This is Mr. Andrew’s first story on SpaceWesterns.com, but you can find further adventures of the crew of the Phoenix in two upcoming anthologies (yet to be named), as well as another story by him in the Frontier Cthulhu anthology — ed. N.E. Lilly
Mathematics of Hunger
by Jason Andrew ©2007
As a rule, Captain Mia Wells did not accept slaves or animals as cargo onboard the Phoenix. Her conscience would not accept the former and her nose would not tolerate the latter. However, she had been assured by her contact Alphonso “Bricks” Brixton that these slugs would not pose any problems and frankly the Phoenix had needed the cash for new hyperdrive coils. Of course, Bricks conveniently forgot to mention that these slugs could eat three times their body weight in a single night and had to be constantly monitored. “The next time we see Bricks, remind me to let you punch him one.”
The lanky, dark-skinned man grinned. He enjoyed using his fists, especially if he had cause. “Sure thing, Captain.”
“And I’m the Captain, why am I on slug feeding duty, Styles?”
He rolled his eyes. “Ah, there’s only four of us on this here ship, Captain. Mouse is working on that air filtration problem and you asked Johnny to recheck the course.”
Mia grunted and then filled her bucket with a load of shredded lettuce. “Alright, open the feed chute. And be careful to not let’em bite you again.”
Styles held up his bandaged hand wryly. “I learned my lesson last time, Captain.”
There were six clear plexiglas containers in the cargo hold of the Phoenix. Each of them was four meters in length and two meters in width. Styles banged his fist upon the lid several times to knock down several slugs that had been resting under it. He checked the container and then unlocked the lid and opened the feeding chute. Mia dumped the lettuce into the container and then quickly stepped away. Styles slammed the lid and quickly relocked it.
He peered through the plexiglas at the slugs. They were savagely chewing on the lettuce. “I just don’t see the percentage in shipping these little buggers all this way.”
Mia refilled her bucket. “I didn’t ask and you shouldn’t be too curious either. Chavez is paying us well and he likes to get his money’s worth.” Of course, she didn’t need to mention that Chavez was an infamous gangster with holdings across three systems. “As far as we are concerned, each of those little bastards is worth ten times their weight in gold.”
“Maybe they taste good? Some of those planets on the rim are hurting for meat. I bet they breed quickly and they don’t too look fussy about what they eat. Could be full of protein.” Styles served many functions onboard the Phoenix, but the one closest to his heart was chef. “Maybe I could cook one of them for the crew?”
The slugs were half a meter in length and moved swiftly in the containers like snakes. They were dark brown with a bone white plate on their backs and strange eye-stalks that seemed almost sentient. “For all we know, they are poisonous. And besides, we get paid per slug.” She glanced at her chef unconsciously licking his lips. “No!”
Styles shrugged his shoulders. “Aw, alright. I was just curious. Someone had to pay the gengineers a hefty price to get them to cook up something like that. This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap, ya know. And you know nothing like this ever came off Earth.”
Styles had some experiences with bio-modification during the war. He knew first hand what could be done. Mia was determined to make a profit on this trip and shook her head. “Look, we’ve had a rough time of it lately. I just want an easy job where none of us get shot, stabbed, or have something creepy try to eat us.”
Style raised his eyebrow and silently held up his bandaged hand. Mia put her hands on her hips. “That was your fault for trying to pet them!”
“We were told they were vegetarians.”
“And we were told not to try to touch them either, brain drain.”
Styles opened his mouth to reply, but the comlink cut him off. It was their pilot, Johnny Wang. “Captain, we have a distress signal coming up.”
Traveling via hyperspace was the only way to travel from system to system. Communications were limited due to the physics of traveling faster than light in a higher dimension. If a ship’s systems crashed while on a run, it could be years before anyone noticed the distress signal. “I’m on my way. See if you can get a fix on the signal.”
Johnny Wang sat in the pilot’s seat running his station through a search query of the sensor data. Mia slid into the co-pilot’s station. Styles lurched over them. “What do we have Johnny?” Mia asked.
Wang tapped a couple of buttons and transferred the distress call to the speakers. “Bzz. . .This is cargo hauler Lucky Lady. Our engines are down. Can’t defold into normal space due to bad hypercoils. Request assistance. We have a keg of beer if anyone can help us.”
