Every morning I wake up in the armpit of this alien world and wonder if today is the day something different happens. I always climb out of bed and pray that the wind isn’t blowing from the east and that today is the day I catch some lead, some break that will help me get out of here. And preferably not in the hold of a slaving ship.
Hougon is a trading world; with little of its own resources being considered valuable to the galaxy at large, the native inhabitants opened their skies and their stations and their very planet to traders from all over the galaxy – on the condition that Hougon remained neutral in all galactic conflicts. The flip side is that any law enforced by anyone other than Hougon, did not apply here – and Hougon laws were surprisingly few. Basically, don’t steal someone else’s wares, don’t mess with the locals and don’t eat their Jumlas. This meant that basically anything went – especially if you were not a native of Hougon – which I was not. You’re probably wondering what a Jumla is, aren’t you? Well they’re a sacred animal and it wanders around here happily munching on whatever it likes- even your tunic if you’re not careful – but if you should shoo it off or kill one, you’re also basically dead. It looks to me like a cross between a kangaroo, a sloth and some kind of reptile. It’s an herbivore – I think – and it as large sad eyes, but I wouldn’t dare anyone to get anywhere near those massive claws or the scaled spines down it’s back and tail. The Jumla are why I always hope that the wind is not blowing from the east.
Below this city, which is called Rim, sits a deep caldera. In that caldera the Hougon mine their only valuable resource – a metal used in star drives of all kinds for its resistance to the atomic decay that can happen in faster than light engines. In that caldera also is a nesting site for the Jumla. Both of these things produce an odour akin to a mixture of rotting vegetation and burning hair.
This morning, the wind is blowing from the east, so when I scramble out of my little bunk in the back of the tavern on Givka street, I pull a scarf over my nose and mouth to dull the stink. Every day I loop around the slavers district, and the gamblers district and down to the market. The gamblers district often pay debts by having the debtors sold into slavery and since that kind of destiny is not one that I look forward to, I do my best to escape their notice since being a human female here is both rare and entirely too tempting for many slavers.
The Terran Alliance is a small empire in this galaxy and even though many of our adventurers range to the farthest reaches, most of the other species regard us with a level of suspicion, and/or contempt that makes it hard for me, a female pilot of excellent skill, to find work. I was marooned here when my then-captain fell into some trouble while drinking in the gambling district. Needless to say, when he could not pay, the den-owner sold him to some Serellians, along with this first mate and two of the crew to settle the dept. I only managed to escape that fate because I had decided to visit the silk bazaar instead. I may be a spacer pilot, but I like a few pretty things. By the time I found out what had happened they were all long gone and the ship had been sold by the enterprising Gorn who owned the repair bay we’d taken her to the week before for a routine overhaul.
And that is how I came to be shipless and creditless on this stinking armpit of a planet. Even the Hougon stink; a strange wet-dog kind of smell they seem to find attractive and so cultivate. The market as usual is already filled with people. I head to the cantina at the end of the plaza and join the crowd of pilots for hire. One or two of them are sort of friendly, one is a real pig of a being – literally – and the rest tend to ignore me. A young Hougon by the name of Jeed bounded up to me with a grin on his face – it takes a while to understand that the teeth-baring is a smile. He likes me because I rescued him from a Serellian bully on my first week here. I also pay him in sweets for information. I hope I get a good tip soon, my finances, and my candies, are running out.
“Miss!” he hisses, “Miss!” he takes my hand in his and pulls me forward and I follow. I have only my freedom to lose but I’m more than certain that Jeed’s intentions are pure as he leads me to a table near the back of the cantina.
“Is this the pilot you were talking about?” a voice says as Jeed approaches with me in tow. I almost feel weak in the knees at hearing a human accent come out from under the hat. The man tilts his face up to look at me and I nearly jump up and down with glee.
“Pilot! Yes!” says Jeed and holds his hand out to me. I hand him a candy automatically and the man in the hat laughs. Jeed scurries way to lick his prize into oblivion and I seat myself across from the spacer.
“So, I hear you need a pilot.”
“A good one too. Little guy seems to think you fit the bill.”
“So what are you doing in this shit hole?”
“Captain got a case of the gambles and got himself and the rest of them slaved up. I just happened to miss out on the party.”
“Ah,” he nodded and beckoned the waitress over. Her mane was decorated with tiny beads that clicked as she moved. The spacer ordered some drinks and a share plate and I felt my stomach rumble.
“What’s the job?” I asked, trying not to sound too desperate, even though I was.
“Here to Moloch station. My regular pilot is laid up with a serious case of what looks like measles, but what the doc assures me is some non-contagious fungal issue. Makes his depth perception and his personality all backwards. By the time we get to Moloch we should know if he’s done with the piloting business or not.”
Moloch, while not in the best part of the galaxy, was a damn site better for me than the armpit of the galaxy.
“That seems like a decent run for me. What kind of pay are we talking?”
“Standard for the first three months, then we talk about raising it. Berth and board included of course. 6% on trades we make and 15% danger pay on top.”
“More than fair.”
“Any questions for me?”
“What’s your cargo?”
“Whatever we can get. Most of it’s legal, some of it’s not. Is that a problem?”
“No,” I said. Whatever misgivings I had could be dealt with once I was out of this hellhole.
“Name’s Brannigan,” he said and leaned forward to shake my hand.
“Zara,” I said, using my spacer name. It did no good to use my real name – even as far out in the boondocks as this.
“Nice to meet you, Zara,” he said and tipped the waitress generously when the food arrived “Let’s eat and drink on it.”
“To a profitable voyage,” I replied and took a drink from the blue bubbling concoction he’d ordered. In spite of the stink in the air, I felt better than I had in months. We ate and chatted until the food was gone and then stood to part ways.
“We’re finished loading at nine hundred tomorrow. Be there an hour before,”
“Deal,” I said and walked into the crowds. Now that I had the name of the ship, I was going to go have a look at what I’d be flying for the eighteen month trip to Moloch. I found the berth easily enough and felt a moment of confusion when I saw the ship. This was not your average run of the mill pirate ship the way Brannigan had made it sound. No way. This was pretty darn new in comparison to all the other ships at port, for one and for two, looked like an Alliance battlecruiser that had been converted for cargo. In fact the new name “Gillian” on the hull was painted over the old designation numbers. I could barely make them out, but they were legible enough for me to let out a tiny whistle.
TASS77017 which, if I was not mistaken, had been the designation of the Terran Alliance flagship, which had vanished into thin air with all her crew 20 years ago. If this was that ship, how had Brannigan come by it and if he hadn’t, did that mean he was one of the vanished crew? So many questions rushed through my head. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going back to my rented bunk in the tavern. I was staying here to observe my new ship. If I was going to be flying with a ghost crew I wanted to make sure they didn’t leave without me.
Word Count: 1587
Reading: The Illustrated man – Ray Bradbury
Drinking: Okanagan Spring Berry Cider
Eating: Nacho Tortillas