlas you continue. “One thing to clear up first.” You raise the mobi up so Chuzen can see the display. “There’s seems to be a discrepancy between your ship log and your approved flight plan.” You gain the Captain’s full attention. But his only reply is a grunt.
You continue. “Yes, it’s showing an unscheduled stop in Cathcart. Ship appears to have docked at Spinward for roughly 2 hours.” Hesitantly you add, “I think that’s part of your company’s no-fly zone regulations?” Rethinking how that might have come out you say, “Not that it’s our business. We just have to perform a different kind of inspection for ships with stops outside of UEE space.” Chuzen’s eyes narrow and his silence makes you nervous but you press on. “’Cuz of… the kinda… of stuff happening there. Robberies. Hijackings and uh — contraband.” Emphasizing this isn’t an uncommon situation you say, “Not a big deal on our end. Just different forms and takes a little longer. But we can still get you out of here in about the same time as usual.”
Captain Chuzen is staring you up and down like sizing up an opponent. You don’t want to be his opponent. You just want to get this done quickly. Beads of sweat start forming on your forehead as the silence stretches out. Are the meds wearing off?? You wipe your forehead on the back of your sleeve. Clearing your throat you suggest, “Maybe you had an emergency? If you can state the reason and add it to your official logs, I can re-sync and get the inspection started.” Pointing toward the ship you add, “We’re already starting to unload. This really isn’t a big deal.”
Like flipping a switch, Captain gives you a wry smile, puts his arm around your shoulder and pulls you in close. You’re not pleased by the gesture which violates what you consider your personal space. But you go with it since he’s talking.
“You see kid it’s like this.” He continues in a conspiratorial tone. “Sometimes when we’re ahead of schedule we like to take a break. Blow off some steam. Stretch our legs. Have something other than space rations. “ His tone is nonchalant. “We may wander off course for a bit of recreation.” He steps back and waves his hand in an “it’s not big deal” manner and concludes, “No harm. No foul.”
You’re surprised they could get away with that undetected. I mean, it’s in the ship logs. That’s how you know that they went to Cathcart. You scratch your head in confusion. “But that stuff shows in the ship logs?”
“Not by the time we go back for inspection,” he laughs. “Forgot to take care of it before hitting Stanton. In more of a hurry than usual.” He flicks his thumb off the end of his nose and winks.
You’ve got no reasonable response to that explanation. Like what the hell? “But…” He cuts you off.
“You get paid extra to unload ships faster? Or extra creds for playing inspector on my ship today?”
“See what I mean! Me and the boys stopped in Cath for a bit of a stretch. Have a real meal planetside. We don’t report it ‘cuz we don’t want anyone getting the idea to add more stops on our route. Beaners love “more work same pay” thing, stiffing civs like you and me.”
Your throat is starting to itch. You want to cough but Captain Chuzen is leaning in too close. You’d cough right in his face. Another beat of very uncomfortable silence follows as you hold back your cough and really have no idea what to say.
“Not even your job. You want the hassle of more forms to complete?”
You clear your throat and swallow the urge to cough. “Not really. Haven’t seen those forms before myself. Above my pay grade.” There’s an echo resentment in your tone.
Chuzen seizes on it. “See what I mean. That’s my point exactly! More work, same pay.”
That last bit got you thinking that maybe he’s right. You nod your head slowly at first. “You’re right.” A little something extra for today could replace what you spent on meds this morning, get more to help sleep better tonight or a full meal., Is that really too much to ask? But you’re sure nothing extra is coming for acting as inspector on this ship. Shrugging your shoulders you concur, “like you sad, Not my real job anyway.”
Captain Chuzen claps you on the shoulder. “What’s your ID kid? I’ll shoot you some cred as a thanks.”
It’s tempting but you know that’s strictly against regulations and could cost you your job if anyone found out. Shit as it is, it’s still a job and it’s the company that should be compensating you for doing the extra work. Shaking your head you say, “No. Not necessary. Let me hurry up with the interior inspection then I’ll validate the off-loaded cargo and get you on your way.”
Relaxed and jovial Chuzen replies, “Great. Going to stretch my legs and throw one back at G-Loc. Buzz me when you’re done.”
“Sure thing. Won’t be long.”
Walking up the rear ramp into the primary cargo bay, you nod as you pass Joey. He’s busy stacking three crates precariously on top of each other. You wonder what he’s about when you notice that Alya is coming up behind you.
