Gantry she lay back and listened to the soft whine of the engines

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GANTRY

She lay back and listened to the soft whine of the engines.

WHAT WAS SHE DREAMING ABOUT?

DON’T WAKE THE SLEEPING DRAGON

Genneta’s brother saves the men?
Rose mention husband in her thoughts early on in the adventure

SWEET DREAMS
Ian Keildson


Prologue – Breakfast



I began to slide over the slippery slope down the smooth mountainside, picking up speed as the boosters kicked in, gliding low and fast over the glassy gleaming surface glittering green in the weak rays of a dying red-giant sun. The only blemishes on the landscape were some strange craters at irregular intervals, as if superheated meteors had slammed into the hard crust and melted through. Whatever these holes were, each was inhabited by a gigantic silver spiral-worm that cork-screwed up into the Jovian dawn and tried to grab me whenever I flew near one of them. There was no avoiding them really because my only food, and theirs it seemed, pulsating pods oozing globs of gelatinous goo perched precariously on whip like stalks, was located round the rim of their craters and they kept a watchful eye (if they had eyes) on their crop. To harvest these pods I had to run the gauntlet of wriggling worms, slicing them off with the built-in laser, or failing that, ripping them out by the roots with my power-assisted mech-arms and hurling them into outer space.

Every morning early, when the worms were still a bit sleepy and slow moving, I would make the run to fetch breakfast. No doubt a pizza delivery boy in Manhattan would scoff at the dangers I faced, but at least the food he delivered was edible. Well…relatively speaking. Very unlike the slimy balls of yellow smelly, glutinous gunk I had to eat. Still, it kept me alive since the galley of my ship, together with all the compressed and frozen food, had been vaporised in the crash.

The length of a day here was about the same as a day on earth, but that was where all similarities ended. Even the valley where I had crash-landed, bore no earthly resemblance. The hillsides were smooth and regular and as hard as diamond. No rocks or dust, just these worm craters, and the cave.

There was no atmosphere on this planet which is why the cave was a godsend. There was enough oxygen in my tanks for only about a month of continual use. Then that was it. Because the ship had burst all its seams on impact, the air scrubbers were useless. So, no recycling.

The cave led half-a-mile downwards and ended in a cavern with bubbling thermal vents that farted out a continuous stream of stinky but breathable air which dissipated within a few yards of the vents and bled off into space. So I set up camp here, only leaving the cave to suit up and get breakfast.

What was down there that emitted this foul stench I couldn’t even guess at. The whole planet was an enigma. Well not so much a planet as a small moon covered by strangely shaped mountain ridges in shiny metallic green, with perfectly symmetrical peaks diminishing into the distance.


N

It was nothing really. A faint flicker - easily mistaken for a floater in the eye, or a misfiring synapse in the brain that left an infinitesimal flash of light on my field of vision. Then it was gone. As if a star had just winked out. I was about to dismiss it when another one flickered out and something cold crept up the back of my neck and goose pimples erupted all over my scalp.

“Reverse direction and fire thrusters now…” The tech officer, an indolent slob who never did anything without arguing, didn’t even hesitate. The barely controlled hysteria in my voice brooked no argument. “Lateral boosters to 180 degrees,” he replied.

“Get ready to fire main thrusters on full power the moment we’re aligned. And I suggest you strap yourself in.”

All the time I watched as more and more stars winked out ahead of us. There was only one logical explanation. Something big was blocking out the light and we were headed straight for it. I fired off a stream of distress drones in the general direction of home and waited in agony as we rotated to reverse-thrust position.

“Firing all main thrusters.”

It was too late and I knew it. I had no idea how big it was or how close we were, but you get an instinct about these things. With two thousand tons of ore in the cargo hold, even if we survived the massive G force of slamming on the brakes so hard, it would still take a hundred thousand miles to stop. The scanners still read nothing and the cameras didn’t have enough light to initialize. There shouldn’t have been anything out here anyway. Not according to the star chart. That was my last thought as the engines kicked in and a sledgehammer hit me in the chest. A second later I passed out.


