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Roberts Space Industries ®






August 11th 2021

The Shakedown
This short story originally appeared in Jump Point 5.12.

Keeping one hand on the controls, Berkley leaned over and grabbed the small packet of food he had tucked underneath the radar display panel. He’d learned over the years of pulling long hauls that with MREs you didn’t want to eat them hot like the instructions on the back recommended. That just made the flavors more pronounced. The only thing worse than crap was steaming crap. Eating them room temp wasn’t good either. Sure, the flavor was dulled, but the texture wound up somewhere around chewing on a damp sock. Nope, the best option was to gently warm them to around 62°C, i.e. the exact same temperature that his outdated and prone-to-overheating radar display generally operated at.

Unwrapping the ReadyMeal packet, the concentrated aroma of . . . well, he didn’t know any better way to describe it other than intensely brown . . . hit him directly in the face. Why did it have to be a Beef Chunk day? He always told himself that he should stop buying the bargain variety pack. It was a lot cheaper, but it invariably ended with him having to force down three packs of the Beef Chunk flavor at the end of the month. All that scraping and saving was going to finally pay off, though.

Berkley thought about just ignoring his gnawing hunger, but with a deal this big he couldn’t risk being distracted and irritable. His original plan had been to treat himself to a nice meal in celebration after his payday came through, but sitting in one of ArcCorp’s notorious traffic jams with no sign of budging made the Beef Chunks the only option.

The local spectrum had been quiet so far on the cause of the backup, but he wasn’t too surprised when the alert had first sounded. ArcCorp always seemed to have twice as many landing accidents as any other port of call he visited. A big part of that was due to the sheer number of ships that made their way to the planet every day. More ships, more accidents. Though Berkley thought that the flight path changing almost every time he visited thanks to a couple more new skyscrapers being erected was probably equally to blame.

He quickly shoved a large bite into his mouth and distracted himself from the taste by glancing towards the horizon where the skyline of Area17 beckoned. He was tempted to try his luck landing there instead, but he resisted. Heading there now would mean being placed all the way at the back of the landing queue and he’d burned enough time already. Plus, his fuel supply was down to almost vapors. Another thing he intended to correct once he got paid. No, better to stay the course and stick it out at Area18. Plus, now that the acrid black smoke billowing up from the wreck site had begun to clear, Berkley hoped that air traffic control would start allowing more ships through soon.

Just then, two ships rocketed past his holding position towards the wreck, their regtags alerting everyone in the vicinity that they were BlacJac security. He involuntarily tensed at the sight of their flashing lights. That explained what was taking so long. If BlacJac was involved, this wasn’t just some hull-bender. The company provided most of the security on ArcCorp, so it was safe to say that whatever had gone down was likely of a more sinister nature. Maybe a theft gone wrong or a particularly bold smuggler. Whatever it was, he didn’t like being around this kind of scene. Another BlacJac ship flew past. He might be stuck here even longer than he had originally thought.

Reaching over, he re-connected to the local network and refreshed the TDD alert again. His heart sank right along with the trend line on his screen. Just in the time spent sitting here, the dozens of cargo crates stored in his hold had decreased in value. Though Berkley had accurately predicted that the price of agricium would skyrocket on ArcCorp after a component manufacturer announced that they were increasing production at their factory here, it seemed the market’s peak had already come and gone.

Even with the buy rate still near the record high, his chance for real profit was rapidly closing . . . not that his margins were that big to begin with. He didn’t have time to shop around if he wanted to take advantage of the situation and so he had paid way too much for the agricium in the name of expedited acquisition. Berkley had bet pretty much every credit he had to his name plus a pretty sizable loan on being able to unload before the bubble burst. After a year of living hand to mouth, barely scraping by, he was ready for something to work out in his favor. His last big trade was when he had correctly guessed that Sakura Sun’s Lil’ Morps were going to be the must-buy Citizen’s Day gift of that year.

His rear hatch still had a dent from where a parent had flown off the rails after learning Berkley had sold out of the popular Mr. Tintel figures. That success should have easily been parlayed into even more, but a couple misdeals, several hundred spoiled bilva, two major engine malfunctions and his very unpleasant misunderstanding with the Advocacy last year had left him worse off than when he started. The chunk of gristle he was currently trying to chew his way through served as an excellent reminder of that.

