Macom was basically an agricultural planet. The location made it ideal for an interstellar transfer hub. If you weren’t a farmer or worked at a space port there wasn’t much else to do.
I was eighteen and had finished my basic education. My father felt that was all a farmer needed. Anxious to get off what I thought of as a backwater planet I went to work at the space port as a freight handler. My uncle was the Cargo Master and he helped me get the job.
After a year of boring work, I was ready for a change. A free trade freighter came in to replenish their supplies and take on any freight delivery job they could pick up. They needed a new freight handler because their man had been injured in an accident. I took the job though my uncle advised against it. He said this wasn’t a good ship to be on, but I wouldn’t listen. The fact that they dumped the injured handler at the space port should have told me the kind of ship it was, but I was young and anxious to get off world.
Ship board life was even more boring. In transit between stops there was only make-work to do. The Owner/Captain made sure I stayed busy. The ship had an extensive library so I studied in my spare time. When I finished the studies to become an apprentice cargo master I asked the captain for the certification. He exploded all over me. He said he only needed a dumb freight handler not an apprentice and he wouldn’t certify me because he wasn’t going to raise my pay.
My friends on the ship warned me that I was on thin ice but with nothing else to do I continued studying. This time I chose astronavigation. I knew that every interstellar ship was required to have a Certified Astrogater, a Certified Engineer and a Certified Pilot.
I was twenty-two years old and had been on the ship almost three years when we landed on Forester. Forester was on the fringe of the settled worlds. Even more back water than my home world Macom. We offloaded our cargo and waited for the Captain to find a new one. It took a week. After loading the new cargo, the Captain called me to his office.
“Jason you are a competent freight handler but you’re too ambitious. I can’t afford you.”
“I’m willing to work for a freight handler’s pay. What else do you want.”
“I’ve found a replacement. I’m dropping you here.”
“I’ll never find a ship here. At least let me stay until we hit a better planet.”
“We lift in an hour. Pack your bag and be off the ship. You’re dismissed.”
So, there I sat on an out of the way planet without a ship and only my savings to live on until I found another. Checking my comp record I found that the Cargo Master and the Astrogater had both upped my status to apprentice, also the port had fined the captain for dumping me without cause.
I found an inexpensive room. It wasn’t much more than a one room flop with a shower, not really meant for long term housing and I hoped it wouldn’t be. The Port Master only hired laborers as day labor when needed. I looked for off port jobs but the locals weren’t very friendly to off-worlders. Trying to stretch my funds I ate at a medium-priced bar and grill. The waitress was a young girl from the local farms. She was friendly and we chatted when she wasn’t busy. Frieda was looking for a way out just as I was. She made sure I knew she wasn’t a prostitute but she occasionally shared a bed and some showed their gratitude. As a friend she shared mine sometimes without expectations. On her collar she wore an astrogater pin that was give to her by a ship’s astrogater when she told him she was studying astronavigation. We often talked of catching a ship that could use our knowledge.
I’m not much for drinking or gambling but I could nurse a beer for a long time. The locals drank a spiced beer which was just a beer with local spices added in. I found out the hard way that the spice did more than add flavor. You definitely went for a trip that alcohol didn’t give.
The gambling was mainly comp games. You entered your account and the amount you were willing to wager. Luckily it wouldn’t let you lose money you didn’t have. If you wanted to bet with goods they could be valued and entered.
I had picked up some odd jobs around the port but was nearing the end of my money. I decided to chance the price of a meal on a game. Surprisingly I won. After a few more rounds I won enough to last me another ten days.
Five days later a ship landed. The Port Master warned me to stay clear because it had a bad reputation. I was desperate but when I saw the crew I knew the warning was real. They were unkempt and dirty. They swaggered around trying to look tough. The fact that there was twice as many as a ship that size would require was a sign of a pirate or at least someone up to no good. The only woman of the crew was clean if not neat and she wasn’t drinking. Maybe she was the one to watch out for.
Looking around the bar I noticed most of the regulars had left. Only the old lady that spent a couple of nights a week there and myself remained. The ship’s crew were gathered around the gaming table drinking and gambling. At the end of each game the winner had to buy a round of drinks for the other players. They finally talked me into playing a round. Amazingly I won. After buying drinks I still had enough for another game. Winning some and losing some I was ahead enough for me to live for a month. I set that aside as a reserve in my account. The beer was having an effect on me. I realized that Frieda was serving me watered down beer while the rest were drinking double spiced. If I remembered I would thank her in the morning.
