Saturday, 10 November 2012

Part Three: F**king


"The thing is guys, you just don't fuck with Einstein" the grizzled old man leant back in his seat, knocked back the dregs from his glass and belched before continuing "That crusty fucker says we can't travel fast than light, then we can't"
"Nah, shit man, space time n' shit in't it, hyperspace n' all that shit" this man was taller, but scrawnier than his belching compatriot. His feet up on the table while his head was almost invisible amid a fug of thick, harsh smelling chemical smoke. 
"Never gonna happen. Best hope is generation ships. Aim them at a star we like the look of, and pow, blast them out there!" the large lady clapped her hands to emphasise the point, the movement causing the vast swathe of flesh under her upper arms to wobble slowly in the one third g. 
"But what about the Alcubierre probes?" the question was timid, uncertain. The voice not from those sat at the table, rather directly behind the big lady. Those at the table fell into silence while they appraised the interlocutor. The woman shifted her weight to turn round, the effort causing her to grunt.
Kel shuddered
"The hell you know 'bout Alcubierre, boy?" she demanded "So shut it with you dumb interruptions and get the hell back on with what I'm paying you good money for"
Kel nodded meekly, and return to massaging the woman's neck.
"S'more like it, yeaahhhh. Left a bit, that's the spot, mmmmmm" Kel had to stifle another shudder lest it travel down his arms and be detected by Tenyon; she got any more pissed off with him and it might be her feet he had to massage next. 
"Kid's got a'point though, ant'he?" the taller man, Lloyd blew out another stream of blue grey smoke before continuing "The Al...Alcu....those probes the congloms chucked outta here back in the day?"
"You actually believe the shit they tell ya?" the grizzled man sat forward "that was the biggest con since fucking forever"
"You say that shit never happen' Guss?" asked Lloyd.
"Nah, that shit happened, just that shit was fucked up" Guss shifted in his seat, leant forward "The congloms threw trillions at it. I know a guy who knew a guy who bummed this dude who worked on it. It's just all that crap they told us 'bout reachin' for the stars? Horseshit" and with that, he say back. One hand extended to grab the beer can dropped by the overhead bartender drone. 
"How come?" Lloyd lent through the smoke fug to tap out some of the sediment that had built up in his slush-pipe. 
"The tech, right, that Alcubierre shit, it works" Guss paused, savouring the attention "The probe basically stays still, but uses a fuck tonne of energy so that space moves right on passed it - that shit actually works, and what's better, it doesn't contradict my man Einstein" his audience were enrapt, even that little punk Kel had stopped massaging again without Tenyon noticing, "but the thing is, they fired them off in the wrong fucking directions" dramatic pause, lean back in seat, take swig of bear. Misjudge the swig slightly and pour bear down overalls, fuck, Guss hastily wiped himself down. 
"So what happened, man?" Lloyd had forgot about restocking his pipe, it smouldered a little in his hand. 
"They send out seven of these things, right?" 
"Uh-huh, I remember all the fanfare, Chen actually stopped busting our balls for five minutes while we watched them set off" Tenyon still hadn't noticed that her massage had stopped.
"Yeah, well they aimed the seven probes at what the boffins told them were the best hopes for planets in other systems that could support life"
"Those places were a fuck of a long way away, dude" Lloyd was shaking his head reverently 
"Indeed they were my friend. A couple of those little bastards topped 60 light years. It just turned out that the boffins were full of shit"
"How'd you mean?" Tenyon asked
"Seven probes sent out. Three just plain simple fell to pieces - data recovery showed they blew as soon as the Alcumbierre drives fired. But even the ones that actually got somewhere, there was fuck all happening. Two send back data packets showing that they'd hit some ancient fucking hunks of lifeless rock, and the other sends back images of a fucking super nova; any life there was long gone. All that shit cost more fucking new dollars than I knew numbers went up to. Sent four of the big Congloms clean outta business" 
"You talkin' bout the retrenchment years?" Tenyon looked puzzled.
"Exactly girl. They tell us that it was the rise of AI efficiencies that drove those older congloms outta town - like fuck was it. They got burnt bad by Alcumbierre" Guss sat back in his chair, another beer drained. 
"What about the other probe?" the tentative voice broke the silence once again. 
"S..sorry, I was j...just wondering about the other probe" replied Kel.
"WHAT OTHER FUCKING PROBE?" her face had flushed red.
"He, he said that three broke up on launch, two found lifeless planets and the other a super nova - that adds up to six. There was a seventh probe." 
Tenyon was about to launch into another tirade, but Lloyd interrupted .
"Hey man, the kid's right, that does add up to six." he starred at Guss "Where's the seventh?" he added with a look of wonder.
