The day had begun but the term was, and is on this ship, obsolete. Indeed, the diurnal ship cycle had been modified to fit a human schedule to 30 hours, instead of 24. On Earth, the day is still the same, but the place the ship is headed to has a cycle that goes on for 33.5 hours. The passengers aboard generally spent 10 hours working, 10 hours resting and had 5 hour buffers to their own devices, though being imperfect, these varied from person to person to some degree. Duties on the cargo-vessel were remarkably similar to many of those held by sailors in days far in the past. Inventory keeping, husbandry
was now hydroponics
, navigation was the realm of a few men and women trained in astrophysics who spend most of their time running simulations. The captain still managed to hold the whole thing together. All in all, nothing new, psychologically. A few dozen crew and couple hundred passengers stuck together for a few months of travel from one place to another trying to stay sane.
Nelicia awoke at the brightening of her coffin, as it was termed colloquially. Economy flight has not changed much either, but the rate she was paying for the trip made it worth her while. That is working aboard ship instead of hibernating with the rest of the passengers got her full crew-member accommodation, though without a full cabin. The trip would soon come to an end and as the pill shaped bottle she floated in pulsed white light at her, thoughts of the life she was going towards at a significant multiple of the speed of light play about her mind. Nel feels groggy, having spent 15 of her non-work hours viewing media to keep herself from going absolutely crazy from boredom.
The space lanes between star systems are vast and mostly empty, as they had been before the human race had made contact and developed faster than light travel. The destination is a joint colony venture, in a pleasant system, formerly named Vega. The colony is a mix of humans and djnieop, relations have been friendly with them for some time. Vega is the site where we made contact with their species and as a diplomatic gesture between the central alliances of our respective peoples, the colony world at Vega, now Handshake, is dotted with fledgling cities and the asteroid belt is being turned into a sky full of vast space habitats. Humanity is expanding but it is assimilating itself with the metacommunity that inhabit the stars. Species scarcely imaginable, with cultures even more bizarre are constantly being discovered as humans explore the cosmic neighborhood in which they have been bound. And the children of humanity go forth to learn and experience new things. And there, on that fledgling world, goes Nel, where she shall go forth and Art.
Space, it is often said in the first off-world forays of most cultures, needs poets. It needs creative thinkers who are not focused on pushing the envelope of understanding of the universe but on the expression of the self with respect to the understanding that exists. It needs artists. It needs actors. It needs writers. Handshake exists many months away from Earth, at best a few weeks to the nearest inhabited system. It exists in a bubble and where cultural links to the homeworld grow thin, new culture must blossom. Space exploration is not merely a great opportunity for the growth of knowledge, but the growth of humanity, or djnieop-ality or what have you. The combination of the greater galactic cultures into a diverse and beautiful set of ideas that are incredible for their differences as much as for their similarities. Or so the brochure had stated. And so, but for the grace of grants, goes Nelicia. Or so she thought.
Checking the roster on the surface of her coffin, Nelicia addresses the ship's computer, 'Gary, I thought I was on sweeper duty today, but the roster's been edited so I'm on bridge crew today. What happened? Did a position open up.' She is hopeful this is not simply a typo, bridge crew is better, by far, than being a swobby.
'It checks out Nel. Fred called up feeling the blues, so you were next on the rota. Would have sent you a message a minute after you woke up, but you beat me to it.'
'Well it sounds just fine to me,' she says as she started the shower cycle in the coffin. Nelicia had not quite gotten the hang of it, the wall nearest her feet, flattens out and gravity is established beneath her; from the head side, water pours and sweeps her clean. What gives her pause is the fact that getting into and out of the coffins is accomplished in the same orientation, to the ship's gravity, as regular coffins are accessed on planet, assuming of course that you are of the habit of jumping into and out of coffins. Nelicia was not. Except for that time in college.