Alya’s the new kid on the dock. For a quick second, it stings that no one tries to get your attention anymore. Then you remember that you don’t want that kind of attention anyway. Alya’s still into being who she was before she landed here — the ass end of Stanton. Well near it anyway. From what you’ve heard, Hurston is even worse with its pea-soup smog and a shortage of living accommodations. Rumor has it workers have resorted to sharing sleeping tubes. You pull a face at the mere thought.
You turn your attention back to Joey. “If that falls and gets damaged you better have another gig lined up. Rod will have your ass. ”
Joey laughs and raises his voice unnecessarily. “I got this kid. Gonna help you do it in record time. You know I’m the best mech operator we got.”
You watch Joey glance to the side to see if Alya is paying him any attention. She’s not. She’s stacking smaller crates on the hover cart, scanning them as she goes. A lock of hair falls forward and blocks her view. She tries pushing it behind her ear but that’s near impossible with the oversize padded gloves she’s required to wear. She gives up in a huff after three attempts. You chuckle, remembering when that was you.
Realizing that Ayla isn’t going to pay him any attention, Joey’s resumes his normal speaking voice. “We do this super fast and maybe Rod gives you this zone. Stick Thomas elsewhere.”
While it would be music to your ears if they officially bumped you up, why would Joey care? You ask him. “Nice for me. Why do you care?”
Maneuvering himself down the ramp he replies, “I ain’t gonna get it and something about ole Tommy boy don’t sit right. Count close and see what you make of it.”
You’re not a fan of Thomas yourself. He’s always hunched over like he’s trying to fold in on himself. And there’s something about his eyes. They’re shifty, always darting around like a trapped rodent. Beyond that though, you don’t know of any wrong he’s done. And what did Joey mean by that last comment? Count close? You want to ask him but he’s out of earshot now and there’s no time waste. You’ve got a job to do and just enough time to do it.
You do a perfunctory scan of the main and secondary cargo bays, swiping the radar wand across the walls, ceiling and, floor as you go. When the door to the crew cabin swishes open, you’re surprised by the cleanliness. The bunk beds inset into the walls on each side has been made – more or less. The random personal items stashed in the cubbies look neatly placed. You’re instantly jealous of the personal Spectrum LCDs hung above each bed. You’d kill to have one of those to pass the evenings with when your creds are low and your stomach is grumbling.
Continuing to move forward, you notice that immediately after the berths, there’s a toilet shower combo on one side and a cramped single counter kitchenette on the other. Standing in the middle of the aisle, you can almost touch the door to the commode and the food prep station on the other side. That must make for interesting situations. You thought your accommodations were small. You’re not eating and shitting within arm’s reach. But the truth is, you’d switch places in a heartbeat to get outta here. You continue casually scanning your surroundings. So far the ship has a clean bill of health. No illegal substances detected. You expect to encounter the same as you enter the flight deck.
When the door opens onto the flight deck you stand there for a moment taking it all in. You remember the pride and elation piloting your own ship. And this is not too shabby. Not too shabby indeed. You might not like the look of the ship from the outside but the interior is winning you over.
The flight deck contains four high back cushy seats, perfect for long hop travel. There’s one for the pilot, co-pilot and two additional passengers. The Quasar’s been around the ‘verse a few times but the components show very little wear and tear. They’re substantial — meaty, like an oversized breakfast. You check the time on your mobi – still 15 minutes to spare.
You step down to the pilot’s seat and survey the instrumentation. You wistfully glide your hand above the controls. Feeling a bit audacious, you slide into the pilot’s seat. The dash is massive with slots for personal storage — beverage holder, small firearms, whatever. The field of view reminds you more of a ground vehicle or passenger transport vessel but you sort of like it. The struts are thick and blocky which makes sense for an industrial ship with a reputation of long reliable years of service. Definitely a step up from the Aurora that you got swindled out of, leaving you stranded on ArcCorp, scrapping for survival. A call comes through on your mobi. You almost jump out of your skin!
You answer it. “Bryony here.”
It’s Joey. “Cargo’s in transport hangar.”
“Great. It’s a go here, coming out.” You exhale. Time to hop back to it. You walk briskly through the cabins, your footsteps echoing in the now empty ship. You break into a jog when you hit the rear exit ramp.
You head over to the transportation hangar. Just a fancy name for the section of the landing pad that has a protective tarp over it and is reserved for pickups. Two ArcCorp trucks are standing by to collect cargo and transport them to their next destinations.
Joey, still in his mech suit is standing by the first stack of cargo. “Record time,” he brags. “Stacked, scanned and Trans ID’d. Needs your sig and it’s done.”
“Cool! We killed this with time to spare. Thanks!” You mock bump fists with his mech hand. As you quickly survey the piles, you notice one of the crates is a good distance from the rest. Rohn and Alya are approaching. You point to the lone crate. To no one, in particular, you ask, “Why’s that one way down there?”
