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3081: Hyperlane Blues

A Multi-Environment Cargo Unit

By A.N.G. ReynoldsPublished 2 years ago Updated 11 months ago 14 min read
3
3081: Hyperlane Blues
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

In space, nobody can hear you scream. This, of course, only applies if space is still a vacuum. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a jelly. A sticky, ship-trapping jelly.

“No, no, no, no, no,” I groaned. I frantically pressed buttons, flipped switches, and toggled the joystick, trying to get the Jangmi moving again. She did her best, engines whirring, tilting back and forth on her axes in an attempt to escape the speed trap. It was just as futile as last time. The lime green goo that covered my near-panoramic set of windshields held tightly to the ship’s fuselage like a really big fly trap.

“Another ship is approaching,” the Jangmi’s computer said passively. A visual feed from the ship’s stern popped up on the console screen to my right. The glare from the flashing red-and-blue lights of the cop shuttle got bigger and bigger..

“They must have changed where the traps are again.” I cringed, thinking about what happened the last time I got a speeding ticket. Let’s just say the ship-trapping goo did not smell as nice as it looked. I rubbed my eyes in frustration. “They always do that right as I get the bleeding routes memorized.”

“All these speed traps are eroding my paint job,” the Jangmi sighed wistfully. “You should quit speeding.” I glared at the console. That last software update gave her a personality and it didn’t fit the one I had carefully constructed in my head over the past three years of rudimentary communication. To me, she had always been kind of warm, fun, even bubbly. This personality was kind of spacey, not to put too fine a point on it. Like the ship was always lost in her own little world.

“The officer is hailing you, would you like to respond?”

“Yes, obviously,” I snapped. I ran my fingers through my hair. The Jangmi politely turned off the small console screen so I could use it as a mirror. I fluffed up the shorter hair on the top of my head and smoothed out a few obnoxious flyways from the longer hair in the back. I flashed my biggest grin for a moment, briefly hoping the cop was a woman I could maybe charm out of the inevitable ticket. Then my face fell. When had it ever been a woman?

The screen flickered on with the image of your average, middle-aged male cop.

“This is Officer Shandar, hailing the Jangmi-16. Please respond,” he said.

“This is the Jangmi-16,” I said pleasantly as I flipped on my video feed. I had found that being pleasant usually reduced the price of the ticket. “How can I help you, Officer Shandar?”

“You can state your name, occupation, full ship registry, and the reason you were speeding.”

“My name is Red Simmons, I’m a perishables delivery pilot for Antirrhinum Wholesalers. My ship is the Olathyrus Class Jangmi-161803, registered in the Cat’s Paw Sector,” I said. “I didn’t see the speed limit alert when I crossed into the flight lane. I’ve been having some troubles with my communications systems lately. I’ll get it checked as soon as possible.” I gave him my second-best grin.

“Your comms seem fine,” the cop said. “My records indicate that this is your fourth ticket since you started this route.”

“Ah, yessir,” I complied sheepishly.

“What kind of perishables are you transporting?”

That question never boded well, coming from a cop in this sector.

“Uhm,” I said, voice beginning to lose its calm, cool tone. “Various…horticultural elements.”

“Send over your manifest.”

“Yessir,” I mumbled with as much respect as I could muster. The Jangmi gave me the communications menu and I transmitted the ship’s manifest.

There were several long, long minutes of silence. I wiggled my foot back and forth until the hole in my sock made a weird draft that brushed against the sole of my foot. I growled and reached down to yank my sock off.

“Captain Red?” the cop got back to me abruptly.

“Ye—” I started, then smashed the back of my skull against the console as I sat up. The throbbing pain was indescribable for a few seconds.

“Yes?” I asked painfully.

“Flowers?”

“That’s what the manifest says,” I agreed.

“What kind of flowers?” he pressed.

“The manifest should have also included that.”

“I know how things work,” he said, clearly not knowing at all how things worked. “You delivery boys sometimes slip up. Keep things on the manifest that aren’t there, don’t have things on the manifest that are there.”

“Everything is there and properly accounted for,” I said through a tight grin. That was just insulting. “I’m good at my job.”

“Yeah, sure you are,” the cop said. “Prepare to be boarded.”

The communications panel winked off and my heart sank.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea if he comes ab—” the Jangmi started.

“Yes, yes! I know!” I snapped. “Do you know what is going to happen once he gets on the ship and looks through the flowers?”

“No.”

“’My girlfriend really loves purple, just like those zinnias from Solas-4…’, ‘My nephew would really enjoy seeing a phasm rose in person…’, ‘My cousin’s mother’s only brother’s only son has always wanted to get a—a—real…earth…daisy…‘” I struggled as I ran out of ideas. I leapt out of my seat, throwing my hands in the air. “You get the picture?”