It had been hard staying optimistic after basically having to rebuild his life almost from scratch, but trading had given him something to focus on. If you kept yourself open to opportunity, you could exchange one thing for something better. That’s what he was trying to do with his life. This deal today would net him enough to pay off most of his debt and outstanding legal fees. With that cleared up, everything else could be put back into growing his business. Maybe even finding someone to fly with. Maybe even buying a better brand of MREs, he thought as he forced another bite.

Before he could swallow the chunk, Area18’s ATC chirped onto his comm. Tossing the half-finished packet of food onto the empty co-pilot seat, he snapped open the channel, “Go for Good Haven.”

“Hey Good Haven, got you cleared to land,” informed the weary traffic controller. “Pad 2-0-6.”

“Fantastic,” said Berkley, his enthusiasm more than making up for the controller’s massive apathy. “Could you also go ahead and send four or five cargo handlers my way? I’m in a bit of a rush.”

“Well, you picked a pretty terrible day to be in a rush. Won’t be able to spare anyone for at least another hour.”

Berkley did some quick calculations in his head. “How many credits to spare some people sooner?”

“Outta my hands. We got a full Hull-E unloading and BlacJac commandeered most of our handlers to deal with their mess, so it’s going to take a lot more than credits to make a lick of difference. Best I can do right now is have a bot sent to your pad. Anything more than that and you’ll just have to wait.”

The cargo transfer drones were normally fine, but thanks to stringent safety protocols they weren’t the best option when you were hoping to empty a hold PDQ. For that, you needed good old fashioned Human disregard for safety. “Yeah, the bot’ll have to do.”

“Proceed with caution and enjoy your stay on ArcCorp,” the traffic controller intoned before killing the channel.

Berkley tapped his nav and brought landing pad 206 up onto his screen. Tilting the stick forward, he felt the thrusters grab hold as he carefully merged into the stream of ships heading down to the surface. The controls were sluggish from the weight of a full hold, a reminder to be extra careful. Before him, the messy urban patchwork below slowly resolved into a complicated grid of factories and warehouses as he approached. Sometimes you hear Humanity compared to a virus. Seeing the overwhelming sprawl of ArcCorp made Berkley think that comparison wasn’t too far off.

He adjusted his course and headed into the heart of Area18, a dense forest of towering skyscrapers. His focus fought against the assault of flashing lights and billboards that lined the buildings. Steering around a tower, a fifty-story-tall hologram of a woman waited on the other side. She helpfully squeezed a roll of bath tissue before transforming into a giant animated box of noodles. Where other worlds might have shown restraint out of safety concerns, ArcCorp fully embraced its consumerism with both arms. There was no mistaking that ArcCorp was created in a boardroom by a bunch of executives. Nearly everything on the surface of the planet was dedicated to industry and the generation of credits. And right now, that list included him.

Almost as soon as his landing struts touched down on the pad, Berkley was out of his seat. With the buildings blocking so much of the natural light, the city itself usually stayed pretty chilly unless the sun was directly overhead, so he made sure to grab his warmer jacket off the floor. Lowering the cargo hatch, he was pleased to find the drone waiting there. He was not pleased that it was an outdated model, probably older than he was. Unloading his ship was going to take even longer than he had estimated. Reflexively, he checked the TDD status again. The downward trend was picking up pace. How many other traders were here unloading agricium right now? At this rate, by the time the cargo was off the ship and into bonded storage he was pretty much guaranteed to lose money.

“Hey, you looking for some help?”

Berkley turned to see a woman approaching him. She looked like she had seen better days, but he imagined she was probably thinking the same thing with how worn and stained his jacket was.

“You with landing services?” Berkley asked.

“More or less.”

The response triggered Berkley’s suspicious side. “How much less?”

“Listen, Stac and I are just trying to make a few honest creds. You don’t want the help, that’s fine. We can go.”

Berkley was about to ask who Stac was when he spotted the other woman approaching the pad in a full loader suit. From her controlled gait, he could tell that she knew what she was doing. He did some quick estimates. With the drone going full speed, and these two coordinating, he bet he could get the whole ship unloaded and bonded by the time he got to the TDD. He knew that he should be wary of strangers, but on the other hand, maybe it was time that he finally caught a break today. Besides, he could appreciate people hustling to make an honest living for themselves.

They made formal introductions all around and after a brief haggling session, he transferred Camari and Stac half the agreed upon price, the rest to be sent when they finished. It pained him to have so very few funds left in his bank account, but as soon as Berkley saw how quickly they finished clearing the first palette he knew the credits had been well spent. This might just work out. Even the bot wasn’t as slow as he feared. With his precious cargo in good hands, he left them to it and headed towards customs.

