23: Dust Man

Second Quadrant.

Planet Lenworth, Classification: M3 (hostile environment).

Port Gathering.


Hollet 3.2 had made planetfall many times before, but not here. It was still an odd sensation to be subject to fixed gravity. It would take him a couple of hours to get used to Lenworth’s 1.05 Gs and lose the short bursts of vertigo that started hitting him every couple of minutes as soon as the shuttle dropped him off. Real gravity was not the same as the kind manufactured by the Garu.

There were a total of seventeen inhabited planets on the Garu’s flight path as it orbited the binary stars of Kelidon-1 and Kelidon-2, of which only three were currently in serious conflict with the colony ship.

Relations with the planets varied and disputes were resolved just as often as new ones were generated. It was usually over a disagreement to do with trade, the ship and planets relying on each other for survival and, when things were going well, prosperity.

Three years between visits was a fair chunk of time. Deals made with one government weren’t always honoured by the next. Cultural shifts in a society might produce judgemental, if not damning, views towards Garuvian lifestyle or their intentions towards their trade partners. The superior attitude of the Garuvians did not sit well with many, nor did the ingratiating behaviour of their leaders. And then there were the more personal conflicts usually involving impetuous young lovers or indiscreet older ones.

But those in power generally understood the importance of the Liberator Garu to their own hopes for a prosperous future and did their best to maintain smooth relations. And a Garuvian was treated with a reasonable amount of respect on most worlds, and at least wariness on the rest.

Point-Two spent the first twenty minutes in the port gym, a not particularly well-maintained facility and one in need of a good hosing down. Exercise helped to speed up acclimatisation, even on filthy equipment. A pull-up bar, a balance beam and some climbing bars were the only apparatus he used — they looked the least likely to give him tetanus.

He only planned to be on Lenworth until he could get a ride off it, and he certainly didn’t intend to leave Port Gathering and explore the dusty red hills and dunes of this world, but he still wanted to be able to stand up straight and run without falling over, just in case those things became necessary.

As an exile, he could have chosen to move into one of the Remora ships that followed the Garu on its endless journey. He would have been welcomed with open arms, a great deal of resentment, and made to kowtow to his new masters, but he would have had a home. The relationship between the Garu and the Remora ships was as volatile as the ones with the seventeen planets. They had a sense of inferiority that was both complex and accurate. The best they could hope for was to marry one of their daughters into a decent Garuvian family as a second wife. More likely third or fourth. They hated the Garu and at the same time chased after it with passionate fervour.

Choosing to strike out on his own was a reasonable decision. The other families would see it as a punishment and an opportunity. There was nothing to be suspicious about. Point-Two had been thrown off the ship and now he was going to travel the quadrant as a migrant worker, attempting to make a fortune, and failing that, a living. He was unlikely to do very well, but he would probably survive. He would quickly be forgotten by most.

But there were those who might still harbour a grudge. Or maybe even see him as a way to leverage some advantage over his family. He was more vulnerable out here. There was no System to act as referee.

Point-Two made sure he could throw a decent punch, dance from side to side on the balls of his feet, accelerate quickly and then spin and sprint back in the other direction. Only then did he leave the arrival lounge — two benches and a dead palm tree in a pot — and make his way to the port bar, forcing himself to breathe through the waves of nausea ebbing and flowing in his stomach.

The air outside was heavy with orange dust, as it always was, and people appeared out of the screaming orange fog with their heads wrapped in protective scarves and large round goggles saving their eyes from being scratched to pieces, or they wore helmets with tinted visors. Point-Two had purchased his own goggles and head covering from the port gift shop.

Overhead, he could just make out the silver ring that encircled the planet, accessible by enormous towers containing space elevators, one of which was right outside the port. A kilometre wide and home to the owners of this world (or the corporations that ran the major business, which amounted to the same thing) and some of their more wealthy subordinates, the ring did more than provide housing in a better neighbourhood, it regulated Lenworth’s orbit around Kelidon-1.

Its natural orbit took it much closer to K1 than was bearable for life to exist for at least half of its solar orbit, the heat turning the landscape to a far more fiery red. That would mean everyone leaving for half the year, and that would cost money.

Lenworth was a hostile world, but it was a profitable one. The mines here produced valuable metals and minerals and in particular it was an abundant source of gerrum, the metal used to create artificial gravity on spaceships.