“Not really.”

I sighed, letting my arms fall to my sides defeatedly as the Jangmi shuddered amid the docking procedure. The lights above the port airlock blinked in sequence from red to yellow to green as depressurization completed. I squared my shoulders, straightening my oversized red-and-cream jacket.

Officer Shandar was much shorter than I had guessed. He also looked like some kind of depressing Christmas tree, weighed down by what appeared to be about twenty pounds of only semi-identifiable law enforcement equipment attached to his utility belt and vest. His expression was also more dour than it had been over the communications device.

He scrutinized me under a set of bushy brows, mouth twisting under his equally bushy mustache. His eyes lingered on the remaining sock I was wearing. I shifted awkwardly. This was all his fault, anyway.

“You’re taller in person,” he commented.

“Is that a problem?” I asked cheerfully.

“Just show me your stock,” he said. I nodded once and made a beeline for the refrigeration bay, gesturing for him to follow.

Quarters on a ship like the Jangmi, which was designed to be light and fast for perishable deliveries, were incredibly tight. The hallway was barely two feet wide, flanked by storage, two bunks, what barely passed as a mess, and, of course, the door to the head/shower combo.

I was afraid Officer Shandar wouldn’t be able to navigate the narrow corridor that served as the ship’s living space to the cargo bay with all of the equipment he was carrying. Seriously, what was some of that? That one on his right shoulder looked like a coupon book for the nearest grocery store.

“Should you, uhm, set some of that stuff on this side of the corridor?” I asked helpfully.

“No,” he grunted, throwing an immense scowl in my direction. Shandar turned sideways and took a deep breath. That gave him an inch or so of leniency on either side, so he could shuffle through the corridor slowly and carefully.

I politely matched his pace.

“You the only one that lives on the ship?” he asked as he approached the bunk area. His voice was strained as he held his breath.

“Oh, yes,” I said, tucking a stray pair of underwear underneath my pillow as I walked by. “Normally I keep things much cleaner than this, of course.”

“Hmph,” he grunted. I wasn’t sure if that was a sarcastic reply to my comment or if he was about to pass out from oxygen deprivation. To play it safe, I didn’t say anything.

After we passed the mess and head, we reached the cargo bay. I glanced back at Officer Shandar and put my code into the airlock’s keypad. It opened with a cheery set of beeps that signaled the end of my perfect manifest record. My expression soured. I should have faked the lock being broken or something. I morphed my expression back to cheery as I addressed the cop.

"Almost there!"

I ducked through the incredibly narrow airlock and waited with awkward patience for Officer Shandar to arrive. The heavy, humid scent of fresh cut flowers mixed with the sharp notes of florist’s foam and water-based fertilizer swirled around the room, even though the flowers were safely tucked away in the Mulit-Environmental Cargo Units. Some of the M.E.C.U.s were getting old, so they didn’t hold their seal as well as intended. It always smelled soothing to me. Much better than the eye-watering smells of exotic, cured meats that followed me for weeks after I left my last delivery job.

Officer Shandar didn’t have the time, I suspected, to stop and take in the calming scent as he paused at his last hurdle. The airlock was even more narrow than the hallway he was currently holding his breath in.

He had to calculate for a moment, staring at all of the weird bobbles and keyrings and strange electronic devices that were hanging off of his belt and harness, obviously trying not to give up any of them. The cold floor gnawed through the skin on my bare foot as I waited.

“They really load you guys down with the tech, don’t they?” I asked with a grin I knew was awkward.

“Hmpmh.” He shot me a glare and continued to think.

He had enough wiggle room that I set aside my concerns — for the moment — and watched as he twisted his way through the hatch. I made myself busy by rehearsing for the only two outcomes of this situation: the first was that he made it through and then I have to explain to my bosses how I misplaced a few flowers. That was more or less easy, depending on the type of flowers he took. If it was a few daisies, nobody would even notice. If it was an alexandrite orchid, it would definitely come out of my paycheck no matter what I said.

The second outcome would revolve around me having to explain how Officer Shandar asphyxiated himself on my ship. I was gambling as to whether or not that self-explanatory.

With one final shove, he made it through and plopped onto the deck unceremoniously. He took a deep, relieved breath of air and so did I.

“Can you even get back to the cockpit?” I blurted without thinking. I slapped my mouth. To be fair, images of him getting stuck in the airlock because he wouldn't give up a coupon book were running rampant through my head.

He looked at me balefully.

