The Tombot XIV stared with dead eyes, waiting patiently for me to bring it back to life.
I do that.
I had been laboring on the robot for the better part of the hour, and was no closer to being done. The goo that was caked onto the wires was ample evidence one of our guests had had poured something into it as the Tombot made rounds delivering fresh linens to the cabins. The sticky, sweet smell permeating from the wires was indicative of Euratian Martinis – the drink of choice on the Varipos.
I sighed heavily and glanced out the port window. In its limited view, all I could see was Cirux shining feebly below. While the star shed enough light to charge the Varipos’s solar panels, it did little else.
As I made a fist my fingernails dug deep into the grime that encased my hands. Due to my occupation, the oil was perpetually on them, regardless of how many times I wiped. Cantox, the oil of choice on the Varipos, was thick, smelly stuff, and unfortunately, the lifeblood of the bots. Wearing gloves was not possible, and even if it were, Minton would certainly make the cost of purchasing some astronomical. Wearing gloves was not possible, and even if it were, Minton would certainly make the cost of purchasing some astronomical. I winced whenever I thought how much had been absorbed through my skin. I could only speculate on the effect it would someday have on my health.
I wiped the perspiration that had settled onto my brow. Looking up, I saw the ventilation shaft was off. Again. I heard a low whine as my atmospheric stabilizer struggled to compensate. Rumor was circulating that Minton was randomly shutting down the ventilation systems on the employee decks to save some credits.
Sighing, I looked back down at my oil encrusted hands.
I wondered if I would die on this ship.
I knew enough who had.
The calendar that was tacked to my wall did not lie. Next month marked my three year anniversary since arriving.
It felt like thirty.
* * *
I still remember the advertisement:
LOOKING TO SEE NEW PLACES?
STRANGE AND WONDERFUL ALIEN RACES?
ALL EXPENSES PROVIDED
LIMITED JOB OPENINGS
888 – SAIL NOW
(Owned & Operated by Minton Enterprises)
Which I did.
Two weeks later, after a whirlwind of papers and inoculations, I found myself on a shuttle with a group of tourists, traveling 93 times the speed of light towards The Varipos. I had to pay my own way, the cost all but depleting me of my savings. In my naiveté, I wasn’t terribly concerned about the fee, for I felt the money would be re-earned quickly enough.
* * *
The crown jewel of the resort industry.
Arriving for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the vessel. A structural marvel, it was far bigger than the holographic displays on my home world made it out.
Over fourteen kilometers long, it was the largest vessel in the nebula, military or otherwise. It was a space-station with the ability to become mobile if needed. It could accommodate 15,000 passengers and was staffed by a crew of 5000, comprised of 150 alien races. The Varipos had 9000 state rooms, 32 decks, 52 restaurants (75 page menus), 21 swimming pools (of various liquids), 15 movie theaters (with built in translators of 551 languages), 10 casinos, 4 auditoriums, 2 mini shopping malls, and a sports stadium.
For those wealthy enough, the ultimate in vacations.
It seemed the ideal place to work.
I could not have been more wrong.
* * *
Epsilon Indi faced us as the shuttle made port. Roughly the size of my world, Indi was the largest of 15 satellites revolving around the gas-giant Sodi Omnicron. The blue-green atmospheric swirls of Epsilon Indi created a breathtaking, ever-changing collage of colors.
In contrast to its appearance, Epsilon Indi had no discernable forms of life. The aquamarine-hued atmosphere was the result of noxious, highly corrosive gases blowing across the planet’s surface in excess of 300 kilometers per hour. Even the most resilient protections were stripped bare after a few hours of exposure.
While pretty to look at from afar, it was deadly if you strayed too close.
Like the Varipos.
* * *
Orientation was brief. We were each handed two items.
The first was a holo-locater to help navigate the ship. The decks, though clearly marked, had been constructed in a maze-like formation, making it extremely easy to become lost.
The second was an air stabilizer. Since it was impossible to have an environment suitable for all species, an atmospheric stabilizer was needed to regulate what was inhaled.
But more difficult than lugging around locators or having hoses shoved up inside my nostrils was getting accustomed to the permanent midnight that existed on the ship. The lack of atmosphere made me yearn for the yellow sunrises and green sunsets of my home.
As it was stated in the recruitment brochures, the essentials were provided by the ship. The bare essentials. Everything else had to be purchased in the ship’s stores – all at extreme markups. To get rations that were above standard, cost extra. To purchase new uniforms cost extra. Even to get my own sleeping quarters was extra.
My original intent of saving quickly vanished.
When I complained to management, they produced my contract. They highlighted Sentences 9-15 of Paragraph 3 on Page 58. It listed what I was to be provided with.
I should have read it more carefully, they told me.
* * *
A skill assessment determined I would be most apt to working in the shops, cleaning and repairing robots. Not complicated work, as the machines were of relatively simple construction and easy to fix. The exception was when the guests, particularly the children, got rambunctious and took their energies out on the droids. The robots would be set fire to, gummed up, or even ejected out the airlocks. I always hoped for the later. Having them plucked from space usually meant little damage had been done.
