“Stranding Room Only”
by Ray Daley
I hadn’t seen them cut jets myself. We had gotten word back from one of the tame wharf rats, the young homeless kids who always hung out at the docks, hoping to earn a few credits by carrying a spacer’s bags, or giving them directions. Most of them were honest kids at heart, with just a few bad apples spoiling their generally otherwise good name.
It was why I always kept at least a dozen or so of them on our books, all strictly cash in hand, of course. If you’d asked them to their faces, would they ever work for the Man, I can bet dollars to doughnuts they’d all give you the same answer. A good old Bronx cheer.
It would be a fine welcome to this humble rock we call home, Alani Prime.
Anyway, as soon as we got the word, I dressed in my gear. I can pass for a wharf rat, once I’ve messed up my hair and dirtied my face enough. The clothes blend in down there, ripped and tattered, repairs on repairs and nothing fits right. If you were a spacer who’d just stepped onto solid ground for the first time in a dozen light-years I’m almost certain you’d believe I was just like the rest of them.
The only thing I can guarantee is, unlike ten percent of the others, I won’t steal your bag and sell the contents at the Beggars Market.
Anyway, it was a matter of mere minutes, changing from Chief of Security to Honest Andy, Queen of the Homeless.
What’s that you say?
You didn’t expect to find a woman doing such a dangerous job? Oh, honey child. Women are doing dangerous jobs every single day and you probably don’t even realise it! Heck, try being a mother for one day, see how dangerous that is!
When I reached the security zone, I gave it the quick once-over. The boys there weren’t in the know, they were from B Division, not cleared for intelligence missions. I could see Sarge Miller, Electric Jonny and the Mute Twins. Yeah, I could get in easily enough. Just a matter of waiting a few more minutes until…
There she was, bang on time!
“Coffee, boys? A nice warm drink inside you, to stave off the bitter night air?” Good old Salvation Suzy, walking her regular route to give sustenance to the down and outs.
I’d have to remember to hit her up for a green tea before I returned to base, or she’d worry about poor young Andrea. She was the only person I allowed to call me Andrea more than once, too. Don’t try it yourself though, unless you like the taste of your teeth. Do you hear me?
As soon as they spotted her, all the guards began to gravitate towards her and away from their appointed posts. That gave me the time to not only walk through safely but get myself way out onto the mooring positions. I didn’t have to walk out that far to see her. The SS Outrageous. She wasn’t just taking up one mooring either. She was opened up on both sides, port and starboard. Damn, they certainly meant business then!
I glanced down the slipways, checking who was at the top of each one before I started my fly by. I had to be sure to make my walk look as casual as possible, I didn’t want anyone aboard the Outie to catch wise that we were on their scent yet. They had only just started running this scam from the Outie, but we’d seen it a dozen times before already.
From the intel I had seen previously, this wasn’t the first run for the Outie either, only back then they had been calling her the Mission, and before that the Old Lady Of The Sea. For sure, we knew her lines, but not her real name, not yet, at least.
If today went to form, I would know that before sundown.
As I strolled down the wharf, port side, I made sure to stop and shoot the shit with all the rats at the end of the slipways. It would have looked odd if I hadn’t. Even the worst enemies stopped to talk to each other down here, swapping stories and information, which ships wanted what, and who had gone ashore. Not every kid had hook-ups, but everyone knew someone, and if you couldn’t get what your ship wanted yourself, you almost certainly knew someone who could, or someone who knew someone.
So down I went, not in the literal sense, of course. The wharf was die-flat, for those of us who’d never seen an ounce of the big black all knew there wasn’t any down in space. But we liked to fuck with the Spacers’ heads by referring to it thusly.
Tommy Tales, slip number one. Tommy earned his creds regaling spacers with tales of dirt-side, what had been going on since they’d been off in the big black. Suitcase Milly, slip number two. It didn’t matter how heavy your load was, she’d carry it as far as you needed it taking. Heck, she’d even walked the fifty-something miles over to Freeside before, toting a load even a mule would have turned its nose up at.
On I went, by Toys Malone, Duke the Puke, and Robbing Robin. No, that wasn’t how it sounded. He’d earned that name for being one of the few wharf rats who was always visibly stopping snatch-and-grab jobs by the unwashed. Robin always had good intel and today was no different.