The crowd around the table began to thin as some lost interest, ran out of funds or became too drunk to continue. Looking at my account, I had won a good portion of the money in the game. Thinking that I didn’t dare quit with this rough crowd I decide to start losing. No matter how badly I played it seems I won most of the larger pots. It was down to the Captain and me and he was almost out of funds. I decided to take a break and unload some of my excess beer. Maybe the break in the game would break my winning streak.
When I got back from the restroom the Captain had added more funds to his account. I told him it was getting late and we should call it a night but he insisted on one more game. Keeping only my reserved living money I bet the substantial balance that was in my account.
Because of the large amount the bartender made sure we both thumb printed the transaction. As I turned to leave I felt a blow on my skull and I was falling into a dark pit.
I woke up in a tiny dark smelly space. The sounds told me I was on a ship and we were under way. My head was two sizes to big. Even with the watered-down beer I’d had way too much to drink. If I didn’t find a head soon I was going to add my own stench to the already odorous compartment.
The hatch was locked. I knew that waiting would not improve my situation so I keyed the intercom.
“If anybody can hear me, I need to use the head soon.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.” It sounded like the woman on the crew.
“Please hurry.” It never hurts to be polite.
A few minutes later the hatch was unlocked.
“Head’s across the passage, then come to the bridge.”
The passage and the head could have used a good cleaning. After I relieved myself I headed for the bridge. The ship was quiet. Maybe the crew was sleeping off the spiced beer.
On the bridge, the fact that only a few seats were filled didn’t surprise me. Who filled those seats was the surprise. In the engineer’s chair was the female crew member, in the pilot’s seat was the old woman from the bar and in the astrogater’s seat was Frieda.
“Where’s the crew?”
“Somebody better explain.”
“I’m Katie, you won the ship last night.”
“The Captain was also the owner. He put the ship up as collateral. He didn’t set the value very high so when you both went all in you won the ship.”
“How did they let you take off without a crew?”
“I’m an engineer and I found Frieda listed in the comp as a probationary certified astrogater. Mattie is a pilot. She retired but decided she didn’t like that planet. You’re now the Captain.”
“So why did we leave so fast and what about the rest of the crew?”
“You don’t want or need any of them. When they wake up they will realize they’re all broke. The Captain had used the ship’s account as his own for so long he didn’t think that it went with the ship. I figured we’d better be gone before they woke up and caused trouble.”
“Where are we headed?”
“We have two cargo contracts. One is paid on delivery and the other is prepaid, bonded and certified. You’ll need to help Frieda. She’s never been in space before. The bonded cargo is first.”
I helped Frieda calculate our next jump. Neither one of us had actually done this job before so we did what we had studied and prayed it was right. Ships normally take several short to medium hyper jumps. With longer jumps you stand a higher chance of hitting something. Most people think that space is empty. There is a lot of debris and junk floating between solar systems, you never jump inside a solar system because the gravity has attracted way too much trash. That’s where a pilot has to be sharp. In system hitting something can damage your ship. At hyper speeds even hitting a small object will instantly turn you into just more space junk.
After we were in hyper Katie showed me around the ship. The Olakana was an old medium sized freighter. In the spaces Katie worked it was neat if not clean, other spaces showed no effort at all. The bonded cargo was in a small store room, about a hundred large crates listed as medical equipment. They had been sealed and certified before they came on board. Any inspector would just check the seals, not open the crates. The money was in our account but could not be accessed until we could show proof of delivery. The other cargo was large agricultural machinery. The ship had two shuttles and there was room for more when the bays weren’t full of bulky cargo.
Talking to Katie as we walked the ship I learned a lot more. She had come on the ship as a certified engineer. Out of necessity she had learned piloting and cargo handling. She also kept the records and did most of the trading. As the only woman on the ship she had been used hard as the ship’s whore. She had been looking for a way to escape. She didn’t say, but I believe she was the one that talked the drunk Captain into wagering the ship.
Katie encouraged us to study the other jobs on the ship so we would be able to fill in or back each other up.
It took three jumps and about four weeks to our first delivery. As we approached Wilhome we felt something wasn’t quite right. There was no space port so we couldn’t take the ship down, just the shuttles. We loaded the cargo on one and prepared the other to make the initial contact. Another ship was in orbit but would not respond to our calls. Playing dead was one of a pirate’s favorite tricks. Putting our ship in a different orbit we used a shuttle to check out the other ship.
