Chapter One

Lust in Space?

There are few more exciting and varied places to live and work than a spaceport.  The intermingling of a thousand cultures and species mixed with the new things to learn and encounter each and every day makes your life worthwhile.  At least, that’s what I was told before signing up for a career in, essentially, baggage-handling on a lump of metal 50 light-years from Earth.

My name is Steven Harmer, or “Ste” to most of my friends back home.  I had a dead-end job in London in a marketplace when I was knocked down by a 7-foot tall alien creature who apologised and then tried to get me to join up to the Space Corps.  He had an... unusual nose just above a sideways mouth - it looked as though he was doing something obscene to himself and I dreaded the idea of this guy sneezing.

“I know it looks funny to you,” he said in perfect English, “I tend to get a lot of people here making fun of me, but I’m the one they send to get recruits.”  I shook his hand and took him to the back of the red-and-white striped market-stall canvasses to make sure he was out of sight.

“Why would I want to move away from my home, and my home planet for an unknown future with distinct possibilities of danger and embarrassment?  I don’t know how to speak your language or anyone elses’ in Alpha Centauri or wherever it is you’d send me.”

He smiled, and turned his head to one side.  “I don’t know how to speak your language either.  The computer-chip behind my ear works to translate what I hear into words I recognise, and changes my voice to match your own language.  It’s a pain when it goes wrong, but I can speak with anyone in the known Universe with this thing attached and speak normally.  You can too.”

I shrugged my shoulders in a non-committal way.  “Do you really believe that shpeil you gave me about an exciting new life?  I’m quite happy here,” I lied, “and I have friends and family who’d miss me if I went,” I exaggerated.

The truth was, i was fed up of my job, my friends were only friends if I bought them a beer, and my relationship with my family was tempestuous.  I was, if truth be told, bored and depressed, but I wasn’t going to tell this creature how I felt if I didn’t tell anyone else.

“The life you lead here isn’t the best - I’m not psychic or anything, but I can pick up the various scents and signals that show a creature who is unhappy.  You, Steven, are unhappy with how you live at the moment, and it will not get any better if you stay as you are.”  He said this unblinkingly, which I later discovered is a physical reaction completely unnecessary in his species.

“So you think you know me?” I demanded, and he nodded in reply.  “What if I am unhappy, there’s no guarantee that I’d be any better off in an outpost of Rigel 7.”  He looked confused until I explained it may be a fictional planet from a TV show.

“I will be back here in 24 hours to see what you have decided.  Pack a bag of clothes and personal items if you want to come along for the jag,” he said, and strode off into the distance unimpeded with his clipboard and pen.  No-one wanted to get in his way except to gawp and, in the case of two teens, make up an obscene gesture unique to the situation and yell out something he could do that they would need lessons in yoga to achieve.

I had first seen aliens in London when I was a kid.  We weren’t meant to call them aliens though because everyone is alien to another planet, but people were inclined to describe them as such because we couldn’t pronounce their name - Zqwiptokovians.  They had learnt our languages imperfectly through telecommunications and telly - there were a few problems when they began, particularly because of soap-operas that they paid too much attention to - but they enriched our culture and gave us technological advances undreamt of by humans.

After the Zqwiptokovians found us, Earth became like a delta hub, as you may recall, but no-one invaded because we were inferior in technology and power to anyone who could make a jaunt of over a light-year within seconds.  We learnt about the Galaxy, about the miracles available on other worlds, and nothing ever felt the same again.  This did not mean that there were not still people doing ordinary jobs and going about their lives in a very ordinary manner.  For me, the world had changed but my family’s part in it had not.

I sold a lot of the fruit and veg that we had that day, probably because I was thinking about the proposition the alien - sorry, “visitor from another world” had mentioned.  He gave me 24 hours, and I was considering it at every part of the day instead of berating male customers and hitting on any woman who looked like she’d take offence.  I know what Customer Service means and at that time of my life it meant nothing at all.

Going back to my dingy flat that night after wheeling the stall back to its owner seemed to take an extremely long time.  I was trudging along at a snail’s pace, being passed easily by the elderly and disabled.  Admittedly this was because they were almost all on a set of bionic implants that made them nearly superhuman, but everyone else was passing me as well.  After this part of my daily routine, I would normally go to the local pub, which had not changed at all in the last 20 years apart from some surreptitious new non-Earthling friendly snacks and some vastly improved pub games.  I avoided it tonight because I had some thinking to do.

Sitting in my living room-cum-dining room-cum-almost everything else, back-lit by the moonlight because I had failed to pay the electricity bill for the last couple of months, I considered my options in detail.  I pretended to myself that it was a tough decision, sent a text after 20 minutes to all friends, family and my off-again, off-again girlfriend, and started packing.  

I found out how little I really had that night.  You buy and accumulate possessions, then find out how little they mean to you.  Some moth-eaten photographs, a guitar and a few old classic car magazines were all I took apart from my ID and some of my better clothes.  The rest could, as I instructed in the letter to my landlord, be sold to pay off my debts.  Sadly, he would still be about 1,000 Euros short of target.

Early the next morning, sleep still fugging our eyes, which was typical behaviour for the middle of the week, I explained to Mr. Chavrakhan why I would no longer be using his stall.  He was slightly nonplussed about the fact that he would need to go out and do the job himself that day, and therefore not be able to check on the myriad other business enterprises under his command.   I changed his mind for him fairly quickly.

“Sir, when you first offered me this post, I wanted to take it until I got the money to study English Literature at a prestigious University.  It didn’t happen.   When I found out there was no chance, I thought my life was over and gave up on it.  I started to undercharge customers when I bothered to serve them at all.  I verbally-abuse the men and only bother to serve the women if they have nice cleavage.