The fact that he did not get stopped at all going through security was enough to convince him that maybe his luck had really started to turn around. Stepping outside, what had been a dull hum turned into the roar of a city thrumming with activity. People flowed around him in a seemingly endless stream of Humanity. Salesmen and executives in crisp clothing mingled with haulers and factory workers in greasy jumpsuits. Several Banu worked their way through the crowd selling hot tea from dispensers mounted on their backs, while at the fringes, scrappers collected the population’s jetsam for resale. Overhead, bright neon ads blared slogans and jingles over the din of the crowd, who in turned shouted even louder to be heard over the noise. Mix in the sound of constant ship traffic and it was overwhelming to the point where a few seconds in and you felt the sound pulsing through your body more than you were able to actually hear it anymore.

Ahead, Berkley saw the large spinning gear sculpture that marked the center of the city and realized that he had allowed the crowds to push him past his turn. Going across the stream of pedestrians, he jostled his way back towards the Trade and Development center. Catching his breath for a moment underneath the sculpture, he wondered if it was supposed to represent the harmony of the city all working together or if it was implying that they were all just cogs in some grand machine. Who knows, maybe ArcCorp had simply needed something to do with a bunch of extra gears.

Long lines stretched outside the TDD. For a moment he feared that people were waiting to access the commodity trading facilities, but with relief realized that most were there for the Jobwell. Even with as many opportunities as Area18 had on offer, it seemed that there were never enough to go around. So many people came to ArcCorp looking for work that employers could afford to be highly selective. Any opening would have dozens of people competing for the same slot, and even then they were usually short-term low-paying gigs. Despite all that, more people kept showing up every day. Berkley was thankful that he had been able to find a path for himself that had so far kept him well away from the struggles of trying to survive as a day worker. With a friendly nod to those waiting, he moved quickly past the lines and into the TDD itself.

It was a surprisingly grand room to hold so many people arguing. The high sweeping ceiling swallowed up the sounds of trades being negotiated at a furious pace. His eyes found agricium on the large ticker board and happily noted that the price actually had leveled off. It wasn’t going to be as big of a score as he had originally hoped, but all said and done he was going to come away with a nice, tidy profit. Maybe the first thing he’d do after the trade went through would be to get a drink. Or maybe a shower. Hard to say which one he needed more. He logged in at the kiosk and brought up his account and felt his stomach do a flip. The inventory list was completely empty. Maybe they just hadn’t finished unloading. He waited a minute staring up at the ticker. The price had begun to fall again. He tapped refresh on the screen. Nothing. Then a little voice in the back of Berkley’s head broke through the growing panic he was feeling and pointed out that not even the first palette that he had watched being unloaded was listed.

Berkley was already heading to the exit.

Sure enough, upon returning to pad 206 he found Camari and Stac were gone and that his ship had been emptied. The BlacJac security officer who showed up a few hours later to take his report verified as much.

“Yeah, looks like they took all of it,” said Officer Frobisher, shining a flashlight unnecessarily around the hold. “A little free advice for you. Next time, stick to hiring verified workers.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” said Berkley. “What do you think the odds are at recovering my property?”

“Well, that’s up to you now isn’t it?”

“How do you figure?”

“Finding lost property isn’t easy. We’re looking at a lot of hours investigating, talking to suspects, hunting down clues, and whatnot. That all costs credits,” explained Frobisher.

“Are you seriously trying to shake me down?”

“Not sure what you’re implying, sir. I’m just trying to see that justice is served to the best of my abilities. Would be a shame if I got distracted,” said Frobisher, walking down the ship’s ramp towards Berkley. “For example, says here that you were arrested for smuggling a year back. Can’t help but wonder if that has anything to do with what’s going on here. How do I even know if there was any cargo here in the first place? Hell, this whole thing could be some insurance scam you’re trying to pull.”

Once he heard his smuggling record mentioned, Berkley knew he had two options here. One, he could keep protesting and probably be brought in as a suspect. Once in custody, chances were he could get out eventually, but with his past and the fact that all the law here was handled by private security contractors like BlacJac, it made that a riskier proposition than it should be for an innocent man in the Empire.

Funny thing was, Berkley didn’t even have insurance on the cargo. Not that it would really matter. They would just find something else to pin on him and the result would still be not getting his property back. He had been incarcerated once in his life. He wasn’t going to let it happen again. The other option was giving Frobisher a bribe. Berkley guessed that he didn’t have enough credits to actually get his case investigated, but maybe he would have enough to get Frobisher to back off. It shouldn’t have surprised him that on ArcCorp even the cops were a for-profit institution.