Approaching cautiously, it appeared that the ship had been rammed by a shuttle. From the angle it did not look like an accident. We found no life on board. The bodies looked like sudden decompression was the cause of death. We put a nav beacon on it. Frieda and Mattie started to download and scan the ship’s comp logs and Katie and I headed down to make contact with our buyer.
On the ground we found a society barely into the industrial age. Wilhome had been settled long ago but had fallen back into the dark ages. The culture was now recovering but a civil war had broken out. Our cargo was for the losers. We were met with hostility until we explain we were just delivering cargo. The ship above had transported mercenaries for the losing side.
The language was basic but had undergone a major shift. Katie could barely make herself understood but I was completely baffled. The officials wouldn’t deal with a woman. We decided she would act as an interpreter. That meant she would bargain and I would show approval or disapproval according to her hand signals. An agreement was reached and we would bring down the cargo the next day.
Back at the ship we decided there was a lot to salvage from the disabled ship. No cargo but supplies and spare parts. We found several ship’s systems we could pull and use to upgrade our own ship or to sell. We moved the Olakana over next to the disabled ship and Frieda and Mattie started the transfer while Katie and I returned to the surface.
When half of the crates were unloaded we made them sign the release. We would have to go to a Federation port to have it cleared but Katie was sure we would be ok. While we were unloading the rest of the crates the first ones were unsealed and opened.
Medical supplies? If you wanted somebody dead. Weapons, old technology but way ahead of what this planet had.
We hadn’t told them these were prepaid and they immediately started to bargain. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? We were offered a lot of precious metals and had agreed on an amount when Katie saw workers playing a board game. She walked over to look. It was a cross between checkers and chess. The board was polished stone and the pieces were wooden topped with colored stones. Katie started to haggle. The outcome was we would take two hundred of these “chess” sets but we had to take eleven cats too. That seemed like a strange bargain. Cats had been with man through all of his wanderings in space. Every ship had them to keep the vermin that came on board with cargo under control. It was odd that I hadn’t seen any on the Olakana, maybe it was to filthy even for cats.
We stowed and secured the metal and packed the chess games as they came in. They wouldn’t let us leave until they brought the cats. Finally, they arrived.
WAR CATS. These were the surviving mercenaries. I had heard of them before but never seen one. War cats look like a cross between humans and felines. They walk upright and are covered in short fur. There were six males and five females. The males stood about six inches taller than me. The females were about my height. They were all warriors. The proper term was Warrior Cats but had become shortened over the years. They could fight with tooth and claw or any kind of weapon including modern tech. Just standing near them made me cower.
It may have been the poor communications or the language barrier but this was not what Katie and I had expected. Armed guards marched them aboard our shuttle. Without a sound they all strapped in and prepare to lift. Even not knowing where they were headed they seemed glad to leave Wilhome alive.
Cats were unable to speak human languages; their vocal cords just weren’t built that way. Communication was by sign language, though they could understand our speech. Most people think they are not very intelligent. To use the weapons they could use and fighting as a team indicated most people might be wrong.
I needed to make some decisions fast. Behind me was a small army of the toughest most dangerous fighters anywhere. I did not want to have any misunderstandings.
“We did not plan on having you aboard but we will furnish quarters for you until we can get you to a Federation port. We have cargo to deliver so it may take some time. Let us know if you need anything else.” Their eyes were watching me but not one made a sound or a move. I hoped they understood.
When we arrived at the ship Katie led them to the crew’s quarters. We were all in officer’s quarters so they had them to themselves. That night I made sure to secure the hatches between the two areas.
The next morning Katie and Frieda started to disassemble the systems we could use from the wrecked ship. Mattie and I moved the supplies and began searching the ship for any other useful items. The ship had three more shuttles that we could use or sell. We would need to shift some of the machinery to make room in our bays. We found weapons and equipment for the cats and decided to take that too.
I was in our cargo bay deciding what I could do to make space when I noticed one of the cats watching me. It made me nervous but she didn’t seem aggressive. When I started to shift the cargo, she left. A few minutes later I had four cats. The larger males began helping me. The moving went a lot faster with their help, they were much stronger than me.
That night when we all returned to our ship I found the others had cats following them. The oldest male, the one that seem to be in charged had been following Katie. Other males had followed Frieda and Mattie. They helped when they could and Katie was impressed with the engineering ability of her helper. She called him John. I started calling my shadow Mia. Mattie had Jim and Frieda had Carl. We knew that wasn’t their names but they started answering to them.