Alya shrugs. Rohn and Joey look at each other.
Joey answers. “That one – blue Big Box crate always goes there. Thomas has us separate it out for special delivery.”
You screw up your face and cock your head to the side. “Really?” You don’t recall having seen that in the past. “You sure?” Rohn and Joey nod in agreement. That seems odd. Big Box is one of the more expensive and secure storage containers from Stor-All. They’re tough specialty crates. With a titan-grade metal exterior, a ribbed body skeleton and a cushioned super-reinforced ablative rubber interior. They’re used for fragile important cargo.
You scan through the Quasar cargo manifest. Nothing but common ship components and raws. You don’t see anything that would warrant the Big Box. Worse you don’t see the container listed in the inventory. So why is it here? Why is it being set aside?
Noticing the consternation on your face, Rohn shrugs his shoulders. Even through the padded jumpsuit, he looks starved. As if a sudden breeze would blow him off the platform. “Been doing this for months Bry. That crate from Quasar always goes there. You just never noticed. Don’t ever operate the mech suit or come up here to talk to Thomas while he’s doing the final sign off. It’s legit according to him.” He points a thumb over his shoulder. “Just go with the flow. We’re done with time to spare. Let’s catch a quick break.”
Rohn had a point. If you call it now, you’ll beat the best unloading time for the Quasar for the quarter. But something is itching at the back of your brain. “Sure, you all take a break, I’ll call it in.” You check your mobi. Ten minutes left to spare. You watch the team walk away, chatting among themselves. Joey is pulling up the rear clomping along in the Mech suit.
Just before entering the Employee-only habicube that’s next to the platform steps, Joey turns back to you. He puts his hand up in the air with his fingers splayed open and then starts folding them down one by one. You flip your hands palms up and shrug. “What??” Slowly he pops each finger back up. Then it hits you — he’s counting. Oh. OOOOOOOH. Your eyes bulge. When he realizes you get his meaning he shoots you a thumbs-up and you do the same in return.
Like puzzle pieces, things falls into place, forming an uncomfortable idea. An unscheduled stop. Thomas and Captain Chuzen’s concern about who’s doing the inspection. An unlisted crate set aside for special delivery. “Well… Fuck!” you curse under your breath. “Really? I need this shit?” Then again, it doesn’t have to be my problem if it’s been going on for months. You can sign off and it will be business as usual.
You walk over to the container. It’s only 2 feet by 2 feet. Too big to sneak past passenger security but small enough to fly under the radar of someone carting it off. You pass over it with the scanner. Nothing detected. You use your temporary inspector code to fiddle with the settings, changing it to a high-grade scan. Still nothing. They could be using scan protection tech.
Taking the few extra credits Chuzen had offered, is sounding good about now. But are you that desperate? You note the chills are slowly starting to return as the meds you took this morning wear off. Still — aren’t these the same kind of people that tricked you into disengaging your ship’s transponder code before stealing it and dumping you here? If Chuzen and crew ever get caught, it will be too easy to trace if he’s ever made payments to ArcCorp personnel. That’s not the kind of mess you want to be mixed up in. Sign off and mind your business. Whatever’s inside is eluding detection by the equipment you’ve been given. Wash your hands of it. Maybe Roderick will suggest a little something be thrown your team’s way for beating the standing record. Anything – any little gesture will help you out.
On the inspector mobi, you access the cargo authorization file for the Quasar. You tap it once to display the inspection outcome section. You press your thumbprint in the Inspector authorization code slot. You inhale and hold your breath as your finger hovers over green indicator for “inspection passed”. Your heart thuds in your ears as your finger is poised to tap green. At the last second you slide it over and press “yellow” – failed and “red” possible contraband detected. Feeling lightheaded you back up and flop down on the nearest crate.
Head in hands you ask yourself, “Why Bry, why?” But you know the answer. Right is right and wrong ain’t. Your mobi emits the three beat signal for priority message. It’s from Roderick. It reads On my way with security DO NOT MOVE! “Fuck me!”
You’re alone, sitting at a table in the back left corner of the G Loc, a popular bar in Area 18. Well, the only bar actually. You have a raggedy cap you grabbed out of the lost and found at work, pulled forward to obscure your face. The orange murky lighting helps you to fade into the background. Your eyes unfocused, you stare at the holographic menu hovering above the table top. Music is booming and your leg is shaking but not in time with the song blaring out of the speakers.