As my skills increased I progressed to larger, more complicated robots. I was awarded such things as clothing vouchers, gourmet meal rations, and even a small workshop of my own. These had all been previously given to Jonas Matoksis, my mentor. Jonas, a lifer, had been extremely vocal about the quality of food Minton was providing to the employees.
In his anger, Jonas had forgotten Minton more than just our employer. In this quadrant of space that was owned by no country and governed by no laws, Minton was judge, jury, and executioner.
There was no investigation into Jonas’ death. It was simply classified an accident and forgotten.
* * *
I was fastening a lug onto one of the swimming pool Water-Droids when Ruby suddenly came running in. “What’s wrong?” I said, noticing the extreme crimson pallor of his skin.
Ruby was my assistant. A three-foot Trixton named Clickatockateektook, whose skinny, nimble fingers could wiggle inside even the tinniest of the robots. His chameleon-like skin changed so during times of high emotion, he would turn bright red, like a ruby. Hence the nickname was born.
Ruby’s head spun a halfway around before returning to me. “Pirates!” he exclaimed.
I glanced out the portal. Nothing seemed amiss. “I’m in no mood for games today, Ruby.”
“It’s no game, Felix!”
“Then where’s the ship?”
“It could be anywhere!”
I looked at Ruby with trepidation. The Varipos was certainly large enough. A shuttle would have any number of crevices to hide in. I turned back to the Trixton. “All right. What did you see? Which deck were you on?”
“How did they get in?”
I’m not sure. Maybe through the Auditorium.”
That was a possibility. The first show in the Nasion Auditorium wouldn’t be starting for several more hours. This time of day the area would be empty, giving the pirates the element of surprise. “I didn’t hear any alarms.”
“They must have been disabled.”
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “How many?”
“About twenty. Not counting the ones on the ship.”
“There’s no way so few pirates, having the element of surprise or not, could hope to overtake the Guard!” The Guard was the ship’s three hundred strong security force. Keeping the Varipos crime-free was their official duty. Performing Minton’s bidding was what they were really used for.
Ruby bobbed up and down energetically. “Well, I don’t know where the guards are, but I didn’t see any. I wonder if the guests are aware of what is happening?”
That didn’t make me feel any better. Several thousand people running blindly through the ship would certainly be cause for disaster. “What race were the pirates?”
“Humans mostly. There were some Wozbacs mixed in as well.”
I tried wiping my hands again. It didn’t do any good. I pulled off the soiled smock and tossed it to the floor.
“Where are you going, Felix?”
“To see what is going on.”
Ruby turned incandescent at hearing this. “You’re likely to get killed!”
I went back to my desk. “Ruby, I’m not going to do anything. If they want to plunder the ship, I’m the last person who is going to stop them.” Opening one of the drawers, I removed my pistol and walked out.
We took a service elevator to the Portisian Deck. The sunbathers were in individual tanning booths that overlooked Indi. Depending on the species, various types of artificial sunlight, ultraviolet, infrared, gamma, and beta waves rained down.
Anything for a tan.
We stayed close to the walls. The upper decks were restricted. Unauthorized employees risked getting docked in pay if caught. Strangely, I didn’t see any on patrol.
A side corridor brought us to a staircase. An unmanned guard’s station was at the base. I realized Ruby’s story was more than just his imagination as these stairs lead to the Captain’s Deck.
“This is a bad idea,” I heard Ruby say as we ascended.
The plush red carpet felt good beneath my feet. I couldn’t remember the last time I had walked on such comfort. Carpet, like many things, was a scarcity down below.
Another hallway greeted us as we reached the top. Stretching in either direction, I was unsure where to go.
Suddenly something cold and metallic was pressed against my neck.
A hand reached into my trouser’s pocket and fished out my Glabco Pocket Blaster. “Where do you think you’re going?” A voice grunted from behind. It didn’t sound human.
Before I could respond, I felt the gun’s mussel jam harder into my neck. It was clear enough instruction for me to answer.
“Lower your gun, Larry. He’s with me.” I heard Ruby say.
Another grunt and the gun dislodged itself.
I turned to face my would-be attacker. It was a Wozbac. A real ugly one. But I stood up to his chest, so I decided not to voice my opinion.
“Sorry, Click. I didn’t see you down there.” He looked to me with uncertainty. “What is the human doing with you?”
Click? “What is going on Ruby? How does he know you?”
“I have clearance from Davis to bring him.”
The Wozbac was silent as he stared at Ruby. Holstering his gun, he gestured down the hall. “Laroy and the others are down there.”
“What is going on, Ruby?” I insisted once we were out of earshot.
He ignored me. Before I could voice my objections again, we had entered the Captain’s Deck.
The mammoth room monitored the space station’s orbit, life support systems, shuttle traffic, and a myriad of other functions.
Off in a corner the crew had been herded. The mates were dressed in their formal, highly starched uniforms. Some of them looked recognizable, such as the Ship’s Captain, Henrick Lentz and the Director of Security – M’Zoc X-Thoc. Most surprising was in the midst of the group was the man responsible for every employee’s misery – the owner of the Varipos, Lester Minton.