The thousand tons of prime ore impacting first is probably what saved my life by acting like a kind of shock absorber. My techie wasn’t so lucky. I still haven’t found his body.

So here I was. Eking out my oxygen and waiting for the end. Which was a real bitch because I had stumbled on the richest vein of Scandium since the gold rush. I was a made man. However, I was also a dead man.

How I got here is a bit of a long story, but I’ll cut it short. There was this guy you see, on Alpha Centuari, and we had a little misunderstanding over a poker game. He seemed to think I had cheated him and wanted his money back. I pretended to go to the loo, snuck out the back door and managed to get to my space ship with inches to spare. I blasted off a few minutes before him and ran like hell. He must’ve had some very sophisticated sensors on board because he followed my exhaust signature like a dog after a rabbit. In fact he dogged me all the way through the asteroid belt and I just couldn’t shake him off. His ship was a lot faster than mine, not to mention armed to the teeth. I was hoping he wouldn’t follow me as far as General Outer Defence Station 5 because of all the Federation cruisers and battleships hanging around there, but nothing seemed to put him off the scent, he just kept on coming. He fired at me again on the approach to G.O.D. 5 but thankfully missed. But only by a mile. This was getting too close for comfort.

Before he had time to recharge his plasma cannon I pulled sharply around G.O.D. 5, coming as close as I dared and then skimmed across the face of the wormhole hoping to generate enough G’s to slingshot me outa there. Not the most sensible manoeuvre but preferable to death by laser section. The only thing I had miscalculated was the size of the wormhole. I wasn’t expecting it to be that big. A gigantic whirlpool the size of a planet, twisting away into nothingness.

Federation flares were fired at me as I passed Station 5 and my radio exploded into life with a series of urgent warnings.

‘Damned cops,’ I thought. ‘Trust them to arrest the wrong guy.’ I ignored them and piled on the speed. This was a matter of some urgency and I wasn’t going to let a few figurative yellow lines stop me. The radio continued to squawk and shriek at me.

“This is Station 5 to Mining Vessel 385GW. Please be advised that you have entered a no-go zone and are in dangerous proximity to the wormhole. Please reverse your position and proceed to Alpha Station Dock 6 for questioning.”

“What for? I haven’t done anything,” I argued, just to give me some more time.

“You have entered a restricted area and are in violation of Federation code 35624.1205.”

“Okay, okay. And just where is Dock number whatever you said?”

“We have already sent you the co-ordinates in a code-red package. Please expedite.”

“Here’s the problem base. I got this guy who wants to kill me. If you look at your screens more carefully you should be able to see him taking aim at my ass. So I ain’t stopping for nothing.”

“Station 5 to Mining Vessel 385GW, that is not acceptable. Please change trajectory to sent co-ordinates and commence deceleration.”

And as if this wasn’t enough I was having a bit of a problem with my slingshot calculations. They weren’t working out so well. Instead of getting further away from the wormhole, I was getting closer. I could feel the gravity-well slowly getting hold of my ship.

I managed to escape my pursuer, but not the wormhole. After a three day tunnel ride through hyperspace I was spewed out the other end into a solar system that my computers had never even heard of and couldn’t find on any of their star maps. I didn’t have long to worry about the problem though, my sensors immediately picked up some off-the-chart mineral readings from a gigantic asteroid nearby and I knew I had, in old prospecting terms, struck it rich. Rich enough to pay off my protagonist and have enough left over for a life of luxury.

It took me a little over a week to load my little ship up to the gills and start heading back to the wormhole. Hopefully the wormhole worked both ways. It didn’t bear thinking about if it didn’t. To increase my chances though, I gave my old bucket as much G thrust as she could stand without coming apart at the seams and aimed it straight down the wormholes throat.

