GTC Book 1 Ch2: Joe’s Apartment

NOTICE: This chapter is a working draft. It’s your insight into my monkey brain as it creates, not a final work. There are typos and I make no promises the book I publish will be the same.

A sharp pain awoke Joe. He sat up, rubbing his neck, the cool touch of the raw stone wall lingering on his forehead. He blinked his eyes clear and checked the wall clock – he had two hours before the start of his shift. He was still sitting at his table, an empty whiskey bottle and a half-eaten bowl of snack rations sitting in front of him.

He stood and turned to the kitchen cupboard, grabbed another whiskey bottle and washed down the bile in his throat with a long pull straight from the bottle. Still holding the whiskey, he turned and took two steps to the opposite wall of his apartment, pushed a small button and stepped out of the way as his sleeping pallet flipped down out of the wall.

He lay flat on his back, holding his back and neck as straight as possible, willing the pain away. The ceiling reflected a dull, gray light back at him. He touched the small panel next to the bed, rows of faint icons glowing at his touch. Joe tapped his favorite and the ceiling turned into a star field, millions of points of light in a wide band spanning a deep blackness. The Milky Way.

He had been so sure that among so many billions of stars he would be able to hide. Safe from his past, hidden from his enemies and far enough away from his friends that he wouldn’t be able to hurt them anymore.

After four years on La Hoya, so far out on the fringe that not even the local GTC knew him as anyone other than the drunk named Joe Smith, he was confident that they had all forgotten him, given him up as lost or dead, somewhere in that vast expanse.

Joe pulled up the com on his screen and dialed Brian’s apartment. No answer. He tried Brian’s portable. No answer, just the service. Joe didn’t bother leaving another message. If Brian hadn’t answered the last three messages, one more wasn’t going to make any difference.

Joe had to get off La Hoya. Find another mining rock, even further out on the frontier, and start again. They must never find him, because they would make him go back and that was the one thing he had vowed never to do.

Brian knew the right people. Joe had been friends with him long enough to hear the stories and to know firsthand that Brian could get people off La Hoya and away from the GTC. Joe trusted that Brian could help him escape. If only he would answer his fucking phone.

Joe sat up. A wave of nausea rolled up his throat, causing his head to spin and his ears to burn. He stumbled over to the sanitary cubicle, the toilet sliding out of the wall just in time as he retched noisily into the bowl.

Joe reached out and touched the wall of the cubicle. A panel slid back, revealing the contents of his bathroom cabinet. He pushed aside the razor and toothbrush and grabbed a bottle of small green pills. A small, unassuming plant of unknown origins, Stim was tightly controlled by the GTC. Possession of even one pill of Stim could theoretically land you in lockup for a year.

The GTC also controlled 90% of the black market for the stuff, so there was little chance of any actual arrests occurring. Unless, of course, you were carrying Stim pills from a competitor.

Stim’s effect on human physiology was remarkable – not only a stimulant that worked in minutes and lasted for hours, Stim also ramped up the human immune system to a point where it could destroy any infection, kill any virus. Over the last century, Stim had stopped the spread of a rampant plague virus that had nearly wiped humanity from the galaxy.

It was also an excellent hangover cure.

Joe slugged back a couple of the pills with a glass of water and sat and waited for the fire of the Stim burn through his blood. In a few minutes, his head cleared, and he stood up and turned toward the head.

While whatever was in the Stim was great for the body, the plant itself was poison to the stomach. It only took a few more minutes and Joe heaved violently – spraying the bowl with green foam. The GTC had little interest in cutting into their profits by improving Stim’s palatability so Joe, like everyone else, accepted that the side effect was worth the result.

Joe stood and rinsed his mouth. He kicked the bowl back in to the wall and turned on the shower, grabbed his toothbrush and rubbed his face. A shave could wait a few more days. A few minutes later, he stepped out of the shower alert and without the slightest trace of a hangover.

Definitely worth the result.

Joe was reaching over to the com to try Brian’s apartment again when his door buzzed.  Joe stepped over and flicked on the intercom. “Fuck it,” he said as his neighbor’s face came on the screen. Joe flicked on the audio, “Mal, what do you want?”

“Work time sleepy head.” Mal’s fractured grin distorted into a mad leer as he leaned towards the fish-eye lens. Joe looked at the clock, somehow three hours had passed since he woke.