Wang cut the transmission. “It just repeats itself after that. I can’t raise them on the com-link. Don’t know how long it’s been going.”
“You run that ID?” Mia asked.
Wang scowled. “I can’t find it in any of the Fed registries.”
“Aw, that don’t mean anything,” Styles said. “Hell, half of the smugglers in the galaxy change their ships names all of the time. If the Captain didn’t love the ship’s name so much, we’d be doing the same thing. Besides, free beer is free beer.”
The Phoenix had been a surplus cargo merchant marine frigate rusting in the surplus stockyards five years ago. She had survived the Colonial Wars, much like Mia had, damaged, mostly intact, and decommissioned. Mia renamed the ship after her old squadron during the Colonial Wars against Earth. It seemed the best way to honor her dead friends. “How far away is she?”
Wang checked his instruments. “We have a lock, Captain. I’d estimate we’re just an hour away.”
Mia flipped a switch to activate the ship wide com-link. “Mouse, we need you in the bridge.” Mouse was the ship’s mechanic and she was very good at her job.
She activated the ship’s sensors and sent out a large ping to seek out local ships. It was more difficult to scan for ships in hyperspace. Styles leaned over her shoulder. “You think it’s a trap, Captain?”
Mia shrugged. “It’s awfully convenient that they were right in our path. Best to be careful. Run a weapons check and then suit up for action.”
Styles grinned and then left the cockpit. A short Chinese girl with wild blue hair wormed her way past the large man. He tussled her hair as he passed. She swatted him away. “What do ya need, Captain?”
“We found a damaged ship that might have survivors. We’re going to dock with them and take a look.” Mia didn’t mention that if there weren’t any survivors, they could salvage for supplies and parts. “Suit up and make sure you come armed. There’s no sense in coming unprepared.”
Mouse grinned, excited for the chance to do a job off ship. “Really? That’s great, Captain.”
Mia scowled. “You are now my shadow, you understand? No games. This could be dangerous. You sneak off by yourself, I will tan your hide!”
Mouse rolled her eyes. “Yes, Captain.”
“Good.” The captain patted her on the back. “Get going. We’re going to need you soon. I’m going to run through the scenarios with Johnny.”
The Lucky Lady appeared on the scanners approximately three kilometers off the Phoenix’s port bow. Wang scanned the Lucky Lady and forwarded the readings to Mouse. “Captain, she’s in real bad shape. Her engine manifold looks cracked. That really can’t be faked. Not if you want to fly again soon enough. I doubt we have the parts to repair it. Looks like most of their power grid is unstable. She must be running out of life support.”
Mia adjusted her scope inside of the starboard gunnery turret. She didn’t often look for trouble, but the reverse was rarely true. “Mouse, can you tell what caused the damage?”
Mouse scowled. “Maybe there was a micro-crack in the engine block? It’s hard to say, Captain. Any mechanic worth the name would have noticed it.”
“Maybe we can tow her into port. Doesn’t look like it’s a trap. Styles, you see anything?”
Styles checked his scope in the port gunnery turret. “Just a handsome, nubian god saying hello. Oh wait, that’s my reflection.”
“All clear here, Captain.”
Mia logged out of her station. “Ok guys, meet me in the docking port. Johnny, any word from the Lucky Lady?”
The comlink buzzed. “She’s still running silent, Captain.”
“It’s possible they can’t receive our transmissions,” Mouse interjected.
“Proceed with the forced docking procedure.”
Wang maneuvered the Phoenix into a docking course with the Lucky Lady while they climbed into their EVA suits and checked their weapons. Due to the lack of stabilizing thrusters, the Lucky Lady was spiraling wildly so Wang had to match the speed of the turn. The ships bumped into each other as the docking clamps connected. The crew had to steady themselves against the bulkhead. “Good job, Wang!” Styles replied sarcastically.
The comlink buzzed. “Sorry guys, the trajectory of this ship is crazy. We’re secure for now.”
Mia gestured to the airlock. “Ok Mouse, see if you can sleaze our way inside.”
“Sure thing, Captain.” Mouse pulled several tools from her belt, pried open a panel, and started working. “It shouldn’t be too hard. Most of the power is out on the ship so really all I need to do is jimmy the locks. We’ll have to open the hatches manually.”