"Fucked if I know. Probably crashed into an asteroid somewhere"
"Or maybe the aliens got it" Lloyds eyes were wide, not just from the effects of the pipe.
"THE ALIENS CAN GO TO FUCK IF I DON'T GET MY FUCKING MASSAGE" Tenyon physically quaked with anger, rolls of flesh moving like the new tide entering a bay. 
"S...sorry Tenyon" Kel attempted to prod some of the trembling flesh.
"Geez boy, when you gonna learn?" Tenyon's anger started to subside as Kel went back to work.
The bartender drone crawled its way back across the ceiling, and dropped a small potato into Guss's outstretched hand.
"Shiiiit, not again" the old man considered the potato for a second, then looked ruefully up at the drone "I only fixed that damn thing last week"
"Potatoes are cool" mused Lloyd, who had relit his pipe and was sinking back down into a melancholic reverie.
"But not when a man needs refreshment" huffed Guss, struggling to push himself out of his chair, even in the weak gravity "Am getting too old for this shit heap" a nod indicating the small canteen-come-bar that they were in, "time for me to retire and head back home"
"You been saying that for yearssss", Tenyon's last word was drawn out by the pleasure of Kel getting to work on her right shoulder.
"But maybe now I mean it" Guss had started shuffling towards the side room where the drone normally resided along with the drinks.
"Earth gravity would crush you like a bug" although there was no malice in Tenyon's words.
"They got med-bots to sort that kinds stuff out. I'll be like a new man" this accompanied by a hacking cough, almost as if for added emphasis.
"You're going to need more than a med-bot when I crush you like a bug Tenyon" a new voice from the hatchway causing the big woman to jump.
"Shit, Chen, I was just coming, needed to see Guss 'bout, er, something" Tenyon got up, quickly considering her size, brushing away Kel's continued attentions "Get off me boy, now ain't the time for that"
"You were supposed to have the engines cycling twenty minutes ago" Chen stood with his arms folded. His features suggested Chinese ancestry, but they were blurred by a thick black beard and hair that fell around his face. Piercing green eyes considered Tenyon time to find a new engineer?
"Sure thing Chen, right on it" Tenyon bustled past him and out through the hatch.
Chen paused at the hatch for a couple of seconds, looked around, before giving Kel a curt nod and heading out to follow his engineer.
Kel slumped down in the chair that Tenyon had promptly vacated. The canteen was quiet, the only noises a soft snoring coming from Lloyd who had drifted into a drug fuelled haze and the occasional cursing from Guss in the back room while he attempted to fix the bartender drone. Kel flicked through his messages. Tenyon had stiffed him again, claiming that he was only due 50% of their agreed price given the interruption from Chen as well as the stop start nature of the massage. Still, it meant that he now just about had enough to cover rent and o2 (but not water), and he pinged the payment to Delilah. Grabbing what was left of Lloyd's drink, he won't miss it, Kel shouted a farewell to Guss and stepped out into the main corridor. 
The Europa geosynchronous loop habitat had seen better days. The walkway flexed as Kel made his way towards his cabin, rust was evident at the corners of hatchways. Somewhere nearby, something dripped. Gravity was created by spinning the loop habitat, the ultimate example of technological progress built in the early days of the hubris surrounding what space exploration could bring humanity. However, creating gravity in this way meant that where ever you wanted to get to, it was slightly up hill as you walked around the inside of the curve of the loop. 
Transport spurs linked the outer ring to a central zero g hub that was used both as a dock for space craft and as the terminus for the space elevator down to the surface of Europa, Jupiter's sixth moon. The scientists had high hopes for Europa. With a tenuous atmosphere and evidence of a sub-surface sea it was seen as a possible harbour for life. As the invention and refinement of the ion drive gave humanity access to the solar system, one of the earliest ports of call was Europa. A small research base was landed on the surface, then a larger base built deeper under the surface between the ice layer and sea. This shielded the small human research team from the high radiation up on the surface and allowed them to go about their business. "Business" in this sense was a mix of outright research scientists hunting for signs of life and the money men sent by the congloms to look at potential commercial viabilities. Funded almost entirely by the congloms, the hunt for life made good PR, but the real work surrounded Europa's potential as facility to produce water, oxygen and hydrogen. Getting those vital fuels and feedstuffs out of Earth's gravity well cost big money (especially as fresh water became ever scarcer), from Europa's weak gravity would be much cheaper.
As technology improved, Europa became the test bed for space elevator technology, then for centrifugal habitats. Jupiter's sixth moon was at the forefront of the space economy.
It was also, therefore, at the forefront of the first space recession.
