by Ed Nobody
Space is boring as hell and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying out Uranus. Sentenced to this black expanse, what else could Jim do but throw back six-ouncers of mildly intoxicating astronaut mead? The powdered kind no less, which was gross as hell, but at least they made it with new water these days, synthesized from onboard hydrogen stores instead of recycling sweat and all kinds of other bodily fluids in the process. Chugging on his frosty one, he threw his gaze out at the progressively blurry starfield whizzing before him. Maybe he was drunk, maybe they were just going really fast.
Well, they were on the way to Ganymede now, like it or not. (Not). He’d rather be on Phobos fighting demons in the interdimensional warp opened to Hell. That didn’t happen, of course; it was just a stupid story spread to scare newbies. What did happen was a Chinese-industrial takeover of half the solar system because they developed the engines for hyper-extended travel first. Well, whatever, his country caught up eventually, didn’t they? Celebrating second place—so much for national pride.
Glug, chug. Problems be gone! Who cares when you can get hammered? Jim was once a young, hopeful representative of Ireland’s meager Space Corps. Yes, it had been that quaint little dog-shaped Island in the Atlantic who had gotten off that old rock first, not any of the other smarmy gobshites in Britain or Europe. Catch our rocket vapors! he’d laughed, half-soaked in his own vapors, the powdered variety, the day they finally broke out the stratosphere. But all that ambition and optimism vanished in the blink of a neutron star; the fact of the matter, Jim was to later realize, is that space sucks.
A lot had happened since then that he didn’t care to remember, but in short, now he was on his way to caressing the bulbous orbit of Jupiter; the drives would shift down to half-, then quarter-speed for the final approach to Ganymede, the place you go when you’ve really screwed up: the last refuge of scoundrels such as himself. Ganymede employed more than half of Earth’s space-expats, all of them rabid criminals. Maybe humans were just prone to act this way when released from the constrictions of gravity, government, and society.
That didn’t count the Chinese of course, who were their own beast, a commercial monster voraciously consuming half the gasses of Uranus through Pluto. Jim chuckled at the thought: gas guzzlers were generally looked down upon as blue-collar rubes. But what of Jim? Was his chosen profession any better? Spacecruiser Welder: sure, it paid fine, but the location…Point being that Ganymede was Space’s shit heap. He swiped his card at the vending machine to drop another mead, but instead was met with a red warning light. This light brought with it a rude awakening:
DAILY CONSUMPTION LIMIT REACHED.
Jim’s heart sank faster than a broken satellite on reentry. He stared in abject horror at the device; they’d decreased the daily allowance again!
“Damn you to Phobos, you wretched skinflints!” Jim slurred, although the slur was mostly put on; an attempt to convince his own brain he was actually drunk. It didn’t work.
“Hey man, yoo know yoo can come t’mee if y’want to get moore of dat sweet sticky licky,” Rafael suggested, coolly leaning against the wall of the refreshment aisle; a tall, lanky merchant from the Caribbean, he often appeared in inopportune moments such as these to prey upon the alcohol-deprived. Fucking vulture. Jim knew it would cost him 10x the going rate for a few lackluster swigs of whatever toilet-swill Rafael had cooked up in his room. There was always blackmail; but truth be told, Jim didn’t have the heart for that, either: it was too much of a bother.
“Piss off and let me enjoy this dwindling buzz, will you?”
“All’s right brudda, y’know where ta find me mon.” Raph slinked away into the shadows of whatever trash vent he inhabited, doubtlessly plotting how to further leech space credits from the more weak-willed of the crew.
The LE Confabulation thrust its snub-nose obstinately through an ion storm as it headed towards Jupiter, but Jim couldn’t give a crap anymore; he just wanted to lie down. Entering his quarters, he was unsurprised yet sickened to find a new message on his communicator; he already knew who’d sent it.
-Howya Jim? This is Elaine. Yer now two months behind on the payments. If you miss it again I’ll be forced to get the authorities involved…
-Hope yer doin well and all that.
-See ya then.
Speaking of leeches, Elaine was his ex. Wisely, Jim had avoided marrying the hag, so it wasn’t alimony she was after, though it might as well have been. Instead she had inveigled him into investing in some suspect intergalactic new-age enterprise purporting to have found gold on Venus. Sure it sounded stupid now, but at the time, before Elaine’s looks started to fade, and her massive rib balloons hadn’t yet begun to wilt…yes it had been the Spring of her youth, and his too; but now he looked wearily out his space portal and in the depths of that stellar black saw nothing but life’s Winter, fast approaching. He would sigh, but it’d make him want another drink. But point being that he was up to his space-britches in debt, and if he didn’t take the job in Ganymede, some repo man would be on his ass like cellulite on a fat woman.