“Awh, shaddup. I'm not leaving any of my stuff here for you to pilfer,” he said. I nodded and let him lay there for a moment. He stood up slowly, using one of the racks for support. I bit back a few strong sentences on the subject of irony. He frowned. “Is this it?”

I looked around at the cargo bay. It was sixteen feet wide by sixteen feet tall with two decks that ran thirty-six feet all the way to the hatch for the engine room. Each deck of the bay was flanked by two sets of flower-stuffed M.E.C.U.s that each measured four foot by four by eight, leaving a nice, wide corridor down the middle. As far as wholesale exotic flower deliveries go, the Jangmi was a beast.

“Yes?” I replied, not sure what he was expecting.

“I was expecting more…flowers and stuff everywhere,” he gestured around.

“We don’t just leave them lying around,” I said, patting the nearest M.E.C.U. fondly. “These are set to control the temperature, humidity, acidity, atmospheric content, light type and level, and fertilizer concentration for every type of flower you can think of.” The control panel on the front of the container I patted blinked in and out to spite me and the confidence I had in it.

“Hmph.” Evidently, Officer Shandar made that noise a lot. He walked down the corridor with a weird sort of swagger, random junk clanging together like the weirdest kind of windchime, surveying the M.E.C.U.s carefully. Very, carefully. He read each label like he was checking it for typos. I had a pit in my stomach as he investigated the container of hyper-dahlias. I calmed down a bit when he lingered on the container of dandelions. Then I got nervous again when he moved on. This job was giving me an ulcer.

“Seen everything you need to see?” I asked, hoping I could hurry him along before we got to the part where he asked for samples.

“I was just thinking,” he said with feigned thoughtfulness. He looked at me over his shoulder like he was being sneaky over clever. “My girlfriend keeps asking about a stargazer begonia.”

My jaw dropped. I picked it back up quickly. I could recover from this.

“Ah, well, those are really expensive. I’m sure you can save up for—”

“Yes, they are,” Shandar nodded. He gestured to the shelves. “Where are they? Your manifest said they would be here.”

“They are locked away neatly in their M.E.C.U. The speckled pigmentation of the stargazer begonia is really sensitive to heat and light, so…so…” I started stuttering as he looked at me with a sharp, keen expression.

“The way I see it, you can have five speeding tickets on your record, or just the four,” he said with a shrug. “Six tickets means a black stripe on your license. Have you had a black stripe before?”

“No.”

“That’s good,” he nodded. “Most companies won’t fire you for the first black stripe, but I’ve never heard of a striper pilot getting a promotion.”

I closed my eyes and rubbed my face. I was on track to get a promotion and accompanying pay raise that would nearly double my current salary. Double my salary would mean new, non-holey socks and the ability to pay off my brother’s student loan debt.

Would I really give the cop a two-hundred-quole flower just to get out of a speeding ticket?

The answer was yes…yes I would. I reached for the container labelled Begonia stellasis. Fortunately, it was on the floor, so I could roll it into the corridor easily. I opened the access panel on the side and looked for the controls for the refrigeration and atmospheric systems before I noticed the temperature the screen was flashing. I gasped. Minus eight degrees?! That was entirely too cold for the flowers.

“Ah frigging, frigging heck—” I started muttering as I flicked off the atmospheric controls and unlocked the crate.

“Curse like a man, son,” the cop said. I took just long enough of a pause to glare at him. He raised a brow.

I clenched my jaw as I turned back to the crate. If these flowers were really ruined, he would hear a whole string of cusswords in several exotic languages that he would never have been able to dream up. The locking pins opened with a set of solid thumps, and a hiss told me it was now unsealed. I stared at Shandar as I threw open the crate. Two-hundred-quole was, evidently, the cost of my manners. “There. Are you happy now?”

Shandar’s expression was one of wide-eyed confusion that had a healthy dose of horror, which, in my experience, was not the normal reaction of someone who is gazing upon an entire crateful of exotic, shimmery black begonias with white, red, and orange speckles. The longer I looked at his face, the more alarmed it grew.

“They’re ruined, aren’t they? This crate is worth over thirty-thousand quo—” I started panicking as I turned back to the flowers.

There were no flowers. Not even one. There was only the well-preserved corpse of some unidentified woman, lightly vacuum sealed and folded to fit into the crate. She looked calm, comfortable, and very, very dead.

I started screaming. And I kept screaming until I made sure everyone in the jellylike space outside could hear me.

science fictionspace
3

About the Creator

A.N.G. Reynolds

AKA: Ang! [Rhymes with 'Sang']

Sci-fi novelist, STEM gal, certified dork, and someone who can't wait to live in the future.

New 'The Cosmic Donut' stories coming imminently...

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