The rise of the AI's and retrenchment among the major congloms saw ownership of the exploration and production contract on Europa change hands multiple times. The scientists were recalled (the vast investment spent yielding discovery of a few microbes not considered to be VFM) and the conglom AI ran drones move in. A large automated factory was built on the moon's surface, harnessing the radiation as an energy source. It pumped up the sub surface water, either purifying or breaking it into its constituent elements on a truly massive scale. A mass driver was built next to the factory, using electro-magnetism to literally shoot payloads out of the weak gravity well, aiming them at customers around the asteroid belt, Mars and the moon. The habitat and space elevator remained, along with a skeleton crew of no more than 20 to look after the factory, but also because shipping them back to Earth was considered too expensive.  
Kel was one of those too expensive to ship back. The puppy fat of his teenage years had given way to a handsome young man. A handsome young man who continued to dream of the stars. But no matter how hard he studied he couldn't seem to get his grades up to a level that would attract the conglom's attention, his brain just didn't work that way. He did. however, have the sort of easy going charisma that drew others to him. That may have made him suited to ship liaison, but he didn't know the sort of execs that could give him a shot at that. Kel didn't mix in those sort of circles, working a series of menial jobs after college, jobs it wasn't worth setting a drone to. 
During this time he met a variety of pretty unpleasant characters. It was the grimy underclass, those left behind by the gains made from the AI. Kel became more frustrated and more withdrawn. He would spend his evenings in the patch of scrub ground that was classified as the municipal park, starring at the stars. He could almost imagine himself up there. If he could block out the sound of the drug addicts fucking in the bushes next to him that was.
It was in the park that he first met Delilah. She wasn't one of the drug addicts in the bushes. No, she was the local prostitute. But a prostitute with drive. The park was hers, anyone trying to muscle in ended up in a bad way. She knew some pretty unsavoury people, but wasn't above sticking the boot in herself, or the stiletto heel for that matter. She and Kel would talk in the evenings between her clients, about her plans for world domination and his to explore the galaxy. 
Then Delilah got a bright idea. 
"We should go be companions" she'd said as she joined Kel at their usual bench in the park. 
"Er, what?" Kel had said, still gazing at the sky.
"Companions, it's like a fancy name for whores, but in space" 
"Space?" Kel had snapped round to look at Delilah, the mixture of moon and artificial light reflected in his large brown eyes. 
"How? When?" he'd stood up, an excited energy coursing through his body, making him fidget.
"There's a tender for the new Europa habitat - I know a few people on the panel, fucked a couple of them" 
"A tender?"
"Yup, they want one female and one male" Delilah held up two fingers for emphasis.
"To do, er, what exactly?"
"I told you, companions. Space whores"
"But I'm not a, er, whore. No offence" 
"But you want to go to space, right?"
"Yes, but..."
"But you ain't bright enough to be an engineer, or a marine, or a drone controller" her look had hardened.
"Thanks for the reminder"
"Sorry Kel, but this is your ticket to space, and my ticket out of this shitty park"
"Not sure if I'd be any good as a companion" Kel sat back down on the bench.
"You got the looks and the body, you got the ability to make people like you, you're 80% there"
"And the other 20%" he looked right at her, a gaze Delilah couldn't quite hold and turned away. 
"The other 20% you just, well, go somewhere else"
"What, like the seaside?" 
"Somewhere else in your head, thicko" she playfully punched his arm.
"Is that what you do?"
"It gets the bills paid" she shrugged, looked out into the park.
A silence descended on them. Just the accompaniment of that familiar grunting from the bushes. 
"Don't you ever wish you did something else?" Kel broke the silence.
"Like what? Scraping the grease from the food processors like you?"
"No, you're brighter than that. You know how stuff works, like the world and that"
"Ha, maybe I could be a politician or something?!" Delilah laughed.
"Look Kel, I'm a whore, I'm cool with that. It's not daddy issues, or drugs, or mixing with the wrong crowd. It was a decision I made, and it works for me. I reckon it could work for you too" she shrugged "but don't worry if you don't want to do it. I'll find someone else for the tender."
Another silence. The grunting from the bushes had also stopped. 
"I reckon you should go for it dude" Kel and Delilah looked at each other, both frowning as neither had spoken. 
"Er..." Kel said.
"You never shut up about going to sodding space, this is your chance" Kel and Delilah slowly turned towards the bushes next to the bench. The bushes that appeared to be talking to them. 
"I agree" another voice from the bushes "A bit and piece an quiet round here would be nice for once, without you harping on about space exploration" 
"I'm, er, sorry, bushes"
"I'm Dave" said one side of the bushes.
"And I'm Cynthia" said the other side.
"Nice to, er, meet you" said Kel, while Delilah just looked on, mouth agape.
"You guys should go and see the stars" said Dave.
And with the advice of the drug addicts in the bushes fresh in his mind, Kel went in to space.

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