I nodded to him as I approached. “Hey, Rob.”
He bobbed a fake curtsy, that one always did have quite a sense of humour. “Your Highness. What’s shaking?”
I grinned. “Only the teeth in my head, from this beast’s sub-sonics, Rob. What’s the word on the wharf? Any action to be had?”
He nodded. “Heck, yes! They put up a crew wanted sign. Only none of us have got the right papers to get on board. You reckon you could lay hands on such a beast, Queenie?”
They had always called me Queenie, right from day one. I’d been the one who could always score food, on those long cold nights when even Salvation Suzy dared not go outside. I had always been able to find somewhere under cover to sleep for the night, aware which tanker was open, after the refugees had run into the night for their freedom. I was known for being able to achieve the apparently impossible.
Like getting fake work certificates.
I gave Rob those eyes. Boys had knocked each other out just to hold the hand near those eyes. “Sorry, Rob. I’ve heard bad things about this one, spread the word but don’t make it obvious, okay? No-one is to accept any work which takes them on board. Any spacers going inside, bags only go as far as the airlock. If they ask why, tell ’em the truth, wharf security forbids any unlicensed civilians aboard a docked vessel without a valid ticket to ride. No exceptions, you hear me, Rob?”
He nodded, and I knew the word would be out all across the wharf within the next five minutes. He wouldn’t move from his spot, but somehow, everyone would be aware of my warning. I’d never been able to work out exactly how he did it, but that was the main reason the Chief of Security kept him on retainer and a real short leash. It was the same reason Honest Andy had to come down here and be seen walking about at least once a week. In her role, the kids had to know I was available, not just to pass information to. I had to be there to solve their problems too.
The mile-long drag of the wharf petered out eventually, giving way to nothing but blast shielding. I made sure to check none of the rats had set up home in there again. It was empty today, cold, no evidence of human detritus, no sign anyone had been foolish enough to sleep or shelter there.
We’d had a nasty incident a few years ago, where a rogue pilot had touched down without mooring and fired full thrusters into the blast shielding. He’d been hopped up to the eyeballs on blue dreamers, the damn idiot. He had killed thirty rats too, kids whose only mistake had been to seek shelter near where they had lived and worked. Lived and died, now.
As Queenie, I had made sure those kids got a memorial, the local police had all chipped in and they’d even asked their Chaplain to come down, say some words and bless the place. As the Chief, I made sure that guy swung from his neck, from the highest docking arm. And there he stayed until the birds had picked him clean. I’m in charge down here, don’t fuck with my kids!
I know you find spacers even trying that too, from time to time. It’s getting rarer now, but it’s still not unheard of. They’ll spot a kid they fancy the look of, offer them the world on a plate and all the creds they could possibly imagine. I found the last one just before he got started, chopped his old man off too, but left him alive. I let him live, so he could spend the rest of his life dead-heading from world to world. He spreads the good word around all the docks now. Don’t fuck with the kids, or Queenie will make sure you live to regret it; a long painful life too.
Once I had crossed the walkways and reached the starboard moorings I realised who was there. Just Jack. He didn’t only know my face, as Queenie. He knew me as the Chief too, and he’d sell me out in heartbeat, especially to the rats on this side of the wharf. The wrong side of the wharf.
I brushed my hair across my eyes, hunched my back over and developed a sudden limp in my right ankle. Just enough of a disguise to stroll up on Jack, without tipping him off.
A few steps away from his patch, I saw their sign. CREW WANTED! ALL LEVELS OF EXPERIENCE! GOOD RATES OF PAY, SIGN-ON NOW! ASK FOR THE CHIEF.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Jack giving the sign a once-over. No doubt he’d looked it up and down a hundred or so times before he’d asked someone to read it to him. He could read and understand it himself, but Jack liked to play his little mind games, have you believing he owed you a favour, then playing his trump card that he’d understood all the time. Of course, it would go with the threat that he’d beat you five ways from Wednesday if you told the other rats he could read.
That was just his way, hence his nickname. Just Jack.
He didn’t have time to react when I rocked up on him, I’d done the nerve tap on his left shoulder, so he was now frozen in place until such time as I decided to free him from the prison of his own body. He’d be a statue until I wanted otherwise. Apart from his mouth.