“In all honesty, if you had hired anyone else to do the job on that prime pitch, you’d have made a lot more money.   A lot more.”  I gave him my most disarming smile, gave him my spare set of keys, and he punched me squarely in the face.  By the time I picked myself up from the floor in shock (he was at that time 5’3” and probably still is) his angry face was replaced by his firmly-closed front door.

I spent the rest of the morning tidying up loose ends.  I have no shame in admitting that one of the things I spent time on was to scoop up something best left where it was, and post it through the letterbox of a local giant who used to beat up anyone who happened to be from another planet, or of another colour.  The sight of him opening his door would have filled me with delight but I could not hang around to watch the explosions.

I turned up to the market at just before noon, the exact time I was supposed to meet the Brother from Another Mothership who was meant to pick me up and show me an exciting new life.  I tried to avoid my former boss as I had no self-defence skills and did not want a matching black eye.

The guy spotted me instantly, but quite frankly I would have had no problem spotting him.  A 7-foot tall alien with a dayglow-pink complexion is difficult to ignore.  His name, I discovered later, was Gingly and he had a line of 8 other guys like me to take to the ship already in-tow.  I joined, kept to the back and he ticked me off the form on his clipboard.

While walking to the shipyard, which had nothing to do with water, I spoke to a couple of the disaffected-looking youths that were to accompany me on the trip.  One was named Kirby,  an eighteen-year old with a soul-patch and an oversized baseball cap with the initials NYC tattooed across it inexpertly.  I asked him what had made him join up for this job in the first place.

“I wasn’t gunna,” he started with a snort of contempt.  “Then the alien guy told me he could tell how unhappy and unfulfilled I was - he could read it in my hormones or summink.”  At this point, the others piped up and we all realised that we were tricked.  He had obviously gone to the rough areas of town to ensure the same line would work on the same types of people.   Of the nine of us, most were young, badly-dressed, single with terrible jobs.

Kirby was the only one that walked away after hearing this news, but in the end he changed his mind, caught up with us and pretended as though nothing had happened.  We got to the spaceport - a large piece of abandoned concrete that would otherwise have rotted away by now but had been updated with a fire-resistant sheen on the ground and soundproofing all around.   It was quite local to me, but I had never gone inside unless drunk and in need of a place to sleep.  Most of the time, it was deserted but the gunmetal-grey ship with the one large circular engine dominated the entire dock.  It took up four regular craft-spaces and if the roof was on the building it would have been scratched.

We filed in and a human (or Terran if you like) woman greeted us with the professional cheeriness of an airline steward.  She was beautiful in the way only a truly awful person with no personality can be, and so I decided to annoy her.  I may have lost my nerve and given her a break if I had not looked at her when she smiled at the other lads:  a smile should be in the eyes and the mouth if it is real - hers was all teeth and an angry snarl hidden well behind expertly-applied make-up.

She gave me the standard greeting: “Welcome to the first step of your journey to the stars.  Can I take your name please?”

“Sure,” I replied when her pen was poised over the page.  “It’s Andy... Andy Capable.”  She wrote this down and it was in pen so she couldn’t undo the damage I was about to cause.

“Very good - any disabilities?” she demanded with an arched eyebrow.

“Let’s think... dyslexia, dyspraxia, colour-blindness, heamophilia and other minor blood-disorders, ADHD., ADD and Hodgkins... I’d say I have 27 disabilities at last count.” She shrugged her shoulders and wrote in 27, exactly as planned.

“Age?” she asked in a way that suggested she did not want the answer and would not understand it if she did.

“I’d rather not say.  Just put no fixed for that one.”  The little growl and a pock as she punctuated this showed I was hitting the nerve.  Having still not realised what I was doing, her penultimate question was “What is your address?”

“Bowling Alley, Painton, that should be enough as I’m living on board the ship.”  She shrugged, mis-spelt Painton, and went with great relief to her final question.


“Just leave that blank, if you could.  My pastimes are my own if that’s okay.”  She shrugged her shoulders and pushed me forwards as if to infer that the universe in general could not care less for my hobbies now or otherwise.  I looked down at my piece of handiwork as she bundled me on board.  It looked exactly as though she had missed the first question and filled out all of the other answers in the wrong field.  Not much of a rebellion, but if it got her into trouble I felt quite good about it.  For about 30 seconds.

“Steven... wait there for a moment!” came the friendly voice of Gingly, the phallo-proboscite alien.  “I saw what you did on your form - quite inventive.  I tried something like that myself when I was posted to Earth.”

“You did? What was your trick then?”

“Something I thought no-one would work out.  I called myself Ginglymostoma cirratum which is Latin for something I believed was funny.  Trust my luck to get a team-leader with a malfunctioning chip behind his ear.  He heard both what it meant in Latin and English and decided to stick me with it forever.”

I was intrigued.  “What does it mean?  The only Linnaean names I think I know are that subbutteo is the hobby and rattus rattus is probably the rat.”

“It describes me rather well - it’s the Nurse Shark.”  He said this with a certain depth to his voice and a great deal more menace than I thought possible.  He lifted me with barely any sign of effort.  “A nurse’s job is to look after humans, but a shark will tear them to pieces if they’re not careful.   Try not to mess around again unless you want to be stuck with a name that matches your body.”

He put me down without a word, let me catch up to the others and we never spoke again.  I confessed what I had done to the man in charge of us and he updated my file with a flourish, a simple macro and a few seconds work.  I never saw Gingly again but I was always on the lookout.

That same day, we were assigned rooms and bunkmates which were randomly selected according to the smiling peroxide blonde.  Mine was almost certainly meant as a punishment, although the room was spacious and very well-equipped.  

The End

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