The bar was busy. There were a lot of people on Lenworth. The dust made it difficult for machinery to operate for very long. Anything with moving parts would quickly seize up. You could blast the ground open easily enough, but transporting ore and materials was cheaper using human labour. They took slightly longer to seize up and had to pay for their own care and maintenance.

Point-Two had been given a contact by his brother, a man who would get him off this world and at least part way to his destination. Getting out of the quadrant was his first priority, which meant using a wormhole. Once he was in the Fourth Quadrant, he would be far less likely to be ambushed, at least by Garuvians.

He went up to the bar, apologising as he bumped into people with his two large bags, one hooked over his shoulder, the other held slightly behind at his hip. He received some mean looks but his obvious Garuvian background coupled with his broad physique and a face his sister described as one only a mother could love, and theirs had preferred to die instead, encouraged them to accept his apology. His sister had a dark sense of humour that had made his childhood both harsh and character-forming. He still wasn’t sure if it was a good character.

He tossed the name he had been given at the woman behind the bar and she pointed out a man sitting alone at a table while all around him the tables were crammed full with people. He was also the only person in the bar wearing a loincloth and nothing else.

There were generally two types of people on Lenworth. People who had arrived recently in order to find work, and the Werthers — people whose ancestors had arrived here to find work and had lived long enough to reproduce. The latter were generally of similar features — small nose, almond-shaped eyes, dusky skin — suggestive of inbreeding, although it wouldn’t be wise to say so.

There was always new blood arriving that could be used to add to the gene pool, but none of the Werthers seemed inclined to take the plunge. The people of Lenworth preferred the way they looked. They weren’t unattractive, just unsettlingly similar. They did, however, usually wear clothes. Normally quite rugged ones. The dust winds were sharp and relentless, and leaving any skin exposed was not a good idea.

“Are you Captain Tendu?”

The man, who was leaning back on his chair, bare feet up on the table, his head lolling with his chin pointing at the ceiling, opened one eye. “I ain’t nobody’s captain. Just call me Tendu.”

“Okay, Tendu. I was told I could get a ride with you to the Cassiopeia wormhole. I have money.”

“Hell, I guess you better call me Captain Tendu after all. When you wanna leave?” His feet dropped onto the wooden floor with a double smack and he stood up.

“I’m ready,” said Point-Two.

“Great. Looks like I’m punctual for once. This all your gear?”

“Yes. Don’t you need to get changed? It’s brutal out there.”

“No, no. Rain only bothers you if you mind getting wet.”

Point-Two wasn’t sure what rain had to do with anything. It had never rained on Lenworth.

Tendu was a short man, slight of build and maybe just shy of being called middle-aged. His legs and torso were smooth and hairless. The hair on his head went up and out to the sides, unkempt and frizzy, black with the first signs of grey creeping in. Now that he was standing, Point-Two could see the loincloth was actually a diaper.

He saw where Point-Two’s gaze was aimed and laughed. “No bathroom on my ship, gotta hold it in or keep it in. Don’t worry, I got an air freshener hides all smells. Right, let’s go.” He marched out of the bar, the patrons eagerly parting to let him by.

It was only a three to four hour trip to the wormhole once they were past Lenworth’s ring. Point-Two hurried into the divide, bags bouncing against his back and hip.

Once they were outside in the small enclosure protected from the wind, Tendu stopped and spun around, his eyes no longer languid and disinterested, but sharp and watchful.

“Don’t worry, your brother’s taken care of everything. Smart boy, that H1, that’s why he selected me for this job. Everything’s going to go regular as binary, 1, 10, 11. Just to let you know, though, two guys followed you into the bar, both from your ship.”

Point-Two’s head turned quickly, expecting the men to appear through the door. “Are you sure?” He had been keeping careful watch for anyone trying to follow him and had seen no one.

“Of course. They’re dressed as locals but you can’t fake the walk. There’s no need to force, you just oxygenate from the feet up. Not these two, though. Like they got lumps of leaderite in their shoes.”

Tendu stepped out into the shrieking winds, his hair violently whipping across his face. “Your bro said you knew how to handle yourself,” he shouted at full volume as he walked backwards away from Point-Two, “so I’m expecting you to take care of it if things come down to the old wham bam, pew-pew-pew. Don’t believe in violence myself, I bruise too easily. Come on, we better take off before it starts to get windy.” He turned and walked out of sight as the dust storm swallowed him.

Point-Two followed with goggles pulled down and head covered, looking over his shoulder in case they had heard the naked pilot from inside the bar. Fortunately, the wind was even more howling mad than he was.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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