Something Different – There’s Plenty of Space, up in Space!
The ship wasn’t anything to be proud of. A simple tramp freighter of a design that had proved almost completely un-economical. Originally, spheres had dominated designs, it offered the best volume to surface area ratio. Then some wag had remembered that these spheres had to bludgeon through atmosphere and someone else pointed out that most cargo traveled in shipping containers that just didn’t fit into spheres very well and suddenly there’s dozens of ships selling cheap because they are barely worth operating.
SMS Pinafore was one of these obsolescent ships. A mostly broken down hauler of miscellaneous bits of cargo that didn’t require much speed or delicate handling. Perfect for fresh mercenary recruits on their way to their units. Once I walked up the ramp, duffle slung from my shoulder, I was greeted at the hatch with a grunt and an outstretched hand. I reached to shake hands and the man laughed.
“Right missy, look I just need your order chip to see who is nursemaiding you for this run.” He offered his hand again. I handed him the chip, he swiped it with his datapad “Right, you’re in B group. In the hatch, straight down the hall, last door on the left then last door on the right. When you realize you’re lost look for anyone in a green jumpsuit and tell them you’re in B group, right off you go!” he chirped out the last with some cheer, and slumped back against the frame of the hatch.
I walked down the hall, the low ceiling and wide corridor making me uneasy as I paced its length. I felt sure I must have walked out the far side of the ship by the time I turned left, and the right turn was almost immediate. “B Group?” I ventured to the back of the man at the desk by the door.
“Steel on target missy, orders?” He held out his hand as he turned, a solid slab of a man, built like a retaining wall, with a face behind a mustache so well groomed I wondered if he took it off at night to preserve it. He smiled to himself, humming a martial ditty as he swiped my orders. “The Vedettes! Damn good outfit. I’ve seen them on many a field, they’ll do right by you I expect. Hmmm….. let’s see, coveralls, utility kit, ‘tronics kit give your scores, field gear, and looks like you’re down for extra cold weather training? Oh right, damn Finns. Take this to the shop at the back, check everything before you sign for it then find yourself a rack. I’d give you the tour but I can’t find my legs right now. Damn pranksters” He swiveled his chair around so I could see the stumps of his legs. “They think I won’t get them back.” His smile turned to that of a hunting cat and I took a few steps back before mumbling my thanks. I walked across the bay, the back wall curved down and to the left, apparently my group was in the edge of the sphere. A bored looking heavyset woman looked up as I walked to her cage. I handed her the form the man at the desk had handed me.
“Waitrightheremissy.” She didn’t move, then breathed in deeply “I’llgetcherstuffforya” She waited again then shuffled off, wheezing. I looked around the bay. A double line of bunks sheltered under the curve of the wall, fans hung from the ceiling, and back towards the central corridor a partition blocked off most of the area, not a permanent bulkhead. I squinted at the doors, able to make out “Latrine” on one, “Classroom” on another, but the last I couldn’t quite make out. A hacking cough turned me around to see the woman swing a heavy plastic basket onto the counter.
“Dufflebag. Check” She opened the bag and handed it to me.
“Coveralls, 4. Check” She shoved the four garments in the bag.
“Boots, 2 pair. Check” She clomped the boots on the counter, then waited for me to dump them in the bag. She sighed as I placed them on the ground next to me.
“Utility belt. Check”
“Electroncs kit. Check”
Wet Weather gear, cold weather gear, hats, scarves, gloves, socks, underwear, liners, covers, cleaning kits, mess kits, it seemed the basket was bottomless, and the slow diction and action of the woman made it seem like twice as much. Grandad had warned me about this moment. I checked everything again before signing. Half of what I’d been given was worn down, torn, or missing pieces. The electronics kit was so damaged it wasn’t worth the bag she’d handed me. She glared daggers at me for every piece I asked her to replace, and she shuffled off to the back to replace the items I’d rejected even more slowly. The whine of electronics announced the powered chair of the man at the desk. “Christ, Mary and their little dog she tried to fleece you blind. Oye, you’d better get it right this time! The goal isn’t to try to kill these people before they even get to their companies you damned skinflint!”
He insisted on checking everything I was issued, including the things that I’d accepted. I spent the next hour waiting on the two to argue out their differences. Lucy and Jeremiah went at it hammer and tongs while I sat back and folded acceptable items for storage. Eventually I had everything on the list and a few things that weren’t but the other two showed no signs of stopping their argument, so I edged back and to the side. I locked my bags in a footlocker bolted to the floor, then headed to the latrine. The other door was labelled “Range” and had an array of locks and clipboards on it.