Every time you notice the doors open, you crane your neck looking for Naomi. Damn, she’s usually punctual to a fault. Another group of loading dock workers saunters in. You look away and slouch down into your seat. Area 18 is a big place but news like yours travels quickly. Never in years in a million years could you have anticipated Roderick’s reaction or what had ensued when he arrived with security in tow.
Caught daydreaming, you’re startled by the sound of someone flopping down into the seat next to you. It’s Naomi. Relief washes over you. Then you notice she’s staring at you with an OMG look on her face. Clearly, she’d already heard — something.
No hello or preamble. “What the frak happened?” She asks in a hushed tone. She leans in waiting for a reply.
You slouch back into the chair shaking your head. “So you heard.”
“Pretty sure most have. Went to your sleeping cube. Saw goons hanging outside your door. Then remembered we were meeting here.”
“Well that sucks. Not much in there worth having but still…”
She looks like she wants to shake you silly. “Well — what the hell happened??”
You inhale. “I’m actually starting to think that I’m a drama magnet,” you say with a wry smile.
That puts a small smile on her face. She crosses hers and leans back into the booth. “Just might be.”
“Probably already know that I got assigned as temporary inspector on J42. Things were going good. Finished early. Except for 2 hiccups. Unplanned stop in Cathcart on the ship log and unlisted container.”
“New ship? Crew?”
“Nope. Regulars. Initially fell for the excuse for the unscheduled stop.”
Naomi shrugs. “It happens. Crew has things to do that aren’t necessarily the company’s business.”
“Flying the company’s ship?”
Another shrug. “On time. Cargo intact. Who cares?”
“Yeah, I can get with that. Was willing to let that part slide. Right up until I’m told that setting aside a particular container is a routine thing. Something Thomas manages as a special request.”
“Oook, now we’re moving into shaky territory.” She agrees.
“But this is ArcCorp. Who cares? Not like the Corp is doing us any favors.”
“True, there’s that. I’ll give you that and I nearly let that slide too. It’s ArcCorp, where fucking the likes us over, is on someone’s daily to-do list.” You lean forward, more intensity in your voice. “What happens if today of all days, that special delivery gets policed in transit and they backtrack to the inspection?”
The possible ramifications dawn in Naomi’s eyes. “You’d be fraked is what.”
You nod in agreement. “And then some! So at the last sec I called it in.”
“Still don’t understand how you ended up fired for it?” Her mouth slants down and she has a sore look on her face. “Ain’t right.”
“I’m okay with how things turned out – in the end anyway.”
You explain how Roderick had arrived in a near rage with a team of security. Joey, Rohn, and Alya were coming back just as Roderick had shown up. Security put all of you in handcuffs and rushed you off the platform. You were frantic not understanding what the hell was going on. When you tried speaking to Roderick but he told you to shut up until you were spoken to.
You unconsciously rub your wrists. “It was scary and embarrassing being dragged across Area 18 until we reached the security building.”
“I bet. So what happened?”
You continue your tale. You’d each been placed in a separate security holding cell. While you were anxiously waiting to speak to someone – anyone, you saw them marching in Thomas in handcuffs and then the crew of the Quasar a short while later. They hadn’t been in restraints and in fact, seemed to be talking in a carefree manner with Roderick.
“My stomach hit the floor when I saw Chuzen prancing in full of confidence and Roderick seeming to eating it up.”
One by one you saw your team escorted into what you realized later was an interrogation room. You were the last to be taken in and pushed none too gently into a metal folding chair across from desk with two people on one side of it. Roderick and a security officer. You explained what you’d seen and done in painstaking detail. You were questioned about your actions repeatedly. When they’d had enough, Roderick asked the security officer to leave the room.
Once it was just the two of you, Roderick’s face softened. He removed the handcuffs, pulled his chair next to yours and sat down with a sigh. “Rough day kid and you done good.”
A look of extreme confusion had covered your face. “I – I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“We’ve had a drug smuggling problem for quite some time. We could occasionally catch the users but not break into the cartel managing the operation or how the narcs were arriving.” Smiling he said, “You just gave us our first break.” He stood up and paced the small room while he talked. “I doubt ArcCorp would even care if not for the accidents caused by narc’d up workers. It messes with their safety rating and slows down production.”
“I’d heard about two guys losing a limb on the large engines assembly line.” Scratching your head you say, “Last week wasn’t there construction worker who dropped a scaffolding down 8 stories over where they’re building the Galleria?”
“Yeah, got the whole project temporary put on hold until the safety investigation is over. Stuff like this costs the company hundreds of thousands of creds per incident and it’s adding up quickly these days.”
“Oh” is all you can think to say. You’re still shaken by what’s happened.