About to consider a nap, Jim rested his aching haunches on the PermaFirm mattress—Beep—he was interrupted, of course, this time by his doorbell. Jim got up with a groan to hit the unlock button (this old rusty ship had no voice-activated controls) and felt his head swim, his putrid blood ascending his tubes, his body revolting against anymore activity in the sober realm.
“How’s it going, Jim?” It was Patricia Cullinane’s shapely shadow that threw itself into Jim’s darkened quarters, drenched in the bleach-white glare of fluorescent hall lighting. What the hell did she want? She was well out of his league, and no way had she come to get her legs split! But also, he recalled, she was commanding officer of the ship, so there was that.
“Hello, officer.” Jim attempted to push away his growing nausea. She gave her usual coy smile that people who didn’t know her confused for flirtation, when it was really just a passive form of mindfuck she used to gain hegemony. The same shit he’d seen on a dozen planets at this point. The ones who climbed the ranks were all like this; even the men. Jim had about as much charm as day-old seafood after a refrigerator malfunction. Her pseudosultry face performed a sequence of micro-orgasmic subliminal expressions which Jim had long since puzzled out—once you knew the trick, it was kind of pathetic, yet he knew many a new recruit would still fall flat on their asses for this hyper-estrogenated corporate slag. Next, she spat out an alluring string of wet syllables, each one reminiscent of sucking a cock; his would never be sucked—certainly not by her, and probably not by anyone without due compensation afterwards.
“Jim, maintenance tells me we have a slight…flaw…in the lower starboard hull.”
“So fix it.” Entertaining her poisoned yet sugary words even for an instant would be enough to sink into hypnosis, hence Jim made sure to keep their dialogue to a minimum.
“That’s the thing. Our engineers on board are all…perplexed by it.”
“Perplexed? Jesus, Patric—officer, where’d you hire all these greens from? If they can’t even hammer out a kink, sure…”
She looked at him with an artificial sweetness, unable to hide the coldness behind her gaze, like when you touch the glass of a porthole and somehow know it’s absolute zero on the other side. This and other such thoughts briefly scratched Jim’s cortex, but all he could manage to reply was:
She sighed, “Look, Jim. You’re the only one on board with the expertise to solve this. Our alternative is to try and land on JS-2.”
Which, fuck that. JS-2 was an overpriced Saudi ball of titanium floating miserably on the orbit of Jupiter, expressly set up to catch ships in a moment of weakness and exploit them for everything they had. In that respect, they reminded him of Rafael. Anyway, Patricia was pretty and had shiny black hair, but only medium-sized tits, even though her neopolymer bra made them look way huger.
“How much are ya gonna pay me then?” Jim grinned sadistically. The ball was in his court for once in his pathetic life. If he milked this hard enough, maybe he could even forgo the whole ‘sentence’ he was set to face on Ganymede.
She wasn’t relenting, of course. This was her jam, as strawberry as her nipples that Jim imagined poking through her bra, although the microscopically-perfect integrity of the garment made such an event physically impossible. It was nice to imagine. “Double your usual rate,” she said sternly. He’d need four times that; but he had yet to consider his next move, a beginner’s mistake when trading blows with a social vampire of her prowess. Think. Think, Jim Murphy! Strategy. What’s the—
“Are you going to do it?” Now she was pressing him. Jim felt several beads of sweat form on the back of his head and run down the crook of his spine. Fuck. If only he’d had a proper drink that morning. Panic-stricken and desperate, Jim dragged Patricia into his room and threw her down on the bed. When thought does not prove your ally, take action. Who had said that again? Or did he just make it up.