One of the pirates, a bear of a man, turned to us. A grin blew in across his face. “Glad to see you’ve finally decided to show, Click. The boys have just secured the shuttle to the airlock. Another ten minutes and we would’ve been gone.”
Ruby turned a pale shade of green.
The man extended his hand to me. “Davis Laroy. You must be Felix Rockerbock?”
“Ruby, how are you involved with this?” I demanded, not bothering to shake.
“Don’t judge him just yet,” Laroy said to me. “Ol Click’s the one who insisted on bringing you here.” The smile disappeared from his face. “Against my better judgement.”
Looking around the room, I looked at the mates who were assisting the pirates. I had assumed they were working against their will. Were they involved?
“The Enforcer Bots. My job was to ensure they were disabled,” said Ruby.
“What about the guards?” I asked.
The airlock suddenly opened with a tremendous sucking sound. The Purser’s boxes were picked up and carried through.
Ruby looked at me. “The guard’s atmospheric stabilizers were reprogrammed. They began breathing air suitable for an Atruskan. Death was instantaneous.”
“But how were you able to do that? The security clearance…”
Ruby turned and I followed his gaze to one of the Varipos’ crew assisting with money. Harold Spencer, First Mate.
“We didn’t even have to fire a shot.”
“But why, Ruby? Those people – we knew many of them. Some we were even friends with.”
“Don’t fool yourself, Felix. Their loyalty is to Minton and his bankroll runs far deeper than any friendship you might have thought you had. Any of them would have shot us dead.” He looked to Minton on the other side of the room. “He kept us destitute, without any chance of leaving this wretched place, while he became richer than any man needs to be.”
Minton returned our stares. “You don’t think any of you will get away with this? Stealing two hundred million credits worth of money and jewels from the Purser’s Office will set every planetary agency from Alpha Enduri to Omega Onicron after you, Laroy.”
Davis looked at Minton with an amused look. “I completely agree with you, Lester. And that is precisely the reason why we are not taking any of it.”
“What do you mean?”
Spencer suddenly spoke. “I know about the embezzling, Henrick.”
The Skipper suddenly turned the same shade as Ruby.
“A real First Mate knows everything that transpires on his ship – legal or otherwise. Did you really think me so naïve as to not know what you were up to? Did you really think I didn’t know about the money you were scamming from the casinos?”
Minton’s jaw dropped as the last of the money boxes were hauled away.
“So, you see, Lester, I don’t think we have to worry about being pursued.” Davis removed his pistol from its holster. “Especially since the only governing law on this ship is your own.”
“Where are you taking us?”
“Not far, Captain,” Laroy answered. “Not far at all.”
Ruby turned to me. “Come along with us, Felix.”
“Me?” I looked instinctively at the pirates at then back at Ruby. “So that was the reason why you lured me here?”
“I’ve spoken to Laroy about your technical experience. He has a need for someone like you.” Ruby smiled. The excitement was visible even in his alien eyes. “With the money in those boxes we all have the opportunity to start over.”
“But where are you going?” I asked the Trixton in a hushed voice. “Regardless of what he says, the authorities will come after you.”
Ruby shrugged all of his shoulders. “If they can find us. For now, it’s a risk I’m ready to take.”
The boxes now loaded, the pirates began filing out through the airlock. Minton, Henrick, and the crew were taken as well.
Did I really want to go through with this? These men had killed so many all ready, and unless I was mistaken about Laroy’s intentions, there was going to be more death within the next few minutes. For all I knew, Laroy could shoot myself and Ruby dead so that he could collect a larger share of the money.
But then, Ruby was right. I had absolutely nothing to loose. Not unless I counted a shoebox sized workshop and broken Bots a reason to mourn. If I didn’t leave now, I would be doomed to this ship. Even though Minton would be gone, I had no way of knowing if his replacement would be any better.
“All right,” I said to Ruby.
The airlock was a small room-like appendage that connected the pirate’s cruiser to the Varipos. In it, held at gunpoint, were Minton and the others. I avoided their gaze as I walked into the shuttle.
The hatch to the Varipos closed and sealed. A moment later the pirates that had been watching the crew entered the craft. The shuttle’s door closed behind him. However, the interior hatch, the one that should have sealed the airlock, remained open.
I closed my eyes as our ship separated from the Varipos. Even though it was impossible, I was certain to have heard the screams.
A minute later I walked over to a nearby portal. Already, the Varipos had been reduced to a mere speck on the backdrop of Epsilon Indi. A few more seconds and the space station would be indistinguishable from the aquamarine world.
Cirux was shining far off in the distance as if nothing were amiss. For the star, today would be no different than the millions that preceded or the millions that would follow.
For me, it was different.
I heard the shuttle’s booster begin the slow process of powering up. We would be entering hyper-space soon.
If the authorities didn’t classify me as a casualty, I would be most certainly considered a suspect. Like the games that were played in the casinos, my cards had been dealt.
There was no turning back.
For a moment I considered asking Rudy where we were heading.
But it really didn’t matter.