“Jackie boy. You know my voice, just say yes, nice and quiet. Don’t be silly and try to shout for help, or I’ll tap the other shoulder and you’ll be dead from an apparent heart attack before any of your pit bulls have the chance to realise we ain’t just shooting the shit here.”
He winked at me. “Queenie. Or should I call you Chief?”
I punched him in the small of the back, close to the kidney. Hard enough to hurt but not quite enough violence to seriously damage him. “Queenie to you, Jack. It’d serve you well to forget I’m the Chief, especially if you want to keep drawing in air. Now then, you see that ship in front of you? No need to answer, it was a rhetorical question. That’s a ship of slavers, Jack. You know what they like to do to kids, right? Again, rhetorical question, no answer required. What you’re going to do is call a meeting of everyone plying their trade starboard side.
“All your crew are going to get a nice little tip, about a crate-loading job up at the warehouse district; when you get there, tell them Queenie sent you. It’ll be honest work for the next ten hours, and ten more every day for as long as you can keep your thieving hands out of the crates, all cash in hand, plus a roof over your head each night once you’re done for the shift. As long as you don’t fuck it up, Jack. I’m gonna let you go now, and you’re gonna amscray, savvy?”
He flared his nostrils, “Sure, I savvy. Don’t be within arm’s reach after you’ve let me go.”
I don’t like bullies, nor do I care for idle threats made against women in general or me specifically. So after I’d given him the release touch, I made sure to keep my hand on his shoulder until I was good and ready to let him go. I made him cool his jets good, before I finally released him. The best thing there, he wouldn’t dare explain what had just happened to his pit bulls. He’d have lost face, and his leadership position immediately if he’d admitted he had just been blind-sided by a little girl, because that’s all his pit bulls would have seen from their vantage points.
Jack and the pit bulls were gone in under two minutes. That gave me enough time to check in on the remaining wharf rats. Sure, they might have been starboard side, but they weren’t all bad kids on the wrong side of the loading tracks. Some of them had no choice but to ply their trade over there; many of them had death warrants issued port side. A great deal of them slept out on their patches too, they both worked and lived there, available twenty-four seven to anyone going ashore.
I made sure they knew not to go onboard. I left one final message, with Terry the Throat. “You find Sarge Miller or Electric Jonny. Tell ’em this, ‘The Chief says she went aboard. Fire up the scopes, keep ’em hot!’ You got that?”
Terry nodded, and I sent him off with a single credit burning a hole in his grubby little hand.
Then I turned and walked down the boarding ramp. Pressing the call button, I waited.
“Who’s that out there pressing my damn button?”
I coughed. That was standard spacer lingo for “You’re wasting my time, buddy!” I gave him a heavy sigh then went on, “The sign out here said you were looking for crew? Or I can go down to the next berth and find myself some folks who ain’t rude assholes?”
The outer airlock door opened. “Come in, if your coming. We do standard rates, no overtime. Equal shares on all bounties.”
I could feel the hairs going up on the back of my neck as the outer airlock door closed behind me.
“Follow the overhead lights, that’ll take you to the Chief!”
We knew they had been running a variation of the luxury-liner scam. They’d set themselves up as a vessel for the fabulously wealthy, promising trips to far-off mind-blowing destinations. What they were actually doing was welcoming their high-paying guests abroad, escorting them down a narrow corridor with newly welded in place bulkheads “for safety purposes,” then they would turn a corner and show the folks their suite.
We heard the spiel used to be they’d pull a hypo and tranq the unsuspecting duo then shanghai them off to a planet out in the arsehole of nowhere.
A lot of the insanely rich had caught wise to the tranq thing and were now actively looking out for it on every ship they boarded. So this crew changed up their method. They had treated dermal patches on their palms, patting their guests on the back as they guided them around the final bulkhead before their “quarters.” The sleepy-time solution soaked through their clothes, into their bloodstream, taking just long enough for them to get in the room. As soon as they stepped inside they were out like a light.
Allowing the kidnappers enough time to manhandle their bodies to the back of the room, before the next marks arrived to go through the whole routine again. What we had learned was, they took their marks to an M-class planet, not exactly a paradise but not too dangerous as to be killed once left there.
For that’s exactly what they were doing. Stranding their victims until someone paid enough for their safe return. It was my job to find out where that planet was.