Well now you’ve done it, Jim chastised himself. But no—they needed him, dammit! And P.C. had doubtless been on her back more times than he’d run out of liquor credits. The autodoor slid shut and Jim stood menacingly over the fallen officer, her face frozen in shock, then melting into confusion, then, her eyes moving, twitching—No! Don’t let those monstrous gears in her head start turning, otherwise it’s curtains for you, Jim Murphy! Forget strategy, it wasn’t his strong suit anyway…
Now what? As it stood, he had yet to commit an act of sexual aggression; he had only alluded to it. But the effect on her, at a more primal level, clearly had obtained the same effect. What to do? Thanks to his massive hangover, he didn’t even have a hard-on. All of these thoughts passed him by in the span of a second. He knew what to do. What must be done for the good of his future! He knelt down on the bed, one knee between the space of her thighs, her legs parted from where she had regained her balance mid-fall. He leaned over, palms on the bed, face hanging above her, her face, that pristine face, usually so smug and domineering, so satisfied with her own sexuality and the power it gave her. But not in this moment. Yes, he could smell her perspiration mixed with perfume—Moon brand, only the best, three months of credits if he were to chance buying it—and her eyes, wide, pupils engorged, mouth slightly parted—if he acted now, if he acted, he could take her. But more importantly, he knew, sliding his hand inch by inch between the space of her thighs, but never making contact with her rich, delicate skin—he would not be devouring this perfect specimen. Instead, the lack of that which was expected in this heated moment—that lack itself would weaken her will, yes even her will, battle-hardened from years of solar politics and military backstabbing. On his bed, the rules of engagement did not apply, and it was just his body with hers. On hers. And if he didn’t—if he denied her this basic animal right, she would fold, he knew. Not twice the amount, he would whisper delicately in her ear, his hand just brushing casually near her pubis, not three times—tips of fingers touching belly stroking down, her body writhing under his lightest of touches—not even four or five, his lips so very near hers now, hers trembling, his pinched in a devilish smile—but eight times, he would say—yes, eight, and her mouth would part in horror but then and only then would his tongue enter, and so would the deal be sealed. Soon, he would be free. All he had to do was—his hand almost on her thigh—all he had to do was—his face against hers—all he had to do was—
SWUSH. The autodoor slid open to the annoying whir of the Cleanobot 4000.
“OH DEAR—HAVE I INTERRUPTED SOMETHING, MR. MURPHY?” The oblivious little bastard called out, and at that moment Jim knew his plan was fucked. In an instant Patricia’s face soured, woken from the dream; she pushed him away, clambering to her feet, red of face and fuming.
She wasn’t to look back again. Storming out of his dim pathetic hovel, she dumped behind her the words, “Twice the rate or we stop at JS-2. Report to the starboard lower deck in ten minutes.”
Why was it that whenever he was about to catch a break, the Universe always stepped in to piss down his pantleg?
He deftly kicked the Cleanobot right in its molded-plastic guts, tipping it straight to the floor; unperturbed, the robotic little shit promptly righted itself and continued its vacuuming, making sure to record the incident in its activity log.
Jim was deducted 20 credits for that one.
On the way down to the lower deck, Jim caught Rafael materialize out of shadow to sell a couple of engineers some suspicious-looking powder; no wonder the hull was up the creek. Now welding’s not an exciting job but it pays well, and by God was Jim a good welder—he could stick together anything for the right price. In this case, it was for the wrong price of course, thanks to that meddling vacuumhead. After this job was over, he would redouble his efforts in searching out that little plastic bastard’s blind spot and make sure he never lived to interrupt a sexual interlude again.
On the way down to the lower deck fished out a stim pen stabbed it in his leg needed a boost after all that strenuous non-sex; hull not metal but a metacarbon polymer job; how do you meld it? Well, there are ways…Jim sneered to himself, somewhat delirious. He started to wake up as the stims kicked in, but he would have rather had that nap. Jim was one of the few privileged members of the Polymercutters society and knew the secrets of Quickmelt: a laser technology in the hands of but a select few, capable of instantaneously turning the outer layer of metacarbon to liquid, allowing it to fuse with other panels of the same material. Members of the society would share the hidden secrets of Earth with one another at clandestine meetings, as they imbibed exquisite drinks made from the rare fruits of Venus, and had regular intercourse with the hottest girls space had to offer. All of this was bullshit of course, but Jim had nothing else to think about on the way down to the breached deck on the mud-slow elevator. As for Quickmelt, any old Irish tradesman with his bumcrack hanging out could get a license for it, so.
Ding, the junkbox elevator landed safely on D1, whoopee. Jim jumped out clutched his trusty laser and waltzed on over to the problem site—the tickling of solar wind on his face told him things were real bad down here. Great, he hadn’t even brought his hazmat suit; he’d land on Ganymede with either a new tan or a tumor.
Immediately the problem became clear—one huge white bulge ripped across the surface of the inner hull, like when you bend a action figure too hard and the plastic weakens. “Ah Jesus,” he whispered, plugging in the laser to his belt-battery and stepping up top a chair in the vicinity to take a closer look. He tentatively buzzed a few areas of the damage—zzt, zzt, zzt.
“Hmm,” he pondered out loud. “This is a real bitch, huh?”
