OH GIVE ME LAND, LOTS OF LAND,
UNDER STARRY SKIES ABOVE
This is a space sci-fi tale written in collaboration with Shannon Page, and published in an anthology called Space Tramps: Full Throttle Space Tales # 5, released by Flying Pen Press in 2012. This short story relates the odyssey of a young interstellar realtor who finds herself stranded and threatened on a remote, lawless space station with no real estate to sell, and no freedom to leave.
Here is an excerpt plucked from part way through the first half of the story. Enjoy!
OH GIVE ME LAND, LOTS OF LAND, UNDER STARRY SKIES ABOVE
By Shannon Page and Mark J. Ferrari
… I followed him through the door into a larger tunnel, blinking and squinting under the light of massive arc fixtures clearly intended for use in much larger spaces. Work stations with ever-shifting data displays cluttered the chamber. The tech here was beat up but sophisticated. Intestinal tangles of heavy pipe and conduit jostled with the gadgetry for space against the tunnel walls, as if someone had tried to jam a whole traffic control hub into a sewer intersection.
People sat at some of the terminals, hard to make out in the glare. I wondered how anyone could see to work in here. Some turned as we came in, but gave us no more than a glance before turning back to their work.
“Stand there,” my guide instructed, waving me toward a niche between two unmanned stations as far out of everyone’s way as possible in such a crowded space. “Just wait.”
My host walked to a second door in the tunnel’s side some ways off, pressed his ear to it as well, then entered, closing it behind him. At first, I heard nothing but the sibilant whispers and whirrings of the tech around me, doing whatever it was there to do. Then drifts of animated conversation became audible. A moment later, the yelling started. Everyone turned to look at the door, and then at me with new interest before returning to their tasks as if they wanted nothing more to do with it.
As I began to sweat, the door crashed open against the metal struts around it, making the tunnel boom like a giant bell. A tall, muscular woman with dark, short-cropped hair wearing drab fatigues and a wife-beater t-shirt strode through, heading straight for me with clenched lips and an angry glare. I managed to hold my ground and keep my mouth shut as she stopped abruptly, pointing at me as if I were a dog who had just peed on the kitchen floor.
“Sit there!” she said, pointing toward the terminal chair left of me. The man who’d done this to me ambled through the door behind her with his hands in his pockets and an expression waffling between defiance and chagrin.
I sat. There.
“Don’t move—at all—‘til I get back,” said the Amazon in the wife-beater. She started toward the door we had come in by, then turned back and added, “If you so much as scratch your soft white ass before I return,” she pointed at my betrayer, “he’s going to kill you. If he fails to obey that order, I’ll kill him.”
To this day, I don’t know what possessed me to find my voice at that of all moments. “Am I allowed to speak?”
Two leonine strides put her right in front of me, where she leaned down and said, “Feel free, tiny-tits.” She bent even farther, planting her own very aggressive breasts practically in my face. “Just make sure your lips don’t move.” She straightened, pointing a cocked-gun gesture at my head, then turned and left the chamber like a gust of wind.
None of the terminal jockeys had so much as turned a head through this performance. Even now, they went on working as if nothing had happened. I turned to the man at fault with a look intended to convey ire, but which I suspect communicated nothing but terror.
“She didn’t mean it,” he said, “about your lips.”
“What the hell have you done to me?” I demanded.
“Saved your soft white ass, most likely,” he said with infuriating nonchalance. “That’s why she’s so mad. I’ve convinced her to do something stupid…I think. We’ll know soon enough.”
“Something stupid like what, exactly,” I asked, recovering from the rigid dread she’d left me in.
“Like convincing Adam Jones not to sell you straight off to the Cold Ones for sidestepping his authority the other day. Maybe even convincing him to let you join our little band of merry men despite not being vetted first by his boys. I could have been killed too, you know. Just for talking to you. Lexa might still do it, let alone Adam. I hope you’re at least a little grateful.”
“I’d be even more grateful,” I sighed, daring to rub my eyes as well as move my lips, “if you’d fill some of the bigger gaps in all of that before she comes back.”
“Gaps?” But then he smiled and said, “Okay. In here, though.”
“She told me not to move…” One of the terminal jockeys snickered. Feeling foolish, I stood and followed the man into the room his boss lady had come from.
As the door shut behind us, I looked around a chamber that seemed part office, part break room, with a bunk space: a cluttered desk against the left-hand wall, a low and shabby couch, one rickety chair, a cooler in one corner. A large purple exercise ball sat in the middle of the floor.
Just seeing the bunk’s rumpled blanket and thin pillow made my body ache for rest. What I would not have done for a soft, safe space to sleep…
The man sat in the chair and waved me toward the couch, which I sank into wearily. “You got a name?” I asked.
