Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Spacer Tales: The Lonely Engineer" by S J MacDonald (Short Story)

Genre:  Science Fiction

Short Story Type:  Short Story

Summary:  Welcome to Kluskey's spacer hangout. Here, spacers swap yarns of ghost ships, space monsters, the weird and wonderful and the downright daft. In this first story, veteran spacer Jok tells the story of the last survivor of a doomed starship.

Most of them knew that story already and had probably heard many versions of it in many bars on many worlds, but it was a good old favourite and got a pleased reaction. The few who didn’t know it – the kid and some of the cadets – looked intrigued as the old man paused, building a dramatic silence before starting to speak.

‘It was in the year twelve, out in Sector Nine. The freighter Surehaul Logistics 7 was hauling cargo out from Karadon to Canelon. A steadfast class whalebelly, it was.’ He looked at the kid, and seeing no recognition added for his benefit, ‘Six thousand tonnes, twenty eight engines. Slow old ships, but there are still quite a lot of them out there, packing cargo. The Surehaul 7 was an unlucky ship. It had an engine dephase the first year it was launched and four years after crashed into a spacedocks pylon, nearly writing it off. It was an independent for more than ten years under the name Emilia May, till the skipper went bankrupt. Then it sat in a spaceyard for more than a year till this Surehaul Logistics outfit bought it at a knockdown price. They changed its name, which as everyone knows is the unluckiest thing you can do to a ship…’ That got nods and murmurs of agreement from the spacers, which Jok took no notice of as he continued, ‘but worst of all, these Surehaul clowns had no idea what they were doing. They were groundhogs, money men, trying to get rich by buying starships cheap and hustling cargo. They gave the skippers next to no allowance for maintenance and ran with the cheapest crew they could get.’

There were murmurs of disapproval from the spacers, who knew how vital it was to invest in the safety of a ship both in technology and quality of crew. Tiny and fragile, starships hurtled superlight through wave space, perhaps not even seeing another ship for weeks at a time. They were entirely dependent on their own resources in the most hostile wilderness known to man.

‘There were seven souls on board,’ said Jok, with a tone which made it clear that nothing good was going to happen to them. ‘There ought by rights to have been ten or eleven, but the Surehaul owners wouldn’t pay for more than seven.

‘The skipper was Al Harthorn. He’d been unemployed for three years after being fired from White Star Freight for being drunk in command. A sour, bitter man who didn’t care about anything but his next paycheck. Then there was the engineer, Jernak Tamarez. He was forty two, and had been a deckhand for nearly twenty years before getting his mate’s ticket.’ The spacers nodded. In order to serve as skipper, mate or engineer aboard a commercial starship you needed qualifications and a licence from the Merchant Shipping Authority. Unless you were lucky enough to be taken on by one of the big shipping corporations who’d put you through college and their own officer training colleges, that could be a long, hard, expensive business.

‘He’d been stuck on Karadon for four months, trying to get a mate’s berth,’ Jok said, ‘and got the berth on the Surehaul 7 when their previous engineer walked off it, saying it was a coffin ship and he wouldn’t be responsible for it any longer. The other five – well, there was the cargo boss, who was no spacer at all but a groundhog hired by the company to hustle the cargo. Then there were three deckhands, one of them a gambler, one handy with his fists, and a packer working passage.’

That was commonplace, tech-qualified backpackers working passage to travel between worlds. They generally weren’t fussy about the kind of ship they worked on, so long as it was heading in the right direction. The other two sounded like the kind of crew who’d struggle to get berths on quality ships, since few skippers were keen to have gamblers or fist-happy crew. ‘And,’ Jok went on, looking directly at the groundhog kid, ‘there was the galley hand. Sixteen years old, mad to go into space, he couldn’t get a berth at his homeworld so he’d bought a ticket to Karadon hoping to get something there.’

The groundhog kid turned pink. Like thousands of other wannabe-spacers, he too had decided that if he couldn’t get a job on a starship here at Neuwald he would head out to the League’s biggest deep space station. Everyone knew that Karadon was Spacer Central. Strategically located where eight major space lanes crossed, it was a duty-free trading station providing every facility for spacers. Cargos were bought and sold there, and spacers wanting to head off in different directions often hopped ship there, too, with a busy turnover. Rumour amongst the wannabe-spacer community was that it was easier to get a berth on Karadon, and that making your own way out there was considered to be showing an enterprising spirit.

‘Fonse, his name was,’ Jok said. ‘Just a rookie kid, hired to cook, clean and help out with whatever work he could. He didn’t know no better than to take the berth on the Surehaul 7.’ The veteran spacer paused, taking a sup of his cornbeer and settling himself to continue with the story.

Read this short story on the Nook or on Smashwords.  

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