“Will it be a problem?” There behind him stood Patricia and one of her corporate goons; she looked at Jim with less of her usual seductive allure and more of something approaching cold fury—it was the usual buyer’s remorse Jim’s ladyfriends got after he’d had his filthy way with em.
“Ah, well I can get us to Ganymede,” Jim said confidently, although truth be told he wasn’t much confident at all. “Can’t guarantee a tour across the galaxy though. The whole midlayer needs replacing; the hull breach screwed with the insulation and it’s been subjected to the zero temperature of raw space for hours.
Patricia’s face turned from stone to lava. “The entire midlayer? But that could cost…”
“Yeah. You’re bill this month is gonna look like the time I found out about sex hotlines to Venus.”
“That’s ridiculous,” the Goon responded.
“What can I say,” Jim replied, “I didn’t have a good interplanetary provider.”
Patricia sighed, her whole cucumber-cool gimmick up in so much Quickmelt vapor. “Are you sure there isn’t a way this can be patched up?”
“Patched up? Lady—that is, officer, you can patch all you want, heck paint it polka dot for all I care. Fact is, the hull only stays stable as long as you maintain absolute separation between strata. With a damaged midlayer, you’re pretty much up shit creek—that is to say, you’re outta luck.”
The Goon spoke up. “What if there was a way to uh…refactor the midlayer?”
“Re-what?” The left side of Jim’s mouth went up in a grimace; the face he reserved for people who didn’t know jack about his work, yet offered up inane theories about it regardless.
“Yes, you see, uh…” he sniffed, “we at Multicore have developed a novel method for rejuvenating damaged polymer by refactoring its molecular integrity. The details are uh…sniff…well a trade secret—I’m sure you have many of those yourself, Mr. uh…”
“It’s Murphy. And so you just happened to be on this ship, that just happened to rupture its hull, and just happened to provide the perfect testing ground for whatever Mercurian snake oil you’re sellin?”
Patricia looked the way you do when one of your family members burps at the dinner table when you have a guest over. “Murphy, would you please not insinuate sabotage on a whim?”
“Ha ha, it’s fine,” Goon said. “He’s right, it is quite suspicious that I happen to be here. However, the fact is, Multicore has designated uh…salesmen, for lack of a better term, stationed on many of the older cruisers. No offense, C.O. Cullinane.”
Great. So they weren’t saboteurs, just vultures then. Space was full of them—take Rafael for example. But this went far beyond pushing overpriced synths on unsuspecting space janitors…
“What the hell kinda name is Multicore, anyway?” Jim wondered out loud. “Shouldn’t you be selling computer chips?”
“Yes, ha ha,” Goon scratched the side of his face like an imbecile. “We get that one a lot.”
He didn’t even answer the question. Jim sighed and turned back to the affected area, testing for any radiation leak; more of a formality than anything, since he knew they were currently bathing in a whole lotta bad juice. It would be wise to get the hell outta there already, actually.
“Well, anyway,” Jim replied cheerfully, “if you think you can fix it, go nuts.” He climbed down from the chair and cowpoked it back over to the lift. Patricia’s eye-daggers weren’t nothing compared to being ionized; he was getting the hell outta there, manners be dammed.
The Goon from Multicore looked expectantly over at Patricia, who for the second time that day found herself on the verge of folding. At this rate, her career would be over faster than one of Jim’s relationships with a girl from Space Date.
They went ahead with the refactoring. Time passed, from nanosecond to minute to hour, as Jim waited in his quarters, not particularly for the results, but rather for his 24-hour consumption limit to run out. Unfortunately, the results came back first.
“Jim,” Patricia called on the intercom, probably not daring to approach his room again.
“I’m here, officer.”
“The midlayer refactoring has supposedly completed. Can you get down here and check it out?”
“On my way.”
Supposedly, she said. So even she wasn’t buying the Goon’s bullshit. Usually, to swap out a midlayer costs half the price of a new ship, so if this junk really worked, it could change the entire space industry. If Jim had half a buck to his name, he might even be inclined to invest in it…although the word ‘invest’ sent chills down his spine these days. He thought of his ex. That bitch.
The lift clanked to a halt and Jim skipped off onto the lower deck, where a group of upper officers had convened, all chattering curiously about the new development. He grabbed a chair and plonked it over by the hull then climbed up with his meter, first scanning for any high levels of radiation, which there were none, and then doing a deep integrity scan of the middle layer at several points in the wall.
“By God, I think it actually worked.” Great. Now he really did have to go to Ganymede. Hip hip hooray.
