Authors: J. L. Doty
He turned and walked away, leaving a small comp card on his seat. Carson picked it up and put it in his pocket. It would contain access codes to a bank account supplying untraceable electronic funds.
Had Carson been a curious man, he would wonder why they were going to all this trouble for an orphaned boy from a backÂwater agro-planet. But Carson took great pains to never be curious.
“Wake up, kid.”
York opened his eyes and found Mr. Chief standing over him, a small package under one arm, the cell door behind him open.
“Couldn't figure out the grav bunk, eh?”
York unwrapped himself from the blanket and stood. “Grav bunk?”
“Here, let me show you.”
Mr. Chief stepped up to the bed, reached down, touched the controls, and extended the gravity field a bit. He turned around, leaned his back against the bed, and did a funny sort of pivot. When he was done, he lay against the surface of the bed, flat against the wall and held in place by the gravity field, like a painting on the wall of a man lying in bed.
York glanced over his shoulder, noticing that no one stood between him and the open cell door.
“Don't even think about it, kid. You're on a ship and there's no place to go.”
York turned back to Mr. Chief.
“And the captain would be pissed if you tried. You don't want the captain pissed.”
The man reversed the funny pivot and once again stood upright on the floor. He opened the package and handed York bright, fluorescent-yellow coveralls with the word
stenciled on the back. “Put that on.”
York stripped down in front of Mr. Chief and pulled on the coveralls. The man then locked him in hand and leg manacles, marched him out of the cell, and put him at the back of a line of three men and a woman wearing similar coveralls.
“Sturpik,” Mr. Chief said as he turned his back on them. “Tell the kid the rules.”
The man in front of York turned around. He was tall, with greasy black hair; a two-day-old stubble of beard; sharp, pinched eyes; and sunken cheeks. “We're going to the mess hall to eat. You're one of usâa prisoner. You don't do shit, you don't say shit. You stay in line, you take what they hand you, you sit down, you eat it. When we're done, we get up and march back here. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” York said, not sure he was going to like this navy thing. But it still had to be better than a mining asteroid.
“You don't call me
Sturpik turned around and now all York saw was his back.
“Okay, you pieces of shit,” Mr. Chief said. “Let's go.” He shouted, “Prisoners on deck,” then marched forward. The five prisoners followed him.
York quickly learned that the leg manacles forced him to shuffle forward in a series of short, quick steps, though he was no worse off than the men in front of him, even if his legs were a bit shorter than theirs. They climbed up a plast ladder to another floor, then shuffled down a hallway with floor, ceiling, and walls all made completely of plast. When they approached other men and women in uniform, Mr. Chief called out, “Prisoners on deck,” and the others stood aside to allow the prisoners to pass.
They entered a large cafeteria with a lot of uniformed people seated at plast tables. Everyone but the prisoners wore khaki, dark gray, or black uniforms, making the bright yellow of the prisoners' coveralls stand out even more. A line of uniformed men and women snaked past a long, plast counter where they were given trays of food. When Mr. Chief shouted “Prisoners on deck,” the line parted and the five of them were allowed to step in. A fellow behind the counter handed each of them a tray, Mr. Chief escorted them to an empty table, and they sat down with Mr. Chief standing over them.
One of the men whispered, “Rotten crap for food.”
Mr. Chief said, “Button it, Thurgood.”
The “rotten crap” they ate was far better than the rotten crap Maja had served, though York thought it wise to keep that opinion to himself.
York had left his civilian clothes in a heap next to the bunk, but when he returned to his cell they were gone.
“You won't need those anymore,” Mr. Chief told him.
York's days turned into a monotonous grind of sleeping and staring at the walls of his cell. The daily trip to the showers broke up the monotony a bit. Each morning, Mr. Chief marched them up there just before the second-watch rushâYork wasn't sure what
meantâand he learned quickly that he had a half-minute under chem wash to scrub down, then one minute of warm water to rinse off. But since he was low man on the shit list, they made him shower first, and
didn't apply to anything that came out of the spigot. The other four prisoners showered after him, which got them lukewarm water. York learned that part of their responsibility as prisoners was to warm up the showers for second watch.