But, I never made it that far. Something came between us and here I am, marooned on the strangest looking planet I’d ever seen.

My stomach growled, reminding me that I still had to collect breakfast this morning. I fired up the mech suit headed for one of the pods when the landscape beneath my feet began to heave and buckle, like some mythical beast twitching in its sleep.

N N N

PART ONE
Chapter 1

There was no escaping those feet. They were always there. It was bitterly cold in here, but her feet always stuck out the end of her blanket…all pink and perfect. They were there when she opened her eyes in the morning and they were there when she went to sleep at night. She’d been watching them for the last five months, presenting themselves to her from the upper bunk. Feet are very personal. One shouldn’t go waggling them in some strangers face. They’re too intimate. It was like staring into someone’s sole. (Ha, ha) Often in moments of irritation she had wanted to pull on those little piggies and make them go wee-wee all the way home. But often too, to her own surprise, when she found herself awake in the middle of the night when one is prone to strange thoughts, she had been sorely tempted to lay her cheek against their soft warm rosiness and kiss them.

They were very clean: for a convict’s feet. Always clipped and cured. Very pretty, with slightly fallen arches that gave them a look of vulnerability. She felt very differently about the owner of the feet, as if the person and the feet were two different people. She felt more intimate with the feet than the person. She actually had a love-hate relationship with those feet that almost amounted to a secret love-affair. Through all the empty hours it had built up into an obsession. Sometimes in the gloom, if she stared at them too long, they would begin to flow outside their boundaries and even change their shape, shifting like ghostly wraiths running over the sheets and reaching down towards her, and she would have to pull her imagination up sharply. She spent more time talking to the feet (in her head) than she did to the owner. Without her relationship to those feet, unrequited as it was, she was sure she would never have made it this far without going crazy. Dutch was normally a physically active person. Being the pilot slash loading engineer of an Ore-transport ship had kept her running, lifting, hauling and exerting herself to near exhaustion for many hours of the day. After work she would continue rough-housing and arm-wrestling with her comrades, drinking and raising hell till the early hours. Here she was locked up in a cell hardly big enough to spit in and spent most of the time lying on her back…staring at the feet.

Often in the mornings, when all were still asleep, she would lie and keep watch over those feet. She knew every contour and wrinkle. She knew the shape of every toe, some slightly deformed from wearing narrow high heel shoes. Contemplating them had a great soothing effect on her and often she found herself mentally stroking them, as if they were a pet.

Soon they would start to twitch. Just once at first and then lapse into stillness again for a while. Then they would twitch again and Dutch would know she was starting to surface from her dreams. Another twitch – a long pause – and then twice….and then the twirling and stretching out of the toes as she finally woke up and the cot would creak and sag above her. Then the owner of the feet would give a yawn and a sigh and sink back into a blissful doze while Dutch waited patiently.

“Good morning,” she’d finally say.

The day had begun.

Somewhere a door clanged and someone said something…and then silence, just the soft humming of the scrubbers, recycling the same old stale air. Just like this station was trying to recycle her. She shivered and turned in her thin grey blanket. The cold light from the corridor spilled through the bars of the cell. The chilly metal walls dripped noisily with condensation.

“What do you think it will be like? When we get there?” came the disembodied voice from the top bunk.

“It’ll be just the same as here.” Dutch’s voice rang out unnaturally curt and loud. “One cell’s the same as the next.”

“Do you think they’ll put us together?” she said, her voice was filled with concern. “I mean…we’re friends aren’t we?”

The silence crept over them like a chilly fog up a hillside.

The nights were long and Dutch had plenty of time to think about what she had done to her husband. It still made her smile involuntarily every time she recalled the fatal scene. She got the same kind of perverse pleasure one would get out of squashing a mean bug. It gave her a kick on the one hand, on the other, if she could have that moment over, she wouldn’t have done it. She hadn’t meant to kill him. It’s just the devil finally got into her.