Katie told me the cats that were not following us were cleaning our ship. They started in the crew’s quarters and were expanding out from there.
We naturally started talking to them and we picked up on their signs and language. Seeing what we were doing they started making suggestions most of which were very good. It took about a week to get everything shifted to our ship. Without the cat’s help it would have taken twice as long.
The bridge and the officer’s quarters were now spotlessly clean and it really felt good. The rest of the ship was being clean one area at a time. A ship is a large space so I knew that it wouldn’t happen overnight.
When Frieda and I began to figure our next hyper jumps, Mia and Carl were looking over our shoulders. It was a little strange but they seemed to be studying what we were doing. One evening I found them all setting with Mattie on the mess deck learning how to read.
We had four jumps to our next stop. The cats were studying right along side of the rest of us. Katie gave them each a comtab so they could write messages to us. It seemed natural that the cats became part of the crew.
On our third jump, Tony, the head of the cleaning crew came and asked Katie and I to come with him. He showed us a large pipe crossing a main corridor. It was marked as fresh water.
He then showed us the pipe where it came through into the compartment. It was only four inches not the ten inches like in the corridor. The compartment on the other side also had only a four-inch pipe. We shut down the water to that section and Katie and John disassemble the pipe in the corridor. The four-inch pipe ran through it. When Katie emptied out the larger pipe it was loaded with diamonds and other precious stones.
“In all the years I’ve been on this ship I never knew this was here. I don’t think the Captain did either. He would have sold them off.”
“Are they worth a lot then?”
“Jason, you don’t know stones, do you?”
“No, but jewels must be worth something.”
“If we get to a port without a lot of taxes and tariffs these could buy a ship. I guess you don’t know why I traded for the chess sets?”
“Katie you’re the trader. I just went with what you said.”
“The chess boards alone are worth more than our heavy equipment cargo and I’m betting the decorative stones on the chess pieces are worth twice that much.”
“So, we’re rich?”
“Only if we find the right place to sell or trade. Let me think about it.”
As the Olakana entered the next system for our delivery to Smythe we received a weak distress call. It seemed a little fishy to get a destress call this close to an inhabited planet but by law nobody could ignore a call for help. We moved in closer but not to close and contacted them. They said they needed some repair parts for their communication and navigation systems. They were willing to buy or trade for them. Most ships carry spares for these essential parts so that was also suspicious. We had extras because of our salvage on the last planet. We asked if we should deliver them and they said they would send a shuttle. They wanted to land in our shuttle bay but we told them it was full off heavy cargo. They would have to connect to an air lock. This would make the transfer more difficult but be safer for us. If things went sideways we could blow the lock and they would be swimming in vacuum.
Katie and I were suited and waiting at the lock. We had six of the cats suited and out of sight. You could tell they were surprised to see us suited. Three of them entered and left the hatches between the shuttle and the ship open. The leader pulled a stunner and five more came charging aboard. They had expected a merchant not a squad of war cats. In seconds they were prisoners. John took three cats into the shuttle to clear it.
We secured the prisoners in an unused cabin. John and I took the squad of cats on their shuttle and headed for their ship. We landed in the shuttle bay and stormed the bridge. Only one person was left on board. After securing their communications so no message could be sent we looked the ship over. It was not supplied or equipped for any long voyages. They were probably based on the planet. Leaving Carl and Tony to secure the ship we returned to the Olakana.
Smythe had a port where we could land and unload. We left our three extra shuttles parked in orbit and contacted the port for landing instructions. We didn’t mention the pirate ship and the port operator seem surprised to hear from us. That told us a lot about the pirate’s contacts.
When we landed the Cargo Master was waiting with a large crew to unload us. We only opened a small hatch. The cats were armed and waiting out of sight.
“Open the bay so we can get you unloaded.”
“You can inspect the cargo but we need to get paid before it’s unloaded.”
“That’s not the way we do business.”
“That’s the way we do business. On the last planet they had a war going on and we had trouble getting paid so now we get paid first.” Well, it was almost true.
“You’re going to do it our way or you won’t get paid at all.”
“The ship stays secured. In an hour if no one is here to pay us we lift.”
In about a half an hour the buyer of the equipment showed up to inspect and pay us.
When we opened the bay doors, eight war cats in full battle dress waited to supervise the unloading. The shock on their faces was priceless. Half the freight crew turned and ran. Even though half the crew was gone those under the watchful eyes of the cats unloaded quickly. We lifted as soon as we could close the bay doors.