I nodded, my old training coming back: act confident even if you’re not; take the offensive; ask questions; conceal surprise. I sat forward against the couch’s undertow. “Who was the charming lady? Lexa, did you say?”
Robbin laughed, a little grimly. “Lexa, yeah. Queen of our resource.” He waved a hand around the bleak room. “Master of all this.”
“What kind of resource are we talking about?” I asked, wondering if it were something I was qualified to sell.
“Procurement mostly,” he replied. “That’s our focus. If you need anything you can’t get on Longhorn 6, you come to us.”
His answer baffled me. “Procurement? How is that a resource?”
He looked blank, then suddenly amused. “That’s just what we call our … service guilds here. Resource is a name, not a commodity. There are all kinds. Lexa’s resource provides procurement services. Adam’s provides immigration services. He decides which resource newcomers get assigned to. Running off without his say-so was a bad idea. He’s more or less the top of the food chain around here.” He wagged a finger at me. “Not good to piss him off.”
“But … doesn’t Galactic issue work assignments here?”
“Oh, well sure, officially.” He shrugged. “But who cares? Galactic’s little soldiers may stamp their forms and send all the required guff off to their distant corporate bosses, but they take their real orders from Adam or whoever he assigns them to, just like everybody else.” Robbin leaned forward soberly “The first and most important thing to understand now, Mara, is that ‘official’ channels are empty theater here. Everything on Longhorn 6 is run by the resources. You work with them, you’ll thrive. Try getting all ‘official,’ and you’ll lose – badly. Got that?”
“I guess so,” I said. “And these Cold Ones Adam Jones was going to sell me to; what are they? The beer resource?”
Robbin didn’t smile. If anything, he looked even graver. Before he could answer, though, the door opened and Lexa strode back in.
I tensed, fearing she’d shoot me for moving. But she just tossed a leg over the exercise ball and planted herself on top of it.
“It’s fixed,” she said, ostensibly to Robbin but watching me. She grabbed two small flex-balls from the desk, and began to squeeze them absently. “Adam’s added her to this month’s invoice.”
“Good,” Robbin said, a bit uncertainly.
“Yeah. There’s a price. But nothing we can’t handle.” Her grip on the flex-balls seemed to tighten. “So you’re Mara, right?”
“From the Fleetness. Their roster lists you as a realtor?”
I nodded again.
“Well, here’s the deal, take it or leave it. This tub’s got no real estate, and you know nothing about how things function, which means a giant suck on our training and protection before you’re of any use. Fronting you the necessary identity and credits to get started will cost us too. We’ll do it, but I’ll have sole authority to determine the balance of your debt – with interest – at any time. No appeal or recourse. I alone determine how your time is spent, including sleep. We protect you from competing resources, give you bunk, board, and training ‘til you have a use here. In return, you work quickly to become a productive member of our resource, with whatever that entails. We don’t have much room on Longhorn 6. You may have to share a bunk.” Her eyes danced with amusement, though she didn’t smile. “At least ‘til we relocate. You in?”
Alarms were screaming in my brain. Share a bunk? With whom? I thought of those other women from Fleetness—some as young as twelve—herded off by rough, leering men. No recourse or appeal? How much interest, and of what kind? All that front room tech hadn’t looked like a comfort services operation. But still …
“Robbin says you do procurement,” I said. “What exactly do you procure?”
“Whatever’s wanted,” she replied. “If it’s here, we get our hands on it. If it’s not, we find out where it is and how to get it here. Affordably,” she added, with a wry look that implied some second meaning.
“Do you procure women?” I asked, seeing no point in delicacy.
She snorted, then laughed. “Whores? You think that’s what we want you for? You ain’t got the tits for it, sweetness, or the spine. That’s Chanele’s resource anyway.” She turned to Robbin. “How do you find these stray creatures? Tell her something about life, okay? I’ve got too much to do.” She hoisted herself smoothly off the exercise ball and over to the desk, where she rifled through a pile of papers.
“Mara,” Robbin said. “She’s giving you a better deal than anyone else here will. I’d take it. Quickly. You owe her already just for saving you from Adam.”
My mind continued to race. Take it or leave it, she’d said. In sales of property, personal or real, oral contracts aren’t valid. Nor is any agreement made under duress. This could not possibly be legally binding. If I could get hold of Astoria, I could leave without breach. My license would remain clean. Meanwhile, I did need help with basic survival. I didn’t have a choice. We all knew that.
“I agree to your terms.”
Lexa smiled and came to shake my hand. Her grip was very strong.