They had been co-workers on the same ore-liner for many years, with the occasional fling to let off steam, before they decided to throw in the towel and get married. It wasn’t love really, just convenient. After the wedding she was quite happy to continue with the same old same old, but something flipped inside of him. He never was mister nice-guy before, but owning a wife seemed to tip him over the edge. The problem was she could do most anything better than him, and she was a hell of a lot smarter. None of this had been a problem until they tied the knot. Then he began to put her down whenever they were in company, making snide jokes about her which of course she couldn’t really complain about seeing that they were ‘just jokes for God’s sake’.

In the beginning she would just grin and bear it. She understood that he had a fragile face to save and she was a bigger man than him so she didn’t pay him much mind until one night, after she had involuntarily let fly a witty repartee, he knocked out a couple of her teeth. Teeth were a premium way out there in the middle of nowhere because dentures were hard to come by and their staple diet of dog biscuits not so easy to chew without them. Also, she didn’t look so pretty anymore. Not that she was ever a raving beauty, but now she looked like a corn-cob hill-billy broad to boot.

He must have got to like the feeling because soon he began hitting on her for no reason and she had to use all her whiles to protect what remained of her Colgate smile. Things went on in this vein for a while until one day there was an incident. She was running the control board during a pickup and he was E.V.A. when a retro rocket on the incoming ore train malfunctioned and he began screaming bloody-blue-murder at her why-didn’t-she-open-the-fucking-hatch-you-stupid-whore-get-me-out-of-here and all the while she watched dispassionately as his end drew nigh, her finger tap-tapping the vital release switch on the cargo bay air-lock ever so lightly as she contemplated her husband and his just deserts. He didn’t say please. That was all it boiled down to in her head. He just didn’t say please. She would have gotten away with it if the Super hadn’t walked in while she hesitated too long and her husband died. The Super happened to be her husband’s brother, and she was busted.

So here she was. On a prison shuttle on her way to the Delta Section Penal colony because space protocol was sacrosanct. It was too dangerous out here. Fatal accidents were common place enough without being given a helping hand by a hormonal wife. She never got a chance to explain her side of the story. No hearing, no nothing. No one was interested. The fact that she would never do it again and that everyone knew the bastard had literally begged for it didn’t mean a thing. You don’t fuck around in space. Ever. The funny thing is, that in her dreams, she always flicked the switch in plenty of time to save her husband from being crushed against the hull by the runaway ore-sled.

She looked up at the feet again. Why couldn’t she have had pretty feet like that? She stuck her big galumphing things out the end of the bed and waggled her ugly porkers.

“Ugh.”

Then she felt an unaccustomed rush of tenderness for her own malformed manlike body and two burning tears sprang up in the corner of her eyes.




The fast bleep of a sensor alarm and the hum and grind of the laser array turning to take aim woke her up. The guns commenced firing with a soft ‘suck-thump’ sound, clearing the path ahead. The lasers could vaporise anything from a small rock to an asteroid. After six months of acceleration they were travelling close to fifty percent the speed of light and at that speed a grain of sand took on the characteristics of an express train. The 100mm thick aluminium-titanium alloy hull might as well have been polystyrene in such a situation.

The prison ship was basically a huge rotating drum with rows of cells against the outer hull divided by corridors. There was also a recreation area, mess hall, and secure prison-warders quarters. A smaller drum within the large one occupied most of the central core and housed the gigantic fusion generators, fuel tanks and the food freezers. At the thrusting end of the great drum was the flight deck and engineering section with its control panels, computers and read-outs. The flight deck and the flight-crew quarters were separated from the main prison area by a titanium wall a foot thick, impenetrable by any small-arms weapons. The hatch linking the prison area to the flight deck was double coded and safety locked.