The locks on the hatch popped and then disengaged. Mouse grinned and gestured to Styles. He turned the wheel and opened the hatch. Mia leveled her pistol, uncertain as to the general reaction the crew of the Lucky Lady might provide. Mouse checked the meter on her EVA suit. “It looks like they have an atmosphere, but it’s a bit stale. Should be breathable. Want me to pump some of our excess oxygen into the ship?”
“Good thinking, but make sure we lock the hatch behind us. Styles, you see anything?” Mia asked.
Styles had already secured the airlock from the other side. He kept his rife leveled at the hallway leading into the Lucky Lady. “Dead as a cemetery, Captain. Can I take off my helmet to sniff around?”
Mia shrugged. “It looks safe enough to open the visor, but I don’t recommend taking off the helmet. With our luck, this old bird will have a hull breech.”
Styles lifted the visor and sniffed the air. “Something’s not right, Captain. Something’s stinks.”
Mia lifted her visor and tried to catch what Styles smelled. “I don’t smell anything. If it becomes strong enough to identify, let me know.” Styles had been augmented during the Colonial Wars. It wasn’t something he liked discussing, but he wasn’t often wrong when it came to smells. “If there was something wrong, the crew might have tried to hide out in the cargo hold. It’s the safest place on an old bucket like this.”
“This is an old Delta class hailer. My uncle had one of these before the war. I can lead us there.” Mia nodded her approval and then Styles took point. Mouse followed gingerly. Mia took up the rear, careful for an ambush.
Half way to the cargo hold, Styles held up his hand for them to wait. “I hear footsteps over the next bend,” he whispered.
Mia nodded and then cupped her hands. She decided that the direct approach would be the best. “Hello! We heard your distress call!”
A gray haired, slovenly man leaned over the wall to take a peek. “Identify yourself!”
Mia nodded to Styles. He aimed his rifle towards the floor and waved. “I’m Captain Mia Wells of the Phoenix. We heard your distress call. You guys didn’t answer any hails.”
The old man sighed, clearly relieved. “Aw thank the stars. We didn’t think anyone would ever hear us.” He turned the corner, wiped his hands on his overalls, and then offered his hand to Mia. “The name is George Rivers. I run this piece of garbage.”
Mia accepted the handshake and grinned. “This is Styles and Mouse.”
George shook each of their hands in turn. Mouse paused and blanched. She stared at his wrist. “Captain!”
Mia followed Mouse’s gaze and then quickly leveled her pistol to George’s temple. Styles cocked his rifle and then took a position to defend the group if any other member of the Lucky Lady’s crew happened upon them. “Why are we mugging the nice stranded person?” Styles asked.
Mouse stepped back, drawing her pistol from her belt. “He’s wearing a slaver unit.”
Styles groaned. “Aw, I hate slavers! Can I pop him, Captain?”
“We do that and anyone wearing a slave collar will suddenly have a really horrible day. That’s how it works, isn’t it?” Mia asked.
George raised his hands. “Everything we have is legal, Captain. You guys don’t have to do this. I’ll cut all of you in for a share. The mining crews are paying hard cash.”
“Where’s the rest of your crew?” Mia asked.
“The slaves tried to mutiny. Attacked the crew when I was sleeping. Started a couple of fires. I sealed them all in the cargo hold.” George trembled. “Please don’t shoot me. I have plenty of cash.”
“Captain, we have to help them. I was on a ship like this. Stuffed into the cargo hold. Barely able to breathe.” She cocked her pistol. “No one should have to live like that!”
“They are my property, perfectly legal,” George protested. “You can’t free them. They’d kill us all!”
“I’ll kill you right now,” Mouse said evenly.
Mia blocked Mouse’s pistol with her palm. “Calm down, Mouse.” She turned to George. “Take off the slaver unit and encode it for me.”
George sniveled. “I can’t do that unless we have a second one activated.”
“He’s right, Captain. That’s how they keep the slaves from slitting their throats,” Mouse replied.
“Styles, secure this piece of garbage and make sure he can’t activate the kill switch.” Mia turned to Mouse and pulled her away from George. “I need you here and now, Mouse.”
“They do horrible things to the slaves, Captain.” Mouse bit her lip, desperate not to cry. “They cram as many people into the holds as they can and barely give them enough food to survive. And there’s nothing left to do but stare at each other, powerless, shamed.”