“This whole dragging you all in here is for your own safety. We think the group working out of here is rather sophisticated and we’re after the big fish. We’re going to be able to nail Chuzen but we need to find who they work for and who else is falsifying inspections. I want to protect you four so here’s what we’re going to do.”
At this point, Roderick sat down next to you again. He dropped the managerial tone and spoke to you like a friend. He explained that he was going to have your inspection findings scrubbed from the record. He’s going to claim that he and security had come by to do a spot audit and found the crate, which by the way, was filled with vials of hallucinogen class narcotics.
He’s going to say that since it was your first time inspecting a shipment you were late and hadn’t gotten to validating the off-loaded cargo. For their own protection, your team was being given a company paid transfer to another Arc facility with a 2 weeks bonus pay. He’s leaving Thomas in place even though they know he’s on the smuggler payroll. But now that they know that, they can use him to catch the next crew that comes in and then they’ll nab him.
“Wow, umm okay. But don’t you think anyone will catch on?”
“They make think something is up at first but once a few months go by, they’ll be bold enough to restart their operation. Plus now we know what to look for at the other landing zones and can update the security procedures accordingly.”
“What if they don’t use Thomas again? Seems like he gets off the hook.”
“We’ll be keeping him under close surveillance,” Roderick said with a smile. “He’s not conspiring with them for free. Likely used to the extra income. Even if they don’t seek him out, he’ll no doubt contact them for more work.”
You nod your head in agreement. “Gotcha.” Nervously you ask, “What about me? Do I get the 2 weeks bonus and transfer option?” Your gut twists. You want off this rock but if it just means dropping you on another where you have to start over? That’s not sounding so great. At least here you have a couple of friends and Naomi. The idea of slugging it out alone again is depressing.
“No, I have something different for you in mind.”
You stop for a moment to gauge Naomi’s reaction. Her mouth is gaped open and her neck craned forward in rapt attention. You wonder if she’d miss you as much as you’d miss her? She has such an easy way about her. She makes friends easily. Always liked and well respected. You on the other hand — no so much. You’re private, quiet and often prefer the company of the ideas spinning around in your head, than conversing with others. You keep the friends you gain but don’t gain them very often which is by choice. You miss home, your friends off at university and now you’ll miss the few you’ve gathered here too. You sigh.
Naomi kicks your foot under the table over your sudden silence. “No stopping now!” She exclaims, “what’s the plan for you?”
“He’s worried that the cartel would come around asking me questions and might not be that nice about asking ‘em. They just lost a lot of creds having that crate confiscated.”
“Those goons outside your door,” Naomi whispers.
“Exactly. So I have to get gone too but with a different kind of bonus.”
Her eyes widen in surprise seeing the smile on your face. “How much?” she says in a near shout.
“Shhhhhhhh!” Noticing the couple at the table next to you glance your direction, you pull the cap down lower over your face.
“Oops — sorry.” She giggles and her excitement is infectious.
You’d been trying not to be too excited least the rug get pulled out from under your feet. And you’d miss Naomi unless…
You lean across the table toward her and show her your UEC balance on your Mobi. She gasps in response, her eyes growing wide. Now you’re smiling too and giggling like a child.
Whispering she says, “That’s leave for good money.” In awe, she adds, “Start over money. Wow!”
“Or ship for two money?” You let the question hang in the air.
Naomi’s eyes bug out and her eyebrows arch up to her hairline. “Me? You’d take me?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t leave you behind. You’ve been a good friend to me.”
“What would we do? Where would we go?”
“What do you want to do? We can decide together.” Your stomach twists waiting for an answer. You want her to come, to help her out of this place. But you also have selfish reasons. You don’t go back out into the black alone. You’ve got more advanced skills than Naomi but she’s got the life experiences. In your mind, that would be a great mix.
Naomi leans back into the booth. “I need a drink and you’re buying,” she says with a smile. “Holy shit!”
She sounds happy. Does that mean she’s coming? “That mean you’re in?” you ask outright.
“Oh yeah, I’m in!” She nods several times for emphasis. Her eyes dart side to side as if working out a problem in her head. “Maybe we get you off here tonight and lay low somewhere cheap to make plans.”
Relief washes over you. “Sounds good to me!”
With a wry smile, Naomi asks, “Ever been to Terra? It’s the most expensive ticket outta here. But lots of resources to figure out what you want to do next. That money won’t get you setup in place like Terra but can get all the supplies you need for whatever…”
You correct her. “The supplies we need.” The idea of it makes you giddy and lightheaded.
“Yeah. What we need.” She laughs. “Holy frak, I can’t even… Holy shit, we’re outta here!”