The chattering gained intensity now, fingers gesticulating and greedy mouths salivating at the prospect of extended space travel—perhaps they could even make it past the Kuiper Belt, and heaven knows what grand riches were to be found in that unexplored region of the Galaxy. Not even the Chinese had made it that far yet!
But Jim wouldn’t be taking part in the festivities. The ship would dock, and he would alight with no belongings, to be shipped off to whatever hellhole facility paid a pittance, to be treated like a sack of old meat, which he was slowly becoming, as the space years ticked on and his dreams of adventure and cosmic heroism faded into the black hole of reality.
It was then that a strange cracking sound awoke Jim from his self-pity: a resonant splitting sound which echoed through the hull wall from corner to corner. The crowd fell silent as the sound grew louder, travelling from wall to wall. “Is that normal?” Patricia squeaked out, but the Goon was nowhere to be found. She barked over the comms, “Someone find that Multicore rep!” But of course, it was too late; he would already be half-way to JS-2 on an escape craft.
They had been rused.
The cracking sound grew louder, lights switching to emergency red, the safety siren wailing for its life, the snooty officers scrambling off to the pod deck. But Jim remained standing there, and Patricia, seeing his composure, eyed him with that glimmer of innocence she had showed him that time, on his bed, with her thighs wide open. Would it be okay after all? She might have been thinking. Or maybe that calmness just stoked something in her—something raw and primal, the need to depend on someone strong. And dependable. And brave. And—
The truth was that Jim was none of those things; being a lower class crewman, he had no access card for an escape pod. If the ship was going down, he was too. No point scrambling around then.
But he hadn’t yet given up entirely. “Is there anything that can be—” Patricia attempted to nag, but the wail of the siren made it impossible to hear. You’d think they would have thought of that, the guys that designed the siren, but no.
“If he’s from JS-2,” Jim shouted over the alarm, “he’s probably given us just enough time to go land there! Otherwise they’d have nothing to gain!”
Upon hearing this felicitous news, Patricia finally snapped out of her brief plunge into female weakness. “Of course! The motive was never to destroy us…We don’t pose a threat to them.”
By “them” she probably meant the Chinese. Who else would bother fucking with a generic space cruiser? But Jim didn’t really give a crap either way; in spite of the circumstances, he still found himself checking his watch to see if his 24 hours were up yet.
“I’m heading back to central command. Will you do what you can to protect the hull from cracking open?”
“Of course, on one condition…”
Patricia sighed and yelled “All right, dammit! You can have ten times the rate we agreed on!” She hurried off. Actually, Jim hadn’t thought of that at all; he was just going to ask to borrow her Dining Card so he could have one last mead while they awaited death.
Well, if he was going to get paid, then that was another story. Here was his domain—even on the brink of death, Jim was an expert at welding. He quickmelted the everlasting heck out of those panels—scanning here, scanning there, connecting weaker panels together through temporary bridges, whipping back and forth across the deck like a madman trying to hold up this house of cards just long enough to land. Patricia disabled all safety restrictions and steered the cruiser like a fireball out of Hell down towards JS-2, where no doubt many a vicious little junk-peddler was presently rubbing his hands with glee. But Jim could care less; as long as he got a payday, what did it matter how much the Irish Space Corps got bamboozled for? The thought gave him ever greater vitality, inspiration…or even…was that hope? Yes, a forgotten feeling, lost in the bottom of a mead cup long ago. Maybe he could forget about his ex, and her mind games, and the ten-inch knife she had left in his spine…yes, he thought—dancing back and forth between panels with the light touch of a master—he would rejuvenate his whole life—he would be refactored! Perhaps after this, he could even ask Patricia out on a real date, and not just a quick stuffing in his quarters, either—perhaps he could move up the ranks of the ISF—perhaps he could be a real space officer, just like his heroes!
The cruiser swept out an elegant arc as it finally came to a definitive THUMP upon the landing bay of JS-2.
The doors swung open and many a green-faced officer tottered out; half the complement had already self-jettisoned, and wouldn’t make it over for days—a thought which filled Jim with glee. He casually took the lift up to the first floor of the ship, where Patricia was waiting. He walked up to her and saluted—not in jest, but with the correct posture and attitude of a regular officer. She returned his salute.
“Fine job, Mr. Murphy,” she said with the first genuine smile he’d ever seen her wear. “You might just have saved our asses.”
“Well, in return, can I ask you a favor?”
She blushed and looked away, but after hesitating a short while, turned her face up to him again. “Of course.”
“Great,” Jim said, grinning from ear to ear. “Would you lend me your Dining Card?”