I had followed the overhead light, passing through a couple of litter-filled but otherwise empty rooms. When I stepped through the next door, I felt the hand on my back.
Of course, they assumed I was away with the fairies, and I played possum, letting them believe that too. That meant I had to let their man drag, bounce and otherwise rough me up as he took me to join their other victims. Once he dumped me among the other sleeping bodies, I lay there listening until I finally heard him dogging one of the doors closed behind him.
We had known about the tranquillisers, and recovered victims had happily let us examine them and their blood. When I heard about a shipment of dermal patches being stolen, I put two and two together and that equalled kidnappers. We always told the wharf rats they were slavers, it was easier, and scarier too. I knew they’d stay away from slavers in fear of their very lives. Some of them, including Jack and his pit bulls, might have been stupid enough to believe they could get in with folks like that.
You note I didn’t refer to them as people there. People have souls, they care, even if it’s a little bit. These weren’t real people. They were scum. Galactic trash of the worst order.
As I couldn’t do anything about my fellow victims, I spent what little time we had left dirt-side making myself familiar with the rest of the ship. Nothing had been left locked so I was free to wander as I liked.
Don’t think that meant I was strolling around the corridors of the Outie as though I owned the damn place! Far from it. I was moving from room to room within the air ducts and crawlspaces, the areas normally only ever used in case of emergency repairs and suchlike. I had to make sure I was back among the sleeping beauties as they battened down the hatches to dust off.
It was a good job I had returned too, they did a headcount to check how many were being taken. “One hundred and thirty-nine, Morry!”
“Okay, Jimbo, lock that door. I know they don’t usually wake up but we ain’t used this method before, so better to be safe!”
The one called Jimbo didn’t just dog the door shut, he welded the lock in place too, from his side. The outside.
It wasn’t impossible to get out of the room. I just had to pile up a bunch of sleeping bodies, open a hatch into the air ducting and jump off the back of the woman sleeping on the top. She’d have my shoeprints on her back for the next few hours, but that couldn’t be helped. I had to be planting all kinds of bugs on board now.
Not that I’d been idle during my initial inspection, mind you! I’d already placed a bunch of trackers and recorders up high and well out of view of prying eyes. The Outie, or whatever she had been originally christened, had all kinds of hollow bulkheads, they made for extra internal structural strength. They also amplified any sound which resonated across their exterior, so I placed all my recorders inside them. I needed to get names, places, co-ordinates.
And boy, did I hit pay dirt!
This crew might have been ultra-professional when they were doing the old snatch-and-grab routine dirt-side but boy, were they sloppy once all the victims were out for the journey. There were twelve souls on board, eleven men and what I thought was one unfortunate woman until I saw how she treated her crewmates.
It took two days, but we reached our destination. Obviously, we didn’t go by the shortest route. I gathered that much through the pissing and moaning from the crew at mealtimes.
Oltos Delta. Ah, not an actual planet then. That explained why the Space Force hadn’t been able to find them in a planetary sweep. A planetoid. Not quite a moon, but no planet either. It was class M, barely, more like living at the base of an extremely tall mountain.
Their hardest job was cutting the weld Jimbo had done. That made him really unpopular with Morry, who’d wanted to get us dumped and be on his way back to his woman. If some poor cow called him lover, she was either blind or mentally challenged. Not that it mattered any longer. I had to play possum again now until we were on the surface. One by one, they loaded our sleeping bodies onto a Lev-cart. It was simple to push us out onto the surface then.
Before I’d returned to our cell for the last time, I had heard them taking some sort of tally from orbit, so we weren’t going to be alone when the others woke up.
“I’d say room for a hundred more, Morry. Give or take ten.”
“Stranding room only!” Jimbo laughed.
“Are we taking the rest somewhere else, Morry?”
“Fuck that, Jimbo! Time to dust off, and see if any fool wants to pay to get them all back again.”
When I said they dumped us, I mean that quite literally. The Lev-cart was pushed into the airlock, the outer door was opened and they blasted the jets on the aft side, tipping us all off the cart, through the air about two feet, onto the cold, hard surface of Oltos Delta.
Not a world generally visited by anyone, ever.
I waited until they applied lateral thrusters, jinked off ten points starboard of us and dusted off, back up into the big black.