Showered, clothed and fed, Nel heads to the bridge along the central Escher-corridor. Some designer decided that the central shaft of the cylindrical habitat section of the ship should have walkways that spiral along the inside with artificial gravity, making the circuit of the shaft once every level within the habitat. Disorienting at first, but seeing people walking sideways through the floor to walk upright into the habitat, still struck Nel as incredibly provocative. When she herself walks onto the bridge deck, top most in the habitat, she has the heady feeling that the world revolves around her.
The bridge, by design standards for star-vessels set by popular opinion of what spaceships should look like, was ovoid, surrounded by workstations where screen after screen poured forth all the properties and parameters involved in the ships voyage. At the center, sits the Captain, before a massive screen with the lead navigators at consoles in front of him. As of this morning Handshake is about three weeks away and things are starting to get busy. The engines powering the faster than light drives shut down slowly; the field separating the ship from local spacetime is weakening and the friction generated between the bubble and the local space ebbs away the cargo-ship's ridiculous velocity. Nelicia knew little of the science behind all of this, only that sudden changes to the spacetime continuum generally resulted in explosions. The ship's captain sits reviewing his own screen's outputs. She checks in at a console and a nearby crew-member glances at her. Nel recognizes him as...as...Yü maybe. She could never pronounce it.
'Heya, Nel. You're our gopher today?'
'Looks like I a--,' she began, but the thought would never be finished. Alarms sounded, bulkheads slammed shut and chairs locked the bridge-crew in.
A crewman shouts into an intercom, 'All passengers and crew, lock in for impact, repeat lock in for impact.'
Simultaneously, the captain shouts orders, 'Give me telemetry, and a visual.' The vitriol that spills forth from him is unintelligible to Nel, as she straps into a nearby seat, as those particular Arabic curses are unknown to her. She pulls up some telemetry of her own to find out what is going on. The alert was for collisions, but the sensor facility is not reporting an object in front of them or closing in on their path ahead. Instead an object directly behind them, entering their bubble with one of their own, hidden before by their relativistically obscured rear, closes on the ship. From the visual output it looks something like another cargo-ship, though of a different design. And there, on the side of the craft is an explanation for this dangerous maneuver. One more thing that had not changed over the course of centuries of travel, though this one is distinctly Earth related. A skull and cross-bones. They were being attacked by pirates. It is at this moment that every computer on-board the ship froze or crashed. And all operation of the vessel is in the hands of their attackers. Space is only mostly empty after all.
Tense minutes go by, the crew is silent and helpless. Fear is in the face and eyes of every person she sees as she looks around. Nel, to her odd self-awareness, realizes it would make for a number of good paintings, even an installation. Troubled by her orthogonal reaction, she makes her self think of her family. Her brothers on Earth and Mars, parents in Montana, grandmother living in the tropics. Nelicia was the name of her great-grandmother, and her great-grandmother's grandmother before her. And in that case it was an obscure reference to a character on some serial fiction program. At some point over the past two centuries it stopped being an in-joke, but it still felt that way sometimes growing up. She thought of the ranch on Jefferson River, where she'd spent summers. The apartment full of furniture and artwork she had sold in New York. So many friends left behind, for what, the chance at fame, the opportunity to shape the culture of a fledgling star-system? Okay, it still seems like a good idea. In a way it is good that she had nothing in any of the holds that would probably be taken in the next few hours.
All introspection was cutoff at that moment as a great, sharp noise rings through the bridge and shakes everyone in their seats. The bulkhead shot open and roughly twenty armored troops thump their way through the portal. One, with a splash of yellow across the right shoulder, opens their helm's visor. She, so it seems, looks over the bridge and approaches the captain. The smug look on her face and cold regard for each and every person on the deck sends a chill up the spine of every man and woman, Nel included.