“Mouse! We need you on the job. We’re going to try to help these people, but we need you to focus.” Mia hugged Mouse. “I know it’s hard, but we need you.”
Mouse sniffed. “I never said thank you for buying me.”
“Hey, I didn’t buy you. I just paid off the debt.” Mia smiled wryly. “And I’ve been taking advantage of you ever since by paying you poorly and massively overworking you.”
Styles craned his neck towards his crewmates. George was on the floor prone with his hands bound together behind his back. Styles playfully put his knee in the center of George’s back. “Captain, there has to be more crew still active. This loser here isn’t man enough to take on a job like this unless he had plenty of hired guns.”
“I’m the only one left. I promise. We can work something out. The slaves don’t belong to me. I’m just the delivery man. You guys do this, they’ll send me to prison and put a collar on me.”
Mia shrugged. “Styles, if he doesn’t talk. Cut him. Just don’t kill him.”
“What?” George cried.
“You ever skin a pig, George? You have to cut really fine so as to keep the meat fresh. I’m good at it. Hey Captain, we’re running low on meat anyway, how’d you like the other white meat?” Styles slipped his dagger out from his belt and slit George’s grey overalls open to his bare flesh.
“Three guards in the lounge. All of them have slaver units. I promise!”
Styles groaned and stepped back from George. A thin stream of yellow liquid pooled around George’s torso. “That’s nasty!” Styles cried. “Man pissed himself and I didn’t even get to cut him. What sort of slaver are you?”
Mia rolled her eyes. “He’s just a middleman. Someone willing to look away to make a profit.”
“You’d do the same in my place, Captain. Please don’t kill me,” George pleaded.
“That depends on how this scenario is resolved.” Mia turned to Mouse. “We’re going to need you to watch him. Shoot him if he tries anything. And I want to stress the use of the word IF. Understand?” Mouse nodded. Mia turned to Styles. “We have some hunting to do.”
Styles and Mia quietly crept to the lounge near the cockpit. The three guards were playing cards and gulping large mugs of beer. Mia crawled across the hallway to catch them in a classic crossfire. She tapped the comlink twice to signal Styles. He replied in kind. Mia stood and aimed her pistols at the guards. Surprised, they scrambled for their weapons. Styles maneuvered behind them and aimed his rifle. “Hold it!”
Two of the guards dropped their weapons and raised their hands. The third went for his pistol. Mia pulled the trigger, unloading her clip into him. He dropped to the floor silently.
“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” Styles said wryly. “You guys have made us late as it is and the Captain hates to be late.”
After binding their hands and taking their weapons, they lead the guards back to Mouse and George. Styles connected them to a sturdy metal beam that enforced the bulkhead. “That should secure them, Captain.”
“Mouse, can you get off one of their slaver bands and make it the primary circuit?” Mia asked.
“Sure thing, Captain. George will have to transfer the ownership.”
Styles poked one of the guards with the barrel of his rifle. “Don’t give Mouse any problems.” The guard nodded empathically in reply.
Mouse unlocked the slaver bracelet from one of the guards and started resetting its protocols. “Captain, someone needs to wear it.”
Mia didn’t like the idea of wearing a slaver bracelet, but she didn’t want to ask Styles or Mouse to wear it either. She pulled back her sleeve and extended her arm to Mouse. Mouse slipped the slaver unit over her arm and locked the clamps, binding it to her skin. “Ok, you are part of the work group. Now, you need George to transfer his permissions.”
“If I do, I want your word that you won’t kill me.”
“If you don’t, I promise you we won’t kill you. I do promise that Styles will get plenty of time to practice his cutting skills on you.” Mia half hoped that George didn’t give up too easy. George almost immediately transferred permissions.
“Ok Captain, let me set the parameters.” Mouse tapped a few of the buttons on Mia’s unit. The other units unlocked and dropped from their wrists. “You have the only working slaver unit.”
Mia glanced at the screen on the slaver unit. “We need to hurry. There’s more than three hundred people in there.”
Mouse burned through the maglocks with her laser torch and Styles forced open the large double doors with a crowbar. A rush of toxic air washed over them. Styled coughed, covering his nose. “That was the smell! Blood, sweat, and other body functions I won’t name.”