So they weren’t looking to kill anyone as they blasted off then. They could have easily torched us all into charred carbon atoms with the backwash from the main engines but they had been careful to pick their way around us on lateral thrusters, known as cool jets to those in the trade.
I picked myself up, dusted myself off and took in my surroundings. I could see shapes just off in the middle distance, what I assumed were the other victims of this scam. By the time they resolved into actual human figures, my compatriots were just coming around.
With lots of wheres and hows and why fors, one hundred thirty-eight other souls set foot onto the surface of Oltos Delta for the first time.
Oltos Delta had a day lasting a hair over thirty-six hours. Its day cycle was cold at first, ranging into a bearable arid heat. Its night cycle was frigid, well below zero. Those unfortunate enough to have been here long had already built a communal shelter, which barely housed their group. At my insistence, they just about huddled us inside. As they were all couples, more than half of our group had to sleep woman on top of man, there not being enough physical floor space for everyone to bed down at night.
Food soon became a problem too.
The kidnappers dropped supplies, just not near enough to the ground for them to last very long. Despite being M class, there was no real indigenous life at all, no life forms more complex than bracken and mosses. Nothing edible, at least.
Certainly no meat.
I took a look at what food they did have left, and set about rationing it. I had to live on a wing and prayer, hoping someone would be missed enough to have their ransom paid.
I’ll admit it, I was shocked when it seemed that my prayers were answered. The first of their number was picked up three local days later.
Of course, the kidnappers had to land to pick their ransom up.
They made sure we couldn’t get too close by blasting hot jets the whole way to the surface, and were at the outer airlock with weapons drawn and ready as we approached them. “You lot, get back! We’re only here for one couple. Mister and Mrs Joe Leconte. We’ve got pictures, so if anyone else steps forward, you’re getting blasted. You won’t be killed, but you’ll wish you were!”
I patted Big Joe Leconte on the back a couple of times. I’m sure he thought it was me offering my hearty congratulations on his release. Not in the slightest. The first pat was my placing the dermal tracker on his back. The second, much harder pat was to ensure it fired the tracker into his bloodstream, then nothing short of full evisceration would have shaken that thing loose.
We knew they switched ships anything up to a dozen times or more on their journey back to Alani Prime. My job was to make sure we logged the details of those ships, their registry numbers, home ports, Masters’ names. All of that intel would be ours now. Thanks to Big Joe Leconte and his good wife, Lilly.
She was more than happy to let me kiss her; I don’t think Big Joe had been much comfort to her during their time on Oltos Delta. At least they were on their long and winding way home now. With my trackers safely inside both their bodies now.
I held everyone back, not wanting any unnecessary bloodshed. The time would come for these fiends, soon enough.
As I watched the Outie dust off, I wasn’t expecting a second ship to set down once she was out of sight.
Her shape was unmistakable, every last inch of her hull painted jet black, all save her name in bright red letters. A RED DOOR.
Yes, that colour scheme made perfect sense now.
Her crew were at the suddenly at the airlock then, guns bristling. “Mister and Mrs Andrew Marvell. And Jim and Doris Lessing. We understand you cats ain’t officially tied the knot yet; I guess we jumped the gun and ruined your honeymoon there. If you can accept our humble apology there, we’re all really sorry. Now hustle your asses on board!”
They never told me which of the couples reached them first, but I made sure we captured the Outie as our priority. They might not have been running the operation or even been the number-one vessel, but I had a personal axe to grind there. While Jimbo and Morry got a fair trial, it was only ever going one way for the crew of Harpers Light. At least we’d finally traced her true origin, the day before she went to the crusher, with her crew not faring any better before a firing squad.
I clipped Jimbo and Morry myself. Chief’s privilege.
We made sure that no other crews will be reusing Oltos Delta ever again. There’s nothing but dust orbiting that sun any longer.
I still keep an eye on the wharf rats. The odd pocket gets picked here and there, but on the whole, they’re good kids. With Jack and his pit bulls now in gainful employment, their empty pitches are filling up fast.
It’ll be standing room only soon. A lot more kids trying to avoid wharf security.
With every last one of them protected by Queenie.
Ray Daley was born in Coventry and still lives there. He served six years in the RAF as a clerk and spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet who has been writing stories since he was ten. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986. Tweet him @RayDaleyWriter