In the end, the bribe actually took less money than Berkley would have guessed, but still enough that he was now officially broke. He had always thought that his throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude was one of his better personality traits, but now, lying in the dark cot of a ship he couldn’t afford to fly, he was starting to second guess himself in a very unhelpful way. He probably should have gotten the insurance instead of doubling down on the cargo. He probably shouldn’t have hired two random people to unload his ship without thoroughly vetting them. He probably shouldn’t have agreed to deliver a package for a friend and all those months ago without knowing exactly what was inside of it.

A few hours ago, he had arrived on ArcCorp with a ship full of possibilities, and here he was destitute. He owned his own spacecraft, but didn’t have enough credits to pay off his landing fees. Plus, even if he did, he didn’t have the funds to buy fuel to fly anywhere. He couldn’t borrow money because he had maxed his credit. He could try to get a job, but with his record and now, no ship, there was little work he was qualified for. The contracts he could get were sure to be barely be enough to live off, let alone get off-world.

He could maybe find someone to buy his ship. That would net him some credits, but then he’d still be stuck here without a job and no place to sleep. There was at least still one thing he could accomplish today. Pushing himself off the bunk, Berkley turned and went to blow the last of his money on a drink.

Some of the helpful downtrodden folks still queued up in the Jobwell line were kind enough to point him to a bar where he could get blasted for a reasonable price. G-Loc was the kind of place that specialized in being generic. There were sataball posters on the wall, a near empty dance floor playing popular music from five years ago loud enough to keep conversations private, and the drink options ranged from cheap and drinkable to top-shelf bottles kept mostly for show.

There was an interesting mix of customers. Two people surrounded by bags and boxes toasted to their successful shopping trip. An old vet sat by himself at a hightop table laughing loudly at the muted commercial on the vid screen. Crowded into the corner booth, a gaggle of factory workers in matching ArcCorp uniforms silently contemplated their beers.

Berkley sat at the bar nursing a serviceable tequila reposado and watching a drunk hauler flail on the dance floor all by himself. He asked the bartender to top him off with ice, hoping to make the drink last just a little bit longer. To his surprise the bartender added ice and a little more tequila.

“On the house. No one around here drinks the stuff anyway.”

“Thanks. You have no idea how bad I needed that.”

“Tough day?”

Even though he felt like a cliché for doing it, Berkley wound up telling the bartender the whole story of how his entire life went pear shaped. Rather than provide some sage wisdom to help him cope, the bartender gave Berkley a friendly nod and went off to help another customer. You knew your problems were serious when even a bartender looked grim.

“You know where you went wrong?”

Berkley turned to face the grizzled woman sitting next to him. She however continued to carefully watch her red wine as she swirled it around the glass.

“I know exactly where I went wrong. Several times over, in fact,” he answered.

“You thought those BlacJac bastards would actually do anything to help you. Fat chance.” She took a large gulp of wine. “The only ones they look out for are themselves. A lot of people learn that lesson the hard way.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“Wasn’t talking about you.”

The drunk dancer stumbled and knocked over a glass with a loud crash. The bartender swore under his breath and went to clean it up.

Once the bartender was out of earshot, the woman leaned in closer to Berkley and said, “If you’re serious about gettin’ your cargo back, I might know someone who can help.”

“I don’t have any money to pay for help.”

“She doesn’t work that way. You said you did some smuggling, right?”

“I said I got arrested for smuggling once. But that’s not me. I trade clean.”

“And how’s that been working out for you?”

The sting of this assessment hurt more than Berkley would care to admit. He had tried to live his life right and all it had netted him so far was the societal equivalent of a back alley shakedown. “Fine. I’ll bite. Who is she?”

“She likes to say she’s a freelance time manager, but what’s important is that there isn’t much goin’ on in Area18 she doesn’t know about. Hell, she might be arranging the sale of your cargo right now anyway. Come on. I’ll introduce you.”

With that, the woman killed her drink and slid off her stool. She went to the door and turned, waiting to see if Berkley was going to follow. Berkley himself wasn’t sure if he was going to follow or not . . .

The first time he had become a criminal, it had been an accident. One that it seemed like he had been paying for over and over again. Maybe it was time that he got a little payback of his own.

Berkley tilted back his drink, but it was already empty. He put the glass down, tipped the bartender with his last credit, and throwing caution to the wind, stood up to follow.

The End

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