“Mouse, I need you to see if you can vent the air in there. Pump in some from the Phoenix if you have to.”
“I want to help.”
“You will. I promise.” Mia glanced into the dimly lit cargo hold. “You don’t need to go in first.”
Mia closed the visor on her EVA suit and entered the cargo hold. The conditions were horrid and far worse than she had imagined. There were hundreds of emaciated people chained together in groups of twenty. Some of them were chained to bodies five days dead. They were dressed in tattered orange jumpsuits with thin metal slave collars. They slept on the floor, shared a communal toilet, and three faucets, only one of which still worked. The slaves represented every known possible gender, race, age, or creed. They were the lost souls that fell through the economic cracks and couldn’t afford to pay their debts. Mia had not seen such squalor and cruelty since the Colonial Wars. “Listen up! My name is Mia. We responded to the distress call. George is locked up. I’m going to free you all, but I need a bit of cooperation, ok?”
Their faces remained blank. “Captain, slavers pull this sort of prank all the time to see our faces.” Mouse slipped into the cargo hold. “It’s true. The Captain freed me once upon a time.”
“Look, here’s the deal. I’m going to need some volunteers. Some of you are going to go with Styles here and help him secure the ship and look for supplies. Some of you are going to go with Mouse and help her secure bunks on our ship. We’re not designed for this many people, but we can make due until we find a place to drop you off. And, I’ll need some of you to help me see to the dead. We’re going to take off the collars and reset your biotags, but that is going to take some time. You guys understand?” There were dozens of nods and acknowledgements. “Please don’t attack my crew as it would make me cranky and I’d have to blow your heads off.”
Mia pressed the button Mouse had programmed to trigger the release of the slave collars. The collars dropped to the deck plate quietly. The former slavers glance at each other suspicious, not daring to believe. A few clapped their hands. “Ok, we need ten people to follow Styles! Come on people! Let’s get you out of this stink hole.” Several cheered.
Mia felt like she was in the militia. Mouse and Styles were her Sergeants and organized the mob of former slaves into a functioning organization of free people. Mouse and her crew organized a section of the Phoenix’s Cargo Hold to serve as a dormitory. The Phoenix was stocked for a four man crew. Space was tight so they didn’t carry a surplus of extra supplies. Still, Mouse and the others did their best to provide comfort and dignity. Several of the children were already smiling and watching the slugs climb the walls of the containers. Styles and his group searched the Lucky Lady for rogue crewmembers, supplies, and anything of value. Mia tried to take a head count and figure out who needed what. Dozens of the former slaves were ill and while Mia had experience patching bullet wounds, she knew little about sickness.
Mia activated her comlink. “Ok guys, report.”
Styles responded first. “We have a problem, Captain. The secondary cargo hold was filled with frozen chicken. The electrical fire melted everything. Everything went to pot days ago. If we tried to eat this stuff now, it would kill us. Not a whole lot in the way of food. I did find three kegs of beer.”
“How are we doing in the way of food? This is a lot of mouths to feed.”
“I think I could stretch our reserves to five days. There’s a lot of people. Six if you let me feed them George and the guards. The good news is that the Lucky Lady has a full tank of water.”
Mia glanced over to George, who was shivering. “Only if it comes to that. Mouse, how are you doing?”
“Looking good, Captain. Styles found a load of cardboard on the Lucky Lady and we’re using it for bedpads. A lot of these people are healthy and now that they aren’t being doped by the slave collars, they’ve been mighty helpful. Could use a meal.”
“Good point. Styles, pick a couple of helpers and get cracking. These people deserve a celebration. Make them a meal worthy of the name.”
“Sure thing, Captain.”
“Wang, how are you doing?”
“Not so good, Captain. Can you come up to the cockpit?”
Wang was furiously scanning through his system registry. “What’s the damage, Johnny?”
Wang scowled. “You ordered me to find a course outside of the standard routes to avoid problems with the Feds. We’re ten days away from any civilized place that we could take escaped slaves.”
“We only have food for five days.”
“What about places that we can’t take escaped slaves? Are there any Fed patrols nearby?” Mia asked.
“Not any published routes. And of course, if we did come across them, we’d be arrested for stealing slaves and smuggling unlicensed genetically altered animals,” Wang reported wryly. “And there is Patterson Station nine days off, but somehow I don’t think we want to go there.”