"Good day Captain. Fine sailing today. We've gone through your crew and passenger roster and we've decided to take a few of you, otherwise we would not deign to put in an appearance. Now don't get up, we just need a few of your crew." She began rattling off a list of names. Nelicia feels sympathy, but knows she can do nothing for them. Piracy is hard to combat effectively without costly escort ships or arming the ships flying back and forth between stars, but it is rare enough that few shipping companies went to the trouble of arming its vessels. The losses were large, but ultimately smaller than the cost of taking profits away paying for protection on every ship. On the other hand, it meant that a number of people were conscripted onto the pirate crew. Nel did not know most of the names rattled off, most are probably in hibernation at the far end of the habitat, business class.
'...and finally we'll need the artist, Nelicia Hughes.' Nel stares at the pirate agog as the yellow splashed commander stares back at her. 'And there she is.' The commander gestures at a trooper who proceeds to loom over Nel. Pressing a few buttons on the left arm of their suit, releasing the clamps holding Nel for her own safety and another pirate grabs one of her arms, hauling her up.
'Stop, DON'T,' she cries before all goes black.
Nel awoke with a terrible headache. Her view of the dark room around her involving little but the soft light of LEDs in the wall workstation. An almost antiquated design, reminiscent of something from a submarine that one of her ancestors had once lived on, bequeathing pictures to his descendants which Nel had looked over in her youth. Above her a moan issues from the bunk over hers, which prompts her not to sit up too quickly. Carefully, she got out of the bunk. Her bunk mate had been on the bridge crew, Junker, an astro-navigator. Lights in the ceiling came on as she stood and the gravity came up slightly. Staggering over to the workstation, Nel tries to figure out what was going on. A bang sounds behind her, Junker's head hitting the low ceiling.
A noise from outside of the room turns Nelicia's head and opening the door the yellow splashed trooper enters the room. 'You'll both be expected in the assembly room in 10 minutes or you'll be expelled from the ship in 15. One level down the shaft,' came the curt command. And just as abruptly the pirate leaves and moves on to the next room. Looking back at Junker, Nel sees fear and something like resignation, so she opens the door and walks down the corridor. Reaching the assembly hall, she sees a few other crew members and a couple of passengers. The passengers look fearful, casting a glance at her, one of recognition.
"You!" says the first, her hair ruined by transit and hassling and probably thawing. "I cannot believe that this is all your fault. Who the hell do you think you are?" The frown now playing Nel's features is almost humorously quizzical, no one is laughing of course. And before she came up with some retort she looks around her at...familiarity?
The assembly hall was filled with art, paint on canvas, a few statues, and she knew them; each and every piece is very, very familiar. She almost feels warm and nostalgic looking at them. Every glint of recognition is tinged with the fuzzy heaviness of her headache. The frown had turned into some embarrassed sinking feeling. In the navigation of light-years of space and the maneuvering of star-ships the size of asteroids, for the purpose of cargo, machinery, supplies, weapons, in piracy itself there is a grateful anonymity. They are faceless and so are you. Passenger and Crew. Victim and attacker. If you're lucky all that matters to the pirate is a hold full of things belonging to other people. And that shield of anonymity, the lack of responsibility for the actions of others, has suddenly been swept out from underneath her. Nel feels a sudden vertigo and has to sit down at a couch.
At that moment, Junker and two others made their way into the hall. Following them the trooper with the splash of yellow and another, not in armored space-ware, but in something of a uniform, bits of shiny metal here and there speaking to a high rank, probably the ship's Captain. This new one catches her eyes in his, the light in them brightens and a small smile plays about his face. And then it leaves, his regard goes cold when he realizes that he'd been giving something away. Then he glances at the yellow commander and gave a curt nod.
'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Happy Dragon, finest freebooter in the Vega Sector and surrounding systems. You were all chosen from that cargo vessel because you've got nothing to lose, no family back in Sol, no one at Handshake, going to another life and another job. Well we've got an opportunity for you, that you won't be able to refuse.' The commander taps her arm-console and a screen beside her lit up while the lights in the hall dimmed. Video of the cargo-ship as the pirate vessel, the Happy Dragon, who thought that up, makes its way off with a load of cargo and some new crew members.