Each prison cell had two beds, its own washbasin and toilet, which you had to remember to close during acceleration and deceleration as the drum couldn’t spin during those times and there was literally no G force to hold things down. G-seats were bolted to the wall where the inmates strapped themselves in when the main engines fired for forward thrust. This happened eight hours out of every twenty four to keep increasing speed. Eight hours, immobilized in a seat at more than 5G, is no fun. But that’s what was needed if they were to get to their destination in their lifetime. Once thrust is cut, the lateral boosters are fired up again to spin the drum, much like the wall-of-death in an amusement park. In space however, you can walk upright on the wall quite comfortably, except for the small sideways velocity from the spin which causes you to walk at a slight angle all the time. But you got used to it. Even lying down, Dutch could feel the slight tug of the centrifuge.

Suddenly the feet vanished and a face appeared in their place.

“Would you mind? I gotta go.” Sweet Mary’s face twisted in an agony of embarrassment.

“Oh Christ.” Dutch gave an exasperated snort, turned over on her stomach, and put the pillow over her head without saying a further word.

Sweet Mary hopped lightly off the bunk and tip-toed across the cold metal floor to the toilet in the corner. This was the one thing she never got used to, and even Dutch, who was quite used to working and showering, eating and shitting in front of a bunch of tough guys, would never admit how difficult she found it to go in front of Sweet Mary. Having to go to the toilet in front of each other bred an unspoken empathy for one another, like sisters under the skin, so they did their best to pretend not to be there at those times.

As irritable as she appeared to be, Dutch had come to feel very kindly about Sweet Mary. She latched on quite early to the fact that Sweet Mary felt ugly and miserable without her makeup. She had terrible anxieties when she didn’t have any on - even when there was only Dutch there. Somehow Dutch had managed to get hold of some for her. She even managed to get hold of a contraband razor from one of the other inmates for her to shave her legs, and some other little feminine knick knacks that had Sweet Mary in tears of thankfulness.

“I like to look pretty,” she said. “It makes me feel better.”

“Sure. You look fine anyway. If anyone needs make-up it’s me. Not that it’d help much anyway.”

Sweet Mary sat up on her bunk.

“I can put some on you if you like. I think you’d look fine.”

“No thanks.”

“Go on.”


“No.”

Sweet Mary stretched down a leg and lowered herself onto Dutch’s bunk.

“Go on. There’s nothing else to do.”

“I’m thinking,” said Dutch, trying to put her off.

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh,” said Sweet Mary, loosening the cap of the precious moisturizer jar and shifted closer to Dutch, tucking her feet underneath her. “Here we go.”

Dutch just sat there with a dead-pan expression on her face, undecided whether to stop her and hurt her feelings, or just sit there and endure it.

The shock of Sweet Mary touching her face was enormous. She’d forgotten, or maybe never known, how wonderfully gentle human physical contact could be. If she had been gay she’d have fallen head over heels in love with her at that moment.

Sweet Mary’s fingers were cool and soft, the lotion was fragrant and soothing, and soon she drifted off in a delightful fantasy as Sweet Mary hummed and busied herself with beautifying Dutch’s square-jawed, big-boned, coarse-skinned face. Neither of them wanted the moment to end.

“There you go,” said a smiling Sweet Mary eventually, handing her a little mirror.

“Christ, I look like a tranny tart,” she said slapping the mirror out of her hand and causing it to shatter on the floor.

Sweet Mary was used to these angry outbursts. She quietly collected her makeup and climbed back up to her bunk.

“I don’t see the point of make-up,” said Dutch in an attempt to make it better, but only making things worse. “Only good for prostitutes.”

Dutch regretted the words before they were even out of her mouth. She felt a pang of remorse rising in her throat to choke her. It was the worst possible thing she could have said to her, because for a long time now she had her suspicions about Sweet Mary. She was almost sure she was a null-whore.

“You think I’m not a nice person, don’t you?” Sweet Mary sniffed reflectively. “But I am what I am.”

Dutch watched the feet rub self-consciously against each other.



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