Mia nodded. Patterson Station was the stockyards where slavers bought and sold human lives in bulk. “Likely where the Lucky Lady came from anyway. Do your best to get us the fastest route. I have a celebration to stop.” Mia activated the comlink. “Mouse, Styles, I need you guys on the bridge.”
Mouse and Styles entered the cockpit energetically discussing methods of improving the conditions of the former slaves. “And so I figured that with the extra water, we could run showers for them.”
“I’m working on beer pancakes. It will be grand.”
“We need to lock down the food. Nearest drop off is ten days away,” Mia explained.
“We only have five days of food, Captain,” Mouse protested.
Styles nodded. “I already started the big celebration meal. I can’t stop it now. They’d riot.”
Mia nodded. She had hoped that she had called Styles in time, but knew that it had been a longshot. “Conserve what you can.”
“What about the slugs?” Mouse asked.
“Mouse, we can’t feed them the slugs? Chavez would have my ass. We’d be so far in debt that we’d never get out,” Mia explained.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t hurt people just to make money,” Mouse replied.
Wang turned from his station. “Chavez isn’t someone we want to piss off. He thinks he owes the Captain because she saved his life, but he wouldn’t let something like this go.”
“I served Chavez during the Colonial Wars back when he was a general. He’s crafty. We don’t want to mess with him,” Styles said, concerned.
Mia sighed. Mouse had a way to twisting her conscience. “Besides, we have no idea if they are edible. They could be poison.”
Styles blushed. Mouse studied his face. “Styles knows something.”
Mia turned to Styles. “Something you want to share?”
Styled groaned. “Alright, look, I was Chavez’s cook and bodyguard during the wars. One of my augmentations was my taste buds. They’ve been enhanced.”
“You can detect poison!” Mouse said, clapping her hands.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Mia asked.
“You guys aren’t supposed to know I have any augments. I can be hanged just for having them,” Styles protested.
“And you didn’t trust us.”
“Well, there is that,” Styles admitted. “I’ve only been on board six months, Captain.”
Mia paced the length of the cockpit. She could be a decent human being or she could avoid a crushing lifetime debt to an infamous gangster. Mouse tugged her shoulder. “Please, Captain.”
She sighed. “Ok, Styles, go do a taste test and report back to me. Mouse, run interference.”
Styles and Mouse returned to the cargo hold. Styles attached his dagger to a large metal poll and speared one of the slugs. It coiled around the blade and hissed viciously. He quickly snatched it from the container and stepped back so Mouse could lock the container. He took the slug to the galley and chopped its head off and started to prepare a decent meal with sautéed mushroom and potatoes. Within minutes, the intoxicating aroma filled the galley. Styles cut a piece of the cooked flesh and took a bite. He surprised at the quality of the taste. He pondered a moment and then activated the comlink. “Captain, the slugs taste wonderful.”
“Nothing wrong with them?”
“Not at all. In fact, there’s a lot of protein and vitamins. It’s like a booster shot.”
Mia pondered that and slapped her forehead. In his own way, Chavez was still fighting the wars. The poor and the disfranchised colonies relied on the Feds for booster shots to avoid dying from the various plagues that spread on the rim worlds. Those booster shots came with government issued biotags that help track them anywhere they went. These slugs could provide independence to a lot of people. “How many would we need to eat to keep everyone alive?” Mia asked.
Styles bit his lip. “Not exactly sure, Captain. At least half. And that’s if I make a lot of soups and thin things out.”
“Save as much as you can, but don’t let anyone starve.”
Wang nodded his approval. “That was a good thing you did, Captain.”
“I just set back Chavez’s plans to restart the Colonial Wars. He’s going to be very angry at me.”
Wang shrugged and then grinned. “Maybe, but I don’t think he’d respect you if you did anything else. And on the bright side, if he kills you, I inherit the ship.”
“Slugs! I hate slugs!”
Jason Andrew lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife Lisa. By day, he works as a mild-mannered technical writer. By night, he writes stories of the fantastic and occasionally fights crime. As a child, Jason spent his Saturdays watching the Creature Feature classics and furiously scribbling down stories; his first short story, written at age six, titled “The Wolfman Eats Perry Mason” was rejected and caused his grandmother to watch him very closely for a few years.