'As you can see, the nearest ride you might have jumped on is currently taking a fast vector to the Handshake system, so you are stuck here. I am your new boss, you can call me Commander McKinnon or even better sir. And this is your new captain, who I will let introduce himself.'
'Good morning, cadets,' the captain spoke animatedly, 'welcome aboard. I am Captain Frederick Geraldo. In a moment the commander will assign you your duties. The Happy Dragon will be making for the nearest port, a cozy little waystation that a few of us freebooters put together in the outer comet belt of the Handshake system. There we'll be dropping off cargo for some supplies and sundries. Welcome to the outer handshake freebooter collective, The Upturned Wrist. Oh, and if any of you have any problem with this arrangement, you are free to walk back to the cargo-ship, we'll even give you helpful push.' The captain then turns to Nel, 'Nelicia Hughes, would you please come with me.'
Befuddled, she follows the captain. A quarter of the habitat away, just out of earshot, he turns to her.
'I realize this must seem odd to you, being shanghai'd when we know full well that your family is hale and your disposition is merely one of a wanderer,' he explains. 'Truth be told I really didn't need to take more crew, we could have simply taken the cargo and ran, but seeing you on the crew roster, I just could not resist.' He gestures at the surrounding works; so familiar. 'Do you recognize them?'
It dawns on her, the sun pierces the horizon, crepuscular sunbeams glinting over her as the sky cracks and falls down on her. She feels her eyes bug out. They were hers. Her work. Not all, but all works she knew. Paintings, holographic etchings, reclassicism, nouveau art nouveau, statuary, found-art. All of it was familiar. One is a metalwork done by one of her roommates, rusty gears, rebar, bits of old bicycles. Another a portrait, in classical style, of a regrunge musician, one of her friend Ted's. Then her works, sculptures of dyed clay, mixed materials in the shape of forms, geometry, natural, etc. A glass bowl, inscribed with a poem spiraling around from the bottom, threading up the bowl over the lip and down inside only to spiral out once more upside-down. It had taken 70 hours to do that piece and sold for half a month's rent in the horrible dive she had been staying in. Realizing, from the Captain's smug grin, that she had been gaping in revelrie for the past thirty seconds, Nel snaps shut her mouth and faces the collector who stood before her.
"What?" she says and immediately annoyed at her befuddled tone she repeats forcefully, "What!? What is going on. Why have you taken me?"
"Well, did you not receive a brochure? Space needs artistry, it needs culture. The vast gulfs between Earth and her colonies must be filled lest the people out here become stodgy; bored people do stupid things, we need to inspire them. And freebooters, pirates, have that same need. The waystation we're headed to, there you will be given a home and food, free of charge, and a studio in which to create. We've been collecting artists here and there, never enough to put a pattern together, but the artists we select generally come from a collective that has fascinated me for 20-odd years, when I took to finding various works in Soho.
"What we are creating, what we are trying to recreate, is that same collective. A little more mature, a bit bored, but still kicking, and capture something new. To boldly go where no artist has ventured. Those busy bees down on Handshake are putting together their own culture, one that we'll need to feed off of, to some extent, so we need our own, or else this little waystation will fall apart. Despite their popular representation, pirates of old, just as the ones on this ship, need more than just booty and rum to keep them going. I need to have my pirates inspired or else this little collective will die. And I want you to help me." The Captain looked at Nel, now finished with his explanation, searching for some sign in her eyes. And she stared back at him, almost glaring, mouth set, eyes watering just so. As she thought her expression went into flux. First anger, then fear, crossed her face as shadows cast from a fan before a light. But then a softness came to her features. A question arose in her mind, plain in the far away look in her eye and the lessening of the wrinkles on her forehead.
What had she to lose?
Nothing She'd brought nothing with her and she'd nothing waiting for her from whence she'd come.
And what, then, has she to gain, if not nothing?