His third day in the cell, Sturpik marched up to the showers with them but wasn't present when they went up to the mess hall. When they assembled for lunch, York learned he'd been released and returned to duty.
At regular intervals, a speaker somewhere in the cellblock came to life, and a voice announced something to do with the ship, usually with a string of words that meant absolutely nothing to York. In the middle of York's fourth day in the cell, he was waiting for the march to the mess hall for lunchâanything to break up the monotonyâwhen the speaker came to life.
Up-transition in ten minutes and counting. All hands stand by.
It was the first time York understood anything that came out of the speaker. He'd heard of
; it had something to do with traveling as fast as lightâor faster, or something like thatâand he wondered if it would make him sick or something. He noted the time on a small digital clock above the door to his cell, but he needn't have bothered. The speaker gave a five-minute warning, then a one-minute warning, then a countdown from ten seconds. When the speaker said
, York felt an odd little flutter crawl up the back of his spine, but that was all. He shrugged it off and continued his wait for lunch.
The next day, after the morning shower, Mr. Chief pulled York aside while he locked up the other three prisoners. He gave York khaki coveralls with his last name stenciled above the left breast pocket. The word
was not stenciled on the back of the coveralls. “Put that on,” he said. “You ain't a prisoner no more.”
York said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Chief,” and started stripping down.
“You don't call me
Chief. You call me just plain Chief, or Chief Zhako.”
When York had finished putting on the new coveralls, Zhako clipped an ID card to his chest. York glanced at it and saw his own picture prominent on its surface. His reading skills were limited, but he knew enough to make out the details of his own identity. Beneath his picture were bright-red letters that said
“It's got a DNA trigger in it,” Zhako said. “Touch it with a finger.”
York reached up and tapped it lightly, and the word
Zhako said, “It needs to make contact with your skin to get a sample and confirm your identity. If anyone else touches it, it goes inactive and unconfirmed until you touch it again.”
Zhako spun about. “Follow me.”
Chief Zhako led him down steep ladders to two floors below the cellblock, which surprised York. The cellblock was located so far down in the ship he'd assumed they were as low as they could get. Zhako stopped outside a funny-shaped, open plast door and turned to York. He lowered his voice and said, “Listen to me, kid. Nobody but me, the master chief, the captain, and the XO know what you did as a civilian. And if you keep your mouth shut and work hard, no one ever needs to know. On the other side of this hatch, you get to start over, a second chance, so be sure you do something with that.”
“And don't call me sir.”
York kept his mouth shut and didn't say anything.
Zhako nodded once and turned back to the
âYork was beginning to realize he'd have to learn a whole new language. He followed Zhako through the hatch into a long, narrow corridor that curved slowly to the right. The curve was quite shallow, but the room was long enough that he couldn't see where it ended. Several groups of men and women were busy at one thing or another. They walked past one group that had some sort of apparatus disassembled, with tools and mechanical parts spread out on the floor. York spotted Sturpik in another group, though he didn't acknowledge York as they passed him. York noticed several small, round hatches spaced about five meters apart in the wall on his left, and they appeared to extend the entire, unknown length of the curved room. One group of five people paused and looked their way as York and Zhako approached. A woman stepped forward, wiping her hands on a greasy rag.
She said to Zhako, “So this is Ballin?”
Her eyes settled on York and he saw no kindness there.
Zhako said, “Spacer Apprentice York Ballin, this is Petty Officer Straight, your new boss. From now on, you do what she says.”
She leaned close to York and said, “And you do it when I say, and how I say.”
York wasn't sure if he should call her ma'am, or sir, or what, so he kept his mouth shut as Zhako marched away and the woman and her four companions gathered around him. Straight introduced her crew. A girl named Zamekis appeared to be in her late teens, and a fellow named Marko seemed to be the oldest among them, with a man named Stark and a woman named Durlling both of ages somewhere between the two. All of them had some sort of insignia on their sleeves, where York's sleeves were bare khaki.