The Latrine was a large and public affair, toilets, urinals and showers all clustered around the complicated pumps and filters needed to recycle water and keep it flowing. I washed up and came out to see a group of three at the counter, two men and a woman, all skinny, grubby looking kids. They looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t put names to them. They took bunks as far from mine as possible and played cards together, glancing at me as I read on my pad. Lucy and Jeremiah kept to themselves and around 9, without a word, walked out and turned off the lights. I read for a bit longer before getting up to use the latrine, checking my things in the footlocker and going to sleep.
I woke up to a loud crash and a cry of pain. In an instant I was up and behind my bunk. The two boys had trapped on a line I’d strung up at the base of my bunk. The room was pitch black, and the two were tangled up in each other and on the line. I slipped around the bunk and waited for them to start moving, I swept my leg hard at ankle height and took them down again, before throwing myself down on them with elbows and fists riding my advantage ruthlessly. I’d learned long ago that depending on the kindness of others was nice but that pain taught more permanent lessons. I dragged them across the floor, using the pad as a flashlight, and tied them to their bunks with my line.
At four in the morning a new voice shattered the darkness.
The lights came on with the kind of intensity usually seen in close orbits of the sun, shouts, grunts and a scream echoed from the other side of the room. I stood up as straight as I could.
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF CAESAR’S LEGIONS ACHING SOULS IS GOING ON HERE?” He bellowed at the two boys tied to their beds. “WHAT KIND OF FREAKY SHIT ARE YOU BOYS INTO?” He yelled looking down on the bruised and beaten faces still tied to their beds. “YOU HAVE EXACTLY ONE MINUTE TO GET OUT UP AND AT ATTENTION FUCKNUCKLES!”
He turned his attention to the girl and I “And you ladies! There’s green tape on the floor marking out a route. You have 30 seconds to get into fatigues and start running that tape. 10 laps. MOVE!” The girl was out the door 10 seconds before me. The boys were still struggling. I hadn’t made it easy for them to escape. The route wound around the ship like a snake, up and down ladders, with arrows indicating the direction of travel. I figured it was about half a klick, I was well into my fourth lap, and well behind the girl, before I saw the boys. They were staggering a bit, with rope marks on their arms. They avoided my glance as I passed them in the halls.
After the run the man that woke us up was lounging in his chair at the desk. “Fair time, fair time. Wash up, breakfast is in the galley. Back across the main hall, first door on your right once you get across. We start at 0630 so move!”
The boys didn’t make it to breakfast. We sat in a classroom where they munched on a couple biscuits the instructor? Drill Sergeant? Asshole? had brought them.
“Now I don’t know what happened last night. I don’t care what happened last night. If anything like it happens again I’m throwing all of you out the nearest hatch in whatever you are wearing whether we’re here or in hyperspace, capiche?”
We nodded. He sighed and hung his head. “Yes? No? Fuck you?”
“yes…” we mumbled. He sighed again but let it go.
“This ain’t like the movies. You’re all on contracts and have bonds posted. You can walk away at any time and only forfeit your bond. Yes you will get screamed at and it will be hard and if you are endangering anyone you can and will be summarily shot, but in general you will be treated a lot better than the soldiers you see in the vids. You will also be expected to do more than you ever expected. Every bedroll, tent, cot, meal, and drink of water comes from somewhere. Every bullet, band aid and bean has to be carried out there. And paid for. You will do more with less than even the rudest colony world could prepare you for and that starts with training. Sometimes you get to your unit and the first thing you do is get in a convoy and drive down a hot road through ambushes and bombs to link up with your unit. You have to know enough to live long enough to get there, so every unit pools together some resources to train folks on the way, with retreads like myself, Jeremiah, and even Lucy to chivvy you along. Today we set up your gear, and integrate a few latecomers. This evening you meet your new best friends.
The next few hours were spent assembling the gear we’d been issued. Then helping the 8 new folks, 6 guys and three more girls, with all their gear. It all had to go together in identical assemblies, and we added first aid gear, and empty magazines to it. The reason we put it all together the same? If you find a body and need his first aid kit, you need to know where to look. We ate a hurried lunch as we finished the task of assembling our kit, then threw on packs and belts and raced downstairs.
“The Fleming and Karkov 8-wheel 8-ton truck. Affectionately known as the Flak 88. Story goes that for every tank, plane, truck and man destroyed by the old Flak, this one has saved 10. It’s a heavy utility vehicle, that serves as a command post, a recovery vehicle, a scout vehicle, a forward observer, a prime mover for field guns, a fuel or water truck, and even a supply vehicle. The crew cab seats 5, driver, TC, gunner and two specialists, usually 1 on commo one doing whatever, and the back can carry up to 50 people, or more if you don’t like them, a fighting compartment for up to 5 more weapons, 8 tons of cargo, a mobile command center, a 5,000 gallon tank of water or gas, or a generator big enough to jump start this ship. Every unit in the galaxy uses it and so, before you leave this ship, you will learn how to use every piece of equipment to maintain and operate this beast”