“Gimme a sec,” Joe grabbed his coat and tapped the door pad. Mal stood just outside the door, slightly hunched and so covered in filth that Joe couldn’t tell where Mal ended and where his clothes began.

“Not as though we get paid by the hour,” Joe said.

“True enough.”

“Get any decent hauls yesterday?” Joe asked. They started walking down the hall toward the stairs that led down to the hauler bay.

Mal pulled at his densely matted beard, “No, most of it was metamict, barely 50% crystalline. You?”

“Two runs of 60% crystalline, rest was shit.” Joe lied.

“Hope they find some new ekanite deposits soon,” Mal said, “I am barely breaking even at the moment.”

Joe nodded. The Ekanite haulers were paid by weight and purity. FTL engines ran on crystalline Ekanite, so it was extremely valuable, but the Thorium in Ekanite gradually destroyed the Ekanite crystals until after a few thousand years it was useless – metamict. At 50% purity, Mal would have to make 8 hauls a shift to cover his running costs.

“The worms have been running out into the East Valley, maybe there is some better hauls further out?” Joe said.

“Maybe. Where you headed today?”

“Don’t know. Might head out on to the South Plain.”

Mal grinned, “There’s nothing out there and you know it. What trouble are you in now Joe?”

Joe frowned. For a man who looked and smelled like a caveman, Mal could be infuriatingly perceptive, “Had a bit of a run it and McIvor’s last night, so wanted to get some space between me and the station for a few hours.”

“It’s your dime,” Mal said with a shrug.

They had reached the hauler bay, empty except for their two haulers. Most of the other hauler pilots had families to feed and obligations to meet, so were out early.

Joe’s expenses were booze, Stim, rent and food. In that order. It didn’t take too many high purity hauls to keep him happy. Mal lived life on the edge of oblivion, and Joe suspected he liked it that way.

He wasn’t far away from that particular precipice himself.

“See you tomorrow, Joe.” Mal turned and started to walk towards his hauler.

“See you.” Joe’s hauler was 200 yards away at the far end of the bay. He had been the last in from shift yesterday. He didn’t mind, the extra walk twice a day surely offset some of the damage he was doing to his body.

He headed for the cab of his hauler. It sat on the front of the craft, a rounded square box framing flat forward and side windows – tiny in comparison to the huge hopper on the back. With their eight support legs, Joe often thought the haulers looked like a giant gray tick. Given they fed off the lifeblood of the rock he stood on, the comparison was strangely apt.

Joe had discovered a particularly rich ore pile some time ago along the jagged rim of the enormous impact crater that had likely inspired the name La Hoya. Generally, the worms never went near the crater because it was too unstable, but the AI on one must have gone haywire at some time in the past and ran a vein along the rim.

Joe discovered it by accident. He got drunk one day and thought it might be fun to explore the crater. Having narrowly missed a rock fall from the ever-shifting face of the crater, he had nearly crashed into the ore pile by the purest of chance.

The ore was 98% crystalline – worth more per load that most haulers could make in a year. The haul was large enough that Joe could have bought his own star cruiser with the proceeds, but Joe was careful. Nobody had any right of claim on La Hoya and as soon as news got out of a haul that pure, Joe would never have been able to profit from it.

When Joe wanted to plunder his stash, he would only part fill the hopper, and go and fill the balance of his capacity to come up with about 70 – 80% purity for the whole load. Lucrative enough to keep him boozed up and fed without too much effort, but metamict enough not to raise suspicion.

Joe decided he would only do a single run today. He would swing around to his stash and come back with maybe an 80% purity load, park up early and hopefully find Brian.

Brian would know what to do. If Brian didn’t know where to find Luc, Joe knew that Brian could get him off La Hoya discretely. It would cost him most of his savings but was worth it – Joe could not risk the GTC catching up with him.

He climbed the ladder up into the cockpit and flicked on the console. He pulled the ladder while the ship ran diagnostics. When his panel lit up green, he tapped the switch to disengage from station gravity and, as his hauler floated lightly off the pad, turned the hauler towards the bay doors, a faint shimmer of the shield flicking across the yawning black hole that led out on to the surface of La Hoya.

As he put on the thrust, Joe called up his morning playlist. Thinking of the hooker from last night’s encounter, he scrolled down to AC/DC and selected ‘The Jack’. He cranked the volume and as the timeless 12-bar riff hammered in the cabin around him, Joe accelerated out of the bay, head nodding to the beat and a smile on his face.