“Marko,” Straight said. “Tell Spacer Apprentice Ballin what he just became.”
The older fellow stepped forward. He gave York a kindly smile and said, “Come here, Ballin.”
He turned and walked over to one of the round hatches in the curved wall, so York followed him. He slapped the wall next to the hatch and said, “This here is
York asked, “Dauntless?”
Marko frowned. “You don't know the name of your ship?”
Straight said, “He was pressed into service. Probably picked up in a sweep of undesirables.”
Marko nodded; that seemed to satisfy him and the others. He held out his hands in a broad gesture. “You're now part of the crew of
an imperial medium cruiser, and as I said”âhe slapped the wall againâ“this is her inner hull, and this hatch leads to one of the pods on the outer hull. You know what a pod gunner is?”
York shook his head. “Noâ” He'd almost finished by saying
“Well, kid,” Marko continued, “a pod gunner is almost the lowest form of life on ship. But you know what's lower than a pod gunner?”
York shook his head again.
Marko grinned. “Us. We're lower-deck pod gunners, and that makes us even lower. But there is one thing that's lower than a lower-deck pod gunner, and that would be an apprentice lower-deck pod gunner. We only got one of them. Care to guess who that might be?”
York said, “Me?” It came out in a squeak.
Marko nodded. “You got that right, kid. You're so low, you're lower than the lowest. But when we're done with you, you're gonna be a lower-deck pod gunner.”
Straight said, “Give the kid his first weapon.”
Marko picked up a bucket of water and a sponge and handed them to York.
Straight said, “Dirt's your biggest enemy, Ballin. So take no prisoners.”
He asked, “What should I clean?”
Straight grinned. “Everything.”
York got down on his hands and knees and started scrubbing the floor.
Straight and her crew broke for lunch, and while someone always complained about the food, York thought it quite good. After lunch, he went back to scrubbing the floor. They broke for dinner, then York followed them to the bunk room, and while the rest of them played cards or lounged about through the evening, Straight put him to work scrubbing the floor there. At the end of his first day as the lowest of the low, he was ready to drop into bed. He could barely keep his eyes open as they pointed him to a square, boxy recess in the bunk room.
“There's your coffin,” Straight said.
At the look on his face, she grinned. “Pod gunners don't get a real bunk on a ship this size. You get a stacked coffin and stim-sleep. Hope you aren't claustrophobic.”
York laid down in the coffin, it cycled closed, and he felt it moving as the ship's systems stored him somewhere. And then he dreamed: about Cracky and Ten-Ten, about Maja and Toll, and the man who brought him to them. And in all of his dreams, a shadowy image of his mother hovered in the background. He tried to see through the haze of the dream, hoping to recall her face, but she remained wrapped in dark shadows.
When he awoke, he sat up and slammed his nose into the top of the coffin. He tasted blood streaming out of his nose as the lid opened to a room full of bright lights and Straight's crew.
“Ah, kid,” Marko said, helping him stand, holding a somewhat clean rag to his nose. “We all made that mistake at one time or another. You'll catch on.”
York scrubbed a lot of floors, though he learned they weren't called floors on a ship, they were decks. And the walls weren't walls, they were bulkheads, just like doors were hatches and rooms weren't rooms: big rooms were decks, like Hangar Deck, and Pod Deck, and Lower Pod Deck. Then he learned that some rooms were rooms, like the Engine Room. And some doors were doors, not hatches, like those on the officers' staterooms. It left him quite confused.
On his hands and knees scrubbing the deck, York craned his neck to look up. Sturpik stood over him. York rose to his knees and said, “What can I do for you?”
Sturpik leaned close to him. “Watch out for Straight. She's a mean bitch, and snotty, and she ain't doing her job.”
York hadn't formed an opinion of Straight one way or another. “What do you mean she ain't doing her job?”